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Witchcraft fantasies

Around 1813 or 1814 the residents of Chesterfield and Lancaster in South Carolina were stirred up by sensational rumours. A girl accused one Barbara Powers of Chesterfield of transforming her into a horse and riding her to exhaustion. The supposed witchery began when the girl laid down to rest after a tiring day’s labour. While in this state she claimed that Powers appeared and sat upon her chest, violently choking her. Family and friends of the girl forced Powers to come and touch her and say over her ‘God bless you’, thereby breaking the spell. The girl apparently recovered. But this was not the end of the matter.

Chesterfield County, named after the English statesman Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773), was created in 1785, and was predominantly settled by people of British descent. The village of Chesterfield was founded as the county town, and around 1813 probably numbered less than a hundred people. It was not a complete backwater though; a decade before the events above a stagecoach and post road had been constructed a few miles south and the village’s proximity would slowly but surely increase the size of Chesterfield.60 Chesterfield village had its own courthouse and jail by 1843, but in 1813 the prosecution case brought by Powers had to be heard at Lancaster. Judge David Johnson, later elected governor of South Carolina, oversaw the trial, and one of the lawyers in the case, Stephen D. Miller, would follow in his footsteps, becoming the twenty-fifth Governor of the state.

Seven or eight of those involved in coercing Powers were tried. They stood accused of assault, battery, and false imprisonment. The girl was sworn to give testimony and explained how during her drowsy torment Powers turned her into a horse and rode her to Lancaster village. There Powers passed through the keyhole of several shops and brought out valuable goods, and then rode her back to Chesterfield. She subsequently set out on another similar raid to steal items from shops in Cheraw—the oldest settlement in Chesterfield. The girl said she was left utterly worn out and ill from such supernatural abuse. Judge Thompson stopped further testimony, and apparently said later that he had proceeded with the trial out of curiosity.61

A decade later, similar evidence was heard during the trial of a folk healer before the Superior Court of Exeter County, New Hampshire. An Irishman, aged around sixty-years-old, testified how he sank into despondency after the death of his wife and became convinced that he was bewitched by an elderly woman who lodged in the same house, and another woman in the neighbourhood.62 After he lay down to rest they would enter through the keyhole of his bedroom door and flash strange lights at him, making peculiar signs and gestures. Sometimes the spirits of other women joined them and they would sit down in the chimney comer and smoke pipes. They also appeared to him in the shape of horses: ‘once I heard a horse come near the house in the evening, and pass into the field directly under my window. I looked out and saw him feeding. I took a halter in my hand and went to catch him. I went close up to him, put my arm round his neck and was just drawing the halter when—faith, there was no horse!’ He consulted one Dr Scoby who offered medicine that was ‘good against witches’, and who subsequently defrauded him.

Such extraordinary testimonies could be put down to the mental illness of the individuals concerned; the hallucinatory symptoms of the Chesterfield girl’s nervous exhaustion, and the Irishman’s obvious depression. Medical factors no doubt played their part, but the content of their hallucinations were not an aberration. The notion of being ridden by witches and the nocturnal visits of witches in spirit form were rooted deep in the relationship between legends, tales, dreams, the waking imagination, and physical experience. Witch riding provides the most vivid illustration that witches were more than mere vindictive humans: they were spiritual entities too.

Accounts of witches riding to gatherings on people they had transformed into horses can be found in legends and folk tales from across the USA, so too the belief that they rode horses at night leaving them sweating and with tangled manes when their owners found them in the stable the following morning.63 The prevalence of these stories is hardly surprising considering they were also integral to witchcraft beliefs in Europe, encountered in the witch trials, depicted in the art of the period, and recorded many times by folklorists. In nineteenth-century Europe witch riding was not just the subject of idle story-telling. Considerable social disruption was caused in the rural Swedish village of Gagnefin 1858, when 130 or so children, mostly girls under nine years of age, claimed they had been abducted by witches and ridden to nocturnal Sabbats. Over 700 people were directly affected by the rumours.64

Witch riding was also a strong theme in African-American belief. The folklorist Harry Hyatt collected numerous accounts during the mid-twentieth century, including the experience of a gentleman from New York: my mother and father had gone to bed, and mother was making a funny noise like they do when they try to get their breath. And my father saw this old witch leaning over my mother. And my father knew it was her.

They called it riding her. So he jumped up and grabbed her. He saw her.

She looked like herself but she was not as visible. And my father said she changed just as quick. She turned into a leather strap and slipped through his hand. He stood there holding the strap.65

There has been speculation that witch riding was one of those folk notions that derived from Europeans. One argument for this was that riding horseback was little known to West Africans, and although other animals were ridden, the act of saddling and bridling, which are common to most witch-riding legends, was not relevant.66 Yet the concept of flying witches and the magical significance of riding were a part of African belief systems. Equestrianism was actually an important iconic element in West African art, with ritual sculptures and carvings depicting the act of riding horses and other animals in Kongo and Yoruba cultures.67 It is well recorded in East Africa that witches were thought to ride on hyenas in a similar fashion and for a similar purpose as the European riding witches.68 So, again, as with a lot witchcraft belief, not so much wholesale borrowing but adaptation and assimilation of similar concepts and notions between different cultures.

The experience of being witch-ridden was more than just a fantasy bom of dreams and legends. The clinical condition known as sleep paralysis was clearly responsible for many such manifestations of witchcraft. Sleep paralysis occurs as a result of the interruption of REM sleep episodes when there is intense central nervous system activity but muscles are rested. For a brief moment, but for what can seem like an age, those whose REM sleep is interrupted, usually when sleeping in a supine position, can see and hear but cannot move. In this half-awake halfdream state, sufferers feel a crushing weight on the chest and legs, or the sensation of being choked, and can experience hallucinations of entities either in the room, sitting on them or smothering their paralysed body. These hallucinations are culturally determined. So a number of well-recorded cases of supposed alien abduction from the 1970s and 1980s can be put down to sleep paralysis. When witchcraft belief was widespread and legends of witch riding a staple of fireside stories, people saw old women or ‘hags’ astride them. Sometimes these were fantastical creatures, sometimes the visions of known individuals. We find examples in the American witch-trial records of the seventeenth century.69

There is no better first-hand account of the experience that that of the former slave William Grimes, writing in 1825. He recalled that while in service to a brutal master in Savannah, Georgia, he had at different times of the night felt a singular sensation, such as people generally call the night-mare: I would feel her coming towards me, and endeavouring to make a noise, which I could quite plainly at first; but the nearer she approached me the more faintly I would cry out. I called to her, aunt Frankee, aunt Frankee, as plain as I could, until she got upon me and began to exercise her enchantments on me. I was then entirely speechless; making a noise like one apparently choking, or strangling. My master had often heard me make this noise in the night, and had called to me, to know what was the matter; but as long as she remained there I could not answer. She would then leave me and go to her own bed. After my master had called to her a number of times. Frankee, Frankee, when she got to her own bed, she would answer, sair. What ails Theo? (a name I went by there, cutting short the name Theodore) She answered, hag ride him sair.

He then called to me, telling me to go and sleep with her. I could then, after she had left me, speak myself, and also have use of my limbs. I got up, and went to her bed, and tried to get under her coverlid; but could not find her. I found her bed clothes wet. I kept feeling for her, but could not find her. Her bed was tumbled from head to foot. I was then convinced she was a witch, and that she rode me. I then lay across the corner of her bed without any covering, because I thought she would not dare to ride me on her own bed, although she was a witch. I have often, at the time she started from her own bed, in some shape or other, felt a shock, and the nigher she advanced towards me, the more severe the shock would be. The next morning my master asked me what was the matter of me last night. I told him that some old witch rode me, and that old witch, is no other than old Frankee. He cursed me and called me a damned fool, and told me that if he heard any more of it, he would whip me. I then knew he did not believe in witch-craft. He said, why don’t she ride me? I will give her a dollar. Ride me you old hag, and I will give you a dollar. I told him she would not dare to ride him.70

Being hag-ridden was a traumatic experience causing fear and anxiety that could disrupt sleep patterns further, generating a cycle of sleep paralysis attacks. There was no more physical and disturbing a proof of witches’ power over peoples’ bodies.

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