Barbieri's Razor: The Nordic Werewolves

Barbieri's Razor: The Nordic Werewolves
The harsh winter we are experiencing has brought to my mind images of snow-covered forests and rugged mountain peaks crowned with ice, over which hovers a dark and plaintive howl. In short, it reminded me that we had to continue the discussion on werewolves, which began several months ago.

But, given the storm that violently knocks on my window right now, I would like to focus on a particular type of werewolves: of the cold lands of the North, starting right from the most extreme northern lands, those where the Inuit people live.

A great cold attracts great werewolves: here are those of the icy North

Eskimo werewolves are known by the name of adlet; they were sired in number of five by a woman coupled with a big dog with tawny hair; they abandoned their mother after trying to feed on it (ah, these ungrateful children!), stopped before the irreparable by the father who paid for this gesture of hers with his life. They have several wolf traits, such as an elongated nose, yellow eyes, sharp fangs, thick reddish fur (inheritance from their father) and pointed ears. Their number has greatly increased over time; now they hunt in packs, led by an alpha male who is usually the largest specimen of the group, and they precede their assault with long and insistent howls. Prey is always reduced to a chewed lump of bone, and its death, the Inuit presume, is always painful.

The only thing adlets fear is fire, so hunters must always keep it well I live in their fields; Attention, however: exceptions are not allowed in the form of television projections of logs engulfed by flames in stone fireplaces (which are so fashionable in this period).

Let's go down a bit to the south and arrive in Scandinavia, a land of beautiful women and rather friendly werewolves. Olao Magnus, the Latinized name of Olaf Mansson, archbishop of Upsala (Sweden), already spoke of it in the 16th century. According to this eminent prelate as well as acute historian and humanist, werewolves are frequent inhabitants of Northern Europe, so common that in Scandinavia people no longer even paid attention to them and paid little attention to these creatures.

Nordic werewolves, the archbishop reported in his ponderous treatise in twenty-two books Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, they worked in the mines, cleaned the buildings and fed the cattle. They were, in essence, excellent maids. They didn't bother people at all unless they were bothered. They were also excellent navigators, and often saved the lives of less experienced sailors by asking for a small thing in return: their souls.

Much more ferocious were the German and French, or the Baltic ones. A small note: in the 13th century the Baltic states had been forcibly annexed to the Ordenstaat (the monastic state founded with the sword by the Teutonic knights) and remained subject to this severe Catholic principality until 1525; their belonging to the Russian Empire first and then to the Soviet Union is much more recent history.

For this reason the cultural heritage of this European region is so similar to the Germanic one, and consequently, on the contrary of Russian folklore, abounds in traditions about werewolves. Olao Magnus speaks specifically of Livonia, a territory that extends around the Gulf of Riga, currently included within Latvia. This lineage of werewolves used to gather in the thick of the forests that covered these territories indulging in savage rituals:

For the feast of the birth of Jesus Christ, at night, a multitude of men transformed into wolves gathering in certain places, organizing among themselves and then lashing out with extreme ferocity against humans and domestic animals (...) When a house of human beings was identified by them isolated in the forests, they besieged it with extreme determination trying to destroy its doors and, while doing this, they devoured any being, human or animal, they encountered. They broke into the cellars where the beer was and there they emptied the kegs and stacked them one on top of the other in the middle of the cellars, thus showing the difference with the real and genuine wolves.

Clearly the desecration of Christmas by these diabolical creatures, more subtle instead is the reference to an excessive consumption of alcohol, useful to stigmatize another, dangerous vice of the people of the North and to underline the nature of sinners of these wolfweres; it should not be forgotten, in fact, that the writer is an archbishop. A man of the Church, therefore, but by no means immune to the fatal bite of superstition, as the following passage from his book demonstrates:

The place where they slept that night (the werewolves, NdA) is considered fatal by the inhabitants of Prussia, Livonia and Lithuania, because, if someone happens to run into those neighborhoods and his chariot capsizes, and he himself is covered in snow, I am convinced that he will surely die by the end of that year, as they have had the opportunity to experience for a long time.

And he continues with this other anecdote:

Between Lithuania, Samogitia and Curonia, there is a wall, a ruin of some ruined castle, near which in a certain period of A year about a thousand werewolves gather, and one at a time they experience their agility in jumping: those who are unable to jump this wall are beaten by their leaders with whips. It is firmly maintained that the powerful of this region, and the nobles, also belong to this group.

Olao Magnus had not the slightest doubt about the physical reality of their metamorphosis, and affirmed it contrary to the authority of others, precedents Christian or Latin authors such as, for example, Pliny. This is demonstrated by his passage:

Not many years ago it happened in Livonia that the wife of a nobleman argued with one of his slaves (there are more of them there than in any other Christian region) about the fact that men they cannot change into a wolf; at the end he burst out saying that he would immediately give him a demonstration: (...) he entered a room alone, from where, shortly after, he came out in the form of a wolf, and headed towards the forest, chased by the dogs. These tore out his eye, although he had staunchly defended himself. The next day he returned to his one-eyed mistress.

Trial of a werewolf

Let's move on to the next century: in 1692 a famous trial took place in those lands which had as a defendant an eighty year old , considered by the citizens of Jurgensburg an idolater and, to make matters worse, a werewolf. The old man's name was Thiess, and, questioned by the judges, he confessed his guilt; his judgment would not have been different from the many who preceded and followed him, were it not for the peaceful serenity with which he declared that, in his capacity as a werewolf, he was neither a danger to men nor a ruin to men. the cattle were indeed the salvation for both.

The elderly peasant told that three times a year, and precisely on the nights dedicated to the memory of Saints Lucy and John and in the one preceding Pentecost, all werewolves of Livonia, men and women, gathered to go to find the devil and his sorcerers "in hell, at the end of the sea" (later he corrected himself: "underground") and fight against them. "We are like dogs, the dogs of God," said the old man; and as such the werewolves chased the devil armed with iron whips, while the sorcerers, his abject adepts, defended him with broomsticks wrapped in ponytails.

With such a tool "a peasant named Skeistan, now dead, who was a sorcerer ”had broken Thiess's nose during a fight. The stakes in these mixes of wolves and devils were far from being scarce: they fought for the fertility of the fields and for the abundance of fish in the sea. The sorcerers wished to impose famine and misery, the werewolves opposed with all their might, and whoever won would regulate the life of the whole community for the following season. No, indeed, the stakes were not small, nor was Thiess's testimony small. The judges saw an ancient stereotype overturned before their astonished eyes that werewolves subjected to the devil with an impious pact of subjection; the old man claimed, and did not want to deny it at any cost, that the devil was instead the worst enemy of werewolves, that these creatures were fighting for the glory of God, and that for their services he would all go directly to Heaven. Not knowing how best to punish his cheeky tongue than him, the judges sentenced Thiess to ten flicks and let him go. After all, he was just a mad old man, and his testimony was judged to be a disordered heap of echoes of life lived, his own and others, distorted by a defective memory, mixed with fragments of myths, superstitions, fanfare and lies.

The trial against Thiess is certainly an extraordinary document for its atypical nature; but it is not the only one in the region, which demonstrates the greater tolerance of the Baltic magistrates towards werewolves or a greater cunning of their defendants. In the treatise Christian Consideration and Memory on Magic, dated 1585, the author, who hid his real name under the pseudonym of Augustin Lercheimer, reports the case of a Livonian werewolf he visited in prison who "laughed, hopped, as if from a place of pleasure and not from a prison "and who showed an absolute security, imbued with sarcasm, with which he stood up to interrogations with insolence.

This is a very different behavior from that held by convicted of lycanthropy in the rest of Europe, the few who survived the stake I mean. Evidently the Livonian werewolves had to be looked at with a different, and more indulgent, eye. It has in fact been calculated that in the whole "terrible" seventeenth century the trials of werewolves in Livonia were just thirty-one; the main accusations, then, were more those of having harmed livestock and agricultural property than of having attacked human beings.

According to the tradition of the region, werewolves transformed only once a year, in the period of Christmas holidays, for twelve consecutive days, and they did so in a rather unusual way. A crippled boy began to beat the countryside on Christmas Day to call all the werewolves to himself and bring them together: this river of people, at times, was even several thousand individuals. Anyone who belonged to the pack but refused to attend the meeting, or was even reluctant to do so, was flogged by one of his mates with the same iron whips mentioned by Thiess, until his back was skinned. When the pack was all assembled, the mutation took place and the wolves, by the thousands, threw themselves across the countryside, howling and attacking beasts, more rarely men. Nothing stopped them, not even the streams that were whipped up by the pack leader, an evident parody of the miracle performed by Moses.

It would now be up to the German werewolves ... but why do it now, when we have the next column waiting to be written?

Barbieri's Razor: the other episodes

Werewolves and the moon Werewolves and comics Quicksilver: a man called Mercury Black Panther: the hero who became king Silver Samurai Unsociable mushrooms: from Hodgson to The Last of Us Godzilla and Minilla: at Christmas even the Kaiju are in the family If you want to deepen the theme of werewolves you can read the book History of werewolves

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