Among the magic phenomena connected with witchcraft, none is more curious than the so-called witches’ sabbath.
This is the formal meeting of all who are in league with Satan, for swearing allegiance to him, to enjoy unholy delights, and to introduce neophytes.
That no such meeting ever really took place, need hardly be stated. The so-called sabbaths were somnambulistic visions, appearing to poor deluded creatures while in a state of trance, which they had produced by narcotic ointments, vile decoctions, or even mere mental effort. For the most skilful among the witches could cause themselves to fall into the Witches’ Sleep, as they called this trance, whenever they chose; others had to submit to tedious and often abominable ceremonies.
The knowledge of simples, which was then very general, was of great service to cunning impostors; thus, it was well known that certain herbs, like aconite, produce in sleep the sensation of flying, and they were, of course, diligently employed. Hyosciamus and Taxus, hypericum and asafoetida were great favourites, and physicians made experiments with these salves to try their effect upon the system. Laguna, for instance, physician to Pope Julius III., once applied an ointment which he had obtained from a wizard, to a woman, who thereupon fell into a sleep of thirty-six hours’ duration, and upon being aroused, bitterly complained of his cruelty in tearing her from the embraces of her husband.
The Marquis d’Agent tells us in his _Lettres Juifs_ , that the celebrated Gassendi discovered a drug which a shepherd used to take whenever he wished to go to a witches’ assembly. He won the man’s confidence, and, pretending to join him in his journey, persuaded him to swallow the medicine in his presence. After a few minutes, the shepherd began to stagger like an intoxicated person, and then fell into profound sleep, during which he talked wildly. When he roused himself again many hours afterwards, he congratulated the physician on the good reception he had met at Satan’s court, and recalled with delight the pleasant things they had jointly seen and enjoyed! The symptoms of the witches’ sleep differ, however; while the latter is, in some cases, deep and unbroken, in other cases the sleepers become rigid and icy cold, or they are subject to violent spasms and utter unnatural sounds in abundance.
The sleep differs, moreover, from that of possessed people in the consciousness of bodily pain which bewitched people retain, while the possessed become insensible. Invariably the impression is produced that they meet kindred spirits at some great assembly, but the manner of reaching it differs greatly. Some go on foot; but as Abaris already rode on a spear given to him by Apollo (Iamblichus De Vita, Pyth. c. 18), others ride on goats.
In Germany a broomstick, a club, or a distaff, became suitable vehicles, provided they had been properly anointed.
In Scotland and Sweden, the chimney is the favourite road, in other countries no such preference is shown over doors and windows. The expedition, however joyous it may be, is always very fatiguing, and when the revellers awake they feel like people who have been dissipated. The meetings differ in locality according to size: whole provinces assemble on high, isolated mountains, among which the Brocken, in the Hartz Mountains, is by far the most renowned; smaller companies meet near gloomy churches or under dark trees with wide-spreading branches.
In Italy, the witches loved to assemble under the famous walnut tree near Benevent, which was already to the Longobards an object of superstitious veneration, since here, in ancient times, the old divinities were worshipped, and afterwards the _strighe_ were fond of meeting. In France they had a favourite resort on the Puy de Dôme,near Clermont, and in Spain on the sands near Seville, where the _hechizeras_ held their sabbaths. The Hekla, of Iceland, also passes with the Scandinavians for a great meeting-place of witches, although, strangely enough, the inhabitants of the island have no such tradition.
It is, however, clear that in all countries where witchcraft prospered, the favourite places of meeting were always the same as those to which, in ancient times, the heathens had made pilgrimages in large numbers, in order to perform their sacrifices, and to enjoy their merry-makings.
In precisely the same manner the favourite seasons for these ghastly meetings correspond almost invariably with the times of high festivals held in heathen days, and hence, they were generally adopted by the early Christians, with the feast and saints’ days of Christendom. Thus, the old Germans observed, when they were still pagans, the first of May for two reasons: as a day of solemn judgment, and as a season for rejoicing, during which prince and peasant joined in celebrating the return of summer with merry songs and gay dances around the May-pole.
The witches were nothing loth to adopt the day for their own festivities also, and added it to the holidays of St. John the Baptist and St. Bartholomew, on which, in like manner, anciently the holding of public courts had brought together large assemblies. The meetings, however, must always fall upon a Thursday, from a determined, though yet unexplained association of witchcraft with the old German god of thunder, Donar, who was worshipped on the Blocksberg, and to whom a goat was sacrificed–whence also the peculiar fondness of witches for that animal. The hours of meeting are invariably from eleven o’clock at night to one or two in the morning.
The assembly consists, according to circumstances, of a few hundred or of several thousands, but the female sex always largely prevails. For this fact, the famous text-book of judges of witchcraft, the _Malleus_, assigned not less than four weighty reasons. Women, it said, are more apt to be addicted to the fearful crime than men because, in the first place, they are more credulous; secondly, in their natural weakness they are more susceptible; thirdly, they are more imprudent and rash, and hence always ready to consult the Devil, and fourthly and mainly, _femina_ comes from _fe_, faith and _minus_, less, hence they have less faith!
The guests appear generally in their natural form, but at times they are represented as assuming the shape of various animals; the Devil’s followers having a decided preference for goats and for monkeys, although the latter is a passion of more recent date. The crowd is naturally in a state of incessant flowing and ebbing; the constant coming and going, crowding and pressing admits of not a moment’s quiet and even here it is proven that the wicked have neither rest nor peace.
Among this crowd flocks are seen, consisting of toads and watched over by boys and girls; in the centre sits Satan on a stone, draped in weird majesty, with terrible but indistinct features, and uttering short commands with an appalling voice of unnatural and unheard of music. A queen in great splendour may sit by his side, promoted to the throne from a place among the guests. Countless demons, attending to all kinds of extraordinary duties, surround their master; or, dash through the crowd scattering indecent words and gestures in all directions.
English witches meet, also, innumerable kittens on the Sabbath and show the scars of wounds inflicted by the malicious animals. Every visitor must pay his homage to the lord of the feast, which is done in an unmentionable manner; and yet they receive nothing in return–according to their unanimous confessions–except unfulfilled promises and delusive presents. Even the dishes on the table are but shams; there is neither salt nor bread to be found there. They are bound, besides, to pledge themselves to the performance of a certain number of wicked works, which are distributed over the week, so that the first days are devoted to ordinary sins and the last to crimes of special horror. Music of surpassing weirdness is heard on all sides, and countless couples whirl about in restless, obscene dances; the couples joining back to back and trying in vain to see each other’s faces. Very often young children are brought up by their mothers to be presented to the Master; when this is done, they are set to attend the flocks of toads till the ninth year, when they are called up by the Queen to abjure their Christian faith and are regularly enrolled among witches.
The descriptions of minor details vary, of course according to the individual dispositions of the accused, whose confessions are invariably uniform as to the facts stated heretofore. The coarser minds naturally see nothing but the grossest indecency and the vilest indulgences, while to more refined minds the apparent occurrences appear in a light of greater delicacy; they hear sweet music and witness nothing but gentle affection and brotherly love. But in all cases these witches’ sabbaths become a passion with the poor deluded creatures; they enjoy there a paradise of delight, –whether they really indulge in sensual pleasure or surrender mind and will so completely to the unhallowed power that they cease to wish for anything else, and are plunged in vague, unspeakable pleasure. And yet not even the simple satisfaction of good looks has granted them; witches are as ugly as angels are fair; they emit an evil odour and inspire others with unconquerable repugnance.
How exclusively all these descriptions of witches‘ sabbaths have their origin in the imagination of the deluded women is seen from the fact that they vary consistently with the prevailing notions of those by whom they are entertained; with coarse peasants, the meetings are rude feasts full of obscene enjoyments; with noble knights, they become the roving’s of the wild huntsman, or a hellish court under the guise of a Venus’ mountain; with ascetic monks and nuns, a subterranean convent filled with vile blasphemies of God and the saints. This only is common to all such visions, that they are always conceived in a spirit of bitter antagonism to the Church: all the doctrines not only but also the ceremonies of the latter are here travestied.
The sabbath has its masses, but the host is desecrated, its holy water obtained from the lord of the feast;
its host and its candles are black, and the _Ite missa est_ of the dismissing priest is changed into: “Go to the Devil!” Here, also, confession is required; but, the penitent confesses having omitted to do evil and being guilty of occasional acts of mercy and goodness; the penalty imposed is to neglect one or the other of the twelve commandments.
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