What is the best way to live under oppression? What is the way out from under it?
As feminists have often noted, oppression and oppressive forces such as patriarchy, capitalism, and racism are rarely defined in easy, narrow terms. Oftentimes, the task of defining what oppression you are even dealing with comes down to psychoanalyzing the whole world and its machinations, and once we have defined our boundaries, arbitrary rules, and demagogic rulers, what then?
We are told to #smashthepatriarchy and #breaktheglassceling as if these were literal and easily breakable things. Not to mention the fact that mainstream feminism seems oddly preoccupied by words like “smash” “destroy” and “break”, masculine words by history, rather than “nurture” “imagine” and “build”, feminine words easily scoffed at.
Forgive me, but I am a child of the Iraq War era, and I know from history that simply going in to smash something without any plan of what will be built after will only create new problems we are unequipped to deal with.
So let us focus for now not simply on the patriarchy or capitalism or how to break free of these things, let’s take a moment to imagine, dream if you like, of creating a new and better world.
What will this world look like? Well, since I am in the company of Satanists today, I think an effective way to envision what we want is to look at what our oppressors don’t want, to take their propaganda and caricatures and turn them into positive models for revolution.
When I was asked to give this talk, I started thinking about the way modern Satanism had taken the West’s ultimate adversary and made it a hero. Heros are nice, helpful even for inspiring the masses into action, but they tend towards individualism, and rugged, unrestrained individualism is arguably what has lead to many of the problems we face today.
Indeed, if we are to change the world, need collective action. To steal a phrase from the first People’s Climate March, To change everything, we need everyone. I wondered what else was out there, waiting to be revived in a similar manner to the Satanic figure, but for collective and societal change, in addition to inward, personal transformation and empowerment. The image I came back to time and time again was the Witch’s Sabbath.
If we can imagine Satan, the ultimate adversary, as hero, a guide to live a good life, then perhaps we could use The Witch’s Sabbath as a similar model. Maybe we could move beyond an atomized, purely individualistic approach to liberation, and to a vision of what society will look like once we have all been liberated.
Other authors and witches have spoken at length about the Sabbath. Peter Grey has written extensively on the poetic ecstatic qualities of the event, while Carlo Ginzburg has dived deep into the Sabbath’s history. These two come from opposite ends of a spectrum, from poetic to literal, today I want to see if I can be somewhere in the middle.
The history of The Sabbat is as twisted and strange as the gathering itself. Historians debate to this day whether any actual meetings of witches occurred in the Early Modern Period as described in the trial records. However, for our purposes I don’t think it matters whether we think of the Sabbat as a literal historic occurrence or not, what matters is that the clergy and governments of Europe were equally terrified of this gathering of the opposition.
The propaganda of The Sabbat reveals the world the Church and government feared most, and I believe that as a living motif that appears throughout time, it remains a pertinent way for us to envision the society we want, through the fears of those we oppose.
Depictions of The Sabbath vary depending on which “witch” was testifying before court, but several elements remain more or less the same. Accused witches would recount stories of their souls leaving their bodies and flying, sometimes on broomsticks, to the Sabbath, were we see all groups of people.
In one account from 1459 France, a Witch recounts that when they arrived at the Sabbath on their broomstick, “They found there a multitude of people, of both sexes, and of all estates and ranks, even wealthy burghers and nobles…They found tables already spread, covered with all sorts of meats, and abundance of wines. A devil presided, usually in the form of a goat, with the tail of an ape, and a human countenance.” They go on to describe a sex worker in a “master of ceremonies” role, and recount how “the devil preached to them, and enjoined them especially not to go to church, or hear mass, or touch holy water, or perform any other of the duties of good Christians.”
They go on to dance, fornicate, in and learn magic in an ever spinning circle before the rite has ended.
Let’s unpack this scene.
First the Broomstick. What greater symbol of the cult of domesticity and patriarchal power is there? And what greater subversion of this symbol is there, than to fly away from your home on it?
The circle is also interesting here, as it has no defined beginning or end, and unlike the traditional table Christ broke bread at and that makes the christian altar, there is no way for one person to be seated in a more important place than anyone else.
The Devil as a central and initiatory figure is also worth noting, since unlike Satan the adversary, or Lucifer the bringer of light, The Devil has ties to much older, ambivalent, and earth-bound belief systems. The fact that such a figure chooses a sex worker as his emissary, speaks to this either being an honored profession, or at the very least not a derided one.
Other Trial records tell of orgies, deals with the devil, the killing and eating of infants, and other nefarious goings on. While this more or less sounds like a good time to me, let’s expand and reverse the narrative so we can imagine and create the world they feared would come.
These witches journeyed to a place of pleasure and learning, where all are equal, and the dark, ambivalent, and wise earth is placed in the center. Women and sex workers were placed in honored positions, and by the end The Devil teaches his wisdom, dispersing his power equally through all in attendance.
While gatherings of witches such as this are described in the middle ages, the word “Sabbat” only comes into common use in the 1600’s. This is important, as it comes just before the dawn of The Enclosure Movement, or the seizing of unowned lands in Britain by the aristocracy and State. Many have pointed to this as the first stages of capitalism, as it was the first time the land became a commodity, something you can own.
What this means is that the Sabbat became both a tool of propaganda to call for the taming of the land, and an insurgent response to the impending enclosure. But the Sabbath is a living thing, not tied to this one time or place, but persisting with us until today. It is fed by injustice, nurtured by oppression, and gives birth time and time again to glimpses of utopia. Wherever people gather to oppose the world they find themselves in, there you will find the Sabbath.
In 1871, the Paris Commune was formed by members of Socialist, Anarchist, and Radical Leftist groups to form their own government within the imperial French capital. Lasting only a few months, the commune nonetheless made huge gains for the time by guaranteeing women the right to vote, divorce, and be educated. The commune separated church and state, and abolished harsh “right to work Laws” within the city. This sparked the revolutions that would sweep Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vladimir Lenin himself would go on to call this, as well as the latter May Day gatherings “Bloody Witches Sabbaths”.
In 1995, the National Forest Service decided to open up the Warner Creek watershed in the Willamette National Forest for logging. Activists from The Pacific Northwest responded by setting up a camp to barricade the road from logging. The protest lasted for a year, and while it was eventually disbanded, it was the flashpoint that led to the dramatic environmentalist tactics of Earth First, and the ELF that would come to define the 90’s.
In April of 2016, the Oceti Sakowin camp was started by members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Members of the tribe feared that the pipeline would not only poison their water supply, but would desecrate their sacred burial grounds. They described the camp as a prayer camp, and made it clear to all who joined that protecting the wild is itself an act of prayer. They sent out a call for activists to journey long distances to join them in this sacred act, and thousands answered the call.
Some might say that these efforts have failed, but the fact that occupations and sabbat-like gatherings are growing more and more frequent to me proves that the old world is dying, and these pockets of revolution are but contractions of a new world being born. Each one of these was more than a protest, and more than activism, it was people creating and testing out utopias to see what the world could look like if we only dreamed a little bigger. And with the increasing frequency of these occupations, I think the dream may soon become a reality.
How does one overcome oppression? How does one fly from it? What will be there when you set your feet on land once again?
It is not for me alone to answer these questions. My goal here today is to set things in motion, to begin the great work of the collective dream we must now all have. Witchcraft whether you practice it, believe in it, or draw inspiration from it has always been radical. The Sabbath has always been Revolution, no matter how loudly some people proclaim “love and light” or how hard Urban Outfitters tries to shove their crystals down our throats.
As Peter Grey writes in Apocalyptic Witchcraft “I situate witchcraft in the world as it is. As radical changes cascade through the living systems of the biosphere, tradition must by necessity change. This fluid transformation is the beauty and strength that marks true craft. As such it will upset those who cling to form. So be it. There is not simply tradition, there is innovation there is becoming and there is revolution. This is a woman’s truth, this is the Goddess who has spun through history to be with us now.”
The old world is breaking, you can see the cracks every day, in the rupture of pipelines, in innocent blood spilled on the streets, in the faces of those who stand defiant and say “no”
You can hear the rumble in the distance, from the cries of the hungry, to the felling of ancient trees, to chants of “blood and soil” echoing in the night.
Do not cling to this world, and do not simply help speed up its destruction. Be dissatisfied, do not let anyone tell you “that’s just the way things are.” The fact that we can be dissatisfied at all with the way things are means that somewhere inside us we have a vision for what could be. Nurture that vision, let it be one of devils and broomsticks and wild parties in the night. Let it be one of freedom and equality, and most of all justice. Just as Satan has been reclaimed as the adversary to an unjust world, let us imagine the sabbath as a vision of a just one.
I do not know what the next world will look like, but I know we only get there together. So let’s all pick up our broomsticks, and fly.
Thank you, and Hail Satan.
This talk was originally given at Catland Books in Brooklyn as part of The Satanic Temple NYC’s Lecture Series: Satanism, Feminism & Rebellion on Friday, August 14th, 2017.