CULTURE

“Culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass. You don’t see it, but somehow it does something.” — Hans Magnus Enzensberger

  • 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 (https://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/779/779-h/779-h NULL.htm) (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 (http://rsos NULL.royalsocietypublishing NULL.org/content/3/1/150645#F4),” 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.

     

     

     

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  • “Tell Me Strange Things”: Montague Summers, Vampires & The Occult
    Montague Summers, circa 1925
    Montague Summers, circa 1925

    English eccentric and self-described Catholic clergyman Augustus Montague Summers (1880 – 1948) believed in the occult — so much so that his seminal works on witches, werewolves, and vampires have become as much the stuff of ridicule as they are scholarship.

    Responsible for the first English translation of the 15th-century witch hunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Malleus-Maleficarum-Montague-Summers-Translation/dp/1891396552), his life’s work, on paper at least, would present him as more of an English professor than an occultist. Yet as well known his studies were of medieval literature and Elizabethan drama to early twentieth-century scholars, his reputation for serious scholarship has been sullied. Despite his work on the origins and intricacies of the Gothic novel — to some, still essential reading — his legacy is one of oddball collectability. Yes this was a man who, despite his religious beliefs, was an acquaintance — a friend even —of occultist and magician Aleister Crowley. He fought openly with famed anthropologist Margaret Alice Murray (over witchcraft as satanic vs. legitimate religion / cult). He was known in early twentieth century circles as a man of faith who saw fictions as having firm foundation in fact. He was also a bit of a kook — dressed in black and often with a cape in a style befitting a priest from an earlier age.  But his work is nonetheless fascinating, if only for the man’s credulity. He believed accused witches tortured by the Inquisition were rightfully punished. He believed vampires — as animated corpses that rose from the grave to torment the living —were real.

    The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. 1929.
    The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. E.P. Dutton and Company, New York, 1929.

    Following in the footsteps of Dom Augustin Calmet (https://www NULL.abebooks NULL.com/book-search/title/treatise-apparitions-spirits-vampires-revenants/author/dom-augustin-calmet/) (who likewise believed in the occult) and Dudley Wright (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Book-Vampires-Dover-Occult/dp/048644998X) (who Summers rails against as “trifling” with his supernatural topics), Summers is best known for his work about vampires. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampire-His-Kith-Kin-Critical/dp/1937002179/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521820470&sr=1-2&keywords=vampire+his+kith+and+kin) (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampire-Europe-Critical-Montague-Summers/dp/1940671450/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521820495&sr=1-2&keywords=the+vampire+in+europe) (1929) investigated the subject and all its ramifications in fantastic detail, presenting a record of folk beliefs about death and vampires that was revolutionary at the time for sheer scope and depth. If one ignores circular reasoning, misreading folklore as fact, and the author’s own cultural and religious biases, there is something at the heart of his study that can’t be ignored: Summers’ own beliefs, however misguided, are infectious and thorough — thus guaranteeing him a seminal place in the annals of vampirology for his sheer dedication to and belief in the subject.

    Take note of his tone, for example, and choice of verbs and tense in this passage from The Vampire, His kith and Kin (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampire-His-Kith-Kin-Critical/dp/1937002179/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521820470&sr=1-2&keywords=vampire+his+kith+and+kin):

    “The vampire is believed to be one who has devoted himself during his life to the practice of Black Magic, and it is hardly to be supposed that such persons would rest undisturbed, while it is easy to believe that their malevolence had set in action forces which might prove powerful for terror and destruction even when they were in their graves.”

    Author Dennis Wheatley in “Gunmen, Gallants and Ghosts,” claims that “Summers inspired him with fear.”  Some suggest the author even used Summers’ physical appearance as a model for Canon Copely-Syle in “To the Devil-a Daughter.” Guillermo de Toro, too, was a fan (as evidenced in an interview with WIRED in 2011 (https://www NULL.wired NULL.com/2011/11/interview-guillermo-del-toro/)); when asked about folklore that influenced his Strain Trilogy, he cites Summers (and Calmet) by name.

    One wonders just how many writers and filmmakers have been inspired by this odd little clergyman who so thoroughly researched — and embraced — a supernatural world that to others seemed little more than folk tales and fiction. One could imagine Todd Browning having come across a copy of Kith and Kin while directing Bela Lugosi in 1931’s Dracula. Who knows? Stephen King may even have it on his shelf.

    I do.

    In the end, we can laugh at Summers, but we can’t deny his sincerity. And if his 1924 introduction to Horace Walpole’s “Castle in Otranto” is any indication of his overall attitude toward things supernatural, there is an undeniable, almost poetic beauty in his view of strange and scary things; he writes

    In this world there is mystery, because where there is a secret, beauty can always be hidden. There are miracles here because miracles always accompany the unknown. This desire for beauty, a sense of wonder and mystery is vivid and full of passion in the moods of romantic poets, full of subtle half-shades, and sometimes, brutally, and even somewhat vulgar, in bloody and macabre stories.

    Known to often ask his acquaintances to “tell me strange things,” Montague Summers may have worn the cloak of a clergyman, but he had the heart of a Romantic poet — tainted though it may have been with puritanical leanings. The very things that repulsed Summers were too much a temptation not to explore.

    In the classic vampire film From Dusk Til Dawn, when a rattled former-minister, played by Harvey Keitel, is surrounded by the undead, he asks: “Has anybody here read a real book about vampires, or are we just remembering what a movie said?” He quickly adds, “I mean a real book.” Actor (and noted special effects artist) Tom Savini (playing a character hilariously named Sex Machine) retorts: “You mean like a Time-Life book?”

    Too bad none had read a copy of Summers’ Vampire: His Kith and Kin (http://www NULL.sacred-texts NULL.com/goth/vkk/index NULL.htm). They might have all made it out alive.

    NOTE: full-text (http://www NULL.sacred-texts NULL.com/goth/vkk/index NULL.htm) of the The Vampire: His Kith and Kin  (http://www NULL.sacred-texts NULL.com/goth/vkk/index NULL.htm)is available online, but I recommend the critical edition on amazon (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampire-His-Kith-Kin-Critical/dp/1937002179/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521820470&sr=1-2&keywords=vampire+his+kith+and+kin) for those truly interested in the writings of this most unusual man.

     

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