Witches' Sabbath by Francisco Goya
All this time Monna Sidonia, the mistress of the house, and Cassandra sat before an immense open fireplace in the room below Messer Galeotto's laboratory. Their supper of coarse vegetables was stewing on the hearth, and the old woman with unvarying motion of her wrinkled finger spun the linen thread with her distaff. Cassandra watched her idly, and thought: 'Always the same thing. To-day as yesterday, to-morrow as to-day. The cricket chirps, the mouse squeaks, the spindle hums. There is a crackling in the dry sticks on the hearth, and I smell turnips and garlic.'
Presently the old woman began prating in her usual way; saying that she was not rich, whatever the people might say about her money-pot buried in the vineyard. That was all an idle tale. The truth was, she was ruining herself for Galeotto and his niece. She had too much heart, that was it, or she would never keep them, the two of them hanging on to her neck like a pair of millstones. And of a truth Cassandra was no longer a child, and ought to be thinking of the future; her uncle would die some day or other, and leave her as poor as Job. She might at least get a husband. She might at least accept the hand of the rich horsedealer at Abbiategrasso, who had the folly to run after her. He was not young, but he was a staid, God-fearing man without any bees in his bonnet; had a good business and a mill, and an olive-press. What more did she want?
Cassandra listened in silence; but tedium sat on her like a nightmare; seized her by the throat and suffocated her. She felt an irresistible longing to break out into rebellious weeping and rage.
Monna Sidonia fished in the pot for a succulent turnip, mashed it up with grape-juice, and munched with apparent appetite; but the young girl, submissive though with growing desperation, stretched herself and interlaced her fingers behind her hair. After supper the old woman, like a wearied Fate, nodded over her distaff, and her talk died down into disconnected mumbling. Then Cassandra drew forth her talisman, and the firelight shining through its purple depths, she studied the figure of the naked god, and her heart filled with love for the beautiful Hellenic deities.
She sighed heavily, concealed her amulet, and said diffidently: 'Monna Sidonia! to-night at Barco di Ferrara and at Benevento there is the gathering. Aunt! good kind aunt! we will not dance. We will go only to see. We will come back at once. I will do whatever you wish; I will even try to get a present out of the horsedealer - only be kind for once. Let us fly! let us fly together-now-at once!'
And the girl's eyes sparkled hungrily. The beldame surveyed her curiously; then her blue and withered lips parted in a smile which displayed her one tusk-like yellow tooth, and her face lit up with a hideous joy.
'Ah, you wish it? Very much, do you? You have caught the taste? Was there ever such a girl? For my part, I am ready to fly every night. But see you here, Cassandra, you take the sin on your own soul. To-night I wasn't even thinking of it. I'll do it only for your sake, out of my too great goodness of heart.'
Without haste the old woman went about the room, shut the shutters, stuffed rags into the chinks, locked all doors, poured water on the fire, lighted a black candle endued with magical properties, and from an iron locker took an earthen vessel containing a pungent ointment. She made show of being deliberate and sensible, but her hands shook as though she were drunk, her sunken eyes were at times turbid, at times they sparkled like coals. Cassandra had dragged the two great troughs used for the kneading of dough into the centre of the room.
Now Monna Sidonia stripped herself, and sitting astride of a broomstick on one of the troughs, she smeared herself with the ointment which she had taken from the locker. A hideous odour filled the room; the medicament, infallible for making witches fly, was composed of poisonous lettuce, hemlock, nightshade, mandragora, poppy, henbane, serpent's blood, and the fat of unchristened children.
Cassandra could not look at the hag's deformity. At the eleventh hour she recoiled.
'What are you about?' grumbled the crone; 'are you going to leave me to fly alone? Come - make haste. Take your clothes off.'
'All right. But, Monna Sidonia, put the light out. I can't do it in the light.'
'Bah! what modesty! Never mind, there'll be no modesty on the mountain.'
She blew out the candle, making the sign of the cross with the left hand for the pleasing of the devil, her master.
Then the girl rapidly undressed, knelt in the trough, and smeared herself.
In the darkness the old woman was heard mumbling the senseless disconnected words of an incantation.
'Emen Hetan, Emen Hetan, Palu, Baalberi, Astaroth, help us. Agora, Agora, Patrisa, come and help us!'
Cassandra eagerly snuffed the strong odour of the unguent. Her skin burned; her head swam; delicious thrills ran down her back. Red and green interlacing circles swam before her eyes, she heard the abandoned stridulous voice of Monna Sidonia as if from afar.
'Garr-r! Garr-r-r! Up! Up! Don't knock your head! We fly! We fly!'
Forth from the chimney-top flew Cassandra astride on the soft hide of a black goat. Ravished, panting, with exaltation filling her soul, she screamed like a young swift, plunging for the first time through the blue air.
'Garr-r! Up! Up! We fly! We fly!'
The deformed and withered body of Aunt Sidonia flew beside her on a broomstick; her thin hair streaming in the blast.
'To the north! To the north!' yelled the hag, managing her broomstick like a horse.
Cassandra burst into peals of laughter, remembering poor Messer Leonardo and his cumbrous mechanism.
Now she ascended, and the black clouds rolled together beneath her; now they burned blue in the flashes of jagged lightning. But above the clouds the sky was clear. A full moon shone, huge and round as a millstone, and so near she could touch it with her hand. Affrighted, she guided the goat downwards again, and he plunged with her headlong into the void.
'Devil of a wench, you'll break your neck,' screamed Sidonia.
Now they were skimming so close to the ground that they brushed the rustling meadow-grasses; will-o'-the-wisps guided their course past old tree-trunks gleaming with rottenness; while the owl, the bittern, and the goatsucker mourned plaintively among the reeds.
Presently they flew across the summits of the Alps, their icy spars glittering in the moonshine; and again they dropped to the surface of the sea. Cassandra, scooping water in her hand, tossed it in the air, and rejoiced in the sapphire splashes.
Momently their pace increased, and they came up with and distanced fellow-travellers; a sorcerer with long grey hair, in a tub; an ecclesiastic on a muck-rake, red, gorbellied, jovial as Silenus himself; a golden-haired, blue-eyed lass on a broom, a young and red-haired vampire on a grunting porker, and a hundred others.
'Whence come you, little sister?' cried Sidonia, and twenty voices answered her.
'From Candia! From the Isles of Greece! From Valenza! From the Brocken! From Mirandola, Benevento, from the caves and the fjords!'
'Whither go ye?'
'To Biterne! To Biterne! For the marriage of the great goat, the Buck of Biterne. Fly! Fly! Haste to the supper.' And they passed over the dreary plain like a cloud of rooks on a whirlwind. The moon shone purple, and against it in the distance gleamed the cross upon a village church. The vampire hurled herself against it, tore away the cross and the great bell, casting them far off into the swamp, where they sank with a despairing clang. The vampire barked like a joyous dog, and the flaxen-headed lass on the cantering broomstick clapped her little hands with glee.
The moon was now hidden by the clouds. Torches flared with flames of green and blue, and upon the chalky plateau the black shadows of the dancing witches spread and wheeled and interlaced and disentwined.
'Garr-r! Garr-r! 'Tis the Sabbath! 'Tis the Sabbath! From right to left! From right to left!'
They flew and they danced in their endless thousands like the withered and perishing autumn leaves. In their midst sat Hircus Nocturnus, the great he-goat, enthroned upon the mountain.
'Garr-r! Garr-r-r. Praise to the great Becco Notturno! The Buck of Biterne! The Buck of Biterne! Our wars are ended! Rejoice ye and rejoice!'
There was a screeching of pipes made of dead men's bones; the drum, stretched with the skin of the hanged, was beaten with the tail of a wolf. A loathsome stew was boiling in a vast cauldron, not seasoned with salt, for salt is abhorrent to the lord of that place.
Black were-cats were there dancing, lustful and emerald-eyed; slender maidens white as lilies; a shapeless capering incubus, grey as a spider; shuddering nuns; on a low bank, a white-bodied, plump, gigantic witch, with a stupid and good-natured face, was suckling two newly-hatched demons, already greedy and malicious. Three-year-old children, not yet admitted to the revelry, were feeding herds of toads, dressed as cardinals, with the sacred Host in their claws.
Sidonia and Cassandra joined the dance which sucked them in and whirled them away like a howling storm.
'Garr-r-r! from right to left! From right to left!'
Long wet whiskers like those of a walrus swept Cassandra's neck; a thin winding tail tickled her face, she was impudently pinched and bitten, hateful endearments were whispered in her ears. She made no resistance; the wilder the merrier; the more shameless the more intoxicating.
Suddenly petrifaction fell on the assembly; all voices were hushed, all movement was arrested. From the black throne, surrounded by terror, where sat the great Unknown, came a dull hoarse roar, like the growl of an earthquake.
'Receive you my gifts! To the weak, my strength; my pride to the humble; to the poor-spirited, my wisdom; to the afflicted, my joy. Receive my gifts!'
Then an old man of venerable aspect, his grey beard flowing - one of the fathers of the Holy Inquisition, at the same time patriarch of the sorcerers, and celebrant of the Black Mass, chanted in solemn tones: 'Sanctificetur nomen tuum per universum mundum et libera nos ab omni malo! Be in awe, ye faithful ones, and fall prostrate!'
They knelt, falling on their knees with a crash, and as from one voice resounded the Sorcerer's Confession: 'Credo in Deum patrem Luciferum, qui creavit coelum et terram. Et in filium suum Beelzebub.'
When the last sounds had died away, and there was renewed stillness, the same voice of the Unknown, deafening as an earthquake cried: 'Bring hither my bride – my stainless dove!'
And the old man with the flowing beard inquired: 'What is the name of thy bride, thy stainless dove?'
'Madonna Cassandra! Madonna Cassandra!' roared the great voice.
Hearing the pronouncement of her name, the girl's blood froze in her veins. Her hair stood erect.
'Madonna Cassandra! Cassandra!' rang the cry from the crowd. 'Where hideth she? Where is our sovereign? Ave Arcisponsa Cassandra!'
She hid her face and would have fled; but bony fingers, claws, antennæ, and probosces, and the hairy legs of spiders seized her; and dragged her trembling before the throne. The rank odour of a goat, and a chill as of death smote her; she closed her eyes in dread. Then he upon the throne cried: 'Come!'
Her head hanging, she saw at her feet a fiery cross gleaming through the darkness. She made a supreme effort, took a step forward, and raised her eyes.
Then a miracle took place.
The goat's skin fell from him as the scales from a sloughing snake; she was face to face with Dionysus the Olympian; thyrsis and vine-branch in his hands, a smile of eternal joy upon his lips, the panther at his feet pawing at the grapes.
And the Sabbato diabolico changed into the divine orgies of Bacchus; the witches became Mænads, the monstrous demons were kindly goat-footed Satyrs; the chalk rocks were colonnades of shining marble, lighted by the sun, and between them in the distance was the purple sea. The radiant gods of Hellas, surrounded by an aureole of fire, were gathering in the clouds, and the Satyrs and the Bacchantes, beating their timbrels, cutting their breasts with knives, squeezing the grape-juice into goblets of gold, and mingling it with their blood, danced and circled and sang: 'Glory to Dionysus! Glory to Dionysus! The gods have risen! Glory to the eternal gods!'
And Bacchus, the ever young, opened his arms to Cassandra. His voice was like thunder, shaking earth and sky as he cried: 'Come hither my bride! my stainless dove!'
And she sank into the god's embrace.
The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci by Dmitry Merezhkovsky