Gowdie, Isobel (fl. seventeenth century)
Isobel Gowdie, a seventeenth-century Scottish witch, gave a
series of confessions, all produced apart from any torture, that
seemed to confirm popular theories about Witchcraft, and became
the keystone of a new wave of persecutions in Scotland
during the reign of Charles II (1660–85). Gowdie emerged out
of obscurity in April of 1662 when she gave the first of her confessions
relating 15 years of involvement with the Devil. According
to her story, she had initially encountered Satan at the
church at Auldearne. She made a pact with the Devil that
began with her renunciation of Christianity. The Devil placed
his mark on her, on her shoulder, sucked some of her blood,
and rebaptized her with it. He gave her a new name, Janet. She
confessed her new faith while placing one hand on her head
and one on the bottom of her foot.
In her four separate confessions given over a six-week period
(April 13–May 29), a variety of supernatural elements came
to the fore. For example, she claimed that she placed a broom
in bed to fool her husband when she left in the evening to gather
with other witches. She flew through the air to her meeting,
able to slay any passing Christians she met (and who could report
her activity) unless they were able to bless themselves first.
Most important were her descriptions of the witches’ meetings,
as they represent the first clear records of the small
groups of 13 that would later become standard fare in witchcraft
accounts. Gowdie also introduced the term ‘‘coven’’ into
the trial records. Gowdie’s stories thus mark the completion of
the transition in popular culture of the view of Witchcraft as the
surviving religion of the people in pre-Christian Europe into
the view of Witchcraft as a new post-Christian Satanic cult that
existed as a complete Christian parody. It is this latter view that
the authorities had been attempting to use to support their persecution
of individuals since the end of the fifteenth century.
Gowdie also claimed that she and her fellow witches could
change into animal forms as easily as they could affect the
weather. If the witches disobeyed the Devil or missed a meeting,
they were punished with a whip.
From a contemporary perspective, Gowdie appears to have
been mentally disturbed. There is some reason to suggest that
the judges who heard her stories also concluded the same, as
there is no record of her execution. However, accounts of her
confessions would provide substantiation for the last generation
of witchcraft trials that culminated at Salem, Massachusetts,
a generation later. Interestingly enough, both Montague
Summers and Margaret Murray would take Gowdie’s accounts
seriously in their theoretical analysis of Witchcraft. Murray, especially,
referred to Gowdie in her theories of the organization
of the Witch cult into covens of 13 members.
Murray, Margaret. The Witchcult in Western Europe. Oxford
Oxford University Press, 1921.
Robbins, Russell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology.
New York Crown, 1970.
Summers, Montague. A History of Demonology and Witchcraft.
New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.