the devil

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.



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