Witches' Sabbath

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Representation of Sabbath gatherings from the chronicles of Johann Jakob Wick

The Witches' Sabbath is a term applied to a gathering of those considered to practice witchcraft and other rites.


Emergence in the 20th century[edit]

Prior to the late 19th century, it is difficult to locate any English use of the term 'sabbath' to denote a gathering of witches. The phrase is used by Henry Charles Lea's in his History of the Inquisition (1888).[1] Writing in 1900, German historian Joseph Hansen who was a correspondent and a German translator of Lea's work, frequently uses the shorthand phrase hexensabbat to interpret medieval trial records, though any consistently recurring term is noticeably rare in the copious Latin sources Hansen also provides (see more on various Latin synonyms, below).[2] Lea and Hansen's influence may have led to a broader use of the shorthand phrase, including in English.

Prior to Hansen, German use of the term also seems to have been rare and the compilation of German folklore by Jakob Grimm in the 1800s (Kinder und HausMärchen, Deutsche Mythologie) seems to contain no mention of hexensabbat or any other form of the term sabbat relative to fairies or magical acts.[3] The contemporary of Grimm and early historian of witchcraft, WG Soldan also doesn't seem to use the term in his history (1843).

A French connection[edit]

In contrast to German and English counterparts, French writers (including Francophone authors writing in Latin) occasionally did use the term and there would seem to be roots to inquisitorial persecution of the Waldensians. In 1124, the term inzabbatos is used to describe the Waldensians in Northern Spain.[4] In 1438 and 1460 seemingly related terms synagogam and synagogue of Sathan are used to describe Waldensians by inquisitors in France which could be a reference to Revelations 2:9. (..."I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.")[5][6] Writing in Latin in 1458, Francophone author Nicolas Jacquier applies synagogam fasciniorum to what he considers a gathering of witches.[7]

About 150 years later, at the peak of the witch-phobia and the persecutions which led to the burning to death of an estimated 50,000 persons, with roughly 80% being women, the witch-phobic French and Francophone writers still seem to be the only ones using these related terms, though still infrequently and sporadically in most cases. Lambert Daneau uses sabbatha one time (1581) as Synagogas quas Satanica sabbatha.[8] Jean Bodin uses it three times (1580). Nicholas Remi uses it as well as synagoga (1588). In 1611, Jacques Fontaine uses sabat five times writing in French and in a way that would seem to correspond with modern usage. Writing a witch-phobic work in French the following year (1612), Pierre de Lancre seems to use the term more frequently than anyone before.[9]

More than two hundred years after Pierre de Lancre, French writer Lamothe-Langon, whose character and scholarship was questioned in the 1970s, uses the term in (presumably) translating into French a handful of documents from the inquisition in Southern France. Joseph Hansen cited Lamothe-Langon as one of many sources.


"Sabbath" came indirectly from Hebrew שַׁבָּת (Shabbath, "day of rest"). In modern Judaism, Shabbat is the rest day celebrated from Friday evening to Saturday nightfall; in modern Christianity, Sabbath refers to Sunday, or to a time period similar to Sabbath in the seventh-day church minority. In connection with the medieval beliefs in the evil power of witches and in the malevolence of Jews and Judaizing heretics (both being Sabbathkeepers),[10] satanic gatherings of witches were by outsiders called "sabbats", "synagogues", or "convents".[11] Local variations of the name given to witches' gatherings were frequent.[11]

Perhaps the earliest work that mentions a something like a gathering that might be interpreted, from the Christian point of view, as witches sabbath is Canon Episcopi (906) and later included in Burchard of Worms's collection in the 11th century. The Canon Episcopi forwards the Christian doctrine that things of this nature were false delusions and did not occur in reality. Errores Gazariorum later evoked the Sabbat, in 1452.

Helping to publicize belief in and the threat of the Witches' Sabbath was the extensive preaching of the popular Franciscan reformer, Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444), whose widely circulating sermons contain various references to the sabbath as it was then conceived and hence represent valuable early sources into the history of this phenomenon.[12] Some allusions to meetings of more than one witch and possibly other demons are made in the Inquistors' manual of witch-hunting, the Malleus Maleficarum (1486). Nevertheless, it was during the Renaissance when Sabbath folklore was most popular, more books on them were published, and more people lost their lives when accused of participating. Commentarius de Maleficiis (1622), by Peter Binsfeld, cites accusation of participation in Sabbaths as a proof of guiltiness in an accusation for the practice of witchcraft.

Ritual elements[edit]

Bristol University's Ronald Hutton has encapsulated the witches' sabbath as an essentially modern construction, saying:

[The concepts] represent a combination of three older mythical components, all of which are active at night: (1) A procession of female spirits, often joined by privileged human beings and often led by a supernatural woman; (2) A lone spectral huntsman, regarded as demonic, accursed, or otherworldly; (3) A procession of the human dead, normally thought to be wandering to expiate their sins, often noisy and tumultuous, and usually consisting of those who had died prematurely and violently. The first of these has pre-Christian origins, and probably contributed directly to the formulation of the concept of the witches’ sabbath. The other two seem to be medieval in their inception, with the third to be directly related to growing speculation about the fate of the dead in the 11th and 12th centuries."[13]

The book Compendium Maleficarum (1608) by Francesco Maria Guazzo illustrates a typical witch-phobic view of gathering of witches as "the attendants riding flying goats, trampling the cross, and being re-baptised in the name of the Devil while giving their clothes to him, kissing his behind, and dancing back to back forming a round."

Depictions in various art forms[edit]

Faust's Vision by Luis Ricardo Falero

As referenced earlier, Hawthorne seems to have been describing a witches' sabbath and the surrounding activity in his short story, "Young Goodman Brown." Musically, the supposed ritual has been used as inspiration for such works as Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and the fifth movement of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

In film, Robert Eggers' 2015 The Witch depicts a celebration of this ritual during the movie's climax. Also, Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem incorporates such imagery as flashbacks into the titular town's backstory.

Depictions in painting include the following:

Disputed accuracy of the accounts[edit]

In spite of the number of times that religious authorities retold stories of gatherings of witches, modern researchers have been unable to find any corroboration that any such event ever physically occurred.[14] The historian Scott E. Hendrix presents a two-fold explanation for why these stories were so commonly told in spite of the fact that sabbats likely never actually occurred in his study "The Pursuit of Witches and the Sexual Discourse of the Sabbat." First, belief in the real power of witchcraft grew during the late medieval and early-modern Europe as a doctrinal view in opposition to the canon Episcopi gained ground in certain communities. This fueled a paranoia among certain religious authorities that there was a vast underground conspiracy of witches determined to overthrow Christianity. Women beyond child-bearing years provided an easy target and were scapegoated and blamed for famines, plague, warfare, and other problems.[14] Having prurient and orgiastic elements helped ensure that these stories would be relayed to others.[15]

In effect, the sabbat acted as an effective 'advertising' gimmick, causing knowledge of what these authorities believed to be the very real threat of witchcraft to be spread more rapidly across the continent.[14] That also meant that stories of the sabbat promoted the hunting, prosecution, and execution of supposed witches.

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.[16] 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, fear, and religious intolerance towards minority groups.[17]

Witches' Sabbath by Frans Francken the Younger

Some of the existing accounts of the Sabbat were given when the person recounting them was being tortured.[18] and so motivated to agree with suggestions put to them.

Christopher F. Black claimed that the Roman Inquisition’s sparse employment of torture allowed accused witches to not feel pressured into mass accusation. This in turn means there were fewer alleged groups of witches in Italy and places under inquisitorial influence. Because the Sabbath is a gathering of collective witch groups, the lack of mass accusation means Italian popular culture was less inclined to believe in the existence of Black Sabbath. The Inquisition itself also held a skeptical view toward the legitimacy of Sabbath Assemblies.[19]

Many of the diabolical elements of the Witches' Sabbath stereotype, such as the eating of babies, poisoning of wells, desecration of hosts or kissing of the devil's anus, were also made about heretical Christian sects, lepers, Muslims, and Jews.[11] The term is the same as the normal English word "Sabbath" (itself a transliteration of Hebrew "Shabbat", the seventh day, on which the Creator rested after creation of the world), referring to the witches' equivalent to the Christian day of rest; a more common term was "synagogue" or "synagogue of Satan"[20] possibly reflecting anti-Jewish sentiment, although the acts attributed to witches bear little resemblance to the Sabbath in Christianity or Jewish Shabbat customs. The Errores Gazariorum (Errors of the Cathars), which mentions the Sabbat, while not discussing the actual behavior of the Cathars, is named after them, in an attempt to link these stories to an heretical Christian group.[21]

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.[22] 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[edit]

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.[11] Ginzburg links these beliefs with similar testimonies recorded across Europe, from the armiers of the Pyrenees, from the followers of Signora Oriente in fourteenth century Milan and the followers of Richella and 'the wise Sibillia' in fifteenth century northern Italy, and much further afield, from Livonian werewolves, Dalmatian kresniki, Hungarian táltos, Romanian căluşari and Ossetian burkudzauta. In many testimonies these meetings were described as out-of-body, rather than physical, occurrences.[11]

Role of topically-applied hallucinogens[edit]

Frequent ointment ingredient : Deadly Nightshade : Atropa belladonna

Magic ointments...produced effects which the subjects themselves believed in, even stating that they had intercourse with evil spirits, had been at the Sabbat and danced on the Brocken with their lovers...The peculiar hallucinations evoked by the drug had been so powerfully transmitted from the subconscious mind to consciousness that mentally uncultivated people...believed them to be reality.[23]

Carlo Ginzburg's researches have highlighted shamanic elements in European witchcraft compatible with (although not invariably inclusive of) drug-induced altered states of consciousness. In this context, a persistent theme in European witchcraft, stretching back to the time of classical authors such as Apuleius, is the use of unguents conferring the power of 'flight' and 'shape-shifting'.[24] A number of recipes for such 'flying ointments have survived from early modern times, permitting not only an assessment of their likely pharmacological effects – based on their various plant (and to a lesser extent animal) ingredients – but also the actual recreation of and experimentation with such fat or oil-based preparations.[25] It is surprising (given the relative wealth of material available) that Ginzburg makes only the most fleeting of references to the use of entheogens in European witchcraft at the very end of his extraordinarily wide-ranging and detailed analysis of the Witches Sabbath, mentioning only the fungi Claviceps purpurea and Amanita muscaria by name, and confining himself to but a single paragraph on the 'flying ointment' on page 303 of 'Ecstasies...' :

In the Sabbath the judges more and more frequently saw the accounts of real, physical events. For a long time the only dissenting voices were those of the people who, referring back to the Canon episcopi, saw witches and sorcerers as the victims of demonic illusion. In the sixteenth century scientists like Cardano or Della Porta formulated a different opinion : animal metamorphoses, flights, apparitions of the devil were the effect of malnutrition or the use of hallucinogenic substances contained in vegetable concoctions or ointments...But no form of privation, no substance, no ecstatic technique can, by itself, cause the recurrence of such complex experiences...the deliberate use of psychotropic or hallucinogenic substances, while not explaining the ecstasies of the followers of the nocturnal goddess, the werewolf, and so on, would place them in a not exclusively mythical dimension.

– in short, a substrate of shamanic myth could, when catalysed by a drug experience (or simple starvation), give rise to a 'journey to the Sabbath', not of the body, but of the mind. Ergot and the Fly Agaric mushroom, while undoubtedly hallucinogenic,[26] were not among the ingredients listed in recipes for the flying ointment. The active ingredients in such unguents were primarily, not fungi, but plants in the nightshade family Solanaceae, most commonly Atropa belladonna (Deadly Nightshade) and Hyoscyamus niger (Henbane), belonging to the tropane alkaloid-rich tribe Hyoscyameae.[27] Other tropane-containing, nightshade ingredients included the famous Mandrake Mandragora officinarum, Scopolia carniolica and Datura stramonium, the Thornapple.[28] The alkaloids Atropine, Hyoscyamine and Scopolamine present in these Solanaceous plants are not only potent (and highly toxic) hallucinogens, but are also fat-soluble and capable of being absorbed through unbroken human skin.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ American historian GL Burr does not seem to use the term in his essay "The Literature of Witchcraft" presented to the American Historical Association in 1890.
  2. ^ Joseph Hansen Zauberwahn (1900) also see companion volume of sources Quellen (1901)
  3. ^ Grimm, Kinder und HausMärchen (1843 ed, 2nd Volume)
  4. ^ Phillipus van Limborch, History of Inquisition (1692), English translation (1816) p. 88, original Latin here
  5. ^ Hansen, Quellen (1901) p.186
  6. ^ The verse in Revelations is pointed to by Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-Hunts(2004) p.60
  7. ^ Nicolaus Jacquier Flagellum (printed 1581) p. 40
  8. ^ Daneau's work is included with Jacquier in 1581 printing, link above. See p. 242.
  9. ^ Pierre de Lancre p. 74
  10. ^ On the Name of the Weekly Day of Rest (PDF).
  11. ^ a b c d e Rosenthal, Carlo Ginzburg; translated by Raymond (1991). Ecstasies deciphering the witches' Sabbath (1st American ed.). New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-0394581637.
  12. ^ Mormando, Franco (1999). The preacher's demons : Bernardino of Siena and the social underworld of early Renaissance Italy. Chicago [u.a.]: Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226538549.
  13. ^ Hutton, Ronald (3 July 2014). "The Wild Hunt and the Witches' Sabbath". Folklore. 125 (2): 161–178. doi:10.1080/0015587X.2014.896968.
  14. ^ a b c Hendrix, Scott E. (December 2011). "The Pursuit of Witches and the Sexual Discourse of the Sabbat" (PDF). Anthropology. 11 (2): 41–58.
  15. ^ Garrett, Julia M. (2013). "Witchcraft and Sexual Knowledge in Early Modern England". Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies. 13 (1): 34. doi:10.1353/jem.2013.0002.
  16. ^ Glass, Justine (1965). Witchcraft: The Sixth Sense. North Hollywood, California: Wilshire Book Company. p. 100.
  17. ^ Cohn, Norman (1975). Europe's inner demons : an enquiry inspired by the great witch-hunt. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0465021314.
  18. ^ Marnef, Guido (1997). "Between Religion and Magic: An Analysis of Witchcraft Trials in the Spanish Netherlands, Seventeenth Century". In Schäfer, Peter; Kippenberg, Hans Gerhard (eds.). Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium. Brill. pp. 235–54. ISBN 978-90-04-10777-9. p. 252
  19. ^ Black, Christopher F. (2009). The Italian inquisition. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300117066.
  20. ^ Kieckhefer, Richard (1976). European witch trials : their foundations in popular and learned culture, 1300–1500. London: Routledge & K. Paul. ISBN 978-0710083142.
  21. ^ Peters, Edward (2001). "Sorcerer and Witch". In Jolly, Karen Louise; Raudvere, Catharina; et al. (eds.). Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 233–37. ISBN 978-0-485-89003-7.
  22. ^ Park, Robert E., "Review of Life in a Haitian Valley," American Journal of Sociology Vol. 43, No. 2 (Sep., 1937), pp. 346–348.
  23. ^ Lewin, Louis Phantastica, Narcotic and Stimulating Drugs : Their Use and Abuse. Translated from the second German edition by P.H.A. Wirth, pub. New York : E.P. Dutton. Original German edition 1924.
  24. ^ Harner, Michael J., Hallucinogens and Shamanism, pub. Oxford University Press 1973, reprinted U.S.A.1978 Chapter 8 : pps. 125–150 : The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft.
  25. ^ Hansen, Harold A. The Witch's Garden pub. Unity Press 1978 ISBN 978-0913300473
  26. ^ Schultes, Richard Evans; Hofmann, Albert (1979). The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens (2nd ed.). Springfield Illinois: Charles C. Thomas. pps. 261-4.
  27. ^ Hunziker, Armando T. The Genera of Solanaceae A.R.G. Gantner Verlag K.G., Ruggell, Liechtenstein 2001. ISBN 3-904144-77-4.
  28. ^ Schultes, Richard Evans; Albert Hofmann (1979). Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-056089-7.
  29. ^ Sollmann, Torald, A Manual of Pharmacology and Its Applications to Therapeutics and Toxicology. 8th edition. Pub. W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia and London 1957.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 978-0-8065-0059-1. 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.
  • Robbins, Rossell Hope, ed. (1959). "Sabbat". The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. Crown. pp. 414–424. See also the extensive topic bibliography to the primary literature on pg. 560.
  • Musgrave, James Brent and James Houran. (1999). "The Witches' Sabbat in Legend and Literature." Lore and Language 17, no. 1-2. pg 157–174.
  • Wilby, Emma. (2013) "Burchard's Strigae, the Witches' Sabbath, and Shamnistic Cannibalism in Early Modern Europe." Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 8, no.1: 18–49.
  • Sharpe, James. (2013) "In Search of the English Sabbat: Popular Conceptions of Witches' Meetings in Early Modern England. Journal of Early Modern Studies. 2: 161–183.
  • Hutton, Ronald. (2014) "The Wild Hunt and the Witches' Sabbath." Folklore. 125, no. 2: 161–178.
  • Roper, Lyndal. (2004) Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. -See Part II: Fantasy Chapter 5: Sabbaths
  • Thompson, R.L. (1929) The History of the Devil- The Horned God of the West- Magic and Worship.
  • Murray, Margaret A. (1962)The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
  • Black, Christopher F. (2009) The Italian Inquisition. (New Haven: Yale University Press). See Chapter 9- The World of Witchcraft, Superstition and Magic
  • Ankarloo, Bengt and Gustav Henningsen. (1990) Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries (Oxford: Clarendon Press). see the following essays- pg 121 Ginzburg, Carlo "Deciphering the Sabbath," pg 139 Muchembled, Robert "Satanic Myths and Cultural Reality," pg 161 Rowland, Robert. "Fantastically and Devilishe Person's: European Witch-Beliefs in Comparative Perspective," pg 191 Henningsen, Gustav "'The Ladies from outside': An Archaic Pattern of Witches' Sabbath."
  • Wilby, Emma. (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic visionary traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press)
  • Garrett, Julia M. (2013) "Witchcraft and Sexual Knowledge in Early Modern England," Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 13, no. 1. pg 32–72.
  • Roper, Lyndal. (2006) "Witchcraft and the Western Imagination," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6, no. 16. pg 117–141.