Old Demdike: Forty Six

Put To Question: The Rack

Torture isn’t allowed under English law –
but some folk get stretched on The Rack:

“We went to the torture room in a kind of procession, the attendants walking ahead with lighted candles.
The chamber was underground and dark, particularly near the entrance. It was a vast place and every device and instrument of human torture was there. They pointed out some of them to me and said I would try them all. Then he asked me again whether I would confess.
‘I cannot,’ I said.”
(Father John Gerard, 1597)

In The Beginning . . .

Throughout the Middle Ages,Lancashire was ripe with tales of cunning folk.  In 1595 a conjure man called John Hartley convinced the Starkies of Huntroyde that seven members of their household were possessed by demons.  The Starkies were related to Roger Nowell, a Justice of the Peace from nearby Read who spearheaded the infamous Lancashire Witch Hunts of 1612.

Devil

James 1st became King of England in 1603 – the same year Jennet Device was born into the Demdike Clan at Malkin Tower – and the same year that a terrible plague swept the land.  Two years later Guy Fawkes’ Jesuit Gunpowder Plot failed to blow up Parliament, but it did trigger a nation-wide persecution of priests at a time when Lancashire was still a Catholic stronghold.

Witches, ghosts, and boggarts were a part of English folklore, inspiring many weird and wonderful tales that included Shakespeare’s Macbeth  (1606).  The wise women of Pendle Hill worked the superstitious locals to eek out a meager living.  They offered a wide range of services from basic herbal  medicine to midwifery and abortion – concocting charms, curses, love spells, and potions – claiming they could heal, harm, and foretell the future.

On March 21st in 1612, Old Demdike’s teenage granddaughter – Alizon Device – set off to go begging in Colne.  On the way she met a peddler called John Law who refused to give her the pins she demanded and so she cursed him.  Moments later Law collapsed, paralyzed down one side of his body.  He pointed the finger at Alizon Device and his son went straight to the authorities.  Because Alizon was one of the notorious Demdikes the rest of her family were rounded up for examination and before long, the Lancashire witch hunts had begun.

Old Demdike: Forty Three

Samhain, Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Souls Night

Call it what you will – but the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest on October 31st.

Samhain means Summer’s End. Wise Women celebrate on the nearest full moon before November, after the harvest is gathered, halfway between Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. It represents the end of summer and the start of the spiritual New Year. Samhain comes from the Celtic Fire Festival when Druids remember their dead. Bonfires are built to cleanse and protect – and sacrifices offered to the gods. It’s a night of divination, mummers, feasting, guising, and young lads following the Hobby Horse about the village.

The Church of Rome made this feast into All Hallows’ Eve – the start of All Saints’ Day to honor the Christian saints and martyrs. There’ll be Soul Cakes eaten instead of meat – candles lit for the dear departed – vigils – feasts – and the ringing of church bells everywhere.

The youngsters celebrate Halloween, short for Hallowed or Holy Evening.  They remember the frailty of life with skeletons, ghouls, cobwebs, tombstones, and demons, hoping to chase evil and death away by honoring the darkness. Some carve turnips into Jack o’ Lanterns for those lost souls who’ve been denied both Heaven and Hell. They partake in pranks to imitate mischievous spirits, costume feasts, processions, and mummers’ plays.

Aye, it’s a powerful time – so be careful to guard your own soul!

The Witch-finder General

Matthew Hopkins (c. 1620-1647) was the self-appointed Witch-finder General of the English Civil War era.  He worked mainly in the East Anglia region.

Hopkins Hopkins, the son of a Puritan clergyman from Suffolk, operated with a man called John Stearne.  Several women “prickers” also travelled around the countryside with them, going from town to town to identify those in league with Satan.  Although the Witch-finders were only active for three years (1644-1647) they were responsible for accusing approximately 300 women – more witches than England had executed in the previous hundred years!

Hopkins found employment as a direct result of the second Lancashire Witch Trials of 1634, whereby King Charles personally investigated the case and finally pardoned all of the prisoners.   Thereafter, he demanded  a confession, or material proof of a crime, before sentencing a suspect to death.

As Hopkins was paid for the witches he uncovered, he developed his own methods to comply with the royal demand.  Torture was illegal – but the Witch-finder General used sleep deprivation, ducking (or swimming) witches, bleeding, and the test of pricking the Devil’s Mark.  Rumor claims that Hopkins invented a bodkin with a retractable blade.  This looked like it was piercing the skin but in fact it made no impact.  Because the prisoners felt no pain, and did not bleed, they were deemed to be sorcerers.

In 1647 Hopkins published a pamphlet called The Discovery of Witches, but a campaign against his cruel methods had already been triggered by John Gaule, a vicar in Huntingdonshire.  As public opinion changed, the Witch-finder’s credibility dwindled and his team was forced into retirement.  He died in 1647, probably from tuberculosis.

According to local legend, Matthew Hopkins’ ghost haunts Mistley Pond — a spot in Suffolk close to where he was buried.  It is said that he still roams the land in search of witches!

Sources

BBC Legacies. “Witch-finder Witch?” at http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/england/essex/article_4.shtml

Controverscial. “Matthew Hopkins,” at http://www.controverscial.com/Matthew%20Hopkins.htm

Encyclopedia Britannica. “Matthew Hopkins,” at http://www.britannica.com/biography/Matthew-Hopkins

Wikipedia. “Matthew Hopkins,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Hopkins

 

 

The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Demons

The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between 1308-1320 AD.  As one of the most influential books ever composed, this religious allegory about the importance of salvation marks the start of Italian literature.

The story begins at Easter in the year 1300.  There are three parts (cantiche) aligning with the Trinity’s Father Son, and Holy Ghost.  They are entitled Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and  Heaven (Paradiso).  Each section has 33 Songs (cantos), except for the first part which has 34.  These add up to a total of 100 Songs to represent Dante’s “perfect” number 10 (10 x 10 = 100).

Written in the first person, Dante imagines his soul’s spiritual quest as it ventures from darkness into light.

Dali 1 (Salvador Dali)

“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost . . .”

The narrator wakes up one day to find himself in the dark forest of sin.  The spirit of Virgil appears and promises to lead him on the path of salvation through Hell, Purgatory, and into  Heaven.  Virgil eventually hands him over to Beatrice (the ideal woman).

Dante’s world is full of monsters and demons.  Each soul is punished according to its former deeds, which range from small self-indulgent transgressions such as a lack of willpower. to violent and malicious crimes.  Hell is portrayed as an underground funnel made up of circles.  At the bottom sits Satan who perpetually gnaws on history’s three worst traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.  The punishments inflicted on the travelers are vivid and relentless – the stuff of eternal nightmares.  Yet those sinners who have confessed to their crimes before death are eventually permitted to leave Hell and head through Purgatory in search of Heaven.

Purgatory is a mountain made up of 7 rings, with the Garden of Eden at the top.  Once cleansed of their sins, the wandering souls rise up toward Heaven where God appears as a vision of light.

Dante’s morality poem is a tale of justice and retribution.  The wrong-doers are punished for their past crimes with the worst torments imaginable.  They have to suffer alone and abandoned, devoid of help or hope.

Cerberus_Gluttony[1]

So why is this classic called The Divine Comedy when it is a full-blown scary vision of Hell?  Because Dante’s epic has a happy ending and therefore is not considered a tragedy in the standard literary tradition.

Sleep well!

Abracadabra!

  • Abracadabra is the famous magical word that is still used today by stage conjurers.
  • It may have derived from an ancient Jewish cure for sickness that went:

Ab Abr Abra Abrak Abraka

Abrakal Abrakala Abrakal

Abraka Abrak Abra Abr Ab

  • Another theory is that it came from the followers of Basilides who worshipped a god called Abraxas.   He ruled the 365 days of the year. The 7 letters of his name may represent the 7 astrological planets that control fate.
  • The first recorded use of Abracadabra was made by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, who was the doctor of the Roman Emperors Caracalla, Geta, and Severus.  In 208 AD he accompanied Emperor Severus on his expedition to Britain.
  • The word was used as a healing charm set out like this:

Abracadabra

  • These letters were written on paper and tied around the patient’s neck with a length of flax.  After 9 days the charm was thrown backwards over the shoulder into an east-moving stream.  As the words shrank away, so did the fever.
  • According to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) people thought the Black Death was caused by an evil spirit taking possession of the body.  A similar Abracadabra spell was used to ward of the sickness using the power of magic.
  • Many favorite charms were written in pyramid form.  These amulets would be worn on the body, kept under the bed, or placed in a box and hidden somewhere about the home.

Sources:

Man, Myth and Magic.  “Abracadabra” (London: Purnell, 1970)

Wikipedia. “Abracadabra,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abracadabra