The Devil's Dozen

Gareth J. Medway
Magonia 91, February 2006

In Magonia 88 David Sivier criticised the theory of Stan Gooch, first published in his book Guardians of the Ancient Wisdom in 1979 [1], that Christianity originated with a secret lunar cult, Whilst I agree with most of what he says, I must dispute his explanation of why there are said to be thirteen in a witch coven. Mediaeval religious orders were arranged into groups of thirteen, in imitation of Christ and his twelve disciples.

So. Sivier suggests, since witchcraft was supposed to be a blasphemous parody of Christianity, witches would have been imagined to, do the same. He cites the authority of Elliot Rose’s A Razor for a Goat, though the same idea had previously been stated, as if it. were a proven fact. by Rossell Hope Robbins: “Inasmuch as witchcraft was viewed as an obscene parody of Christianity. and since a common form of monastic organization was (as Chaucer noted) the “convent” of thirteen (in commemoration of Christ and the apostles), the demonologists finally invented a corresponding “convent” or “coven” of thirteen witches .” [2]

Robbins does not provide any evidence for this claim, however. Rose’s book makes a number of dubious assertions, such as that: “Thirteen in itself has no great mystic significance for mankind at large: there are those who insist on looking back to a hypothetical race of ancients who counted the year as thirteen 'Customs of Women' instead of the more usual twelve lunations, but this is an aberration of perverse ingenuity unbacked by concrete examples.” [3] Here is one of the pieces of evidence he thinks to be nonexistent:
But how many months be in the year?
There are thirteen I say [4]

In Europe, belief in witchcraft goes back to prehistory, and is mentioned in some of the earliest law codes. such as the Twelve Tablets of Rome. which date from centuries before the Christian era. The early Church tried to discourage it, and prescribed penances for women who believed that they flew about at night with the Goddess Diana. Charlemagne made it a capital offence to kill someone on the grounds that he or she was a witch, specifying this to be a Pagan custom. [5] Around 1400 they did a sudden about-turn, the Inquisition started promoting belief in witchcraft, and organised persecutions of their own. Thus began the ‘Burning Times’, which lasted for some three hundred years.

When modern historians began to study the subject, they chose to focus on the Burning Times, which are very well documented, as opposed to the earlier periods, for which there is only limited evidence. Accordingly, writers such as Henry Charles Lea sought the origins of witchcraft beliefs within Christian theology alone. [6] This gave the impression that witchcraft was a purely Christian invention, a view no doubt encouraged by the fact that many of those historians were anticlerical.

Whether these beliefs were actually true need not detain us; Brian Appleyard, in his recent book Aliens: Why They Are Here [7], observes that whether or not there are nuts and bolts UFOs, the aliens are certainly here in the sense that they have become part of our culture, and the same was the case with witchcraft. The point is that to some extent it is possible to separate the prehistoric beliefs from the Christian ones. Obviously, before the time of the Gospels, it cannot have been thought that witches recited the Lord’s Prayer backwards. On the other hand the practice of removing a curse by drawing blood from the woman who laid it did not have any basis, so far as I can discover, in theology, and was no doubt an archaic folk custom.
Brian Appleyard, observes that whether or not there are nuts and bolts UFOs, the aliens are certainly here in the sense that they have become part of our culture, and the same was the case with witchcraft

As to there being thirteen in a coven, though this is routinely stated by modem authors, there are actually only three primary sources that I am aware of, two from British trial records, and one from folklore; I must observe straightaway that none of these is the work of a demonologist, as implied by Robbins. Isobel Gowdie, a Scotswoman who was tried in 1662, confessed: “There are thirteen persons in ilk Coven”. Though I have said it does not matter here if these meetings really occurred, it is evident that Gowdie was delusional, as she stated that the witches would ride on the souls of dead men, and that “All the coven did fly like cats, jackdaws, hares and rooks, etc., but Barbara Ronald, in Brightmanney, and I always rode on a horse, which we would make of a straw or ,a bean-stalk.” [8]

A decade later, a maidservant named Anne Armstrong, of Northumberland, claimed in court that a woman named Anne Forster had come to her at night, put a magic bridle on her which changed her into a horse, and ridden her to a witches’ meeting: she said that there “were five coveys consisting of thirteen person in every covey”. But she also said that they were “every thirteen with a divell, who called every one to account, and those that did most evill he made most of.” [9] The devil was not one of the thirteen, and if he is counted as a member – and after all, he was the leader – then there were fourteen present in each ‘covey’.

Though it is not discussed by any modern author that I have seen, there seems to have been a general belief that a witch could turn a human into a horse and ride it, as the allegation occurred in two other seventeenth century cases [10] and was casually alluded to by Samuel Butler [11]

The Body feels Spur and Switch,
As if ’twere ridden Post by Witch’
twenty miles, an hour pace …

It survives to this day in the term ‘hag-ridden’. It is certainly an ancient belief, as it is not mentioned by the demonologists (some discuss animal metamorphosis, but not riding), yet it occurs in the plot of the Old Norse Eyrbyggja Saga [12]
Since Armstrong had almost certainly never heard of Gowdie, the organisation of witches into covens of thirteen, must also have been a matter of common knowledge. in the same way that everyone nowadays knows what happens when you get abducted by aliens, and it has perhaps indirectly survived in the Scots phrase “the Devil’s dozen”. Yet it is not known to occur in any contemporary published source (the trial records were only printed in the nineteenth century). Indeed, I know of only one printed use of the word ‘coven’ from this period [13] This suggests that it was a piece of popular rather than learned lore.

‘The Witch-ride’, an Icelandic folktale [14], tells how a young man became employed as a servant by a vicar. On Christmas Eve the vicar’s wife suddenly put a bridle on him, and rode him through the air to a little house where she tethered him to the wall. He was able to look inside, and see twelve women being instructed by a mysterious man. It turned out that the women were all vicar’s wives, and the man “the Fiend himself.” A very similar Scottish legend, though does not mention the number of the witches, concerns a blacksmith’s wife who regularly turned an apprentice into a horse by touching him with a wand. [15]

In both stories, the youth was eventually able to slip, the bridle and put it on his mistress, who was later executed. Probably both are of Norse origin, having brought to Scotland and Iceland by Viking settlers. Since covens of thirteen were known in Protestant areas, it is unlikely that they have any connection with the organisation of the Catholic Church.

More likely, we should look to northern European folklore. Though I recognise that analogies can be misleading, a clue to the original identity of the Icelandic ‘Fiend’ may be found in the Dutch miracle play Mary of Nimmeeen, written circa 1500 about a woman who lived with the devil for seven nears. Strangely enough. Mary is the heroine suggesting another story of pre-Christian origins. What confirms this is that it is said that, though the devil changed himself into approximately human form, he had only one eye, because “the dyvell can never turne hym in the lykenes of a man… [16] the real reason, clearly, is that he is actually the one-eyed God Odin, or the Dutch equivalent which I think was Wodan. In pagan times. clearly, a woman who had a god as a lover would have been a heroine. So the devil who taught witchcraft to vicar’s wives may also have been Odin.
The witches may well have been his companions the Valkyries. usually said to have been twelve or thirteen in number, which would make for covens of thirteen or fourteen when the leader was included

In that case, the witches may well have been his companions the Valkyries. who were usually said to have been twelve or thirteen in number, which would make for covens of thirteen or fourteen when the leader was included. As Brian Branston remarked: “… it may be suggestive that Grímnísmal, listing thirteen Valkyries by name should make up the same number as the witches coven. [17] It is a fact that, in early Rnglish, the equivalent term walkyrie was used as a synonym for witch. In 1014 Wufstan, the Archbishop of York delivered a sermon about how the country was overrun with sinners, mentioning that ‘her syndan wiccan and waelcyrian’. i.e. “here are witches. and walkyries”. [18]

Nor was this an isolated example, for the fourteenth century alliterative poem Cleanness says “Wyches and walkyries wonnen to that sale”. i.e. “Witches and walkyries went to that hall”. [19] Perhaps walkyries were also identified with vicar’s wives.

I do not claim to have proved conclusively that covens of thirteen are derived from Odin and the Valkyries, but it seems to me to be at least as plausible as the equally unproven Christian parody view expressed by Robbins, Rose and Siviers. Margaret Murray’s the Witch Cult in Western Europe quoted the Gowdie and Armstrong trials, suggesting that this was the normal method of organisation.

Thereby, the notion of covens, which had completely died out. was revived in the public imagination. Murray’s theory that witchcraft was a survival from Pagan times has been heavily criticised, mainly on the grounds that the Sabbats were not real events, but even if they were not a survival of Pagan practice, they did somehow preserve elements of pagan belief. At the present day witch covens, that certainly have a real existence, regard thirteen as the ideal number, but this does not happen often as it proves too difficult to arrange.

  1. Stan Gooch, Guardians of the Ancient Wisdom?, Fontana, 1980,(1st Wildwood House, 1979).
  2. Rossell Hope Bobbins, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology; Peter Nevill, 1959, p.117.
  3. Elliot Rose, A Razor for a Goat, University of Toronto Press. 1989, pp.160.
  4. ‘Robin Hood and the Curtail Friar’, The Oxford Book of Ballads, Oxford University Press. 1946. p.600.
  5. Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons. Granada, 1976, p.208.
  6. Henry Charles Lea, Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia. 1939, mainly volume 1. He even missed some Christian sources, such as Voragine’s Golden Legend, which was the main inspiration for belief in the pact with the devil.
  7. Scribner. London, 2005.
  8. Robert Pitcairn. Ancient Criminal Trials In Scotland, Edinburgh, 1833, Vol.III; pp.606, 613.
  9. Depositions from the Castle of York relating to offences committed in the Northern Counties in the seventeenth century. Surtees Society. 1861, pp-193, 195. Other supposed examples of covens do not stand up to scrutiny, for example, Janet Howat of Forfar testified in 1661 that at the first meeting she attended there were witches “to the number of 13 of all”; but she went on to say that at her second meeting were “about 20″ – George Kinloch, Reliqurae Antiquiae Scoticae. Edinburgh, 1848, p.124.
  10. The second Pendle case of 1633, for which see John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, London, 1677, pp347-48, and the trial described in Strange & Terrible Newes from Cambridge, London, 1659. The first of these collapsed after the principle witness admitted to having lied: so probably did the second, for the pamphlet was soon followed by a counterblast. A Lying Wonder Discovered, and The Strange and Terrible News from Cambridge Proved False, 1659.
  11. Samuel Butler, Hudibras, edited by John Wilders. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1967, First Part, Canto 11, lines 1157-59.
  12. Translated by Hermann Palson & Paul Edwards, Southside Publishers, Edinburgh, 1973.
  13. An Apology for M Antonio Bourignon, 1699, p.293. Though this was published in London, the author was probably a Scotsman, suggesting that the word was only known in the north of Britain.
  14. Ghosts, Witchcraft and the Other World, translated by Alan Boucher, Iceland Review Library, Reykjavik, 1981, pp.20-22.
  15. Thomas Davidson, Rowan Tree and Red Thread; Edinburgh, 1949, pp 85-6.
  16. Mary of Nimmegen, Harvard University Press. Cambridge. Massachusetts’, 1932, a facsimile of an English chapbook version of the story from about 1518, Sig.A4r. The original play was translated by Harry Morgan Ayres as A Marvelous History of Mary of Nimmegen. Martians Nijhoff, The Hague, 1924. The devil having one eye is mentioned on p.12 of the latter.
  17. Brian Branston, Gods of the North, Thames & Hudson, London, 1980, p.191.
  18. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, fifteenth edition. Oxford University Press, 1979, p.91.
  19. Line 1577, in Pearl. Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by A. C. Cawley & J J. Anderson. Everyman’s Library. 1983.