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« In Which We Approach The Water »

photo by Alex Mustonen

Witch Hunting


Santa Claus lives in Roveniemi. Driving into the small Finnish city, located at the bottom of the Arctic Circle, the highway is adorned with billboards of St. Nick cross-country skiing in his long underwear. The gas stations sell Christmas-tree T-shirts. We pulled into town around dinnertime and found a Tex-Mex restaurant in the basement of a shopping mall. I had a reindeer burrito and a beer. We gassed up and got back in the car. I don’t believe in Santa Claus and we were still 700 km too far south. Don’t get me wrong; the landscape of Lapland is beautiful. Along the highway, the pine and birch trees are thin and tall and green and hundreds of shimmering lakes break the walls of forest along the highway. The scenery is northeastern and familiar, though, and I was growing impatient. We continued north.

Not until the Norwegian border did the trees begin to shrink gradually into the turquoise lichen rock of the tundra. Alex took pictures. Jarmo smoked Russian cigarettes. I traced drops of gray drizzle with my finger as they headed south along the backseat window. Then the weather got bad. For the final push of our road trip, we hugged the coast of the Barents Sea, winding through towns heralded by colossal wooden fish-drying racks. Gray sheets of rain rose up from the ocean and shattered over the hood of our small red Mazda. We sat up quietly in our seats as Jarmo squinted to make out the road through the windshield. We were nearly there. This spell of bad weather, I thought, they know we’re coming. The three of us — Alex, Jarmo, and I — were going to Vardø, Norway, to the end of the world, to hunt for witches.

The first time I saw the Steilneset Witch Memorial had been a year earlier, in New York. Walking together in Brooklyn, I watched as Alex built it with his hands, in front of me. He mimed the first structure by pulling his hands apart, his fingers pinched like a crab’s, as though he were stretching spaghetti. This was the first structure, the moth larva, designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, one of Alex’s favorites. Alex began to explain to me the intricacies of the larva’s support structure, but my mind wandered and he skipped ahead for my benefit. He began building the second structure, the glass box, with his palms facing each other like walls.

Housed inside, he told me, is an installation by Louise Bourgeois, one of my favorites. Its title is “The Damned, the Possessed and the Beloved.” He cupped his hands to make the mirrors, tilting toward the ground as though looking down at something. He held the invisible chair in between his thumb and pointer and lit it on fire with an explosion of his wiggling fingers. Then he told me where it was. Alex has what I’ve always assumed to be a characteristically Finnish personality: monotonic, dry, and brilliant, with a betraying, childish passion for all things knowable and buildable and a weakness for personalities different from his own. Alex was drawn in by the architecture and history of Vardø, but I have a personality different from his, and all I heard was witches before Steilneset began growing in my mind.

I had questions. Why would Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois, an architect and an artist arguably at the top of their fields, spend years and millions of dollars building a modern monument at the very top of Europe, where no one would see it? Who lives in Vardø, Norway, and what’s summer like at the throat of the world? I spent the next year researching the history of Steilneset. The project was commissioned in 2008 by the National Tourist Roads program, an art and architecture initiative designed to encourage tourism in northern Norway.

Bourgeois was approached first, but budgetary and logistical constraints led Zumthor to take the reins and design both structures, with Bourgeois to contribute an installation, months before she died at the age of 98. It would be a memorial of the Finnmark witch trials, and would commemorate the 91 women and men burned at the stake in suspicion of witchcraft in the seventeenth century. Steilneset opened in 2011, with a small ceremony attended by Norway’s Queen Sonja. Since then, apart from a few architecture magazines, little has been written about this modern monument, or about the remote town of Vardø.

This spring, with some luck and planning, plans firmed up. In late June, I would take a train from Helsinki to Joensuu, Finland, where I would meet up with Alex and his Finnish cousin Jarmo, our guide for this adventure. Jarmo is a big guy; tall and strong, with a thick neck and a soft face. He has a shock of short yellow hair and blue eyes. His English is good, but jarring in his bellowing, monotonic voice. He’s a beer drinker, and a second-generation officer in the Finnish Border Guard. For someone so into heavy metal music, Jarmo is disarmingly sweet, quiet, and law-abiding. From his hometown of Joensuu, the three of us would drive Jarmo’s red Mazda straight north, through Finland and into Norway. It would take days to make it up there, into the tundra, and days to make it back.

The storm got worse as we drove the final kilometers along the rocky coast of the Barents Sea. The lightning and thunder followed us through the concrete tunnel that joins the island of Vardø to the mainland. As we drove out of the tunnel, the town looked beautiful in the soaking rain. The wooden houses are alternating barn-door reds, mustard yellows, and hunter greens. There are only three trees on the entire island and they’re shrubs, so the buildings are exposed and chipping and look tired of the cold. Many of the houses are abandoned; victims of the towns struggling identity in a shifting industrial economy. All the buildings in Vardø are clustered on two spits of land connected by a small road bridge. On the old map hanging in the Vardøhus Fortress wall, the island looks like a butterfly: two big wings joined by a single dot.

photo by Alex Mustonen

In late June, Vardø is green. The older huts on the edge of the town are capped with green, grassy turf roofs. Approaching the water, the thin grass gives way to a texture of green and brown moss that carpets the ancient gray rocks of the shoreline. Looming on the horizon is the flat top of Domen Mountain, an ancient witch holy site, and the forested coast of Russia. We pulled up in front of the Vardø Hotel, and ducked inside to get out of the rain. We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, at a table overlooking the small bay and the other wing of the island.

The Vardø church steeple is a concrete and slate shard that shoots up imposingly over the squat residences like a Bauhaus star. In the lobby of the hotel, there was a computer monitor, mounted at eye level, broadcasting a security camera still shot of Reinøya, an even smaller island visible off the coast of town. In the foreground of the raindrop-flecked screen, a puffin was dancing while a circle of innumerable white birds swirled around him.

The bird watching in Vardø, we learned, is some of the best in the world. Most of the guests tracking mud through the hotel lobby were of a certain age, wore impenetrable raingear, and carried expensive, cumbersome camera equipment.

30 January 1621. Marrite Olufsdatter is brought before Vardøhus Castle. She is accused of having, by means of witchcraft, raised a storm in 1617 on Christmas Eve and of having, during that storm, assisted in the sinking of ten boats and the loss of 40 lives. She confesses that, on Midsummer night, she and others gathered in the skies, high above the mountains. She is convicted of practice of witchcraft and sentenced to death in fire at the stake.

"Are you bird-watchers?" We heard this question so often over the next two days that Alex asked me seriously whether I thought it was a euphemism for something else. In 1998, the Norwegian Intelligence Service built a space radar installation in Vardø. The project, called Globus II, is made up of three large, domed spheres that look like grounded hot-air balloons and dot the hillside backdrop of the town. The intent of the station, according to the NIS, is to monitor “space junk,” essentially defunct satellites and floating debris that gather above the earth’s atmosphere.

This cover held up, literally, for two years. During a snowstorm in the winter of 2000, the white “radome” ripped off the main installation, exposing a state-of-the-art U.S. military missile-detection radar pointed directly at Russia. Red-faced, the Americans and Norwegians explained it away, but the Russians have lodged formal complaints about the satallite, and few believe it monitors “space junk,” anymore. I laughed when I heard the story, a comic moment of Cold War hangover, but the few locals I spoke to about it were less amused.

Vardø has a military history. During World War II, Germans used the island as a strategic outpost against the Russians. After the war, as they fled, the Germans razed all the buildings on the island. The town of Vardø held a community meeting to decide whether to rebuild the town on- site or move it to the mainland. They stayed on the island. Now the outskirts of town are littered with the overgrown concrete foundations of military barracks and gun turrets. Their gray bones look like alien crop circles in the green and brown moss. The American Globus II spy satellite pokes the sleeping Russian bear with a stick. If anything were to happen, if the Russians decided to take out the station, the tiny town of Vardø, Norway, would be vaporized. It became clear that Americans in Vardø raised small-town suspicions, and that witch hunting, like bird watching or space-junk tracking, sounded like just another cover.

After dinner, we drank a case of Finnish beer in the hotel room and headed out to the monument around 11 p.m. The temperature had been dropping consistently for hours and the rain was blowing in horizontally from the water, but the sun still illuminated the clouds from behind and painted the air a dense, spooky gray. Over the graveyard of a small white church we could see Steilneset. I ran ahead of Alex and Jarmo, who were fighting the wind and the rain stoically, as they do. I wanted to be the first one inside, as I do. The first structure is a suspended wooden corridor cocooned in synthetic cloth. It reaches along the coast of the water for 125 meters. Pete Zumthor modeled his mini-museum after the fish-drying racks, and the odd structure seems comfortable with the seaside wind and rain.

There wasn’t a soul around, at least that I could see, and no lock on the door. I walked in alone and when the door swung closed behind me, it shut out the twilight and the sound of the wind almost completely. The interior is ghostly and grim, and strangely comforting. The wind began to flutter the synthetic cloth, which rumbled the dark stillness inside. The small square windows of the cocoon look like the oar holes of a Viking ship. The interior walls are lined with dangling orange light bulbs, 91 of them, each one framed by a single window.

Next to each window is a hanging cloth text written in Norwegian, one for each of the 91 people executed in the witch trials. The texts are short biographies of the witches, detailing the accusations laid against them, their confessions, and their sentences. Of the 91 killed, 77 were women. The blood started in my cheeks, the shakes, before the light poured in once more and Jarmo’s voice disturbed the fluttering quiet.

Exiting the cocoon, I could already see the fire burning in the black glass box, the second structure. I made my way inside quietly and sat down on the gravel. Above me, I felt the looming presence of the oval mirrors that circle the chair. The brushed steel mirrors are tall and austere yet cartoonish, their surfaces warped as in a funhouse, and I felt their dwarfing presence immediately. Finding the reflection of the fire in one of their faces becomes a game. Giants, I sat silently so as not to wake them.

The five flames shooting out from the seat of the steel chair are hypnotic. They scream and flicker in pain. They grasp at you and run away as the arctic air pours around the black glass corner. The concrete ring around the burning chair keeps the fire from warming you, and makes the scene seem remote, like watching a blaze on television. The installation is ambitious in its simplicity. Standing in front of the chair the chair, you’re too far from the flame to help her, and too small beneath the mirrors to stop them. It is this powerlessness that haunts.

Louise Bourgeois was a witch if anyone was. Her work evolved enormously over the span of her illustrious career, but she was best known for her sculptures of large gothic spiders and small penises. She made confessional art, autobiographical work that traced her complex distrust for and disappointment in the men in her life, beginning with her father. Her imagery is confrontational, and often lacks subtlety. “The Damned, the Possessed and the Beloved” is uncharacteristically austere and unfeminine, and represents to me a final feminist thesis, simple and powerful, about women, mania, and male misapprehensions.

The witch trials in Europe and North America in the seventeenth century are surprisingly similar in method and scope, and the process is patterned. Initially, a catastrophe, like the wreckage of a ship or the arrival of disease, will trigger a panic. Women unaffiliated with the national religion, often old and reclusive, along with weak men from more savage pagan tribes, are targeted first. It’s a blame game. The accused are tortured into confessions, and during these sessions, most point the finger at others, which spreads the mania exponentially.

Eventually, the powerful men of the town conjure up ways of using this panic as a political tool, and it isn’t long before dissenting members of elite society are accused along with the paupers and the hags. The “witches” are sentenced to a water test, as water is holy and will theoretically reject anyone bedeviled. Over the course of a century, of the 91 deaths of the Vardø witch trials, not a soul drowned. In the written records, many of the women are reported to have “floated like a bob” or “a stick.” A few witches died during torture, but most were subsequently burned at the stake. Vardø locals disagree as to where exactly the burning site was, but the island is tiny and finding the approximate location of the stake is a matter of tracing a finger along the coastline.

The message behind the monument is as important at the top of the earth as it is anywhere else. Steilneset is a modern reminder of the things men are capable of when sad, angry and confused, and it is a thought scarier to me than witchcraft or devils. As a man, it’s comforting to believe we live in less barbarous times; that the persecution of women and of social outcasts was worse back then, worse up here. But it’s not exactly true.

The town motto of Vardø is “cedant tenebræ soli,” or “darkness shall give way to the sun.” And it did. The next day, Friday, was sunny and warm. For our second trip to Steilneset, I ran ahead of Alex to get that first minute alone. Near the entrance are translated booklets of the wall texts, and I read about the witches in detail. The door opened, and the light poured in once more. I opened my mouth to recite one of the confessions to Alex when a tour group of more than 50 people came streaming in. I was near the entrance and had to swim upstream through a horde of handsome, well-preserved Scandinavian seniors. Visitors to Vardø, the tourists, as we learned, come in chaperoned droves and don’t stay long. The buses pull up in front of the fortress, in front of the monument and the museum, and the people pour out. Then they pile back in. They spend little money and are gone as quickly as they come. I felt their stifling power in the cocoon.

30 January 1621. Kari Olufsdatter is brought before the court at Vardøhus Castle. She is accused of practicing witchcraft. Among other things, she confesses that she, in the likeness of a raven, attended a party in the skies with other witches. She is convicted of practice of witchcraft and sentenced to death in fire at the stake.

It’s a pretty picture: a murder of ravens drinking and dancing in the midnight sky above the mountains. A group of men sit on the shore below, staring up at them. One of the men is standing and talking, and I can see his mind working. It’s Christmas Eve 1617 and the rocky beach is littered with deck planks and floating provisions. The man on shore is pointing upward, and his anger ignites his grief like seal blubber. Witches. I wondered if four hundred years ago I would have been like him, looking toward the sky with angry tears in my eyes, toward a circle of flying ravens, and seeing the devil in the women of my village.

Are you bird-watchers?

At around 11 p.m, with the sun high in the crystal sky, we went to Club Vega, the discothèque in the basement of our hotel. Vega is open only two nights a year, as the population of Vardø is too small to sustain a weekly dance party. Through sheer dumb luck, our Friday night in Vardø was ’80s night at Vega and strobing colored disco lights illuminated the faces of the townspeople. We spotted the Vardøhus tour guides playing wallflowers in the corner. The blond teenagers who worked in the local café in the morning swirled around the edges of the dance floor like a roiling yellow twister. The daughter of the hotel owner, who was also the hotel concierge, hostess, and waitress, swung her side ponytail to Culture Club before hopping behind the bar to accommodate the growing crowd.

As the party died out, the crowd gathered in the sun outside the doors. Madonnas and Don Johnsons smoked cigarettes and bounced effortlessly from one group to another. A familiarity pervaded. It’s not a stretch to think that out of the 200 people in there, we were the only new faces at Club Vega, and our presence was noted; bird-watchers don’t dance. We made friends. Walking in pairs, our group crossed Vardø in minutes. At around 3 a.m., the party moved to a white one-bedroom house on the other side of town. The coffee table in the living room boasted a hastily prepared spread: a small bowl of potato chips and several large bottles of brown and clear liquor. To begin with, everyone got one cup of hot instant coffee spiked with Mintu, a Finnish peppermint liqueur. This is the drink of the town.

photo by Alex Mustonen

Before the party could begin in earnest, there was a final, informal line of questioning. “Are you bird-watchers?” This time the interrogation came from a thick, red Nord with a long red chin beard. “No.” “Then what the fuck are you doing in Vardø?” (Everyone on the island has a startling command of the English language.) We told them about the monument, about our interest in the artists who built it. We joked that we were here hunting for witches. Our new friends weren’t exactly satisfied with our answers, but their suspicion gave way to curiosity, and then to overwhelming hospitality. “We are witches,” said a small blond with pink sunglasses, “but we are cute witches.” She grinned and slunk into the leather couch cushion next to me.

We drank a black liquid that looked and tasted like someone had ashed a hundred cigarettes into the dregs of a Powerade, and danced around the coffee table like lunatics, taking turns going outside into the bright midnight sun to smoke cigarettes. Meanwhile, Alex was falling.

A Cyndi Lauper, she wore red pants and an open Risky Business white button-down with pink sunglasses. She had a short crop of brown hair and pink lips. A leader, she was holding court on the porch steps, telling stories to her Norwegian friends in perfect English, for our benefit. She spoke with her cigarette, burning invisible holes in the air, and as she did, a few letters of a collarbone tattoo danced into and out of focus: In Vino Veritas.

Leaning on the porch railing, I eavesdropped on Alex and the girl with the Latin tattoo. Her brother used to be a Satanist, I overheard her tell him, and when he was younger, he tried to set the Vardø church on fire. I still had the Vardø church pamphlet in my pocket from our visit earlier in the day. I stopped my conversation and grabbed Alex’s shoulder; his mouth was open in a shocked smile. Both he and I were familiar with the Norwegian black-metal music scene of the ’90s, and the consequent church burnings that gave the movement its infamy. “I am so proud of my older brother,” she said, taking a drag of her cigarette. “When I was in school, nobody would mess with me.” The girl with the Latin tattoo had, it turned out, a personality different from his. Alex was under its spell.

At 6 a.m., she took him to see the bunkers at Skagen, the uninhabited northern tip of the island. The blazing sun hadn’t left its position high in the sky. I saw the photos the next day on Alex’s phone. Difficult to make out in the sun’s reflection, I could see her head poking out of a concrete gun turret or smiling at the camera from the top of a small lighthouse. She had never been to Steilneset; she had always been too afraid to go inside, so the two went together. She told him about the ghosts that live in Vardø, and that most of the villagers carry deep, reverent superstitions about their presence. It was nearly eight in the morning, the fog was growing thick around the coastline, and dark clouds were collecting once more above the island. That afternoon, exhausted and hung-over, we drove back out through the concrete tunnel, headed home to Joensuu. There are no witches in Vardø.

There are no witches there, and there never have been, I reminded myself. I wondered again if I was a bird-watcher. Witches or no, there is a darkness that lingers in the midnight sun of Vardø. There is a haunted unease, a pervading sense of its grim history and a fear of a difficult future, despite the town’s beauty and the warmth of its people. In my haze, I felt Vardø leaving me. On the drive down, in the backseat, I wrote everything down in my notebook. Jarmo smoked cigarettes and drove back down along the coast towards home. Alex stared peacefully out the front seat window. We crossed back into Finland and the gray drizzled down once more. The car was quiet. I craned my head over the armrest to get a better look at the gradually growing trees as we put the tundra behind us. I caught him, Alex, his face with everything but the smile. He was bewitched.

Timothy Stanley is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. You can find his website here.

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