Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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What Does Isobel Gowdie's Name Mean?

The things that you learn from your students.

A group of us were reading and discussing our way through the transcripts of “17th” century Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie's trial dittays when my then-apprentice asked a stunning question: “What does Gowdie's name mean?”

In 300 years of witchcraft scholarship, apparently no one had ever thought to ask before.

Isobel Gowdie (GOE-dee: rhymes with Cody, not howdy) is arguably the most influential witch in history. Her series of detailed confessions shaped Margaret Murray's idea of what the Craft looked like—covens of 13, quarter- and cross-quarter-days—and from there the rest is Wiccan history.

Naming practices in early modern Lowland Scotland were strikingly different from those of Sassenach-land to the south. Women did not assume their husbands' surnames at marriage; they kept their own family names all their lives. So whatever “Gowdie” means, we can be reasonably certain that it was the name that Isobel was born with.

The majority of surnames at the time were patronymics. Your name identified you as either the son (Mac- or Mc-) or daughter (Nic- or Nc-) of your father. The son and daughter of a man named Donald would then have been, respectively, X MacDonald and Y NicDonald.

(Nicneven—a traditional name of the witches' Goddess—means “daughter of Fury [Nemhain]" in Scots Gaelic.)

In this way—as in contemporary Iceland—a woman, her husband, and their son and daughter could potentially all have had different surnames.

Gowdie's surname, obviously, is not of this type. Throughout Europe, the patronymic was the most common form of surname, followed by occupation names (Taylor, Baker, Smith) and nicknames usually identifying some outstanding characteristic of the eponymous ancestor.

This last is how the Gowdie family got its surname. In Lallans—Lowland Scots—it means “Goldie.”

Isobel must have had an ancestor who was strikingly blonde.

Novelists of the “19th” and “20th” centuries have been wont to paint Isobel Gowdie as a fiery redhead. As with so much else about this fascinating woman—we don't even know whether or not she was executed for her Craft—we'll never know.

But it's certainly possible that the most influential witch in history, along with the name, inherited her namesake's golden hair as well.

After all, witches generally breed true.


For A. E.

You asked.






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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