Gowdie, Isobel (?–ca. 1662)

Scottish witch whose
stories of wild sexual escapades with the Devil titillated
and shocked her stern neighbors and reinforced the prevailing
beliefs in witches as evil creatures bent on
destroying their fellow man. Isobel Gowdie, an attractive
woman with red hair, a color associated with witches,
voluntarily confessed to witchcraft on four occasions in
April and May 1662. The confessions in themselves
astonished the local folk, but what was even more astonishing
was Gowdie’s assertion that she had been engaging
in obscene activities for 15 years. No one, apparently,
had ever caught on, not even her husband.
According to her confessions, Gowdie’s involvement
with the Devil began in 1647, when she met him in the
shape of a man in gray in Auldearne, the remote area in
Morayshire where she lived. He enticed her into his service,
and that very evening baptized her as a witch in the
local church with her own blood, which he sucked from
her. He gave her a Devil’s mark on her shoulder and renamed
her Janet. Much of her witchcraft, she said, was
taught to her by fairies.
Gowdie said she joined a coven of 13 witches—thus
bolstering the myth that all witches organize in groups of
13—which met regularly for sabbats marked by sexual
orgies with demons and the Devil, feasting and dancing.
She proudly explained how she sneaked away to attend
these affairs without her husband knowing: she substituted
a broomstick for herself in bed, and he never realized
the difference.
She and her sister witches flew off to the sabbats on
corn straws, beanstalks and rushes, which they charmed
into flight by shouting, “Horse and Hattock, in the Devil’s
name!” If someone below spotted them and did not cross
himself, they would shoot him down with elf arrows.
Gowdie delighted in describing her intercourse with
the Devil: how he plunged an enormous, scaly penis into
her, causing excruciating pain, and how his semen was
cold as ice. As painful as she made it sound, Gowdie also
apparently enjoyed it. If she or the other witches displeased
the Devil, he beat them with scourges and wool
She also told how she and her coven members tormented
their neighbors. They raised storms by beating
wet rags upon stones while reciting incantations. They
made farmland sterile by ploughing it with a miniature
plough drawn by toads. They hexed children by sticking
pins in dolls. They blasted one farmer’s crops (see blasting)
by digging up the body of an unchristened child and
burying it in his manure heap. They shot elf arrows at
people to injure or kill them. If they became bored with
tormenting others, the witches amused themselves by
metamorphosing into animals, usually hares and cats
(see metamorphosis).
Stunned by these stories, the local authorities had
Gowdie stripped and searched for the Devil’s mark, which
they found.
The records give no reason as to why Gowdie one day
decided to confess these lurid tales, without any prompting
or suspicion upon her. Furthermore, she welcomed
punishment: “I do not deserve to be seated here at ease
and unharmed, but rather to be stretched on an iron rack:
nor can my crimes be atoned for, were I to be drawn asunder
by wild horses.”
In Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), Sir
Walter Scott speculated that “this wretched creature
144 Gowdie, Isobel
was under the dominion of some peculiar species of lunacy.”
In The Occult (1971), Colin Wilson suggests she
was a highly sexed woman with a vivid imagination, who
turned to fantasies to alleviate the boredom of a dull existence;
at some point, her fantasies became real to her.
But after 15 years, the excitement of having a secret grew
thin, and there was only one way to recharge it—by making
a public confession.
The records also do not indicate what became of
Gowdie or the other unfortunate Auldearne witches she