Latvian Witches

The Witch Burning in Riga.

Witch burning in Riga

Christianity was the leading religion in Europe and did everything to tackle their religious counterparts. Before Christianity became the main dogmatic religion in Europe, Pagan religion was the leading belief. Even so for centuries Pagan traditions remained within simple people. There were people who still practiced Pagan traditions like fortune-telling, magic healing and other things not recognized by the church. From the 14th century to 18th century these people became victims of massive witch hunt in all Europe. In Latvia witch hunting were severe because of strong Pagan traditions within local people.

Witches are women with supernatural powers. They practiced necromancy and were blamed for various calamities like making all the rivers stop flowing. In Medieval times witches were blamed for making deals with the devil by signing it with their blood. Not only that, they were also considered to make sexual intercourse with the devil and make big black mass meetings (Sabbaths). When various heretic movements appeared they were associated with the devil. The whole conception of witch appeared in 15th century when Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches 1486).  This work paved way for witch hunt. Based on this witches were accused for making bad deeds like poisoning, sorcery, killing and fortune-telling.

In Latvia witches were deep in Latvian folklore. They appeared in Latvian folk songs, tales and legends. In tales witch’s husband was the devil and they lived in strange houses on fowl’s foot. Witches could turn a man into animal or various things like rivers and meadows. They travelled in the air with broomstick and attended witch meetings. Also they did other bad deeds but the Latvian view on witches were not wholly negative because Latvian simple peasants were not fanatic Christians as in Europe.

Witch House at Tervete

But foreign rulers of Latvia made witch trials in Latvia just like in other parts of Europe. Bans on Pagan practices were made in Medieval times but no witch trial was recorded in Latvia until the 16th century. In 1537 at  Valmiera landlords were instructed to keep an eye for Pagan practices and prevent them if necessary.  When anti-witch literature reached Livonia from Germany the idea of witch hunting emerged here. First witch was burned at the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia in 1527. In Riga at 1531 men called Valdis Buhards was sentenced for sorcery. First burning occurred at Grobiņa 1559. When Latvia was under Polish rule witch hunting became widely used practice. Catholic Poles used barbaric torture practices. Even more witches were judged at 17 century Vidzeme controlled by Lutheran Swedes.  Between 1630.-1640 there were 40 trials or more. At local land courts no court session was without a witch trial. One accused person told that anyone here can practice witchcraft so all working men in farm fields must be killed. In the other half of 17 century because of changes in Swedish laws witch burning became less familiar.   At 1686 torture was banned and more liberal money fines were imposed instead of death penalty. Last death penalty was imposed in 1699.

After Vidzeme was taken by the Russians witch hunt ended completely. Witch hunt was also common in the Duchy of Courland and Semmigallia but less common in Latgallia. After all Latvia was included in Russian Empire witch hunt ended.

Because of strong Pagan tradition common in Latvians witch hunting occurred in Latvia. There are many sources from Western travelers who called Livonia a land of witches and wizards.  No doubt many of accused and killed man and women actually practiced some kind Pagan traditions not recognized by the church. Because of the  superstition and fear many people who did no harm were killed because of witch mania. Many women were completely innocent, and were killed because they differed from other women. Usually witch was considered women with long released hair usually black and rosy face and eyes. They differed by character from others and were looked with suspicion.  Many of them must have some mental problems that made them strange to others. In a time where psychology and tolerance was not known witch hunt was a useful tool to harm different people.

Today at age of multiculturalism Pagan practices are no longer harmed. Such person as Aleister Crowley would be killed and forgotten in at that time, but today he is still known as a famous black magician.  Neo-Pagan movements are springing so as the other beliefs. Let’s hope that there will be no time in the future where mass repressions are imposed because of some dogmatic religion.

Selected Sources:

Švābe, Arveds (Ed.) (1938) Latviešu konversācijas vārdnīca. Vol 17. Riga: Grāmatu apgādniecība A. Gulbis

Akmentiņš, R. (Ed.) (1994.) Mitoloģijas enciklopēdija : Pasaules tautu mitoloģiskās būtnes un priekšstati. (2. Vol) Riga: Latvijas Enciklopēdija.

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