Listen to summary

The seely wights were fairy-like creatures at the centre of a Scottish cult that existed in the 16th century. The term has been used to describe both the creatures themselves and members of the cult. The term seely derives from the Old English for “lucky”, so a literal translation would be “blessed beings” or “magical beings”. Robert Chambers’ collection of Scottish rhymes, first published in 1826 contains the following lines:

If you call me fairy,
I’ll cause you much trouble;
If you call me good neighbour,
Then good neighbour I will be;
But if you call me seely wight,
I’ll be your friend both day and night.

The cult members – mostly but probably not exclusively women – believed that while in a trance they were able to fly out at night on swallows and join with the seely wights. They could then use the magical powers they gained from the association in their everyday crafts of healing or fortune telling.[1]

Modern interpretations

Julian Goodare, an established historian on early modern Scotland,[2] speculates that Janet BoymanA Scottish woman found guilty and executed for witchcraft and associating with fairies ‘s trial records may indicate the existence of a Scottish cult-like group centred on the seely wights, fairy-like nature spirits similar to the Sicilian donas de fuera or the benandanti of north-eastern Italy.[3] Unlike when the scribes were taking notes about the Devil, it is credible that details of the nature spirits were correctly transcribed, so the information included in the confessions concerning them is more likely to have come from the accused.[4] The indictments of several witches, including the case of Isobel GowdieIsobel Gowdie was accused of witchcraft in 1662; she was likely executed although that is uncertain. Her detailed testimony provides one of the most comprehensive insights into European witchcraft folklore at the end of the era of witch-hunts. , who was executed in 1662 at Auldearn,[a]According to Ronald Hutton, scholar Emma Wilby classified Gowdie as “a service magician and storyteller inspired by visionary encounters with spirits, real or not.”[5] ‘Service magician’ is the term Hutton adopts for cunning folk like healers.[6] and Boyman, give details of meetings with nature spirits that can be classed as visionary encounters, with Boyman being able to summon the spirit at times of her choosing.[7] In modern terms, these experiences are similar to those reported by some under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.[8] Writing in 2017, academic Ronald Hutton states that debate among academics concerning shamanistic visionaries, cults and seely wights is in its infancy, with further literature still to be published.[2]

Citations



Bibliography


Gaskill, M. (2017). Unnatural Rebellion. Review of The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. London Review of Books, 39(21), 17–20.
Goodare, J. (2012). The Cult of the Seely Wights in Scotland. Folklore, 123(2), 198–219. https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.2012.682483
Goodare, J. (2015). Visionairies and Nature Spirits in Scotland. In B. Mosia & Shota Meskhia State Teaching University of Zugdidi (Eds.), Book of scientific works of the Conference of Belief Narrative Network of ISFNR (pp. 102–118). Zugdidi.
Hutton, R. (2017). The witch: a history of fear, from ancient times to the present. Yale University Press.

Notes

   [ + ]

a. According to Ronald Hutton, scholar Emma Wilby classified Gowdie as “a service magician and storyteller inspired by visionary encounters with spirits, real or not.”[5] ‘Service magician’ is the term Hutton adopts for cunning folk like healers.[6]