Clever H
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Mid-Summer 2016 - Miscellaneous

Our ancestors – The witch-hunt – a tale of fantasy!

 Our ancestors – The witch-hunt – a tale of fantasy!

 

Let me tell you a little story, about the days of old…

 

Alas, perhaps, not quite so old at all… has only been, some many winters of my life-time, though many more of moons for many of my kin.

 

T’ is when passing the land where the wild boar roam, there, amidst the ancient fir trees,… right in the darkest darkness of their regal shadow, that lies a site so cold and sombre, that all song of  sparrow, all whisper of wind, all rustling of leave or twig beneath approaching feet is swallowed by the morbid quiescence. Few pass near or are taken here…

 

 

For the estranged ignorant it might just be a pile of stone, but for he who shares the wisdom, ’tis a site of doom and tort. Many have been taken to their death on this heap of stone, many on unjust grounds or for nethermost reason. Why… You ask?…disdained and expelled, driven from their natural gathering, from homes long lived,… their return rejected, and often threatened with the death of their life… T’ was the time one might say, but nay,…not so just…

 

 

 

Most memories of mine are blurred and far distanced by the time, I was but a girl of half of dozen years… but the day, that day, stands sharp in thought, much dwelled upon, and never forgotten…

 

 

T’ was a rainy day, my mind recalls, like many of the nearing darker times. Had been a gloomy morn, the warmth of bed of solace to the damp and cold… My young and unencumbered mind, knew little of what the days dawn would bring. My thoughts lay lingering on playful dreams that had been enlivened by the night. No urge had I to rise that day,  t’ was but our mothers haste to rise or be refused the mornings porridge that made bare my small feet from the blanket.

 

 

For days, nay months to follow, this day would build memories that would torment my nightly slumber, spur fear was I alone, and never for life would leave my horrified mind at peace. The childish glee and carefree play was lost for good, and in memory would be housed prayers for obliteration of the heard and seen…

 

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Who is a witch?

 

There are several definitions for what and who is described as a witch!

Some dictionary definitions are [1]:

 

“A. A person, especially a woman, claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery.

B. A believer or follower of Wicca; a Wiccan.

C.

  1. Offensive: An old woman considered to be ugly or frightening.

  2. A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing.

  3. Informal: A woman or girl considered to be charming or fascinating.

  4. One particularly skilled or competent at one’s craft: “A witch of a writer, [she]is capable of developing an intensity that verges on ferocity” (Peter S. Prescott).”

 

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The past days had heard much telling of vile rites and hideous ways of an evil spirited varmint of the womenfolk. A devils ally, a Satan’s bride they had called her. A renouncer of the church and our lord, a conductor of baneful acts and diabolic cult, they were convinced,… of obscene and flagitious nature they had rumoured…to find her death at the stake, on the scaffold, not far from where the wild boar roam, in the darkest darkness of the woods not far.

 

For days the hammering sounds of construction work had echoed through the wood. The grandstand had been erected, for spectators of the peasant folk, the local gentry, and those of authority; all wanting to witness the witches’ death, and see the fire cleanse her bedevilled soul. People would soon barge into the woods to find a place on the grandstand where best of view they had of this gathering. The aged and the young would head to the site, to witness the public display of jurisdiction; …was to be a reminder to the old, to lead a faithful life, and deterrence for the youth, to stay resistant to the lures of evil.

 

We´d left our home that day, I, at my mother’s hand, to follow the crowd into the darkness of the forest. Wrapped in a ragged shawl, sleep still in my eyes, and shivering of the damp cold of that morn…

 

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Why have witches been shunned and prosecuted?

 

Generally speaking the ‘hunt’ for witches happened at times of religious re-orientation, at times when the existent predominate religions went through a transformation. In the U.K. this era raged most fiercely from the 14th to the 17th century, during the “Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation” [2, 3]. At this time the churches believed society could turn against them, or, better said, could abandon their belief structures, and at that could reduce the churches power and influence. The image of an anti-Christ, the Devil or Satan was used to emphasise to the public the need of belief and order as resembled and executed by the church. Witches were therefore ‘tools’, beings possessed by the Devil, Satan’s representative on earth so to speak! These persons were primarily women [3, 4], who were thought to devote “their lives to harming and killing others through black magic and evil sorcery” [4].

 

 

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The enduring drizzle and the heavy fog had moistened the soil, each step a strenuous move as my boots stuck deep in the mud. There was murmur and mumbling as people stepped in and out of the thick wafts of mist that lay low between the trees. She’d sinned it was heard through the fog, had paired with the devil, said a voice, another meant she was possessed…

 

full-moon-319931__180 pixabay

pic by pixabay.com

We knew we’d arrived at the scaffold, when voices became louder and plentiful, and we could make out the grandstand in the here lifting fog.

 

People were shuffling along the rows of the grandstand, shoving along as though the fishmonger had pronounced a sale. I´d lost my mother’s hand in the crowd, people barging, pushing and tugging, aiming for the place with best of view of the spectacle.

 

I´d let out a terrified scream, as I tumbled forward on my hands and knees; though more of fear lest I should have to witness what’s to come alone, no mothers hand to hold on tight, or her side to hug and hide my eyes. A massively corpulent woman with foul breath, and but four or five teeth in her mouth grabbed my arm and pulled me up to a stand. Others were pressing past me, while the almost toothless woman scolded me for an attempt at mugging her. Startled I´d gazed up at her, but my mother grabbed my hand and pulled me to a place on the upper rows.

 

The corpulent woman’s voice could long be heard snarling after me. Her words were carried across the rows as she forecast a fate as that of the witch for me, bedevilled, and ending at the stake. The words struck me, and I´d swallowed hard to quench tears rising to my eyes, though to no avail, as soon I felt their tingle on my heated cheeks. It all felt ill foreboding. The cold cut deep and send shivers through to my soul. Where was the sun, her light to lift the sombreness, her rays to warm and sooth…where was the morn to wake such gloom and brighten the dwelling dark…?

 

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Witches, who were they really?

In reality, those accused of witchcraft usually were citizens on the periphery of society, of no rank or status, poor, unmarried, somewhat odd, compared to the rest of society, ‘uncomfortable’, living outside of the realm that was deemed appropriate [5].

Persecutors subjected suspects to tests that would prove their allegiance with the devil. As such they were, for example, tied up and tossed into the water. An innocent person was believed to sink, whilst a witch was thought to float. Others, were found guilty of witchcraft if they had a birthmark, or could not recite Christian prayers [6].

 

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There was a drum roll to be heard, muting the spectators. They hushed, and the atmosphere was filled with expectation. Sounds of a wagon approaching from the west, the side of where the town’s prison was not far, were carried through the woods. The drum carrying officers of the regiment silenced their pounding, as they took post at the foot of the flight of stairs that led up to the scaffold.

 

The creaking of the wagon wheels announced its nearing. The noise of movement of the wagon on the cobbled stone dulled, and the pounding of the horses’ hooves muted. The wagon had entered the forest, where the soft ground swallowed the thunking noise. I’d only realised now how silent this morning was. There was not a sound of living creatures of the woods, or of natures’ moves therein.

 

A man on the grandstand coughed hard, as if “to bring up his lungs”, as my father would have said. Another sneezed, somewhere from where the noble folk had come to sit on the grandstand. This elderly man, still holding his snuffbox, from which he had undoubtedly taken a generous portion, evoking his sneezing as a consequence, folded his ‘kerchief before putting it into the pocket of his coat. A woman, she might have been the blacksmiths wife, stood to my left, two places on from me. She had nudged another, standing next to her, with her elbow. They were whispering, but were still loud enough for their words to be heard.

“She’s to burn at the stake the sentence says” said the other. While the ‘blacksmiths wife’ explained that she hoped all would be well again, once the witches wicked spells were lifted by her death. A skinny looking girl with a hunched back from the row in front, turned around to voice some pity for the lost soul, and uttered needed clearance of all sins, and of breaking with the devil. The ‘blacksmiths wife’ leant forward and spoke to the other: “It has been said that she’d given an ailing babe some of her devil herbs… Would surely have killed the boy, or handed him over to the wretched himself. Was more than luck o’ the almighty that the child still lives… Poor lad, who knows what’s still to come… Poor family raising that child under their roof”. Nodding her head in assurance she looked at both women in turn, pulling her small eyes wide open. Crossing her arms before her chest, she retained her upright stand and added: “Mind you, they must be tending to that babe and care for his upbringing…if it were for me, I’d laid the babe out in the wood. Nay, nay, t’is ill-advised to go near that house or that folk… Hope’s that the devil has not gotten the better of him!”.

 

I could see past the straining heads of folk in the front rows. An elder lady held the trembling fingers of her hands to her lips. Her hands showed many years of hard labour. Her lips made little quivering movements of imperceptible mumbles, and her long grey hair hung in tangled strands loosely over her shoulders. Her face looked weary, aged by time, the expression worrisome, and frightened.  As the carriage came closer, her expression became frail with fear and her eyes filled with tears. She swallowed hard at the sight of the crowd throwing rotting vegetables they had brought in buckets to the assembly, and pieces of wood, pine cones, and other forest finds they had collected on their way here.

 

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Were all witches burnt at the stake?

No. This was not as common as is frequently assumed. There were many ways of execution that were used to bring death to persons found guilty of witchcraft [3].

 

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I stretched my head to catch a glimpse of the carriage as it turned at the base of the scaffold. It shook as the horses moved across the uneven ground and I could make out the skinny figure of the young woman to be tried, standing insecurely, balancing out the movement, while clutching the bars of the wagon with her tied hands. She looked terrified.

 

The drummers of the regiment, played their drums as the convict was led from the wagon. They pulled her up onto the scaffold and turned her around to face the grandstand where the noble folk and the jury had taken their places. The judge sat between two elder men, likely of noble descent, and like him, undoubtedly of jurisprudential rank. He raised his hand with an outgoing gesture, silencing the crowd and raising his voice at the convict. “You, witch, have been found guilty of satanic deed. The verdict has been spoken. You! Murderess, witch and devils bride!” “You!” and he turned his head towards the crowd on the opposite grandstand, “You, poisoned with your wicked potions the noble man, Arthur Hieronimous Butterfield, who came to seek your advice, in good belief”, and he raised his arm pointing his outstretched finger to the sky, “… In good belief and trust in good deed, of finding assistance for the sorry state of his health… A weakened man, pained by crippling disease…, only to find his plea for help met by cold hearted cruelty,… bringing him nothing but sure death at the hand of this there poisoned creature”.

 

He now shook his pointing digit at the young woman convicted of these crimes, and continued: “Fair haired as she is, filled with blackened bile, and devilish blood, she committed the highest of crime that man knows of”. His head had turned red, as he spoke with rage.

 

 Schafott weichzeichner

He paused, and resumed his seated position, as if weakened by the horror of the deed he had spoken of. He placed a hand to his forehead, and waved the other at the man seated to his left, who now rose to standing, and addressed the blond girl, that was trembling, nay shivering with fear. “It is unknown from whence you may have acquired your knowledge of the plants and herbs, by all means, you are not a highly educated connoisseur of the medical art, as is our esteemed medicus Cowler, sitting here to my left”. He raised his hand and tilted it towards the medicus. “Nonetheless, your lack of knowledge of the craft did not make you refrain from treating, nay misleading the most trusted and trustworthy noble man Butterfield, or other citizens of our community at that…”, he continued with an air of haughtiness towards the audience. “…My highly respected collegue Master Fitzgibbons will now spread the details of the demonic deed to you”…; And he nodded his head to the man placed to the right of the judge.

 

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Witches, our ancestors?

Yes, some undoubtedly were early folk healers! In the days of old, the men and women accused of witchcraft, were often knowledgeable of the healing properties of plants and herbs. Hence these people were frequently seen as competitors to those practitioners of the more established medical knowledge. Many sick people sought a folk healer’s service when needing help with an illness or disease when a town medic had not been able to treat with the established methods of the time [7].

 

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The stout little man stood up, pulled back his shoulders and broadened his chest, before he raised his voice to the crowd. “Mary Bernadette Simmons, has been found guilty of murder of the respectable Master Butterfield! The deed was committed by poison, administered to him from an untruthfully, so labelled curative potion for ill affections of the heart. A potion purposely polluted with the death bringing fruit Atropa Belladonna”.

 

A murmur went through the crowd at the utterance of these words, before the stout man continued: “It was known that Master Butterfield suffered of a long standing complaint of the heart, that the esteemed Dr. Cowler has of many years treated Master Butterfield for. It is not known why the latter sought help from Miss Simmons, undoubtedly, the devil lured him onto this path by the instrumentalization of Miss Simmons.” “Such demonic aptitude, to suppress and override the senses and all will-power…” he halted his speech and continued in a calmer voice: “One can only imagine what battle raged in Master Butterfield as he tried to ward of the devil and maintain his very souls spirit within”. His head sank to his chest, before he raised it to resume his words: “He lost this battle against the wretched, uttering terrified words, whence he drew his last breath: “Simmons, the witch”. A shocked murmur went through the crowd. “His lastly summoned strength and sanity did one last deed, to voice the murderer at whose hands death was brought across him”. “You, Miss Simmons, are his murderer by his own audit and cognisance”. The facial expression of Master Fitzgibbons became fierce and his gaze icy, as he glared at the convict. She, the gentle fair-haired girl, broke to her knees, uttering a shrieking cry: “No, this is not the truth! I have not done such deed, have not committed such horrible crime!”

 

“Silence WITCH!” Fitzgibbons hissed at her, and turning to the folk on the grandstand continued: “Further evidence of the criminal intent of Miss Simmons, I show you here”, and he reached into a box that was at his feet. From it he produced a green weed that he held up for the spectators to see. The green of the plant, large unspectacular looking fleshy leaves, lengthy, of uneven, knotty looking surface, was shown into all directions, such that all present might get a glimpse of it. “The plant of Mandragora officinarum, a witch’s herb, retrieved from Miss Simmons front garden”. “Mind you”, the public was addressed, “we did not unearth the root, to demonstrate the truthfulness of this find, but our most trusted medicus, has assured its authenticity”. “As many of you may know, this weed, known also by the name of ‘Satan’s apple’, has the screeching root that causes deafness, if not kills those that hear its devilish calling”.

 

Hushed whispering could be heard along the rows of the grandstand with people pointing and shaking their heads in disbelief and shock. “The concoction that brought death to Master Butterfield contained Atropa Belladonna, a poisonous fruit…, likely to have been picked from a tree not far from the hut where the convict here, Miss Simmons, lived”.  He lowered his hand and placed the plant back into the box. “…and evidence of her alliance with the devil as has been brought forth, is further supported by more poisonous herbs found to grow in Miss Simmons garden,… we therefore have no reason to doubt her wretched communion”. He settled back to be seated.

 

The old woman, with the long grey hair, in the front row from us, leant forward and shouted across at the stout Mister Fitzgibbons. “Deceit! Falsehood! Traitor! Tort!” The judge and his fellow men of court sprung to their feet, and began shouting and gesticulating towards the old lady. “Woman, be silent!” “Do you too wish to suffer an equal fate?” said one of the men on the upper ranks of the opposite grandstand.

 

The judge turned to the fair haired girl and fiercely yelled at her: “The verdict is hereby spoken: You are to burn at the stake for murder! The execution is to be performed imminently!

 

Now the crowd cheered! My view of the scaffold was concealed with people waving their hands and arms, shouting and yelling encouragement at what was going on at the scaffold, out of my sight. I was watching the old lady with the grey hair, as she raised her hands to the sky and began squealing in horror and helplessness. She fell to her knees, as loud screeching mixed into the cheering of the crowd. The air carried the scent and the crackling sounds of burning wood, but the screeching screams cut deep to the marrow. I rested my eyes on the old lady, bowing her head to the ground, crying, chanting, squealing… I let go of my mother’s hand and stepped down to the row where the old lady lay. I took her hand, and empty, sorrowful, terrified, lost eyes looked up at me. The air carried a smell ‘of a roast on the fire’, the screeching had subsided and the cheering of the crowd had lost its dynamism …

 

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Witches today

Being a witch today is largely associated with the lifestyles of paganism, or Wicca. Many refer to themselves as witch, because they feel a retrieved connection to nature and its ways. Many have found grounding, an attachment to old beliefs, and a newly re-gained respect for the ways of old. In this respect, they render homage to Mother Nature, the beings and plants therein, and live their lives practicing and promoting this connection.

 

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All are dead now, and times have gone… Long ’tis forgotten; and few are apt to see but a pile of stone… Gone,… all but a rumor or a tale of fantasy, witches are no more, have never been, will never be…

 

…but, … when the moon stands full, and the night is still, we’ll be about and will do as we will… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

[1] The free dictionary (2016) Witch, Available at: http://www.thefreedictionary.com(Accessed: June 2016).

 

[2] Hodgeman, C. (2016) The war on witches, Available at: http://www.historyextra.com/witchcraft (Accessed: June 2016).

 

[3] Pavlac, B. A. (2012) Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented, Prof. Pavlac’s Women’s History Resource Site, Available at: http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witcherrors.html (Accessed: June 2016).

 

[4] Religious tolerance (n.d.) The burning times, Available at: http://www.religioustolerance.org/wic_burn2.htm (Accessed: June 2016).

 

[5] Roach, M. K. (2013) 9 Reasons You Might Have Been Suspected of Witchcraft in 1692, Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marilynne-k-roach/9-reasons-you-might-have-_b_4029745.html (Accessed: June 2016).

 

[6] Andrews, E. (2014) 7 Bizarre Witch Trial Tests, Available at:http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/7-bizarre-witch-trial-tests (Accessed: June 2016).

 

[7] Minkowski, W L (1992) ‘Women healers of the middle ages: selected aspects of their history.’, Am J Public Health, 82(2), pp. 288-295 [Online]. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1694293/ (Accessed: June 2016).

 

About the author:

cat pixabay alteredBella-Louisa Mandrake, is an eclectic green witch, she treasures the land, praises Mother Nature, and believes in the traditional ways of the world. Her respect for nature’s herbs and plants, the tides of the seasons, the insects and animals roaming the forest, fields and meadows have led her onto a solitary path that she follows, living in the memory of the ancients, recalling their fate in her writings.

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