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

Special: Photographing Death – III

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Joel-Peter Witkin is considered one of the greatest and most original living photographers, who has risen over the years to become a true legend of modern photography. He was born in Brooklyn in 1939, to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who separated because of the irreconcilability of their religious positions. From a young age, therefore, Witkin knew the profound influence of the dilemmas of faith. As he repeatedly recounted, another pivotal episode was witnessing a car accident as a child going to mass one day with his mother and brother; in the confusion of sheet metal and shouting, little Joel suddenly found himself alone and saw something rolling toward him. It was the head of a young girl. Joel bent down to caress her face, talk to her and soothe her, but before he could reach out a hand, someone took him away. This seminal anecdote already contains some of what would become true thematic obsessions for Witkin: spirit, compassion for suffering, and the search for purity through overcoming what frightens us.

After graduating with a degree in the arts, and beginning his career as a war photographer in Vietnam, in 1982 Witkin obtained permission to take some photographs of anatomical preparations, and was loaned a longitudinally dissected human head for 24 hours. Witkin decides to place the twin halves in the act of kissing: the effect is destabilizing and moving, as if the moment of death were an extreme reconciliation with the self, a recognition of one’s divine part and finally loving it without reservation.

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The Kiss is the shot that makes the photographer suddenly famous, for better or worse: while some critics immediately understand the powerful emotional charge of the photograph, many cry scandal, and the University itself, upon discovering his use of the preparation, decides that Witkin is persona non grata. He therefore moves to New Mexico, where he can at any time cross the border and thus circumvent the stringent American laws on the use of corpses. From that moment on, Witkin’s work focuses precisely on death, and on the “different.”

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Working with corpses or body parts, with models who are transsexual, mutilated, dwarfed, or suffering from various deformities, Witkin creates baroque compositions with a clear pictorial matrix (prepared with maniacal precision from sketches and sketches), often reinterpreting great works by Renaissance masters or important religious episodes.

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Witkin Archive Shot rigorously in the studio, where every minute detail can be controlled at the artist’s leisure, the photographs are then further worked on in the development stage, in which Witkin intervenes by scratching the surface of the photos, drawing on them, ruining them with acids, cutting and reworking them according to a variety of techniques to achieve his unmistakable “antiqued” black and white in the manner of an old daguerreotype.

Despite the rough and extreme subjects, Witkin’s gaze is always compassionate and “in love” with the sacredness of life. Even the confidence that his subjects accord him, in being photographed, is precisely to be attributed to the sincerity with which he searches for signs of the divine even in the unfortunate or different physiques: Witkin has the rare gift of bringing out an almost supernatural sensuality and purity from the strangest and most twisted bodies, capturing the light that seems to emanate precisely from the suffering they have experienced. What is even more extraordinary, he does not need the body to be alive to see, and photograph, its blinding beauty.

Here are our five questions to Joel-Peter Witkin.

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1. Why did you decide it was important for you to depict death in your photographic work?

Death is a part of everyone’s life. Death is also the great divider of human belief to secular’s — it is the timeless nod, to the religious, it is eternal life with God.

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2. What would you say is the purpose, if any, of your post-mortem photography work? Are you just photographing the bodies, or do you seek something more?

To photograph death and human remains is “holy work”.  What and whom I photograph is truly ourselves. I see beauty in the specimens I photograph.

joel-peter-witkin-1996 3. As with all things that challenge our denial of death, the macabre and unsettling tone of your pictures could be regarded by some as obscene and disrespectful. Were you interested in a particular shock value, and how do you feel towards the taboo nature of your subject?

The great paintings and sculpture of the past have always dealt with death. I like to say that “Death is like lunch—it’s coming!”. Before, people were born and died in their homes. Now we are born and die in institutions. We wear numbers on our wrists. We die alone.
So, of course, people now are shocked at seeing, in a sense, themselves. I believe nothing should be taboo. In fact when I am privileged to photograph death, I am usually very touched by the spirit still present in people.

Witkin Archive

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4. Was it difficult to approach the corpses, on a personal level? Are there any particular and interesting anecdotes regarding the circumstances of some of your photographs?

When I photographed Man Without a Head  (a dead man sitting in a chair at a morgue whose head had been removed for research), he was wearing black socks. That made it a little more personal. The doctor, his assistant and I lifted this dead man from the dissecting table and placed the body on the steel chair. I had to work with the dead man, in that I had to balance his arms so that he didn’t fall onto the floor. The floor in the photograph was covered with the blood that streamed out of his neck where the head had been removed  I was grateful to him for working with me.

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5. Would you like a post-mortem picture be taken of you after you die? How would you like to imagine that photo?

I have already made arrangements to have my organs removed after my death in order to help the living. Whatever remains will be buried at a military cemetery since I am an army veteran. Therefore, I will miss the opportunity you have asked about!

P.S. [Referencing this blog’s motto] I don’t want to “keep the world weird” —I want to make it more loving!

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Mini-Kiss

I Mini-Kiss sono una tribute band dei Kiss. Come tutte le tribute band, si vestono come i loro beniamini, suonano esclusivamente il loro repertorio e li imitano in tutto e per tutto. Ma i Mini-Kiss hanno qualcosa di unico: i membri della band sono tutti affetti da nanismo. Questo non impedisce loro di riproporre l’hard-rock spettacolare e colorato di Gene Simmons e compagni… in versione “ridotta”.

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Anche dopo la morte nel 2011 di Joey Fatale, loro leader e fondatore, i Mini-Kiss continuano ad esibirsi con ottimo successo. Ecco il sito sito ufficiale.

(Scoperto via Ipnosarcoma, uno dei nostri tumblelog preferiti!)