A sabbat is a wild party of witches, heretics, Demons, and the Devil in a remote location. The participants supposedly indulge in obscene behavior, orgies, gluttony, blasphemy, worship of the Devil, and the cannibalism of roasted infants. Use of the term sabbat or sabbath to describe these rites may derive from the Hebrew term sabbath, or synagogue.
During the witch hysteria of the Inquisition, lurid confessions were tortured out of accused witches and were recorded by zealous Demonologists. However, no historical evidence exists that such rites ever really took place. Rather, they were probably degraded, contorted descriptions of pagan seasonal festivals, as well as the Inquisition’s stance that heretics practiced obscene rites.
The idea of Demonic revelry was well in place in Christianity long before the Inquisition, however, in the increasing Demonization of pagan deities, and in folklore such as the Wild Hunt. For example, the 10th-century Benedictine abbot Regino of Prum wrote in his De ecclesiasticis disciplinis:
This too must by no means be passed over that certain utterly abandoned women, turning aside to follow Satan, being seduced by the illusions and phantasmical shows of Demons firmly believe and openly profess that in the dead of night they ride upon certain beasts along with the pagan goddess Diana and a countless horde of women, and that in those silent hours they fly over vast tracts of country and obey her as their mistress, while on certain other nights they are summoned to do her homage and pay her service.
The first appearance of a sabbat in trials of the Inquisition occurred in Toulouse in 1335. Anne Marie de Georgel and Catherine Delort confessed to a having a Pact with the Devil for about 20 years to serve him in life and after death. On Friday nights, they attended sabbats held in various locations. Georgel said that the Devil appeared in the form of a goat and had sex with her and taught her how to use poisonous plants. Delort said that she, too, copulated with the goat. The witches ate newborn infants stolen from their nurses during the night and drank vile brews.
The term sabbat (also sabbath) for these meetings was not used with consistency until about the mid-15th century, but after the Toulouse trials, descriptions of the rites were always similar. The sabbat played a more prominent role in Europe during the witch hunts than it did in England, where there is no record of a witch sabbat prior to 1620, except for an innocuous feast that was termed a “sabbat” in the Lancashire witch trials of 1612.
Sabbats sometimes took place during the day, but most usually occurred at night in remote locations, such as mountains, caves, and deep forest areas. The favored beginning time was midnight, after a dance. The bestknown gathering place for sabbats, according to Demonologists, was the Brocken in the Harz Mountains of Germany, where the greatest activity took place on Walpurgisnacht (Beltane), April 30. Witches testified at their trials that hundreds of them would gather at these sabbats. They wore masks to protect their identities.
The frequency of sabbats varied with testimonies at witch trials. Witches were said to participate in them frequently, once to several times a week. In the Aix-en-Provence Possessions trials of 1614, Maria de Sains said they took place daily, with special sabbats of blasphemy and the Black Mass on Wednesdays and Fridays. Other reports were tied to pagan observances, such as the previously mentioned Walpurgisnacht and Lammas Day (August 1), Midsummer (June 22), and Samhain (October 31).
To travel to a sabbat, witches left their homes by rising up through the chimney and flying through the air, sometimes on the backs of Demons that had metamorphosed into animals or astride broomsticks, poles, reeds, or farm tools. The witches themselves sometimes shape shifted into animals and were accompanied by their Familiars. They left behind them Demons in their forms in their beds to fool their spouses. When asked by inquisitors how they could get their bodies through narrow chimneys, some witches said the Devil removed all obstacles so that they had enough room. As payment for their transport, witches said, they were defiled by the Demons in animal form. Sometimes witches said they walked to sabbats, usually to a wooded area outside their village.
The Devil usually appeared in the shape of a goat, ugly and smelly, though at times he was said to arrive as a toad, crow, or black cat. He presided over the sabbat while sitting on a throne. The Devil turned into a foul-smelling goat, and the witches took off their clothes and paid homage to him by falling to their knees and kissing his anus.
Witches were forced to confess their latest crimes of evil. If they had committed none since the previous sabbat, they were beaten by Demons.
Unbaptized infants were offered up as sacrifices. New witches were initiated by signing the Devil’s BLACK BOOK in Blood, renouncing Christianity, taking an oath, and trampling upon the cross. The Devil marked his initiates with his claw (see Devil’S MARK). There followed a great feast, with much drinking and eating, although Demonologists often noted that the food tasted vile, and that no salt was present, for nothing evil could abide salt. If infants had been sacrificed, they were cooked and eaten by roasting or made into pies. Witches ate disinterred corpses and drank wine that looked and tasted like clotted black blood. If they refused to eat and drink or spat it out, they were beaten by Demons.
After the feasting—which always left people hungry and never satisfied—were dancing and indiscriminate copulation among the witches and Demons. Witches danced with their backs to one another as an additional precaution to prevent being recognized. They did ring dances, moving widdershins, or counterclockwise. One example cited by both Francesco-Maria Guazzo and Nicholas Remy was that of Johann von Hembach, a German youth who lived in the late 16th century. His mother allegedly was a witch and took him one night to a sabbat. Von Hembach was a skilled flute player, and his mother told him to climb up into a tree and play for the assembly. He did so and was aghast at the revelry that he watched while he played. He exclaimed, “Good God! Where did this crowd of fools and madmen come from?” As soon as he uttered the words, he fell out of the tree and injured his shoulder. When he called for help, the witches vanished.
Von Hembach talked freely about this experience, which some believed and others said was an imaginative vision. In 1589, a witch who supposedly was present at that sabbat, Catharina Prevotte, was arrested on charges of witchcraft in Freissen. Prevotte told the same story. Two other women found guilty of witchcraft in 1590, Otilla Kelvers and Anguel Eysartz, also told the same story and said that the sabbat had taken place at Mayebuch.
The witches also conducted obscene religious masses (see Black Mass). On occasion, the witches would go out into the night and raise storms or cause other trouble. The witches flew home before dawn and the crow of the cock.
The nights of the sabbats varied. Some witches said they attended weekly sabbats, some at the traditional pagan seasonal festival times, and others only once or twice a year.
In 1459–60, accused witches tried at Arras, France, confessed to sabbats, described by the inquisitor Pierre le Broussard:
When they want to go to the vauderie, they spread an ointment, which the Devil has given them, on a wooden stick and rub it on their palms and all over their hands also; then they put the stick between their legs and fly off over towns, woods and stretches of water, being led by the devil himself to the place where their assembly is to be held. There they meet together and the also they find tables loaded with wines and things to eat, and there the devil appears to them, sometimes in the form of a he-goat, sometimes as a dog or monkey; never in human form. They make oblations and pay homage to the Devil, worshiping him. Many of them give him their souls or at least part of their bodies. Then with candles in their hands they kiss the hind parts of the goat that is the Devil. . . .
. . . When the paying of homage was over, they all walked over a cross spitting on it, scorning Christ and the Holy Trinity. Then they exposed their hinder parts to the sky and the heavens above as a sign of their disregard for God, and, after eating and drinking their fill, they all had sexual intercourse; and the Devil appeared in both the form of a man and of a woman, and the men had intercourse with him in the form of a woman and the women in the form of a man. They also committed sodomy and practiced homosexuality and other vile and monstrous crimes against god and nature.
In 1659, a French shepherdess gave this description of a sabbat that occurred on the summer solstice, observed by her and some companions:
They heard a noise and a very dreadful uproar, and, looking on all sides to see whence could come these frightful howlings and these cries of all sorts of animals, they saw at the foot of the mountain the figures of cats, goats, serpents, dragons, and every kind of cruel, impure and unclean animal, who were keeping their Sabbath and making horrible confusion, who were uttering words that were most filthy and sacrilegious that can be imagined and filling the air with the most abominable blasphemies.
Sabbat accounts even appeared in witchcraft cases in the American colonies. In the 1692–93 hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts, accused witches participated in “Diabolical Sacraments,” according to the Puritan minister and witch hunter Cotton Mather.
Heretics as well as witches indulged in these rites. For example, the Fratricelli, a sect that broke away from the Franciscan order, were said to hold orgiastic sabbats. Children born from the orgies were sacrificed and burned, and their ashes were mixed into the wine drunk by the priests. Similarly, the Waldenses, whom the church eventually eradicated, were said to turn to the Devil and make pacts with him because they were excluded from the church.
Demonologists debated whether people attended sabbats in physical reality or in flights of imagination. The Malleus Maleficarum (1487), the leading inquisitors’ handbook, insisted that witches could be transported bodily, although some did have imaginary experiences. Henri Boguet was among Demonologists who believed in literal rites.
Remy said that both real and imaginary sabbats occurred. He cited the confessions of witches such as Prevotte, mentioned earlier, that sometimes witches were fully awake and present, and sometimes they visited in their sleep. Their Demons either transported them bodily or impressed images upon their sleeping minds.
Remy gave examples of supposed genuine sabbats. On July 25, 1590, a woman named Nicolette Lang-Bernhard was traveling from a mill at Guermingen to Assencour. She was walking along a forest path at high noon when she came upon a group of men and women dancing in a ring in a field. They were dancing strangely, with their backs to one another. There were also Demons in disguise, given away by their cloven feet like those of goats and oxen. Stricken with fear, Lang-Bernhard called out the name of Jesus for protection. Immediately all the dancers vanished, except one man, whom she recognized, Petter Gross-Petter, who rose into the air and let go of a mop. Lang-Bernhard herself was swept up into a violent, suffocating gale. She managed to go home, where she lay deathly ill in bed for three days.
Lang-Bernhard told her story, and Gross-Petter was arrested and tortured. He confessed and named others present, who also confessed. A herdsman, Johann Michel, said he had been taken from his flock and transported to the dance, where he had been forced to climb a tree and play his shepherd’s crook. When Lang-Bernhard called out the name of Jesus, he fell out of the tree and found himself back with his flock.
The final proof of this event was the actual appearance of trodden soil, as though people had danced in a ring. Mingled with the human footprints were cloven hoof prints, according to court records. The imprints remained until the soil was plowed the following winter.
It is doubtful that such organized, malevolent activities ever took place. Probably the witches’ sabbat was a fabrication of the witch hunters, who tortured victims to make the most outrageous confessions in order to appease the public fear of witchcraft and the church’s political agenda against heretics, Protestants, rivals, and undesirables. It is plausible that seasonal festivals and other gatherings, along with traditional stories and superstitions, were twisted into diabolic sabbats by the manipulations of inquisitors. Victims who confessed were pressed to name others who had attended the sabbats. In this manner, entire villages sometimes became implicated in Devil worship.
Wiccans and Pagans use the term sabbat to describe their religious ceremonies, which are recreations of ancient pagan rites to observe seasonal festivals and changes. They have no connection to the diabolical rites described by earlier Demonologists.
- Baroja, Julio Caro. The World of the Witches. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
- Guazzo, Francesco-Maria. Compendium Maleficarum. Secaucus, N.J.: University Books, 1974.
- Lea, Henry Charles. Materials toward a History of Witchcraft. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1939.
- Monter, E. William. Witchcraft in France and Switzerland. New York: Cornell University Press, 1976.
- Remy, Nicholas. Demonolatry. Secaucus, N.J.: University Books, 1974.
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1972.
- Summers, Montague. The History of Witchcraft and Demonology. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1926.
Sabbat : In earlier times, a diabolical gathering of witches. In modern times, a seasonal celebration observed by Wiccans and Pagans.
The belief that witches convened in sabbats, assemblies characterized by obscene behavior, dominated the witch hunts from the 14th and 15th centuries. The origins of the sabbat are a blend of seasonal pagan rites still in existence—most notably the great festivals of Beltane (observed may 1) and Samhain (observed October 31)—and the belief that heretics held obscene rites. The sabbat also may be related to the Bacchanalian and Saturnalian rites of the ancient Greeks and romans. The term sabbat is Old French and is derived in part from the Hebrew Shabbath, “to rest,” pertaining to the seventh day of the week designated by the Ten Commandments as the day of rest and worship.
Some historians say that sabbat as it was applied to heretics and witches was anti-Semitic, for Jews were among the heretics. Similarly, heretics, and sometimes witches, were said to meet in synagogues, a term that also was used synonymously with sabbats. The sabbat became much more prominent in continental Europe during the witch-hunts than it did in England, where there is no record of a witch sabbat prior to 1620, except for an innocuous feast that was termed a sabbat in the Lancaster witch trials of 1612 (see Lancaster Witches).
The assemblies of heretics were described as including sexual orgies, gluttonous feasting, worship of the Devil, blasphemous and diabolical rites and copulation with Demons. As witchcraft became heresy, these activities were attributed to witches.
The first mention of a sabbat in a trial of the Inquisition occurred in Toulouse in 1335. The term sabbat (also sabbath) for these meetings was not applied regularly until about the mid-15th century. Once the sabbat appeared in trials, however, it quickly assumed a certain form. Sabbats invariably took place at night in remote locations, such as mountains, caves and deep forest areas. The best-known gathering place for sabbats was the Brocken in the Harz mountains of Germany, where the greatest activity took place on WAlpurgIsnACht (beltane), April 30.
To get to a sabbat, witches flew through the air, sometimes on the backs of Demons that had metamorphosed into animals, or astride broomsticks or poles (see Flying). The witches themselves sometimes changed into animals (see metamorphosis) and were accompanied by their familiars. The Devil usually appeared in the shape of a he-goat, ugly and smelly, though at times he was said to arrive as a Toad, crow or black CAt. He presided over the sabbat while sitting on a throne. The witches took off their clothes and paid homage to him by kissing his backside (see Kiss of Shame). Unbaptized infants were offered up in sACrIFICe. New witches were initiated by signing his black book in blood, renouncing Christianity, taking an oath and trampling upon the cross (see Initiation). The Devil marked his initiates with his claw (see Devil’s Mark). There followed a great feast, with much drinking and eating, although Demonologists often noted that the food tasted vile and that no Salt was present, for witches could not abide salt.
If infants had been sacrificed, they were cooked and eaten. After the feasting came dancing and indiscriminate copulation among the witches and Demons. On occasion, the witches would go out into the night and raise storms or cause other trouble (see storm raising). The witches flew home before dawn. The nights of the sabbats varied. Some witches said they attended weekly sabbats, while others said they went only once or twice a year.
In 1659 a French shepherdess gave this description of a sabbat that occurred on the summer solstice, observed by her and some companions:
[They] heard a noise and a very dreadful uproar, and, looking on all sides to see whence could come these frightful howlings and these cries of all sorts of animals, they saw at the foot of the mountain the figures of cats, goats, serpents, dragons, and every kind of cruel, impure and unclean animal, who were keeping their Sabbath and making horrible confusion, who were uttering words that were most filthy and sacrilegious that can be imagined and filling the air with the most abominable blasphemies.
It is doubtful that such organized, malevolent activities took place. most likely, the witches’ sabbat was a fabrication of the witch-hunters, who seized upon admission of attendance at a gathering, meeting or feast and twisted it into a diabolical affair. Victims who made such confessions were pressed to name others who had attended the sabbats. In this manner, sometimes entire villages became implicated in Devil-worship.
Contemporary Witches and Pagans use the term sabbat to describe their seasonal holidays, but increasingly prefer terms such as seasonal celebrations or seasonal festivals which do not carry the stereotyped image of sabbat.
- Baroja, Julio Caro. The World of the Witches. 1961. reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
- Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco: Pandora/Harper Collins, 1994.
- Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
- Lea, Henry Charles. Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1939.
- Marwick, Max, ed. Witchcraft and Sorcery. New York: Viking Penguin, 1982.
- Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft. reprint. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1939.
- Summers, Montague. The History of Witchcraft and Demonology. London: kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1926.
- Trevor-roper, H. r. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & row, 1957.