Monday, 18 May 2009

The Ecstasies of Isobel Gowdie, Scottish Witch

Of all the historical witches whose stories have survived, Isobel Gowdie remains one of the most compelling.

Objective facts about her life are sparse. Her date of birth is unknown. Hailing from Auldhearn in Nairnshire, Scotland, she was a married woman at the time of her interrogation in 1662. As to her fate after her trial, there is no record of her execution, even though she confessed to practising every kind of black and white witchcraft, from healing sciatica to using a clay poppet to kill her landlord's child.

Gowdie's 1662 confessions, supposedly elicited without torture, are among the most detailed ever recorded, providing an intruiging glimpse into alleged witchcraft practises in early modern Britain. Her testimony first introduces the word "coven" into the trial records--although demonologists such as James I firmly believed in the existence of witches' covens, accused British witches never mentioned them in their confessions before this time. Gowdie's evocatively-worded spells and charms involving shape-shifting, spirit flight and ecstatic journeys to the Queen of Elfhames's hall have strongly influenced ritual traditions in modern neopagan Wicca.

Before setting off into fairyland for their sabbat adventures, Gowdie and her coven members left a besom beside their sleeping husbands. They would:

fly away where (ever we would); and lest our husbands should miss us out of our beds, we put in a besom, or a three-legged stool, and say over it, 'I lay down this besom (or stool) in the devil's name. Let it not stir till I came home again! And immediatedly it seemed like a woman beside her husband. (From Robert Pitcairn's Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, cited by Emma Wilby in Cunningfolk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Sussex Academic Press, page 101; I have modernised the language.)

To ride the wind, Gowdie straddled a winnowed straw or beanstalk and shouted:

Horse and hattock in the devil's name! (From Domestic Annals of Scotland, from the Reformation to the Revolution, Robert Chambers, Oxford, 1858)

Gowdie and her fellow witches travelled as far as the Downy Hills where the earth opened and the Queen of Elfhame received them in her hall.

Gowdie claimed that she and her friends could shapeshift from human to animal form. Variations on her shapeshifting chants are still sung by modern neopagan witches to this day:

I shall go into a hare
With sorrow and such a mickle care
And I shall go out in the devil's name
Ay, till I come home again. (Ibid.)

To return to human form, she used this charm:

Hare, hare, God send thee care!
I am in the hare's likeness just now,
But I shall be in a woman's likeness even now. (Ibid.)

Gowdie's extraordinary confessions have inspired different modern interpretations. Some scholars believe she was deluded or psychotic while others suggest that she offered a made-up story in hope of a more merciful death or to avoid torture.

Emma Wilby, in her book Cunningfolk and Familiar Spirits, cites Gowdie's confessions as evidence of shamanistic visionary traditions of pre-Christian origins. Gowdie's experience reflects the way that the fairy faith and witchcraft beliefs co-existed in the early modern mind. Gowdie's interrogators, however, far more interested in finding evidence of alleged diabolical beliefs and malificient magic, found her references to the fairy faith irrelevant and attempted to either omit them or redefine them as devil worship. When Gowdie describes how she journeyed into fairyland while leaving a besom beside her husband in bed, Wilby speculates that Gowdie underwent her experiences in the sort of deep catatonic trance described in Carlo Ginzburg's Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath.

Wilby's forthcoming book Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Shamanism and Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Scotland is based on the author's discovery of Gowdie's original trial records, deemed lost for nearly 200 years. The trial records are currently being authenticated by the National Archives of Scotland.


Kim Murphy said...

Thanks for letting me know that Wilby will soon have a new book out. I have a degree in anthropology, and her first book comparing the cunning folk to shamans made perfect sense.

Mary Sharratt said...

Hi, Kim! I really admire her work and am so glad she's devoting a book to Isobel Gowdie.

Anita Davison said...

Fascinating post, Mary. I cannot imagine how she avoided execution, but maybe her interrogators were too terified of her after those confessions in case they were next.
Now I'm just off to place a besom in the bed so the DH will sleep and I can keep writing my latest chapter in peace.

Alison Stuart said...

Wow, Mary. Your knowledge of 17th century witches is awesome! Now, where does one find a 'besom'? It could be useful!

Peter Household said...

Interesting, thanks. Do you happen to know anything about the engraving you have used at the top of this post?