Norwegian Town Honors Centuries-Old Victims of ‘Witch’ Killings

It may be too little too late, but there is tremendous symbolism and educational importance in recognizing, and atoning for, the baseless killing of dozens of innocent people. That is why the small town of Vardø, once known as ‘the witch capital of Norway’, has commemorated those loss with an intriguing and beautiful monument.

The Daily Beast provides a background to this atrocity, which was part of a continent-wide campaign that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Four hundred years ago, Vardø embarked on a crusade to rid itself of witchcraft. For more than a century—between 1593 and 1692—there were more than 140 witch trials in the small village.

At least 91 people, both men and women, were found guilty of sorcery and burned at the stake or tortured to death.

The number may not be as large as elsewhere in Europe, but in northern Norway’s sparsely populated landscape it touched a disproportionately large chunk of the population.

About a third of these trials were specifically targeting Norway’s indigenous Sami population who arose suspicion by practicing traditional healing rituals.

The killings came in spates—one in the 1620s and another in the early 1660s, when 20 of the 30 people were put on trial were killed.

The proceedings were meticulously recorded, giving modern historians insight into the accusations and reasonings that fueled the witch hunt.

As in most other instances of persecution against alleged witches, a combination of ignorance, fear, desperate circumstances, and sometimes even politics were contributing factors. Daily Beast provides more context to the case of Vardø:

Testimony from the time revealed that witchcraft was believed to be something one consumed—it came in the form of magically tainted milk, bread, or beer.

According to an article by historian Rune Blix Hagen at the Arctic University of Norway, the sudden spate of sorcery accusations came after a particularly brutal Christmas storm that killed 40 fishermen in the early 1600s.

It took three years for legislation that allowed mass prosecution on suspicion of witchcraft, but with that go-ahead, Vardø prosecuted with fervor.

When a woman arrived in the court and described how witches had tied knots and cast spells that caused the wrecks she was swiftly tossed to sea. When she floated, she was dubbed a witch and killed.

That year, in 1621, many more women followed in her ghostly wake after being accused and found guilty of sorcery. Many were burned at the stake, others were tortured to death.

The geographical remoteness may have had been related to the vengeance with which witches were persecuted in northern Norway.

According to historian Liv Helene Willumsen, speaking with Deutsche Welle, there was an theory “that evilness could be found in the north and that even the entrance to hell was in the north. There was an idea in Europe that in the north people might be more inclined to witchcraft and evilness than other places”.

I can scarcely imagine how horrifying life must have been at this time; to live in an environment so fearful and miserable that even a small, close-knit community can tear itself apart with cruel hysterics. Norway, and indeed much of Europe, have come a long way from those times.

In 2011, these victims were granted official recognition. The Steilneset Memorial was unveiled by Norway’s queen on the same spot thought to be the execution site of the 91 so-called witches.

It was built as a collaboration between two world famous artists: Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and French-American artist Louise Bourgeois.

Zumthor’s “Memory Hall” is starkly simple: a long cross-hatched frame containing a corridor filled with 91 lamps. Each one illuminates a window and a plaque that tells the story of the men and women killed with testimony from their trials.

Zumthor described their creative process to ArtInfo magazine: “[T]he result is really about two things—there is a line, which is mine, and a dot, which is hers… Louise’s installation is more about the burning and the aggression, and my installation is more about the life and the emotions [of the victims].”

Next to the hallway is Bourgeois’ piece: a black glass box with a constantly burning chair in the middle. Above it, three mirrors reflect the fire. She gave her contribution a fittingly dramatic title: “The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved.”

Wikipedia provide a more detailed description of this cleverly designed memorial. It is clearly designed to do more than inform and commemorate; one cannot help but feel reflective and contemplative.

The Memorial comprises two separate buildings: a 410-foot-long wooden structure framing a fabric cocoon that contains Zumthor’s installation; and a square smoked glass room, its roof 39 feet on each side, that contains the work of Bourgeois. Zumthor’s structure is made from wooden frames, fabricated off-site and assembled to create sixty bays in a long line within which, suspended by cable-stays, is a coated fibreglass membrane that tapers at each end. Inside is a timber walkway, 328 feet long but just five feet wide, and along the narrow corridor are 91 randomly placed small windows representing those executed, each one accompanied by an explanatory text based on original sources. Through each window can be seen a single lightbulb, intended to evoke “the lamps in the small curtainless windows of the houses” of the region.

The building that houses Bourgeois’ installation stands in stark contrast to its companion. Its square structure is fabricated from weathering steel and 17 panes of tinted glass, forming walls that stop short of the ceiling and floor. Inside, Bourgeois has set a metal chair with flames projecting through its seat. This is reflected “in seven oval mirrors placed on metal columns in a ring around the fiery seat, like judges circling the condemned.” Writer Donna Wheeler, reflecting on Bourgeois’ sculpture with its fire burning within the solitary chair, observed: “The perpetual flame – that old chestnut of commemoration and reflection – here is devoid of any redemptive quality, illuminating only its own destructive image”

Here are some photos of the full memorial, courtesy of Gessato.com. The stark yet tranquil environment offers an appropriate backdrop.

It says a lot about the people of Norway that they would honor these 91 historically-inconsequential individuals, providing future generations with a reflective and informative memorial that details each victim’s humanity.

A (Rightly) Unsettling Holocaust Memorial

Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is intended to evoke a chaotic, cold, and uneasy atmosphere — which I feel it accomplishes quite effectively, even based on this photo by Gerd Ludwig.

Source: National Geographic

According to Eisenman himself, “The sculpture represents a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” One critic noted that the memorial “is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion”.

Moreover, it stands out for lacking the symbolism that is typical of traditional memorial designs, although many have argued that the sculpture resembles a cemetery (which in any case is still an effective invocation in my opinion).

I personally could not think of a more apt approach to representing the senselessness and wanton cruelty that characterized one of history’s largest genocides. The scale of the memorial, which is better captured in the photo below, must make it a powerful experience (one that I hope to understand when I visit Berlin one of these days).

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

To mark the centenary of the First World War, tens of thousands of blood-red ceramic poppies will be planted around the Tower of London, each representing a life lost in the bloody four-year conflict.

The installation called ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ was created by artist Paul Cummins and set designer Tom Piper with the help of a team of around 8,000 dedicated volunteers. Planting began on August 5, the start of the war, and will continue until November 11, Armistice Day (also known as Remembrance Day), which marks the end of the war.

By then, the iconic monument will have 888,246 poppies, a somber reflection of the staggering death toll. Both British and Commonwealth soldiers are represented, including around 74,000 troops from the Indian subcontinent who gave their lives to the empire.

At barely 120,000 or so poppies as of this post, it already looks sobering:

Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London. Between 5th August (start of the war) and 11th November (Remembrance Day), there will be a poppy planted for each death. Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London III Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London IV

It is hard to imagine that each poppy represents a single human life, an individual with a name, identity, dreams, ideas, fears, loved ones. To think that all this is but a fraction of the over 16 million people who died, nearly half of whom were civilians (I can only imagined the scale of this project if it entailed all those lives.

The poppy became a symbol of remembrance in Britain during the First World War, inspired by a 1915 poem called “In Flanders Field” by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which recalled the fragile flower melding with the dead in Flanders, Belgium (the site of many horrific battles).

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The ceramic poppies do an excellent job of visualizing just how many individuals died in this senseless conflict. Each took three days to make and were put up for public sale; after the last poppy is planted in November, the small sculptures will be sent to buyers and the proceeds will go to British charities such as the Royal Legion and Help for Heroes, which serve British veterans.

Source: The Independent

Holocaust Remembrance Day

It almost slipped me by, but today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a globally-recognized memorial day for the  millions of people that were systematically butchered in the world’s largest genocide. It was established by the UN only in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, when the Nazi concentrations camps were liberated.

It’s hard to fathom death on such a large-scale. A loss of single human being is tragic enough, but imagine multiplying that agony by 10 to 17 million, the overwhelming majority of whom were targeted for the crime of being born into the wrong ethnicity, faith, or sexual orientation at the wrong time. Each of them was an independent human life – they had names, dreams, loved ones, experiences, plans for the future. All of them ceased to exist within only six years. The speed and brutality was to such a horrifying extent that the term genocide was created as to describe it – mass murder simply couldn’t capture it all well-enough.

It may have been the largest and most infamous case of genocide, but it wasn’t the last, nor was it even the first. People have probably been systematically wiping each other out since we first broke off into tribes and distinct ethnic groups. Cases of ethnic cleansing come and go with brutal regularity.

Since the Holocaust, we’ve had notorious incidents in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as little-known cases in East Timor, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Congo, Guatemala, and still elsewhere. Then there are the pre-Holocaust cases such as the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, and the various massacres of indigenous people throughout centuries of European colonization. Most of these tragedies remain unknown or underrated, even by some academics.

I hope to live long enough to see this awful and recurring trend cease once and for all. While systematic violence and murder of the Holocaust’s scale no longer exist, we still have a long way to go before the hatred, ignorance, and fear that underpins these actions is extinguished – if that ever happens. I hope never again really comes to mean something.