Saturday, 27 September 2014

Room on a Broom: The First Confession

The stereotypical image of a witch with her broomstick is deeply entrenched in the popular consciousness. If you ask anyone, from six to sixty, to name something they associate with a witch, the top answer will likely be a broom. At Halloween especially, on posters, chocolates, looming in shop windows, even walking down the high street, she – and it is almost always a she – is everywhere. 

It may therefore come as some surprise to learn that the first recorded admission of flying on a broomstick was made by a man. 

Guillaume Edelin, Prior of St. Germain en Laye near Paris and former Augustinian monk, would not be first choice for a sorcery suspect. Nonetheless, in 1453 he confessed under torture to having repeatedly honoured the Devil in the form of a sheep or ram, kissing the animal on the buttocks to show his submission. In return for diabolical assistance, Edelin stated, he was bound to meet with his new master whenever he should be called for. Conveniently, this could be achieved by the simple act of getting astride a broom - he was then, according to Edelin's own admission, instantly transported to the presence of the Devil.  

A possible hint to why he was targeted comes from the further accusation that he was living with a woman of noble birth, whose affections he had won with the aid of his diabolical master. The real root cause however appears to have been a sermon preached shortly before his arrest; Edelin declared somewhat rashly that he did not believe in the witches' Sabbath, saying instead that it was nothing but a creation of the imagination. This was not, as can be imagined, stomached well by those working with the Inquisition to root out the heresy of sorcery throughout France. 

Edelin was displayed on a scaffold in the city of Evreux, where he was publicly chastised for his sins. He duly confessed and repented before the assembled crowd, before being taken back to his dungeon where he was tortured in order to atone for his misdeeds. Jean Bodin refers to Edelin in his De la Demonomanie des Sorciers (The Demon-mania of Sorcerers) claiming that he was executed in 1453 as a wizard, but it appears that,although he was spared execution in exchange for his public confession, Edelin eventually died in prison.

The case is also of particular note as Edelin was said to have had a written copy of the contract signed with the Devil on his person at the time of his arrest; certain evidence not only of his guilt, but of the very things Edelin professed not to believe from the pulpit. 

A couple of years before Edelin's confession, we have the first known printed image of a witch on a broom in 1451, the miniature Hexenflug der Vaudoises (Flight of the Witches) from Martin le Franc's manuscript Le Champion des Dames. Thus the familiar and enduring image of women using their broomsticks to fly was born - and if a glance into shop windows is anything to go by, it is long set to continue. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Man's Best Friend? Curious Quotes and Spectral Dogs

Among many things, I am a collector of quotes. Whether long, short, amusing, or inspiring, if it catches my interest, down it goes. It was with glee therefore that I reached for my pen at the following chilling pronouncement by historian Edwin Trueman in his 1899 History of Ilkeston. After waxing lyrical on the perils faced by early man and the likely prospect of being eaten by various very corporeal beasts, he goes on to declare with relish:

"You might catch dozens of wolves and foxes in snares, and so thin their numbers, but you could not snare spectral dogs, or if you could, you would not know what to do with the ghastly creatures when you had caught them and their blood-curdling baying would haunt your dreams for the rest of your days, as indeed it did already."

Who would not feel a thrill of terror at such carefully crafted words? Whether a real concern of the earlier inhabitants of the Derbyshire village or a late Victorian fantasy, the problem of spectral hounds was not peculiar to Derbyshire. From Black Shuck to Cerberus guarding the gates of the Underworld, dogs, especially of the large and black variety, have pervaded folklore and the popular imagination since records began. 

A dog is, after all, a common animal to be seen out and about in any age, especially after the disappearance of Trueman's aforementioned wolves (and the predatory hyenas cited in another chapter by the somewhat fanciful historian). Spotted unexpectedly, in the darkness of a field or a country lane, an animal that is usually familiar easily becomes a terrifying beast. It is then only a matter of time before other encounters are explained in the same way, the initial judgement forming the framework for others to interpret their own unexplained experiences. With a few embellishments added along the way, it takes very little for a legend to form and grow, evolving all the while.

We are no stranger to black dogs here at The Witch, The Weird and The Wonderful; Robert Fabian encountered one in his quest for Charles Walton's killer, while Agnes Waterhouse was accused of, among other things, sending a demon in the guise of a black dog to terrorize a young neighbour. In coastal areas, such sightings are often interpreted as forecasting bad weather, seen by many before a storm brews. Spectral dogs are also often found at boundaries, whether between estates, counties or worlds. 

I remember, incidentally, a rumour that such an apparition haunted a lane near a pub my parents frequented; needless to say, every Sunday afternoon when we drove past on the way home I made certain to look the other way! A few years later I found myself walking down that very lane; it was certainly on the eerie side, but if there were a ghost dog around, it did not feel like showing itself. 

It would be fascinating to discover which of the following manifestations influenced Trueman's thoughts on the subject, as if he himself ever encountered a ghost hound he refrained from sharing it with his readers. 

The Beast of Bungay:
The church of St Mary's, Bungay in Suffolk,was the scene for one of the most oft repeated black dog sightings. During a service on 4th August, 1577, it is recorded that a massive black beast entered the church, slaying parishioners as they prayed. The incident occurred during a violent electrical storm, during which the tower was struck, cracking the clock and killing two bell-ringers.  The black dog is now part of the town's coat of arms and the event recorded in verse. 

"Claw marks" on the door of 
Bungay Church, Suffolk

Black Shuck:
Probably the most well-known of the ghostly canines roaming the British countryside, "Shuck" is sometimes given as a catchall name for such dog sightings. Shuck himself is said to wander through East Anglia, startling the unwary with his glowing, saucer-like eyes and sometimes headless appearance. Shuck is generally seen as a malevolent entity, often taken as a premonition of death. 

Padfoot or Padifoot: 
The Yorkshire-based Padfoot is a shapeshifting beast who most often takes the form of a dog. This variation is described as being donkey-sized, and, like Shuck, linked with an impending death. Although usually black, a white variant has also been cited. Padfoot is also sometimes invisible, only the sound of his footsteps to alert a traveller that they are not alone. 

Moddey Dhoo/Mauthe Doog:
Moddey Dhoo has been sighted in several locations on the Isle of Man.  First reported as a large black spaniel by George Waldren in his History and Description of the Isle of Man in 1731, the dog was reputed to haunt Peel Castle. Although causing fear when seen elsewhere around the island, especially when in his headless state, at the castle itself he grew to be such a frequent sight that those who worked there soon grew used to his presence. 

Cu Sith:
Found in Scotland and the Hebrides, Cu Sith has the appearance of a wolf, and is particularly menacing. Often silent, when he does bark it is three times; those hearing must then run for safety before the third bark, or else die of sheer terror. The barks were also seen as a warning system for nursing women, alerting them to hide away before they were taken to feed the young of the fae. This ghostly creature is reported to be dark green rather than the usual black. 

Not all black dog sightings are harbingers of doom.The Gurt Dog of Somerset is seen as benign, although usually large and shaggy and with the same red eyes associated with the less friendly Black Shuck. The Gurt Dog is known for helping travellers on their way home and is also said to protect children on the moors. 

Although there is no shortage black dog tales across the UK, Middlesex and Rutland are, as of yet, without their own spectral hound. Who knows, perhaps the first sighting is just around the corner?

Sunday, 14 September 2014

From Art to Occultists: The Crystal Ball

 An interest in everything witchcraft related is a wonderful excuse to explore the vast and varied body of artwork with witchy undertones. A personal favourite is The Crystal Ball, by Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse.

Finished in 1902, the painting depicts a young woman holding the ever-popular crystal ball. Shown with its sister painting, The Missal at the Royal Academy in the year of completion, by 1909 the pair was in the collection of Frederick Pyman, shipowner, and it is speculated that they may have been commissioned for his new home in Whitby. The Crystal Ball eventually came to rest in the dining room of Glenborrodale Castle in Scotland, where it remained until it was sold along with the castle in 1952/3.  

Is the young woman a witch? A sorceress? She is clearly appealing to some form of magic, with a wand visible on a nearby book, which itself displays various signs and symbols. The background spied through the window is dark and menacing, and one cannot help but hope that the girl knows what she is getting into as she peers intently into the crystal ball in her hands. The most interesting feature however is the disappearing skull; disliked by the new owner it was painted over with a strategically placed curtain, and remained hidden until the amendment was discovered in 1994 when the painting came to Christies to be auctioned. Subsequently restored to its former state, the painting currently resides in a private collection.

Painting with the skull restored

Crystal balls such as that depicted here have been used by numerous cultures throughout the centuries.  Their main purpose is that of scrying, the practice of looking into a translucent surface with the intention of seeing images that can then be interpreted at the scryer's discretion. Also know as "seeing" or "peeping", the most common surfaces used are crystals, glass, mirrors, water, and even fire and smoke. 

Although they can be traced back to at least 500AD in Europe, the crystal ball saw a resurgence in popularity in England in the mid 19th Century, and the well-known image of a fortune-teller peering into a ball was largely a construct of this era. With access to more sophisticated apparatus, and a growing popularity among occultists and spiritualists, both demand and availability of crystal balls increased rapidly in the latter half of the century. In the early 1870s, for instance, an optician named Slater was producing balls at £1 11s 6d, but by late 1890s the price had dropped significantly, and in 1897 a Mr Vennan was selling them for the reduced price of between 2s 6d and 5s 6d. Writing in 1905 in his book Crystal Gazing, Northcote Whitridge Thomas points out that balls are kept in stock by the Society for Psychical Research, readily available should anyone require one. 

The face of fortune telling itself was changing significantly over this period. Turning their backs on their more provincial roots, urban fortune tellers were taking on such titles as medium, character reader and clairvoyant, while the traditional "Mother" was replaced with the more sophisticated sounding "Madame". Changes in the law played a part in this growing trend; the Vagrancy Act of 1824 and its subsequent amendments decreed it against the law for:

 “Every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty's subjects." 

This made it a wise career move for a savvy fortune teller to restyle his or herself, in order to avoid prosecution. Punishment under the act included hard labour or imprisonment. This clause was only repealed in 1989. 

The balls themselves were used for two distinct purposes. Occultists utilised them as a method for spirit communications, making contact with those who had passed over or angelic entities. The other, more common use, is that already mentioned of scrying, during which images in answer to a question or a general picture of the future would be seen. The act of gazing into the ball  acted as an aid to concentration, the ball providing a surface for the images to form on. The balls were taking over the role of more commonplace reflective objects or substances such as mirrors or tubs of water that had long been used by local cunning folk. 

Belief in the efficacy of crystal balls was widespread, although not everyone was convinced of their ability to predict the future or reveal the identity of a thief. The aforementioned Northcote Whitridge Thomas, a British Government anthropologist renowned for field research in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early 20th Century, was rather matter of fact on the subject. Whilst denying the more spectacular claims for crystal balls, he explains at great length his certainty that people did indeed “see” with the aid of a ball, and cites many examples from his own experience with friends and acquaintances. He found that cultures across a wide range of countries and peoples had been crystal gazers, reasoning that if there was nothing in the process of scrying, they would hardly continue to do so for so many centuries. 

Whatever one believes about their properties, there is no denying the beauty and fascination these balls hold. The crystal ball claimed to be the largest in the world currently resides at the offices of the American Ceramic Society, in Westerville, Ohio. 

A sixty-five pounds flawless specimen is to be found at the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles.

The third largest crystal ball known to history is a sphere made of quartz crystal from Burma. weighing fifty-five pounds, it was made for the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) during the Qing Dynasty. Stolen from the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania in 1988, the ball was recovered unharmed three years later. 


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Death by Witchcraft? Charles Walton and the Witchcraft Murder

"Witches - so that's the 17th century?" It is a natural assumption; after all, the trials and persecutions of that period are large in popular consciousness when it comes to witchcraft. Today's delve into the library, however, highlights the timeless nature of the witch. We visit the quiet Warwickshire village of Lower Quinton, where the readiness to blame witchcraft for unexplained calamity was alive and well in the 20th Century. 

On 14th February 1945, seventy-four year old Charles Walton was discovered dead in the field on Meon Hill where he had been working. A reclusive, but well-liked man who had lived in the village for years with his niece, he had been brutally murdered; the weapons, his own hedging tools.

Meon Hill, Warwickshire

The case very quickly gained attention, with Robert Fabian, the celebrated Scotland Yard Detective, soon arriving on the scene. Over the following weeks, every inhabitant of the village was interviewed, over 400 British Servicemen on leave that day were located and questioned as to their whereabouts, and over 1,100 Italian Prisoners of War at the nearby camp were searched. Despite the extensiveness of the investigation, to this day, the case remains unsolved.

It is unlikely that the identity of Charles Walton's killer will ever come to light, much less the motivation for doing so. What proves immensely fascinating, however, are the rumours, assumptions and outright inventions that have transformed Walton's death from a senseless tragedy into a tale of dark and terrifying magic.

The most commonly repeated error is the belief that a large cross was found carved into Walton's chest. This has been taken as evidence that black magic was responsible for his death, with much speculation that Walton was murdered by a local coven of witches with whom he was “well known” to be involved. While Walton's injuries were gruesome enough - The blade of a bill hook buried in his throat, his face impaled by a pitchfork and pinned to the ground – there was no mention of cross symbolism in the case files or original reports of the murder. As for Walton's supposed connections to local witches, again, there is no evidence to support these claims.

It is often pointed out (erroneously) that, by the old Julian Calendar, February 14th actually translated to the date of Imbolc, the pagan festival that marks the beginning of Spring. It is argued that it was known locally to be the best day for a blood sacrifice, helping the earth after the recent winter and to make sure of a plentiful harvest that year. Although this makes for good storytelling, there is nothing to suggest a ritual element to Walton's death.

There have been attempts to connect the victim to another Charles Walton. In 1885, the plough boy was reported to have seen a large black dog, a well known sign of death, several nights in a row on his way home. The tale ends with a vision of a headless woman accompanying the dog on the last night, supposedly heralding the death of his sister the following day. This would be all well and good, apart from the fact that Walton's sisters appear alive and well into at least the next decade.

Another attempt to link Walton's murder to the past is with the case of Ann Turner, who, in 1875, was stabbed by a young man who suspected her of being a witch in nearby Long Compton. Turner later died of her injuries. The only connection appears to be the use of a pitchfork in both cases, but there the similarity ends, although some sources cite a very distant familial connection between Ann Turner and Charles Walton, not uncommon in rural communities even today.

The proximity of the Rollright Stones is also frequently mentioned, an area rich in legend and stories of dark magic. Some reports state that Walton was found in the very middle of the stones themselves, having been used as part of a terrifying and bloody ritual. The spot were Walton's body was discovered and the stones are actually twelve miles apart, but that does not make for such good storytelling.

The Rollright Stones

Various further embellishments have been attached to the tale of Walton's murder. Later tellings include the fabrication that his face was frozen in horror at whatever sight met his dying gaze, and that his body was discovered beneath an ill-omened willow tree. Tales like-wise abound regarding Walton's habit of using toads to menace neighbours by “blasting” their crops, although this directly contradicts the assertion that he quarrelled with no one.

The Rowan Tree - traditionally linked to the underworld

In November 1952, a group from the Birmingham Psychic Society attempted to make contact with Walton in a séance planned to take place at the sight of the murder. Not surprisingly, no light as to the identity of the murderer was shed. The event did not pass without incident however; a local councillor who supported the undertaking took some soil from the scene – after that, he reported a train of bad luck until he finally got rid of the tainted specimen. 

Even Fabian himself was not immune. The unsolved case remained with him, and over the following decades, his retelling of events slowly changed to fit the growing web of legend. In his final mention of the case, he too asserted that black magic had played a part in Walton's end, an element noticeably absent from his official reports and earlier references.

There is little, if any, proof that witchcraft played a part in the murder of Charles Walton. What it does bring home is the need we all have for answers, the deep-seated desire to explain and make sense of events that seem to happen with no rhyme or reason - and, fascinatingly, that people are ready to blame the witch for misfortune whatever the century.