Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween Week: A Glance at the Book of English Magic!

Looking for a book Harry and Hermione might have studied at Hogwards, or interested in the history of occult practices in England? Look no further--it's Halloween week, and we're bringing you some excerpts from THE BOOK OF ENGLISH MAGIC.

Here's a history of how the detection of witchcraft used to occur. Scary. For more, check out the book, or check back to the blog this week--we'll be posting additional spells and excerpts!

Some physicians and surgeons, as well as gypsies and exorcists—both lay and clerical—offer to unbewitch clients. But cunning-folk provide the widest range of techniques to combat witchcraft, including preventative charms and the identification of the offending witch, as well as cures for their ‘maleficium’ (evil-doing).

For diagnosis, some wizards used the herb vervain, known since classical times as the ‘Enchanter’s Herb’ and reputedly used by the Druids. A decoction of vervain is used to wash the patient. If the run-off from this washing was filled with hairs or changed colour, witchcraft was clearly afoot!

Bubbles in urine were often taken as signs of bewitchment, and urine-crying can be used to determine the culprit. In the seventeenth century, for example, Joan Peterson, a cunning-woman from Wapping, used the following method to determine whether a client’s cow had been bewitched: she boiled some of the animal’s urine and scryed one of the bubbles produced in this way, seeing within it the face of the woman the cow-keeper already suspected.
As well as diagnosing bewitchment, many cunning-folk offer protection from witches’ spells and the influence of evil spirits. To do this they often made ‘witch bottles,’ which they buried outside a property, under the hearth, or plastered into the walls. The bottles were usually small—3 inches high and made from blue or green glass—but larger bottles were also used, known as ‘Greybeards’ or ‘Bellarmines,’ which were about 9 inches tall, and made from glazed stoneware decorated with fierce bearded faces designed to ward off evil. Inside the bottles, the hair and urine of the person who needed defending are mixed with nails, thorns and pieces of sharp glass. The idea is that the witch or spirit will be attracted to the hair and urine in their search for their victim, and would then be injured by the sharp objects. In addition, the bottle is symbolic of the witch’s bladder, and through sympathetic magic it is designed to inflict excruciating pain on the offending witch.

To treat the results of witchcraft, the most common cures are a combination of written charms and herbal medicine. Fumigants of bay, rue, sage and rosemary are sometimes used, and for internal consumption concoctions of marigold, rosemary, angelica, true-love and St John’s wort. In 1854 it was recorded that a Somerset wizard prescribed an unbewitching ointment of sage, wormwood, jack-in-the-hedge and lard, to be applied to the back of the ear.

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