The Burning Age in Iceland

The concept of "witch-hunting" is well known. During a 300 year period, the 15th-18th century, about 40-60 thousand people were executed in Europe for some sort of sorcery or witchcraft. During these times the fear of magic was great in the whole continent and Iceland was no exception.

The first two pages of a very small (8,5x5,5 cm) Icelandic magic manuscript from the 17th century. The Árni Magnússon Institute.

The so-called Burning Age started in Iceland in 1654 when three men were burnt in Trékyllisvík, a small town in the North-West of Iceland. The first burning, though, took place 29 years earlier when Jón Rögnvaldsson from Svarfaðardalur was executed for sorcery. The last burning in Iceland was in the Western fjords (Arngerðareyrarskógur) in 1683 and that burning marks the end of the Burning-Age, even though a man was burnt in Alþingi two years later but that was for blasphemy, not sorcery.

Most of the burnings took place in the Western-Fjords. Places mentioned in the article are in red.

In other European countries, mainly women were accused of sorcery and put to flames. Witch-huntings were frequent and magic was mostly linked to women. The opposite was true in Iceland. In total, 20 men were burnt – but only one woman! Her name was Þuríður Ólafsdóttir and she was put to flames, as well as her son, Jón Þórðarson, in 1678 after being accused for (there were no tenable evidence) being responsible for the illness of the pious Helga Halldórsdóttir in Selárdalur.

Photo by Jim Smart

In Iceland, about 170 people were accused of sorcery and magic but contrary to lawsuits in Europe, only about 10% of them were against women. What might the reason be?