Tag Archives: Mythology

I’m talking about Fairies and the Witch Trials on the Folklore Podcast!

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Hello everyone. Today’s blog post isn’t quite like my usual ones: it’s not an article in its own right, but instead a digest of things that I mentioned in the interview I did for the Folklore Podcast episode that went live today, but didn’t have time/the memory to develop on. If you want to listen to the cast, you can do it at the address below:

http://www.thefolklorepodcast.com/

You can find my episode (“Fairy Belief and the Witch Trials”) in Season Two. Continue reading

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Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

werwolfThis post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a  working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.

With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…

Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.

I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.

And so, perhaps time has come to look into the Ghosts of Christmas: in the Northern Traditions, in Britain, and in Scotland… Continue reading

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Medieval Chroniclers and the Demonization of Fairies

joseph_noel_paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_-a_midsummer_nights_dream-_-_google_art_projectI’ve already written about fairies in the witch trials on this blog. While it would be inaccurate to say that witches represented a survival of some pre-Christian Pagan religion, the idea of Pagan DNA lurking in the genetic makeup of Medieval and Early Modern Christian practises certainly bothered educated writers. In Buchard of Worms’ Decretum, written sometime around 1066, took time to attack perceived ‘Pagan’ practises such as dream travel, playing music around the dead, and dancing in cemeteries. Whether it was a deliberate campaign — not unlike the general campaign of imitation, assimilation and stigmatisation used through the rest of the spread of Christianity through Europe — or the result of writers attempting to use the Latin language to express native concepts, by the 16th and 17th centuries the idea had become entrenched.

We can see by the late 16th century, by which time the English witch trials were in full swing, and nowhere near the hiatus that would occur in the first Caroline era, that the ecclesiastical elite were very much of the opinion that witches whose work involved mention of the fairies were certainly minions of Satan. In 1579, in a book of medicinal recipes, William Bullein took time to attack a Catholic healer in Parham who used an ebony rosary and prayers to St. Anthony to cure illnesses caused by fairies and sprites.

In his 1590 Treatise Against Witchcraft Henry Holland, a graduate of Cambridge who was the Vicar of St. Brides while Christopher Marlowe was writing his Faustus, mentioned fairy witches in his list of terms for malevolent women, “the witches are sometimes called Thessalae, Thessalian Witches, Sagae, Wise Women, Magae, Persian Witches, Lamiae, Ladies of Fayrie, Stirges, Hegge…”

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Liber Vaccae — The Book of WTF?!?

This article exists behind a disclaimer: the magical book I’m about to write about is just weird. It’s weird, it’s disgusting, and there are a lot bodily fluids involved. Enter at your own risk.liber-vaccae Continue reading

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A Prideful and Naughty Coniurer: Tudor England’s Crackdown on Semi-Learned Male Magicians

gilles_de_rais_murdering_childrenIn the parliament of 1541/2, Henry VIII passed a witchcraft act entitled ‘An Act against Conjurations, Witchcraft, Sorcery and Enchantments.’

The act had a very different focus to what we might expect for an act punishing witchcraft: killing by magic is only mentioned in passing, and the idea of the witch as being in league with Satan was given a backhanded reference:

“Where dyvers and sundrie persones unlawfully have devised and practised invocacons and conjuracons of Sprites, p’tendyng by such meanes to understand and get Knowledge for their own lucre in what place treasure of golde and Silver shoulde or mought be founde or had in the earthe or other secret places, and also have used and occupied witchcrafts inchauntment and sorceries to the distruccon of their neigbours persones and goodes, And for execucon of their said falce devyses and practises have made or caused to be made dyvers Images and pictures of men women children Angells or devells beastes or fowles, and have also made Crownes Septures Swordes rynges glasses and other thinges, and giving faithe & credit to suche fantasticall practises have dyged up and pulled downe and infinite nombre of Crosses within this Realme, and teaken upon them to declare and tell where things lost or stolen shulde become; wiche things cannot be used and exercised but to the great offence of Godes lawe, hurt and damage of the Kinges Subjects, and losse of the sowles of such Offenders, to the greate dishonour of God, Infany and disquyetnes of the Realme…”

The target of this crackdown was, of course, a class of troublemaker more threatening to Henry than all the village wise women and argumentative spinsters combined: educated sorcerers, very often former monks or clerically trained university men, who had turned to magic as a way of earning a crust. Continue reading

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Familiars: A Very British Witchcraft

Witches'Familiars1579While the witch’s familiar can be found in other countries (I found some in some French cases), it represents one of the features that most separates the English witch from her continental counterpart.

The era of the witch trials in England came before the creation of the idea of ‘Britain’, from the traumas of the Reformation in 1538, gradually losing judicial support from the mid-17th century onwards.

A part of the reason for familiars is an extension of the idea birthed in Continental witchcraft that the witch herself was powerless: witches did not truly wield magical power, but instead they made bargains with Satan, who would send demons to invisibly watch over them and reproduce magical effects when they performed certain ritual actions.

In the classic Continental trial this is expressed in the image of the Sabbat, where witches meet and worship Satan in a series of increasingly degrading and humiliating rituals, culminating with the ‘foul kiss’ where witches would kiss Satan on or  under the anus.

English witch trials feature the Sabbat less often. Scottish trials tend to be far more traditionally continental in character, with the North Berwick Witch Trials hinging on a lurid Sabbat at the North Berwick Kirk that could have come directly from the pen of Conrad of Marburg. By contrast, without searching my notes, I can only think of a single trial with a strong Sabbatic image: the Windsor trial of Elizabeth Style, where the witches involved confessed to meetings where they would agree their nefarious activities.

With the Sabbat being a less common image, the familiar seems to take a similar disempowering role. It also gave the searchers the hope of finding physical evidence. Even if an animal designated as a familiar could not be found, which they usually could not, the ‘teat’ the animal suckled from could usually be located on the body. Since the teat was a magical thing, not a natural part of the anatomy, it could be found anywhere… although it is of interest that the most common locations and description of witches’ marks conform to those of sebaceous cysts.

A final, especially sad feature of the English witch trials was the use of children as witnesses. While the influence of King James Stuart led to the discrediting of child witnesses in the early to mid 17th century, we see a significant use of child witnesses in the earlier part of the witch trials. In the 1582 trial of the St. Osyth witches Ursula Kemp’s eight year old son Thomas Rabbet gives us the names of four familiars whose names have clearly come from the mind of a child: Tiffy, Jack Pigin and Tyffin. We see similar image from the interrogation of James Device during the witch trials at Pendle, with a second era of the familiar during the brief activities of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne in the South East of England in the 1640s.

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Bells as a Defence Against the Supernatural

Medieval BellBeing entirely honest, I have a lot of books. I doubt any of my readers will be surprised to find that many of them are about the supernatural in the Middle Ages and Early Modern.

One thing that crops up again and again is the idea that bells have power over the supernatural. In as many as a quarter of my books, there are references to the idea that bells have the power to drive away demons and abate storms.

The English version of this Latin poem, A Help to Discourse, shows the general sentiment… Continue reading

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The Shepherd Witches of Normandy

In his book Grimoires, A History of Magical Books Owen Davies writes of how Thomas Tryon, the English mystic, learned to read while working as a Shepherd. In Tryon’s writings, he leaves the passage, ‘[The] Sherpherd and Husbandman understand something of Nature, putting out their own Eyes, and boasting what Wonders they can see with other Mens.’ Likewise, Davies records that John Cannon, while a child, met a shepherd who introduced him to the magical arts contained in a copy of Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy. Continue reading

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Demon Biographies: Asmodeus

AsmodeusOne thing that really winds me up is a statement that you often hear from Neo-Pagan wishful thinkers: ‘The Christian demons are just the gods of pagan religions.’ I don’t like to speak in absolutes, but very, very often the demons of Christianity were the demons of whatever religion dominated before Christianity. There were times when Christians said other people’s gods were demons (lots of rather hot words were exchanged during the persecutions and counter-persecutions of the Roman Empire, but those were difficult times). Generally though, Christianity preferred to spread by adopting and adapting. That’s why we have Irish Gaelic deities as Saints, and Halloween on October 31st.

To set the record straight, I have decided to write the first in a series of accurate demon biographies, starting with Asmodeus. Continue reading

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Things That D&D Got Right: The Party Thief

H._R._Millar_-_Rudyard_Kipling_-_Puck_of_Pook's_Hill_3My first ever D&D character was a thief. My brother’s group was playing the Dragonlance setting (in fact, they were playing through the actual modules of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Saga) when I started playing with their group (they were in their 20s, I was someone’s annoying kid brother). He was a ginger Kender thief called Arthur, and I went on to play a lot more much beloved thieves (my favourite was the my cowardly thief Villa who backstabbed a dragon to death with his shortsword).

There are a huge number of mythological tricksters, but they weren’t right for this article. Most of them have hugely unfair advantages (e.g. they can change shape, or they’re very often Gods, or the children of Gods). Also, they don’t steal things in the right way. Yes, it’s important that Prometheus stole fire. I’m very grateful for fire, but it isn’t the same as stealing cold, hard cash.

However, I have managed to come up with a couple of thieves from the history of folklore who were exactly that: thieves.

 

The Master Thief

hrdbustPharaoh Rhampsinit is a fictitious Egyptian king from the works of the Greek historian Heroditus. In addition to talking about giant ants who mined gold, Heroditus wrote down the Egyptian tradition of stories featuring the mythical king.

The Master Thief is Continue reading

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