Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, by Walter Scott

Letter ii.

Consequences of the Fall on the Communication between Man and the Spiritual World — Effects of the Flood — Wizards of Pharaoh — Text in Exodus against Witches — The word Witch is by some said to mean merely Poisoner — Or if in the Holy Text it also means a Divineress, she must, at any rate, have been a Character very different to be identified with it — The original, Chasaph, said to mean a person who dealt in Poisons, often a Traffic of those who dealt with familiar Spirits — But different from the European Witch of the Middle Ages — Thus a Witch is not accessary to the Temptation of Job — The Witch of the Hebrews probably did not rank higher than a Divining Woman — Yet it was a Crime deserving the Doom of Death, since it inferred the disowning of Jehovah’s Supremacy — Other Texts of Scripture, in like manner, refer to something corresponding more with a Fortune-teller or Divining Woman than what is now called a Witch — Example of the Witch of Endor — Account of her Meeting with Saul — Supposed by some a mere Impostor — By others, a Sorceress powerful enough to raise the Spirit of the Prophet by her own Art — Difficulties attending both Positions — A middle Course adopted, supposing that, as in the Case of Balak, the Almighty had, by Exertion of His Will, substituted Samuel, or a good Spirit in his Character, for the Deception which the Witch intended to produce — Resumption of the Argument, showing that the Witch of Endor signified something very different from the modern Ideas of Witchcraft — The Witches mentioned in the New Testament are not less different from modern Ideas than those of the Books of Moses, nor do they appear to have possessed the Power ascribed to Magicians — Articles of Faith which we may gather from Scripture on this point — That there might be certain Powers permitted by the Almighty to Inferior, and even Evil Spirits, is possible; and in some sense the Gods of the Heathens might be accounted Demons — More frequently, and in a general sense, they were but logs of wood, without sense or power of any kind, and their worship founded on imposture — Opinion that the Oracles were silenced at the Nativity adopted by Milton — Cases of Demoniacs — The Incarnate Possessions probably ceased at the same time as the intervention of Miracles — Opinion of the Catholics — Result, that witchcraft, as the Word is interpreted in the Middle Ages, neither occurs under the Mosaic or Gospel Dispensation — It arose in the Ignorant Period, when the Christians considered the Gods of the Mahommedan or Heathen Nations as Fiends, and their Priests as Conjurers or Wizards — Instance as to the Saracens, and among the Northern Europeans yet unconverted — The Gods of Mexico and Peru explained on the same system — Also the Powahs of North America — Opinion of Mather — Gibb, a supposed Warlock, persecuted by the other Dissenters — Conclusion.

What degree of communication might have existed between the human race and the inhabitants of the other world had our first parents kept the commands of the Creator, can only be subject of unavailing speculation. We do not, perhaps, presume too much when we suppose, with Milton, that one necessary consequence of eating the “fruit of that forbidden tree” was removing to a wider distance from celestial essences the beings who, although originally but a little lower than the angels, had, by their own crime, forfeited the gift of immortality, and degraded themselves into an inferior rank of creation.

Some communication between the spiritual world, by the union of those termed in Scripture “sons of God” and the daughters of Adam, still continued after the Fall, though their inter-alliance was not approved of by the Ruler of mankind. We are given to understand — darkly, indeed, but with as much certainty as we can be entitled to require — that the mixture between the two species of created beings was sinful on the part of both, and displeasing to the Almighty. It is probable, also, that the extreme longevity of the antediluvian mortals prevented their feeling sufficiently that they had brought themselves under the banner of Azrael, the angel of death, and removed to too great a distance the period between their crime and its punishment. The date of the avenging Flood gave birth to a race whose life was gradually shortened, and who, being admitted to slighter and rarer intimacy with beings who possessed a higher rank in creation, assumed, as of course, a lower position in the scale. Accordingly, after this period we hear no more of those unnatural alliances which preceded the Flood, and are given to understand that mankind, dispersing into different parts of the world, separated from each other, and began, in various places, and under separate auspices, to pursue the work of replenishing the world, which had been imposed upon them as an end of their creation. In the meantime, while the Deity was pleased to continue his manifestations to those who were destined to be the fathers of his elect people, we are made to understand that wicked men — it may be by the assistance of fallen angels — were enabled to assert rank with, and attempt to match, the prophets of the God of Israel. The matter must remain uncertain whether it was by sorcery or legerdemain that the wizards of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, contended with Moses, in the face of the prince and people, changed their rods into serpents, and imitated several of the plagues denounced against the devoted kingdom. Those powers of the Magi, however, whether obtained by supernatural communications, or arising from knowledge of legerdemain and its kindred accomplishments, were openly exhibited; and who can doubt that — though we may be left in some darkness both respecting the extent of their skill and the source from which it was drawn — we are told all which it can be important for us to know? We arrive here at the period when the Almighty chose to take upon himself directly to legislate for his chosen people, without having obtained any accurate knowledge whether the crime of witchcraft, or the intercourse between the spiritual world and embodied beings, for evil purposes, either existed after the Flood, or was visited with any open marks of Divine displeasure.

But in the law of Moses, dictated by the Divinity himself, was announced a text, which, as interpreted literally, having been inserted into the criminal code of all Christian nations, has occasioned much cruelty and bloodshed, either from its tenor being misunderstood, or that, being exclusively calculated for the Israelites, it made part of the judicial Mosaic dispensation, and was abrogated, like the greater part of that law, by the more benign and clement dispensation of the Gospel.

The text alluded to is that verse of the twenty-second chapter of Exodus bearing, “men shall not suffer a witch to live.” Many learned men have affirmed that in this remarkable passage the Hebrew word CHASAPH means nothing more than poisoner, although, like the word veneficus, by which it is rendered in the Latin version of the Septuagint, other learned men contend that it hath the meaning of a witch also, and may be understood as denoting a person who pretended to hurt his or her neighbours in life, limb, or goods, either by noxious potions, by charms, or similar mystical means. In this particular the witches of Scripture had probably some resemblance to those of ancient Europe, who, although their skill and power might be safely despised, as long as they confined themselves to their charms and spells, were very apt to eke out their capacity of mischief by the use of actual poison, so that the epithet of sorceress and poisoner were almost synonymous. This is known to have been the case in many of those darker iniquities which bear as their characteristic something connected with hidden and prohibited arts. Such was the statement in the indictment of those concerned in the famous murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, when the arts of Forman and other sorcerers having been found insufficient to touch the victim’s life, practice by poison was at length successfully resorted to; and numerous similar instances might be quoted. But supposing that the Hebrew witch proceeded only by charms, invocations, or such means as might be innoxious, save for the assistance of demons or familiars, the connexion between the conjurer and the demon must have been of a very different character under the law of Moses, from that which was conceived in latter days to constitute witchcraft. There was no contract of subjection to a diabolic power, no infernal stamp or sign of such a fatal league, no revellings of Satan and his hags, and no infliction of disease or misfortune upon good men. At least there is not a word in Scripture authorizing us to believe that such a system existed. On the contrary, we are told (how far literally, how far metaphorically, it is not for us to determine) that, when the Enemy of mankind desired to probe the virtue of Job to the bottom, he applied for permission to the Supreme Governor of the world, who granted him liberty to try his faithful servant with a storm of disasters, for the more brilliant exhibition of the faith which he reposed in his Maker. In all this, had the scene occurred after the manner of the like events in latter days, witchcraft, sorceries, and charms would have been introduced, and the Devil, instead of his own permitted agency, would have employed his servant the witch as the necessary instrument of the Man of Uzz’s afflictions. In like manner, Satan desired to have Peter, that he might sift him like wheat. But neither is there here the agency of any sorcerer or witch. Luke xxii. 31.

Supposing the powers of the witch to be limited, in the time of Moses, to enquiries at some pretended deity or real evil spirit concerning future events, in what respect, may it be said, did such a crime deserve the severe punishment of death? To answer this question, we must reflect that the object of the Mosaic dispensation being to preserve the knowledge of the True Deity within the breasts of a selected and separated people, the God of Jacob necessarily showed himself a jealous God to all who, straying from the path of direct worship of Jehovah, had recourse to other deities, whether idols or evil spirits, the gods of the neighbouring heathen. The swerving from their allegiance to the true Divinity, to the extent of praying to senseless stocks and stones which could return them no answer, was, by the Jewish law, an act of rebellion to their own Lord God, and as such most fit to be punished capitally. Thus the prophets of Baal were deservedly put to death, not on account of any success which they might obtain by their intercessions and invocations (which, though enhanced with all their vehemence, to the extent of cutting and wounding themselves, proved so utterly unavailing as to incur the ridicule of the prophet), but because they were guilty of apostasy from the real Deity, while they worshipped, and encouraged others to worship, the false divinity Baal. The Hebrew witch, therefore, or she who communicated, or attempted to communicate, with an evil spirit, was justly punished with death, though her communication with the spiritual world might either not exist at all, or be of a nature much less intimate than has been ascribed to the witches of later days; nor does the existence of this law, against the witches of the Old Testament sanction, in any respect, the severity of similar enactments subsequent to the Christian revelation, against a different class of persons, accused of a very different species of crime.

In another passage, the practices of those persons termed witches in the Holy Scriptures are again alluded to; and again it is made manifest that the sorcery or witchcraft of the Old Testament resolves itself into a trafficking with idols, and asking counsel of false deities; in other words, into idolatry, which, notwithstanding repeated prohibitions, examples, and judgments, was still the prevailing crime of the Israelites. The passage alluded to is in Deuteronomy xviii. 10, ii —“There shall not be found among you anyone that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” Similar denunciations occur in the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Leviticus. In like manner, it is a charge against Manasses (2 Chronicles xxxviii.) that he caused his children to pass through the fire, observed times, used enchantments and witchcraft, and dealt with familiar spirits and with wizards. These passages seem to concur with the former, in classing witchcraft among other desertions of the prophets of the Deity, in order to obtain responses by the superstitious practices of the pagan nations around them. To understand the texts otherwise seems to confound the modern system of witchcraft, with all its unnatural and improbable outrages on common sense, with the crime of the person who, in classical days, consulted the oracle of Apollo — a capital offence in a Jew, but surely a venial sin in an ignorant and deluded pagan.

To illustrate the nature of the Hebrew witch and her prohibited criminal traffic, those who have written on this subject have naturally dwelt upon the interview between Saul and the Witch of Endor, the only detailed and particular account of such a transaction which is to be found in the Bible; a fact, by the way, which proves that the crime of witchcraft (capitally punished as it was when discovered) was not frequent among the chosen people, who enjoyed such peculiar manifestations of the Almighty’s presence. The Scriptures seem only to have conveyed to us the general fact (being what is chiefly edifying) of the interview between the witch and the King of Israel. They inform us that Saul, disheartened and discouraged by the general defection of his subjects, and the consciousness of his own unworthy and ungrateful disobedience, despairing of obtaining an answer from the offended Deity, who had previously communicated with him through his prophets, at length resolved, in his desperation, to go to a divining woman, by which course he involved himself in the crime of the person whom he thus consulted, against whom the law denounced death — a sentence which had been often executed by Saul himself on similar offenders. Scripture proceeds to give us the general information that the king directed the witch to call up the Spirit of Samuel, and that the female exclaimed that gods had arisen out of the earth — that Saul, more particularly requiring a description of the apparition (whom, consequently, he did not himself see), she described it as the figure of an old man with a mantle. In this figure the king acknowledges the resemblance of Samuel, and sinking on his face, hears from the apparition, speaking in the character of the prophet, the melancholy prediction of his own defeat and death.

In this description, though all is told which is necessary to convey to us an awful moral lesson, yet we are left ignorant of the minutiæ attending the apparition, which perhaps we ought to accept as a sure sign that there was no utility in our being made acquainted with them. It is impossible, for instance, to know with certainty whether Saul was present when the woman used her conjuration, or whether he himself personally ever saw the appearance which the Pythoness described to him. It is left still more doubtful whether anything supernatural was actually evoked, or whether the Pythoness and her assistant meant to practise a mere deception, taking their chance to prophesy the defeat and death of the broken-spirited king as an event which the circumstances in which he was placed rendered highly probable, since he was surrounded by a superior army of Philistines, and his character as a soldier rendered it likely that he would not survive a defeat which must involve the loss of his kingdom. On the other hand, admitting that the apparition had really a supernatural character, it remains equally uncertain what was its nature or by what power it was compelled to an appearance, unpleasing, as it intimated, since the supposed spirit of Samuel asks wherefore he was disquieted in the grave. Was the power of the witch over the invisible world so great that, like the Erictho of the heathen poet, she could disturb the sleep of the just, and especially that of a prophet so important as Samuel; and are we to suppose that he, upon whom the Spirit of the Lord was wont to descend, even while he was clothed with frail mortality, should be subject to be disquieted in his grave at the voice of a vile witch, and the command of an apostate prince? Did the true Deity refuse Saul the response of his prophets, and could a witch compel the actual spirit of Samuel to make answer notwithstanding?

Embarrassed by such difficulties, another course of explanation has been resorted to, which, freed from some of the objections which attend the two extreme suppositions, is yet liable to others. It has been supposed that something took place upon this remarkable occasion similar to that which disturbed the preconcerted purpose of the prophet Balaam, and compelled him to exchange his premeditated curses for blessings. According to this hypothesis, the divining woman of Endor was preparing to practise upon Saul those tricks of legerdemain or jugglery by which she imposed upon meaner clients who resorted to her oracle. Or we may conceive that in those days, when the laws of Nature were frequently suspended by manifestations of the Divine Power, some degree of juggling might be permitted between mortals and the spirits of lesser note; in which case we must suppose that the woman really expected or hoped to call up some supernatural appearance. But in either case, this second solution of the story supposes that the will of the Almighty substituted, on that memorable occasion, for the phantasmagoria intended by the witch, the spirit of Samuel in his earthly resemblance — or, if the reader may think this more likely, some good being, the messenger of the Divine pleasure, in the likeness of the departed prophet — and, to the surprise of the Pythoness herself, exchanged the juggling farce: of sheer deceit or petty sorcery which she had intended to produce, for a deep tragedy, capable of appalling the heart of the hardened tyrant, and furnishing an awful lesson to future times.

This exposition has the advantage of explaining the surprise expressed by the witch at the unexpected consequences of her own invocation, while it removes the objection of supposing the spirit of Samuel subject to her influence. It does not apply so well to the complaint of Samuel that he was disquieted, since neither the prophet, nor any good angel wearing his likeness, could be supposed to complain of an apparition which took place in obedience to the direct command of the Deity. If, however, the phrase is understood, not as a murmuring against the pleasure of Providence, but as a reproach to the prophet’s former friend Saul, that his sins and discontents, which were the ultimate cause of Samuel’s appearance, had withdrawn the prophet for a space from the enjoyment and repose of Heaven, to review this miserable spot of mortality, guilt, grief, and misfortune, the words may, according to that interpretation, wear no stronger sense of complaint than might become the spirit of a just man made perfect, or any benevolent angel by whom he might be represented. It may be observed that in Ecclesiasticus (xlvi. 19, 20), the opinion of Samuel’s actual appearance is adopted, since it is said of this man of God, that after death he prophesied, and showed the king his latter end.

Leaving the further discussion of this dark and difficult question to those whose studies have qualified them to give judgment on so obscure a subject, it so far appears clear that the Witch of Endor, was not a being such as those believed in by our ancestors, who could transform themselves and others into the appearance of the lower animals, raise and allay tempests, frequent the company and join the revels of evil spirits, and, by their counsel and assistance, destroy human lives, and waste the fruits of the earth, or perform feats of such magnitude as to alter the face of Nature. The Witch of Endor was a mere fortune-teller, to whom, in despair of all aid or answer from the Almighty, the unfortunate King of Israel had recourse in his despair, and by whom, in some way or other, he obtained the awful certainty of his own defeat and death. She was liable, indeed, deservedly to the punishment of death for intruding herself upon the task of the real prophets, by whom the will of God was at that time regularly made known. But her existence and her crimes can go no length to prove the possibility that another class of witches, no otherwise resembling her than as called by the same name, either existed at a more recent period, or were liable to the same capital punishment, for a very different and much more doubtful class of offences, which, however odious, are nevertheless to be proved possible before they can be received as a criminal charge.

Whatever may be thought of other occasional expressions in the Old Testament, it cannot be said that, in any part of that sacred volume, a text occurs indicating the existence of a system of witchcraft, under the Jewish dispensation, in any respect similar to that against which the law-books of so many European nations have, till very lately, denounced punishment; far less under the Christian dispensation — a system under which the emancipation of the human race from the Levitical law was happily and miraculously perfected. This latter crime is supposed to infer a compact implying reverence and adoration on the part of the witch who comes under the fatal bond, and patronage, support, and assistance on the part of the diabolical patron. Indeed, in the four Gospels, the word, under any sense, does not occur; although, had the possibility of so enormous a sin been admitted, it was not likely to escape the warning censure of the Divine Person who came to take away the sins of the world. Saint Paul, indeed, mentions the sin of witchcraft, in a cursory manner, as superior in guilt to that of ingratitude; and in the offences of the flesh it is ranked immediately after idolatry, which juxtaposition inclines us to believe that the witchcraft mentioned by the Apostle must have been analogous to that of the Old Testament, and equivalent to resorting to the assistance of soothsayers, or similar forbidden arts, to acquire knowledge of toturity. Sorcerers are also joined with other criminals, in the Book of Revelations, as excluded from the city of God And with these occasional notices, which indicate that there was a transgression so called, but leave us ignorant of us exact nature, the writers upon witchcraft attempt to wring out of the New Testament proofs of a crime in itself so disgustingly improbable. Neither do the exploits of Elymas, called the Sorcerer, or Simon, called Magus or the Magician, entitle them to rank above the class of impostors who assumed a character to which they had no real title, and put their own mystical and ridiculous pretensions to supernatural power in competition with those who had been conferred on purpose to diffuse the gospel, and facilitate its reception by the exhibition of genuine miracles. It is clear that, from his presumptuous and profane proposal to acquire, by purchase, a portion of those powers which were directly derived from inspiration, Simon Magus displayed a degree of profane and brutal ignorance inconsistent with his possessing even the intelligence of a skilful impostor; and it is plain that a leagued vassal of hell — should we pronounce him such — would have better known his own rank and condition, compared to that of the apostles, than to have made such a fruitless and unavailing proposal, by which he could only expose his own impudence and ignorance.

With this observation we may conclude our brief remarks upon witchcraft, as the word occurs in the Scripture; and it now only remains to mention the nature of the demonology, which, as gathered from the sacred volumes, every Christian believer is bound to receive as a thing declared and proved to be true.

And in the first place, no man can read the Bible, or call himself a Christian, without believing that, during the course of time comprehended by the Divine writers, the Deity, to confirm the faith of the Jews, and to overcome and confound the pride of the heathens, wrought in the land many great miracles, using either good spirits, the instruments of his pleasure, or fallen angels, the permitted agents of such evil as it was his will should be inflicted upon, or suffered by, the children of men. This proposition comprehends, of course, the acknowledgment of the truth of miracles during this early period, by which the ordinary laws of nature were occasionally suspended, and recognises the existence in the spiritual world of the two grand divisions of angels and devils, severally exercising their powers according to the commission or permission of the Ruler of the universe.

Secondly, wise men have thought and argued that the idols of the heathen were actually fiends, or, rather, that these enemies of mankind had power to assume the shape and appearance of those feeble deities, and to give a certain degree of countenance to the faith of the worshippers, by working seeming miracles, and returning, by their priests or their oracles, responses which “palter’d in a double sense” with the deluded persons who consulted them. Most of the fathers of the Christian Church have intimated such an opinion. This doctrine has the advantage of affording, to a certain extent, a confirmation of many miracles related in pagan or classical history, which are thus ascribed to the agency of evil spirits. It corresponds also with the texts of Scripture which declare that the gods of the heathen are all devils and evil spirits; and the idols of Egypt are classed, as in Isaiah, chap. xix. ver. 2, with charmers, those who have familiar spirits, and with wizards. But whatever license it may be supposed was permitted to the evil spirits of that period — and although, undoubtedly, men owned the sway of deities who were, in fact, but personifications of certain evil passions of humanity, as, for example, in their sacrifices to Venus, to Bacchus, to Mars, &c., and therefore might be said, in one sense, to worship evil spirits — we cannot, in reason, suppose that every one, or the thousandth part of the innumerable idols worshipped among the heathen, was endowed with supernatural power; it is clear that the greater number fell under the description applied to them in another passage of Scripture, in which the part of the tree burned in the fire for domestic purposes is treated as of the same power and estimation as that carved into an image, and preferred for Gentile homage. This striking passage, in which the impotence of the senseless block, and the brutish ignorance of the worshipper, whose object of adoration is the work of his own hands, occurs in the 44th chapter of the prophecies of Isaiah, verse 10 et seq. The precise words of the text, as well as common sense, forbid us to believe that the images so constructed by common artisans became the habitation or resting-place of demons, or possessed any manifestation of strength or power, whether through demoniacal influence or otherwise. The whole system of doubt, delusion, and trick exhibited by the oracles, savours of the mean juggling of impostors, rather than the audacious intervention of demons. Whatever degree of power the false gods of heathendom, or devils in their name, might be permitted occasionally to exert, was unquestionably under the general restraint and limitation of providence; and though, on the one hand, we cannot deny the possibility of such permission being granted in cases unknown to us, it is certain, on the other, that the Scriptures mention no one specific instance of such influence expressly recommended to our belief.

Thirdly, as the backsliders among the Jews repeatedly fell off to the worship of the idols of the neighbouring heathens, so they also resorted to the use of charms and enchantments, founded on a superstitious perversion of their own Levitical ritual, in which they endeavoured by sortilege, by Teraphim, by observation of augury, or the flight of birds, which they called Nahas, by the means of Urim and Thummim, to find as it were a byroad to the secrets of futurity. But for the same reason that withholds us from delivering any opinion upon the degree to which the devil and his angels might be allowed to countenance the impositions of the heathen priesthood, it is impossible for us conclusively to pronounce what effect might be permitted by supreme Providence to the ministry of such evil spirits as presided over, and, so far as they had liberty, directed, these sinful enquiries among the Jews themselves. We are indeed assured from the sacred writings, that the promise of the Deity to his chosen people, if they conducted themselves agreeably to the law which he had given, was, that the communication with the invisible world would be enlarged, so that in the fulness of his time he would pour out his spirit upon all flesh, when their sons and daughters should prophesy, their old men see visions, and their young men dream dreams. Such were the promises delivered to the Israelites by Joel, Ezekiel, and other holy seers, of which St. Peter, in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, hails the fulfilment in the mission of our Saviour. And on the other hand, it is no less evident that the Almighty, to punish the disobedience of the Jews, abandoned them to their own fallacious desires, and suffered them to be deceived by the lying oracles, to which, in flagrant violation of his commands, they had recourse. Of this the punishment arising from the Deity abandoning Ahab to his own devices, and suffering him to be deceived by a lying spirit, forms a striking instance.

Fourthly, and on the other hand, abstaining with reverence from accounting ourselves judges of the actions of Omnipotence, we may safely conclude that it was not his pleasure to employ in the execution of his judgments the consequences of any such species of league or compact betwixt devils and deluded mortals, as that denounced in the laws of our own ancestors under the name of witchcraft. What has been translated by that word seems little more than the art of a medicator of poisons, combined with that of a Pythoness or false prophetess; a crime, however, of a capital nature, by the Levitical law, since, in the first capacity, it implied great enmity to mankind, and in the second, direct treason to the divine Legislator. The book of Tobit contains, indeed, a passage resembling more an incident in an Arabian tale or Gothic romance, than a part of inspired writing. In this, the fumes produced by broiling the liver of a certain fish are described as having power to drive away an evil genius who guards the nuptial chamber of an Assyrian princess, and who has strangled seven bridegrooms in succession, as they approached the nuptial couch. But the romantic and fabulous strain of this legend has induced the fathers of all Protestant churches to deny it a place amongst the writings sanctioned by divine origin, and we may therefore be excused from entering into discussion on such imperfect evidence.

Lastly, in considering the incalculable change which took place upon the Advent of our Saviour and the announcement of his law, we may observe that, according to many wise and learned men, his mere appearance upon earth, without awaiting the fulfilment of his mission, operated as an act of banishment of such heathen deities as had hitherto been suffered to deliver oracles, and ape in some degree the attributes of the Deity. Milton has, in the “Paradise Lost,” it may be upon conviction of its truth, embraced the theory which identifies the followers of Satan with the gods of the heathen; and, in a tone of poetry almost unequalled, even in his own splendid writings, he thus describes, in one of his earlier pieces, the departure of these pretended deities on the eve of the blessed Nativity:—

“The oracles are dumb,

No voice or hideous hum

Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving;

Apollo from his shrine

Can no more divine,

With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving;

No nightly trance or breathed spell

Inspires the pale-eyed priests from the prophetic cell.

“The lonely mountains o’er,

And the resounding shore,

A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;

From haunted spring and dale,

Edged with poplar pale,

The parting Genius is with sighing sent;

With flower-inwoven tresses torn,

The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.

“In consecrated earth,

And on the holy hearth,

The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;

In urns and altars round,

A drear and dying sound

Affrights the Flamens at their service quaint;

And the chill marble seems to sweat,

While each peculiar Power foregoes his wonted seat.

“Peor and Baalim

Forsake their temples dim,

With that twice-battered god of Palestine;

And mooned Ashtaroth,

Heaven’s queen and mother both,

Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine;

The Lybic Hammon shrinks his horn;

In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.

“And sullen Moloch, fled,

Hath left in shadows dread

His burning idol all of darkest hue;

In vain with cymbals ring,

They call the grisly king,

In dismal dance about the furnace blue;

The brutish gods of Nile as fast,

Isis and Orus, and the Dog Anubis, haste.”

The quotation is a long one, but it is scarcely possible to shorten what is so beautiful and interesting a description of the heathen deities, whether in the classic personifications of Greece, the horrible shapes worshipped by mere barbarians, or the hieroglyphical enormities of the Egyptian Mythology. The idea of identifying the pagan deities, especially the most distinguished of them, with the manifestation of demoniac power, and concluding that the descent of our Saviour struck them with silence, so nobly expressed in the poetry of Milton, is not certainly to be lightly rejected. It has been asserted, in simple prose, by authorities of no mean weight; nor does there appear anything inconsistent in the faith of those who, believing that, in the elder time, fiends and demons were permitted an enlarged degree of power in uttering predictions, may also give credit to the proposition, that at the Divine Advent that power was restrained, the oracles silenced, and those demons who had aped the Divinity of the place were driven from their abode on earth, honoured as it was by a guest so awful.

It must be noticed, however, that this great event had not the same effect on that peculiar class of fiends who were permitted to vex mortals by the alienation of their minds, and the abuse of their persons, in the case of what is called Demoniacal possession. In what exact sense we should understand this word possession it is impossible to discover; but we feel it impossible to doubt (notwithstanding learned authorities to the contrary) that it was a dreadful disorder, of a kind not merely natural; and may be pretty well assured that it was suffered to continue after the Incarnation, because the miracles effected by our Saviour and his apostles, in curing those tormented in this way, afforded the most direct proofs of his divine mission, even out of the very mouths of those ejected fiends, the most malignant enemies of a power to which they dared not refuse homage and obedience. And here is an additional proof that witchcraft, in its ordinary and popular sense, was unknown at that period; although cases of possession are repeatedly mentioned in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, yet in no one instance do the devils ejected mention a witch or sorcerer, or plead the commands of such a person, as the cause of occupying or tormenting the victim — whereas, in a great proportion of those melancholy cases of witchcraft with which the records of later times abound, the stress of the evidence is rested on the declaration of the possessed, or the demon within him, that some old man or woman in the neighbourhood had compelled the fiend to be the instrument of evil.

It must also be admitted that in another most remarkable respect, the power of the Enemy of mankind was rather enlarged than bridled or restrained, in consequence of the Saviour coming upon earth. It is indisputable that, in order that Jesus might have his share in every species of delusion and persecution which the fallen race of Adam is heir to, he personally suffered the temptation in the wilderness at the hand of Satan, whom, without resorting to his divine power, he drove, confuted, silenced, and shamed, from his presence. But it appears, that although Satan was allowed, upon this memorable occasion, to come on earth with great power, the permission was given expressly because his time was short.

The indulgence which was then granted to him in a case so unique and peculiar soon passed over and was utterly restrained. It is evident that, after the lapse of the period during which it pleased the Almighty to establish His own Church by miraculous displays of power, it could not consist with his kindness and wisdom to leave the enemy in the possession of the privilege of deluding men by imaginary miracles calculated for the perversion of that faith which real miracles were no longer present to support. There would, we presume to say, be a shocking inconsistency in supposing that false and deceitful prophecies and portents should be freely circulated by any demoniacal influence, deceiving men’s bodily organs, abusing their minds, and perverting their faith, while the true religion was left by its great Author devoid of every supernatural sign and token which, in the time of its Founder and His immediate disciples, attested and celebrated their inappreciable mission. Such a permission on the part of the Supreme Being would be (to speak under the deepest reverence) an abandonment of His chosen people, ransomed at such a price, to the snares of an enemy from whom the worst evils were to be apprehended. Nor would it consist with the remarkable promise in holy writ, that “God will not suffer His people to be tempted above what they are able to bear.” I Cor. X. 13. The Fathers of the Faith are not strictly agreed at what period the miraculous power was withdrawn from the Church; but few Protestants are disposed to bring it down beneath the accession of Constantine, when the Christian religion was fully established in supremacy. The Roman Catholics, indeed, boldly affirm that the power of miraculous interference with the course of Nature is still in being; but the enlightened even of this faith, though they dare not deny a fundamental tenet of their church, will hardly assent to any particular case, without nearly the same evidence which might conquer the incredulity of their neighbours the Protestants. It is alike inconsistent with the common sense of either that fiends should be permitted to work marvels which are no longer exhibited on the part of Heaven, or in behalf of religion.

It will be observed that we have not been anxious to decide upon the limits of probability on this question. It is not necessary for us to ascertain in what degree the power of Satan was at liberty to display itself during the Jewish dispensation, or down to what precise period in the history of the Christian Church cures of demoniacal possession or similar displays of miraculous power may have occurred. We have avoided controversy on that head, because it comprehends questions not more doubtful than unedifying. Little benefit could arise from attaining the exact knowledge of the manner in which the apostate Jews practised unlawful charms or auguries. After their conquest and dispersion they were remarked among the Romans for such superstitious practices; and the like, for What we know, may continue to linger among the benighted wanderers of their race at the present day. But all these things are extraneous to our enquiry, the purpose of which was to discover whether any real evidence could be derived from sacred history to prove the early existence of that branch of demonology which has been the object, in comparatively modern times, of criminal prosecution and capital punishment. We have already alluded to this as the contract of witchcraft, in which, as the term was understood in the Middle Ages, the demon and the witch or wizard combined their various powers of doing harm to inflict calamities upon the person and property, the fortune and the fame, of innocent human beings, imposing the most horrible diseases, and death itself, as marks of their slightest ill-will; transforming their own persons and those of others at their pleasure; raising tempests to ravage the crops of their enemies, or carrying them home to their own garners; annihilating or transferring to their own dairies the produce of herds; spreading pestilence among cattle, infecting and blighting children; and, in a word, doing more evil than the heart of man might be supposed capable of conceiving, by means far beyond mere human power to accomplish. If it could be supposed that such unnatural leagues existed, and that there were wretches wicked enough, merely for the gratification of malignant spite or the enjoyment of some beastly revelry, to become the wretched slaves of infernal spirits, most just and equitable would be those laws which cut them off from the midst of every Christian commonwealth. But it is still more just and equitable, before punishment be inflicted for any crime, to prove that there is a possibility of that crime being committed. We have therefore advanced an important step in our enquiry when we have ascertained that the witch of the Old Testament was not capable of anything beyond the administration of baleful drugs or the practising of paltry imposture; in other words, that she did not hold the character ascribed to a modern sorceress. We have thus removed out of the argument the startling objection that, in denying the existence of witchcraft, we deny the possibility of a crime which was declared capital in the Mosaic law, and are left at full liberty to adopt the opinion, that the more modern system of witchcraft was a part, and by no means the least gross, of that mass of errors which appeared among the members of the Christian Church when their religion, becoming gradually corrupted by the devices of men and the barbarism of those nations among whom it was spread showed, a light indeed, but one deeply tinged with the remains of that very pagan ignorance which its Divine Founder came to dispel.

We will, in a future part of this enquiry, endeavour to show that many of the particular articles of the popular belief respecting magic and witchcraft were derived from the opinions which the ancient heathens entertained as part of their religion. To recommend them, however, they had principles lying deep in the human mind and heart of all times; the tendency to belief in supernatural agencies is natural, and indeed seems connected with and deduced from the invaluable conviction of the certainty of a future state. Moreover, it is very possible that particular stories of this class may have seemed undeniable in the dark ages, though our better instructed period can explain them in a satisfactory manner by the excited temperament of spectators, or the influence of delusions produced by derangement of the intellect or imperfect reports of the external senses. They obtained, however, universal faith and credit; and the churchmen, either from craft or from ignorance, favoured the progress of a belief which certainly contributed in a most powerful manner to extend their own authority over the human mind.

To pass from the pagans of antiquity — the Mahommedans, though their profession of faith is exclusively unitarian, were accounted worshippers of evil spirits, who were supposed to aid them in their continual warfare against the Christians, or to protect and defend them in the Holy Land, where their abode gave so much scandal and offence to the devout. Romance, and even history, combined in representing all who were out of the pale of the Church as the personal vassals of Satan, who played his deceptions openly amongst them; and Mahound, Termagaunt, and Apollo were, in the opinion of the Western Crusaders, only so many names of the arch-fiend and his principal angels. The most enormous fictions spread abroad and believed through Christendom attested the fact, that there were open displays of supernatural aid afforded by the evil spirits to the Turks and Saracens; and fictitious reports were not less liberal in assigning to the Christians extraordinary means of defence through the direct protection of blessed saints and angels, or of holy men yet in the flesh, but already anticipating the privileges proper to a state of beatitude and glory, and possessing the power to work miracles.

To show the extreme grossness of these legends, we may give an example from the romance of “Richard Coeur de Lion,” premising at the same time that, like other romances, it was written in what the author designed to be the style of true history, and was addressed to hearers and readers, not as a tale of fiction, but a real narrative of facts, so that the legend is a proof of what the age esteemed credible and were disposed to believe as much as if had been extracted from a graver chronicle.

The renowned Saladin, it is said, had dispatched an embassy to King Richard, with the present of a colt recommended as a gallant war-horse, challenging Coeur de Lion to meet him in single combat between the armies, for the purpose of deciding at once their pretensions to the land of Palestine, and the theological question whether the God of the Christians, or Jupiter, the deity of the Saracens, should be the future object of adoration by the subjects of both monarchs. Now, under this seemingly chivalrous defiance was concealed a most unknightly stratagem, and which we may at the same time call a very clumsy trick for the devil to be concerned in. A Saracen clerk had conjured two devils into a mare and her colt, with the instruction, that whenever the mare neighed, the foal, which was a brute of uncommon size, should kneel down to suck his dam. The enchanted foal was sent to King Richard in the belief that the foal, obeying the signal of its dam as usual, the Soldan who mounted the mare might get an easy advantage over him.

But the English king was warned by an angel in a dream of the intended stratagem, and the colt was, by the celestial mandate, previously to the combat, conjured in the holy name to be obedient to his rider during the encounter. The fiend-horse intimated his submission by drooping his head, but his word was not entirely credited. His ears were stopped with wax. In this condition, Richard, armed at all points and with various marks of his religious faith displayed on his weapons, rode forth to meet Saladin, and the Soldan, confident of his stratagem, encountered him boldly. The mare neighed till she shook the ground for miles around; but the sucking devil, whom the wax prevented from hearing the summons, could not obey the signal. Saladin was dismounted, and narrowly escaped death, while his army were cut to pieces by the Christians. It is but an awkward tale of wonder where a demon is worsted by a trick which could hardly have cheated a common horse-jockey; but by such legends our ancestors were amused and interested, till their belief respecting the demons of the Holy Land seems to have been not very far different from that expressed in the title of Ben Jonson’s play, “The Devil is an Ass.”

One of the earliest maps ever published, which appeared at Rome in the sixteenth century, intimates a similar belief in the connexion of the heathen nations of the north of Europe with the demons of the spiritual world. In Esthonia, Lithuania, Courland, and such districts, the chart, for want, it may be supposed, of an accurate account of the country, exhibits rude cuts of the fur-clad natives paying homage at the shrines of demons, who make themselves visibly present to them; while at other places they are displayed as doing battle with the Teutonic knights, or other military associations formed for the conversion or expulsion of the heathens in these parts. Amid the pagans, armed with scimitars and dressed in caftans, the fiends are painted as assisting them, pourtrayed in all the modern horrors of the cloven foot, or, as the Germans term it, horse’s foot, bat wings, saucer eyes, locks like serpents, and tail like a dragon. These attributes, it may be cursorily noticed, themselves intimate the connexion of modern demonology with the mythology of the ancients. The cloven foot is the attribute of Pan — to whose talents for inspiring terror we owe the word panic— the snaky tresses are borrowed from the shield of Minerva, and the dragon train alone seems to be connected with the Scriptural history.5

5 The chart alluded to is one of the jac-similes of an ancient planisphere, engraved in bronze about the end of the 15th century, and called the Borgian Table, from its possessor, Cardinal Stephen Borgia, and preserved in his museum at Veletri.

Other heathen nations, whose creeds could not have directly contributed to the system of demonology, because their manners and even their very existence was unknown when it was adopted, were nevertheless involved, so soon as Europeans became acquainted with them, in the same charge of witchcraft and worship of demons brought by the Christians of the Middle Ages against the heathens of northern Europe and the Mahommedans of the East. We learn from the information of a Portuguese voyager that even the native Christians (called those of St. Thomas), whom the discoverers found in India when they first arrived there, fell under suspicion of diabolical practices. It was almost in vain that the priests of one of their chapels produced to the Portuguese officers and soldiers a holy image, and called on them, as good Christians, to adore the Blessed Virgin. The sculptor had been so little acquainted with his art, and the hideous form which he had produced resembled an inhabitant of the infernal regions so much more than Our Lady of Grace, that one of the European officers, while, like his companions, he dropped on his knees, added the loud protest, that if the image represented the Devil, he paid his homage to the Holy Virgin.

In South America the Spaniards justified the unrelenting cruelties exercised on the unhappy natives by reiterating, in all their accounts of the countries which they discovered and conquered, that the Indians, in their idol worship, were favoured by the demons with a direct intercourse, and that their priests inculcated doctrines and rites the foulest and most abhorrent to Christian ears. The great snake-god of Mexico, and other idols worshipped with human sacrifices and bathed in the gore of their prisoners, gave but too much probability to this accusation; and if the images themselves were not actually tenanted by evil spirits, the worship which the Mexicans paid to them was founded upon such deadly cruelty and dark superstition as might easily be believed to have been breathed into mortals by the agency of hell.

Even in North America, the first settlers in New England and other parts of that immense continent uniformly agreed that they detected among the inhabitants traces of an intimate connexion with Satan. It is scarce necessary to remark that this opinion was founded exclusively upon the tricks practised by the native powahs, or cunning men, to raise themselves to influence among the chiefs, and to obtain esteem with the people, which, possessed as they were professionally of some skill in jugglery and the knowledge of some medical herbs and secrets, the understanding of the colonists was unable to trace to their real source — legerdemain and imposture. By the account, however, of the Reverend Cotton Mather, in his Magnalia, book vi.,6 he does not ascribe to these Indian conjurers any skill greatly superior to a maker of almanacks or common fortune-teller. “They,” says the Doctor, “universally acknowledged and worshipped many gods, and therefore highly esteemed and reverenced their priests, powahs, or wizards, who were esteemed as having immediate converse with the gods. To them, therefore, they addressed themselves in all difficult cases: yet could not all that desired that dignity, as they esteemed it, obtain familiarity with the infernal spirits. Nor were all powahs alike successful in their addresses; but they became such, either by immediate revelation, or in the use of certain rites and ceremonies, which tradition had left as conducing to that end. In so much, that parents, out of zeal, often dedicated their children to the gods, and educated them accordingly, observing a certain diet, debarring sleep, &c.: yet of the many designed, but few obtained their desire. Supposing that where the practice of witchcraft has been highly esteemed, there must be given the plainest demonstration of mortals having familiarity with infernal spirits, I am willing to let my reader know, that, not many years since, here died one of the powahs, who never pretended to astrological knowledge, yet could precisely inform such who desired his assistance, from whence goods stolen from them were gone, and whither carried, with many things of the like nature; nor was he ever known to endeavour to conceal his knowledge to be immediately from a god subservient to him that the English worship. This powah, being by an Englishman worthy of credit (who lately informed me of the same), desired to advise him who had taken certain goods which had been stolen, having formerly been an eye-witness of his ability, the powah, after a little pausing, demanded why he requested that from him, since himself served another God? that therefore he could not help him; but added, ‘If you can believe that my god may help you, I will try what I can do; which diverted the man from further enquiry. I must a little digress, and tell my reader, that this powah’s wife was accounted a godly woman, and lived in the practice and profession of the Christian religion, not only by the approbation, but encouragement of her husband. She constantly prayed in the family, and attended the public worship on the Lord’s days. He declared that he could not blame her, for that she served a god that was above his; but that as to himself, his god’s continued kindness obliged him not to forsake his service.” It appears, from the above and similar passages, that Dr. Cotton Mather, an honest and devout, but sufficiently credulous man, had mistaken the purpose of the tolerant powah. The latter only desired to elude the necessity of his practices being brought under the observant eye of an European, while he found an ingenious apology in the admitted superiority which he naturally conceded to the Deity of a people, advanced, as he might well conceive, so far above his own in power and attainments, as might reasonably infer a corresponding superiority in the nature and objects of their worship.

6 “On Remarkable Mercies of Divine Providence.”

From another narrative we are entitled to infer that the European wizard was held superior to the native sorcerer of North America. Among the numberless extravagances of the Scottish Dissenters of the 17th century, now canonized in a lump by those who view them in the general light of enemies to Prelacy, was a certain ship-master, called, from his size, Meikle John Gibb. This man, a person called Jamie, and one or two other men, besides twenty or thirty females who adhered to them, went the wildest lengths of enthusiasm. Gibb headed a party, who followed him into the moorlands, and at the Ford Moss, between Airth and Stirling, burned their Bibles, as an act of solemn adherence to their new faith. They were apprehended in consequence, and committed to prison; and the rest of the Dissenters, however differently they were affected by the persecution of Government, when it applied to themselves, were nevertheless much offended that these poor mad people were not brought to capital punishment for their blasphemous extravagances; and imputed it as a fresh crime to the Duke of York that, though he could not be often accused of toleration, he considered the discipline of the house of correction as more likely to bring the unfortunate Gibbites to their senses than the more dignified severities of a public trial and the gallows. The Cameronians, however, did their best to correct this scandalous lenity. As Meikle John Gibb, who was their comrade in captivity, used to disturb their worship in jail by his maniac howling, two of them took turn about to hold him down by force, and silence him by a napkin thrust into his mouth. This mode of quieting the unlucky heretic, though sufficiently emphatic, being deemed ineffectual or inconvenient, George Jackson, a Cameronian, who afterwards suffered at the gallows, dashed the maniac with his feet and hands against the wall, and beat him so severely that the rest were afraid that he had killed him outright. After which specimen of fraternal chastisement, the lunatic, to avoid the repetition of the discipline, whenever the prisoners began worship, ran behind the door, and there, with his own napkin crammed into his mouth, sat howling like a chastised cur. But on being finally transported to America, John Gibb, we are assured, was much admired by the heathen for his familiar converse with the devil bodily, and offering sacrifices to him. “He died there,” says Walker, “about the year 1720.”7 We must necessarily infer that the pretensions of the natives to supernatural communication could not be of a high class, since we find them honouring this poor madman as their superior; and, in general, that the magic, or powahing, of the North American Indians was not of a nature to be much apprehended by the British colonists, since the natives themselves gave honour and precedence to those Europeans who came among them with the character of possessing intercourse with the spirits whom they themselves professed to worship.

7 See Patrick Walker’s “Biographia Presbyteriana,” vol. ii. p. 23; also “God’s Judgment upon Persecutors,” and Wodrow’s “History,” upon the article John Gibb.

Notwithstanding this inferiority on the part of the powahs, it occurred to the settlers that the heathen Indians and Roman Catholic Frenchmen were particularly favoured by the demons, who sometimes adopted their appearance, and showed themselves in their likeness, to the great annoyance of the colonists. Thus, in the year 1692, a party of real or imaginary French and Indians exhibited themselves occasionally to the colonists of the town of Gloucester, in the county of Essex, New England, alarmed the country around very greatly, skirmished repeatedly with the English, and caused the raising of two regiments, and the dispatching a strong reinforcement to the assistance of the settlement. But as these visitants, by whom they were plagued more than a fortnight, though they exchanged fire with the settlers, never killed or scalped any one, the English became convinced that they were not real Indians and Frenchmen, but that the devil and his agents had assumed such an appearance, although seemingly not enabled effectually to support it, for the molestation of the colony.8

8 “Magnalia,” book vii. article xviii. The fact is also alleged in the “Life of Sir William Phipps.”

It appears, then, that the ideas of superstition which the more ignorant converts to the Christian faith borrowed from the wreck of the classic mythology, were so rooted in the minds of their successors, that these found corroboration of their faith in demonology in the practice of every pagan nation whose destiny it was to encounter them as enemies, and that as well within the limits of Europe as in every other part of the globe to which their arms were carried. In a word, it may be safely laid down, that the commonly received doctrine of demonology, presenting the same general outlines, though varied according to the fancy of particular nations, existed through all Europe. It seems to have been founded originally on feelings incident to the human heart, or diseases to which the human frame is liable — to have been largely augmented by what classic superstitions survived the ruins of paganism — and to have received new contributions from the opinions collected among the barbarous nations, whether of the east or of the west. It is now necessary to enter more minutely into the question, and endeavour to trace from what especial sources the people of the Middle Ages derived those notions which gradually assumed the shape of a regular system of demonology.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/demonology/chapter2.html

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