Damned: An Illustrated History of the Devil by Robert Muchembled
Translated from the French by Noël Schiller
Éditions du Seuil, 2004 (Chronicle Books)

“Hell is other people.”
— Sartre

 I’m happy that I bought a used copy of this book rather than shelling out about $90 for a new one. It’s not that I don’t like it, on the contrary, 200 glossy pages of devilish artwork is exactly what I want on my coffee table. I just was hoping for something a bit more in-depth for the history side of things. 

Each chapter in the book begins with a few double columned pages relating the main themes of the following pictures. It’s beautifully illustrated with everything from early woodcuts to luscious watercolours and oil paintings to modern comic book art. Beginning around the twelfth century, the author traces the “thread of evil” that has been “interwoven in the evolution of Western culture” (6) up until present times. Mirroring LaVey’s statement that Satan is the Church’s best friend, having kept them in business all these years, Muchembled shows the devil acting as a “catalyst for saints and evangelizers to develop” (6).  

Starting with the ‘invention’ of the devil and his development through to the fifteenth century, Muchembled touches on the various traditions that gave rise to so many images of the devil. He mentions Satan’s rather undefined identity as a bad angel in the realm of monastery-dwelling monks and theologians before being formally attached to surviving folkloric traditions of pagan spirits. (Again, the author doesn’t go into any sort of detail. The information given is an overview, nothing more).  

Chapter two deals with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and contains a lot of nice pictures of the supposed Witches’ Sabbath. (Goya’s goat is sadly missing.) Each image has a couple paragraphs beside it that places it in context in view of its time period and place of origin. The pictures themselves do not follow the chronology of the chapters (the art is taken from a wide range of dates), though they relate to each chapter’s theme.    

Probably the most disturbing image is Félicien Rops’ Calvary, which depicts a nude Magdalene about to be strangled with her own hair. Dirck Bouts the Elder’s bat-like demons are a close second. Okay, and Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride. This book isn’t bedtime reading material (unless, of course, you enjoy Bosch-esque nightmares).  

After a brief interlude of Devilish Women, the author returns to his timeline with the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Although one would expect that after the Enlightenment Satan would fade along with the religious institution to which he belonged, the devil was rescued by both literature and art as the ultimate rebel. Finally, the author ends with a chapter devoted to images of Satan in film, modern art, and comic books. 

As far as art books go, I’ve never seen anything like this one. The Satanic imagery is great, but what this book really shows us is our fear (or, in some cases, the historical Church’s fear): Fear of our supposedly ‘base’ instincts, fear of women, fear of homosexuality, fear of heresy and freedom of thought, fear of nature, fear of each other, and fear (however laughable) of an oppressive, unjust, omnipotent god. It shows us ourselves as we do not like to be seen, bringing a bit of edge to what is, at first glance, just a collection of macabre art.

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby
Sussex Academic Press, 2005

  “‘What are you crying for, my girl?’ it says; and after this and that she told it. ‘I’ll spin the skeins for you,’ it said, ‘and every day you shall have three guesses at my name, and if you don’t guess it by the end of the month, you’re mine forever.’”
— Briggs

 The familiar spirit is a concept that is irrevocably linked to our ideas about witches, one that modern witchcraft has tried to assimilate by encouraging its adherents to become crazy cat ladies. That’s all well and good, but are pets really familiars? Most people I’ve spoken with say yes, to which I reply (if I’m feeling brave, witty, or inebriated), do you send your canary off to curdle your neighbour’s milk? I mean, I would, if I had a canary. 

Forming intimate relationships with non-divine spirits (and sending them off to do your bidding) is one of those ideas that doesn’t sit easy in the predominately white, middle-class culture of modern day witches. For some people, it’s right up there with that whole green-skin pointy hat fiction. To others, particularly those interested in traditional witchcraft or ‘shamanic’ and folkloric-based traditions, the idea is a viable one. 

Emma Wilby uses historical cases to show that not only did cunning folk and witches have different sorts of familiar spirits, these spirits were also remarkably similar to the helping spirits of shamans in various aboriginal cultures. Her argument was that while cunning folk were not shamans in a classical sense of the word, they may have been using remnants of shamanistic folk traditions, particularly in their use of familiar spirits.  

As far as academic texts go, this one reads fairly easily. It does have a few dry bits, but the writing usually flows along quite smoothly. The first part reviews familiar lore amongst witches and cunning folk (divided as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ magic-users, respectively), showing the connections with the faery and devil familiars, and how these beliefs interacted in a Christian setting. The author seems to focus on just one case a lot of the time, perhaps because it was the best documented, but I think that a wider range of detailed sources would have helped her argument.  

It is interesting to note the overlaps between the faeries and the dead, where the familiar from the main case was a man who, upon death, went to join the faeries (not all of whom were deceased humans). The author covers the basic services that a cunning person would provide to their community, how such practitioners often met their familiar spirits, and the future relationships between human and spirit. She also discusses various bargains and pacts that were made with the spirit in exchange for favours or magical assistance.   

The second (and rather short) part of the book covers classical shamanism in aboriginal cultures, with information gathered by anthropologists in the eighteenth century. It could be considered a stretch to use Siberian and North and South American data for an argument about British witchcraft, but the similarities are there, particularly in the spirit relationships.

Part three focuses on the experiences of the witches and the cunning folk in their time period and location, looking for explanations that could have caused people to experience such visions, and raising questions as to what is the true nature of mysticism. The lines between a spiritual experience and madness, in their time as in ours, are difficult to draw.

I think the main difficulty with this book is its accessibility. It’s too scholarly for most pagans to bother reading and strays a bit too far from the accepted ‘history of witchcraft’ for most historians to tangle with. As it’s published by a university press, the price itself puts the book out of the range of most impulsive book buyers (except me, who would rather read than eat). This is unfortunate, as the book provides fascinating insight into the lives of cunning folk and witches, and gives a great deal of information (not to mention excerpts from primary sources) on a topic that today has become associated with bringing Fluffy to circle.  

The Devil’s Apocrypha

February 10, 2008

The Devil’s Apocrypha by John A. De Vito

Writers Club Press (iUniverse, Inc.) 2002

 

And what should I be? All but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?”
— Milton

 

Although originally intended as a work of religious satire, I’m not surprised that this book spawned (however temporarily) groups of devoted followers using it as a religious text. Despite the rather overused ‘secrets revealed in hidden manuscript that is now lost/destroyed’ ploy at the start, The Devil’s Apocrypha then kicks it into high-gear with a retelling of the stories of the Bible, and goes far beyond the God=Evil Satan=Good dichotomy that could easily occur when someone proposes to tell the Other Side of the Story.

 

I’m not up to date on all of the various alien/god/seeding conspiracy theories, but this one’s a doozy. The basic premise is that various highly evolved spirits escaped their dying universe by jumping to this one, and then realized that in order to survive here, they needed to feed off the “power of sentient faith.” These spirits, called Angelica and led by the Trinity (read: God), manipulated the evolution of humans so that they would fear and worship them as gods. The catch being that in doing so, humans developed souls, which gave them the potential to one day evolve into Angelica themselves. And if they’re Angelica, they’re not worshipful and subservient humans. No problem, says the Trinity, we’ll just make sure that they can’t evolve beyond their bodies and keep them enslaved forever. And that’s when Lucifer stands up and says, that would be a really shitty thing to do. For defending the free will of all humanity, Lucifer becomes the reviled Satan, forever trapped with his loyal legions in the darkness beneath the earth.

 

Besides making me even more wary of organized religions, this novel forced me to ask myself some big questions, not only what I thought about the origin and fate of the universe, but also who is in control of my life, and am I thinking for myself? Who is impinging upon my free will and am I letting them? The chapter entitled The Book of Philosophies offers better advice on living than anything else I’ve read.

 

That said, I do have a few contentions. Okay, just one: I despise the pseudo-archaic language and find it distracting. Thee and thou do nothing for me.

 

After a grand revision of the Biblical-era tales, the book offers its own Revelations. It is a call to arms against blind faith and ignorance. It makes you confront your beliefs, and skewer them, if need be. I lent this book to a friend and he lost his faith. It made me reassess what I thought about these spirits themselves, and their place in our myths. If there are gods, do they need our worship to survive? Does faith have a place, so long as it is tempered by reason? Of all the concepts in this book, the fact that Satan isn’t as bad as we’ve been told was probably the easiest for me to accept. I guess I’m just predisposed that way. And although I’m not sure if gods exist, or where they might be if they do, I’ll light a candle for the Adversary, just in case he needs it.