Karen L. Uminski

Witchcraft and Magic

Professor Steve Mitchell

May 15,© 2007


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 upside-down worship of SatanIf any dancing at all is described at the sabbat, it is of two types, folk dancing and satanic ritual dance.  Eventually, the folk dancing would become less prominent and the Satanic satanic 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 that appear in descriptions of the sabbat are the popular vision versus the elite visionThis 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 the goddess Diana, the Cannon Episcopi mentions the witches’ meeting, but it is dismissed as pure fantasy.  Their meeting is described only as a gathering, and 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 descriptions 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 master… Afterwards he 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 this sect. (Levack, p.54)


Without 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 ritual, sSatanic, dancing, music, and feasting in the topsy-turvy world of the Devil.

Martin Le France wrote The Defender of Ladies in 1440In 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)

Text Box: Figure 1 The demon Belial dancing before King Solomon. From Jacobus de Teramo's Das Buch Belial, Augsburg, 1473  From Lehner, Ernst and Johanna, Devils, Demons, and Witchcraft. New York: Dover, 1971The 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 well-known image to the generation of Black Plague Text Box: Figure 2 Dancing demons.  From Olaus Magnus' Historia de genitbus septentrionalibus, Rome 1555.  A late depiction of the dancing demon theme.   From Lehner, Ernst and Johanna, Devils, Demons, and Witchcraft. New York: Dover, 1971survivors and had taken the form, most prominently, of the danse macabre and early woodcuts of the dancing demons. [see Figs. 1, 2 and 3 and 2]


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 unusual (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 as 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 togetherbut 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 Text Box: Figure 3: From la dance Macabre des Femmes, printed by Guyot Marchan, Paris, 1486  From Lehner, Ernst and Johanna, Devils, Demons, and Witchcraft. New York: Dover, 1971some sort of village celebration.  The village dances, after all, were often meant as coupling activities, which was one of the things about them 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)  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 satanic rituals of the sabbat.  However, it was not a very long trip from the pagan/village festivals and the inversion of the satanic 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, p. 101)

Text Box: Figure 4: A village Folk dance with demons depicted in the Compendium Maleficaraum.  From  Compendium Maleficarum, New York: Dover, 1988Dancing 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 Middlemiddle Agesages.  The Devil 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 dancingThe 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 object of the festivals to Dionysus at Thrace was inducing a mystic experience “through the stimulation of the senses.  The worshipers became possessed by 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 those in 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.  Warriors’ 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. (Hanna, p. 187)  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: [KU: indent following text]

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, or 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 a synagogue during some Jewish worship services, 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)  is how one passage describes the joyous dancing done by David and the Israelites in procession before the Ark.  Jephtha's daughter celebrates 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 Jewish 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 dropped  They shed the husk but retained the kernel.” (p. 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.” (Exod. 32:19)  Moses’ disapproval of the dancing and singing around the golden calf would play heavily in the Christian Church’s general disapproval of dance, and perhaps provide a template for the circle dance of the sabbat.

When I began this research projectFrom our perspective post-Wilde’s Salome, we might expect to I believed I would find mofind 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 have been one of the leaders of the witches’ sabbat.  The Bible, however, may not be the only origin of Herodias.  (Ginzberg, p. 104St. John the Baptist’s Day (June 24, or the pagan celebration of mid-summer) is often a day of dancing, of which clerics disapprove.  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, not 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.  It was an impersonal dance, generally proceedingpreceding a pretty impersonal orgy.

I will now return to the Compendium Maleficarum, to look for evidence of Satanicsatanic ritual dance at the sabbat.  For that, I will recall the accusation of Claude Cothèze.  As he came home from a “pagan festival,” Cothèze happens upon a sabbat that has elements of the satanic 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 usual 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 Text Box: Figure 5: A diabolical circle dance, note, the dancers are not back to back.  From  Compendium Maleficarum, New York: Dover, 1988dance with a twist: The 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 satanic 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. 

It is 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 inverted behaviourbehavior and descriptions of demonic prac­tices, flourishing and declining as they did in the same period. Certainly there were borrowings from accounts of sabbat rituals where the world upside-down was an important theme of festival occasions at court." (Clark, p. 101)

It is in this context of general anti-dance theology and the popularity of festivals of inverted misrule that “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 Text Box: Figure 6:  The Sabbat as described by Pierre de Lancre.  Copper etching by Jan Ziarnko,  Published in On the Inconstancy of Witches, Paris, 1613.  .  From Roper, Lyndal. Witch Craze. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 20041612, 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,  bordering, bordering SpainLancre is an interesting demonologist, having had witnesses 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 and 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 only 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 that 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 from there.” (p. 219) [emphasis mine.]


Xenophobia 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, outsiders were often greeted with suspicion, especially the traveling musicans and performers who played at the village festivals. (Roper, 111)

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,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 a 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.

Text Box: Figure 7: Detail of Description et figure du Sabbat des Sorciès showing the back to back circle dance.  From Roper, Lyndal.  Witch Craze. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004Lancre reports that the witches dance only 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 addresses ecstatic dance in his treatise under 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.  That wild dancing caused miscarriage is a fairly common theme 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 something 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 danced in Italy nowhere except in the Piedmont region, and a little bit in some corners of Lombardy, and that they borrowed it from our Provence.  And Nice, being being ours, which is on the coast of Provence, taught it to them…They called it the nissardaa dance that is performed at balls and in the cities or at village festivals.” (p. 220)


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 it was suitable only for crazed and wild people.”  (p. 221)  If they hadn’t give up the dance, Lancre fears, they may have been treated as sick people, “as they did in Germany.”  (p. 221)  Here, Lancre is referring to the dance epidemics that periodically swept through European cities and towns beginning in about 1374 and continuing up to the sixteenth century.

The first case of “choreomaniacs” 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 strange phenomenon of the period after the Black Death 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 in Strasbourg in 1418; and outbreaks in Italy of Tarantism,  which began about the middle of the fourteenth century and continued until the end.  (Cutten, p.55)  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 demonologists’ main points.  These dancers were considered possessed, as they were unable to stop or control their urge to dance.  The only thing that made them calm down was music.  Without music, those who dance in such a way are considered crazy.  Lancre quotes an Italian proverb: Chei balsa sensa sono el e matto o el e menchon [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 those of 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 were believed to have attended these eventsThe dancing and drinking are surely positive draws, but this creates a problem for the demonologists.  How can they truly find pleasure if its provided by the Devil?  The answer, for Lancre and his contemporaries, is a simple one; none of these activities--not the dancing, not the feasting, not the sex with the Devil or demons--were pleasurable experiences.  Sex with the Devil is painful; the dancing is dangerous and exhausting. 

The exhaustion and unwilling nature of the dancing (the Devil would physically punish those who would not take part) was not a pleasant experience.  That the witches reported that they needed two days in bed 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 at 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 are 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 rhetorical argument and has elements of another telling bit for folklore regarding childbirth.  I don’t know how far back it goes, but most women who have had children will tell you they don’t remember the pain, only the final satisfaction of having completed an act that is the “delight of the gods (or goddess) but not of mortal men.”  It has been suggested that, with its fertility dances, cannibalism of babies, and free copulation, the sabbat is a nightmare fantasy about reproduction.  Looking at the sabbat through the lens of dancing provides yet another point in favor of this argument.

          The legacy of the myth of dancing with the Devil has come down to us today in many forms.  In certain parts of our society, anti-dance beliefs still exist, 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 South Carolina, 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 toward 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.  It is a rare Wicca or neo-pagan ritual that 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 to reclaim the sacredness of the body is to reclaim the sacredness of dance.