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Witches and witchcraft have captivated the minds of everyone: from angry villagers wondering why the women of the town were gaining a sense of independence to the average Joe wondering whether that herbal tea last night was a potion or just really bad tea. Witches have been seen as objects of wisdom and evil in folklore for many generations.
1. The Witch of Endor
They were rather eager to believe that he who the Witch of Endor had summoned was actually a demon taking the shape of Samuel.
After Samuel had died, he was buried in Ramah. After Samuel’s death, Saul received no answer from God from dreams, prophets, or the Urim and Thummim as to his best course of action against the assembled forces of the Philistines. Consequently Saul, who has earlier driven out all necromancers and magicians from Israel, seeks out a medium, anonymously and in disguise. Following the instruction of her visitor, the woman claims that she sees the ghost of Samuel rising from the abode of the dead. The voice of the prophet’s ghost, after complaining of being disturbed, berates Saul for disobeying God, and predicts Saul’s downfall, repeating content from an earlier prophecy by Samuel when alive, adding that Saul will perish with his whole army in battle the next day, then adds that Saul and his sons will join him, then, in the abode of the dead. Saul is shocked and afraid, and following the encounter his army is defeated and Saul commits suicide after being wounded.
blessed with the gift of clairvoyance and cursed so that her prophecies would never be believed. She had a sad fate as she was raped and became the concubine of the victorious Agamemnon. Upon their arrival in Athens, the king and Cassandra were both killed by Clytemnenstra, Agamemnon’s wife, and her secret lover.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. The god Apollo became infatuated with her beauty and granted her the gift of clairvoyance and prophecy, but, when she did not return his love, Apollo placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions She was thus doomed to tell the truth, but never to be believed, which became a source of endless pain and frustration to her.
While not a witch as such, she has become known in history (or legend) as a witch, a soothsayer and a bearer of bad omens. Her story has been told many times and in many different ways over the centuries, from Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon”, through Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” to modern novel treatments and the animated fantasy of “Cassandra the Witch”.
In the story of Trojan War (in its definitive version in Homer’s “Iliad”), while Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon and even her own death), she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies due to the curse. Her family believed she was mad, and according to some versions, kept her locked up. After the Trojan War, she sought shelter in the temple of Athena, where she was raped (or at least abducted) by Ajax of Locris (Ajax the Lesser), and was then taken as a concubine by the victorious King Agamemnon of Mycenae, as described in Euripides’ “Trojan Women”.
The great storms that arose as the Greek fleet set off from the Trojan shores are generally attributed to Athena’s wrath over the rape of Cassandra in her temple, and Ajax’s death in the storms are taken as Athena’s revenge against him. So, in essence, Cassandra was the reason that the Greeks never successfully returned to Greece and, in a way, her prophetic curse that she would avenge her city through marriage had come true. In fact, if Cassandra had not been raped or attacked in any way at Athena’s temple, there would have been no “Odyssey”.
On arriving in Athens, both Agamemnon and Cassandra were murdered by Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra and her secret lover, Aegisthus.
3. Morgan Le Fay
Morgan Le Fay (alternatively known as Morgaine le Fey, Morgane, Morgain, Morgana, Fata Morgana and other variants) is a powerful sorceress and antagonist of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in Arthurian legend. Although always depicted as a practitioner of magic, over time her character became more and more evil until she began to be portrayed as a witch who was taught the black arts by Merlin.
The early works featuring Morgan do not elaborate her character beyond her role as a fay (fairy) or magician, although she became much more prominent in the later Old French cyclical prose works such as “Lancelot-Grail” and the Post-Vulgate Cycle. In these works, she is said to be Arthur’s half-sister, daughter of Arthur’s mother, Lady Igraine, and her first husband, Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. She has at least two older sisters, Elaine and Morgause, the latter being the mother of Sir Gawain, the Green Knight, and the traitor, Mordred. As a fairy later transformed into a woman and King Arthur’s half sister, she became an enchantress to continue her powers.
Inspiration for her character may have come from earlier Welsh mythology and literature, and she has often been compared with the goddess Modron, a figure derived from the continental Dea Matrona, who is featured with some frequency in medieval Welsh literature. She is also sometimes connected with the Irish goddess Morrígan who was associated with prophecy, war and death on the battlefield.
Morgan first appears by name in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Vita Merlini”, an account written in about 1150 of the wizard Merlin’s later adventures, elaborating on some episodes from Geoffrey’s more famous earlier work, “Historia Regum Britanniae”. In the “Vita Merlini”, Geoffrey describes Avalon, the Isle of Apples, where Arthur is taken to be healed after being seriously wounded at the Battle of Camlann, and specifically names “Morgen” as the chief of nine magical sisters who dwell there (a role as Arthur’s otherworldly healer Morgan retains in much later literature, such as that of Chretien de Troyes).
Medieval Christianity, however, had a difficult time assimilating a benevolent enchantress. She gradually became more and more sinister, until eventually she was portrayed as a witch who was taught the black arts by Merlin, and who was a bedevilment to Arthur and his knights, with a special hatred towards Queen Guinevere.
Morgan’s role is greatly expanded in the 13th Century French “Lancelot-Grail” (also known as the Vulgate Cycle) and the subsequent works inspired by it. In these stories, she is sent to a convent when Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father) kills her father and marries her mother, Igraine. She begins her study of magic there, but is married by Uther to his ally Urien. She is unhappy with her husband and takes a string of lovers until she is caught by a young Guinevere, who expels her from court in disgust. Morgan continues her magical studies under Merlin, all the while plotting against Guinevere.
In his book, “Le Morte d’Arthur”, published in 1485, Thomas Malory mostly follows the portrayal of Morgan in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles, although he expands her role in some cases. Through both magic and mortal means, she tries to arrange Arthur’s downfall, most famously when she arranges for her lover Sir Accolon to obtain the sword Excalibur and use it against Arthur in single combat. When this ploy fails, Morgan throws Excalibur’s protective scabbard into a lake.
The modern image of Morgan is often that of a villain, a seductive, megalomaniacal sorceress who wishes to overthrow Arthur, sometimes assigning to Morgan the role of seducing Arthur and giving birth to the wicked Mordred, although traditionally Mordred’s mother was Morgan’s sister, Morgause. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” presents a different view of Morgaine’s opposition to Arthur, depicting her actions as stemming from her fight to preserve the native Pagan religion against what she sees as the treachery and oppression of Christianity. She has also been widely portrayed in comic books and other more or less speculative novels and movies.
4. Angele de la Barthe (1230-1275)
Angele de la Barthe was a prosperous woman of Toulouse, France, who was supposedly tried for witchcraft and condemned to death by the Inquisition in 1275. She has been popularly portrayed as the first person to be put to death for heretical sorcery during the medieval witch trials.
Born around 1230, a noblewoman of Toulouse, France, de la Barthe was an adherent of Catharism, a Gnostic Christian sect deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. She was allegedly accused in 1275 by Inquisitor Hugo de Beniols of having sexual intercourse with the Devil (or an incubus) and giving birth to a flesh-eating monster with a wolf’s head and a serpent’s tail, whose sole food consisted of babies and young children. De la Barthe was accused of having either kidnapped and killed these children or of digging them up from graves, and was held responsible for the disappearance of many infants over the previous two years. Under torture, she confessed to having had sexual relations with Satan, and she was found guilty and burned alive.
Contemporary scholars have cast doubt on the truth of the Angèle de la Barthe story since there is no mention of her trial in the Toulouse records of the time and congress with demons was not yet a crime in 1275, and the 15th Century chronicle from which her story derives is now considered spurious.
5. Alice Kyteler (1280-1325)
The case of Dame Alice Kyteler was one of the first European witchcraft trials and the first recorded claim of a witch having intercourse with demons, although the charges were almost certainly trumped up by those seeking her money. Kytler herself escaped, but others in her household were less fortunate.
Dame Alice Kyteler was born in 1280 at Kyteler’s House in Kilkenny, Ireland, the only child of an established Anglo-Norman family. She was a wealthy and beautiful Irish noblewoman, and was married four times, to William Outlawe, Adam le Blund, Richard de Valle and, finally, to Sir John le Poers.
When Sir John was taken ill, he suspected he was being poisoned, and on his death, Alice’s step-children accused her of using poison and sorcery against their fathers, and of favouring her first-born son, William Outlawe Jr. In addition, she and her followers (ten of her servants and her son, William) were accused of denying the Christian faith, sacrificing animals to demons and blasphemy. There were some rather bizarre specific claims, included the mixing in a robber’s skull of magical ointments made from worms, hairs from buttocks and clothing from unbaptized baby boys, and alleged intercourse with a demon named Robin or Son of Art, which reportedly appeared as a black shaggy dog or as three Ethiopians carrying iron rods. Various powders, charms and incantations were also found at her home.
The case was brought in 1324 before the then Bishop of Ossory, an English Franciscan friar called Richard de Ledrede, but Dame Alice’s network of influential friends deflected the accusations and even had the Bishop arrested. John Darcy, the Lord Chief Justice, travelled to Kilkenny to investigate the events and vindicated the Bishop, who again attempted to have Dame Alice arrested. Although convicted in 1325, on the night before she was to be burned at the stake, she escaped to England, and was never heard of again.
The Bishop, however, continued to pursue her followers, bringing charges of witchcraft against them, and Alice’s son William Outlawe (who was accused of heresy, usury, perjury, adultery, clericide and other misdemeanours), was convicted but escaped relatively lightly after recanting his heresy and sorcery, being ordered to hear three masses a day for a year, to feed the poor and to pay for a church roof to be covered with lead. Her lower-class followers were less fortunate, and one of them, Petronella de Meath, was tortured by whipping to obtain incriminating information against her mistress, and finally burned at the stake on 3 November 1324, the first person in Ireland to be executed by this method.
This was one of the first European witchcraft trials and followed closely on the election of Pope John XXII to the Papacy, and his addition of witchcraft to the list of heresies in 1320. It also contained the first recorded claim of a witch having intercourse with her incubus. Although the trial itself did not spark immediate, widespread witch-hunts, suspicions of conspiracies with demons, such as those against Kyteler, would be revived in years to come against other reputed witches.
6. Mother Shipton (1488-1561)
Mother Shipton was a 16th Century English soothsayer, prophetess and supposed witch who is said to have made dozens of unusually accurate predictions, including the Great Plague of London, the Spanish Armada and the Great Fire of London. Many of the more colourful details of her life (such as her birth in a cave in Knaresborough and her hideous appearance) were later admitted to have been fabricated by Richard Head, the editor of a book of her prophecies published forty years after her death.
Mother Shipton was born Ursula Southeil (or possibly Sontheil) the daughter of the 16-year old suspected witch Agatha Southeil (or Sontheil) in 1488 (or possibly 1486). She was reputedly born grotesquely deformed and hideously ugly, but was nevertheless taken in by a kindly townswoman. Her head was too large, her “goggling” eyes glowed like embers, her cheeks were sunken, her limbs were twisted and ill-formed, and she was born with a full set of teeth which protruded like the tusks of a boar. According to local accounts was referred to as “Hag-Face” and “Devils Bastard” as she grew up, and it was believed by many that the father of such an ugly child must be the Devil himself. Some of the accounts of “strange and terrible noises” or a great crack of thunder and a pungent smell of brimstone at the moment of Ursula’s birth are probably later fabrications to fit in with the fanciful notion that the Devil had been the child’s father.
Fanciful tales grew up around her of strange events which were said to have plagued the cottage as she grew up. The furniture would mysteriously rearrange itself, plates be flung about, and food vanish before the eyes of astonished mealtime guests. It is said that when pushed beyond the limits of her notoriously limited patience, she would send goblins (or even dragons) to put some of her tormentors to flight. On one occasion, warned that her activities might lead to her being burnt as a witch, she supposedly put her wooden staff in the fire and, when the flames had no effect on it, said: “If this had been burned, I might have too’.
However, neither her growing reputation as a witch nor her appearance (which apparently worsened as she grew up) deterred a York carpenter and builder Toby Shipton from marrying her in 1512 (the inevitable tale developed that she had used a love-potion to bewitch her hapless suitor). Although they remained childless, their relationship was described as “very comfortable”.
Mother Shipton was credited with powers of clairvoyance and through the centuries her predictions, originally passed down by word of mouth, were held in the same high regard as those of her near contemporary, Nostradamus. Her early forecasts were to do with local people and events, and people travelled to Knaresborough from some distance around to consult her. She was particularly successful in solving the sort of commonplace interpersonal disputes, and it was recorded that thieves would publicly return stolen goods (apologizing to the astonished owners for their sin), wandering husbands would beg forgiveness and mend their ways, and corrupt officials would make spontaneous acts of restitution.
But, as time passed, her prophecies became more ambitious and began to relate to the country as a whole, including prominent figures at the court of Henry VIII. For example, she predicted that Cardinal Wolsey (the “Mitred Peacock”) would see York, but never reach it, and in 1530, after falling out of favour with the King, Wolsey set out to find refuge in the north and was within sight of York when Lord Percy arrived with a Royal Summons demanding he return to London to face a charge of high treason.
Her reputation has been kept alive by her foretelling of events in the more distant future: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the accession of Lady Jane Grey, Drake’s defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Great Plague of 1665 and, perhaps most famously, the Great Fire of London of 1666. It is claimed that some of her prophetical verses foretold iron ships, motor transport, submarines, aircraft and perhaps even the Internet (‘around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye’). One of the most famous examples of Mother Shipton’s prophecies, which apparently foretells many aspects common to modern civilization and predicts the end of the world in 1881, is now known to be a 19th Century forgery, which did not appear in print until 1862.
Many people now accept that the figure of Mother Shipton is largely a myth, and that the majority of her prophecies were composed by others in retrospect, after her death. The most notable book of her prophecies, edited by Richard Head, was first published in 1684, and Head later admitted to having invented almost all of Shipton’s biographical details.
Mother Shipton died in 1561 (or 1567), and is said to have been buried in unconsecrated ground somewhere on the outskirts of York, possibly at Clifton. Despite the disproofs of many of her prophesies, she was both feared and revered in her own time, and has been remembered by many over the centuries as England’s greatest prophetess.