Covens gathered together periodically in festivals called Sabbats.
Although Sabbats were probably held frequently, several days were occasions
for larger gatherings, or Grand Sabbats. the most important days
were Halloween and May Day (Beltrane); others were Candlemas (February
2), Lammas (August 1), St. Thomas Day (December 1), the Eve of St. John
(June 23), and Good Friday. Except for Good Friday, these were originally
days of pagan festivities. Sabbats were held in forests, meadows,
churchyards, and caves, at crossroads, lakes, and streams, and around stones.
The Sabbat began at midnight and ended at down, when at the crow of the
cock, all would vanish. Light was supplied by black candles, or by
ignited Hands of Glory (see chapter on amulets and talismans). Witches
traveled to the Sabbat on broomsticks, on demons disguised as animals,
or simply by walking. Or they flew by rubbing themselves with flying,
or tranvection, ointments such as the following:
"The fat of young children, and seeth it in water in a brazen vessel, reserving
the thickest of that which remaineth in the bottom, which they lay up and
keep until occasion serveth to use it," add eleoselinum, aconite,
poplar leaves, mountain parsley, wolves-bane, and soot.
Belladonna, water parsnip, sweet flag, cinquefoil, bat's blood, oil.
Water parsnip, belladonna, aconite, cinquefoil, baby's fat, soot.
Most of the recipes would certainly affect one's perceptions and sense
of space and perspective, possibly to the extent of creating the illusion
of light. For traveling to and from the Sabbat, witches would recite
a magic formula such as: "Thout, tout, a tout, tout, throughout and about,"
and Rentum Tormentum" (Glanvill, Saducismus Triumphatus, London, 1681)
The general order of a typical Sabbat was:
Homage to the Devil, usually performed as the Osculum Infame, kissing the
hindquarters of the Devil.
Wild dancing, performed back-to-back (supposedly so that the witches would
not have to see each other's faces) and widdershins, or counterclockwise,
in a circle. Witches also performed La Volta, a leaping dance from
Italy ad follow-the-leader dances. Sometimes the dance was accompanied
by a song, such as this from Scotland: "Commer goe ye before, commer goe
ye, Gif ye will not goe boefore, commer let me," (Newes from Scotland,
Edinburgh, 1591) or this: "har, har, Devil, devil, dance here, play here,
Sabbath, Sabbath." (Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft, London, 1655)
Copulation with the Devil and with each other. The Devil was impersonated
by a male witch in animal disguise. His sexual duties probably depended
on whether any of the other witches were also male and whether local peasants
who were not members of the cult attended the festivities and participated
in the orgy. Since copulation with the Devil was generally described
as cold and unpleasant and since children did not result except by mutual
consent, it is possible that artificial phalluses were used when there
were few male witches present. The Devil sometimes beat witches for
lagging in the dance or simply for his own pleasure.
Feasting, although sometimes the food was described as insubstantial, tasteless,
and unsatisfying. According to some witch-hunters, dead bodies were
Baptism or initiation (this rite might begin the Sabbat ceremonies).
The new witch would usually place one hand on her head and the other on
the sole of one foot and promise to the Devil everything between the two.
The Devil might give her a mark, often by biting or scratching, and baptize
her with a new name.
Reports of magic worked and instructions in magic.
Religious ceremony, which might include a Black mass and sacrifice.
Animals, such as black hens, and unbaptized children were offered to the
Devil. The Black Mass, when performed, was probably a genuine magic
ceremony, possibly for the purpose of bewitching the cruel Christian god,
rather than a mere parody of the Christian rite.
Although the Church persecuted the witches as Devil-worshipers, the horned
God they worshiped was more likely a survival of the gods of the primitive
animal cults. he appeared to them most often as a goat, sometimes
as a horse, a bull, or a dog, a cat, or a large man clad in black or green.
Sometimes he appeared with a candle between his horns. The abandoned
dancing and orgies were probably derived from fertility rites practiced
by their remote ancestors. The modern witches, too, worship
a horned god, who is entirely distinct from the Satan of Christianity.
However, whether or not his worshipers are really carrying on the traditions
of what they refer to as "the old religion," their god has little resemblance
to the earthy god of the witches of history. And his fruitions are
now shared by a queen or goddess, who is perhaps slightly more important.
A modern coven, at least in the United States and England, usually consists
of six male and female couples, preferably close to each other, and one
leader, usually a woman. Although they worship in the nude, their
rites otherwise retain not characteristics of worship of a pagan god.
They do practice magic, but primarily by use of the group will. They
abstain from any practice of black magic and shun sacrifice. One
unusual practice of modern witches is the use of the magic circle solely
to concentrate the power within, rather than to keep out the evil forces;
the witches may move in and out of it as they wish. The persecution of
witches as Satan-worshipers was primarily a case of mistaken identity.
There are organizations, however, whose members worship or pretend to worship
the Devil. Some Satanists maintain that Christ is evil and that the
Devil represents the good that is oppressed by Christianity, but the term
Satanist usually applies to one who worships the Devil as the principle
of evil. In the past, Satanism has seemed a parody of Christianity,
with no positive objectives and practices. However, the main rite
of Satanism, the Black Mass, has frequently been used as a ceremony of
black magic, the object usually to win back a lover or to kill an enemy.
The Black mass is performed with many variations, but traditionally
it is literal parody of the classic mass with rituals and the Lord's Prayer
performed backward. A priest, sometimes defrocked, should officiate,
a prostitute assists him, and a nude virgin, who may later de deflowered,
is the altar. A consecrated wafer must be obtained from communion,
and it may be smeared with urine, menstrual blood, or semen, or the name
of Satan and magical characters or Hebrew characters in reverse may be
written upon it. The wafer, or another object substituted for it,
such as a turnip, may be colored red or black. Menstrual or bat's
blood or urine may replace the wine. The virgin lies on an altar,
sometimes a coffin, covered with black velvet. Upon it are black
candles and an upside-down cross. The black chalice is placed upon
her abdomen. Sometimes its contents are poured on her body.
For a love charm, a cake may be baked in a small oven that is placed upon
her. Animals, such as black cats, or children may be sacrificed;
participants may drink the blood of the sacrifice. An orgy of participants
often follows the mass.