Animals in Witchcraft: Animals On Trial

"The rise of Christianity in Europe heralded a fundamental shift in attitudes to cats. During the Middle Ages, the cat’s links with the ancient, pagan cult of the mother goddess inspired a wave of persecution that lasted several hundred years. Branded as agents of the Devil, and the chosen companions of witches and necromancers, cats, especially black ones, were enthusiastically tortured and executed during Christian festivals all over Europe. It was also believed that witches disguised themselves as cats as a means of traveling around incognito, so anyone encountering a stray cat at night felt obliged to try and kill or maim the animal. By teaching people to associate cats with the Devil and bad luck, it appears that the Church provided the underprivileged and superstitious masses with a sort of universal scapegoat, something to blame for all of the many hardships and misfortunes of life. Fortunately for cats, such attitudes began to disappear gradually during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the dawn of the so-called Age of Enlightenment. However, not until the middle of the nineteenth century did cats eventually begin to regain the popularity they once enjoyed in Ancient Egypt."

The discussion so far has put me in mind of a terrific book I once read on European animal trials, which were conducted up until I think the 17th century. One example especially pertinent to the topic at hand: if a plague of caterpillars or locusts or whatever infested an area, the local legal community would put the swarm on trial. A locust would be captured and taken to the courthouse. It would become the "defendant" , and would in effect stand-in for the whole swarm. The trial would be conducted with all pomp and circumstance, with a lawyer appointed to represent the swarm and etc. There were a number of standard defensive strategies, and sometimes the swarm was even judged innocent if their lawyer was especially able. If judged guilty, however, the locusts were ordered to get out of town. If the infestation abated, the trial was given credit. If the infestation continued, this does not appear to have been seen as an argument against conducting animal trials in the future. I trust the resemblance to the raindance ceremony is fairly clear here.

The author of the book (I cannot recall the title or author; I remember that it was published in the early 1900s and the cover shows a reproduction of an old print, portraying the public execution of a pig by hanging) argues that such trials are an attempt by the human community to intervene in the natural order, to exert its will over the world. I think this is a pretty insightful comment.

"Exerting human will over the world" could serve as a definition of the goal of science. Bacon sometimes describes science as the human "conquest" of nature, and certainly many modern critiques of science (feminist, for example) have taken this to be the self-defined goal of scientific inquiry. I’m not arguing for the ultimate truth of this particular position, but on the other hand if you look at things along these lines than certain aspects of religious and scientific thought seem to be closely related, at least in their purpose. Bacon’s studies of heat are supposed to yield a (universal) process for making heat, the shaman leading a raindance is trying to make it rain, the animal trial is an attempt to bring the plague to an end etc.

Note that the various rituals used for bringing about these interventions don’t have to work very well in each case for the ritual to be accepted within the community. The community may simply accept that human powers are limited in what they can accomplish. I believe that within alchemical studies this was a common view; even if all the processes were carried out correctly, you might still not create gold from lead or whatever, and in fact usually would not. Note also that the ritual might have multiple functions within the community. The rain-dance both be used for bringing rain and bringing about group solidarity. These are not mutually exclusive. Again, I have read something similar with respect to alchemical procedures; that the alchemist "purifying" metals with his various tools is also going through a process of spiritual purification. And certainly the animal trial, even if it does not drive out the infestation, makes the community feel better. The community is "doing something" about its situation, even if its acts are ineffective.

I also like the animal trial example because it muddies the waters here in interesting ways. The conversation to date has concerned itself with comparing/contrasting religious/scientific thought. Yet here we see legal institutions using their procedures in a way that suggests a religious ritual. Conversations on the distinctions / similarities between legal and religious thought, and legal and scientific thought, would also be good to have.

Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692 by Bernard Rosenthal Cambridge University Press 1993

p.18 John Hughes, while testifying about seeing beast transform into Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, also mentions that on March 2 "a great white dog followed him and then disappeared, and then that night in bed he saw a great light and a cat at the foot of his bed." (from Narratives of the WC Cases 1648-1706 ed. G. LO. Burr)

p.21 Tituba’s testimony included many animals…black dog / hog / man / yellow bird told her to serve him; yellow bird was accompanying Sarah Good (who had already given accusers legitimacy); also said she saw a cat with Good on other occasions

p.22 T. saw 2 cats, black and red. "What did the cats do? Tituba did not know. Had the cats hurt or threatened her? They had scratched her. What had they wanted of her? They had wanted her to hurt the children. They had forced her to pinch the children. Did the cats suck Tituba? No, she would not let them."

p.82 Bridget Bishop (owner of shuffle-board and cider teenage hangout) was testified against by Wonn, slave of John Ingerson. He "told a story of frightened horses, the vanishing shape of B.B.(at the time B. Oliver), the appearance of an unknown cat, and mysterious pinchings and pain."

p.124 Martha Carrier: 7 yr. old daughter Sarah was induced to confess that "a cat, identifying itself as M. C., had carried Sarah along to afflict people when her mother was in prison."

I have studied over 1200 finish witch trials 1520-1700 (with PD Marko Nenonen) and there is a certain role of animals. "Para" was a small "cat-like" animal, used to steal milk and a butter called cow lucky especially in swedish speaking west coast in Finland. The "Para" was not found out by judges, but it had a long folk tradition. There are many examples where a neighboug was accusing another by stealing "butter lucky" with "para".

"Para" is just the same "trollcat" as it was in Sweden and Norway. You can find "Para" in court protocolls in western part (Swedish speaking part) in Finland (1520-1600), but not in finnish speaking parts on the country. So "Para" can’t be shamanistic (Lappland) phenomenom, but it surely is known all parts of Scandinavia.

As time goes, You could find "Para" in finnish speaking areas too, but in in 1500-1700. So we have learned it from swedish speaking people. But, as we are dealing with animals, you can find other animals than "trollcat" too. We have cases with "trolldog" which I mean the Devil with a shape of a dog. Some of our accused had meet the devil with a shape of a dog (and a coat).

We have at least one case with a "metapmorphose", where people have been accused of being "werewolves". In Estonia the tradition of those being wolves in night time was strong. There were many cases like that.

I think, the idea of "trollcats" is not shamanistic, it is surely Scandinavian!

There is quite a lot of articles abou "Para" (Trollcat) but only few of them would be available in english.

But, there is one point we have to keep in mind. People were ACCUSED of having "Para" and they were CONVICTED to using witchcraft, but they were never CONVICTED TO HAVING PARA! The matter of trial was not, is there really animal shaped "butter stealing" para, but it was a question of practicing witchcraft or superstition!

In Scandinavia we have very old "lore", written by one historian about 1200-1300, were a man was killed by "Mara" (bad dream animal?) because he had not kept his promise to his Finnish wife.

Another instance of using "para", other than trying have luck in stealing butter, was a "Finnish way" to use a bear as a helper for killing someone’s cattle. People believed that some (almost always a man) people had ability to force bears to kill enemy’s horse or cattle. But I have no idea, if the bear wanted some price of it’s doings (nourishment or protection).

Even in the oldest witch trials (before people had any idea about satanistic pact with devil) witches were believed to use some animals as a helper of their maleficium. So, this belief must be older than the christian theory of pact.

The bear cases seems to be common way to do harm among finnish speaking people. In some rare cases the helper was a wolf. In some cases (1670s) the helper was a dog, but it seems that the dog was not really an animal, but it was a Devil with a shape of a dog.

Some ladies used cows (or even a pig) to ride to "Bl=E5kulla" (the Sabbath), but those animals were usually "borrowed" for some neighbour and they were not acting like a helper – they were forced to do so.

Lapplanders who had long shaman traditions used to use "animal spirit helpers" to do things, but they were not accused of forcing real animals to do any harm, as far as I know.

There is one big difference between using a "Para" and a bear. "Para" was supernatural familiar, but bears were really acting animals whom could be seen. Damage made by para was a loss of butter or milk lucky, but a damage made by bear was real. Anyone could see the damage.

In some cases there was so called "tonttu" (tomptegubben or rgubbe in swedish). They were not used as helpers, but You should give them some presents for getting rid of harms they could do. People believed, that "tonttu" was living in particular place and people living in same area were disturbing the tonttu. So You had to do something to keep tonttu in good mood. Tonttu was spiritual, because no one had never catch one. Tonttu was not an animal, but small human kind of creature.

Then there was "Nekki" or "Nacken". It was a creature living in lakes and killing people by taking them under the water. Nekki was not a real animal and it did not acted like a helper for anyone, it did what it wanted to do.

First little more about "para". The belief of "para" helping to steal cows must be very old, because in one finnish church there is a painting of para. The painting is older than the belief that a Witch have a pact with the devil, the devil then giving a "spiritum" to a helper for the witch (This belief was not known in Finland until 1660s.)

Secondly, I think too, that a witch-hare (para)is common in Sweden. Probably Finnish speaking people have borrowed in from Sweden, because there are no witch-hares in our oldest mythology as far as I know. The witch-hare (para) was mentioned in trials some times in the Swedish speaking area of Finland (west coast), but not in Finnish speaking Karelia, suggesting it is borrowed.

Thirdly, I have to check my papers to find out is there any "pet connection" in finnish witch trials, but without doing so I can’t remember any cases where pet animals had some part of being helpers and neither did PhD Marko Nenonen as we discussed today.

But I could find at least one case where a man was killed by his own dog. The victim, Antti Yrjonpoika Paivikainen, was a customer of famous witch Antti Lieroinen who did all kinds of maleficium for salary. After their contact Paivikainen was found dead and the cause for that was his own dog. So Lieroinen was thought to cause the death by using victim’s own dog to kill him. This was not proved, but Lieroinen was executed for other witchcraft he had done. This happend in 1643.

Fourthly, 27.3.1641 witch Erkki Juhonpoika Puujumala ("Treegod") was convicted in Turku Supreme Court. He was sentenced to death for many reasons – for killing people with witchcraft etc. He has had an arguement with other people and he had said that he was going change those people into wolves with his maleficium. This was not proved to happen, but it was one prosecution among many. By the way, Treegod said that he was 120 years old.

Fifthly, we have some cases where a witch has used a snake to do some crime. One witch argued with his wife and then separated. Later that ex-wife get pregnant from a snake, and later gave birth to some snakes. In one another case the snake had gone inside of a woman(and they used a lappish healer to try to get it out).

Snakes had also a strong part of shamanism, but I don’t know what really was the function of shamans snake-shape belongings(??instruments??). Finnish folkloristics seem to believe that the snake was for the shamans protection.

We had few cases where a snake’s head was used by magical meanings.

Sixthly, in 1732 court was dealing with a case, where Lauri Heikinpoika Tervo accused his neighbor "of sending a bird with fire on its head (nose)" to burn his house, which burned. Due to losses of protocols, we don’t know how the case was handled, but I’m sure the court did not find neighbor guilty. Birds have been known to used to carry fire in saami tradition (says finnish folklorist Aune Nystrom).

Seventhly, we have found one case where a woman gave birth to some frogs, and one case where a frog was put in a box and buried inside of a church. The box was just like those boxes they used with human bodies.

Eigth, we have a case where they used a fish to heal sick person. The idea was that the "Grande mal" (falling sickness) would be moved from people to fish. So they did it, but unfortunately one innocent person touched the fish and got himself sick. And of course the sickness was grande mal.

Ninth, I have a strong feeling, that finnish courts did not tried to found out if the accused had animal helper or not. The law mentioned nothing about animal imps or spirituals, so they were not needed as evidence. Maleficium was maleficium and it could be proofed without any animal helpers or spirits.

10th According the old folk tradition the bear will not harm the cattle if one takes a blind puppy dog and buries it with some rites in the land on area, where the bear lives. But I have no evidence that this has ever been done.

11th In Finland was believed, that milking others cow, would steal not only the milk but the further milk lucky too. I think this believe is common in whole Scandinavia.

12th A bear could be sent to harm neighbour’s cattle. But at least in one case (1746) shows, that it could also to sent back to harm the original witch.

13th I have no reason to believe that the animal (exept the bear or wolf sended to do harm) were real ones. If it was so that the helpers were real pets, why they did not execute the pets too?

I think that the judges has sent the animals to death as they did with cases where humans had sexual intercourse with animal. They executed both! One reason to not to do so could be, that the animal was not "guilty" for anything because it could not differ the right and the wrong from each other. But so did the raped animal neither.

14th The worms. At least in one case the witch used worms to destroy a pig. He used some magical technique and the victims pig get "full of worms" as they found out when they slaughtered the sick pig. Worms could be sent to a human being too.

15th The lycanthropy. Werewolves had no part of finnish trials, but they had one in Estonia. Why? The Finnish people have common roots with Estonian people and our languages are still guite similar. Our oldest pre-christian religion is common, and there is no werewolves in that tradition, as far as I know. So, where the estonians got the idea about werewolves? I think that they have adopted it from germans. Estonia has been under strong german influence, but Finland hasn’t. So, I believe, that they must have copied the idea from German "Werewolffe".

According Maia Madar (Estonia I: Werewolves and poisoners, in Early Modern European Witchcraft ed. Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1990).

"Belief in werewolves was widespread. At eighteen trials, eighteen women and thirteen men were accused of causing damage while werewolves. At Meremoisa 1623, the defendant Ann testified that she had been a werewolf for four years, and had killed a horse as well as some smaller animals. She had later hidden the wolf skin under a stone in the fields." (page 270)

Maia Madar tells other examples, too. And in one case where 18-year old Hans had confessed that he had hunted as a werewolf for two years, "when asked by the judges if his body took part in the hunt, or if only his soul was transmuted, Hans confirmed that he had found a dog’s teeth-marks on his own leg, which he had received while a werewolf. Further asked wether he felt himself to be a man or a beast while transmuted, he told that he felt himself to be beast."(page 271)

Madar writes: "It was acknowledged that people could be transmuted not only into werewolves, but also into bears."

So as a lawyer I must ask why they were confessing that they were hunting as werewolves in Estonia. The answer must be torture. Torture was widely used in Estonia ecen it was under the Swedish jurisdiction, where torture was forbidden.

16th The devil in a shape of a dog. All over the Scandinavia we had trials where the accused said, that the devil they’ve met had a shape of a dog. Why the dog? Danish witchhistorian Jens Christian V. Johanssen writes (in book mentioned above), that the popular culture(peoples believes) borrowed ideas for wall-paintings in the church.

"In Ejsing church, Christ is tempted in the desert by the devil â•„ in the shape of a ferocious-looking dog! Popular imagination was so vivid that on given occasions the devil came to take his form".(Johansen: Denmark: The Sociology of Accusations in Early Modern European Witchcraft.. page 363-364).

Well, so and so. But surely the popular culture appointed ideas from elite’s culture.

17th The shamanism. I have not specialised about shamanism, so I’ll now follow the ideas that finnish shamanism expert Anna-Leena Siikala writes in her book "Suomalainen samanismi" (Finnis Shamanism), Hameenlinna 1992.

Siikala writes about moving the demon from someone to another. In finnish folklore it is usuall to remove a disease from patient to an animal or some idol, like wooden puppet. This is common between Middle- and East-Siperia shaman too. She remind, that even Jesus removed demon from a man to some pigs. (page 187)

There is information about this kind of "removing" in German and Estonia too. In Finland this was usually done by soothsaying, but this was not common in Middle-Europe or Scandinavia.

Siikala guesses, that this habit has very old shamanistic roots and that the churhes middle-age tradition has forced this old religion.(pages 188-189)

In these cases animals are shamans helpers and they carry the evil demon away. Shamans (spiritual) animal helpers are also spyes, Shaman can send them far away to collect information what is happening. Helpres also carry the information from here to the "heaven". "Because shamans helper animal do not only to take the disease to themselves, but carry it to "heaven" (or "to the other side" as shamans say), they are not usually (real) animals"(page 191).

Siikkala says, that middle age church adopted these old ideas and they used the idea to their rituals (to carry out demons).

Shamans used to call their helpers for instance by singing (and using the drum). In my opinion it is surely understandable that shaman was all the time demonstrating to the audience, that he has very important helpers.

The shaman uses his helpers to fight agains other shamans helpers, too. So when shaman is healing a patent, he first find’s out where the disease has become, and then force it to go back. If the disease is caused by demon, you have to fight against demon. If it is caused by other shaman with his helpers, so the helpers must fight together.(as Carlo Ginzburg’s "benandati" did).

The idea about shamans fighting together is old and it is common in Northern-Asia, too. In Siperia tradition the fighning shamans could take a shape of animals.

But I could not find any reason to believe that the helper animals were real animals in Siikalas book either.

According to Joan’s Witch Pages they executed a dog in Salem Witch trials. This is something I had not pointed out earlier. If they really executed the dog, so I’ll have to reuse my argument: why they did not executed other suspected "pets" too (if the "pet theory" is right)?

One reason why they may not have executed pets is because the law assumed that these creatures were supernatural beings – by definition. If the animals had been captured, brought to court, examined by authorities, etc., it would have been difficult to avoid the conclusion that the witch’s cat or dog was, in fact, no different from any other cat or dog. In addition, according to folklore, these animals could not be killed by ordinary means because they were spirits. We have found one account, for example, of a suspected familiar (a poodle dog called Boye, belonging to Prince Rupert) being killed by a silver bullet fired by a ‘soldier skilled in necromancy’ at the battle of Marston Moor in 1642. Also, perhaps it was assumed that the familiars would perish as soon as the witch was executed, since they were assumed to depend on her/him for nourishment (coincidently, of course, the animals probably didn’t survive for long once their owners were incarcerated and executed).

However, I agree with you that the fate of these animals is somewhat mysterious. My guess would be that the witch’s neighbours dealt with them swiftly and discretely, but I have no evidence either way. I wasn’t aware of the Salem dog execution but will now look into this. In the bestiality trials, the animals were not generally executed as criminals. Rather they seem to have been regarded as polluted creatures which might have a corrupting influence on public morality if allowed to remain alive. Thus, there was a particular incentive to identify these (real) animals and kill them.



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