Cato's Letter No. 79

A further Detection of the vulgar Absurdities about Ghosts and Witches

John Trenchard (Saturday, June 2, 1722)

SIR, I have endeavoured, in my last, to shew, that no such beings as spirits and daemons are permitted by the good God to mingle with, and perplex, human affairs; and if my reasoning be good, the whole system of conjurers and witches falls to the ground: For I think it is agreed by all, if they have any powers supernatural, they receive them from evil spirits; and if these have no such powers themselves, they can transmit them to none else.

But, methinks, the advocates for Satan’s empire here on earth are not very consistent with themselves; and in the works which they attribute to him, do not give credit enough to his abilities and power.

They make this prince a mighty emperor:
But his demands do speak him proud and poor.

They give him a power to do miracles; make him prince of the air, lord of the hidden minerals; wise, rich, and powerful, as well as false, treacherous, and wicked; and are foolish and presumptuous enough to bring him upon the stage as a rival for empire with the Almighty; but at the same time put a fool’s coat and cap upon him. His skill has hitherto gone no farther than to cram pins down children’s throats, and throw them into fits; to turn wort, kill pigs; to sell winds (dog cheap too), to put out candles, or to make half-blind people see two at once; to help hares to run away from the dogs; to make noises, or to discourage his faithful votaries at Newgate, by interloping upon their trade of discovering stolen goods; and such like important feats of daemonship. And, what is yet worse, I cannot find in these last eighteen hundred years, that with all his cunning he has invented one new trick, but goes on in the same dull road; for there is scarce a story told of a spirit, or a witch, who has played pranks in the next parish, but we have the same story, or one very like it, in Cicero’s tract De Divinatione.

He always plays at small games, and lives mostly upon neck-beef. His intrigues are all with old women, whose teats he sucks (which, by the way, shews but a scurvy taste); and when he has gained his ends of them, feeds them only with bread and water, and gives them a groat in their pockets to buy tobacco; which, in my mind, is very ungallant, not to say niggardly and ungenerous, in so great a potentate, who has all the riches of the hidden world within his dominions. I cannot find, in all my reading, that he has expended as much in five hundred years last past as would have carried one election.

Methinks he might have learned a little more wit from his faithful emissaries here on earth, who throw and scatter about money, as if there was never to be an end of it; and get him more votaries in a week, than he can purchase for himself in a century, and put him to not a penny of charge neither; for they buy people with their own money: But to keep such a coil and clutter about an old woman, and then leave her to be hanged, that he may get her into his clutches a month sooner, is very ungrateful; and, as I conceive, wholly unsuitable to a person of his rank and figure.

I should have imagined, that it would have been more agreeable to the wisdom and cunning always attributed to him, in imitation of his betters, to have opened his purse-strings, and have purchased people of more importance, and who could do him more real service. I fancy that I know some of them, who would be ready to take his money, if they knew where he was to be spoken with; and who are men of nice honour, and would not betray or break their word with him, whatever they may do with their countrymen.

Besides, I conceive it is very impolitick in one of his sagacity, and in one who has so many able ministers in his own dominions and elsewhere, to act so incautious a part. It is very well known, that a plot discovered, or a rebellion quelled, gives new credit and reputation to the conquerors, who always make use of them to settle their own empire, effectually to subdue their enemies, to lessen their powers, and to force them for the most part to change sides; and, in fact, one witch hanged or drowned, makes old Beelzebub a great many adversaries, and frightens thousands from having any more to do with him.

For these reasons, I doubt, he is shrewdly belied by those from whom he might expect better usage; and that all the stories commonly told about, and believed concerning him, are invented and credited by such only as have much less wit, or not much more honesty, than himself. To enter into a detail of them is endless, as well as unneccessary to my purpose; it having been unquestionably shewn already by the worthy Dr. Hutchinson,[*] from very many instances, that these stories are fictions, cheats, or delusions, and that the belief of them is neither consistent with reason nor religion. But I shall add some more observations of my own, to what he hath with great piety and judgment published upon this subject; and shall begin with tracing the genealogy of these phantoms.

The first inventers of them, as far as we know any thing of the matter, were the Egyptians; who believed, that the spirits of the deceased always attended their bodies where-ever they were deposited; and therefore embalmed them with rich gums and spices, to preserve their figure entire, and entombed them in stately mausoleums, with costly apartments for their souls to solace in: Which opinion gave occasion to their building the expensive and useless pyramids, to receive souls of a higher degree. From Egypt these airy beings were transplanted into Greece, and thence to Rome; and the Greek and Roman poets embellished their fictions with them, and the priests made their advantages of them; and both priests and poets added many more inventions of their own: They filled their woods, groves, rivers, rocks, houses, and the air itself, with romantick deities: They had their demi-gods, satyrs, dryads, hemi-dryads, penates, lares, fauns, nymphs, &c. And when the general belief of the existence of such beings was well established, without doubt they were often seen and talked with.

For fear does things so like a witch,
'Tis hard to find out which is which.

They animated almost every thing in nature; and attributed even the passions and qualities of the mind to peculiar deities, who presided over them, or directed and caused them: Mars inspired courage and magnanimity; Venus, love; Mercury, cunning; and Apollo and his Muses, wisdom, and poetick raptures, &c. A good and evil genius attended every man, and his virtues and vices were esteemed to be spirits: A wicked man had an evil spirit; a virtuous man, a good one; a wrangler had a spirit of contradiction; people who could not speak, had a dumb spirit; a malicious man, a spirit of envy; and one who wanted veracity, a spirit of lying; and so on. Distempers too which were uncommon, and could not easily be accounted for, as apoplexies, epilepsies, and other fits and trances, were imputed to spirits and daemons; and at last these delusions, which were only the sallies of poets, or the inventions of priests, became the real opinions and religion of the common people, who are always ready to lick up the froth of their betters.

When the heathens came into Christianity, they brought in these phantoms with them, and accounted for oracular predictions, and the other cheats and juggles of their former priests, by the powers of these daemons; and the popish priests have since improved upon their pagan predecessors, and made their fictions turn to a much better account than putting them in verse. The heathen dryads and nymphs were changed into fairies; good and evil genii into conjurers and black and white witches; and saints are made to supply the offices of demi-gods: and by this lucky turn they made a very good penny of their charms, exorcisms, beads, relicks, and holy water; and were paid for many masses, to invoke their saints; in whom, it seems, they had a very good interest.

There was scarce a church-yard, an old or empty house, which was not pestered with these airy inhabitants; nor a man who had murdered himself, or who was murdered by another, or had forgot something in his life-time, who did not appear to tell his own story; nor could be persuaded to quit his new abode, till the holy man had laid him in the Red Sea; who, without doubt, was very well paid for his skill and pains. We may be sure so gainful a trade was duly cherished and cultivated by constant juggles and impostures, and all advantages were taken of surprizing and unusual phenomena of nature. By the help of glasses, unusual voices and noises, phosphorus, magick lanthorns, feats of legerdemain, and collusion and confederacy, these prejudices were artfully kept up, and weak and enthusiastick people were made to believe, sometimes to see, and afterwards to publish to others their visions, or whatever else their deceivers had occasion for; whose power at the same time was so great, that the few intelligent men who saw and detested these impieties, durst not contend with the prejudices of the people, abetted by the rage of the popish priests.

Many of our first reformers were but weak men, and I doubt some of them were not very honest ones; and therefore generally fell into these stories: However, they lost a great deal of ground in Queen Elizabeth’s reign; but were returned upon us with a full swing by her successor, who brought from Scotland with him whole legions of these subterranean inhabitants; who, methinks, should more properly have come from a warmer climate. That bright, sagacious, and royal author wrote and published a very learned book of daemonology, which effectually confuted all disbelievers; for sure no man, who hoped for any preferment, ecclesiastical or civil, would have the ill manners to dispute his Majesty’s great judgment and royal authority. When Nero proclaimed himself the best poet in his dominions by sound of trumpet, no man durst contend for the laurel with one who had fifty legions at his command. So an act of Parliament was passed for hanging of witches; and his Majesty himself was graciously pleased to inform his judges by what marks they might be known; and many of them were hanged accordingly: But, as ill luck would have it, they multiplied like the blood of the martyrs; and the more they hanged, the more were left behind, during his whole reign.

In King Charles I’s time they began to decrease again, by letting them alone; till, at the end of the Civil War, a new set of saints got into the saddle; and then again a fresh persecution began against old women, who were hanged plentifully at every Assizes.

Some only for not being drown’d,
Others for sitting above ground
Whole days and nights upon their breeches,
And feeling pain, were hang’d for witches.

There were professed witch-finders, who knew them at first sight; so that there was scarce a poor, withered, old wretch, with a mole or a wart in any part of her body, but was in danger of her life.

When King Charles II returned, and the nobility, clergy, and gentry resumed their proper seats, old women began again to live and die in quiet; and, during that prince’s long reign, there were but few instances of witches hanged; and, considering the prepossessions of the people, occasioned by so many late murders, under the pretences of zeal, it is not to be wondered at if there were a few: But since the Revolution there has not, as I remember, been one witch hanged; nor do I think that one lawyer in England would condemn one, or any special jury of gentlemen find her guilty; though we are often told, and, if we may judge by other effects, have reason to believe, that Satan is as busy now as he has been in the memory of man.

But in a neighbouring country witches are almost as plentiful as ever; for as soon as the successors of the aforesaid holy men came into play again, and ruled the earth, they turned as they usually do upon their old benefactor, and hanged immediately a dozen or two of his accomplices; and did the same soon after in New-England, of which some were poor Quakers (whom they could not be permitted to hang merely for want of orthodoxy) and it is thought there was not an old woman in Fairyland (who was unfit for use), but would have undergone the same fate, if the government had not interposed.

Notwithstanding this, I do not find that the Devil has in the least changed his measures, or is more afraid of the saints than he used to be; but is constantly working under their noses, and every now and anon kidnapping some of their flocks; but it is always of such as can pay no tithes: for it is agreed by all, that a little money in their pockets will keep him out: But what seems very remarkable is, that at the same time that he makes so bold with these holy men, who have power to cast him out, he keeps a respectful distance from men of carnal sense, and plain natural understandings; and most of all from those incredulous persons, who cannot be persuaded to believe that the merciful God will permit him to outwit and destroy ignorant and unwary Christians, whom the Saviour of the world died to redeem from his power.

This is so true, that those stories are believed through the world, in exact proportion to the ignorance of the people, and the

integrity of their clergy, and the influence which they have over their flocks. In popish countries there is a spirit or witch in every parish, in defiance of holy water, and of constant pater nosters; and there are more of them in ignorant popish countries than in knowing ones, in poor than in rich ones; and they appear oftener in arbitrary governments than in free states. The King of Spain’s and Pope’s dominions have more of them than France and the German principalities, where priest-craft does not ride so triumphant; and these have more than Venice, Genoa, and the popish Hans towns.

The same is equally true of Protestant countries: Muscovy, Sweden, Denmark, and Lapland, have more of them than Scotland and Ireland; and Scotland and Ireland more than England, where no clergymen of any credit abet these frauds; and consequently the Devil’s empire here is almost at an end, how considerable soever it has been formerly: and in Holland he has nothing at all to do; though that country lies so near his other territories, that I wonder he should not sometimes shorten his journey, or at least now and then take it in his way, though only to try what may be done among the Hogan Mogans.

From all that has been said I think I may reasonably conclude, that he is kept at home by the will of the Almighty, suffering the punishment due to his rebellion; and has no power over others, till, for their disobedience to the commands of heaven, they are delivered into his custody to be tormented, and made just objects of divine vengeance: And I shall take the liberty further to add, that true religion is so well supported by reason and revelation, that there is no necessity of telling lies in its defence, and putting it upon the same bottom with the heathen superstitions, and the popish forgeries and impostures; which, when discovered will make twenty infidels for one true believer that is made by such methods.

T I am, &c.



[*] Bishop of Down and Connor in Ireland.

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