Woman as Witch: Evidences of Mother-Right in the Customs of Mediaeval Witchcraft. A lecture given to the Somerville Club by Karl Pearson, 1891.
Quid non miraculo est, cum primum in notitiam venit? PLINY.
WHEN we seek to investigate the origins of such familiar institutions as ownership and matrimony, we rapidly discover that written history is itself the product of a stage of human development long posterior to that of the origins we are curious about. To speak paradoxically, history begins long before history. Vague and often very unreliable traces of its traditional history are to be found in the sagas and hero-songs of bards and skalds. But bards and skalds are themselves an outcome of the heroic age—an age of warlike organisation and of petty chieftains, if not of kings; an age, indeed, when ownership and marriage have already a long history, and are of that patriarchal type which the Bible, if not Maurer or Maine, has made familiar to all of us.
This heroic age is, however, a thing but of yesterday—a civilisation in which man, unhandicapped by child-bearing, is the lord of creation, and woman occupies, socially and tribally, a secondary position. Behind this heroic age, long anterior to the beginnings of traditional history, looms from the dimmest past another and wholly different type of civilisation: a type which appears in most respects to have owed its institutions and its victories over nature to the genius of woman rather than to that of man. It is a type, accordingly, in which the influence of woman is far more prominent than it was in the patriarchal age. This period of civilisation has been termed the matriarchate, but to avoid the dogma that it was necessarily and universally a period of woman’s rule, I prefer to term it the mother-age, and refer to its customs of ownership and family as Mother-Right.
So long as our only history was the history of chronicles and monuments, themselves products of a late stage of human growth, traces of the mother-age must remain few and far between; such even as crossed the path of the historian were either misinterpreted or attributed to the vagaries of individual tribes or groups. But now, in our own time, when history is becoming scientific, when, again to speak paradoxically, there is such a thing as prehistoric history; to-day, when we study history comparatively, and see in it a growth of folk-customs and social institutions stretching far back before written language and written laws; to-day we begin to appreciate better these traces of the other-age. We put together the fossils provided by pre-historic history, what philology, folklore, and archæology have to tell us of a civilisation in which the woman was all-prominent, and the comparison of this fossil civilisation with the habits of semi-civilised races still scattered about the world enables us to draw up the general scheme of a society which preceded the patriarchal, and from which the patriarchate itself sprung. The key-note to this older civilisation was the development of woman’s inventive faculty under the stress of child-bearing and child-rearing disabilities. The mother-age in diverse forms, it is true, has been a stage of social growth for probably all branches of the human race. The broad outlines of it seem to me to be now firmly established, if the details must obviously, owing to difference of climate, period of development, and other circumstances, be diverse in character, and if the more minute features, owing to the obscurity and failure of the record, must often be matters of hypothesis and subjects for dispute.
The mother-age, with its mother-right customs, was a civilisation, as I have indicated, largely built up by woman’s activity, and developed by her skill; it was an age within the small social unit of which there was more community of interest, far more fellowship in labour and partnership in property and sex, than we find in the larger social unit of to-day. For this reason both socialists and workers for the emancipation of women are apt at the present time to look back to this early stage of civilisation as to a golden age, and to paint in its details in colours which render them untrue to fact, and destroy any suggestiveness they might otherwise have for the future growth of our own society. The mother-age was frequently cruel in its rites and licentious in its customs, and these charges are still true if we judge it not by the standards of to-day, but by that of the patriarchate which succeeded it. It was a less efficient and a less stable social system than the latter, or it would not have perished in the struggle with it.2 I for one rejoice that it perished, as I rejoice that the patriarchal system perished, or that the individualism of to-day is perishing. One and all have been fruitful as successive stages of growth, yet they can never recur, and only the fanatic or visionary could wish that they should recur, for each is narrow and insufficient from the standpoint of a later stage. Yet insight into what has been is of special value to us to-day; it shows us that morality and social institutions are peculiar to each age and to each civilisation; it shows us that growth, if never very rapid, is ever continuous. It teaches us that those who prate of absolute good and bad, and of an unchanging moral code, may help to police an existing society, but that they cannot reform it. To successfully initiate reform needs the historical spirit the conception that social institutions, however time-honoured and sacred, have but relative value, and are ever adjusting themselves, as well as freely adjustable, to the needs of social growth. But it is not only a true estimate of the plastic character of customs and social systems which may be formed from a study of prehistoric civilisation.
Our age, which is working for scarcely yet formulated changes in the ownership of property and in the status of woman, must gain special insight from the study of a period, however far back in a semi-barbaric past, however incapable of future repetition, which yet to a great extent realised, albeit on a narrow stage, what many to-day would without qualification term socialism and the emancipation of women. To have said so much is to have amply justified a study of the mother-age.
In a brief and necessarily insufficient paper, such as the present must be, several courses were open to me. In the first place, I might have given you in outline a sketch of what I conceive the old mother-age to have been like, and perhaps pointed out the general stages of its development, for it embraces not a single but many phases of civilisation. Had I done so, however, I should have been asking you to take a very great deal on faith; I should have been appealing for that faith to your emotional side as women, to your partisan spirit, or to your belief that I should not speak without having my evidence pigeon-holed somewhere. Now, such an appeal to faith is contrary to my whole theory of the manner in which knowledge ought to be gained and opinion formed. The only true road to knowledge and the resulting conviction lies through doubt and scepticism, and any general sketch I might have given could at best only legitimately serve to stimulate doubt, and to incite others to undertake for themselves the collection and interpretation of facts. The second course open to me would have been to overwhelm you with the most telling facts in favour of my theory, i.e. that most of the work of early civilisation was due to women. To have done this, however, would not only have been to deprive some of you of the pleasure of discovering these facts for yourselves; it would have failed also to indicate how much of interest can be extracted from a more detailed investigation of a comparatively narrow field: a field which we can all enter without either unlocking or jumping over the five-barred gate of philology. I purpose therefore to lay before you to-night no general sketch, no mass of evidence, but simply to discuss a few of the phases of mediæval witchcraft which seem to me fossils of the old mother-age. I shall have done more than I can reasonably hope for if I shall succeed in convincing you that witchcraft was not a mere fantastic and brutal imagination of a superstitious age, that its beliefs and practices were more or less perverted rites and customs of a prehistoric civilisation, and that the confessions wrung from poor old women in the torture chambers of the Middle Ages have a real scientific value for the historian of a much earlier social life. I hold that the folk-habits and family customs of the mother-age remained as obscure traditions in the women of the folk; that they were surrendered, in what at first sight seems perfectly futile suffering, to form an apparently worthless record of human stupidity and religious cruelty. Yet from another standpoint this record, and therefore the suffering, will not have been without avail, if they can provide any facts which may assist us in understanding the growth of human societies, and which may at the same time help us to estimate more justly the real contributions of woman to early civilisation.
As we have seen, nothing is more helpful to us in endeavouring to measure the social forces at work to-day than a true conception of the plastic character of social institutions when we examine their growth during long periods. That the status of woman varies with both time and place is an invaluable concept at the present juncture, and the woman of to-day will owe a debt of gratitude to the mediæval witch if it can be shown that the record of her suffering furnishes facts which go a long way to demonstrate that primitive woman had a status widely divergent from that of woman in the present or in the patriarchal age.
In order to group my facts, I am going to briefly sketch a form of social life which you will kindly look upon as merely hypothetical. If in our inquiries as to witchcraft we find customs which appear meaningless except as fossils of such a state of society, then I think, while still looking upon it as hypothetical, we may venture to consider its further investigation a reasonable task. Finally, if those of you who pursue the matter for yourselves, should find exactly similar fossils in early language, in the folklore of birth and marriage, in primitive law, in hero-legend and saga, and in the customs of still extant barbarous peoples—fossils which no other hypothesis unites into a living whole—then, I think, the hypothetical mother-age will become for some of you what it is for me, an historical fact.
Let us try to conceive a group of individuals in which inheritance is through the mother, where the husband and father in the earliest stages are probably not individualised, and where even, in the later stages, they have no position whatever as husband or father in the wife’s or child’s group; where the relationship of father and child conveys no inheritance from the one to the other, and is associated with no rights. The closest male relations of the woman are her son and her brother, and she is the conduit by which property passes to and from them. The child’s position and its group-rights are entirely determined by its mother, and the maternal uncle is the natural male friend and protector of the child. Such a law of inheritance may be briefly summarised as mother-right. It would clearly give a prominent position to the woman in the group. She would be at least the nominal head of the family, the bearer of its traditions, its knowledge, and its religion.
Hence we should expect to find that the deities of a mother-right group were female, and that the primitive goddesses were accompanied not by husband but by child or brother. The husband and father being insignificant or entirely absent, there would thus easily arise myths of virgin and child, brother and sister deities. The goddess of the group would naturally be served by a priestess rather than by a priest. The woman as depositary of family custom and tribal lore, the wise-woman, the sibyl, the witch, would hand down to her daughters the knowledge of the religious observances, of the power of herbs, the mother-lore in the mother tongue, possibly also in some form of symbol or rune such as a priestly caste love to enshroud their mysteries in. The symbols of these goddesses would be the symbols of woman’s work and woman’s civilisation, the distaff, the pitchfork, and the broom, not the spear, the axe, and the hammer. Since agriculture in its elements is essentially due to women, hunting and the chase characteristic of men, the emblems of early agriculture would also be closely associated with the primitive goddess. The smaller domestic animals, the goat, the boar, the goose, and the cock and hen, would be connected with her worship. The earth, as a symbol of fertility, would be brought into close relationship with the mother deity. She would be a goddess of agriculture and of child-birth, of reproductivity in the soil, of fecundity in animals, and of fertility in man. Her shrine would be the hearth and fire round which the women spin and weave and cook, or it might be the clearing in the forest, the fructifying stream or well, the hilltop, where originally there was the palisaded dwelling of a group, and where cultivation first appeared. The group in such a dwelling would have a common life, common work, and common meals. In particular, the group gatherings would become high festivals, at those lunar and solar changes which mark the seasons and periods of agricultural fruitfulness and animal fertility. Such gatherings, held on the hill-tops, or by ancient trees or springs, would be marked by the performance of religious rites, by the common meal, the choral dance, and in many cases by the ribald song, and by the gross licentiousness which characterises the worship of a goddess of fertility. In all these features we should expect to find the women taking an equal, if not a leading part, responsible alike for the communism of the kin-group, and for the license and cruelty of its religious rites.
Looking at such a hypothetical phase of civilisation as I have sketched above, where, if it had once existed, should we expect to still find fossils of it? Clearly in the primitive words for relationship and sex, in the folklore of early agriculture; in the folklore of distaff, of pitchfork, and of broom; in the myths of primitive female deities; in the customs of the mediæval spinning-room; in peasant customs at marriage and birth; in folk-festivals on high holidays, especially spring and harvest feasts, with their faint reflexes in children’s games; in peasant dances and songs; in early religious ceremonies, whether adopted by primitive Christianity, or driven by it into dark corners as witchcraft; in the sagas of primitive and titanic women, already in the heroic age fossils of an earlier period such, for instance, as the stories of Clytemnestra and Medea, of Brünhilde and Gudrun. If there be any truth in our hypothesis, not only will fossils be found in these various places, but these fossils themselves will be strangely linked together, and by piecing and comparing them it will be possible to reconstruct a whole.
We should expect to find related, if not identical, customs in the spinning-room of the Middle Ages and in peasant marriage ceremonies; in the observances of witchcraft, and in the veneration of local saints in May Day celebrations, and in the licentious worship of Walpurg on the Brocken.
In order to find examples of these linked fossils let us, in the first place, go back to some primitive phases of Germanic witchcraft, and mark in what manner it comes into contact with early Germanic Christianity.
We have, in the first place, to note how essentially the ideas of witchcraft and of witches are associated with women; and then to observe that the further we go back into the days of early Christianity and pre-Christianity, the less is the stigma which attaches to the witch. It must be remembered that it was only at the commencement of the fourteenth century that witchcraft was finally associated with heresy, and that these two imputations rolled into one became either a powerful instrument of oppression wielded by an all-powerful Church, or a deadly but often double-edged weapon of revenge in the hands of private individuals.
Occasionally, indeed, they served the purpose of a cold-blooded political expediency. The name witch itself signifies the woman who knows, the wiseacre, and denotes rather a good than a bad attribute. Indeed, we find the witches themselves termed bonæ dominæ, the “good dames,” and their gatherings the ludum bonæ societatis, “the sport of the good company.” Even till quite late times we hear of white and black witches: that is, those who work good and bad magic. “Wise men and wise women,” writes Cotta, “ reputed a kind of good and honest harmles witches or wizards, who by good words, by hallowed herbes, and salves, and other superstitious ceremonies, promise to allay and calme divels, practises of other witches, and the forces of many diseases.” The “white” or “blessing witch” revealed mischiefs and removed evils from the bodies of men and animals. The witch who, according to the Augsburg tradition, threw off her clothes, mounted a black horse and drove the Huns from before the town, or the witch of Beutelsbach, who led out a bull crowned with flowers in solemn procession to be buried alive, and so cured the cattle plague, must have possessed this friendly character. In such traditions the witch resumes her old position as the wise woman, the medicine woman, the leader of the people, the priestess accompanying the victim to the altar.
Such a white witch or folk-leader was Joan of Arc. In her trial for sorcery we read that in the neighbourhood of Domrémy was an ancient oak dedicated to a fay, in other words, the sacrificial oak of an old mother-goddess and by this oak a spring: the goddess’s spring, which recurs so often in May Day ceremonies. At this oak by night the witches and evil spirits used to congregate, especially on Thursdays, and dance and sing round it, crowning the oak and spring with garlands of flowers and herbs. According to the extant accounts of the trial, Joan admitted that she knew of this oak and of the ceremonies attached to it.
Looking back now, we are not inclined to doubt this; we see in the oak and well only the sacred spot of an old mother-goddess, and in the ceremonies that went on just the fossils of an old worship such as may still be found in hundreds of German villages preserved as peasant customs. The point to be noted is that these customs are precisely those which are attributed to the midnight witch-gatherings. Witch-gatherings and peasant ceremonies are relics of ancient, social, and religious rites which were not only considered at one time good, but the performance of which it would have been impious to neglect.
We have accordingly to look upon the witch as essentially the degraded form of the old priestess, cunning in the knowledge of herbs and medicine, jealous of the rights of the goddess she serves, and preserving in spells and incantations such wisdom as early civilisation possessed. She is the lineal descendant of the Völva or Sibyl who, in the Edda, is seated in the midst of the assembly of gods, and from whom Woden himself must inquire his fate. She is also the lineal descendant of the priestesses who, Strabo tells us, stood before the Cimbrian army and read auguries in the blood of their human sacrifices. The witch, like the priestess, is reputed to have power over the weather, nor is the reason far to seek. If we admit, as we must do, that women were the earliest agriculturists, then we understand how they must have observed the course of the seasons and the signs of the weather. Their weather-lore was like that of the peasant, who will often startle the town-bred stranger by a promise on the most glorious of mornings of bad weather towards night. The old Chaldean astronomers obtained the reputation of magicians, because they had learnt by experience the nineteen years’ cycle of moon and sun, and could predict eclipses. Plutarch tells us that Aganike, daughter of Hegetor of Thessaly, befooled the Thessalonian maidens by using her knowledge of coming eclipses “to draw the moon out of the sky.” A weather-wisdom, a power of foreseeing coming changes, is what we have to attribute to the old priestesses and woman-agriculturists.
It was a knowledge which appeared to the folk as magic, and its fossils are to be found in the power attributed to latter-day witches of producing thunder and hail at will. Learned in medicine, cunning in weather, leader of the folk in sacrifice, such appear to be the characteristics of the old priestess as fossilised in the attributes of the mediæval witch. Let us pursue these ideas further into the ceremonies and symbols of early witchcraft.
The equivalent for witch in modern German is Hexe, but in the oldest forms it appears as hagazusa, hagetisse (Swiss hagsch, and our English hag). The hagetisse can, I think, mean nothing else than the woman of the Hag, Hagen, or Gehag: that is, the fenced or staked enclosure. This might mean, and likely enough in later times was used for the grove or sacred Hain of the goddess, but in early times it far more probably referred to the fenced dwelling of a clan or group. This fenced dwelling as home of the group was the seat of its deity, and the transition from the tribal mother to priestess, from fenced dwelling to sacred enclosure, is natural and direct.3
But the origin of witch in the woman of the Gehag is of considerable interest, for it suggests a male correlative in the Hagestalt, the Stalt, or male servant, fighter, domestic of the Gehag. The Hagestalt is the man who has not his own household, the member of the Gehag group. In the Rheinpfalz it means to-day the man without children, whether he be married or not. Later on it came to be used for the wifeless man, and ultimately in Modern German Hagestolz is used for the confirmed old bachelor.4 Why should the man of the old Gehag have handed down his name to the confirmed bachelor of to-day? The gradual changes in the significance of the word are easy to suggest, if we remember that in the mother-age descent was reckoned through the woman, the man was childless, or rather only related in a vague manner either to his sister’s children or to all the children of the group. To the men of the patriarchal civilisation the Gehag man was not only childless but wifeless; the old group-marriage was for them no marriage at all, and the Hagestolz became the confirmed bachelor.
If we halt here for a minute, we see that the German name for witch is carrying us into a new phase of early civilisation, which we shall also find fossilised in witch-craft. Namely, to a group of men and women living in a palisaded dwelling, with a form of marriage totally different from what we call marriage to-day. It was a form of marriage which was a needful step in the growth of civilisation, and therefore moral in its day.
But there is little wonder that the early Christian missionaries looked upon it as complete license; that the hag or wood-woman, with her strange magical powers over weather and cattle and young children, with her mysterious ceremonies at ancient trees, springs, and on hilltops; that the common meals, night dances, weird and occasionally horrible sacrifices to strange goddesses, that the group rites of marriage and views on relationship, were all unholy, licentious, and diabolical in the extreme. What the missionary could he repressed, the more as his church grew in strength; what he could not repress he adopted or simply left unregarded. Allemania was Christianised by the individual missionary, and the mother-goddesses became local saints of the Catholic Church. Saxony was Christianised by the edge of the sword, and scarcely a single Saxon goddess has crept into the Roman calendar. What the missionary tried to repress became mediæval witchcraft; what he judiciously disregarded survives to this day in peasant weddings and in the folk-festivals at the great changes of season. The licentiousness of witchcraft is not then a merely repulsive feature of mediæval superstition; it is to be looked upon as a fossil and degraded form of marriage characteristic of a totally different phase of civilisation from our own or from the patriarchal. It marks very clearly the good and bad features of the old mother-age.
Let me try and carry you back for a moment to those days when early Christianity met the fragments of the old civilisation, already decaying. When women dancing at night round the sacred trees and wells, torch or candle in hand, when the common meal, the sacrifice, the choral song, had not been stamped as witchcraft, but were characteristic of the great religious fêtes of the old worship and the matrimonial rites of the group.
The missionary built his church near the old sacred spots; the priestesses of yore, the witches of the coming ages did not cease their rites on that account. Choruses of maidens singing the winileod or choral love-song, and accompanied by groups of men, invaded the churches and prepared their common meals inside. A statute of St. Boniface, dated 803, forbids choruses of laymen and maidens to sing and feast in the churches. So early as 600 St. Eligius forbids, on the festival of St. John (Midsummer Day), dancing and capering, and carols and diabolical songs. While even in the ninth century Benedictus Levita must order that, “when the populace come to church, it shall only do there what belongs to the service of God. In very truth, these dances and capers, these disgraceful and lewd songs, must not be performed either in the churchyards or the houses of God, nor in any other place, because they remain from the custom of the heathens.” Here in contact with early Christianity we have clearly the chief features of the primitive worship, or of later witchcraft with its prominent place for the priestesses or witches. The old faith has not yet been broken down, and its rites have not yet disappeared into the byways of peasant marriages, folk-festivals, and witchcraft. Shall we take one more glance at those maidens with their winileod or love-songs, their torchlight dances, and common meal? Here is a fossil of three or four hundred years later date, which I found, to my great delight, in an old Friesian law-book. After the bridal feast the relic of the old common group meal the bride is to be brought to the bridegroom’s house at night in the following manner:
That this free Friesian woman shall come into the house of the free Friesian man with sound of horns, with a company of neighbours, with burning brands and winnasonge.
I am quite sure if St. Boniface had met by night such a procession he would have ascribed it to the old pagan worship, while to Alfons de Spina, or a mediæval inquisitor, it would have been an undoubted witch-gathering.
But let us follow the remnants of these old gatherings round the Christian churches a little further, just to convince ourselves that witchcraft and its observances have their origin in old religious rites belonging to a totally different civilisation to our own. I select only one or two examples of these fossils.
In Darmstadt near Hallerstadt the people were in the habit of dancing round the church during the sermon, till, according to tradition, they wore out the deep ditch which surrounds the church.
In Scotland, before the Reformation, we hear of ball being played in church. “A ball being brought in, the Dean began a chant suited to Easter Day, and then taking the ball in his left hand commenced a dance to the tune, others of the priests dancing round hand in hand. At intervals the ball was tossed by the Dean to each of the choristers, the organ playing music appropriate to their various antics, until it was time to give over and retire to take refreshment.” This ball-play5, with dancing and song followed by refreshment, is singularly characteristic of the old heathen rites the bride-ball and songs of the German maidens at Easter.
Not only were public games at ball played at Easter and Whitsuntide, but ball-money was forced from wedding parties at the church doors, so that the game is peculiarly associated with high festivals and marriage feasts. We may note, too, the decoration of the churches in Hesse on May Day, and the solemn procession with the Maypole round the church. Remarkable in the same respect is the “playing of the stag,” to which reference occurs in a number of penitential books and homilies. Men on New Year’s Day clothed themselves in the skin of a stag, with its horns upon their heads, and were accompanied by other men dressed in woman’s clothing. In this costume, with licentious songs and drinking, they proceeded to the doors of the churches, where they danced and sang with extraordinary antics. Tacitus, in his Germania, tells us of a priest clothed as a woman, and when men first usurped the office of priestess, there is little doubt that they clothed as women. Hence the men dressed as women who occur in so many Twelfth Day, May Day, and Midsummer Day celebrations, are, I think, fossils of the old priestesses, often occurring with fossils of the old sacrificial animal. The “playing of the stag” at the church doors seems to me, therefore, another relic of the old religious rites accompanied by choral dance and licentious song.
Closely allied to these heathen ceremonies outside the Christian churches is the German peasant Kirchweih or Kirmes, a festival supposed to be held in memory of the dedication of a church. But the whole festival is heathen in character. The Kirmes often lasts or lasted three to four days. Its chief feature was the dancing under the linden tree, or round a special pole or tree put up for the purpose. There was prolonged feasting with a special Kirmes soup, Kirmes goose, and flat cakes; there was drinking of a beer especially brewed doubly strong for the occasion. Kirmesfreier and Kirmesliebe denote a lover and love which last only three days. Noteworthy is the custom in the Saxon Obererzgebirge of solemnly slaughtering a swine at Kirmes. In the same district musicians, accompanied by a man in gay woman’s clothing, called the Kirmesweib, go about collecting food for a common feast. In Bavaria, as in Saxony, the main features of Kirmes are the same, only perhaps the ceremonies approach still more closely those of May Day. There is dancing round the linden tree or a pole, the choice of two maidens as queens of the fête, the wreaths of flowers, the burial of a sacrifice, in some cases the mock burial of a human being, and the free feast to which all are expected to freely give, and of which all may freely partake. Before leaving the subject of Kirmes, it should be noted that a swine or sow as emblem of fertility is frequently offered to the goddess of fertility. As examples may be cited the boar’s head of Freya, the goddess of love, and the sow sacrificed to Ceres, representing the productivity of the earth.
One word more before we leave the subject of the relation of the old religious rites to the churches. In the Dunninger Kapelle in Kottweil, and in various other chapels of the same district, offerings are made of brooms, with in some cases the special hope of curing boils. This offering of the broom is noteworthy, as we shall see that it is especially the symbol of the female deities associated with witchcraft. We must turn now to the bearing of all these instances on witchcraft.
What I think they have clearly brought out is the fact that the characteristic features of witch-gatherings, the common feast, the choral dance, the sacrifice under the sacred tree, the presiding spirit of woman, are all features of the old heathenism, as marked by cases in which that heathenism has not been repressed, but associated itself with Christian buildings or Christian ceremonies.
Before we note the relation of the Walpurgisnacht orgies to May Day celebrations, it may be well to meet two objections which may be rising in the minds of some of my hearers. How, they may be questioning, can the choral dances of flower-decked maidens in honour of some mother-goddess be associated with the revels of hags and hideous old witches centring round the devil? How, they may further question, can the nightmare fantasies of the Middle Ages have any relation to facts having a real historical basis like the old heathen customs? I will reply to the second of these questions first, by showing that the midnight gatherings were real even in the sixteenth century and not fantasy at all; that they insensibly shaded off into the ordinary folk-assemblies such as those on the eve of May Day. Then I will endeavour to prove that the witches were in early times rather young and beautiful than old and haggard; and lastly, that the witch ceremonials appear to have centred round a female deity, who may have been accompanied in some cases by her son, and that it was due to the influence of Christian demonology that this goddess was first converted into the devil’s grand-mother or mother, and ultimately the chief functions of the witch’s sabbath devolved upon her son, taken to be the devil himself.
Perhaps some of the Swabian witch-trials provide us with the most valuable evidence in this matter. In Günzburg the witches meet on the Howberg, the Bresgau witches on the Kandel, a mountain in the Black Forest, and in particular at a stone called the Kandelstein, probably a trace of an old altar. Here their most skilful piper was the bailiff of Mederwinden. In the Nagolder Waldle the witches danced on a meadow, while in Oberstdorf they meet at the chapel of the fourteen Nothelfer, saints who assist women in child-birth. This chapel was called the witch’s chapel, and evidently had been placed upon the site of an altar to an old mother-goddess. All these points are brought out in the protocols of actual witch-trials. But the Rottenburger witch-trials (1600) give us still further details. We learn from Anna Mauczin that the witch-gatherings were called Hochzeiten, and treated as a type of marriage feast; we learn from Anna Kegreifen the names of the actual people (including the priest’s servant) who came to the dances; we find on the one hand disappointed or deserted wives and foolish village maidens, on the other village loafers and students from Tubingen, who joined in the midnight dances, and the feasting and drinking beneath the Nunenbaum, or by the well at the upper gate of Rottenburg. The trials bring out clearly enough who came to these witches’ sabbaths; how the usual piper was a well-known shepherd, but on some occasions he was brought specially from Tubingen.
Here I will cite a few questions from a confession. The supposed witch was asked if she had been at a witch-dance, and replied, “Yes, for she was there initiated as a witch.” Who had taken her to it? “The old shepherd’s wife had fetched her, and they had gone with a broom.” Did she mean that they had flown through the air on a broom? “Certainly not; they had walked to Etterle, and then placed themselves across the broom, and so come on to the dancing green.” So they had not gone through the air? “Certainly not; that required an ointment, which ought only to be very rarely used.” Who were on the dancing green? “Witches and their sweetheart-devils” (Buhlteufeln). Had she a sweetheart-devil? “Yes! The Sniveller.” Did she not fear this devil? “No, he was only a sweetheart-devil.” Was there a difference between a sweetheart-devil and other devils? “Why, of course! The sweetheart-devil was no real devil, only a witch’s sweetheart like the Sniveller, who was old Zimmerpeterle’s son.”
Here we have a most remarkable confession, showing that the witch-gatherings were real meetings, that the women took with them the symbol of the old hearth or home goddess, the broom (or in some cases the fire-fork, Feuergabel), that the devils were real men of the neighbourhood. Further, that the broom was ridden like a hobby-horse on to the dancing green. This riding of broom or the pitchfork, or even the goat, should be taken in conjunction with the riding of the hobby-horse6 or wooden goat round the village by the young men at peasant festivals in parts of Germany. Both seem closely connected with the worship of a female deity, whose symbols are those of the hearth and primitive agriculture. When we remember that the great witch dances to which students, and even doctors, of Tubingen used to go out were especially held on the eve of the first of May, how suggestive is the statement that “people of quality in the old days used to go from London to dance in the villages of Essex on May Day!”
The close connection between Walpurgisnacht, the eve of the first of May, and May Day itself must ever be kept in view. On the latter day we have the May queen and her maidens decorating the tree or well of the mother-goddess; on the former night we have a distorted image of the May-Day ceremonies, truer in some respects, all the same, to the old mother-age civilisation. Links between the two will be found in sagas which make the witches beautiful maidens with flowing robes, dancing and feasting to the most entrancing music. Such sagas are not uncommon, particularly in Westphalia. But perhaps a closer link may be found in the custom of choosing maidens on Walpurgisnacht as sweethearts for the year. This occurs in the Lahn district, and is termed the Mailehn, or May-fee. The youths march out on this night with cracking of whips and with song. Then one of their number stands upon a hillock or stone, and calls out the names of maid and youth pair by pair, adding: “In this year to wed.” Each pair must then keep together at all the dances of the year; the maiden places a wreath round the hat of her sweet-heart, and the evening ends in feasting and drinking.
In other parts of Hesse the fee-calling takes place at Kirmes, and the couple only dance together for the Kirmes. Both periods remind us, however, of the Kirmes lover, or “three-day sweetheart”; we are clearly dealing with a fossil of the old temporary sex-relationship. In Oberndorf, in Swabia, a like ceremony occurs at Midsummer Day, another great heathen and witch festival. This ceremony is called the Weiberdingete, or wife-hire, and consists in each man taking his wife to the village inn. The wife asks: “Will you hire your old wife again for another year ?” The husband answers: “Yes, I’ll try it again with my old wife.” Feasting, singing, and drinking go on till midnight, and the wife, it should be noted, pays the score.
A similar institution was the Handfasting in Eskdalemuir at the annual fair, where the unmarried of both sexes selected partners for the space of one year. If they were satisfied with the marriage, they continued again after the year, but if not they separated. This old Scottish custom seems to have combined the May-fee and the wife-hire. All are most noteworthy, as indicating that the licentious extravagances of the witch-gatherings point back to a form of marriage totally different from that of the patriarchal system, and peculiar to an age when the status of woman in both social and religious matters was far freer than it could be after the advent of Christianity and the martial organisation which accompanied the age of the folk-wanderings.
If, then, I have indicated that we must look upon the witch-gatherings as fossils of high festivals for dancing, feasting, and the choice of sweethearts by the younger folk, I have still to show that the devil as master of the ceremonies is a late importation. I can do this best by citing to you the legend of the Bensberg in the Herkenrath district. Here there is a spot in the forest termed the weichen Hahn, which appears to be a corruption of the wichen Hain, or sacred grove. At this place, according to tradition, there are great witch-gatherings on May night and Midsummer night. Over these gatherings the devil and his grandmother preside.
Three lads who once went as unobserved spectators were, according to the legend, astonished by the number of witches present, and by a grandeur of which they had never dreamt. Upon a resplendent throne, the jewels of which lighted up the wood, sat the she-devil in youthful beauty, at her feet sat her grandson, the devil himself, and in a large half-ring round stood the witches, who kept flying in. Then the witches began a rhythmic movement with song and resonant music, ever bending towards the throne. The devil’s grandmother consecrated them with water from a golden vessel, using instead of the usual water-sprinkler a bunch of green ears of corn, which she carried in her right hand; in her left hand she held a beautiful golden apple. All the witches appeared young7 and active maidens of astonishing beauty, such as the observers had never before seen, and the music sung was sweeter than any they had ever heard.
It is true that when the lads’ presence was discovered all things became hideous and horrible, but the legend retains its significance all the same. The devil as a minor person seated at the feet of his grandmother, who with corn ears and apple is obviously a goddess of the harvest like Ceres, worshipped by fair maidens with dance and song. I know no legend more striking than this in the manner in which it shows the origin of witch ceremonies in the old worship of a goddess of fertility by her woman devotees. But this same superiority of the devil’s mother or grandmother over the devil is marked whenever we find traditions about them.8 She cajoles him and wheedles secrets out of him, and at Soest is said even for a time to have banished him to the Brocken in the Harzgebirge on account of his idleness. Not only in Westphalia, but right away down to the Danube, we find traces of the devil’s mother as a person of great importance. She builds a palace on the Danube, she hunts with black dogs in the night through Swabia, and wherever the devil himself can achieve nothing there he sends his mother.
The devil’s dam, hunting with black dogs through the night, directly associates this goddess with a number of female deities who ride with their dogs and a wild following through the dark on Twelfth Night, May Day, Midsummer Eve, or at Yule-tide. Thus in Mecklenburg, Frau Gode, described as a weather-witch, hunts through the night, sometimes on a white horse, sometimes on a sleigh drawn by dogs. She eats human flesh, she brings the plague, and no spinning must be done on the nights when she is abroad. In Thüringen, Frau Holda or Holla rides with the wild hunt on Walpurgisnacht.
She looks after spinning, and punishes in the most brutal and cruel fashion the idle as well as those who insult her. She, too, is accompanied by her dogs. In Hesse, Frau Holle yearly passes over the land, and gives it fruitfulness. She can be friendly and helpful to her worshippers. She has her dwelling in a mere or well, and she makes women who go and bathe therein healthy and fruitful. Only a century ago songs used to rise to Frau Holle as the women dressed the flax, and to her sacred hill peasants and their wives were wont to go at Whitsuntide with music and dancing. A scarcely less noteworthy figure is that of Berchta with her plough. She waters the meadows, and on Twelfth Night she goes her round to punish idle spinsters, often in the most brutal manner. In Swabia, on Twelfth Night, a broom is carried in her procession, or she is represented with a broom in one hand and fruit in the other. This list of goddesses might be largely extended did our time permit; but it may serve, as it is, to show that the devil’s mother is only a degraded form of a goddess of fertility and domestic activity. She is but one of those goddesses whose symbols are those of agriculture, the pitch-fork and the plough, or of domestic usefulness, the broom and the spindle. She is associated with symbols of fertility, the ears of corn, fruit, the swine, and the dog.
Her well brings with its water fertility to the land and fruitfulness to women. Her worship is associated with cruelties, human sacrifices, which point to an early stage of civilisation, and with licentiousness scarce paralleled in the worship of any male deity. In her it is the activities of the woman and not the man which come into prominence; the civilising work of woman in the home and on the fields; she is type of the civilisation which is peculiarly woman’s work. Replace the devil at witch-meetings by such a mother-goddess as Holle or Berchta, or reduce him at least to the menial office of cook, and there is not a single feature of witchcraft which is not replete with suggestion for the civilisation of the mother-age. The broom and the pitchfork no longer seem anomalies; they are the symbols of the goddess, and as such are borne by her worshippers. As the blood of the lamb on the door-post hindered Jehovah from venting his anger upon his own worshippers, so the broom, which was actually carried by witches, if placed on the threshold, signified to the goddess that her worshippers were within. The symbol of the witch was originally the sign of the worshipper, the protection against the anger of the goddess, or of the priestess, her servant.
How suggestive in this respect becomes all the folklore of brooms!9 The solemn night gathering and night binding of brooms on New Year’s Day; the dance of men and maids round the fire at Midsummer Eve, the men carrying burning brooms; the crossed brooms before the doorways in the Obererzgebirge on Walpurgisnacht as a protection against the witches; the besom by the cradle or at the door in Mecklenburg to protect the new-born child; the cows and the stall protected in the same district from witchcraft by an inverted broom or the presence of a goat, the favourite animal of the witch, and therefore presumably of her mistress, the goddess of fertility; the riding of youth or maid on a broomstick to the pig-sty on New Year’s Eve, when the answer of the swine determines the nature of the future bride or groom; the burning of brooms on Walpurgisnacht in Thüringen to frighten the witches; the procession to the well at Saulgau, which was headed by a man bearing a broom, followed by one with a fork, and between them a third clothed in a sheepskin, and carrying a tree with apples and other eatables (termed the Adam’s tree); the procession of men wearing women’s clothes, with brooms and fire-forks, on Fast-Nacht at Erlingen; the brooms which the witches will not step over in Nassau, or which protect the cottage doors in the Pfalz against the entrance of witches; the broom stuck in the dunghill in Schlesien to protect the homestead, or in the flax field to increase its fertility, or the brooms burnt on Midsummer Night with a wild dance, in the same district; the besom which, laid on the bed, protects men against the cobbolds in North Germany, where we find again the same broomstick ride to the pig-sty, and the same burning of brooms at dances in the woods; the old brooms which frighten away changelings; and the worn-out brooms which are burnt in the fires on Midsummer Eve in the Pfalz. All these evidences of broom-worship show how universal was the respect for the mother-goddess and her servants the witch-priestesses throughout the length and breadth of Germany.
Similar folklore as to the distaff, the cooking ladle, and the pitchfork might be cited, the noteworthy point being that these symbols occur in identical ways at witch ceremonies and at peasant weddings in fact, at the old and the new marriage rites. At the witches’ feast there is a great kettle, and the devil as cook dances with the cooking ladle; boys dance with brooms and cooking ladles on Walpurgisnacht. On the other hand, there is a special dance of the cook with a ladle at peasant weddings in Mecklenburg and in other parts of Germany. In the confession of Geseke Hagenmeister, a sixteenth-century witch, she described the cooking at witch-meetings as being exactly like that at a wedding. Indeed, the correspondences are most striking and suggestive. It is a charge against witches that they dance back to back with the devils; this is precisely the form of peasant wedding dance illustrated by Albrecht Durer.10 The witches smear their feet to pass rapidly through the air. The Hochzeitsbitter, or person who bids to the peasant weddings in Mecklenburg, asks the guests to smear their boots and shoes that they may come the quicker. The witches dance on hilltops; in Uderstadt, in Thüringen, on the second day of the marriage feast, the whole marriage company were bound by ancient custom to dance on the top of the Tafelsberg, a neighbouring hill, whither they proceeded in procession with music. The dancing round the bride-stake and the distaff at weddings are strangely akin to the dancing round the Maypole, about the sacred tree, or with the broom on May Day, Midsummer Night, or at witch-gatherings. On Walpurgisnacht, in Westphalia, the young men go round with music and song to honour their brides and sweethearts; elsewhere they plant May-trees before their sweethearts’ doors; witches and wilde Frauen that is, the hags or women of the woods come in Swabia to weddings and to births. What is this but a relic of the day when the priestess of the goddess of fertility came to marriages and births as of right? In North Germany the witch has power over the new-born and the new- bought; she comes to take the tithe for sacrifice to the goddess.
In Swabia, and in the Pfalz, also, the midwife, according to the legends, is often a witch who baptizes the children in the devil’s name, or again she lends women the Drutenstein or trud’s stone to protect their babes against witches; it is the hag or woman of the woods who knows and collects the herbs which relieve the labours of birth. Here we have the priestess of the old civilisation as medicine woman and midwife relieving human suffering, putting the symbol of her goddess on the cradle, but taking her tithe of human life for sacrifice to the goddess to whom without question all children born on Walpurgisnacht belong (Pfalz) and exercising strange and hostile influences over women in childbed who do not submit to the old religious rites.
The old human sacrifice is a marked feature of the religion of which witchcraft is the fossil. Witches, we are told, kill and eat children, especially the unbaptized.
They boil them down, as all early sacrificial feasts and nearly all savage meals appear to be boilings and not roastings. Remarkable in this respect is the offering of wax figures of babies at shrines of the Virgin Mary as thank-offerings for easy birth. The Virgin Mary takes the place in innumerable ways of the old mother-goddess of fertility. But the human sacrifice to the goddess was not confined to children. In Heilbronn we have the common feast, the common dance, and the burning of a scarecrow or guy as trace of sacrifice; elsewhere in Swabia a female figure in the form of a witch is burnt, and her ashes scattered over the land to increase its fertility; in Spain it is an old woman with a distaff in her hand, and it seems more than probable that the priestess herself was occasionally, perhaps as representative of the goddess, sacrificed by burning on the sacred hill or drowning in the sacred well. The goddess of fertility is killed in autumn, that she may arise rejuvenated in spring. This may possibly be the origin of Dido’s self-immolation, and the popular legend of the sacrifice of the queen-priestess which is found in so many different localities. That male victims were also common is proved not only by the direct evidence of early historians but by many still extant folk-customs. These instances of witches as fossils of the priestesses of a goddess of fertility are not contradicted by the hostility which witches exhibit to marriage, or the fact that marriages on their great days, such as Twelfth Day and Walpurgis Day, are considered very unlucky. When we remember that the marriage of the civilisation, of which witches are fossils, was a group-marriage and not a monogamic marriage, we easily grasp why the old priestly caste would oppose the changes which led to the patriarchal system and the downfall of the old civilisation. Thus it comes about that the bride must propitiate the goddess or her servant. Newly-married couples in Esthonia, one of the Russian Baltic provinces, carry an offering to the great water-mother in the shape of a goat; in Bohemia and other parts of Austria the bride sacrifices a cock; in England the bride had to anoint the threshold of the door, or smear the door-posts with swine’s grease to avoid the “mischievous fascinations of witches.” This must be compared with the blood of a black dog which was smeared on the door-posts to protect the house from witches, much as the blood of a lamb was smeared by the Jews at Passover. In Brandenburg the bride carries salt and dill to prevent the witches injuring her. In North Germany salt and dill are also used to protect newly-built bridges against witches. This is the more noteworthy as Tacitus tells us that the German priestesses prepared salt, and witches are famed for brewing salt and collecting herbs.
There is no doubt that the salt and the dill were symbols of a goddess, types of the discoveries due to woman’s work in the old mother-age civilisation, and as such symbols they consecrated both bridge and bride to the goddess, and saved them from the anger of her priestesses, as the blood of the sheep saved from the anger of Jehovah.
If my general theory be at all a correct one, we ought to find in witchcraft fossils of the old law of inheritance peculiar to the mother-age, and something akin to this we do find. In the Rheinthal we hear of uralte Hexensippe families where from time immemorial witchcraft has been handed down from mother to daughter. Then we have the widely-spread German proverb: Die Mutter eine Hexe, die Tochter auch eine Hexe, or, “The mother a witch, the daughter one too.”
The charms, spells, and potions seem to have been handed down from mother to daughter in long line, and were only learnt by men from women as a special favour. Many are the legends of the witch who takes her husband or the farm-servant with her to a witch-gathering; but it is always in a subordinate position, and the unfortunate man, not knowing the full ritual, produces a confusion, which ends, as a rule, disastrously for his skin. Another noteworthy fact is that in many parts of Germany any heirloom banishes witches or protects the person who carries it against them. Thus to stand within an inherited chain, or upon an inherited harrow, or with an inherited key or sieve, renders witchcraft powerless. It is difficult to look upon all these very diverse inherited things as symbols of the goddess which mark and protect her servants. I am inclined to think that they are really typical of the civilisation which first attained what we should term a law of inheritance, of a civilisation which was distinguished from that of the old mother-age when property belonged to the group and passed through the women, by the custom of property passing from father to son. Thus the man took as symbol of his new civilisation the heirloom, and used it as a sign to protect himself against the priestesses of the old faith.
That the goddesses served by the witches were essentially goddesses of agriculture is demonstrated by the various ceremonies with regard to plants and herbs which take place on the great witch-nights. In Esthonia, where the Virgin Mary has taken the place of an old goddess of fertility, there is a ceremonial planting of cabbages by the women on the Feast of her Annunciation shortly before Midsummer Day. In Brandenburg there is a ceremonial gathering of herbs on May Day.
Once when I was ill in the Black Forest I had herb-tea brought to me by an old peasant woman, the herbs having been gathered on St. John’s night. In Mecklenburg herbs are gathered on Midsummer Night, which protect people against witches. In Thüringen caterpillars are banished from the cabbage plot by a woman running naked round the field or garden before sunrise on the eve of the annual fair. In the Pfalz, flax will not thrive unless it is sown by the women, and it has to be done with strange ceremonies, including the scattering-over the field of the ashes of a fire made of wood consecrated during matins. As high as the maids jump over the fires on the hilltops on Midsummer Night, so high will the flax grow; but we find also that as high as the bride springs from the table on her marriage night, so high will the flax grow in that year. Green cabbages gathered at Yule-tide or on Twelfth Night, and eaten by man and beast, protect them against witches; in other words, those who eat it, like those who eat the paschal lamb, are performing a rite which protects them from the anger of the deity.
Besides this relation to herbs and plants, the goddess shows her relation to fruitfulness in the matter of wells, springs, and ponds. At the Siveringer spring, near Vienna, crowds of people come on feast-days, especially on Midsummer Night; many spend the night in the woods, and if a stone taken from the Agneswiese be laid in the water of the spring, and then under the pillow, prophetic dreams follow.
The spring is supposed to be sacred to a fay, Agnes, who is friendly to mortals. Margretha Beutzins, tried for witchcraft in the sixteenth century, confessed that she and other witches fetched water out of a stream, boiled it with herbs in a large caldron over a fire, and bathed the devil therein. This bathing ceremony in a sacred stream at witch-gatherings or on Midsummer Night appears to be very general. In Thüringen, near Tieffurt, is a sacred spring still called Weihbrunnen; this well is one of the wells from which children are brought, that is, the well of a goddess of fertility, and there are legends about children being found there, who afterwards return to dance round the well. On the Virgin Mary’s birthday the festival of maids, as it was still called at the beginning of our century the maidens in Thüringen used to rise before daybreak and bathe with the water of a sacred spring, which made them beautiful. In Hesse bathing in Frau Holle’s pond, or in various sacred wells, makes barren women fruitful. Here we have the same notion of fertility due to the sacred water of the goddess; but in later days she has been replaced by the Virgin Mary. In Halle is a well termed the Freucklerin well; it is said to be so called from an old woman, who had a great knowledge of how to cure diseases, and we evidently have a trace of an old healing goddess. In Steisslingen, in Swabia, the wells are decorated on May Day; there is dancing and a feast at night. May-Day baths are frequently mentioned in the old chronicles, as well as special Midsummer-Day baths. They seem to have frequently preceded the dancing round the sacred well. Near Burgeis is the Zerzerbrunnen, a well of three wild maidens. Alongside it there used to be an altar to which shepherds and huntsmen brought their firstlings. The altar is now replaced by a chapel. Such wells which legend attributes to a well-maiden, or three sisters, or wild maidens, are very frequent. Often the maidens come out from the well, and join in the peasant dances of the neighbourhood; this occurs especially on St. John’s night.
The wilde Frauen thus associated with wells are not exactly witches, but, like witches, they come to weddings and births, and are accompanied by dogs. They are the three sisters to whom so many mediæval charms and incantations are addressed, and to whom men go for counsel and aid. They are rather the legendary form of an old triune goddess of fertility than the degenerate form which her priestess has taken as a witch. They are goddesses of fertility, but also of disease and death, as well as of medicine and life. For pest and death are in early times represented as women, not as men. The healing goddess is related to the “great virgin” of Esslingen, who, we are told, outwitted all men, priests and laymen, even the most famous physicians, with her magic. That these spring or well goddesses had a side in dark contrast to their dancing, singing, and healing characteristics is clearly enough evidenced by the traces we have of human sacrifices to wells and springs, and of licentious gatherings in their neighbourhood. As goddesses they are frequently represented in the legends as spinning; they come to weddings and spin; they punish idle spinsters, and their worship is closely connected with the distaff as symbol. Another phase of their worship is connected with the village spinning-room and the licentiousness which then and now surrounds that institution. But to enter into the folklore and practice of the spinning-room and its fossils in still more ill-famed resorts might indeed throw much light on the mother-age, but it would lead us too far from our present subject of witchcraft.
I have endeavoured to interpret various obscure witch-customs as fossils of an ancient woman civilisation, especially as fossils of its religious worship, reflecting as all religion the social habits and modes of thought of the society in which it originated. We shall see these phases of the old life still further emphasised if we note a few, a very few, of the ceremonies which occur in Germany on Walpurgisnacht, May Day or Midsummer Day: times especially associated with witches and the old feminine deities. In the Russian Baltic provinces we find that there are festivals on the first of May with torch or candle processions comparable with the witch gatherings and the Friesian marriage; that a May king is chosen, who does reverence to the May queen,11 and that a free feast is given to the women and maidens.
As usual, there is music and dancing in the evening exactly as at witch-dances. In Dantzig there is dancing on the Fayusberg, possibly the fairy’s hill. In Denmark we find processions with choral dances of maidens, communal feasting and drinking, while we have still extant songs made by pious folk to replace the old ribald May-Day songs.12 In Esthonia, at Midsummer, the maidens go to certain hilltops, and there, bedecked with flowers, dance and sing round fires.
On Midsummer Night this often degenerated into a veritable bacchanal; there were dances of nude women and a licentiousness such as we hear of at the witch-gatherings. The privilege of a similar license was claimed by women also at the great festival of spring, in which respect it may be noted that February in Mecklenburg is said to be the woman’s month, i.e. the month in which women rule.
On the Konigstuhl, near Heidelberg, when I was a student there, the whole town was to be found on Walpurgisnacht. Groups of maidens and students went up singing through the woods, there was dancing at the top, and waiting to see the sun rise.
At Whitsuntide, in the Obererzgebirge, there used to be dancing outdoors all night. In Mecklenburg, on Midsummer Night, a great caldron is carried round, in which eggs, butter, milk, are collected; there are choral dances, especial antique dances, and a common meal lasting till late into the night. The special lighting of the Midsummer fires and the driving the herds through them to protect them from witchcraft, the Hahnenschlager , trace of an old cock-sacrifice, all which occur in the same district, are fossils of old religious rites. Noteworthy and suggestive is the appearance of the caldron—the witches’ caldron—at many folk-festivals. It is closely connected with the common and free meal of the ancient group. This common meal occurs in the marriage rites of a later age; thus in Altenburg, at the time of a wedding, a waggon is sent round to collect provisions; there is music, and often dancing, even to the church; and on the evening of the wedding there is a feast free to all upon the food collected, a general dancing, and in the old times there was great licentiousness. In the early days the food seems to have gone even into the church; a fossil of this old custom is still preserved in the wine and cake handed round in some places at weddings inside the church. In Mecklenburg at weddings we have dancing out of the bridal house and down the village, also a procession of maidens with candles exactly as in the Friesian wedding. This dancing down the public streets recurs in many places; for example, in old days the Faddy dance on May Day in Cornwall in and out of the houses and down the village. In Rottweil we find dancing in the public streets and feasting on high festivals, and even at weddings, accompanied, as usual, by great license. In Thüringen on Walpurgisnacht we have dancing round the linden tree, and on Midsummer Night a fire festival for maids and men. At Whitsuntide the men collect food for a common meal, and it is followed by a dance; in return the maidens fetch the youths to a dance and give them a meal, paying for the music.
This is termed the feast of the Brunnenfege, and seems to be a relic of an old well-worship. In Hesse we have a decoration of the wells on May Day, and choral dances of the maids on Midsummer Night; in the very same district the witches meet on the former night for dancing, and there is a common meal under the Hexenlinde, or witches’ linden tree.
In Heilbronn, on Walpurgisnacht, there is a common meal and the burning of a scarecrow: relic of an old human sacrifice. This is said to be done to hinder the witches, but yet this very night, according to the folk-lore of the country round, they are most active and have most power. In North Germany the witches are said to dance away the snow from the Blocksberg on Walpurgisnacht; in other words, they are friendly servants of a goddess of fruitfulness, whose influence over women agriculturists is well marked in the custom in Uker- and Mittel-mark of putting a scarecrow called Walpurg on the land of those maidens who have not completed their digging of the soil by May Day. Traces of the sacrifice of cats or horses on Walpurgisnacht are very frequent, and a cat or dog is the usual companion of the primitive goddess or her priestess, the witch. The Scandinavian goddess Freya is drawn by cats, the alte Fricke goes with dogs, so does Fru Gode.
The dog, the cat, and the three ears of corn are symbols of the Virgin Mary, but also of Walpurg, and the devil’s grandmother as well, clearly indicating how many of the characteristics, and even the symbols of the old mother-goddesses, were passed on to the Virgin in early Christian times.13 Nay, like Holle and Gode and Berchta, she became a goddess of spinning, which was not allowed on her holy days. The picture of primitive woman taming the cat and the dog, domesticating the smaller animals, including the pig, the goat, and the goose, is brought clearly out in their becoming the companions and symbols of the primitive goddess; just as the broom, the distaff, and the pitchfork, the ears of corn, and the apple, show her activity in the direction of domestic economy and in the earliest forms of agriculture.
I cannot do better than conclude the witchcraft evidence of woman’s primitive ascendency by referring to one out of the many local mother-goddesses who were converted into local saints by early Christianity.
The one which I will consider is Walpurg, from whom the name of the great witch-gathering Walpurgisnacht takes its origin. According to the legend, Walpurg was a female missionary who accompanied St. Boniface and was canonised as a virgin saint of the Catholic Church. But let us see the real nature of Walpurg in folklore and local usage. Many wells or springs are associated with her name; the waters of these wells heal diseases. Her bones, or the stone on which they were formerly exhibited, exuded oil, and this oil was sold or carried off by pilgrims in little bottles to cure toothache and relieve the pangs of childbirth. The exuding began on Walpurgisnacht, on which occasion her oil was also drunk as old ale. On May Day in 1720 the priests from no less than forty parishes came to Attigny, one of the shrines of Walpurg, to share in the distribution of oil. Lutheran women who had been assisted in childbirth by the oil entered the Catholic Church. Walpurg is represented with an oil flask in her hand. In Bavaria there is an old chapel at Kaufering to Walpurg. At this chapel the folk say health offerings used to be made to idols in the old days, and in a neighbouring building the old plague cars were preserved. Walpurg is thus associated with a being who once protected the people from disease. The dog is peculiarly sacred to Walpurg, and she cures the bite of mad dogs. Thus the dog, the token of fertility, is sacred to her as to Holle and Frick. She carries three ears of corn in her hand the symbol of the goddess of agricultural fertility. On Walpurgistag there is a procession in the Frankenwald which opens with the Walber, a man clothed with straw; there is a dance round the Walber tree a symbolic driving out of winter and a heralding of spring. In Lower Austria the harvest days are especially consecrated to Walpurg. She then goes through all the fields and gardens with a spindle blessing them. Like the witches, she brings in spring, and by dancing makes the fields fertile.
We have already noted that the great common meals of the Germans, with their accompanying worship of some goddess of fertility, were not abolished by the introduction of Christianity. In many places they were converted into a Kirmes or ecclesiastical feast. Such a common meal used to be held at Monheim in a church dedicated to Walpurg. Oxen and swine were carried for this purpose into the church itself. It will be obvious from the above and from the general character of the feastings and dancings on Walpurgisnacht that Walpurg could not have originally represented an ascetic virgin saint. She is the typical goddess of fruitfulness with a by no means ascetic cult. She is the presiding spirit of the old group-gatherings with their common meal, their clan discussions and elements of law-making, their agricultural ritual, their general worship of fruitfulness and fertility, and their blessing of animals, of corn, and of the hearth and its industries.
But the fruitfulness of animals and land is associated with the like in mankind, and the bathing in the sacred spring or the dew are only another side of the worship which culminated in the license of Walpurgisnacht.
It is in this aspect that the Westphalian Walpurg at Antwerp appears as a Venus, a goddess of fertility to whom barren women offer wreaths of flowers. In this aspect of goddess of love and fertility she reappears near Eichstadt, while even in the Catholic calendar she has the patronate of the fruitfulness of the soil.
It will be seen from the above brief account of Walpurg that she corresponds exactly to the type of goddess we should expect to meet with in the ceremonials of witchcraft and in the revels of Walpurgisnacht. She is the old type of mother-goddess who, like a good many of her sisters, has received a slight coat of whitewash from the early Christians and reappeared as a Catholic virgin and saint.
Walpurg brings before us clearly all the strong and weak points of that old- woman civilisation, fossils of whichI have suggested are lurking half hidden in the folklore of witchcraft. It is a civilisation based rather on the useful arts of agriculture and domestic economy than of war and the chase. It is one in which the earliest rudiments of medicine, the domestication of the smaller animals, the cultivation of vegetables, and flax and corn, the use of the distaff, the spindle, the broom, the fire-rake, and the pitchfork are in no hesitating language if we but know how to read it claimed as the inventions and discoveries of woman. Those discoveries are the real basis of our civilisation to-day, and not only the basis but a good part of the superstructure. Some may be inclined to smile at the broom, the distaff, and the pitchfork, and compare them with the printing-press and the steam-engine, but the smile is the smile of the ignorant, and the comparison itself idle. For the one set could never have been without the other. Let us be quite sure that these origins of civilisation were not the discoveries of the man, who in his superior might made the women use them. The primitive savage knows nothing of agriculture, of spinning, of herbs, and of springs, but his wife does. It is not he but she who could have made them symbols of a female deity, and in the power of a superior knowledge have forced the worship of that deity upon the whole group or clan. If my audience ask me why and how it came about, I can only indicate now my belief that the fertility, resource, and inventive power of early woman arose from the harder struggle she had to make for the preservation of her child and herself in the battle of life. It was the struggle of tribe against tribe in actual warfare which quickened the intellect of the man. But that I hold to be a later struggle; the first struggle was for food and for shelter against natural forces, and that was the contest from which the civilisation of woman arose. It carried mankind a long way: a way the length of which we are only just beginning to realise. But it could not carry mankind to that family organisation from which so much was afterwards to develop. It was based upon the mother as head of the group, and upon a form of group-marriage of which it is hard now to judge impartially. If one of the worst abuses of the father-age be really only a degenerate form of the older group-marriage, and is not the pure outcome of male domination if there be a direct line of descent from the old licentious worship of the mother-goddess to the extravagances of witchcraft, to the spinning-room, and to the legalised vice of to-day we have still to remember that the perpetuation by one civilisation of the weak points of an earlier one, and this possibly in an exaggerated form, is no reason for the condemnation of the earlier stage. The civilisation of woman handed down a mass of useful custom and knowledge; it was for after generations to accept that, and eradicate the rest. When I watch to-day the peasant woman of Southern Germany or of Norway toiling in the house or field, while the male looks on, then I do not think the one a down-trodden slave of the other. She appears to me the bearer of a civilisation to which he has not yet attained.
She may be a fossil of the mother-age, but he is a fossil of a still lower stratum barbarism pure and simple.
When we have once fully recognised the real magnitude of what women achieved in the difficult task of civilisation in these olden times, then we shall be the less apt to think her status unchangeable, to assume that she is hopelessly handicapped by her function of child-bearing, and that the hard work of the world must be left to men. If I wished to give a full picture of what woman accomplished for the first time in the world, and what she is in many parts still undertaking, it would be hard to do so better than by quoting the following words from the recent report of an American Consul in Germany:
American readers will hardly understand how it can be that the severest part of existence in this whole region falls to the lot of woman. But such is the fact. She is the servant and the burden-bearer… The chief pursuits of women in this district (Sonneberg) are not of a gentle or refining character. They perform by far the greater part of all the outdoor manual service. The planting and the sowing, including the preparation of the soil, therefore, is done by them. I have seen many a woman in the last few weeks holding the plough, drawn by a pair of cows, and still more of them carrying manure into the fields in baskets strapped to their backs. They also do much of the haying, including the mowing and the pitching; likewise the harvesting; after which they thrash much of the grain with the old-fashioned hand flail. They accompany the coal carts through the city, and put the coal into the cellars while the male driver sits upon his seat. They carry on nearly all the dairy business, and draw the milk into town in a hand-cart, a woman and a dog usually constituting the team.
Here we have a wonderfully suggestive fossil of woman in the mother-age: primitive woman, the first agriculturist, shouldering the pitchfork, the symbol of her deity, and accompanied by the creature of her goddess, her friend and helper, the dog.
- A lecture given in 1891 at the Somerville Club, but not hitherto published.
The lecture is here printed substantially as it was delivered, and accordingly no references are given to the very numerous sources whence information has been drawn.
2. If the reader will put aside for a time the classical and biblical impressions of childhood, and recognise in Romans and Jews two early races who came victorious out of the struggle for existence because they were patriarchal variations amid a widespread mother-right civilisation, he will find immense pleasure in reinterpreting the legends of early Roman history with its struggles of patricians and plebeians, as well as in fully grasping for the first time the exact historical bearing of the Jewish backslidings, which led to the worship of the golden calf and the adoration of the woman in scarlet.
3. See Essay XI for a further discussion of the whole subject of the Hag.
4. From the present standpoint it is noteworthy that in many parts of Germany the old local laws gave the property of the Hagestolz on his death, whether he made a will or not, or left blood relatives or not, to the state.
5. Compare the Magdalen in gaudio in Essay XII.
6. This occurs in many places. Note particularly Grossgottern, in Thüringen, where, at Whitsuntide in the forties of this century, men dressed as women went about on hobby-horses collecting food for a common meal, and were termed Huren. In the evening there was a great drinking bout, feasting and dancing. In Beverley Minster on one of the misericords is depicted a man on a hobby-horse.
7. Compare the young witch in Baldung Grien’s cut, p. 30.
8. The fact that we hear of the Teufelsstiefbruder but never of his father is also not without value as determining the mother-age character of the civilisation from which this mother and son dual deity took its origin.
9. The broom was also an essential feature of a Gretna Green marriage, just as the Feuergabel or tongs characterise the gipsy wedding, another link between marriage folklore and the worship of the tribal goddess at the great folk-festivals of sex.
10. See also a 1600 Siegburger jug in the Berlin Gewerbe Museum.
11. The May-Day ceremonies here closely approach the Mylitta feast at Babylon; see Essay XL.
12. Even as the same folk have recently replaced the old bridal songs in Iceland!
13. Folk-gatherings remained for many ages linked to the old heathen goddess festivals and their sacred spots. It is interesting from this standpoint to notice that the place of gathering for the commons of Norwich was at the chapel of “the blessed Virgin in the fields.”