Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders/Chapter 6
In the Borders—Drawing Blood above the Mouth—Witchcraft in Durham—In Devonshire—Witches in dairies—Elf-shooting—The Evil Eye—Witchcraft in Sunderland—In the West Riding—Changelings—The Blacksmith’s Wife of Yarrowfoot—The Farmer’s Wife at Bollebeck—The Miller of Holdean—The Giant of Dalton Mill—Ronaldson of Bowden—The Farmer’s Wife of Deloraine—Hair tethers—Maydew—Laird Harry Gilles and the Hare—Tavistock Legend—Yorkshire Tales—Witches disguised as Hares—Toads—Cats—Ducks—Auld Nan Hardwick—Nannie Scott—Auld Betty—The Wise Man o’ Stokesley—Willie Dawson—Black Jock—Black Willie—Incantation of a Heart and Pins—Rowan Wood—Pins—Corp-cré—Bible and Key—Riddle and Shears—Billy Pullen—The Hand of Glory—The Lost Watch—Kate Neirns.
ITCHCRAFT undoubtedly lies at the root of many of the practices recorded in the last chapter, but we must now deal with it more directly. The belief in this evil power, once universal throughout Christendom, took deep hold of the Borderland, especially of the Scottish portion of it. It is curious to observe how Mr. Wilkie speaks of witches as though they were recognised members of society, to be met and spoken with every day. Thus, he begins abruptly: “There is some difficulty in knowing how to act when a witch offers to shake hands with us. No doubt there is some risk in accepting the courtesy, since the action entails on us all the ill she may wish us. Still it insures us equally all the good she may wish us, and therefore it seems a pity to refuse one’s hand. It is, however, unlucky to be praised by a witch, or indeed to hold any conversation with her, and our only safety against sudden death soon after consists in having the last word. Hence the old phrase, ‘Some witch or other has shaken hands wi’ him, and gotten the last word.’ Should you receive money from a witch, put it at once into your mouth, for fear the donor should spirit it away and supply its place with a round stone or slate, which otherwise she might do at pleasure. Accordingly, it may be observed that old people constantly put into their mouths the money which is paid them. If you want to stop a witch lay a straw across her path. She cannot step over it.”
To draw blood above the mouth from the person who has caused any witchery is the accredited mode of breaking the spell. The Rev. J. F. Bigge has recorded the following instance: A tenant of Sir Charles Monck, living at Belsay-bankfoot, had so many mischances that he felt no doubt his stock was bewitched. A cow broke her leg, a calf died, a horse got stuck, and so on. Who was his enemy? He settled that it must be a new servant of his own, quite a young lad, and by the advice of a skilled person he determined to break the spell, by drawing blood above the wizard’s mouth. So at foddering time the farmer purposely quarrelled with the poor boy about some trifle, and flying upon him, scratched his face and made his nose bleed. The plan was considered quite a success, for no further misfortune happened to the stock. And as recently as December 1868, a family at Framwellgate Moor, near Durham, applied to a police officer for his sanction to assault an old woman of the adjoining hamlet of Pity-me, alleging that she had bewitched their daughter, and that they “only wanted to draw blood from her to break the spell.” On this refusal they went to one Jonah Stoker, “a wise man,” and induced him to go with them to the old woman’s cottage. They seized her arm, wounded it till it bled, and then retired, quite satisfied that the spell was broken. Again, in the year 1870, a man eighty years of age was fined at Barnstaple, in Devonshire, for scratching with a needle the arm of a young girl. He pleaded that he had “suffered affliction” through her for five years, had had four complaints on him at once, had lost 14 canaries, and about 50 goldfinches, and that his neighbours told him this was the only way to break the spell and get out of her power. Another case in point has been communicated to me from Cheriton Bishop, a village near Exeter. Not many years ago a young girl in delicate health was thought to have been witched by an old woman of that place, and everybody declared that the only cure for her would be an application of the witch’s blood. The girl’s friends, therefore, laid wait for the poor old woman, seized her when she was alone and unprotected, scratched her with a nail till the blood flowed, and collected the blood. They carried it home, and smeared the sick girl with it, and the recovery, which took place in course of time, was attributed to this application.
It is sometimes held, however, that no blood flows when a witch is wounded. In a case of assault brought before a bench of magistrates in West Sussex, the defendant declared that she should never have molested the plaintiff had she not found out she was a witch. She had long had her suspicions how it was, and she watched for an opportunity to set her mind at rest. At last she managed to scratch her arm with a crooked pin, and when no blood came then she “up with her fist and gave it her well.”
There are still plenty of white witches in Devonshire, but one died a few years ago in the village of Bovey Tracey, who, unless she were greatly maligned, by no means deserved so favourable a designation. She was accused of “overlooking” her neighbours’ pigs, so that her son, if ever betrayed into a quarrel with her, used always to say before they parted, “Mother, mother, spare my pigs.” This son, a farm-labourer living in the adjoining parish of Hennock, came to a very remarkable end. While leading a cart through the river Teign, he stopped to rest his horse, and while arranging something about the cart it turned over upon him, so that he was imprisoned in the water and drowned. Neighbours remembered that he had “had words” with his mother when last they met, and were not slow in laying his death to her charge. But the most awful story about her is as follows: A man went to her asking for help to get rid of an enemy. The witch gave him a candle, and told him to take it into a secret place, light it, and watch it while it was burning. So long as it burned, his enemy would be in flames; when it expired he would die, which, said my informant, came to pass.
One of the most common misdeeds of witches is to hinder the dairymaid in butter-making. When the butter fails to come in the churn as usual, it is at once set down as bewitched, and, curiously enough, this belief extends to Devonshire, though butter is there made without churning. A gentleman of that county informs me that he perfectly remembers how, when he was a child, the dairymaid would run to his mother and say, “Please, ma’am, to send somebody else to make the butter; I’ve been stirring the cream ever so long, and the butter won’t come, and I know it’s bewitched.” In Lancashire the witch is driven away by putting a hot iron into the churn, in Northumberland by popping in a crooked sixpence. In Cleveland they keep her off thus: Before churning take a pinch of salt, and throw it into the churn; then a second pinch, and throw it into the fire, and so on nine times each way. Your butter will then come without fail.
The following story was told to the Rev. George Ornsby by an old man who used to work in the vicarage garden at Fishlake. A few years ago the old man was applied to by the tailor of the neighbouring village for two small branches from a mountain-ash which grew in his garden. Inquiry being made why they were wanted, the applicant stated that his wife had been churning for hours, and yet no butter would come; that they believed the cream was bewitched; and that they had heard say that if the cream was stirred with one twig of mountain-ash, and the cow beaten with the other, the charm would be broken, and the butter come without delay.
On the Borders, if you suspect a woman of bewitching your cow and hindering the butter from coming, order the dairymaid to press down the churn staff to the bottom of the churn, and keep it there. The witch will be drawn to your house, enter it, and sit down without power to rise. Now you are mistress of the occasion. Tax her with her guilt, and make her promise to let your butter come. This done, you may permit her to rise and go away, which she will do at once, making many protestations of innocence. The Irish mode of procedure is somewhat different. In Leinster, when witchcraft is suspected in the dairy the doors are shut, and the plough-irons thrust into the fire and connected with the churns by twigs of the mountain-ash or quickenberry. The witch, wherever she may be, finds her inside tortured by the red-hot coulter, and must come and present through the window a bit of bewitched butter, which being thrown into the churn undoes the mischief. In North Germany, again, they believe that if the butter does not come the dairy is bewitched, but the remedy there is to smoke the cows, churns, and pails, in secret and at nightfall. This will bring the witch to the door, asking admittance, but she must on no account be let in.
The difficulty in churning milk, however, proceeds most commonly from the cow having been struck by an elf-stone while grazing in the field. However much the poor creature may suffer from the wound, no human eye will see it till she has been rubbed all over with the blue bonnet belonging to the chief of the family, or to some very aged man. The wound, or its scar, if the mischief be of old date, will then be plainly seen.
The elf-stone is described as sharp, and with many corners and points, so that whichever way it falls it inflicts a wound on the animal it touches. Popular belief maintains that, the elves received these stones from old fairies, who wore them as breast-pins at the fairy court, and that the old fairies received them in turn from mermaidens. Such is Mr. Wilkie’s account of the matter. Doubtless they are really the flint arrow-heads of our ancestors. Mr. Denham maintains this, and describes them as formed of flint about an inch long and half-an-inch broad. Irish peasants wear them about their necks, set in silver, as an amulet against elf-shooting. He adds that the disease, said to be produced by an elf-shot, consists really in an over-distension of the cow’s first stomach, from eating to excess clover and grass with the morning dew upon it. Mention is made of elf-stones in the confession of Isabel Gowdie, who was tried for witchcraft in April 1662, and afterwards executed. She declared that the elves formed them from the rough flint, the archfiend himself perfecting or “dighting” them; and she gave the names of many persons whom she and her comrades had slain with them, stating that whoever failed to bless himself when the little whirlwind passed which accompanied their locomotion fell under their power, and they had the right of shooting at him.
Mr. Wilkie records that a few years ago a ploughman in Ettrick Forest was said to have obtained an elf-stone thus. While ploughing a field he heard a whizzing sound in the air, and looking up perceived a stone aimed at one of his horses. He drove on, and it fell by the animal’s side. He stopped and picked up the stone, but found its angles so sharp that they cut his hand as it lay there, though the weight of the stone was only one ounce troy.
The belief in elf-shooting extends, or has extended, from the Shetland Islands to Cornwall. In the Shetland Islands a charm, is repeated over the wounded creature, while a sewing-needle, wrapped in a leaf of the Psalter, is fastened into some part of her hair. Elsewhere the cow was made to drink water in which an elf-stone had been washed. Another mode of relief, called the “ordeal of blood,” is prescribed in Scotland. Take some of the injured animal’s blood, mix with it a quantity of pins, and boil it, taking care to stir it as soon as it begins to boil. The door must be carefully locked, and everyone kept out of the secret, except the members of the family. Presently the witch who has done the evil will come to the house-door, and ask to be let in; but you must take care not to admit her, for if she enters she will murder everyone concerned in the ordeal. Instead of opening the door, you must insist on her promising to take off the spell, after which you may admit her freely.
The following account of elf-shooting in County Derry is furnished by my Irish correspondent. The elves, she says, are considered bad jealous sprites, who envy the peasants all their little comforts, and especially their rough mountain cows, with the milk and butter they yield. Therefore the elves delight to injure the milch-cows. At dead of night, it is firmly believed, an elf will often enter the byre, and shoot a small sharp stone, rather bigger than a pea, under and behind the left shoulder of the cow. Next morning the owner finds his cow lying down, breathing heavily, with the sweat running down its eyes and nose from pain, and he knows she has been elf-shot. So off he goes to the old man of the county who is skilled in healing cows. The old man comes “travelling” (i.e. on foot), it may be, many miles, and all are awed in his presence. He clears the room and makes his preparations. In a new clean pot he boils a pound of gunpowder and a crooked sixpence in a pint of water, and then carries the mixture to the byre and places it before the cow. She drinks it at once, well knowing it is her only hope of cure. The gunpowder immediately blows the elf-stone out again through the hole under the shoulder, and the sixpence, fitting on the heart, covers the wound made there by the stone. The doctor returns into the house with the stone in his hand, to be well praised and well paid. Should any one present indulge in impertinent doubts, he will take care to keep them to himself, for fear his cows should be “blinked” by the skilled man, and everybody believes in blinking. This is casting an evil eye on a cow, a less evil certainly than elf-shooting, because it is a human, not a spirit curse, but still troublesome, since the old man must be summoned and paid. When a cow has been blinked, the old man cures her by muttering a charm over her, making the sign of the cross over her back and down each leg, and pouring down her throat a compound of Epsom-salts, castor-oil, saltpetre, and sulphur. It is useless to argue against these superstitions. If after the skilled man’s treatment for elf-shooting the cow will not recover, she dies because God chooses it, and not from the elf-shot.
When a child pines or wastes away, the cause is commonly looked for in witchcraft or the “evil eye.” At Stamfordham a sickly puny child is set down as “heart-grown” or bewitched, and is treated as follows: Before sunrise it is brought to a blacksmith of the seventh generation, and laid naked on the anvil. The smith raises his hammer as if he were about to strike hot iron, but brings it down gently on the child’s body. This is done three times, and the child is sure to thrive from that day.
In the north-west of Scotland, according to Dr. Mitchell, the “gold and silver water” is the accredited cure for a child suffering from an evil eye. A shilling and a sovereign are put into water, which is then sprinkled over the patient in the name of the Trinity.
An eminent physician of Sunderland, the late Dr. Johnson, wrote to me thus respecting a little sufferer of that town, only four days before his own death:—“A case of necromancy occurred in this town some months ago. A child about eighteen months old, belonging to a working man at Southwick, was suffering from the wasting which accompanies scrofulous disease of the bowels, and presented the withered, haggard, weird appearance attributed to those smitten by the witch’s evil eye, or to the fairies’ changelings. The parents firmly believed the former to be the case, and sought counsel of a reputed charmer (Irish, I think) yet living in this town. He told them to come at midnight with the child to a room occupied by himself; and there a magic circle was drawn, lighted by candles placed round the circumference, and ornamented by chalk drawings, supposed by the people to be representations of planets. He took the naked child in his arms, stepped within the circle, repeated something (alleged to be the Lord’s Prayer backwards) three times over, anointed the breast and forehead of the child with some mysterious unguent, waved a magic wand over its head, addressed a sort of patron angel or imp in its behalf, and then pronounced the child whole and taken from under the evil spell. I find that a part of this superstition refers to a belief that the parents of sick children employ the ‘evil eye’ to transfer the disease from their own to other children, as well as to gratify malice or revenge. Within the last month a charge was seriously preferred against an elderly female for bewitching a child, about whom I was consulted; and there seemed to be a floating belief in the minds of the parents that the ‘evil eye’ had been cast upon it, not only because the witch had quarrelled with the father, but, because her own pigs being unhealthy, she had sought to transfer the sickness from her own stye to her neighbour’s nursery.”
In the West Riding of Yorkshire, also, a belief in witchcraft is still current. Mr. Stott who used to reside in that district wrote to me respecting two old men, whom he calls A and B. A maintains B to be a witch, keeps a hedging-bill at the end of his table to kill him should he dare to enter his house, and if he meets him, crosses himself, places the first finger of his right hand under his lower lip, and spits over it as a protection against witchery. One day a small farmer in the neighbourhood was showing off a fine calf to his friends and all were praising it as a great beauty. A was among them, and soon B came up, paused a few minutes, and then passed on. A grew excited and soon said to the others, “Did yo’ see him setting his tricks at it? It’ll dee.” They laughed at him as they dispersed, but the next morning the calf was dead.
Even in our own country it appears that the fairies share with the witches the odium of molesting our nurseries. In the Western Islands idiots are believed to be without doubt changelings of the fairies. Dr. Mitchell knew of three such cases, and he records the only means of redress there open to the parents. If they place the changeling on the beach, below high water-mark, when the tide is out, and pay no heed to its screams, the fairies, rather than suffer their offspring to be drowned by the rising waters, will convey it away and restore the child they had stolen. The sign that this has been effected is the cessation of the child’s crying.
Danish Folk Lore speaks much of these changelings, which the underground folk substitute for human children before their baptism if the lights are extinguished in the lying-in chamber. Once, the room being darkened to give the mother sleep, and the baby considered safe in its father’s arms, he dozed off for a few minutes, and awoke with a child in each arm and a tall woman standing before him. The woman vanished, and he was left in terrible perplexity as to which was his own child. By the advice of the priest, the two infants were laid upon the ground, and a wild stallion colt led up to them. The creature licked the one but snorted at the other, and strove to kick it, on which a tall woman appeared, caught up the false child, and ran away with it.
Two methods of getting rid of such changelings are recorded. One mother, who was greatly distressed at the loss of her own child and the substitution of a puny wretched creature, at length heated her oven very hot, and having instructed her servant-maid to ask, in a very loud voice, “Why do you heat the oven so hot. mistress?” replied, “I am going to burn my child.” The question was asked and answered three times; then she took the changeling and put it on the peel, as if to thrust it in the oven. At this moment the underground woman rushed in, took her child from the peel, and returned the other saying, “There is your child! I have done by it better than you have by mine.” And, in fact, the baby was thriving and strong. In the other case a pudding was made of pork, with skin, hair, and all mixed up in it. When this was placed before the changeling he exclaimed, as he eyed it for some time, “Pudding with hide and pudding with hair, pudding with eyes and pudding with bones in it. Thrice have I seen a young wood spring up on Tiis lake, but never before did I see such a pudding! The fiend will stay here no longer.” So saying, he turned and went away. In each instance it is specified that the change of children was effected because the parents had been negligent in bringing the infants to be christened.
But to return to witchcraft proper. The Wilkie MS. is rich in stories on this subject. Witches and warlocks, it seems, are wont to kindle their fires in deep glens, on the wildest moors, or on the tops of high hills, there to dance or sit in ring, and hold converse while they devour the plunder of rifled graves with the choicest wines from their neighbours’ cellars. Now, some years back, the blacksmith of Yarrowfoot had for apprentices two brothers, both steady lads, and, when bound to him, fine healthy fellows. After a few months, however, the younger of the two began to grow pale and lean, lose his appetite, and show other marks of declining health. His brother, much concerned, often questioned him as to what ailed him, but to no purpose. At last, however, the poor lad burst into an agony of tears, and confessed that he was quite worn-out, and should soon be brought to the grave by the ill-usage of his mistress, who was in truth a witch, though none suspected it. “Every night,” he sobbed out, “she comes to my bedside, puts a magic bridle on me, and changes me into a horse. Then seated on my back, she urges me on for many a mile to the wild moors, where she and I know not what other vile creatures hold their hideous feasts. There she keeps me all night, and at early morning I carry her home. She takes off my bridle, and there I am, but so weary I can ill stand. And thus I pass my nights while you are soundly sleeping.”
The elder brother at once declared he would take his chance of a night among the witches, so he put the younger one in his own place next the wall, and lay awake himself till the usual time of the witch-woman’s arrival. She came, bridle in hand, and flinging it over the elder brother’s head, up sprang a fine hunting horse. The lady leaped on his back, and started for the trysting-place, which on this occasion, as it chanced, was the cellar of a neighbouring laird.
While she and the rest of the vile crew were regaling themselves with claret and sack, the hunter, who was left in a spare stall of the stable, rubbed and rubbed his head against the wall till he loosened the bridle, and finally got it off, on which he recovered his human form. Holding the bridle firmly in his hand he concealed himself at the back of the stall till his mistress came within reach, when in an instant he flung the magic bridle over her head, and behold, a fine grey mare! He mounted her and dashed off, riding through hedge and ditch, till, looking down, he perceived she had lost a shoe from one of her forefeet. He took her to the first smithy that was open, had the shoe replaced, and a new one put on the other forefoot, and then rode her up and down a ploughed field till she was nearly worn out. At last he took her home, and pulled the bridle off just in time for her to creep into bed before her husband awoke, and got up for his day’s work.
The honest blacksmith arose, little thinking what had been going on all night; but his wife complained of being very ill, almost dying, and begged him to send for a doctor. He accordingly aroused his apprentices; the elder one went out, and soon returned with one whom he had chanced to meet already abroad. The doctor wished to feel his patient’s pulse, but she resolutely hid her hands, and refused to show them. The village Esculapius was perplexed; but the husband, impatient at her obstinacy, pulled off the bed-clothes, and found, to his horror, that horseshoes were tightly nailed to both hands! On further examination, her sides appeared galled with kicks, the same that the apprentice had given her during his ride up and down the ploughed field.
The brothers now came forward, and related all that had passed. On the following day the witch was tried by the magistrates of Selkirk, and condemned to be burned to death on a stone at the Bullsheugh, a sentence which was promptly carried into effect. It is added that the younger apprentice was at last restored to health by eating butter made from the milk of cows fed in kirkyards, a sovereign remedy for consumption brought on through being witch-ridden.
A similar story is told in Iceland, and is translated in Powell’s Legends of Iceland, p. 85. It appears again in Belgium in the following form:—
At a large farm at Bollebeck dwelt a serving-man, who, though well-fed by the farmer’s wife, grew thinner every day. His fellow-servants questioned him as to the cause of this, but to no purpose, till at length the shepherd, who was his best friend, drew the following history from him. His mistress was a witch, and used to come at night to his bedside, throw a bridle over his head, turn him into a horse, and ride him about all night. “This seems to me incredible,” said the shepherd, “but let me lie in thy bed to-night. I should like to try the thing for once.” The man agreed, and the shepherd took his place in bed.
About ten o’clock the farmer’s wife came in, and would have thrown the bridle over him, but the shepherd was too quick for her. He snatched it out of her hand, and threw it over her, on which she was instantly changed into a mare. He rode her about the fields all night, then brought her home and led her to the farmer, saying, “Master, there is a horsedealer in the village who wishes to dispose of this mare, and asks five hundred francs for her.” “She is sold,” said the farmer; “come in, and I will give thee the money.” “But it’s without the bridle,” said the shepherd; “he requires to have that back.” “Be it so,” said the farmer, laughing; “the bargain stands.” He counted out the money, the shepherd pocketed it, then took off the bridle, and, behold! the woman stood before them. Shedding bitter tears, she fell at her husband’s feet, promising never again to do the like, on which he forgave her, and the shepherd was bound over to secrecy.
The Danish version of the story is slightly different. In it the victim is unconscious of the cause of his declining health and strength till he learns it from a Wise-man The Wise-man gave him an ointment to apply to his head at night. The tingling it produced awoke him, and, lo! he was standing outside Tron Church in Norway with a bridle in his hand. He had torn it off in scratching his head. He flung the bridle over his mistress, transformed her into a handsome mare, rode her home, had four new shoes fastened on her, sold her to her husband; and taking off the bridle, there she stood, with horseshoes nailed to her hands and feet. The indignant husband turned her out-of-doors, and she never was able to free herself from the iron shoes.
On these histories my friend, the late Canon Humble, wrote: “The stories of witches turning men and women into horses must have originated in places where the real animal was not to be had without the transformation. Witches were dreadful harriers of horseflesh, but were effectually excluded from stables which were guarded by a horseshoe nailed upon or over the door. This is still very commonly done in the county of Durham as elsewhere. I remember a farmer there telling me how one of his horses had been more than once ridden by the witches, and he had found it in the morning bathed in sweat, but he had nailed a horseshoe over the stable door, and hung some broom over the rack, and the horse had not been used by the witches since.” In the North, a self-bored stone is also considered efficacious against witchcraft and the evil eye; in the South, a copy of the apocryphal letter of our Lord to Abgarus, King of Edessa, is often pasted on cottage walls for the same purpose. I have in my possession one of these letters, curiously interpolated with Methodist hymns, which was bought from a pedlar by the Rector of Kenn, near Exeter.
The next story relates how the miller of Holdean Mill, Berwickshire, received some uncannie visitants, of what precise nature it does not specify. It is to this effect. While the miller was drying a melder of oats belonging to a neighbouring farmer, tired with the fatigues of the day, he threw himself down upon some straw in the kiln-barn, and soon fell fast asleep. After a time he was awakened by a confused noise, as if the killogee were full of people, all speaking together; on which he pulled aside the straw from the banks of the kiln, and, looking down, observed a number of feet and legs paddling among the ashes, as if enjoying the warmth from the scarcely-extinguished fires. As he listened, he distinctly heard the words, “What think ye o’ my feeties?”—a second voice answering, “An’ what think ye o’ mine?” Nothing daunted, though much astonished, the stouthearted miller took up his “beer-mell,” a large wooden hammer, and threw it down among them, so that the ashes flew about; while he cried out with a loud voice, “What think ye o’ my meikle mell amang a’ thae legs o’ yourn?” A hideous rout at once emerged from the kiln amid yells and cries, which passed into wild laughter; and finally these words reached the miller’s ears, sung in a mocking tone:
Mount and fly for Rhymer’s tower,
I may perhaps be permitted here to introduce a very remarkable story communicated to me by Mr. Baring Gould. He remarks that it is the only trace of the Polyphemus myth he has met with in England, but that it has its correlatives in Scandinavian sagas: “At Dalton, near Thirsk, in Yorkshire, is a mill. It has quite recently been rebuilt, but when I was at Dalton, six years ago, the old building stood. In front of the house was a long mound, which went by the name of ‘the giant’s grave,’ and in the mill was shown a long blade of iron something like a scythe-blade, but not curved, which was said to have been the giant’s knife. A curious story was told of this knife. There lived a giant at this mill, and he ground men’s bones to make his bread. One day he captured a lad on Pilmoor, and instead of grinding him in the mill he kept him as his servant and never let him get away. Jack served the giant many years and never was allowed a holiday. At last he could bear it no longer. Topcliffe fair was coming on, and the lad entreated that he might be allowed to go there to see the lasses and buy some spice. The giant surlily refused leave; Jack resolved to take it.
“The day was hot, and after dinner the giant lay down in the mill with his head on a sack and dozed. He had been eating in the mill and had laid down a great loaf of bone bread by his side, and the knife was in his hand, but his fingers relaxed their hold of it in sleep. Jack seized the moment, drew the knife away, and holding it with both his hands drove the blade into the single eye of the giant, who woke with a howl of agony, and starting up barred the door. Jack was again in difficulties, but he soon found a way out of them. The giant had a favourite dog which had also been sleeping when his master was blinded-Jack killed the dog, skinned it, and throwing the hide over his back ran on all fours barking between the legs of the giant, and so escaped.”
A man named Ronaldson, who lived in the village of Bowden, is reported to have had frequent encounters with the witches of that place. Among these we find the following. One morning at sunrise, while he was tying his garter with one foot against a low dyke, he was startled by feeling something like a rope of straw passed between his legs, and himself borne swiftly away upon it to a small brook at the foot of the southernmost hill of Eildon. Hearing a hoarse smothered laugh, he perceived he was in the power of witches or sprites; and when he came to a ford called the Brig-o’-stanes, feeling his foot touch a large stone, he exclaimed, “I’ the name o’ the Lord, ye’se get me no farther!” At that moment the rope broke, the air rang as with the laughter of a thousand voices; and as he kept his footing on the stone he heard a muttered cry, “Ah, we’ve lost the coof!”
This adventure reminds us how the ancestor of the Duffus family was spirited away from his paternal fields, and found the next day at Paris, in the royal cellars, with a silver cup in his hand. In that case, however, the victim provoked his destiny by echoing the cry of “Horse and hattock,” the elfin signal for mounting and riding off.
Witchcraft is not named in the next story, but we can scarcely be wrong in assuming it to be the agent at work in it. We must premise that it was, perhaps still is, customary in the Lowlands of Scotland, as in other secluded districts, for tailors to leave their workshops and go into the farmhouses of the neighbourhood to work by the day. The farmer’s wife of Deloraine thus engaged a tailor with his workmen and apprentices for the day, begging them to come in good time in the morning. They did so, and partook of the family breakfast of porridge and milk. During the meal, one of the apprentices observed that the milk-jug was almost empty, on which the mistress slipt out of the back-door with a basin in her hand to get a fresh supply. The lad’s curiosity was roused, for he had heard there was no more milk in the house; so he crept after her, hid himself behind the door, and saw her turn a pin in the wall, on which a stream of pure milk flowed into the basin. She twirled the pin, and the milk stopped. Coming back she presented the tailors with the bowl of milk, and they gladly washed down the rest of their porridge with it.
About noon, while our tailors were busily engaged with the gudeman’s wardrobe, one of them complained of thirst, and wished for a bowl of milk like the morning’s. “Is that a’?” said the apprentice; “ye’se get that.” The mistress was out of the way, so he left his work, found his way to the spot he had marked in the morning, twirled the pin, and quickly filled a basin. But, alas! he could not then stay the stream. Twist the pin as he would, the milk still continued to flow. He called the other lads, and implored them to come and help him; but they could only bring such tubs and buckets as they found in the kitchen, and these were soon filled. When the confusion was at its height, the mistress appeared among them, looking as black as thunder; while she called out, in a mocking voice, “A’ ye loons! ye hae drawn a’ the milk fra every coo between the head o’ Yarrow an’ the foot o’t. This day ne’er a coo will gie her maister a drop o’ milk, though he war gawing to starve.” The tailors slunk away abashed, and from that day forward the wives of Deloraine have fed their tailors on nothing but chappit ’taties and kale.
Now it is clear from Kelly’s Indo-European Traditions (p. 229) that witchcraft has always been potent in the dairy, and he accounts for it thus. The Aryan idea that the rain-clouds were the cows of heaven has been well preserved among the northern nations. As Indra used to milk the cloud cows, and churn the milk lakes and fountains with his thunderbolt, so did Thor with his axe. Our ancestors’ mythology has passed into our own superstitions, and so witches of modern days draw milk from the handle of an axe stuck in a doorpost. We find a close parallel to the history of the wife of Deloraine at Caseburg, in North Germany, where a farmer who got no milk from his dairy put the affair in the hands of a Wise-man, and the Wiseman detected the culprit in the person of a neighbour’s wife. This woman had stuck a broom-handle into the wall of her own cow-house which was nearest to the farmer’s dairy. To the handle she had hung a bucket, and was milking the broom-stick, which under her hands yielded a plentiful flow of milk.
The rich dairies of Holland and Belgium are not proof against such evil practices, but the means of redress are well known. They are as follows: “When a sorceress has by her arts milked all the milk from a cow, the cow must soon afterwards be milked again. Let the milk thus obtained be set on the fire and made warm, and then beat with a stick till not a drop remains in the vessel. Any milk that flows over on the ground may also be beaten, for the more beating there is the better, since every stroke given to the milk is received by the sorceress on her back from the devil. It has often happened here (at Laeken) that sorceresses have been confined to their beds for a week or more from having been thus beaten.” One Dutch farmer, however, preferred actually administering the blows himself: so, observing one day an old witch go with a knife outside his dairy, turn to the moon, and repeat these words—
Here cut I a chip
he took a thick rope, ran up to the sorceress and beat her well, exclaiming:
Here strike I a stroke,
And this, it is quaintly said, was the best method he could adopt.
In Motherwell’s preface to Henderson’s Proverbs is a narration which bears on this part of our subject. The author says, that the ancestor of one of his neighbours in a Scottish village, going out early with his gun one May-day or Beltane morning, found two carlines long suspected of witchcraft, but never yet caught in the fact, brushing the May-dew off the pasture-fields with a long hair tether. They fled at his approach, leaving behind them the instrument of their incantations, which he gathered up, carried home, and placed above the cow-house door. The consequence was that the next milking-time the dairy-maids could not find pails to hold the supply of milk which the cows yielded till the old gentleman took down and burnt the tether, after which things went on in the usual way. There were a number of knots in the rope, every one of which went off like a pistol-shot when it was burnt. Mr. Kelly tells of a hair rope too, which in the hands of a witch would yield milk, adding that it must be made from the hair of different cows with a knot for each cow. The following verse was sung by way of incantation on such occasions:
Meare’s milk, and deer’s milk,
As to May-dew, the belief in its virtue extends to Germany, or rather seems to have originated there, since the Germans have an appellation for a witch derived from her connection with it. They call her Daustriker (Thaustreicher), dew-striker or scraper. When the dew falls on May-morning, they say, it will be a good butter year. On such a morning a witch went out before sunrise into her neighbours’ fields, took up the dew with large linen cloths, then wrung them out, and so collected the dew in a vessel. Afterwards, every time she wished to make butter, she took a spoonful of it and poured it into the churn, saying at the same time “From every house a spoonful.” By this process she took on each occasion so much butter from every one of the owners of the fields she had swept of dew. Once, however, she left her man to churn, but not rightly understanding the matter he blundered out, “From every house a bushelful;” so when he churned there came so much butter that it spread out over the whole house, and people were at a loss what to do with it.
The German witches seem, indeed, to have been unremitting in their attacks on the dairy. “There was a time when they were particularly mischievous. It was then indispensable for every housewife to have a handle made of the wood of the service (quicken) tree to her churn, else she could never be sure of getting butter. A man one morning early, on his way from Jägerup to Hadersleben, heard, as he passed by Woiensgaard, that they were churning in the yard; but at the same time he observed that a woman whom he knew was standing by the side of a running brook, and churning with a stick in the water. On that same day he saw her again selling a large lump of butter in Hadersleben. In the evening, as he again passed by Woiens, they were still churning; whereupon he went to the house, and assured them that their labour was all in vain, for the butter was already sold at Hadersleben.”
According to Mr. Kelly, the proper antidote for witchcraft in the dairy is a twig of rowan-tree, bound with scarlet thread, or a stalk of clover with four leaves, laid in the byre. To discover the witch the gudeman’s breeks must be put upon the horns of the cow, one leg upon each horn, when she, being let loose, will for certain run straight to the door of the guilty person.
He also mentions a Scottish witch having been seen milking the cows in the shape of a hare, a creature closely connected with witchcraft since the memorable day when the prince of necromancers, Sir Michael Scott, was turned into a hare by the witch of Falsehope, and hunted by his own hounds, till, jaded and discomfited, he was fain to take refuge in his own jawhole (anglicè, common sewer); while to this day in Sussex the right forefoot of a hare is worn in the pocket as a spell against rheumatism, and in Warwickshire round the neck for cramp. In fact, the cat and the hare are the two creatures into which the witch ever transforms herself when in extremity. Stories of cunning hares, defying all hounds and hunters, are to be found in every part of the country. That recorded by Mr. Wilkie is as follows:—
“The Laird (Harry Gilles) of Littledean was extremely fond of hunting. One day. as his dogs were chasing a hare, they suddenly stopped, and gave up the pursuit, which enraged him so much that he swore the animal they had been hunting must be one of the witches of Maxton. No sooner had he uttered the word than hares appeared all round him, so close that they even sprang over the saddle before his eyes, but still none of his hounds would give them chase. In a fit of anger, he jumped off his horse and killed the dogs on the spot, all but one large black hound, who at that moment turned to pursue the largest hare. Remounting his horse, he followed the chase, and saw the black hound turn the hare and drive it directly towards him. The hare made a spring as if to clear his horse’s neck, but the laird dexterously caught hold of one of her forepaws, drew out his hunting-knife, and cut it off; after which the hares, which had been so numerous, all disappeared. Next morning Laird Harry heard that a woman of Maxton had lost her arm in some unaccountable manner; so he went straight to her house, pulled out the hare’s foot (which had changed in his pocket to a woman’s hand and arm), and applied it to the stump. It fitted exactly. She confessed her crime, and was drowned for witchcraft the same day in the well by the young men of Maxton.”
Mrs. Bray, Southey’s correspondent, tells of a similar legend in Devonshire. The grandson of a witch at Tavistock was accustomed to get sixpences from a neighbouring huntsman by pointing out where he would find a hare, which hare was never caught. At last, measures were taken for a very vigorous chase; the hare was hard pressed, and the boy was heard crying out, “Run, granny run for your life!” She did so, and just gained her cottage, where her pursuers found her panting and bleeding. The culprits were let off that time with a whipping, but the old woman is said to have ended her days at the stake, a convicted witch.
Through the Dales of Yorkshire we find hares still in the same mysterious relationship with witches. The Rev. J. C. Atkinson informs me, that, a new plantation having been made near Eskdale, great havoc was committed among the freshly-planted trees by hares. Many of these depredators were shot, but one hare seemed to bid defiance to shot and snare alike, and returned to the charge night after night. By the advice of a Wise-man (I believe of the Wise-man of Stokesley, of whom more will be said bye-and-bye), recourse was had to silver shot, which was obtained by cutting up some small silver coin. The hare came again as usual, and was shot with the silver charge. At that moment an old lady who lived at some distance, but had always been considered somewhat uncannie, was busy tamming, i. e. roughly carding wool for her spinning. She suddenly flung up both hands, gave a wild shriek, and crying out, “They have shot my familiar spirit,” fell down and died.
In another dale, he adds, higher up the course of the Esk, was a hare which baffled all the greyhounds that were slipped at her. They seemed to have no more chance with her than if they were coursing the wind. There was at the time a noted witch residing near, and her advice was asked about this wonderful hare. She seemed to have little to say about it, however, only she thought they had better let it be, and above all they must take care how they slipped a black dog at it. Nevertheless, either from recklessness or from distrust of their adviser, the party did go out coursing soon after with a black dog. The dog was slipped, and they perceived at once that the hare was at a disadvantage. She made as soon as possible for a stone wall, and attempted to escape through a “smout” or sheephole at the bottom. Just as she reached it, the hound threw himself upon her and caught her in the haunch, but was unable to hold her. She got through, and was seen no more. The sportsmen, either in bravado or from terror of the consequences, went straight to the house of the witch to say what had happened. They found her in bed, hurt, she said, by a fall; but the wound looked very much as if it had been produced by the teeth of a dog, and it was on a part of the person corresponding to that by which the hare had been seized before their eyes by the black hound. Whether this Wise-woman recovered from the effects of the accident, I do not know; but the Guisborough witch, who died within the memory of man, was lame for several years, in consequence, it was said, of a bite she received from a dog while slipping through the keyhole of her own door in the shape of a hare.
The witch of Hawkwell, in Northumberland, transformed herself into a hare, and the trap-hole in a door through which she used to bolt in when hard-pressed is still pointed out. A whin-stone on the roadside is also shown, melted down from her sitting on it. This witch used to show her spite by disabling the young horses that fed behind her cottage.
In Sir Walter Scott’s Demonology and Witchcraft (letter ix.) we find the disenchanting rhyme, by virtue of which disguised witches could recover their own shape, if only they gained time to repeat it:
Hare, hare, God send thee care!
It appears that in Orissa the witch transforms herself at will into a tiger; in Cumberland one is said to have been hunted in the form of a red-deer stag; but the hare is her most common disguise in the northern counties of Europe, and hence no doubt the wide-spread belief that it is unlucky for a hare to cross one’s path—a belief which dates at least from the Roman occupancy of our country, and which prevails, or has prevailed, in every part of Great Britain, as well as in many other countries. The Thugs in India are guided in their murderous expeditions by this omen. Lord Lindsay’s Arab attendants looked out for disasters after a hare had crossed their road in the desert. The Laplanders regard the creatures with terror, as do the Namaquas, a South African tribe. Thorpe’s Mythology contains many instances of witches disguised as hares; but there is one in which, by a strange caprice, the sorceress assumed the form of a toad. About the end of the sixteenth century, in West Flanders, a peasant had a quarrel with the landlady of the alehouse in which he had been drinking, and at last she uttered this threat: “For this thou shalt not reach home to-night, or I’ll never come back.” Accordingly, when he went down to the canal and got into his boat, he could not, with all his exertions, move it from the shore. In his distress, seeing some soldiers pass by, he asked them to come and help him. They did so, but all in vain, till one of them proposed to throw out some things which were lying at the bottom of the boat. When these things were moved the men discovered beneath them an enormous toad, with eyes like glowing coals. One of the soldiers stabbed the reptile through the body and flung it into the water, and the others gave it several wounds in the belly as it floated by the boat upon its back. They tried again to move the boat, and now it glided off without any further trouble, which so pleased the peasant that he took the soldiers back to the alehouse for some refreshment. Asking for the landlady, they were told she was at the point of death, from wounds which could not be accounted for, since she had not left the house. On inquiry the wounds exactly corresponded with those inflicted on the reptile.
I do not know any other instance in which the witch assumes this loathsome shape, but the toad has ever figured largely in the records of superstition. It stands first in the horrible list of ingredients which the witches in Macbeth throw into their cauldron:
Toad, that tinder coldest stone,
Thus, again, in Middleton’s play, “The Witch,” in the charm song, beginning
Black spirits and white, red spirits and grey,
after the blood of a bat and libbard’s bane, comes—
The juice of toad, the oil of adder,
And, to descend to modern times, the hind-leg of a toad dried, placed in a silk bag, and worn round the neck, is in Devonshire the common charm for the king’s evil. White witches and Wise-men supply these charms for a fee of five shillings. Sometimes they cut from the living reptile the part analogous to that in which the patient is suffering, bury the rest of the creature, wrap that part in parchment, and tie it round the patient’s neck. A cure for rheumatism in the same county runs thus: burn a toad to powder, tie the dust in silk, and wear it round the throat.
In my next story the cat is the creature simulated by the witch. Like the hare, the cat mixes largely in the mythology of all the Indo-European nations. If the goddess Freya was attended by hares as her train-bearers and light-bearers, her chariot was drawn by cats. Perhaps these cats were originally tigers; perhaps Pussy’s gleaming eyes and weatherwise propensities procured her the distinction, by inspiring belief in her supernatural powers. To this day she supplies portents as to the weather,—
If the cat washes her face o’er the ear
and also as to the health of the family she lives with. In Sussex the most petted cat is turned at once out of doors if she sneezes, for should she stay and sneeze three times in the house everybody within its walls will have colds and coughs. In the present instance, an honest Yorkshireman, who bred pigs, often lost the young ones. He therefore applied to the wise man of Stokesley, who told him they were bewitched by an old woman who lived near, and to whom my informant had long paid parochial relief. The owner of the pigs called to mind that he had often seen a cat, a suspicious-looking creature, prowling about his yard, and he jumped to the conclusion that this was the old woman in disguise. He watched for her, armed with a poker, and when she made her appearance flung it at her with all his force. The cat disappeared, and curiously enough, the poor old woman in question, while getting up that same night, fell and broke her leg. This of course was conclusive; the man was fully assured that the poker he had hurled at the cat had broken the witch’s leg, and that the witch was no other than the old woman lying lamed in her bed.
The connection between cats and witches is notorious enough, dating at least from the classic story of Galanthis being turned into a cat, and becoming, through the compassion of Hecate, her priestess. The picture of a witch is incomplete without her cat, by rights a black one. It is curious that at Scarborough, a few years back, sailors’ wives liked to keep black cats in their homes, to insure the safety of their husbands at sea. This gave black cats such a value that no one else could keep them; they were always stolen. Mr. Denham has recorded some curious old north-country rhymes on the subject:
Whenever the cat o’ the house is black,
Kiss the black cat,
In accordance with the former, an old north-country woman said lately to a lady, “It”s na wonder Jock ——’s lasses marry off so fast, ye ken what a braw black cat they’ve got.” Naturally enough it is considered extremely lucky for a cat of this kind to come of her own accord and take up her residence in any house. During the November of 1867, in Pennsylvania, a woman was publicly accused of witchcraft for administering three drops of a black cat’s blood to a child as a remedy for croup. She admitted the fact, but denied that witchcraft had anything to do with it, and twenty witnesses were called to prove its success. Professor Marreco, of Newcastle, has communicated to me the following curious belief: “He who ties up a black cat with ninety nine knots, and sells it for a hare at the church door to the Evil One, will receive a large sum of money for it. But he had better get well away before the cat is let out of the bag. Also that throwing a cat overboard at sea is held by sailors to provoke a storm.”
We find witches and cats constantly together in the Folk-Lore of the northern countries of Europe. Thus in Eiderstedt, in North Germany, there was a miller who was unfortunate enough to have his mill burned down every Christmas Eve. At last a courageous servant undertook to keep watch in the mill on the fatal night. The fellow kindled a fire and made himself a good kettleful of porridge, which he stirred with a large ladle, while an old sabre lay beside him. Ere long a troop of cats entered the mill, and he heard one say in alow tone to another, “Mousekin! go and sit by Hanskin!” on which a beautiful milk-white cat came creeping softly to him, and placed herself by his side. In a moment, taking a ladleful of the scalding porridge, he dashed it in her face, then seizing the sabre cut off one of her paws. On this the cats all disappeared, and instead of the paw appeared a delicate woman’s hand, with a gold ring on one of the fingers bearing his master’s cypher. Next morning the miller’s wife lay in bed and would not rise. “Give me thy hand, wife,” quoth the miller. She refused, but she could not long conceal the mutilated arm, and at last was burnt for a witch.
There is a Norwegian tradition to the same effect, in which a courageous tailor discovers the witchery. Again, in the Netherlands, one bold Jan undertakes to lodge for a night in the haunted castle of Erendegen, provided only he is supplied with every requisite for frying pancakes. He makes a fire and begins his work, when a black cat walks in, sits down before the fire, and asks Jan what he is about. “I am making pancakes, my little friend,” answered the hero. Seven more cats entered, put the same question, and are answered as before. Then, taking each other’s paw, they danced round and round, on which Jan flings over them the scalding batter from his frying-pan, and they all vanish. The next day it was reported in the village that the shoemaker’s wife was burnt all over the body. Bold Jan showed no surprise at the news; he simply said that the castle would not be haunted any longer, which proved to be the case.
“Auld Betty,” the Halifax witch, of whom more will be said by-and-bye, once figured in the form of a cat. Mr. J. Stott writes of her: “An old man, whom I knew well in my boyhood, was said to have undertaken the dangerous task of catching this witch, and drawing blood from her. Armed with a threepronged table-fork he stationed himself beside the fire in the house where she was suspected of doing mischief, by night, in the form of a black cat. According to the directions for the capture of witches, he had a cake baking before the fire. All at once he perceived a large black cat sitting by the hearth washing its face, though he had not seen or heard it come in. ‘Cake burns,’ cried the cat. ‘Turn it, then,’ replied the witch-catcher. ‘Cake burns,’ it said once more, and he made the same answer again and again. The man had been especially charged on no account to mention any holy name while watching the doings of the cat, and for a long time he remembered this, but, worn out with watching, and worried by the continued cry of ‘Cake burns,’ he lost his temper, and answered with an imprecation. Instantly the cat sprang up the chimney, and after it scrambled the witch-catcher, trying to pierce it with the three-pronged fork. This he accomplished at last, but not till he had been dreadfully scratched by his antagonist. The next morning the old witch-woman was ill in bed, and continued there for some days, but the person who had been witched was relieved.”
Cats and witches appear together in the following Flemish story, from Thorpe’s Mythology (vol. iii. p. 237): “An inhabitant of Stockham, on the birth of a child, goes to acquaint his mother, and is astonished to find her already informed of the event, though she lived half-an-hour’s walk from the village, and no communication had taken place to his knowledge. On his way home the good man was molested by a perpetually increasing swarm of cats, who crowded about him and obstructed his way. He struck at them with his stick, but to no purpose; they tore away his silver shoe-buckles, and pushed him into the brook which ran by the wayside. On returning home, wet and tired, the man sent for the priest and related his adventure. ‘Ah,’ said the priest, ‘I see what it all is! Now, if you desire your wife and child to do well, take care you give nothing out of your house to any one who may beg at the door.’ The man promised to follow the advice, and for three weeks he did so, though the door was besieged by beggars of every age and condition. At last an old woman came and begged for a crust of bread so piteously that the wife, who was sitting up with the child in her lap, entreated her husband to give it. Against his better judgment he did so. Instantly the infant was torn from its mother’s arms by invisible hands, and dashed against the ceiling, while the mother received a shock which threw her into a corner. The priest was summoned, but could do nothing: he pronounced mother and child past human help, and, in fact, both died within a week.”
Danish witches transform themselves also into ducks. A huntsman, who used to pass the farm of Bailer, near Ostrel, observed, constantly in its neighbourhood, a hare or a wild duck, neither of which could he ever hit. At last he shot at the duck with a silver button from his jacket, and wounded it, but it fluttered away into the poultry-house. Going into the farm-kitchen to ask for the duck, he saw by the chimney an ugly old woman, with one shoe off, and blood streaming from her leg. She said she had fallen down and hurt herself, but the huntsman felt convinced he saw before him the witch he had shot, and hurried away with the utmost speed.
But to return to our own country. The Rev. J. C. Atkinson has communicated to me some particulars respecting a noted Yorkshire witch, Nan Hardwick by name, which were communicated to him by an inhabitant of Danby. This old woman lived in one of the two lonely old-fashioned huts known as the Spital Houses, and her habit was to go every evening, a little before dark, and squat among the whins on a bank at Oenthorpe, about a mile from her dwelling, for what purpose or in what form the narrator sayeth not. This being her custom, the young men of the neighbourhood took up the practice of collecting the five or six hounds kept in that part of the parish, with any other dogs they could get hold of, to hunt, as they said, “Auld Nan Hardwick.” When they found her, as they usually did, a loud clatter was heard along the “causey,” or ancient horse-road leading to Oenthorpe in the direction of the witch’s residence, all the dogs following in full cry.
One evening, a little before the usual hour of the hunt, a young man, who was generally foremost in the sport, happened to be on the “causey” in question, and to see Nan Hardwick on the way to her place of evening resort. “She was all black that night,” said the narrator (one William Agur, a parishioner of Danby), “for ye ken she wur not alla’s the same to look at;” and the young man (T. P. by name) determined that she should not pass him on the “causey.” So he drew himself up, set his legs close together, and squared himself so as to engross the entire width of the narrow gangway. The witch neither paused nor turned aside; she came straight on, and in a minute was in the rear of him who would have arrested her. How she went by him T. P. could never tell; he was still occupying the whole space, his legs were still close to each other, but, as far as he could pronounce upon any part of the transaction, he felt convinced she had passed between them.
The young man’s father, himself a T. P. too, was about this time overseer of the poor, and, witch though she was, “Au’d Nan Hardwick” applied for parish relief. T. P. stoutly refused her, though he knew well that he thus exposed himself to her illwill. One day, as he was leaving Castleton, he met her coming in the other direction. Between them ran the small stream which drains Danby Dale, now crossed by a “draught bridge,” then merely by a single stone, just wide enough to let one person pass at a time, with a “hemmel” or handrail on either side. T. P. reached the bridge first. No feeling of courtesy prompted him to stand back till Auld Nan had crossed, so he marched sturdily on to the middle of the bridge, but no further. There her power fell upon him, and he stood like a statue, unable to move hand or foot, till she was pleased to set him free—which was not at once.
This anecdote is curious as an instance of a spell undestroyed by the power of running water, and I believe a solitary one. The law is all but absolute, that every species of magic and witchcraft is annihilated by the force of a running stream. The Goblin Page might counterfeit the heir of Buccleugh:
But as a shallow brook they crossed,
And young Keeldar, in the ballad, secure in the protection of his plume of holly and rowan, and his casque of sand formed by the mermaid, yet fell a prey to Lord Soulis and the Liddesdale Lancers when they forced him into the brook, for—
No spell can stay the living tide,
Auld Nan Hardwick possessed, it would seem, a power beyond that of the mighty masters of the black art in old days. By the kindness of the late Dr. Johnson, of Sunderland, we may compare this Cleveland witch with her Northumbrian sister Nannie Scott. He wrote thus to me respecting her: “We find in this locality many relics of the Scandinavian superstitions, varied and mixed up with modern customs and phraseology. The old keelmen (once numbering some hundreds) on the Weir were brimful of superstitious stories and legends, and their nightly rambles on shore and river, to seek their vessels and bring them in with the tide, are very amusing. I remember, when a boy, a witch who resided in a little hovel near us, in Sunderland, and with whom I was on most friendly terms, much to the disgust of my nurse. She told fortunes by the stars, practised the black art, and sold a compound of treacle, &c. called by us “claggum.” Her hatred was considered certain death; and children once under her protection were sure to be lucky in life. She had a black cat and a black dog, both unmitigated savages and thieves (the poor animals, being deemed familiars, were pelted and persecuted into ferocity), and few women were more coaxed and toadied than was Nannie Scott. She prayed for fair winds for sailors’ wives; she sold love-charms to bring together sulking sweethearts; and she did all with an air of solemn strong-mindedness that bore down any approach to discredit. She lived to a very great age, and died about twenty years ago.”
From Mr. J. Stott, of Perth, formerly a schoolmaster in the West Riding of Yorkshire, I learn some particulars respecting “Auld Betty,” who was held in great dread as a witch not many years ago by both old and young for miles round in a neighbourhood not twenty miles from Halifax. My informant knew her well in his youth, and tells me that she gained her livelihood by the sale of linsey-woolsey. The following story exhibits her in the darkest point of view:
The infant daughter of Mr. and Mrs. H. though born a healthy child, began to pine away, and no medical advice was of any avail. The mother thought she was bewitched, and proposed to her husband that they should consult a certain doctor in a neighbouring village, a Quaker, who was noted for his skill in such cases. Mr. H. only laughed at his wife’s superstition, but the child wasting away more and more he yielded at last, and all set out one morning to consult the Quaker.
On arriving at his house Mrs. H. took the little girl in, while her husband went with the horse to the inn. She told the doctor’s assistant that her child was unwell and that she wished to know what was the matter, but she made no mention of her own suspicions. After examining the child and putting several questions, he went into another room to his master, returned to ask some more questions, and went back again. Then the old gentleman came out and examined the child, and just as Mr. H. came in from the inn he said, “The child’s hurt done,” i. e. bewitched. “Do yo think soa,” asked the father. “Nay,” replied the doctor, “om sure soa.” “Can ye do hur onny good?” pursued he. “If thah’ll do as oi tell thee oi can,” was the reply. “Oh, we’ll do onny thing yo tell uz,” exclaimed the mother. “Well, then,” said the doctor, “tack some o’thyh hair, the wife’s, and some o’t child’s; some o’th cuttings o’th fingernails and toe-nails, and some o’th water o’ all yo three, put all into this bottle, cork it up an’ seal it, an’ when thah rakes t’ fire at neet put t’bottle under t’ stuff thah rakes wi’; an’ tack care thah dosen’t let a woman come into t’ house first in t’ morning.” With these directions Mr. and Mrs. H. returned home.
The child having for some time been very restless at night, the parents had brought their bed downstairs and placed it in a corner near the fire, which they kept in by “raking” for the sake of their little patient. So this night, after fulfilling so far the doctor’s directions, they went to bed as usual, but to their surprise the little one was soon fast asleep and did not once disturb them in the night. About 4 o’clock in the morning the father rose, broke up the fire, and carried the ashes into the back yard to riddle them. He had scarcely got into the yard when Mrs. H. heard some one coming toward the house, which stood only a few yards from the high road. She jumped out of bed, and looking out of window was horrified to see Auld Betty the witch coming towards the house. Seizing the poker she rushed forwards just in time to stop her on the doorstep. “Does yor husband want t’as riddle mending?” cried the old woman. “Ha! burn yo,” replied Mrs. H.; “if yo’ come here oi’ll kill yo.” Upon this Auld Betty took to her heels, and from that hour the little girl began to improve, till she became as fine a child as any in the neighbourhood.
Auld Nan Hardwick, Nannie Scott, and Auld Betty, however, sink into insignificance before the Wise-man of Stokesley, long the oracle of South Durham, as well as of Cleveland. The name of this personage was Wrightson. He flourished at Stokesley above fifty years ago; and such ascendancy did he obtain in the neighbourhood that he was at once resorted to in cases of sickness, distress, or loss of property, and this not by the lower orders alone. His private character appears to have been very bad; still his influence in Stokesley was so great that he was constantly in request as godfather to the children of the place; and on these occasions he used to attend church in a scarlet coat, a long white waistcoat and full-starched shirt-frill, crimson knee-breeches, and white stockings. Several stories of his craft have come to me from an eye-witness, having been repeated to the Rev. J. C. Atkinson by an old man turned eighty-two, but in possession of his faculties, and of entire respectability of character. Wrightson used always to say that he had no power or knowledge beyond other men except when fasting, that he owed his power to his being a seventh son of a seventh daughter, and that he was quite unable to transmit them to his own son. The following stories, if true, go towards proving him to have been a natural clairvoyant:—
Years ago, when the old man at Danby was young, a relation of his had a cow, which fell ill of a disease which baffled the skill of every cow-leech in the neighbourhood. Our informant was therefore mounted on a horse belonging to his relative, and despatched to Stokesley to consult the Wise-man. On opening his door—before he had time to explain his errand—the wizard said, “I know what has brought you here; you have come about a cow, and, if I cannot tell you as much about the creature as you can tell me, it is not likely I can help you.” Then he proceeded to describe the cow, her colour and appearance, her symptoms—constant restlessness, and uneasy movements, and a peculiar sound she uttered; also her position in the cow-house. “The door opened,” he said, “right upon her rump.” The Wise-man went on to specify her disease, and added that nothing could save her. She died accordingly, and a post-mortem examination verified all that “auld Wrightson” had said. But what seems to have struck our informant most was the wizard’s remark on the careful way in which he had ridden the horse which brought him to Stokesley—the sender had no son who would have been so careful with the beast.
Another instance of the Wise-man’s strange foreknowledge was as follows. Some pitmen were working together at the Try-up-Trough pits, and left their clothes above, as usual, on descending to their work. In the afternoon, when work was over, one of them missed his shirt, and could not find it anywhere. Borrowing one from a friend, the man started straight from the pits to Stokesley to consult “auld Wrightson,” taking with him a comrade whose Christian name was Elijah. They passed a place called West House, and there Elijah deposited his overcoat, which was hot and heavy, observing to his friend that they should be able to trust the Wise-man in the matter of the shirt by seeing whether he knew where the coat was.
Here, too, the wizard forestalled all inquiries by announcing to the men what they had come about; and turning to the comrade, addressed him thus by his Christian name, “What hast’ee deean wi’ thy coat, Elijah? I think thee’s left it a’ West House. Thinkst’ee t’wise man knaws aught about t’shart?” As these were the very words the man had used, he was struck dumb with astonishment. The wizard then described the shirt, saying it had been made by a left-handed person (which was true), and finally said its owner would find it at home on his return. He added a warning on giving salt out of the house, a most dangerous thing, and one which the pitman’s mother had done that day.
Returning home, they found that the shirt had been left there by a fellow-workman, who had carried it away in mistake, and that the house-mother had been guilty of the “dangerous act” of giving salt away. This danger is thus explained: If the salt passes into the hands of any person who has the power of wishing, i. e. of bringing down harm on another by uttering an ill wish, the possession of the salt places the giver entirely within the power of the wish. The same belief holds in Northumberland with regard to leaven. Mrs. Evans of Scremerston Vicarage, near Berwick, kindly informs me that there is only one person in the place who will give her a “set-off” if she has lost her leaven. All excuse themselves on one plea or another rather than give it even to the parson’s wife. Curiously enough this piece of superstition appears in Spain also.
The next Stokesley story is as follows. A miller, named W——, lost a set of new weights very mysteriously, and all his searchings and inquiries ended in disappointment; he could make out nothing about them. So he applied to the Wise-man. The miller seems to have been allowed the unusual privilege of stating his case, and the wizard, after consulting his books, announced that he knew about the weights; they should be restored; at present they were concealed in an “ass-midden.” Accordingly, in the course of a night or two, the weights appeared as mysteriously as they had vanished, being placed at the miller’s door, and “all clamed wi’ ass,” which, of course, was satisfactory.
Again, a young bull belonging to an inhabitant of the district was attacked by sickness, and in spite of all remedies was soon at what appeared the point of death—too weak to stand, and slung up by ropes to keep it from falling. The wise man was sent for, and in due time arrived at the house, but declined to speak of the animal; saying, in his usual way, that unless he could tell them all they could tell him, and a little more, it was not likely he could be of much use. At last he condescended to light his pipe, and stroll out to the “beast-house.” After a little time, curiosity prompted one or two men who were standing about to follow him, and approaching the byre they were surprised to see the bull apparently as well as ever, standing without any aid from slings, and eating his provender with a very hearty appetite. The mode of cure remained a secret.
The concluding anecdote respecting “auld Wrightson,” like that of Nan Hardwick fixing the relentless overseer on the bridge, suggests a notion that, consciously or unconsciously, these worthies practised something like electro-biology. Two men, one of them bearing the name of Bob Bennison, and brother to a person still living at Danby, were on their way to Stokesley Fair, when one of them proposed to turn aside in order to “see auld Wrightson, and have a bit o’ sport wi’ him.” On reaching the Wise-man’s house, he gave them an apparently cordial welcome, seated them in front of the fire, and proceeded to mend it by heaping on fuel. Fiercer and fiercer it blazed up, and Wrightson’s guests, feeling somewhat too warm, tried to edge their chairs backwards, but their efforts were in vain; they found themselves immovably fixed in their seats, and the seats immovably fixed in front of the fire, which all the time was burning hotter and hotter. After giving the men such a roasting as he deemed sufficient, the wizard at length set them free, scornfully bidding them go on to the fair, and there tell their friends “the sport they had had wi’ auld Wrightson.”
Though the wizard doctor of Stokesley professed himself unable to transmit his mysterious powers to his son, one William Dawson pretended to have inherited his books and some of his gifts, and he too was consulted by persons of a respectable position in life. A substantial Yorkshire farmer, having sustained heavy and continuous losses among his stock, consulted this William Dawson, and was instructed by him how to find out whether witchcraft was really the cause of the mischief. The farmer was to take six knots of bottree (bore-tree or elder) wood, and, placing them in orderly arrangement beneath a new ashen bowl or platter, was so to leave them. If, on looking at them some little time afterwards, they were found in confusion, “all squandered about,” as he phrased it, there could be no doubt the beasts were perishing from the effects of witchcraft. This was done, and on inspection the knots were found in utter confusion. So the farmer was directed to take the heart of one of the dead beasts, and stick in it nine new nails, nine new pins, and as many new needles. The heart thus prepared was to be burnt on a fire made and fed with witchwood (rowan-tree) a little before midnight, at which hour a certain verse of the Bible was to be read over the flames, and the spell would be broken. All was made ready, and the doors of the farmhouse secured with bolt and bar, to say nothing of tables and chairs heaped against them for additional security. The heart lay on the mystic fire; as midnight approached, the operator touched it with the poker, and it burst asunder into many pieces. Gathering them together upon the hot embers, that they might be thoroughly consumed, he read the appointed verse, and at the same moment a rushing and clattering was heard down the paved causey which led from the house-door to the turnpike (the high road) in front, as if a carriage-and-four were driven down it furiously. Next began a terrible knocking and hammering, first at the front door, then at the back; but as the embers of the heart wasted in the fire the sounds without grew weaker and fainter, till, as the last spark disappeared, the noise ceased; and from that night no further harm befell the stock.
The mention of the six knots of elderwood is curious, for that tree mixes largely in Folk-lore. In Sussex an elder stick, with three, five, or seven knots upon it, is carried in the pocket as a charm against rheumatism. Some say the cross was made from its wood; others, that on it Judas hanged himself. Mr. Wilkie observes that the tree is obnoxious to witches, because their enemies use the green juice of its inner bark for anointing the eyes. Any baptized person whose eyes are touched with it can see what the witches are about in any part of the world. Compare with this the Danish belief, that he who stands under an elder-bush at twelve o’clock on Midsummer Eve will see Tolv, the king of the elves, go by with all his train. A Danish remedy for toothache is to take an elder twig, put it into the mouth, then stick it in the wall, saying, “Depart thou evil spirit!” As appears by Hans Andersen’s stories, it is thought in Denmark that there dwells in the elder-tree a being called Hyldemoer, or elder-mother, who avenges all injury done to the tree: hence it is not advisable to have moveables of elderwood. The elder-mother once pulled a baby by the legs, and molested it till it was taken out of an elderwood cradle. Danish peasants will not cut this tree without asking permission thus, “Hyldemoer, Hyldemoer, permit me to cut thy branches.” In Lower Saxony, the formula is as follows, to be repeated three times, with bended knees and folded hands:—
But to return to Willie Dawson. All his powers, such as they were, failed to help him in the battle of life, for, from being a farmer at Quaker’s Grove, near Stokesley, he sank into poverty, and ended his days in very reduced circumstances in South Durham. I have received another account of his magical incantations from a correspondent, who himself witnessed them when a boy. The object of them was to restore to health a young man said to be bewitched. A fire was made by midnight, as before, and the doors and windows closed. Clippings from every finger and toe-nail of the patient, with hair from each temple and the crown of his head, were stuffed into the throat of a pigeon which had previously been placed between the patient’s feet, and there had died at once, thus attesting the witchery from which he was suffering. The bird’s bill was riveted with three pins, and then the wise man thrust a pin into its breast, to reach the heart, everybody else in the room in turn following his example. An opening was then made in the fire, and the pigeon dropped into it. The Wise-man began to read aloud Psalms from the prayer-book, and a loud scratching and whining began outside. All in the house, save my informant, were satisfied that the young man’s enemy had appeared outside, perhaps in the form of a dog; he alone attributed the sounds to the wizard’s own dog, which had not been allowed to enter the house. His scepticism, however, annoyed the wizard and his dupes so much that the lad was fain to keep it to himself.
A parallel to William Dawson’s wild incantations has been communicated to me by the Rev. J. F. Bigge. Not many years ago there lived at Newcastle a wizard named Black Jock, who was much consulted by the neighbouring people in all cases of doubt and difficulty. On one occasion, a farmer named William P——, who was tenant of Richmond Hill, lost a valuable horse by a sudden attack of disease so peculiar that it suggested the idea of unhallowed charm and evil eye, or at least of some strange injury inflicted by a spiteful neighbour. So to Black Jock went Farmer P——, and told his tale. The wizard listened, and then announced that the horse had been killed by poison administered to it in brewers’ grains; and on payment of one pound he gave the following directions for discovering the poisoner. The farmer and one chosen friend were secretly to cut up the horse and take out its heart, which they were to stick full of pins and roast before the fire between eleven and twelve o’clock at night, having previously closed carefully every aperture communicating with the outer air, whether door, window, or other opening, and stuffed every interstice with tow or some such material. When the clock struck the midnight hour, they might open the door, and, looking out, they would assuredly see passing by the form of him who had done the injury.
The wizard’s injunctions were obeyed with right good will by the farmer and his trusty servant, Forster Charlton; but when they looked out they saw with astonishment no faint and flitting shadow of a suspicious-looking form, but, as it chanced, one of the most respectable and kindly-disposed among their neighbours, passing by in the flesh, on his way to his own home. To accuse such a man of being privy to the poor horse’s death was plainly impossible, yet what were they to think? So, after much consultation, the watchers went to bed in a very perturbed state of mind, determined only on one point, the calling the wizard into council again. Summoned, accordingly, to the spot the very next day, Black Jock carefully inspected the premises, and having discovered a certain round hole on the stairs which opened into the outer air, and which they had overlooked and omitted to stuff up, he proclaimed with an oracular and impressive demeanour, from which there was no appeal, that such carelessness and disregard of his injunctions could have ended in no other way; that of course the person who had passed by was not the delinquent, but that it was owing to the non-fulfilment of the conditions imposed that they had not seen him; and, what was more, see him now they never would.
These grisly incantations appear to have taken deep root in our “north countrie.” A farmer near Durham, on the death of a horse, has lately pursued exactly the same plan prescribed by Black Jock, but with better success than attended the Northumbrian farmer; for, after the poor steed’s heart had been pierced and roasted, the watchers distinctly heard the howling of spirits round the house, and thus satisfied themselves that evil spirits had done the horse to death! The owner of the animal narrated this himself to my informant, who exclaimed in astonishment, “Why, surely you don’t believe that?” “But I do.” rejoined the farmer stoutly, “for I heard them myself.”
In a well-authenticated instance which took place not very long ago near Alnwick, a cow, supposed to be influenced by the evil eye, was actually slaughtered for the purpose of discovering by the burning of its heart the person who had caused the injury. The unusual light and smell attracted a neighbour to the spot, and she was at once condemned as the culprit. It should be added, however, that the villagers blamed the owner of the victim, declaring that the knowledge was ill-purchased by the loss of even a sick cow.
A somewhat similar case transpired at Durham not long ago. A poor woman, the wife of a pitman, was brought before the bench of magistrates on the charge of stealing a fowl. She made no attempt to deny the fact; indeed, she had previously admitted it to the policeman who apprehended her, saying that she had committed the theft for the purpose of working out a charm which was to restore her sick child to health. The child, it appeared, had long been ailing, and was now fast pining away, when its mother, full of uneasiness about it, consulted a witch who lived near. The witch solemnly charged her to steal a hen, take out the heart, stick it full of pins, and roast it at midnight over a slow fire, first closing up every communication with the outer air. If this were duly done, the hag promised that, as the heart was gradually consumed, health would return to the suffering child. The magistrates, considering the delusion under which the woman had acted, dismissed the case.
The following tale is from the West Riding of Yorkshire, communicated to me by Mr. J. Stott, of Perth, formerly a resident in that district; a variation will be observed in the treatment of the heart and the pins. There was a woman in the village of L—— who pined and wasted away till, as her neighbours said, she was nothing but skin and bones. She had no definite illness, but complained that she felt as if pins were being run into her body all over her. The village doctor was resorted to, but in vain. At last they applied to the Wise-man, who pronounced that some person was doing her harm, and advised them to search the garden for hidden spells. They did so, and found buried under the window a sheep’s heart stuck full of pins like a pin-cushion. The thing was removed and destroyed and the woman recovered.
Again, in a village near Preston a girl, when slighted by her lover, got a hare’s heart, stuck it full of pins, and buried it with many imprecations against the faithless man whom she hoped by these means to torment.
The Rev. Canon Tristram has communicated to me another case from the south of the county of Durham: “In November of the year 1861 I was sent for by a parishioner, the wife of a small farmer, who complained that she had been scandalized by her neighbours opposite, who accused her of witchcraft. These neighbours had lost two horses during the last year, and therefore consulted ‘Black Willie’ at Hartlepool, who assured them that they had been bewitched. Acting on his advice, they adopted the following means for discovering the witch. Having procured a pigeon, and tied its wings, every aperture to the house, even to the key-holes, was carefully stopped, and pins were run into the pigeon whilst alive by each member of the family, so as to pierce the poor bird’s heart. The pigeon was then roasted, and a watch kept at the window during the operation, for the first person who passed the door would, of course, be the guilty party. The good woman who appealed to me had the misfortune to be the first passer-by, and the family were firmly convinced she had exercised the ‘evil eye’ upon the dead horses, though she was a comely matron, not yet fifty years of age. This happened in a village close to the river Tees.”
The last instance I shall record took place at Whitby in the year 1827. A woman residing in that town was suffering from fever, attended with soreness and swelling of the throat. Among other remedies, camphorated spirits of wine were applied externally to the part affected; but the patient growing worse, her mother took up a notion that she was bewitched, and that the spell had been fixed by the spirits of wine. The old woman therefore determined to resort to what she called the ancient ordeal. She procured a sheep’s heart, stuck it full of new pins, and placed it on the fire to be burnt, watching anxiously all the time for the appearance of the witch who had troubled her daughter. She looked in vain, however, for no one appeared.
This superstition if not altogether without a parallel in the South of England. A publican at Dittisham, a pretty little village on the banks of the river Dart, lost several pigs in an unaccountable manner. Persuaded that they had been bewitched, he took out the heart of one of the victims, stuck it over with pins and placed it in front of the fire till it was charred to a cinder, in order, he said, to counteract the evil designs of the witch.
There are two or three points worth notice in these grisly rites for the discovery and baffling of witchcraft. First, the employment of mountain-ashwood for the roasting of the heart. Now the rowan, or mountain-ash, is ever the dread of witches, as we see by the old rhyme—
Black luggie, lammer bead,
Mr. Wilkie alleges the following very good reason for their apprehension. The witch who is touched with a branch of this tree by a christened man will be the victim carried off by the devil when he comes next to claim his tribute. This tribute is alluded to in the ballad of young Tamlane—
O pleasant is the fairyland,
Mr. Kelly considers the mountain-ash to be the European representative of the Indian palasa, which it resembles in its light luxuriant foliage and red berries, or of the mimosa, a tree of the very same genus as well as general character. These Indian trees are in as high repute in Hindostan as preservatives against magic as is the rowan in Scotland, in Cornwall, or in Yorkshire. In Cornwall it is called “care,” and if there is a suspicion of a cow being “overlooked” the herdsman will suspend it over her stall, or wreath it round her horns. That it is still in repute in Yorkshire let this little anecdote witness. I give it in the words of the narrator, as he told it to the Rev. J. C. Atkinson:—
“A woman was lately in my shop, and in pulling out her purse brought out also a piece of stick a few inches long. I asked her why she carried that in her pocket. ‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘I must not lose that, or I shall be done for.’ ‘Why so?’ I inquired. ‘Well,’ she answered, ‘I carry that to keep off the witches; while I have that about me, they cannot hurt me.’ On my observing that I thought there were no witches nowadays, she observed quickly, ‘Oh yes; there are thirteen at this very time in the town, but so long as I have my rowan-tree safe in my pocket they cannot hurt me.’ ”
This good dame evidently agreed with the old rhymer, who said:
If your whipstick’s made of row’n,
but, on the contrary—
Woe to the lad
A bunch of ash-keys is thought as efficacious as the rowan-stick. An incident mentioned to me by the Rev. George Ornsby may be introduced here: “The other day I cut down a mountain-ash (or wiggan-tree, as it is called here) in my carriage-road. The old man who gardens for me came a day or two after, and was strangely disconcerted on seeing what ‘master’ had done in his absence; ‘for,’ said he, ‘wherever a wiggan-tree grows near a house, t’ witches canna come.’ He was comforted, however, by finding, on closer investigation, that a sucker from the tree had escaped destruction.”
Mr. Wilkie assures us, that, like the mountain-ash, the yew is a very upas tree to the witches, possibly because of its constant proximity to churches. They hate the holly, too, and with good reason: its name is but another form of the word holy, and its thorny foliage and blood-red berries are suggestive of the most sacred Christian associations. The bracken also they detest, because it bears on its root the letter C, the initial of the holy name Christ, which (says Mr. Wilkie) may plainly be seen on cutting the root horizontally. A friend suggests, however, that the letter intended is not the English C, but the Greek χ, the initial letter of the word χριστος, which really resembles very closely the marks in the root of the bracken, or Pteris aquilina. These marks have, however, been interpreted in many ways. Some say they resemble the Austrian double-headed eagle, and derive from hence the Latin name for the plant: others see in them Adam and Eve standing on either side of the tree of knowledge, or King Charles in the oak; or, again, they try to discover the initials of their future husband or wife.
But witches have their favourite plants as well. They love the broom and the thorn, as well as the ragwort, which is called in Ireland the fairies’ horse, and use them all as means for riding about at midnight. They are also fond of hemlock, nightshade, St. John’s-wort, and vervain, and infuse their juices into the baleful draughts prepared for their enemies. This statement, however, contradicts that in St. Colne’s charm, as sung by Meg Merrilies at the birth of Harry Bertram—
Trefoil, vervain, John’s-wort, dill,
It contradicts, also, the old rhyme given in the notes to the Demon Lover, in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border:—
Gin ye wud be leman mine,
for here these plants appear as countercharms, protecting a maiden from the approach of a very uncannie sprite in the form of a lover.
Of the St. John’s-wort the following little notice has reached me from the Isle of Man. Peasants there say (or did say, before the incursion of visitors drove away all the individuality of the place) that, if you tread on the St. John’s-wort after sunset, a fairy horse will rise from the earth and carry you about all night, leaving you in the morning wherever you may chance to be at sunrise.
As to the vervain, we know that in all times the Druids regarded it as the cure for many ills, and a fit offering to the divinity. At the present day, in Sussex, its leaves, dried and worn in a black silk bag, are recommended for weakly children, possibly as averting witchcraft.
Mr. Wilkie maintains that the Digitalis purpurea was in high favour with the witches, who used to decorate their fingers with its largest bells, thence called “witches’ thimbles.” Hartley Coleridge has more pleasing associations with this gay wild flower. He writes of “the fays,—
That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells,”
and adds in a note: “Popular fancy has generally conceived a connection between the foxglove and the good people. In Ireland, where it is called lusmore, or the great herb, and also fairy-cap, the bending of its tall stalks is believed to denote the unseen presence of supernatural beings. The Shefro, or gregarious fairy, is represented as wearing the corolla of the foxglove on his head, and no unbecoming headdress either. Is not the proper etymology ‘folks’ (i. e. fairies’) glove? Surely Reynard does not wear gloves in popular tradition?”
But to return to the incantations of Black Jock and his brotherhood. The horse’s heart, pigeon, fowl, or whatever else was consumed upon the rowan-tree fire, was pierced through with pins. Now, it is remarkable how often we come across pins in the records of superstition. Mary de Medicis and her favourite, Leonora Concini, were suspected of practising against the life of Louis XIII. of France, by making a waxen image of him, and impaling it with pins; and the Duchess of Gloucester, in the reign of our Henry VI. was imprisoned on the charge of similar practices. Such sorceries appear to have prevailed extensively in the northern countries of Europe. Thus, at Amreem, in North Germany, a man lay for a long time sick in bed, and nothing afforded him relief. Meanwhile a miller observed from his mill that a woman was in the daily habit of going to the Donkkàm. One day he followed her footsteps, and on digging in the sand found a little waxen image of a man, with a pin stuck through the heart. He drew the pin out, took the image home, and burned it; from that hour the patient recovered. And, as recently as 1869, in the county of Inverness, a “corp cré or criadt” was discovered in a stream. The body was of clay, into which were stuck human nails, birds’ claws, &c. and pins. This image was the representatian of a person whose death was desired by some illwisher, and was placed in running water with the hope and expectation that as the waters washed away the clay so the life of the person represented by it would waste and be destroyed.
Again, if a person is robbed, he goes to a so-called “cunning man,” who engages to strike out the eye of the thief. The following is the process: The troll-man puts a human figure on a young tree, mutters certain dire spells by the devil’s aid, and then drives a sharp instrument into the eye of the figure, thus blinding its representative. Or he will shoot with an arrow or bullet at one of the members of the figure, thus entailing wounds and sores on the corresponding limbs of the living person. The Flemish countercharm is as follows: Let a sorceress melt lead and pour it into water, where it will assume a human form. She must then ask the person bewitched whereabouts in the body of him who caused the evil it shall be sent. The part is named; the sorceress makes a cut or prick in the corresponding limb of the leaden image, saying where the person is who inflicted the evil, but not naming any name. The evil will leave the victim, and alight upon the perpetrator.
It is strange to meet with the same kind of superstition in India also, yet such is the case; witness the following extract from a paper by the Rev. George Pettit, of the Tinnevelly Mission of the Church Missionary Society: “A man recently under instruction at Pakunari, now a catechist, brought me an ugly wooden image, about six inches long, with nails driven into it in several places, indicating the parts of his body to be attacked with disease. He had found it buried near his door, and brought it thirty miles to show me, trembling through every limb.” And I am also informed that witches in that country are accustomed to sketch on the ground, or mould in clay, a figure resembling as much as possible the person they propose to injure. They then invoke the evil spirit every day at noon for a week, and finally cut the figure with a sword, or strike it with an arrow from a bow. Again, an Indian tale runs thus: A sorceress falls in love with a prince, who rejects her advances. In revenge she surprises him in coming out of the bath, draws a bag from her girdle, and blows on it; a shower of pins flies out, which stick all over the body of the prince, and he forthwith becomes insensible. Many years afterwards a princess, losing her way in the jungle, discovers a ruined city and palace. She enters the palace, sees the prince extended on a couch, pulls the pins out of his body, and thus destroys the spell.
Witch-finders too used to torment their victims by thrusting pins into them, with the view of discovering upon them the devil’s stigma or mark, a spot which was supposed insensible to pain; and bewitched persons were said to vomit pins in large quantities. Throughout the North of England we have wishing-wells, where the passer-by may breathe his wish, and may rest assured of its fulfilment if only he drop a crooked pin into the water. The Worm Well at Lambton is one of these; there is another in Westmoreland, and another at Wooler, in Northumberland. Of this last a friend writes: “It is scarcely three months since I looked into the maiden or wishing-well at Wooler, and saw the crooked pins strewed over the bottom among the rough gravel.” Certainly at St. Helen’s Well, near Thorp Arch, in Yorkshire, the offering was a scrap of cloth fastened to an adjoining thorn, which presented a strange appearance under its burden of rags; and at the Cheese Well, on Minchmuir, in Peebleshire, it was a piece of cheese flung into the well; but the pin is used as a rule. The country girls imagine that the well is in charge of a fairy or spirit, who must be propitiated by some offering; the pin presents itself as the most ready and convenient, besides having a special suitableness as being made of metal.
Metallic substances are held throughout the North to counteract the influence of witchcraft and every kind of evil spirit. Thus, a knife or other utensil of steel is placed in the cradle of an unbaptized child in Sweden to protect it from all such dangers; and, again, bathers there will throw a bit of steel into the water before they plunge into it, saying to the spirit of the stream, “Neck, neck, steel in strand; thy father was a steel thief, thy mother was a needle thief; so far shalt thou be hence as this cry is heard—Ho, hagler!” Those, too, who visit the holy wells of that country cast into them a piece of money, or a bit of iron, or some other metal.
As to the crookedness of the pins dropped into our north-country wells, it would seem that, in Folk-Lore, crooked things are lucky things; witness the high repute of crooked sixpences. Wells reputed sacred under the tutelage, sometimes of saint sometimes of fairy, still exist in many parts of our island and in the Hebrides. As late as the year 1740, sickly children were dipped in St. Bede’s Well, near Jarrow, and a crooked pin dropped into it; and the same was done when weak eyes were bathed in the well at Whitford, in Flintshire, and when water was drawn from Locksaint Well, in Skye, and drank as a specific for certain complaints. At Sefton, in Lancashire, is a well at which people try their fortunes. They throw in pins and draw conclusions as to the fidelity of lovers, the date of marriage, and so forth, by the turning of the pin to the north or any other point of the compass.
I will only add, in connection with this subject, a remarkable story noted down by my Sussex correspondent: “A lady of my acquaintance, Mrs. P. of Westdean, observed one day on a cottage hearth a quart bottle filled with pins, and on asking about it was requested not to touch the bottle for it was red hot, and besides, if she did so, she would spoil the charm. ‘What charm?’ she asked in some surprise, ‘Why, Ma’am,’ replied the woman, ‘it has pleased God to afflict my daughter here with falling fits, and the doctors did her no good, so I was advised to go to a Wise-woman who lives on this side of Guildford. Well, she said if she were well paid for it she could tell me what ailed the girl and what would cure her. So I said I was agreeable, and she told me the girl was bewitched like other people with falling fits, and I must get a quart bottle and fill it with pins, and let it stand upon the hearth close to the fire till the pins were red hot. When that came about they would prick the heart of the witch who brought this affliction on my poor girl, and she would be glad enough to take it off.’ ” A medical practitioner of the same neighbourhood (Mr. M. of Pulborough) told her, in illustration of this superstition, that during the repairing of a house in that village, on removing the hearthstone of one of the rooms, a bottle containing upwards of 200 pins was discovered, every pin being bent, and some of them much curved. On a bystander expressing his astonishment at this discovery, the workmen told him that they often found such things, and that they were deposited under the hearthstone at the building of a house to insure its safety from witchcraft.
We pass now to some Tweedside stories of recovery of property by the aid of local superstition. The following anecdote is recorded by the Rev. R. O. Bromfield, of Sprouston, and I am glad to give it in his own words:—
“Some time since, when calling at the house of one of my oldest parishioners, who had been a handloom weaver, he fell to speak of other days; and, amongst other things, he told me of the disappearance, some years back, on a fine summer’s evening, of a web of linen which had been laid to bleach by the riverside at the foot of the glebe. The fishermen, it seems, were burning the water in the Skerry, and the man who had charge of the web went off to see the salmon ‘leistered,’ and on his return the web was gone. Of course there was a sensation. The story was soon in everybody’s mouth, with abundant suspicions of as many persons as there were yards in the web of linen.
“The web belonged to a very important personage, no less than the howdie, or old village midwife, who was not disposed to sit down quietly under her loss. So she called in the aid of a Wise-man from Leetholm, and next day told her friend the weaver, my informant, that she had found the thief, for the Wiseman had turned the key. The weaver being anxious to see something of diablerie, the howdie brought the Wise-man to his house; and, the door being locked on all within (four in number), the magician proceeded as follows. He took a small key and attached it to a string, which he tied into the family Bible in a particular place, leaving the key hanging out. Next he read two chapters from the Bible, one of which was the history of Saul and the witch of Endor; he then directed the howdie and another person to support the key between them, on the tips of their forefingers, and in that attitude the former was told to repeat the names of all the suspected parties.
“Many persons were named, but the key still hung between the fingers, when the Wise-man cried out, ‘Why don’t you say Jock Wilson?’ This was accordingly done, and immediately the key dropped, i. e. turned off the finger-ends. So the news spread far and wide that the thief was discovered, for the key had been turned and Jock Wilson was the man! He proved, however, not to be the man to stand such imputations, and, being without doubt an honest fellow, he declared ‘he wud’na be made a thief by the deevil.’ So he went to consult a lawyer, but after many long discussions the matter died away; and my authority, the weaver, says it was believed that the lawyer was bribed, ‘for he aye likit a dram.’ ”
Now here we have something very like an old superstition, which dates at least from the time of Theocritus (B.C. 282). Potter, in his Grecian Antiquities, says that the Greeks called it coskiomancy, and practised it for the discovery of thieves and other suspected persons. They tied a thread to the sieve, by which it was upheld, or else placed under it a pair of shears, which they held up by two fingers; then they prayed to the gods for assistance, after which they repeated the names of the persons under suspicion; and he or she at whose name the sieve moved was thought to have committed the offence. Such was the rite resorted to in pagan Greece. Mr. Kelly finds the key to it in the marvellous powers with which the sieve was invested in days of yore through its connection with rainclouds. Throughout the Greek and Teutonic mythology the sieve may be seen in the hand of cloud-gods and cloud-goddesses, who employed it in watering the earth. Hence it became a sacred implement, and the Greeks, Romans, Germans, and Slavs used it alike in divinations and solemn ordeals. Cornelius Agrippa speaks of it as thus employed, and in Hudibras we find mention of—
The oracle of sieve and shears,
There is a record of its use in the North of England in the 16th century. The private book of Dr. Swift, who was Vicar-General and official Principal of the diocese of Durham from 1561 to 1577, contains “A confession to be made by Allice Swan, wife of Robert Swan, in S. Nicole’s church at Newcastle. for turning the ridle and shears, with certen others, after the minister upon Sonday after the sermon.”
The practice has descended in Germany almost to our own day. It is thus carried on in Mecklenburg. They take a sieve that has been inherited from relations, lay it on the rim, open a pair of inherited scissors, and stick the points so deep into the rim of the sieve that it may be supported by them. Two persons then, of opposite sexes, go with the sieve into a perfectly dark place, hold the middle finger of the right hand under the ring of the scissors, and so raise up the sieve. One then inquires, “In the name, &c. I ask of thee; tell me truly, has Hans, Fritz, Peter, done it?” On naming the guilty one, the ring slides off, the sieve falls to the ground, and the thief is detected.
In the passage above cited, from Potter’s Grecian Antiquities, he says that the vulgar in many parts of England have an abominable practice of using a riddle and a pair of shears in divination. A book and key, however, appear commonly to have superseded the sieve and shears in this country. When Reginald Scott speaks of this species of divination (in his Discovery of Witchcraft, A.D. 1599), it is with a Psalter and a key; and in a case brought before the Thames Police, in 1832, the Bible was used. One Mr. White, it seems, had lost some property, and agreed with the neighbours to resort to the Bible and key in discovery of the thief. They placed the street-door key on the fiftieth Psalm, closed the volume, and fastened it tightly with a string. The Bible and key were then suspended to a nail, and the name of Mrs. Blucher (the person on whom suspicion had fallen) was repeated three times by one of the women, while another recited these lines:—
If it turn to thee,
The key then turned, or was thought to do so, and Mrs. Blucher was proclaimed to be the thief; on which she went into Mrs. White’s house and beat her, and was finally brought before the police-court on a charge of assault.
A similar case occurred not long ago on board a collier off Southampton, in which the key was placed on the 1st chapter of Ruth. The Bible fell at the mention of a certain lad’s name, and on this evidence alone he was brought before the bench of magistrates on a charge of theft. The bench of course discharged him.
Again, soon after the reconstruction of the Whitby and Pickering branch of the North Eastern Railway, a lady lost her boa, a large old-fashioned one, on Fenbog, near the line. Having ascertained that only one person had been seen near the spot that day she accused him of finding and keeping her boa, in spite of his respectable position as an inspector on the line and his unblemished character. He denied the charge, so she consulted the riddle and shears and he was found guilty. The oracle swayed public opinion so completely that he found himself obliged to give up his situation and leave the place. Some months later, however, he was unexpectedly cleared. A railway official spied a hairy monster floating in a little stream close to the line, called for help, and collected some men with forks and other implements, who soon brought to land the lost boa. While as recently as December 27, 1878, in a trial before the borough court of Ludlow, it transpired that “the Bible and key” had been appealed to for the discovery of a thief, and in the following way: The parties concerned touched the ends of their five fingers to form a cross over the open Bible, on which the key was laid, and the words, “Where thou goest I will go,” &c. were uttered. Then certain names were repeated, and when the name was mentioned of the person who stole the articles the key began (it was said) to jerk about, and no power could keep it still.
A book and key are used, I believe, in a somewhat similar way by modern mesmerisers, to test the strength of will. If two persons thus hold them on the tips of their forefingers the key will turn, they say, to the one who possesses the strongest will.
The Universal Fortune Teller, a small pamphlet of which I have made mention already, prescribes the following method of discovering a theft by the sieve and shears: “Stick the points of the shears in the wood of the sieve, let two persons support it, balanced upright with their two fingers, then read a certain chapter in the Bible and ask S. Peter and S. Paul if A or B is the thief, naming all the persons you suspect. On naming the real thief the sieve will suddenly turn about.”
The same authority prescribes the following plan for finding out the two first letters of the future wife or husband’s name. “Take a small Bible and the key of the street-door, and having opened to Cant. viii. 6, 7, place the wards of the key on those two verses. Let the bow of the key be about an inch out of the top of the Bible. Then shut the book and tie it round with your garter so that the key will not move, and let the person who wishes to know his or her future partner’s signature suspend the Bible by putting the middle finger of the right hand under the bow of the key, while another person stands in like manner on the other side of the bow of the key. The latter must repeat the above-named verses while the former person says the alphabet, one letter to each repetition of the verses. It must be observed that he who says the verses must be told before beginning which you intend to try first, the Christian or the surname; take care to hold the Bible steady, and when you arrive at the appointed letter the book will turn round under your finger; this shows it to be the first letter of your intended’s name.” These are the strange forms in which “coskiomancy” is now practised in the neighbourhood of the Seven Dials. In Sussex two young persons will hold the “Bible and key” to ascertain which will be married first. While they stand with the string suspended on their fingers they repeat Ruth i. 16, and he to whom the book turns is pronounced the fortunate one. I am assured that this rite has been a good deal practised there even by well-educated persons. It is remarkable that Eusebe de Salle, in his Peregrinations en Orient, states that he saw the book and key resorted to for the sake of ascertaining which of two parties spoke the truth. He was on a visit at the English consul’s when a servant, a Syrian Christian, declared that he had given into the possession of his mistress a certain jewel which yet she could not find. The question of his truthfulness was submitted to the ordeal of the Bible and the key. The servant repeated a prayer, then pronounced alternately his mistress’s name and his own. The Bible turned at her name, and he was considered clear of the offence. It is added that on a closer search the lady found her jewel.
But to return to the Tweedside. I am indebted to the Rev. R O. Bromfield for the history of another web of linen stolen a few years back from the banks of the same river. In this instance the owner was one Tarn Aldren, an elder in the Kirk, and he resorted to a Wise-woman at Berwick-upon-Tweed. She told him at once that the cloth was then hidden under a certain tree, which she described, and offered to evoke the forms of the thieves, and make them pass before him at that very moment. But honest Tarn demurred: he said he didna want to ken wha had stolen the claith, but where the claith was put, that he might get it back; and no doubt he entertained, too, a lurking fear of being brought too near the de’il. So away he went in all haste to the tree indicated, to search for his cloth below it, but, alas! he found it not. Seeing, however, or fancying he saw, some traces there of the bleaching composition, he maintained ever after, that, without any doubt, the cloth had once been on that spot.
It appears that Scarborough has its Wise-man, to whom resort is made on the loss of property. Thus the following notice was recently published by the bellman at Staitnes: “Stolen yesterday afternoon a large fisherman’s net belonging to Jock ——, and if it is not brought back before to-morrow at 1 o’clock he’ll apply to the Wise-man at Scarbro’.” At Shipley, near Leeds, resides another of these worthies, named Billy Pullein. A “land merchant,” or dealer, who carried woollen goods to country markets, on returning from a tour in the north of Yorkshire, lost the proceeds of all his sales between Bingley and Shipley. Under these circumstances he consulted Billy Pullein, who after listening to the narration merely deigned to say, “I’ll gie ’em a shak.” A week later the dealer met near the Cloth Hall at Leeds an acquaintance who asked him whether he had heard anything about the lost money. On being answered in the negative, the man continued with much emotion, “But I can tell thee summat; there it is. I gie it thee just as I found it.” And when the dealer thanked him he only said, “Thou canst have no more pleasure in getting it than I in giving it. I’ve been miserable indeed all this week.” This was of course attributed to Billy Pullein’s “shak.”
In cases like these, it maybe remarked that Devonshire superstition points more to the punishment of the thief than to the recovery of the stolen property. If a robbery has been committed, it enjoins you to pluck six blades of grass from the spot, and take them to a white witch; as many scratches as she makes with a pin in the grass blades, so many rents will there be in the face of the thief.
Wild and varied as I know the superstitions of my native county to be, I must plead guilty to some astonishment at discovering among them what Brand calls “the foreign superstition of the Hand of Glory, once firmly believed in many parts of France, Germany, and Spain.” Sir Walter Scott brings it forward as a foreign charm. It is the German adventurer, Dousterswivel, who is conversant with it, and who (in The Antiquary) describes it thus racily to the assembled party among the ruins at St. Ruth’s: “Why, my goot master Oldenbuck, you will only laugh at me. But de Hand of Glory is very well known in de countries where your worthy progenitors did live; and it is a hand cut off from a dead man as has been hanged for murder, and dried very nice in de shmoke of juniper-wood; and if you put a little of what you call yew wid your juniper it will not be any better—that is, it will not be no worse; then you do take something of de fatsh of de bear, and of de badger, and of de great eber (as you do call de grand boar), and of de little sucking child as has not been christened (for dat is very essentials); and you do make a candle, and put into de Hand of Glory at de proper hour and minute, with de proper ceremonish; and he who seeksh for treasuresh shall never find none at all.”
Dousterswivel asserts that the monks used the Hand of Glory as a spell to conceal treasures, Southey places it in the hands of the enchanter-king Mohareb, when he would lull to sleep Zohak, the giant keeper of the caves of Babylon—
Thus he said,
while Grose gives a full account of it, as used by French housebreakers, in a translation from the French of Les Secrets du Petit Albert (A.D. 1750), alleging that its use was to stupefy those to whom it was presented, and to render them motionless, so that they could not stir any more than if they were dead. There is one instance on record of its use in Ireland: “On the night of the 3rd instant (January 1831), some Irish thieves attempted to commit a robbery on the estate of Mr. Naper, of Loughcrew, county Meath. They entered the house, armed with a dead man’s hand with a lighted candle in it, believing in the superstitious notion that a candle placed in a dead man’s hand will not be seen by any but those by whom it is used; and also that if a candle in a dead hand be introduced into a house it will prevent those who may be asleep from awaking. The inmates, however, were alarmed, and the robbers fled, leaving the hand behind them.”
The Stainmore story, however, which has with difficulty been rescued from oblivion by the persevering kindness of friends, is much richer in detail. It is as follows:—One evening, between the years 1790 and 1800, a traveller, dressed in woman’s clothes, arrived at the Old Spital Inn, the place where the mail coach changed horses, in High Spital, on Bowes Moor. The traveller begged to stay all night, but had to go away so early in the morning, that if a mouthful of food were set ready for breakfast there was no need the family should be disturbed by her departure. The people of the house, however, arranged that a servant maid should sit up till the stranger was out of the premises, and then went to bed themselves. The girl lay down for a nap on the long settle by the fire, but before she shut her eyes she took a good look at the traveller, who was sitting on the opposite side of the hearth, and espied a pair of man’s trousers peeping out from under the gown. All inclination for sleep was now gone; however, with great self-command, she feigned it, closed her eyes, and even began to snore. On this the traveller got up, pulled out of his pocket a dead man’s hand, fitted a candle to it, lighted the candle, and passed hand and candle several times before the servant-girl’s face, saying as he did so, “Let those who are asleep be asleep, and let those who are awake be awake.” This done, he placed the light on the table, opened the outer door, went down two or three of the steps which led from the house to the road, and began to whistle for his companions. The girl (who had hitherto had presence of mind enough to remain perfectly quiet) now jumped up, rushed behind the ruffian, and pushed him down the steps. She then shut the door, locked it, and ran upstairs to try and wake the family, but without success: calling, shouting, and shaking were alike in vain. The poor girl was in despair, for she heard the traveller and his comrades outside the house. So she ran down again, seized a bowl of blue (i.e. skimmed milk), and threw it over the hand and candle; after which she went upstairs again, and awoke the sleepers without any difficulty. The landlord’s son went to the window, and asked the men outside what they wanted. They answered that if the dead man’s hand were but given them, they would go away quietly, and do no harm to any one. This he refused, and fired among them, and the shot must have taken effect, for in the morning stains of blood were traced to a considerable distance.
These circumstances were related to my informant, Mr. Charles Wastell, in the spring of 1861, by an old woman named Bella Parkin, who resided close to High Spital, and was actually the daughter of the courageous servant-girl.
It is interesting to compare them with the following narrations, communicated to me by the Rev. S. Baring Gould:—“Two magicians having come to lodge in a public-house with a view to robbing it, asked permission to pass the night by the fire, and obtained it. When the house was quiet, the servant-girl, suspecting mischief, crept downstair and looked through the keyhole. She saw the men open a sack, and take out a dry withered hand. They anointed the fingers with some unguent, and lighted them. Each finger flamed, but the thumb they could not light; that was because one of the household was not asleep. The girl hastened to her master, but found it impossible to arouse him. She tried every other sleeper, but could not break the charmed sleep. At last, stealing down into the kitchen, while the thieves were busy over her master’s strong box, she secured the hand, blew out the flames, and at once the whole household was aroused.”
But the next story bears a closer resemblance to the Stainmore narrative. One dark night, when all was shut up, there came a tap at the door of a lone inn in the middle of a barren moor. The door was opened, and there stood without, shivering and shaking, a poor beggar, his rags soaked with rain, and his hands white with cold. He asked piteously for a lodging, and it was cheerfully granted him; there was not a spare bed in the house but he could lie on the mat before the kitchen fire, and welcome.
So this was settled, and everyone in the house went to bed except the cook, who from the back kitchen could see into the large room through a pane of glass let into the door. She watched the beggar, and saw him, as soon as he was left alone, draw himself up from the floor, seat himself at the table, extract from his pocket a brown withered human hand, and set it upright in the candlestick. He then anointed the fingers, and applying a match to them, they began to flame. Filled with horror, the cook rushed up the back stairs, and endeavoured to arouse her master and the men of the house. But all was in vain they slept a charmed sleep; so in despair she hastened down again, and placed herself at her post of observation.
She saw the fingers of the hand flaming, but the thumb remained unlighted, because one inmate of the house was awake. The beggar was busy collecting the valuables around him into a large sack, and having taken all he cared for in the large room, he entered another. On this the woman ran in, and, seizing the light, tried to extinguish the flames. But this was not so easy. She blew at them, but they burnt on as before. She poured the dregs of a beer-jug over them, but they blazed up the brighter. As a last resource, she caught up a jug of milk, and dashed it over the four lambent flames, and they died out at once. Uttering a loud cry, she rushed to the door of the apartment the beggar had entered, and locked it. The whole family was roused, and the thief easily secured and hanged. This tale is told in Northumberland.
A variation of the same belief prevailed in Belgium. Not far from Bailleul, in West Flanders, a thief was taken, on whom was found the foot of a man who had been hanged, which he used for the purpose of putting people to sleep. Again, in the village of Alveringen, there formerly lived a sorceress who had a thief’s finger over which nine masses had been said; for, being acquainted with the sacristan, she had wrapped it in a cloth and laid it on the altar, telling him it was a relic. With this finger she performed wonderful things. When she had lighted it—for such fingers burn like a candle—everyone in the house where she might be was put to sleep. She would then steal money and everything else she fancied, till at last she was detected, and the stolen property found in her possession.
In a note to the passage quoted above from Southey’s Thalaba, it is mentioned that a somewhat similar practice is recorded by Torquemada of Mexican thieves. They used to carry with them the left hand and arm of a woman who had died in her first childbed; with this they twice struck the ground before the house which they designed to rob, and the door twice, and the threshold twice: the inhabitants, if asleep, were hindered from waking by this charm, and, if awake, were stupefied and deprived of speech and motion while the fatal arm was in the house.
But I have wandered a little from the subject of witchcraft proper. Let me return to it and mention an incident more recent than the other illustrations I have adduced. I received it from a clerical friend, whose informant was a pupil in the house of the clergyman referred to.
In the autumn of the year 1851, a clergyman living in Rutlandshire gave a small party, to which a neighbour, also a country clergyman, brought his family and one young lady visitor. During the evening, this young lady went upstairs into the bedroom of one of her host’s family, saw a gold watch hanging up on a nail, took it down, concealed it in her dress, joined the party again, and entered into the amusements of the evening. They dispersed in due time, and the young lady carried away the watch. When its owner retired to her room she at once missed it; inquiries were made, and even the police called in, but to no purpose. Suspicion fell, however, upon a poor woman and her daughter, who had come in as helpers from the village, and this in spite of the excellent character they had always borne. These persons were much hurt at the accusation, and annoyed at the visits and searchings of the police; so after a few days they called in a Wise-woman from Leicester, who was famous for aiding to recover lost property. This Wise-woman was thrown into a mesmeric state by her husband. At first she was violent, but she gradually calmed down, and when they questioned her spoke as follows:—
“I am going over hill and valley, and at length arrive at a village. I come to a gate, go through it into a yard, enter the house, and ascend the stairs.” (She then described accurately the house and the room.) “I see a watch hanging on a nail. A short young lady in a pink dress, with dark hair, comes in, takes it, and puts it in her bosom. She goes away two miles. She is at this moment walking in a meadow with some children. The watch is in her bosom, and you will find it there; but you must be very quiet about it, for she is full of apprehension, and has been trying to get rid of the watch.”
This history was brought to the family where the young lady was staying. The master of the house was not at all disposed to believe the circumstances, but, seeing the poor people persuaded of their truth, he felt himself obliged to order an investigation. The young lady’s boxes were searched in vain, but on proceeding to a personal examination, the watch was found in the place specified. The Wise-woman had stated that this was not the first instance of appropriation on the young lady’s part, and here too she proved correct.
Let me close this long rambling chapter with a few words about a Scottish witch, the last who was burned at Crieff. She suffered on the Knock. Her name was Kate Neirns, and many romantic tales are told of her. With her last breath she denounced her principal persecutor, Campbell, of Menzie, a neighbouring laird, and the effect of her curse is still believed to attach to his unfortunate house. No son, she said, should ever succeed his father in the property. On the contrary, she did what she could for the laird of Inchbrakie, Graeme, who had endeavoured to save her life. She told him that as long as he and his preserved a bead which she spit out of her mouth so long the property should continue in the family. The bead is still carefully kept, and the family, though not without many vicissitudes, still retain their lands. These particulars were communicated to me by the late Canon Humble.
- Note that this is the case with werewolves also. In Brittany, if the lycanthropist be scratched above the nose, so that three blood-drops are extracted, the charm is broken. In Germany, the werewolf has to be stabbed with knife or pitchfork thrice on the brows before it can be disenchanted. S. B. G.
- At Hurstpierpoint there is a cottage in which lived a witch, of whom it was said she could not die till she had sold her secret. Her end was dreadful. She was dying for weeks. At last an old man from Cuckfield workhouse paid a halfpenny for the secret, and she died with the money in her hand. A blue flame appeared on the roof as she breathed her last.
The mother of a man whom I know was struck dumb by this witch. The hag was wont to mumble as she walked along, and this woman asked her one day what curses she was muttering, whereupon she was struck dumb. At the end of three months the relations interfered, and persuaded the old woman to take off the charm. So she told her victim to walk to Sevenoaks, in Kent, where at the park-gate she would meet a man in black, and then and there recover her speech, which accordingly came to pass. I have heard this story corroborated by several persons. S. B. G.
- See Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 64. At Bratton-Clovelly, in Devonshire, a farmer’s cows were charmed, so that his milk yielded neither cream nor hutter. He declared on oath that he had put whole faggots on the fire, but the milk would not boil, a proof that it was bewitched. He therefore resorted to the white witch at Exeter, who advised him to make a fire with sticks gathered out of four parishes, and set the milk upon them. The witch would thereupon look in at the door or window, and the charm would be broken. The man did as ordered, collecting wood from the parishes of Lewtrenchard, Gennansweek, Broadwood Wigger, and Thrustleton. As soon as the milk was placed on the fire thus made, it boiled over; the witch peeped in at the window and muttered something, then went away, and the charm was broken. S. B. G.
It is curious to trace something analogous in Swedish Folk-Lore. If on Mid-summer Eve nine kinds of wood are collected, and formed into a pile and kindled, and some witch’s butter cast upon it, or if the fire be only beaten with nine kinds of wood, witches are forced to come forward and discover themselves. Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 106.
- Scott’s Demonology, letter v.
- Elf-shooting is, in fact, an ancient Scandinavian superstition. In the Bandamanna Saga, an Icelandic account of a law-feud in the eleventh century, occurs the following passage: “That same autumn Hermund gathered a party and went on his way to Borg, intending to burn down the house with Egil in it. Now, as they came out under Valfell, they heard the chime of a bowstring up in the fell; and at the moment Hermund felt ill, and a sharp pain under his arms, so that they had to turn about, and the sickness gained on him. When they reached Thorgantsstede they had to lift him down from his horse, and they sent after the priest at Sidumuli. When he arrived Hermund could not speak, and the priest remained with him. After awhile his lips moved, and the priest bending over him heard him say, ‘Two hundred in the gill! Two hundred in the gill!’ and so muttering he died.”—(Bandamanna Saga, p. 41.) This is one of the earliest accounts of an elf-shot I know. In the old Norse ballad of “Sir Olaf,” the Ellmaid strikes the hunter on the heart, and he dies.—S. B. G.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. pp. 174-176.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 235.
- Ibid. vol. ii. p. 190.
- Mr. Baring Gould writes further on this subject:
“I do not think the miller’s story at Dalton is taken bodily from the Polyphemus tale, for there are extraordinary similarities to it to be found all over the world. See on this Die Saga von Polyphem, by W. Grimm, Berlin, 1857. He quotes:
“1. Homer’s story of Polyphemus.
“2. A story of French origin in Dolopathes, written between 1184-1212.
“3. A story told by the Oghuzi, a Tatar-Turkish race, in Diez’s Des Neuentdeckte oghuzische Cyklop veglichcn mit dem kanerischen, 1815.
“4. The third adventure of Sinbad.
“5. A Serb tale.
“6. A Roumanian tale, collected in Transylvania by Obert.
“7. An Esthonian tale.
“8. A Finn tale.
“9. A tale picked up by Castrin, the ethnologist of the northern tribes of Russia, in Karelia.
“10. A Folk-tale in the Harz Mountains.
“11. A Norse tale in Asbjörnsen.
“The preservation of the knife and the mound called the Giant’s Grave show that the myth I heard is not of recent origin at Dalton. I am told by one of our servants from Dalton that at the rebuilding of the farm the mound was opened and a stone coffin found in it; but whether this be a kistvaen or a mediæval sarcophagus I cannot tell. I wrote some time ago to my successor at Dalton for another version of the Giant story to compare it with mine, and about the stone coffin, but have had no answer.”
- In the curious old volume of sermons in German, by Dr. Johann Geyler von Keysersperg, entitled Die Emeis, preached in Strasbourg A.D. 1508, and published in 1517, is a quaint woodcut of witches milking pump-handles, and a sermon on the iniquity of those old hags who thus drain their neighbours’ cows of milk. That portion of the wife of Deloraine’s story concerning the inability of the apprentice to stop the milk closely resembles the German tale of the magician and his pupil, which Göthe has versified in his Zauberlehrling.—S. B. G.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 78.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 277.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 681.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 25.
- Nyauld (De la Lycanthropie, Paris, 1615) relates (p. 52) that in a village of Switzerland, near Lucerne, a peasant was once attacked by a wolf while he was hewing timber. He defended himself, and smote off the foreleg of the beast. The moment that the blood began to flow the creature’s foot changed, and he recognised in his enemy a woman of his acquaintance without her arm. She was burnt alive.—S. B. G.
- Traditions of Devon, vol. ii. p. 277.
- Vol. iii. p. 278.
- Sprenger relates that a labourer was attacked by three young ladies in the form of cats, and that they were wounded by him. They were found bleeding in their beds next morning. Bodin says that in Vernon, about the year 1566, the witches and warlocks gathered in great multitudes under the shape of cats. Four or five men were attacked in a lone place by a number of these beasts. The men stood their ground with the utmost bravery, succeeded in slaying one puss, and wounded many others. Next day a number of wounded women were found in the town, and they gave the judge an accurate account of all the circumstances connected with their wounding.—The Book of Werewolves, by the Rev. S. Baring Gould, pp. 64, 65.
Note that in England the extirpation of wolves under the Anglo-Saxon kings has altered the ancient legends of lycanthropy into stories of transformation into hares and cats.—S. B. G.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 26.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 191.
- It is curious to compare this account with that Ben Jonson gives in his “Sad Shepherd” of “the sport of witch-hunting, or starting of a hag”:
Within a gloomy dingle she doth dwell,
Down in a pit o’ergrown with brakes and briars,
Close by the ruins of a shaken abbey,
Torn with an earthquake down unto the ground,
’Mongst graves and grots, near an old charnelhouse.
* * * * *
All this I know, and I will find her for you,
And show you her sitting in her form. I’ll lay
My hand upon her; make her throw her scut
Along her back, when she doth start before us.
But you must give her law, and you shall see her
Make twenty leaps and doubles, cross the paths,
And then squat down before us.
John. Crafty Groan,
I long to be at the sport and to report it.
Scarlet. We’ll make this hunting of the witch as famous
As any other blast of venery.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 168.
- Ibid. vol. iii. p. 182.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 24.—In Devonshire witches and malevolent people still make clay images of those whom they intend to hurt, baptize the image with the name of the person whom it is meant to represent, and then stick it full of pins or burn it. In the former case that person is racked with rheumatism in all his limbs; in the second he is smitten with raging fever. Nider, in his Hierarchy of Blessed Angels, speaks of a witch named Æniponte, who, by making an effigy of wax, pricking it with needles in divers parts, and then burying it under the threshold of a neighbour’s house whom she much hated, brought upon that neighbour insufferable torments and prickings in the flesh, till the image was found and destroyed, upon which those evils passed away. King James I. in his Demonology, speaks of the practice as very common, and attributes its efficacy to the devil. In Adam Davies’s Gest, or Romance of Alexander, Nectabanus, a magician, discovers the machinations of his enemies by embattling them in wax figures. So, too, he bewitches a queen by making a wax puppet of her, and spreading over it herbs of power.—S. B. G.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 54.
- Ibid. vol. iii. p. 279.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 82
- Vol. i. p. 52.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 161.
- It is curious to remark the different forms which superstition assumes in different grades of society. While our peasants resort to the wizard or Wise-woman, our gentlemen, it seems, actually have recourse to the spirit-rapper. Witness the following anecdote:
In the early part of the year 1861 a robbery took place near S——, in the county of Durham; the sum taken was large, and the attendant circumstances mysterious. Great efforts were made by the police to discover the thieves, but to no purpose; so the gentleman whose property had been stolen actually sent to London for an eminent spirit-rapper to aid his search. The spirit having been evoked, it was announced that the lost treasure was deposited in a certain garden; and there at midnight the party set to work to recover it. While thus employed they perceived that they were watched, and, secrecy being requisite for such investigations, they hastily decamped. But what was the horror of the gentleman and his friends when a policeman called the next morning, and announced that he had got on the scent, for he had seen the thieves digging in the garden at midnight, and had heard them speak of the money they expected to find there! Little were they prepared for such a way of “turning the tables.” What makes this incident the more singular is, that the gentleman who thus sought for the aid of spiritual agency was in the prime of life, and was a person of wealth and good position in the county.
- The Hand of Glory is the hand of a man who has been hung, and is prepared in the following manner: Wrap the hand in apiece of winding-sheet, drawing it tight so as to squeeze out the little blood which may remain; then place it in an earthenware vessel with saltpetre, salt, and long pepper, all carefully and thoroughly powdered. Let it remain a fortnight in this pickle till it is well dried, then expose it to the sun in the dog-days till it is completely parched, or, if the sun be not powerful enough, dry it in an oven heated with vervain and fern. Next make a candle with the fat of a hung man, virgin wax, and Lapland sesame. The Hand of Glory is used to hold this candle when it is lighted. Wherever one goes with this contrivance those it approaches are rendered incapable of motion as though they were dead.—Colin de Planey’s Dictionnaire Infernal, 1818. See also Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, p. 1027. There is a Catalonian ballad to the same effect in Ferd. Wolf’s Proben Portug. u. Katalan. Volksromanzen, Wien, 1853, p. 146.—S. B. G.
- Thalaba the Destroyer, book v.
- Delrio, See also Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 274.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. pp. 274, 275.