G. Eliasa Jelgavas Vēstures un mākslas muzejs

Ģederts Eliass (1887 - 1975) – izcils latviešu gleznotājs, mākslas vēsturnieks un pedagogs, ar kura darbiem var iepazīties plašā ekspozīcijā viņa vārdā nosauktajā muzejā.
Witch Hunts and Trials in the Time of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

      Ģ. Elias Jelgava History and Art Museum Exhibition


It is said that witches are magicians, fortunetellers and healers, and at their worst – positively harmful influences. Witchery means magic. Usually women were the ones who dealt in witchery, but men were no strangers to this activity - magician, wizard, warloock. In some areas, witches were called ethereal beings, enchantresses, soothsayers.  The traditional Latvian witch was a woman with wild, loose hair, bare feet and a milk pail in hand. Very clever women were also called witches, as were women who wandered the meadows early and late, picking herbs in the forest. And any woman endowed with unusual  beauty could be accused of being a witch. But only men could turn themselves into werewolves.

The Christian church was at the forefront in the fight against superstition and, of course, against practitioners of the black arts. The witches and wizards of the Middle Ages were people who had sold their souls to the devil  – children of satan. From time to time a witch or wizard hunt would be organized, followed by prosecution and punishment. Witch hunting covered all continents. It is interesting to note that in Europe witch hunts occurred predominantly in Protestant countries, and the witch hunt wave crested along with the rise and spread of Protestantism, covering most of Europe and lasting about three centuries. This took place with especial fanaticism and obsession in mostly Germanic countries, and with  the blessing of Martin Luther.  Luther had suspicions about witches' Sabbaths and witches’ ability to fly. In 1522 he wrote that witches steal milk, invoke bad weather, bring injury to people, make them weak, irritate infants in their cradles, urge people to ‘have love and bodily contact’and called witches the devil’s whores. He was a strong supporter of punishment, which meant that torture was the primary tool used at witch trials to obtain self-incriminating evidence and then the accused were burned to death.

The Courland and Semigallian principalities were founded in 1561, but even  before that date the decision had been taken to withdraw from Catholicism and convert to Protestantanism,  adopting the teachings of Martin Luther. Witch trials were held from the first years of the principalities’ founding, and ended only with their expiration (1561 – 1795) (in the territory of Latvia the first witch burnings had already taken place in the 16th century and earlier).

The German-founded Lutheran Church in Latvia was soon inundated with Latvian locals who were steeped in the old pagan religions where pagan gods still dominated, loosely laced with some elements of Christianity, creating a syncretism. The Catholic Church had tried to eradicate the old beliefs, and the Lutheran Church continued these efforts. As a culture closely tied to the land, Latvians had developed beliefs which centered on their fundamental daily challenges – the sacredness of home and the land, and personal and family welfare. They sought to protect their lives with cult-like practices, mainly with offerings to the gods, which took place at the home or in natural sacred places - rocks, trees, creeks and the like. They sought to ensure the fertility of their fields and the well-being of their families with the help of magic spells and charms, and hex bags to either ”shake off” their evil onto others or to draw advantages to themselves. Therefore, to avoid losing their own „goodness” and avoid attracting others’ „badness”, they planted rowan trees by the entrances of their homes for protection, and put hex signs such as auseklītis (trans: morning star) and other traditional Latvian symbols, on the doors and end walls of their houses. But on Jāņu (St. John’s, or midsummer) night, they burned bonfires– originally called witche -  to singe flying witches and keep them from causing harm.

Kārlis Straubers (1890-1962), folklorist, literary and cultural historian, believed that the assumptions about witches in the territory of Latvia were completely formed by the 2nd half of the 16th century.  If up until that time there were relatively few negative connotations associated with witches, then later there was only negativity.  The 16th century was a time when the persecution of witches took place throughout most of Europe and the German territories. There is a viewpoint that the image of witch has been demonized by the Christian Church.

The devil carries a witch to hell (Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, 1555), picture taken from R.E.Gailija. Raganu&Burvju Mākslas Enciklopēdija (trans: Encyclopedia of the Art of Witches and Magicians). Avots, Rīga. 2004. p 67.

As the clergy were obliged to fight superstition – or „false faith”, which was the root of „witchcraft” - they were the first to investigate, write about, and even publish their theological and philosophical reflection on this issue. Information about witchcraft-related cases was gleaned from church visitation books, church records, and priests’ personal notes. In fact, German clergy were the first to collect and record old Latvian beliefs, which were a hybrid of Christianity and paganism. Although Lutheranism was the main denomination, Catholic elements figured largely in Latvian beliefs. In 1797, in the „Latvian yearbook” (i.e,  the calendar) issued in Jelgava and read by most of Courland,  was mention of the custom of Catholic saints' days – Katarina, Maria and Labrencis Day ( i.e. Fire Day, a day of rest for women when they were not required to weave, spin or knit). But on days such as Jurģa, Niklāva, Andrej and a few more –roosters were  killed and their blood was sprinkled throughout the farmyards, sheds, thresholds and lintels of the home, and foundation corners of the house. This ritual was carried out for protection from vermin and spells.

The dukedom’s advisor for judicial proceedings, K. L. Tečs, complained in 1767 that the descendents of the ancient Courland residents, despite Evangelical teachings, still  made secret offerings to holy trees and rocks. And they continued to look for lucky and unlucky omens, interpreting bird cries and other signs. Feasts of the deadalso continued.

More substantive and interesting information about the beliefs of the Latvian peoples and their preoccupation with magic may be drawn from the collected works of Breslava’s Dr. Johan Kanolda, which came out in the 1820’s.

Dr. Kanold examined the news and talk which had spread abroad that Courland was a „classic”  haunt of wizards, witches and werewolves. To gather more information, Dr. Kanold turned to the Courland clergy, and received an especially long reply from the pastor of Mežmuiža, Zamuel Ranejs, who believed in the existence of witches and could supply many „facts” to support this. Dr. Kanold published these so-called facts without amending them, but  expressed his doubts in a rationally argued commentary. Ranejs was offended, and sent new substantiating material. This was the story of strange events at Blankenfeld Manor in Vilce, owned by the von Mēdem family.  One sunny day in July of 1720, herd girl Made threw a handful of berries into the air and provoked a sudden hailstorm that caused much damage to crops. Later that afternoon Made blew  into a creek, which immediately became covered with ice. Ranejs personally participated in the clarification of the facts. The lord of the Blankenfeld manor had Made whipped and driven out of the manor. Made and her mother, who was also named Made, lived out their lives in Lithuania. But in 1721, a year after these events, five calves died in one night at the  Manor. Two girls who had been friends with Made, Trīna and Gerta, were interrogated, and they told that the calves deaths were caused  by encircling the barn with red thread and inserting something into the calves’mouths, and that this misdeed had been committed by both Mades in revenge on Mēdem.  It appeared that Made the younger had been in the barn on Midsummer night, drunk milk from the cows, spit on their  udders, then buried eggs in the fields, saying that no grain would ever grow there. Both Mades apparently could transform themselves and fly like birds. Mēdem had them recalled from Lithuania and pressed charges. The trial judges were three student judges from Halle. The court determined that the elder Made was at fault for all, and pronounced that she would be burned, but first beheaded. The younger Made was branded on her forehead and banished from the Major with a broom. And Trīna and Gerta, as accomplices, received milder penalties. Gerta, who had been learning witchcraft from Made, was sentenced to a beating with the road and banishment from the church, but Gerta, who had only been an observer, was acquitted.

Witches drink with the devil and demons (woodcut), picture taken from R.E.Gailija. Raganu&Burvju Mākslas Enciklopēdija (trans: Encyclopedia of the Art of Witches and Magicians). Avots, Rīga. 2004. pp 380

Examples of Witch Trials in the Duchy

From 1552 onwards, the laws of Emperor Charles V, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina,  covered the subject of witchcraft and the treatment of those suspected of it. In practice these rules were not always properly observed, and took on fanatical forms. In the Duchy, whose judicial proceedings were determined by Charles V, they were basically complied with, and proceedings were held in accordance with these rules. Witch trials belonged to the criminal justice process, and in each society  the applicable penalty was different. In criminal matters, particularly cases of witchcraft and wizardry, the accused were shown tools of torture and threatened with their use. If the accused did not confess, then „gentle persuasion” was applied, i.e. light  torture with the so-called „Bamberg” torture method – the accused was tied down on the rack and beaten with a whip, then his thumbs were locked in a press and squeezed.  If this did not get the desired result, then „more persuasion” was used, i.e. torture with second-tier tools: „Spanish boots”- an iron foot and leg press - and the „Mecklenburg tool”, which was a cross-press for the fingers and toes. The last level of torture was used if the accused refused to name accomplices - the accused was hung by the arms and weights of increasing heaviness were hung from the legs. The usual penalty was incineration. In time, burning at the stake as a punishment was replaced with „more humane” techniques - flogging, ostracism, branding, and excommunication.  In Jelgava there was a pillory up to the 19th century, in the 17th century a farmer’s leg would be cut off if he tried to flee his master, and for false testimony a hand was cut off. The site of execution in Jelgava was the marketplace (todays Herzog Jakob square) and Hanging Hill, which no longer exists. Witch trials took place both in urban and rural settings. Magicians were tried in Jelgava, where there was a torture chamber, but sentences were carried out in Bauska.

It has to be said that the Duke and members of his family were more or less involved in the witch trial proceedings.  A report by Mihael Serže, secretary to Duchess Elizabeth Magdalene (Duke Friedrich's wife and Duke Jacob's foster mother) during his stay at Svētes palace, has survived. The report is dated April 6/16, 1638. The Duchess' secretary reported that an investigation had been carried out against two women, Apela and Zīle, who had been accused of witchcraft by Ilze Rūtere before theirburning at Bauska . Even after repeated torture the two did not admit their guilt. Zīle confessed that she knew how to heal animals with (enchanted) salt without doing harm. But the judge declared that a spell could only work with the assistance of the devil and Zīle was burned. In Apel's case, Mežotne’s innkeeper Everts was to testify, as she had bewitched him and caused him to be ill, but then healed him. If Apela's guilt was confirmed, she would also burn at the stake.

The Church forbade healing with (bewitched) salt, likening it to witchcraft. But the Duchess herself had a good working knowledge of medicinal plants. At the Dobele palace the Duchess had a medicinal herb garden, and a  pharmacy with an apothecary. Some letters from the apothecary have survived, in which he consulted with the Duchess on the preparation of medicinal products and gave status on plants growing in her garden. He reported that the roses were doing particularly well, and asked the Duchess how best to use their petals. The Duchess imported various plants for therapeutic purposes from abroad, including fruit.

The traditional Latvian folk remedy against illness was brandvīns (a type of homemade whiskey), black radish, and hot sauna complete with therapeutic beating with birch or oak brooms or other sharp grasses . Incidentally, at that time, St. John ’ s wort was called a grass and also used in the broom mix.

In accordance with its dogma, the Christian church fought this phenomenon with its considerable financial resources. The justice system and the punishments meted out for offences were adjusted to notions of fairness and permissable justice methods of that time.

Witch-hunts began actively in Europe during the Renaissance, but had ended by the time of the Enlightenment. Slowly Europe had begun to view the phenomenon of witchcraft from a more scientific point of view. The accumulation of  knowledge in medicine and natural events made it possible to view so-called witchcraft activities from a scientific perspective and not as a mystery. As the justice system continued to evolve, it became clear that testimony given under torture was of no value. European governments began to withdraw from witch trials, regarding them as inhumane. The Duchy witch trials continued however, but not with such enthusiasm or bigotry as in the past – penalties were differentiated, not all accused witches and wizards were burned.

Torture and execution of accused German witches (woodcut from Laienspiegel by Ulrich Tengler, 1508), picture from R.E. Gailija, Raganu & Burvju Mākslas Enciklopēdija (Trans: Encyclopedia of the Art of Witches and Wizards). Avots, Rīga, 2004. p 352.

The subject of witch trials still holds the attention of scientists, and different hypotheses have been presented to explain three centuries of witch hunting, unfortunately even in the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia.


Inese Deksne,

Head, Department of History and Education