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THE WITCH OF ANTIQUITY
SUCH zealous sixteenth and seventeenth century dogmatists as King James I., the Inquisitor Sprenger, Jean Bodin, or Pierre de Lancre might have found it difficult to put forward satisfactory proof for the cause in which they were briefed had it not been for the fortunate existence of one quite unimpeachable witness — the direct command in the book of Exodus, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Probably no other sentence ever penned has been so destructive to human life or so provocative of human misery; certainly it has provided Saladin with the excuse for his bitter indictment of Christianity as being par excellence, as based upon the Old Testament, the religion of witchcraft. To which he adds that Christianity, now grown ashamed of its former belief, seeks to explain it away by the suggestion that the Hebrew word "chasaph" should be translated, not as "witch," but as "poisoner."
It is, of course, as true as it was natural that Christian writers on witchcraft seized eagerly upon definite Biblical authority for the sin they were condemning. Origen, who protests against literal interpretation of the Bible, is inclined to ascribe Biblical witchcraft altogether to the Devil, basing his theory upon the tribulations of Job. But St. Augustine needs no more definite proof for this variety of sin than the Bible denunciation, while Luther and Calvin, in a later age, are equally definite. At the same time, it is to be remembered that the cult of witchcraft would certainly have existed had there been no mention of it in the Bible at all. It is as universal, as ubiquitous, and as enduring as the religious instinct itself; Christianity did not invent the witch, it did but improve upon her. A Biblical text was perhaps the most convincing evidence; failing it, early Christian Fathers or late Inquisitors would have found little difficulty in adducing a substitute. Even as it was, although they quoted the Bible — and in both Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations, witchcraft is recognised and condemned — they also referred with equal zest to the great edifice of tradition and superstition founded upon the struggles after celibacy of the early fathers and their relegation of all pagan rites to the realms of Black Magic.
The Christians, in adopting to their own uses certain pagan rites and beliefs, and regarding all the rest as witchcraft and an abominable sin, were but following the example of their predecessors, the Jews. Throughout the Old Testament Jehovah is proclaimed as the one and only God, despite the backslidings to which the constant reiterations of "Thou shalt have none other gods but Me" would, in the absence of other record, be sufficient witness. The deities of other nations were "false gods" and idols, being regarded by the Jew very much as were witches and sorcerers by the Christian. Again and again he turned from the one and only God to the gods of the heathen, just as the early Christian was wont to help himself out with pagan rites when his new faith failed him, a course of action which of late years shows signs of a reviving popularity. Such being the case, it was as natural that the great Jewish rulers should denounce to the furthest limits of their vocabulary those who, religiously and politically, were undermining a theocratic government, as that a modern Pope should hail the Italian King accursed who seized upon the Patrimony.
The Jews had no national system of magic or witchcraft. Though Abraham migrated to Canaan from Ur of the Chaldees, the God of Abraham was sternly opposed to those beliefs and rites for which the Chaldeans have ever since been famous. These they partly inherited from that earlier Shumiro-Accadian people inhabiting the region between the lower courses of the Tigris and the Euphrates, whose country they invaded some forty centuries B.C. Besides peopling the universe with good and evil spirits, and having knowledge of the arts of writing and of metalworking, the Shumiro-Accadians practised sorcery and magic wherewith to conjure evil spirits, reserving prayers in the more ordinary sense of the word for the beneficent gods. At the coming of the Chaldeans, the old religion was superseded by the worship of the Sun-god Bel, whose priests were the first practising astrologers. Astrology, divination, conjuration, and incantation thus all had their part in the magico-religious practices of the Chaldeans. An elaborate system of demonology provided constant menace to the happiness of the poor Chaldeo-Babylonian, and, very naturally, by degrees he established a counter influence by whose aid to obtain relief from his tormentors. Most potent were the regular magicians, who, with elaborate ritual and ceremony, were able to drive out the demons possessing the worshipper. Such demons were controlled by the use of potions, by the tying of knots wherewith to strangle them, or by such incantations as the following: —
They have used all kinds of charms to entwine me as with ropes, . . .
But I, by command of Marduk, the lord of charms,
By Marduk the master of bewitchment,
Both the male and the female witch,
As with ropes I will entwine,
As in a cage I will catch,
As with cords I will tie,
As in a net I will overpower,
As in a sling I will twist,
As a fabric I will tear,
With dirty water as from a well I will fill,
As a wall throw them down.
Side by side with the regular magicians was a vast host of sorcerers practising without elaborate ritual, amongst whom witches were greatly in the ascendant. These same Babylonian and Assyrian witches were as efficient as they were unamiable. In contradistinction to the magician, the witch was in league with the demons, and ably assisted them in the infliction of bad dreams, misfortune, disease and death itself. With enthusiasm worthy of a better cause, she tore her victims' hair and clothes, brought about delusions or lasting insanity, destroyed family concord, and aroused hatred between lovers. She was past-mistress in the use of the evil eye, the evil mouth, and the evil tongue, of effigies and magic knots, while her imprecations were the most dreaded of all her practices. Of the witches of Babylon we are told that they haunted the streets and public places, beset wayfarers, and forced their way into houses. Their tongues brought bewitchment, their lips breathed poison, death attended their footsteps. Whether as originators or adaptors they were extremely proficient in that method of enchantment by means of clay, wood, or dough figures, which has continued as among the most familiar of witch-arts until our own times, and they were adepts in the tying of witch-knots. Naturally enough, such practices gained for them the unfriendly attention of the government, but it is perhaps significant of the dread inspired by them that although the law provided for their execution by fire, there is no definite proof that anything other than their effigies was ever actually burnt.
Considering the superstitions amid which their great forefather had been brought up, it was scarcely surprising that the monotheistic ideal peculiar to the Jews should have suffered occasional eclipses. Nor were Chaldean magic and Persian Zoroastrianism alone responsible for the Jewish conception of witchcraft. In time of famine Abraham and his wife went down into Egypt, just as did his descendants, and the Egyptian magician has earned for himself a fame no less enduring than has the Chaldean. Thot, who revealed himself to man as the first magician, was their divine patron — and it is significant that he also first taught mankind the arts of writing and of music, to say nothing of arithmetic, geometry, medicine, and surgery. This divine schoolmaster pointed out in advance days of ill-omen, and, his magical arts making him master of the other gods, provided counteracting remedies. The Egyptian magician interpreted dreams, cured demoniacal possession, and was skilled in casting nativities. In less amiable mood, he could send nightmares, harass with spectres, constrain the wills of men, and cause women to fall victims to infatuations. For the composition of an irresistible charm he required no more than a drop of his subject's blood, some nail-parings, hair, or a scrap of linen from his raiment — to be incorporated in the wax of a doll modelled and clothed to resemble him or her. As with the Babylonian witch and her mediaeval successors, anything done to the effigy was suffered by the original. Thot also taught the magicians how to divide the waters, and a pleasant story has been preserved of a fair maiden who dropped a new turquoise ornament from a boat into the river, and, appealing in her distress to an amiable magician, was consoled by finding it, he having divided the waters for her, safe and sound on a potsherd. It is not difficult to trace to a similar origin the Jewish legend of the Red Sea passage.
Isis, another prominent protector of witchcraft, was, in fact, more witch than goddess. An Egyptian formula against disease, dating from about 1700 B.C., commences, "O Isis, mistress of sorceries, deliver me, set me free from all bad, evil (red) things." Red, it may be noted, was the colour of Set, and thus of evil. Woman was, indeed, supposed to possess more completely than man the qualities necessary for the exercise of magic, legitimate or otherwise. She saw and heard that which the eyes and ears of man could not perceive; her voice, being more flexible and piercing, was heard at greater distances. She was by nature mistress of the art of summoning or banishing invisible beings. The "great spouse," or Queen, of Pharaoh attained, upon her accession to such rank, magical powers above the ordinary. In this connection we find another conception of the witch in the sequel to the loss of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea. The women and slaves of the drowned warriors, fearing aggressions from the Kings of Syria and the West, elected as their queen one Dalu-kah, a woman wise, prudent, and skilled in magic. She collected all the secrets of Nature in the temples and performed her sorceries at the moment when the celestial bodies were most likely to be amenable to a higher power. Whenever an army set out from Arabia or Assyria for the invasion of Egypt, the Witch-Queen made effigies of soldiers and animals corresponding in numbers to its strength, as ascertained by her spies. These she caused to disappear beneath the ground — a fate which thereupon befell the invaders also.
The Egyptians were very learned in the concoction of love-charms, spells, and philtres, a branch of their profession which we may suppose to have appealed more to the witch than to the magician. On at least one occasion a witch gained a notable victory over a male competitor in this direction, for it is recorded that Prince Setnau, familiar from his birth with all the magical arts, was yet bewitched by a very beautiful woman named Tabubu — an occurrence which, if not altogether unique in history, vouches for the potency of the lady's charms.
The use of love-philtres was common among the Jewish women, and it is probable that, with other magical operations, they borrowed it from the Egyptians. Nevertheless, Jewish references to Egyptian magic are somewhat scornful. Thus, in the divination of Pharaoh's dreams, a Jew triumphs over the best efforts of the Court magicians. When the Egyptian sorcerers cast down their rods in emulation of the magic powers exercised by Aaron, their rods changed into serpents as readily as did his. But his superiority was made manifest by the fact that his serpent devoured all the rest. So, too, Nebuchadnezzar, in his own realm, found Daniel and his three friends more than able to hold their own against the local magicians and astrologers.
The Jew, then, was no less apt in magic than were his contemporaries. Where it differed was that it was only legitimate when practised in the name and for the service of the God of Abraham, any attempt towards making use of alien rites or deities being sternly repressed.
The Babylonian captivity served to strengthen and extend the full-blooded belief in a comprehensive system of demons already inherited by the Hebrews. They recognised two varieties of evil spirits — the fallen angels and those who were but semi-supernatural. These latter were again divided into the offspring of Eve by certain male spirits and those descended from Adam by Lilith, the first really Jewish witch. Nor were the Jews slow to test the benevolence of such beings whenever the severity of Jehovah proved irksome. Saul banished from the land all wizards and those who had familiar spirits. Nevertheless, being on one occasion afraid of the Philistines, and unable to obtain favourable assurances from Jehovah either by dreams, by Urim, or by the prophets, he disguised himself and came by night to the witch of Endor. The apparition of Samuel has given rise to much speculation. Wierus, an enlightened sixteenth century writer, though a firm believer in witchcraft withal, holds that the Devil himself took the form of Samuel for the occasion. But Wierus is essentially humane, and his contemporaries held much less charitable views of the women they regarded as servants of Satan.
Although the idea of a personal Devil was familiar to the Jews — as, for instance, in his trial of strength with Jehovah for the allegiance of Job — we find no mention of his having entered into compacts with witches as in later times. On the other hand, they had dealings with familiar spirits, and, as was natural in a nation distinguished by its genius for prophecy, they excelled in divination. The early law is very severe on the subject. The law-abiding Jew might, indeed, attempt to unravel the future so long as he confined his investigations to legitimate channels. These included dreams, prophecies, and Urim and Thummim, two stones carried in the pocket of the High Priest's ephod, engraved with an affirmative and a negative respectively, one of which being taken out, the message upon the other represented the Divine will. All these, being in connection with the service of Jehovah, were permissible. On the other hand, we read in Leviticus that "a man also or a woman that hath a familiar spirit or that is a wizard shall surely be put to death. They shall stone them with stones." And again, "Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards to be defiled by them." Saul died not only for transgressing "against the word of the Lord, which he kept not," but also for asking counsel of "one that had a familiar spirit, to enquire of it." His further sin would seem to have been that in his perplexity "he enquired not of the Lord."
Manasseh (about the eighth century) incurred condemnation because "he made his children to pass through the fire," practised augury and sorcery, used enchantments, "and dealt with them that had familiar spirits and with wizards." Nor was it until the Lord punished him by causing him to be carried captive to Babylon that he humbled himself and "knew that the Lord He was God." Regarded as a preventative, this form of punishment is curious enough, seeing that the daughters of Babylon are vehemently accused of the very crime for which Manasseh was sent among them. Isaiah says, in no doubtful terms, that "the daughters of Babylon are to be punished for the multitude of sorceries and enchantments with which they have laboured from their youth." And throughout Jewish history the influence of these Babylonian witches is noticeable.
Love-magic was practised in Israel almost entirely by Women, and many orthe Jewish feminine ornaments were amatorial charms. Indeed, the demand for charms of all kinds was as great among the monotheistic Hebrews as their neighbours. To quote one example out of many, a charm very popular with Jewish mothers against Lilith, the witch of darkness, much feared by women in travail as having an evil propensity for stealing new-born babes, was to write upon the walls the names of three angels, Senoi, Sensenoi, and Semangelof.
Despite the wide sway of the evil and the severity of the laws against it, spasmodically enforced by several of the kings, as Saul and Hezekiah, there are no definite records of witch-persecutions comparable to those of mediaeval Christianity until the reign of King Alexander Jannai, in the first century B.C. Between 79 and 70 B.C. Simon ben Schetach caused eighty witches to be hanged. After the birth of Christ but a few instances are recorded, although the Apostle of the Gentiles waged war against witchcraft with considerable energy. Thus by virtue of his superior powers he brought about the blindness of Elymas, the sorcerer who practised in the island of Paphos. At this early date a distinction was made between the witch active and those involuntarily possessed of evil spirits, a distinction too fine to be regarded by the mediaeval Inquisitor. Thus the maid "having a spirit of divination" was not held criminally responsible for her powers. Her soothsaying brought her little or no personal gain, and, far from committing voluntarily "the abominable sinne of witchcraft," she was dominated by a spirit, subsequently cast out by Saint Paul by means less drastic than might have been the case fifteen centuries later.
It is, at first sight, surprising that the Chaldean, Egyptian, or Jewish witch should have conformed so closely to the type familiarised by the witch-mania of the Middle Ages. If we remember, however, how great a proportion of Christian superstitions are directly descended from Hebrew practices, and how eagerly those who made it their life-work to harry old women in the name of the Lord sought Biblical precedent, this persistence in type becomes natural enough, unique though it be. The conception of the Power who guides the universe must vary according to human conceptions of what composes that universe, but so long as we are afraid of the dark the foundations upon which we build our manifestations of evil need vary little.