Many contemporary scholars now agree that the stereotype of the witches’ sabbath was (rather than constructed purely out of the fantasies of demonologists) based partly on a folkloric complex of beliefs surrounding the nocturnal spirit flights of individuals who later came to be accused as witches. Originally, these night journeys were related to agrarian rituals, as well as processions of both benevolent and malevolent spirits of the dead and other divine beings (such as fairies or goddesses). It has been argued that only later did they come to be associated with the practice of witchcraft and the notion of a witches’ sabbath, when this complex began to be merged with conspiratorial rumours of cannibalism, orgies and general evil-doings that were attributed to Jews, lepers and other marginalized groups of the time period.
It must not be omitted that certain criminal women, who have turned back to Satan and are seduced by illusions of demons and by phantasms, believe and avow openly that during the night hours they ride on certain beasts together with Diana, the goddess of the pagans, and an uncounted host of women; that they pass over many lands in the silent dead of night; that they obey her orders as those of a mistress, and that on certain nights they are summoned to her service.
The above-quoted canon Episcopi, oft referred to by witchcraft historians due to its importance in preserving folkloric beliefs that would eventually become part of the witches’ sabbath stereotype, is first documented in a penitential written by Regino, abbot of Prum, in 906. Burchard of Worms later included it in his Decretum, a compilation of canon law, adding Herodias and Holda to the names of goddesses followed by these nocturnal women. The canon Episcopi is significant also because it emphasizes the absurdity of such beliefs in the minds of medieval clerics - Regino goes further on to add this:
And while the spirit alone endures this, she thinks these things happen not in the spirit but in the body. Who is there that is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal visions, and sees much sleeping that he had never seen waking? Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things that are done in the spirit are done in the body…Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed for better or worse, or transformed into another species or likeness, except by God himself...is beyond a doubt an infidel.
In terms of the nocturnal spirit processions and gatherings attended by alleged witches, there appears to have been two general types, with some considerable overlap between them - one benign and one malevolent. Although they later became conflated by medieval demonologists, contemporary scholars have noted some distinctions between these types. Benevolent night spirits have been studied fairly extensively as offering evidence for the survival of pre-Christian shamanistic visionary traditions and associated ‘dream cults’ into the early modern period. These include the Friulian benandanti, the Swiss saligen lutt, the Hungarian taltos, the Sicilian “Ladies from Outside” or donas de fuera, among others. Similarly, there is also ample evidence for traditions associated with what Emma Wilby calls ‘dark shamanism’ in her groundbreaking work The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland. The “good societies” of night-traveling spirits became associated with fairies and spirits of the dead, while the more malevolent spirit groups were more often related to nightmares, witches and the Wild Hunt.
Many written sources, such as the canon Episcopi and Burchard of Worms’ Decretum mentioned above, discuss beliefs and practices, found all over Europe, surrounding these female-led spirit groups. These are typically led by a supernatural or divine female being who travels at night with a train or host of spirits, including non-human spirits (such as fairies), the dead, and, as Wilby states, “the subtle bodies of living humans”, often in the forms of animals or riding upon animals. The female leader was known by various names, some attributed by scholars and others recorded as popular, regional epithets, including: Diana, Herodias, Hecate, Holda, Perchta, the Celtic Matres or Matronae, Nicneven, the Queen of the Fairies, Queen of Elphame, Satia, Bensozia, Dame Abonde, the Good Mistress, Mistress of the Good Game, Richella, Sibillia, Madonna Oriente, etc.
This spirit group would engage in nocturnal house-to-house processions, where they would feast and drink upon meals left out for them as offerings, or by dipping into household stores (without diminishing them). Music, dancing and general merry-making is typical of their gatherings, as are magical acts such as the resurrection of animals or humans. Sometimes they would also gather in fields, on mountain tops, in faraway lands or beneath hills or mounds. They were also believed to be especially active at certain times of the year, most notably the Ember days and Yule.
William of Auvergne, then Bishop of Paris, describes this female-led spirit group in his work De universo (probably written at some point in the 1230’s):
The same is true of the spirit that, under the guise of a woman who, in the company of others, visits homes and services at night. She is named Satia, from satiety, and also Dame Abonde, because of the abundance she bestows upon the dwelling places she visits. It is this very kind of spirit that the old women call the ladies and in regard to whom they maintain this error...They say that these ladies consume the food and drink they find in homes without consuming them entirely, nor even reduce their quantity, especially if the dishes holding food are left uncovered and the containers holding their drink are left uncorked when left out for the night. But if they find these containers covered or closed or corked, they will not touch either food or drink, and this is the reason why the ladies abandon these houses to woe and ill fortunes without bestowing either satiety or abundance upon them.
But living women, and sometimes men, could travel with them as well and thereby gain various gifts. Many quasi-shamanistic practitioners of the medieval and early modern periods were believed to roam with nocturnal hosts at certain times, or “go with the fairies”. In addition to bringing prosperity and good fortune to their communities by participating in the processions, they would also be rewarded for their services by the Lady or one of her spirit servants: these gifts usually took the form of knowledge of herbs, healing, powers of divination, or the ability to detect and remove maleficia or harmful bewitchments from community members. As a result of their gifts and close association with these benevolent spirits, living individuals who took part in the processions were often believed to be ‘blessed’ or semi-divine themselves.
Warrior shamanism groups, as described by Ginzburg, may also fall under the category of benevolent spirits groups as they will often travel in spirit at night to fight enemy spirit groups that threaten the livelihood of their communities. These include the Friulian benandanti, some of whom (mostly men) would go out to fight ‘witches’ or enemy spirits to protect the fertility of their land. Similarly, other related groups or individuals, such Livonian werewolves and the Hungarian taltos, were also thought to fight for the fertility and protection of the land.
Murderous Witches and Dark Shamanism
Although some scholars have argued that the evil, demonic elements that became associated with the witches’ sabbath - murder and cannibalism especially - were absorbed into the narrative as a result of conspiratorial rumours once attributed to marginalized groups such as lepers and Jews and some heretic sects, there is evidence dating from antiquity that associates malevolent night-flying female spirits with such acts.
The Greco-Roman strix or strigae - described as a monstrous bird-like creature who drank the blood of infants, or consumed the vital organs of living men and was strongly connected with magic and witchcraft - was referenced as early as the fourth century BCE.
Burchard’s Decretum, which mentions the local name of the female spirit leader as “the striga Holda”, discusses some of the less savoury activities of night-traveling women, stating:
...without visible weapons, you kill people who have been baptized and redeemed by Christ’s blood, and together cook and devour their flesh; and that where the heart was, you put straw or wood or something of the sort, and that after eating these people, you bring them alive again and grant them a brief spell of life
The sagas speak of women, such as the Finnish sorceress Huld in the Ynglinga saga, who sends forth a mara (effectively her malicious double) in order to attack and murder a king. The mare or mara, from which we derive our modern term nightmare, is known through Germanic and Slavic folklore as a malevolent nocturnal female spirit (a male equivalent being known as an alp or druden) connected with magic and witchcraft. Although these demons and others, such as the Romanian strigoi or the Russian upyr, could be living people as well as spirits of the dead.
Emma Wilby advances an interesting theory in her works that, rather than being simply propaganda or “bogeyman” stories, these cannibalistic or murderous night spirits - particularly in the case of living participants - may reflect traces of dark shamanism surviving into the early modern period in Europe. Dark shamanism may involve shamanistic cannibalism which, although characteristically evil, can also be used to benefit the community by protecting others, devouring hostile forces and appeasing hungry spirits or fate. Wilby proposes that we can better understand early modern European witchcraft by looking at some concepts from the perspective of dark shamanism. Characteristic of societies in which dark shamanism is prevalent is what Wilby calls a “predation cosmology” which includes the belief that there are certain classes of beings or spirits which prey on humans, hunting, killing and consuming them - the “taking powers” of the universe which, although frightening, are also necessary. In Europe these types of beings include strigae, lamiae, mara, some werewolves, ‘vampires’ and spirit processions such as the Wild Hunt. Wilby also argues in her works that it is possible that witches who attacked, murder and/or consumed others as part of their trance or dream experiences may have been playing a role similar to valkyries, as “choosers of the slain”, or something akin to death divination such as in the case of the Corsican mazzeri, who in their dreams (or as their alter egos) will hunt and kill community members in the forms of animals who are then destined to die within a designated span of time. Although it is not always a matter of voluntary participation, living women and men may have experienced themselves engaging in murder and cannibalism as part of dark shamanistic, death divining or fate-fulfilling functions.
Stay tuned for further exploration of this fascinating subject.
References and Further Reading:
Behringer, W. (1998). Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the phantoms of the night. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Carrington, D. (2016). The dream hunters of Corsica. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.ca.
Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles: witchcraft and agrarian cults in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.
Ginzburg, C. (2004). Ecstasies: deciphering the witches’ sabbath. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lecouteux C. (2003). Witches, werewolves and fairies: shapeshifters and astral doubles in the Middle Ages. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Lecouteux, C. (2011). Phantom armies of the night: the wild hunt and ghostly processions of the undead. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Pócs, E. (1999). Between the living and the dead: a perspective on witches and seers in the early modern age. Budapest: Central European University Press.
Wilby, E. (2010). The visions of Isobel Gowdie: magic, witchcraft and dark shamanism in seventeenth-century Scotland. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
Wilby, E. (2013). Burchard’s strigae, the Witches’ Sabbath, and Shamanistic Cannibalism in Early Modern Europe. Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 8(1), 18-49. doi:10.1353/mrw.2013.0010