Saturday 26 January 2008


I just happened to notice this e-book called Untote und Vampirismus - Mythos und Realität (Undead and vampirism - Myth and Reality) written by Ferdinand Heisig. I don't know anything about the author, but obviously this is a pretty short 'hauptseminararbeit' published last year by the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. At just 13 pages I find that Euro 4,99 may not be worth the contents, but there's an excerpt on the web site. And, of course, the book is in German.

Thursday 24 January 2008

Wir Maria Theresia

Some time ago I was asked if I knew of any web site containing Maria Theresa's announcements concerning magia posthuma. I found a site that contains an excerpt of one here, but this might be an opportunity to copy this text in toto:

Wir Maria Theresia etc., liebe Getreue etc.

Wir haben eine zeitlang müßfällig wahrnehmen müssen, daß nicht allein Verschiedene von unseren Landes Innwohneren in ihrer Leichtglaubigkeit so weith gehen, daß Sie dasjenige, was Ihnen ein Traum, oder Einbildung vorstellet, oder durch andere betrügerische Leute vorgespiegelt wird, für Gespenste und Hexerey halten, nicht minder denen für Besessen sich ausgebenden Leüthen, alßoglich den Glauben beymessen, sondern daß sie auch in dieser ihrer Leichtglaubigkeit offtmahls von einigen mit Vorurtheil eingenohmenen Geistlichen gestärcket worden, wie dann letzthin in unserem Marggraffthum Mähren die Sache so weith getrieben worden, daß von der Geistlichkeit verschiedene Cörper unter dem Vorwand, daß sie mit der sogenannten magia posthuma behafftet gewesen, aus dem Freüdhof ausgegraben, und einige davon verbrennet worden, wo doch hiernächst bey der erfolgten Untersuchung sich nichts anderst, als was natürlich ware, befunden hat. Wie zumahlen aber hierunter mehrentheils Aberglauben und Betrug stecken, und wie dergleichen sündliche Müßbräuche in unseren Staaten künfftighin keinesweegs zu gestatten, sondern vielmehr mit denen empfindlichsten Straffen anzusehen gemeynet seyn, alß ist under gnädigster Befehl, daß künftig in allen derley Sachen von der Geistlichkeit ohne Concurrenz des Politici nichts vorgenohmen, sondern allemahl, wann ein solcher Casus eines Gespenstes, Hexerey, Schatz-Graben, oder eines angeblich vom Teüffel Besessenen vorkommen sollte, derselbe der politischen Instanz soforth angezeiget, mithin von dieser mit Beyziehung eines vernünfftigen Physici die Sache untersuchet, und eingesehen werden solle, ob, und was für Betrug darunter verborgen, und wie sodann die Betrüger zu Bestraffen seyn werden. Ihr werdet solchemnach diese unsere allerhöchste Anordnung nicht allein dorten, wo ihr es nöthig erachtet, kundmachen, sondern dieselbe auch vornehmlich denen geistlichen Ordinariis mit dem Beysatz intimiren, daß sie ihren untergebenden Consistoriis und Geistlichen diesfalls die erforderliche Pastoral-Instruction ertheilen, und sie dadurch von ihren Vorurtheilen, mit welchen einige behafftet seyn könnten, ableiten, als auch vor allen dahin anweisen sollen, in vorbesagten Fällen allemahl die Sach denen pollitischen Stellen anzuzeigen, und die genaue Untersuchung vorgehen zu lassen, worüber sodann de casu in casum der Bericht Uns zu erstatten seyn wird.

Hieran beschiehet etc. und Wir verbleiben.

Geben Wienn den 1. Martij 1755.

So, to follow up on yesterday's post, now you can visit this blog by typing both and And you can use this new e-mail address as well.

Wednesday 23 January 2008

From now on you will be able to access this blog by simply typing I am still working on the technical issues, but the works now!

Sunday 20 January 2008

Greek and Roman "restless" dead

Anyone interested in ancient Greek and Roman source material concerning revenants and apparitions should consider getting hold of Daniel Ogden's Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook published by Oxford Univ. Press in 2002.

It's a pretty comprehensive compilation of source material translated into English, including a chapter on Ghosts. Here the "restless" dead are divided into four overlapping categories which will more or less be familiar from the folklore of revenants from later eras:

Aoroi (from αωροσ, untimely). Ogden: "Those cheated of their full stint of life bitterly stayed back to haunt the land of the living of which they had been deprived. In theory anyone who died of anything other than of natural causes in old age could generate a ghost restless quo aoros, although as a class aoroi tended to be conceptualized primarily as the ghosts of children or babies."

Bi(ai)othanatoi (from βιαιος and θανατος, violent and death). Ogden: "These included the battle-dead and executed criminals, although murder victims and suicides provided the bitterest ghosts in this class."

Agamoi (from αγαμος, unmarried). Ogden: "Both male and female ghosts could be assigned this category, although the female ones were regarded as particularly bitter, insofar as marriage and the motherhood consequent upon it were a woman's defining rights in antiquity."

Ataphoi (from αταφος, unburied). Ogden: "Whatever the circumstances of death, a ghost could not achieve rest without the due funeral rights. These were importantly distinct from the mere insertion of the corpse into a hole in the ground, and indeed the concealment of a dead body in precisely this way is often presented as the chief obstacle to the peace of its soul."

What's in a name?

I suppose I haven't given it much thought, probably because I'm just used to the word, but I recently noticed that in a modern standard dictionary you probably can't find the word revenant. Of course, I have chosen to use that word because it was the word used by Calmet, and because it's also used in the English translation of Calmet. Furthermore, it's meaning is much more precise than the words otherwise used in English like ghost and apparition: It is a dead person who has come back to the living, usually to haunt and molest them.

However, I also notice that the English Wikipedia uses the word in a narrow sense, mainly referring to medieval revenants from Britain and quoting William of Newburgh and Walter Map. Darren Oldridge on the other hand uses the word in reference to revenants from a larger area and a much longer period of time:

'The idea that the spirits of the dead could return to the living was common in medieval and Renaissance culture. Physical resurrections like the "unnatural marvel" at Melrose Abbey were less frequent, but reports of wandering corpses - or "revenants" - appeared occasionally in the British Isles, France and Germany in the pre-industrial age, and were widespread in central Europe as recently as the 1920s. (---) The physical return of the dead continued to be reported and discussed seriously by European churchmen in the later Middle Ages, and it featured in learned texts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.' (Strange Histories, p. 57)

In my native tongue, Danish, we have words like genganger and genfærd, which both have a meaning similar to revenant, i.e. someone who "walks again" or "has returned to walk the earth". Consequently, I find that when writing in English revenant is a fitting word for the whole spectrum of dead people who are claimed to return to haunt the living.

Sunday 6 January 2008


I have found a lot of useful information on the various Wikipedia web sites, particularly the German, but some of the entries on the subject of vampires are quite a mixture of fact and fiction. That certainly has been the case of the Danish language entry, so a friend of mine has continually been asking me to do something about it. Finally, this christmas I gave in and have revised it somewhat. It's still far from satisfactory, but at least it's more precise and the worst nonsense has been removed. Someone has even kindly added a link to this blog...

I also added quite a few books to the bibliography, but as I noted in a recent comment, a lot of these books are not easily accessible in my native country. Even the old books by Montague Summers are only available in a handful of copies at Danish libraries. This might be a good thing, if only some of the best other books were available. The good news is that Paul Barber's Vampires, Burial, and Death is actually available at a few libraries, but otherwise it will require some effort (and probably some money) to get hold of the most useful books.

What the postman brought

It's always nice to find a package in your mailbox, and the first one this year contained Michael Kroner's 2005 book Dracula: Wahrheit, Mythos und Vampirgeschäft from Johannis Reeg Verlag, a publisher specialising in Romanian or rather Siebenbürgen history.

Kroner is a historian who was actually born in Romania and he has for many years researched and written books and papers on the history of Siebenbürgen and Romania. So this little book contains an introduction to the 15th century Wallachian ruler Vlad Tepes who in popular culture has become connected with vampires through Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as the works of the historians Radu Florescu and Richard McNally, in particular their 1972 bestseller In Search of Dracula. Although Bram Stoker didn't really know much about Vlad Tepes, as has been pointed out by e.g. Elisabeth Miller in her delightful Dracula: Sense & Nonsense (2000), it has almost become a popular 'truth' that the fictional vampiric count 'is' Vlad Tepes. Miller even claims that 'few would pay [Vlad Tepes] the slightest attention today, were it not for the dubious Count Dracula link' (p. 150 in the 2006 edition), but he is still an interesting historical character who plays a special role in Romanian history.

Kroner also devotes a few pages to vampires in general. He even shows the frontispiece of Georg Tallar's book, which I scanned in my recent christmas post. I can't remember seeing it in any other book, so this is probably the first reproduction in print. Otherwise, it seems to be a fairly traditional, but reasonable account of vampire cases and debates from the 18th century and onwards. Kroner continues with the various fictional Draculas, and for some reason even goes along the traditional lines of discussing 'living vampires' like Peter Kürten and Elisabeth Báthory...

There are some interesting illustrations, including a 1617 depiction of how people were impaled. I think it's the first time I have seen an illustration like this one (shown below), and I can't help thinking that it must have required a lot of effort to impale just one person. So how much time would it have taken Vlad Tepes and his men to impale those vast amounts of enemies he is claimed to have done?

Of course, this blog isn't devoted to the history of Vlad Tepes, to Dracula or to execution methods in general. Magia posthuma, however, does involve post mortem executions of corpses of witches and other dead people assumed to harass the living, and in general I find it interesting to get some understanding of how these things were really done. Particularly, because history seems to have been forgotten and replaced by a 'pseudohistory', somewhat like Disney's animated versions of classic fairy tales have replaced the original tales. It's in this 'pseudohistory' that vampires have become pale immortals leaving their coffins at night to sink their sharp fangs into the living who in turn die and become immortal.

Gothic fiction is itself usually a sort of 'pseudohistory', but it does at times attempt to approximate some of the horrors of the past. In the case of executions, there is a rare attempt at showing a quartering of a man in the German Gothic horror movie Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (1967). The trailer is available on youtube and includes a portion of the quartering scene as well as numerous other horrors.

However, the images can not rival the descriptions of a French execution in 1757 quoted in the opening pages of Michel Foucault's classic (and certainly not to be missed by anyone interested in the development of modern society!) study of the birth of the prison, Surveiller et punir (Discipline and punish), here in the words of an eye witness:

'The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.

Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton, who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him). "Kiss me, gentlemen." The parish priest of St Paul's did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St Paul's to pray for him at the first mass.

'After two or three more attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.

'When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed wit this wood.

'... In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o'clock.
(Penguin edition, p. 4-5)

Although dealing with a pretty morbid subject, I think it will be a while before this blog returns to this particularly cruel subject...
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