Bacchanalia - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

Hysterical witch-hunting is older than Christianity; Roman persecution of the Bacchanalia is sometimes called the very first “witch-hunt.”

The Bacchanalia was the Latin name for the Dionysian mystery traditions of the Maenads or, as they were known in Italy, the Bacchanals. (See DICTIONARY: Bacchanal, Conjure, Maenad.) Initially held in Etruria, these traditions traveled to Southern Italy and thence to Rome. Rituals were initially restricted to women and conducted secretly three days a year in the Grove of Stimula near the Aventine Hill.

Stimula or Simula is the Roman name for Semele, Dionysus’ mother, goddess of women’s passions, venerated by the Bacchanals.

Men were eventually admitted to the rites, which increased to five days a month. However the majority of the initiates were female. Initially the Bacchanalia was identified with slaves and immigrant women from Greece, the Balkans, and elsewhere but it eventually attracted respectable Roman matrons who assumed leadership roles.

The Bacchanalia became increasingly controversial; it developed a malevolent, mysterious reputation amongst conventional society and was accused of fomenting political conspiracies. The Bacchanals were accused of poisoning, ritual murder, sexual deviance, and treason. The Roman senate issued a decree, the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus in 186 BCE, forbidding the Bacchanalia throughout Italy except where the Senate itself reserved the right to permit the rites. (The decree was inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Calabria in 1640 and now housed in Vienna.)

According to the Roman historian Livy (c.64 BCE—17 CE), the Bacchanals were charged with holding secret nocturnal meetings, allegedly featuring dancing, music, feasting, orgies, homosexuality, and ritual murder. But for the absence of Satan, it sounds remarkably like a European witch-hunters’ sabbat of over a millennium later.

The charges that detonated these witch-hunts allegedly began with a family dispute: a young Roman patrician, Aebutius was asked to leave home by his mother. She later claimed it was because her husband, Aebutius’ stepfather, was strapped for money; Aebutius claimed he was thrown out because he refused to be initiated into the Bacchanalia as his mother allegedly desired.

Aebutius said his concubine Hispala, a freedwoman, had previously attended the Bacchanalia and warned him that it was depraved. Aebutius went to his late father’s sister who advised him to make a formal complaint to the Consul, which he did. Essentially he denounced his mother as a Bacchanal.

Hispala was called in and questioned for details regarding what the Bacchanals were really doing at their secret nighttime revels. She allegedly initially refused to testify but was advised that she herself would be prosecuted unless she provided authorities with information. Hispala first claimed that she only attended the Bacchanalia as a child and so had limited information; after further questioning however she gave more details, describing torch-lit oracular rites by the Tiber River and naming the current leader of the Bacchanalia as Paculla Annia, a High Priestess from Campania.

The Consul held a public assembly where he accused the Bacchanals, now called the Conjurari (“conspirators”), of a criminal conspiracy intended to undermine Roman society. The Senate ordered an immediate extraordinary investigation permitting torture and denying defendants’ rights of appeal. A zero-tolerance policy was instituted in the form of a massive witch-hunt for members of the secret society, followed by mass executions.

Image An edict outlawed initiates of the Mysteries from convening

Image The Senate offered a reward to anyone denouncing participants in the Bacchanalia

Image Officials were ordered to seek out ritual leaders

Image Roman men were ordered to reject participating members of their family (Aebutius was held up as a role model)

The Senate simultaneously enacted legislation against diviners and foreign magicians.

Panic swept first Rome, then all of Italy. There were rumored to be over seven thousand conjurari. Recent initiates were merely imprisoned but thousands were condemned to death. The state allowed men to punish their female relatives in the privacy of their home (to safeguard the men’s privacy, not that of the female prisoners) but if no one was available to execute them privately, it was done publicly. Heads of households thus personally executed wives, daughters, sisters, and slaves or ran the risk of disgracing the family via public executions.

What happened to Paculla, the priestess, is unknown, but her sons were arrested as leaders, tortured to denounce others, and executed. Those they denounced were also tortured until they denounced still others. Thousands were denounced in this way.

Known initiates, both female and male, committed suicide rather than face arrest. Some however escaped, including some who had been denounced but whom the authorities were then unable to locate. These Bacchanals are believed to have escaped into forests and mountains. Many believe these escaped Bacchanals are the prototype for Europe’s future witches.

Even after the Bacchanalia-panic receded in Rome, the hunt for surviving Bacchanals continued throughout Apulia and other parts of the Italian countryside through 185—184 BCE. What happened to Aebutius’ mother is unknown but the Senate rewarded Aebutius and Hispala out of the public treasury and promoted Hispala to a higher social rank so that the couple could be legally wed.