An Athenæum Azostos Reflection on “working mystical women”: the tarot of Pamela Colman Smith (of the Rider-Waite deck) and of Madame Sosostris in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in December.
Over the years there have been many representations of this working woman – mystic, conjurer, or someone embodying mastery of other esoteric arts – in life or in the great microcosm of life: literature. Euripides wrote Medea in 431 BCE, a play that chronicles the classic witch and her “work” (her revenge as a mystic woman and scorned lover). Morgan[a] le Fay appears in various stories throughout history, the first being Vita Merlini written around 1150 CE. Morgan was an enchantress and healer, often under the employment of King Arthur of Camelot.
The various ways humans were feared and revered, sought and scorned, come to a climactic and devastating head when the Malleus Maleficarum was written, a book that launched The Witch Trials in America (and around Europe) in 1487. Shakespeare wrote the “Weird Sisters” (also known as the “Wyrd” or the “Three Witches”) in Macbeth in roughly 1606, thereby creating three of the most famous prophetic working women in literary history.
The mystic woman archetype in literature became so commonplace, that even children’s folk and fairy tales (e.g., the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” by The Brothers Grimm, or Baba Yaga in Slavic folktale “Vasilisa the Beautiful”) are strewn with witches, conjurers, fairies, sorceresses, and/or magicians. These characters are usually always women and almost always available for help, hire, and work.
Arguably one of the most famous depictions of a mystic woman in American literature is Madame Sosostris in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which was written 100 years ago this year. Although she is only mentioned briefly, Madame Sosostris is the quintessential mystical working woman. She is a “famous clairvoyante” and “[i]s known to be the wisest woman in Europe” (Eliot lines 43, 45).
“With a wicked pack of cards,” she gives the speaker a “reading,” a telling of their fortune and future (line 46). The cards are reminiscent of a traditional pack, which “is a deck of cards used for occult and mystical practice with a history of socio-political intrigue dating back to the fifteenth century” (Sosteric 358). The tarot generally consists of 78 cards: 56 minor “arcana,” (or suits of swords, wands, cups, and pentacles/coins; based on elemental interpretations of the traditional card suits spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds, respectively) or “pips”; and 22 major arcana, or “trump” cards – both of which are “almost always illustrated with fanciful, mythological, spiritual, and [with] cultural imagery” (Sosteric 359-60).
Madame Sosostris’ cards echo this traditional deck (most often portrayed or known as the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot), though it seems Eliot took some personal and creative liberties. The speaker of “The Waste Land” has seven cards read to them: “the drowned Phoenician Sailor,” “Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,” “the man with three staves,” “the Wheel,” “the one-eyed merchant,” a blank card, and possibly “The Hanged Man” (lines 47-55).
The Wheel and The Hanged Man “correspond to 10. La Rue de Fortune and 12. Le Pendu: the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ (see Fig. 1 below) and ‘Hanged Man’ in [Rider]-Waite’s pack” (illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith) (Fig. 2 below) respectively (Currie 727). With “the man with three staves,” “it is reasonable to assume that [Eliot] had in mind the three of wands” (see Fig. 3) (Currie 728). The “drowned Phoenician Sailor” may align with the “Death” card (based on the imagery of the card itself), although that is purely speculation (Fig. 4).
Even the blank card may have historical, if not metaphysical, significance. In fact, Waite (of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck) recorded an article from The Platonist in 1855 that stated: “It is known to adepts that there should be 22 esoteric keys, which would make the total number up to 100… the 22 esoteric keys [being] 22 blank cards prepared by the student” (in addition to the usual 78 cards as mentioned above) (Currie 727).
Eliot’s divergence from tradition here would be with the Belladonna, possibly the Sailor, and the merchant – meaning these cards are not obviously conflated with or derived from the traditional deck of tarot. Verily, they in no way exist in what is considered recognized or customary tarot. There have been many speculations as to what Eliot may have been referring to, although, as with most literature and esotericism, the symbols may be difficult to decipher or lack inherent pre-ascribed (if any) intentional meaning, save what the author or reader has personally assigned.
When Sosostris’ reading is concluded, she gives a warning to “Fear death by water” (Eliot line 55). It is commonplace for mystics to use some form of divination (as seen with the “wicked pack of cards” in this example) to predict the future or give warnings to a/the client. Divination, sometimes called “soothsaying,” is a way of predicting or prophesizing; it is “[f]ound in all civilizations, both ancient and modern” (Gilbert para. 1). Generally, it is “the practice of determining the hidden significance or cause of events, sometimes foretelling the future… [or] in the form of horoscopes, astrology, crystal gazing, tarot cards” (Ibid.).
After the warning of “death by water,” Madame Sosostris adds: “I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,” another divinatory allusion without an inherent or implied meaning (Eliot line 56). She then thanks the speaker, a sign that was indeed a service, and adds “If you see dear Mrs. Equitone / Tell her I bring the horoscope myself” (the horoscope here is directly related to astrology, an ancient act of divination via the stars and planets) (lines 57-58). These are prototypical examples in modern literature of a working mystic woman. Madame Sosostris gives the speaker a tarot reading, divination, prediction with a nod to her astrological work, as well as thanking them for their business – making her a 100-year-old mystical working woman this year.
Happy birthday, Madame Sosostris – and your “wicked pack of cards,” too.
Currie, Robert. “Eliot and the Tarot.” ELH, vol. 46, no. 4, 1979, pp. 722-733
Eliot, T.S. “The Wasteland.” Poetry Foundation, 1922, lines 43-59.
Gilbert, Robert Andrew. “Divination.” Britannica, 2001.
Sosteric, Mike. “A Sociology of Tarot.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers Canadiens De Sociologie, vol. 39, no. 3, 2014, pp. 357-392.
An Athenæum Azostos Reflection on Approaching Babalon: Essays for the Abyss by Dr. Georgia Van Raalte
When Approaching Babalon by Dr. Georgia van Raalte (published by Temple of Our Lady of the Abyss, also known as Templum Abyssi) was nominated as a “small” book to fill in between classes and Dionysian work to be explored this Summer, it seemed unanimous and easy – we would approach Babalon and dive headfirst into the Current of the great paradoxical and primordial Goddess. If nothing else, we had been brought together by the Liminality of the Great Mother Worker from Afar… why not bond and pulse under the All-ness of the Great Mother within Us all?
We had not yet learned how to properly read the flows of the Current. We knew we were in it; we knew the Current had surged and eddied over the course of the last year or so. We had waded through Liber Khthonia, submerged ourselves in The Clovenstone Workings, and eddied and backflowed into various classes and interviews. We had bathed in it, relished. We had become great swimmers. The Current beckoned and we begged and it began and it bided and we birthed and it based. Gimme gimme, we called. Gimme gimme, it retorted.
“She is that which we call shadow. We cannot see Her – but we know Her solid for why else would this great shape rear where the light should be? She would be invisible if not for Her veil, which shimmers in folds round her vacuous solidity. There is no image of the the Goddess but the breasts and the rose; the moon and, sometimes, the honey bee.”
Dr. Georgia van Raalte, Approaching Babalon, page 35.
Much like attempting to grasp water or air or abstractness, however, Babalon did not prove quite as “small”; nor did She flow in any one direction like the known streams of simplicity or the tides of timidity. She was ethereal but immovable, ephemeral but incessant, elaborate, intentional, enigmatic, and thoroughly untamed; She is anti-precious, anti-breakable, anti-graspable, anti-comprehendable, anti-definable. For the uns and the ins and antis She is Queen. She is blood. She was us.
“We have coded the chthonic as Other, but we are all children of the earth and the mountains. There is far more mud in us than stardust.”
Dr. Georgia van Raalte, Approaching Babalon, page 36.
“She, the embodiment of Apocalyptic Change, came raining down on us like hellfire,” says Genaia of the Athenæum. Small, ha. Complex and deliberate and arcane, more like. Primordial, unchainable, Mistress of Mud. She of the Death and Decay and the Secrets and the Sway. Van Raalte defines her throughout the entirety of Approaching Babalon; each time a paradox – each time a rich contradiction and deep overlap of the innumerable faces of She. Give us the Abyss, Mother, give us hell. Give us all and nothing and every countable nuance of the Stars.
Says van Raalte regarding the Goddess of the “Mystery of Mysteries” (18):
“Babalon is a Modern Goddess. She has risen like a tide in response to two thousand years of the repression of the Divine Feminine in the West. Babalon is represented in a series of archetypes: the Divine Feminine, The Great Mother, The Succubus, the Initiatrix and the Holy Whore.”
Dr. Georgia van Raalte, Approaching Babalon, page 17.
“Our journey into the Abyss was not without moments of destruction and upheaval. Even now, we feel Her scorching current coursing through us; the fumes of cosmic lava shaping our very perceptions” (Genaia). There is no linear way in which to traverse and immerse ourselves into the experiences that ensued; thus, we are not reviewing. We are reflecting. We absorb. We, too, discard our fetishes for fetishes and shit in the Filth of all that is Babalon, for like you we wish to “[l]earn from the caves; [that] true divinity is hag-like. We recognize the Ancient bearded father, why do we run from the dug-breasted ancient, this matriarch of ages? All of our monsters are women of power” (van Raalte 38). We, too, are powerful women. Fetishize the monster and the whore within us as we, Suspiria-like and awe-struck and frighteningly -humbled, approach The Woman and the Monster of Power. Once again, anti-linear. Once again, anti-review. Anti-Current. Anti-All.
Babalon is not the Current in which we have always written, typed away after experience and then given to you as a pitiful gift; She is the boulder beneath the surface of the Flow, disrupting, guiding, eddying, seething, foaming, calmly, calmer, calmer… then boiling above in the Fury of Femininity as the Siren of the Deep. You are not safe here.
Remember, “Babalon is another way of saying: You are Holy and Divine, because of your flesh, not despite it” (van Raalte 18). Says Genaia, “Babalon teaches us to regard all that we know as divine. Our filth is just as holy as our flame. We are born, we live, we die – and everything we experience is of the Gods as our prayers and devotional workings.”
At the end may we beg to decay and may we cadge to melee. Give us crawling and scrounging and writhing for more or give us death. No, give us all including death and we will regurgitate it in devotion to Her, a begrimed and blackened offering, but one that is truly Us, no? For, “Our Lady is Lady of Filth” (63). Take my cup of recycled filth, please, Lady.
Babalon is an eternal echo of ecstasis, and so as to not pervert Her ascent and descent of love and blood and mud, I will close this love letter to Approaching Babalon just as quickly as it began – a rush and a gush and a flow through the Current, over the chthonically-rooted monolith of She and and back again; a watery, salty, sweaty ouroboros of flame and filth and frenzy. Heed the eddies of the Stone of Salvation here, the Boulder of Blood. Heed the Currents above and the Streams below. Run sex, flow rot, course stardust and earth. Spill the iron of our blood and drift in and out of the mycelium. Abandon all who enter and return. Renounce, relinquish, relent. Submit to The Holy Whore. But never acquiesce, dear, never accede. Until then, we still cross the Abyss.
You are not safe here…
The artwork by Brazilian artist Luciana Lupe Vasconcelos for Approaching Babalon: Essays for the Abyss was striking and perfectly illustrated the current of Babalon. You can view more of her work and find out how to purchase prints through her active Instagram account @luciferovs.
Luciana is also currently exhibiting artwork in the United States for the first time in a joint exhibition titled MAGIA PROTETORA at the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft from July 1st through September 30th, 2022. Her work is displayed with the late Darcilio Lima (1944-1991), an artist that Luciana claims “became a sort of teacher hailing from beyond the lines of his drawings.” The exhibition is curated by the Stephen Romano Gallery.
“Devotional Hymn to Babalon” by Genaia de Carrefour
From aeons past through cosmic gates,
the rising of thine infernal state.
Thy chalice filled with filth and flame,
spilling o’er thy voluptuous frame.
But not for men whose carnality seeks,
to suppress the Divine in feminine speak.
False prophets’ and their masks deny,
the truth of She, on Therion rides.
Holy of unholies,
Mother Babalon, enfold me,
(in) the Rose between us, the sting of the Bee,
Scarlet One, we sing of thee.
From fornications and sin’s delight,
to the fury of thy feral bite.
In Apocalypses, the matrix breaks,
ego dissolving in a mire of fate.
For in this blessing, death becomes sex,
the cycle completes in the pitching of breath.
An ouroboros of ecstatic sighs,
the Truth of She, on Therion rides.
Holy of unholies,
Mother Babalon, enfold me,
(in) the Rose between us, the sting of the Bee,
Scarlet One, we sing of thee.
Liberation, consummation (And I’ll call you, and I’ll see you),
Pleasure building and realized (And I’ll feel you from deep inside).
Anguished swelling, in bloody dwellings (Falling for you, dying for you),
Flowing from between my thighs (Scarlet Mother, hear our cries!).
Holy of unholies,
Mother Babalon, enfold me,
(in) the Rose between us, the sting of the Bee,
Scarlet One, we sing of thee.
An Athenæum Azostos Reflection on The Black Book of Isobel Gowdie by Ash William Mills and The Visions of Isobel Gowdie by Emma Wilby
The Early Modern period, particularly in Europe, was punctuated with witch accusations, confessions, and trials. One of the most well-known areas in which witch trials were held was Scotland, home of the notorious case of Isobel Gowdie (also known as the “Queen of the Scottish Witches”) in 1662 (Mills 16). The Celtic folklore and fantasy were deep-rooted in Scotland. As deeply rooted was Catholicism and the heresy therein of the Protestant Reformation (and the Restoration just two years prior) of Gowdie’s confessions. Catholicism and folk magic were often married – the belief in faeries or the “Faer Folk,” in some cases, was just as strong as the belief in saints or Christ. Catholicism was colored by superstition and folk magic, or “charming” and “cunning”; this was based on “the animism of the pre-Christian Scots… that is, the belief that everything that exists is linked by invisible and amoral occult forces” (Wilby 26-27).
This animism (to be compared with an “other”-ness, esoterically) and folkloric foundation, when coupled with the concepts of transformation and/or familiars, created a fanatical storm of witchcraft and its trials as exhibited in the many confessions during the European Early Modern period, especially in Scotland (as seen with the aforementioned case of Isobel Gowdie, which includes discussion of Christian concepts, also the Fae, the Devil, and animal transformations, e.g. the hare). Furthermore, much like Isobel Gowdie’s transformation into a hare (as mentioned in her real-life confessions, to be explored below), relationships between these traditional “witches” and animals (here, hares and rabbits, scientifically known as Leporidae animalia) are varied and complex: witch-familiar relations, bewitchments, transformations, and metamorphoses. This, in turn, creates that esoteric “other”-ness via animism, alchemy, and supposed folk magic that is consistent throughout much of the Early Modern period… whether with transformation of familiars, transfigurements into animals, or both. Moreover, these witch trials, albeit centuries-old, continue to color the portrayals of fictional witches’ transformations – and their animal forms and familiars – in contemporary times.
Witch-hunting exponentially increased in late 17th-century Scotland. The accusations could be for something common and menial, for example, “troubles of everyday life, agricultural problems, family tensions and disagreements between neighbors” (Henderson 52). Although the tribulations that prompted accusations could be small, the outcome was typically coerced (or possibly forced or even tortured into submission) confessions. Records show that in the period between 1563 and 1736, “at least 3,837 people were accused of the crime” of witchcraft in Scotland alone (Wilby 30). Often, in no small part due to the Protestant Reformation in Europe, old folk charms (which were often based on or rooted in Catholic foundational scripture or ceremony) were simply used by these “cunning folk” (also known as wise men or women) for matters like selling cattle for a fair price or healing a sick child (Mills). These charms virtually always called on a member of the Holy Trinity or the saints. Only in likely forced confessions was there mention of the “Devil.” However, when these conditions (Protestantism in a historically folk-Catholic area, for example) of the post-Restoration period in Scotland (post-Commonwealth, when the monarchy returned in 1660) – which inevitably caused “religious strife and tension” (Henderson 53) – were added to “both national and local factors…[c]hanges in legislation, political or military conflicts, and even the weather” created the perfect onslaught of upheaval for Isobel Gowdie and the thousands of other “witches” accused, tried, and/or confessed or executed (Wilby 30).
Witch accusations and trials were not just limited to Scotland. Although they began in Scotland officially somewhere around 1563, they had long increased after Heinrich Kramer, a Catholic inquisitor, wrote the Malleus Malificarum in 1486. Just a few decades later, the magus of the Renaissance, Cornelius Agrippa, died in 1535 (Sax 318). Shortly after that, King James I wrote Daemonologie in 1597. There were, then, manuals and guidelines for unifying the witch-hunts and persecutions; moreover, there were famous sorcerous “magi” who had infamously exemplified how a person in contract with the Devil (or with sorcery in general) may appear (as with Agrippa). Yet, even before these examples and manuals, an Irish woman in 1324 named “Dame Alice Kyleter of Kilkenny… had a demonic companion named Robin Filius Artis” (319). This was possibly the first recorded account of a witch’s “familiar” – that is, “a demon (also called a familiar spirit) supposedly attending and obeying a witch, often said to assume the form of an animal” (“Familiar”).
These familiars were “supernatural helpers, which were often shape-shifters” (Graf, as quoted in Sax 318). Nevertheless, “instead of terrifying monsters,” familiars often looked plain, unassuming, and “as simply a part of everyday life”: cats, crows, hares, toads, etc. (Sax 318). Although the familiar most often seen in books and film is undoubtedly the cat, this paper solely explores the less-popular rabbit and hare, or the animals in the Leporidae family.
In Isobel Gowdie’s second confession, she discussed the transformation not of her familiar into an animal form (a hare), but the metamorphosis of herself. Gowdie stated:
Qwhen we goe in the shape of an haire, we say thryse ower I sall gow intill a haire with sorrow and syt and meikle caire, and I sall goe in the divellis nam ay whill I com hom…we startin an hair, and when we wold be owt of tht shape we vill s caire, I am in an hairis liknes just now, but I salbe in a woman’s liknes…
(as quoted in Wilby 43)
In Eddie Murray’s 2005 translation Gowdie’s confession is modernized as:
When we go into hare-shape we say: ‘I shall go into a hare, with sorrow and sigh, and meikle [great] care. And I shall go in the Devil’s name. Aye while I come again.’ And instantly we start into a hare. And when we want to be out of that shape, we would say: ‘Hare, hare, God send thee care! I am in hare-shape just now – But I’ll be in woman-shape right now.’
(as quoted in Mills 35-36)
According to folkloric history, the hare and rabbit “are often conflated,” even if they vary in size, habit, and behavior; where they differ in folklore and in actuality is hares’ ability to be “elu[sive]… contribut[ing] to their reputation as tricksters” (Sax, The Mythological Zoo 57). Additionally, the hare is often associated with the moon, as are witches, and with fertility. Rabbits are said to be able to “be out on their own” after 28 days, which is a full lunar cycle (Andrews 303). Hares and the moon have much in common, such as colors (gray, brown, white), crescent shapes (as in leaps), and the tenet of “watchfulness” (Sax 57). The rabbit is also one of the 12 Chinese astrological symbols, representing cautiousness, gracefulness, intelligence, and “Yin” (or lunar/feminine) energy (Ng para. 2). Across the globe both rabbits and hares symbolize new life and fertility, based not just on the story of Easter, but of biological behavior and ability and speed in which Leporidae reproduce. Correspondingly, the rabbit’s history of being used as a somber way in which to administer an old type of pregnancy test (injection of urine into a rabbit) is also in the area of fertility. Thus, the amalgamation of trickster energy with both lunar and fertile energy becomes a breeding ground, both literally and figuratively, for mythos of witches and their familiars.
Leporidae are also associated with various gods and/or deities from all across the globe. “During the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the practice of worshipping Lord Rabbit” (or a rabbit-headed deity) became tied in with the traditional offerings of “mooncakes,” which are also said to come from the shape of a rabbit (Ng para. 6).
The Nordic Freya, or Freyja, is often pictured with hares as a symbol of her motherhood and fertility. The Hellenic Hermes is a god of communication, and the rabbit is frequently a symbol of the speed in which he delivers his messages. Wenet (Unut), or Wenenut, is the Egyptian goddess of the hare. As Ng states:
Given its nocturnal proclivities, the rabbit has become associated with the moon in other cultures as well. In ancient Egypt, hares (which are closely related to rabbits) were linked to the waxing and waning of the moon and the people of the city of Hermopolis worshipped a hare-headed goddess of fertility called Unut (para. 7).
In Ireland, Saint Melangell became the patron saint of hares (celebrated in the Spring), as many of those Leporidae were said to have sought her protection. Ostara, or Eostre (from whom the holiday Easter is named), is a Germanic or Anglo-Saxon goddess who is worshipped on the Spring Equinox. Moreover, Ostara was also said to be able to take the shape of a hare, like many of the gods above – and like Gowdie claimed to be able to do herself.
And yet, it still has been noted that “there is a certain connection, perplexing and obscure, between the Christian festival of Easter and the worship or sacrifice of hares” (Billson 441). Part of this parallel is the annual “Pomerania” celebration, or the hunt for hares to eat on Easter. The second part is how the children were once told “that a hare lays the Pasche eggs” (Pasche meaning “Passover,” similarly Easter) for the holiday (Ibid.). Not only does this reinforce the fertility notion with the symbol of the egg, but it also creates a “magic” take on the animal not seen in just lunar and trickster ways. Some have even speculated that oestrogen (or the Americanized “estrogen”) is derived from the goddess Eostre (Oestre/Ostara/etc.), further implying the depths of femininity, fertility, and the vitality in which birth, Spring, and Leporidae hold.
The hare has not always been a symbol of life, though. In West of Scotland Folk-Lore it was said that upon “meeting a hare while going to work would return home and not again venture out until the next meal had been eaten, ‘for beyond that the evil influence did not extend’” (as quoted in Black 85). Old legend from India explained it is “as unlucky to meet a hare as it is a one-eyed man” (Ibid.). Conversely, because of these examples and many more, in countless cultures, a hare can be considered a melancholic omen. But, for every melancholic story there is an equally silly or cunning one, if not one of pure – yet morbid fetishizing – luck (as with a rabbit’s foot). The history of the “lucky rabbit’s foot” may come “from a medieval practice where alleged victims of witchcraft wore a rabbit’s foot around their necks at midnight under the full moon to ward off evil” (Ng para. 10). Nonetheless, as exhibited with Isobel Gowdie’s confession and the idea of a witch’s “familiar,” the “hare is often credited with supernatural powers… [and] like the cat, an ally of the witch” (Black 86). In Scottish folklore hares were said to be seen as actual “devils and witches” – so much so in one Scottish myth one should not even say “hare” on the open sea for fear of disaster (Ibid.).
The word “hare” itself may have carried some heavy connotations, as with the case of Gowdie, who, according to Sax, “claimed she had taken the form of a hare when hounds surprised her,” only escaping when she used the chant listed above (The Mythological Zoo 60). Still, she “carried a mark on her back where a hound had nipped at her” before transforming back into a woman (Ibid.). This mark may have been from a hound while she was in hare-form, or it could have been a notorious “witches’ mark” (or even a familiar’s feeding mark or “mark of the Devil”). “[W]itches often have a mark of the [D]evil on their bodies,” and whether that is a birthmark, or a “teat” used for feeding a demonic familiar, it had been used for centuries to identify witches in Europe and further, as with the witch trials in New England, United States (as quoted in Sax 320).
Sometimes, though, the conflation of witches and hares became a continental phenomenon, as with the cases of “The Witch as Hare” or “The Old Woman as Hare”; in other words, there is legend of a “witch-hare” in Early Modern Europe. From the “witch-hare” stems several folktales: the first being “the belief that a witch can transform herself into a hare and in that shape perform various mischievous or malignant deeds” (this could be most analogous to the confession in which Gowdie defines her ability to transform from woman to hare and back – a skill that enables her nightly travel for witch work or “Sabbaths,” a time in which the witch would convene with their master, often the Devil or the King and Queen of the Fae); the second is most closely related to the lore of the “milkhare” – that is, a woman whose task as a “supernatural creature” was to “steal milk or dairy produce” (often straight from the animal) (Nildin-Wall and Wall 67). The milkhare stories spread all across Early Modern Europe, with the Nordic and British areas having the most concentrated histories of the legends, folktales, or myths.
Often the milkhare did not begin as a woman per se; this milkhare was created out of “heddles and bits of wood” (heddles are the loops of material on a loom), or in many cases, “besoms and scrubbing brooms” (Ibid.). Interestingly, Isobel Gowdie herself mentioned, in her second confession which contained the admission of transformation into a hare, the usage of her besom (or broom) for sorcerous acts of malicious cunning. In fact, Gowdie quite literally discussed the broom right after she finished describing her animal metamorphosis. In the historical confession:
Iff we in the haire or any uthr likenes etc goe to any of owr neightboris howsis being witches… we tak windlestrawes or beenstakis & put them betwixt owr foot and say thry ‘and hattok hors and goe, hors and pellatts ho ho’: and immeditialie we fly away whair and least owr husbandis sould miss vs owt of our bedes, we put in a boosom or a thrieand say thryse ower I lay down this boosom or stool in the divellis nam let it not ste… [damaged, words missing] com again…
(as quoted in Wilby 43-44)
Or, in Murray’s translations:
When we wanted to ride, we’d take windle straws or beanstalks and put them between our feet, and say three times: ‘Horse and hattock, horse and go, Horse and pellatis, ho! ho!’ And immediately we fly away wherever we want. And lest our husbands should find us out of our beds, we put a besom or a three-legged stool in beside them, and say three times: ‘I lay down this besom, in the Devil’s name – Let it nor stir until I come home again!’
(as quoted in Mills 38)
Essentially, the correlations here between a “witch-hare” and a “milkhare” are undeniable: a woman, or quite possibly a witch (i.e. Isobel Gowdie), transforms herself into a hare or creates a supernatural being for metamorphosis and/or baneful acts via a besom in the name of the Devil. In either case it is apparent that the parallels amount to the possibility that Gowdie’s confessions were inspired by the tales of the milkhare, since “the creature may be accompanied by the witch selling herself to the Devil” and Gowdie obviously admitted she was in league with the Devil (Nildin-Wall and Wall 67). Moreover, the two types of milkhare are the transformation of the witch into an animal or the usage of materials (and immoral pacts) to create a familiar. Lastly, there are also accounts of the witch-hare as a “trollhare,” that is, a malevolent trickster often tied to one individual witch or the Devil himself (Ibid.) Whether or not the witch-hare, milkhare, or trollhare steals milk, transforms themselves, or is a metamorphosized familiar, it is consistently – and almost always – some sort of Leporidae in Early Modern Europe, creating that continental continuity of cunning and charm. The parallels between Isobel Gowdie and the milkhare do not stop at the transformation into the hare or with the sorcerous compulsion of besoms. Gowdie also confessed to stealing milk!
Isobels’s claim that she gained milk through drawing ‘the tedder (sua maid) in betuixt the cowes hinder foot and owt betuixt forder foot’ echoed traditional folk belief (where the practice of [stealing milk] was attributed to both witches and fairies) (Wilby 84).
This practice was considered a “maleficium” – or an act of cunning or charming that is not considered benevolent. Therefore, it can be inferred that Gowdie either considered herself a milkhare, knew of milkhare mythos and sought comfort in those tales during her most likely tortured confessions, or in some magical way was metamorphosized, if not transformed a broom, into said hare. In any case, the confessions of Isobel Gowdie and her hare are captivating – and have appealed to and entranced both scholars and legend-lovers alike for centuries. Because of this Leporidae alchemy in the Early Modern period, transformations into rabbits have remained popular.
Why are Leporidae so fascinating to us, regardless of time period or culture? Rabbits persist, giving birth to large litters and embodying life and fertility. They are lucky, or watchful…or melancholic. The hare is an animal of the gods; the rabbit a siginifier of time changing, as in Spring. They mean growth, change, and inevitably as with Gowdie, alchemical transformation and the metamorphosis of self (and Self) in combination with the “other”-ness of animism and of religion. This assiduous attraction is still seen today, from Harry Potter and the “transforming rabbit,” to the Red Dead video game allowing you to play as a hare, to Witch Hazel and Bugs Bunny in Looney Tunes, to modern magicians pulling bunnies out of hats, and more. It appears it may not have started with Gowdie, and the rabbit/hare motif seems to be here to stay. With the added nuances of lunar and feminine energy, coupled with fertility and a rich history of folklore, relationships between witches and their animals (e.g. the hare) remain varied and complex via transformations, and metamorphoses. There are deep roots of animism in these concepts; because of that, the esoteric “other”-ness defined above perpetuated throughout much of the Early Modern period and into contemporary times and today. The effects of Isobel and her hare still – and possibly always will – remain.
Henderson, Lizanne. “The Survival of Witchcraft Prosecutions and Witch Belief in South-West Scotland.” The Scottish Historical Review, vol. 85, no. 219, Edinburgh University Press, 2006, pp. 52-74, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25529885.
Mills, Ash William. The Black Book of Isobel Gowdie and Other Scottish Spells & Charms. Edinburgh: Scottish Cunning Ways, 2021. Print.
Nildin-Wall, Bodil and Wall, Jan. “The Witch as Hare or the Witch’s Hare: Popular Legends and Beliefs in Nordic Tradition.” Folklore, vol. 104, no. 1/2, Folklore Enterprises, Ltd., Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 1993, pp. 67-76, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1260796.
Sax, Boria. “The Magic of Animals: English Witch Trials in the Perspective of Folklore.” Anthrozoos, vol. 22, no. 4, 2009, pp. 317-332.
Sax, Boria. The Mythological Zoo. Overlook Duckworth Press, 2013, pp. 56-63. Print.Wilby, Emma. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Sussex Academic Press, 2010. Print.
Wilby, Emma. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Sussex Academic Press, 2010. Print.