Popular Tales From the Norse
From the middle of the fourteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century the history of Europe teems with processes against witches and sorcerers. Before the Reformation it reached its height, in the Catholic world, with the famous bull of Innocent the Eighth in 1481, the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, the first of the long list of witch-finding books, and the zeal with which the State lent all the terrors of the law to assist the ecclesiastical inquisitors. Before the tribunals of those inquisitors, in
the fifteenth century, innumerable victims were arraigned on the double charge
of heresy and sorcery--for the crimes ran in couples, both being children and
sworn servants of the Devil. Would that the historian could say that with the
era of the Reformation these abominations ceased! The Roman Hierarchy, with
her bulls and inquisitors, had sown a bitter crop, which both she and the Protestant
Churches were destined to reap; but in no part of the world were the labourers
more eager and willing, when the fields were "black" to harvest, than
in those very reformed communities which had just shaken off the yoke of Rome,
and which had sprung in many cases from the very heretics whom she had persecuted
and burnt, accusing them, at the same time, of the most malignant sorceries. 1 Their excuse is, that no
1. How strangely full of common sense sounds the following article from the Capitularies of Charlemagne, De part. Sax. 5: "Si quis a diabolo deceptus crediderit secundum morem Paganorum, virum aliquem aut fœminam strigarn esse et homines comedere, et propter hoc ipsum incenderit, vel carnem ejus ad comedendum dederit, capitis sententiâ punietur." And this of Rotharius, Lex. Roth., 379: "Nullus præsumat aldiam alienam aut ancillam quasi strigam occidere, quod Christianis mentibus nullatenus est credendum nec possibile est, ut hominem mulier vivum intrinsecus possit comedere." Here the law warns the common people from believing in witches, and from taking its functions into their own hands, and reasons with them against the absurdity of such delusions. So, too, that reasonable parish priest who thrashed the witch, though earlier in time, was far in advance of Gregory and his inquisitors, and even of our wise King James.
one is before his age. The intense personality given to the Devil in the Middle
Age had possessed the whole mind of Europe. We must take them as we find them,
with their bright fancy, their earnest faith, their stern fanaticism, their
revolting superstition, just as when we look upon a picture we know that those
brilliant hues and tones, that spirit which informs the whole, could never be
were it not for the vulgar earths and oil out of which the glorious work of
art is mixed and made. Strangely monotonous are all the witch trials of which
Europe has so many to show. At first the accused denies, then under torture
she confesses, then relapses and denies; tortured again, she confesses again,
amplifies her story, and accuses others. When given to the stake, she not seldom
asserts all her confessions to be false, which is ascribed to the power which
the fiend still has over her. Then she is burnt and her ashes given to the winds.
Those who wish to read one, unexampled perhaps for barbarity and superstition,
and more curious than the rest from the prominence given in it to a man, may
find it in the trial of Dr. Fian, the Scotch wizard, "which Doctor was
register to the devill, that sundrie times preached at North Baricke (North
Berwick, in East Lothian) Kirke to a number of notorious Witches." 1 But
1. The following is the title of this strange tract,--"Newes from Scotland, declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian, a notable Sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough, in Januarie last 1591, which Doctor was register to the devill, that sundrie times preached at North Baricke Kirke to a number of notorious Witches. With the true examinations of the said Doctor and witches, as they uttered them in the presence of p. cxxxiv the Scottish king. Discovering how they pretended to bewitch and drowne his Majestie in the sea, comming from Denmarke, with such other wonderfull matters as the like, hath not bin heard at anie time. Published according to the Scottish copie. Printed for William Wright." It was reprinted in 1816 for the Roxburghe Club by Mr. G. H. Freeling, and is very scarce even in the reprint, which, all things considered, is perhaps just as well.
we advise no one to venture on a perusal of this tract who is not prepared
to meet with the most unutterable accusations and crimes, the most cruel tortures,
and the most absurd confessions, followed as usual by the stoutest denial of
all that had been confessed; when torture had done her worst on poor human nature,
and the soul reasserted at the last her supremacy over the body. 1 One
1. The following specimens of the tortures and confessions may suffice; but most of the crimes and confessions are unutterable. One Geillis Duncane was tortured by her master David Seaton, dwelling within the town of Tranent, who, "with the help of others, did torment her with the torture of the Pilliwinkes (thumbscrews), upon her fingers, and binding and wrinching her head with a cord or roape, which is a most cruel torment also." So also Agnes Sampson, "the eldest witch of them all, dwelling in Haddington, being brought to Haleruid House before the kinge's majestic and sundry other of the nobilitie of Scotland, had her head thrawne with a rope according to the custom of that countrie, beeing a payne most greevous." After the Devil's mark is found on her, she confesses that she went to sea with two hundred others in sieves to the kirk of North Berwick in East Lothian, and after they had landed they "took handes on the lande p. cxxxv and daunced, this reill or short daunce, saying all with one voice,--
"Commer goe ye before, Commer goe ye,
Gif ye will not goe before, Commer let me."
"At which time she confessed that this Geillis Duncane did goe before them playing this reill or daunce upon a small trumpe called a Jew's trump, until they entered into the kirk of North Barrick." "As touching the aforesaid Doctor Fian," he "was taken and imprisoned, and used with the accustomed paine provided for these offences, inflicted upon the rest, as is aforesaid. First by thrawing of his head with a rope, whereat he would confesse nothing(!) Secondly, he was persuaded by faire means to confesse his follies, but that would prevaile as little. Lastly, he was put to the most severe and cruell paine in the world, called the Bootes, who, after he had received three strokes, being inquired if he would confesse his damnable actes and wicked life, his toong would not serve him to speake." This inability, produced no doubt by pain, the other witches explain by saying that the Devil's mark had not been found, which, being found, "the charm" was "stinted," and the Doctor, in dread probably of a fourth stroke, confessed unutterably shameful things. Having escaped from prison, of course by the aid of the Devil, he was pursued, and brought back and re-examined before the king. "But this p. cxxxvi Doctor, notwithstanding that his own confession appeareth remaining in recorde, under his owne handewriting, and the same thereunto fixed in the presence of the King's majestie and sundrie of his councell, yet did he utterly deny the same, whereupon the King's majestic, perceiving his stubborne wilfulnesse . . . he was commanded to have a most strange torment, which was done in this manner following,--His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a Turkas, which in England wee call a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needels over even up to the heads. At all which torments, notwithstanding the Doctor never shronke anie whit, neither would he then confesse it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him.
"Then was he with all convenient speed, by commandement convaied againe to the torment of the Bootes, wherein hee continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that his legges were crusht and beaten to ether as small as p. cxxxvii might bee, and the bones and flesh so brused that the bloud and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever. And notwithstanding all these grievous paines and cruel torments, he would not confesse aniething, so deepely had the Devill entered into his heart, that hee utterly denied all that which he had before avouched, and would saie nothing therunto but this, that what he had done and sayde before, was onely done and saide for fear of paynes which he had endured." Thereupon as "a due execution of justice," "and for example sake," he was tried, sentenced, put into a cart, strangled and "immediately put into a great fire, being readie provided for that purpose, and there burned in the Castle Hill of Edenbrough on a saterdaie, in the ende of Januarie last past, 1591." The tract ends significantly: "The rest of the witches which are not yet executed remayne in prison till further triall and knowledge of his majestie's pleasure."
characteristic of all these witch trials is the fact. that in spite of their unholy connection and intrigues with the Evil One, no witch ever attained to wealth and station by the aid of the Prince of Darkness. The pleasure to do ill is all the pleasure they feel. This fact alone might have opened the eyes of their persecutors, for if the Devil had the worldly power which they represented him to have,
he might at least have raised seine of his votaries to temporal rank, and to the pomps and the vanities of this world. An old German proverb expresses this notorious fact, by saying, that "every seven years a witch is three halfpence richer;" and so with all the unholy means of Hell at their command, they dragged out their lives, along with their black cats, in poverty and wretchedness. To this fate at last came the worshippers of the great goddess Freyja, whom our forefathers adored as the goddess of love and plenty; and whose car was drawn by those animals which popular superstition has ever since assigned to the "old witch" of our English villages.
The North was not free, any more than the rest of the Protestant world, from this direful superstition, which ran
over Europe like a pestilence in the sixteenth century. In Sweden especially, the witches and their midnight ridings to Blokulla, the black hill, gave occasion to processes as absurd and abominable as the trial of Dr. Fian and the witch-findings of Hopkins. In Denmark, the sorceresses were supposed to meet at Tromsoe, high up in Finmark, or even on Hecla in Iceland. The Norse witches met at a Blokolle of their own, or on the Dovrefell, or at other places in Norway or Finmark. As might be expected, we find many traces of witchcraft in these Tales, but it may be doubted whether these may not be referred rather to the old heathen belief in such arts still lingering in the popular mind than to the processes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which were far
more a craze and mania of the educated classes acting under a mistaken religious fanaticism against popular superstitions than a movement arising from the mass of the community. Still, in the Mastermaid, p. 71, the witch of a sister-in-law, who had rolled the apple over to the Prince, and so charmed him, was torn to pieces between twenty-four horses. The old queen in "The Lassie and her Godmother," p. 188, tries to persuade her son to have the young queen burnt alive for a wicked witch, who was dumb, and had eaten her own babes. In "East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon," p. 22, it is a wicked stepmother who has bewitched the prince. In "Bushy Bride," p. 322, the ugly bride charms the king to sleep, and is at last thrown, with her wicked mother, into a pit full of snakes. In "The Twelve Wild Ducks," p. 51, the wicked stepmother persuades the king that Snow-white and Rosy-red is a witch, and almost persuades him to burn her alive. In "Tatterhood," p. 345, a whole troop of witches come to keep their revels on Christmas eve in the Queen's Palace, and snap off the young Princess's head. It is hard, indeed, in tales where Trolls play so great a part, to keep witch and Troll separate; but the above instances will shew that the belief in the one, as distinct from the other, exists in the popular superstitions of the North.
The frequent transformation of men into beasts, in these Tales, is another striking feature. This power the gods of the Norseman possessed in common with those of all other mythologies. Europa and her Bull, Leda and her Swan, will occur at once to the reader's mind; and to come to closer resemblances, just as Athene appears in the
Odyssey as an eagle or a swallow perched on the roof of the hall, 1 so Odin flies off as a falcon, and Loki takes the form of a horse or bird. This was only part of that omnipotence which all gods enjoy. But the belief that men, under certain conditions, could also take the shape of animals, is primeval, and the traditions of every race can tell of such transformations. Herodotus had heard how the Neurians, a Slavonic race, passed for wizards amongst the Scythians and the Greeks settled round the Black Sea, because each of them, once in the year, became a wolf for a few days, and then returned to his natural shape. Pliny, Pomponius Mela, and St. Augustin, in his great treatise, De Civitate Dei, tell the same story, and Virgil in his Eclogues has sung the same belief. 2 The Latins called such a man a turnskin,--versipellis, an expression which exactly agrees with the Icelandic expression for the same thing, and which is probably the true original of our turncoat. In Petronius the superstition appears in its full shape, and is worth repeating. At the banquet of Trimalchion, Niceros gives the following account of the turnskins of Nero's time:--
"It happened that my master was gone to Capua to dispose of some second-hand
goods. I took the opportunity and persuaded our guest to walk with me to the
fifth milestone. He was a valiant soldier, and a sort of grim water-drinking
Pluto. About cock-crow, when the moon was shining as bright as mid-day, we came
among the monuments. My
1. Od. iii. 372; and xxii. 239.
2. Ecl. viii. 97--
"His ego sæpe lupum fieri et se condere silvis