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

Speciale: Fotografare la morte – III

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Joel-Peter Witkin è ritenuto uno dei maggiori e più originali fotografi viventi, assurto negli anni a vera e propria leggenda della fotografia moderna. È nato a Brooklyn nel 1939, da padre ebreo e madre cattolica, che si separarono a causa dell’inconciliabilità delle loro posizioni religiose. Fin da giovane, quindi, Witkin conobbe la profonda influenza dei dilemmi della fede. Come ha più volte raccontato, un altro episodio fondamentale fu assistere ad un incidente stradale, mentre un giorno, da bambino, andava a messa con sua madre e suo fratello; nella confusione di lamiere e di grida, il piccolo Joel si trovò improvvisamente da solo e vide qualcosa rotolare verso di lui. Era la testa di una giovane ragazzina. Joel si chinò per carezzarle il volto, parlarle e rasserenarla, ma prima che potesse allungare una mano qualcuno lo portò via.
In questo aneddoto seminale sono già contenute alcune di quelle che diverranno vere e proprie ossessioni tematiche per Witkin: lo spirito, la compassione per la sofferenza e la ricerca della purezza attraverso il superamento di ciò che ci spaventa.

Dopo essersi laureato in discipline artistiche, ed aver iniziato la sua carriera come fotografo di guerra in Vietnam, nel 1982 Witkin ottiene il permesso di scattare alcune fotografie a dei preparati anatomici, e riceve in prestito per 24 ore una testa umana sezionata longitudinalmente. Witkin decide di posizionare le due metà gemelle nell’atto di baciarsi: l’effetto è destabilizzante e commovente, come se il momento della morte fosse un’estrema conciliazione con il sé, un riconoscere la propria parte divina e finalmente amarla senza riserve.

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The Kiss è lo scatto che rende il fotografo di colpo celebre, nel bene e nel male: se da una parte alcuni critici comprendono subito la potente carica emotiva della fotografia, dall’altra molti gridano allo scandalo e la stessa Università, appena scopre l’uso che ha fatto del preparato, decide che Witkin è persona non grata.
Egli si trasferisce quindi nel Nuovo Messico, dove può in ogni momento attraversare il confine ed aggirare così le stringenti leggi americane sull’utilizzo di cadaveri. Da quel momento il lavoro di Witkin si focalizza proprio sulla morte, e sui “diversi”.

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Lavorando con cadaveri o pezzi di corpi, con modelli transessuali, mutilati, nani o affetti da diverse deformità, Witkin crea delle barocche composizioni di chiara matrice pittorica (preparate con maniacale precisione a partire da schizzi e bozzetti), spesso reinterpretando grandi opere di maestri rinascimentali o importanti episodi religiosi.

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Witkin Archive
Scattate rigorosamene in studio, dove ogni minimo dettaglio può essere controllato a piacimento dall’artista, le fotografie vengono poi ulteriormente lavorate in fase di sviluppo, nella quale Witkin interviene graffiando la superficie delle foto, disegnandoci sopra, rovinandole con acidi, tagliando e rimaneggiando secondo una varietà di tecniche per ottenere il suo inconfondibile bianco e nero “anticato” alla maniera di un vecchio dagherrotipo.

Nonostante i soggetti scabrosi ed estremi, lo sguardo di Witkin è sempre compassionevole e “innamorato” della sacralità della vita. Anche la fiducia che i suoi soggetti gli accordano, nel venire fotografati, è proprio da imputarsi alla sincerità con cui egli ricerca i segni del divino anche nei fisici sfortunati o differenti: Witkin ha il raro dono di far emergere una sensualità e una purezza quasi sovrannaturale dai corpi più strani e contorti, catturando la luce che pare emanare proprio dalle sofferenze vissute. Cosa ancora più straordinaria, egli non ha bisogno che il corpo sia vivo per vederne, e fotografarne, l’accecante bellezza.

Ecco le nostre cinque domande a Joel-Peter Witkin.

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1. Perché hai deciso che era importante raffigurare la morte nei tuoi lavori fotografici?

La morte è parte della vita di ognuno di noi. La morte è anche il grande discrimine fra la fede umana e gli aspetti terreni, temporali – è il sonno senza tempo, per chi è religioso, è la vita eterna assieme a Dio.

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2. Quale credi che sia lo scopo, se ce n’è uno, delle tue fotografie post-mortem? Stai soltanto fotografando i corpi, o sei alla ricerca di qualcos’altro?

Fotografare la morte e i resti umani è sempre un “lavoro sacro”. Quello che fotografo, coloro che ritraggo, in realtà siamo sempre noi stessi. Io vedo la bellezza nei soggetti che fotografo.

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3. Come succede per tutto ciò che mette alla prova il nostro rifiuto della morte, il tono macabro e sconvolgente delle tue fotografie potrebbe essere visto da alcuni come osceno e irrispettoso. Ti interessa scioccare il pubblico, e come ti poni nei riguardi della carica di tabù presente nei tuoi soggetti?

I grandi dipinti e la scultura del passato hanno sempre affrontato il tema della morte. Amo dire che “la morte è come il pranzo – sta arrivando!”. Un tempo la gente nasceva e moriva nella propria casa. Oggi nasciamo e moriamo in apposite istituzioni. Portiamo tutti un numero tatuato sul nostro polso. Muoriamo soli.
Quindi, ovviamente, le persone rimangono sconvolte nel vedere, in un certo senso, il loro stesso volto. Credo che nulla dovrebbe mai essere tabù. In realtà quando sono abbastanza privilegiato da riuscire a fotografare la morte, resto solitamente molto toccato dallo spirito che è ancora presente nei corpi di quelle persone.

Witkin Archive

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4. È stato difficile approcciare i cadaveri, a livello personale? C’è qualche aneddoto particolare o interessante riguardo le circostanze di una tua foto?

Quando ho fotografato “l’uomo senza testa”, (Man Without A Head, un cadavere, seduto su una sedia all’obitorio, la cui testa era stata rimossa a scopo di ricerca) lui indossava dei calzetti neri. Quel dettaglio rese il tutto un po’ più personale. Il dottore, il suo assistente ed io alzammo quest’uomo morto dal tavolo settorio e posizionammo il suo corpo su una sedia di acciaio. Dovetti lavorare un po’ con il cadavere, per bilanciare le sue braccia in modo che non cadesse per terra. Alla fine, nella foto, il pavimento era tutto ricoperto dal sangue fluito dal suo collo, dove la testa era stata tagliata. Gli fui molto grato di aver lavorato con me.

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5. Riguardo alle foto post-mortem, ti piacerebbe che te ne venisse scattata una dopo che sei morto? Come ti immagini una simile foto?

Ho già preso provvedimenti affinché i miei organi siano rimossi dopo la mia morte per aiutare chi ancora è in vita. Qualsiasi cosa rimanga, verrà seppellita in un cimitero militare, visto che sono un veterano dell’esercito. Quindi temo che mi perderò l’occasione di cui mi chiedi!

P.S. Io non voglio “mantenere bizzarro il mondo” (un riferimento allo slogan del nostro blog, n.d.r.)… voglio renderlo più amorevole!

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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!)