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Demons in the Middle Ages – Juanita Feros Ruys

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Categories: grimoire, luciferian, middle ages, satanism, witchcraft, Tags:

Demons in the Middle Ages coverDemons in the Middle Ages is part of the Arc Humanities Press series Past Imperfect, which they describe as seeking to present concise critical overviews of the latest research by the world’s leading scholars. Concise is certainly what you get here from Dr Juanita Feros Ruys, with the page count, sans references and further reading, only running to a little over a svelte 100 pages.

Ruys is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia, but this is a work that doesn’t feel particularly academic, and instead fulfils the brief of being a concise overview, something of a lay primer. As a result, while there is a lot of detail contained herein, there is not much in the way of academic analysis, no theoretical models applied to the information, with largely a just-the-facts approach being pursued. That isn’t to say that Ruys is devoid of insight, and she notes particular through-lines that occur across the centuries in regards to the theological function of demons, drawing attention in particular to how their interaction with saints and monastics served different purposes depending on the period. She also employs a style that, while not overly detailed, provides context and background information that may be essential for the lay reader, but without any sense of talking down, over-simplifying or being patronising.

Ruys divides Demons in the Middle Ages into a mere four chapters, largely based on locations, respectively situating demons in the desert, the cloisters, the schoolroom, and finally, the wider world. The desert, as a site of profound alterity, provided a paradoxically fertile ground for the growth of ideas about demons. Deserts already had an association with the demonic, due to the environment’s harsh and remote nature, and it was these same austere qualities that attracted the monks who travelled there to use this isolation as an aid to their spiritual growth. Here, though, the existing associations with the demonic were affirmed by the monks themselves, who were subjected to attacks from the indigenous metaphysical inhabitants. Demons impinging on the spiritual pursuits of monks became an almost de rigueur factor in the biographies of such future saints, and Ruys shows how this related to the idea of acedia, the emotional state of spiritual listlessness that monks in their isolation were often susceptible to. The spirit of acedia was ‘the noonday demon,’ and was described by the late fourth century Evagrius of Pontus, as the most troublesome of all of the eight genera of evil thoughts.

In chapter two, Ruys documents how demons, along with monasticism itself, moved from a harsh eremophilous environment to the more temperate climes of Western Europe, where eremitic privations were replaced by the slightly more hospitable cloister. Without the harsh conditions that had made spiritual combat in the desert so tangible, the demons found a new home within the very walls of European monasteries, the conflict becoming less physical and more metaphysical. Demonic attack was a constant concern, and because it was believed that the Devil would target site in which Christian truth and purity was at its strongest, the ardour and righteousness of an order or monastery could be inferred from the amount and ferocity of assaults that they suffered. In this section, Ruys therefore draws on material from two monks in particular, the Benedictine Peter the Venerable and the Cistercian Herbert of Clairvaux, both of whom collected a variety of accounts of demonic activity, representing an exponential growth in the conception of demons and their interaction with humanity. Ruys expertly notes this evolution of ideas, documenting how new concepts were introduced by various scholars, such as the twelfth century French monk Guibert of Nogent and the thirteenth century Cistercian Caesarius of Heisterbach. Guibert’s accounts place terrifying tales alongside farcical ones, such as the story of the pious priest accosted one night by a crowd of demons who appeared as Scotsmen, and, living up to the very worst of Hibernian stereotypes, demanded money from him. In addition to slanderous allegations against Scottish demons, Guibert asserted that demons could love women and seek to have intercourse with them, a reversal of the idea popular in desert eremitism, where demons appeared as lustful female spirits in order to distract monks with lustful thoughts, but did not seek to directly copulate with them. Caesarius underscores how demons were still associated with acedia, despite the relocation from the desert to the monastery, with the pious always being susceptible to the Devil inflaming their hearts with doubt, leading to melancholy, ennui and sickness.

Ruys moves from the cloister to the classroom in the third chapter, using the quaestiones compiled by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa theologiae as examples of the discussions common amongst medieval thinkers as to the nature of creatures like demons and angels. The focus here is largely on the value of demons and angels to the speculation, theories and thought experiments of scholars, with the ambiguous natures of both spirits making them worthy subjects for epistemological ruminations. Aquinas, naturally looms large in this chapter, casting an inevitable shadow down through the years, but Ruys also draws on works from the likes of Anselm of Canterbury, Bartholomeus Anglicus, and most notably, William of Auvergne, whose focus of the sexual interaction betwixt human and demon, segue into the next chapter.

In this, the final chapter, Ruys enters the world beyond the ecumenical and educational, considering how demons were treated amongst lay people, and in particular in so-called learned magic and the narratives of witchcraft. This is a whirlwind conclusion to the book at a mere seventeen pages, with the end coming far sooner than expected, just as things are getting interesting. It is largely a broad discussion of how the idea of magic as exclusively demonic cemented over time, beginning when the Early Church Fathers established a Christian orthodoxy amongst the milieu of competing traditions of Jewish belief and various pagan schools of philosophy. This had an antecedent in the apocryphal Jewish Book of Enoch, in which the fallen angel Azazel taught the secrets of witchcraft and magic to humans, as well as the arts of metalwork and makeup. Ruys documents how this intersection of magic and science also occurred in the medieval period, where the proto-science of alchemy, informed by ideas of forbidden knowledge introduced anew by a twelfth and thirteenth century influx of Jewish, Arabic and Greek learning, eventually lead to the grimoire tradition. Unfortunately, this is just a preamble that doesn’t go into much depth about learned magic following this. This is, something that then also occurs with the slightest of references to witchcraft’s relationship to demons, with the Malleus Maleficarum being introduced a mere three and a half pages before everything wraps up.

In all, Demons in the Middle Ages is a nice little potted history that does what it was intended to do at a brisk pace. Ruys has an enjoyable author’s voice that moves this pace along, but does make one pine for more of it.

Published by Arc Humanities Press


Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology: Myth and Environment in Early Iceland – Mathias Nordvig

Categories: folk, germanic, Tags:

Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology coverThis book from Mathias Nordvig provides a full exploration of an idea he first presented in 2014 as a PhD dissertation called Of Fire and Water. The Old Norse Mythical Worldview in an Eco- Mythological Perspective, and which he has subsequently promoted in smaller essays, including one in the recently reviewed Handbook of Old Norse Memory Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches from de Gruyter. As the title suggests, the focus here is on volcanism, and in particular the intersection between its physical presence in the landscape of Iceland and the topography of Norse mythology. Nordvig’s argument is that volcanoes and their effects had an outsize influence of the imagery found in the eddas and skaldic poetry, with the latter being used by Scandinavian migrants to medieval Iceland in order to understand and negotiate the unfamiliar geological hazards of the island. With the post-conversion growth of writing, and all the editing that is intrinsic to it, this world-view became codified in myth. In this way, Nordvig argues that Norse mythology is an indigenous expression of life in Iceland which has been emplaced in a Latinate script-world.

Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology is significantly shorter than its dissertation forerunner, being largely divested of the academic necessities of the latter, such as literature reviews and overly-long explanations of theoretical frameworks and methods, but it does not come across as simply a reworking of the latter for a wider audience. Instead, while the ideas are the same, they provide the only through-line between the two works, with a sense of this book being built from scratch, rather than a mere editing down of a thesis with some finessing for publication.

Following a brief introduction, Nordvig begins with Old Norse Mythology Between Environment and Literature, in which he argues that Old Norse mythology is social memory that has direct reference to the world surrounding the texts, drawing comparisons from other cultures around the world in which a people’s myths, legends, and folktales can be instructive for understanding the environment in which they live. A large part of this chapter does not relate directly to the volcano theory and instead is an engaging discussion of concepts of memory and place both in Old Norse society and elsewhere. Key to this approach is Elizabeth W. Barber and Paul T. Barber’s book When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, which Nordvig references extensively as his ideas mirror their approach to interpreting environment as a mytho-linguistic practice. The Barbers define four principles in this practice: silence (things that everyone takes as read), analogy (if any entities or phenomena bear some resemblance, in any aspect, they must be related), compression (once a theme achieves sufficient mass, it attracts more stories to it), and restructuring (significant cultural change means that some patterns in the theme will be restructured or reinterpreted, leading eventually to obfuscation). This, then, is effectively, Nordvig’s summary of his methods, though he is not entirely beholden to the Barbers’ model, stating that unlike them, he does not intend to define environmental factors as etiological reasons for mythogenesis, critiquing them for painting with broad strokes and attaching geologic meaning to myth where it is not warranted, Nordvig promises to avoid similar post hoc fallacies, saying that he will not claim that all aspects of Old Norse mythology are associated with environmental conditions.

Nordvig then presents his indigenous theory of volcanism in Iceland, using the poem Hallmundarkviða from the story Bergbúa Þáttr as his central and foundational piece of evidence. It’s pretty convincing too, with the poem describing an event in a cave where the arrival of a giant appears to be an anthropomorphised depiction of a volcanic event in which stones fly, dark flames drive and spit, embers shoot, raging streams rush in heavy rubble, and strange new clay flows from the ground. Even without any exegesis from Nordvig, it’s clear to see how this igneous imagery fits his thesis, but he does expertly consolidate this conclusion, drawing upon the concept of geomythology to create parallels with indigenous theories of volcanism from Hawai’i, Aotearoa, Indonesia, North America, and the European and African continents. While Elizabeth and Paul Barber’s book was pivotal to the first chapter, it is Dorothy B. Vitaliano’s Legends of the Earth that naturally assumes that role here, with her coining the phrase geomythology and defining it as the geologic application of euhemerism. Vitaliano argues that etiological folklore has given rise to stories about geological phenomena and her considerable focus on volcanism provides mythological context to volcanic phenomena in Polynesian myth and elsewhere that finds comparisons in Old Norse mythology. Of particular interest are the shared motifs attached to volcanism, with themes of taboo, supernatural anger, and most intriguing of all, ghostly ships, occurring in myths from across the world. It is at this point that Nordvig turns to Hallmundarkviða, showing many of the same themes within that Icelandic poem.

In the third chapter, Nordvig gets to the titular application of his theory, looking for further depictions of volcanism in the broader vistas of Old Norse cosmogony. This pyroclastic evidence is often veiled with the poetic language of myth in which, following the Barbers’ approach,  analogies occur between lava, ash, glacial bursts, ice, water, poison, snow, and sand. Nordvig’s focus in this chapter is entirely on the Old Norse creation myth, arguing by way of the use of these poetic analogies that the streams of ice and eitr in the myth refer not to anything icy but to streams of lava and other results of volcanic activity. But what is presented here never seems to be quite as convincing as the anthropomorphism found in Hallmundarkviða.

In the fourth chapter, Nordvig explores his thesis in terms of what he defines as the social order of Old Norse mythology, applying it to significant mythological events, most notably the story of the mead of poetry, which is dissected exhaustively, as well as Þórr’s duel with the giant Hrungnir. In the concluding fifth chapter, Nordvig effectively provides a summation of what he has covered before, underscoring his idea of volcanoes as a cosmological principle in Old Norse mythology and in the societies in which it informed their world view.

The examples that Nordvig uses to validate his volcano theory vary in how convincing they are, often coming across as circumstantial and tenuous in their use of allegory. Nordvig attempts to pre-empt this criticism by defining his theory as specifically not a nature mythology, be it in the vein of the nineteenth century natural allegory model or its contemporary incarnation as geomythology. Instead, Nordvig argues that his analogical descriptions are valid because multiple factors occur simultaneously. What constitutes a convincing factor is open to interpretation, and fundamentally, everything that is presented still feels like nothing more than a reiteration of myth as natural allegory, with so thorough a descent into the theory that almost anything in myth can be related to volcanic imagery, even when there’s little to no hint of it. Thus, any description of dwarves groaning becomes the sound of subterranean rumblings, and anything that lives in a mountain or in the underworld must somehow be related to volcanic phenomenon. Some of the examples are more convincing than others because they draw on chthonic and alpen imagery, such as the mead of poetry myth in which Óðinn enters the mountain home of the giant Suttungr and his daughter Gunnloð. In this instance, the mead that Óðinn steals as he bursts forth from Hnitbjörg is imagined as a flow of lava, which is a pleasant enough conclusion, albeit one that still feels circumstantial.

At the same time, though, a significant amount of time is also spent here discussing Hrungnir, a rock giant without so much as a sulphurous whiff of a lava flow about him. The reaching to find any correlation becomes exasperating when surely the creators of the myth could have just imagined a cool looking rock giant, because giants and rocks are cool; and it’s handy to have an imagination that can create imagery ex nihilo when your job is being a storyteller. It’s not even about whether Hrungnir could symbolise a volcano, which could be the case if the imagery at least fitted, but rather the insistence that someone looked at a volcano and imagined it as a giant; and not only that, but looked at a volcano and imagined its attributes as the explanation for almost anything else in myth. Suffice to say, it’s a case of an interesting theory that works in some instances but is then enthusiastically and injudiciously applied in an overreaching scattergun effect, much like earlier nature allegories in which everything was theorised to be a sun god or a harvest myth. This reaching for connections can get to ridiculous levels, such as when it is argued that the admittedly puzzling interpretation of Gunnloð’s name as ‘invitation to battle’ fits with “the conceptualization of volcanic activities as violent,” when maybe battle just means battle, as it does every other time a battle is a battle. It seems unlikely anyone has ever looked at a volcanic eruption and gone “Cor, you see that, it looks just like a battle, what with all the flaming ejecta and lava, and a distinct lack of swords. Imagine being invited to that.”

The other problem with the idea of multiple factors occurring simultaneously in order to confirm the volcano theory is when multiple other environmental factors occur but which don’t seem to have had any effect on the myth. Thus, while its superficially appealing to imagine a ruddy flow of lava emerging from the earth as the mead of inspiration, that’s pretty much where the analogy ends. There’s nothing in myth about the mead searing someone’s throat when they recklessly swallowed it, or it hardening into igneous rock in someone’s stomach, or indeed being deadly and very burny for entire villages.

None of this is too say that there isn’t anything to recommend about Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology: Myth and Environment in Early Iceland. Nordvig writes with an enjoyable and knowledgeable style and he by no means skimps on the evidence when making his arguments. Indeed, the thoroughness of it all is what contributes to the feeling of confirmation bias as it use of allegoric minutiae shores itself up in a way that prevents you from seeing, if you will pardon the inversion, the trees for the wood (or their volcanic equivalent). Even if one finds, as this reviewer obviously does, that the volcanic theory is applied to easily and too thickly, Nordvig’s analysis of the myths themselves is worth the price of entry, as he draws widely from Norse scholarship to present a comprehensive consideration of his sources, and in particular, the creation myth, the mead of poetry myth, and the Hallmundarkviða poem.

Published by Arc Humanities Press