As people who follow me on Twitter may know, I am fascinated by magic and witchcraft and, in particular, women’s uses of magic. Ireland has it’s own share of magical women who are quite well attested to in the sources. As early as the 5th/6th C a document known as the First Synod of St Patrick condemned belief in witchcraft
‘A Christian who believes that there is such a thing in the world as a lamia, that is to say, a witch (striga) is to be anathematized – anyone who puts a living soul under such a reputation; and he must not be received again into the Church before he has undone by his own word the crime that he has committed, and so does penance with all diligence‘.
So, if you even simply believe in a witch (female one) then you are to be cast out, excluded from civilised society. It seems that witchcraft (in the context of the times) is associated with prohibited Pagan practice. So magic was performed by women (amongst others) and this is reflected in a text known as ‘The Deer’s Cry’, a prayer famously attributed to St Patrick himself in which he asks for protection.
I summon today all those powers between me and every cruel, merciless
power that may oppose my body and my soul,
against the incantations of false prophets,
against black laws of paganism,
against the false laws of heresy,
against the deceit of idolatry,
against the spells of women and smiths and druids,
against every evil knowledge that is forbidden man’s body and soul…
Women are associated with smiths (a highly magical grouping) and druids (speaks for itself). Magic working by women is mentioned in other sources of this early period of Christianity in Ireland and is often associated with the creation of potions and charms to cause abortions, to kill love rivals and the creation of love magic to make or break relationships and so on. This is what (in the clerical mind anyway) magic working women were up to in early medieval Ireland. Female magic is associated with sex and relationships by the clerics but there may be some truth to the fevered imaginings of these men. It is highly likely that Irish women (and men but the focus is not so much on them, no surprise) were using potions and spells to control their reproductive ability. It was happening elsewhere in Europe so why not here too and the various mentions of their magical abilities (often in connection with abortifacients) seems a clue that women did seek out and use plant-based contraceptive aids (as seems likely). These actions were unilaterally condemned and exclusion of such practitioners by the Christian community was advised.
Yes, a ridiculous image of an, erm, ‘Irish witch’ and possibly not the most historically accurate!
The Irish penitential, the Penitential of Finnian lists the punishments for those who transgress (note the last one which is surprisingly lenient for those who commit abortion).
If any cleric or woman who practises magic have led astray anyone by their magic, it is a monstrous sin, but it can be expiated by penance. (Such an offender) shall do penance for six years, three years on an allowance of bread and water, and during the remaining three years he shall abstain from wine and meat.
If, however, such a person has not led astray anyone but has given [something] for the sake of wanton love to someone, he shall do penance for an entire year on an allowance of bread and water.
If a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived of somebody, she shall do penance for half a year with an allowance of bread and water, and abstain for two years from wine and meat and fast for the six forty-day periods with bread and water.
And yet…and yet even the ‘best’ of women in medieval Ireland joined in with the magic-making. In the ‘Life of St Brigit’ the sainted abbess and ‘Mother of Ireland’ is shown performing magic and what’s worse, it’s love magic – long condemned by her male counterparts as interfering with the natural order. She does so by helping a man who came to her in distress about his wife who ‘hated’ him. There are different versions of the saint’s ‘Life’ in which this episode is recounted but in one of them the man specifically asks her for a ‘charm’ to help him and the saint agrees. She appears to bless water, thereby conveying a supernatural power on it through this ritual and, as some contend, her use of ‘words of power’ on it. The man took the water, sprinkled it over his wife and she adored him from then on.
Brigit’s act, the transformation of reality through a magical ritual was in many ways laudable from a Christian perspective as she helped to keep a married couple together but she acted without permission and transformed reality with a ritual. If that is not magic then I don’t know what is. More importantly if Ireland’s best loved female saint could use magic to influence reality then why couldn’t anyone else? That’s a difficult argument to win against even for the clerics and it seems that they continued to lose it.
Ireland didn’t participate in the witch hunts, the reasons for which are many and varied but the participation of immensely powerful female figures in magical acts (in the mythology there is a plethora of powerful, magical women too) must indicate that, culturally, the belief in the magical powers of women stayed just the right side of positive.