An American Mystagogue

Psychic Plagues and Witch-doctors: Part One



~ Saint Vitus, Patron Saint of Dancers, Comedians, Actors, and Epileptics; often an intercessor for those suffering from the Dancing Mania.

“The effects of the Black Death had not yet subsided, and the graves of millions of its victims were scarcely closed, when a strange delusion arose in Germany, which took possession of the minds of men, and, in spite of the divinity of our nature, hurried away body and soul into the magic circle of hellish superstition.

It was a convulsion which in the most extraordinary manner infuriated the human frame, and excited the astonishment of contemporaries for more than two centuries, since which time it has never reappeared.

It was called the dance of St. John or of St. Vitus, on account of the Bacchantic leaps by which it was characterised, and which gave to those affected, whilst performing their wild dance, and screaming and foaming with fury, all the appearance of persons possessed.  It did not remain confined to particular localities, but was propagated by the sight of the sufferers, like a demoniacal epidemic, over the whole of Germany and the neighbouring countries to the north-west, which were already prepared for its reception by the prevailing opinions of the time.”

~ Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker, The Black Death and The Dancing Mania

         One of the oddest and most readily available to research cases of a ‘psychic plague’ is the outbreak of what became known in various forms as St. Vitus’ dance, St. John’s dance, tarantism or the dancing mania that swept through Europe between the 1300’s and 1600’s. The mania itself would die down and rise up in those times intermittently, eventually fading from existence around the same time as the Age of Enlightenment.

The first record of the dancing mania was in 1374, in which a group of men and women from Germany were reported to have coalesced in Aix-la-Chapelle and started dancing in hand-held circles until they would collapse from exhaustion and lay in the streets. While caught up in the dancing frenzy dancers would allegedly be unable to see or hear what was going on around them and would be plagued by a variety of phenomena they attributed to demonic presence, including the perception that they were submerged in a river of blood, seeing the Heavens open up, and experiencing other demonic or spiritual phenomena.

Months after the incident in Aix-la-Chapelle, another group of people numbering near five-hundred were seen to have developed the dancing plague in Cologne, Germany, as well as another case in which about a thousand people reportedly caught the mania in Metz, France. Vagabonds were known to either have contracted the mania or have pretended to do so, traveling city to city for aid and succor against the ailment, and thusly spreading it even further.

While it may be tempting to say that they suffered from some chemical or microbial illness that caused such things, the rapid spread of the mania and subsequent peaks and valleys of its manifestation make it unlikely; this is partly due to the fact that the dancing mania would manifest itself in wildly different ways depending on the culture and people of the area affected, in the end reflecting the mindset of those involved. In some areas seeing the color red was known to have sent the afflicted into spasms of rage, and other colors having an affect (though this was found mostly among Italians, and less in Germans). Music was known to send some into frenzied dancing, some songs about the sea when heard would compel the afflicted to throw themselves into rivers, while it would put other afflicted into a deep fugue.


One of the few common themes in the mania that seems to have had a widespread anchor were the lowering of cognitive and social inhibitions (peasants left their farms work, children ignored their parents, unmarried women engaged in revelry and the dissolution of gender norms), making this in my opinion a sort of Dionysian-archetypal outbreak, ecstatic altered states of consciousness that releases one from the chains of society and self-responsibility. The subtle, unconscious draw towards the ecstatic revelry bringing people to the ‘infected’, and the belief that it was a ‘force’ that existed beyond the mind kept people ‘infected’. This was probably triggered by the recent experience with the Black Plague that one must remember had just recently ended before the first accounts of the dancing mania. The black plague wasn’t something you chose, it was something that happened TO you, and the dancing mania was treated in the same way, even if the affected were unconsciously drawn to the Bacchanalian frenzies after an era of horrible death and disease. I am not suggesting that this unconscious attraction and subsequent mental over-ride by the psychic plague was not ‘real’ or that those afflicted did not suffer from it, since there were even casualties such in the case of the Dancing Plague of 1518 among other incidents, in which some of the afflicted danced themselves to death, from strokes or exhaustion.

This may also account for the negligible effect of subsequent exorcisms performed upon the dancing maniacs. Somewhere between a third to a half of Europeans were killed by the plague, possibly instilling broken faith in the clergy (if not God) who failed to deliver their flocks from the black death leading to the ineffectual ability of the priests to dispel what was considered another ‘plague’, authority being a key component to psychological witch-doctoring and general hypnotism.

However, the mania did not go untreated. Exorcisms were not the only attempt at cures. In Italy, where the belief was that the mania was caused by the bite of a tarantula, traveling musicians who catered to this market explicitly (to those afflicted with what was known as Tarantism)  would play music for the afflicted who would dance ecstatically until the music ended, sometimes because of the exhaustion of the musicians, and would instantly fall into painful fugues. Binding the afflicted in strips of cloth was also employed. Dancing and praying to St. Vitus was also used to treat some of the afflicted, with various results.

One form of treatment was devised by a man named Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, or better known as Paracelsus, a German-Swiss physician, botanist, alchemist and occultist of the Renaissance who had divided the dancing plague into three categories, Chorea imaginativa (stemming from the imagination), Chorea lasciva (stemming from unconscious desire and will) and Chorea naturalis (stemming from biological disease).


~Paracelsus, copy of a lost portrait, Born- 1493  Died-1541

To treat St. Vitus’ dance, Paracelsus devised of a psychological ritual that removed any Catholic trappings, notably doing away with prayers for intercession from St. Vitus, which reflected a growing animosity towards the Roman Catholic Church.  Those afflicted with Chorea imaginativa were told to create an image of themselves in resin or wax and to focus all of their own sins  upon the image before burning it to ash.  Those affected by Chorea lasciva were recommended by Paracelsus to endure fasting and a general stripping of their liberties. Paracelsus’ opinion was that the afflicted should be placed in solitary confinement and forced to sit in uncomfortable positions until such a time in which the misery of doing such would result in feelings of sincere penitence. This may sound harsh, but he also warned against doing anything that would anger the afflicted on the basis that infuriating them would cause the illness to be worsened, perhaps illustrating that such afflicted may have participated willingly in the cure.

~ Seth Moris

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