September 07, 2014

The Witches' Sabbath in New England: Part 1

Imagine yourself walking through the New England forest on a moonlit night. You're lost in your thoughts, concentrating on the path so you can get home safely, when suddenly you hear the sound of voices off among the trees. 

You stop, and looking off into the woods you see a fire flickering. You see silhouettes of women and men gathered around it. A tall dark figure climbs onto a boulder. Holding a book in one hand he begins to speak in a deep, sepulchral voice. Is it the local minister holding a special outdoor service?

Curious, you leave the path and draw closer. As you get closer to the fire you realize the man on the boulder isn’t the pastor, and maybe isn’t even fully human. You’ve stumbled upon the witches’ Sabbath.

Ooops. Make sure you don't sign your name into that big book they're offering you...

That witches gather together to work evil magic communally is an idea appearing sporadically throughout history, but texts like the Compendium Maleficarium made it very popular in Europe beginning sometime in the Renaissance. Medieval Europe had previously been riven by conspiracy theories claiming lepers, Muslims or Jews were conspiring to overthrow Christianity, but with the witches’ Sabbath Europeans could now fear that their own neighbors were conspiring with the Devil to destroy society. Truly, the Renaissance was an age of progress!

Detail from a painting by Goya.

The historian Carlo Ginzburg gives a brief summary of what the Sabbath entails:

Male and female witches met at night, generally in solitary places, in fields or on mountains. Sometimes, having anointed their bodies, they flew, arriving astride poles or brooms sticks; sometimes they arrived on the backs of animals, or transformed into animals themselves. Those who came for the first time had to renounce the Christian faith, desecrate the sacrament and offer homage to the Devil, who was present in human or (most often) animal or semi-animal form. There would follow banquets, dancing, sexual orgies. Before returning home the female and male witches received evil ointments made from children’s fat and other ingredients.

Ginzburg is an Italian historian, and he writes mostly about continental Europe. The Sabbath was not as prevalent an idea in the British Islands, and since Englishmen originally colonized this area it was not at first prevalent here either. The earliest, pre-Salem witch trials don’t mention any Sabbath-like meetings, just solitary witches working alone.

The Salem trials changed that. So many people were accused of witchcraft it seemed obvious they must be working together. As the trials went on the image of the witches’ Sabbath began to appear in both the accusations and confessions. It was similar to what appeared in European trials, but with some significant differences.

It was not called a Sabbath, but instead was called a witch meeting. The Puritans called their Sunday religious service “Sunday meeting”, so it makes sense the witches would use a similar term for their gathering. Unlike the European version, the Salem witch meeting didn’t involve sexual orgies or ointments made from babies’ fat. Instead, the witches gathered to listen to the Devil or his earthly delegate (supposedly the Reverend George Burroughs) urge them to work harder and overthrow God’s kingdom in New England. The witches and their master wanted to found a social order where people could “live bravely, in equality, with no future resurrection or judgment, no punishment or even shame for sin.” Just as the witches’ meeting was a reversal of Sunday meetings, their social order was going to be a reversal of the Puritan one.

To drive home this point, the witches held their meetings not in a remote forest or hilltop, but in a meadow next to the home of Salem’s minister Samuel Parris. They also celebrated an unholy sacrament by eating “red bread” and red wine. Many witches allegedly signed their pacts with the Devil using a red liquid, and it is implied that human blood was an ingredient in the bread, wine and ink.

It’s important to note that the witches supposedly attended this meeting with their spectral bodies, not their physical ones. Even those witches who flew there astride poles did so in spirit form. No one could see the witch meetings except those who attended and those who were afflicted by their magic. It happened invisibly right in the middle of Salem Village. At least, that's what was said during the trials.

A photo from Rob Zombie's film The Lords of Salem.

The Salem witch trials lasted only a year before they fell apart under the weight of ever broader accusations. But the idea of a witch’s Sabbath in New England became imprinted into the folk consciousness and literature of our region.

Probably the most famous literary depiction of the witches’ Sabbath appears in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Young Goodman Brown.” Maybe you haven't read this one since high school, so here's a refresher.

The title character leaves his wife (the aptly named Faith) alone in their Salem home one night to journey with a mysterious stranger deep into the forest. The stranger (who is clearly the Devil) is leading Goodman Brown to a witch meeting so he can sell his soul. Brown is hesitant to sign himself over to Satan, but as he walks he sees many prominent neighbors heading in the same direction, including the woman who taught him the Christian catechism and the church deacon.

Goodman Brown finally arrives at a clearing in the forest dominated by a large boulder shaped like a pulpit. Gathered in the clearing are hundreds of people including the prominent pious leaders of Salem, notorious sinners, and even the local Indians. Goodman Brown is amazed to see them all mingling together.

The Devil says,

“There are all who ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here they are the all in my worshipping assembly. This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth...”

The Devil prepares to baptize (with blood) Goodman Brown and a young veiled woman, but when the woman is revealed to be his wife Faith, Goodman Brown shouts for her to look to Heaven and resist Satan. The Sabbath vanishes in an instant, and Brown staggers into Salem as the sun rises. His neighbors and wife greet him warmly, never mentioning the Sabbath, but Brown recoils at their touch.

Had Goodman Brown really just spent the night asleep in the woods? Was it all really just a dream? Perhaps, but for the rest of his life Goodman Brown is aware of the miasma of evil surrounding humanity. When he dies his family “carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.”

I'm sorry to end on a grim note, but when you read Hawthorne you have to expect that. But don't be too sad. Next week I'll delve into the more folkloric aspects of the witches' Sabbath, which are a little more fun. 

My sources for this week's post: Carlo Ginzburg Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath; Marilynne K. Roach The Salem Witch Trials. A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege; and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown."


bairdduvessa said...

There is a magic to growing up in New England that I do not see elsewhere, I have been in the South now for five years and a month; never have I experienced the magic that you feel in a New England night, here. As an atheist I tack it onto nostalgic memory, and yet when I think of "home" I fill with the same feelings I had as I walked through a foggy night in the town I grew up in listening for witches. It of course didn't help that re read the above mentioned story in High school, then again in college.

Peter Muise said...

Really well said! I hope you can come back to your witch-haunted home one of these days!

Anonymous said...

It was the trials themselves in Europe which helped the conception of the Witches' Sabbath to appear, the text were only read by select few who could read. During the Early Modern era, when the idea became popular, as inquisitors questioned people in search of the witches' Sabbath idea, and then discussed it publicly during the trial, the myth became more widespread.

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