by James L. Matterer
Jeanne La pucelle, known to us today as Joan of Arc, the maid of Orleans, was neither a witch nor a saint, but by curious circumstances her life and death fulfilled the requirements of both. Whether or not it was conscious to this brave and unique woman that she was doing so, for a short time she became the divine king of France, and her death became more than a simple act of martyrdom. It became the ritual act of the cult of the dying god.
The cult of the dying god is described by Sir James Frazer in his mammoth work The Golden Bough, and is further elaborated by other scholars, most notably Dr. Margaret Murray in her books The Witch-cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches. Although today Murray is considered to have been somewhat of a crack-pot and her works have been denounced by critics, the theory of the dying god is historically accurate, and examples of it are predominant throughout history. The cult of the dying god was a highly important dogma of early, pre-Christian societies, one that was so strong that it continued well into the Christian era, and in some primitive countries into the 20th century. The belief was simple: a god or a deity could become incarnate, or be manifested into a man, a woman, or an animal, and that the incarnate god must die in order to guarantee continual life and fertility for the world.
The belief in the death of a god is an essential part of most Western mythology, whether Roman, Greek, Norse, or Egyptian. Tales from the north of Europe speak of the day of Ragnorak, when the gods of Valhalla would die, in Egypt the god Osiris was killed, dismembered and brought back to life again, and the Greeks worshipped at the tombs of Zeus and Apollo. But it is reported that the worshipers didn't care if their god was dead as long as their religion was alive, for like most ancient cultures, the Greeks saw in their gods the workings and happening of the world around them. Viewing their natural world in awe and superstitious wonder, early people assumed the gods had lives similar to their own and associated the changing of the seasons and the life and death of their crops with the lives and deaths of their gods. From this came the fertility cult of the god who dies and is reborn, whose birth and death are reflected in the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of the crops.
The origin of this cult appears in Neolithic times, where evidence shows that people of old Europe worshipped a "sorrowful god," who must die in order to be born again in the spring. Statues of the sorrowful god from around 5000 - 6000 B.C.E. were made as masterpieces and show great care and reverence for the image. The figures are almost always the same: that of an old man, sad and in contemplation.
That a god could become incarnate in man was not an unusual concept to early societies, who not only attributed god-like qualities to nature but to themselves. A person who seemed to have extraordinary powers, such as a magician or a healer, or one who was greatly skilled in fighting or hunting was considered god-like, and eventually came to be considered as a god. Some people, it was believed, could temporarily be given the knowledge and power of the gods and others had permanent god-powers. Those who were so divinely inspired were able to hold extreme importance and power. In short, they became both god and king in one.
These incarnate god-kings were supposedly blessed with supernatural abilities and were responsible for the sun and the rain and could make the crops grow. The health and happiness of the incarnate god was beneficial to the people as it guaranteed a successful harvest, a prosperous economy, victories in battle, etc., and the god was treated with due respect. In Egypt the king went so far as to claim the title of "the great god" and had a supposed command over the entire earth and every living creature. Unfortunately this divine position had its drawbacks as well. As soon as the king showed signs of age, poor health, or became weak, he was killed to ensure that the spirit of the god would not grow weak as well. The god then would be incarnated into the king's successor and life would go on as normal in the world. Some societies didn't wait for the king to grow old or debilitated but instead killed their kings at regular intervals. This guaranteed that the king would die while still in good health. These intervals occurred in Europe every seven or nine years, and among the Greeks every eight. If the god-king so desired a substitute could die in his place. The mock king would temporarily be given the power of the true king and would briefly rule in his place, until the time of the sacrifice. Those sacrificed had no qualms about what they were doing: they gave their lives to ensure a successful and continual seasonal cycle and to benefit the well-being of the people. After their deaths they would become one with the gods. There were three ways the divine sacrifice took place: by fire, then throwing the ashes in a field or running water; by killing in such a way that blood is spilled on the ground; by asphyxiation, then the body was dismembered and cast in a field, or burned and the ashes scattered.
This dying god-fertility cult, where the king or a substitute must die or be sacrificed for the greater good of the community, was theorized and believed by Dr. Murray to be part of a universal organized religion that practiced and followed witchcraft as its basic tenet; however, most modern historians and even those sympathetic to Dr. Murray's ideas believe that while witchcraft and the worship of a god who must die and be reborn were certainly world-wide practices, there was definitely nothing organized about them. Murray's theories were quite popular when they first came out, but the past 30 years have seen a decline in their acceptance. Her works are extremely important in their treatment of witchcraft as a religion and as a viable part of anthropology, but she gives little proof for the existence of a universal organized cult, and critics say her works are filled with glaring errors. Dr. Murray is given some of the credit for the modern witchcraft revival which began in Engla nd in 1951, and despite the condemnation of her which is now so popular among contemporary scholars, her controversial theories can't be completely ignored. And one of the most controversial of these theories is that of an well-organized cult of divine sacrifice, with some very well known figures as participants.
Whether the cult was organized or not, the idea and practice were real and Murray contends that ritual killing of kings took place all over pre-Christian Europe and in England, where the royal family had been part of the cult. To Murray, this was no theory. It was cold, hard fact, and she was willing to name names and give dates. Among her list of old kings and historical personages are the names of King William II of England, Archbishop Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, and Joan of Arc. Modern witches add a fourth name to the list when discussing this theory, that of Jesus of Nazareth.
William Rufus, who was the son of William the Conqueror and who eventually became King William II of England, was from a Pagan ancestry which regarded the king as a deity. His grandfather Robert was rumored to have been the off-spring of his mother, the wife of the Duke of Normandy, and the devil. (Reportedly, the devil disguised himself as the Duke of Normandy and came to the Duke's wife in a wood.) As the chief or king was still viewed as a god incarnate by the Normans, and as it was then the habit among Christians to label a heathen deity as the devil (even when in human form), it is easy to see how the Duke's son eventually came to be known as Robert the Devil. There is no historical record that suggests Robert deserved a nickname with such evil connotations, for he appears to have been a decent enough fellow; however, if he was the son of an incarnate god (or "devil"), then the name makes sense. Robert's son, William the Conqueror, married his cousin Matilda, and so Rufus was descended from a Pagan leader on both sides of his family. Many of his friends and close associates were also openly heathen, and as king his chief advisor was Randolf Flambard, recorded in chronicles as the son of a witch.
The accounts of William's death vary but all agree that he was killed by an arrow shot by one of his own men while hunting in the New Forest. He apparently knew his death was approaching, for the day before the hunt he was occupied very seriously with the business of the kingdom. His affairs of state were so well-organized that there was no confusion resulting from his death and no loss of time in appointing and crowning a successor. At dinner the night before the hunt he ate and drank more than usual. He could not sleep during the night but instead ordered lights brought into his room and made his chamberlains stay up and talk to him. While preparing to leave the next day, he was brought six new arrows as a gift. Unusually delighted with the present, he gave two to his hunting companion Walter Tyrrel. At this point came a message from an Abbot named Serlo, urging the king not to go hunting as a monk had dreamt that such a venture would lead to his death. Rufus laughed off the mes sage, said something about "snoring monks,'" and sent a gift of money to the dreamer. They then left for the New Forest.
The usual story is that once in the forest, William and Walter dismounted and waited for a stag to pass. The king supposedly shot and missed, then Tyrrel let loose an arrow which bounced off the deer's antlers or a tree branch and hit the William in the heart. Once struck, William said nothing but broke off the shaft of the arrow as it protruded from his chest. He then fell on the wound, which brought about his death. A witness by the name of Knighton reported that after William's arrow missed, the King had cried out to Tyrrel, "Draw, draw your bow for the Devil's sake and let fly your arrow, or it will be the worse for you."
According to an ecclesiastical account, a charcoal burner took the King's body, placed it on a rude cart, covered it with a ragged cloth and conveyed it to Winchester. The body was said to have dripped blood along the entire route, an idea consistent with the belief that the blood of the divine sacrifice must fall on the ground in order to fertilize it. He was mourned not by the Christian nobles but by the largely Pagan common folk, who lined the roads of his funeral procession and followed the body to the grave.
Almost immediately his death became shrouded in mystery and tales of premonitions and visions began to circulate. In Belgium, Abbot Hugh of Clugny was warned the previous night that the king's life was at an end. On the day of the death Peter de Melvis in Devonshire met a rough peasant man bearing a bloody arrow, who said to him, "With this dart your king was killed today." The same day the Earl of Cornwall, while walking in the woods, encountered a large black hairy goat carrying the figure of the king. The goat spoke to the Earl, saying that he was taking the king to his judgment. Archbishop Anselm received the news in Italy when the vision of a young and beautiful man appeared before the guard at Anselm's door and told him that all dissension between the king and the archbishop was now at an end. And there is the story of a monk who, while chanting on the morning of William's death, saw through his closed eyes a person holding out a paper on which was written, "King William is dead." When he opened his eyes the person was gone.
As for Thomas a Becket, the details of his death suggest the theory that he was a substitute for a royal victim, in this case Henry II of England. The position between king and archbishop ever since Saxon times had been a curious arrangement, and Dr. Murray believes that there was a closer relationship between the two powers than is normally believed. In pre-Christian days the high priests, or "arch-flamens" of the Pagan populace were one of the few acceptable substitutes for the sacrifice of the divine king or leader. With the on-set of Christianity in England, it appears that wherever there was a "flamen", or priest, a bishopric was founded and an archbishop replaced the arch-flamen. The traditional duties and responsibilities of the arch-flamen in many cases were transferred to the archbishop. One of the duties of the arch-flamen of the Canterbury region may have been to serve as a royal substitute.
The fact that Thomas was regarded as a "divine victim" is apparently seen in the comparisons between his death and that of Christ's, found in all contemporary accounts and biographies. A witness to the murder, William of Canterbury, noted the parallels: "As the Lord, His Passion being imminent, approached the place of suffering, so Thomas, aware of coming events, drew near to the place in which he should suffer. They sought to seize, as Jesus, so Thomas, but no one put a hand on him because his hour was not yet come. The Lord went in triumphal procession before his Passion, Thomas before his. The Lord suffered after supper, and Thomas suffered after supper. The Lord for three days was guarded in Jerusalem by the Jews, Thomas for some days was guarded in the enclosure of his church. The Lord going to meet those who sought to attack Him, said, 'I am He whom you seek': Thomas to those who sought him, 'Behold me.' The Lord, 'If ye seek me, let these depart'; Thomas, 'Hurt none of thos e who stand by.' That one there, this one here, was wounded. There four soldiers, here four soldiers. There the sharing of the garments, here of the mules. There the dispersion of the disciples, here the dispersion of the underlings. There the veil was rent, here the sword was broken. The Lord gave forth water and blood unto salvation; Thomas water and blood unto health. The Lord restored the lost world, Thomas recalled to life many lost ones."
Becket was hacked to death by four armed knights in the Cathedral of Canterbury, some say under the direct order of Henry II, though others would dispute that. We do know that Henry, at odds with his archbishop and weary of their personal conflict, was heard to utter the now-famous "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?' and this was the primary motivation for his men's rampage. When the knights arrived at Canterbury bent on murder, the eyewitnesses present reported that Thomas did nothing to defend himself and resisted any attempts by the monks to lead him to safety. Aware of the approaching men-at-arms, he pushed his monks aside, causing one to write later, "Thence gradually he progressed by slow degrees as if voluntarily courting death." When the knights initially hesitated in their attack, he taunted them as if trying to make them lose lose control. He then bent his head and stretched out his neck that he may be easily struck. After the first blow, he fell to the floor as if in prayer, and in that position was killed. When the murder was completed, the knights cried out, "He wished to be king, he wished to be more than king, just let him be king." Although his body must have been horribly disfigured by the savage blows, he "did not seem dead, but by the vivid colour, the closed eyes and mouth, to be asleep. The limbs did not throb, no rigor of the body, no discharge issuing from the mouth or nostrils, nor was anything of the kind seen throughout the night by the watchers. But the flexibility of the fingers, the peace of the limbs, the cheerfulness and graciousness of the face, declared him a glorified man."
For many years after the martyrdom of Thomas, King Henry underwent an annual flogging on the steps of Canterbury. The ritual beating of the king after the death of his substitute was transformed by the Church into penance for the murder. For Henry, the flagellation was always severe enough to draw blood, so although the king was not killed his blood was shed on the ground.
As with Rufus, Thomas' death was known in many places on the same day in which it occurred or within a few hours of the event, in such far-off lands as Argentan and Jerusalem. The most remarkable story is that of a young boy of seven in Devonshire who announced to a company of diners that a "very good priest is dead and is just now killed." At first ridiculed, the boy was later proven to be right when news of the dreadful event reached that remote part of the country, causing the company to marvel at "God who so wonderfully awakened the spirit of a young and innocent child to reveal this matter at the very hour." After his death came the many miracles which were accomplished in his name, and the church was quick to canonize him as a saint. Belief in the power of the dead, even a dead god, was still alive.
The circumstances surrounding King William and Becket form a pattern that seems to be characteristic of divine victims. Both appear to have known that death was coming but did nothing to prevent it. In fact, they seem to have encouraged their deaths. Omens and premonitions were reported before they died, and on the day of their deaths, in places as far away as Italy and Jerusalem. There were "miraculous conditions" of the body in both cases. Thomas reportedly had no wounds, though he was hacked to death, and looked to be asleep. William's body bled for hours after he died, during the entire funeral procession, though bleeding normally stops soon after death. And their deaths fall in one of the prescribed manners of sacrifice: blood was shed on the ground.
There is no doubt that William Rufus, who frequently swore in the name of the Norse god Loki, was more of a Pagan than a Christian. It is also interesting to note that his strange death occurred on August 2, the day after a traditional time of festival for the old religion when human sacrifice took place. Thomas, as Archbishop of Canterbury, was certainly not a Pagan, but if he somehow was serving as a divine substitute for Henry II , the statement his killers made on his death makes great sense: "He wished to be king, he wished to be more than king, just let him be king." Becket's contemporaries made close comparisons between his death and that of Christ's. Jesus, who was called the king of the Jews, is, of course, the perfect example of a divine victim. He meets the established requirements and then some, and the believers of the religion founded in his name worship him as an incarnate god. The death of Jesus is a necessary and vital element of Christianity, and like the "sorr owful god" of Neolithic times, he had to die and be reborn that the world may have continual health and prosperity.
Joan of Arc, whose life and death have been the subject of controversy and debate ever since they occurred, is another historical personage who fits the pattern of a divine human who must ultimately die. Joan was actually called by her people "Jeanne La pucelle"- Joan the virgin, the maiden of God (the "La" was usually capitalized to emphasis her prestige). The common usage of "Joan of Arc" appeared after her death, about 1576. Among witches in the Middle Ages the name Jean, Joan, and Jonet were very popular, and "maiden" is considered a term of high respect in witchcraft even today.
She was born in the village of Domremy, in Lorraine, France in 1412, around the time that the Hundred Years War between France and England was being renewed. At the age of 13 she began hearing voices and receiving visions which she later identified as being those of St. Michael, St. Margaret, and St. Catherine. The voices addressed her as "Jehanne la Pucelle, Fille de Dieu" and appeared to her several times a day. From the very beginning she was told what her mission was: she was chosen by God to restore France and to give aid to the Dauphin Charles, who was to be King of France, and that she must take to wearing men's clothing, bear arms, and lead the army. Quite an endeavor for a simple peasant girl of 13, so she waited until she was 16, when the voices became so urgent that she had to act upon them. In 1428 she was able to convince the Dauphin of the sincerity of her mission, and he put her in charge of the army that would attempt to return the city of Orleans to the French. Sh e herself couldn't explain what was happening: "I cannot tell A from B," she said, "but God has sent me to raise the siege of Orleans and to get the Dauphin crowned at Riems." The battle of Orleans in May of 1429 was a tremendous success for the French troops under Joan's command, and she was soon the heroine of France. Two months later, at the Cathedral of Riems, she was present as the Dauphin was crowned Charles VII of France. It was Sunday, July 17th. There had been a full moon that morning.
The coronation of Charles was the high point of Joan's life. After that beautiful summer's day in Riems when she saw the fulfillment of her visions, things went tragically downhill for her. She was wounded in an unsuccessful attempt to deliver Paris from the English, and in May of 1430 she was captured by Burgundian soldiers allied to the English during her attack on Compiegne. The Burgundians sold her to the English, who despised and feared her, and after a year in captivity she was burned at the stake in the market-place of Rouen, May of 1431. Her heart and entrails were not burned, and along with her ashes, they were thrown into the Seine.
Now, if Dr. Murray's theory that Joan was a bona fide member of a well-organisd and established witch-cult is correct, it's not likely that such a fact would have remained completely hidden from history for hundreds of years, waiting for a 20th century anthropologist to bring the truth to light. Yet that is what Dr. Murray would have us believe. Her Joan of Arc theory was radical and revolutionary when first published (and her other works have helped shape modern veiws on ancient beliefs & customs) but today very few scholars take her hypothesis that Joan was a member of a witch cult seriously. There is simply no substantial evidence to back this theory up. If the old religion was still followed and was as organized as she maintained, there would be many surviving historical records that would make mention of or allude to it. None exist that we know of today. Customs, stories, and remnants of this religion would have survived to such an extent that other scholars prior to Murray w ould have discovered them and reported their own conclusions, but this has not occurred. Murray, despite all her reasonings and conjectures, was never able to prove the truth of her ideas, and historians & anthropologists since her time usually disavow her work. However, as wrong as Murray might be in examining Joan as a well defined witch with old Paganistic beliefs, all the evidence points to the thought that Joan was indeed a divinely inspired individual who became the substitute for her king, and her death had to occur.
First, there were the prophesies concerning her. Marie Robine, a French mystic in the late 1300's, informed Charles VI that she foresaw a maid in armor who would save France. Another prophecy, attributed to the mythological Merlin, said that a virgin from the forests of Lorraine would by miraculous acts save France in its hour of need. While at Chinon, Joan was told of these predictions but it is said that she didn't give them much credibility. Lorraine was known to be a backward district in those days, with social and religious customs that were primitive. One hundred years before her death the area was reported to be filled with magic and witches, and one hundred years after she had died hundreds of people there were put to death as witches. It was in Lorraine that Joan first heard her voices, by a fountain that stood near a large Beech that was rumored to be a fairy tree. Joan's own godmother, the wife of the mayor of Domremy, swore that she saw spirits or fairies dancing aro und that tree. Joan's mother was reputed to have had dealings with fairies. Joan herself said that she knew of all the superstition and magic that was prevalent in her home area, but didn't believe in these practices. As to her voices, modern Catholic scholars accept her visions as being revelations from God, while skeptics are prone to believe that they were the result of neurosis, hysteria, or illness. It's very possibe that she just made the story up, which would be no more unusual than Murray's revelation that the voices were from actual people, members of Joan's witch-cult who were feeding her messages and instructions. Murray goes so far as to say that when Joan claimed to be receiving instructions from her voices while in prison during her trial, the advice was actually coming from her witch friends who were hiding in the cell next to hers, talking to her through a hole in the wall. This aspect of Murray's theory is perhaps the most ludicrous of all. Regardless of whether she imagined them or not, Joan believed her voices to be real messages from God, and no fellow-cult members could have inspired her as her divine friends did.
After her victory at Orleans, Joan practically became a Saint to the French people. Records from her trial state the French people considered her divine, almost on par with the Virgin Mary herself, and tales circulated that she could raise the dead, and by touching her clothes the sick could be healed. She even reportedly brought a dead child back to life at the city of Lagny. She also supposedly had the power of levitation, a unique talent usually reserved for saints and angels. The English knew of this magical reputation and hated her for it, so when they put her on trial it was not for political reasons but for religious ones. Instead of being charged with high treason against the English king, she was instead charged by the Church with heresy, blasphemy, idolatry, and sorcery. She knew that she would be captured by her hated enemies: the voices told her so. It seems she knew she was going to die too, for at one point she had told the Dauphin, "make the most of me, for I s hall only last one year". Though Murray believed she went to her death willingly as part of a divine sacrifice, nothing could be further from the truth. She was terrified of what the English would do to her, and even tried to escape by jumping from the top of the seventy-foot tall tower where she was imprisoned. Amazingly, she wasn't injured (an example of levitation?) but was immediately recaptured.
Near the end of her trial she was told that she must either renounce her past deeds and swear to never carry arms or wear men's clothing again, or she would be burned to death. Displaying action not typical of someone willing to go to her death, she agreed to do so and the court ended the trial by sentencing her to life imprisonment for wearing men's clothes- a sign of heresy- and for rejecting the church. However, a few days after her renouncement, for some unknown reason, she began to wear men's clothing again. She said that God wouldn't permit her to wear woman's clothing, but to the Court this meant she was refusing to submit to their judgment. Murray answers the question of why Joan wore men's clothing by declaring it pure proof that she was a member of a witch-cult, and the donning of men's attire was a sign that she was serving as a divine substitute for Charles VII. Symbolically this is probably true, as men-at-arms would feel more at ease following someone into battle wh o was in armor and not in a dress, but the reality of the situation suggests that she dressed as a man out of necessity and to fulfill the requirements of a soldier, not of a witch. Whatever the reason, her refusal to stand by her own decision caused the court to consider her a relapsed heretic and she was sentenced by secular law to be put to death. One strange fact emerges at this point, and that is no one attempted to ransom Joan from the English: not the city of Orleans which certainly could afford to do so, nor Charles who owed her so much, nor any Frenchmen. This is quite unusual, for much of the Hundred Years War was fought over the the money that could be made in ransoming noble hostages after their capture. She spent a year in prison and not one person came forward to rescue her from the English. Again, Murray uses this as evidence that Joan was a divine sacrifice, but again she ignores the more simple thought that the French were embarrassed over the fact that it was a comm on peasant girl who brought them victories and were too ashamed to go to the English for her return.
At her death, those who were in attendance reported that the name "Jesus" was seen in the flames that killed her, and a white dove was seen flying out of the pyre towards the direction of France. Even the executioner was convinced that he had killed a saint- no matter how hard he tried he could not burn her entrails or her heart, and terrified, he threw her remains in the running water of the Seine. Today it is generally believed that these amazing occurrences were due more to the imagination of the people who attended more than anything else, but there was an immediate feeling after her death that it had been wrong to kill her. Many of those present at her execution, including the English, said they knew a saint had been killed.
Joan's life does indeed fit the historical pattern of a divine sacrifice, as does her death, which she tried so hard to avoid but in the end was a necessary part of her legend. The catharsis of her story would not have been complete without her death. Jeanne d'Arc was meant to dramatically die. Her career as the savior of the French nation had to end in an early and tragic death. But however true this catharsis may be, it happened without her consent. Joan truly believed that she was the virgin of God, sent to save her people and king, but even she couldn't explain why this was so, and in the end she died as unwillingly as any of us. The modern historian Barbara Tuchman perhaps explains it best when she says that Joan appeared because of a great need for her to do so: "The moment required her and she arose." In Joan was the combination of "the old religious faith and the new force of patriotism." As an after-thought, Tuchman adds: "Her significance is better known to history than it was to her contemporaries". Almost five hundred years after her death, Joan was canonized by the same church that tried her, and today the common peasant girl who knew neither "A from B" is worshipped and prayed to around the world as the holy Saint Joan. To Catholic France Joan is a warrior-virgin. To the western world she is a great, tragic figure, the embodiment of French nationalism. To Margaret Murray she is the leader of a persecuted minority, and to today's society she is the eternal underdog, the lone person standing against great odds and dark powers. She may not have been so while alive, but history has made her divine.
copyright 1994 J. L. Matterer
Author: Lord Ian Damebrigge of Wychwood Please send coments to YAPM97A@prodigy.com (MR JL MATTERER)
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