The Heretical Kiss: Eros and Obscenity in the Sabbath

Guestpost by Costanza De Cillia

In medieval literature we find a disgusting kiss, with which the fearless knight brings back to human shape the beautiful princess turned into a dragon or a snake: it is the fier basier, which in folklore is linked, with reversed roles and genders, to the fairy tale of the Frog Prince collected and made famous by the brothers Grimm. In these stories, the kiss is a heroic act, which overcomes the disgust aroused by the contact with a slimy creature linked to the underworld, water, with a strong atavistic and dark ambivalence.

In the horror it arouses, such an ordeal recalls another unclean effusion narrated in medieval texts — the manuals of demonology: the osculum infame. This is the infamous kiss under the tail of the Devil, or of one of his animal manifestations (the donkey, the goat, the black cat): the supreme expression of the obscene adoration paid on the occasion of the Sabbath to the Dark Lord in his corporeal form, in the most humiliating way possible, by his followers.

The osculum infame, even if it has first of all a “juridical”, contractual and ritual value, as we will see, is also among the sexual practices without reproductive purpose attributed to Satan’s followers, next to sodomy and demonic coitus, which, as M. Barbezat explains about heretical sexuality, constitute a mockery of Christian charity. It is considered an unnatural act, linked to the world of promiscuous relationships with animals, so much so that it recalls the fier basier we mentioned at the beginning. Barbezat notes how in the sabbath the novices associate themselves with the sect with a ritual intended to make them spiritually dead and poisonous for the rest of the human community: that is why first of all they kiss the toad, emblem of sensuality and physical decay, whose drool erases in them any memory of Catholic faith, and then they join in a group intercourse considered a sacred act of veneration. The empty pleasure they derive from their relations with demons and other heretics produces no lasting fruit, only death: the children thus conceived are reduced to ashes during cruel offerings to the Devil and/or consumed in a cannibalistic meal.

The demonic copulation

Witch sex is the way by which heretics, reduced to mere bodies, form a damned, biologically unproductive, spiritually inert unit. Just as believers become one with and in Christ, becoming members of the body of the Risen One on earth (that is, of the Church), so the damned associate in its inverted mirror image: a diabolical body, a prisoner of decayed matter in life and of Hell after death, of which Satan is the head. It is quite a literal union, reflecting the reduction in the cognitive abilities of the participants, due to their departure from the Holy Spirit. This is the brute materiality of the medieval heretics, who, though endowed with a soul, lost it the moment they denied Christ, condemning themselves to being mere bodies.

The attention to the witches’ heretical sexuality derives from the conviction of demonologists and inquisitors according to which the human body would be extremely vulnerable to diabolic predation and to the aberrant sexual phenomena related to it. In fact, as the Malleus Maleficarum explains, the Devil’s power resides in the intimate parts of human beings, especially women, whose unbridled lust leads to witchcraft and carnal knowledge of demons. This is a salient point of the sabbath stereotype: the reality of the coupling between the gathering participants and the evil spirits — if not even Satan himself — is taken for granted, so much so that diabolical copulation constitutes a fundamental attribute without which one is not considered a witch. The carnal knowledge is also seen as irrefutable proof of the existence of demons — and consequently of angels, as W. Stephens writes in Demon Lovers: while angels do not interact with mortals, demons mate with human beings, like gods and mythological creatures of ancient Greece, of which they are the diabolic form. Female demons, in particular, are reminiscent of certain shape-shifting infernal creatures with vampire-like characteristics, such as empusas and sirens. Greedy of sperm, milk and blood, these figures were already present in Greek mythology as the entourage of Hecate tricephalous; they were believed to suck the vital force of men — with whom they were able to unite sexually, even if they were spirits or ghosts of dead people, therefore without a physical body. Demonology, in dealing with them, draws on Genesis (Gen 6,1-4), on the apocryphal tradition (1 Enoch) and on Augustine’s De civitate Dei (XV, 23), which defines as possible the demonic intercourse but not diabolic paternity, since such an intercourse is destined to remain infertile.

Like spirits, demons are incorporeal, but by condensing the air they can create a temporary body, of which they can even vary the gender: they first take the female form of succubus (“who lies below”) to get the seed of a man, with which they then impregnate a woman by assuming the form of incubus (“who lies above”). This stratagem is sometimes replaced by the use of a momentarily reanimated corpse as a male vehicle, or by the collaboration between an incubus and a succubus, according to those demonologists for whom even evil spirits are gendered (in such a view, the number of male demons clearly exceeds that of female demons, precisely because of the bottomless concupiscence of women). This is a practice that in the first phase of demonology is motivated by the horror against sodomy attributed to the demons. Evil spirits would refuse to mate with a male human being — a theory which will be later abandoned in favor of a devilish sexuality without limits. In any case, this activity is carried out with a superhuman speed, which explains why the demonic phallus is felt to be cold by human partners. Moreover, according to some, such coitus is extremely painful, because of the disproportionate size of the diabolic member, of its icy temperature and/or of its bifurcation, aimed at simultaneous double penetration; according to others, on the contrary, copulation with a demon would be much more pleasant than that with a man, so much so that the devil is feared by mortals even as a sexual rival. In the wake of Augustine, as we have said, it is a kind of mating that is considered unhealthy because it does not lead to the birth of “children of the devil” in the literal sense: these children, conceived by women impregnated with human sperm that the demons have “stolen”, are in fact human too.

The infamous kiss

The accusation of kissing the buttocks of the devil, of a demon or of a fellow witch appears very frequently among the sacrilegious acts performed by groups considered heretical, between the 12th and the 17th century. After being passed down as part of the scandalous behavior of the early Christians, and before being attributed to the participants of the “synagogue” (as the legend was initially called), the infamous rumor first struck the Cathars, then the Waldensians, the Fraticelli, and the French Publicans or “Paterini”. These were the congregations of fervent Christians who, precisely because they were deeply involved in the Christian creed, were suspected of profaning it, that is, of heresy. After the heretics, the osculum infame will be used as an accusation in the trial of the chivalrous order of the Templars (1307-1312), but also against Gilles de Rais: infamous cases in which the suspicions of magic are coupled with rumors of sexual disorder, in order to damage eminent personalities by making them victims of defamation and political repression. Satanic veneration by means of obscene kisses were therefore routinely included in the stereotype of the sabbath ceremonial, but only once the figure of the witch passed from being a victim of diabolic deception (as claimed by the Canon Episcopi) to guilty accomplice of the Evil One.

The official break was sanctioned by the bull Super illius specula of Pope John XXII (1326-1327), in which, forging the theological and legal image of witchcraft that will become dominant, it was stated the existence of a new devil-worshipping sect devoted to a vile slavery and allied with death. In this conspiratorial viewpoint, which sees Christianity besieged from all sides by the Anti-church of Satan, the idea of a real society of witches is outlined, intent on a systematic destruction of human society. The description of the ungodly and harmful activities of this malignant collectivity had already been sketched, but only at a local German level, by the bull Vox in Rama of Pope Gregory IX (1233); after the spread of collective panic and the crisis following the Plague of 1348, the demonological doctrine is consolidated, officially outlined by the bull Summis desiderantes affectibus of Innocent VIII (1484) and then by the manual Malleus Maleficarum (1487), real summa contra maleficas (as Cardini defines it) that of the papal bull is the commentary as well as the implementation that starts the repression of the crime of witchcraft.

This is how demonology arose, a “science of evil” elaborated in opposition to magic as an “evil science”: it became the main vehicle for the transmission of knowledge regarding this crime, while juridical processes assumed the secondary function of validating what was written in the manuals. In these writings, great attention is paid to the rituals of the coven, among which stands out precisely the kiss in “ignoble” parts of the body, human or not. In the sabbath, therefore, the faithful, having got down on their knees and having abjured the Christian faith, first kiss a toad (on the anus or on the mouth, licking its slime and tongue), then, if they have obtained the right to do so by committing crimes and excesses instigated by the Enemy of mankind, they kiss the black cat under the tail, profane the consecrated host and abandon themselves to an indiscriminate alimentary and sexual orgy.

However, as P. Mazzantini explains in the opening of his excellent monograph on the subject, even if “a form of eroticism is present in the osculum infame and is linked to the image of the union between the devil and the witch, or the heretics, which took place during the course of the sabbath”, the erotic element is not the fundamental aspect of the obscene kiss. In fact, with this gesture the witches first of all materialize the bond that binds them to their Dark Lord, sealing a relationship that is not equal but of subjection: it is therefore an emblem of diabolic affiliation, not a sexual act.

The kiss in the Middle Ages derives its value from the fact of being both a gesture and a symbol, affixed as a confirmation of the effectiveness of an act (social, religious, legal), with which a free man spontaneously became “man of another”, binding to him in a position of personal dependence with an oath of fidelity. However, the kiss also possesses a certain ambivalence connected to the mouth, which means that it can also be a physical expression of degradation or derisive punishment (undermining the moral integrity of the giver but not the receiver); depending on which part is kissed, it indicates the degree of equality between the kisser and the kissed. In this sense, when used by a heretic in homage to a creature rather than the Creator, in supreme perversion of the Law (Ex 20:3), the kiss then constitutes the ultimate offense to God. A blasphemous and grotesque reversal, it mocks both the cult of the Lamb and the liturgical osculum pacis, both the ritual vassalistic kiss and the pax christiana announced by the Eucharistic peace. In short, it is an inversion of the “normal” kiss, which was the emblem of a whole series of public rites, of chivalrous or clerical ordination, as well as a spiritual sign of Christian unity. The kiss on the back is a joke with which the devil tyrant mocks his subjects, demanding a degrading submission just as the Lord does with his vassals.

The Sabbath: a fictitious reversal?

On the other hand, the entire ceremonial of the sabbath is dominated by a downward tension — in an eschatological but also scatological sense. This attention to the lower part of the body (belly, genitals) and to its functions (digestive, excretory, generative) is linked to the concept of the “lower body” that, according to scholars, played a dominant role in the grotesque realism typical of medieval carnival and parodies (M. Bachtin).

The anal sphincter is but the equivalent of a mouth opening on the “upside-down face”; thus the kiss on the anus is the opposite of a chaste kiss. This idea is consistent with the vision of witchcraft as a negative image of the Catholic faith: even the sabbath, in its various moments, is described as a “Mass in reverse” built on a precise inversion of the liturgy.

To open the satanic dances is the adoration of the Devil by the witches, who on their knees renew their fidelity and renouncement to the Christian faith, confessing their sins (which are, specularly, what Christians would define as “good deeds”) and the maleficia they committed for the glory of their infernal sovereign. The anti-sacrament that seals their vow, confirming their apostasy to the Christian faith, is precisely the kiss that each witch gives in turn (not always on the back: sometimes also on the left foot/eye or on the genitals of the one who presides over the assembly). This “crescendo of profanation” is followed by a Eucharist made of black shoe soles and nauseating liquid, by a revolting banquet (Mazzantini), and finally by a promiscuous orgy.

However, the sabbath cancels social order only in appearance. Of course, the celestial hierarchy is overthrown by putting the devil in the place of God and demons in the place of angels, but the position of men with respect to the Dark Lord remains unchanged: as Mazzantini explains, “the followers of witchcraft change religion, becoming the believers of a creed that is an overturned mirror of the previous one, but they maintain the constant role of believers and above all of servants”.

In spite of all these reversals, in short, men are always subjects. For this reason, the ceremony of the unclean kiss, even if susceptible to some sexual nuances, remains above all the representation of a power dynamic: the expression of a society that, even in describing the most obscene, scandalous and iconoclastic rebellion, is unable to imagine itself as anything other than submissive to a greater will.

Costanza De Cillia has a PhD in Philosophy and Science of Religions. Her main fields of research are the aesthetics of violence and the anthropology of capital execution

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 26

Welcome to this Easter edition of the column that collects various treats and bizarre delicacies from the internet. Depicted above is a party I’d really feel comfortable, painted by an anonymous seventeenth-century Tuscan artist.
And we’re off and running!

  • Let us begin with a short collection of last words spoken on the guillotine stage.
  • And here is a bridge of ants.
  • During the work to rebuild the Notre-Dame Cathedral, after a fire devastated it three years ago, a mysterious leaden sarcophagus was unearthed. The casket in all probability dates back to the 14th century, and it will be opened shortly: who knows if it contains a hunchbacked skeleton.
  • How would you react if, searching for your home on Google Street View, you saw mom and dad sitting on the porch… who have been dead for years? Would that image distress you, make you suffer? Or, on the contrary, would you look at it with emotion and affection, because that picture still makes you feel close to them? Would you ask Google to remove the image, or keep it forever in memory? With the growth of Street View, this sort of thing is happening more and more often, and it’s just one of the many ways the internet is changing grief processing.

  • The gentleman above is one of the founding fathers of the United States, Gouverneur Morris, who had a particularly odd and eventful life: at the age of 28 he was run over by a carriage and lost a leg; he later helped write the Constitution, then was sent to France where he had a string of lovers and managed to escape the Revolution unscathed. Back in the US, he finally decided to put his head straight and marry Ann Cary Randolph, his housekeeper, who incidentally some years before had been accused of infanticide. In short, how could such a man close his existence with a flourish? In 1816 Gouverneur Morris, who suffered from prostate, died as a result of internal injuries caused by self-surgery: in an attempt to unblock the urinary tract, he had used a whale bone as an improvised catheter. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • Ten years ago I posted an article (Italian only)  about the Dylatov Pass incident, one of the longest-running historical mysteries. In 2021, two Swiss researchers published on Nature a study that would seem to be, so far, the most scientifically plausible explanation for the 1959 tragedy: the climbers could have been killed by a violent and anomalous avalanche. Due possibly to the boredom of last year’s lockdown, this theory did once again trigger the press, social media, conspiracy theorists, romantic fans of the abominable snowmen, and so on. Before long, the two researchers found themselves inundated with interview requests. They therefore performed three new expeditions to Dylatov Pass and published a second study in which, in addition to confirming their previous findings, they also report in an amused tone about the media attention they received and the social impact of their publication.
  • An autopsy was held last October in Portland in front of a paying audience. The great Cat Irvin, who is curator of anatomical collections at the Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh, was interviewed on the ethical implications of pay-per-view autopsies. (Cat also runs a beautiful blog called Wandering Bones, and you can find her on Instagram and Twitter)
  • Below, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria dressed as a mummy for a souvenir photo, (circa 1895). Via Thanatos Archive.

  • If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? What if a bear plays the piano in an empty house?
  • A tweet that offers a novel (and, frankly, kind of gross) perspective on our skeleton.
  • On April 22, 1969, the most hallucinatory and shocking opera of all time was staged at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall: Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Peter Maxwell Davies. The protagonist of the drama is King George III, who suffered from an acute mental illness: consequently, the entire composition is intended to be a depiction of the schizophrenic cacophony inside his head. The six musicians (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano/harpsichord, violin and cello) played inside gigantic birdcages; interpreting the verses, the cries and the sudden changes of mood of the mad King, was a baritone with 5 octaves of extension (!) dressed in a straitjacket. The opera, lasting half an hour, was a completely unprecedented assault on conventional rules, as well as on the ears of the spectators who had certainly never heard anything like it: the one-act play culminated in the moment when the king stole the violin from the player and tore it to pieces. If you have 28 minutes and want to try your hand at this disturbing representation of madness — a unique example of classical punk music, at least for its attitude — here is a 2012 video in which the solo part is played by Kelvin Thomas who, at the time of filming, was 92 years old.

Now, two pieces of slightly more personal news.
The first is that my upcoming online lecture (in English) for Morbid Anatomy will take place on May 14, and will focus on the cult of the dead in Naples.
Info and tickets here.

Secondly, if you can read Italian, I would like to remind you that the Almanacco dell’Italia occulta, edited by Fabrizio Foni and Fabio Camilletti, has been published by Odoya: following the line of the previous Almanacco dell’orrore popolare, this volume collects several contributions by different authors. If the first book, however, focused on the rural dimension of our country, this new anthology examines the urban context, exploring its hidden, fantastic and “lunar” face. Among the essays by more than 20 authors included in the Almanacco there is also my study of the weirdest, most picturesque and unexpectedly complex newspaper in the history of the Italian press: Cronaca Vera, which with its pulp and fanciful titles has left an indelible mark on our imagination.

In conclusion, I wish you all the best and I take my leave with an Easter meme.
Until next time!

The Natural Mummies of Ferentillo

Italy is the country that, in all likelihood, boasts the largest number of mummies in the world. Apart from Egypt, in fact, no other culture has made mummification of the dead such a pervasive and long-lived practice as it has happened in our peninsula: in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo alone, there are more than 1200 mummies, and the ancient “scolatoi” (drainers), used to dehydrate the remains of the deceased, are found almost everywhere, from Lombardy to Puglia.

In addition to artificial mummification, in Italy there are some cases of spontaneous mummification, in which the corpses escaped the normal processes of putrefaction due to the particular microclimate of the burial ground.
One of the most remarkable examples of natural preservation is found in the heart of Italy, on the southern border of Umbria.

Located in the Valnerina valley, the Umbrian municipality of Ferentillo remains perched at the foot of the ruins of its ancient fortress. The inhabited area, divided by the Nera river (and today by the provincial road) into two villages called Precetto and Matterella, was originally founded by the Lombards; it was later assigned by Pope Innocent VIII to his natural son Franceschetto Cybo.

Franceschetto, who over the years accumulated excellent fiefdoms and appointments, in reality always lived on income due to the fact that he was the legitimate son of the Pope and, it is said, was a somewhat dissolute character, utterly devoted to pleasures: it is no coincidence that he died in 1519 for indigestion during an official banquet. This did not prevent him, however, from making the small town of Ferentillo, which had been his first county, flourish architecturally; under his reign, and later that of his son Lorenzo, the village became an important cultural center.

In the half of the town called Precetto, the Cybo family had a church dedicated to Santo Stefano built on the foundations of a previous temple.

Thus, under the new church, the spaces which originally constituted the medieval place of worship were filled with resulting materials and used as a burial ground: the deceased of Precetto were entombed here until the second half of the 19th century.

About a decade before the cemetery was definitively abandoned, the remains were exhumed and 25 bodies were found to have spontaneously mummified.

In 1861, the doctor and politician Carlo Maggiorani examined some of these mummies, with the help of chemist Vincenzo Latini.
In his report to the Accademia dei Lincei<fn>C. Maggiorani, Sulle Mummie di Ferentillo: notizie raccolte dal prof. C. Maggiorani: accompagnate dall’analisi chimica della terra di quel Cimitero istituita dal Chimico Farmacista signor Vincenzo Latini, in Atti dell’Accademia Pontificia de’ Nuovi Lincei, Vol XV 1861-62, Roma 1862.</fn>, published the following year, Maggiorani noted how the mummification had maintained the somatic features of the deceased in an exceptional way: “There is a centenary mummy in which the descendants are able to recognize at a glance the features of their family, and if it were necessary to declare it before the Forum it could be easily determined whether it was Mr So-and-so, or not. […] The color of these mummies, which tends to yellowish, does not differ much from the natural color of corpses, and therefore does not inspire the disgust usually excited by dead bodies preserved by means of art. The hair, beard, eyelashes, eyebrows, armpit and pubic hair, nails remain to decorate the regions where they are distributed.

Over time, the mummies of Ferentillo have most likely lost much of the “freshness” that Maggiorani had found and praised so much, but hair and nails remain effectively visible and well preserved even today.

The scholar also reported, in rather colorful terms, the extreme lightness of the mummies, which in fact weigh only 6 or 7 kilos: “Once all the tissues are completely dried, the joints stiffen in such a way that by gripping the legs you can treat the corpse as if it were a pole. An operation that is all the easier to perform due to the singular lightness of these bodies […].”

Among the more curious passages, there’s one in which Maggiorani expresses a veiled hope that these mummies could be studied in order to replicate the technique for funerary purposes — a concern that in those years, given the very recent unification of Italy, was shared by many. I also mention this in my book on the petrifier Paolo Gorini: at the time, there were several experiments in alternative treatments of the remains, essentially aimed at taking away from the Church the dominion over the management of the corpses and, ultimately, over the world of the dead.

In fact, Maggiorani wrote: “Would it be utopian to wish that the conservative conditions of the corpses in Ferentillo were studied with scrupulous diligence to the point of reproducing them completely, for the purpose of preserving the dead from decay? When we read in Plutarch that the Egyptians, in their most solemn banquets, placed the embalmed corpses of the Ancestors around the table, our soft mind shuns the gloomy image of those sepulchral banquets, and we are induced to dismiss this as a barbaric custom. But that the remains of many relatives, instead of being condemned to become a pasture for worms, were, without danger to the living, so effectively preserved as to restore their effigy after a long time, and to spread over them some tears of tender remembrance in days of affliction — it is thought for which no one should be laughed at.

The scientific conclusion reached by Maggiorani’s study was that spontaneous mummification had occurred due to the particular chemical composition of the soil, and to the good ventilation of the crypt guaranteed by the four grated windows, near which — not surprisingly — the 25 mummies had been found.

In reality, however, there is still no definitive and completely exhaustive explanation, because a concomitance of factors often comes into play.
A 1991 study stated: “there are basic conditions that favor dehydration processes (good ventilation of the room, such as in the catacombs; sandy soil; etc.) but these are not sufficient to explain the complex chemical modifications that take place in soft parts of the body. Natural mummification begins with autolytic processes similar to those of normal putrefaction but for reasons not yet fully understood at a certain point the protein substances resist further decomposition. The action of other environmental factors cannot be excluded, such as plant roots invading the body and modifying its chemical conditions, microorganisms, fungi and microelements present in the soil or in the coffin. Natural mummification is probably the result of a combination of all these factors.“<fn>E. Fulcheri, P. Baracchini, C. Crestani, A. Drusini, Studio preliminare delle mummie naturali di Ferentillo. Esame istologico e immunoistochimico della cute, in Riv. It. Med. Leg. XIII, 1991.</fn>

Today the Museum of Mummies has been set up in the spaces of the medieval crypt, of which a faded remnant can be seen in some surviving frescoes. Inside glass cases (unfortunately, very poorly lit in order not to alter the delicate condition of the mummies) 24 dried bodies can still be admired: the oldest dates back to the 18th century, the most recent is from the 19th century.

Among the most particular mummies there is a Chinese woman, who died of the plague in the 18th century and whose feet show the characteristic deformation from binding called the “Golden Lotus”, which I talked about in this episode of the web series. But paleopathologists also found some cases of traumatic injuries, a macrocephalus infant, a face tumor and a suspected case of leprosy.

At the bottom of the crypt the skeletonized remains of most of the people who were buried here (about 270 skulls) are arranged in large display cases. However, some of these skulls also show signs of partial mummification. Also exhibited are an ancient, still sealed coffin, and an eagle which was mummified at the end of the 19th century during experiments on the chemical properties of the burial ground.

As anyone who follows my work knows, I have always been fascinated by the ways in which humanity has tried to preserve the likeness of their loved ones; and while I was looking with wonder at these dried bodies, the thought that went through me was exactly the same that opens the report by Maggiorani, which I quote here in closing:

The respect every cultured nation has shown for the deceased, the vanity of the Powerful wishing to free the bodies of their ancestors from the disgusting consequences of death, and the communal desire to keep the dear remains of the relatives uncorrupted, have always suggested artifices suitable to subtract this organic part of us from the empire of chemical laws that condemn it to decay. But while man by one means or another tries to achieve this goal, Nature, either alone or with a few aids from human craft, sometimes reaches it completely.

Here is the official website of the Museum of the Mummies of Ferentillo. The mummies are currently being studied by Dr. Dario Piombino-Mascali (University of Vilnius), who also wrote the preface of my volume on the mummies of the Catacombs of Palermo.