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Witchcraft introduces us to a class of popular superstitions entirely different from those connected with Fairies. Fairies, water-horses, and kindred supernatural beings were distinct from the Evil Spirits that gave to witches their unhallowed powers. They could not be compelled or conjured by mortals to appear when wanted, or enter into contracts of service. The Powers of Darkness, on the other hand, were always at the service of their votaries, and, by means of charms and incantations known to the initiated, were made to lend their aid in any scheme of malevolence.
A belief in magic widely, almost universally, prevails among the tribes of mankind, and the witchcraft of the Christian era, while it undoubtedly gained strength and character from mistaken interpretations of Scripture, owes many characteristics to the delusions of Pagan times.
The Highland witches have of course many points in common with their sisters of the south, but comparatively there is little repulsive or horrible in their character. Tales regarding them make no mention of incubus and succubus, midnight meetings and dances with the devil, dead men’s fingers, and more of the horrible and awful, the ravings of poor women driven crazy by persecution and torture. Neither is there mention of their riding through the air on broomsticks, nor, like the witch of Endor, raising the dead. Their art was forbidden, and their powers came from the devil; but it does not appear under what paction, or that there was any paction, under which this power was to be got. It was in the name of the devil, and against the name of the Trinity, they set about their cantrips, but a knowledge of the necessary charms, and the courage to use them, seem to have been all that was requisite. Those having the reputation of being witches were (and are, for a few still survive) usually old women, destitute of friends and means of support, and naturally ready to eke out a miserable livelihood by working on the fears or the simplicity of their more prosperous neighbours.
There are instances in which a farmer has bribed a witch by yearly presents not to do harm to his cattle; and we must remember that in days of scarcity and famine, poverty with icy hand and slow-consuming age will make people resort to shifts of which they would never dream when food was abundant. In most cases, the reputed witch was merely a superstitious and perhaps ill-favoured old woman, possessing a knowledge of rhymes and charms for the healing of disease in man and beast, and taking pains to sain her own cattle, if she had any, from harm. Sometimes she was also dishonest, desirous of being looked upon with awe, and taking advantage of nightfall to steal milk from her neighbours’ byres and corn from their stackyards. Her powers of witchcraft satisfactorily accounted to the popular mind for her butter and cheese—even if she had no cows—being abundant when the stores of others failed. In dark uncultured times a claim to influence over the unseen powers of nature, and to intercourse with spirits, had only to be made to be allowed, and the mere pretension too readily invests the claimant with awe to make it safe for any one to denounce the imposture. Many believed in the efficacy of the arts they practised, and in their own possession of the power with which the credulity of mankind was willing to accredit them. Unusual natural events and phenomena can easily be turned into proofs of a witch’s claim; imposture readily leads to delusion, and hence among the poor and uneducated it is no wonder to find witchcraft practised and believed in.