Egyptologist, Anthropologist, Ethnographer
"...As early as the 1920s, an English expert, Margaret Murray, had asserted, although without adequate documentary support, the existence, behind the witches testimonies, of a primitive cult of fertility that had survived in medieval and modern Europe, founded on the adoration of two divinities incarnating the male and the female spirit. However, due to the lack of specific evidence, this thesis was rejected by professional historians, who considered Murray’s study a mere speculation and her interpretations but empty fables.
It stands as an important fact, though, that she was the first to understand that, behind the bizarre confessions of witches, there was not only the fear of torture and of being burned alive at the stake, or the deliria of some disturbed little women, but the heritage - certainly distorted - of ancient cultural traditions and of religious experiences. After all, even here in Italy, we have the possibility to verify directly the accuracy of the path indicated by Murray..." - Paolo Portone
Magical Ointment and the Night Flight of Witches
(Hypothesis on the Presence of Shamanic Rituals in Medieval and Modern Europe)
By Prof. Paolo Portone
Translated by David J. Griffin
(The original Italian version of this article may be found here).
In popular tales, as well as in the tradition of educated fable writing, up until the most recent movie transpositions of famous fairytales, the character of the witch has always covered a central role summing up within herself all the negative characteristics of deviance. A model of monstrosity and dangerousness, she constitutes a sort of archetype of all of the forces which unceasingly threaten individual reason and integrity.
|Hans Baldung, La Tregenda, also known as Grien (1510 circa)|
Talking of the witch means evoking a bugbear, materializing the terrorizing presence of our infantile nightmares; it means at the same time bringing back to memory astonishingly evocative situations and images: the obscene ritual of diabolical homage and of infernal dance, of transformations into animals, of cannibalistic banquets made of babies and, furthermore, of wondrous nightly rides on brooms and on the back of horrible beasts. The nearly obsessive presence in our culture of the character of the witch, with her infernal retinue, has obviously attracted the attention of folklore experts and of anthropologists, although not so much that of professional historians.
Even today, when it comes to moving from the level of recounting the popular tale to that of the historical analysis of the witch, one encounters more than minor difficulty and resistance in the academy. Relegated to the recesses of unofficial history, or in any case among those episodes of collective irrationality which have constellated every now and then in the development of European civilization, witchcraft continues as a huge question mark, posing, in addition to scepticism, numoerous interpretative problems.
So what lies hidden, in actuality, behind these tales representing the matrix of all possible stories, and that still remain able to threaten our daily certainties, returning us to the same uneasiness we felt as children?
What does the character of the witch consist of historically and what were the reasons inducing secular and religious authorities to punish hundreds of women accused of witchcraft with death?
Are the nightly flights and diabolical tregenda but the product of religious obscurantism and popular superstition or are they, on the contrary, grotesque, distorted relics of extremely ancient forms of spirituality?
To attempt to answer these questions, we must to go back in time to the centuries when the terrible tragedy of witch hunts took place in Europe. Poorly documented in scholarly manuals, this dramatic episode of our history has only recently, starting from the second half of the 19th century, drawn a certain interest in historiography. Nowadays, thanks to those studies, we are able to get an idea of what the hunt concretely meant: the number of trials held, etc. The geographical and temporal extension of the phenomena are impressive to the point of leading us to consider this as being at the level of the holocaust of Jews and of other ethnic minorities perpetrated in Nazi concentration camps.
The witch hunts can generally summarized in three phases. A first persecutory wave was triggered off right after the promulgation of the papal bull "Summis desiderantes affectibus" (1484) and the publication of the “bible” of demonologists and witch hunters, the "Malleus maleficarum" [hammer of the witches] (1486). In this initial phase, which lasted about thirty years, the most affected areas were Rhine land Germany, Stryria (Austria), Tirol, the Italian Alps, the city of Bologna and the Pyrenees. Among the maximum peaks reached by the persecution, we must remember the trials that took place in the city of Como and its diocese (in year 1485 only, 41 witches were consigned in the secular wing and executed).
After a very brief pause, ecclesiastical and secular justice hit witches again with renewed ferocity during the second half of the sixteenth century. This time the award of most anti-witchcraft intransigency went to protestant countries. In Vaud alone, a region of about 160 parishes, between the beginnings of the Reformation and 1680, over 2000 witchcraft trials took place, most of which (in about 90% of cases) ended with the defendants being sentenced to death.
In any case, the peak of the hunt was reached in the period going from the 1580s to 1650. The regions affected were Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Scotland, and the German states (especially Wurzburg, Bamberg and Ellwangen). After its peak, the persecution slowly waned out, even though few significant sudden reversals did take place. In fact, still in the XVIII century, there are records of trials in the Glarus, in Poland, in the Poschiavo valley, in the Asburgic dominions, and in Germany. In Germany, in 1749 in Wunburg for example, the famous trial against Maria Renata Singering was held, which opened the floodgate in Italy and in Europe to a century of heated debate on the reality of magic and witchcraft.
The chronology, the surprising extension and length of this phenomenon have led some experts to reconsider traditional interpretations based on which the phenomenon had been explained, especially the theory of scapegoats and of intimidating use of torture by judiciary authorities. It has been elucidated by now that phenomena similar to witch hunt have not occurred in other societies, cultures and civilizations that were equally immersed in magical ideology, and that persecution of a sect of worshippers of evil in our continent never happened, neither in ancient times, nor, contrarily to common beliefs, in the dark centuries of late middle ages.
To be precise, up until the second half of the fifteenth century, persecution was sporadic and limited in nature (46 trials called by the Inquisition between 1320 and 1486). The prosecution affected specific areas, especially the ones where inquisitorial repression of medieval heresies (Catarians, Albigensians, Waldensias, Fraticelli) had been active: southern France, the Dauphiné, Italian western Alps, southern Germany, and the city and diocese of Como. Even demonological literature was relatively limited, with the exception of few works like the "Formicarius," written in 1435 by inquisitor Jean Nider, which became quite known.
In the light of these elements then, it seems evident that in order to understand the reasons that caused the persecutory phenomenon, its temporal and geographical extension, and its intensity, one cannot forsake the close correlations linking this to the most relevant aspects of modernity; to those changes within traditional values and beliefs which were the origin of the protestant Reformation, of the repression of pauperism and vagabondage, of the struggle against licentiousness and irreverence in theatrical plays, popular dances and feasts.
As historian Franco Cardini points out, contemporaneously with the birth of capitalism and with the affirmation of that cultural renewal commonly indicated under the name of Copernican Revolution, a deep modification of the ideological involucre composed by archaic magical thought was felt within European society. Urban sensibility, calculating rationality, erudite ignorance, and holy intolerance of the classes emerging from the development of pre-industrial society had modified ancient knowledge from the inside, causing a clear-cut division between so-called white magic (prerogative of modern dominant classes, legitimized by secular and religious authorities) and black magic (typical of peasants and people who inhabited the “obscure corners of the continent”).
Between the end of the XV century and the beginning of the XVIII, as observed by historian Charles Webster, white magic (erudite, rational, natural, Christian) became the instrument allowing the survival of primitive magical thought in the dictionary of intellectuals and in the political-religious establishment, while the persecution of black magic (rural, telluric, oral, sensitive, feminine, diabolical) formed the means by which the ancient heritage was adapted to the new demands that had arisen in Europe.
The fires of the Inquisition enlightened the consciousness of western man, purifying it from the primitive encrustations that had survived in the interstices of medieval society. Even though the persecution affected mainly rural areas and the so called obscure corners of our continent, its normalizing effects in terms of culture, psychology and religion did not spare the inhabitants of cities and the elites that created the new ways. In this sense, the hunt, by representing, as Robert Mandrau writes, the largest act of censorship ever imposed by western society on its own sylvan-pastoral-agricultural past, contributed to form the bases of intuitive knowledge in modern man, redesigning the traits of his inner landscape.
Preparatory to the hunt was the huge effort made by demonology (now an obsolete instrument of research, but for centuries a discipline not forsaken by illustrious men of culture and science, the likes of Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola, Jean Bodin, Martin del Rio, Tritemius, Lambert Daneau, Benedict Carpzov, James I of England, Jospeh Glanvill) in associating the most archaic and “deviant” forms of the popular magical universe to the Christian Devil, and in demonstrating not only the reality of the former, but also the actual powers of the latter.
This way, by creating the conditions for the systematic elimination of the least acceptable forms of that culture and religiousity, demonologists bent and shaped the all-inclusive category of diabolical witchcraft, the vital, original and autonomous vision of the world that had been elaborated through millennia by Neolithic civilization.
Thanks to torture, indiscriminately applied to all defendants in witchcraft trials, thanks to the executions by burning at the stake, and to the not less brutal work of mystification done at the ideological, ethical and symbolical level by demonologists, the variegated patrimony of knowledge, ritual experiences, and cults that were present in rural areas and in obscure corners was confined in the bed of Procustes of the Judaic-Christian imagination and fixed into the stereotype of the diabolical Sabbath.
"...And the aforementioned ointment, before it is completed and before it serves it purpose, is given to the Devil to be modified, and so he carries it along for some days and with his spit he blesses it and gives it back. The same way, we need our mistress to bless it with spit three times. And so then with such ointment we rub ourselves saying: “Ointment, take me to the walnut of Benevento”, like I said, and there we solace and play with Devils in great fashion, with large feasts, music, singing and dancing, like I could not possibly tell. And the Devils always stay with us playing, in the form of men, and beautiful and white as milk..."
This is the testimony, not particularly rich in imaginary elements nor elaborated at a symbolic and narrative level, rendered by the accused witch, Bellezza Orsini, put on trial near Rome in 1528, after being tested with the rope. In its simplicity, the description of the Sabbath Bellezza made can be taken as a standard example of witchcraft as imposed by inquisitors and demonologists, from the end of the XV century onwards.
Identical descriptions are found everywhere in Europe and in the Americas during the entire period of persecution. Few are the cases where certain details stand out, differing from the general scheme, thus allowing the tearing of an opening through the demonological curtain. This is what in the past led several historians to consider witchcraft as the product of the union of the disturbed minds of poor women with the dogmatic intransigence of inquisitors and with the superstition of secular judges; a product sealed by torture and by fear of the stake.
Yet the research by Carlo Ginzburg, conducted on the corpus of trials called by the inquisition of Udine, is evidence of the survival of a very ancient and original belief, the one of the Benandanti (possibly related to ancestral fertility rituals), which perforates the inquisitorial and demonological grid, opening new paths for the study of witchcraft in itself. To tell the truth, as early as the 1920s, an English expert, Margaret Murray, had asserted, although without adequate documentary support, the existence, behind the witches testimonies, of a primitive cult of fertility that had survived in medieval and modern Europe, founded on the adoration of two divinities incarnating the male and the female spirit.
Due to the lack of specific evidence, this thesis was rejected by professional historians, who considered Murray’s study a mere speculation and her interpretations but empty fables. It stands as an important fact, though, that she was the first to understand that, behind the bizarre confessions of witches, there was not only the fear of torture and of being burned alive at the stake, or the deliria of some disturbed little women, but the heritage - certainly distorted - of ancient cultural traditions and of religious experiences.
After all, even here in Italy, we have the possibility to verify directly the accuracy of the path indicated by Murray. In the first two trials for witchcraft held in our country of which we currently have knowledge, there appear already the dynamics that will lead, over the course of a few centuries, to the authentic diabolisation of the entire rural cultural and religious patrimony.
Two women stood trial, first in 1384, then again in 1390, before the Inquisitor of Milan, the first time accused of superstition, then the second time of witchcraft. In the first trial against Sibilla de Laria and Pierina de Bugatis the imputation formulated by the ecclesiastical judge was of having believed as real their participation in the so called "Game of Diana" (probably a pagan ritual of female initiation). Only six years later we notice a substantial change in the attitude of the inquisitor towards the world of magic and popular religiosity. After being subjected to torture, the two defendants confessed that the rituals they participated in, aside from the “domina ludi” [Lady of the Game], were accompanied by the spirit Lucifello, in other words, the Devil. Based on this confession, the two women were found guilty of having actually participated in a diabolical rite. For this, they were sentenced to be burned at the stake.
This episode, occuring at the beginning of witch persecution in Italy and in Europe, demonstrates two things. First of all that, with the passage from Middle Ages to modern Age, the scepticism of ecclesiastical authorities towards the tales of "mulierculae rusticarum" [rural little women] turned into tetragonal belief in their actual truth. Secondly, it demonstrates that such a process of concretization of the world of beliefs, cults and archaic symbols was made possible though its reinterpretation in symbolical fashion. On the other hand, the relative antiquity of the document from Milan further demonstrates, if need be, the existence of a popular religiosity much less homogeneous, in a Christian sense, than how certain historiographic tradition would like it to be.
|The Sabbath on the Blocksberg, engraving from the Kurtze Lehr-Satze von dem Laster der Zauberei (Short thesis on the vice of magic) by Christian Thmasius (1711)|
Possible ways of understanding what, from the 15th century onwards, was intended to be stricken with exceptional force can be inferred from the documents preceding the golden age of the hunt, so to speak. In the ecclesiastical documentation of the late middle ages, in particular, it is possible to find notions, not completely distorted, of peculiar pre-Christian rituals and beliefs that were continuously followed by rural dwellers along with practices of the official religion.
From the famous instructions given to bishops, known under the name of Canon Episcopi [canon of the bishop], we learn, centuries before the demonological mystification, of widespread belief in certain women who:
"...misled by diabolical illusions and seductions, believed they could ride certain beasts at night while following the Pagan Goddess, Diana, and cross vast spaces thanks to the silence of the deep night..."
In another important ecclesiastical document from the late middle ages (11th century), the Decretum [decree] of Burcardo, bishop of Worms, we find in the XIX book, entitled Corrector, a belief analogous to the one of the Canon, except that here appears, instead of Diana, her Germanic equivalent, goddess Holda:
"...Some women declare they have been forced, on certain nights, to accompany a crowd of demons turned into women, whom common folks call Holda...
...Some others said they could exit closed doors in the silence of the night, leaving their sleeping husbands behind: after going across immense spaces with other women victims of the same mistake, they killed, they cooked, and they ate baptized men, to whom they would give back a living resemblance by stuffing them with hay and wood. ...
...yet others said they flew, after going through closed doors, alongside with other followers of the Devil, fighting among clouds, killing and inflicting wounds. ..."
So, from these documents, like an old root, a relatively autonomous core of Pagan beliefs becomes evident in the heart of medieval Europe. Morphologically, these beliefs show certain common traits, especially: the ritual performed in honour of a feminine divinity, the grant of peculiar pieces of knowledge by the Domina Ludi during the celebration, the ritual killing of beasts or men and their resurrection, and finally the nightly flight, riding animals to get to the place of the ritual.
As is shown by the case of the two women called on trial in Milan, beliefs similar to those recorded in the medieval canons were preserved up until the beginning of modern Age, and most likely constitute the basic material for the construction of the myth of the diabolical Sabbath.
However, among the various constituent parts, the nightly flight deserves to be treated separately. We saw, in facts, in the trial of Milan in the 14th century, how the change in the inquisitor’s attitude towards the two women essentially implied the actual transfer of the defendants to the location of the ritual, once Diana’s game was associated with diabolical homage. To affirm the reality of such a flight means to admit both the reality of witchcraft and the necessity of persecuting it. One understands well, therefore, why demonstrating the reality of flight during the 15th century, during the years when the stereotype of diabolical Sabbath was being formed, became one of the main concerns of demonologists.
The evidence demonologists of the 14th century, mostly Dominicans, used to explain the flight of witches was derived, on the one hand, from scriptural and theological tradition and, on the other, from the categories of Thomistic rationalism. In this respect, the discussions conducted by two eminent demonologists are enlightening: the first being philosophy, theology and law professor, Alfonso Tostato, of the college of Salamanca; the other being French inquisitor Jean Vineti.
The prominent Spanish Biblicist was the first to affirm, on a theoretical basis, the substantial identity between the Diana of the Canon and the Prince of Evil. On such bases it was then possible to overcome the obstacle presented by the scepticism of early medieval instructions towards the tales of "mulierculae rusticarum." The sin then no longer consisted in thinking the Devil's illusions real, as had been affirmed by the Church until then, but rather in the mistake of all those who worshipped a divinity other than the only God. On the other hand, the association of the cult of Diana-Holda (Perchta) with diabolical adoration allowed the brilliant demonologist to affirm the possibility that the nightly flight of the adepts actually happened. Thus wrote Tostato:
"...The Devil once transported Christ from the desert up to the pinnacle of the temple, and from the pinnacle to the top of a high mountain, as it is stated in Matthew and Luke. Therefore, since the Devil was able to transport Christ, he will be able to transport anyone else (...) daily experience confirms it, the kind of experience we wish heaven could make not so well known! In fact we know that many, in an extremely brief time, go from places to other distant places, using Devils for that purpose, Devils who are the princes of evildoings. And that is so evident, that it would be imprudent to deny it, since there are thousands of witnesses who know of it.
(...) Therefore we must say that man can be willingly transported by Devils across different places, so he can have that way the diabolical collaboration to perpetrate evildoings. ..."
With Jean Vineti, demonology took a further step forward in the theological and rational demonstration of the reality of flight and Sabbath. In his Tractatus contra daemonum invocatores [Treatise against invokers of demons], the French inquisitor affirmed that “modern witchcraft” was a much different phenomenon with respect to the ancient gathering of followers of Diana. Witches consciously adhere to the sect of Satan, they actually commit what they say they do, and due to this fact, believing in the reality of their powers, including flying on brooms and on the back of animals, is not in contradiction with either the Canon nor with Sacred Texts. Thus it is evident, Vineti wrote, that the words of the Canon cannot be referring to others than modern heretics who:
"...invoke and worship Devils while awake, wait for them and follow their advices, render honours to them and, surpassing wild beasts in ferocity, sacrifice their own children to Devils, often even other people’s children, resorting to their evildoings. ..."
Thinking that all rural propitiatory rituals or anything alien from Christian moral categories that had survived in the country were real, was no longer a matter of superstition, but something complying with the teachings of the Fathers of the Church:
"...As witnessed by Thomas, the Devil can change into pneuma and take human semblance, be it male, be it female, and consequently take part actively in the erotic games of the Sabbath..."
Similarly, the nightly ride of Diana’s followers was not illusory, because:
"...an angel, good or bad, if God allows it, may transport by his natural virtue a man from a place to another, and even take him very far away. In fact, according to Thomas, the inferior nature enters in contact with superior nature through the highest it possesses. Now, material nature stands below spiritual nature. Thus, among all the motions of the body, the most perfect one is the local motion, as demonstrated by Aristotle, and that is because a body, while moving in local motion, does not have intrinsic potentiality: it is potentially at the place. That is why even philosophers admitted that superior bodies are moved locally by spiritual substances. From that we see that the soul moves the body in a primary and principal manner depending on the place. ..."
What is affirmed by philosophers, Vineti said, is proved by Sacred Scripture, where it is said in Daniel that the angel of the Lord transported at the speed of wind prophet Abacuc holding him by his hair, [and then] in the episode mentioned in apocryphal Gospels of the flight of Simon Mago over the Capitol, aside from the already mentioned passage of Luke and Matthew.
Let us leave aside this discussion for the moment, although we will have to go back to the debate on the reality of flight at the end. Let us limit ourselves to observe how in the confessions of witches, aside from the already known aspects of the “congregation of Diana”, elements appear which, even though filtered by inquisitorial and demonological logic, may nonetheless reconnect to an ecstatic experience based on the use of psychotropic substances, having survived in the same manner as most other ancient beliefs and cults in Christian Europe (battles for fertility, cult of the dead, belief in men possessing special powers from birth, etc.).
In particular, we intend to examine the practice of witches rubbing their bodies with a special ointment before flying to the Sabbath. This practice is attested to in numerous trials since the XV century. It is interesting, in this respect, that which was reported in the mid 1400s, that is at the beginning of the codification of the stereotype of witchcraft, by the Dominican Johan Nider, author of the famous Formicarius (printed in Koln in 1479). Nider says that one day, in front of one of his coreligionists, a certain woman got into a big container in which:
"... usually paste is made, and sat down in it; after pronouncing malicious words, after rubbing her reclined head with some ointment, she fell asleep and, suddenly, by the Devil’s work, she dreamed of the goddess Venus and other superstitious things so intensely that she screamed in joy with an altered voice, and clapping her hands in applause, she moved too much the recipient she sat into, so that it fell off the high stool it had been placed on, severely wounding the head of the old lady that was sitting inside it...."
Faced with episodes like this, not yet completely altered by demonology, and in absence of a more detailed description of the ointment, all we can do is formulate conjectures.
First of all we need to observe how, in popular medicine, the narcotic properties of certain plants like Belladonna or Datura, just to mention few of the toxic herbs that are common in our continent, were known. And we do not think, in this respect, that the absence of any specific reference to the amanita muscaria (the mushroom of Asian shamans) in the trial is evidence against the possibility of an ecstatic cult of narcotic origin. The toxic effects of the belladonna, combined with those of hemlock, could actually give such hallucinations that would explain the fantastic visions of witches.
Sabbath in the electorate of Trier, from a xylography of the beginning of the XVII century.
On the other hand, popular medicine should have been aware of the hallucinogenic effects of horned rye, that is the effects of that parasite that attacks cereal crops, especially rye crops, and is especially common in medieval and modern Europe as the best substitute for the more valuable wheat. The parasitic mushroom known in science with the name of claviceps purpurea contains an alkaloid, ergonovine, from which, in 1943, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was synthesized in laboratory. Although at present there is no objective evidence regarding the sacramental use of such a substance, the powerful psychotropic effects of horned rye should have been known to the mulierculae rusticarum, especially considering the not infrequent epidemics of ergotism that populations of medieval and modern Europe were subject to.
In times of famine, rye wheat contaminated with claviceps could have easily been used to make bread, thereby causing either extremely severe cases of gangrene or seizure and very violent cramps, accompanied by epilepsy, with loss of consciousness for a time span of several hours. Of vital interest for the sake of our discourse is what was noted in 1723 by German physician J.G. Andreas, eye witness of an erogotism epidemic in Schelsien. In describing the manifestations of the disease, he stressed how some [patients] were shaken by extremely painful contractions, while others “similar to people in ecstasy, talked while in a deep sleep” and, having touched paroxysm, woke up referring of various visions.
As for amanita muscaria, we should recall that, even though the mushroom was not mentioned directly in the witches’ confessions, in their tales we often find reference to the toad. Let us recall that there is a species of toad, considered poisonous according to popular beliefs, which has the habit of lying under the ovule [that is, the amanita muscaria] to eat the flies killed by its [the mushroom’s] venom; that way, a powerful alkaloid, bufotenine, gets accumulated in the skin of these batrachians. After the studies conducted at the beginning of this century by Phisalix and Bertrand, the first to isolate alkaloid bufotenine from the parotid gland of a toad, fictional descriptions of witches gained a whole new consistency, especially when one focuses the attention on the hallucinogenic effects this substance is able to cause. Recent studies on bufotenine have in fact reported the following symptoms: increase in muscular energy, of aggressiveness and of sexual excitement; increase in psychic capabilities and impression of clairvoyance; finally, a very interesting datum, loss of sense of time-space coordinates, with consequent sensation of flying.
Quite evidently, both in the case of rye and in the one of the toad, we are confronted with mere speculation. However, there are numerous documents and testimonies proving the existence, in medieval and modern European society, of narcotic and toxic substances, which would, at various levels, enter the everyday lives of both country people and city people: from the preparation of an innocuous papaverine based beverage, administered to infants, to poisons obtained from plants and used in palace revolutions, to drugs used by popular medicine as painkillers.
It is also true that, as we already observed, there is lack of elements that would lead us to think, as is known for Mesoamerican populations, of the use of hallucinogenic substances in a ritualistic context. This lack lead numerous historians and anthropologists to consider the absence of drugs a peculiarity of the European cultural heritage, although the recent discovery of the mummy of Similau, dating back to 5300 years ago, may put in discussion such widespread conviction. Scientists from the University of Innsbruck are in fact inclined to believe the ancient inhabitant of our continent to be some sort of sorcerer or shaman, as the mushrooms found in the mummy’s saddle bag seem to confirm, since they may have had hallucinogenic effects, like a sort of LSD from the bronze age, and may have been used in magical rituals. If confirmed, this hypothesis may open new and unexpected directions in the study of shamanism in Europe and in ascertaining its paths of dispersion.
|Sabbath on the Blocksberg, engraving from the Blockes-Berges Verrichtung, by Johannes Praetorius (1668)|
But let us stick to the subject at hand and return to the vehement debate that opened, towards the end of the XV and at the beginning of the XVI century, between those who sustained the diabolical reality of the flight of witches, and those who, from different angles, would declare their scepticism.
In the first decade of the XVI century, a brave Lombard Minorite friar, Samuele de Cassinins, in his Questio lamiarum (1505), tried to unhinge from within the “perfect fabrication of the world of witches to which Dominican inquisitors and theologians contributed most”. De Cassinis, fully understanding the importance the demonstration of the reality of flight had in the formulation of the charge of diabolical witchcraft, and feeling strong with his own theological and philosophical erudition, pointed at proving the improbability of nightly transportation as work of the Devil through the “scrupulous analysis of diabolical possibilities to determine the movement of bodies”. We are facing, however, arguments that gather support from the same cultural background of demonologists, undoubtedly useful in confronting the wave of persecution, but unable to unhinge its ideological assumptions.
Much more subversive, considering the times, was the position taken by Pietro Pomponazzi in his De Naturalium effectuum causis sive de incantationibus (Basel, 1556). In the name of natural philosophy, he diminished the terrestrial limits of demonic influences, by affirming the hallucinogenic origin of the nightly flight and of the illusory descriptions of the Sabbath. The natural explanation of the witches’ confessions was then to be searched for mainly in the ointments they said they used.
A few decades later, in 1589 to be precise, a natural wizard-philosopher, Neapolitan Giovanni Battista Della Porta, openly acknowledged, inspired by the work of Pomponazzi, the close correlation between the hallucinogenic effects of ointments and the flight of witches. In his book Magia Naturalis, he collected certain recipes used by witches for the preparation of the famous ointments and, intending to study their effects, he had an old woman suspected of witchcraft anointed with one of them in his presence. The results of that experiment further convinced the Neapolitan wizard-philosopher that, only after having anointed their bodies with that mixture, witches “believed they could fly, have banquets, and meet beautiful young men from whom they ardently desired embrace”.
Still in that same time span, other men of science, physicians, and philosophers came to analogous conclusions. Spanish physician Andreas a Laguna experimented the use of substances similar to the ones described by Della Porta, obtaining results that confirmed the thesis that the flight of witches was a natural phenomenon caused by the hallucinogenic ointments. Gerolamo Cardano, the Milanese physician who used to call himself “magus, incantator” [wizard, enchanter] and used to say he would fall into ecstasy every time he wished to, sustained the thesis that, in the majority of known cases, the ecstasy of witches was to be ascribed to perfectly natural reasons (De rerum varietate, 1557). In 1592, finally, a small treatise entitled “On the extraordinary ecstasy of certain men who sometimes fall into ecstasy in this or that place with their souls and without their bodies”. The author, a certain S. Fridrich, native of Lindau, distinguished between the ecstasy of prophets, that of pious men and women (for example his mother and his grandmother), that due to natural causes and that witches obtained through ointments.
So we see, that behind the nightly flight of witches, the fact that a narcotic experience might be hidden, was not a mere hypothesis to experts both of natural medicine and magic, but rather a reality proven by both varied testimony and experiment. It is natural at this point to ask ourselves what the impact of such convictions was on the open debate regarding the existence of diabolical witches, and what the reactions were among demonologists.
Admitting that those statements by Pomponazzi or by Della Porta had no immediate effect on the course of the witch hunt (also due to the limited public they were addressing) there remains a fact that has come to light and deserves elaboration. Not few among demonologists and promoters of the hunt were, in fact, aware of the narcotic effects of the substances used in the ointments and not few among them ignored the possibility that the nightly ride and the Sabbath (Tregenda) could be linked to ecstatic cults. This is an element of particular importance that has not been taken significantly into consideration by historians and which, when properly examined, might lead us to an overall reconsideration of the persecutory phenomenon.
In fact, how else might we explain the attitude of French physician De Nynauld, convinced demonologist, who in his treatise [entitled] “De la lycantropie, transformation et extase des sorciers”, published in Paris in 1615, distinguished three types of ointment: The one that makes witches think they are being carried to the Sabbath, but only acts on imagination, the one that allows an actual transport to the Sabbath (obviously with God’s permission), the one that gives the illusion of transformation into an animal.
Looking closely, this subdivision proposed by the French physician coincides only on the surface with the one suggested by Friedrich. We are confronted, although admittedly merely as a hypothesis, with an adaptation of the justifications brought up by the supporters of the natural origin of the witches’ flight to the rigid categories of diabolic demonology, that is to say an actualization of pre-scientific thought for the use of Witch hunters. This is a procedure not infrequent in demonology. We may consider, for example, the use that the Franciscan Sinistrari made of the invention of the microscope, to justify his strange convictions regarding demons, incubi and succubi.
On the other hand, even those who did not claim to be able to connect their own opinions with the theories that were popular among natural wizards only on the basis of their direct knowledge (and of their reason), were well aware of the narcotic properties of ointments. This was the case with the jurist, Nicholas Remy, author of Demonolatreia (1595) and for Pierre De l’Ancre, author of Tableau de l’incostance de mauvais anges et demons (1613) who, even though they did not ignore neither the effects of ointments nor of natural causes (such as the peculiar conditions of certain defendants: epilepsy, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhoea, or bad or scarce nutrition), in spite of all this they asserted, with “an eye sharpened by hatred”, their convictions about the diabolical reality of the witches’ flight.
Finally, what may be said about the irrationality shown by the precursor of juridical studies, French jurisprudence consultant, Jean Bodin, in his explanation of the witches’ stories, with recent studies testifying that he was certainly not unaware of naturalistic notions? Perhaps an indirect explanation of this strange short-circuiting of reason, which then induced a historian such as Lucien Febvre to talk about the obscure double of pre-modern rationality, which can be found in the violent lecture that the illustrious French jurist provided in the pages of his “best seller” called “Demonomanie des sorciers”, against the supporters of the natural explanation of the flight.
Both Cardano and Della Porta were accused by Bodin, in the pages of the Demonomanie, of necromancy and collusion with the Devil. It is interesting to mention an episode, not well known, reported after the dispute between Bodin and Della Porta. The Neapolitan magician, even while responding sternly to the accusations moved against him, felt the need, perhaps to spare himself eventual judiciary action, to suppress from the next edition of his Magia naturalis the passage regarding the experiment with the magical ointment.
This silent self censure of the magician-philosopher demonstrates, of course, how in the climate of intolerance created by promoters of the hunt, there was no room for any critique nor any doubt regarding the motives claimed by demonology. Bodin accused of impiousness anyone who dared to apply typical methods of science and of theology, the true queen of sciences.
Or perhaps, in this stern reaction by a man of science like Bodin, lay the fear that Della Porta’s experiment could represent a troublesome Trojan horse with which the citadel of demonologists could have been conquered. There is no other way to explain the hardness he used to confront the author of Magia Naturalis. To Bodin, implacable judge in witchcraft trials as president of the courthouse in Laon, the evil doers (wizards, necromancers, witches and whoever else) simply should not live. Under this perspective, natural explanations, such as the juridical cavils of Alciato, were nothing but useless and impious diversions, serving solely the purpose of ultimately denying the presence and the work of the Spirit of Evil and, therefore, of challenging the very foundation of the witchcraft charge.
The pattern of these Italian “evil masters”, masters of scepticism and impiousness, is also followed by the work of another great adversary of the French jurisprudence consultant, the physician of Brabant, Johann Wier, alumnus of Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim and author of a celebrated book entitled, De lamiis, published in 1577.
Wier, who ascended from positivist historiography to the status of rationalist benefactor of humanity, is in fact much less innovative than some of his contemporaries in regard to the explanation of witchcraft. Without challenging the ideological framework of the demonologists, he believed that witches were victims of the Devil, not responsible for the impossible actions attributed to them. Satan found it easy to deceive them, making them believe they could fly to take part in the Sabbath, since they were disturbed women, affected by melancholy, and, on top of that, elderly and simple minded. Hence the prince of deceit and pranks had the purpose of deceiving judges and educated men through them.
Whoever took the delirious stories of witches seriously had already fallen, according to Wier, into the trap Satan had set for them. As for poor country women, altered in their moods by malnutrition, by the morbidity of their melancholic state, the physician suggested not to sacrifice them to the Volcano, but to cure them with hellebore (the contemporary remedy used to treat insanity). Moreover, regarding the role played by ointments in the experiences lived by witches, Wier became the spokesperson of a curious explanation. While aware of what his colleagues across the Alps stated, especially regarding Della Porta’s experiment, he circumscribed the ecstatic effects of the ointment, reducing it to a simple soporific recommended by witches with their malicious diabolical intelligence. Regarding this, Wier wrote:
"...That master of trickery, to accomplish his purposes, sometimes provides witches with certain natural compounds which, once spread and rubbed on someone, induce on them the illusion of flying in the air in any direction, of attending orgies and delightful concerts, of being subjected to coituses and other pleasures of this kind; in actuality, the trickster of a thousand resources impresses all of this onto their minds during sleep, when, after rubbing themselves with the soporific ointment, they fall, completely and unwarily, into a state of deep lethargy. ..."
With a procedure analogous to the one adopted by the demonologists, who had already associated cults diffused in rural areas sic et simpliciter [thus and simply] with the worship of the Devil, Wier reduces oneiric and narcotic experiences to diabolical illusions and the ointment to an expedient provided by satanic science to demented little country women. Thus every consideration on the hallucinogenic effects caused by the ointment waned out and, ultimately, so did the possibility to demonstrate the narcotic reality of the flight itself, as sustained by Della Porta.
With this denial, albeit by intolerant positions, of any form of cultural autonomy for nocturnal flight and to what lay hid behind the Tregendae (Sabbaths), what was to become a Centuries long cliché began to establish itself: the witch as an elderly, ignorant woman, affected by mental conditions, burned at the stake by the judges’ intolerance and cruelty. This die hard stereotype, beginning with the early Age of Enlightenment, represented one of the stronger points of enlightenment philosophers struggling against the obscurantism of the Church.
Girolamo Tartarotti, authoritatively intervening in mid-XVIII century in the discussion on diabolical powers, in his “Congresso notturno delle lamie” (nightly flight of lamie), affirmed that among the primary causes that lead witches to confess such incredible and enormous things, was the fact that, in the majority of cases, they were but poor country women:
"...who lived solely on milk, herbs and chestnuts, legumes and other foods alike, which generate thick and slow blood, and induce horrible and fearsome dreams. ..."
Another cause was given by their peculiar melancholic complex:
"...which lead them to breed torbid thoughts and most extravagant ideas in such a manic fashion that they would verbalize them even before the judges and [in spite of] the fear of punishment. ..."
These women, in whom all such causes combined, continued Tartarotti, “have an imagination that is already enough predisposed to heat up and boil over” and ready to represent every imaginable thing, especially the invisible obscure forces related to the Devil.
While the castle built by demonologists and inquisitors over centuries had slowly begun to crumble thanks to the annihilation - to use a term dear to our enlightenment philosophers - of diabolical powers - a cliché, as we saw, still remained mystifying the true essence of witchcraft.
Therefore, it sould come as no surprise if, even in our Century, we encounter judgements oriented, even in this specialized field, toward the stereotype of the witch as victim of her own weakness as well as of the judges’ fanaticism. What S. Mazalkowicz wrote in a history of medicine journal is indicative of a certain interpretative current along those lines. Starting from the assumption that there was a common origin to all of the stories of witches, he ended up affirming that this was the result of a “toxic delirium of psychically flawed individuals, unfolding in a certain atmosphere addressing said delirium towards certain expressions”. In more recent times, Pietro Camporesi in his work entitled “The Wild Bread” gives credence to the theory that witchcraft represents the manifestation of one of the various toxicological deliria that characterize pre-industrial society.
While still enjoying certain consideration among historians [such as, for example, Ronald Hutton], nowadays such limitative theories regarding the essence of witchcraft have been ousted by research projects which, beginning with a reevaluation of the witches’ testimonies, aim at ascertaining the eventual presence in Europe of experiences similar to Siberian and Mesoamerican shamanism.
Here [in Italy], Alfonso Di Nola, in agreement with the interpretation of the historian, Stylgmair, believes in a close correlation between diabolical witchcraft and shamanism. The witch has, -according to Di Nola - all of the characters of the sorcerer in other primitive cultures, but with negative and antisocial connotations that would make her part of a peculiar shamanic form, [namely] sinister or black. This theory, even though it has the merit of relating the historical figure of the European witch to traditions belonging to other cultures, presents the difficulty of, on the one hand, not being supported by adequate documentation, and, on the other, of using the same perspective as that of the demonologists and inquisitors, merely changing its categories and judgements.
The position held by Ginzburg, after long years of archival research and articulated historical and anthropological analysis, seems to us more solid and fecund in terms of its developments. Already for the Benandanti, he [Ginzburg] had sustained that witchcraft had to be resolved in the area of popular religiosity rather than of pharmacology or psychiatry, “because the presumed hallucinations, instead of occurring in an individual, private sphere, have a precise consistency”. Through study of that exceptional series of trials preserved in the Archive of Udine, which testifies to an almost unique case of separation between the demonological schemes of inquisitors and the stories told by defendants, he [Ginzburg] managed to trace the general characters of what, most likely, was a religious experience founded on the ritualization of the exit from self (the benandanti used to say, in fact, that they would come out of their bodies in certain times of the year) which belonged for centuries to the Friulan culture, up until, when in the second half of the XVI century, it caught the eye of ecclesiastical authorities.
More recently, Ginzburg returned to the subject of witchcraft with a powerful historical-anthropological review aimed mainly at evaluating the possible historical and prehistorical roots, inside and outside of Europe, of stories of witches. In the light of what emerges from this research, the author concludes that he is skeptical regarding the possibility that a distorted re-elaboration of an ecstatic experience, induced by the intake of hallucinogenic substances, is communicated through the confessions. After all, he [Ginzburg] adds, there is no evidence that such ritual ever existed in reality.
This statement may appear contradictory at first glance, but in fact it links perfectly with the ideological framework providing the background of the entire investigation. Witchcraft and the history of its persecution have to be inserted, according to Ginzburg, in the context of that long chain of episodes of intolerance against diversity (Jews, Waldenses, lepers, etc.), which constellated the birth of our civilization. Even assuming that the heresy of witchcraft had some originality seen through the eyes of inquisitors, its subversive potential consisted in its symbols and beliefs (men endowed with special powers, the cult of the dead, etc.) and not quite in presumed practices.
Ginzburg comes to a peculiar conclusion indeed. The eminent soviet expert Vladimir Propp, not unknown to the author of “Storia notturna”, believed, in this book entitled “The historical roots of fairytales”, that there is no myth without a given historical experience. According to Propp, in primitive cultures, “dance and representation were not entertainment shows but a magical procedure to act on nature’, the action, he added, comes before the formulation of the myth, which develops at a later stage.
And this is why it is difficult for us to imagine an ecstatic mythology and symbolism (nightly flight, transformation into animals, ritualistic cannibalism, trips to the afterlife) disjointed from any ritualistic dimension founded on the exit from self. It would be like admitting the Eucharist without the sacrifice of Christ, unless one decides to involve the phenomenon known to experts of the alteration of consciousness as the “echo effect”. Due to prolonged use of hallucinogens, the hallucinatory effects of the ointment may have appeared even outside the rituals and without intake of psychotropic substances.
This does not seem to be the reason, however, why Ginzburg tends to exclude the presence of shamanic rituals on our continent. On the contrary, it is present in his research since from the times of the Benandanti, as we saw, as scepticism towards any psychiatric, or, so to speak, narcotic explanation. [This is] a legitimate scepticism. It should not, in our opinion, however, induce the historian to ignore the facts of which we have knowledge.
How it is possible, in fact, to neglect the importance of the experiment conducted by Della Porta when it is well known, nowadays, thanks to rigorous scientific research, that the effects of herbs used for the preparation of the ointment are such to justify the fantastic visions that the witches had? Moreover, how it is possible to circumscribe to a simple footnote the important discussion that took place in the XVI century between the supporters of the diabolical reality of flight and those who, instead, believed in its natural (and hence hallucinatory) origin?
It is evident that in such positions, although they are understandable in the context of critique of widespread historiographic reductionism, lies the risk of obscuring some important aspects of the phenomenon. On a different note, it is also true that the scepticism of someone like Ginzburg reflects not only the difficulties encountered by historian to find documents, but also an obstacle, psychological in nature, which, in my opinion, has its roots in the phenomenon of the hunt itself and what that historically determined for all of us.
Following the destruction of rituals and the mystification of symbols linked to them, it is extremely difficult for us to confront ourselves diachronically and synchronically with ecstatic experiences (from those occuring in a religious contexts, through artistic ecstasy, even up to the amorous one)...
...And even more difficult with experiences originating from the use of hallucinogenic substances.
We often hear said that here, in Europe, the culture of hallucinogens is absent. It is not only uneducated people who make this claim, but even illustrious personalities like Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD. Instead, to many - and this is demonstrated by recent national press articles against the publication of dangerous books, such as the interview, published by the Millelire company, with the aforementioned father of lysergic acid. Drugs are simply alien to our society and, actually, represent an insidious and dangerous menace, both from an individual and a collective perspective. Centuries after the dramatic events of the hunt, the smoke of the burning stake continues to obfuscate our consciousness, precluding a balanced relationship with the things surrounding us, including [hallucinogenic substances].
|The Tregenda, engraving taken from the Daemonolatria by Remigius (1693)|
After all, examining the hunt implies exactly this: being confronted with our primitive and religious past, with the part of it which distortedly continued to survive in us until today, pushing us to adopt neurotic behaviours and schizoid attitudes. If it is true that the healing of the mind occurs through symbols, and not merely through medicines, perhaps from the study of the hunt, from the analysis of the patrimony of folklore it destroyed in every aspect, we could regain for our consciousness something from the luminous world of witches and maybe, for once, unlike in the fairytales from our childhood, the evil witch might help us defeat our present unease.
|Tell me about how your people survived ...|