30 June 2010


Emma Wilby. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth Century Scotland. Sussex Academic Press, 2010

One of the insights that our study of contemporary visions and beliefs has brought is that past traditions may not just be based on literary tradition, but instead founded on actual experience, or remembered experience.
If modern abductees and others claim to have actually experienced fantastic journeys, might not those who claimed to have attended witches sabbats have had actual 'virtual experiences' of attending them, rather just repeating what interrogators told them or constructing images from stories they had heard?

Emma Wilby takes just such a line, in this exceptionally detailed study of the confessions of the 17th century Scots peasant woman, Isobel Gowdie. Wilby places these confessions and the stories contained within them in the detailed background of their time and culture. She examines the various influences which have been brought to bear, events in Isobel's lifetime (the shattering impact of the civil wars for example), the religious atmosphere of harsh Calvinism, the still often partly-Catholic, partly-'pagan' folk beliefs, the harsh daily lives of the people, the conditions of various members of the community, the role of interrogators etc. etc. She builds up a jigsaw of elements that go to construct Isobel's visionary experiences and memories.

For her, Isobel is at the very least a story teller, the sort of adept of narration so essential in pre-literate communities; a performer whose performance under interrogation may have been literally a performance of a lifetime. Beyond that, Wilby sees her as part of a shamanic tradition, which manifested in this time and place primarily through the fairy faith. This tradition is rooted in the 'secret night journey', in which people believe that while they are apparently lying in bed asleep, either in body or spirit they are engaged in various adventures. She points to several versions of this tradition such as the benandanti of Friuli as described by Carlo Ginzburg, or the Corsican Mazzeri as described by Dora Carrington, or to the persistent notion of the female night journey in the company of the Lady of the Night under various names. A darker version of this host was the Wild Hunt or the fairy sluagh.

Wilby examines the role of charms and curses within the community, and their connection with a 'shamanic' tradition; arguing that malevolent shamanism has been much more widespread than the politically-correct, touchy-feely, planet-loving revisionism by contemporary Westerners would suggest. She also examines the impact of the Christian idea of the personal covenant and marriage with Christ as influencing notions of demonic pacts. She also notes how the idea of Christ or the Archangel Michael as divine warriors could have influenced Gowdie's visions of killing her enemies with fairy arrows.

In the time in which Gowdie lived all unauthorised spiritual visions, even by the most pious, were suspect, visions which incorporates much folk material and which may have had not altogether touchy-feely aims would have been doubly damned. That these visions brought comfort and warmth meant little, for warmth and comfort counted for little in the world of the Calvinist elite.

Wilby considers whether Gowdie could indeed have believed that she served the Christian devil, and considers she might, through that figure may have been a much vaguer and more ambiguous figure than that envisaged by official ideology. We can perhaps go even further. Wilby compares the Presbyterian Church with its rigid repression of folk beliefs as a sort of colonial occupying force. That really does not go far enough; the Calvinist ideology of the Covenantors was one of the most demented ideologies that human beings have ever imagined. It was a totalitarian creed which combined the worst excesses of Stalinism and the Taliban in one package.

To these puritans everything that made human beings human - joy, love, sex, food, music, dance, delight in the natural world, enjoyment - were sins. Human beings were just not good enough, they must be crushed down and forged into New Model people, transhumans to use the modern in-phrase. This ideology, like that of the Taliban, seems to have emerged in response to chaotic times. The world was just getting too wild and a strong fortress of habitat and structure was needed to keep the wilderness at bay. Of course when structures become too tight, then all daylight is shut out and the fortress becomes a dungeon.

That is what the official ideology was doing, trapping the people in a spiritual dungeon, where every single thing that made ordinary human life tolerable was demonised and denounced. If words have any meaning then this official ideology was objectively and radically evil; and the totalitarian God whom it forged in its own image, who created millions or billions of people for the sole purpose of torturing them for ever and ever was a God of radical evil. If the official ideology worships a God of radical evil, then whatever spiritual force it proclaims as its enemy is going to be envisioned as the people's protector and the force of good. This 'devil' to Isobel and her people may well have been the 'old' God the Father or Jesus or Michael of gentler times.

In these times the people may well have little faith in the official heaven (as boring as the Kirk perhaps) and look towards the Elfame, which rather like Cockayne or the Big Rock Candy Mountain was a peasants' and workers' paradise in which all physical needs were met, a place of "joyous fairies" - a sort of early modern vision of the consumer society.

Unable to physically fight the oppressive apparatus it might well be that people like Isobel became 'warriors of the imagination', fantasising about taking down the rich and powerful. This may well have been a very morally ambiguous vision, or perhaps better still a wholly amoral one, reflecting the capricious forces of wild nature which need constant appeasement.

Whether this means that Isobel was a member of a 'dark shamanistic cult' is a little more moot, and at times in does seem as though Wilby can erect huge towers of speculation on minimal evidence. The other cavil I have of this book is that while it fashioned around Isobel's confessions these are only presented in 17th Century Scots, rendering them virtually inaccessible to many readers. It would have helped to have a modern translation, if only in the endnotes.

These quibbles should not blind to us to the realisation that this is a very important study of visionary experience and many of Wilby's arguments will have application far beyond studies of 17th century witchcraft. As Magonia readers know, visionary experience, the spontaneous imagination, 'virtual experience', or whatever you want to call it, is alive and well, though its contents are very different. -- Peter Rogerson

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I have never thought about, really, but it makes a whole lot of sense.
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