We will attempt in this and ensuing columns to explore the world of the occult in all its forms: Witchcraft, Sorcery, Lycanthropy, Druidic lore, spells, enchantments, the 'Daily Strange. ' All manner of phenomena will be closely examined, including, perhaps, some that have not seen the light of day since the BOOK OF THOTH was supposedly tossed into the Nile River. . . Your questions, suggestions, and tid-bits of information (to add to our own) will be most welcome. Also you can send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org - email@example.com
The history of witches in the Western World is similar to the history of other more recent minorities in that the information available was usually written by others. Witches have been portrayed both as frolicking winsome creatures of joy, or as fulsome wretched old hags of defeat and despair depending on which 'expert' one reads. Little has been recorded on pre- Christian witches. And, unfortunately, data on Christian era witches has in the main been recorded by their persecutors who were anything but unbiased.
Witchcraft was and is an old-established cult, with its own rites, rules, devotions, hierarchy, and holidays, similar to any other organized religion. Anthropological study has traced witchcraft back to the ancient cult of the Horned God, which recurs historically throughout Western Europe, openly or under- ground, from Paleolithic man to the present time. Some of the feast days and rituals tend to identify witchcraft with the pagan fertility religion of Europe: the old religion. There is also a belief in Diane as the Goddess and her daughter as the female Messiah. Diane has always played an important role in fertility rites. Still others-more Catholic in their religion than in their attitudes-feel witchcraft was a blasphemous invention of the Devil to win Christians to his evil will and should be dealt with as a moral problem with a final solution.
The origins of witchcraft may be as buried as many of its practitioners, but its ancient claim to being a legitimate religion cannot be discredited. One needs to study the testimonies and confessions of countless men and women derived from the witch trials, the great period of persecution, to realize that they were serious in their devotion to their God. Throughout the trials the accused consistently referred to their leader as God or Grandmaster or some like name. The idea of the Devil as 'grandmaster' was purely a Christian tactic, with the name of the Devil being superimposed over any god who did not answer to a Christian name.
Although witch hunts began with Pope Gregory I in 600, it was not until the 13th and 14th centuries that church, state, and anyone else who stood to gain from it, organized frequent and serious attacks on witches. The Inquisition blamed witchcraft for anything it could get away with, condemning many innocent men and women as well as those who actually took part in secret rites. A few of the more important papal bulls against witches were Eugene IV, who stated witches who caused bad weather were to be punished, Gregory IV equating demon worship with debauchery, and Innocent VIII (Summis Desiderantes, 1484) which amounted to open warfare on witches. The recorders at the trials were of course court re- porters who had to constantly reassure the Church of their loyalty, therefore the records left are un- sympathetic to the religion of the people involved. Constant references to Devil, Demon, Evil One, Prince of Darkness, and especially Fiend, tend to damage the quality of the records. Today we would call such procedure yellow journalism. Despite the name-caMing, a clear idea of the cult can be recreated. Through the words of the victims one can obtain all the information needed to acquaint modern readers with a religion that was able to withstand so much.
In England, for example, the area with which we are best acquainted, each group of followers, or congregation, had a coven. Coven is the term used to identify the thirteen members of the elite who decided policy, attended all meetings, performed the ceremonies, and generally took the lead in all matters concerning the whole group. The coven consisted of twelve male or female witches, and their leader. The leader was the Devil or their god depending on your point of view. To his followers he was God incarnate and evidence records that he appeared as a man or a boy or a goat with horns. He either attended meetings in person or had a substitute who acted in his place depending on the nature of the meeting. The substitute was the officer of the coven whose duties included summoning members to meetings, and keeping attendance records, as well as aide- de-camp to the master. Every coven had a musician, sometimes two, as dancing and merrymaking were important parts of any meeting. The rest of the coven members could be considered as elders of the faith. More than one coven could exist in a district, depending on the size and needs of the area. Each coven was independent but not autonomous in that all covens were under the one master. A coven could sometimes unite with one or more other covens when a special effort was needed, as in the case of the witches who 'confessed' to participation in a plot to kill James VI of Scotland. Three covens combined their powers to raise a storm so that James would not complete his sea voyage from Oslo to Leith with his bride. There seems to have been a division of labor and talent, however, since one raised the storm by casting a properly prepared cat into the sea, while the others prepared a potion of toad poison, and worked on a wax image of the King. There are additional recorded instances of covens working together. As a rule, however, a single coven was able to work successfully, or unsuccessfully, alone.
Much of the magic witches practiced, such as preparing potions, divining, healing, or cursing, was done in private. Favorite herbs were hemp, cardamon, chicory, flax, coriander, and anise. Other ingredients more familiar to modern readers of fairy tales or folklore were toads, spiders, and the innards of doves, hares, spar- rows, or swallows. The concoction used by the witches to fly to meetings were usually ointments made from belladonna and aconite. These drugs produced excitement and hallucinations.
Witches gatherings on a yearly basis were divided into weekly meetings (Esbats) attended by the members of the coven, and four great Sabbaths to which the entire congregation came. The business affairs of the coven were discussed and settled at the Esbats. The members gave a brief account of their week's activities to the Master or his substitute. He in turn gave advice or instruction to his followers. Information regarding new converts was also discussed at the Esbats. After the business was completed, the sacred dance was performed, then the feast, after which the meeting came to an end.
The Sabbaths began at dusk and ended at dawn. The business part of the Sabbaths was generally the same as it was for the Esbats with less detail since all of the members of the coven did not have to attend the Sabbaths, although most did. Since the whole congregation at- tended the Sabbaths, the after business part was more animated. The great quarterly Sabbaths were joyous occasions for the followers. They danced, feasting, paid homage to their master, admitted new members, and celebrated rites which included sacrifices and orgiastic ceremonies. The latter activity has made witches perhaps more interesting than they would have been.
As in the Esbats, dancing often began and ended the Sabbaths. The first dance performed was the processional, with the Master, or his substitute, leading the others in a kind of free-form follow-the-leader to the side of the more important sacred ring dance. Here they would form a circle with their backs to the center, hold hands, and dance to music supplied by flute, violin, and pipes. Whatever the religious significance of worship the dance symbolized, it did tend to relax every- one, to put them in the proper frenzied mood for the all night revelry that lay ahead.
The feast varied with either the master or the members supplying the food. When the members supplied the food it reflected the wealth of the particular congregation plus the culinary gifts of the ladies (an Iowa Methodist picnic?); the foods including the usual meat, cheese, cake, and wine.
The devotions to the master came at the beginning of the meeting. The master, dressed in a grand array, carried a lighted candle on his head which the congregation used in turn to light their candles. They would then offer their burning candles to the master singing hymns and chanting his praises. Children of members were admitted into the congregation while in infancy. This ceremony usually followed the devotion to the master.
The mother would simply dedicate her child to the master. When the child reached puberty, he had to re- peat his dedication to the master in his own words. At this time he received a mark as a symbol of his tie, and so that all could see he was now a full member. The marking seems to have been a form of tattooing since it was permanent.
When an adult was admitted to the congregation, the ceremony was more complex in that the initiate was questioned at length and then made to renounce the faith of his birth. After this the convert dedicated himself to his new master with words and a kiss wherever the master stipulated-which was not always, as the church would like us to believe "under the tail." The new member would then receive his mark. The mark could be made anywhere. The significance of the location is debatable; that their master was imaginative in his selection is certain. Sometimes the novice received a new name, but this depended on local custom and did not always occur. The member was also given an animal, designated by the master, to be his familiar. He then received full instructions for divination.
Sacrificial rites usually involved the shedding of blood. The followers often drew blood from themselves to offer the master as a private gift. Animals were used for conjuring, and casting but rarely killed as a sacrifice at a meeting, although they could be sacrificed in private. In certain areas the cult was accused by the Church of sacrificing infants and eating their flesh: the flesh of an infant being considered sacred, magical.
When the trails of the various inquisitions were at their peak, witches were said to have eaten the flesh of infants to obtain the secret of silence, since the infants had never spoken. The witches supposedly believed that they would also be able to withstand torture and not confess or betray if they ate the flesh. This ritual is called sympathetic magic.
Whether or not the children were actually killed, no one can truthfully say today. It is not our purpose to excuse a possibility of infanticide or, conversely, to hypocritically moralize as so many otherwise competent writers in the field have done. We deem it sufficient to the situation to say that the infant mortality rate of the times was such to have supplied the cultists with ample offerings.
Another example of sympathetic magic were the orgies. During these ceremonies the followers believed that the land and the animals were making it more fertile. The master took part in these ceremonies as either incubus or succubus depending upon which role he performed in the sexual experience.
A later addition to the Sabbath was the Black Mass. Before Christianity offered more interesting ceremonies to parody, the religious rites were actually less formal if not less important.
Modern witches have added four feast days to the yearly total to de- note the solstitial divisions of: autumn equinox, winter solstice, spring equinox, and the summer solstice. The tools of the cult remain basically the same. Each witch has an athame or sacred black-handled knife which they still make themselves. The circle, an ancient symbol of eternity, is used as the center of a serious activity. The idea of the circle is repeated in the round garter that the witches receive during initiation. The garter is worn around the waist and is similar to the belt in Judo in that color identifies rank. The women wear necklaces made of pearl or glass beads. The higher- ranking women have a silver bracelet (color of the moon) which they wear on their arms.
Other accessories include a silver chalice, candles, a wand of hazlewood, a small cauldron, a censer, a pentacle which is a flat piece of metal engraved with witch signs, a length of cord, a scourge, and a bowl filled with salt. Each item is symbolic. The cauldron represents water, the wind fire, the salt and scourge purification, the pentacle earth, the athames air, and the length of the cord, in a continuation of the circle symbol, is the spirit that unites all of the elements.
Through the years nature seems to have replaced the master as a direct worship figure. Members of modern covens still genuflect, however, to a god who represents fertility rather than a promise of eternal bliss. To quote a modern English witch: "We worship nature which does not change because of the atomic bomb or television. We believe in helping people and most of all we believe in joy." Most witches apparently were condemned to death for their faith rather than their acts. Today, their inheritors enjoy a semblance of acceptability. Unfortunately, however, this seems due more to a change in the nonbelievers among us rather than of the believers.