Feminist Friday: Witch Prophetess: Mother Shipton

Witch Prophetess: Mother Shipton

By Kara Newcastle




You know that traditional image of a witch, the one you always see at Halloween? The old hag with stringy hairy, craggy face, hooked nose, wearing a tall pointed hat? Well, it might interest (or unnerve) you to know that the image of the pointy-hatted, ugly witch is actually based on a real woman—Mother Shipton, an illiterate English witch renowned for her incredible ability to foresee the future.

As the story goes, Ursula Southeil (sometimes called Sountheil, Southill, or Soothtell) was born near the magical petrifying Dropping Well, in a cave in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, sometime around 1488. Her unmarried, teenage mother, Agatha (or Agnes), was already reputed to be a witch who could control the weather, heal people and predict the future. Her father … well, no one knew who Ursula’s father was. Most of the townsfolk believed that it had to be the Devil either because witches were associated with the Devil, or because Ursula was said to be astoundingly ugly. However, Gardnerian witch and writer Doreen Valiente has since pointed out that male leaders of witch covens were often been referred to as the Devil by non-pagans, so it’s possible that Ursula’s father was her mother’s coven’s high priest.


800px-MotherShipton'sCave copyright chris
Mother Shipton’s Cave, by chris, commons.wikimedia.com


It’s unclear what happened to Ursula’s mother; some accounts say that she died in childbirth making “strange and terrible noises,” while others say that Agatha abandoned her daughter and fled to a convent. Either way, Ursula, said to be horribly ugly even as a child, was taken in by a local village woman. However, the kindly lady came to regret adopting Ursula, as bizarre things happened in the house whenever the girl was present, such as furniture moving of its own accord, and food mysteriously vanishing off plates.

One story recounts how the frightened woman ran from her home, leaving little Ursula alone, and returned with her neighbors to show them the activity. As soon as they entered the house, the neighbor’s wife was yanked off her feet by an invisible force, flipped upside down and made to hang by her toes to a pole that floated in midair. Her horrified husband was then grabbed, levitated, and had his neck yoked to the other end of the pole.

Other stories claim that if young Ursula was angry at the local village women, she’d cast a spell to make them dance around in circles uncontrollably. If they tried to stop, Ursula’s familiar (a demon servant in the shape of an animal, in this case, a monkey) would pinch them painfully. The village children would antagonize her about her ugliness, so little Ursula would fight back with harmful spells. As a young woman, Ursula once bewitched guests at a breakfast party, prompting them to laugh hysterically and be chased out of the house by demons.


Ursula’s spellcasting and demon-summoning became such a problem that after enchanting the breakfast guests she was summoned to court on charges of witchcraft. Unimpressed with the judge’s accusations, Ursula threatened to do a hell of a lot worse to him and the townsfolk if they tried to prosecute her. As the unnerved crowd watched, Ursula then shouted, “Updrax! Call Stygician Hellenei!” A winged dragon magically manifested before the terrified people. Ursula calmly climbed onto its back, and the infernal reptile flew her away from the courthouse.

Despite her terrifying power and breathtaking ugliness, at the age of twenty-four, Ursula married Tobias Shipton, a local carpenter. Neighbors were stunned, whispering that Ursula, must have cast a love spell on Tobias in order to get him to marry her. However, Tobias disappears from town records not long after, and a now apparently widowed Ursula, now known as Mother Shipton, moved from town and back into the cave where she was born, living there well into her 70s.

If Mother Shipton moved to the cave to get away from her nosy neighbors, it didn’t work; rumors of her powers spread far and wide, and Mother Shipton soon found all manner of people coming to her for spells and prophesies, some traveling for miles to see her. Probably because of the rumor that she had captured her husband with a love spell, young women came to Mother Shipton seeking love potions. Many came seeking hexes to use against their enemies, and some came searching for cures to illnesses and wounds. In time, Mother Shipton became most famous for seeing into the future.


What did Mother Shipton predict? Cars, phones, the telegraph, iron-hulled boats, airplanes, the English Civil War, the Great London Fire in 1666, the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1561, the discovery of the New World and the potatoes and tobacco found there, World War 2, the radio, women wearing pants, the women’s liberation movement, the death of Cardinal Wolsey in 1530, and said the Apocalypse would occur in 1881 (this caused people to panic that year, abandoning their homes and spending the whole night praying in fields and churches.) Samuel Pepys, the administrator of the English navy during the reign of Charles II, wrote in his diaries that following the Great Fire the royal family spoke of Mother Shipton’s foretelling of the disaster.

Mother Shipton predicted so many things that ultimately came true that she became known as the English Nostradamus … except that these “prophecies” weren’t revealed until almost eighty years after her death. Her supposed predictions appeared in a book written by Richard Heard, which was published in 1667, then in a pamphlet called The Strange and Wonderful History of Mother Shipton, by an anonymous writer in 1668, and again in 1871 by some guy named Charles Hindley. The biggest giveaway that some of these prophecies were written much later is that they are written using language and structure not used in the 15th and 16th centuries, prompting Hindley to admit that he made it all up. Later reprints of The Strange and Wonderful History of Mother Shipton moved the end-of-the-world dates to 1989, and then 1991, casting even more doubt of the veracity of the predictions.


We don’t really know what Mother Shipton foretold, but it must have been impressive enough to keep her legend alive after so many centuries.

After many years of prophesizing and spellcasting, Mother Shipton died around the year 1561. A memorial has been set up by her cave, now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, and is a popular tourist spot (and has been since 1630, making the oldest admission-charging attraction in England.) If you go, you can see a collection of items that people have dipped in the Dropping Well. The waters contain large amounts of sulfate and carbonate, which hardens as it dries, making the items look as though they have been frozen in stone. There are two pubs named after Mother Shipton (one in Knaresborough and another in Portsmouth,) and in 2017 a statue of the famous witch was erected in Knaresborough Market Square.

In addition, the Callistege mi moth, classified in 1759, is also known as the Mother Shipton moth. If you look closely at the pattern on its wings, you can clearly see the profile of a craggy, long-nosed witch’s face!


Mother Shipton. Callistege mi, by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K commons.wikimedia.org






Mother Shipton works referenced:

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca & Witchcraft, by Denise Zimmerman et al

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, by Judika Illes

The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley

The Weiser Field Guide to Witches, by Judika Illes

The Witch Book, by Raymond Buckland

Witches and Magic Makers, by Douglas Arthur Hill et al

Witches and Wiccans, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley



Feminist Friday: The Beautiful Woman Has Come: Nefertiti

March 2, 2018

Kara Newcastle

 Bust of Nefertiti, Neuse Museum, Berlin, Germany

You’ve seen the bust of Nefertiti. I know you have. Next to the Sphinx, the pyramids at Giza and King Tutankhamen’s funerary mask, the bust of Queen Nefertiti is one of the most famous symbols of ancient Egypt. The bust depicts a queen who was said to be the most beautiful woman in the history of Egypt—even her name meant “The Beautiful Woman Has Come.”

But she was more than just a pretty face; Nefertiti was one of the most powerful female Egyptian rulers of all time … and we hardly know anything about her.

Early Life

Nefertiti was born presumably in 1370 B.C. , but the location of her birth is a matter of debate; some scholars believe that she was born in the Egyptian town of Akhmim, while others think that she might have been from Mitanni (Syria), since she seemed to espouse some particularly non-Egyptian ideas. It is generally thought that Nefertiti came from a respectable family, and that her father might have been Ay, thought to be an aristocrat in the Egyptian court. Whoever her father was, he was not a pharaoh—all daughters of the pharaoh had the title “King’s Daughter,” which Nefertiti did not possess. It’s been thought that Nefertiti’s paternal aunt was Queen Tiy, the wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and mother of Amenhotep IV, making the prince and Nefertiti first cousins (given the Egyptian royal tradition of marrying into the family, it’s possible that though they were cousins they may have been more closely related genetically.)

 Nefertiti & Akhenaten

Nefertiti married Amenhotep IV when they were fifteen years old and by all accounts of the time they were a perfect match, passionately in love, and the prince startled the royal court by treating Nefertiti as his equal (ancient Egyptian women had many more legal rights and freedoms in their societies than many other cultures of the time, but they were still treated as ultimately inferior to men.) They regularly scandalized the nobles by racing each other around the city in horse-drawn chariots. In their roughly ten years of marriage, Nefertiti and Amenhotep IV had six daughters whom Amenhotep adored and Nefertiti lovingly referred to as her “garland of daughters.”

Rise to Power

In time the old pharaoh died and Amenhotep IV ascended the throne as the new pharaoh of Egypt. Few knew at the time—with the exception of Nefertiti—what Amenhotep’s grand plan was for his kingdom; sick of the priests of the sun god Amen-Ra wielding so much influence and retaining so much wealth, Amenhotep decided to wrest back the power he thought only the pharaoh should have. In a move that horrified the Egyptian civilization, Amenhotep outlawed the worship of all gods in the pantheon, thus taking the priests’ source of power and revenue away from them. The renegade pharaoh declared that only one deity would be worshiped now—Aten, the genderless sun-disc—and that only he and Nefertiti would be Aten’s priests. He then went as far as to change his own name from Amenhotep (“Amen is Satisfied”) to the now infamous Akhenaten (“Beneficence of Aten.”)

Nefertiti worshiping Aten

Akhenaten didn’t stop there. He uprooted his court from the capital of Thebes and moved everyone to a seemingly random spot in the desert and built a new city called Akhetaten (better known now as Amarna, and the time of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s rule is known as the Amarna Period), claiming that Aten had guided him to the place. Akhenaten further shocked his people by declaring Nefertiti to be his “co-king,” renaming her Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti (“Beautiful are the Beauties of Aten, a Beautiful Woman Has Come.”) and granted her nearly as much power as that of a pharaoh. Nefertiti had unheard of control in many facets of Egyptian life, law and religion, and artwork was made depicting her smiting her enemies as a male pharaoh would.

 Nefertiti smiting a female captive

The move to make Nefertiti co-king may have had a dual purpose; Akhenaten truly did love and value his wife, but Nefertiti had not been able to produce a male heir to inherit his throne. Since ancient peoples believed that women were responsible for the sex of a child, a woman who had six daughters was highly likely to produce nothing but daughters, and it was common for a pharaoh to divorce his queen and marry another woman in hopes of gaining a son (it was also suggested that Nefertiti did have a son, but he died in infancy.) Now that Nefertiti was co-king, none of Akhenaten’s advisors would dare to suggest that the pharaoh dismiss her, and Nefertiti was able to keep her position as Akhenaten’s wife and his closest ally.

Still, as pharaoh—even as enlightened and progressive a pharaoh as he was supposed to be—Akhenaten still kept a harem of concubines, and one of these “lesser wives”, a woman commonly known as Kiya (also called Tudukhepra, where she came from is unknown, though Kiya is not an Egyptian name and a few researchers have suggested that she was a younger half-sister to Akhenaten) gave birth to the son Akhenaten so badly needed. The boy was named Tutankhaten (“Living Image of Aten”) and details about the royal family become shady at this point; records from the time suggest that Tutankhaten was adopted by Nefertiti, raised with her surviving daughters as her own son, and she even betrothed him to her daughter Ankhesenpaaten (later renamed Ankhesenamen.) Tutankhaten’s mother Kiya vanishes from the record soon after, and it was suggested that she gave birth to two more sons and a daughter before dying. Because Kiya had given birth to Tutankhaten she had earned the title “Greatly Beloved Wife,” causing some scholars to speculate that Nefertiti had the concubine assassinated (as suggested in the Discovery Channel special Nefertiti Resurrected) to keep from losing her position in the court. As there is no evidence of this, we can only speculate.


In Year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign, one of their daughters passes away, then three more princesses and Nefertiti herself disappear from history, leading to a host of speculation. Some surviving texts from the period say that Akhenaten might have married his daughter Meritaten, leading archeologist Norman de Garris Davies to suggest that perhaps Akhenaten had divorced and banished Nefertiti, though others say that Nefertiti simply died and Akhenaten then married his daughter. However, an inscription from Year 16—four years after Nefertiti vanishes from the record—of Akhenaten’s reign makes mention of both Akhenaten and Nefertiti, suggesting that Nefertiti was still alive and in power.

The Unknown Pharaoh

In Year 17 of the Amarna Period, the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten died, leaving nine-year-old Tutankhaten—who would rename himself Tutankhamen, “Living Image of Amen”, though you may know him better as King Tut—to rule Egypt. However, the crown did not pass immediately to Tut. Instead, it was given to a previously unknown male member of the family called Smenkhkare, who ruled Egypt as regent until Tut became an adult. He married Akhenaten’s widowed daughter-wife Meriaten, ended the worship of Aten, reinstated the Egyptian pantheon … and then suddenly disappears, disappears, with no account of his funeral to be found.

Much of the record of Smenkhkare’s reign and that of Akhenaten and his family had been erased by the succeeding pharaoh Horemheb, but in 1894, Egyptologists came across an inscription regarding the mysterious pharaoh and were confused by the wording; the hieroglyphs spoke of “King” Smenkhkare, but referred to the king as “she.”

Furthermore, it seems that Smenkhkare eventually changed his name to “Neferneferuaen,” the same name used by Nefertiti when she co-ruled with Akhenaten as king of Egypt.

This and many other questions caused archeologist John Harris in the 1970s to propose the shocking theory that Nefertiti and Smenkhkare were actually the same person. Perhaps after the death of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Nefertiti, well aware of how much the Egyptian people had come to hate him and her as well, worried for the safety of Tutankhaten and attempted to rule Egypt under the guise of a man until Tut was old enough to rule. Since the later dynasty tried to erase all evidence of Akhenaten and his heirs, we have no record as to how long Smenkhkare/Neferneferuaten actually ruled, when he/she died, what happened to his/her “wife” Meriaten, or where they are buried.

 Artwork thought to be depicting either Tutankhamen and Nefertiti, Smenkhkare and Meritaten, or Smenkhkare and Nefertiti.

“The Young Lady”

In 1906 or 1907 A.D., a tomb labeled KV55 was found in the Valley of the Kings by Egyptologist Theodore M. Davis. Inside the hastily constructed, unadorned and obviously ransacked tomb were three mummies, two women and a young man. One of the female mummies, a younger woman, was odd; it had no headdress, but had obviously been fitted for a false beard and a uraeus (a crown featuring a rearing cobra and the head of a vulture, the symbols of Wadjet and Nekhbet respectively, the protector-goddesses of pharaohs.) No name could be found on the coffin, but the words “Beloved of Akhenaten” were inscribed, and what should have been a royal cartouche identifying the mummy had been chipped off, and the name that should have been on the canopic jars was erased as well. Though there were three mummies in the tomb, it was clear that only this one had been purposely desecrated, with damage made to the face and one arm post-mortem (the arm had been removed and replaced with the mummified arm of another woman.) Whoever this was, they had not been popular in life.

 The Valley of the Kings, where the alleged tomb of Nefertiti, KV55, was found.

For many years people speculated who the “Young Lady” was, with many assuming that it could be King Tut’s mother Kiya, or possibly his grandmother, Queen Tiy. In 2000, Egyptologist Joyce Fuller was inspired by a joke about the mummy’s wig to take a closer look at the unnamed woman and, realizing that the female mummy had been prepared in a way reserved only for male pharaohs, developed a shocking theory; what if the mummy was actually Nefertiti? Further investigation revealed that the woman had likely died from a violent attack. Perhaps she had been assassinated.

In 2017, Josh Gates, the host of the popular Travel Channel show Expedition Unknown, along with Egyptologist Aidan Dodson, obtained permission from the Cairo Museum to take digital scans of the Younger Lady’s face and head. The scans were used to create a 3D printed copy of the head, which was then brought to a French forensic reconstructionist who created a sculpture of what the woman may have looked like when she was alive. The reconstructed face bears a remarkable resemblance to the famous bust of Nefertiti that had been uncovered at the abandoned city of Akhetaten (currently at the Neues Museum in Berlin.) This is by no means definite proof, and further testing must be done.

Josh Gates with the reconstructed face of the mummy thought to be Nefertiti.

Earlier in the year, DNA samples were taken from the Young Lady mummy and found to be a genetic match to the DNA of King Tut, likely making the Young Lady his mother. It is now popularly thought that the Young Lady is Nefertiti and therefore Nefertiti is Tut’s mother, but the historical record has never claimed this, and no artwork shows Nefertiti with Tut. Since Egyptian royal families were extremely interbred and Nefertiti and Akhenaten were thought to be at least first cousins, it’s highly likely that Nefertiti and Tut would be closely related genetically. Again, more testing is needed to find proof.

Finally, many people have complained that the reconstructed face of “Nefertiti” is far too white to be accurate. On Expedition Unknown, Josh Gates states that the skin color was only a guess, not something to be taken literally. Furthermore, Egyptian women, especially royalty, were frequently depicted in artwork with much paler skin, so we really have no idea what Nefertiti’s actual skin color was (especially since we don’t know for certain where she came from.)

Hopefully, the mystery of Nefertiti will soon be solved, and the true story of one of Egypt’s most powerful queens can be properly told.

Nefertiti Works Cited:

“Nefertiti” http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/nefertiti

“Nefertiti” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nefertiti

“Smenkhkare” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smenkhkare

“Akhenaten” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akhenaten

“Neferneferuaten” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neferneferuaten

“Nefertiti” https://www.biography.com/people/nefertiti-9421166

“Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nefertiti

“Ancient Egypt: Mummy of Queen Nefertiti Brought to Life” http://www.newsweek.com/ancient-egypt-queen-nefertiti-ancient-bust-fair-skin-800519

“Is this the glamorous face of Queen Nefertiti?” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5371859/Is-glamorous-face-Queen-Nefertiti.html

Expedition Unknown; Egypt’s Lost Queens, Part 2, Travel Channel

Nefertiti Resurrected, Discovery Channel

Uppity Women of Ancient Times, Vicki Leon

The Usborne Book of Famous Women, Richard Dungworth et al

Nefertiti; Unlocking the Mystery Surround Egypt’s Most Famous and Beautiful Queen, Joyce Tyldesley

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Women’s History, Sonia Weiss et al

Eyewitness Books: Ancient Egypt, George Hart

The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Helen Strudwick

Ancient Egypt, Lorna Oakes & Lucia Gahlin

Feminist Friday: The Civilized Savage: Pocahontas


November 28, 2017

By Kara Newcastle


From Princess to Hostage to Lady

The Powhatan tribe was part of a confederacy, made up of thirty Algonquin-speaking tribes. Chief Wahunsonacock, more commonly called Chief Powhatan by the English colonists, ruled 12,000 people in a 9,000 square mile area—and he was not happy with the 105 English men working for the Virginia Company (an organization dedicated to settling Virginia) who settled nearby in 1605. They seemed to be rough, greedy men, and Chief Powhatan likely did not want his favorite child, Matoaka—now more famously known by her nickname, Pocahontas—to have anything to do with the white men.

Pocahontas was young when the white men arrived; John Smith, one of the leaders of newly erected Jamestown, initially described her as “a child of tenne (sic) years old,” in 1608, later amending that to twelve or thirteen in 1616. She lived with her father the chief, her uncles, her brothers in a village not far from the new settlement. The proximity of the village to Jamestown caused many conflicts … until John Smith met Pocahontas.

While out hunting, John Smith was captured by Powhatan’s second brother and brought back to Werowocomoco, the Powhatan capital village (where he acted less like Mel Gibson and perhaps a bit more like Zapp Brannigan). Unable to communicate with the chief, Smith later recounted that he was forced to kneel, laying his head on a large rock, while the incredibly tall Chief Powhatan towered over him, wielding a club to smash down onto his head. Smith said that he was sure he was doomed until he felt the arms of Powhatan’s youngest child, a girl, sliding around his neck, her head resting down on top of his.


This, of course, is only what John Smith reports, and he was well known for inflating his exploits—frequently. He stated that the girl, introduced as Pocahontas, saved his life because she was in love with him, but that was probably something he made up. It is possible that Powhatan and his daughter were preforming a ritual to adopt Smith into their tribe and family, but being a narrow-minded English colonist prone to exaggeration, Smith would have misinterpreted it as Pocahontas saving his life. He never mentioned the rescue story until 1616, when he wrote a letter to Queen Anne of Denmark describing his “rescue,” saying that, “at the minute of my execution, she hearded the beating out of her own brains to save mine, and not only that but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.”

Maybe it was true … except he said the same exact thing happened to him in 1602. Only that time they were Turks, not Indians. While Smith never claimed to have any romantic feelings (and Pocahontas was much too young for a relationship), various retellings have put a romantic spin on Pocahontas’s first meeting with John Smith. To be clear, they were never in love; this was just an invention of later writers.

However it happened, Pocahontas and Smith became friends, and soon Pocahontas was learning English. She was intensely interested with the colonists and Jamestown, and was frequently seen playing with the boys there. She became a mediator between Jamestown and the Powhatan tribe, establishing an uneasy truce between the vastly different peoples. In the bitter winters when the colonists were starving, Pocahontas gathered several volunteers and they brought food to Jamestown every week.


However, despite all the agreements Pocahontas drafted between the English and the Indians, the colonists continued to encroach on native land. The Native Americans weren’t adverse to sharing land with the newcomers, but the English insisted on owning it, denying the original inhabitants any use of the animals, earth or plants.

Late in 1609, Smith was seriously injured when a keg of gunpowder exploded. Unable to receive adequate treatment in the New World, he was sent back to England. The colonists later told a heart-broken Pocahontas that Smith had died in the explosion; now Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan would have to negotiate with the settlers themselves.

Unfortunately, without John Smith to act as mediator, relations between the colonists and the Powhatan tribe spiraled rapidly downward, especially when new ships carrying more settlers began to arrive at Jamestown. The English tried to placate Chief Powhatan by officially crowning him “king” of Virginia, but Powhatan recognized an empty gesture when he saw it. He grew more incensed when the colonists not only continued to claim land, but also demanded that his tribe supply them with food throughout the winter.

Clashes began between the colonists and the Native Americans, and the greatly outnumbered English began to grow desperate; there would be no surviving an all-out war with the Powhatan tribe. They needed to come up with a plan to keep the Powhatans from attacking.


One day the colonists asked a visiting Pocahontas if she would like to take a closer look at their ships. Delighted, Pocahontas readily agreed, getting into one of their smaller boats and paddled out to one of the colonists’ fascinating big ships. As soon as she climbed aboard, Pocahontas found herself surrounded and quickly seized by the Englishmen. No longer a mediator between the two races, Pocahontas was now the English’s hostage. Pocahontas warned them that her father would never negotiate for her release, and when she was proven right, one hundred and fifty Englishmen marched into the nearby Powhatan village and burnt it to the ground. If the English thought they would gain anything extra by keeping Pocahontas (in other words, if they thought she would rule the tribe after her father died), they were dead wrong; the Powhatan tribe was matrilineal, meaning that Pocahontas would inherit nothing from her father. When he died, leadership would be passed on to Pocahontas’s aunt and cousins. Pocahontas would have no authority in the tribe afterwards. “Never to the heirs of the males,” Smith remarked in his memoirs.


Pocahontas was transferred to Henricus, another English colony, where her English improved and she began to learn about Christianity. When a battle raged along the Pamunkey River, Pocahontas was brought in to negotiate peace, but decided to stay with the English afterward, allegedly stating that her father the chief valued her, “less than old swords, pieces or axes.” She returned to Henricus, and was courted by wealthy tobacco plantation owner John Rolfe. After she agreed to marry Rolfe and Chief Powhatan supported the idea (a marriage between the Powhatans and the English could bring peace), Pocahontas was baptized and renamed “Rebecca,” after the biblical character who was the mother of two nations. Their marriage on April 5 1614, was the first interracial marriage in American history. Pocahontas gave birth to their son Thomas on January 30, 1615.


In 1616, Pocahontas traveled to England with Rolfe, their son and eleven warriors and holy men from her tribe. Pocahontas probably wasn’t aware of it, but the Virginia Company was using her as an example of the “civilized savage,” showing potential investors for the colonies that it was possible to convert the Native Americans to Christianity and to behave more like the English themselves. It was during this time that a shocked and angry Pocahontas met a healthy John Smith again. It took some time to heal the pain, and John Smith frequently placed Pocahontas’s station far above his, referring to her as “a king’s daughter.”


Sadly, Pocahontas’s happiness did not last. As a Native American, she had no immunities to European diseases, and became sick with an unknown disease shortly after setting sail for Virginia again. Pocahontas died at the age of twenty-two, and was buried on March 21, 1617 at St. George’s parish in Gravesend. The exact location of her burial is unknown.

Pocahontas works referenced:

Uppity Women of the New World, by Vicki Leon

America’s Women, by Gail Collins

The Element Encyclopedia of Native Americans, by Adele Nozedar

The Native Americans, by David Hurst Thomas et al

All illustrations obtained through Wikimedia Commons

Feminist Friday: The Blood Countess: Erszebet Bathory

October 13, 2017

Kara Newcastle


History is filled with monsters … and the Transylvania countess may be the queen of all of them. What would drive a woman to murder hundreds of innocent girls?

Born in 1560 in Ecsed, Transylvania, Erszebet was born into the powerful and ancient Bathory clan, who could trace their lineage back to the knight Vid Bathory, who slew a dragon with a mace. The Bathorys were one of the oldest families in Transylvania, and numbered King Stephen of Poland among their relatives. Unfortunately, the key to keeping power was to not dole out property and prestige to others, so it was thought that the Bathorys frequently intermarried, resulting in inherited madness and cruelty. Erszebet was thought to be one such victim.

Said to be a beautiful child, Erszebet was also said to be a bit unhinged, prone to violent rages that almost no one could stop. It was also rumored that Erszebet suffered from fits, collapsing and shaking violently; it’s possible that she was epileptic. She was a witness to torture at an early age, and it’s said that she learned how to flagellate prisoners—as well as experiment with sorcery—from her aunt, who was rumored to be a witch.

At eleven years old, Erszebet was engaged to the future Count Ferenc Nadasdy, who was four years older than she. The engagement was seen as ideal; the Nadasdys were wealthy, renowned warriors and the Bathorys were skilled in politics. For once, marrying outside the family could be a boon to them.

Perhaps the set-up wasn’t to Erszebet’s liking; when she was fourteen years old, she allegedly had an affair with a peasant man and became pregnant. Her parents hid Erszebet in the country until she gave birth to a daughter, who was then given to a peasant couple to raise. Once recovered, Erszebet was brought back to her family’s castle where preparations were made for her impending marriage.

At fifteen years old, Erszebet married Ferenc Nadasdy on May 8, 1575, and a banquet was held for 4,500 guests. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II was invited (which should show you what kind of clout the Bathorys had), but politely declined, saying that the roads were too dangerous for him to travel. Instead, he sent a delegation and many expensive gifts, impressing the nobility and ensuring a prosperous future for the young couple. In a move that seems ahead of its time, Nadasdy allowed Erszebet to keep her maiden name, probably more to remind people who he was married to than out of any sense of equality.

Erszebet moved with Nadasdy into Castle Savar, one of his many castles in the Slovakian area, and was delighted to learn that the count also had an interest in the dark arts and enjoyed torturing his servants. One of his favorite methods to punish maids, as he taught Erszebet, was to have their arms bound behind them, their shoes removed, and then to place pieces of oil-soaked papers between their toes and set them alight. In pained panic, the girls would try to kick the flames away; Nadasdy called this “star-kicking,” and used it to entertain his noble guests. He also showed Erszebet how to strip a girl naked, tie her to a tree, and then cover her with honey so that she would be stung by bees, wasps and other insects that were attracted by the smell.

During the early years of their marriage, the Ottoman empire was hellbent on invading Transylvania, and Nadasdy was often away from home, fighting on the front lines. Without her husband there to entertain her, Erszebet became bored, and whiled away her time by renewing her study of black magic. She had her childhood nurse, Ilona Joo, summon alchemists, witches and warlocks, defrocked priests, vampires, werewolves and sadists to her court to tutor her and entertain her. She took on several lovers, and eventually became so enamored of one man (said to be a vampire) that they ran away together and reputedly eloped.

Apparently, marriage to a reanimated corpse wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be and Erszebet timidly returned to Count Nadasdy. Instead of being outraged at her betrayal, Nadasdy forgave her and allowed her to return, but on two conditions: she give him an heir, and she be constantly monitored by his mother, Ursula. Relieved by his mercy, Erszebet pledged everlasting loyalty to Nadasdy and shortly after her 26th birthday, gave birth to her first child, a boy. She gave birth at least three more times in rapid succession (though there’s some confusion as to exactly how many children there were total, as well as how many sons and daughters.) Erszebet put her lessons in sorcery aside and was, by all accounts, a loving and devoted mother.

Then everything started to go to hell.

In 1604, Count Nadasdy, “the Black Hero of Hungary,” the high commander of the Hungarian army, was killed in battle, though it was also rumored that he had been stabbed to death by an enraged prostitute after he refused to pay for her services. How Erszebet took the news isn’t recorded, but soon after she renewed her interest in the dark arts and took greater pleasure in beating and torturing her servants. She banished her mother-in-law, who took Erszebet’s children with her when she left.

Widowed, her children taken away, extremely rich, wielding a massive amount of power and connected to some of the most powerful nobles in Europe, Erzsebet saw nothing standing in her way. She moved to Castle Csjethe, a wedding gift from her husband, and made it her permanent home. There she began to slip further into depravity—and fear. She was afraid of death, and, even worse, of losing her beauty that she was so famous for. A story recounts how Erszebet noticed an old woman walking past, and asked one of her current lovers if he would ever kiss something so ugly. The old woman heard the discussion and angrily turned on Erszebet, warning her that one day she would be just as old and decrepit-looking. Erszebet was frightened.

One day a serving girl was brushing forty year old Erszebet’s hair. The countess was already losing her patience with the girl, and when the maid accidentally pulled too hard, Erszebet flew into a rage, spinning around and slapping the maid hard enough to draw blood. The girl’s blood splattered onto Erszebet’s hand, and as the countess began to wipe it away, she noticed something; where the blood had fallen, her skin looked younger, whiter, and was softer. More youthful.

Could the girl’s blood have done that? Did the blood make her skin younger?

Intrigued, Erszebet went to her chief witch and lover Anna Darvula, an imposing woman from one of the local villages, and told her what happened. Anna agreed with her, saying that the blood of a girl—especially a young virgin—had curative properties. If Erszebet bathed in the blood of young women, then she would remain young and beautiful for ever.

Delighted, Erszebet set to work. She released a notice to the countryside saying that she was hiring young girls as serving maids in her castle, and offered a salary that was more than generous. Desperate to get out of their impoverished lives, dozens of girls signed up to work for the countess—only to be herded into the dungeons, where they were kept penned up like animals and fattened (as Erszebet believed that stout girls had healthier blood.) Many of the girls were killed outright and their blood collected, while others were slowly bled, tortured as entertainment for Countess Bathory. Many of the girls were never seen again, and such a large number of dead women and girls were taken from the castle that the local priests like Janos Ponikenasz refused to conduct any more funerals. Erszebet didn’t mind; she just had the bodies buried elsewhere.

From 1604 until 1611, the local villagers lived in terror. They knew something was happening at Castle Csjethe—there were times they could hear screaming—but they didn’t know what was occurring. Eventually girls stopped signing up as maids, so Erszebet sent her nurse Ilona Joo, the witch Dorothea Szentes, and the dwarf manservant Johannes Ujvary, nicknamed Ficzko, into the towns to lure girls away. When that didn’t work, the girls were abducted, carried away in a black carriage pulled by black horses to Castle Csjethe, where they were fattened, slaughtered, and their blood poured into a tub for Erszebet to bathe in. The villagers protested to local nobles and magistrates, but they were ignored; after all, they were peasants and expendable. Who cared what happened to them?

In 1609, Anna Darvula died, and Erszebet hired the witch Erzsi Majarova to replace her. By then Erszebet was convinced that the blood baths were no longer working, and Erzsi assured her that all Erszebet needed was better blood—blood of noblewomen, which was purer than the peasant stock she had been using. Erszebet believed her, and soon sent out notices to lesser noble families that she was opening a school of etiquette for young ladies. Finally, her scheme starts to unravel.

Dozens of young noblewomen arrived at the castle and were immediately locked away. When one family hadn’t heard from their daughter in months, they sent an inquiry to the countess. Erszebet replied that the poor girl had committed suicide, but didn’t elaborate. The shocked family didn’t believe her, and immediately petitioned the Hungarian king Mathias II for an investigation. By then Mathias had heard all the rumors of what was happening at Castle Csjethe, and he ordered the Lord Palatine, Grigori Thurzo, Erszebet’s own cousin, to go and investigate.

On December 30, 1610, Thurzo arrived at Csjethe with soldiers, the provincial governor, local gendarmerie (armed police) and a local priest. They entered through the dungeons, and were beside themselves with horror at what they found there; girls and women dead and dying, bled dry, butchered, burned, beaten, flayed, whipped, frozen to death, locked inside iron maidens, packed in cages. Sickened by what he saw, Thurzo led his retinue up into the main courtroom of the castle, where he found Erszebet in the middle of a sadistic orgy, having just killed another girl.

Thurzo arrested everyone present and freed the surviving girls. He reported back to King Mathias, who then ordered a trial to be held. Three hundred people testified against Countess Bathory, and her diary was discovered with a list of 650 names of girls she had murdered. A court of twenty-five judges found her guilty on 80 counts of murder, but, because she was nobility, she was not sentenced to death (her associates Ilona Joo, Dorothea Szentes and Erzsi Majarova were all tortured and burned alive, while Ficzko was beheaded and burned.) Instead, Erszebet was walled up alive in her bedchambers in Castle Csjethe, allowed only a few slits for air and light and a small opening to slide food through. Her son begged for mercy on her behalf, but he was the only one who had any compassion for the woman now known as the Blood Countess … a woman who was still shockingly youthful at the age of fifty.

Erszebet Bathory lived for four years in her bedroom tomb, never once speaking to any of the guards there. She was found dead on August 21, 1614, but her story lives on in fiction, most notably as an inspiration for the home and the increasingly youthful appearance of a vampire count in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.

So ends the story of the most prolific serial murderer in history … or does it? There is one interesting fact that I haven’t mentioned yet ….

Most of the story is untrue.

Erszebet Bathory may not be 100% innocent—it was common and expected at that time for nobles to beat servants and employ torture when needed (as you’ll see), and Erszebet probably did mistreat a number of people in her household, but not nearly to the degree that people claim. In fact, the court records initially stated that she was responsible for the deaths of 35 people, not 650. That figure came a week after her trial had ended, when her diary was allegedly discovered.

At the time she was arrested, Erszebet was a Protestant in an area that was largely Catholic, she held land that was in strategic locations and thus valuable, and she was extremely rich—even more wealthy than King Mathias, whom had borrowed a large loan from Erszebet’s husband and didn’t have any way of paying back. Furthermore, Erszebet had petitioned for a more autonomous Transylvania and her other cousin Gabor wanted to be rid of the weak Mathias and install himself as king. Erszebet could have easily financed Gabor’s campaign, and this terrified Mathias.

Furthermore, there is proof in Grigori Thurzo’s letters to his wife that the plan to arrest Ersebet had been in motion for at least a year prior to him arriving at her castle. Not only that, but Thurzo was in contact with church leaders in the towns and villages near Csjethe, encouraging them to turn their congregation against the countess. After Thurzo stated to the king what was “happening” at the castle, he offered to show evidence, but it took him another 24 hours to find a corpse and a terrified girl. If he had actually seen everything that he had stated, it shouldn’t have taken him that long to produce evidence.

At the trial, it was said that 300 witnesses testified against Erszebet, with 35 appearing daily, all asked the same eleven questions. Nearly all of the witnesses that were arrested in the castle were brutally tortured to obtain a confession, and a person put under that sort of horrific pain would say anything to get it to stop. In fact, court notes show that many of the witnesses didn’t agree on details, and often were vague as to who they were talking about. Erszebet herself was never once examined.

And as for the blood bathing … that detail didn’t emerge until the 1720s, when the Jesuit priest Laszlo Turoczy published his history of Hungary. He stated that Erszebet bathed in tubs filled with blood, but that was never once stated during Erzsebet’s trial. He had collected local lore and presented it as history—he had nothing to back up the claim.

Erzsebet’s diary with the alleged 650 listed victims, along with many court documents, were sealed after her trial and placed in the Hungarian archives, where they are said to remain today. If the diary is ever found and unsealed, maybe then we’ll learn the truth about the Blood Countess.

Erszebet Bathory Works Cited:

Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vampires, Jay Stevenson

The Everything Vampire Book, Barbara Karg et al

The Element Encyclopedia of Vampires, Theresa Chung

The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves and Other Monsters, Rosemary Eileen Guiley

The Vampire Book, J. Gordon Melton

Vampires: Restless Creatures of the Night, Jean Mariony

Vampires: From Dracula to Twilight, Charlotte Monatgue & Hesba Stretton

Weiser Field Guide to Vampires, J.M. Dixon

The Werewolf Book, Brad Steiger

Bad Girls, Jan Stradling

Rejected Princesses, Jason Porath

Uppity Women of Medieval Times, Vicki Leon

Mad Kings & Queens, Alison Rattle et al