The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations by Claude Lecouteux

The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses:  From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations
Claude Lecouteux, translated by Jon E. Graham
Inner Traditions, 2013
vii + 246 pages

Reviewed by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

Those who are familiar with the various books published by Inner Traditions that are translations of earlier (usually French) monographs by Claude Lecouteux will be familiar with this great professor’s style, his thoroughness, and the academic rigor he brings to surveying his subjects in comprehensive manners.  Generally, his books present the reader with a wealth of excerpts from primary sources, and his commentary on these is generally cogent and highly valuable.

Unfortunately, this particular book does well in the primary source quotations department—perhaps too well and too extensively at some points—but falls very short in its analysis of the materials.

The book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading:  the majority of the sources he cites are from the later middle ages (generally after 1400 CE), and while some more modern (20th century) accounts are detailed, the elements of “Pagan Folklore” are not as abundant as one would hope if that context is named in the subtitle.

In essence, Lecouteux’s typological analysis of poltergeists and haunted houses groups these phenomena by particular prevailing interpretations of each phenomena:  the poltergeist or haunted house as a variety of noise-making spirit, a manifestation of the restless dead, an instance of pesky household spirits, and demonic activities being the main categories explored.  This is an interesting and noteworthy schema, because when an exorcism is performed by Christian clergy but the culprit of a given “knocking-spirit” phenomenon is a household spirit rather than a demon, of course that methodology does not drive the household spirit away.  For modern readers who are looking to this book as an historical sourcebook for tips and clues on how to best implement one’s own interactions with such spiritual beings, this making of distinctions is an important and useful take-away from reading this systematized collection of data.

Sadly, an overarching interpretation of the entire corpus by Lecouteux is lacking here (though present in many of his other works).  While in some of his other works this can be a slight hindrance to understanding particular (often outlying) instances of whatever phenomenon he is discussing, or they can stretch the transmitted evidence to near the breaking point, with this particular collection of evidence, a conclusion that is more substantial than “it all depends on how you look at it,” in essence, would have been more desirable.

Readers may find this book valuable for the corpus of lengthy primary source excerpts itself, however, and thus anyone who is interested in this subject will want to review this material in Lecouteux’s book themselves personally.

Three pawprints out of five

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Phantom Armies of the Night by Claude Lecouteux

Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead
Claude Lecouteux
Inner Traditions, 2011
320 pages

Reviewed by Uloboridae

As the title promises, this text is a detailed introduction to the “Wild Hunt” literary theme found throughout Europe. Dr. Lecouteux frames the entire book around the hypothesis that the Wild Hunt theme is an ancient pagan fertility (“third function”) motif of Indo-European origin that was later modified for Christian uses.

The first two-thirds of the book is spent looking at the various figures within the stories, their origins, and the many ways the stories were used for promoting a Christian worldview, particularly regarding sinful actions. This is mainly organized as a timeline, with the first chapters starting with the stories in early 1000s and gradually becoming more recent in later chapters. This is where he identifies, and then separates, the Christian additions from what he recognizes as the original Pagan framework. This method results in quite a large chunk of the book dedicated to explaining Christian clerical beliefs. The author starts out with the “Good Women” troops and the troops of the dead, and then goes into the troops that participate in a hunt or a procession of some sort. The troops of the dead reappear in later chapters to clarify the differences between these types of processions.

He also identifies the regional variations of the figures and stories, focusing mainly on Germanic regions (primarily today’s UK, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and parts of Scandinavia) and Germanic-influenced regions in Spain, France, Italy, and Central Europe. Attention is given to famous figures such as King Herla, Hellequin, and Perchta along with lesser known ones such as Oskeria, Dame Abundia, and Guro. Little attention is given to non-Germanic cultures, which is disappointing, but understandable, given that his professional background is specifically Medieval Germanic literature.

Eventually the author ends his timeline-based exploration in chapters 11 and 12 with the evolution of the Wild Hunt stories in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He discusses the romance of Fauvel to lead into the more exploratory aspects of the processions, such as the rowdy troops of the living that imitate the dead and devils. Pausing briefly for a chapter on Scandinavian folklore that resemble more basal Wild Hunt stories, the author then ties up the previous 12 chapters with a review on shared themes and other scholars’ interpretations.
The author then concludes with a dismissal of Odin as a Wild Hunt leader, going into detail as to why he is not a true huntsman figure, and an exploration of living processions that are linked to the lore processions. His final chapter recognizes the fact that no true conclusion can be met about the nature of the Wild Hunt and related stories, a refreshing attitude for books of this subject. The appendixes are translations of old stories and poems that depict or refer to the Wild Hunt and other processions, free of Dr. Lecouteux’s interpretations (those are given in earlier chapters).

Overall, I found this book to be informative from both a historical and a religious viewpoint. There are times where he asserts an idea as if it were fact (particularly with linguistic connections being used to “prove” or “disprove” an aspect or being of the Wild Hunt), which one would not be able to check unless they were familiar with the field. This situation forces a regular reader to either accept his word, or ignore it, which I find a bit distracting. I prefer to have context and information to support either decision, rather than mentally flipping a coin to decide which way to go. Usually I end up just ignoring the unsupported assertions, which thankfully does not interrupt the rest of the book.

This book is written in an academic voice, requiring some sections to be reread to fully comprehend them. Occasionally the book felt dragging due to the repetition of ideas and interpretations. Dr. Lecouteux also has a tendency to pack his books with information, which can be both good and bad. Good because historical Pagan information is limited and many of us need every bit we can find. Bad, because there is often no room left to give context to the random tidbits. Since the book was originally written in French, the references are mostly French and German sources, so trying to trace the information is nearly impossible for other language speakers to do. For someone like me who wants to double-check something for “truthfulness”, this can be irksome.

However, the author is excellent in keeping a neutral, professional tone in his work. He does not promote or degenerate Christianity or Paganism, nor does he reveal which “side” he is on (if any at all). His interest is solely academic, allowing this book to appeal to a variety of readers. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves European and Religious history and lore, as well as those seeking to understand the differences between Christian and Pagan worldviews. It will make an interesting addition to their library. However, due to the lack of context for some ideas, I would not recommend this book to those new to historical paganism. This is a “201” book, something to read after basic knowledge on Pagan worldviews has already been obtained and understood.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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Witches & Pagans Magazine, Issue 19

Witches & Pagans Magazine
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
BBI Media, Autumn 2009
96 pages

First, a little background: Witches & Pagans is what happened when BBI Media merged their prior publications, PanGaia and newWitch. PanGaia was their more “serious” pagan publication, with a heavy eco-friendly slant and a target audience interested in ritual practices and spiritual experiences. newWitch came about a few years ago, and was met with some skepticism since its general themes were “sex, spells and celebs”. Some feared that newWitch would manifest all the worst stereotypes of image-obsessed teenybopper witches, and yet the publication managed to hold a fine balance between entertainment and facing controversial topics head-on. As a disclosure, I have written for both publications, so my potential bias should be noted.

Witches & Pagans has managed to blend elements of both magazines. This issue, for example, features interviews with musician S.J. Tucker and author R.J. Stewart (the faery AND initial issue!), something that newWitch was keen on. However, articles on 19th century mystic Ella Young, a surprisingly well-researched article on Cherokee fey beings, and several other in-depth writings on a central theme of Faery hail back to the best of PanGaia.

The regular columnists provided me with some of my favorite reading overall. Isaac Bonewits explored the practice of magic at different stages of one’s life, and how factors ranging from physical health to years of experience and knowledge can shape one’s energy and thereby one’s practice. Galina Krasskova did an excellent job of tackling the practice of celibacy as part of the ascetic’s path, something that a heavily hedonistic neopagan community may not often give much thought to. And I love Archer’s article on connecting to the wilderness through forests and their denizens, both physical and archetypal.

Those who were used to reading only one of the parent publications that merged to create this one may feel disappointed that there isn’t more of “their” stuff in there. However, one thing I appreciate about Witches & Pagans is that it brings together two potentially separate demographics in the pagan community–the more “serious” practitioners who look askance at the supposed “fluff” content of newWitch, and the energetic (though not always neophyte) envelope-pushers who might see their counterparts as muddy sticks. Both groups have much to offer in their own way, and Witches & Pagans does a nice job of showcasing the best of both worlds.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Gargoyles – Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker

Gargoyles: From the Archives of the Grey School of Wizardry
Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker
New Page Books, 2007
240 pages

Note: This review originally written for and published in newWitch magazine.

This started out to be a really interesting book. The author gives a lot of really detailed information on the history and construction of gargoyles, as well as the origins of certain designs and themes found in this unique stone critter. I enjoyed reading about the cultural and religious influences that contributed to the design of gargoyles (including modern pop culture), as well as the stories behind specific gargoyles, such as those at Notre Dame. The material is accented with some lovely black and white illustrations, which really add to the book.

Pesznecker has a great writing style, with an open, friendly tone, and a concise manner of conveying the information. While it was a relatively quick read, the book offered a lot of good information in a small space. Additionally, some of the information from outside sources was backed up with in-text citations (very much appreciated!) as well as a hefty bibliography.

However, when the book veered into modern magic, I started finding a lot more filler. I realize that the book was partly written as a training manual for Grey School students, but do we really need yet another 101-level explanation of ritual tools, the elements, and how to construct and cast a spell? Additionally, a lot of the practical magical information was only tangentially related to gargoyles. And her “Magickal Safety” section (136-137) asserts that “Most magickal practitioners” believe your magic comes back threefold, and that “The best way to study magick is with an experienced mentor or a respected magickal school”. Non-Neopagan magicians and happy solitaries might look askance at these.

Overall, it’s a great idea; this is a subject I really haven’t seen broached in Neopaganism. There were some really creative possibilities here, but it seems like the book just sort of sputtered out in the last 80 or so pages. Get it for the solid research on historical gargoyles, but supplement the practical material.

Three and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Great Shift edited by Martine Vallee

The Great Shift: Co-Creating a New World for 2012 and Beyond
Edited by Martine Vallee
Weiser, 2009
256 pages

As 2012 approaches, it’s becoming a hotter topic. Just what will occur? Are we all doomed, or will absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happen? I suppose I should preface this review by saying that I don’t believe in the 2012 mythos, that significant events happen every day that are completely unrelated, and that I don’t take channelled texts literally–I don’t believe they’re more than the writer “channelling” some part of their mind not normally used. If you compare the results of channelling with the culture of the channeller, you see a lot of cultural similarities. So my approach to this anthology of channelled writings about 2012 is already biased.

The book is divided into three parts, one apiece for Lee Carroll “channelling” Kryon, Tom Kenyon “channelling” the Hathors and Mary Magdalen, and Patricia Cori “channelling” the High Council of Sirius. (Why doesn’t anyone ever channel anyone more boring?) About the only way I could take this book seriously was to look at it as purely a mythos, rather than a literal “we channelled this from beings who actually exist Somewhere Out There”. And in that light, there were actually some pieces of good advice that can essentially be summarized as:

–Take good care of your physical health and be aware of your body, instead of ignoring it until something goes seriously wrong
–Be good to yourself emotionally and mentally, and tend to your health there
–Be kind to other people; there’s enough nastiness in the world that needs balancing out

These are quite applicable pieces of advice in these times, and the writers often provide some really useful insights on how to accomplish these things. Western cultures, especially the dominant culture in the U.S., tend to lack interconnection and awareness, and I found some nice reminders to reach out to others, and to reach within myself as well.

Unfortunately, it’s couched in a lot of New Age material, including (of course) crystal skulls and Egypt, and star beings and not-at-all-vicious-as-in-the-Bible-angels. Because of this, I found myself twitching a good bit of the time I was reading. Still, to each their own. If you have more tolerance for New Age material, you’ll have an easier time with the book; even if you don’t, feel free to glean whatever’s useful from it.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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The Book of Curses – Stuart Gordon – November BBBR

The Book of Curses: True Tales of Voodoo, Hoodoo and Hex
Stuart Gordon
Brockhampton Press, 1997
242 pages

You know when you go into one of those big box chain bookstores that are all alike, and are immediately met by rows upon rows of discounted hardbacks of various sorts? And the New Age titles are usually something put out by the chain’s own publishing house, or other major houses? I think this started out life as one of those books. I got it from the local Goodwill bargain bin, but this may have been a career bargain book.

This is not a book on how to curse people. It is, however, a collection of stories and anecdotes (all third person, nothing from the author’s own experiences) about curses in various magical and other systems. Some of the book delves into Afro-Caribbean religions; however, the MacBeth curse is also visited, as is the supposed curse on King Tut’s tomb. Gordon also touches briefly on modern witch hunts in the form of the Satanic Panic and child abuse allegations in the 1980s, and on the theory of tulpas, or thought-forms, as potential causes of curses through the power of belief.

While it’s an interesting read, take it with a decent-sized grain of salt. Much of the book is based on hearsay and older sources, and seems mostly to be a collection of whatever fairly common information on curses is available. It’s mostly on par with various Time-Life and other mainstream texts on occultism; don’t use it as a primary text, but there are some interesting bits of information that can lead to further research if you so choose. Also, don’t expect the information on specific religions, such as Voodoo, to be particularly solid; it tends more towards the sensational end of things, with a few facts thrown in for legitimacy’s sake.

In short, this book is good for entertainment, but it most definitely needs supplementation.

Two pawprints out of five.

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Yokai Attack! by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt

Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide
Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt (artwork by Tatsuya Morino)
Kodansha International
192 pages

Holy crap, but this is a fun book! Think of the monsters and other critters you’ve perhaps encountered in anime and manga, or video games out of Japan. (I’m especially thinking Okami here.) Yokai Attack! provides the background mythology on some of these beings, and numerous others–some of the scariest (and, in some cases, silliest) monsters in Japanese mythos.

While there are the usual suspects such as the Kitsune and various forms of Tengu, did you know about the Kara-Kasa and Bura-Bura, an umbrella and lantern respectively that have been animated into haunts? Or what about Konaki Jiji, who imitates a baby to gain contact with a human which it then crushes to death? These and dozens more Yokai may be found in the pages of this book (not literally, of course!).

The book is put together like a tongue-in-cheek field guide. Amid the suggestions for what to do if you meet up with one of these beings (such as keeping a leaky ladle in your boat in case of a meeting with the Funa-Yurei), there’s solid research about them. The authors are careful to note when a Yokai is of relatively recent origin, and what that origin likely is. For all its manga-ish appearance, it’s a decent resource.

Speaking of manga, the artwork is excellent. It’s not the typical manga-style, though it does mix traditional designs with modern aesthetics. And there are fun little additions to the layout, like little “Post-it notes” and other things with a bit of extra info here and there.

Overall, if you’d like an introduction to Japanese mythology, particularly as is pertains to things that go bump in the night, this is a good read.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Magickal Mystical Creatures – D.J. Conway – April BBBR

Magickal Mystical Creatures
D.J. Conway
Llewellyn, 2001
260 pages

This book was a freebie from a friend. I had been less than excited about Conway’s Animal Magick and Dancing with Dragons (though I just got the newest edition of the latter from newWitch magazine, so we’ll see what kind of a review it gets).

I was actually surprised; I liked this one better than the other two. I still have my gripes, but I am admittedly pretty picky. This particular book is an encyclopedia of various mythological beings from around the world–primarily Eurasian, but with a smattering of beings from other places as well. They’re divided by type–canines, gryphons and their ilk, various types of unicorn, etc. (I do have to say I loved the illustrations, too!)

There’s a decent amount of information on each being gleaned from mythological and historical sources. Additionally, Conway adds in psychological interpretations of the kind of people who could either be helped or hindered by each entity, depending on its nature. She does also recommend that dangerous beings be avoided by all but the most experienced magicians (and sometimes not even then).

I think my biggest complaint is that it’s simply not enough. Many of the beings that she recommends as being safe aren’t necessarily so. For example, she presents unicorns as being mostly positive beings who can lead the reader into Faery. However, there’s not much warning about the fact that unicorns were originally seen as fierce, dangerous creatures, and that Faery generally isn’t someplace you want to just waltz on into. Even the “nice” faeries aren’t particularly safe, especially if you study the original lore. As with a lot of basic pagan titles of the mid 1990s, things that really aren’t safe and easy are presented as welcoming and available to all, with little warning of potential hazards.

And this is why I strongly recommend that you not stick with just a dictionary. While this has its uses, it’s a starting point primarily, and the actual practical information comprises less than a score of pages, and it’s mostly spellwork 101. Use this guide to get you introduced to what’s out there, but then do your research with other sources, both on magical practice and on lore surrounding the beings you want to work with.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor – Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon

Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor
Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon
Bell Publishing Company, 1972
196 pages

I first picked up this book because it dedicates a couple of chapters to black dogs/whisht hounds, one of my favorite ghosts/cryptozoological entities. The author collected a variety of stories and tales of everything from hauntings to dancing stone circles to wart healing white witches and created this nice compendium of folklore specific to Dartmoor in the UK. Apparently Dartmoor has more than its fair share of etheral and paranormal activity, as evidenced by the rich abundance of examples the author was able to give.

The folklore chapters are much stronger than the witchcraft ones. St. Leger-Gordon collects a nice variety of local examples involving ancient stones and ruins, as well as tales of souls condemned to transformation and impossible feats before they can rest, as atonement for their wickedness. She manages to fit a lot of these stories in without shortening them too much–in fact, she does an excellent job of managing her space, tying the stories together without adding too much filler. And rather than only relying on older stories, she brings up a number of relatively recent (to her time, anyway) examples, showing that haunts and hunts and other such things do persist into modern day (though she worries for their continuation amid “progress”).

The witchcraft chapters, on the other hand, are heavily littered with a lot of Margaret Murray’s bunk. The author also takes Gerald Gardner’s claims of Wicca’s antiquity as truth, which damages the integrity of the book as a whole. However, the examples of both healing and cursing done by local witches (who use Bible verses in their wart charming, rather than dancing to Diana) show once again the local folklore in practice. St. Leger-Gorden would have been better off sticking to the traditional folklore rather than attempting to bring in modern, unverified sources that draw less on the traditions and more on 19th-century romanticized reconstructions.

Still, overall I really liked reading this book. Beyond the poor modern research it’s an excellent look at the tales and traditions of a particular part of the world shown in detail, written by a skilled author. Definitely a keeper!

Four pawprints out of five

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Man and Beast – Reader’s Digest

Quest For the Unknown: Man and Beast
Reader’s Digest
1993
144 pages

I originally bought this book as a single copy rather than part of the entire series. As is normal for the type of book collections that Reader’s Digest, Time/Life and other magazine publishers put out on “odd” topics, this one is a nicely designed hardcover with a good mixture of text and pictures. The cover, in fact, has an awesome picture of an eagle mask on it.

But enough about the cover. Let’s go inside.

The book covers a wide variety of mystical aspects of animals, starting with a solid introduction to cryptozoology, then seguing into shapeshifter lore, and finally heading into the worship of animals and animal-based deities. Each section devotes well-researched text about its topic, punctuated with many full color illustrations, all captioned to show relevance.

It is a pretty basic book, of course, as it’s meant for the general public. Those who are already well-versed in animal-based mythology, cryptozoology and related topics will find most fo the material familiar. On the other hand, if you’re new to any of these topics, or just want a basic reference book around, this is a good choice. Additionally, if you’re a parents and want to introduce your teenaged child to animals in mythology and ritual, this would be an excellent guide as the language isn’t particularly difficult and most intelligent teens (even preteens) should have no problem with it.

Overall, a really nice coffee table book. Nothing really outstanding in the pagan/occult realm, but a good introduction.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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