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Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages

by Claude Lecouteux
translated by Clare Frock

(Inner Traditions, $16.95, 204 pages, paperback, 2003 [orig. French publication 1992].)

Review by Randy M Dannenfelser

Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages is a slice of scholarly pursuit. It cover scanis an informative read, an attention-holding read, but only a slice, nonetheless. In a mere140 pages of text, with 66 additional pages consisting of a foreword, two introductions, three appendices, footnotes and index, Sorbonne professor Claude Lecouteux (through the able translation from French to English by Clare Frock) presents us with a Joseph Campbell-like anecdotal examination of pagan and derivative Christian beliefs regarding the spirit and its powers and abilities, and has left us wanting more. The book is written from the general to the specific, and so the titular subjects must wait their due well into the text until ample set-up anecdotes are told. And the set-up is tell-me-a-story absorbing, and, therefore, well worth the reader's while.

Elemental to the lore of mythologies and religions around the world and throughout time is the concept, in one form or another, of the duality of the body and the spirit: how they are united during the life of the body and how the spirit lives on, in one form or another, after the body's life ends, and with provision for said spirit to embark on adventures of its own during the life of the body, sometimes acting as the body's emissary, whether through dreams, drug or fever-induced hallucinations, hypnoses, or other forms of unconscious awareness. This is how the reader's voyage begins.

Lecouteux discusses with ample exhibits the cultural variations of this basic concept, briefly touching on its religious origins before arriving at his chosen destination, that being how this lore, er, took shape in the writings of early- to mid-second-millennium European and Scandinavian folk tales and myths. He concludes that these beliefs derived from an exposure to shamanism, although he is able only to theorize shaman influences on Southern European culture and mythology.

The book is divided into three sections: "The Soul Outside the Body", "The Disguises of the Double" and "Seeing the Double". Lecouteux begins the first section with a brief explanation of the Ecstatic Journey of Christianity. (And it is unmentioned but clear, for reasons I'll mention later, that he approaches this study from a Christian cultural viewpoint.) The purpose of the Journey is to "see or learn that which remains hidden from ordinary mortals". As with most mythology, we find variations appearing in other cultures. Lecouteux has chosen to emphasize Scandinavian myth in this book, as he tells a tale of the "professional ecstatics" of Lapland, whose spirits leave the body to perform such mundane tasks as finding missing objects. (Identify an object as an "amulet" and you have a noble adventure in the making.)

By the third chapter of the first section, Lecouteux has introduced a titular variation to the text, the physical Double. In certain cultures, the Double has the power to transmute the body into other shapes, most often as animals. It is from this myth that stories of werewolves and cat people have originated and have worked their way into pop culture. However, the text quickly and appropriately then returns to more groundwork-laying anecdotes and references to Scandinavian and Germanic myth (and how these myths were corrupted by Christian clerics), making the reader anxious for what was promised on the cover.

The wait is not a long one. At the outset of Section Two, Lecouteux takes up the discussion of the Double and Fairies. The fairy, it is explained, "functions as destiny, female protectress, lover, and even wife". Lecouteux chooses the Marie de France tale The Lay of Lanval to illustrate the use of the fairy myth as parable -- in this case, to teach that sweet death is the punishment for betraying the queen/wife/companion, or, in the context of the tale, the fairy/lover. It is germane to the study that the fairy appears only when her paramour is in an established or implied dream state.

"The Double and Witchcraft" follows, with a quick mention of how "the Church" came to demonize "these vestiges of paganism" as a threat to its control, while incorporating those portions it felt it could use. "Wicked women" in nocturnal flight, riding animals with the goddess Diana, seduced by satanic images, formed the dogma created by "the Church" as early as 906. We soon learn that our general belief declaring spirits conjured up by witches to be demons and/or ghosts is not the original lore at all; the myth states that these women are summoning ordinary spirits, or Doubles. So the witch's role in the grand system is that of controlling agent (Double agent?); or, in the case of mediums, as conduit. (In the review copy the publisher sent of this book, the final two pages of this chapter were missing, so I wasn't able to read a good portion of Lecouteux's summary of the relationship between Witchcraft and the Double.)

Finally, the discussion turns to the Double and Werewolves. The chapter opens with mention that modern legends of human-animal metamorphosis (and vice-versa) originated within the lore of witchery, as the Professor uses the story of the Doubles of the Witches of Thessaly as his segue. These Doubles transformed themselves into all shapes and sizes of fauna, from dogs and birds to mice and even flies. Although the lore of the werewolf and other forms of human-animal metamorphosis had been eradicated from Christian scholarship in the main as a result of the efforts of St Augustine, it survived within the pagan cultures of medieval Germany and Scandinavia. (Indeed, the names Wolf and Ulf remain common amongst Germans and Scandinavians to this day, as vestiges of said beliefs.)

The anecdotal segments in the section are quite fascinating, particularly the tale "Bisclavret" ("Bisclavret", we are told, is the Breton word for "werewolf"). In it we learn that, if the man loses his clothes while in the wolf state, he cannot transmute back to human form. This, of course, creates a myriad of possibilities for adventure. Then, there is a revealing chart of pagan werewolf beliefs in the left column, with the corresponding Christian "spin" on each in the right column. We find that the Hollywood-created lore we all know, which states that one becomes a werewolf after being bitten by another werewolf, has a basis in actual myth.

The Christian influence on "pagan" mythology is a thread which runs throughout the book. That Lecouteux uses "pagan" to mean "non-Christian" in the same way Jewish scholars (and others) use "gentile" to mean "non-Jew" exemplifies his Franco-Christian approach to the subject matter. This is noticeable particularly in the introduction to the conclusion. Yet, Lecouteux is amazingly objective in his presentation, neither praising nor condemning "the Church" for its myth supervention and alteration.

Witches, Werewolves and Fairies is not a book about pop culture. No references to Alice, Tinker Bell or Dorothy Gale will be found here. No excerpts from Gwen Conliffe's recitation of "Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night..." No "Hey Dad, you wanna have a catch?" But when I watch a Double-myth movie like The Matrix, I find myself smiling with deeper understanding when, as Neo is riddled with bullets in the climactic scene and Thomas Anderson's unconscious body quakes near death in that futuristic Barcalounger on board The Nebuchadnezzar, I remember that it's simply another story of a Double accomplishing heroic feats in environs where the Body can't travel, creating epic adventures for the Body. And achieving fulfilment, both spiritual and physical in nature.


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