The Return of the Wrach?
The witches, who were said to cause ague, were paradoxically the ones who possessed the power to cure it.
‘Gwrach - a withered old woman, a hag; also the ague’
Dictionary of Welsh Language
I. Yr Hen Wrach
Yr Hen Wrach ‘The Old Hag’ was once known to haunt Cors Fochno, Borth Bog. A seven-foot woman, black or grey, she visited people in their beds at night and caused them to awake with the shakes.
These paroxysms of chills and fever were known in the medieval period as ague (from Latin febris acūta, ‘acute fever’) and are known today as malaria, (from Italian mala aria, ‘bad air’).
Cors Fochno once ‘stretched north along the Dyfi nearly to Machynlleth’. This great bog was burnt back every winter due to the yearly visitations of the hag, who rendered the people asthmatic and weak, and made them invalids. Its draining began in 1881 and by the 1950s the hag had been banished.
II. All the infections that the sun sucks up
Ague was widespread in medieval Europe and only began to decline in the 19th century. Its distinguishing symptom was paroxysm - ‘a cyclical occurrence of sudden coldness followed by shivering and then fever and sweating’ every two days (tertian fever) or every three days (quartan fever).
The commonness of ague is shown by its persistent literary usage. In The Inferno (1321), Dante speaks of ‘one who has the shivering of the quartan so near, / that he has his nails already pale / and trembles all, still keeping the shade.’ Chaucer, in ‘The Nun Priest’s Tale’ (1390s), writes: ‘I dare well lay a groat / That you shall have the tertian fever’s pain, / Or some ague that may well be your bane.’
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), Caliban curses Prospero: ‘All the infections that the sun sucks up / From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him / By inch-meal a disease!’ and, fearing Stephano has the ague, suggests he tastes his bottle of wine to ‘remove his fit’ and ‘shake’ his ‘shaking’.
In his ‘The Destiny of Nations’ (1817) Samuel Taylor Coleridge refers to ague as a hag:
‘From his obscure haunt
Shriek’d FEAR, of Cruelty the ghastly Dam,
Fev’rish yet freezing, eager paced yet slow,
As she that creeps from forth her swampy reeds,
Ague, the biform Hag! When early Spring
Beams on the marsh bred-vapours.’
III. Where are all the female sex are witches
Ague was endemic throughout Britain in areas with marshes, bogs, fens, and rivers. It was particularly virulent in Essex, Kent, in Somerset, along the Thames and here in the Ribble district of Lancashire.
Over ninety-per cent of Lancashire was once marsh or peat bog. It is thus no surprise that ague ‘gry a graw’ was rife and associated with witches and the devil, with whom they were reputed to conspire.
A poem from The Lancashire Gazette by Dick Summers, written in 1805, reads:
‘While thou to Lancaster wer’t marching,
Where Father Sol is seldom parching,
Where all the female sex are witches,
And agues spring from fens and ditches…’
Edwin Waugh identified ‘casting out the ague’ with ‘casting out the devil’. Such ‘exorcisms’ were either undertaken by a priest or by the village wiseman or wisewoman.
Such village healers also provided a variety of remedies. Carrying herbs gathered from damp places, such as bog bean or the leaves of aspen, whose trembling resembled ague, was believed to work on principles of sympathetic magic. Another, stranger, cure was carrying legless spiders (representing ague dismembered?) in a cloth around one’s neck or in a bag. Alternatively, spider’s webs were swallowed or applied. Carrying the cuttings from a gallows ‘on which one or more persons has been executed’ ‘next to the skin or round the neck in a bag’ was a preventative. The witches, who were said to cause ague, were paradoxically the ones who possessed the power to cure it.
IV. When insects do swarm...
It was long suspected there was a connection between wetlands harbouring flying insects and ague. In 1676 Thomas Sydenham wrote: ‘When insects do swarm extraordinarily and when... agues (especially quartans) appear early as about midsummer, then autumn proves very sickly.’
Sydenham advocated the use of quinine, which was found in an extract of cinchona powder from trees native to the Andes, as a cure. Known as ‘Jesuit’s Powder’ because its export was handled by Catholics, it was unpopular in Protestant England until Robert Talbor created his wonderful cure.
It wasn’t until 1880 that Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran first observed the parasitic single-celled microorganism plasmodium, which causes ague/malaria, in human red blood cells. In 1897 Ronald Ross proved its life-cycle in the mosquito and that it was the vector for human infections.
We now know the sporozites (from sporos ‘seed’ and zōon ‘animal’) of plasmodium develop in the salivary glands of a female anopheles mosquito and are injected into a human host when they are bitten. They then travel via the blood vessels to the liver. Over a period of 8 – 30 days asexual reproduction produces thousands of merozoites (from meros ‘part’ and zōon ‘animal’).
The merozoites rupture the host cells of the liver and re-enter the blood stream, where they reproduce asexually in cycles that produce 8 – 24 new merozoites and burst the blood cells before beginning again. The waves of fever occur each time the blood cells burst and the merozoites infect new cells.
Some of the merozoites develop into gametocytes (from gametēs ‘partner’ and kytos ‘cell’) which are sucked up by the female mosquito. They travel in her blood to her gut where they mature and fuse, becoming ookinetes (from ōon ‘egg’ and kinētos ‘motile’) then oocysts, then sporozites. At this point they travel to the salivary glands to develop in preparation for infecting their next host.
VI. The Return of the Gwrach?
It is likely that global warming will play a role in producing conditions more favourable to the breeding of mosquitoes. With warmer and wetter summers there will be more pools of stagnant water for them to breed in and with milder and wetter winters more will survive to breed the following year. This will increase the risk of the transmission of malaria.
It is not only malaria, carried by the anopheles mosquito, we need to worry about. If the Asian tiger mosquito, which is established in Italy, reaches Britain it could bring Dengue fever, encephalitis and yellow fever. The aedes species, which carries chikungunya, killed 77 people on the French island of La Réunion and affected 50,000. The culex mosquito, which carries Nile Fever has been seen in Romania.
With most of our marshes and bogs drained off it seems unlikely that mosquito-borne diseases will be as common as they were or that, with our modern scientific understanding, we will ascribe them to a hag. However, we may be needing the wisdom of witches, working with the principles of science and a knowledge of magic and the deadly spirits of disease to bring about their prevention and cure.
Greg Hill, ‘Cwm Eleri’, Myddle Earth
Ian D. Hodkinson, The Ague: A History of Indigenous Malaria in Cumbria and the North, (CWAAS, 2016)
John Harland and T. T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore, (Kessinger, 2003)
Jon Henley, ‘The mozies are coming’, The Guardian, (2007)
Keith Snow, ‘Distribution of Anopheles mosquitoes in the British Isles’, Journal of the European Mosquito Control Association (1998)
Paul Reiter, ‘From Shakespeare to Defoe: Malaria in England in the Little Ice Age’, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, (2000)
‘A Social History of Borth’, Borth Maritime History
With thanks to the Wellcome library for the images Ague and Fever and Talbor’s Wonderful Cure and Wikipedia Commons for the anopheles mosquito.
Lorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd. She has published three books: Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls. She is a co-founder of Awen ac Awenydd and writes and has edited for Gods & Radicals. She blogs at Fruits of Annwn.