Category Archives: history

Past present.

Paperwork for the Devil

Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885
William Gladstone as Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885

From Faust to Robert Johnson, fictional and historical figures alike have been mythologized for making pacts with the devil. Beelzebub. Lucifer. Old Scratch. Satan. The Devil is a decidedly Christian being that, while having demonic precursors outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is pretty much a product of the Old and New Testaments. Sure, the Babylonians had many malevolent demons. The Egyptians had their dark gods. Zoroastrianism even had a nasty spirit named Angra Mainyu. But it’s in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, that Satan really takes shape — first as heaven’s prosecutor of sorts. Later, in the Synoptic Gospels,  Satan comes into his own as both the great red dragon of Revelation, and the evil being that tempts Christ in the desert. And it’s his role as tempter of Christ that leads to a depiction of the Devil as one who can fulfill desires — for a price. Much like a genie (or djinn), the Devil can deliver on all things worldly.

Even make contractual agreements.

Theophilus of Adana, a 6th century cleric, may be the first documented story of a someone who makes a pact of this type. The archdeacon of Adana, part of modern day Turkey, Theophilus is said to have, out of humility, turned down a promotion to bishop. But when the bishop elected in his stead deprives Theophilus of his position as archdeacon, the poor priest comes to regret his decision, and seeks out a magician to help him contact Satan. In exchange for his help, Satan demands that Theophilus renounce Christ and the Virgin Mary in a contract sealed with the cleric’s own blood. Theophilus agrees, and is made bishop.

Fearing, however, that he has put his immortal soul in jeopardy, Theophilus repents, fasts, and implores the Virgin Mary to intercede on his behalf with God. Satan eventually relents, and Theophilus wakes to find the contract on his chest. He shows the contract to the legitimate bishop, who then forgives poor bastard and burns the document. Out of sheer relief, Theophilus dies and, presumably, goes to heaven. Oh, and he’s made a saint — which gives hope to everyone who’s considering selling their soul.

The tale is attributed to an eighth century scribe, Paulus Diaconus of Naples. From a modern Latin translation comes the details of the pact itself: “Let him deny the son of Mary and those things which are offensive to me,” says the Devil, “and let him set down in writing that he denieth absolutely, and whatsoever he may desire he shall obtain from me, so long as he denieth.” And so it would seem that we have the first instance of such a pact, and the importance of the written contract.

That element of such a pact — as a written contract — is repeated again and again in the centuries to come. It would eventually finds its way into literature — most notably, first in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592). And from the 16th to the 18th century, countless witches would be tried and executed over the accusation of such agreements.

Urbain Grandier's Pact with the Devil
Urbain Grandier’s Pact with the Devil from Dictionnaire infernal ou bibliothèque universelle, 1826

The case of the 17th century French Catholic priest Urbain Grandier is perhaps the most infamous of these trials (and the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Devils of Loudun); what unique about Granier, however, is that an actual printed document was presented at his trial in 1634. Said to be penned by all manner of demons and the Devil himself, it is a mishmash of reversed Latin and many occult symbols. In it, Grandier is promised “the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers.” He’s only given 20 years before his soul is forfeit, but it would seem the Devil got his due much earlier as Grandier was tortured and subsequently burned at the stake. With phrases like “He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him,” the contract is quite detailed in its promises.

But a simpler tale of a deal with the Devil may be actually be found in a fairy tale commonly referred to as “The Smith and the Devil.” In it, a blacksmith trades his soul for supernatural powers, and then uses this power to trap the demon with whom he made the deal. So straightforward a story, it was collected by the Brothers Grimm in their two volume (1812 and 1815) Children’s and Household Tales (though it was removed from most later editions).

Like most folktales, the origins of the story are murky. It was readily believed to be European in origin or possibly Russian. That is, until very recently when folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamie Tehrani argued that “The Smith and the Devil” may in fact be one of the oldest known folk tales on the planet, and was told from India to Scandanavia. In their 2016 study “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales,” the authors present evidence that the basic plot of the tale is found across the Indo-European speaking world dating back over 6,000 years, to the Bronze Age.

But a signed contract? With the story of Theophilus not being readily told until the 11th to 13th centuries, it seems that the Devil requiring a physical contract is a relatively recent development, historically speaking.

All in all, I suppose it’s better to get it in writing.

 

 

 

Mummers, Murder, and Merrymaking

From 14th century Europe to 21st century Philadelphia, mummers have long been associated with colorful costumes, fun and frolic, music, and merrymaking. Their history, however, has not always been one of light-hearted holiday entertainment. Violence. Murder. Mayhem. As much as they are celebrated, many a mummer has been feared over the last 700 years.

When exactly the tradition of dressing up in costumes and traveling house to house to bother the neighbors began, no one is quite sure. They can at least be traced back to the end of the thirteenth century when Edward I (aka Edward Longshanks) held a wedding for his daughter at Christmas that included mummers. And a 14th century manuscript clearly shows such revelers in costume.

Mummers in 14th c. Illuminated Manuscript

The name itself finds its origins in the Old French “momeur” — from momer which can be translated as “to act in a mime.”

Performing “mummer’s plays” at Christmas (or Plough Monday, which came a bit later in January), mummers  — or guisers as they were sometimes called (for the disguises they wore) — would usually engage in mock combat, parading about in animal masks. The practice was popular enough of a tradition to spread beyond the British Isles to other English-speaking parts of the globe — including the new world, as far north as Newfoundland, and as far south as St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean. Newfoundland, especially, had a rich tradition of mummery, brought by Norweigians and Swedes across the Atlantic in the early nineteenth century.

Over the years, characters like Father Christmas (who may have come into English tradition because of mummers), dragons, and the Devil began to take center stage in mummer’s plays — all performed in good fun. One mummer’s verse captures well their intentions.

“Here we stand before your door, 
As we stood the year before;
Give us whisky, give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.”

As years pass, mummers as colorful quasi-minstrels and oft-drunken merrymakers became part of British Christmas tradition. But by the middle of  the 19th century, they begin to be thought of as more of a nuisance. And in one particular case, as murderers.

The alleged murder of a fisherman named Isaac Mercer by a group of men disguised as mummers in 1860 is one of the most notorious crimes in Newfoundland history. So heinous was the crime that packs of mummers began to be feared. A legislative ban on mummers was even issued. It remained in place for over a century.

Mummers’ celebrations in America, however — which date back to colonial times — thrived.  And it is here that the tradition of mummery in the city of Philadelphia may find its origins. Philadelphia was the nation’s capital in 1790, and a large Swedish population — previously mentioned as a country rich in mummer tradition — lived in the city. President George Washington was even known to have initiated a tradition of receiving calls from mummers at his home. In the early nineteenth century, celebrations were lavish, but some became so raucous with drunkenness and the discharge of firearms in the streets that the city passed an act which declared that “masquerades, masquerade balls, and masked processions” were prohibited.

It didn’t work, and the law — never strictly enforced — was abolished in the 1850s. Celebrations continued in Philadelphia, pretty much uninterupted.

Still, by the end of the 19th century, mummers outside of the United States began to fall  out of favor. After the first World War, most British mummers’ groups (known as “sides”) disbanded.

But in Philadelphia, the tradition not only survived, it flourished. The city’s first official parade was on New Year’s Day in 1901. It continues to this day, and is now the oldest, continuous folk parade in the United States.

A few members of the Aqua String Band in the 2005 parade presenting their theme “Just Plain Dead” (taken from Wikipedia)

Still,  these mummers in Philadelphia are a far cry from the medieval revelers of old. Made up of various groups — comics, fancies, string bands and fancy brigades — Philadelphia mummers do not go door to door now begging for whiskey. Instead, they perform music and acts of comedy along Broad Street with ever more elaborate themes, costumes and productions as the years go by. It’s a proud tradition of community pride and charity for many, and one of embarrassment to some.

Is there a direct line — and link — between the medieval mummer and his 21st century Philadelphia counter-part? Insofar as the mummer represents joyous abandon and holiday celebration with elaborate costumes and behavior not otherwise so socially acceptable outside of the holidays, then yes. There is something in the human condition that wants to put on makeup or a mask and become someone different — all within the accepted social convention of a holiday and/or party.

To badly paraphrase Carl Jung, and force an analogous relationship between the wearing of a physical disguise and the mask that is our persona — “designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual” (from his Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, 1953) — perhaps the (dis)guise of the mummer is an attempt to show others someone or something we can only be once a year.  Most individuals conform — go to work, consume, go to be bed, wake up, start again. The mummer, however, can be anything he or she wants: comical, colorful, musical, mischievous — jovial, yes, but even a bit menacing, depending on theme.

If for only one day out of the (new) year, the Philadelphia Mummer’s parade — for mummers at least, but for its spectators, too — is a vacation from convention and day-to-day norms.

In many ways, it is a holiday from one’s self. And we could all use that from time to time.