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Witches Walking Upside Down April 10, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

walking on celing

***By an act of all too characteristic incompetence this post was pre-published yesterday, some of you may then have missed the post before on four suicides (PS some great emails on that, just need some time to put up)***

How do witches fly? By broomstick, of course. Only consider this story, which appears  in 1825 in that rich mine of the curious and irrelevant, a provincial newspaper, a story that has since spread around the world. Funny to think a chance remark of an eighteenth-century Briton can be reported with a straight face in India a hundred and fifty years later.

A woman was once indighted before Lord Mansfield for witchcraft. The inhabitants of the place were exasperated against her being a witch, they deposed that she had been seen walking in the air with her feet upwards. His Lordship heard the evidence with great patience, and deeming it not prudent to irritate the people by scouting the indictment in the terms which it deserved, he thus addressed them: Admitting this woman has walked in the air, as you have said, with her feet upwards, she was born in England as well as yourselves, she consequently can only be judged by the laws of the country; now, as I know not of any law that forbids walking in the air with her feet upward, we all have a right to do so with impunity. I see, therefore, no reason for this prosecution, and the poor woman may return home when she pleases, either walking in the air or on the earth, as she finds most convenient.

This jolly little piece is associated with Lord Mansfield (obit 1793) a brilliant English jurist. Who knows though whether the trial ever took place, or whether it is simply an urban legend? It might have happened because it appeared for the first time in 1789 while Mansfield was still alive: of course, myths also arise about the living. (We should note that the 1789 account is practically the same as the one above). But what surely is most interesting is that the witch in question walked in the air and, what is more, walked upside down across the sky. What kind of belief is this and where does it come from? It sounds specific enough that it must, at some distance or other, come out of folklore: the symbolism of the inversion of the natural order is obvious. Unfortunately, no explanation is given as to where Mansfield was when he gave the statement. In the 1789 account, the earliest we have, we are told that he was ‘in one of the counties, on the circuit’. Any other reports of witches walking the wrong way up? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo dOT com Allegedly the belief is to be found in Africa. But where does it come from in Britain?


10 April 2013: Lisa L writes in. ‘In regards to your blog post about witches walking upside down:  I have no idea where that belief stems from, but your post reminded me of a newspaper story from 1907 I recently blogged about.  It described a “bewitched” apartment building in Paris where everyone who entered a certain flat felt immediately compelled to walk on their hands. As I say, I don’t know the meaning of this, but it does seem to be a not-uncommon theme in witch and spook stories. Oh, and regarding the Lord Mansfield anecdote:  I’ve come across a 1712 witchcraft trial where the judge was reported to have said much the same thing.  When informed that the defendant allegedly flew through the air, he just shrugged and said there were no laws on the books against flying.’  Thanks Lisa!

14 April 2013: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books has another explanation: Although it is tempting to see the upside-down witch as a folk figure reversing the natural order to some hellish purpose, the incident suggests (at least to my literal mind) an image projected from a camera obscura, perhaps by accident as in this account from the late 1800s. I remember on awakening one sleepy Sunday afternoon, my room darkened by heavy green paper shades, closely rolled down, my surprise at seeing upon the wall at the foot of my bed — on a clean, whitewashed wall, a miniature cow walking leisurely along, every motion, even to the swish of her tail, as natural as possible. I could not account for it — the image was distinct and clear. She was walking upside down, her feet toward the ceiling of the room and her back toward the floor. I wondered if I could be dreaming, or from what the illusion could be caused. I had never seen or heard of such a manifestation before. I hurriedly got off the bed to investigate, pulled the curtain aside and looked out upon the street — there was the cow moving contentedly along unmindful of the exhibition she had given me or the mystery I was in about her. She had demonstrated the principle of the camera obscura and of pinhole photography. There was, as I found, a hole the size of a pin-head through the paper shade, located near the center, through which had been carried the image of ” bossy ” as through a lens. The reversal of the image I was conversant with from the use of the camera, and by it was helped to an understanding of the upside-down cow phenomenon.  Voigtlander and I: In Pursuit of Shadow Catching: A Story of Fifty-two Year’s Companionship with a Camera, James Ryder, 1902 Such devices certainly were available and were used for artistic and amusement purposes in the late 18th century. Obviously similar effects could also arise spontaneously–all one needed was a crack or hole and light. The difficulty is that this story does not tell us specifically whether the “witch” was seen inside or outside. Thanks Chris!

16 April 2013: David K is getting all early modern, with a precious reference: Walking upside down on the ceiling has an established precedent in English witchcraft.  William Drage informs us that witches could ‘stand in the air [i.e. levitate]’ and ‘fly from house to house or leap many yards’ and also ‘run up walls with their feet uppermost [i.e. walk upside down on the ceiling]. Reference: William Drage, Daimonomageia: A Small Treatise of Sicknesses and Diseases from Witchcraft and Supernatural Causes (London: 1665), pp.8, 41. Thanks, David!!

21 June 2013: Southern Man writes in: Beach I remember your post about witches walking upside down. What about this quotation from More Anecdotes of Bench and Bar (1915), 163. There is an amusing anecdote of Mr Justice Powell, who was a judge in the reigns of James II., William III., and Queen Anne, from which it appears that he dealt more sensibly than most of the judges with some persons who were tried before him on a charge of witchcraft. To show that a woman tried before him was a witch, she was charged with being able to fly. ‘Ay,’ said the judge, ‘and is this true? Do you say you can fly?’ ‘Yes, I can,’ she said. ‘So you may, if you will, then, ‘replied the judge.’ I have no law against it!’ There is another story about Powell involving witches: the original? 270 Mr Justice Powell, in 1752, tried Jane Wenham, the Witch of Walkerne, in Hertfordshire, the court being full of fine ladies, he very gallantly told the jury that they must not look out for witches amongst the old women, but amongst the young.’ Thanks Southern Man!