The Story of Spå-Eilev: Once Upon a Time in 19th-Century Telemark

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Telemark farm in Norway

The year is 1838. A young servant girl named Ingeborg nervously treads the dirt track leading to a farm in Hjukesbø. She sees the young man who lives there working outside in the yard. As she gets closer, her heart begins to pound violently in her chest and she has to force her feet to keep walking forwards, every step harder than the last.

She knows this man and she knows his reputation. His full name is Eilev Olsson Hågån, but everyone calls him “Spå-Eilev” or “scry Eilev” due to his ability to know things that he couldn't possibly know. His reputation is actually the reason for her visit: someone has stolen some barley from her employer, a farmer named Olav, and she's been sent to ask Spå-Eilev who the thief is.

Ingeborg isn't worried that he won't be able to find the thief. She's worried that he will.

They say that Spå-Eilev used to be engaged to a Saami girl in the North, a place that still sends a chill down every God-fearing Norwegian's spine. They say that the girl taught him the secrets behind his special skill set and that once he had mastered them, he left her and returned south to Telemark.

Any other man would've feared the repercussions of using and abandoning their bride like this, particularly one capable of such magic. Not Spå-Eilev.

He looks up from his work as she approaches. He has piercingly clear eyes shrouded under bushy eyebrows and Ingeborg nearly freezes in fright, like a rabbit caught in a hawk’s gaze. Immediately, all the words that she has spent the entire journey carefully rehearsing are reduced to a mess of jumbled letters in her mind. Luckily, words aren’t necessary for Spå-Eilev.

“I’m surprised that Olav needs me to tell him who the thief is. He should know that already,” he says. Ingeborg doesn’t reply – or can’t reply. All she can do is listen mutely as he describes everything about the thief to her in detail, from where lives to what he looks like – everything except for his name. “Does that tell you who the thief is?”

“I think so,” Ingeborg trembles in reply. This isn’t good enough for Spå-Eilev, who clucks his tongue impatiently and calls for a bowl of water.

“I’ll show him to you,” he says. Ingeborg is appalled and begs him not to: hearing the impossible is one thing, but seeing it is another matter entirely. Spå-Eilev ignores her. His wife sets the bowl in front of them, and Spå-Eilev gestures for Ingeborg to look into it. Out of compulsion rather than curiosity, she obeys.

Snowy mountain farm scene in Norway

In the water, as clear as if she were looking through a window, is the face of a man who Ingeborg immediately recognises as Tollef Pedersen Slåttekåsa. Tollef is Olav’s neighbour and already an unliked and distrusted figure in their community. Suddenly, Spå-Eilev’s surprise that Olav had not known who had stolen from him makes sense.

“I can mark him for you if you like?” Spå-Eilev offers. “I can poke out his eye…?”

“No!” Ingeborg shouts, hastily, the mere thought of him reaching through the water and poking out Tollef’s eye far too much to bear. Spå-Eilev bears his teeth in a wolfish grin, and for an awful second, Ingeborg thinks that he will do it anyway, for his own amusement. But then he leans back, shrugging nonchalantly as if it doesn’t matter either way.

“I won’t then – since it bothers you so much,” he says. Ingeborg nods gratefully, before turning on her heel and sprinting back home to tell her employer.

(NOTE: Ingeborg's account has been heavily stylised by me, but you can read a translation of the Norwegian here.)

The Last Witch Trial

From 1450 to 1750, Europe was swept up in a wave of paranoia and hysteria. The cause? Witches. In the same way that a sneeze in these corona times has us scrambling for the face masks and antibacterial spray, a single, middle-aged woman with a black cat in the seventeenth century had people reaching for the flaming torches.

Norway was no exception to this witch purge, and the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø was built to commemorate the victims of the witch trials that had happened here.

The forgotten witch of Norway

By the time of Spå-Eilev's birth in 1814, witch hunts had basically stopped. In fact, Spå-Eilev's own trial is technically the last witch trial in Norway before the trolldomslov (“witchcraft acts”) were abolished in 1842 – although it didn't start out that way.

In 1838, Tollef was accused of stealing barley from his neighbour and put on trial. However, his daughter Torgon claimed that Tollef was only on trial because Spå-Eilev had conjured his face in the water, and that Spå-Eilev had threatened to harm Tollef if he didn't confess.

Read more: The Forgotten Witch of Norway

These accusations alarmed the judge, and what had started as a trial for theft suddenly became an investigation into witchcraft. After hearing testimonies from other people who knew Spå-Eilev and an additional trial in December 1839 (which Spå-Eilev did not attend), the judge sentenced him to three year's hard labour followed by exile from Norway in April 1840.

Spå-Eilev appealed the sentence and the matter was taken to the High Court in Oslo, which was then known as “Christiania“. The law that had been used to convict Spå-Eilev was an old witchcraft law from 1687, when Norway had still been under Danish rule. However, Norway had been ceded to Sweden in January 1814 and then declared its independence on 17 May 1814.

Therefore, it was easy for the High Court to dismiss this residual, outdated witchcraft law. The High Court was also unhappy at the severity of the sentencing and particularly that it had been carried out in Spå-Eilev's absence. They ruled in Spå-Eilev's favour and the sentence was overturned.

The Most Famous Cunning Man in Norway

With Norway's rich collection of folklore and myths, from the legends of the Norse Gods to the fairy tales of Asbjørnsen and Moe, it's easy to overlook a nineteenth century farmer from Telemark. There's never anything wrong with enjoying and retelling our favourite stories, but I do think it's important that we also share and uncover lesser-known stories in order to keep them alive.

Historic farm building in southern Norway

I first heard about Ingeborg's encounter with Spå-Eilev when I was an exchange student at the University of Oslo and taking a class called “Belief in Witches and Witchcraft in Europe“. The professor of the class, Dirk Johannsen, has done a lot of research on Spå-Eilev, and it was mainly his work that I drew on when writing this article. The story of Spå-Eilev conjuring Tollef's face in the water is not the only story about him that exists, but since it was the first story I heard about him, I thought it was only appropriate that it be the first story shared here too.

While Eilev Olsson Hågån was a real person, I don't believe he actually had magical abilities any more than I believe that there was an actual god named Thor who ran around hitting trolls on the head with his hammer.

However, I do believe there is something remarkable about the fact that Spå-Eilev was convicted for witchcraft and not only walked away a free man, but subsequently became famed throughout Norway as a cunning man until his death in 1891. To me, that's just as cool a story as any one about a magical hammer.

You can read more about Spå-Eilev here:

Johannsen, Dirk (2018) The Prophet and the Sorcerer: Becoming a Cunning-Man in Nineteenth-Century Norway

Johannsen, Dirk (2013) “Two Types of Magic in One Tradition? A Cognitive-Historical Case Study on the Interplay of Narratives and Rituals”, in Vera Nünning, Jan Rupp & Gregor Ahn (Eds.), Ritual and Narrative: Theoretical Explorations and Historical Case Studies, Transcript Verlag: Bielefeld, pp. 165-188

Do you have any stories that you think more people should know about? Share them with us in the comments!

About Jess Scott

Jess is a native Brit who lives and works in Oslo as a translator (from NO/SE/DA into EN), proofreader and copy editor. Much like Norwegians, she loves black coffee. Unlike Norwegians, she hates skiing. She is also technically a qualified viking, with a BA in Viking Studies, although there was a lot more reading and a lot less pillaging than she had expected. If you're interested in hiring her services - or are just really curious about what a Viking Studies degree involves - you can check out her website or reach her on LinkedIn.

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