From the Three Witches in Macbeth to the green-skinned Elfaba in West End’s Wicked, witches have been a source of curiosity for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. Whilst not many have warty noses and very few are crushed by falling houses from Kansas, real witches – of a type – still exist today. Wicca, for example, is a religion that welcomes the practice of magic but does not insist upon it. Modern witches ignite the imagination just as much today as their predecessors ever did. So, is magic to be revered? Or feared?
Witches in history and folklore
Although the Salem Witch trials – and Britain’s Agnes Sampson – are names that Witch-History Buffs will know well, others may not know about the more recent (1940’s) Helen Duncan.
The Story of Helen Duncan
Known as ‘Scotland’s Last Witch’, Helen Duncan came into the public eye during World War II. Locally believed to be a true medium, she drew the attention of the government when she revealed the sinking of the HMS Barham during a seance in November 1941. She claimed the spirit of a sailor aboard Barham told her what became of the ship and its crew.
Her tale posed a problem for the government, as the HMS Barham wasn’t reported as sunk to the public until January 1942, in order to ‘keep up national morale’. Understandably, the Navy began to take an interest in Duncan, and attended one of her seances under false pretences to see what Duncan was really like.
Initially arrested under the Vagrancy Act 1824, Duncan was later convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735 – one of the last people to be imprisoned under that law. The judge barred her from demonstration her powers in order to refute claims she was fraudulent and she was jailed for nine months.
A Political Opinion:
After hearing that Duncan had been convicted, Winston Churchill wrote a memo to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, complaining about the ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ of the charge.
Jinny Bingham a.k.a. Mother Red Cap
In the 1600s, there was a woman known locally as Mother Red Cap, or Mother Damnable. With such a name as the latter, it would be easy to believe she wasn’t popular in her neighbourhood – which was Camden, London. However, accounts of her life would suggest otherwise.
After losing her first lover, ‘Gypsy George’ at Tyburn for stealing sheep at Holloway, and both her parents for ‘magical murder’, Bingham lived with another man – who disappeared one day after they’d had a quarrel. A third lover, called Picher, was found in her oven, burned to a crisp. Tales of Hansel and Gretel aside, the circumstances of Picher’s death were suspicious, given Bingham’s history with romantic relationships. There was a trial, which surprisingly found her innocent. Witness claimed that Picher often hid from Bingham in the oven after they’d quarreled, and must have been burnt to death by accident.
After she was acquitted, Bingham became a recluse with a reputation as a witch, as she was often seen collecting berries and herbs at night. A fourth man came into her life during Civil War – a fugitive who later died of poisoning and left her a considerable fortune. Rumours that Bingham herself had poisoned the man could never be proved.
From then on, Bingham lived alone, and served her town by prescribing remedies, spells, or reading fortunes. It is said that she was friends with Moll Cutpurse, (Mary Frith) the cross-dressing pickpocket and highwaywoman of London. (See also: The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker).
When Bingham was found dead, she was still clutching her teapot, which was filled with a liquid that, when fed to her cat, made its fur fall out and die within two hours. Another woman then took Bingham’s place as Mother Red Cap, and turned her home into a tavern where she brewed particularly strong ale. She called it The Mother Red Cap, after Bingham, and there has been a pub on that spot ever since. It is now called something Londoners may more readily recognise: The World’s End.
Strange but true
As recently as May 2013, Swasiland launched a crackdown on high-flying witches, banning them from riding their broomsticks above 150 metres. Anyone caught flying their broomstick above the height limit faces arrest and a hefty R500,000 fine.
Something not so wicked…
Although there are less flattering myths about the uses of witch’s broom, my favourite is rather pleasant. Sweeping the threshold from East to West with a broom would banish the negative and evil spirits from a home, and protect the family within. This, coupled with the ceremonial burning of sage in a house is said to purify the air and keep anyone within its walls safe from harm.