A Brief History of the Witch Trials

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE 

WITCH TRIALS

It’s almost Halloween and we’re feeling witchy. Here is a brief history of the witch trials and one case we find particularly interesting…

Where it happened? 

In Europe the worst were witch trials were in Scotland and Germany. From about 1590 to 1670 at least 4000 people were killed in Scotland and some estimates go as high as 7000 deaths. 75% of them were women. In Germany it ran from about 1560 – 1670 and the numbers of those killed were higher – certainly over 10 000 people and some estimates go as high as 20 000. There were witch trials all over the Europe and America, famously in Salem. The Scottish and German trials were undoubtably the most far reaching and gruesome.

What happened after the trial?

Once they were found guilty, witches were drowned. It was believed that their bodies might rise from the dead, so the corpses were burned publicly. A lot of people believe that witches were burnt alive at the stake but this was quite rare. Some women escaped but in the main if you were accused you were convicted – it was very difficult to get out of. In many cases several charges were brought against individual women and they might manage to get out of some of the charges but not that of being a witch. 

Who were the witches? 

Mostly it was women on the fringes. Those without protection. So working class women and often older women were those particularly prosecuted. Anyone could be accused but those who were ‘different’ or who spoke out, perhaps fell out with their neighbours were more likely to be accused. Sometimes people with disabilities were targeted. Once a woman was accused she was questioned (and that included torture) to see if she would turn evidence on her coven. These women were terrified. Many turned in neighbours, family and friends just to stop the pain. 

Where can we find out more about witch trials? 

The court records still exist in archives – the handwritten notes from the trials. Parish records where they survive can also be helpful.This was a time before birth certification and so details of people’s lives were held by the church. Most archives are available to the public though you have to provide ID and follow the rules of the individual institution like only being able to take in pencils (no pens). There are also lots of witchy artefacts in museums – spell boxes for example and instruments of torture. If you’re interested in finding out the real nitty gritty about female history your local archives and libraries are a good place to start. 

Here is little about a witch trial that us bitches and witches  think is particularly interesting…

 There isn’t much information about the women prosecuted of witchcraft unless they were particularly well to do or the odd infamous case. Because most women accused of witchcraft were workers, we mostly don’t have many details about their lives – birth dates are out of the question, as there was no system of certification in those days. They have, however, left their marks in some places on the landscape. Take Kitty Rankine who was burned as a witch in Scotland in 1603. Growing up in a small village, Kitty was said to have second sight, which she inherited from her mother. When her mother died, Kitty found work at Abergeldie Castle and the Lady of the house consulted her, for her powers. Kitty would have been well advised not to play ball, but she screed (put water in a bowl and looked into the future) The Laird of the castle was overseas and she saw him sporting with other women. She told the lady, who was furious, and asked Kitty to raise a storm to kill her husband on his way home. Kitty refused, saying she didn’t have that kind of power. But as it happened, a storm did kill the Laird when he was on his way home and Kitty was charged with causing it and drowning him. The 400th anniversary of her execution was marked in 2003 by a bonfire on the Creag nam Bam (Hill of the Women) near Ballater, where she was killed. The wind on the top of the Creag is very loud and locals say it is the ghost of Kitty Rankine, screaming.

“We are the grand daughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn” – an apt quote from Tish Thawer.

Although historical witch craft is often portrayed in the media there are still cases of women being prosecuted. In 2011 Amina Bint Abdul Halim Nassar was beheaded in Saudi Arabia for practicing witchcraft. 

So we are the grand daughters of the witches that you weren’t able to burn, but we stand by the women still being persecuted. Witches unite. 

We want to highlight forgotten females from history. If you have a story you’d like to share get in touch with Molly at info@reekperfume.com 


Why The Witch Trials Are A Feminist Issue

WHY THE WITCH TRIALS ARE A FEMINIST ISSUE

Our head bitch, Sara Sheridan is focusing on Scotland’s witches as part of a wider project – Where are the Women? : an imagined female atlas of Scotland, which will be published next May. But why are the witch trials a feminist issue? 

Finding women’s voices from history is like treasure hunting. There I  am, in a sea of papers in an archive, digging for days and if I’m lucky, I come across a letter, a journal or an old book and wham, it’s like that woman is right next to me, telling me what she had for breakfast, or what she’s afraid of, or best of all, what she is dreaming about. I have been hooked on this kind of time travel for years and I’ve written a dozen novels, re-imagining those voices – amplifying them and melding fact with fiction. History is important. I believe we can’t fully understand our culture if we don’t know where we came from. The stories of the Scottish witch trials has always fueled my own feminist fire. 

When I founded REEK perfume with my daughter Molly we wanted to  memorialize amazing (and often forgotten) women through scent. I love the idea of perfume as a silent rebellion – no-one needs to know you’re commemorating forgotten Jacobite heroines as you swish by. For DAMN REBEL WITCHES it was important to us and our perfumer Sarah McCartney that the eau de parfum reflected the real lives of women from the witch-hunting era – outdoor smells of riverbank and crushed leaves as well as a whiff of 17th century domestic life – oak moss (used in medicine at the time), malt and hazelnuts. The resulting perfume is complex and it smells dark and kind of haunting. It was important that it was truly gender fluid – a smell that could be traditionally female and male at the same time.

People find the history of the witches fascinating and strongly identify with it. There is a ‘hallowe’en’ perception of witchcraft – a folklore version – which is seductive – more whore than hag, I’d say. Central to it is the idea that these women really practiced magic. As a storyteller, I understand the allure of that but as a historian I come back again and again to the reality. These were not women involved in a power struggle they had a chance of winning – there is no magic to their stories. They were terrified. Once an accusation of witchcraft went to a Scottish court it was difficult to get out of it. The persecution of the witches (in Scotland far more extreme than in most other European countries, with the possible exception of Germany) is a largely uncommemorated piece of our female history, and this is one reason why it is a feminist issue. Another is that it was extremely rare for men to be prosecuted – a handful of cases out of literally thousands. This is something that happened to women and in particular to women who were different – who spoke out, didn’t get on with their neighbours, who were vulnerable because of their age, infirmity, disability or sexuality. There are cases where the family of a witch was cast out after her death – banned from the local community. What happened devastated female life in Scotland for decades and sent a strong message to conform in all things.

This year, I embarked on a project commissioned by Historic Environment Scotland, reimagining an atlas of the country that does justice to the history of our women. I have been working in this field for two decades, looking at individual stories, but it wasn’t until I examined our history as a whole, I realized how many amazing women we have forgotten. Some are heroines – scientists, writers, sportswomen, actresses and activists – others were victims, like the witches. I was reminded of the words of the poet, Mairi Mhor nan Oran who exhorted us tostudy our witches as well as our saints’ and I began to look more closely at how we commemorate these women and what is left of their stories, fragments of which are available in contemporary court records. Agnes Finnie, a moneylender from Edinburgh who was drowned in 1645 while cursing the crowd ‘May the Devil blaw ye blind’. Maud Galt from Kilbarchen, Renfrewshire prosecuted as a lesbian (for assaulting her maidservant with what sounds like a 17th century sex-toy) as well being charged with being a witch. Janet Horne executed in Dornoch in 1727, thought now to be suffering from senile dementia, heartwrenchingly she had no idea what was in store and is said to have warmed herself by the fire that was being set to burn her body.

History is written by the winners, and Scotland’s witches were losers, every one. I believe, however, it is the sign of a mature civilization to recognize its victims. If we are looking for examples, we need look no further than Germany and Berlin in particular, where the city’s history weighs heavily on its built environment with raw memorials recognising (and apologizing for) its part in the Holocaust as well as telling the chilling story of the decades from the Berlin Wall going up until it came down again.

The cultural impact of commemorating our winners (and particularly our female winners) is huge – it affords, among other things, role models for a new generation because when you see that women before you have been judges and musicians, pilots and ground-breaking scientists, it seems possible or even normal to achieve your dreams. In commemorating our victims, however, the process is different. We must make a promise not to forget and more importantly, not to repeat our worst failings. In the witches’ case this needs to be done while navigating the intersection of folklore and history – there is glamour to the witches. The roots of the word glamour, interestingly, refer back to the magic of the faerie world, but unlike the faerie folk the witches are demonstrably real. They are our foremothers and we imagined them to be in league with the devil. We hunted them down, drowned them and burned their bodies. In the modern world witchcraft movement is about sisterhood and attuning to nature and it’s important that anything we say about the witches of the past, also respects that movement in the present.

I am not the only Scottish writer who is interested in highlighting this important issue. Drs Claire Askew and Alice Tarbuck are running Toil and Trouble, a six-week course of witchcraft history, theory and practice starting in November. Claire says “The lack of recognition for real, historical women accused of witchcraft was the main reason I wanted to run the course. We need to better remember them.” For me too, that’s what creating a whiff of our past was about – to silently commemorate the witches while still honouring the present. As a country, it’s time for Scotland to properly memorialize our 16th and 17th century witches – not with the scattering we have of monuments to the legend of individual women but something with gravitas, that recognizes what happened to thousands of our foremothers, and the impact that had on our culture.

This article was first printed in The National on Sunday newspaper on 21st October 2018.


Sex Toy Still Life

Sex Toy Still Life
By Anna Wim

Artist and activist Anna Wim tells us the story behind her sex toy still life imagery, the causes that fuel her fire and of course some of her favourite smells…

Tell us the story behind these images and why you decided to use sex toys?

I have always been heavily attracted to sex and erotica, but it’s been a complicated relationship: on one hand, I am hypersexual and open about sex, on the other, my way to the sexual being I am now has been long and difficult. I’ve dealt with a lot of sexual frustration, questioning my own sexuality, and other taboos, which is why, I guess, I enjoy playing with everything sex-related in my work. I love that it makes people uncomfortable; this act of provoking (by something so normal and natural!) is just great.

It might not seem like it, but everything in my photos has a sexual connotation: I use fresh fruits and flowers which traditionally symbolize fertility, lust and/or sex organs. I always imagine I’m creating these opulent, gourmet table settings – only with a few sex toys thrown in!

Who do you hope will see them?

To be honest, I don’t really think of viewers when taking/publishing them. I just kinda put them out and hope someone will see them, but I don’t really think of who that could be.

What’s your favourite sex toy? Do you think that society is scared of the idea of women using sex toys outside of ‘sex’?

I started taking antidepressants a year ago and it’s made me much more sensitive to bodily sensations, and I’ve pretty much stopped using sex toys when masturbating so I’d say my fave toy atm is actually my good ol’ hand, haha. However, I once got the chance to try out Lelo’s Ina vibrator and wow, was that intense!

Sex toys in general are perceived as weird or dirty because they are seen as replacements for the “real deal”. Sex with others is supposed to be the best—or the only right—way of having sex, thanks to the reproductive, monogamous propaganda which  loads stigma on sex toys. And since women’s sexuality is seen as immoral on its own, it is no wonder it is frowned upon when it’s combined with naughty, disgraceful toys! (lol)

Tell us about a beauty campaign that made you feel angry or ugly?

I remember there used to be a deodorant advert when I was a teen which said something like “even though you might not notice it, others can smell you sweating”. I’ve always been self-conscious about the way I smell and that was just the last straw, really. To this day, I am insecure about that and always think others must be disgusted by the way I smell even if I only sweat a little or forget to apply perfume! Such bullshit, right?

Tell us something about yourself that you once perceived as ugly/unattractive that you now love about yourself?

Well, I used to think of myself as unattractive in general and that has (luckily) changed, so I’d say my whole body. But if I had to choose one body part, it’d be my Slavic hips – I am so proud of them now!

What advice would you share with yourself 5 years ago?

Take care of your mental health. Stop downplaying what you feel – it is all legit.

Tell us a campaign or movement that is close to your heart and why?

Um, there are too many to pick one! It’s the Black Lives Matter month in Berlin at the moment, and I really love what the local community is doing: lots of talks, screenings, workshops… Knowledge is power!

What are your three favourite smells?

Jasmine, pine, and lavender.

Are you more of a witch or a bitch?

Both!

See more of Anna’s work here.

 


The Tree That Changed My Life

The Tree That Changed My Life
By Jan Ambrose

Inspirational bitch Jan Ambrose went to the south of France and shed her corporate skin and a whole lot of tears . . .

Leaning against a tree in the south of France sobbing my heart out wasn’t quite what I’d expected when I signed up for a retreat after 26 years of working in a bank. I had taken the bank job aged 22 as a result of my father advising me to get a proper job. At the time, I was saving up to go travelling after graduation and I felt lost about what to do next. On my dad’s advice I’d applied for two jobs for when I got back – one with a retailer, the other a bank. The bank offered me a place on their graduate training scheme and I accepted, thinking I’d do it for a while till I worked out what I really wanted.

The training was interesting, I moved around departments, worked on different projects and secured a permanent role, enjoying the financial security and benefits. But if I’m honest, from the start, a small voice kept telling me there was more to life. I wanted to make a difference and help people and I knew that working in a bank wasn’t my true calling. I went with it, though. Time rolled by, I got married, we started our family. My husband also worked in the corporate world and I just settled. For 26 years, I found satisfaction from leading teams, helping people develop, mentoring and coaching but deep down I remained convinced I was meant to do more.

By last year I had been studying life coaching and hypnotherapy for several months alongside my day job and I loved it. Supporting people to make positive changes was incredibly rewarding. So when the opportunity emerged to apply for redundancy I decided to go for it. The fear of leaving a stable well paid job after so many years was overwhelming, but I had to – even if I wasn’t sure how things would work out. I dreaded the idea that if I didn’t take this opportunity I would be with the same organisation until I retired and I knew I would regret that. With a vague idea of what I wanted to do but no clear plan (something I was deeply uncomfortable with) I took the leap into the unknown. The generous redundancy pay out meant I didn’t have to worry about money for a while but as soon as I left, I found myself racked with massive fears. Who was I to think I could change direction and build a successful business helping people? Who on earth was I kidding?

After a few weeks of floundering, I was worried I would be drawn back to the corporate world. It was kind of overwhelming – 26 years in the same job had on one level, ruined my confidence. I needed support to move forwards and find out if I was cut out for this. So I booked a place on a retreat. This meant 5 days in the peace and quiet of rural France working with a small group of wonderful women, enjoying yoga classes and working on ourselves,. It was a fantastic opportunity – a really magical time. As a group we discussed the things that held us back, sharing all aspects of our lives. Everyone there was, like me, trying to change but finding it difficult.

For me, the biggest breakthrough came when we started to talk about what rules we had allowed to form over the years that dictate our lives. I was shocked at what came up for me. The rules that emerged came from somewhere deep down. During one of the exercises I wrote:

–       Good girls keep quiet, don’t make a fuss and hold back

–       Always be on time, be polite, be respectful

–       You don’t deserve and can’t make a good income out of this ‘alternative hypnotherapy stuff’

I’ve done a lot of personal development work and self exploration over the years so seeing what I’d written really shocked me. I was so rattled I switched my focus to the next task without really taking it in – how did I want to live going forward. I found myself writing:

–       I want to live an even bigger and more magnificent life

Next I wrote down a quote from the French writer Emile Zola that I’ve had framed on my wall for years.   ‘If you asked me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.’’

When I looked at the pages in front of me the contrast between how I’d been living and what I really wanted, was stark. I had been living out of alignment for so long. I felt an immense rush of emotion and I started crying. I felt compelled to move and getting up, I stumbled outside. Crossing the gravel path I was drawn towards a beautiful oak tree. I leaned against it, looked up at the leaves and cried and cried and cried for what felt like an eternity.

This was not the graceful weeping you see in films, this was full-on ugly crying, deep shuddering sobs as I let go of emotions I had been holding on to for years.  It was cathartic though and eventually the tidal wave passed and I felt a deep sense of peace. Exhausted I sat down under the tree. It was then I heard a quiet voice inside me saying ‘Welcome home …. you are loved.

Coming together later as a group we called out what we’d learned. Thank heavens we were in the middle of nowhere. I absolutely shouted to the universe what I had learned about myself ‘I am phenomenal, and I am here to live out loud.’ It was life changing.

Coming home, it’s resolved such a lot for me. I know I am here to use my skills and knowledge in coaching and hypnotherapy to help others grow and develop. I don’t know all the details yet of how that’s going to happen, but I’m working hard on it. I read recently, when you have the strength and courage to make a leap of faith and embrace change, an invisible mattress appears and the universe will support you.

Since coming back from France I have told the story of my retreat to many people and it seems to strike a chord. So no more holding back for me.  In particular I owe a very big thank you to that wonderful group of women and a magnificent oak tree for supporting me when I needed it most. With so much love.

You can contact Jan on: Jan.ambrose1@hotmail.com

See more about the retreat here


An unretouched image of Damn Rebel Bitch Nina Mdwaba to accompany her piece ‘My Black is Infinitely Beautiful’ for REEK Perfume's blog platform 'Bitches Unite.'

Eilean nam Ban project

Eilean nam Ban

By Ellen Patterson

We speak to actor and activist Ellen Patterson about her all female project  Eilean Nam Ban. An exhibition sharing stories about the extraordinary lives of ordinary women through art, poetry and more…

Tell us a bit about this project and how it came about?

When I started my masters degree I decided to look back over the work I had done for my undergrad and noticed there were a lot more men’s names in the reading lists than women’s. When I actually compared them, I found that only 30% of the reading I was asked to do in four years of university was attributed to a female voice. Only 1% came from a woman of colour. I wish I could say I was surprised. So, when we were given pretty much free rein on our final pieces this year I immediately wanted to create a platform for women’s stories to be heard. I have felt inspired countless times by a piece of art, be it a song, a painting, a poem (the list goes on) so I was drawn to the idea of bringing women’s stories to life in art. The project ‘Eilean nam Ban’ has since grown arms and legs and I am now presenting an exhibition featuring an original song by a Scottish fiddler, a song by an Irish singer, a painting, a collage (made by my Grandmother who, by the way, is most definitely a Bitch), and several poems…so far! This will be shown for free at the C.A.F.E in Brixton on September 28th.

What does the name mean?

Eilean nam Ban is an island just off the coast of Iona in the west of Scotland). Iona was the site St. Colomba’s destination when he left Ireland in 563 and he set about building an abbey there (Iona still has a very beautiful abbey). According to Colomba though, this great task could not succeed whilst there were either cows or women on the island. He insisted ‘where there is a cow there is a woman and where there is a woman there is mischief.’ Thus, all the women and cows were banished from Iona and sent to a neighbouring island which earned it the name ‘Eilean nam Ban’ or ‘Women’s Island.’ In solidarity with those banished women (and cows), I hope that my exhibition can act as its own small women’s island.

Are there any particular people who have inspired you on your journey?

The biggest inspiration for this comes directly from REEK. I have followed REEK closely, working with you at any opportunity I get and your mission to let no women go forgotten has been a huge inspiration. All the work that Sara has done outside of REEK to shine a light on women’s stories has also really spurred me on.

How can people get involved?

Make your voices heard! I am still looking for stories and for artists to collaborate with. The stories can simply be the tale of a woman who has inspired you, be it your best friend, your mum, or that lady in the café at the bottom of your road whose smile always brightens your day. It can be one sentence or one thousand sentences  – if you want her story to be heard, I want to hear it. If you are an artist and want to get involved, I can send you one of these inspirational stories to use to create a work of art in whatever form you choose.

And anyone who can come to the exhibition, it would be great to have you there!

What issues do you see people face in your day to day?

This answer could be pages long; sadly I think we are very skilled at ignoring things that are staring us in the face. I will just focus on one issue for now, one that I see every day in my line of work as an actress; the constant treatment of women as inferior. I see this when a woman is told to lower her register or she won’t sound important, when she is told at 32 she can only play a mother, when she stands up for herself in an audition and is turned away. Time is not just up on the outrageous practice of accepted sexual harassment but on the perverse attitude towards and the shabby treatment of women every single day. She is a person, just as much as he is.

Tell us about a campaign/advert that made you angry.

Anything on my sister’s Instagram feed. The worst was Kim Kardashian selling those weight loss lollipops. For a brief moment I genuinely wanted one. I am a 27 year old woman who is secure in her body (most of the time) and I was lured in. How is a fourteen year old who is being bullied at school supposed to read that and not be convinced they should be shedding pounds one lolly at a time?

What message would you put on our on our sticky bitches? (gender equality stickers, free on our site

LIVE IN PEACH (go cruelty free)

What are your three favourite smells?

Just smells or scents? Okay, I’ll do both! Smells; summer rain, talcum powder, a burning log fire. Scents; Bitches, Witches, The Dark Heart of Old Havana  by 4160 Tuesdays.

Are you more of a witch or a bitch?

Definitely a Bitch. But can I still be in the coven?

Yes. Yes you can.

You can support the ‘Eilean nam Ban’ project on their fundraiser here. All charitable donations in aid of The Fawcett Society. To get involved contact: eilean.nam.ban@gmail.com