The Witches' Sabbath is a phrase that became popular in the 20th century to denote a gathering of those considered to practice witchcraft and other rites.
Prior to the late 19th century, it is difficult to locate any English use of the term 'sabbath' to denote a gathering of witches. The phrase is used by Henry Charles Lea's in his History of the Inquisition (1888).Writing in 1900, German historian Joseph Hansen who was a correspondent and a German translator of Lea's work, frequently uses the shorthand phrase hexensabbat to interpret medieval trial records, though any consistently recurring term is noticeably rare in the copious Latin sources Hansen also provides (see more on various Latin synonyms, below). Lea and Hansen's influence may have led to a broader use of the shorthand phrase, including in English.
Prior to Hansen, German use of the term also seems to have been rare and the compilation of German folklore by Jakob Grimm in the 1800s (Kinder und HausMärchen, Deutsche Mythologie) seems to contain no mention of hexensabbat or any other form of the term sabbat relative to fairies or magical acts.The contemporary of Grimm and early historian of witchcraft, WG Soldan also doesn't seem to use the term in his history (1843).
In contrast to German and English counterparts, French writers (including Francophone authors writing in Latin) occasionally did use the term and there would seem to be roots to inquisitorial persecution of the Waldensians. In 1124, the term inzabbatos is used to describe the Waldensians in Northern Spain.In 1438 and 1460 seemingly related terms synagogam and synagogue of Sathan are used to describe Waldensians by inquisitors in France which could be a reference to Revelations 2:9. (..."I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.") Writing in Latin in 1458, Francophone author Nicolas Jacquier applies synagogam fasciniorum to what he considers a gathering of witches.
About 150 years later, near the peak of the witch-phobia and the persecutions which led to the execution of an estimated 40,000-100,000 persons,with roughly 80% being women, the witch-phobic French and Francophone writers still seem to be the only ones using these related terms, though still infrequently and sporadically in most cases. Lambert Daneau uses sabbatha one time (1581) as Synagogas quas Satanica sabbatha. Nicholas Remi uses the term occasionally as well as synagoga (1588). Jean Bodin uses the term three times (1580) and, across the channel, the Englishman Reginald Scot (1585) writing a book in opposition to witch-phobia, uses the term but only once in quoting Bodin. (The Puritan Richard Baxter writing much later (1691) also uses the term only once in the exact same way-- quoting Bodin. Other witch-phobic English Puritans who were Baxter's contemporaries, like Increase and Cotton Mather (1684,1689,1692), didn't use the term, perhaps because they were Sabbatarians.)
In 1611, Jacques Fontaine uses sabat five times writing in French and in a way that would seem to correspond with modern usage. Finally, writing a witch-phobic work in French the following year (1612), Pierre de Lancre seems to use the term more frequently than anyone before.
Following more than two hundred years after Pierre de Lancre, another French writer Lamothe-Langon (whose character and scholarship was questioned in the 1970s) uses the term in (presumably) translating into French a handful of documents from the inquisition in Southern France. Joseph Hansen cited Lamothe-Langon as one of many sources.
"Sabbath" came indirectly from Hebrew שַׁבָּת (Shabbath, "day of rest"). In modern Judaism, Shabbat is the rest day celebrated from Friday evening to Saturday nightfall; in modern Christianity, Sabbath refers to Sunday, or to a time period similar to Sabbath in the seventh-day church minority.
Despite the infrequency of the use of the word "sabbath" to denote any such gatherings in the historical record, it became increasingly popular during the 20th century.
In a 2003 translation of Friedrich Spee's Cautio Criminalis (1631) the word "sabbaths" is listed in the index with a large number of entries.However, unlike some of Spee's contemporaries in France (mentioned above), who occasionally, if rarely, use the term "sabbatha," Friedrich Spee does not ever use words derived from "sabbatha" or "synagoga." Spee was German-speaking, and like his contemporaries, wrote in Latin. "Conventibus" is the word Spee uses most frequently to denote a gathering of witches-- whether supposed or real, physical or spectral-- as seen in the first paragraph of question one of his book. This is the same word from which English words convention, convent, and coven are derived. Cautio Criminalis (1631) was written as an passionate innocence project. As a Jesuit, Spee was often in a position of witnessing the torture of those accused of witchcraft.
In a 2009 translation of Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer's highly influential and fema-phobic Malleus Maleficarum (1486) the word "sabbath" doesn't occur once. A line describing a supposed gathering and using "concionem" is accurately translated as an "assembly." But in the accompanying footnote, the translator seems to apologize for the lack of both the term "sabbath" and a general scarcity of other gatherings that would seem to fit the bill for what he refers to as a "black sabbath."
The phrase is also popular in recent translations of the titles of artworks, including:
Modern researchers have been unable to find any corroboration with the notion that physical gatherings of practitioners of witchcraft occurred.The historian Scott E. Hendrix presents a two-fold explanation for why these stories were so commonly told in spite of the fact that sabbats likely never actually occurred in his study "The Pursuit of Witches and the Sexual Discourse of the Sabbat." First, belief in the real power of witchcraft grew during the late medieval and early-modern Europe as a doctrinal view in opposition to the canon Episcopi gained ground in certain communities. This fueled a paranoia among certain religious authorities that there was a vast underground conspiracy of witches determined to overthrow Christianity. Women beyond child-bearing years provided an easy target and were scapegoated and blamed for famines, plague, warfare, and other problems. Having prurient and orgiastic elements helped ensure that these stories would be relayed to others.
Bristol University's Ronald Hutton has encapsulated the witches' sabbath as an essentially modern construction, saying:
[The concepts] represent a combination of three older mythical components, all of which are active at night: (1) A procession of female spirits, often joined by privileged human beings and often led by a supernatural woman; (2) A lone spectral huntsman, regarded as demonic, accursed, or otherworldly; (3) A procession of the human dead, normally thought to be wandering to expiate their sins, often noisy and tumultuous, and usually consisting of those who had died prematurely and violently. The first of these has pre-Christian origins, and probably contributed directly to the formulation of the concept of the witches’ sabbath. The other two seem to be medieval in their inception, with the third to be directly related to growing speculation about the fate of the dead in the 11th and 12th centuries."
The book Compendium Maleficarum (1608) by Francesco Maria Guazzo illustrates a typical witch-phobic view of gathering of witches as "the attendants riding flying goats, trampling the cross, and being re-baptised in the name of the Devil while giving their clothes to him, kissing his behind, and dancing back to back forming a round."
In effect, the sabbat acted as an effective 'advertising' gimmick, causing knowledge of what these authorities believed to be the very real threat of witchcraft to be spread more rapidly across the continent.That also meant that stories of the sabbat promoted the hunting, prosecution, and execution of supposed witches.
The descriptions of Sabbats were made or published by priests, jurists and judges who never took part in these gatherings, or were transcribed during the process of the witchcraft trials.That these testimonies reflect actual events is for most of the accounts considered doubtful. Norman Cohn argued that they were determined largely by the expectations of the interrogators and free association on the part of the accused, and reflect only popular imagination of the times, influenced by ignorance, fear, and religious intolerance towards minority groups.
Some of the existing accounts of the Sabbat were given when the person recounting them was being tortured.and so motivated to agree with suggestions put to them.
Christopher F. Black claimed that the Roman Inquisition’s sparse employment of torture allowed accused witches to not feel pressured into mass accusation. This in turn means there were fewer alleged groups of witches in Italy and places under inquisitorial influence. Because the Sabbath is a gathering of collective witch groups, the lack of mass accusation means Italian popular culture was less inclined to believe in the existence of Black Sabbath. The Inquisition itself also held a skeptical view toward the legitimacy of Sabbath Assemblies.
Many of the diabolical elements of the Witches' Sabbath stereotype, such as the eating of babies, poisoning of wells, desecration of hosts or kissing of the devil's anus, were also made about heretical Christian sects, lepers, Muslims, and Jews.The term is the same as the normal English word "Sabbath" (itself a transliteration of Hebrew "Shabbat", the seventh day, on which the Creator rested after creation of the world), referring to the witches' equivalent to the Christian day of rest; a more common term was "synagogue" or "synagogue of Satan" possibly reflecting anti-Jewish sentiment, although the acts attributed to witches bear little resemblance to the Sabbath in Christianity or Jewish Shabbat customs. The Errores Gazariorum (Errors of the Cathars), which mentions the Sabbat, while not discussing the actual behavior of the Cathars, is named after them, in an attempt to link these stories to an heretical Christian group.
Christian missionaries' attitude to African cults was not much different in principle to their attitude to the Witches' Sabbath in Europe; some accounts viewed them as a kind of Witches' Sabbath, but they are not.Some African communities believe in witchcraft, but as in the European witch trials, people they believe to be "witches" are condemned rather than embraced.
Other historians, including Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs, Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen hold that these testimonies can give insights into the belief systems of the accused. Ginzburg famously discovered records of a group of individuals in northern Italy, calling themselves benandanti , who believed that they went out of their bodies in spirit and fought amongst the clouds against evil spirits to secure prosperity for their villages, or congregated at large feasts presided over by a goddess, where she taught them magic and performed divinations.Ginzburg links these beliefs with similar testimonies recorded across Europe, from the armiers of the Pyrenees, from the followers of Signora Oriente in fourteenth century Milan and the followers of Richella and 'the wise Sibillia' in fifteenth century northern Italy, and much further afield, from Livonian werewolves, Dalmatian kresniki , Hungarian táltos , Romanian căluşari and Ossetian burkudzauta. In many testimonies these meetings were described as out-of-body, rather than physical, occurrences.
Magic ointments...produced effects which the subjects themselves believed in, even stating that they had intercourse with evil spirits, had been at the Sabbat and danced on the Brocken with their lovers...The peculiar hallucinations evoked by the drug had been so powerfully transmitted from the subconscious mind to consciousness that mentally uncultivated people...believed them to be reality.
Carlo Ginzburg's researches have highlighted shamanic elements in European witchcraft compatible with (although not invariably inclusive of) drug-induced altered states of consciousness. In this context, a persistent theme in European witchcraft, stretching back to the time of classical authors such as Apuleius, is the use of unguents conferring the power of 'flight' and 'shape-shifting'. :A number of recipes for such 'flying ointments have survived from early modern times, permitting not only an assessment of their likely pharmacological effects – based on their various plant (and to a lesser extent animal) ingredients – but also the actual recreation of and experimentation with such fat or oil-based preparations. It is surprising (given the relative wealth of material available) that Ginzburg makes only the most fleeting of references to the use of entheogens in European witchcraft at the very end of his extraordinarily wide-ranging and detailed analysis of the Witches Sabbath, mentioning only the fungi Claviceps purpurea and Amanita muscaria by name, and confining himself to but a single paragraph on the 'flying ointment' on page 303 of 'Ecstasies...'
In the Sabbath the judges more and more frequently saw the accounts of real, physical events. For a long time the only dissenting voices were those of the people who, referring back to the Canon episcopi , saw witches and sorcerers as the victims of demonic illusion. In the sixteenth century scientists like Cardano or Della Porta formulated a different opinion : animal metamorphoses, flights, apparitions of the devil were the effect of malnutrition or the use of hallucinogenic substances contained in vegetable concoctions or ointments...But no form of privation, no substance, no ecstatic technique can, by itself, cause the recurrence of such complex experiences...the deliberate use of psychotropic or hallucinogenic substances, while not explaining the ecstasies of the followers of the nocturnal goddess, the werewolf, and so on, would place them in a not exclusively mythical dimension.
– in short, a substrate of shamanic myth could, when catalysed by a drug experience (or simple starvation), give rise to a 'journey to the Sabbath', not of the body, but of the mind. Ergot and the Fly Agaric mushroom, while undoubtedly hallucinogenic,were not among the ingredients listed in recipes for the flying ointment. The active ingredients in such unguents were primarily, not fungi, but plants in the nightshade family Solanaceae, most commonly Atropa belladonna (Deadly Nightshade) and Hyoscyamus niger (Henbane), belonging to the tropane alkaloid-rich tribe Hyoscyameae. Other tropane-containing, nightshade ingredients included the famous Mandrake Mandragora officinarum, Scopolia carniolica and Datura stramonium, the Thornapple. The alkaloids Atropine, Hyoscyamine and Scopolamine present in these Solanaceous plants are not only potent (and highly toxic) hallucinogens, but are also fat-soluble and capable of being absorbed through unbroken human skin.
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Pierre de Rosteguy de Lancre or Pierre de l'Ancre, Lord of De Lancre (1553–1631), was the French judge of Bordeaux who conducted a massive witch-hunt in Labourd in 1609. In 1582 he was named judge in Bordeaux, and in 1608 King Henry IV commanded him to put an end to the practice of witchcraft in Labourd, in the French part of the Basque Country, where over four months he sentenced to death several dozen persons.
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The Witch-Cult in Western Europe is a 1921 anthropological book by Margaret Murray, published at the height of success of The Golden Bough by anthropologist James George Frazer. For the book, certain university circles celebrated Margaret Murray as the expert on western witchcraft, though her theories were widely discredited. For the period 1929-1968, she wrote the "Witchcraft" article in the successive editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
The first historian to posit the existence of European shamanic ideas within popular beliefs of otherwise Christian Europeans was Carlo Ginzburg, who examined the Benandanti, an agrarian cult found in Friuli, Italy, whose members underwent shamanic trances in which they believed they battled witches in order to save their crops.
Between the Living and the Dead: A Perspective on Witches and Seers in the Early Modern Age is a study of the beliefs regarding witchcraft and magic in Early Modern Hungary written by the Hungarian historian Éva Pócs. The study was first published in Hungarian in 1997 as Élők és holtak, látók és boszorkányok by Akadémiai Kiadó. In 1999, it was later translated into English by Szilvia Rédey and Michael Webb and published by the Central European University Press.
Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night is a study of the arrest and trial of Chonrad Stoecklin (1549–1587), a German herdsman from the town of Oberstdorf who was accused and executed for the crime of witchcraft after experiencing a series of visions. Written by the German historian Wolfgang Behringer, himself a specialist in the Early Modern witch trials of Germany, Shaman of Oberstdorf was initially published in German as Chonrad Stoekhlin und die Nachtschar: Eine Geschichte aus der frühen Neuzeit by R. Piper GmbH & Co. in 1994. It was subsequently translated into English by H.C. Erik Midelfort and published in 1998 by the University of Virginia Press.
The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries is a historical study of the benandanti folk custom of 16th and 17th century Friuli, Northeastern Italy. It was written by the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, then of the University of Bologna, and first published by the company Giulio Einaudi in 1966 under the Italian title of I Benandanti: Stregoneria e culti agrari tra Cinquecento e Seicento. It was later translated into English by John and Anne Tedeschi and published by Routledge and Kegan Paul in 1983 with a new foreword written by the historian Eric Hobsbawm.
Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath is a study of visionary traditions in Early Modern Europe written by the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg. First published by Giulio Einaudi in 1989 under the Italian title Storia notturna: Una decifrazione del Sabba, it was later translated into English by Raymond Rosenthal and published by Hutchinson Radius in 1990.
Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilization is an anthropological and philosophical study of the altered states of consciousness found in shamanism and European witchcraft written by German anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr. First published in 1978 by Syndikat Autoren-und Verlagsgesellschaft under the German title of Traumzeit: Über die Grenze zwischen Wildnis und Zivilisation, it was translated into English by the Hungarian-American anthropologist Felicitas Goodman and published by Basil Blackwell in 1985.
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