Britain has a long tradition of witchcraft, going back deep into history. As well as offering examples of the plethora of paranormal activity, the subject also shows how the ‘stories’ of witches entered culture and folklore.
Often, the vehicle of phenomena was not the witch, but the paraphernalia and ‘assistants’ they used. Usually these were household pets or equipment, or even children, giving a sinister touch to the ‘normal’ parts of life – an essential means of fuelling superstition.
This is seen in the trial of Scottish labourer’s wife Isobel Grierson in Edinburgh in March 1607. It catalogued a whole career of witchery. A supposed vindictive woman from Prestonpans, East Lothian, Isobel had many enemies who testified against her.
Among her crimes, she had disguised herself as a cat to enter the house of Adam Clark to terrify him. In 1605 she procured the devil in the form of a naked infant to kill one William Burnet. She particularly disliked Robert Peddan and his wife, constantly using witchery to
inflict sickness on them due to money they owed her. In addition there were various charges of peddling charms and potions and casting spells.
Detailed records survive of the trial and interrogation of Scottish witch Isobel Haldane, although not the outcome of the trial. Tried in Perth in 1623 for various acts of witchcraft involving predicting people’s death (correctly) and curing people through a pact with the Devil, in one case, realising a child she was treating was a changeling, she poisoned it instead.
Most interesting, however, is her ‘adventure’ ten years earlier when she was taken from her bed by an entity to a hillside that opened up. She spent three days in the hill with a man with a gray beard, who eventually returned her home. Her powers began from then on.
Sir Robert Gordon became one of Scotland’s most notorious witches in 1678 when, according to legend, he sold his soul, in the form of his shadow, to the Devil to escape death.
Eventually realising his error, he built a fortress called the Round Square to keep out the Devil at Gordonstoun, Moray. However, a minister convinced him he’d be safer with him, taking him to Birnie church, Elgin.
However, Sir Robert never made it. He was snatched by the Devil, who galloped away with him to Hell. He was never seen again. His home is now Gordonstoun public school.
However, witches practiced in much more than spells. They were also said to be adept at making a whole host of concoctions to cure all sorts of ailments. And whilst the sceptic may laugh at such spells, their concoctions are not so easily dismissed.
For instance, willow bark, foxglove extract and belladonna were all used by witches. Modern medicine has proved their medicinal value by using them in the production of aspirin, digitalis and atropine respectively.
Various remedies were enacted by the local population to protect themselves from the more malign influences of witchcraft. Prior to the baptism of a child its future name was often kept secret, for it was widely believed that if a witch found out the name the child could be bewitched. The burning of extracted teeth was also a wide practice, for should a witch find one, she could use it to cast a spell upon the person.
In Lancashire a ceremony was enacted every Halloween known as Lating the Witches. Between 11 o’clock and midnight a person would walk around on top of a hill with a lighted candle. If it burnt steadily the person would be free from danger from a witch for a whole year. However, if it went out, it was considered an omen of evil.
A far more sinister form of protection was the idea that you could break the power of a witch by drawing her blood. In 1823 three women were charged with injuring the suspected witch, Anne Burges, who lived near Taunton. The women had cut her arm over a dozen times with a large iron nail. After one of them had been bewitched, another witch had advised them to bleed the enchantress.
To aid the witch, she would keep a ‘familiar’ - a cat or other animal - which was really a demon who served the witch. The accused witch, Elizabeth Francis, spoke of her white spotted cat, Sathan, at her trial at Chelmsford in 1566. In order for Sathan to carry out a deed for Elizabeth, he required a drop of blood from her pricked finger.
Familiars were not only demons, though. Sometimes witches were said to take animal form themselves. In 1718 William Montgomery from Caithness claimed to be being harassed by a whole host of witches who gathered around his house at night in the form of cats.
Often hearing the cats talk, one night he rushed out of the house with an axe, killed two and injured several more. The next morning two old women were found dead in their beds and a third had a large cut on one leg she could not explain.
The witch’s broomstick was an equally vital element of her power. How else could she get from A to B so quickly before the motor car?
The broom, or besom, was traditionally made from birch twigs or the broom plant, both of which were used as symbols in fertility ritual, from which most researchers believe witchcraft to have originated - hence the association.
The broom itself became the symbol of womanhood, and it was the custom for the woman of the house to place the broom outside the door when she went out.
Here we can see how the broom became associated with travel. Alternatively, it has been argued that a witch’s flight is actually a remembrance of astral travel, or the out-of-body¬experience.
Mis-identification of objects in the sky could also have contributed to the broomstick mythology, a superstitious population automatically ’seeing’ the witch in the heavens. Even in today’s less superstitious times, strange objects continue to be mis-identified as flying saucers. When something strange is seen, we psychologically grasp for identification based upon the prevalent cultural mythos.
The processes involved in the majority of the above cases are remarkably similar in one specific way. From babies, to cats, to broomsticks, the innocuous is taken out of its comfort zone and invested with the malign.
In effect, that which we should feel comfortable with is given other-worldly function, and that function allows ‘evil’ to be done. It is a storytelling trick that has existed for as long as people have had an abstract mind to think.
To this day its power to chill is still with us. Think of the horror fiction of Stephen King, and his success in taking innocuous objects - from cars, to computers, to mobile phones – and making them sinister.
It has been one of the central devices of the storyteller down the ages. Yet in previous times it fuelled folklore, and through that, fear and a different way of interpreting what is seen and experienced.
The influence of superstition is power indeed.
© Anthony North, October 2007
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