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

(Photo: Kit Perriman)

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: Brian Young)

Source:

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

Copyright © 2022 | KitPerriman.com | All Rights Reserved

Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos)

Dia de los Muertos

  • The Latin American Day of the Dead is a two-day celebration taking place on November 1st and 2nd.
  • This tradition originated in Mexico.
  • Several ancient Aztec death rituals were combined with new Catholic beliefs brought to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadores.
  • Instead of mourning the souls of the departed, Dia de los Muertos commemorates their lives with the food, activities, drink, and clothing that were most enjoyed during their time on earth.
  • During these two special days the dead are invited back to celebrate with their remaining loved ones.
  • The souls of children rejoin their families on November 1st.
  • Adult spirits return on November 2nd.
  • Feliz dia de los Muertos!

(Photo: Eneas de Troya)

Sources:

National Geographic Society, “Dia de los Muertos,” https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/dia-de-los-muertos/

History.com Editors, Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/day-of-the-dead

Visit to Mexico, 2011

Copyright © 2022 | KitPerriman.com | All Rights Reserved

Kit’s Crit: Waking the Witch (Pam Grossman)

Waking the Witch

Waking the Witch is a well-researched and entertaining history of witches, from ancient times to the present day. Author Pam Grossman hosts the podcast The Witch Wave, and in this mix of scholarship and memoir she examines the enduring connections between female power and patriarchal persecution.

Grossman also explores the myth and martyr, sister and scary monster, feminine and feminist, interpreting what it means to both practice magic, and to be accused of practicing magic in less tolerant societies. She also highlights how the word craft is used for “both making art and doing magic . . . . Artists use the power of imagination to create pieces that shift consciousness, thereby changing both the maker and the viewer,” as do potent spells [188]. She suggests that creative people have sprinkled their own individual magic in the world all throughout history.

This book is beautifully written and accessible to a wide audience on many different levels. Very informative, witty, and enjoyable!

(Photo: Kit Perriman)

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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!

(Paintings: Public Domain)

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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

(Photo: Public Domain)

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Kit’s Crit: Tell My Horse (Zora Neale Hurston)

Hurston

Do you believe in Zombies?  Having studied Voodoo in Jamaica and Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Tell My Horse (1938) claims that the undead really do exist and she has seen proof with her own eyes!

As a member of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was interested in recovering authentic black feminine power.  But she did not look for it in the guise of the New Woman, she wanted to reconnect with the wily, wild conjure woman from the African Ur-cultures, the pagan witches of antiquity.

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica is divided into three parts.  The first two are a little disorganized as she describes the history and politics of Jamaica and Haiti.  Legend has it that while Hurston was doing “under cover” research in Jamaica, the natives found out she was going to publish their secrets and she had to flee the island in fear of her life.

The third section about Voodoo is both disturbing and compelling.  Hurston respectfully introduces this practice as “a religion of creation and life,” but then describes at length the “people who have been called back from the dead,” in particular “this case of Felicia Felix-Mentor . . . So I know there are Zombies in Haiti.”  But these are not the flesh-eating TV characters that appear in The Walking Dead.  Haitian Zombies are generally called back for one of three reasons: to work as free manual labor toiling in the fields; as the revenge of an enemy who wants to deny them eternal rest and peace; or as a sacrifice to another spirit.  It is the Haitian version of giving-a-soul-to-the-devil.

ZombieThe dead person’s spirit is stolen by the Bocor  who turns the body into a mindless slave.  Bocors are the “bad witches” of Voodo, as opposed to the “good witch” leaders called the Houngan. 

Tell My Horse is a strange and fascinating attempt to explain the West Indian Obeah practices.  It is weird – and at times disgusting – and definitely an acquired taste.  Scholars will find it useful, but I do not think its antiquated style holds much appeal for the general reader.

Fortunately, it is a very different book from Hurston’s other stellar work!

(Photos: Public Domian)

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Doctor John Bayou: Voodoo Man

Voodoo 6

The “Last of the Voodoos” in New Orleans was the infamous tattooed Jean Montanet, commonly known as Doctor John, Voudoo John, and Bayou John.  Born a free member of the noble Bambaras Tribe from Senegal, John was kidnapped by Spanish slavers and shipped to Cuba.  After earning his freedom from a friendly master he worked as a ship’s cook, finally settling in Louisiana.

Doctor John seemed to possess mysterious Obi powers.   He began telling fortunes – and must have been skilled at reading people because he soon had enough money saved to buy a house.  Then he set up as a conjure man, and at the height of his fame was estimated to be worth $50,000.

John kept a harem of at least fifteen “wives” that he claimed to have married according to African tradition.  Most of these women were bought as slaves and they bore him many children.  At one time he teamed up with Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau to sell potions, charms, and spells.

Although Doctor John often looked after the poor in his neighborhood – and gave away food to the needy – he was tricked several times by unscrupulous business men who stole away his fortune.  He ended up broke, living with one of his daughters.

But how powerful was this Voodoo conjure man?  He seemed to have a charismatic personality and a sound understanding of herbal lore.  There are many first-hand accounts that his medicines actually worked.

However, he also liked to take advantage of the gullible white women who came to him out of curiosity.  One lady paid him $50 for a potion he later confessed was merely a few common herbs boiled in water.  His rationale was, “If folks want to give me fifty dollars, I take the fifty dollars every time!”

Sources:

“Haunted New Orleans” at http://www.nola.com/haunted/voodoo/?content/history.html

Hearn, Lafcadio.  “The Last of the Voudoos” at http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/hearn/lastvdu.htm

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

(Photo: Kit Perriman)

Copyright © 2022 | KitPerriman.com | All Rights Reserved

Voodoo or Hoodoo?

Voodoo 1

What is the difference between Voodoo and Hoodoo?  I recently visited the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum to find out.  Here is a brief account of my discoveries:

Voodoo is a religion (led by initiated witch doctors) that has split into two branches – Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Vodoun.

Hoodoo, however, is a form of folk magic (that anyone can practice) which originated in West Africa and thrives predominantly in the southern USA.

They are complimentary aspects of a supernatural belief system from similar ancient roots.

Voodoo 2

Voodoo comes from West African Vodun – “spirit”- and was made popular in Haiti.  It has since spread to many other places, most notably Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Ghana, Togo, and Nigeria.  Voodoo is a way of life  built around the supreme being Bondye, a remote creator god.  But there are many spirits called loa that can be worshipped on a personal level.  To connect with the spirit world a believer can invite the loa to enter their body and possess them during religious ceremonies.

Voodoo 3

Hoodoo is also called conjure, witchcraft, working the root, and root doctoring.  It is closely aligned with the form of African spirituality known as Ggbo.  As part of the Obeah folk tradition it spread from Haiti and Jamaica to New Orleans and along the Mississippi Delta.  In many way it is an American form of Voodoo.

Voodoo 5

Constantly changing as it comes into contact with other cultures, Hoodoo has many Roman Catholic elements.  When African American slaves were forced to convert to Christianity by a law of 1685 they replaced the loas with saints from the Bible.  God became the archetypal Hoodoo doctor who controlled fate and destiny, while Moses was the first man who performed magic and miracles.  The Bible is the greatest conjure book in the world and many of the Psalms are used in spells.

Hoodoo also draws on Spiritualism.  People are able to harness supernatural forces to assist in their daily lives and they can connect with the other world in different ways, often involving rituals and sacrifices.

Bottle Trees are a popular garden feature.  These glass bottles are used to trap evil spirits until the morning sun destroys them.

If you are ever in New Orleans then pay a visit to the Voodoo Museum.  It is a fascinating experience!

Voodoo 6

Additional Sources:

Knowledge Nuts, “The Difference Between Voodoo and Hoodoo” at http://knowledgenuts.com/2013/12/26/the-difference-between-hoodoo-and-voodoo/

Wikipedia, “Hoodoo” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoodoo_(folk_magic)

Wikipedia, “African Vodun” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_African_Vodun

(Photos: Kit Perriman)

Copyright © 2022 | KitPerriman.com | All Rights Reserved

What’s Your Poison? Opium!

poppy

Did you know:

  • Papaver somnifera – the Opium Poppy – has been cultivated in Eurasia for over 6,000 years.
  • There is some evidence that poppies were important in pre-historic religious rites.
  • The word opium comes from the Greek word opos, meaning juice.  It was associated with the love goddess Aphrodite, and the god of sleep, Hypnos.
  • The flowers can be red, white, orange, yellow, and deep pink.
  • Not all poppies contain the narcotic opium, but they are all poisonous.  For this reason they were traditionally mixed with hemlock for a quick and painless death.
  • For many years opium was used as a murder weapon by unscrupulous members of the medical profession.
  • Poisoning occurs from eating unripe poppy seed capsules, or from overdose after it has been processed into opium, codeine, heroine, and morphine.
  • Poppies were grown for a wide range of medicinal benefits: sedatives, pain reduction, and mood elevation.  The Greeks and Romans used them to treat diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, stomach complaints, and poor eyesight.
  • Overdose triggers erratic behavior, loss of appetite, stupor, coma, and may result in death from respiratory failure.
  • Poppies are also toxic for dogs and cats.
  • John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields inspired the adoption of the poppy as the national Remembrance Day symbol to honor British war veterans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

Sources:

Poison Diaries. “Opium Poppy: A poisonous plant,” at http://thepoisondiaries.tumblr.com/post/18186895021/opium-poppy-a-poisonous-plant

Poison Plant Patch. “Poppy,” at http://www.novascotia.ca/museum/poison/?section=species&id=102

Right Diagnosis From Healthgrades. “Common Poppy Poisoning,” at http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/c/common_poppy_poisoning/intro.htm

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

(Photos: Public Domain)

Copyright © 2022 | KitPerriman.com | All Rights Reserved

What’s Your Poison? Oleander!

Did you know:

  • Nerium Oleander is a highly-toxic shrub that grows between 6-20 feet tall.
  • It is drought-tolerant and can survive in poor soil.
  • Oleander thrives naturally around dry stream beds but it is often reared in ornamental gardens because it is a showy and fragrant bush.
  • Mature stems have a gray bark, while the dark green leaves are thick and leathery.
  • The downy seeds grow in long narrow capsules.
  • Oleander flowers come in a wide variety of shades including white, purple, yellow, apricot, pink, and red.  They generally have a sweet scent.
  • All parts of the plant are toxic, even when dried out.  It should not be used for firewood or cooking.
  • The sap causes irritations of the eyes and skin.
  • Rodents and birds are not affected by the toxins but it is highly dangerous to humans.  There are, however, few reported deaths from Oleander poisoning, even when it is intentionally ingested in suicide attempts.
  • Effects of the poison last 1-3 days if treated in a hospital.
  • Ingestion of the toxin affects the stomach, heart, and central nervous system causing blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, excess salivation, pain, diarrhea, and irregular heartbeats.  The skin becomes pale and cold.  There can be drowsiness, tremors, seizures, coma, and eventual death.
  • Because Oleander was the first plant to bloom in Hiroshima after the atomic bombing of 1945, it  was adopted as the city’s official flower.

Sources:

Home Guides. “How Toxic Is Oleander To Humans?” at http://homeguides.sfgate.com/toxic-oleander-humans-82304.html

Medline Plus.  “Oleander Poisoning,” at https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002884.htm

Wikipedia. “Nerium” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N

(Photo: Public Domain)

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