Toil and Trouble: Romanian Witches and the Threat to Their Riches

By Tegan Carter

In many countries, witchcraft is seen as a thing of ancient times, confined to history by persecution throughout the Middle Ages and the Salem witch trials. But it is still alive and well in Romania, with the number of witches at least in the thousands and potentially reaching the tens of thousands. Their powers are passed down from mother to daughter, and the most well-regarded witches have generations of magic preceding them on both sides of the family. While these occult traditions may seem at odds with the predominant religion in Romania- over 81% identify as Orthodox Christian- those that believe in witchcraft actually see it as part and parcel of their faith. For them, God has unlimited power that He displays through these witches, who even use the sign of the cross in their spells- after all, what else explains Jesus’ powers but magic?

Witches have even evolved with the times, with modern technology now allowing them to practise “long-distance witchcraft” all over the world, provided they have the first names of those involved in the spell. The tradition has infiltrated the highest levels of society; the wife of Ceaușescu, the communist dictator who banned witchcraft and imprisoned those caught practising it under his reign, had her own personal fortune teller who was known as Mother Caterpillar- upon her death, she was declared the most powerful witch in Romania.

Maria Câmpina in her home

This trade has proved lucrative for some, with the witch economy believed to be worth around €1million a year. As their profession was not legally recognised until a few years ago and many of their transactions are in cash, they went untaxed; a series by Slovakian photographer Lucia Sekerková documented the lives and wealth of fortune tellers and witches in Romania. Sprawling rooms with high ceilings, elaborate gold jewellery, and extravagant furniture are present in many of the photographs.

This staircase belongs to Atena, who believes her life is guided by dreams of her dead grandmother

However, not everyone in Romania is supportive of this prosperity on the back of other people’s misfortune- in 2007, the TV regulator banned witches from advertising on television in order to comply with EU laws, instead confining them to newspapers. Then in 2011, witches, fortune tellers and astrologers became recognised professions and were put into the same category as other self-employed workers- meaning they would obliged to pay 16% income tax and contribute to health and pension schemes. This was a move designed to alleviate wide-spread tax evasion in a country in recession. While a few were glad their work was being legally recognised, there were many protests in the form of spells- poisonous mandrake was thrown into the Danube and the “Queen witch” Bratara Buzea planned to concoct a spell using cat excrement and a dead dog, in order to curse and cast discord upon the President at the time, Traian Basescu, and his government. This was not taken lightly by officials in a country with a long history of superstition- the President and his aides have even been known to wear purple on Thursdays to ward off evil- and many politicians voted against the law out of fear for the consequences of these spells.

Those opposed to the law argued that not only would it be hard to enforce when many of the payments the witches took were small and in cash, but also that the government had no right to interfere in something they played no role in cultivating. As Bratara put it, “Did I learn my craft with help from the government? Was there a school to attend? A university degree in witchcraft? This is a gift that came from God and paying taxes serves no purpose.”

Whether you believe their powers are genuine or just the product of a placebo effect, the influence that witches seem to have in Romania can’t be disputed: in the country that inspired the story of Dracula, it’s hard to see these long-standing superstitions going anywhere anytime soon.