Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Manx witchcraft and sorcery probed by academic

THE Isle of Man's magical past is being uncovered by a leading authority on ancient and medieval paganism. Professor Ronald Hutton, professor of history at Bristol University, has been researching witchcraft in the Island as part of a book exploring the history of witches throughout the world. Here.

Last week he gave a lecture on the Changing Face of Manx Witchcraft — based on research carried out in the Island — at the Manx Museum, Douglas. Professor Hutton explained his interest in Manx witchcraft, saying: 'In the Middle Ages the Isle of Man had the reputation of being the part of the British Isles most steeped in sorcery. 'In the 17th century it became the only place in the world of the Anglican Communion in which people were burned for witchcraft. 'In the 20th it turned into the world capital of a newly-appeared pagan witch religion.'

Between the Middle Ages and the present day, he said witchcraft passed through seven different forms, and he is keen to find out the reasons for the developments. 'The three biggest changes were, firstly, in the medieval/early modern period people believed witchcraft as something nasty that human beings do to each other,' he said.

'It was using magic to hurt you, either because the person doing it just hates you or because they want to get richer at your expense. It's bad and it's punished. 'In the 19th century the belief changes into seeing witches as probably imaginary people who fly on broomsticks and gather in covens to worship Satan.

'It's an idea that comes in from the continent via Scotland. In the 20th century, witchcraft is a pagan religion which worships the forces of nature. 'This matters most because it's produced a main religion of pagan witchcraft called Wicca.' In the Island, only one person was killed for being a witch.

Professor Hutton said: 'A mother and her son were burnt in Castletown square in 1617. We don't know the details because they don't survive.' While the mother was accused of being a witch, her son was condemned to the same fate by association. 'That was the first and last time people were killed for witchcraft in the Island. It was an immensely traumatic case which divided the Island. After that the Manx never wanted it again.'

In addition, there were two other witchcraft trials in the Island. In 1568, a trial got called off on a technicality and 1594 'the witch' was given a reprieve. The death penalty for witchcraft was abolished by the English Crown in 1736. The last witchcraft trial in England was in 1712. It was1727 in Scotland.

It has often been said that people found guilty of witchcraft were rolled down Slieau Whallian, in St John's, in a barrel. But Professor Hutton said: 'It is a 19th century legend which in turn is a Scottish legend which in turn is a German legend. It never happened. Darn, I always thought that was true. KM

'It first appears in the 1840s. It could be that people weren't allowed to accuse their neighbours of witchcraft any longer so they developed a story of what they would like to do to them instead. 'Or it could be that it's actually a way of saying we should be nicer to people because look at what we used to do to witches when we were bigoted.'

A witchcraft museum was opened at the Witches Mill, in Castletown, in 1951, after it was taken over by Gerald Gardner.

Professor Hutton said Mr Gardner was the first great publicist of Wicca and may have founded the religion himself. He was known to have a coven in the Island. Mr Gardner made the museum a success, even though no one thought the mill was connected with witches. He turned up and started the story.

'He turned what was meant to be a museum about witchcraft into a shop window for his religion. After his death in 1964 the Museum of Witchcraft was inherited by Monique Wilson and her husband, who carried on his work. 'For about 20 years Castletown was one of the world's centres of publicity for Wicca.'

The museum closed in 1973 but Professor Hutton said he thought there would still be Wiccans in the Island. 'I don't know them but it would be nice to think they're still here,' he said. Professor Hutton, who is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries, is one of the most recognised historians on British television. Last week's lecture was Professor Hutton's third appearance on the museum's winter lecture programme, with previous talks on the English Civil War and Druidism.


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