If we don't count lynchings, have people ever been executed for witchcraft by the Eastern Orthodox Church?

In western Christianity, the execution of witches was condemned until 1484, four centuries after the schism of the eastern and western churches, so I'd guess no, but I'd be glad for some evidence for it.

  • 1
    See Russian witch trials.
    – user46876
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 0:17
  • @Lucian: that article is based on one single book. An answer based on it could be a good one, even the best one, as it is clearly historical and not just theologic as most other answers. However, before changing the accepted answer, I would like you to add another reference, to have more independent sources than Dan has.
    – Pavel
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 15:34

6 Answers 6


Most early Eastern theologians didn't believe in witches (technically, neither did Western theologians, as is evidenced by Canon Episcopi), but most common folk did. Without getting into the confounded history of witch-burning, it is generally held that theologians prior to the 10th century did not believe in witches. The 9th century Canon Episcopi that I mentioned is interpreted by modern historians to be a renunciation of the existence of witches, not of witchcraft itself (the bible sufficiently denounces witchcraft). For various reasons, medieval Western society changed their tune and began burning witches.

According to Stephen Hayes (the link is now dead but clicking here will take you to an online archive),

It is perhaps significant that the persecution of witches began in the West after the Great Schism of 1054. In parts of the Orthodox East, at least, witch hunts such as those experienced in other parts of Europe were unknown (Stewart 1991:38). The Orthodox Church is strongly critical of sorcerers (among whom it includes palmists, fortune tellers and astrologers), but has not generally seen the remedy in accusations, trials and secular penalties, but rather in confession and repentance, and exorcism if necessary (Stewart 1991:212f).

I have tried to show that the process of accusation, trial, sentencing and execution of alleged witches is not a typical Christian reaction to witchcraft. It was practically unknown in Christendom for the first ten centuries. It then gradually appeared in certain parts of the Christian world, but not in others. It lasted for about 600 years, though the last 200 years of this period were the worst, after which it suddenly disappeared. Such behaviour was fairly common in pre-Christian societies, but was altered when those societies became Christianised.

The article goes on to elaborate on Orthodoxy and its response to witches (hint: it didn't burn them). The source continually referenced by Hayes in the above quote is:

Stewart, Charles. 1991. Demons and the devil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

I highly doubt that the Eastern Orthodox Church ever executed witches (and I have not found any sources indicating that they did). It is far more likely that they tried to lead witches to repentance.

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    Both answers are good. I accepted this one because I like your explanation of the reasons of continuity, with repentance and even exorcism mentioned. In fact, the main reason to ask this question was to verify theory of chief Vatican exorcist Gabriele Amorth, that witch burning is a result of decrease of numbers and quality of exorcists. It's clear that a possessed person is a victim if you can help them, but they can be seen as a danger if you can't.
    – Pavel
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 22:00
  • @Dan - What is the difference between a witch and someone who practices witchcraft? I would assume that the witches burned at the stake were thought by the persecuting church to be permanently possessed or something. Also, couldn't Orthodox Christians point to the service of exorcism as the official way that their church deals with demonic activity (witchcraft included). Would the presence of these services be proof that witches (or those possessed) weren't executed?
    – Ian
    Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 19:56
  • @Ian there was little distinction. It should be born in mind that in Orthodoxy, all believers undergo exorcism when joining the Church.
    – Dan
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 3:38
  • @Dan - yeah, that was kind of my thought, if the Orthodox church burned witches at the stake, then burning at the stake would be a part of chrismation.
    – Ian
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 15:31

Frankly, the more you know the history of the Orthodox Church, the more you would be inclined to say that they would never have executed witches. In fact great portions of the Eastern Orthodox Churches history, is when they have been the ones being executed, whether by pagans or heretics. In fact if someone told me that the Orthodox had executed witches, I would probably think that it was some heretical branch.

According to this link:

the Protestant reformers often agreed with Rome, that witches were a clear and present danger. All four of the major western Christian "churches" (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican) persecuted witches to some degree or another. (Eastern Christian, or Orthodox Churches carried out almost no witch hunting).

I would say that if the Orthodox Church ever found a "witch", they would have tried to purify him/her, and bring that person (back) to the Church. Also, no one was allowed to kill anyone, except as a soldier. Perhaps some corrupt Emperors would have done this, (In fact I know they did), but the Church Fathers would confront that emperor to his face and tell him he did wrong (though this is not an example with witches, I had to call to mind the story of Ambrose and Theodosius).

So if you have any doubts and questions, please tell me. I believe that the Eastern Church would never have done this, unless someone in authority was corrupted.

But then we are all sinners.

  • I +1'd this answer, FYI. Glad to see other Orthodox folks on here!
    – Dan
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 21:17
  • @DanO'Day yeah it is. And thanks for that link. Very good answer.
    – Byzantine
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 22:27

In the Orthodox Church, people who have practised witchcrat, or attempted to do so, are urged to confess that as a sin. Attempting to harm other people, whether by natural or "supernatural" means, is an indication of malice, which is definitely sinful,

There is more detail in my article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery.

Someone else referred to that above, but the link has changed.

  • 2
    Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for offering an answer here. It would be improved, however, by providing a little more detail, with references, in the answer itself rather than relying so heavily on the link to your article. See: What makes a good supported answer? You can edit your answer to provide more information in the answer itself. Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 7:10

Well, in fact there was a period that the Greek Orthodox church (with the guidance of the emperor of course) committed a "witch-hunting" staff. It was the period of iconomachy (it lasted almost a century) and during the crisis the iconoclasts burned holy icons and many iconophile texts and books, because they believed that god and saints cannot be iconized (probably influenced by Islam). Many monks, icon painters, and common people were tortured, maimed, exiled, or even executed for painting or even possessing icons. It was a situation quite similar to witch-hunting. But the motivations for iconomachy were clearly political, not religious. No other "witch-hunting situation" ever developed in the Orthodox East. If you ask me why, the answer will be: The land where Orthodoxy was ingrained was the Eastern Roman Empire (now called the Byzantine Empire). Its capital was Constantinople, originally called Nova Roma (New Rome). There were libraries, universities, and schools; the dark ages was never actually experienced there before 1453. So it makes sense that people would be (a little) more open-minded there than they were in the West.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE! And thanks for writing an answer. For a quick introduction to this site and what it's about, please take the Site Tour. Do you have any references to scholars or histories that would support your answer? If so, that would make it a much better answer for this site. See: What makes a good supported answer? Meanwhile, I hope you'll spend some time browsing the questions and answers here. Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 0:47
  • Welcome here! My question was specifically about witches, not heretics (and iconoclasts saw icon-painters as heretics), and not about "witch hunting" meant figuratively. Also, in Western Christianity executing witches was officially condemned until 1484, which is Renaissance, no dark age (though many "witches" were probably killed in Dark Age out of superstition, despite Church law). But the peak of Western witch hunting was during Reformation, the main schism of the West. It would take further research to find if Iconoclasts ever accused their opponents of magic as well.
    – Pavel
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 4:52

Yes, they've been. Less but still. Started in Byzantium, but the most huge in Muscovy (Russia), especially after the Stoglavy Sobor of Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, we don't know such a huge scale of victims as in Germany or France (but great amount of such an information might be unknown because of lack of paperwork in Early Modern Russian courts). And we should keep in mind that huge witch-hunts all over Europe were held in secular (not church!) courts

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    Thanks for the answer. I think it could be strengthened if you elaborated on the timeframe as well as the scale. Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 16:06
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    What persecutions arose out of the Stoglavy Sobor?
    – user22553
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 22:03

Specifically no. No witches were recorded in orthodox tradition, not even as legends or myths. If there were ever witches there would be in isolated places, and again as others said before, the clergy would try to make them confess and finally repent with peaceful meanings.

  • 2
    Instead of adding a new answer, it would be better to combine this with your existing answer by using the "edit" button below your post.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 15:44

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