Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Seer, A Prophet, or a Witch?

Sandra Byrd

"And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams..." Acts 2:17 King James Version

Six women in the Bible are expressly stated as possessing the title of prophetess: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noahdiah and Isaiah's wife.  Philip is mentioned in Acts as having four daughters who prophesied, which brings the number of known prophetesses to ten.  There is no reason to believe that there weren't thousands more, undocumented  throughout history, then and now.  According to religious tradition, women have often been powerful seers and that is why I've included them in my novel: The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr.

Hildegard of Bingen
Hundreds of years before the renaissance, which would bring about improved education for women, Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote medicinal texts and composed music. She also oversaw the illumination of many manuscripts and wrote lengthy theological treatises.  But what she is best known for, and was beatified for, were her visions.

Hildegard said that she first saw "The Shade of the Living Light" at the age of three, and by the age of five she began to understand that she was experiencing visions. In her forties she was instructed by God to write them down. She said, "I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition... I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out therefore, and write thus!'"

Spiritual gifting is not given for the edification of the person receiving it, but for the church at large.  Hildegard wrote three volumes of her mystical visions, and then biblically exegeted them herself.  Her theology was not, as one might expect, shunned by the church establishment of the time, but instead Pope Eugenius III gave her work his approval and she was published in Paris in 1513.

Several centuries later, Julian of Norwich continued Hildegard's tradition as a seer, a mystic, and a writer.  In her early thirties, Julian had a series of visions which she claimed came from Jesus Christ.  In them, she felt His deep love and had a desire to transmit that He desired to be known as a God of joy and compassion and not duty and judgment.  Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, is said to be the first book written in the English language by a woman.   She was well known as a mystic and a spiritual director by both men and women. The message of love and joy that she delivered is still celebrated today; she has feast days in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions.

Julian of Norwich
It had been for good cause that Hildegard and Julian kept their visions to themselves for a time. Visions were not widely accepted by society as a whole, and women in particular were often accused of witchcraft.  This risk was perhaps an even stronger danger in sixteenth and seventeenth century England when "witch hunts" were common.  While there is no doubt that there was a real and legitimate practice of witchcraft occurring in some places, the fear of it whipped up suspicion where no actual witchcraft was found.  Henry the VIII, after imprisoning Anne Boleyn, proclaimed to his  illegitimate son, among others, that they were all lucky to have escaped Anne's witchcraft.  The evidence? So obviously bewitching him away from his "good" judgment. 

In that century, the smallest sign, imagined or not, could be used to indict a "witch".  A gift handling herbs? Witchcraft. An unrestrained tongue? Witchcraft.  Floating rather than sinking when placed in a body of water when accused of witchcraft and therefore tested? Guilty for sure.  Women with "suspicious" spiritual gifts, including dreams and visions, had to be particularly careful.  And yet they, like Hildegard and Julian before them, had been given just such a gift to share with others.  And share they must.

Execution of Alleged
Witches, 1587
One women in the court of Queen Kateryn Parr is strongly believed to have had a gift of prophecy. Her name was Anne Calthorpe, the Countess of Sussex.  One source possibly hinting at such a gift can be found at Kathy Emerson's terrific webpage of Tudor women:   Emerson says that Calthorpe, "was at court when Katherine Parr was queen and shared her evangelical beliefs.  Along with other ladies at court, she was implicated in the heresy of Anne Askew.  In 1549 she was examined by a commission "for errors in scripture"  and  that "the Privy Council imprisoned two men, Hartlepoole and Clarke, for "lewd prophesies and other slanderous matters" touching the king and the council. Hartlepoole's wife and the countess of Sussex were jailed as "a lesson to beware of sorcery."

According to religious tradition women have often had very active prophetic gifts; we are mystical, engaging, and intuitive.  I admire our sisters throughout history who actively, risk-takingly, used their intellectual and spiritual gifts with whatever power they had at hand.

To learn more about Sandra's Ladies in Waiting Series, set in Tudor England, please visit For blogs on England and English history, visit:

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