History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Elf Shot in Scotland

In the collection Scottish Charms and Amulets George Black recounts a variety of folk practices, many of which linger on not only in word but in material form. Amulets always draw interested audiences in museums where they are on display and bring together the traditions captured in words as charms with a tangible force. Arrowheads are one popular example.

As in many places, Black notes that 'the prehistoric flint arrowheads so numerous in Scotland were long considered by the peasantry to have fallen from the clouds, and to have been used as weapons by the fairies to shoot at human beings' and also especially cattle. Like the well-known Anglo-Saxon charm Wið færstice for elf-shot cattle, there were a variety of ways to battle the illnesses presumed to be caused by the folk too small to be seen. 

Black offers a trial transcript to show how humans appropriated this elfin magic. Katherine Ross, Lady Fowlis, was accused in 1590 of joining with conspirators to attack a laird (lord) and his lady. She began by making images ('twa pictouris’ of clay') and then setting them up in the north side of her chamber. On All Hallows they take 'twa elf arrow heides' and toss them at the pictures until they break.

He reports that 'it was an article of faith in Scotland, so late as 1872, "that elf-bolts, after finding, should not be exposed to the sun, or they are liable to be recovered by the fairies, who then work mischief with them."' The practice of discarding one into a deep lake immediately upon discovery makes sense: you wouldn't want the danger of the shithich [elf-bolt] causing harm. 

While having the objects in hand can obviously lead to misuse as Lady Fowlis did, the power they represented as a tangible force against invisible illness and enemies often led to their use as amulets. Encased in silver the magic might be contained to ward off further harm. The image anchoring this post is from 'an old Scottish lady' who wore it for 50 years before Black's time. The one pictured below came from Edinburgh though on display in Lausanne. The silver work is 17th century, so it's been around a while. Magic abides.

George Black: 'Scottish Charms and Amulets' from Proceedings of the Society for the Antiquities of Scotland, May 8, 1893. Online version here. Gratitude to Byron Ballard for finally getting me to meander through Black's collection.

Arrow Amulet

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.
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