Easter Weekend Witches

Given my city’s reputation, I think it is appropriate for a Salem-based blog to pay tribute to the Scandinavian tradition of påskkärringar: Easter witches.  According to this custom, most likely dating from a folklore “revival” in the nineteenth-century, Swedish children dress up as witches armed with broomsticks and copper kettles and go trick-or-treating on Maundy Thursday, the very day that their distant ancestors supposedly believed that “real” witches left on their journey to the faraway Blåkulla (Blue Mountain) to pay tribute to the Devil in a hedonistic sabbath.  These same witches returned from the mountain for Easter Sunday services (during which they would say their prayers backwards), if they could fit through the chimneys after several days of partying, or avoid the fires that were lit to keep them away.  Glad Påsk (Happy Easter) postcards from the first half of the century appear to feature the påskkärringar far more than they do eggs and chicks (or Jesus) and the tradition seems to be alive and well today.

It’s always interesting to trace modern customs and “traditions” as far back as you can go.  When you examine all the various details that make up the celebration of Easter in Sweden– flying witches, a far-off mountain, branches and bonfires, feasts–there definitely seem to be some pre-Christian elements, combined with pre-modern Christianity and modern commercialism.  At the very least, Blåkulla goes way back.  It is referenced in the key early modern source for Northern history and culture, the Historia de Gentibus Septentionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples) of Bishop Olaus Magnus, first published in 1555.  Magnus makes Blåkulla a bit more tangible by identifying it with a real island in the South Baltic, Blå Jungfrunwhich retains its mystical reputation.  He also describes, with a bit of skepticism that is later lost, the activities of witches and devils and other magical beliefs and entities.

The island of Blå Jungfrun, now a Swedish national park; devils and “weather witches” from Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, Book Three.

Magnus was writing (and living) right on the precipice:  the period of 1560-1660 was one of intense religious conflict and witch-hunting in Europe.  Sweden managed to escape the former but not the latter, though it was a little delayed: the most intense series of witch trials in the north were the Mora and Torsåker Trials (1668-76), which resulted in the death of 85 people.  The testimony in these trials is characterized by 2 distinct themes:  references to Blåkulla, and the accusations of children, who claimed to have been abducted by witches to demonic sabbaths which took place there.  The reliance on child witnesses, who were allowed considerable time together to get their stories straight, is indeed remarkably similar to Salem.

Title page of Joseph Glanville’s popular Saducismus Triumphus:  or Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions(1682), which includes the Appendix: A True Account of What Happen’d in the Kingdom of Sweden in the Years 1669,1670, and Upwards.

Given the central role played by Swedish children in these late-seventeenth-century trials, it’s a big jarring to see them on Glad Påsk postcards from several centuries later, but this is only one more example of how something very serious (and scary) in the pre-modern past becomes benign in the near-present.  The Easter witches of the past century are so weighed down by kettles and cats, and the occasional chicken and egg, that they have no room for children on their trip to Blåkulla.

Glad Påsk postcards from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s:  by the last decade, Easter Witches were taking planes to Blåkulla!


11 responses to “Easter Weekend Witches

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