Witches from Zagreb

Illustration: Gordon Johnson, Pixabay

17th – 18th century

The first inklings of the belief in witchcraft in Croatia can be traced back to the High Middle Ages. Provisions against the practice of witchcraft appear in statutes dating from the 13th to the 17th centuries, while the oldest surviving document from a witch trial dates from 1360, from the Zagreb area of Gradec.

As a figure built on prejudice and ignorance, the witch was often credited with performing various malicious deeds using her magic – from causing disease, inflicting injuries and destroying crops, to making potions and practising herbalism, and sometimes even stealing or cannibalism. 

Torture started being used in the 15th century in order to extract confessions, and the next two decades would see a proliferation of the methods of torture. Keeping step with the rest of Europe, Croatian people embraced the belief that witches formed secret covens, while the Church encouraged the belief in the demonic nature of witchcraft. The idea that magic powers resulted from consorting with the Devil soon gained traction. Oftentimes, an oral accusation was enough to initiate an investigation.

The so-called Ferdinandeja, or Praxis criminalis, was introduced in the 17th century, which foregrounded the theological definition of the crime and regulated the use of torture devices. Soon, the confessions of women accused of being witches, extorted through torture, were increasingly being used for further prosecutions. The defendants were forced to name other members of their coven. Torture often lasted for hours, until the defendant lost consciousness or proffered the much-desired confession. If a woman died from the consequences of torture, this was seen as further evidence of her guilt. 

Burning at the stake was the most severe form of punishment, sometimes preceded by beheading, but many women had been burned alive. Croatian courts rarely issued an acquittal. Many of the prosecuted women were poor and/or elderly: Margareta Kuljanka, Bara Tunčić, Barica Benšek known as Cindekovica, Magda Muhić Kata Kozjak, and many others.

In 1756, Queen Maria Theresia issued a decision which effectively, though not expressly (she ruled that she must approve all cases), prevented further prosecutions. The last documented witch trial dates from 1757 and it involved Magda Logomer Herucina, a herbalist from the town of Križevci. However, the Queen overturned the verdict and ordered Magda to come to Vienna to meet her.

Inspired by these stories and trial records, Marija Jurić Zagorka wrote The Witch of Grič, a very popular series of novels published in instalments over several years.

Tuškanac, Zagreb

Zvezdišće (also: Zredišće, Središće) was one of the places where the women convicted of witchcraft were burned at the stake. The purpose of these public events was to discipline and intimidate any potential "lawbreakers". In 1808, the parcel had come under the management of the Archery Association, which built a shooting range there. Sometime later, it was transformed into a dance school, and in the early 20th century it became the home of the Operetta Theatre, which was repurposed into a cinema in the 1930s.