Gone and Forgotten: The Sad Fate of the Witches of Prussia
The region of Prussia in Central Europe is a unique place due to the large number of cultures which have resided and met there. These lands were also a hotbed for witchcraft and a cruel fate for those who dared to dabble in the practice.
A Mixture of Faiths
Witchcraft may have existed in this area since the settling of Eastern and Western Prussia. Before the baptisms of these regions, the territory of historical Prussia was pagan. The faith of the inhabitants was mixed and dependent on the tribe they were related to, but it was generally a combination of Baltic religions with inflated mythologies.
The Old Prussians were polytheists, but their legends did not survive. Their descendants converted to Christianity after the baptism of Poland in 966. During medieval times they were influenced by the Teutonic Knights, then they were mostly Germanized in the 19th century.
However, the powerful position witches held in society remained untouched. Witchcraft itself was never a criminal offense in Prussia, yet many women lost their lives due to supposed practices of witchcraft. Officially, their murders were due to many different, and often irrational, reasons. The religious leaders found many nonsensical explanations to enable them to judge and burn women.
Extent of the Teutonic Order. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Last Witch in Prussia
When reading books about the history of witchcraft in central and eastern Europe, one will often find that witch trials were very rare in these areas. However, those texts keep silent about other ways used to punish women who seemed to have connections with the craft.
- Why Did the Spanish Inquisition Allow Some Witches to Stay Alive?
- The Malleus Maleficarum: A Medieval Manual for Witch Hunters
- Agnes Waterhouse: The First Woman Executed for Witchcraft in England
According to Susanne Kord, death sentences for witches were carried out in Prussia in 1714, the year of Friedrich Wilhelm's edict. In Prussia, many witches were accused ''and died in prison as a result of torture.”
“Torture, despite growing doubts about its efficacy and the reliability of confessions attracted under torture, continued to be used and remained the principal means of exhorting confessions in witch trials. Eighteen-century believers in witchcraft recognized a witch by the same mark as their forefathers did: the evil eye.''
Torture used against accused witches. (Public Domain)
It is hard to explain what “evil eye” really refers to in this situation - and it seems that witch hunters didn't know for certain either. But one example related to this idea comes from 1793, when two women were sentenced to be burned as witches due to the belief by their neighbors that the women’s eyes made their cattle sick.
A large number of the names of supposed witches can be found today. One of the most famous stories of witches in Prussia is that of Barbara Zdunk who was killed on August 21, 1811. She was ethnically Polish, but it was a period when the city now known as Reszel belonged to Prussia. She may have been the last woman executed for witchcraft in Europe.
The burning of witches. (Public Domain)
Barbara was born in 1769, so she was 42 years old when she was executed. As mentioned, she couldn't be accused of witchcraft directly, so her trial was said to be for other reasons. In 1806, the city was completely damaged by fire. People were looking for the person who caused it and they remembered that there was a witch known for her fondness of magic. They immediately started to blame her, and as a result she was arrested a few months later, in 1807.
There was no evidence, but people had already decided that Zdunk was a dangerous witch. Moreover, they gossiped that she had a teenage lover. She was 38 years old and wasn't married, so sometimes she needed help and had hired a boy. However, people have always liked to create fiction around the facts.
They built a stake on the hill outside the city and in 1811 they executed the unfortunate woman. According to the records for that day, she was strangled to death before she was put on the stake. Barbara Zdunk was probably the last witch killed due to witchcraft in Prussia, however, with time society realized that she wasn't guilty.
An image of suspected witches being hanged in England. (Public Domain)
Another story is that of Anna Kruger, an old and wise woman from Gdańsk (German Danzig). She was poor, but had knowledge about herbs and other natural treatments. When a cholera epidemic attacked her city, her knowledge about herbs helped her to survive and saved several people.
However, some citizens speculated that she must have been a dangerous witch if she was able to stay healthy. She was even blamed for using her knowledge to make people sick and die due to the epidemic. Anna was arrested, tortured, and then killed for supposed witchcraft. She was 88 years old, but the judges decided to burn her. The story of witch executions ended in this city with her death in 1659.
Forgotten Stories of Wise Women
In Prussia, like other parts of Europe, people believed that witches were nasty creatures who collaborated with the devil and were dangerous for society. Propaganda by the priests around Europe and fear of spending one’s afterlife in hell made people forget about the benefits they had always received from the wise women – some of the first healers in the world.
- Witch Familiars, Spirit Guardians and Demons
- Salem Witch Trial hysteria and the courageous stance of Giles Corey
- The Zugarramurdi Witch Trials: Welcome to the Spanish Salem
Nowadays, the history of these wise women is almost forgotten by the societies who live in what used to be Prussia. It is hard to find any plaque or monument in their remembrance. Women who were burned for the most irrational reasons are gone from public memory. Most of them don't even have graves anymore, and their stories are only known from old documents.
Top image: The Witch Trial by William Powell Frith (1848). (Public Domain)
Anna Koprowska-Głowacka, Czarownice z Pomorza i Kujaw,2010.
Artur Szrejter, Demonomolia Germańska. Duchy, demony i czarownice, 2011.
Jacek Wijaczka, Magia I czary. Polowanie na czaronice I czarowników w Prusach Książęcych w czasach wczesnonowożytnych, 2008.
Prudence Jones, Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, 1995.
Susanne Kord, Murderesses in German Writing, 1720 – 1860: heroines of honor, 2013.