Scottish Witchcraft: Grissell Jaffray

Grissell Jaffrey memorial mosaic
Grissell Jaffray memorial mosaic, Dundee. Image my own.

 

Three centuries, yet still binding

She isn’t here anymore

At the plaque

Or on the patterned floor

Binding which need not have been done before.

 

A spirit restrained

Sent to the flames

The spirit of a woman, a mother, a crone

In this city she made her home

Names and confessions, freely given

Knowing there was nothing left worth living.

 

Bind the demon

Which was never present

And remains not

Nevertheless, ink stains

Mark the spot

A cross for a witch is no crime at all

When alleys are dark, and minds are small

When you ask for God to rest a soul

Which is already resting

In its own way

After all.

 

Grissell Jaffrey memorial mosaic
Grissell Jaffray memorial mosaic, Dundee. Image my own.

Grissell Jaffray was the last woman executed for witchcraft in Dundee in 1669. Originally from Aberdeen, she moved to Dundee and married a burgess. They were respectable, prosperous people, and had a son who was a successful seafarer. Few details of Grissell’s trial were kept, so it is unclear why she was accused of witchcraft and what her supposed crimes were. According to legend, on the day of her execution, her son’s ship arrived in the harbour at Dundee. He saw the smoke from the fire, and sailed back out of the city never to return.

The mosaics of torches and a plaque with her name, year of death, and the word ‘spaewife’ (Scots word for a female seer, and perhaps a softer way of saying ‘witch’) can be found on Peter Street in Dundee’s town centre. When I saw the plaque, it had been defaced with graffiti which inspired me to write the above poem. There is also a stone in The Howff, a cemetery in Dundee, which allegedly marks the spot where Grissell is buried. People often visit it to leave her small offerings for good luck.

 

Fairy Tales: The Princess As the Witch in ‘Tricking the Witch’

Following on from my ‘All Kinds of Fur’ post, I did some more research into witchlike princesses. I made a poll on Twitter asking people which they would prefer to be. The results were overwhelmingly in favour of witch, with the strongest reason having magical powers. Some also specified they would like to be a ‘good’ witch. On the other hand, people who voted for princess said they would not like to be cruel and would enjoy wearing pretty clothes. Although the poll is now expired, you can still add to the discussion. Just reply to the tweet via the above link. I’d love to hear some more opinions!

I also found another fairy tale featuring a witchlike princess in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, which is an anthology of Bavarian fairy tales collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth in the mid-19th century. It’s called ‘Tricking the Witch,’ and tells of three princesses who are captured by ‘an evil witch.’ However, instead of sitting around awaiting rescue, ‘the girls learned a few magic tricks.’ In particular, the youngest princess Reinhilda  proves to have quite a talent for witchcraft. When a prince stumbles upon them and is also captured by the witch, she gives him strict survival instructions and ‘fled with him using the magic she had learned.’ Of course a chase ensues; the witch sends Reinhilda’s sisters to retrieve her but she manages to evade them with her skills. First she transforms herself and the prince in to a rosebush, to ward off the middle princess who ‘can’t stand the smell of roses,’ and then into a church and a preacher giving ‘a stern sermon about witches and their sinister magic’ to scare off the eldest princess (I just LOVE this! Sassiness points +100!).

When the witch herself comes after them, Reinhilda takes the prince’s sword and transforms him into a duck and herself into a pond. The witch drinks the pond, and then Reinhilda changes herself back and kills the witch by using the sword to cut herself out of the witch’s body.

Aside from her immense skills with magic, Reinhilda is also clever. She knows what will upset her sisters the most and doesn’t hesitate to use it against them, and shows cunning in her carefully thought out plan to defeat the witch. The prince is a mere accessory along for the ride; Reinhilda is the fearless agent in this story. But, in spite of her obvious witchy abilities, at the end of the story she frees her sisters, marries the prince, and they all live together happily ever after. Presumably in the royal palace. Reinhilda successfully manages to be both the witch and the princess, by using her powers and also not having to relinquish her royal status in the process.

As shown by these fairy tales, princesses and witches do not always have to be opposing forces. They change the dynamic of the story by proving that you can be magical and independent as well as being royalty. You can get the happy ending and keep the mysterious powers.

Can you think of any other witchlike fairy tale princesses? Please let me know in the comments! I’d love to find more examples for this topic!

Sources

  • Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, ‘Tricking the Witch’ in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales (New York: Penguin, 2015)

Fairy Tales: The Princess As the Witch in ‘All Kinds of Fur’

This essay was my final project for The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic‘s witches in folklore and literature course, delivered by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman. The course was extremely informative and fun, and a great opportunity to share ideas with like-minded people. I highly recommend keeping an eye out for their future courses.

Credit to Sara and Brittany for presenting the theory that the princess in the fairy tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ could also be described as a witch. This resonated strongly with my own analysis of the story, hence why I chose to explore the matter further in my final project.

The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic

WARNING: CONTAINS REFERENCE TO POTENTIALLY TRIGGERING TOPICS (INCEST/RAPE/ABUSE/MISCARRIAGE)

As a child, my dressing up box was exclusively tailored towards transforming me into two things: a princess or a witch. These two masquerades could never coexist. The princess was what I wanted to be when I grew up; beautiful, admired, gracious (and hopefully with a handsome prince by my side!) I had my own Cinderella story planned out, certain that one day I would leave my mundane childhood behind and step into the world of the ball. On the other hand, the witch costume was only permitted to be worn on Halloween. The one time of the year which has no place for pretty; when darkness and magic reign and impossible things can happen. When I could forget my fairy tale ending and imagine being a cunning, powerful woman who was feared instead of adored.

The princess and the witch are both appealing characters, but for different reasons. In her article ‘The Princess and the Witch,’ Kat Howard notes that as a child she identified with the princess because she wanted to be ‘the girl at the heart of the story.’ Now as an adult, Kat reflects that she ‘want[s] to be the witch’ instead, because witches hold all the power. They make the stories, and know all the secrets like ‘what cup not to drink from’ and ‘will tell you, but only if you deserve to know.’ Backing this up, Kay Turner writes that witches have ‘unusual propensity for agency’ and ‘seem to take secret delight in going it alone in those cottages deep in the woods.’ Unlike the princess, who lets the story revolve around her, the witch makes her own decisions.

However, some fairy tale princesses manage to successfully adopt both sets of character traits and be the embodiment of the princess and the witch. They display agency and magical ability, whilst simultaneously remaining at the heart of the story and not dismissing their royal heritage. One example of such a princess can be found in the fairy tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (or ‘Allerleirauh’ in German), which was collected by the Grimm Brothers.

Allerleirauh Arthur Rackham
Allerleirauh by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

‘All Kinds of Fur’ is an often overlooked fairy tale, mainly because it includes the heavy topics of incest and abuse. In short, the protagonist, a princess, chooses to flee from her home when her father forcefully declares his intent to marry her and there is ‘no more hope to change [his] mind.’ She disguises herself as a furry animal, and gets a job in a palace kitchen. She courts the king of the palace, and at the end of the story marries him. However, like her father, he is far from kind and even goes so far as to physically abuse her in some versions. Furthermore, some versions also fail to differentiate between All Kinds of Fur’s father and the new king she marries, leaving readers to decide whether she actually escaped or not.

Controversial relationships aside, it is undeniable that All Kinds of Fur is not a typical princess. She proves she is capable of controlling her fate when she chooses to run away from her father, and the preparations she makes for this are also quite witchlike. She manages to fit ‘three dresses from the sun, moon, and stars into a nutshell’ to take with her. In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar notes that ‘the three dresses are affiliated with celestial bodies…and point to a connection with the heavens as well as with creatures on earth.’ Not only is she magically storing her clothes in a nutshell; the clothes themselves also connect her to traditionally magical and natural entities. Things which belong more in the realm of the witch than the princess. The final garment All Kinds of Fur takes with her is ‘a cloak of all kinds of fur,’ which she requested her father make by taking fur from all the animals in the kingdom. She put on the cloak, and ‘blackened her hands and face with soot,’ showing she is not afraid to be unsightly and dirty, which again is very witchlike. Witches are more likely to be ugly than princesses; there are few Baba Yagas to be found in the royal palace. Tatar says of the cloak that it ‘connects her with nature and with creatures in the forest where she finds refuge,’ and that its ‘gross animal form…masks a spiritual power.’ All Kinds of Fur’s cloak is more than a mere disguise. It transforms her into a strange, mystical creature who does not have a place in society. By wearing it she has chosen to remove herself from being a princess and instead entrust her life to the forest where she hides. In the world of fairy tales, the forest is the witch’s domain. She rules it, for good or ill, and those who enter risk peril. But not All Kinds of Fur. For her, the forest is a haven.

Charles Perrault Donkeyskin Gustave Doré illustration
Illustration for Charles Perrault’s fairy tale ‘Donkeyskin’ by Gustave Doré. Image in the public domain – source

As well as her mysterious talent for hiding ballgowns in nutshells, All Kinds of Fur is also an excellent cook. Moreover, she is not afraid to use this skill to gain shelter. She finds work in a royal kitchen, where she makes soup for the king which is so good that the chef resents her for it. They even go so far as to call her ‘a witch, you furry animal.’ Judging from her horrid appearance and her mysterious culinary skills, the people around her do not perceive her to be anything other than a witch. Yet All Kinds of Fur hasn’t forgotten her heritage. She uses the celestial gowns to secretly attend balls and court the king, and when she is alone asks herself ‘oh, you beautiful princess, what will become of you?’ Both sides of her life are disguises. Where children choose to dress up as princesses and witches, this real princess is also choosing to dress up until she decides who she truly wants to be. Her liminal time as the furry creature is, as Marina Warner puts it in From the Beast to the Blonde, a ‘transitional stage’ which ‘hides her successfully’ and gives her the time to heal after the distress her father caused her.

Allerleirauh Philipp Grot Johann
Allerleirauh by Philipp Grot Johann. Image in the public domain – source

At the end of the story, albeit at the harsh intervention of the new king, All Kinds of Fur removes the cloak and returns to being the princess. Personally, I can’t help wondering whether this is a truly happy ending. In true witchlike fashion, All Kinds of Fur seems to enjoy the anonymity of being the mysterious furry creature and creating her own destiny. At every opportunity she has to reveal her identity to the king, she lies and says ‘I do not know anything’ about the items she has magically hidden in his soup. After the third time, the king ‘grabbed the cloak and tore it off’ and she was ‘no longer able to hide,’ her healing time comes to a vicious, abrupt end which is not on her terms. She does not appear willing to give up her freedom, and the new king is not much better than the father she initially escaped from. She had the agency to run away, but now it has been taken from her.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR ROBIN MCKINLEY’S NOVEL DEERSKIN BELOW

The novel Deerskin by Robin McKinley, which is a retelling of Charles Perrault’s ‘Donkeyskin,’ features a no less peculiar, plucky princess. Just like All Kinds of Fur, Lissar has strong witchlike traits. She isolates herself from the royal court, instead preferring the company of her dog and an elderly woman who teaches her gardening. The courtiers refer to this woman as ‘a dirty, uncouth old woman, some herb-hag,’ and believe there is ‘something amiss about the princess’ because she does not act as they think a princess should. Lissar is outcast to the point that when her father declares his desire to marry her, she is called ‘witch-daughter’ and blamed for bewitching him with madness ‘to devastate his country.’ Lissar’s witchy status has two sides: the harmless reality, which is her love of animals and plants and her innocent, timid nature which isolates her from the rest of the palace, and how the courtiers perceive her, as being quietly powerful, ‘evil,’ and seeking her kingdom’s downfall. Neither side fits the image of a fairy tale princess.

Robin McKinley Deerskin
Beautiful paperback cover for Deerskin by Robin McKinley. Image By Source, Fair Use.

Like All Kinds of Fur, Lissar also shows agency by running away from her father. However, she has a great deal more to run from after he violently rapes her and she suffers a miscarriage alone in the wilderness. She is saved by the intervention of the Moonwoman, an ethereal being who seeks to help  those ‘who wish to make a choice for themselves instead of for those around them.’ The Moonwoman’s backstory is similar to Lissar’s; she too was a princess, and refused all suitors on account of them not really loving her and only wanting her to gain her father’s kingdom. After being raped by one of the suitors and rejected by her father, she ‘fled to the moon, and lived there, alone with her dog.’ In fleeing, both Lissar and the Moonwoman chose to defy the wishes of the powerful men around them and claim their lives for themselves. Moreover, both find refuge outside of society with their dogs instead of with other humans. Lissar goes to the desolate mountains and forests, and the Moonwoman to the moon. These lonely, mystical places are witch’s worlds; the moon especially has strong connections to nature, magic, and feminine power because of its cycles. Many cultures across the world worship moon goddesses, such as Selene and Luna in Greek and Roman mythology, and the Chinese Chang’e and other variations of her story across Asian countries. Throughout the novel, Lissar and the Moonwoman become synonymous. The people around Lissar call her ‘Moonwoman,’ and they trust her and her dogs to take care of them. Her agency leads her to a new life where she is accepted, in spite of having magical connotations.

The Moonwoman gives Lissar a deerskin dress, and when arriving in a new kingdom she calls herself ‘Deerskin.’ Like All Kinds of Fur, she too is not afraid to use her skills to earn shelter and employment. But instead of cooking, Lissar’s skills lie with dogs. She works in the royal palace, caring for a group of puppies which no-one believes would survive without her ‘gift’ for nursing them. Having an affinity for animals is another witchlike trait. Throughout history, many people have been accused of witchcraft for merely keeping pets, the idea behind this being that they are familiars (spirits in animal form who assist witches with magical tasks). For Lissar, although everyone thinks her gift is strange, no-one criticises her for it. She is still an outsider but because she chooses to be, as opposed to in her father’s court where she was rejected for her differences.

Allerleirauh Henry Justice Ford
Allerleirauh by Henry Justice Ford. Image in the public domain – source

Lissar’s return to being the princess is gradual. Being Deerskin provides her with time and anonymity to process the trauma she has endured. When the time comes for her to reclaim her life, the emotions she has kept hidden physically manifest themselves and she becomes the full embodiment of the witch. When she next sees her father, she does not baulk from returning the hurt he caused her in a graphic, gory spectacle. It is when Lissar is her most witchlike, gathering her innate strength to finally address and expel the memories she has been too afraid to face. This is a messy, disturbing process, filled with fire, blood, and screaming, which matches the horror she suffered. Her actions are akin to conducting a ritual or casting a spell. Her skin seeped blood, and she ‘touched her hands to the red shining pool’ and ‘raised one finger and drew a red line down her cheek.’ Her hands ‘began to glow’ and her dogs were ‘pressing around her.’ When she speaks, it is not with the timid personality of the princess she once was but with a voice of conviction and power, and her words are like that of a spell; ‘I return to you now all that you did give me: all the rage and the terror, the pain and the hatred that should have been love.’ In witchcraft, blood is a potent substance because of its connections to life. It is also associated with fear, pain, death, and fertility, making it intrinsic to everyone’s existence. The patterns of Lissar’s blood on the floor later ‘came to be declared an oracle,’ showing the strength of her declaration and the power in the blood she sheds.

Despite people’s faith in her and her connection to the benevolent Moonwoman, Lissar’s father’s courtiers still dismiss her as a ‘wild woman’ in a country ‘steeped no doubt in witchcraft.’ It is easier for them to stand by their small-minded opinion that Lissar is a witch, and therefore evil and wrong by default, than it is for them to accept the truth of the situation: that their king is a devious, lying rapist.

By the end of the novel, Lissar’s life is in a position to successfully encompasses both princess and witch. She finds a patient, non-abusive prince who loves dogs as much as she does, and speaks to her ‘low and kind, as he would speak to a dog so badly frightened it might be savage in its fear.’ In contrast with the king in ‘All Kinds of Fur,’ this prince understands Lissar’s nature and her past, and with that her need to heal before she can truly love him. Her return to royalty is voluntary, and her kinship with the benevolent Moonwoman give her a simultaneously magical and positive reputation. Lissar went through the woods, both physically and metaphorically. She used her skills and connection with nature to survive, heal, and restore her life on her own terms.

The witch and the princess will always be there, warring in our childhoods, giving us the choice between making or watching our story happen. But perhaps, as All Kinds of Fur and Lissar demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be so clear cut. Be kind. Be graceful. Wear the ballgown, and dance the night away. But also use your skills. Make your own changes. Do things in your own way. Let it be known that you are wise and powerful, and never shy away from a trip into the woods alone.

Sources

  • Robin McKinley, Deerskin (New York: Ace Books, 1993)
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (1857 version) in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)
  • Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1995)
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (1812 version) in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, ed. by Jack Zipes (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016)
  • Charles Perrault, ‘Donkeyskin’ in Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Kat Howard, ‘The Princess and the Witch’ on Fantasy Magazine
  • Mackenzie Sage Wright, ‘Practicing Witchcraft: What You Should Know About Blood Magic’ on Exemplore
  • Kay Turner, “Playing with Fire: Transgression as Truth in Grimms’ ‘Frau Trude’” in Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms, ed. by Kay Turner and Pauline Greenhill (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012)

Book Review: Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

For some reason, when I edited my blog this review disappeared. Can’t have that, since it’s my favourite book EVER. And I mean EVER EVER EVER, out of ALL THE BOOKS. EVER. So, I’ve written this new review. Which is actually borderline incoherent gushing about witches and Scotland and all of the awesomeness that this book has.

On the surface, Witch Light appears to be a historical novel. It takes place in Scotland in 1692, in the aftermath of the Glencoe Massacre. So it is based on real events, and most of the people in it are people who really lived.

In a prison cell in Inverary, a young girl named Corrag is being held for witchcraft. But that’s not all — she was also a witness to the massacre, and had her part to play in the gruesome event.

Charles Leslie, an Irishman trying to uncover the truth behind the massacre, visits Corrag to interview her. She agrees to tell him what happened on the night of the massacre, but only if he will listen to the rest of her life story first. Leslie reluctantly agrees. What follows is a story so wise, humble, and heartbreaking that it obliterates any preconceptions you may have when you initially pick up this book.

Also, just a note before I continue: Witch Light has also been published under the titles Corrag and The Highland Witch. So if you see them all, don’t get confused. They are the same book.

I’ve always been drawn to stories about witches (maybe because I’m certain that I would have been burnt as one back in the day…) I picked this up and thought ‘ah, witches. Magic, then. Some history, cool.’ Two chapters in and I knew I’d gotten way more than I bargained for. This is more than a story about the massacre, or about witchcraft. It’s the story of a girl, who loves and learns and follows her heart. The prose style is bold and charming — okay, a little heavy going at first until the novel settles in to Corrag’s life story, but once it gets there then it takes off and that’s that.

Glencoe Massacre Monument
The Glencoe Massacre Monument. Image my own.

The novel is narrated alternately by Corrag and Leslie, through letters he writes to his wife back in Ireland. This works well, because it offers two sides and in particular, two impressions of the label ‘witch.’ Obviously ‘witch’ was a dangerous thing to be called in the 1600s. As a religious man, initially Leslie is all for burning Corrag at the stake. But as he discovers more about her, his opinion begins to change. He comes to realise that Corrag is a human, and that ‘witch’ does not take that away from her. From Corrag’s point of view, we hear about the prejudice she and her mother face. Judgment is thick is this novel, with undesirable words like ‘whore’ and ‘hag’ following closely behind ‘witch.’ I think this an important aspect, as it implicates society for branding people unfairly. Because Corrag is seen to fit the criteria for being a witch, therefore she is also a whore and a hag because that’s just how witches are thought to be. But, reading her story, we can clearly see that she is neither.

Corrag’s narrative voice makes it very easy to identify with her. I don’t think I have ever connected with a main protagonist as much as I did with her. Her outlook is simple and optimistic, and she values little things like the wind blowing off the sea and how a wolf sounds when it calls. She also has feelings which are easy to relate to — loneliness, fear of pain, longing, and affection. Once in Glencoe, she gives the mountains her own nicknames which really brings the place alive. Regarding setting, I have to say that it’s pretty spectacular. I mean, come on. A place which looks like this is just BEGGING for a story.

Glencoe Scotland
Glencoe Pass by Andi Campbell-Jones

In fact, once I finished this book I lent it to my mum. Once she had finished it, she came rushing into my room and we shared this look that said ‘damn, now we have to go to Scotland!’ Proof of this book’s power right there — if makes you enthusiastic about a 10 hour car journey then it must be good. And we actually did go!

Dad found a little cottage in Glencoe to rent for a week, and when we got there we mentioned Witch Light to the owner. She smiled and nodded enthusiastically, and then told us that Susan Fletcher had rented the same cottage and lived in it whilst writing the novel. Cue the biggest fangirl freak-out of my life!

This is the cottage – the little bit of the house on the right. It had a log fire, deer came into the garden, and we got to look out of the window and see the mist on the mountains every day! Image my own.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with this book. Okay, that’s putting it mildly. I fell completely, totally, and irrevocably in love with it. I’m ending my review here because I can’t think of coherent words to explain how amazing it is. Just please, go and find out for yourselves. I think that everyone can get something out of this story. If you like historical fiction, you should read this. If you like witches, you should read this. If you like words and paper in general, you should read this. You get the picture. Witch Light defies all genres and definition. Corrag’s words will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page and nestled the book onto your shelf.

To end, here is my favourite quote for a little taster:

‘Your heart’s voice is your true voice. It is easy to ignore it, for sometimes it says what we’d rather it did not – and it is so hard to risk the things we have. But what life are we living, if we don’t live by our hearts? Not a true one. And the person living it is not the true you.’

For more information about Susan Fletcher, Witch Light, and her other books, you can follow her on Twitter @sfletcherauthor.

Also, I’m curious! I’ve said this is my favourite book, and it is (along with a couple of others which destroyed me around the same amount) If you had to pick just one or two books to be your favourite, could you do it? Why would you choose them?