Young Thomas Darling returned home from a hunt to Burton-¬on-Trent, England, one day in 1596, whereupon he suffered a series of fits and visions. Claiming to see angels, he was also being stalked by a green cat. In his more lucid moments, he told of having a ‘run-in’ with an old woman with three warts on her face.
Neighbours recognised the description of one Alse Gooderidge, a local woman who had long been suspected of witchcraft. Hauling her before a judge, she denied the charge, but was nevertheless convicted. She died in prison before her sentence of hanging was enacted. As for young Thomas, he was eventually exorcised of his demons by one John Darrel.
WITCHES, WITCHES, EVERYWHERE
Pittenween, a small fishing town in Fife, Scotland, experienced a more intense period of witch hysteria in 1704, when Patrick Morton claimed that many townsfolk were followers of the Devil. He claimed Beatrix Laing sent imps to plague him.
When she refused to confess, she was imprisoned for five months, dying soon after release. Another accused - Thomas Brown - died of starvation, whilst Janet Cornfoot fled to a friend. In January 1705 a mob found her. She was beaten, stoned, and eventually crushed to death. Other accused were freed when it was discovered that Morton was lying, although no action was taken against him.
Sometimes witch sites can become tourist attractions, such as Wookey Hole, a limestone cavern near Wells in Somerset. It was believed to be the home of a witch who kept a goat and kid as her familiars. The villagers of Wookey were terrified of her and asked for help from the Abbot of Glastonbury.
He sent a monk who sprinkled her with holy water. She turned to stone, believed to be a peculiarly shaped stalagmite in the cavern. In 1912 the caves were excavated and the bones of a Romano-British woman were found, along with a dagger and the bones of a goat and a kid.
THEY EXIST, DON’T THEY?
The above are typical of thousands of cases of witchcraft between the 14th and 17th centuries throughout Europe. Both the local populations and established authorities were convinced of the existence of witches in every community, cavorting with a whole host of satanic demons in order to cast spells and bring about events of benefit to themselves.
Of course, witchcraft goes back much further than the 14th century. Indeed, it goes back to before recorded history began. But it was only at this time that it was brought to prominence due to concerted efforts to stamp it out.
Prior attempts HAD been made. In England, St Augustine had successfully converted a number of pagan kings to Christianity in the 7th century. But ridding the English population of their pagan ways proved more difficult. And the longest survival of such paganism was witchcraft.
Throughout the land, local shaman-like individuals - later to become known as witches - venerated nature through animal sacrifice and ritual around certain enchanted trees and wells. To break these religious practices, wells were eventually incorporated into Christianity and most forests became the private estate of the kings, thus denying them to the local population.
King Alfred was the first king known to condemn witches to death, but a still superstitious establishment did little to enforce such sentences, reverting to fines when an obvious case of witchcraft came to light.
The practice did, infact, receive a boost with the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans, with continental strains of pagan ceremony intermingling with that of the Britons. A later descendant, William Rufus, is actually believed to have been pagan rather than Christian. However this situation was to change dramatically with the Medieval witchhunts.
OF THE PEOPLE
Witchcraft is distinctly different to the allied practice of Magic. Although both involve pagan influence, Magic is a ritualistic craft, using texts, elaborate paraphernalia and high ceremony. Witchcraft requires none of these. Magic can best be seen as the aristocratic practice of paganism, whereas witchcraft is essentially the magic of the people. And in this respect, it is significantly different, providing a rich tradition of folklore.
For instance, when Susanna Edwards and two friends began visiting a neighbour, Grace Barnes, from Exeter, they hoped their visits would help her recover from illness. Unfortunately, Grace began to get decidedly worse and died. A physician immediately suspected witchcraft, and Edwards and her friends were arrested.
Admitting later that they made Grace’s condition worse by pinching her, Edwards also admitted that the Devil had ‘carnal knowledge of her body’ after meeting him - a Man in Black - and selling her soul for his guardianship. The Exeter Witches, as they became known, were hanged in August 1682.
ACCUSATIONS AND INSANITY
A witch trial occurred in Faversham, Kent, in 1645, when Joan Williford confessed to signing a pact with the Devil in her own blood after meeting him in the form of a small dog. Selling her soul to gain revenge over one Thomas Letherland and his wife, for twenty years she claimed to work with a familiar, who once deposited an enemy in a cesspool.
She also named three other accomplices, including Elisabeth Harris, who was said to have cursed a sailing boat after her son had died in it. The boat disappeared soon afterwards. Found guilty, the Faversham witches were executed.
Accusations of witchcraft were always useful when someone had to be got rid of, and one of the most prominent people helped on their way in such a manner was Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Obsessed with having a son, Henry was annoyed when Anne produced a daughter and then a son died during pregnancy.
Rumours of Anne’s infidelity were legion, and the fact that she had a rudimentary sixth finger on her left hand began rumours of sorcery. Had Henry been bewitched into marriage by this unsuitable wife? Henry ignored the rumours, but when she was no longer useful to him, her supposed witchery became part of her trial for treason. She was executed in May 1536.
Incidences such as the above were cleverly altered to form a stereotype of the witch. The modern stereotype takes two forms. Based upon the fairy tale image, or the Shakespearean witches in MacBeth, we see them as evil old crones with warts and pointed hats, laughing hysterically as they stir the cauldron before hopping onto the broomstick for a quick flight.
Or alternatively, they are sex mad heathens who gather in covens at the dead of night, strip naked and cavort a while before getting down to the real business - a perverted orgy.
Both these stereotypes are incorrect. The fairy tale image can be traced back to early Christian propaganda, determined to show what were, in reality, village ‘wise women’, usually practising herbal medicine and forms of divination, in a bad light. As to the naked ritual - known as going ‘Skyclad’ - this is a recent innovation.
Gerald Gardner was the biggest influence of this image of modern witchcraft. A British civil servant, he spent much of his early life in Malaysia. In 1939 he claimed to have been initiated into a coven in the New Forest, going on to form his own in 1953 with initiate Doreen Valiente, following the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951. Virtually creating a new religion from the ‘Old Religion,’ he claimed ancestry from a long line of witches and put together his ‘Book of Shadows,’ essentially a composite of Crowleyan magic, British ritual and eastern mysticism. A natural British eccentric, he caused a split in modern paganism, his own blend appealing to the 1960s freedoms of nudity and free love.
Alex Sanders eclipsed and cheapened Gardner’s work, becoming known as the ‘King of the Witches’ during the 1960s Born in Manchester in 1916 to a drunk father, he became a witch as a child, when his grandmother supposedly initiated him into her tradition, which she claimed to have carried through her line since the 14th century.
Teaching him magic, herbalism and allegedly having sex with him, she helped propel Sanders to wealth and fame as he pulled rich converts into his coven. Marrying Maxine Morris in 1967, they held ritual with thousands of devotees, them naked, Sanders in a loincloth. Becoming a celebrity, he also claimed to cure many illnesses, including cancer, before dying in 1988.
Sanders was sensationalist - explaining why his perverted version of witchcraft became a stereotype. Much more true to the tradition was famous and respectable witch, Sybil Leek. English by birth, she claimed to be initiated into a coven by her aunt, continuing a line going back to the 12th century, celebrating the Old Religion.
Becoming a High Priestess, she emigrated to America in 1964, becoming a celebrity on the US media with her own radio show and a restaurant called ‘The Cauldron.’ With a flair for healing, she saw her work as important to use her powers to deflect evil in the world.
As we can see from the above, witchcraft has been at the heart of human experience from as long as history can remember. It has fuelled a rich tradition of folklore, and continues to this day.
In recent centuries, science has been on the rise, offering new ‘spells’ to mesmerize us. But regardless of the success of science, witchcraft, and the paganism it came from, continues to fascinate.
Branded as evil by the Church, and mere superstition by science, I suspect it will survive both. For at the heart of witchcraft is a simple truth – we are compelled to wonder at things unknown; and place fantastic ideals upon them.
© Anthony North, September 2007
Source : Beyond the Blog