The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches
There is no witchcraze in Russia comparable to that of Western and Central Europe. Some were accused of witchcraft, and some were executed as witches, but there was no concept of an Inquisitor who would actively go from village to village searching out witches. There was relatively little interest among the authorities in the activities of the Russian serfs provided they accomplished their assigned work, hence the survival of many Russian Pagan traditions.
The concept of witches magically transporting themselves to distant sabbats, demonic pacts, and destructive malefic witches existed in Russia as elsewhere in Europe, but witchcraft and magic were generally recognized as relating to Paganism. Almost all references in Russian ecclesiastic texts prior to the eighteenth century that address anything that might be construed as “magical” condemn the practices as demonic and Pagan.
The role of female witches in rural Russia was to maintain the vestiges of Pagan traditions and devotion to female divinities, as well as providing healing and divination services, preparing feasts for the dead and invoking fertility for barren women, animals and Earth. Knowledge, wisdom, and traditions were preserved via stories. These rural magical and spiritual practitioners were rarely charged with the crime of witchcraft in Russia.
Malevolent witches existed in the countryside too, but many were vampire-witches—those who had already died. Suicides or those who died as a result of alcohol or violence were often believed to transform into vampire-witches. Magical protection against them was required; legal action was impossible. How do you torture and execute someone who is already dead?
As late as the fifteenth century, Pagans were still living in remote areas of Russia. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that Tsar Ivan the Terrible created the Stoglav Council to eliminate Pagan elements from the population.
So who was legally charged with the crime of witchcraft in Russia? The nobility and those who served them, clergymen, and, following introduction of a military law condemning witchcraft, soldiers. (In 1721, allegedly a great number of grimoires and magical texts circulated through military ranks.)
Instead of witchcrazes, Russia had political witch-hunts. An effective method for getting rid of political rivals was to tar them with associations of witchcraft, which were almost impossible to refute. Political witchcraft, those accused of using maleficia against the royal family and the nobility, wasn’t mere witchcraft: it was treason, an attack on the state.
Between 1462 and 1505, three women were arrested for possessing herbs while visiting the wife of Tsar Ivan III. (The implication being that they plotted magic against her.) They were punished by being pushed through a hole in the ice of the frozen Moscow River, then not an unusual punishment for common criminals.
In 1635, the Tsarina’s servant dropped a handkerchief that was found to contain a root. Interrogated, she confessed that it was a charm intended to ensure her husband’s love. She was tortured and exiled as punishment.
In 1638, a court seamstress was accused of throwing ashes and sand over the Tsarina’s footsteps, a type of spell. Tortured, she confessed that in addition to her magical attack on the Tsarina, she used enchanted salt and soap to encourage her husband’s love for her.
In 1671, Marfa Timofeevna, a servant of the Tsarina, was accused of stealing salt and mushrooms that had been prepared for the Tsarina. She confessed to theft, saying she had just stolen them to eat them. Even after torture with the strappado and fire (see Torture, page 829), she confessed to nothing else although her interrogators sought to prove that her plans really included poison, treason, and/or witchcraft.
From the time of Peter the Great, possession of explicitly magical texts was made illegal. If discovered, they (together with other magical items) were supposed to be burned. Possession of herbs and roots was frequently used as evidence against those accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Many Russian witch-trial transcripts feature genuine magical practices, as opposed to the absurd diabolical obscenities of many Western trials; however they still may not be authentic. Torture was used to extract confessions. Although the magical practices may genuinely have existed, the purpose of a specific trial may have been political.
Various tsars and their wives were rumored to be magical adepts or to employ witches: Ivan the Terrible, for instance, was allegedly conceived with the help of witches summoned by his father. Ivan allegedly employed witches himself. He was both a practitioner and a persecutor of magical practices.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Russian government department with authority over criminal cases was also given jurisdiction over cases involving sorcery and malevolent magic, as well as blasphemy, false interpretations of scripture, sodomy, and assorted crimes against the Church. Punishment if convicted was for men to be burned alive and women to be beheaded.
In 1715, Peter the Great introduced severe punishment for magic and witchcraft in the military law code: death by burning was decreed as standard punishment for magicians who had caused harm or had dealings with the devil. Punishment of those who had not caused harm or interacted with the devil depended on the specific offense and included house arrest, wearing irons, and being made to run a gauntlet. Those hiring magicians or encouraging others to do so were punished similarly.
In 1753, a group of peasants were arrested for trying to kill their estate’s landowner with magic, a previous attempt with arsenic having failed. They offered one ruble to a local magician, Maksim Markov, so that he would concoct a fatal spell for them. Markov allegedly enchanted some wax for them by reading spells over it in front of an icon and then doing a somersault over a knife stuck in the floor (see ANIMALS: Wolves and Werewolves).
Markov told the conspirators that the wax had to be rubbed on the victim’s shoes, his bed and door thresholds. While attempting to follow his directions, the conspirators were discovered, arrested, and sent to Moscow for trial. Tortured, they confessed. They were condemned to death by burning but the sentence was commuted to 70 blows, slitting their nostrils and hard labor in the dockyards for life.
In the 1850s, a tailor in Siberia was almost beaten to death by a mob who believed him to be a magician responsible for a cholera outbreak. Evidence included casting his fishing line from the left and throwing his beer dregs to the left.