WEIRD NORFOLK: The wise woman of North Walsham who could repel the evil eye
PUBLISHED: 18:00 13 June 2020
She was the wise woman of Walsham who could reverse the ‘evil eye’ and whose work was still remembered within living memory.
In the past, as now, people have always wondered why terrible things happen to good people – and a belief that someone had fallen under a curse seemed as a good a reason as any to cling to. They might be the gateway to the soul, but many believe that a purposeful stare can inflict great magical damage on another person: it’s when a dirty look turns into the evil eye. One should, by the way, not confuse the eye amulet (often called ‘the evil eye’, a cobalt-blue charm) which is actually anti-witchcraft, with the glare that causes so much damage.
The curse of the evil eye stems from a belief that someone who achieves success in their life or recognition also attracts envy from those who are around them. This envy then turns into a curse that can undo good fortune. In Heliodorus of Emesa in ancient Greek romance Aethiopica, the author writes: “When anyone looks at what is excellent with an envious eye he fills the surrounding atmosphere with a pernicious quality and transmits his own envenomed exhalations into whatever is nearest to him.” Greek philosopher Plutarch believed the human eye had the power of releasing invisible rays of energy that were so strong they had the power to kill small animals or even children. The evil eye was thought to be so powerful that it could cause misfortune, injury, disease or even death if you were the subject of a malicious glance: it could also cause harm to property, animals or loved ones.
It was little surprise, then, that those who believed they had fallen under an evil spell were keen to rid themselves of the magical curse In a letter written to the Eastern Daily Press in March 1894, William Cooke of Stalham wrote about a Mrs Wisby of North Walsham who was often called on to reverse the effects of the evil eye or “being overlooked” as it was also called. “Her chief speciality was the power of putting a mark on the possessor of the evil optic (distance no object),” he wrote.
Cooke then recounted the story of a young coachman who took a new job only to find that his horses quickly deteriorated under his care, their coats becoming ragged as they grew thin. He was told that the former holder of his job had “overlooked” him. Hastening to North Walsham to see Mrs Wisby, she quickly told him that the man who had caused him ill was “bearded like a pard”, a phrase Shakespeare used to refer to someone who had a patchy beard like a leopard’s spotted coat. She told the coachman that she would put a mark on the man and that in three days it would be apparent: three days later, the man was seen without his beard after it mysteriously fell out almost overnight.
Mrs Wisby would create charms or amulets which consisted of verses of Bible scripture written on strips of paper which were carried by those that needed them. As Mr Cooke put it: “In the face of the advance of education in many of our rural parishes, the belief in witches and witchcraft is as strong as when the notorious Hopkins drove such a roaring trade as a witchfinder. “Imps are still dreaded. The cauldron of the weird sisters still bubbles. I may add the late Mrs. Wisby was also noted for her skill in the healing art, her medicines acting both as a charm and cure.”
In 1932, Ernest Edward Smith sent a poem to the Eastern Daily Press which was published the day after Boxing Day – it was about a strange story told to a child by his grandfather of something which happened in 1839. The man had reared a herd of swine but the litter sickened and despite his best efforts, failed to thrive. A neighbour offered some help. A neighbour who was in the line, expert in things concerning swine, looked at the pigs—then scratched his head, paused long—his ginger whiskers twitched; and, turning to the farmer, said— ‘Why, these here pigs have been bewitched.’ “… And so the afflicted farmer tries what Mrs. Wisby would advise— a woman in such matters wise, her skill was sought the country round, And here the remedy he found, and having paid the appropriate fee, he hurried home in time for tea.”
On a dark, moonless night, the farmer and his farmhand waited for the magic to start. “Before the hour of midnight chime: rustle in the pigstye near, is warning of the spell at work.” While the pigs died – turning from white to black as they breathed their last and the farmer burnt one ceremonially to purge the witchcraft – as the clock struck midnight a figure appeared at the door begging for pardon.
“Tis said if you should not speak first, the witch will swell, and swell—and burst and I am told by those who know of witches’ manners odious, the smallest harm that they can do, is make their victim verminous: sometimes this malady is switched on people who are not bewitched!” The storyteller refused to give the identity of the man who begged forgiveness, but added that he was in the churchyard nearby, buried close to the witch in question.
So – what should you do if you believe you’ve fallen victim to the evil eye? Firstly, it’s best to avoid becoming the victim of the evil eye in the first place. Scatter salt inside your front door, ask all your family to urinate in a bucket and pour the contents outside your house (a fun activity for lockdown) and don’t whatever you do, spill olive oil. Secondly, carry an evil eye amulet, as described above or if you need something quickly, carry garlic instead (which has the added bonus of repelling vampires). You can pass an egg over an afflicted person’s forehead and body and then break the egg over a bowl of water and look for the shape of an eye to appear which will show that the power of the curse has been removed. And if you need to stop the evil eye in its tracks as it happens, make the sign of the horns – extend the index and little fingers while holding the middle and ring fingers down with your thumb – downwards. Good luck.
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