God of the Witches – Intro


THIS book being intended for the general reader as well as for the student of anthropology the authority for each statement is not always given in the text. For the benefit of those who wish to pursue the study further there is a bibliography for each chapter at the end of the book. For a complete bibliography of English records the reader is referred to Wallace Notestein’s History of Witchcraft in England (Washington, 1911). In my Witch Cult in Western Europe (Oxford University Press, 1921) the bibliography is chiefly of the British Isles, France, Belgium, and Sweden.

Though I am concerned with the existence through the Middle Ages of a primitive religion in Western Europe only, there is no doubt that the cult was spread in early times through Central and Eastern Europe and the Near East. There it survived, underlying, as in the West, the official religion of the country, Christianity in Europe, Islam and sometimes Christianity in the East. The literati of those countries were of the faith there in the ascendant, consequently the Old Religion was seldom recorded, for Paganism belonged there as here to the inarticulate uneducated masses who remained for many centuries untouched by the new religion. I have not attempted to give every known instance of the beliefs and ritual of the “witches”; all I desire to do is to present to the reader a fairly complete view of the cult from contemporary evidence. I have also, as occasion arose, compared the Witch-Cult with other religions of ancient and modern times.

My grateful thanks are due to my sister, Mrs. M. E. Slater, and to Mr. G. A. Wainwright for much kind help and many valuable suggestions; and to Mr. F. Rutter, Town-clerk of Shaftesbury, for the information which he so kindly furnished concerning the Prize Besom.

In conclusion, there is one request I wish to make of my readers. Since my Witch Cult in Western Europe appeared I have received many letters containing criticisms, some complimentary, some condemnatory, of that book. If other correspondents honour me with similar private criticisms of the present volume, I ask of them that they will sign their communications, even when the opinions they express are adverse. Anonymous letters, of which I received a number, reflect no credit on their writers.














MUCH has been written of late years on the changes, evolution, and continuity of material culture from the Palaeolithic period down to the Roman era when written accounts of Western Europe began. The movements of peoples, the increase of trade, the advance of civilisation, have all been traced with considerable precision. The late Palaeolithic period of Europe has been linked with the Capsian, which is of African origin, and the gulf between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic civilisations is being rapidly bridged. The material side of life has received most attention, for the concrete remains of Early Man are very numerous. The pictorial and plastic arts of the most remote periods have also been studied, and from the arts and handicrafts the mental development of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic peoples can be traced. But the religion of those early times has been entirely neglected, with the exception of a few references to Mother-goddesses and to burial customs. The student of early religion begins his subject in the early Bronze-age of the Near East and totally ignores Western Europe in the Stone-ages; he ends his study with the introduction of Christianity, as the study of that religion is known as Theology. There is, however, a continuity of belief and ritual which can be traced from the Palaeolithic period down to modern times. It is only by the anthropological method that the study of religions, whether ancient or modern, can be advanced.

The attitude of all writers towards the post-Christian era in Europe, especially towards the Middle Ages, has been that of the ecclesiastic, the historian, the artist, the scholar, or the economist. Hitherto the anthropologist has confined himself to the pre-Christian periods or to the modern savage. Yet medieval Europe offers to the student of Mankind one of the finest fields of research. In this volume I have followed one line only of anthropological enquiry, the survival of an indigenous European cult and the interaction between it and the exotic religion which finally overwhelmed it. I have traced the worship of the Horned God onwards through the centuries from the Palaeolithic prototypes, and I have shown that the survival of the cult was due to the survival of the races who adored that god, for this belief could not have held its own against the invasions of other peoples and religions unless a stratum of the population were strong enough to keep it alive.

If the evidence is carefully examined it becomes clear that this stratum consisted of the descendants of the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze-age races, The Palaeolithic people were hunters, the Neolithic and Bronze-age people were pastoral and agricultural. Among all these races the Horned God was pre-eminent, for alike to hunting and pastoral folk animals were essential for life. After the general introduction of agriculture, the Horned God remained as a great deity, and was not dethroned even by the coming of the Iron-age. It was not till the rise of Christianity, with its fundamental doctrine that a non-Christian deity was a devil, that the cult of the Horned God fell into disrepute.

The idea of dividing the Power Beyond into two, one good and one evil, belongs to an advanced and sophisticated religion. In the more primitive cults the deity is in himself the author of all, whether good or bad. The monotheism -of early religions is very marked, each little settlement ok-group of settlements having its one deity, male or female, whose power was co-terminous with that of his worshippers. Polytheism appears to have arisen with the amalgamation of tribes, each with its own deity. When a tribe whose deity was male coalesced with a tribe whose deity was female, the union of the peoples was symbolised in their religion by the marriage of their gods. When by peaceful infiltration a new god ousted an old one, he was said to be the son of his predecessor. But when the invasion was warlike the conquering deity was invested with all good attributes while the god of the vanquished took a lower place and was regarded by the conquerors as the producer of evil, and was consequently often more feared than their own legitimate deity. In ancient Egypt the fall from the position of a high god to that of a “devil” is well exemplified in the god Seth, who in early times was as much a giver of all good as Osiris, but later was so execrated that, except in the city of his special cult, his name and image were rigorously destroyed. In the study of the Horned God this fact of the fall from godship to devildom must be borne in mind.

Little is known of Palaeolithic Man beyond his flint tools, his painted and sculptured caves, his engraved bones, and a few skulls. He lived in caves in glacial conditions as is shown by the animals found with him. It is certain that there was some kind of ceremony, religious or magical, in which a horned man, presumably a god, took the leading part. It is equally certain that there must have been a worship of the female principle, but in the cult of the Horned God this does not appear till a much later stage.

Of the religion of the Neolithic period nothing is known in Western Europe except the burial rites. The gods have left no recognisable trace, though certain female figures may possibly represent goddesses. But when the Bronze-age arose the Horned God is found through all Europe from East to West. The fierce tribes who brought in the Iron-age destroyed the greater part of the previous civilisation, and possibly the previous inhabitants also, except those descendants of the Neolithic and Bronze-age folk still remaining on the moors and downs, where agriculture was unsuitable at the time and where the valley people would be afraid to venture. Powerless though the moormen were against the new weapons they seem to have struck terror into the invaders. If there was war between the two races it was a guerilla warfare, in which the Little People had the advantage over the slow-moving agriculturists. In the end a certain amount of intercourse must have been established. Whether it was due to trade and intermarriage that the worship of the Horned God was re-introduced among the tillers of the soil; or, as is more likely, that the people of the Iron-age had acquired the cult in their own habitat or in their slow march across Europe, it is certain that he retained his position as a high god.

It is not unlikely that at this period the cross was used by the conquerors as a magical method of frightening and scaring away the hill-people. The cross was already in use as a sacred symbol in the Bronze-age in Eastern Europe, and to the Iron-age belongs the Whiteleaf Cross cut in the chalk of the Chiltern hills, where it could exercise its protective power against the upland dwellers. In all accounts of fairies and witches it is only the cross that has power against them, the most sacred of other Christian objects and emblems had no effect. As late as the seventeenth century Sinistrari d’Ameno states that it is “a most marvellous and incomprehensible fact that the Incubi do not obey the Exorcists, have no dread of exorcisms, no reverence for holy things, at the approach of which they are not in the least overawed . . . Incubi stand all these ordeals “(which drive away evil spirits)” without taking to flight or showing the least fear; sometimes they laugh at exorcisms, strike the Exorcists themselves, and rend the sacred vestments”.[1] He therefore concluded that they were mortal and had souls like men. The evidence appears fairly conclusive that the deep-seated dread of the cross does not refer to the Christian symbol but dates back to a period several centuries before Christianity.

The Roman religion took no hold on Great Britain and was little regarded in Gaul. The Romans called the British and Gaulish deities by Roman names, but the religion was not Romanised, and no Roman god was ever completely established in the West of Europe. The old deities continued in full force unaffected by foreign influence. The temple built on the summit of the Puy de Dome was dedicated to a god called by the Romans Mercurius, to his worshippers he was known as Dumus; Cernunnos, in spite of his Latinised name, was found in all parts of Gaul. Few of the names of the indigenous deities of Great Britain have survived, and the ritual received scant attention from the Roman recorders.

When Christianity first arrived in Great Britain it came in from the West and established itself among the people rather than the rulers. Centuries later other missionaries entered on the East. The Christian Church had by this time become more organised, more dogmatic, more bent on proselytising. The main attack, therefore, was not on the people but on the royal families, particularly on the queens whose influence was well understood. Paganism, however, received continual reinforcements in the successive invasions of heathen peoples; Danes, Norsemen, Angles, Jutes and Saxons poured in and took possession. In judging of the history of early Christianity in Britain it must always be remembered that the people who brought it in on the East coast were foreigners, who never amalgamated with the natives. Augustine was Italian, and for more than a century no native Britons were advanced to high places in the Church. Theodore of Tarsus, with the aid of Hadrian, the negro, organised the Church in England in the seventh century, Italians and other aliens held the high offices. The Augustine mission and their successors concentrated on the rulers, and through them forced their exotic religion on a stubborn and unwilling people. This is very clear in the reign of Canute, whose conversion was hardly two generations before the Norman Conquest; in his zeal for his new religion he tried to suppress heathenism by legal enactments.

No religion dies out with the dramatic suddenness claimed by the upholders of the Complete-Conversion theory. The constant influx of Pagans through several centuries more than counterbalanced the small number of immigrant Christians. The country must therefore have been Pagan with Christian rulers and a Christian aristocracy. A parallel case is that of Spain under the Moslems. There the rulers were of one religion, the people of another, the popular religion receiving continual reinforcements from abroad. In the case of Spain the popular religion organised by the civil power drove out the superimposed cult. In England, however, the final conquest was by the Normans, whose ruler was of the same religion as that of the king whom he defeated; but the Norman people, like the English, were largely of the Old Faith, and the Conquest made little difference to the relative position of the two religions. Therefore though the rulers professed Christianity the great mass of the people followed the old gods, and even in the highest offices of the Church the priests often served the heathen deities as well as the Christian God and practised Pagan rites. Thus in 1282 the priest of Inverkeithing led the fertility dance round the churchyard;[2] in 1303 the bishop of Coventry, like other members of his diocese, paid homage to a deity in the form of an animal;[3] in 1453, two years before the Rehabilitation of Joan of Arc, the Prior of Saint-Germain-en-Laye performed the same rites as the bishop of Coventry.[4] As late as 1613 de Lancre can say of the Basses Pyrénées, “the greater part of the priests are witches”,[5] while Madame Bourignon in 1661 records at Lille that “no Assemblies were ever seen so numerous in the City as in these Sabbaths, where came People of all Qualities and Conditions, Young and Old, Rich and Poor, Noble, and Ignoble, but especially all sorts of Monks and Nuns, Priests and Prelates”.[6] The political aspect of the organisation is well exemplified in the trial of the North Berwick witches, when at the instance of their Grandmaster they attempted to kill James VI. Another example is found among the Elizabethan State Papers;[7] “The names of the Confederates against Her Majesty who have diverse and sundry times conspired her life and do daily confederate against her Ould Birtles the great devel, Darnally the sorcerer, Maude Two-good enchantress, the ould witch of Ramsbury”.

William the Conqueror rendered waste and desolate nearly half of his new kingdom; the re-peopling of the wilderness seems to have been done in great measure by the descendants of the Neolithic and Bronze-age stock who were saved from massacre by the remoteness and inaccessibility of their dwellings. These were the places where the Old Religion flourished; and it was only by very slow degrees that even a small amount of outward conformity with Christianity could be established, and then only by means of compromises on the part of the Church; certain practices were permitted, certain images were retained, though often under different names.

The Reformation appears to have had the same effect on Great Britain as the Mahommedan conquest had on Egypt. The Moslems found Christianity established in the towns of the Nile Valley while a debased Paganism still existed among the agricultural population. The religion of Islam swept through the country like a flame, the converts being chiefly from the Pagans, not from the Christians. In Great Britain the appeal of the Reformation, like the appeal of the even more fanatical Islam, was to the Pagan population; but with this difference, that in England political conditions brought in the higher classes as well. It was then that the dividing line between Christianity and heathenism became more marked, for the Old Religion was gradually relegated to the lowest classes of the community and to those who lived in remote parts at a distance from any centre of civilisation.

The records of the Middle Ages show the ancient god was known in many parts of the country, but to the Christian recorder he was the enemy of the New Religion and was therefore equated with the Principle of Evil, in other words the Devil. This conception, that a god other than that of the recorded must be evil, is not confined to Christianity, or to the Middle Ages. St. Paul, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, expressed the same opinion when he wrote, “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils; ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and the table of devils”. The author of the Book of Revelation is equally definite when he calls the magnificent altar of Zeus at Pergamos “the throne of Satan”, “I know thy works and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s throne is”. In 1613 Sebastian Michaelis spoke with no uncertain voice, “The Gods of the Turks and the Gods of the Gentiles are all Devils”. In India, Hindus, Mahommedans and Christians unite in calling the deities of the aboriginal tribes “devils”. The gentle peaceable Yezidis of modern Mesopotamia, whose god is incarnate in a peacock or a black snake, are stigmatised as “devil-worshippers” by their Moslem fellow-countrymen. As late as the nineteenth century Christian missionaries of every denomination, who went out to Convert the heathen in any part of the world, were apt to speak of the people among whom they laboured as worshippers of devils, and many even believed that those to whom they preached were doomed to hell-fire unless they turned to the Christian God. The gods of the Pagans were often accredited with evil magical powers, which could be mysteriously communicated to the priests. Against such powers of hell the Christian missionaries felt themselves strengthened by the powers of heaven; and the belief that the devil had been defeated by the Archangel Michael backed by the whole power of the Almighty gave them courage in the contest.

The study of anthropology has changed much of this childish method of regarding the forms of religious belief which belong to another race or another country. To consider Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism as the invention of the Evil One would be thought ridiculous at the present day, even the fetishes and the images of the more savage races are treated with respect as being sacred to their worshippers.

But though there is no difficulty in realising the fact that “heathen” religions exist outside Europe, there is still a strong feeling among Christians that Christianity is so essentially European that no other religion could have remained after it was once introduced. The evidence, however, points to an entirely different conclusion. Until almost the time of the Norman Conquest the legal enactments show that though the rulers might be nominally Christian the people were openly heathen.

It is possible that the Church’s prohibition against representing the Crucifixion as a lamb on a cross was due to the desire to differentiate the Christian from the heathen god. The lamb, being a horned animal, was liable to be confounded with the horned deity of the Pagans.

The desolation of the country by the Conqueror would not increase the estimation of Christianity in the eyes of the unhappy population, and the old Religion must have survived if only as a protest against the horrors inflicted by the worshipper of the new God, The number of times that the “Devil” is said to have appeared in the reign of Rufus is very suggestive of this.

In the thirteenth century the Church opened its long drawn-out conflict with Paganism in Europe by declaring “witchcraft” to be a “sect” and heretical. It was not till the fourteenth century that the two religions came to grips. The bishop of Coventry in 1303 escaped probably because he belonged to both faiths, but the next trial was fought out to the end. In 1324 the bishop of Ossory tried Dame Alice Kyteler in his ecclesiastical court for the crime of worshipping a deity other than the Christian God. The evidence proved the truth of the accusation, which the lady apparently did not deny, but she was of too high rank to be condemned and she escaped out of the bishop’s hands. Not so her followers, who paid at the stake the penalty of differing from the Church. The next step was the investigation into the Old Religion at Berne, given to the world in Nider’s Formicarius. Here again the Church could seize only the poorer members, those of high rank were too powerful to be sent to their deaths and went free.

The fifteenth century marks the first great victories of the Church. Beginning with the trials in Lorraine in 1408 the Church moved triumphantly against Joan of Arc and her followers in 1431, against Gilles de Rais and his coven in 1440, against the witches of Brescia in 1457. Towards the end of the century the Christian power was so well established that the Church felt that the time had come for an organised attack, and in 1484 pope Innocent VIII published his Bull against “witches.” All through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the battle raged. The Pagans fought a gallant, though losing, fight against a remorseless and unscrupulous enemy; every inch of the field was disputed. At first victory occasionally inclined to the Pagans, but the Christian policy of obtaining influence over the rulers and law-givers was irresistible. Vae victis was also the policy of the Christians, and we see the priests of the Papacy gloating over the thousands whom they had consigned to the flames while the ministers of the Reformed Churches hounded on the administrators of the law to condemn the “devil-worshippers”. What can have been the feelings with which those unhappy victims regarded the vaunted God of Love, the Prince of Peace, whose votaries condemned them to torture and death? What wonder that they clung to their old faith, and died in agony unspeakable rather than deny their God.

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