The Witches' Sabbath or Sabbat is a supposed meeting of those who practice witchcraft, Satanism, or other rites.
European records tell of innumerable cases of persons being accused or tried for taking part in Sabbat gatherings, from the Middle Ages to the 17th century or later. However, there are no reliable reports on what actually happened during a Sabbat; and much of what was written about them may be the product of popular imagination or deliberate misinformation.
The Sabbat in history
Although allusions to Sabbats were made by the Catholic Canon (law) since about 905, the first book that mentions the Sabbat is, theoretically, Canon Episcopi
, included in Burchard of Worms
's collection in the 11th century. The Canon Episcopi
alleged that "Diana
's rides," (by the name of the Roman goddess of the hunt) were false, and that these spirit travels
did not occur in reality. Errores Gazariorum
later evoked Sabbat, in 1452.
In the 13th century the accusation of participation in a Sabbat was considered very serious. Some allusions to meetings of witches with demons are made in the Malleus Maleficarum (1486). Nevertheless, it was during the Renaissance when Sabbat folklore was most popular, more books on them were published, and more people lost their lives when accused of participating. Commentarius de Maleficius (1622), by Peter Binsfeld, cites accusation of participation in Sabbats as a proof of guiltiness in an accusation for the practice of witchcraft.
What has been said about the Sabbat
The Compendium Maleficarum
(1608), by Francesco Maria Guazzo
, aka Guaccio, Guaccius is a book published by an Italian priest with some illustrations of what he imagined could be a Sabbat, and gives a description of it; a brief summary can be cited as an example: "the attendants go riding flying goats, trample the cross, are made to be re-baptised in the name of the Devil, give their clothes to him, kiss the Devil's behind, and dance back to back forming a round".
According to Hans Baldung Grien (ca 1484-1545) and Pierre de Rostegny, aka De Lancre (1553-1631) human flesh was eaten during Sabbats, preferably children, and also human bones stewed in a special way. It was also said by some authors that salt, bread and oil were prohibited because the Devil hated them; while other testimonies told about delicious dishes. Other descriptions add that human fat, especially of non-baptised children, was used to make an unguent that enabled the witches to fly; it was also believed that witches could fly by themselves, ride a broom, or be carried by demons to the place of the meeting.
The most common belief on which authors agreed is that Satan was present at the Sabbat, often as a goat or satyr, and many agreed that more demons were present. Another belief said that sometimes a person could offer his/her own body to be possessed by some demon serving as a medium (see demon possession). It was believed that the Sabbat commenced at midnight and ended at dawn, beginning with a procession, continuing with a banquet, then a Black Mass, and culminating with an orgy in which non-marital or sexual intercourse with demons in male or female form was practised. Consumption of hallucinogens and sometimes alcohol was often reported.
According to folklore, the Sabbat was most often celebrated in isolated places, preferably forests or mountains. Some famous places where these events were said to have been celebrated are Briany
, the Black Forest
), the Bald Mount
), and more, but it was also said that Stonehenge
) was a place for Sabbats. In the Basque country
the Sabbat (there called Akelarre
, or 'field of the goat') was said to be celebrated in isolated fields.
There is no agreement among authors concerning the dates on which the Sabbats were to be celebrated. Some hypothosized they would take place during the night of the Sunday before the time the Christian mass was celebrated, some authors disagreed telling that Satan was less powerful on holy days.
Some commonly mentioned dates were February 1 (to some February 2), May 1 (Great Sabbat, Walpurgis Night), August 1 (lammas), November 1 (Halloween, commencing on October 30's eve), Easter, and Christmas. Other less frequently mentioned dates were Good Friday, January 1 (day of Jesus' circumcision), June 23 (St. John's Day), December 21 (St. Thomas), and Corpus Christi. and others.
According to the testimonies of benandanti and similar European groups (see below), common dates for gatherings are during the weeks of the Ember days, during the twelve days of Christmas or at Pentecost.
Disputed accuracy of the accounts
The descriptions of Sabbats were made or published by priests, jurists and judges who never took part in these gatherings, or were transcribed during the process of the witchcraft trials
. That these testimonies reflect actual events is for most of the accounts considered doubtful. Norman Cohn argued that they were determined largely by the expectations of the interrogators and free association on the part of the accused, and reflect only popular imagination of the times, influenced by ignorance
, and religious intolerance towards minority groups.
Some of the existing accounts of the Sabbat were given when the person recounting them was being tortured
. and so motivated to agree with suggestions put to them.
Many of the diabolical elements of the Witches' Sabbath stereotype, such as the eating of babies, poisoning of wells or kissing the devil's anus, were also made about heretical Christian sects, lepers, muslims and Jews (see blood libel). The term 'Sabbath' is the same as the normal English word 'Sabbath', referring to the witches' equivalent to the Christian day of rest; a more common term was synagogue or 'synagogue of Satan', possibly reflecting anti-Jewish sentiment, although the acts attributed to witches bear little resemblance to Christian or Jewish Sabbath customs. The Errorez Gazariorum (the Errors of the Cathars) which mentions the Sabbath, while not discussing the actual behaviour of the Cathars, is named after them, in an attempt to link these stories to a heretical Christian group.
Christian missionaries' attitude to African cults was not much different in principle to their attitude to the Witches' Sabbath in Europe; some accounts viewed them as a kind of Witches' Sabbath, but they are not. Some African communities believe in witchcraft, but as in the European witch trials, people they believe to be "witches" are condemned rather than embraced.
Possible connections to real groups
Other historians, including Carlo Ginzburg
, Éva Pócs
, Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen hold that these testimonies can give insights into the belief systems of the accused. Ginzburg famously discovered records of a group of individuals in northern Italy, calling themselves benandanti
, who believed that they went out of their bodies in spirit and fought amongst the clouds against evil spirits to secure prosperity for their villages, or congregated at large feasts presided over by a goddess, where she taught them magic and performed divinations. Similar testimonies have been discovered throughout much of Europe, from the armiers
of the Pyrenees
, from the followers of Signora Oriente
in 14th century Milan
and the followers of Richella
and 'the wise Sibillia' in 15th century
northern Italy, and much further afield, from Livonian werewolves
, Dalmatian kresniki
, Hungarian táltos
, Romanian căluşari
and Ossetian burkudzauta
. The meetings described by these people seem to have mostly been out of body experiences, and it is unknown whether they ever congregated physically.
The events at a Witches' Sabbath are believed by some to derive from events in pre-Christian shamanism religions, which naturally were seen with alarm by the dominant Christian. This view, incidentally, has been adopted by some Neo-Pagans.
- Harner, Michael (1973). Hallucinogens and Shamanism. - See the chapter "The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft"
- Michelet, Jules (1862). Satanism and Witchcraft: The Classic Study of Medieval Superstition. ISBN 978-0806500591. The first modern attempt to outline the details of the medieval Witches' Sabbath.
- Summers, Montague (1926). The History of Witchcraft. Chapter IV, The Sabbat has detailed description of Witches Sabbath, with complete citations of sources.