The Witch’s Skin

Guestpost by Costanza De Cillia

If the body of the enemy, whether captured or killed, has always been the object of universal interest on the part of the human consortium, there was an era in which it was literally valid as a body of evidence: the period of witch hunts, in Europe, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Then, as we will see, the suspect’s belonging to the abominable convent of the Devil was ascertained with a thorough personal search, during which the body of the alleged witch, chained and shaved, was searched in detail for tangible evidence of her nefarious sin.

This investigative methodology derives from the dictates of demonology, which arose in the wake of the papal bull of Innocent VIII Summis Desiderantes affectibus (1484): an anatomy of witchcraft elaborated by cultured literature, which – in numerous manuals, among which the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) is probably the most famous – taught how to conduct investigations to verify the guilt of the prisoner.

As early as the 12th century, with the spread of medical treatises, the diagnosis of the divine or evil nature of invading spirits became a distinction between holy bodies and deviant bodies, which demons, spiritual creatures endowed with semi-corporeality, could enter through the various openings. The human mouth, in particular, granted access to two distinct physiological systems: the spiritual one, having as its center the heart, which was usually possessed by the Holy Spirit, and the digestive system, the bowels, in which all contaminating impurities reside, thus the preferred residence of evil spirits.

Since demons loved to settle in the “cavities” of the human body, it was natural for them to prefer the female body – the ideal habitat whose anatomy, considered weak and full of openings, seemed to facilitate the entry of impure entities.

This only aggravated the already fragile theological and existential condition of the woman, seen as a deceiving and treacherous being who originated from Adam’s bent rib, and was therefore imperfect (designated as fe-mina, “she who has less faith”, a deficiency that she was thought to compensate with her insatiable lust).

This negative vision of women might be the reason for the imbalance between the number of witches and sorcerers, which is intercultural and present in all historical periods: psychology and ethnopsychiatry explain this asymmetry by indicating how the witch was perceived as the inverted image of the fertile woman; a phallic and devouring mother/stepmother, who arouses envy and libido to the point of making her a scapegoat. In a society that worshiped fertility, the female body, especially the elderly body, arose strong fears, due to an ambiguity that made it similar to that of an animal, a polluting and disturbing presence. Thus the witch was associated with threatening, harmful magical powers, which made her the opposite of a good housewife and mother, and affected the spheres related to childbirth, death and love; on the other hand, male sorcerers were usually accused of spells aimed at controlling the climate and the crops, therefore closer to daily working life.

But, as we said, it was in the 15th century that the conceptual transition from sorcery to witchcraft took place, that is, from the definition of witchcraft as an exercise of maleficia (malignant magic against others, in particular against the foundations of peasant community life: the harvest, health of young people, human and animal sexuality for reproductive purposes) to its qualification as a heresy based on the veneration of Satan.

The witch was no longer seen as a “bad neighbor” devoted to antisocial behavior, who resorted to supernatural means in order to satisfy her evil desires; she became guilty of crimina excepta, exceptional crimes by virtue of their gravity, aimed at the destruction of Christian society and committed because of her own voluntary enslavement, both spiritual and physical, to the Infernal Spouse.

These crimes were deemed so atrocious as to make devil worshipers worthy of the death penalty, as traitors to God and to the human assembly: incest, infanticide, anthropophagy, desecration of the holy bread and- of sacred vestments, mainly committed on the occasion of the Sabbath. In this periodic collective gathering – which the initiates reached by means of the nocturnal “journey through the air” attracting great attention during interrogations – the witches perpetuated their perdition with banquets, acts of blasphemy, dances and ritual orgies (dominated by the carnal relationship with the devil and inaugurated by the osculum oscenum, the kiss “under the tail” of the Goat, president of the assembly).

Of course these deeds were unforgivable, as they were based on the perversion of the Creed and the inversion of the sacraments of the Christian religion.

Given these premises, witchcraft became to be seen as an impious cult, a false religion – of which spells and charms are but a by-product, meant to harm the good members of the community – the profession of which was considered a crime, an act of treason and political sedition.

Against this diabolical plot, comparable to an infection with which some sick sheep try to spread heresy within the flock of the faithful, a police operation was launched, whose severity reminds us of more modern concepts like zero-tolerance policies.

Despite the lack of proof of an actual, ritual form of devil worship (supporting the hypothesis that the Sabbath has always been just a myth), in this hunt two categories of tangible evidence were identified and considered conclusive, as they were directly observable: a public confession, which usually followed the denunciation by other witches, and the empirical verification of supernatural attributes.

The latter were carefully searched on the body of the accused, in a judicial torture session that anticipated the suffering of public execution: a degenerate medical examination, in which professional “witch-prickers” stuck special needles into the flesh of the alleged witch, looking for a bloodless and numb area of skin. This was the sign of the “devil’s paw”,shaped like a footprint, a spot, a red or blue dot: the witch’s mark, also known as signum diabolii or punctum/stygma diabolicum, present since birth on the skin of those who were “born witches” and doomed to be evil already in the womb of their mother. More frequently, it was a sign imprinted in the flesh by the Devil himself, at the end of the affiliation ceremony.

Parody of the stigmata of the saints, seal of servitude that sanctions the possession of the witch by Lucifer – simia Dei, the “monkey” who mocks and imitates God – the mark is imprinted with a bite or a scratch, on the forehead or in a hidden point of the body: on the shoulder or on the left side, inside the eyelid, on the abdomen or in locis secretissimis non nominandis (in the intimate parts or in the rectum).

Besides being reminiscent of the sign affixed by the Antichrist in Rev 13.16 (“the name of the beast or the number of his name”), this was considered, in line with the satanic ceremonial, the “reverse” of the circumcision in the Old Testament and of the sign of the cross in the New Testament; it attested to the witch’s perfidy, being its physical, visible and above all tangible manifestation. The mark was therefore an incriminating sign, which proved the woman took part in the Sabbath and belonged to the societas diabolii.

Subsequently, the commandments in Exod 22.18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live“) and Lev 20.27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death” ) became imperative for earthly justice.

The search for the mark, however, appears to be an invention of cultured demonology, not very widespread in folklore and never applied with the same frequency as other demonstrations of witchcraft – with the exceptions of Civil War England, Scotland and, on the continent, Sweden, France and Switzerland.

The pricking of every part of the suspect’s body, therefore, seems to have found less diffusion than, for example, the swimming test (descendant of the “trial by water” present in European popular mythology since the Middle Ages), in which the bound witch was thrown into a pond or a well: her drowning was proof of innocence, while survival demonstrated the refusal by the pure element associated with baptism to touch her body, thus ascertaining her guilt.

Other known stratagems for detecting witches were drawing the suspects’ blood, boiling their urine and hair in a bottle, inserting a hot poker in their feces, burning straw from their home, pricking their portrait, and weighing them in comparison with a Bible; finally, there were more risky methods, vaguely superstitious, such as scratching the witch’s body (to neutralize the effects of her evil practices), or relying on the divinatory abilities of cunning men, healers practicing forms of “white”, beneficial magic.

Witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins (a well-known witch hunter, active in South East England between 1645 and 1647, with the assistance of the witch-pricker John Stearne) also suggested, in the treatise On the Discovery of Witches, to isolate the witch, subject her to a prolonged vigil for days and force her to walk incessantly, waiting for her imps or familiars to come to her rescue in front of the witnesses.

These vampire servant sprites, with the appearance of small pets, are purchased by the witch, inherited from her colleagues or donated to her by the Devil; in exchange for their help, she feeds them through a teat (supernumerary breast which honest women do not have) from which they suck yellowish milk, water and finally blood: if the sucking is suspended for more than twenty-four hours, this diabolical breast swells up to the point of bursting – a probatory indication, sufficient to impose the death sentence of the defendant. However, since the surplus breast was not often found, it was believed that many witches cut it off before being searched.

There were those who distinguished between the witch’s mark and the supernumerary nipple, and those who instead gathered both under the same category of probative evidence; but there was nonetheless absolute consensus on the value of these dermatological anomalies, as they brought a certainty that other forms of torture could not provide. In fact Satan, showing that his power was superior to any natural law and every counter-magic, conferred on his proteges the “gift of silence”, or the ability to resist pain, thus preventing any confession.

Although the presence of a mark was considered a definitive proof, this did not dispel the suspicion that most of the witch-pricking business was actually a scam, conducted by itinerant impostors (even women disguised as men, such as James Paterson and John Dickson) who were attracted by good pay and the possibility to freely torture their “patients” – so much so that some of them were legally prosecuted, for the cruelty shown and the rapes they committed.

As we have seen, witches were condemned because of a symptom that in the following centuries will be seen as a simple scar, a tattoo drawn in contempt at the command of Lev 19.28 (“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you”) or, in the case of supernumerary nipples, as congenital hyperthelia/hypermastia.

Regarding the “supernatural” resistance to pain shown by witches, these peculiar phenomena of local analgesia are explained by the raising of the pain threshold due to fear or exhaustion; skin numbness could also be the consequence of diseases and malnutrition suffered by the humblest fringes of the early modern European population. Doctors and alienists have also speculated about the possible role of hysteria and epilepsy (“suffocation of the uterus”: an umbrella term used for various gynecological problems), as well as nervous or ecstatic syndromes, in diabolical possessions.

Regardless of subsequent medical explanations, at the time of the witchcraft trials the discovering of a mark left no hope for the defendant: found guilty of the worst of crimes, these women would be burned at the stake on the Continent, so the cathartic and disinfectant fire could purify their body and soul and scatter their earthly remains like ashes in the wind; they would instead end up hanged in England and North America (where, it must be remembered, witchcraft was never perceived as a heresy, but remained an illegal act against society): suspended between heaven and earth, unworthy of both, they would suffer a shameful death on the “one-armed cross”, the gallows. Their execution, accompanied by an infamous burial, usually at the foot of the gallows itself, was halfway between a moralistic theatrical show and a sporting competition where human bodies were subjected to fatal labors.

A mise-en-scène that, with its pedagogical-terrorist connotations, was meant to arouse a healthy fear in the spectators, agitated by a visceral sense of moral and emotional ambivalence. A spectacle in which the victims were hated, and at the same time pitied in their misfortune.

Costanza De Cillia is a Doctor of Philosophy and Sciences of Religions. Her main fields of research are the aesthetics of violence and the anthropology of execution.

The Werewolf of Ansbach

It is estimated that over the course of only 300 years, from the 14th to the 17th century, up to 100,000 people were executed in Europe on the charge of being werewolves .
France and Germany especially found themselves under attack by these supernatural creatures, and in both countries the lycanthropy “epidemics” caused a real collective fear.
The werewolf could sometimes be the victim of a curse, but more often he was seen as a worshiper of Satan. Since turning into a wolf was considered the result of magical arts, lycanthropy trials fell into the wider phenomenon of witch-hunt.
Among historical accounts of werewolves, there is one in particular that is absolutely noteworthy.

In 1685 the Principality of Ansbach included the surroundings of the Bavarian town of the same name; here a wolf began attacking livestock. The threat suddenly became more serious when the animal killed several children within a few months.
The idea immediately spread that this was no normal wolf, but rather a werewolf — on whose identity there was little doubt: the detested Michael Leicht, Burgomaster of Ansbach (a figure halfway between a mayor and a ruler), had recently died after subjecting the town to its cruel and fraudulent yoke for many years.

It was rumored that this much-hated public officer had actually managed to escape death by transferring his spirit into the body of a wolf. Some swore they saw him attend his own funeral; a contemporary flyer shows Michael Leicht who, in the form of a wolf wrapped in a white-linen shroud, returns to his old apartment, scaring the new tenants.

Thus hunting the fierce wolf became an imperative not only in order to protect children from further carnage, but to free the city from the spirit of the Burgomaster still haunting those places, and to avenge years of harassment.

The hunters prepared a Wolfsgrube. This “wolf pit” consisted of a hole with stone walls, about three or four meters deep, covered with branches and straw, and it was used to trap wild animals. Pieces of raw meat were placed at the bottom of the well, and often a live bait was used: a sheep, a pig or a goose. The wolf, smelling the prey, would wander around the scrubs until it fell into the trapping pit.

In this case, the bait was a rooster. The wolf fell into the hole and was killed by hunters.
But what happened next is the really interesting part.

The carcass of the animal was paraded through the streets, to show the danger was over. The men had prevailed over the beast.
But since this was no ordinary wolf, a more grotesque spectacle was staged. After skinning the animal, the men severed its muzzle and placed on its head a cardboard mask with Leicht’s features; they dressed it with a wig and a cloak, and hanged the wolf by a gibbet erected on a nearby hill, so that it was clearly visible.

A poem from the time reads:

I, wolf, was a grim beast and devourer of many children
Which I far preferred to fat sheep and steers;
A rooster killed me, a well was my death.
I now hang from the gallows, for the ridicule of all people.
As a spirit and a wolf, I bothered men
How appropriate, now that people say:
“Ah! You damned spirit who entered the wolf,
You now swing from the gallows disguised as a man
This is your fair compensation, the gift you have earned;
This you deserve, a gibbet is your grave.
Take this reward, because you have devoured the sons of men
Like a fierce and ferocious beast, a real child eater. “

The punishment reserved for this demonic beast is subtler than it might seem, because it actually serves a double symbolic purpose.

On the one hand, depriving the wolf of his fur and replacing it with human clothes meant showing Satan himself that his tricks did not work. The townspeople of Ansbach were able to recognize the man concealing under the fur; this was therefore a warning, addressed to the Devil himself — this how your evil servants end up, around here! — and it had a clear apotropaic intent.

On the other hand, there was an undeniable political aspect. This was a “by proxy” execution of the former ruler; the commoners, who had failed to overthrow their oppressor while he was alive, did so post-mortem.
One may wonder: was this a warning to the new burgomaster, so that he would keep in line? Or was the new ruler himself behind this staging? Such a striking public show could be a good way for him to earn his subjects’ trust, a way of distancing himself from the tyranny of his predecessor.
In any case, the political message was clear, even for those who did not believe in werewolves: this act was meant to mark the end of a dark era.

As this episode demonstrates, we would be wrong to see lycanthropy trials as simple and blind mass hysteria, fueled by superstition. Even though they were a product of  fear in times of great epidemics, as well as economic, political and social instability, werewolf trials sometimes involved stratified levels of meaning which were far from being unintentional.
While courts condemned hundreds of people to be burned at the stake, intellectuals debated how it was possible for a man to turn into a wolf. And they were surprisingly quite aware that the problem lied in telling the legend from the truth.

For instance one of the most brilliant treatises on the subject, the Discourse on Lycanthropy (1599) by Jean Beauvoys de Chauvincourt, traces the origins of the werewolf in Greek mythology, spending several pages to discern between which ancient stories had to be considered simple allegories, and which ones could hide a kernel of truth.

But what exactly was this truth? What was going on during a lycanthropy episode? Can we in all rationality, wonders Beauvoys, believe that a man has the magical power of changing his physical form?
And then there was a more delicate question, of theological nature. How could Satan transform what God had created, replacing the Almighty in a sort of “second creation”? Crediting the Devil with such high power was inadmissible, since only God could turn water into wine, Lot’s wife into salt, or Moses’ rod into a snake.

In his treatise Beauvoys devises an extremely ingenious solution, a true marvel of balance to get himself out of the impasse.
Since endorsing the possibility of an actual man-to-wolf transformation would lead him dangerously close to blasphemous or at least heretical positions, he opts for a double demonic illusion.

The first illusion affects the werewolves themselves: Satan, “thanks to his pure and simple subtlety, by penetrating into their bodies and occupying their internal organs, becomes their true owner, and persuades them of what he wants. Troubling their imagination, he makes them believe they are brutal beasts, and infuses them with the same desires and attractions those animals have, up to the point that they begin having frequent carnal unions with those of their kind“. Thus the werewolf is nothing but a man, who has lost his way and got tricked by the devil; his body is not really covered in fur, his nails do not turn into claws nor his teeth into fangs. Everything just happens in his mind (an extraordinary idea, if you think that something close to psychiatry will only appear two centuries later).

Then, by administering ointments, eye drops, creams and powders to these slaves, the Devil is able to create hallucinations even in those who have the misfortune of meeting the werewolf: “such is the smell and the air so infected by this filth that they not only affect his patient, but they are so powerful as to act on the external senses of the audience, taking possession of their eyes; disturbed by this poison, they are persuaded that these transformations are real“.

Therefore on a more superficial level, the werewolf represents the danger of abandoning oneself to bestial instincts, of losing one’s own humanity; it is a moral figure meant to illustrate what happens when man turns away from the divine light, and it signifies a recession to barbarism, the loss of the logos.

But the most frightening and uspetting fact is that a werewolf confuses and overturns the common categories of meaning. According to Beauvoys, as we have seen, its condition is both supernatural (Satan is behind it all) and natural (no actual metamorphosis is taking place). Similarly, Ansbach’s wolf is deprived of its real skin, which is seen as a fake, and it is made to wear a mock human face, recognized as its authentic nature.

The werwewolf’s destabilizing power lies in this dimension of epistemological mystery — the werewolf is like a magic trick, an illusion; it is both true and false.

The Grim Reaper at the Chessboard

Few games lend themselves to philosophical metaphors like the game of chess.
The two armies, one dark and one bright, have been battling each other for millennia in endless struggle. An abstract fight of mathematical perfection, as mankind’s “terrible love of war” is inscribed within an orthogonal grid which is only superficially reassuring.
The chessboard hides in fact an impossible combinatory vertigo, an infinity of variations. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the scheme (the estimate of all possible games is a staggering number), and remember that famous Pharaoh who, upon accepting to pay a grain of wheat on the first square and to double the number of grains on the following squares, found himself ruined.

The battle of 32 pieces on the 64 squares inspired, aside from the obvious martial allegories, several poems tracing the analogy between the chessboard and the Universe itself, and between the pawns and human condition.
The most ancient and famous is one of Omar Khayyám‘s quatrains:

Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This idea of God moving men over the chessboard as he pleases might look somewhat disquieting, but Jorge Luis Borges multiplied it into an infinite regress, asking if God himself might be an unknowing piece on a larger chessboard:

Weakling king,  slanting bishop, relentless
Queen, direct rook and cunning pawn
Seek and wage their armed battle
Across the black and white of the field.

They know not that the player’s notorious
Hand governs their destiny,
They know not that a rigor adamantine
Subjects their will and rules their day.

The player also is a prisoner
(The saying  is Omar’s) of another board
Of black nights and of white days.

God moves the player, and he, the piece.
Which god behind God begets the plot
Of dust and time and dream and agonies?

This cosmic game is of course all about free will, but is also part of the wider context of memento mori and of Death being  the Great Leveler. Whether we are Kings or Bishops, rooks or simple pawns; whether we fight for the White or Black side; whether our army wins or loses — the true outcome of the battle is already set. We will all end up being put back in the box with all other pieces, down in “time’s common grave“.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Death many times sat at the chessboard before Man.

In the oldest representations, the skeleton was depicted as cruel and dangerous, ready to violently clutch the unsuspecting bystander; but by the late Middle Ages, with the birth of the Danse Macabre (and possibly with the influence of the haunting but not malevolent Breton figure of Ankou) the skeleton had become unarmed and peaceful, even prone to dancing, in a carnival feast which, while reminding the viewer of his inevitable fate, also had an exorcistic quality.

That Death might be willing to allow Man a game of chess, therefore, is connected with a more positive idea in respect to previous iconographic themes (Triumph of Death, Last Judgement, the Three Kings, etc.). But it goes further than that: the very fact that the Reaper could now be challenged, suggests the beginning of Renaissance thought.

In fact, in depictions of Death playing chess, just like in the Danse Macabre, there are no

allusions or symbols directly pointing to the apocalyptic presence of religion, nor to the necessity of its rituals; for instance, there are no elements suggesting the need of receiving, in the final act, the extreme confort of a priest or the absolution as a viaticum for the next world, which would stress the feeling of impotence of man. Portrayed in the Danse Macabre is a man who sees himself as a part of the world, who acknowledges his being the maker of change in personal and social reality, who is inscribed in historical perspective.

(A. Tanfoglio, Lo spettacolo della morte… Quaderni di estetica e mimesi del bello nell’arte macabra in Europa, Vol. 4, 1985)

The man making his moves against Death was no more a Medieval man, but a modern one.
Later on, the Devil himself was destined to be beat at the game: according to the legend, Sixteenth Century chess master Paolo Boi from Syracuse played a game against a mysterious stranger, who left horrified when on the chessboard the pieces formed the shape of a cross…

But what is probably the most interesting episode happened in recent times, in 1985.
A Dr. Wolfgang Eisenbeiss and an aquaintance decided to arrange a very peculiar match: it was to be played between two great chess masters, one living and one dead.
The execution of the game would be made possible thanks to Robert Rollans, a “trustworthy” medium with no knowledge of chess (so as not to influence the outcome).
The odd party soon found a living player who was willing to try the experiment, chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi; contacting the challenger proved to be a little more difficult, but on June 15 the spirit of Géza Maróczy, who had died more than 30 years before on May 29, 1951, agreed to pick up the challenge.
Comunicating the moves between the two adversaries, through the psychic’s automatic writing, also took more time than expected. The game lasted 7 years and 8 months, until the Maróczy’s ghost eventually gave up, after 47 moves.

This “supernatural” game shows that the symbolic value of chess survived through the centuries.
One of the most ancient games is still providing inspiration for human creativity, from literature (Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was built upon a chess enigma) to painting, from sculpture to modern so-called mysteries (how could chess not play a part in Rennes-le-Château mythology?).
From time to time, the 64 squares have been used as an emblem of seduction and flirtation, of political challenges, or of the great battle between the White and the Black, a battle going on within ourselves, on the chessboard of our soul.

It is ultimately an ambiguous, dual fascination.
The chessboard provides a finite, clear, rationalist battlefield. It shows life as a series of strategical decisions, of rules and predictable movements. We fancy a game with intrinsic accuracy and logic.
And yet every game is uncertain, and there’s always the possibility that the true “endgame” will suddenly catch us off guard, as it did with the Pharaoh:

CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly):
Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.
(Pause.)
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.

(Thanks, Mauro!)

Il Cacciatore di Streghe

The_Obscene_Kiss

Di tutti i secoli passati, il Seicento è sicuramente fra i più bizzarri, rispetto alla sensibilità moderna.
Epidemie di vampirismo, masticatori di sudari, santi prodigiosi le cui spoglie operavano miracoli, ed infine loro, le streghe, quelle donne malvagie che stringevano alleanze con il Diavolo. Il soprannaturale era parte integrante della quotidianità, e dubitare delle sue influenze sulla vita di tutti i giorni era, secondo alcuni pensatori come ad esempio Joseph Glanvill, una vera e propria eresia: tanto abbietta quanto la negazione dell’esistenza degli angeli. Il demonio, in quegli anni, si aggirava davvero per le campagne alla ricerca di anime da catturare e dannare per l’eternità, era cioè una figura concreta, che la gente credeva di riconoscere dietro ad ogni evento peculiare.

Le streghe avevano un posto centrale nell’immaginario popolare, e chiunque poteva essere sospettato di stregoneria: una lite con una vicina di casa, seguita dalla comparsa di vaghi dolori o di una malattia del bestiame, era chiaro segnale che la donna aveva immensi poteri di provenienza diabolica. In un’epoca in cui i processi per stregoneria erano diffusi, è facile comprendere come accusare un proprio nemico d’aver stretto un patto con Satana fosse un metodo facile ed economico per toglierselo dai piedi.

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In questo contesto emerse la figura di Matthew Hopkins, il cacciatore di streghe più famoso della Storia.
Nato intorno al 1620 a Wenham Magna, minuscolo villaggio inglese nella contea di Suffolk, era il quarto dei sei figli di un pastore puritano piuttosto amato dai suoi compaesani. Della vita di Matthew prima del 1644 si conosce molto poco: sembra che avesse un’infarinatura di giurisprudenza, e che avesse acquistato una locanda a Mistley con i soldi ricevuti in eredità, ma questi aneddoti sono poco verificabili.

Quello che è certo è che all’inizio degli anni 40 del Seicento Hopkins si trasferì a Manningtree, Essex, e lì nel 1644 si autoproclamò Witchfinder General. Si trattava di un titolo che voleva sembrare ufficiale (general significa “rappresentante del Governo”), ma ovviamente il Parlamento non aveva mai istituito la carica di Cacciatore di Streghe; Hopkins era comunque ben deciso a guadagnarsi fama e fortuna, e quell’altisonante appellativo non era che l’inizio. La sua carriera vera e propria cominciò quello stesso anno, quando Hopkins dichiarò di aver sentito alcune donne parlare dei loro incontri con il demonio. Da quel momento in poi, assieme al fido compare John Stearne, cominciò a viaggiare per l’Inghilterra orientale, principalmente tra Suffolk, Essex e Norfolk, disinfestando borghi, villaggi e città dalle temute streghe.

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Hopkins e Stearne arrivavano in una nuova cittadina, annunciavano di essere stati incaricati dal Parlamento di scoprire le streghe della zona, raccoglievano denunce e “indizi”, quindi passavano ai fatti: accusavano e processavano anche venti o venticinque persone, trovavano immancabilmente le prove dell’avvenuto Patto con il diavolo, e mandavano tutti al patibolo.
Bisogna sottolineare che i processi per stregoneria erano diversi da tutti gli altri procedimenti giudiziari, perché la gravità del crimine era tale da permettere ai giudici di abbandonare le normali procedure legali ed ogni scrupolo etico (crimen exceptum): la confessione andava estorta con qualsiasi mezzo e ad ogni costo. Ma la tortura era pur sempre illegale in Inghilterra.

Così i metodi di Hopkins per scoprire se l’imputata fosse realmente una strega, pur essendo fra i più crudeli, rimanevano sempre sul limite di ciò che si poteva considerare tortura: la prassi più utilizzata prevedeva ad esempio la deprivazione del sonno. Si teneva l’imputata sveglia e immobile per giorni, seduta con le gambe incrociate e impedendole di dormire, finché la poveretta non finiva per ammettere qualsiasi cosa.

Si cercava poi sul suo corpo il Segno della Bestia – che non era difficile da trovare, visto che praticamente tutto (da un terzo capezzolo, a una zona di pelle un po’ secca, a un neo particolarmente grosso) poteva essere interpretato in tal senso. Se non vi era alcun Segno del Diavolo sul corpo, significava una sola cosa: che non era visibile ad occhio nudo. Ecco quindi entrare le assistenti di Hopkins, donne che viaggiavano con lui e che svolgevano la funzione di witch prickers, “pungolatrici di streghe”. Il Segno del Diavolo era infatti immune al dolore e non sanguinava, a quanto si diceva, e per trovarlo le witch prickers utilizzavano degli spilloni appositi tormentando il corpo della presunta strega in ogni sua parte.

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In queste lunghe ore di osservazione, spesso Hopkins e altri testimoni vedevano comparire uno o più “famigli“, cioè i demoni minori al servizio della strega, che si presentavano sotto forma di cane, gatto, capra o altri animali, e che bevevano il sangue che scorreva dal corpo della strega come fosse latte. L’apparizione di un famiglio era, com’è ovvio, uno degli indizi di colpevolezza più schiaccianti.

Witches'Familiars1579

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C’erano pochissime probabilità che tutte queste indagini fallissero nel trovare prove inconfutabili della natura diabolica della strega. Ma se proprio non si era ancora certi, Hopkins poteva sempre ricorrere alla sua trovata più clamorosa, l’infame ordalia dell’acqua. Secondo una teoria dell’epoca, l’acqua (simbolo del battesimo, elemento purissimo) avrebbe rifiutato di accogliere una strega: bastava quindi legare l’imputata a una sedia e gettarla in un fiume o un lago. Se fosse rimasta a galla, si sarebbe trattato per forza di una strega; se fosse annegata, la sua anima innocente sarebbe volata all’altro mondo nella grazia di Dio.
Quest’ultimo metodo era davvero troppo estremo, e le autorità intimarono a Hopkins di utilizzarlo esclusivamente con il consenso della vittima; così già alla fine del 1645 la pratica venne abbandonata.

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Fin dall’inizio della loro “battuta di caccia”, in virtù degli spietati processi, i nomi di Hopkins e Stearne sparsero il terrore in tutta l’Inghilterra dell’est. Una terribile fama li precedeva, e appena circolava voce che i due, con le loro assistenti femminili, si stessero dirigendo verso un determinato villaggio, la gente del posto non dormiva certo sonni tranquilli. Anche con tutta la superstizione e le convinzioni sull’esistenza delle streghe, il popolo poteva vedere benissimo che i processi di Hopkins erano solo delle farse, il cui esito era deciso in anticipo.
Ma cosa alimentava la foga di quest’uomo nella sua missione? Ci credeva veramente, o aveva qualche interesse nascosto?

Lasciando alle spalle un’impressionante scia di cadaveri, la caccia in verità stava fruttando al Witchfinder General un lauto bottino. Nonostante lui più tardi dichiarasse che la sua paga, necessaria a sostenere la sua compagnia e tre cavalli, fosse di soli venti scellini a città, i registri contabili raccontano una realtà differente: l’onorario di Hopkins era di 23 sterline a città, più le spese di viaggio – una somma altissima per l’epoca. Le spese a carico dei vari municipi erano talmente elevate, che nella cittadina di Ipswich fu necessario istituire una tassa speciale per coprirle. Improvvisarsi cacciatore di streghe freelance era senza dubbio un colpo geniale, se non ci si faceva scrupoli a mandare a morte decine e decine di persone.

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L’eco delle gesta del Witchfinder General arrivò anche al Parlamento, e diversi membri espressero preoccupazione per il degenerare della cosa. Anche altre voci, come quella del predicatore puritano John Gaule, si levarono contro l’operato di Hopkins. Fu così che si arrivò a un peculiare ribaltamento della situazione: nella contea di Norfolk, nel 1646, i due cacciatori di streghe vennero fatti sedere sul banco degli imputati. I giudici volevano assicurarsi che non fossero stati usati mezzi di tortura per estorcere confessioni; intendevano indagare sulle parcelle richieste da Hopkins e Stearle alle comunità che avevano visitato; e infine insinuarono, in un sorprendente e ironico twist, che se Hopkins era davvero tanto esperto nella stregoneria e nella demonologia, forse nascondeva anch’egli un segreto…

Dopo questo primo interrogatorio, Hopkins comprese che sarebbe stato più saggio per lui chiudere l’attività. Quando la corte si riaggiornò nel 1647, egli era già tornato a vivere a Manningtree. La carriera del Witchfinder General durò quindi poco più di un anno, 14 mesi per la precisione. Nonostante il breve periodo, i numeri sono impressionanti: tra il 1644 e il 1646 egli fu responsabile della morte di circa trecento donne, impiccate, bruciate, annegate, o morte in prigione. Se si pensa che in totale, dall’inizio della caccia alle streghe nel primo ‘400 fino alla sua fine nel tardo ‘700, in Inghilterra furono condannate per stregoneria meno di cinquecento persone, significa che il 60% del totale delle uccisioni è da attribuirsi al Witchfinder General.

Ma la sua inquietante ombra non si limita ai processi da lui personalmente celebrati: nel 1647, già “in pensione”, Hopkins scrisse The Discovery of Witches, un vero e proprio manuale per individuare le streghe. Questo libro ebbe fortuna nel Nuovo Mondo, e fu utilizzato come testo di riferimento in vari processi, fra cui quelli, tristemente noti, di Salem nel Massachussetts.

Con il tempo la figura di Hopkins divenne quasi mitologica, una sorta di orco o di uomo nero dalla malvagità senza confini. Si racconta che venne processato per stregoneria, sottoposto al suo stesso metodo inumano di “ordalia dell’acqua”, e che morì annegato in un fiume. Ma questa è soltanto una leggenda, con un confortevole e troppo preciso contrappasso. Nella realtà Matthew Hopkins, il Witchfinder General, morì di tubercolosi il 12 agosto 1647, nel suo letto.

Nel 1968 la sua storia venne portata sul grande schermo, romanzata, da Michael Reeves nel cult Il grande inquisitore che fece scandalo per le sue insistite sequenze di tortura e nel quale il Witchfinder General è interpretato da un grande Vincent Price.

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Il libro di Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches, è disponibile gratuitamente online sul sito del Progetto Gutenberg.

Battesimi pericolosi

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Castrillo de Murcia è un piccolo borgo di 500 anime nella provincia di Burgos, nella Spagna del Nord. Il paesino è sonnacchioso, e non vi succede nulla di eclatante; ma per un giorno all’anno, Castrillo si guadagna l’attenzione dei media e di un manipolo di turisti incuriositi dalla strana tradizione che vi si svolge da quasi 400 anni.

Nata nel 1620, la festa di El Colacho si svolge nel giorno del Corpus Domini (in Maggio o in Giugno), ed è curata dalla Confraternita del Santísimo Sacramento de Minerva. Un prescelto si veste con un abito tradizionale dai colori sgargianti che ricordano le fiamme dell’Inferno: si tratta infatti di una vera e propria personificazione del Diavolo, che indossa una minacciosa maschera di sapore carnevalesco. El Colacho si aggira per le vie paesane, accompagnato in processione dai membri della Confraternita, e rincorre di tanto in tanto i passanti e i bambini, frustandoli giocosamente con una sorta di gatto a nove code.

A man dressed in a red and yellow costume representing the devil runs through the streets chasing a boy during traditional Corpus Christi celebrations, in Castrillo de Murcia

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Ma è la seconda parte della processione che è la più impressionante. Giunto nella piazza cittadina, El Colacho si appresta al rituale tradizionale che ha reso celebre la festività. Vengono preparati dei materassi, su cui sono adagiati dei bambini, tutti rigorosamente nati nei dodici mesi precedenti: alcuni degli infanti piangono, altri ridono, altri ancora dormono di gusto.

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Ed ecco che, una volta pronti questi affollati lettini, El Colacho prende la rincorsa e comincia a saltarli, uno dopo l’altro, atterrando a pochi centimetri di distanza dalle testoline dei piccoli. Un passo falso potrebbe essere davvero pericoloso: ma, a quanto si dice, fino ad ora non si è mai verificato alcun incidente.

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El Colacho Baby Jumping Fiesta

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Perché una madre dovrebbe voler posizionare il proprio figlioletto di pochi mesi sul materassino, affinché un uomo vestito da diavolo vi salti sopra, di fronte a una folla plaudente? Il rito, secondo la credenza popolare, è salvifico e benefico: il passaggio di El Colacho rimuove il Peccato Originale, e porta con sé ogni male, proteggendo i neonati dalle malattie.

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Ovviamente, la Chiesa non si limita a storcere il naso di fronte a questo tipo di tradizioni, ma le condanna apertamente, poiché secondo la dottrina ufficiale soltanto il sacramento del battesimo può sollevare il peso del Peccato Originale. Ma gli abitanti di Castrillo de Murcia, per quanto devoti, non rinuncerebbero per niente al mondo alla loro tradizione: si è sempre fatto così, e tutti coloro che battezzano i propri figli in questo strano modo sono stati a loro tempo sottoposti al salto del Colacho.

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Se il salto del Colacho può sembrare estremo e pericoloso, non è nulla in confronto al battesimo che si celebra in alcune parti dell’India, in particolare negli stati di Karnataka e Maharashtra; si tratta di un rito praticato indistintamente da musulmani ed induisti.

Un uomo scala con una corda le mura del tempio, mentre sulla sua schiena penzola un secchio. Una volta arrivato in cima, il devoto mostra a tutti il contenuto del secchio – un bambino (di massimo due anni): dal tetto, alto una decina di metri, esibisce il neonato alla folla sottostante, tenendolo per le braccia e i piedini. Dopo aver invocato la protezione divina, di colpo lo lancia nel vuoto.

Nella piazza, una quindicina di uomini stanno aspettando l’atterraggio del bambino, tendendo una coperta per salvarlo. Il piccolo rimbalza sul telone, viene acchiappato al volo, rapidamente fatto passare di mano in mano e riconsegnato alla madre o al padre. Il tutto dura pochi secondi, anche se ci vogliono svariati minuti perché il bambino si riprenda dallo shock.

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Il salto, ancora una volta, ha lo scopo di portare fortuna e salute al neonato; per la sua pericolosità, si tratta comunque di un rituale controverso, e diverse associazioni per i diritti umani hanno cercato di proibirlo. Nel 2011 queste proteste sono state ufficialmente ascoltate, ma la legge che mette al bando tale pratica è regolarmente ignorata dai fedeli, e perfino la polizia preferisce non interferire con i riti.

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Visto anche il carattere sensibile della questione, è facile immaginare lo scandalo e la rabbia di chi è estraneo a questo tipo di tradizioni, e certamente si può (e si deve) discutere sull’opportunità che certi rituali rischiosi continuino ad essere riproposti al giorno d’oggi. Ma, per quanto il rito in questione sia stato tacciato di essere barbarico, “assurdo”, “senza logica né ragione”, per chi ha un minimo di dimestichezza con l’antropologia il suo senso è cristallino – in verità, esso mostra molte caratteristiche classiche di qualsiasi rito di passaggio.

Il bambino viene innanzitutto separato dai genitori; la guida lo conduce fino al confine, fino alla prova – eminentemente fisica – che egli dovrà affrontare da solo (il salto); infine, una volta completata l’essenziale fase di “transizione”, cioè il superamento della difficoltà, avviene la reintegrazione del bambino con il nucleo familiare e, più genericamente, con la società. Il bambino, com’è ovvio, è ora un individuo nuovo, e gode dei benefici del nuovo status (immunità dalle malattie).

Il salto del Colacho, così come il lancio dei bambini dalla moschea, sono “battesimi del fuoco” portatori di un senso profondo: i riti di passaggio sono talmente fondamentali per l’uomo da sopravvivere anche nelle nostre società industrializzate, cibernetiche e all’avanguardia. Non è tanto il valore di queste tradizioni che andrebbe messo in discussione, quindi, quanto piuttosto la modalità d’esecuzione. Forse, piuttosto che bandire e proibire, sarebbe più produttivo incentivare l’elaborazione di varianti ritualistiche meno cruente, come si è provveduto a fare in molti altri casi nel mondo.

Il Tempio delle Torture

Wat Phai Rong Wua.

Se visitate la Thailandia, ricordatevi questo nome. Si tratta di un luogo sacro, unico e assolutamente weird, almeno agli occhi di un occidentale. Tempio buddista, mèta annuale di migliaia di famiglie, è celebre per ospitare la più grande scultura metallica del Buddha. Ma non è questo che ci interessa. È famoso anche per il suo Palazzo delle Cento Spire, ma nemmeno questo ci interessa. Quello che segnaliamo qui sono le dozzine di figure e complessi statuari che descrivono torture e sevizie riservate dai demoni dell’inferno alle anime in pena.

Infilzate in faccia, o intrappolate nelle fauci di orrendi mostri, con le interiora esposte, trafitte da spade e lance, queste sculture lasciano ben poco all’immaginazione: se non diciamo le preghierine alla sera, non ce la passeremo tanto bene nell’aldilà. Questo macabro e violentissimo “parco di attrazioni” ha per i fedeli un valore educativo. È una visualizzazione grafica e figurativa della sofferenza e dell’inferno.

Certo, c’è da dire che il rapporto dei thailandesi con la morte è meno travagliato del nostro; eppure, per quanto a prima vista il giardino delle torture di Wat Phai Rong Wua possa sembrare una soluzione estrema per colpire la fantasia dell’uomo illetterato, ricordiamoci che anche le nostre chiese abbondano di dipinti e allegorie non meno violente o macabre. Ormai abituati all’arte del Novecento, che si è man mano astratta dal bisogno di veicolare o avere un significato, ci dimentichiamo facilmente del ruolo avuto anche nella nostra storia dell’arte figurativa: quella di educare le masse, di proporsi come libro illustrato, e di servire quindi alla formazione di un immaginario anche per quanto riguarda i mondi a venire.

Scoperto via Oddity Central.

Super Xuxa vs. Satan

Eccovi una generosa sequenza weird dal film brasiliano “Super Xuxa vs. Satan” (1988, di Penido & Sonnenschein).

Xuxa (pron.: Sciùscia) è l’idolo dei bambini in Brasile, e nel film deve salvare il suo cane Xuxo (pron.: Sciùscio) nientepopodimeno che dalle grinfie di Satana.

Una nota di interesse è data dal diavolo e dai suoi aiutanti, spudoratamente copiati da “Time Bandits” (1981, di Terry Gilliam).

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