16 October 2011



Euan Cameron. Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason and Religion 1250-1750. Oxford University Press, 2011.

William J. Birnes and Joel Martin. The Haunting of Twentieth Century America: Tom Doherty Associates, 2011.

Claude Lecouteux. Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and Ghostly Processions of the Undead. Inner Traditions, 2011.

Euan Cameron notes in his introduction that superstition is a tricky concept, but as the definitions in the online Oxford Dictionary ("unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious or imaginary especially in connection with religion; religious belief or practice founded on ignorance; more particularly an irrational religious belief or practice, a tenet, scruple or practice founded on fear and ignorance") show it revolves around the ideas of false religious belief and practice.
For the theologians of the late medieval and early modern period, superstition was essentially the continuing practices of folk religion and folk magic (charms, divinations, unorthodox interpretations of Christian practices etc.), which were even then seen as hangovers from the pre-Christian past, and the beliefs in a vast range of petty supernaturals such as fairies and the like, which were regarded as being essentially morally neutral.

Cameron introduces his book by painting a general picture of life in the medieval period and the crises which led to superstitious beliefs and activity; illness, injury death, dearth, loss, sex, birth, madness etc., the fundamental insecurities of life in the pre-modern period. He then undertakes his major survey of the literature on superstition; this literature giving us a glimpse, through a glass darkly, of the actual beliefs of the masses in this period and traces the various campaigns waged by the professional religious against this folk belief, and the many disputations they held among themselves as to what constituted unorthodox superstition.

The major argument deployed was that all such beliefs and practices were delusions of the devil. The real spiritual world was divided into the wholly good angels and the wholly evil demons, with no middle ground in between, and that all non approved religious or magical practices, however apparently benign, such as charms for healing and protection, were essentially diabolical. The line between what was orthodox and what was superstition remained a debatable land, one which rival scholastic theologians could engage in vigorous debates over.

With the arrival of Protestantism, the line was drawn sharper, Protestant theologians ascribed much Catholic belief, including the power of the saints, the nature of the mass, the role of relics and imagery into the realm of superstition. With the Protestant abolition of purgatory, ghosts too were handed over to the devil, and belief in them became diabolical superstition. The appearance of the ghost in Hamlet - "spirit of health or goblin damned" - expresses the ambiguities that many must have felt at this time, with Protestant, Catholic and folkloric concepts all jostling for expression.

If Protestants derided Catholics for superstition, Catholic writers derided Protestantism for superstition and heresy in turn. There were however, Cameron argues, many ideas they could agree on, or where disputes crossed sectarian lines. These included the nature of spirits, whether angelic or demonic, and the general consensus was that they were pure disembodied spirit or intellect. There was perhaps rather less agreement on the exact powers of the devil, though it would seem that the consensus, based on theology and Aristotelian philosophy was that the devil could not effect fundamental changes in the physical world, e.g. by levitating people or turning them into animals, though he was capable of baffling the senses in order to give the illusion that these things had happened.

Cameron argues that this orthodox view limiting the powers of the devil, claiming for example that witches rides were illusory, came under challenge from the witch hunters, who tended to play up the dark powers.

A major change occurred among the intellectual elite starting in the late 17th century. There was a polarisation - on the one hand there were philosophers like Hobbes and Becker who essentially argued that all belief in supernatural creatures and forces other than God himself was superstition; there were no devils nor witches, nor angles and all superstitious beliefs and practices were no longer possibly effective but demonic, but wholly delusory. On the other there were those such as Henry Moore and Joseph Glanville who turned to the very folk beliefs that previous generations of Christian anti-superstition activists had being trying to suppress as evidences for a supernatural world. Cameron argues that they turned not to the theological literature of superstition, but to the unregulated materials of the witch trials.

He also makes an even more important point, as the new sciences demolished the old Aristotelian world view, and eroded the power of religious dogma, they opened up new possibilities. The "anti saduccee" campaigners such as Moore, Glanville, Wesley (and Robert Kirk who should also have been mentioned here) turned to the new empirical philosophy to argue for the existence and powers of supernatural forces. Others, such as Aubrey and generations of folklorists following him, have harvested such stories as 'pagan survivals' and as examples of a vanishing age, worthy of preservation.

Cameron ends his book at 1750, with just a short afterword, where it is clear that he is quite unfamiliar with the topics discussed in Magonia. Where he so familiar he would see that the old beliefs and the old debates about them go on. Psychical Researchers considered More and Glanville to be their spiritual ancestors, as "the first psychical researchers", though their emphasis on witchcraft is usually abandoned. With the State no longer able to regulate religion, the old folk beliefs could flourish, become urbanised and professionalised.

Even the old theological campaign to mark out all such folk beliefs and practices as the work of the devil continues among evangelical and other conservative Christians, who are happy to label anything from astrology to tarot cards as snares of the devil and the first steps into entry into the Church of Satan. This has a slightly secularised equivalent in the alien abduction movement as promoted by the late Budd Hopkins and his confreres, in which all sorts of dreams, visions and spiritual encounters are proclaimed to be the illusions of the demonic greys, who are awarded powers of such vastness as would have appalled the medieval writers, who would no doubt have regarded granting such powers to the devil as the rankest heresy.

This is a major scholarly work, with over 100 pages of notes, and a large bibliography. It is not one to be read lightly, and probably its main readership will be among students of theology and late medieval and early modern history, but a wider readership might benefit from the effort.

If anyone doubted that the folk beliefs and practices that the clerical anti-superstition campaigners railed against are still with us, they could consult the book by Birnes and Martin, wherein all sorts of wonders are recounted. Many would have been familiar to More and Glanville, in content and in style. Herein are tales of ghosts and hauntings, astrology, dreams and premonitions, folk healing, based on the kinds of empirical enquiry used by the latter. Like them these authors mine not scholarly works, but the modern folklore of the paperback and the journalistic interview. It also shares with More and Glanville the entirely uncritical nature of the compilation, as witness for example the inclusion of nonsense about the alleged Nazi secret weapon 'The Bell' or the Philadelphia experiment/Allende letters.

These are indications that such compilations are produced less to provide evidences to convince the Sadducees (or Pelicanists as they are now called) but as forms of entertainment, at the same level of credibility and care for truth as the celebrity gossip which dominates much of what are rather laughably miscalled 'newspapers'.

Despite this, we can still read between the lines to sense the continuation of traditions. Surely Edgar Cayce for example was in fact very much in the tradition of the village cunning man, a folk healer cum prophet who communed with the supernatural realm while in altered states of consciousness. Perhaps the only novel idea introduced in the folk paranormal in the twentieth century has been that of reincarnation, imported from India via Theosophy.

One of the superstitions that the religious authorities of the medieval and early modern period had to contend with, and sought to demonize, was that of the ghostly procession, the subject of Claude Lecouteux's book (first published in France in 1999). The central theme of this belief was, as he puts it, "During the long winter nights a strange and unidentified troop could be heard passing outside, over the land or through the air. Anyone caught by surprise in the open fields or depths of the woods saw a bizarre procession of foot soldiers and knights, some covered in blood and others carrying their heads beneath their arms".

Lecouteux argues that this is a belief that takes "a thousand and one forms" and goes back into the depths of history, and he then seeks to trace that history and the mutations of the tale, noting how, indeed, clerical and other Christian writers have altered the stories to suite theological orthodoxy and concerns.

One early form of the belief in the night host was that of the "ladies of the night", a belief that seems to have been held by women across much of Europe in the early middle ages, that when they appeared to be asleep in their bed's, they or their spiritual doubles went in and out of neighbours' houses in processions led by a a sort of goddess figure variously named as Holda, Diana or Herodias.

This secret night procession is one of a number of permutations of what one might call the secret night journey or more generally the secret night adventure, the idea, based on dreams and hypnogogic visions, that in the night, when apparently asleep, individuals take part in various fantastic adventures, such as attending witches sabbats, or in more modern times attending black masses, making spiritual journeys to meet Himalayan masters, or being abducted by UFOs.

The author uses this as the springboard for a wide ranging discussion of the various armies of the night. These include the legions of the demons, the troops of the dead, phantom armies, demonic beasts etc. More specific motifs associated with the hunt are the diabolical huntsman who hunts down and abducts the souls (and sometimes bodies and souls) of sinners, the wild huntsman a gigantic figure who hunts down fairies and dwarfs and the cursed huntsman who must hunt for ever without rest. These motifs coalesce, separate and coalesce again in different permutations.

One of the core stories that develops is that of King Herla, the British king who is invited to a wedding feast of a dwarf, when he returns he and his retinue find centuries have passed, and if they dismount from their horses they fall to dust, so must ride for ever. In more Christian versions of the eternal riders, the procession is a sort of mobile purgatory, in which the participants are tortured in various ways appropriate to their sins.

Lecouteux traces the developments and turns of this myth through the writings of medieval and early modern chroniclers, chiefly from France, Germany and Scandinavia, with some references to further afield. This aspect is very thorough, but the absence of much material from Britain and Ireland is notable, with exception of Herla and a brief mention of Herne the Hunter. Though he does note the motif of the phantom host depositing a human child or limb, and a couple of examples of people being transported by the host, he does not seem to be aware of the Highland sluagh where these motifs are common, and persist into modern times. The sluagh is presumably the basis of the ballad of Tam Lin, who is rescued from the fairy host by his lover.

He is rather skeptical of the claim that the wild hunt, or rather its leader, given names such as Hennequin or Hellequin, was descended from Odin, and suggests rather that it might have originated in memories and myths of warrior fraternities.

The Hunt lived on in folklore well into the 19th century, with new motifs added, as Lecouteux notes, the riders and their accoutrements could be replaced by phantom carriages propelled by demonic (sometimes headless) horses. The legends of phantom ships may also have developed from notions of the host of the dead. One very dark motif of the hunt not discussed here is that in which the prey of the phantom hunt were the souls of unbaptised, presumably still-born, babies.

The last appearance of the classical wild hunt may well have been in the song Ghost Riders in the Sky written by Stan Jones in 1948, which was often played on the radio in the 1950s and 1960s, and is said to have been based on a cowboy legend, here damned cowboys and demonic cattle replace the hounds. In other, dimmer mutations it lives on. The sluagh seem to survive in Latin American stories of people being teleported by strange clouds, the greys of the alien abduction stories are modern fairy folk, and like them have much of the dead about them, Hellequin becomes the comic figure harlequin and lived on in pantomime and Pierrot shows, a reminder of the far from fay origins of many fairy stories.

Despite Lecouteux's three fold typology, I suspect a simpler division is between that of the aerial host, presumably founded on storms, storm clouds, flocks of migrating birds, the aurora etc., and the troop of the dead. The latter often complete with hangers-on, carts and the like, suggests more the traumas of real life conflict, and the dispirited retreats of defeated armies and civilian refugees from conflict zones. In that sense the host of the dead can be seen on our television screens almost any night.

These three books remind us that the past lives on in a landscape haunted by dreams and memes. -- Peter Rogerson.

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