Charms and rhymes characterise our memories of witchcraft from fairy tales and fantasy films. Do “Mirror, mirror, on the wall” or “Hubble bubble, boil and trouble” ring a bell?
Many of these famous examples are invented for the purposes of fiction. But charms occupy a real place in the historical record, used as proof of witchcraft in trials.
A woman believed an imp plagued the tenement where her husband lay in his sick bed. She bought a charm to chase the imp away but “[t]he charm did not work as was predicted. It was not in nature to suppose that a sixpenny charm could suffice in such a serious case. A change in the form of incantation was characterised by a considerable rise in the price of charms” (1869: 2). As with everything else, you get what you pay for!
Charms are often short rhyming verses, recited to accompany an action or in the making of a talisman. You might think they sound similar to spells, and in many ways they are. But we’ll be looking at the shorter, less complex charms in this post.
Let’s explore some charms from the historical record!
Charms to Steal Milk
In Scotland, some accused witches of stealing milk from their cattle. Robert Chambers, quoted in an 1890 edition of the Newcastle Courant, explained that the witch made a rope from hair plucked from cows’ tails.
She tied a knot in this rope for each cow. The witch apparently held the rope above a bucket, using it to mime the act of milking, while saying,
“Meare’s milk and deer’s milk
And every beast that bears milk,
Between St. Johnston and Dundee,
Come a’ to me, come a’ to me.”
Some cows apparently knew when this was going on and alerted their owners by lowing. According to Chambers, “[a]n acute old woman could easily distinguish this low from any other, as it bore a peculiar expression of pain” (1890).
Laying rowan twigs, bound together with red thread, across the door to the barn could stop the witch’s power. In Aberdeenshire, farmers tied a red thread around the tails of their cows.
Charms to Shapeshift into Animals
Famed witch Isobel Gowdie provided a range of charms during her ‘confession’ in 1662. According to legend, she’d met the Devil twice; once on the road, and once in Allerne’s kirk. To baptise her in his Satanic ways, the Devil sucked some of her blood out of a scratch on her shoulder. He spat this into his hand and baptised her with it.
When she (or other witches) wanted to turn into a hare, the charm read;
“I sall gae intill ane haire,
With sorrow and sych and meikle care;
And I sall gae in the Devillis nam,
Ay qubill I com hom againe.”
To turn back into human form, they recited;
“Haire, haire, God send thee caire:
I am in an hairis liknes just now:
But I salbe in a womanis liknes ewin now.”
They could also turn into cats;
“I sall gae intill a catt,
With sorrow and sych and a black shat;
And I sall gae in the Devilis nam,
Ay quhill I com home againe.”
“I sall gae intill a craw,
With sorrow and sych and a blak thraw,
And I sall gae in the Devilis nam,
Ay quhill I com hom againe.”
(All taken from ‘Witches Riches’, 1890). If you try any of these, you do so at your own risk…though I’d be fascinated to know if they worked!
Charms to Raise Storms
Sailors feared the ability of witches to raise tempests. Indeed, parents instructed children to break any eggshells to stop witches using them to sail out to sea. (Click here to read a short story about a storm-raising witch)
But raising storms sounds like a fairly easy spell. All they needed was a wet rag and a piece of wood. While beating on the rag with the timber, they chanted the following charm three times;
“I knock this ragg upon this stane,
To raise the will in the Devilis nam;
It sall not lye until I please againe.”
To end the storm, they dried out the rag and repeated another charm three times;
“We lay the wind in the Devillis name,
It sall not ryse quhill we lyk to raise it againe.”
(All taken from ‘Witches Riches’, 1890).
None of the sources explain why witches wanted to raise storms in the first place. Perhaps they were trying to prevent someone reaching land, as in the tale of the Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh. The wicked queen raises a storm to stop Childe Wynde, her nemesis, returning to save his sister from her evil spell.
Charms to Preserve Life
Jo Bath relates a charm intended to act as a form of literal life insurance. In the 1670s, Peter Banks, a Newcastle-based cunning man, sold year-long ‘leases’ for 20 shillings. These ‘leases’ prevented the holder from dying in that time. Sailors loved the leases, which took the form of paper charms. The wording read;
I charge you and all of you in the high sword name to assist and bless [the person] belonging to such and such a ship … from all rocks and sands, storms and tempests, thereunto belonging for this year. (2002: 12)
Those sailors who survived returned to buy a new one every year. Though the account doesn’t explain how they felt when they learned other sailors died (implying their lease had failed).
The wife of a shipwright discovered her husband had bought one of Banks’ leases. She burned it and Banks warned her she’d never be worth a groat (fourpence) because of her actions. It seems her family’s fortunes declined so perhaps Banks knew what he was doing?
Charms to Defy Witchcraft
The belief in, and fear of, witches was a very real thing in earlier centuries. Protecting yourself from witchcraft involved a range of superstitions and, you guessed it, charms.
An 1800 anti-witchcraft rhyme from Teesdale apparently kept witches at bay;
“Witchy, witchy, I defy thee!
Four fingers round my thumb,
Let me go quietly by thee!” (2002: 47)
I’m sure the irony of using charms, associated with witches, to repel witches wasn’t lost on them. Though, if the reciting of charms made you a witch… well, I’ll leave you to work out the rest.
It’s possible some witches believed in the power of their charms. For others, they may have chosen to recite simple rhymes to make a boring task more exciting. Much like sea shanties and work songs.
Either way, charms pass into legend, their original uses often stripped away when they pass out of history.
Which charms would you use?
Bath, Jo (2002), Dancing with the Devil: And Other True Tales of Northern Witchcraft, Newcastle upon Tyne: Tyne Bridge Publishing.
Unnamed author (1869), ‘Modern Witchcraft’, Newcastle Daily Chronicle, August 21, p. 2.
Unnamed author (1890), ‘Witches Riches’, Newcastle Courant, July 5, p. 1.
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