The Sabbat is a day of ascendancy for witches. In the European countrysides during the Middle Ages, the eight festival observances took on immense importance as thousands of peasants, common people, and members of the lesser nobility attended the seasonal celebrations. The Sabbats mark the passage of the year as it moves through its seasons: Samhain begins the year for those who follow the ways of witchcraft, and it occurs near October 31. Yule marks the Winter Solstice and is celebrated near December 21, the longest, darkest night of the year. Candlemas, observed on February 2, is the festival of the Goddess Brigid. The Spring Equinox happens around March 21 and is a powerful time of magic. Beltane, May 1, celebrates love and oneness. The Summer Solstice, occurring around June 21, is also a time of power and strength of the deities of nature. August 1 recognizes Lammas, a time when fruit ripens and there are signs that harvest is near. The Fall Equinox, near or on September 21, celebrates a balance between light and dark, night and day.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian influence, so visible during the day, seemed to vanish at night as great groups of people gathered around a statue of the Horned God and began professing their allegiance to the great deities of nature. To staunch Christians, this horned image was an obscene representation of Satan, a black, grotesque figure that was fiendishly lit by the roaring fire in front of it. In the flickering light, the torso of the figure appeared to be human while the head, hands, and feet were shaped like those of a goat and covered with coarse, black hair. The altar beneath the image of the Horned God was constructed of stones, and the ceremony performed was intricate.
Although there was plenty of food and beer, many scholars of witchcraft believe that the high priests and priestesses took advantage of the entranced state of most of the worshippers and spiked the drinks with belladonna or other drugs. The crowd was then easily whipped into an intoxicated frenzy, which tended to free the inhibitions of the celebrants. At the peak of the collective emotions, the crowd acted as a single person and began almost automatically to dance the hypnotic witches' round. As the dance continued, the cathartic influence of the entire celebration magnified the energy of each individual until all of them forgot their own personality in expression of worship of the Horned God and the Goddess.
The Sabbat dance, or, as it is commonly known, the witches' round, was performed with the dancers moving in a back-to-back position with their hands clasped and their heads turned so that they might see each other. A wild dance such as this, which was essentially circular in movement, would need little help from the drugged drinks to bring about a condition of vertigo in the most hearty of dancers. The celebration lasted the entire night, and the crowd did not disperse until the crowing of the cock the following morning.
Reports of regular celebrations of the various Sabbats came from all over Europe. An estimated 25,000 attended such rituals in the countrysides of southern France and around the Black Forest region of Germany. As rumors of even larger gatherings spread throughout the land, the nobility and the churchmen decided to squelch such expressions out of existence with the use of the hideous machinery of the Inquisition. Even the most innocent amusements of the serfs were taken away. In the face of such large-scale persecutions, the mass meeting celebrations of the Sabbat were made impossible. But even though great pressure was brought to bear on such outward manifestations of the rituals, the Sabbats were still performed in modified versions in the private fields, orchards, and cellars of the peasants.