Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The treatment of witches


I was out delivering at the weekend and as usual I had my little portable radio with me. I came across a programme about the Confessions of a Witch. The women in question was Isobel Gowdie who came from the NE of Scotland around the town of Nairn.


The trials of witches make good drama. Arthur Miller's play the Crucible is set in Salem, Massachusetts and is based on the Witch Trials of 1692. Isobel Gowdie predates the Salem trials by about 30years. She was burned to death after a series of improbable confessions. These confessions inspired the Scottish composer James MacMillan. He said of the work:


"Initially I was drawn by the dramatic and programmatic potential of this insane and terrible story but the work soon developed a far more emotional core as I attempted to draw together various strands in a single, complicated act of contrition. On behalf of the Scottish people the work craves absolution and offers Isobel Gowdie the mercy and humanity that was denied her in the last days of her life. To do this I have tried to capture the soul of Scotland in music and outer sections contain a multitude of chants, songs and litanies (real and imagined) coming together in a reflective outpouring - a prayer for the murdered woman. This work is the Requiem that Isobel Gowdie never had."


James MacMillan is not the only artist to be inspired by the tale of Gowdie as as Wikipedia relates:



Isobel Gowdie and her magic have been remembered in a number of later works of culture. She has appeared as a character in several novels, such as the biographical novels The Devil's Mistress by novelist and occultist J. W. Brodie-Innes, Isobel by Jane Parkhurst, the fantasy novel Night Plague by Graham Masterton, and Noches Paganas: Cuentos Narrados junto al Fuego del Sabbath by Luis G. Abbadie;
Isobel Gowdie is also the subject of songs by Creeping Myrtle and Alex Harvey. Maddy Prior's song The Fabled Hare is based upon the spell quoted above. The Inkubus Sukkubus song Woman to Hare, from the album Vampyre Erotica is based on Isobel's statement, and quotes her words at the end of the lyrics.


If you want a heavy duty academic look at the topic then the University of Sussex is worth a visit. For £75 you can discover how Gowdie was a source of inspiration for the modern Wicca rituals.


Many folk today think she was mentally disturbed and certainly her confessions today would be treated as a symptom of psychosis and we don't burn witches anymore.


Anyway I recommend that next time you set out to deliver on a cold winter's afternoon take a radio with you. The time will seem to pass more quickly.







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