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

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 660 pages
  • Publisher: Sussex Academic Press (July 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1845191803
  • ISBN-13: 978-1845191801
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #560,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“Gowdie’s confessions offer probably the most challenging and mysterious material in British witch trials. Emma Wilby subjects them to a long and painstakingly minute analysis, which covers much folkloric material, but also involves a great deal of speculative interpretation. Her book will prove controversial, but is an important contribution to witchcraft studies.”  —Katharine Briggs Award Judges Report, 2010

“This is a remarkable book based on remarkable historical documentation . . . an important work and essential reading for all scholars of early modern witchcraft, and of the popular culture of that period more generally.”  —James Sharpe, American Historical Review

“An inspired and inspiring assessment of this famous witchcraft case. . . . Through Wilby’s carefully crafted system of speculation, built upon shards of evidence, the historical actors and their belief systems become clearly and convincingly entwined with our understanding of Isobel’s trial and the unique traits for which it is so famous. The result is a deeply complex understanding of the trial that is wholly attributable to Wilby’s admirably creative thinking and painstaking research.”  —Janay Nugent, Sixteenth Century Journal

“In this bold and imaginative book, Emma Wilby attempts to understand Isobel by taking us deeply into her culture and spiritual worldview. . . . With meticulous attention to detail, she reconstructs Isobel’s life as a poor, illiterate farmwife: her cultural horizons within the fermtoun, or small agro-pastoral community where she lived; her spiritual worldview, which combined Christianity with many aspects of folklore rooted in earlier cosmologies; and the likely sequence of events that led to her arrest and imprisonment. Wilby gives equally careful attention to the personalities and agendas of the men who questioned her, showing how a unique combination of personal, religious, and political ideologies came together in the small interrogation room, culminating in her remarkable performance. . . . No other author to date has come up with such a cohesive interpretation of Isobel’s confessions. In the end, this book does what good research should: provide us with provocative, original interpretations and raise questions for further exploration. Wilby’s book will be of great interest to folklorists, anthropologists, historians of witchcraft, and of course modern Pagan Witches.”  —Sabina Magliocco, California State University, Journal of Folklore Research

“[Wilby's research is] illuminating and thought-provoking, and will therefore be of immense value to those scholars who venture into the complex maze of witchcraft history. . . . Her book is immensely rewarding, whether one agrees with every point or not, and is to be recommended to anyone who wants to have a more intimate understanding of both this region of Scotland at a particular point in its history and the interaction between a highly self-aware Calvinism and older traditions of beneficent and malicious magic.”  —Peter Maxwell-Stuart, University of St Andrews, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft

“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, University of Bristol, Pomegranate

About the Author

Emma Wilby is an honorary fellow in history at the University of Exeter and the author of Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits.

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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Green Stone on August 26, 2011
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.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Randy Conner on January 27, 2011
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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!!!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By James on June 5, 2014
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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.
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