The Pendle Witch Trials
During the 16th century whole districts of parts of Lancashire seemed infested with the presence of witches; both man and beast were claimed to languish under their charm; no family could feel confident that they were beyond the reach of the witch's power.
If a family endured sickness, cattle grew sick and died, cakes refused to rise, ships wrecked at sea, rivers burst their banks and flood, or the crops fail due to drought, then it was the fault of the local witch. In Lancashire during the 16th and 17th centuries failures due to witches built into public hysteria.
|Illustration from 'The Lancashire Witches' by Philip C. Almond|
Jennet Device, the nine year old daughter of Elizabeth Device, one of the accused, was a key witness when the trials were conducted in Lancaster Castle. Standing on a table she told the court the various how she knew her mother was a witch, she named and identified the people present who met at a place known as the Malkin Tower. 22 years later she would be charged with witchcraft and sentenced to the same fate as her family.
Elizabeth Southerns, known as 'Old Demdike', lived in the Forest of Pendle, among the company of other witches. She was described as a very old woman, about the age of four score years, and had been a practising witch for some fifty years. She brought up her own children, and instructed her grand-children, to be witches. Old Demdike, worn out by old age died in prison. Of the remaining eleven Witches of Pendle Forest who went to trial, nine women and two men, only one was found not guilty, the rest were executed by hanging.
Old Demdike was said to be an agent for the Devil and no man was safe or free from danger and never escaped her, or her furies. During the Trials she was accused of persuading her daughter, Elizabeth Device, to sell herself to the devil, which she did, and in turn initiated her daughter, Alizon Device, into the dark arts.
Old Demdike confessed that, about twenty years ago, as she was coming home from begging, she was met near Gouldshey, in the Forest of Pendle by a spirit in the shape of a boy known as 'Tibb', who told her that if she would give him her soul, she would have anything she wished for. Demdike agreed hoping to benefit from the deal and gave Tibb her soul.
Demdike said she saw nothing more of Tibb for several years, until one Sunday morning, with a little child upon her knee, the spirit appeared to he in the likeness of a brown dog, forced jumped upon her knee, and begun to suck blood under her left arm, on which she exclaimed, 'Jesus! Save me!' and the brown dog vanished, leaving her almost stark mad for eight weeks. She claimed that Tibb, appeared to her again in the shape of a black cat and then as a hare.
Thomas Pott's Discovery of Witches (1613) records the confession of Alizon Device on 30th March, 1612. In the confession, Alizon, the granddaughter of Old Demdike, states that she was walking towards the village of Roughlee, at the foot of Pendle Hill, when a thing she described as being like a black dog appeared before her. The black dog spoke to her, asking her to give him her soul, and in return he would give her the power to do any thing she wanted. Alizon admitted she was tempted and on sitting down, the 'black dog sucked at her breast, a little below her paps, leaving a mark that 'remained blue for half a year next after'.
Alizon said the black dog did not appear again until she met the peddler, John Law, on the road near Colne. Alizon demanded that the peddler sell her some pins, but he refused. In the altercation that followed the black dog appeared to her as before, and asked her, 'what wouldst thou have me to do unto yonder man?' Alizon asked the black dog what he could do. The dog replied, 'I can lame him'. She agreed, and commanded the dog to 'lame him'. And before the peddler had gone another forty yards further, he fell down lame. He did manage to get up and walk to a nearby alehouse. Alizon was convinced she had caused the man's misfortune. It is thought that the peddler, John Law, had suffered a stroke, but rumour quickly spread that Alizon had cursed him using witchcraft. The encounter is said to have triggered the events leading up to the trials.
Alizon, now accused of practising withcraft, was stripped and searched for a witch-mark, the mark said to remain when a witch fed her spirit on her blood. But no such mark was found on her, although in her confession she claimed that the black dog had left a blue mark. Some five days after the episode with the peddler, while Alizon was out begging, the black dog appeared to her again, near Newchurch in Pendle. The black dog spoke to her agian, wanting Alizon to 'stay and speak with me', but she refused and had not seen him since. Alizon was found guilty by the court from evidence based on no more than superstition and rumours. She was executed on 20th August 1612 along with, her brother James and their mother Elizabeth. 1
The Pendle Witch Trials were the most famous and best recorded but events were not restricted to Lancashire. Similar events were happening across the country. The records of the trial of Bessie Dunlop, known as the witch of Dalry, held at Edinburgh assizes on 8th November 1576, reveal her relationship with a spirit guide. Bessie had been arrested several months before the trial and taken before the Bishop of Glasgow who considered her case problematic enough to send her for trial at a higher court. After being imprisoned, and probably tortured during interrogations, for several weeks, she appeared before the court accused of witchcraft, sorcery and incantation, with invocation of spirits of the devil.
The transcript of the hearing records that Bessie claimed the spirit of Tom Reid would provide information to her whenever she asked. Reid had died at the Battle of Pinkye, where the Scots suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the English near Edinburgh on 10th September 1547, almost thirty years before Bessie's trial.
Bessie said Reid had first appeared to her between her own house and the yard of Monkcastle as she was driving her cattle to pasture. She was weeping at the time as one of her cows was dying and her husband and child were ill. Reid told Bessie that her baby would die, and the sick cow and two sheep would die also but her husband would live. He disappeared through a narrow hole in the dyke that no earthly man could have gone through. On another occasion when Reid had led her up to the hill-end where she saw twelve persons, she asked Reid who they were he replied 'gude wychtis' (good neighbours or fairies) that dwelt in the Court of Elfame. He wanted her to go with him there but Bessie insisted she could not leave her husband and family. The transcript reveals how Reid had given Bessie a thing like the root of a beet that she should make either an ointment or a powder from to cure ill people.She said three times Reid had given her this herb out of his own hand and other recipes as cures.
The jury found Bessie guilty on all points; in the margin of the document recording the trial was written 'Convict, and burnt'. Bessie was taken to Castle Hill, where she was strangled and burnt to ashes.
As a 'cunning woman' Bessie Dunlop had healed the sick, consoled the bereaved, delivered babies, identified criminals and recovered lost and stolen goods. Yet the success of her practice was based on the information she received from what was essentially the ghost of Tom Reid.
During the Medieval and Early Modern periods supernatural entities were believed to assist witches and cunning folk in their practice of magic. In serving witches they were considered to be malevolent and demonic, while those working for cunning-folk were often thought of as benevolent and often described as fairies. But it was not that straightforward as in many cases there was crossover with many practitioners capable of performing good and bad magic and during the Witch Trials the claimed presence of a spirit helper was pivotal in the conviction.
But Bessie was not alone in this, in hundreds of witch trials during the 16th and 17th centuries held throughout the length and breadth of the land a significant number produced confessions by the practitioner, a 'witch', 'wizard', 'sorcerer', 'wiseman' or 'cunning woman', detailing their encounters with a spirit helper, described as an 'imp', 'demon', 'fairy', or most commonly 'the devil'.2
The Black Cat has played a major role in folklore for centuries and has endured a long association with witches and witchcraft. The black cat was said to be able to change into human shape to act as a spy or courier for witches or demons, some people even believed them to be witches incarnate. In Western society black cats have often been looked upon as a symbol of evil omens and viewed as part demon and part sorcerer. Many of these old superstitions about black cats still exist today as portents of either good or bad luck.
The black cat has long been suspected of being the 'familiar spirit' of witches and assist them in performing their craft. It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal, roaming at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches. However, as we have seen, 'familiars' are not restricted just to cats although this is the modern companion of the witch. Of the many witches were sentenced to death during the trials often their familiars were killed along with them.
|Matthew Hopkins a Parliamentarian and self appointed Witch Finder General wrote the book |
The Discovery of Witches in 1647, after sending around 300 women to their death.
There is compelling evidence that early-modern witches and cunning-folk had relationships with spiritual beings similar to those of Shaman in other traditional societies drawing compelling parallels between traditional shamanism as practised in the circumpolar regions of the northern hemisphere.
Were these real entities or are familiar spirits purely a visionary experience, an apparition?
Parapsychologists have classified apparitions as the visual appearance of any unusual phenomenon that doesn't necessarily manifest in human form and typically divided into three categories:
- Crisis Apparitions - where the vision coincides with endangerment of the person seen,
- Hauntings - where the vision is seen in or near the same place by a succession of independent witnesses,
- Postmortem Apparition - the vision of a deceased person is seen after their death.
However, Witches and Cunning Folk, although they may have used hallucinogenic plants to make potions and spells, are rarely accused of being in trance and therefore we cannot define familiar spirits as self-induced apparitions; typically the familiar spirit would spontaneously appear in front of the individual while they were going about their daily activities, or the familiar would be gifted to a person by a pre-existing individual, often a family member on their death. At other times the familiar would appear at time of crisis and offered a way out of by rewarding them with magical powers.
Although it must be admitted that the subject matter has not received as much study as one would like, Witches and Cunning Folk are not generally seen as mentally deficient by modern scholars. Therefore, it follows that if these visionary experiences are not symptomatic of pyschosis then what are they?
Familiars do not fit comfortably in any of the classifications of apparition and are generally regarded as supernatural entities appearing in animal or human form. In the purest sense Shamanism is a religion that involves the practitioner journeying to the realm of the spirits. Mircea Eliade defined Shamanism as the 'technique of religious ecstasy' 3 and consequently over emphasis has been placed on altered states of consciousness being necessary for the Shaman to interact with the spirit world. A Shaman is spiritually selected, being called to the practice, and specifically trained to communicate with the spirit world; Witches and Cunning Folk comfortably fit within this definition.
Witches and Cunning Folk as Shaman?
What evidence can we hope to find that Witches and Cunning Folk hold similarities to Shaman beyond the use of spirit guides? The North European link to Shamanism is thinly veiled in many folk and fairy tales where the protagonist is approached by a supernatural being when they are in need of aid.
For example, the Fairy Tale of Hansel and Gretel, 4 first recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, features a brother and sister who, while lost in the forest, encounter a cannibalistic witch. While the story is often regarded as symbolizing rites of passage, there are underlying elements that mimic the Shamans’ initiatory experiences, the archetypal journey, defined in six stages:
(1) an experience of separation or isolation from society and culture; Hansel and Gretel’s abandonment in the forest,
(2) an encounter with extreme mental and physical suffering, including experiences of being eaten or dismembered; the witch fattens Hansel in order to eat him, while Gretel is made a slave, but then the witch decides to eat them both,
(3) an encounter with death; Hansel and Gretel were destined to kill the witch,
(4) an experience of nature-transmission with creature, ancestor, spirit, god, or element; after the children kill the witch, they take her precious stones (the Shaman's power is often attributed to magical substances, kept about his person, such as stones or crystals) and talk to a big white swan that helps them cross an enormous lake.
(5) a return to life, sometimes by way of the celestial realm; they emerge from the wild and return home,
(6) a return to society as healer; having completed all the stages initiation , Hansel and Gretel have now symbolically graduated as Shaman. 5
Throughout the tale Hansel and Gretel's detainer is called a Witch but she is clearly a Shaman.
In effect the only achievement of the Witch Trials was to remove poorly understood practitioners of alternative healing from society but failed to answer whether any of those accused of witchcraft really believed themselves to have made a Pact with the Devil and practised harmful magic?
1. The Confessions of the Pendle Witches from the Witch Trial of 1612.
2. Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Sussex Academic Press, 2005.
3. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press, 2004.
4. Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tale, Doubleday Books, 1990.
5. Franco Bejarano, Shamanic Initiations: A hidden Theme within the Fairy Tale of Hansel and Gretel
Emma Wilby, Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Shamanism and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Scotland, Sussex Academic Press, 2010.
Alby Stone, Explore Shamanism, Explore Books (imprint of Hear of Albion), 2003.
Carl A. P. Ruck et al, The Hidden World: Survival of Pagan Shamanic Themes in European Fairytales, Carolina Academic Press, 2007.
Philip C. Almond, The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill, I.B.Tauris, 2012.
I make no claim to give this challenging subject matter justice in this short article.
My aim is merely to provide a departure point for further study - a good place to start would be reading Emma Wilby.
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