The Edinburgh Witches Well

Back in June, I came across an interesting article on Atlas Obscura, featuring a little noticed spot, near the entrance to the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, where there stands a small drinking fountain. Between the 15th and 18th centuries,  hundreds of women, accused of witchcraft, were executed on this spot, close to what is now Ramsay Garden. Scotland’s King James VI was a devoted persecutor of witches, and during the satanic panic that gripped Europe during that time span, anyone could be accused of using dark magic. Most were women, though regardless of gender all were denied proper trials and subjected to burning at the stake, and in the later years, to hanging.

By 1894, the forward thinking philanthropist, Sir Philip Geddes, commissioned John Duncan to design a small fountain to memorialize the victims.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small plaque explains the major design elements. Duncan was an admirer of Celtic art and legend, interests that are reflected in his use of dualism to highlight the opposites of good and evil and to show that every story has two sides. features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entangled by a snake, uses dualism to highlight the balance between good and evil and that each story has two sides. The relief displays two heads representing the accused.  There is the image of a Foxglove plant from the centre of which is a coiled snake intertwined around the head of Aesculapius, The God of Medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the Goddess of Health. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff known as a caduceus, remains a symbol of medicine today. Hygeia as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation represents hygiene. The Foxglove plant used medicinally can also be poisonous depending on dosage; and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil. The symbolism of all represents good and evil. The years 1479 and 1722 are shown at upper left and bottom right, and two bolts in the upper corners show the Wiccan symbols of air and water. The hole below the serpent’s head dispensed water.

The trough is sculpted on three sides. The font displays flora with roots beneath the earth and branches above. The left panel depicts the evil eye with frowning eyes and nose; the words ‘the evil eye’ are written below. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the words ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

I love symbolism in art and am very glad this monument is there to commemorate the terrible scourge of the witchcraft delusion. I do wish, however, that the plaque more explicitly condemned what happened there to all those innocent victims.  I also wish that I’d known about the fountain when we visited Edinburgh several years back.

 

 

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At the Crossroads: Medieval Folklore and Practices

Walking between worlds has long been a theme in human beliefs, superstitions, and folklore. Spirits, otherwordly beings such as fairies, demons, and ghosts are often reported at the boundaries and edges of this realm and the next. Burial grounds, certain days of the year (Halloween, All Saints, Midsummer, Midwinter, for example), the boundaries between cultivated and wild land,are just some of the places where the supernatural may be encountered. Death can be viewed as the ultimate boundary.

It was also believed the spirits travel best in straight lines. Burial mounds, stone circles and the like are often connected by “avenues”. Labyrinths, mazes, knots and tangles (Native American “dream catchers”) were thought to confound and impede their comings and goings., which may be why labyrinthine symbols are often discovered at neolithic burial sites. Crossroads, at the center of which one finds oneself on two roads at once, are such places. The symbol of the cross itself may represent this duality.

A crossroads, then, particularly one located outside of town, was a place where one could encounter ghosts and demons. On the Isle of Man, people would sweep the crossing place at midnight to keep it clear of them. Witches were thought to hold their sabbaths there. In some cultures, offerings were left to appease malevolent spirits. The choice of four separate routes was believed to confuse ghosts, keeping them bewildered until the light of day forced their return to the grave. For this reason, suicides and suspected vampires were often buried near these spots, and gallows were sometimes erected there.

“Corpse ways”, or paths along which coffins were carried to the cemetery, were often straight, but sometimes passed over a crossroads. At this point, the bearers would set the coffin down and exchange positions at the corners of the bier, possibly symbolizing the reversal of life by death.

To argue at a crosswords is a sure invitation to misfortune.

If you take a three-legged stool to a crossroads in Scotland on Halloween when the church clock strikes midnight, you will hear the names of those parishioners who will die in the coming year. But if you take an article of clothing belonging to one of the doomed, at throw it in the air while calling out their name, you can save them. Also, if you listen to the wind, you will hear your own fortune.

Magical cures could also be attained at crossroads. To get rid of warts, some folks in England would rub the wart with a few wheat grains that were then left at the crossing. To avoid the ague, close to midnight you could turn yourself around three times, drive a nail into ground at the center, and walk away backwards before the striking of the clock, which would enable you to stay healthy, but the poor unsuspecting soul who first stepped over the nail would come down with the ague.

In the deep South of the United States, crossroads were held to be places where one could sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the granting of a wish, often for musical talent.

Just a few thoughts to ponder next time you’re sitting at a red light at a crossroads.

It’s Nearly Halloween: The Widow’s Peak

paul-ryan-coward-apSeeing way too much of this smarmy face recently has made me wonder why that little pointy dip in the center of Ryan’s hairline is called a “widow’s peak”. Many celebs have them; check out Leo DiCaprio, Marilyn Monroe, Sandra Bullock, and Jake Gyllenhaal, to name just a few. Movie vampires and werewolves often sport them, slicked down. When a man’s hair recedes, it sometimes leaves hair behind in a prominent peak. According to Wikipedia, the widow’s peak is an inherited trait, but that idea is disputed among geneticists. While both men and women can have them, there is a lack of data concerning what percentage of the population has them. Pointed hairlines, however, are definitely an anomaly.  All very mysterious, but there does seem to be a credible explanation of the etymology of the term itself.

image0042The origin of  the phrase “widow’s peak”  appears to date from the middle ages, when women wore headdresses called hoods. Some of them were designed with “peaks”, or points, in the center of the brim.   It became customary for women in mourning to wear a peaked hood to symbolize their widowhood, and the style became known as a widow’s cap.   This portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, provides a nice example.  Queen Victoria, in the 19th century, wore widow’s caps for the rest of her long life after the death of her beloved Prince Albert.

article-2374304-01ebdedf00000578-189_306x423Over time, a superstition developed that women with this peaked hairline would be more likely to see their husbands predecease them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually, even in the absence of evidence, Hollywood began to associate a widow’s peak with dark inner qualities, even evil tendencies. 170px-evil_queen_wdwThe evil queen in Disney’s Snow White is wearing a pointed hood beneath her crown, and Maleficent, most recently portrayed by Angelina Jolie, wears one with  horns.

Today, while some people with widow’s peaks would like to get rid of them, most just accept them, and now there are many websites that suggest very attractive hairstyles for them. The old superstitions seem largely forgotten.

 

Folklore in My Garden: St. John’s Wort

imageEach year on Midsummer’s Eve, when summer begins here in New England, I stroll around my garden searching for the little yellow blooms of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). I’ve never planted any. Around here it grows as a wildflower, and a few volunteers show up each year, in various places, sometimes the same and sometimes not. From the time of the ancient Greeks, it was considered to have magical powers to ward off evil and protect against diseases, and since early Christian times, the feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24,  has been considered the best day on which to pick the plant for such uses. Some sources have said the red spots appear on the leaves on August 29, said to be the anniversary of his beheading.

Other ideas stem from folk beliefs. The bright yellow blossom was associated with the sun, which made St. John’s Wort popular for divination and fortune telling. In Germany, for example, young girls dreaming about marriage in the coming year would pick a sprig in the evening; if it had not wilted by morning, her chances were good. The red juice from the crushed leaves was called Witch’s Blood, and made effective love potions. A poem translated from the German:

“The young maid stole through the cottage door,
And blushed as she sought the plant of power.
‘Thou silver glow-worm, oh! lend me thy light,
I must gather the mystic St. John’s Wort to-night;
The wonderful herb whose leaf will decide
If the coming year shall see me a bride.”

Similarly, it could foretell who in a family would die the soonest. Bringing the flowers indoors on Midsummer Eve would protect from the evil eye, ward off witches, promote good fortune, and prevent fires and lightning strikes.  (Guess I’d better bring some in tonight!) Placing a bunch beneath a pillow could banish nightmares, and in one case it rid a house of poltergeist activity! From an English poem:

“St. John’s wort doth charm all the witches away.
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm:
Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or to hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of a similar kind.”

Be sure not to step on this plant, or a Faerie Horse just may steal you away. But perhaps you can avoid that fate by wearing a few leaves and flowers as a necklace.

Medicinally, noted herbalists used St. John’s Wort in ointments to heal deep wounds, bruises, and venomous animal bites. In infusions, it could dissolve stones in the urinary tract or kidneys, and  cure fevers, jaundice, gout, and rheumatism. It was also good for bed sores, lockjaw, and insomnia. Native Americans made use of St. John’s Wort against diarrhea, skin injuries, bleeding, and snake bites. In Europe, it has been used for centuries to alleviate nervous disorders, hysteria,  and insanity, and very recently, St. John’s Wort has been newly discovered as  a modern treatment for depression and virus infection. Today, there are many commercial preparations available as standard oils and liquid or powdered extracts. Now that researchers are taking this herb seriously for medicinal purposes, who knows what knew applications might be discovered?

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a Mystery: The Fabric of Sin, by Phil Rickman

The Fabric of Sin (Merrily Watkins, #9)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s a mystery to me why Phil Rickman remains largely unknown in America, seeing as how he’s a very talented writer who combines the mystery, paranormal, and historical fiction genres like nobody else. His Merrily Watkins series, set in present day England, features a female vicar charged with being the “deliverance” (read “exorcism”) minister in her parish and its environs. Merrily has a daughter, a young teen in the earlier novels and a young woman in the latest, and a significant other, former rock legend Lol Turner, who play prominent roles in all her deliverance activities. Other colorful characters from the church and the village round out the cast. Rickman’s characters are always richly developed, whether they are pro-or-an-tagonists.

In The Fabric of Sin, the action is placed in the Duchy of Cornwall, the province of Prince Charles, who looms large in the background of this investigation. The Reverend Mrs. Watkins is called out to look into a frightening paranormal incident that took place at the Master House in remote Garway. The Duchy owns this ancient property, rumored to have been inhabited by none other than the Knights Templar, and wants to clear matters up so that its restoration can continue unencumbered. Merrily finds this easier said than done, since the church, the villagers, and the Duchy all have their own hidden agendas. As usual, Mr. Rickman incorporates authentic and vivid atmosphere, historical background, psychological suspense, and subtle supernatural elements to produce an engrossing set of mysteries and murders for Merrily to tackle. This is a series that never disappoints.

View all my reviews

The Reburial of King Richard

Whether or not you believe that Richard III is a hero or a villain, it was a great discovery when his bones were discovered under  a parking lot at the site of a long-gone medieval church. Having read quite a bit about Richard, I’ve come down on the side of those who believe that his reputation was systematically vilified by the Tudors. The Guardian.com has posted  some brilliant photos of scenes from the March 22, 2015 procession to escort the coffin of Richard III from the University of Leicester to Leicester Cathedral, where it is currently on view and will be interred on March 25. This is not an official state ceremony, but one sponsored by the city and the Richard III Society. I believe that Richard deserves a king’s funeral and am pleased to see the pageantry that he was denied. May his remains at long last rest in peace.

Canadian-born carpenter Michael Ibsen, left, the King’s 17th great-grandnephew, places a rose on the oak coffin, which he had the honor to build. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

 

 

 

Cortege leaves the University. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

Members of a re-enactment group await the ceremonial procession at Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre in Leicestershire. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

 

Cadets wheel Richard III’s coffin on to the battefield at Bosworth. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

 

A historical re-enactor of the Plantagenet era plays the drums prior to the battlefield gun salute. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/EPA

 

Members of the King’s Guard. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Photograph: Andrew Cowie/EPA

 

White roses, one of Richard’s symbols as a Yorkist, on the bonnet of the hearse carrying Richard III’s coffin as it processes towards Leicester. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

 

Richard III’s coffin processes on a gun carriage through Leicester on its way to the cathedral. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

 

White roses lie at the foot of King Richard III’s statue outside the cathedral . His funeral on Thursday is taking place more than 500 years after his death Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

Richard III’s coffin is draped in a specially-embroidered pall and adorned with a crown Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

 

The crown which sits atop the coffin inside Leicester Cathedral Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

If you’ve had the patience to scroll all the way through, here’s a little reward. Medieval English language specialist Dr. Philip Shaw reads from one of Richard’s own letters, to convey how he would likely have sounded when he spoke. Here’s a link to the audio clip, and here’s one to the text from which Dr. Shaw is reading.  Interesting!

 

 

Christmas Traditions: Wassailing

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Here we come a-what? Wassailing is the practice of going door-to-door singing Christmas carols until paid to go away and leave the occupants in peace. (The term also refers to the practice of singing to trees in apple orchards in cider-producing regions of England.) The word derives from the Anglo Saxon, pre-1066 toast, wæs þu hæl, “be thou hale” — i.e., “be in good health”, though it was not associated with Christianity at that time.
The practice as we know it has its roots in the middle ages, as an exchange between the lord of the manor and his peasants as a form of recipient initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from This point is made in the song Here We Come A-Wassailing, when the wassailers inform the lord of the house that “we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before.” The Lord would then give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, singing, “Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year”.

Wassail bowls, generally in the shape of goblets, have been preserved. The Worshipful Company of Grocers made very elaborate one in the seventeenth century, decorated with silver. It is so large that is must have passed around as a “loving cup” so that many members of the guild could drink from it. Then they wondered why everyone caught colds! Anyway, the drink was either punch, mulled wine or spicy ale. The larger, elaborate bowl below is from Wales.

 

If you’d like to whip up a batch of wassail for your own celebrations, Old Farmer’s Almanac has a good recipe here .

Happy New Year! Waes pu hael!

 

revised 12/30/14