Sunday, June 8, 2014

Witchcraft and Malefic Magic: Can You Handle the Truth?

"White Magic is poetry. 
Black Magic is anything that actually works."
Victor Anderson

Is the notion of "good Witches" a modern romantic fantasy based only on the wishful thinking of feminists and Wiccans? Is it true that healers and other practitioners of beneficial magic were never the intended targets of Witch-hunters, and that, at most, they were very rarely, and only mistakenly, caught up in Witchcraft trials?

The simple fact is that Christians consider Witchcraft to be maleficent for primarily religious reasons, not because it is believed that Witches always and only do harm through their magic. And, as will be shown below, a reputation as a magical healer (or proficiency in any other kind of clearly beneficial magic) was in and of itself sufficient grounds for someone to be accused of being a Witch.

According to The New World of English Words, or, a General Dictionary, by Edward Phillips, first published in 1658, the word "Witchcraft" refers to "the black Art, whereby with the Assistance of the Devil, or evil Spirits, some Wonders may be wrought, which exceed the common Apprehensions of Men."

This definition makes no mention of whether the magic performed by Witches is beneficial or harmful to anyone, but the overall impression that one gets is that it is the power of the magic that is the focus, rather than it's goodness or badness. However, this definition certainly does not take a neutral stance on the powerful form of magic known as Witchcraft. The thing is, though, that the negative assessment, indeed condemnation, of Witchcraft clearly derives from the purportedly diabolic source of the magical power in question, not on it's good or bad effects on others.

Put into practice, this diabolizing view of Witchcraft supported a vicious "logic" behind the persecution of magical adepts: anyone who possessed, or was believed to possess, the ability to work magical "Wonders ... which exceed the common Apprehension of Men" was thereby automatically suspected of being in league with "the Devil, or evil Spirits", that is, of being a Witch.

For a literary example of this logic in action, let us turn to Thomas Mallory, who wrote (in 1485) of the legendary Sir Balin, the impoverished and recently imprisoned knight who, alone among all the worthies of King Arthur's Court, including Arthur himself, had been able to draw from its sheath the sword born by the damsel sent to Arthur's Court by the Lady of the Lake. Arthur had nothing but praise for Balin after this feat (although previously his opinion had been rather different), but most of the other knights became ill-disposed toward him, muttering behind his back "that Balin did not this adventure all only by might, but by witchcraft."

About a century before Mallory we find another fictional example: Simon Magus is referred to as "a witche" in the Wycliffe Bible (Acts 8:1-13). Simon was a Witch not because he used magic to cause harm, but because he could perform magical feats such as healing the sick, predicting the future, flying, and so forth. Interestingly, the Book of Acts makes it clear that Simon was highly regarded for his magical abilities. The author seems to think that those who praised Simon were naive and insufficiently schooled in the matter of how proper Christians should view those who possess genuine magical powers.

The Christian belief, then, is that all genuinely magical abilities whatsoever (not to be confused, of course, with the ability of Jesus and his followers to perform "miracles") are necessarily indicative of an alliance with Satan and his Demons. This belief was to have deadly consequences on a horrific scale during the Burning Times (or, as the more delicately constituted prefer to denote it, "the early modern European Witch-hunts").

In the English speaking world (and whenever we venture into non-Anglophone territory a great deal of caution must be exercised in the use of the English words "Witch" and "Witchcraft") we find a great deal of evidence showing that the association between non-malefic magic (inclusive of specifically beneficial magic such as healing, as well as, more generally, benign or non-harmful magic) and Witchcraft played a significant role in the trials, convictions, and executions of accused Witches in England and Scotland (despite the fact that sometimes the opposite is asserted, inevitably, and unavoidably so, without any evidence).

Take for example the very first major outbreak of Witch-hunting in Scotland (or, to be more precise, what was previously believed to have been such - but that is another story ...). Everyone knows that the great Witch-hunt of 1590-91 centered around a supposed conspiracy to assassinate King James by both poison and the magical raising of storms while James traveled by sea. But that is not exactly how the whole thing got started:
"The prosecutions of 1590-1 began in November of 1590 when David Seton, the bailie depute from the East Lothian town of Tranent, suspected his servant, Geillis Duncan, of being a witch. Duncan had cured people of various ailments and performed 'many matters most miraculous', raising the suspicion that she had done these things by 'extraordinary and unlawful means'. To confirm his suspicions, Seton interrogated Duncan and reportedly [the cause of Levack's hesitance here is not at all clear, since there are in fact no grounds whatsoever for doubting that Duncan was in fact tortured] used torture to secure her confession. He also extracted [that is to say, under torture] from her the names of several alleged accomplices. The group included Agnes Sampson, an elderly woman from a village outside the burgh of Haddington who was known primarily as a healer and a midwife ....."
The above is taken from page 35 of Brian Levack's book Witch-hunting in Scotland: Law, Religion, and Politics. The passage that Levack himself quotes is from the 1591 pamphlet published in London, Newes from Scotland. Here is an excerpt from the section of that pamphlet that Levack is quoting from:
Within the towne of Trenent in the Kingdome of Scotland, there dwelleth one Dauid Seaton, who being deputie Bailiffe in the saide Towne, had a maide seruant called Geillis Duncane, who vsed secretly to be absent and to lye foorth of her Maisters house euery other night: this Geillis Duncane took in hand to help all such as were troubled or greeued with any kinde of sicknes or infirmitie: and in short space did perfourme manye matters most miraculous, which thinges forasmuch as she began to doe them vpon a sodaine, hauing neuer doon the like before, made her Maister and others to be in great admiracion, and wondred thereat: by meanes wherof the saide Dauid Seaton had his maide in some great suspition, that she did not those things by naturall and lawfull wayes, but rather supposed it to be doone by some extraordinary and vnlawfull meanes.
Of the dozens of charges against Agnes Sampson, many of them were purely based upon her activities as a healer. Below are some of those charges (taken from Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland: Volume 1, Issue 3, 1833):
  • [That she] healed by witchcraft Johnne Thomsoune in Dirletoun
  • cured Johnne Peiny in Preston by prayer and incantation
  • used prayer and incantation to cure Halyburntoun, guidman of Inchcarne, and declared that no surgery or physic could help him, and he died as she foretold
  • cured by prayer and devilish charmes Bessie Aikenheid
  • healed John Ker of who lay mortally sick in house of Alexander Fairlie in Longniddrie
  • healed Johnne Duncan in Musselburgh
  • healing the son of the laird of Reidhallis by witchcraft, whom the surgeons had given up
  • curing Robert Diksoun in Bowtoune last summer
  • curing the wife of Johnne Cokburn the sheriff of Hadingtoun who was bewitched
  • curing Alesoun Ker, wife of Johnne Restoune, of a sickness contracted through Catherene Gray, a witch
  • curing wife of Robert Caringtoune in Traprene who was bewitched
The  most important thing about the cases of Geillis Duncan and Agnes Sampson is this: superficially these might easily be construed as straightforward cases fitting the paradigm of malefic Witchcraft, since they were both charged as would-be assassins who made use of poison and malefic weather-matic. But upon closer inspection both cases actually provide direct evidence that magical healers were definitely targeted by Witch-hunters.

Geillis and Duncan both had well-established reputations as effective magical healers. It was only once they were incarcerated and subjected to interrogation that anything about malefic magic came out. But in many cases (and in Scotland in particular this is true of the overwhelming majority of cases) we do not have reliable (or any) biographical information about individuals charged with Witchcraft. In a great many instances we do not even know the names of the accused. And also in many cases (and again in Scotland this the great majority) we do not have detailed (or any!) information about the specific charges against accused Witches. And only because we have a detailed list of the charges against her do we know that Agnes Sampson's activities as a healer played a central role in the case against her.

To what extent might Duncan and Sampson be considered mere aberrations? That will be considered in a future follow-up to this post. The first follow-up has now been posted: The Case of Katharina Kepler.