The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
THE winter is hard, long, and dismal in the gloomy north-west. Even after it seems well ended, it suffers relapses, like a pain that has been stifled, yet stings afresh and rages intermittently. One morning, and all Nature awakes bedecked with sparkling ice-needles. In this bitter, ironical beauty of â day that sets all living things a-shivering, the vegetable world seems turned to stone, losing all the soft charm of its mobile variety and stiffening in rigid crystals.
Our poor Sibyl, sitting benumbed at her wretched fire of dead leaves, buffeted by the cutting wind, feels her very heart cower under the cruel lash of the weather. Her loneliness oppresses her, but is a tonic too. Her pride is roused, and with it comes a strength that warms her heart and kindles her spirit. Alert, bright, eager, her sight grows keen as the ice-needles themselves; and the world, that world that makes her suffer so, is as transparent to her as glass. She triumphs over it as over a conquered province.
Is she not its queen? Has she not courtiers in plenty to pay her reverence? The ravens are manifestly obedient to her service. In solemn, dignified array they come, like augurs of old times, to tell her the news of the day. The wolves slink by timidly, greeting her with furtive, sidelong looks. The bear (not so uncommon then) will now and then take his seat ponderously, with his heavy, good-natured mien, at the threshold of the cave, like a hermit paying visit to a brother hermit, as we see so often pictured in the Lives of the Thebaïd Fathers.
All, birds and beasts that man scarce knows except in connection
with killing and the chase, all are outlaws like herself. There is a mutual understanding. Is not Satan the outlaw of outlaws? and he gives his followers the joy and wild liberty of all free things of Nature, the rude delight of being a world apart, all-sufficient unto itself.
Fierce, keen joys of solitude, all hail! . . . The whole earth seems shrouded in a white winding-sheet, imprisoned under a load of ice, chained down by relentless icicles, all alike, and all sharp and cruel. Especially after 1200 the world was close shut like a transparent sepulchre, where everything stands horribly motionless and, as it were, petrified with cold.
It has been said that "a Gothic church is a complex crystallisation,"and it is true. About 1300, architecture, sacrificing all it possessed of living variety and graceful caprice, enters into rivalry with the monotonous prisms of the Spitzberg. Tis a true and terrible image of the dead city of adamantine crystal, within which a dreadful dogma thinks it has succeeded in burying human life.
But, no matter how strong the supports and buttresses and abutments that sustain the edifice, one thing sets it tottering. Not the noisy batterings from without, but a something soft and yielding in the foundations, something that affects the seemingly unyielding crystal with a gradual, almost imperceptible, thaw. What is it?the flood of warm human tears a lowly, pitiful world has shed, a sea of weeping? What?a breath of the future, a mighty, invincible resurrection of the natural life. The fantastic pile, crumbling already in many a joint, groans to itself in tones not devoid of terror, "Tis the breath of Satan, the breath of Satan."
Picture a glacier on the flank of Hecla, and we shall see a like process. The ice lies over a volcano, not one receding to make sudden and fierce eruption, but for all that a centre of slow heat, gradual, gentle, stealthy in its operation, which warms the icy
mass caressingly from beneath, whispers it softly to come down,and down it comes.
The Sorceress has good cause for laughter, if from her shade she sees yonder, in the full light of day, how profoundly ignorant of the true facts are Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas. They make out that Satan progresses by dint of terror or cunning. They represent him a grotesque and coarse-minded being, such as he was in his earliest days, when Jesus could still drive him to enter into the herd of swine. Or else, as an alternative, they show him a subtle reasoner, a scholastic logician, a phrase-mongering jurist. If he had been nothing else, only a beast, or else a rhetorician, if his only alternatives had been the mire of the sty, or the vain distinctions of empty logic, he would soon have perished of sheer hunger.
The triumph is too easy a one when they show him us in Bentolo, pleading against the Virgin, who soon has him nonplussed, condemned, and cast in costs. It is presently discovered that here on this earth precisely the opposite is what really happens. By a supreme effort and final success he wins over his adversary herselfhis fair adversary, womanseducing her by an argument that is no mere play of words, but a living reality, entrancing and irresistible. He lays in her hand the precious fruit of Science and of Nature.
No call for so much disputation, no need for special pleading; he has only to show himself, the embodiment of the "gorgeous East," a veritable Paradise Regained. From Asia, that men thought they had abolished, rises a new dawn of incomparable splendour, whose rays strike far, very far, till they pierce the heavy mists of the West. Here is a world of nature and art that brute ignorance had called accursed, but which now starts forth to conquer its conquerors in a peaceful war of love and maternal charm. All men yield to the spell; all are fascinated, and will have nothing that is not from Asia. The Orient showers her
wealth upon us; the webs, and shawls, and carpets of exquisite softness and cunningly blended colours of her looms, the keen, flashing steel of her damascened blades, convince us of our own barbarism. But far more than this, the accursed lands of the infidel, where Satan holds domain, possess, in sign manifest of Heaven's blessing, the best products of all Nature, the very elixir of the creative powers of God, the first of vegetables and the first of beasts,coffee and the Arab steed. Nay! beside this, a whole world of treasures,silk, and sugar, and all the best of wonder-working herbs that cheer men's hearts, and console and soften their woes.
Towards the year 1300 all this comes to a head. Spain herself, won back by the barbarous Goths, yet ever dreaming of the Moors and Jews of old, testifies for her heathen conquerors of an earlier day. Wherever the Mussulmans, those sons of Satan, are at work, all is prosperity, water-springs bursting from the soil, and the earth all carpeted with flowers. Under the stimulus of good, honest, happy work, the land is glorified with those wondrous vines that make men forget their griefs and recover their serenity, seeming to drink in with the noble liquor happiness itself and Heaven's sweet compassion.
When Satan offers the brimming cup of life and happiness, in all this world of fasting mankind, is there one being of sanity strong enough, where sanity is so rare, to receive all this without giddiness, without intoxication, without a risk of losing self-control?
Is there a brain, that not being petrified, crystallised in the barren dogmas of Aquinas, is still free to receive life, and the vigorous sap of life? Three Wizards 1 essay the task; by innate vigour of mind, they force their way to Nature's source; but bold and intrepid as their genius is, it has not, it cannot have, the adaptability, the power, of the popular spirit. So Satan has re-
course to his old ally, Eve. Woman is the one thing left in the world most replete with nature. She has never lost certain aspects of roguish innocence that mark the kitten and the precocious child. In virtue of this side of her character, she is better adapted, more congruous, to the comedy of human life here below, more fitted for the great game the universal Proteus is about to play.
But how light-minded, how fickle-hearted is woman, so long as she is not struck serious, steadied by grief! Our lady of the heath, outlaw from society, rooted in her savage waste, at any rate gives us something to take hold of. Remains to be seen whether chafed and embittered, her heart full of hate and venom, she will back to nature and the soft pleasant ways of life? If she does, it will for sure be harshly and inharmoniously, often by round-about ways of ill. She is wild and fierce and rough, from the very fact of her utter helplessness amid the welter of the storm.
When from the genial warmth of springtide, from the air, from the depths of earth, from flowers and their voiceless tongues, the new revelation rises round her on every side, she is at first seized with giddiness. Her bosom swells nigh to bursting; the Sibyl of knowledge has her ordeal, as her sisters had, the Cumæan, the Delphic Sibyl. Pedants may declare, "It is the Aura, the air merely that fills her to bursting, and that is all. Her lover, the Prince of the Air, puffs her out with fancies and lies, wind, smoke, and infinite emptiness," but they are wrong and their simile absurdly mistaken. The truth is just the opposite; the cause of her intoxication is that no emptiness at all, but reality, actuality, definite form and substance, have taken shape over-suddenly in her bosom.
Have you ever seen the Agave, that rude, harsh native of the African plains, spiky, bitter, sharp-thorned, with pointed spears instead of leaves? This Aloe lives and dies every ten years. One morning, the wondrous flower-shoot, so long growing silently and
voluptuously within the rude exterior of the plant, bursts forth with a sound like a gunshot and soars heavenward,a veritable tree in itself, full thirty feet high, encrusted with sad-looking blossoms.
Something analogous is experienced by the gloomy Sibyl, when one morning of spring, a late, and for that very reason a more vigorously fecundating spring, all round her burst the infinite explosion of new life.
And all this reacts on her, is done for her sake. For each creature whispers low, "I am for that being that has comprehended me."
The contrast! . . . She, bride of the desert and black despair, fed on hate and vengeance, lo! she finds all these innocent creatures inviting her to smile. The trees, bending before the south wind, do her gentle reverence. All the grasses of the field, with their divers virtues, perfumes, healing drugs or poisons (more often than not one and the same thing), offer themselves, murmuring, "Gather me, gather me!"
Everything speaks manifestly and by invisible signs of love. "Tis all a mockery surely! . . . I had been ready prepared for Hell, but not for this strange festival. . . . Spirit, dread Spirit, are you indeed the Spirit of terror I have known, the cruel trace of whose passage I can still feel (though I scarce know what it is I really feel), the wound that burns still within me? . . .
"Nay! it is no more the Spirit I longed for in my frenzied rage, 'He that pronounces the everlasting No.' Here I find him cooing a soft Yes of love and sweet intoxication and giddy joy. . . . What means it? Can he be the wild, the reckless, startled soul of life and its delights?
"They said great Pan was dead. But lo! he is here, living in Bacchus, in Priapus, grown impatient at the long tarrying of desire,menacing, burning, fecundating. . . . No! no! away with the cup from my lips. Mayhap I should but be drinking the troubled dregs therein; mayhap but a bitter despair the more to add to my fixed despair!"
Meanwhile, wherever the woman appears, she is the sole and only object of love. All follow her, all for her sake scorn the females of their own kind. Why speak in particular of the black he-goat, her so-called favourite? The feeling is universal, common to one and all. The stallion neighs for her, breaks from all restraint, imperils her safety. The dreaded lord of the plains, the black bull, if she passes him, bellows his right to see her vanish in the distance. Nay, the very birds of the air swoop to her feet, and deserting their kind, with fluttering wings make her overtures of their love.
Her grim lord and master's domination has taken a new and unexpected form. By a fantastic transformation he is changed of a sudden from King of the Dead, as men deemed him, to King of Life.
"Nay!" she cries; "leave me my hate. I asked this, and nothing more. Let me be feared, an object of dread. . . . Fear is the stigma of my beautythe beauty that accords best with the snaky blackness of my elf-locks, with my features furrowed by anguish and blasted by the lightning flash. . . ." But here sovereign Evil hisses in her ear in low, insidious whispers, "All! but you are more beautiful than ever, more moving in your frenzied passion! . . . Shout, curse! Tis a spur to desire. Deep calls to deep. Steep and slippery and swift is the path from rage to voluptuous delight!"
Neither anger nor pride were to save her from these seductions. Her safety came from the immensity, the infinitude of her desire. No single passion would suffice. Each single life is limited, weak and impotent. Away, courser of the plains! away, bull of the prairies! away, ardours of the feathered tribe! Away, feeble creatures! of what avail are ye to one that craves the infinite?
She feels a woman's overmastering caprice. And what is the object of her caprice? Why, the All, the great, the illimitable All of the universe at large.
Satan had failed to foresee this prodigious longing, a longing
that could find appeasement with no single living creature.
This was something beyond even his powers, a mysterious impulse without a name, without a possibility of realisation. Yielding to these vast, unbounded aspirations, deep and limitless as the ocean, she falls softly asleep; losing all memory of past wrongs and suffering, all thoughts of hate and vengeance, in involuntary, as it were reluctant, innocence, she lies wrapt in slumber on the herbage, as any other tender creaturea lamb, a dovemight have done, her limbs relaxed, her bosom open to the heaven,loved, but I cannot, I dare not, say loving.
So she slept and dreamed . . . a beautiful, a wonderful dream. She dreamedtis a thing hard to set down in wordshow a wondrous monster, the genius incarnate of life universal, was absorbed in her; she dreamed that henceforth Life and Death and all Nature were shut within her body, that at the cost of, oh! what infinite travail, she had conceived in her womb great Nature's self.
72:1 Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Arnold of Villeneuvethe last-named discoverer of the art of distilling spirit from the grape.