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Some Dorset Superstitions
Some Dorset Superstitions
By Hermann Lea
In employing the term superstition, it is in the sense defined by Franz v. Schonthan : —
Zwar nicht wissen — aber glauben
Heisst ganz richtig — Aberglauben.
(Not to know, but to believe; what else is it, strictly speaking, but superstition?)
It is natural, no doubt, that superstition should decrease in the same ratio as education and enlightenment advance, but its total extinction need not be anticipated for a long time to come. True, its death-knell was sounded by the first invented printing press, a contrivance which, nevertheless, tends to some extent to foster its growth, since "believers" read in history facts that give support to their own beliefs. And although this survival may not exactly please the practically minded, to the antiquary or the psychologist its extinction would be certainly regretable.
It must not be rashly concluded that superstition goes hand in hand with foolishness or absence of commonsense, nor must it be looked on as a symbol of weak-mindedness. Did not Augustus Caesar hold strong views regarding putting the left shoe on the right foot, maintaining that such procedure betokened some dire calamity? And again, did he not deem the skin of a sea-calf to be a certain preservative against lightning? Yet he was not generally regarded as a particularly foolish or weak-minded man.
Of the various forms of superstition current at the present time, none hold such sway as the credence in witchcraft. The date of its origin is lost in the dim past, but we may safely surmise that it arose early in the mind of man. Moses denounced witches in no measured terms. "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," he said, and this decree survived until a comparatively recent date. In mediaeval times the law of Moses certainly held good; it mattered nothing what position in the social standard the accused held. In the year 1537 Lady Janet Douglas was burned in Edinburgh on the charge of being a witch. John Knox was once accused of being a wizard because "nothing but sorcery," so it was said, "could account for Lord Ochiltree's daughter — "ane damosil of nobil blude" — falling in love with him — "ane old, decrepid creature of most base degree of ony that could be found in the countrey. "Although the days are past when witches were publicly tormented or executed, even at the present time such a reputation is not without danger to the supposed witch. To effect a cure from the spell cast, it used to be considered almost essential that her blood be drawn, and within quite recent years I have known of cases where reputed witches have been shot at with "silver bullets," or struck at with hay-forks or other sharp instruments.
Having its birth in so remote a past, it is, perhaps, not to be wondered at that witchcraft has persisted so long, that its demise is so protracted. Until a few years ago, when the law stepped in to punish those who made a livelihood by "conjuring" — i.e., pointing out
witches and producing spells to confound them — witchcraft formed an everyday topic of conversation, and little secrecy was deemed necessary; but now, though as staunchly believed in as ever, the subject is alluded to in bated breath, and it is no easy matter to discover the whereabouts of a "conjurer" or "witch-doctor"
In the more remote corners of the county may still be heard fragments of the old Dorset speech, and in these same out-of-the-way spots one may chance on the strangest of superstitions and customs. Witchcraft holds a place in the minds of the illiterate, the semi-educated, and even the better educated, from which no amount of argument can expel it. Thomas Hardy and William Barnes have both used the theme as a groundwork for prose and poem. It may be interesting to note here that Conjurer Trendle, in the former's story entitled "The Withered Arm," was no fictitious personage, but had a veritable existence. He is still well remembered (under his real name, of course) by some of the older people who dwelt near, and the house in which he lived, in the central portion of "Egdon Heath," may still be traced in a heap of decayed walls and rotten timbers.
The reason for this strong and enduring belief is not difficult to find ; thought transference, mental telepathy, hypnotism, are all scientifically admitted ; that our ancestors observed the effects of these "sciences," attributing the causes to some easily explainable or at least plausible reasons, is more than probable.
When attempting to trace to their origin some of the stories current, one cannot help feeling that in many cases the so-called witch stood more in need of pity than condemnation, for it required only very scanty evidence for her to be thus branded. Gilfillan speaks of a witch as "a borderer between earth and hell” — a view which was probably shared by the majority of people. Goldsmith, on the contrary, was for giving the accused the benefit of the doubt. “If we enquire," he says in sarcastic strain, "what are the common marks and symptoms by which witches are discovered to be such, we shall see how reasonably and mercifully those poor creatures were burned and hanged who unhappily fell under that name."
If I were required to define a witch of the present day I should state it as being the second-hand evidence of numbers of people who have been "overlooked," or bewitched, and who have given me detailed descriptions. A witch, then, is an individual, male or female — usually the latter — who by reason of certain gifts or powers is able to exert an influence over another. She generally includes in her dress some red token — perhaps a red hat, red shawl, or red cloak. She is able to transform herself into the likeness of almost any animal, chiefly that of a cat or hare, and is also able to become invisible; when assuming the guise of an animal, she in no way hides her identity from those who are conversant with the ways of witches, a witch-hare or witch-cat differing in many particulars, both in appearance and gait, from the ordinary hare or cat. It has been said that two animals only she cannot simulate — lambs and donkeys; the usual Scriptural reasons being adduced. Her power is nearly always inherited, and I have heard it argued that a certain woman of my acquaintance, who was perfectly inoffensive, must necessarily be a witch because her mother was one. This power may be used either for good or ill, and may be directed against an animal or a human being. I have been informed, in strict confidence, of certain signs by which a witch may be recognised, and to test the accuracy of my informant, I have many times asked people whom I knew but slightly whether so-and-so was not a person credited with superhuman powers, and, nine times out of ten, have been answered in the affirmative. Hence it would seem that these tokens are well known and generally admitted.
The immediate effect on a person who has been "overlooked," "ill-wished," or "hagrod” (Dorset for "hagridden"), as it is variously called, consists as a rule of some sort of indisposition. This gradually increases to severe sickness, and finally death supervenes. The disease is usually of an extremely subtle nature, defying accurate diagnosis, and is often termed by the medical man mental or hysterical. Sometimes the stricken individual will merely pine away gradually, refuse food, complain of nothing definite, yet preserve an entire reticence as to any supposable cause. On the other hand, it does happen occasionally that the effect of the "overlooking" is extremely sudden — perhaps a fatal accident from an apparently natural cause. Again, the ill-wishing may take the form of a comparatively harmless nuisance — the butter may fail to "come" in the churning, the fowls may suddenly cease laying, the cows may refuse to “give down" their milk, or the pig, intended for an early fattening, may object to partake of the most savoury mixture prepared with consummate care. Perhaps the horses will refuse to pull fairly at their loads, or may stop entirely when encountering a small hill.
A "conjurer" or "white witch" is an individual who, possessed of certain gifts (to some considerable extent hereditary), is able to point out to those who consult him (or her — for either sex may have the qualifications) the person who is causing the mischief. One necessary attribute is that he be a "seventh of a seventh," i.e., a seventh child of a parent who, in his turn, was a seventh child. It does not follow that this peculiarity in itself is sufficient to produce a conjurer, but without it he cannot be one. One point, however, is shared by such-born people, and that is, entire immunity from the effects of ill-wishing, and a capability of identifying any other person gifted with the powers of ill-wishing others.
There are, or rather were, conjurers and conjurers. Some took a delight in frustrating the efforts of a witch, whether paid for their services or not; whilst others used their knowledge merely as a means of livelihood, and drained their patients of every copper or possession of value. I knew of a family that, having consulted a person of this latter class, parted with all their savings, then with their convertible possessions, and, lastly, with
their stock of winter provender (garden produce, potatoes, and the like), until left in a perfectly destitute condition, dependent on the parish for actual necessaries. A
conjurer, having listened to the complaint brought him, will, as a rule, ask his client to what extent he would wish the punishment to fall. Very often he would surprise his visitor by saying at the start that he knew the reason why they came to consult him, and would actually cite the case as it stood. If desired, he would inform his questioner who their ill-wisher was, generally by showing them the face of their enemy reflected in a crystal, or on the surface of a bucket of water. Then would follow the prescription — and it was here that he as a rule gave way to a love of effect, and suggested material cures for
a psychic malady. I am inclined to think that this materialistic display was the chief reason for his being held up to ridicule by the unbeliever or sceptic; had he contented himself with less rude emblematical display he would have at least had more sympathy from the general public. Some of the conditions laid down as being essential to the withdrawal of the spell were, to say the least, unnecessarily disgusting. Many I know of, which, although interesting enough to the searcher, would certainly not bear putting into bald print. Most were ingenious, and possessed colourable excuse for their suggestion. I will give a few examples to illustrate this.
A simple remedy was suggested to a dairyman who complained of sickness in his pig-yard. He was advised to place a birch-broom ("Bezom," in Dorset) across the doorway of the dairyhouse, it being said that any innocent person could step over it, a witch never. This was tried, with the result that in the morning a great outcry was heard, and a neighbour was discovered standing outside the door protesting that "something hurt her," and she felt unable to cross the threshold. In a very similar case where this was tried and failed to produce any result, a further visit to the conjurer suggested sleeping with a prayer-book under the pillow and fixing a horseshoe on the door — a shoe that had of itself fallen from the left hind foot of a horse — and in both these cases the nuisance was put a stop to almost immediately.
In a case where the horses were dying from some obscure complaint, the victim was told to cut out the heart of the next animal that died and boil it in water containing sage, peppermint, and onions; when cold, it was to be stuck full of new pins on the one side, and on the other with "maiden" thorns — i.e., thorns of the present year's growth — picked by a maiden — woman or girl — and inserted by her. This done, it was to be hung up on a nail in the chimney of a neighbour — the one accused of being the witch. Another charm of a simple character was for the bewitched person to take a dish of water and carry it over three bridges at midnight. Yet another was to take a bottle, place in it some sprigs of hyssop, fill it up with a certain liquid, insert some new pins in the cork, and bury it in a manure heap. In the majority of instances that have come under my notice, the charm has been emblematical of bodily ill to the witch; either pins or something similar capable of drawing blood, or else some perishable material such as
the horse's heart, which would naturally decay slowly, or a waxen effigy which, placed near a fire, would gradually melt; and I have been given to understand that the slower the melting, the more protracted would be the witch's suffering and death.
I believe it very rarely happens that the same person is "overlooked" more than once; at any rate, all those who have spoken to me on the subject have told me that since they suffered in this way they have taken most elaborate precautions to avoid a repetition of the occurrence. I know one man who utterly refuses to meet or pass a woman who is a stranger to him should she be wearing anything of a red colour ; in fact, he would go a mile or more out of his way to avoid her, or enter a field and hide until she had passed on her way. Another man of my acquaintance, one who confided to me several distinguishing marks by which a witch might be recognised, advised me never to go near a cat or hare if they exhibited any of these signs. A woman, well-to-do in her walk in life, has warned me solemnly never to pick yellow ragwort, lest I should thereby render myself liable to be bewitched. The seriousness with which these and many others have tendered advice is sufficient proof — to me — of the genuineness of their beliefs.
Let me now briefly cite a few particulars of cases that have either come under my own observation, or have been related to me by people in whose veracity I have the strongest confidence. A question which may be asked is, do I myself believe that these things happened and are still happening? It is not easy to find an answer. Because I cannot explain any certain occurrence it in no way proves that it is false; moreover, I have personally met with experiences of a strange, subtle character which, although I may not be able to explain satisfactorily to others, are irrefutable as far as I myself am concerned. Probably many, if not most, of my readers have likewise had "experiences," but the scientific scepticism of the age prevents one from recording them only to be sneered at by the unbelieving.
One of the strangest cases that has ever come to my notice was that of a young baker. It appeared that in some way or other he had given offence to a reputed witch who lived in the same village, and who openly vowed she would "pay him out." Nothing untoward happened, however, until after his marriage a few months later, when, going into the stable one morning to feed his horse, he found the animal covered with sweat; it was trembling, and refused all food. The next morning the same thing occurred; so thinking to frustrate some practical joker, he bought a strong, expensive lock for the door, and prided himself on the fact that he had now outwitted the culprit. But the next morning the horse had disappeared, and only after considerable search was it at length discovered shut up in the pound. The stable was locked, and there was no evidence to show that the lock had been tampered with. The only information he gained was from a neighbour, who stated that he heard a horse galloping down the road about midnight, and that, looking out of his window, he had seen — not a horse, but a hare. For some weeks afterwards all went on quietly; then his wife was taken ill. The doctor who attended her could make nothing of her case, and at length, taking the advice of a friend, he went to consult a conjurer. As he arrived at the conjurer's door, the latter came out, and, without any preamble, asked him how his wife was. Now the men lived twenty miles apart, yet the conjurer was conversant with every particular of the case, including details which the baker declared he had never mentioned to a soul. To him the conjurer handed a charm, telling him to preserve entire secrecy on the matter, and to place it with his own hands under his wife's pillow. The result was an almost immediate improvement in the wife's condition; but in a day or two information reached him of the illness of the supposed witch. As his wife improved, so the other woman became worse. Then, one evening when she had so far recovered as to come downstairs, a neighbour ran into his house declaring that he had just come from the direction of widow G.'s, that her house was entirely luminous, the walls semi-transparent, and the whole neighbourhood reeked strongly of sulphur. Nor was this all, for as he breathlessly told his tale, another man entered, confirming what the first had said, and adding that a sound similar to that made by a hare in a trap proceeded from the widow's cottage. Joined by others, including the village policeman, they hastened to the spot. As they neared it, the baker, too, smelled the same odour, and saw the luminous effect Arrived at the gate they stood spellbound, for on the doorstep was a figure. To me he described it as a: 'thing, coal-black, with fire darting from its eyes and mouth; cloven hoofs, and a forked tail" — in short, a fair description of a popular conception of the devil! For some minutes they all stood still, too much frightened to advance or retreat. Then, suddenly, an eerie cry rang out, and the whole house was plunged in darkness. When at last they pulled themselves together and entered in a body, they met coming down the stairs from the bedroom a woman who had acted as nurse to the stricken widow. She stated that she had been sitting by the bedside when she was suddenly overcome by a strong sulphurous smell, which had rendered her unconscious. Coming to herself at last, she glanced at the bed, to find it empty. Together they all ascended the stairs; the fumes still hung about, but the bed had no occupant ; they searched the house through and through, but could find no trace of the owner.
I may mention here that it is by no means an uncommon belief that a witch has sold herself to the devil, and that "he" will very often come to fetch his "disciple " at the moment of her death.
The case of Charles ———— was not without interest, seeing that the narrator was a man of considerable experience and intelligence, an engineer between thirty and forty, in a good situation. As a boy he had lived in a "haunted" house, in which strange and unaccountable noises were continually heard, sufficiently loud to awaken the whole household. He shared a small room with a younger brother, and more than once they were awakened in the night by the sound of a sheep bleating close to them, apparently by the bedside. On one occasion he and his brother, accompanied by their dog, started from home before daybreak to drive a flock of sheep to a farm some ten miles away. It was winter, the days were short; and having duly delivered the sheep, they started on their return walk as dusk began to gather. Their way led past a large pond, and as they neared this spot they both stopped suddenly, hearing the loud bleat of a sheep close to them. Peering ahead, they soon perceived the form of a sheep just in front of them. The dog bounded forward, but returned immediately with his tail between his legs, and howling dolefully he ran behind his master as if for protection. The dog was no coward naturally, and the lads were accordingly somewhat alarmed. They stood still, debating what to do, while the sheep drew gradually nearer, uttering " ba-a " after " ba-a," until it stopped within a few feet, when they distinctly saw that the animal had no head. Petrified, they stood a moment, clutching hold of one another, till the elder, recovering his presence of mind, raised his stick to strike the animal; but his arm was powerless — he could only raise the stick a few inches. Meanwhile, the animal advanced, and rubbed its neck against their legs. Suddenly it turned, and dashing to the edge of the pond, sprang in and disappeared from view. The lads remained gazing after it, spellbound, and then took to their heels and ran home.
I am inclined to the belief that originally the term "hagrod" was chiefly applied to the case of horses that had become mysteriously affected. An old carter once told me that he had the charge of some horses at a certain farm, and unconsciously chanced to give offence to a reputed witch who lived near by. Her revenge took the form of petty annoyances. It was no uncommon thing for him to enter his stables in the morning to find his horses bathed in sweat, and panting as though they had been ridden far and fast — this, too, when the door was found locked as he had left it on the previous night.
On such occasions the horses were fit for no work that day, and he had considerable trouble to get work out of them. Sometimes he would find them with their tails and manes tightly plaited up with straw. Such occurrences used to be comparatively common. One day I chanced to mention to his master what the man had told me; his master smiled, and said what he thought might be an explanation, but in no way denied the man's story. Then he told me a case that had come under his own observation. In the stable was a valuable young horse, and one morning it was found with one hind leg perfectly stiff, so stiff that it could not put it to the ground. Three men tried their utmost to bend it, but without avail. At last they led the animal out of the stable, limping on three legs, and when outside it gradually got back the use of the limb. This happened many times, and at length the carter declared it was "hagrod," that an old woman living near by had "overlooked it," that every time she passed the stable — a thing which she did occasionally to get butter from the dairy — the horse was invariably stricken. Out of curiosity the farmer took note of what the carter said, and, to his astonishment, he found that the man was right — that is to say, in so far as that the horse's stiffness coincided with the time of this woman's approach. She left the neighbourhood a short time afterwards, and from that date there was no recurrence of the horse's strange attacks.
In a case with the details of which I am very familiar, and the truth of which I can vouch for, the ill-wish found vent firstly on animals, the property of the "overlooked." What actually led up to the matter I never quite knew, possibly the narrator had offended her neighbour; anyhow, the facts are indisputable. The first effects showed themselves in the pigs refusing all food, and then dying one after the other, in what looked like some form of fit. A veterinary surgeon who was called in declared his inability to give a name to the disease, and a subsequent post-mortem examination threw no light on the matter. Then, one by one, all the fowls sickened and died ; and, lastly, the woman's daughter became seriously ill, but of what disease the doctor was unable to say. It was at this juncture that her mother, who had hitherto scoffed at the notion, took it into her head that the girl was bewitched, with the result that she paid a visit to a "wise-woman” (with whom I was also well acquainted), and sought her advice. The "conjuress" listened to her story, told her the name of the person who was ill-wishing her, and gave her a charm, with instructions to sew it, unknown to her daughter, inside her corsets, in such a position that she should not suspect its presence. These directions were faithfully carried out, with the result that in a short time her daughter regained her normal health. Meanwhile, a neighbour (the supposed ill-wisher) sickened, growing worse as the girl improved, and finally left the neighbourhood; her subsequent history was never known. The charm, which, by the way, the mother was directed to burn directly her daughter was out of danger, was preserved for some time. It consisted of a small lump of wax, roughly modelled into the form of a woman, the face bearing a distinct likeness to the accused witch!
I will conclude with one more instance, which, although free from complications, is interesting as having happened quite recently. The supposed witch lived within a few hundred yards of the house that I was then inhabiting; the bewitched was a man who was for some years my gardener. The road from his cottage to the nearest village led past the house occupied by the witch, and, from some quite inexplicable cause, he was never able to pass her house in the ordinary way. When he attempted to do so he fell down; his only alternatives being either to turn round and walk backwards, or else to crawl by on hands and knees. Naturally, all the neighbours were aware of the fact, but they had grown so familiar with it that they ceased to comment on it. About two years ago the woman died, and afterwards, the spell presumably expiring with her, the old man was able to pursue his way in normal fashion. In front of the witch's house stood a fine apple tree, and one day during the autumn following her death, the old man asked me, with a twinkle in his eye, whether I had noticed what a fine crop of apples this tree bore. "I've a-knowed thic tree," he said, "ever since he wer' planted; but he haven't never had n'ar a opple on to en avore. Now, sir, can'ee tell I how 'tis he do bear s'well t'year ? "Knowing what was expected of me, I said: "Let me see, John, is it not about a year ago since Mrs. X — , who lived there, died ?" His retort, though scarcely a reply to my query, was nevertheless suggestive of the fact that I had answered his former question to me. He deliberately winked, then said, "There, sir, now you've a-said it," and strode off to attend to his work.
Extract from ‘Memorials of Old Dorset’ by T. Perkins and H. Pentin, 1907
Article updated Friday 29th July 2011