The Terror of History: Lectures 19-24 (Witchcraft, Part 2 & Conclusion)

The Malleus Maleficarum

The Malleus Maleficarum was one of the most influential books in early modern culture. It was written by two Dominican monks sent to investigate rural areas. They claimed that there was widespread use of witchcraft. What this most likely amounted to was a confrontation between the part of the Western world that was fully Christianized and the other part that was only partially Christianized. Also known as the Hammer of Witches, the Malleus showed the connection between women and the devil and was used to prosecute witches by both Catholicism and Protestantism. Persecution would have happened anyway, but it would not have happened on such a large-scale without the Malleus.

The Compendium Maleficarum

The Compendium Maleficarum was also very popular and describes in detail the steps to becoming a witch…

  1. Sign a pact with the Devil. Satan offers you something you want: wealth, power, knowledge, revenge… The pact is written in blood and placed in a crossroads. Crossroads were thought to be frequented by devils. Crosses were placed in the crossroads to scare away the devil.
  2. Receive the mark of the Devil. You are branded with a small mark in the form of a bat or a toad found in your genitalia, armpits, etc.  (probably a birthmark that looks similar.) The marks are insensitive to pain – they don’t hurt when they are pricked with a needle. (What a great job pricking must have been!) A third nipple could also be a mark, but this was sometimes a bit tricky because people would testify that they had seen a third nipple on someone, but when investigators would look for themselves, it would be gone! Magic, no doubt!! There was a sexual connotation to being branded with a mark. Slaves began to be branded on the forehead to indicate ownership during this time period, too.
  3. Abjure your faith.
  4. Cast away your rosaries and scapulars.
  5. Pay homage to the devil or his representatives. Witches were said to kiss the devil in his behind while the devil emitted a cold, fetid, filthy wind.
  6. Sacrilegious baptism. You are given new godparents and a new name. Naming is very important because it gives power.
  7. Cut a piece of clothing or hair and give it to the devil. This gives the devil power over you.
  8. Enter into the magic circle. (The Pentagram.)
  9. Promise to perform sacrifices for the Devil.

The Gathering of Witches

Of course, the Compendium Maleficarum is a hostile source. Not only does it describe how to become a witch, it describes the places where witches gather (known as Sabbath which comes from Sabazius Phyrigian deity and is not related to the Jewish Sabbath.). These were nocturnal gathering of witches and there are many books written about these gatherings. This can be linked with agrarian cults, too. It is well-accepted that people in Europe during this time period truly believed that at certain times of the weeks, the witches gathered to engage in orgies, do evil deeds, and worship the devil.

The Eve of May Day is the night of the witches. May Day is a very important day in ancient Europe because it marks the end of winter and the beginning of  spring. The Eve of May Day was considered "the night of terror". Other important days for witch gatherings were the Eve of St. John’s Day, June 23rd, Christmas Eve. (Basically the Eve of any big Christian celebration was considered an important day for witch gatherings.

According to the hostile sources, during these witch gatherings, people are dressed in animal skins (usually goats). They eat great amounts of foods prepared without salt and they drink monsie, a sweet wine considered to be an aphrodisiac. They engage in orgies. The devil will provide an incubus or succubus which will satisfy everything you want sexually. It takes the form of a little cat or other small animal and can turn into a human form. There is orgiastic dancing. The use of artificial phalluses is common. (Artificial phalluses were quite popular in Europe during this time period.) Children were sacrificed, their blood shed, and they were made into pies and eaten.

Murder and Cannibalism

People were often accused of cannibalism and child murder. These accusations were typically made against midwives because children died regularly during the time period. These same charges were made against the Jews, Native Americans, Gypsies… Those who are said to commit murder and cannibalism are easily identified as being utterly different from you. They have gone beyond the boundaries of humanity and therefore do not deserve to live.

Child sacrifice lies at the very roots of our civilization for Westerners. Judaism and Christianity are based on child sacrifice. (Think Abraham and Isaac/God and Jesus.) At the very roots of these accusations, is a series of charges that are as old as humanity, itself.

Witches of Loudon

Ruiz presents the case of the witches of Loudon as an example of how politics, new sexual mores, and handy accusations of witchcraft could be used to get rid of an enemy. It is also a good example of how witch trials functioned in early modern Europe when the witch craze was beginning to wane.

France, as elsewhere, was experiencing radical social, political, and cultural shifts. France, as well as other parts of Western Europe, had fully entered the post-Renaissance world of the Baroque. This was a culture of luxury and sensuousness. France had offered premier places of learning for the intellectual elite during this time period. Urbain Grandier was an intellectual elite who attended La Flèche, the same school Descartes had attended.

The Scientific Revolution and the Cartesian Method were creating new cultural fields and new cultural production that challenged the established order. The Counter-Reformation had created new standards for clergy and laity.

Loudon was a small city in France that was deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics. It was experiencing conflict with the Crown and was facing economic transition. The Protestants were literate and middle class. The Catholics were the lower illiterate classes and upper class elites.

Urbain Grandier was ordained a Jesuit in 1615. He felt that becoming a clergyman would be more promising so left the Jesuits and became a priest at Loudon. He was a personable and handsome man who was very popular with the fashionable female parishioners. He had several sexual liaisons, getting the daughter of the local persecutor pregnant. This got him into trouble. The scandal was put aside, but he made powerful enemies.

A young, rich, beautiful widow who was much sought after by powerful men, fell in love with Grandier. He performed a marriage ceremony for the woman and himself, which also angered many people. Grandier obviously openly opposed celibacy (writing papers on it), which went counter to Church views. Another mistake was snubbing a young man who later became Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu never forgave Grandier for the snub.

In 1629, Grandier was imprisoned for sexual improprieties. He appealed to the higher court in Paris and was released back to clerical duties. Meanwhile, a new Ursulines convent opened in Loudon where middle class and impoverished aristocratic women became nuns. The head nun liked Grandier and asked him to become the nun’s confessor. He refused, which created another enemy.

Young novices at Ursuline, partly as prank, partly as constructed allegations, began to claim demonic possession. Grandier was accused of being the devil’s representative and imprisoned. Grandier was found guilty. He was tortured and condemned to death by burning. After terrible torture, he was burned in Loudon Square, pleading his innocence.

After his death, demonic possessions and lurid public exorcisms continued for 3 years, which delighted the onlookers of all denominations, and especially the Protestants who saw it as an example of Catholic misbehavior.

Essex Shire

Essex Shire in the 17th century was experiencing many of the major transformations that other areas were experiencing. Beggars were under attack. Peasants were taking to the streets to look for work and they were mistrusted. Authorities in Essex began persecuting witches in earnest. There was no torture in England, but the accused confessions were similar to those who were tortured. (The accused were not burned, although their bodies could be burned after death.)

Those accused as witches were primarily women who were past child-bearing years. Those doing the accusing were evenly divided between men and women. Many were in-laws of the accused. The accused were usually of a lower social class than their accusers, and were usually people who were lewd, begged for food, or had a propensity for cursing.

Salem Witch Trials

In 17th century Salem, a small colonial town in Massachusetts, the accusations and trials for witchcraft created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. In Salem, unlike Essex, the accusers were of a lower socioeconomic status than the accused. Salem marks the conclusion of two centuries of the witch craze.

Pre-Christian Agricultural Cults

As mentioned previously, there is much evidence to support the survival of pre-Christian agricultural cults in Europe. In Italy, there are the "good walkers" of Friuli. They were believed to be born with the inner fetal membrane of higher vertebrates and have unusual powers. When the harvests were at stake, they would go out to the fields and march with fennel stalks to do battle against the witches who were armed with sorghum stalks. It was believed this would save the crops.

When the inquisitors encountered this behavior, it was accused of witchcraft. The "good walkers" refused to admit guilt and claimed they were good Christians, too. The proceedings lasted for decades. After many years, they began to confess. Most were punished, but not executed.

Deep and Mysterious Past

Another influential tradition in the making of Western culture is the belief in a deep and mysterious past. Celtic lure is an excellent example. Many Druidic beliefs survived, including the power of mistletoe, the fabled golden bough. It was supposed to have healing and magical power so was placed on the door to defend against the power of witches. May Day is related to mistletoe. The Maypole is a phallic symbol and celebrations are related to fertility rites and the renewal of life in spring.

Magical Places

Another influential tradition is the belief in magical places that offer portals into a different world of nature and imagination. This was a pre-Christian belief that made its way into Christianity. Other folklore that survived was the belief in fairies, trolls, dragons, wizards, etc. This is not a widespread belief, but was quite popular in Celtic homelands. Celtic lore remains a powerful cultural motif.

The Golden Bough by James Frazer is an extraordinary record of Celtic folklore. Celts are a remarkable people. They brought their Druid religion and the sense of the mysterious which entered 12th century literature through Courtly Love.

From the Golden Bough, we learn of great fire festivals. The building of fires on the top of mountains probably goes back to human sacrifice. Man was sacrificed as a way to replenish the fertility of the earth. We also learn about the use of Mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the oak tree. It is the most important anti-witchcraft plant, the plant of the gods. The Oak Tree is the sacred tree of the Indo-European people and other groups. On the solstice and equinox, the fire festivals take place. When you burn the oak, you return the fire. It was believed the sun resides in the heart of the oak. This guarantees that the sun will burn brightly for another year.


Today, May Day is Labor day because a group of workers in Chicago were killed on May Day while demonstrating. May Day had long been a day off for Europeans. Labor Day harkens back to a day no one worked. (It was eventually moved to September in the U.S. for political reasons.)

Today, there are still places so sacred that people flock to them. Pantheon in Rome. Stone Circles in England (Stonehenge). Cathedral of Chartres built on an old Celtic sacred place (you travel a maze in the building to the very center of the world).

The making and construction of ideas are the ways in which human beings deal with the terror of history. It isn’t just a medieval and early modern tradition. It lives on with us. There has never been a more cruel and irrational century than the 20th century. We’ve had one genocide and after another, without end.

History is made by the elites. It is written by those on the top. History is constructed. It is a way in which we try to explain what is often unexplainable. It is a way to give reason to things that are not reasonable. We live at the very edge of doom. We live in danger all the time. Around us is the uncertainty and irrationality of the world. It is our own actions that terrorize us. In order to deal with this and make meaning of it, we create religion, scapegoats and sacred places.

The terror of history remains with us. And as in earlier periods, society continues to formulate responses that seek an escape from history.

The Terror of History: Lectures 16-19 (Witchcraft, Part 1)

Witchcraft is difficult to define. At first it was viewed as nonsense, but by the 16th century, it was a solid part of Europe. Both Catholics and Protestants believed in it!  While witchcraft can be found in most cultures, it looks very different in other cultures than it did in  Europe during the middle ages because the belief that Satan was at the root of it.

In the earliest forms of religion, magic, formulas and spells were very important. When people realized that magic isn’t particularly effective in ordering the world, the idea of surrendering to God’s control became all important. In a lot of ways, however, European witchcraft looked a lot like the earliest forms of religion. (Of course, even today, religion has magical elements. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be religious have superstitions: a lucky shirt for interviews, a special pen for writing something brilliant… What are these but "magical" attempts to control the world around us?)

Witchcraft relies on the belief that magic exists and that there are two opposing forces in the world. The understanding was adopted from the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeism. The sharp split between good and evil is a Western phenomenon. You don’t find it in the east.

Historians disagree on the origins of witchcraft. Some claim it was simply a political ploy or the result of the imagination, but no one knows for sure. What we know about witchcraft comes from hostile sources – those who were in opposition to it at the time.

In the 1920s, Margaret Murray argued that witchcraft was the remains of vegetation rituals from pre-Christian times. Her ideas were dismissed, but are being revisited, today. Carlo Ginzburg has shown conclusively that agrarian cults still existed in rural areas in Europe during the 16th century. Good witches would fight against the evil spirits that threatened to destroy their crops. When Inquisitors came across these people, they identified them as infidels and claimed their practice was devil worship. The peasants would deny these charges, but under intense investigation, they would eventually admit to whatever accusations the inquisitors made.

During the middle ages, magic, religion and science all merged into one another. A religious figure could use highly charged religious language to describe his scientific work, and someone with a belief in magic could describe religion in magical terms. Scientists often used magic in their experiments. It was the process of secularization that finally established firm boundaries.

The Protestant Reformation worked to get rid of magic and superstition in Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation led to the stricter monitoring of practices that were found to be unacceptable. The Scientific Revolution defined the world in numerical terms and embraced Cartesianism. All of these movements led to the demise of alchemy, astrology and hermeticism.

The Protestant Reformation made everyone uncertain. Can you imagine how it would be if for over 1000 years, generation after generation had looked to Catholicism as truth and suddenly, the truth is called into question? The Protestant movement brought it into question, and the Catholic Church responded to by becoming even more strict. Practices that had long been ignored or considered insignificant prior to the Protestant movement became targets of persecution.

There were continuous religious wars between the Protestants and Catholics and the winner of those wars got to impose his particular brand of religion. Religious tolerance was not widely practiced. If there were people you didn’t want fighting against you, accuse them of witchcraft. In Catholic countries, it was Protestants that were accused of witchcraft. In Protestant countries, it was the Catholics.

As many as 80,000 to 100,000 people (mostly elderly women) were killed as witches. Most were from rural areas where the social structure was breaking down. Almost everyone in rural Europe used to eek out a living. Now there was a sharp division between well-to-do peasants (farmers) and those that had been marginalized. Poverty, which had once been viewed as dignified, was now devalued.

In the olden days, a beggar could knock on the door of a home and expect to receive some money or food, but by the late 15th century, this was no longer true. Beggars were often turned away instead of given food. Very often, the beggar would curse at the person who turned them away. If you had been cursed at by a beggar, and shortly thereafter your baby died in childbirth (which happened all the time back then), you could blame it on the beggar and declare him or her (usually an elderly her) "witch".

War and all of the instability in the region led to a surplus of older women. (If you were 40, you were old!) Women were most likely to practice folk medicine and this practice was closely related to the witch craze. Also, with the modern era came the institutionalization for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized: prisons, insane asylums, etc. These institutions led to the repression of social misfits. According to Michel Foucault, the persecution of witchcraft is similar: it was yet another institution for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized.

That people no longer saw poverty as dignified was directly related to the rise of capitalism. The growth of new economic systems in Europe were so fraught with tension that witchcraft became an easy scapegoat. The discovery of the New World and the awareness of new peoples never known before, was also forcing Europeans to rethink their world. People began identifying themselves as separate from "the other".

New, sophisticated methods of persecution and criminal inquiry were now under control of the state. The Inquisition was the most formidable. Public executions and burnings became an essential part of the "theatricality of power": they were reminders of the power of the state and they had extraordinary popular support. One of the reasons for this support was that it allowed a condemned person to re-enter the body politic. Do something bad, profess your sin, die for it, and then you are forgiven.

Jean Delumeau argued that the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern period marked an intense, widespread sense of fear in Western Europe. Changes in religion, economics, politics and the social structure, as well as the birth pangs of modernity created a kind of collective pathology. This fear was most present in the lower classes as well as some of the middle class who perceived the changes as a threat to their well-being. Unsurprisingly, there was an upsurge of bandits, vagrants, scam artists and others that added to the insecurity. A social violence existed that mostly affected the bottom rungs of society.

By persecuting witches, the State created a distraction from the popular discontent. Anger about the wars, the heavy taxation, the crime, etc. was directed away from the failings of the state to Jews, lepers, Muslims, old women, etc. Don’t blame the State, blame the witches. This scapegoating strengthened the state supported institutions and the coercive mechanisms of the nation-state. And as mentioned before, these coercive mechanisms had widespread popular support.

Also mentioned previously, the Western form of witchcraft is very different from what exists in other cultures thanks to the role of Satan. The concept of the devil in Western culture comes from Manichaeism (Persian dualism), not from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the devil has an ambivalent role. In Job, for instance, the devil just does what God asks of him. Beliefs in the devil didn’t develop until early Christianity and the Middle Ages. By the late 15th century, the devil had come to play an enhanced role in the lives of most Europeans and was linked with a wide range of activities.

In the ancient world, when the pastoral lifestyle took over the previous hunter/gatherer lifestyle as well as the earliest agrarian movements, a dramatic change in religious worship occurred. In order to affect change, the pastoral peoples got rid of the fertility goddess cults and replaced them with a male-centered patriarchy. This change was most obvious in Judaism, but can also be seen in Greek mythology. It led to a dramatic shift in the treatment of women.

The two main traditions that Western civilization is founded upon, Judaism and Greek, are seriously misogynistic traditions where women are horribly mistreated. Most of the great classical works show women as evil, weak, and easily deceived, as well as being capable of leading man into temptation. There are some exceptions to these representations, but not many. The reality is that the place of women was inferior to that of men. Western Society was a phallocracy. This was most evident in Athens, the cradle of democracy, which most definitely was not democratic when it came to women.

Early Christianity allowed women some power, but this didn’t last long. By the Middle Ages, even upper class women had only two alternatives: marriage or the monastery. Monastic life allowed women to be at least somewhat independent of men, but the religious hierarchy placed male rule over that of female rule. Women were strictly subordinated to men.

For a brief period in the 12th century, women gained a modicum of power through courtly love. But this was only for upper class women. Lower class women worked endlessly and were often abused. They had few property rights and no political rights whatsoever. Also, the idea of courtly love was condemned by the Church.

The conditions of women worsened considerably during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. The number of widowed and single women rose in proportion to the number of men because of the wars. Women living alone at the edge of rural areas, engaging in healing, herbalism and folk medicine became common. Women in the lower classes who had no ties to men became easy targets for persecution. In the absence of Jews, they made ideal scapegoats.

Men got to determine the boundaries of sexual behavior because, as Ruiz puts it, men can’t fake it. If you can’t get it up, it must be a curse. An older sexually active woman is the ultimate transgression. Cursing, blasphemy, behaving lewdly gets women accused of witchcraft. Also, old women had long been associated with the "evil eye". This was a certain look that was considered to be similar to a curse – if an older woman gave you the evil eye, you were cursed. The evil eye became associated with Satan, and women were accused of witchcraft because of it.

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 18 – 22 – Western Christian Mysticism – Roman Catholicism

Dr. Johnson provides the most lectures for Western Christian Mysticism in his series, Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam, because he says it is by far the most diverse.  The more central a religion makes its symbol, the more divisions the religion is going to have. The symbol of Jesus Christ is absolutely central to Christianity, therefore the religion is diverse and often divisive.

Greek had always been the language of the Bible and worship for Christians, but in the west, it was eventually replaced by Latin. Greek in the west, was largely forgotten, which means the traditions associated with the language were also lost. Also, with the fall of the Roman order in the 5th & 6th centuries, the Bishops in Rome became much more centralized and powerful while the power of the Bishops in the east remained regionally based.  Not surprisingly, these changes in the west led to theological and cultural misunderstandings with the east and the result was a schism in 1054. The church was divided into Roman Catholicism in the west and Eastern Orthodoxy in the east.

Monastic Tradition

Thanks to the inspiration of the Desert Fathers, a monastic tradition began in the west.  One of the first was Benedictine Monasticism which was founded by Benedict of Nursia (480-550).  He focused on providing a stable structure for cenobites (those living in monastic communities).  He wanted to strike a balance between “ora et labora” – prayer and work.  He avoided harsh asceticism and said that contemplation was not of value in itself, but rather, common life is of value in itself.

Gregory the Great (540-604) was Pope Gregory I from 590-604.  He was both committed to the monastic life and had mystical experiences.  He wrote, “Scripture is like a river again broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”

What typically happens in monasticism is that people live together and grow.  They gain and prosper which makes them lose their radical edge.  That is why monasticism in the west is constantly splitting off into monastic units.  Cistercian monasticism was one of the great reforming traditions.

Bernard of Clairvaoux (1090-1153) is one of the key figures in the spread of Cistercian reform, he was an active sponsor of the Second Crusade, and he helped found the Order of the Knights Templar.  He was also viciously opposed to the development of scholastic theology in the universities (especially Peter Abelard who introduced dialectic into scripture and wanted to make thinking more critical) .  He wrote 86 sermons on The Song of Psalms, and these writings exemplify the emerging mysticism of Western Monasticism which resembled the the interpretation of Jewish Scholars.  Monastic spirituality was primarily about reading scripture historically, allegorically and morally.

William of St. Thierry (1085-1148) sided with Bernard against Abelard.  He provides some of the best examples of an interpretation of scripture known as Lectio Devina.  This was not a scholarly exposition, it was contemplative prayer.

Richard of St. Victor (died in 1173), on the other hand, was more open to Abelard’s approach.  As is true of much of Jewish mysticism and Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Victor represents the movement of the Western tradition toward an emphasis on the ontological union with God and the constraints of the human mind in regards to this union.

Medieval Female Mystics

I found the lecture on female mysticism in the medieval times a little disturbing.

Female mysticism is essentially lacking in almost every single institutionalized religion that exists – this includes Eastern religions.  You have the occasional female sage, but they are few and far between.  They show up in a big way in Roman Catholicism in the middle ages, possibly because women had learned to play the system.  According to Dr. Johnson, they didn’t voice their thoughts on their own.  Their thoughts had to be approved by male confessors, and these male confessors offered heavy instruction on how their thoughts should be voiced.

Dr. Johnson says the reason women were given a voice in the medieval period is because Christianity is one of the few institutionalized religions that maintains a belief in spirit possession.  This belief allowed the marginal and lowly to assert an authoritative place through the claims of spiritual possession.  Women would have had no say otherwise. Claim spiritual possession and you gain power.

Obviously, these women had to be really careful about what they said and how they said it.  Only women who were virgins or widows were allowed to have any say at all.  According to Dr. Johnson, the celibate life was highly attractive to females in the Medieval Ages because women married around the age of 13 and had lots and lots of kids and eventually died in childbirth.  Married life was short and hard.  This made virginity a desirable option.

Religious life was a female’s only hope of a “profession”.  No other options were available to her.  If you were female and wanted an education, you had to enter into the religious life.  And if you wanted any authority whatsoever, you had to have prophetic visions.  If you were female, the only way you could be heard in a patriarchal society was through prophetic visions.

The most well-known female visionaries came from extremely wealthy households.  Which makes you wonder – maybe these females were politically savvy?  Not to say they didn’t have authentic mystical experiences, but maybe the reason these particular females were heard was because they were either virgins or widows and were savvy to the political game?

In Judaism and Islam, marriage and physical erotic love is viewed as a symbol of mysticism.  The same is true in Buddhism.  So at least women are valued in this sense.  In Western Christianity, physical love is taboo.  Why the shift from the Jewish perspective to the Christian perspective? Why are women so severely marginalized?

In Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert (The Eat, Love, Pray lady),  says marriage itself was viewed as unholy until around 1215, when the Roman Catholic Church realized it wasn’t going to be able to keep people from marrying.  Instead, it claimed authority over marriage and imposed all kinds of rules and regulations to try and control it.  Marriage had been a secular institution monitored by families and civil courts until the Roman Catholic Church claimed it for its own.  Erotic love, however, remains taboo – especially in Roman Catholicism.

What has always bothered me about Catholicism (both eastern and western forms) is not just the refusal to allow for female leaders in the Church, but the apparent hatred toward females in general (especially in Roman Catholicism).  Male spiritual leaders aren’t allowed to get married and the women that are presented as important to the church are forced, in a sense, to speak through men. I suppose Islam suffers from some of the same phobias as Catholicism (although female Imams do exist) but women are extremely influential in Judaism, Buddhism, Protestant Christianity and other World Religions these days. Why not Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy? 


A Mendicant is a beggar and this tradition arose within Christianity at the same time Sufi wandering beggars appeared.  The two largest Mendican orders are the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Both contained a second order of females and a third order of lay people and were committed to the radical ideal of evangelical poverty.  Instead of withdrawing from life, members of these orders had a working life among the poor.  These orders thrived because highly energetic, frugal people tend to get rich.  So there was a constant struggle to maintain poverty.  The more institutionalized the orders became, the more they thrived.  This was especially problematic for the Franciscan order which split early on.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is the founder of the Franciscans.  He had a vision of Christ crucified and received the stigmata which he bore for the rest of his life.  He wrote very little.  Much of what we understand about St. Francis comes from Bonaventure (1221-1274) who taught at the University of Paris.  He was a Bishop, Cardinal and great mystic.  Bonaventure creates a theological and mystical compression that links St. Francis’ mysticism to that of the mysticism in the East and Islamic spirituality.  It is an emphasis of the heart (Love of God).  At some point, the mind must give up. There is a leap – a passing over.

Dominican spirituality, on the other hand, is very intellectual.  It was founded by Dominic of Calaruega (1170-1221) and is represented by Thomas Aquinas (1200-1280) and his student Albert the Great (1225-1274), and the Rhineland Mystics: Eckhart von Hocheim (Meister Eckhardt 1260-1328), Johannes Tauler (1300-1361), and Henry Suso (1300-1366).  The Rhineland Mystics were all connected with the University of Paris, they were all from the Rhineland, and they were all very intellectual.

Meister Eckhardt used negative theology like Dionysius.  He was extraordinarily bold which got him into trouble as a heretic.  From 1327-1338, he spent much of his time defending his theology in front of inquisitors that wanted to excommunicate him.   What we find in Eckhardt is a truth that the highest form of mysticism and atheism are very closely related.  God is All is very close to God is Nothing.  God is no “thing” – otherness of God is stretched to the point that God’s isness appears as much as God’s abscence.

Johannes Tauler (1300-1361) was a student of Meister Eckhardt and was Martin Luther’s favorite German theologian.  He managed to soften Meister Eckhardt’s emphasis without rejecting Eckhardt.

Henry Suso (1300-1366) claimed the highest point of the mystical life was not about the individual, it was about God.  In order to become aware of God’s presence in other people, we must allow for the passing away of self.

English Mystics of the 14th Century

The most famous of the mystics at this time was the anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.  This is a 14th century masterpiece.  It borrows from Dionysius the Aeropagite, but we know it is a 14th century work because of its prose.  This presents the Apophatic tradition of the East in Western garb.  It claims that it is not knowledge, but desire and love that penetrates into the divine

Julian of Norwich (1342-1423) is thought to be one of the outstanding mystics of the medieval period.  She was a natural metaphysician who moved easily from what “Is” to what has been brought into being.  She is known for her female language for God and for Jesus and has an outstanding way of presenting this female language which allowed her to break the paternal barriers of language.  For instance, she emphasizes the motherhood in God; the motherhood of grace; and the motherhood of work.

Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) who wrote The Imitation of Christ is actually from the Netherlands rather than England, but Johnson threw him into this lecture.  Kempis says the meaning of life is to be found in the journey to God.  Suffering is a way to follow in the way of Jesus and involves a personal relationship with Jesus.

Johnson concludes this lecture emphasizing that these writers show us the characteristics of medieval spirituality which is concentrated on the figure/humanity of Jesus.  Jesus IS the way to God.  We don’t get to God by doing what he did, but by accepting, embracing, and living out Jesus’ suffering.

15th & 16th Spanish Mystics

Dr. Johnson claims these are a special group of Christian mystics that came about as part of the counter to the Protestant Reformation. It includes Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and three great mystics…

Francisco de Osuna (1492-1540) is this first of these.  He emphasized the prayer of quiet recollection.  He said the way in is through Christ’s divinity and we come out through his humanity.  His was an experiential mysticism rather than a cognitive mysticism and he had a huge affect on Teresa of Avila who is considered a Doctor of the Church and was part of the Order of Mount Carmel.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) suffered from chronic illness and had a vision of hell which inspired her to create a more vigorous Carmelite order than the order she belonged to.  Most of her life was spent founding communities within this order and teaching.  Teresa made a distinction between “busy prayer” and “quiet prayer” and said that the real proof of maturity in mystical life is the actual behavior of the person who is the mystic.  She said there is a mystical betrothal which is the experience of unity, but this doesn’t last.  What lasts is mystical marriage.

Teresa of Avila was friends with John of the Cross (1542-1591).  With Teresa, he helped found the Discalced Carmelites which was the reform of the Order of Mount Carmel (mentioned above).  He is also considered a Doctor of the Church.  His writing is Apophatic (Nothing, Nothing, Nothing) which is reminiscent of The Cloud of Unknowing.  There is a point in spiritual development when approaching God feels exactly the same as approaching nothing.  He calls this the dark night of the soul.  Union with God is not through knowledge.  Knowledge is “nada, nada, nada” (nothing, nothing, nothing).  It is through the embrace of the heart – the giving of self completely to God in love.

The King of Masks

The King of Masks came out in 1999.  I remember seeing it with a friend during one of our rare outings without kids.  She and I were both crying by the end of the film. It actually would have been perfectly appropriate for the kids to have seen, too, but we didn’t know that until after we had seen it.  Maybe it wasn’t rated.  Or maybe we just wanted to get out of the house without kids.  I’m not sure.

Last night, it showed up on my Netflix Instant Watch queue of “Films You Will Love” so I watched it again.  It’s a beautiful story set in 1930s China.  The King of Masks is an elderly street performer who can change masks with a slight of the hand.  The literal translation of the art is “Face Changing”.  This is an old Chinese art and is based on a performer who could change 12 masks at once.  The actor for the film learned to manage 4 (the rest was managed by the magic of film).  He can only pass his art down to a male heir so he goes to where children are sold illegally in the hopes of purchasing a male child.  Lots of girls are sold because there is such a strong preference for males in 1930s China.  It’s heartbreaking!

The old man, Wang, purchases a child who tugs at his heart.  He thinks he has purchased a boy, but soon discovers she is an 8 year old girl.  After this discovery, he tries to get rid of her but she stubbornly remains with him because she has already been sold 7 times.  Her last master beat her.  She promises to scrub the decks and do whatever work Wang demands of her.  So Wang agrees to keep her on, but he is no longer “Grandpa” to her, he is “Boss”.  Zhou Renying plays Doggie and offers a heartwarming performance.  She’s a phenomenal child actress!

The director, Wu Tianming said, “I wanted to make this film because I fear that society is forgetting our Chinese traditions. Those traditions emphasized the value of morality and ethics, proper manners, a sense of honor, and taking care of each other…Through this story of an old man and a child in a world full of struggle and suffering, I wanted to express the importance of love.”  In 1930s China, a street performer was considered to be a member of an elite fraternity, despite his meager lifestyle.  His life is honest, full of integrity, beautiful and even prestigious despite being extremely humble.  He lives a very happy life despite his poverty.

Throughout the film, there are displays of beautiful Chinese festivals and operas complete with the incredible, colorful costumes that go along with them.  We are also shown magnificent statues of Buddha and several Buddhists temples where Wang goes to worship.  It’s an absolutely exquisite film.

Sula by Toni Morrison

The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Sula was sometime back in the 1990s.  I enjoyed the story and was completely affected by it, but I’m not sure I understood it.  Like Beloved, I think it hit me at some primal level. Just a few months after I read Sula, we went to London and made a side trip to Bath which houses the Roman temple to Sulis Minerva.  I always kind of wondered if Morrison had connected Sula with Sulis.  I highly doubt it, but after reading the book a second time, there is definitely a connection.

Sulis, also known as Sul and sometimes Sula, was a Celtic goddess.  The thing about Celts is that they were extremely independent people.  They had built a shrine to Sulis over a spring which they considered to be life giving.  It didn’t happen often, but occasionally, the Romans adopted the Celtic deities, which they did in the case of Sulis.  You have to wonder about the politics behind that.  Sulis was a local goddess as were all Celtic gods. ( No “corporate” gods for the Celts!)  She was considered to be a life giving mother goddess. 

The Romans invade and bring their patriarchal society along with them. They connect Sulis  with Minerva, the virgin goddess closely associated with the Greek Goddess Athena.  According to J.J. Bachofen, Athena was perverted by a patriarchal society and essentially became the patriarch of Athens, despite once having mother goddess standing.  No doubt, the Romans were able to gain some control over the Celts by tempering the Celtic local goddess with their virgin, patriarchal, “corporate” goddess.  The Romans were an extremely patriarchal culture.  (Christianity inherited its patriarchy from the Romans.)

I think Morrison’s Sula represents a sort of feminine divinity/feminine energy.  She turns everything about the patriarchal society in which she lives upside down.  Nothing is as it seems.  People personify her as evil and with that personification, are able to become more loving toward one another.   That’s why a patriarchal Christianity needs an evil “other”/devil.  It’s a container that allows individuals to feel good about themselves and ignore the not so nice things they do.


I’m not sure I can make total sense of this, but let me try and give two “for instances” from the book to explain what I mean.  First of all, there is Eva who is Sula’s grandmother.  She has a son she adores called Plum.  He comes home from the war addicted to heroin and Eva takes it upon herself to kill him.  She does this entirely out of love.  She can’t stand the thought of him being overtaken by the addiction.  So what does this say about love?  On the one hand, it is life giving.  On the other, it can be smothering to the point of death.  Love isn’t all good.  It has its dark side.  It can become quite costly when possessive.  But as long as an action is done with love, then it is not an evil action, right?  Or at least, so it seems to the individual who commits the act.  Evil is “out there”.  Not “in me”.   Second, there is Teapot (I think that’s the little boys name).  He’s the malnourished, ill cared for son of a negligent mother.  But, when he falls down Sula’s steps and breaks a bone (which doctors say is thanks to malnourishment more than the fall), the mother blames Sula for his fall.  And this is enough for her to start taking care of her child. By demonizing Sula, she is able to change the story about herself and view herself as “good”.

Even though Sula is childless, in a sense, she is life giving simply by being willing to take on the personification of evil for the community.  She’s sort of ego-less in that  she doesn’t assume the images the community demands of its citizens, nor does she try and altar the image they create for her.  Sula is concerned only with being her own person – being who she is rather than being what others expect of her. That way, if she’s lonely, then her loneliness is hers.  It’s not a second-hand loneliness like Nel’s.  Nel is lonely because she allowed her friendship with Sula to be usurped by her relationship with her husband, Jude, who really only married her because he couldn’t get the “white” job he wanted.  Marrying Nel was a way for Jude to feel “manly”.  Sula has an affair with him because she comes from a line of women who think nothing of sleeping with men.  It’s nothing to her.  But it’s everything to Nel who accuses Sula of having taken her husband away.   Yet, Sula didn’t kill him.  She didn’t literally take him away.  Nel’s husband left on his own accord.  Why blame the female and not the man?

I know – I’m all over the place.  I apologize.  But I have to go back to Nel.  Sula and Nel are considered to be one person when they are children.  They make up a whole.  Nel comes from a family who has taken on the patriarchal norms.  Everything is orderly and needs to have meaning.  Sula comes from a much more chaotic family with a matriarch, Eva, at it’s head.  Things are ever-changing in Sula’s world so fixed meaning is much more difficult to come by. These two girls compliment one another.  Nel makes sense of things when Sula can’t.  And Sula gives life for Nel that she wouldn’t otherwise have.  Yet, despite Nel’s recognition that Sula is life giving, she still blames Sula for various events in their childhood, which allows her to see herself as “good”.

Take Sula chopping off her finger, for instance.  Sula did this specifically to protect Nel.  Nel had been avoiding a bunch of rowdy Irish boys for weeks.  Sula finally suggests they take their normal route and not avoid the boys.  They meet up with the boys and Sula, very calmly, pulls out her knife and cuts off the end of her finger.  She tells them that if she can do this to herself, just think what she’ll do to them.  It works.  They back off. 

You can’t predict what Sula is going to do.  Nel sees this as crazy.  But is it crazy?  Sula knows that the boys will harm Nel if the girls act as expected (fearfully).  But Sula doesn’t bow down to their expectation.  She confronts the masculine energy with her own chaotic feminine energy and the masculine energy has to make way for it because it can’t make sense of it.

At the end of the book, when Nel confronts Sula about having slept with Jude, Sula asks why she would have ended a friendship just because she slept with Jude.  She suggests that maybe Nel has it wrong and that it was Sula who was the good one.

In the end, Nel realizes that it wasn’t Jude she was missing.  It was Sula, who was there, all along.  That gives me goosepimples.  Not because I think this was some sort of lesbian relationship.  I didn’t read it that way at all.   What I think Nel recognizes is that the feminine energy she possesses, that Sula represents, was available to her all along, as it is to all women.  We voluntarily give it up for the sake of compliance, like Nel’s mother flashing her smile at the white conductor which Nel instinctively reacted against, as did all of the black soldiers on the train.  If you comply, you are as good as dead.

I asked the other day, “What’s so wrong with just being human?  If something makes us sad or makes living difficult for a period of time, is it because we lack the appropriate belief in God?  Or is it simply because we are human?”  I said I didn’t know where I was going with that.  But I think Sula directly answers it.  Creating ideas about God is a way to make sense of God – to create meaning.  That’s OK.  But we have to be willing to balance our need for meaning with an acceptance of the inherent chaotic nature of life.  We have to be willing to balance the masculine with the feminine.

There is so much to this book.  I think I’d have to read it 50 times, at least, to get everything out of it!  I understand it way better this time around than I did the first time.   I’m sure I’ll understand it even better the next time.  Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic book!

Women and Spirituality: The Goddess Trilogy

I tend to think of paganism as non-important, primarily because it has always seemed to me a new age reaction to Christianity – an attempt to go backward rather than overcome current issues. Women and Spirituality:  The Goddess Trilogy made me slightly less biased, however.

Think of this: a patriarchal spirituality has been in place ever since the origins of Christianity. In fact, it was in place long before then. All the current major world religions are based on a patriarchal spirituality. Paganism represents a female spirituality.

The term pagan referred to those in rural areas. No matter what your religious beliefs, if you lived in a rural area during Roman rule, you were referred to as a pagan. The term acquired it’s negative connotation when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire because those in the rural areas were the most difficult to convert to Christianity. The pagans (the rural folk) actively resisted conversion.

Growing up in conservative America in the 1970s, paganism was viewed as the “anti-Christ”. You didn’t want to be a pagan. Of course, dig in to what the term “anti-Christ” really means and perhaps many Christians are actually the anti-Christ. Especially if Christ is understood as universality. Most Christians are exclusive, not inclusive. Yet Christ is technically understood as all inclusive. Therefore, the anti-Christ is anything that is exclusive rather than inclusive. That which excludes describes numerous Christians while that which includes describes the bulk of paganism.

I suppose I’ve been somewhat skeptical of the Pagan movement because I was introduced to it through a UU Church that exists in the midst of ultra-conservativille. Many of these pagans are ex-fundamentalist Christians who have rejected the fundamentalist doctrine of their upbringing and have assigned all of Christianity with the fundamentalist baggage. So all they’ve really done is flip the judgment (Christianity is bad; Paganism is good) while maintaining the same intolerance and magical belief system of their fundamentalist upbringing.

Paganism wasn’t described in The Goddess Trilogy as an anti-Christianity at all.   One woman kept describing it as pre-Churchianity. That makes perfectly good sense to me because I definitely have a problem with the way Christianity has been handed down to us through “Churchianity”. Jesus message was something far more universal than the Church which was based on the Roman governmental city-state hierarchy.

The Goddess Trilogy presented “The Goddess” as  metaphor in the true sense of metaphor, rather than the warped modern sense which doesn’t understand metaphor at all. Many of the women acknowledged their dissatisfaction with the term “Goddess”. They fully recognize that the term is every bit as problematic as is the term “God”.

The question is – how do you experience the universe? As a “He”?  Or as a “She”? Personally, I’m not sure I experience the universe as either, but if I had to choose, it would definitely be female.

Dosar (2006)

I wanted to see Dosar because I had read that it was borrowed from Kieslowski’s Blue. I can definitely see the connection but it is only very loosely based on Blue. There is a car accident and a death. But the woman who is cut off from her emotions hasn’t lost a husband and son as has the woman in Blue. Her husband (Kaushik) survives the accident but she (Kaberi) has to deal with an almost equally harsh reality. Her husband’s colleague (Mita), who died in the accident, was her husband’s mistress.
Kaberi chooses to take care of her husband thanks to loyal, domestic wifely duty, I suppose, but it is clear that there is some love between them. My husband and I have watched a lot of our friends and families marriages destroyed by affairs over the years. I can’t even begin to know what it is to work through that sort of betrayal, but I do believe it is possible to work through it.
Dosar means “the companion”.  I wonder who the companion refers to: the mistress or the wife?
I looked up the definition:
1: one that accompanies another : comrade, associate ; also : one that keeps company with another 2: obsolete : rascal 3 a: one that is closely connected with something similar b: one employed to live with and serve another 4: a celestial body that appears close to another but that may or may not be associated with it in space.
The mistress is his associate so could be called his companion. She was also his companion in the car when the accident occurred. The wife serves her husband, but she isn’t “employed” to live with and serve him. In male dominated societies, however, women basically are employed to live with and serve their husbands. So the term “companion” fits both the wife and the mistress.
That’s what friendship and marriage basically boil down to anyway, don’t they?  Companionship?  We make crazy demands of one another and get angry when people don’t live up to our expectations or become involved in something that inconveniences us (like Brinda’s pregnancy).  Sometimes we have affairs or leave the marriage because it isn’t what we wanted it to be. But really all we signed up for when we signed up for marriage (or a love affair) was companionship, wasn’t it? And not just companionship when things are “good”, but likewise when the going gets rough.
If we could just figure out how to remain companions at the marital level, perhaps we could heal a lot of the pain that exists in the wider world. Most of that pain has been created through various means of distracting ourselves from what it is we feel. If we were honestly committed to our sense of companionship, we would be forced to feel. And once we are able to feel, we are much more likely to become compassionate.
Definitely an interesting movie!  The black and white format had me thrown for a while because the phones were so obviously contemporary. But I liked the monochromatic theme. It presents a feeling of unity that might not exist had the movie been filmed in color.