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Witch trials in Dubrovnik, part I.

witches dancing circle - vještičje kolo

"It was in early August of 1660 when captain Ivan Gučetić of Janjina captaincy, the Republic of Dubrovnik, was informed of the presence of vilenicas* and witches in his district. Intrigued by the report, he decided to have one of these vilenicas summoned. Soon before him stood a young woman, aged between 25 and 30, who was to satisfy the captain's curiosity and puzzlement. But what followed may well be characterized as a conversation rather than an interrogation, let alone duress:

"Are you a vilenica?"

She replied with a whiff of confidence: "Sir, I most certainly am."

The captain inquired more as to the exact actions of the vilenicas. "I can heal". When he asked about the person who had taught her the knowledge, her reply was: "Tetka Vila**."

"In what shape has this Aunt Fairy appeared before you?"

"Robed in white, in the shape of a nun and she taught me how to heal."

"How many times has this Aunt Fairy appeared before you?" "Whenever I pleased."

"What signs did you and this Aunt Fairy use when you wished to communicate?"

"She told me that whenever I wished her to appear I was to pick the root of a herb called oman*** or popuna, and another herb called lisičji rep****...I can tell a person whom a witch has harmed and whether or not he will be cured."

"How is it in your power to know?"

"By means of a herb called oman (inula): if a person harmed by the witch can smell the herb, no harm will come upon him, and if he can't, he will die."

"Have you practiced this on anyone?"

"Yes, Sir, on many a person."

"Do you know which women in our captaincy are witches?"

"I know of many."

"And who they might be?""*****

Vilenica denounced nine more women, all of whom were soon summoned to appear before the captain, so he started to interrogate them one by one.

The first one confirmed that she was indeed a witch just like the others that vilenica has already named. The second one also confessed that she was a witch too, but all the other women denied, although the two of them mutually accused each other. The final decision of the captain was to send these nine women to Ragusa where they were all put in prison cells. The vilenica was not mentioned again, so she was probably spared. The process thus continued in the city where the women were interrogated again and then put under the torture. The first two of nine accused witches confessed again.

The following are their testimonies from the process in Dubrovnik.

The first witch said that in the beginning the Devil came to her in bed one night in the form of a young man who had promised her that he would give her anything what she asked if she agreed to become a witch. She was asked whether the Devil had bedded her, to which she replied yes, but only once. He had promised her she would never lack for anything, bread or wine. She flew with her Devil in the form of a moth, sometimes she also turned into a chicken or a cat. There were offerings to the Devils that the witches presented during their gatherings in Sreser******. So when each witch offered her child, since she didn’t have children on her own, she offered her nephew who was three years old boy who she ate. She came in a form of a moth, she laid on his chest and took the heart out. Then she brought it to the Sabbath and she and her friends roasted it and ate it. It was so delicious, it tasted like veal.

The other witch, who was even worse, testified that she offered her only daughter as a sacrifice to the Devil. She explained that each witch had her own personal devil. She also had a mark of her Devil on her right arm. She was asked whether someone who is in God’s mercy could be eaten, to which she replied that the witches could eat anybody.

The other seven accused women didn’t confess anything and they endured the torture firmly.

The jury reached the verdict, the two witches must be hanged and then burned under the gallows. The Senators also saw the need that the entire case must be brought out to Church before the punishment is to be performed. Hence the two witches were interrogated again by Dubrovnik’s archbishop. The second witch confessed even more evil doings to his Excellency. Finaly the archbishop arranged the abjuration of the witches in the cathedral where the entire process was read in Croatian language in front of the public. At the end both women were compelled to abjure from their sins and errors.

They were then returned to their cells and the sentence was passed on them. The first one accepted it saying: “Thank God”, while the other started to cry and to yell: ”Why they didn’t absolve me from my sins in the church, why I wasn’t given my penance?”

The day of the execution arrived. The first witch ended her life with a great remorse, invoking for God’s mercy. The second witch, however, was more stubborn and she refused to walk to the gallows, saying she was innocent. Her confessor, the Jesuit Orsat Ranjina tried to comfort her saying: “Our Lord was innocent too and he still suffered for us.“ She had to be carried to her imminent death on the gallows.

After the sentence was carried out, the special comity of five members of the Senate was formed whose task was to investigate if there were more witches in the territory of the Republic and to prosecute them accordingly. At the same time, in the churches all around, the priests had to preach against this Devil's work that the witchcraft was. This particular process in 1660 ended with the capital punishment and at the same time it marked the beginning of Dubrovnik witch trials. ******* be continued.

* Vilenica; noun, derivative from vila meaning a fairy, a vilenica is a woman that knows how to heal with herbs and that acquired the knowledge of herbology from fairies.

** Aunt Fairy

*** Inula

**** Foxtail

***** Quote from Čiča, Zoran: Vilenica i vilenjak, Sudbina jednog pretkršćanskog kulta u doba progona vještica, Institut za etnologiju i folkloristiku, Zagreb 2002.

****** A place on the Pelješac peninsula

******* The entire process from 1660 was recorded in the letter that senator from Dubrovnik Pavao Gradić wrote to his brother to Rome, the priest Stjepan Gradić who, at the time, worked in Vatican.

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