The Witches’ Pharmacopoeia
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Pages (PDF): 32
Publication Date: 1896
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Read before the Historical Club of the John Hopkins Hospital, April 13th, 1896. Excerpt: 'The subject of this evening’s paper is extraordinarily copious, and long-descended in its history. A belief in witchcraft characterized the earliest periods of which we have any record; it prevails among all savages or semi-civilized peoples at the present time, and is by no means extinct in otherwise intelligent communities. The cowardly fear and the resulting cruelties which have sprung from this strange superstition are too well known to need comment.'
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The subject of this evening’s paper is extraordinarily copious, and long-descended in its history. A belief in witchcraft characterized the earliest periods of which we have any record; it prevails among all savages or semi-civilized peoples at the present time, and is by no means extinct in otherwise intelligent communities. The cowardly fear and the resulting cruelties which have sprung from this strange superstition are too well known to need comment. In Merry England and in religious New England, men and women, old and young, the ministers of the Gospel, the clown and the philosopher, have perished at the stake or on the gallows, victims to this hideous delusion. A striking feature in the history of witchcraft is the fact that by far the greater number of its votaries were women, mostly old women. It is hard to find any explanation of this condition. King James I., in his Demonologia, ungallantly accounts for it by saying: “For as that sex is frailer than man is, so is it easier to be entrapped in these grosse snares of the Divell, as was over well proved to be true by the serpent’s deceiving Eve in the beginning, which makes him the homlier with that sexe sensine.”
The personal appearance of the typical witch was not attractive. Harsnet, in a work published in 1603, says a witch is “an old weather-beaten crone, having her chin and knees meeting for age, walking like a bow, leaning on a staff, hollow-eyed, untoothed, furrowed, having her limbs trembling with palsy, going mumbling in the streets; one that hath forgotten her paternoster, yet hath a shrewd tongue to call a drab a drab.” (Declaration of Popish Imposture, 136.)
If she ventured out in the daylight she was pursued with obloquy. In Gay’s fable of The Old Woman and her Cats, the poor creature exclaims:
Crowds of boys
Worry me with eternal noise;
Straws laid across my path retard ;
The horse-shoe’s nailed (the threshold’s guard),
The stunted broom the wenches hide,
For fear that I should up and ride.
They stick with pins my bleeding seat,
And bid me show my secret teat.
Your genuine witch was believed to be incapable of shedding tears, and if through torture she could be made to weep, her power had departed and she became a helpless victim to justice. King James says: “They cannot even shed tears, though women in general are like the crocodile, ready to weep upon every light occasion.”
Old age was not always a necessary adjunct to witchcraft. Some of the famous witches of classical times, such as Canidia, Erichthoe, and Circe, were beautiful women. The first was a famous hetaira and was once the mistress of Horace.
Accounts are given in history and legend of wizards who practised their diabolical art, but they seem to have labored for more important purposes than their female rivals. In old chronicles, in popular story, and above all in the drama, it is the witch who figures as the minister of evil, and it is with her and her marvelous storehouse of materials we have to do to-night.
It is a mistake to suppose that these materials consisted only of offensive or grotesque substances—of “ eye of newt and toe of frog.” If the time permitted it would not be difficult to show that certain legendary qualities attached to them have come down from classic and pre-classic days. This, will to some extent appear as we progress in the enquiry, for the literature of witch-craft is very ancient, and it will be found that the same ingredients have been made use of through many ages to produce the like results. Astrology lent its aid, and plants which were under certain planetary influence, especially those belonging to the moon, acquired more potency in consequence. Old Culpepper, in his British Herbal, gives a list of over 500 plants with the planets which govern them. The doctrine of signatures too had its influence in the selection of ingredients for malevolent as well as for healing purposes, and if liver-wort or eye-bright were powerful for good, the lurid flowers and leaves of aconite, hemlock, henbane, and belladonna were manifestly suited for diabolic charms.
The term pharmacopoeia made use of in the title of this paper, must be understood in its most comprehensive sense. It comprises substances from the vegetable and animal kingdoms, and the products of the atmosphere must be included.
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