Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 13, Agnes Sampson

Agnes Sampson, a prominent midwife, got caught between a king, a queen, and an ocean’s worth of power-hungry liars scapegoating their way across the Scottish countryside. She was convicted of witchcraft for having given a woman in labor medicines that would ease her pain. These medicines included an unspecified powdered substance, a bored stone to keep under her pillow, and some “ichantit mwildis,” which are the finger, toe, and knee joints of a disinterred corpse, and she instructed the woman to put her husband’s shirt under the bed during her labor.

Agnes Sampson, known by all of her patients and clients as the Wise Wife of Keith, was famous for the help she could offer women who wanted children, women who didn’t, women in love, and women in pain. When the king decided he wanted to interrogate this “wise wife” personally, she had been shaved bald, tortured with a rope around her neck for an hour after being pinned to a wall for days by the witches’ bridle, which is an iron muzzle with a bit to hold down a woman’s tongue. Sampson began at last to speak after her naked body was inspected and a suspicious mark that was said to be the place where the devil put his tongue was found on her privates.

Agnes Sampson confessed so rapidly and so much – a dead cat was thrown in the sea, there was some kind of spell involving the “chiefest parte” of a dead man, a black toad hung up by his heels – the king said he could hardly believe her. With one eye on the instruments hanging from the wall of her cell, she took the king aside and “declared unto him the very words which had passed between the King’s majesty and his Queen the first night of their marriage.” After that James “wondered greatly, and swore by the living God, that he believed all of the devils in Hell could not have discovered the same.”

Hers is such a sad, infuriating injustice of a story, I almost can’t bear to tell it. Let’s end instead with the confessions of James Fian, a schoolmaster and the rare man to be accused of sorcery. He told his crimes like an old tale: Once upon a time he had tried to use a spell to make a woman love him back. He sent a pupil to get the young woman’s hair, but her mother intervened and sent the little boy back with hairs from the udder of a cow, which is how he came to be followed everywhere by a lovesick bovine. Surely the children he taught would have laughed at this punchline the first time he told the story. Let’s think of them now and of how this tender man made them laugh. We can forget for a moment the look on the inquisitor’s face the second time he told that story.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 12, Agnes Waterhouse

Agnes Waterhouse, age 64 in the year 1566, was an impoverished woman who had a white cat named Sathan that spoke in a strange hollow voice and would do anything for a drop of blood. She had him kill her pig to prove what he could do, and then had him kill the cows and geese of her neighbors, with whom she had quarreled; neighbors themselves, with whom she had quarreled; her husband, with whom she had quarreled.

Government officials tortured her, of course, to wring out this weird confession, but they wouldn’t necessarily have had to. There is ample research to suggest that a little menace, a little kindness, the promise of approval from someone in authority – this is enough, even today, to make people very confused about what they know to be true.

Her daughter Joan, for instance, was induced to confess she had seen her mother turn that cat into a toad. Why turn your demon cat into a demon toad? You might as well ask why a police officer would kill a man for selling cigarettes or taking out his wallet or carrying a cell phone, living in his apartment, or opening his own front door. The child went on to admit she sold her own soul to that selfsame toad so she could get a bit of bread and cheese from the neighbor girl, Agnes Brown. Of course the tribunal believed this testimony. People knew the devil to be real, and his magic, his witches, his familiars, his blood spells and poison. Their whole lives they knew the devil was coming for them. This century is not so different.

I wrote in Waxwing about Agnes Waterhouse and the ways the criminal justice system that created the circumstances for her trial is not so different from the one we live with now. Because it seems to be easier for some people to understand the role of stereotype threat and implicit bias in the judicial system when I say the wrongful imprisonment and execution happened to a little old white lady, gullible and confused, possibly suffering from dementia, named Agnes.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 11, Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen knew all the plant medicines, all the minerals, all the tender words you could whisper over a body in pain. In ecstatic trances she saw the face of the divine spread over the world. Despite the obvious similarities and the fact she was summoned to an inquisition, Hildegard von Bingen was not a witch, she was a canonized saint. Her epiphanic hallucinations are gathered into one text, Scivias, which would later inspire the Heresy of the Free Spirit. Her remedies for ailments (collected from Persian translations in her convent library and folklore from the fields beyond the cloister garden walls) are kept in the Physica.

The Physica reads like one of the more beautiful spell books I’ve seen. It inspired many of the poems in RUE. I go on and on and on about Hildegard von Bingen’s writings in The Witch of Eye, I love them so much. But here are a few of my favorite of her lines:

“Whoever is plagued by wrong dreams should have betony leaves close by when going to sleep.”

“If anyone have a headache, and his head is buzzing as if he were deaf, let him eat often of cloves, and they will ameliorate the buzzing in his head.”

“If any have a weak and sad heart, let him cook mullein with meat or fish … and it will strengthen his heart and make it merry.”

“If a man have any rotten flesh in him, then boil this herb [vervain] in water, lay a linen cloth on his wounds, and when the water has been pressed out lay on the vervain too. Do this until all the rottenness is gone.”

“If a man is forgetful and would be cured of it, let him crush out the juice of the stinging nettle, and add some olive oil, and when he goes to bed, let him anoint his chest and temples with it and do this often, and his forgetfulness will be alleviated.”

“Lavender wine will provide a person with pure knowledge and a clear understanding.”

She explained her visions as an arrival of light, rooted in the green of the soul, which glows as the leaves glow after a rain when the sun is bright and every droplet becomes a convex mirror. “Then the greenness of the earth and the grasses thrives with the greatest vigor,” she says. “For the air is still cold and the sun is already warm. The plants suck the green life force as strongly as a lamb sucks its milk.”

“However fennel is eaten, it makes men merry, and gives them a pleasant warmth, and makes them sweat well, and causes good digestion.”

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 10, Dorothea of Cappadocia

Dorothea of Cappadocia was a brilliant philosopher who proved difficult to execute and nearly impossible to shut up. According to the legends she was tortured for the witchcraft of refusing to marry a powerful man. And then tortured for the witchcraft of returning from the tub of boiling oil unharmed. And subsequently for surviving unmarked for nine days in a deep prison without food or drink. For saying she was fed on the succor of God’s angels. For being fairer and brighter to look upon than ever before. For the descent of a multitude of angels and the sound of the demon fiends in the air wailing, “O Dorothy why dost thou destroy us and torment us so sore?” she was hanged on the gibbet and rent with hooks of iron. And on and on they went, inflicting terrible but ineffectual anguish on her.

You’d think they would have considered the miracles of her resistance and resilience, but no, they were unmoved. To understand the actions of the judges, it is helpful to remember Dorothea’s crime was never that she displayed too little of her power.

Near the end of her trial, she gave a very long speech about the nature of her steadfast faith. The judge asked, “How long wilt thou drag us along with thy witchcraft?” I like to imagine how she might have turned to the inquisitor to say, “Excuse me, I’m speaking.” Instead she answered, “I am ready to suffer for my lord, my spouse, in whose gardeyne full delicious I have gaderd rosis and apples.”  Then she bowed her head and the man cut it off.

She bowed her head, but not before a child with star-filled eyes came to her carrying a basket with three roses and three apples. And not before she sent that boy to find Theophilus, who had mocked her as she was dragged to the scaffolding by asking for roses and apples from her spouse’s garden even though it was midwinter.

The site of those roses changed his heart. For preaching of Dorothy’s miracle in the streets, Theophilus was cut into small pieces and fed to the birds.

I could say so much more about the intersection of roses and magic, about how this legend was twisted into propaganda by a church trying to justify the horrors of the Crusades, about certain questions I have about the nature of beauty and the ideas of justice. You could fill a book with what I have to say about that. But in this short space, I’ll close by simply noting how much I like the way a dying girl flipped off an asshole and it got called a miracle. And that the asshole then had a change of heart.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 9, Isobel Gowdie

A first-rate bard, Isobel Gowdie’s power came from storytelling and flyting (the fine Scottish art of flinging curses.) Her “crime” was being too mouthy in the direction of the landlord. It’s day 9 on the Advent Calendar of Witches, we’re in a global pandemic, and the rent is still too damn high.

You can read more about Isobel Gowdie, flyting, the role of witch trials played in divesting land from its peoples, and the magical properties of hagstones (like the one pictured above), in “The Eye of the Hagstone” over at Salamander.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 8, Angela de la Barthe

Angela de la Barthe was wealthy. She owned her own property and thus wielded some degree of influence in the city of Toulouse, which was a stronghold of those who would resist the authority of the Church. To the inquisitors a woman in authority was confusing and created a sense of disorder – you might call it a feeling of bedevilment – among those friars loyal to the papacy who witnessed it.

I wrote about Angela de la Barthe in this essay in Meridian. It’s about sexism, perfectionism, bedevilment, wolf-headed babies, the Cathar heresy, and bad break-ups. But if you just want a taste, here are some excerpts.

Thomas Aquinas, who is also buried in Toulouse, wondered if our atmosphere was a punishment for demons. He concluded no, but also wondered if demons could experience sorrow. He concluded no, but wondered if the will of the demon was obstinate in evil. He concluded not really, but wondered if they, being coagulated creatures of air, could produce spawn by copulating with witches. He concluded no, but what if they disguised themselves as women to steal the seed of men?

This must be how Angela de la Barthe came to be a mother at age 52 (Or was it 64? Accounts vary…) Wolf-headed, serpent-tailed, her child, it was said, fed on the fresh corpses of infants for two years, before he ran away in the night.

Or so she said after the inquisitor Hugo de Beniols tortured her and threatened to burn her alive if she did not confess.

Or perhaps she said. In 1275, congress with demons was not yet listed as a crime. And there are no transcripts of her trial, though there is no shortage of them from other trials in that same year. So serious historians consider the 15th century chronicle of her so-called life to be specious and apocryphal, imperfect to the point of meaninglessness.

When reading about Angela de la Barthe, I find it hard not to think about that boyfriend I once had who was so excited when we stumbled on Aquinas’s grave in Toulouse. Who knew, we said to each other, that Toulouse had once been at the center of so much philosophical inquiry and intrigue? Not me, whose Catholic education was designed to inculcate a spirit of obedience and discipline. And not him, who had been raised to inherit the earth. He went on and on about how Aquinas was his favorite philosopher, the one who proved the existence of God. It seemed to me Aquinas must have been the only philosopher that boyfriend of mine had ever read and that what had been proved was nothing.

Having read the Summa Theologica the summer before, just to prove I was smart, it was tempting to spit on the grave of yet another man pretending to know so much. But it was important to me then to be nice, so I waited until we got home to break up. He called me a bitch, naturally, and said I didn’t know how to love and I was going to die alone. It took a certain amount of will power not to laugh right into his teary face. Perhaps he deserved it, but he was so sad to be this mean. He was under the impression he loved me and also that he knew anything about me.

If I were Angela de la Barthe I would have confessed to whatever bullshit they wanted to hear too. And when they burned me after all, for what I said, instead of what I didn’t say, I guess, like most of the people in this situation on a pyre, I wouldn’t bother with pleas or curses either.

Like some chronicler out of the 15th century, I have been asking dead people to help me understand what my life is for. I imagine how this woman would have watched the sun rising beyond the crowd, noticing how nice it feels when a beam of morning light warms the skin of your shoulder like the hand of a person you desire or a very fine silk fabric that proves itself worth its cost when you feel the thrill of how it slips down your arm, almost but not quite, as if it was never meant to be there in the first place.

Thomas Aquinas wondered what knowledge was and who might have what portion of it. He proposed, “The proper knowledge of the angels is twofold; namely morning and evening. But the demons have no morning knowledge.”

Goodness as a form of morning knowledge is a beautiful idea, but let’s not forget Aquinas also said children resulting from demonic congress, children like the one Angela de la Barthe was tortured into admitting she had, were “icy creatures that rode the winds and assailed the bodies and minds of their human prey.”

You can read the complete essay at Meridian.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 7, Medusa

You know Theseus was a villainous monster, right? Medusa, on the other hand, brought corals, the Pegasus, and many other marvels into this world. It’s day 6 on the Advent Calendar of Witches and I want to celebrate Medusa.

I wrote about Medusa, the poetics of spells, falling in love, the space between what seems what seems possible and what actually happens, and HD’s “Notes on Thoughts and Vision” for Guernica. Here are the Medusa parts…

Medusa was brought into being by two chthonic monsters of the archaic world. Phorcys was the first merman and father of crabs. Ceto is the mother of whales.

When you hear someone say Medusa was hideous with hair full of snakes, that is some xenophobic assholery by people who lived on the other shore of the Mediterranean Sea. When you hear she was a dangerous and vengeful witch, that means she was as measured in the congressional hearings on the subject of known-rapist Poseidon as any woman so subpoenaed always is.

When Perseus beheaded Medusa, the Pegasus she had been carrying flew forth from her body and passed through the whole sky in orbiting astonishment at how far this blue world goes. Her offspring, winged and airy and free, gazed upon weary and trembling Atlas, then, in Pegasus’s only recorded act of magic, turned the giant to stone. Eventually the goddess Athena took possession of Medusa’s head, which could still turn you to stone with nothing more than a glance across the chiasm, and she placed it on her shield.

You can read the full essay about Medusa and the poetics of spells at Guernica.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 6, Medea

I didn’t know Jason and the Argonauts is really The Witch Medea Gets Your Golden Fleece for You, You Fucking Incompetent. But that’s the story in a nutshell.

I read the picture book version of Jason and the Argonauts to my daughter on a day when she was shaken by a boy as he told her to “Shut up, Bossy.” She thinks a tale of adventure will make her feel better.

On the night of her escape with Jason and her father’s fleece, Medea chopped up her brother and strew the parts of him around the forest so their father would be stopped by grief and the duty to gather the pieces of his son back up.

I can’t read this scene without wondering what that brother did to her, what her father did. The book says Hera cursed her to love Jason. But how many times have I read the word seduced when what happened was raped? Read loved but understood imprisoned? I think a curse from Hera meant escape from an abusive situation by any means necessary.

I wrote about Medea and the lessons I have learned from my kid’s books of fairy tales and adventure stories in “The Invention of Mothers,” in a recent issue of Gulf Coast. Among the lessons:

Beyond the sea came many more adventures resolved by Medea’s magic. She showed some daughters a spell whereby she turned an old ram into a young one after dropping it in her boiling cauldron. Do we believe the daughters when they say they only wanted to restore their father’s youth? They swore before his boiled corpse they thought surely it would work. Personally, I think of this chapter as Medea’s “Spell for a Good Cover Story Which She’ll Give to Any Woman Who Asks.”

and

Another of Medea’s clever deeds was to feed raw meat to the Witch of the Woods and her hounds so the Argonauts could pass safely. The men ran in terror past the crone crouched and devouring, her face blood-stained with gluttony, while our sorceress lingered to say goodbye with affection to a woman we realize is her friend and sister in the craft. If any moment in this story can be made real, I want this friendship with the woman who will grow up to become Baba Yaga in her house of sweets to be the one.

Were I ever going to advise a daughter that boys will be boys, it would be in the face of what was done to Talos. Talos, a man of stone and fire, stood at the shore doing his job stopping people who should be stopped. It seems clear to me that Jason should be stopped. But Medea tricked the monster into letting her unplug the nail that held in his ichorous fire. He dies in her arms, floating in the sea, asking when she was going to fill him back up with the immortality she promised. How tenderly she cradles him as she is killing him. Then I remember he was a volcano man who wanted immortality on top of that. Typical.

But most importantly

You will never get me to believe Medea killed her children and showed their corpses to cheating Jason just to make him grieve. I don’t care how many times you put Euripides on a stage. I don’t believe it in part because Medea isn’t real so I don’t have to, but also because there are many versions of the story, some recorded and some lost in the mist of a long oral tradition, each its own work of art or propaganda for whichever city state in whatever geopolitical crisis a writer found themselves in. There were times and places when Medea’s story had no end at all, just island after island. Sometimes she is powerful, sometimes angry, often happy, fighting maybe or victorious or eating a hunk of meat with her sister beside a warm fire crackling forth ephemeral constellations, a hibiscus flower in her hair like a girl, a sword at her waist like a queen. For as many nights as the children can stay awake to listen.

You can read this essay in its entirety at Gulf Coast.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 5, Marjory Jourdemayne

Marjory Jourdemayne, also known as the Witch of Eye, was punished for wishing to see a pathetic, ineffectual child-king dethroned. I can certainly relate to this.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay about her in The Witch of Eye.

For years, leading up to her trial in 1441, Marjory had been known as someone who could provide potions useful in advancing love, curing impotence, bringing about conception, or ending pregnancy. The wife of a cowherd, more often she was seen in the company of learned men, astrologers, and well-born ladies.

Her client, Eleanor Cobham, was wife of the successor to a very young and sickly King Henry VI. Eleanor, it seems, wanted to know if the boy would die in time for her to become queen.

For my part, I would prefer not to know the future, it being the place where I and others die sooner than I would wish. But I wouldn’t object to knowing whether there really is a future waiting for us, staying up late and worried into the night watching for our little lights returning home to punctuate the darkness.

As we drive through the ancient pine forests of this sea-battered island as far from home as we can get, my daughter in a booster seat in the back, my husband with his eyes fixed on the road, I have been passing the time by reading us all fairy tales about deals with the devil.

In general it is brothers or soldiers who have three years or ten to crack the whip that summons treasures or pull out of the coat’s magic pockets as much gold as they like. They know exactly how long they have to enjoy their life and they enjoy it heartily right up until that last month or year when they get clever about riddles and crafty about contracts.

When they win their souls back, they win that big expansive blue sky of a life that is now nothing but the most exquisite pleasure of undeserved extra.

I have not yet read the account of a woman making a pact with a devil that ends so well.

The only accounts we have of women doing such things are in the court documents written to justify the violence done to them.

Marjory Jourdemayne was burned for treasonable witchcraft after constructing a star chart that foretold the death of the king. An act to which she confessed. She and her accomplices were also accused of, but denied, the more serious charge of trying to call up spirits from the infernal world by making an image in wax and then setting it before a fire to melt, “expecting that, as the image gradually faded away, so the constitution and life of the poor king would decay.”

I wrote about Marjory Jourdemayne during months when I was very busy looking at rental properties and applying for jobs in different cities because my current address, it seemed, could not be erased from the public record. Every day I was collecting new documents for some affidavit. I spent hours on the phone and in offices with authorities trained to tell me all the ways they could not speculate and would not help. I lost count of how many womxn told me about the threats they had endured during their years as teachers, professors, public intellectuals. I spent all of my time, it seemed, learning about our responsibilities and vulnerabilities and liabilities to each other. Liabilities and vulnerabilities and responsibilities that include what I can and cannot say in an essay like this.

In the essay I talk a lot about the philosopher Bertrand Russel’s Our Knowledge of the External World. I talk about fear and the future and only allude to the uncertain violence that looms, unspoken and hidden, over so many of our lives. It ends with these paragraphs:

Bertrand Russell is trying to be helpful to all of us who wish to be safe from each other but also gentle and good and meaningfully connected. “What happens now can only be accounted for, in many cases, by taking account of what happened at an earlier time.” When we do not understand a person’s past actions or their present desires, when their gait is unsteady and they twitch in a way our old instincts regard with alarm, we might respond with fear or we might respond with anger. “People who have never read any psychology seldom realize how much mental labour has gone into the construction of the one all-embracing space into which all sensible objects are supposed to fit.”

Unlike her servant Marjory, Eleanor Cobham was high-born, so her punishment was not execution. Instead she was paraded through the street while a candle tied to her hand burned down into a nub atop an agonizing wound. Then she was exiled to the Isle of Man to spend the rest of her life looking across the water towards her old home.

Did she really want the king dead? Or did she just need someone to chart all of the possibilities for the future so she wouldn’t feel so rattled with hope and fear of her own stars? These are among the endless sky of things we cannot possibly know.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 4, Lisbet Nypan

Lisbet Nypan was a healer who used blessed salts to ease her patients’ pains. A wise, aged, and financially independent woman. Under no circumstances would she give those uppity little priest men who thought they knew so much the confession they wanted. Under no circumstances would she apologize for herself.

Something about the nature of Lisbet’s character that I glimpsed in the trial records reminded me of Lyn Cooper, a dear family friend, like an aunt to me, who offered care and comfort, who took no bullshit, who left behind a legacy of strength and conviction and goodness. I wrote about both of them in an essay, up at The Collagist. Here are some excerpts:

This is a very old world. You could spend your whole century just trying to count its revolutions. Elijah threw salt in the water at Jericho. David struck down 18,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt. In the first century of Christianity the converted savored the blessed salts as well as the dunk of baptismal waters. St. Augustine of Hippo called savoring the salts one of the visible forms of grace. St. John the Deacon explained the use of salt in this way: “So the mind, drenched and weakened by the waves of this world, is held steady.” 

When Jesus ached, his own mother treated him with the ritual of reading over the salts. Lisbet Nypan told this to the court, not as a confession—she would never give them a “right” confession—but as an explanation for those who seemed to know so little about where pain comes from and where it might go. She told them the same story she told over her patients’ aching bodies:

As Christ walked to Church with a book in his hand, the Virgin Mary appeared and inquired about his health. “I am seriously afflicted with rheumatism, my blessed mother.” To this she replied, “Incantations against rheumatism I will read for you:

“from joint and bone, to shore and stone,
in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

And thus she healed him, Libset Nypan explained. Thus she gave him comfort.

This was what Lisbet Nypan tried to do with her life, she said, under pain of torture and threat of death. To give comfort. We all should be so lucky to have known someone like her. 

The rest of this essay is available at The Collagist.