Found Listicles: The Son of Art & the Skulls of Decapitated Thieves


In which Justin trolls our contemporary fixation with lists by highlighting some of his favorite itemized findings from the wonderful (and occasionally strange) world of the public domain. In this installment, he shares a few offenses that might have gotten you cited for witchcraft in medieval Ireland.

Over at the Washington Post, Katherine Howe has published a seasonally appropriate guide to identifying witches, offering a practical, if basic, set of diagnostic Q's, such as "Is the suspect a woman?", "Does she have a wart?", and "Is she weird around your kids?"

Maybe. But does she mix her infernal powders and unguents in a vessel made from the skull of a decapitated thief?

Used to be, you had to be into some way darker business to get charged with witchcraft. Take, for example, a list of offenses taken from Irish Witchcraft & Demonology, by St. John Drelincourt Seymour (1913).


Seymour relates the story of a certain Bishop of Ossory who found in his diocese “a band of heretical sorcerers” led by one Dame Alice (how the bishop allowed such heresy to fester under his watch goes unremarked). Turns out, Dame Alice & co. had fallen under the sway of “a certain evil spirit of low rank, named the Son of Art,” who also seems to have doubled as a sort of medieval sugar daddy.

Apparently a firm believer in due process, the bishop tried to bring the following charges against Dame Alice:

1. They had denied the faith of Christ absolutely for a year or a month, according as the object they desired to gain through sorcery was of greater or less importance. During all that period they believed in none of the doctrines of the Church; they did not adore the Body of Christ, nor enter a sacred building to hear mass, nor make use of consecrated bread or holy water.

2. They offered in sacrifice to demons living animals, which they dismembered, and then distributed at cross-roads to a certain evil spirit of low rank, named the Son of Art.

3. They sought by their sorcery advice and responses from demons.

4. In their nightly meetings they blasphemously imitated the power of the Church by fulminating sentence of excommunication, with lighted candles, even against their own husbands, from the sole of their foot to the crown of their head, naming each part expressly, and then concluded by extinguishing the candles and by crying Fi! Fi! Fi! Amen.

5. In order to arouse feelings of love or hatred, or to inflict death or disease on the bodies of the faithful, they made use of powders, unguents, ointments, and candles of fat, which were compounded as follows. They took the entrails of cocks sacrificed to demons, certain horrible worms, various unspecified herbs, dead men’s nails, the hair, brains, and shreds of the cerements of boys who were buried unbaptized, with other abominations, all of which they cooked, with various incantations, over a fire of oak-logs in a vessel made out of the skull of a decapitated thief.

6. The children of Dame Alice’s four husbands accused her before the Bishop of having killed their fathers by sorcery, and of having brought on them such stolidity of their senses that they bequeathed all their wealth to her and her favourite son, William Outlawe ... They also stated that her present husband, Sir John le Poer, had been reduced to such a condition by sorcery and the use of powders that he had become terribly emaciated, his nails had dropped off, and there was no hair left on his body...

7. The said dame had a certain demon, an incubus, named Son of Art, or Robin son of Art, who had carnal knowledge of her, and from whom she admitted that she had received all her wealth. This incubus made its appearance under various forms, sometimes as a cat, or as a hairy black dog...

Did the charges stick? We'll never know: The bishop attempted to issue Dame Alice a citation for her crimes, but “[a]s might be expected,” Seymour drolly informs us, “she ignored the citation, and fled immediately.” No word on whether the bishop managed to expel the Son of Art from his diocese.

 Justin is Scribd's Editorial Coördinator (umlaut ironic). He's the former Managing Editor at Rooster, a former editor of the Harvard Book Review, and occasional book reviewer. You can see some of his handiwork in our collections Country Fried Crime Thrillers and Wrights to Rockets.

Justin Tyler Keenan