The Politics of the First Witches’ Sabbaths

Today, a standard component of the European myth of the witch is that witches are organized. They maintain heretical Satanic sects or covens and form a vast conspiracy to undermine the Christian order. From Faust to The Witch (2015), the idea is almost taken as a given. But it’s actually a pretty new concept. The belief seems to have emerged in the 1430s in the western Alps: western Switzerland, northwest Italy, and southeast France. This week, we’ll take a look at an important source in this foment, and we’ll see what cool gaming material we can draw from it to drop into your campaign tonight!

This post is brought to you by beloved Patreon backer Justin Moor. Thanks for helping keep the lights on! If you want to help keep this blog going alongside Justin, head over to the Patreon page – and thank you!

Detail from The Great He-Goat by Francisco Goya

The witch-sabbath complex has four key components. The first is that witches gather en masse to conduct ceremonies in the presence of Satan or one of his minions. We’d call this a ‘sabbath’ or a ‘black mass’, but these late medieval sources usually call it a ‘synagogue’ (because of course they did). Second, at the sabbath and more broadly, witches worshipped the Devil and denied God. These acts made them heretics in the eyes of the Church. Third, Satan commanded his worshippers to perform evil acts like killing babies and fornicating. Witches did these things willingly. Finally – and less important in this witch-sabbath idea than you might expect – the Devil gave his worshippers magic powers. Depending on the author, this might be quid pro quo (“Thanks for doing the bad thing, have some magic”), in furtherance of evil (“To help you get to my synagogue, I’ll let you fly. To help you steal and eat babies, I’ll let you turn into a wolf.”), or the magic might itself be evil (“To perform this spell, you’ll need the fat of a stolen baby, so best go kidnap one”).

Fusing these four ideas into a new view of witchcraft made imaginary witches a mortal threat to both the Church and the aristocracy. Witches threatened the Catholic Church because they represented a sort of rival heretic church that sought to lead people away from God’s light. Witches threatened the political establishment because they were organized and the aristocracy didn’t have a means to sway them. Left unchecked, they might form shadow governments and eventually strip aristocrats of their power.

From this you might conclude that the Church had lost sight of the fact that witches don’t exist. In truth, there was plenty of ecclesiastical debate. Clerics argued for positions ranging from ‘witches are so rare as to not matter’ to ‘witches are real, but the magic and sabbaths are just delusions their demon masters trick them into believing’ all the way to ‘demon-magic, sabbaths, and witches are real and I’ve executed several’. Which camp held sway where depended a lot on the local personalities: the bishops, abbots, and secular lords, and how convinced they were by the various arguments.

The author of this week’s source firmly believed that witches, sabbaths, and demon-magic were very real and very dangerous. He was probably a Dominican member of the Inquisition writing roughly 1439-1441. His work, The Vauderie of Lyon, purports to summarize information obtained during witch trials in Lyon, France – trials which may or may not have actually occurred. The text’s ghastly details of what witches supposedly confessed to under torture were likely intended to goad local authorities, especially the bishop, into granting the regional Inquisition more manpower and funding to root out more witches. If that was the work’s purpose, it was unsuccessful. There was not a subsequent outbreak of witch-hunts and witch-trials in Lyon the way there were in other French cities.

Detail from a painting by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov

The Vauderie of Lyon identifies witches as belonging to a new sect. This faith was like earlier heretic sects the Church had stamped out in the past, but far more dangerous. Worshippers (he calls them ‘Enchanters’) came from all walks of life, both men and women, from the highest to the lowest. Their numbers were growing fast. Already the witch-sect secretly held sway over the lands around Lyon. The goal of these Enchanters was to dishonor God in their private lives and seduce others into joining them.

Enchanters held their synagogues at night at remote crossroads. Even if someone passed by the sabbath, they’d not be able to hear or see the witches, though the witches would be able to hear and see the traveler. Enchanters traveled to their synagogues on foot, riding on a horrible spirit, or flying seated on a staff. At the sabbath, Satan appeared to them as a horned man covered in black bristles, spines, and hooks. His mouth twisted upwards to form a ghastly smile that extended all the way to his ears – which emitted fire! So too did his enormous bulging eyes. His chin extended out impossibly far, then curved down and back until it almost reached his throat. His hands and feet bore claws. His rasping, dissonant voice was so terrible, it rendered even the Enchanters terrified. They worshipped him by genuflecting and kissing his backside.

After worship, they partied. They danced to horn or pipe music, which was sometimes played by the congregants, and sometimes by the Devil himself. They held orgies in which Satan participated. They ate slimy raw meat, foul-tasting bread, and drank a black, tasteless beverage. Other times, they took their parties to the cellars and storerooms of the rich to drink wine in great quantities and fill the barrels back up with urine. They usually abused a stolen Host (Eucharist wafer), pissed on a cross drawn in the dirt, and otherwise denied God. The whole affair was lit by a lamp that produced a blackish-green light that kept them from recognizing one another. Before they left, the Enchanters all pissed in the same container. They had to flee before the first rooster crowed, for at that moment they could all be seen again.

Except from Witches’ Sabbath by Francisco Goya

The Enchanters had magic powers they used to avenge themselves upon their enemies. By poison and illusion, they could cause sickness, feebleness, and death in people and animals. They caused bad weather, sometimes flattening the orchards and vineyards of their targets and leaving their neighbors unharmed. They caused miscarriages. They inflected terrible pain by pricking wax effigies. They made nursing mothers go dry. They stirred up hatred between spouses. They poisoned springs. Those that flew did so on staffs made from a specific tree that had to be particularly barren and unfruitful. The Enchanter carved notches into it, some of which were then hidden. Finally, the Enchanter anointed the staff with a fetid, black ointment made from the hearts of unbaptized infants. Other spells used ashes obtained by burning a toad raised on a diet of stolen Hosts. Enchanters gathered herbs at particular times and places while making words, signs, and gestures to give the plants powers they’d not ordinarily possess.

Besides vengeance, material benefits of of being an Enchanter were few. Satan promised them riches, but never delivered. A few got coins, but they were never worth much and they’d often turn to coal when the Enchanters left the synagogue. Some could transfer milk from their neighbors’ cows to their own or create invisible fences to hold their livestock in and keep wolves out. The Vauderie author claims that some Enchanters converted to heresy and witchcraft because of a promise of gain, but he clearly doesn’t think that’s why they remained heretics. That, he claims, was usually out of a desire to do harm and a shameful fear of confessing their errors. 

The Vauderie author lays out certain signs by which you could identify an Enchanter. They went rarely or not at all to Mass or confession. They didn’t know well the standard prayers. When they made the sign of the cross, they did so inexpertly or lazily. The fact that these signs are also consistent with the subject just not being very interested in religion seems either to escape the author, or he draws no distinction between the two. He also warns us that the Devil hardens Enchanters against torture. You’ve really got to give it to ‘em before they confess.

This sabbath is portrayed as occurring in a Roman ruin based on the Pantheon in Rome.

The Vauderie of Lyon warns that some among the Enchanters are Catholic priests. These hypocritical pastors supposedly delighted in performing the sacraments incorrectly so they didn’t count. Say a few words wrong during baptism and maybe the baby’s not actually baptized. Should it die, perhaps it’s now bound for Hell. Ditto a freshly-shriven invalid, who may die not knowing his sins weren’t properly confessed and forgiven – and thus be bound for Hell. It’s an interesting take on Catholic theology, and I’m not sure how canonical it is.

The idea of Catholic clergy among the Enchanters has implications for Church politics, and the Vauderie author pulls no punches. The clerics among the Enchanters supposedly promised the Devil they would staunchly maintain that these terrible synagogues do not occur. Instead, they would argue that the Devil merely tricks Enchanters with delusions and phantasms into believing they travel to these black masses and do terrible things there, and that consequently there is no vast conspiracy of Satanists plotting to tear down Christian order. Naturally, a sizable chunk of the Catholic clergy maintained exactly this position – a position that stood in opposition to the author’s desire for more witch-hunts. Thus, the Vauderie author denounces his political rivals as Satanic moles within the Church.

Detail from Assembly of Witches by Frans Francken the Younger

An RPG adventure based around The Vauderie of Lyon should be all about small-town politics. There’s a hidden enemy gaining strength before it takes over this space station, frontier town, rural hamlet, or whatever. The enemy might be a rival church, a revolutionary group, a fraternal organization, or (again) whatever. Half the people in authority are zealously convinced the hidden enemy is heinously evil and has moles throughout the town. Half are burying their heads in the sand and don’t believe the hidden enemy exists. When the PCs come to town, both sides try to enlist them. If the PCs side with the ostriches and seek out evidence the enemy doesn’t exist, the zealots will take that as proof the party are themselves moles! Instead of looking for evidence, the PCs will probably have to spend most of their time fending off the zealots. If the PCs instead side with the zealots, the ostriches will stonewall them, but the party should nonetheless be able to find a likely mole in authority. Or the party might go looking for the hidden enemy to join them! Maybe your Enchanter-analogues are just a lot more sympathetic than any of the yahoos in power.

Whatever side the party picks (zealot, ostrich, or hidden enemy), throw a few scenes at them that force them to sacrifice on behalf of their stance. Maybe their ship is impounded by authority figures on the other side and they have to leave it there for now. Maybe they learn that someone has put in a bad word and a distant important NPC is now mad at them. Whatever it is, once they’re really committed, once they have skin in the game, only then reveal the truth. And preferably, only then decide for yourself what the truth actually is!

I see three possible climactic truths. The first is that there is no hidden enemy. If the PCs sided with the zealots, they look like idiots. If they sided with the (nonexistent) hidden enemy, they’re traitors. If they sided with the ostriches, the party’s reputation gets a big bump.

The second is that the hidden enemy was actually in control the whole time. The ostriches were precisely the patsies and moles the zealots accused them of being. If the PCs sided with the hidden enemy, they now have some powerful friends. If they sided with the ostriches, the no-longer-hidden enemy pats the PCs on the butt and sends ‘em on their way. If the party sided with the zealots, things go badly quickly.

The third option is that the hidden enemy was real but weak! This is the most complicated choice. Maybe the PCs uncover a mole but in the process learn that she is the only one. If they hand her over, they risk kicking off a witch-hunt that will sweep up a lot of innocent people. So what do they do with her?

Some players hate the idea that their GM might not know at the start of the adventure what the ‘truth’ is. If you have such players, consider not doing this. I would argue that it’s all fictional anyway, but I’d also encourage you to respect your players’ wishes. But if they’re cool with a little narrative uncertainty, whichever answer produces the most interesting story should be the answer that’s ‘true’. That’s not necessarily the answer that makes the party right or wrong – it’s the answer that provides a compelling end to the story, based on what’s already happened.

Check out my book Making History: Three One-Session RPGs! Three awesome historical one-shots with pregenerated characters and a very simple rules system designed specifically for that story. Norse Ivory is a game about heritage and faith in the Viking Age. A Killing in Cahokia is a murder mystery in the Native American temple-city of Cahokia. And Darken Ship is a horror-adventure starring junior sailors on a U.S. Navy warship who wake up one morning to discover they’re alone on a ship that should carry three thousand.

Source: Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath by Michael David Bailey (2021)

To comment, you don't have to back the Molten Sulfur Blog on Patreon, but you do need to log into a Patreon account. I'll manually review your first post before it becomes visible to others.