A Pardon for the Witches

The Guardian newspaper for December 20th 2021 carried a report to the effect that it was likely that the 3837 people tried (and often executed) for witchcraft in Scotland between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were likely to be pardoned.

This is the result of a two year campaign by the Witches of Scotland group, which has led to a bill being introduced in the Scottish Parliament. The relevant Scottish statute, under which the individuals were charged, tortured and (in two thirds of cases) executed- usually by strangling and burning- was repealed in 1736. The victims of the Witchcraft Act 1563 nevertheless have remained classed as convicted criminals. Hopefully, this is soon set to change- some twenty years after a similar pardon was granted by Massachusetts to the victims of Salem.

Our interest in witches is, of course, that the accused, in England as well as in Scotland, often disclosed links with faeries. It appears that this was often confessed as there was an outdated and mistaken belief on the part of many that faeries were not to be equated with demons and that, as a result, confessing to contacts was not so bad. This was wrong: 89% of those who mentioned faery aid were executed according to research. The fundamental problem was that, under the Catholic church, although faeries were hardly ‘approved’ of, they were not explicitly evil or demoniacal. However, when Protestantism prevailed across most of Britain, it brought with it a far more literal approach to the Bible and its applications. Faeries are not mentioned in the Bible; demons are; therefore, faeries have to be demons if they’re anything. The Catholic church had tolerated a notion that the faes might be fallen angels, but there was no textual sanction for this and so the view prevailed that contact with faeries could only be regarded as liaison with the devil.

Scottish faery expert Lizanne Henderson has suggested that the language barrier between Lowland Scots speakers and Highland Gaelic speakers may have meant that many of the latter (who were often also still Catholic) may have failed to realise the sea-change that took place in the law and social attitudes during the sixteenth century. This may very well be true, but it was coupled with a belief on the part of many witch suspects that there was no contradiction between Christianity and faeries. Their cures might be applied, for example, whilst invoking the holy trinity. For most ordinary people, the faeries did not stand outside the created world and the Christian universe. They were part of it and subject to the same divine powers.

As I have often described on this blog and in my various books, what the accused ‘witches’ disclosed was seldom negative or destructive behaviour. The faeries provided them with cures for human and animal diseases; they helped find lost items; they sometimes provided glimpses of the future and- as I have frequently described- they entered into sexual and emotional relationships with individual humans and raised families with them.

The confessions extorted from victims such as Bessie Dunlop, Alison Pearson, Andro Man and Stein Maltman give us a fascinating glimpse of how ordinary people understood and interacted with Faery five hundred years ago. Their testimonies are very valuable and I have very frequently quoted from the records of their interrogations and trials. These texts can seem like mines of precious faerylore, but we should never forget their origin. Harmless people who provided valuable services to their communities (healing and comfort especially) were subjected to physical and mental torture in prison- having weights piled on their legs, for example- in order to make them confess to what their accusers wanted to hear. They were then publicly killed in a cruel and gruesome manner. Families and friends lost loved ones and communities lost helpful members. A pardon is long overdue, but we can also honour their memories by acknowledging the insights they bequeathed to us- however unwillingly.

8 thoughts on “A Pardon for the Witches

  1. Frankly, I rather feel that a time when growing numbers of people are facing repossession, eviction, bankruptcy and often crippling legal and enforcement costs and struggling to get even the barest minimum of legal help and support there are more pressing areas for legal reformers, the legislature and judiciary to be concerning themselves with.

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    1. Alan

      Looking at this from a wider social and economic perspective, I think your position is unarguable. Certainly, affording a measure of justice and respect to the witch craze victims should never come at the expense of improving the circumstances of the disadvantaged today and, were there a danger of that happening, it would be clear where our priorities lie. Still, there are many historical injustices that people campaign to mark and remedy in some degree, as we know. These have some value as an expression of our contemporary attitudes, I think. Most importantly, though, I wanted to stress the fact that the evidence of the witch trials is very far from mere ‘faery tales;’ they are records of brutality and suffering too.

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  2. It’s interesting to me the notation on fallen angels. I want to say some Gnostic traditions believed something similar about Pagan Gods. Certainly I wonder, maybe one could look at the Tuatha de Danaan as being examples – after all, I think it was christians who wrote their stories down, and we have to assume the euhemerism in them is their influence, like with Norse myth.

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    1. You’re right about euhemerism. Seeing faeries as ‘fallen gods’ (or angels) or as former allegedly pygmy populations are (for me) all attempts to explain away people’s reported experiences or to fit them within socially more acceptable categories. The blog takes the view that people knew exactly what they saw and respects that.

      Liked by 1 person

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