Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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When Witches Were Witches

One sees it again and again in the popular stories and in the trial materials: the hexing witch.

She made my cow go dry. She made my ale go sour. She stole my field's fertility.

“Propaganda,” say Wiccans. “Scapegoating,” says secular scholarship. “Decadence,” says Murray: “a fertility cult become a sterility cult.”

I think they're all wrong.

 

I think that in the past there were magic-workers (whether or not they would have called themselves “witches,” and whether or not they were witches of our sort are separate questions) who made cows go dry, ale go sour, and fields lose their fertility. Or, at least, magic-workers who tried to do all those things.

 

Sheer malevolence--and vengeance--apart, why would anyone do such a thing?

I discovered the answer to this question in Emma Wilby's The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft, and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland.

Wilby is one of the most interesting of the current generation of academic scholars of pre-modern witchcraft. For decades “Murrayite” has been (in academia) as damning an epithet to fling at a peer as “witch” would have been 400 years earlier, but the anti-Murray pendulum is now swinging back in the other direction. Welcome to the wonderful world of scholarship.

Wilby's first book, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (2005), is—incredibly enough—the first monograph-length study of familiars in the history of witchcraft scholarship. Much to their consternation, Sussex Academic Press discovered that they actually had a best-seller on their hands, as contemporary witches quickly snatched up every available copy. Typically (ah, academia) they had no idea what to do. It took them years to rush a second edition into print.

Wilby has done something even more remarkable in her next book, Visions of Isobel Gowdie (2010). She has actually discovered the original four manuscript dittays of the confessions of that famous 17th century Scottish witch. This book is, in my opinion, the single most important book of witchcraft scholarship of the past decade.

After providing an unedited transcript of the confessions themselves, Wilby begins her analysis of them by drawing an entirely convincing portrait of their sitz in leben: what life was like for the average resident of 17th century lowland Scotland.

Although Gowdie technically lived in the Early Modern period, her worldview is essentially pre-modern. Inherent in everything she says is the premise that the world is a world of limits. There's only so much to go around. There's no such thing as unlimited resources; the world is capable of only so much fertility. So the only way for me to get more—and in 17th-century Scotland, this often meant the only way for me to get enough—is to take it from someone else.

The witch didn't steal the milk of someone's cow, or the fish from their nets, or the fertility of their compost, out of sheer meanness. She did it because she needed it herself.*

Wilby takes her fellow academicians to task for their automatic assumption that past accusations of maleficia were invariably false. In a world of unequal resources and unequal power, she says, what is more likely than that the poor would resort to hexing? Magic has always been the last—and sometimes the only—power of the powerless.

The landlord raises the rent—meaning the percentage of your share of the crop—so that there's no way you'll have enough food to get through the winter. The laird's son gets your daughter pregnant, or rides his horse through your fields at harvest and wrecks half the crop. What do you do? You can't take the laird to law, because he is the law. You can't kill him, because then they'd hang you, and the kids would be even worse off than they are now. You have do something. So what do you do?

You whammy the f***er. Of course you do.

The process of stealing someone else's goods by magic resolves itself in a magical operation called the “draw.” This is what draws the milk of the cow, the goodness of the ale, the fertility of the field, from someone else to you. The “milk hare” of confessed 17th century Swedish witch “Captain” Elin was presented as evidence at her trial, and is still on exhibit at Nordiska Museet. This milk hare is a simple stick (of oak?) with some leather straps wrapped around it (Runeberg 142). Versions of this device turn up in stories and trials all over Europe. You hang it up and “milk” it as if it were the udder of a cow. Add intent and see what you get.

This pre-modern world of scarcity and limited resources has a contemporary ring to the post-modern ear. (Much else will seem familiar to the contemporary reader as well. Gowdie's world, for example, was one in which married women retained their own family names instead of taking their husbands'.) We know that the modern era's vision of a world of unlimited growth and infinite resources was delusional, and as the human population grows and the oil that fueled the delusion dries up like a witched cow's milk, we will, within the forseeable future, be returning to the world of Isobel Gowdie.

Better get that milk-hare up and running now.


*I have to admit, though, that reading Gowdie's confessions I sometimes find myself thinking: Now there's a coven to belong to. What a bunch of trouble-makers. Of all their escapades, my personal favorite is the night they broke into the dye-works at Auldearne and hexed all the dye-vats so that none them would dye any color but black.

I'll tell you, in those days witches were witches.

 

Bibliography

Arne Runeberg, Witches, Demons, and Fertility Magic: Analysis of Their Significance and Mutual Relations in West-European Folk Religion (1947). Helsingfors.

Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic (2005). Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

___, The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft, and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland (2010). Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

 

Coda: It took my friend and student Alana Erickson to ask the question so brilliantly obvious (once someone else asks it) that it has never before in the history of witchcraft scholarship (to the best of my knowledge) been asked: What does the name Gowdie mean?

In fact, it means “Goldie.” The Gowdie family's eponymous ancestor must have been a blond.

Not that this necessarily tells us anything about Isobel herself.

But it might. 

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.
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Comments

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Friday, 13 June 2014

    Steven, loved your article. Rock on! One of my favorite books about witchcraft is Aradia. A lot of people think it is nah-nah, but it is dear to my heart. It has great beauty and depth, and rings with truth about the heart of witchcraft as I know it. Part of all that is the book's strong theme that the Goddess gave witchcraft to the peasants to fight their oppressors. I've always loved that. Witchcraft was to set you free, not just in the sense of spiritual freedom, but actual physical freedom from poverty. As far as I know, Aradia is the original printed version of the Charge of the Goddess. Its reference to freedom takes on a very different meaning when read in context of the book's preceding statements.

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Friday, 13 June 2014

    Sorry, oops, posted before finished. Anyway, I share all that with you bc your post delineated a worldview for which you have appreciation, so I thought you might enjoy Aradia's corroboration of it. Aradia may or may not corroborate the scarcity model, but it certainly has an old fashioned view of hexing as an honorable tool for redressing injustice. Aradia is in public domain, so you can easily read it online.

    I am also sharing the info with you bc, LOL, I am just so dang excited to see someone other than me into that old fashioned sense of witchcraft as magically freeing folks from class oppression.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 14 June 2014

    "Liberty" is certainly one of the by-names of the Goddess of Witches, and as for "Freedom"...well, that goes back to the same root that gave us "Frey" and "Freyja." (If their names had survived in English, they would probably today be something like "Free" and "Frowe," which I rather like.) That this all ties in nicely with American national mythology tickles my fancy no end. . "Our people came here for the freedom to keep to the Old Ways," I tells 'em, "We're as American as anybody!" Bwa ha ha.

    Because when you're in chains, the first place you have to be free is in your own head.

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Saturday, 14 June 2014

    Yup and amen, to everything you said.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 14 June 2014

    "Liberty" is certainly one of the by-names of the Goddess of Witches, and as for "Freedom"...well, that goes back to the same root that gave us "Frey" and "Freyja." (If their names had survived in English, they would probably today be something like "Free" and "Frowe," which I rather like.) That this all ties in nicely with American national mythology tickles my fancy no end. "Our people came here for the freedom to keep to the Old Ways," I tells 'em, "We're as American as anybody." Bwa ha ha.

    Because when you're in chains, the first place you have to be free is in your own head.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 14 June 2014

    "Liberty" is certainly one of the by-names of the Goddess of Witches, and as for "Freedom"...well, that goes back to the same root that gave us "Frey" and "Freyja." (If their names had survived in English, they would probably today be something like "Free" and "Frowe," which I rather like.) That this all ties in nicely with American national mythology tickles my fancy no end. "Our people came here for the freedom to keep to the Old Ways," I tells 'em, "We're as American as anybody." Bwa ha ha.

    Because when you're in chains, the first place you have to be free is in your own head.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 14 June 2014

    Let me add, Francesca, that I entirely agree with you about *Aradia*: it's Leland's crazy-quilt masterwork, a little gem. 100+ years on, its gritty peasant *Realpolitik* still stands as a rebuke and (one hopes) corrective to the creeping Laura Ashley-ization of the Craft.

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Saturday, 14 June 2014

    Yes. Yes, yes. Btw, I like that you call it a crazy quilt, bc I have always called it a potpourri of miscellany. Great minds think alike.

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