These Accounts of European Witch Hunts Reveal Deadly Origins You Weren't Expecting

Witch being “judged”. History Channel.

Many witch trials were happening simultaneously to the Salem Witch Trials, which occured over the span of about a year, from February 1692 to May 1693. The witch trials are often thought of as an English and English Colonial fixture; yet, most trials happened outside of England, Ireland, and Scotland. One of the largest mass killings in witch trial history took place in Sweden.

The bloody massacre happened in a single day. One fifth of all the women in the region were beheaded and burned. A total of 71 people, 65 of those female, met their fate when minister Laurentius Christophori Hornæus of Ytterlännäs was told to investigate signs of witchcraft in his parish. Just how were the witches accused? Hornæus instructed two young boys to perform a simple task. The boys were to stand by the church’s entrance. As each attendee walked through the church’s doors, the boys would identify those who had made allegiance with the Devil by the invisible mark’s on their forehead.

To Hornæus’s consternation, his own wife was “seen” with the invisible mark. Hornæus quickly hushed any rumor of his wife’s supposed acquaintance with the Devil and that matter was never discussed again. It was suspected the accused were kidnapping local children and forcing them to take part in Satan’s Sabbath. Satan’s Sabbath was a series of eight festivals celebrated by pagans. The festivals were said to take place in a meadow popularized by Swedish folklore. The meadow was called Blockula, and according to local stories, the Devil held court here.


Switzerland, burning of witches. Wikimedia.

The Swedish trials are an interesting piece of witch trial history. A common thread in all witch trials stories is the torture of the accused. In the Swedish trials, however, young children were threatened and abused. In order to retrieve accusatory testimonies about community members, The children were beaten, whipped, bathed in frozen lakes, or threatened with being baked in ovens. Adult testimonies were not often sought out and children provided the bulk of accusations against the accused. Perhaps the abuse of the children involved led to the illegitimacy of these trials.

Records of these trials are few and far between. The primary source was recorded 60 years after the last Swedish witch hunt execution. The grandson of minister Hornæus reported his grandmother’s eyewitness accounts. Since the commission and local courts failed to report any of the executions to a higher court, the Swedish witch trials were not perceived as ideologically legitimate, but rather an extra abhorrent abuse of power.