art nouveau, castlehill, christianity, church, cuttie-sark, daemonologie, edinburgh, evil, executions, forest, gallows, god, healer, james vi, macbeth, midwife, misogyny, nannie dee, north berwick witch trials, paganism, robert burns, scotland, shakespeare, stake, tam o'shanter, torture, witch, witchery, witches
«DOUBLE, DOUBLE TOIL AND TROUBLE;
FIRE BURN, AND CAULDRON BUBBLE
COOL IT WITH A BABOON´S BLOOD,
THEN THE CHARM IS FIRM AND GOOD».
W. SHAKESPEARE, MACBETH
October has started, and it will be Halloween soon, the modern interpretation of an ancient Gaelic festival which commemorated the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. Jack-o’-lanterns, black cats, ghosts and, specially, witches, will fill Edinburgh and other cities on that festivity.
We have already been talking about magical aspects regarding this city and its surroundings, but this month we will focuse on the darkest side of it: witchcraft, old cemeteries and serial killers.
I have always felt fascinated by the figure of the witch. Although the image we all have in our minds is that of an old and ugly woman dressed in black clothes, with a long nose and a wart on her face, there have been all kinds of witches in literature and arts, some of them young, spoilt and seductive, like Robert Burns’ Nannie Dee (aka “Cuttie-sark”), the merry sorcerer of the poem Tam o’Shanter. In it, Tam o’Shanter, the drunken protagonist, stumbles upon a witches’ Sabbath, where the lovely Nannie Dee is dancing erotically with devils and warlocks in a very short shirt (a “cutty-sark”). Tam can only scream in admiration: “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”, which earns him the wrath of the sorcerers.
Nannie Dee, aka “Cuttie-sark” (Short Shirt), the young and merry witch from Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’Shanter. John Faed, 1892.
In reality, sadly, the belief in witchery led to thousands of unfortunate women to the stake, where they were burnt alive. Most of them were widows or otherwise vulnerable females who happened to live alone. That means they were used as scapegoats to release social tensions between neighbours, in a time were superstition ran rampant and everybody depended on the year’s harvest to survive. Since women embodied sin since the Fall of Man, it was easy to blame them for ruining the crops and poisoning the cattle with the aid of the Devil.
Scotland is, without a doubt, a land of witchcraft. Shakespeare gave us the best example in Macbeth, through the figure of the Three Wyrd Sisters.
The Three Wyrd Sisters prophetise that Macbeth will be King, initiating a chain of events which result in murder, treason and suicide. These witches, whom many authors have identified with the Nordic Norns, have a female appearance, but wear beards as a symbol of subversion of the laws of men and Nature. These agents of chaos, however, cannot change the natural order of the world: Macbeth dies as a traitor, and the true heir of the throne reigns as an agent of God on Earth, reestablishing harmony and justice.
The moral of the story might be: don’t mess with a king. Although, if you lived in the sixteenth century, chances were that, being a woman, you might find yourself in trouble without a valid reason. The king could find an excuse for a trial, if he found you responsible of storms and bad weather. This is exactly what happened in the North Berwick Witch Trials.
The Weird Sisters, depicted by Henry Fuseli, 1783.
The North Berwick Witch Trials
Although many modern authors have proposed a pagan origin for witchery, as a belief related to the crops and Nature, in the Judeo-Christian mentality it was identified with Evil and heresy, and therefore, it was related to treason when it was directed toward the king. Apart from the fictional story of Macbeth, created as a moral for those who tried to rebel against their legitimate sovereign (identified with God), and the established order in both Nature and the human society, we have a real account of a witch trial that involved a very historical King, James VI of Scotland.
The North Berwick Witch Trials, from Newes of Scotland, a contemporary pamphlet. 1591
In 1590, James VI became personally involved in which was the first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland. He had sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne, sister of Christian IV, King of Denmark. When they tried to return to Scotland, they were surprised by terrible storms, which forced them to find shelter in Norway.
Having little to no knowledge about meteorology, the only logical reason people found to explain the causes of such a terrible weather was sorcery. The admiral of the Danish fleet blamed the storm on the burgomaster’s wife, and hysteria ensued. Anna Koldings, the first woman in Denmark accused of causing the storm, divulged the names of several witches under severe torture.
But apparently, these witches were not only Danish: there were several Scottish ones involved in this act of treason against their own king, which made James VI set up his own tribunal and preside over the witchcraft trial.
Ducking the witch. A seventeenth century engraving.
The two most prominent victims of this hysteria were Agnes Sampson (and old woman who was a healer and a midwife) and Dr. John Fian (a schoolmaster and scholar from Prestonpans). Of course, they only confessed after torture, before beign burnt.
One of the ways to establish if a woman was a witch or not, was ducking. The suspect was thrown into a lake or pond -if she drowned, she was innocent and her soul would go to Heaven. But if she floated, she was guilty, and therefore, she had to be purified by fire.
Witchery in Edinburgh
Being the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh could not escape the witch hysteria. Ducking had to be perfomed at the now disappeared Nor’Loch, a lake that was located next to the castle, where nowadays we can admire the Princes Street Gardens. The problem was that the lake was so full of filth and garbage that it was very difficult to drown -methane inflated the skirts of the unfortunate ones who were undergoing the ordeal, making them return to the surface.
Edinburgh’s Nor’ Loch, located in the area now occupied by Princes Street Gardens. John Slezer, 1690.
Nowadays, in Castlehill, next to the esplanade of the castle, we can see the art nouveau plaque and the fountain that commemorate all the women who were condemned for witchery in Edinburgh (over 300), at the very same spot were they were burnt at the stake.
The plaque represents white and black magic, embodied by two feminine faces. There is a serpent, a symbol of Evil, but also of healing, wisdom and transformation. A foxglove plant, toxic and medicinal at the same time, can be seen at the upper part of the plaque.
The text reads:
“This Fountain, designed by John Duncan, R.S.A. is near the site on which many witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and serene head signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good. The serpent has the dual significance of evil and wisdom. The Foxglove spray further emphasises the dual purpose of many common objects”.
Now that our fear of witches is over, we can celebrate Halloween, but also honour the memory of those women who were unjustly conmemned in these fascinating and dark times.