Folklore and Myth Witchcraft

Witches in History: Isobel Gowdie, Pendle Witches and More

There were many people accused of witchcraft throughout history. Here are a few witches in history who have stood out through the pages of time including Isobel Gowdie, the Pendle Witches, Besse Dunlop and the Fisherwife of Palermo. Learn more about their stories below.

A Brief Word on the Witch Trials

When we hear the words “Witch Trials”, we think of the Salem Witch Trials; however, Witch Trials have occurred all over the world for hundreds of years. In the Dark Ages in Europe, there was a period in time often called the “Burning Times” by modern witches and witchcraft scholars. This was a large period in time when reportedly thousands of people were accused, tried, tortured, and executed in the name of witchcraft. Let’s take a look at some of the witches in history’s witch trials.

Witches in history were accused of partnering with the devil and murdering innocent people with curses.

Isobel Gowdie: Scottish Witch in History

One of the most well-documented confessions of a witch in history was that of an accused Scottish woman named Isobel Gowdie. In fact, her confessions were so elaborate, entire scholarly works have been written interpreting and building intricate theories based on her every word. One author who has written extensively on the topic is Emma Wilby (link to her book on amazon can be found below). Wilby’s theory is centered around the idea of Isobel being a practitioner of dark shamanism, passed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years.

Isobel’s Devilish Confessions

Who was Isobel Gowdie? Isobel was a Scottish housewife who was accused of witchcraft in 1662. Not only did she confess to being a witch, she gave an incredibly detailed account of her practices. Isobel Gowdie stated she attained her otherworldly powers from the Devil, whom she originally met while in Aldearne. Apparently she made a pact with the Devil by denying Christianity as her religion. Then he placed the Devil’s mark on her and baptized her with a new name – Jonet.

Isobel’s Further Confessions: Flying, Murder, and More

Isobel said she was able to fly through the air on a broom or beanstalk. She did so to meet with other witches. Also in her confessions, on her way to these witches’ meetings, if any Christian folk were encountered she would kill them. She claimed she shapeshifted into animal form, the hare being her favorite. This famous witch in history claimed to have laid an enchantment on her husband so that he would remain in a state of ignorant bliss. A besom was placed beside him in bed, to make him believe it was Isobel. This gave her freedom to attend her witchcraft meetings.

Was Isobel Truly a Witch?

Her confessions go on for pages, and she supposedly gave this information up freely. Moreover, she wasn’t under torture as so many other accused witches of the times had endured. So was Isobel Gowdie really a witch? Was her story true, or did she make it up for attention? Some say she was psychotic and her story was all in her head. Other scholars believe she was a bard, of sorts, who was able to memorize poetry and song. This might have given her the ability to “spin a yarn” or tell an elaborate story like the confessions she gave. We don’t know what happened to this famous historical witch. Isobel was convicted, but there is no record of her execution or release.

A painting showing witches being led by a devil with horns in black.

The Pendle Witches in History

In seventeenth century Lancashire, England, twelve people were accused of witchcraft. And of those twelve people ten were executed. These people were accused of using witchcraft to murder ten people. The names of the accused Pendle Witches were: Elizabeth Demdike, Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Jane and John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Gray, and Jennet Preston.

The Pendle Witch Trials: Familiars and Maleficia

Some of the most bizarre stories were told during the Pendle Witch Trials. Elizabeth Device’s nine-year-old-daughter testified against her, accusing her own mother of being a witch. Jennet claimed she’d seen her mother talking to a dog, called “Ball”. It was clear this dog was her familiar spirit. Jennet also said a gathering of these “witches” occurred on a Good Friday and that they did unspeakable things. They plotted against innocent people in the community.

The Pendle Witches in history were accused of having familiar spirits.
A witch feeding her “familiars” circa 1500’s.

These witches in history were accused of being given “supernatural powers” by the Devil. Also of using clay figures, body parts, and grisly ingredients to curse their enemies. Elizabeth Southerns (Demdike) was said to have confessed willingly to her familiar “Tibb” who did her bidding. He came to her in different forms – usually as a large dog or a little boy. The other confessions were eerily similar…or were these witches in history forced to confess to lies?

Read the full confessions of the Pendle Witches for free online here. You can also watch a documentary on the Pendle Witch Child which I have posted below for your convenience.

The Fisherwife of Palermo: Sicilian Witch in History

The Fisherwife of Palermo was a documented Sicilian Witch Trial in history. The woman’s real name is unknown, but she was accused of witchcraft and of cavorting with the “Donas de Fuera” (Italian fairies). The fisherwife confessed to going to an enchanted island and making a pact with the fairies when she was only nine. The Queen and King of the Fairies asked her to pledge her allegiance to them and deny the Christian God and Mother Mary. If she did this, they would give her riches and indulgences.

All Just a “Dream”

Because the woman said she left her bed at night to meet the fairies, the court officials believed these were just dreams. And they dismissed her case. There were other people accused of being “fairy witches” or witches who received their powers from the fairies. Whether these people were merely cunningfolk, healers or actual “witches” we may never know.

Besse Dunlop: Another Famously Accused Scottish Witch

Another accused witch in Scotland, Besse Dunlop lived in the Ayrshire region of Scotland in a hamlet called Lynn in the fifteen hundreds. She was a farmer’s wife who was accused of sorcery, witchcraft and receiving information on prophecies and remedies by a familiar spirit. Interestingly, Besse confessed to meeting her familiar spirit near the ruins of an old local castle. His name was Thomas Reid, and he claimed to have been the spirit of a dead soldier. He asked her to right some of his wrongs he had made while alive in exchange for helping her survive and thrive during a time when life was extremely hard.

In addition, Besse confessed to meeting a troop of fairies that her familiar had introduced to her. Sadly, evidence suggests Besse’s accusers used torture to force her into a confession. On November 8th, 1576, Besse was sentenced to death by hanging and then her body burnt on Castle Hill in Edinburgh.

Margaret & Philippa Flower

After being fired from their positions at a castle in 1618, the Flower sisters supposedly cursed the Earl of Rutland’s family. Following their “maleficia”, the eldest son of the Earl died. Both Margaret and Philippa Flower confessed to using the dark arts and having familiar spirits. The young women also brought their mother into their confessions, stating she aided them in cursing the Earl’s family. By rubbing the Earl’s glove onto the back of her familiar spirit, “Mother” Flower exacted the girls’ revenge. The Flower sisters were found guilty and executed in Lincoln in 1618.

Queen Anne Boleyn, Accused Witch

We recently discussed the life, trial, and death of Anne Boleyn in detail on Otherworldly Oracle Official Podcast AND on Mimir’s Well. It was a two-part series in which we detailed the positive effects Anne had on society, as well as the negative effects. And we decided whether we believed she was a hero or truly the villain she was accused of being. In a nutshell, Queen Anne Boleyn was married to King Henry VIII for 3 years. After three years of not providing Henry with a male heir, Henry fell in love with Anne’s handmaid. At the same time, the Queen was accused of treason (conspiring to kill the king), as well as adultery and witchcraft. They say she bewitched Henry into marrying her in the first place. And that she carried a few “witches marks” including a sixth finger and a “wen” (a cyst) on her neck.

Listen to our Heroes & Villains Episodes on Anne Boleyn and decide for yourself!

Read intriguing accounts of witches in history including Isobel Gowdie, the Pendle Witches and the Fisherwife of Palermo.

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  4. Trudy Sykes

    February 28, 2020 at 5:04 am

    I live about an hours drive from the small village Pendle,Lancashire,England . When I have visited a couple of times over the years you can feel the energy of the witches of pendle quite strong.

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  6. Marilyn

    August 10, 2019 at 8:48 am

    There is no mention of the women accused of witchcraft who were hunted down by Matthew Hopkin the self proclaimed ‘witchfinder general’ also in the 17 century. These were mainly from an East Anglia town and villages of manningtree and mistley and were tortured and held in Colchester castle until they were hung.

    1. admin

      August 10, 2019 at 12:50 pm

      There’s literally thousands of women who were involved in witch trials. I merely listed a few. To list them all would fill books upon books.

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