Witches And Conjurors

From and before the days of King Saul, to the present moment, witches

have held dreaded sway over the affairs of man. Cruel laws have been

promulgated against them, they have been murdered by credulous and

infuriated mobs, they have lost their lives after legal trial, but still,

witches have lived on through the dark days of ignorance, and even in

these days of light and learning they have their votaries. There must be

something in the human constitution peculiarly adapted to the exercise of

witchcraft, or it could not have lived so long, nor could it have been so

universal, as it undoubtedly is, unless men lent themselves willingly to

its impositions.

It is curious to notice how good and enlightened men have clung to a

belief in witchcraft. It is, consequently, not to be wondered at that

the common people placed faith in witches and conjurors when their

superiors in learning professed a like faith.

I have often spoken to intelligent men, who did not scruple to confess

that they believed in witches and conjurors, and they adduced instances

to prove that their faith had a foundation in fact.

Almost up to our days, the farmer who lost anything valuable consulted a

conjuror, and vowed vengeance on the culprit if it were not restored by

such and such a time, and invariably the stolen property was returned to

its owner before the specified period had expired. As detectives, the

conjurors, therefore, occupied a well-defined and useful place in rural

morality, and witches, too, were indirectly teachers of charity, for no

farm wife would refuse refreshments to the destitute lest vengeance

should overtake her. In this way the deserving beggar obtained needed

assistance from motives of self-preservation from benefactors whose fears

made them charitable.

But, if these benefits were derived from a false faith, the evils

attending that faith were nevertheless most disastrous to the community

at large, and many inhuman Acts were passed in various reigns to

eradicate witchcraft. From the wording of these Acts it will be seen

what witches were credited with doing.

An Act passed 33 Henry VIII. adjudged all witchcraft and sorcery to be

felony. A like Act was passed 1 James, c.12, and also in the reign of

Philip and Mary. The following is an extract:--

All persons who shall practise invocation, or conjuration, of wicked

spirits, any witchcraft, enchantment, charm, or sorcery, whereby any

person shall happen to be killed, or destroyed, shall, with their aiders,

and abettors, be accounted felons, without benefit of clergy; and all

persons practising any witchcraft, etc., whereby any person shall happen

to be wasted, consumed, or lamed in his or her body, or members, or

whereby any goods, or chattels, shall be destroyed, wasted, or impaired,

shall, with their counsellors, and aiders, suffer for the first offence

one year's imprisonment and the pillory, and for the second the

punishment of felony without the clergy. . . . If any person shall

consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil or

wicked spirit, or take up any dead man, woman, or child out of his,

her, or their grave; or, the skin, bone, or any other part of any

dead person to be employed in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charm,

or enchantment, etc., he shall suffer death as a felon, without benefit

of clergy.

The law of James I. was repealed in George II.'s. reign, but even then

persons pretending to use witchcraft, tell fortunes, or discover stolen

goods, by skill in the occult sciences, were to be punished by a year's

imprisonment; and by an Act, 5 George IV., c.83, any person or persons

using any subtle art, means, or device, by palmistry, or otherwise, to

deceive his Majesty's subjects, were to be deemed rogues and vagabonds,

and to be punished with imprisonment and hard labour.

Acts of Parliament did not succeed in eradicating witchcraft. Its power

has waned, but it still exercises an influence, shadowy though it be, on

certain minds, though in its grosser forms it has disappeared.

Formerly, ailments of all kinds, and misfortunes of every description,

were ascribed to the malignant influence of some old decrepit female, and

it was believed that nature's laws could be changed by these witches,

that they could at will produce tempests to destroy the produce of the

earth, and strike with sickness those who had incurred their displeasure.

Thus Lady Macbeth, speaking of these hags, says:--

I have learned by the perfectest report, they have more in them than

mortal knowledge. When I burned in desire to question them further

they made themselves air, into which they vanished.

Macbeth, Act. i, S. 5.

The uncanny knowledge possessed by witches was used, it was thought, to

injure people, and their malice towards good, hard-working, honest folk

was unmistakable. They afflicted children from sheer love of cruelty,

and bewitched animals gratuitously, or for slights which they supposed

their owners had shown towards them; consequently their knowledge was

considered to be greatly inimical to others, and particularly baneful to

the industrious, whom witches hated.

There was hardly a district that had not its witches. Children ran away

when they saw approaching them an aged woman, with a red shawl on, for

they believed she was a witch, who could, with her evil eye, injure them.

It was, however, believed that the machinations of witches could be

counteracted in various ways, and by and by some of these charms shall be

given. Life would have been intolerable but for these antidotes to


Shakespeare's knowledge of Welsh Folk-lore was extensive and peculiarly

faithful, and what he says of witches in general agrees with the popular

opinion respecting them in Wales. I cannot do better than quote from

this great Folk-lorist a few things that he tells us about witches.

Mention has been made of witches taking dead bodies out of their graves

to make use of them in their enchantments, and Shakespeare, in his

description of the witches' cauldron, shows that they threw into the

seething pot many portions of human beings. The first witch in Macbeth


Round about the cauldron go,

In the poisoned entrails throw.

The third witch mentions other things that are thrown into the pot, as:--

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,

Witches' mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digged i' the dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Sliver'd in the moon's eclipse,

Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-delivered by a drab.

Macbeth, A. IV., S. 1.

It was thought that witches could change themselves, and other people,

into the form of animals. In Wales, the cat and the hare were the

favourite animals into which witches transformed themselves, but they did

not necessarily confine themselves to these animals. They were able to

travel in the air on a broom-stick; make children ill; give maids the

nightmare; curse with madness, animals; bring misfortune on families;

hinder the dairy maid from making butter; and many more imaginary things

were placed to their credit.

The personal appearance of witches, as given by Shakespeare, corresponds

exactly with the Welsh idea of these hags. On this subject the poet


What are these

So wither'd and so wild in their attire

That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth,

And yet are on't?--Live you? Or are you aught

That man may question? You seem to understand me,

By each at once her chappy fingers laying

Upon her skinny lips:--you should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so.

Macbeth, Act I., S. 3.

A striking and pathetic portrait of a witch, taken from Otway's Orphan,

Act. II., is given in No. 117 of the Spectator. It is so true to life

and apposite to our subject that I will quote it:--

In a close lane, as I pursu'd my journey,

I spy'd a wrinkled hag, with age grown double,

Picking dry sticks, and mumbling to herself.

Her eyes with scalding-rheum were gall'd, and red,

Cold palsy shook her head, her hands seemed wither'd,

And on her crooked shoulders had she wrapt

The tatter'd remnant of an old striped hanging,

Which served to keep her carcass from the cold;

So there was nothing of a piece about her.

Her lower weeds were all o'er coarsely patched,

With different colour'd rags, black, red, white, yellow.

And seem'd to speak variety of wretchedness.

A picture such as this is enough to create sympathy and charity in a

selfish heart, but in those dark days, when faith in witchcraft

prevailed, such a poor old decrepit woman inspired awe, and was shunned

as a malicious evil-doer by all her neighbours.

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