The last ‘witch’ burned in Ireland – the tragic story of Bridget Cleary shared by writer Ali Issac.
Here’s a post from a few years ago – it’s a beautiful day today for the summer solstice.
‘As the sun spirals its longest dance, cleanse us.
As nature shows bounty and fertility bless us.
Let all things live with loving intent and to fulfil their truest destiny.’
Wiccan blessing for summer
Were you up early this morning watching the sun rise? If you were, you were joining hundreds of other people marking this year’s summer solstice.
The summer solstice happens when the tilt of the Earth’s semi-axis is most inclined towards the sun. In fact, the word ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin ‘solstitium’ which translates as ‘sun stands still’. On this day there are the most hours of sunlight.
Humans have long been amazed by the power of the sun and light has a key role in many rituals, beliefs and superstitions. For Pagans in particular, this day has a particular significance. They believe that the Goddess (who they worship along with the horned God) took over the earth at the beginning of spring. The solstice marks the day when she is at her most powerful. Some Pagans believe the day marks the marriage of the Goddess and God – their union creating the abundance of the harvest.
Although they come together to celebrate life and growth at the time of the solstice, Pagans also recognise that the sun will now begin to decline, days will slowly get shorter, and we will edge slowly towards winter.
If you live in the UK, then you probably associate the summer solstice with Stonehenge. Many Pagans and, indeed, non-Pagans, gather at this ancient stone circle to watch the sun rise. The Heel Stone and the Slaughter Stone are set just outside the main circle, and these stones align with the rising sun.
Although Stonehenge is the focal point for many, Pagans will gather outdoors to take part in rituals and celebrations that date back for thousands of years. These traditions have largely been forgotten or are now overlooked, but it is worth remembering that, although many were wiped from the history books once Christianity took hold, these ancient rites and beliefs were here long before the relatively modern Christian tradition. Because of the passage of time, and also because of the banning of many traditions and beliefs under Christianity, there is not much documented evidence of traditional celebrations marking Litha, or Midsummer, of which the Solstice is a part. There is some information to be found however; some of it, ironically, in the writings of monks.
One tradition that is known about is that of setting large wheels on fire and then rolling them down a hill into water. This may have been used to signify the fact that although the sun is strongest in midsummer, it will then weaken. Water also reduces the heat of the sun; subordinating heat (the fire) to water signified the prevention of drought.
The setting of hilltop bonfires was also a midsummer’s tradition, again linking fire to the sun and honouring the space between the earth and the sun. This tradition was brought to the British Isles by Saxon invaders celebrating the power of the sun over darkness.
Pagans today see the solstice as a time for focusing on inner lightness and power. Whatever your beliefs, getting up early on the morning of the summer solstice and watching the sun rise is sure to fill you with awe. It’s a tradition we should probably all embrace.
The history of witchcraft and the treatment and persecution of witches throughout the centuries is a subject close to my heart – many of the horrible accounts I read when researching my novel ‘The Black Hours’ have stayed with me. And it always seems pertinent on Halloween to revisit this post.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Most of us are familiar with these words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and with the gruesome hags that stir the cauldron. They have become the blueprint for the portrayal of witches; ugly, toothless old women; scheming, mysterious and powerful. But is it fair? And why do we see witches in this way – it can’t all be Shakespeare’s fault, can it?
Before the advent of Christianity there were many diverse religions – Druids, Norse Odinists and the witches that had for centuries acted as healers, midwives and wise women and men. However, when the Inquisition was launched, it wasn’t just direct ‘threats’ to the Roman Catholic Church that came under suspicion. Anyone could potentially be accused of heresy, and many of those healers and wise woman came under attack.
Propaganda was a big part of this religious war. The inquisitors sought to portray witches as evil, ugly, dirty devil-worshippers, as these images show:
This left anyone who didn’t conform open to attack – if you lived by yourself, had a wart on your nose, a deformed leg or a harelip – then watch out! You were probably a witch. The majority of those arrested, tortured, tried, condemned and murdered were not witches; real witches had taken their religion underground.
Of course real witches are nothing like those pointy-nosed, warty child-cookers of Hansel and Gretel fame and seemingly endless Disney adaptations. But the stereotype lingers, as false today as it was back then. Witches aren’t Satanists, and witchcraft isn’t and never has been Satanism. In fact, witchcraft in ancient times was ‘the craft of the wise’. It is a spiritual system that teaches respect for the earth. Witchcraft is also referred to as Wicca, the term most often used today. It is a religion, based on a respect for the earth, and the worship of a creator that is both male and female – Goddess and God. Wiccans believe the creator is in everything – the trees, rain, the sea and all other creatures, and this belief fosters a respect and a caring for the natural world and for all life. Wiccans celebrate the changing of the seasons, and the phases of the moon. They are still healers; using natural remedies, and their spells are for harmony, love, creativity, wisdom and healing. Isn’t it time witches were given the respect that we give others? After all, we speak a lot of tolerance for religion and beliefs and yet don’t allow this most ancient of religions any respect at all.
And as a little antidote to these images, here’s a rather beautiful portrayal of a witch, strangely enough from an ad for Pears soap!
I reviewed ‘Beltane’ for Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team
This is a very well-written, entertaining and enjoyable read. Alys West certainly knows how to tell a story.
Artist Zoe Rose is struggling to come up with the illustrations she needs to seal a lucrative contract and get her career on track. Her subject matter is King Arthur, so she heads to Glastonbury for inspiration as this is where Arthur is believed to have lived and where legend has it he is buried. Her friend Anna suggests she stays at a healing retreat, Anam Cara, run by Maeve, who Anna raves about, but who makes Zoe feel uncomfortable and unnerved.
In the garden of Anam Cara is a tree bearing a carving of a ‘Green Man’. Zoe is fascinated by the carving, and unwittingly releases a spell that begins a host of unsettling and dangerous events centred around handsome stranger Finn, who Zoe is instantly attracted to.
Finn and Zoe are great characters, easy to like and very believable, quite a feat considering they both have ‘gifts’. And Maeve is a well-crafted antagonist, a suitable foe for Finn and Zoe.
The author obviously knows Glastonbury well – the town is brought to life and it is easy to picture its streets and alleys, full of alternative shops and centres, and the wonderful Tor. It’s a fantastic setting for this kind of tale.
There were parts of the story that I felt went on a little too long and didn’t hold my interest, but on the whole this was a thoroughly engaging read and I look forward to more from this author.
Halloween falls on a Saturday this year so if you have some free time over the weekend, there’s no better time to visit one of these fantastic places described in this article first posted here in July 2014.
England has a long and varied history of witchcraft. As a tradition stretching back centuries, it is hardly surprising that there are a great variety of places that abound with legends, stories and histories about witchcraft, witches, persecution and execution. When researching the topic for my novel ‘The Black Hours’, I came across lots of interesting stories and made a long list of places that I’d love to visit. Some of them I have been lucky enough to visit although I would like to visit again one day. In fact, what I’d really like to do is go on a witchcraft tour of England – spending time in all these places. All offer something interesting and informative; some are fun and have more to do with legend, myth and fairy tale than the brutal truth of the horror of the witch hunts; other places I have found to be spots where poor, misunderstood and persecuted women (let’s not forget that the majority of the witch hunt victims were women) can be remembered and honoured in some small way. These are the places I’d love to visit and re-visit.
The North West
No witchcraft tour would be complete without a visit to Pendle Hill in Lancashire and it’s a great place to start. Pendle was the location of the famous 1612 trial for witchcraft. The accused all lived in the area, and ten were hanged on Gallows Hill. Of course, rumours now abound that the hill is haunted – TV’s Most Haunted has filmed there. As a sceptic I don’t believe that these women haunt the hill – I like to think they are at peace, free from the horrible persecution they suffered and no longer afraid. But I must admit I’m not sure I’d like to spend the night on the hill!
The North East
Margaret Brown and thirteen other poor souls were hanged on the Town Moor in Newcastle in 1650. Margaret was a victim of ‘witch-pricking’ – it was claimed she had a devil’s mark on her body that, when pricked by a pin did not bleed. She protested her innocence right up to the last according to Ralph Gardener’s 1655 book ‘England’s Grievance’:
“These poor souls never confessed anything but pleaded innocence and one of them, by name Margaret Brown, beseeched God that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution.”
The Town Moor is a place I’d like to visit, to pause for a moment and think about poor Margaret and the other terrified accused – hoping against hope that something would end their terror.
I have heard a lot of stories about Mother Shipton and the ‘Petrifying Well’ or ‘dropping well’ in Knaresborough. It used to be believed that the water was magic – turning objects to stone. Now of course we know that the calcifying is due to the high mineral content of the water – but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. And Mother Shipton herself is an interesting character – allegedly born in a cave near the dropping well, she has become a legendary figure of folklore, renowned for her prophecies. There is a whole park devoted to her now, with the dropping well, cave, a museum, castle ruins and gardens. You can even buy a petrified teddy bear in the gift shop!
This area was the stomping ground of Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General, subject of ‘The Black Hours’. There are a wealth of places to visit – though few traces of the man himself remain. I’ve visited Colchester Castle and stood in the cells where Hopkins interrogated his victims (a very spooky and uncomfortable experience). I’ve also eaten dinner in ‘The Mistley Thorn’, a lovely pub that stands on the site of the inn where Hopkins set up his witch finding business and where he is rumoured to have lived. The food is lovely. I did get a bit freaked out when leaving though as we decided to go for a walk in the dark – and I have to say it was incredibly chilling to think we were walking where Hopkins may have walked. My imagination did get the better of me, but that might have been the wine.
Burley is a very pretty village in the New Forest known for its connection with the witch Sybil leek. Leek moved to the area in the 1950s and opened a shop – ‘A Coven of Witches’ – still open in the village. There are now other shops in the village selling various witch-related items and a tea shop called ‘The Black Cat’. I’ve been to Burley several times and it is a really beautiful place – and a bit of light relief too!
The South West
Two places of note in the South West – the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall and Exeter in Devon.
I won’t say too much about the Witchcraft Museum other than saying again how utterly fabulous it is – quirky and weird, packed full of witchcraft related stuff, but you can read about my visit here.
I regret not stopping in Exeter on my way to Boscastle as I would have liked to have seen the plaque at Rougemont Castle commemorating the execution of the Bideford witches and Alice Molland – you can find out about Alice here.
I know I have missed out some wonderful places but there are so many that it is hard to choose. And I know I have also ignored Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – I am planning separate posts on the history of witchcraft in these countries.
Do you know of any interesting places connected to witchcraft in England? I’d love to know about them (any excuse for a holiday – I mean research!).
Halloween is fast approaching and, as always at this time of year, when I see the costumes hanging in the shops, the broomsticks, cauldrons and pointy hats, the black cats and fake warty noses, I think abut the women and men that were persecuted and murdered for being ‘witches’. This post, that I wrote in January 2014, is about the horrific treatise that lay behind many of the superstitions and opinions that led to the horrific trials and executions of so many innocent people.
When writing my novel ‘The Black Hours’ I researched in depth the methods used to interrogate and persecute suspected witches. This was, on the whole, a rather grim process that occasionally reduced me to tears when I thought about the real women (and sometimes men) behind these often lurid and horrific accounts.
The backbone of my research came from the infamous ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or ‘Hammer of the Witches’. This is a 15th century treatise that is basically a handbook on the way to identify, interrogate and prosecute those suspected of witchcraft. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman, and had three main purposes – to refute allegations that witchcraft did not exist, to set out the forms of witchcraft and the ways in which the craft can be identified and resolved, and to aid and assist magistrates in the prosecution of those accused.
What I found particularly dreadful about this treatise was its terrible attitude towards women. Although acknowledging that both men and women can practice witchcraft, the treatise argues strongly that it is women who are more susceptible due to their gender – women, according to Kramer, are more inclined to submit to temptation due to their inherent weakness as a sex; they are weak in faith and in character and more carnal than men, leading the ‘stronger’ sex into sin. Indeed the word ‘maleficarum’ is the feminine form of the Latin word for ‘witch’.
While I am aware that the times were significantly different, the utter hatred for the female sex is breathtaking. Here are a few of the horrible assertions:
‘since they (women) are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.’
‘she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.’
‘No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, then, as if for some other purpose, they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to devils.’
‘when girls have been corrupted, and have been scorned by their lovers after they have immodestly copulated with them in the hope and promise of marriage with them, and have found themselves disappointed in all their hopes and everywhere despised, they turn to the help and protection of devils; either for the sake of vengeance by bewitching those lovers or the wives they have married, or for the sake of giving themselves up to every sort of lechery. Alas! experience tells us that there is no number to such girls, and consequently the witches that spring from this class are innumerable.’
‘all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.’
What is also interesting is that Kramer backs up his assertions with references to the Bible. He references Ecclesiastics xxv:
‘There is no head above the head of a serpent: and there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman. I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman.’
He also quotes St John Chrysostom commenting on St Matthew:
‘It is not good to marry! What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!’
Kramer then turns to the philosophers, quoting Cicero:
‘The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of all woman’s vices is avarice.’
‘A woman either loves or hates; there is no third grade. And the tears of woman are a deception, for they may spring from true grief, or they may be a snare. When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.’
Now you might think that these are only one man’s views (The Malleus Maleficarum is attributed to two authors, Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, but some scholars now believe that Sprenger was given joint authorship by Kramer in an attempt to give the treatise more authority) but, due to the development of the printing press, the treatise was able to spread widely through Europe. Who knows how many innocent women were tortured and murdered because of Kramer’s ideas and beliefs – beliefs that were held by many at the time? Is it any surprise that, faced with this utter contempt and hatred of the female sex, thousands of women lost their lives to superstition?
For the A-Z challenge, I am posting writing and editing tips to help you improve and enhance your writing.
Q is for Quiet, please!
My novel, ‘The Black Hours’, deals with the rather nasty events of the 17th century English witch hunts, perpetrated by the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. In order to write the novel, I had to do a lot of research, and that research often took me to some fairly horrible places. I read things and now know things that I wish I didn’t.
When it came to writing the book, I wanted others to know all about the horrific things that had happened to REAL people, how they suffered and died in the name of religion, superstition and hatred. So, I duly included lots of horrific details. It was harrowing to write at times.
And it was harrowing to read. My first ‘beta’ reader was my son. Although he came back with lots of positives, he also said it was too much. There was too much horror. It needed toning down. The reader needed time to pause, to breathe, to recover.
I took his criticism on board, toned things down and then passed it, terrified, chapter by chapter, to my fellow MLitt students.
Again, the feedback was great and very positive. But there was still one common criticism. It was too dark, too horrible still. Could I tone it down? Give the reader a break?
So I did. The novel is still realistic (I hope), still contains the truth of what happened to many poor souls in that awful time. But there are also moments of lightness, of humanity, that I hope prevent it from being too much.
So writers, think about your readers. Yes, we know that action is important, that the plot must move forward, but if your book is fast paced, or dark, then do make sure to give your reader time to recover, to pause and collect themselves, to come up for air. Some time for quiet, please.
A great post about Rougemont Castle where you’ll find a plaque remembering the last ‘witches’ to be executed in England.
After reading Alison Williams’ extremely interesting “A Witchcraft Tour of England’ post (which you can find here) I decided to check out one of the places I’d never seen and actually knew nothing about. Rougemont Castle in Exeter. The castle was built on a small hill and the name Rougemont came from the Norman French rouge mont, meaning red hill, because of its red volcanic rock.
Only the castle walls and gatehouse, which you can walk round, remain, but nevertheless when I see something like this…
especially since reading Alison’s book The Black Hours, I get chills imagining what could, and more than likely did, happen on the other side of those bars. The so-called witches, Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, Mary Trembles and Alice Molland were the last to be tried here. They were found guilty and executed. This plaque is by the gatehouse.
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Halloween is a great time to discover some of the places connected to England’s history of witch hunting and witchcraft and there are plenty of them 🙂
England has a long and varied history of witchcraft. As a tradition stretching back centuries, it is hardly surprising that there are a great variety of places that abound with legends, stories and histories about witchcraft, witches, persecution and execution. When researching the topic for my novel ‘The Black Hours’, I came across lots of interesting stories and made a long list of places that I’d love to visit. Some of them I have been lucky enough to visit although I would like to visit again one day. In fact, what I’d really like to do is go on a witchcraft tour of England – spending time in all these places. All offer something interesting and informative; some are fun and have more to do with legend, myth and fairy tale than the brutal truth of the horror of the witch hunts; other places I have found to…
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If you’re looking for somewhere different to visit this Halloween, and you’re lucky enough to be anywhere near beautiful Cornwall, then I recommend the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. This blog post is all about my visit.
Nestled in the lovely village of Boscastle on the Cornish coast in a pretty white cottage is the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft. Step inside this quaint little building and you will find the world’s largest collection of witchcraft related artefacts.
The museum was opened in 1960 by Cecil Williamson, after a rather troubled history. Williamson had first opened a museum on the Isle of Man in 1951, the year in which the Witchcraft Act was repelled. The museum had a resident witch – Gerald Gardner. The two men wanted different things for the museum, so Williamson sold the building to Gardner in 1954 and moved on to Windsor and then to Bourton-in-the-Water in the Cotswolds. Unfortunately, the museum was not welcomed – Williamson received death threats and the museum was fire-bombed several times. Eventually he moved the artefacts to their current home in Cornwall.
This was not the end of…
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