Scotland apologises over blood-drenched witchcraft purges 400 years ago

The First Minister of Scotland has apologised to thousands of alleged witches who were killed centuries ago.

Politician Nicola Sturgeon says the women suffered “injustice on a colossal scale”.

The decision, which was branded a stunt in some quarters, marked International Women’s Day, in early March, and saw her seek to make amends for Scotland’s witchcraft purge, which took place under the Scottish Witchcraft Act.

An estimated 4,000 Scots were accused of being witches between 1563 and 1736.

The First Minister said the injustice they suffered was “driven by misogyny” and needed to be recognised.

The apology came after a petition looking to grant a pardon for the 4,000 people accused of witchcraft was introduced in the Scottish parliament by campaigners from the organisation Witches of Scotland.

Witchcraft laws, passed by James VI of Scotland, who also became James I of England, led to a nationwide search for witches that became known as the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597.

It was the second of five national witch hunts in the country.

Like the others it was conducted under the supervision of Royal Commissions.

But it is one of the most poorly documented of the Great Scottish Witch hunts as it was not documented centrally and lacked coherent control leading to wild purges.

Responsibility fell to local authorities, which were left to record the accusations and outcomes of trials.

Around 200 ‘witches’ were believed to have been killed in the 1597 hysteria.

Other Scottish Witch Hunts took place in 1590-91, 1628-1631, 1649-59 and 1661-62.

Of the approximate 4,000 people accused, over half were executed and more than 85 per cent of those convicted were women or girls.

A raft of trumped up witchery-based charges were levelled at the unfortunate women.

These ranged from causing hangovers and turning into an owl, to meeting with the Devil and conjuring up storms to sink the ships of James VI.

Agnes Sampson, an elderly woman, was the first woman convicted of witchcraft in Scotland in 1591 and Janet Horne was the last in 1727.

In one case a woman called Lilias Adie confessed, under duress, to the crimes of casting malicious spells and having sex with the Devil.

She died in 1704 after being sentenced to be burned to death, but she died in prison, possibly by suicide. Her body was buried under a large stone.

Nicola Sturgeon said: “Those who met this fate were not witches, they were people, and overwhelmingly women.

“At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a courtroom, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable – or in many cases just because they were women.

“It was injustice on a colossal scale, driven at least in part by misogyny in its most literal sense: hatred of women.

“The pardon the petition calls for would require this parliament to legislate and in future this parliament may choose to do so.

“But in the meantime, the petition also calls for an apology. After all, these accusations and executions were instigated and perpetrated by the State.

“And so today, on International Women’s Day, I am choosing to acknowledge that egregious historic injustice and extend a formal posthumous apology to all those accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563.”

The campaign group Witches of Scotland, which has called for all those put to death to be pardoned, welcomed the apology.

The organisation said: “This is the first formal recognition of this terrible miscarriage of justice.”

Marking the occasion, the burning of Agnes Sampson was recreated on Calton Hill, in Edinburgh.

Before her death she was subjected to sleep deprivation, a common interrogator’s tool as it eventually produced hallucinations used as ‘evidence’.

In 1563 in Scotland the Witchcraft Act was brought into law and remained in law till 1736.

During this time witchcraft was punishable by death, with many strangled and then burned at the stake.

When accused of witchcraft, suspects were locked up awaiting trial and tortured to confess.

Torture in Scotland was usually by way of sleep deprivation, but other cruel techniques included “pricking”.

This was stabbing the skin with needles and bodkins to see how the person reacted to the drawing of blood and whether they bled – and the stripping and examination of the body to see if any ‘witches mark’ could be found on them.

Often these methods were carried out in public. Torture by crushing and pulling out nails was also used.

King James the VI of Scotland (1566 – 1625) considered himself an expert in witchcraft and penned the book ‘Daemonologie’, 1597.

The grim tome was about witchcraft and other occult matters, including evil creatures like incubi and succubi, effectively sexual vampires that exploited paralysed humans to create demonic entities.

The book also touched on actual vampires and werewolves and is believed to have influenced the rituals and practices of the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare’s ‘MacBeth’.

The king also attended the North Berwick Witch Trials where one of the complaints was that witchcraft had been used to create storms to cause a bad crossing for James’s ship across the ocean.

James saw plots everywhere, both real and imagined and his obsession fuelled a Satanic panic in Scotland. As King of England he also famously survived the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes, in 1605, after he ruthlessly cracked down on Catholics.

So, what do you think about the apology? Is it too late or is it simply a stunt?

What is the Hidden History channel?

Paul Christian set up Hidden History, in a meaningful sense, at the start of the lockdown as something to do in some very dull times. With the present and future looking a bit bleak he looked to inspiration from the past.

It is a channel dedicated to bringing history to light and to life. The channel covers anything of interest with history news and new discoveries featuring as shorter videos and longer documentary type uploads, often with a particular focus on folklore and comparative mythology.

Away from the channel Paul has written a number of books about subjects that have piqued his interest, including Jack the Ripper, the Dyatlov Pass mystery and a historical travelogue called ‘Dark Secrets of Central Europe: A Tale of Three Cities’.

Social media:

Twitter: @H1ddenH1story

Instagram: @H1ddenH1story




Decapitated Roman skeletons found in England – were they ‘vampires’?

The discovery of a number of decapitated Roman-era skeletons and other artefacts near Aylesbury, in England, is fascinating enough – but could these unfortunate bodies have belonged to suspected vampires?

The Romans and other classical civilisations, like the Ancient Greeks, believed in entities known as strix or strigoi.

These mythological beings continued into Slavic folklore as the strzyga.

Archaeologists working alongside railway workers building the new HS2 high-speed rail link in England unearthed a number of intriguing finds recently.

Some 425 burials were unearthed at a Roman cemetery. But it was the manner in which 40 skeletons were discovered that has made me consider a dark possibility.

To the Romans Britannia was a mystical and terrifying place. A land of strange people and rituals and maybe even giants.

Therefore it is not inconceivable that, in the superstitious mind of the Roman conquerors, there were otherworldly entities abound in this far-flung peripheral part of the Empire.

And it is with that in mind that the bizarre nature of the burials administered to those 40 skeletons comes into sharp focus.

Burial was even more significant in the bronze and iron ages, with grave goods attesting the idea that the dead were going on a journey.

It is clear that the people who buried the 40 bodies were keen to ensure that this would not be a return journey.

They were found interred with their heads removed and placed between their legs.

Anyone with an understanding of folklore will know that this method of burial is one of the methods by which the vampiric strix are allegedly prevented from coming back to the land of the living.

800-year-old ‘vampire’ skeleton from Bulgaria

Obviously the HS2 archaeologists, perhaps keen to avoid a sensation in their work on the controversial and hugely expensive new rail link, did not allude to the possibility that this was an effective vampire burial.

They merely mooted the likelihood that these skeletons belonged to “criminals” or “a type of outcast”.

A press release on the find read: “A team of around 50 archaeologists uncovered a series of enclosures that contained evidence of domestic structures, as well as commercial and industrial activity.

“These enclosures developed in a ladder-like plan either side of Akeman Street, a major Roman road that linked the Roman capital of Verulamium (modern St Albans) with Corinium Dobunnorum (now Cirencester) and going via Roman Alchester (near Bicester).

“The fieldwork traced the line of the road and uncovered the remains of its well-constructed limestone surface, and flanking drainage ditches.

“The team has also discovered over 1,200 coins along with several lead weights, indicating that this was an area of trade and commerce. Parts of the widened road may have been used as a market, with extra room for carts and stalls.

“Other metal objects, such as spoons, pins and brooches, were of a more domestic nature, while gaming dice and bells suggest that gambling and religious activity occupied people’s time here too.”

It is interesting to note that the use of bells was another method of stopping reanimated corpses from returning.

Other examples of preventative measures against strix predations include putting rocks to the mouths of the deceased, reburial outside of the village, pinning bodies down with large rocks and hammering nails or stakes into corpses.

The press release continued: “A late Roman cemetery, the largest of its kind now known in Buckinghamshire has also been excavated.

“The cemetery contained around 425 burials. As was typical in the late Roman period, the cemetery predominantly contained inhumation burials but also included some cremation burials.

“The number of burials, along with the development of the settlement, suggests that there was a population influx into the town in the mid to late Roman period, linked perhaps to increased agricultural production.

“There are two separate areas of burials suggesting the cemetery may have been organised by tribe, family, ethnic grouping.

“Amongst the buried population at Fleet Marston are a number of decapitated burials, approximately 10% of those buried there.

“There are several instances of the head being placed between the legs or next to the feet.

“One interpretation of this burial practice is that it could be the burial of criminals or a type of outcast, although decapitation is well-known elsewhere and appears to have been a normal, albeit marginal, burial rite during the late Roman period.”

Richard Brown, Senior Project Manager, said: “The excavation is significant in both enabling a clear characterisation of this Roman town but also a study of many of its inhabitants.

“Along with several new Roman settlement sites discovered during the HS2 works it enhances and populates the map of Roman Buckinghamshire.”

Speaking about the excavations, Helen Wass, Head of Heritage at HS2 Ltd, said:

“The HS2 archaeology programme has enabled us to learn more about our rich history in Britain. 

“The large Roman cemetery at Fleet Marston will enable us to gain a detailed insight into the residents of Fleet Marston and the wider Roman Britain landscape.

“All human remains uncovered will be treated with dignity, care and respect and our discoveries will be shared with the community.

“HS2’s archaeology programme seeks to engage with all communities both local and nationally to share the information and knowledge gained as well as leaving a lasting archival and skills legacy.”

The press release concluded: “Overall, the excavation of the site at Fleet Marston, including the burials, provides a picture of the lives and beliefs of the community that lived there during the Roman period.

“A programme of post-excavation assessment and analysis will be carried out over the next few years, which will offer an opportunity to address questions about origins, diet, family links, lifestyles, beliefs and so on that have so rarely been asked in the region.”

I look forward to finding the answers to those questions.

So, do you think these were suspected vampires, or is there some other explanation you find more plausible?

The Beast of Bodmin Moor: Real or historic folk memory?

The unexplained large predator known as the Beast of Bodmin Moor is – or was – said to prowl the expansive moorland in this rugged and picturesque part of Cornwall.

The purported feline was first allegedly sighted around 1978 but, as we shall see, phantom felines and, more notably, canines are an enduring feature of Indo-European-descended folklore.

Bodmin Moor, which is a desolate but beautiful landscape fits perfectly as a location for myths and legends and is home to plenty going back many centuries.

But this particular tale focussed reports of mutilated livestock by something that was described as being potentially a panther or leopard.

Numerous reports of supposed big cats sighted at large throughout Britain have been submitted over the years.

The apocrypha goes that these beasts have been illegally released from exotic collections held by wealthy individuals or have escaped from zoos and have survived in the wild by hunting native fauna.

However, the UK’s Ministry of Agriculture carried out an investigation, in 1995, headed up by Simon Baker and Charles Wilson, which found “no verifiable evidence” of any such big cats on the loose in Britain.

In reference to the alleged Beast of Bodmin Moor, the investigation found there was “no significant threat to livestock from a ‘big cat’ in Bodmin Moor”.

But the case got curiouser.

Less than a week after the report, on July 24, 1995, a boy, who was walking by the River Fowey, discovered a large cat skull.

The cranium measured four inches long by seven inches wide.

It was lacking the lower jaw but had three sharp, prominent canines that pointed to it possibly belonging to a leopard.

The find caused a media sensation, but a team from the Natural History Museum found it was a genuine skull, but was from an imported leopard skin rug.

This was determined because of the way the skull had been scraped and that it contained an egg case that had been laid by a tropical cockroach, that could not possibly be found in Britain.

Another investigation was launched in December 1997 after a spate of attacks on farm animals, as well as sightings and photographs.

There have been around 60 sightings of a black panther-like cat between three and five feet in length with, white or yellow eyes. There have also been a number of reports of mutilated livestock.

As well as the theory that the Beast could be an escaped zoo animal, or from an illicit collection, it could also be part of a species of wild cat previously thought to be extinct.

There have also, perhaps inevitably, been those who have postulated paranormal explanations.

There was another report as recently as last year where a man found alleged paw prints and said he heard a “lion’s roar”.

He said: “I was with a friend and we both heard this roar. It was like a lion’s roar and it was terrifying.

“On the way back we saw these fresh paw prints. They were deep down in the tractor prints.

“They were not there when we went in and were very fresh. You can tell it was no domestic animal just by the weight needed to push into the tractor marks.

“We had never seen anything like it. We just thought ‘oh my god’. The stories have been around about the beast before, but this was clear evidence of it.”

Reports of large, particularly dark-coloured, beasts have been a feature of folklore and legend in the British Isles for centuries.

These have often take the form of wolves, or what we might now term werewolves.

These include Black Shuck from East Anglia and Old Stinker the Hull Werewolf.

It is theories these could be folkloric hangovers of Norse Pagan beliefs and allude to Fenrir the giant wolf that, in Norse mythology, killed Odin during Ragnarok.

The Norse also had a warrior class known as Berzerkers, who were sometimes referred to as úlfheðnar or ‘wolf-skinned’.

Warriors donned animal pelts, used mind-altering drugs and danced themselves into frenzy to imbue them with the creatures’ natural ferocity.

And the wolf aspect goes even further back to the Proto-Indo-European Koryos.

These were male war bands, which consisted of allegedly shape-shifting warriors, wearing animal skins to assume the nature of wolves or dogs.

So how do you account for the Beast of Bodmin Moor?

Genuine sightings of an escaped big cat?

An elusive indigenous species previously thought to be extinct?

Or is it part of an age old tradition borne out of a fear of the wild, a folk memory of the earliest part of western civilisation?

Iron Age dog ‘buried to appease spirits in the underworld’

An excavation by Oxford Archaeology in 2008 on the north-eastern edge of Cirencester revealed evidence of Cirencester’s prehistoric past, including Iron Age activity dating to between c. 400-200 BC.

In the base of one of the 19 pits the skeletons of a dog and a crow were unearthed.

The dog, an adult male, aged between 1-3 years was probably a working animal used for herding and guarding.

The specialist who examined the skeleton believed he is mostly likely to resemble a modern terrier.

Deposition of complete animals in pits are commonly found in Britain throughout the Iron Age.

It is suggested that that pit deposits have ritual significance and the placement of animals in storage pits was connected to the appeasing the spirits and underworld.

This fits well with the idea that the dog was a guardian extending its role in life to the spirit world.

Crows in many cultures, ancient and modern, are also linked to death. Perhaps this is why they were considered for burial together 2,000 years ago.

From the discovery of the dog in 2008 a team of archaeologists, conservators and museum curators have worked together to bring this ancient dog to display at Corinium Museum, Cirencester.

It is one of only a small number on display in museums across Britain.

The dog’s journey to being pieced back together started over five years ago when the museum team began to look for and research new objects for the HLF Stone Age to Corinium Project.

Collections Manager, Dr Alison Brookes, believes that enough bones had survived to enable specialist conservators to rebuild the dog.

In October 2018, in hundreds of pieces, it was packed up and transported to Lancashire Conservation Studios.

Here a specialist team of conservators undertook the delicate and highly skilled task of rebuilding the dog, piece by piece.

Last month, almost three years to the day, Dr Brookes welcomed the conservators and a box marked ‘beware of the dog’ back to Cirencester.

The team worked carefully to unpack the dog and complete the mounting before placing him in the case.

He tells not just a story of the domestication of man’s best friend but also demonstrates how archaeologists, conservators and museum curators work together.

It can be a lengthy process but the result is a fascinating story of a dog who walked the Cotswolds over 2,000 years ago.

To celebrate the arrival of the new Iron Age dog display, the museum launched a competition to name him.

The winning entry will receive a Family Membership along with a Corinium Museum Explorer’s Handbook.

Does Halloween really have Celtic roots?

The spooky season is almost upon us, but what is the real origin of Halloween?

It seems to be common knowledge these days that the celebration is based on an older Celtic Pagan festival.

Samhain, in particular, is cited as the main influence for this.

But there is a belief among some that Halloween began purely as a Christian event, as a vigil for the dawning of All Hallow’s Day and it is nothing to do with the ancient Celts.

So what is the truth?

There is certainly plenty of crossover between Halloween with the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain.

Was this Christianised into the Halloween celebration?

The Celtic calendar’s feasts were in sync with the seasons via cycles of the moon.

The autumn feast prior to the modern Halloween was originally the first day of the eleventh month.

This was changed when Christianisation saw it pushed back to the last day of the tenth month.

In some Celtic traditions, particularly the Gaulish Samonios, a cognate of Samhain, it was effectively ‘New Year’s Day’, as the dark preceded the light.

The event was seen not just as a day of the dead, but one in which the dead might be seen to rise or contact the living.

Julius Caesar noted the increased worship of the Gaulish version of Dis Pater or Jupiter (in his interpretatio Romana), the ruler of the dead, around this time of year.

Other contemporaries reported ghoulish practices such as human sacrifices by ritual drowning or burning.

It has been noted that, despite its historical foundation in the Gunpowder Plot, the British celebration of Guy Fawkes Night and the associated burning of a Guy effigy, harks back further than its supposed origin, to older practices, such as the Welsh Hollantide.

The 5th November event also falls just a few days after Halloween.

The zealous King James, who was the would-be victim of the Plot, was no stranger to the dark and mysterious penning his own book ‘Daemonologie’, which was a treatise on black magic, witchcraft and necromancy.

The tradition of bobbing for apples, toffee apples and pumpkins (originally turnips) also ties Halloween hijinks in with the deeper and anthropologically potent theme of a harvest festival.

Samhain was also potentially seen as a kind of between-time of suspension between the tangible and the spiritual, possibly marked by cross-dressing or gender-blurring.

This would appear to be a rather extreme version of the modern costume party.

Even trick or treat could be compared to the demands of the gods to be offered a tribute of milk, grain or human sacrifices in return for protection. Although this may be stretching the point.

Whatever its origins Halloween taps into a primal part of the Northern European psyche. A time of revelry and celebration of a successful harvest, the end of the summer and the trepidation that comes with the fast-approaching long dark nights.

Death cults in the modern era: UFOs, gas attacks, Waco, Jonestown and more

In modern times there have been a number of cults in operation, with some of the most egregious examples based in the United States.

One of these is Heaven’s Gate, whose members believed in their impending transcendence to another plane of existence.

Heaven’s Gate refuses to call itself a cult, but has been referred to by others as one.

The religious organisation was founded in 1974, but gained prominence when the majority of its members committed suicide in 1997.

The movement was bound up with the UFO phenomenon, which was popular in the 1990s thanks, in some part, to the successful TV show The X Files and other elements of contemporary popular culture.

It also aligned itself strongly with the re-emergence near Earth of the Hale-Bopp comet, which passes our planet around every 2,000 years and was associated by the cult, and other theorists, with the Star of Bethlehem that heralded the birth of Jesus, according to the Nativity story.

The cult was established by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, who went by the names Ti and Do.

Nettles was a nurse in a hospital where Applewhite was visiting a friend in 1972 and the two entered into what is believed to have been a platonic relationship. That’s certainly the account according to video recordings made by Applewhite.

The pair went on a tour where they spread the word of their alleged revelation, following a religious journey, where they absorbed every kind of spiritual text they “could get their hands on”.

They gained a number of followers, which ran into the hundreds, but their disciples dwindled when the leaders instituted a more rigid regime banning sex, alcohol and other ‘vices’ and began distancing themselves from wider society.

The hardcore that remained ended up all living together, with Applewhite the effective teacher and the followers cast as “students”. Some of these featured in videos created by Heaven’s Gate. They sported simple short hair cuts and nondescript clothing – effectively they where stereotypical cult members and lived a monk-like existence.

Nettles did not live to see this phase of the movement she co-founded, as she died of liver cancer in 1985.

The group’s doctrine featured elements of Christianity – particularly millenarianism, New Age beliefs and an obsession with extraterrestrials and the burgeoning UFO phenomenon.

The main belief the group held and the one which marked it out at the time and sealed its members’ fates was that adherents could transcend into immortal extraterrestrials by turning their backs on their human nature and the corporeal trappings of their mortal bodies.

Once their bodily shell was shed they believed they would ascend to heaven, referred to as the “Next Level” or “The Evolutionary Level Above Human”.

Nettles’ death focussed their minds further on the nature of this transcendence and led them inexorably down the road of mass suicide.

Prior to her passing they held on to the belief that a UFO would ferry them to heaven alive and intact in their fleshy human ‘containers’.

But, after her death, the group’s doctrine changed, with a greater emphasis on the soul and ethereal consciousness as being the transferable element, with the body and associated earthly mortality seen as expendable in their pursuit of the ‘Next Level’.

Thus only death would achieve the conditions necessary for transcendence. The organisation believed that, post-mortem, they would be rewarded with new “Next Level bodies” in which to continue their onward journey.

And so it was that on March 26, 1997 39 bodies of the cult members, including Applewhite, were discovered by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department in Rancho Santa Fe.

The group had committed ritual suicide coinciding with the closest pass of Hale-Bopp.

Just prior to the mass suicide a fateful message was posted on the Heaven’s Gate website, which read: “Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate …our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion – ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.”

The website is actually still in operation, so I contacted the administrators to see whether they would respond.

I asked a few questions to ascertain what the current status of the organisation is.

The questions and answers were as follows.

1. What is the current status of Heaven’s Gate?

The Group actually came to an end in 1997. It has not been active since then. The information is timeless.

2. Do you reject the label of ‘cult’ and, if so, what is your organisation?

Yes, even academia has told us it simply does not fit the definition.

3. What activities does Heaven’s Gate currently do?

Nothing. We joined the Group at the beginning in 1975 and they asked us to disseminate the information, care for the site and intellectual property for a while until we return to the Next Level.

Asked what they specifically meant by “return to the Next Level” They said: “Sometime in our next reincarnation on this planet Do will return and we will leave with him.”

4. What are your beliefs?

The Group’s beliefs.

5. How many members, or affiliates, do you currently have?


Mass casualties were the result of another infamous US cult case at the deadly Waco siege, in 1993.

The siege saw US federal officers, military personnel and Texas state law enforcement pitched in a tense stand-off with Branch Davidian cultists, led by the charismatic David Koresh, between February 28 and April 19, 1993.

The siege began when the finger of suspicion was pointed at Koresh and the group over fears they were stockpiling illegal weapons at their compound, at the Mount Carmel Ranch, in Axtell, Texas.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) obtained search and arrest warrants, which they headed to the ranch to execute.

The members of the cult did not take kindly to this and a firefight ensued, with four agents and six cult members dying in the intense exchanges of gunfire.

A 51-day siege ensued with the FBI eventually launching an all out assault on the compound with tear gas used against the Branch Davidians.

Shortly afterwards a fire took hold and ripped through the building. The blaze caused the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children, two pregnant women, and Koresh himself.

Subsequently both sides blamed each other for starting the fire and the aftermath of the raid saw the Federal forces massed actions called into question.

The authorities’ tactics led to anti-establishment militia groups forming and inspired one of America’s worst ever terrorist atrocities.

For one man who witnessed the chaos at the Mount Carmel Center was Timothy McVeigh.

McVeigh cited the Waco siege as the main driving force behind the Oklahoma City bombing that he perpetrated on April 19, 1995.

He launched a truck bomb attack against the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, a US government office in Oklahoma City.

The blast destroyed various other buildings and led to the deaths of 168 people, with the death toll including 19 children under six years old. It was the deadliest act of terrorism on US soil until 9/11.

The Waco siege could also have inspired the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, which took place on April 20, with theories suggesting the killing spree was timed to mark the anniversary of the FBI assault on the compound.

This could mean that the ATF suppression of the Branch Davidians not only spawned a new form of domestic terrorism, but also the recurring scourge of school shootings in the United States.

The Branch Davidians were formed in 1995, but came to prominence and infamy under Koresh’s leadership, which began in 1981.

Originally called Vernon Howell, he changed his name to David Koresh to claim a connection to the Biblical King David and Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, who was called Koresh in Hebrew.

Koresh identified with the Lamb of God from the Book of Revelation and wanted to create a new line of world leaders. He was also suspected of committing acts of child abuse, which contributed to the interest shown in his movement by the Federal authorities.

It is clear that the cult led by Koresh and the actions of the US government to suppress it had far-reaching consequences that are still being felt to this day.

Another American-made messianic cult of personality led to a shocking mass suicide.

The Jonestown massacre saw over 900 deaths in November 1978.

The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known by its informal name “Jonestown”, was a remote settlement in the South American country of Guyana, which was established by a San Francisco-based cult.

The commune was led by Jim Jones, who fused Christianity and Marxism into an ideology opposed to US foreign and domestic policy that he derided as “fascist”.

There were multiple accusations of beatings and slave labour taking place at the encampment, along with endless recordings and announcements beamed across the site of Jones’ voice.

The broadcasts used sophisticated mind control techniques and sought to further radicalise the extremist left-wing inhabitants and instil a sense of paranoia that CIA operatives were coming to wipe them all out.

Jones ordered a number of drills to take place which simulated such a raid and it was at one of these that he and the Jonestown settlement became infamous.

The incidents, on November 18, 1978, saw a total of 918 people die at the Jonestown site, the nearby airstrip at Port Kaituma and a Temple bolthole in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown.

A total of 909 died at Jonestown from drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide – an incident that spawned the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” to refer to people who blindly follow a set of beliefs without question.

This is because the deaths were largely apparently self-administered, in what Jones called an act of “revolutionary suicide”.

As he ordered the suicides Jones told his followers: “Die with a degree of dignity. Lay down your life with dignity; don’t lay down with tears and agony.”

He also said: “I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries, death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”

Jones is believed to have shot himself as part of the mass murder-suicide.

The mass poisoning followed the murders of five others at Port Kaituma with US Congressman Leo Ryan among them.

The politician was in Guyana investigating conditions at the Jonestown site following increasing concerns over the welfare and treatment of US citizens who had settled there.

After Ryan had left Jonestown he arrived at the Kaituma airstrip at around 4.45pm and had to wait a little over 20 minutes for transport planes to take him, news reporters and Temple defectors out.

The six-seater Cessna that was transporting Ryan was taxiing to the end of the runway when cult member Larry Layton, who was on the plane, began shooting at the passengers.

Afterwards a posse of Temple members, who had escorted the group, launched a barrage of gunfire at the plane. Ryan died in a hail of bullets along with three journalists and a Temple defector. Many others were wounded in the onslaught.

The death squad hit Ryan with more than 20 bullets to the body before shooting him in the face.

The Georgetown deaths were of four cult members who were ordered to commit murder-suicide by Jones.

Even more horrifying was the fact that 304 of the victims were minors and Jones had ordered guards armed with guns and crossbows to shoot those who attempted to flee the Jonestown pavilion as Jones ordered the mass suicide.

Before enacting the dreadful killings Jones had been feted by the upper echelons of the US centre-left establishment and Civil Rights leaders and had had meetings with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter and others.

This goes to show that cult leaders such as Jones can exert powerful influence through the force of their personalities and there can be little wonder that vulnerable people, especially, are often taken in by them.

As a result of the Jonestown outrage the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), a group aimed at deprogramming members of cults, was formed.

The group, which included Congressman Ryan’s daughter Patricia, became involved in a number of cases, including the David Koresh’s Branch Davidians.

Over the centuries Japan has been home to a number of cults and secret societies, such as the Ninja and the knightly Samurai caste, but it is in the modern era that more extreme organisations have been active.

These include the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, founded by Shoko Asahara, in 1984, which gained worldwide notoriety for sarin gas attacks in the early to mid-Nineties, including on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.

One could also include state-sponsored suicide attacks by kamikaze pilots in World War Two as exhibiting cultic behaviour.

Kamikaze means ‘divine wind’ and the programme consisted of pilots who flew suicide missions by deliberately crashing their aircraft into Allied shipping in the Pacific Theatre.

Around 3,800 pilots died in this way during the war, with more than 7,000 naval personnel falling victim to the attacks.

Before and during the war Japanese armed forces personnel, as well as civilians, were told that their ultimate duty was to give up their lives in defence of their deified Emperor. Fairytales aimed at children lauded the kamikaze tactics as all elements of the information apparatus were mobilised to gain recruits, who volunteered in their droves.

There was also a ritual and religious dimension to the kamikaze programme with flyers taking part in ceremonies before their fateful missions. In these they shared ceremonial cups of sake of water, read ‘death poems’ and carried prayers and other items from their families.

The code of honour surrounding kamikaze pilots was so ingrained that those who failed in their missions through mechanical failure or simply being unable to go through with the act were stigmatised for years afterwards in the way defecting cult members face ostracism from their former friends who remain within these groups.

It is clear that cults are a gratuitous example of the behaviour that groups and apparently consenting, but coerced, individuals within them, are capable of.

But it is also apparent that, given the right conditions, such as isolation, message and mind control, propaganda and real or imagined external threats, that people are indeed capable of deeds that can be considered self-defeating or heinous.

It is also evident, from the other instalments in this series, that, when these organisations form, they can exert considerable influence on local or even global events often for ill, but sometimes for good.

Cults persist to this day and they hold sway in legislatures and executives that make decisions for vast swathes of the population, rather than just their own adherents.

This series or articles and videos has shown how just some of these have shaped our world throughout history from ancient to modern times.

Groupthink is a potent weapon in exerting control, and free inquiry must be an ever-present shield against the excesses of cults, and other echo chambers, that could normalise truly disturbing acts.

This post is the final part of a series on cults, their psychology and their influence throughout history.

Watch the rest of the related videos in my Cults Through History Series YouTube playlist

You may also want to check out my book ‘Cultocracy: How cults shaped our world’

Historic English cults that plotted, schemed, maybe murdered and could have made America

Not all historical cult movements were doomsday cults per se, but outlandish beliefs have led their adherents to come to grief.

One such figure was the explorer Percy Fawcett, who believed in the esoteric tenets of the Theosophy movement.

Theosophy was co-founded by the mystic Helena Blavatsky in 1875.

It fused beliefs from a number of religious and philosophical tracts including Qabbala, Sufism and Buddhism, as well as neo-Platonism and other philosophical traditions.

But one of the shibboleths of the movement was a belief in ancient lost cities.

Percy Fawcett got lost in dense jungle looking for one of these so-called civilisations in Mato Grosso, Brazil, in 1925.

The theoretical city was known as ‘Z’ and the hunt for this site most likely led to the deaths of Fawcett, his son and his son’s friend, who all disappeared in the jungle, never to be seen again.

However, the mystery persists and, in March 2004, The Observer newspaper reported that television director Misha Williams, who had studied Fawcett’s private papers, believed that he had not intended to return to Britain but rather meant to found a commune in the jungle based on the principles of Theosophy and the worship of his son Jack.

The fate of Fawcett’s party remains unknown to this day.

Well-heeled men at the heart and height of the British Empire were often involved in cultist activities in the 1800s, with London often a focal point of strange and potentially murderous rites.

Bram Stoker, author of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, along with a host of other leading literary lights, were rumoured members of, or had connections to, a secret society offshoot of the Freemasons, which formed in 1887.

Bram Stoker

The organisation, called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was a magical order, concerned with metaphysics, alchemy, the paranormal, geomancy and occultism.

Stoker’s former London home
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Order’s first permanent meeting place – the Isis-Urania Temple, in Kensington, London – opened in the spring of 1888, just months before the infamous Jack the Ripper or Whitechapel Murders began.

The murders have been suggested to have been ritualised killings inspired by a Masonic conspiracy by some writers in recent years.

The killings could also have been part of an artworld conspiracy, with the post-impressionist painter Walter Sickert being suggested as being Jack the Ripper by some authors.

Walter Sickert

My own book ‘The Inevitable Jack the Ripper’ dives more deeply into this suggestion.

The current site of the Isis-Urania Temple Is now an average cafe, close to the Olympia exhibition centre, which belies nothing of its otherwordly past.

Ultimately a schism emerged in the Order, with one faction gravitating around the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley.

Aleister Crowley in Order garb

What this illustrates is that this was very much the era of the secret society, of conspirators and cults.

It was an age where the wealthy and influential formed clubs and even pseudo-religious orders and carried out strange rites.

Slightly earlier an organisation existed called the Hellfire Club, which held lavish and depraved rituals in a man-made cave complex in the Chiltern Hills of West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

Members used prostitutes they referred to as “nuns” and dined on fine foods in large banquets held in the inner sanctum of the cavernous chalk construction.

The organisation was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer and included members such as ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’ artist William Hogarth, John Wilkes, John Montague and others.

The gatherings were said to have involved immoral acts and rumoured to have involve Satanic black masses.

The club motto was: “Fais ce que tu voudrais”, which translates to “do what thou wilt”.

The motto was later adopted by the aforementioned Aleister Crowley.

Dashwood’s club meetings often also included strange rituals, pornographic materials, and excessive drinking.

During its active period, up until the early 1760s, the club was known by a number of names, such as the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, the Order of Knights of West Wvcombe and The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe.

It was later dubbed the Hellfire Club and the caves are still there as a rather odd tourist attraction called the Hellfire Caves.

I visited the site in 2014 and was struck by the absurdity of the place. It had a certain magical quality, but also raised questions about the nature and intentions of those who gathered there, in ultra-secret conclaves.

The caves feature a number of mannequins, including one of American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who was rumoured to be a member of the club.

The suggestion that Franklin, a prominent Freemason who helped to launch the American Revolution, was present raises the prospect that this effective cult could have sparked what would become one of the most significant geopolitical developments in history – the foundation of the United States.

The first use of the term ‘Nosferatu’ for Vampires

The chilling 1922 silent film ‘Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror’, starring Max Schreck as the sinister Count Orlok, would perhaps be most people’s only encounter with the curious word for vampires.

But the term actually entered the consciousness of the English-speaking world in a book called ‘Transylvanian Superstitions’ by Emily Gerard in 1885.

The relevant section of the book mentions restless spirits, called Strigoi, which were described as “not malicious, but their appearance bodes no good, and may be regarded as omens of sickness or misfortune”.

It went on to add: “More decidedly evil, however, is the vampire, or nosferatu, in whom every Romanian peasant believes as firmly as he does in heaven or hell.

“There are two sorts of vampires – living and dead.

“The living vampire is in general the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate persons, but even a flawless pedigree will not ensure anyone against the intrusion of a vampire into his family vault, since every person killed by a nosferatu becomes likewise a vampire after death, and will continue to suck the blood of other innocent people till the spirit has been exorcised, either by opening the grave of the person suspected and driving a stake through the corpse, or firing a pistol shot into the coffin.

“In very obstinate cases it is further recommended to cut off the head and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing the ashes over the grave.

“That such remedies are often resorted to, even in our enlightened days, is a well-attested fact, and there are probably few Romanian villages where such has not taken place within the memory of the inhabitants.”

It goes almost without saying that this terrifying description has had a profound effect on the vampire mythos ever since.

It also served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1897 work ‘Dracula’.

Bram Stoker

Gerard’s fascinating book also went on to detail the so-called “first cousin to the vampire”, the werewolf under the name of the Prikolitsch.

The gods, devils and magic of Avebury stone circle

Avebury, the largest stone circle in the world, is one of the greatest marvels of prehistoric Britain.

And, as one might expect for such a stunning site, it has been subject to much superstition and religious devotion.

But, the sheer number of gods and devils associated with the Neolithic monument marks it out even when set against its neighbour – the more famous Stonehenge.

Built and much altered during the Neolithic period, roughly between 2850 BC and 2200 BC, the henge survives as a huge circular bank and ditch, encircling an area that includes part of Avebury village.

Within the henge, as previously mentioned, is the largest stone circle in Britain – originally of about 100 stones – which in turn encloses two smaller stone circles.

Many archaeologists have speculated about Avebury’s meaning and usage.

One such archaeologist, Aubrey Burl, believed that rituals would have been performed at Avebury by Neolithic peoples in order “to appease the malevolent powers of nature” that threatened their existence, such as the winter cold, death and disease.

But others have postulated more outlandish theories and it has been associated, often without evidence, with all manner of pseudohistorical and mythological events and characters.

These ideas have been derided by Burl as “more phony than factual”, but they provide a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of some observers when faced with awe-inspiring sites such as this.

William Stukeley is one such crank who, in the late 17th century, claimed the site was built by the ancient British Iron Age priestly caste known as the Druids.

This is despite the Druids being present around two millennia after the Neolithic.

Another theory espoused by The Reverend R. Weaver, in his The Pagan Altar (1840) argued that both Avebury and Stonehenge were built by visiting Phoenicians who, he claimed, first brought civilisation to Britain.

In 1872 James Ferguson theorised that the stones were erected in the early Mediaeval period as a commemoration of three mythical King Arthur’s final battle and that his slain warriors, the legendary Knights of the Round Table, were buried there.

W. S. Blacket went even further off the deep end and introduced Native American origins.

Blacket’s Researches into the Lost Histories of America, published in 1883, claimed tribesmen from the Appalachian Mountains traversed the Atlantic Ocean in ancient times and built the megalithic monuments of southern Britain.

So-called modern Druid Ross Nichols said Avebury was linked to Stonehenge by an astrological axis and that the nearby West Kennet Long Barrow was a symbolic monument to a Mother Goddess.

When the Anglo-Saxons invaded and settled what would become England they co-opted the incredible landscape into their own Germanic religion, which venerated the deities Thunor and Woden, who were cognate with the Norse gods Thor and Odin.

Sites close to Avebury were etymologically linked to Woden, including Wansdyke, Wodin’s Barrow and Waden Hill. They also ascribed another Neolithic site, Wayland’s Smithy, with their smithing god Wayland and believed the long barrow was the god’s forge.

Iron Age Britons living in the region would not have known when, why or by whom the monument had been constructed, perhaps having some vague understanding that it had been built by an earlier society or considering it to be the dwelling of a supernatural entity.

After the conversion of the island’s people to Christianity by the late Mediaeval period pre-Christian monuments and practices began to be viewed with fear and outright hostility and Avebury began to be associated with the Devil.

The largest stone at the southern entrance became known as the Devil’s Chair, the three stones that once formed the Beckhampton Cove became known as the Devil’s Quoits (referring to a parlour game where a hooped rope is thrown over upright blocks) and the stones inside the North Circle became known as the Devil’s Brand-Irons.

At some point in the early 14th century, zealous villagers began to tear down the monument by pulling down the large standing stones and burying them in ready-dug pits at the side.

This ISIS-like historical vandalism was thought to have been instigated by a rabble-rousing local priest, with suspects including Thomas Mayn or John de Hoby.

During the toppling of the stones, one of them (which was three metres tall and weighed 13 tonnes), collapsed on top of one of the vandals pulling it down, fracturing his pelvis and breaking his neck, crushing him to death.

His corpse was trapped in the hole that had been dug for the falling stone, and so the locals were unable to remove the body and offer him a Christian burial in a churchyard.

Archaeologists excavated his body in 1938 and found that he had been carrying a leather pouch, in which was found three silver coins dated to around 1320–25, as well as a pair of iron scissors and a lancet.

From these latter two items, they theorised that he had probably been a travelling barber-surgeon who journeyed between market towns offering his services, and that he just happened to be at Avebury when the stone-felling was in progress.

Fear of the Devil’s vengeance could have been the reason the stone-felling stopped shortly after the man’s death.

The event appears to have left an indelible mark on the minds of locals as records show that in the 18th and 19th centuries there were still legends being told in the community about a man being crushed by a falling stone.

In the 1930s archaeologist Alexander Keiller re-erected many of the stones.

Avebury has been adopted as a sacred site by many adherents to contemporary Pagan religions and alternative lifestyles and rituals are carried out on a regular basis.

Alongside its usage as a sacred site amongst Pagans, the site has become a hub for New Age beliefs, dowsers and so-called psychics.