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Lost histories of Britain

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August 11, 2020

It’s 1597 in Aberdeen, and it’s deep midnight in the human mind. A witch panic is underway. Like most witch panics, this one began with a few accusations, and it escalated when some of the accused began to name names. The dismay spread quickly from Aberdeen itself to the surrounding area. As panics do, this one ended when the supply of victims ran dry; it was over by 21 September, when Aberdeen paid off its witch burner William Dun, who received £47 3s. 4d. as expenses for having been put to the trouble of burning an unusual number of people. The whole flurry lasted just four months.

And just as calm was restored, yet another witch was arrested, in October: Andrew Man, apparently a wandering magician from Rathven, who could cure sick animals and people using skills given to him by “the people of the hills”.

Andrew does not fit our stereotype of the witch. For one thing, he is a man. For another, unlike the blank-faced and completely innocent victims of the Salem witch trials, Andrew did believe himself capable of using powerful magic. According to his testimony, he was the lover of the Queen of the Fairies, and had gotten many children with her. He was also helped by a supernatural entity called Christsunday, and had seen the king that died at Flodden (James IV) and Thomas the Rhymer with the fairies, along with other dead people.

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The material in Andrew’s confession includes the tips of some huge story icebergs. Perhaps most interesting is the forgotten culture of Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland. In Aberdeenshire, the Highlands meet the Lowlands, and it was there that Christianity alternated between assimilating with the Gaelic paganism that preceded it, and clashing savagely with it. The fairy Otherworld lay alongside the everyday world, and it was both dangerous and exciting; its moral neutrality was intolerable to a Christian theology that emphasised life as a war between evil versus good. The witch trials of the sixteenth century were another Christian attempt to purge the last vestiges of Gaelic paganism from rural Aberdeenshire.

For Andrew Man, there was a fairy underworld, physically below the world of men, and culturally subordinated or even repressed or forgotten. Andrew and other magic users were left to carry the traces of this underworld to the surface. In the harsh light of resurgent Scottish Calvinism, such stories were of course misinterpreted as tales of demons. But in the twenty-first century, we are relatively familiar with the idea of the Queen of the Fairies, thanks to us fantasy literature. The very strange figure to us is Christsunday.

Christsunday is a curious name. Perhaps it was meant to be read as Christian at first glance, but the entity in question could hardly be mistaken for a Christian one. From Andrew, we learn that Christsunday is a stag some of the time — a stag that bursts up out of the snow. In Gaelic writings, deer are often able to pass from this world into the Otherworld, and to guide mortals across that border. Figures who rise from below are associated not only with the fairy realm, but with a particular idea about fairies: that they are linked to the dead who die before their time (like James IV and Thomas the Rymer.)

This movement of the Otherworld — from perpetually at the margins of human life, fitfully accessible to those with guidance, to a dark underworld inhabited by the dead — lightly Christianises the Gaelic Otherworld and assimilates it to an afterlife of punishment for sin. These dead figures can be understood by pious Christians as in hell or Purgatory, even though in pagan Gaelic tradition they are in neither.

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This kind of partial Christianisation was common in cultures that abruptly met medieval Catholicism in its evangelical form. New world cultures are full of figures like Christsunday: Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, is an ideal example. The word saint is a Christian cover hurled over what is very plainly an Aztec goddess: Mictēcacihuātl, the “Lady of the Dead”, who ruled Mictlan, the last layer of the underworld. Similar processes occur in both Hoodoo and Voudoun, and also in fully creolised religions like Santería.

But just as the modern Catholic Church condemns the votaries of Santa Muerte, so both the Presbyterian Kirk and the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church sought to condemn those who told tales about such hybrid figures in sixteenth-century Scotland.

Nevertheless, even as local folklore cloaked itself with Christian imagery to protect itself, Christianity appropriated local imagery to make itself more influential. For Andrew Man and most of his countryfolk — for pagans throughout what is now Britain — the solar year still dominated understandings of the supernatural. (If you strip the word Christ off the name Christsunday, you are left with Sunday — or SUN-day.) Medieval Catholicism made a reasonable fist of appropriating this, converting the figure of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun, into the figure of the risen Christ.

As long as the agricultural year dominated human experience, the seasons of the sun mattered profoundly; the yearly growth cycles of crops kept representatives of solar triumph in circulation, even if they had once been owned by the Romans and were always disowned by pure Christians. The compromise arrived at in medieval Christianity was, however, unacceptable to reformed Protestantism: it was the pagan elements absorbed by Christianity that ardent Protestants sought to destroy.

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And it was this, ultimately, that condemned Andrew Man to death in 1597. There has long been a connection suggested between a tentatively identified Gaelic stag-god, sometimes called Cernunnos, and Dīs Pater, a Roman lord of the underworld. Andrew himself would not have known these names, but it is likely that some of his interrogators would have been able to make the link. Certainly, Scotland’s James VI made any number of such connections in his book Daemonologie, published the same decade as Andrew’s trial.

For a Christian courtroom, the idea of a dark world beneath, from which people might frequently emerge — an underworld dominated by a highly sexual queen — could not be made to harmonise consistently with any Christian idea of a wholly spiritual resurrection. It may have felt uncomfortably close to a medieval story of the birth of Christ from his human mother’s flesh. Such adjacencies killed Andrew because they could not be tolerated.

We use the words witch hunt now quite lightly, to mean job losses at the very worst. But in 1597 it meant the loss of everything. Liberty, and life. Among many losses are lost records: we have only fragmentary material on any of the Aberdeenshire trials, and for some we have no records at all. That is as the prosecution wished. The last thing the record offers on the Aberdeenshire witch panic is a series of chilling payments for the materials of execution: 20 pieces of peat, four tar barrels, a length of rope to tie the victims to the stake, along with their stories that might unsettle the prevailing religious powers.

It’s worth remembering how these identities were forgotten. It was no accident; they were deliberately destroyed, burned to the bone. It is not insignificant that the last linguistic traces of Highland Gaelic paganism are about to disappear with Scottish Gaelic. In England, witches were not burned, but hanged as felons. In Scotland, they were first strangled to death, and then the body consumed by fire in a ritual designed to ensure that they were gone completely, gone for good. Such extirpation suggests an uneasy sense that stories like these might still emerge out of the Gaelic underworld, bringing with them a horde of restless dead rebels — who might threaten current governance in the way that the Aberdeenshire witches terrified the ruling class.

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