30 JanWitchcraft and Popular Superstitions in Regency Romance Era England



—Why should the envious world
Throw all their scandalous malice upon me?
‘Cause I am poor, deform’d, and ignorant;
And like a bow, buckled and bent together,
By some more strong in mischiefs than myself:
Must I for that be made a common sink
For all the filth and rubbish of men’s tongues,
To fall and run into? some call me witch;
And, being ignorant of myself, they go
About to teach me how to be one; urging
That my bad tongue (by their bad usage made so)
Forespeaks their cattle, doth bewitch their corn,
Themselves, their servants, and their babes at nurse;
This they enforce upon me; and in part
Make me to credit it. Witch of Edmonton.

The belief in witchcraft may be considered as forming a prominent and important feature in the history of the human mind. It is certainly one link of the degrading chain of superstitions which have long enslaved mankind, but which are now quivering to their fall. The desire for power to pry into hidden things, and more especially events to come, is inherent in the human race, and has always been considered as of no ordinary importance, and rendered the supposed possessors objects of reverence and fear. The belief in astrology, or the power to read in the stars the knowledge of futurity, from time immemorial has been considered as the most difficult of attainment, and important in its results. And by the aid of a little supernatural machinery, both magicians and astrologers exercised the most unlimited influence over the understandings of their adherents. An astrologer, only two or three centuries since, was a regular appendage to the establishments of princes and nobles. Sir Walter Scott has drawn an interesting portrait of one in Kenilworth; and the eagerness with which the Earl of Leicester listened to his doctrines and predictions, affords a good specimen of the manners of those times. The movements of the heavenly bodies, (imperfectly as they were then understood,) seemed to afford the most plausible vehicle for these “oracles of human destiny;” and even now, while we are tracing these lines, the red and glaring appearance of the planet Mars, shining so beautifully in the south-east, is considered by the many as a forerunner and sign of long wars and much bloodshed:

These dreams and terrors magical,
These miracles and witches,
Night walking sprites, et cetera,
Esteem them not two rushes.

Waterhouse The Magic Circle Mankind are universally prone to the belief in omens, and the casual occurrence of certain contingent circumstances soon creates the easiest of theories. Should a bird of good omen, in ancient times, perch on the standard, or hover about an army, the omen was of good import, and favourable to conquest. Should a raven or crow accidentally fly over the field of action, the spirits of the combatants would be proportionably depressed. Should a planet be shining in its brilliancy at the birth of any one whose fortunes rose to pre-eminence, it was always thought to exert an influence over his future destiny. Such was the origin of many of our later superstitions, which “grew with their growth, and strengthened with their strength,” till the more extensive introduction of the art of printing partly dissipated the illusion. It has been remarked, therefore, that the existence of the parent stock of the subject more immediately under our consideration, witchcraft, may be traced to a very remote period indeed. It is, however, needless to enter into any remarks on those witches mentioned in the Scriptures. The earliest dabbler of the genus, as a contemporary writer observes, is said to be Zoroaster, thought to be the king of the Bactrians, who flourished about 3,800 years ago, or A.M. 2000. He is supposed to have been well versed in the arts of divination and astrology, and was the origin of the Persian magi. “At his birth,” remarks an old writer, “he laughed; and his head did so beat, that it struck back the midwife’s hand—a good sign of abundance of spirits, which are the best instruments of a ready wit.” The magi in Persia, the Brahmins in India, the Chaldae in Assyria, the magicians of Arabia, the priesthood of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and the Druids of Britain, were all members of a class which comprised astrology, omens, divination, conjuration, portents, chiromancy, and sorcery; and all united in the pursuit of enslaving mankind for the purposes of gain and power, with artfully devised schemes, and a skilful series of impostures; and we can easily imagine the influence they must have exercised over the minds of their proselytes, when we bear in mind the effect produced by similar contrivances in later days. The enchantress Theoris of Athens seems to have been the first witch that had recourse to charms. Demosthenes uses the terms both of witchery and imposture in speaking of her. This witch was put to death by the Athenians—an accomplice having displayed to them the charms, &c., by which she wrought her miracles. Our Saviour’s words, that faith can remove mountains, are applicable particularly to the supposed powers of witchcraft; and the influence of charms and amulets in averting disease is well known. We have alluded, in our first paper, to the trial of Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, at Norwich, for witchcraft; and we now give the speech of Sir Thomas Browne, the celebrated physician of that period, (1664,) to whom, in consequence of defect in the proof, the case was referred, which was the cause of their conviction. Sir Thomas Browne offered it as his opinion, “that the devil, in such cases, did work upon the bodies of men and women, upon a natural foundation, (that is) to stir up and excite such humours superabounding in their bodies to a great excess, whereby he did, in an extraordinary manner, afflict them with such distempers as their bodies were most subject to, as particularly appeared in the children of Dorothy Dunent, (one of the indictments against the prisoners being for their bewitchment;) for he conceived that these swooning fits were natural, and nothing else but that they call the mother, but only heightened to a great excess by the subtilty of the devil co-operating with the malice of these, which we term witches, at whose instance he doth the villanies.”

The ceremony of initiation to the dreadful vocation and great powers of witchcraft was attended with considerable form and mystery:—

—-They call me hag and witch.
What is the name? When, and by what art learned?
With what spell, what charm or invocation,
May the thing call’d “familiar” be purchas’d?

The older and more ugly the performer in these appalling ceremonies, the better. Some witches seem to have had the devil quite at their beck; but his visits to most of them appear to have been “few and far between.” The convention (remarks John Gaule, an old writer) for such a solemn initiation being proclaimed (by some herald imp) to some others of the confederation, on some great holy or Lord’s day, they meet in some church, either before the consecrated bell hath tolled, or else very late, after all the services are past and over. “The party, in some vesture for that purpose, is presented by some confederate or familiar to the prince of devills, sitting now in a throne of infernall majesty, appearing in the form of a man, only labouring to hide his cloven foot. To whom, after bowing and homage done, a petition is presented to be received into his association and protection; and first, if the witch be outwardly Christian, baptism must be renounced, and the party must be re-baptised in the devill’s name, and a new name is also imposed by him, and here must be godfathers too … But above all he is very busie with his long nails, in scraping and scratching those places of the forehead where the signe of the crosse was made, or where the chrisme was laid. Instead of both which, he impresses or inures the mark of the beast (the devill’s flesh brand) upon one or other part of the body. Further, the witch (for her part) vows, either by word of mouth, or peradventure by writing, (and that in her owne bloode,) to give both body and soul to the devill, to deny and defy God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; but especially the blessed Virgin, convitiating her with one infamous nickname or other; to abhor the word and sacraments, but especially to spit at the saying of masse; to spurn at the crosse, and tread saints’ images under feet; and as much as possibly they may, to profane all saints’ reliques, holy water, consecrated salt, wax,; to be sure to fast on Sundays, and eat flesh on Fridays; not to confess their sins, whatsoever they do, especially to a priest; to separate from the Catholic church, and despise his vicar’s primacy; to attend the devill’s nocturnal conventicles, sabbaths, and sacrifices; to take him for their god, worship, invoke, and obey him; to devote their children to him, and to labour all that they may to bring others into the same confederacy. Then the devill, for his part, promises to be always present with them, to serve them at their beck; that they shall have their wills upon any body; that they shall have what riches, honours, and pleasures they can imagine; and if any be so wary as to think of their future being, he tells them they shall be princes ruling in the aire, or shall be but turned into impes at worst. Then he preaches to them to be mindful of their covenant, and not to fail to revenge themselves upon their enemies, Then, he commends to them (for this purpose) an imp, or familiar in the shape of a cat. After this they shake hands, embrace in arms, dance, feast, and banquet, according as the devill hath provided in imitation of the supper. Nay, ofttimes he marries them ere they part, either to himselfe, or to their familiar, or to one another, and that by the Book of Common Prayer, as a pretender to witch-finding told me, in the presence of many.” After this they part, and a general meeting is held thrice a year, on some holy day; they are “conveyed to it as swift as the winds from the remotest parts of the earth, where they that have done the most execrable mischiefe, and can brag of it, make most merry with the devill;” while the “indiligent” are jeered and derided by the devil and the others. Non-attendance was severely punished by the culprits being beaten on the soles of the feet, whipped with iron rods, “pinched and sucked by their familiars till their heart’s blood come—till they repent them of their sloth.”

Many regulations were, however, to be observed after the above initiatory ceremony, which we have given at length in consequence of its singularity. There existed a community or commonwealth, of “fallen angels” or spirits, with the various titles of kings, dukes, &c., prelates and knights, of which the head was Baal, “who, when he was conjured up, appeared with three heads, one like a man, one like a toad, and one like a cat.” The title of king conferred no extra power; indeed, Agares, “the first duke, came in the likeness of a faire old man, riding upon a crocodile, and carrying a hawk on his fist”—Marbas, who appeared in the form of a “mightie lion”—Amon, “a great and mightie marques, who came abroad in the likeness of a wolf, having a serpent’s taile, and breathing out and spitting flames of fire,” and was one of the “best and kindest of devills,” with sixty-five more of these master-spirits, enumerated in Scot, “appeared to be entirely and exclusively appropriated to the service of witches,” were alike possessed of nearly similar power, and had many hundreds of legions of devils (each legion 6,666 in number) at their command.

There were stated times for each rank of devils to be called on, for they aught not to be invoked “rashly or at all seasons;” and the following extracts from Reginald Scot are fully explanatory of the formalities to be observed on these occasions:—

“The houres wherein the principal devills may be raised.—A king may be raised from the third houre till noone, and from the ninth hour till evening. Dukes may be raised from the first hour till noon, and clear weather is to be observed. Marquesses may be raised from the ninth hour till compline, and from compline till the end of day. Countes, or earles, may be raised at any hour of the day, so it be in the woodes or fieldes, where men resort not. Prelates likewise may be raised at any houre of the day. A president may not be raised at any hour of the day, except the king, whom he obeyeth, be invocated; nor at the shutting in of the evening. Knights from day-dawning till sun-rising, or from even-song till sun-set.

“The forme of adjuring and citing the spirits aforesaid to appeare.—When you will have any spirit, you must knowe his name and office; you must also fast and be cleane from all pollution three or foure days before; so will the spirit be more obedient unto you. Then make a circle, and call up the spirit with great intention, rehearse in your owne name, and your companion’s, (for one must alwaies be with you,) this prayer following; and so no spirit shall annoy you, and your purpose shall take effect. And note how thw prayer agreeth with popish charmes and conjurations.”

The prayer alluded to (see Scot’s Discovery, b. 15, c. 2) is of the most diabolical and blasphemous nature. A contemporary writer observes, that there is not the least doubt but that the witches of the olden time observed all the formalities of these ridiculous and disgusting ceremonies to the very letter. In later times, however, though the formalities were quite simple, yet the hag of the sixteenth century exercised her vocation with all its ancient potency.

The broomstick has been the theme of many a story connected with this subject:—

As men in sleep, though motionless they lie,
Fledged by a dream, believe they mount and fly;
So witches some enchanted wand bestride
And think they through the airy regions ride.

But the reason of its possessing such extensive powers of locomotion, or rather aërostation, is not generally understood. The witches either steal or dig dead children out of their graves, which are then seethed in a cauldron, and the ointment and liquid so produced, enables them, “observing certain ceremonies, to immediately become a master, or rather a mistresse, in the practise or faculty” of flying in the air:—

High in, air, amid the rising storm
—-wrapt in midnight
Her doubtful form appears and fades!
Her spirits are abroad! they do her bidding!
Hark to that shriek!

In addition to the above, they possessed another very useful faculty, for the transfer of the patent of which, I doubt not scores of adventurers would have given a tolerable consideration. It is briefly that of “sailing in an egg-shell, a cockle, or a muscle-shell, through and under the tempestuous seas.”


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