Sunday, 8 July 2012

Of Witches and Saints: Mother Demdike and Hildegard von Bingen

This summer marks the 400th Anniversary of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials. In August 1612, seven women and two men from the Pendle region in Lancashire were hanged for witchcraft based on evidence given by a nine-year-old girl. The most notorious of the accused, Elizabeth Southerns alias Old Demdike, escaped the hangman by dying in prison before she could even come to trial. She is the heroine of my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill.

Throughout the Pendle Region, people will be commemorating this solemn anniversary. It is my sincere hope these events portray Mother Demdike and her fellow accused not as some ghoulish sideshow, but as real people who unjustly suffered and died on account of other people's ignorance and religious intolerance.

I will be taking part in a number of events in remembrance of the Pendle Witches. My schedule is listed below. I wish to draw particular attention to Capturing Witches at Lancaster University, August 17 - 19, a multi-disciplinary academic conference discussing everything from historical witchcraft to Neopagan belief to the horrifying persecution of so-called "child witches" in modern day Nigeria.

This summer has also marked the much belated canonization of 12th century powerfrau, Saint Hildegard von Bingen, the heroine of my forthcoming novel, Illuminations.

Some readers might wonder how I could make the leap from writing about historical witch, Mother Demdike, to Hildegard, a Benedictine abbess. In fact, Hildegard and Demdike had a lot in common. Demdike earned her bread as a healer with her charms and herbal remedies. She was known as a cunning woman, a woman of wisdom. Hildegard, a brilliant polymath and composer,healed with herbs and gemstones. She believed in viriditas, the green and animating life force manifest in the natural world, infusing all creation with moisture and vitality. Demdike was guided by visions of Tibb, her familiar spirit, while Hildegard was called "Sibyl of the Rhine" and revered for her visions and prophecies. Demdike's charms, recorded in the official trial documents, drew on the mystical imagery of the old Catholic Church, outlawed by the Reformation. Hildegard's gemstone remedies seem to draw on sympathetic magic, as seen in her "Sapphire Charm," listed below.

Both women seemed to inhabit a worldview where the boundaries between religion, magic, and visionary experience were fluid. Demdike, a practitioner of Catholic folk magic who also appeared to believe in the so-called Faery Faith that coexisted alongside Christianity for centuries, fell foul of her Puritan magistrate and was condemned as a witch. She died, most likely of hunger and typhoid, while imprisoned in a lightless dungeon, chained to a ring in the floor with the eleven other accused Pendle Witches. The founder of two monasteries, Hildegard would seem to be a pillar of the religious orthodoxy of her day. Yet even she earned the enmity of her archbishop when she refused to disinter a supposed apostate buried in her churchyard. As punishment for her disobedience to male authority, she and her nuns suffered an interdict - or collective excommunication - lifted only a few months before her death. Hildegard might well have died an outcast. And I believe that if Hildegard had lived in Demdike's Puritan England with its abhorrence of mystical experience, she might also have been accused of witchcraft.

Fortunes can change. On October 7, 2012, Hildegard will be elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title given to theologians who have made a significant impact. While such a lofty title will never be attached to Mother Demdike, let's hope that she and the other Pendle Witches might at least be remembered with respect and sad reflection for what they were forced to endure.

Sadly, the Pendle Witch tragedy is as relevant in 2012 as it was in 1612. Witch hunts are still ongoing. Children in West Africa and even the United Kingdom are being tortured and killed.

May we work together to end this injustice. May mystics and visionaries of all faith backgrounds receive recognition and honour. May all witch hunts end forever.

Illustration: Hildegard's vision of the universe as an egg inside the womb of God

Hildegard's Sapphire Charm to dispel undesired attraction

Sapphire is hot and develops after noontime, when the sun burns ardently and the air is a bit obstructed by its heat. The splendor is not as full as it is when the air is a bit cool. Sapphire is turbid, indeed more fiery than airy or watery. It symbolizes a complete love of wisdom. . . . If the devil should incite a man to love a woman so that, without magic or the invocation of demons, he begins to be insane with love, and if this is an annoyance to the woman, she should pour a bit of wine over a sapphire three times and each time say, "I pour this wine, in its ardent powers, over you; just as God drew off your splendor, wayward angel, so may you draw away from me the lust of this ardent man." 

From Hildegard von Bingen's Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, translated from the Latin by Priscilla Throop, and published by Healing Arts Press.