In 1576 Scottish woman Bessie Dunlop was burned alive for receiving herbs from the Queen of Faeries. She would be one of hundreds burned for witchcraft in Scotland. A horrifying number, yet it pales in comparison to the estimated 40,000 to 100,000 who died during the witch burnings in Europe between 1100 and 1750 CE.
The word witch comes from wicce/wicca which means to know, referring to those who hold deep knowledge of and connection with Earth, plant and ancestor spirits. These wise women and men were the healers, wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. The Christian churches could not tolerate this direct and popular connection with the Sacred and so hunted down and burned all they could find. In six hundred years, they were largely successful in purging this oral tradition from the land and the people.
However not so much in Ireland. During the time of the burnings only fifty or sixty were killed in Ireland and those mostly in the Kilkenny area which was a particularly zealous stronghold of the Church. I say only yet I imagine those persecuted would not have shared that perspective. In fact Biddy, who learned the craft from her mother, was brought to trial as a witch by the Catholic Church but none of the people would testify against her so the case had to be dropped. Why? And why Ireland? Simply, the belief in the old ways of knowing was too deeply embedded (more about this in prior posts: A Tragic Solution and Tragic, But Not Absolute), as suggested in this following excerpt from Meda Ryan’s 1978 book, Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare. The wise women tradition was intrinsic to the culture, history, spirituality and psyche of the Irish people.
Arguments still persist as to whether Biddy was a witch or a person of God because she possessed powers and natural gifts beyond the comprehension of those who knew her personally. The very mention of her name in any part of Ireland, especially in County Clare, releases an astonishing flood of stories of cures, foretellings, warnings and broken spells. Her strange powers suggest to some people that she was a ‘throwback’ to the Firbolgs and Tuatha de Danann, those powerful magicians who once peopled Ireland and whose last remnants took refuge in the county of Clare … according to tradition.
Whether Biddy was a witch or wise woman was a matter of perspective. Regardless, she was powerful and there are more stories to share….