We were recently privileged to meet up with an Anglican priest on a fact-finding tour of UK Paganism and said priest asked me lots of searching and often difficult questions about Paganism and my practice of it. One of those questions was about cursing and my answers were the catalyst to this article – tied in with some research I have been doing on the Orkney “witches”. This has not been a comfortable blog to write, hence the title, but spiritual growth does not tend to take place in comfort. Although I am grateful for being made to think, I much prefer comfort, so to paraphrase Henry II of England: “Who will rid my head of this turbulent priest?”
The old Palace ruins in Birsay (HY 248277) are well worth a visit for the spiritual pilgrim. All ruins are enigmatic and remind us of the fleeting nature of life and our own mortality, a perfect place to contemplate that “All mortal things are subject to decay and when fate summons even monarchs must obey” (Dyrden). These ruins can fulfil that function perfectly as we try to imagine the former glory of this now crumbling red sandstone masonry.
In the 1560s, Mary Queen of Scots made her half-brother Robert Stewart, the illegitimate son of James V, Earl of Orkney. Together with his son, Patrick, these two Stewart Earls, were particularly oppressive of the Orkney people. Although the landowners and merchants experienced appropriation of assets and business restrictions, the common people were forced into labour. The landed gentry flourished at the expense of others and several fine houses were built at this time, financed by these requisitions and made physically possible through the subjugated labour of the poor. Especially bitter memories are still evoked in Orkney at the mention of these Stewart Earls.
The Palace at Birsay was commenced c.1574 by Earl Robert Stewart. This was an elegant and magnificent Renaissance building of four wings set around a central courtyard. The Palace was built over two storeys; with the kitchen and stores on the ground floor and the domestic quarters of the Earl and his household above. Defence is a key feature of this structure (understandably given how much they were hated and feared) with just one main entrance into the courtyard and high towers being placed at three of the corners; there are gun loops facing both outwards and inwards to the courtyard. Outside were flower, herb and vegetable gardens and bowling and archery greens, as well as storage for peat stacks. The Earl’s domestic quarters on the upper floor were described in 1633 as being “sumptuous and stately” with the interior being decorated with painted Bible scenes and the external windows with ornamental carvings.
This site is owned and managed by Historic Scotland but there is no charge for entry. It can be compared with the Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces in Kirkwall (blogs yet to come!).
As stated, these Stewart Earls were particularly tyrannical and this site was built on the back of the forced labour of the peasantry. One of the legends associated with this site is that human hair and blood from these workers was mixed into the mortar of the very stones. When I first heard this, I understood it to not be a literal or metaphorical allusion to the harshness of the conscription, but rather to the memory of a piece of folk magick. Many of the recorded spells and charms from the Orkney witch trials refer to the practitioners incorporating part of their very selves into the physical components of the working, usually spit or breath. Indeed, one of the earliest and most detailed witch trial recorded is that of Alysoun Balfour of Stenness who in 1594 was accused of being involved in a plot to murder Earl Patrick Stewart (I’m ahead of you: “Make it so”!!!) as she was consulted on how best to bewitch him. I suspect that the forced labourers worked a curse into the fabric of this structure and empowered it with their own bodily essence. It may have worked: Earl Robert’s son, Patrick Stewart, came to a particularly sticky end, being tried and executed in Edinburgh for treason, amongst other charges. Execution for treason was usually slow, painful and messy.
The “witch trials” in Orkney were particularly harsh and cruel and they are a sad memory for Orkney. The ninth parliament of Mary Queen of Scots passed the act against witchcraft in 1563. The Law of Scotland applied to Orkney after 1611 and the old Scottish Act against witchcraft was only abolished in 1736. Most of the “trials” and executions took place between the end of the sixteenth century and the mid-seventeenth century. However, even Marwick writing in the mid-twentieth century notes that “the fear of witchcraft has not completely disappeared in Orkney” and evidence for that fear, although now manifesting more as wariness, still exists today and I know some women who still encourage that fear.
By examining the recorded witch trials, it isn’t difficult to work out some characteristics of the people, mainly women, who were accused of witchcraft. They were usually on the edge of society in some way, marginalised through social or economic isolation. Sometimes they were recorded as being a “wanderer” – a vagabond or a beggar – getting by how they could and often hounded from place to place. Then, as now, one way for misfits to exercise power is to allude to knowledge of how to manipulate the supernatural. Even in the beginning of the twentieth century, tinkers in Orkney would threaten “I’ll witch your coo, mistress” to anyone who would not purchase their wares. By developing a reputation for being able to manipulate power, such people could either receive payment in return for conferring favours or equally effectively demand “protection money”.
This manipulation of the supernatural could be performed as either a help or a hindrance. Witches could be agents of death and disease, both causing and curing it, they might have power in their look or their touch, or the ability to predict or control events, they might also steal “profit” from other farmers, and they might be able to shape-shift, usually into cats.
There is a saying that a “witch who cannot hex, cannot heal”. This saying encapsulates the idea that both cursing and curing are flip sides of the same manipulation of energy. As a shamanic practitioner, I do not believe in a dualistic universe, instead I believe that there is nothing that is intrinsically good and bad, there is only energy that is in an appropriate or inappropriate place, everything just is. Weeds, for example, are only herbs that need to be transplanted. Cancer, I suspect, is simply the body’s own healing mechanisms going askew. A witch, or a manipulator of energies, needs to be able to move this energy, to make things more appropriate, to keep the balance in check. A witch needs to be able to both move something away, as well as needing to be able to bring something in. This is why we might do different magicks at a waning moon to that at a waxing moon, but with the same overall goal. The waning moon is about things leaving and I might Work for poverty to depart, whilst the waxing moon is about things increasing and I might Work for abundance to flow in. Being only able to hex or only able to heal is akin to having a one way ticket or just half of the power.
In 1633, for example, Katherine Grieve took sickness out of Elspeth Tailyeour and cast it on a calf and the calf immediately died. In 1643, Cirstane Leisk was reported as causing a man to fall sick when she spread her hands over his back, but he immediately became well when she repeated the action. In 1708, Katherine Taylor of Stromness was tried in the Kirk session of Birsay. She had washed a sick man, William Stensgar, with water which she had subsequently emptied at a gate in a highway. It was inferred that the disease would have been taken out of William, passed into the water, and would then be transferred to the next person who passed through the gate. These are all examples of the movement of energies.
I thoroughly believe that such magick and the way it works has a scientific explanation that hasn’t been discovered yet. I had hoped that Neuro-Linguistic Programming might produce some of the bridge between magick and psychology, but that hasn’t happened yet. Most humans are incredibly suggestible and it would appear that these witches were able, through their reputations, to create events through the manipulation of their supposed powers, possibly using hypnosis techniques. The placebo effect is well known as being incredibly powerful, whilst a terminal diagnosis from a medical professional can be as potent as a curse. I am constantly surprised how many people will happily offer to give their power to me, believing that I have more power than them, asking for my Blessing or a Spell to change their lives. As one of Terry Pratchet’s witches says: “Witchcraft is 90% headology”. “Assisting” people to believe you can do something, and daring to believe that you yourself can, is the main way to personal empowerment.
For the record, I wish to state that I have no more power than anyone else, or rather, than anyone else could have if they were also prepared to do the research, do the work, and make the changes. Lots of people think I have lots of power. They are right, I do, they are wrong only in thinking they don’t. I spend quite a lot of time being deliberately light-hearted and silly simply to demonstrate that I am nothing special, I am not the goal to be followed, and by these means I try to encourage people to empower themselves. In common with a minority of others, I believe that training humans into believing that they cannot do something is the main way by which the majority of the population are kept controlled and subverted. The secular and religious authorities have, and are, conspiring to keep up from our own personal power. We are all infinitely powerful, we need to grow into that power, and not misuse it – this latter being vital.
Now, back to the title: “Things we don’t like to admit to”. Do modern witches curse? Course we don’t, we’re all lovely now and terrified of the Witches’ Rede “If it harm none, do as you will” and the threefold rule, and we are all ready to be accepted as a proper grown up religion and be taken seriously, so we don’t do any of that nasty stuff like human sacrifices and looking at people oddly (whilst wearing The Hat).
Not quite. I think it is more appropriate to say that modern witches “reserve the right” to curse.
If the social-economic grouping from which Pagans in general and witches in particular is examined, most are from C1/C2 – we are mainly upper working class and lower middle class. Most of us are not landed gentry. We are educated but most of us are not high-achievers. If we are professional, we tend not to climb too highly. Yes, there are exceptions, I am generalising. We lack the connections and money which buys the elite a comfortable safety net. The knowledge of the existence of this safety net fulfils an important psychological function for the elite because, for the rest of us, even if we “make it”, we are aware that it only takes a messy divorce or a prolonged illness for us to roll back down to where we had climbed up from. So some Pagans live life in fear and some live it in need – it is why most of us start out on our Pagan path by trying to get stuff when we learn early on that magick does work.
When you live life in fear or in need, it can be useful to allow others to think you have “powers”, just like our historical witches. If you live in a sink estate under the constant threat of burglary or violence, you could get a big threatening dog, or you could “let it be known” that anyone who harms you will come off far worse in the long term ... Go into most occult shops and look for the signs warning against shop-lifters if you want an example of this! I have one very good friend who “lets it be known” and I have watched her in a pub take an insult from someone, wait for that person to go off to the loo whilst leaving their drink on the table, whereupon she will make sure she is observed in picking up their drink, wiping their saliva from the glass with a clean napkin, putting the napkin safely away in her bag, and the drink back in its place, and then sitting with a smug look on her face. She won’t do anything else, I know her too well. But she doesn’t need to, the majority of people are mightily suggestible and they will do it to themselves.
Pagan belief systems are experiential rather than revealed. That means that we tend to have less dogma than those religions that can be traced back to a named founder. The second principle of the Pagan Federation is “A positive morality, in which the individual is responsible for the discovery and development of their true nature in harmony with the outer world and community”, that means that most Pagans develop their own individual and fluid personal moral code. This is actually quite difficult to live by! I would argue that it is easier to refer back to a book of rules ... but it does “allow” us to curse, if we are prepared to live by the repercussions.
Have I ever cursed anyone?
I am not proud of this admission but, in my defence, I was provoked after a prolonged attack over about seven years on my character and circumstances. Usually I would perform the more neutral binding spells, but these were having no effect. So, I cursed my step-mother over the legal action she took against me over my late father’s Will. But it was more than about money. At my father’s funeral and subsequent Wake and disposal of the ashes she behaved in a rude and insulting manner towards me and my mum which was unprovoked and unwarranted. She attempted to destroy my character and reputation through the English civil legal system, and she wasted vast amounts of money on solicitor’s time and Court fees in trivial and frivolous matters. She turned my family against me (I refused to put my side to them, not wanting to involve them, so they only heard her side, and they judged accordingly). She played the case out for an unreasonable time, thus frustrating the grieving process of all involved. She refused to enter mediation or arbitration or even to discuss reasonably. And when my mum died, she telephoned that same evening to gloat.
I tried at every stage to give a benign Dalai-Lama smile and Bless her. I tried to absorb the hatred or to reflect it back. I tried to feel compassion and empathy, knowing myself what it was like to be widowed and the terrible anguish of raw grief. I tried to be good and I failed. I am only human and I took so much and then I turned around and bit back.
I cursed her to never be happy; I didn’t curse her to die, curses do not have to be death curses. I have no idea if my curse “worked” on her. I have no idea if at the last bit of my Working, I unwittingly pulled back my power due to some moral fail-safe I may have hard-wired into my psyche.
What I do know now, is that the curse has indeed worked itself through me. It bounced back in a way. The price I paid is too high and it is gnawing at me. And now I have to find a way of undoing it. In due course I shall report back via a blog report on how that proceeds because this blog is about my spiritual lessons and how difficult I find to learn them.
So, yes, witches reserve the right to curse, but if we are wise we don’t do it ... but we really wouldn’t want to admit to that ...