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Zagreb Witches or Coprnice

Halloween is fast approaching. Here in Croatia, we call that evening Noc Vjestica – The Night of the Witches. It is therefore more than convenient to speak about witchcraft as Autumn is approaching.

Zagreb has an intense history of witch trials and witch hunts. People who live here romanticize that era. Personally, I can hardly stand the thought of it. Picturing a fury mob eager to burn a woman… any woman!… alive… I just can’t believe that those people walked on the same soil as I do now. It’s a hard lesson in history that only a few learned.  

I wouldn’t feel safe to travel through time and visit the 18th century Zagreb at all. As said before, they’d burn any woman… but a redhead would have to pay special attention to keep those ginger locks safe beneath her scarf.

For some reason, we all love hearing horrific stories from the past. Is it because it makes us question? Would we join the mob? Or would we stay silent? There was no third option. Sometimes it feels things haven’t changed that much.

Heavy thoughts aside, here is a looong article on witches of Zagreb! Hope you’ll enjoy the dark side of the city… 

NOMEN EST OMEN –  THE NAME IS A SIGN

Let’s start our story about the witches of Zagreb from their name. In this part of Croatia, it’s common to use the word coprnica (tzoh-pehr -neeh-tzah) for a witch. It’s kind of a cute word, it doesn’t really carry negative connotations. 

But do you know where the name comes from? 

There are two explanations. Most probably, it comes from the German word for a sorceress. Or, they got their name after… a heretic priest. Who also happened to be the father of modern astronomy. Not bad for a bunch of lonely old women or peasant girls who used to spend their days cursing and chanting.

The word coprnice could derive from Copernicus. In spite of the popular saying “Nomen est omen”, the name is a sign, this doesn’t apply to the poor coprnice witches. They sure didn’t share the destiny of their name-sake-priest Nicolaus Copernicus – they didn’t die of old age. Copernicus was wise enough not to publish his book Commentariolous (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium) full of silly ideas like the one about the Earth moving around the Sun. According to some sources, Copernicus was given his first published copy of his heretic thesis when he was on his deathbed anyway. He was as much as 70 years old when he died! Coprnice, on the other hand, used to die far away from both a cozy bed and their seventies. Usually it was at the stake after days of torture. 

Not even Copernicus’ successor in the field of science shared his destiny. Giordano Bruno went a step further with his demonic ideas. He stated there were more Suns. And there were other living beings in space. Instead of staying quiet like the wise Copernicus, Bruno literally died for the truth. He died with his tongue pierced to keep him from shouting out his devilish theories during his final moments.

Whenever someone mentions Renaissance fighters for the new scientific truth, Galileo Galilei comes to mind. But don’t be fooled, Galileo didn’t say “Eppur si muove” just before he died, as many think. In fact, that old man, after hours spent in a company of professional torturer, decided to sign a statement saying: Earth is going absolutely nowhere, it’s as still as can be! After all, if it was moving, it would be a clear sign the devil himself is driving it from below, right? 

It is interesting to know that both Bruno and Galileo were on trial led by a great inquisitor cardinal Ballermino. Just how great an inquisitor can be, you can tell by the fact he was pronounced a saint back in 1930!

Yep, the Holy Inquisition was a powerful thing. When the pope’s investigators arrived to a village, you knew there were going to be bonfires. People often accused someone of witchcraft just to save themselves from possible suspicion. 

I’m mentioning some of the most famous cases succesfuly conducted by the Holy Inquisition, because witch trials in Europe were often conducted by the same authority. But this wasn’t the case in Croatia. 

So, what was going on in this part of Croatia at that time? Back in the days of the Holy Inquisition, witch trials in Europe, and great scientific breakthroughs that ended up in flames? People around here were occupied with other troubles, like wars against the Turks. They didn’t advance to torture when it comes to their law practice. Dark Ages of that sort arrived here a few centuries later. And it ended… it’s quite embarrassing… it ended only in 1700s. It’s so terrifying to know that Zagreb is a place where the civil courts used to burn women for witchcraft less than 3 centuries ago!

It’s also useful to know that witch trials in Zagreb and surroundings have never been cancelled. Those regulations are still on! But we can still name the exact year it all ended. Back in 1757 Croatian queen Maria Theresa saved the last witch who had already endured the trial (read: torture). 

What a strange coincidence! 1757 is the year when the tortures of coprnice in northwestern Croatia ended. It also happens to be the year when the story about the heretic Copernicus ends as well. It was back in 1757 when Vatican finally admitted that the Sun is the center of our planetary system and removed Copernicus’ book from Index, the notorious list of forbidden books.

It turns out that the name really is a sign. But you sometimes have to be a true witch to read the signs.


WITCHES FROM CROATIAN FOLK TALES

Illustration by Vladimir Kirin (Croatian Tales of Long Ago)

The end of horrific witch trials in Croatia didn’t mean Croatian witches were gone, too. But they were confronting a faith worse than death. They were being forgotten. 

At first, people stopped writing down magic potions in court documentation. Then they stopped telling stories about witchcraft and vicious chants. And now, it’s gotten so far that small kids haven’t even heard of Baba Roga! 

It’s hard for a small country like Croatia to preserve its intangible heritage. It has to fight against mighty 21st century soldiers of technology, showbiz, and even modern pedagogic standards. There are just a few forest creatures left to fight this overwhelming war. But it’s a cause worth fighting for and we should all stand by them. When Croatia completely forgets Baba Roga, it will kill the last memory of an ancient deity. It will erase a piece of the country’s identity. 

BABA ROGA

So, who’s Baba Roga or Baba Jaga? Stories about this hideous witch probably reflect ancient Slavic sorcerer-goddess called Mokosh. Baba Roga is an ugly old lady who lives deep inside the woods and spends her lonely time there making all sorts of potions. In the best-case scenario, the potions are made out of herbs, but she often adds some snake skin, dragon blood, and of course – her favourite ingredient… children’s flesh! There are many stories about her kidnapping the little ones, just like the witch from Hansel and Gretel tale. No wonder she was a popular tool to keep the kids under control once. I used to be easily persuaded to be nice an quiet myself when someone mentioned Baba Roga. But ask local kids about her. They have never even heard of her! 

Baba Roga is in fact similar to the witch from Hansel and Gretel tale. We can all thank the Grimms brothers for making some old tales world-famous. Many agree their tales are in fact pretty frighting and gruesome. I guess they haven’t read Croatian tales yet. 

If it was normal for a woman from the edge of 19th and 20th centuries to get creative and write books, I’m sure the world would be acquainted with Croatian folk tales, too. Ivana Brlic Mazuranic, one of the greatest Croatian children’s authors, took over a task similar to the Grimms. She collected folk tales. Then she poured them into timeless fairy tales, thus saving many witches from nothingness. For example, she captured a witch called Poludnica and gave her eternal life through the pages of her book. The name Poludnica implies that that particular witch comes out in the middle of the day! That’s when she comes after you from her underground realm to whip you with the nettle. She prefers children because she can use them as her slaves in her flaming underground.

BLACK QUEEN

Ivana Brlic Mazuranic also wrote about a witch turned into a snake. Another famous legend from this region. Sometimes, if you see a beautiful girl in the forest, take a close look before you decide to follow her. The only thing that can blow the cover of a serpent-sorceress is her snake tongue. 

A famous legend about a snake witch is found right here in Zagreb. It’s another mythical witch called Black Queen. Black Queen sold her soul to the devil, and ever since, she’s still wandering through her underground hallways, guarding her cursed treasure. 

MORANA

The Black Queen is so powerful, almost like a dark deity. Old tales whisper about a real goddess, too. Her name was Morana, it means nightmare. She was the ice queen, goddess of death, winter, and, just like her name says – of nightmare. 

VILAS

Speaking about all those magical forest ladies, here in Croatia, we use the word vila for a fairy. In the last few decades, Croatian people started thinking of vilas as something cute, miniature, and connecting them with western imaginary, cute tiny girls with transparent wings. But Croatian vilas are not that cute. They’re beautiful, all right. But not always as golden as their long hair is. Their devilish goat legs give them away. There is a belief that vilas are in fact restless souls. If they meet a man, they will drag him to their circle and make him dance, and dance, dance on, until he turns into nothing more but a soul himself. We don’t know the exact origin of the word vila, so let’s just say that in another Slavic language it means – crazy.

Crazy or simply magical, the choice is yours. Just don’t make it your choice to walk through the forests with your mind closed to the possibility the vilas are there. They’re still here, among us, and so are the coprnice witches. But they’re fading away. A scary bedtime story instead of a cartoon, grandma’s memories and old children’s games like the one called Black Queen one,two,three… that’s all each child needs to keep the diversity of local lore alive, as a part of the world’s intangible heritage. 


POPULAR WITCHCRAFT POTIONS AND SPELLS

After learning how Zagreb witches got their local name coprnice, and reading about witches from Croatian folklore, the time has come to learn some useful skills. I’m not going to share the complete knowledge of the old witches from Zagreb. This is just a glimpse of all the things they were capable of.

After all, I’m sure they haven’t really shared everything they know during the witch trials. Believe it or not, the following spells were found in the actual court documentation.

How to make a perfect hailstorm?

You hate your neighbour so much, that you are determined to ruin his vineyard? Zagreb witches have a perfect solution: strike the ashes three times with a three-year-old hazel branch. For throughout destruction, use the ashes left over after another witch’s execution.

How to fly your broomstick?

For a smooth broom flight, use human fat cooked under a young crescent moon. Children arms and legs make the best emulsion that will make not only your broomstick fly, but also other means of transportation, such as small three-legged chairs or spinners. 

How to make a love potion?

Mix some water, different kinds of herbs, some dog and cat blood, and there you have it! Your perfect love potion that will make you absolutely irresistible! This particular potion got a lady from Zagreb on fire once. Be careful when you use it, because it was pretty common to accuse women for witchcraft in cases of adultery. Actually, it wasn’t even necessary for the adultery to happen! No flirting allowed in late 17th century Zagreb for women. And make sure a married man doesn’t even look at you in front of his wife. You might get a visit from the executioner the following day. 

How to lift a curse? 

If you wish to get rid of a spell, listen to the advice of Mr. Domjanic, a wise and educated man from 18 century Zagreb. Simply take a knife stained with blood of a murdered person. Then pierce it repeatedly through the shirt of the cursed one (in case the curse is sent upon a baby, pierce the knife through its diaper). 

Hope this advice comes handy.

This is just a small part of a very interesting story about Croatian witches. If you’d like to find out more about the dark Zagreb history and legends, join one of our mysterious tours.