This appeared in the North Clare Local in December…
As I touched on last month, cats and witches go together like bacon and cabbage. While both parties have a softer reputation today, this wasn’t always the case.
For a long time, being a cat, or indeed single woman with a taste for fancy hats, was a hazardous preoccupation indeed.
Having familiars, or animals that helped conduct magic, was not a prerequisite for witchcraft. Even if you had a familiar, it didn’t have to be a black cat. Dogs, rabbits, toads and other creatures would do. Even farmyard creatures could be accused of witchcraft. Goats were especially liable, due their traditional association with Satan.
The image of the witch and her black cat being burned at the stake is quite a narrow one historically. Large scale witchcraft trials took place mostly in Europe and the Americas in the early-modern period; around the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation. These were largely sparked by instances of religious wars. For example, during the Spanish Inquisition, witches were just one of several groups targeted. The others included Jews and Protestants.
It is thought that between 40,000 and 100,000 died as a result of witch trials in Europe. This number is impossible to confirm, as the trials spanned centuries and records are often incomplete or missing.
Witches were only burnt in countries which prosecuted witchcraft as a religious crime, such as Switzerland and France. Where it was treated as a civil offence, most notably in England and the United States, witches were hanged.
In the infamous Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of 1692, all those found guilty were hanged, apart from one Giles Corey. Corey refused to recognise the court, and was pressed to death, i.e. heavy stones were laid on his body in an effort to get him to plead. Famously, he called “More weight!” as each stone was placed.
England’s traditionally strong jury system made persecution difficult. However, with the onset of the English Civil War, society disintegrated, leading to the rise of the notorious witch-finder. The most famous of those was Matthew Hopkins, who dubbed himself the Witch-Finder General. His beat was East Anglia, and his witches were sourced by means of ‘pricking’, sticking needles in the suspect until the witch’s mark, a painless patch of skin, was found.
Hollow and collapsible needles have been found, proving that many witch-finders were in it for bounty, rather than eradicating evil.
Other methods used including ‘swimming’ or ‘ducking’. This essentially involved drowning the suspect. If they survived, they were a witch, and would be prosecuted. Torture, including sleep deprivation and thumbscrews, were used. It may seem incredible to us today that anyone would admit to having powers they couldn’t possibly possess, but taking the methods of interrogation into account, it is not that surprising.
Also, conviction did not always mean death. In the early days, a Scottish witch could expect a mere ticking-off in church on Sunday.
In Western Europe and America, most witches were women who had been cast out of respectable society for any number of reasons. However, in Russia and Scandinavia, many of those prosecuted were men. This is partly due to the shamanic tradition of these countries, where magic was in the hands of men.
Russia’s Orthodox Church does not believe in original sin or blaming Eve for the fall of man. The ‘sins of Eve’ was definitely a factor in the persecution of women for witchcraft in Western Europe. Women’s sexuality was something to be feared. The German monks Kramer and Sprenger argued in their witch-hunting guide, the Malleus Maleficarum, that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable”.
What of our own country? The Irish tradition was centred on fairies, not witches. Women were highly respected, especially under the Brehon Laws, which may be another factor in our not succumbing to the widespread persecution of witches. Can you imagine a witch-finder confronting an Irish Mammy?
Wise women, such as Clare’s own Biddy Early in a later era, were respected, if a little feared. ‘Butter witches’, who turned butter and took the form of hares, were mere nuisances.
However, witch trials did happen in Ireland. Indeed, one of the earliest recorded cases happened in Kilkenny. Dame Alice Kytler was accused in 1280 by her husband’s children, angry at the loss of their inheritance. While it is believed Alice fled to England, her servant was burned. And in 1711 eight women were prosecuted in Co Antrim after ‘possessing’ one Mary Dunbar.
It’s interesting to note that most trials in Ireland took place in the Anglo-Norman and Scottish settler communities. The Gaelic belief didn’t register witchcraft as a threat.
But the Devil? He was another matter. Next month we will take a look at Irish belief centring on Old Nick.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!