[From A Second Manx Scrapbook]

CHAPTER V

WITCHCRAFT AND CHARMING

" A woman is a dish for the Gods, if the Devil dress her not. But, truly, these same whoreson devils do the Gods great harm in their women, for in every ten that they make, the devils mar five."

(Antony and Cleopatra, v., 2.)

 

1. Witchcraft in General.

CERTAIN elements in witchcraft have always recognized themselves as an old religion in survival, and have been treated as such by the discerning. Of late years writers on the subject have been kind enough to refresh our memories by rediscovering and exaggerating this truism. The craft is now further dignified by being identified with a fertility-cult. It has been perversely misunderstood, and its rites must no longer be called indecent and obscene except between inverted commas. It was, in fact, a joyous form of worship which was persecuted, and its celebrations suppressed, by gloomy spoil-sports in the 16th and 17th centuries. One of its recent champions, in whom the feminine gifts of intuition and sympathy surpass even the ability to weigh evidence and reason from it, does honour to the witches' unshakable faith in the eternal union of their souls with the deity whose posterior they kissed ; in their deaths, indeed, they resembled the Christian martyrs. . . . However this may be, witchcraft, being rooted in the body, has, ever since its emergence from prehistoric darkness, been almost exclusively a women's religion, and hence would appear to stand a chance of returning to fashion, with a little alteration and retrimming.

In order to get as clear a view of Manx witchcraft, past and present, as the data permit, we may remind ourselves that witchcraft, in the usual acceptance of the term, is a combination of two differing and perhaps originally unconnected activities : the congregational celebrations of the " sabbat," and the individual operating of spells and charms. These two activities are correlated in statements that " the Devil " at the gatherings instructed the witches in the use of magic, supplied them with the ingredients of potions and philtres, and received reports of their successes and failures.

The sabbatical assemblies testified to by witches in the course of legal proceedings against them, and by the evidence of tradition, fall under two heads (a) actual gatherings which were exploited by a male controller personifying the Devil ; and (b) imaginary journeys to, and participation in, the sabbats. The actual gatherings, it has been suggested, may have been a debased relic of a primitive fertility-cult. If they owed anything at all to that source they were not so much debased as wholly perverted. If gregarious witchcraft could be considered as a fertility-cult gone rotten, it would strengthen the evidence for the mutual independence, at some epoch, of the sabbats and the individual practices ; for nine-tenths of the latter, far from being fecundative, are eminently obstructive and destructive. But gregarious witchcraft, so far as it existed outside the delusions of periodic insanity, appears to have been less a corrupt form of fertility-rites than an almost complete reversal of them. Its aim was to blast and blight, stunt, wither and destroy. In its use of spells and charms this tendency has been almost equally marked.

The imaginary journeys to, and participation in, the sabbats may have been induced by drugs, possibly even by ointments,1 also by primitive methods of self-hypnotization. Dreams, too, may have been artificially cultivated and intensified to a point at which they became indistinguishable from waking life, to the type of mentality concerned. It may well be, however, that a self-acting ideation, stimulated by the prevalent mental and psychical atmosphere, and akin to the hysterical ecstasies of the Christian and other religions, could have sufficed to create nearly all the delusions of gregarious witchcraft, especially in women who were acquainted with the procedure at the actual gatherings.

From this suggestible state of mind, however produced, resulted such of the phenomena as are inexplicable on natural grounds. These, it is said, are found, when the records are scrutinized, to be less numerous than might have been expected. For the whole phantasmagoria a framework was provided by traditions of superseded divinities of paganism, especially Greek paganism, and by the indestructible nature-religion which permeated all the pagan systems. The outcome of these ideas was a long - persisting communal memory of the practices which continued after the overthrow of paganism-the secret, because forbidden, worship of pagan gods, and, more especially, goddesses. These memories, like those which constitute the material of other superstitions, multiplied with each other promiscuously, and with extraneous ideas.2 Hence were born both the real witchcraft of modern days - the working of charms - and the mainly imaginary witchcraft of the covens and the massmeetings. With such traditionary assemblies as a model, actual gatherings were occasionally held, especially in later times, and it may have been the increasing frequency of these that aggravated the Church's antagonism to witchcraft from the 14th century onward.

These two modes of taking part in the sabbats, the imagined and the actual, have been completely confounded in popular legends and beliefs, and to a large extent likewise in the confessions of participants. The witches' inability to distinguish between them is not surprising, for it would be difficult to decide which mode of experience must have seemed the more vivid. The distinction was, however, recognized in a few cases. " They eat and drink really when they meet in their bodies," " they were bodily there " (at the sabbat), are phrases occurring in the testimony (reported in the third person) of a 17th -century Somerset witch.

The net result of this collective hysteria was to dominate the women's minds with an idée fixe or monomania which made them reckless of the extreme penalty of the law. Hence, perhaps, resulted also the local anaesthesia, the insensitive place on the body which was held to be an infallible token of a witch.

Through the practising of magic by witches, and through the attaching of the name of witch to women believed to practise magic, the idea of witchcraft has so permeated superstition in general, the Manx species no less than others, that it is liable to turn up in connexion with many matters with which it could have had nothing to do formerly.

1 The belief in the efficacy of drugs and ointments to open the inward eye existed long before the medieval sabbats. " Hésychius nous rapporte que les anciens évoquaient parfois Hécate à 1'aide de diverses préparations qui avaient certainement pour effet d'engendrer des hallucinations, où l'esprit croyait voir la déesse des nuits." (Maury, La Magie et l'Astrologie, page 419.)

2 For example, the common notion that witches flew through the air was probably derived, together with other features of the cult, from the antique belief in flying female demons who assumed the shapes of animals-a belief which even attached itself to the august legend of Diana. But the priests of the classical Diana refused, it will be remembered, to sacrifice to her till the land had been cleansed of the presence of the archwitch Medea.


 

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