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In Northern and Central Europe, the last day of April is the last day of winter and darkness. The holiday known to the ancient Gaelic people as Beltane is the opposite of Samhain (aka Halloween): in spring, the forces of darkness and the underworld come out for a last wild dance but are driven away by the burgeoning summer. The holiday is called “Walpurgisnacht” in German and Dutch, however the Estonians know it as “Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö)”, the Swedes call it “Valborgsmässoafton” , The Czechs know it as “Valpuržina noc”, and the Finns, bucking the trend, call the celebration “Vappu”. Except in Finland, the festival is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who proselytized among the Franks and Germans in the eight century (and who was canonized on May 1st).
Walpurgisnacht is one of the ancient touchstones of German art and culture. Tradition has it that demons, spirits, and naked witches from around Northern Europe come together on that night to dance around bonfires on the Brocken, the highest mountain in Northern Germany (although only a hill compared with the mighty Alps in the south). The climax of Goethe’s Faust takes place on Walpurgisnacht as the witches and spirits attend the devil (although it seems like ancient pagan versions of the holiday were centered around fertility goddesses). Likewise in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp finally talks at length to the bewitching Madame Chauchat on May Eve as the sanatorium erupts into primeval merry-making.
To celebrate this strange haunted pagan fertility festival I have included three great images from German art.
Estonian mythology all seems strangely familiar and yet jarringly bizarre—like songs you hear in dreams or children’s books read in unknown languages. The stories have Greek parallels (and owe much to Finnish mythology) but the narrative is off-putting. A cunning blacksmith makes a beautiful woman out of gold but is unable to give her a soul or a mind. Beings from the land of the dead come back through a sacred grove to seduce maidens in the evening. Forests grow tired of human greed and get up and move away.
Perhaps the most familiar-yet-strange figure in Estonian myth is Vanatühi, the god of the underworld. Vanatühi means “old empty one” and the deity is famed for being stupid–nearly to the point of being inert. Whereas other underworld gods are always up to some malevolent scheme, Vanatühi is a big dumb farmer with crude ogre features. Because of his stupidity, Vanatühi is always being outwitted by Kaval Ants (“Crafty Hans”), the cunning trickster of Estonian myth (who usually starts out as a farmhand working for Vanatühi.
Vanatühi has two mythological items of great power, the stranger of which is küüntest kübar, a magical crown made of fingernails (yuck!) which renders the wearer invisible. The other mystical item he has is a whistle which he stole from Pikne, the god of lightning, however the whistle never seems to come into play. Maybe Vanatühi swallowed it?
As mentioned in last year’s post concerning pumpkins, the original Irish jack o’lanterns were not carved from the familiar orange gourds (which only made their way to Europe after the discovery of the Americas), but rather were cut from turnips, swedes, or mangelwurzels. I have illustrated this post with a little gallery of turnip lanterns. I was hoping to find a mangelwurzel to carve up for an original photo, but it seems like the hurricane has prevented adequate supplies of these medieval vegetables from reaching the city—so that will have to wait till next year. In the meantime, here is a folktale about how jack o’lanterns originated.
The story of the origin of the jack o’lantern is a stirring tale of greed, guile, and the restless undead. Jack was a trickster, a fraud, and an unrepentant sinner who roamed around Ireland scamming honest folks and selling mortgage-backed securities & other poorly structured equities. One day, Jack was running from a mob of debtors (which should immediately recommend the story to contemporary American mores) when he encountered the devil traveling along the bog road. Jack convinced Satan that it would be to the latter’s advantage to infiltrate society in a more subtle form than that of scary red guy with horns.
Jack’s plan was that the devil should pretend to be a golden coin. Jack could present this to the debtors who would then begin to argue and fight over the coin thus leading them inexorably into the devil’s clutches. The devil shapeshifted into coin form and presto, Jack grabbed him and stuffed him into a purse with a cross sewn on it (which he had probably stolen from a clergyman or a church-run orphanage). The devil was unable to escape Jack’s clutches. In order to get out of this predicament, Lucifer had to promise Jack never to collect his soul and take it to hell.
After many financial shenanigans and dodgy schemes, Jack eventually died–as all men must. His spirit wandered the gray earth in a dark fog, unable to find any succor or happiness in the lands of the living. At length he made his way to the gates of heaven but he was not wanted there and was chased off by saints and angels. Jack drifted through different realms but could never escape the chill of death and the inchoate miseries of the grave. Finally, defeated, he went to hell and begged for entrance.
But the devil remembered his promise (and was pleased by Jack’s misery). Satan barred Jack from hell and sent him on his way, but first he mockingly threw the specter a blazing coal from the inferno–which can never be extinguished. Jack tried to clutch the red ember and it burned and seared his flesh even though that flesh was ghostly and insubstantial. Yet the coal was better than nothing, so Jack carried it in his hands even though it caused him agony. Finally in a flash of inspiration, the con-man snatched a turnip from a garden and carved it into a little lamp to hold the coal.
Jack never could find peace–his spirit still roams to this day, but over the different eras his lamp has become an enduring symbol of the Halloween season. The devil, however, greatly appreciated Jack’s plan to infiltrate society in the form of money and he made many bold innovations in this direction (while being always watchful to steer clear of churches and cleric’s purses). He’s probably lurking somewhere in my bank balance and in yours too.
This blog has pursued all things gothic, as the open-ended concept has wound its way through history, the arts, literature, and other forms of culture. There is, however, a major creative genre which we have entirely overlooked—that of cinema. The melodramatic spookiness of the 19th century Gothic revival movement was born in architecture and literature, but it was the media of film which cemented the whole concept of horror as a fundamental distinctive genre. In the modern world, gothic horror (with all of its familiar trappings) is virtually synonymous with film. This characteristic milieu of ruffled clothing, vampires, ghosts, sconces, and eerie castles goes all the way back to the first horror film–which was made very early indeed, in France in 1896.
Le Manoir du Diable (“The Manor of the Devil”) was meant as a pantomime farce, but most of the familiar elements of gothic cinema appear in the three minute production. It was released on Christmas Eve of 1896 at the Theatre Robert Houdin (which was on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris). Since the piece is well over a century old, any copyright has long expired and it is part of the public domain. So, without further ado, here it is:
Using the most sophisticated special effects of the day, the filmmakers present a sorcerous devil popping in and out of reality. The fiend creates goblins, bats, and specters out of thin air and thereby bedevils a pair of foppish noblemen who have wandered (or been summoned?) into the haunted castle. Fortunately, one of the noblemen has the presence of mind to seize a handy crucifix and banish the fiend.
Although the film’s staging—and overarching moral lesson–owe something to opera, the rapid protean transfigurations were a completely novel feature. Admittedly the special effects have not aged well, but I think you will enjoy Le Manoir du Diable, the first gothic film.
In a previous post we analyzed how the devil gradually became red and goatlike in popular imagination (even though scripture does not mention such details). Here is a stunningly dramatic gothic painting by the Sienese master Duccio which shows how the devil was conceived of at the beginning the 14th century. The painting illustrates one of the narrative high points of the New Testament: the devil tempting Jesus by offering him power over all the nations of Earth. Here is how Matthew relates the story in the fourth chapter of his gospel:
8Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 9And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. 10Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 11Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
Duccio illustrates the very end of the episode as the bird-footed, spiky-haired gray devil waves his hand in disgust and prepares to fly off. Additionally Satan has gnome ears, bat wings, and seems to be cast in a permanent shadow of decay. Androgynous angels in voluminous robes approach Christ from beyond the horizon to tend to him after his forty days and nights of fasting in the desert. The head of Jesus is naturally at the apex of the composition. All around him, the architecture of the world is represented in miniature: the crenellations and towers of the delicate pink and cream colored buildings look like dollhouses beneath the feet of Christ. The pomp and power of the world’s cities is empty and small compared with divinity.
If you are wondering through the great untouched rainforests of the Amazon basin, you will sometimes come across a clearing devoid of all vegetation save for a few trees. These bare patches are known as devil’s gardens and are said to be the haunt of the fearsome Chuyachaqui (or Chullachaqui), a shape shifting demon which delights in causing misfortune to travelers. Although the Chuyachaqui’s default form is that of a small misshapen man with one hoof and one human foot, the demon can change shape into a person known to the traveler in order to mislead the latter to doom.
Scientists were curious about these small bare patches of forest. After carefully studying the ecosystem, they discovered that a force nearly as diabolical as the Chuyachaqui is responsible. The lemon ant, Myrmelachista schumanni, produces formic acid, a natural herbicide which it methodically injects into the plants in a “devil’s clearing”. The only plants which the ants leaves alone are Duroia hirsuta, “lemon ant trees” which have evolved a mutualistic relationship with the ants. The lemon ants keep the forest free of competing trees and plants, while the lemon ant tree is hollow inside—a perfect natural ant hive and its leaves provide a source of nutrition for the lemon ants (which are a sort of leaf-cutter).
Large colonies of lemon ant trees have been found which are believed to be more than 800 years old—far older than the life of any ant colony or individual tree. It is remarkable to think these ant/tree settlements have been part of the rainforest since before the Mongol conquests.
This blog has examined and analyzed many Deities of the Underworld, but we have always shied away from the principle dark deity of the three Abrahamic faiths, namely the Devil (aka Lucifer, Iblis, Shaitan, The Antagonist, The Prince of Lies, etc.). However if there were ever a day to cast an inquisitive eye on the Lord of Hell, it is surely Halloween, that strange day when paganism and Christianity mix and the veil between this world and the next is thin.
Actually, one of the reasons I have avoided writing about this dark deity is because even though the devil might be a familiar figure in the popular imagination, he is only a sketchy presence in actual scripture. In the Masoretic Text, the holy book of Judaism (which roughly equates with the Old Testament), the Devil never appears by name–although the books do contain a cunning serpent (in Genesis), a fallen star, and an adversary. The New Testament Gospels feature a more familiar devil–who tempts Jesus, promotes evil, and lays waste to the world–but the books never describe this anti-savior except as a tempter, a dragon, a dark prince, or an ancient snake. In the Quran, Allah created the evil jinn Iblis out of smokeless fire to cast evil suggestions into the heart of men. Hmm, this is theologically interesting–but where does the fallen angel with the red skin, the horns, the barbed tail, the dapper van dyke beard, and the goat’s hooves come from?
The apocryphal scriptures, those strange half-holy books which were omitted from the Bible, provide more of the story. The Book of Enoch gives us the story of the rebellion and the fall of Heave’s brightest and most beautiful angel. This is the source of Milton’s Satan, however the text does little to describe the appearance of Lucifer.
Gothic paintings from the middle age shows us demons and dark winged beings (you can find old posts about such hellspawn here and here). Sometimes the devil appears as a winged monstrosity or a sort of dark bat-like angel, but he does not appear in the guise which is so popularly known now–the red man with the horns, the trident, and the hooves.
In fact the familiar portrayal of the red devil is comparatively recent—perhaps even modern–but the imagery used is based on the ancient Greco-Roman deity of Pan. Pan, the horned half-goat shepherd was a god of nature, fertility, and goat-herding in the classical world. Because of his licentiousness, bestial appearance, and paganism he was a longstanding target of the Christian church. In the nineteenth and twentieth century Pan became a focus of neopagan art and letters. Christian reaction to Pan’s resurgence resulted in his image being translated to that of Satan. The red color seems to have been thrown in for good measure.
It’s clear the devil is a complicated figure whose attributes, appearance, and meaning have changed greatly depending on the time and the place. We’ll get back to him–the underworld god of the world’s great monotheistic faiths–but right now it’s time to leave theorizing about devils, demons, and spirits behind and to go out and join them.