The True Story behind Easter and Witches

Small witches belong together with Easter in Finnish tradition, and everyone has seen cute Easter decorations and children dressed up as witches. One seldom comes to think why such creatures as witches are so omnipresent during a traditionally Christian holiday. While children come at your door dressed up as the trulli and wish you health and good luck, it is certainly difficult to remember the grim and dreadful past of the phenomenon called witchcraft. Following is a short explanation of the connection between witches and Easter and these connect to the witch hunt in Finland.

 

The Witches on Palm Sunday or Holy Saturday

In Finland it is customary for children to dress up as witches and tour from door to door, giving people their blessings in form of a rod made of willow and decorated with colorful adornments. In return, the children receive chocolate, candy or some money. This custom is actually a mix of two different traditions: in East Finland, the Orthodox Christian tradition of decorating rods and using them to make blessings has prevailed, while the pagan folk traditions of West Finland have blended in the tradition to give it its particular Finnish flavor.

In the Western parishes, it was believed that the power of the witches was strongest on Holy Saturday, since this was the time between the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. The time was especially harmful to household animals, since witches were known to injure and affect them in their jealousy. During Saturday, “witches” actually entered the barns and cut off pieces of wool or skin of the animals. This was supposed to curse the animal and make it die next winter – something that would ease the envy of the witch. This practice was continued until the beginning of the 20th century and the costumes of the children and the fact that up to today the kids of the Western coast go on their tour on Holy Saturday rather than Palm Sunday stem from the habit.

 

Jeesala on Pixabay.

 

The Story of the Witches

Of course, the witches were mere villagers. Anyone who was envious of their neighbor’s cattle could turn into “a witch” during Holy Saturday. However, the villages had some odd people – old, unmarried women for example – who were believed to practice magic by casting different charms and curses and curing diseases with their know-how in the use of herbs. These people were considered outcasts and possibly somewhat lunatic, but they were still tolerated as useful members of the village society. They were blamed for small setbacks but not feared. On areas where keeping livestock was of utmost importance, the alleged witches were usually women, because women took care of the livestock and most of the curses believed to be practiced by witches affected the cattle (on the contrary, the importance of cattle was a lot smaller in East Finland, where witchcraft prominently affected the crops and the witches were mostly men).

The beliefs were an interesting mix of paganism and Christian beliefs. The notorious book on witches written by a German clergyman, Malleus Maleficarum or the Hammer of Witches, was only partially known in Finland. However, the stories of witches hammering a deal with demons by having intercourse with them and being bitten as a seal of their pact and flying off to have raunchy parties with the devils on Easter Eve had reached the country in 17th century. These stories never gained such huge popularity as in Western and Middle Europe as demonology was somewhat alien to Finnish folk culture.

While the Finnish witch hunt never reached the scale and the level of atrocities in the mainland Europe, it was nevertheless similar in its absurdity. Over 100 witches were sentenced to death during the 17th and 18th centuries, but the Court of Appeal tended to pardon the victims for practical reasons. Those whose sentences were implemented, were beheaded. The situation was the direst in the end of the 17th century in the Swedish speaking areas, especially Åland Islands, where the method of torture was applied to the witch interrogations for the first time in the Kingdom of Sweden. The accused were forced to confess their attendance in Witch Sabbath and whatever imaginative indictments they were charged with, as confessing was the only way to make the torture stop.

 

William Powell Frith: The Witch Trial (1848). Wikimedia Commons.

The season of witch hunt in Finland was late and short, as witches were already out of fashion in 1740s. Still the proceedings left behind several innocent victims. However unorthodox it may be, perhaps we could take the colorful Easter witches of the day as a small mark of respect for those who died for nothing.

 

 

Sources and more information:

SKS - Pääsiäinen

Kaari Utrio: Kalevan Tyttäret – Suomen Naisen Tarina, WSOY