Werewolves, Gnosis, Decolonization

1692, Jurgensburg, Livonia, the Baltics (present-day Latvia): Thiess, a man in his 80s, has been brought to trial. The old man, brought in on charges of compacting with the devil, freely confesses to being a werewolf. To the astonishment of the inquisitors, Thiess insists that he and his fellow werewolves fought against evil witches who stole the seed grain and took it to hell. Three times a year the werewolves proceeded across the sea where they fought the other side with iron rods. In fact, he’d had his nose broken once in one of these skirmishes by Skeistan, a peasant from Lemburg who fought on the devil’s side. The inquisitors could not understand the old Livonian werewolf and tried to entrap him in their narrative of the Satanic pact. In frustration and anger, he finally burst out that he was tired of hearing talk about his evil doings, he did a lot more good than the priests. The werewolves fought for a good harvest, and if they won their battle, the rye and barley, and even fish would be plentiful. Thiess told the judges “…werewolves cannot tolerate the devil.” Instead, they fought for the good of the people, a ritual harkening back onto very ancient Indo-European practices of spirit-worker fights for the harvest.

The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, who taught at University of California and is author of The Night Battles and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Withes’ Sabbath, has done some of the best historical work on witchcraft and related practices in Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods, teasing out the voices of the marginalized from the official story of the church, that of the Satanic pact, the Sabbath.
He researched the nearly forgotten archives of the people who called themselves benandanti (the well-farers) in Friuli (northeast Italy), who told inquisitors that they worked for the good of the people, also in the form of assemblies and fights that took place on the Ember nights. Like the werewolves, the benandanti fought for the harvest armed with fennel stalks against warlocks who fought with sorghum stalks. They went out on Thursday nights on the Ember days, in what in the deeper past may have been fought by masked bands representing the spirits that would steal the crops, and those that would release them. In the sixteenth century, they came into the knowledge of the inquisitors, who also tried to craft their narratives into that of the diabolical pact. One of them, Paolo Gasparatto told how they traveled in spirit, riding animals like hares and cats to their assemblies. So also did the ladies who traveled, probably in their dreams, in the Game of Diana (whom they called Herodias, Oriente, etc.) like Sibillia and Pierina, arrested in 1390 in northern Italy. They described how they belonged to the Society of Madona Horiente and traveled with that goddess on Thursday nights with a procession of the dead and many kinds of animals. Pierina described how they roamed through various houses, including those of the wealthy, and how the goddess taught her the virtue of herbs and how to dissolve spells. These were all met with insistence that their experience conform with the satanic Sabbath narrative that the Church had patched together in the late middle ages. They were recidivists, having been brought before the inquisitors years before, and were sentenced to death.

Christian Europe was determined to see the practices of people living in remote and peripheral areas as Satanic. After the Enlightenment, as the worldview changed to the secular, many historians would look back on them as simply deluded, proposing theories of witches as being psychotic and otherwise psychologically deranged, even under the influence of a lethal mold, ergot. Taking a post-colonial lens can help us understand our past: Should we accept this dismissive attitude, or might we accept their other ways of knowing? Before national powers like England, Spain, and France would establish overseas empires these emerging nation states colonized in a kind of practice maneuver on nearby peripheral territories, whether the Baltics, the Celtic ‘Fringe’, the Mediterranean islands, the Canaries, or other regions. It is notable that the Baltics had been Christianized and brought into the larger European scheme by the Crusades of the Teutonic Knights, and in Livonia specifically by a nearly autonomous branch called the Livonian Order. Unsurprisingly, they ruled and slaughtered with brutality. We can surmise that much of traditional practices/knowledge were decimated in these conquests, as they were later in the Americas and other parts of the world.

The study of what is and constitutes knowledge is called epistemology. Like in so many other areas the ruling elites in the west have long had mono-vision. We live in an over-culture that only values knowledge that is instrumental, quantifiable, technical, (certainly important to have) but which as the only approach leads to a stunted way of relating to world. The repression of other knowledge has long been part of colonial projects, and the war against embodied knowing figures in the huge changes in the birth of capitalism and in persecutions like those against witches in early modern Europe. So much of what we think of as modern was born out of those convulsions, the disciplining of rural and marginal people’s practices in the period that has been called the ‘broken spell’, the breaking of the view of the world as a magical garden, investigated a century ago by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism.

Silvia Federici, Marxist historian and author of Caliban and the Witch, has written of the mechanization of the body that was part of the development of capitalism, the disciplines imposed upon bodies required by capital to break nature’s rhythms, to transcend the limits of seasons and day and night and so on. She mentions powers that pre-capitalist people thought they had: including flight, speaking with animals and shape-shifting, yet refers to them as imaginary powers, in what seems a failure to go beyond modernist epistemology.* The term subaltern, developed by Gayatri Spivak (and used earlier by Antonio Gramsci in his work on cultural hegemony) designates the populations, which are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power relations of a colony and the colonizer. I think it is a useful one to allow these usually silenced European populations to speak to us too, those that were left outside of history, as they do in Carlo Ginzburg’s work, teased out from the racks of the inquisitors’ records.

Getting glimpses of the rich experiences of practitioners like Thiess, Gasparotto and the other benandanti, and Pierina and Sibillia leads to questions of how do we value their ways of knowing, their gnosis, such as Pierina testifying how the Goddess of the Society taught her the virtues of herbs and how to dissolve spells? These practitioners all had their shared gnosis, which was steadily eroded by the insistence of powerful elites.

This leads me to ask what role does gnosis or aisling (vision in Irish) have in our paths today? Swaths of the Pagan/polytheist communities devalue gnosis and throw around the term ‘unverified personal gnosis’, an implicitly dismissive term. Reclaiming ways of knowing and truth in the context of our traditions (this does not mean a relativistic free fall or a devaluing of empirical knowledge) is a form of decolonization that is a practice of liberation.

Gnosis, aisling, imbas, awen are the blood of spiritual practice and when we find/receive it and find our gnosis is shared with others that is truly exciting, giving hope our traditions will thrive again.

Thoughts on gnosis to be continued…


*thanks to Neve Antheus for insight on Federici.

About the Author

Longtime Pagan, polytheist, CR, druid, animist, poet, and queer writer. Some of my writings can be found in A Beautiful Resistance, Air n-Aithesc, and in various Bibliotheca Alexandrina anthologies. I’m a threshold dweller who thinks our pagan heritage can help us track toward a better world. You can find more of my words at finnchuillsmast@wordpress.com.

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1 Comment

  1. Fascinating stuff. What you’ve written about the Crusades and Christian inquisitors repressing subaltern people, particularly folk who shift into wolf-form finds parallels in Arthurian mythology, where Arthur (a Christian ‘champion’) slaughters the Cynvyn, ‘dog-heads’, and contends with Gwrgi Garwlwyd, ‘Man Dog Rough Grey’, Rhymi who ‘goes in wolf form’ and her two whelps Gwyddrud and Gwydden Abstrus ‘two old men from the land of enchantment’. This suggests we possessed lupine shapeshifting traditions in Britain which were extinguished during the ‘Dark Ages’.

    I like what you say about seeking vision/inspiration in our various traditions as a form of decolonisation 🙂

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