The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

One of the sad defining characteristics of the seventeenth century was the hunt in Europe and early America for witches.  In America, everyone knows of the infamous Salem witch trials which took place from 1692 to 1693, but in Europe, witch burning was also all too common, and went on for much longer.

Witch Trials in the Seventeenth Century
Witch Trials in the Seventeenth Century

One of the most prodigious prosecutors of witches in the early modern age was Scotland.  An estimated four to six thousand people were accused, tried, and executed for witch craft in the late sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth century in Scotland.  Per capita, it was one of the highest rates of witchcraft persecution in all of Europe.  Perhaps the most famous of the witchcraft trials in Scotland was the confession of Isobel Gowdie.

Gowdie was a typical seventeeth century housewife, born Catholic but later converted to Protestant, married to an Elder, and other than being dissatisfied with her husband, seemed perfectly normal.  That is, until she was accused of witchcraft along with her coven in Auldearne, Scotland.  Gowdie, a woman with fire red hair and incredible beauty, was brought to trial in Morayshire, and confessed to being a witch on April 13th, 1662.  But it’s the manner of her confession, and the details therein, that are the really interesting part of Isobel Gowdie’s tale.

According to the court records, Gowdie provided her confession “without torture.”  However, in this time period, torture was only recorded as having occurred if it was ordered by the court after the trial began.  There’s a good possibility that Isobel was starved, not allowed to sleep, and possibly had her legs crushed or hobbled prior to the trial (or as it’s known in Republican circles, “enhanced interrogation”).  Her testimony, however, was essentially the same on four different occasions, which does seem unlikely if it was a confession under duress. At no point did Gowdie dispute that she was, indeed, a witch.

The testimony Gowdie gave shocked the court, not just in its prolific nature, but also the details, especially the erotic details of coven’s rituals.  Gowdie claimed she could turn into an animal (specifically a hare), had cursed the sons of her enemies, consorted with fairies, blighted fields, raised great storms, and had ritualistic sex with the devil himself.  She said that she had been initiated into the coven in 1647, fifteen years earlier, and had risen to become the queen of the coven.  She graphically described Satan’s penis and his “cold emissions” within her. She claimed to have a secret name (originally Janet, and then as the queen or maiden of the coven, Jean Marten), and would engage in sex with the male members of the coven at rituals held every quarter.

The truly fantastic part of all of this is that she repeated these details on four occasions from April 13th through May 27th, 1662, without variation.  Were she simply a woman forced into a confession, it’s unlikely she would have kept her story the same, and if she were a mad woman, it’s equally unlikely her story would have remained consistent.  Perhaps more interesting is that there’s no specific record of what happened to her after the trial.  While it’s entirely likely that she was hung or burned at the stake (or both, one after the other, which was, in fact, quite common), there’s no evidence either way.

Gowdie, whose legend became known as the Witch of Auldearne, remains one of the most controversial of all of the individuals accused of witchcraft.  Her detailed descriptions of rites and rituals have been used at the basis of modern Wiccan practices, and she is seen somewhat as a “patron saint” to those pagans persecuted for their beliefs.

For further reading, especially within the context of the social upheaval happening in Scotland at the same time, I recommend this Witchvox article.  You can also learn more about Isobel Gowdie in Emma Wilby’s The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanisn in Seventeenth-Century Scotland.

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