A complete account of the ingredients of the witch-idea or even of the genuine witch-cult would fill a volume like this. We should have to go back to the very dawn of religion or, if the theory of Sir J.G. Frazer is correct, before its dawn. Frazer holds that magic preceded religion. I contend that magic and the belief in spirits developed separately. But they are blended in the early idea of the witch: a man or woman who receives magical powers by a league with evil spirits.
Something corresponding to the witch is found, and is dreaded and abhorred, in every stage of human evolution. The spirits of the dead were very soon regarded as in very large part malignant and malevolent, and certain persons were held to act in conjunction with them and practice "black magic"; to raise destructive storms, to blight crops or cattle, to cause disease, sterility, or death. Sometimes this persisted quite apart from belief in spirits. The Romans were not much more definite than the Babylonians in their beliefs about a future life, yet they believed very emphatically in magic and its evil powers. The magician was exposed to a sentence of death in Roman law and was often executed. The ground of the law was, of course, purely secular. The practicer of black magic was dangerous to the community.
The Babylonians and Assyrians (and Persians) believed that myriads of evil spirits or devils hovered about the face of the earth and caused all the evils of humanity; and that there was a special class of these malignant beings who moved about at night, inspired bad dreams, and even sucked the blood of sleepers. This belief in legions of devils passed through the Jews, into Christianity, and the particular belief in night-prowlers and blood-suckers or entrail-suckers (vampires, harpies, etc.) obtained currency amongst the Greeks and Romans. The Greek and Latin word strix, which properly means the screech-owl (so naturally associated with the legend), was applied to these dreaded night- birds.
The Fathers of the Church, particularly St. Augustine, the most influential of them all, denounced magic as "pagan" and as a collusion with the devils. The synods of Elvira (306), Ancyra (314), and Laodicea (375), and the sermons of St. Chrysostom and the other great preachers, show that the new Christians brought with them the magical practices as well as the vices of the pagan world. It does not seem to have been enough to denounce these as pagan, so St. Augustine worked out a more deadly theory: the diviner or magician, in whose powers he firmly believed, was in league with the devil. And the Bible was quite clear about such people. It (Leviticus xx, 27 and Exodus xxii, 18) defined a witch as one who "hath a familiar spirit" and condemned him or her to death. Moreover, the Latin and Catholic Bible translates verse 5 of Psalm xcvi (Psalm xcv in the Catholic Bible): "The gods of the heathen are devils." paganism and devilism coincided.
The change was lamentable and is responsible for the ghastly tragedy of later years. The Roman persecution of magicians was based entirely on the belief that they had abnormal powers and the progress of enlightenment might have undermined this belief. But if magic meant collusion with the devil, belief in it was sure to be magnified very considerably under a religion which taught that the world swarmed with devils. It was precisely the elaboration of this devil-doctrine by the great theologians of the Middle Ages which caused the appalling witch-massacres of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. What surprises one at first is that there was comparatively little persecution of witches before the thirteenth century. It was this wonderful thirteenth century, of which modern Catholics are so proud, that inaugurated the massacres on a large scale. A famous philosopher has called it the most stupid century in the whole of the Middle Ages, and certainly it was the most tyrannical, most superstitious, and most sanguinary.
As far as magic is concerned, the Church never wavered, and the practice of its children never relaxed. The situation is analogous to that of the virtue of chastity. The law was clear: the practice almost universally ignored it. On the other hand, there was no consistent attitude in the Church in regard to the striga (as the strix was now called), the blood-sucking nocturnal creature. The Salic Law in south Germany sentenced the atriga to death. The Lombard Law treated the idea as a superstition. Under Charlemagne a synod held at Paderborn in 785 enacted (canon 6): "Whosoever, deceived by the devil, believes, as the pagans did, that any person is a witch and can devour men, and therefore burns that person, and gives her flesh to others to eat, shall be put to death." individual churchmen were just as much at variance. Some believed in the striga: others did not.
Characteristically, what the Church was concerned about most was magic of an erotic nature. In 860 the great archbishop of Rheims, Hincmar, held a solemn inquiry into this, as the king's concubine was supposed to have used such magic on the queen, and he concluded that it was genuine deviltry. On the whole, there were few executions of witches until the eleventh century, when we begin to find isolated executions more frequently in the chronicles.
I am, however, more concerned with the other aspects of witchcraft: the suggestion of an organization contained in the belief that witches flew in the air at night in droves or to an appointed gathering place. It is usually said that there was no organization of witches until the thirteenth century, which would be quite inconsistent with the view that witchcraft was the ancient pagan religion of Europe. The historical truth is not so simple, and it is interesting.
At the end of the tenth century Abbot Regino made a large collection of Church laws and canons, and one of these is concerned with witches. Where and when this canon was passed we do not know. Some scholars trace it to the Synod of Ancyra, in 314, which is impossible, for the Roman world was then almost entirely pagan. It seems to come from some synod of the sixth century. It says:
And we must not overlook this, that certain wicked women, who have turned aside to Satan, seduced by the illusions and phantasms of the demons, believe and profess that during the night they ride with Diana the goddess of the pagans [another version says, or with Herodias] and an innumerable crowd of women on certain beasts, and pass over great spaces of the earth during the night, obeying her commands as their mistress, and on certain nights are summoned to her service. Would that these had perished in their perfidy and had not dragged many with them to destruction! For an innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe that these things are true and so depart from the faith and fall into the error of the pagans, believing that there is some divinity apart from the one God, (Migne edition.)
The abbot goes on to say that all this is the work of the devil who assumes various forms to tempt silly women. The law is reproduced again a few years later in the collection of Bishop Burkhard of Worms (Decreta, bk. ix, chap. 5), who adds the vampire- idea: that women claim that they can, even while they lie in bed with their husbands, fly out in the air and suck the heart and entrails out of other men who are abed.
A life of Pope Damasus (of the fourth century) pretends that as early as 367 a Roman synod took cognizance of these women who rode on beasts at night with Herodias. This life is probably spurious, but it is clear that by the sixth century (to which the canon seems to belong) there was something very like organized witchcraft in Europe. We will not press the words "innumerable multitude," but clearly numbers of women met by night to honor Diana, the goddess of the moon and of fertility.
This does not surprise us. Europe never voluntarily accepted Christianity. Paganism was driven into dark corners, but age by age the Church had to thunder against it. The women in particular clung to their Diana, if not to the still older mother-earth goddess. Sterility was a curse in those days, however convenient it may seem to moderns. Everything that could counteract it and beat the blood- magic, the aid of a goddess, or even the mutual inspiration of a human orgy -- was treasured. The cold advice of Christianity to pray to Mary, was found less effective in practice and less congenial than the nocturnal adventure, But it had to be conducted with secrecy and cunning, and it seemed as if the women must fly through the air to the point of assembly.
Where I venture to differ from Miss Murray is when she supposes that these more or less organized gatherings persisted and reappeared as the witches of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Dianists disappear, and for centuries the Church deals only with individual magicians, male or female. But a new element was meantime entering European life, and the reader will find that it throws a fascinating light upon witchcraft. It is usual to say that Thomas Aquinas with his absurd demonology, and the Inquisition with its terrible scent for heresy, created witchcraft. Let us try another line.
The true religious history of Europe has never yet been written. Possibly the full truth will never be known, as there has been so much suppression and distortion of facts; but we do know that the accepted version is false. Christianity was imposed by force upon a reluctant world. The current idea of a "conversion" of the Roman world to it is not more false than the almost universal belief that it was meekly accepted, if not profoundly cherished, until modern times. Although our forefathers were robbed of their schools and detained for ages in the densest ignorance, it is to their credit that age after age they, in immense multitudes, rebelled against the corrupt priestcraft and the absurd legend of the Christian religion. It is only by the bloody use of force on a colossal scale that the Church maintained its dominion for so many centuries.
Witchcraft was one expression of the constant effort of the race to rid itself of the religion imposed on it. One of the chief rival religions to Christianity in the fourth century had been Manichaeism, and the writings of St. Augustine, who was at first a Manichaean, but later one of the worst slanderers of the religion, show us how heroically its adherents fought for their creed even long after imperial decrees had declared, under pain of confiscation and death, that Christianity was to be the sole religion of the empire.
I need say of it here only that it was an ascetic religion, and that it was based essentially on the ancient Persian belief in two supreme principles, one of light and goodness, the other of darkness and evil. Manichaeism was crushed by the aid of the imperial troops but Manichaean ideas were destined still to play a great part in Europe. And one aspect of the religion deserves special notice. It has been, I suppose, the custom of religious bodies from time immemorial to slander and vilify rival bodies. The Romans themselves put the darkest interpretations on the secret gatherings of the Christians; they were said to indulge in sensual orgies, to worship a god with an ass's head and to kill babies for sacramental purposes. So in time the Christians vilified the Manichees; though St. Jerome candidly admits that they were men and women of far stricter virtue than the Christians themselves. Augustine, however, was chiefly instrumental in defaming them.
In writing his life, I discovered a carefully overlooked passage in which, posing as the first Inquisitor, he made a public examination of two Manichees. The first was a girl of twelve, and from the lips of this child the pious elderly bishop drew the confession, by leading questions, that the Manichees made their sacrament of human semen and flour. The second victim was a sacred virgin of the sect, and Augustine at once charged her with what he had put into the mouth of the little girl. To make the sacrament, he said, she had lain nude on the ground, a little heap of flour beside her, and the priests had ... She protested that she was a virgin, but Augustine's midwives examined her and declared that she was not. Then, Augustine says, she confessed the whole "abominable crime"; in other words, she escaped the drastic punishment of her heresy by letting the bishop have his way and feigning conversion. Later we hear of similar examinations on Manichaean women and confessions of intercourse with "the devil" (probably meaning his representative, the Manichaean priest).
Here, I am convinced, is the origin of one of the ingredients of the early myth of the witch; though in the fully developed witch-cult there was unquestionably a large amount of "intercourse with the devil." However that may be, the Manichaean ideas were merely thrust out of sight, and they broke out again from time to time. One of the most famous heretics of the Greek Church, Paul of Samosata, was the son of a Manichaean mother and his heresy combined the Manichaean principle of two supreme powers with an early form of Protestantism or evangelical Christianity. The Greek Church and Empire -- which, let us remember, had never been tainted by barbarian invasions -- were now, in the eighth century, appallingly corrupt, and this purer religion, as it was, spread widely, especially among the Armenians. Emperor after emperor tried to suppress it. The Empress Theodora put to death no less than one hundred thousand members of the sect; or, in a few years, made fifty times as many martyrs as the pagans had in three centuries. Finally, in the tenth century, no less than two hundred thousand members of the sect were transplanted from Armenia to Thrace, to form a living bulwark against the encroachments of the Bulgars.
But within a short time the worthy Paulicians had spread their gospel peacefully among the Bulgars, and Europe was confronted with a new heresy, the Bogomiles. You have probably never heard of the Bogomiles, but you will surely have heard of those famous heretics of the south of France, the Albigensians, who were drowned by the greatest of the Popes, Innocent III, in their own blood. They (and the Waldensians, the Cathari, the Patarenes, and other obscure bodies of the time) were inspired by the Bogomiles and had the same tincture of Manichaean ideas. The orthodox Catholics of France called them bougres (Bulgars) and it was thus that the innocent name of a people became the worst swear-word of French and English tongues. They were reproached with having a pope in Bulgaria. In short, from the tenth century onward this revolt against orthodox Christianity and its corrupt priests and monks spread over Europe like a prairie fire.
The reader will already have perceived that here we have the clue to the appearance of witchcraft as a secret and organized cult. The Dianists of the sixth and seventh centuries had gone, and until the twelfth century we find only a few isolated executions of witches for practicing black magic. In the twelfth century these become more frequent. In the thirteenth century the swords of the troops and the fires of the Inquisition suppress heresy; and from that time on witchcraft is recognized by the Church as a secret heresy and a widespread organization.
The Paulicians, Bogomiles, Albigensians, etc., were, as usual, slandered by the orthodox. Psellus, one of the leading Greek orthodox writers of the tenth century, wrote a book "On the Operations of the Devils," in which he included almost as many fables as in his lives of the martyrs. The heretics, he says, used to meet at night by candle light and invoke the devils. When these appeared in the shape of animals, the lights were extinguished and the worshipers indulged in an orgy of sexuality with the devils and with each other. This amiable story passed all over Europe and was applied to the heretics everywhere. It will be enough to quote a letter of Pope Gregory IX to show the connection with witchcraft. In 1233 Gregory wrote to the bishops of Germany, urging them to seek out and persecute the heretics. The letter (given in the Latin in the "Annales" of Ravnaldus, year 1233, p. 89) is one of those weird compositions which bring a smile to the lips when one hears Catholics claim some special divine interest in their church and its popes, but it is too long to be quoted here in full.
The Pope says that amongst these heretics "when a neophyte is received there appears to him a kind of frog," though some say it is a toad. Some kiss it shamelessly on the buttocks, others on the mouth, drawing the tongue and spittle of the animal into their mouths. Sometimes this toad is "as big as a goose or a duck." The neophyte next encounters a "man of extraordinary paleness, with deep black eyes, and so thin that his skin seems to be stretched over his bones." The neophyte kisses him and finds that he is "as cold as ice." The worshipers then sit to table, and a large black cat comes out of a statue, and all of them in the order of their dignity, kiss its buttocks. After a time the lights are extinguished and there is the usual orgy of sexual intercourse. If, the Pope gravely explains, there are more men than women, or women than men, they resort to sodomy. The candles are relit, and they sit again at table, when from a dark corner of the room comes a man "shining like the sun from the loins upward, but rough as a cat below." To this devil the neophyte is presented, and the faithful also give consecrated hosts which they have stolen from the churches where they have communicated.
This is almost exactly an account of a witch meeting, and the Pope adds another significant detail. These heretics, he says, declare that God is a tyrant, and that he unjustly condemned Lucifer to hell. Lucifer is the real creator of the world and prince of men, and in the end he will regain his place.
In point of fact, the Paulicians and Bogomiles and their kin had quaintly mixed the old Persian belief with some of the speculations of the Gnostics. The ancient Persians had believed that the evil principle had created matter which was evil. To Christians the evil principle was Lucifer, and the new heretics contended that Lucifer was one of the two sons of God, unjustly cast off by an overbearing father. He became their "prince" and "lord," and (unlike the Persians) they believed that he would ultimately triumph. This belief either led to or was due to -- the details are necessarily obscure, as we know the tenets only from bitter enemies -- another departure from Manichaeism. The Manichaeans had been very ascetic, deeming the flesh (as part of the creation of the evil principle) an evil thing; and it is clear that the Albigensians and other European heretics also led strict lives. But the glorification of Lucifer meant that matter and the flesh could scarcely be regarded as evil, and a reaction into orgies was inevitable. The witches, at least, had such orgies.
Here we have almost the whole of the ingredients of the witch- cult before our eyes. John of Salisbury, bishop of Chartres in the twelfth century, and others refused to believe in the striga. Pope Silvester II (Gerbert) was himself accused of magic. Moorish influence was beginning to teach Europe the elements of wisdom. And, curiously enough, it was the crown of this new development, the Scholastic movement, which completed the evolution of the witch and let loose the murderous forces of the Church.
Books You Might Enjoy:
John Dee - The Calls Of Enoch
Phil Hine - Oven Ready Chaos
Marian Green - A Witch Alone
Carl Mccolman - The Well Read Witch
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