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AN ORIGINAL ESSAY ON WITCHCRAFT (1890)

By Thomas Webster

        Our King James gives the reason, because "the consuniation of the world, and our deliverance drawing neere, makes Satan so rage the more in his instruments, knowing his kingdom to be so neere an end." James was a little out in his reckoning here, " the consumption of the world" not having taken place as yet, and the
devils kingdom turning out to be rather better established
than his own. So far was it from being near an end, that it was on the increase, caused chiefly by the absurd and stupid laws that were enacted against it bv himself and successors.

     The devil kingdom is not to be destroyed by acts of parliament and burning of witches ; these expedients have been tried in vain all over Europe and America, without effect ; but now, when every person can bewitch with impunity, not a witch is to be found ; and the devil, though left at large, has retreated to the Highlands and islands, where he is seldom seen, even by those who Siave the second sight.

      The true engines for battering the strong holds of Satan, and driving him and his imps into utter darkness, are science and philosophy ; these are the weapons that have compelled him to retrogade movements, after lavishing rivers of holy water
in vain. Thus the terrific claws of the devil, when seen by the distempered eyes of ignorant bigotry, appear to us truly horrible, but when viewed through philosophical spectacles, look as harmless as the lamb-skin gloves of a fine lady.

     These stories, however, convey a strong likeness of the times in which they were acted. In our day, it is almost impossible to believe, that human beings could give credit to such gross absurdities as we have laid before the public in this little work,
were the evidence not indubitable. Far less, that judges, lawyers, and divines, should unite in murdering such numbers of poor ignorant helpless creatures, for such mad chimeras, when it is hard to say, whether the poor victim, or the insane judges, were under the greater delusion. These wonderful tales of the doings of the devil with the witches, are taken from their own confessions, and from their delating of one another, as it is called.

      To us it does not appear improbable, but that too many of the poor deluded wretches actually imagined themselves to be witches. Nor will this appear so very surprizing, if we consider the circumstances of the case. At that period, any person who doubted of witchcraft, was looked upon as an athiest, and worse than mad ; the whole country, from one end to the other, was continually ringing with tales of witches, devils, and fairies, with such other trash. Is it not then most likely, that people should dream about them ? and is there any thing unnatural in supposing, that they should mistake these dreams for realities?  As is evidently proved in several cases, and then confess, not the actions they really did,
but the effects of their own disordered imagination.

     Moreover, when confined for this imaginary crime,they were tortured in all manner of ways, deprived of sleep, flung into water, and brodit, as they called it, being striped naked and searched for the devil's mark, in the most indecent manner. These confessions,
after they were made, were nothing more than the wild ravings of a distempered imagination, and such a tissue of inconsistencies, as no person of the present day would listen to.

An old woman in the Isle of Teree (as related by Mr Frazer, page 165), took in her head that she was in heaven no less, and had eat and drank there ; and so firmly had the poor creature imbibed the notion, that it was with some difficulty she could be undeceived.A curious account of a pretended meeting with the devil, is given by a gentleman of Normandy, in the Memoirs of Literature for November 1711.

       " The pretended meeting, about which those who believe they have been at it, relate so many extravagant things, is only in their imagination. I own,that some country people, especially shepherds, do now and then rub their skin with some narcotick
grease or ointments, which cast them into a sound sleep, and fill their imagination with a thousand visions."

     "When they are thus asleep, they fancy they see every thing that was told them concerning the devil's meeting, by their fathers, who were also shepherds, or wizards, if you will have me to call them so. Whereupon I will inform you of what I have been told by a country friend of mine, who pretended to have a mind to go to the devil's meeting with his own shepherd, who had the reputation of being a great sorcerer. Having frequently urged that shepherd to carry him thither, at last he obtained his desire. He went to him in the night at the appointed time."

       "The shepherd immediately gave him something to grease himself withal. He took the grease as if he had a mind to rub his skin with it ; but he desired that the shepherd's son, who was to go to the devil's meeting with his father, should anoint himself first. Which being done, that gentleman told the shepherd, that he should be glad to know what would become of young man. Not long after, the young man fell fast asleep, and when he awaked, though he had not stirred from that place, he gave an account of every thing he thought he had seen at the devils meeting, and even named several persons whom he pretended to have seen there."

    "My friend perceived then, that what is commonly said of the devils meeting was a mere fancy. I have told you this story, that you may impart it to your brethren, who being prepossest with popular errors about witchcraft, do frequently hang and burn poor wretches, whose crime does only consist in the weakness of their imagination."

       A thousand more instances might be produced to show, that the devil hath no meetings any where, but in the perturbed brain of ignorant credulity. The history of superstition is however of great use. We there see its dangerous influence upon the
peace and happiness of society its degrading effects upon the character and manners of nations, in morality, literature, jurisprudence, and science.

     Theology seems to have been particularly infected with this pestiferous contagion. The clergy were generally in the front rank of witch-hunters, and through their influence, the most of them were put to death. In places where the minister was inflamed
with a holy zeal against the devil and his emissaries, such as Pittenweem and Torryburn, the parish became a perfect hot-bed for the rearing of witches ; and so plentiful a crop did it produce,
that it appeared nothing else could thrive. But in places where the minister had some portion of humanity, and a little common sense, the devil very rarely set foot on his territories, and witchcraft was not to be found.

       Since the repeal of the statutes against witchcraft, several prosecutions have been instituted against witches, who were convicted and punished ; but it was bewitching silly ignorant people out of their money, goods, and common sense, by pretending a knowledge of futurity a power of relieving maladies in man or beast or procuring the affection of some favourite swain to a love-sick maiden. The dupes of these impostors do not altogether escape, as they are made the laughing stock of their neighbours ; and by these means even this trade is now nearly annihilated. Happily for our times, the refulgent brightness of philosophy and science, hath dispelled these dark clouds of benighted superstition, and left us in possession only of
our natural powers and faculties, which are quite enough.

- - Thomas Webster , Edinburgh, Scotland 1890


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