© Marko Nenonen and Timo Kervinen

Please, make your reference as follows: Nenonen, Marko & Kervinen, Timo, Finnish Witch Trials in Synopsis. (www.chronicon.com/noita) 15.5.2001.

During the era of the witch-hunts, Finland was a territory of the Swedish Kingdom. Her population had reached its height at more than half a million (1694). The population of Sweden proper had totalled more than one million, with at least another million inhabitants in the occupied areas, including modern day Estonia, Latvia, and the southern shores of the Baltic Sea.

Finland's most important cities were Turku (Åbo) on the western coast, and Vyborg in the east, both established during the middle ages. Most Finns professed Lutheran religion (1523), however, there was a small minority of Orthodox Catholics in the eastern part of the country. Despite the presence of institutionalised religion, magic and superstition strongly influenced everyday life.

During the 17th century Finland was ranked as one of the most important tar exporters in Europe - though under a Swedish flag. Later timber took a larger share in exports. The modern navies of the western powers, especially Britain, relied heavily on Finnish tar and timber, before locating cheaper suppliers from Russia and Northern America. Sweden exported huge amounts of iron and copper. 

Already at the beginning of the early modern period (1500-1800), Finland was famous for her witches, and especially the great shamans in Lapland.

The colourful stories regarding Finnish witches were well based: The amount of people accused of witchcraft and magic was quite large. Charges of practising sorcery and dealing with magic were made against at least 2,000 people in Finland between 1520 - 1750. We have listed 1,200 individual cases, which have been thoroughly scrutinised. Since the archives of The Turku Court of Appeal (est. 1623) were partly destroyed by the Turku Great Fire (1827), the study was based on the records of the lower courts of justice. The vast scope of the trials became evident as late as at the beginning of the 1990s. Therefore, the number of the accused presented in previous studies is not adequate. It is interesting to notice that while the estimations about the number of accused have fallen in many countries, in Finland, on the contrary, they have grown much higher than before.

A religious inquisition was not implemented in the Swedish Kingdom. The trials in Finland took place within the normal legal proceedings in secular courts. Torture was against Swedish laws and we know that it was used only on very rare occasions. Exceptions noted are during the Ahvenamaan trials (see below), and later, under circumstances of mass hysteria in Sweden.

Unlike what is known about the trials in most western European countries, witchcraft in Finland was not primarily associated with the female gender. More than half of the accused were men, as well as the majority of those convicted. Women made up the largest numbers of those called to account only in the 1670s and 1680s, due to the mass trials in the Swedish speaking Ostrobothnia, located on the western coast. New witchcraft theories (i.e. the theory of flying witches who travelled to the Devil's Sabbath) arrived in Finland in the 1660s. Before this, the leading members of the Finnish clergy and the learned élite rejected diabolism. This mode of thinking changed soon in the mid-1660s, when a new Bishop of the Turku diocese, Johannes Gezelius the Elder was appointed. Nevertheless, even he was unable to secure a firm and unreserved approval for the new witchcraft theories. Most Finns, the élite included, remained suspicious towards such allegations.

The first trials influenced by Diabolism took place on the Swedish speaking island, Ahvenanmaa (Åland) situated between Sweden and Finland (1666). However, most probably the new Bishop of the Turku diocese had nothing to do with the panic in Ahvenanmaa. The judge of Ahvenanmaa Nils Psilander, had studied at the University of Tartu (Estonia) - established in 1632 by the Swedish Great Power which once ruled five-sevenths (5/7) of the Baltic Sea shores. The university was under German influence and, therefore, Psilander was well aware of the German witchcraft studies. This explains his expertise in witchcraft issues, as Antero Heikkinen has shown (1969). Nils Psilander acted on his own initiative, and supposedly believed to have based his actions on the most modern information of the time - as he did, indeed.

It is noteworthy that the Swedish witch panic in Upper Dalarna erupted two years later than the trials in Ahvenanmaa. Soon the panic in Sweden crossed the Gulf of Bothnia and inflamed Swedish speaking Ostrobothnia in Finland. However, as has been seen, the Ahvenanmaa trials had their own origin unconnected to the hysteria in Upper Dalarna. …

The phenomenon of the witch trials also occurred during the 16th century. We have found approximately 100 cases before 1600, but most likely many more can be uncovered. The first trials took place on the western coastal area, and during these early investigations almost all of the accused were men.

In Karelia most of those charged were men, yet this is not entirely exceptional to Finland; it is known that in Iceland, Estonia and Russia, among other areas, the greater amount of defendants were men. The number of male witches in Europe may increase in the course of more detailed studies.

We have strong evidence to show that the accused were not mainly poor individuals on the lowest rung of the social ladder. The majority of those charged were farmers and their wives, and in towns, burghers or their wives were involved as well. Indeed, in general people of considerable wealth seem to have been called to answer for alleged incrimination, while only a small minority of those blamed were indigent persons. (More detailed, see Nenonen 1992 and 1993.) Fascinating personal histories can be found, as is the case of a wealthy peasant proprietor, salesman and fisherman named Martti Rautia and Minister Gregorius Henrici. As a rule there were no more than one accused (the witch) in a single trial. In some cases, however, the people who had sought help from the supposed witches were prosecuted as well.

The witch and his or her accuser were acquainted with one another, and often lived in the same village as neighbours.

Very few (5 %) of accused witches are known to have been charged more than once with witchcraft or magic, and there is little evidence of several accused persons being from different generations within the same family. All of this stands in contradiction with much of what has been believed about witches. 

Finnish Lapland (the only authentic home of Santa Claus) makes up the northern part of the country. During the 16th and 17th centuries Lapland was inhabited by Lapps with strong and vivid shamanistic traditions. However, at the time some Lapps could also be found in much more southern areas in relation to where they generally live today. They were famous for their magic and about the witch drum (noitarumpu). Finns also had shamans and witchdoctors, even though it is believed that Finns lost much of their shamanistic tradition long before their northern neighbours.

In spite of the Lapps' great fame, there were not many witch trials in Lapland. On the contrary, only a few trials took place in the northern regions and, moreover, only in very few cases were shamans who induced spells with drums involved. The witch trials were concentrated in the southwestern parts of the country (around Turku) and in the southeast areas of Karelia around Vyborg, both the wealthiest and most densely populated areas in Finland.

See the Map of witch trials 1520-1700: by the number of accused in the rural district courts. (Note that most trials in the wide northern parishes took place just on the western coast, even though the judicial districts extended much further inland.) 

The first large-scale judicial proceedings of a harsh nature took place in the years between 1649-65 in western Finland, when many notorious and ill-famed sorcerers were put on trial. We have used the term "beggar witches" for such people of ill repute, suspected of witchery and engaged in itinerant begging. They were charged with causing the death of a victim by the use of magical powers, and were sentenced to death. Nevertheless, the Turku Court of Appeal commuted most death sentences to heavy fines or flogging and proscription. What is strange, however, is that in despite of the proscription, many of the convicted did not follow the verdict, but rather, remained in the parishes familiar to them.

It must be noticed that the number of "beggar witches" prosecuted totalled no more than 15. The vast majority of the trials were quite normal disputes between the defendant and his or her accuser.

Only the maleficent (harmful) magic was considered indictable before the 1660s. In secular courts benevolent magic was rarely dealt with and hardly ever condemned under the prevailing norms of justice. This was according to Swedish Town and Country Laws (1350, 1442), as there were no regulations for benevolent magic. Some statutes for the treatment of all kinds of magic as criminal had been enacted in the 16th century. However, their observance appears to have been inconsistent.

In this regard the judicial procedure changed very rapidly in the 1660s or a bit later, when beneficial magic was also deemed as an indictable offence by the secular courts. Moreover, the new modern European witchcraft theories (diabolism) were finally approved in Finland, though only to some extent and never in eastern Finland. And finally, in the 1670s and 1680s women became the largest group of those brought to trial for allegedly practising witchcraft and magic. In those decades more than 200 witches were accused, and many of them were found guilty and sentenced to death. The peak of persecution resembled closely the mass panics in Central Europe.

In the late 1680s, however, the witch-hunts soon subsided, and even though the number of accused was still quite high, the decline is seen from the fact that the number of death sentences dropped sharply. At the end of the century the number of charges decreased considerably. Furthermore, the accused were no longer found guilty of harmful witchcraft but of benevolent magic and superstition. Also, in some cases magic was no longer considered to be a reality, but rather, was taken as a silly superstitious belief. Nevertheless, there were many trials in the first part of the 18th century as well. 

Some common features of witch trials in Finland can be demonstrated:

  1. The majority of verdicts were always acquittals. There were quite a few condemnations of malevolent witchcraft (maleficium). Witchcraft was not a common crime compared with other crimes and it was very difficult to prove. Unlike what is believed by the later generations, the judges and the panel (5-12 lay jurymen) did not give credit to everything that was told about witches! (Neither did they consider all silly tricks or twaddle talk as real magic, as many modern believers do!) The accuser took a risk when blaming another for practising witchcraft, because he or she could be fined for making false accusations if there was a failure to provide any clear evidence for the case.
  2. Charges of malevolent witchcraft were brought to trial mainly by private individuals, who blamed the supposed witch for some injuries or adversities. Charges of magic healing and bringing good fortune were brought to trial mainly by public authority, bailiffs and the clergy.
  3. Trials did not increase or decrease in number in all provinces at the same time. Therefore, there was not the occurrence of an all-out great witch-hunt. There were many detached accusations, based on diverse individual reasons. What the common factor was behind these accusations is still debatable.
  4. A charge brought by public authority was more likely to produce condemnation than one brought by an individual villager or neighbour. Almost all death sentences were passed in trials actuated by public authority. Slightly more than 10 % of the accused were sentenced to death by the lower courts, but only in half of the cases the sentence was actually carried out (with "sword and fire").
  5. Most condemnations were made in a short period of time, 1649-1684. The most common punishment was to receive a fine (40 marks - the price of a good horse). It was quite a large sum of money before inflation arrived later in the 17th century. 

The general picture of European witch-hunts has been coloured mainly by the best known persecutions in Central Europe (and Salem, Mass.). In those trials the relationship between the devil and the proposed witch was an important factor, as well as, the examination of possible participation in the witches' sabbath.

Most probably further studies will show that witch trials in early modern Europe were quite a normal activity within the various judicial systems. If you really believed in witchcraft, it was rational to accuse a witch of causing harm to you. Of course, the question remains: why the majority of trials took place in a considerably short period of time?

We believe that only diabolism was a new feature in early modern witch panics. Witchcraft as a harmful force was considered as a crime in one of the oldest known promulgation of laws in human history, the Codes of Hammurabi (appr. 1750 BC). Surely there have been other witch trials in the history of mankind aside from those of early modern Europe, and striking enough, some more or less sporadic panics in Africa and Latin America are known to have taken place even in the late 20th century. Furthermore, quite well known is the strength of the witches and magic in the Icelandic sagas.

There was nothing irrational in witchcraft to our ancestors. Witchcraft and magic was part of their daily life - a reality, with which they had to deal with. Many of them used magic and counter-magic to meet the adversities of their day-to-day existence. One way of handling the reality of witches was accusing them in the courts.

Even though the Finnish witch trials followed clearly the western European pattern only in the 1670s and 1680s, we would like to state, that contrary to belief, the witch trials in Finland in general did not differ very much from those in other countries. Occasionally witch-hunts escalated into a mass panic and hysteric atrocities in many areas of Europe. Nevertheless, most probably the common image of European witch-hunts still places too much emphasis on these extraordinary moments of uncontrollable, widespread alarm. The more detailed information we can obtain from all the European witch trials, the less stress need be laid on those exceptional, relatively rare periods of mass anxiety. The real nature of everyday magic and superstition will be better understood only if all the trials are taken into account, and not only those with the grandest fascination for people today.

Witchcraft studies should not comprise only the history of witch trials, but also the history of witchcraft, magic and superstition in general - or whatever the proper name might be for these concepts so strange to the modern mind. It is known among historians that actually the term "witchcraft" does not properly describe the phenomena. This is due to the fact that the meaning of the word "witchcraft" was overly dictated by the learned élite and the clergy who used the term to refer to almost anything they considered as pagan beliefs or tricks of Satanic origin. Nevertheless, the people originally had many different names for the various practices, yet today's spectator covers the entire spectrum with only a few words, i.e. magic, witchcraft or superstition.

The introduction is based on the following:

Heikkinen, Antero & Kervinen, Timo, Finland: The Male Domination in Early Modern European Witchcraft. Centres and Peripheries. Ed. by Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen. Clarenton Press. Oxford 1990.

Nenonen, Marko: Noituus, taikuus ja noitavainot Ala-Satakunnan, Pohjois-Pohjanmaan ja Viipurin Karjalan maaseudulla 1620-1700. Helsinki 1992. 453 pp. (PhD thesis with an English summary: Witchcraft, magic and witch trials in rural Lower Satakunta, Northern Ostrobothnia and Viipuri Carelia, 1620-1700.)

Nenonen, Marko: "Envious Are All the People, Witches Watch at Every Gate." Finnish witches and witch trials in the 17th century. Scandinavian Journal of History. Vol. 18 (1993:1), 77-91.

Nenonen, Marko & Kervinen, Timo: Synnin palkka on kuolema. Suomalaiset noidat ja noitavainot 1500-1700-luvulla. Helsinki: Otava 1994. (The Wage of Sin is Death.)

Nenonen, Marko: Noituus ja idän mies. Noitavainojen erityisluonne Viipurin Karjalassa. [Male Witches in Eastern Finland.] In: Manaajista maalaisaateliin. Toim. K. Katajala. SKS: Helsinki 1995, 129-159.