folklore

Asymmetric Creativity: World Building a Relgion

foundationSince my World Building post was so well received I wanted to return to the subject with a bit more detail. Specifically I wanted to delve into one of the most critical aspects of fantasy or speculative worlds- religions.

This can be a delicate subject, religion and faith, but it is something defines a good portion of men and women around the globe. It informs decisions of cultures, affects politics, economies and even directs the outcomes of war. The complexity of faith is one that could spend a dozen posts on and just scratch the surface. So I wanted to get into the idea of religion by asking the question that was asked of me by a professor- what does ‘religion’ mean to you?

What does Religion mean to you– This is an important question because you would be surprised at the variety and scope of answers one produces with that question. There is no right or wrong answer, but it serves as your personal baseline as to your creative vision for your fictional faith. This will give you an idea for building blocks- are you a rules and ritual person, or a spiritual fulfillment person of faith or perhaps you’re simply excited by the imagery of religion. Once you have defined what religion means to you, then its time to start working on the religion of your fictional world. There are many ways of going about this, but I would suggest starting by reading about religions from across the millennia.

Research– Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole with this one. You can easily get caught in a the research trap when it comes to religions as they history and variety is literally as old as man. However, that being said, I would suggest picking periods of history- Bronze and Iron ages- to identify the faiths and religions practiced during those times. Choose religions that served as inspiration or building blocks to later, larger or well known faiths. Again, think and look asymmetrically at the subject of religion and you’d be surprised what you’d find. To do online research I would recommend Patheos religion library, a reliable site encouraged by my religion professor. Important, as you read about religions and take notes, keep in mind how you answered what you religion means to you.

Fictional Syncretism– One of the creative tools a writer can apply to constructing a new faith for a universe is by applying syncrestism to some faiths you’ve found in your research. The best explination of syncretism is the cooping or borrowing elements of older faiths by a new faith that is either  moving into or converting a population. Try looking at an old, mist shrouded faith, and looking at it with new eyes. If an old faith considers fire the element of a creator, perhaps your fictional creator employs it in a  different way. Perhaps your deities use it only on one day, therefore it becomes the symbol of a festival, month or day. Some of the best examples of syncretism in our world come from the Christian conversion of Scandinavian pagans (Thor’s Day =Thursday, etc.)

Avoid Egyptian and Greco-Roman Gods–  I cannot stress this enough. For me nothing is the kiss of death when reading a blurb about a new novel or short story and it is yet another retread of Egyptian gods or ancient Greece deities. It happens all too often and taints otherwise original stories and universes when a thinly veiled Ra or Zeus wanders into a oily back alley.

Express the idea of Religion in the voice of a character– You’ve undoubtedly created a pantheon, a creator goddess, her sons or daughters, their kin, creatures and beasts. Once its all sorted out, build a temple to that deity- whether its an open field or stone ediface- and have a character spend one afternoon inside it. Express the journey of fact, the act itself, in a peaceful setting. Perhaps create a regular man or woman, have them experience the sights, sounds and smells of the religious movement. Sit and think how your own religious experience affected you and rewrite that thought through the eyes of the fictional devotee. Express the act of devotion and the very important interaction the character has with the mystery of their deity.

All of these ideas, I hope, will aid fellow writers in creating inventive, exciting and engaging religions in the world of speculative fiction.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

The Folklore of Weather

9669421775_2e78ea2c50_zIt’s said New Englanders have several past times, one being eternal love for the Boston Red Sox. The other? Pontificating on or predicting the weather. We all seem to be armchair meteorologists who rely on wives tales, patchy memories or achy joints to ramble on about the weather. From the wooliness of bugs to the height of beehives, the folklore of weather spans generations and continents.

In an Indiana newspaper article, a Huntington University professor tackled the idea of weather, science and folklore. One such example of weather folklore according to Dr. Linda Urschel is the woolly worm, telling the Huntington County Tab, “The more black they have on them, the harder the winter is going to be.” The basic idea follows that someone observe an animal, a plant or natural phenomena and then attaches it to the later meteorological event.

Here in New England I am habit to see the sunset and utter, “Red sky at night, sailors delights. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” With a strong sea-faring tradition in Massachusetts its a natural folk saying picked up and retained over the generations.

The folk traditions about weather and its connection to flora and fauna are covered by comprehensive list created by NASA. Some of the historic weather folkloric traditions include:

North Carolina- “An old proverb says that a house that is overarched by a rainbow will soon experience a disaster or if you walk through the end of the rainbow, your family will experience a disaster within a year.”

Germany- “It was commonly believed in old times that Old Mother Frost caused snow by shaking the feathers from her bed. These feathers would then fall to Earth as snow.”

Australia- “An aboriginal myth says that frost comes from the seven stars of the Pleiades, also called the Seven Sisters. The sisters once lived on Earth but were so cold they sparkled with icicles. They flew up into the sky and once each year they pull off their icicles and hurl them down to Earth.”

From the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society comes these folkloric rhymes:

“When clouds look like black smoke a wise man will put on his cloak.”

“If salt is sticky,  And gains in weight; It will rain Before too late.

For NASA’s full, continent by continent list of weather folklore check it out here.

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© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Did Fire Kill the Night and Birth Storytelling and Religions?

With the flick of a switch and by the glow of a smartphone screen we have finally chased away the lonely, terrifying darkness of night. The portable access to light, to entertain and occupy, like the incandescent light bulb, have changed how we deal with and interact with the night. The night was once communally conquered by a bonfire where food was prepared and stories were exchanged. The fear of the unknown that lurked at the firelight’s edge was chased away by tales whispered by the lips of man.

For the better part of 40 years University of Utah anthropology professor Polly Wiesner studied the Kalhari Bushmen, specifically their communication habits and content. Wiessner examined the content of conversation between Bushmen during the day and night. What she found was particularly fascinating- daylight conversations were mundane or gossip filled. While when the sun set and flames rose stories became supernatural and deeply personal.

According to the University of Utah press release:

“What I found was a big difference between day and night conversation, the kinds of information transmitted and the use of imaginary thought,” Wiessner says.

“Day conversation has a lot to do with economic activities – working, getting food, what resources are where,” she says. “It has a lot to do with social issues and controls: criticism, complaints and gripes.”

“At night, people really let go, mellow out and seek entertainment. If there have been conflicts in the day, they overcome those and bond. Night conversation has more to do with stories, talking about the characteristics of people who are not present and who are in your broader networks, and thoughts about the spirit world and how it influences the human world. You have singing and dancing, too, which bonds groups.”

Healers dance and go into trances, “travel to god’s village and communicate with the spirits of deceased loved ones who are trying to take sick people away,” Wiessner says.

Wiessner goes on to note:

“firelight stories, conversations, ceremonies and celebrations sparked human imagination and “cognitive capacities to form these imagined communities, whether it’s our social networks, all of our relatives on Earth or communities that link us to the spirit world.”

Wiessner’s idea that civilization and community were born over a roaring fire is both brilliant and complex. The role of fire in ritual and worship is an important and continuing connection to those bonfire communes of pre-history. Viewed through Wiessner’s thesis the role of fire there is renewed and complexity to the birth of faiths and myths. If we look at the fire as deified symbol the Burning Bush perhaps started as a communal spiritual experience and turned into a solitary prophetic action that helped codify a faith. In Zoroastrianism fire takes on sacred complexity, with Atar, or holy fire as the “source force which is the source of all energy and the symbol of truth and righteousness,” according to University of Derby Multifaith Centre. From Hinduism’s Agni to Maori ahi tapu, or sacred fires, the role of fire of faith punctuates every continent and culture. And it starts with tinder and a story.

For the full University of Utah press release, read here.

Asymmetric Creativity: Righting World Building Gone Wrong

YggdrasilI have an ongoing wrestling match with world building in speculative fiction. I revel in new writers producing ideas that challenge conventional story frameworks or characters. As one of those new writers I still learn as I go, producing some successes and tossing narrative failures. I plug forward with confidence and hope that my stories, short or long, will entertain readers around the world.

All that said, I do have an issue with the idea of world building some writers use in their works. To call it world building is a misnomer, as often we see a hodge-podge of cherry picked pieces of cultural and religious history cobbled together to form new faiths, nations or histories. I would suggest there is a cleaner, more energetic way at world building that harnesses creativity, while keeping the new world authentic to our shared historical knowledge.

Appreciating that many writers lavish countless hours to research before launching into a new story (a research fetishist myself) I feel sometimes the creative energy is lost in the action of stitching together. There needs to be a cohesive view of the world, not a patch work or “everything and the kitchen sink.” Perhaps other readers do not notice or take issue with such incongruities, but as a devotee of history, folklore and religion, I am sometimes distracted by the world building method employed by some writers. Sometimes speculative fiction is like the infamous movie scene where a Roman soldier wears a wrist watch. On the face of it, they seem authentic, but on closer inspection it doesn’t match up.

One of the reasons I started Asymmetric Creativity was to put down ideas that encouraged unconventional thinking that produced exciting results. World building is one such creative endeavor that I think benefits from asymmetric thinking. If I were to offer advice on how to find asymmetric influence in world building I would propose the following:

1- Museum Visits– Seems like a no brainer, but if you live in a part of the world with a robust museum community I would suggest getting outside of your intellectual comfort zone and visit a museum you would not be drawn to. If you are a classic art fan, go to a modern art museum and seek out unconventional sculpture or paintings. If you are a writer interested in world building, avoid the well worn museum galleries of Roman or Egyptian antiquities. Seek out the remnants of other cultures outside the big exhibits or popular galleries. Seek inspiration in the mundane household items or shard of pottery as often they provide insights into the greater culture. Also, spend time at local, smaller cultural institutions as regional history can provide creative triggers.

2- Seek Cultures Old or Overlooked– Unless I am constructing a story set in those culture, I avoid the typical empires or dominant societies favored by most world building writers. While I have non-fiction interest in Roman, Chinese, Egyptian and Medieval England I avoid using them as templates or research starting points for world building. Piecing together Roman imperial system with Chinese cosmology may seem new and inventive, but often they read incongruous or even silly. Find those precursor cultures which we continue to learn of their influence and astounding vibrancy. How do you find obscure or ancient societies?

3- Monitor Archaeology News– Social Media has provided an immediate and constantly updating flow of news about our past. I follow over a dozen archaeology and history organizations, websites and blogs. If you have the ability consider joining organizations like ASOR or at least following their social media updates. Or for a treasure trove of historical, anthropological and archaeological information, possibly join JSTOR. Read reputable history or archaeological periodicals.

4- Read Non-Fiction for Fun. Not Just Research– I have been a reader of non-fiction all my adult life. Currently I read 60% non-fiction to 40% fiction, with the non-fiction primarily folklore, religion and global histories. I read non-fiction for the enrichment, helping me keep the modern world in perspective knowing what came before and how it parallels today. This enrichment helps fill in the imagination, providing credible and realistic starting points for my fiction. World building fiction can only come by understand the way the world of the past operated on every level. Avoid confining the richness of your worlds to capes, armor, sword or sexual debauchery. Look at the names of men and women in 19th century America to forge characters in a strange future. Read about the faiths of Central Asia in the Bronze age to conjure a strange, yet authentic religion. While we all cannot be Tolkein, we can aspire to build authentic, individual and engrossing worlds on our own and not create a Frankenstein’s monster.

5- Write a History– If you feel compelled to create a world, then write a brief “paper” on the world you’ve imagine. Consider going back in time to your youth, to college, when you crafted papers with purpose. Now, as a fiction writer, you have a purpose to craft a world as authentic as any real society you would have profiled in college. Break it down in any form as you want, but create a level by level history of the world or society you imagined. Also, write the history with an authenticity and in a way that has a solid academic underpinning. Don’t worry about footnotes or following MLA standards, but take it seriously as you write a report on the layers of your imagined society. This becomes your history resource and creates a cohesive, authentic vision for your imagined world.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Magic in New England’s Fields: People of God in the Devil’s Lands

There was a magic in the woods and glens of Colonial New England. Puritan settlers while quick to eye the forests and mountains with suspicion and fear of maleficium, they just as easily looked upon fellow men and women of God-fearing English stock with fear. The Natives of the region, exemplified by the Abenaki of the northeast, practiced their own form of ‘magic’ in land’s that Puritans believed was once the Devil’s dominion.

To Cotton Mather it made sense that the Devil would stalk the lands of New England as where else would he be than among a group who hated him the most, “Where will the Devil show the most malice, where is hated, and hateth the most.” From his Wonders of the Invisible World of 1693 we get a glimpse of the Devil’s power over not just man but the world itself, creator of wars, heresies and storms, ” Once more, why may not Storms be reckoned among those Woes, with which the Devil does disturb us? It is not improbable that Natural Storms on the World are often of the Devils raising. We are told in Job 1.11, 12, 19. that the Devil made a Storm, which hurrican’d the House of Job, upon the Heads of them that were Feasting in it.”

According to a 2012 lecture by Stephen Mitchell, professor of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, everything which happened on Earth was connected morally and physically in the Puritan mind. These groups saw ship wrecks, storms and infant death with equal suspicion of the Devil’s handiwork as a product of God’s divine plan. Disease or ‘possession’, according to Mitchell, were handled by Puritans through fasting and prayer. These actions further ratifying the connection between the spirit and physical.

Mather wrote of the Natives of Massachusetts at the time of colonization, “The Indian Powawes, used all their Sorceries to molest the first Planters here; but God said unto them, Touch them not!” Mather continued, “The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil’s Territories.”

One can imagine the pious indignation Puritan’s experienced when they witnessed Native American ‘magic’ in New England. In 1624’s Good Newes, Englishman Edward Winslow wrote, “The office and duty of the Powah is to be exercised principally in calling up the Devil, and curing diseases of the sick and wounded.” The Powah is the Native “powwow” where priests with special powers of divination were exercised over nature, often for the benefit of man but also as a weapon. According to Winslow’s Newes, which preceded Mather’s work by nearly 70 years, the magic men of Native New England, “can raise storms and tempests which they usually do when they intend the death and destruction of other people.”

The most potent conjurer figure from the colonial period was a Pennacook sachem known as Passaconaway who is said to move rocks and return leaves to life. From a modern perspective Passaconaway was a member of a magic practicing tradition that appears to have a marvelous and intimate connection to nature. Yet viewed with the suspicions of Puritan New England Native sorcerers share talents with the Devil himself.

Roger Williams, theologian and New England colonist leader, viewed the healing actions of Native priests with more nuance, “They conceive there are many Gods or divine powers within the body of the man: In his pulse, his hearts, his lungs.” Instead of pulling from Satan for power, these priests, removed the malignant forces within man, an intimate power connected to a larger ideal. However, Williams did write, “These priests and conjurers (like Simon Magus) do bewitch the people,” going on to say rather contradictory, “most certainly (by the help of the Devil) work great cures.” (For Williams reference of Simon Magus, see Acts 8:9.)

One such skilled practitioner was Pennacook sachem Passaconaway, known for leadership skills as well as magic, Passaconaway oversaw a confederation from northern Massachusetts deep into New Hampshire. Uniting tribes from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to bulwark Mohawk aggression, Passaconaway also is said to have possessed powers as a m’teowlin, ‘deep seeing one.’ or powwow.

The native sachem exploits were chronicled by William Wood in his 1634 work, New England’s Prospect, “(Passaconaway) can make the water burn, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphize himself into a flaming man.” Going on to describe Passaconaway’s skills, Wood wrote,”in Winter, when there is no green leaves to be got, he will burn an old one to ashes, and putting those into the water, produce a new green leaf, which you shall not only see, but substantially handle and carry away; and make of a dead snakes skin a living snake, both to be seen, felt, and heard.” Wood, who said powwow practitioners were imbued with exorcist and necromancer charms, did note that the sorcery talents of Passaconaway may be nothing more than, “deceptio visus” or visual tricks.

Men and women of the m’teowlin, shamans or the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society, held a unique place in their communities as healer and shapers of nature. These figures could not only heal, but said to command the course of a river, seeing the future, working with spirits of the departed, aiding in hunts or communal ceremonies. These figures were important mediators with the coursing power around them as their special connection to every tree, rock or animal. One example of the power of shaman is told about the Abenaki at war where a seer consulted with spirits and determined a group of Iroquois foes were on an island and if the Abenaki attacked the next day they would wipe out the opposing force. According to the story, the battle was joined and not a single Iroquois survived, each victim having their head cleaved off and placed on a poll.

An interesting footnote to the belief that New England was filled with heathens thriving in the Devil’s dominion was that when the witchcraft hysteria swept New England in the 17th century Natives were not singled out for punishment. Puritans, it appears, were more suspicious of the Devil working through their fellow English than of the Natives of New England. Even though the New English wilderness contained Biblical evil, Native’s of the region were rarely prosecuted or suspected of maleficum.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Salem Witch Hysteria and PTSD Roots Pt. II

burroughs2(Note: The following is an expanded excerpt of a paper I wrote for a Magic and Witchcraft class. For Part I to the article, click here.)

In April of 1692, with witch trial testimonies in full swing, Thomas Putnam claimed his daughter Ann was visited by the spectral figure of Reverend George Burroughs who proceeded to torture the young girl. A month later, Ann Putnam testified that two apparitions appeared to her. According to Ann they were the wives of Burroughs, allegedly killed by the minister’s own hand. The constant whisper of his mistreated spouses followed Burroughs from his earliest days in Salem Village through his forcible return as witch cabal leader. His second wife, widow Sarah Ruck Hathorne whom he married in 1682, was the sister-in-law of Essex County Magistrate John Hathorne, a man who became deeply involved in the later witchcraft accusations against Burroughs. Sarah Hathorne Burroughs died in Falmouth, Maine in 1689.

Mercy Lewis, a young woman with personal history with Burroughs, then charged the minister with also appearing as a specter to her in May. Burroughs allegedly went to Lewis to get her to sign a pact with the Devil as well as try to recruit other area girls into his diabolic scheme.

It seems clear that even if the barest of historical accounts of Minister Burroughs are accurate, he cut an unusual, potentially fiery and eccentric frontier character. Known for unusual strength, like lifting a long musket with a single hand or hoisting a filled barrel with just his fingers, Burroughs may have also been in conflict with the Puritan fathers over faith.

Accusations of witchcraft further enflamed the war scars of southern New England. Ann Putnam Jr. reportedly told investigators that Burroughs had bewitched the soldiers of Governor Edmund Andros in 1688-1689. Several figures key to the Salem witch hysteria, like Magistrates John Hathorne and Johnathan Corwin whose fact finding efforts in Maine may have led to the decision to leave Falmouth virtually defenseless during 1690s mass Abanaki assault, made a variety of mistakes during King William’s War. It seems that war-time shortcomings may have been projected onto Burroughs during the trial. Hathorne and Corwin were the lead inquisitors in Salem and pressed a confession from young Abigail Hobbs who claimed she had been approached by the Devil in the woods outside Falmouth, Maine four years earlier. Hobbs was yet another Casco Bay refugee driven to the Village. The solicitation in the woods was not happenstance as the woods were widely regarded as an evil place.


Was the psychological hysteria of Salem’s young women a manifestation of the stress of war, communal squabbles and frontier life? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a widely accepted psychological diagnosis that could be applied to the accusers. However, the individual nature of PTSD does not properly grapple with the group dynamic that gave credence to the wild accusations. Epidemic hysteria, a physical or psychological manic state manifested by a group, seems to fit the Salem case perfectly. Provoked by stress and nurtured by community values or worries, epidemic hysteria has several recorded instances in Europe, from a Black Death induced mass dance hysteria in German to the French “Barkers” who crawled around like dogs, social stress can spread like a thought virus through a community. Could the young women of Salem, reeling from war and reflecting the spiritual worries of their communities; and personal prejudices of their parents have turned to Burroughs as scapegoat? Was Mercy Lewis, who was familiar with Burroughs unconventional ministerial style as well as intimate to his household, the well from which the prejudice sprung from? Could Mercy Lewis, scarred by war and fallen from a position of affluence, also been witness to or possibly victim of Burroughs reputed ill temper during her brief time as maidservant?

Inarguably an unconventional clergyman Burroughs easily becomes the apostate minster of Satan in New England when portrayed by the vivid imaginations of young women, isolated and near a zone of conflict. Death loomed with each raid, Satan rallied his forces in the treeline and frontiersmen needed a strong spiritual figure to guide them in a time of war. Burroughs was effortlessly painted as a failed, questionable religious leader, with a rebellious desire to live apart from the civility and strict leadership of Massachusetts Bay. When viewed through the critical lens of Salem Village religious leaders, Burroughs became not only an enemy of the village, but the colony and the Puritan faith. The men of Massachusetts had gone to war in Maine and returned with losses, physical and financial. Stung by these defeats, it seems their judgment may have been clouded when presented with a figure as odd and spiritually unconventional as Burroughs. The wayward Burroughs was a casualty at the confluence of personal circumstances, religious prejudices and group psychological trauma that led to his execution as leader of the mythic witches of Salem Village.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Salem Witch Hysteria and PTSD Roots Pt. I

(Note: What follows is an expanded excerpt of a paper I wrote for a Magic and Witchcraft class.)

There have been scholarly or psychological explanations of the witch trials and hysteria in Salem and around New England. From petty neighbor disputes to hallucinogenic bread mold poisoning, there were seemingly as many explanations for the craze as there were witch-related indictments in New England during the 17th century. Some 234 indictments were handed down by New England authorities, including 36 executions, during the craze period.

One overlooked idea that has grown in acceptance is the idea of war-time psychological trauma, specifically to certain players in the Salem Witch hysteria. Not confined to the battlefield, but any dramatic tragic event, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder’s attributes include,”flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event,” according the Mayo Clinic. If we look closely at a pair in the Salem story we find a connection to the horrors of war and its possible influence on the Salem witch hysteria.

George Burroughs, Harvard graduate and unconventional preacher, arrived in Falmouth, Maine to lead a small congregation that included the prominent land-owning family of Phillip Lewis in 1674. Two years of instructions and Bible readings to the populations of friends and neighbors came to an end when war arrived in Falmouth. A splinter of King Phillip’s War racking southern New England pierced Casco Bay as Wabanaki raiding parties killed and put to the torch everything in their path including the homes of Burroughs congregation. The pastor and other Falmouth survivors sought refuge on a Casco Bay island. Burroughs, seeking security and stability in the wake of the decimation, traveled to Salem Village to become its pastor.

Burroughs time in Salem would be short lived as lack of pay and a disputed loan from the prominent Putnam family of Salem led the minister to return to a rebuilt Falmouth, Maine after three years. He would return to Maine, set a new phase in life and await new war.


Maine landowner Phillip Lewis welcomed daughter, Mercy, to the world in 1673. Raised in Falmouth, Maine up to the raids of King Phillip’s War, Mercy Lewis fled to Salem Town until 1683. Like Burroughs, Lewis returned to the reformed Falmouth, leading a typical frontier life just a short distance from the returned unordained minister until war broke out a second time in her young life.

Abanaki raiders and their New French allies swept into Maine in a series of raids in September of 1689 during King William’s War. Reaching back into Falmouth, now fortified and prepared for attacks, the Abanaki battled militia for six hours but were ultimately rebuffed. Once affluent, the family of Phillip Lewis was decimated by the wars of 1689 and 1690. Orphaned during the Falmouth incursions of the period, Mercy Lewis would find shelter in the home of George Burroughs for several months. Mercy remained with the pastor until she moved first to Beverly and then to Salem Village in employment of Thomas Putnam. Thomas Putnam, member of the family whom Burroughs financially battled, was father of nine children including his oldest, Anne Putnam Jr.

It was late January, 1692 when the girls of Salem Village began their convulsions of bewitchment and it was soon that Mercy Lewis, then 19, and 12-year old Ann Putnam Jr. joined the accusatory chorus.


In the conclusion of this post we’ll look at the accusations and how the confluence of war and witchery led to death.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Movable Type and the Witchcraft Craze

witches_624Starting this month and through early 2015 the British Museum will exhibit the portrayal of witches and their craft in artwork. The show will feature artists ranging from Durer to Goya and their interpretations of witches that haunted the night and cavorted with the Devil.

The exhibit piques my interest for several reasons as it returns my thinking to the idea of the advance of the printing press and the growth of belief in witchcraft. With the creation of the movable type, books became more widespread and could immediately influence populations. While the ability to read and write, literacy, varied from nation to nation there were always literati that could help disseminate new ideas. These new books also provided the first opportunity for widespread artist portrayals of the unholy acts ‘witches’ were accused of.

365px-Die_Hexe_(Albrecht_Dürer)The infamous misogynist witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum saw its first printing in 1486. By 1520 the work by Kramer and Sprenger was reprinted 14 times. Until the late 15th century ecclesiastic prosecutors had little central guidance on how to deal with witches until printing ideas and procedures more readily. The Malleus became the most well known guidebook of witch prosecution. The consolidation of European witchcraft views also came as works like chapbooks and pamphlets filled with sensational tales became more widely consumed. One such example was the case of the Chelmsford Witches, their trial and its sensational content, was printed for a wider audience than that which lived within ear shot. In the case of Matthew Hopkins, England’s self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, produced The Discovery of Witches in 1647 and his colleague, John Stearne contributed his tales of witch-hunting in 1648’s A Confirmation and Study of Witchcraft. The ideas spread in salacious and sensational ways were given credence by clever addition of “facts” such as in the case of the Malleus which tacked a Papal Bull on it’s introduction as pseudo-sanctioning.

MatthewhopkinsIn a span of five centuries ‘witches’ were either women deluded into thinking they were flying in the night, according to the Canon Episcopi, or simple practitioners of low magic; to devil cavorting heretics. It is this shift from harmless low, village magicians or healers to heretics that thrust witches into the forefront of public imagination. With the creation of the printing press, the stories, images and rules engraved the heretical activities as fact and punishable by torture or death. While it would be simplistic to claim the spread of printed materials caused the witch craze, what it did do was make “evidence” readily available and illustrated by images that thrilled and terrified.

witches

 

© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

 

Asymmetric Study: Odin as Proxy Satan

With missionary zeal Christians trekked across Europe seeking to convert pagan peoples with vigor in the first centuries of the last millennium. Some Christian missionaries of Europe in efforts to  expand the flock, without inciting absorbed peoples, seemed to embrace conversion with syncretic results by selectively incorporating pagan elements. This adaptation of earlier pagan traditions meant a more accessible monotheism for the peoples of Europe. However, the same rich pagan connective tissue of European syncretism became the building blocks for demonization of gods.

In a letter from Gregory I to Abbott Mellitus, the pontiff recommended the missionary and his brethren adopt a softer approach when converting pagans in England. Gregory believed missionaries like Mellitus should not destroy the pagan temples they encounter but simply remove the pagan gods and sanctify the old space in the name of God.  Later in that same letter, Gregory endorses a sacrifice of an oxen as part of a religious feast,” They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated…Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones.”  In Gregory’s own words the act of eating and drinking, already ritualized by the church with the concept of the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, was a sure way to win over pagan converts by embracing parts of their ritual feasting traditions.

 During the conversion period, Nordic pagan feasts featuring animal sacrifice and ritual drinking designed to honor the gods continued but ultimately took on a decidedly Christian purpose. Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway describes one such instance, “Odin’s toast was to be drunk first- that was for victory and power to the king- then Njordor’s and Freya, for good harvest and peace.” Ritual consumption of libations shifted from pagan to Christian, exemplified by Norwegian Gulaþing laws from the period of King Håkon in the tenth century where Christ and Mary were thanked for abundance and peace instead of Odin and Freya.

 If there is a single figure in paganism that so dramatically and liberally linked to the devil during the Middle Ages it is Odin.  Tried in Stockholm, Ragvald Odinskarl was accused of  robbing four Swedish churches in 1484. Importantly, records claimed that Ragvald Odinskarl had confessed to serving Odin for seven years. Linking the familiar name of Odin to the sacrilegious act of robbing  a church was no mistake. Who else would coax man into defiling or thieving from a church, but Satan. It was clear to the cosmopolitan population of Stockholm that Satan worked through the old ways.  An example of charm magic connected to the now demonic Odin was a thief finding runestick dating from the late 14th century invoking Odin’s name, as the “greatest among devils.” And throughout the period the chief of the Norse pantheon is known as “the devil Odin.”

Odin as tempter of sin in Christianized 15th century Sweden was furthered by the trial and execution of Erick Clauesson. The servant to a property owner, Clauesson was said to have renounced God and “all his servants” over nine Thursday nights. During those nights Clauesson became a servant of the devil, Odin, in order to gain riches. Convicted of the thefts and burned, Clauesson became a contemporary of Odinskarl in apostasy.

Like the examples of ecclesiastical disbelief in witchcraft, we see the idea of a monolithic approach to conversion of European pagans is far from absolute or unified. Yet when conversion was achieved, the old ways became the ways of Satan and a sure way to spiritual ruin or death.


The following is an excerpt from a personal paper on Witchcraft and Charm Magic. © Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Witchcraft: Centuries of Dissenting Views

blasphModern popular perception of witchcraft is almost entirely informed through popular culture, from The Crucible and Bewitched, to Charmed or WGN America’s Salem. To ferret fact from fiction, to understand the roots of America’s witchcraft hysteria, takes up volumes and is continually being reinterpreted by authors and academics. Yet if we look back at the debate on the validity of witchecraft we find some dramatically differing opinions: from pragmatic or dismissive, to the violently merciless.

Burchard, Bishop of Worms, handled beliefs that witches were all around acting with malice as lingering superstitions remedied by penance detailed in his widely distributed 10th century work, The Corrector. In it Burchard hypothetically questions the faithful by asking if they had consulted a magician or recited incantations over medicinal herbs. The remedies to these sins and other sins were variations on penance and fasting over a few days or up to seven years; a stark contrast to later beliefs that witchcraft was Satan’s direct manipulation of humanity and needed to be dealt with swiftly and without mercy.

Interestingly, Burchard delivers a penance for those who accept witches, “Do you believe that there are women who, like the one people call Holda, ride by night on special animals in the company of devils which have been changed into women, as some people— deceived by the Devil— believe? If you do so believe, you should do penance on the appointed days for a whole year.”

An early image of the witch in air speeding to a conjugal visit with Satan was dismissed as misguided spiritual activity according to the 10th century’s Canon Episcopi. When describing the strange image, compiler Regino of Prum wonders, “Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things which are only done in spirit happen in the body.”

The roots of the witches sabbat has its roots in the pagan past of Europe, in particular the idea of the Wild Hunt. In the Wild Hunt, Odin led an army of supernatural hunters or magical beings through the night sky in a tempest of action. Segue to post-conversion; the Wild Hunt becomes a demonic onslaught and a perfect model for a witch’s nightly ride to commune with Satan.

Some 500 years after Canon Episcopi the image of the sabbat as a Satanic orgy is real to Pierre de Lancre who, after putting 80 women to the torch, assembles a 200 page description of the sabbat. DeLancre believes women take flight nocturnally, assemble in numbers as large as 12,000, to meet the devil who they would greet with a osculum infame, before detailing their malefice, feast on babies before dancing naked and copulate with the three-horned goat that was Satan.

In 1486’s Malleus Maleficarum, Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spranger declare not believing in witches alone is heretical, “Whether the belief that there are such beings as witches is so essential a part of the Catholic faith that obstinately to maintain the opposite opinion manifestly savours of heresy.”

The deeply misogynistic work from Kramer and Spranger (which I will cover in a future post) essentially created a threat where there was none. Kramer and Spranger positioned themselves as unsurpassed witch prosecutors after leading 50 witchcraft executions in Germany. As they met a variety of resistence from communities and political leadership, the two men received a Papal bull from Innocent VIII. Calculating, Kramer and Sprenger attached the Bull to the front of Malleus Maleficarum, effectively sanctioning their writings and remedies for ridding Europe of Satan’s servants, witches.

 

Portions of the following post come from a paper I wrote two years ago for a Witchcraft and Charm Magic class.