The Collector: 5 Extraordinary Medieval Women

According to Murray, down to the seventeenth century, there persisted in Europe the relics of a religion centered on the worship of the two-faced horned god Dianus, who represented the cycle of crops and seasons. This agrarian cult was easily confused with devil worshiping and, as such, prosecuted. Though mostly discredited, Murray’s thesis has enjoyed a certain influence and was responsible also for the proliferation of modern witch covens. In more recent times, other scholars have reconsidered the linking between fertility magic and witchcraft, or centered their attention on the libidinous aspects of the sabbat, suggesting that ecstatic experiences or trances, often induced by drugs or hallucinogenic herbs, share many patterns with the ancient cult of Dionysus, which also was mainly performed by women. It is indeed possible that the stirrings of feminine discontent may have contributed to the orgiastic elements in witches’ revels. Those who plausibly deny the existence of covens and organized sects underline how the spreading of such an idea was the product of a society that strongly insisted on religious conformity, repressed dissent, and did its best to enforce that conformity. Nevertheless, whatever might be the final interpretation, it is important to consider how witchcraft was thought of as a collective fact. Though witches performed spells individually, they were a society bound together by communal rites, and in every respect they were thought to represent a collective inversion of Christianity.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, qabbalistic doctrines were often given a shade of mystical eroticism. Such a development reached its apex in the controversial figure of the Smyrnean Sabbatai Sevi (1626-1676), the pretended messiah and founder (in the Ottoman Empire during the second half of the seventeenth century) of a Jewish sect inspired by qabbalistic teachings and pervaded by millennial expectations, who at the end of his life made an astonishing and unclear conversion to Islam in order to have spared his life from the sultan. Sabbatai’s behavior presents a strange mixture of erotic mysticism and inhibitions, which increased as he became master over a large number of enthusiastic followers, culminating in an alternation of semierotic and semiascetic rituals (for example, the singing of psalms, clad in phylacteries and surrounded by women and wine). Accounts of his life include also charges of immorality, which cannot be lightly dismissed as an invention of hostile sources. However, there is little or no evidence of debauchery during the early period, as long as he was a Jewish rabbi, despite fits of manic enthusiasm; on the contrary, all allegations of moral excesses date after his apostasy. There may have been tendencies in Sabbatai that remained suppressed for a long time by his ascetic way of life but that erupted sooner or later, perhaps after his marriage with Sarah, through whom a licentious element entered in his life. According to some contemporary Armenian sources, Sabbatai had relations with women or favorites and was accused by his adversaries of lewdness and debauches. Among the disconcerting conduct he kept up, he was variously said to have taken with him for many days some virgins and then returned them, allegedly without having touched them. There are also documents that testify how Sabbatai prided himself on his ability to have intercourse with virgins without actually deflowering them. Also a favorable source, that is, his disciple Abraham Cuenque’s idealized account of Sabbatai’s residence (during his imprisonment) at the “Tower of Strength” in Abydos, says that the “messiah” and his wife Sarah were attended by beautiful virgins, the daughters of the most illustrious families, and also that several rabbis submitted to him their queries and difficulties in matters of rabbinic law, a description oddly reminiscent of similar and anything but legendary accounts of “Platonic” arrangements at the court of Jakob Frank.

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