The Hounds of God

burning of a witch Albert von Keller
The Burning of Witch by Albert von Keller. The watercolor adds some horrific abstraction to the whole mess.

As might be expected, the Witch Craze peaked and subsided at different times across Europe. Historian Amanda Wahlers notes that, viewed from a distance of centuries, the first outbreak of the Witch Craze began in Switzerland in 1430, roiling along until the 1630s as witches were variously blamed for everything from conjuring the climactic shift known as the Little Ice Age down to enchanting the neighbour’s cows. From this first theological quake the shock wave rolled out into France, Benelux and the Holy Roman Empire, finally peaking and subsiding after the 1650s. Consequently in the periphery of Western Europe other places would see witch accusations flare up and die at later points. Witch trials in Poland would even continue infrequently until the late 18th Century. Like many contagions patient zero in each new country tended to come from a place already contaminated by the witch craze. The classic version of this was King James’ trip to Denmark; where he returned from the trip with his wife and a witch fetish in tow.[1] In Hungary the early accusations were often sparked by German mercenaries active in the region. The major spike in witchcraft trials in Sweden and Finland began after the Thirty Years War ended in 1648, likely coinciding with troops returning home from Germany with stories of what they had seen and heard in places like Bamberg. On the extreme edge of the European world, even Iceland would be exposed to the trials through legal strictures imposed by Copenhagen.

The further afield the craze traveled, the more the stereotype of the witch mutated and waned. The witches of Poland also did not follow the Sabbath, and while most were women they tended to work in pairs. Nor were they social outcasts; a Polish witch was more than likely married, with children, and at least 40 percent of the time to come from a town or urban center. None were nobles, and if anything the witch trials were carried out by local magistrates in defiance of official sanction. Mid-17th Century Poland-Lithuania was in the midst of multiple foreign invasions climaxing with the vividly named Swedish “Deluge”. While the Polish state would take all comers, it left them a little preoccupied, as did the serious issue of dynastic decline and general state entropy. Burning a witch almost became a point of rebellious autonomy for local communities. Not that this would have meant much to the 2,000 or so women who burned for it. Further afield in Finland just half of the accused were women. In Iceland of the one hundred and twenty accused of witchcraft only ten were women, and none were imagined as members of a sinister Satanic coven as much as solitary practitioners.

One half transformed werewolf shooting fingerguns and his enemies. Photo Credit: Scheld’sche Weltchronik

Nor were just the witch accusations different on the periphery of Europe, the actual believers had their own unique traditions. Cunning Folk in Slovenia claimed they could shift shapes and fought battles at night against the vukodlak, a word that can traditionally mean either werewolf or vampire. Lycanthropy did not just mean werewolves either, werebears and other shapeshifters played a major role in Baltic folklore. Even the witchcraft skeptic Johann Weyer believed that were-animals existed, though in his view lycanthropy was likely just some undiscovered disease that could eventually be treated.

As with the Benandanti, self-proclaimed werewolves and Cunning Folk did not have to use their powers for evil.[2] Much of the evidence for this view comes from another rare gem, the testimony of a Hound of God at an unrelated trial. Thies of Kaltenbrun was well known to the courts in Livonia, at this point in history a part of the Swedish Empire. He seems to have been in good standing when he was called to the stand in 1691. Thies was a witness to a church robbery, speaking to the fact that the judges and court considered him reasonably sound of mind. Perhaps because he had the stand, and was a lonely old man nearing eighty, Thies decided to use the opportunity to clarify some issues his community had with him. Namely, that Thies of Kaltenbrun was a werewolf.

That was actually the first point Thies wanted to clear up, he actually called himself a Hound of God. Together with others of his kind, three times a year Thies would transform into a wolf, either by shedding his clothes or donning a wolf pelt. From there they would travel to Hell, located in a swamp near the town of Lemburg “at the end of the sea”.[3]

“Ordinarily, [they went to Hell] three times: during the night of Pentecost, on Midsummer’s Night, and on St Lucia’s Night; as far as the first two nights were concerned, they did not go exactly during those nights, but more when the grain was properly blooming, because it is at the time the seeds are forming that the sorcerers spirit away the blessing and take it to hell, and it is then that the werewolves take it upon themselves to bring it back out again.”[4]

Afterwards with their good turn concluded Thies and his colleagues seemed to revert towards full wolfishness and would act accordingly, attacking livestock in the region. Thies claimed a farmer smacking him on the snout with a broom poll had been the cause of his broken nose. Thies had not intended to be a werewolf, but he had not been bitten by one. Instead some “rascal” had offered him a drink when he was a beggar, and had bewitched the jug by blowing in it three times and whispering “you will become like me”. He claimed that by the same method he could pass on his curse to another if he chose. Like all good Dogs, Thies believed the Hounds of God went to heaven after they died.

swedish livonia
Swedish Livonia, now modern day Latvia. Also a good way of mentioning that Sweden was a great deal more menacing in the 17th Century. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

This was all a massive theological headache for the judges, especially since it had no bearing on the actual church based larceny they were supposed to be discussing. But for the most part the judges had treated Thies’ account with a healthy scepticism. But apart from his fantastical trips to hell, the werewolf’s daily routine was actually more alarming to the judges. Thies’ day job was, similar to the Benandanti, less lupine cattle rustler and more folk healer. He freely acknowledged that he knew charms to keep away wolves, to stop bleeding, or to bless livestock. In a somewhat dubious chant no modern vet would dream of trying, cattle could be restored to health by saying, “Sun and moon go over the sea, fetch back the soul that the devil had taken to hell and give the cattle back life and health which was taken from them”.[5] Well ahead of the current sour beer craze, Thies could administer these charms with a blessing of salt in warm beer.

Well and good, but the judges noted that God was nowhere to be found in the Cunning Man’s magical arsenal. Digging further they asked if he was a good Lutheran, or even if he went to church. Thies said no. He was far too old to learn such things. This, finally, was too much for the judges and the Hound of God was sentenced to a flogging followed by banishment from the community. Harsh, but in comparison to the fiery demise of any other would be magician, Thies got off lightly. His testimony is invaluable, and it speaks to the remarkable variety of magicks and beliefs that were buried under the homogeny of the witch craze.

Bonus 19th Century sexy witch by Albert Joseph Penot

[1] Not literally. But it has been remarkably bizarre looking around for Google Images of “witch” “fairy” etc. Easily half of all searches tend to be some form of “sexy witch”, sometimes modern day costumery, sometimes 19th Century erotica. Apparently the fetish stuck with us longer than the fear.

[2] Few people in history ever really see themselves as “the baddies”, always one of the more apparent contradictions in the confessions of accused witches.

[3] de Blecourt, W. (2007). A journey to Hell: Reconsidering the Livonian “werewolf”. Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft.

[4] Duerr, H.P. (1985) [1978]. Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilization. Felicitas Goodman (translator). Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell.

[5] de Blecourt 2007


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