He deliberately steps on the creaky boards as he inches up the dark hallway. He stops, thumps his foot, then creeps forward again, fingernails scraping the wall as he comes closer. Then, behind the half-open bedroom door, he emits a strange, throaty sound.
I am as far from the door as I can get, huddled in the corner on the top bunk, clutching the evil-proof blanket against my face, only my eyes showing.
The door squeaks slightly.
His hands appear first. One is flat, the other is a tight fist making small, rapid circles on his flat hand.
A moment of screaming silence before he appears. Wide, staring eyes. A fixed, demonic grin. Then, the incantation:
Witchie, witchie, witchieeee
He roars, rushing at the bed. I scream and the whole game collapses into a raucous floor-to-bunk tug o’ war with the blanket.
I am four years old. My brother, Willie, is six.
Along with cubby-building using lounge-room furniture, Witchie was a favourite game on long, rainy days indoors. Witchie only worked because Willie and I had a tacit agreement about our complementary roles in the game; he played the scarer and I played the scaree. I could totally surrender to the game and was truly terrified while it was going on, but easily switched back to real life when the game ended. It never occurred to me that my brother in day-to-day life might be a witch disguising himself as a normal boy.
We spent much of our early childhood years in remote, rural places, and were treated to lots of traditional nonsense rhymes and snippets of old Scottish songs my mother remembered from her own childhood. They were part of our family soundtrack. Perhaps that was what steered me towards an abiding interest in traditional songs from Scotland and England.
For our family, Halloween meant games, traditional ghost stories, and dressing up, but I have to say that witches didn’t feature much. Our Halloween had its roots in the ancient Celtic festival involving the annual visit from the spirits of dead ancestors. The dressing up (guising) was to trick the ghosts and ghouls into thinking you might be one of them, so they’d leave you alone to go about your business when you ventured outside.
I think my brother dressed as a witch once, but he made a mask and looked like an old, bent woman – no broomstick or pointy hat involved. For me, flying broomsticks and pointy hats arrived with The Wizard of Oz.
Witches are neither dead ancestors, nor of the spirit world. They are more akin to mediums, alchemists, and conjurers. That may explain their lack of importance in our Halloween. But we did occasionally hear about them.
This is one of my mother’s rhymes that has stuck with me:
Not last night but the night before, Three wee witchies came to the door, One wi’ a fiddle, One wi’ a drum, And one wi’ a pancake stuck to his bum
The nonsense content of many old nursery rhymes alludes to some real social or political event. Three Wee Witchies always intrigued me. It’s not just that the witches are musicians, it’s something about the rug-pulling final line mentioning a hi-carb snack adhering to the rear of the man-witch. Had I misheard that odd gender twist? A few years later, I questioned my mother about it. She assured me I had heard it correctly and insisted it should always be his bum. And the pancake? She just shrugged when I asked. A pity because that’s the most intriguing reference.
My research suggests there could be far more to the bum-pancake line than simple nonsense. It may relate, in some way, to a recent theory around the genesis of the notion that witches can fly on broomsticks. The theory posits that a broomstick handle could well have served as a drug-delivery device (an applicator), and that the resultant “flying” could possibly have been a drug-induced hallucinatory state. The pancake, stuck as it is to the nether regions of the male witch, could be guilty by association.
As an adult, my first serious interest in a song about a witch was in the narrative ballad, Witch of the West-mer-lands. It has all the traditional elements of story, verse form, vocabulary, and melody to make it a traditional classic. Except it’s not traditional. It was written in the 1970s by Archie Fisher, a legend in Scottish folk music and a dab-hand at sneaking his original songs into the ongoing tradition. Regardless, Witch of the West-mer-land aroused my deep interest in the truly traditional ballads about witches and sorcerers and, especially, in how these songs might have had their roots in real and natural phenomena.
The shape-shifting witch in Fisher’s song is based on a natural, local occurrence: wading deer can get lake-weeds tangled in their antlers, and in the dim light this can look a bit like long-haired women with animal bodies. It shows how a known natural phenomenon might be transformed into the stuff of myth and magic.
Fisher also uses a time-tested storytelling device where a supplicant is required to undertake a gruelling set of tasks or, as in this tale of a wounded knight, a near-impossible journey. The reward for meeting the challenge is the trust of the witch and access to her healing powers. This trial-by-task device is traceable through the Western tradition back to the ancient Greeks, but it’s found in almost every storytelling tradition around the world, as are witches and sorcerers.
My very favourite (genuinely ancient) narrative ballad about witchcraft is King Willie’s Lady. The standout version is by Martin Carthy, another icon of the traditional folk revival. It’s from his album Crown of Horn. The melody is a 1930s Breton bag-pipe tune from a song about the joys of cider. Another icon of the Scottish folk revival, Ray Fisher (sister to Archie), was responsible for cannily setting the ancient tale to the bagpipe tune she heard on the streets of Paris in the 1970’s.
King Willie’s Lady is about a mother who is seriously miffed about her son not consulting her before choosing a wife. We are told she lays “a weary-spell” on Willie’s new wife, condemning her to perpetual pregnancy and labour pain. The song details exactly how the spell is woven and, eventually, how it is undone. Mum uses what is known as a “binding spell” involving actual weaving and knotting. Breaking such a spell involves discovering exactly what is woven where, and then untying all the bits.
After hours – or perhaps days – of helplessly watching his wife suffer fruitless labour pains and listening to her screaming, Willie is emotionally and physically wrecked. He’s driven to distraction and desperately seeks an explanation for why this awful thing is happening. This is where two possibly unrelated things are seen to be linked.
Upon his return from overseas with his foreign (and already pregnant) wife, Willie had a bitter argument with his mother. The mum’s anger and displeasure would have put her squarely in the frame as a prime suspect. She’d be seen as having the motive to cause the delayed birth.
In the historical and social context of the time, the mother would have been fairly justified in reprimanding her son for going rogue: the family lineage, the estate and the family fortune could all have been at stake. Marriages needed to be managed carefully. And to make matters worse, Willie’s new wife was a foreigner!
Of course, delayed childbirth with protracted labour is still something we have to deal with even now, but for us the condition is manageable with the means to monitor the health of the mother and the unborn baby, and to minimise risk. None of this would have available to Willie and his wife – whoever they were originally. They would have been desperate to understand why such a thing was happening.
It’s a small step from suspecting the mother might be a witch, to re-interpreting some of her actions leading up to the due date as part of her weaving a binding spell. Once the idea of witchcraft is in the mix, there’s no going back. For Willy’s mum the die is cast. If Willie’s lady or the baby dies, it means Willie has failed to untie a bit of the spell and so the mother is a witch; if the wife gives birth to a healthy baby, it means Willie has succeeded in untying the spell, and the mother is a witch. But was the mother a witch, or was she assigned that role long after the fact?
We need to remember that, while this ancient ballad tradition may offer some insight into the prevailing beliefs and social circumstances of its time, it’s not really concerned with delivering a factual account of events, nor with keeping the original events in order. As tales were passed on in the oral tradition, they were embellished, localised and otherwise re-set to impress the audience.
Sometimes it was half-remembered and so the storyteller or singer would have invented things to cover the gaps. It would have been important to retain the central, and recognisable main event – like a terrifyingly difficult child-birth – so the audience would literally or figuratively nod in recognition.
Beyond that, there was plenty of license to invent characters and story and otherwise embellish the tale in the name of dramatic effect. It’s still very common, and entirely acceptable, for singers in the modern folk movement to edit, modify and reset so-called “traditional” works. One final observation about King Willie’s Lady that helps set it apart from similar ballads: there is no account of anyone taking gruesome revenge on the witch. That is the sort of detail that intrigues me. Could it be that some mum-loving ballad singer, down the track, decided it was just going too far to strangle, stab, and burn your own? And so left it out? Perhaps there is something in the suggestion that the person who first captured the tale by writing it down, omitted the usual revenge chapter on moral grounds.
We are enlightened enough to understand that these traditional ballads have been dramatised and fictionalised in their detail, but if we peel away those bits we get back to a point where we can see a certain set of circumstances out of which the song could have arisen.
Central to assigning events to supernatural influences was desperation and a sense of helplessness. But for superstitious beliefs to have thrived, there needed to be prevailing conditions of general acceptance and belief. While things like poverty and ignorance might have been rich soil for germinating superstitious beliefs, the seeds needed watering and nurturing. That was done by religion and other opportunistic entities.
At the community level, superstition would have been encouraged and supported by the purveyors of magic: self-proclaimed witches, sorcerers, seers, and the like. This last group would comprise those who inherited their “abilities”, or found a way to set up shop as sole trader, or were appointed and sanctioned by the authorities.
But the efficacy of spells and potions, and magic in general, absolutely depends on the belief, for whatever reason, of the victim, the supplicant, or the customer. That sort of belief mechanism is likely only available to the human mind. It can be seen operating in the positive effect of some placebos used in medicine, for example.
There are scraps of ancient belief in witchcraft and the weaving of spells that still survive in parts of Scotland in the form of domestic “rules” and in ceremonial traditions like weddings. In some areas it is still considered to be inviting disaster by tying things like ribbons, straps, or laces anywhere on the bride’s dress or in her hair.
My parents – especially my mother – had a number of strange little rules about the “proper” way to do some very ordinary things, like the way you left a hairbrush. It was not bristles down! If challenged about why we couldn’t do things a certain way her usual response was, “Because you just don’t!” Annoying to say the least, but also something that was again, intriguing.
At times I entertained the idea that my mother’s insistence on getting these little rituals absolutely right might be because of where she was born – a place where, until relatively recently, anything unfortunate that happened in the community was seen as linked somehow to an ancient curse.
My mother was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire. I was born in a house in a village just outside Paisley and within sight of a low hill where the Renfrewshire witches were hung then burned on 10 June 1697. This grisly event is considered the final event in the terrifying witch hunts of Western Europe. The records on this are clear, so it’s not an old narrative ballad. Four women, one man, and two teenaged boys were “discovered” to be witches. One of the women, Agnes Naismith, publicly cursed everyone who turned up for the hanging, and for good measure she cursed all their descendants.
The Paisley witch hunt was set in motion by a well-to-do 11-year-old girl, Christian Shaw. She began to have seizures soon after an altercation with a young serving girl in the house and decided the two events were related. It is almost certain she suffered from focal seizures or a related condition, but once the fatal wheel began turning, like King Willie, Christian couldn’t stop it.
The Calvinist clergy jumped at the chance to hunt down and root out evil in the local area and to further entrench their authority. Ignorance, superstition, and fear were poured into the cauldron. Followed with the chance to settle old scores in the town, and stirred up by religious fundamentalism, it became a fatal brew. It’s fairly clear there was some collusion between the star witness and the prosecution, resulting in the planting of helpful “evidence” of a frankly theatrical nature. But good triumphed over evil. Oh, and money changed hands, as did coveted real estate, stock, and land.
I wish I could say that witch hunts are a thing of the past, but it is just not true. Wherever there is desperation, ignorance, and poverty, there’s likely claims of witchcraft and sorcery. Superstitions born of desperation and ignorance are used to set people against one another, or to justify state-sponsored or religious violence. It’s still used to displace, to rob, to suppress, to marginalise, to torture, to maim, and to murder.
My interest in those old ballads has brought me to a point where, as I learn more, the more terrifying it all becomes. Sometimes I just feel like huddling in the corner clutching a blanket.
Witchie witchie witchie indeed.
By Adam Macaulay
Adam Macaulay is a stage director, writer, acting coach, and audio producer. He trained and worked professionally as a director and tutor in Australia before moving to Wellington. He is executive producer at Shortwood Creative, a small-scale organisation dedicated to helping performers, writers, and producers make their good stuff even better. When not recording, writing his own stuff, or helping someone else make something, Adam indulges his interest in traditional music as a performer. He also makes, modifies and repairs certain kinds of acoustic instruments.
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