This Week’s Prompt: 75. Black Mass beneath an antiquated church.
The Black Mass is an intriguing part of folklore. It is hear that we come again to the explict religious fears of Mr. Lovecraft perhaps—while his fiction is angostic, the Black Mass is a fear in the folklore of Europe, particularly among Catholics. The concept of a Black Mass is rather simple: The Black Mass is a pervision of the Holy Mass by the agents of the devil, an anti-thesis to right and good churchly behavior. Thus, it is at midnight, it involves sexual acts and violence—sometimes cannibalism and human sacrifice, often poison and orgies. It is a night of witchcraft and Satan himself may walk at that dread hour.
The earliest accusations of something like a Black Mass—although not using that phrase—is leveled against the Gnostic sect the Borborites. The accusation includes tropes that are common throughout later accusations—the consumption of bodily fluids, sexuality, child abuse, and cannibalism. Like later accusations, Black Mass here is equal parts folklore and political attack. The Borborite accusations resulted in 80 people being expelled from the city of Alexandria, and the suppression of Gnostic texts since then has made determining the veracity of these claims difficult to say the least.
The most famous Black Mass is the Affair of Poisons. The incident is detailed here in a translation of several recorded interrogations. Included is the mixing of the blood of a white dove with holy water and sulfur, the brewing of love potions of a duke, the invocation of three demonic princes, an abortion and the use of the dead infants in consecrations. To continue on in more detail would be a bit more grotesque then I am willing to do for this blog.
The result of this Black Mass was the arrest and execution of over 36 people. The dead included the mistress of King Louis X, Madame de Montespan, and a number of soothsayers, diviners, and alchemists. The chief witness was interrogated while intoxicated, however, and evidence of the supposed thousands of dead children is non-existent.
However, it was far from the only Black Mass accusation to be leveled. Earlier works gave similar debauched and carnal descriptions of Black Mass, where the devil appeared as a great talking black goat. Witch hunters, comedians, heretics all in the twelfth and thirteenth century provide texts for Black Mass.
Another famous accusation was levied against the Knights Templar. While not accused of a specific Black Mass, the Knights Templar were accused of spitting on the Cross, denying Christ, worshiping idols, and of encouraging homosexual practices. Compounding accusations of fraud, secrecy, and corruption, these accusations eventually lead to the disbanding of the Knights Templar and the seizure of their lands by other states and the Knights Hospitaller. In addition, the accusation papers are the first time the now famous demon Baphomet is described. However, the demon has not taken its form as a black goat yet. Instead, it is described as : a dead cat, a severed head (sometimes with three faces), sometimes as a piece of wood with Baphomet upon it. The nature of this accusation is…difficult to find credible—the articles on Wikipedia document the strangeness of the name, the accusations specifics, and the theories around it. The idea of Baphomet as a demon was revived later for attacks against Freemasonry, and finally Baphomet’s shape became more concrete with Eliphas Levi’s satanic temple.
In the folklore of Germany, Walpurgisnacht takes a similar role—or more properly, Hexenacht, the Witches Night or Witches Sabbath in the Brocken mountains. Here, on a night of a saint, the witches gather by flying goats. They trample crosses, are baptized in the name of the Devil, receive gifts from him, and have grand orgies—rather banal by standards of Black Masses. Spell preparations were also made—the unguent that allowed witches to fly was brewed, great spells were cast with the aid of other witches. And of course, copious amounts of human flesh were devoured. The location varies—while the Brocken is common, the mystical island of Blockula in Sweden also plays host, as do other mountains.
A slight variation on these masses, which resemble grand inversions of the order of mass, is the Mass of Saint-Secaire. Recounted most famously in the Golden Bough, the mass is a means of assassination. A corrupt priest and his lover go to a deserted church at eleven at night. He recites mass backwards, ending at midnight. He then devours a mass of three cornered black bred and drinks a cup of water, from a well in which an unbaptized child has died. Then, making a cross with his left foot, the priest proclaims the name of the victim. The victim then simply dies, rapidly wasting away.
More innocuous inversions of Mass include the Feast of Fools phenomenon. A celebration among the subdeacons and lower clergy, the Feast of Fools traces its roots back to similair Roman celeberations. The Subdeacons took reign as the overseers of the cathedral for the day, and partying on a grand scale commenced.
In the folklore of the Balkans there is a recurring trope of devils gathering in the woods at night. Unlike the others described, these dark gatherings are regular reports of their mischief to their superiors, and get beatings when they fail. In folktales of unfortunate or poor heroes, these meetings provide ample opportunities to eavesdrop on the problems and solutions the hero can provide for riches.
A German folktale of a conclave of corpses has an implied diabolical aspect. The doubting monk discovers them buried in a forgotten vault at night—their hearts are ringed with fire, and all of them sit at attention. When inquired to their fate, the corpses reveal that they are being punished by their victims nightly, until judgement day. The conclave warns the monk of this truth—that hell is real, and coming for him. At the end of the gathering, the monk repents and devotes himself to the church.
In Shropershire, the Stiperstones are reported as the gathering place of ghosts and witches to elect their king—and the mysterious place Hegmoor’s End is an island where witches gather. Not much regarding these gatherings is recorded, so we must presume they are sabbaths like any other.
In Rhode Island, Goose Nest-Spring is where the witches hold carnival, and have Sabbath at Hell Hollow or Kettle Hollow, depending on the teller of the tales. African American folktales in Rhode Island report that those who see witches brew—made frequently by groups of witches in graveyards—will crave nothing else, and thus starve even if they escape.
A Celetic folktale gives a more somber occasion—from the Isle of Man, one Mrs. Peacock claims that the devil occupies churches on All Hallows Eve. There, he takes the form of a somber priest and blasphemies against God for the night, while invoking the names of those who are to die and be damned in the coming year. If one listens, one can hear their fate—and perhaps even escape with their life. (Celtic 328).
With this foundation of diabolical tales, I think we can start working on the outlines of a story. I think this is a prompt that is more a scene then a full story—the climax or midpoint, rather then a whole outline as is the case elsewhere. With the idea of getting to a witches sabbath, I think we can play with the notions that this Sabbath occurs yearly, in the same place. Something like a grotesque yearly convention. And with a convention, we can imagine that a community has grown around it, in the same way that pilgrimgae sites foster the growth of communities around a trail.
Given the associations with secret knowledge and plans at play here, I think a story about discovering the Witches Sabbath that is at the heart of the economy of a small village or town either as a small child or as new arrival in town. The mystery of strange people arriving and treated as welcome guests, the sights of early fires and sacrifices in the nearby hills, and the inevitably doomed venturing into those hills one night, to see the secret ceremonies. I think that as a story might work well.
The exact character of the Sabbath is another question however. As mentioned above, Black Sabbath’s are often gruesome and needlessly dark affairs. Scores of dead children might be shocking to write about, but in the space of only fifteen hundred words—three thousand if I’m being generous—the image is more tacky then effective I feel. On the other hand, making the Black Sabbath a merely ordinary event is dull. Walking the line between serious horror and schlock—a line I willingly and eagerly cross at times—is a difficult affair.
Bourgaize, Eidola Jean. Supernatural Folklore of Rhode Island. University of Rhode Island, 1956.
Nicoloff, Assen. Bulgarian Folktales. Assen Nicoloff, 1990.
Jackson, Georgina F. Shropshire Folklore. Edited by Charlotte Sophia. Burne, 1883.
Rhys, John. Celtic Folklore. Wildwood House, 1983.
Tibbits, Charles John. Folk-Lore and Legends, Germany. J.B. Lippincott, 1892.
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