Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters
and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages
translated by Clare Frock
(Inner Traditions, $16.95, 204 pages, paperback, 2003 [orig. French
Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles
in the Middle Ages is a slice of scholarly pursuit. It is
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
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
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.