We Dare To Dance

 

Upon Walpurgis Night we dare to dance

the potent potions serving third eye sight

Black earth beneath bare feet, the ghost’s advance,

as bonfires glitter golden cleansing light.

 

Ancestors seen (and unseen) in a glance,

they knock the wood of oak and broomstick flight

where bluebells sprout like fingers, risking chance

of transport into faerie’s eerie plight.

 

The velvet dark, the Pan of necromance,

to shed mundane illusion and all fright.

Hooves hard, the thud and crash of gritty prance,

deep teeth enmeshing blood’s forbidden bite

 

Here lies the edge and nether world’s expanse

Upon Walpurgis Night we dare to dance.

Walpurgisnacht,  the Witches’ Night, is upon us! The veils are thin on this May Eve. Use your power, spells and concoctions to make your deepest dreams come true. Blessed Be.

“WalpurgisNight when the devil was abroad— when graves opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel.” — from Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker.

 

 

 

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Anne Sexton’s Ominous Fairy Tales: Part One, Snow White

 

“The speaker in this case
is a middle-aged witch, me-
tangled on my two great arms,
my face in a book
and my mouth wide,
ready to tell you a story or two.
I have come to remind you,
all of you:

Do you remember when you
were read to as a child?”

So begins Anne Sexton’s book Transformations,  a dark and prophetic retelling of fairy tales. True to the Brothers Grimm, she did not balk at gory details, but rather added her own peculiar and twisted endings where the characters live not so happily ever after. Anne Sexton took on many topics with her unique brand of “Confessional” poetry, but her fairy tale interpretations are perhaps the most interesting.

Into the Forest Dark

Most fairy tales, before they were Disney-fied, were pretty terrifying. Don’t forget their origins. They were told by Medieval grandmothers in thatched cottages who had a vested interest in notifying the children of all the evil and malicious things that lurked before them. Death, plagues and hunger were rampant, not to mention wild animals, thieves and kidnappers.  Children had good reasons to be scared. It was a dangerous business, going outside your door. Fairy tales could act as a sort of guide to warn them and toughen them to the fact that life would not be easy.

Anne Sexton’s life was not easy either, fraught with mental illness, an abusive childhood and finally ending in suicide at age forty-six.

Fellow poet and editor Maxine Kumin has said that Anne Sexton read and referenced fairy tales like most writers read the Bible or Greek myths. She was always attracted to the work of Andersen, Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. She herself had been read to as a child by her beloved grandmother.

In Transformations, Sexton takes these tales and revises them for the 20th century, warning the reader of modern day evils.  The princesses and heroines, rather than living happily ever after, end up in the quagmire of trappings that include jealousy, egotism, mediocrity, old age, and just plain bad marriages.

I’ll be looking at several of these poems over the next few days. Stay tuned as I explore Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and more. But first up — that innocent ingenou with skin white as snow and hair black as coal, who decidedly had an aversion to apples…

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 

Beauty fades, but dumb is forever. Furthermore, no one escapes the ramifications of vanity… There is an evil queen, a fragile virgin, a hunter, some helpful dwarfs and, of course, a handsome prince.

“Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother, 
a beauty in her own right, 
though eaten, of course, by age, 
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.”

“Beauty is a simple passion, 
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes…”

The evil queen is so jealous, she orders her huntsman to track down Snow White, kill her and bring back her heart for the queen to eat.  But the huntsman cannot bring himself to kill the girl. Instead he kills a boar and brings back that heart.

“The hunter, however, let his prisoner go
and brought a boar’s heart back to the castle.
The queen chewed it up like a cube steak.
Now I am fairest, she said, 
lapping her slim white fingers.”

This is the first of many times Snow White will escape death.  She then ventures further into the forest where “the birds called out lewdly and the snakes hung down in loops, each one a noose for her sweet white neck.”

Eventually she comes upon the cottage of the seven dwarfs, and all should have gone well. Except the evil queen returns, still seeking to kill Snow White who makes the dumb mistake of opening the cottage door. Thus she falls prey to the queen’s poison dress and comb. After saving her twice, the dwarfs warn her not to open the door to strangers, but Snow White just can’t seem to learn her lesson.

“Snow White, the dumb bunny, 

opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.”

The dwarfs put her in a glass coffin. A prince, passing by, sees the coffin and decides he must have the beautiful creature inside it. While his men carry the coffin home, Snow White’s body is jarred, causing her to spit up the poisoned apple. She then awakens.

Of course, she marries the prince. But what will be her final fate?

“Meanwhile Snow White held court, 
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.”

The poem bleakly suggests that Snow White will become exactly like her evil stepmother, a vain and aging one-time beauty, haunted by, and beholden to her own reflection in the mirror.  The entire poem can be read HERE.

And finally, here is a lovely word/ music/ pictures rendition of this poem. (Running time 7 minutes.) Hope you like it!

 

 

 

The Pendle Witches on Good-Fryday

 

“their Children and Friendes laboured a speciall meeting at Malking Tower in the Forrest of Pendle, upon Good-fryday, of all the most dangerous, wicked, and damnable Witches in the County farre and neere. Upon Good-fryday they met with great cheare, merry company, and much conference…” —  From The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in Lancashire County by Thomas Potts

On Good Friday, April 10, 1612, the men and women who came to be known as the “Pendle Witches” held a feast at Malkin Tower, the home of one Elizabeth (Lizzie) Device.  The group were later arrested by the local sheriff, Roger Nowell. According to Nowell, the witches at the Good Friday feast were planning and plotting — specifically —  to “kill M. Cowell, and blow up Lancashire Castle [using] all their Murders, Witchcraftes, Inchauntments, Charmes, & Sorceries…”

One week before, on April 2, 1612, Lizzie’s mother, Elizabeth (Bess) Southerns (aka “Old Demdike” ) and her sixteen-year-old daughter Alison had been arrested for witchcraft. Also arrested were their neighbors, Anne Whittle (aka “Old Chattox”) and her daughter Anne Redfearne.  The women were being held at the Well Tower  — which was actually a dungeon — in Lancaster Castle  — which was actually a medieval fortress. There they awaited trial, to be held at the August Assizes, which meant four months in prison.

According to Sheriff Roger Nowell, it was entirely plausible that Old Demdike’s daughter would carry out a plan to kill Thomas Cowell (the coroner appointed by King James to investigate the case) and blow up Lancaster Castle in order to free her loved ones.

The Pendle Witch trials are among the most famous in British history, and the only witch trials ever that had a court journalist– one Thomas Potts — who recorded the testimonies and then wrote a book, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in Lancashire County published in 1613.

But who were the Pendle Witches, why were they so notorious, and did they even commit the crimes they were accused of?

Pendle Forest Cunning-Woman

At the time of her arrest, Bess Southerns was around eighty years old, and had been previously known as a healer and cunning-woman. Her folk magick practices had included midwifery and saving people from plagues and other ailments. She was arrested on charges of consorting with spirits and using charms to instill sickness and death.  Furthermore, years earlier she had supposedly encountered a faerie named Tibb and made a bargain with him:

“Elizabeth Sowtherns confesseth, and sayth; That about twentie yeares past, as she was comming homeward from begging, there met her neere unto a Stonepit in Gouldshey in the Forrest of Pendle, a Spirit or Devill in the shape of a Boy… who bade this Examinate that if she would giue him her Soule, she should have any thing that she would request. Whereupon she asked his name? and the Spirit answered, his name was Tibb: 

and so this Examinate in hope of such gaine as was promised by the sayd Devill or Tibb, was contented to give her Soule to the said Spirit: And next after, the sayd Spirit or Devill appeared at sundry times unto her alwayes bidding her stay, and asking her what she would have?”

During this time, a neighbor named Richard Baldwin had taken sick – after having had a verbal altercation with Bess in which she had  somewhat flippantly told him “I will pray for you.”  (It was largely believed that a witch’s prayers could bring harm…) Soon after, Baldwin’s young daughter became ill and died. Needless to say, the death was blamed on Bess and her pact with Tibb.

Anne Whittle had a similar story. Bess had allegedly been her mentor.

“Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, sayeth, that about foureteene yeares past she entered the wicked perswasions and counsell of Elizabeth Southerns, alias Demdike, and was seduced to condescend & agree to become subject unto that devilish abhominable profession of Witchcraft: Soone after which,  at around Midnight, the Devill appeared unto her in the likeness of a Man…

whereupon the said wicked Spirit mooved this Examinate, that she would become his Subject, and give her Soule unto him:”

Further deaths in the Pendle Forest were blamed on the two women and their so called pact with the devil.

“… many sundry Person haue been bewitched to death, and by whom they were so bewitched: Robert Nuter, late of the Greene-head in Pendle, was bewitched by Demdike, and Widdow Lomshawe, (late of Burneley) now deceased.

And she further sayeth, that she had bewitched to death, Richard Ashton, Sonne of Richard Ashton of Downeham Esquire.”

A Black Dog and Communion Wafers

Young Alison Device had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had been walking upon a road in Colne when she saw a peddler – a man named John Law. (I am not kidding. His name was actually John Law. No offense to the Police Department 😊 )

In general, the people of Pendle Forest were poor. Many went barefoot with tattered clothes. Alison had the need for some pins to mend her crumbling kirtle. She asked John Law to “open his sack so she might purchase some.” He refused. Alison then shouted some choice words at him, upon which a black dog came running out of the forest. John Law fell to the ground (in modern times we would say he suffered a stroke.) Nonetheless, it was assumed that the black dog was Alison’s “familiar” – a spirit who arrived on the scene to do Alison’s evil bidding.

The significance of pins should be noted. Aside from holding a kirtle together, pins were seen as necessary for certain witchcraft practices (akin to voodoo) such as sticking them into dolls or “poppets” meant to represent people one wanted revenge on. John Law, perhaps knowing the reputation of Alison’s grandmother, may have hesitated to sell them to her.

James Device, the twenty-year-old grandson of Bess, confessed to stealing communion wafers for his grandmother, digging up skulls and bones, and consulting with a familiar he called “Dandy”.  James Device was believed to have what we would now consider a learning disability. After being starved in prison he became so weak he could barely stand up when brought to trial.

“Being brought forth to the Barre, to receive his Triall … James Device was so insensible, weak, and unable in all thinges, as he could neither speak, hear, or stand, but was holden up when hee was brought to the place of his Arraignement, to receive his triall.”

This further leads us to believe that the prisoners received terrible, inhumane treatment in the dungeon, not to mention coerced confessions.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

To make matters worse, in court Alison’s nine-year-old sister Jennet Device testified against her own family, accusing them all of murder.  The child’s stories were taken extremely seriously by the magistrate.

Little Jennet had been in the custody of Roger Nowell since her mother was hauled off to prison. He had most likely coached her to condemn her own family. Nonetheless, Jennet’s accusations became a precedent for children accusing adults of witchcraft. (This practice was later used at the Salem Witch Trials in the American colonies when a group of children accused over 200 people of witchcraft.)

To this day, the outrageous nature of the confessions is questioned by historians.  Some believe that Roger Nowell embellished them. Torture was “forbidden” in England, but other practices, such as starvation and sleep deprivation were often used to coax confessions out of those accused.

King James and the Occult

Roger Nowell had a lot of stakes in the trials. It was to his advantage to prove witchcraft under the reign of King James.  The King, a self-described “witch expert”, had an obsession with the occult and actually believed his throne was threatened by witches.

James himself had written a book about witchcraft titled Daemonologie. He also changed several witchcraft laws to make arrests and convictions easier. This lead to the deaths of many accused. Even Shakespeare’s play Macbeth was written in part as propaganda to appeal to King James, then head of the production company.

Interestingly, the spells recited by the witches in court do not seem devil-based at all, but rather adhere to teachings of the Catholic Church, with references to the angel Gabriel, the twelve apostles and the Mother Mary.  Catholic (Papal) practices had been forbidden under King James, a Protestant. However, the county of Lancashire had always been a Catholic stronghold, and it was known that folks practiced the “Old Faith” in secret.

One such “Good Friday” charm, recited in court by James and Jennet Device is as follows:

A Charme

Upon Good-Friday, I will fast while I may

Untill I heare them knell Our Lords owne Bell,

Lord in his messe With his twelve Apostles good

What hath he in his hand? Light in leath wand

 What hath he in his other hand? Heavens doore key

Open, open Heaven doore keyes, Stuck, stuck hell doore.

Let Crizum child Goe to its Mother mild,

What is yonder that casts a light?

 Mine owne deare Sonne that’s nailed to the Tree.

He is nailed sore by the heart and hand,

And holy harne Panne, Well is that man That Fryday spell can,

His Childe to learne; A Crosse of Blew, and another of Red…

 Sweete Jesus our Lord, Amen.

 

“To Be Hung By the Neck Until You Are Dead”

Various other deaths and sicknesses were blamed on the Pendle Witches. In the end, of the twelve originally arrested, ten were sentenced to death. These were:

Anne Whittle, known as Chattox
Anne Redfearne, daughter of Chattox
Elizabeth Device, daughter of Demdyke
James Device, son of Elizabeth Device
Alison Device, daughter of Elizabeth Device
Alice Nutter
Jane Bulcock
John Bulcock, son of Jane Bulcock
Katherine Hewitt, known as Mouldheels
Isabel Robey

Elizabeth Southerns died in Lancaster Gaol before the trial began. Some say she used her cunning powers to escape trial. Most likely, the hideous conditions of the prison contributed greatly to her demise. (It was quite common for accused women to die in prison of dysentery or malnutrition, especially the elderly.)

What do you think of the Pendle Witches? Let me know in the comments.

Have a blessed Good-Fryday!

 

Pendle Forest

 

 

 

Anne Sexton’s Witchy Poetry

 

“I have gone out, a possessed witch, haunting the black air, braver at night; dreaming evil, I have done my hitch.”

April is National Poetry Month!

Today, we explore Anne Sexton (1928-1974), an American writer most famous for her dark expressive style known as “confessional poetry”. Sexton’s verses often revealed the personal details of her life, which was marked by bouts of depression, hospitalizations, suicide attempts and bi-polar disorder.

She was born Anne Gray Harvey on November 8, 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts, the daughter of  Mary Gray Harvey and Ralph Churchill Harvey. She was educated at boarding school in Lowell and worked as a model for the Hart Agency in Boston.  There is, reportedly, some evidence that she may have been abused as a child. At the tender age of nineteen, Anne married Alfred Muller Sexton II. They had two children, Linda Gray Sexton and Joyce Ladd Sexton.

In 1954, after the birth of her second daughter, Anne suffered postpartum depression and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Orne,  encouraged her to write poetry as a form of therapy. She joined several writers groups and eventually developed friendships with literary greats such as Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. They exchanged ideas in salons and discussion circles.

Her writing did not go unnoticed. During her lifetime, Anne Sexton was the recipient of numerous awards. These included: the Frost Fellowship, the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, the Levinson Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Prize, and an invitation to read at Harvard. She also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the Ford Foundation and honorary degrees. She held professorships at Colgate University and Boston University. In 1967 she won a Pulitzer prize for her book Live or Die.

Yeah, that’s a LOT of accomplishments. especially for someone with bi-polar disorder!

Nonetheless, all of it meant little.  As it turned out, Live or Die was a prophetic title. Anne took her own life in 1974.

The story of her death is as follows: On October 4, 1974, Anne had lunch with Maxine Kumin. They discussed revisions for Anne’s manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God, scheduled for publication in March 1975. Upon returning home, Anne put on her mother’s old fur coat and drank a glass of vodka.

She then  removed all her rings, locked herself in her garage and started the engine of her car. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Weirdly, in an interview a year before her death, Sexton had requested that she did not want her poems from The Awful Rowing Toward God to be published until after she died.  She also claimed she had written the book “in 20 days with two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital.”

To this day Sexton’s work remains acclaimed in literary circles. Her haunting and vivid lyrics are not easily forgotten. This short poem, Her Kind, uses medieval witch and fairy tale imagery as metaphors for women’s roles, expectations, and the alienation they can bring. Critics have interpreted it as an exploration of death and sexuality.

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,

haunting the black air, braver at night;

dreaming evil, I have done my hitch

over the plain houses, light by light:

lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.

A woman like that is not a woman, quite.

I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,

filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,

closets, silks, innumerable goods;

fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:

whining, rearranging the disaligned.

A woman like that is misunderstood.

I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,

waved my nude arms at villages going by,

learning the last bright routes, survivor

where your flames still bite my thigh

and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.

A woman like that is not ashamed to die.

I have been her kind.

What do you think of Anne Sexton and her poetry? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

Which Cat Breed is Your Spirit Animal?

 

Today, April 11, we celebrate National Pet Day!  Of course, every day is a great day to celebrate our furry, winged, webbed and scaled friends.  I love all animals! And, as you might know, I am partial to cats.  In honor of Pet Day, I thought it might be fun to offer this quiz.

Cats come in all shapes, sizes, temperments and personalities.  Which breed of cat would best represent your soul?  Is your spirit cat the slick, refined Siamese? The wild and untamed Bengal? The tail-less Manx, the hairless Peterbald, or perhaps the exotic Scottish Fold?

Take the quiz to find out! Let me know your results.

CLICK HERE to take the quiz.

 

My spirit cat is, apparently, the Maine Coon. Yeah, I can see that… totally.  Who wouldn’t want him for a soul-guide? 🙂

Main Coon: As a Maine Coon cat, you are the most noble and majestic of beasts. You know how to behave in front of people, you always know what to say and when to say it, and you can adapt yourself easily in new environments. You are polite, laid back, respect traditions, and love the people around you.

Happy National Pet’s Day! Always be kind to your pets 🙂