The magic touch
Country Life UK|October 28, 2020
The carving of root vegetables into grotesque faces is only one of many attempts to ward off the advances of evil through the centuries, discovers Ian Morton
Ian Morton

THEY were everywhere. A horde of lurking ephemeral beings, some merely mischievous, but most of them malevolent, beset the quaking populace throughout this haunted nation. Enumerated by Elizabethan folklorist and Kent MP Reginald Scot in his 1584 book The Discoverie of Witchcraft, demons were a constant presence, especially in the countryside. Although his Christian intention was to expose superstition and trickery and protect the poor, aged and simple folk who were only too readily accused of witchcraft, Scot’s work became an influential ‘black bible’. It was consulted by Shakespeare to formulate Macbeth’s witches and inspired several other playwrights. His exposé of stage tricks went on to inform two centuries of professional magicians. It had a long life.

Further editions were published in 1651 and 1654, before an extended version was issued in 1665, which then reappeared two centuries later, when the Victorians were chilling to their own Gothic brand of horror and making the occult personal through spiritualism, seances, mediums and hypnotism. These antics were debunked by sceptics as ‘all smoke and mirrors’. Scot would have approved of that.

The battle between good and evil had ever been constant. Against the army of malignant forces, real or imagined, the Dark Ages and succeeding centuries had resulted in an equally impressive array of defences known to etymologists as apotropaic magic (from the Greek for turning away). Talismans, amulets, crucifixes, crossed fingers, incantations, fragments of the true Cross, fragments of saints’ bones (both plentifully on sale on pilgrimage routes and at sacred destinations ) and sundry other charms were carried in bag, pouch and satchel to counter unpropitious omens, turn away the evil eye and deny the witch’s curse.

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