Cultural Distinction in the Witch Hunts of Russia

Cultural Distinction in the Witch Hunts of Russia

Dan Lohr

Russian_Tsardom_1500_to_1700

The witch trials of early-modern Russia differed from those in Western European countries where a cumulative concept of witchcraft had taken form and established an image of the traditional witch. In Russia, witchcraft was an ambiguous crime and its connotations and punishment varied across different parts of the country, however the trials are distinguished by two main characteristics unique to this part of Europe, namely: that more men than women were tried, and diabolism and the pact with the devil were virtually nonexistent[i]. Historians show no clear concurrence as to the reasons for this difference, as the fact is that there are many factors that contributed to each country’s reaction to the witchcraft hysteria. In many ways, the trials reflect aspects of a culture’s particular beliefs and concerns within the society. Russia is no different. Its cultural isolation and distinction from the countries in Western Europe caused beliefs involving magic and witchcraft to have a very different connotation, which impacted the trials in a way that produced these characteristics.

Why was there an absence of diabolism in the Russian witch trials? Scholar Valerie Kivelson explains “while unclean spirits, demons, and even Satan himself make appearances, there was no effort either from above or below to tie up the loose ends into a systematic theory of magic or to represent witches as enjoying any particular relationship with the devil”[ii]. Magic was generally understood to work by analogy or homology, invoking spells that contained the “power of likeness.” For instance, an incantation may read “as a corpse feels no pain, so may my tooth not ache”[iii]. Practitioners called on an “herbal pharmacopeia” to make their concoctions, usually involving plants and household items; never included were ingredients associated with the heinousness of the sabbat such as infants, umbilical cords, and other human or animal parts. While the power of supernatural beings like saints and Christian intercessors, demons, spirits, “unclean” or “unknowable forces”, and Satan were sometimes involved in the incantations, it is important to note that “spells addressed to devils and demons treated them as submissive agents, carrying out the bidding of the practitioner, not as dreaded embodiments of evil or as manifestations of the ‘Enemy of Mankind’”[iv]. This is a direct contradiction to the practitioners of Western Europe, where they were viewed as servants of the devil and enemies to Christianity.

As a result, “accusers demonstrated far more interest in the effects of witchcraft than in the abstract sources of magical power, and they inquired little into the theological meanings behind the practice. Most commonly, Russian magicians stood accused of practicing a kitchen variety of magic, deeply ingrained in folk culture and unembellished by the theological and demonic overlay that came to characterize much of Western witch-lor”[v].

In traditional Slavic folklore, the power of magic was considered a realistic part of life without any link to the devil or demonology. It was commonplace to believe anybody could learn sorcery with the proper teachings and spells. In his influential article on Witchcraft and Medicine in Pre-Petrine Russia, Russel Zguta describes in great detail the Slavic folk-tradition beliefs of illness and disease as a result of maleficium (most commonly referred to as the Russian word porcha), and magical healing. Due to a lack of “professional physicians trained in what passed for scientific, Western-style medicine, the bulk of the population had no choice but to rely on the power of the clergy and prayer or to turn to the services of healers”[vi] All across Russia, people visited professional healers or brought their children to get cured from illnesses thought to be caused by magic, which were usually internal diseases since they could not be readily attributed to a visible, natural agent[vii]. “Healers ranged from a friend, neighbour, or family member who happened to know of a soothing tea, a curative plant, or an incantation that had proved efficacious in the past, to specialists who accrued large stocks of roots and herbs, collected books of spells, and attracted clientele from a wide area”[viii]. In addition to curing diseases, healers were known for charging clients for love spells and reversing the effects of spirit possession, which was one of the most prominent causes for accusation. Some common ways of bewitching were sprinkling salt on crossroads or casting spells on the wind, so whomever the spells came into contact with would be afflicted.

Without the presence of a demonic pact, practitioners of magic were not always regarded as evil. Many of the accusations involving healers arose from unhappy customers whom the healer failed to help, or from townspeople that believed they were the cause of certain instances of bewitchment because they had heard healers’ boastful claims of supernatural ability. Religion and issues of piety played little role in the accusations, although the Russian Orthodox Church did condemn the practice of witchcraft and sorcery. It is here that may be the biggest reason why Russian witch trials differed from those in Western Europe.

In both cases, religious zeal was present, but the distinction exists in some of the basic principles of Russian Orthodox Christianity versus those in Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. The effect of these discrepancies is evident in the categorization of the accused.

Heinrich Kramer’s notorious treatise Malleus Maleficarum never assimilated into the Russian concept of witchcraft, but even if it had, it goes in direct conflict with many of the Orthodox teachings and assumptions about women, witchcraft, the body, and sex[ix], and it is unlikely that the document would have the same effect. Why were roughly three-fourths[x] of the accused male, in comparison to parts of Western Europe that experienced accusations of up to ninety percent female? Again, Kivelson illustrates some of the key points surrounding the impact of Russian Orthodox teachings on the image of the witch:

“…Sensory connections with the divine were generally valued above learned, rational theology, levelling the spiritual playing field for men and women. Although Eve was the target of lavish condemnation in Russia as in the West, sexual desire was not associated particularly with Eve or her daughters; all humans were assumed to suffer from this lamentable weakness. Celibacy, though admirable, was not considered the only pious path, and the married clergy served as an acknowledgement that allowances must be made for flawed mortals. Orthodox readings of the Fall of Man reflected the general preoccupation with order and hierarchy by stressing the couple’s shared defiance of God’s commands over their sexual transgression. More to the point, sexuality was not woven into the mythology of witchcraft, so whether sexual desire was considered in gendered terms or not, it figured little in the image of a witch.”[xi]

Many of the trials in Western Europe, especially in Germany where the Malleus Maleficarum originated, involve instances of behavior and worship regarded as reprehensible to the church. Influenced by Augustine and his followers, Original Sin sits at the heart of Christian teachings, made evident by descriptions of the sabbat and in the Malleus Maleficarum. Sexual temptation was a trait belonging to the devil, and any cases of sexual promiscuity by women could be viewed as anti-Christian and therefore acts of witchcraft. Russian Orthodoxy did not link the female gender to sexual desire, nor sexual desire to the devil, and as a result, the trials were mainly free of “the lurid, sexualized imagery that spiced up particularly the German variant but colored courtroom testimony throughout Europe”[xii]. Instead, “the flesh remained first and foremost a vehicle for the divine in eastern teaching”[xiii]. While men and women accepted starkly different behavioral roles in society, they were basically given the same moral, emotional, and intellectual expectations, and both genders alike were charged with overcoming sexual desire to reach spiritual perfection.

woman man witch

Social hierarchy also played a major role in the witch trials, both in Western Europe and Russia. In both cases, this hierarchy promoted accusations toward those who did not exactly fit in the society’s conventional categories. In Western Europe, this was the older woman, often a widow, who was a sort of outsider to the community and a perceived threat to traditional roles of men and women. Russia, on the other hand, had hierarchy so deeply structured in its society that this type of person was not considered a threat. Organized by class, age, and gender, roles of men and women differed, but expected behavior towards superiors was shared regardless of gender.[xiv] However, in this system, women generally answered to fewer masters. Men had more freedom to move about the realm, whether for trade, looking for employment, going on pilgrimage, or serving the tsar in various ways, and it is in these movements where “they encountered more opportunities to clash with more layers of authorities, and risked more occasions to incur accusations of witchcraft”[xv]. Contrarily, the women mostly stayed at home taking care of familial matters and so came into fewer settings where suspicions of witchcraft might arise.

In a similar manner, literacy rates factored against males in the likelihood of being accused of witchcraft. Almost exclusively a male prerogative in a society distinguished by exceptionally low literacy rates, the ability to read and write was closely controlled by Church and state”[xvi]. The church felt threatened by literate people, as they had the ability to produce and disseminate seditious, blasphemous, and heretical literature and texts. Not surprisingly, since most magical practice in Russia involved spells and reciting incantations, “a sizeable number of the accused drew suspicion because they were known to collect pieces of paper or little notebooks covered with ‘unknown writing’”[xvii].

Certain aspects of the Russian language have particular importance to the trials, as, unlike in Western Europe, no one term ruled over the trials’ vocabulary. Instead of the witch, the Russian practitioner of magic was known by a variety of names, including znakhar, vorozhei, koldun, charodei, volkhv, zeleinik, kudesnik,[xviii] each of which had a slightly different connotation. The term baba, as seen in the name of the Slavic folklore figure Baba Yaga, has the closest meaning to “witch” in the Western European sense; she is an old, deformed-looking woman who lives in a hut in the woods, flies around on a mortar, and practices in the supernatural. There is no connection, however, with the term baba and the devil[xix]

Along with Russia’s cultural isolation from the rest of Western Europe comes the lack of incorporating important Western documents about witchcraft. Apart from the Malleus Maleficarum, already mentioned to have no presence in the Russian trials, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina was another document that codified certain laws governing witchcraft and had prominent influence throughout the Western countries but did not make its way into Russian laws until well into the 18th century under the Westernizing, reforming ruler Peter the Great[xx]. Before then, “codified laws contained no explicit legislation concerning witchcraft, so presiding officials necessarily invoked various tangentially related regulations when prosecuting such cases”[xxi]. The lack of influence of these documents allowed for the Russian people’s own concepts of witchcraft to emerge, and gave way for their unique kind of witch hunts.

Despite the ambiguity surrounding much of Russia’s witch hunts, a clear distinction exists between them and the witch hunts of any other area. While this can be said for Ireland, no other country’s conceptualized image of the witch has more interpretations, nor as much unique cultural influence. Many causes factor into creating the environment that were conducive to the witch hunts, but for Russia its unique cultural separation allowed for its very own version of witch hunts to be conceived out of aspects of folk tales, Orthodox Christianity, language, and society.


[i] Ryan, W. F. “The Witchcraft Hysteria in Early Modern Europe: Was Russia an Exception?” The Slavonic and East European Review 76, no. 1 (1998) 49

[ii] Kivelson, Valerie A. “Witchcraft Trials in Russia: History and Historiography.” In The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, (edited by Brian P. Levack. 2013) 4

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Kivelson, Valerie A. “Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia.” Comparative Studies in Society and Histry 45, no. 3 (2003) 610

[vi] Kivelson, “Witchcraft Trials in Russia: History and Historiography” 5

[vii] Zguta, Russel. “Witchcraft and Medicine in Pre-Petrine Russia.” Russian Review 37, no. 4 (1978) 439

[viii] Kivelson, “Witchcraft Trials in Russia: History and Historiography” 5

[ix] Ibid. 6

[x] Kivelson, “Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia” 617

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Kivelson, “Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia” 610

[xiii] Ibid. 616

[xiv] Ibid. 614

[xv] Kivelson, “Witchcraft Trials in Russia: History and Historiography” 6

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Zguta, “Witchcraft and Medicine in Pre-Petrine Russia” 440

[xix] Kivelson, “Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia” 612

[xx] Kivelson, “Witchcraft Trials in Russia: History and Historiography” 3

[xxi] Ibid.

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