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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The Tradition of Household Spirits by Claude Lecouteux

The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices
Claude Lecouteux
Inner Traditions, 2013
228 pages

Reviewed by Lupa

Household spirits are one of those topics that gets referenced frequently in passing, but doesn’t really get a thorough treatment itself. I rather feel that the spirits of the home have been nowhere near enough attention despite their ubiquitous nature, and so I was pleased to receive this book as a treatise on the subject.

Mind you, this isn’t a modern “here’s how to placate the household spirits” book. Like other of Lecouteux’s works, it’s primarily a literature review, albeit a thorough one if your interest is primarily in European traditions. He collects information and tales of the spirits of abodes across the European continent, and organizes them nicely into a series of chapters that look at how houses were constructed, and then the sorts of spirits that may live there.

Do be aware that he doesn’t really gauge the veracity of sources; for example, the Malleus Maleficarum is given equal footing with the rest of the bibliography; additionally, some of the sources are quite dated. However, the bibliography is quite thorough (if mostly not in English) so if you’re a polylinguist and want to hunt down some of his source material, you have a wealth of options.

Even if you just want to emulate your ancestors (or someone else’s ancestors, for that matter), there are some practices described in passing, such as how to honor or not anger certain spirits, offerings, and the like. Again, it’s not a how-to book, but it is a nice survey of spirits that you may wish to research further.

Four pawprints out of five.

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