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Pages (PDF): 304
Publication Date: This translation by Alfred Richard Allinson, 1939
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This is a translation of Jules Michelet's La Sorcière, originally published in Paris in 1862. Michelet was one of the first to attempt a sociological explanation of the Witch trials. As time went on, the cult became institutionalized, which led to tacit toleration in some quarters. Michelet's portrayal of the lone sorceress as a pioneer of medicine and science is also memorable. Towards the end, a different kind of diabolical intervention is analyzed; the 'possession' of nuns in the 17th century, and how it was stage-managed by sadistic male clerics.
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THERE are authors who assure us that a little while before the final victory of Christianity a mysterious voice was heard along the shores of the Ægean Sea, proclaiming: "Great Pan is dead!"
The old universal god of Nature is no more. Great the jubilation; it was fancied that, Nature being defunct, Temptation was dead too. Storm-tossed for so many years, the human soul was to enjoy peace at last.
Was it simply a question of the termination of the ancient worship, the defeat of the old faith, the eclipse of time-honoured religious forms? No! it was more than this. Consulting the earliest Christian monuments, we find in every line the hope expressed, that Nature is to disappear and life die out—in a word, that the end of the world is at hand.
The game is up for the gods of life, who have so long kept up a vain simulacrum of vitality. Their world is falling round them in crumbling ruin. All is swallowed up in nothingness: "Great Pan is dead!"
It was no new evangel that the gods must die. More than one ancient cult is based on this very notion of the death of the gods. Osiris dies, Adonis dies—it is true, in this case, to rise again. Æschylus, on the stage itself, in those dramas that were played only on the feast-days of the gods, expressly warns them, by the voice of Prometheus, that one day they must die. Die! but how?—vanquished, subjugated to the Titans, the antique powers of Nature.
Here it is an entirely different matter. The early Christians, as a whole and individually, in the past and in the future, hold Nature herself accursed. They condemn her as a whole and in every part, going so far as to see Evil incarnate, the Demon himself, in a flower. So, welcome—and the sooner the better—the angel-hosts that of old destroyed the Cities of the Plain. Let them destroy, fold away like a veil, the empty image of the world, and at length deliver the saints from the long-drawn ordeal of temptation.
The Gospel says: "The day is at hand." The Fathers say: "Soon, very soon." The disintegration of the Roman Empire and the inroads of the barbarian invaders raise hopes in St. Augustine's breast, that soon there will be no city left but the City of God.
Yet how long a-dying the world is, how obstinately determined to live on! Like Hezekiah, it craves a respite, a going backward of the dial. So be it then, till the year One Thousand,—but not a day longer.
Is it so certain, as we have been told over and over again, that the old gods were exhausted, sick of themselves and weary of existence? that out of sheer discouragement they as good as gave in their own abdication? that Christianity was able with a breath to blow away these empty phantoms?
They point to the gods at Rome, the gods of the Capitol, where they were only admitted in virtue of an anticipatory death, I mean on condition of resigning all they had of local sap, of renouncing their home and country, of ceasing to be deities representative of such and such a nation. Indeed, in order to receive them, Rome had had to submit them to a cruel operation, that left them poor, enervated, bloodless creatures. These great centralised Divinities had become, in their official life, mere dismal functionaries of the Roman Empire. But, though fallen from its high estate, this Aristocracy of Olympus had in nowise involved in its own decay the host of indigenous gods, the crowd of deities still holding possession of the boundless plains, of woods and hills and springs, inextricably blended with the life of the countryside. These divinities, enshrined in the heart of oaks, lurking in rushing streams and deep pools, could not be driven out.
Who says so? The Church herself, contradicting herself flatly. She first proclaims them dead, then waxes indignant because they are still alive. From century to century, by the threatening voice of her Councils, she orders them to die. . . . And lo! they are as much alive as ever!
"They are demons . . ."—and therefore alive. Unable to kill them, the Church suffers the innocent-hearted countryfolk to dress them up and disguise their true nature. Legends grow round them, they are baptised, actually admitted into the Christian hierarchy. But are they converted? Not yet by any means. We catch them still on the sly continuing their old heathen ways and Pagan nature.
Where are they to be found? In the desert, on lonely heaths, in wild forests? Certainly, but above all in the house. They cling to the most domestic of domestic habits; women guard and hide them at board and even bed. They still possess the best stronghold in the world—better than the temple, to wit the hearth.
History knows of no other revolution so violent and unsparing as that of Theodosius. There is no trace elsewhere in antiquity of so wholesale a proscription of a religion. The Persian fire-worship, in its high-wrought purity, might outrage the visible gods of other creeds; but at any rate it suffered them to remain. Under it the Jews were treated with great clemency, and were protected and employed. Greece, daughter of the light, made merry over the gods of darkness, the grotesque pot-bellied Cabiri; but still she tolerated them, and even adopted them as working gnomes, making her own Vulcan in their likeness. Rome, in the pride of her might, welcomed not only Etruria, but the rustic gods as well of the old Italian husbandman. The Druids she persecuted only as embodying a national resistance dangerous to her dominion.