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11/7/2004
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Sybille de Bethune

Some things that hardly anybody knows and some things so obscure that nobody knows them

 

The Cult of the Vardysts

The Vardyst branch of the magical arts is a little-known and exceptionally mysterious sect that flourished for a time in the region known as Flanders, an area covering parts of present-day Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and France. In its heyday during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, it may have had as many as 5800 practitioners spread across the Flemish region and neighboring areas, with the highest concentration in and around Bruges, and their influence was felt among all the populations of the Lowlands and their close neighbors. Very few Vardysts survived the Inquisition, mainly because their chosen practice involved an act of physical mutilation that made them easy to identify.

   However, their existence as a sect was so well protected that the group is not even mentioned by name in Malleus Maleficarum.
   There are still a few scattered cells of practitioners today, notably one in Ghent that claims an unbroken lineage from Antonette Amerycx, née Swandyn (see van Gryspeere, 2001), as well as two in the United Kingdom and one in California. But in general, even amidst the present revival of so-called Wicca religions and other earth-based magical practices, popular interest in divination and necromancy, and a thriving trade in oils and powders deemed to possess special properties, the Vardyst branch is seldom spoken of, and its influence, if felt, is usually not recognized.
   The name of the sect is derived from the name of Kateryne Vardyc, née Swandyn, who was not its founder but a member of a family of adepts descended from Sybille de Béthune. Of all of them, it was Kateryne who attracted a following, and her adherents came to be called after her married name.
 
History and Principals
Sybille (1293–1382)  The four Swandyn sisters of Bruges—Antonette, Ysabella, Margriet, and Kateryne—were granddaughters of Sybille Benet, known as Sybille de Béthune.* According to Jane Z. Rudnick (1947), who has done exhaustive research on the family history of Kateryne Swandyn, Sybille Benet was born in 1293 on farmlands owned by her father, Jacques Benet, near the town of Toulouse in the Languedoc region of southwestern France. In 1306 her father, who subscribed to the Cathar heresy, was killed in a raid by defenders of the Catholic Church, and his properties were confiscated by the local authorities of the Inquisition.
   Sybille Benet and her younger brother Arnaud fled to the home of their uncle in Montaillou, a village in the Languedoc region of southern France. Her uncle was the head of a prominent family of Cathar heretics and came under inquisition by Bishop Jacques Fournier. In 1308, 14-year-old Sybille and her 12-year-old brother escaped from Montaillou and fled to Flanders.
   They traveled northward from market town to market town through the kindness of farmers and peddlers and the countryfolk who came to market to buy their wares. On many a long cart or wagon ride, Sybille avoided revealing the reason for their flight by inventing colorful personal narratives to account for their journey. Some of those tales were repeated and found their way into the repertoire of local storytellers. Michel Maury (1966) has done fascinating work in tracing Sybille’s path from Montaillou to Bruges through the analysis of certain recurring themes in the folktales of the region.
   They were also attacked and robbed by a stonemason in whose company they had been traveling. The incident left a deep mark on both children.
   As they were departing from Arras, Arnaud fell ill with chills and high fever, intense coughing, and severe pain in chest and lungs. Despite her determined and resourceful nature, Sybille was unable to care for him. By the good graces of a pedlar from Arras, she heard of two aged sisters in the town of Béthune, Ermessenda and Rixenda, who were known for their healing arts. Sybille offered herself in service to them for a year, and they took her in with her dying brother. With all their skill, they could not save the life of Arnaud, but they gave him a gentle passing and thereby earned the unending gratitude and loyalty of Sybille.
   The sisters initiated Sybille into practice of the arts of divination, necromancy, and the casting of spells and enchantments, especially for healing, which she brought with her to Bruges and taught to her daughter Herlinde and her four Swandyn granddaughters.
   When she reached Bruges in 1310, Sybille adopted the name Sybille de Béthune.
   Having been reared as a member of the privileged class, Sybille was well versed in its manners and ways, even though of a different culture. She had also learned to accept a humble station while in the service of the old sisters of Béthune. So she quickly found work as a maidservant in the household of a wealthy silk merchant by the name of Oggesfot and conferred upon his lowborn but newly rich wife the veneer of class, for which she was well rewarded.
   Sybille eventually married Jacob Swandyn, a wheelwright who served the carters of the textile trade, and brought with her a small private fortune in gifts bestowed by Frouwe Oggesfot over her twelve years of service. Their son Jan, a blacksmith by trade, married Kateryne Heyndricx, and they had four daughters, Antonette, Ysabella, Margriet, and Kateryne, and a son Zander. The four daughters together became the driving force behind the practices later known as the Vardyst sect.
   Zander, who was apprenticed to a chandler and converted to Christianity at the age of twelve, was hanged for a thief in his twenty-seventh year, and his wife, Elftrud, left the town with their two-year-old son.
   Sybille and Jacob’s second son Willem died of the fever at the age of four, reawakening in Sybille her unresolved grief over the loss of her brother Arnaud and weighting her with a sorrow that she carried to her grave.
   Their daughter Herlinde became an important figure in the cult of the Vardysts. Though never a celebrity seeker, she remained solidly influential until her fateful falling out with Antonette in 1365.
   It was said that no one of the family of Sybille de Béthune perished of the Black Death, even through the worst of the plague years in Europe (1347–1352), so powerful were the protective charms learned from the sisters of Béthune. However, a number of them were victims of the Inquisition, burned or tortured as witches.
   Sybille lived to the age of 89, outliving two of her three children and surviving her husband by 40 years. She passed her last years in semiretreat under the roof of her son Jan and his unmarried daughter Ysabella.
Herlinde (1325–1367)  Youngest child and only daughter of Sybille de Béthune, Herlinde was her mother’s first initiate and showed a special aptitude for spells and incantations. As a child of the upper class, Sybille had learned to read and write in childhood, and she taught these priceless skills to Herlinde, who became the keeper of the spellbooks and recipes passed on by Sybille. No more than a handful of pages survived the conflagrations of the Inquisition, but they are all written in the fine, spidery calligraphy of Herlinde, a few annotated considerably later in a bolder but less practiced hand thought to be that of Antonette (Balberghe, 1955).
   Herlinde was a studious child with a deep imagination and a love of folklore and traditional tales, some of which she wrote down as little dramas for her Swandyn nieces to perform. She was fanatically devoted to her mother and grew up in service to her practice as her staunchest aide and support. As her mother’s spirit faltered, Herlinde supplied the steady strength that held her in her place at the head of the cult until her nieces came of age.
   Herlinde wed Wulf van Nieuwenhove, a weaver, and bore him five sons, all of whom found employment in the booming textile trade.
   In 1365, when she was 40, Herlinde became embroiled in a power struggle with her eldest niece, 22-year-old Antonette, over who was the true successor to Sybille and would assume the role of leader. Sybille herself refused to intervene. Herlinde fell into a decline and died within two years. It was rumored that her death had been hastened by some unnatural means, but no evidence was brought forward. Thereafter, Antonette’s authority went unchallenged until her death in 1415 at the age of 72.
Antonette (1343–1415)  Antonette’s gift of exceptional powers of concentration was apparent from an early age and afforded her unsurpassed strength in the arts of divination and necromancy. It was she who introduced a hierarchy of authority into the cult, gradually assuming greater influence as Sybille withdrew into a more contemplative state in consequence of her lifelong mourning of her brother Arnaud and her son Willem.
   When she was 16, Antonette wed Cornelis Amerycx, at 25 already well on his way to becoming a successful wool broker. Antonette grew to be a strong woman with a fierce will. She aspired to be a matriarch of a large and influential family, but her womb was not so fruitful. This was but one of many disappointments that colored the life of Antonette with bitterness.
   After four years of marriage, Antonette gave birth to twin daughters, Lysbette and Adriana. She reared them from birth to become high priestesses. All their lives the two were locked in a rivalry as strong as their partnership. As noted in the journal of Ysabella, Lysbette and Adriana were initiated at the age of 12 at the first ritual of the crescent moon following their first blood. Lysbette’s first blood came upon her on the day of the ritual, so that she was able to be initiated that night with her own menstrual blood, a special circumstance that was associated with heightened powers of clairvoyance; but Adriana’s first blood came upon her a month later, at the time of May Night, and marked her for leadership.
   Lysbette and Adriana married on the same day, Lysbette to Lambert Ruebins and Adriana to Ghildolf Breydel. Lysbette and Lambert named their only son Swandyn Ruebins, and it is through him (and specifically through the lineage of his twin sons Jacob and Jaspar) that present-day Vardysts of Ghent claim direct descent from Antonette Swandyn and hence from Sybille de Béthune (van Gryspeere, 2001).
   Ghildolf Breydel came from a family of devout Catholics, and Adriana married him against her mother Antonette’s strict orders. They had a son Matthys and a daughter Christina. Breydel sent his daughter to live with relatives in Brussels in order to separate her from her mother’s and especially her grandmother’s teachings and influence, causing disharmony between himself and Adriana that was never reconciled. Matthys Breydel took holy orders and was later believed to have denounced members of his own family to the Inquisition, leading to the execution of his aunt Lysbette in 1412 and his grandmother Antonette (then 72) in 1415. His mother Adriana died in prison in 1416. Matthys later became the Bishop of Ypres.
Ysabella (1344–1435)  Ysabella Swandyn was a free spirit who never married, although she had many lovers from whom she learned various crafts, including Jan the silversmith and Marten the leathercrafter, whose bynames are not known. Thanks to her grandmother’s tutelage, she was also literate, a rare accomplishment for her time, and kept a series of secret illustrated journals from which much of our knowledge of the family is derived. The journals were well hidden in sealed vessels beneath the earthen cellar floor of the Swandyn home in Bruges, where she lived with her parents and remained after their deaths, and lay intact and undiscovered until the house was razed in 1887.
   Her firm, round, regular script expresses both confidence and joie de vivre, as well as the artistic talents that she put to such extensive use in her magical practice.
   There is some reason to believe (Rudnick, 1947) that the Flemish painter Breughel was descended from Ysabella’s bastard son Lenard, known as Lenard DeWitt (Lenard the white, or the pale, for his pale blond hair and whiteness of complexion).
Margriet (1347–1378)  The least known of the Swandyn sisters, Margriet had no interest in letters and less in the exercise of power, but was known from infancy for her affinity with animals. From housecats to stray dogs, from wild birds to domestic sheep, and even small creatures such as lizards and mice, animals seemed to sense in Margriet a kindred spirit. A tame bat dubbed Netta, named for the guardian familiar of the Vardysts, rode around on her shoulder, clinging to her garment during the daytime while it slept, and served as a model for many of Ysabella’s bat drawings.
  Margriet also kept and handled the doves used in an obscure ritual known as “clapping the dove” (de duiven klatsen), whose actual nature and purpose are not known.
   Margriet married Jan Zandvliete, son of the harbormaster of Bruges. Her first two children did not survive infancy. Her son Gherard went to sea as a ship’s boy at the age of 14. Margriet died at age 30 giving birth to a stillborn daughter.
Kateryne (1350–1430)  The most personable and outgoing and certainly the prettiest of the sisters, to judge from Ysabella’s drawings, was the youngest, Kateryne. Gifted with healing arts and a peacemaker by nature, Kateryne seemed immune to distinctions of social class. She was respectful of authority but not submissive to it. Her skill as a healer caused her to be summoned to aid the ill and injured of all social classes, and consequently her influence was instrumental in breaking down class lines and reaching across the established social barriers of her time and place (Rudnick, 1947). Her personal charm was her best ally in transcending social boundaries and won her a loyal circle of friends, admirers, and disciples. Paulette de Clerck, later a special appointee as chemist to the French court, was Kateryne’s protégée.
   Much courted, Kateryne was slow to marry. At 28, she accepted the proposal of Victor Vardyc, an up-and-coming textile broker two years her junior who was soon to inherit his father’s lucrative business. His money and position afforded her ample means to pursue her work, especially with the poorer classes, and to found a school that became known as the Vardyst school. Here, assisted by various members of her family at different times, she taught a mixture of Vardyst magic and practical arts and crafts.
   Kateryne and Victor Vardyc were the parents of six children. Their two daughters, Ysabella and Sybille, were born a year apart, married a year apart, and were widowed a year apart. They both lived into their eighties, keeping house together and continuing their mother’s teaching work. It is through the wide and enduring influence of Kateryne Vardyc and her daughters that the Vardyst cult reached its fullest flower in Flanders.
 
Beliefs
    Little is known about the actual belief system of the Vardysts, although it is thought to be largely consistent with other earth-based goddess religions from ancient times to the present. Ravichandran (in press) holds that they did not actually worship anyone or anything as such, but followed a spiritual practice that is in some respects similar to Zen Buddhism.
    There is evidence that they recognized a Lord of Night and a Lord of Day, at least in a symbolic and metaphorical sense, reflecting the influence of the Manichaean heresy of the Cathars, and that they held the moon (often represented as a woman) in special regard. Their regular ceremonial gatherings took place under the crescent moon, the second day after the new moon.
    The Vardysts were feminists but not misandrists (man-haters), believing that men and women were profoundly different but absolutely equal. Indeed, many took the view that men, typically being deprived of the sixth or intuitive sense, came under the special psychic protection of women, as women customarily came under the physical and economic protection of men. They also recognized without undue attention or judgment that some men are more like women and some women are more like men; where lesbianism existed among Vardysts, it would have passed without comment. It was typical of their beliefs not to adopt any prescriptive universals that could be shaken by the first contrary instance.

 

The Vardyst Arts
   The magical practice of the Vardysts, as Sybille learned it in 1309 from Ermessenda and Rixenda of Béthune, had much in common with other arcane arts of the day, all of which were considered black magic and devil worship by the agents of the Inquisition. It made use of spells and incantations to wield power at a distance; used herbs and potions to perform healing and exert various influences upon others close at hand; foretold future events through divination; and summoned spirits of the dead to reveal knowledge and perform services. In all cases the acts were understood to be extensions of the will through the agency of the mind, enhanced and directed but not caused by the use of material aids and ritual utterances.
   Vardyst magic was a practice exclusively of the female sex and made frequent use of menstrual blood in its rituals because it was believed to have extraordinary power. It was unusual in that it incorporated a number of features of Eastern mysticism, including meditation on certain colors and symbols, to focus the mind of the practitioner and enhance its strength.
   Divination for the Vardysts was accomplished not through material devices such as crystal balls, tea leaves, or animal sacrifice but through visions seen in meditation. Vardysts used symbolic images and colors as objects of meditation in order to enable them to reach high levels of intense concentration that brought on hallucinations. Through the systematic interpretation of those hallucinations, they were able to predict outcomes and foretell the success or failure of proposed ventures.
   Similarly, necromancy was practiced as a group meditative ritual in which the dead were called forth to manifest in shapes of smoke within a magic circle.
   It is not known how the oriental influence came to play a part in the Vardyst system of thought. The last name of the two sisters of Béthune has not been discovered, and attempts to trace their origins have resulted in numerous theories (Maury, 1966) but no verifiable facts. However, the bustling Flemish seaports of the Middle Ages gave passage to traffic of every kind, including traffic in ideas, superstitions, and beliefs.
   Although there is no record of their use of drugs to enhance the hallucinatory effects, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility; Anjali Ravichandran is currently studying some new data that may shed light on this question.

 
The Hand of Power

   The distinguishing characteristic of the Vardysts was seen in the left hand. The tip of the middle finger was amputated with a cleaver to make the length of the finger level with the ring finger beside it. The operation was performed in an elaborate purifying and empowering ceremony before an invited group of Vardysts who both bore witness and contributed a concentration of their spiritual effluent to form the core of power vested in the newly anointed one.

Kateryne Vardyc

   A Vardyst typically wore a sheath of supple leather on her left hand, something like a glove for the middle three fingers, with a tapered strip attaching to a lacing around the wrist. Embedded in the covering for the middle finger was a small plug of silver sized to fit over the severed fingertip and bring it out to its normal length. This prosthetic fingertip was believed to act as a barrier against accidental release of power from the finger in the course of everyday activity.

   In performing her magical acts, the Vardyst uncovered her left hand and extended her ring finger and matching middle finger, held tightly together, in the direction of the spell she was casting while pronouncing the enabling incantation; in other words, she used it directionally as one might a wand. Indeed, some Vardysts favored the use of a wand in the right hand when they cast a spell or enchantment, but it was just for show; the real power came from the left hand.

   Some Vardysts were believed to use a wooden rather than a silver plug within the sheath so that they could release their power in an instant without removing the sheath. Some had a sheath specially made with a catch that could be opened with a flick of the thumb to expose the cut tip of the middle finger. All the sheaths and other leatherwork were made to the designs of Ysabella Swandyn, and many featured an embossed tryxet either alone or in combination with other symbolic elements such as a bat.
Modern-day leather sheath
   Vardyst practitioners of today no longer perform the ritual of severing the finger, never a safe practice even under the best of conditions. At least one Vardyst initiate in the Swandyns’ day bled to death when the initiate flinched violently at the last instant and the cleaver misstruck. Instead, in our time, when appearance is considered as good as reality, practitioners submit to a rather painful process of tattooing the middle fingertip of the left hand with a red crescent. For ritual purposes they still wear a leather sheath, but one that comes with built-in leather stubs on the index and ring fingertips to extend the fingers and create the illusion that the three middle fingers are equal in length.
 
Symbols and Accoutrements
Tryxet
The Tryxet  The principal symbol of the Vardysts is the tryxet. It consists in an arrangement of three crescents: two identical in size and orientation placed one above the other and both open to the left, and a third, the same size or slightly smaller, positioned at the vertical midpoint and open to the right. Sometimes these are seen as circles, and sometimes they are more ovoid in form. Ornamentally the tips of the crescents may be elongated and even drawn out into a reverse curve, tapering outward rather than inward at the tips. In some instances they are not vertically symmetrical: the lower curve of the crescent may extend outward slightly farther than the upper. The relative placement remains constant, however: the two on the left are exactly alike in size and shape and stacked on the same vertical axis, and the one on the right is centered vertically on the horizontal axis between the two.
Tryxet minor

   When the crescent on the right is represented as slightly smaller than the two on the left—smaller by as much as 25 percent—the symbol is known as the tryxet minor.

   The significance of the tryxet has been a matter of much speculation. Some scholars and historians have associated it with the moon, some have viewed it as sexual imagery, and some have regarded it as a broken trinity in recognition of its roots in the Cathar heresy against Catholicism; see, for example, Chastain (1942), Balberghe (1955). The most persuasive arguments have represented it as a derivative of the om (aum) character of ancient Sanskrit, still held sacred today in Hindu religions and their offspring (Rudnick, 1947; Ravichandran, in press).

Aum

   Walter S. de Groot (1998) believes that it may have been all of the above, by adoption if not by intent, but that its true symbolic meaning is very much more obscure and not likely to be arrived at by scholarly guesswork. The key, he contends, is to be found in a certain pen and ink drawing of Ysabella Swandyn known as May Night (de Meiennacht), which, for security reasons, is kept in a private archive accessible only to scholars. It is currently undergoing minute study by a doctoral student at the University of Antwerp.

   The tryxet was rendered in wood or painted on parchment as an object of meditation, carved into smooth pebbles and semiprecious stones such as jasper as a talisman, tooled or embossed in leather garments, and fashioned into ornaments worn as pendants by the adepts, silver for those of highest rank and pewter for those of lesser standing. It is believed that Ysabella Swandyn herself wrought the silver emblems, and particularly the celebrated Tryxet Minor of Aardenburg, one of the finest examples of its kind.

Jewelry and Stones with Special Properties  Silver jewelry was prized by the Vardysts, and many wore silver rings on the middle finger of their left hand to enhance the potency of spells cast with that hand. The exposed and truncated fingertip was the bodily channel for the will of the focused mind. Because silver was believed to pose a material obstruction to the physical expression of the mental force, when encircling the finger it acted to compress the action of the spell and accelerate its effect, much as the nozzle of a hose increases the velocity of water (and hence the force of impact) by decreasing the opening through which the stream passes.
   Silver rings set with semiprecious stones for which the user had a special affinity, especially in association with her dominant skills, were the most valuable possessions of the adept.
   Of special virtue were amethyst, lapis lazuli, malachite, jasper, and topaz, each of which was thought to have special properties when used in the right combination and to the right purpose by the practitioner. It was not unusual for Vardysts to believe that they suffered adverse physical consequences of improperly mixing stones and spells, and so enhancement of power by such means was most wisely left to the highest adepts. One woman by the name of Magdalena, mentioned in the journal of Ysabella Swandyn, suffered excruciating nighttime headaches for many years before giving up her attempts to incorporate various stones, and red jasper in particular for its sexual affinity, into her binding spells.

   The tryxet appeared not only in pendants and rings but also in buckles and fastenings for leather undergarments. Ysabella Swandyn oversaw the creation of many items of jewelry, and her designs continued in use long after her death. Those few items of her original silvercraft still extant are worth a fortune to collectors. At least two are known to be in the hands of contemporary practitioners in Ghent and are not for sale.

Leather Garments  Another unusual feature of Vardyst practice was the use of leather garments worn as armor under the clothing. The surface of the leather was embossed with symbols and designs, most notably the tryxet, intended to protect the wearer not only against adverse magical influences but most especially against the depredations of the Inquisition. Likewise, metal insets and fasteners of silver or pewter warded off antagonistic forces.
   Some of the black leather garments favored today by bondage fetishists are direct descendants of magical body armor designed by Ysabella Swandyn.
Netta  The creature most sacred to the Vardysts was the bat, revered for its ambiguous place in the animal world as well as for its navigational powers and its life of the night.
   The emblematic bat of the Vardysts was known as Netta. Some (de Groot, 1998) have heard in this name an echo of Antonette, honoring one of the cult’s early principals; however, Ysabella’s journal refers to her sister familiarly as Teuntje. But Rudnick (1947) asserts its origin in the Sanskrit expression neti neti, “not this, not that,” expressive of a concept in the practice of Hindu yogis that dismisses limiting thoughts rooted in the senses.
   To the Vardysts, the bat stood for a refusal to be confined by conventional classifications and hence for freedom from the yoke of medieval womanhood.
   The bat motif is second only to the tryxet in frequency of use as symbolic art for the Vardysts.

 
Modern-Day Vardyst Practice
  The scattering of Vardyst practitioners who remain today shun publicity and prefer to remain well beyond the boundaries of public awareness. None would give consent to be named in this article or even quoted anonymously. But an interested few manage to seek them out, and they do still continue to initiate new followers. The highest concentrations are in the Belgian cities of Ghent and Bruges, with the third-largest active group being based in the San Francisco Bay area. 
  At least one member of the U.S. House of Representatives who is of Flemish ancestry has a Vardyst practitioner in his family tree (van Gryspeere, 2001).
Permanent marking of the fingertip symbolizes amputation
  Those knowledgeable enough to recognize a Vardyst by the red fingertip tattoo should use absolute discretion in approaching the person with any sort of inquiry and are better advised to give no sign of noticing it. Vardysts still consider themselves to possess highly potent skills and do not hesitate to use them to discourage unwanted attentions.
 

*For detailed genealogical information, click here.

 

References

Balberghe, Victoria E. “Image and Symbol in the Vardyst Papers of Bruges.” Medieval Studies Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 2, Winter 1955.

Chastain, Edgar W. “Heretic Heritage: Spiritual Descendants of the Cathars of France.” Medieval Studies Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Summer 1943.

de Groot, Walter S., Sybille: The Mystical Legacy of Sybille de Béthune. Boston: Mount Wollaston University Press, 1998.

van Gryspeere, Jan P. In the Blood: Modern Heirs of the Ancient Craft. London: Petermans, 2001.

Maury, Michel. A Trail of Fiction: The Many Journeys of Sybille Benet [Une piste d'histoires: les nombreux trajets de Sybille Benet]. Trans. Aubergine de Marche. Caen, France: Presses Universitaires de Caen, 1966.

Ravichandran, Anjali. “Eastern Influences on the Vardyst Cult” (in press).

Rudnick, Jane Z. Healer of Bruges: Kateryne Swandyn and the Vardyst Witches. New York: Doubleday, 1947.


Copyright © 2004 Meredy Amyx. Posted November 28, 2004.


 

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