Minor spoilers for the first season of Salem below. At the time of this writing, it’s all up on Netflix, so please go there if you haven’t finished season one yet.
At the end of “The Vow” (S1E1), John Alden and Isaac Walton stumble onto a clearing dotted with malformed skulls on pikes.
John Alden: What the hell is this?
Isaac Walton: Gifts to the Devil himself. The unborn. [“The Vow”, S1E1]
They hide when a man in a pig mask (presumably Magistrate Hale) enters with a torch. The apparition tosses the torch onto the ground and a circle is set alight. Figures rise from a pool of black tar and begin to dance and fornicate. Some other witches, also in animal masks (a horse, a bear, a wolf, the aforementioned pig, and a deer), stand above the rest. The deer witch (presumably Mary Sibley) recites the following incantation whilst killing a white dove:
Deer Witch (Mary Sibley?): Cruor innocentia. Maleficarum pestilentia. Walpurgisnacht consummatum est. Now it begins. [ibid]
A rough translation runs thus: “Innocent blood. A pestilence of witchcraft[*]. Walpurgisnacht is finished/consummated. Now it begins.”
John and Isaac are witnessing a witches’ Sabbat(h): a Satanic ceremony wherein witches gather to venerate the Devil. The term is used twice in subsequent episodes:
Cotton Mather: You witnessed a real witches’ Sabbath, something no witch hunter has ever seen with his own eyes. All of our images and accounts come from confessions, some…rather more believable than others. [“The Stone Child”, S1E2. My underlines.].
Magistrate Hale: And that I disagree, that I strenuously and most vehemently oppose means nothing to you? We were seen at our Sabbat. And you throw caution to the wind. [“In Vain”, S1E3. My underlines.]
It is the purpose of this article to compare the Sabbat on Salem and the Sabbat in folklore. We shall start by examining the preparation.
In “The Vow”, Tituba first smears Mary’s body with a lubricant of some kind and proceeds to arouse her with the end of a broomstick whilst reciting the following incantation:
Tituba: One, two, three, and four. Raise the Devil to our door. Call the Pig, the Wolf, the Ram. Come to the circle, all who can. Make him walk on floor to roof. Drink to him with horn and hoof. One, two, three, and four. The devil is here. Now sleep no more. [“The Vow”, S1E1.]
When Mary reaches climax, she freezes and her spectre is sent to the aforementioned Circle in the woods.
Witches smearing themselves with unguents that they might go to the Sabbat is not unusual in folklore. In the Reverend Montague Summers’ A Popular History of Witchcraft, these words are written about the substance:
Dr. Johann Weyer, in his treatise on witches, has transcribed certain formulae for the magical ointment. He tells how the witches boil the fat of babes in a brazen cauldron. They scum this thickly, and make it into a kind of grease, kneading it into a commixture [sic] of hemlock, aconite, poplar leaves, and soot. Another recipe is: cowbane, sweet flag, cinquefoil, bat’s blood, belladonna, and oil.
[…] Collette Dumont, a Guernsey witch, who was executed in 1617, confessed that the Devil had given her a certain black ointment, with which, having stripped, she rubbed her body all over, and then again dressed and went out of doors when she was immediately borne through the air with incredible velocity to the appointed place for the Sabbat.
[…] In the Malleus Maleficarum it is explained at length how witches having anointed either themselves or some chair or broomstick with the devil’s ointment can be and are transported up through the air about their master’s business. [Chapter III: Of the Witch Covens and their Grand Masters; of the Witches’ Journey to the Sabbat; and of the Sabbat Orgy. Pages 139 to 140, Dover 2005 republication.]
Writes Francesco Maria Guazzo in his well-known Compendium Maleficarum (translation by E.A. Ashwin):
[…]it must be known that before they go to the Sabbat they anoint themselves upon some part of their bodies with an unguent made from various foul and filthy ingredients, but chiefly from murdered children […] [Chapter XII: Whether Witches are Really Transported from Place to Place to their Nightly Assemblies. Page 33, Dover 1998 republication.]
A final few words on the subject, these from Emile-Grillot de Givry in Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy (translation by J. Courtenay Locke):
Among the ingredients of this [unguent] were the blood of the lapwing and the bat, the raspings of bells, and soot. [V: the Preparation for the Sabbath. Page 55, Dover 2009 reissue.]
Whether Mary Sibley’s unguent contains the fat unbaptized babies, one may only speculate. There is a possibility that hallucinogens and psychoactive drugs are also in the mixture, as this is written about in a few witchcraft texts. The broom used to stimulate her is obviously a nod to the popular image of a witch riding a broomstick, and while there is a deeper meaning behind its use as an artificial phallus, we’ll discuss that in another article – just as we hold off the discussion of spectres and hags for the time being. Tituba’s rhyming incantation is nothing unique, such phrases were often reputed to be used by witches.
Descriptions of the Sabbat itself vary from source to source. It can be held in a house and be small and intimate, or it may be a gathering of over a thousand on a mountain. There’s a certain formula in the European accounts: the witches fly, walk, or go on horseback to the appointed place**; they tread on the cross and desecrate the Sacred Host; perform the grotesque osculum infame or “shameful kiss” wherein the witches kiss the Devil’s anus; they offer gifts to Satan; they dance in a “witches’ circle” facing outwards and moving to the left; they have a great banquet, usually consisting of human flesh (but never with any salt or bread); they cast various powerful spells; they engage in orgiastic behavior with Lilin demons*** and other witches; and they leave when the cock crows for dawn. Satan and other demons were usually presiding, whilst the coven leaders – witches referred to as “Grand Devils” – oversaw the celebration. The most important Sabbats were allegedly held on Candlemas (February 2nd), Walpurgisnacht (April 30th), Lammas Day (August 1st to September 1st), and Halloween (October 30th)****, with particular emphasis on Walpurgisnacht (“witches’ night” in German, mentioned in Mary’s incantation at the Sabbat).
The Sabbats mentioned during the historical Salem witch trials were quite different than these grand European ones. Writes Peter Muise on his excellent New England Folklore blog:
It was not called a Sabbath [at Salem], but instead was called a witch meeting. The Puritans called their Sunday religious service “Sunday meeting”, so it makes sense the witches would use a similar term for their gathering. Unlike the European version, the Salem witch meeting didn’t involve sexual orgies or ointments made from babies’ fat. Instead, the witches gathered to listen to the Devil or his earthly delegate (supposedly the Reverend George Burroughs) urge them to work harder and overthrow God’s kingdom in New England. The witches and their master wanted to found a social order where people could “live bravely, in equality, with no future resurrection or judgment, no punishment or even shame for sin.” Just as the witches’ meeting was a reversal of Sunday meetings, their social order was going to be a reversal of the Puritan one.
To drive home this point, the witches held their meetings not in a remote forest or hilltop, but in a meadow next to the home of Salem’s minister Samuel Parris. They also celebrated an unholy sacrament by eating “red bread” and red wine. Many witches allegedly signed their pacts with the Devil using a red liquid, and it is implied that human blood was an ingredient in the bread, wine and ink.
It’s important to note that the witches supposedly attended this meeting with their spectral bodies, not their physical ones. Even those witches who flew there astride poles did so in spirit form. No one could see the witch meetings except those who attended and those who were afflicted by their magic. It happened invisibly right in the middle of Salem Village. At least, that’s what was said during the trials. [The Witches’ Sabbath in New England: Part 1. Link here.]
The witches’ Sabbat celebrated in “The Vow” is slightly different from both of these, but it is mostly a much stripped-down version of the European Sabbat, probably because it presents a more compelling image.
The Grand Devil (or, as Salem later refers to the head Devil, the Samhain) and several other powerful witches preside over the Sabbat in Europe, and the Reverend George Burroughs presides over the alleged “witch meetings” at Salem: this is reflected in the animal headed witches. There is orgiastic behavior in Europe but not in New England: witches clearly engage in sexual activity in “The Vow”.
There is a witches’ circle in Europe, but not in Salem: Tituba refers to the Sabbat as a “circle” in “The Vow”, while Mary and Magistrate Hale refer to it as the same in later episodes. Witches offer gifts to the Devil in Europe but not in Salem: the fetus skulls Isaac and John see are said to be gifts for Satan. In Europe the Sabbat is held in the woods, while Salem’s are held practically in public: Salem‘s Sabbat is held in the forest.
Some similarities between historical Salem’s folkloric Sabbat and television Salem‘s real Sabbat: witches attend in spectre but not in life and there are no demons present. The phrase “where people could ‘live bravely, in equality, with no future resurrection or judgment, no punishment or even shame for sin'” sounds a lot like some lines in Salem.
There is another, somewhat impromptu Sabbat held in “Lies” (S1E5), where Mercy and her acolytes dance around a fire, but this seems to be a tribute to the opening of the 1996 film of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible:
The Crucible (1996)
That’s all for now. Please set aside some thoughts this Walpurgisnacht for the innocents murdered as witches, and then make some popcorn and put on a Satanic horror movie. I’m thinking Häxan.
*witchcraft: “witchcraft” being a rough approximation of “maleficarum”. The term maleficarum can mean both witches or (an act of) witchcraft. It is most notably used in the title of Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches). Interestingly enough, maleficarum is an exclusively feminine term, the unisex being “maleficorum”.
**the appointed place: usually referred to as “synagogue”. This term, as well as the term “Sabbat”, were results of medieval anti-Semitic beliefs. Legends about Jews from the time period are quite similar to those about witches.
***Lilin demons: these being demons that have sex with humans. A male is an incubus (plural incubi), a female is a succubus or succuba (plural succubi). They can take any form (sometimes that of someone the witch desires), and can possess corpses and homunculi if necessary. These are heavily related to the “night hags” of sleep paralysis. Lilin demons are only mentioned once in Salem (by Beelzebub/the Sentinel, in S3E3: “The Reckoning”), but “night hags” are integral to the first season. That’s another article, though.
****Candlemas (February 2nd), Walpurgisnacht (April 30th), Lammas Day (August 1st to September 1st), and Halloween (October 30th): these are celebrated in some Neopagan religions as Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain respectively.