Paws For Thought

Black cat         The phrase domestic cat is an oxymoron” (George F. Will)

Ever since hunting communities turned to farming, the advantages of keeping cats around was obvious – they kept down the rodents that ate the precious grain supplies.  As cats became more domesticated people grew fond of these playful balls of mischief and started making them pets.  Cats were revered by the Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Romans, and Vikings for hundreds of years.  If a black cat crossed your path you would be lucky, and to dream of this creature was a good omen.  Mummified cats were buried in houses as a spiritual protection against rats and mice.  But something happened in the Middle Ages that changed public opinion so that cats suddenly became demonized and were actively persecuted.  Why did this happen?

Evil Dukie 2

The cat is an ambivalent creature, wild by nature and perhaps never fully tamed.  They are not easily befriended, roam about in the night, and are sexually promiscuous.  Cats are stealthy, sneaky, silent, clever, inquisitive, and almost invisible in the darkness – except for their scary eyes.  All felines are hunters and killers, and their eerie howls and cries can sound quite chilling.  They are said to have nine lives and be difficult to get rid of.  And some old wives’ tales claim cats kill babies – either by sitting on their faces or by sucking the breath from their noses.

The Celts believed cats were the souls of wicked people unfit to be reborn as humans who were changed into animals instead.  Perhaps this notion of evil lived on in the European psyche because when the early medieval witch hunts broke out, common animals became firmly associated with witches – particularly black cats.  Cats were said to be their familiar spirits.   Felines were seen as either shape-shifting witches or devils in disguise, or as the bad souls of former witches reborn.  In 1484, a Papal decree denounced all cats and their owners as devil-worshippers, opening the floodgates for The Burning Times to begin.

Evil Zig

This persecution lasted hundreds of years.  And just as the cunning folk were condemned to terrible deaths, so too were their pets.  Thousands of cats were hunted down during Lent and burned on huge public bonfires.  At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I (1558) live cats were stuffed inside a wicker effigy of the pope and set ablaze.  It is said that loud songs and music were used to drown out their pitiful howls, but no one spoke out against the atrocity because cats were the most feared and reviled of all common animals.

The Age of Enlightenment gave rise to a more logical and scientific way of thinking that eventually overcame these fears and superstitions.  And when people started questioning the existence of witchcraft they began seeing cats through different eyes too.  They were no longer the public enemy.

As a life-long cat owner I have grown to appreciate the independence and intriguing ambiguities of my kitties, but if yours ever lets you think they are truly domesticated – enjoy the illusion!

Lancaster Castle

Since 1093, Lancaster Castle has protected the north of England from a Scottish invasion.  Built on the site of an old Roman fort, it was confiscated by the Crown following an unsuccessful rebellion against King Henry I.  Today it belongs to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Lancaster Castle has a long history of dealing with criminals.  The first Assizes (law courts for serious cases) began in 1166 and were held twice each year.  And although the castle is still used as a Crown Court today, it recently stopped serving as a prison in March, 2011.

CastleThe trials of the Lancashire Witches took place within these walls on two days of August, 1612.  According to local legend the prisoners endured horrific conditions while imprisoned in the dungeons of the Well Tower.  One of the matriarchs – Old Demdike – did not survive her incarceration.  It is also estimated that around 200 official executions took place here over the centuries.

Lancaster Castle is a fascinating tourist attraction for anyone interested in medieval history, crime and punishment, witch hunts, religious persecutions, and British heraldry.  Yet children growing up in the area were told, No one comes out of that place the same way they went in – most of the prisoners supposedly turned mad.

Today, the gray, daunting castle still dominates the quaint city of Lancaster from its perch on the top of the hill.

And within its chilly walls lie many dark, unspoken wonders.

 

Source Material:

Champness, John.  Lancaster Castle: A Brief History (Lancashire: Lancashire County Books, 1993)

Old Demdike: Two

I tell folk we hail from a long line of cunning folk, that our roots stretch all the way back to the Druids. They baptized me Elizabeth Southerns as a bairn but everyone calls me Old Demdike – the local name for a wise woman.


Come to me with your dreams and I’ll make you a potion. Bring me your nightmares, I’ll chase them away with a charm. If ye labor in vain I’ll aid in the birthing, and chant in your milk on the midnight air. But cross me and mine at your peril, for there’s none can curse as good or foul as our lot.

We all live together at Malkin Tower in Blacko, a cottage in the shadow of the hill that’s seen better days. There’s my cock-eyed lass Squinting Lizzie, widowed a good few years back from John Device. And the three of her brood that survive: Jim, a moonstruck lad as daft as a brush; Ali, the minx who started this witch hunting lark; and bonny wee Jenny.

Jenny’s the viper in our midst. She tattled to Justice Nowell about our doings and now a dozen of us are standing trial for murder on the lies that spewed from her gob. Who’d have ever thought a nine year old cur would bring down the mighty Demdike?

The Hill

There are few place in England older, or more shrouded in mystery, than Stonehenge.  The famous stones in Wiltshire have aroused much speculation throughout the centuries – that they were built by alien gods – conjured up by Merlin – designed by the Druids for ritual sacrifices – or were part of a mystical system of Ley Lines.  This magic circle still draws thousands of tourists every year from all parts of the globe.  It is a place of natural energy and stunning design.

Stonehenge  But there is another place of wonder in the North of Britain, far more ancient and equally fascinating, called Pendle Hill.  Almost the size of a mountain, it rises 1,829′ above sea level in the Pennine Range, separating the ancient seats of Lancaster (Lancashire) and York (Yorkshire).

Hill

The hill is a place of stark, feral beautiful, often mysteriously shrouded in mist.  A Bronze Age burial site has been discovered on the summit, and it is said that the Druids once lived close by.  For as long as men and women worshipped the rising sun there have been celebrations on this thirsty earth, a soil demanding human blood.  There are rumors of wicker-man sacrifices – fertility rites to bring in the spring – priestesses who could raise storms and conquer invading enemies.  Even the great Julius Caesar admitting to fearing these weird conjurers.

Although little of Pendle’s history is certain before the Norman Conquest, the land was then given to the De Laceys and they established two “royal” hunting grounds, one in the Forest of Pendle and the other in the Forest of Trawden.  Throughout the Middle Ages  this area was a center for sheep farming and wool production, and despite Henry VIII’s Reformation the people clung to their old beliefs – probably a little Celtic paganism mixed with Catholic ritual and a hefty dose of superstition.

It is still an awesome place today.  From the top of the cairn you can often see as far as the sea.  The air tingles with a hidden current, like the pulse of an ancient heartbeat.  This peculiar energy cannot be explained but it has been interpreted in two important, yet widely opposing ways.  In 1652 George Fox climbed to the top of Pendle Hill and had a vision of many souls coming to Christ. This compelled him to start the Quaker Movement and dedicate his life to the service of God.

A few years earlier, however, this same land was thought to be riddled with witches and demons, which triggered the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 and 1634.

If you are ever in Lancashire, it is well worth a visit!

 

Old Demdike: One

Do you believe in witches?

Careful! The history of the Craft is one of persecution – and this is a tale you won’t have heard afore since there’s none left alive to tattle.

I’m the wisest woman in Pendle, as old as the soil.  Listen when the wind whips the mist off the cairn and you may catch me howling.

I’ll tell you all about The Hill – if you walk with me yonder on the dark side of the ridge, and if you cross my palm with silver.

But enter this realm with caution

           because you can never return to the time of not knowing . . .

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.

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!