Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth
In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.
The Buck Above, the Buck Below
French Inquisitor Pierre de Lancre wrote that at the Basque Sabbats the Devil himself presided at mass. At the moment of Consecration, he would cry out: This is my body! Then he would lift the Host, which was black, round, and stamped with the Devil's image (de Lancre specifies that he lifts it “on his horns”), and those present would fall down in adoration and cry out, twice repeated, a mysterious four-word phrase, which has rung down the history of witchcraft ever since.
In his account of the Basque trials, de Lancre transcribes the Basque words as:
Aquerra Goity, Aquerra Beyty
"which is to say," he continues in Spanish,
Cabron arriba, Cabron abaro.
In contemporary Spanish, one would say: Cabrón arriba, cabrón abajo. Interestingly, although de Lancre is writing in his native French, he does not translate the phrase into that language: Le Bouc en-haut, le Bouc en-bas.
The same phrase, he reports, was cried out at the elevation of the cup.
On the face of it, the phrase would seem to mean: “Up with the goat, down with the goat.” The standard English translation, however (stemming, I believe, from Miss Montague Summers) is, rather sententiously, “The He-Goat above! The He-Goat below!” But this can be bettered, I think:
The Buck Above, the Buck Below.*
Where does this mysterious phrase come from, and what does it mean?
Since de Lancre himself, so far as we know, did not speak Basque, it seems virtually certain that he learned the words from a Basque informant. The Goat figures prominently in Basque witchcraft: both the sabbat itself and the sabbat-stead are known in Basque as akelare, “he-goat's field.” (This, of course, is the origin of the Spanish word for “witches' sabbat,” aquelarre.)
The second point worth noting is that, unlike the words of consecration which immediately precede it, the phrase does not derive from the ordinary of the mass. It must have some other, native, origin.
In the context of the sabbat liturgy, the meaning is clear. As the Devil lifts the Host, the people cry out: The Buck Above, the Buck Below. They are identifying the Host (and, subsequently, the wine in the chalice) with the god himself: this, and this also, is He.
This is interesting. The point here is not to desecrate the body of Christ, as one might expect. Here the Devil has replaced Christ: he is himself both priest and victim, both sacrificer and sacrificed. The Devil as sacrifice is a not uncommon theme in French witch-literature. There one reads in numerous trial documents that at the climax of the sabbat, the Devil in the form of a goat would mount the altar and be consumed by flames. The witches, of course, would then use the ashes in their spells (Runeberg 229). Well, who wouldn't?
The Buck Above, the Buck Below. One is reminded, of course, of the Hermetic dictum “As above, so below,” though actual historical influence seems unlikely here. In the context of Christian mythology, the phrase may be said to articulate with remarkable concision (four words!) the story of He-Who-Fell-from-Heaven, but in context one must wonder if we may not read here an implied circularity as well: the implication that the Fallen, who now rules the Great Below, will someday rule the Great Above as well. In Old Craft lore, it is said that Old Hornie once lived in the Sky, but later came to earth, in a self-giving act of compassion, to bring his people the fire of the gods.
A number of years ago, I discovered a painting by17th-century Spanish Counter-Reformation painter Francisco de Zurbarán entitled Agnus Dei. A number of things struck me about the piece. Title aside, the painting contained no overt religious imagery at all. Likewise, the animal depicted was clearly no lamb, but a full-grown ram, with a ram's crescent horns. A ram, lying trussed on a marble slab: the sacrifice laying on the altar, waiting for the knife.
"Here," I thought, "is a Christianity that makes sense to me."
Why is the god of witches called the Horned? Because it is he who, again and again, from time's beginning, has laid down his life to feed us. He is the life of the People. He literally dies every day in the food that we eat; without him, we could not live.
for I myself have seen at the sabbat
the god lying dead on the altar
and cried out with the rest
the Buck above
the Buck below
and unto ages of ages
*The term "buck" (its female equivalent is "doe") is used for the males of numerous species--rabbits among them--but refers preeminently to male goats. (In English folklore, "Old Buck" is always the Devil.) That in American English bucks and does have come to refer almost exclusively to deer says something about the centrality of that animal to the early American economy. It is delicious to note that the colloquial name for the American unit of currency thus bears the by-name of the god of the witches, a buckskin having been, at one time, valued at a dollar. I have heard that on the frontier, where actual currency was scarce, buckskins often functioned as legal tender.
In Buck We Trust.
Gustav Henningsen, The Witches' Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (1609-1614) (1980). Reno: University of Nevada Press.
Arne Runeberg, Witches, Demons, and Fertility Magic: Analysis of Their Significance and Mutual Relations in West-European Folk Religion (1947). Helsingfors.
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