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Latvian Witches

Guide woman at Tervete dressed as a witch.

Christianity was the leading religion in Europe and did everything to tackle their religious counterparts. Before Christianity became the main dogmatic religion in Europe, Pagan religion was the leading belief. Even so for centuries Pagan traditions remained within simple people. There were people who still practiced Pagan traditions like fortune-telling, magic healing and other things not recognized by the church. From the 14th century to 18th century these people became victims of massive witch hunt in all Europe. In Latvia witch hunting were severe because of strong Pagan traditions within local people.

Witches are women with supernatural powers. They practiced necromancy and were blamed for various calamities like making all the rivers stop flowing. In Medieval times witches were blamed for making deals with the devil by signing it with their blood. Not only that, they were also considered to make sexual intercourse with the devil and make big black mass meetings (Sabbaths). When various heretic movements appeared they were associated with the devil. The whole conception of witch appeared in 15th century when Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches 1486).  This work paved way for witch hunt. Based on this witches were accused for making bad deeds like poisoning, sorcery, killing and fortune-telling.

In Latvia witches were deep in Latvian folklore. They appeared in Latvian folk songs, tales and legends. In tales witch’s husband was the devil and they lived in strange houses on fowl’s foot. Witches could turn a man into animal or various things like rivers and meadows. They travelled in the air with broomstick and attended witch meetings. Also they did other bad deeds but the Latvian view on witches were not wholly negative because Latvian simple peasants were not fanatic Christians as in Europe.

Witch House at Tervete

But foreign rulers of Latvia made witch trials in Latvia just like in other parts of Europe. Bans on Pagan practices were made in Medieval times but no witch trial was recorded in Latvia until the 16th century. In 1537 at  Valmiera landlords were instructed to keep an eye for Pagan practices and prevent them if necessary.  When anti-witch literature reached Livonia from Germany the idea of witch hunting emerged here. First witch was burned at the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia in 1527. In Riga at 1531 men called Valdis Buhards was sentenced for sorcery. First burning occurred at Grobiņa 1559. When Latvia was under Polish rule witch hunting became widely used practice. Catholic Poles used barbaric torture practices. Even more witches were judged at 17 century Vidzeme controlled by Lutheran Swedes.  Between 1630.-1640 there were 40 trials or more. At local land courts no court session was without a witch trial. One accused person told that anyone here can practice witchcraft so all working men in farm fields must be killed. In the other half of 17 century because of changes in Swedish laws witch burning became less familiar.   At 1686 torture was banned and more liberal money fines were imposed instead of death penalty. Last death penalty was imposed in 1699.

After Vidzeme was taken by the Russians witch hunt ended completely. Witch hunt was also common in the Duchy of Courland and Semmigallia but less common in Latgallia. After all Latvia was included in Russian Empire witch hunt ended.

The Witch Burning in Riga.

The Witch Burning in Riga.

Because of strong Pagan tradition common in Latvians witch hunting occurred in Latvia. There are many sources from Western travelers who called Livonia a land of witches and wizards.  No doubt many of accused and killed man and women actually practiced some kind Pagan traditions not recognized by the church. Because of the  superstition and fear many people who did no harm were killed because of witch mania. Many women were completely innocent, and were killed because they differed from other women. Usually witch was considered women with long released hair usually black and rosy face and eyes. They differed by character from others and were looked with suspicion.  Many of them must have some mental problems that made them strange to others. In a time where psychology and tolerance was not known witch hunt was a useful tool to harm different people.

Today at age of multiculturalism Pagan practices are no longer harmed. Such person as Aleister Crowley would be killed and forgotten in at that time, but today he is still known as a famous black magician.  Neo-Pagan movements are springing so as the other beliefs. Let’s hope that there will be no time in the future where mass repressions are imposed because of some dogmatic religion.

Selected Sources:

Švābe, Arveds (Ed.) (1938) Latviešu konversācijas vārdnīca. Vol 17. Riga: Grāmatu apgādniecība A. Gulbis

Akmentiņš, R. (Ed.) (1994.) Mitoloģijas enciklopēdija : Pasaules tautu mitoloģiskās būtnes un priekšstati. (2. Vol) Riga: Latvijas Enciklopēdija.

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The mystery of the Castle Beverina

Thanks to the enormous efforts of Latvian archaeologists we know the exact locations of various early Latvian castles. But despite of that there is one mysterious place which is only noted in German chronicles, but no one has ever yet found the location of this castle. In the area of possible location there are many possible sites, where locals fiercely defend their rights of the righteous castle location. The academics also put themselves in a complicated discussion of the real location. The question- “Where’s Beverina?” is one of the unsolved mysteries of the Latvian history.

When Crusaders gained full control of the Daugava waterway, they needed the second vital waterway of the river Gauja. The river Gauja never leaves the Latvian present territory, but it serves as an important path to such Russian centers as Novgorod and Pleskau. The Crusaders started their way to Gauja by attacking and enslaving local Livonians. There was an important role for Livonian ruler Kaupo who helped to conquer his own people, but there is more detailed post needed about this controversial person. During the 1206-1212 the Crusaders established their lands across Daugava.  In  1210 the Crusaders started to build the castle of Cesis, the future residence of the Order. In  1212 a bitter conflict between Latgalians of Autīne and Crusaders took place. Local Livonians joined the resistance. This was the final time when Livonians understood completely that the Order wants their land and their freedom. The uprising ended when Crusaders lead by Crusader Albert captured the castle Satesele. The next victims of the Crusaders were lands of Metsepole and Idumeja also Imera.

Next there was a legendary land of Tālava- Latgalian ruled by Tālivaldis and his sons. According to historian E. Mugurēvičš Tālava was located in the district of Trikāta. Chronicle of Henry describes that Talvavians were either Pagans or Orthodox Christians.  The residence of Tālivaldis is called Beverīna according to Chronicler Henry (de Beverin). The name of the castle was mentioned 16 times in the Chronicle, but newer given clear location of it. It was probably in the district of Trikāta because it is stated that in  1208 Estonians attacked and sieged the Beverina castle located at Trikāta district. The citation to find Beverina castle is such: “Estonians retreated from the castle of Cesis, crossed Gauja and took an night rest by the lake which is located near the road of Beverina, but brothers of Cesis [the Crusaders] and Kaupo with Livonians and Latgalians chased them at morning and halted at the same lake to take breakfast and send the scouts and guards forward, some of then returned and informed that Estonians was running away across Imera”.  The Cesis is located at the left bank of Gauja than this means that Beverina road and the castle must be located at the right side of the river Gauja.

What was the lake where Estonians took night rest and the Crusaders took breakfast? And where the road of Beverina was leading? The two largest lakes at this location is lake of Vaidava and Burtnieks. Near lake Vaidava there are two known foothills- the hill of Vaidava and Cimpēnu hill. The Beverina could be located on those hills, but they never were researched by archaeologists to give a clear answer. In a recent publication done by historian Andrejs Lucāns the both hills are not considered as sites of Beverina. Chronicle states that Tālivaldis was baptized into Christianity. And the Chronicler Henry who was a priest, took his part of holy duty at Imera, therefore he mentions Beverina so many times. He praises Tālivaldis for his baptizing and tells how Tālivaldis died: “the Estonians baked Tālivaldis like fish until he passed out and died”. The Estonians killed him at the castle of Trikāta, when he was an old man. In his older years he no longer spent days in castle of Beverina, but with his sons at Trikāta. The historian Indriķis Šterns states that Beverina was not a large castle with large walls. It was only because the Chronicler Henry whose church at Rubene was so close to Beverina, the castle became so important.

But he did not give a clear answer where his beloved baptized king’s residence was exactly located. The Beverina was raised to the ground at year 1216. The name slowly disappeared from people’s memory until at late 19 century and beginning of the 20th century when poet Auseklis restored the myth of Beverina and composer Jāzeps Vītols made the song of the same name.  This started the academic search for Beverina. In year 2008 the historian Andrejs Lucāns made his version that Beverina was located at the city of Valmiera. In year 2009 the new administrative reform made the district of Beverina located near Valmiera. The nearby districts were dissatisfied with this claiming that three joined parishes of Kauguri, Brenguļi does not have any right to be called under Beverina’s name. This shows how unclear legends and statements and various versions becomes a reality. Surely no Latvian historian has not found out the real location of Beverina yet. We can thank the poet Auseklis for his poem “The melodist of Beverina” (1876) for giving the lost castle Beverina in light of knowledge once again.

The location of the present day Beverina district where Beverina could once stood.

Selected Sources:

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Lucāns, Andrejs. (2008) Ceļš uz Beverīnas pils indentifikāciju. In journal Latvijas Vēsture. Jaunie un Jaunākie Laiki. Nr. 4 (72)

 

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