Thursday, 7 June 2012

Devilish Machinations & the Undead

(Extract from Troublesome Corpses by David Keyworth)



The notion that corpses could be possessed and manipulated by demonic spirits is commonplace throughout world folklore.  In Tibetan belief, for instance, once the soul has departed from a corpse, demonic spirits (gdon) could rush in and reanimate the corpse, which then became a so-called ro-lang. In order to gain new recruits, the ro-lang would simply place its palm upon the head of its intended victims.  Thereupon they would develop a fatal sickness, unless cured by a lama, which involved ‘deathlike pallor, incoherency and impairment of muscle control’, becoming a ro-lang in turn. However, ro-langs could not speak nor could they stoop or bend and so were prevented from entering any house that had a low door. Furthermore, there were five types of ro-lang, depending on how they could be dispatched.  The skin zombie (lpags-lang), for example, simply had to have its skin cut to ensure its demise while the blood of the khrag-lang had to be shed and the sha-lang had to be wounded in the flesh in order for it to be dispatched. Similarly, the rus-lang had to have its bones fractured or pulverized to achieve the same effect.  The rme-lang, however, was invulnerable except for a mole-spot somewhere on its body.  In one instance, some nomads were attacked by a ro-lang and although the revenant was hacked by swords, shot, decapitated and dismembered, the torso still tried to attack the nomads until it was stabbed in a particular mole on its back.  Another time, the corpse of a lama being watched over by a monk, slowly grew fatter and fatter, until on the second night, it exhaled with a large gasp, opened its eyes and arose from the floor. But the monk struck it on the head with his wooden prayer board so that it bled and being a khrag-lang, the revenant fell down lifeless again.  

While there seemed little doubt in pagan Scandinavia and early medieval Europe that undead-corpses were empowered by the entrapped soul of the deceased, by the later medieval period, many theologians argued that troublesome corpses were instead occupied and reanimated by the Devil, pretending to be the deceased, in the same manner that the Devil might possess and manipulate the body of a living person, that is, unless the corpse was marred by putrefaction:

Some have thought that it was a momentary resurrection, caused by the soul of the defunct, which re-entered his body, or by the demon, who re-animated him, and caused him to act for a while, whilst his blood retained its consistency and fluidity, and his organic functions were not entirely corrupted and deranged.

According to her thirteenth-century biography, Ida of Louvain, for instance, came upon the recent corpse of man whereupon the ‘skin changing inventor of all evil [i.e. the Devil]’ leapt into the cadaver and ‘stood the body on its feet, and thus moving forward inside it and together with it, he approached [her]’. Similarly, in his Elucidarium, Honorius of Regensberg notes that although he could not resurrect the dead, the Devil by certain bewitchments (maleficiis) could enter a deceased body, carry it about and speak through it, so that the corpse would appear to be alive. Likewise, Thomas of Cantimpr√©, a thirteenth-century Dominican, argued in his Bonum universale de apibus that:


… since the structure of a dead body remains behind, just as a man can [use] a structured body like a garment, so the Devil can sneak into it and mould the mouth to voices and words again, and recall the tendons to the movement of its members.

Furthermore, in his thirteenth-century Dialogue on Miracles, Caesarius of Heisterbach tells us that when a certain dignitary visited a nearby church, he was invited to hear a particular cleric, renowned for his singing. But realizing that the voice of the cleric was not that of a man but rather the Devil, he immediately bade the Devil to come forth and depart, and instantaneously the body of the singer collapsed and reverted to the putrid corpse that it was in reality. 

Comparable sentiments were voiced by writers in the early modern period.  In the Kingdom of Darkness (1688), Richard Burton tells us that a gallant stranger would frequent the house of a certain gentleman of Rotenburg, Germany, on the pretence of marrying his virtuous daughter.  Suspicious, the latter invited him to dinner, along with a church minister, who engaged the stranger and his two companions in conversation, and soon realized that he was speaking to the Devil.  Thereupon, the minister commanded the stranger and his attendants to depart in the name of Christ whereupon they suddenly ‘vanished out of sight, leaving a most horrid noisome stink and the dead bodies of three malefactors who had been lately hanged’.  Similarly, in his book, Demonolatry (1595), Remy declared that evil spirits could indeed possess and reanimate dead bodies, and given that demons were ‘foul and unclean spirits’, it is no wonder that their favourite habitation was ‘stinking corpses’, which is also why so-called ghosts (i.e. demons in disguise) are most likely to be met with in churchyards and places of execution where putrid dead bodies are likely to be found.  Nonetheless, any such demon could be ‘cast out from its insidious occupation of a dead body’ by the power of adjurations and exorcisms, and although the presence of the demonic spirit postponed any further putrefaction of the corpse, once the demon had been exorcised, the corpse itself would revert to a putrid heap of flesh, commiserate with its proper state of decomposition.

In 1581, Petrone (or Pierron) Armentarius, the village goatherd at Dalhem, for example, was persuaded by his succubus, Abrahel, to murder his own son as a pledge of his devotion, after which the boy would supposedly be restored to life.  Given an apple to eat, the boy took a bite, collapsed and died, whereupon the goatherd bowed down and gave adoration to Abrahel.  Soon enough the boy revived but in the ensuing months he became increasingly ‘thinner, paler and more languid, his eyes heavy and sunken, his movements slower and less free, his mind duller and more stupid’. After a year, the demon, which had entered the boy’s body and empowered his apparent reanimation, then departed its host and in so doing, the former instantaneously reverted to the putrid corpse it was in reality and ‘immediately began to stink so abominably that it was impossible to look at him except from a distance and that with the nostrils pressed close together’.  Dragged out of the house with a hook, the corpse was subsequently taken to a nearby field and buried without ceremony.  Indeed, Remy was adamant that the truth of the story was beyond doubt and was confirmed by many witnesses who had ‘seen with their own eyes the boy recalled to an appearance of life’. But even though Pierron was called before the magistrates at Nancy, we are not told what punishment, if any, was meted out to him.  Even for Calmet, who doubted that the Devil had the power or even authority to resuscitate a corpse, the incident at Dalhem was an exception:


But nowhere do we read that neither good nor the evil angels have of their own authority alone either given life to any person or restored it.  This power is reserved to God alone … we hold it as indubitable that it is God only who can impart life to a person really dead, either by power proceeding immediately from himself, or by means of angels or of demons, who perform his behest … I own that the instance of that boy of Dalhem is perplexing … if the demon can take the place of a spirit in a body newly dead, or if he can make the soul by which it was animated before death return into it, we can no longer dispute his power to restore a kind of life to a dead person, which would be a terrible temptation for us, who might be led to believe that the demon has a power which religion does not permit us to think that God shares with any created being … I see no room to doubt, that God, to punish the abominable crime of the father, and to give an example of his just vengeance to mankind, permitted the demon to do on this occasion what perhaps had never done, nor will ever again – to possess a body, and serve it in some sort as a soul, and give it action and motion whilst he could retain the body without its being too much corrupted.

In his Disquisitiones Magicae [Investigations into Magic], Martin Del Rio, a noted sixteenth-century Jesuit demonologist, similarly argued that the claims made by necromancers about summoning the souls of the dead were fraudulent, given that:


If they [the dead] were to come forth, they would do so at the command of the one God; but there is no reason why God would order or permit this.  To think that he would do so because of the prayers and incantations of magicians is impious.  Consequently, the overriding efficient cause of these arts is the Devil …  

But although evil spirits could not resurrect the dead, they could simulate the appearance of life by invigorating a dead body with what he called ‘local motion’:


Sometimes, then, they assume the dead body of a human being or an animal and make it move.  This they do, not by a motion which confers life upon it (vital motion) but only a motion restricted in its area of operation (local motion) – the kind of motion whereby they can stir the air; and I think that if God permits it, they can so make adjustments to this body (especially one which is not too far decayed) that they can completely deceive the sense of touch … does not the evil spirit do things every day far more astonishing than simulating the softness of flesh, the hardness of bones, the warmth and gentle heat and all the other qualities associated with touch which one notices when touching a body?  I say he can simulate these qualities.  He cannot produce real ones, those real vital characteristics, which belong to a living body and proceed from its informing soul.  Simulated characteristics, and those, which approximate to the real thing, do not require an informing soul and can be constructed from the substance of the intellect, to the extent that they appear real to the external senses.

Del Rio also thought evil spirits responsible for, amongst other things, corpses that did not decompose or that bled when touched by their murderer, so too the post-mortem growth of bodily hair:


But when death has taken place, although the Devil cannot touch the soul, he does have power over the body.  He can assume a corpse and appear in it.  He can work wonders thereby, which astonish the ignorant: for example, making blood flow in the presence of the corpse’s murderer.  Corpses may be preserved from decay by natural means but the evil spirit knows how to do this, too.  He can also keep both living and dead bodies from burning, and cause the hairs and nails of a corpse to grow.

Similarly, in his Dissertatio De Masticatione Mortuorum (1679), Phillip Rohr discusses so-called ‘manducation of the dead’, whereby corpses in the grave that are ‘energized by an unusual and extraordinary power altogether external to themselves’, eat their own shrouds and grunt and groan like swine.  Excluding premature burial, i.e. those ‘who seem to be dead, and who when they had been buried in some monument awoke and ate of their own impulsion and motion’, Rohr gives various reasons as to why the Devil should manifest in this way.  Firstly, the dead are brought into ill repute so that others come to think that they must have led a ‘vile and wicked life’, and fears are awakened in the hearts of men regarding the power of the Devil. Furthermore, the horrified relatives of such a cadaver would be tempted to exhume the body but in doing so they would spread contagion and kill even more of the living. When such a corpse was supposedly being exhumed near Hamburg in 1603, the head was accidentally severed from the torso and thereupon the ‘rotting members with their offal stench so polluted and infected the whole air for a league and more that a shepherd who dwelt not far from the graveyard in question died together with his wife and two daughters’.

In his Relation de l’Isle de Sant-erini (1657), Fr. Richard also admits that at first, he had thought that vrykolakes were departed souls in dire need of help but given their many apparent excesses (i.e. ‘assault, destruction of property, death and so forth’), he realized that a vrykolakas could only be the result of a corpse that had been possessed by the Devil. In his Present State of the Greek and Armenian Churches (1679), Paul Ricaut, for example, declared that excommunication inevitably resulted in the demonic possession of the deceased, given that:


… the bodies of the excommunicated are possessed in the grave by some evil spirit, which actuates and preserves them from corruption, in the same manner as the soul informs and animates the living body; and that they feed in the night, walk, digest, and are nourished, and have been found ruddy in complexion, and their veins, after forty days burial, extended with blood, which, being opened with a lancet, have yielded a gore as plentiful, fresh and quick, as that which issues from the vessels of young and sanguine persons.

Similarly, in nineteenth-century Crete, a chronicle written by the head of a monastery there at the time, concluded that after the soul departs the corpse, an evil spirit can enter within and maintain the body as its dwelling-place, preserve it from corruption, and in that guise wander about wherever it wants.

Maleficent witchcraft was also blamed for interfering with normal bodily decomposition.  In his Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1697), Cotton Mather tells us that in regard to Philip Smith, a respected citizen of Hadley, who had supposedly died from bewitchment, an investigation of his corpse revealed that:


… [there was] found a Swelling on one Breast, which rendered it like a Woman: his Privities were wounded or burned on his Back besides Bruises, there were several Pricks or Holes, as if done by Awls or Pins.  After the Opinion of all had pronounced him dead, his Countenance continued as Lively, as if he had been Alive; his Eyes closed as in a Slumber, and his nether Jaw not falling down.  Thus he remained from Saturday Morning about Sunrise, till Sabbath day in the Afternoon.  When those that took him out of the Bed found him still warm, though the Season was as cold, as had almost been known in an Age.  On the night after the Sabbath, his Countenance was yet as fresh as before; but on Monday morning, they found the Face extremely tumified [tumid] and discoloured; ‘twas black and blue, and fresh Blood seem’d to run down his Cheek in the Hairs … Upon the whole, it appeared unquestionable, that Witchcraft had brought a Period unto the life of so good a man.

And in the nights that followed, a great commotion occurred about the corpse:


The night after he died, a very credible person watching of the Corps[e], perceived the Bed to move and stir, more than once; but by no means could find out the cause of it.  The second night, some that were preparing for the Funeral, do say, That they heard diverse Noises in [the] Room where the Corps[e] lay, as though there had been a great Removing, and Clattering of Stools and Chairs.

Protestant thinkers, however, generally regarded the existence of undead-corpses as an absurdity and the product of deranged minds, fuelled by popish superstition, and denied that the Devil had the power or even the authority to reanimate a corpse.  In his Ghostes and Spirites walking by Nyght (1572), Ludwig Lavater, a Swiss Protestant, argued that there was no ‘reasonable cause alleged wherefore God would or should give the Devil license’ to raise the dead.  Lavater also objected to the very notion of revenants, given that ‘neither the souls of the faithful nor of infidels do walk upon the earth after they are parted from their bodies’. Indeed, Lavater attributed such beliefs to the ‘falsehoods of monks, or illusions of devils, frantic imaginations, or some other frivolous and vain persuasion’. Similarly, William Perkins in his Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (1610) berated the notion that dead men might walk about after their burial, which was ‘the opinion of the Church of Rome and many ignorant persons amongst us’. John Cotta, an English physician, echoed such sentiments in his Triall of Witchcraft (1616), noting that it was impossible for the Devil, given his limited powers, to ‘either in the substance of body or soule, to reduce or bring the dead back into this world, or life, or sense again’. Furthermore, in his Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (1677), John Webster rebuked English Platonists like Henry More who promoted belief in undead-corpses:

I cannot but much wonder that Dr. Henry More, a grave person, and one that for many years hath resided in a most learned and flourishing Academy, whose name is much taken notice of both at home and abroad, having published so many books, should make such a bad choice of authors from whom he takes his stories, or that he should pitch upon those that seem so fabulous, impossible and incredible.  And that I may not seem to tax him without cause, I desire the reader to peruse his two relations, the one of the shoemaker of Breslau in Silesia, Anno 1591, the other of Johannes Cuntius … and to tell whether he can rationally believe those things either to have been true or possible.

John Deacon and John Walker in their Dialogicall Discourses of Spirits and Divels (1601) also argued that it was absurd to believe that the Devil could inhabit a dead body, given the putrefied state of most corpses, and in any case, such occurrences would be repugnant to the natural order:


Pneumatomachus:  For my part, I rather suppose that the Divel doth assume to himselfe some dead man’s bodie.
Physiologus:  This your supposal is no lesse absurd then the other before.  For first, if that bodie which the Divel doth assume, be the body of a dead man departed long since, then surely, it is an hundred to one, that, that selfsame assumed bodie is either eaten with worms, and so, unfit for the service: or is else so putrefied with filthie corruption [to be of no use] … the Divel then, by assuming such a newly departed bodie, must be supposed to appeere in a white winding sheet … Briefly, if the divel doth assume to himselfe, some dead man’s bodie, whether long since, or but lately departed: we must (by this your supposal) imagine a resurrection of bodies before the general judgement, and therein also, must attribute to the Divel, that absolute power of raising the dead, which only is due and proper to God, and so, by consequence conclude, that the Divel can accomplish and worke true miracles.

By contrast, King James I, the nominally Protestant ruler of early seventeenth-century England, declared that the Devil could indeed possess and reanimate a corpse, and in his Daemonologie (1597), we read that:


P [Philomathes]: Surelie it is no wonder that God should permit the bodies of anie of the faithfull to be so dishonoured as to be a dwelling place to that uncleane spirite
E [Epistemon]: There is it which I told right now would proove and strengthen my argument of the devills entering in the dead bodies of the faithfull.  For if he is permitted to enter in their living bodies even when they are joyned with the soule, how much more will God permit him to enter in their dead carrions [i.e. corpses] which is no more man but the filthie and corruptible caise of man.

Accordingly, the Devil could use the corpses of both the ‘faithful’ and ‘unfaithful’ for his diabolical purposes. At the Resurrection, however, every dead body would be purged and glorified, and raised anew, no matter if they had died of disease and corruption, or been mutilated and dismembered, or been dishonoured by the Devil in any way.  Alternately, the Devil could simply masquerade as the ghost of someone recently deceased in order to beguile and torment the living:


P [Philomathes]: But what means then these kindes of spirites when they appear in the shaddow of a person newlie dead, or to die, to his friendes
E [Epistemon]: When they appear upon that occasion they are called Wraithes … Amongst the Gentiles the Devill used that much to make them beleeve that it was some good spirite that appeared to them then, either to forewarne them of the death of their friend, or else to discover unto them the will of the defunct, or what was the way of his slaughter … And this way hee easilie deceived the Gentiles because they knew not God: And to that same effect is it that he now appeares in that maner to some ignorant Christians.  For he dare not illude anie that knoweth that neither can the spirite of the defunct return to his friend or yet an Angel use such formes.

Furthermore, evil spirits could supposedly take on semi-corporeal form by creating for themselves an artificial body of congealed air, so long as there was some sort of terrestrial substance available, i.e. ‘gross vapours’, to act as a scaffold.  In the Malleus Maleficarum (1484), for example, Kramer and Sprenger explain that:


Know, moreover, that the air is in every way a most changeable and fluid matter: and a sign of this is the fact that when any have tried to cut or pierce with a sword the body assumed by a devil, they have not been able to; for the divided parts of the air at once join together again.  From this it follows that air is in itself a very competent matter but because it cannot take shape unless some other terrestrial matter is joined with it, therefore it is necessary that the air which forms the devil’s assumed body be in some way inspissated and approach the property of the earth, while still retaining its true property as air.  And devils and disembodied spirits can effect this condensation by means of gross vapours raised from the earth, and by collecting them together into shapes in which they abide, not as defilers of them, but only as their motive power which gives to that body the formal appearance of life, in very much the same way as the soul informs the body to which it is joined.

This process of condensation explains why the manifest bodies of demons were said to be intensely cold:

… the bodies of devils being nothing but coagulated air should be cold, as well as coagulated water, which is snow or ice, and that it should have a more keen and piercing, it consisting of more subtle particles than those of water, and therefore more fit to insinuate, and more accurately and stingingly to affect and touch the nerves.

Similarly, in his Treatise of Ghosts (1588), Fr. Taillepied noted the coldness of such aerial bodies, and the reasons for this occurrence:


To sum up the whole matter it is determined that the bodies of Spirits in which they appear are aerial bodies.  For just as water congeals to ice, and crystallizes clear, so the circumambient air which surrounds these Spirits inspissateth to a visible body.  If the air in itself does not suffice they can mingle some other crassity, a vapour, a mist, or water, whereby they colour and complexion this body, just as we see in the case of the rainbow … 

By contrast, Del Rio argued that:


Evil spirits can assume the bodies of dead people, or construct for themselves from air and the other elements bodies which feel like flesh to the touch.  These they can move as they wish and make them warm.

Accordingly, whenever the Devil wishes to deceive the person, he can give a “most exact imitation of whatever is required” and can appear to generate what appears to be hot semen, as per a living person (despite witches who claimed that the semen ejaculated by evil spirits was icy cold), and if he collects semen from living men, he collects a great quantity and can keep it warm enough to produce offspring.

An artificial body of congealed air could easily be mistaken for a real material body.  In his Daimonomageia (1665), William Drage tells us that although devils may utilize corpses or ‘natural bodies’ for their evil purposes, the ‘[artificial] bodies and instruments spirits raise, when they would perform actions here on earth, are sometimes so material, that they are tangible as well as visible and audible’. Similarly, in his Discours des Sorciers (1602), Henry Boguet remarked that even though the Devil can borrow a convenient corpse, an artificial body of congealed air could be just as palpable:


When Satan means to lie with a witch in the form of a man, he takes to himself the body of some man who has been hanged.  But even if he has only a body formed from the air, there is still nothing to prevent him from intercourse with a witch; for in that case he makes the body of air so dense that it is palpable and consequently capable of coition, and even, the defloration of a woman.

Fr. Taillepied, however, reminds us that although such spirits might pretend to eat and drink, their aerial bodies did not require sustenance:


We need not, of course, endow spiritual beings (whether Good Angels or bad) with corporeal members and sarcous [?] parts of the human frame such as lungs, a heart, or a belly and entrails, for they do not assume these bodies to energize them permanently and to live in and by them, but only as vehicles and shapes in which suitably to manifest themselves to mortal eyes.  It is true that when thus clothed they eat and drink, but they do not take food to sustain their existence; they manducate awhile only as a clinching proof that they are real, and thus we may more readily accept the message god permits or ordains them to convey.

Similarly, Kramer and Sprenger declared that while there are four processes to eating, i.e. mastication, swallowing, digestion and metabolism, assumed bodies were limited to only two:


Mastication in the mouth, swallowing into the stomach, digestion in the stomach, and fourthly, metabolism of the necessary nutriment and ejection of what is superfluous.  All Angels [and therefore devils] can perform the first two processes of eating in their assumed bodies, but not the third and fourth; but instead of digesting and ejecting they have another power by which the food is suddenly dissolved in the surrounding matter.

Kramer and Sprenger also note that although an assumed body cannot truly breathe, see or speak, given that it lacks proper lungs, eyes and other bodily organs, just as the assumed body has the ‘likeness of limbs’, so they have the ‘likeness of their functions’ in that ventroquilism and the manipulation of air, for example, can be used to give the appearance of speaking.  And given the obvious malleability of such an ethereal body, an evil spirit could supposedly shape itself into whatever size, shape or appearance it so desired, and whereas locked doors might impede the entry of an undead-corpse, such barriers were no impediment to an evil spirit clothed in a body of congealed air, as noted in the Daemonologie (1597):


P [Philomathes]: But by what way or passage can these [devilish] Spirites enter in these houses, seeing they allege that they will enter, Doore and Window being steeked [i.e. shut]
E [Epistemon]: They will choose the passage for their entress according to that forme [i.e. mode of existence] that they are in at the time.  For if they have assumed a deade body, whereinto they lodge themselves, they can easily inough open without dinne anie Door or Window and enter in thereat.  And if they enter as a spirite onelie, anie place where the aire may come in at is large enough an entrie for them.

Del Rio also considered the question of artificial bodies in his Disquisitiones Magicae (1599), and argued that an evil spirit could not put on an artificial body of congealed air and station itself within a corpse at the same time:


Sometimes the Devil surrounds himself with a body made from the elements, and once it has been formed by the power he has to do such a thing, he makes it one with him, just as a lifeless body capable of being moved is united to the mover existing inside it.  I doubt whether he can choose his material simply from the air, and I do not think he can condense air alone to the point where he produces something solid.  But whether he can or cannot, he usually finds it easy to mingle parts of air (the element he uses most), earth, water, cloud, vapour and exhalations with the result that he easily produces colours from this mixture and easily condenses them into parts of a body and makes them stick together.  At this point one must make a distinction.  When evil spirits appear in a real corpse, they cannot surround that corpse with a second, living body and neither can they assume any other body when they are wearing a dead one.  Physical laws are against it because the spirits cannot penetrate those dimensions, which govern size.  But when they appear in an elemental body [of congealed air] either they cannot assume another corpse or body at all, or they can do so only with very great difficulty.

This also raises the question whether it would be feasible for the Devil to possess an undead-corpse and in to ‘lengthen, diminish, rarify [and] subtilise’ the body of the deceased, and thereby dematerialize and pass through solid matter. Indeed, the undead-corpses or spectrums of sixteenth-century Silesia seemingly possessed the ability to pass through solid walls, and there was the lingering belief that vampires could transform into mist, and ‘glide through the cracks and joints of a door’ or ‘pass through a key-hole’, in order to enter some dwelling. According to a more contemporary Romanian folktale, a woman informant revealed that:


My husband had been killed on the Russian Front in World War II.  At the news of his death, I cursed him (for leaving me alone with our infant daughter).  One night I saw a coudy form come through my room and go into my daughter’s bedroom.  I heard my daughter cry out: ‘Mama, Papa’s trying to strangle me.’  I ran into my daughter’s room and saw the same cloudy form enveloping my daughter. As I entered, it disappeared.

In Arcadian folklore, the vrykolakas could appear and disappear at will, and pass through closed doors and windows, and would even try to steal babies in this manner.  But if the windows were shut, the glass would effectively prevent any such theft in that, although the vrykolakas could pass through the glass without a problem, the baby itself could not. However, in his Daemonologie (1597), King James voiced his scepticism that the Devil could transform the body of a witch into an animal, and thereby fit through some narrow passageway:


… for them [witches] that are transformed in likeness of beastes or soules, can enter through so narrow passages, although I may easilie beleeve that the Devill coulde by his workmanshippe upon the aire, make them appeare to be in such formes, either to themselves or to others.  Yet how can he contract a solide bodie within so little roome, I think it is directlie contrarie to it selfe, for to be made so little, and yet not diminished: To be so straitlie drawen together, and yet feele no paine, I thinke that it is so contrarie to the qualitie of a naturall bodie, and so like to the little transubstantiat god in the Papistes Masse, that I can never beleeve it.

Similarly, Calmet remained unconvinced of bodily transmogrification, and in his Treatise on Vampires and Revenants (1751) remarked that:


… will it be said that the Devil can subtilize these bodies, and give them power to penetrate through the ground without disturbing it, to glide through the cracks and joints of a door, to pass through a key-hole, to lengthen or shorten themselves, to reduce themselves to the nature of air, or water, to evaporate through the ground … But should it be allowed that the demon could reanimate these bodies, and give them power of motion for a time, could he also lengthen, diminish, rarify, subtilize the bodies of these ghosts and give them the faculty of penetrating through the ground, the doors and windows … we cannot even conceive that an earthly body, material gross, can be reduced to that state of subtlety and spiritualization without destroying the configuration of its parts and spoiling the economy of its structure … 

However, the supposed ability of undead-corpses to dematerialize, pass through solid objects and to rematerialize on the other side is not without precedent, given the purported ability of the Devil to interpenetrate flesh and implant foreign objects within the stomachs and/or flesh of demoniacs.  In An Antidote against Atheism (1655), for example, More tells us a deceased man who supposedly had an iron nail imbedded under his skin, and a large piece of wood, four knives, a ball of hair, and ‘two rough pieces of iron a span long’ within his body, many of such objects being too big to have been swallowed in the traditional manner. Similarly, in Utrecht, 1625, a possessed nine-year old girl apparently vomited forth ‘horse-dung, needles, pins, hairs, feathers, bottoms of thread, pieces of glass windows, nails drawn out of cart or coach wheels, an iron knife about a span long, egg and shells’. An even more bizarre example is provided by Meric Casaubon in a Treatise Proving Spirits, Witches and Supernatural Operations (1672), in which a young woman reputedly vomited forth living creatures:


… he began to cast out of her body [i.e. vomit] lumps of hair … others of thistles, needles, then a black lump in the form of an egge, out of which, when dissected, came flying Ants, which did cause such a noisome stink, that no body was able to abide the room … at the point of death, with much difficulty, being in a syncope, she vomited a certain creature, of the bigness of an ordinary fist, of a black colour, long tail, hairy all the body over, like a mouse; which being fallen to the ground, did with great swiftness run to and fro the room, and then died … 

We are also told that the Devil could put on an assumed body and masquerade as someone recently deceased in order to sow discord among the living, as noted by George Strode in his Anatomie of Mortalitie (1632):


… Satan, who can change himself into many forms, did in the dark night of Popery to deceive that ignorant age, change himself into the similitude of some person that was lately, or had been long dead, and was believed by such a transformation to be the party, man or woman, that he remembered.  So entered the error that spirits did walk and that dead bodies came out of their graves, and haunted sundry houses in the night, which were not the bodies of the dead but the Devil in those bodies and shapes, as it is to be seen in Samuel’s counterfeit shape, raised by the Witch of Endor.  And this error, as it deceived the blind world, and somewhat troubled the seeing, so it is still in the mouth and faith of credulous superstition at this day.

In his Ghostes and Spirites walking by Nyght (1572), Lavater also declares that the Devil could appear in the ‘likeness of a faithful man deceased … [and] in divers shapes, not only of those, which are alive, but also of dead men’, and thereby defame particular individuals. Similarly, the anonymous author of the Malleus Judicum (1626) recounts that a certain magistrate in Westphalia was confronted with the news that his wife had supposedly been espied attending the Sabbat. Desiring to see for himself, the judge arranged for some guests to arrive at his house and keep his wife busy.  Then he hurried to where the Sabbat was supposedly being held and espied his wife cavorting amongst the crowd.  But when he returned, he found his wife still at home attending to his guests.  Thereupon he realized some evil spirit had been impersonating his wife in order that she might be condemned, and that many of the so-called witches he had himself condemned and executed were probably innocent. 

Walter Map cites a comparable tale in his twelfth-century, De Nugis Curialium.  Accordingly, a certain knight married a devout lady but on the morning of the birth of their first child, the infant was found in its cradle with its throat cut.  The same occurred with each subsequent child, and although vigils would be held over the crib, the watchers would inexplicably fall into a deep sleep, and when they awoke, the dastardly deed had been done.  With the birth of another child, however, a mysterious stranger arrived and agreed to keep watch, and during the night witnessed a certain woman of the town enter the room and bend over the cradle, apparently ready to cut the sleeping babe’s throat.  Jumping up, the stranger grabbed the woman and roused the household, and before those assembled, declared that the woman was in reality a demon, and using a key from the local church, branded the impostor on the forehead as a sign of wickedness.  The real lady was then fetched, the likeness evident to all.  Eventually, though, the demon escaped the clutches of its captors, and flew away through the window, howling and screeching, which Map cites as proof that demons could assume the form of some noble person in order to besmirch their good name and reputation.

Fairy folk were also thought capable of such chicanery.  In The Secret Commonwealth (1690), Robert Kirk describes the ‘co-walker’ or doppelganger; a fairy being that takes on the likeness someone living, and accompanies them on their travels, although the reason for such behaviour remains unclear:


They call this reflex-man a coimimeadh or co-walker, every way like the man, as a twin-brother and companion, haunting him as his shadow and is oft seen and known among men, resembling the original, both before and after the original is dead.  And [this co-walker] was also often seen, of old, to enter a house; by which the people knew that the person of that likeness was to visit them within a few days.  This copy, echo, or living picture, goes at last to his own herd.  It accompanied that person so long and frequently, for ends best known to itself, whether to guard him from the secret assaults of some of its own folks, or only as a sportful ape to counterfeit all his actions … If invited and earnestly required, these companions make themselves known and familiar to men, otherwise, being in a different state and element, they neither can nor will easily converse with them.

The popular literature of the early modern period voiced similar concerns.  When the revenant confronts Hamlet on the battlements in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, Hamlet is unsure whether the supposed revenant, i.e. the “dead cor[p]se” of his deceased father, means him any harm:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from Heaven or blasts from Hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape …
Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d,
Hath opened his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again! What may this mean,
That thou, dead cor[p]se, again, in complete steel,
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous; and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition … 

The revenant then professes that he is Hamlet’s father, confined to Purgatory, and that he must walk the night until his sins are absolved:

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.  But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house … 

Hamlet, however, remains unsure as to the true identity of the supposed revenant, whether it really be his deceased father or some goblin damn’d masquerading as the deceased.  Indeed, given the tragic events that ensued, it could be assumed that the revenant was indeed an evil spirit, intent on Hamlet’s damnation, as noted by Hamlet himself:

The spirit that I have seen
May be the Devil: and the Devil hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me … 

Hence, by the early modern period, many demonologists argued that it was not the soul of the deceased that empowered undead-corpses but rather the Devil that reanimated such revenants.  The Devil was also thought capable of putting on an artificial body of congealed air that was quite capable of physical interaction with the living, and could thereby masquerade as someone recently deceased.  Furthermore, those skilled in magic and sorcery, that is, witches and sorcerers, were also thought capable of reanimating the corpse of someone recently deceased, albeit with demonic help, a topic I discuss in the next chapter. 

Further Reading:

Casaubon, M. A Treatise Proving Spirits, Witches and Supernatural Operations (London, 1672)
Deacon, D & Walker, J. Dialogicall Discourses of Spirits and Divels Declaring their Proper Essence, Natures, dispositions and Operations (London, 1601)
Del Rio, Martin. Disquisitiones Magicae, 1599 (ed.) P. Maxwell-Stuart (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)
Kieckhefer, R. Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century (Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1997)
Lavater, L. Of Ghostes and Spirites walking by Nyght (London, 1572)
Lea, H. Materials toward a History of Witchcraft (ed.) A. Howland (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1957)
Perkins, W. Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft so farre forth as it is Revealed in the Scriptures (Cambridge, 1610)
Strode, G. The Anatomie of Mortalitie (London, 1632)
Wylie, T. ‘Ro-Langs: The Tibetan Zombie’, History of Religions 4:1 (1964), pp.72-73





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