Devon, Witchcraft in
Belief in witchcraft persisted into relatively modern times
in Devonshire, England, as shown in a curious case heard in
Crediton County Court during the nineteenth century when a
young woman alleged that she was given a potion in a grocer’s
shop, and that as a result either of the draught or of the incantation
delivered while she was in the shop, she was getting thinner
every day.
Only those who have lived long in Devon can recall the widespread
belief that still existed early in the twentieth century in
remote corners of the county of the power of the evil eye and
of the credence given to all kinds of weird superstitions. Witches
were believed to be able to exercise a malign influence even
after death unless they were buried with their toes pointing
downward. Also in the twentieth century, a woman suspected
of being a witch was buried in this way within 20 miles of Tiverton.
In no part of the country was witchcraft given more credence
than in the Culm Valley. There was a local saying that there
were enough witches in the valley to roll a hogshead of cider
up Beacon Hill, at Culmstock, and old people living in the locality
were not ashamed to say that they believed in witchcraft.
The witches were considered to be of two kinds—‘‘black’’
and ‘‘white.’’ The former professed to have the power to condemn
to all kinds of misfortunes those on whom they were
asked to cast a spell; the latter claimed that they could remove
evil spells and bring good fortune. Visits to witches tended to
be kept confidential, but every now and again particulars
leaked out.
For example, a late nineteenth century report from the Culmstock
district concerns a young girl who went with her mother
to a witch to get a spell cast over an errant admirer who was suspected
of bestowing his affections on another young lady. The
witch professed to be able to bring the young man back to his
first love or to condemn him to all kinds of torture, but her
price was prohibitive, so the young man was left to marry whom
he would.
Farmers were the witches’ most reliable clients, and it is a
noteworthy fact that they generally contrived to visit ‘‘the wise
woman’’ when they were away from home, at market. Farmers
used to go to Exeter from many miles around to consult a witch
whenever they had misfortune, and it was commonly reported
that they could get the same sort of advice in the city.
At many farmhouses, Bibles were kept in the dairies to prevent
witches from retarding the butter-making operations.
‘‘I’m ‘witched’ ’’ or ‘‘I must have been ‘witched,’ ’’ were expressions
often heard in Devon. Generally speaking, it was animals
that were supposed to sustain the most harm from being ‘‘overlooked.’’
Cattle deaths were attributed to the power of evil spirits;
and according to many superstitious people, witches had a
peculiar power over pigs. A man who believed his pigs had
been bewitched was told to take the heart of a pig, stick it full
of pins and needles, and roast it over a fire. He did so, believing
it would check the mortality among his swine.
For an account of late nineteenth and early twentieth century
traditions of witchcraft in Devonshire, see the chapter
‘‘White Witches’’ in Devonshire Characters and Strange Events, by
S. Baring-Gould (1908).
Baring-Gould, S. Devonshire Characters and Strange Events.
Rev. ed., London John Lane, 1926.