THE WITCHES SABBATH BY G.L. DITSON 1871
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In an article of mine on "Our Cat," which sometime since appeared in this monthly, I mentioned the Witches Sabbath. I wish now to write something more about it, for it is a subject not only full of the marvellous, but environed with a weird grace and a wild entanglement of fiction and truth, which makes one fancy that seriousness had donned bells and cap, that judges had laid aside their grave wigs and graver countenances, and that nature had parted with its divinity and descended into the, arena of the tricky quadrumania.
Please indulge me here in a few observations about the meaning and uses of the word witch.
Webster, in his large dictionary, has given it one definition, to which all learned men, and most of the intelligent people of this nineteenth century, will not only take exception, bat wonder that a scholar of so much distinction should have allowed his religious education to lead him into such a glaring absurdity. Our Bible has the word in a number of places. Both in Exodus and Deuteronomy the Hebrew is rendered Witch; but in the Jew's version one is witch and the other is conjurer. William Smith, in his valuable Dictionary of the Bible, gives it as enchanter. The one most familiar to us is that used in reference to the woman of Endor. Here the word is employed, and this means a diviner. But whatever signification we may now give it, it doubtless meant a person who consulted the spirits of the departed; as the diviner employed by Saul when desirous of talking with the dead Samuel. It had no reference, however, I fancy, to a sort of hag (as I was led to suppose when a boy), but most likely to some very sensitive and delicately organized creature; to an innocent and lovable person, perhaps, endowed with peculiar gifts or faculties, not comprehended by the multitude.
Our witches sabbath, nevertheless, may lead my young readers to suppose that my youthful impressions regarding witches were not wholly unfounded; still it should be borne in mind that words are often misapplied; and while great evil was wrought and great mischief done in France (as there was in Salem, Mass.) by overheated and distorted imaginations, a vast deal more evil and mischief was caused by wicked men and women, who—under the garb of religion and justice, or through a mistaken zeal for the public weal—sought to destroy their enemies, or, in some cases, the supposed enemies of Christianity.
In the most remote ages there existed a profound reverence for nature. The day's great luminary, the starred canopy at night, the queenly moon, the singing stream and foaming waterfall, the majestic trees, the fruit, the flowers, in a word, the teeming earth and the visible splendors engirding it were objects of adoration. Behind all these, behind the curtain of the seen, there was, by-and-by, an invisible power apprehended, which came welling up in beauty and potency, and claimed the attention of the more thoughtful of mankind. "What majestic, what divine force there must be to work all these wonders!" was doubtless the exclamation on the lips of many of the primitive inhabitants. Thence would naturally come the thought of transferring their worship to a creative power, rather than bestow it upon its manifestations. Emblems of this, we may almost say for a certainty, were then sought out; the mysteries of reproduction soon had appropriate representatives; and though these now seem to us the very embodiment of vulgarity, they then had the force of immaculate purity.
The stately monuments of Egypt and India at this day are, and many churches of modern times (comparatively), were decorated with these unseemly figures and illustrations of their energies. The worship of these unavoidably led in time to licentiousness. Babylon seems to have reached the acme in its devotion, and hence, reciprocally the height of immorality. Greece and Italy followed boldly in the career of their oriental teachers; and when the acts of their people became too glaringly corrupt to be any longer tolerated, and were, in fact, denounced by the legal authorities, secret societies were formed, which not only practised all the excesses that had crept into this nature-worship, but exceeded them in every possible enormity. The more vicious, the more hideous, the more disgusting became their ceremonies, their rites of initiation, and by the enforcement of their rules, the more necessity there was that they should be kept secret, be held in secret places—rendezvous remote, if possible, from the haunts of man, so that their bacchanalian orgies might not betray them to the public ear.
When Catholicism came with its Virgin and saints, its cross, its mitred priests and its holy Sabbath, these people saw in it all only a rehash of ancient myths and observances, with which they were well acquainted, and set about ridiculing them to the death. They did not see, nor did they care for the beauties of that pure life which Christianity taught; their societies under different names (two of which are given below), practised only evil; and if they kept Easter, it was only to restore the worship of the goddess Ostara, the Teutonic Venus; or, if they celebrated the festival of the resurrection, it was of the newborn year.
The "witches sabbath" was simply the last form which the Priapeia and Liberalia assumed in Western Europe. It seems somewhat remarkable that the Teutonic race was but little, comparatively, imbued with this wild spirit of fanaticism and license; but wherever the Roman element was dominant, there was surely to be found the vulgar remains of that which, as has been said, originated in the most sacred of human impulses.
The author to whom I have just referred (The Worship of Priapus by Payne Knight), and to whom I am indebted for any facts that may follow, states that the incidents of the Sabbath, our witches sabbath, are distinctly traced in Italy as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century; whence they soon reached the south of France. About the middle of that century, a man known as the hermit of Burgundy, having stated (so it was charged against him on his trial at Laugres) that there were many witches in the province of Artois, and that he attended their nocturnal assemblies, was arrested and burned. Previous to the execution of the decree which consigned him to the flames, and which was carried into effect through the instrumentality, principally, of a Jacobin friar, "Inquisitor of the Faith," in the city of Arras, the hermit gave the names of a man and a woman whom he had met at these unhallowed gatherings. One of the party specified was of very questionable reputation, named Demiselle; the other was known as the "abbot of little sense."
From these two confessions were extorted, which compromised others, and here was at once opened, even though using such weak and untrustworthy instruments, a floodgate of mad folly and senseless persecution, which deluged the whole country with blood. Arrests succeeded arrests, and victim after victim perished in the flames. As in Salem —strangely enough in our own free and enlightened (?) land—no one knew whose turn would come next; and the very anxiety of those most solicitous to avoid suspicion, led to acts which often proved fatal to themselves, and involved, perhaps both enemies and friends.
You will, of course, be anxious to know something of the nature of the charges specified, which involved the character and lives of so many innocent persons. By some means or other—perhaps by intimidation, probably by torture—several persons were "induced to unite in a statement," to the following effect:
Meetings were held near a fountain in a wood, about a league distant from Arras. The people went there riding through the air on a stick which had been furnished them by the evil one. Multitudes of both sexes, and of all estates and ranks, even nobles, ordinary ecclesiastics, bishops and cardinals, thronged the place. The presiding officer was usually the evil one himself in the form of a goat. The "abbot of little sense" (as you would imagine) was master of ceremonies.
After saluting reverently the supreme officer, it was the duty of each one present to trample on the cross, and even spit upon it in despite of Jesus and the Holy Trinity; then supper followed, after which there was dancing and such manifestations of vice as an innocent mind could hardly contemplate without blanching to the cheeks of its possessor. Finally the evil one preached a sermon to them—enjoining them not to attend church, or hear mass, or touch holy water.
Would you suppose such scenes and practices could obtain even one historian? When these enumerated evils had widely spread (and this was the case, and rapidly), a Swiss friar, an inquisitor, wrote a book about them. In 1489 another treatise was published by Ulric Molitor; and in the same year another appeared called the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, the work of three inquisitors of Germany. From that time to the beginning of the seventeenth century, through all parts of Western Europe, the number of books upon sorcery which issued from the press was immense.
About 1609 a very elaborate work appeared on this subject, from the pen of a judge in the parliament of Bordeaux, de Lancre. His testimony in part I will endeavor, to give in a very brief manner. When reading it over, and afterwards examining a drawing of the mad scenes at the witches sabbath, I could not but think that ridicule of the Christian (so called) ceremonials was the paramount object; though, as has been stated, commendable sentiments, the simple aspirations of the human heart, lay at the fountain-head of the institution.
The priests, discovering the facts of the case, seeing that they were losing their prestige and were actually held up to ridicule, sought to exterminate the heretics by fire, -making them unite in declaring as true whatever of monstrous falsehood they could with seeming propriety add to what was really known as to those gatherings on the Sabbath.
De Lancre, referring to the dissoluteness of the women of the Basque provinces, says of Labourd, that the principal produce of this country consisted of apples, and hence the women partook more largely of the character of Eve; that their assemblies were held usually in some lonely and wild locality, as in the middle of a heath — selected for being away from the usual resort of man, as heretofore mentioned. They called the place Aquelare, or the heath of the goat. High mountains, old deserted chapels, and the ruins of castles were sometimes used.
When on trial, a girl thirteen years of age, named Marie d'Aguerre, said that at these meetings there appeared a great pitcher or jug in the middle of the sabbath, and that out of it the evil one issued in the form of a goat, and that at the close of their ceremonies he returned into it. Another witness said that his satanic majesty was represented by a great trunk of a tree. When he appeared as a goat with three horns, the middle one gave out a flame which lighted up the congregation. Marie d'Aspilecute, aged nineteen years, deposed that the presiding genius had a great tail; that she kissed him three times on his face behind, which had the muzzle of a goat. A lad twelve years of ago declared that this chief or chairman had a human form, with four horns on his head, and that he was seated in a pulpit with some women, his favorites—in ridicule, perhaps, of convent life.
When new converts came and had renounced, all faith in the Virgin Mary and the like, they were rebaptized with mock ceremony. Little children whom the women had allured to the Aquelare, were taken to the banks of a stream near by, white wands were put into their hands, and they were entrusted with the care of the toads which were kept there, and which were of importance in some of the diabolical machinations of the old crones of the society. Janette d' Abadie testified that after having kissed the demon in an indecent way or place, and been baptized, he put a private mark upon her, on a covered portion of the body. This statement was also substantiated by other female witnesses.
De Lancre says, from the testimony adduced, "These meetings resembled a fair of merchants mingled together, furious and in transports, arriving from all parts—a meeting and a mingling of a hundred thousand subjects, sudden and transitory, novel, it is true, but of a frightful novelty which offends the eye and sickens you. Among these same subjects some are real, and others deceitful and illusory. Some are pleasing, others full of deformity and horror."
It is further stated that in some parts were great caldrons, full of toads, and vipers, and hearts of unbaptized children. Such things were indeed seen that "the eyes became troubled, the ears confounded, and the understanding bewitched." Their religious ceremonies "were a contemptuous parody on the Catholic mass. An altar was raised, and a priest consecrated to administer the host, but he had to stand with his head downwards and his legs in the air, and with his back turned to the altar."
But however hideous some persons represented the scenes to be which marked these gatherings, others testified to the contrary.
"Jeanne Dibasson, a woman twenty-nine years of age, said that the witches sabbath was a true paradise. Marie de la Ralde, a very handsome woman twenty-eight years of age, affirmed that she had a singular pleasure in attending these assemblies, and went as though it were to a wedding-feast."
Mr. Payne Knight remarks that, "In reviewing these extraordinary scenes, we notice the striking points of identity between the proceedings of the sabbath and the secret assemblies with which the Templars were charged." They were doubtless, as he thinks, and as already noted, the remains of the nature-worship of the East, with such caricatures added as the times suggested.
"The state of mind produced by these excitements," my authority further says "would permit those who partook in them to believe easily in the actual presence of the beings they worshipped, who, according to the church doctrines, were only so many devils. Hence arose the diabolical agency in the scene. Thus easily we obtain all the materials and incidents of the witches sabbath."
That many of the scenes described were the fictitious vagaries of vicious and ignorant persons who were "induced" (perhaps by thumb-screws) to report all that took place (and more) at the Aquelare, cannot be doubted. Would any one for a moment suppose that the hearts of unbaptized children were to be seen there in boiling caldrons? Can we not plainly discern that in those words, "unbaptized children," the church had an object in view? as also in the assertion of the "inquisitors," that "the host, the Virgin, and the holy sacrament" were held up to ridicule? The latter may have had something of the semblance of truth in it; for it is well known that the clergy had become very corrupt, and so merited this not ill-timed defiant mockery.
If what we have been contemplating really had a basis in verity, there comes to us a warning as from the heavens, to give full scope to our free educational institutions, that the rising generation may know on what it stands mentally, morally and physically.