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Russia

Witchcraft Trials

Witchcraft trials occurred frequently in seventeenth-century Russia, although the “great witch-hunt” is believed to be a predominately Western European phenomenon. However, as the witchcraft-trial craze swept across West European countries during this time, Orthodox Christian Eastern Europe indeed partook in this so-called “witch hysteria.” This involved the persecution of both males and females who were believed to be practicing paganism, herbology, the black art, or a form of sorcery within and/or outside their community. Very early on witchcraft legally fell under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical body, the church, in Kievan Rus’ and Muscovite Russia. Sources of ecclesiastical witchcraft jurisdiction date back as early as the second half of the eleventh century, one being Vladimir the Great’s first edition of his State Statute or Ustav, another being multiple references in the Primary Chronicle beginning in 1024.

The sentence for an individual found guilty of witchcraft or sorcery during this time, and in previous centuries, typically included either burning at the stake or being tested with the “ordeal of cold water” or judicium aquae frigidae. The cold-water test was primarily a Western European phenomenon, but was used as a method of truth in Russia prior to, and post, seventeenth-century witchcraft trials in Muscovy. Accused persons who drowned were considered innocent, and ecclesiastical authorities would proclaim them “brought back,” but those who floated were considered guilty of practicing witchcraft, and burned at the stake or executed in an unholy fashion. The thirteenth-century bishop of Vladimir, Serapion Vladimirskii, preached sermons throughout the Muscovite countryside, and in one particular sermon revealed that burning was the usual punishment for witchcraft, but more often the cold water test was used as a precursor to execution.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

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