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The Kashubia region in northern Poland is home to the country’s last generation of witches. These ...
2018-11-04 14:00:00

Women Who Know
The Witches of Kashubia

Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski
Women Who Know
Women Who Know

I believe in God, and I believe in this too. They say it doesn’t help those who don’t believe, but I don’t know if that’s true. Still, maybe you need to believe for it to work.

Read in 16 minutes

Officially, the last Kashubian witch was drowned in Chałupy in 1836. But lynching was, in fact, still taking place at the turn of the 20th century, according to my great-aunt who was well-versed in ‘such matters’. She knew how to remove spells, heal with herbs, and dispel róża (‘the rose’, a mystical illness-like condition typically involving a rash or spots). This was enough for her to get labelled a witch by society. After all, how could a woman have such skills without the help of the devil? According to legend, witches’ sabbaths were held on Thursdays, but my great-aunt never mentioned them. She never talked about the ‘Bald Mountains’ that adorn the post-glacial landscape of the Kashubian region, and to which the witches are said to have flown on their broomsticks or shovels. These are things I read about in books.

What she did speak about was her fear of people. In her youth, she was afraid that they would subject her to the water test, like the last witch put on trial in Chałupy, Krystyna Ceynowa. The water test was the most commonly used method to check whether a woman had a pact with the devil. It was said that witches were light as a feather and did not drown. So they would tie the witch’s right hand to her left foot, and her left hand to her right foot, and lower her into the water on a rope. Even if by some miracle she did not drown, they would beat her to death with their oars. Witch-hunts took place on the eve of 30th April – Saint Walpurga’s Eve – but that was not the only time. Other dangerous times for witches included midsummer night, the September equinox, the winter solstice in December, and Candlemas (otherwise known as witches’ eve or the celebration of the birth of light). Or, of course, simply whenever the cows stopped giving milk and the chickens stopped laying eggs.

My great-aunt said people were afraid of her and that made life difficult. She is no longer alive. She had a normal Catholic funeral. You could say that she was the last witch – or the last ‘woman who knew’ – in our family.

Or at least, so I think.

When researching this piece, I set off on a journey through my native region of Kashubia (in northern Poland) in search of today's Kashubian witches, perhaps the very last of all. These are the stories told by those that I found.

***

“I wouldn’t go see her if I were you, why tempt fate? You actually believe in all that stuff? She lives close by. Three houses down, towards the city. But be careful!”, the store saleswoman warns me.

Agnes, the exorcist

Don’t give my name or address. I don’t want to advertise anywhere. One time a priest in Olsztyn announced during Mass that if anyone had any problems with such matters, they should come here. He gave my name and address and said: “Don’t be ashamed or afraid. You have to go there, that is the only place to get help.”

It’s not easy dealing with these people here, I can tell you. One person wants this, another one wants that. I’m 85 years old and I have seen a lot in my day. I have been doing this since I was 26, so I know what I’m talking about.

I inherited this from my mother. There were four of us sisters. One is still alive, she is older than me, in December she will be 87. Neither she nor the others were able to do this. I would pass it on to someone, but nobody wants it. I will not give it to a stranger. I have only one daughter and three sons. I wanted to give it to my granddaughter, but no one believes in God anymore, and in order to do this you have to believe in God, and I mean truly believe. It can’t be someone who doesn’t care about God. These are divine matters. They’re not interested. Nobody wants to deal with people.

A priest? I’ve had six priests here already. Not one asked me how I do it. Not one. As soon as they felt better they just left.

Some days I see as many as five people. And they all have different problems: spells, róża, the devil.

The devil is the worst

I managed to exorcise the devil twice. Once a woman came from Władysławowo with her son. The boy had once played a devil in a school play, and after the show was over he brought the devil back home with him. When they came to me, he was 17 years old. A grown man, really. You can imagine how many holy places his mother took him to over the years. This was a job for a priest, not an ordinary woman like myself. I am a Kashubian, I admit, but I was honestly scared to do it. I mean, after all, it is the devil. It’s not a joke. But I thought to myself, I’m a Kashubian, I will try.

My God, that boy was skinny. The devil didn’t let him eat or sleep, he followed him everywhere: to school, from school. Like a brother. The mother lived with him in the same room and never saw the devil. And the devil made himself at home. But when the boy came to see me, the devil wasn’t with him. I told them what to do when they got home, and then come back to see me the next day. What did I tell them to do? I can’t tell you.

When they came back the next day, again the devil wasn’t with the boy, but he still wouldn’t leave him alone. I thought to myself: “Dear God, what have I gotten myself into?” But they left and came back on the third day and the devil was gone. So I asked: “He didn’t even come for coffee?” No. I was happy, but I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Not even five minutes. He didn’t let me sleep. He didn’t let me because I botched his plan. I told the mother that such matters should be handled by priests. I only have a fourth-grade education as I was too old to continue school. I'm scared to deal with things like that, but nothing bad happened, and… he left. On the third day, we all cried our eyes out.

There was another, older boy. He also came to me with his mother, and when he saw me he started to wail. He had these high boots and he kicked so much they fell off. He was all snotty and sweaty, really wet all over, and he had these strange eyes. I was so scared, I didn’t say a word, just tried to help him with my thoughts. My daughter lived downstairs and she asked me: “Mum, what were you doing up there with that boy?” And I said, “I have destroyed half of hell.”

How? I can’t explain how I do it.

***

“Everyone here knows that if the doctor doesn’t help, you have to go see Gertrude. She will always help. She lives two houses past the bridge,” explains one lady working in her garden.

Gertrude, dissolver of spells

I inherited this from my father, he got it from his mother, and his mother from her mother. People come to me to cure their ailments, not so much to remove spells, but it sometimes happens. I am almost 90 years old, I don’t have the strength to do it all, but if you have the gift, you must help.

They all know about me here. And they come because it doesn’t cost anything. It’s enough for me if they tell me “God bless you”. But I don’t want them to write about me. I am too old for cellphones, or whatever you young ones call them.

You can tell someone is under a spell if they can’t sleep or eat, or they’re lazy or just can’t function. A spell is a terrible thing, just like a róża that isn’t cured. That’s what kills us. There is no worse illness than a róża or a curse. A cursed animal dies. If you have a róża, you get cancer, you die. These are not pleasant things. Not at all. But what can you do? I have been doing this for many years, so I know all about it.

Reading the Gospel of St. John backwards

Anyone can cast a spell. You won’t even know someone has done it. It’s enough that they have a bad thought, or feelings of jealousy, or praise. You should not praise, as it can cast a spell. Someone who knows they have an evil eye should tuck their hands inside their trousers when they enter a pigsty to keep the spell inside. [They tuck their fingers behind their trouser belt to prevent bad energy from getting let out – author’s note]. But they must be aware of it. If they’re not, they can accidentally cast a spell on the animals and that’ll be it.

The spells on the small ones – chickens, geese, ducks – can be reversed. All you need to do is put them through a man's buksówka [Kashubian for trouser leg – author’s note] and read the Gospel of St. John backwards. And that makes for tough reading. Right away they come out the other end dry and healthy. But for the bigger animals like horses or cows, you have to rub them with a man’s sweaty shirt, that will cure them. But all of this has to be done with the help of God and holy water.

Remove it with an egg

When someone’s under a spell, they don’t feel well. Some spells may be removed with an egg. It must be a fresh egg, straight from the chicken, those are the best. You have to circle the egg around the patient’s head three times to get the illness into the egg. And pray. Then break the egg into a glass of water and watch. That will tell you everything. Sometimes the egg yolk is cooked through, like in a hard-boiled egg. If you see bubbles appear in the egg white then the spell was cast on the liver; if you see threads, then it’s on the blood. Then you have to dump the water with the egg out and wash the glass. Otherwise it can cause all kinds of different problems.

If the coal sinks, it’s a man

Then there are some people who cast spells on purpose. This can also be helped, I’m not saying it can’t. But you have to be careful not to do any harm or kill anyone. It’s a great responsibility. You find out who cast the spell by using coal and bread. You throw a lump of coal and a piece of bread in the water. If the coal sinks, the spell was cast by a man; if the bread does, it was a woman. You can more or less figure out who did it. Worst of all are the spells that attack immediately. Paralysis, heart attack, or even epilepsy. Epilepsy is most often because of a spell, let me tell you.

Prayer and garlic with milk

I dispel various illness caused by curses, it all depends on the illness. But I always pray to Jesus or the Virgin Mary and they always help me cure the illness because you need to help people. I start with a prayer, whispering it under my breath, and then it depends. Sometimes I burn herbs and blow the smoke at the patient. Sometimes I make them drink. For example, garlic with milk for difficulty breathing, or milk with marjoram for a runny nose. You must boil the milk and rinse the nose with it. For insomnia, milk with marigold is best. To cure cold sores the patient must make a hole in a pear tree, blow in it three times and seal it. This will lock the illness in the tree.

You can’t protect yourself against spells. Some people tie red ribbons on children or horses, but that doesn’t help.

Róża is not caused by a spell, it’s something quite different. Very different. It requires a different approach. Doctors immediately cut off the leg or don’t do anything at all. How can this be cured? They will just say it’s cancer, cut it off, and that’s it. And what will that do? It will not do anything, because it won’t stop the progress. It will not be healed or averted. The róża must be dispelled three times. Because if not, it will return.

I burn the róża. I place a towel on the affected area and a piece of linen on top, but it has to be blessed with a Blessed Thunder Candle. I burn it for three days, around sunset. Everyone has their own way of dispelling róża. My mother used to rub the affected area with a rag that was used to wash a corpse. Also three times. For me, it’s the linen and praying to Virgin Mary.

“May your hair get tangled in a knot”

The hair knots are not as popular anymore, but they do still happen. 30 years ago, hair knots were even more common than różas. You could get a knot if someone simply said “may your hair get tangled in a knot”, that’s all it took. It’s just a mess of tangled hair on your head that happens when someone casts a spell. If this happens to you, you must pray and then wait three days and cut it off. You can’t cut it off right away, as that will make you even sicker. Then you must bury the hair you have cut in the ground.

The worst spells are cast by the dead. You always have to make sure that their eyes and mouth are closed in the coffin, otherwise they might see someone or call them out. These days the dead are no longer kept at home, so it’s not as bad. But you have to be aware of it, my dear, it’s no joke.

***

“Once you pass the lake, my house is the sixth one past the store,” I hear on the phone from the only one I managed to make an appointment with.

Elżbieta, the róża healer

You won’t print my surname, or anything, right? I don’t want to be known as a witch or something. Don’t want that at all. Just call me Elżbieta, it’s my middle name. That’ll be fine.

It was my mother who passed it on to me. When she died 14 years ago, people started coming to me. It all started with my brother. When he was six years old, he had this scratch that wouldn’t heal. My mother took him to some doctors, but they didn’t help. Then her sister told her there was a preacher in Kartuzy who could help. My mother and my brother were supposed to go see him three times, but he said, “It makes no sense for you to do all that travelling.” So he told her to bring a clean cloth.

This is the cloth right here, it’s 45 years old now. This preacher drew six blue crosses on it, but you can’t really see them anymore, and it’s all turned yellow now after all this time. You put this cloth on the affected area and make crosses, followed by one big cross, and then you blow. First all around and then on the cross. You do it three times for three days. It’s best to do during a sunset to make the róża disappear, just like the sun does.

Prayer? No, you don’t have to pray here. You just place the cloth on the spot and blow. That’s all.

You must dispel the róża three times

That’s the best way, but sometimes even once is enough to help someone. They say there are nine types of róża. I know that the Virgin Mary went to the garden to pick roses. She picked one, gave one away, and lost the third one. And the third one was supposed to disappear, but it didn’t and it causes illness. It takes various forms. Sometimes it’s blisters; other times festering scabs, pimples, or a glowing rash. Sometimes the róża itches so bad you can’t stand it; other times it’s a prickling feeling. Róża doesn’t like water or any ointments or creams. They make it worse.

When my mother was still alive, a man came to see her once from a hospital in Gdańsk. He was covered in boils and had no idea what was wrong with him. Someone told him about my mother, and when he came the next day he said: “I started feeling better as I left here yesterday.” He was covered in boils, I think he had hives. But he slept through the night that evening. It ended up being róża.

“Doctors recommended dispelling”

I had two people who were told by doctors that they needed dispelling. One woman had a problem with her leg and the doctor told her to find someone who could do that because it was a case of róża. Older doctors are more keen to recommend this than younger ones.

I always tell them when they come that it might not be róża, and I always recommend that they see a doctor. What I do does not harm anyone and I definitely don’t tell people not to see a doctor. I can’t be sure, I’m not a doctor. But you can always try, it doesn’t cost anything. I won’t harm, but I can’t always help. I believe in God, and I believe in this too. They say it doesn’t help those who don’t believe, but I don’t know if that’s true. Still, maybe you need to believe for it to work.

The priest? He doesn’t say anything. Everyone here knows I do this. The organist often comes to me. He often suffers from róża. Our priest says nothing. After all, there really isn’t much to say.

Róża can be caused by fear. You get frightened and there it is. Sometimes you don’t even realize you got scared.

These days there are fewer and fewer people who do this. The older people have died, and the young people don’t want to do it at all. I don’t know why. I would teach them to do it, but do you think they’re interested? I have a niece, a nephew, but no… It doesn’t have to be anyone from the family, but it must be someone who will want to do this and help people. That’s all you need. You can learn it.

But people say these are just old superstitions.

Sometimes, though, such superstitions help people.

 

Translated by Daniel J. Sax

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