Edinburgh University project geo-locates victims of Scottish 'witch-prickers' in the 16th and 17th century.
Proof of godliness
Hotspots of witchery in Central Scotland.
Image: Accused Witches Map project, Edinburgh University.
Looking for a witch but don't know where to find one? This map will help. It pins more than 3,000 people accused of witchcraft to a map of Scotland. It's the Grand Register of Scottish Witchcraft that you never knew you needed.
But only if your interest is purely academic. You can't call or write them to cast a spell on your behalf, because they're all dead and gone. And not just because many were executed. This Map of Accused Witches geo-locates the entries in the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database (SoSW), which covers the period between 1563 and 1736.Those years bookend a very specific period:
- In 1563, the Scottish Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, which made witchcraft a capital crime.
- And in 1735, another Witchcraft act, this time passed by the Parliament in Westminster, made it a crime to accuse others of having magical powers or of practicing witchcraft, throughout the whole of Britain (including Scotland).
Mark of the Devil
Places of residence of accused witches in the Greater Edinburgh area.
Image: Accused Witches Map project, Edinburgh University.
In that period, more than 3,200 people were publicly accused of being witches in Scotland. Whether motivated by religious zeal or naked opportunism, witch-hunting was pursued with remarkably more fervor in Scotland than in England.
The alleged witches in the database defy the stereotypes that later times have conferred on them. They are neither all female (15% were men), nor particularly old (half were under 40). They were also not typically widowed, nor all poor outsiders (most were 'middle class', some were nobility), nor generally practitioners of folk medicine (only about 4%).
A conviction could result from confessions – by the suspects or by other witches – or if the Devil's mark was found on the body of the suspect. The Devil was believed to 'mark' his followers when they made their pact with him, detectable either as a visible blemish or an insensitive spot. 'Witch-prickers' used pins and knives to find those spots, and thus identify the suspects as actual witches. There are known to have been at least 10 professional itinerant witch-prickers in Scotland at the time.
Torture and death
23 witches were executed at Castle Hill in Edinburgh, four more just down the road, at Mercat Cross (to the right).
Image: Accused Witches Map project, Edinburgh University.
One of the most effective and most frequently used forms of torture used on accused witches was sleep deprivation; it leads to hallucinations, which is a very helpful tool for obtaining confessions. Physical torture was relatively rare.
Only for a relatively small sample – 55 cases – are methods of torture mentioned, which included: forcing the accused to wear haircloth, whipping them, binding them with ropes, hanging them by their thumbs, placing them in iron and stocks, putting them in cashielaws (a.k.a. the 'warm hose': iron leg encasings which were heated until the legs began to roast).
And only in 305 of the 3,212 cases in the database is the sentence known:
- 205 were executed,
- 52 acquitted,
- 27 banished,
- 11 declared fugitive,
- 6 excommunicated,
- 2 'put to the horn' (i.e. outlawed),
- 1 kept in prison and
- 1 publicly humiliated.
A further 98 fled from prosecution. The first figure above seems to suggest that about two thirds were executed. For the entire group, that would mean more than 2,000 witches executed. But researchers say the sample is too small and atypical for that kind of conclusion.
Journey of a witch-pricker
John Kincaid was mainly active around Edinburgh, but ventured as far south as Newcastle, in England, and as far north as Brechin. There, in April 1650, Kincaid found the devil's mark on the body of Catharin Walker. She had been accused of unorthodox religious practise. And it was said she had kicked a man in the groin who had subsequently died; that people suffered after she quarrelled with them; and that she had confessed to having suffocated and poisoned her own children. She did not immediately confess, but in prison admitted that she had pacted with the Devil, in the shape of a cat.
Image: Accused Witches Map project, Edinburgh University.
In order to unlock the data contained in the SoSW database, the University of Edinburgh in 2018-19 launched a project to locate and visualise the various places it recorded. It was the first time this dataset of alleged Scottish witches had been geo-located so exhaustively.
Mid-2019, Emma Carroll, a Geology and Physical Geography undergraduate student, was taken on board as 'witchfinder general': to locate the witches on the map of Scotland. "Before the internship I had barely even heard of Haddington and now I know that it is the witch capital of Scotland," she remarked on the blog detailing her progress.
Carroll had to find locations for which the name or spelling had changed dramatically, or which had disappeared off the map altogether. Her detective work involved scouring old, detailed Ordnance Survey maps and even older maps of Scotland, contemporary to the witch trials, including the Blaeu Atlas of Scotland (1654).
Carroll's work consisted not only of geo-locating the places of residence, detainment, trial and (if applicable) execution for the accused, but also of pinpointing locations for the more around 2,000 other people associated with the trials – ministers, sheriffs, and others.
The detective work also shed some new light on some of the cases, like that of Marie Nian Innes, of the Isle of Skye. The fact that she was accused of witchcraft may have had more to do with local politics; specifically, with the new local clan chief Ranald attempting to assert his authority.
Carroll prepared various maps based on the information at her disposal, including one 'story map', on John Kincaid, "a notoriously evil witch-pricker" from Tranent. Kincaid was involved in 17 cases - in one of which he was the accused.
The North Berwick Witch Trials
Devil's sermon and witches' brew - one of the few contemporary illustrations of Scottish witchcraft.
Image: British Library - public domain
One of the focal points of the map is North Berwick, which was the scene in 1590-91 of the infamous North Berwick Witch Trials, presided over by King James IV of Scotland himself. The trials were discussed in the anonymous pamphlet Newes from Scotland, published in London in 1591. It contains the only contemporary illustrations of Scottish witchcraft. One of them is this woodcut (above), which shows:
- A group of witches (center) listening to a sermon by the Devil (left) at North Berwick church on Halloween of the year 1590. Haddington schoolmaster John Fian (in between) is acting as the witches' clerk.
- A ship sunk by witchcraft (top left). Local witches were accused of raising the storm that had troubled the North Sea voyage of Anne of Denmark, bride of King James (later also King James I of England). Although none of the ships in that party was sunk, witches were accused of sinking a ferry in the Forth, and a ship named Grace of God at North Berwick itself.
- Witches stirring a cauldron. Boilerplate witchery, not directly related to any accusations in the witch hunts of 1590-91.
- A pedlar (right) discovers witches in Tranent, and is then magically transported to a wine-cellar in Bordeaux, France (bottom right).
Macbeth's three weird sisters, as imagined (ca. 1783) by the painter Henry Fuseli.
Image: public domain
Written a few years before he authorised the Bible translation with which King James has become synonymous, Daemonologie contains three philosophical dialogues that deal with demons, magic, sorcery and witchcraft. The work explains why it is right that witches should be persecuted in a Christian society.
It is thought that Shakespeare used Daemonologie as source material for Macbeth (1606) – set in Scotland and featuring three Weird Sisters – witches whose rituals and quotes would not altogether have been out of place in Newes of Scotland.
Daemonologie influenced later witchfinders (and their manuals), including Richard Bernard (A Guide to Grand-Jury Men, 1629) and Matthew Hopkins (The Discovery of Witches, 1647).
A witch in the garden
Image: © JThomas, geograph.co.uk - CC BY-SA 2.0
Women had been persecuted as witches for much longer than the period described by this map; but its end date coincides with the end of government-sanctioned witch-hunting.
Executed in 1722, Janet Horne was the last person to be legally killed for witchcraft in Scotland – and in fact the entire British Isles.
Janet, who was showing signs of senility, and her daughter, who suffered from deformities on her hands and feet, were turned in to the authorities by their neighbors.
They accused Janet of riding her daughter to the Devil, to have him shod her like a pony. Both mother and daughter were quickly found guilty by the local sheriff, who sentenced them to be burned at the stake.
The daughter managed to escape, but Janet was stripped, tarred, paraded through town and burned alive. The Witchstone, in the private garden of a house in Carnaig Street in Dornoch (Sutherland) still marks the presumed spot of her execution.
Strange Maps #1016
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Religion influences politics more now than it did 50 years ago. Are we going forward or backward?
Religion influences politics more now than it did 50 years ago. To help explain how we moved seemingly backward from global secularism to increased religious involvement in public policy, Professor of International Politics Monica Duffy Toft explains the threefold story of failed modernization, democratization, and globalization, and how they propelled religious figures and ideas into the political arena once again. Monica Duffy Toft's work at the Center for Strategic Studies is made possible through funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.
The death of God didn’t strike Nietzsche as an entirely good thing. Without a God, the basic belief system of Western Europe was in jeopardy.
It’s been 134 years since Friedrich Nietzsche declared: “God is Dead” (or Gott ist tot, in German), giving philosophy students a collective headache that’s lasted from the 19th century until today. It is, perhaps, one of the best known statements in all of philosophy, well known even to those who have never picked up a copy of The Gay Science, the book from which it originates. But do we know exactly what he meant? Or perhaps more importantly, what it means for us?
Nietzsche was an atheist for his adult life and didn’t mean that there was a God who had actually died, rather that our idea of one had. After the Enlightenment, the idea of a universe that was governed by physical laws and not by divine providence was now reality. Philosophy had shown that governments no longer needed to be organized around the idea of divine right to be legitimate, but rather by the consent or rationality of the governed — that large and consistent moral theories could exist without reference to God. This was a tremendous event. Europe no longer needed God as the source for all morality, value, or order in the universe; philosophy and science were capable of doing that for us. This increasing secularization of thought in the West led the philosopher to realize that not only was God dead but that human beings had killed him with their scientific revolution, their desire to better understand the world.
The death of God didn’t strike Nietzsche as an entirely good thing. Without a God, the basic belief system of Western Europe was in jeopardy, as he put it in Twilight of the Idols: “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole.”
Nietzsche thought this could be a good thing for some people, saying: “... at hearing the news that 'the old god is dead', we philosophers and 'free spirits' feel illuminated by a new dawn.” A bright morning had arrived. With the old system of meaning gone a new one could be created, but it came with risks—ones that could bring out the worst in human nature. Nietzsche believed that the removal of this system put most people at the risk of despair or meaninglessness. What could the point of life be without a God? Even if there was one, the Western world now knew that he hadn’t placed us at the centre of the universe, and it was learning of the lowly origin from which man had evolved. We finally saw the true world. The universe wasn’t made solely for human existence anymore. Nietzsche feared that this understanding of the world would lead to pessimism, “a will to nothingness” that was antithetical to the life-affirming philosophy Nietzsche prompted.
His fear of nihilism and our reaction to it was shown in The Will to Power, when he wrote that: "What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism... For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe." He would not have been surprised by the events that plagued Europe in the 20th century. Communism, Nazism, Nationalism, and the other ideologies that made their way across the continent in the wake of World War I sought to provide man with meaning and value, as a worker, as an Aryan, or some other greater deed; in a similar way as to how Christianity could provide meaning as a child of God, and give life on Earth value by relation to heaven. While he may have rejected those ideologies, he no doubt would have acknowledged the need for the meaning they provided.
Of course, as Nietzsche saw this coming, he offered us a way out. The creation of our own values as individuals. The creation of a meaning of life by those who live it. The archetype of the individual who can do this has a name that has also reached our popular consciousness: the Übermensch. Nietzsche however, saw this as a distant goal for man and one that most would not be able to reach. The Übermensch, which he felt had yet to exist on Earth, would create meaning in life by their will alone, and understand that they are, in the end, responsible for their selection. As he put it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred yes is needed: the spirit now wills his own will." Such a bold individual will not be able to point to dogma or popular opinion as to why they value what they do.
Having suggested the rarity and difficulty in creating the Übermensch, Nietzsche suggested an alternative response to Nihilism, and one that he saw as the more likely to be selected; The Last Man. A “most contemptible thing” who lives a quiet life of comfort, without thought for individuality or personal growth as: "'We have discovered happiness,' -- say the Last Men, and they blink." Much to the disappointment of Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, the people whom he preaches to beg him for the lifestyle of The Last Man, suggesting his pessimism on our ability to handle God’s death.
But you might ask, if God has been dead for so long and we are supposed to be suffering for knowing it, where are all the atheists? Nietzsche himself provided an answer: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.” Perhaps we are only now seeing the effects of Nietzsche’s declaration.
Indeed, atheism is on the march, with near majorities in many European countries and newfound growth across the United States heralding a cultural shift. But, unlike when atheism was enforced by the communist nations, there isn’t necessarily a worldview backing this new lack of God, it is only the lack. Indeed, British philosopher Bertrand Russell saw Bolshevism as nearly a religion unto itself; it was fully capable and willing to provide meaning and value to a population by itself. That source of meaning without belief is gone.
As many atheists know, to not have a god without an additional philosophical structure providing meaning can be a cause of existential dread. Are we at risk of becoming a society struggling with our own meaninglessness? Are we as a society at risk for nihilism? Are we more vulnerable now to ideologies and conmen who promise to do what God used to do for us and society? While Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the future, the non-religious are less so than the religious. It seems Nietzsche may have been wrong in the long run about our ability to deal with the idea that God is dead.
As Alain de Botton suggests about our values, it seems that we have managed to deal with the death of God better than Nietzsche had thought we would; we are not all the Last Men, nor have we descended into a situation where all morality is seen as utterly relative and meaningless. It seems that we have managed to create a world where the need for God is reduced for some people without falling into collective despair or chaos.
Are we as individuals up to the task of creating our own values? Creating meaning in life by ourselves without aid from God, dogma, or popular choice? Perhaps some of us are, and if we understand the implications of the death of God we stand a better chance of doing so. The despair of the death of God may give way to new meaning in our lives; for as Jean-Paul Sartre suggested "life begins on the other side of despair."
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Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. "The Meaning of Our Cheerfulness." The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. N. pag. Print.
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