The Legend of the Rollright Witch

There are a number of legends concerning witches and witchcraft associated with the Rollright Stone circle complex and its wider locale. Here I’ll be focussing on the story of the witch who became an elder tree as mentioned in my last post, “Jesus Tree That Bled”.

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The King Stone

 

Many centuries ago, when England was ruled by various tribes, a king was attempting to become ruler of the entire land. During the course of his travels he and his army arrived at Rollright hill. There he met a witch who owned the land standing at the foot of the hill. The witch told the king:

 “Seven long strides shalt thou take.

If Long Compton [a nearby village] thou canst see,

King of England thou shalt be”

The king, convinced that climbing the hill would be an easy endeavour, replied:

“Stick, stock, stone,

As King of England I shall be known.”

However, the witch caused the land to rise so the king was unable to complete his climb in the required seven strides. She then invoked her curse:

“As Long Compton thou canst not see,

King of England thou shalt not be.

Rise up, stick and stand still, stone,

For king of England thou shalt be none;

Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be

And I myself an eldern tree.”

So the king, his army and a group of knights who had been plotting in the background were all turned to stone. The king became the King Stone, his army the stone circle, and the knights, the four stones of the Whispering Knights. The witch then transformed herself into an elder tree. They remain at Rollright to this day.

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The Whispering Knights

The (Pre-)History Bit

The Rollright stones were made from oolithic limestone between 3,800 BCE and 1,500 BCE. Aside from the King’s Men stone circle, in a nearby field the group of rocks which make up the Whispering Knights comprised the walls of an ancient burial chamber. Across the road from the stone circle, the King Stone, actually of a much later date than his “army”, acted as a marker for a Bronze Age burial ground.

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The King’s Men

 

Next time… back to the Caribbean for the God-wood Tree (aka Birch Gum).

 

Sources

The Rollright rhyme comes from Meg Elizabeth Atkins, Haunted Warwickshire (London: Robert Hale, 1981), p. 114.

Image credits: Photos of the Rollrights by Simon Noel

 

 

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Jesus tree that bled: more trees associated with the Crucifixion

During the course of researching the physic nut or Jatropha curcas, I came across a couple of other trees associated with Christ’s crucifixion. Firstly, there is the European Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). The blog, God as a Gardener, says of this plant that:

” Many individuals believe that the cross on which Christ was crucified was from a dogwood tree. They associate the dark spot on each petal of the dogwood flower with the wounds on his hands and feet.”

Dogwood,_Wisley_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1089858

 

 

The second tree is the elder (Sambucus nigra). There is a belief in Britain that Christ’s cross was made from elder wood. Possibly because of this connection elders were also used for protection. In Discovering The Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker writes how an elder tree planted by the door of a house shielded “the household from witchcraft, evil and lightning and promoted fertility”. She also mentions that an elder tree growing sturdily on a grave was regarded as good sign as it meant that the grave’s occupant was happy and “would not walk.”

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Conversely, in some parts of Britain, the elder has more negative associations. Particularly the West Country, there is a legend that the elder was the tree from which Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus to the authorities. Baker notes how in Dorset, the elder was called “God’s stinking tree” and was actually banned from domestic use. However, she doesn’t mention exactly when such a ban took place.

In my home county of Warwickshire, the elder is linked with the Devil himself. J. Harvey Bloom, writing on local plant lore in the 1920s noted a belief that if the elder tree were used for firewood not only would the fire not burn but the Devil would sit on the chimney pot. Fifty years later, C.S. Wharton who also collected Warwickshire folklore was told by an informant that “The elder tree is generally thought to be the tree of evil and is associated with the powers of darkness.”

There is also a belief in Warwickshire that the elder tree can bleed. Just as the physic nut tree bleeds on Good Friday, the elder tree bleeds on a specific day: June 23th – Midsummer’s Eve. However, unlike the lore surrounding the physic nut, these elder beliefs are linked to one specific tree and are far from Christian.

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The elder tree in question is the one growing (or believed to have grown) at the prehistoric Rollrights Stone circle which lies on the border of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. Here a witch was supposed to have turned herself into an elder. In a 19th-century article on the Rollright Stones, its author, Arthur Evans was told by one local informant that the fact that the tree bled when its bark was pierced was proof that it once had been a witch. However, exactly which tree is the witch is hard to say as Evans mentioned there was some dispute about its exact location and elder trees grow in abundance in the area.

 

Next time…. a brief look at the legend of the Rollrights’ witch and then back to the Caribbean for the God-wood Tree.

 

Sources (in order of first appearance in text)

God as a Gardener blog edited by Carolyn Roth – https://godasgardener.com/2014/04/18/dogwood-cross/

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), pp. 52-54

J. Harvey Bloom, Folk Lore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare’s Land (London: Mitchell Hughes and Clarke, 1929), p. 148

C.S. Wharton, “The Folklore of South Warwickshire” (self-published thesis or dissertation, 1974), p. 34.

Arthur J. Evans, ”The Rollright Stones and Their Folk-lore” in the journal Folklore, vol. 6, no. 1 (Mar., 1895), pp. 6-53, p. 20.

Image credits: Picture of dogwood by Colin Smith – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dogwood,_Wisley_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1089858.jpg

Image credits: Elder tree and the Rollright Stones courtesy of Simon Noel

 

The use of cotton trees in African-Jamaican folk religions

As mentioned in previous posts the cotton tree had the reputation for both being the abode of spirits and as a sacred plant. These two strands came together in the use of cotton trees in Myal spiritual practices. In Black Roadways, Martha Warren Beckwith based some of her description of Myal on an account written by an African-Jamaican clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Banbury in the late nineteenth century. Here Banbury described how Myalists (or Mialists as he called them) caught shadows which been trapped by duppies in the cotton trees:

We now give an account of the shadow-catching. This is invariably done at night… The person suspected of having lost his shadow was taken to the cotton tree where it was spell bound, or to which it was “nailed”, as the people expressed it. The mialmen were accompanied thither by a large concourse of people. The victim was dressed in white, with a white kerchief about his head. Eggs and fowls were taken along with cooked food to the cotton tree. The mialmen paraded up and down before the tree, with white cloths over their shoulders; and all the people joining in the chorus. Alternatively the cotton tree was pelted with eggs, and the necks of fowls rung off, and their bodies cast at it. This was done to propitiate the “deaths,” or “duppies” that had the shadow enthralled at the trees, the song and dancing proceeded more vigorously as the shadow began to make signs of leaving the tree. A white basin, with water to receive it, was held up; after they had sung, yelled and danced to their hearts’ content, they all of a sudden caught up the person, and ran home, with him, affirming that the shadow was caught, covered up in a basin. Upon reaching home a cloth was wet in the water, and applied to the head of the patient and the shadow was said to be restored. This is the process of shadow-catching… Many shadows were caught in this way on the sugar estates, and pens in St. James, Hanover, Westmoreland, &c.’

A more basic method to summon duppies was for Myalists to ‘form a circle about the tree and each one beat the earth with a stone in rhythm to a song’.

 

Beckwith also gathered information about the use of cotton trees in Myal religion from contemporary African-Jamaicans. One of her informants, a Maroon Myal man named James White, said that only those cotton trees which had been planted on top of a grave had a significance in Myal: ‘Such trees [were] called “worship cotton trees” and may well be regarded as tombs of the dead.’

Another informant, George Parkes, described how, ‘when a Myal Man sets a duppy, he goes alone to a cottonwood with an offering of rice, chicken, and rum, and cuts marks on the tree with his machete or pocketknife in the shape of circles of crosses which he alone can interpret; then he beats one stone upon another and sings “in an unknown tongue”.’

Parkes’s information is interesting as he describes the Myal person as working alone. Many depictions of Myal from the 18th century onwards tend to stress its communal nature – as illustrated by the example of shadow-catching described by Banbury above. However, Myal as a solitary practice also took place in early twentieth century Jamaica, as Elmira Barrows, a former Myalist, also told Beckwith that some Myal leaders worked alone at cotton trees, dancing, singing and drumming around the tree in order to dislodge spirits.

Barrows gave Beckwith an account of how these methods were used by a Myalman from St. Mary named Fifee Bogle. A duppie called Bomshee had been plaguing a young woman. Fifee Bogle stood drumming and singing under the cotton tree which contained Bomshee: ‘Then Bomshee came down from the tree. Bogle caught him.’ And the young woman was freed from her tormenter.

 

Next time…

I’ll be temporarily abandoning Beckwith’s plant odyssey and head back to the world of spirits to look at duppies, shadows and souls.

 

Sources

Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894), p. 23.

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), pp. 145-48.