Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hounds of God: The Werewolf Ritual According to Thiess



In his testimony to the Inquisition of Livonia in 1691 (or 1692), a man called Thiess described in some detail what it was that werewolves of his acquaintance did. He was able to do this as he was accounted among their number himself. This may be the reason that Thiess was so emphatic that the werewolves were not the Devil's dogs, but were the hounds of God. In the following, the translation I am working from is found in an appendix to Daniel Gershenson's Apollo the Wolf-God. It is not, therefore, directly quoted from Thiess, but rather the Inquisition explaining what was said, with their paraphrases and assumptions coloring the testimony. Nonetheless, it is fairly apparent, I think, what was meant, and it is mostly plainly spoken.

To begin with, the werewolf was initiated. Thiess said that this was the ritual: “He [that is, Thiess or another werewolf when he was initiating someone] need only drink one toast to someone, breathe into the mug three times and say: 'You will be like me.' Then, if the other fellow took the mug from him he would [become a werewolf]…”I plan to discuss the initiation of werewolves in the future, as there are other werewolf initiation rituals recorded, but this one has the virtue of extreme simplicity! One note that he made was that the initiation had to be voluntary, “Truly he could not initiate anyone unless he agreed and showed a desire for it, like all the people who had already approached him to ask if he would leave it to them, since he was old and destitute.” Clearly, being a werewolf was considered a desirable state by at least some of the peasants in Livonia.

He was asked if there were women and girls among the werewolves, and he replied: “There were indeed women among the werewolves, but girls were not taken in, but used as flying pucks or dragons, and so sent away to carry off the gift of divine favor for the milk and the butter.” That is to say, there were women who were werewolves, but young girls were instead treated as couriers of a sort for the substances over which the werewolves fought the sorcerers (as we shall see). This is, moreover, an interesting passage, with some fascinating implications. The young girls were “used as flying pucks [that is, elf-like spirits] or dragons”. This passage might imply that these rites occurred in the context of a public or semi-public festival setting, where people of all ages would participate in the games and festivities, though other interpretations are probably possible. Also, as with Lupercalia and Imbolc (which, according to Prof. Bernhardt-House in “Imbolc: A New Interpretation”, found in Cosmos 18, pp.57-76, or summarized on pp.8-9 of this document (pdf), may have an original meaning of “butter-wolf” or “milk-wolf” – certainly, this interpretation is supported by the etymology), we find yet another instance where werewolves are explicitly connected with dairy products. Of course, the most significant point of this passage is that there were women as well as men who were werewolves.

Another part of that question was whether there were any Germans among the werewolves, and Thiess said that no, there were not, because, “The Germans did not participate in their community, but had a different Hell-hole of their own.” That is to say, the werewolves were connected to the specific land on which they lived.

One of the first questions that the Inquisitors asked Thiess was, “What shape did they assume when they changed into wolves?” His answer is a little meandering:

They had a wolfskin that they put on, and he had been brought one by a farmer of Marienburg who had come from Riga, but had given it over to a farmer from Alla some years before. [This may be a prevarication, as Thiess implied in the details about initiation later on in his testimony, which I gave above.]… [W]hen a more special inquiry was made he changed his tale and asserted that they simply went off into the woods, took off their usual clothing, and became wolves at once. Then they ran around as wolves and tore any horses or livestock they met with to pieces. … [O]ften twenty or thirty of them would go around together and eat a whole lot; they would have their meal on the road and roast it.

When further questioned with, “How could they manage [roasting and eating the animals like human beings do] if they had wolves' heads and feet, as he had said they did, and could not hold a knife or prepare a spit or do the rest of the work needed?” Thiess replied, “They didn't need any knives for it, because they tore the meat with their teeth and stuck the pieces on whatever sticks they found with their feet, and when they ate it they were like people once again, except that they did not use bread; they took salt with them from the servants' quarters when they went out.” In this passage, Thiess is telling us that they did not exactly change their shapes in a physical, naïve sense. They carried salt with them. They roasted and ate food like people do, though they ate with their hands, tearing the meat away from the roasted carcass. There is a disconnect between what the Inquisitors are expecting to hear and what Thiess is trying to tell them. From this passage, it becomes apparent that “becoming a wolf” was a social and functional definition, not a descriptive one. It is possible, of course, that I am misinterpreting what is here (there is the matter of “they were like people once again” for instance, which I am taking as indicative of the confusion of communication in which the Inquisitors are hearing what they expect to hear while Thiess is saying things in the terminology in which he is used to conceptualizing these issues; another person might interpret that phrase literally and indicative of perfect communication between the illiterate peasant werewolf and the learned Inquisition), but I submit that, at the very least, my interpretation is plausible. Further, there is this exchange toward the end of the recorded testimony:

Question: How was it possible that one of them could carry off fatted porkers and great horned livestock, like a wolf, and in wolf's shape, from twenty, thirty miles or more away through bush and bracken, and in fact all the way from Estonia, and bring them there, as the witness asserted? All the more reason to conclude that it all was nothing but imagination, false trickery and delusion.
Answer: He stuck to his story. It really happened that way and Tirummen's man [a particularly strong werewolf who Thiess said was the leader of their activities] often spent a week at a time out of doors, and then the witness and his band would wait for him, as they had agreed, in the bushes, and if he brought a fatted porker or so would eat it with him. Meanwhile they would live on hares and other wild animals in the bush. Now the witness was no longer strong enough to run so far and catch or fetch anything, but he still could get as much fish as he wanted, and even when others came home emptyhanded he was exceptionally successful in his fishing.

So, he was fishing while he was a wolf.

At this point, the Inquisitors tried to get Thiess to admit to commerce with the Devil. “…[D]id the Devil eat with them?” To which Thiess replied that they did not, “But the sorcerers ate with the Devil in the Hell-hole cave; the werewolves were not allowed to join but rushed in from time to time, snatched something, and ran out again with it, as if running away.” And here we begin to hear about the particulars of the ritual. Earlier in his testimony, when Thiess was questioned about where and with what instrument another peasant, Skeistan, had broken his nose, he replied, “In a cave, with a broomstick to which a lot of horses' tails were tied.” Asked about how he had come to that cave, and where it was located, Thiess said, “The werewolves went there on foot in the shape of wolves. The location was at the end of the lake called Puer Esser, in the bog below Lemburg, about half a mile from Klingenberg, the estate of the substitute assizes judge; there were wonderful chambers there and appointed doorkeepers who repulsed any who wished again to carry off the sprouted grain that had been brought there by the sorcerers, and the unsprouted grain. The sprouted grain was kept in one special store and the unsprouted grain in another.” Going back to Thiess's answer to the question about the Devil eating with the werewolves, he continued, “If caught, the Devil's guards stationed there would beat them off furiously with a long iron whip which they called the switch and drive them out like dogs, because the Devil, in the Lettish language 'Ne eretz', could not bear them.”

As you might imagine, the Inquisitors were somewhat perplexed by this, as their assumption was that, as had been “proven” elsewhere (though this “proof” mainly consisted of assertions by figures of authority in the Church that it was so), werewolves were the Devil's own dogs. The transformation of man into beast, as they thought obvious, was a denigration of God's creation of man in His own image. They asked, “If the Devil could not bear them, why did they become werewolves and run to the Hell-hole cave?” Thiess replied to them, giving us a wonderful description of the first part of the ritual:

They did this so that they might be able to carry what the sorcerers had brought in by way of livestock, grain, and other growing things off out of the Hell-hole cave; for, last year, he came late along with the others and did not arrive at the Hell-hole cave in time, so that they could not carry off the sprouts and the grain brought there by the sorcerers while the gates were still open, and we had a bad year for grain. This year, though, he and the others had arrived in time and had done their duty; the witness himself had carried off as much barley, oats, and rye as he could, out of the Hell-hole cave, so that we should have plenty of all kinds of grain this year, though more oats than barley.

The Inquisitors asked him how often the werewolves would do this, and Thiess replied, “Ordinarily three times [per year] : Whitsunday eve [interestingly, Whitsunday is the Scottish Term Day corresponding most closely with the Irish Lá Bealtaine, being in Scotland fixed on 15 May], the eve of St. John's Day [that is, Midsummer, 24 June], and St. Lucy's eve [which was Midwinter in the old calendar, 13 December in the modern one]; as far as the first two were concerned, it was not always the same night, but when the grain was in its prime and at the time of sowing the sorcerers carried off the gift of blessing and brought it to the Hell-hole cave while the werewolves got ready to bring it out once again.” Thiess doesn't specify (it being outside of the parameters of his questioning), but I expect that the werewolves would also engage in other functions throughout the year, by parallel with the Benandanti of Friulia, who similarly would fight against evil forces several times a year for the harvest. I'll discuss the Benandanti at a later time.

The last part of the ritual is contained entirely in a single question and answer. Thiess was asked, “Where did they leave the grain and tree saplings and the other things they took from the Devil, and what did they do with them?” To which he replied, “They threw them up in the air, and the blessing rained down over the whole country out of the air again for both rich and poor.” The blessing of the werewolves is for everyone, regardless of their social position or wealth.

To summarize: the werewolves and the sorcerers would gather three times a year at a place they called “Hell-hole cave”. The sorcerers would have a feast and put grains, saplings, and other agricultural produce in the cave. The werewolves, possibly wearing wolfskins, would run in on occasion and steal some of the food and other items, then run out, while the sorcerers would try to stop them with sticks (Thiess, in fact, had his nose broken by one of the sorcerers, named Skeistan, some years earlier) wrapped in horsehair. Young girls, considered to be pucks or dragons, and possibly dressed to suit the role, would carry the stolen items to a place where, presumably, the werewolves would later collect them. After getting away, the werewolves would throw the items they'd stolen from the caves up in the air, which would rain those blessings down on the countryside. If you squint, as it were, you can see some of those elements showing up in modern holidays. What the “sorcerers” believed that they were doing, and what they thought of the werewolves coming in to steal food at their feasts, is something that we don't have a good understanding about from Thiess's testimony. It seems likely that they were having a ritual feast of some sort, so looking at those sorts of activities in the eastern Baltic area would be the most likely place to come to an understanding of that aspect of this ritual complex.


17 comments:

  1. JESUS IS IN ME AND I AM GOING THROUGH PHYSICAL CHANG,STRONGER,FASTER,LIGHTER,AWAKE AT DARK. WHAT AM I?

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    1. Confused and growing up, I would guess. So, no different than anyone else. Unfortunately, since you commented anonymously and with few concrete details, there's no way to really help you. I suggest that you talk with someone in your life that you trust, like your parents or a teacher.

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    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. I've alway want to be a wolf, i feel so award in my regular body that it's hard not to. But i've always been afaid of it, because i was brought to believe in god i'm still unsure, any advice?

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    1. If you are afraid of it and it goes against what you choose to believe about God or the gods, then the path of lycanthropic spirituality is probably not for you. If you are feeling awkward in your body, you should talk with a therapist or your priest. They should be able to help you.

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  3. I want to truly serve the lord. And send all creatures from hell back where they came from.

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    1. That's very nice for you. Perhaps you should discuss that with your pastor or priest. I'm sure that they can get you the help that you need in that pursuit.

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  4. How about sending all animal abusers to hell? That sounds better.

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  5. An interesting summation of Testimony, I learned from it. Thank you.

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  6. A simple question..."the hound of the god" was a Caulbearer.????Possible he was....and he knew it, i guess..so when he got old he mixed up the beliefs about births with veil.....

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    1. The caul is mentioned in many, but not all, areas of Europe which have similar beliefs, but it is not to my knowledge mentioned in either Thiess's testimony nor in other accounts from the area (Livonia) such as that of Olaus Magnus about a century and a half earlier.

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    2. I came across, accidently, the story of Thiess, while i was looking for Benandanti. They supposed to be born whith a caul...Thank u for your response. Excellent article, by the way! Greetings from Greece!

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    3. Χαίρετε! (That archaic greeting more or less exhausts my conversational Greek.) Thank you for the question and the compliment, and for the additional information that you were able to provide. I'm glad that you found the article useful.

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  7. Χαίρεται και σε εσάς!! It was really useful your article, indeed!
    I believe you'll find it...very interesting...after all it's all about a "blessing-divine curse"!
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lycaon_(Arcadia)
    Τα λέμε!

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    1. If I recall correctly, the Ovid version has Lycaon transforming as he swims across a lake. This motif of the werewolf crossing water is common to many early werewolf stories (and is present even as late as Thiess's testimony), even being parodied in Satyricon, where the werewolf urinates in a circle around his clothing, which then turns to stone until he returns. It is implied (or stated? I forget) that if he didn't do that, he would be unable to transform back into a human. That further connects to the Marie de France lai of Bisclavret, but that goes far afield from this post.

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