Isobel Gowdie was a 17th century Scottish woman who was accused and tried for witchcraft in 1662 in Auldearn, a town in the Highlands of Scotland.
Her story is significant because she gave an elaborate confession filled with elements of fantasy and sheer magic.
Most importantly, it is said that she confessed without torture, and she gave her testimony on four occasions. With no torture used for any of them (although she likely was ill-treated prior to her interrogations), she volunteered stories about such things as shape-shifting, meetings with the Queen of the Fairies, and rendezvous with the Devil himself.
Isobel was a young woman at the time of her trial. It is not mentioned if she had children, although it is recorded that she was married. Some articles say that she was well educated and "married below her class." While others state that Isobel may have been mentally disabled or disturbed. Emma Wilby, author of a recent book on Gowdie, speculates that Isobel may have been a storyteller or village bard.
Scholars simply do not know what to make of her, and there is much speculation about where her stories came from and what her motivations in telling them were. We will continue with Isobel's confessions further below.
When looking at the 16th and 17th centuries in England and Scotland (as well as elsewhere in Europe), the Christianity we know about from history books was mainly practiced by the elite. Royals and the aristocracy were the first converts, often for political reasons. Massive conversion campaigns were undertaken to reach out to the rural people.
Conversion campaigns in England began in the 6th century, so by the 16th and 17th centuries, obviously the process was complete. By this time the peasantry was unequivocally Christian. However, what they practiced was often more of a hybridized "folk religion."
The term folk religion is used to describe the phenomena when remnants of indigenous religion are retained and mixed with the new organized religion. We see the same thing in places like South and Central America, for example.
On a conscious level, these people considered themselves purely Christian. Yet, they maintained belief in non-Biblical spirit entities such as fairies and other mythological creatures. They also maintained practices which are described as "magical" by scholars who study this period. For example, old charms from the Medieval Period which once called upon the names of the old Pagan gods often carried over into the next era, but with the Pagan gods' names swapped for Christian saints.
Another blending of these two worlds was the use of Cunning Folk by the local population. A cunning person, also called wise men and wise women, were folk healers (in fact, the words witch and wizard are etymologically related to the wordwise in the English language from the old Anglo-Saxon).
They used herbs, charms, the laying on of hands, energy work, and other means to cure disease. Cunning women and men were consulted for other things as well, such as to identify a thief, to discover if they had been cursed and to lift the curse, or if the site for a potential new home building would upset the local fairies.
Often these cunning folk were benign and performed a useful role in their society. However, like any other profession, there were good ones and then there were charlatans. Some unscrupulous cunning folk blamed innocent people when someone asked for help locating a thief. Or invented silly and ineffective superstitious remedies. Of course, they were making a living off of these things.
In most cases, these people were tolerated by the authorities and the Church. We must remember that the local priests and pastors were also country people who lived within the same community. The village vicar was in all likelihood literate, but not especially well educated or sophisticated by the standards of the urban elite. So in some cases, these low level Churchmen even participated in local agrarian fertility rites, or at least tolerated the practices that were going on. It was often if someone was angered and escalated their quarrel to pressing charges, or if a higher level church official visited, that folk practices and the cunning folk might be looked at more closely.
So, the fact that these practices were so very common, and practiced by so many people, made it very easy to pinpoint witches when witch hunting crazes came around. If a particular folk practice really pushed the boundaries of Church doctrine, then an accusation of witchcraft was likely.
King James VI of Scotland would inherit the English throne from Elizabeth I to become James I of England, uniting the two countries into one Britain. He is most well known for this, and for commissioning the King James Bible. For this, he is celebrated by Christians in the English speaking world to this day.
But, many people don't know about his role in the Scottish witch hunts. Or about another book that, rather than being commissioned to other authors like the KJV Bible, was actually written by the King's own hand; Daemonologie.
Daemonologie was more or less a handbook on demons, witchcraft, and the devil. Prior to James' reign,witch hunts were not especially common in Scotland. James developed an interest in witchcraft that appears to have bordered on obsession. He signed a law in 1591 which made the torture of witches legal, and he is said to have attended witch trials personally.
King James' interest in witches is speculated to have started with events that occurred as a result of his betrothal to Anne of Denmark. James was evidently a man with a keen intellectual curiosity in whatever topics were popular at the time. When he visited Denmark, he found that witchcraft was a hot topic there, and witch trials were going on with much more vigor than in his own country.
However, there was an event that really clinched the fascination with witchcraft in James' mind. It was apparently a very stormy season when Anne of Denmark attempted to sail to Scotland to marry James, and a great storm ensued. Anne's vessel was forced to turn back and take refuge in Norway. Six women confessed, probably under torture, to having had caused the storm through supernatural means. They were convicted as witches. This was all the evidence needed to convince the King that demonic forces were at work, and that they were out to gethim especially.
James' writings on witchcraft became incredibly popular and influential.Shakespeare is said to have used Daemonologie as a source for information on the witches that feature in such plays as MacBeth.
Although Isobel Gowdie's trial occurred about 75 years after James' book, his passion for rooting out witchcraft fanned the flames of witch hunting for many years to follow.
Modern scholarship for the past century has tended to disregard the confessions of accused witches due to the fact that they were overwhelmingly elicited under torture. How could anything someone says under torture have any bearing on our understanding of the witch trials? The women (and some men) were obviously saying what their accusers wanted to hear in order to make the torture stop, right? Well, not so fast.
There is a new theory emerging that suggests that some (certainly not all) of these accused witches were participating in shamanic visionary practices that were holdovers from the pre-Christian era.
By shamanic, what is meant is that some of these women and men might have been participating in spirit journeys to the otherworlds through the use of trance and/or hallucination inducing substances (herbs or mushrooms). This would account for many of the things mentioned in Isobel's testimony.
Dr. Emmy Wilby, who has been studying witch trial testimony for much of her academic career, says that while some of Isobel's testimony was surely induced by her treatment in prison and framed by her interrogators, a good portion of it could have come from nowhere but the mind of Isobel herself. How do we know that?
Well, as discussed above, there were influential writings that circulated heavily among Church leaders and witch persecutors. King James' Daemonologie was one of many. The Malleus Maleficarum was the most popular. It was literally a manual for identifying and interrogating witches. It was originally published in Germany where it was called Der Hexenhammer, literally translated as The Witches Hammer.
First page from an early 20th century edition of the Malleus Maleficarum
So how can we tell which parts of her confession were influenced by her interrogators (because they asked leading questions such as "When did you make your pact with the Devil?") and which parts were her own invention?
Well, thanks to books like theMalleus Maleficarum andDaemonologie, we know exactly what the examiners were looking for. We also have the bulk of other surviving testimony to compare individual confessions with. So the parts of Isobel's testimony that line up with what the majority of other confessions said, and that jives with the content of these witch hunting manuals, we can assume she was coaxed into saying. But, certain things that seem to be an anomaly separating it from other confessions, or that don't quite fit with what inquisitors would be looking for, is a clue that these things were not coaxed but came directly from the mind of the person being questioned.
Yet, much of Isobel's testimony bears a stronger resemblance to the shape shifting and astral journeying shamans of Siberia than what her prosecutors were expecting her to say.
In 1921 an early folklore pioneer named Margaret Murray wrote a book called The Witch Cult in Western Europe, wherein she proposed that old paganism survived underground despite the persecutions of paganism during the conversion period of Europe in the early to mid-Middle Ages, that the witch trials targeted practitioners European indigenous religion, and that European ancestral faith remained underground throughout the ages into the 19th and early 20th centuries.
This theory has had serious criticism since Murray's day, and much of this is due to Murray's non-academic research and reporting methods. However, Murray was writing when the field of folklore was very young so methods of best practice were not yet established.
In the 1960s, however, an academic historian published a book called The Night Battles about his research into the Benandanti, a group of Italian witches tried for witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Benandanti also used visionary journeys to do spirit work. They claimed it was to fight evil spirits who were attempting to cause the local crops to fail.
It is speculated that other groups like this may have existed throughout Europe. Their visionary astral trips do seem similar in nature to Isobel Gowdie's, as well as similar to known shamanic spirit work elsewhere throughout the world. It's possible that even if Margaret Murray's methods were flawed, that perhaps her theory was not too far off.
A serious review of the data indicates that none of these people truly identified as anything other than Christian, especially in Britain by the 16th century which was a solid millennium after the conversion of England. Yet, more evidence is building that some of the people accused of witchcraft may have been practicing a hybrid form of folk religion that did, indeed, retain elements of old European Paganism.
© 2014 Carolyn Emerick