Academic journal article Western Folklore

"How Do You Know She's a Witch?": Witches, Cunning Folk, and Competition in Denmark

Academic journal article Western Folklore

"How Do You Know She's a Witch?": Witches, Cunning Folk, and Competition in Denmark

Article excerpt

In Danish legend tradition, the witch is perhaps the best known example of a supernatural threat in human form residing within the boundaries of the community.1 The witch, as she is presented in tradition, appears as a terrifying and at times vindictive menace, intent on wreaking economic and physical havoc on otherwise seemingly safe rural communities.2 In hundreds of accusations from seventeenth century court proceedings, in thousands of stories from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries collected by the Danish folklorist Evald Tang Kristensen (1934 and 1980 [1892-1901]), and in everything from broadsides to newspaper articles during the preceding, intervening and, to a lesser extent, subsequent years, horrific crimes ranging from assault to sabotage, poisoning to larceny, kidnapping to murder are attributed to witches (Johansen 1991 and 1992; Henningsen 1975 and 1978; Hansen 1960; Rorbye 1976; Kristensen 1980 [1892-1901]; Kristensen 1934). The profound threat to a community ascribed to witches in legend tradition-and folk belief in general-derives in large part from their status as community insiders. One can never be entirely sure that a next-door neighbor, a friend or even one's own spouse is not a witch. Because of the clear proclivity of witches to under-mine the economic integrity of a community and their wanton disregard for the physical well-being of community members, knowing who was a witch and who was not-a knowledge directly related to the contemporaneous storytelling tradition-was, at least up through the nineteenth century, a matter of great importance (Henningsen 1975).

The general conceptions both of the witch and of witchcraft were not constant from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, narrators' motivations to affix the term "witch" to certain individuals or classes of individuals seem to have changed considerably. While one might expect that kluge folk (cunning folk) who, because of their abilities to cure illness and remove curses, would have been frequently accused of witchcraft, this does not appear to be the case, at least not until the nineteenth century. By that time, calling someone a "witch" had vastly different consequences than in the seventeenth century. It seems likely that this later use of the term "witch" in connection with cunning folk was connected to the market for healer-while using the label no longer had the potential to result in execution, it did have the power to hurt the practice of a local cunning man or woman.

The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were arguably the heyday of the witch in Denmark. Scandinavian witch trials from this period, as well as stories about witches and their persecution, have become in recent years topics of considerable interest both for Scandinavian historians-such as Jens Christian Johansen (1991), Kim Tornso (1986), and Bengt Ankarloo (1971)-and folklorists-such as Bente Gulveig Alveir (1971) and Gustav Henningsen (1975). Their studies have considered in great detail the contours of witchcraft, the minutia of the witchcraft trials, the brutal execution of witches (generally by burning), and the narrative tradition concerning witches and witch belief both during and after the well-known witchhunt frenzy that gripped most of Scandinavia and other parts of Europe during this period.4

As Johansen has shown, the persecution of witches in Denmark was based primarily on the individual's reputation as a witch (or more accurately as a troldkvinde or troldmand), a reputation which developed out of the contemporaneous storytelling tradition (Johansen 1991: 48). Although the secular authorities demanded proof of malicious intent (male/cum) to continue to trial, this proof almost always took the form of witness accounts-- hearsay evidence as it were.5 There were, of course, strict rules of evidence that excluded certain types of witness accounts. Thus, it was not possible to witness "i egen sag" [for one's own case] and testimony based on "rumors" was not accepted (Johansen 1991: 32). …

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