I was brought up with a curiosity about witchcraft. Not because I was the generation that grew up with Harry Potter (although my children happily were) but because of where we lived – a region which famously had an outbreak of witch trials in the 17th Century. My mother, a freelance writer specialising in history and writing for children, was very well read on the subject and taught me about the superstitions.
The house in which we lived had been built in the same era as the witch trials took place.My mother chose to decorate the beamed walls with ‘witch balls’. These were the blue and green glass orbs in netting, traditionally used by fishermen as floats, but superstition says a witch ball would protect a house from evil spirits. The spirit is initially attracted by their beautiful, reflective surface, but if they touch it they become ensnared within the glass.
I relished telling this story to friends of mine who came to play. My house might have been a bit shabby compared with their pristine new builds, but my home earned a big tick in the spooky box and my friends loved to play hide and seek or sardines when they came round.
When you have boiled eggs, what do you do with the shell once the yolk and white are eaten? If you leave egg shells in their ‘cup’ shape, witches can use them as boats. This is a common superstition all over the British Isles, not just for people who live beside the sea. Tradition says you should puncture or bash the shell to pieces with your spoon once the contents are consumed.
Sometimes a woman in a 17th century village would be accused of witchcraft, simply because she knew how to put together some herbs which helped an insomniac to sleep, or the chewing of which soothed a toothache. It was often an accusation borne of guilt or suspicion – perhaps they’d approached a neighbour for help and been refused. When subsequently that neighbour experienced a piece of bad luck, the assumption would be that the ‘witch’ had cursed them or cast a spell. Hysteria, when Witch Finders were touring the country in search of victims, would often result in others pointing the finger, resulting in the poor woman being put on trial.
Did you know that witches can float, but an innocent person sinks? This was the primitive belief, so a witch was ducked in the village pond. If she floated, then she had worse to come as she might be hanged or burned at the stake. If she sank, it was to be hoped that her fellow villagers could save her before she drowned. I lived near an area known as The Old Pond and it was historically where witch ducking took place.
If you had a scar or a mole it could be the Devil’s Mark, bringing you under suspicion of using witchcraft. It would be tested with the Witch Finder’s pin to see if you bled. Some devious members of this awful profession appear to have used fake knives (which slid back instead of cutting), or targeted their pricking to scar tissue which doesn’t easily bleed. If the pricked or cut area failed to bleed, a witch had been discovered who’d be sent to the gallows or the stake.
In those dark days, when neighbour accused neighbour, I might have been tried as a witch. After having chicken pox I developed a shaped scar on my ribs which, during the 17th Century hysteria, Mum told me they would have probably labelled as a ‘nipple for the Devil to suckle’ – yuck! This did not help my teenage body confidence, even though it’s a superstition of a byegone era.
King James I was an expert on witchcraft, he published a bestseller called Daemonologie which was used as a handbook by British witch finders. During the Civil War each side thought the other was riddled with witchcraft and this went on until laws against witchcraft were finally repealed in 1736, at which point it simply became illegal to make money from pretending to be a witch. However there are a lot of traditions which still exist in Britain which stem from the need to protect ourselves against witchcraft.
I know this post is fact-y and you were hoping for sexy, follow the link to Unearthly Sounds – fiction with a witchcraft theme by Marie Rebel.