Pendle Hill, seen from the back of my house, in May.
The Soul of Gaia is the numinous earth beneath my feet, her soil cradling the bones and the stories of the ancestors who have died into the land and become part of the ever-living spirit of the place.
An expat writer, my home is everywhere and nowhere. A wanderer, I have lived in many different places, from Minnesota, my birthplace, with its rustling marshes haunted by the cries of redwing blackbirds, to Bavaria with its dark forests and dazzling meadows and pure streams where otter still live. But I don’t know if any place has touched me as deeply as Lancashire, England, my home for the past fifteen years.
As a novelist, evocation of place is my passion. The question I ask myself is what makes this place I’m in now unique, unlike any other place I’ve ever been? What song does the land sing? What stories does it have to tell? What ancestors and elders cry out from the depths of this earth? I am obsessed with local history and regional folklore, how these stories merge with the landscape itself. History is a fluid thing that, together with folklore and myth, continually shapes the present. As contemporary British storyteller Hugh Lupton has said, if you go deep enough into the old tales and can present them in an evocative and meaningful way to a modern audience, you become the living voice in an ancient tradition—the highest aspiration I have for my own writing.
In 2002, when I moved to the Pendle region of Lancashire in Northern England, I thought I knew its history. After all, I’d studied the Industrial Revolution which had its genesis in these Pennine hills, so poor for farming that the people took to weaving imported cotton on the newly invented machine looms. The ruined old factories and mills, long emptied of their noisy machinery, still stand sentinel over the moors and remember forgotten days. The back of my house looks out on Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received his ecstatic vision that inspired him to found the Quaker religion in 1652. But I arrived knowing next to nothing about the Pendle Witches of 1612 who cast their everlasting spell on the land only a generation earlier. It wouldn’t take long, however, before they cast their spell on me.
In Pendle, images of witches are inescapable. They appear on pub signs, beer mats, bumper stickers, the sides of buildings. An entire fleet of double-decker buses, traveling between Manchester, Nelson, and Colne, is adorned with giant witches straddling broomsticks and silhouetted against the full moon. Signposts with flying witches point out the Pendle Witches Trail, a scenic drive which takes tourists from the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford, through the Trough of Bowland with its rugged moorland and deep-cleft valleys, to Lancaster Castle and Prison, where the witches of Pendle Forest met their doom.
“Mary, why are there witches everywhere?” a visiting American friend asked me as I drove her through the countryside. She seemed to find these omnipresent images unnerving. Perhaps she secretly feared she had stumbled into some bizarre enclave with a cult like the one depicted in the film, The Wicker Man.
“Relax,” I told her. “It’s just the local folklore.”
Back then I quite mistakenly believed that the Pendle Witches belonged to the realm of fairy tale and ghost story. The truth, when I took the time to learn it, would change me forever.
In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches, based on testimony given by a nine-year-old girl and her brother, who appeared to suffer from learning difficulties. In court clerk Thomas Potts’s account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613, he paid particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts described her:
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no
man escaped her, or her Furies.
Not bad for an eighty-year-old lady! When I read this passage, I fell in love. Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written expressly to condemn her. This is the kind of heroine every novelist dreams of creating—except Mother Demdike was better than any fiction. She was real.
In a burst of obsessive energy, I immersed myself in the local studies section of Clitheroe Library and read everything about the Pendle Witches I could get my hands on, including the novels already written about them. Robert O’Neill’s Mist over Pendle is my favorite work of fiction devoted to the Pendle Witch lore and yet, as delightful as O’Neill’s prose is, I was disappointed that he cast Mother Demdike as a sad and pathetic figure when the primary sources seemed to be pointing out that she was anything but! I longed to retell the story from her point of view, allow her to shine forth like the firebrand she was. I yearned to spin her tale as best I could so my writing could be a mouthpiece for this mighty cunning woman that the authorities had worked so hard to silence. In the course of working on my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, Demdike, who I called Bess, became a true presence, a shining light in my life. An ancestor of my heart, if not my blood.
Bess Southerns’s life unfolded almost literally in my backyard. Her essence seemed to arise directly out of the wild Pennine moorland outside my door. Writing about her wasn’t a mere exercise of reading books, then typing sentences into my computer. To do justice to her story, I had to go out into the land—literally walk in her footsteps. Using the Ordinance Survey Map, I located the site of Malkin Tower, once her home. Now only the foundations remain. I boarded my horse at a stable near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the witchfinder and prosecuting magistrate responsible for sending Bess and the other Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my chestnut mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Bess’s voice to well up from the land. Her passion, her tale enveloped me.
All Souls’ Night. The wind is eerily still—a rare occurrence in Lancashire at this time of year. I light candles, pour an offering of honey ale, raise the cup to Bess who feels so near, so present, that it makes no sense to try to “journey” to her.
I ask permission to adopt her as an honorary ancestor. I promise to serve her memory through my writing. By flickering candlelight, I recite her charms.
Later, when I venture outdoors and pour the offering of ale on the earth, the wind picks up, lifting the hair off my neck. The sheep that live in the field behind my house huddle close to the fence, as if they too feel an affinity with Mother Demdike this haunted night. Her soul shimmers forth, guiding my way as I seek to retell her story. I see a light far-shining—the light of the Otherworld illuminating this one. To be continued . . .
This article was originally published in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 79, Autumn 2010.
Mary Sharratt’s novel Daughters of the Witching Hill, first published in 2010, reveals the dramatic life of Bess Southerns, aka Old Demdike, and her granddaughter, Alizon Device. Her new novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask, set in the same era, also touches on folk magic and women’s power. Visit Mary’s website.