Ah, Easter. The time for egg hunts, bunnies, and… witches? As folklore scholar Fredrik Skott writes, Easter witches are, in fact, a longstanding Swedish tradition.
Skott traces the idea of the Easter witch to the sixteenth century, when a fear of witches as agents of Satan arrived in Sweden. In witch hunts of the 1660s and 1670s, several thousand people were tried for allegedly making pacts with the devil. Hundreds were executed.
One story Swedes told at that time was that witches flew to a location called Blåkulla to commune with Satan on witches’ Sabbaths, often said to occur on Easter. The means of transportation could be brooms, poles, cows, or even people—as long as they were greased with ointment stored in horns provided by the devil himself. In Blåkulla, the ordinary world reversed: witches sat around a table facing outward, old people became young, and women took men’s roles.
Skott writes that the belief in Blåkulla survived for centuries. In the mid-nineteenth century, Swedish Easter was many things: a sacred Christian holiday, a festive work-free day celebrated with pranks, and a time of real fear of witches. People lit bonfires and painted tar crosses on their barn doors to ward off evil. By that time, many people across western Sweden had also begun dressing up as witches at Easter.
In the Easter witch tradition, teenagers and young adults donned worn clothes turned inside out. Cross-dressing was common: Boys might appear as old witches while girls could play the role of male Easter trolls. Participants painted their faces or wore cloth or paper masks, often with hair and eyebrows made of moss. Some carried brooms, horns, or coffee pots symbolizing the feasts of Blåkulla.
The costumed witches traveled around town, sometimes playing tricks in an effort to convince people that real witches were roaming the land. That might mean knocking over wagons, riding other people’s horses and leaving them sweaty and tired, or climbing onto roofs and pouring ash down chimneys. They might also stop at houses, begging for something to eat or for a drink of schnapps.
Often, the masked witches and trolls anonymously delivered “Easter letters,” sometimes by throwing them at a house along with a log of wood and fleeing before they could be caught. The letters usually held a painting of a witch and often a verse inviting the reader to join the witches’ Sabbath. The verses might simply be playful, or they might contain an insult to a recipient believed to have done something wrong.
Skott notes that the Easter witch tradition still survives today, in a very different form. For Maundy Thursday or Easter Sunday, groups of young girls dress up in aprons and kerchiefs and visit neighbors or relatives, singing songs or giving out drawings in exchange for sweets or money. Much like bunnies and baby chicks, they are adorable and completely nonthreatening, a far cry from the wild Easter witches of yore.