A Deadly Storm, a Witch Hunt and a Village Without Men


By Kiran Millwood Hargrave

On Christmas Eve 1617, a catastrophic storm hit the remote Finnmark region of Norway, drowning 40 men from the fishing village of Vardo in a heartbeat. In an age when the occult was as sure a threat as the arctic cold, Finnmark authorities suspected witchcraft as the cause and issued a sorcery decree. What followed was a wave of brutality that even the infamous hysteria in Salem, Mass., a few decades later would not match. Trials were held in Vardo, with men and women, Norwegians and Sami (the northern Indigenous people sometimes known by the disparaging term “Lapps”) among the accused. In the end, 91 people — at the time a substantial share of the population — were put to death by the state.

Taking these historical events as its premise, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel “The Mercies” begins with a young Vardo woman named Maren Magnusdatter, who is mending a sail when the “storm comes in like a finger snap.” With a keen ear for both physical sensation and cadence, Hargrave describes the shock of the sudden storm “sending Maren’s teeth into her tongue and hot salt down her gullet.” Screaming would be useless; there is “no sound save the sea and the sky and all the boat lights swallowed and the boats flashing and the boats spinning, the boats flying, turning, gone.”

Maren loses her father; her brother, Erik; and her fiancé, Dag, to the storm. Erik leaves behind his pregnant wife, Diinna, the only Sami person living in Vardo. Nearly all the village’s men are lost. After a time of stunned mourning, the women bury their dead (who wash up on shore) and fend for themselves. Two opposing leaders emerge. There is practical, trouser-wearing Kirsten Sorensdatter, who takes over a dead fisherman’s reindeer herd, handles trade with nearby villages and leads the women in the “men’s work” of boat fishing. And there is sanctimonious Toril Knudsdatter, to whom Kirsten refers disparagingly as one of the “kirke-women” who spend much of their days in church, “atoning for the sins that took their husbands from them.” Between the two leaders, Maren notes, “the divide is growing, sure as a crack in the wall tapped upon by ceaseless fingers.”

A few years after the fateful storm, the local legal authority invites Commissioner Absalom Cornet, a seasoned Scottish witch hunter, to Finnmark, where the “Devil’s breath reeks.” Scots earned a reputation as peerless witch hunters after King James VI of Scotland published a treatise on witchcraft, “Daemonologie,” in 1597. Finnmark, the local leader says, requires “men who can follow Daemonologie’s teachings to ‘spot, prove and execute those who practice maleficium.’”

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes