Do you know how we call Halloween in Croatian? Noć vještica. The Night of the Witches. As I told you before, it’s not a very big thing in Croatia. We learn about it from the old movie Halloween. The translation of the title was Noć vještica, and this has stuck with us since.
I guess that it’s only fair to dedicate the entire episode… to the witches! We have an abundance of both mythical and historical witches in Croatia. Hear the stories out!
I have to warn you. Some of the info in this episode might not be for your youngsters. Please, listen to the content before deciding whether you want to let them learn about this uncomfortable history and legends.
Enjoy the podcast episode or scroll down if you prefer reading:
The 18th century witchhunts
Every time I think about the witches from Croatian history, I ask myself… Who can guarantee that I wouldn’t be a part of the mob that cheered when the witches were screaming in flames? Would I, or anyone of you, stand up for any of those women if we found ourselves in the 18th century Zagreb?
You heard that right – the 18th century. The 1700s! Aren’t the witch trials a part of medieval European history? Didn’t they happen several centuries before that time? Not in northwestern Croatia, they didn’t. We are proud to be one of the last witch-burners in Europe.
The most famous witch trials took place in Zagreb, more precisely in the area of today’s Upper Town. Other well-known spots are the city of Varaždin, Križevci, some well-developed towns of the era. The trials were fast and efficient. This is because those districts had the so-called right of the sword – Jus Gladii. This means they were allowed to conduct their own trials, even ruling death sentences, without having to file reports to a higher court within the Croatian or Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy. Croatia was a kingdom within the empire.
The technical part of the court trial – extorting the confession, belonged to the executioner – they called him henkar or hahar. The word hahar is still in use for naughty kids who cause trouble. Being a henkar was such a demanding job! It was considered an embarrassment not to get a confession. They were motivated with good salaries and, what an irony, they earned side money by selling little pieces of the witches’ clothes as good luck charms!
The court trials followed regulations, such as the rules that sprung from the so-called Ferdinandeia from the 1600s. For a woman to be subjected to torture, it was enough to shed a doubt that she had signed a deal with the devil, or that she spent her free time with other witches. If she wasn’t at home when they came to get her… where else could she be, if not meeting her coven?
The worst mass trials started at the end of the 1600s. Most probably, under the influence of foreign literature, such as the monstrous Malleus Maleficarum, Hammer of Witches, the witch hunt manual from the 15th century. One of the worst cases of torture was the one of Margareta Kuljanka. Her statements in front of the court of Zagreb were so crazy, that they caused a chain reaction in the nearby region of Turopolje back in 1733. Even worse, the witch received a visit from the devil himself during the trial. He was in the form of a city judge!
If there is such a thing as an excuse for all those deeds, torture or execution, it so happened that nobody wanted to work as an executioner. Nobody applied for the job! When such a thing happened, they offered the prisoners to earn their freedom or diminish their sentence by executing the sentence of another prisoner.
Zagreb is the town in Croatia most associated with witches. It has an intense history of witch trials and witch hunts. Awkwardly, people who live here romanticize that era. But that’s because of an incredible writer Marija Jurić Zagorka, whom I mentioned in Ep05 of S01 – Best Known Croatian Women. Her most famous novel, and one of the most iconic books in Zagreb – the Witch of Grič (Grička vještica in Croatian), was inspired by historical cases of witch hunts.
Many of us cherish memories of reading that book, or better yet, set of books, creating images in our minds of a mysterious Zagreb of the bygone times… Because of that, we tend to feel nostalgic when we mention the word witches. Don’t get me wrong here. Marija didn’t trivialize the witch hunts of Zagreb. Quite the contrary. By using this historical period from the city’s past for her novel, the hideous part of the history reemerged and was rediscovered by the locals.
By then, people had forgotten that something like that had ever happened in Zagreb. But it did. It’s not something the city is proud of. When you think about it a bit deeper, nobody can hardly stand the thought of that era. Picturing a fury mob eager to burn a woman… any woman!… alive… I just can’t believe that those people walked on the same soil as I do now. It’s a hard lesson in history that only a few learned. It would be nice…and necessary for that sake… if we could recognize today this taste for blood that sometimes appears in the masses.
I wouldn’t feel safe to travel through time and visit the 18th century Zagreb at all. As said before, they’d burn any woman… but a redhead would have to pay special attention to keep that ginger locks safe beneath her scarf. Nothing good can come out of a redhead, they thought, since it was a sign of the devil’s presence. For real, even in the past century – the 20th century – there were some vivid beliefs about redheads. In the old chemistry institute at the Strossmayer Square in Zagreb, they supposedly made soap out of the people down in the basement. It was a real shame if a kid ended up turned into a bar of soap. But the redheads? No shame at all. In fact, rumor has it that never has a single redhead woman come out of that building.
For some reason, we all love hearing horror stories from the past. Is it because it makes us question? Would we join the mob? Or would we stay silent? There was no third option. Sometimes it feels things haven’t changed that much. Heavy thoughts aside, hope you’re enjoying the dark side of Zagreb from a safe distance, a few centuries apart!
Nomen Est Nomen – Name is the Sign
Let’s start our story about the witches of Zagreb from their name. In this part of Croatia, it’s common to use the word coprnica (tzoh-pehr -neeh-tzah) for a witch. It’s a cute word, it sounds cute in Croatia. It doesn’t really carry negative connotations.
But do you know where the name comes from?
There are two explanations. Most probably, it comes from the German word for the sorceress. Another explanation is that they got their name after… a heretic priest. Who also happened to be the father of modern astronomy. Not bad for a bunch of lonely old women or peasant girls who were accused of spending their days casting curses and chanting.
The word coprnice could derive from Copernicus. Despite the popular saying Nomen est omen, the name is a sign, it doesn’t apply to the poor coprnice witches. They sure didn’t share the destiny of their name-sake-priest Nicolaus Copernicus – they did not die of old age. Copernicus was wise enough not to publish his book Commentariolous (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium) full of silly ideas like the one about the Earth moving around the Sun! According to some sources, Copernicus was given his first published copy of his heretic thesis on his deathbed anyway. He was as much as 70 years old when he died! Coprnice, on the other hand, usually ended far away from both a cozy bed and their seventies. Usually, it was at stake, after days of torture.
Not even Copernicus’ successor in the field of science shared his destiny. Giordano Bruno went a step further with his demonic ideas. He stated there were more Suns. And there were other living beings in space. Instead of staying quiet like the wise Copernicus, Bruno literally died for the truth. He died with his tongue pierced to keep him from shouting out his devilish theories during his final moments.
Whenever someone mentions Renaissance fighters for the new scientific truth, Galileo Galilei comes to mind. But don’t be fooled, Galileo didn’t say Eppur si muove just before he died, as many think. In fact, the old man, after hours spent in a company of a professional torturer, decided to sign a statement saying: Earth is going absolutely nowhere, it’s as still as can be! After all, if it was moving, it would be a clear sign the devil himself is driving it from below, right?
It is interesting to learn that the great inquisitor cardinal Ballermino was in charge of both Bruno’s and Galileo’s trial. Just how great an inquisitor can be, you can tell by the fact he got pronounced a saint back in 1930!
Yup, the Holy Inquisition was a powerful thing. When the pope’s investigators arrived in a village in Europe, you knew there were going to be bonfires. People often accused someone of witchcraft just to save themselves from possible suspicion.
I’m telling you about some of these most famous cases successfully conducted by the Holy Inquisition because witch trials in Europe were often run by the same authority. This wasn’t the case in Croatia, at least not in Zagreb and the surroundings, where most of the cases happened.
So, what was going on in this part of Croatia at that time? Back in the days of the Holy Inquisition, witch trials in Europe, and great scientific breakthroughs that ended up in flames? People around here were occupied with other troubles, like wars against the Ottomans. They didn’t advance to torture when it comes to their law practice. Dark Ages of that sort arrived here a few centuries later. And it ended… quite embarrassing… it ended only in the 1700s. It’s so terrifying to know that Zagreb is a place where the civil courts used to burn women for witchcraft only 250 years ago!
It’s also very helpful to know that witch trials in Zagreb and its surroundings have never been canceled. Those regulations are still on! But we can still name the precise year it all ended. Back in 1757, Croatian queen Maria Theresia saved the last witch, Magda Logomerica, who had already endured the trial (read: torture). The witch was accused of turning into a fly and tormenting her neighbor.
What a strange coincidence! 1757 was the year when the tortures of coprnice in northwestern Croatia ended. It also happens to be the year when the story about the heretic Copernicus ends as well. It was back in 1757 when the Vatican finally admitted that the Sun is the center of our planetary system and removed Copernicus’ book from Index, the notorious list of forbidden books.
It turns out that the name really is a sign. But you sometimes have to be a real witch to understand the signs.
The early trials
The first two women from the history of Zagreb accused of witchcraft were Alica and Margareta, Alice and Margaret. Kind of magical names, aren’t they? They accused them of sorcery back in 1360. In the following centuries, 40-ish women were accused of witchhunts. Some of them were burnt at the stake. The most common magic was: spells, magic potions, fortunetelling, and atrocities. In those days, it was possible to evade the worst fate. For instance, a woman called Margareta (again), when they searched her home back in 1475, they found a chest full of spells, potions, evil roots, and childrens’ heads! She was only outcasted and banned from coming back to town.
You might get the wrong picture that Zagreb and nearby towns were the only ones full of witches (proven by a court of law). Not at all. In the lovely town of Kastav, back in 1716, they executed 14 people! Good news – it was a rare gender equality case with 7 men and 7 women gone in flames. What a poor punchline!
In medieval Dubrovnik, a woman was accused of inducing deafness of a man. Nope, it wasn’t syphilis, it was witchcraft.
One of my favorite Istrian towns, impossible to google (it’s officially called Svetvinčenat, but everybody uses the Italian name Savicenta in common speech), turned the case of Mare the witch into a tourism product. You know the story. It’s about a regular woman who fell in mutual love with a nobleman and got punished for that. You can now meet an AR version of Mare if you visit Savicenta, which I highly recommend.
Let me take back my words about men. Men could be sorcerers after all. It’s just that… if you saw the male wizards, you would just cross to the other side back in the 1700s. If you saw women acting strangely, you would accuse them of witchcraft.
I hope men didn’t feel a bit left out, since I keep talking about women witches. It’s only because the men didn’t share the same destiny. Male magic was seen differently. The entire city of Zagreb believed that in the seminary, which was just next to the Zagreb cathedral (and still is, for that sake), they were taught all sorts of magical skills. After finishing 12 grades of regular school, the best ones continued with the 13th grade. That was the so-called Black School (Črna škola). They learned all sorts of wonderous skills, including how to make a hailstorm. Within a room!
Speaking of storms…if you ever see black clouds coming from mount Medvednica, it’s a clear sign that the witches are having their gathering and are beating the clouds to cause a storm!
The end of horrific witch trials in Croatia didn’t mean Croatian witches were gone, too. But they were confronting a faith worse than death. They were being forgotten.
At first, people stopped writing down magic potions in court documentation. Then they stopped telling stories about witchcraft and malicious chants. And now, it’s gotten so far that small kids haven’t even heard of Baba Roga!
Witches from folk tales
It’s hard for a small country like Croatia to preserve its intangible heritage. It has to fight against mighty 21st century soldiers of technology, showbiz, and even modern pedagogical standards. There are just a few forest creatures left to fight this overwhelming war. But it’s a cause worth fighting for and we should all stand by them. When Croatia completely forgets Baba Roga, it will kill the last memory of an ancient deity. It will erase a piece of the country’s identity.
So, who’s Baba Roga or Baba Jaga? Stories about this hideous witch probably reflect ancient Slavic sorcerer-goddess called Mokosh. Baba Roga is an ugly old lady who lives deep inside the woods and spends her lonely time there making all sorts of potions. In the best-case scenario, the potions are made out of herbs, but she often adds some snakeskin, dragon blood, and of course – her favorite ingredient… children’s flesh! There are many stories about her kidnapping the little ones, just like the witch from Hansel and Gretel tale. No wonder she was a popular tool to keep the kids under control once. I used to be easily persuaded to be nice and quiet myself when someone mentioned Baba Roga. But ask local kids about her. They have never even heard of her!
Baba Roga is in fact similar to the witch from Hansel and Gretel tale. We can all thank the Grimms brothers for making some old tales world-famous. Many agree their fairytales are in fact pretty frighting and gruesome. I guess they haven’t read Croatian tales yet!
Even if Zagreb witches are well-documented thanks to all the witch trials, the most famous place where the covens met is Klek, a mountain near Ogulin. Ogulin also happens to be the birthplace of another female writer.
If it was normal for a woman from the edge of the 19th and 20th centuries to get creative and write books, I’m sure the world would be acquainted with Croatian folk tales, too. Ivana Brlic Mazuranic, the most important Croatian children’s author, took over a task similar to the Grimms. She collected folk tales. Then she poured them into timeless fairy tales, thus saving many witches from becoming nothing. For example, she captured a witch called Poludnica and gave her eternal life through the pages of her book. The name Poludnica implies that that particular witch comes out in the middle of the day! That’s when she comes after you from her underground realm to whip you with the nettle. She prefers children because she can use them as her slaves in her flaming underground.
Ivana Brlic Mazuranic also wrote about a witch turned into a snake. Another famous legend from this region. Sometimes, if you see a beautiful girl in the forest, take a close look before you decide to follow her. The only thing that can blow the cover of a serpent-sorceress is her snake tongue.
If you’ve listened to some of the previous episodes, you might be reminded of something when you hear about a woman turned snake. It’s another mythical witch called Black Queen. Black Queen sold her soul to the devil, and ever since, she’s still wandering through her underground hallways, guarding her cursed treasure.
The Black Queen is so powerful, almost like a dark deity. Old tales whisper about a real goddess, too. Her name was Morana, it means nightmare. She was the ice queen, goddess of death, winter, and, just like her name says – she was the nightmare.
Speaking about all those magical forest ladies, here in Croatia, we use the word vila for a fairy. In the last few decades, Croatian people started thinking of vilas as something cute, miniature, and connecting them with western imaginary, cute tiny girls with transparent wings. But Croatian vilas are not that cute. They’re beautiful, all right. But not always as golden as their long hair is. Their devilish goat legs give them away. There is a belief that vilas are in fact, restless souls. If they meet a man, they will drag him to their circle and make him dance, and dance, dance on, until he turns into nothing more but a soul himself. We don’t know the exact origin of the word vila, so let’s just say that in another Slavic language it means – crazy.
Crazy or simply magical, the choice is yours. Just don’t make it your choice to walk through the forests with your mind closed to the possibility the vilas are there. They’re still here, among us, and so are the coprnice witches. But they’re fading away. A scary bedtime story instead of a cartoon, grandma’s memories, and old children’s games like the one called Black Queen one, two, three… that’s all each child needs to keep the diversity of local lore alive, as a part of the world’s intangible heritage.
Popular Witch Potions and Spells
To end this episode, I prepared some useful skills. I’m not going to share the complete knowledge of the old witches from Zagreb. This is just a glimpse of all the things they were capable of.
After all, I’m sure they haven’t really shared everything they know during the witch trials. Believe it or not, the following spells were found in the actual court documentation.
How to make a perfect hailstorm?
You hate your neighbor so much, that you are determined to ruin his vineyard? Zagreb witches have a perfect solution: strike the ashes three times with a three-year-old hazel branch. For throughout destruction, use the ashes left over after another witch’s execution.
How to fly your broomstick?
For a smooth broom flight, use human fat cooked under a young crescent moon. Children’s arms and legs make the best emulsion that will make not only your broomstick fly but also other means of transportation, such as small three-legged chairs or spinners.
How to make a love potion?
Mix some water, different kinds of herbs, some dog and cat blood, and there you have it! The perfect love potion that will make you absolutely irresistible! This particular potion got a lady from Zagreb on fire once. Be careful when you use it because it was pretty common to accuse women of witchcraft in cases of adultery. Actually, it wasn’t even necessary for the adultery to happen! No flirting was allowed in late 17th century Zagreb for women. And make sure a married man doesn’t even look at you in front of his wife. You might get a visit from the executioner the following day.
How to lift a curse?
If you wish to get rid of a spell, listen to the advice of Mr. Domjanic, a wise and educated man from 18 century Zagreb. Simply take a knife stained with the blood of a murdered person. Then pierce it repeatedly through the shirt of the cursed one (in case the curse is sent upon a baby, pierce a dagger through its diaper).
Hope this advice comes in handy.
Speaking of curses, do you know that the most important monument of Croatian culture and language contains a curse? It’s Baščanska ploča, the table of Baška. It’s a big stone table, a plaque, written in the ancient Croatian script called glagoljica – Glagolitic. It goes back to the very beginning of the 1100s. It’s a legal document, ending with the lovely conclusion that could be translated to: “If anyone denies this, let him be cursed by God and 12 apostles and 4 evangelists and st Lucy. Amen”. Oh, nobody dares to deny it till today.
This is just a small part of a very interesting story about Croatian witches. If you’d like to find out more about the dark Zagreb history and legends, better come to Zagreb and join me on my Zagreb Ghosts and Dragons Tour.
Now that I mention this, I’d like to mention something else. For years, as a part of Secret Zagreb tours, I used to run this event called 13 Nights of Halloween. Last year, it wasn’t possible to organize anything like that because of covid, so I prepared a little photo tour on social media. The response was great, so I eventually turned it into a small brochure. You can download it in pdf from Secret Zagreb website.
There is a chance to win a physical brochure, too. I prepared a new quiz for you: Which which from Croatian lore are you? If you solve the quiz, you will enter a little competition. Secret Zagreb and Croatia Underrated (basically me), are giving away five printed brochures 13 Nights of Halloween.
In the end, don’t worry about all of these witches. The ones that burnt on stakes, or the ones from the folklore, surrounded by the fires of hell. After all, their destiny ruthlessly takes them towards the abyss of oblivion.