Tag Archives: witchcraft

Ancestral Journeys: Religion and Belief in Colonial America

We often get a view of the early Americans as a very puritanical peoples, likened to the caricature of various fundie groups that most of us today might very well have “heard all about”, or seen in some movie or on tv, but few of us have ever actually met or been forced to live among.

Certainly there were some of those back then too of course.

Nevertheless, the age that carried the first Europeans to pioneer North America, was one of great religious upheaval, of the kind that produces extremes at ends both conservative and liberal. Early Protestant surveys of rural districts in Germany reported that the folk were entirely given over to “superstitious practices”, which were no doubt a folkish evolution of the same “Germanic Santeria” that their ancestors had been converted to centuries earlier. And we are certainly familiar with many of the folktales, charms, and customs of the English, which, were their origin was clearly not among the learned, can likewise be assumed to have been holdovers of earlier layers of beliefs (Danish, Norse, Anglo-Saxon) that were no less a part of their own “Anglo-Nordic Santeria” that their own ancestors were converted to centuries prior.

Thomas Morton, while seemingly more a rascal looking to flip off the his puritan neighbours than any kind of believer, erected the first May Pole in North America in the 1630s. The early German settlers of Pennsylvania brought their “Germanic Santeria” with them from the old country, with the German edition of the tome “Long Lost Friend” by John George Hohman’s seeing first publication in 1820. Within a decade of that came the birth of Mormonism, with its highly mystical origins, and the known use of “folk magic” by its founder Joseph Smith. Indeed, by 1897 roughly 14% of the U.S.A.’s 72 million citizens, which is slightly more than 10 million people were reckoned “Spiritualists” with strong beliefs in the spirits of the dead and the ability of some to commune with them!

Not exactly a community of religious prudes, taken as a whole of course.

Indeed, my own ancestor, Edward Dimond, was born 1641, some 51 year before the Salem with hysteria of 1692, and just a short jaunt down the road from Salem in Marblehead, where he came to be renowned as the “Wizard of Marblehead”. It is said that he could often be found wandering among the graveyard at night and muttering to himself. Nevertheless, he was beloved by (most of) the folk, whatever else anyone else might have thought of him, for his bewitching of petty criminals and the magical assistance he reportedly lent to sailors in trouble at sea.

While the hysteria of 1692 did not turn a blind eye to Marblehead, it nevertheless left the Wizard untouched.

Speaking of “religious hysteria”: while 1692 was clearly hysterical and boasted 185 out of the total 308 witchcraft trials that took place in British North America since 1642, it nevertheless witnessed a mere 19 convictions resulting in death. In contrast the remaining 123 witch trials witnessed 37 convictions leading to death. In other words the case of the Salem witch-hunts as a gross, religion-driven travesty of justice, and Anglo-America as religiously intolerant to the core, is profoundly over-stated.

We might also keep in mind that it is not only the accusation of malevolent witchcraft that is (potentially) malicious, but also at times its practice; as our preChristian ancestors very well knew themselves. In fact, one need but look over at present day Africa to see the gross indecencies engaged in both to combat witchcraft, but also in observance of it.

They were not a bunch of promiscuous goddess worshipping college girls back then after all.

My great grandmother, Eva Lott, her great-great-great-great grandfather, was Edward Dimond Junior. He was baptized in 1687 and (formally) adopted into the Dimond kindred ten years after the end of (the brutal) Metacom’s War (1677). He was, either in whole or in part — ie. Edward Dimond Sr. “might only” be a spiritual ancestor — of the Naumkeag-Wampanoag population based upon the best available (DNA) evidence. Whatever the case, and to the point, his brother was Aholiab Dimond, who was himself the father of the famous 18th century Anglo-American seeress Moll (Dimond) Pitcher.

Moll was a classic Anglo-Nordic seeress of the caliber of Veleda as mentioned in Tacitus’ 1st century AD work Germania. Her gifts were not only sought after and praised among the common folk, but also by the wealthy and powerful, and it is said that not a ship would leave harbour without first receiving the blessing of her visions. She was in fact so renowned that nobles from Europe also sought her out for her gift of prophecy. And it is even said that George Washinton once visited her and that she prophecized his victory over the Crown.

She gives us a pretty good indication of the Christianity of Anglo-American culture at the time of the American Revolution, and the type of Christianity the Anglo-American Loyalist carried with them into what would become Upper Canada; where even a Mohawk who had chosen to remain “pagan” could nevertheless be described as pious by learned men of no more than a century later.

Here it is probably also worth noting that the Canadas only had between 4 (certainly) to 6 (possibly) Episcopalian minsters at work within it prior to 1791; when the fire-and-brimstone, saddle-minster, William Losse (of New York) began riding the newly formed and formally endorsed “Kingston circuit” through the lands of my Loyalist ancestors.

By 1817, the British Wesleyans began to arrive from the Maritimes, and by 1833 both branches of Methodism re-converged in the “Wesleyan Methodist Church”.

The Catholic Church wouldn’t establish itself west of Kingston, Ontario until the 1820s.

In the early colonial period, religious resources had been either non-existent or very scarce. For many early pioneers, any church, sect or clergyman was often better than nothing at all.” — Religion, UpperCanadaVillage. com

As late as the 1810s, baptismal records show grown adults and entire families coming forward for baptism, just to give one an idea of scarcity of “formal religious resources” in the region at that early time.

It is from out of this culturo-religious soil that our Heathenry as Anglo-Americans began to slowly reassert itself. As it continues to do on into this day. And without a single drop of blood shed at that.

Indigenous Attitudes: Magic and Germanic Belief

The “Lex Salica” or “Salic Law” represents one of the earliest recorded collections of Germanic customary law. In this case the Law Code reflected the laws of the Salian Franks and their Merovingian aethelings on the eve of Clovis’ conversion to Catholicism and some 50 years after their settlement in the northern region (Neustria) of the former Roman province of Gaul.

Among it’s various offenses we find those dealing with the practice of magic and harm done by magic, such as,

“If any one have given herbs to another so that he die, he shall be sentenced to 200 shillings (or shall surely be given over to fire).”

“If any person have bewitched another, and he who was thus treated shall escape, the author of the crime, who is proved to have committed it, shall be sentenced to 2500 denars, which make 63 shillings.”

“If somebody accuses another of witchcraft, and he brings to the thing the cauldron in which the accused is said to make brews, then let the accused be fined 2500 dinars which makes 63 shillings.”

“If somebody causes another person to waste away by means of witchcraft, and he is able to prove it at the thing, then let the accused be fined 1008 dinars which makes 200 shillings”

Some observations on the above…

To start, these are not my translations and the term “witchcraft” does not reflect the original language of the laws and/or that of the document they were record in. The specific term or terms that were used were certainly not *witchcraft*, which is fairly English specific in the Germanic world, and, for better and for worse, simply the term deemed equivalent in these modern translations.

The technical terminology really does matter, more-and-more, as one gets increasingly intimate with the subtleties and nuances of the subject, ie. not everything called “witchcraft” or “seidhR” (etc., etc.) actually reflect the practices of *witchcraft* or *seidhR* (etc., etc.).

Anyway, most of the Salic laws deal with *harm* caused by magic; lending a general no harm, no foul sense to the spirit of the laws There is however the one exception where presenting evidence of the mere practice of “witchcraft”, ie. the cauldron, no harm to anyone required, invited a legal penalty.

While this suggests a fundamental, and very understandable mistrust of “magic”, dealing as magic does in the hidden, the unseen, and indeed the anti-social, one will note that in each of the above citations, proof is explicitly demanded by the Salic law; even if the laws only outline the details of what constitutes proof in one instance; no doubt assuming what for them and theirs was culturally obvious. This suggests an equally fundamental mistrust of the very *accusation* of witchcraft, which again is very understandable given it’s “hidden” nature.

Finally, except for the one vague reference to being “given over to the fire”, ie. burned, the Salica Law prescribes “common penalties”, ie. fines, to these acts. Both of the acts that indicate the practice of harmful magic, but result in no harm, are otherwise prescribed at 63 shillings. This is an amount equal to those fines associated with the theft of an entire flock of 25 sheep, the *rape* (sexual) of a freeborn woman, the assault and plundering of a freeman, and attempted killing of a freeman. All of which were serious offenses.

Curiously, the two instances that result in death, result in a fine of 200 shillings, which, while clearly marking it as a far more serious offense than such others as mentioned, falls on the low-end of the wergild (life-price) system within the context of the Salic Law. This is equal to the fine for having been found guilty of grave-robbing, opposed the settlement of a migrant vouched for by king and thing, and the wergild of a woman beyond her child baring years and your average freeman.

By way of comparison, to have killed a freeman and then attempted to hide it (ie. murder as opposed to man-killing) carried a fine of 600 shillings; whereas death caused by magic was reckoned at 200 shillings.

One will also note the relative lack of reference to women in the Salic Laws as they pertain to the practice of “magic”. And that even where they are explicitly referenced in relation to witchcraft, they must also be viewed within the context of the greater body of Salic law and it’s valuation of women; which, as just referenced, reckoned the life-price of a vibrant and virile young freeman as equal to a woman beyond her child-baring years, and at THREE TIMES LESS than a freeborn woman in her child-baring years!

The AD 6th century Gallo-Roman Catholic, Gregory of Tours writes casually of those with prophetic powers within the context of royal Merovingian interactions. (eg. Guntram and the seeress).

The Merovingians were of course the same people who, some 35 years prior to the birth of Gregory, gave us the Salic Law, with it’s laws involving “magic” and “magical harm”.

Gregory also related a story in which a Merovingian queen, one of the wives of Chilperic, Fredegund I’d presume — who lived at the time of Gregory, and appears to have been loathed by him — ordered the torture of “a number of Parisian women” (and a man named Mumulus), believed to have killed her young son, Theodoric, via the use of herb potions and magic.

As Gregory wrote, “They admitted to the practice of witchcraft and the perpetration of many deaths… The queen afflicted them with even more horrendous forms of torture. Some she beheaded, others she cosigned to the flames, and still others were killed on the wheel with their bones broken.”

The Edictum Rothari (c.643 AD) is to Lombardic law what the Salic law is to Salian-Franks; a compilation and writing down of the formerly oral legal traditions of the Lombards. On “witchcraft” it states,

“If a man accuses a girl or free woman who is under the guardianship of another, of practicing witchcraft or prostitution,… if he shall persevere in his accusation and insist that he can prove it, then let the case be decided by a judical duel or “camfio” so that the matter may be left to the judgement of God”.

It also states,

“Let no man presume to kill another’s female servant for being a witch (striga or mascam) for such things are not credible to the Christian mind and it is not possible to eat a living man from the inside out.”

Here we get some insight into the seeming impatience behind the relation of the duel to the charges of witchcraft, and the notion that it represented little more than a vile slur against someone’s honour than anything more substantial.

This very Christian, very unheathen view of “harmful magic” would find further expression, as we read in Charlemagne’s Capitulary on Saxony (AD 782),

“If any one deceived by the devil shall have believed, after the manner of the pagans, that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and on this account shall have burned the person, or shall have given the person’s flesh to others to eat, or shall have eaten it himself, let him be punished by a capital sentence.”

— Charlemagne, Capitulary on Saxony

This trivialization of witchcraft, the refusal to acknowledge it’s power, and ultimately the impatient will to punish the accuser, was the initial Christian reaction to Germanic “witchcraft”. And it stood in direct opposition to indigenous Germanic belief and general mistrust in magic along with accusations dealing in the unseen.

The earliest Anglo-Saxon Law Codes make no reference to the practice of witchcraft. Of course, it took Kent almost 100 years to draft laws against “devil worship”, so that is perhaps not at all surprising.

Nevertheless, the fundamental mistrust, indeed hostility, of at least the Anglii toward “harmful magic” is very apparent in a story Bede related regarding King Aethelfrith of Northumbria (late 6th to early 7th century AD) and a band of monks he encountered who were praying “against the swords of the barbarians” (ie. against Aethelfrith). Bede further writes,

“King Ethelfrid being informed of the occasion of their coming, said, “If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers.” He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest”.

It is not until the Laws of Alfred that we begin see witchcraft enter the laws as a punishable offense; though we should remember that the orthodox Christian stance of the matter of witchcraft among the Germanic peoples was, up til now, that witchcraft was just so much superstitious hogwash. With Alfred’s Laws however we not only see witchcraft introduced as a punishable crime, but we see it introduced firmly within the context of the Old Testament,

“the women who are in the habit of receiving wizards and sorcerers and magicians, thou shalt not suffer to live”.

By the time of Cnut’s Laws we see the beginning of the conflation of witchcraft, not only with “harmful magic” and it’s own more traditional associations with secret killing, perjury, adultery, and incest, but also with such “heathen practices” as the “worship of heathen gods and the sun and the moon, fire or flood, wells or stones or any kind of forest tree”.

Conflation of various distinct disciplines, such as that of the spakona and seidhkona, are themselves clear in the North Germanic lore, and likely went the way of England in growing to include all sorts of heathen observances.

By the time of the witchhunts of the 15th and 16th centuries, it had expanded to include non-orthodox Christian belief; where heathen, heretic, and witch could be used more-or-less interchangeably. We see a similar evolution to the word racist in modern timers. And it is here that we modern folk first picked up the now muddled mess that the old magical and religious lore of our ancestors had become.

As a result, such things beg to be questioned. What is worship as opposed to the practice of magic? What is good magic and what is bad magic? And to what degree should those who dabble in such anti-social pursuits as influencing society via hidden (and often solitary) means be tolerated in our midst? And to what degree should accusations regarding “things unseen” themselves be tolerated?