Children & Sweden’s Witch Trials

There is a mythical place in Scandinavia called Blåkulla (Blue Hill or Mountain). Witches are said to fly there and attend so called “witches’ sabbaths”, where they have sexual intercourse with the Devil. This place does not exist as a feature in the physical landscape (though possible locations have been put forward). One such place is the island of Bla Jungfru (Blue Maiden) in the Baltic Sea. Author and researcher Paul Devereux speaks of “spirit roads” and the flight paths of witches that crisscross Europe (not unlike the migration paths of birds!) in his book “Revisioning the Earth”.

Today Sweden is often portrayed as a rather idyllic place full of sexually liberated women and tall handsome men (descendants of the Vikings). A high standard of living is taken for granted and even men enjoy a generous period of paternity leave. However, people from other countries do not always realise that the taxes are sky high (to pay for it all) and that the government regulates life very heavily (meaning everyone runs “on the same hamster wheel”). Here in the UK there is more deprivation but also more scope to lead an eccentric life according to personal choices and values.

To many people it may come as surprise that squeaky clean progressive Sweden has a shadow as large as that of any country. We only need to look back to the 20th century where the Sami (the indigenous people of Sapmi in the North, often called Lapland but they themselves do not approve of that name) were treated appallingly. The Sami lost accress to ancestral land where they had herded their reindeer and roamed free for centuries. Their children were (forcibly) sent to boarding schools further south and indoctrinated in the dominant languages (Swedish and Norwegian). Young people were actively discouraged from learning and speaking their own indigenous languages and from following their ancestral traditions.

Image by the author.
Image by the author.

17th century Sweden, like many European countries, saw witch hunts and witch trials. Not just that: witches (if they now were witches!) stood accused of taking children with them to Blåkulla and children were the main accusers in some of these witch trials. Women were put to death based on allegations by very young children. The children themselves were not punished for “flying to Blåkulla “. The mass hysteria was not questioned or curbed by the parents or community leaders concerned. In this article I try to answer the following questions:

What happened here?

How could this happen?

Could something like this happen again if we do not learn the lessons this dark period brought us?! Can we stop History repeating itself?

One theory that has been put forward is that ergot poisoning affected entire rural communities. Ergot of rye is a fungus caused by weather conditions. It can occur when a rainy spring follows a cold winter. It has been considered one of the causes of the mass hallucinations in Salem. It may have been a factor in Sweden as well. Herbalists and Wise Women have known about ergot since ancient times. It was used as an aid in childbirth (to hastens he delivery) and also to induce abortions. Midwives used it to stop bleeding after birth. Today LSD is made from the same ergot fungus that (perhaps) caused the mass hysteria in Salem.

In Sweden the witchcraft period started in Älvdalen, near Mora, on Lake Siljan, in the year 1668. Outlandish tales told by children about being taken to Blåkulla  (so called Blåkullafjärder or Blåkulla Journeys) to feast with the Devil sparked off this dark chapter in Swedish history. The mass hysteria spread like an infectious disease. In Torsaker 71 people (most of them old women and more than 10% of the population!!) were burned after being decapitated. The place is called Witch Mountain even today (Häxberget). The charge of traveling to Blakulla was not about sorcery or casting spells. It was about flying through the air and feasting with the Devil.

Children claimed that they had travelled there on the back of a cow, horse or person. This happened any time of the day or night. The accused did impossible things (speaking from the everyday reality point of view) like zipping through walls and chimneys. They even took off from church pews during mass without being missed. There was a lot of talk about horns and flying ointment as well.

At Blåkulla people feasted and celebrated like they did at a farmer’s wedding; the ate, drank, danced and had sex. The Devil crouched under the table and laughed so hard that the room shook. The fires of hell flamed up through a hole in the floor through which suffering souls could be glimpsed. The children had children themselves but everything was done “upside down” in this place. The conceiving of children happened “back to back”.

Some children said that they had seen angels at Vitkulla (a White Mountain next to Blue Mountain). Those angels were said to knock the food out of children’s hands, crying tears as large as pears as they begged the children to confess so the witches might be rooted out.

This period is sometimes referred to as The Big Noise. About 300 people were executed in all, including Malin Matsdotter who was the last person be burned alive at Hötorget in Stockholm.

Accusations were made against judges and pastors as well but those were simply swept aside and ignored. Those judges and priests, after all, were the people who ran the trials and sentenced the accused.

As the author of the newly published book NATURAL BORN SHAMANS: A Spiritual Toolkit for Life – using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages, I myself am known, in the year 2016, for my shamanic work with children and teenagers. (And yes, I am sometimes asked if I am a witch!)

I am always aware of the ancestral terror that the witch trials still provoke. In many shamanic healing sessions with clients I come across ancestors who were Wise Women (or Wise Men) and who had to go into hiding or pretend to live a mainstream Christian life just to stay alive. We don’t often talk about this – we think it is “long in the past” and “over and done with” but actually this fear lives on and continues to take new forms in our culture. It also shapes our attitudes and fears (mostly unconsciously). Even today (in the 21st century!) there are many people who will not allow their children to attend my spiritual programs, because this fear looms so large. For that reason I felt compelled to read up on this period, this cultural Shadow, and formulate a response.

What is not healed and put to rest in any larger human “constellation” or ancestral field will erupt again sooner or later. This is why we speak of “history repeating itself” for good reason: it means that something seeks healing! This is also why we speak of things that “run in families”.

Image by the author.
Image by the author.

In an attempt to understand what may have happened here, let’s cycle back even further in time. Before the year 1000 Scandinavia was pagan. People followed earth-based spiritual traditions and venerated the old Norse gods and goddesses (Odin, Thor, Freyja, Frigg and others).Those people had a very sophisticated system for understanding the workings of the human soul. They also knew of nine worlds arranged around the world tree, Yggdrasil, as a cosmic axis. Swedish people, often living in or near a forest, had a great deal of respect for elves, land dwights, trolls, nature spirits and other inhabitants of parallel worlds. They lived in a respectful partnership with all these beings. The belief in other realms runs deep in Scandinavian ancestral blood!

There were two main forms of magic in those days: sejd (seidr in Old Norse, an oracular and prophetic form of magic mostly practiced by women) and Galdr or Rune Magic (a more “masculine” magic used to fix events or impose one’s will on outcomes). The last form was seen as more “honourable” and mostly practiced by men.

The “foreigner from overseas” known as The Devil had no place in this cosmology. People certainly made a distinction between white magic (for healing and greater good) and black magic (making unpleasant things happen to people).The Norse gods were neither “perfect or good in any absolute sense” nor “completely bad”. They were fierce and hot-tempered characters, forces to be reckoned with.

In Viking times people’s lives evolved around Clan and Kin and making honourable choices. Bad choices could affect the survival of the whole community, in a harsh climate with no social security and long distances between settlements. However, as Europe gradually adopted Christianity, the Scandinavian countries (Iceland included) came under pressure to do the same. Satan (meaning a Christian personification of “evil”) arrived on the scene. Ancient pagan festivals were overlaid with a Christian veneer. Even herbs with pagan names acquired the names of saints!

All this by means of some background! By the 17th century Sweden had been Christian for half a milennium. It was initially Catholic (which is lavish and baroque and accommodates Heathen touches more easily) but then became Protestant. (Today the Swedish state religion is Lutheran). At the time of the witch trials attending church was obligatory and people needed a travel pass (from their priest) to even leave their village.

Add to all this that young children naturally operate in “the magical zone”. They still see into other worlds and do not always make a clear distinction between everyday reality, dreams and other realms. So a huge amount of pagan traditions and knowledge had been “pushed underground” and demonized. The Wise Women and Men were the keepers of the Old Ways but even their ways of working were “corrupted” by Christianity. (The Lord’s Prayer is used in incredibly many magical spells from this period!) In those days villages had no doctors. When people had accidents, fell ill, gave birth or died, the Wise Women were called in.

Any culture that suppresses a huge amount of old traditions is going carry a lot of shadow material. What happens then is that “what we cannot own we project onto others”. So Wise Men and Women carried the role of doctor/midwife/healer/psychotherapist but also all the shadow projections in their communities. It is not hard to understand how this amounted to a “time bomb ticking” in oppressively protestant narrow-minded rural communities.

Image by the author.
Image by the author.

The following question then arises: why did so many children of “good Christian families” accuse old women (who had quite possibly delivered them safely into the world!) of witchcraft and abductions?

As a shamanic teacher I would like to make the following observations:

-Magic in and of itself is nothing scary: it is the ability to marry power to intention, using willpower, imagination and determination. Professional practitioners of magic know how to align this world with other worlds and call in powers larger than themselves.

People who do not believe in magic still unconsciously use forms of “black magic” such as sending others harmful thoughts, cursing them by saying horrible things about them and throwing energetic obstacles in their way. The time has come for all of us to own this fact and reflect on our own part in this widespread cultural phenomenon!

– The Devil is Christian invention, not an ancient pagan figure!

– All young children anywhere have an innate talent for magic and soul flight and this is their (our!) birthright.

They are magical beings until the dominant culture stamps this mode of perceiving reality out of them. When we listen to them we need to make distinctions between the realms they are talking about. In parallel worlds we can indeed zip through chimneys and leave our body behind while our soul embarks on great adventures.

– Young children often carry unresolved ancestral material in a larger family (or village) field. In a distorted way they may be giving voice to old stories and old ways that belong to earlier peoples living on the land where they grow up

– Because the authority figures in Christianity (never Christ himself!) actively used fear as a social tool to control community life, the adults concerned were not equipped to handle the material these children gave voice to as it triggered all their own fears and unresolved issues.

– It is the sacred task of responsible adults anywhere to listen with discernment and make children aware of the rules (around “good and bad”, “honourable and dishonourable actions and choices”) that apply in all worlds.

Theoretically speaking the parents and other community leaders could have said to those children: “Many things can happen in our dreams and imagination – as indeed they do in fairy-tales and legends! However, we need to be extremely careful because we accuse someone of witchcraft that person could die a horrible death because of our words!!” To me the fact that common sense did not keep things in check so the hysteria was allowed to escalate is far more shocking than the tales the children told. To me, as a teacher of shamanism, that indicates collective trauma, ancestral soul loss. And that is something we need to heal to free future generations of re-living these events.

Those children grew up and became adults themselves. They carried the memories and “stain” of these accusations and events. Yet I repeat: the adults held spiritual responsibility here, not the children. When I do ancestral healing work today I often see how future generations are affected by the fact that ancestors “had blood on their hands” and played their part in the deaths of innocent people. On a larger level this will continue to erupt in new forms and seek healing until the issue is addressed and amends are made.

My conclusion is that is is our responsibility to teach children how to access other worlds and magical powers safely. This is not different from teaching them about crossing the road. By divorcing ourselves and them from our spiritual heritage we lose personal power (as well as our roots) and store up frightening experiences for the future (when things inevitably start bleeding through).

We would do well to organise group healing ceremonies on our ancestral land all over Europe. To make amends and put the issue to rest for once and for all. To honour those who died and clear their names. Outside Time this will unburden them and allow their soul to continue their greater cosmic journey.

The way we respond to fundamentalism today shows signs of the same mass hysteria. The terror, the scape-goating, the unwillingness to own our own shadow part in this global phenomenon and work on the mirrors this holds up. Our failure to provide safe space for spiritual exploration and safe Rites of Passage for our young people so they initiate themselves by actively seeking risky experiences.

I wll be very explicit (and make myself very unpopular!) : even terrorists (in today’s world) are not “the Devil incarnate”. They are misguided fellow human beings who carry a lot of ancestral pain on behalf of their communities and the traumatized dead who linger on their ancestral land. Any war is a war of projections. World War II isn’t so long ago, my own mother remembers it vividly!!

For more about this subject please see the previous article I wrote for Patheos Pagan, titled Shamhat & The Shaman :

Shamhat & The Shaman

I thank Charlene Jordan for writing this thought-provoking book. It provided a lot of the factual material for this article. You can order a copy on amazon.

I urge all of us to sit with these events and reflect on what is happening in our world today (Western teenagers being recruited by IS). Fundamentalism triggering a global spiral of demonizing and escalation of tension is not the way forward. How many times does History need to repeat itself before we learn?!

This article was inspired by the book: “Whispers In The Church” (Swedish Witch Hunt 1672) by Charlene Hanson Jordan.

Imelda Almqvist’s book Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit For Life (Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages) was published by Moon Books on 26th August 2016.  She is based in London,UK and teaches shamanism and sacred art internationally. 

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