Recently, some national newspapers reported on a story of a husband who was granted a divorce in Italy
because his wife was said to be possessed by the devil, evidenced by convulsions, throwing a pew in church and levitation. But in the Middle Ages levitation was considered to be the sign of a saint, so when did it become a sign of possession or witchcraft?
'The Ecstasy of Father Jean Birelle,' painted 1626-32
by Vincenzo Carducci
In the 10th Century, the Canon Episcopi condemned women who believed they could fly with the goddess in the nocturnal wild hunt. But it was the belief in the goddess to which the Church objected, not the flying. The medieval Church’s complaint against witches was not their magic, but that they made offerings to the old gods and goddesses rather than to the relics of saints.
During the Middle Ages, numerous saints were reported to be able to levitate or fly including Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila. Ironically, it was the very ability of the saints to levitate through the power of God that would later be used as proof that witches could do it through the power of demons.
|St Joseph of Cupertino
Early medieval writers wrote about witches gathering to perform spells both for the good of the community, to end droughts or storms, and on other occasions to work mischief or even murder by magic, but whatever the reason, it was not suggested that they flew there.
But by the 16th century, both the Protestant Reformers and the Catholic Inquisition had decided witchcraft of any kind was heretical, therefore punishable by death. They constructed the elaborate myth of the witches’ sabbat. Prosecutors alleged that as many as 2,000 women would assemble at a remote location to take part. But how could they get there in a single night and be tucked up in bed at home by dawn? They had to fly.
And with the rise of both the Inquisition and Reformation even a saint’s ability to fly began to be regarded as a sign they might be a secret witch. St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-63) was denounced to the Inquisition because he could levitate. Levitating nuns were in even greater danger. Magdalena Crucia, Abbess at Cordova, who died in 1560, was persuaded by her confessors that her levitation was not a sign of her devotion, but proof she was a witch.
1681, a child levitating through witchcraft in front
of horrified witnesses.
But the question that troubled the Church was – did witches fly in body or spirit? It was a common medieval belief that the spirit left the body in the form of a mouse while the person slept. If you moved a sleeping person their soul might not find its way back, so the victim would die. St. Martin de Porres and the 20th Century saint, Padre Pio, were both credited with bilocation – the ability to appear in spirit in one place while their bodies were miles away. This became central to an outbreak of anti-witch hysteria in 1683, in Calw, Germany, when children swore they attended witches’ sabbats while their parents watched them sleeping.
But by the late 16th century, most theologians insisted witches could not travel in spirit, therefore their bodies must be flying. Only God could work the miracle of taking the spirit from the body then restoring it, bringing a corpse back to life. God certainly wouldn’t perform that miracle for a witch.
Woodcut 1508, Witch flying on goat
So, witches were depicted riding fantastic beasts, demons or their ‘familiars’ such as cats, goats or foxes – animals associated with Satan. Women ‘bewitched’ neighbours’ horses and they would be found sweating in their stables having been ‘hag-ridden’.
Witches were also thought to ride shovels, pitchforks, distaffs and forked sticks. Brooms were already linked to magic. If a woman brushed the dust from the room outwards, she would be brushing away the fortune of the house. If she brushed in front of neighbour’s door, she would be stealing their luck. The broomstick probably became the favourite object to depict witches riding as they were associated with women’s work and were a phallic symbol used in peasant weddings, emphasising those sexual orgies of the witches sabbat.
The Witches Sabbath
Luis Ricardo Falero
As for that poor wife in Italy, if only she’d been born a few centuries earlier she might well have been canonised instead of condemned.