Brighid: Goddess and Saint

The Wise Women of Britain had their own special patron – the goddess Brighid – who later became known as Saint Brigit.  She was a Celtic pagan deity, the equivalent of Roman Minerva and Greek Athene, whose name meant exalted one.  In Irish mythology, Brighid was the daughter of Dagda, wife of Bres, and the mother of Ruadan – the son she invented keening for when he died in battle.

Brighid

Brighid was one of three sisters (all named Brighid) who jointly made up the Triple Deity – maiden, mother, crone.  For many years she was closely associated with Wise Women and became the goddess of healers and magicians.  Called on for assistance with prophecy and divination, Brighid represented wisdom, intelligence, excellence, perfection, craftsmanship, artistry, healing, and druidic knowledge.  Because she protected pregnant women and aided in childbirth, she was also connected with the hearth and home.

At some point in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church syncretized Brighid into the Christian St. Brigit of Kildare, making her the keeper of the eternal flame (from her former role of protecting Druid priestesses) and tender of holy healing wells (as she was already widely associated with medicine).  Her festival day at the start of February marks the arrival of spring, but instead of being called Imbolc it then became known as St. Brigit’s Day instead.

Brighid is the patron saint of poetry, blacksmithing, arts and crafts, cattle, and serpents.  She is credited with inventing the whistle.  Her symbols include the hearth, cauldron, forge, and bridal bed.  Corn dolls, crosses, and knots have been named after her, and she is connected with cats, foxes, cows, bees, and wrens.

Corn Doll

The last time I visited St. Mary’s Church at Newchurch-in-Pendle I was delighted by the collection of rush decorations nailed along the walls, carefully fashioned into crosses, knots, and dollies.

The old traditions die hard!

Sources:

Lockhart, Elaine. “Brighid: A Personal Relationship” in Modern Witch,  First Issue, Imbolc, 2012 (p8-9)

About Religion. “Brighid: Hearth Goddess of Ireland.” Available at http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/godsandgoddesses/p/Brighid_Profile.htm (2/25/2015)

Wikipedia:  “Brigid”

Three Real Shakespearian Witches

When someone mentions Shakespeare’s witches we naturally assume they are referring to the three weird sisters from Macbeth.  Yet around the same time as the Lancashire Witch Trials were taking place in Northern England, another sinister plot was unraveling closer to King James’ court.  Ironically, it involved a nefarious character who moved in the shadows of Shakespeare’s own circle – a cunning man by the name of Simon Forman (1552-1611). Two years after his death, Forman was implicated in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury through his relationship with two former female patrons, Countess Frances Howard Carr (1590-1632) and Mistress Anne Turner (1576-1615).

Forman

But Simon Forman was neither the fool nor evil magician that Stuart history suggests.  Much more likely he was a self-trained quack whose chief sins concerned the numerous illicit sexual conquests he recorded in his diaries.  Forman was a charismatic, intelligent seducer who dabbled in apothecary, astrology, and the occult arts.  His clients included Emilia Lanier (possibly Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady) and Mrs. Mountjoy, the bard’s landlady.  Interestingly, Macbeth is one of the plays Forman mentions seeing at the Globe Theatre (April 20, 1610).  Yet as Barbara Howard Traister’s biography comments, Forman appeared much more interested in the note-taking doctor than in the supernatural characters, which is intriguing for a man who had already been imprisoned on charges of witchcraft.

 

Although Forman died in 1611, his reputation and influence lived on.  He was accused of having supplied the poison that killed Overbury in a diabolical plot hatched by the two femme-fatales – Carr and Turner – and of providing the countess with the magical means to be rid her former husband (Robert Devereux) in order to win over the king’s favorite courtier, Robert Carr.

Countess

At the center of the controversy stood Countess Frances, a virgin child-bride wedded to the Earl of Essex who had since fallen in love with the dashing Earl of Somerset.  Frances wanted her political marriage annulled so she could marry her beloved, but Carr’s mentor – Sir Thomas Overbury – disapproved of this match and stood in their way.  A plot was hatched to discredit Overbury, and he suddenly found himself confined to the Tower of London on trumped-up charges.

Some years earlier the countess had apparently contacted Simon Forman for a love potion.  It was stated at her trial that the cunning man also supplied her with a range of poisons, that were later mixed with tarts and jellies before being fed to the imprisoned Overbury by his jailor.  He died in September, 1613.  A few weeks later the Devereux marriage was officially annulled leaving Frances free to wed Carr.  But over the following months rumors of the murder plot began circulating at court, finally forcing the king to pay notice and address them.  Under the weight of the overwhelming evidence presented the countess confessed to poisoning her enemy, was found guilty at trial, but eventually received a pardon.  She was released from the Tower in 1622, having served due sentence for her crime.  Her accomplice, however, was not so fortunate.

Turner

 Anne Turner was rumored by some to be the illegitimate child of the conjurer, Simon Forman.  She was widowed from Dr. George Turner in 1610 and then became the mistress of Sir Arthur Mainwaring.  Somehow or other she befriended the countess, perhaps in her capacity as a sought-after dressmaker.  Anne held the patent for the saffron starch that dyed fashionable ruffs and cuffs yellow, a more flattering color for many complexions than the usual ivory white lawn.  She was also an independent business woman who ran houses of ill-repute in Hammersmith and Paternoster Row.  But because she was not of noble birth, the accomplice became the scapegoat for Overbury’s death.  Anne Turner, convicted of being a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon, and a murderer, was hanged at Tyburn in 1615.  She was sent to execution in her own fashionable yellow ruff, by a man wearing the same saffron ruff and cuffs – denouncing the color of her dye and putting an end to that particular fashion.

Of course these were not the three evil ones Shakespeare envisaged when writing Macbeth.  Yet he does add a final statement to the scandal in later versions of All’s Well That Ends Well by having  Parolles mocked for wearing a big ruff starched with “villainous saffron.”

Jacobean witches came in many shapes and guises!

 

Sources:  

The Casebook Project: “Sinon Forman (1552-1611)” (Cambridge: U of Cambridge, 2013)

Downing, Sarah Jane. Fashion in the Time of William Shakespeare (Oxford: Shire, 2014)

Traister, Barbara Howard. The Notorious Astrological Physician of London (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001)

Wikipedia: “Simon Forman,” “Anne Turner(Murderer)” and “Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset.”

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Recipe For Disaster

In Act IV – Scene I of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” prepare a “hell-broth” to produce a series of apparitions for Macbeth that set in motion a chain of deadly events.  Written only six years before the Lancashire Witch Trials, this script provides a good insight into some of the magical beliefs of that time.

 

out of; (c) Royal Shakespeare Company Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Round about the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights hast thirty one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,

Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,

Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,

Make the gruel thick and slab:

Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,

For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.”

The Jacobean audience believed that witches brewed such diabolical charms, and seeing this dramatic scene live on stage they would likely have been terrified, fascinated, mesmerized, and revolted by the disgusting ingredients – exactly as Shakespeare intended.  But let us take a closer look at his recipe.

The bard was not only a master playwright, he was also a shrewd psychologist who understood the minds of the masses who flocked to the London theatres. Therefore, it is not surprising that one of the first things thrown in the pot is the fenny snake, a nod to the snake who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The Catholic Church claimed that all women were necessarily evil because of Eve’s transgression, and that explains why the majority of accused witches were female.  The next three ingredients – eye of newt, toe of frog, and wool of bat – are added to the first item swelter’d toad venom – highlighting four nocturnal creatures that are often associated with witches and their familiar spirits.  The liver of blaspheming Jew endorses the common anti-Semitic beliefs of that era, alongside the racial prejudices held against the Turk and Tartar.  And Shakespeare further played into the beliefs of his class-conscious, biased audience by having a good man like Macbeth brought down by his scheming wife and a band of wicked hags.

A country audience, however, may have interpreted Macbeth’s cauldron quite differently from the royal courtiers and city dwellers.  Many of these exotic ingredients are actually poetic variants on the common names for herbs.  Fenny snake = chickweed; Eye of newt=mustard seed; Toe of frog = frog’s foot or bulbous buttercup; Wool of bat = bog moss; Tongue of dog = hound’s tongue; Adder’s tongue = adder’s tongue fern; Lizard’s leg = ivy; Howlet’s wing = henbane; Scale of dragon = dragonwort; Tooth of Wolf = wolf’s bane; Hemlock root = hemlock; Liver of Jew = Jew’s myrtle or box holly; Gall of goat = St. John’s Wort or honeysuckle;  Slips of Yew = yew tree bark; Nose of Turk = Turk’s cap; Tartar’s lips = ginseng or tartar root; Tiger’s chaudron = lady’s mantle; and the Finger of birth-strangled babe= foxglove, also known as “bloody fingers”.   The remaining items – toad venom, powdered mummy, shark, and baboon’s blood – were all widely thought to have medicinal properties.

Why did Shakespeare choose these fierce-sounding ingredients?  Joyce Froome (Wicked Enchantments) argues that, for the wise women of Pendle, these herbs would be part of their everyday folk magic.  Catt Foy (Witches & Pagans) suggests that maybe “Shakespeare knew a little more about herbcraft than he was letting on,” and Nigel Beale (Literary Tourists Blog) believes he chose names “designed to gross out the masses, to stop them from practicing magic.”

But William Shakespeare was  also a poet.  He knew the magic of words and  rhythmical power of his hypnotic witch chant.  It did not matter that these characters may have been throwing armfuls of common hedgerow roots and leaves into a boiling cook pot.  Much more important were the awful-sounding names that conjured up terrifying images in the minds of his audience – and at this he was an unsurpassed wizard!

Witch Circle

Sources:

Beale, Nigel. “Macbeth and what was in the Witches Brew” (Literary Tourist) http://literarytourist.com/2009/10/macbeth-and-what-was-in-the-witches-brew/ accessed 2/2/2015

Foy, Catt. “A Witch’s Brew: Recipe by Shakespeare” in Witches & Pagans #29 (Oregon: BBI Media, Spring, 2014) pages 24-26.

Froome, Joyce. Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and their Magic (Lancaster: Carnegie Books, 2010)

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Macdonald & Co., 1987)

Old Demdike’s Charme

A Charme to Cure the Bewitched.

(Francisco de Goya y Lucientes)

“Upon Good-Friday, I will fast while I may
Untill I heare them knell
Our Lords owne Bell,
Lord in his messe
With his twelve Apostles good,
What hath he in his hand
Ligh in leath wand:
What hath he in his other hand?
Heavens doore key,
Open, open Heaven doore keyes,
Steck, steck hell doore.
Let Crizum child
Goe to it Mother mild,
What is yonder that casts a light so farrandly,
Mine owne deare Sonne that’s naild to the Tree.
He is naild sore by the heart and hand,
And holy barne Panne,
Well is that man
That Fryday spell can,
His childe to learne;
A Crosse of Blew, and another of Red,
As good Lord was to the Roode.
Gabriel laid him downe to sleepe
Upon the ground of holy weepe:
Good Lord came walking by,
Slep’st thou, wak’st thou Gabriel,
No Lord I am sted with sticke abd stake,
That I can neither sleepe nor wake:
Rise up Gabriel and goe with me,
The stick nor the stake shall never deere thee.
Sweete Jesus our Lord, Amen.”

Taken from Jennet Device’s testimony against her bother, James (August, 1612)

The Last Wolf In England

 

. . . now witchcraft celebrates

Pale Hecate’s offerings; and wither’d murder,

Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,

Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,

With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design

Moves like a ghost.

Macbeth Act 2 Scene 1

 

 

According to Roman and Saxon chronicles, the British Isles were once overrun with wolves.  But a combination of deforestation and hunting virtually exterminated all traces of the Eurasian grey canis lupus by the end of the medieval period.  At a time when wool production was the major industry, anything that threatened sheep farming was a serious public threat.  So between 1066 and 1154, Norman rulers awarded land to official wolf-hunters, on the condition that they controlled the predators in their area.  And as part of a plea-bargain to avoid execution, certain criminals could elect to provide an annual number of wolf tongues to escape the gallows.

By Henry Vi’s reign, wolves were found only in Scotland, Wales, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Lancashire.  But they lived on in the public imagination, and were often one of the familiars associated with witchcraft.

Eurasian wolf

Legend claims that the last English wolf was killed at Humphrey Head, north of Morcambe Bay, at a place that used to be called Lancashire Over Sands.  At some time during the Fourteenth Century a royal bounty was offered for each wolf pelt captured, and during one of the local hunts Sir Edgar Harrington became separated from his companions and rode for the top of Humphrey Head to look for them.  On his way through the forest he heard the terrified shrieks of a young girl cowering behind a rock, hiding from an enormous growling wolf.  Taking his spear Harrington battled the wolf, rescued the maiden, and took her back to safety.  Apparently, when her gratitude turned into love, the couple were married and they lived happily thereafter with a healthy batch of children.  They put an image of a wolf’s head on their family crest and today lie buried together in Cartmel Priory, with a stone wolf carved at their feet.

How refreshing to have a romantic tale about wolves at a time when they were generally associated with witchcraft and evil!

Sources:

Ashworth, Elizabeth. Tales of Old Lancashire (Berkshire: Countryside, 2007)

Wikipedia: “Wolves in Great Britain” available http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolves_in_Great_Britain (2/24/2015)

Dark Magic

From my voluntarie Confession and Examination (April 2, 1612)

” . . . the speediest way to take a mans life away by Witchcraft, is to make a Picture of Clay, like unto the shape of the person whom they meane to kill,& dry it thorowly: and when they would have them to be ill in any one place more then the other; then take a Thorne or Pinne, and pricke it in that part of the Picture you would so have to be ill: and when you would have any part of the Body to consume away, then take that part of the Picture, and burne it. And when you would have the whole body to consume away, then take the remnant of the sayd Picture, and burne it: and so thereupon by that meanes, the body shall die.”

 

Source: Potts, Thomas. The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, 1613.

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.

A Less-Known Lancashire Witch: Meg Shelton

Aside from the infamous Pendle Witches who were put on trial in 1612 and 1634, there were other unfortunate victims maligned and persecuted throughout Lancashire.  Many of their names were never recorded.  Some were accused and later released – some went to court and were found Not Guilty – and some were undoubtedly dealt with by the locals in their own ways.

In these unenlightened times it was common for women denounced as witches, shrews, and gossips to be locked inside a scold’s bridle – a metal brank that caged the head and prevented eating or speech.

scold

Public floggings and placement in the stocks were also regular market-day events.  And tales of dunking suspected witches in near-by ponds and rivers to see if they were guilty (and floated) or innocent (and drowned) are part of local folklore.  So it is quite surprising that one other name still fills the local schoolchildren with terror – Meg Shelton, The Fylde Hag.

Born Margery Hilton, Meg (or Mag) Shelton is said to have lived at various times in Cuckoo Hall near Wesham, Singleton, Catforth, and Woodplumpton.  She was a poor beggar woman who survived mainly on a haggis made from boiled grouts and herbs.  Meg is infamous for her shape-shifting skills, and apparently could turn into a variety of animals and all sorts of inanimate objects at will.  One tale records her creeping into a barnyard at night to steal corn.  When the farmer ran out after her there was no one in sight, though he did notice an extra sack of corn.  So taking his pitchfork he prodded each bag, finally uncovering Meg’s disguise when she squealed and reappeared nursing a bleeding arm!  Another of her injuries was explained by an accident trying to outrun a black dog when she was disguised as a hare.  The dog nipped the hare’s hind leg – and Meg was said to walk with a limp thereafter.  Meg was often seen riding her broomstick at night.  She could turn milk sour, lame cattle, and  curse hogs.

But the reason folk remember the Fylde Hag today is because of the strange events surrounding her death.  She was killed in 1705, crushed between a barrel and the wall of her cottage.  She was buried on May 2nd, at night, by torchlight, in the grounds of St. Anne’s Church in Woodplumpton.  The following morning her hand had clawed its way to the surface and had to be reburied.  The same thing happened again and everyone was naturally terrified.  A priest came and performed an exorcism.  Then someone suggested they rebury her upside down so she would dig her way to Hell, instead of to the surface.  So they planted her head-first in a narrow trough, and then put a huge granite boulder on top to keep her in place.

In hindsight it seems odd that a known witch would be put to rest on consecrated ground.  Usually they were buried at a crossroad with no signposts so they could not find their way home.  Or their bodies were burned.  And it is entirely possible that the granite stone in  St. Anne’s graveyard is a harmless relic carried down by the ice age.  But superstition is often stronger than common sense – and we all like to believe in a little magic.

Over the centuries, the legend of Meg Shelton has survived and flourished.  I grew up being told that if you walked three times round her grave chanting, I don’t believe in witches, then that hand would rise up from the grave and grab your ankle.  But I cannot say if that actually happens or not as I never dared try!

Shelton Grave

Meg Shelton’s Grave: Photo by Brian Young

Source:

Ashworth, Elizabeth. Tales of Old Lancashire (Berkshire: Countryside,2007)