Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft Notes

A series of essays by Walter Scott publshed in 1830

Jump To

Letter 1 | Letter 2 | Letter 3 | Letter 4 | Letter 5 | Letter 6 | Letter 7 | Letter 8 | Letter 9 | Lettter 10 |

Letter 1

The first letter in his collection introduces the reader to Scott's destinction between what should and shouldn't be considered a Spirit based on his own experiences interacting with others. He asserts that everything here is personal opinion based on experience and shouldn't be confused with actual medical or Occult literature.
Despite this, he makes a lot of claims about medical conditions. There is some degree of ableism in his letter, but that's just kind of expected given how long ago this was written.

[...]the very curious extracts published by Mr. Pitcairn, from the Criminal Records of Scotland, are, besides their historical value, of a nature so much calculated to illustrate the credulity of our ancestors on such subjects, that, by perusing them, I have been induced more recently to recall what I bad read and thought upon the subject at a former period.

I'm not entirely sure which volume and part he's referring to here, but here is the Google Books link that pops up when I search for "Pitcairn Criminal Records of Scotland". However, Google Books says the book I linked above (volume 1, part 2) was published in 1833. These letters are cited as being published in 1830, 3 years before this book is meant to be initially released. Scott died in 1832.
So that's a little confusing.
Besides that, he's directly referencing Scottish witch trial records. It should be noted that Scott believes in the witch-cult theory (the theory that says "witches" are actually the remnants of practitioners of a pre-Christian religion that were wiped out during the trials in Europe).

[...]however, my information is only miscellaneous, and I make no pretensions, either to combat the systems [...], or to erect any new one of my own, my purpose is[...] to confine myself to narratives of remarkable cases[...] in the confidence that such a plan is, at the present time of day, more likely to suit the pages of a popular miscellany, than an attempt to reduce the contents of many hundred tomes[...]. A few general remarks on the nature of Demonology, and the original cause of the almost universal belief in communication betwixt mortals and beings of a power superior to themselves[...] are a necessary introduction to the subject.

He's basically saying that everything he's writing here is based on personal experience and shouldn't be confused with actual historical accounts of witchcraft. He's preparing the reader for an introduction to the supernatural based solely on what he's learned through reading and research.

The general, or, it may be termed, the universal belief of the inhabitants of the earth, in the existence of spirits separated from the encumbrance and incapacities of the body, is grounded on the consciousness of the divinity that speaks in our bosoms, and demonstrates to all men, except the few who are hardened to the celestial voice, that there is within us a portion of the divine substance, which is not subject to the law of death and dissolution, but which, when the body is no longer fit for its abode, shall seek its own place, as a sentinel dismissed from his post.

This paragraph is Scott explaining his view of the Spirit and the Soul. He believes that everyone has some opinion on the divine, even if they don't use the same terms as Occultists. He believes that everyone loses their Soul when they die, but there's no place for it to go so it stays on earth, despite having a belief in an afterlife of some kind.

These spirits, in a state of separate existence, being admitted to exist, are not, it may be supposed, indifferent to the affairs of mortality, perhaps not incapable of influencing them. [...] The abstract idea of a spirit certainly implies that it has neither substance, form, shape, voice, or anything which can render its presence visible or sensible to human faculties. [...] To the multitude, the indubitable fact, that so many millions of spirits exist around and even amongst us, seems sufficient to support the belief that they are, in certain instances at least, by some means or other, able to communicate with the world of humanity.

People have a Soul, and when they die, it gets released into the world but we can't interact with it. Only it can interact with us.

Enthusiastic feelings of an impressive and solemn nature occur both in private and public life, which seem to add ocular testimony to an intercourse betwixt earth and the world beyond it. For example, [...] the wretched man who has dipped his hand in his fellow-creature's blood, is haunted by the apprehension that the phantom of the slain stands by the bedside of his murderer. In all or any of these cases, who shall doubt that imagination, favoured by circumstances, has power to summon up to the organ of sight, spectres which only exist in the mind of those by whom their apparition seems to be witnessed?

Grief and guilt causes people to see things, according to Scott. I can't speak on how common murder was in the 1830's, but it seems like such a common occurance that it shaped his views on death and the afterlife.

If we add, that such a vision may take place in the course of one of those lively dreams in which the patient, [...] is, or seems, sensible of the real particulars of the scene around him, a state of slumber which often occurs; if he is so far conscious, for example, as to know that he is lying on his own bed, and surrounded by his own familiar furniture at the time when the supposed apparition is manifested, it becomes almost in vain to argue with the visionary against the reality of his dream, since the spectre, though itself purely fanciful, is inserted amidst so many circumstances which he feels must be true beyond the reach of doubt or question. [...] Such a concatenation, we repeat, must frequently take place, when it is considered of what stuff dreams are made -- how naturally they turn upon those who occupy our mind while awake, and, when a soldier is exposed to death in battle, when a sailor is incurring the dangers of the sea, when a beloved wife or relative is attacked by disease, how readily our sleeping imagination rushes to the very point of alarm, which when waking it had shuddered to anticipate. The number of instances in which such lively dreams have been quoted, and both asserted and received as spiritual communications, is very great at all periods; in ignorant times, where the natural cause of dreaming is misapprehended and confused with an idea of mysticism, it is much greater.

Scott is making the distinction between actual Souls/Spirits, and hallucinations caused by grief. They are two very different concepts and have been historically confused with one another, according to him.
If someone witnesses a traumatic event and is haunted by the event, then those "hauntings" should not be confused with actually coming into contact with a Spirit. He asserts that what's happening is your imagination trying to make sense of the event, both while asleep and while awake.

Somnambulism and other nocturnal deceptions frequently lend their aid to the formation of such phantasmata as are formed in this middle state, betwixt sleeping and waking. [...] we find the excited imagination acting upon the half-waking senses, which were intelligent enough for the purpose of making him sensible where he was, but not sufficiently so to judge truly of the objects before him.

Hypnagogic hallucinations (hallucinations that occur just before falling alseep and/or waking up) should not be confused with Spirits.

On such occasions as we have hitherto mentioned, we have supposed that the ghost-seer has been in full possession of his ordinary powers of perception, unless in the case of dreamers, in whom they may have been obscured by temporary slumber, and the possibility of correcting vagaries of the imagination rendered more difficult by want of the ordinary appeal to the evidence of the bodily senses. In other respects their blood beat temperately, they possessed the ordinary capacity of ascertaining the truth or discerning the falsehood of external appearances by an appeal to the organ of sight. Unfortunately, however, as is now universally known and admitted, there certainly exists more than one disorder known to professional men of which one important symptom is a disposition to see apparitions.

Scott claims that people can easily distinguish between hallucinations and Spirits if they both read more about the subject and, to put it bluntly, use their eyes. Remember, Scott says that we cannot see legitimate Spirits/Souls, so he claims that if you're seeing something, then it's all in your head. He even makes a reference to Schizophrenia, asserting that no, those hallucinations aren't Spirits either and you should just "know better".
I'm glad he's not writing medical textbooks.

In their case, therefore, contrary to that of the maniac, it is not the mind, or rather the imagination, which imposes upon and overpowers the evidence of the senses, but the sense of seeing (or bearing) which betrays its duty and conveys false ideas to a sane intellect.

He believes if you're seeing things and you aren't Schizophrenic or experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations, then you simply need glasses. He also believes colorblind people just need glasses. We've really come a long way in terms of mediciine.

It is easy to be supposed that habitual excitement by means of any other intoxicating drug, as opium, or its various substitutes, must expose those who practise the dangerous custom to the same inconvenience. [...] But there are many other causes which medical men find attended with the same symptom, of embodying before the eyes of a patient imaginary illusions which are visible to no one else. This persecution of spectral deceptions is also found to exist when no excesses of the patient can be alleged as the cause, owing, doubtless, to a deranged state of the blood or nervous system.

Drug-induced hallucinations aren't Spirits either, according to him.
Scott goes into a lot of stories that were either told to him or that he directly experienced as evidence for his claims. He later details the different types of hallucinations that he was either told about or experienced through patients.

A remarkable instance of [tactile hallucinations] was told me by a late nobleman. He had fallen asleep, with some uneasy feelings arising from indigestion. They operated in their usual course of visionary terrors. At length they were all summed up in the apprehension that the phantom of a dead man held the sleeper by the wrist, and endeavoured to drag him out of bed. He awaked in horror, and still felt the cold dead grasp of a corpse's hand on his right wrist. It was a minute before he discovered that his own left hand was in a state of numbness, and with it he had accidentally encircled his right arm.

I like this paragraph for two reasons: firstly, it showcases just how often hypnagogic hallucinations were mistaken for legitimate apparitions; and secondly, this story shows a case of effects from eating moldy bread (apsnet) which was a common cause of hallucinations back in the day. Don't worry, you're not going to come across this fungus anytime soon. That is, unless, your doctor prescribes it to you (medscape).
For a fun explaination of ergot (the mold that causes hallucinations in bread), (CONTAINS FLASHING IMAGERY) here's my favorite video on the topic by Sam O'Nella. This is by no means an academic resource, but it's still a fun watch for anyone interested in food history.
Anyway, back to the letter.

I have now arrived, by a devious path, at the conclusion of this letter, the object of which is to show from what attributes of our nature, whether mental or corporeal, arises that predisposition to believe in supernatural occurrences.

A nice little summary of the letter provided by Scott.

It is, I think, conclusive that mankind, from a very early period, have their minds prepared for such events by the consciousness of the existence of a spiritual world, inferring in the general proposition the undeniable truth that each man, from the monarch to the beggar, who has once acted his part on the stage, continues to exist, and may again, even in a disembodied state, if such is the pleasure of Heaven, for aught that we know to the contrary, be permitted or ordained to mingle amongst those who yet remain in the body.

This goes back to his original point: everyone has some concept of interacting with the divine whether they acknowledge it or not. But, according to Scott, humans have been too eager to jump to the supernatural conclusion and, in doing so, has watered down and tarnished the reputation of true supernatural experiences.
We cannot seek to interact with Spirits because we will trick ourselves into believing that it's working, when the reality is we cannot interact with Spirits, only they can interact with us.
The big question is: do I agree with his assessment?
In short, kind of but not really.
In length, I agree with the logic behind and the general notion that Spirits can interact with us and we are way too eager to engage in that interaction that we get led astray by novelty. Look at the reputation behind Ouija boards; the idea of using one to communicate with Spirits is seductive, but going about doing so is "dangerous".
We have the innate desire to interact with supernatural forces that we don't understand. Which means people will go to great lengths to exploit that desire.
In terms of mental illness and other internal causes to sense things that aren't there, I agree that hallucinations are not the same as interacting with a Spirit. I also don't think it's really that big of an issue in this day and age. Thanks, science!

Return to Top of Page

Letter 2

Return to Top of Page

Letter 3

Return to Top of Page

Letter 4

Return to Top of Page

Letter 5

Return to Top of Page

Letter 6

Return to Top of Page

Letter 7

Return to Top of Page

Letter 8

Return to Top of Page

Letter 9

Return to Top of Page

Letter 10

Return to Top of Page