An American Mystagogue

Psychic Plagues and Witch-Doctors: Part Three

Jan
18

were

 

Werewolf ~ c. 

“Some werewolves are hairy on the inside.”

Admittedly, after covering the first two parts of this blog series and taking a long holiday, I am daunted by the topic of the current post. You see, from the dawn of human history, monsters have existed. They have stalked us, they have killed us, they have destroyed. This much is their legacy, and I would say it even continues to this day.

If it strikes you as odd that I’d make these claims, consider for a moment that many monsters may in fact be human. Most of us are at least vaguely aware of the existence of  serial killers.  While certain killers are more famous than others, such as John Wayne Gacy  or Jeffrey Dahmer, there are others such as the schizophrenic killer Richard Chase, who would blend the organs of killed animals with coca-cola and drink it, to ensure his heart would not shrink; later Chase would go on to murder six people, engaging in necrophilia and cannibalism, and would be caught and imprisoned for the rest of his life until committing suicide. Before his death, Chase also claimed that he could apprehend the Nazi UFO’s responsible for his actions with a radar gun.

These actions seem to echo similar occurrences such as in the case of Peter Stumpp, who would also be called the “Werewolf of Bedburg”. There is not much known about Stumpp, save for what was published in an English pamphlet in 1590. The details of the pamphlet reveal that Stumpp was a wealthy farmer who was accused and found guilty of serial killing and cannibalism. Stumpp was placed on a torture rack and questioned.

While one must keep in mind that under torture, what a person says cannot always be taken at face value. There are extreme memory issues that arise from intense interrogation, let alone from something like the rack. But that is not to say that the information is false either, and I would personally think that out of all things, autobiographical information would be one to remain strongly in many situations; and of course one cannot rule out entirely that one says anything under such torture to end it as quickly as possible, even if it ends in death.

However, Stumpp confessed to having practiced black magic, and to having a belt that the devil had given him which allowed him to turn into “the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body, and mighty paws.” Interesting to note he said likeness. But I digress. Stumpp also confessed to sucking on the blood of animals and humans, and to killing, dismembering and eating his victims. He also claimed to have had relations with a succubus. Perhaps these two people, Peter Stumpp and Richard Chase have nothing in common, or perhaps they are both examples of human monsters.

rack

Another modern example of such human activities is the case of Swift Runner, a Cree trapper from Alberta, Canada who killed and ate his wife and five children after his son died, while they were starving in the harsh winter. Swift Runner would be hung, saying before he died that “I am the least of men and do not merit even being called a man.” He would later be considered to have what was called “Wendigo Psychosis”, a controversial culture-bound syndrome.  The wendigo, a  half-man beast associated with winter and famine is found in the Algonquian peoples legends and was described by Ojibwe teacher and scholar Basil Johnston as such;

“The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Weendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody [….] Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.”

We already know that humans are capable of the heinous crimes such as those of Peter Stumpp, Swift Runner and Richard Chase, but what of the belief that one turns into a werewolf? Well, if you think that is outside the realm of observable reality, you’d be wrong. Clinical lycanthropy, or the delusional belief that an individual has, that they can turn into or are an animal, be it wolf, snake or what have you. This actually happens to exist, though as far as I can tell violence is by no means an inherent trait. However, as we have seen with my blog post on both the Dancing Plague and Witch Epidemics, the susceptibility of the human psyche to cultural, or informational influences is extreme, as are the ramifications of those susceptibilities. I would not find it out of the question to think that, plagued by clinical lycanthropy that a person in the time period of the Witch hunts in Europe (during which lycanthropy was a known, though not as common, as a threat and was an accusation placed on suspected witches and others) would interpret the feeling of being able to turn into an animal as related to devilry, as perhaps would a non-lycanthropic compulsive serial killer. In our society such an individual, a clinical lycanthrope that is, might not see such a belief as necessarily violent or cursed, and as such might not act out on it quite the same way.

And of course, there were various cures for these lycanthropes as well as ‘witch- doctors’ (as always, the term is used loosely and with respect to the individual beliefs of various people) who were tasked to cure the afflicted, which many times actually succeeded, going to show the psychical aspect of such afflictions. Exorcists and medieval doctors were known to cure lycanthropy, though in the latter’s case the patients were known to suffer high casualty rates during the ‘medical’ process. Folk-Cures from various geographical locations ranged from putting nails through the afflicted’s hands (in Sicily) to calling them by their Christian name three times (Germany).

In the case of wendigos, there was a famous case involving a man named Jack Fiddler, also called Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow, who was a “ogimaa” (chief/shaman) of the Sucker doodem (totem) among the Anishinaabe. Fiddler was rumored at the time to be known to be able to effectively “cast out wendigo demons” and after investigation by Canadian Mounties was charged with murder for euthanizing those who believed themselves (and were believed by the community) to have been possessed by a wendigo spirit, which would cause them to crave human flesh. 

~ Seth Moris

Psychic Plagues and Witch-Doctors: Part Two

Nov
29

witches

~ Wiesensteig Witch Trials. Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland (1585), by Johann Jakob Wick

“I am no more a witch than you are a wizard. If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink.” ~ Sarah Good

“Sometime the witch hunting takes on atrocious dimensions — the Nazi persecution of Jews, the Salem witch trials, the Ku Klux Klan scapegoating of blacks. Notice, however, that in all such cases the persecutor hates the persecuted for precisely those traits that the persecutor displays with a glaringly uncivilized fury. At other times, the witch hunt appears in less terrifying proportions—the cold war fear of a “Commie under every bed,” for instance. And often, it appears in comic form—the interminable gossip about everybody else that tells you much more about the gossiper than about the object of gossip. But all of these are instances of individuals desperate to prove that their own shadows belong to other people.” ~ Ken Wilber

 

Witch hunts. The words alone can bring to mind events ranging from the communist Red Scares in America, to the accusations of blood libel performed by Jews when Christian children would go missing, to the oft cited Salem Witch Trials  and beyond. The common theme is that misfortune strikes a cohesive social group of humans, and between them panic is escalated to proportions that cause them to enter into a mindset of fear, paranoia and guilt placing. For when something goes wrong, there must be a reason? To most people it is not simple enough to chalk things up to happenstance, or to accept that misfortune is an inevitable aspect of mortality. Without conscious planning, or coordination, they manage to root out a “witch” (archetypal in form) to blame the catastrophes on and often to kill so that they can break the curse they lay over themselves with their fear.

But what is a witch? While I may have alluded to the fact that the idea of ‘witch’ as in actuality being a sort of socio-cultural role within a group of people, history presents us with the common occurrence of catastrophes being labeled acts of witchcraft, black magic or maleficium. The term witch is not meant in this way to be used to denote actual workers of what they consider magic, since even practitioners of folk-magic or traditional medicine are generally accepted as “good” until opinion of them shifts otherwise. There is little evidence that the majority of those accused with witchcraft ever considered themselves witches, since the term itself was used to denote a wicked or evil person. One thing I’ve learned about people over the years, is that it is nearly impossible to find someone who actually considers themselves evil, barring pseudo-romantic anti-heroes who oft times do not even do anything particularly ‘wicked’. Since being a witch was in antiquity often a label placed upon a person who was the target of witch hysteria, or a way to explain crops failing or other natural disasters, we can safely assume for the most part that a “witch” (as used in antiquity) is actually more akin to a type of mass-fed psychic tulpa, which may account for more of their fantastical attributes, since they would not be flesh and blood entities, but rather psychological ones free from the restraints of physics and able to appear to the hysterical people in any way the people projected.

One case of witch-hysteria was the Wiesensteig witch trials of 1562-63, which took place in Germany. After social and political upheavals, natural disaster and disease, Count Ulrich von Helfenstein who was the leader of the city decided the reason for such calamity must be witchcraft. After subsequent disasters, over a period of about forty years, one-hundred-and-seven people (mostly women) were killed publicly. Their confessions were garnered before hand through torture.

Another example of ‘witch’ hysteria can be found in the Biami tribe of Western Province of Papua New Guinea, where as recent as a century ago ‘magic men’ would be located via an ecstatic ritual trance of the local spiritual leader, known as the “song leader”. When a disaster would occur, and the suspicion of puri-puri (magic) was high, the song-leader would follow a “spirit guide”, to the ‘magic man’ who had caused the calamity. They would then kill and eat the suspected offender, complete in their knowledge they had ended the “threat” of “witchcraft”.

Another more recent example would be the “witch” killings in Africa. 

And of course one cannot leave out the Salem Witch Trials. Other than going into the most commonly covered parts I would only like to direct you towards one of the accused, Sarah Good. A woman who had been married to a laborer who died, she later re-married and her new husband, William Good, were forced to take upon themselves the debt accrued by the previous husband. Not being able to pay off the debt they were forced into homelessness and into a life of begging. The only social interaction Sarah Good had with the other residents of Salem was when she was asking them for shelter, food, or work. One of the pieces of evidence towards her being a “witch” was that when refused charity, she would walk away muttering to herself.

bendan

~ Witches, Hans Baldung (1485–1545)

However, not all “witch plagues” were solved by blood sacrifice and scapegoating, such is the case with the Benandanti or “Good Walkers” of the Friuli district of Italy between the 16th and 17th centuries. Benandanta were thought to be born with a caul over their heads, a sign of their magical abilities. One Thursday a year, the Benandanti would gather to take part in a group ritual in which their ‘spirits’ would fly through the air to combat malevolent witches and ensure agrarian prosperity. Outside of these nights, they were still thought to have magical healing powers.
The effect of these kinds of figures is that they would help alleviate if not completely dispel local witch tulpas.  Unfortunately they were found by the Catholic Church to also be themselves malevolent witches, first coming into attention of the local priest by the name of Don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza, due to a charm to cure illness that was made by benandanta Paolo Gaspurotto and given to the miller Pietro Rotaro. Interested in the folk-magic, Sgabarizza questioned Gaspurotto.

“Sometimes they go out to one country region and sometimes to another, perhaps to Gradisca or even as far away as Verona, and they appear together jousting and playing games; and… the men and women who are the evil-doers carry and use the sorgham stalks which grow in the fields, and the men and women who are benandanti use fennel storks; and they go now one day and now another, but always on Thursdays, and… when they make their great displays they go to the biggest farms, and they have days fixed for this; and when the warlocks and witches set out it is to do evil, and they must be pursued by the benandanti to thwart them, and also to stop them entering the houses, because if they do not find clear water in the pails they go into the cellars and spoil the wine with certain things, throwing filth in the bungholes.”

~Sgabarizza’s  record of what Gaspurotto informed him, 1575.
The Catholic authorities however remained skeptical of if the nocturnal flights actually occurred, but remained worried about the witchcraft of the Benandanti. On either account, the Benandanti were eventually denounced but luckily avoided death penalties, instead being forced to give public abjuration and penance or having no action taken against them at all save for cultural disapproval, the term benandanti later becoming equivalent to ‘witch’.
Hopefully insight into historical ‘witch epidemics’ will aid us in the modern age and future to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But considering that many people still think that the death penalty deters crime, or considering the “witch” killings of Africa, it seems our taste for blood sacrifice, for killing others to put one’s own delusional mind at ease, has no signs in the human collective of slowing down completely.
~ Seth Moris

Psychic Plagues and Witch-doctors: Part One

Nov
25

vitus

~ 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.

maniax

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).

para

~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

Psychic Plagues and Witch-doctors: Part Zero

Nov
22

dancing mania

 “A depiction of dancing mania, on the pilgrimage of epileptics to the church at Molenbeek.”

 

Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

 

“Thus, the cause of the disease chorea lasciva is a mere opinion and idea, assumed by imagination, affecting those who believe in such a thing. This opinion and idea are the origin of the disease both in children and adults. In children the case is also imagination, based not on thinking but on perceiving, because they have heard or seen something. The reason is this: their sight and hearing are so strong that unconsciously they have fantasies about what they have seen or heard.”

~ Paracelsus, on the Dancing Mania

This will be the first section of a “five” part blog series I will be writing on the topic of “Psychic Plagues and Witch-Doctors”. This will serve as an introduction firstly into what I mean when I say “Psychic Plagues” and “Witch-Doctors and explanations for my word choice.

The first part of the series will focus on what is known as the Dancing Plagues or Dancing Manias that occurred in Europe from the 1300’s and intermittently popping up until about the 1600’s. I had been interested in them before, being one of the classic examples of mass hysteria and a culture-bound syndrome, but recently had found a free, public domain audiobook on the LibriVox website and after giving it a good listen, found that this subject spans multiple incidents throughout human history, continuing on to the modern age.

“Psychic plagues’ and the witch-doctors that attempted to treat the illnesses could be the topic of blogs on their own, but I will stick to only four for this series. The second, third, and fourth parts will cover Witch epidemics, Lycanthropy and Modern Examples (TBA) respectively.

You might be wondering why I chose to call it a  “psychic plague”. The answer is that I use the term psychic as is meant in the term ‘psychology’. In modern terms we call it the ‘mind’, but psyche originally meant the ‘soul’, which in turn has the attributes of our concept of ‘mind’ and its cognitions. In short, different terms for the same phenomena in at least this instance, while not being true for ideas on an ‘immortal soul’ which is a different concept altogether. The reason for using the word plague is because what I will be talking about is not the psyche, but rather things that are contracted, and spreads in the psyche of many. The plague descriptor serves as a useful analogy due to the epidemiological nature of such things.

You may also be scratching your head at the term ‘witch-doctors”. In this context I am referring to those who treat ailments or illnesses that exist and are transmitted through the psyche/mind/soul and who utilize their own control of the psyche/mind/soul to actualize psychic/mental health.   While the term is usually used in a derogatory or pejorative term to denote quackery, I choose to address it as a sort of cross-cultural ‘role’ that can be filled by Latin american Curanderos, modern Therapists, Christian exorcists, Mesmerists/Hypnotists, and many, many more types of traditions who deal with “psychic medicine” either in addition to or individually from “material medicine”, though in truth, the two are intrinsically linked in a way that prevents isolation from each other even if the connection remains ignored. Psychosomatic and somatospychic loops essentially, reliant on each other for their existence. The reason why “witch” doctor is preferable to other terms will be clarified to a greater extent in the coming “Witch epidemic” post, as well as what it means in a historical sense to be ‘witched’. I will also ask the reader to keep in mind that the methods of said figures will not always be agreeable to one’s own morality; for example, human sacrifice and projection of guilt upon innocents to ward off a psychic epidemic, something that is sadly not isolated to one culture.

witch

~Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson

While many of these traditions are considered ‘shams’ or ‘woo’ by many, it must be taken into account that whether or not the person in the role of ‘witch-doctor’ actually believes in what they are doing to dispel the illnesses, if it is performed the right way the ‘patient’ will indeed free themselves of the psychic distress. The issue that a large amount of people take with these kinds of figures is that many ‘witch-doctors’ in the ‘modern world’ are sham artists that try to convince their potential patients that the cure will work on the ‘materia’ at a level of success that they simply will not achieve, will usually also demanding large amounts of money for the attempt. This may be con-artistry, but I ask the reader to keep in mind that most if not all forms of con-artistry rely to one degree or another on mimicking an extant skill or procedure, and that generally it is easier to pretend to be an expert (someone whose purpose is to know something others don’t) than to actually be an expert, so it is inevitable that more charlatans exist than professionals. With the added pressure that many charlatans actually believe that they can do what they claim (with or without proof, on what can only be called a delusion) it is no shock that people distrust the very idea.

I hope to illustrate however, how psychic outbreak, epidemics of the mind, have not only risen up multiple times in history but continue to do so; I will also attempt to elucidate the roles that historical/cultural ‘witch-doctors’ have had in treating these outbreaks, past and present.

Stay tuned for the next parts!

~ Seth Moris