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The Blessing Witch in English Culture

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: May 2nd. 2010
Times Viewed: 2,121

Wren’s Nest News ran an article on Feb. 3, 2010, by Cara Ruccolo called “Cotton Mather and the Salem Witch Trials” (which originally appeared on News) . Finding this to be an interesting subject, I opened the link and was startled by Rev. Mather’s opening line: “If they [Witches] do good, it is only that they may do hurt.”

This line was delivered in a sermon preached in 1689 (three years before the Salem Cases) , circulated in a larger printed collection, “Mather’s Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possession.” (Please note that “Witchcraft” and “Possession” are linked in Mather’s mind; since the late 1500s, Witchcraft cases in England, as in New England, centered upon Witch-possessed and tormented children. Belief that Witches could “send” their spirits was a necessity for this tradition. This is important because “sending spirits” is otherwise a characteristic of Shamanic traditions, implying that medieval Witchcraft grew out of pre-Christian Celtic/Teutonic Pagan Shamanism- how else to account for the English Witch-belief that Witches could send their spirits?)

It was Ms. Ruccolo’s suggestion that Mathers may well have introduced (or planted the seed of possibility for) Witchcraft into New England. At the least, he may have influenced popular willingness to accept that Satan’s Servants might be loose in Massachusetts (Witches were imagined in Satanic terms in the Puritan New World) .

The article was very interesting and lucidly argued - however what caught my eye was its opening with Mather’s warning that “If Witches do good, it is only that they may do hurt.” In this moment, Mather is addressing an actually very common argument/counter-argument in the period’s hashing-out of the matter of Witchcraft. From the time of the Dark Ages, you see, the Christian Church had attacked Witchcraft as the influence and invention of Satan. Witchcraft (in so many words) was therefore Really Bad.

Clearly a counter-argument is put forth and that counter-argument goes like this: If Witches are Bad- what about the Good Witches that we see all around us?

Because clearly in the European Middle Ages, people feel that they are surrounded by Good Witches- they know Good Witches- their neighbors are good Witches. If these Witches whom they know are not Bad Witches- why should they believe that any other Witches might be Bad?

We can tell that this is the counter-argument offered, because a rebuttal has been formulated and that rebuttal goes thus: Even Witches who SEEM as if they do Good- they are actually Bad, because they’re making it SEEM as if Witchcraft is Good- this encourages belief in Witchcraft- which is Really, Really Bad.

It is this argument to which Mather refers, when he says that, “If Witches do good, it is only that they may do hurt.” He is batting back the ball for the Conservative “anti-Witch” side with their formulaic reply to the question: What about Witches who are Good?

Please notice that underlying all this is a firm belief in what the period calls “the Blessing Witch”- a Witch who does no Harm, but always does great Good.

When Edward White composes A Rehearsall both straung and true, his account of the Windsor Witch-case of 1579- reproduced by Marion Gibson, in Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing, (Routledge, 2000, p. 34) - he starts off by mimicking the politically “proper” attitude of the time towards Witches: “For that old Serpent Sathan [Elizabethans frequently spelled “Satan” with a “th”]…the scourge for our sins, hath of late yeares greately multiplied the broude [brood] of them, and muche encreased their malice.”

This also is a refrain common among medieval “Anti-Witch” types- that there were way-more Witches now than there had been before (due to Satan, of course) and the Witches were way-more malicious than they had ever been before.

White goes on: “Nay the fondness [‘simple-mindedness’ or ‘gullible quality’] and ignorance of many is such that they succour these Devilishe Impes [Witches], have recourse to them for the health of themselves or others and for thinges loste, callyng them by the honorable name of wise-woman.”

In other words- despite the fact that “Sathan” is “scourging” Elizabethan England for its sins- “many” are so foolish and backward as to “have recourse” to Witches “for the health of themselves or others” and for recovering lost properties. They call Witches “by the honorable name of wise-woman.”

This concedes the presence of the “Wise-Woman” tradition, and the degree to which the Wise-Woman is mixed up with the Witch in Elizabethan English culture.

According to E. William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland (Cornell University Press, 1976, p. 172) : Cunning-Folk in England are thought “roughly comparable in numbers to the parish clergy” in 1600; in Essex, it was said no one lived more than ten miles from a Cunning-Man. In 1621, Burton referred to “cunning men, wizards, and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities.” We see the concept of the “White Witch”- the good, benevolent Witch, the healing, helpful Witch- introduced alongside Cunning-Men and Wizards, ready to help “almost all infirmities.”

The physician John Cotta (d. 1650) reinforces the esteem in which English “White-Witches” were held: “A sort of practioners, whom our custome and country doth call wisemen and wisewomen, reputed a kind of good and honest harmles witches or wisards, who by good words, by hallowed herbes and salves, and other superstitious ceremonies promise to allay and calme divels [‘devils’], practices of other witches, and the forces of many diseases.” (Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 557)

In other words- Wise-Folk were “reputed” to be both Witches and Wizards, “good and honest” but above all “harmless, ” who used “good words, ” “hallowed herbs and salves, ” and other “superstitious ceremonies” to relieve demonic affliction, bewitchment, and illness. Camden said of Irish Wise-Women in 1610, that they “giveth more certaine judgement of the decease [disease], than many of our physicians can.” (Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck, p. 251) The Protestant preacher Latimer (burned at the stake by Bloody Mary) addressed his congregation in 1552 on the general resort to Folk-Magicians: “Some of us, when we be in trouble, do run hither and thither to sorcerers and witches, to get remedy.” (Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 71)

We see here a great disconnect between the Official Position regarding Witchcraft (scourge of Satan, to be suffered for sins) and the routine way that Witchcraft operates in everyday life in 1500/1600s England, with Witches and Wizards thought of highly, held as good and compassionate, on whom people depend in times of illness or stress. So comfortable was England with its Wise-Folk that for the most part throughout the Hunt-Times, English Cunning-Folk continued to practice healing “with great success and almost total impunity.” (Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland, p. 172)

“They say you are cunning, and are called the Good Woman of Rochester.”
“If never to do harm be to do good- I dare say I am not ill. But what’s the matter?” (III.iv.83) .

In this exchange, Mother Bombi appears to comment on what is now known as the Wiccan Rede or the ethical code by which Witches govern themselves: “Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill- an ye harm none, do what ye will.”

Mother Bombi was a Wise-Woman of Rochester; so famous within her lifetime that John Lyly (c. 1580s) wrote a play about her, A Pleasant Conceited Comedy Called Mother Bombi. Reginald Scot (c. 1580s) describes her as “being in divers books set out with authority…‘the great witch of Rochester, ’ and reputed among all men for the chief ringleader of all other witches.” A reference in the 1620s play The Witch of Edmonto suggests that “Bombi” had by then become a generic term for “Witch” and I am not sure that it is a coincidence that “Bombi” so closely resembles “Bombay, ” as in the Healer-Witch Dr. Bombay in Bewitched.

Silena: “They say you are a witch.”
Mother Bombi: “They lie. I am a cunning woman.” (II.iii)

In Lyly’s play, Mother Bombi is a rather static character, remaining unremittingly honest and ethical throughout, issuing prophecies and casting fortunes for the other characters in the work. Although her dramatic development is not large, she serves as another example of the reverence and close attention that was applied to the community Cunning-Folk. This reverence can take on such overtones as to make it appear that once the Wise-Ones (the village Witches and Wizards) were held as religious leaders as well.

Thomas Gale, Master in Chirurgery [Surgery, meaning that he is an early doctor or member of the developing medical profession], makes a revealing statement in 1562: “I think there be not so few in London as three score women that occupieth the arte of Physicke and Chirurgerie [Surgery]. These women, some of them be called wise women, or holie or good women, some of them be called Witches…” (Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England p. 259)

Basically Gale is estimating roughly sixty (“three score”) Wise-Women (“occupying the art of Physic and Surgery”) as residing in London alone at his time. They are not only called “Wise-Women, ” sometimes they are called “Holy or Good Women”; sometimes they are simply known as “Witches.”

There were plainly Wise-Folk and Cunning-People in thriving enterprise throughout England in the 1500 and 1600s- exactly at the time that the Christian Churches were most intent upon painting Witchcraft as an overture to demonism. This effort was frustrated by people who pointed to the Good Witches- the White Witches- the Holy Women- as examples of Witches who were trustworthy and kindly-intentioned.

The counter to this argument became- even if Witches SEEM to do good through Witchcraft- it is a lie and a trap and a deceit meant to inveigle the unwitting and the unwary into further destruction within the toils of Satan.

Perkins, the late sixteenth century Puritan preacher, admits the presence of “good Witches, which doe no hurt but good, which doe not spoile and destroy, but save and deliver.”

Even so- “it were a thousand times better for the land, if all Witches, but especially the blessing Witch might suffer death.” This is because the good witch “is so deare unto them, that they hold themselves and their countrey blessed that have him among them, they flie unto him in necessitie, they depend upon him as their god, and by this meanes, thousands are carried away to their finall confusion. Death therefore is the just and deserved portion of the good Witch.” (Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England p. 292)

Puritan Perkins concedes the “blessing Witch, ” so dear to the people that they consider themselves blessed by such eminences within the neighborhood. In times of necessity, they “fly unto” the Blessing Witch. The people depend upon the Blessing Witches as if they were Deities. By this misleading deceit, the people are gulled into damnable confusion. Perkins concludes therefore “Death is the just and deserved portion of the good Witch.”

His contemporary Cooper equally distinguishes between “the Blesser or good Witch, ” finding such to be “farre more dangerous than the Badde or hurting Witch, ” as they are so apt to persuade others to the perdition of sorcery. (Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 295)

One final thought on the matter of the Blessing Witch- what is that universal salutation that we Wiccans have adopted?

Blessed be.


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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