The Flight of the Witch
By Brian Hoggard
Published Lughnasa 1998
This article concerns what is known about the flight of the witch to historians. The job of the historian is to make informed speculations about the past from the available evidence - similar to archaeologists. Luckily for us, Carlo Ginzburg has studied the records of inquisitors in Friulia in northern Italy, which detail the beliefs of people known as the benandanti who lived among them who appear to have "flown" on a regular basis. He believes that their beliefs were once widespread throughout Europe. In this article these beliefs will be explored and juxtaposed with evidence from France and elsewhere to try to get to the root of this belief in witch-flight.
At the beginning of his article in Ankarlo and Henningsen's Early Modern European Witchcraft - Centres and Peripheries, Carlo Ginzburg cites his principal disagreements with Norman Cohn's work Europe's Inner Demons.. Cohn asserts that "The picture of the sabbat which took shape in the first decades of the fifteenth century was a modern elaboration, by lay and ecclesiastical judges and demonologists, of an aggressive stereotype that had been applied in former times to Jews, the early Christians, and medieval heretical sects ....", and that there was no reality to this image.1 Ginzburg's astute response to this is that it postulates the continuity of a stereotype that underwent radical change from the mediaeval period to the Reformation owing to both scholarship and folklore sources - essentially, the myth of the sabbat (as Cohn describes it) could not have been solely created by the elite because folklore played a part too.2 These comments concern the sabbat as it appears in early modern documents (broadly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) and the flight of the witch is a very definite part of this alleged myth of the sabbat - and is the main concern of this article. Ginzburg's concern is that scholars seem to have neglected the many incidences of flight that occur in folklore and shamanic culture throughout the world, in preference for the idea that it was an elaboration by elite mentalities during the witch trials of the early modern period. This is a typical example of rationalising something which is not well understood. Cohn, for example, says: "Yet before the great witch-hunt could begin, the idea of witchcraft had to undergo a further transformation: intellectuals had to persuade themselves that witches could fly."3 Ginzburg is particularly concerned about how, or why, this witch-flight originated in folklore and believes that the benandanti provide clues to this. In this article, there will be an exploration of historical references to the flight to the sabbat in the light of Ginzburg's hypothesis to see if the available evidence corresponds with his ideas.
Before continuing with an examination of the references to the flight of the witch some important contextual information which supports Ginzburg's hypothesis should be discussed. Anton Wessels, in his work Europe: Was it Ever Really Christian?, mentions the work of the historian Jan Romein who says that medieval Christianity was "only a veneer" and that northern Europe didn't become truly Christianised until the sixteenth century. He adds that other historians have said that: "... before the Reformation and Counter Reformation 'early modern popular culture' in Europe had fundamentally remained 'pagan animist'".5 This information, if correct, does allow certain room for the survival of ancient pagan beliefs and practices - Ginzburg's benandanti being a possible case in point. It is also the case that the idea of witches flying to the sabbat is much older than the early modern period. Russell Hope Robbins in his Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Demonology quotes from the "celebrated Canon Episcopi of the tenth century" (as does Ginzburg) which defined as heretical superstition the claims of "wicked women .... who profess that in the dead of night they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, and fly over vast tracts of country."6 Ginzburg's article clearly demonstrates that the notion of the witch's sabbat took shape around the middle of the fourteenth century, much earlier than was previously thought and clearly not in agreement with Cohn's argument.7 This also places it safely as a pre-Reformation activity, when Europe may well have been "pagan animist" to varying degrees. It is clear, however, that the elite did contribute many of the features found in the witch's sabbat and that the flight of the witch was modified extensively to suit their paranoid delusions.
Robbins, in his entry on Transvection, traces a clear history of the references to the flight of the witch in demonological literature. An earlier quote than the Canon Episcopi, from Ecgbert's (Archbishop of York) eighth century Pontifical, may provide evidence of the widespread belief in flying through its mention of the powers of church bells: "Wherever this bell sounds, let the power of enemies retire, so also the shadow of phantoms, the assault of whirlwinds, the stroke of lightnings, the harm of thunders, the injuries of tempests and every spirit of the storm winds."8
Grillandus, writing in 1525 of the danger church bells posed to witches, came to the conclusion that the speed of a witch's flight "was generally sufficient to obviate this peril". But he did mention the confession of a woman named Lucrezia, who claimed that when returning from a sabbat in Benevento the ringing of the bells brought her down which is why she was captured and later burned. The thirteenth century Stephen of Bourbon wrote that the "good women" rode on sticks but that the "evil women" rode on wolves. The Errores Gazariorum of 1450 said that a stick with flying ointment was presented to all new witches after offering the kiss of shame. Ulrich Molitor, writing in 1489, was less convinced and believed that: "During sleep as well as during the waking state, devils can produce impressions so vivid that men believe they see or act in actuality." Lambert Daneau in his 1564 Les Sorciers ".... believed that the devil aided only those witches 'that are so weak that they cannot travel of themselves'". Bodin, in his Demonomanie of 1580 said witches rode a broom or a black ram.9
James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) in his 1597 Demonologie was generally sceptical about the flight of the witch but thought it was more likely that witches flew in spirit than in their actual physical bodies.10 Henry Boguet in An Examen of Witches of 1590 quotes many conventional accounts of the physical flight of the witch, then produces this interesting example. One George Gandillon, "One Holy Thursday night ... lay in his bed for three hours as if he were dead, and then suddenly came to himself; and he was since been burned in this place ..." Boguet also states that: "... examples taken from certain witches, who having remained in their houses as dead for the space of two or three hours have confessed that they were at that time at the sabbat in spirit, and have given an exact account of all that took place there." He says that many cases of this where the man or woman has been at the sabbat in spirit are recorded.11 These poor witches seem only to have been to the sabbat after being tortured, however. Their original act of lying "as if dead" is very interesting though, because of its similarity to modern accounts of the out-of-body experience. It seems to be this kind of flight that Ulrich Molitor was aware of in his 1489 text, although he, like James and Boguet, believed it to be demons who were responsible for it. It is this type of flight that Carlo Ginzburg is particularly interested in, not the physical forms of flight which are clearly implausible to the modern reader. The benandanti fought witches at night, in spirit, for the fertility of the fields. The nature of their testimony is similar in many respects to the accounts cited by Boguet. An individual stated:
"... and if by chance while we were out someone should come with a light and look for a long time at the body, the spirit would never re-enter it until there was no-one left around to see it that night; and if the body, seeming to be dead, should be buried, the spirit would have to wander around the world until the fixed hour for the body to die."12
The spirit flight of the benandanti seems to be the same spirit flight that James, Boguet, Molitor and Nider (who in 1435 also believed it to be a kind of dream or delusion13) all spoke of. The difference is that the benandanti had a coherent belief system in which to incorporate this activity through which they could explain it to their inquisitors in the 1570s. In other parts of Europe references to this "travelling while asleep" are often encountered but widely scattered and the sabbat aspect of it is imposed either by peers or the judiciary. In Friulia it took roughly one hundred years to impose the sabbat aspect onto the people who practised the flight, so strong was their folklore and knowledge of it.14 It could be, as Ginzburg suggests, the case that this phenomenon or belief was once widespread and that in most of Europe it vastly diminished, but that in Friulia it remained relatively intact until at least the early modern period. It is interesting to note that spirit flight is common today. Anywhere between eight and thirty-four percent of respondents in surveys claim to have had an out-of-body experience at some point in their lives.15 I have written four articles, including this one, which deal with the subject of spirit flight in one way or another and am continually amazed at how consistent the descriptions are, in any period, anywhere in the world.16
It is important here to comment on the quality of the sources. The majority of the testimony on which demonologists based their description of the flight to the sabbat was given under duress. Usually through the repeated use of torture followed by interrogation with leading questions. It is through this lens that the accounts of flight to the sabbat must be viewed. The physical improbability of actual flight and the now well researched information showing that the majority of witches' ointments ended up as a harmless paste17 seem to indicate that the flight to the sabbat did not occur (however, Cohn cites and interesting case where a witch's ointment seems to have placed a woman into some kind of trance18). It also seems likely that cases like the 1593 Aerial Adventures of Richard Burt who claimed to have been carried several miles by a witch19 and that cited by Boguet where farmers were transported as much as two hundred leagues20 are false (and may have been convenient ways of explaining some intended long absence without having to tell the truth). However, the sources quoted by Boguet concerning the apparent flight during sleep appear to have come forward quite voluntarily and it is only afterwards that any relation to witchcraft and the sabbat occur. Here, it seems that someone found them "as if dead" and it was after this that they confessed to witchcraft and attending the sabbat, quite probably through some form of torture. It appears as though the phenomenon of spirit flight became embroiled in the myth of the sabbat.
In conclusion it seems that the evidence presented here favours Ginzburg's explanation of the flight to the sabbat over the type of explanation that attempts to encompass every aspect of an historical topic in one over-arching theory like Cohn's. There is no doubt that Cohn's argument is valid, and that the creation of the stereotypes he describes occurred, however he seems to have neglected the kind of evidence that Boguet puts forward concerning "sleeping like the dead". When these accounts are combined with the testimony of the benandanti and indeed, compared with modern accounts of spirit flight21 it appears that there is a genuine phenomenon occurring. The testimony that relates to physical flight is a completely separate phenomenon that appears to be an elaboration of folk belief in night spirit flight, of the type described by Ginzburg - suggesting that spirit flight was indeed once common-place throughout Europe. It seems that the origins of this flight lay in early European pagan practices, possibly shamanic.
1.Ginzburg, Carlo, 'Decipering the Sabbath' in Ankarloo and Henningsen (eds), Early Modern European Witchcraft - Centres and Peripheries 1993. Clarendon Press, Oxford, p121.