The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII
 
Witchcraft
 

WITCHES form a distinct caste, very small in number, which is kept and guarded with great secrecy. A witch is trained from infancy to her profession. The young novice, who must not be baptised, is adopted by some adept in the black art and brought up in her lair, a dilapidated cottage or a cave in the forest; there she is kept from all contact with other people. Her mistress does not allow her to see anybody, nor to go to the neighbouring village. During her solitude the young girl learns a multitude of magic formulæ, incantations, soothsayings; she studies the properties of herbs and grasses; she is worked up into a state of almost continuous excitement, mystical terror, and nervousness, which in an immature child may cause acute neurasthenia or even epilepsy.

When the pupil reaches her fifteenth year the teacher arranges her "betrothal with the devil." The bride is dressed in a flowing white linen robe adorned with wreaths of water-lilies, on her front is placed a magic sign of Beelzebub, and she is left all alone, fettered, her dowry at her side, in a secluded spot, somewhere on a reedy bank of a lonely lake, in a jungle, or amidst naked rocks. The dowry consists of a broken cross, a jug filled with the blood of a black ram or lamb, the skin torn off a black cat which had been hanged, and a bottle of brandy.

While awaiting in dire terror the sudden apparition of the bridegroom, she cries, shouts, wails, and sobs, till at last she becomes half insane or faints, and is often attacked with epilepsy. Upon the morning, at dawn, the old witch arrives, frees the unfortunate one from her fetters, wakes her up out of the swoon by pouring brandy down her throat, and salutes her with a magic formula, no doubt as old as the Slav world. From that day the girl has become a witch, and starts her own practice. The old woman fears no longer that her young disciple will escape, as the news of her having been betrothed to the devil has already reached the village, and if the latter dared to appear there, she would find certain death at the hands of the superstitious peasant women.

From the day of betrothal the witch begins to learn to … fly.

Forensic medicine, the history of religious worship, researches of the fathers of the Christian Church, and the great Leonardo da Vinci throw light upon this matter.

It happens that the witch prepares a special ointment which is a mixture of grease and herbs, rubs her body with it before nightfall, falls quickly into a sleep, and in her dreams receives the familiar impression of flying. Enraptured and excited with the uncommon experiences and sensations, she knows how to tell her dreams vividly and impressively, establishing thus her reputation of a "flying witch," who rides on a broom or a squab.

Her fame now travels far and fast, although it is studiously concealed from the priest and the police. Her usual occupation is to cure women or to help them in their love affairs. She procures love-philtres, finds sweethearts, or gets rid of hated, drunken, brutal husbands. True, these magic arts often lead to the green table of a criminal court, where clients appear in the dock. For the hag tells fortunes, conjures the soul of a given man in his sleep, soothsays and manufactures all kinds of mascots, lucky things, and teaches how, by the intense exertion of will, it is possible to hasten another man's natural demise.

She is a past mistress of hypnotism. Living a simple life surrounded by wild nature, in constant feat of the authorities, the priests, and the people, she be^ comes observant and suspicious and an excellent psychologist. But she is careful to hide natural phenomena under the mask of magic conjurations, charmed formulae, demonology, witchcraft, and other arts of black lore.

It is only rarely and under the pressure of sheer necessity that the weird hermit leaves her solitary shelter to get food or clothing in the village. Usually she steals at night into the house of a devoted client and requests her to do the shopping. The witch herself is not allowed to appear in the street. If she were not seized at once by the police or priest, she would fall into the hands of peasant women. Every one of them turns to her in case of need, bringing rich presents or money, but every one of them knows that all misfortunes befalling the inhabitants of the village are the result of demoniac curses. And should the peasant women behold the poor, friendless old hag in the street, they might pursue her in a crowd, surround her and beat her, beat her womanlike with gradual, pitiless, tormenting torture. Pulled out hair, scratched out eyes, knocked out teeth, or broken bones, are nothing much to them. In their superstitious fear and rage women have torn the witch to pieces, burned the ragged remnants of her body to ashes, and blown them to the "dry woods, to the empty fields."

Sometimes they will drag her to the river and throw her down into the water with a stone around her neck.

Such are the witches, and such is the fate of "the devil's betrothed."