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Da Vinci Code for Witches (Part One)

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: May 17th. 2009
Times Viewed: 4,129

Let us begin with the general time of the early 1920s, with the place the New Forest region of England. Let us suppose that a group of people from various backgrounds and degrees of social class- but united in a common enthusiasm- meet with some regularity to practice what they call “witchcraft” and which they hold amongst themselves to be indeed the ancient “craft” of witches of old.

After the notable period of at least fifteen years, a tall, interesting Englishman with an exotic past working for the English civil government in the East- at times living as one with the natives, observing their religious rites- makes their acquaintance. They sense in him a kindred spirit, a sharing of their enthusiasm. They agree to initiate him into their “witchcraft” and teach him their ways- this is in 1939, with England on the cusp of war.

Such a situation is what Gerald Gardner described when he wrote his book Witchcraft Today in 1954, fated to become the “founding myth” of a movement surely greater than anything of which he could have dreamed. At this point enters the Talented Mr. Philip Heselton, the indefatigable British researcher who has undertaken the laborious task (as mighty as the Labors of Hercules, some might say) of verifying Gardner’s back-story.

These efforts are brilliantly presented in his books Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival (Capall Bann Publishing, 2000) and Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft (Capall Bann Publishing, 2003) . In short, Mr. Heselton has identified for the first times the various individuals to whom (out of respect for privacy) Gardner referred only with extreme circumspection, establishing them indeed (as Gardner said) as participants in the various esoteric traditions operating within the New Forest area.

(New Forest all by itself must be an interesting place, if for no other reason than it is the haunted region where King William Rufus caught a hunting arrow in his chest in 1100, mistaken for a deer- so they said. Numerous stories sprang up fired with imagination at the event, such as the King’s body bleeding for a supernaturally long time afterwards, rendering the ground fertile in a bloody shower. Such stories often reveal a strikingly pagan line of thought. So thorough is Heselton in his investigations, he has strode over the entire New Forest country-side following Gardner’s vague directions, to ascertain what are likely to have been the New Forest coven’s working-sites.)

Two points of significance arise. One is the realization that- as Heselton states in Wiccan Roots, “Preliminary Conclusions” (Chap. 21, “A New Myth?”) : “Gardner did not invent the whole thing.”

In other words- if it can be shown that a coven (or at least a loosely organized network of similarly minded individuals) pre-existed Gardner- then Gardner did indeed inherit the information and lore called “Wicca” (as he said all along) , rather than invent it himself.

The second point of consequence is Heselton’s establishing this association of New Forest witches by at least the first portion of the 1920s. As he reflects in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration (page 384) , “What I hope I have succeeded in doing is pushing the boundaries of our knowledge back to the early 1920s, if no further. If the ‘old coven’…had a longer lineage then it is for the moment lost in the mists of antiquity.”

As an instance, on page 386, Heselton observes that Rosamund Sabine (an important figure within this group) considered herself a reincarnated witch, “belonging to what she called ‘the Wica’ [sic]” by 1924.

Heselton’s work solves one puzzle (“Was Gardner telling the truth or was he was joshing about the ‘being initiated into an ancient witch-tradition’ thing?”) and creates another. If the premise for Wicca shifts from Gardner to these other (hitherto unknown) persons (perhaps the true founders of modern Wicca, one supposes) - persons such as Rosamund Sabine, Edith Rose Woodford-Grimes (the witch “Dafo”) , Dorothy Clutterbuck, members of the Mason family of Southampton- the question becomes pertinent: whence did they derive said premise?

Heselton ponders this question in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration (page 384) , musing that Rosamund Sabine might have inherited a Hereditary practice from her Cornish background (Cornwall being “a land rich in tradition”) or that Dorothy Clutterbuck might have in her native Hertfordshire. Heselton identifies the Masons as Hereditary witches, but it was not apparently they who started the “old coven” (as it came to be called) .

Leaving aside the question of Hereditary status (but observing that there were clearly once such a number of what the English termed “white” or “blessing” witches- wise-women, in other words- who were held distinct from malevolent witches and not subjected to the systematic persecutions of the Continent- that the idea that folk-magic traditions were continued in England until the late nineteenth century, when the majority of the “old coven” were born, is not out of the question) : one wishes to note that the avenue of English folklore could have guided the founding members of the Old Coven as surely as an Hereditary upbringing.

Such an example might be the Windsor Witches, four women of Windsor, England, who were hanged on February 26, 1579, condemned as “notorious witches, ” having caused the deaths of a number of people through their “Sorceries and Inchauntementes” (a capital crime in Elizabethan England) . Their case was written up in two surviving pamphlet-accounts (the Elizabethan version of newspaper publication) : Edward White’s A Rehearsall both straung and true (March 1579) and Richard Galis’s A brief treatise later that year. Both are reprinted by Marion Gibson, in Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing, (New York: Routledge, 2000) .

Lest we get distracted thinking “O poor tragic victims of cruel inhumanity, ” let us reflect for a moment that the Windsor Witches do not seem to have been easy people with which to get along and it was their free confessions (or at least Elizabeth Stile’s) , which convicted them. As England did not torture in cases of witchcraft (making the reign of Elizabeth notably different from that of a number of her European peers) and as the case of the Windsor Witches is distinguished by the exceptional restraint and sober sense of responsibility shown by local authorities- we may be comfortable that their confessions (or at least Stile’s) were not forced.

The Witches cop to some disagreeable things (the only explicit descriptions of their witchcrafts are specifics about the death-magics that they apparently- and unethically- performed) and to some fantastic ones (they insist that they can transform into animals at will) . It is difficult to understand what to make of such assertions, but in other ways what the Windsor Witches describe is very familiar:

They meet in a group (all individuals were named, but action was not taken against all members, reflecting presumably judgments as to the extent of likely criminal witchcraft) . This group is described as a “confederation, ” “association, ” and a “sisterhood” (despite the presence of a male member) . This group strikes us as nothing so much as a coven, but they do not use that word. Various members of the Windsor Witch Confederation are clearly of the various “wise-folk” or “cunning-folk” traditions.

This association has various meeting places (implying meetings of some regularity) . In Item 23 of White’s Rehearsall, Stiles says that the group “did meete sometymes in maister Dodges Pittes, and sometyme aboute a leven of the Clocke in the night at the Pounde [pond].”

Moreover the Windsor Witch-Sisters (and one Brother) have (or had) a High Priestess, a witch who was “Mistress Witch” to the others. Several times Galis refers to Mother Audrey as being the Chief Witch, as in Item 20 of A brief treatise: “one Mother Audrey…was the cheef Mistresse of them all.”

Mother Audrey (presumably a quite elderly woman by their standards) dies at some point before the legal actions of the case commence. It is unclear (but would be fascinating to understand) exactly how Mother Audrey came to such elevation. Was she so much more advanced in age than the others or perhaps so much more commanding in personality that made the Windsor Witches consider her their Mistress? Was it an unspoken, unconscious deference or was there a Ceremony of some kind (around 11 o’clock at night, perhaps, by the Windsor pond) that specifically placed this honor upon her? (The latter prospect is the sort that modern Wiccans salivate over, sort of like Pavlov’s dogs.)

An intriguing thing is that Edward White records the presence of a Chief Witch- but calls her by another name. In Item 26 of Rehearsall, he refers to “mother Seidre…the maistres [mistress] Witche of all the reste, and she is now deade.”

Why it is that Mother Audrey is also Mother Seidre is not known, but as “seider” is the ancient Nordic trance-induced prophetic session associated with the Goddess Freyya in the Eddas- it is fascinating to speculate that “Mother Seidre” was a Witch-Name assumed by Mother Audrey to reflect her status as High Priestess to the Windsor Witch-Sisterhood. If so- this suggests that the Anglo-Saxons imported seider into England and that it survived in practice as late as 1579.

There are other precedents for witches forming magic-working groups and for electing a High Priestess or a Mistress Witch in the English Renaissance. Ben Jonson’s 1609 Masque of Queens presents a witch-group of eleven, making twelve with their Dame Witch; Thomas Middleton’s play The Witch (c. 1610) displays a witch-band of six, under the stern direction of their leader Heccat (probably a mortal witch with the name of the Greek Witch-Goddess rather than the Goddess Herself) .

Covens were similarly known in Scotland (whose witchcraft is not dramatically different than England’s) : the North Berwick Witches of the 1590s and Isobel Gowdie of the 1660s describe covens, as do the Somerset Witches of the 1660s, subject of the last major witch-trial in England.

The idea of a superior witch also appears established in Elizabethan/Jacobean witch-lore. The Dame acts as High Priestess and Ritual-Leader to the witch collective in Masque of Queens, as does Heccat to Middleton’s witch-band. Reginald Scot, the Kentish squire whose Discoverie of Witchcrafte in 1584 was one of the first protests against witch “hunting, ” refers to a kind of super-star witch of the time, a wise-woman named Mother Bombi (famous enough indeed to become the subject of a play by John Lyly) .

Scot calls Bombi a “principal witch, ” with persons applying to her for witch-aid “from all the furthest parts of the land, she being in divers books set out with authority, registered and chronicled by the name of ‘the great witch of Rochester, ’ and reputed among all men for the chief ringleader of all other witches.”

Jonson, in his notes to Masque of Queens, assures us that, “Amongst our vulgar witches [Jonson’s use of “vulgar” is more in the meaning of “lower classes, ” rather than “uncouth, ” although that is admittedly a component of “lower classes” to the time], the honor of Dame (for so I translate it) [there is a Latin word for ‘High Lady’ that Jonson translates as ‘Dame’] is given, with a kind of preeminence, to some special one at their meetings.”

For confirmation, Jonson cites two near-contemporaries and The Golden Ass (I.8) of the classical writer Apuleius, “concerning a certain woman tavern keeper, a queen of sorceresses…that you may know that even then some were honored by them with this title.” Jonson’s point is that (lower class, kind of uncouth) witches of “today” (his day) confers “the honor of Dame” to some special one “with a kind of preeminence.” Based upon his Classical education (the common education of the time) , Jonson finds examples of “Sorceress-queens” in Classical literature as well as in the witch-culture surrounding him (presumably the flourishing Elizabethan wise-woman traditions) .

For more on these matters, please consult A Briefe Historie of Wytches.

The concept of witches banding into a coven appears well-established in English folklore, as does (according to Ben Jonson) the custom of establishing a High Priestess (as we would term it) . This both prefigures and reflects the Wiccan structure given to us by Gerald Gardner.

Item 17 of Galis’s account of the Windsor Witches contains an interesting, off-hand remark: Galis refers to the witches’ meeting places, where they would “doo and exercise ye craft.”

Whatever the “craft” is- it is something that one does and something that one exercises.

It is apparently a concrete thing in Galis’s head, as he applies the definite article “the” (ye) to it.

There is a nuance to Galis’s use of “ye” that may not be immediately apparent. Amongst the many other changes going on for the Elizabethans is their shift from the archaic language of the Middle Ages into the modern English that we recognize today (this is the period where the medieval “doth” and “hath” become “does” and “has”) . “Ye” being the medieval form of “the, ” Galis chooses the most ancient type of language possible in referring to “ye craft.”

It is as if the “craft” (of witches) is so old, so heavy with centuries- only “ye” can adequately describe it.

[Here ends Part One.]


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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