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CHAPTER XVI
SOME WITCHES OF TO-DAY  

No study of witchcraft — however slight — could be considered complete did it ignore its importance in the world of to-day. Dispossessed though she may be, in a small intellectual district of the Western World, the witch still queens it over the imagination of the vast majority of mankind. What is more, as I have tried to show in an earlier chapter, there are many indications that her reconquest of her lost territories cannot be long delayed. With the close of the nineteenth century  — in which the cult of neo-materialism reached its widest sway — the reaction against the great conspiracy may already have begun. The Russo-Japanese war, with its defeat of an Occidental, or semi-Occidental, Power at the hands of the Orient, may also be held to typify the approaching victory of witchcraft over science. It is true that the true Russian — the moujik, as apart from the germanised, official class — has always preserved his faith in magic; true also that the Japanese victories were won by a free adaptation of European methods. But this can only obscure, without changing, the great underlying phenomenon — that the lethargic East, the great home of witchcraft and witch-lore, has at last aroused itself from its long trance, and, by whatever methods chastised the fussy West that sought, professedly for its own good, to change its lotus-dreams to nightmares. It only remains for China to rise up and chastise the inconstant Japanese for their treachery to a common ideal, to make the certainty of the witch's victory more certain. 

The position of the witch is, indeed, unassailable. Whatever the result of the racial Armageddon of to-morrow, she can lose nothing. If white civilisation stand the test of battle, she is in no worse position than before; if it go down before the hosts of Asia, the witch and her devotees will reap the fruits of victory. It may suit the present Asiatic purpose to drape its limbs with tawdry European vestments — but the patent-leather boots worn by the Babu cannot make an Englishman of him. He may be a "failed B.A. of Allahabad University," a persistent office-seeker, a bomb-throwing Revolutionist and a professed Atheist, but he is none the less a believer in a million gods and ten times as many witches. In his native village he has an hereditary official magician, who controls the weather, wards off evil spells, performs incantations and the like at fixed charges — and commands the irnplicit confidence of educated and uneducated alike. What is more, the Indian cult of witchcraft has flourished the more widely beneath the contemptuous protection of the British Raj. In the old times there were certain inconveniences attendant upon the witch or wizard-life in India as elsewhere. Dreaded they were, as they are still, but there were times when an outraged community turned under the pressure of their malignant spells and meted out appropriate punishment full measure. Witch-tests very similar to those employed by Matthew Hopkins were everywhere in use. Among the Bhils, for example, and other allied tribes, a form of "swimming" prevailed, in many ways an improvement upon the fallible British methods. A stake being set up in a shallow tank or lake, so that it protrudes above the surface, the suspected witch must lay hold of it and descend to the bottom, there to remain while an arrow is shot from a bow and brought back by a runner to the firing-place. If the suspect can remain under water until then, she is declared innocent; if she rises to breathe, she is a confessed witch. This method offers so many opportunities of manipulation, either by the suspect's friends or enemies, that it may well take precedence even of the ordeal by fire, water, or ploughshare favoured among us in feudal days, while the inventiveness of the English witch-finder is put to open shame. Needless to say, Indian witchcraft had and has all the material incidentals proper to a cult. There are substances susceptible to spells, much as is the case with electricity; there are others, as, for example, the boughs of the castor-oil plant, very effective in its cure — so that to flog a witch with such rods is the best possible way of rendering her harmless. There are proper ways of punishing her, too, as, for example, to rub red pepper into her eyes. But unfortunately for those susceptible to spells, the British Government has now stepped in to protect, not the persecuted ryot, but the witch who persecutes him. It is a crime to destroy, even to torture, a witch, however notorious; and however strongly we may object to such iniquitous laws, it is advisable to obey them, or to break them only very secretly indeed. Owing to this unfortunate state of things, the witch riots unchecked throughout Hindustan, and everywhere increases in importance. For, if you are forbidden to suppress her, the only alternative is to seek her favour, and if you have offended to appease her with gifts, or pay some rival practitioner to weave yet more potent counter-spells. Otherwise the odds are heavy that sooner or later, as you are returning home through the jungle one day, she will lie in wait for you in the disguise of a poisonous snake or man-eating tiger, or, failing that, that you will die miserably of typhoid fever or plague. 

The witch of Hindustan, though somewhat exalted in importance by the protection extended to her by the British Government, differs but little from her sisters in other parts of the Orient, in the Nearer East, in Further India, China, even in enlightened Japan. Everywhere, indeed, where any regularised form of religion exists, you may find her actively protesting against its decrees, catering for its unsatisfied devotees, or those who agree with that old woman who, discovered offering up prayer to the Devil, explained that at her time of life she thought it well to be in with both sides. Sometimes she takes the place of the Devil; sometimes she provides a way of escape from heavenly and infernal powers alike; sometimes she embodies the whole of the supernatural. The creed of the African native, by him transported to the Americas, may be described as devil-worship  — but more properly as witchcraft pure and simple. The African witch-doctor, as with the majority of savage tribes, is himself a god, far more powerful than the devilkins whose destinies he directs. More powerful than the European magician of old times, he can command Heaven as well as Hell — and whether by election, assumption, or descent, he is the sore arbiter of fate, even though, perhaps out of deference to infiltrated European ideas, he sometimes professes to act only as the mouthpiece of Destiny. 

I have already referred to the persistence of the belief in witches in our own and other European countries. Further examples might be quoted, almost ad infinitum, all going to prove the same thing, that the elementary school is powerless against the inherited tradition. Those interested may find a striking example of belief in witchcraft and the power of the evil eye in Somerset, including an incantation of some merit, the whole too long for quotation, in "Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries" for December, 1894. Or again, in "La Mala Vita a Roma," by Signori Niceforo and Sighele, a chapter is devoted to the present-day witches of the Eternal City, showing conclusively that, among a host of fortune-tellers and similar swindlers, the genuine "strege" flourish as of yore, though they are perhaps less easily to be found by strangers in search of them. Instead, however, of quoting further from the experiences of others, I may adduce one or two instances of witches with whom I have personally come in contact. I must admit that, as providing any test of the bona fides of the modern witch, they are singularly unconvincing. They may, however, serve as some proof, not only that the witch can still find many to do her reverence in modern Christian Europe, but that, as a profession for women, that of the witch is not without its potentialities in these overcrowded days. 

If you cross over the Ponte Vecchio at Florence and, leaving the Via dei Bardi on your left, continue along the Via Porta Romana for about two hundred yards before turning sharply to the right, you will be following a course which has been often trodden by those in search of respite from witch-harrying. If you wish actually to consult the witch you must persevere yet further, through a maze of rather mouldering streets, until you come to a very tall house, painted a pale maroon colour and pock-marked with brown stains where rain has eaten into the plaster. You may recognise the house by the fact that it has two sham windows frescoed on its side wall — it stands at a corner of two malodorous lanes — and that one of them purports to be occupied by a lady who is smiling at you invitingly. Smiled, I should say, for even at the time of my last visit, two years ago, she was fading into the plaster background, and by now she may have disappeared altogether or have been replaced by a scowling gentleman, for all I know to the contrary. I would not swear, for that matter, that even the house still stands where it did, so quick is the march of modern improvement in New Italy. But granted that you find the lane and the house and the painted lady, granted further that Emilia has not changed her address, you may be sure of speaking with a witch whose fame has permeated a considerable portion of Tuscany. You will have to climb a wearisome distance up some incredibly dirty and unpleasantly-smelling stairs to reach her first, though, and it is possible that even then you may have to wait until she has settled the destiny or cured the ills of some client from a distant village. But having overcome all difficulties, you may count upon a not unamiable reception from a stout, elderly woman with a good-humoured eye and a plentiful crop of glossy black hair turning slightly to grey. She will not be at all puffed up by her powers or position, and she will be quite ready to accept any little token of appreciative regard you may be inclined to press upon her; but, to be quite candid, I doubt if you will leave her apartment knowing much more of witchcraft after the modern Italian convention than when you entered it. This partly from a certain diffidence on her part to give away trade secrets, but still more because Emilia's Italian is several shades worse than your own, so that unless you are an amateur in Tuscan also, you will find her altogether unintelligible. Only, if you should prove able to interchange ideas, you must by all means ask her about the Old Religion, how far it still prevails among the Apennines, what are its gods, and what their powers. If, further, you ask her opinion as to the magical powers of certain Christian saints, and especially of Saint Anthony, you will be amply repaid, supposing you to be interested in such matters, for all the trouble you and your nose have been put to in discovering Emilia's abiding-place. 

My acquaintance with Emilia commenced in a certain hill-top village within easy walking distance of Florence. I was there honoured by some slight intimacy with a worthy contadine who had one fair daughter, by name Zita. Having a lustrous eye, a praiseworthy figure, and a neat ankle, she had also a sufficiency of admirers, whose fervour was not the less that she was generally regarded as likely to receive an acceptable marriage-portion, as such things go thereabouts. Nor was Zita at all averse to admiration, accepting all that was offered with admirable resignation. Had Zita happened to be the only young woman in the village desirous of admiration I might never have become acquainted with Emilia. As things were, Zita was one day attacked by an illness and took to her bed. There was no apparent cause, and dark whispers began to go abroad of jealousies, witchcraft, and what not. Their justice was proved within three days by the discovery, in Zita's bed, of an ear of grass, two hen's feathers, and a twig tied together by a strand of horsehair. The whole had been neatly tucked away beneath the mattress, where it might have remained undiscovered in a less cleanly household than was the Morettis'. Doubt was at an end — obviously Zita was bewitched, and the worst must be feared unless the spell could be expeditiously removed. 

In my ignorance I supposed that the local priest would be the proper person to apply to in such a difficulty. But I was very soon convinced of my mistake. To marry you, usher you into or out of the world, the reverend gentleman may have his uses. But to ward off the ills of witchcraft his ministrations are worse than useless, seeing that they only serve to irritate the demons and thus make the patient's sufferings more intense. All this provided, of course, that he be not himself a stregone, a state of things more common than might be supposed. But just as the priest is the one genuine authority on Heaven, Purgatory, and the simpler issues of Hell, so, to grapple with witchcraft, no one is so capable as a witch, And of all available witches none was so efficient or, be it added, so moderate in her charges as Emilia. She was, in fact, the family-witch of the Moretti family, frequently called in and as frequently being entirely successful in her treatment. She was, for that matter, long since become a valued family friend, and — in fact, Emilia must be called in without delay. I accompanied Zita's elder brother Luigi when he visited Florence for the purpose, and with him and Emilia returned, travelling part of the way by electric tramcar, the conductor being, as it chanced, an acquaintance of my companions, and, as such, chatting pleasantly with Emilia concerning her profession, contrasting it favourably with his own. Exactly what counter-charms she used in Zita's treatment I was not privileged to know; at least, I can testify that they were entirely successful, and that within a very short time Zita was herself again, breaking her usual quantity of hearts round and about the village well, and openly jeering at the rival beauty to whom she attributed her indisposition, for the ill-success that had attended her. If I cannot claim that through Zita's bewitching and its cure I gained much knowledge of Italian witchcraft as presently understood, I may at least instance it as an example of the matter-of-fact way in which its existence is accepted by the modern Tuscan peasant. He regards it indeed with as little, or less, perturbation as the coming of the motor-car. Just as the motor has become a danger on every road, so the evil spirit throngs every field. You may take precautions against him and the ill-deeds done by him at the witch's bidding — just as you look carefully round before crossing a road nowadays — you may string bells or weave feathers on your horse's headdress as preventatives, or make the requisite sign whenever you have reason to believe yourself within the radius of an evil eye; but accidents will happen, and it is always well to know the address of such a dependable practitioner as Emilia, in case. For that matter, you may sometimes desire to have a spell cast on your own account — it is difficult to go through life without a quarrel or two — and in that case also Emilia. But I am becoming indiscreet. 

Another witch with whom I have had personal dealings lives — or did live, for she was reported to be more than one hundred years of age at the time  — in a small town, locally termed a city, in North Carolina. I must frankly admit that I learned even less of magical knowledge from her than from her Italian colleague. She was a negress, and having heard of her existence from the coloured coachman of the friend in whose house I was staying, I determined to leave no stone unturned to make her acquaintance. I hoped to glean from her lips some particulars of the extent to which Voodooism — elsewhere referred to in this volume — is still practised by the American negro  — a fact of which I was repeatedly assured by Southern friends. I was signally disappointed; the old lady would not, in fact, condescend so much as to open her lips to me at all. She lived with her son, who held a position of some trust in connection with the Coloured Baptist Church, in one of the wooden shanties which make up the Coloured town. They stand at some little distance from the august quarters inhabited by the white gentry, and the approach is rendered almost impossible upon a wet day by oceans of brick-red mud of incredible prehensibility. The old lady I found crouching over a fire in approved witch-fashion, her attention entirely devoted to the contents of a pot set upon the hob. However it might suggest a magical brew, it consisted in actual fact of broiling chickens, very savoury to the smell and speaking well for the worldly prosperity of Coloured Baptist office-holders. So concentrated were her few remaining senses thereon, to the exclusion of all else, that although her son supplemented my own efforts and those of my guide in endeavouring to attract her attention, she would not so much as turn her be-handkerchiefed head in my direction. So concerned was the deacon — if that were his actual rank — at his mother's neglect, that I was driven to console him by accepting him as guide through the beauties of the Coloured cemetery near by. It is true that the cemetery was not without its human  — its pathetically human — interest, the grave of each child being watched over by the humble toys it had played with in its lifetime, and those of adults by the medicine-bottles, even down to the last, half-emptied, made use of in their illness — this tribute being intended as mute testimony to the care expended upon them. But it could not console me for the lost opportunity. Nevertheless I can vouch for it that the old lady was a witch, and of no small eminence, for her son told me so himself, instancing examples of her power, and he was a very good Christian. 

Less elusive, although in some respects scarcely more enlightening, was an interview I once had with a middle-aged witch of unpleasing exterior in the kitchen of the suburban house tenanted by a relative. To the practice of witchcraft this example added the collecting of old bottles and kitchen refuse as a means of livelihood, and she lived, as the police afterwards informed us, in a caravan temporarily moored on a piece of waste land in the neighbourhood of Hammersmith Broadway. The mistress of the house, having occasion to enter the kitchen, there found her seated at the table, unravelling the mysteries of Fate to the cook and scullery-maid by the aid of a very greasy pack of playing-cards. Whatever her pretensions to knowledge of the lower world, she had obviously been drinking — so much so, indeed, that I was called upon for aid in ejecting her from the premises. A large woman, of determined aspect and an aggressive tongue, this might have proved a task of some difficulty had I not luckily bethought me of adjuring her in German, before which she slowly retreated, cursing volubly in English the while, until she had reached the area-steps, when we were able to lock the back door upon her and so be rid of her. It appeared on subsequent inquiry that she had obtained sums amounting in all to some 17s. 6d. from among the domestics, the greater part being the price of informing the aforesaid scullery-maid that her young man, then serving his country in India, still remained faithful to her memory. This information proved in due course to be well founded, the gallant warrior returning six months later filled with amatory ardour. It is true that the witch forgot to mention that by that time he would be ousted from Griselda's heart by — if I remember aright — a dashing young milkman, and that he would incur a fine of circa 40s. for assaulting and battering him thereafter. Nevertheless public feeling below-stairs remained strongly in favour of the ejected sorceress, and no minor domestic mishap could happen for weeks thereafter but it was set down as directly resulting from the witch's departing curses. 

One other incursion into the World of Magic lingers in my memory as having taken place in a seaside town that shall be nameless. While there passing a holiday with some friends, I frequently observed large yellow handbills, and even posters, setting forth that a lady, who from her name appeared to be of Oriental antecedents, was prepared to cast horoscopes, read palms, and arrange all kinds of personally conducted tours into the future at fees which could only be described as ridiculous. It so happened that among the members of the party was a young lady who was then in the throes of her last love-affair. Naturally anxious to learn its future course, she, it appears, consulted the seeress, whom I will call, though it was not her name, Madame Fatimah. So remarkable did the results appear that the convert felt it her duty to acquaint the rest of us therewith. The fame of Madame Fatimah was not long in penetrating to my ears, and the day came when I found myself waiting upon the witch's doorstep. She was lodged in a back street some little distance from the centre of the town, in one of those lodging-houses which make a point of advertising that they possess a fine sea view, as indeed they may if you ascend to the roof or extend your body out of window at an acute angle. Certainly no less promising hunting-ground for the witch-finder could be imagined. Madame occupied the first floor, and delivered her prognostications amid an Early-Victorian atmosphere of horsehair and antimacassars that was not altogether unimpressive, though speaking of the past rather than of the future. She was middle-aged, of comfortable rotundity, and dressed in a black silk dress, over which was thrown a Japanese kimono embroidered with wild geese. Doubtless from the long residence in the Orient, to which she took an early opportunity of referring, and where she had studied her art at the fountain-head from the lips of a native gentleman very well known in magic circles, and very likely to the Evil One himself, judging from Madame Fatimah's account of his prowess, but whose name I can only vaguely remember as sounding something like Yogi Chandra Dass — doubtless owing, I say, to her long absence from England, for I understood that she was originally of British birth, though married early in life to a Turkish or Indian magician of some note, she had acquired a habit of either leaving out her aspirates altogether or putting them in the wrong place. She was as businesslike as she was affable, and detailed the various methods by which I could be made acquainted with my past and future, at charges ranging from 2s. 6d. To 10s., with a crisp incisiveness. Having chosen what Madame described as "the crystal" at 5s., she at once seized both my hands in hers and gazed narrowly into my face, giving me the opportunity of myself reading her past nearly enough to know that onions had been included in the ingredients of her lunch. Satisfied, I trust, of my respectability, she produced a round ball of glass or crystal and placed it on a black ebony stand upon a table. Then, having darkened the room, made several gestures, which I took for incantations, with her hands, and muttered certain mystic formula, she commanded me to gaze into the crystal and tell her what I saw in its depths. I regret to say that my willingness to oblige now led me into an indiscretion. Being in actual fact unable to see anything at all, I was yet so anxious to appear worthy that I imagined something I might expect to see. It took the form of a brown baby, two crossed swords, and what might be either an elephant lying on his back with his legs in the air, or the church of Saint John, Westminster, seen from the north-west, the details being too hazy for me to speak with absolute certainty. Madame Fatimah seemed slightly disconcerted at first, but I am bound to admit that she very soon displayed abundance of savoir faire, to say nothing of a sense of humour, for without any further waste of time she announced that I must look forward to a life of misfortune, that whether in business, in love, or in pleasure I could expect nothing but disaster, and that I should inevitably suffer death by hanging in my sixty-seventh year. Let me only add that I paid her modest fee with the greatest willingness, and that I have ever since remained convinced that the modern witch is no whit behind her mediaeval predecessor in those qualities which led her to so high a place in the public estimation. 

I have instanced these few examples of my personal knowledge of witches and witchcraft not as throwing any light either upon their claims or their methods, but simply as some proof of what I have adduced earlier in this volume, that belief in witchcraft, under one form or another, is as widely prevalent in the modern civilised world as ever it was, and that it is ever likely to remain so. Nor does the fact that rogues and vagabonds not a few have availed themselves of its time-honoured respectability as a cloak for their petty depredations at all detract from its claims to respectful credence. That great faith is yet to be whose fundamental truths cannot be turned to the advantage of the charlatan, the swindler and the sham devotee — the greater the faith, indeed, so much the greater is, and must be, the number of its exploiters, battening upon the devotion of the faithful. Nevertheless, it is not upon questions of credibility or faith alone that the world-empire of the witch is founded. Demonstrably true or proven false, the cult of witchcraft has existed from the beginning and will continue until the end of history. Worshipped or reviled, praised, persecuted or condemned, witchcraft and the witch have endured and will endure while there remains one man or woman on the earth capable of dreading the Unknown. Rejoice or grieve as you will the witch is the expression of one of the greatest of human needs — that of escaping from humanity and its limitable environment — of one of the greatest of human world-movements, the revolt against the Inevitable. She does and must exist, for the strongest of all reasons, that constituted as it is humanity could not exist without her. 

The principal authorities made use of in this volume, and not referred to in the text, are given in the following list. The dates do not necessarily refer to the original year of publication, but to the edition made use of: —

 

Adams, W. H. "Witch, Warlock and Magician." 1889. 

Ainsworth, H. "The Lancashire Witches." 

Andersen, Hans. "Fairy Tales." 

Augustine. "De Civitate Dei." 

Beaumont. "Treatise on Spirits." 

Blackstone. "Commentaries." 

Blau, Dr. Ludwig. "Das altjudische Zauberwesen." 1898. 

Bodin, J. "De la Demonomanie des Sorciers." 1580.

Boulton, Rich. "A Compleat History of Magick, Sorcery and Witchcraft." 1715. 

Brand, J. "Popular Antiquities of Great Britain." 1905. 

Budge, E. A. "Egyptian Magic." 1899. 

Burr, G. "The Witch Persecutions." 1897. 

Casaubon, M. "Of Credulity." 1668. 

Cassel, P. "On Popular Rhymes and Charms." 1890.

Davies, T. W. "Magic and Divination among the Hebrews." 1898. 

Fairfax, E. "Daemonologia." 1622. 

Frazer, J. G. "The Golden Bough." 1900. 

Gomme, G. L. "Handbook of Folklore." 1890.

Gould, S. Baring. "Old English Fairy Tales." 1895.

Gould, S. Baring. "The Book of Were Wolves." 1865.

Grimm. "Deutsche Mythologie." 

Harrison, F. (Edit.). "The New Calendar of Great Men." 1892. 

Holland, H. "A Treatise against Witchcraft." 1890.

Horace. Sir Theodore Martin's Translation. 1861.

Hughes, T. P. "Dictionary of Islam." 1896.

Hutchinson, F. "Historical Essay on Witchcraft." 1718. 

Inman. "Ancient Faiths Embodied in Ancient Names."

Innes, J. W. "Scottish Witchcraft Trials." 1380, &c.

James I. "Daemonologia." 1597. 

Jastrow, M. "Religion of Babylonia and Assyria." 1895.

John, C. H. W. "The Oldest Code of Laws in the World." (Hammurabi.) 

King, L. W. "Babylonian Magic and Sorcery." 1896. 

Lancre, Pierre de. "Tableau de l'Inconstance des Mauvais Anges." 1612. 

Lane, E. W. "Arabian Nights" Translation. 1901. 

Law, R. "Memorialls of the Memorable Things that fell out Within this Island of Brittain from 1638-1684." 

Lecky, W. E. "History of Rationalism." 1869. 

Leland, C. G. "Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches." 1899. 

Linton, E. Lynn. "Witch Stories." 1861. 

Maspero, G. "The Dawn of Civilization." 1901. 

Mather, Cotton. "Memorable Providences relating to Witchcraft." 1689. 

Mather, Cotton. "The Wonders of the Invisible World." 1693. 

Maury, A. "La Magie et l'Astrologie." 1860.

Melton, J. "Astrologastra." 1620. 

Meinhold, W. "Maria Schweidler, die Bernstein-Hexe." 1843. 

Meinhold, W. "Sidonia von Bork." 1848. 

Michelet, J. "La Sorciιre." 

Middlemore, Mrs. "Spanish Tales." 1885. 

Mitford, A. "Tales of Old Japan." 1876. 

Muller, W. Max. "Die Liebespoesie der alten l'Egyptien." 1897. 

Nevins, W. S. "Witchcraft in Salem Village." 1892. 

Nares, R. "A Glossary." 1857. 

Pearson, K. "The Chances of Death and other Studies in Evolution." 1897. 

Pitcairn, R. "Criminal Trials in Scotland." 1833. 

Plato. "Laws." 

Pliny. "Natural History." 

Plutarch. "Lives." 

Scot, R. "The Discoverie of Witchcraft" 1584. 

Scott, Sir Walter. "Demonology and Witchcraft." 

Sepp, J. N. "Orient find Occident." 1903. 

Sharpe, C. K. "History of Witchcraft in Scotland." 

Sinclair, Geo. "Satan's Invisible World Displayed." 

Smith. "Dictionary of the Bible." 

Sprenger. "Malleus Maleficarum." 1486. 

Safadin. "Witchcraft in Christian Countries." 1882.

Theocritus. Translation Bion and Moschus. 

Wiedemann, A. "Religion of the Ancient Egyptians." 1897. 

Wierus, J. "De Praestigiis." 1563. 

Wright, Thomas. "Narrative of Sorcery and Magic." 

 

Also many pamphlets, chap-books, &c., &c., chiefly of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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