The Devils of Loudun Page 44

“In order to clear the ground,” writes Miss Margaret Murray in the introduction of her valuable study, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, “I make a sharp distinction between Operative Witchcraft and Ritual Witchcraft. Under Operative Witchcraft I class all charms and spells, whether used by a professed witch or a professed Christian, whether intended for good or for evil, for killing or for curing. Such charms and spells are common to every nation and country, and are practised by the priests and people of every religion. They are part of the common heritage of the human race. . . . Ritual Witchcraft—or, as I propose to call it, the Dianic cult—embraces the religious beliefs and ritual of the people known in late mediaeval times as ‘Witches.’ The evidence proves that underlying the Christian religion was a cult practised by many classes of the community, chiefly, however, by the more ignorant or those in the less thickly inhabited parts of the country. It can be traced back to pre-Christian times and appears to be the ancient religion of Western Europe.”

In that year of grace, sixteen hundred and thirty-two, more than a thousand years had gone by since Western Europe was ‘converted to Christianity’; and yet the ancient fertility religion, considerably corrupted by the fact of being chronically ‘agin the government,’ was still alive, still boasted its confessors and heroic martyrs, still had an ecclesiastical organization—identical, according to Cotton Mather, to that of his own Congregational Church. The fact of the old faith’s survival seems somewhat less astonishing, when we remember that, after four centuries of missionary effort, the Indians of Guatemala are not perceptibly more Catholic today than they were in the first generation after the coming of Alvarado.1 In another seven or eight hundred years the religious situation in Central America may have come, perhaps, to resemble that which prevailed in seventeenth-century Europe, where a majority of Christians bitterly persecuted a minority attached to the older faith.

(In some districts the members of the Dianic cult and their fellow travellers may actually have constituted a majority of the population. Rémy, Boguet and de Lancre have left accounts respectively of Lorraine, the Jura and the Basque country, as they found them at the turn of the seventeenth century. From their books it is clear that in these outlying regions most people were, to some extent at least, of the old religion. Hedging their bets, they worshipped God by day and the devil at night. Among the Basques many priests used to celebrate both kinds of Mass, the black as well as the white. Lancre burned three of these eccentric clergymen, lost five who escaped from the condemned cell, and vehemently suspected a host of others.)

The central ceremony of Ritual Witchcraft was the so-called ‘Sabbath’—a word of unknown origin, having no relation to its Hebrew homonym. Sabbaths were celebrated four times a year—on Candlemas Day, 2nd February; on Rood Mass Day, 1st May; on Lammas Day, 1st August; and on the eve of All Hallows, 31st October. These were great festivals, often attended by hundreds of devotees, who came from considerable distances. Between Sabbaths there were weekly ‘Esbats’ for small congregations in the villages where the ancient religion was still practised. At all high Sabbaths the devil himself was invariably present, in the person of some man who had inherited, or otherwise acquired, the honour of being the incarnation of the two-faced god of the Dianic cult. The worshippers paid homage to the god by kissing his reverse face—a mask worn, beneath an animal’s tail, on the devil’s backside. There was then, for some at least of the female devotees, a ritual copulation with the god, who was equipped for this purpose with an artificial phallus of horn or metal. This ceremony was followed by a picnic (for the Sabbaths were celebrated out of doors, near sacred trees or stones), by dancing and finally by a promiscuous sexual orgy that had, no doubt, originally been a magical operation for increasing the fertility of the animals on which primitive hunters and herdsmen depend for their livelihood. The prevailing atmosphere at the Sabbaths was one of good fellowship and mindless, animal joy. When captured and brought to trial, many of those who had taken part in the Sabbath resolutely refused, even under torture, even at the stake, to abjure the religion which had brought them so much happiness.

In the eyes of the Church and of the civil magistrates membership in the Devil’s Party was an aggravation of the crime of witchcraft. A witch who had attended the Sabbath was worse than a witch who had strictly confined herself to private practice. To attend the Sabbath was to profess openly that one preferred the Dianic Cult to Christianity. Moreover, the witches’ organization was a secret society which might be used by ambitious leaders for political purposes. That Bothwell had thus made use of the Scottish covens seems almost certain. Still more certain is the fact that Elizabeth and her Privy Council were convinced, rightly or wrongly, that foreign and native Catholics were employing witches and magicians to take the Queen’s life. In France, according to Bodin, the sorcerers constituted a kind of Mafia, with members in every class of society and branches in every town and village.

That his crime might seem more abominable, Grandier was accused at his trial not merely of operative witchcraft, but also of participation in the rites of the Sabbath, of membership in the diabolic church.

The spectacle thus evoked of a pupil of the Jesuits solemnly renouncing his baptism, of a priest hurrying from the altar to do homage to the devil, of a grave and learned ecclesiastic dancing jigs with conjurers and tumbling in the hay with an assortment of witches, goats and incubi, was one well calculated to appal the pious, to tickle the groundlings and to bring joy to the Protestants.

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