On a crisp afternoon last spring, visiting student Yair Berzofsky found himself in the largest park in Prague captivated by the sight of a human effigy burning on a tall pyre. He took notice of the children in play armor who ran past him wearing giant purple hats and jousted with foam swords as adults drank, danced, and beat drums. The figure in the bonfire was part of this year’s Čarodějnice, a celebratory burning of winter witches. Berzofsky watched the woman’s frame crumple as celebrants took turns roasting sausages and marshmallows over the fiery branches.
“The witch burning was not the reason everyone came,” he later tells us, adding that the event was a testament to Prague’s “ability to not just rehash an old tradition, but to turn it into a reason to celebrate its heritage.”
At the end of each winter, Czechs and diasporic Slavs celebrate Čarodějnice, a variation of the ancestral Walpurgis Night—the Christian Saint Walpurga’s feast day, during which observers light bonfires to ward off witches in Europe and the United States. While some see a witch-burning parties as distasteful, as it recalls a dark history of persecution and murder, Čarodějnice harks back to similar pre-Christian traditions. Berzofsky fondly recalls the event’s warm and charming energy: “In a weird way, I felt at home.”
The witch burning evokes customs associated with Slavic gods and goddesses. As author Michael Mojhe describes in his writings, some deities in the Slavic pantheons lived on through equivalent Christian saints, but others were abandoned. Two critical examples are Jarilo, god of war, vegetation, and spring, and his oppositely aligned sister Morana, goddess of witchcraft, death, and winter.
While Slovakians reimagined Jarilo as St. George during Christianity’s spread across Europe in the late 900s, Morana was not. This was partially due to the Catholic Church’s patriarchy but also because she lacked a counterpart in a Christian tradition vehemently opposed to witchcraft and a female god. The burning or even drowning of her effigy, much like the one Berzofsky witnessed, is a Pagan tradition both celebrating winter’s end and ritually recognizing her cultural death.
Like the continued celebration of Čarodějnice, this story follows those of Slavic descent reclaiming an ancient faith tradition—namely, witchcraft—that endured centuries of erasure from Christian institutions. Both of us, authors Emma Cieslik and Alexandra Sikorski, are from Polish American families and grew up in the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until Sikorski began researching contemporary Paganism that we learned of Slavic religious practices prior to the sweep of Christianity in Europe. Researching the contemporary reclamation of Slavic witchcraft as an aspect of cultural identity—especially when invasion and destruction threaten that culture, as in Ukraine now—has become for us a way to reclaim parts of our heritage we never knew existed.
The term Slavic, or the culture of Slavs, encompasses an ethnolinguistic group of multiple ethnicities and cultures that share similarities in food, language, and cultural practices across Central, Southern, and Eastern Europe. The Slavic world extends from Russia in the east to Czechia in the west to North Macedonia in the south. Beyond these countries are Slavic immigrants and their descendants, including both of us, who exist in diasporic communities around the world.
“In Slavic Paganism, there are broad practices, but there are also some specific to the regions within each country,” Stephania Short, a Slavic Pagan, explains. These specific practices are often what come under threat. Invaders have fought over and died for rich farmlands of what is now Ukraine for hundreds if not thousands of years, making Russia’s recent attack on its sovereignty feel like a continuation of centuries-old conflict. It may come as no surprise that a long history of Slavic immigration, religion, and war shaped various Slavic practices and traditions. For Short, part of her witchcraft involves connecting with her Ukrainian ancestral roots—an act made all the more essential by recent events.
“People are looking for ancient meaning,” says Slovakian tour guide Helene Cincebaux. “I think there’s a fascination with Slavic culture, the rituals—maybe the plants, the herbs, things they did. They were natural healers.”
Witchcraft and Paganism existed in Slavic regions long before Christianity found a home. Even when witchcraft faced persecution, its traditions persisted, reimagined within the constraints of the new dominant religion.
In the UK, the 1950s emergence of Wicca, a nature-based, Pagan duotheistic religion, led to the repopularizing of witchcraft and other alternative belief systems. In the same way that native religions varied across Slavic areas, the term “witchcraft” does not refer to a singular identity. “Witches,” including those who do not use this term but exist under the umbrella of witchcraft, participate in a variety of practices and hold diverse spiritual beliefs. These include contemporary Paganism, folk Catholicism, and Wicca.
Where one person uses tarot, another may not. Where one person views hexes as inherently unethical, another may not. Where one person venerates deities, another may not or may only venerate one. Despite this diversity of practice, some people avoid using the term “witch” because it was and may still be used as a derogatory label for people holding spiritual power outside Christianity, as well as those who exist outside social norms.
In Eurocentric and Americentric beliefs, the prototype for a witch is a woman or femme presenting person who is targeted because of their practices. during the second wave of feminism, some women turned to witchcraft as liberation from the patriarchy, finding empowerment in venerating goddesses. Together, they could create a community through common practices in witchcraft, such as yearly festivals that mark the passage of time. According to a survey conducted by researcher Helen A. Berger between 2008 and 2010, 71.6 percent of contemporary Pagans, including various religions and witchcraft, are women. The faith has also become a safe haven for some LGBTQ+ individuals.
Ever since Christianity spread to Slavic Europe in the 900s, people who existed on the margins of society were accused or and persecuted for witchcraft, including literate women and individuals with limb differences and disabilities. It became a scapegoat identifier for people the Church deemed dangerous or different. Similarly, queer researcher Mara Gold explains, “those accused of witchcraft were generally those that didn’t fit the norms of the gender binary, including [LGTBQ+] people and poor older women discarded by society.”
Polish photographer Agata Kalinowska’s monograph Yaga supports and holds space for LGBTQ+ individuals within witchcraft. The diary, which includes photographs documenting thirteen years of queer women’s spaces, takes its name from Baba Yaga, a ferocious witch from Slavic folklore. For Kalinowska, this title is important because it speaks to how Baba Yaga creates space for queer witches:
Now there are women in Poland who empower such figures of older independent women… women who know a lot about nature, power of plants, the importance of female and nonbinary friendships. They are Yagas, they don’t belong to the world created around beauty myths, they queer the system.
Individuals who practice witchcraft today often seek it out because it welcomes those who are forgotten or harmed by mainstream religious institutions. They are part of a larger movement of people reclaiming witchcraft as spiritual liberation.
Witches of the Church
“A lot of witchcraft is heavily intertwined with Christianity,” explains Sara Raztresen, a Slovenian American witch. Although Christianity sought to erase native religions, many Pagan traditions became embedded in Christian practice. Converts tethered Pagan deities to saints with similar iconography.
After the Catholic Church arrived in Slovenia, locals began to identify Kresnik, the god of the sun, fire, and storms, with St. John and St. George. So Kresnik, the head deity of the Slovenian pantheon, is no longer as prevalent as the saints who inherited his role. Kresnik, St. John, and St. George are among the entities with whom Raztresen actively communicates.
On those days, she sets her altar with offerings associated with the deity with whom she intends to speak. For Kresnik, this includes herbs and flowers related to his role as patron of summer, such as chamomile and daisies. When the deity makes their presence known, Raztresen asks questions that are answered through the tarot cards she pulls, acting as a conduit between the two.
As she explains it, Raztresen’s craft is “about finding God in unorthodox places and learning to talk to him directly, rather than relying on other people to tell me who he is and what he’s about.” This belief often manifests through animism, the belief that “the plants and stones all have their own little spirits.” This is where witchcraft finds its place. “If you’ve got brains for problem solving, you’ve got muscles for dealing with physical problems, you’ve got magic for dealing with spiritual problems,” Raztresen figures. Practitioners use magic in a variety of ways, including magic deemed acceptable within Christianity, because it doesn’t present itself as explicitly spiritual or Pagan.
One of these practices is “kitchen witchcraft,” a broad practice that encourages intention and focus, using many on-hand food ingredients with magic and symbolic meaning. For kitchen witch Raztresen and others, their practices often involve using ingredients key to their ethnic backgrounds, such as meats, grains, spices, and more that are native to their ancestral homelands. Kitchen witchcraft and other ethnic household rituals allow people like Raztresen to connect with their heritage even if they live far away.
However, the intermingling of Christianity and witchcraft among Slavs doesn’t erase the stigma the Catholic Church perpetuates against witchcraft. Today many Slavic witches practice their craft as a form of opposition against religious institutions. Raztresen says, “[Church goers] all want you to do the white button-up collar thing in Church,” but there’s a great diversity of Christian practices that include elements of witchcraft and folk traditions.
Similar to experiences across the world, the Church inquisitors in Slavic regions interrogated, tortured, and executed a number of witches. Scholar Michael Ostling states in early modern Poland, the Catholic Church executed approximately 2,000 people for witchcraft, most from the lower socioeconomic classes. The best documented example of this persecution is perhaps the 1775 Doruchów witch trial in Poland, where the Church executed fourteen women, although historians have debated the year and number of victims.
Immediately, marginalized people and their loved ones, as well as other concerned citizens across Eastern and Central Europe started questioning these claims of witchcraft. It wasn’t until 1776 that Poland outlawed torture and the death penalty—partly in response to the Doruchów witch trial. Today, more than two centuries later, people like Raztresen are exploring how their own ethnic traditions are rooted in pre-Christian pagan and witchcraft practices. They are reclaiming how practices persecuted on threat of torture and death lived on through cooking, praying, and sewing traditions.
The Strength of Color
Stephania Short was introduced to spiritualism at the age of thirteen after watching her mom pull tarot. By ninth grade, she “didn’t necessarily believe in God,” and as the years went by, she grew more connected to her Ukrainian roots. She reached out to family members and went to her mom to learn more about Ukrainian cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs. Like Raztresen, Short practices her witchcraft to celebrate her Slavic heritage.
“Paganism kind of allows you to practice with everything that our ancestors would, so everything is based off of the land,” she says. Plants and herbs that are abundant in Ukraine, such as rosemary, are important in her craft.
Like herbs, colors hold meanings in Ukrainian witchcraft traditions. Short explains, “Red is a symbol of strength and protection. Gold symbolizes abundance and prosperity and good luck. Blue symbolizes peace and healing and just kind vibes all around.” With this knowledge, she now intentionally decorates her pysanky, traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs, with these colors to welcome the spring.
Deepening the importance of the color red in Ukrainian witchcraft, poppies represent strength and prosperity. Short aims to incorporate the flower into her spell work and practice “as a form of appreciation for [her] ancestors.” To Short, spells may be made with and for a diverse array of occasions and situations. She defines them as “basically manifestations: energy or intentions that you’re pursuing out for the universe to grasp onto.” Herbs, like rosemary or poppy, and flame may speed up this process. Even the color of the candles may impact the spell. “All elements you use connect to your intentions with the spell, as they carry their own energies.” For Short and many other Slavic witches, the study and practice of Slavic witchcraft involves learning the meanings behind these cultural beliefs.
When winter bleeds into spring, effigies of Morana are drowned or burned just as Berzofsky witnessed, ushering in new life. The Catholic Church banned this practice in the fifteenth century, so the residents of some Slavic countries replaced her with an effigy of Judas. But the custom of burning Morana lived on. Short’s cousin introduced her to Morana. Before, she hadn’t been aware that Slavic Paganism contained so many deities. However, she doesn’t “believe in gods and goddesses necessarily.” Instead, she views it as alluring and something she needs to acknowledge.
Short discusses Slavic and Ukrainian witch practices on social media, from beliefs surrounding native gods and goddesses to the use and meaning of native Ukrainian herbs in spell work. The importance of this has risen in light of the current war. “I’m maybe a little biased, but the Russians’ goal is to eliminate our culture,” she says. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian witch has become a symbol of solidarity for some—recalling the woman of the past who fights for her cultural heritage (her native religion) in the face of erasure and destruction at the hands of the Christian Church.
Images of Ukrainian witches appear on the Ukraine War NFT Collection and among Ukrainian cosplayers around the world, alongside messages showing the strength of Ukrainian people. Madame Pamita, a Ukrainian American witch and author of Baba Yaga’s Book of Witchcraft, explains that during the invasion, traditions and practices have grown more dear, more important to preserve. Ukrainians and other people in Slavic diasporas see the rediscovery of their traditions and practices as a healing tool.
Emblems of Slavic witchcraft have been interwoven with messages of Ukrainian solidarity, including motanka dolls, 5,000-year-old symbols of feminine wisdom and guards for families within Ukrainian folk traditions. Motanka dolls are talismans unique to each family and symbolize connection between familial generations.
Madame Pamita’s grandmother was a baba sheptukha (баба шептуха), a healer who made motanky (мотанки) spirit dolls, but her grandmother died before she was born. Although she heard about these practices, she never knew how to perform them. Others share a similar experience of unfamiliarity, but a mother-and-daughter team in British Columbia are changing that by creating and selling motanka dolls as a fundraiser for Ukrainian relief.
With attention on agency and the self, Slavic witchcraft encourages healing and identity formation. It focuses on reflection and connection. Even if they aren’t recognized as religious practices, the cornerstones of many Slavic witchcraft traditions can be uncovered in small Ukrainian dolls, Slovenian kitchens, and large celebrations. Ukrainians and their allies are preserving these traditions for solidarity, fundraising, and strength.
The presence of magic may not be obvious, but it is simply a matter of perspective. That perspective may bring people closer to culture they may feel disconnected from in diasporic communities or from being part of a marginalized people. It may bring them their own version of spiritual happiness and cultural enrichment.
Emma Cieslik is a museum professional in the Washington, D.C., area and a former curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Alexandra Sikorski is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a master’s student in public anthropology at American University. When she isn’t researching contemporary witchcraft, she enjoys dissecting material culture and design.