Swedish children have a very unique tradition every Easter (påsk). While children in most Western countries play with easter bunnies and look for easter eggs, children in Sweden dress up as witches and go round the neighbourhood “trick or treating” for candy. These little witches (boys and girls) knock on doors and threaten adults to give them candy and chocolate if not they would be cursed. Obviously this is not a real curse but an cute (sometimes comedic) game for adults too.
The concept of witches in Europe goes back much further. Right from the days of antiquity, some women were thought to have dark magical skills and laws were put in place to punish these women. Witches are women who practice he dark arts, and they have haunted the collectively European conscious for a long time. Surprisingly the rise of Christianity outlawed the belief in witchcraft as fake and that belief in it was heretical. Not that it successfully took root. The magical realm and belief in magic always persisted.
Without scientific knowledge of how bacteria spread, individuals sought to find a reason for the death of their loved ones and honed in on weird women around town – people whom they suspected were in cahoots with the devil and would curse those they did not like. Many ‘weird’ women were burned at the stake, perhaps even Belle (from Beauty and the Beast) if she were not a great beauty.
This annual festivity is part of a long tradition. The children are engaging in a centuries old ritual, commemorating the belief that evil witches travel to the infernal court of Blåkula (pronounced as Blockula) to have a sabbath meeting with the devil. A witches sabbath is a meeting of witches and other practitioners of the dark arts. It is always thought to be visceral, physical and sensual with dancing, cavorting and sex taking place. The sabbath was even more extreme in Blåkula where the witches cavort with the devil, making them extra despicable.
And it is this tradition that the harmless fun at påsk harkens back to. The tradition did not begin just randomly, it has its roots in the 17th century, when Sweden was gripped by a frenzy of witches and witch hunts. One witch hunt took place in Sodermalm island, on the street of Häckelfjäll…
Sodermalm back in the late 1600s was a ghetto and a slum, the poorest and most despised individuals lived there (the hip, highly sought-after district is a complete 180 degree turn today), the people who lived in Sodermalm were the poor, the wretched. The people who did the odd jobs, the women who worked as prostitutes. It was a place that the socially respectable did not go to. Out of sight, out of mind, the upper classes in Gamla Stan ignored these people – class mattered a lot then (arguably less so today, but its still there) and this point would go on to play a large role in our story today.
Then one day in 1670, whispers emerged from the district that a child claimed to be abducted to Blåkula by witches in the night and seen witches having a rendezvous with the devil.
Most people ignored his claim of an over-imaginative mind. But then more and more children spoke and complained about it to their parents. The news spread from the southern hills (the English translation of te name Sodermalm) to the town centre and it was the talk of the town. Had the witches come to Stockholm now?
The first stories to emerge about satanic abductions to Blåkula began many years early in the western parts of Sweden (in Dalarna). A young boy called Mats Nilsson and a young girl (Getrud Svensdotter) got into a fight and the boy had lost the fight. He went tot he local parish priest to complain that he had seen the little girl had walked on water. The parish priest, for some reason decided to encourage the young girl to admit that she had walked on water by magical skills given to her by the devil. Svensdotter later confessed to the priest but explained that it was the neighbouring households maid who had brought her to the devil. The maid, Maret Jonsdotter was brought to trial for witchcraft. Child after child stepped forward to discredit the maid, but still she insisted she was innocent. But the testimony was too strong to deny, too many people saw her as a witch, she was found guilty. But Swedish law did not allow execution without confession and Maret refused to confess, Maret was put in prison for four years under constant persuasion from priests to confess. She consistently refused but was executed four years later after the law was amended.
What was essentially a small town story however soon lead to more accusations against withces throughout Sweden. The story spread through the grapewine and the locals of different towns started to fear witches all around them. The die was cast and the hysteria was unleased. In Mora in 1669, 14 people were killed for seducing children to Blåkula – this was the most widely reported case throughout Europe and had some influence on the Salem Witch Trials.
The hysteria was to carry on for years and in 1975, 71 people were beheaded in one day in Torsåker parish ( 65 of which were women, a full 20% of the parish). Other parts of Sweden were also exposed, such as in Gävle, where a young boy was orphaned because his mother was a witch.
The young boy, Johan Johansson Griis, was also known as the Gävle Boy. Griss was an orphan – he had accussed his mother 0f bringing him to Blåkula and sexually assaulted him. Griss moved to Stockholm after he was orphaned and the parents in Sodermalm sought his advice. Griss stories wowed the crowded, they were disgusted with the perversion that took place in Blåkula. He had become an adviser on witchcraft and hinted that he had seen suspicious behaviour in Stockholm. More and more children stepped forward to claim that they had abducted. Mortified, the parents decided that the King had to be petitioned to set up a royal commission to investigate the looming witch crisis in Stockholm. Together with Griss, group of young girls led by Lisbeth Carlsdotter were the lead accusers.
As the hysteria spread to Stockholm, the king decided that the a royal commission had to be set up to investigate the claims, even if it was to pacify the people in the south. A crown witness was called and the trials were set in the Katarina Church.
5 women were sentenced to death as witches, and 2 more died of suicide in prison. One woman in particular stood out – Malin Matsdotter. A poor woman, who had difficulties in speech and had a difficult family life. She had a bad relationship with her daughters and as the trials began was accused by her daughter of being a witch. Like the common folk of the era she did not know how to read and being a minority Finn was even more disadvantaged. She was unable to recite the Apostles Creed and was unable to take it that her daughter had accused her, lashing out in a tirade noted by court papers as an “offence to decent ears”. She was sentenced to death by living burning – the others were decapitated and then burned. The Katarina Withc Trials was notabled because it was here that a few other rich people were accused. Those accusations were rubbished.
The death of Malin Matsdotter was a turning point. The cruelty of the killing and the fact that the accusations were hitting the upper class prompted action. The commissions begun to change the way they questioned the children. They used to take the first testimony as repeat the testimony asking the witness if that was the case, the change in questioning involved the children being asked to repeat the whole story. Griss, Lisbeth Carlsdotter and all the other accused were never able to keep the story consistent.
Then is all cracked.
The ruse was up.
There were no witches, it was the kids all along.
While some like Griss were considered mythomanics – pathological liars, others were taking advantage of the hysteria to make a buck (maybe it was their initiative, maybe it was their parents). They were able to threaten people to get their way, and if they did not get their way (money etc) they would then accuse these adults of witchcraft. The system never doubted children, so these adults knew they had to give in to these children’s demands. Griss, Carlsdotter and three other main instigators in the Katarina Witch Trials were sentenced to death – death as children – as a warning to the rest. Priests was instructed to claim that all witches were chased out of Sweden, putting an end to the whole episode.
This hysteria called The Great Noise period in Swedish history led to hundred of innocent people killed over false testimony and only really stopped because the upper class found themselves getting accused too.
Three hundred years later, the Katarina church and the street where the trials and executions took place still stand today, and Swedes celebrate their Easter by harmlessly reliving the witch trials as they go trick or treating.
ON THE MAP (KATARINA CHURCH)
ON THE MAP (HOGBERGSGATAN)