c 1662

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The Undomestic Witch: Scottish Witches, Fairies and Old Religion from Sussex Folktale Centre

Key Question of the Paper: “To what extent can we see the undomestic aspects of their confessions, their detees, as evidence for what we might designate a’ pre-Christian, folkloric, even Pagan, substrate operating beneath and also within the world of medieval, late medieval Christianity to which they also plainly adhere?”

While it’s a bit old by academic standards (+5 years), this is a wonderful talk about the relationship between witches, the fae, and the woods. 

In particular, this talk discusses ‘undomestic witches’, “who are exceptions within the trial literature,” namely Andrew Man (c. 1597), Marian Grant (c. 1597), and Isobel Gowdie (c. 1662).

Diane Purkiss speaks about how within the Scottish sources, the interrogator and kirk believed that all witchcraft was the work of the devil. As such, the figure of the Devil actually includes the Queen of Faerie and assorted other spirits. Basically, the importance of the Devil to early modern witches may have been an outsider perspective and not as authentic to the experiences of the contemporary peoples, at least those who may have actually treated with spirits. While Purkiss does not say Margaret Murray’s research was without serious fault, but rather that the situation within late medieval Scotland was very complex and that there was likely some pagan or folkloric elements woven into contemporary Christian beliefs and practices. Witches likely considered themselves as Catholics, not pagans. 

In watching this talk, I would like to emphasise that deer, the woods, fecundity, and the like were all literal contemporary concerns of these people that may have been brought into/mirrored by the folklore from which they themselves draw. In addition, sex happening outside the house as opposed to within the house also has its practical benefits when one considers that privacy wasn’t really a thing. Also, sex outside can be fun in its own right. That’s why sex and the woods appear both in witchy sources and simple secular ballads. Still, the Queen of Faerie often represents unrestrained female desire as she is able to “lay with whomever she desires.”

Likewise, it is incredibly important to remember that forests are managed land and they are not wild, old growth forests that Americans and some Continental Europeans may be used to. Forests simply meant land that “wasn’t designated for the plow.”As such, the appearance of forests and stags within witchcraft folklore likely represents some of the contemporary economic concerns about common land and the like. 

My main issue with the talk, which again I enjoyed, is that the author does not give an explicit definition of the what she means by undomestic. Taking in the context of her talk and her emphasis on Christ-Sunday, undomestic in this talk does not mean wild per se, but simply witches that sit or operate outside of the domestic sphere. Quite literally un-domestic; their relationship to the supernatural is not related to the domestic, that is the family or home. Granted, while Isobel Gowdie does treat with the Devil and the Queen of Faerie, she does a great deal of cursing of the local laird’s family. 

Final note: this is a talk within the academic discipline of Folklore, so the author is drawing from thousands of years of sources. So keep that in mind. She also isn’t saying that witches must be undomestic, but just that some were. She’s cautious about her conclusions as her main interest (which is stated at the end), is: what stories survive throughout the ages and why do some die and others live on in folklore. 

Witches maybe boundary walkers by being somewhat counter-culture by their very existence, but that doesn’t mean they have to be wild.