Stories hold such power and fascination for me. I love reading them and I love listening to them.
For me, constellation is a way to access the hidden stories and the silenced voices of the ancestors. It is all too easy to accept a version of events that is passed down from one generation to the next, from one person to the next, but with each telling the story can become that little more sanitised, a little more palatable.
The much quoted phrase ‘History is written by the victors’ is relevant here, and even this quote is a dilution. It is often attributed to Churchill, but it was used centuries previously in France and Italy, changing a little bit each time to suit the occasion.
A story is generally told from one perspective and that perspective may not be the truth, it may be skewed. When we share or tell stories from a collective narrative we can shape how events are remembered.
Take a collective event like WWI. It was the war that was fought on the Western front, but what about the Eastern? Was it the war where young men were proudly fighting for their countries? Or was it the slaughter of a generation by the rich elite? Or was it the war that was won by the American intervention?
Those are all collective narratives, collective memories of a massive tangle of individual experiences and stories. But what about the individual stories within the collective tale? Where are the separated loves, the grieving mothers, the orphans, the dead? Their untold stories are the ones that tug at the edges of our consciousness within our individual family and ancestral fields. Those are the silent voices that come forward when we explore a collective theme within the constellation context.
The collective constellations are where the root entanglements of fear come from for each of us individually.
Certain points in history are captivating for me.
I am sure we all have different points in time that we are drawn to in certain ways and for unique reasons. One of the core themes that runs through the points in time that I am personally drawn to is the persecution of the vulnerable, the persecution of the innocents, and that can take many different forms. I have walked through old battlefield sites, concentration camps, visited glens that were cleared, and I have walked through dungeons where souls were enslaved. These places of collective trauma show up time and again with the clients that I work with and for me there is something sacred in physically witnessing the land where the stories and the silenced voices come from, along with the stories still waiting to be told. Sometimes these stories can be sitting right under your nose waiting to be noticed.
Last year a topic that I had touched on briefly in a constellation context several years ago, really grabbed a hold of my heart. It was the persecution of witches, more specifically the persecution of witches in Scotland.
It came to my attention again because of a recent study undertaken by the University of Edinburgh. They have a research project dedicated to exploring and documenting the persecution of witches in Scotland and the unknown narrative that surrounds it.
I only happened upon it when they published an interactive online map where you can search for what is known of the stories of these men, women and children. When I went on to have a look I realised the scale of the persecution in Scotland – and it shocked me.
When I think about the persecution of witches the place that comes to mind is Salem in Massachusetts or maybe some of the witch trials in Spain. I knew that it had happened in Scotland too, but I really had no concept of the scale.
Approximately 4000 people were accused of witchcraft in Scotland between the 16th and 18th century. The persecution of witches in Scotland was five times higher than anywhere else in Europe. This land holds the imprint of the accusations, betrayals, persecutions, deaths, and fears of this period of history.
The past lives inside of us, our ancestors and predecessors and their choices flow through our blood. Their stories can be imprinted on our souls in such a way that we unconsciously follow in their footsteps, seeking to fulfil their hopes and dreams and holding them tightly as if they were our own hopes and dreams.
To put this into context, in Scotland there were an estimated 4000 known trials and from their research Edinburgh university have estimated that approximately 85% of them were women, and an estimated 65% of people accused were killed. In Salem there were 200 trials and 20 executions.
The numbers in Scotland are startlingly high in comparison. Some of the stories such as the North Berwick witches or the Paisley witches are more widely known, at least in Scotland, with greater detail written about them. But these are the exception rather than the norm. For most the details are sparse: name; place of trial; accuser and accusations; method of death etc.
Patterns appear in the research, clusters of women accusing other women after they themselves have been accused. Or after a confession has been extracted following an ‘inquisition’ where methods of torture were commonly utilised.
The political structure of the time and the beliefs of King James certainly fuelled those high numbers in Scotland. I was compelled to look beyond that. To try to uncover some of those silenced voices of those souls who were accused, taken from their families and homes, and in many cases executed. I shared this with my friend Oona Mcfarlane, a firewalk instructor and practitioner, and we decided that constellating the silenced stories, along with the reclaiming of the sacredness of the fire through a firewalk ceremony, would be a significant way to bear witness. Witnessing not just those woven into the persecution within the ancestral field but also their descendants in the present.
Why is this still so silent?
We chose two separate stories, one from the North of Scotland and one from the South. There were differences in the root causes of the accusations in that time period. The general collective beliefs encompassing spiritual and religious practices in that times were different to the general collective beliefs held today.
Magic and a belief in magic and witchcraft was commonplace then. It was normal to seek help from a ‘witch’ for ill-health, bad luck, poor crops and everything in between.
Some individuals who were accused of witchcraft had notes in the court record such as:
Observations of moon
Familiar (e.g. hare or cat)
This was the narrative of the first story that we chose of Jean Thomson from Kircudbright, who was executed in 1659. Others were accused of witchcraft because of a dispute with a neighbour, a real or imagined slight or, in many cases, simply for being different.
For example, a woman that owned her own land, someone who looked different, or for whatever reason was perceived as ‘other’. This was the fate of the woman we chose for our second story, Jenny Horne from Dornoch.
The themes that emerged in the first constellation of Jean Thomson were deeply moving and significant but there was something else present within the Jenny Horne story.
With Jean, patterns around the separation of mothers and children were very prominent. The shame and grief of the husbands and fathers, their impotence in the face of the Church and the ‘witch finder’ and the ‘machine’ supported by the system of governance that was started following any accusation. Jean Thomson plead not guilty. The provost of Kirkcudbright testified in her case. She had been previously censured by the Kirk. She was accused by Janet Miller a confessing witch who had denounced her.
The spreading of accusations from one family to the next, as they each buckled under the pressure of the ‘witch finder’s’ interrogation was common during this period.
The most striking parts were the inheritance of the trauma and the impact on the descendants in the present. The need to keep running in order to be safe and the need to be silent in order to be safe.
And for those descendants linked to the accusers, the need to uphold persecution in order to be safe in the present. The entanglements within the constellation did not release until the original accuser could look at the root of her own guilt. And it wasn’t the guilt of accusing another mother or woman in her hometown of being a witch, it was the guilt of not being able to keep her own child safe. The belief that if she accused someone else then her daughter would be released and allowed to live. That unfortunately wasn’t the case, for her or the many others.
The power of witnessing in constellation is huge.
It is ‘seeing’ an entanglement that begins the process of disentangling. There are times in the constellation setting where you step into the stories that are known and familiar. They may not have been seen by the individuals in question, but they have been ‘seen’, they are ‘known’ on some level of consciousness. And then there are times when you set up the created constellation field and step into the ‘known’ parts in order to discern the ‘unknown’ and the ‘missing’, and it feels different. It feels different because it hasn’t been seen. There is the sense that whoever is ‘looking’ is the first in their line or field to actively choose to ‘see’, to actively choose to witness what happened. The constellation for Jenny Horne was one such constellation.
We picked it for a number of reasons. Firstly, for its geographical location, Jenny Horne was tried in the north of Scotland, in Dornoch. We also chose it because Jenny was the last known and recorded official trial and execution of a witch in Scotland. We also chose her because the story stirred something within each of us.
In preparing for the day we discovered that ‘Jenny Horne’ probably wasn’t even the woman in question’s name. It had become the practice, particularly in the north of Scotland, to refer to any woman accused of witchcraft as ‘Jenny Horne’. Their names were taken from them too.
Jenny and her daughter were arrested in Dornoch in Sutherland in 1727 and imprisoned on the accusations of her neighbours. Jenny Horne was showing signs of senility, and her daughter had a deformity of her hand. The neighbours accused Jenny of having used her daughter as a pony to ride to the Devil, where she had her shod by him. The trial was conducted very quickly; the sheriff had judged both guilty and sentenced them to be burned at the stake. Unusually for the time she was burned alive. There are records of her last words as she was led to her death as being “What a bonny blaze”. It is likely that Jenny Horne was suffering from dementia and it was this that lead to her accusation. She didn’t understand what was happening to her.
Her daughter managed to escape, but Jenny was stripped, smeared with tar, feathered, and paraded through the town on a barrel and burned alive. Nine years after her death the witchcraft acts were repealed in Scotland.
The represented spaces included within the constellation were:
Descendants in present of victims
Descendants in present of accusers
Descendants in present of witchfinders
It was very emotional constellation to witness. The threads that had been present in the previous story were very much evident again.
- The need to run in order to be safe.
- The need to separate and be alone in order to be safe.
- The need to be silent in order to be safe.
These threads were passed from one generation to the next for centuries. The representative for the ‘Church’ was initially firm in their beliefs that what was happening, and had happened, was the right thing. They were refusing to acknowledge the other representatives within the created constellation field aside from the ‘witchfinder’ representative.
However, as the constellation unfolded the ‘Church’ distanced themselves from the ‘witchfinder’. At one point the ‘Church’ said “No, this is not in my name.” as the ‘witchfinder’ became more and more animated with persecution. This is perhaps an indication of the beginnings of a move away from the sanctioned witch trials, the witchcraft act was repealed 9 years after Jenny Horne was executed.
There was constant movement within the created constellation field. This is an indication of unacknowledged inherited guilt. It isn’t surprising, particularly in the Jenny Horne constellation, as we are already looking at 164 years of legalised persecution at that point. There would already be transgenerational inheritance of the trauma of persecution. Generation after generation who had experienced directly or inherited the need to run, to escape, to be silent, and to become an unseen woman.
What was interesting was how strong this response was within the descendants, combined with a resistance or fear to ‘see’ the victims, trapping the descendants in the entangled trauma of their ancestors past.
There was an immediate sense of tension and fear within the created constellation space. The confusion and terror were palpable within the Jenny Horne representative. I also included further representatives for other women who had also been tried under the name of Jenny Horne, this eased the terror somewhat for the original representative but each of the ‘Jenny Horne’ women were attempting to hide, to seek safety, and to remain unseen within the created constellation space.
The turning points within the unfolding constellation came with the inclusion of the descendants in the present. And it was the inclusion of the descendants in the present of all representations:
- Those who had accused
- The accused
- Persecuted and executed
- Those who had escaped
The ‘witchfinder’ was fuelled by the unrest in the descendants in the present, each one of them could not or would not acknowledge any of the ‘Jenny Horne’ representatives or the ‘dead’ within the field.
There was significant resistance with the descendants of the ‘accusers’ and ‘witchfinder’ in particular. They were not ‘seeing’ the dead or the victims. Instead they vacillated between the ‘witchfinder’ and the descendants of the persecuted and executed “I didn’t do this. This wasn’t me. Please forgive me.”
They were asking the descendants, and eventually directly asking the dead along with the ‘Jenny Horne’ representatives, to hold their guilt. They still weren’t actually connecting with the dead or the victims, they were instead attempting to absolve their own guilt rather than ‘see’ and witness the trauma. This in itself is another form of persecution, and further entangled the victims.
I have observed this response in other collective focused constellations I have facilitated involving the theme of persecution, such as the historical cost of belonging for those who were enslaved and enslavers, or Native American genocides.
The weight of the guilt and the pain, the trauma itself, is so great that a belief exists that to even see it is dangerous. Instead the descendants in the present can often be drawn to attempt be absolve the guilt. They ask the victims and descendants of the victims to hold the pain instead of seeing and witnessing themselves.
This is an all too common response in victim and perpetrator patterns generally. It is easier to focus on the perpetration and on the fight, it takes courage and compassion to sit with and actually see the victims, to sit with and bear witness to the souls who have suffered, but to have to courage to do exactly that is what moves the entrenched entanglements. It is significantly harder within the collective context.
It was only after the descendants in the present slowly began to ‘see’ the dead, the persecuted, the victims, that the entangled field slowly began to move. Only when they looked outside of their need to blame the ‘Church’ and the ‘witchfinder’, when they stepped outside of the need to perpetrate the perpetrators that the field moved. I included a separate representative for the descendants of ‘those who chose not to see’, the silent witnesses of the original trauma, in an effort to move the entanglement.
For a significant period there was a ‘standoff’ between that descendant, the witchfinder and the church. The descendant of ‘those who chose not to see’ were aggresiviely engaged with the witchfinder, angry at what had happened and yet they too still chose not to see the dead or the victims.
Their anger was related to how difficult it was for them to be a descendant of such perpetration, there was no compassion whatsoever for the victims. (This is also an entanglement that I have witnessed in several other collective constellations and has its roots in a particular inherited triangulation pattern connected to the cost of belonging.) It is easy to look to the fight, the violence or to the beliefs held as justification, it is hard to see the vulnerable, the victims, the innocence lost, those souls become unseen and the patterns perpetuate.
Throughout this standoff the dead had been calling out:
I died. Please see me.
I died. Please see me.
There was no response from any of the representatives in the standoff, each of the Jenny Horne representatives were also trapped in their need to hide and escape, they too could not see the dead.
This entanglement highlights the inheritance of the shame of the persecution and the belief that the persecuted and executed need to stay separate to keeps the ‘others’ safe. The severing of the bond between loved ones, mothers and children, the seen and the unseen.
This particular entanglement highlights the cruelty of the trauma in the moment but also the devastation for the descendants whose emotional relationships are tarnished by this need to be unseen, silent, running and alone in order to be safe.
When I gently guided those descendants to sit with the dead the created constellation field stilled. The silence was heavy but finally those descendants were able to sit with the dead.
From their heart they were able to say “I see you”. They didn’t ask for their ancestors’ guilt to be absolved or excused, they simply said “I see you”. The unseen were seen. The silence began to break, little waves of movement rippled through the field.
The original Jenny Horne from this story looked to her own daughter who had escaped. Her daughter finally met her eyes, she had been running and hiding throughout the constellation. Several of the women who were representing Jenny Horne moved around them and the silence broke.
The descendants of those who were executed were able to say to the dead and the victims:
I have been holding your unlived years
I feel the desecration here
I am claiming back the sacred
Jenny Horne screamed. An un-screamed scream was heard.
Everything within the constellation stopped to witness.
There was more than one voice held within that scream. The silence of countless women was broken too. I stopped the constellation shortly after to allow for the movements to settle within the field and the representatives.
Collective constellations are somewhat different to individual focused constellations. As is so often the way with a collective memory or story, care has to be taken with the constellation field to bring each of the representatives back into their own individual fields of influence. I decided to do this by way of an individual exercise within the group setting.
Usually I work with pairs or groups of three to drop back down into the individual spaces. But this time I asked each person present to breathe into their own place, their land, their name. And when they were ready, to step forward into the working constellation space. To slowly and gently walk through the field space and say to each individual they encountered and connected with “I am not Jenny Horne, I am (their name)”. To maintain eye contact if they could and to listen as the other person spoke the words to them.
It was a powerful way to honour the individuals present, the persecuted individuals in the story, their collective and ancestral connection to that, as well as Jenny Horne herself.
We moved into the evening and we ended with a firewalk, reclaiming something sacred back from the desecration.
This was the last in person workshop that I facilitated before the world changed with the pandemic and lockdown. It was somewhat surreal to go from such a powerfully intense group experience to another shared collective experience of a pandemic.
The ripples in the field are still unfolding for many who were present. Jenny Horne has stayed in our hearts and memories. I have noticed the threads revealed in the workshop, and other collective themed constellations, show up in the individual sessions that I am facilitating throughout this time.
Inherited collective memories of trauma relating to persecution, famine, and migration are reanimating as we move through this present day trauma. I’m noticing where we are individually and collectively choosing to see or not see the victims of this pandemic in the present. Now still, it is all too easy to go into the distraction of the ‘fight’ rather than sit with and see the vulnerable and those that suffer.
‘Jenny Horne’ as a collective dislocated memory has been very present in some of these sessions, the representation of a woman accused, tortured and executed for being ‘other’ – losing her name, her place, her safety, her life.
I am choosing to remember her and all of those displaced souls that are in resonance with her story.
What happens for you when you say:
I am not Jenny Horne
I am _________
I am not Jenny Horne but I do choose to see her
Try to gently sit with the words and the energy in your body.
Do you choose to see?