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Oliver St. John is the author of seventeen books covering Hermetic and Thelemic philosophy, Qabalah, operative magical Theurgy, the Tarot and astrology. He is a founding member of the Thelemic Magical Collegium, Ordo Astri, and has been a member of the Typhonian Order since 2000 e.v.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Witches Sabbath

The moment that men began to claim to be Gods, to personalise the creative power manifested through astral and elemental forces, was the moment that men ceased to be Gods. As soon as men claimed the power for themselves they had to create theologies of good and evil to explain the dichotomy of disruptive or immoral forces within the self. The personalisation of the source of creative power took place simultaneously with the invention of monotheism. Polytheism allowed the free flow of psychic force in all its expressions, whereas the religions of the ‘one God’ restrict or curtail the psychosexual energy that informs nature and being.

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Ergot and Witchcraft

The bread that people ate in the middle ages was frequently laced with ergot, which has powerful psychoactive properties. Ergot was so common in bread that until the 1850s it was believed to be a natural part of the rye plant, from which bread was made. Tales of Devil worship, often laced with elements of Jewish ritual practices, were used to terrify a mainly illiterate population into paying more money to the church. Add to that a little imaginative fantasy—doubtlessly helped along by the ergot—and it was only one small step to the Witches Sabbath, the dreadful orgy where naked women cavorted around a hideous phantasmal Devil.

Hammer of the Witches

Witchcraft reached its apotheosis with the infamous book written by the German Catholic Heinrich Kramer, published in 1486. The title of the book was Malleus Maleficarum, “The Hammer of the Witches”. Previous to the publication of that book, the Church was sceptical that such a thing as Witchcraft even existed. The real purpose of the book was to introduce punitive legislation to deal with the many heretics that had arisen by the 13th century, daring to question religious dogma.

It was perhaps due to the egocentricities of the writer that the chosen victims for trial and prosecution were, according to Kramer, more often women than men. The bias is understandable if we consider that women had been demonised since at least the writing of the second biblical book of Genesis around 500–600 BCE. Curiously, magick was certainly practiced extensively before the 15th century. There was a great deal of interest in Qabalah, the sorcery of evocation, and theurgic practices, some of which were not too different from what we do today and would term as Hermetic Magick. The people that practiced magick were largely educated men and so of the nobility. The source books were written in classical or ecclesiastical Latin, and Greek.

Thanks to Malleus Maleficarum, the notion of magick and sorcery was effectively transferred from educated men with libraries at their disposal to uneducated women. Ironically, nearly all those that were prosecuted for being witches would have been regular churchgoers; in those days, everyone was. People only began to fear magick and sorcery when it was put forward that anyone, even the poor and uneducated, could command infernal powers simply by devoting themselves to the love of the Devil. Witchcraft and the evil power of the Devil did not, then, originate with Judaeo Christian theology as such. It originated with what was essentially a work of fiction composed by a German clergyman in the 15th century.

There is no good or evil force in the universe, other than that which is imagined and projected by the human ego. The idea that humans might gain power from a supernatural being embodying cosmic evil is pure fantasy. There is no ‘dark force’ existing beyond our own imagining. Nonetheless, the idea that a person, whether educated or not, could obtain supernatural powers by simply getting on the side of Satan, was—and still is—a very powerful one. Malleus Maleficarum, which pretended to be the product of fact-finding research, was a bestseller in the 15th and 16th centuries. Various names were cited to lend the treatise authority. The result was that thousands of persons, the majority of them women, were tried, tortured horribly, and executed. The fear of the educated governing authorities happened to coincide with the fear and prejudice of an uneducated populace, and was blown out of all proportion by what seemed like credible evidence.

Vinum Sabbati

The fantasy of Witchcraft owes much then to fear, prejudice, and coercion of the masses by elite governors. In that way, little has changed since then. However, there is something called Vinum Sabbati, a Latin term for “Wine of the Sabbath”.

Down the ages, people have tried to describe Vinum Sabbati as an actual physical substance, for example a special concoction laced with hallucinogenic drugs. There certainly were such concoctions all over Europe in the times of the classical Greeks, and some were highly skilled at producing them. Such things were not outlawed by the state until the 20th century. It is the Astral Plane—visible to some, invisible to most—where the world of matter coalesces with the world of spirit. That is the true medium for the Vinum Sabbati. What then is the special ingredient for what some have perceived as an elixir of the Gods, and others as a cocktail for devil worshippers? From the Thelemic standpoint, the mysterious substance is the Khabs in the Khu. As declared in the Egyptian Book of the Law, Liber AL vel Legis, I: 8:
The Khabs is in the Khu, not the Khu in the Khabs.
The seed-star of consciousness is in the astrosome or body of light. The world appears to us through the power of projection. In the Hermetic tradition, we have the immortal stone of the wise, the miraculous medicine of the philosophers. The substance referred to certainly cannot be weighed and measured by the means of material scientism. Truth is in the eye of the beholder. The lurid symbolism of medieval Witchcraft, fermented in the cauldron of fear-filled imagining, may be interpreted in the light of Gnosis. Magick, sorcery and yoga, understood in the purest sense, is not to gain personal power in the world, or to enhance personal creativity.
This is perhaps best explained in the terminology of Kenneth Grant, in his Nightside thesis.(1) Real magick is not about anything personal at all, but serves the purpose of opening gateways in the subtle fabric of the mind-stuff of the universe that lead to other dimensions. Across the threshold, beyond the limits of ordinary human consciousness, lurk intelligences that dwarf the mind of man. The purpose of the Great Work is then to assist such intelligences to resume command of the terrestrial sphere. The devils and demons that populate the grimoires of the occult, as well as many works of fiction, are masks veiling an abominable truth: the human ego essentially has no existence from its own side. The Nightside or Tree of Knowledge is the numinous source of all. The conceptual mind is merely a veil woven from the emptiness of non-being, which is the true state of affairs, or Reality.


Notes

(1) In particular, see Carfax Monographs, Kenneth Grant.

© Oliver St. John 2015, 2018 

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