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Tuesday 9 April 2019

The Witches Who Failed to Fly

      It is, of course, well established that the Great Witch Craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, stretching even into the 18th, represented a resurgence of pre-Christian superstitions. They had once been ignored and mocked, but were now being taken seriously. However, I didn't realise just how ancient these beliefs were until I reread Apuleius' second century novel, The Golden Ass. There, the author describes how he watched a Thessalian witch strip naked, rub herself with a magic ointment, and promptly turn into an owl. That was very similar to what witches were accused of doing 13 or 14 centuries later! Some were even trying it out themselves!
     For that start, let us dispose of a few misconceptions, because the Great Witch Craze has left us with a false idea of normative witchcraft beliefs. During the Middle Ages people did not live in fear of witches; they were just one more type of criminal to worry about, and not necessarily the most common. As for the church, its most common response was to condemn the belief. The Council of Frankfurt in 794 decreed the death penalty for anybody who practiced the "heathen custom" of burning witches. In the same century, St Boniface, the great English missionary to the Germans, declared that when a person became a Christian he gave up the belief in witches and werewolves. In 829 St Agobard, Bishop of Lyons, wrote a book criticizing popular superstitions, such as the idea that witches could produce bad weather, while the eleventh century laws of King Colomon of Hungary simply stated that witches did not exist.
     Of course, Hungary was a newly Christianised country. Like an eastward moving tide, Christianity had swept over the Germans in the eighth century, the Czechs and Slovaks in the Ninth, the Poles in the tenth, and the Hungarians, Scandinavians, Finns and Russians in the eleventh, with the Lithuanians holding out until the fourteenth. And that is the point: while there was still a border with paganism, the church recognized witchcraft beliefs for what they were: heathen superstitions. But they never completely went away.
      Not only that, but on the fringe of every community you would find the wise woman, the cunning man, the witchdoctor (a native English term before it got applied to savages): people to whom one would go to find lost property, acquire love potions, good luck, or bountiful crops, as well as simple herbal remedies which might really work. They were not terribly popular with the church, but unless they were suspected of harming someone - of using black, as opposed to white magic - the law would not touch them. Indeed, even during the Great Witch Craze, three quarters of those accused of witchcraft in England were acquitted!
     These days, of course, Dr Margaret Murray's theory that witchcraft represented a special cult, an "old religion" predating the classic civilisation, and somehow existing underground for a couple of thousand years throughout the whole of Europe, has rightly been discredited by serious scholars. Nevertheless, common sense should tell us that, wherever people believe in witchcraft, there will be some who will attempt to practice it.
     The Canon Episcopi, which probably dates from an earlier tenth century document, refers to:
... certain wicked women, turned back toward Satan, seduced by demonic illusions and phantasms, believe of themselves and profess to ride upon certain beasts in the nighttime hours, with Diana, the Goddess of the Pagans, (or with Herodias) and an innumerable multitude of women, and to traverse great spaces of earth in the silence of the dead of night, and to be subject to her laws as of a Lady, and on fixed nights be called to her service...
     The canon did not say they had made a pact with Satan, only that they were deluded by him, and their nocturnal rides were interpreted as dreams or visions, rather than any physical reality. The church was to banish them, not otherwise punish them, for they were involved in heathen practices. But doesn't this idea of a nocturnal flight bear some similarity with Apuleius' tale of a witch turning herself into an owl? Especially when it involved a magic ointment.
     Of course, we all know that witches were supposed to ride broomsticks. But what is not so well known is something that runs through the witchcraft trials like a red ribbon: the broomstick or staff was rubbed with a special ointment, as was the witch's naked body. All right, so this was a common popular belief, but did anyone actually try it?
     In 1545 a married couple in Lorraine were accused of witchcraft, and confessed to burning grain, killing livestock, and sucking the blood of children when put to torture. Well, they would, wouldn't they? More to the point, among their possessions was found a jar half full of a stinking green unguent with which they were alleged to have used to anoint themselves, and which turned out to be a concoction of hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake. Andrés Laguna, the personal physician of Pope Julius III, managed to acquire a canister of it. Probably, however, the good doctor did not know that these herbs contain hallucinogens such as atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, and that they can be absorbed through the intact skin.
     Later, in the city of Metz, he had to treat a hangman's wife who was suffering from chronic insomnia because of an obsession with her husband's suspected infidelity. Everything else having failed, Dr Laguna decided he might as well try the ointment. Having been anointed from head to toe, she suddenly passed out, her eyes still wide open. Much to his alarm, nothing he could do would wake her up for another thirty-six hours, and her first words were: "Why do you wake me up at such an inopportune time? I was surrounded by all the pleasures and delights of the world", and she boasted of cuckolding her husband with a younger man. Whether this put an end to her insomnia was not recorded.
     A colleague of Galileo, a certain Giovanni Porta, suspected that the witches' claimed flight to the sabbat was merely an hallucination induced by their ointment. While he was investigating this theory, an old woman offered to provide an answer. Although she ordered all of the witnesses out of the room, they were able to watch through cracks in the door as she stripped off her rags, rubbed herself over with an ointment, and fell into a deep sleep. So deep was her slumber, in fact, that even "quite a flogging" could not wake up. When she finally regained consciousness, they were able to point to her bruises as proof that she had been in the room all along, but she still insisted tenaciously that she had crossed seas and mountains to obtain her answers.
     These are thus first hand accounts. Let's now proceed to some second hand ones. Bartolommeo Spina, in a book published in 1523, referred to an event "within the lifetime of those who are now alive". A certain witch used to boast of flying on journeys to visit the devil, so "the illustrious Prince N.", got her to perform a demonstration in the presence of a multitude of nobles. She anointed herself several times with the ointment, but - surprise! surprise! - nothing happened.
     Spina was also told by Dominus Augustinus de Turre of Bergamo, "the most cultivated physician of his time", that during his studies at Padua in his youth, he once came home about midnight. No-one answered when he knocked on the door, so he was forced to enter via an upstairs window. At last, he discovered his maid in her room, supine on the floor, stark naked, and wrapped in a slumber too deep for arousal. In the morning, she confessed that she had been carried off on the witches' journey. He would have sworn she had been sound asleep all night!
     Finally, we come to a 1692 publication by Johannes Nider. His teacher told him about a priest who came across an old woman who claimed to make nocturnal flights to revels with Diana and other women. So the story is third hand, but isn't it interesting that she talked of visiting Diana, rather than the devil? Nothing he could say to her would convince her she was deluded, so he asked to be present, with other witnesses, when she made her next flight. She agreed.
     Taking a large bowl used for kneading dough, she placed it on the top of a stool, then stepped into it and sat down. Then, to the accompaniment of incantations, she rubbed an ointment on herself, lay her head back, and promptly fell asleep. So vivid were her dreams, that she cried out, flailed around with her hands, and fell out, injuring her head. "For Heaven's sake, where are you?" cried the priest. "You were not with Diana and as will be attested by these present, you never left this bowl." It appears she was convinced.
     Far be it from me to suggest that these incidents were typical. The vast majority of victims of the witch craze were guilty of merely being old, demanding, and eccentric, with the occasional witchdoctor thrown in, and a few people who were genuinely deranged. Just the same, the witch craze seems to have destroyed a subculture which had flourished since at least Roman times: one which used hallucinogenic ointments in the pursuit of bogus nighttime flights and revels.
    I might add that, in the twentieth and late nineteenth century, a couple of scholars had experimented with the alleged witch's ointment, and produced similar hallucinations. Don't try this at home!

Reference: The original citations are in Michael J. Harner , 'The role of hallucinogenic plants in European witchcraft", pp 125-150 in the 1976 reprint of Hallucinogens and Shamanism, Michael J. Harner, editor (1973), Oxford University Press     

1 comment:

  1. Romans 12:2

    Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.