April 29th – Time to guard children against witches

From ‘The Wonderful Discoveries of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower’, London, 1618

As May Eve approached, which like Halloween, was considered a particularly uncanny time, people were warned to guard against witches stealing their babies:

He (the Devil) teacheth the witches to make ointments of the bowels and members of children, whereby they ride in the air and accomplish all their desires. So as, if they be any children unbaptized, or not guarded with the sign of the cross or orisons: then the witches may and do catch them from their mother’s side at night, or out of their cradles. …. and after burial steal them out of the graves, then seethe them in a cauldron until their flesh been made possible.

Reginald Scott ‘The Discovery of Witchcraft’ 1594 (from ‘The perpetual Almanack of Folklore’ by Charles Kightley)

(and please remember I am doing a May Eve Walk on April 30th and a May Day Virtual Tour on May 1st see here).

Ways to keep witches away were various, but baptising your children early was the best method. As you will have seen in previous posts children were normally baptised as soon as three days after birth in the early modern period.) Saying prayers (orisons), hanging garlic, bread, rowan-leaves, around the cradle were among many other methods that could be used in those days of a homicidal fear of witchcraft.

In archaeological surveys of timber framed buildings increasing numbers of reports of marks have been discovered. They are now so ubiquitous that it seems most people felt they need to deploy them to secure their houses. It was believed that witches gained entry where there was in inlet of wind, so doors, windows, chimneys, and anywhere there was a draft. These were be marked by pentagons which represent the five wounds of Christ, as well as a variety of other marks ‘chequerboards, mesh patterns, peltas (a type of knotwork design) and circle’. This quotation is from https://theartssociety.org/arts-news-features/ancient-symbols-once-used-ward-away-witches which is an excellent read and gives more detail.

Also this article makes the case that they are not witch marks, or anti-witch protection marks but general marks to ward off evil. This is worth reading. The illustration below comes from it.

Robert Burns poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’ gives a graphic, fictional, account of a witches’ coven presided over by the Devil (auld Nick) himself which features ‘wee, unchristen’d bairns‘:

And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight!
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.—
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw’d the dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantraip slight
Each in its cauld hand held a light.—
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murderer’s banes in gibbet airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen’d bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi’ his last gasp his gab did gape;
Five tomahawks, wi’ blude red-rusted;
Five scymitars, wi’ murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father’s throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son o’ life bereft,
The grey hairs yet stack to the heft;
Wi’ mair o’ horrible and awefu’,
Which even to name wad be unlawfu’.

I talked more about Tam O’Shanter and the Cutty Sark here and to read the whole poem see below. Please do have a look and when you read it read it quick and don’t worry about how to pronounce it or understand it, just enjoy the ride!

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