God of the Witches 5


“Blessed be the Christians and all their ways and works,
Cursed be the Infidels, Hereticks, and Turks.”

KIPLING (Slightly altered).

IT has so far been impossible for anyone to devise a theory which will decide where Magic ends and Religion begins. The best explanation is that Magic acts as a natural means, that the mere pronouncing of a spell or the performance of certain movements will produce the desired effect as surely as the mixture of two chemical substances will produce a definitely ascertained result. Magic therefore acts alone, it engenders its own force and depends on nothing outside itself, whereas Religion acknowledges a Power beyond itself and acts entirely by the motivation of that Power. The form in which the Power presents itself to the human mind depends on the state of civilisation to which the worshipper has attained. Man at some periods and in some places believes that the Power may be forced to obey his behests, that it cannot resist the commands of the man who performs certain ceremonies accompanied by certain words and manual gestures. At other periods and other places Man regards the Power as greater than himself and tries to propitiate it by means of prayers and gifts, which may include sacrifices of all kinds and self-abasement in every form.

The theory is accurate up to a point, but does not account for all the phenomena. I have therefore not attempted to divide the ceremonies of the witches in accordance with it, but have adopted the conventional division of calling those ceremonies “religious” which were done more or less as acts of worship, and those “magical” which were for the control of the forces of nature, such as producing storms, or for casting on or curing disease.

Religious Ceremonies. The religious rites, which we should call divine service at the present day, were solemnised with the greatest reverence. Homage to the Master was always paid at the beginning of all the sacred functions, and this often included the offering of a burning candle. At Poictiers in 1574[1] the Devil was in the form of “a large black goat who spoke like a person”, and to whom the witches rendered homage holding a lighted candle. Boguet says in 1598[2] that the witches worshipped a goat, “and for greater homage they offer to him candles which give a flame of a blue colour. Sometimes he holds a black image which he makes the witches kiss, and when kissing it they offer a candle or a wisp of burning straw”. The Somerset witches in 1664[3] said that when they met the Man in Black at the Sabbath “they all make low obeysance to him, and he delivers some Wax Candles like little Torches, which they give back again at parting”. As a rule the candles were lighted at a fire or light which the Grandmaster carried on his head between his horns; which shows that the rite was reserved for the great Sabbaths when the Devil was “in his grand Array”. De Lancre (Tableau p. 68) says that the Devil usually had three horns, with “a kind of light on the middle one, by which he is accustomed to illuminate the Sabbath, and to give fire and light to those witches who hold lighted candles at the ceremonies of the mass which they counterfeit.” Usually the Devil lit the candles himself and handed them to his worshippers, but sometimes the witches were permitted to light their own candles. In either case the symbolism conveyed the meaning that to his worshippers their god was the source of all light.

During the ceremony of receiving homage the god was enthroned. After the ceremony of the candles the congregation knelt before his throne chanting his praises. Then there were hymns and prayers, and sometimes the Master gave an address on the tenets and dogmas of the religion. This was more common in Scotland than elsewhere, as sermons have always been popular in that country, but preachers were known in France also. The style and subject matter of some of these sermons have been preserved. De Lancre[4] says the subject was usually vainglory, but the Scotch records are more detailed. In the trial of John Fian, of the North Berwick coven, in 1590,[5] it was stated that “Satan stood as in a pulpit making a sermon of doubtsome speeches, saying, ‘Many comes to the fair, but buys not all wares’, and desired him ‘not to fear though he was grim; for he had many servants who should never want and should ail nothing, and he should never let any tear fall from their eyes as long as they served him’. And gave their lessons and commandments to them as follows, ‘Spare not to eat, drink, and be blyth, taking rest and ease, for he should raise them up at the latter day gloriously'”. In the trial of some Lothian witches’ the preacher is said to have preached “the doctrines of the infernall Pitt, viz. Blasphemies against God and his son Christ”, in other words, he held forth on what he considered to be the true faith and abused the other side. “Among other things he told them that they were more happy in him than they could be in God; him they saw, but God they could not see.” In another sermon by the same preacher[7] he “most blasphemously mocked them, if they offered to trust in God who left them miserable in the world, and neither he nor his Son Jesus Christ ever appeared to them when they called on them, as he had, who would not cheat them”. This was undoubtedly the great appeal of the Old Religion; the god was there present with his worshippers, they could see him, they could speak to him as friend to friend, whereas the Christian God was unseen and far away in Heaven, and the petitioner could never be sure that his prayer would reach the divine ear.

The main part of the religious rite was a ceremony comparable with the Mass. It must, however, be noted that this rite was not in any way an attempt to represent the Last Supper as described in the Gospels, except that it included the distribution of bread and wine; therefore Cotton Mather is wrong when he says that they “imitated the Supper of our Lord”. The most detailed accounts of the ceremony come from more than one place in France.[8] Everything was black; the bread was black, being made of rye; the drink was black and pungent, being probably some kind of drink like the holy heather-beer of the Picts; the lights were black, for they were torches dipped in resin or pitch which gives a blue flame. The Chief was disguised as a black goat[9] and displayed the sacred bread on his horns; he took the sacred wine and sprinkled it on the kneeling people, while they cried out in chorus, “His blood be on us and on our children”. Throughout the ceremony the people knelt bowing their heads to the ground, or they lay prostrate, all uniting in a prayer to their god for aid. The descriptions show that the congregations were endued with a passionate devotion to their deity and their religion, and one can see that the Inquisitor de Lancre[10] was not exaggerating when he summarises the feelings of the witches who suffered for their faith. “In short,” he says, “it is a false martyrdom; and there are witches so besotted in his devilish service that neither torture nor anguish affright them, and who say that they go to a true martyrdom and death for love of him as gaily as to a festival of pleasure and public rejoicing. When they are seized by justice they neither weep nor shed a single tear, in truth their martyrdom, whether by torture or the gibbet, is so joyful to them that many of them long to be led to execution, and suffer very joyously when they are brought to trial, so much do they long to be with the Devil. And in prison they are impatient of nothing so much as that they may show how much they suffer and desire to suffer for him”. This is the spirit which is held up to admiration when it inspires the Christian martyr, but when it was a heathen woman dying for her god she is execrated as the worshipper of the Devil and is thought to have deserved the most cruel of. all deaths for her contumacy in not accepting a God of whom she knew nothing.

Sacrifices. There were several different forms of sacrifices, all of which involved the shedding of blood. The simplest, which was done with hardly any religious ceremony, was the pricking of her own person by the worshipper. This might be done either in private or in public. The sacrifice of animals was also a private rite, and never took place at a Great Sabbath, though it is occasionally recorded at an Esbat. The sacrificial animals were usually a dog, a cat, or a fowl. The animal was offered but not necessarily killed; in the account of the storm-raising by the witches of North Berwick the cat, which had been specially prepared by various magical ceremonies, was cast into the sea as far as possible, but it simply swam back and came safely to land.

Child sacrifice was not uncommon if the accusations are to be credited, but little real evidence is brought forward of the actual killing of children, and it must always be remembered that child-sacrifice is an accusation which the members of a dominant religion are very apt to bring against any other religion with which they are at variance. Occasionally, however, it would seem that a very young infant might be put to death as a religious rite; but this was very rare, and is not recorded in England. It occurs in one trial in Scotland in 1658,[11] when the Alloa coven were accused that “they all together had a meeting at Tullibodie, where they killed a child, another at Clackmannan where they killed another child”. Many accusations against the witches included the charge of eating the flesh of infants. This does not seem to have been altogether unfounded, though there is no proof that children were killed for the purpose. Similar forms of cannibalism as a religious rite were practised by the worshippers of Bacchus in ancient Greece.

There is one form of cannibalism which seems to have arisen after the persecutions had begun. Some of the witches deliberately ate the flesh of a young infant with the avowed purpose of obtaining the gift of silence, even under torture, when questioned by the Christian judges. The child does not appear to have been killed for the purpose, but considering the infant mortality of the period there could have been no difficulty in obtaining the magical flesh. The reason for the practice was a form of sympathetic magic, by eating the flesh of a child who had never spoken articulate words the witches’ own tongues would be prevented also from articulating. De Lancre[12] shows this belief very clearly, “In order not to confess the secrets of the school, they make at the Sabbath a paste of black millet with the powder made from the dried liver of an unbaptised child; it has the virtue of taciturnity; so that whosoever eats it will never confess.” This generalisation is borne out by the evidence at two Scotch trials. At Forfar in 1661[13] Helen Guthrie stated that she and some others dug up the body of an unbaptised infant, “and took several parts thereof, as the feet, hands, a part of the head, and a part of the buttock, and they made a pie thereof, that they might eat of it, that by this means they might never make confession (as they thought) of their witchcrafts”. In 1695 one of the Bargarran witches[14] told the court that “their Lord (as they called him) gave them a piece of an unchristened Child’s liver to eat; telling them, That though they were Apprehended, they should never Confess, which would prevent an effectual Discovery.”

The greatest of all the sacrifices was that of the god himself. This took place at one of the great quarterly Sabbaths at the end of a term of years, generally seven or nine. Frazer has shown that the Dying God was originally the ruler of the tribe, in other words the king. When the custom begins to die out in any country, the first change is the substitution of some person of high rank who suffers in the king’s stead; for a few days before his death the substitute enjoys royal powers and honours as he is for the time being actually the king. The next step is when a volunteer, tempted by the desire for royal power though only temporary, takes the king’s fate upon himself. Then comes the substitution of a criminal already condemned to die in any case, and the final stage is the sacrifice of an animal.

When the records of the Old Religion were made the great sacrifice had reached the last stages. In France a goat was burnt to death at the Sabbaths, the creature being called the Devil. The ashes were collected for the magical promotion of fertility by strewing them on fields and animals. The gathering up of the ashes in the case of Joan of Arc should be remembered in this connection. It is perhaps worth remarking that when in the seventeenth century, the time for the sacrifice had come the god is always said to be in the form of a large goat or in his “grand array”, which means that in the original rite it was the sacrifice of the Horned God himself.

In the primitive forms of the sacrifice elsewhere than in Europe the worshippers ate the dead body of the god, or at least some part of it. Ceremonial cannibalism is found in many parts of the world, and in all cases it is due to the desire to obtain the qualities of the dead person, his courage, his wisdom, and so on. When a divine victim was eaten and the holy flesh thus received into the system, the worshipper became one with the deity. In ancient Egypt, as in other places, it was more common to eat the animal substitute or a figure of the god made in dough or other edible substance. The sacrifice of the god in the person of the king or his substitute was known from very early times, and has continued in some countries until the present century. It remained in Western Europe as long as the cult of the Horned God lasted, and I have collected in the chapter on the Divine Victim several examples of the royal gods and their divine substitutes. Besides these historical instances there must have been many local victims who, being in a humble walk of life, were not recorded.

In modern books on this subject the substitutes are often called Mock Kings, whose rule was usually a kind of Saturnalia, for the royal powers were largely burlesqued. Klunzinger[15] records examples of the kind in Egypt in 1878, he says that in every village of Upper Egypt a New-Year King was elected, who for three or four days usurped the power of the Government and ruled despotically. He wore a special dress, and was treated with extravagant respect, he tried legal cases and passed ridiculous sentences on the offenders. At the end of his term of power he was tried and condemned to be burnt. He was then escorted by the whole village to the burning place and a ring of fire was made round him. When the flames became uncomfortably hot he jumped through them to safety, leaving his burlesque royal insignia to be destroyed. This is a very late form of the sacrifice; but in pre-Christian Europe the incarnate god was undoubtedly burnt alive, and it is very certain that the custom did not die out with the coming of Christianity. The burnt sacrifice performed by the “Druids” was, I suggest, the offering of the substitutes for the Divine King.

The “lease of life” granted to certain witches appears to have been another form of substitution for the royal or divine victim. In the evidence at some of the trials the Devil is said to have promised that for a term of years the witch should have wealth and power, but at the end of the time he should claim her, body and soul. Tradition says that he came in person to “fetch” her, and there are many gruesome stories of his coming at the appointed hour. A usual feature of the story is that marks of burning were found afterwards on the dead body of the witch or that nothing was left of her but a heap of ashes. In many instances where the exact length of the lease of life is mentioned, the term is for seven years or multiples of seven. This coincides with the fact that in the case of the royal gods in England there seems to have been a seven-year cycle.

The sacrifice of the god was liable to be confused with a sacrifice to the god by those who were not fully acquainted with the cult. The recorders claimed that all child-murders, of which the witches were accused, were sacrifices to the devil. Child-murders were, however, seldom substantiated and were not more frequent among the witches than among other classes of society. When the actual testimony of the witches is given, and not the generalisations of biassed Christians, there is no doubt that the person or animal who died was regarded as the god.

In traditional accounts of the fairies the seven-year cycle and the human sacrifice to the god are preserved. Thomas of Ercildoune[16] was carried away by the Fairy Queen; he remained with her for more than three years, she then sent him back to his own home, and when he remonstrated she told him that the next day was Hallow e’en:

To-morrow, of hell the foulé fiend
Among these folks shall choose his fee.
Thou art a fair man and a hende,[*1]
I trow full well he would choose thee.

[*1 Hende = comely.]

And in the ballad of Young Tamlane[17] the hero is a fairy knight who loves a human lady and asks her to save him:

Then would I never tire, Janet,
In elvish land to dwell;
But aye at every seven years
They pay the teind[*1] to hell,
And I am sae fat and fu’ o’ flesh
I fear ’twill be myself.

In view of the fact that ceremonial cannibalism was practised, Young Tamlane’s physical condition has a sinister significance.

In a Cumberland tale[18] it is said that “every seven years the elves and fairies pay Kane,[*2] or make an offering of one of their children to the grand enemy of salvation, and they are permitted to purloin one of the children of men to present to the fiend; a more acceptable offering, I’ll warrant, than one of their own infernal brood that are Satan’s sib-allies, and drink a drop of the deil’s blood every May morning”.

In early times the Dying God or his substitute was burnt alive in the presence of the whole congregation; but when Western Europe became more organised such a ceremony could not be permitted and the victim died at the hands of the public executioner. The custom of burning the witch was not the invention of the Church, which only took advantage of a custom already existing and did nothing to modify the cruelty of more barbarous times. Death by burning was considered by the witches themselves as so essential that Ann Foster, of Northampton,[19] when condemned to die for witchcraft in 1674, “mightily desired to be burned, but the Court would give no Ear to that, but

[*1 Teind = Tenth, tithe.

*2 Kane =Tax.]

that she should be hanged at the Common place of Execution.” This is in accordance with the request of a witch in the Rudlieb,[20] who when about to be hanged asked that her body should be taken down from the gallows and burnt, and the ashes strewn on water, lest being scattered in the air they should breed clouds, drought and hail.

It is interesting to note that there is no legal record that a witch was condemned to be burnt alive in, England; witches were hanged if another crime besides witchcraft could be proved against them. In fact, the English leniency towards the “horrible crime of witchcraft” is very noticeable. It was commented on in Scotland during the rule of the Commonwealth,[21] “there is much witchery up and down our land; the English be too sparing to try it.” In Scotland persons could be condemned for witchcraft only, the usual method of execution was strangulation at the stake, after which the body was burnt; but there are cases on record where the witch was condemned to be burnt alive, and the records also show that the sentence was faithfully carried out. In France also evidence of the practice of witchcraft meant sentence of death, and the condemned person died in the flames. There is even a record of a man-witch who was sentenced “a estre bruslé vif à petit feu”, and in Alsace one of the magistrates said that burning was too good for witches, and condemned them to be torn in pieces with red-hot pincers. This is, as far as I know, the only occasion when the Christian clergy pleaded for mercy for the culprits; they were so far successful that the sentence was mitigated to beheading with the sword, for which mercy the condemned thanked the magistrate with tears of gratitude.

The belief in the dogma of the Dying God is the reason why it is so often recorded against witches as a heinous sin that they pretended to be Christian while all the time they were “Devil-worshippers”. The fundamental difference between the two religions is that the Christian believes that God died once for all, whereas the more primitive belief is that the god is perpetually incarnate on earth and may therefore be put to death over and over again. In all probability these “Devil-worshippers” were quite honest in belonging to both religions, not realising any difference in one of the basic doctrines of the new faith.

The Orgies.[23] The orgiastic ceremonies excited the interest and curiosity of the Christian judges and recorders to an extent out of all proportion to their importance in the cult. It is certain that in the religion of the Horned God, as in the cults of Bacchus and other deities of fertility, rites were performed which to the modern mind are too gross to be regarded as religious. These rites were openly practised in Athens in the height of its civilisation, the Sacred Marriage being regarded as the means of promoting and increasing fertility. Similar rites are known and have been practised in all parts of the world, but always in what are now called “Religions of the Lower Culture”. As the cult of the Horned God was also a religion of the Lower Culture such rites formed an integral part of the worship. The reason for their use is the same wherever found; it is the practical application of the theory of sympathetic magic, with the consequent belief that by such means the fertility of the whole land would be increased. It was on account of these rites that the witches were credited with–and claimed–the power of granting fertility. They had therefore also the opposite power, that of blasting fertility; for, as I have pointed out before, the primitive mind ascribed both good and evil to one power alone; the division into God and Devil, priest and witch, belongs to a higher stage of civilisation.

Joan of Arc was definitely accused of having practised these rites, and it was through the agency of the Duchess of Bedford that her accusers were proved wrong. The accusation on this subject against Gilles de Rais was obviously trumped up and had therefore to be combined with charges of murder to force a conviction.

In all the trials where these rites are mentioned the Inquisitors of the Roman Church and the ministers of the Reformed Church express an extreme of sanctimonious horror, coupled, however, with a surprisingly prurient desire to learn all the most intimate details. The ceremonies may have been obscene, but they are rendered infinitely worse by the attitude of the ecclesiastical recorders and judges.

Magic Ceremonies. In the trials of witches the magical element plays a large part. In all studies of witches and magic, one point must be kept in mind, that when anything regarded as out of the ordinary course of nature is brought about by human means it is called a miracle if the magician belongs to the beholder’s own religion, but it is magic–often black magic–if the wizard belongs to another religion. In Grimm’s words, “Miracle is divine, Magic is devilish”. This is markedly the case in the Christian records of the wonders performed by witches.

The cauldron is one of the most important accessories of a witch in popular estimation, but in spite of its prominence in Macbeth it does not often appear in the trials. In Alsace,[24] at the end of the sixteenth century it was greatly in vogue, and its use is clearly explained. The ingredients used are not given; the pot was boiled in the presence of all the company, including the Devil, to the accompaniment of prayers and charms. When ready, the cauldron was either overturned and the contents spilt on the ground, or the liquid was distributed to the votaries for sprinkling where they desired. The spilling was to bring fog, the rising steam being the sympathetic magic to bring it about. The making of the liquid for sprinkling was obviously a religious ceremony, and when the cult was in its prime and the witches were the priesthood the sacred liquid was used for blessing the crops as holy water is now. As with so many of the witch-ceremonies the original meaning was lost, the new religion adopted the old rites with slight changes and the older form of the ceremonial fell into disrepute and was sternly forbidden by the Church. The cauldron was not for magical rites only, it also served the homely purpose of cooking the food at the Sabbaths. “There was a great cauldron on the fire to which everyone went and took out meat,” said the French witches to Boguet.[25] Nothing suggests more strongly the primitiveness of the rites and of the people who practised them than the use of the cooking-pot which was in common to the whole company. The importance of cauldrons in the Late Bronze-age and Early Iron-age should be noted in this connection.

In all the activities of a farm which were directly connected with fertility, witches seem to have been called in to perform the rites which would secure the success of the operation. They were also consulted if an animal fell sick. Thus at Burton-on-Trent, in 1597,[26] a certain farmer’s cow was ill, “Elizabeth Wright took upon her to help upon condition that she might have a penny to bestow upon her god, and so she came to the man’s house, kneeled down before the cow, crossed her with a stick in the forehead and prayed to her god, since which time the cow continued well”. Here there is the interesting and very definite statement that Elizabeth Wright had a god who was clearly not that of the Christians. In Orkney, in 1629,[27] Jonet Rendall was accused that “the devil appeared to you, whom you called Walliman. . . . After you met your Walliman upon the hill you came to William Rendall’s house, who had a sick horse, and promised to heal him if he could give you two pennies for every foot. And having gotten the silver you healed the horse by praying to your Walliman. And there is none that gives you alms but they will thrive, either by land or sea, if you pray to your Walliman”. Here again the god of the witch was not the same as that of the Christian.

The making of wax images for the destruction of an enemy has always been supposed to be a special art of a witch. The action has its origin in the belief in sympathetic magic; the image–of clay or wax–was made in the likeness of the doomed person, it was pierced with thorns or pins, and was finally dissolved in water or melted before a slow fire. The belief was that whatever was done to the image would be repeated in the body of the enemy, and as the image slowly melted he would get weaker and die. The method was probably quite effectual if the doomed man knew that magic, in which he believed, was being practised against him; but when the method was not successful the witches were often prepared to supplement magic with physical means, such as poison and cold steel.

Wax images for magical purposes are very early, There is reference to a wax crocodile in ancient Egypt as early as the XIIth dynasty (before 2000 B.C.), but the most detailed account is in the legal record of the Harem Conspiracy in the reign of the Pharaoh Rameses III (about 1100 B.C.). A plot was hatched to kill the Pharaoh and to put one of his sons on the throne; the conspirators were the young man’s mother and several of the harem ladies and harem officials, besides people from outside. They began by making wax figures, but these not proving a success the conspirators resorted to personal violence, from the effects of which the Pharaoh eventually died. The conspirators were brought to justice, and the guilty were condemned to death. It is interesting to see how much less superstitious the ancient Egyptians were than the medieval Christians. There is no mention of the Devil, no feeling that an evil power was invoked; there is none of that shuddering horror which is so marked a feature of the Christian records, and the only abusive term used is the word “criminal” applied to the convicted prisoners. There were two men concerned in the making of the wax figures. The record of the first one states[28] that “he began to make magic rolls for hindering and terrifying, and to make some gods of wax and some people, for enfeebling the limbs of people; and gave them into the hand of Pebekkamen and the other great criminals, saying, ‘Take them in’, and they took them in. Now, when he set himself to do the evil deeds which he did, in which Rê did not permit that he should succeed, he was examined. Truth was found in every crime and in every evil deed, which his heart had devised to do. There was truth therein, he had done them all, together with all the other great criminals. They were great crimes of death, the things which he had done. Now, when he learned of the great crimes of death which he had committed, he took his own life.” The other man was equally guilty, “Now, when Penhuibin said to him, ‘Give me a roll for enduing me with strength and might’, he gave to him a magic roll of the Pharaoh (Rameses III), and he began to employ the magic powers of a god upon people. He began to make people of wax, inscribed, in order that they might be taken by the inspector, hindering one troop and bewitching the others. Now, when he was examined, truth was found in every crime and every evil deed, which his heart had devised to do. There was truth therein, he had done them all, together with the other great criminals. The great punishments of death were executed upon him”.

In Great Britain the making of a wax figure was never done by one person alone, several members of the coven were present and everything was performed with great ceremony under the personal superintendence of the Grandmaster. The earliest example is of King Duffus of Scotland (961-5).[19] The king had fallen ill of a mysterious sickness; and a girl having let fall some suspicious words, “some of the Guard being sent, found the Lass’s Mother with some Hags, such as herself, roasting before a small moderate Fire, the King’s picture made of Wax. The design of this horrid Act was that as the Wax by little and little did melt away, so the King’s Body by a continual sweating might at last totally decay. The Waxen-Image being found and broken, and these old Hags being punished by death, the King did in that moment recover”. At North Berwick[30] Agnes Sampson was accused with others of being present at the making of an image. “Anny Sampson affirmed that she, in company with nine other witches, being convened in the night beside Prestonpans, the Devil their master being present, standing in the midst of them; there a body of wax, shaped and made by the said Anny Sampson, wrapped within a linen cloth, was first delivered to the devil; which, after he had pronounced his verde, delivered the said picture to Anny Sampson, and she to her next marrow, and so everyone round about, saying, ‘This is King James the Sixth, ordered to be consumed at the instance of a nobleman, Francis, Earl Bothwell’.” The image according to Barbara Napier’s evidence[31] was “devised for roasting and undoing of his Highness’ person”. John Stewart at Irvine in 1618[32] said that when the witches were making clay images “the Devil appeared among them in the similitude and likeness of a black little whelp”. They cut a lock of Stewart’s hair to mix with the clay, “and took the remnant of his said hair and singed it at the fire, and thereafter cast the same to the said black little whelp”. The Somerset witches, in 1664,[33] confessed to making and using several such images. “The Devil baptized a Picture by the name of Ann or Rachel Hatcher. This Picture one Dunsford’s Wife brought, and stuck Thorns in it–When they would bewitch Man, Woman, or Child, they do it sometimes by a Picture made in Wax, which the Devil formally baptizeth.–Ann Bishop brought in her Apron a Picture in blackish Wax, which the Devil baptized by the Name of John Newman, and then the Devil first, after Ann Bishop, thrust Thorns into the Picture, Ann Bishop sticking in two Thorns into the Arms of it.–Margaret Agar brought thither an Image in Wax, and the Devil, in the shape of a Man in black Clothes, did baptize it, and after stuck a Thorn into its Head; that Agar stuck one into its Stomach, and Catherine Green one into its Side.–A Picture in Wax or Clay was delivered to the Man in black, who stuck a Thorn into the Crown of it, Agar one towards the Breast, Catherine Green in the side; after which Agar threw down the Picture, and said, There is Cornish’s Picture with a Murrain to it, or a Plague on it.–Margaret Agar delivered to the little Man in black, a Picture in Wax, into which he and Agar stuck Thorns, and Henry Walter thrust his Thumb into the side of it; then they threw it down, and said, There is Dick Green’s Picture with a Pox on it.” In 1678[34] some members of the witch coven of Paisley met together to make an image for the destruction of Sir George Maxwell. A man-witch gave evidence “that the Devil required every one of their consents for the making of the Effigies of Clay, for the taking away the Life of Sir George Maxwell. Declares, that every one of the Persons above-mentioned gave their Consents to the making of the said Effigies, and that they wrought the Clay, and that the black Man did make the figure of the Head and Face, and two Arms on the said Effigies. Declares, That the Devil set three Pins in the same, one in each Side, and one in the Breast; And that the Declarant did hold the Candle to them, all the time the Picture was making.” In New England in 1692,[35] the accusation against the Rev. George Burroughs included the charge “that he brought Poppets to them, and Thorns to stick into those Poppets.” In medieval times it is very certain that the recorders regarded wax images as being made only for evil purposes, but it is possible that they were also used for healing the sick. It was a common thing for a witch to be accused of casting pain or illness from the patient on some other person or on an animal. When, as often happened, the pains were those of childbirth and were cast on the husband he was most indignant, and his indignation was shared by the male judges to whom he related his woes. That a man should, be called upon to suffer “the natural and kindly pains” which ought to be peculiarly the lot of women was too terrible to be allowed, and the witch who did this particular piece of magic was put to death. The case of the transference of cancer from one patient to another is mentioned on p. 71. Unfortunately, though the accusations of transference of illness are fairly common, the method is never described in full. It may, however, have been by means of a wax image, as done at the present day in Egypt, where an image of the patient is made, pins are stuck into it in the places where the pain is acute, and then the figure is destroyed in the fire, in the belief that the pain or disease has been put into the figure and will be destroyed by its destruction. It seems, therefore, not unlikely that, like other magical ceremonies of the witches, the wax images had their good uses as well as bad.

A ceremony, which had clearly once been for promoting the fertility of a cornfield, was used at Auldearne,[36] but when recorded it had degenerated into a method for destruction. “Before Candlemas we went be-east Kinloss, and there we yoked a plough of toads. The Devil held the plough, and John Young, our Officer, did drive the plough. Toads did draw the plough as oxen, couch-grass was the harness and trace-chains, a gelded animal’s horn was the coulter, and a piece of a gelded animal’s horn was the sock”. In this everything denoted sterility, but the method was clearly derived from a fertility rite.

Many of the magical charms and spells were for the healing of the sick or for the prevention of disease. Thus Barbara Paterson was accused in 1607[37] of getting water from the Dow-loch, and “putting the said loch water into a stoup, and causing the patients lift it up and say, ‘I lift this stoup in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, for the health of them for whom it was lifted’, which words were to be repeated three times nine. Item, she used this charm for curing cattle, ‘I charm ye for arrow-shot, for eye-shot, for tongue-shot, for liver-shot, for lung-shot, for cat-shot, all the most, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’.” Though this might very reasonably have been called a Christian prayer, it was reckoned as a devilish charm when used by a witch. Another charm[38] for the preservation of the reciter was used by Agnes Sampson, and was known as the White Paternoster; it is clearly a confused version of a Christian prayer or hymn:

“White Paternoster,
God was my Foster.
He fostered me Under the Book of Palm-tree.
Saint Michael was my Dame,
He was born at Bethelem.
He was made of flesh and blood.
God send me my right food;
My right food, and dyne two,
That I may to yon Kirk go
To read upon yon sweet Book,
Which the mighty God of Heaven shoop.[*1]
Open, open, Heaven’s Yaits,[*2]
Steik,[*3] steik, Hell’s Yaits.
All Saints be the better,
That hear the White Prayer, Pater Noster.”

The companion-charm[33] is the Black Paternoster, which has the distinction of surviving to the present day in various forms as a charm to be said before going to sleep. This seems to be the meaning of the epithets given to the two prayers, the White Paternoster being the morning prayer to be said in daylight, the Black Paternoster the prayer for the night-time. The Black Paternoster is as follows

“Four neuks in this house for haly Angels,
A post in the midst, that’s Christ Jesus,
Lucas, Marcus, Matthew, Joannes,
God be into this house, and all that belangs us.”

Many charms and spells surviving to the present day contain the names of pre-Christian gods. These spells are usually connected with cures for diseases in human beings and animals, and are generally accompanied with certain manual gestures without which the charm is of little avail. One of the most interesting brings in the names of Woden and Loki, and as the hammer is of importance in the charm it is possible that Thor also is indicated.[39] It is a cure for ague: “Nail three old horse-shoes to the foot of the patient’s bed, with the hammer placed crosswise on them. Take the hammer in the left hand and tap the shoes,


[*1. Shoop= Shaped.

*2. Yaits = Gates.

*3. Steik= Shut.]

“Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Nail the Devil to the post;
Thrice I strike with holy crook,
One for God, one for Wod, and one for Lok.”

The destructive acts of the witches were often real, but were supposed to be effected by magic. The means were very simple, as in the cases following. At Crook of Devon in Kinross-shire in 1661[40] Bessie Henderson “confessed and declared that Janet Paton was with you at a meeting when they tramped down Thos. White’s rye in the beginning of the harvest, 1661, and that she had broad soles and tramped down more nor any”. In the same year in Forfar[41] the coven assisted the Devil to destroy a wooden bridge during a storm; it was apparently done to strike terror into the people of the neighbourhood. The method of effecting the destruction of the bridge was simplicity itself; Helen Guthrie said that “they went to the bridge of Cortaquhie with intention to pull it down, and that for this end she herself, Jonet Stout, and others of them did thrust their shoulders against the bridge, and that the Devil was busy among them acting his part.” Isobel Smyth corroborated Helen Guthrie’s account and added, “We all rued that meeting for we hurt ourselves lifting”. Helen Guthrie also stated that “the last summer except one, she did see John Tailyour, sometimes in the shape of a tod and sometimes in the shape of a swine, and the said John Tailyour in these shapes went up and down among William Milne, miller at Heatherstakes, his corn for the destruction of the same; and the Devil came to her, and pointed out John Tailyour in the foresaid shapes, and told her that that was John Tailyour”. In 1692 at Hartford, Connecticut,[42] Hugh Crosia (Crawshay) was accused of dealings with the Devil, “he also said the Devil opened the door of Eben Booth’s house, made it fly open and the gate fly open; being asked how he could tell, he said the Devil appeared to him like a boy, and told him he did make them fly open, and then the boy went out of sight”. There were also a certain number of charms and spells for acquiring benefits at one’s neighbour’s cost, and of this James Og of Aberdeen was accused in 1597.[43] “Is indited to have passed on Rood-day through Alexander Cobaine’s corn, and have taken nine stones from his own rig and cast on the said Alexander’s rig, and to have taken nine locks (handfuls) of mould from the said Alexander’s rig and cast it on his own. Is indicted to have passed on Lammas-day through the said Alexander’s corn, and having gone nine space (paces?), meting with a white wand, to have stricken the same nine times, so that nothing grew that year but fichakes.”

That the witches claimed to be, and were recognised as, rainmakers, is abundantly proved by the evidence given at the trials. Their methods varied considerably. According to Wierus,[44] the witches were said to bring rain “by casting flint stones behind their backs towards the west, or flinging a little sand into the air, or striking a river with a broom and so sprinkling the wet of it towards heaven, stirring water with the finger in a hole in the ground, or boiling hogs’ bristles in a pot”. Wierus was the great witch advocate, whose views on witches were far in advance of his time. Reginald Scot quotes largely from his works, and Scot’s own book had the honour of being publicly burnt on account of the heretical views he promulgated as to witchcraft, in which he firmly disbelieved.

The rainmaker is also the storm-bringer, and the witches were always supposed to create storms when they wished. The magic was effected by a sacrifice and a prayer to the deity, which is exactly the same method by which the prophet Samuel produced a violent thunderstorm and discomfited the Philistines. It was a divine miracle when Samuel accomplished it, but it was a diabolical deed when the witches were the. active agents. Had the Philistines recorded the event. they would hardly have regarded Samuel as anything but a witch.

The North Berwick covens raised a great tempest to drown King James VI and his queen on their way to Scotland from Denmark. Agnes Sampson[45] confessed that “at the time when his Majesty was in Denmark, she being accompanied by the parties before named, took a cat and christened it, and afterwards bound to each part of that cat the chiefest part of a dead man and several joints of his body: And in the night following, the said cat was conveyed into the midst of the sea by all the witches, and so left the said cat right before the town of Leith in Scotland. This done there did arise such a tempest in the sea, as a greater hath not been seen”. The legal record of a similar event is more detailed,[46] and mentions that the coven at Prestonpans sent a letter to the Leith coven that “they should make the storm universal through the sea. And within eight days after the said Bill (letter) was delivered the said Agnes Sampson (and several others) baptised a cat in the webster’s house, in manner following: First, two of them held a finger in the one side of the chimney crook, and another held another finger in the other side, the two nebs of the fingers meeting together; then they put the cat thrice through the links of the crook, and passed it thrice under the chimney. Thereafter, at Beigis Todd’s house, they knit to the four feet of the cat four joints of men; which being done, Jonet Campbell fetched it to Leith; and about midnight, she and the two Linkops and the two wives called Stobbeis, came to the Pier-head, and saying these words, ‘See that there be no deceit among us’; and they cast the cat into the sea, so far as they might, which swam over and came again; and they that were in the Pans cast in another cat in the sea at XI hours. After which, by their sorcery and enchantment, the boat perished betwixt Leith and Kinghorn; which thing the Devil did, and went before with a staff in his hand”.

A form of magic, which is strictly localised and belongs only to England, was performed by means of a small animal. To this I have given the name of the Domestic Familiar to distinguish it from the Divining Familiar which is found universally throughout Europe (see p. 83).

Magic words did not play so large a part as might have been expected among the witches. This is perhaps due to fear on the part of the recorders, who dared not repeat the words lest they might have some undesired effect. There seems no doubt that the name of the god was regarded as a sure means of bringing him into the presence of the person who called him, as in the case of Elizabeth Sawyer quoted above on page 88. There were, however, other words used to summon the god. Agnes Sampson[47] cried out “Elva, come and speak to me”, or, “Hola, Master”, when she wished him to appear either in person or as her divining Familiar, and dismissing him by telling him to “depart by the law he lives on”. Andro Man, at Aberdeen[48] had two words, one to raise the Devil, the other to dismiss him; the first, Benedicite, is certainly Latin, but the second, Maikpeblis, is a corruption of some misunderstood formula, probably Christian. Alexander Hamilton, of Lothian[49] was wont to strike thrice on the ground with a baton of fir and to say, “Rise up, foul thief”, when he called on his Master and the dismissal took the form of throwing a live cat in the direction of the divining Familiar or of the Incarnate God. The Somerset witches[50] called up their Familiars or even the Grandmaster himself simply with the word Robin, and when he appeared they added, “O Satan, give me my purpose”.

Marie Lamont[5l] called Serpent, when she summoned the “Devil”, and the Swedish witches[52] cried “Antecessor, come and carry us to Blockula”. Jean Weir[53] joined the confraternity by putting her foot on a cloth in the presence of a witness, and then uttering the words, “All my cross and troubles go alongst to the door”. A modern method[54] is to walk three times round the church, and the third time to stand still in front of the church door, and cry Come out’, or whistle through the keyhole.

The words used for flying varied in different parts of the country, though in many cases the name of the God was invoked. The earliest record of the flying charm is in Guernsey in 1563[55] when Martin Tulouff heard his mother say as she mounted her broomstick, “Va au nom du Diable et Lucifer pardessus roches et Espynes”. In 1586 the Alsace witch, Anna Wickenzipfel,[56] flew on a white wand with two other women, crying as they started, “Thither, in the name of a thousand Devils”. The Basque witches.[57] had several formulæ to be used as occasion required, usually they said, Enten hetan, Emen hetan, which de Lancre translates as, “Here and there, Here and there”. Those who were more devout called on their god to whom they likened themselves, “I am god (lit: the Devil), I have nothing which is not thine. In thy name, O Lord, this thy servant annoints herself and some day will be Devil and Evil Spirit like thee”. When crossing a stream they said, “Haute la coude, Quillet”, which prevented their getting wet. Another magic phrase was for those who had to go long distances (unfortunately de Lancre does not translate it) “Pic suber hoeilhe, en ta la lane de bouc bien m’arrecoueille”. Isabel Gowdie of Auldearne in 1662[58] announced that she had two forms of words, one was “Horse and Hattock in the Devil’s name”; the other was, “Horse and Hattock! Horse and go! Horse and Pellatis! Ho! Ho!” The Somerset witches in 1664[59] had “a long form of words” to be used when starting but nothing is recorded but gibberish, which suggests a misunderstood and mispronounced formula; it ran, “Thout, tout a tout, tout, throughout and about”. When leaving the meeting they said, “A boy, merry meet, merry part”, and when they started homewards, they shouted “Rentum tormentum,” and another word which the witness had forgotten.

There were other formulæ to be used for healing or as prayer. The words were generally taught by the Devil himself to his disciples, as in the case of Elizabeth Sawyer, the witch of Edmonton, in 1621[60] “He, the Devil, taught me this prayer, Santibicetur nomen tuum”. The Paternoster repeated in Latin was clearly regarded as a charm of great power, for we find Mother Waterhouse[61] using it over her Familiar, “she said that when she would will him to do anything for her, she would say her Pater noster in Latin”. In 1597 the name of the God was sometimes changed and the Christian Deity was invoked; Marion Grant,[62] who was burnt for witchcraft cured sick cattle in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and she also charmed a sword by the same means. When crossing themselves the Basque witches in 1609[63] repeated a prayer, which greatly shocked the Inquisitor, who translates the words into French, “Au nom de Patrique Petrique d’Arragon, a cette heure, a cette heure, Valence, tout notre mal est passe”, and “Au nom de Patrique Petrique d’Arragon, Janicot de Castille faites moi un baiser au derriere”. De Lancre records that a man-witch at Rion[64] “confessed that he had cured many persons of fever by merely saying these words Consummatum est, making the sign of the Cross, and making the patient say three times Pater noster and Ave Maria”. Another man-witch[65] who was sentenced to the galleys for life, said that he had such pity for the horses which the postilions galloped along the road, that he did something to prevent it, which was that he took vervain, and said over it the Paternoster five times and the Ave Maria five times, and then put it on the road, so that the horses should cease to run. Isobel Gowdie of Auldearne in 1662[66] gave the formula for transforming oneself into an animal. To become a hare, the witch said,

“I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sighing and mickle care,
And I shall go in the Divel’s name,
Aye, till I come home again.”

To revert to the human form, the witch repeated the words,

“Hare, hare, God send thee care.
I am in a hare’s likeness just now,
But I shall be in a woman’s likeness even now.”

There were slight variations in the words if the witch wished to be a cat or a crow. The method was simplicity itself, after repeating the words the witch regarded herself as the animal she had mentioned in the charm, but that there was no outward change is clear from the fact that if she met another witch she had to say to her, “I conjure thee, Go thou with me”, otherwise the other witch would not have realised that she was an animal.

The Somerset witches in 1664[67] carried on the old tradition of making wax figures. The formula for naming a figure is given in some detail. The image was brought to the meeting, “the Man in Black took it in his arms, anointed its forehead and said, ‘I baptise thee with this oil’, and used some other words. He was Godfather, and this Examinant and Ann Bishop Godmothers”. The witches then proceeded to stick thorns into the image, saying as they did so, “A pox on thee, I’ll spite thee”. (See page 143.) The image to be effective had to be baptised with the name of the victim.

It must, however, be remembered that the witches were not peculiar in their belief that a form of words could affect the forces of Nature. Bede records[68] that on the occasion of a storm at sea, a Christian bishop “showed himself the more resolute in proportion to the greatness of the danger, called upon Christ, and having in the name of the Holy Trinity, sprinkled a little water, quelled the raging waves”.

A modern version of a magical curse on an enemy is recorded by Lady Wilde[69] in Ireland, “A woman went to the Saints’ Well (in Innis-Sark), and, kneeling down, she took some of the water and poured it on the ground in the name of the devil, saying, ‘So may my enemy be poured out like water, and lie helpless on the earth’. Then she went round the well backwards on her knees, and at each station she cast a stone in the name of the devil, and said, ‘So may the curse fall on him, and the power of the devil crush him’.” Still more modern is the method of casting a curse by burning a candle in front of a saint’s image in church; in the candle are stuck pins, and the enemy is supposed to waste away as the candle burns, exactly as was supposed to happen when a wax figure was melted with pins stuck in it.

There are many charms and spells still in vogue in which the name of the Christian Deity, usually the Trinity, is used, but in origin they belong to the pre-Christian religion. Under a slight change of name much of the Old Religion still survives in Europe and can be found by any who are sufficiently interested to search for it. As an anthropological field of research Europe is almost untouched; yet in our midst the primitive cults still continue, though slightly overlaid by what we arrogantly term civilisation. Africa may be the training ground for beginners, but the so-called “advanced” countries offer to the investigator the richest harvest in the world.

FEATURE: Neopaganism

Gods of the Witches, Wiccan Rede, and the Principles of Wicca - explore Neo-Paganism.