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Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Shamanism and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Scotland Paperback – 1 Jun 2010

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Product details

  • Paperback: 616 pages
  • Publisher: Sussex Academic Press; New Ed edition (1 Jun. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1845191803
  • ISBN-13: 978-1845191801
  • Product Dimensions: 3.8 x 16.5 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 108,489 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"Wilby says everything there is to say about Gowdie, and then some." - Fortean Times January 2011 "This is in my opinion the finest reconstruction of the thought-world of somebody accused in an early modern witch trial yet made, making sense of elements that most people would find wholly fantastic." (Ronald Hutton, Pomegranate) "Wilby's book is immensely engaging and rich with the promise of allowing us a better understanding of witches and their craft, particularly in the north of Scotland ... this book makes an invaluable contribution to its field of study, and everyone involved in writing about witches and witchcraft should be sure to read it." (Peter Maxwell-Stuart, Journal of British Studies) "Wilby's study constitutes a major contribution and advance in witchcraft studies in general she has resurrected one form of witchcraft, and by implication witchcraft in general, from being an invention of maniacal Christian inquisitors into a credible form of spirituality which must be considered by any researcher in the field of comparative religion." (Clive Tolley, Shaman: Journal of the International Society for Shamanistic Research) "Wilby restores agency and vitality to those individuals who are so often portrayed as the passive victims of a state or patriarchy-driven witch hunt, and offers a significant contribution to the field of witchcraft studies." (Sierra Dye, International Review of Scottish Studies) "In the end, this book does what good research should: provide us with provocative, original interpretations and raise questions for further exploration." (Sabina Magliocco, Journal of Folklore Research)

From the Publisher

Shortlisted for the Saltire Society History Book of the Year Award, 2010; Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award, 2010; `This is in my opinion the finest reconstruction of the thought-world of somebody accused in an early modern witch trial yet made, making sense of elements that most people would find wholly fantastic (Ronald Hutton, Pomegranate); Wilby's book is immensely engaging and rich with the promise of allowing us a better understanding of witches and their craft, particularly in the north of Scotland ... this book makes an invaluable contribution to its field of study, and everyone involved in writing about witches and witchcraft should be sure to read it (Peter Maxwell-Stuart, Journal of British Studies); Wilby's study constitutes a major contribution and advance in witchcraft studies in general ... she has resurrected one form of witchcraft, and by implication witchcraft in general, from being an invention of maniacal Christian inquisitors into a credible form of spirituality which must be considered by any researcher in the field of comparative religion (Clive Tolley, Shaman: Journal of the International Society for Shamanistic Research); Wilby restores agency and vitality to those individuals who are so often portrayed as the passive victims of a state or patriarchy-driven witch hunt, and offers a significant contribution to the field of witchcraft studies (Sierra Dye, International Review of Scottish Studies); In the end, this book does what good research should: provide us with provocative, original interpretations and raise questions for further exploration (Sabina Magliocco, Journal of Folklore Research)

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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Caitlin Matthews on 21 July 2010
Format: Paperback
Emma Wilby's masterpiece delves beneath the demonized visions of Isobel Gowdie of Auldearn to find shamanic narratives. Isobel's confessions to witchcraft, given or extracted in 1662, are four of the fullest accounts of popular spirituality of the 17th century. By sifting the evidence and bringing supporting material of shamanic testimony and folk belief, as well as revealing the network of envisioned story, beliefs in spirits of location and faery relationships obtaining at that time, Emma Wilby opens up the reality of vision and dream in the rural community of North-East Scotland, exploring the magical meetings of farming folk and their context, which is set in a time of poltical and religious change in the lives of the rural poor. She explores how Isobel and her neighbours met and how their magic stems from the cunning lore of the land as well as from faery and folk narratives that form a distinct way of bringing comfort, solidarity and neighbourly revenge. Wilby doesn't shirk the clear fact that Isobel and her companions bring harm as well as healing: the dark magic is not cleaned up or glossed over as the fabrication of her interogators who were looking for devilish practices. This book is argued from all sides with clear and non-partisan focus so that the reader is enabled to clear away the imprint of demonic witchcraft and understand the pith of Isobel's confessions in their true context. This book offers 604 pages of revelation for those who have the will and patience to follow a remarkable discovery of the 17th century mind and soul I recommend it highly to all who are interested in the nuts and bolts underpinning shamanic work and ethics. The Vision of Isobel Gowdie is a great corrective to the speculative cognitations of those who are largely ignorant of their ancestral traditions.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Mrs. Charlotte Farrow on 15 July 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Following the author's rediscovery of the original confession transcripts, Wilby reappraises documents so strange and perplexing that authors such as Katharine Briggs labelled them as 'strange, mad outpourings'.

Wilby conducts an in-depth analysis of the content of Isobel's testimony, taking an interdisciplinary approach. She separates Isobel's voice and beliefs from those of her interrogators and fuses together a hypothesis based on `dark' shamanism, false-memory generation and mutual-dream experience, along with literature on marriage-covenant mysticism and protection-charm traditions in order to show how Isobel's confessions might have reflected an actual self-identification as a practitioner of harmful magic.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Compelling, wide-ranging, impressive & readable scholarly study 26 Aug. 2011
By Green Stone - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Emma Wilby's compelling and dense study of the Witchcraft confessions of Isobel Gowdie from 1662 in Scotland, "celebrated as the most extraordinary on record in Britain", is a thoroughly impressive analysis, which does not lack for humor, wit, and subtly intuitive nuances of observation and speculation, to propel one enthusiastically through its 546 pages of text. Then too, the reach of this book is far beyond Isobel herself, though she be its inspiration: reading this book will reveal intriguing details about the lives of practitioners of magic and folk traditions in early modern Europe.

WIlby's study is wide-ranging, making use of some of the most modern studies in the psychology of "recovery of false memories" in psychotherapy, as well as the inriguing existence of "dark" shamanism among the Yanomamo in the Amazon, the more modern mazzeri in Corsica, and elsewhere. She points out that scholars have tended to sentimentalize shamanism and have formerly ignored these "dark" aspects, yet such explorations assist in understanding such things as Isobel's speculated shamanistic rides on plant stalks to shoot at members of her community with "elf arrows," sometimes passionately exclaiming, as she flew, "horse and hattock in the divells name!"

Scholar though she is, Wilby clearly takes delight, as any vital, robust and imaginative person among us will, in the passionate, imaginative, lusty, altogether charming spirit of Isobel, which innocently, ironically and perhaps tragicomically, shines through in testimonies given to persons who would use them to eventually put her to death. Wilby often reveals an open admiration for these aspects of Isobel, for instance by labelling a section of her book, "Isobel's Beautiful Curses." (pg 186)Those of us who will most enjoy this book, are those who, like one senses of Wilby, believe that Isobel Gowdie embodied qualities, folk expressions, magical practices, extraordinary imaginative capacities, or simple human passions, which are of great value, and which can and should and indeed will live on in whatever unique way these soulful things unveil themselves today in our midst. I am so grateful to Wilby for introducing Isobel to me!

Wilby has undertaken an impressively broad exploration of every aspect of Isobel's life and that of the lives of many persons associated with Isobel's confessions in her Witchcraft trial, including the notary, as well as investigations of Scottish bardic or oral tradition, Scottish fairy lore and the "demonology" and the marriage-with-Christ theologies of the covenanting Protestants in Scotland.

On the issue of malefic magic, again Wilby strides boldly ahead where other scholars fear to tread. She does not feel obliged, as we may surmise many have formerly done, to paint Isobel as a saint in order to defend her from the savage treatment and probable execution to which she was subjected, all for matters, events, beliefs, views and tales which barely left the confines of the interior of Isobel's own mind, in her rich and fertile, visionary and shamanistic realm of imagination.

Wilby reveals her own comfort with the whole range of human experience, reviling no shadow area of the psyche, and is able to put together a sophisticated, rich, broad and deep speculative interpretation of the meaning of Isobels' confessions. Thus, by the end of the tale, Isobel is portrayed as a 17th Century Scottish visionary or shaman, linked with other cultural forms of dark shamanism, as well as to the European folklore about the "Wild Hunt." With regard to ISobel's confessions of making a pact with the "divell" and having "carnall cowpulation and dealing" with this "meikle black roch man", Wilby nimbly and dextrously lays these witchcraft allegations against Isobel back at the feet of the Protestant churches from whence she came, pointing out how it was the church itself which created all notions of pacts with spirits, and marriage with the particular spirit of Jesus, the intimate consummation of which was supposed to be so full of such rich delights. "Ideas about the benefits to be gained through contracting with supernatural spirits were fundamental to Protestant theology." (pg 402) and "The private spiritual covenant was widespread among the pious Nairnshire convenanters." (pg 404)

Moreover, Wilby points out with sound common sense, if it was "the divell" who was the spirit associated by the Protestant ministers with such delights of the common man and woman's life as dancing, singing, music and celebrations, ale and jokes and sexual joy, as well as all the lively folk lore and magic practiced in every culture, while the Christian God was associated with only dry and dull pious things and the boring sermons in church, why in the world would the common people not begin to think that this "divell" the ministers spoke of, was really more their kind of person? THe Scots common folk, as Wilby points out, were an earthy and feisty sort, who though apparently socially pressured to go to church, would often behave rudely in church when bored, or interrupt the prating minister by objecting, "God hast not said all thou hast said."

Wilby doesn't cringe away from the idea that Isobel may indeed have practiced "malefic magic", and yet she points out that poor women like Isobel living in 17th century Scotland, vulnerable to injustices at the hands of their Lairds, and who "did not conform to covenanting mores", were people who "would have stood outside the law at the best of times, and any attempt to obtain legal redress would have been doomed to failure." (pg 183). She also points out that Scots were quite known for their revenge and cursing, "The best curses of all are to be found in the Highlands of Scotland." (184) "Flyting" and Public Cursing were common in the culture, particularly effective with one's hair shaken loose and knees bared. Given how profoundly any possibility for social justice was stacked against cottar's wives like Isobel Gowdie in Scotland in 1662, I hope we can see from the vantage point of (sort-of) democracy in 2011, that we should praise any such woman, then or now, who esteems herself highly enough to long for justice and seek it in her own magical manner.

One thing would help in reading this book: the addition of a glossary by which to translate some terms of old Scots language. Isobel's confessions are presented exactly as written in the old lanuage, and not all of these words are easily understood by a non-scholar or non-Briton such as myself, though many are subsequently translated elsewhere in the text.

A highly entertaining, fascinating book.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
brilliant, thrilling scholarly text that dramatically advances Witchcraft Studies 27 Jan. 2011
By Randy Conner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I can't praise this book enough. I chose it as one of the texts for my upcoming "Wisewomen and Witches" graduate course before it was published, and am I glad I did! For those who appreciate Hutton's work, you'll find equally scholarly writing and referencing here. For those like myself who find Hutton's work extremely problematic, you'll find here an illuminating account of how non-Christian and hybrid beliefs did not die thanks to Christianity satisfying everyone--how ludicrous--but rather metamorphosed and innovated in conjunction with epoch and locality. Wilby, like Ginzburg, "Ecstasies," does not shy away from shamanistic links. Nor does she launch, as Hutton, Diane Purkiss, and Cynthia Eller do, misogynistic attacks on those like Margaret Murray, Jane Harrison, and Marija Gimbutas, whose insights, in spite of flaws, were brilliant. Wilby's book respects the past and yet offers a very postmodern, multidimensional view of her subject that others in her field would most assuredly not have been capable of achieving. BRAVO!!!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
If you buy any book 5 Jun. 2014
By James - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Once obtaining and reading this book, all others on witchcraft pale in comparison. This is a holy text as far as I'm concerned. It's very difficult to obtain, and I had to order directly from the publisher. Seek it out: you won't regret it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
An Essential and Insightful Analysis of Early Modern Witchcraft 13 April 2015
By The Mysterious Mr. E. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Ms. Wilby happens to be (though merely as a means to an end) among the most effective expositors of what she calls the 'shamanistic paradigm' regarding this direct antecedent to Pre- and Early Modern European 'witchcraft'. The section of this book called 'An Old Way of Seeing' is among the highlights though it is merely a supporting foray relative to the author's analysis of the content of Isobel Gowdie's confessions.

This book is a bit pricey and lengthy at ~660 pages. It takes quite awhile to scale all of the carefully laid bricks upon which later insights are built, though following the path so marked sequentially is necessary to grasp the finer points of this book. Though it is relatively jargon free and written in a straight forward style, it is also firmly in the mode of Academic inquiry.

The great swaths of material that are basically or primarily speculative in this book are clearly delineated as such. While merely asserting the necessity of opening a door on to 'an uncertainty' she elaborates more verifiable critical analysis and insight on Early Modern witchcraft generally, than in any other book I've read. And when this author renders various contingent presumptions as 'reasonable' or 'unreasonable' she backs that up with substantive data combined with a preponderance of speculative or prospective support for said assertion. I am sold on the modest yet thoroughly elaborated arguments in this book and plan to follow up with other readings from the bibliography.

Some years ago I read a book called Zurvan: a Zoroastrian Dilemma by R. C. Zaehner which managed in great detail and through brilliant inferential work to render a reconstruction of a suppressed religious tradition (Zurvanism), of which little evidence actually remains. Ms. Wilby's quiet accomplishment here is of the same order, effectively giving voice to the voiceless and making more reasonable understandings of spiritual and religious history possible for anyone with a mind to read and comprehend.

The only complaint from me is that modern English translations were not included along side the many Middle English quotations. The Pitcairn translations could have been included with ease. Given the overall length of this book, a few pages more would not have mattered.
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