Aquelarre by Francisco Goya.

Every religion has its rites and rituals, its own holy days, and witchcraft as religion is no different. For the witch, these sacred celebrations are known as ‘sabbaths’. Where do they come from? How and when are they celebrated? Exactly what goes on at these nocturnal assemblies? To start, they are indeed nocturnal, happening at night. Before they were deemed Witches’ Sabbaths by the Church, they were pagan festivals to nature Gods, most likely Roman Gods such as Bacchus, Dionysos to the Greeks, and the goat-horned Faunus, or Pan. These orgiastic, highly sexual rites were held under the cover of night among torch lights and bonfires, where dancing, music, and wine which sometimes contained hallucinogens were consumed. These rituals were unsanctioned by the Roman state, and as such were highly controversial. They had a heavy emphasis on intoxication and the release of sexual tension, often times in the form of unacceptable social acts such as homosexuality, sex between unmarried people, and even ritual murder. But the Bacchanalia wasn’t always like this.

In its earliest Roman incarnation it was a daytime celebration open to women only, and was more or less like every other Roman festival. It wasn’t until Greek settlers incorporated their orgy traditions that it was moved to night, and included decadent feasting, wine, and sex that attracted both sexes. According to the Roman historian Titus Livius, or Livy, women outnumbered men 3 to 2, carrying with it the same misogynistic undertones we later see in accounts of the Witches’ Sabbath. Most importantly the rite centered around the figure of a giant goat. In Greece Dionysos had an epithet, ‘Melanaigis’, meaning “of the black goat skin” and the God is sometimes depicted with goat horns, however, this probably more so comes from the Horned God Pan and His satyrs Who make up the retinue of Dionysos and His Roman equivalent, Bacchus. Reliefs and depictions of the Bacchanalia center around fauns and satyrs placing Pan, or Faunus, side by side with Bacchus. His appearance represents the depravity of the event and would take center stage through the propaganda associated with the Bacchanalia, and later, the Witches’ Sabbath.

Once Christianity gained power in Southern Europe, the pagan religions were outlawed, but one festival proved hard to kill, the Bacchanalia. Despite what many think, early Christian converts were still very much pagan, and would typically serve their old Gods, as well as their new. In order to maintain the stranglehold of power, the Church began to switch the narrative. Instead of animal meat, they would say the meat of children was feasted upon. Instead of intoxicating trance that united one with the Gods, they would be performing witchcraft and opening the Gates of Hell. Most importantly, the Gods Themselves, and Their congregation became Devils and witches. Over time, learned men would interject bits and pieces of these ancient rituals into extracted confessions using torture, painting a picture of vile orgies of sin and infanticide. However, even with the demonization of pagan festivals, the Witches’ Sabbath still lured in the curious to the forbidden. What the Church inadvertently did was to create a very real, very powerful rite many men and women turned to in order to cope with the restrictive false morality imposed on them by those in power, a sentiment that endures to this day.

So, what exactly happens at these mysterious ‘Witches’ Sabbaths”? Fortunately they have been recorded in vivid detail. The first thing to understand is that they are almost a mock Christian Mass. There are baptisms, euchrists, candles, and even, what we personally call, the Stations of the Sabbath, laid out in books like the Compendium Maleficarum by Francesco Maria Guazzo. In the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology by Rossell Hope Robbins, the author conveniently breaks down these assemblies into 5 events: First, the assembly of the Sabbath which includes the applying of the ointment, the ride, and the lighting of the foul bonfire. Second is the homage to the Devil which includes the adoration, reciting blasphemous prayers, pacts, initiations, and the Osculum Infame. Third is the banquet of nauseating food, wine black like blood, and feasting on the flesh of humans, particularly infants. Fourth is the festivities of dancing and singing. Fifth is the orgy of perverse, indiscriminate sexual activity with demons, men, and women. But there is a fascinating account of the initiation of witches, or the Pact with the Devil held within the second part of the Sabbath that is precisely divided up into 12 stations, much like the Catholic “Stations of the Cross”, hence why we call it the “Stations of the Sabbath”.

The Sabbath Project as a whole uses these accounts as its inspiration, and each scene is meticulously created to not only represent these accounts, yet is filled with symbolism that pays homage to real, thriving witchcraft traditions. The stations are as followed

    • Denial of the Christian Faith” which includes blasphemies against God, Jesus, and Mary, and the trampling of the cross.

    • Mock Baptism” performed by the Devil Himself in which the Devil baptizes the witch with a foul potion.

    • Giving of the Witch’s Name” known only to the Devil and His witches.

    • Denial of the Godparents”, the witch assigned new ones, witches themselves who will mentor the initiate.

    • Offering of Clothing” where the witch offers the Devil an article of worn clothes. This is a deeply personal act as clothing is indeed a powerful personal concern that can be used in witchcraft.

    • Swears Allegiance to the Devil and the Coven”, a circle is cast upon the ground where the witch stands to make their oath.

    • Signing of the Black Book”, the witch’s name is struck from the Book of Life, and then inscribed in the Black Book of the Devil.

    • Promise of Sacrifice”, the witch swears to make regular sacrifices to the Devil which includes unbaptized children, disasters, and tormenting the faithful.

    • The Yearly Black Gift”, as a token of servitude, the witch must present some foul gift, black in color. Some accounts mention black turnips as a favorite offering.

    • Receiving the Witches’ Mark”, the Devil Himself scratches off the mark of the Christian baptism and gives the witch their witches’ mark.

    • The Vow to Never Attend Christian Mass”, new witches swear to never again take communion or attend a Christian Mass, an act that would result in severe punishment or death.

    • The Promise of Power”, being the final step, the Devil Himself promises to grant the witch fantastic abilities to perform infernal miracles, to command storms, and to control demons.

Once the witch is successfully initiated, they are expected to do the Devil’s work on Earth, and are able to conjure all their desires. Of course this takes power away from the Abrahamic god so it was considered the ultimate blasphemy, and was punished often by death. When we really look at the Witches’ Sabbath, and the Pact with the Devil, we see evidence of long held pagan beliefs, that our Gods exist for the purpose to better our lives through pleasure, and enjoyment, that in order to be blessed, one only need to partake in the many pleasures around them, to enjoy the world we live in because life is short. To dance with the Graces is to go against the Abrahamic “promise of paradise after death”, when witches enjoy and make their paradise here and now. Through our art we can manipulate our reality to meet our needs, without a church, without a priest, but through the Cosmos itself. When we swear oaths to our Gods we reject our Abrahamic upbringings, scratching off our baptisms, through our betterment we intrigue the next generations to follow us into self empowerment, and through this we are promised power over our reality. That is the Witches’ Sabbath, so come, Rise Ye Witches, Attend the Sabbath, and know your power is truly limitless!