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Dogs of God! Christian Werewolves? March 21, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


This is one of those rare times in the early modern witch craze where one feels sorry for the judges.  I mean they turn up at Jurgensburg in Livonia on the Baltic expecting an easy burning: old man widely thought to be a witch hauled up in front of them (though on another charge) and they get excited when he begins to describe how he turns into a wolf… Then, bang, instead of the devil he comes up with the following elaborate fantasy (Carlo Ginzburg, who we quote from here, would have said pre Christian system).

In 1692 at Jurgensburg in Livonia an eighty-year-old man named Thiess, whom the townsmen considered an idolater, confessed to the judges interrogating him that he was a werewolf. Three times a year, he said, on St Lucy’s Night before Christmas, the night of St John, and of the Pentecost, the werewolves of Livonia go into hell, ‘at the end of the sea’ (he later corrected hiself: ‘underground), to fight with the devil and the sorcerers. Women also fight with the werewolves: but not young girls. The German werewolves go to a separate hell. Similar to dogs (they are the dogs of God, Thiess said), and armed with iron whips, the werewolves pursue the devil and sorcerers, who are armed with broomsticks wrapped in horse tails. Many years before, Thiess explained, a sorcerer (a peasant named Skeistan, now dead) had broken his nose. At stake in the battles was the fertility of the fields: the sorcerers steal the shoots of the grain, and if they cannot be wrested from there will be famine. However, that year the Livonian and the Russian werewolves had both won. The harvest of barley and of rye was going to be abundant. There was also going to be enough fish for everyone. In vain the judges tried to induce the old man to admit that he had made a pact with the devil. Thiess obstinately continued to repeat that the worst enemies of the devil and the sorcerers were werewolves like himself: after death, they would go to paradise.

He got a few whips lashes and then got back to defending the local crops from sorcerers and generally being a Dog of God. Thiess perhaps belongs in our fairy witch series, but our werewolves fairies? He just doesn’t give satisfaction or perhaps rather he gives a little too much. What the hell was happening here? Ginzburg claims that Thiess was part of an ancient fertility cult. He might just be right. For parallels and scepticism there is a superlative wikipedia page on Theiss. Other weird witches: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


6 May 2013: The Count writes in with ‘Some reflections on recent topics [most touching though on issues from this post]. You’ll probably have guessed that I’m less of a Murrayite than you are, even though you’re at the lukewarm end of the scale. I personally think that the similarity between the religious and mythical behaviors of ethnic groups who can’t possibly have influenced each other – for example, Australian Aborigines and the Inuit – conclusively demonstrates that, to paraphrase a term from theoretical physics, the Weak Archetypal Principle is self-evidently true, but the Strong Archetypal Principle was just Jung getting ridiculously carried away. The WAP basically states that, since all human brains are hardwired in the same way, so all cultures have surprisingly similar legends and beliefs. The relevance here is that Ginsburg’s argument that the ravings of Theiss the Holy Latvian Werewolf and their similarity with the claims of the Benandanti show that they were both influenced by some all-embracing pagan cult with influence across Europe. Before we proceed any further, here’s something to think about: On one out-of-the-body trip to Mars, he found that a sentient asteroid ‘the size of the British Isles’ was attacking the Martian space fleet. When the Martians’ own military efforts failed, King himself – who else – led a final ‘death or glory’ assault that defeated the object with what he called ‘a weapon of love’. That’s a description of a typical day in the life of George King, a strange man who in 1955 founded the Aetherius Society, a failed religion (well, it still exists, but at last count there were reckoned to be about 650 members worldwide – the Pope isn’t exactly shaking in his little red shoes! Incidentally, if he clicks his heels three times and says “There’s no place like home”, will he be teleported to Kansas?) based on various other religions plus a hefty dose of 1950s “Space Brother”-type UFO flapdoodle. Do I need to point out the similarity between this and the kind of thing the aforementioned characters claimed to get up to? George King was of course an attention-seeking fantasist who throughout his life collected an increasingly grandiose array of extremely dodgy titles, up to and including “Prince”, though unfortunately not “King”. Theiss was clearly a similar type of person. His initial claim to be a shape-changing warrior of God came about when, having summoned a neighbor before the magistrate for allegedly breaking his nose – a very banal accusation which, his nose being indubitably broken, was probably true – he got carried away and claimed that the incident occurred in Hell when they were both transformed into mythical creatures. It’s not clear who won the case, but it seems to have been laughed out of court. One point of interest is that, although technically Theiss accused the nose-breaking assailant of being a magician in the service of Satan – that is, a witch – no charges of witchcraft seem to have been brought against anybody. Indeed, it made Theiss more popular with the locals, probably because it was the funniest thing that had happened in ages.Ten years later, he was in court again. You wrongly state that the judges were in town to try Theiss as a witch. Actually they were summoned to try a man accused of robbing a church – a very serious but not remotely supernatural crime. Theiss wasn’t accused of anything, but merely called as a witness. Though given his record of attention-seeking fantasy, it’s anybody’s guess whether he actually saw the crime. He certainly doesn’t appear to have made the slightest attempt to give evidence about it, instead launching into a presumably compulsive and certainly irrelevant rehash of his moment of glory a decade before.Of course, he went too far, and it was his undoing. You state – also wrongly – that he got off with a whipping. Yes, he was indeed flogged, and then banished for life. Since he was an 80-year-old mentally unstable pauper who would inevitably be stigmatized as an outsider with a shady past by whichever community he ended up in, it might have been kinder to hang him. Note how the judges never for one moment believed his werewolf yarns. He claimed that a whole pack of these improbable lycanthropes secretly existed, yet absolutely no investigation of this mysterious cult was made, despite the judges obviously having it in their power to do so.Specifically, when Theiss initially said that he’d gotten his werewolf skin from a certain farmer, but when asked for the man’s name, he changed his story, the court didn’t bother to press the point because they understood that Theiss wasn’t trying to cover for anybody, he was just telling a whopping and very muddled lie. And they did take the trouble to find out whether Theiss was sane enough to know what he was saying before punishing him. But it wasn’t actual witchcraft that got him whipped and banished – it was a vague charge of turning people away from God. Theiss was a “cunning man” who claimed to be able to cure various ills in people and cattle by chanting the usual scraps of doggerel. Unfortunately for him, he neglected to include any references to God in his incantations, and furthermore, he couldn’t even be bothered to go to church for the feeblest of reasons. Cunning folk nearly always made sure that they couldn’t be accused of witchcraft (though in really tough anti-witch countries like Scotland, it didn’t always work) by including a Christian element in their magic – God and/or a saint or two would be mentioned in their invocations, and herbal nostrums usually had to be drunk in conjunction with a brief but impeccably Christian prayer. Theiss either forgot to do this, or had such a huge ego that he didn’t see why he shouldn’t get full credit for his “miracles”. About 4% of the population are fantasy-prone. That’s quite a lot! Most of them are of course just “day dream believers” straight out of the song, and there’s no harm in being a but dreamy. Combined with some other unfortunate personality trait such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (which affects 1% of the population, so you’d expect one person in 250 to have both), what you end up with is somebody who not only tends to believe unlikely things about themselves and the world in general, but can’t stop going on about how special they are, and will act like spoiled children if anybody doubts their unique talents. Every paranormal research club, no matter how small, has at least one petulant, immature “psychic” (who is usually at least 40, by the way) who can see and talk to spirits, human and otherwise, and aliens too if that’s what the club’s into. She (or he, but the great majority seem to be women) nearly always has some sort of “healing” power, which nowadays, what with the possible legal ramifications, is often some kind of “psychic counseling” or hypnotherapy rather than actually telling you that they can make physical ailments go away by magic. And they quite often get up to the most extraordinary things on the Astral Plane, or have amazing powers which they could show you any time but for some reason they don’t feel like demonstrating right now.See also the peculiar and short-lived 1980s Fortean phenomenon of “psychic questing”, whereby attention-seeking fantasists claimed to be using their amazing psychic powers to battle vast occult conspiracies, and proved it by discovering suspiciously cheap antiques they had obviously planted themselves, simply to get a handful of extremely gullible authors – but mostly Andrew Collins (there are several writers of that name, but you’ll definitely know which one I mean) to write books saying how amazing they were.Anyway, moving on to the Benandanti, one thing that strikes me is that there don’t appear to have ever been very many of them, and they all popped up in roughly the same place at roughly the same time. Could this simply have been a very small cult – probably small enough to fit in one room – inspired by one fantasy-prone but charismatic person? Somebody like Theiss, but probably smarter and less confused, and quite possibly absolutely sincere. But why the similarities? Simple! We don’t even need to invoke the Weak Archetypal Principle here! Consider the Twilight franchise, and the Blade franchise, and other peculiar developments vampire fiction has taken in recent times. People kind of like the idea of vampires – well, they do since Polidori, and later, Bram Stoker turned them from ravening, slightly putrid zombies into suave aristocrats who happened not to be alive.Incidentally, the best fictional account of the classic pre-Dracula European vampire is a short story by Gogol called The Vij. I can’t send you a pdf because the copyright situation is very complicated – apparently all the rights have been bought by Robert Englund, who has been trying to get a film made of it – naturally starring himself – for donkey’s years. Anyway, it’s Gogol, so I’m sure you can find it. However, it has already been filmed, as the final and by far the best segment of Mario Bava’s portmanteau horror movie Black Sabbath, starring Boris Karloff just before he started getting too infirm to give a really good performance; worth a look if you haven’t seen it before – Boris is the creepiest vampire ever, except of course for the unsurpassable Max Shreck in Nosferatu).Anyway – vampires: having cool superpowers and stuff is obviously good. But being a cadaverous leech with no soul reanimated by Satan? Not so good… Solution? Invent some new kind of pretend vampire that has all the good qualities, but only the merest token smattering of the bad ones. Let’s apply that to witches. Shape-changing? Flight? Going to secret midnight feasts where you could have a high old time? Sounds pretty good! But that whole “being in league with Satan” thing – no, maybe not… Both Theiss and the Benandanti were precursors of J. K. Rowling. Back then, witches were the obvious template if you wanted to fantasize about having superpowers. Theiss and the Benandanti claimed to have all the powers a witch could have that could possibly be thought of as beneficial, or at least harmless if a bit weird. But they have the exact opposite of any witchy qualities that are unequivocally a no-no. Serving the Devil? No, of course not – in their own very special way, they serve God. Harming people and livestock? Theiss cures them. Destroying crops? That was the biggie! The very worst thing witches were alleged to do was to destroy crops, which, if they did it thoroughly enough, could condemn untold thousands to death by starvation. But these “witches” not only refrain from doing that, they fight the bad witches to stop them ruining the harvest, thus saving all those ordinary mortals who never even knew they were in peril! Basically, they’re the X-Men. Also, it’s a perfect algorithmic conversion of “bad witch” into “good witch”, with everything morally neural left alone, and everything bad precisely inverted. Note also that, because salt is present in holy water, rejection of their baptism leaves witches – the bad, nasty kind of witches – with an aversion to it. Sabbat feasts, in addition to being generally disgusting, were often unsalted (salt also destroyed Haitian zombies for the same reason). Which is almost certainly why Theiss made a point of telling the judges that the holy werewolves liked their roast meat salted. One final point which the Murrayite camp have as yet to satisfactorily explain (I’m not rabidly anti-Murrayite, I just can’t resist this nice bit of logic). The Benandanti and Theiss are both supposed to be devotees of a pre-Christian pan-European cult of good, eco-friendly, nice pagan witches. Everyone except Montague Summers agrees that the bad, nasty, pointlessly horrible Satanic witches were nothing but a figment of the rabid imagination of misogynist inquisitors who should have got out more. Yet apparently the good, real witches believe in the bad, made-up witches so sincerely that they believe they’re at war with them…’ Thanks Count, I’ll return to this theme.