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Witches hold conference

AFP, France
Aug. 28, 2004 • Saturday August 28, 2004

Vardoe, Norway – Half a millennium after witch-burning reached its peak across Europe, the first ever witch conference got under way on Friday in in northern Norway, where a disproportionately large number of women lost their lives to the flames.

“We will walk in the witches’ footsteps tonight. We’ll be going down to the area where all the so-called water tests were held and then we’ll cook our dinner over a bonfire on the same spot as where the witches were burned,” said Riita Leinonen, who runs Hexeria, the historical experience travel agency that organised the conference.

The chilling water test involved throwing a suspected witch into the water. If she succeeded in not drowning and managed to float, she was deemed guilty and burnt to death.

While witch trials raged across all of Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries, the little town of Vardoe, on the very northern tip of Norway, appears to have burned more than its share.

In all of Europe about 50000 people, nearly all women, are thought to have been executed as witches or wizards. In Vardoe alone, which had a population of between 200 and 300 people in the 17th century, according to Norwegian historian Randi Roenning Balsvik, nearly 30 suspected witches were killed.

The conference here, which is scheduled to last through Sunday, is taking a historic and academic approach to the subject, according to Leinonen.

“We wanted to give people a feeling of what it was really like to be accused of being a witch. Not the plastic image,” she said, admitting however that a lecture on wizard wonder kid Harry Potter did figure on the agenda.

“We could have chosen witches with the pointy black hats but I think it’s important to show how it felt to actually be charged and convicted of something like this when you know you’re innocent,” said actress Ellen Zahl Jonassen, who opened the conference with a heart-wrenching monologue by a woman in just that situation.

In addition to academic lectures and artistic performances, the conference will offer its approximately 100 participants the opportunity to explore the mystical, barren surroundings of Vardoe, which are thought to have helped inspire the belief that evil magical forces were at work.

“This is obviously getting a lot of attention this year when (the conference) is just national. Next year we’ll make it international,” Leinonen said.

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