There is a place where witches go that is not a place. It is everywhere and nowhere, and it is there that past, present, and future meet. It has had many names over the centuries and in as many countries—Venusburg in Germany, Blockula in Sweden, Benevento in Italy, just to name a few.
It has been described in many ways, as well. In the case of the 15th century villages of Mohra and Elfdale, Sweden, Blockula, it is a “delicate large meadow, whereof you can see no end. The place or house they met at had before it a gate painted with divers colors; through this gate they went into a little meadow distinct from the other, where the beasts went that they used to ride on.”1 The beasts that they used to ride there were primarily goats, though the witches sometimes claimed to use men or poles to ride to Blockula as well.
Within the house with the many-colored gate was a very large room with a long table where the witches sat down to feast and there was another adjoining room where there were “lovely and delicate beds.”2 After they feasted, they would dance and then sometimes fight, as is detailed in Carlo Ginzberg’s book, Ecstacies.
Venusburg or Brocken was the name of the place witches went to in Germany, the Mountain of the Goddess Venus, or in Germany, the Goddess Holda. German witches used to go there especially on Walpurgisnacht, or May Eve, when they flew into the Hartz Mountains to their Sabbat. In fact, in the earliest Church records that mention Holda, c.1015 by Burchard, Bishop of Worms, states, “It was believed that somehow it was possible for some female to do this, who had been deceived by the Devil, and who confessed herself compelled to do it by a spell; that is, by a demon changed into the form of a woman whom vulgar stupidity calls Holda (or Unholda), being forced on certain nights to ride upon certain beasts, and to be numbered among their company.”
The idea appears not only in the canons of the Church and in witch trials, but in folk tales. “The Trip to the Brocken,” a German story, demonstrates this belief in the witches’ ride: “The day came when witches go the Brocken, and the two women climbed into the hayloft, took a small glass, drank from it, and suddenly disappeared. The bridegroom-to-be, who had sneaked after them and observed them, was tempted to take a swallow from the glass. He picked it up and sipped a little from it, and suddenly he was on the Brocken, where he saw how his fiancée and her mother were carrying on with the witches, who were dancing around the devil, who was standing in their midst.”
In Italy, Benevento is said to be the place where witches fly to, as reported by Le Pigautier, Menton, September, 1896.
“The witches go to meet [the devils] flying through the air, often on horseback. In order to be able to fly, after having completely undressed and undone their hair, they go a little before midnight to an isolated spot out of sight, away from every sacred object. It is forbidden to see them, but not to speak to them. Then they anoint their bodies with the following composition, the quantity varying according to their weight: ten pounds of spirits of wine, half a pound of salt of Saturn, half a pound of Dragerio, to be left for four hours in a covered vessel. Then, saying “Sotto I’acqua e sotto il vento, sotto il noce di Benevento, Lucibello portami dove debbo andare,” they fly away.
“The meetings take place at midnight in the country, when the witches dance and take council together. Anyone seeing them may claim a gift; thus a hunchback once got rid of his hump. Hearing them singing “Sabato e Domenica” in endless repetition, he added “E Giovedi morzillo” (and Shrove-Thursday), a favourable day for witchcraft, as is also Saturday. This story is one of those most widely spread in Europe. It is indispensable that the witches should return before dawn: once the hour has passed, they fall in their flight and are killed. As a proof, it is said that some have been found very early in the morning in the streets of Naples lying dead and naked. On their way they can neither traverse a running stream nor cross roads; they are obliged ” to go round them. “They can turn themselves into animals, especially into black cats, but not into inanimate objects. However, they may become “wind,” so as to enter a house in order to carry off someone, or to transform him, or for other bad purposes. If when in the house the witch is seized by the hair and so held until day-break, she dies; but if in reply to her question “What do you hold ? ” is said : “I hold you by the hair,” she answers, escaping: “And I slip away like an eel.”3
Benevento is mentioned as a game in “Aradia, Gospel of the Witches,” by Charles G. Leland—“And ye shall make the game of Benevento/Extinguishing the lights, and after that/Shall hold your supper thus…”
Other forms that Benevento may take are that of a seemingly endless plains, valleys, or fields full of flowers or roses.
Traveling on animals—or on men enchanted into the forms of animals—or on poles or broomsticks is an old idea. In the 9th century, the Council of Ancyra spoke out against this kind of travel: “Certeine wicked women following sathans prouocations, being seduced by the illusion of diuels, believe and professe, that in the night times they ride abroad with Diana, the goddesse of the Pagans, or else with Herodias, with an innumerable multitude, vpon certeine beasts…”4
In order to make use of these beasts, and ride to the meeting place of their Sabbats, the witches would call upon the name of their God and away they would go. Isobell Gowdie spoke of this in her revelations to her persecutors: “I haid a little horse and wold say, ‘Horse and Hattock, in the Divillis name!’ And than ve vold flie away…”5
Of course, the name that the witches used was not truly the Christian Satan, but the name of one of their own Gods. Specifically, one of the names of the witches’ God who is in charge of such traveling. The beasts were not true beasts or even men enchanted into beasts, but totem animals. And the poles or broomsticks were simply the visual after-image that remained to the viewer when the witch used this form of traveling. These visual after-images take other forms in other parts of the world—the tail-feathers of birds or the tassels of a carpet, hence the concept of the “flying carpet”—but to those of European extraction, it looked most like a broom.
In most of the accounts, witches of the past speak of going to Blockula or Venusburg or Benevento in order to meet with other witches, to feast, and, sometimes, to fight with each other. But, primarily, witches go there to play the game. A game which includes the previous acts of meeting other witches—from the past, present, and future—and feasting and fighting. And, through these actions and others, to effect things elsewhere.
This witches’ gathering place, be it called Venusburg, Blockula, or Benevento, is not a place that lies between the worlds, but a place where the worlds meet. Where time and space intermingle and all things are possible. But only if you choose to play the game and, at the same time, do not forget that it is a game.
Through playing this game, the players can effect great change. Change in this world and in many other worlds, because in Benevento they are all related. Like cogs in some great wheel. Turn one and you turn another. The ripples and repercussions are felt across universes, across all time and space.
1. pg 349-50, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, Rossell Hope Robbins, Crown Publishers, New York, 1959.
2. pg. 348, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Lewis Spence, Carol Publishing Group, 1993 edition, reprint of 1960 edition.
3. Neapolitan Witchcraft by J.B. Andrews from the site http://www.jesterbear.com/Aradia/notes3.html
4. pg. 102, The Witch-cult in Western Europe, Margaret Murray, Oxford University Press, 1921, quoting Glanvil.
5. pg 105, ibid. quoting Pitcairn