4 - Witch Practices
The people who were attracted to the witch cult were chiefly of the intelligent classes comprising craftsmen, soldiers, merchants, doctors, sailors, farmers and clerks. They were all people who wanted adventure, the 'bright young things' of the period, combined, of course, with those who always flock to anything secret or odd or religious in the hope of relief; that is, people who are to some degree sexually unbalanced.
Then, of course, there was the village wise-woman with her cures and curses, and the inmates of the castles and great houses. Not by any means did all these people 'belong', as the witches phrase it - they speak merely of 'belonging', never adding to what - but these were the classes of folk who chiefly attended the sab-bats of the men of the heaths; and some of them at least were initiated into the mysteries.
The persecution was first directed against the heathens, then against the pagans, and then it turned to their associates in the larger towns and villages. They were a fairly easy mark because they were mostly people who were better off than their neighbours, eating better food and living more reasonable lives. If they got drunk and beat their wives, they were free from suspicion.
Anyone who led what we should call a reasonable life and was rather intelligent was suspect and the old cry was: 'Kill them all; the Lord will know His own.' But the trouble in killing off all the more intelligent people was the loss to the community. So the massacre was stopped in the end; but most of the members of the cult were then dead and only a few were left to carry on. These were chiefly the associates who had been initiated.
Instead of the great Sabbats with perhaps a thousand or more attendants it became a small meeting in private houses, probably a dozen or so according to the size of the room. The numbers being few, they were no longer able to gain power, to rise to the hyperaesthetic state by means of hundreds of wild dancers shrieking wildly, and they had to use other secret methods to induce this state. This came easily to the descendants of the men of the heath, but not to the people of non-Celtic race.
Some knowledge and power had survived, as many of the families had intermarried, and in time their powers grew, and in out-of-the-way places the cult survived. The fact that they were happy gave them a reason to struggle on. It is from these people that the surviving witch families probably descend. They know that their fathers and grandfathers belonged, and had spoken to them of meetings about the time of Waterloo, when it was then an old cult, thought to exist from all time. Though the persecution had died down from want of fuel, they realised that their only chance to be left alone was to remain unknown and this is as true today as it was five hundred years ago.
The great question which people ask is: 'How do you know the cult is old?' This would be easier to answer if I were permitted to print the rites in full. But I am familiar with most forms of ritual including Kabbalistic magic, and they all have certain things in common and work by calling up a spirit or intelligence and commanding it to do their will. All the members stand in a circle for protection and are warned that if they leave the circle before the spirit is dismissed they may be blasted. This is sometimes varied by working in a graveyard and attempting to raise a corpse to get information from it.
There is another school which believes that all magical ceremonies should consist of an act together with a rhyming spell. That is, you must show the Powers what to do, then bind them with a rhyme.
Now if anyone in the last two hundred years had tried to make up a rite they would have used one of these methods or something resembling them. The English witches' method is entirely different. They believe the power is within themselves and exudes from their bodies. It would be dissipated were it not for the circle cast, as previously remarked, to keep the power in, and not, as magicians usually use it, to keep the spirits out. A witch can and does move freely in and out of the circle when she wishes.
The only man I can think of who could have invented the rites was the late Aleister Crowley. When I met him he was most interested to hear that I was a member, and said he had been inside when he was very young, but would not say whether he had rewritten anything or not. But the witch practices are entirely different in method from any kind of magic he wrote about, and he described very many kinds.
There are indeed certain expressions and certain words used which smack of Crowley; possibly he borrowed things from the cult writings, or more likely someone may have borrowed expressions from him. The only other man I can think of who could have done it is Kipling; but the cult writings are so alien to his ideas and expressions that I am sure he had nothing to do with writing them, though I fancy from some of his works that he knew something about them. There is much evidence that in its present form the rites were worked long before Kipling and Crowley were born.
The people who certainly would have had the knowledge and ability to invent them were the people who formed the Order of the Golden Dawn about eighty years ago, but knowing their aims and objects I think it is about the last thing they would have done. Hargrave Jennings might have had a hand in them, but his writings are so involved that I hardly think he could have devised anything so simple and clear-cut. Grandfathers and grandmothers have told folk still living of meetings they attended about a hundred and forty years ago, when the cult was thought to have existed from all time.
Barrat of the Magus, circa 1800, would have had the ability to invent or resurrect the cult. But he was mainly interested in ritual magic, which I think would have shown in the rituals. Sir Francis Dashwood, of Hell Fire Club fame, is another who might have had a hand in such a thing, but he was a free-thinking diabolist and was the last man to start or invent a new religion: if he did, it would have been something on either diabolical or classical lines. Nor do I think it could have been invented when England was governed by the C.A.B.A.L. (the government of Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale), and learned men were all Kabbalists; if they believed and worked on Kabbalistic lines they were unlikely to have invented this.
It is quite possible that the main parts of the cult might have been brought over from Italy about the time of the Renaissance or even later; but if they were, it would have been as a fully developed witch cult, which was then joined on to the local covens.
I fancy that certain practices, such as the use of the circle to keep the power in, were local inventions, derived from the use of the Druid or pre-Druid circle. At one time I believed the whole cult was directly descended from the Northern European culture of the Stone Age, uninfluenced by anything else; but I now think that it was influenced by the Greek and Roman mysteries which originally may have come from Egypt. But while it is fascinating to consider the cult existing in direct descent from ancient Egypt, we must take into account the other possibilities.
There is, of course, the orthodox Roman Catholic view that the cult was either invented by the Devil or made up by people who hated the Catholic Church. If this was the case, I think it would certainly have shown in the rites or the teaching; but these all run as if the practicers had never heard of either, which points to its being at least pre-Christian. Other people say: 'It was a protest against the tyranny of the nobles and the Church.'
If it were merely that, surely, again, it would show in the rites or the teaching? High taxation may have induced large numbers of people to join the cult in the hope of protection - and this reminds me of the story to the effect that the Cornish people were good heathens, but they were 'agin' the Catholic Church. 'When they heard of Protestantism they held a large meeting to decide which would annoy the Church more, to stay heathen or to turn Protestant.
They decided after much argument that as the Church didn't much mind their being heathens they would turn Protestant.' I can very well imagine that perhaps in King John's time, when all England was under interdict - when, as the immortal Smith Minor said, 'the Pope made a law that no one might be born, get married or die, for the space of ten years' - then many moderately good Christians, deprived of religious consolation, might easily have turned to the rival religion. After all, the witches' paradise is very attractive to the ordinary man.
Similar causes on the Continent may have brought numerous converts to the cult and these may have brought in new ideas. Possibly the Great God, the Protector, the giver of rest and peace, slowly came to be thought of only in his function as god of death and so became more or less identified with the Devil. It is difficult to know exactly what happened; but I believe it unlikely that a large influx of common people in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries would greatly alter the beliefs.
The Church had never taken much notice of sorcery as it was not a rival in the way that witchcraft was, and many Popes and prominent Churchmen were said to practise it. With the Renaissance the spirit of enquiry led to free-thinking, and this in turn led to a revival of mathematical magic, astrology, and the Kabbala, to classical studies and thence to knowledge of the classic gods. The legend of Faust was seized upon and the story circulated that to practise magic one had to sell one's soul to the Devil.
The best-known treatment of the theme in English literature is, of course, the 'atheist' Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, whilst a long series of histories and plays on the theme in Europe culminated in Goethe's magnificent Faust. It was a credulous age and the story was readily believed: no one seems to have considered whether anyone would think it worth while to suffer millions of years of torture for the sake of a few years' pleasure. There are examples of the existence of such pacts, but it is presumed that either they were based on false evidence planted to convict some poor wretch, or on the acts of stout freethinkers or madmen.
Bishop Wilson reports a Manx case in his notebook dated Peel, November 29, 1720, as follows: 'John Curlitt of Murlough, in the county of Down in the parish of Killough, did give himself body and soul to Satan the Devil, who is called Lucifer, after the term of nine years, on condition that he would give him as much money during that time as he should please, on performance of which he did bind himself to the performance of this bargain and promises to fight under his banner during ye said term, which if he do desert he leaveth himself to Satan's pleasure, and promises at the end of nine years to go himself. Signed with blood, sealed and delivered to the Devil. John Curlitt.'
John Curlitt stoutly denied writing this, saying that it had been planted on him. The Bishop said it was in his handwriting and evidently believed in it but, curiously enough, seems not to have taken any legal action. This may have been a case of forgery by some enemy, or possibly done for bravado, as there were several Hell Fire Clubs then in existence. But at that time the idea of making pacts with the Devil was firmly believed in and jurists accepted the idea that if anyone were so evil as to sell his soul for money or any other reason, then it was clear proof of heresy. And heresy meant death. Seemingly they did not bother to think that if they executed the criminal the Devil would get his soul all the sooner.
The Church took measures to obtain information on all subjects, and to counteract all practices it disapproved of. As the Manx way may be novel to many, I take the following from The Dungeon of St. Germain1; by David Grain:
'The summoner annually arranged for the swearing-in of his Parish Churchwardens and also impanelled the chapter guest, who, with the wardens, met every three or four weeks under the chairmanship of the Vicar or Rector. They were bound by oath to report and present persons alleged to have been guilty of a breach of the Canon Law. Thus every parish had its body of nine or ten men, the Skeet, whose duty it was to spy on their neighbours.
In practice the efficiency of the system was bound to be affected by the restraints governing the conduct of individuals in a small community, and as time went on, the quest men were increasingly reluctant to perform their office. But even if they hesitated to destroy the goodwill of their neighbours by excessive zeal during their year of office, they had a great respect for oaths, and the result was that the quest exerted a steady pressure on the life of the Parish, encouraging resentment, suspicion and fear.'
Hence the modern Manx hatred of the informer. By these means the Church got to know the type of people who were likely to be witches. The quest men pried and searched everywhere, and they would be the people who searched the belongings of John Curlitt and found, or pretended to find, the pact with Satan.
They doubtless caused the killing of nearly all the remaining witches and many others, some of whom were not of the cult, until there remained only those who were of families too high to meddle with and possibly some of those who were too poor to be worth looting. Witches would become good Church members to avoid persecution; after all, they had Biblical authority for bowing the head to Rimmon, and it is possible some of these repudiated Christianity at their initiation.
The new terror brought great changes, and, as you could only trust your own children or near relations, the cult became practically a family secret society cut off from all other covens. They held the rites indoors; much had to be curtailed because of the lack of members and many of the rites were forgotten. It was probably about this time that the practice of witches keeping records became common as the regular priesthood no longer existed and the rites were only occasionally performed.
In all the witch writings there is this warning, usually on the first page:
Keep a book in your own hand of write. Let brothers and sisters copy what they will but never let this book out of your hand, and never keep the writings of another, for if it be found in their hand of write they will be taken and tortured. Each should guard his own writings and destroy them whenever danger threatens. Learn as much as you may by heart and when danger is past rewrite your book.
For this reason if any die, destroy their book if they have not been able to do so, for if it be found, 'tis clear proof against them. 'Ye may not be a witch alone,' so all their friends be in danger of the torture, so destroy everything unnecessary. If your book be found on you, it is clear proof against you; you may be tortured.
Keep all thoughts of the cult from your mind. Say you had bad dreams, that a devil caused you to write this without your knowledge. Think to yourself, 'I know nothing; I remember nothing; I have forgotten all.' Drive this into your mind. If the torture be too great to bear, say: 'I will confess. I cannot bear this torment. What do you want me to say? Tell me and I will say it.' If they try to make you tell of the Brotherhood, do not, but if they try to make you speak of impossibilities, such as flying through the air, consorting with the Devil, sacrificing children or eating man's flesh, say: 'I had evil dreams, I was not myself, I was crazed.'
Not all magistrates are bad. If there be an excuse they may show mercy. If you have confessed aught, deny it afterwards; say you babbled under the torture, you know not what you did or said. If you be condemned, fear not, the Brotherhood is powerful, they may help you to escape if you are steadfast.
If you betray aught - THERE is NO HELP FOR YOU IN THIS LIFE, OR IN THAT WHICH IS TO COME.
If you go steadfast to the pyre, DRUGS WILL REACH YOU and you will feel naught, but will go to death and what lies beyond, the Ecstasy of the Goddess.
The same with the working tools. Let them be as ordinary things that anyone may have in their homes. Let the Pentacles be of wax that they may be melted or broken at once. Have no sword unless your rank allows you one. Have no names or signs on anything, write the names and signs on in ink before consecrating them and wash it off immediately after. Never boast, never threaten, never say you wish ill to anyone. If any speak of the craft, say:
'Speak not to me of such, it frightens me, 'tis evil luck to speak of it.'
This tells a great deal. It may date from the time of the fierce persecutions on the Continent, and may have then been roughly translated into English. The trouble in dealing with these documents is the witch law: everyone must copy what they will from another, but no old writings may be kept. As everyone is apt to alter things slightly, modernising the language and making other changes, it is impossible to fix the date when it became current. Clearly it was not written in England. Though bishops may have burnt witches at times, hanging was the only legal death sentence here.
It might have been written in Scotland, but Scots would have worded it more clearly I think. It shows one thing: that the craft was powerful. They could bribe jailers to smuggle drugs in to the poor wretches. This I think explains the Inquisition complaints that witches would go to sleep even when on the rack. It must also date from a time when people were becoming literate. Witch-burning on the Continent was by a sort of lynch law; bishops did what they liked, saying that the Church was above the law of the land.
People still ask me questions about witches because they have heard so many tales about them. Do they go to the sabbat? Is it true they use flying ointment? Why do witches anoint themselves? Did they fly through the air to their meetings on broomsticks? In the old days they usually walked, carrying poles or quarterstaffs, which were useful as weapons. They sometimes used them to make sort of pole jumps over obstacles; they were useful in finding one's way and avoiding obstacles in the dark.
In the persecution times, at least, they would put them between their legs and ride on them when approaching the meeting place; or if challenged, as a sign that they belonged to the cult. Failure to do this might mean an arrow between their ribs, and this would usually be smeared with something of the hogs-blood and hellebore variety.
Finally, they rode these poles in the fertility dance; but riding them meant they got some grease and soot on them, and a pole so stained could be used in evidence against them; so they often took a stick or broomstick which might reasonably be dirty, and used this for recognition or for the jumping or fertility dances. If the place of meeting was distant, they rode horses. They never flew on broomsticks. Nowadays like ordinary people they walk or take a bus or whatever is most convenient.
I have never known witches anoint themselves all over, but I have been shown a recipe for an anointing oil. This consisted of vervain, or mint crushed and steeped in olive oil or lard, left overnight, then squeezed through a cloth to remove the leaves. Fresh leaves were then added and the squeezing repeated three or four times until it was strongly scented and ready for use. It is said that if they lived in the country where they would not be seen, they would strip and rub the oil into their skin and go to the sabbat naked.
This would keep them warm enough until they reached the dance. At times they would mix soot with the oil so as not to be seen at night. One of the charges against witches was that they went invisible by night, and, it may be noted, vervain was at one time thought to confer invisibility.
They have a very powerful scented oil, which nowadays they speak of as anointing oil. This is only used by the ladies, who dab it on their shoulders, behind their ears, etc., much as ordinary perfume. When they are heated with dancing, this gives off very strong fumes, and most certainly produces a very curious effect. What it is made of is kept a great secret; they had to do without it during the war and for some time afterwards, but supplies are coming forward again. They went naked to the meetings because if they were raided they might not have time to dress and so would leave incriminating clothing behind.
Another thing was that they found that the soldiers would usually let a naked girl go, but would take a clothed one prisoner. The slippery oiled bodies also made them hard to catch hold of. In winter they managed to get some sheltered place, a cave or a ruin, for their meetings where they could light fires and be warm. They would wear clothes going and coming to and from these places.
The local 'quest', inquiring into abnormal happenings, could be trusted to stay at home in winter. They also tell me that in most villages the witches arranged that the first and last house was occupied by a member of the cult, and any strange witch, travelling or 'on the run', could go where she would be sure of help and protection. In the villages the members of the cult went clothed to this house and were anointed there.
The occupiers of the house never attended the sabbat, but as soon as the last witch had left made some excuse to be seen by as many people as possible in the village, so that if it became known that a sabbat had been held in the neighbourhood they themselves would be above suspicion. There are many yarns of people getting out of windows and even chimneys when there were non-cult members in the house.
Most of the people in those days believed in goblins and devils and were afraid of the dark, so that if the witches were a few hundred yards from the village they were safe from prowlers, Of course, the witches did all they could to foster these fears. They were great leg-pullers, for successful leg-pulling often saved their lives; but their warning tales of the dark were not entirely groundless. The men of the heaths always used poisoned arrows.
After I had written this I received a letter dated September 29, 1952, telling me of a meeting held in a wood in the south of England about two months before, in the traditional nude (luckily the weather was warm). They cast the circle with the Athame, did the fertility dances on broomsticks, performed the proper seasonal as well as other rites, and had some of the old dances. The letter also mentioned three indoor meetings in the last few months where everything had been done very satisfactorily and spells performed which worked! What interests me is the fact that numbers of people meet every year and perform witch rites because they believe in them.
A critic has suggested to me: 'These people are not witches; they only do witch rites because it gives them pleasure and because they are superstitious.' If that is to be the touchstone, is not a superstition a belief? Is a Christian who believes in his religion, and also obtains pleasure and comfort from performing its religious rites, not therefore a Christian? It is also said, with what truth I do not know, that the Wee Frees only believe in religions that make you miserable. Neither the witches nor myself see eye to eye with the Wee Frees in this respect.