I just spoke to one of my colleagues who asked me if I was already comfortably seated on my broomstick.
“Not yet,” I told him. “Some hours to go before the annual get-together:”
“Ah. And do you use GPS or a more traditional compass?”
I snorted. “I just point the broom in the right direction, and off we go.”
Now, for non-Swedes, the above conversation is something of a mystery. Is my colleague (who is also the HR Director where I work) actually accusing me of being a witch? Yes, he is—but in a nice, seasons greetings sort of way. You see, in Sweden everyone knows that Maundy Thursday is the day when every single witch in the country congregates at the somewhat unspecified destination, Blåkulla.
Blåkulla is the Swedish version of the German name Blockberg. According to tradition, Blockberg/Blåkulla was the location of huge orgies, led by the Devil himself. Witches from all over came to Blåkulla to dance, copulate with Satan and in general go wild and crazy for a couple of days. In Sweden, the days most associated with these events were the days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday—yet another sign of just how depraved the whole business was: while the rest of the country was commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ, the evil witches were cavorting with the Prince of Darkness himself.
So how did all these witches travel to Blåkulla? Well, obviously a good broomstick helped. Or a goat, a cat, a length of hazel wood. Whatever mode of travelling was chosen, the witches would use a magic potion to ensure a safe and speedy journey. The then archbishop of Sweden, Olaus Magnus, describes in his book from 1555 how the witches would mix henbane, hemlock, belladonna, mandrake and water lilies into a potent mixture which would not only facilitate their journey but also, when it came in contact with their private parts, incite abnormal lust.
Now we must take dear Olaus Magnus with a huge pinch of salt: the man is the author of one of the earlier histories of the Swedish people whereby Sweden was once populated by giants. Still: the herbs mentioned above all have hallucinatory properties, so anyone ingesting or inhaling them may very well have believed they could fly—or dance with the devil himself at Blåkulla.
Blåkulla and witches are an old, old thing in Sweden. Already in Västgötalagen – one of the first codified set of laws in Sweden, dating to the early 13th century—it is listed as an offence to accuse someone of having “gone to Blåkulla”. Well, unless there was proof, of course. In general, at this point in time the existence of magic and witches was not questioned, but the Church had little time for such superstition and it was extremely rare for anyone to be taken to court on accusations of witchery. It was even rarer for someone to be executed for being a witch: in cases where the judges found the defendant guilty of using magic to stop the neighbour’s cows from giving milk or to cause someone to trip in the street, usually they were sentenced to public flogging. In itself pretty bad for an invented crime, but better than dying for it.
In a previous post I’ve written of when the persecution of witches really took off in Europe, of the Malleus Maleficarium and the sad fate of all those innocents (mostly women) who just because they were odd or alone or healers or old or contentious or all of the above were accused of witchery by those who wanted to get rid of them. Very, very sad. While women died in their thousands on the Continent, England “only” executed about 300 witches (and very many of them due to the thoroughly despicable Matthew Hopkins). In Sweden, a total of 400 witches were executed between 1492 and 1704. Of these, 300 died between 1668 and 1676, when Sweden fell prey to a major witch hysteria. More of that later.
What is interesting to note is that while there were very few recorded cases of witchery pre-Reformation, no sooner had the Lutheran faith set down roots in Sweden but there was a gigantic increase in witch trials. All that fervour inspired by the new faith seems to have resulted in a desire to root out evil in every form, and now that people could read the Bible for themselves, some of them got stuck on stuff like “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Between 1527 and 1596, Sweden has approximately 100 recorded witch trials. Of these “only” ten ended in a death sentence. Between 1596 and 1598, the number of witch trials was about 140 – a major spike.
In general, Swedish law was unprepared for the increasing accusations of witchery. Medieval law had been lenient, valid law required that the person accused either confessed or that there were six witnesses to her (because it was mostly a her) acts of evil magic for there to be a death sentence.
This was not good according to some of the more vociferous proponents of rooting out all evil and all potential witches. Take, for example, the most unsatisfactory case of Brita the Piper, who was accused of being a witch in 1593. Now Brita admitted to using magic. She even admitted to using magic to further her own needs at the expense of others. But she denied ever having been to Blåkulla and she emphatically denied serving Satan. Her judges found themselves in a difficult position: the woman was obviously dangerous (!) but as long as she insisted on never having served Satan she did not qualify as a full witch and could therefore not be executed. Torture was not allowed at the time, and so Brita was left to languish in jail for two years before the court decided to let her go while exiling her permanently from Stockholm.
In 1607, a woman was dragged before the court, accused of having used a local wizard to “suck the strength and blood” out of her own son. Wow. Sweden’s only recorded case of vampirism. This horrified the entire establishment. The king himself ordered that the woman be burned at the stake. In view of such evil, things had to change. In 1608, Sweden implemented a new Witchery Law which effectively made any practise of witchery a capital crime. At last the country had the legal structure with which to combat evil!
As an aside, Sweden wasn’t the only country afflicted by “witch fever” at the time. In Denmark, the otherwise so progressive Christian IV was actively rooting out witches and burning them. In Scotland the “wisest fool in Christendom”, a.k.a. James IV (and I of England) was all for destroying evil wherever it was to be found, which resulted in the Berwick Witch Trials.
Despite the new law, the Swedish witches brought to trial in the first few decades of the 17th century were relatively few. Only rarely did these cases end with execution. In most cases the accused was fined or sentenced to public whipping.
This did not mean that people stopped believing in witches. Come Easter, people would light huge bonfires and fire muskets to scare away any witches planning on using their village as a temporary Blåkulla (and yes, we still light Easter bonfires). Those in the know pointed fingers at the island called Blå Jungfrun (the Blue Maiden) as being Blåkulla—Olaus Magnus had done so already in the 16th century. As the location for a good orgy, Blå Jungfrun has its benefits. Situated some kilometres off the Swedish east coast, it’s an isolated place, so the devil and his acolytes would have been able to let their hair down as they danced, fornicated and feasted on frogs, toads and snakes—normal fare for those who dabbled in evil.
As the years passed, more and more people started thinking that the Swedish witches had been exterminated. Until the events of 1665. In this year, a twelve-year-old girl called Gertrud Svensson was accused by a boy of leading her goats to walk on the water. She was interrogated by the local priest and admitted to having been to Blåkulla on several occasions. She’d been lured there by her father’s maid, Märet Jonsdotter. Just like that, the Swedish witch hysteria began.
Gertrud gave vivid descriptions of what happened in Blåkulla. People fornicated with Satan and several minor devils, they feasted and danced, gave birth to frogs which were then eaten. She admitted to having participated in all these evil acts, but also insisted she’d seen a weeping angel, begging her to help God and his angels free the world of evil. Hence the confession, one imagines.
Poor Märet denied everything. Unfortunately for her, she had a birthmark on her left little finger—a clear sign she’d been marked by Satan. She was sentenced to death. However, as long as she denied her guilt, she couldn’t be executed. Not good. In 1672 the law was changed. A confession was no longer a prerequisite and Märit was beheaded before her remains were burnt at the stake.
Gertrud was forced to run the gauntlet to whip the evil out of her. Her accusations led to other children remembering they too had been carried off to Blåkulla, and suddenly one woman after the other found herself accused by these “innocents” and dragged off to face trial for witchery. Very often, the proceedings were headed by the local priests who saw evil everywhere.
Boys known as “visgossar” (wise boys) were considered exceptionally good at recognising witches and were carted hither and dither to point out the witches in whatever congregation they might be visiting. To further help cleanse the country of evil, torture was used, as was the infamous trial by water. Any woman not conforming to society’s norms was at risk. In some cases, children even gave up their own mothers, swept along by this mass hysteria that saw witches and evil everywhere.
Between Gertrud’s accusation of Märet to 1676, when the authorities in Stockholm put an end to “this ludicrous and superstitious nonsense” close to 300 people were executed, the lion’s share in those regions suffering from bad harvests. The vast majority of the victims were women. As a rule, their child accusers were whipped. After all, they’d participated in the festivities at Blåkulla and needed to be punished so as to save their souls. Me, I think their little souls were lost the moment they lifted their hand to point at a woman and hiss “witch”. Well; at least I hope so.
In 1779, the death sentence for witchery was abolished. Between 1676 and 1779, only five people were executed for dabbling in evil magic. I bet they were just as innocent as all those who died in “the great hullabaloo” of 1668 to 1676.
Having shared all this with you, I feel somewhat less inclined to sit myself astride my broom and whizz off to Blåkulla. What is to me and my contemporaries a cute little story of superstition was to my forebears a reality—and sometimes that reality morphed into a vicious witch-hunting beast that left many, many dead in its wake.