Of Storm Magic and Sabbaths

One page from the 10th Century Bald’s Leechbook. Photo Credit: Oswald Cockayne

Practical considerations aside, Christianity remained a zero sum belief structure. Either a person was Christian, and therefore good, or Pagan, and therefore damned. Magic was explained the same way. Carlos and even some of the more academic clergy who studied older practice would chalk up all magical powers to ‘bad angels’ or ‘demons’, using the abilities God permitted them to have to deceive and test the faithful on earth in the vein of Job. It was a fine line to tread after all. Biblically speaking, magic was real and that power had to come from somewhere.

And magical practice was alive and well. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, cursing remained just as popular as ever after Christendom took over. In one example,


“may you be consumed as coal upon the hearth, may you shrink as dung upon a wall, and may you dry up as water in a pail. May you become as small as a linseed grain, and much smaller than the hipbone of an itchmite, and may you become so small that you become nothing”.[1]

Involving fewer itchmite hipbones and more Christian techniques, the ever popular herbal remedy remained a part of the magical practitioner’s toolkit. For example, prior to the coronary bypass the next best thing,

“If a man is troubled by tumours near the heart, let a girl go to a spring that runs due east, and let her draw a cupful of water moving with the current, and let her sing on it the Creed and an Our Father.”.[2]

Gertrud_Ahlgren Pehr Arvid Save
19th Century Gotland Cunning Woman Gertrud Ahlgren. Photo Credit: Pehr Arvid Säve

The “Cunning Folk” became a catch all term for someone who could offer spells, herbs, and in some cases duties as a midwife, veterinarian for livestock, or doctor in the community. Edward Bever makes a point of suggesting that for the vast majority of Europe, Christianity was a spectrum. Its adherents lived for centuries in a grey zone that borrowed freely from Church doctrine, occult practice, and whatever fairy, dwarf, gnome, or giant happened to be a part of the local folklore. Getting sick or getting even meant a trip to the Klok gumma (Wise woman) in Sweden, Wicca or Wicce (male and female wizard respectively) in Anglo Saxon kingdoms, or the Hexenmeister (Enchanter) in Germany. Often as not they would then produce their grimoire, turned to the appropriate page and offered whichever combination of old and new best suited the situation.

Just as interesting was that either through the conversion of other religions into the Christian fold or an entirely unique development all on their own, new magical practices were emerging. The storm conjurers, or Tempestarii, are the most prominent.

Like Haltigar, Bishop (and later Saint) Agobard in Lyon published a treatise “against the foolish belief of the common sort concerning hail and thunder” in which he griped that, “The wretched world lies under the tyranny of foolishness; things [witches and witchcraft] are believed by Christians of such absurdity as no one ever could aforetime induce the heathen to believe”.[3]

The shift in beliefs was entirely understandable in many ways. Western Europe in the 9th Century had completed its transition into an agrarian society. The cities were not just depleted but in many cases completely abandoned. Towns depended on what could be tilled from each community’s land, and a single hailstorm or bad flood could mean the difference between eating and starving. Agobard declares that his flock worried about a magical kingdom in the clouds known as Called Magonia, which human Tempestarii collaborated with to bring down a storm on someone’s fields. Of course, for a fee, perhaps they would put their scythe down elsewhere and spare the commissioner. In later centuries, one sorcerer in Lorraine would be arrested for striking a puddle with his staff, apparently the trigger for a thunderstorm.[4] Bad storms were enough to trigger at least a few lynch mobs on Agobard’s watch, though he personally thought the practice absurd. It was serious enough at least to make into the banned practices of the Carolingian Codes of Charlemagne.

Just as interesting though was the reaction of Charlemagne and other church figures to the prospect of witches themselves. In the same legal the King was spreading across his new empire, “If any one deceived by the Devil shall have believed, after the manner of the pagans, that any man or woman is a witch […] and on this account shall have burned a person, […] let him be punished by a capital sentence”[5]. Belief in witches themselves was identified, but treated as wrongheaded superstition.

Christian_Conversion_of_the_Saxons alphonse de neuville
One 19th Century take on the “conversion” of the Saxons captures both the broken status of the Saxons and the aggressive, overwhelming display of Christian force by Charlemagne. Photo Credit: Alphonse de Neuville

Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, also marked the other way Christianity was spreading. At sword point, Charlemagne had brought war to Pagans and heretics alike, which was a blanket way of saying everyone he could get his hands on in modern day Germany and Northern Italy. The Saxon Wars would last more than thirty years officially, and revolts among the newly conquered would carry on until 841. The war is often considered a grim blueprint for the later crusades. When the World Trees were cut and burned Charlemagne and his heirs passed their own laws against the unreconstructed. The contrast was as blunt as in other cases, mild for practicing the odd hangover from the old days, but fatal for anyone who continued to publicly reject baptism and a Christian God.

In the Paderborn Epic of Charlemagne’s reign, the idea of conversion at the sword point even gets an unhealthy plug:

“What the contrary mind and perverse soul refuse to do with persuasion, / Let them leap to accomplish when compelled by fear.”

As the Christianity pushed into Germany and the 8th Century crept into the 9th and 10th, the story stayed similar. The new enemies were the Wends of eastern Germany, the Magyars of Hungary, and the Norse pouring out of Scandinavia. It would take until the 11th and 12th Centuries for most of these societies to convert.

Against the background of both war and changing tradition, some of the more typical parts of the witch begin to emerge in the grey zone between legal and illegal belief. One of the best early sources for this piece is the Canon Episcopi, published around 906. It also marks a sign of how Christian, Greco-Roman, and northern European traditions were beginning to blur together. The Canon is another admonition from the Church that all officials,

“must labor with all their strength so that the pernicious art of sortilegium and maleficium, which was invented by the devil, be eradicated from their districts…

…it is also not to be omitted that some wicked women who have given themselves back to Satan and been seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess that, in the hours of night, they ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the night traverse great spaces of earth, and obey her commands as of their lady, and are summoned to her service on certain nights”.[6]

Goya 3
Another Goya depicting the night flight to the Sabbath. Since a lot of what we’re talking about is folklore or belief, the art gets to be more fun. Photo Credit: Goya

This is likely one of the earliest and clearest documentations of what later sources would call the Witch’s Sabbat. In other sources, it isn’t always Diana commanding the night’s ride. Sometimes it’s Hecate, the triple headed goddess and favorite of many from Shakespeare to modern Neopagans and Wiccans. At others, it’s Herodias, the Jewish Princess Christians associated with the decapitation of John the Baptist. Occasionally Holda of the Norse Pantheon, or a Queen of the Fairies, or a Seely Wight is leading the ride. This story appears in folk tales from Scotland to Romania. Especially among Romantic historians in the 19th Century the motif would be strongly associated with the Wild Hunt.

But the details, if not the leader or the steeds used, stay similar. Just as critically, the Night Ride was not always an experience in the physical world. The Canon Episcopi notes that it is possible the entire experience is one dreamed by its adherents, rather than an actual case of flight by night. Later church records would parrot the Canon’s assertions near verbatim, though with no contemporary record that anyone was ever punished or described actually building a practice around these rides it is difficult to corroborate whether this was merely folklore, or already something European shamanistic practices incorporated.

These formed the building blocks for the later witchcraft persecutions. The night flights, and other, later, nocturnal activities, the conflation of all magic with Satan, and the incorporation of magic into the day to day lives the community.

[1] Russell, J.B., Alexander, B. (2015). A new history of witchcraft: Sorcerers, heretics, & pagans. Thames & Hudson

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kwiatkowska, T. 2010. The Light was retreating before the Darkness: Tales of the Witch Hunt and Climate Change. Medievalia. Available at: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/03/the-light-was-retreating-before-darkness-tales-of-the-witch-hunt-and-climate-change/

[4] Bever, E. 2008. The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe. Palgrave Macmillan.

[5] Kors & Peters 2001

[6] Kors & Peters 2001


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