Lecouteux’s Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies

After my dream featuring an enraged werewolf who was a witch and also myself, I thought I should learn more about werewolves. The only serious bit I knew about them stemmed from Carlo Ginzburg’s work, which mentioned in particular a 17th-century Livonian named Thiess, who described himself as a werewolf and who with others fought against malicious witches at night, protecting the community and its food sources from harm. Outside of that, all I knew about werewolves was from movies like The Wolf Man. I found a book about werewolves by a French academic, Claude Lecouteux, called Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. It looked pretty interesting, and it certainly has been enjoyable and thought-provoking to read.

The gist of Lecouteux’s argument is that the typical Church retelling of the Sabbat–that witches literally fly to a place where they meet other witches as well as the devil and do various things–is spin for an activity European folk engaged in that goes back to pre-Christianity. This can occur in various ways, depending on the culture, but it involves individuals exiting from their own body as a double, a spirit with a material aspect, who can travel to the other world, whether that be Hell, the underworld, or the invisible world, and there meet with others in double form. Actions in that place have effects on the body lying in bed, still and almost breathless, that the double leaves behind. In such a way, he makes clear that witches did not ever physically fly to a Sabbat but instead their doubles went to some place–to revel with others as part of the Great Hunt, to guide the dead, to fight with malicious sorcerers, and so forth. When the Church encountered these experiences, they had either to turn the doubles into demons or say that witches physically flew off to their rendevoux with Satan and other witches. This is in spite of the fact that in earlier times, Church theologians like Origen acknowledged the possibility of the soul appearing outside of the body in the shape of the human being whose soul it was.

He tries subtly to make the point that this soul flight is not simple dreaming. For instance, he points out that while dreaming, the individual often moves around and contrasts that to soul flight, when the body is so still that there is concern that the individual will be taken for dead.

The double could appear as an animal. He references stories, for instance, about someone seeing a mouse come out of the mouth of a sleeper and then return. It seems that it is always that the double takes the form of an animal rather than that a human being turns into an animal, as has been depicted in pop culture. What’s interesting to me is that this would explain the illustrations of witches riding on animals to the Sabbat.

As an aside, he mentions the magician’s use of the stick or staff and how it likewise features in such depictions and stories, with witches riding on sticks or staffs that in later stories are transformed into brooms. ┬áHe says that the stick has always been the tool of choice for the magic worker and points out that in Norse, his particular area of expertise, the word for stick is also the word for spirit. But I have wondered if the images of witches riding on sticks or wooden tools is not a metaphorical reference to the use of plant materials to travel to the Sabbat. This would fit with another one of Lecouteux’s ideas–that “professional” magicians did not have the need of any flying ointment to go into trance and travel around as their double. Only “occasional” magicians had need of such ointments, and these ointments were focused on helping the use attain the trance state necessary for the double to exit the body. I’m not sure where he gets this idea; he doesn’t say. He also says that those who can voluntarily enter into such a deep trance can remember what they experienced, whereas those who are inexperienced have difficulty remembering it, which would kind of fit with the newbies’ use of an ointment made from tropane-containing plants (tropanes typically affect the memory of the hallucinations experienced). However, he also says that flying ointments are not mentioned at all until about 1450 and implies that they were basically a secular/Church invention that “explained” what was going on. On the whole, his argument seems to me reasonable and would explain the depictions of, on the one hand, witches riding sticks, and on the other, witches riding animals (the image of the double itself).

He refers to the English word “fetch” as an equivalent to the double. I had thought that a fetch was something more external to the witch, more like a servile version of a power animal or familiar, but the dictionary definition gives “person’s wraith or double.” There’s a nice discussion of this term in depth here, although even there a sense of the fetch’s externality pervades, as in for instance references to the fetch being “sent.” When people whose double participated in night battles or revels or whatever describe what was done, they do not ever say they “sent” their double. They say they went and they use “I” to describe it. There is no externality to the double.

What’s all this got to do with werewolves? According to Lecouteux, the werewolf is simply the representation of this double, which can appear in the form of the owner’s physical body or as any animal. IOW, the werewolf is just a symbol that in modern times has been materialized, if I can pun around, as a person with a disease rather than as a spirit with a material form.

There was a part I left out of my dream because it seemed trivial. At one point I saw an old sweater of mine, that I thought in the dream and upon awaking I had thrown out, lying in the concrete building next to the werewolf’s tower. I could not understand how it was that my sweater had gotten there. Oddly enough, Lecouteux discusses how in some stories about werewolves, their clothing stands for their physical body, which they leave behind to go abroad. In this dream, I was definitely not in my body. I am not saying I am a werewolf. It is just odd to me that this previously nonsensical bit of my dream now makes sense. I’m still not sure what to think of the dream, but I feel a lot more positive about it. As for the sweater, a couple weeks after having that dream, I came across it. I had not thrown it out at all.

I found the werewolf book interesting enough that as soon as I finished it, I ordered Lecouteux’s The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, which despite the title, deals with some of the same phenomena–in particular, the idea of a spirit of the dead that has a material form (double or revenant).

3 comments to Lecouteux’s Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies

  • ali

    interesting post…when you spoke about witches riding animals, it made me think about voodoo possession – but in that case, it’s the spirit that rides the person who is possessed, like a horse, so it’s reversed..in both cases, a body – even a “subtle” or astral body, is connected w/ a spirit or spirt animal, and the connection is made through “riding”/flying/ traversing to an alternate plane…interesting how much of the goal in magic is getting out of our body through trance/astral travelling, etc. Also – connecting w/ an animal spirit, such as a werewolf, seems psychological…”leaving” our body to connect w/ an “animal” part of ourselves…like fracturing ourselves into different parts: spirit and animal, making ourselves disjointed in a way, in order to connect more fully to parts of ourselves that are repressed? Also “riding” always seems sexual, and yet we need to be “not in” our body for it to happen? rambling a bit, but these are thoughts triggered by this article….

    • herba15

      Hi, Ali,

      The idea of the werewolf as being connected to or channeling a more powerful energy (and perhaps one less hamstrung by neuroticism) resonates with me a lot. Thanks for your feedback.


  • Interesting stuff. I’m going to have to add those books to my ‘eventually’ pile.

    I was brought up thinking a ‘fetch’ was one’s spirit double. If you see your fetch, when awake, you’re probably on your way out and will be pushing up daisies shortly. Most people do not see their fetch prior to death though; I always got the impression it was tied in with people who were unaware they’d died or that they were about to die, because of external distractions like being caught up in an adrenalin rush (this would certainly explain the hauntings of battlefields…) Basically, a waking self and one’s fetch don’t inhabit the same space. The fetch is the self which leaves the body and goes places. This provides fertile ground for different types of hauntings, too. If the body dies before the fetch returns to it from the night’s journey, what then, for example.

    Thinking other stuff about flying ointments versus more experienced practitioners who do not use them… My thought on flying ointments has always been that these and other delivery systems for entheogens are necessary when the occasion calls for a larger gathering of participants, but not everyone’s adept at traveling.

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