The Norse settlements of Greenland were in their dying days in the early fifteenth century as the climate change, and social unrest saw them decline. By the late fourteenth century, people had deserted the island’s Western Settlement. However, its Eastern Settlement limped on, with ships still arriving from and leaving for Norway and Denmark.
One of the last reports of activities in Norse Greenland was recorded in the Logmannsannall of 1408. Amongst the events it documents is the case of Kolgrim, a local man tried for sorcery. In 1406, a Norwegian merchant ship had arrived at the eastern settlement. Amongst the passengers were a merchant, Torgrim Solvesson and his wife, Steinunn Ravnsdotter. Not long after landing, the Steinunn met Kolgrim and fell in love with him. However, she did not just sleep with him; she left her husband. Torgrim, humiliated by this very public and personal rejection charged Kolgrim with seducing his wife -by sorcery.
This indictment may have been a case of sour grapes. However, for a wife to leave a husband for another man was no small matter in the fifteenth century. So the issue went to the Thing, a community assembly. There, a jury of twelve heard the case against Kolgrim. Torgrim made a compelling case, citing the ancient Norwegian laws of magic. He claimed that “Kolgrim brought [Steinunn] to him by use of magic.” That magic included reciting chants and ‘galdr’- a type of rhythmic, singing spell to her.
The charge suggests Kolgrim sang to Steinunn. If so, this would have given extra credence to the charges. Ancient Norse society had long been suspicious of the effect of love songs on women. They believed they had the power to seduce the person they were directed at. In fact, neighboring Iceland had forbidden the composition of love songs known as ‘maiden songs’ on pain of death for this very reason.
What made the matter worse was Steinunn hadn’t just developed a passing fancy for Kolgrim, something that she indulged and forgot. She loved him. She had abandoned her marriage. This fact implied that Kolgrim had not just stolen her body from her husband: he had stolen her love; her very soul. Torgrim had been clever. He was manipulating pagan and Christian views of love magic to gain revenge against the man who stole his wife.
His ruse worked. The Thing found Kolgrim guilty and ordered him burned at the stake. As for Steinunn, if Kolgrim did bewitch her, the spell was not broken by his death. Instead, she lost her mind, presumably from grief and never recovered, dying not long after her lover.