The Origins Of Popular Superstitions And Customs  ~ Magick7





It is no part of our present purpose to adjudicate on the rights and wrongs of witchcraft--with which we associate wizardry--rather is it our object to trace the fact of its existence, real or alleged, back to the earliest records of history. We may, too, look at the few remaining instances in modern times of what was once a great source of fear, evil, and cruelty.

Chaldean magic is, so far as expert investigation can tell, the real source of that witchcraft which for centuries disturbed the peace of rural populations in Europe, and engaged the angry attentions of priest and layman alike. It should not be presumed that the magic of any nation, living or dead, is a thing to be laughed out of court; a sort of jugglery that could be learned like the skill of the conqueror. It was something more than that. True we cannot say exactly what it was, or is, for the practices of modern savage tribes have an unknown element of psychic power in them, a fact which is attested by reliable travellers and authorities. Thus in the Malay Peninsula to-day there are black magicians, and their doings are not at all relished by the white man whose treatment of them may have been lacking in justice. So, in the earliest ages, we find the same kind of arts practised, followed by the same results, that is, if we can rely on the testimony of those who have recorded them. In Egypt, in Persia, in Greece, in India, and the East generally, there was a definite place assigned to magic; and magic, generically, was the use of an unseen and powerful agency for the purpose of creating confusion, bestowing evil, taking revenge, and doing all the works of the old time "Devil." For this reason witchcraft and black magic have a strong family relationship, and we can only conclude that since the arts they used are in many cases identical, the later cult was a direct descendant of the earlier. That a good deal was lost in transit is natural, and this would account for the feebler displays of "power" by women of the middle English period as contrasted with the "success" of the witch of Endor. Slowly the belief in witches died a natural death, until now, in the twentieth century, it is hardly possible to find a single man or woman who does not think the whole persecutions of the past were founded on ignorance, religious intolerance, and political spite. The accepted explanation of such phenomena as are considered genuine is that of hypnotism, especially in the case of sympathetic witchcraft, where a witch makes an image of her enemy and pierces it with pins, or melts it before the fire. But this explanation hardly covers the details of the best authenticated reports, and we have either to disbelieve in these reports or fall back upon hypnotism and suggestion. Probably the wisest attitude is that of the agnostic, who, not knowing the real facts, and being unable to get at them, is in no hurry to propound a theory for uncertain phenomena. But witchcraft and wizardry are not dead entirely. In a London journal, dated January 9, 1909, I find the following narrative which, on enquiry, proved to be a serious contribution from an English traveller. The evil eye is said to have a dread terror for the more ignorant Erse population, but the story here told is, as will be seen, on true witchcraft lines. "Some months ago I was on a visit to some friends in the south of Ireland, and one morning when seated at breakfast a servant rushed into the room, screaming hysterically that the dairymaid has just found pishogue upon the dairy floor. Pishogue is a white, yellowish fungus made at the dead of night, after a solemn incantation of the devil, according to a secret rite which has been handed down from generation to generation. My host, a 'big' landlord, sprang to his feet and, followed by his wife and myself, ran hastily out of the house into the trim, cool dairy where, upon the posts of the door, I saw the daubs of pishogue. My host knocked it off quickly with a stick, and then, turning angrily to the weeping dairy maid told her it was nothing at all. But the next minute he informed me under his breath that he might expect bad luck with his dairy, as it was indeed the cursed pishogue. That very evening when his twenty splendid milch cows were driven into their stalls to be milked, a cry of consternation went up from the lips of the milkers; they were absolutely dry; and for months they remained so, while a tenant who lived close to the demesne, an absolutely drunken, impecunious, rascal, was noticed to give up his weekly attendance at Mass, in spite of which irreligious conduct his miserable dairy stock suddenly took the appearance of healthy, well-fed cattle, and every one knew he was the man who had put pishogue upon his master and robbed him of his good. It is a well-known fact that a dairy woman will go to churn as usual, when, to her terror, she will find pishogue daubed upon it. Let her churn for hours, she will make no butter, The usual remedy resorted to by terrified people is to get Mass said in their homes, and the places, cattle, or crops blessed on which the curse has fallen. But that often fails to bring back the good."

Now I cannot say this story, although told circumstantially, is convincing. It is one of those cases which need to be seen, in every stage of development, before one can believe. But it is interesting as a twentieth century tale of wizards and witches, for the midnight rite is conducted by a group of men and women crouching over a smouldering fire. Here is the tale of an old-fashioned witch--of the white variety--reported in the Diss Express of December 16, 1893:--

"The Suffolk Coroner (Mr Charton) on Tuesday held an inquest at the Green Man Inn, Mendlesham, touching the death of a child, named Maggie Alberta Wade, daughter of Henry Wade, an agricultural labourer. The first witness called was the mother, Elizabeth Wade, who stated that last Friday the deceased pulled a cup of boiling soup over herself and was badly scalded. She did not send for a doctor, but at once sent for an old woman living in the neighbourhood, whose name is Brundish, who, according to witness, is possessed of supernatural powers in the cure of burns and scalds. The old woman came at once, and said some strange words over the child, and passed her hands across the injured parts. Witness, under these circumstances, did not consider the attendance of a medical man necessary, but notwithstanding the woman's incantation, the child died in 40 hours. Witness persisted in expressing her belief in the old woman's power, and said she really was a witch. The female referred to declined to reveal the words spoken, as she said she would lose her power. Other witnesses professed their faith in the professions of the old woman. Eventually, after the Coroner had commented on the superstition exhibited, medical evidence was given to the effect that the child's life could not have been saved."

No action seems to have been taken against the witch in this case, but in the case of malevolent witches the cruelty of the punishment was so severe that we cannot wonder at the total disappearance of black witchcraft in this country. In The Gentleman's Magazine for 1751 there is the following entry:--At Tring, in Hertfordshire, one B----d----d, a publican, giving out that he was bewitched by one Osborne and his wife, harmless people above 70, had it cried at several market-towns that they were to be tried by ducking this day, which occasioned a vast concourse. The parish officers having removed the old couple from the workhouse into the church for security, the mob, missing them, broke the workhouse windows, pulled down the pales, and demolished part of the house; and, seizing the Governor, threatened to drown him and fire the town, having straw in their hands for the purpose. The poor wretches were at length, for public safety, delivered up, stripped stark naked by the mob, their thumbs tied to their toes, then dragged two miles, and thrown into a muddy stream; after much ducking and ill-usage, the old woman was thrown quite naked on the bank, almost choked with mud, and expired in a few minutes, being kicked and beat with sticks, even after she was dead; and the man lies dangerously ill of his bruises. To add to the barbarity, they put the dead witch (as they called her) in bed with her husband, and tied them together. The Coroner's inquest have since brought in their verdict, wilful murder, against Thomas Mason, Wm. Myatt, Rich. Grice, Rich. Wadley, James Proudham, John Sprouting, John May, Adam Curling, Francis Meadows, and twenty others, names unknown. The poor man is likewise dead of the cruel treatment he received."

Whenever the modern palmist or fortune-teller comes into contact with the police, the greatest punishment consists of a heavy fine--but in the olden times the magician, wizard, or witch was open to the fury of the mob, as is seen in the case of Tring. Lord Bacon's quaint philosophising as to the origin of witchcraft wonders is worth reproducing:--"Men may not too rashly believe the confession of Witches, nor yet the evidence against them: for the Witches themselves are imaginative, and believe oftentimes they do that which they do not; and people are credulous in that point, and ready to impute accidents and natural operations to Witchcraft. It is worthy the observing, that, both in ancient and late times (as in the Thessalian witches, and the meetings of Witches that have been recorded by so many late confessions), the great wonders which they tell, of carrying in the air, transforming themselves into other bodies, etc., are still reported to be wrought, not by incantations or ceremonies, but by ointments and anointing themselves all over. This may justly move a man to think that these fables are the effects of imagination; for it is certain that ointments do all (if they be laid on anything thick), by stopping of the pores, shut in the vapours, and send them to the head extremely."

Reviewing the whole matter, one may conclude that whatever indisputable wonders exist in the history of witchcraft were due to black magic, which is the use of an unknown mental force for the accomplishment of an evil end; or, if we are unable to accept that hypothesis, we are thrown back on a species of hypnotism. In either case we cannot flatter ourselves on the extent of our knowledge, or the authenticity of our "facts."