According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a ‘witches sabbath’ refers to a secret meeting of witches and was first used in 1676, while the term ‘black mass’ refers to a perversion of the Christian mass conducted by Satanists and was first used in 1820.
The name ‘Black Sabbath’ appears to derive from an amalgamation of these terms, taking the ‘black’ from black mass and ‘sabbath’ from witch’s sabbath. Black Sabbath has referred to witches as satanic, though modern traditions of witchcraft such as Wicca and Thelma, both preceding the formation of Black Sabbath, do not self-identify as satanic. Rather, Black Sabbath seem to take inspiration from the Malleus Maleficarum (1474) and the witch trials of both the United States and the UK. This highlights a poor understanding of both the history of magic and the people who practice it.
Black Sabbath’s line in War Pigs ‘Generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses’ links satanic ritual and witches. A common definition for a witch is simply a woman who practices magic, though the term ‘witch’ is sometimes used to describe men. It is not possible to verify when magic was first practised, though the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, both the Corpus Hermeticism and the Emerald Tablet, are claimed to have originated in Ancient Egypt. The concept that the microcosm (the earth) is influenced by the macrocosm (the universe), and vice versa, is found in these texts and is foundational to a great deal of magical theory. The earliest edition of the Corpus Hermeticum was found in the Nag Hammadi library which places it in the 4th century AD, and the Emerald tablet is only found as early as the 8th century AD, though there is plenty of archaeological evidence to suggest the ancient Egyptians practised magic.
The Greek Magical Papyrus dates from the first to the fourth centuries AD. Christian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman gods are referred to interchangeably in the collection of spells, which suggests that a perennial worldview could have been held by some of these magical practitioners, rather than a satanic one. Whatever the case, magic was practised before Christianity. Though there are examples of Christians practising magic, such as John Dee and Edward Kelly’s infamous book Liber Loagaeth (1583) which contains claimed discussion with angels and the development of the enochian language, magic is seen as a heresy within Catholicism. In 1474 the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, was published. It was in this book that the idea that witches made pacts with the devil was put into wide circulation. The book explained how to find a witch and led to what could be described as a genocide of any practitioner of magic.
There is perhaps an obvious reason for Black Sabbath linking witches with satanism. They are, Christians! Tony Iommi stated he was a Christian in 2016, and Geezer Butler said ‘We all believe in God’ in an interview on UltimateRock.com. Practitioners of magic have been persecuted through the inquisition, the witch trials in England, and the witch trials in America. Many of these people are thought to have been falsely accused, or what were referred to as ‘cunning folk’, who are thought to have made medicines from natural sources or engaged in natural magic for healing. It is about time we changed our views on who ‘witches’ were and who they are today.
Main image Derren Toussaint, Roller Express, 2018