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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Precious Nature

While I usually spend my time in more distant history, I have found myself lately digging into early twentieth century pagan writings like Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willows (which I wrote about here: Nettles & Mugwort) and just recently Mary Webb's classic Precious Bane. While often connected to Thomas Hardy due to both the time period and geography they share, Webb has a much more inspiring view of nature and a generous view toward her fellow humans.

Telling the story of Prue Sarn, Webb explores many of the traditions the writer knew well from her childhood, practices that included everything from sin eating to mummers at Christmas. And she offers one of the most beautiful pieces of transcendent writing about the power of nature in Prue's moment of enlightenment. She has hid herself in the attic of their old farm house, not long after the death of her father, because her brother made her realise that her 'bane' was a terrible thing. She was born with a cleft palate, known then as a 'harelip' because it was believed, a hare spooked by the devil had crossed her pregnant mother's path, cursing her.

Her brother's offhand cruelty is compounded later when they go to the next town for market day and people suggest she may be a witch (remember, Helen Duncan was charged with practising witchcraft in the 1940s!). But all that comes later. After her first devastating realisation that she was 'wrong' -- and object of pity or disgust -- Prue runs up to the attic. And on that worst day, she also discovers a deep joy, something she had never felt in a church, that had something to do with the green trees, the scent of hay and wild roses and meadow sweet, the song of the black birds, thrushes, willow-wrens, canbottlins, finches and all.

'There came to me, I cannot tell whence, a most powerful sweetness that had never come to me afore. It was not religious, like the goodness of a text heard at preaching. It was beyond that. It was as if some creature made all of light had come on a sudden from a great way off, and nestled in my bosom.' At first Prue thinks it is something due to that day's beauty. She soon discovers that it is something more -- something that had nothing to do with the church or the Lord her parson preached on.

The apples and pears that were stored in the attic were part of it somehow, even when they were only a memory from the last harvest. Likewise the murmuring of the wild bees in their nest along the beams.

'It had to do with such things as bird-song and daffodowndillies rustling, knocking their heads together in the wind. And it was as wilful in its coming and going as a breeze over the standing corn. It was a queer thing, too, that a woman who spent her days in sacking, cleaning sties and beast-housen, living hard, considering over fardens [farthings], should come of a sudden into such a marvel as this. For though it was so quiet, it was a great miracle, and it changed my life.'

Prue may be cursed, but it led to this blessing. Without it, she says, 'I should never have known the glory that came from the other side of silence.' 

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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.


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