Liv Helene Willumsen
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The ninety-nine dancers of Moaness
Orkney women between the visible and invisible
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This chapter analyses an image found in seventeenth-century witchcraft court records from Orkney. During the trial of Barbara Bowndie, in 1644, she confessed to have danced at the fields of Moaness in the island of Hoy in Orkney, as one out of ninety-nine women at a witchcraft gathering with the Devil present. The number of dancers draws attention to magic numbers in folk belief, while the dance itself has connotations of witches’ meetings. During Barbara’s interrogation, several other learned ideas about witches and the Devil were introduced through leading questions from the interrogators. Still, it becomes clear that the story of the devilish dance of Moaness had been circulating in the local community for many years and hence was known by Barbara through oral transmission before her trial began.

The question then arises how and in which way the learned – and dangerous – ideas about human beings’ relations with the Devil came into the sphere of common people in the seventeenth century, and to what extent this knowledge influenced the development of witchcraft trials. The Orkney women accused of witchcraft were down-to-earth peasants who knew the struggle for daily existence. They were realistic in many senses. However, their beliefs displayed an invisible and unrealistic thread, as the image of the dancers of Moaness brings to the fore. Barbara confessed that she was one of the fourscore and nineteen. This chapter explores the tension between the down-to-earth attitude of early modern Orkney women and the much more dangerous, but still obviously popular, dance with the Devil.

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