The Medieval Crushing of the Cathars and Sexualizing of Witches
Many Christian writers identified the gods and lesser spirits of the Greek and Roman world with demons. This ushered in the Christian practice of demonizing those they perceived as their opponents. One of those opponents to the Catholic Church was the Cathars, whose persecution set the stage for many of the horrors committed by the church - in the name of God.
Who were the Cathars?
In the 12th to 14th century, the Cathars emerged as a medieval sect, who questioned many tenets of the Catholic Church. For instance, they believed that there were two gods: one a god of good, and the other a god of evil. They also preached about poverty, and rebelled against the Catholic Church's corruption and exploitation of the poor. As a result, they were first branded as heretics, and ultimately as devil worshippers and practitioners of witchcraft. The tales circulated about the Cathars would make Frankenstein look like a comedian. All the horrors and sexual fantasies imaginable by a Bosch or Bruegel were heaped on these miscreants, who dared to follow too closely in the steps of Jesus.
According to some medieval writers, the susceptible were lured into a religious building and introduced to the devil. Those who agreed to join his following were made to take an oath of fidelity. They vowed to kill as many children under the age of three as possible, and take their bodies to the religious building. They swore to impede sexual intercourse among married people wherever possible, and to bequeath some part of their body to the devil at their time of death. So was said by the medieval propaganda machine.
To celebrate new members, the sect supposedly ate a meal prepared from the flesh of dead children. After dinner, the devil ordered the lights out. Then, at his command, the witches engaged in orgiastic sex: men with women or men or in groups, sometimes father with daughter, mother with son, or brother with sister. When the party was over, people were given a jar of magic ointment, supposedly made from the fat of incinerated children, to rub on the tip of their walking sticks and speed them on their journey home (Almond, 98).
These were the reasons given by the Church to torture the Cathars, and confiscate, destroy, and appropriate their property, along with that of others.
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Cathars being burnt at the stake in an auto-da-fé, anachronistically presided over by Saint Dominic. (Soerfm / Public Domain)
You’re All Witches!
That old back magic has me in it spell.
That old black magic that you weave so well.
Those icy fingers up and down my spine.
That same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.
Stories like those of the Cathars were prelude to the next set of actors designed to scare the wits out of people: witches. In some ways, witches were even more effective, since they were flesh and blood human beings, infected by not-quite-tangible demons.
Fear of women’s sexuality was rampant in the Middle Ages. With that as a reason, or an excuse, thousands of women were burned as witches by the Church authorities. Gratian's Decretum, the most important collection of 12th century ecclesiastical laws, issued the following warning about witches:
Some wicked women perverted by the devil...profess themselves, in the hours of night, to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the pagans...and in innumerable multitudes of women, to traverse great spaces of the earth…
Starting in the 15th century, several Christian writers began to tout the idea that women were far more inclined to become witches, due to their greater lack of faith, and especially because of their carnal nature. The Malleus Maleficarum, a 1487 bestseller, warns that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in woman is insatiable” (Kieckhefer, P42) .
Any woman could easily be accused of witchcraft (Maksim Shmeljov / Adobe Stock)
However, these fairy tales started long before then, and remember, almost every fairy tale has its bad guys. Jewish folk wisdom, and the pagans as well, told stories of seductive women, stirring up lust and envy. These creatures turned men against each other, just when you needed citizen soldiers united to battle for Yahweh or for Christ. In this way, female sexuality was further connected to evil. It was also bandied about that sex with demonic figures was more pleasurable than sex with other humans.
In 1523, Pico Della Mirandola, a fiery priest from Florence (who was eventually thrown into the fire for denouncing the excesses of the Church), composed a dialogue between a skeptic named Apistius and a judge named Dicasto:
Apistius: I just can't understand why it's so much better with the Devil.
Dicasto: Witches claim there is no pleasure like it on earth.
Apistius: At least it's on earth; not on a cloud. Is it because it's forbidden fruit?
Dicasto: No need to go back that far. No, some witches claim there are three reasons. One: demons can assume an angelic face. Two: their professions of love seem more convincing. And three––probably the most important, I suspect––is that their virile members were uncommonly large.
Apistius: That could account for the hot time they had.
Dicasto: Actually, my skeptical friend, some confessions I've taken speak of the Devil's semen as being very cold. One poor woman admitted she had taken in hand the member of a Demon who had laid with her...and it was cold as ice.
Eventually, the ravings of these monastic misogynists went through the roof. One reported that the confessions of a female witch included a description of a demon with a bifurcated penis. Another wrote: "When coupling with witches, "Satan sometimes assumes the form of a black man, sometimes the form of an animal like a dog or a cat or a ram" (Almond, 102).
Although many men were also tried as witches, witchcraft was predominantly a female crime, and thus, another way to control the female sex. It was also a wonderful way to get even with your neighbor, since one report of a person doing witchy things was often enough to get them hauled up before the inquisitor. Witchcraft, or at least accusations of witchcraft, proliferated.
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The Assassination of Saint Peter the Martyr, by Giovanni Bellini, an assassination deemed organized by Cathar heretics. (Public Domain)
No Witchcraft Permit, No Witchcraft Practice
Before you dismiss this kind of stuff as solely a medieval fantasy, check out this recent report on the witchcraft taxation in Romania:
"The Romanian government recently proposed a bill taxing the country’s soothsayers and fortune tellers. Witches argue they shouldn't be blamed for the failure of their tools. "They condemn witches, they should condemn the cards," Queen Witch Bratara Buzea told the Associated Press by telephone…
In January, officials changed labor laws to officially recognize the centuries-old practice as a taxable profession, prompting angry witches to dump poisonous mandrake into the Danube in an attempt to put a hex on the government… The bill would require witches to have a permit, to provide their customers with receipts, and also bar them from practicing near schools and churches” (CBS/AP, 2011)
The Devil's Dance
As late as the 17th century (1612 to be exact), one witch-hunting inquisitor provided further details of the devil's dance: people were made to "adore a demon in the form of a hideous billy-goat, to kiss him and caress the foulest parts of his body...At the feasts, they had to eat the flesh of people who were hanged, dead bodies, and the hearts of unbaptized children."
Our inquisitor includes the confessions of a 16-year-old girl from Gascony accused of witchcraft. She described the details of the devil's organ, which was covered with scales, and longer than an alder brush, but dark red and curled like a snake. At other times, its member was longer than a mule's, and was half iron and half flesh. Those accused of witchcraft claimed that ‘the Evil One’ normally had sex with the pretty ones from the front, and with the ugly ones from the rear (de Lancre in Almond, 109).
We'll leave to your imagination the kinds of tortures that were used to extract such confessions from women, young and old.
For a thousand years, prelates, bishops, theologians, and inquisitors spewed out writings like these.
Another story comes from a sermon by a 15th century priest named Bernadino of Siena, describing a coven of women who were taken into custody on suspicion of witchcraft:
And there was one among the others, who confessed without being put to torture, that she had killed 30 children by sucking their blood...that every time she let one of them go free, she must sacrifice the limb of an animal...She confessed she had killed her own little son, and had made a powder from him, which she gave people to eat...
Here’s an excerpt from the Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer's best-selling medieval manual on witchcraft. The quote is from an accused sorceress being questioned about capturing babies:
We prey on babies, especially those not yet baptized...With our ceremonies we kill them in their cribs or while they lie beside their parents, and while they are thought to have been squashed or to have died of something else, we steal them secretly from the tomb and boil them in a cauldron until all the flesh is made almost drinkable, the bones having been pulled out. From the more solid matter we make a paste...and from the more runny liquid, we fill a container...Whoever drinks from this container is immediately rendered knowledgeable when a few ceremonies are added, and becomes the master of our sect (Almond, 120).
The Malleus Maleficarum manual also describes how they made a paste from the limbs of children, then smeared it on a piece of wood, by which they could be carried aloft any time of day or night.
If you sample a thousand years of these writings by these supposed men of God, there's only one logical conclusion you can come to: they were all, even the great ones, repulsed by sex and any form of sexual intimacy, and obsessed with the concept of witchcraft. This led them to commit horrific atrocities, even prior to the genocide of the Cathars. There seems little doubt it was the horrors of hell, far more than the bliss of heaven, which drove people to give everything they had to the ‘Great Mother Church’.
This and related topics are examined more deeply in Steven Darian’s latest book, The Heretic’s Book of Death & Laughter: The Role of Religion in Just About Everything, available from Amazon.
Top Image: Les Cathares, painting by Bernard Romain. Source: Public Domain
By Steven Darian
Almond, P. 2014. The Devil. Ithaca: Cornell.
“Bad News in the Cards for Romania’s Witches.” February 8, 2011. CBS/AP. Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/bad-news-in-the-cards-for-romanias-witches/
Darian, S 2022. The Heretic’s Book of Death & Laughter: The Role of Religion in Just About Everything. Linus Learning
Kieckhefer, R. 1988 . Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the 15th century. University Park, PA: Penn State