Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages

Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages

Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages

Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages


Stephen A. Mitchell here offers the fullest examination available of witchcraft in late medieval Scandinavia. He focuses on those people believed to be able--and who in some instances thought themselves able--to manipulate the world around them through magical practices, and on the responses to these beliefs in the legal, literary, and popular cultures of the Nordic Middle Ages. His sources range from the Icelandic sagas to cultural monuments much less familiar to the nonspecialist, including legal cases, church art, law codes, ecclesiastical records, and runic spells.

Mitchell's starting point is the year 1100, by which time Christianity was well established in elite circles throughout Scandinavia, even as some pre-Christian practices and beliefs persisted in various forms. The book's endpoint coincides with the coming of the Reformation and the onset of the early modern Scandinavian witch hunts. The terrain covered is complex, home to the Germanic Scandinavians as well as their non-Indo-European neighbors, the Sámi and Finns, and it encompasses such diverse areas as the important trade cities of Copenhagen, Bergen, and Stockholm, with their large foreign populations; the rural hinterlands; and the insular outposts of Iceland and Greenland.

By examining witches, wizards, and seeresses in literature, lore, and law, as well as surviving charm magic directed toward love, prophecy, health, and weather, Mitchell provides a portrait of both the practitioners of medieval Nordic magic and its performance. With an understanding of mythology as a living system of cultural signs (not just ancient sacred narratives), this study also focuses on such powerful evolving myths as those of "the milk-stealing witch," the diabolical pact, and the witches' journey to Blakulla. Court cases involving witchcraft, charm magic, and apostasy demonstrate that witchcraft ideologies played a key role in conceptualizing gender and were themselves an important means of exercising social control.


This study examines the responses in the legal, literary, and popular cultures of the Nordic Middle Ages to the belief that there existed people capable of manipulating the world through magical practices. To date, there have been no comprehensive evaluations of Nordic witchcraft beliefs between 1100 and 1525, whereas studies of Scandinavian witchcraft in the eras both before and after this period abound. the reasons for this situation are many. in large part, it is explained by the tendency for many of the late medieval materials, such as the Icelandic sagas, to be appropriated to discussions of the much earlier Viking Age; moreover, there is a view among some specialists that nothing much happened with respect to Scandinavian witchcraft before circa 1400.

I argue, on the contrary, that much was happening and that an evaluation of this important meeting ground of church doctrine and vernacular belief systems in the period between the Viking Age and the early modern era has long been a desideratum, both for the study of witchcraft in Scandinavia itself and for the study of witchcraft in Europe more broadly. the current work thus presents an account of developments in witchcraft beliefs throughout Scandinavia in the later Middle Ages, of how elite and nonelite, native and imported constructions of witchcraft evolved during the centuries before the Reformation, an era of profound and widespread changes that set the stage for the early modern crazes.

A phrase like “Nordic witchcraft,” especially when framed by specific dates, suggests a highly bounded entity, a set of orthodox views held by a homogenous culture, but nothing could be further from the truth. What we know and what we can reconstruct about the world of Northern Europe from the early Iron Age through the Middle Ages says that it was always a heterogeneous and dynamic world, and, importantly, seen from the perspective of the people we tend to think of as “Scandinavians” or “proto-Scandinavians,” a world in which their neighbors, the Sámi, with their shamanic . . .

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