God of the Witches 4


“Serve the Lord with gladness and come before His Presence with a song.”–Ps. C. 2

THE ceremonies of the cult are fully recorded in the trials of the “witches” in all parts of Europe. These ceremonies comprise the rites of admission, sacred dances, feasts, and orgiastic rites, besides other ceremonies which to our minds are more purely religious, such as homage to the god, sacrifices, prayers and the like.

Admission Ceremonies. In all organised religions there is some form of admission into the cult by which a candidate can become a member. Often there are two forms, the first when a young infant is received, the other when at puberty the candidate takes on himself the full membership. For an adult convert the two ceremonies are combined with the necessary modifications. In these respects the Witch-religion, i.e. the cult of the Horned God, conforms to the ordinary routine of all religions.

The form for the admission of infants is best recorded in France.[1] The mother took her young child to one of the great quarterly Sabbaths, and kneeling before the Incarnate God she said, “Great Lord, whom I worship, I bring thee a new servant who will be thy slave for ever”. At a sign from the god she moved forward on her knees and laid the infant in the divine arms. Such a ceremony, at once simple and touching, must have had a great effect on the minds of the mothers; they saw with their own eyes that the god himself had received the child. In some places the infant was also baptised with water, and at Orleans chrism was used.[2]

All the inquisitors and other recorders mention that the “witches” were exceedingly careful to have their children received by their god, and to bring them up in the tenets and practice of the Pagan religion. Such an attitude of mind would have brought nothing but praise had the parents been of the same religion as the recorders and judges, but as the parents belonged to another faith their action in the matter was regarded as essentially wicked. The French inquisitors were peculiarly horrified at the numbers of children dedicated to the non-Christian deity, “witches were accustomed to have their children baptised more often at the Sabbath than in church, and presented more often to the Devil than to God”.[3] In 1578 Jeanne Hervillier,[4] who was from Verberie, near Compiègne, deposed that from her birth she was dedicated to the Devil by her mother. Boguet[5] in 1598 relates that Pierre Willermoz, being only ten years old, was taken by his father to the Sabbath, and that three other very young children were taken in the same way by their maternal grandmother. In the Home for poor girls founded by Madame Bourignon[6] at Lille, one of the girls told Madame Bourignon’ in 1661 that “her mother had taken her with her when she was very young and had even carried her in her arms to the Witches’ Sabbath”. Another girl, still younger, had been a constant attendant at the Sabbath since she was a little child. Madame Bourignon, who was a deeply religious Christian, was shocked at the ignorance of Christianity displayed by the girls under her care, and records that they were “for the most part so ignorant of the fact of their salvation that they lived like animals”.

If in the course of a trial it transpired that an accused had been thus dedicated in infancy it was proof positive that he or she came of a witch family, which was in itself such strong presumptive evidence of witch propensities that few, if any, escaped after the fact came to light. Reginald Scot[7] is very definite on this point; quoting from Bodin he says, “Witches must be examined, whether their parents were witches or no, for witches come by propagation”. In another place[8] he quotes from Cornelius Agrippa that “in Brabant a woman was accused as a witch and one of the proofs against her was that her mother was in times past burned for a witch”.[6] Jeanne Hervillier’s mother[9] was burnt as a witch long before Jeanne herself was accused. One of the strong proofs of witchcraft against Elizabeth Clarke in Essex in 1645[10] was that her mother and some other of her kinsfolk “did suffer death for witchcraft and murder”. The mother and aunt of Alexander Sussums of Melford, in Suffolk, in 1645[11] were both hanged and his grandmother burnt for being witches; “so others of them questioned and hanged”. Everywhere the “witch-brood” received scant mercy at the hands of the authorities.

When the child was old enough to understand, an age which varied from nine to thirteen years, he made a public profession of faith.[12] This was not necessarily at a great Sabbath, but had to be done before witnesses. The candidate prostrated himself on the ground at the feet of the Divine Man who asked, “Dost thou come of thy own free will? The candidate replied, “Yes”. The god then said, “Do what I desire and what I do.” The candidate still kneeling made the profession of faith, “Thou art my god and I am thy slave”. Homage was then rendered to the god, and the novice was marked[13] on some part of the person so that he might be known by others as a full member. The mark was either a scar or a tattoo. These ceremonies are paralleled in modern times among many races, the physical mark being often an essential part of the proceedings. Madame Bourignon says,[14 “When a child offered to the Devil by its Parents, comes to the use of Reason, the Devil then demands its soul and makes it deny God and renounce its Baptism, and all relating to the Faith, promising Homage and Fealty to the Devil in manner of a Marriage, and instead of a Ring, the Devil gives them a Mark with an iron Awl in some part of the Body”. Bodin notes[15] that “fathers and mothers consecrate and dedicate their children to the Devils, some when they are newly born, others while still unborn. The Devils do not make express paction with the children vowed to them until they reach the age of puberty”. Elizabeth Francis, tried at Chelmsford[16] in 1556, was taught “the art of witchcraft”, i.e. her religion, by her grandmother when she reached the age of twelve. Elizabeth Demdike,[17] the most celebrated of all the Lancashire witches, “brought up her own children, instructed her grandchildren, and took great care and pains to bring them to be Witches”. Had Elizabeth Demdike been a Christian she would have been held up to admiration as a pattern of what a pious and devout woman should be. At Paisley Annabil Stuart[18] was fourteen when at her mother’s instance she made the vows to the Devil. In this connection it may be noted that Joan of Arc was twelve years old when she first began to take an active part in her religion, and that much of her religious instruction came from the godmother who had dealings with the fairies.

The rites for the admission of an adult convert were more dramatic than those for a boy or girl already belonging to the religion. The accounts are fuller as the records were made when the cult of the Horned God was already waning and had to keep up its numbers by proselytising. As in all admissions to a new religion the convert had to renounce his old faith, and this renunciation was made as explicit as possible. “I renounce and deny God, the blessed Virgin, the Saints, baptism, father, mother, relations, heaven, earth, and all that is in the world”,[19] was one of several formulae; which always had to be “an express renunciation of Jesus Christ and of the Faith”. Then came the baptism, the profession of faith and the vow of fidelity,[20] “I place myself at every point in thy power and in thy hands, recognising no other god, for thou art my god”. A variant of the vow of fidelity much used in Scotland[21] was that the candidate placed one hand on the crown of her head, the other under the sole of her foot, and dedicated all that was between the two hands to the service of her god. The solemn vow of self-dedication to the deity actually present in person must have been peculiarly impressive. The Swedish witches[22] had a special rite which was obviously intended to impress ignorant minds. They were given a little bag containing a few shavings of a clock to which a stone was tied; they threw this into the water, saying, “As these shavings of the clock do never return to the clock from which they are taken, so may my soul never return to heaven”. This renunciation of a previous religion is noted as early as 1584 by Reginald Scot,[23] who was one of the first to raise his voice against the persecution by Christians of the heathen in their midst, “As our witches are said to renounce Christ and despite his sacraments: so doo the other forsake Mahomet and his lawes”.

After the renunciation of his old religion the convert advanced to the actual admission ceremony, which consisted of baptism and marking. Baptism was the less important part in the eyes of the members of the cult and was often omitted. It was, however, a rite which was in force before the introduction of Christianity and has therefore a definite bearing on the antiquity of the religion of the Horned God. Adult baptism, as recorded in the New Testament, was apparently performed by immersion in a river, but the witch-baptism varied from dipping the head in water to a mere sprinkling; total immersion is never recorded. The rite must have been general throughout Western and Central Europe, as Sir George Mackenzie[24] quotes Delrio to the effect that “the Devil useth to Baptise them of new, and to wipe off their Brow their old Baptism”. In France baptism of children only is noted, and it is a remarkable fact that baptism either of adults or children is never mentioned in English trials though it is recorded in New England. Adult baptism is found in the accounts from Scotland and Sweden. The earliest is from Bute in 1669[25] when several witches gave evidence; Margret NcLevine mid, “He asked, what was her name. She answered him, Margret, the name that God gave me, and he said to her, I baptise thee Jonet”; Isobel NcNicoll confessed that “he baptised her and gave her a new name and called her Caterine”; Jonet NcNicoll “confesses with remorse” that she met “a gross copper-faced man, whom she knew to be an evil spirit, and that he gave her a new name, saying, I baptise thee Mary”; Jonet Morisoun “trysted with the Devil, and he asked what was her name, and she answered, Jonet Morisoun, the name that God gave me, and he said, believe not in Christ but believe in me. I baptise thee Margaret”. In Sweden[26] the converts had to make an oath of fidelity on the occasion of the baptism, “he caused them to be baptised by such Priests as he had there, and made them confirm their Baptism with dreadful Oaths and Imprecations”. The “oaths and imprecations” are recorded by Boguet[27] in a more reasonable manner, “He makes them give up their part in Paradise” [i.e. the Christian heaven], “and makes them promise that they will hold him as their sole master for ever, and that they will always be faithful to him. Above all, he makes them swear very solemnly that they will never accuse one another, nor report anything which has passed among them”. In New England[28] baptism is recorded as being practised regularly. Mary Osgood said that “she was baptised by the Devil, who dipped her face in the water, and made her renounce her former baptism, and told her she must be his, soul and body, for ever and ever”. Goody Lacey” saw six baptised, “he dipped their heads in the water, saying, they were his”.

The kiss often followed the baptism. The new member kissed the Grandmaster on any part of his person that he directed. This was in token of absolute subjection, such as was found in the Middle Ages in the kissing of the Pope’s foot or the kissing of the hand of a monarch. The recorders, however, disregarded the Christian parallels, and make a great feature of the kiss as being most humiliating.

The marking of the new convert was another ceremony which appealed to the imagination of the recorders, and is therefore described in some detail. The Mysterie of Witchcraft,[30] written in 1617, tells us that “the Devil sets his seale upon them. This is commonly some sure marke in some secret place of their bodies, which shall remain sore and unhealed until his next meeting with them, and then for afterwards prove ever insensible”. The author of The Lawes against Witches and Conjuration, published “By Authority” in 11645, states that “the Devil leaveth markes upon their bodies, sometimes like a Blew-spot, or a Red-spot like a flea-biting”. Sir George Mackenzie,[31] the great Scotch lawyer, writing on the legal aspect of the subject, says, “The Devil’s Mark useth to be a great Article with us, but it is not per se found relevant, except it be confest by them, that they got that Mark with their own consent; quo casu, it is equivalent to a paction. The Mark is given to them, as is alledg’d, by a Nip in any part of the body, and it is blew”.

The evidence shows that the mark was caused by pricking or cutting the skin till blood came; the operator then passed his hand over the wound, there was a considerable amount of pain which lasted some days or even longer; when the wound healed the resultant red or blue mark was indelible. This process is obviously some form of tattooing, and is perhaps the attenuated survival of the ancient British and Pictish custom of tattooing the whole body with blue pigment, a custom which among the witches was not confined to Great Britain, but extended to the Continent as well, particularly to France.

There was no special place on the body on which the mark was made, though Boguet says that it was usually on the left shoulder.[32] De Lancre “says that in his part of the country the left side and the left shoulder were marked, that the skin was torn to the effusion of blood, and that the pain might last for three months. He also says that there was a sensation of heat which penetrated into the flesh. Jeanne d’Abadie[34] told de Lancre that when the Devil marked her on the right shoulder he hurt her so much that she cried out, and felt at the time a great heat as if a fire had burned her. The marking of witches in other countries was not so dramatically recorded. The Belgian witch, Elisabeth Vlamynx,[35] tried in 1595, merely stated that she was marked on the left armpit. Two witches tried at Aberdeen 36 in 1597 confessed to the Devil’s marks, Andro Man that “Christsonday bit a mark in the third finger of thy right hand, which thou hast yet to show”, and Christian Mitchell that “the Devil gave thee a nip on the back of thy right hand, for a mark that thou was one of his number”. Sylvine de la Plaine,[37] a young married woman aged twenty-three, confessed at Brécy in 1616 that she had been marked on the crown of the head and on the right thigh. The Yarmouth[38] witch, tried in 1644, saw a tall black man at her door, “he told her he must see her Hand; and then taking out something like a Pen-knife, he gave it a little Scratch so that Blood followed, and the Mark remained to that time”. The Essex witch, Rebecca Jones,[39] told the magistrates that a handsome young man came to the door whom “now she thinks was the devil; who asked this examinate how she did and desired to see her left wrist, which she showed unto him; and he then took a pin from this examinant’s own sleeve, and pricked her wrist twice, and there came out a drop of blood, which he took off with the top of his finger, and so departed”. The Forfar witches,[40] tried in 1661, were marked on the shoulder, Jonet Howat said that “the devil nipped her upon one of her shoulders, so as she had great pain for some time thereafter,” that when he came again he “stroked her shoulder (which he had nipped) with his hand and that presently after she was eased of her former pain”. Another witch, of the same coven was also nipped in the same way; four weeks later “the devil stroked her shoulder with his fingers, and after that she had ease in the place formerly nipped by the Devil”. Marie Lamont of Innerkip,[41] in 1662, stated that “the Devil nipped her on the right side which was very painful for a time, but thereafter he stroked it with his hand, and healed it; this she confesses to be his mark”. In Bute[42] in 1662, Margaret NcWilliam, who seems to have been one of the chief witches there, was marked in three places, one near her left shinbone, another between her shoulders, and the third on the hip, all of them blue marks. Margret NcLevine, of the same coven, stated that the Devil came to her, “he took her by the middle finger of the right hand which he had almost cut off her, and therewith left her. Her finger was so sorely pained for the space of a month thereafter that there was no pain comparable to it, as also took her by the right leg which was sorely pained likewise as also by the Devil”. Three of the Wincanton witches[43] were found to be marked at their trial in 1664; “he prickt the fourth Finger of Elizabeth Style’s right hand between the middle and upper joynt (where the sign at the Examination remained)”; in the case of Alice Duke, “he prickt: the fourth finger of her right hand between the middle and upper joynt (where the mark is yet to be seen)”; and in the case of Christian Green, “the Man in Black prickt: the fourth finger of her Right hand between the middle and upper joints, where the sign yet remains”. Annabil Stuart of Paisley,[44] who was only fourteen when tried in 1678, said that “the Devil took her by the Hand and nipped her Arm, which continued to be sore for half an hour”. At Borrowstowness, in 1679, Margaret Pringle[45] stated that the Devil took her by the right hand, “whereby it was grievously pained; but having it touched of new again, it immediately became whole”. Little Thomas Lindsay, of Renfrewshire,[46] when he joined the coven, had “a Nip on the Neck, which continued sore for Ten days”; and John Reid, who later suffered the traitor’s death in prison, received “a Bite or Nipp in his Loyn, which he found painfull for a Fortnight”. Isobel Adams of Pittenweem, said at her trial in 1704, that “the Devil put his mark in her flesh which was very painful.”[47] In 1705 the two Northampton witches,[48] Elinor Shaw and Mary Phillips, who like the rest of that coven remained faithful to their god unto death, had been pricked at their finger ends.

The Pact or Covenant was probably a late custom, introduced when the religion was falling into decay. In all religions the god promises to the convert eternal life and eternal happiness in return for fidelity and service, but the promise of mundane help enforced by a written contract suggests a form of propaganda which could only have occurred when the religion was hard pressed for converts. The written contract was the most important part of the admission ceremony in the eyes of the legal authorities who tried the witches; it appeared to give an air of finality to the whole transaction. Occasionally, especially in France, one of these written covenants fell into the hands of the inquisitors, unfortunately the exact wording is never given in the records, the inquisitor preferring to make his readers’ flesh creep by saying that “it was so horrible that one had horror in seeing it”.[49] In England and Scotland there is no record of such a contract having been brought into court as evidence against an accused person; it would appear that the Devil kept the paper in some secure place and perhaps destroyed it if there were danger.

No contract was signed without the free consent of the contracting parties, as is clearly shown in many of the trials; the Devil always asked the candidate whether he or she wished to become his servant and the paper was not produced unless the answer was very definitely in the affirmative. If the witch could not write she signed the paper with a cross or circle, or the Devil put his hand on hers and guided her hand in signing her name. The signing is usually said to have been done with the blood of the witch drawn from some part of her person for the purpose; this is, however, merely a confusion with the marking of the candidate when the skin was cut to the effusion of blood. In the later rite, the blood was a convenient fluid for writing the signature when ink was a rare commodity, as is always the case in country places. It is possible also that the blood thus drawn may have been regarded as an offering to the new god. The contract was originally made out and signed on a separate piece of parchment or paper; in the later trials it was said to be in a book, but this is probably a confusion with the Devil’s book in which the records were made at the Sabbaths. In America the book was constantly mentioned by the parsons and ministers who recorded the trials. Forbes, in his Institutes Of the Law of Scotland, says, “An express Covenant is entered into betwixt a Witch and the Devil appearing in some visible Shape. Whereby the former renounceth God and His Baptism, engages to serve the Devil, and do all the Mischief he can as Occasion offers, and leaves his Soul and Body to his Disposal after Death. The Devil on his Part articles with such Proselytes concerning the Shape he is to appear to them in, the Services they are to expect from him, upon the Performance of certain Charms or ceremonious Rites”. Claire Goessen[50] a Belgian witch tried in 1603, made a covenant with the Devil, “this pact was written on paper by Satan himself with blood taken from a prick which she made for that purpose with a pin in the thumb of her left hand, and was signed by the prisoner with her own blood”. Half a century later, in 1657, a Belgian man-witch named Mathieu Stoop, signed a pact with blood drawn from his right leg, but was marked at the same time in the right armpit.

Various methods of making a pact with the Devil were in vogue in France, Belgium and Wales until a recent period. In Belgium[51] the would-be candidate goes to a cross-road at night carrying a black hen. The Devil in the form of a man will come and bargain for the hen, then will buy it by giving the seller what he desires. The pact is made for the duration of seven years. In the Department of Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse,[52] the ritual is slightly different: “Come to the wood and you will see a man coming to you. This is the chief. He will ask if you will engage in his society. If you refuse he will tell you to return whence you came. If you accept, the term of the engagement is for seven years, and you will get a plaquette a day”. The Welsh method carries on the idea of the magical power of the Host. In North Pembrokeshire[53] an old man-witch gave an account of how he obtained his power. When he went to his first Communion he made pretence of eating the bread “and then put it in his pocket. When he went forth from the service there was a dog meeting him by the gate, to which he gave the bread, thus selling his soul to the Devil. Ever after, he possessed the power to bewitch”.

The contract between the Devil and the witch was generally for the term of the witch’s life, but contracts for a term of years are often found. Records and tradition agree in stating that the number of years was seven, though there is some evidence that nine years was also a favourite number. At the end of the term the witch was at liberty to refuse to renew it. The length of the term suggests that it was connected with the cycle of years for the Great Sacrifice in which the god himself was the Divine Victim. If this theory is correct it means that the witch was the substitute for the god, and explains why in so many cases the Devil promised that she should have power and riches during the interval before the end came. In all records of the substitute for the Divine Victim the mock king is allowed the royal power for a certain length of time before the sacrifice is consummated. This I take to be the meaning of the numerous stories of persons selling their souls for the sake of being rich for a term of years and being killed by the Devil at the end of that term.

As might be expected in an organised and devout community, marriage was regarded as a religious ceremony and was therefore solemnised at the Sabbath by the god himself. These were the everyday permanent marriages of an ordinary village, and show how the cult permeated the whole religious organisation and life of the people. Gaule[54] makes the general statement that the Devil “oft-times marries them ere they part, either to himselfe, or their Familiar, or to one another; and that by the Book of Common Prayer.” De Lancre[53] is very explicit, “The Devil performs marriages at the Sabbath between male and female witches. Joining their hands he says to them aloud: Esta es buena parati, Esta parati lo toma.” In Lorraine[56] Agnes Theobalda said that she was at the wedding when Cathalina and Engel von Hudlingen took their Beelzebubs in marriage. In Sweden[57] “the Devil had Sons and Daughters whom he did marry together.” Besides the permanent unions there were temporary marriages in which the ceremonies were equally solemn; Gaule has confused the two kinds in his account. Such witch-marriages occurred in many places but they are more fully recorded in Lorraine than elsewhere. Sometimes one, sometimes both, of the contracting parties were already married to other partners, but that did not appear to be an obstacle, and the wedding gave an extra and special reason for feasting and joyousness.

Dances. At the meetings, both Sabbaths and Esbats, the proceedings often began and terminated with dancing, and in the dances the connection between the witches and the fairies is clearly seen. In all serious accounts of the fairies they are recorded as taking part in two important ceremonies in public; one is the procession, the other is the round dance. The dates of these ceremonies are the four great quarterly festivals, more particularly May-day and All Hallow Fen.

The origin of these ceremonies was undoubtedly religious, and they were in all probability derived from some form of imitative magic. When any ceremony is performed by several people together it tends to become rhythmic, and a dance is evolved in which after a time, the actions are so conventionalised as to be almost unrecognisable. The so-called Fertility Dances are a case in point, for though they were once common throughout the world they survive in recognisable form only among the more backward peoples. In Europe the details have not always been preserved, and it is often solely by comparison with the dances of savages that their original meaning can be seen. In Crete the dance of Ariadne, performed by youths and maidens, belonged apparently to the Fertility group, so also did the processional dance of the Bacchantes. Mars in Rome was served by dancing priests, and the running step with which Moslems go round the Ka’aba is perhaps the survival of a sacred dance at Mecca.

The processional dance might be performed either on foot or on horseback, the essential part being that there was a leader, whose course was followed and whose actions were imitated by the rest of the dancers. The procession of the fairies was always on horseback, but the Bacchae of ancient times and the medieval witches danced the processional dance on foot. The round dance, whether of witches or fairies, was also on foot. The dancing ground was regarded as sacred, and often the dancers assembled in the village and danced their way to the holy spot. A survival of such a processional dance is seen in the folk-dance known as “Green Garters”, which carried the procession from the place of assembling to the Maypole, and was throughout England the customary introduction to the Maypole rites (pl. XIV).

A fact which stamps the processional dance as a religious rite is that it was often danced in the churchyard. To quote only a few out of many examples, in 1282[58] the priest of Inverkeithing “led the ring” in his own churchyard, the dancers being his own parishioners. The quaint old story of the Sacrilegious Carollers[59] tells of a company of thirteen persons of both sexes, of whom the chief was the priest’s daughter, who danced in a churchyard; this was in 1303 (plate XIV. 2). In 1590, Barbara Napier[60] met the covens of North Berwick at the church, “where she danced endlong the kirkyard, and Gelie Duncan played on a trump, John Fian masked led the ring, Agnes Sampson and her daughters and all the rest following the said Barbara to the number of seven score persons”. The religious importance of the churchyard dances caused them to survive long after the Middle Ages. Aubrey[61] notes that in Herefordshire the village lads and lasses danced in the churchyards on all holydays and the eves of holydays; in Wales,[61] too, the same custom was kept up till late in the nineteenth century, but there the dancing was always confined to the north side of the churchyard where burials are fewest.

One of the most surprising survivals of the processional dance was to be found at Shaftesbury. Like “Green Garters” it was connected with the May-day ceremonies, showing that it was in origin essentially religious. The petition of the civic authorities in the reign of Charles II is still extant, praying that the date of the dance might be changed from Sunday to a weekday, as the performance interfered with the attendance at church. This shows that the sanctity of the dance was such that it had to be performed on the sacred day. The description of the dance as seen by an eye-witness is published in the Sporting Magazine for 1803.

“The inhabitants of Shaftesbury have an annual custom of great singularity called the Besant, or a May Day Dance for the Waters of Mottcomb. The last new married couple of the town come in the morning to the Mayor’s House and are presented, the one with a fine Holland Shirt, the other with a Shift of the same material, elegantly adorned with ribbons of all the colours of the Rainbow. With these begin the procession, and immediately after them a party bearing a large dish, in which is placed a calf’s head, with a purse of money in the mouth. Round the buds or young horns is wreathed a chaplet composed of all the flowers of the season. Over this the Besant[*1] is held at the end of a pole by a man dressed in singular uniform. Now comes the Mayor and his Aldermanic body; at the sound of the music, of which there is great plenty, the whole are put in motion, youth, age and even decrepitude, begin to dance, and in this way quit the town, descend the hill, and never cease leaping and prancing till they arrive at the Well of Mottcomb where the owners of the water wait to receive their merry customers. After a short speech of ceremony, the Mayor presents the Besant to buy the waters for another year; and now Mr. Mayor, unwilling to leave so valuable a pledge behind, begins to treat for a Redemption, when the Foreman of the Mottcomb people consents for the whole. Having received the dish with the calf’s head, the purse of money and a new pair of laced gloves, he returns the Besant to the Magistrate, who having refreshed himself and Company on Mottcomb Green, return dancing in the most ridiculous way to the place from whence they came, finishing the day with May Games and the greatest Festivity” (see plate XIII).

The survivals of the processional dance in modern times are the Furry dance of England and the Farandole of France. In both these dances the performers hold

[*1 For the description of the Besant or Byzant, see under Broom, p. 94.]

hands to form a chain, and wind in and out of every room in every house of the village; where the leader goes the others must go, what the leader does the others must do. The dancers of the Farandole must be unmarried; and as the dance is often performed at night they either carry lanterns or “wear a round of waxen tapers on the head” like the fairies (plate XV). According to Jeanne Boisdeau,[63] in 1594, the dance at the top of the Puy de Dome was danced back to back and was led by a great black goat, the oldest person present followed directly after him holding to his tail, and the rest came after holding hands. This seems to have been a circular dance to begin with, followed by a dancing procession. The Follow-my-leader dance was always of great importance among the witches, and it was essential that the leader should be young and active as pace was required. At Auldearne[64] in 1662, the Maiden of the Coven was nicknamed “Over the dyke with it”, because as Isobel Gowdie explained, “the Devil always takes the Maiden in his hand next him when we would dance Gillatrypes; and when he would leap from” [the words are broken here] “he and she will say ‘Over the dyke with it’.” At Aberdeen,[65] Thomas Leyis was the leader and knocked down a certain Kathren Mitchell, “because she spoiled your dance, and ran not so fast about as the rest”. At Crighton,[66] Mr. Gideon Penman “was in the rear in all their dances and beat up those that were slow”.

As the processional dance was performed by men and women side by side in pairs or in a long line with the sexes alternately, it was liable to break up into couples who continued dancing together after the procession was ended. Reginald Scot[67] says a dance of this kind was called La Volta, an interesting piece of information for La Volta is said to be the origin of the modern waltz.

The processional dance could be in itself a complete act of worship, but it was most frequently used to bring the worshippers to the holy place where the round dance or “Ring” was to be performed.

The ring dance was specially connected with the fairies, who were reported to move in a ring holding hands. It is the earliest known dance, for there is a representation of one at Cogul in north-eastern Spain (Catalonia), which dates to the Late Palaeolithic or Capsian period (plate IX). The dancers are all women, and their peaked hoods, long breasts, and elf-locks should be noted and compared with the pictures and descriptions of elves and fairies. They are apparently dancing round a small male figure who stands in the middle. A similar dance was performed and represented several thousand years later, with Robin Goodfellow in the centre of the ring and his worshippers forming a moving circle round him (plate X). Though the interval of time between the two representations is very great it is obvious that the ceremony is the same in both cases, but the later example is, as might be expected, more detailed and sophisticated. The central figure is bearded like the Dancing God of Ariège, but the animal’s skin has degenerated into animal’s legs. The number of performers in the Robin Goodfellow picture is thirteen, including the god and the musician; there are only nine in the Cogul painting; but in both the palaeolithic and medieval examples the dancers are as carefully hatted or hooded as any fairy.

Other sacred dances were known in ancient times. The Therapeutae, at the beginning of the Christian era, had a religious service very like that of the witches: “After the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night. They sing hymns in honour of God, at one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony. Then when each chorus of the men and each chorus of the women has feasted by itself separately, like persons in the Bacchanalian revels, they join together.”[61] This is so like the singing dances of the witches that it is possible that both derive from the same source. Yet no one accuses the Therapeutae of sorcery or devil-worship, for our knowledge of them comes from a sympathetic recorder.

Another singing dance, also of moderate antiquity though within the Christian era, is that attributed to Christ and the disciples.[69] The date is not accurately known, but part of the chant is quoted by Augustine (died A.D. 430) in the Epistle to Ceretius, and part of sections 93-5 and 97-8 were read at the Second Nicene Council. The whole chant is too long to transcribe here, I therefore quote only a few lines.

(94) “Now before he was taken by the lawless Jews he gathered all of us together and said: Before I am delivered up unto them let us sing an hymn to the Father, and so go forth to that which lieth before us. He bade us therefore make as it were a ring, holding one another’s hands, and himself standing in the midst he said: Answer Amen unto me. He began, then, to sing an hymn and to say: Glory be to thee, Father. And we, going about in a ring, answered him: Amen. (95) I would be saved, and I would save. Amen. I would be washed, and I would wash. Amen. Grace danceth; I would pipe; dance ye all. Amen. I would mourn; lament ye all. Amen. The number Eight (lit: one ogdoad) singeth praise with us. Amen. The number Twelve danceth on high. Amen. The Whole on high hath part in our dancing. Amen. Whoso danceth not, knoweth not what cometh to pass. Amen. I would flee, and I would stay. Amen. (96) Now answer thou unto my dancing. Behold thyself in me who speak, and seeing what I do, keep silence about my mysteries. Thou that dancest, perceive what I do, for thine is this passion of the manhood, which I am about to suffer. Thy god am I, not the god of the traitor. I would keep tune with holy souls. I have leaped; but do thou understand the whole, and having understood it, say: Glory be to the Father. Amen. (97) Thus, my beloved, having danced with us the Lord went forth.” The early date of this singing dance shows the importance attached to this mode of worship, which though heathen in origin was transferred to the religious services of the Christians as though with the sanction of the Founder of the religion.

The ring dance was regarded as a sinister ceremony by the priestly authorities who were engaged in suppressing the Old Religion during the Middle Ages. Boguet compares the round dance of the witches with that of the fairies, whom he stigmatises as “devils incarnate”.[70] The ring usually moved to the left, but where as in France the dancers faced outwards the movement was widdershins, against the sun. The Aberdeen witches[71] were accused of dancing devilish dances round the Market and Fish Crosses of the town, and also round a great stone at Craigleauch.

The ring dance has shared the fate of many religious rites and has become an amusement for children. Some such dances have a person as the central object, round whom the whole ring turns. Those which have no central figure are usually imitative dances, like Mulberry Bush, where the original actions were undoubtedly not so simple and innocent as those now performed. In parts of Belgium the children still dance in a ring with the performers facing outwards.

The immense importance of the dance as a religious ceremony and an act of adoration of the Deity is seen by the attitude of the Church towards it. In 589 the third Council of Toledo[72], forbade the people to dance in churches on the vigils of saints’ days. In 1209[73] the Council of Avignon promulgated a similar prohibition. As late as the seventeenth century the apprentices of York danced in the nave of the Minster.[74] Even at the present day the priest and choristers of the cathedral at Seville dance in front of the altar on Shrove Tuesday and at the feasts of Corpus Christi and of the Immaculate Conception; while at Echternach in Luxembourg on[75] Whit-Tuesday the priest, accompanied by choir and congregation, dances to church and round the altar.

The sacred dance is undoubtedly pre-Christian, and nothing can emphasise more strongly its hold on the minds of the people than its survival after many centuries of Christianity. Not only has it survived but it has actually been incorporated into the rites of the new religion, and we see it still danced by priests and worshippers of the new faith in their holiest precints just as it was danced by priests and worshippers in the very earliest dawn of religion.

The music to which the worshippers danced was a source of great interest to some of the recorders, and accounts are very varied. It was not uncommon for the Grandmaster himself to be the performer, even when he led the dance; but there was often a musician who played for the whole company. The usual instruments were the flute, the pipe, the trump or Jew’s harp, and in France the violin. But there were others in vogue also. The musical bow of the little masked figure of the Palaeolithic era (plate II) is very primitive, the player is dancing to his own music as the Devil so often did in Scotland. The flute as an instrument for magical purposes occurs in Egypt at the very dawn of history, when a masked man plays on it in the midst of animals. The panpipes, as their name implies, belong specially to a god who was disguised as an animal.

In Lorraine in 1589[76] the musical instruments were extraordinarily primitive. Besides small pipes, which were played by women, a man “has a horse’s skull which he plays as a cyther. Another has a cudgel with which he strikes an oak-tree, which gives out a note and an echo like a kettle drum or a military drum. The Devil sings in a hoarse shout, exactly as if he trumpeted through his nose so that a roaring wooden voice resounds through the wide air. The whole troop together shout, roar, bellow, howl, as if they were demented and mad.” The French witches were apparently appreciative of good music for they told de Lancrell that “they dance to the sound of the tambourine and the flute, and sometimes with a long instrument which they place on the neck and pulling it out down to the belt they strike it with a little stick; sometimes with a violin. But these are not the only instruments at the Sabbath, for we have learned from many that they hear there every kind of instrument, with such harmony that there is not a concert in the world that can equal it.”

The Feast. The feast was an important part of the religious ceremonies, and in this the cult of the Horned God was like other Pagan ceremonies of which records remain. The Mithraic Supper and the Christian Love-feasts were of the same class.

Throughout all the ceremonies of this early religion there is an air of joyous gaiety and cheerful happiness which even the holy horror of the Christian recorders cannot completely disguise. When the witches’ own words are given without distortion their feelings towards their religious rites and their god are diametrically opposed to the sentiments of the Christians. The joyousness of the cult is particularly marked in the descriptions of the feasts, perhaps because to the recorders there was nothing specially wicked in the ceremony, and they were at less pains to attribute infernal and devilish meanings to it than to other parts of the pagan ritual.

At the Great Sabbaths when whole villages met together for a combination of religion and amusement the feast must have been a source of great happiness, symbolising as it did the gifts of God to man, with the god himself presiding in person. The acknowledgment to the Divine Man of his gifts is recorded in the evidence of Isobel Gowdie at Nairn; she stated that when they had finished eating, “we looked steadfastly to the Devil, and bowing to him we said, ‘We thank thee, our lord, for this'”[78]

There seems to have been some doubt in the minds of the judges as to whether the feasts were not illusion on the part of the “Foul Fiend”, so that it is interesting to find that the inquisitor Boguet[79] reports, that “very often at the Sabbath, they eat in good earnest, and not by fantasy and imagination.” The style of the feast varied according to the wealth of the giver. Boguet is again our informant when he says that the banquets were composed of various sorts of food, according to the place and rank of the participants, the table being covered with butter, cheese and meat. Among the very poor there was often no feast, as in Alsace in 1618[80] when Catherine Volmar contracted a witch-marriage with the Devil Peterlin, “there was no banquet because no one had brought food or drink”.

When weather permitted the food was eaten in the open air. The feasts of the witches of Wincanton, in Somerset,[81] sound very pleasant, “all sate down, a white Cloth being spread on the ground, and did drink Wine, and eat Cakes and Meat”. In Scotland, where the weather was more uncertain, the records show that the feast usually took place indoors. The food was supplied by the Chief as a rule; sometimes one of the richer members of the coven would provide; and it was also not uncommon for the congregation to bring each his or her own food and eat it in company. In this last case the food was apt to be homely enough, as in Sweden[82], where “the diet they did use to have was, they said, Broth with Colworts and Bacon in it, Oatmeal, Bread spread with Butter, Milk, and Cheese.” When the Grandmaster provided the food the feast was worthy of the giver, and if a rich member was the hostess the food was always of the best. Thus Elspeth Bruce[83] gave her fellow-members a goose in her own house, and found great favour in the eyes of the Master, partly on account of her good dinner, but also because she was “ane prettie woman”. The Lancashire witches[84] had a simple method of providing for their feast, they merely took what they required from some local farmer, “the persons aforesaid had to their dinners beef, bacon, and roasted mutton; which mutton was of a wether of Christopher Swyers of Barley; which wether was brought in the night before into his mother’s house by James Device, and killed and eaten.” In the same way the witches of Forfar[85] helped themselves to what they wanted, “they went to Mary Rynd’s house and sat down together at the table, the Devil being present at the head of it; and some of them went to John Benny’s house, he being a brewer, and brought ale from thence, and others of them went to Alexander’s Hieche’s and brought aqua vitae from thence, and thus made themselves merry.”

The Somerset witches in 1664[86] were always the guests of their chief, who treated them well, “at their meeting they have usually Wine or good Beer, Cakes, Meat or the like. They eat and drink really when they meet in their bodies, dance also and have Musick”. Another account says that “they had Wine, Cakes, and Roastmeat (all brought by the Man in Black) which they did eat and drink. They danced and were merry, and were bodily there and in their Clothes”. Even as early as 1588[87] Alison Peirson, who went among the fairies, said that a man in green “appeared to her, a lusty man, with many men and women with him; she blessed herself and prayed, passed and with them further than she could tell; and saw with them piping and merriness and good cheer, and was carried to Lothian, and saw wine puncheons with tasses with them”. Marie Lamont[88] in 1662 said that “the Devil came to Kattrein Scott’s house in the midst of the night, he was in the likeness of a mickle black man, and sung to them and they danced. He gave them wine to drink and wheat bread to eat, and they were all very merry”. At Borrowstowness in 1679[89] there was a large party, the accusation was that “ye and each person of you was at several meetings with the Devil in the links of Borrowstowness, and in the house of you, Bessie Vickar, and ye did eat and drink with the Devil, and with one another, and with witches in her house in the night time; and the Devil and William Craw brought the ale which ye drank, extending to seven gallons”. Very different was the picnic feast of the Andover coven in New England;[90] Goody Foster, of Salem, was asked what she did for victuals at the meeting, “she answered that she carried Bread and Cheese in her pocket, and that she and the Andover Company came to the Village before the Meeting began, and sat down together under a tree and eat their food, and that she drank water out of a Brook to quench her thirst. And that the Meeting was upon a plain grassy place, by which was a Cart path and sandy ground in the path, in which were the tracks of Horses’ feet. And she also told me how long they were going and returning”.

The general belief among the Christian recorders was that at a witchfeast salt was not permitted, and various reasons were adduced to account for the omission. The sanctity of salt was a pre-Christian idea, and the taboo on its use was strictly observed by the Egyptian priests. Salt has a special significance among Moslems and other non-Christian peoples, and the belief in its holiness has continued into Christian times and even to the present day, for it is used in the making of the baptismal chrism. The spilling of salt is still considered unlucky, and the sowing of salt on the site of a sacked town probably meant that the place was taboo and might not be cultivated. The accounts of the witch-feasts show that salt was commonly used, though here and there it appears to have been omitted. Sometimes a reason for its absence is given, as in the case of the Alsatian witch, Anna Lang, in 1618,[91] who had no bread or salt at the feast in the woods of Saint-Hippolite, because things had fallen out of the cart on the way there.

Wine was ordinarily drunk at feasts, especially when the provisions were given by the rich members of the flock. In France it was usually drunk out of wooden goblets, but in Alsace[92] the wealthy ladies brought with them their own silver cups, out of which everybody drank. In England and Scotland beer or aqua vitae were the usual drinks.

The combination of religion and feasting and general jollity so characteristic of the Great Sabbaths is curiously reminiscent of the modern method of keeping Christmas.

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