The Witches of Vardø

By: | Post date: May 26, 2023 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Culture, Greece

I went and saw a play in my first week in Salonica, with my cousin Christos. It was one of only a couple of plays left to see, the season was nearing an end, and as my cousin is an aficionado of the theatre and the cinema both, I thought it appropriate to meet him on his turf.

The play was The Witches of Vardø, Οι μάγισσες του Βάρντε, a dramatisation of the first witch trials in Vardø, in 1621. Play written originally in Greek, by Maria Rapti.

There was something vaguely familiar about the small Norwegian town of Vardø, and it took me a while to remember: it turns up in the Wikipedia article about Sitia. European Route E75 starts in Vardø, at the top of Europe, and ends in Sitia, which is as far south in Europe as is useful to talk about an international road route.

Vardø normally ends up in Greek as <Varde>, but I noted that the play poster decided to play funny fonts with the place:

The play has a YouTube trailer filmed in the outdoors:

but of course, as a stage play it is a far bleaker affair. From the director’s blurb (“A murdered woman never dies. Her existence is transmuted into power. A power capable of burning down the whole world”), it was clearly not going to be a dry documentary, and I was worried that there was going to be nothing either Norwegian or plausible about it, and that it would be an hour and a half of lecturing.

True, there was nothing Norwegian about it. Let alone Sami—the proximity to the pagan Sami being one of the real reasons for the moral panic behind the witch trials. (At least the characters did namecheck them.) True, there was a bit of leaning in on the theme of exploitation and fear of women. The daft details that the women were forced to confess to were recited—but not, perhaps, the desperate lack of imagination that women in the middle of nowhere had about what consorting with the Devil might actually involve. (“He, um, gave us some beer?”)

And what was the main sin for me, most noticeable in the first act: the dialogue was in bookish contemporary urban Greek. Peasants do not talk like that now or then, and every συνέβη uttered stuck out as awkward.

But the play worked well. It made you hate the witch hunters, it made you mourn for the women tortured into betraying each other, and it even made the wish fulfilment scene at the end acceptable.

In the real world, there were two more trials in Vardø in the following 40 years, and 91 victims—a dozen Sami men, the rest Norwegian women. The Steilneset monument recently built at Vardø, in the vague hope of attracting tourism, features a mirrored eternal flame in a chair, with nothing consoling or noble about it, just the terror of irrational rage.

(From Steilneset Memorial / Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois, photographed by Andrew Meredith)


In the play, after the first woman is burned at the stake, the other women grab knives and flip the script, while issuing a none-too-metaphorical warning to wake the other women up to what was going on. The local priest, already portrayed as a weak man and a follower, was easy enough to torture into admitting consorting with Satan himself.

But there was a nice detail in the final wish fulfilment; it undermined the facile narrative being prepared, but that made it much more effective, and Rapti is to be commended for writing it in.

Unlike the local priest, the witch hunter had dedicated his life to believing that women were evil and in league with Satan. Rebelling women with knives at his throat were hardly going to convince him of the opposite.

No teary confession from him. He just asked them to get on with it.

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