On Sorcerers and Sorceresses, or Witches

 [This is taken from Augustine Calmet's Phantom World, originally published in 1850, revised and edited by D. J. McAdam, 2010.  Copyright as such.]

Flight of the Witches

The empire of the devil nowhere shines forth with more luster than in what is related of the Sabbath (witches' sabbath or assembly), where he receives the homage of those of both sexes who have abandoned themselves to him. It is there, the wizards and witches say, that he exercises the greatest authority, and appears in a visible form, but always hideous, misshapen, and terrible; always during the night in out-of-the-way places, and arrayed in a manner more gloomy than gay, rather sad and dull, than majestic and brilliant. If they pay their adoration in that place to the prince of darkness, he shows himself there in a despicable posture, and in a base, contemptible and hideous form; if people eat there, the viands of the feast are dirty, insipid, and destitute of solidity and substance—they neither satisfy the appetite, nor please the palate; if they dance there, it is without order, without skill, without propriety.

To endeavor to give a description of the infernal sabbath, is to aim at describing what has no existence and never has existed, except in the craving and deluded imagination of sorcerers and sorceresses: the paintings we have of it are conceived after the reveries of those who fancy they have been transported through the air to the sabbath, both in body and soul.

People are carried thither, say they, sitting on a broom-stick, sometimes on the clouds or on a he-goat. Neither the place, the time, nor the day when they assemble is fixed. It is sometimes in a lonely forest, sometimes in a desert, usually on the Wednesday or the Thursday night; the most solemn of all is that of the eve of St. John the Baptist: they there distribute to every sorcerer the ointment with which he must anoint himself when he desires to go to the sabbath, and the spell-powder he must make use of in his magic operations. They must all appear together in this general assembly, and he who is absent is severely ill-used both in word and deed. As to the private meetings, the demon is more indulgent to those who are absent for some particular reason.

As to the ointment with which they anoint themselves, some authors, amongst others, John Baptista Porta, and John Wierius, boast that they know the composition. Amongst other ingredients there are many narcotic drugs, which cause those who make use of it to fall into a profound slumber, during which they imagine that they are carried to the sabbath up the chimney, at the top of which they find a tall black man, with horns, who transports them where they wish to go, and afterwards brings them back again by the same chimney. The accounts given by these people, and the description which they give of their assemblies, are wanting in unity and uniformity.

The demon, their chief, appears there, either in the shape of a he-goat, or as a great black dog, or as an immense raven; he is seated on an elevated throne, and receives there the homage of those present in a way which decency does not allow us to describe. In this nocturnal assembly they sing, they dance, they abandon themselves to the most shameful disorder; they sit down to table, and indulge in good cheer; while at the same time they see on the table neither knife nor fork, salt nor oil; they find the viands devoid of savor, and quit the table without their hunger being satisfied.

One would imagine that the attraction of a better fortune, and a wish to enrich themselves, drew thither men and women. The devil never fails to make them magnificent promises, at least the sorcerers say so, and believe it, deceived, without doubt, by their imagination; but experience shows us that these people are always ragged, despised, and wretched, and usually end their lives in a violent and dishonorable manner.

When they are admitted for the first time to the sabbath, the demon inscribes their name and surname on his register, which he makes them sign; then he makes them forswear cream and baptism, makes them renounce Jesus Christ and his church; and, to give them a distinctive character and make them known for his own, he imprints on their bodies a certain mark with the nail of the little finger of one of his hands; this mark, or character, thus impressed, renders the part insensible to pain. They even pretend that he impresses this character in three different parts of the body, and at three different times. The demon does not impress these characters, say they, before the person has attained the age of twenty-five.

But none of these things deserve the least attention. There may happen to be in the body of a man, or a woman, some benumbed part, either from illness, or the effect of remedies, or drugs, or even naturally; but that is no proof that the devil has anything to do with it. There are even persons accused of magic and sorcery, on whom no part thus characterized has been found, nor yet insensible to the touch, however exact the search. Others have declared that the devil has never made any such marks upon them. Consult on this matter the second letter of M. de St. André, Physician to the King, in which he well develops what has been said about these characters of sorcerers.

The word sabbath, taken in the above sense, is not to be found in ancient writers; neither the Hebrews nor the Egyptians, the Greeks nor the Latins have known it.

The thing itself, I mean the sabbath taken in the sense of a nocturnal assembly of persons devoted to the devil, is not remarked in antiquity, although magicians, sorcerers, and witches are spoken of often enough—that is to say, people who boasted that they exercised a kind of power over the devil, and by his means, over animals, the air, the stars, and the lives and fortunes of men.

Horace makes use of the word coticia to indicate the nocturnal meetings of the magicians—Tu riseris coticia; which he derives from Cotys, or Cotto, Goddess of Vice, who presided in the assemblies which were held at night, and where the Bacchantes gave themselves up to all sorts of dissolute pleasures; but this is very different from the witches' sabbath.

Others derive this term from Sabbatius, which is an epithet given to the god Bacchus, whose nocturnal festivals were celebrated in debauchery. Arnobius and Julius Firmicus Maternus inform us that in these festivals they slipped a golden serpent into the bosoms of the initiated, and drew it downwards; but this etymology is too far-fetched: the people who gave the name of sabbath to the assemblies of the sorcerers wished apparently to compare them in derision to those of the Jews, and to what they practiced in their synagogues on sabbath days.

The most ancient monument in which I have been able to remark any express mention of the nocturnal assemblies of the sorcerers is in the Capitularies, wherein it is said that women led away by the illusions of the demons, say that they go in the night with the goddess Diana and an infinite number of other women, borne through the air on different animals, that they go in a few hours a great distance, and obey Diana as their queen. It was, therefore, to the goddess Diana, or the Moon, and not to Lucifer, that they paid homage. The Germans call witches' dances what we call the sabbath. They say that these people assemble on Mount Bructere.

The famous Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons, who lived under the Emperor Louis the Debonair, wrote a treatise against certain superstitious persons in his time, who believed that storms, hail, and thunder were caused by certain sorcerers whom they called tempesters (tempestarios, or storm-brewers), who raised the rain in the air, caused storms and thunder, and brought sterility upon the earth. They called these extraordinary rains aura lavatitia, as if to indicate that they were raised by magic power. In this place the people still call these violent rains alvace. There were even persons sufficiently prejudiced to boast that they knew of tempêtiers, who had to conduct the tempests where they choose, and to turn them aside when they pleased. Agobard interrogated some of them, but they were obliged to own that they had not been present at the things they related.

Agobard maintains that this is the work of God alone; that in truth, the saints, with the help of God, have often performed similar prodigies; but that neither the devil nor sorcerers can do anything like it. He remarks that there were among his people superstitious persons who would pay very punctually what they called canonicum, which was a sort of tribute which they offered to these tempest-brewers (tempêtiers), that they might not hurt them, while they refused the tithe to the priest and alms to the widow, orphan, and other indigent persons.

He adds that he had of late found people sufficiently foolish enough to spread a report that Grimaldus, Duke of Benevento, had sent persons into France, carrying certain powders which they had scattered over the fields, mountains, meadows, and springs, and had thus caused the death of an immense number of animals. Several of these persons were taken up, and they owned that they carried such powders about with them and though they made them suffer various tortures, they could not force them to retract what they had said.

Others affirmed that there was a certain country named Mangonia, where there were vessels which were borne through the air and took away the productions; that certain wizards had cut down trees to carry them to their country. He says, moreover, that one day three men and a woman were presented to him, who, they said, had fallen from these ships which floated in the air. They were kept some days in confinement, and at last having been confronted with their accusers, the latter were obliged, after contesting the matter, and making several depositions, to avow that they knew nothing certain concerning their being carried away, or of their pretended fall from the ship in the sky.

Charlemagne in his Capitularies, and the authors of his time, speak also of these wizard tempest-brewers, enchanters, &c., and commanded that they should be reprimanded and severely chastised.

Pope Gregory IX. in a letter addressed to the Archbishop of Mayence, the Bishop of Hildesheim, and Doctor Conrad, in 1234, thus relates the abominations of which they accused the heretic Stadingians. "When they receive," says he, "a novice, and when he enters their assemblies for the first time, he sees an enormous toad, as big as a goose, or bigger. Some kiss it on the mouth, some kiss it behind. Then the novice meets a pale man with very black eyes, and so thin that he is only skin and bones. He kisses him, and feels that he is cold as ice. After this kiss, the novice easily forgets the Catholic faith; afterwards they hold a feast together, after which a black cat comes down behind a statue, which usually stands in the room where they assemble.

"The novice first of all kisses the cat on the back, then he who presides over the assembly, and the others who are worthy of it. The imperfect receive only a kiss from the master; they promise obedience; after which they extinguish the lights, and commit all sorts of disorders. They receive every year, at Easter, the Lord's Body, and carry it in their mouth to their own houses, when they cast it away. They believe in Lucifer, and say that the Master of Heaven has unjustly and fraudulently thrown him into hell. They believe also that Lucifer is the creator of celestial things, that will re-enter into glory after having thrown down his adversary, and that through him they will gain eternal bliss." This letter bears date the 13th of June, 1233.





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