God of the Witches 3


“A witch is a person that hath conference with the Devil to take counsel or to do some act.”–LORD COKE.

IN all organised religions, even those of the Lower Culture, there is a priesthood, and the more organised the religion the more systematised does the priesthood become. Early priesthoods appear to have been largely composed of women; as the religion changed, men gradually took over the practice of the ritual. This is clear in Egypt, where the early inscriptions mention many priesthoods of women; in the later inscriptions women are only singers in the temple. But when a religion is decaying and a new one taking its place the women often remain faithful and carry on the old rites, being then obliged to act as priestesses.

These changes are seen in the cult of the Horned God. In the Palaeolithic paintings there is only one scene which can be identified as a religious ceremony performed by several persons. This is at Cogul, in north-eastern Spain, and represents a dance of nine women round a standing male figure (plate IX). A similar dance, also round a standing male figure dates from the seventeenth century, but in this there are as many men as women (plate X).

Cotton Mather, in his account of the Salem witches in 1692,[1] states that “the witches do say that they form themselves much after the manner of Congregational Churches, and that they have a Baptism, and a Supper, and Officers among them, abominably resembling those of our Lord”. His statement is abundantly proved by the evidence in the trials, and the priesthood can be recognised in the covens. The word coven was used both in England and Scotland to designate a band of people of both sexes, who were always in close attendance on their god, who went to all the meetings, large or small, who performed the ceremonies either alone or in company with the Grandmaster, and who were conspicuous in the ritual. To them the god taught the prayers they were to say, to them he gave his counsel and help in a special manner, and in all the rites and ceremonies they were near his person. In short, they were set apart to perform the duties and ceremonies always associated with priests and priestesses, and must be regarded as the priesthood of the Horned God. It is probably this body to which Reginald Scot[2] refers when he mentions that the witch went through three admission ceremonies. The first was when she accepted the Devil’s invitation to join the society, “they consent privily, and come not into the fairies’ assembly” (the connection of witches and fairies should be noted). “The order of their bargain or profession is double the one solemn and public, the other secret and private.” This seems to indicate that after the public profession of faith, such as all converts had to make, the priestess was admitted by a special and private rite. De Lancre makes the statement that “there are two sorts of witches, the first sort are composed of witches who, having abandoned God, give themselves to drugs and poisons. The second are those who have made an express renunciation of Jesus Christ and of the Faith and have given themselves to Satan. These perform wonders”[3] (plate II).

It was this body of persons who were specially stigmatised as witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to describe them the Christian recorders ransacked their vocabularies for invectives and abusive epithets. The favourite adjectives to apply to witches and their doings were: hellish, diabolical, devilish, infernal, abominable, horrible. A fine bloodcurdling effect can be built up by a judicious use of such epithets, especially when accompanied by capital letters. Thus Black Magic has a more sinister appearance than the same words written in ordinary characters; a Hellish Altar raised on Infernal Columns or a Rampant Hag attending a Diabolical Sacrament sound more wicked than if the description were couched in more moderate language. In the same way the Chief or Grandmaster was more horror-striking and awful when called Satan, the Foul Fiend, the Enemy of Salvation, the Prince of Darkness, or other epithet of the kind than when soberly alluded to as the Man in Black. The effect could be heightened by using black-letter type for these names, as Glanvil does. When the right atmosphere of horror was attained by these means, the reader’s mind was prepared to accept as evidence much that would have been rejected if set before him in a coldly critical manner. This atmosphere, however, remains in the minds of many people at the present day, the old abusive style holds good yet, the acts of the witches are still attributed to “occult” powers, to their conference with the Foul Fiend, the Principle of Evil; and to dissipate the fog which the words of the Christian recorders have created is still a task of some difficulty.

There were large numbers of adherents of the Old Faith who were never brought before the Inquisitors, for it seems that to a great extent the persecution was against the members of the covens, who were regarded as devil-worshippers and enemies of Christ, and were accused of practising hellish rites and of having dealings with infernal powers. No matter whether the magic was used for good only, if an accused person belonged to a coven the doom was certain. This explanation accounts for the numerous cases of men and women of good and kindly lives, whose so-called witchcraft was practised for the benefit of others, yet they were remorselessly hunted down and put to death. Joan of Arc at one end of the series and the Salem witches at the other died for their Faith, not for their acts. Bodin[4] goes so far as to say, “Even if the witch has never killed or done evil to man, or beast, or fruits, and even if he has always cured bewitched people, or driven away tempests, it is because he has renounced God and treated with Satan that he deserves to be burned alive”. And he goes on,[5] “Even if there is no more than the obligation to the Devil, having denied God, this deserves the most cruel death that can be imagined”.

The number in a coven never varied, there were always thirteen, i.e. twelve members and the god. In the small districts there would be only one coven; where the means of communication were easy and the population large there would be a coven in each village, but instead of the god himself there would be a man or woman who acted for the Grandmaster and conducted the services in his name. When all the covens met at the Great Sabbaths and the Grandmaster was present in person, the substitutes were called “officers”. There is some evidence to show that on the death of a Grandmaster his place was filled either by election or by seniority from among the officers. In the witch-trials the existence of covens appears to have been well known, for it is often observable how the justices and the priests or ministers of religion pressed the unfortunate prisoners to inculpate their associates, but after persons to the number of thirteen or any multiple of thirteen had been brought to trial, or had at least been accused, no further trouble was taken in the matter. There is a statement on this custom by one of the leading legal authorities[6] who wrote in the middle of the seventeenth century, he says that the Devil treated certain members of his congregation differently from others, “the Precepts of Witchcraft are not delivered indifferently to every Man, but to his own subjects, and not to them all but to special and tried ones”. This is also probably the reason why Lord Coke defined a witch as “a person who hath conference with the Devil to take counsel or to do some act”.

The number thirteen seems to have had some special meaning in pre-Christian times. To mention only two out of a great number; Romulus, who was both king and Incarnate God, went about surrounded by his twelve lictors; and the Danish hero, Hrolf, was always accompanied by his twelve berserks. Both are legendary personages; Hrolf was within the Christian era though himself a Pagan, but Romulus was most certainly pre-Christian, and his legend could not therefore be contaminated by Christian beliefs. There is reason then to consider that the covens of the Horned God took their rise before the introduction of Christianity into the world.

There is only one trial in which the number thirteen is specifically mentioned, when Isobel Gowdie, stated that in each coven of her district there were thirteen persons. In the other trials the number is indicated and can be recovered by counting up the accused persons. As I have noted above, the Old Religion held its place longer among the women than among the men. The coven of Romulus consisted of thirteen men; if the legendary companions of Robin Hood[8] were real personages, then that coven was composed of twelve men and one woman; Gilles de Rais (1440)[9] had eleven men and two women, Bessie Dunlop (1567)[10] spoke of five men and eight women, and in Kinross-shire (1662)[11] one man and twelve women formed the coven.

The Incarnate God, called the Devil by the Christian recorders, was the supreme chief of the coven; the second in command was known as the Officer, who represented the Chief in his absence, and there was besides a woman-member called in Scotland the “Maiden”.[12] All offices could be held by women, including that of Chief, though they were usually filled by men, except of course that of the Maiden, who was always a woman. In England women appear to have sometimes doubled the offices of deputy-chief and of Maiden. Wherever she is recorded the Maiden appears as a more important person than the officer and as ranking next to the Grandmaster though without executive power. She sat at the right hand of the Incarnate God at feasts, and she generally led the dance with him. If, as I maintain, Joan of Arc belonged to the Old Religion her title of La Pucelle, the Maid, takes a new significance and emphasises her position in regard to her royal master, for she was not only Maid of Orleans but bore the higher title of La Pucelle de France.

To any member of the coven might be deputed the task of summoner. In a small district the Chief himself would notify all members as to the place where the Esbat or weekly meeting would be held; but in a large district a member, well known to the whole coven, went from house to house with the information. “Many times himself warneth them to meet, sometimes he appointeth others to warn them in his stead”,[13] as was the case with Robert Grieve of Lauder in 1649, “the Devil gave him that charge, to be his officer to warn all to the meetings”.[14] The summoner, whether Chief or ordinary member, was careful to be inconspicuous when employed in this way. In Renfrewshire this secrecy was carried further than usual, “for particular warning there appeared a Black Dog with a Chain about his Neck, who tinkling it, they were to follow”.[15]

The duties of the officer were varied; he was often the summoner, he arranged for the meetings and saw that due notice was given, he kept the records of attendance and of work done, he presented new members and informed the Chief of any likely convert. If the Chief did not choose to dance the officer led the ring and if the officer were also a Christian priest, as was not uncommon, he performed part of the religious service.

The musician was another important member of coven. The Chief was often the performer, sitting in the centre of the ring and playing on the pipes, the flute or the Jews’ harp. Jonet Lucas of Aberdeen 16 in 1597 was accused that “thou and they was under the conduct of thy master the Devil, dancing in a ring, and he playing melodiously upon an instrument”. On another occasion Isobel Cockie of the same coven did not approve of the Devil’s playing, “thou wast the ringleader, next Thomas Leyis, and because the Devil played not so melodiously and well as thou crewit, thou took the instrument out of his mouth, then took him on the chaps therewith and played thyself thereon to the whole company”. As a rule, however, the musician did not dance the round dance but sat outside the ring (plate X), though in the long dance he was often the leader.

The organisation was very complete, each coven being independent under its own officer, yet linked with all the other covens of the district under one Grandmaster. This was the system, which in all probability was followed by Augustine when he “placed bishops in every place where there had been flamens, and archbishops where there had been arch-flamens”.

A coven could act alone or, when numbers were needed, could combine with others. For a combined effort the witches of North Berwick afford one of the best examples.[17] There were thirty-nine men and women, i.e. three covens, who met together to aid their Master in destroying James VI of Scotland. Some raised the storm, some undertook the slow destruction of the wax image, some prepared the toad poison, and some arranged to get a garment which the King had worn. These duties were more than the members of one coven could manage, and they were obliged to have help from the other covens under the domination of the one Master.

Recruiting for the religion was not required while the cult was in its prime, but as the Church gained power and began to persecute there was difficulty in obtaining converts, and judging by the statements of the witches a Chief had often to use persuasion and bribery to secure a likely recruit. Once secured it was difficult for the member to withdraw, for discipline was strict within the coven. In most places the Master ruled through the love which the members bore to himself as the Incarnate God, for as de Lancre[18] puts it, “the Devil so holds their hearts and wills that he hardly allows any other desire to enter therein”. This personal affection of the worshipper for the God must always be taken into account in considering the cult of the Horned God. “The love of God” was no façon de parler among the witches but was a vital force in their lives.

“This passionate clinging to their own religion and their own god was regarded by the Christian recorders as blasphemy and devilish obstinacy. Bodin says,[19] “Satan promises that they shall be so happy after this life that it prevents their repenting and they die obstinate in their wickedness.” De Lancre[20] wrote in the same strain when he urged the lay judges to have no pity on the patience of witches under torture, “it is the Devil alone who furnishes the means, this patience is a forced obstinacy without merit, which can bring no other reward than the eternal agony of hell-fire”. In England the facts are often recorded in some detail. Rose Hallybread and Rebecca West[21] “died very stubborn and refractory, without any remorse or seeming terror of conscience for their abominable witchcraft”. The witches of Northamptonshire[22] were particularly loyal to their god. Agnes Brown and her daughter, after they were condemned to death, “were carried back to gaol where they were never heard to pray or to call upon God, but with bitter curses and execrations spent the little time they had to live, until the day of their execution, when never asking pardon for their offences whether of God or the world, in this their dangerous and desperate resolution, died”. Elinor Shaw and Mary Phillips of the same coven at their execution “being desired to say their prayers, they both set up a very loud Laughter, calling for the Devil to come and help them in such a Blasphemous manner, as is not fit to Mention; so that the Sherif seeing their presumptuous Impenitence, caused them to be Executed with all the Expedition possible; even while they were Cursing and raving, and as they liv’d the Devil’s true Factors, so they resolutely Dyed in his Service”. The remaining members of the coven died “without any confession or contrition”. In Guernsey in 1563, Martin Tulouff[23] and Colinette Gascoing refused the pardon of God and the queen.

There was in all places a system of rewards and punishments; these are noted only when the religion was falling into decay. Praise awarded publicly before the assembled coven, the honour of leading the dance with the Master, and gifts of money were the usual rewards. Punishments consisted of public rebukes for minor offences; for more serious faults beating was the most usual method of correction, this might be inflicted by blows from the Chief’s fist or from a stick wielded by the Chief’s hand. Many a transgressing member of a coven must have returned home black and blue with bruises as a reminder that implicit obedience was the Chief’s due.

It was not till the religion became a secret matter and the persecution of the Church was pressing it hard, that capital punishment first appeared. This was inflicted on actual or potential traitors, whose treachery might involve the safety of other members of the coven, more especially that of the Master. The almost invariable method of execution was by strangulation, and often occurred in the prison in which the suspected traitor was guarded. After death a thin string or other totally inadequate ligature was tied loosely round the neck in such a way as to show that the victims had not died by their own hand but had been done to death as an act of justice. Though the Christian recorders generally sum up the event with the words “and thus the Devil killed him in prison”, there is one record which shows clearly how the execution was effected. The man-witch Playfair[24] was consulted by the mother of Robert, Earl of Lothian, about a cancer in her breast. He cured her by casting the disease on her husband who died of cancer in the throat. In 1597 “the said Playfair, being soon apprehended, was made prisoner in Dalkeith steeple, and having confest that and much more wickedness to Mr. Archibald Simson, minister there, and that confession coming to the ears of Robert, Earl of Lothian, my lord’s son, he had moyen to get some persons admitted to speak with the prisoner in the night, by which meanes he was found worried [strangled] in the morning, and the point of his breeches knit about his neck, but never more enquiry was made who had done the deed”.

The importance of the lace or string among the witches was very great as it was the insignia of rank. The usual place to carry it on the person was round the leg where it served as a garter. The beliefs of modern France give the clue as to its importance.[25] According to traditions still current, there is a fixed number of witches in each canton, of whom the chief wears the garter in token of his (or her) high position; the right of becoming chief is said to go by seniority. In Haute Bretagne[26] a man who makes a pact with the Devil has a red garter. The red garter figures also in one of Croker’s stories of Irish fairies,[21] “The Cluricane showed Tom where the crock of gold was buried under a big boliaun (ragwort). Tom tied his red garter round it to recognise it again, while he went to fetch his spade. On his return he found every boliaun in the field had a red garter tied to it”. Here the garter had obviously been used as a means of magic by a man who had no right to do so and it was therefore entirely ineffectual.

These are the modern examples, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the garter played a more sinister part. I have already quoted the account of the death of the man Playfair, where cause and effect are clearly indicated, the punishment for treachery following hard on the betrayal. As it was a man of high rank who had instigated the murder “never more enquiry was made who had done the deed”. At the same time it is possible that the Earl of Lothian may have been the chief of a coven and have been feared accordingly. Fear certainly prevented further enquiry in the case of the man-witch John Stewart in 1618.[28] He was in prison on the charge of being a witch, and was so fettered that in his own words he could not raise his hand “to take off my bonnet nor to get bread to my mouth”. Half an hour before the trial began he was visited by two ministers of religion. They had hardly left when the officers of the court were sent to bring him before the justices, they found him already dead, strangled “with a tait of hemp (or string made of hemp, supposed to have been his garter or string of his bonnet).” He was carried out into the air and all means were used to bring him round,” but he revived not, but so ended his life miserable by the help of the devil his master.” In 1696 John Reid in Renfrewshire[29] was in prison awaiting his trial for witchcraft, he was asked one night “whether he desired company or would be afraid alone, he said he had no fear of anything”. The next morning he was found strangled, with his own neckcloth tied loosely round his neck and fastened to a small stick stuck into a hole above the chimney-piece. “It was concluded that some extraordinary Agent had done it, especially considering that the Door of the Room was secured, and that there was a board set over the Window which was not there the night before when they left him”. These executions give a special meaning to Gilles de Rais’ outburst of contempt against the ecclesiastical court assembled to try him on a charge of witchcraft, that he “would rather be hanged in a lace than submit to their jurisdiction”.[30]

A string-as a garter, a “point,” or in the cap was an ordinary part of the dress, and it is very remarkable how often it is mentioned in the descriptions of the Devil’s costume. The Scotch Thom Reid[31] wore a cap “close behind and plain before, with silken laces through the lips thereof”; the Lancashire Mamilion[32] was in a suit of black tied about with silk points; the Swedish Antecessor[33] had red and blue stockings with long garters. The importance of the garter is shown in the witch dance of the Palaeolithic painting (plate IX), where the male figure, who stands in the centre wears a garter on each leg standing out on either side of the knees. It seems therefore not unlikely that the string was a symbol of authority worn on a part of the person where it would be visible to all and yet would not impede in any way the movements of the wearer.

The garter has long been credited with magical Properties, especially when belonging to a woman. The bride’s garters were fought for at a wedding, and the Mettye Belt was always a man-witch’s belt or a woman-witch’s garter. The Mettye Belt was the recognised magical means of ascertaining whether a sick person would recover or not; it was put round the patient’s body and the augury obtained from it. It was of this magical practice that the unfortunate Janet Pereson[34] was accused in Durham in 1570 the charge against her stated that “she uses witchcraft in measuring of belts to preserve folks from the fairy”. As late as the eighteenth century the magical power of the garter is well illustrated in a story from the Orkneys,[35] “There was an eagle flew up with a cock at Scalloway, which one of these enchanters seeing, presently took a string (his garter as was supposed), and casting some knots thereupon with the using the ordinary words, the eagle did let fall the cock into the sea”.

The garter in legend can be of great importance. The story attached to the castle of Sewingshields, in Northumberland,[36] states that in a cave under the castle sleep King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, their courtiers, and thirty couple of hounds. A farmer found his way into the cave, and on a stone table near the entrance he saw a stone sword, a garter and a horn. He picked up the sword, cut the garter, then his heart failed as he saw the sleepers awaking. As he hurried out of the cave he heard King Arthur say, “O woe befall the evil day that ever the witless wight was born, who took the sword, the garter cut, but never blew the bugle-horn.” Strutt states that in the ninth century cross-gartering seems to have been confined to “kings and princes, or the clergy of the highest order, and to have formed part of their state habit”.[37] Later in the Middle Ages the garter had obviously a significance which it does not possess now. The Liber Niger records that Richard I animated his army at the siege of Acre by giving to certain chosen knights leather garters to tie about their legs.

The extraordinarily circumstantial tradition of the foundation of the Order of the Garter in the reign of Edward III also emphasises its importance. The story–which every child has heard–relates that a lady, either the Fair Maid of Kent or the Countess of Salisbury, dropped her garter while dancing with Edward III, that she was overcome with confusion, that the king picked up the garter, fastened it on his own leg with the words Honi soit qui mal y pense,{shame to those who think evil of it–jbh} and at once founded the Order of the Garter with twenty-six knights in honour of the event, that Order being from the beginning the highest of all knightly Orders in Europe. Though the story may be apocryphal there is a substratum of truth in it. The confusion of the Countess was not from the shock to her modesty–it took more than a dropped garter to shock a lady of the fourteenth century–but the possession of that garter proved that she was not only a member of the Old Religion but that she held the highest place in it. She therefore stood in imminent danger from the Church which had already started on its career of persecution. The king’s quickness and presence of mind in donning the garter might have saved the immediate situation, but the action does not explain his words nor the foundation of the commemorative Order. If, however, the garter was the insignia of the chieftainship of the Old Religion, he thereby placed himself in the position of the Incarnate God in the eyes of his Pagan subjects. And it is noteworthy that he swiftly followed up the action by the foundation Of an order of twelve knights for the King and twelve for the Prince of Wales, twenty-six members in all, in other words two covens. Froissart’s words seem to imply that Edward understood the underlying meaning of the. Garter, “The King told them it should prove an excellent expedient for the uniting not only of his subjects one with another, but all Foreigners conjunctively with them in the Bonds of Amity and Peace”. It is remarkable that the King’s mantle as Chief of the Order was powdered over with one hundred and sixty-eight garters which, with his own Garter worn on the leg, makes 169, or thirteen times thirteen, i.e., thirteen covens.

The Meetings. There were two classes of meetings, the Esbats which were specially for the covens, and the Sabbaths which were for the congregation as a whole.

The Esbats took place weekly, though not always on the same day of the week nor in the same place. They were for both religious and business purposes. Attendance at the Esbat was compulsory for the coven, but other members of the congregation were admitted to the religious rites. Thus the French witches, Antoine Tornier and Jaquema Paget,[38] returning from gleaning one day, saw a meeting being held in a field called Longchamois; they laid down their bundles, joined in the meeting, and when it was over they picked up their bundles and went home. It is not uncommon at the present day to see women stop and join in a religious service on their way home from work, exactly as Antoine and Jaquema did, but as the modern woman attends a Christian service and the witches attended a Pagan rite the former are called devout and the latter are devil-worshippers.

The business part of the Esbats and Sabbaths consisted of reports from the members of their work during the previous week and of their proposed work in the days to follow. Isobel Gowdie (1662) stated that “all our acts and deeds, betwixt great meetings, must be given account of and noted in his book at each Grand meeting”.[39] They consulted with the Chief or with his deputy as to any matters in which advice was needed. These matters were usually cases of illness, for the witches of a coven were always the healers in a village. There were also cases of divination in which direction was required, and by the reports of the witches the Chief was kept informed of all that went on in his district and was able to give help or reproof where needed. A newly-made member of the coven would receive instruction at the Esbat, either from the Chief or from a fellow-member, such instruction including methods of divination by animals. Sometimes the Chief himself desired help and he then chose his assistants from among those present. If a new remedy or charm were to be tried the whole coven was instructed and the result, successful or otherwise, had to be reported at the next meeting. Included in the business was information as to likely converts. The members themselves were always ready to put in a word to those who were discontented with Christianity, and the Master or one of the officers could then take the case in hand. After the business was finished the coven turned to its religious celebrations. Though the Chief sometimes gave an address, in which he laid down and explained the dogmas of the religion, the main ceremony was the sacred dance. After this came the feast, which was often followed by another dance then the meeting broke up and the members returned home.

The Esbat might be held in a building or in the open air. As a cottage room would be too small for thirteen people, the meeting was sometimes held in the church to the great scandal of all pious Christians. It was, however, more usual to meet in the open air and at no great distance from the village. Night was the ordinary time, but the meeting did not always last till dawn, it varied according to the amount of business to be transacted. Day Esbats are known, but these depended, as did all arrangements for an Esbat, on the will of the Master.

The Sabbaths were held quarterly, on the second of February (Candlemas day), the Eve of May, the first of August (Lammas), and the Eve of November (All Hallow E’en). This shows a division of the year at May and November with two cross-quarter days. Such a division belongs to a very early calendar before the introduction of agriculture. It has no connection with sowing or reaping, it ignores the solstices and equinoxes, but it marks the opening of the two breeding seasons for animals, both wild and domesticated. It therefore belongs to the hunting and pastoral periods, and is in itself an indication of the extreme primitiveness of the cult and points to a very early origin, reaching back possibly to the Palaeolithic era. Cormac, archbishop of Cashel in the tenth century,[40] refers to these meetings when he says that “in his time four great fires were lighted up on the four great festivals of the Druids, viz.: in February, May, August, and November”. Seven centuries later, in 1661, Isobel Smyth of Forfar[4l] acknowledged that “by these meetings she met with him (i.e., the Devil) every quarter at Candlemas, Rood day, Lammas, and Hallowmass”. This shows the continuity of the Old Religion underlying the official religion of Christianity.

As the great Sabbaths were always held on the same dates every year no special notice was sent to summon the congregation. The site was always an open place, a moor or a hill-top, where numbers could be accommodated without difficulty. In France one of the places of assembly was the top of the Puy de Dome, in Guernsey in the windswept neighbourhood of the dolmen known as the Catioroc; in England any open field or moor could be used, while in Scotland it was a moor or the sea-shore. The Sabbath began between nine and ten at night and the ceremonies ended at dawn, the crowing of the cocks indicating to a people, who were innocent of watches and clocks, that the time of departure had come. At the spring festival the congregation appears to have returned to the village in a processional dance bringing in the May.

The regard which the members of the Old Religion had for the Sabbath is set forth by de Lancre, the French inquisitor, who was sent to exterminate the cult in the Pays de Labourd. Like all Christians he called these people “witches”, but at least he gives the very words they used. He examined two young women, one aged twenty-nine, the other twenty-eight. The former[42] said that “the Sabbath was the true Paradise, where there was more joy than could be expressed. Those who went there found the time too short because of the pleasure and happiness they enjoyed, so that they left with infinite regret and longed for the time when they could go again.” The other Young woman,[41] whom de Lancre appreciated as being very beautiful, “deposed that she had a singular pleasure in going to the Sabbath, because the Devil so held their hearts and wills that he hardly allowed any other desire to enter therein. That she had more pleasure and happiness in going to the Sabbath than to Mass, for the Devil made them believe him to be the true God, and that the joy which the witches had at the Sabbath was but the prelude of much greater glory.” De Lancre records[44] that the witches “said frankly that they who went had an overpowering desire (désir enragé) to go and to be there, finding the days before the so longed-for night so far off, and the hours required to get there so slow; and being there, too short for that delightful sojourn and delicious amusement.” Another French inquisitor, Jean Bodin, also notes the feeling of the “witches” towards their religion, his record being couched in the characteristically Christian manner of words, “Satan promises that they shall be very happy after this life, which prevents their repenting, and they die obstinate in their wickedness”.[45]

An important part of a witch’s outfit in popular estimation was a familiar. “These witches have ordinarily a familiar or spirit in the shape of a Man, Woman, Boy, Dogge, Cat, Foale, Fowle, Hare, Rat, Toade, etc. And to these their spirits they give names, and they meet together to Christen them”.[46] An examination of the evidence shows that there were two kinds of familiar, one was for divining, the other for working magic. Familiars belonged apparently only to members of a coven, not to the congregation in general.

The divining familiar is co-terminous with the witch-religion. When a witch became a member of a coven she was told by what animal she should divine and was instructed in the method of divination. A very common animal for the purpose was a dog, sometimes though not always there was a restriction as to colour. Thus Elizabeth Style, in Somerset[47] divined by a black dog, but Alse Gooderidge, in Derbyshire,[48] used a party-coloured dog belonging to a fellow-villager, to the great indignation of the dog’s master. In sparsely populated districts where animals were scarce the witch might have more than one familiar. John Walsh, the Dorset witch[49] divined by “a blackish-gray culver or a brindled dog”; Alexander Hamilton in Lothian” had a crow, a cat and a dog as his divining animals; and Margaret Nin-gilbert, of Thurso, as late {as} 1719, divined by a black horse, a black cloud or a black hen.[51]

Her divining familiar was indicated to the witch by the Devil when she became a member of the coven, and she was instructed in the method of divining by that special animal. She could also have an animal of her own for private divination; these had to be named by a special ceremonial in which several members of the coven took part. The Guide to Grand Jurymen informs its readers that “to these their spirits they give names, and they meet together to Christen them”. The Lancashire witches met at Malkin Tower on Good Friday,[52] “first was the naming of the Spirit, which Alizon Device, now Prisoner at Lancaster, had, but did not name him, because shee was not there”. The French evidence shows how these familiars could be used. Silvain Nevillon of Orleans, condemned to death in 1615,[53] said “that there are witches who keep familiars (marionettes), which are little imps (Diableteaux) in the form of toads, and give them to eat a mess of milk and flour and give them the first morsel, and they do not dare to absent themselves from the house without asking leave, and they must say how long they will be absent, as three or four days; and if they (the familiars) say that it is too much those who keep them dare not make the journey or go against their will. And when they wish to go away on business or pleasure and to know if it will turn out well, they note if the familiars are joyous, in which case they go on business or pleasure; but if they are spiritless and sad, they do not budge from the house.” Gentien le Clerc, tried and condemned at the same time as Nevillon, declared that “he had trust in his familiar than in God, that there was more profit in it than in God, and that he gained nothing by looking to God, whereas his familiar always brought him something”.

The method of divination varied according to the animal used and according to the type of question asked. Agnes Sampson, executed 1590,[54] was accustomed to divine by a dog, when she was called in to see a sick person. When she was summoned to the bedside of a lady of high rank she went into the garden with the lady’s daughters, and there she called “Elva.” A large black dog appeared and she took the omens by its appearance and behaviour. It seems to have been a peculiarly savage animal and frightened the ladies by rushing at them and barking, and Sampson’s prognostication was that the patient would die. This is the only detailed account of obtaining omens by animals as to the outcome of an illness. All methods of divination were as carefully taught to the witches as to the augurs of Rome. The Grandmaster appointed to each member the creature by which she would obtain the auguries and also the proper words to use before the animal appeared. The words always contained the name of the god. The whole method of augury seems to have been like the methods used in classical times.

The Domestic Familiar must on no account be confused with the Divining Familiar, with which it has little in common. The Divining Familiar was often a large creature, like a horse or a stag, or a large bird, like a crow or a wood-pigeon; if no animal or bird answered the call the auguries could be taken from a cloud. The essence of the Divining Familiar was that it was not an animal belonging to the witch, any creature of the required kind would be sufficiently good to draw omens from. The Divining Familiar was, as the name I have given to it implies, used only for prophetic purposes, and the use of divination by its means is almost universal. The Domestic Familiar was entirely different. It was always a small animal, which belonged to the witch, was kept in her house, and was often called an Imp or a Spirit, and occasionally a Devil, was fed in a special manner and was used only to carry out the commands of the witch. The geographical distribution of the domestic familiar suggests that it was in origin Scandinavian, Finnish or Lapp. A scientific study of the subject might throw light on some of the religious beliefs and practices of the early invaders of our eastern shores.

Originally the Domestic Familiar may have been in use in all parts of England. Bishop Hutchinson, who made a special study of witches, says, “I meet with little mention of Imps in any Country but ours, where the Law makes the feeding, suckling or rewarding of them to be a felony”. The records of it, however, are almost entirely from the Eastern Counties, especially Essex and Suffolk. The accounts show that the custom of keeping and using these Familiars was very primitive, and may date back to the Palaeolithic period.

The Domestic Familiar was always a little creature–a little dog, a small cat, a rat, a mole, a toad, or a mouse–which could be kept in the house in some small receptacle like a box or a pot. The creature was fed by its owner, originally that it might become tame and return to her after it had worked its magic. In the food was mixed a drop of the witch’s blood so that the animal became in a sense a part of the owner. A name was always given to it, and in every way it was regarded as a creature of magical powers though under the control of its owner. It was used only for working magic, never for divining. This fact was known to the recorders. In 1587 Giffard states[55] that “the witches have their spirits, some hath one, some hath more, as two, three, foure, or five, some in one likenesse, and some in another, as like cats, weasils, toades, or mice, whom they nourish with milke or with a chicken, or by letting them suck now and then a drop of blood”. Though the Domestic Familiar was recognised theoretically in Scotland there is no mention of it in any Scotch witch-trial; it is found only in England, and there only on the east side with few exceptions.

Among the witches of Hatfield Peveril in Essex in 1556[56] Familiars could be hereditary and could also be presented. Elizabeth Francis was taught her religion by her grandmother, “when she taught it her, she counselled her to renounce God and to give of her blood to Sathan (as she termed it) which she delivered to her in the likeness of a white spotted Cat”. Later on she went to her neighbour, Mother Waterhouse, “she brought her this Cat in her apron and taught her as she was instructed by her grandmother, telling her that she must call him Sathan and give him of her blood and bread and milk as before”. Mother Waterhouse faithfully followed the instructions and “gave him at all times when he did anything for her, by pricking her hand or face and putting the blood his mouth which he sucked”. She was very poor and evidently found the cat too expensive to keep, and she confessed that “she turned the cat into a toad by this means, she kept the cat a great while in wool in a pot, and at length being moved by poverty to occupy the wool she prayed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost that it would turn into a toad, and forthwith it was turned into a toad, and so kept it in a pot without wool”. The feeding of a familiar was clearly a ritual ceremony, for though Mother Waterhouse’s evidence gives the ceremony most completely there are many other instances which show that when the creature had been used for magic it was given a drop of the witch’s blood on its return. By degrees the accounts of the ceremony were more and more exaggerated by the recorders till they developed into stories of imps sucking the witches’ blood. In the seventeenth century no witch-trial in the Eastern Counties was regarded as complete without full and lurid details of the witch and her Familiars.

In illustrations (plate XII) the “imps”, though described as small dogs, cats, or other little creatures, are represented as monsters. That they were really ordinary animals is certain from the evidence given in many of the trials. Mother Waterhouse’s account shows this clearly, and other Essex witches[57] gave the same kind of evidence. Thus Ursley Kemp in 1582 stated that “she went unto Mother Bennet’s house for a mess of milk, the which she had promised her. But at her coming this examinate saith that she knocked at her door, and no body made her any answer, whereupon she went to her chamber window and looked in thereat, saying, Ho, ho, mother Bennet, are you at home? And casting her eyes aside, she saw a spirit lift up a cloth lying over a pot, looking much like a ferret. And it being asked of this examinate why the spirit did look upon her, she said it was hungry”. Mother Bennet acknowledged to having Familiars, “many times did they drink of her milk-bowl. And when, and as often as they did drink the milk, this Examinate saith that they went into the earthen pot, and lay in the wool”. Another witness stated at the Essex trials, that “about the fourteenth or fifteenth day of January last she went to the house of William Hunt to see how his wife did, and she being from home she called at her’ chamber window and looked in, and then espied a spirit to look out of a potcharde from under a cloth, the nose thereof being brown like a ferret.” Elizabeth Sawyer, the witch of Edmonton in 1621,[58] confessed that the Devil came to her, “he would come in the shape of a dog. When he came barking to me he had then done the mischief that I bid him to do for me. I did stroke him on the back, and then he would beck unto me and wag his tail, as being therewith content”.

Familiars could be bought and sold, for there is still extant a record in the Manor Rolls of the Isle of Axholme of a man complaining that he had paid threepence to another man for a devil but had not yet received that for which he had paid. The gift and use of a Familiar is recorded in the trial of Frances Moore in 1646,[59] “one goodwife Weed gave her a white Cat, telling her that if she would deny God, and affirm the same by her blood, then whomsoever she cursed and sent that Cat unto, they should die shortly after”.

The Domestic Familiar also went by inheritance. Ales Hunt and her sister Margerie Sammon of the same coven as Mother Bennet and Ursley Kemp, deposed to having received their Familiars from their mother; Ales Hunt had two spirits, one called Jack, the other Robbin; Margerie Sammon “hath also two spirits like Toades, the one called Tom, and the other Robbyn; And saith further that she and her said sister had the said spirits of their mother”.[57] Another case of inheritance, which is one of the rare instances from the west side of England comes from Liverpool in 1667[60] “Margaret Loy, being arraigned for a witch, confessed that she was one; and when she was asked how long she had so been, replied, Since the death of her mother, who died thirty years ago; and at her decease she had nothing to leave her and this widow Bridge, that were sisters, but her two spirits; and named them, the eldest spirit to this widow, and the other spirit to her the said Margaret Loy.” Alse Gooderidge, in Derbyshire, in 1597[61] confessed to having received her Familiar in the same way, and there are other instances. The inheritance of Familiars was known among the Pagan Lapps, and is therefore an indication of the primitiveness of the custom.

Another method, also primitive, of obtaining a Domestic Familiar, was to recite some form of words, and then to take as the Familiar the first small animal which appeared after the recitation. When the religion was organised the formula included the name of the Old God, or Devil as the Christian recorders called him. Joan Waterhouse, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the Mother Waterhouse mentioned above, wishing to injure a girl with whom she had quarrelled, “did as she had seen her mother do, calling Sathan, which came to her (as she said) in the likeness of a great dog”[56] And Elizabeth Sawyer, the witch of Edmonton,[58] said that “the first time the Devil came to me was when I was cursing, swearing, and blaspheming”. If she were calling on the Old God the Christian recorders would naturally think her words were blasphemy.

It is very clear, then, that the Divining and the Domestic Familiars were entirely distinct. The Divining Familiar had to be indicated by the Grandmaster himself, and was never one particular animal, any animal of the class indicated by the Devil could be the Familiar for the time being; it did not usually belong to the witch, and it was used for foretelling the future, generally to forecast the result of an illness. The Domestic Familiar, on the other hand, could be presented by the Devil or by another witch, it could be inherited, it could be bought and sold, or it could come of its own accord, after the performance of some ritual action or the recitation of ritual words. It was always a small creature, which could be carried in the pocket or kept in the house in a box or pot, it was the absolute property of the owner, it had to be ritually fed, it was never used except for working magic and then only for carrying out a curse.

The Domestic Familiar came into such prominence during the trials of the Essex witches in 1645-6, owing to the sensational records of the two witch-finders, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, that it has ever since been regarded, though erroneously, as an essential part of the outfit of a witch.

The Broom. In connection with the rites, more particularly with the processional dance, the broom plays a large part. To the modern reader the witch and her broom are so closely connected as to be almost one and the same. Modern pictures of witches show them flying through the air seated astride a broom, which is not the usual household implement but a besom of birch-twigs or of heather such as is now used only by gardeners. In the nursery rhyme of the Old Woman tossed up in a Basket, she does not ride on the broom, she carries it in her hand.

The connection in the popular mind between a won-tan and a broom probably took its rise in very early times, the explanation being that the broom is essentially an indoor implement, belonging therefore to the woman; the equivalent implement for a man is the pitchfork, which is for outdoor work only. This is the reason why, in medieval representations of witch-dances, the women or witches often hold brooms, while the men or devils carry pitchforks. The broom being so definitely a feminine tool came to be regarded as the symbol of a woman. Until within very recent times cottage-women in Surrey, when going out and leaving the house empty, put a broom up the chimney so that it was visible from the outside, in order to indicate to the neighbours that the woman of the house was from home. In other parts of England until the last century, a broom standing outside a door showed that the wife was absent and the husband at liberty to entertain his male friends. This identification of the woman and the broom is probably the true meaning of Isobel Gowdie’s[62] statement that before leaving home to attend the Sabbath an Auldearne witch would place her broom on the bed to represent her to her husband, at the same time saying the words, “I lay down this besom in the Devil’s name; let it not stir till I come again.” The husband would then know that his wife had gone to her devotions.

The riding on a broom seems to be merely a variant of riding on some kind of stick. It appears to have been performed only by the members of a coven, and only for going to a Sabbath or for use in the processional dance. The sticks were stalks of the broom-plant, of ragwort, hemp, bean, or any hollow stalk; occasionally ash-branches were used, and in the Near East witches rode on palm-branches. It seems clear, then, that the act of riding, not the stick used, was the important part of the ceremony. In Europe, though the witches rode on the stems of various plants, there is little first-hand evidence of their flying through the air; the recorder has only “heard tell” of such a feat.

In and before the sixteenth century the accounts of the means of locomotion to and from the Sabbath are reasonable. In 1592, Agnes Sampson acknowledged that she rode to the meeting at the church of North Berwick on a pillion behind her son-in-law, John Couper; the Lancashire witches were also horse-riders; and the Swedish witches rode to Blockula. This last is indicated by the evidence of a boy,[63] whose mistress wished him to go with her to the Sabbath, so he took his father’s horse out of the field for the purpose; the animal was not sent back when the lady returned and the owner thought it lost, but found it again when the boy told him what had occurred. The rich Alsatian witches[64] went to the meetings in carriages or waggons; the poorer sort rode on sticks or walked. Usually when a witch claimed to have flown through the air to the Sabbath she had to acknowledge that by some untoward accident that means of conveyance failed and she had to return on foot. Silvain Nevillon, executed at Orleans in 1615, said that he “went often to the Sabbath on foot being quite awake, and that he did not anoint (literally, grease) himself, as it was folly to grease oneself if one were not going far”.[65] Rather later in the seventeenth century the reports become more highly coloured, until in 1662, Isobel Gowdie[66] told the court that “we take windle-straws or beanstalks and put them between our feet and say thrice, ‘Horse and hattock, Horse and go! Horse and pellatis, ho, ho!’ and immediately we fly away wherever we would.”

One of the earliest references to the ritual riding of witches is in the Decree attributed to the Council of Ancyra in the ninth century.[67] The Decree does not mention that the witches flew through the air, but it states definitely that they rode on animals: “Certain wicked women, reverting to Satan, and seduced by the illusion and phantoms of demons, believe and profess that they ride at night with Diana on certain beasts, with an innumerable multitude of women, passing over immense distances, obeying her commands as their mistress, and evoked by her on certain nights”. That such a Decree should have been made is proof that ritual riding was well known and considered a heathenish practice.

The first witch recorded to have been tried by the Church for her Faith was Dame Alice Kyteler, in 1324.[68] The lady owned a staff “on which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed, after having greased it with the ointment which was found in her possession”. The ambling through thick and thin shows that the riding was on the ground, not in the air.

The riding on plant-stems by fairies was described by the poet Montgomerie in 1515 (see p. 39). The description shows that though the riders were mounted on bune-wands (i.e. hollow stalks), they did not fly in the air; on the contrary, they merely hobbled along, jumping or hovand up and down, perhaps to imitate the action of a horse, in the same way that Alice Kyteler “ambled”. The witches of Lorraine, in 1589, went to the Sabbath[69] in family parties. Hensel Erich rode on a stick, his mother on a pitchfork, and his father on a great strong ox. The Inquisitor Boguet, in 1608,[70] says that the witches often went on foot to the assemblies, if the place were not far from their homes. “Others go there, sometimes on a goat, sometimes on a horse, and sometimes on a broom (balai) or a rake, these last very often going out of the house by the chimney. These also rub themselves first with a certain grease or ointment; but the others do not rub themselves in any fashion.”

The earliest mention of a broom as a means. of locomotion is in the trial of Guillaume Edelin, Prior of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in 1453.[71] He confessed to having gone to the Sabbath mounted on a balai. In 1563 Martin Tulouff, of Guernsey,[72] declared that he saw his old witch-mother seat herself on a genest and ride up the chimney on it, saying as she mounted, “Go, in the name of the Devil and Lucifer, over rocks and thorns”. In 1598 the French witch, Françoise Secretain,[73] went to the assembly on a white stick which she put between her legs; and in 1603 the Belgian witch, Claire Goessen,[74] was transported to the place of meeting on a stick smeared with ointment. The general evidence points to the conclusion that the ritual riding was not performed by the ordinary members of the congregation but was confined to the covens or priesthood.

The use of oil or ointment to facilitate the riding it mentioned by all the contemporary writers on the subject. It would seem that in early times the stick itself was greased, later it was the rider who was anointed. A form of magical words was also used when starting. According to de Lancre[75], the Basque witches “when they anoint themselves, say ‘Emen hetan, Emen hetan’, Here and there, Here and there. Others say, ‘I am the Devil. I have nothing which is not thine. In thy name, Lord, this thy servant anoints herself, and should be some day Devil and Evil Spirit like thee.'”

In another part of France in 1652 76 a witch confessed that “when she wished to go to the dances, she anointed herself with an ointment given to her by a man-witch, who was sent by the Devil”. The Somerset witches[77] averred in 1664 that “they anoint their Foreheads and Handwrists with an oil the Spirit brings them (which smells raw) and then they are carried in a very short time, using these words as they pass, Thout, tout a tout, tout, throughout and about“. The Swedish witches in 1670[78] stated that Antecessor, as they called their god, “gives us a horn with a salve in it, wherewith we anoint ourselves, whereupon we call upon the Devil and away we go.”

Several recipes for flying ointments are extant. Professor A. J. Clark[79] has reported on three, and shows that aconite and belladonna are among the ingredients; aconite produces irregular action of the heart and belladonna causes delirium. “Irregular action of the heart in a person falling asleep produces the well-known sensation of suddenly falling through space, and it seems quite possible that the combination of a delirifacient like belladonna with a drug producing irregular action of the heart like aconite might produce the sensation of flying”. It seems therefore that it was immaterial whether the stick or the rider were anointed; sooner or later the sensation of flying would be felt and the rider would be convinced that she had flown through the air.

The original broom, whether for domestic or magical purposes, was a stalk of the broom plant with a tuft of leaves at the end. The number of beliefs and proverbial sayings connected with the plant show that it was supposed to possess magical qualities. These qualities had to do with the giving and blasting of fertility. A broomstick marriage was not uncommon in periods when marriage laws were not very strict, it was not always considered binding by the Christians who practised it. Jumping over the broomstick is said to have formed part of the gypsy marriage rites. On the other hand there is still the old saying in use in some parts of England, which indicates that the broom-plant had blasting qualities, “If you sweep the house with blossomed broom in May, you sweep the head of the house away”.

The most important example of a processional broom survives in the Prize Besom of Shaftesbury. A description of it occurs in an agreement made in 1662 between the Mayor and Corporation of Shaftesbury and Sir Edward Nicholas, in which the Burgesses of the town ask that the annual procession in May should not take place on a Sunday. “The said Mayor, accompanied with some of the Burgesses and other Inhabitants of the said Town and Borough, have used to walk out into a Place called Enmore-Green, where is a Pool of Water, and divers Springs and Wells; and in that Place, to walk or dance Hand in Hand round the same Green in a long Dance, there being a Musician or Tabor and Pipe, and also a Staffe or Besome adorned with Feathers, Pieces of Gold, Rings and other Jewells, called a Prize Besom” (plate XIII). A description of the long dance mentioned in this quotation is given on p. 112.

The importance of the broom in India is as great as in Europe, but as the sweepers belong to one of the lowest castes it is difficult to obtain much information. One “sect” is known as Mehtars; a word which means prince or leader, a Mehtar is therefore often addressed as Maharaj. The ordinary house-broom is made of date-palm leaves and is considered sacred, but it has not the magical qualities of the sweeper’s broom which is made of split bamboo. “It is a powerful agent for curing the evil eye, and mothers get the sweeper to come and wave it up and down in front of a sick child for this purpose”.[80] The dead of the sweeper-caste are buried face downwards to prevent the spirit from escaping, for a sweeper’s ghost is regarded as extremely malevolent; this custom should be compared with the burial of a witch at the cross-roads with a stake through her heart, which was done to prevent the ghost from walking. In some places the sweepers carry a decorated broom in procession at the festival of their god, Lal-beg.

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