Cursing of Coprnice: The Good and Evil of Croatian Folklore
To simplify, Coprnice are witches and warlocks, but mostly not the good kind. They are thought to be old women, or men, followed by the tragedies they inflicted on themselves, by meddling with dark magic . That said, we can’t exclude the ones who used good magic , of course.
Other stories tell us that they are in fact beautiful women and men who have the ability to steal everyone’s heart. There are stories of good Coprnice who aided brave men and women and here we will explore both types, including the many who have been killed and wrongfully accused .
The first known victims, who were accused of being Coprnice in Croatia were Alica and Margareta (in Zagreb; the year 1360.) Their fate remains unknown. So, who or what are Coprnice? Let’s begin with the ones who are bad.
The story tells us that Coprnice gather at crossroads at midnight, beneath the light of a full moon . There, they call upon demons and even the devil himself to aid them in bringing misfortune to all who cross their path. It has also been told that they would misguide everyone who saw them at the crossroad and lead many people into their untimely death by sending them on a dangerous, wrong path.
Coprnice gather at crossroads under a full moon, to bring misfortune to people who encounter them. ( Pellinni / Adobe Stock)
One would know if a Coprnica wanted to harm them if they found rotten eggs on their property. Egg, a symbol of life, now turned against one's health and fortune. If you ever find a rotten old egg by your house, don’t think twice. Go and throw it in a river.
And it’s not only eggs. If you find anything that is not supposed to be by your house, such as old pieces of rags, shells, or dead animal parts, be sure to burn them or throw them in the river. Another thing that can save you when it comes to bad magic , is to verbally confront the person you think is a Coprnica and let them know that they aren’t frightening you.
It is said that if you cross a Coprnica, she, or he, will curse your crops, your cows won’t give milk, and your chickens won’t lay eggs.
But, how can one know if a Coprnica lives nearby when they look and live just like you and me? Apparently, there is a single, but dangerous way.
How to Identify a Coprnica
One must start making a three-legged chair on the eve of Halloween, or the day before All Saint’s Day. The chair must be made of walnut tree wood because it is believed that the stench of walnut repels Coprnice.
It must be done by Christmas Eve when one must go to the evening mass and place the chair such that two legs are in the church and one remains outside. Once you stand on the chair and look at the crowd in front of you, only Coprnice will turn their heads and look at you.
At that moment you will have to run for your life because if they catch you, they will rip you apart. But, there is a way you can save yourself. It is said that you have to fill your pockets with poppy seeds and throw them behind your back. Coprnice will have to pick up every single poppy seed before they can continue after you.
Believe it or not, this will give you the advantage to run away, but it won’t shield you because Coprnice can smell your scent and follow you home. To avoid that, you have to jump over three running waters. If you don’t have a narrow river nearby, your chance of dying that night increases.
Once you come home and lock the door, be sure to turn on all the lights and scatter salt in front of every door and window. Then you must stay awake until the morning because Coprnice don’t have any power on Christmas day and it is said that they will forget your attempt of finding their true identity once they sleep through the day.
There are a few more ways to know if someone is a Coprnica. One of them is going to the river at night. There, Coprnice will soak their brooms and splatter the river water through the air. If they call your name you must not answer, or they will kill you.
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Coprnice go to the river at night and soak their brooms. ( mihakonceptcorn / Adobe Stock)
They might even be found by crucifixes. In Europe, there is a custom to put up shrines or crucifixes by roads, on crossroads, and even on your own property. There, beneath a crucifix, Coprnice can sit at night, just waiting for some unfortunate soul to offer them help as they cry pretending to be distressed.
In some regions, the myth even goes so far that it tells of groups of women washing clothes on the banks of rivers at night. It is said that they would sing loudly, and their song was mesmerizing. But only a fool would approach them.
The myth also says that Coprnice have the ability to turn into any living creature they want, but they choose to appear in the form of less appealing creatures like snakes, frogs, rats, etc. to increase the fear in people they want to harm or scare.
The Coprnice of Croatia
There is a small village in Croatian Zagorje called Lobor. It is positioned beneath the mountain Ivanščica and stories there tell about Coprnice that would gather, not only from all parts of Croatia but from all around the world. The place they are referring is called Crne Mlake (Black Swamp) and it is said that the forest there is so dark that the light barely comes through at midday.
Crne Mlake translated as Black Swamp where Coprnice would gather. ( Prudkov / Adobe Stock)
In olden times, it is said that only fools would leave horses alone in this part of the woods. Apparently, once they were left alone, Coprnice would come and drain their blood for rituals. The story even goes so far to say that horses would be found alive, with no puncture wounds, but drained to the point they became skin and bone in only a few hours.
In some parts of continental Croatia (mostly in and near Zagreb and in Croatian Zagorje) you can still find old houses that have spikes on their rooftops. They were put there to prevent Coprnice from landing on the roof. With this example, we can clearly see the impact of this legend on the everyday lives of our ancestors.
But what about the good Coprnice?
It has been known that there used to live women and men who were excellent herbalists and had ‘blessed hands’. In some parts of Croatian Zagorje people used to talk about (mostly) wise women who were called in when no medicine would help with someone’s sickness.
They were also called upon when livestock were sick or would not eat. Being thought of as having the direct blessing from God, these women even helped in dealing with bad curses; challenging what their evil sisters did.
Through the raging wars, there have been reports of injured soldiers who were found in woods and healed by beautiful, genteel women . Many stories even tell of these kinds of encounters ending up in happy marriages , while some say that they never saw their healers again as if they were mythical creatures.
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There are reports of injured soldiers healed by good Coprnice who appeared as beautiful women. ( Ponomarencko / Adobe Stock)
Unfortunately, many of these good Coprnice would fall victim to jealousy, fright, or just plain defiance. All of that brings us to the current day and age when we can look at all of these stories in a different way.
Persecution of the Coprnice
Throughout the ages, women and men have been hunted down and accused of witchcraft. No matter if they were different, just bothered someone who wanted them dead, or in the wrong place at the wrong time. We probably all know of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum and the frightening times that followed it. The Coprnice of Croatia did not escape this movement.
The official records say that 517 people were called in for questioning in the Zagreb region and 250 people were accused of being Coprnice. These are only official records and it remains uncertain how many people died off record.
The Malleus Maleficarum was used to find and execute accused Coprnice of Croatia. (Mouna83 / Public Domain )
Finally, Queen Marija Terezija stopped the madness and ordered that every witch should pass the trial at her royal court. That was too expensive for the Croatian justice system and the bad tradition died out in time.
As for the executions in the rural regions - they remain unknown. But the older population remembers that they feared Coprnice more than people in the capital city. The proof of that is the above mentioned three-legged chair experiment. It is obvious that people were curious but afraid to take things in their own hands.
Explanation of the Stories of Coprnice
Today, some of the above stories can easily be explained by logic. For example, the story of women washing their clothes at river banks at night. That myth has been explained; in past times it was normal to soak cannabis plants in rivers and lakes. It was used for ropes and even to make clothes.
But this plant was doing too much damage to the water eco-system and its usage was eventually banned. Naturally, women of lesser wealth still had to find a way to produce their own linen and soaking and washing plants by night was the only way they could do it. Or at least try.
Today we can explain most of the things that were pinned down to witchcraft or copranje. Our society has advanced. But there are still some things that can’t be explained. Or can they?
Even today we come across accusations. For example; not so long ago, I ran into a forum of articles and would like to point out one that was particularly interesting.
A middle-aged man complained about being ill and not knowing what to do. He visited dozens of doctors. They had done everything they could and found nothing to explain his illness.
The man said that his health got to the point where he couldn’t even get out of bed and it was affecting his life. For years no one could figure out what was going on until he came into contact with a random woman who told him he was cursed, and it must be a work of a Coprnica. Upon asking what he could do about it, because he had no idea who would want to harm him, she said that it could even be someone close to him.
The solution? Well, he prayed three times a day and started confronting everyone he knew. Finally, he even confronted his sister in law (who wasn’t fond of him) and at that point, everything stopped. His health returned and everything was as it was before.
So, was this auto-suggestive healing or was a hex really cast upon him? We are all aware of the power of our minds; of how our psyche can even affect us physically. If that is believable, why couldn’t someone be so sure that they can do good or bad things and set into motion a series of unbelievable chain of reactions?
Whatever the truth might be, Coprnice have been an inspiration for writers, artists, and the academic community for centuries. They are a big part, not only in Croatian history, but of stories of much darker times. Maybe today they serve as an educational and entertaining tool, but nevertheless, their role in our history must remain as a reminder.
Coprnice have inspired the imagination throughout history. ( Laurin Rinder / Adobe Stock)
Now it is your turn to figure out, is this just a legend, an old wives tale to tell in the dark, or do Coprnice really exist? Lurking in the shadows, just waiting to curse every person that crosses their path? Feel free to tell us about witches and warlocks from your part of the world.
Be sure to check out the video and learn about a legend that was passed down as a tale through generations and let’s keep the history alive!
Top image: Coprnice of Croatian myth. Source: captblack76 / Adobe Stock.
By Jelena Hrvoj