Monday, 2 July 2012

Vampires, Werewolves & the Metaphysics of Lycanthropy

(A Chapter from Troublesome Corpses by David Keyworth)

According to the historiographical sources, a pronounced antipathy existed between canines and revenants, the aforementioned revenant that roamed twelfth-century Berwick on the Scottish border, for example, was described as being constantly pursued by a pack of barking dogs.  And after their unsuccessful attempt to stake the undead shepherd of fourteenth-century Blow, Bohemia, the revenant thanked the villagers for such a fine stick to drive away the dogs that continually harassed him.  Similarly, Cuntius the sixteenth-century spectrum was always accompanied by the unusual barking and howling of the village dogs and would supposedly catch them in the street and bash their brains out.  In a Romanian folktale, for instance, a young man returning from military service entered a village one night and seeing a house with a light on, went inside to seek lodging.  But the house was empty, except for a table with a corpse lying upon it.  Nonetheless, he decided to stay for the night and climbed into the loft to sleep.  But at eleven o’clock, a huge dog rushed into the house and attacked the corpse, which rose up from the table and began to wrestle with its attacker.  At midnight, however, the dog departed and the revenant lay back upon the table.  Inquiring into the matter the next morning, the young man was simply told that the deceased was so evil that nobody wanted to watch over the corpse before burial as per the usual custom, and that the events that transpired simply confirmed the evil nature of the deceased.

Wolves in particular took a special dislike to vampires.  According to the Serbian Gypsies, for example, even though horses could sense a vampire and dogs warn of a vampire’s approach and thereby hamper its movement, only a wolf was strong enough to rip apart and devour a vampire, leaving nothing behind but a bloody mess, given that the Gypsy vampire (mullo) lacked a skeleton and was little more than a bag of blood and ‘jelly’.  Similarly, in Greece, once villagers had identified the grave of a vrykolakas, the image of a wolf would be traced on the outer wall of the local church, and then earth from the grave of that vrykolakas strewn all the way to the image of the wolf, so that a wolf might seek out and eat the vrykolakas.  By extension, werewolves were also antagonistic towards vampires, and in places like Istria and Slovenia, individuals born with a caul (s. kresnik) would engage in nightly shamanic battles at certain times of the year, sending their spirit forth in the semi-corporeal form of wolves and other animals, in order to combat vampires, witches and other evil beings that threatened the fecundity of the crops and welfare of the community.  Furthermore, Romanian gypsies believed that cemeteries were often inhabited by white wolves, which fulfilled a similar function:

Some Rumanian gypsies believe that many cemeteries are occupied by white wolves.  It is only because of the vigilance and visciousness of these wolves in discovering and destroying the vampires in these cemeteries that living men are kept safe from a complete takeover of the world of the living by the world of the dead.

Despite the apparent enmity between vampires and wolves/werewolves, there were also similarities.  In Greek folklore, a werewolf was thought likely to become a revenant after death, and so too whoever ate the flesh of a sheep killed by wolves.  Similarly, in some Slavic countries, a vampire could reputedly be killed with a silver bullet that had been blessed by a priest, akin to that of the traditional werewolf.  While in Ukrainian folklore, not only werewolves but revenants were affected by the moon in that a corpse left outside would be revived by the action of the moonbeams, which would explain why Ukrainian vampires were supposedly most active during the full moon.  And in nineteenth-century Serbia and Herzegovina, as evidenced by the following extract from Les Slaves de Turquie, Serbes, Montenegrins, Bosniaques, Albanais et Bulgares (1844), vampires and werewolves had merged to become one and the same, at least in the popular imagination:

The people of Servia [Serbia] and Herzegovina have preserved more than one dark tradition of unhappy souls who after death are condemned to wander hither and thither over the earth to expiate their sins, or who live a horrid life in death in the tomb as voukodlaks or vampires.  The voukodlak (literally loup-garou, werewolf) sleeps in his grave with open staring eyes; his nails and hair grow to an excessive length, the warm blood pulses in his veins.  When the moon is at her full he issues forth to run his course, to suck the blood of living men by biting deep into their dorsal vein.  When a dead man is suspected of leaving his place of sepulchre thus, the corpse is solemnly exhumed; if it be in a state of putrefaction and decay sufficient for the priest to sprinkle it with holy water; if it be ruddy and fresh-complexioned it is exorcised, and placed in the earth again, where before it is covered a sharp stake is thrust through the carcass lest it stir forth once more … In Thessaly, in Epirus, and among the Vlachi of the Pindus district the country-folk believe in another kind of vampire, one which their fathers also well know in days of old.  These vampires are living men who in a kind of somnambulistic trance are seized by a thirst for blood and prowl forth at night from their poor shepherd’s huts to scour the whole countryside, biting and fiercely tearing with their teeth all whom they meet, man or beast … [and] are especially eager to quaff the hot blood of young girls …

Unlike the victims of a vampire who inevitably became vampires in turn, those wounded by a werewolf generally did not become a werewolf as a result, despite that depicted in horror movies and the like.  Indeed, there were numerous mundane ways to become a werewolf, ranging from eating the brain of a wolf or the flesh of an animal killed by wolves, wearing a certain white flower that grew in the Balkans, or even drinking from certain streams in the Harz Mountains, although the results of such methods could be unpredictable and even uncontrollable.  Becoming a werewolf, however, could result from undertaking a particular magical ceremony.  This deliberate act required the initiate to draw a magic circle and place at its centre a boiling cauldron of specified herbs that included hemlock, opium and other ingredients.  After an incantation is recited over the cauldron, the initiate then smeared his/her body with an unguent of animal fat mixed with similar herbs, and then fastened a wolf-skin about his waist and then await the imminent arrival of an unnamed, demonic spirit that would possess the initiate and transform him into a wolf. 

In premodern France and Germany, nearly all the persons accused of lycanthropy admitted at their subsequent capture and trial that they belonged to a secret fraternity or brotherhood of werewolves, akin to the so-called witch-cult at the time, and had chose to become a werewolf through a pact with the Devil.  In his Demonomanie des Sorciers [On the Demon-Mania of Witches], Jean Bodin, a late sixteenth-century French jurist and demonologist, tells us that Pierre Bourgot, burnt at the stake at Poligny in 1521 for being a werewolf, confessed to the slaughter and cannibalism of numerous children, and even to copulation with real wolves while in the guise of a werewolf.  Accordingly, he had sworn allegiance to the Devil and attended a sabbat where he had been given a salve to smear over his naked body, which would transform him into a werewolf, although the effects of the salve only lasted for a short period of time. On one occasion, Bourgot had fallen upon a young boy to devour him when he suddenly began to revert to human form and was obliged to retreat to nearby bushes where he had hidden his clothes, and smear himself again with the salve in order to recover his wolf form and escape. 

Accordingly, the werewolf form superimposed itself upon the human frame, like donning a suit of clothes.  In the thirteenth-century Saga of the Volsungs, for example, two outlaws, Sigmund and Sinfjotli, broke into a house in the forest and found a pair of wolf-skins hanging on the wall, and decided to try them on.  The wolf-skins, however, were enchanted and once donned could not be removed until an obligatory ten days had passed.  Subsequently, Sigmund and Sinfjotli became fearsome werewolves and roamed the forest seeking prey, and although Sigmund warned Sinfjotli not to attack any more than seven men at once, and to howl for him if he needed help, Sinfjotli stumbled upon a group of eleven men and slew them all but was badly wounded as a result.  When Sigmund later came upon Sinfjotli, he was so furious with his recklessness that he attacked Sinfjotli and tore out his throat.  Nonetheless, Sigmund miraculously healed him with a particular magical herb he had found and once ten days had passed, the pair removed the wolf-skins and burnt them lest someone else meet the same misfortune.

The most oft-quoted example of a so-called werewolf is that of Peter Stubbe, who lived in late sixteenth-century Germany and for twenty-five years, reportedly killed and mutilated dozens of people, in the form of a fearsome wolf.  According to a pamphlet entitled A True Discourse: Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of one Stubbe Peeter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer who in the Likeness of a Woolfe, Committed many Murders (1590), Stubbe was an evil sorcerer who confessed to have received a magical girdle from the Devil that, when tied around his waist, transformed him into a werewolf.  Subsequently, livestock were killed and mutilated, women raped and butchered, pregnant mothers had their babies ripped from the womb, and many victims were found to have been cannibalized.  Stubbe even killed his own son and ate his brains.  Eventually, though, a group of hunters tracked down the so-called werewolf and had almost trapped the beast when Stubbe removed his girdle, reverted to human form and pretended to be a simple traveller upon his way.  The hunters, however, became suspicious and took Stubbe to the authorities for further interrogation.  And having confessing his crimes, Stubbe was sentenced to having the flesh torn from his body with red-hot pincers, and his limbs smashed with a hammer, and then decapitated and cremated. 

Hence, vampires and werewolves were entirely different folkloric beings, even though a vampire might be able to take on canine form.  Whereas the vampire was an undead-corpse that wandered about and consumed the blood of the living, the latter was a living individual who transformed into a fearsome wolf, and in that guise, mutilated and cannibalized his victims

Given that revenants like the spectrums of sixteenth-century Silesia were supposedly able to metamorphose into various types of animal, at least in the popular imagination, it is worthwhile to examine the actual mechanics of lycanthropy, and explore what this can tell us about the bodily transformation of so-called undead-corpses.  During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, however, opinion on the matter of lycanthropy differed immensely.  Johann Weyer, a Protestant physician, portrayed werewolves in his De Praestigiis Daemonum (1563) as delusional individuals with a mental disease that could be cured by the appropriate medical intervention, be it the letting of blood or dietary change:

As a result of sootiness of their black bile, the victims of this disease [i.e. lycanthropy] believe that they have changed into wolves or dogs in their very action.  They are pale and their eyes sunken and dry.  They see but dimly and have a dry tongue and a great thirst, while their mouth lacks saliva.  Their legs are so covered with sores that they cannot be healed – because of frequent injuries and dog bites.  These individuals are cured by the letting of blood … and also by good juicy foods, fresh water baths, buttermilk … and all the other remedies [i.e. herbal concoctions] useful against melancholia.  

Similarly, in his Demonolatry (1595), Nicholas Remy declared that it was absurd and incredible to think that anyone can truly be changed from a man into a wolf.  Nonetheless, demons could so ‘confuse the imagination of a man that he believes himself to be changed and then the man behaves and conducts himself not as a man but as the beast which he fancies himself to be’.  Empowered by demonic agencies, these individuals imitated the preternatural faculties, powers and actions of their chosen beast to such an extent that they acquired fleetness of foot, stupendous strength, ravenous ferocity and other corresponding characteristics far beyond that of human ability.  Alternately, such ‘illusions can be caused extrinsically, when the Demon causes an actual object to assume the apparent shape which suits his purpose, and so deludes a man’s senses into the belief that an object has been changed into a different form [i.e. glamour]’.  The Devil might also manipulate the inner faculties of the witnesses themselves through ‘prestidigitation’ and induced the hallucination of a wolf in the mind of the percipients, as outlined in the Malleus Maleficarum (1484)

… devils can, with God’s permission, enter our bodies; and they can then make impressions on the inner faculties … the Devil can draw out some image retained in a faculty corresponding to one of the senses; as he draws from the memory, which is in the back part of the head, an image of a horse, and locally moves that phantasm to the middle part of the head, where are the cells of imaginative power; and finally to the sense of reason, which is in the front of the head.  And he causes such a sudden change and confusion that such objects are necessarily thought to be actual things seen with the eyes.

By contrast, Casper Peucer in his Commentarius de Praecipibus Generibus Divinationum (1572), argued that although the physical transmutation of man into wolf did not actually take place, at the exact moment of their so-called transformation, they would fall down to the ground in a stupor, during which time, the astral ‘double’ of the so-called werewolf would leave their physical body.  Peucer reported that near Riga, a peasant having supper with his foreman, fell into a deep stupor that the latter recognized as that of a werewolf, and promptly had him incarcerated until he regained his senses.  At his subsequent interrogation, the peasant admitted that he was responsible for a horse found dead the next morning in a neighbouring field, apparently cut in half:

… he confessed that he had pursued a witch [or rather her ‘double’] who was flying around in the shape of a fiery butterfly (for lycanthropes boast that they are hired to drive away witches); to escape him she had hidden under the horse, which was pasturing, and in striking at the witch with a sickle he had cut open the horse.

Similarly, in The Kingdom of Darkness (1688), Richard Burton provides the example of a certain witch who boasted that she could send forth her double in the form of a wolf, and demonstrated her supposed lycanthropy before the magistrate:

… a certain woman being in prison on suspicion of witchcraft, pretending to be able to turn herself into a wolf, the magistrate before whom she was brought promised her that she should not be put to death in case she would then in his presence thus transform herself, which she readily consented to, accordingly she anointed her head, neck and armpits, immediately upon which she fell into a most profound sleep for three hours, after which she suddenly rose up, declaring that she had been turned into a wolf, and had been at a place some miles distant, and there killed first a sheep and then a cow.  The magistrates presently sent to the place and found that first a sheep and then a cow had then been killed.

Such notions are based upon that of St. Augustine’s work, City of God, from the early fifth century, in which he declares that:

… I do not believe, on any consideration, that the body – to say nothing of the soul – can be converted into the limbs and features of animals by the craft or power of demons.  Instead, I believe that a person has a phantom [i.e. double] which in his imagination or in his dreams takes on various forms … This phantom is not a material body, and yet with amazing speed it takes on shapes like material bodies; and it is this phantom, I hold, that can in some inexplicable fashion be presented in bodily form to the apprehension of other people … This means that the actual bodies of the people concerned are lying somewhere else, still alive, to be sure, but with their senses suspended in lethargy far more deep and oppressive than that of sleep.  Meanwhile the phantom may appear to the senses of others as embodied in the likeness of some animal …

Henry Boguet, however, dismissed any such notion that the soul could conveniently leave the body, let alone take on the form of a wolf and attack livestock in the field.  In his Discours des Sorciers (1602), Boguet noted that when the ‘soul is separated from the body, death must necessarily ensue’, given that it is impossible for Satan to bring the body back to life once the soul had departed.  Indeed, the same argument was used by King James in his book, Daemonologie (1597), when it came to the belief that the soul of a witch could leave her body and wander about:

… as to their forme of extasie and spirituall transporting, it is certaine the soules going out of the bodie, is the onely difinition of naturall death: and who are once dead, God forbid wee should thinke that it should lie in the power of all the Devills in Hell, to restore them to their life againe: Although he can put his own spirite in a dead bodie, which the Necromancers commonlie practise, as ye have heard.  For that is the office properly belonging to God; and besides that, the soule once parting from the bodie, cannot wander anie longer in the worlde, but to the owne resting place must it goe immediatelie, abiding the conjunction of the bodie againe, at the latter daie [i.e. the Resurrection].

Boguet argued that the Devil befuddled the senses of particular individuals who subsequently perceived themselves in the shape of a wolf, even though their physical form remained unchanged:

My opinion is that Satan leaves the witch asleep behind a bush, and himself goes and performs that which the witch has in mind to do, giving himself the appearance of a wolf; but that he so confuses the witch’s imagination that he believes that he has really been a wolf and has run about and killed men and beasts … And when it happens that they find themselves wounded, it is Satan who immediately transfers to them the blow which he has received in his assumed body.  Notwithstanding, I maintain that for the most part it is the witch himself who runs about slaying: not that he is metamorphosed into a wolf, but that it appears to him that he is so.  And this comes from the Devil confusing the four humours, of which he is composed, so that he represents whatever he will to his fantasy and imagination.  This will be easier to believe when it is considered that there are natural maladies of such a nature that they cause the sick to believe that they are cocks, or pigs, or oxen.  

Furthermore, Boguet gives various examples in which alleged werewolves had slaughtered their victims with knives and swords, or by strangulation, and undressed children before they killed and ate them, hardly the work of a savage beast.  In fact, many of the werewolf incidents reported at the time can be favourably compared to contemporary serial killers that kill, mutilate and even cannibalize their victims, so much so, that serial killers have even been described as modern-day ‘werewolves’.  

Guazzo also doubted that actual bodily transformation could ever take place, and in his Compendium Maleficarum (1608), noted that ‘no one can doubt but that all the arts and metamorphoses by which witches change men into beasts are deceptive illusions and opposed to all nature … any one who holds the contrary opinion is in danger of anathema’.  Accordingly, the Devil himself would take on the form of a wolf and commit the atrocities attributed to a particular werewolf, and then beguile the individual into thinking that they themselves were responsible for the ensuing bloodshed:

… no one must let himself think that a man can really be changed into a beast, or a beast into a real man; for these are magic portents and illusions, having the form but not the reality of those things which they present to our sight … Sometimes he [the Devil] substitutes another body, while the witches themselves are absent or hidden apart in some secret place, and himself assumes the body of a wolf formed from the air and wrapped about him, and does those actions which men think are done by the wretched absent witch who is asleep ... [and if wounded] the devil wounds her in that part of her absent body corresponding to the wound which he knows to have been received by the beast’s body ...

The Devil could also encase the physical form of a particular individual in a blanket of congealed air, which could be manipulated to create the external appearance of a fearsome wolf:

Sometimes in accordance with his pact, he [the Devil] surrounds a witch with an aerial effigy of a beast, each part of the witch’s body, head to head, mouth to mouth, belly to belly, foot to foot, and arm to arm but this only happens when they use certain ointments and words…and then they leave the footprints of a wolf upon the ground … it is no matter for wonder if they are afterwards found with an actual wound in those parts of their human body where they were wounded when in the appearance of a beast; for the enveloping air easily yields, and the true body receives the wound.

Del Rio provides a similar explanation in his Disquisitiones Magicae (1599), in that:

He puts a person to sleep and while he or she is off in some secret place, he takes the body of a wolf or manufactures one out of air, and wraps himself in it, like a garment.  Consequently, people believe that the things he does are done by the poor wretch who is actually somewhere else, fast asleep.

Furthermore, the outer covering of congealed air could be reshaped into various shapes and forms, even more bizarre or gigantic than the real animal:

… [evil spirits] can surround a real living body with this elemental body so that it seems to be a human body [i.e. take on the appearance of other people], or an animal bigger and more gigantic than the real one.  I see no reason why this cannot be, for the argument that air has the ability to expand and become less solid, or to thicken and become dense is persuasive … [sometimes] he manufactures from air the likeness of an animal, surrounding the magicians with it, and builds the copy round each part of their body, fitting head to head, mouth to mouth, belly to belly, foot to foot, and arm to arm.

Notably, werewolves as such did not feature in the witchcraft trials of early modern England, perhaps because wild wolves had been hunted to extinction by the fourteenth century and did not feature in the local fauna and imagination thereafter.  Reports involving werewolves were largely restricted to central Europe but were on the decline by the end of the seventeenth century, even though wild wolves continued to harass the local populace thereafter.  Nonetheless, in seventeenth-century Scotland, witches like Isobel Gowdie confessed that they could supposedly change themselves into a hare, cat or even a mouse.  Similarly, Julian Cox, indicted for witchcraft in Somerset, 1663, was accused of transforming into a hare to engage in mischief.  Furthermore, William Drage in his Daimonomageia (1665) declared that particular individuals like witches could physically take on whatever zoomorphic form they pleased, be it an insect or a fearsome wolf, and later return to human form:

It would be too tedious here to describe how Witches can thus alter their bodies, or in a manner annihilate them.  This worlde was made of nothing, by Spiritual Power, and may be resolved into nothing again by the same Power; and we can resolve dense Bodies into Air, and coagulate Air into Water; and the Devil [being a spirit] … can do that, that a Spirit can do … Let us not doubt of the Transformation of Witches and how they are sensible in the shapes of Wolves, Cats, Mice, Dogs, Hoggs [Flyes, Bees etc.] … and Copulate with the creatures of the shape they assume, and sometimes eat such meat and devour Children in the shape of Wolves … [and] through Diabolical power given them, to transform and metamorphose any men or women they have power to hurt into what shape they please ... And in the shape of Wolves have divers Witches lacerated in eaten those that they thirsted to be revenged, or those that casually fell into their hands, I should rather say their claws 

Although he thought lycanthropy was an absurdity, elsewhere in his book, Demonolatry (1655), Remy tells us that witches could transform into animals and later revert to human form:

… after they [the witches] had served them for some years, their Demons had given them this power of penetrating into houses, so that they could easily make their way in through the narrowest crack after they had shrunk to the shape of mice or cats or locusts or some other small animal of that sort, according to their needs; and once they were inside they could, if they wished, resume their proper form …

As proof that the body underwent an actual physical transformation, many authors cited what is known as ‘repercussion’.  Once a werewolf had been struck down and suffered the loss of a limb, for example, he would be without that limb once human form had been regained.  In Auvergne, 1588, for example, a huntsman was attacked by a large, ferocious wolf and after a long struggle, managed to cut off its paw and drive it away.  Subsequently, the hunter recounted the incident to the local laird and pulled the paw out of the bag to show him but much to their surprise, the paw had reportedly become a woman’s hand with a ring on it, which the laird recognized as belonging to his own wife, who upon investigation, was found to be missing her hand.  Needless to say, she was subsequently burnt at the stake as a witch.  Likewise, in the village of Thiecourt, a witch developed a hatred for a particular shepherd and would change into a wolf to mercilessly decimate his flocks.  One day, though, the shepherd managed to wound the wolf with his axe and tracked the injured beast to a clump of bushes where he found the witch, nursing the wound she had received in the form of a wolf, and after binding her injuries, handed her over to the authorities for due punishment. 

Henry More, the English Platonist, concurred with this scenario, and in his Antidote against Atheism (1655), argued that the Devil could soften up a physical body and knead it into whatever shape and form he so desired, and afterwards return the body to its original state of being:

For I conceive the Devil gets into their body, and by his subtle substance, more operative and searching than any fire or putrefying liquor, melts the yielding compages [components?] of the body to such a consistency, and so much of it as is fit for his purpose, and makes it pliable to his imagination; and then it is as easy for him to work it into what shape he pleaseth, as it is to work the Aire into such forms and figures as he ordinarily doth.  Nor is it any more difficulty for him to mollify what is hard, than it is to harden what is so soft and fluid as the Aire.

More goes on to say:

The first philosophical objection is against the transformation of a human body into the shape, suppose of a wolf or any such like creature.  For it is conceived that it cannot be done without a great deal of pain to the transformed.  To which I answer, that although this transformation be made in a very short time, yet it may be performed without any pain at all ... So that he may soften all the parts of the body besides into what consistency he please, and work it into any form [that] he can his own vehicle of Aire, and the party not be sensible thereof all the time.  And there is the same reason of reducing the body into its own shape again, which is as painless to the party that suffers it.  Nor is there any fear that the body once loosened thus will ever after be in his loose melting condition: for it is acknowledged even by those that oppose Bodin, whose cause I undertake, that a Spirit can as well stop and fix a body as move it.  Wherefore I say when the Devil has fixed again the body in its pristine shape, it will according to the undeniable laws of nature remain in that state …

More, however, does not discuss what happens to the extra body mass when such transformations takes place, given the obvious difference in size and bulk between a human body and that of a wolf, or even some smaller animal like an insect, nor where the extra body mass comes from when the reversal occurs.  But if we accept that the Devil can rearrange and sculpt living flesh, then the shrinking and compression of solid matter should pose no problem, nor returning condensed matter to its original shape and form.  More also argued that the soul itself could temporarily separate itself from the body while it underwent physical transformation, and then reunite with the body thereafter:

The second objection is against our acknowledging an actual separation of soul and body without death, death being properly, as we define it, a disjunction of the soul from the body by reason of the bodies unfitness any longer to entertain the soul … the answer is easy, That any separation by violence is not death, but such violence in separation as makes the body unfit to entertain the soul again, as it is in letting the blood run by wounding the body, and in hindering the course of the spirits by strangling it, or drowning, it or the like.  For to revive such a body as this, would be a miracle indeed, in such cases as these, death having seized upon the body in a true and proper sense …

Such arguments, however, rely heavily on the concept of Cartesian dualism, a philosophical notion introduced by RenĂ© Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1641.  Descartes argued that a distinct separation exists between the physical body and the mind or what Descartes called ‘soul’, and that the body and mind can exist and function quite independently of each other.  Indeed, More readily admits that Cartesian dualism lent support to his understanding of lycanthropy in that the soul itself could separate from the body and retain its memory and other faculties, and remain unaltered, while the latter supposedly underwent physical transformation:

It remains therefore that we conclude that that which impresses Spontaneous Motion upon the Body, or more immediately upon the Animal Spirits, that which imagines, remembers and reasons, is an Immaterial Substance distinct from the Body, which uses the Animal Spirits and the Brains for Instruments in such and such Operations: and thus we have found a Spirit in a proper Notion and signification that has apparently these faculties in it, it can both understand and move Corporeal Matter.

By contrast, John Webster in The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (1677), argued that “if we consider the union of the Soul with the Body by the mediation of the Spirit, then we cannot rationally conceive that the Soul doth utterly forsake that union, until by putrefaction, tending to an absolute mutation, it be forced to bid farewell to its beloved Tabernacle.”  Similarly, thinkers like the aforementioned Boguet had argued that the body and soul were the same substance and could not exist independently of each other, and that any severe trauma to the body, exemplified by lycanthropy, would no doubt have scrambled and macerated the brain itself during the process, and inevitably caused dislocation of the soul, resulting in the death of the individual concerned. 

But whereas Boguet and other commentators loathed the very notion of physical transmutation, they were more than willing to believe in wandering corpses.  In his Discours des Sorciers (1602), Boguet declared that the ‘metamorphosis of a man into a beast is impossible’, and that ‘lycanthropy is an illusion’, given that it would be impossible for a man who is changed into a beast and to ‘keep his soul and power of reasoning’ at the same time. Nonetheless, Boguet readily accepted the notion that the Devil could possess and reanimate a corpse.  Similarly, even though Remy argued that such ‘transformations are magical portents and glamours, which have the form but not the reality of their appearance’, he accepted that demons could ‘enter into the bodies of the dead and from within give them motion like that of the living’.  Furthermore, King James, the Protestant ruler of early seventeenth-century England, attributed lycanthropy to a ‘naturall superabundance of melancholy’, and yet promoted the existence of flesh-and-blood revenants, albeit empowered by the Devil. 

Bearing in mind More’s contention that the Devil could refashion living flesh into whatever shape and form he chose, it could be assumed that the Devil also had the ability to remodel the dead flesh of a corpse, which would explain how revenants like the spectrums of sixteenth-century Silesia could reportedly transform into the shape and form of an animal.  A different scenario, however, could be that undead-corpses did not actually undergo a miraculous transformation at all but rather that the undead-corpse surrounded itself with a malleable cloak of congealed air, as suggested by the Compendium Maleficarum (1608), which could be kneaded into the shape and form of its choosing, and thus appear to transform into an animal.  And given Del Rio’s notion that such a cloak of congealed air could be transformed into ‘an animal bigger and more gigantic than the real one’, this might explain why the undead maid of sixteenth-century Breslau could supposedly take on the form of a ‘hen that grew into an immense bigness’.  Alternately, we could simply dismiss such notions and attribute the supposed shape-shifting ability of undead-corpses, and even their very existence, to prestidigitation, glamour and devilish illusion. 

Appleton's Journal (1871)

An article on Vampires & Ghouls from Appleton's Journal (1871)

Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1855)

An article on vampires from Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1855):

Friday, 15 June 2012

London Magazine 1737

Another mention of vampires in the London Magazine from 1737

London Magazine 1732

A mention of vampires in the London Magazine from 1732

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Eating Your Burial Shroud

In German folklore, revenants known as nachzehrer would eat their own shrouds and even chew upon their own bodily extremities, accompanied by much grunting and groaning, and in so doing, caused outbreaks of plague. Another example of a shroud-eating corpse can be found in the Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches], the notorious late fifteenth-century handbook for witch-finders.  We are told that a recently deceased woman, supposedly a witch, was gradually eating the shroud in which she had been buried, and that ‘half the shroud [had been] absorbed through the mouth and throat into the stomach, and consumed’.   Furthermore, the plague devastating the town at the time would not cease until she had ‘eaten the whole shroud and absorbed it into her stomach’.  The authorities, however, had the corpse decapitated and thereupon the plague apparently ceased. 

The notion that a buried corpse might grunt and groan like a swine, eat its own shroud and chomp on its own fingers and limbs out of hunger, aroused widespread hysteria in the seventeenth century.  In his Dissertatio De Masticatione Mortuorum (1679), Phillip Rohr, a seventeenth-century German scholar and investigator of the occult, tells us that in 1672, for example, the corpse of an unnamed man buried near Leipzig was supposedly found to have eaten both his arms.  Similarly, the body of a man buried at Egwanschitz, Moravia, had not only ‘devoured and swallowed his own shroud but also half-devoured the corpse of a woman in a nearby grave’. Furthermore, many bodies ‘both in the town itself and in country places round about were heard to utter strange voices’ when the plague was decimating Marburg in 1581.  And in the village of Nienstade, 1603, a body was heard to be ‘uttering from the grave a hoarse sound like the heavy grunting of swine’, akin to Cuntius, the sixteenth-century Silesian spectrum, who would make a ‘noise like a hog that eat grains, smacking and grunting very sonorously’. Rohr attributed such happenings to the Devil whom, he said, would possess and manipulate certain corpses, and make them grunt like pigs, in order to terrify the living and slander the dead:

Not only do corpses eat but they also make an extraordinary grunting noise.  As it is beyond a doubt that this manducation is caused by the demon, so also is it certain that he is the cause of the noise … Assuredly the Devil can produce this noise as from the corpse, and he effects this in the same way as he has spoken through many bodies … Yea, he hath even spoken from skulls and from the lips of dead men … He is far more able then to utter a voice from a body which is but newly interred

More recently, a skeleton was unearthed in a mass grave from the Venetian plague of 1576 of a woman buried with a brick in her mouth in what appears to be an attempt to prevent her post-mortem chewing and thereby prevent the spread of the plague, as per the aforementioned beliefs.

Indeed, burial clothes could prove an encumbrance for a revenant.  A vampire that reportedly molested the village of Liebava in eighteenth-century Moravia would take off the ‘linen clothes’ in which he had been buried, and leave them by the graveside while he went on the rampage, obviously in the nude, and put them back on again when he returned.[10]  However, an unnamed Hungarian visiting the village at the time promised that he would dispatch the vampire.  So that night, the Hungarian hid in the graveyard and waited for the vampire to depart, then stole his burial clothes, and climbed a nearby church steeple to await the revenant.  When the vampire did return, he was furious to find that his clothes missing, and espying the Hungarian up the steeple with his attire, began to ascend the ladder to get at his tormenter.  But as he reached the last rung, the Hungarian decapitated the revenant with a spade and thereby kept his promise.


Gordon Melton, The Vampire Book: An Encyclopedia of the Undead (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2nd edition, 1999)
Heinrich Kramer & James Sprenger, The Malleus Maleficarum, 1484 (trs.) M. Summers (New York: Dover, 1971)
Phillip Rohr, Dissertatio De Masticatione Mortuorum, 1679 [Quoted (in) Summers (1961)]
Augustin Calmet, Treatise on Vampires and RevenantsThe Phantom World, 1751 (3rd ed.) trs. H. Christmas, 1850 (Reprint: Brighton: Desert Island Books, 1993)


The Vrykolakas species of undead-corpse, as outlined in Joseph Tournefort's A Voyage into the Levant (1718)