A Remedy for Witchcraft and Demonic Possession in Seventeenth-Century Ireland

By Andrew Sneddon

There were only a handful of witch trials in early modern Ireland, and only one witch-lynching, of an old woman by her neighbours in Antrim town, Co. Antrim in 1698. The ‘witch’ was accused of using witchcraft to demonically possess a young girl of Presbyterian gentry stock.

Sneddon Witch Warboys
An early eighteenth-century depiction of a witch conjuring up demons to do her evil work. From: Richard Boulton, A Compleat History of Magick, Sorcery and Witchcraft … (London, 2 vols, 1715-1722), vol. 1, frontispiece.

This case is detailed in Ireland’s only published witchcraft pamphlet by Daniel Higgs, The Wonderful and True Relation of the Bewitching of a Young Girle in Ireland, What Ways she was Tormented, and a Receipt of the Ointment that she was Cured with (Edinburgh [?], 1699). Higgs was a gentleman of considerable means who spoke Latin and French and was familiar with the contents of both English witchcraft pamphlets and learned, demonological works.

Higgs’ pamphlet is particularly important because he included (pp. 15-16), ‘for the good of others’ afflicted by witchcraft, a full description of the ‘receipt’ of the ointment he had used to cure the possessed girl with:

Take of dogs grease well dissolved and cleansed, four Ounces; Of bears Grease eight Ounce; Of Capons Grease, four and twenty Ounces; three trunks of the Misletoe of the Hazle while green, cut in pieces & pound it small[l], till it become moist; bruise together the wood, leaves and Berries, mix all in a vial, after you have exposed it to the sun for nine weeks; You shall extract a green Balsom, wherewith if you anoint the Bodies of the Bewitched, especially the parts most effected and the joynts, they will certainly be cured.

Higgs discovered his remedy in an obscure medical text by Bartholomew Carrichter, Practica Aus Den Furnemesten Secretis (Strassburg, 1579). Carrichter was physician to Emperor Maximillian II and a follower of early sixteenth-century Swiss physician, alchemist and astrologer, Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus). This did not mean that Higgs did not take full credit for the girl’s miraculous recovery.

He had, after all, rediscovered the ointment by researching, in his view, long forgotten books. Furthermore, he had manufactured and applied the remedy himself after apothecaries in Dublin refused to do it for him (for reasons unknown), and local physicians had been powerless to help the girl. Higgs suspected that in some cases physicians had refused to offer assistance because they did not believe in witchcraft. Disbelief in witchcraft shocked Higgs because he equated it with atheism.

Before Higgs had used Carrichter’s ointment, he had administered to the girl an ‘ex fuga Daemonum’ in the form of a drink concocted of ‘southeren wood, Mugwort, Vervene &c’ (Higgs, 16). This folkloric cure was similar to those used domestically in seventeenth-century Scotland to expel demons and counter witchcraft. Although we cannot be sure, Higgs was probably of Scots descent, he or his parents having come to Ulster in the later seventeenth century along with thousands of other Scottish Presbyterians. The Scottish ‘ex fuga Daemonum’, however, did not relieve the girl’s symptoms, prompting Higgs to search for a book-based remedy, which he duly found.

Higgs, in common with many educated men in early modern Europe, condemned the popular magic of cunning-folk as vulgar and “low-browed”, especially their anti-witch measures. Although he did not go as far as some who suggested that if the magic of cunning-folk had any efficacy at all, it was demonic in origin.

Ironically, HIggs did not regard the drink he gave the girl, nor the ointment he applied to her body, as magical, despite the fact that the ingredients of both held precisely that cultural connotation. He saw both remedies as alternative medicine, which the established medical profession had ignored to the peril of their patients and which he had finally brought to public attention.

Sneddon bookEditors’ note

Extra, extra! Read all about it!

Andrew discusses this case further in his brand-new book,  Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland (Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2015).  You can take a look at the very tempting table of contents on the publisher’s page. Congratulations, Andrew!


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