Chapter 15 - The Sabbats - part a
The celebration of the Sabbats forms the axis around which the Wiccan year revolves. The eight Sabbats are celebrated roughly every six to seven weeks, marking the seasonal changes experienced through the year. Unlike the Esbats, which are focused on magickal work, the Sabbats are focused on devotion and celebration. This is not to say that magickal work may not occur at Sabbats, but the flavour is very different between the two types of Wiccan ceremony.
Murray’s descriptions of the meetings held by witches may be the template from which the Wiccan tradition has drawn inspiration. However it should be noted that Murray used the term ‘Sabbath’ rather than ‘Sabbat’, a small but significant difference.
But what is the origin of the word Sabbat and when was it first used? It is clearly derived from Sabbath, and the term Sabbath first occurs in relation to witchcraft in the inquisitorial records of trials in the Carcassonne and Toulouse regions of France between 1330 and 1340. In these records it was used to describe the regular witches’ meetings, occurring on Friday nights and particular festivals:
“Frequently on Friday nights they have attended the Sabbath which is held sometimes in one place, sometimes in another … the he-goat in return taught her all kinds of secret spells; he explained poisonous plants to her and she learned from him words for incantations and how to cast spells during the night of the vigil of St John’s day, Christmas Eve, and the first Friday in every month.”
There has been a lot of debate as to the source of the word Sabbath, but considering the medieval tendency to also refer to gatherings of witches as a ’synagogue’, probably because of the persecution and suspicion directed towards Jews in medieval Europe, then it seems likely, as the Spanish Basque anthropologist Baroja states in his The World of the Witches, that it was simply a borrowing of the Jewish word. This linking of Jews to witchcraft probably had its roots in the sixth century tale of Theophilus, a frustrated cleric who on the advice of a Jewish magician sold his soul to the devil for power, and repented at the time of delivery, appealing to the Virgin Mary, who descended into hell, took the contract and delivered Theophilus to heaven. This story would be translated into many languages and held up in medieval times as an example of the evil of Jews, the devil and by extension demonic pacts (associated with witchcraft). The story is significant in that it was the prototype drawn on for the medieval Le Miracle de Théophile (source of the Bagabi chant) and also the legend of Faust.
This then also fits in with the use of Friday night as the time for the Sabbaths, as sundown on Friday is the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath (until sundown on Saturday). That this was a well-known idea can be seen in instances such as the artwork of the fifteenth century German artist Conrad Witz. He named one of his paintings that formed part of an altar triptych The Synagogue (1435), which depicted a witch with a broken staff and two tablets covered in gibberish, defeated by the power of the church.
Sabbat is simply an alternative transliteration of Sabbath, from the Hebrew word Shabat, (ShBT) meaning “to cease, rest”, and used in the book of Genesis to refer to Saturday as the seventh day of the week. The Hebrew word Shabbatai comes from the same root, and means ’Saturn’, so the connection to Saturday is clear to see. Sabbat is also the French and Old English word, probably derived from Shabat or the Latin Sabbatum or Greek Sabbaton which also all have the same meaning.
Extract from: Wicca: Magical Beginnings written by d’Este & Rankine, 2008 (Avalonia.) PB / Kindle @ https://amzn.to/3Ay4HJr. Shared here with the intention to inspire and inform the now and future generations interested in Wicca and other Pagan traditions inspired by it.