For centuries, the skeptical derided witchcraft and its absurd paraphernalia of pacts with the Devil, Black Masses, covens, incantations, demons, orgies and evil spells. Often, courageous men went to their deaths sustained only by the convictions that mankind would eventually see reason and that human progress would banish for ever the irrational belief in the powers of darkness. incredibly, the opposite has happened and The Great Satanic Conspiracy — an idea originally conceived to frighten the credulous — has been recreated in modern terms to provide thrills for sensation-seekers who barely believe in the Bible.
In 1768, John Wesley, stated categorically: “The giving up of witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible.” The founder of the Methodists was not alone in his opinion that you could not separate the two. Many devout Christians of the 18th century believed everything in the Bible must be literally true. Once people started to doubt the reality of witches, they argued, they would eventually come to doubt everything else.
Like other men of his century, Wesley saw history as all of a piece, not appreciating the extent to which actions, attitudes, even words, shift their meaning across the generations. The so-called witches flatly condemned in Exodus (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) should properly be translated as ‘poisoners’ or ‘fortune-tellers’. Nowhere in the Old Testament, furthermore, is there any suggestion that a pact can exist between human beings and the Devil. Yet that belief was central to the notion of the medieval witch.
During the Christian revival of the Victorian Age it was found to be possible to believe in the Bible but not in witches — witchcraft was superstition, the stuff of fairy tales, the persecutions a cruel aberration. Today the attitude for many people is the reverse: they believe in witchcraft but not in the Bible!
The rapid growth of modern witchcraft is a remarkable event. Less than a century ago anyone who took more than an idle interest in the occult was considered a hopeless eccentric. Matters are very different today when everything to do with the occult is enjoying a boom. Yet it has always been around, in one form or another. Even during the apparently ‘dead’ centuries, the 18th-century Age of Reason and the 19th-century Age of Piety, and underground occult movement of satanism, magic ritual and Black Masses repeatedly broke surface.
The Hell Fire Club
The 18th century may have claimed to be an Age of Reason but it was also the Age of Libertines. In France and in England wealthy members of the upper classes took delight in mocking the ritual of the Christian religion.
In England the Hell Fire Club was the first, a notorious society of the 1720s attended by men and women under assumed biblical names who took part in blasphemous ceremonies. The young and dissolute Duke of Wharton, president of the club, was in the habit of calling in taverns for “Holy Ghost Pie” — presumably when he wanted pigeon pie. Their secret rites became the subject of scandalous talk but hard facts are difficult to come by. One ceremony ended prematurely when a member released a large ape, equipped with Devil’s horns and a black cape. The other participants fled at this appearance of the ‘Devil’ in person.
Thirty years later Sir Francis Dashwood, a future chancellor of the exchequer, rented the ruined Abbey of Medmenham beside the Thames, added suitably medieval cloisters and a tower and founded the ‘Franciscan’ Order of Medmenham Monks. The members included several politicians who became prominent in later years; John Wilkes was one of them, another was the Marquess of Bute, the future prime minister.
Twice a month the 12 monks assembled at the abbey, dressed in white cloaks and coifs. Over the portal of the chapter house was written a quotation from Rabelais that can still be seen today — “Fay ce que voudrais“, Do as you like. Inside the chapter house, where pornographic pictures hung on the walls, alongside shelves of salacious books disguised as religious manuals, the monks worshiped the pagan goddess Cybele — though it is difficult to decide how serious they were. Some reports say girls were specially brought from London to be the ‘slaves of their lust’. However, the mood of these pagan ceremonies appears to have been genial. Wilkes later left the brotherhood and wrote an exposé of their behavior but he admitted they “used to sacrifice to mirth, to friendship and to love, never to fortune nor ambition.” Toward the end of his life Dashwood collaborated with Benjamin Franklin on an abbreviated edition of the Book of Common Prayer.
In France libertinage was uglier. In his book Justine the Marquis de Sade describes a blasphemous mass in which a young girl is dressed in the vestments of the Virgin Mary and raped by monks. “The monks made this virgin strip and lie down flat on her belly on a big table. They lit the holy candles and placed a statue of our Lord between her legs, and had the audacity to celebrate the most holy of our sacraments on the buttocks of this young girl…”
France is where references to Satanism and the Black Mass crop up most often between the 18th century and modern times. Belief in the Devil’s power remained very strong in Catholic France but a strong anticlerical movement, associated with Freemasonry, developed during the 19th century.
Freemasonry had always been condemned by the Vatican. Pope Pius IX fulminated against it and his successor Pope Leo XIII singled out the Masons as a group attempting to overthrow Christianity and restore paganism. It was the witch-hunt all over again.
Jesuits fomented the attack. A certain Jesuit, Archbishop Meurin, declared that in the coming Kingdom of Antichrist, Rome would be supplanted bu the American city of Charleston. The Grand Master of the Charleston Lodge, the Vicar-General of the Devil on Earth.
Evil in the Streets
The spirit behind this extraordinary antagonism to Freemasonry was in some respects like the attitude of mind that preceded the great witch persecutions. Society was in a state of flux. The discoveries of Darwin and other scientists worried people of a traditionalist cast of mind who wanted a return to the stable, hierarchical society where they had felt secure. The growing campaign for social reform was seen as another threat. These threats were comparable to the unrest and excitement of the Renaissance that preceded the witch-hunts.
To the opponents of Freemasonry the impassioned figure of Leo Taxil must have seemed like an arrival from Heaven. He was a journalist who had previously published some anticlerical pamphlets, but in 1885 he started issuing a series of exposés of Masonry, claiming that the Masons practiced a revived form of the Albigensian heresy of the Middle Ages — the heresy that started the Inquisition on its long career.
Taxil revealed the existence of ‘Diana Vaughan’, descended from the issue of the 16th-century English alchemist Astarte. Her evil intentions were rivaled only by ‘Sophia Walden’, a daughter of Lucifer. Diana Vaughan later experienced a change of heart and was converted to Roman Catholicism. Her best-selling Memoires were read by Pope Leo who sent her his blessing.
Taxil addressed a vast anti-Mason meeting in Trent, attended by 18,000 people, who asked him to bring the famous Diana Vaughan from the convent where she was said to be in hiding. Taxil announced that she would appear on Easter Day 1897, in Paris. On this day he revealed that the whole affair, which he had kept up for over a decade, was a deliberate fraud; he had wanted to see how far he could go in duping the Roman Catholic Church.
Taxil needed police protection to escape with his life and the incident shows not only the gullibility of some churchmen, but also the readiness to believe that Satan literally walked the streets. It is hardly surprising that some Frenchmen were at this time thoroughgoing Satanists, worshipping the Devil, reputedly killing at least one child and cursing (successfully) their enemies.
In Normandy a certain Abbe Boullan was achieving considerable success cursing women of what he called ‘diabolical’ diseases. he would spit in their mouths, as Jesus had done and apply poultices of excrement to their skin. Nuns he would order to drink their own urine. His associate was a nun, Sister Adele Chevalier, and as a result of certain sexual rites they performed together, an illegitimate child was born and sacrificed by Boullan at a Black Mass. He was imprisoned (for fraud) and released, imprisoned by the Inquisition in Rome and again released, and made his way back to Paris to continue curing the sick. He cured women of sundry ailments by placing consecrated Hosts over their ovaries. The decadent novelist Joris Karl Huysmans attended several of his Black Masses and has left a description of one in which Boullan wore blood-red vestments decorated with obscene symbols. He spoke the Mass backward and was served at the altar by acolytes who were male prostitutes, heavily made up. The ceremony concluded with a sexual orgy.
Defiling the Host was a crucial detail of every Black Mass. It could be mixed with urine or excrement or abused as de Sade’s monks had abused it. In some rites it was torn to pieces by pincers since, if it was truly the body of Christ, it could be made to suffer pain.
The dominant figure of the occult world during the first half of the 20th century was Aleister Crowley but, though he was sometimes accompanied by a few disciples, he was essentially an isolated figure. The first modern witch, self-proclaimed as such, was Gerald Gardener who wrote in 1954 a book called Witchcraft Today. He was then 70 years old and he described in some detail the rites of a coven of witches whose ceremonies had descended, so he claimed, in an unbroken line from the Middle Ages and beyond. These were the rites of Wicca, claimed to be an ancient, pre-Christian fertility cult, the ‘Old Religion’ of Britain. Unfortunately, there is no evidence at all that any group of worshipers did survive the intervening centuries and it must be assumed that Gardner invented it all. This is made all the more likely by the nature of the rites which strongly condone the use of flagellation. Gardner was a sadomasochist with a taste for voyeurism. In the Great Rite of his ceremonies the High Priest (himself) and the High Priestess copulated while surrounded by the other members of the group.
Following on the theories of Margaret Murray (which are discredited by serious historians) Gardner explained that witches are formed into covens of 13. The celebrated Scottish witch, Isobel Gowdie spoke of covens when she made her four extraordinary and voluntary confessions of witchcraft in Morayshire in 1662. Apart from that, the reference to witch covens in literature is sparse. Nonetheless, in the wake of Gardner’s enthusiasm, hundreds of witch covens were formed throughout the British Isles and spread rapidly to the United States and elsewhere.
There have been numerous splits in the movement since Gardner died. Some covens play down or exclude the sexual element. Most reduce the flagellation to a symbolic tap with a wand. Other covens have emphasized the sexual content and in one of these there is a strange ‘death spell’ which requires the priest and priestess to copulate — probably very uncomfortably — through a hole drilled in the middle of an ‘alleged neolithic stone relic‘.
Satan’s Last Laugh
Many reasons have been advanced to account for the rise in modern witchcraft. Once of the most persuasive argues that ritual and worship are fundamental needs of most human beings, and as the allegiance to Christianity decreases the many American and European witch sects have developed to satisfy those needs. A particularly appealing feature must be the small number of worshipers in each coven compared with the size of a typical church congregation. In a group of 13 each individual can feel he has an important role to play in the ceremonies.
The majority of modern witchcraft cults do not worship the Devil or some other evil principle in a deliberately anti-Christian ceremony. Pre-Christian deities are the most usual objects of worship, the Earth Mother or the Moon Goddess, Cybele, Astarte, Isis or Diana. They stress that the intentions of the rites are beneficent.
But other covens are far more violent and strongly emphasize the sexual activity. The act of sex itself is worshiped, or if not worshiped energetically celebrated. Professor John Fritscher described a Greenwich Village Black Mass in his book Popular Witchcraft. The members of the all-male coven were dressed in leather, the altar was to be a naked youth. He was first suspended by his wrists over a beam and whipped by the coven members in turn. Whiffs of amyl-nitrate were given to him to increase his endurance.
During the Black Mass the High Priest carved a pentacle on the youth’s left buttock and the ceremony concluded with all 13 coven members enjoying sexual intercourse with the specially chosen victim.
Professor Fritscher points out that such ‘staged’ ceremonies have already led to sadistic and sexual killings. In violent ceremonies such as these the Devil is not worshiped; so far as is known, babies are not eaten; there are no broomsticks. But in other respects — the group sex, the drugs, the ‘kiss of shame‘ on the anus, the eating of noxious substances — these modern witches are doing just what the medieval witches were erroneously supposed to do. Superstition has fed on itself and conjured fact out of fantasy; absurd beliefs which once only lingered in fevered minds have crystallized into serious ‘lore’; rituals which were invented merely to frighten the credulous have been recreated to provide thrills for jaded contemporary appetites.
After all these centuries, witchcraft has finally caught up with itself. If such a person as Satan exists, he must be laughing long and loud.