The Black Mass

From Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), chapter 13


Another direct result of the struggle with the Cathars was the definite adoption by the Church of the Dogma of Transubstantiation. Controversy upon this point had been carried on for some centuries, but it was not until 1215 that the word "Transubstantiation" was adopted and the doctrine defined by the Fourth Latin Council. Also, the Church very definitely took the stand, as before stated, that the moral character of the priest who performed the Mass mattered nothing; so long as he was a priest, the Mass was valid, and transubstantiation took place.

Now I am going to advance what I am well aware is a highly controversial view, which I fear may offend some people. That view is that the root of the practices known as the "Black Mass" is to be found in this latter belief, when it was held by spiritually ignorant people and unworthy priests. It has nothing to do with the witch cult or the Cathars, and never has had anything to do with them.

The Black Mass was - and I hope I am right in speaking of it in the past tense - a Mass which was performed by an ordained priest, with various magical ceremonies added, in order to use, or rather pervert, the power of the Eucharist to some magical end. We have seen an example in the extracts from the Grimoire of Honorius which I have quoted in the chapter headed "Magic Thinking."

[(from chapter 8).....Pope Honorius III, who preached the Crusades, is alleged to be the author of a famous grimoire to evoke spirits, the use of which was reserved exclusively to priests. [.....] It has a preamble purporting to be a Papal Bull of Honorius III addressed to the priests of the Church, entrusting them with the methods of controlling devils. Whether this is authentic or not, the grimoire is evidently intended for the use of priests, because some of its requirements could only be carried out by an ordained priest. For instance, it specifies that the operator "should rise in the middle of the night on the first Monday of the month, and say one Mass of the Holy Ghost. After the consecration, he takes the Host in his left hand, and, being on his knees, he speaks thus: (and here follows a long prayer to Jesus Christ to "vouchsafe to Thine unfortunate servant, who now holds Thy Body in his hand, the strength and power to apply his strength against the rebelled spirits"). This is followed by the sacrifice of a black cock, after sunrise, and the next day, at daybreak, a Mass of the Angels is celebrated. A feather of the sacrificed cock is to be on the altar, and beside it a new knife. Taking the consecrated wine, the master then writes with it certain figures on a piece of virgin paper which is resting on the altar. When the Mass is over, the document is wrapped in a piece of new violet-coloured silk, together with the Oblation and a part of the consecrated Host. The sacrifice of a male lamb, and the recital of various psalms and litanies are called for, ending with the Mass for the Dead, and detailed instructions are then given for the evocation and control of devils. According to Leland, a printed edition of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius was published in Rome in 1629. "It is not Kabalistic, and is permeated with Christian ideas, and is accompanied by a copy of a Papal Bull permitting its use.".....]


Where, then, did the stories of the Black Mass come from? The inquisitors and executioners who put them into the mouths of alleged witches must have got the basic idea for them from somewhere. I suggest that it was in fact widely know and whispered about that this type of perverted Mass was performed for magical ends, though decent Churchmen abominated it; and that superstitious people regarded the consecrated Host as a powerful implement of magic. This is proved by the charms containing pieces of consecrated Hosts which we have in this Museum; by such stories as that told by Montague Summers, who does not seem to realise the real significance of it, of ignorant country people who regarded the Ablution from the chalice which had held the Eucharistic wine as a remedy for the ailments of their children; and by innumerable instances in the various grimoires of magical implements, etc., which have to be consecrated by having a Mass said over them. The first reformed Prayer Book of Edward VI (1549), has a rubric which runs as follows: "And although...the people these many years past received at the priest's hands the Sacrament of the Body of Christ in their own hands...yet as they many times conveyed the same secretly away, kept it with them, and diversely abused it to superstition and is thought convenient the people commonly receive the Sacrament of Christ's Body in their mouths at the priest's hands." The purpose was not, as the legend of "Satanism" insists, deliberately to insult the Host, but to use it for magic; and it will be noted that the rubric condemns those who do so, not as "Satanists" nor even as witches, but simply as being superstitious and wicked.

It was people of this mentality who were the clients of priests who were prepared, for a consideration, to say a Mass for magical purposes. One such practice, for instance, was that of saying the Mass for the Dead in the name of a living person, to cause them to die. So many of the Church Councils fulminate against this practice, that it must have continued through many centuries.

If the practice had ceased, there was no reason to continue forbidding it.

I believe that the Catholic Church permits priests to say Masses for some particular "intention" of one of their congregation, and, of course, in the hands of any upright priest such a practice is safe from abuse. No decent priest would say a Mass for an "intention" that was obviously bad. But has it always been free from abuse? Especially in mediaeval - and even later - times, when superstitions of all kinds held sway over men's minds to an extent which we find difficult to understand or even credit? And when it was firmly believed, by both priest and people, that however bad a man was, so long as he was an ordained priest transubstantiation of the elements of the Mass would automatically take place at his word?

Have we any real evidence about the Black Mass which is worth more than the paper it is written on? There is very little, only one case being worth examination, because it does seem that the people who carried out the investigation had no axe to grind; indeed, as the investigation proceeded they were more concerned to hush up the scandalous details than to produce more. I refer to the famous "Affaire des Poisons" in the reign of King Louis XIV of France.

The prime motive of this investigation was not to uncover "Black Magic" or "witchcraft" at all, but to put a stop to the many cases of mysterious deaths by poison which were reaching the proportions of a national scandal; and it had no theological or heretical implications, but was simply a straightforward piece of police detective work. It was carried out by the lieutenant of the Paris police, Nicolas de La Reynie.


La Reynie continued his investigations into the ramifications of the trade in poison; many of the people whom he knew were guilty had been placed beyond his reach, because of their high rank; still he was determined at least to ensure that their creatures, the go-betweens and suppliers of poisons, should not escape justice, or be enabled to continue their profitable careers of crime. He had soon discovered that he was not only dealing with common criminals; when the police had searched La Voisin's house in the Rue Beauregard, they had found in the grounds a kind of pavilion which was fitted up in a peculiar manner. The walls were hung with black, and at one end there was an altar. Behind the altar stretched a black curtain with a white cross upon it, and instead of the usual white altar-cloth the top of the altar was covered with a draping of black, which concealed a mattress placed beneath it. The altar had a tabernacle surmounted by a cross, but the candles were black.

La Reynie had soon discovered that La Voisin had many acquaintances among the less reputable type of priest. In spite of the fact that she had made an outward show of piety - she had actually been arrested as she left the Church of Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle, where she had been attending Mass - the Missionaires of St. Vincent de Paul had long suspected her of evil practices, and had had her under surveillance, without being able to obtain any positive evidence against her.


However, La Voisin introduced her to a practitioner of a darker shade than these two, who, she assured her, was prepared to perform even more powerful ceremonies; the Abbé Guibourg.

Guibourg was a sixty-seven-year-old priest, who alleged himself to be the illegitimate son of a nobleman. He had a number of benefices in Paris and the surrounding districts. His reputation was evil, and in the pursuit of black magic he was utterly ruthless. He had had several children by his mistress, a woman called La Chanfrain, and he was said to have used some of them as sacrifices in his monstrous rites.

It is said in The Key of Solomon,

In many operations it is necessary to make some sort of sacrifice unto Demons, and in various ways. Sometimes white animals are sacrificed to the good Spirits and black to the evil. Such sacrifices consist of the blood and sometimes the flesh. Those who sacrifice animals, of whatsoever kind they be, should select those which are virgin, as being more agreeable unto the Spirits, and rendering them more obedient.

It is evident, from the details given, that the purpose of Guibourg's ceremonies was to evoke demons and compel them to obey his requests; and we have seen that the disposal of unwanted children was part of La Voisin's trade.


Dr. Jules Regnault, in his book La Sorcellerie, ses Rapports avec les Sciences Biologiques (Paris, 1936), actually gives the words of Guibourg's abominable "blessing" of the destined victim,

"Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ laissait venir à lui les petits enfants. Aussi j'ai voulu que tu viennes, car je suis son prêtre, et tu vas, par ma main que tu dois bénir, t'incorporer à ton Dieu." ("Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered the little children to come to Him. Even so I have willed that thou comest, for I am His priest, and thou goest, by my hand which thou should'st bless, to incorporate thyself with thy God.")

Unfortunately, Dr. Regnault does not give his authority for this wording; which, if it is authentic, is a perfect illustration of the mentality behind the Black Mass. It will be noted that in it Guibourg describes himself as the priest of Jesus Christ; not as either a "Satanist" or a witch.


Guibourg and La Voisin told Madame de Montespan that, in order to attain its object, the Black Mass must be said three times in succession. Accordingly, arrangements were made to say the first one in the chapel of the Château de Villebousin, in the hamlet of Mesnil, near Monthlhéry. It was a requirement of this particular ritual that the woman on whose behalf it was being said had to lie on the altar naked. The spectacle of the most powerful, and one of the most beautiful women in France, lying naked on the altar of the Black Mass, has often seized the imagination of sensational writers and artists, and we have usually had the scene depicted with Madame de Montespan lying extended upon the altar. Actually, however, she lay across the altar, on her back, her body at right angles to its length and with her knees drawn up. A pillow supported her head, and she held in her extended arms the two candlesticks with their black candles. A cross was placed between her breasts, and the chalice between her thighs. Guibourg, the officiating priest, stood between her knees. We are told by Marguerite Monvoisin that he had a special vestment for this ritual, a white chasuble sewn with black pine cones.

The ritual apparently followed the orthodox wording of the Mass, but with the monstrous addition of the sacrifice of a baby, at which the following words were said by Guibourg on behalf of Madame de Montespan:

"Astaroth, Asmodeus, princes of affection, I conjure you to accept the sacrifice which I present to you, of this child, for the things which I demand of you, which are that the affection of the King, and of Monseigneur le Dauphin, may be continued towards me, and that I may be honoured by the princes and princesses of the Court, and that nothing may be denied me of all that I ask of the King, either for myself or for my family and servants."

This is Guibourg's version of the conjuration, which he gave to the Chambre Ardente.

H. T. F. Rhodes has made a number of speculative deductions from the details of the description of this Mass, in the course of which he says, "The dominant features of the two-faced Satan of the 17th century are those of the mother-goddess. It is only in the light of this fact that the black rites and ceremonies of the period can be understood. The name was Astaroth." But upon this point Mr. Rhodes has been egregiously misled. The "Astaroth" to whom Guibourg's conjuration was addressed was not a goddess at all, but a goetic demon. He is mentioned as such in the Grimorium Verum, the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage (which dates from 1458 and in which Astaroth and Asmodeus are listed as two of the Eight Sub-Princes of Evil), [...] In the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, it says, "Those who would obtain the favours of rulers call him."

Asmodeus is a destructive demon mentioned in the Goetia and in a number of other grimoires. [...] The purpose of the Black Mass at which these two demons were evoked was firstly to regain the King's favour, and secondly to destroy Madame de Montespan's rivals; hence the purpose of choosing this particular evocation is perfectly clear.

Mr. Rhodes has been further misled when he says that the Mass was "offered" to Astaroth and Asmodeus. It was the blood sacrifice alone which was offered to demons; the Mass - Heaven help them! - was offered to God, in order to control the demons and make them obey.

Two more masses were performed, at fifteen-day and three-week intervals; the second took place in a tumble-down house at Saint-Denis; the third in a house at Paris, to which Guibourg was taken with his eyes blindfolded, and conducted thence again in the same way. And in due course, Madame de Montespan regained her ascendancy over the King.


She became so desperate that once again she resolved to try the Black Mass. This time the Masses were held at La Voisin's house in the Rue Beauregard, in the black-draped pavilion which the police discovered when they searched the place, after La Voisin's arrest. The usual three Masses were said, but Madame de Montespan was only present in person at the first one, at which a child was sacrificed. The other two were said on her behalf by Guibourg and La Voisin. It was the duty of Marguerite Monvoisin to help her mother to prepare the "chapel," and sometimes to act as assistant. Madame de Montespan was not the only woman who came to La Voisin's house to take part in a Black Mass, and apparently there was an alternative ritual. Dr. Regnault (Op. cit.) says:

"Notons toutefois que la messe dite pour Madame de Montespan ne fut pas tourt à fait complète. En raison de la situation de la courtisane, on avait choisi le vieux Guibourge, afin qu'il ne fût pas tenté de suivre le rite le plus courant qui consisterait à placer, après la consécration, l'hostie dans le vagin de la femme, en guise d'hymen, et à pratiquer le côit dans ces conditions."

According to a statement of Marguerite Monvoisin, however, Guibourg did practise this ritual; but it is not clear whether or not he practised it with Madame de Montespan.


I have treated this story at such length because, as I have mentioned, it is the only account I know of the Black Mass which is supported by anything worth calling evidence. The conclusions which I have drawn from it may not be acceptable to all. Nevertheless, it is as clear as daylight (except to those of whom the old proverb says, "There are none so blind as them that won't see"), that the people who were practising the Black Mass in the 17th century were not witches, but priests. Guibourg was not alone in his infamy; we have also the names of the Abbé Davot; Dulong, the Canon of Notre Dame, and Brigalier, a Royal Almoner; the Abbé Guignard, and the Abbé Sebault; Barthelemy Lemeignan, the vicar of Saint-Eustache, and another priest called Tournet: and a Bishop, Gille-Lefranc. H. T. F. Rhodes - upon the facts in whose book I cast no doubt, disagreeing only with the deductions he draws form them - tells us that between 1673 and 1680 at least fifty priests were executed for sacrilege, and that the majority, if not all of these, were associated with La Voisin.

Synagoga Satanae