Sunday, June 19, 2011

Christina Larner on the Meaning of "Witchcraft"

The two excerpts below are both from Christina Larner's Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland. For more on Larner see this other recent post: Witchcraft: Black and White in Color. Both excerpts emphasize the historical reality of Witches being associated with beneficial magic, including healing, divination, and love magic.

White witchcraft is concerned with the healing arts, with prophecy, with finding lost objects, with the supply of love potions, and with performance and rituals designed to counter black witchcraft. White witchcraft always involves manipulative sorcery [that is, the use of incantations and/or ritual objects]. Black witchcraft or malefice may or may not involve sorcery, but some indication, whether articulate and precise cursing, gnomic utterance, or scarcely audible mumbling, is usually necessary to establish that the mobilization of powerful ill will has been attempted.

Most societies make this distinction. European Civil Law decreed that white witchcraft, though culpable, was not punishable by death, whereas black witchcraft was [Larner here cites Book IX, Title 18 of the Codex Justinianus, which explicitly exempts from punishment those who use "incantations" either to cure illnesses or to protect crops from hail or flood while condemning to death (often specifying particular means of torture and execution) all enchanters, magicians, Pagan priests, astrologers, soothsayers, etc.] The distinction was eroded by Canon Law and the commentators specializing in demonology in that all supernatural power not emanating from the Church was deemed to be demonic. Those claiming to heal outside the context of the Church must have got their powers from the Devil. The abolition of the distinction did find an echo in peasant experience in that the healer as a person of power was potentially threatening. Power was neutral but could be used to harm as well as to heal, and it became a common feature of European witch-trials that the accused was said to have both laid on and taken off disease. The most extreme position with regard to the conflation of black and white magic may well have been that taken in the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 in which the consulters of witches were said to be worthy of death in same manner as the practitioners. Any acknowledgment of an unofficial source of power was to be supressed. The attitude of a polity towards white witchcraft is an indication of the level of anxiety about non-conformity. England continued to tolerate cunning men and women (who were quite distinct from black witches) throughout the period of the prosecution. Major witch-hunts in Scotland and on the continent on the other hand tended to engulf the healer along with the curser.
[p. 9]


Amidst the diversity of beliefs about healing, the factor which stands out most clearly is the figure of the healer herself. It was she who had the power, and this power was strengthened, as it is in modern medicine, by secrecy, impressive procedures, mystery, and arduous performances by the patient. The sufferer was not expected to understand exactly how he was being healed or the purpose of the consultation and the relationship between him and the healer would disssolve. The same held true when the healer was brought in for veterinary purposes. When Robert Hutton's mother-in-law sent for Bessie Paine to cure a sick cow 'the said Bessie Paine ... caue the Cow to be put throw ane hanck of green yairne speaking some words which the personnes present did not understand and yreftir the Cow was cured.' Agnes Johnstoun's accusation against Bessie Graham in 1650 included her response to a request to heal her child. Bessie 'Tuik the bellt and wettit it' (a common form of divination) 'muttering some speiches with greit gauting eftir which she told the said Agnes that the chyld was seik and wald not leive and it provit so and the chyld died presentlie'.

In fact the charm, the failed charm, the favourable prophecy, the unfavourable prophecy, and the curse are close closely connected, and essentially fall from the lips of the same person, the person of power. In seventeenth-century Scotland blessing adn cursing, black and white magic, went hand in hand, and this assumptino was shared by peasant and lawyer alike -- and by victim and practitioner. Popular belief and practic reinforced Canon Law rather than Civil Law.

Accusations of healing, such as that cited, were listed alongside accusations of malefice, and Bessie Paine was not only said to have cured. It was alleged that she came to a house in which she had formerly lived (from which we may assume she had been evicted) after the new tenant had moved in, 'and sitting down upon her knees upon the hearth staene she said "all the witchcraft which I have I leave it here"'. The new tenant, Robert Sturgeon, as a result of this curse upon his house, was reckoned to have lost within a year and a quarter above thirty cattle dead, 'and nothing he took in hand did prosper during his possession of that rowme (place).'
[p. 142]