Ukrainian Witchcraft Trials

Volhynia, Podolia, and Ruthenia, 17th–18th Centuries
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Paperback is forthcoming in September 2023
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264 pages, 22 figures

Drawing on quantitative data drawn from a range of trials Kateryna Dysa first describes the ideological background of the tribunals based on works written by priests and theologians that reflect attitudes toward the devil and witches. The main focus of her work, however, is the process leading to witchcraft accusations. From the stories of participants of the trials she shows what led people to enunciate first suspicions then accusations of witchcraft. Finally, she presents a microhistory from one Volhynian village, comparing attitudes toward two “female crimes” in the Ukrainian courts.

The study is based on archival research including witch trials transcripts. Dysa approaches the trials as indications of belief and practice, attempting to understand the actors involved rather than dismiss or condemn them. She takes care to situate early modern Ukrainian witchcraft and its accompanying trials in a broader European context, with comparisons to some African cases as well.


Chapter 1. Constructing the Ukrainian Witchcraft Trial

Legal Foundations

The Queen of Evidence: The Use of Torture and the Figure of the Executioner

In the Realm of Gossip: The Role of Everyday Communication in the Legal Process

Actors of the Witchcraft Trials

Chapter 2.  Ukrainian Orthodox Demonology: The Learned Elite and Perceptions of the Devil and Witches

Iconography of the Devil, Demons, and Witches

The Demonic in Ukrainian Orthodox Writings

Specificities of Demonic Possession and Exorcism

The Pact with the Devil

Demonization of Neighbors, Opponents, and Enemies

Chapter 3. Beyond the Trials, or the Anatomy of Witchcraft Accusations

“Peaceful” Coexistence

Family and Witchcraft

            Inheritance of Witchcraft within the Family

            Accusations within the Family

            Family Support

Rivalry and Bewitchment

Dangerous Proximity: Master-Servant Relationships

            Bewitching a Master: Trials about the Bewitchment of Social Superiors

            Demonstration of Loyalty to a Master in Witchcraft Cases

Subtle Love Matters

Witchcraft and Medicine: Power to Take away and Restore Health

Bewitching Animals, Spoiling Harvests

Magic Practitioners and Actual Magic Practices

            Local Magic Practitioners

Amateur Magic Practices

Chapter 4. A Case of Witchcraft and Infanticide in Szczurowczyky

Infanticide in Szczurowczyky: Iewka Stanorycha

A Witchcraft practitioner: Orzyszka Liczmanicha

Night Flights and Coven


Further Romanticization, Forgetting, and Resurrection of Ukrainian Witches: An Afterword

"Dysa’s book is a well-constructed and very inspirational elaboration on the Ukrainian witch trials. The number of discovered and examined sources is impressive (almost 120 as yet unpublished and mostly unknown manuscripts, not to mention the published sources), as are her close examinations of the discussed trials. Given that the Ukrainian Witchcraft Trials is the fi rst vast elaboration of the issue published in English, it will certainly serve for a long time as the main reference to witch trials in the Orthodox world."
"Dysa has produced an important book that deserves to receive wider attention than it has to date. She not only expands our understanding of witchcraft and witch beliefs, she also paints a complex and nuanced picture of Ukrainian life in the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries. And she does this mostly using archived court cases. This is a tour-de-force that offers a fascinating picture of a neglected part of the world."
"Kateryna Dysa has produced a richly detailed, carefully researched, and well written study of witchcraft and witchcraft trials in early modern Ukraine, one that is a pleasure to read. It constitutes a very lucid examination of archival records from three distinct regions of Ukraine that the author walks us through systematically. It is admirably well versed in the overall scholarship on witchcraft in Europe and elsewhere, which the author engages intensively and productively throughout the text."
"Some areas of the Slav world get little attention in English-language witchcraft studies, although publications in Slav languages have increased in quantity and quality since the end of the Communist regimes. We are fortunate then that two new books were published in 2020 which are valuable additions to the existing literature, at least for Russia and Ukraine, and especially for those who have no competence in Slavic languages. Kateryna Dysa’s thoughtful and detailed, narrowly focused book deals with witchcraft trials in the western part of Ukraine in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."
"Dysa persuasively argues that witchcraft prosecution was comparatively mild in the Ruthenian lands. In fact, magistrates were reluctant to prosecute witchcraft. When they discovered instances of witchcraft, they preferred lenient sentences of fines and flogging, warning individuals of heavier sentences should they become recidivists. A mere seven of the trials involved torture. Executions were even rarer. So ubiquitous was the practice of magic, Dysa concludes that in these reputation cases, some of the accused might actually have indulged in it without losing their relatives’ and neighbors’ trust."