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Subject: ‘Magic’

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Elizabeth I preferred her magician to common roguish quacks

Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Medicine, Royalty, Superstition on Monday, 3 March 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.

Quack dentist,  picture, image, illustration
A quack might have tried to slip a worm into the sufferer’s mouth and then pull it out again, claiming that it had been the worm that caused the toothache, by Angus McBride

We have seen how the virulent plagues which devastated Europe in the Middle Ages led to an enormous increase in the number of travelling medicine-men. These “quacks” (from the Dutch “quacksalver,” who was a person who wandered the country selling salves and medicines) roamed England, shouting their wares at markets and fairs. Generally speaking, they had scant medical skill, but there is little doubt that they, at least, offered hope in an age when doctors were few.

The 14th century had slipped away unmourned and men rejoiced in the warmth and security of the Tudor Renaissance. A revolution in medicine was beginning and the first volleys were being fired in a campaign that was to weaken – and ultimately remove – the power and influence of the quacks.

An early attempt had been made in 1423 by the Guild of Physicians to ban “all quacks and empiriks and the knavish men and women who do presume to practise some sort of Physick.” The trouble with this awe-inspiring and thunderous pronouncement was that there was no real way that it could be implemented. So, the quacks continued their work unchecked.

The Reformation, with its reappraisal of traditional religious values, brought a virtual end to the selling of holy relics – alleged to have miraculous healing powers. When exposed to the chilling light of reason, many of the revered objects were simply absurd. Typical of many was the phial – reputedly containing the blood of Christ – that had led to many wonderful cures at Hales in Gloucestershire. On examination it was found to contain nothing more than the blood of a goose, renewed at weekly intervals.

In 1542, the official surgeons had abused their privileged position to such an extent that King Henry VIII produced what became known as the “Quacks’ Charter.” It pointed out that the folk-healers and quacks often did more good and had more skill than some of the recognised doctors. Also, they served the poor better and often charged them less.

Not many people nowadays actually like going to the dentist, but try and imagine what it must have been like in Tudor times. If you went to one of the many fairs, a rogue of a tooth-drawer might well try and slip a worm into your mouth and then take it out again, claiming it had been the worm that was causing the toothache.

If that did not work, you could try another booth, where a different quack – to the accompaniment of loud music and illuminated by smoky rush lights – would tap your teeth with a small bone hammer. When he found one that did not ring true, he would simply reach in with a strong fore-finger and thumb and tug it out! Primitive, but it probably worked quite well. Infected teeth could, quite literally, lead to death. Queen Elizabeth I suffered from this and, it was alleged, her rotting and poisoned teeth probably hastened her end.

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The Cave of Agonising Death was filled with human skeletons and cobras

Posted in Adventure, Africa, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Magic on Thursday, 12 December 2013

This edited article about Africa first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 489 published on 29 May 1971.

Attilio Gatti, picture, image, illustration
Explorer Attilio Gatti explored the secret cave of Kawena known as the Cave of Agonising Death by C L Doughty

Explorer Attilio Gatti knew that he was taking his life in his hands. No one had ever climbed down to the Cave of Agonising Death and lived. Despite this, and all the warnings he received, he was still determined to be the first to reveal its deadly secret.

Gatti, an Italian, had spent much of his life exploring Africa. He had visited regions where no white man had previously set foot. Everywhere he went, however, he was haunted by the secret cave known as “Kawena.”

In the language of the Mumbwa natives the word meant Cave of Agonising Death. The pit had traditionally been used by the local sorcerers and witch-doctors, who consigned anyone who displeased them to its depths.

Until he had climbed down to the cave – and successfully emerged from it – Gatti felt he had no right to call himself an adventurer.

He decided this in 1928, when in Livingstone, then capital of Northern Rhodesia.

The Mumbwa territory covered some 30,000 square miles, and it was only too easy for an expedition to enter the region and never be heard of again. Gatti, however, had little difficulty in finding explorers as enthusiastic as himself.

On reaching the area, Gatti found much of the land uncharted, and he had to compile a detailed map. A permanent camp was set up, and each day the expedition members located and charted dozens of different caves.

This proved unpleasant. The caves were infested by spiders, bats and slimy invisible creatures. They flew blindly in the men’s faces, crept up their legs, and crawled wetly over their feet.

This, plus the dampness, smell and ominous silence, would have sent many a person back to civilisation. But Gatti spent three months exploring nearly 130 caves – without success.

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The pointless Jacobite victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, London, Magic, Religion, Royalty, Scotland, War on Thursday, 12 December 2013

This edited article about Scotland first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 489 published on 29 May 1971.

Killiecrankie, picture, image, illustration
Into the valley of the River Garry came the Lowland army of General Mackay — to find itself face to face with lines of Highlanders

Thick musket smoke wafted over a valley swarming with fighting Scottish clansmen and English soldiers. With tartans fluttering in the breeze and the sun glinting on their swords, the Highlanders charged at their hated enemies. They fired a volley and then, with a fierce shout, closed in on their opponents with their terrible dirks.

Soon the air was thick with the stench of powder and the cries of the wounded.

The setting was the Pass of Killiecrankie, 15 miles north of the town of Dunkeld, where the towering grey mountains of Atholl rise with breath-taking suddenness on both sides of the valley of the River Garry.

It was the summer of 1689, and the clans of Macdonalds, Clanranalds, Glengarrys, Macleans and Lochiels – in all, about two thousand of them – made up of some of the finest fighting men the world has ever produced. Their enemy was a band of Lowlanders and Englishmen nearly three times their number, led by Lieutenant-General Hugh MacKay.

In the valley on 27th July, 1689, the fighting began. Viscount Dundee, Scotland’s warrior peer, brought his Highlanders to within 50 yards of the Lowlanders. Volley after volley was fired from both sides and charge after charge was made by the Highlanders.

Thousands were to die before the battle was over. The heather-covered land from the River Garry to the Pass of Killiecrankie was to be choked with the cut and mutilated dead.

Why? What was it all about? What was the point of all this slaughter?

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Llangollen was home to some famous sightings of fake fairies

Posted in British Towns, Historical articles, History, Magic, Music on Monday, 2 December 2013

This edited article about Wales first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 471 published on 23 January 1971.

Plas Newydd, picture, image, illustration
Plas Newydd, Llangollen, home to the "Ladies of Llangollen"

St. Collen paused and looked around. He saw a valley which Hazlitt was to describe many centuries later as being “like an amphitheatre, broad barren hills rising in majestic state on either side with green upland swells . . . and the River Dee babbling over its stoney bed.” He realised that this was a natural meeting place and knew that he had found what he was seeking. There he built a small hut and the first church, so that the place became known as Llangollen – Collen’s enclosure.

He had been educated at Orleans and had spent some time at Glastonbury and in Brittany before setting out on the journey which had brought him to this spot in North Wales. At that time, in the 7th century, the place must have seemed very remote and, although perhaps the saint had some hopes that a few pilgrims might come to it, he could not have foreseen that the town which was to grow up round his church would be world famous for the warmth of its welcome to visitors.

Probably the most he had dreamt of was achieved in 1200 when Valle Crucis Abbey was founded for the Cistercian monks between the town and the foot of the Horseshoe Pass. Little now remains of this except the West Front, but we have a poem by Guttyn Owain which describes the costly carvings of foliage in the choir and also the great welcome which was given to travellers, with a meal of four courses of meat served on bright silver dishes and accompanied by fine wines.

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Count Cagliostro was an opportunistic alchemist with a bogus aristocratic title

Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Mystery on Thursday, 14 November 2013

This edited article about Count Cagliostro originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 459 published on 31 October 1970.

Cagliostro, picture, image, illustration
The wealthy flocked to cash in on Cagliostro's "invention" for turning lead into gold, but all the invention did was lighten the pockets of the credulous

Many famous and illustrious men have made a success of their lives after an unpromising career at school. Similarly, some of the world’s greatest rogues have been late starters.

Joseph Balsalmo, better known – quite inaccurately – as Count Cagliostro, was one of them.

He was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1743, and seems to have been remarkable only for his sloth which lasted until he was sixteen. It was then that he and some of his friends persuaded a local goldsmith to visit a lonely cave in the middle of the night by telling him that it was full of treasure. The boys dressed themselves up as demons and jumped out at the wretched man, who was so terrified that he parted with no less than sixty ounces of gold.

It was an incident that made a deep impression on Joseph Balsalmo, and even though he had to leave home because of it, he had learned something that was to alter the course of his life – the fact that some people will believe anything if it is presented to them in a convincing manner.

Balsalmo drifted towards Messina, where for a time he worked for a famous alchemist called Althotas, from whom he picked up a certain amount of chemistry, and a working knowledge of the occult, and some letters of introduction. Thus equipped, the young man from Palermo selected for himself the impressive sounding name of Count Alessandro Cagliostro and set out for Rome.

The newly created Count worked hard in the Imperial city, manufacturing a youth-giving elixir and building a laboratory in which he planned to turn lead into gold. On this latter project he worked untiringly. Rome was full of wealthy men who were anxious to cash in on such a discovery, and Cagliostro discovered that he had an almost infinite capacity for work now that he was doing something dishonest. He continued to make money from his supposed invention until his marriage to the beautiful Lorenza de Feliciani.

Lorenza is reported to have been not only lovely, but “graceful, soothing, clever and attractive in all ways dear to men.” She was also as naturally dishonest as her husband, and together the so-called Count and Countess set off to travel the world and lighten the pockets of the credulous wherever they might be found.

Persia, Arabia, Poland, Egypt, Russia, Germany – in every land the short, moon-faced little man and his beautiful wife met with astonishing success. After a time Cagliostro tired of raising money against his process of turning lead into gold and turned instead to magic cures, aided by an impressive array of Egyptian figures, cabalistic signs and the usual wizard’s stock in trade. Nobody seems to have called his bluff. Possibly Cagliostro’s rich clients had only imaginary diseases in the first place – naturally he had no interest in the poor – and in any case the impostor Count never stopped long enough in one place for anyone to demand their money back. From magic “cures” it was only a short step to foretelling the future, and for a while this proved to be the most profitable confidence trick of all – until in 1772, when he reached England.

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Witchcraft survives in tribal and modern societies

Posted in Africa, America, Customs, Historical articles, History, Magic, Medicine on Wednesday, 6 November 2013

This edited article about witchcraft originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 448 published on 15 August 1970.

Witch doctor, picture, image, illustration
Witch doctor by Angus McBride

The trouble about being a witch doctor is that your tribe is liable to be angry with you if you fail to deliver the goods. An extreme example of this used to occur with alarming regularity on the coral island of Niue in the South Pacific well over a century ago.

The island’s medicine man, which is another, more widely-used name for the witch doctor, also happened to be the king of the island. His “medicine” was not strong enough to make the crops grow, so his people killed him. They killed his unfortunate successor for the same reason and went on killing those foolhardy enough to ascend the throne. Finally, the monarchy ceased to exist: there were no more volunteers for the job!

We now leave the grim story of witch-hunters and their victims in Europe and America and enter a world where witchcraft still has a hold on people in Africa and elsewhere.

The witch doctor tends to have two main functions. The first is to treat illnesses in his tribe by drugs or charms, the second to practise sorcery, magic or prophecy, in other words witchcraft.

No one should sneer at primitive drugs. It has been estimated that nearly every Red Indian tribe learned down the years which herbs and berries could be used as medicine to cure diseases. The knowledge was handed down through the medicine men, who were usually more important than the war chiefs, and through the women of the tribe. A typical example of this is the use of quinine and cocaine by South American medicine men.

As for sorcery and magic, this ranged – and still ranges in some parts of the world – from Indians in the South-West of the United States performing dances to bring rain, to a primitive tribe in southern India who were so famous for their powers of witchcraft that other tribes in the area hired them as witches to kill off their enemies. These are typical examples of good and bad, or “white” and “black” magic.

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Witch-hunting was commonplace in all parts of the British Isles

Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Religion, Scotland, Superstition on Tuesday, 5 November 2013

This edited article about witches originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 447 published on 8 August 1970.

Isobel Gowdie, picture, image, illustration
Fairies were not always regarded as "little people" in the 17th century, and, as the picture shows, Isobel was probably enjoying herself with a band of outlaws or hill-dwellers, by Angus McBride

The horrific news from America reached London in February, 1693. The diarist, John Evelyn, made a note of it. “Unheard-of stories of the universal increase of witches in New England; men, women, and children, devoting themselves to the devil.”

This appearance of the Devil in the village of Salem in Massachusetts is the most famous of all witchcraft cases, apart from Joan of Arc. Books, plays, films and an opera have been written about it. It was one of those awful occasions when a whole community seemed to go mad.

It began when a West Indian slave named Tituba, and two old women, were accused by some young girls of bewitching them. Hysterical frenzy swept through the small Puritanical community. No one was safe. Before the reign of terror ended hundreds had been arrested, the jails were overflowing, 19 men and women had been hanged, and one old man literally pressed to death.

Fortunately a reaction set in. In 1693, a year after the nightmare had started, the Governor of Massachusetts reprieved all the prisoners still held in jail on charges of witchcraft. It was over.

* * * * *

Some of the men who hunted witches, the dreaded witch-finders, were sincere fanatics, but some were sadistic beasts, who sprang into prominence when the Church began to hound witches as heretics and members of Satan’s Army. Many witches were simply celebrating ancient, pre-Christian rites, but some were dangerous and truly wicked.

A famous example of this occurred in Scotland in 1590, when a gang of high-class witches, including a lord’s daughter and a schoolmaster, plotted to kill James VI, later James I of England.

They made a wax effigy of James, and, if sticking pins in this did not work, they were prepared to poison him. The Devil in their coven was no less a figure than the Earl of Bothwell, nephew of Mary, Queen of Scots’ notorious husband. He was after the throne.

The plot leaked, and as the crime was not simply witchcraft but high treason, horrible torture was used to extract confessions. Torture was standard practice on the Continent, not in Britain.

James himself was very interested in the trials as he was convinced that a great storm which had nearly wrecked him on his way to Denmark had been planted by the witches. It gave him good material for his best-selling guide to witchcraft, Daemonologie.

Bothwell lived to tell the tale. The higher the social scale you were in the better your chances of escaping a charge of witchcraft. For instance, in the Wars of the Roses, everyone in the royal circle was accusing everybody else of being witches, but nothing came of it.

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Pope Innocent VIII began the European craze for burning witches

Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Religion on Friday, 1 November 2013

This edited article about witchcraft originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 446 published on 1 August 1970.

Witch hunt, picture, image, illustration
Ducking a suspected witch by Angus McBride

Heaven help you if you had a scar or a mole in the 17th century and you were suspected of being a witch. If a professional witch-finder was after you, your chances of escaping were slim.

Witch-finders carried sharp pins to see if “Devil’s marks” bled. If they did not, you were a witch! Some members of this nauseating profession appear to have used fake knives, which slid back like some of today’s toy ones, others pricked scar tissue, which does not easily bleed, others just lied. The result was the same. Another “witch” went to the gallows or the stake.

Last week we saw how the witches of the Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages, who practised old, pre-Christian, pagan rites, were not interfered with unless they did actual harm. We finished at the grim moment in the 13th century when the Church began to pounce on witches as heretics, members of Satan’s Army, and when people seriously began to believe that a monstrous conspiracy of evil was at work, fighting to destroy the Church.

The key date in the story of European withcraft is 1484, when Pope Innocent VIII directed Inquisitors and others to put witches to death because they were part of a vast organisation committed to working harm by sorcery.

Several years later, an infamous do-it-yourself witch-hunters’ text-book appeared in Germany, called Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches). It was written by a fanatic named Sprenger, and led to a trail of blood and fire across Europe.

The terrifying thing about this book, and others that followed it, was that they assumed guilt to start with and encouraged torture to extract “confessions.” No one was safe. Any illness, or even pain, could be blamed on witches. It reached the state that the few people who refused to believe in the flood of nonsense that was rampant, were liable, if they spoke up, to be burnt as suspects themselves.

A French judge boasted in 1597 that he had condemned 900 witches in 15 years. On one nightmare day 400 witches were burnt at Toulouse. Germany, Italy and Switzerland had massacres almost as appalling. Children were burnt. Wives whose husbands could vouch they were at home were burnt for attending Sabbats (or witches’ gathering). The wretched husband was told that a devil disguised as his wife had been with him! Faced with “facts” like these the victim had no chance.

Fortunately, in Britain there were no wholesale massacres and some accused persons actually got off! But witchcraft was allegedly rife and many were hanged or burnt. King James I was a leading expert on witchcraft, publishing a best-seller called Daemonologie, which was a great help to British witch-finders.

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The persecution of witches from Pagan times to the Middle Ages

Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Religion, Superstition on Friday, 1 November 2013

This edited article about witchcraft originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 445 published on 25 July 1970.

Witch at her cauldron, picture, image, illustration
The Witch's brew by Angus McBride

“Witches and sorcerers within these last four years are marvellously increased within your Grace’s realm.” Bishop Jewell sternly warned Queen Elizabeth I in a sermon he preached in 1598. Many years before an expert had calculated that more than 1 ½ billion devils were stalking the earth. Another less pessimistic one claimed that there were only 17 ½ millions of the fiends at large.

The story of witchcraft is strange and often horrifying, but it is important to remember that even the most intelligent people used genuinely to believe that witches, in league with the Devil, were capable of all manner of evil, from causing death by spells to blasting crops and starting storms.

This does not excuse the terrible persecutions that took place – a thousand witches were put to death in a single year in one small Italian town – but does enable us to understand how such things could happen. In our own century worse things have occurred without the excuse of superstition. Possibly as many as several thousand witches were executed in Britain, and nine million in Europe, between 1400 and 1740. But six million Jews were killed in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

We shall be looking at European and, particularly, British witchcraft before the persecutions began. Later, we will consider the oldest forms of witchcraft, practised to this day in some parts of the world by witch doctors and medicine men: exciting and weird as these are they are rather different from the witch cults of Europe, except for the basic belief that one human can have a diabolical – or friendly – power over another.

* * * * *

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Werewolves are creatures of legend immortalised in horror fiction and films

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, Legend, Magic, Myth on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

This edited article about werewolves originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

Priest and werewolf, picture, image, illustration
In C12 Ireland a priest has to pass the night in a wood, and while sitting by a fire he has built is approached by a talking wolf, who says that he and his wife have been cursed and transformed into werewolves and need the priest’s help

If you find the skin of a wolf hidden in the hollow of a tree, you must sprinkle the skin with pepper. That will make it too itchy for the Werewolf to wear.

But what is a werewolf and how has it come to lose its skin?

The explanation was simple to the early Europeans who believed in magic and the strange creatures that bewitchment could produce.

“Werewolf” comes from two Old English words which mean “man-wolf.” And that tells you what these creatures were thought to be.

They were men who had been changed by some magic power into wolves which hunted by night for human flesh.

At daybreak, they returned to their human form. They did this by taking off their wolf skin and hiding it. If the skin were hidden in a cold place, the owner would shiver all day. And if the skin were found and destroyed, the owner would die.

The kindest act was to pepper it so that the owner could not put it on again. Perhaps he would thus remain a human forever and put aside his vicious hunting ways.

In French-Canada, a werewolf was called a loup-garou. Here it was believed that a man became a loup-garou because of a curse or as a punishment from heaven. One man, so the story goes, became a loup-garou because he had not been to church for ten years.

For many centuries, werewolves were seen and feared in Eastern and Western Europe and Asia. It was thought that the only way to kill one was to shoot it with a silver bullet.

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