Ireland and the Occult by Lewis Spence 1920
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Although nominally Christianised, there is little doubt that the early mediaeval Irish retained many relics of their former condition of paganism, especially those which possessed a magical tendency. This is made clear by the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis, the first account we have of Irish manners and customs after the invasion of the country by the Anglo-Normans. His description, for example, of the Purgatory of St. Patrick in Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, proves that the demonology of the Catholic Church had already fused with the animism of Irish native heathnesse. He says:—
"There is a lake in Ulster containing an island divided into two parts. In one of these stands a church of especial sanctity, and it is most agreeable and delightful, as well as beyond measure glorious for the visitations of angels and the multitude of the saints who visibly frequent it. The other part, being covered with rugged crags, is reported to be the resort of devils only, and to be almost always the theatre on which crowds of evil spirits visibly perform their rites. This part of the island contains nine pits, and should any one perchance venture to spend the night in one of them (which has been done, we know, at times, by some rash men), he is immediately seized by the malignant spirits, who so severely torture him during the whole night, inflicting on him such unutterable sufferings by fire and water, and other torments of various kinds, that when morning comes scarcely any spark of life is found left in his wretched body. It is said that any one who has once submitted to these torments as a penance imposed upon him, will not afterwards undergo the pains of hell, unless he commit some sin of a deeper dye.
"This place is called by the natives the Purgatory of St. Patrick. For he, having to argue with a heathen race concerning the torments of hell, reserved for the reprobate, and the real nature and eternal duration of the future life, in order to impress on the rude minds of the unbelievers a mysterious faith in doctrines so new, so strange, so opposed to their prejudices, procured by the efficacy of his prayers an exemplification of both states even on earth, as a salutary lesson to the stubborn minds of the people."
The ancient Irish believed in the possibility of the transformation of human beings into animals, and Giraldus in another narrative of facts purporting to have come under his personal notice proves that this belief had lost none of its significance with the Irish of the latter half of the twelfth century. The case is also interesting as being one of the first recorded examples of lycanthropy in the British Isles, and that must be our excuse for quoting it at some length.
"About three years before the arrival of Earl John in Ireland, it chanced that a priest, who was journeying from Ulster towards Meath, was benighted in a certain wood on the borders of Meath. While, in company with only a young lad, he was watching by a fire which he had kindled under the branches of a spreading tree, lo! a wolf came up to them, and immediately addressed them to this effect: 'Rest secure, and be not afraid, for there is no reason you should fear, where no fear is!' The travellers being struck with astonishment and alarm, the wolf added some orthodox words referring to God. The priest then implored him, and adjured him by Almighty God and faith in the Trinity, not to hurt them, but to inform them what creature it was in the shape of a beast uttered human words. The wolf, after giving catholic replies to all questions, added at last: 'There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form, and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their places, they return to their country and their former shape. And now, she who is my partner in this visitation lies dangerously sick not far from hence, and, as she is at the point of death, I beseech you, inspired by divine charity, to give her the consolations of your priestly office.'
"At this wood the priest followed the wolf trembling, as he led the way to a tree at no great distance, in the hollow of which he beheld a she-wolf, who under that shape was pouring forth human sighs and groans. On seeing the priest, having saluted him with human courtesy, she gave thanks to God, who in this extremity had vouchsafed to visit her with such consolation. She then received from the priest all the rites of the church duly performed, as far as the last communion. This also she importunately demanded, earnestly supplicating him to complete his good offices by giving her the viaticum. The priest stoutly asserting that he was not provided with it, the he-wolf, who had withdrawn to a short distance, came back and pointed out a small missal-book, containing some consecrated wafers, which the priest carried on his journey, suspended from his neck, under his garment, after the fashion of the country. He then intreated him not to deny them the gift of God, and the aid destined for them by Divine Providence; and, to remove all doubt, using his claw for a hand, he tore off the skin of the she-wolf, from the head down to the navel, folding it back. Thus she immediately presented the form of an old woman. The priest, seeing this, and compelled by his fear more than his reason, gave the communion; the recipient having earnestly implored it, and devoutly partaking of it. Immediately afterwards the he-wolf rolled back the skin and fitted it.to its original form.
"These rites having been duly, rather than rightly performed, the he-wolf gave them his company during the whole night at their little fire, behaving more like a man than a beast. When morning came, he led them out of the wood, and, leaving the priest to pursue his journey pointed out to him the direct road for a long distance. At his departure, he also gave him many thanks for the benefit he had conferred, promising him still greater returns of gratitude, if the Lord should call him back from his present exile, two parts of which he had already completed."
"It chanced, about two years afterwards, that I was passing through Meath, at the time when the bishop of that land had convoked a synod, having also invited the assistance of the neighbouring bishops and abbots, in order to have their joint counsels on what was to be done in the affair which had come to his knowledge by the priest's confession. The bishop, hearing that I was passing through those parts, sent me a message by two of his clerks, requesting me, if possible, to be personally present when a matter of so much importance was under consideration; but if I could not attend he begged me at least to signify my opinion in writing. The clerks detailed to me all the circumstances, which indeed I had heard before from other persons; and, as I was prevented by urgent business from being present at the synod, I made up for my absence by giving them the benefit of my advice in a letter. The bishop and synod, yielding to it, ordered the priest to appear before the pope with letters from them, setting forth what had occurred, with the priest's concession, to which instrument the bishops and abbots who were present at the synod affixed their seals."
"In our own time we have seen persons who, by magical arts, turned any substance about them into fat pigs, as they appeared (but they were always red), and sold them in the markets. However, they disappeared as soon as they crossed any water, returning to their real nature; and with whatever care they were kept, their assumed form did not last beyond three days. It has also been a frequent complaint, from old times as well as in the present, that certain hags in Wales, as well as in Ireland and Scotland changed themselves into the shape of hares, that, sucking teats under this counterfeit form, they might stealthily rob other people's milk."
In Anglo-Norman times sorcery was widely practised but notices are scarce. It is only by fugitive passages in the works of English writers who constantly animadvert against the superstitious nature and practices of the Irish that we glean any information concerning the occult history of the country. The great cause celebre of the Lady Alice Kyteler shook the entire Anglo-Norman colony during several successive years in the first half of the fourteenth century. The party of the Bishop of Ossory the relentless opponent of the Lady Alice, boasted that by her prosecution they had rid Ireland of a nest of sorcerers, but there is reason to believe that Ireland could have furnished numerous similar instances of black magic had the actors in them been of similar rank to the ill-fated lady—-that is of sufficient importance in the eyes of chroniclers.
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In this connection a work on Irish Witchcraft and Demonology by Mr. St. John D. Seymour (1913), is of striking and pregnant interest. We do not gather from it that Mr. Seymour had any previous general knowledge of the subject he handles before writing this book, and he appears to take it for granted that witchcraft in Ireland is purely an alien system, imported into the island by the Anglo-Normans and Scottish immigrants to the north. This undoubtedly is the case so far as the districts of the Pale and of Ulster are concerned, but surely it cannot be applied to the Celtic districts of Ireland. Regarding these Mr. Seymour is silent, but it will occur to most readers that the analogy of Celtic Scotland, which abounded in witches and witch-customs, is powerful evidence that a system similar to that in vogue in the Highlands obtained in the aboriginal districts of Ireland. Early Irish works contain numerous references to sorcery, and practices are chronicled in them which bear a close resemblance to those of the shamans and medicine-men of savage tribes all over the world. Animal transformation, one of the most common feats of the witch, is alluded to again and again in the ancient Irish cycles, and there are few heroes in Hibernian legend who have not a fair stock of working magic at their finger-ends. Wonder-working druids, too, abound. Mr. Seymour will have it that "In Celtic Ireland dealings with the unseen were not regarded with such abhorrence, and indeed had the sanction of custom and antiquity." He also states that "the Celtic element had its own superstitious beliefs, but these never developed in this direction" (the direction of Witchcraft). This is very difficult to believe. The lack of records of such a system is no criterion that it never existed, and we have not the least hesitation in saying that a thorough examination of the subject would prove that a veritable system of witchcraft obtained in Celtic Ireland as elsewhere, although it may not have been of "Celtic" origin.
Be that as it may, Mr. Seymour's book is most interesting as dealing with those Anglo-Norman and Scottish portions of Ireland where the belief in witchcraft followed the lines of those in vogue in the mother-countries of the immigrant populations. He sketches the cause celebre of the Kyteler case, touches on the circumstances connected with the Earl of Desmond and notes the case of the Irish prophetess who insisted upon warning the ill-fated James I. of Scotland on the night of his assassination at Perth. It is not stated by the ancient chronicler, quoted by Mr. Seymour, from what part of Ireland the witch in question emanated—for a witch she undoubtedly was as she possessed a familiar spirit, Huthart, whom she alleged had made her cognisant of the coming catastrophe. Mr. Seymour does not seem to be aware of the history of this spirit. He is the Teutonic Hudekin or Hildekin, the wearer of the hood, sometimes also alluded to as Hechdekin, well known throughout Germany and Flanders as a species of house-spirit or brownie. Trithemius alludes to him as a "spirit known to the Saxons who attached himself to the Bishop of Hildesheim" and we find him cropping up here and there in occult history. From this circumstance it might with justice be inferred that the witch in question came from some part of Ireland which had been settled by Teutonic immigrants, and more probably from Ulster, but the data is insufficient to permit us to conclude this definitely.
From the most scanty materials, Mr. Seymour has compiled a book of outstanding interest. He passes in review the witchcraft trials of the XVI. century, the burning of Adam Dubh, of the Leinster trial of O'Toole and College Green in 1327 for heresy, and the passing of the statute against witchcraft in Ireland in 1586. The prevalence of witchcraft in Ireland during the sixteenth century is proved by him to have been very great indeed, but a number of the authorities he cites, as to the existence of sorcerers in the Green Isle, almost certainly refer to the more Celtic portions of it; for example Rich and Stanihurst. He has an excellent note upon the enchantments of the Earl of Desmond who demonstrated to his young and beautiful wife the possibilities of animal transformation by changing himself into a bird, a hag, a vulture, and a gigantic serpent. Human relations with the Devil are dwelt upon at length by Mr. Seymour in a racy chapter, and we are told how he was cheated by a doctor of divinity and raised on occasion by certain sorcerers. Florence Newton, the witch of Youghal claims an entire chapter to herself, and worthily, for her case is one of the most absorbing in the history of witchcraft. At any rate, whatever her occult powers, she splendidly succeeded in setting a whole community by the ears. Ghostly doings and apparitions, fairy possession, and dealings with the 'wee folk' are also included in the volume; and Mr. Seymour has not confined himself to Ireland, but has followed one of his country-women to America, where he shows how she gave congenial employment to the fanatic Cotton Mather. Witchcraft notices of the seventeenth century in Antrim and Island Magee comprise the eighth chapter; and the ninth and last bring down the affairs of sorcery in Ireland from the year 1807 to the present day. The last notice is that of a trial for murder in 1911, when a wretched woman was tried for killing another—an old-age pensioner—in a fit of insanity. A witness deposed that he met the accused on the road on the morning of the crime holding a statue or figure in her hand, and repeating three times "I have the old witch killed. I got power from the Blessed Virgin to kill her." It appears that the witch quoted in question threatened to plague the murderess with rats and mice; a single rodent had evidently penetrated to her abode, and was followed by the bright vision of a lady who told the accused that she was in danger, and further informed her that if she received the old pensioner's pension-book without taking off her clothes and cleaning them and putting out her bed and cleaning up the house, she would "receive dirt for ever and rats and mice." This is not an isolated case, and shows how hard such superstitions die in the more remote portions of civilised countries.
We have reviewed Mr. Seymour's book at some length because it represents practically all that exists on the subject in question. But it would be interesting to see him further his researches by an examination into such of the native Irish records as exist. Such a course would most probably result in the rescue of a considerable amount of detail which would enable him to complete the occult history of his country.
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