The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
AT first she was not greatly touched by these promises of future greatness. A hermitage without God, torturing memories that assail her in the deep solitude, the losses she had borne and the insults she had endured, her sudden, cruel widowhood, her husband who had left her alone to her shame and humiliation, all this saddened and overwhelmed her. A plaything of destiny, she saw herself like the wretched weeds of the waste, without root, beaten and buffeted by the north wind, tormented, cruelly battered this way and that; she seemed a poor fragment of coral, dull, grey, and angular, that possesses only coherence enough to be the better shattered. Children stamp on it, and men in mockery call it "The wind's wife."
She laughs wildly and bitterly, as she likens herself to these things. But from the recesses of the darkling cave comes a voice, "Ignorant and foolish, you know not what you are saying. . . . This weed that thus goes fluttering down the wind has good right to scorn all the fat, common herbs of the field. It has no abiding place or root, but tis complete, sufficient to itself, bearing everything, flower and seed within itself. Be you like it; be your own root, and in the very face of the whirlwind, you shall yet blossom and bear flowers, our own flowers, such as spring from the dust of tombs and the ashes of volcanoes.
"The first flower of Satan, I give it you this day, that you know my earliest name, the token of my antique might. I was, I am the King of the Dead. . . . How have I been traduced! . . . Tis I alone (an infinite boon that should have won me altars of
thanksgiving), I alone, that bring the Lost Ones back to earth. . . ."
To penetrate the future, to call up the past, to anticipate or to resuscitate the days that fly so fast, to enlarge the present by what has been or what will be, two things these sternly proscribed in the Middle Ages. In vain; in this Nature is irresistible and prohibition unavailing. To offend against such law is to be a man. He would be none, who should stay for ever bound to his furrow, with downcast eyes and gaze confined to the next pace he takes behind his plodding oxen. No! we men must always, as we go, be looking inquiringly higher, and farther, and deeper. This earth, yes! we measure it painfully and meticulously, but we spurn it too and cry constantly, "What have you in your bowels? What secrets? What mysteries? You give us back duly the grain we entrusted to you; but you never return us that human harvest, the dead loved ones we have lent you. Shall they not germinate too, our friends, our lovers, that we have planted there? If only for one hour, one instant, they might come back to us!"
Ourselves too shall soon be of that terra incognita, whither they have already gone. But shall we see them again? Shall we be with them? Where are they? What is their life yonder?They must indeed, my dead dear ones, be close captives not to vouchsafe even a sign! And what shall I do to make them hear? My father, whose only joy I was and who loved me so exceedingly, why, why does he never come to me? . . . On this side and on that, only sore constraint, and bitter captivity and mutual ignorance! A gloomy night where we look for one ray of light in vain! 1
These never-ceasing ponderings of human nature, which in Antiquity were merely sad, became in the Middle Ages cruel, bitter, demoralising, making men's hearts to grow faint within
them. It would seem as though the world had set itself deliberately to degrade the soul and render it "cribbed, cabined, and confined" to the measure of a coffin. The servile mode of burial between four planks of deal is well adapted to accomplish this, suggesting as it does an uneasy sense of suffocation. The dear one who has been coffined thus, if he comes back in dreams, is now no light, radiant shadow, centred in the aureole of a better and lighter place, but a tortured slave, the unhappy prey of a horrid, clawed hell-cat,bestiis, the text itself says, Ne tradus bestiis, etc. ("Deliver us not to the beasts"). Hateful and impious thought, that my father, so good and so lovable; my mother, so looked up to by all, should be the playthings of this horror! . . . You laugh at this to-day. But for a thousand years it was no laughing matter, but one for bitter burning tears. To this day one cannot write of these blasphemies without the heart swelling, and the very pen and paper grating a protest of fierce indignation!
Another truly cruel innovation was to have displaced the Feast of the Dead from Spring-time, to which Antiquity assigned it, to fix it in November. In May, where it stood originally, the dead were buried in flowers. In March, where it was put later, it marked, with the commencement of ploughing, the first awaking of the lark; the dead man and the living seed were put in the earth simultaneously, with the same hope of revivification. But, alas! in November, when all field work is ended for the year, the weather overclouded and gloomy for months to come, when mourners returned to the house, and a man sat down by his fireside and saw the place opposite for ever empty . . . what an aggravation of sadness was here! . . . Plainly by choosing this period already mournful enough in itself, this period of the obsequies of dying nature, the fear was that else man would not have grief enough of his own to make him properly mournful! . . .
The calmest of us, the busiest, however much distracted by
the activities and anxieties of life, have strange moments at times. In the twilight of dark winter mornings, at nightfall, coming down so fast to engulf us in its gloom, ten years, twenty years afterwards, feeble, mysterious voices sound in your heart of hearts, "Greeting, dear one; tis we! . . . So you are still living and working on, as always. . . . It is well! You are not bowed down with the grief of losing us; you can do well without us. . . . But we, we can never forget you. . . . The ranks are closed up again, the vacant place obliterated. The house that was ours is full of life, and we bless its prosperity. All goes well,better than in those far-off days when your father carried you in his arms, when your little girl in her turn asked you, 'Carry me, father, carry me!' . . . But there, you are weeping. . . . Enough,farewell to meet again."
Woe is me! they are gone, after uttering this gentle, heartbreaking plaint. But is it a just one? Not so! a thousand times rather would I forget myself than forget them! And yet, cost what it may to say it, we must allow that certain characteristics escape us, are already less perceptible; certain features of the dear face are, not effaced indeed, but darkened, faded. A hard thing, a bitter and a humiliating, to feel oneself so fugitive and feeble, as quick to lose impressions as the unremembering waters; to realise that at long last we are losing that treasured grief it was our hope to keep intact for ever! Give it back, give it back, I implore; I value so fondly that gracious source of tears. . . . Restore, I beseech you, those cherished images. . . . If nothing else, make me at least dream of them by night!
Many a one says so in drear November. . . . And, while the bells are tolling, and the dead leaves raining down, they disperse from the church door, whispering low to each other, "Do you know this, neighbour? There lives up yonder on the moors a woman they speak both good and ill of. For my own part, I dare not say; but she has strange powers over the under-world. She calls up the dead, and they answer her summons. Ah! if only she
could (innocently, mind you, without offending God), if only she could bring back my loved ones that are dead! . . . I am all alone, you know; I have lost all I had to live for in this world. But who is this woman? Who knows her? Whence she is, from heaven or from hell? I will never visit her,"yet all the while he is dying to go. "I will never risk my immortal soul by going near her. Those woods, besides, are haunted; many a time men have seen in the heath things that were not there to see. . . . Remember poor Jacqueline, who wandered there one night to search for a strayed sheep of hers. She came back a mad woman. I will never go."
Nevertheless, hiding the fact one from the other, many of the men do go. Scarce as yet do the women dare to confront the risk. They think of the dangerous road, ask many questions of such as have been there already. The pythoness is not like the Witch of Endor, who called up Samuel at Saul's bidding; she shows no shadowy forms, but she gives the cabalistic words and beverages of might that will compel the dead to come back once more in dreams. How many sorrows come to her. Even the old grandmother of eighty, frail and tottering, would fain see her little grandson once again. By a supreme effort, not without remorse for committing such a sin when so near the tomb, she drags herself to the witch's hut. The savage-looking place, rough with its yews and briars, the bold, dark beauty of the implacable Proserpine she finds there, all frightens her. Prostrate and trembling on the earth, the poor old woman weeps and prays. No answer is vouchsafed; but when at length she dare raise her head a little, she sees hell itself has been weeping in sympathy.
This simple impulse of pure natural feeling set poor Proserpine blushing. Indignant at her own weakness, "Degenerate creature, weakling soul," she ejaculates, "you that came hither in the fixed design of working ill and only ill. . . . Is this the result of your master's teaching? Ah! how he will laugh me to scorn!"
"Nay, not so. Am I not the great shepherd of shades, to bid
them come and go, to open them the gate of dreams? Your Dante, when he paints my portrait, forgets my true attributes. Adding a grotesque and superfluous tail, he never sees how I hold in very deed the shepherd's rod of Osiris, and have inherited his caduceus from Mercury. They thought to build an impassable wall to block absolutely the road from one world to the other; but my feet are winged, and I flew lightly over the obstacle. Vilely calumniated, called a ruthless monster, I have yet felt the prick of pity, succoured the afflicted, and consoled sorrowing lovers and mothers bereaved of their little ones. Spirit of evil, I have yet felt compassion and pitiful revolt against the harshness of the new God."
The Middle Ages and its chroniclers, Churchmen to a man, have been careful not to avow the hidden, but profound, changes taking place in popular sentiment. It is plain that Pity now appears ranged on the side of Satan. Even the Virgin, the ideal of grace, makes no appeal to this need of every feeling heart, nor the Church either. Evocation of the Dead is indeed expressly forbidden. While all the books go on dilating glibly either of the swinish Satan of the earliest conceptions or else of the clawed demon, king of torments, of a later age, the Devil has taken quite another aspect for the unlearned, who write no books. He has something of the classical Pluto, but pale and majestic, by no means deaf to prayers, granting to the dead return and to the living to see their dead once more, he approximates closer and closer to his sire or grandsire, Osiris, the shepherd of souls.
This change involves many others. Men confess with their lips the official hell of the Churches, the fiery furnaces and boiling cauldrons; but in their hearts do they really believe it all? Is it possible to reconcile a hell thus complacent towards sorrowing hearts with the awful traditions of a place of torment? One conception neutralises the other, without entirely obliterating it, the resultant being a compound picture, vague and shadowy, destined to assimilate more and more nearly to the Virgilian idea
of the infernal regions. An incalculable relief this to the overburdened spirit; above all a sweet alleviation for unhappy women, whom this terrible dogma of the torture of their loved ones kept for ever weeping and uncomforted, their whole life one long-drawn moan of horror.
The Sibyl was pondering the master's words when a small, light step makes itself heard. The day is barely dawning yet,after Christmas Day, getting on for the New Year. Tripping over the crackling, frosty grass, a small woman, with fair face and yellow hair, draws near with trembling limbs; reaching the door, she sinks fainting on the threshold, scarce able to breathe. Her black dress proclaims plainly enough she is a widow. Medea's piercing look strikes her nerveless and speechless; yet is her story manifest, no mystery left unrevealed in all her shrinking form. Then the Sorceress in confident tones, "Dumb, little one? Yet, what need to speak,and you would never find words to tell. I will say it for you. . . . Well, then, you are dying for love!" Recovering some little presence of mind, clasping her hands, all but falling to her knees, she makes her confession, avowing everything. She had suffered and wept and prayed,and all without a word. But those Christmas merry-makings, those family reunions at the festive season, the ill-concealed satisfaction of happy wives pitilessly flaunting a sanctioned love, brought back the old cruel smart to her heart. . . . Alack! what should she do? . . . If only he could come back to comfort her for an instant! "I would give my life for the boon . . . let me die, if I may but see him once again!"
"Go back to your house, and shut the door close. Draw the shutter too against prying neighbours. Quit your mourning weeds and put on your wedding dress. Lay his place at table; yet he will not come. Sing the song he made for you, and sang so often; yet he will not come. Draw from the chest the coat he wore last and kiss it, and say, 'The worse for you, the worse for you, if you
refuse to come!' And without an instant's tarrying, drink this wine (tis bitter, but a sovran sleeping-draught) and lay you down in the bridal bed. Then, have no fear, he will come."
She would not have been a woman, if she had not next morning, glowing with soft happiness, whispered the miracle softly in the ear of her bosom friend. "Not a word of it to any, I beseech you. . . . But he told me himself, if I wear this dress, and sleep without once waking, every Sunday night he will come back to me."
A happiness not without sore risk! What would happen the venturesome woman, if the Church found out she was a widow no longer? that, raised up by love, the spirit of her mate comes back to comfort his forlorn wife?
A most unusual thing, the secret is well kept! The word goes round among her friends and neighbours never to betray a mystery so tender. Indeed, it concerns them one and all; for who is there has not suffered, who is there has not wept tears of bereavement? Who but sees with joy unspeakable this bridge built to connect the two worlds of life and death?
"Oh, good, kind Sorceress! . . . Good Spirit of the Depths! blessings, blessings on you both!"
62:1 This ray does shine to some extent in the Immortalité and the Foi Nouvelle of Dumesnil; Ciel et Terre by Reynaud, Henri Martin, and others.