Friday, February 19, 2010

The Basilisk Eye of the Witch: John Bell, 1697.

I was reminded of John Bell’s ghastly little pamphlet Witch-craft proven, arreign'd, and condemn'd in its professors, professions and marks by diverse pungent, and convincing arguments, excerpted forth of the most authentick authors, divine and humane, ancient and modern. By a Lover of the truth (Glasgow, 1697) while reading P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Witch Hunters (2003). The modern scholar cites (p. 98) the case of Margaret Atkin in 1597, who was arrested on suspicion of being a witch, threatened with torture, and confessed. She then offered ‘to detect all of that sort, and to purge the Country of them, so that she might have her life granted’. She claimed that she could do this because ‘they had a secret mark, all of that sort, in their eyes, whereby she could surely tell, how soon she looked upon any whether they were witches or not’. To save herself, she set about judicially murdering other women, being taken from town to town to inform against the local suspects. In Glasgow, backed by a credulous minister, she had yet more innocent women executed, until she exposed her own imposture by declaring the same women guilty one day and (when they were presented to her again in different attire) innocent the next.

Maxwell-Stuart notes blemishes in the eye, or the rare condition of a double pupil as possible ‘marks’ that were notionally looked for: but anyone could see these. I think it’s possible that John Bell gives a full account of what the witch-finder alleged he or she could see.

Bell’s work shows him to have been a die-hard demonologist of the old school. He promises to give “some vive and shrewd Marks, and some unquestionable tokens … by what means, a Witch (in League, and Covenant with the Devil) may be discerned to be so”.

The first is the witch’s mark “the insensible or dead nip of a blea colour”; the second

“that such can by no means be drowned, tho' tyed hand & foot together, & thrown into a River … having renounced Baptism”. Then, inevitably, Sprenger and Kramer’s sadistic allegation is the third: “They cannot weep, not even torture can draw “from them the least tear, though to that end they often distort, throw, and wring their faces, making as tho' they were weeping”.

But it is Bell’s fourth mark which is of interest here:

“The Fourth Mark is, the Basilisk, or Serpentine sight, wherewith they be endued to kill, poison, and destroy, what, and whensoever they please … which sight is in them above all other men and women in the world most remarkable, for while as in the Apple of the Eye there is to be seen in all and every one, the Image of a man … with the head up and the feet down; the quite contrary is to be seen in them, to wit, the feet up, and the head down; God as it were hereby making open show to the World, that He who keepeth His own as the Apple of the eye, taketh no such thought for ye Slaves of Satan, but suffers the Devil whose Image they bear thus (by inversion) as an external Sign.”

To complete this dismal litany, the fifth mark is that they will not repeat the Lord’s prayer, ten commandments or the creed without “several minckings, eikings, or inversions”, burning salt ‘in the Pipe of a Kye’ [I think he means within the tube of a key] will cause them to urinate if they see the blue flames is the sixth mark, and lastly, that they smell with “a peculiar scent or smell, which is to be found in them, beside all other People in the World, and which neither flows from the nastiness of Clothes, Vermin, or the like, but a contradistinct smell from any such thing … the Devil being in full Possession of their Soul, must needs emit his own scent even that of the Pit.”

The investigator has to notice whether his or her reflection is inverted in the pupil of the true witch’s eye - this seems a suitably ‘secret’ mark to me. You could easily persuade yourself, if you had taken against the accused, that you had seen yourself upside-down. Not could you be cross-checked, as you were looking for this far more metaphysical mark than any blemish in the iris.

My images, though, come from Christina Hole’s work, Witchcraft in England, 1977, which was illustrated by no less than Mervyn Peake 'over twenty years ago', the fly leaf says, for the first edition - it was in 1945:

Peake had just gone through great mental suffering after being on the scene at the liberation of Belsen. Yet his witches are just that, witches rather than victims, sinister figures as darkly imagined as anything in Jacob de Gheyn. Not that you would wish an imagination like Peake's to deny itself. I have looked along a long 'Cooliris' wall of Google images, but didn't see any from this book. he also did illustrations for a book by D K Haynes, Thou shalt not suffer a witch in 1949: it would be interesting to see the best of those.

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