The Seventeenth-Century Witch’s Devilish Attributes

Oliver Madox Hueffer

Oliver Madox Hueffer

In his very learned and exhaustive treatise, ‘De la Demonomanie des Sorciers,’ the worthy Bodin, with enterprise worthy of a modern serial-story writer, keeps his reader’s curiosity whetted to its fullest by darkly hinting his knowledge of awesome spells and charms commonly employed by Satan’s servants. Unlike the modern writer, however, he refrains from detailing them at length in his last chapter, fearing to impart knowledge which may easily be put to the worst account. However valuable a testimony to his good faith and discretion, this would undoubtedly have brought down upon him the strictures of modern critics, and might indeed have entailed severe loss to the world had not other less conscientious writers more than rectified the omission.

It were, of course, impossible to include within the limits of such a volume as is this — or of a hundred like it — one tithe of the great store of spells, charms, and miscellaneous means towards enchantment gathered together in the long centuries since the birth of the first witch. So also it is impossible to select any particular stage in her long evolution as the most characteristic, as regards her manners and customs, of all that we imply by the word “witch.” On the other hand, she has definitely crystallised in the minds of those of us who have ever been children, in the shape of the “horrid old witch” of fairy lore; and just as, in a preceding chapter, I have endeavoured to reproduce one of her working days — as imaged in the popular mind — so the witch of the Middle Ages may best be chosen when we would reconstruct her more human aspect.

Of her actual appearance, divested of her infernal attributes, no better description could be desired than that given by Reginald Scot in ‘The Discoverie of Witchcraft’: — “Witches be commonly old, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles; poore, sullen, superstitious, and papists” — (it is perhaps unnecessary to point out that Scot was of the Reformed Faith) — “or such as know no religion; in whose drousie minds the devill hath goten a fine seat; so as, what mis-chiefe, mischance, calamitie or slaughter is brought to passe, they are easilie persuaded the same is doone by themselves, imprinting in their minds an earnest and constant imagination hereof. They are leane and deformed, showing melancholie in their faces to the horror of all that see them. They are doting, scolds, mad, divilish.”

Endowed with so unfortunate a personality, it is not surprising that, as Scot goes on to inform us, the witch should have found it difficult to make a living. It is indeed an interesting example of the law of supply and demand that such woeful figures being needed for the proper propagation of the witch-mania, the conditions of mediaeval life, by their harsh pressure upon the poor and needy among women, should have provided them by the score in every village. You may find the conventional witch-figure to-day in the lonely hamlet or in the city workhouse, but, thanks to our better conditions of life, she has become almost as rare as have accusations of witchcraft against her.

The only means of subsistence open to her, Scot goes on, is to beg from house to house. In time it comes about that people grow weary of her importunities. Perhaps they show their impatience too openly. “Then,” says Scot, “she curses one or the other, from the master of the house to the little pig that lieth in the stie.” Someone in the wide range between those two extremes will be certain to suffer some kind of mischance before long — on much the same principle as that which gives life to one of our most popular present-day superstitions, the ill-luck attending a gathering of “thirteen at table.” Any such disaster is naturally attributed to the old beggar-woman — who is thus at once elevated to the dangerous eminence of witch-hood. Nor did the sufferer always wait for her curse.

Edward Fairfax, for example, the learned seventeenth-century translator of Tasso, upon an epidemic sickness attacking his children, sought out their symptoms in a “book of medicine.” Not finding any mention of “such agonies “as those exhibited by his children, he determined that some unholy agency must be at work. His thoughts turned, naturally enough, to the gloomy forest of Knaresborough, within convenient distance of his abode. Nothing could be more suspicious than the mere fact of living in such a suggestive locality, yet Margaret White, the widow of a man executed for theft, her daughter, and Jennie Dibble, an old widow coming of a family suspected of witchcraft for generations past, were imprudent, or unfortunate, enough to live within its borders. The natural result attended their rashness — and so earnest was the worthy Fairfax that he set the whole proceedings down in a book, adding a minute account of the symptoms and delusions of the invalids.

As the King has his orb and sceptre, the astrologer his spheres and quadrant, so the witch has her insignia of office. And it is a strong indication of her descent from the first house-wife that most of them are domestic or familiar objects.

The imp or “familiar “who attends her may have the form of a bird or dog, but is far more often the most domestic animal of all, the cat. Frequently it is malformed or monstrous, in common with Satan himself and all the beings who owe him allegiance. It may have any number of legs, several tails, or none at all; its mewing is diabolic; it may be far above the usual stature of its kind. Usually, it is black, but is equally eligible if white or yellow. As is a common incident of all religions, the symbol is sometimes confused with the office, the witch and her cat exchanging identities. Thus witches have confessed under torture to have formerly been cats, and to owe their human shape to Satan’s interference with natural laws. A piebald cat is said to become a witch if it live for nine years, and the witch, when upon a nefarious errand, frequently assumes a feline shape.

A characteristic of the witch, in common with demons and imps in general, is that she does everything contrary to the tastes and customs of good Christians. With the one steady exception of the cat, she most esteems animals repellent to the ordinary person, to women in particular, and her imps may appear as rats or mice, usually tailless, spiders, fleas, nits, flies, toads, hares, crows, hornets, moles, frogs, or, curiously enough, domestic poultry. An essential item in her outfit is her broomstick — as homely an insignia as the cat. Its feminine connection is obvious, though possibly its power of flight may be derived from the magic wand. Smeared with a Satanic ointment, it acts as her chariot, or is prepared to serve her as a weapon of offence or defence — and woe to him who suffers a beating from the witch’s broom-handle.

The spindle, emblem of domesticity, becomes in the witch’s hands a maleficial instrument, and may be applied by her to a number of evil uses. The idea of the thread of life enters into many mythologies, and it, from some confusion of ideas, may well have been instrumental in transforming the natural occupation of an old woman into one of the dangerous tricks of witchcraft.

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