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
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 Blåkulla.
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.
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