Saturday, 17 May 2008

Archive: Scottish Witchcraft Lore - Alexander Polson

Scottish Witchcraft Lore
Alexander Polson

I was actually looking for Thomas Davidson's Rowan Tree and Red Thread when I was at the library, but it's another one of those books that's gone missing. This one was lurking in the sad and forlorn space where Davidson's book should have been, and after a quick flick and noticing a chapter on charms and countercharms, I decided it was worth a more in-depth look.

It seems I have something of a taste for these old books, because like Napier's book, I actually quite enjoyed this one. It didn't start off too well, with an overview of witchcraft and its history that put it firmly in the Deal with the Devil camp, but then Polson managed to rationlise the complete mismatch of the reports from the witch trials with the example of more modern practices, by simply saying something along the lines of, "They don't do all the dancing on the heath and pacts with the devil anymore, and these days they're not all old and ugly. Some of them still believe they're calling on the devil for their power, but that's just superstition and delusion..." This in itself was quite impressive fuzzy logic at work!

Once he gets into the meat of the book and gets into his stride, it gets much more interesting. He relates an interview he did with a modern witch, and asks her how she got her reputation and the sorts of charms she did. He takes a brief look at how witches in general tend to get their reputations, which is something that intrigued me because in books this old it's not something that is often analysed - usually the belief in witchcraft is dismissed as silly superstition and nothing more is said. Here, Polson gives examples and stories to illustrate his point, but like most of the book there are no references given at all, and this gets frustrating at times (a limited bibliography is given at the end, with all the usual suspects along with some one I hadn't heard of).

Then he goes on to look at some of the more famous witch trials (that generally seemed to involve actual wise women and men, rather than those who were accused out of a personal grudge with little basis in fact), and looks at the types of charms and countercharms that were performed often on a daily basis by people and the wise men and women they went to when all else failed, along with ways of averting or curing the evil eye, and then all the sorts of tricks that witches were supposed to be able to get up to like levitation and making themselves invisible. One thing that was revealing in all this is that no real distinction is made between the everyday practices of the people and wise men and and women that helped protect and prevent against those who performed the 'dark arts'. Occasionally the distinction between 'white' and 'black' magic is made, but implicit in all this is Polson's unstated view that really it's all essentially the same.

A few things that caught my eye were descriptions of the countercharms that were used, which essentially seemed to be the same as the sop seile ('spittle-wisp') but minus the straw, that Campbell describes in The Gaelic Otherworld as being performed around the home or on new cattle, particularly at Bealltuinn and Lunasdal. There was also a tale explaining why juniper was no longer used to help break a case of the evil eye over someone - a girl began ailing and wasting away for no apparent reason, and after doctors could do nothing for her it was decided that the only cause could be a case of evil eye. To remove it, certain customs were observed, and branches of juniper were collected, fresh and green. The house was sealed up as well as possible, and certain incantations were said as the juniper was put to the fire and caused great amounts of smoke to fill the house. In spite of the girl's increasingly laboured breathing, more and more was put on the fire until the girl couldn't breathe at all, and died. Distraught, the father went made and burned the house down with everything in it. Such a cautionary tale meant that the practice gradually died out (even though it's very reminiscent of McNeill's detailing of the water and juniper rite performed at Hogmanay).

It's things like this that I find most useful, and Polson takes care to personalise his examples by illustrating them with tales rather than run through a fairly dry list of 'they did this, this or this to make their cows give milk again..." Better still, it's not just a rehashing of things you'll find elsewhere so for me (from my somewhat admittedly still limited exploration of the subject), it added something new. Sadly, at over £80, it won't be joining my bookshelf on a more permanent basis just yet.