TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Februar 2010

Sektion 4.5. Arctic, Antarctica, Alps, Art – Imagining the Extreme / Natural Sciences, Humanities, Arts – Dialoguing
SektionsleiterInnen | Section Chairs: Knut Ove Arntzen (Universität Bergen), Gabriele Rampl (Scinews, Innsbruck) und Victoria Joan Moessner (University of Alaska)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Lion, the Witch and the Walrus

Images of the Sorcerous North in the 16th  and 17th centuries

Stefan Donecker (European University Institute, Florence) [BIO]



The north is more than merely a random direction on the compass rose. Much more. This conviction is, undoubtedly, the common denominator among the numerous and diverse scholars, scientists and researchers who deal with northern issues. Northernness implies a wide range of associations, symbolic meanings as well as emotional and ideological connotations. The inhabitants of the north and the nature of the north evoke a strong imagery in the popular discourse – ranging from the Scandinavian welfare paradise to the horrors of the Siberian Gulag archipelago, and including murderous Viking berserkers as well as the cute polar bears regularly featured in the media.

During the last few years, scholarship has devoted increased attention to the cultural meanings of northernness.(1) Historiography is, allegedly, undergoing its “spatial turn” which entails a rising awareness of spatiality and the terms and concepts with which it is expressed. Cultural geography resp. “Geokulturologie” has matured from a fledgling branch of cultural studies into a commonly accepted sub-discipline with its own theory and methodology.(2) The cultural semantics of geographical terms such as “East” and “West”, “North” and “South” have developed into a respectable field of research, overshadowed and inspired by Edward Said's “Orientalism” - the quintessential prototype study that demonstrated the political and ideological implications of a geographical concept.

The present paper intends to partake in this increased interest for the cultural perceptions of the north and present a rather unusual facet of the topic: the north as a realm of the supernatural in early modern thought. 16th and 17th century sources imagined and constructed the north as a mythical place, full of marvels and magic, bestowed with unique spiritual qualities that could be considered beneficial, yet were most often perceived as threatening and diabolic. This paper is far from being an exhaustive treatment of this multi-faceted topic; it just aims to introduce a fascinating and peculiar aspect of northernness that has remained largely unknown outside the community of scholars who specialise in the history of early modern Scandinavia. 


The Lion

During the early 1630s, when Sweden intervened in the Thirty Years' War in support of their fellow Protestants, numerous woodcuts and propaganda leaflets circulated in Germany, showing wondrous encounters such as this one:


Schwedische Rettung der Christlichen Kirchen (1631)

Fig. 1.: Schwedische Rettung der Christlichen Kirchen (1631)
(“Swedish Rescue of the Christian Church”, detail)(3)

Gustav II Adolf, the protestant King of Sweden, is depicted as an armed lion, warlike and brave, who challenges a multi-headed abomination, which is squatting on broken columns inscribed with the names of the countries and cities it has already conquered. The seven-headed beast is, of course, a familiar image taken from the Book of Revelations, and the tiara of the pope and the hats of the cardinals which the monstrosity is wearing make it obvious that it symbolizes Catholicism.

A horrid Beast appeared, ferocious and thunderous
Its jaws, its skin were full of gory froth.
It thrust its dragon fangs against the foremost pillars
Forced, broke and subdued them, causing great despair.

A nobly crowned Lion boldly jumped ashore;
Gladly and eagerly he charged the Dragon with his sword.
Then I heard a shout: Exult, all who are in exile!
And all of you who are religious kinsmen.
Through His almightiness God has bestowed
Mercy upon us all in His omniscience,
For ever and ever.(4)

The idea of a “Lion from the North“ became an incredibly successful catchphrase during the Thirty Years' War.(5) German protestantism rallied around Gustav Adolf, the mythical saviour who had descended from the far reaches of the north to fight the Pope and the Emperor. By choosing the imagery of the “Lion of the North”, Swedish propaganda made use of a prophecy that had been circulating since the beginning of the 17th century, as an obscure text attributed to the great physician and alchemist, Theophrastus Paracelsus (1493-1541):

And thus it shall occur, that at this time a yellow Lion will proceed from Midnight, and appear, and he will pursue the Eagle and, after some time, overcome it. He will bring all of Europe, and parts of Asia and Africa, under his domain. He will be of good, Christian faith, and all the people will pay deference to him. [...]

When this Lion from the North has completed his pursuit, and blunted the Eagle's claws, thereupon peace and unity will abound. Unruliness shall be no more, and the End will be close at hand, when GOD the LORD shall come in great majesty.(6)

The prophecy evokes a strong image: The coming of a warlike Lion from Midnight – that is, from the north – is announced, who will fight and defeat the Eagle – i.e. the Hapsburg emperor, and usher an era of peace, harmony and true Christian faith. As such, he is a harbinger of the apocalypse - because soon afterwards, as the prophecy states, the End will come and Christ will return.

In its 17th century reception, the eschatological aspect of the Lion prophecy was complemented by its political implications. Frederick V, Elector Palatine, was the first among a series of Protestant rulers who was believed to be the desired Lion. Frederick's rule as king of Bohemia was, however, easily crushed by the army of the Catholic League in 1620, and the wannabe Lion found himself target of numerous satirical pamphlets.(7) King Christian IV of Denmark likewise attempted to appropriate the image of the Midnight Lion for himself during his brief campaign against Catholic forces in the mid-1620s, but like his predecessor he lacked the military success to back his claim. Only Gustav Adolf of Sweden displayed the necessary military prowess that gained him recognition as the famed Lion whom Paracelsus had supposedly predicted a century before. The king's early death on the battlefield of Lützen (1632) did little harm to his reputation, it rather bestowed the dignity of a martyr upon him and effectively increased his prestige. The motif of the “Lion of the North”, however, disappeared from the inventory of propaganda pamphleteers after enjoying a brief, yet very intense popularity.

The pseudo-Paracelsian Lion prophecy and its reputed fulfilment are part of a positive perception of the north as a place spiritually associated with the forces of Good, as a resource of liberty and salvation. The aforementioned leaflet, “Schwedische Rettung der Christlichen Kirchen”, refers to this imagery both in text and picture. While the Lion and the Beast fight in the foreground, the scenery in the back shows a preacher and his audience, seated on a barren rock, illuminated by a ray of sunlight from heaven. There, the caption explains, in the north, the true Christian doctrine is to be found.(8)


Schwedische Rettung der Christlichen Kirchen (1631)

Fig. 2.: Schwedische Rettung der Christlichen Kirchen (1631)
The preacher and his congregation are visible in the top left corner, designated by the letter “L”

Similar positive associations of northernness were used by one of Gustav Adolf's successors, Charles XI, who chose the polar star as the symbol of his rule. Charles was a contemporary of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, and the symbol of the Polar Star can be seen as a deliberate contrast to the French symbolism of the Sun. The Sun of Versailles might be much brighter, more splendid, yet it moves, and each evening sunset is inevitable. The Polar Star, the icon of the Swedish King, is not as splendid, it is rather austere in its cold beauty, quite unpretentious in a very Lutheran way. But, most importantly, it is constant. It never moves. As such, it represented the eternal, unchangeable qualities and virtues that the north was believed to possess.(9)

Such a righteous idea of the north was not uncommon during the 16th and 17th centuries – yet, for most Europeans, it was overshadowed by an image far more sinister:


The Witch

“Sorcerers used to be less numerous than they are today,” explained Pierre de Lancre, one of the most notorious witch-hunters of 17th century France. “They dwelt at remote places; in the mountains, in deserts or in the Northern lands, such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Götaland, Ireland and Livonia.”(10) De Lancre shared this opinion with his much more famous countryman and contemporary, Jean Bodin. Although Bodin gained his fame as a political philosopher and as the foremost theorist of historiography in his age, he was also keenly interested in demonology.(11) In his treatise on witchcraft, “La Démonomanie des Sorciers” (1580), he voiced a similar view on the sorcerers of the north:

Most witches and sorcerers are to be found in the northern lands, because the devil has more power at Septentrio. There are more warlocks in Norway and Livonia and other Septentrional areas than in the entire rest of the world, as Olaus Magnus abundantly testifies.

Of Satan's words, Isaiah gives this account: “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north.” From that, it can be deducted that Satan wields great power over the people dwelling in the north, who are infamous for their evil spirits and their sorcerers. Therefore, it can be regularly found everywhere in the Holy Scriptures, that all misfortune will come from the north.(12)

Such beliefs were widely held during the early modern period. The north was perceived as an abode of witchcraft and idolatry, haunted by the most wicked of demons. The 16th and 17th centuries were the heyday of European witch-hunts, when the imagination of the general public, all over Europe, seemed preoccupied by the idea of sorcery and the threat of infernal forces. Scholarly treatises and travel accounts scared their readers with fanciful descriptions about the powers of northern witches and sorcerers, their evil deeds and the cruel torments they bestowed on unsuspecting travellers.

Demons are common in the North

Fig. 3.: Demons are so common in the North that they even perform menial tasks – like cleaning the stables.
Illustration from Olaus Magnus' Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus

Such stereotypes had a long tradition. The powerful Finnish sorcerer is a popular antagonist in the Sagas of medieval Iceland, most likely inspired by encounters with Saami shamanism. Early modern Europe did not invent the nightmare image of northern witchcraft, but it was rediscovered in the context of the European witch-hunts and integrated into the framework of scholarly demonology.

One place particularly associated with diabolic presence was the infamous Mount Hekla, a volcano in southern Iceland. It was commonly believed that Hekla contained the gateway to Hell, and that is was possible to hear the wails of tormented sinners in the vicinity of the fiery mountain.(13) Whenever a battle was fought somewhere in the world, one could, allegedly, observe the damned souls as they were screamingly flung into the crater of Hekla.

Hekla's reputation as the entrance to Hell caused great embarrassment to Icelandic humanist Arngrímur Jónsson (1568-1648).(14) When trying to refute the numerous rumours and misconceptions about Iceland that could be found in early modern writing, Arngrímur was capable of great patriotic zeal. He considered the Hekla legend as derogatory, almost insulting, to his native country: “[T]here is nothing in all the world more base, & worthlesse then it, which conteineth hell within the bounds therof.(15) Why was no other volcano in the world denounced as the entrance to hell, Arngrímur wonders:

Why therefore haue not writers imagined the same prison of soules to be in Chimæra an hill in Lycia(which, by report, flameth continually day and night) that is in mount Hecla of Island?  [...] Why not in the field of Naples, neare vnto Puteoli? Why not in the Pike of Teneriffa before mentioned, like Aetnacontinually burning and casting vp stones into the aier [...]? Why not in that Aethiopian hill, which Plinie affirmeth to burne more then all the former? And to conclude, why not in the mountaine of Vesuuius, which (to the great damage of al the countrey adioyning, & to the vtter destruction of Caius Plinius prying into [the] causes of so strange a fire) vomiting out flames as high as the clouds, filling the aire with great abundance of pumistones, and ashes, & with palpable darknesse intercepting the light of the sunne from al the region therabout? I wil speake, & yet speake no more then the truth: because in deede they foresaw, that men would yeeld no credite to those things as being too well knowen, though they should haue feined them to haue beene the flames of hell: but they thought the burning of Hecla (the rumor whereof came more slowly to their eares) to be fitter for the establishing of this fond fable. But get ye packing, your fraud is found out: leaue off for shame hereafter to perswade any simple man, [that] there is a hel in mount Hecla.(16)

No one, Arngrímur convincingly argues, would imagine the gates of Hell to be in a well-known country. And, additionally, nobody wants the place in his own vicinity. Writers have therefore chosen a remote and obscure northern country like Iceland, which used to have no scholarly lobby that could defend it against such slander. Arngrímur therefore feels the need to state, once and for all, that Hell is not in Iceland: “[T]he Islanders are no whit nearer vnto this extreame & darke prison, in regard of the situation of place, then the Germans, Danes, Frenchmen, Italians, or any other nation whatsoeuer. [...] Now let vs here shut vp the disputation concerning the hell of Island”.(17)

The inhabitants of northernmost Scandinavia, usually referred to as “Finns” or “Lapps”,(18) were considered the most powerful wizards of the north. In addition to their skills in divination, they were believed to possess particular powers over the air.(19) According to early modern sources, Finnish warlocks were not only capable to unleash storms and tempests at will, they could even imprison the wind in knotted strings. These wind-knots were sold to foreign sailors, who could untie the rope whenever they were in need of favourable wind, and immediately a breeze would arise, just as desired. Thus the Finnish sorcerers could gain a handsome profit from their sorcery.

A Finnish sorcerer sells wind-knots

Fig. 4.:A Finnish sorcerer sells wind-knots to foreign sailors.
Illustration from Olaus Magnus' Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus

Most 16th and 17th century scholars obtained their knowledge of the north mainly from the writings of Olaus Magnus. Olaus, a Swedish Catholic clergyman exiled to Italy during the Reformation, wrote his “History of the Northern People” (Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, 1555) as an effort to familiarize the humanist elites of Europe with his remote and largely unknown home country. In this widely read and highly influential treatise, Olaus gives a detailed account of  Finnish wind-magic:

Also, I shall shew very briefly what force Conjurers and Witches have in constraining the Elements, enchanted by them or others, that they may exceed or fall short of their Natural Order: premising this that the extream Land of the North Finland and Lapland, was so taught Witchcraft formerly in Heathenish times, as if they had learned this cursed Art from Zoroastres the Persian; though other Inhabitants by the Sea-coasts are reported to be bewitched with the same madness; for they exercise this Divelish Art, of all the Arts of the World, to admiration. [...]

The Finlanders were wont formerly amongst their other Errors of Gentilisme, to sell Winds to Merchants, that were stopt on their Coasts by contrary weather; and when they had their price, they knit three Magical knots [...] bound up with a Thong, and they gave them unto the Merchants; observing that rule, that when they unloosed the first, they should have a good Gale of Wind: when the second, a stronger wind: but when they untied the third, they should have such cruel Tempests, that they should not be able to look out of the Forecastle to avoid the Rocks, nor move a foot to pull down the Sails, nor stand at the Helm to govern the ship; and they made an unhappy trial of the truth of it, who denied that there was any such power in those knots.(20)

In 1599, Danish-Norwegian king Christian IV personally led a naval expedition beyond the North Cape, in an effort to confirm his royal authority in northernmost Scandinavia. According to the voyage accounts, the king himself had to face the Lapps' mastery over wind and weather. When a man from the king's retinue stole the cat of a local woman, the fleet found itself in the most dreadful of storms. The expedition was only saved when the cat, which had been identified as an infernal familiar of some sort, was set adrift in a boat with food for a month. The storm calmed on the same evening.(21) Erik XIV of Sweden reputedly had to endure a similar encounter with wind magic four decades earlier. When the Swedish king set out to England in 1560, to court Queen Elizabeth, his journey was endangered by fog, thunderstorms and sudden tempests. It was rumoured that Norwegian witches had conspired to impede the bridal voyage and that they had conjured the storm to hinder or even drown the king.(22)

The sorcerous abilities of the Finns and Laplanders were a well-known fact that could even be used for political propaganda. Ironically, none less than Gustav Adolf, the Lion of the North and champion of Protestant Christianity, was accused of associating with such villainous folk. His Catholic opponents blamed their defeats explicitly on the witchcraft practised by the Finns and Laplanders in the king's army. The emphatic condemnation of all kinds of sorcery in the Swedish Articles of War could possibly be interpreted as an attempt to refute such accusations.(23)

Other inhabitants of the north were associated with different magic practices. The peasants of Livonia – the area in the eastern Baltic that corresponds roughly to present-day Estonia and Latvia – were known to be superstitious and idolatrous people, and many of them were said to be in the league with the devil. While the Finns and Laplanders were believed to specialize in wind-summoning and divinations, the Livonians excelled at shape-changing. With the help of the devil, the Livonian peasants could assume the shape of various creatures, including bears and, most commonly, wolves. No other area of early modern Europe was so notorious for its population of ferocious werewolves.(24)

Again, it is Olaus Magnus who provided the most vivid description of the bloodthirsty Livonian werewolves and their depredations: 

In the Feast of Christs Nativity, in the night, at a certain place, that they are resolved upon amongst themselves, there is gathered together such a huge multitude of Wolves changed from men that dwell in divers places, which afterwards the same night doth so rage with wonderfull fiercenesse, both against mankind and other creatures, that are not fierce by nature, that the Inhabitants of that Country suffer more hurt from them, than ever they do from true naturall Wolves. For as it is proved they set upon the houses of men that are in the Woods with wonderfull fiercenesse, and labour to break down the doors, whereby they may destroy both men and other creatures that remain there.(25)

After their cruel rampage, Olaus adds, the werewolves like to go down to the cellar and drink all the beer that they can find. This habit, he observes, distinguishes them from normal wolves.

A band of Livonian shape-changers

Fig. 5.:A band of Livonian shape-changers
Illustration from Olaus Magnus' Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus

Olaus Magnus' accounts never failed to leave an impression on his contemporaries, and the tale of the Livonian werewolves was no exception. Hardly any early modern text that dealt with remote Livonia refrained from describing, or at least mentioning, the shape-changing abilities of its inhabitants. In 1589/90, Johann David Wunderer, a Calvinist student from Rostock, got into trouble with the Jesuits in northern Poland and had to flee into the wilderness near the border between Livonia and Lithuania. Being a well-read man, Wunderer knew what to expect from the inhabitants of that land:

Then we came to Samogitia, through vast, uncanny wildernesses, where horrendous visions and spectres are seen, even in the bright of the day. Scholars believe that all this is caused by the inhabitants who, even nowadays, live like beasts without faith or religion. Not only do they adore animals and serpentine monsters, but they also use devilish arts to transform themselves into the shape of wolves and bears. Satan is thus very powerful among them. In the shape of various beasts they appear to travellers, and are able to attack and slay them in the shape of a wolf.

With noticeable relief, Wunderer adds: “We saw nothing like that.” Untroubled by werewolves, the problems he faced were of a very mundane nature: “After our coach toppled twice and broke, we did, on three occasions, lose our way”.(26)

16th and 17th century scholarship thus envisioned a broad panorama of northern wickedness, ranging from the gateway of hell in Iceland's Mount Hekla to the wind-wizards of Finland and the shape-changers of Livonia. It is therefore hardly surprising that narratives of northern witches and their misdeeds are also plentiful in drama, novels and all kinds of early modern literature.(27) I will choose just one example, from the writings of no lesser author than Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the creator of Don Quixote. In his last novel, the romance of Persiles and Sigismunda (Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, published posthumously in 1617), Cervantes tells the tale of a certain Rutilio, an Italian dancing teacher from Siena. After an amorous affair Rutilio is imprisoned by the angry father of his beloved. While he is in prison, he is approached by a dubious woman who offers to set him free. By means of sorcery, they escape from the dungeon and she takes him through the air into a strange country, which turns out to be Norway. Upon arrival, Rutilio finds himself in an awkward situation, as the voluptuous witch does not hide her desires towards him:

With which words shee imbraced mee after a lasciuious manner. I thrust her backe with mine armes: and by the brightnes of the morning which then began to shew light, I perceiued, that shee who imbraced mee was in the shape of a Wolfe.

This vision troubled my wits, and turned my heart topsie turuie. But as it falleth out in great perils oftentimes, that small hope to preuaile drawes courage from such whose forces are desperate; the littlle which I had, made mee to lay holde on a knife which by chance I had about me, and with enraged feare, I furiously thrust it into her body whom I beleeued to haue beene a Wolfe: who falling to the earth, lost this horrbile figure, instead wherof I found dead and bleeding this vnhappie sorceresse.

Consider a little I pray you in vvhat case I vvas then; in a strange land, and vvithout any person to conduct mee. Longtime I vvaited for the day, but it came not, neither did any token of Sunne-rising appeare in the Horizon. (28)

It is, indeed, interesting how Norway is presented in this short episode: It is a land where one can encounter the supernatural – a shape-changing sorceress. But immediately afterwards, Cervantes refers to a phenomenon that is – from our modern point of view – quite natural and by no means mysterious: the polar night.(29) Yet in Rutilio's tale, the darkness he faces seems to be no mundane occurrence. It rather appears as spiritual darkness, as a manifestation of the same forces of evil that grant the werewolf witch her magical abilities. Supernatural powers and wonders of nature were, in a 17th century perspective, intimately linked. Together, they shaped the prevalent image of the north. These close ties between the supernatural and the natural lead to the third and last icon:


The Walrus

In the 15th century legendary Saga of Hjálmþér and Ölver (Hjálmþés saga ok Ölvers), the two heroes and their companion, Hörðr, flee the wrath of evil King Hundingr. In a feat of amazing saga shapeshifting, the king transforms himself into a walrus and pursues the heroes' ship:  

A little while after, they saw a great walrus making for them, angry and frightful to behold. “There”, said Hörðr, “is a creature very ill-disposed towards me, that I may not look upon. [...] You must not name my name while he is here, for if you do I shall die.” And he lay down in the hold, and they covered him with clothes.(30)

Thus challenged, Hörðr resorts to his own supernatural abilities and attacks the king in the shape of a swordfish: “[T]hey saw a sword-fish dart out from under their ship, and make for the walrus at great speed, and he attacked him straightway; the two moved out into deep water.” Hunding's own daughter helps the heroes; she turns into a porpoise and joins the struggle against her walrus father, who finally defeated and killed. Despite his untimely demise, Hunding the walrus is a worthy representative of the many strange beasts and creatures that were believed to dwell in the north.

In the 16th century, Sebastian Münster, one of the most eminent humanists of his time, compiled information on all countries of the known world, an effort that would result in his widely read Cosmographia, whose first edition was published in 1544. A year earlier, Münster contacted the Swedish royal councillor Georg Norman, asking his help to gather information on the lands of the north. One of the issues he was most interested in, as can be judged from his letter, were the wonders of nature, the strange creatures that were believed to inhabit the north.(31) The realm of Sweden, Münster reminds his learned colleague, is not only very spacious and wealthy, but also full of monsters (“latissimum, opulentum, monstris plenum”). With unbridled curiosity, Münster mentions that the Archbishop of Uppsala has been preparing a scholarly volume on those monsters of the north.(32)

The Archbishop of Uppsala whom Münster acknowledges as an expert on arctic monstrosities is no other than the afore mentioned Olaus Magnus. Both in the Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus as well as in his famous map of the north, Carta Marina (1539), Olaus describes and visualizes a vast array of fearsome animals that dwell in the north, on land and in the sea, many of which are said to prey on hapless human beings. Again, the mighty walrus is not missing, and it is described as a particularly dangerous creature:

The Norway Coast, toward the more Northern parts, hath huge great Fish as big as Elephants, which are called Morsi, or Rosmari, may be they are so from their sharp biting; for if they see any man on the Sea-shore, and can catch him, they come suddenly upon hum, and rend him with their Teeth, that they will kill him in a trice. Therefore, these Fish called Rosmari, or Morsi, have heads fashioned like to an Oxes, and a hairy Skin, and hair growing as thick as straw or corn-reeds, that lye loose very laregely. They will raise themselves with their Teeth as by Ladders to the very tops of Rocks, that they may feed on the Dewie Grasse, or fresh Water, and role themselves in it, and then go to the Sea again.(33)

Vicki Ellen Szabo has pointed out that Olaus' impressive accounts of walruses, whales and similar sea monsters were deeply rooted in medieval traditions that perceived such creatures not only as symbols of evil and paganism, but even as factual agents and associates of the devil.(34) The archetype of all such infernal maritime monsters was the biblical Leviathan, which was commonly equated with the great fish that had swallowed Jonah, and whose gaping mouth came to signify the entrance to hell.(35) When King Christian IV, during his aforementioned voyage to the North Calotte, was caught in the storm supposedly summoned by Lapp wizards, the sailors observed large numbers of whales swimming alongside the royal flagship. Being of enormous size, these creatures were identified as “demon whales“.(36)

Olaus Magnus' arctic sea monsters even found their way into classic English literature. In the second book of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1596), Guyon, the Knight of Temperance, has to sail perilous seas and is beset by manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins. A great “whirlpool of decay” spews forth embodiments of Wrath - all the maritime abominations which Olaus Magnus had introduced to the learned audiences of the 16th century:

Most vgly shapes, and horrible aspects,
Such as Dame Nature selfe mote feare to see,
Or shame, that euer should so fowle defects
From her most cunning hand escaped bee;
All dreadfull pourtraicts of deformitee:
Spring-headed Hydraes, and sea-shouldring Whales,
Great whirlpooles which all fishes make to flee,
Bright Scolopendraes, arm'd with siluer scales,
Mighty Monoceroses, with immeasured tayles.

The dreadfull Fish, that hath deseru'd the name
Of Death, and like him lookes in dreadfull hew,
The griesly Wasserman, that makes his game
The flying ships with swiftnesse to pursew,
The horrible Sea-satyre, that doth shew
His fearefull face in time of greatest storme,
Huge Ziffius, whom Mariners eschew
No lesse, then rocks (as travellers informe).(37)

This grotesque bestiary of Arctic monsters would, of course, not be complete without the appearance of walruses, unkindly described as “greedy Rosmarines with visages deforme”.(38) 

 Walruses on the coast of Norway

Fig. 6.: Walruses on the coast of Norway
Illustration from Olaus Magnus' Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus

The walrus, as a representative of the marvels, monsters and wondrous creatures believed to inhabit the north, should serve as a reminder that early modern thought did not distinguish sharply between the natural and the magical world. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the dividing line between the natural world and the realms of the supernatural was fuzzy, at best. In the image of the legendary creatures of the north, the distinction between the mundane and the wondrous became completely blurred. From an early modern viewpoint, the extraordinary wildlife of the north as well as its untamed, harsh nature, are intimately related to the supernatural marvels one might encounter there. It is no coincidence that the two magic abilities most commonly associated with the north were the summoning of wind and the transformation into animal shapes. Both practices imply a close interdependency between the sorcerer and the northern nature, manifested either in furious storms or in ferocious beasts, both considered distinctive features of northernness. 


Concluding Remarks

Concluding this brief survey of the sorcerous north in early modern sources,(39) I would like to revert to the section's general topic, “Imagining the Extreme”. As the examples mentioned above have demonstrated, the north was perceived as a place imbued with moral qualities, both good – as the imagery of the “Lion from Midnight” has shown –, yet in most cases predominantly evil, as exemplified by the sinister figure of the northern witch.

The spiritual ambivalence of northernness in early modern thought is perhaps most explicitly expressed in the writings of the heterodox French scholar Guillaume Postel (1510-1581).(40) The north, Postel explained, was the dark spot of the universe, the focus of evil from which all wickedness emanated. Satan was physically present in the far north, chained there for all eternity, surrounded by his demons. But because all evil was redeemed by the grace of God, the cursed north could, at the same time, be the source of everything that was good and righteous. Precisely because the north was the abode of Satan, it also had to be the site of earthly Paradise. According to Postel, the North Pole was the place on earth that was closest to heaven. There, in this desolate land haunted by demons and monsters, man could come closer to the divine than anywhere else in this mortal world.

16th and 17th century Europe did, indeed, imagine the north as a realm of the extreme. Extreme not only in a geographical or naturalist, but also in a spiritual and metaphysical sense. Positive and negative notions of northernness remained firmly intertwined, and the far north could be seen both as a resource of goodness and sanctity and as a foul domain of evil.




1 Cf. Peter Davidson: The Idea of North (London 2005); Peter Stadius: The North in European Mental Mapping. - In: The North Calotte. Perspectives on the Histories and Cultures of Northernmost Europe, ed. Maria Lähteenmäki and Päivi Maria Pihlaja (= Publications of the Department of History, University of Helsinki 18; Inari 2005); Peter Stadius: Southern Perspectives on the North: Legends, Stereotypes, Images and Models (= The Baltic Sea Area Studies 3; Gdańsk 2001); Joost van Baak: ”Northern Cultures“. What could this mean? About the North as a Cultural Concept. Tijdschrift voor Skandinavistiek 16 (1995). Important centres of research on the cultural semantics of northernness include the Laboratoire international d'étude multidisciplinaire comparée des représentations du Nord at the Université du Québec in Montreal (, the research project Images of the North at the Reykjavík Academy, Iceland ( as well as the Imaginatio borealis graduate school at the University of Kiel (; all sites accessed 2008-03-18). These are, of course, just selected examples that cannot claim to be an exhaustive listing.
2  The term Geokulturologie has been expounded by Susi K. Frank: Überlegungen zum Ansatz einer historischen Geokulturologie. Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 49 (2003).
3 Deutsche illustrierte Flugblätter des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts. Die Sammlung der Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Teil 2. Historica, ed. Wolfgang Harms (Tübingen 21997), p. 383.
4Da tratt ein schrecklichs Thier grimmig mit Donner dar/ Sein Rachen seine Haut voll blutges Schaumes war/ Das schwang viel Drachens Rachn scharff auff die fordern Seulen/ Die zwang/ brach/ vnterwarff/ hiermit hört ich groß heulen/  [...] Ein hochgekrönter Lew großmütig sprang auffs Land/ Vnd frewdig mit seim Schwedt eiffrig zum Drachen rand/ Darauff hört ich ein Geschrey: Jauchzet jhr Exulanten/ Auch alle die ihr seyd Religions Verwandten/ Barmherzigkeit hat Gott durch sein Almmächtigkeit/ In der Allwissenheit vns allen zubereit/ Von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit“ [author’s translation].
5 Cf. Carlos Gilly: The “Midnight Lion“, the “Eagle“ and the “Antichrist“: Political, religious and chiliastic propaganda in the pamphlets, illustrated broadsheets and ballads of the Thirty Years War. Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis 80 (2000); Susanna Åkerman: Rose Cross over the Baltic. The Spread of Rosicrucianism in Northern Europe (= Brill's Studies in Intellectual History 87; Leiden 1998), pp. 125-171; Hans Helander: Neo-Latin Literature in Sweden in the Period 1620-1720. Stylistics, Vocabulary and Characteristic Ideas (= Studia Latina Upsaliensia 29; Uppsala 2004), pp. 395-397.
6 Extract Magischer Propheceyung vnnd Beschreibung, von Entdeckung der 3. Schätzen Theophrasti Paracelsi (1549); printed as a supplement by Johan Nordström: Lejonet från Norden. Samlaren. Tidskrift för svensk litteraturhistorisk forskning N. F. 15 (1934), pp. 37-39 [author’s translation].
7 Gilly, The Midnight Lion (see note 5), pp. 52-54.
8Abr sieh ein Sonnenstrahl in Norden schoß zu hand Auff einen Felß/ da auch die wahre Lehr sich fand.
9 Cf. Helander, Neo-Latin Literature (see note 5), pp. 394-395; Stadius, The North (see note 1), p. 20; Bernd Henningsen: Die schwedische Vermessung des Nordens durch die Rudbecks: Zum frühmodernen Beginn einer zivilisatorischen Raumkonstruktion. - In: Die Ordnung des Raums. Mentale Landkarten in der Ostseeregion, ed. Norbert Götz, Jörg Hackmann and Jan Hecker-Stampehl (= The Baltic Sea Region: Northern Dimensions – European Perspectives 6; Berlin 2006), p. 99.
10 Pierre de Lancre: Tablaeu de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et demons (Paris 1613), p. 268 [author’s translation].
11  On Bodins “political demonology“, cf. Stuart Clark: Thinking with Demons. The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford / New York 1997), pp. 668-682.
12 Jean Bodin: De magorum dæmonomania. Vom außgelasenen wütigen Teuffelsheer, allerhand Zauberern, Hexen unnd Hexenmeistern, trans. Johann Fischart (Straßburg 1591), pp. 113-114 [author’s translation].
13 A local tradition similar to the Hekla legend can be found in northernmost Norway. At Domen, a long-stretched mountain between the villages of Kiberg and Vardø known as the site of massive witches' sabbaths, one could reportedly find a pathway that lead directly to the abode of Satan. This entrance to hell played an important role in local 17th century witch trials, but it never achieved Europe-wide fame like its more spectacular and fiery counterpart in Iceland. Cf. Rune Blix Hagen: The Witches' Sabbath at Yuletide. Christmas Witchcraft in 17th-century Finnmark (Arctic Norway) (2005). Available online at; accessed 2008-03-18. In his famous map of the northern polar regions, Septentrionalium terrarum descriptio (1595), Gerardus Mercator notes that right at the North Pole, below the mountain of lodestone that is responsible for earth's magnetic field, lies an enormous whirlpool, where the waters of the ocean disappear  into the bowels of the earth. Mercator most likely took this image from the so-called Inventio Fortunata, a medieval description of the polar area in the form of a travelogue. The Inventio has subsequently been lost, but its contents can be partially reconstructed through quotations in other books. It has been argued that this huge whirlpool was also envisioned to be an entrance to Hell, thus constituting a third option for an infernal gateway in the north, in addition to Hekla and Domen. Cf. Chet Van Duzer: The Mythic Geography of the Northern Polar Regions. Inventio fortunata and Buddhist Cosmology. Culturas Populares. Revista Electrónica 2 (2006), pp. 9-10. Available online at; accessed 2008-03-18.
14 Cf. Hiram Morgan: The island defenders: humanist patriots in early modern Iceland and Ireland (2001). Available online at; accessed 2008-03-18.
15 Arngrimus Ionas: A Briefe Commentarie of Island: wherin the errors of such as haue written concerning this Island, are detected, and the slanders, and reproches of certaine strangers, which they haue vsed ouer-boldly against the people of Island, are confuted. - In: Richard Hakluyt: The principal nauigations, voyages, traffiques and discoueries of the English nation made by sea or ouer-land, to the remote and farthest distant quarters of the earth [...] (London 1599), I, p. 562.
16 Arngrimus Ionas, Commentarie (see note 15), p. 561.
17 Arngrimus Ionas, Commentarie (see note 15), p. 563.
18 The modern distinction between Saami and Finnish ethnicity is not applicable to early modern sources. 16th and 17th century texts use “Finns“ and “Lapps“ interchangeably. Both ethnonyms involved associations to witchcraft and idolatry.
19  Cf. Ernest J. Moyne: Raising the Wind. The Legend of Lapland and Finland Wizards in Literature (Newark 1981).
20 Olaus Magnus: A compendious history of the Goths, Svvedes, & Vandals, and other northern nations (London 1658), p. 47. Other famous descriptions of Finnish witchcraft were written by Jacob Ziegler (Schondia, 1532), Sebastian Franck (Weltbuch, 1539), Damião de Góis (Lappiae Descriptio, 1540) and Johannes Scheffer (Lapponia, 1673). Cf. Moyne, Raising the Wind (see note 19), pp. 17-34.
21 Rune Blix Hagen: The King, the Cat, and the Chaplain. King Christian IV's encounter with the Sami shamans of northern Norway and northern Russia in 1599. - In: Communicating with the Spirits, ed. Gábor Klaniczay and Éva Pócs (= Demons, Spirits, Witches 1; Budapest / New York 2005). A decade later, Christian IV instigated one of the worst witch-hunts of early modern Europe in the North Calotte.
22 Moyne, Raising the Wind (see note 19), pp. 25-26.
23 Moyne, Raising the Wind (see note 19), pp. 29-30; Helander, Neo-Latin Literature (see note 5), p. 351; Nils Erik Villstrand: Ett avlägset krigs närhet. Trettioåriga kriget och Sveriges östra rikshalva. - In: Mare Nostrum. Om Westfaliska freden och Östersjön som ett svenskt maktcentrum, ed. Kerstin Abukhanfusa (= Skrifter utgivna av Riksarkivet 13; Stockholm 1999), p. 55.
24 Cf. Hermann von Bruiningk: Der Werwolf in Livland und das letzte im Wendenschen Landgericht und Dörptschen Hofgericht i. J. 1692 deshalb stattgehabte Strafverfahren. Mitteilungen aus der livländischen Geschichte 22 (1924); Karlis Straubergs: Om varulvarna i Baltikum. - In: Studier och översikter tillägnade Erik Nylander den 30. januari 1955, ed. Sigurd Erixon (= Liv och folkkultur 1; Stockholm 1955); Stefan Donecker: Livland und seine Werwölfe. Ethnizität und Monstrosität an der europäischen Peripherie, 1550-1700. Jahrbuch des baltischen Deutschtums 56 (2009).
25 Olaus Magnus, History (see note 20), p. 193.
26 Johann David Wunderers Reisen nach Dennemarck, Rußland und Schweden 1589 und 1590. Frankfurtisches Archiv für ältere deutsche Litteratur und Geschichte 2 (1812), p. 189 [author’s translation].
27 It has been argued that the famous three witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth have lots in common with the stereotypical witches of Finland and Lapland, especially regarding their power over wind and weather. It might also be more than a coincidence that their first appearance takes place during a war against the Norwegians. Nevertheless, the play does not contain any explicit comment on the witches' origin. Shakespeare does, however, briefly allude to the “Lapland sorcerers“ in The Comedy of Errors, Act 4, Scene 3. Cf. Moyne, Raising the Wind (see note 19), pp. 48-49.
28 Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda. A Northern History [...] (London 1619), p. 40.
29 Though, admittedly, it remains obscure why Rutilio has to endure the polar night right after he discovered the lupine shape of the sorceress in the light of the dawn. This seems to be an unintentional contradiction within the text.
30 Hjálmþés saga ok Ölvers, ch. 20. Available online at; accessed 2008-03-18. Translation following Hilda Roderick Ellis: The Road to Hel. A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature (New York 1968), p. 123.
31 Efraim Lundmark: Sebastian Münsters kosmografi och Norden. Obeaktade brev från Münster till Georg Norman och Christen Morsing. Lychnos. Lärdomshistoriska samfundets årsbok 1939; Elena Balzamo / Reinhard Kaiser: Olaus Magnus. Die Wunder des Nordens (Frankfurt am Main 2006), p. 352; Anthony Grafton: New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery (Cambridge / London 1992), p. 106.
32 Briefe Sebastian Münsters , ed. Karl Heinz Burmeister (Frankfurt am Main 1964), pp. 62-63.
33 Olaus Magnus, History (see note 20), p. 231.
34 Vicki Ellen Szabo: “Bad to the Bone“? The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales. The Heroic Age. A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe 8 (2005). Available online at; accessed 2008-03-18. In his commentary to Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus explains: “The afore mentioned whale is, in these lands, called 'troll-whale', which translates as 'devilish whale'“. (“[D]er uorgenant ualuisch uiirdt in den landen genant trolual das ist auff teiitsch die teiifel ualen.“) Olaus Magnus: Ain kvrze Avslegvng vnd Verklerung der neuuen Mappen von den alten Gœttenreich vnd andern Nordlenden [...] (Venedig 1539), fol. Aiiv.
35 Jan Ziolkowski:  Folklore and learned lore in Letaldus' Whale Poem. Viator. Medieval and Renaissance Studies 15 (1984), pp. 112-113.
36 Hagen, The King, the Cat and the Chaplain (see note 21), p. 250.
37 Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene, Book II, canto xii. Available online at; accessed 2008-03-18.
38 Cf. Robert C. Fox: Temperance and the Seven Deadly Sins in The Faerie Queene, Book II. Review of English Studies 12 (1961), p. 4; Balzamo / Kaiser, Olaus Magnus (see note 31), p. 357.
39 If one takes a look at well-known fairy tales, or at contemporary fantasy films, the idea of a mysterious north seems to remain rooted in the popular imagination up to the present day. Hans Christian Andersens Snow Queen is, at first glance, a variation of the Arctic witch stereotype, although her role in the fairy tale allows for a more profound interpretation as a metaphor for cold intellectualism. C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950, movie adaptation 2005) did not only donate the title for this essay, it also features a well-known polar sorceress:Jadis, the White Witch, who rules over a country cursed by eternal winter. Another recent fantasy movie, The Golden Compass (2007), based on Philipp Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, relies heavily on the secrets and mysteries of the north, including a race of sapient, talking, armoured polar bears.
40 Cf. Marijke Spies: Arctic Routes to Fabled Lands. Olivier Brunel and the Passage to China and Cathay in the Sixteenth Century (Amsterdam 1997), pp. 80-82; Davidson, Idea of North (see note 1), p. 34.

4.5. Sektions: Arctic, Antarctica, Alps, Art – Imagining the Extreme / Natural Sciences, Humanities, Arts – Dialoguing

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For quotation purposes:
Stefan Donecker: The Lion, the Witch and the Walrus Images of the Sorcerous North in the 16th and 17th centuries - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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