September 02, 2012

Witches Flying Over New Hampshire

John McNab Currier, a physician and amateur scientist, was born in Bath, New Hampshire in 1832. Dr. Currier was also a folklorist and contributed a couple interesting articles to The Journal of American Folk-Lore in the 1890s.

In one article, he relates how several neighbors visited his parents' house one winter night. "In the course of this rural visit, several ghost and witch stories were related, half to keep up the conversation, and half to make those stare who might take stock in their genuineness..."

A neighbor lady told the following story. One bright moonlit summer night she was out in her front yard collecting wood for the morning fire when she heard female voices, "talking and laughing merrily", coming down the road. She waited to see who was walking down the road so late at night, but when they came close to her house she realized they weren't walking, but were flying overhead.

"...I looked up and saw nothing but the bright stars. I could hear their talking and laughing as they passed along overhead. Their voices grew fainter and fainter as they passed off in an opposite direction from whence they came, until I could hear them no longer."

It's a beautiful passage. It makes me want to fly at night with those ladies!

Dr. Currier's neighbor went on to explain that the invisible women were witches, flying to some nearby abandoned house to dance and frolic. She believed witches could separate their spirits, which had flown down the road, from their bodies. Their spirits had strength equal or even greater than their physical bodies, and retained youthful vigor no matter how old the witch was physically.

Francisco Goya, Witches' Flight, 1798.

Throughout history there has been debate over how (or even if) witches were able to fly. Did they actually do it physically? Did the Devil just delude them into thinking they flew? Were they hallucinating from herbal salves they applied to their bodies?

My favorite theory is that witches were (are?) able to enter trance states, much like shamans around the world can, and send their spirits flying into the night. I wish I was brilliant enough to think of this theory myself, but I'm not. It was first stated by the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg in his books The Night Battles and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. They're both great books, but very dense and academic. I'll leave the debate about the reality/unreality of spirit flights to another day...

I guess Dr. Currier's neighbor shared this theory as well, although she wouldn't have used the term "shamanism" in early 19th century New Hampshire. She went on to tell her listeners that the witches could disengage the spirits of people who were sleeping or unaware, and take those spirits with them to their revels. These captive spirits were firmly under the control of the witches, "and sometimes such stolen spirits were made the butt of fun at their evening's entertainments at some haunted house."

Clearly, don't mess with the witches, and stay away from haunted houses at night. Dr. Currier ends his story by wondering if these witches controlled the captive spirits by throwing a special bridle over the sleeper. The witch bridle has a long history in New England folklore which I've written about before.

I just found Dr. Currier's article this week, and I was really pleased to see someone from New England giving such a clear and cogent theory about the nature of witchery. It helps show the continuity of beliefs here with ancient beliefs from around the world. If you want to read the article yourself, it's in The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 2, No. 7 (Oct. - Dec. 1889).

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