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August 18 – The day of Austrian witches!

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In Salzburg, Austria, around the seventeenth century the belief that witches were born on this day spread.
For this reason, the children born today were subject to scrupulous checks to ensure that they did not have the “witch mark”, which could be a mole of an odd shape or in a particular point on the body, red hair, a birthmark , etc….
This belief stemmed from the fact that – according to a local legend – on August 18 1638, an evil sorcerer had been born who had cursed the population, causing catastrophes and tragedies everywhere.
The Schwarzenberg is a mountain in the middle of the Lungau near the castle of Moosham.
It seems that, long ago, witches lived in the mountain and came out of their caves at midnight, waering white robes and dancing on the meadow under the full moon, but only children could hear their music.
In Salzburg, all night long the witches danced, whispered, laughed and quietly talked, and the dancing-place of the witches was called “Rader Tanzhügel”, literally “dancing hill”, where the snow melted quickly in winter, and it was said that was because the witches danced there.

In any case, during the years of plague, witches were thought to spread the black death, and later it was also discovered that a convenient way to eliminate a rival, a romantic competitor, an enemy or even a bad neighbor was to accuse them of witchcraft.
During the Inquisition, most witches were classed as heretics, not only disbelievers in church doctrine but also servants of the Devil. Although not all witches were burned at the stake, very few accused of heresy escaped this punishment.
Mass witch trials began in the 15th century with the help of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, a manual for hunting and persecuting witches drawn up by two Dominican priors of questionable reputation, reprinted thirty times by 1669.
Witch hunting had become part of broader campaigns to impose religious orthodoxies, and it lost most of their momentum only with the end of the Thirty Years War when the Peace of Westphalia brought better religious recognition and more tolerance.
It peaked in German lands in the 17th century, with early panics in Brandenburg and Mecklenburg, then in the Rhineland and Southwest Germany, with German ecclesiastical territories hit the hardest.
The town of Baden burned 200 witches from 1627 to 1630, tiny Ellwangen 393 from 1611 to 1618, and the Catholic prince-bishopric of Würzburg burned 600 witches from 1628 to 1631.
Ferdinand von Wittelsbach, Catholic prince-archbishop of Cologne burned 2,000 members of his flock during the 1630s while, only in southwest Germany, 3,229 people were executed for witchcraft between 1562 and 1684.
Three-quarters of all witchcraft trials took place in the Catholic-ruled territories of the Holy Roman Empire.
In Austria, before 1570, prosecution was infrequent due in part to the Emperor Maximilian II, 1564-76 because to him, witches and fortune tellers were merely idiots.
However, the closest advisors to his successor Emperor Rudolf II were witch haters and witch trials peaked.
When an old woman was seized as a witch and repeatedly tortured, she confessed she had copulated with the devil, raised storms for fourteen years and gone to the sabbat.
The elderly municipal judge, appointed during the reign of the skeptical Maximilian II, recognized the old woman insane and committed her to an asylum, but he was overruled by newly appointed judges, who condemned her as a witch to be dragged to the stake and burned.

In 1597, Pastor Anton Praetorius was appointed as pastor and had to witness the torture of four women accused witches.
According to court records, he was so upset about the torture that he protested violently and succeeded in stopping the trial against the last surviving woman.
Interestingly, he was one of the first with the courage to protest the situation and, in his new parish in Laudenbach, he wrote a book, initially under an assumed name in 1598, “Gründlicher Bericht über Zauberey und Zauberer” to protest against the torture and prosecution of witches.
He died in 1613.

But some really enjoyed this practice.
Jakob Bithner, for example, was a Lutheran witch-hunter in the Austrian duchy of Styria during the late sixteenth century.
In March 1580, he was in charge of sending reports to the court and to the estates, including assessments of the conditions and safety of the duchy’s postal routes, bridges, footpaths, and roads. But he used his position to send also a series of reports to the Styrian estates outlining his interests in eradicating all manifestations of magic and superstition, describing his involvement in no fewer than 23 of the 39 known cases of witchcraft from 1578 to 1600.
Witchcraft created problems also in Tirol and Salzburg.
In Tirol, people accused of witchcraft who may have confessed and then retracted that confession were sent back to be tortured again, and only those under seven years old were safe.

During the secondary period of witch baiting in 1673, a judge named “Gutenhag” kept a 57 year old woman kneeling on a torture stool with sharp prongs, a Nagelbett, for 11 days and nights, burning her feet with sulfur, because she would not confess a pact with the devil.
A couple of years later, in 1679, Emperor Leopold I forbade the introduction of new tortures, including the Nagelbett.
In that year, Emerenziane Pichler was tried at Linz, and after a year condemned with her two eldest children.
She was burned September 25, 1680 and her two children, aged twelve and fourteen, on September 27.

In 1679, a beggar boy, age 14, whom the police suspected caused storms, was tortured until he came up with confession and the names of his accomplices. All four were burned December 13, 1679.
Meanwhile, a priest named Laurenz Paumgartner wrote in his diary that in his small parish alone, within 15 months around 1680, thirteen witches had been executed.

A late comer to the witch hysteria, Archbishop Max Gandolph, hosted the Zauberjäeckl trials in Salzburg from 1675 to 1681, in which he punished people who were actually mere criminals as witches.
Only those under 12 years old escaped death, but 200 others were executed.
The Salzburg Hexenturm was built between 1465 and 1480 to hold 100 persons from ages 12 to 80 for torture, strangulation, burning and beheading.
In 1678, it was a prison with 14 cells and an apartment for the court servants.
But there was no street level door for the prisoners, as they were lowered down with long wooden poles, often to be burned alive in that manner.
It was 1944, when the Hexenturm was destroyed in a devilish Allied cultural bombing attack on Salzburg. All that remains in its pace is a plaque and the small witch weathervane that once adorned its roof.

The man know as “Zauberer Jackl” was Jakob Koller, son of a farmhand from Mauterndorf.
According to local sources, it seems that his mother had taught him fraud and stealing.
She was in fact accused of theft and magic, together with one Paul Kaltenpacher, and they were both executed in late August of 1675.
During the violent interrogation process, both accused Zauberer Jackl of complicity.
Later, a warrant of arrest was issued and, in 1677, the authorities received a message that he was dead, but this not only proved untrue, it turned out that the man had recruited a whole group of followers, mostly young, poor people, including one Matthias Thomas Hasendorfer as an accomplice.
It reported that Zauberer Jackl taught him magic.
The authorities consequently began a search and destroy mission to stop the propagation of the sorcery among young people.
Stories about Zauberer Jackl grew more imaginative until him and his followers were said to have the ability to turn into animals and make themselves invisible, and they were also considered responsible for all mysterious deaths or murders.
Today, it is thought that Zauberer Jackl was probably just a thief and a beggar, and not even a murderer…or a magician.
However, the legendary Zauberer Jackl could never be seized but, instead of him, the 200 others accused of being his accomplices met their grisly deaths between 1675 and 1681, 139 alone in the year 1681.
These extremely violent witchcraft trials were one of the last of the major European witch-hunts, and the majority of the two hundred or so victims were mostly vagrants, mentally ill persons, beggars, wage workers, thieves and prostitutes.
Two thirds were male and one third were under age 16, but most admitted to acts of sorcery during the torturous interrogations.

But witch hunting was not over.
In 1688, a whole family, including children and servants, were burned in Styria.
In 1695 at Steiermark, Marina Schepp confessed to having sex with the devil after more than 6 hours on the torture stool and she was burned.
In the provinces of Styria and the Tirol, the Halsgerichtsordnung, a severe anti-witchcraft code, was adopted in 1707 with terrible punishments.
It was not until 1787 that all witchcraft laws in Austria were repealed.

Images from web – Google Research

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