Sir Walter Scott; Raeburn’s 1822 portrait
A notable feature of modern Paganism is the Shamanic belief in Spirit Guides or Otherworldly Allies: altruistic beings from beyond the physical world who are willing to assist those who call upon them for advice or instruction. A fascinating something discovered in Walter Scott’s nineteenth century Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (based upon his research into the Scots Witch Trials of a few centuries prior) is the frequent performance of Faeries as Spirit Guides to Scots people. In a previous post, we looked at the 1576 case of Bessie Dunlop and the helpful ghost who dwelt with the Court of Elfland and who “assisted her with his counsel,” giving her herbs “with his own hand,” and teaching her how to make herbal ointments to heal the sick, in addition to advising her as how to answer those who sought her aid in recovery of things lost or stolen. Her supernatural partner enabled Bessie to flourish in her career as a Wise-Woman, until the skeptical and accusatory eyes of sixteenth century Scots authorities fell upon her.
An individual with a story similar to Bessie’s was Alison Pearson of Byrehill, who in 1588 faced trial “for the invocation of the spirits of the devil, specially in the vision of one Mr. William Sympson,” a deceased relative (her cousin) whom she “affirmed was a great scholar and doctor of medicine, dealing with charms” and (it was alleged by authorities) “abusing the ignorant people.” (Any otherworldly beings not obviously associated with the Christian faith, such as ghosts or fays, were reflexively associated with the Devil during the Burning Times, just as those who dealt in charms were often accused of abusing or taking advantage of persons so ignorant or backward as to believe in charms and witchcraft.) As Scott points out, Alison Pearson (like Bessie Dunlop) “had also a familiar in the court of Elfland.” (Familiars, or spirits who promoted the workings of Witchcraft for the Witch with which they were “familiar,” are stereotypically thought of as animals or animal-like, but at least in Scotland, could be spirits of the departed as well.)
Alison’s cousin (her mother’s brother’s son), William Sympson of Stirling, had an interesting history. He had been taken away to Egypt (so she said) by a “Gipsy” (a person of Egypt), where he remained for the space of twelve years (presumably learning many interesting and occult things, as Egypt was stereotypically thought of as a place where the esoteric practices of magickal antiquity held strong; there is a curious off-hand reference to Sympson’s father, the king’s smith of Stirling, during this period: he had “died in the meantime for opening a priest’s book and looking upon it,” alarmingly giving the impression that the contents of priests’ books were so closely guarded that looking upon them invited death, either through divine retribution, or that of authorities.) Sympson (then deceased) was “with” the Faeries (so Alison said), and as with Bessie Dunlop and her ghostly counselor, “taught her what remedies to use, and how to apply them.” No less a personage than the Archbishop of St. Andrews (called by Scott “celebrated,” an “excellent divine and accomplished scholar”) made resort to Alison for remedy of illness, drinking “with good faith and will” a claret “medicated with the drugs she recommended,” and was complicit in her transference of “the bishop’s indisposition from himself to a white palfrey [a horse], which died in consequence,” which as Scott allows, “accorded to the belief of the time.” Regrettably, this cooperation with a Wise-Woman resulted in charges against the bishop, who was supposed to have trusted in God to relieve his infirmities, rather than a Witch.
Quaint illustration of Witches flying around a rural Kirk
Alison’s extra-worldly cohorts were not confined to the shade of her cousin, however; as she told it, she was felled by an illness while passing through Grange Muir one day; at which incapacitated point, “a green man came to her, and said if she would be faithful he might do her good.” Afterwards, the “green man” returned with “many men and women with him.” Against her will (so she said), she “passed with them farther than she could tell, with piping, mirth, and good cheer.” Speaking of these things, however, left her “sorely tormented,” and in receipt of a “blow that took away the power of her left side, and left on it an ugly mark which had no feeling.” In her confessions before authorities, she affirmed that she had seen (before sunrise) the “good neighbors” making salves with pans and fires. Sometimes the “good neighbors” would appear in forms so fearful as to frighten her; other times, however, “they spoke her fair, and promised her that she should never want if faithful,” but threatened her with martyrdom and punishment “if she told of them and their doings.” (A common superstition concerning the Good Folk was a taboo against speaking of one’s experiences with them.) Alison’s relationship with the Elfin court was conflicted; she “boasted of her favor with the Queen of Elfland and the good friends she had at that court, notwithstanding that she was sometimes in disgrace there and had not seen the queen in seven years.” As Scott points out, her ghostly advisor and the friendship of the Fays availed Alison no better than did Bessie Dunlop’s supernatural associate: the “margin of the court-book again bears the melancholy and brief record, ‘Convicta et combusta’ [convicted and burned].”
Statue of Robin Hood at Nottingham
There are a number of interesting things in the above account, all of them suggesting a native Scots spirituality based upon the Fees. The Green Man: Green Men figure prominently in Pagan Europe lore. They are a leafy-faced architectural motif found in medieval churches, presumed representative of the rejuvenating greenery of Nature. “Green Men” (Men who are Green) figure in folk-legend in other ways: green is typically a color that signifies the Fays; the emerald-hued being who challenges Arthur’s emissary in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight is a notable example. Robin Hood is another legendary figure associated with greenness. The fact that the Green Man (surely a representative of the Elfland Court) promises to do Alison “good” (as long as she does not break the Faerie taboo concerning speaking of them) is something often found in medieval lore about surviving Pagan mythology, which is often peopled with “Good Ladies” (wandering Night Women dedicated to beneficial activities) and the “Good Folk.” Various things in Alison’s account are suggestive of Shamanism: the fact that she has fallen in an illness before she meets the Green Man, and that her experiences with the Elfland Court rob the power of her left side (which sounds like she has suffered a stroke), plus left a mark on her forehead that has no feeling, are details recognized as associated with Shamanic initiation, which is often attended by a physical crisis and visible effects. The fact that Alison “passes,” or travels great distances with the Elfland Court, reminds of the first mention of medieval Witchcraft, the Canon Episcopi, which describes women flying leagues in the air with a Goddess of Pagans. As this also is a feature of Shamanic belief-systems, it all tends to reinforce Tom Cowan’s argument in Fire in the Head: that Celtic spirituality was essentially Shamanic in character (in this case, centered around the Fees of the Elfland Court).
In considering that there is a certain cultural thematic unity to these accounts, please ponder the case of John Stewart (I know, it sounds like the guy who does The Daily Show). Stewart, a “vagabond,” was implicated in the 1618 Ayrshire Witch-Case centered around Margaret Barclay, accused of scuttling her brother-in-law’s ship through the Witch’s Arts. As was often the case in Scots Witch-Trials (and those elsewhere), torture, perversely described as “safe and gentle,” was performed upon the accused, and several persons were put to death (Stewart hanged himself in his cell before he could be burned at the stake). Nonetheless, Stewart’s ill-timed arrival in town brought suspicion upon him (being a vagabond, he was rootless, something that disturbed medieval propriety); his examination (and torture) by authorities, however, resulted in his colorful backstory’s being recorded: as Scott avers, another “instance of the skill of a sorcerer being traced to the instructions of the elves.” Stewart claimed powers of clairvoyance and precognition, explaining that twenty-six years previously, he had been traveling on the night of All Hallows (Halloween, or as Pagans tend to call it- utilizing the Celtic term- Samhain), and had met the King of Faereys. This personage had struck Stewart with a white rod over his forehead, taking away Stewart’s power of speech and the use of one eye, which he wanted for another three years. The Faerey King, in the company of his train, had restored Stewart’s eyesight and speech on a later Halloween night; since that time, Stewart had joined the Faerey People every Saturday night at seven o’clock, remaining with them all the night, and receiving instruction by them. As Scott concludes, “With this man’s evidence we have at present no more to do, though we may revert to the execrable proceedings which then took place against this miserable juggler and the poor women who were accused of the same crime. At present it is quoted as another instance of a fortune-teller referring to Elfland as the source of his knowledge.”
17th century illustration of Witches, with brooms, cat-familiars, and candles
All three instances- Bessie Dunlop’s, Alison Pearson’s, and John Stewart’s- suggest a Scots folk-mythology, organized around the Faeries of the Elfland Court (sometimes involving spirits of the departed), who serve mortals as instructive guides, teaching them herbal healing and imparting clairvoyant information. These relationships could result in the manifestation of effects that are otherwise associated with Shamanic belief-systems: appearance of the otherworldly beings during times of crisis; periods of illness or physical distress following the otherworldly initiation; but a partnership beneficial to the selected mortal ensuing, nonetheless. All of these things point to a native spirituality, regretfully described as “devilish” by the Scots authorities of government and church, a position reinforced by tortured confessions forced upon the accused, who are put to death for “demonic Witchcraft”: in many ways, the Burning Times of Scotland, in a nutshell.