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Flying with Diana October 23, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval, Modern , trackback

One of the most fascinating questions about witchcraft belief is the extent to which it was invented by the Inquisition (and other bogey men of our own imaginations); or to what extent it reflected common beliefs held by medieval and early modern European populations. If we accept that the idea of the sabbat and devil-sex, say, was held by the general population, then we must also ask, as Murray, Ginsburg and Muchembled did, to what extent these idea represent survival of some sort from early Greco-Roman paganism (or a Germanic equivalent). Unfortunately we have very little evidence of any kind from the early Middle Ages (say 500-1000). But there are couple of fragments that goad our curiosity. The most famous of these is the so-called Canoni Episcopi and a hint of Diana worship there. The dating of this text is extremely difficult. In the early modern period it was put back to the fourth century and the time of the Christian settlement. In fact, it could be as late as the ninth or tenth century. Other thoughts on dating: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

This also is not to be omitted, that certain wicked women, turned back toward Satan, seduced by demonic illusions and phantasms, believe of themselves and profess to ride upon certain beasts in the night-time hours, with Diana, the Goddess of the Pagans, (or with Herodias) and an innumerable multitude of women, and to traverse great spaces of earth in the silence of the dead of night, and to be subject to her laws as of a Lady, and on fixed nights be called to her service. But would that they alone perished in their falsehood, and did not, through faithlessness, hand over many to ruin with themselves! For an innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe this to be true, and so believing, avoid the straight faith, and are again caught in the errors of the Pagans, by judging there to be anything of divinity or divine will beyond the one God. Therefore, priests throughout their churches are required to pronounce this crime to the people, with all insistence, so this will be known to be lies in every way; and not from a divine, but from a malignant spirit are such phantasms imposed on the minds of the unfaithful.**

Illud etiam non omittendum, quod quaedam sceleratae mulieres retro post Satanam conuersae, daemonum illusionibus, et phantasmatibus seductae, credunt se et profitentur nocturnis horis, cum Diana paganorum dea, uel cum Herodiade et innumera multitudine mulierum equitare super quasdam bestias, et multa terrarum spatia intempestae noctis silentio pertransire eiusque iussionibus uelut dominae obedire et certis noctibus ad eius seruitium euocari. Sed utinam hae solae in perfidia sua perissent, et non multos secum in infidelitatis interitum pertraxissent. Nam innumera multitudo hac falsa opinione decepta haec uera esse credit, et credendo a recta fide deuiat, et in errore paganorum reuoluitur, cum aliquid diuinitatis, aut numinis extra unum Deum esse arbitratur. Quapropter sacerdotes per Ecclesias sibi commissas populo omni instantia praedicare debent, ut nouerint haec omnimodis falsa esse, et non a diuino, sed a maligno spiritu talia phantasmata mentibus infidelium irrogari.

The first extraordinary thing here is that Carolingian (?) Christians are told that it is a sin to believe in these night flights. Yes, the women who boast of flying with Diana are committing a grave sin, but far more dangerous, according to the Canoni, are the innumera multitudine who come to believe in it themselves. Belief in witchcraft (not witchcraft itself) is the real danger to the wider Christian community. Tell that to some Matthew Hopkins salivating over his next kill in the marshes of Essex…

The second extraordinary thing is that we have belief in a night host flying through the sky under the authority of Diana. This is the simple folklore fact that will be gilded and embellished into the Sabbat, the rock on which so many ‘witches’ foundered in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is at the bottom too – the tradition rather than the Canoni – of Kramer and Sprenger’s conviction in the Malleus Maleficarum, one that became nigh on universal, that witches fly.

In classical times we have clues – few and scattered but striking – that some men and women believed that they could ride out with flying Diana and other goddesses to do good. There was also the traditional belief that some women could become strix or owls and fly out to do evil: the striking example appears in the Golden Ass where the fiendish Pamphile becomes a strix before Lucius’ very eyes. Early modern witchcraft summed up seems to be: the confusion of these two ideas (already in classical times?); the rejection of the saving notion that witchcraft was a delusion; and natural stresses and nastinesses that allowed dozens to be hung and burnt.