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Monday, March 07, 2005

Superstition about witches

In 1881, The Rev Thiselton Dyer wrote a fascinating book on 'Domestic Folklore' in which he described the various superstitious beliefs that was still current at the time. At the end, he wisely adds "Our object has been to give a brief and general survey of that extensive folklore which has, in the course of years, woven itself around the affairs of home-life. However much this may be ridiculed on the plea of its being the outcome of credulous belief, yet it constitutes an important element in our social life, which the historian in years to come will doubtless use when he studies the character of the English people in this and bygone centuries". Quite right, and it is nice to think that I have done precisely what he prediced.

On the subject of the belief in witches he wrote....

The belief in witchcraft, which in years gone by was so extensively entertained, has not yet died out, and in many of our country villages it is regarded as one of those secret dangers to which every home is more or less exposed. Hence we find various devices still resorted to for the purpose of counteracting the supposed hurtful influences of this baneful power, instances of which we subjoin.
Thus, according to a common idea, one of the best preservatives is a horse-shoe nailed to the threshold. The reason of this is said to be that Mars, the god of war, and the war-horse, was thought to be an enemy to Saturn, who, according to a mediaeval idea, was the liege lord of witches. Thus, iron instruments of any kind have been said to keep witches at bay, a superstition which has been traced back to the time of the Romans, who drove nails into the walls of their houses as an antidote against the plague. Mr. Napier says that he has seen the horse-shoe in large beer-shops in London, and was, present in the parlour of one of these when an animated discussion arose as to whether it was most effective to have the shoe nailed behind the door or upon the first step of the door. Both positions had their advocates, and instances of extraordinary luck were recounted as having attended them.
In Lancashire, where there are, perhaps, more superstitions connected with this subject than in any other county of England, we find numerous traditions relating to the evil actions of the so-called witches in former years, many of which have become household stories among the peasants. At the present day the good housewife puts a hot iron into the cream during the process of churning to expel the witch from the churn; and dough in preparation for the baker is protected by being marked with the figure of a cross. In some places a "lucky stone"—a stone with a hole through it—is worn as an amulet, and crossed straws and knives laid on the floor are held in high repute. A belief, too, which was once very prevalent, and even still lingers on, was that the power of evil ceased as soon as blood was drawn from the witch. An instance of this superstition occurred some years ago in a Cornish village, when a man was summoned before the bench of magistrates and fined for having assaulted the plaintiff and scratched her with a pin. Not many years ago a young girl in delicate health living in a village near Exeter was thought to have been bewitched by an old woman of that place, and, according to the general opinion, the only chance of curing her was an application of the witch's blood. Consequently the girl's friends laid wait one day for the poor old woman, and scratching her with a nail till the blood flowed, collected the blood. This they carried home, and smeared the girl with it in the hope that it would insure recovery Curious to say, she finally got well, an event which, it is needless to add, was attributed to this charm.
It is still thought by many that witchcraft, like hydrophobia, is contagious, and that the person, if only slightly scratched by a witch, rapidly becomes one. The faculty of witchcraft is also said to be hereditary, and in some places families are pointed out as possessing this peculiarity. Again, witches are supposed to have the power of changing their shape and resuming it again at will, a notion which was very popular in past years, the cat's and the toad's being the forms they were thought to assume. Hence the appearance of a toad on the doorstep is taken as a certain sign that the house is under evil influence, and the poor reptile is often subjected to some cruel death. Cats, also, were formerly exposed to rough usage, one method being to enclose them with a quantity of soot in wooden bottles suspended on a line. The person who succeeded in beating out the bottom of the bottle as he run under it and yet escaping the contents was the hero of the sport, a practice to which Shakespeare alludes in Much Ado about Nothing, where Benedick says:—
" Hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me."
It is only natural, too, that in Macbeth, Shakespeare, in his description of the witches, should have associated them with the cat, their recognised agent.
Another important character whose supernatural powers are still credited is the "charmer." She is generally an elderly woman of good reputation, and supposed to be gifted with extraordinary powers, by means of which she performs wonderful feats of skill. By her incantations and mysterious ceremonies she stops blood, cures all manner of diseases, and is, in short, regarded as almost a miracle-worker. At the same time, however, it must not be imagined that she exercises her power gratuitously, as oftentimes her charges are very high, and it is only by patient saving that the poor can accumulate enough to satisfy her exorbitant demands. This kind of superstition has been already incidentally alluded to in the chapter on " Common Ailments; " and it is one that still holds its ground in our country districts. These supposed charmers, however, do not always make trade of their art; for, on the contrary, it is supposed by some of them that any offer of pecuniary remuneration would break the spell, and render the charm of no avail.
Again, there is still an extensive belief in "second sight," certain persons being thought to possess the faculty of peeping into futurity, and revealing future events to their fellow-creatures. Many of the Highlanders lay claim to this power, which was called by the ancient Gaels "shadow-sight."
" Nor less availed his optic sleight, And Scottish gift of second-sight."
Sometimes, says Mr. Napier, the person fell into a trance, " in which state he saw visions; at other times the visions were seen without the trance condition. Should the seer see in a vision a certain person dressed in a shroud, this betokened that the death of that person would surely take place within a year. Should such a vision be seen in the morning, the person seen would die before that evening; should such a vision be seen in the afternoon, the person seen would die before next night; but if the vision were seen late in the evening, there was no particular time of death intimated, further than that it would take place within the year. Again, if the shroud did not cover the whole body, the fulfilment of the vision was at a great distance. If the vision were that of a man with a woman standing at his left hand, then that woman would be that man's wife, although they may both at the time of the vision be married to others.
The case is related of a man living near Blackpool who foretold death and evil events from his visions. Men of superior ability were credulous enough to visit him, and to give implicit faith to his marvellous stories.


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