Karen L. Uminski
and Magic Professor
Dancing with the Devil:
Dance and Witchcraft in History
The fantasy of the witches’ sabbat evolved into a very
elaborate tale with specific elements including music and
dancing in the upsidedown worship
of Satan. If any
dancing at all described at the sabbat, it is of two types, folk dancing and ritual dance. Eventually, the folk dancing would
become less prominent and the
Satan ic ritual dance would take on some very specific elements, some of which originate in the folk festivals of
misrule. There is not a clear unbroken line from the description of folk dancing to
Ssatanic ritual dance, but the
gradual replacement of
folk/pagan/fertility dances with Satanic
ritual dance can be traced. According to Lyndal Roper in Witch Craze, the two
types of dancing appear in descriptions of the sabbat are the popular vision
versus the elite vision. This
is not an uncommon theme found in the literature of witchcraft. She writes, “Demonologists
describe complex satanic rituals, confessing witches describe ‘church ales’
village festivals which were organized to raise money for a destitute
neighbor. This seems to square with the idea that the dances and dancing described
had more to do with the festivals of misrule held by the peasants than the
carefully reversed Catholic Mass. ” (p. 109).
I have not been able to find solid evidence for her assertion that the confessed witches were describing folk dances and practices, as many of her references are in German. However, I can trace the dancing at the sabbat beginning with the Episcopi (ca. 906) through the poet of the sabbat, Pierre de Lancre’s The Inconstancy of Witches (1612).
In its famous passage on the witches’ leader and Diana, the Cannon Episcopi mentions the witches’ meeting, but it is dismissed as pure fantasy. Their meeting is described only as a gathering, no formal agenda is mentioned. The meeting is described here to point up the wrongness and heretical nature of the belief that witches actually fly to their meetings. Since the issue was one of reality versus fantasy, the actual mechanics of devil worship are never described. (Kors and Peters, pp. 61-63)
In 1435, Johannes Nider provides one of the earliest written description of the sabbat, but whether this description is a transcription of a confession or includes his own embellishments of this confession is open to debate (Levack 2004, p.52) This early description omits the carnival atmosphere:
First, on the Lord’s day, before the holy water is
consecrated, the future disciple must go with his masters into the church, and
there in their presence must renounce Christ and his faith,
baptism, and the Church universal. Then he must do homage to the…little
drinks from the aforesaid flask, and this done, he forthwith feels himself to
conceive and hold within himself an image of our art and the chief rites of
” (Levak, p.54)
music and dancing, this sounds like a Catholic Mass, but not the yet the
inverted Catholic Mass of the later demonologists. We do not yet see the
Satanic , dancing, music, and feasting in the topsy-turvy world
Martin Le France wrote The Defender of Ladies in 1440. In this description of the sabbat, the elements of a village celebration, the dancing and drinking, are happening independently of the Satanic lessons.
There, they all do different things—some were instructed in their arts and perverse sorceries from the devil himself, by which they later committed many evils. Still others pleased themselves in dancing, others still in banqueting and booze. They found there all these things; you wouldn’t believe their abundance. (Kors and Peters, p. 168)
The Malleus Malifacarum (1486), an early handbook for witch inquisitors, does not mention the sabbat. This fact would prove difficult for future demonologists to overcome and contributed to the continued debate about the reality of the sabbat. While there is no mention of the sabbat in the Malleus, there is a mention of dancing. It is, however, the dancing satyr, who is identified with the devil.
He says: Owls shall dwell there, and Satyrs shall dance there. By Satyrs here devils are meant; as the gloss says, Satyrs are wild shaggy creatures of the woods, which are a certain kind of devils called Incubi. (Malleus, p. 24)
The motif of the dancing demons was a wellknown image to the generation
of survivors and had taken the form, most prominently, of the danse macabre and early woodcuts of the dancing demons. [Figs. 1
The Compendium Malifacarum (1608), written by Francesco Maria Guazzo, collects many witch trial records up until that point and contains descriptions of both village celebrations and Satanic ritual dance.
“When Johann of Hembach was scarcely more than a child, his witch mother took him to a nocturnal assembly of demons…and, having leisure to watch their lewd reels and rigadoons, found it very (for everything at their Sabbat was uncouth and ridiculous)” (Guazzo, p.43)
These two folk dances, the reel and the rigadoon, are lively couples dances; the rigadoon is an upbeat, bouncing couple’s dance, similar to the modern Two Step.
One night I rose about three hours before dawn and came …to this balliff yours…and I had got a far as that plain…when I saw afar off a big fire in different places, like great lights, among which I saw men and women wrestling or dancing together…but more were dancing and playing different sorts of games, while most of them were acting bawdy in a way this it is not right to speak of. (Guazzo, p 41.)
This description of couples “wrestling” and “playing different sorts of games” describes some sort of village celebration. The village dances, after all, were often meant as coupling activities, which was one of the things that raised the ire of the clergy.
In fact, when the dancing was done seems to be as important as how and why. Again, Lyndal Roper
Dancing was also associated with pre-Christian ritual and with fertility cults. Dances were often held on St John’s Day, 24 June, mid-summer. Fires were burnt and couple would jump over the fire, so as to ensure the fertility of the crops. The superficially Christian celebrations barely disguise the heathen festival of the sun which it replaces. (p. 112)
The Compendium confirms such festivals, with St. John the Baptist’s day being notable; it is on the eve of that day that a young girl of Aquitane in 1594 says she was
corrupted by an Italian. “In the middle of the night before the day of S. John
Baptist the Italian had lead her to a certain field, where he had traced a
circle on the ground.” (Guazzo, p. 47) And finally Guazzo quotes Nicolas Remy “At Luthz at the foot of the Vosges Mountains in May 1589, the villagers were celebrating a pagan festival.”(p.44
) Interestingly, here
the witness to the witches’ sabbat, Claude Cothèze, is going to his home village from another village after having
been at such a pagan festival. In the popular mind, the pagan celebrations, village
dances, and church ales were not always
conflated with the rituals of the
sabbat. However, it was not a very long trip from the pagan/village festivals and the inversion of the rituals “Witches weren’t the only ones inverting ritual and
giving in to disorder and misrule. This is also a feature of village and folk
festivals.” (Clark, p101)
Dancing was not necessarily
approved of by the ecclesiastical authorities. Sermons condemning dancing of any sort date back to 1203.
(Roper, p 112) Lynn Matluck
Brooks notes that there was nearly universal condemnation of dance in the
iddle ges. The evil himself was said to have invented dance and “those who dance are seen to ‘have the devil’s
bell’ bound to their necks.” (Brooks, p 9) By the Renaissance a whole body of anti-dance
sermons and belief had arisen due in large
part to the assumed connection between sexual promiscuity and dancing. The sin it
was (and is) associated with was Lust. The argument is summed up well by Mary Pennino-Baskerville
Dancing in itself is not bad; the evil in it arises from the motives of the dancers and the manner in which they dance. Thus, while biblical dancers like David and Miriam are to be commended as virtuous, the ‘mixed’ dancers of the moralists' own day with their intrinsically impure motives and immoderate movements are to be reviled as wicked. (p. 491)
Since dancing itself was not inherently bad, it is worth taking a look at the sacred dance tradition to find out about the motives and manners of sacred dancing.
In the ancient world, particularly among the Greeks, dance was a vital part of worship. In fact, dance and worship probably date back to Paleolithic times, but this is nearly impossible to prove. (Hanna, pp. 52-53) In Egypt, most of the goddess and gods danced, so their worshipers danced to emulated them. This act of imitation honors the deity and brings the worshiper some of the attributes of the deity.
Ecstatic dance was practiced by the Greeks in order to be possessed by and to come into close contact with their deity. The festivals to Dionyss at Thrace inducing a mystic experience “through the stimulation of the senses. The worshipers became possessed the divinity and entered into direct communication with the spirit. (Chadwick, p.4) Many cultures practiced (and continue to practice) ecstatic dance to be possessed by and communicate with their spirits including Egypt, China, India, Rome, and Greece.
Another purpose of sacred dance is to work sympathetic magic. Leaping high may make the crops grow high, or make the gods make the crops grow high. Warrior dances are another form of sympathetic dance magic. shaking, stomping, and chanting can give them the strength and fearsomeness of their dance. The dance may even take the form of a celebration of the victory of a battle not yet fought. () Belly dancing, known in the West primarily as a sex dance, was, as late as fifty years ago in the Middle East, used as a sympathetic dance to help women in labor:
According to Farab Firdoz, a dancer from Bahrein, Saudi Arabia, this use of the dance was still performed in the less Westernized parts of her country in the '50s, around the bedside of a woman in childbirth, by a circle of her fellow tribeswomen. In this ritualistic form men are not allowed to watch it. The purpose here is to hypnotize the woman in labor into an imitation of the movements with her own body. This greatly facilitates the birth and reduces pain from womb contractions. It helps the mother to move with instead of against the contractions. (Morocco, 1965)
One of the most important of all the sacred dances, however, is the circle dance. This dance motif is too old to be dated accurately. It likely began as a dance to consecrate sacrifices being offered to the gods. (Oesterley, p 28) The circle dance takes place around something sacred an altar, an idol, a tree, a spring, a spirit. The procession dance, which is found in nearly all religious ceremonies, is a form of the circle dance. In some cases, such as when the Torah is carried around during Jewish worship service, it amounts to the same dance. Another example of a sacred processional/circle dance is the procession around a church with the priest leading, swinging a censer. In both cases, the dance is accompanied by singing and music.
The Hebrew Bible (which became the Old Testament to Christians) generally portrays dance positively. In fact it uses eleven roots to describe dance. David and all the house of Israel dancing before Jahwe with all their might’ (2 Sam. vi. 5)” (Oesterly, p 54) passage describes the joyous dancing done by David and the Israelites in procession before the Ark. Jephtha's daughter celebrate her father's victory over the Ammonites with singing and dancing (Judges 11:34); Miriam dances after the parting of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20); and the Israelite women dance in honor of Judith's victory over Holofernes and the saving of Bethulia (Judith 15:12), to name just a few. Indeed the early mystics used dance as way to achieve union with God (see possession above) However, this practice was soon abandoned, as Oesterly notes because “they rose to the higher belief that this means (ecstatic dance) was not necessary for achieving the purpose; but having served its purpose it was droppedThey shed the husk but retained the kernel.” (. 32) In other words, they found other ways of achieving an ecstatic experience, aside from dancing.
Not all of the sacred dances in the Old Testament were considered positive. The following passage, “And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.” (Exd 32:19) Moses’ disapproval of the dancing and singing around the gold calf would play heavily in the Christian Church’s general disapproval of dance, an perhaps provide a template for the circle dance of the sabbat.
When I began this research project, I
believed I would find more prominently the
story and person of Salome as an example of the “bad” kind of dancing for
Christians. In fact, she does not come to the forefront until
the nineteenth century, even though her
mother, Herodias, is
said to one of
the leaders of the witches’sabbat. The
Bible, however, may not be the only origin of Herodias. (Ginzberg, p104) St. John the Baptist’s ay (June
24 or the pagan celebration of mid-summer) is often a day of dancing which clerics. Yet this theme seems to be an undercurrent, never explicitly
brought to the forefront. I think the real reason for this is the kind of
dancing Salome does. The
dance of the seven veils was a striptease, after all. Dance at
the sabbat (as we shall see) was not a personal
activity at the sabbat, a primitive “lap
dance” We shall see that while it was lewd, it was lewd
not on a personal level, as it did not lead to witches pairing off with a “chosen” person or demon I was an impersonal
dance generally proceed in a pretty impersonal orgy.
I will now retun to the Compendium
look for evidence of
S atan ic ritual dance at the sabbat. For that, I will
recall the accusation of Claude Cothèze. As he came home from a “pagan festival” Cothze happens
upon a sabbat has elements of the ritual dancing and feasting,
Then he saw in a sheltered place six witch women dancing round a table sumptuously decked with gold and silver, tossing their heads about like people afflicted with madness. (p.44)
The head tossing and mad dancing sounds clearly like ecstatic dancing as the witches dance in a circle around the devil’s feast. It also brings to mind, and no doubt is related to a memory of, the dance epidemics of the preceding generations. Like the dancing demons, both the learned and the peasant classes would have known about St. John’s dance, St. Vitus’ dance, and even the Tarantella.
One year after Cothèze made his accusation, in 1590, Nicole Langbernard was also returning home by walking through the woods when she saw
in a neighbouring field a company of men and women dancing in a ring, not in the manner of men, but in the opposite direction and with their backs turned. She looked more closely and saw further some who were deformed with hooves like goats or oxen among the dancers. (Guazzo, p 45)
Here we see the dancing goat, the satyr of the Malleus Malicarum, as well as the sacred circle dance with a twist he dancers’ backs are turned to the center of the circle and they are rotating to the left. Indeed, Guazzo points out, “Then follow dances, which are performed in a circle but always round to the left; and just as our dances are for pleasure, so their dances and measures bring them labour and fatigue and the greatest toil.” The dances are so taxing physically, it is said the witches need two days in bed to recover. (p. 37) This theme of the dances being not pleasurable will be revisited later.
Guazzo records that in 1591, many accused witches held the same story of the dance, “their dancing back to back with the cloven-hoofed creatures maintaining that it was all true.” (p.45) So clearly by now, the ecclesiastical vision of Satanic dance rituals taking place at the sabbat had been absorbed by the accused witches, and it is interesting to note that one of the women giving evidence in the above confession was the wife of the Chief Magistrate, so this transfer may be particularly acute among the elite classes.
likely that the pagan/village festivals did become conflated with the witches’
sabbat and the inversion and misrule that was characteristic
of these celebrations became part of the sabbat fantasy. Clark states, “It would be remarkable if no links could be established
between these forms of
behaviour and descriptions of demonic practices, flourishing and declining
as they did in the same period. Cerainly there were borrowings from accounts
of sabbat rituals where the world upside-down was an important theme of festival
occasions at court." (Clark,
It is in this context of general anti-dance theology and the popularity of festivals of inverted misrule “necessarily presupposes the rule that it parodies. Thus the fool could only flourish, in fact or in literary imaginations, in societies where the taboos surrounding divine kingship and sacramental worship were especially rigid” (Clark, p. 103) that the learned inquisitors, like Pierre de Lancre, writing in 1612 see Satanic dancing even in folk dances.
In 1609, Pierre de Lancre was a French inquisitor sent, as part of a
commission, to investigate witch allegations among the
Basques in the Labourd region, in the southwest corner of France
border Spain. Lancre
is an interesting demonologist,
demonstrate the witches’ dance in his court room. (Arcangeli,p. 146) His
book, On the Inconstancy of Witches, published in 1612, contains an entire chapter on the dances that take
place at the sabbat. Lancre is not an anti-dance generalist. In fact he recounts an interesting version of the origins of
dance as a noble war dance, “for the truth is the passion and
excitement of war first created dancing.” (p.215) These war dances were honest and decent with serious intent and significance. He does not
deny the religious uses of dance he mentions the Romans and other dancing priests even discusses the kings of India, who,
on the days when sacrifices were offered to the sun, would “leap like Persians,
dancing and turning with delight.” (p.217) But this positive dancing has given way, in his time,
to all kinds of “turpitude and
indecency.” (p.218) Dance has
lost its noble calling and now provides a means
for attracting women “No more do we see jumping used to produce terror in
the hearts of men, just a shameless little skip meant to attract women.” (p.218)
Lancre introduces a theme has only been hinted at previously: xenophobia. The folk dances he encounters are of Spanish origin:
these are acts of incest and other crimes and trespasses which, we can truthfully say, have come to us as a result of the pernicious proximity of this country to Spain, for the Basques and the people of Labourd are neighbors. In Spain they lack the noble dances that are more favored in France. Thus the most erratic dances and those that further stir up and torment the body, those that disfigure it the most, as well as all the most indecent dances, came there.” (p. 219)
enophobia shows up somewhat in the Compendium, when the girl from Aquitaine claims to have been corrupted by an Italian. This is a much less common theme in witchcraft accusations of the past. Witchcraft accusations were usually leveled at marginal members of the community. However, outsider were often greeted with suspicion, especially the traveling musicans and performers who played at the village festivals.
One of the biggest offenders for Lancre is the saraband, which he calls “the most passionate dance that ever was.” He goes on to describe it like this:
This is the most lewd and shameless dance that one
could ever see…it is the most violent
animated, and impassioned
dance whose gestures, while silent, seem to ask with silence more of what the
lustful man desires of the woman than any other gesture does. For the man and
the woman come together over and over again, moving their bodies to a rhythmic
beat, passing very close to each other. (p.219)
While it is a couple’s dance, the saraband sounds very much like an ecstatic dance. This dance was thought, in Lancre’s time to be from the Orient (of course Lancre assumed Spanish origin and stopped there.) In 1952, it was discovered that the saraband, or sarabande, or zarabande was actually of Mexican origin, transported to Spain, Mexico’s colonizer. (Stevenson, p. 30) So Lancre was reacting, or overreacting, to a Native North American trance dance.
Lancre reports that the witches dance three kinds of steps at the sabbat, and they are all for circle dances. First is a step done in the “Gipsy style, for Gipsy runners are also half demons.” (p. 224) The second step is a leaping step. This recalls the sympathetic magic of the ancient Greeks leaping high so the crops will grow high. (p.225) The third and final step he describes is the Satanic circle dance
“And the third is done with the back turned, but while the dancers all hold on to each other, without ever letting go of their hands. They come so close together that they touch each other and have their backs touch each other, every man touching a woman…But we were also told that the strange Devil would not always make them line up with backs turned toward the dance circle, as people generally say. Thus one would have their backs turned and the other would face the other way, and so forth and so on until the end of the dance. Some tried to explain this and said that the Devil had them stand like this with their faces turned outside the circle; sometimes one was turned and the other was not, so that those who were dancing did not look at each other’s faces and were not free to recognize each other easily” (p.225)
Lancre notes that this is faulty reasoning on the Devil’s part, as the witches can see each other no matter which way they turn during the dance. But, the Devil, as the master if inversion, “only likes disorder, always wants things to be facing the wrong way.” (p.225)
Lancre specifically address ecstatic dance in his treatise nder the heading titled “How the witches’ dance is an ecstatic dance performed by people excited out their senses.” (p.220) He goes on to describe how these wild dances often cause women to miscarry. wild dancing caused miscarriage and one of the clues that the sabbat fantasy is related in not small part to the mysteries of reproduction. For all his prejudices, Lancre is still some of a realist. He is not willing to attribute all “bad” dancing to the Spanish or Italians. In fact, he disagrees with Jean Bodin, another demonologist, who says that the Italian witches brought these ecstatic dances to France:
“For truth is that it is dance in Italy nowhere except in the Piedmon , and a little bit in some corners of Lombardy, and they borrowed it from our . And Nice, be ours, which is on the coast of Provnce, taught it to them…he called it the nissarda…a dance that is performed at balls and in the cities or at village festivals.” (p220)
I have not been able to find information about the nissarda, but from Lancre’s description, it sounds like an ecstatic dance on the order of the saraband. The French, however, notes Lancre, “began to abandon this dance…having recognizing that i was suitable on for crazed and wild people.” (p. 221) If they dn’t give up the dance, Lancre fears they may have been treated as sick people, “s they did in Germany.” (p. 221) Here, Lancre is referring to the dance epidemics periodically swept through European cities and towns beginning in about 1374 and continu up to the sixteenth century.
The first case of “choreomanics” taking over towns happened in 1374 in the town of Aix-la-Chapelle. Large groups of
“men and women who had come out of Germany, and who, united by one common delusion, exhibited to the public both in the streets and in the churches the following strange spectacle. They formed circles hand in hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion.” (Hecker, 1999)
The dance epidemics were a stange phnomenon of the period after the lack eath through the seventeenth century. There were three major outbreaks St. John’s dance in 1374 (again the motif of John the Baptist and mid-summer) St. Vitus’ dance Strasbrg in 1418 and outbreaks in Italy of Tarantism, which began about the middle of the fourteenth century and continued until the end. (Cutten, ) As we see from Heckers description, the dancing epidemic was a great template for the ecstatic dancing taking place at the sabbat, and these elements would directly affect one of the demonologist main points. These dancers were considered possessed as they were unable to stop or control their urge to dance. The only thing made them calm down was music. Without music, those who dance i such a way are considered crazy. Lancre quotes an Italian proverb: “Chei balsa sensa sono el ematto o el e mencho [Who dances without music is either crazy or stupid]” (p.217) This possession disrupted every city or town it took over. People left their fields, their homes, their families. Children would come to the city centers to find their parents and get caught up in the dancing themselves.
So far, the sabbat with its inversion, dancing, music, and feasting sounds like a really great evening circa 1600. I am not referring to sabbat descriptions like Johannes Nider, which sounds almost like a business meeting “Come here, kiss this, sign this, drink this, then you get your power.” Frankly, this vision is a bit boring and it could be difficult to explain why people in such large numbers believed to attend these events. The dancing and drinking are surely positive draws, but this creates a problem for the demonologists. How can they truly find pleasure provided by the Devil? The answer, for Lancre and his contemporaries, is a simple one; none of these activitiesthe dancing, the feasting, the sex with the Devil or demonswere pleasurable experiences. Sex with the evil is painful; the dancing is dangerous and exhausting.
The exhaustion and unwilling nature of the dancing (the Devil would physically punish who would not take part) not a pleasant experience. The witches reported that they needed two days in bd after a sabbat, suggests the dancing epidemics as the template for the uncontrollable, and even unwilling, dancing with the Devil. The Devil forces all those his party to dance, exhausted or not. Roper cites Johannes Praetorius as the person who lifted the description of the witches’ ecstatic dance from reports of St. Vitus dance. (p.113)
This line of argument put Lancre in a double bind. If the dancing and the sex not fun, why would anyone attend such an event? Lancre solves this problem this way:
They felt that all these abominations, all these horrors, these shadows were nothing but fleeting things disappeared so quickly that no pain, no displeasure could attach itself to heir bodies or remain in their minds. They retained only the novelty of their experiences, the quenching of their curiosity, the total and entire fulfillment of their desire for both love and revenge, which are the delights of the gods but not of mortal men. (p. 223)
In the end, the pain and exhaustion are forgotten and the witches are left with a lingering sense of satisfaction. It is a good retorical argument and has elements of another telling bit for folklore childbirth. I don’t now how far back it goes, but most women who have had children will tell you they don’t remember the pain, only the final satifaction of having completed an act that is the “delight of the gods (or goddess) not of mortal men.” It has been suggested, with its fertility dances, cannibalism of babies, and free copulation, the sabbat is a nightmare fantasy about reproduction.
The legacy of the myth of dancing with the Devil has come down to us today in many forms. n certain parts of our society, anti-dance beliefs expressed in popular culture in movies like “Footloose” and popular songs like 10,000 Maniacs “Jubilee” It also shows up in less popular forms of culture, including a 1960 sermon given by John L. Bray, a Baptist minister from , who wrote in his sermon words nearly identical to Pierre de Lancre. Bray: “The girl is not the same after she has danced.” (p.5) Lancre: “The girl never returns from the ball as pure as she went there.” (p.223)
Finally, the Christian Church’s ambivalence to dance and its outright hostility to the body have made the celebration of the body into a very important aspect of modern paganism and witchcraft. Wicca or neo-pagan ritual does not include dance. As Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “It was the sick and decaying who despised the body and earth and invented the heavenly realm and the redemptive drops of blood.” (p. 144) One way reclaim the sacredness of the body is reclaim the sacredness of dance.