Saturday, February 02, 2002

Sex and Witchcraft, Gary Lachman

Sex and Witchcraft
By Gary Lachman

For good or bad, sex and witchcraft have always been linked. In one of the most remarkable accounts of a witch trial, sex with the devil formed a central part of the confession. Between April and May 1662, Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish housewife from Auldearne in Morayshire, shocked her small community by voluntarily confessing to being a witch. In fact she made four confessions in all, recounting in fascinating and explicit detail most of the elements that make up our popular idea of witchcraft. Isobel spoke at length about the Sabbath, the coven, her magical powers and, perhaps most interesting, her licentious relations with the devil.
Speaking of the sexual character of Isobel’s confession, and of her dull life on a farm, the writer Colin Wilson remarked that Isobel seemed “a highly sexed girl” who was “driven half insane with frustration, until she evolves a whole fantasy about the powers of evil.” As a complete account of Isobel’s confessions this is debatable, but there’s no argument that sex plays a powerful part in them. The devil, she tells us “was a big, black hairy man.” “He would be with us like a stallion among mares. The youngest and lustiest women would have very great pleasure with him, much more than with their own husbands…He was more satisfying for us than any man can be (alas! That I should compare him to a man.)” The devil’s penis, Isobel tells us, was scaly and his semen cold, but evidently the encounter was gratifying enough for her to keep the liaison going for fifteen years.
A similar account was echoed by Janet Breadheid, a woman Isobel named as one of her coven and who also confessed voluntarily. If this was only sexual fantasy, who could blame them? Married to plodding farmers, who for fifteen years didn’t have a clue about their secret lives, things must have been pretty dull for Isobel and her friends. On the nights Isobel headed out to the Sabbath, she left a broomstick beside her husband in bed. He never knew the difference. No wonder she had an affair.
But why confess?
Evidence suggests that Isobel wasn’t forced to and, unlike most accounts of witch trials, she wasn’t burned, a fact that argues against popular accounts of mass ‘gynocide’. In The Wise Wound, a book about menstruation, Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove entitle one chapter “Witchcraft: Nine Million Menstrual Murders.” In it they argue that the witch trials were really a male attempt to suppress women who they feared were becoming empowered through their understanding of their own biological cycles. “Withcraft,” they say, “is the natural concern of all women,” because witchcraft is “the subjective experience of the menstrual cycle.” Although the figure of nine million has subsequently been challenged – the number of executions occasioned by witchcraft are now thought to be a still staggering 40,000, many of them men – many men would corroborate Shuttle and Redgrove’s contention that during menstruation, women become witches. While this substantiation may be for reasons Shuttle and Redgrove reject, it does seem true that during that time of the month, characteristics associated with witchcraft – enhanced creativity and a susceptibility to certain psychic powers - do seem to appear. This may, as some writers have suggested, be the reason why in primitive cultures, menstruating women are kept apart from the rest of the community. It may also be why, as Shuttle and Redgrove believe, menstruation is still a taboo item in a male-dominated world.
That some form of witchcraft and female empowerment are linked to male fear may be seen in the case of Victoria Claflin Woodhull, a 19th century feminist, women’s rights campaigner, free-love advocate, spiritualist, mesmerist and, incidentally, the first woman to run for President of the United States. Her opponents in 1872 were the incumbent Ulysses S. Grant, and the newspaper giant, Horace Greeley. Her running mate was the first black vice-presidential candidate, Frederick Douglass, an ex-slave, abolitionist and author of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass apparently wasn’t happy about his candidacy, and neither acknowledged it nor campaigned for it. One reason may have been the sordid reputation of his running mate.
Victoria displayed mediumistic and paranormal powers early on, and her father put her to work in his travelling side-show, where she appeared as a clairvoyant and fortune-teller. She made successful predictions, could find missing objects, received messages from ‘beyond’ and possessed ‘magnetic’ healing powers – all abilities that at an earlier time would have branded her as a witch. Her powers were put to good use when she and her sister Tennessee Claflin ‘cured’ the prominent millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had just lost his wife. In return, Vanderbilt set them up with their own highly successful brokerage firm (the first on Wall Street run by women), and magazine, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. It may have helped that ‘Tennie’ became the seventy-six year old Vanderbilt’s lover. Here, according to one account, Victoria “preached her doctrines of free love, attacked the rich (though not, of course, Vanderbilt), and espoused Marxism.”
In fact, along with its advocacy of short skirts, spiritualism, women's suffrage, free love, vegetarianism, homeopathy, licensed prostitution and birth control, the newspaper actually printed the first English translation of The Communist Manifesto. Victoria was also a member of the Marxist International Workingmen's Association. This surely ranks as a particularly odd manifestation of a ‘leftist’ kind of witchcraft.
The success of the brokerage firm and the newspaper (whose masthead read, with perhaps a slight innuendo, "The Organ of the Most Advanced Thought and Purpose in the World!") made Victoria famous. In April, 1870, she announced her bid for president, as candidate for the Equal Rights Party, whose membership included feminists, spiritualists, communists, and ‘free lovers’. Predictably, Victoria encountered problems. Her detractors began to call her “Mrs. Satan,” and complained that she not only advocated free love and kept company with prostitutes, but also preached an unholy belief in spirits. Quixotic at best, Victoria’s campaign collapsed when she became embroiled in a sex scandal involving the hugely popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame. Beecher, who preached against ‘free love’, had cuckolded two of his closest supporters. Victoria broke the story but was arrested for publishing pornography, and most people, including the government, were happy that “Wicked Woodhull” was getting her comeuppance. She spent Election Day in jail, and was arrested eight more times while the scandal raged. Needless to say, she didn’t win the election.
Yet while sex and witchcraft may make a troubling brew, for most men they’re a powerful attractant. In his remarkable satanic novel, The Fiery Angel, Valery Briussov’s hero Ruprecht becomes enthralled to the young witch Renata, who is obsessed with her erotic visions of the angel Madiël. Increasingly enslaved to her, Renata only agrees to give herself if Ruprecht attends a coven, in order to discover the whereabouts of the angel. Ruprecht does, and after experiencing a mad flight across the “astral spheres,” finds himself thrust into a satanic and highly pleasurable orgy, that “darkened my reason and deprived me of will.”
The flying broomstick traditional favoured by witches as a means of transport – and which Isobel Gowdie left beside her dullard husband - may have actually been a tool for inserting hallucinogenic substances into their vaginas, to be absorbed by the ample mucus membranes. The witches’ flight then, may have been a psychedelic trip, and the coven an occasion for group masturbation. But while Briussov’s hero enjoys his tryst with his devilish consort, the protagonist of J.K. Huysman’s Là-Bas, a classic of fin-de-siècle satanic decadence, is less appreciative. In the novel, Huysmans’ hero Durtal becomes ensnared in an affair with the jaded but insatiable Madame Chantelouve, whom he believes is a member of a dark coven. Researching a book on the monstrous Gilles de Rais, Durtal wishes to witness a Black Mass at first hand, and he believes Madame Chantelouve will provide an invitation. She does, but the affair sickens him and the two leave. Madame, however, has her own designs and brings Durtal to a “disreputable hovel” where she seduces him. She initiates him into “slavish practices” and “depravities the existence of which he hadn’t even suspected,” her “ghoulish frenzies giving them an added spice.” Then, while caught on the “abominable couch,” Durtal realizes they have been having sex in a bed scattered with communion hosts. “The sacrilege in which he had unwittingly participated depressed him,” and he realizes that “the time is right for me to fall out with this creature.” In actual life Huysmans, a doyen of decadence, repented his depraved past and spent his last years as an oblate of the Catholic Church.
While this last example may smack more of Satanism than of witchcraft, with the traditional ‘reversals’ associated with the Black Mass, according to Shuttle and Redgrove, for the witch “fair is foul and foul is fair,” concerned, as she is, “with turning ordinary ideas upside-down.” For wiccans and other practitioners of the Old Religion – as modern pagans consider witchcraft to be – this takes on a joyous if sometimes solemn character. But for most men, “turning things upside-down” is an occupation most women are naturally adept at, witches or not.

Gary Lachman is the author of The Dedalus Book of the Occult: A Dark Muse, Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius as well as other books on the links between occultism and modern culture. He is a regular contributor to the Independent on Sunday, Fortean Times and other journals.