Saturday, 25 February 2012

British Folk Magic & Familiar Spirits

In popular imagination, the figure of a witch is accompanied by her familiar, a black cat. Is there any historical authenticity behind this cliché?

Our ancestors in the 16th and 17th centuries believed that magic was real. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in witchcraft and the spirit world—rich and educated people believed in spellcraft just as strongly. Cunning folk were men and women who used charms and herbal cures to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was illegal—sorcery was a hanging offence—but few were arrested. The need for the services they provided was too great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury—your local village healer with her herbal charms was far less likely to kill you.

Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches. But here it gets complicated. A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods could turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. Ultimately the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder.

While witch-hunters were obsessed with extracting “evidence” of a pact between the accused witch and the devil, there’s little if any substantive proof of diabolical worship in Britain in this period. It seemed the black mass was a Continental European concept first popularised in Britain by King James I’ polemic, Daemonologie, a witch-hunter’s handbook and required reading for his magistrates.

In traditional British folk magic, it was not the devil, but the familiar spirit who took centre stage. The familiar was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form. Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, was a cunning woman of long standing repute, arrested on witchcraft charges in the 1612 Pendle witch hunt in Lancashire, England. When interrogated by her magistrate, she made no attempt to conceal her craft. In fact she described in rich detail how her familiar spirit, Tibb, first appeared to her when she was walking past a quarry at twilight. Assuming the guise of a beautiful, golden-haired young man, his coat half black, half brown, he promised to teach her all she needed to know about the ways of magic. When not in human form, he could appear to her as a brown dog or a hare. Her partnership with Tibb would span decades.

Mother Demdike was so forthcoming about her familiar because without one, she, as a cunning woman, would be a fraud. In traditional English folk magic, it seemed that no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their familiar spirit—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.

Black cats were not the most popular guise for a familiar to take. In fact, familiars were more likely to appear as dogs. In the Salem witch trials of 1692, two canines were put to death as suspected witch familiars.

But the familiar was just as likely to assume human form, generally the opposite gender of their human partner—cunning men usually had female spirits while cunning women usually had male spirits.

Was there a connection between the familiar spirits and the Fairy Faith, the lingering belief in fey folk and elves? Popular belief in fairies in the Early Modern period is well documented. In his 1677 book, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, Lancashire author John Webster mentions a local cunning man who claimed that his familiar spirit was none other than the Queen of Elfhame herself. In 1576, Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop, executed for witchcraft and sorcery at the Edinburgh Assizes, stated that her familiar spirit had been sent to her by the Queen of Elfhame. For more background on this subject, I highly recommend Emma Wilby’s scholarly study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, and Keith Thomas’s social history, Religion and the Decline of Magic.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A Short History of Valentine's Day

The origins of Saint Valentine's Day lie shrouded in obscurity. Saint Valentine himself, a third century Roman martyr, seems to have nothing to do with the romantic traditions that became associated with his feast.

Dr. Douce, in his Illustrations of Shakespeare, cited in The Book of Days, writes:

It was the practice in ancient Rome, during a great part of the month of February, to celebrate the Lupercalia, which were feasts in honour of Pan and Juno. whence the latter deity was named Februata, Februalis, and Februlla. On this occasion, amidst a variety of ceremonies, the names of young women were put into a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. The pastors of the early Christian church, who, by every possible means, endeavoured to eradicate the vestiges of pagan superstitions, and chiefly by some commutations of their forms, substituted, in the present instance, the names of particular saints instead of those of the women: and as the festival of the Lupercalia had commenced about the middle of February, they appear to have chosen St. Valentine's Day for celebrating the new feast, because it occurred nearly at the same time.

The first mention of Valentine's Day traditions in England originate from the 14th century writers Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower who both allude to the folk belief that birds choose their mates on the feast of Saint Valentine, their patron.

In Britain, the mating flights of crows, rooks, and ravens can generally be observed by February 14. Here in Lancashire, I notice more and more birdsong each day as February advances and the birds repair their nests, preparing for a new cycle of birth and life.

Around 1440, John Lydgate's poem in honour of Queen Katherine, widow of Henry V, is the first to mention romantic traditions among humans associated with this date:

To look and search Cupid's calendar,
And choose their choice, the great affection.

People of both sexes sent tokens of admiration. You could either send a token to the romantic interest of your choice, or draw lots as to who would receive your Valentine. In 1470s Norfolk, the Paston family seems to have perferred drawing lots rather than sending tokens to a chosen person.

Actual Valentines could be quite costly. In 1523, Sir Henry Willoughby, gentleman of Warwickshire, paid 2S, 3d for his. Unfortunately no description of this costly item remains for us today.

After the Reformation, the feast of Saint Valentine was abolished, and yet the amorous traditions flourished.

By 1641, the system of casting lots for Valentines was so well known in Edinburgh that a wag waggishly proposed their new Lord Chancellor be chosen by the same method.

A Dutch visitor to London in 1663 observed:

it is customary, alike for married and unmarried people, that the first person one meets in the morning, that is, if one if a man, the first woman or girl, becomes one's Valentine. He asks her name which he takes down and carries on a long strip of paper in his hat band, and in the same way the woman or girl wears his name on her bodice; but it is the practice that they meet on the evening before and choose each other for their Valentine, and, come Easter, they send each other gloves, silk stockings, or sometimes a miniature portrait, which the ladies wear to foster the friendship.

In his diaries of the same decade, Samuel Pepys reveals how he would call by a colleague's house early in the day in order to make the man's daughter his Valentine. Pepys would also arrange for a young man to call to pay the same homage to Mrs. Pepys and bring her presents, which Pepys then paid for. One year when Pepys was short of cash, alas, no young man with presents appeared and Mrs. Pepys was quite irate. Eventually they settled on a yearly ritual, whereby Pepys's cousin paid a visit to honour Mrs. Pepys and bring her presents which Pepys knew she desired.


The Book of Days

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain