English Legends: The Strange Life of Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton was one of the most famous soothsayers in Britain and a familiar figure in English folklore and traditions. Stories about her were published in chap-books from the middle of the 17th century onward. These were usually embellished and exaggerated but succeeded in capturing the public’s attention even though many of her prophecies only appeared after her death. 

She was believed to have been born in the time of King Henry VII, in Knaresborough, Yorkshire in 1488 and named Ursula Sontheil.  There are several variant spellings of her surname. Her mother was believed to have been a poor single girl about fifteen years old named Agatha. According to legend she gave birth to her during a violent thunderstorm in a cave near the River Nidd. Despite being forced to appear before the local magistrate Agatha refused steadfastly to name the baby’s father. She appeared to have no family or friends to support her and lived alone in the cave bringing her baby daughter up the best she could. Eventually after two years the Abbot of Beverley heard of her plight and she was taken to a  distant nunnery. Baby Ursula was taken in by a local family but in the nunnery Agatha lost contact with her daughter and later died. As an adult, Ursula became known as Mother Shipton and the cave became known as Mother Shipton’s Cave and today is a popular tourist attraction.

Baby Ursula

According to tradition, Ursula was a very unattractive baby to such an extent that no one wanted to nurse her.  Eventually a foster mother was found who lived on the edge of Knaresborough.  Strange things happened around baby Ursula.  One legend tells how one morning her foster mother discovered she and her crib missing. She roused several neighbors who set about searching the home for clues to her whereabouts.  According to this legend the neighbors were attacked by strange ape-like imps and other unearthly entities that pricked and scratched them. Eventually, to the shock of all, baby Ursula was found still in her crib but suspended in mid-air halfway up the chimney. Eerie events of this kind happened on many occasions as she grew up.  Plates, crockery and ornaments would fly around the room and furniture would slide across the floor to a different position.  As she grew older her power of prophecy began to develop. 

Marriage

Unfortunately for Ursula, as she grew into a woman her looks did not improve and all descriptions of her are terribly unflattering.  With a thin and sharp face covered in warts and a large hooked nose she became the archetypal image of a witch. Despite her unfortunate appearance she was said to have married a carpenter from York named Tobias Shipton at the age of twenty four. Sadly, he died a few years later and the couple had no children. 

To  earn a living she appears to have taken on a role as a cunning woman and made potions and remedies out of herbs and flowers to alleviate health problems for local people.   She began making  prophecies and her fame spread far and wide and she became known as Mother Shipton.

Her Prophecies

There were many prophecies attributed to her including  events like the Spanish Armada in 1588,  English Civil War from  1642–1651,  Great Fire of London of 1666 and many other important events.  She was said to have prophesied her own death that occurred in 1561 at the age of seventy three.  One of her alleged prophecies that did not come true was the end of the world,

“The world to an end shall come

In eighteen hundred and eighty one.”

Like other prophets her predictions were placed in verses, rhymes and riddles that were difficult to interpret and ambiguous.  However, this technique did make them suitable for many  kinds of events and situations that arose. 

False Prophecies, Fake News

It was many years after her death when the first publications in the form of books and pamphlets appeared in 1641 and later in 1684. It is believed that the writers of these publications were creative in the use of facts and events and many events that happened after her death  were made to look like she had  predicted them.   

It may be that predictions sell and what is novel and unusual can strike a chord with the public who become eager for more information.  This increases the chances of writers and publishers making money which increases their creative juices to flow, while inventing new stories to sell to the gullible public.  Fake news is not a modern invention!

Richard Head who edited the 1684 publications was believed to have created her life story and the  descriptions of her on existing legend and folklore. This had been passed on orally and possibly twisted, embellished and exaggerated along the way. Although this makes it difficult to get to know the real person, or even if there was a real person behind the legends.

Mother Shipton’s Cave

The cave where Ursula was born and later lived is now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, or sometimes Old Mother Shiptons’s Cave.  It is situated near the River Nidd at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. Close by is the Petrifying Well that has been visited by paying sightseers  since 1630 making it the oldest entrance-charging tourist attraction in England.  The water in the well is high in carbonate and sulphate and immersed objects  eventually become encrusted in stone.

Mother Shipton’s Legacy

We will probably never know the real truth and full story of Mother Shipton or Ursula Sontheil and very often the truth turns out more interesting than the fiction. In many ways she is the archetypal witch with her strange and  lonely ways and her unfortunate physical appearance. All around the British Isles there are cases from history of women such as her who made a meager living from selling potions, telling fortunes or perhaps delivering babies. Sometimes they were known as cunning women or perhaps the local wise-woman.  Although they often lived on the edge of society they performed important roles that could not be done by those within.  In many cases the different behaviour they displayed might see them as being part of the autistic spectrum or perhaps some psychological disorder.  Nevertheless in her life, she seems to have achieved a reasonable degree of success with stories of how she could find lost or stolen objects and predict the future with some success. It seems that after her death her reputation was exaggerated and embellished by others to suit their own purposes and some scholars doubt she ever existed.

© 13/05/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright 13th May 2020, zteve t evans

Greek Mythology: Cassandra – the Gift and the Curse of Apollo

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan [Public domain] (cropped)

Cassandra

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a prophetess who could accurately foretell the future but was never believed.  This talent had been a gift from the god Apollo but when she rejected his advances he cursed her so that her predictions were never believed. She was also known as Kassandra and occasionally Alexandra.   Her parents were King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy and she had a twin brother named Helenus. Paris, whose abduction of Helen of Sparta helped spark the Trojan War was one of her brothers, as was the Trojan hero and war leader Hector. According to legend although very beautiful and intelligent she was regarded as being insane.

The Gift and the Curse

She served as a priestess of Apollo and took a vow of chastity swearing to remain a virgin for life.  In some versions of her story Apollo seeking to win her love gave her the power of prophecy on the condition that she bestowed her favors upon him.  However, after receiving the gift she went back on her word. With the gift of a divine power already given Apollo could not take it away so he added a curse to it. Although she would predict the future accurately her predictions would never be believed. In some later versions she receives her prophecies from a snake that whispered to her as she slept in the temple. 

The Gift of Prophecy

The gift of prophecy should have brought her great esteem and reverence among her people but the curse of Apollo turned it into a terrible blight on her life.  Although her predictions were always correct no one would believe her.  She was forced to watch her predictions unfold unable to do anything to alleviate their consequences until it was too late.  Her family and the Trojan people regarded her as a madwoman and a liar.  She was locked up on the orders of her father and her wardress was ordered to report all of her prophecies to him.

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan [Public domain]

Helenus

Cassandra had a twin brother named Helenus whom she taught how to foretell the future.  His prophecies were just as accurate as his sister’s but where her’s were disbelieved his were generally believed. She had predicted the death of her mother and had foreseen that the abduction of Helen by Paris would lead to the Trojan War warning him not to go to Sparta.  When Paris returned with Helen, Cassandra attacked her tearing away Helen’s golden veil and tearing at her hair because she knew her arrival in Troy heralded the ultimate destruction of the city.

Cassandra’s Prophecies

Cassandra had correctly prophesied the fall of Troy warning of the Trojan Horse concealing Greek soldiers. She also correctly foretold of the ten year journey and the return  of Odysseus. She predicted how her cousin Aeaneas would escape the destruction of Troy and is descendants  Romulus and Remus would found Rome. 

After the Greeks had captured the city she was taken by Agamemnon as one of the spoils of war.  Despite being consistently accurate with her predictions she continued to be disregarded and ignored to the cost of others and herself. She  forewarned him of a plot by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, to both kill him and her but he ignored her and both were murdered.  

The Love of Coroebus

Coroebus, the son of King Mygdon of Phrygia fought on the side of the Trojans because he was in love with Cassandra. During the Sack of Troy he persuaded some of the Trojan defenders such as Aeneas to disguise themselves by wearing the enemy armour.  He tried to defend Cassandra from rape by Ajax the Lesser but was killed in her defence.

Othryoneus

Another suitor mentioned in the Illiad, by Homer was Othryoneus from Cabesos.  He took part in the war on the side of the Trojans solely with the purpose of marriage to Cassandra which her father, King Priam had agreed to.  However, he was killed by Idomeneus in the Battle of Ships who cruelly mocked him as he lay dying.

Cassandra in Greek Drama

There are several versions of the story of Cassandra in Greek drama.  Quintus Smyrnaeus in The Fall of Troy, tells how Cassandra desperately tried to warn the Trojans of the danger presented by the Trojan Horse during a victory feast over the Greeks.  The Trojans refused to believe her. In desperation she grabbed a burning torch and an axe and ran towards the wooden horse intent on destroying it and the Greeks hidden inside. The disbelieving Trojans stopped her sealing their own fate.  The Greeks inside the wooden horse could see and hear what was happening but would have been helpless should the horse have been torched. They were greatly relieved she failed but alarmed she had so quickly and easily realized their plan.

Carlo Raso from Naples, Italy [Public domain]

Nevertheless, when the time was right the Greeks put their plan into action and caught the Trojans by surprise.  As they took control of the city Cassandra sought sanctuary in the temple of Athena but was followed by Ajax the Lesser.  Coroebus tried to defend her but was killed and although she embraced the feet of the statue of Athena begging her protection Ajax dragged her from it and raped her.  According to some accounts despite the goddess Athena’s support for the Greeks she found this act by Ajax abhorrent and the cheeks of the statue flushed red in anger.  Tears fell from her eyes which she averted so that she would not see the violation and made a sound that caused the floor to tremble and shake. The goddess was enraged and demanded the Greeks punish Ajax.

Despite Odysseus calling for him to be stoned to death the Greeks would not carry it out because Ajax clung to the feet of Athena.  However Athena was furious at the Greeks for not bringing Ajax to justice and sought the help of Poseidon and Zeus. As the victorious Greeks sailed home from Troy Poseidon sent storms and strong winds which sank much of the fleet and Athena herself killed Ajax.

The Cursed Chest

According to some sources Cassandra had left a cursed chest in Troy intended for the first Greek who should open it.  The chest contained an image of Dionysus which had been created by Hephaestus and given to the Trojans by Zeus. The chest was given to Eurypylus, a Greek war lord as part of his reward for helping fight the Trojans.  When he opened it he saw the image and was instantly struck by madness

The Cassandra Syndrome

It was said that when she died her soul went into to the Elysian Fields the resting place of good and worthy souls.  She also became a figure of epic tradition and tragedy. The Cassandra Syndrome is a term named after her because it applies to predictions of doom by some oracle or prophet that are disbelieved and rejected when made but later prove to be true.  It is a form of psychological denial blocking out bad, unwelcome news or inevitable outcomes. This leaves the seer in the dilemma of knowing that something good or bad will happen but powerless to influence the outcome because no one will act upon their prediction to change or minimise the impact of the prediction.

© 15/01/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 15th, 2020 zteve t evans