By the pricking of my thumbs

Let’s talk about witches, among other things…

Puppet couple Bob Tate photograph 2019

I haven’t seen Judy and Punch yet, but it promises to be interesting.

Here’s part of The Guardian review:

The film is set in the town of Seaside, a mix-mash of Shakespeare and Dickens inhabited by grubby urchins, ruffians and potato sellers, with a bawdy public house where Punch and Judy perform their knockabout puppet show. Mr Punch (superbly played with sweaty charm and barely concealed menace by Damon Herriman) is the greatest puppeteer of his generation. Or, so he likes to think. Actually, it’s his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska, reliably excellent) who is the real-deal talent. Forget the nagging shrew of tradition, Judy is super-capable, managing the business, looking after the baby and trying to keep her husband off booze.

But inevitably Punch falls off the wagon, leading to a spot of the old wife-beating and negligent parenting which has given joy to Punch and Judy audiences for centuries: in no other film are you likely to see the death of small child played as-daisy slapstick, a comic-tragedy set off by a dog wearing an Elizabethan ruff. (Those with a sensitive disposition should avoid.) Afterwards, Judy is sheltered by a community of outcasts in the forest, and here the film turns into a satisfying revenge tale, with gentler notes of kindness and solidarity to balance the sharpness. What a killer debut this is; that’s the way to do it.

Puppet Stuff

I undertook a photographic session at our local Puppet Theatre; and I can attest to the fact that those puppets are definitely alive and they KNOW IT.

Backstage at the Puppet Theatre

If it is possible for Brexit to be presented to the nation as an economically reasonable and socially stabilising solution to the country’s current crisis then equally, then i feel able to assert with equal certainty that the souls of the executed East Anglian witches reside in these puppets, simply waiting for the appropriate moment off reanimation. And that moment may not be far off….

Puppet Charcoal on paper Bob Tate

These puppets speak to me, of their past lives and fates; some of them were housewife, many were widows.

These were often queer (in every possible sense of the word) and ostracised by their neighbours.

They had knowledge that scared others, or goods and chattels that they coveted.

Dead Pig Puppet digital photograph Bob Tate

Unmarried and pregnant puppet Bob Tate

In Northern Norway

the local indigenous people are called the Sammi.They are an ancient race of hunter-gatherers probably descended from the ancient stone age tribes of the north of Europe (the name Laplander is to be deplored as a pejorative term).

The Sammi have practiced Shamanistic animism for millennia, summoning up spirits of ancestral hunters and wild animals on exquisitely painted magic drum skins


Shamanic drums were sacred objects, and treated as such, although they could be used in a limited capacity by people who were not proper shamans. Many people had access to family drums, which would be stored in a special place in their dwellings (like in the sacred space behind the fireplace). The drums would be brought out whenever necessary, to ask the spirits for protection or guidance. To get answers from the spirits, an indicator (e.g. a brass ring, or a carved piece of reindeer antler) could be placed on the drumhead, so that beating on the drum would move the indicator around. The path it took around the drum could 
then be interpreted to get some idea of what the spirits want.

Ancient Sami Drum symbols: The authorities confiscated and burned many such artefacts (and their owners) in the 17th and 18th C
Example of a modern Sami drum: note the helicopter moving the reindeer.

The Steilneset Memorial (from their website)

The Steilneset Memorial, often called the “The Witches’ Memorial”, is a monument to 91 people who were burned as witches during the period of 1598 to 1692 in Vardø. The memorial consists of a building, designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, and the “Flammehuset” artwork featuring a sculpture by the Franco–American artist Louise Bourgeois.

The witch trials

The witch trials were a pan-European phenomenon and, from the 15th century through to around 1750, up to 100,000 people across Europe were burned as witches. Most of them were burned in Germany and Scotland. However, relative to the population, a large number were burned in Finnmark, perhaps more than anywhere else in the whole of Europe. The reasons for this are complex and not entirely clear. Perhaps the idea that some people were secretly working with the devil resonated more in remote fishing villages that experienced storms and bad weather. The witches came from both the Norwegian fishing villages and the Sami settlements. They were taken to Vardø for a summary trial. If there was any doubt as to the question of guilt, the suspect was thrown into the sea. If she floated, she was a witch. The water test was used in around a third of the trials held in Finnmark. 

The Damned, the Possessed and the Beloved

The sculpture by the Franco–American artist Louise Bourgeois’ (1911–2010) entitled “The Damned, the Possessed and the Beloved” is a perpetual flame that projects through a steel chair, which in turn is placed inside a hollow concrete cone. The flames are reflected by seven circular mirrors, like judges surrounding the accused. The entire installation is housed in a black glass cube. Writer Donna Wheeler observed that “the perpetual flame – that old chestnut of commemoration and reflection – here is devoid of any redemptive quality, illuminating only its own destructive image.” The Steilneset Memorial does not give the visitor peace. It stirs fear and gives an insight into the darkest sides of human nature.

The memorial building

The memorial building consists of a long structure made of a pine scaffold. Between the supporting poles hangs a cocoon made of wood that houses a black, 125-metre (410-foot) long corridor, lit by 91 small windows, one for each of the victims. On the walls inside are 91 plaques, one for each victim. Liv Helene Willumsen of the University of Tromsø wrote the simple texts that summarise the little information we have about each trial. Lisebeth Nilsdatter from Gamvik freely confessed in 1621 that she had renounced her God, attended meetings in Omgang involving drinking and dancing, and cast spells over ships. Ingeborg, Peder Krogh’s wife, denied the accusations at first, but floated like a cork during the water test. She then confessed to poisoning fish for a neighbour. She was tortured to death. In 1663, Margrete Jonsdatter confessed to attending gatherings involving dancing, drinking and card games with Satan on one St. John’s Eve in Domen. In 1678, Synnøve Johannesdatter was convicted of casting a spell on a goat and causing the illness from which Anders Jensen died.


The registers of sins cover the sins of poisoning food, casting spells on domesticated animals, causing disease and death amongst people and casting spells on people. Meetings with Satan and gatherings involving drinking, dancing and card games on Domen mountain outside Vardø were also frequent occurrences. One wonders what the mood was like in the small coastal villages of Finnmark during the 17th century, and what fear the people must have felt for the devil. Accusations were often made by neighbours. Most of those convicted were women, but some were men. 

Visit to Steilneset Memorial

The witches monument is just a short walk from the centre of Vardø, on the same side as Vardøhus Fortress and the quay where the boats depart for Hornøya. Vardø is a historic town and a traditional fishing village in the far north-east of Norway. It is situated along the National Tourist Route in Varanger and can be reached by air or Hurtigruten ships from Kirkenes. 

Read more

  • Varanger Museum has more information on its website. You can also book group tours on the site.
The Steilneset Memorial

Watch this space

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.