History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Kate Laity

Kate Laity

K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Midsummer: Watch Out for Fairies!

The longest day in the Northern Hemisphere is upon us: Midsummer has reached even up here in Scotland where the long days go on and on even when we don't have sun. We've had more than our share lately, which is a bit disconcerting.

I have been deep in Scottish fairy lore for a project I'm working on. It's not my usual bailiwick but I am enjoying the tour immensely. One of the unexpected delights (thanks to a recommendation of the Folk Horror Revival group) is A. D. Hope's A Midsummer Eve's Dream: Variations on a Theme by William Dunbar. I have mentioned the late medieval Scots poet in previous columns like A Headache in Medieval Scotland and A Meditation on Winter.

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Elf Shot in Scotland

In the collection Scottish Charms and Amulets George Black recounts a variety of folk practices, many of which linger on not only in word but in material form. Amulets always draw interested audiences in museums where they are on display and bring together the traditions captured in words as charms with a tangible force. Arrowheads are one popular example.

As in many places, Black notes that 'the prehistoric flint arrowheads so numerous in Scotland were long considered by the peasantry to have fallen from the clouds, and to have been used as weapons by the fairies to shoot at human beings' and also especially cattle. Like the well-known Anglo-Saxon charm Wið færstice for elf-shot cattle, there were a variety of ways to battle the illnesses presumed to be caused by the folk too small to be seen. 

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  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis says #
    Rock on! (Pun, oh, I just noticed, cool.) Thanks!

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Riding with Nicnevin

The Scottish version of Hecate (at least according to some) rides with a company of 'weird sisters' in the night, with wild plans of mischief. No wonder I think of it now that Walpurgisnacht is upon us. There's a most interesting poem that offers us insight in to the beliefs of the past. 'The Flyting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart' is a humorous verbal battle. Flyting is probably better known amongst the Norse, but the Scots have that tradition of joshing verbal battles, too. Though a challenging text, the 16th century poet Montgomerie demonstrates well the variety and force of Scottish insults (seriously!) but there's also some interesting supernatural information that usually comes in the form of scurrilous suggestions like:

 Wih warwolfes and wild Cats thy weird be to wander

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Charm for Weaving

Weaving has long been a winter activity. As the last vestiges of the cold hang on hereabouts, the thought of spring still seems distant. But friends have been sharing pictures of their new lambs so it's coming nonetheless. The whole cycle from wool to woven begins again.

There has long been an association of magic with weaving. While dismissed as 'women's work' often, its intricacies inspire wonder at its mysteries. If you don't know how to do a thing, the process can look like magic. Indeed the association goes back to the Moirai, the Parcae, the Norns and even Macbeth's three witches. The threads they weave, measure and cut -- how do they affect our fates? And what are the incantations they mutter over the threads?

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A Headache in Medieval Scotland

The long history of headaches and their relief could doubtless fill many volumes. Although at the forefront of medicine in many ways (at least for the tenth century) Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal seemed to have run out of practical solutions when he suggested lashing a mole to your head (then again have you tried it?). Hildegard of Bingen might suggest a need for more viriditas or 'greening' in your life, for "green is useful and mellow" as we know.

But sometimes there was only the suffering. Medieval Scots poet William Dunbar captures that pain well in his short poem:

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A Meditation on Winter

The medieval Scots poet William Dunbar is probably best known for his humour, but he offers A Meditation on Winter that captures the melancholy many feel at this time of year.

Into thir dirk and drublie dayis
Quhone sabill all the hevin arrayis
With mystie vapouris, cluddis, and skyis,
Nature all curage me denyis
Of sangis, ballattis, and of playis.

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Winter Cold

As the solstice comes upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere our thoughts turn to surviving the cold. While it's considerably milder here in Scotland than it was while I was teaching in New York, cold it is and cups of tea provide welcome warmth. It's hardly surprising that people in the Middle Ages measured their lives in winters survived. In many ways the mid-winter celebrations offer a chance to celebrate that hope and restore it for the lean months ahead.

It's the perfect time to consider the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, which I think of as a companion to The Wanderer. Both elegiac poems that mourn a lost past, they celebrate the power of the comitatus, the loyal troop of warriors and find poetic resonance in the harsh world of winter.

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