12 - Who is the Devil?
It is, I think, fairly well known that witches observed four great festivals: May eve, August eve, November eve (Hallowe'en) and February eve. These seem to correspond to the divisions of the ancient Gaelic year by the four fire festivals of Samhaim or Samhuin (November 1), Brigid (February 1), Bealteine or Beltene (May 1) and Lugnasadh (August 1). The festivals corresponding to midwinter and midsummer were both said to have been founded in honour of female deities: Brigid is a very ancient goddess of home-crafts and the hearth, Lugnasadh was founded by Lugaidh in honour of his 'nurse' Taillte.
Of the witch festivals, on the other hand, the two summer festivals were in honour of the goddess, wherein she takes precedence, and the two winter ones were those wherein the god takes precedence. In practice it appears to me that in summer the goddess takes precedence, riding on a broom (or other) stick before the god if he is present; but in winter he is not superior but merely her equal; they both ride side by side. It is true, of course, that in summer the main prayers are to the goddess, while in winter it is chiefly the god who is prayed to.
Now the god is represented by the high priest (if there is one) and it is he who was called the Devil in the old days. I was very curious about him and asked at once when I was 'inside', by which they mean a member of the cult: 'Who and what is called the Devil?' Though members of the cult never use and, indeed, dislike the term, they knew what I meant and said: 'You know 'him, the leader. He is the high priest, the high priestess's husband.'
This, though true, was not the exact answer. It really should be: 'He is whoever the high priestess appoints to take this position.' In practice, she always appoints her husband if he has sufficient rank; but she may appoint anyone who is eligible, including herself; she belts on a sword and acts as a man. In the old days it was often a distinguished visitor who was appointed.
In the times when the People of the Heaths held their meetings the high priest was a man of great learning in the cult, probably a tribal chief, or possibly a Druid, and most likely everyone would know who he was. He was the horned god, received divine honours and possibly took precedence of the high priestess; but when the people of the mixed races became strong in the cult, I think there came a time when the masked (unknown) man took his place, and he was most likely a Norman manorial lord or local churchman who protected the cult in secret.
It is very likely that it might be agreed that at one meeting the masked unknown (whom I shall for convenience call the Devil) took the place and, at the next, the old known tribal chief took it. It seems likely that this depended on local arrangements. It was soon found that the uninitiated congregation of farmers, fishermen and suchlike had such awe of the great unknown that the cult became more powerful, and that then, even when the old tribal chief played the part, he too was masked and unknown. The Church called him the 'devil' and he became known as such.
'If this mysterious man turned up,' I asked, 'how would you recognise him?' and I found that they had joked about this. They wouldn't know if he were genuine or not! It had never happened to their knowledge; but there was always the possibility of someone from another coven turning up and claiming this right. Actually, the high priestess said: 'I'd talk to him and if I found he really had great knowledge and I liked him and found him interesting, I'd treat him as a distinguished visitor and appoint him for the day.
Another high priestess might think otherwise.' She went on to say: 'I wish one of the old sort, a great protector, would turn up, who had a great big house and grounds to lend us for meetings. If he really were of us, I wouldn't bother too much about his vast learning; I'd appoint him and teach him the job.' So here's a chance for anyone who wants to play the Devil!
I trust I have made myself clear. The Devil is, or rather was, an invention of the Church. Witches found that the popular view that Satan was one of them added to their power, arid rather adopted it, though they never called him by that name except, perhaps, on the rack; and even then, as Dr. Murray has pointed out, sometimes a confession made under torture would name him as their god, but a transcript produced in court would substitute the word DEVIL. Now you cannot blame the poor witch for this.
The tortures witches suffered would make anyone confess anything. I have heard that some great man at the time said: 'If they did that to me they could make me confess that I'd murdered God the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost and the Virgin.'
Before I finish I would like to mention one or two final matters that may have some bearing on the subject of witchcraft, in the hope that someone can give me more information.
At Rushen Abbey, near Castletown, some curious discoveries have been made (vide articles in the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society Proceedings, March 1935). Mr. W. Christian Cubbon writes (page 111):
'There is another observation worthy of special mention. Its significance has not yet been explained. I refer to the device sometimes found in eighteenth century burials, namely the skull and crossbones. This was found here carried out within the grave itself in actual bone.
The isolated heads were found with human thigh-bones crossed under the chins, and one at least of the skeletons had such bones under its chin; this is still to be seen at Rushen Abbey. On discussing this peculiarity it was said to have been observed in Ireland but passed over as being accidental, or having no known significance. With one was also found a bronze figure of the Egyptian god Osiris; Reginald Smith of the British Museum and Sir Arthur Keith pronounce it to be of early or pre-Roman date.'
Mr. Cubbon, who excavated them, told me that this figure was found in the grave of the man with thigh-bones under his chin. I have seen this skeleton; the legs are complete and laid out straight, so it was someone else's thighbones which were used. I have examined the figure, which is the usual type of Osiris, with a short sword and scourge crossed on his breast - the symbols of death and resurrection I believe.
It is fascinating but improbable to think that cult of Osiris could have reached the Isle of Man at this early date, and I would suggest that it has been sold by some unscrupulous pilgrim as the figure of a saint, if it were not for these reasons.
The bones were apparently buried in early Norman times and are thought to have been identified as of King Olave and his family who were massacred in 1142. (Probably the heads without bodies had been stuck on posts.) People also suggest that they were pirates and so were buried in this way. But the skull and crossbones was not adopted by pirates until the seventeenth century, in spite of what movies or boys' books say.
Professor Varley of University College, Accra, tells me that he excavated a number of skull-and-crossbones burials at Lissett, East Riding of Yorkshire, during the construction of an airfield there in 1940. This had to be done hastily owing to the war and he found nothing by which he could date them; but personally he believed they were of about the Viking period. He said he sent in all his reports to Mr. Elmer Davis of Cardiff Museum, and he had heard no more about them, so has not published his report.
Professor Varley himself has no idea of the reason for or the meanings of these burials, and was interested to know of their occurring elsewhere.
So we have cases of these burials in Man, Yorkshire and Ireland. People reverence their dead, and do not do such things for fun; it must have had some meaning for them. If it was simply a case of people being beheaded, where did the crossbones come from, and were they their own or someone else's?
It has been suggested that they were cases of cannibalism, the heads being buried and the bodies eaten. But cannibals would not fetch other bones to bury with the heads, and they usually split all the big bones to get the marrow, and these thigh-bones are all intact.
The skull-and-crossbones sign is often found in old tombs and cemeteries; I believe it goes back to Roman times and is the symbol of death and resurrection. When I was made a Mason I was told the skull and crossbones represented 'death' and the blazing star 'resurrection'. Now this star is also a pentacle. As I have said, in old times witches used a skull and crossbones to represent their god when his representative, the high priest, was not present.
Nowadays the priestess assumes a position much like that of Osiris to represent the god in his death form, then opens out her arms to represent the pentacle, resurrection. The first gesture also represents a triangle formed by the head and elbows, and the second a five-pointed star (pentacle). Both triangle and pentacle have special meanings to them.
I have already told the story of the Lord of Sidon, and the skull and crossbones which became a talisman for the Templar Order. Commentators have always supposed that this story came from some spy who saw and misunderstood a ritual which actually took place. Now, although there was much 'polities' in the persecution of the Templars, those in charge of the persecutions tried to make the charges plausible.
As at this time most churches had skulls and bones of saints which were given divine honours, it is to be presumed that there was something different about the Templar usage. Since paying honours to a skull was common in all churches, did it here represent 'Death and Resurrection'? Was it honouring the god of 'Death and what lies beyond'? Are there any possible connections between these beliefs and these burials?
Another charge brought against the Templars was that they wore girdles or cords which had some occult meaning. Sometimes it was said that these cords had bound the head which they worshipped. Several writers say that in their girdles lay their idolatry. The Church also accused the Cathari of wearing a cord, implying that there was something wicked in doing so.
The Church therefore at the time accused witches of raising storms, poisoning wells and other serious crimes - and of wearing girdles! Of course, this may have been only a stock charge, brought against everyone; but it seems that it must have meant something to the general public, or it would not have been used in days when every monk and friar and nun wore a rope girdle. Writers, puzzled by these charges, have suggested that these cords were in some way connected with the triple thread that the Indian Brahmins wear; but this is most unlikely at that date.
Now a witch has eight working tools. Of these, five are used only for special purposes; but there are three that she must have in every operation, and cords are among these three. She could at times have worn the cord as a girdle, to disguise it.
J.S.M. Ward in Who Was Hirim Abif? quotes the legends of the Jews, which give the twenty-two questions with which Balkis, Queen of Sheba, tested King Solomon's knowledge. These questions are thought to refer to the secret initiation ceremonies of Astarte-Tammuz. Question 9 is peculiar, and clearly refers to things used for ritual or magic.
Sheba: 'Which are the three that neither die, nor do they have bread put into them, yet they save lives from death?'
Solomon: 'The Staff, the Cord, and the Ring.'
The Staff is the 'Wand' of the conductor of souls who conducts one through the Underworld. The Cord is the 'Cable Tow' with which the candidate is bound, a willing victim properly prepared for sacrifice. The 'Ring' symbolises the 'Vesica piscis' of rebirth.
Witches believe that much of their knowledge came from the East and they think there are witch practices described in the Kabbala, notably verses 964-969 of the Greater Holy Assembly of the Book of Zohar and elsewhere. Similar things occurred in most religious cults at the same time, but I think it must have been a Kabbalist who pointed these passages out to them.
Referring to the story the witches told me of their dressing up and riding out to scare people, I mention the following, quoted by Miss Christine Hole. Miss Burne in her Shropshire Folklore relates a story told by a little girl who was with her father near War Minsterley when they saw a great company of queerly dressed horsemen. The father apparently knew what it was and made her kneel down and cover her face, saying she would go mad if she did not.
But the little girl looked through her fingers and gave a very good description of the leader, a man with a green cloak, a green cap with a white feather and a golden belt with a sword and a hunting horn in his hand. There was also a lady dressed in green, having a white band with a gold ornament on it and a dagger in her belt. Her long golden hair hung loose to her waist. There was a host of others who swept past and left them unharmed.
The old superstition was that Woden was hunting and that no one could look on a god unharmed; he would be killed or blinded at the least. Anyone hearing the wild hunt approaching would therefore fling himself flat, hiding his face in the grass. Little girls do make up stories; but this story rings truer than most If she had seen such a ride, she would tell it in just this way.
The pity is that no one seems to have asked the father what he saw or what he knew. Of course, she may have been telling as happening to her something that really happened to her great-grandmother. There might have been such a local tradition, and many of the witches were what we called thirty years ago 'bright young things', as their Sabbats are quite as bad and wild as a hectic cocktail party or an old-time Christmas party, when people were not afraid to enjoy themselves. If these were witches' rides, it is clear why the riders have different names in different places. When all the talk was of the Devil, the leader would dress as Satan; when it was of others, as of Woden, of King Arthur in Somerset, of Sir Walter Calverley in Yorkshire and of Wild Edric in Shropshire, doubtless the leader would also dress the part required.
As I write I am asked: 'Why won't the witches let you tell the gods' names? Are they Satan and Beelzebub?' So let me assure you they are not any devils' names. Concealing the gods' names is an ancient practice. Among the Egyptian gods, the real names of Amon and of other gods whose names are sacred are unknown. Referring to the god we call Osiris, Herodotus, who was initiated, says speaking of the exposure of the sacred cow: 'At the season when the Egyptians beat themselves in honour of one of their gods whose name I am unwilling to mention ...' and: 'On this lake it is that the Egyptians represent by night his sufferings whose name I refrain from mentioning.' He knew these names; but they were secret.