WITCH-FAMILIARS AND STORM-RAISERS

I reached out absent-mindedly towards my green filing tray – the one with the hundreds of scraps of paper – ideas for all those totally awesome and stupendous future blog posts. But my hand landed upon a sleeping tabby, and something about her sleepingness was saying Wake me if you dare!

So I picked up instead a book I’ve been meaning to examine in more detail for some time now. It’s a huge, weighty, falling-to-bitsy book with a detached spine and no dust-jacket, published in 1973 by the Reader’s Digest Association: Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. Various authors, artists and contributors.

I have been sleuthing around for this particular treasure for some time because I suspect it may be the book given to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull by his American manager one long-ago rural hippie Christmas, and which subsequently inspired the weird, atmospheric collection of songs that became Songs from the Wood (1977). It’s impossible to know for certain since the CD booklet notes – as might be expected from a 70s prog-rock band – are somewhat artsy-fartsy and airy-fairy – but I believe it may well be. I know – I’m a little old sad person. Things like that interest me.

It’s possible that Ian Anderson never so much as dipped a pointy nose into this volume or followed its tiny text with a pointy fingernail, or stood on one leg and played the flute in the same room as one of its cousins – but I like it in any case. It’s inspiring: a treasure trove of the weird and the arcane – of history, legend, rumour and tall tales. And lots of lovely pictures. You could build an entire writing career around this one volume, if you happened to have a whole writing career in front of you. Unfortunately, I don’t.

So, I turn to the index and find a creased orange postit-note pencilled Cats. References I had earmarked for just such an emergency – when a tabbycat snores in the post-tray.

The first reference to moggies is this one, on page 44:

Witches were once said to disguise themselves as cats, and many people refused to talk near a cat, for fear that a witch would learn their secrets.

Cats were regarded as the most common of witch-familiars. Puss would advise his mistress and run malicious errands for her. Their lives were thought to be so intertwined that if the cat was wounded the witch would be wounded in a similar fashion.

Cats, unlike dogs and horses, are said to be fond of ghosts, purring whenever they meet them. Cats can predict the wind or even, some say, raise it by clawing at carpets and curtains. When a cat washes its ears or sneezes, rain is sure to come, and if a cat sneezes near a bride on her wedding morning she will have a happy marriage.

Black cats are mostly believed to be lucky, although in Yorkshire (they always have to be different in Yorkshire) it is lucky to own one but unlucky to happen upon one by accident. White cats, unlike white horses, are usually said to bring bad luck.

Then of course there is the Cheshire Cat. Lewis Carroll’s Alice met a version of him in Wonderland. It had the ability to melt away into invisibility leaving only its grin behind. However, the common saying “to grin like a Cheshire Cat” was around long before Carroll picked up on it. Some say that Cheshire cheese used to be decorated with the head of a cat, others that the expression comes from the open-mouthed wolf-heads on the arms of the 11th Century Earl of Chester.

There is the story of the Doctor’s Devils. Gustavus Katterfelto, an 18th Century conjuror and quack who toured England dispensing worthless flu cures at five shillings a bottle. He made a grand entrance to each town in an antique horse-drawn carriage with two ‘negro servants’ in coloured livery parading through the streets and blowing trumpets. He kept two black cats with him at all times. These were known as the Doctor’s Devils although, sensibly, Gustavus always denied that they were of diabolical origin.

Witches were supposed to ride to their Sabbats on broomsticks, and in illustrations are often shown with a cat perched on front or back of the broomstick. However, the Cornwath witches, executed in 1664, claimed to have ridden upon ‘cats, cockerels and bundles of straw’.

At the first major English trial for witchcraft, in Chelmsford in the year 1566, Agnes Waterhouse, her daughter Joan and Elizabeth Francis, all from Hatford Peverell, were accused of each possessing in turn a black cat named Satan. Cat Satan was said to talk in a strange, hollow voice and occasionally assume the shape of a toad or a black dog. For each of his services to her Agnes was said to have paid him a drop of her blood: her face was said to be marked by spots where Cat Satan had sucked blood from it. She then apparently gave Satan to the other two defendants, for whom he was said to have spoilt butter and cheese (decked out for the occasion in an ape’s head and a pair of horns with a silver whistle about his neck), drowned a neighbour’s cows and bewitched a man to death.

How foolish and dangerous we all were, and how close even now to such beliefs. All those foolish, innocent girls and women killed. And I try not to imagine what must have happened through the witch-finding years, to those cats that just happened to have been born the wrong colour, at the wrong time, fed by the wrong woman in the wrong village or condemned by a sinister name.

I have dwelt at some length on the worship of trees…

And dwell at some length he does, throughout the whole of Chapter IX (The Worship of Trees) and Chapter X (Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe).

In England the best-known example of these leaf-clad mummers is the Jack-in-the-Green, a chimney-sweeper who walks encased in a pyramidal framework of wickerwork, which is covered with holly and ivy, and surmounted by a crown of flowers and ribbons. Thus arrayed he dances on May Day at the head of a troop of chimney-sweeps, who collect pence. In Fricktal a similar frame of basketwork is called the Whitsuntide Basket. As soon as the trees begin to bud, a spot is chosen in the wood, and here the village lads make the frame with all secrecy, lest others should forestall them.

This is the unmistakeable voice of Sir James George Frazer (1854 – 1941), regarded as one of the forefathers of modern anthropology and the author of The Golden Bough, a twelve-volume monster Study of Magic and Religion. Having, between the years 1890 and 1915, published his twelve huge volumes Sir George set about abridging them, to make his work available to a wider audience. The copy I have is a second-hand £1.99 Wordsworth Classic abridgement, but it still runs to 756 pages of teensy-tiny print. Love it! The paper is cheap and thin, and gloriously toasted at the edges. It smells like dust and vanilla. Love vanilla!

Some of his stories of mankind’s superstitious doings are almost too painful to read nowadays, let alone quote – like the burning of cats in bonfires on the first Sunday in Lent, in some cases hanging them over the fire from the end of a pole and roasting them alive. Without a qualm, I would have roasted the roasters alive. Others are more lyrical:

Halloween, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old a time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinsfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside. Did not the lowing kine then troop back from the summer pastures in the forests and on the hills to be fed and cared for in the stalls, while the bleak winds whistled among the swaying boughs and the snow-drifts deepened in the hollows? And could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?

It’s… it’s Biblical. Bleak winds whistling among swaying boughs and snow-drifts deepening in the hollows – the very essence of winter.

The Golden Bough is one of those books that, for the omnivorous reader, have a tendency to keep cropping up, along with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (don’t have) and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (have). I was always meaning to get hold of it and see what it was all about, but somehow I never did. Then quite recently I was seized by the idea of writing fantasy in earnest, rather than just dabbling. Fantasy, I suspect, is my mind’s default setting. The Partners of the law firm for which I used to work classified me as Not really with-it, but unique, according to a female colleague. For an instant I was flattered, and then I hated her. (Always the reaction to being bitten by an arch-bitch.) But what to write fantasy about? I was not inclined to be inspired by elves, since it was they who had been stealing my mother away in instalments, and had latterly substituted one of their own, a grouchy elder elfling far past its prime. So I decided to do some ‘reading around’, and The Golden Bough is part of that.

One of the great merits of homeopathic magic is that it enables the cure to be performed on the person of the doctor instead of on that of the victim, who is thus relieved of all trouble and inconvenience, while he sees his medical man writhe in anguish before him. For example, the peasants of Perche, in France, labour under the impression that a prolonged fit of vomiting is brought about by the patient’s stomach becoming unhooked, as they call it, and so falling down. Accordingly, a practitioner is called in to restore the organ to its proper place. After hearing the symptoms he at once throws himself into the most horrible contortions, for the purpose of unhooking his own stomach…

I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of a book of British Myths and Legends, which I think may be the one that inspired Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) to write his 1977 album Songs from the Wood. Tiresomely, the spindly prog-rocker failed to quote the exact title of the book in his CD booklet, only saying that was given to him as a present one Christmas in East Anglia, Buckinghamshire or somewhere else rural and folksy, by Joe Lustig, his American ‘press and promo guy’. I wanted that same book – felt I just had to have it – and spent a long time on Amazon scrolling down lists of folklore and legend books, eliminating those published post 1977. Not that I’m a nerd…

I am hoping that these two books, together, will inspire me to write the best-selling fourteen-novel fantasy saga which will save my bacon, financially. You can never have too much inspiration when there is bacon to be saved.

…Hence, from the primitive point of view, it is perfectly possible that a savage should have one soul in his sex totem and another in his clan totem. However, as I have observed, sex totems have been found nowhere but in Australia; so that as a rule the savage who practises totemism need not have more than one soul out of his body at a time.

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Frazer was a social anthropologist, and his genius was to do two things – to collect, obsessively, more or less everything ever written in the way of superstitions, rituals and legends, and then to notice and explain, lucidly, the connections between them. He also possesses a dry sense of humour. He actually got into trouble for placing the story of Jesus and the Resurrection on an equal footing with ‘legends and superstitions’ rather than making a special case for Christianity. He implied, for example that the idea of the Lamb of God might be a relic of a pagan tradition and pointed out that the dates of many Christian festivals coincided with those of prehistoric pagan rituals. This doesn’t seem particularly outlandish now but it shocked many of his readers to the core. As a result, in subsequent editions his work was watered down and censored.

Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, being fed on choice and pure food. At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments, decked with holy branches, and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then cast out of the city and stoned to death by the people outside of the walls. The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcasts as scapegoats. One of the victims was sacrificed for the men and the other for the women. The former wore round his neck a string of black, the latter a string of white figs.

The Golden Bough was to influence subsequent generations of writers, poets and thinkers including T S Eliot (The Waste Land), W B Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium), H P Lovecraft, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D H Lawrence, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud.