Broom, broom

Leslie Wilson

  • The Virago Book of Witches edited by Shahrukh Husain
    Virago, 244 pp, £14.99, October 1993, ISBN 1 85381 562 4

The last person to be formally executed for witchcraft in England was Alice Molland, hanged in Exeter in 1682. But I have found tales of witch-lynchings in 19th-century England, even (in a little local history pamphlet) a murder in 1950s Oxfordshire that bore all the hallmarks of a witch-lynching. Swiss peasants used to calm storms by laying a scythe on the ground with the cutting edge uppermost to wound the storm-witch and Jung, writing in the late Fifties, described how he watched a ‘Strudel’, or local witchdoctor, taking the spell off a stable just beside the Gotthard international railway line. European witches were largely blamed for sudden and unexplained illness and death as well as for destroying male potency, for causing storms and ruining the crops, for spoiling the butter and killing livestock. The Witchdoctor (in English, the cunning man or woman) was brought in to counter the black magic and identify the witch responsible. The fear of witchcraft was considerable and so the prestige of the witchdoctor was high. They were a sort of alternative priesthood, and were often tolerated by the Church.

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