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Forms of Magic in Traditional Mentality
article [ Society ]
Chapter II: Magic Vs Witchcraft

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by [wind ]

2003-11-13  |     | 

1. Witchcraft or magic?

Magic developed separately from the beliefs in spirits. According to Frazer, magic developed before the appearance of religion, being more of a pseudo-science (The Golden Bough). The tools and substances used in magic now are part of the scientific technologies. Usually what is not understood is considered supernatural. In the past, not many people knew the properties of plants. The ones who were able to exploit all the characteristics of plants were called healers or magicians. They knew, for instance, how to prepare a poison and, of course, the antidote. If this practice provoked damages, people called it “black magic”. One the other hand, if positive effects such as, for instance, healing were the result, people called it “white magic”.
Witchcraft is based on the belief in spirits. Initially, all the problems were caused or solved by demons. The principles of good and evil are involved again. Witchcraft developed in the Middle Ages when the religious opposition good/evil was very strong. Everything that was not according to the principles of Christianity was rejected and deemed evil. Everything that was supposed to have a connection with the Devil was witchcraft.
A lot of ethnologists have tried to establish if magic belongs to the sacred or the profane area. In order to clarify things, we have to be aware of the differences between magic and witchcraft.
It is known that magic has some of characteristics common to science and also uses some theological principles. In many societies it is still believed that knowledge comes from gods, or was stolen from them, so one way or another, it belongs to the sacred area. On the other hand, considering shamanism, there are people capable to travel on the Axis Mundi into the sacred world using magical powers. Gods and spirits populate this world. Some of them are friendly, others are not, some of them help the shaman in his work, and others try to stop or even kill him. Even so, there is no preference for a certain category. It does not matter if the shaman is on the evil’s side because he is the exponent of the same thing - magic. Theoretically, there is no good or evil magic. Or, more precisely, there is not a clear delimitation between white magic and black magic. The same principles operate in both of them.

2 . Shamanism

Shamanism is an ensemble of principles and magic practices, including the beliefs in good and evil spirits, in the power of different formulas and incantations, in the possibility of telling the truth using different methods. (Brătescu, Vrăjitoria de-a lungul timpului: 28). Shamans still exist in Northern and Central Asia, Indonesia, Australia, America and Africa.
The word shaman comes from a Siberian language, Tangust, meaning “ freak, frenetic”. It entered in the Russian language, and in the 18th century was used in all Europe.
A man becomes shaman if he has a spontaneous or hereditary calling, if he wants to or if the whole community names him. The future shaman is easy to recognise because of a strange behaviour: he dreams and raves, he looks for solitude, walks alone through forests and desserts, having visions and singing during his sleep.
It is usual for the young candidate to lose his conscience, to be nervous almost all the time, to eat the bark of the trees, to jump into the fire or cold water. It is believed that during the moments of unconsciousness, his soul is kidnapped by spirits and taken into the gods’ palaces. The dead shamans teach him the mysteries of magic as well as the names and forms of the all gods. This initiation is one of the most important steps in the shaman’s activity. After initiation his soul re-enters into the human world.
The shaman’s role is essential for the psychical integrity of the community. He fights against demons and illnesses. The elements in his arsenal (the armour, the lance, the bow, etc) are explained by the necessity to fight against demons, diseases, misfortune, and sterility. It can be said that the shaman protects life, fecundity, health, and light. All these attributes make him an exponent of the white magic.
The main function of the shaman is healing. In general, the lost or kidnap of a soul causes the diseases. The shaman tries to find the soul, to capture and introduce him into its body. Usually, the malefic spirits find and dominate the lost soul. The shamanic healing is a very complex procedure. First of all, the soul has to be looked for on Earth. If it is not somewhere around the body, the shaman has to go dawn to Hell to fight with evil spirits, and to get it back.

2. The Sabbath

It was in the Middle Ages when the church started to impose a strict doctrine, postulating a clear difference between good and evil.
In that period knowledge was still considered “dangerous” for the human soul. The church tried to dominate and control everything and the fact that magic started to become a kind of pseudo-science could not be accepted. The church considered it the product of evil; Satan became, in this context, the patron of “magic”. As an opponent of the church, he could have nothing good in it. From that moment, the term witchcraft started to be used. For church, magic and witchcraft represented the same thing. In those times of darkness and uncertainty a lot of stories about witchcraft and witches appeared. A fragment from the Bull of Pope Innocent VIII (1481) shows some of the evil things witchcraft was guilty for. Actually, the excerpt shows that the witches were considered to deal only with fertility .
It has come to our ears that numbers of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with demons, Incubi and Succubi; and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births of women, the increase of animals, the corn of the ground, the grapes of the vineyard and the fruit of the trees, as well as men, women, flocks, herds, and other various kinds of animals, vines and apple trees, grass, corn and other fruits of the earth; making and procuring that men and women, flocks and herds and other animals shall suffer and be tormented both from within and without, so that men beget not, nor women conceive; and they impede the conjugal action of men and women.(qtd. in Murray,”A Study in Antropology”).
First, witchcraft was associated to paganism, especially to the Cult of Diana. In a decree attributed to the General Council of Ancyra it is said that:
Certain wicked women, reverting to Satan, and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess that they ride at night with Diana on certain beasts, with an innumerable multitude of women, passing over immense distances, obeying her commands as their mistress, and evoked by her on certain nights. (qtd. in Murray ).

Most of the witches use certain black animals and that is why in the Middle Ages animals which were misfortunate enough to have the skin or fur of that colour were hunted down. It was said that black dogs were possessed by demons which helped witches in their magical practices. The black hen had an essential role in many black magic rituals; all her ancestors’ feathers had to be black.
With no exception all witches celebrated the Sabbath, which is an ensemble of secret rituals. It represented a real and a superstitious magic technique. It had to take place twice a week, on the night between Wednesday and Thursday and between Friday and Saturday. The witches met in an isolated place, at crossroads, on the shore of the sea or banks of rivers, at “the water’s eye”, or in the middle of a dark forest. The guests had to perform the magic ointment before midnight that is, to grease their body with special substances prepared according to certain rituals. Legends say that witches would ride animals (goat, black cat, bat, pig, flying frogs etc) brooms or pitchforks to the meeting place.
When everybody was present, Satan could appear under the guise of a mouse. During the incantations, he would grow up reaching enormous sizes. The ceremony started with the dance of the toads while sacrificing the unbaptized children, who were born as a result of the orgies. After that, all the participants swore obedience to Satan. Finally, the banquet started. Of course, we can not speak about normal food or drink; there was bread covered with wild lily’s beans, toad ragout, hung thief and dead child meat, intoxicant wine mixed with gall and aphrodisiacs. When the party was over, each witch had to tell all the bad things she had made. The more bad things they had provoked, the more appreciated they were. The Sabbath was ended when the cocks started to sing.
The English trial records talk about a form of Sabbath, called Easbat, having pure business magical character, being intended for harming certain people. It is said that the North Berwick witches opened the graves indicated by the Devil in order to obtain the means of making charms, that is, human bones.
Children had their own role in witchcraft. Usually, popular beliefs talk about children in terms of purity and sanctity. That’s why the use of children in sorcery can be seen as a temporary victory of evil. They were thought to believe in Satan, to obey his rules, to kill and destroy. The infanticide with or without mother’s consent was quite common during the devilish feasts. The children resulted from orgies represented the supreme sacrifice to Satan. The flesh of an unbaptised infant was a stable ingredient in the witches’ ointments and brews. Witches used to sing at their Sabbaths the following verses:

"Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab.
Add thereto a tiger’s cauldron
For the ingredients of our cauldron".
(qtd. in Murray).
The witchcraft trial records speak about different appearances of the Devil:
1. as a God: Gaul reported that the witches vow 'to take him [the Devil] for their God, worship, invoke, obey him' (qtd. in Murray).

2. as a Man:
At the great Sabbaths, where Satan appeared in his grand array, he was disguised out of recognition, usually dressed in the costume of the period. When in ordinary clothes, he couldn’t be identified from other people of his rank or age, but he could be recognised because of certain gestures, password, or the shoes.
Such a shoe is described in the ballad of the Cobler of Canterbury, dated 1608, as part of a woman's costume:

"Her sleevës blue, her traine behind,
With silver hookes was tucked, I find;
Her shoës broad, and forked before".
(qtd. in Murray).
3. as an animal: bull, cat, dog, goat, horse, and sheep.
Goldsmid talks about a woman from England (1617), Isabel Becquet who went to Rocquaine Castle, 'the usual place where the Devil kept his Sabbath; no sooner had she arrived there than the Devil came to her in the form of a dog, with two great horns sticking up: and with one of his paws (which seemed to her like hands) took her by the hand: and calling her by her name told her that she was welcome; then immediately the Devil made her kneel down: while he himself stood up on his hind legs; he then made her express detestation of the Eternal in these words: I renounce God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost; and then caused her to worship and invoke himself (Murray).

The legend of the Sabbath is the Christian translation of the Dyonisiac orgies. The oiling of the skin with different pomades was quite frequent in antiquity. The priests kept the secret of some substances capable to induce sleep, strange dreams, or hallucinations. Because of the toxic substances they had used, the witches had a violent behaviour.
The feeling of pleasure derived from flying in the air was given by a mixture of child grease, bat blood, monk’s hood powder, mandrake and opium or a mixture of owl blood, celery, and cat’s excrements. The witches pretended that they could fly during the night on animals or brooms and that they had intimate relationship with Devil. Probably these were only hallucinations given by the toxic substances witches had used. It was believed that it was enough to turn the witch’s head on the pillow so that her soul could not find the mouth in order to kill her.

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