Witchcraft and Witch-Hunting in Transylvania, a Historical Journey

Today we unveil the shadows of the past, taking a historical journey into Witchcraft and Witch-Hunting in spellbinding Transylvania. I am taking this trip to understand the main character of the book series I write.

I’ll attempt to shed a light on the ancient pagan traditions of Transylvania, Romania, its rich folklore and supernatural practices. I’ll take a peek at the local cultural beliefs surrounding witchcraft, at the witchcraft hysteria that seized Europe and choked Transylvania too, followed by witchcraft persecution and witch-hunting methods, as well as the impact that witch-hunting had on communities. I’ll touch on notable witch trials in Transylvania, and – how else – look into local witch legends and stories.

Transylvania, a spellbinding realm located at the heart of Romania, is renowned for its intriguing blend of mysterious folklore and rich historical significance. Transylvania , this enigmatic land found at the crossroads between empires, was shaped by a tumultuous history. From its medieval castles and fortified churches to its evergreen, ever-standing forests and mystical landscapes, Transylvania’s allure lies in its ability to transport visitors to a realm where history, folklore, and mystery intertwine and are part of daily life.

Rasnov fortress view for a Queen photography Patricia Furstenberg

Nestled amidst the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania has captivated the imagination of countless travelers and writers with its tales of vampires, most notably, of course, Dracula, of werewolves, and ancient legends. Its unique cultural heritage is steeped in the traditions of various ethnic groups, including Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons, Szeklers, Turks, Jews, Serbs, and Roma Gypsies, resulting in a diverse tapestry of folklore and beliefs.

Today, witchcraft is still among us, if you know where to look. We’ve all met her in the realm of stories, be it via Shakespeare’s Wayward Sisters , Narnia’s White Witch, Prince Arthur’s Merlin, Harry Potter, or the Romanian Baba Cloanța myth. Of course, good always fights evil, light conquers darkness in a millennial battle where the sinful was, more than often, portrayed by a woman – after all, the woman was perceived as weaker than man, so easy to fall under the spell of demons, to become bewitched, possessed.

What was the source of these beliefs and have they always been around? What is the kernel from which witchcraft emerged? If we search the pre-Christian traditions and folklore, such as we know of today, will we discover some intertwining of witchcraft with pagan beliefs, herbalism, and supernatural practices. Could these have distilled, over the centuries, into witchcraft?

Pre-Christian traditions that influenced the development of witchcraft beliefs in Transylvania

The Lechinţa de Mureş culture, Transylvania, left us a fragment of a cult wagon adorned with sheep-goat heads (protomes, adornments in the shape of an animal or human torso). Carvings of solar symbols such as spirals, simple crosses or crosses with spirals, spiked wheels and rays dated to the Bronze Age were also discovered.

Cult practices would have been performed in group, marking human and seasonal timelines, as well as in various outdoor locations (remains of a great hall, a megaron, were found north-west of Transylvania, at Sălacea, Crișana county, Romania).

Sadly, human sacrifices were also performed so that communities will thrive and remain protected – as was the case with the giant fortress from Turdaș (100 hectares) built nearly 1 600 years before the first pyramids of Egypt, raised around 2780 B.C. by King Djoser’s architect Imhotep.

Next, the Geto-Dacians were the tribes who inhabited Transylvania and present-day Romania long before the Roman occupation. Dacians revered mountains and rivers as powerful natural entities with spiritual significance. They believed that these natural features held divine energy and were channels of communication with the divine realm. Dacians (as Romanians did) considered forests as sacred and believed that they housed spirits and deities. These sacred groves were places of worship and connection with the divine. Dacian’s flag, the Draco, had a wolf’s head on a serpent’s body. In his book From Zalmoxix to Genghi Han, Romanian religious historian, philosopher and writer Mircea Eliade writes that when a nation’s ethnicity is the image of an animal, there is always a religious explanation behind it.

Dacian flag, wolf head with dragon body
Dacian flag, Draco, wolf head with dragon body

My favorite belief includes the Dacian Kingly Helmet of Coțofenești made by hand hammering from one piece of gold. Worth noticing are the eyes and angry eyebrows carved on it, supposedly with apotropaic powers, to avert evil influences or bad luck.

Dacian Cloud-Walkers and the Solomonars

Dacian society had priests known as “kapnobatai” or “cloud-walkers” (of Thracian origin) who were believed to possess the ability to communicate with the gods and foretell the future. They would enter a state of trance or altered consciousness to receive visions and messages from the spiritual realm. Dacians also had extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and their healing properties. Dacian shamans practiced various forms of healing rituals, using herbs, chants, and sacred objects. Specific herbs were included in their rituals and ceremonies for purification, protection, and enhancing spiritual connections. They believed in the power of spiritual and energetic healing, as well as the ability to communicate with ancestor’s spirits for guidance and assistance. Examples of medicinal plants used by Dacians include yarrow (coada şoricelului), chamomile (muşeţel), nettle (urzica, called dyn by Dacians), thyme (cimbru, known as mozula by Dacians) and St. John’s wort (sunătoare) as we learn from De Materia Medica  by Pedanios Discorides, a Roman military doctor and Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist who lived during the 1st century AD.

Dacians were known for their ritualistic abilities to turn into a wolf, especially by wearing the skin of one – as performed during military initiations. A true warrior was expected to be as fearless as a wild animal. By wearing the skin of a wolf the warrior would leave behind any human traits, such as the fear of going into battle, fear to be killed, and the inability to kill other humans. Wearing the skin of a wolf reinforced the belief that after death the warrior will be reborn as a fearless, enlightened animal – one of the explanations for the etymology of word Dac.

The Geto-Dacians worships one god, Zalmoxis, their religion being centred on three beliefs: in reincarnation, metensomatosis; that the soul survives after death in a happy place; and that life is worse than death, although the soul is mortal, which explains why Getae warriors were not afraid of death. At Dacian Fortress Sarmizegetusa the sacred area of ultimate importance comprised of a large circular and a rectangular sanctuaries and several smaller temples whose columns are still visible today. Seven sanctuaries had been unearthed, dedicated to Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and Triads, Mercury, Venus, the Moon, while the 7th is the Dacian Pantheon.

Solomonars, cloud-walkers of Transylvania, Romania, weather wizards
Solomonars, cloud-walkers of Transylvania, Romania, weather wizards

Enchanting Solomonars, these Romanian cloud-chaser sorcerers, are also called eagles or hail-gatherers, by their skills; cloud-walkers by their powers; dragon-riders to the welkin and back, by their means of transport.

Worshiping Goddesses: Venus, Diana, Fortuna, Hekate

After the Roman occupation of Dacia and the mingling of the two cultures something interesting happened. Roman citizens were discouraged to recognize their living emperor as a god. In Dacia, the cult of gods on behalf of the emperor was the most prevalent form of making the connection with the imperial power. Therefore, Roman citizens living in Dacia as well as the non-roman communities used the cult of traditional, local gods to honor the living emperors and this shows that the rituals addressed to the emperor were part of the local religion of roman Dacia.

Some Roman Goddesses worshiped by Dacians: Diana, Mithras, Venus, Hekate, Isis, Fortuna

Terracotta figurines of Venus were discovered near Dacian graves. They would have had an apotropaic role in protecting the soul after death. Venus, worshiped in almost every corner and social level of the Roman Empire as the goddess of love, sexual power and fertility, was widespread in roman Dacia too.
Goddess Diana appears on figurative and epigraphic monuments. She was the protector of women, children and childbirth, being also the goddess of light and the moon. At a later date she took Artemis’ attributes (deer, arrow) becoming the goddess of hunting.
Goddess Fortuna was the goddess of prosperity and of changing fate. Fortuna did not always bring a positive impact: she was sometimes doubtful (Fortuna Dubia); but she could also be „fickle fortune” (Fortuna Brevis), or even bad fortune (Fortuna Mala). Her attribute was the cornucopia.
Hekate was worshiped as the goddess of charms and remedies, known from some figurative and epigraphic monuments. There might be a sanctuary of the divinity in Apulum and Sarmizegetusa. Hekate was depicted with three heads: of dog, snake, and horse. Usually, she was accompanied by two dogs, which were said to tend her.
Isis, one of the most popular divinities in the Roman Empire and central figure of the so called Isiac cults, was the protector of vegetation, and the goddess of fecundity. She had sanctuaries in in Potaissa, Micia, Sarmizegetusa and Apulum.
Leto and Asteria were sisters and goddesses of motherhood, modesty and also the protector of light and night.
Mithras had several sanctuaries in the roman province of Dacia. Being a mystery cult, it was worshiped only by initiated men from every level of the society. It had seven grades of initiations (corax, miles, nymphus, perses, leo, heliodromus, pater). He appears as a young divinity with a Phrygian cap, standing on a bull, looking towards Sol, killing it with a knife.
One of the most popular divinities of the province was Silvanus, Ancient Roman god of forest, woods and wild beasts. He appears with a dog, holding in his hand the syrinx or a stick.

Shamanism and Căluşarii

Shamanism played a significant role in the spiritual practices of pre-Christian Transylvania. Shamans, considered intermediaries between the human and spirit realms, practiced divination, healing, and communication with spirits. Their mystical abilities and rituals would have contributed to the development of magical beliefs and practices later associated with witchcraft.

Wise men known as “Călușari” can in Romanian folk belied, to communicate with the gods through their dance, thus asking for guidance. Căluşarii  and their dance goes back as far as the Thracians and Dacians. Were those more peaceful times? I hope so, as the rituals developed then and involving important life stages have survived and have reached us. Today, the dance of Căluşarii maintains its pagan essence. Led by their great priest who asks the gods for guidance, Căluşarii   perform their ritualistic dance to fight off evil spirits and heal the sick.

Calusarii symbology mask
masked Calusarii dancers

Pagan beliefs were gradually assimilated, transformed, and adapted over time, blending with later Christian influences.

Fairy Folklore and Local Seasonal Traditions from Transylvania

The folklore of Transylvania is replete with tales of magical beings. These entities were believed to possess supernatural powers and, when provoked, interact with humans. Their presence and influence in local folklore might have contributed to the development of magical and mystical beliefs often associated with witchcraft.

Ielele are supernatural female beings in Romanian folklore, often associated with witchcraft. They are depicted as beautiful, seductive maidens who reside in forests, meadows, and near water sources. Ielele possess magical powers and are known for luring men with their enchanting dances. Crossing paths with any of the Ielele may bring either good fortune or misfortune, depending on their mood.

Dancing Ielele, supernatural female beings in Romanian folklore, often associated with witchcraft.
Dancing Ielele, supernatural female beings in Romanian folklore, often associated with witchcraft.

Baba Dochia is a character in Romanian mythology associated with both winter and spring. According to the legend, she is an old witch who appears during the changing of seasons. In the spring, she sheds her many layers of clothing, representing the melting of winter and the arrival of spring. The legend of Baba Dochia is often celebrated during the traditional Romanian holiday known as Mărțișor.

A natural phenomenon explained by the presence of natural gas which escapes through the crust and in contact with the sun’s heat, it is set alight, the Legend of the Living Fire was born. One of its legends tells the story of a powerful witch who possessed the ability to control and summon fire. She used her magical powers to protect her village from invaders and ensure the prosperity of her people. However, her powers were eventually discovered by those who sought to exploit them. In order to protect herself and her village, the witch transformed into a living flame, forever guarding her secrets.

Muma Pădurii or “Mother of the Forest” is a witch-like creature associated with the depths of the forest. She is depicted as an old woman with long, tangled hair and a cloak made of leaves. Muma Pădurii is said to possess immense knowledge of herbalism and magic. She can either bring prosperity and protection to those who show respect to the forest or bring misfortune and curses to those who harm it.

Masked Carollers, Carolling with the Goat, the Bear Dance. Today, one of the Christmas Romanian traditions asks of carollers to wear the mask of a goat or a bear during the twelve days before Christmas and until Boboteaza, Epiphany, January 6th.

Spring and summer are magical times of the year in Transylvania and Noaptea Sânzienelor, local version of Walpurgis Night, is an ancient celebration that capture the essence of these seasons.

Transylvania’s rich folklore and legends would have played their role too in shaping the perception of witchcraft. Tales of witches and their supernatural abilities, of interactions with spirits and involvement in both helpful and harmful acts, the ability to curse or bring harm through magical means, permeated local folklore. These stories contributed to the popular imagination and perpetuated the belief that witches were powerful and mysterious figures.

The intertwining of witchcraft with pagan beliefs, herbalism, and supernatural practices in Transylvanian history

The intertwining of witchcraft with pagan beliefs, herbalism, and supernatural practices in Transylvania reflects the complex and evolving spiritual landscape of the region. It highlights the interplay between different belief systems, the adaptation and syncretism of traditions, and the impact of societal perceptions on the treatment of those associated with witchcraft.

Herbalism and Folk Magic

Much like today, our ancestors looked into nature, mainly plants, for treating and curing various diseases. Greek doctor Discorides (operating in Nero’s army) presents in “De Materia Medica”, the precursor of all modern Pharmacopoeia and one of the most important botanical atlases in history, that in Dacia numerous plant species were used on a large scale. Due to its geographic position, with a varied landscape and a climate favoring rich vegetation, Romania is the meeting place of the Eurasian and Mediterranean flora. Here grow more than 3600 species of plants, of which over 700 have medicinal uses.

“Set Sun, rise Moon,
Sanzienele to cool,
So their flower will bloom,
Yellow and perfumed,
Golden and perfect,
Girls to gather it
Their crowns to adorn with it.”

From Romanian folklore. The flower is Lady’s Bedstraw, most fragrant and powerful on Sanziene Night

Herbalism played a significant role in Transylvanian culture, with knowledge passed down through generations. Inherited from Dacian Priests, with time it became the responsibility of the wise women to harness the extensive knowledge of medicinal plants, their properties and use. They incorporated herbs into their daily practices, utilizing them for healing, protection, and divination. The use of herbs in such rituals allowed for the blending of natural remedies and supernatural practices.

Supernatural Practices

Drawing from some of the pagan beliefs ancient traditions were influenced by Christianisation and a range of supernatural practices evolved such as the building of sanctuaries and churches, sermons, chanting, large gatherings, but also funeral rituals and communicating with spirits or the unseen world. But in trying to understand and control life and death other practices evolved, such as the divination methods like reading tea leaves, casting spells, creating charms and talismans.

Syncretism of Beliefs

Over time, as Christianity spread throughout Transylvania, elements of Christian doctrine and symbolism were integrated into old practices. This syncretism resulted in a unique blend of beliefs, rituals, and symbolism that combined elements of both pagan and Christian traditions. Sadly, the intertwining of witchcraft with pagan beliefs and supernatural practices often led to negative perceptions and fear within society. As the influence of Christianity grew, witchcraft became increasingly associated with demonic influences and evil forces. This perception, along with social, political, and religious factors contributed to the persecution and trials of those accused of witchcraft in Transylvania.

The power of the Church and how it shaped the perception and understanding of witchcraft in Transylvania

With Transylvania was included in the Hungarian Empire for about 800 years, the religious power in here has seen a long and sinuous path because Transylvania has known an amalgam of religions among a demographic and ethnic landscape where they commingled, to the benefit of some. During the Middle Ages, Transylvania brought together the models of Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) spiritual life, while the modern era further diversified the landscape by adding Protestant, Hebrew, and Neo-Protestant components.

As such, during the 14th century Catholicism was imposed to all living in Transylvania. As such, Romanian nobility, Orthodox by faith, was forced to convert to the Catholicism and adopted the Hungarian customs in order to maintain its rights and continue their hold on power. “The privileges define the status of the three recognized nations – the Hungarians, the Szeklers, and the Saxons – and the four churches – Lutheran (Saxons, German speakers), Calvinist (Hungarians), Unitarian and Catholic (Szeklers, Hungarin speakers). The exclusion concerns the Romanian community and its Orthodox Church, a community that accounts for at least 50% of the population in the mid-eighteenth century.” (Catherine Durandin, Histoire des Roumains, 1995).

At the beginning of the 16th century, Transylvania had been an officially Catholic land belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary and led by an elite consisting of three nations, the Hungarian nobles (increasingly referred to as the Hungarian nation), the Saxons and the Szeklers. However, the general population, deprived of any political power, consisted of Orthodox Romanians.

What was different in Transylvania compared to the western Europe was the centuries-long fight for defending Christianity against the rising Muslim powers of the Ottoman Empire that were still taking central stage.

Maybe this is why in the Transylvanian space witchcraft was not necessarily religiously motivated, it was not primarily viewed as a heresy and the punishments was directed against apparently inexplicable phenomena or those based on social envy (jealousy), superstitions, popular beliefs and personal indulgences. Nor was the magnitude of the phenomenon comparable to the Inquisition in the West, one cannot speak of a generalized psychosis, of witch hunt or anti-feminist demonizing.

Witch Trials and Persecution

The period of intense witch-hunting and trials that swept across Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods eventually reached Transylvania. The fear and paranoia surrounding witchcraft led to widespread accusations, arrests, and trials of individuals believed to be practicing witchcraft. These trials, often influenced by religious, political, and social factors, reinforced the negative perception of witchcraft and fueled the belief in its malevolent nature.

Notable events that shaped the perception and understanding of witchcraft in Transylvania

The Council of Paderborn (785 CE): Charlemagne’s council condemned and suppressed pagan practices, including idolatry and those associated with witchcraft, during the Christianization of western Europe (Lorraine, followed by Brabant, Bavaria and Thuringia being the regions from which the waves of Transylvanian Saxons stemmed, during the massive middle-ages migration to Transylvania.

In 1231, the first inquisitor appeared, the dreaded Konrad von Marburg. His work within the church was related to the suppression of heresy to the point of seeking it out with the support of some great figures of the time, Pope Innocent III and Elizabeth of Hungary.

The witch hunts of the Western Middle Ages grew out of pre-existing collective fears of the devil and its actions. This came in the context of the medieval world populated by wizards, devils, fairies and all kinds of beasts for whom magic and miracles were commonplace.

The Malleus Maleficarum, The Hammer of the Witches, is printed in 1487. This influential witch-hunting manual written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger had a wide-reaching impact, including in Transylvania, by shaping the understanding and intensifying the persecution of witches.

A Witch Hunter's handbook Malleus Maleficarum, 1487, source Wikicommons

In 1550, the Chronicle of Sigerus mentions that the Pillar of Infamy was installed in the middle of the Great Square of Sibiu, which will stand there until 1783. Here, next to the Statue of Roland that was enthroned from the top of the Pillar, women considered witches were brought before the public and executed, but not only them. Roland’s statue is unique in Transylvania, but spread throughout Germany. The knight Roland, always depicted with a sword towering menacingly over the wicked, like a sword of Damocles, was a legendary symbol of Sibiu‘s legislative autonomy.

Witch-hunting Sibiu, burning of the witches by Roland's statue (now removed), Big Square

The peak of witch and wizard hunting in the West is reached in 1560-1630, and in the New World with the famous witch case of Salem, Massachussetts, 1692.

The Trial of Anna Darvulia took place in 1610, in the Kingdome of Hungary. Anna Darvulia was a reputed noblewoman and reputed confidante of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, who was known for her alleged acts of extreme cruelty. Darvulia was accused of being involved in witchcraft and aiding Báthory in her murderous activities. While the exact details and outcomes of the trial remain unclear, it is believed that Darvulia was executed for her alleged crimes.

In Braşov, Transylvania, between 1621 and 1696, approximately 20 trials against witches took place.

In Transylvania witch trials were frequent during the time of Michael Apafi I, Prince of Transylvania (1632-1690) whose joint passions for horologes and alcohol were renown. During one of his frequent visits to Deva he was described as one of the most “insatiable lords of Transylvania.” He was also a passionate smoker. Thus, believing that he was assailed by supernatural forces, the prince blamed magic for the ailments of his wife, Anna Bornemisza, and the early death of his children. The prisons gradually filled with more and more so-called culprits. Many trials were based on fabricated evidence, and most ended with horrific sentences. During his reign 25 women were accused of witchcraft, 13 of whom were noblewomen. Such was the case of Zsuzsanna Vitéz, wife of Pal Beldi, one of his political opponents. Although no proof was produced she was thrown in prison at the end of an eight-year-long trial.  

The Szeged Witch Trials (1728-1729): A significant witch trial held in Szeged, Hungary, 100 km from the Transylvanian border (and at a time when Transylvania was still part of the Habsburg Empire). This trial attracted attention and contributed to the fear and persecution of witches in the region.

The trials involved accusations of casting spells, causing illness, and engaging in satanic practices. The accused faced torture and harsh interrogations. Many were found guilty and executed, while others received prison sentences. The witch trials were prompted by the authorities as a way to simmer down the masses, the folks people complaining about the drought and its consequences, famine and epidemics.  The blame fell on those which had fraternized with the Devil. If By killing, the problems would be solved. The fear that arose in the Habsburg empire was that witches were organized in units that resembled the military ones. A particular fear in Hungary was that witches were also vampires.

The last witch trial in Sibiu took place in 1718, during the time of mayor Melzer (Werder), and lasted for three years, after which the alleged witch was acquitted. At Carei are mentioned the interrogations, torture and burning at the stake for several witches, between 1730 and 1745.

witch trial Sibiu Big Square

The Witch Trials of Nagyenyed (now Aiud) (1737-1738): These trials in Transylvania resulted in the execution of numerous individuals accused of witchcraft, reflecting the widespread belief in the existence of witches and the need to eradicate them.

It seems that in Târgu Mureș, in 1752, then in Mediaș in 1753, took place the last burnings of so-called witches from Transylvania.

Witch trials in Transylvania were banned in 1768 by Empress Maria Theresa, although there is evidence that the trial of some cases continued after this date, even if without capital punishment.

The rise of scientific rationalism and skepticism during the Enlightenment challenged the belief in witchcraft, gradually leading to a decline in witch-hunting and a more rational understanding of supernatural phenomena. These events, along with numerous smaller-scale trials and local folklore, contributed to the shaping of public perception, legal frameworks, and cultural understanding of witchcraft in Transylvania. It’s important to note that the impact and specific events may vary within different regions and over time.

Why were the women targeted?

Where does this gendered stereotype comes from? Between witches and wizards in the “dark ages” has always been a different conduct attributed to men and women within the “crime” of witchcraft.

From goddesses to a patroness of forests and further to a weak woman seduced by demons, from a kinship with the beasts such as only a follower of pagan goddess Diana could be, to flying on a broomstick in the dead of night – all these women held one form or another of power over those around them. But could they control it?

Initially, and before the 14th century devastating effects of the Black Plague geopolitically affected Europe, there were many people in Europe who believed (and used) magic. While the Catholic Church simply denied its existence. For example, Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor decreed that burning witches was a Pagan custom and would, therefore, be punishable by death.

Then, towards the end of the Middle Ages witchcraft came to be associated with heresy and a 1487 book, Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer, played a great role. Witches were soon believed to conspired to destroy and uproot the decent Christian society.

Following the increase struggle for domination between Protestantism and Catholicism in Western Europe witch-hunting played a convenient factor in both salvation and scapegoating. Only the priests could offer salvation from sin and evil. By making the witches their scapegoats, churches would prove their prowess against the Devil and his followers.

18th century depiction of a witch holding a flower in one hand and a fan in the other, Wellcome Collection, London

The general idea was that, in a patriarchal society, they could not, for women were perceived as less intelligent than men, this fault alone making them more submissive to the dark powers they dealt with. Cloud-walkers and Shamans rode dragons while women, belonging to the domestic sphere, rode a broom… Above all, women were reaching past their expected social roles. And so they were doomed to fail where men had succeeded previously. Because they were weaker. And being more temperamental, women were seen as prone to rather establish pacts with the forces of evil that they could not control anyway – and that idea went against all medieval Christian beliefs.

With time, the legend turned into skepticism. What had been a belief held by a small circle, evolved into fear. The kind of magick that was good, that had been proved helpful, passed on from one generation to the next, learned and respected, at some stage became confused with the common magic that was associated with more terrestrial needs, such as love and sex. Suddenly, magick became an expression of rebelling against the conventional social norms. It had to be stopped. Killed in the bud.

Thus, most often, the witch was a woman with a special status in the community or different from the others: the widow, the midwife, the single woman, the courted woman, the beautiful one, the bearer of special birth signs and physical features, the owner of a cat or other pet (“witch’s familiar”). A women who did not conform to the stereotypical role of the subservient.

What methods were used in witch-hunting in Transylvania?

The main accusations brought to the witches were related to the sickness of children or charms to destroy marriages and infidelity, as an effect of some alleged spells. Based on popular beliefs and phobias regarding the manifestations of evil, natural phenomena, strange reactions of some animals around the suspected woman were considered undeniable evidence against the accused. The whimpering of the babies, the barking of the dogs at the sight of the woman were clear signs that she was a witch. Other physical features such as the wart on the nose (on the face) were stigmata or distinguishing marks. To prove whether the woman was a witch or not, the wart was pricked with a needle, and if it did not bleed it was clear that the woman was guilty.

During the witch-hunting era, various methods were employed to identify, interrogate, and persecute individuals accused of witchcraft. These methods varied across different regions and periods but shared common elements. Here are some notable methods used in witch-hunting:

Witch tests were designed to determine if an individual was a witch. These tests included the infamous “swimming test” or “ducking stool,” where the accused was bound and thrown into water. If they floated, it was considered evidence of their guilt since they were believed to have rejected baptism. Conversely, sinking was seen as a sign of innocence. Other tests included pricking the skin to find “witch’s marks” or searching for devil’s teats, believed to be used for suckling familiars.

Torture was frequently employed during witch trials to extract confessions from the accused. Common torture methods included stretching on the rack, thumbscrews, crushing devices, and waterboarding. The aim was to elicit confessions and expose alleged accomplices, leading to further arrests and trials. The use of torture often resulted in false confessions, as the accused would admit to anything to end their suffering.

In old Brasov the lake where the water test took place was at the exit from the Fortress, at the end of Gate Street. The lake was cleared at the beginning of the 19th century and today the place is crossed by the Boulevard of Heroes. In Cluj the suspected witches were dunk I Somes river and in Sibiu in the tailor’s pond. The burning at the stake took place in the Big Square of Sibiu, or in front of Saint Michale Cathedral in Cluj and I image that in the Big Square of Brasov too. In Cluj, the remains were showcased in front of the Taylor’s Tower, so the road leading to it was known as the Witches’ Road.

Interrogation and examination were conducted to gather evidence against the accused. Authorities would question the accused about their alleged involvement in witchcraft, their familiar spirits, and their participation in Sabbaths or meetings with the Devil. Leading questions and coercion were often used to obtain the desired answers.

„qui tacet, concentiret”
(who is quiet, agrees)

Spectral evidence involved the testimonies of witnesses claiming to have seen the accused engaging in supernatural activities or interacting with demons. These witnesses, often afflicted individuals who believed themselves to be under the influence of witchcraft, would identify the accused as the source of their torment.

The fatal confessions sealed the deal. Many accused witches, under the extreme pressure of torture or coercion, would eventually confess to practicing witchcraft. These confessions were often obtained through leading questions, threats, or promises of leniency. Confessions would then be used as evidence against the accused and to implicate others.

Witchcraft laws soon came in place. Legal systems during the witch-hunting era had specific laws and procedures for handling witchcraft cases. Accusations, investigations, and trials followed a prescribed process. Accused witches were often denied legal representation, faced biased judges, and encountered a presumption of guilt. The legal proceedings were designed to secure convictions rather than ensure fair and just trials.

These methods used in witch-hunting reflect the widespread belief in witchcraft as a serious crime and the lengths authorities went to identify and punish alleged witches. The combination of coercive tactics, flawed reasoning, and societal fears contributed to the tragic outcomes of witch trials across Europe.

Witch-hunting had a significant impact on individuals and communities in Transylvania

Witch-hunting tore apart the social fabric of communities. The pervasive fear of witchcraft created an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia within communities. Anyone could be accused of witchcraft, and individuals lived in constant fear of being targeted. This fear led to a breakdown of trust among neighbors and even within families, as accusations were often driven by personal grudges or resentment.

Accusations of witchcraft resulted in the stigmatization and social blackballing of the accused and their families. Once accused, individuals faced isolation and hostility from their community. Furthermore, witch trials frequently resulted in the execution of accused individuals. Innocent people, mostly women, were tortured, subjected to unfair trials, and often sentenced to death. The loss of life was not limited to the accused; sometimes, family members or associates were also implicated and suffered the same fate. Additionally, the property and assets of those accused were often seized, leaving their families in financial ruin.

The obsession with witchcraft and the efforts to eradicate it stifled intellectual and cultural progress. Superstition and fear prevailed over reason and critical thinking, hampering the advancement of knowledge and enlightenment.

The impact of witch-hunting extended far beyond the immediate period of persecution. The trauma experienced by those accused, their families, and the wider community left lasting scars. The memory of the witch trials and the injustices committed during that time continued to resonate through generations, impacting social dynamics and collective consciousness.

Unique traditions and superstitions related to witchcraft in Transylvania

Some villages and communities in Transylvania continue to maintain traditions and customs associated with witchcraft. These practices often blend elements of pre-Christian beliefs, folk healing, and nature-based spirituality. For example, there are rituals performed during specific times of the year, such as the winter solstice or Midsummer’s Eve, believed to ward off evil spirits or harness beneficial energies.

The Strigoii are mythical creatures often associated with vampires in Romanian folklore. It is believed to be the restless spirit of a deceased person who returns from the grave to torment the living. The Strigoi is thought to have supernatural powers and is associated with witchcraft and dark magic.

The Sânziana festival, also known as Drăgaica is a traditional celebration held in various parts of Romania, including Transylvania. It takes place in late June and is associated with pre-Christian fertility rituals. During the festival, villagers dress in traditional attire, perform folk dances, and participate in rituals believed to ward off evil spirits and ensure bountiful crops.

Certain superstitions related to witches still persist in Transylvania.

For instance, there may be beliefs about avoiding specific actions or objects associated with witchcraft, such as crossing paths with a black cat, stepping on a broom, or opening an umbrella indoors. Placing a broomstick with the bristles facing up behind the door can ward off witches from entering a house. Another superstition is that witches can turn themselves into black cats, so encountering a black cat crossing your path is seen as an ill omen.

Breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck but also attracts evil spirits. To counteract the curse, one must bury the broken pieces under the moonlight.

Traditional protective measures, such as wearing charms or herbs believed to ward off evil, are still practiced by some individuals.

Garlic is considered a powerful protective charm against evil spirits, including witches. It is believed to repel supernatural entities and keep them at bay. Hanging garlic in doorways or wearing it as an amulet is thought to ward off witches and other malevolent forces.

garlic at windows ward off evil spirits folklore Romania
garlic at windows ward off evil spirits folklore Romania

The belief in the evil eye, which is the notion that certain individuals (especially women with green eyes)  can cast curses or ill intentions upon others through their gaze, is prevalent in Romanian superstitions. To protect against the evil eye, people wear charms such as the “nazar” (a blue glass bead) or perform rituals involving salt or incantations.

These are just a few examples of the superstitions that have been passed down through generations in Transylvania and Romanian culture. They reflect a belief in the power of supernatural forces and the desire to protect oneself from perceived threats and negative influences.

Transylvania’s association with folklore, vampires, and the supernatural has made it a popular destination for tourists interested in the region’s mystical history. While modern perceptions towards witches in Transylvania are diverse, the region’s cultural heritage continues to incorporate elements of witchcraft in various forms. Enduring traditions, stories, and superstitions serve as a testament to the ongoing fascination with the supernatural and the preservation of Transylvania’s rich folklore.

On peering into the shadows of witch-hunting in Transylvania

The history of witchcraft and witch trials in Transylvania reveals a complex tapestry of cultural beliefs, superstitions, and the devastating impact of mass hysteria. The intertwining of pre-Christian traditions, folklore, and supernatural practices shaped the perception of witches and their alleged powers. Witch-hunting brought fear, division, and suffering to individuals and communities, leaving a lasting legacy of injustice and trauma.

While modern-day Transylvania may have shifted away from widespread belief in witches, the region still retains echoes of its mystical past through traditions, stories, and superstitions that continue to fascinate and intrigue. The history of witchcraft in Transylvania serves as a reminder of the dangers of unfounded accusations, the destructive power of fear, and the importance of seeking justice and understanding in the face of prejudice and hysteria.

Movie and novel recommendations on the theme of witches and witchcraft

“The Witch” (2015) – A psychological horror film set in 17th-century New England, exploring themes of witchcraft, paranoia, and religious hysteria.
“The Crucible” (1996) – Based on Arthur Miller’s play, this historical drama delves into the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century.
“Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages” (1922) – A silent Swedish-Danish documentary exploring the historical and cultural context of witchcraft beliefs and persecution.
“Black Sunday” (1960) – An Italian horror film directed by Mario Bava, featuring witches, curses, and supernatural elements set in 17th-century Moldavia.
“The Blair Witch Project” (1999) – A found-footage horror film centered around the legend of the Blair Witch and a group of filmmakers who venture into the woods to investigate.

“The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown – Set in 17th-century England during the height of the witch trials, this historical novel follows the sister of the infamous Witchfinder General.
“Hexenhaus” by Nikki McWatters – Based on true events, this young adult novel tells the story of three women accused of witchcraft in 17th-century Scotland.
“The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” by Katherine Howe – A blend of historical fiction and contemporary mystery, this novel explores the Salem witch trials and their lingering effects on a modern-day protagonist.
“The Witch of Willow Hall” by Hester Fox – A gothic historical novel set in 1821 New England, featuring a family haunted by past secrets and the supernatural.
“Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks – Set during the plague outbreak in 17th-century England, this novel explores a community grappling with fear, superstition, and accusations of witchcraft.

Sources that can provide further information on the topic of witchcraft and witch-hunting in Transylvania

“The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections”, Witchcraft Collection, Cornell University Library,
“Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief” edited by Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts.
“Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 4: The Period of the Witch Trials” edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark.
“Gods in Roman Dacia”, Csaba Szabo and Imola Boda
“Imperial Power and Provincial Religion in Roman Dacia. A Short Regard”, Srin Bulzan
“Romanian Aromatic and Medicinal Plants: From Tradition to Science” by Radu Claudiu Fierascu, Irina Fierascu, Alina Ortan, Sorin Marius Avramescu, Cristina Elena Dinu-Pirvu and Daniela Ionescu
Additionally, academic journals, articles, and online resources dedicated to folklore, history, and cultural studies can provide valuable information and perspectives on witchcraft and witch trials in Transylvania.

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