A Conspiracy of Witches: Witchcraft Legends in Denmark, 1780-1906

The Scandinavian department is continuing its miniseries of online presentations by department members and friends of the department.  Second, on Monday March 29, is Prof. Timothy Tangherlini.

The violent persecution of witches in Denmark, was, by end of the seventeenth century, a thing of the past largely obtained for all of Europe including Scandinavia. Intriguingly, however, if folklore collections are any reflection of the belief landscape of communities from which these stories were collected, the narrative basis for belief in witchcraft and thus the potential for renewed—perhaps more local—persecutions persisted up through the early twentieth century (Rørbye 1976). The potential for judicial intervention certainly still remained in Denmark where the unused laws governing the prosecution of violations of the trolddom [witchcraft] statutes were not replaced until 1866.

In today’s presentation, I propose a methodology for exploring belief in witches and witchcraft as reflected in the folk narrative traditions of Denmark. Evald Tang Kristensen’s legend collections, recorded across Jutland in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, provide an excellent test corpus for this examination, and allow us to discover an underlying narrative framework that helps delimit the complexity and interdependence of witchcraft belief and other aspects of Danish folk belief (Tangherlini 2000; Henningsen 1988; Rørbye 1976). The process of discovering the narrative framework is predicated on a structural mapping of the legend genre coupled to a version of Algirdas Greimas’s actantial model, which has been formalized for computational implementation (Greimas 1996; 1968; 1973). Certain features of the discovered narrative framework may provide some additional explanations for the persistence of belief in witches many centuries after the last witchcraft trial in Denmark, and nearly a millennium after the early records of witchcraft emerged in Scandinavia.

Please contact issa@berkeley.edu if you would like to attend.