Emma Wilby’s The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft, and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland picks up where Wilby’s earlier work Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic left off, providing further evidence to back up that earlier book’s theses and extending its arguments considerably.
Her primary focus in this book is, as the title suggests, the confessions of Isobel Gowdie of Lochloy, Scotland, but her conclusions have wide-ranging consequences not just for our understanding of Gowdie, but of the practice of magic, witchcraft, and shamanism across all of Europe during the early modern period.
Gowdie’s confessions have long startled and puzzled scholars due to the exquisite level of detail they record as well as their apparent grotesqueness and morbidity, involving all sorts of murder, human sacrifice, and Satanic orgies.
Wilby provides cross-cultural parallels to Gowdie’s maleficence, especially Amazonian “dark shamanism,” and shows how Gowdie’s community may have actually understood many of these practices to be morally neutral, necessary, or even beneficial. It’s quite possible for Gowdie to have broadly filled the social role widely attributed to shamans, namely that of a traveler and mediator between the human world and the spirit world who works to keep both planes of reality at a certain level of harmony with each other.
Wilby discusses Gowdie’s descriptions of her nocturnal flights and travels to the Witches’ Sabbath in the context of contemporary and ancient theories of the “subtle body,” which straddles the border between the fleshly and the spiritual, and modern studies of mutual dream experiences.
The “pact with the Devil,” a common theme in Witch Trial records including Gowdie’s, is often cited to reinforce the assumption that the Witch Trials must have consisted of made-up accusations by the religious and secular authorities against totally ordinary people. However, Wilby shows how similar the “pact with the Devil” motif is to notions of divine marriage common at the time as well as to popular formulaic protection spells, which enlisted the aid of some spiritual entity and made a sacrifice to them in return.
But surely this pact was made with some pagan spirit rather than the Devil, right? Wilby carefully argues that it might have been both, that Gowdie may have thought of Jehovah and Satan as essentially being two distinct but valid gods and deliberately cultivated a relationship with the latter. Ministers of the period were quite fond of filling their parishioners’ heads with images of poor, desperate people turning to Satan for worldly help in exchange for their souls. Given that the peasantry of this period was actually shockingly ignorant of and apathetic toward Christian theology, and that they tended to assimilate whatever they heard at church into their own, essentially animistic and magical way of looking at and experiencing the world, Gowdie and others like her probably didn’t think of such a pact in the same way that the authorities would have. She probably saw the “soul” as one of her many constituent parts rather than her ultimate, immortal essence, and the Devil as a grim and violent but potentially very helpful ally. It’s likely that there was some genuine devil-worship going on in Scotland and the rest of Europe during the period, albeit of a sort that owed more to pre-Christian animistic traditions than to Christian theology.
The Visions of Isobel Gowdie enables us to see seventeenth-century Scotland through the eyes of a poor cotter’s wife who was one of the last standard-bearers of an immemorial shamanic tradition, and whose visionary imagination might help us to see our own world in a different light. Highly recommended.