Witches

What’s in a Love Potion?

As a young girl I’ll admit to have being enamored by the idea of love potions, and a bit afraid of being given one. As I grew up I continued to see love potions in media, in fiction, and as a cultural touchstone that people could comment on, regardless of if they knew what was in them or their history. Recently, I’ve stopped to wonder what exactly was in these medieval-seeming potions of yore.

Source Source Source Source Source

Love potions don’t serve just to create an obsession in the object of your desire for you, but they were often allegedly used to inflame or cool down libidos, used to create political alliances, and generally manipulate those around you, regardless of if you had a romantic interest in them or not.

Love potions differ, but they typically include a mix of secrecy and, usually, bodily fluids. One of the most popular fluids was sweat. Love Cakes were quite popular medieval treats...but they aren’t quite as good as they sound. The cake, which was in all likelihood more of a bread, would have to be made while naked. Then, when the dough was completed they would rub in under the armpits, genitals, leg, neck, and lower back to soak up their sweat. Once finished, they would feed it to their hopeful beloved...and, if everything went correctly, they’d be lovebirds in no time.

Blood, particularly menstrual blood, was also an important part of blood magic which is sometimes tied to love potions. Most blood-based love potions required the blood of the spell-maker, but some also required the blood of the beloved (which must have been...weird to get). But, blood as an indigents shouldn’t come as a surprise as blood, and blood magic, was an incredibly popular ingredients and spell-work at this time. The fear, awe, and life-giving ability of blood of course makes it an essential part of most magic, including love spells. Blood is life and, to a point love (or, at least love-making) is also life. However, using blood can be binding and could even turn the love potion into a kind of emotional slavery.


Now, not every love potion demanded the use of bodily fluids (although those seem to be more purportedly potent) but many required a level of secrecy. For example, according to the lore of the Carolina mountains you just needed to come across some liverworts with heart-shaped leaves. Once you discovered these naturally occurring heart symbols, you would need to pick them and dry them out by a fire. Once dried, the leaves should be crumbled and made into a loose powder. Without your beau knowing, sprinkle this liverwort powder on some of their clothes. Before you know it, they’ll be pining for you (or the person of your choosing).

Another plant-based element popular in love potions were mandrake roots. You might know mandrake roots as witches’ familiars and important in other magical potions. However, it’s also been historically treated as an aphrodisiac. It’s connection to love and human control is likely due to its humanoid appearance. One could also be used as a fertility amulet worn around the neck.

Perhaps more strange and more sinister than sweat or blood or plants is the use of deceased people for the most intense of the love potions. Often, human cadavers were used for their bones. The bones would be ground into a powder and used in love potions. It seems that, when it comes to bone powder, the corpse doesn’t matter as long as its a corpses. However, some recipes called for very specific deceased persons. For example, one exceedingly powerful one called for the spleen and bone barrow of a young boy that had been murdered. However, it seems that many believed during this time that the bodies of the dead had particular power.

I think love potions are a way to control something we don’t always have control of - who we, or those around us, love. Love is an extremely powerful emotions so controlling it would obviously be an attractive power.

What’s in a love potion seems to align with most other spells and potions and it is the intent that truly makes the difference. Like power, life, luck, and other states achieved by magic love requires similar powerful objects derived from nature but molded and use just a little differently.


Scenes of Witches, Salvator Rosa. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Witch Burials

The idea of witches and magic has struck fears into the hearts of many throughout the centuries. From ostracizing accused witches to killing them, it should come as no surprise that the death of an alleged witch would also be treated in very specific, cautionary ways.

Source Source Source

You may be familiar with specific practices for burying vampires to make sure they didn’t rise from the grave again...but did you know witch burials were often treated with the same caution? Oftentimes, people would go to great lengths to make sure the witches that died or the ones they killed themselves would not return to terrify the town or avenge their death.

A common practice of making sure vampires stayed dead was forcing a brick or stone into their mouths.It was believed that if you plugged up a vampire’s mouth they would not be able to escape the grave and hunt. Interestingly enough there was a tomb uncovered from the 16th century in Venice. The pit was largely filled with plague victims, but one of the corpses stood out. It was the body of a woman believed to be around 40-50 who appears to have been purposefully killed (and perhaps not a plague victim at all) and had a huge brick forced into her mouth. The witch angle came out because during this time period and especially during plague years any woman living past middle age was believed to have made a deal with the devil to live longer and cheat death.

Also similar to vampire burials witch burials usually involved some...nails. While stakes through the heart weren’t as common it wasn’t unusual for a witch to be nailed to the bottoms of their coffins to make sure they didn’t hop up and get on their brooms. Nails, like with vampires, were often found in their jawbones or mouths so they would not be able to speak the spells necessary to free them from their graves.

Since witches were more often than not viewed as scourges on their communities they were sometimes treated similarly to criminals upon their deaths. Centuries ago it was believed that a person must be buried face-up, gazing towards the heavens, in order for their soul to escape their body, particularly through the mouth. However, witches and criminals were often buried facedown which would force the soul to remain inside the body. It was believed a witch, especially if the witch was murdered, would use her soul to bring ruin and terror to the community that condemned her. By burying a witch face down, she could only grow closer to hell.

One of my favorite witch burial/archaeological discovery stories is the tale of Lilias Adie. Lilias of Torryburn was a poor woman that confessed to having sex with the devil and being a witch. During her imprisonment, she passed away before she could be tried, sentenced, and burned, as was custom. Because her body would not be burned like many of the other witches in the area at the time, it was believed the best way to safely dispose of her body would be to dig a hole in the sticky, unrelenting mud of the Fife coast right between the mark of high and low tide. For extra precaution, they also laid a heavy, flat stone over her body.

The BBC notes, “After they buried her, the good folk of Torryburn must have breathed a contented sigh of relief like scientists entombing nuclear waste. They had made Lilias safe for the centuries, or so they believed.” However, in the 19th-century witches were seen as powerful talismans and people who had pieces of these alleged witches were believed to have great power. So, her grave was discovered, dug up, and bits of her were sold all over. In fact, her skull even traveled to St Andrews University Museum.

These people were seen as so powerful that even in death the people surrounding them spent a huge amount of time, energy, and perhaps even money ensuring they would never return for them. But, was this done out of true fear...or out of guilt that these people had done something truly heinous to a potentially innocent victim? Perhaps it is a mix of both. As archaeologists continue to find strange and unusual burials we may be able to learn more about how these people may have felt and reacted to the death of a witch.

 


This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. It is from Johnson, Helen Kendrik (Ed.): “World’s Best Music”' (1900).

Reflections on Mother Shipton

I couldn’t let my birthday go by without posting about one of my favorite astonishing topics: Witches. Today, I’ll be exploring the fascinating, tragic tale of Mother Shipton (who was never actually a Mother). Mother Shipton’s story begins in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, England...but by centuries later the stories of Mother Shipton have traveled the four corners of the world.

Source Source Source

Mother Shipton wasn’t born a mother at all, nor did she just happen into existence. In fact, we know quite about the girl who would become Mother Shipton. She was born in 1488 and named Ursula Southeil. Her mother, Agatha Southeil, was just fifteen years old and unwed and would never name Ursula’s father. Her mother chose to give birth in a cave on the banks of the River Nidd. Ursula was unusual from the start and was said to be one of the ugliest babies to ever exist (now, how much of this is just rumor that became glued to the legend is unclear). I do find it interesting to note that Ursula means ‘little bear’ so, perhaps Ursula was a bit unusual or even hairy and her mother felt inspired to give her that name (although that’s just conjecture on my part).

Ursula and her mother would not be together long, though. In some versions of the story, Agatha dies in the cave during childbirth and Ursula is happened upon but in other versions of the story, Agatha remains with her child until she is two or three. However, most stories agree that by the time she was three Ursula was being fostered by another family.

Strange things began to happen around this strange looking child. It was said that objects would often move, go missing, or shift about when no one but baby Ursula was in the room. In one particularly outlandish tale, it was said her foster-mother stepped out for a short while and left the sleeping Urusla tucked away in her crib. Soon after she left she heard a great racket coming from inside. When she thrust upon the cottage door she found Ursula was not in her crib and there were a dozen or so imps (who allegedly took on the appearance of monkeys. The imps set upon the foster mother but she shooed them away, searching for baby Ursula. She was finally discovered swinging up the chimney and retrieved.

It was said her mother abandoned her and refused to name her father not out of intense shaming or abuse, but because Ursula’s father was the Devil himself.

As she grew, she continued to appear strange to the community she found herself in. In Yorkshire Legends and Traditions by Rev Thomas Parkinson, it was noted that “She was of an indifferent height, but very morose and big boned, her head very long, with very great goggling but sharp and fiery eyes; her nose of an incredible and improportionable length, having in it many crooks and turnings, adorned with many strange pimples of divers colors, as red, blue, and mix’t, which like vapors of brimstone, gave such a lustre to her affrighted spectators in the dead time of the night, that one of them confessed several times, in my hearing, that her nurse needed no other light to assist her in the performance of her duty. Her cheeks were of a black, swarthy complexion, much like a mixture of black and yellow jaundices, wrinkled, shrivelled, and very hollow; insomuch, that as the ribs of her body, so the impressions of her teeth, were easily to be discerned through both sides of her face, answering one side to the other, like the notches in a valley, excepting only two of them, which stood quite out of her mouth, in imitation of the tuskes of a wild boar, or the tooth of an elephant. The neck was so strangely distorted that her right shoulder was forced to be a supporter to her head, it being prop’t up by the help of her chin. Her legs were crooked and misshapen. The toes of her feet looking towards her left side, so that it was very hard for any person (could she have stood up) to guess which road she intended to steer her course, because she never could look that way she resolved to go.”

This description, if you take out the colorful language, doesn’t describe a particularly devilish woman. However, if you consider that it was a popular belief at this time that people’s outward appearances were representative of their inner-selves you may understand why she was so ostracized.

As she grew older her repuation began to percede her and she became known for not only strange happenings surrounding her being, but also having the ability to cure sicknesses and even tell the future.

At 24, she found a partner who she would remain with their entire lives. His name was Toby Shipton and although there were crude jokes that he “must be blind” or under a spell to fall in love with Ursula he nevertheless stayed with her. The couple themselves were never scandalous or even ill-spoken about (except the jabs about Ursula’s appearances) of. They would never have children but Mother Shipton gained the moniker all the same. Unlike his wife, Toby made a more traditional living as a carptener. However, it was said that he was proud of his wife’s abilities and talents.

Mother Shipton likely gained the nickname “Mother” because of the care in which she dispensed prophecies, cures, and spells. She’s often described as a soothsayer or healer and was often turned to in her community and even surrounding communities for her wisdom and talents.

One of Mother Shipton’s most profound visions, and what gained her quite a bit of fame, was a story that Cardinal Wolsey would one day see York without reaching it. In 1530, just a few years after this alleged prophecy, Wolsey fell out of favor with the King and set out to shelter in the North where he’d be out of the King’s crosshairs. Although he could see the town of York, towards the end of his travels a Lord arrived with an official summons back to London. He was later charged for his actions and never made it back to York.

At this turbulent political time, Ursula became a beacon of knowledge so far away from court. It is said she predicted the rise of Lady Jane Grey and the fall of Mary Queen of Scots. All of this was written down many decades later in 1641. But there were earlier mentions of her, such as “In 1665, London suffered because of the Great Plague, one year later the Great Fire destroyed much of it. Samuel Peyps wrote in his Diary “See - Mother Shipton’s word is out.”

It is also important to note that the story of Ursula is so well known, in part, because it was featured in Heinrich Kramer’s infamous Malleus Maleficarum, the most popular witch-finding (and hunting) manual of the age.

Unlike other famous witches, Mother Shipton was not put to death. She is believed to have died sometime between 1561 and 1567. Because of her practice she was buried on unconsecrated ground.

Throughout the centuries the legends and her prophecies have grown and while we know that there was a healer in a small village known as Ursula Shipton it is believed that her prophecies (perhaps one or two were real) were mostly made up by Richard Head, the writer of her life story and prophecies, 80 years later.

I wanted to take today to write about Mother Shipton because it is an interesting, famous narrative about not an evil witch, but a witch that was motherly and intelligent and, perhaps feared...but also loved. Perhaps she was scorned for her appearances but it seemed she didn’t let that stop her from sharing her gifts, being kind, and falling and love.











The image in this blog post is a scan of the frontispiece of Mother Shipton investigated: the result of critical examination in the British Museum Library of the literature relating to the Yorkshire sibyl (1881). This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less.


The Witch of Pungo

Witch lore in the United States is often eclipsed by the infamous Salem Witch Trials. However, there are plenty of interesting stories scattered throughout the United States. One of the most surprising trials took place in Virginia. In 1706, at 10am the townspeople that found her guilty tied Grace Sherwood's thumbs to her big toes, cross-bound, and dropped her into the western branch of the Lynnhaven River near what is now known as Witchduck Point.

Link Link Link

It all began in 1698. This is when the first accusation was laid against young Grace Sherwood. She was accused of bewitching a neighbor's crop to fail. Allegations continued to roll in for almost a decade. According to Harper's Magazine "She was a shy, secretive maid, and her neighbors told envious stories of her." 

Soon, gossip began to fly. And one tale in particular became the inciting event behind the growing fear of the supposed witch. "[Grace] has crossed the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in an egg-shell, had been pleased with the odor of the rosemary growing on its shores and on her return from this voyage in an open boat had brought some plants for which set out around her cottage." It was because of this lovely little tale that explained why Princess Anne, the town in which Grace lived, was covered with Rosemary. While the townspeople agreed that the rosemary was nice, it was decided that her voyage was "uncanny." They decided that it was "plain that Grace Sherwood was a witch, and ought to be punished." 

Despite being a married woman well-liked by the community, she was still accused of witchcraft. The accusations, besides ruining crops, began to mount. For example, John Gisburne claimed she had bewitched his hogs and cotton. She and her husband, James, tried to sue these attackers for slander but lost each time. 

One of the accusations, from the actual court documents, reads: "Luke Hill and wife. Against them in December, 1705, Grace Sherwood had brought action for assault and battery, claiming 50 of damages and receiving twenty shillings. What this affray may have had to do with the charge of witch-craft does not appear." It seems people began piling on accusations to the point where they were barely related to witchcraft at all.

At 10am on July 10th, 1706 Grace Sherwood went to trial at the second Princess Anne County Courthouse. It was deemed that she was guilty and that she would be tested by the traditional trial by water.

Trial by water, also known as ducking, consists of being tied cross-bound and dropped into water above her head. If she sunk, she would drown but be innocent and would even be buried on consecrated ground. However, if she floated it was proof that she was a witch.

Grace, surprisingly, floated and survived the ducking. After this, she was retrieved from the water and put in the local jail.  However, her survival posed a particular quandary. "There was the law, and there was the evidence. The latter proved that Grace sherwood was a witch, and the former directed that witches should be burned. but then to burn women was a thing unknown in Virginia."  

She wasn't released until 1714, at which point she paid the back taxes owed on her property and returned to her farm. She had a fruitful life as a healer, midwife, and friend to all children and animals. She died in the autumn of 1740 at the age of 80, leaving behind three sons.

Today, her memory is honored. 300 years after the incident. Timothy M. Kaine, the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia pardoned her. In fact, Grace Sherwood is known today as the only deceased person in Virginia to be exonerated. Additionally, in 2007 a stature of Grace Sherwood was unveiled on the lawn at Bayside Hospital. She is within "two tenths of a mile of the old second Princess Anne Courthouse of 1706, the court that tried Grace." 

 

 

The above image is of Asheville Bridge Creek, known as Muddy Creek when Grace Sherwood lived on its banks. Asheville Bridge Creek on a foggy winter morning.  27 December 2015, Foggy winter morning, by Lago Mar.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License.

Witches' Well

Edinburgh, Scotland is a place steeped in wonderful, rich history. Unfortunately, like most cities that have been prominent for hundreds of years this means Edinburgh is also steeped in blood. Seriously, they even preserved a blood stain (David Rizzio, a personal secretary of Mary Queen of Scots, was stabbed 56 times in front of her…and Holyroodhouse, where it happened, displays it). Anyway, back to this story. Today, I want to talk about the Witches’ Well. The Witches’ Well is a cast iron, small fountain and plaque that honors the Scottish women burned at the stake between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Link, Link , Link

So many “witches” were burned that there is a plaque apologizing for the horrific events. It isn’t a huge plaque, most people’s eyes usually go right to the castle, but it is an important one. Actually, it didn't begin as a plaque...it used to be a drinking fountain!

But why is it there? In the 16th century more women were murdered at this exact spot than anywhere else in Scotland. Like many witch trials, these people were denied a proper trial or any escape from a fate that had been decided for them long before they had a chance to defend themselves.

Why were so many witches murdered here, at this specific spot during the 16th century? Well, we can partly thank King James VI for that. James really liked being right in a fashionable way. Some sources credit his desire to become an expert in any topical issue of the time – including witchcraft. In fact, before 1590 he barely mentions witchcraft. But, in 1590 specifically…something happened. 300 witches were accused of gathering together to plan the murder of James. James was known to have the specific fear of a violent orhorrible death so, when news of witches acting against him made its way to the castle James, for lack of a more precise term, freaked out. He even wrote an entire book about the subject, called “Daemononlogie”. The purpose of this short book was to express his views on the subject and engage with the witchcraft going on in Europe in an intellectual manner.

Thanks to James, the promise of political gain, and a touch of hysteria between 1603 and 1625, there were about twenty witch trials a year in Scotland,  and 450 in total. At least half of these trials ended in a guilty verdict and the defendants were executed.

The small plaque, usually filled with flowers, features an image of witches’ heads entangled by a snake. It also includes a lot of interesting symbolism, such asthe Goddess Hygeia, Foxglove plant, an image of the head of Aesculapius (the God of Medicine), It was erected in 1894, after witchcraft trials finally waned.  There are also the Roman numerals equivalent to 1479 and 1722, which represent the height of witch hysteria in Scotland.  There is also an accompanying trough, which displays flora roots, the left pnae has an evil eye accompanied by frowning eyes and nose, and the right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the  ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

The plaque was added to in 1912 to include the following inscription:

This Fountain Designed By John Duncan RSA

Is Near The Site On Which Many Witches Were

Burned At The Stake. The Wicked Head And Serene

Head Signify That Some Used Their Exceptional

Knowledge For Evil Purposes While Others Were

Misunderstood And Wished Their Kind Nothing

But Good. The Serpent Has The Dual Significance

Of Evil And Of Wisdom. The Foxglove Spray Further

Emphasises The Dual Purpose Of Many Common Objects.

For hundreds of years Scotland fell to its own pandemic of witch-hunting that was, at one point, supported by their king. Neighbor turned against neighbor. People began to mistrust because of their fear of witches and their fear of being accused. Husbands lost wives, parents lost children, children lost mothers, friends lost friends. Although small, this monument to the horrific history commemorates decades and decades of terror.

 

Suspected witches kneeling before King James VI; Daemonologie (1597). It is liscensed under public domain. 

The SPANISH Witch Trials

As AL's resident (and self-proclaimed) Witch expert and fanatic, I wanted to bring to your attention another view of the Witch Trials. In the 17th century specifically, there was a huge spike in Witch Trials around the world (although this spike would is merely one jump in the timeline of Witch Trials through history). However, most of the ones stories we hear from that time, especially in America, are of the Salem Witch trials, or Witch Trials in the U.K. and Ireland. But, during this time period, there were Witch Trials going on around the world. Keep reading for a little taste of the Spanish Witch Trials - but, be forewarned, there might be more to come!

Link Link Link

Like I said above, these specific Spanish Witch Trials took place during the 17th century, but were by no means the only Witch Trials to take place in the country's history. They are known as the Basque Witch Trials and the actual trial specifically began in January of 1609, but it was after 2+ years of serious Witch hunting.

Similarly to other Witch Trials during this time period, and throughout history, they were motivated for religious reasons. These trials were specifically to cater to attacking those who still performed 'Pagan' rituals, especially herbalists, healers, and mid-wives. It is important to note that these sorts of people also had special standing and respect in the community, and thus power, that the new government did not like and that threatened Catholicism. This is one of the main reasons these groups of people were so heavily persecuted. Muslims, Jews, and Protestants were also among the accused. 

The Basque word for Witch was "Sorginak", which was also the word for female attendents of the Goddess Mari held a Witches' Sabbath every Friday, these gatherings were called akelarre. Here it was said that Mari and her consort, Sugaar, met in caves to create storms and wreak havoc. More specifically, some of these people had been tried for practicing Witchcraft at Olabidea or Infernuko erreka, which translates to “Hell’s stream.” 

Sorginaks, in particular, share some common Witchlore that will be familiar to many. For example, they could shape-shift into cats and it was said that they specifically bothered Catholic women. More unique to Sorginak's was the fact that they practiced most of their magic in caves, particularly the Zugarramurdi cave.

During this time, roughly 7,000 people in the area were accused of Witchcraft. Of these 7,000, a few thousand were deemed guilty in the initial trial, or remained suspects, and continued on to harsher review. The first phase of these trials ended in 1610, when 31 of the accused people were sentenced. Roughly a dozen of the accused were burnt at the stake. However, it is important to note a fair amount of people succumbed to the torture, which is how many confessions were received, and died without being "properly" tried.

One other interesting thing to note about these trials was the thread of skepticism that moved throughout the trial process and proceedings. The recordings of the trial took up almost 11,000 pages, and it was clear that each of these cases were looked at with a high level of scrutiny. One judge in particular, who was the youngest of the 3 judges and more 'liberal' judge, named Salazar. About the trials in general he believed he had found no substantive proof of witchcraft on his travels, or in the light of pursuing many of the confessions.  This, obviously, did not bode well for Salazar. The two other judges, Alonso Becerra y Holquin and Juan del Valle Alvarado, unsurprisingly  accused Salazar as being in league with the Devil. However, Salazar stayed true to his belief that not only were many of the accused not Witches, but that Witches didn't exist at all and that no one should be further prosecuted. 

This was elevated to the Central Office of the Inquisition, and many in the main office seemed to agree with the younger judge as well. This is likely why, although the huge number of the accused, only about a dozen people were put to death.

The above picture was taken by Flickr user Urko Dorronsoro and is one one of the Witch caves in Basque. It is liscensed under creative commons.