Myth Monday: The Easter Witches (Swedish Folklore)
By Kara Newcastle
Happy Easter everybody! Or as they say in Sweden, Glad Påsk! What a wonderful time of the year, isn’t it? It’s getting warmer out, the days are longer, the flowers are finally blooming, and the witches are to flying back to their infernal meeting place in the Baltic Sea.
Whoa, hold on, back up—witches? At Easter? How and why would witches ever be linked to the highest of the Christian holy days?
You may recall from my blog about Easter (here!) that the Christian celebration of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ co-opted the spring festivals of Eostre, the Germanic goddess of springtime and birth. The absorption of the pagan holiday was deliberately made by the early church to help the pagan people more comfortably convert to Christianity by including elements of their own traditions and symbology into this new religion. In Sweden (and Finland, but we’ll focus mostly on Sweden here, and you’ll see why), this means the inclusion of witches.
In the Kalmar Strait off the coast of the city of Oskarshamm lies the beautiful and menacing island Blakulla (sometimes Anglicized as Blockula, which sounds like Count Dracula’s cousin who sucks the essence out of Lego bricks, and not to be confused with Richard Roundtree’s Blacula … yes, that’s a thing.) The island is now a national park, but if you plan on taking a trip out there one day, just know that few people refer to the island by its true name; for generations it’s been known as Blå Jungfrun (literally translated into English as “The Blue Maiden,”) a name used by sailors when they passed by. The sailors took to referring to the island with this name because it was said that if you uttered the name “Blakulla” in its presence, the evil witches there would instantly whip up a monstrous storm to wreck their boats. It was common for the locals to leave gifts like pretty shawls and fine gloves on the island to make the witches happy.
The island has been regarded as the gathering place of witches for thousands of years—literally: archeological excavations on the island have revealed that rituals were conducted in the caves dating back possibly 9,000 years ago, placing the earliest practices back in the Stone Age. The most famous structure on the island is the Trojaborg Labyrinth, a maze of stones said to have been place there by the witches as a part of their ceremonies. The Trojaborg is a unicursal labyrinth, meaning that it is designed to be curved back onto itself (if you were to walk it, it would take about seven times to go around it) and totally enclosed. Unicursal labyrinths date back to the Bronze Age (3,000 to 4,000 years ago), but most of the ones found in Sweden are just around 1,000 years old, placing them well within the emergence of Christianity. It’s likely that the Trojaborg labyrinth on Blå Jungfrun, along with others that we know of, were used in ancient pagan ceremonies of initiation or fertility rites. Swedish botanist Carl Linneus visit Blå Jungfrun in 1741 and observed the Trojaborg, but he sniffed at the idea that it had been made by witches.
As I mentioned before, the island is a national park, and the visitors are regaled with tales of witches’ meetings (sabbats) at the Torjaborg. Tour guides frequently warn visitors against taking any of the rocks from the maze for souvenirs, as the rocks are supposed to be sacred to the island and removing them would bring bad luck. Of course, people are dumb and like to take chances, only to swiftly send the pilfered pebbles back once their lives start going to crap. The town of Oskarshamm receives many of these accursed stones and has yearly trips sent out to Blå Jungfrun solely to return them. In May of 2004, for example, 160 rocks were ferried back to the island, returned by tourists who deeply regretted the choice they made.
Christianity arrived in Sweden by the 9th century, and by the 12th century had finally overtaken the land as the prominent religion, though there were still groups of people who refused to convert, and likely carried on their worship at places like Blå Jungfrun, continuing with traditions such as lighting bonfires to welcome back the sun after its long winter absence and to mark the start of spring, and possibly celebrating Freya, the goddess of love and magic. At this time, women, whether they were pagan or Christian, were still regarded as the most skilled in healing arts and midwifery, with generations of mothers passing their knowledge of herbs and lore down to their daughters.
In 1520, misogynist extraordinaire Heinrich Kramer, a German Dominican monk with a hatred of women so intense that it can assumed to be pathological, published a guide to identifying and hunting witches, titled Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches.) Until the book was published, witchcraft was seen more of a nuisance that was punishable with a fine, but Kramer ignited—somewhat figuratively, somewhat literally—a maelstrom of horrific violence against anyone accused of witchcraft … especially women skilled in medicine. Now known as the Burning Times, what followed was over two hundred years of inquisitorial torture, rigged trials and mass executions of European women, men and children, with the majority of the victims being burned at the stake (it was believed by many that a witch’s body was still dangerous even after death, so total immolation in fire would protect the innocent people nearby.)
Sweden was known for some of the most horrific trials and executions at this time. Though it had been mentioned briefly in one trial in 1597, Blakulla Island (Blå Jungfrun) became a serious focal point during the Mora trials of 1669, when a number of children were coerced through intimidation and torture to accuse local adults of being witches, kidnapping them and taking them to Blakulla to turn them into witches as well. The result was that about 23 innocent adults and fifteen children were executed for witchcraft, and another 148 children were whipped. What really boggles the mind later is that the death penalty for witchcraft wasn’t repealed until 1779 … to put that into some perspective, that means while we were fighting the British in the Revolutionary War, it was still possible for a woman in Sweden to be accused of being a witch and killed.
This sets up the backdrop for the legend of the Easter witches. No longer priestesses or wise healing women, these magic workers were recast as wicked villainesses who joined forces with the Devil to destroy Christianity. Blå Jungfrun was no longer a holy site of worship, it was now portrayed as the meeting place for a witches’ sabbat. Every Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday, when Jesus was betrayed by Judas—many cultures including the Swedish saw this as a day of evil), the broomstick-riding, black cat and copper cauldron-carrying witches flew en masse out of their chimneys and to Blå Jungfrun. There they would plot and sacrifice infants and brew spells for three days, fleeing the island on Easter Sunday.
To make the trip more difficult for them, the Swedes in the area would lock up their brooms, shovels and other long-handled tools so the witches couldn’t ride them, as well as safely locking their cows inside their barns (it should be noted that many of the children in the Mora trials said that they were made to ride cows when brought to Blakulla.) Chimneys were closed to prevent the witches from leaving. It was believed that the witches would dance so much at Blakulla that they became dizzy and would say things backwards; many suspected women found people listening to them closely on Easter morning, to see if they betrayed their identity as a witch and accidentally say something backward. The once sacred bonfire used to welcome back the sun and usher in spring was now used to hurt witches as they flew overhead.
So, what changed? How did the Swedish people go from goddess-worshipping to witch-phobic to linking what was once considered so unholy to the holiest time of the year?
It’s hard to pin down the reason exactly, but pagan traditions never really go away—they tend to evolve into something else, something that slides past the witch hunters’ notice or is resurrected once the furor has died down. It’s possible that people half-remembered stories from their youth before the trials, passed on their own versions of them, and unintentionally created a new folktale. In the 17-, 18- and 1900s, fairy tales became vogue, and educated people such as the Brothers Grimm went around their homelands collecting and analyzing the stories. These stories were published, the public would pick them up, say to themselves, “Oh, how quaint! That sounds like fun, we should do that at our next party.” Sort of like when you find something on Pinterest that you think is cool so you incorporate it into your next family gathering.
Like Santa Claus and the Italian Christmas witch Le Befana (read my blog here!), the Swedish witches were now seen to be benevolent spirits who would visit Swedish families’ houses and bless them with good luck. In exchange, the children would leave a pot of coffee for the witches on the stove overnight. By the mid-1800s, children were dressing up as witches and visiting local farms on Maundy Thursday, delivering gifts of pussy willows (similar to ancient pagan practices of a priestess acting out the role of a goddess such as Eostre, Freya or the Celtic Brigid, visiting households to bless them.) Farmers would take the pussy willows for good luck and reward the children with a coin or treat.
By the 1900s, the act of dressing up became a full-blown affair, a sort of mash-up of Easter and Halloween and shows no signs of stopping. On either Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday, girls dress as witches, or as they’re better known, påskkärringar (Easter hags), paint freckles and rosy cheeks on themselves with makeup, grab a broom and a copper kettle and go door to door, usually giving away handmade gifts such as cards. (Boys get in on the act as well, though they generally dress up as old men or hobos, and some kids have opted to go full-Halloween and dress up as superheroes or whatever they like.) Instead of gifts of fine clothes, these witches receive gifts of candy, cookies, money and edible, decorative Easter eggs. The children return home and Easter dinner is celebrated around an Easter tree (birch twigs placed in a vase of water that will hopefully sprout buds, symbolizing life after death) decorated with Easter eggs and brightly dyed feathers. Bonfires are lit, but instead of welcoming back the spring goddess Easter or singeing cackling hags, it’s more a way to celebrate the holiday—and an excuse to burn all the yard debris.
So, in a roundabout way, witches have always been in some way linked to Easter for the Swedish and Finnish people. It’s kind of a cool tradition. Next year I’ll wear a pointy witch hat to Easter dinner; maybe I can get a trend started. Or I could really tick off my ultra-conservative in-laws. Either way, it’ll be fun.