Witch of Wookey Hole

Introduction


Wookey Hole is a village close to Wells in Somerset, England. It is within the parish of St Cuthbert Out. The name Wookey is thought to come from the Old English wocig (an animal trap). The village of Wookey Hole is dominated by the Wookey Hole Caves. Wookey Hole cave was formed by the action of the River Axe on the limestone hills.  

Wookey Hole Caves have been inhabited for 35,000BC years, when they were explored by Neanderthal Man, in his search for a home offering shelter and security. Durring 600BC- 50AD the Celts used the caves and after them numerous travellers from the Romans onwards have made reference to the caves. This shows that even when vacated as a home for Iron Age people, they remained a place to visit and marvel at.  In 189 AD, the Roman diarist Clement of Alexandria relates to the "clashing of numerous cymbals", a known phenomenon where changes in air pressure produce extraordinary noises. 

The Witch of Wookey Hole is a stalagmite in the first chamber of the caves and the central character in an old English legend. Because of the witch connection most of the caves are named after her. There is her kitchen, and her parlour, there is Hell's Ladder and The Lake of Gloom. As with most of England, there is not much information about Wookey Hole after the Romans left. However, there is one tale that is believed to date from these dark ages of history. The tale of the Witch of Wookey.

The Story

One version of the story tells of the "black witch who lived in the cave at the head of the Stream of Sorrow on the confines of Hell" who was slain by that most famous Monarch, Arthur, King of the Britons. However, it is likely that that story was made up in the eighteenth century in an effort to attract tourists. The real legend is much older and runs as follows:

During the Dark Ages  in the village of Wookey lived a beautiful young woman, her name is not known. What is known, however, is that she was devoted to her lover. This man, it turned out, was not as devoted to her, and late one night, when he failed to return from the local alehouse, she went out looking for him. To her horror she discovered him in a somewhat compromising position with one of the local wenches. Tearful and wailing, she fled from the scene, and ran out of the village towards the caves which the local preachers claimed lead to the caverns of Hell.

Once inside the caves, her sorrow turned quickly to anger, and, crying out, she called on the devil to curse the man who had betrayed her. That night, as she lay, shivering in the dark subterranean chambers, a diabolic vision appeared to her. The vision claimed that it was a demon from hell and that Lucifer himself had heard her calling and was offering her the chance to gain the power to curse her wayward lover. The price, of course, was her soul. Still in a rage about what had taken place, the woman accepted and was given the power of black magic. The next day the man woke up to discover that he was afflicted with a pox.

Though the New Witch took great pleasure in the man's suffering, it did not sate her appetite for revenge. A chagrined and disappointed woman, having been jilted herself she frequently spoilt budding relationships by using her merciless arts to blight girls' lives and keep them from the joys denied to herself.  One day upon spotting a couple venturing towards her cave, she cursed their relationship to fail. Sure enough, a few short days later the man and woman were arguing and only hours after that, the man stormed off to take holy orders, forsaking the love of women forever. Angered by this provocation of good works, (for the man became a good minister, much given to charitable works) the Witch vowed never to dabble in the relationships of others again.

The years passed and the Witch became increasingly bitter. She lived alone, with her dog and horrid familiars (her goat and its kid) deep in the dark caverns of Wookey Hole. The local people believed she was a witch  and everything that went wrong in the village was blamed on her.  She took her feelings out on the townspeople, causing their crops to fail, storms, drinking habits to change and their milk to turn sour, and even causing them to suffer terrible plagues of disease. In desperation they called for Father Bernard, the man whom the witch had caused to become a monk. Acknowledging their need, his superior, The Abbot of Glastonbury, obliged and appointed him to exorcise the Witch.

Father Bernard had particular skill in such matters, being deeply versed in the exorcising of necromancers and wizards. The villagers led the Father to the shadow of the cliff at the valleys end where his keen grey eyes rested on the entrance to the rock; then he looked up to the sky, as if in invocation. Father Bernard approached the entrance to the caves flanked by villagers, but as they drew closer, one by one they halted in their approach, too frightened to continue. Indeed, the priest himself must have felt some fear, unfastening the rosary and the crucifix about his neck, but, believing his God to be with him, he continued into the dark caverns and was swallowed up by the interior darkness of the hill

For a time, with his arms stretched out before him, the monk groped blindly onwards, and already the tunnel he traversed appeared to be unending, when a point of feeble light shone through the blackness. He pressed on until he was within the threshold of the first cavern.

Something moved by the stone lamp set on the floor at the farther side. A crouching heap of rags stirred, heaved and then erected itself into the uncertain light from the wisp of flame. A peering form, gaunt and terrible, confronted the monk across the width of the cavern. The pale features of the stranger were barely visible in the gloom; the face of the Witch glared in full, misshapen relief above the flicker of yellow light.

There was a hissing intake of breath, a lean arm shot out towards the Benedictine, and a gloating chuckle sounded through the chamber. Then a voice, malignant and threatening, addressed him; "Rash beyond all reason, why comest thou to look on me ? "

The beads were swiftly passing beneath the touch of Father Bernard's fingers, but his answer sounded high and calm in the quiet of the cave.

" It is Holy Mother Church that bids thee. Repent O misguided spirit, and leave thy wickedness ere judgment overtake thee. Thou troublest heaven with thy sorceries and thy mischiefs are abhorred of all mankind. Repent; put away the powers of evil, for thy spells shall not avail thee against the wrath that is to come."

The arm was gradually withdrawn, and behind the monk rose a sound of hoarse and laboured breathing. Father Bernard lifted up the crucifix and never turned his head. Ss he finished speaking he realised the Witch was muttering something into the pool, when she fell silent he tried again," Woman " he said solemnly, " I say once more, Repent; for thy wizardry can harm me not." An empty hush came down on the cave again, but for a moment only; then peal after peal of long-drawn laughter, beating on the ears and distracting the senses, ran round the gloomy void. A circle of livid light grew about the rock on which the Benedictine stood, and a thick haze interposed between the Witch and the hooded figure of the man.

With his lips moving silently, and his eyes riveted on the obscuring outline of the Witch, the monk advanced. As he stepped beyond the confining ring of flame with unscorched robes, a rending crash shook the Cave, and a mass of rock, breaking out of the lofty roof, fell headlong over the place he had just forsaken. With a shriek of execration and anger, the hag sprang back towards the river, signing swiftly with her hand. She fled deeper into the cave down a narrow passageway called Hell’s Ladder. The brave monk followed her and they met again in the shadowy depths of an inner cavern.

Father Bernard had raised his  hand. His gaze was relentless and fixed, and a stern and quelling authority showed in his aspect. The Witch checked, and halted suddenly immovable, while a shadow of fear flashed across her intent and baleful visage. In strong, unhurried tones the monk was speaking, and the sonorous Latin phrases rang with a hollow echo through the cavern. Quickly, Father Bernard scooped up a handful of water from the river, blessed it and threw it over the witch. The Witch of Wookey convulsively stiffened, as if held in an invisible grasp. The glare froze in her eyes, and her lips writhed back in an effort to frame a final malediction. Her evil figure subtly changed, appearing to solidify and straighten; the tattered garments seemed to sink in and merge with her aged flesh. A supreme tremor passed into an unbreathing, deathly rigour, and, as the monk's voice ceased, only a stony image reared itself by the unheeding river. She had turned instantly to stone and her frozen figure remains in this cavern - known as The Witch’s Kitchen - to this day.

Folding his black robe about him, Father Bernard turned towards the way he had come. As he gained the rocky passage, the oil in the lamp sent up a hovering tongue of flame and went out.