The Witches' Sabbath, as it is understood within Traditional Witchcraft, is an otherworldly gathering of practitioners and spirits. The Sabbath is an event that is rooted in a rich, and deeply complex body of history and folklore pertaining Witches and their compatriots in the sorcerous arts. As modern practitioners, we often look to this history and folklore to inform and inspire our Craft. In doing so, we discover a plethora of common iconography across accounts of the Witches' Sabbath. And, upon closer inspection, these symbols reveal powerful spiritual insights. Below you will find just a few of these Sabbatic motifs.
In order to get to their nocturnal Sabbaths, the accused Witches of history and those found in folklore were often said to fly. Whether it be astride a broomstick, a pitchfork, or some animal, the Witch taking flight across a darkened sky is a piece of long-enduring Sabbath iconography. It was often the source of debate among learned authorities and persectors whether or not the Witches' power of transvection occured physically or in spirit-form. But the exact nature of flight doesn't matter on the symbolic level, as both forms (physical and spiritual) contain the same core meanings. Both physical and spiritual flight require the Witch to be released from constraint, the former being gravitational laws and the latter being the human body. Thus, the Witch sheds their mortal coil in order to literally ascend their circumstances. They rise high above the ground and into a realm of both freedom and empowerment.
There are many cited locations for the Witches' Sabbath within folklore, but one of the most popular was mountain tops. In areas such as Russia and Poland these locations were commonly referred to as "bald" mountains, noting the fact that no vegetation grew at their summit. It's easy to see how mountain tops would be an ideal location for the Sabbath, as they would likely be secluded and easily accessible by means of flight (connecting further to the symbolism of rising above circumstance). Beyond privacy, though, mountain tops had the added benefit of being a liminal space. Existing between the ground below and the sky above, mountains have the capacity to act as doorways into the Otherworld. As the Witches' Sabbath itself is an Otherworldly event, having it take place in such a liminal spot would be quite advantageous.
Central to the Sabbath ground in several narratives is a large, blazing bonfire. Like Prometheus's stolen flames, the fire present at the Sabbath is symbolic of divine wisdom and inspiration. The light of the bonfire offers both literal and metaphorical illumination for the Witches in attendance. The fire, as a repository of spirit force and magic, sparks passion in the hearts of those Witches present and emboldens their bodies to surrender to the Sabbath's ecstasy. Furthermore, the symbolism of the Sabbath's fire is reflected by the flame that, in some descriptions, burns between the horns of the Devil. This light betwixt the horns, as it is often referred to by modern practitioners, is the very gift of Witching power that the Man in Black bestows upon his followers.
Man in Black
The enigmatic Man in Black is the official leader of the Witches' Sabbath. The title "Man in Black" is in reference to the black, or dark, clothes that he is often said to wear. Beneath his shadowy exterior, the Man in Black is the Devil himself. However, as such, this Devil of the Witches stands out in folklore as being quite different from the theological Satan. Instead of being a spirit of pure evil, the Man in Black is much more nuanced and complicated than a moral binary distinction. While he can certainly appear overtly cruel and fickle at times, he is the one who stands as initiator into the ways of Witchcraft. Through the tests and trials of the Man in Black, those who are in need find themselves both enchanted and empowered. By his hand, would be Witches are guided along the crooked path and taught the art of the Craft.
Together, the individual Witches in attendance at the Sabbath form the collective coven. The number of Witches at the Sabbath, and thus of the coven's array, varies widely from one account to another. In some instances the coven is as small as three while in others the number of Witches stretches into the hundreds. The coven represents community, the coming together of the disenfranchised in order to bolster one another. While there are some accounts of dissension within covens, often based around socioeconomic status, most tell of groups that appear to have worked well together. Given the outsider status of many of the accused, the coven would have likely provided a sense of comoderie for those who many have otherwise been isolated.
Acts of magic performed at the Sabbath were typically for malefic, or harmful, purposes. Often these rituals were intended to cause harm to perceived enemies—whether those were enemies of the Devil, the individual Witch, or the entire coven itself. One way that these goals were fulfilled was through the creation and implementation of poppets.These dolls were crafted in the image of the target and then either stuck with thorns or slowly roasted over a fire, causing the destruction of both the poppet and the enemy it represented. Given the disenfranchised nature of many of the accused, it was not uncommon that they experienced frequent abuse at the hands of their community. As such, the poppets made in the likeness of these enemies can be seen as representations of both magically induced justice and revenge.
On a more festive note, the Witches' Sabbath was also a place for great dancing. Spinning in pure ecstasy, the Witches were said to dance in a ring with their backs to one another. It was sometimes postulated that Witches danced in this manner so as not to see one another's face, lest they recognize the identities of their fellow coven members. Yet, beyond the need for anonymity, there is a rich symbolism present in the ring dances that must not be overlooked. Facing outward with their arms linked, they moved in a counterclockwise fashion. In doing so, the Witches were circling against the sun and thus against God's light. These sintral rounds led the coven into a place of ecstatic darkness in which the paradoxical spark of divine illumination and freedom could be found.
Another common feature of the Witches' Sabbath were the feasts headed by the Devil. At times these feasts were sumptuous, with an abundance of food and drink. As a place opposite of mundane reality, the inclusion of bountiful feasts at the Sabbath makes sense given the poverty that many faced during the time of the Witch Trials in Europe and the early American Colonies (roughly between the 15th and 17th century). Moreover, the Sabbath feast represents a spiritual communion between Witches and the Devil, or more broadly with the Otherworld as a whole. It was often the case that the Devil provided provisions for the Sabbath, but other times Witches brought their own food and drink—which they had typically stolen from neighbors. The exchange and sharing taking place during these meals is a mystical symbiosis in which deep spiritual fulfillment is achieved.