An Essay in Illustration of the Belief in the Existence of Devils, and the Powers Possessed By Them, as It Was Generally Held during the Period of the Reformation, and the Times Immediately Succeeding; with Special Reference to Shakspere and His Works
THOMAS ALFRED SPALDING, LL.B. (LOND.)
Barrister-at-Law, Honorary Treasurer of The New Shakspere Society
PRESIDENT OF THE
NEW SHAKSPERE SOCIETY,
THIS VOLUME IS DEDICATED.
This Essay is an expansion, in accordance with a preconceived scheme, of two papers, one on “The Witches in Macbeth,” and the other on “The Demonology of Shakspere,” which were read before the New Shakspere Society in the years 1877 and 1878. The Shakspere references in the text are made to the Globe Edition.
The writer’s best thanks are due to his friends Mr. F.J. Furnivall and Mr. Lauriston E. Shaw, for their kindness in reading the proof sheets, and suggesting emendations.
October 7, 1879.
“We are too hasty when we set down our ancestors in the gross for fools for the monstrous inconsistencies (as they seem to us) involved in their creed of witchcraft.”–C. LAMB.
“But I will say, of Shakspere’s works generally, that we have no full impress of him there, even as full as we have of many men. His works are so many windows, through which we see a glimpse of the world that was in him.”–T. CARLYLE.
1. Difficulty in understanding our elder writers without a knowledge of their language and ideas. 2. Especially in the case of dramatic poets. 3. Examples. Hamlet’s “assume a virtue.” 4. Changes in ideas and law relating to marriage. Massinger’s “Maid of Honour” as an example. 5. _Sponsalia de futuro_ and _Sponsalia de praesenti_. Shakspere’s marriage. 6. Student’s duty is to get to know the opinions and feelings of the folk amongst whom his author lived. 7. It will be hard work, but a gain in the end. First, in preventing conceit. 8. Secondly, in preventing rambling reading. 9. Author’s present object to illustrate the dead belief in Demonology, especially as far as it concerns Shakspere. He thinks that this may perhaps bring us into closer contact with Shakspere’s soul. 10. Some one objects that Shakspere can speak better for himself. Yes, but we must be sure that we understand the media through which he speaks. 11. Division of subject.
12. Reasons why the empire of the supernatural is so extended amongst savages. 13. All important affairs of life transacted under superintendence of Supreme Powers. 14. What are these Powers? Three principles regarding them. 15. (I.) Incapacity of mankind to accept monotheism. The Jews. 16. Roman Catholicism really polytheistic, although believers won’t admit it. Virgin Mary. Saints. Angels. Protestantism in the same condition in a less degree. 17. Francis of Assisi. Gradually made into a god. 18. (II.) Manichaeism. Evil spirits as inevitable as good. 19. (III.) Tendency to treat the gods of hostile religions as devils. 20. In the Greek theology. [Greek: daimones]. Platonism. 21. Neo-Platonism. Makes the elder gods into daemons. 22. Judaism. Recognizes foreign gods at first. _Elohim_, but they get degraded in time. Beelzebub, Belial, etc. 23. Early Christians treat gods of Greece in the same way. St. Paul’s view. 24. The Church, however, did not stick to its colours in this respect. Honesty not the best policy. A policy of compromise. 25. The oracles. Sosthenion and St. Michael. Delphi. St. Gregory’s saintliness and magnanimity. Confusion of pagan gods and Christian saints. 26. Church in North Europe. Thonar, etc., are devils, but Balda gets identified with Christ. 27. Conversion of Britons. Their gods get turned into fairies rather than devils. Deuce. Old Nick. 28. Subsequent evolution of belief. Carlyle’s Abbot Sampson. Religious formulae of witchcraft. 29. The Reformers and Catholics revive the old accusations. The Reformers only go half-way in scepticism. Calfhill and Martiall. 30. Catholics. Siege of Alkmaar. Unfortunate mistake of a Spanish prisoner. 31. Conditions that tended to vivify the belief during Elizabethan era. 32. The new freedom. Want of rules of evidence. Arthur Hacket and his madnesses. Sneezing. Cock-crowing. Jackdaw in the House of Commons. Russell and Drake both mistaken for devils. 33. Credulousness of people. “To make one danse naked.” A parson’s proof of transubstantiation. 34. But the Elizabethans had strong common sense nevertheless. People do wrong if they set them down as fools. If we had not learned to be wiser than they, we should have to be ashamed of ourselves. We shall learn nothing from them if we don’t try to understand them.
35. The three heads. 36. (I.) Classification of devils. Greater and lesser devils. Good and bad angels. 37. Another classification, not popular. 38. Names of greater devils. Horribly uncouth. The number of them. Shakspere’s devils. 39. (II.) Form of devils of the greater. 40. Of the lesser. The horns, goggle eyes, and tail. Scot’s carnal-mindedness. He gets his book burnt, and written against by James I. 41. Spenser’s idol-devil. 42. Dramatists’ satire of popular opinion. 43. Favourite form for appearing in when conjured. Devils in Macbeth. 44. Powers of devils. 45. Catholic belief in devil’s power to create bodies. 46. Reformers deny this, but admit that he deceives people into believing that he can do so, either by getting hold of a dead body, and restoring animation. 47. Or by means of illusion. 48. The common people stuck to the Catholic doctrine. Devils appear in likeness of an ordinary human being. 49. Even a living one, which was sometimes awkward. “The Troublesome Raigne of King John.” They like to appear as priests or parsons. The devil quoting Scripture. 50. Other human shapes. 51. Animals. Ariel. 52. Puck. 53. “The Witch of Edmonton.” The devil on the stage. Flies. Urban Grandier. Sir M. Hale. 54. Devils as angels. As Christ. 55. As dead friend. Reformers denied the possibility of ghosts, and said the appearances so called were devils. James I. and his opinion. 56. The common people believed in the ghosts. Bishop Pilkington’s troubles. 57. The two theories. Illustrated in “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth.” 58. And “Hamlet.” 59. This explains an apparent inconsistency in “Hamlet.” 60. Possession and obsession. Again the Catholics and Protestants differ. 61. But the common people believe in possession. 62. Ignorance on the subject of mental disease. The exorcists. 63. John Cotta on possession. What the “learned physicion” knew. 64. What was manifest to the vulgar view. Will Sommers. “The Devil is an Ass.” 65. Harsnet’s “Declaration,” and “King Lear.” 66. The Babington conspiracy. 67. Weston, alias Edmonds. His exorcisms. Mainy. The basis of Harsnet’s statements. 69. The devils in “Lear.” 70. Edgar and Mainy. Mainy’s loose morals. 71. The devils tempt with knives and halters. 72. Mainy’s seven devils: Pride, Covetousness, Luxury, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth. The Nightingale business. 73. Treatment of the possessed: confinement, flagellation. 74. Dr Pinch. Nicknames. 75. Other methods. That of “Elias and Pawle”. The holy chair, sack and oil, brimstone. 76. Firing out. 77. Bodily diseases the work of the devil. Bishop Hooper on hygiene. 78. But devils couldn’t kill people unless they renounced God. 79. Witchcraft. 80. People now-a-days can’t sympathize with the witch persecutors, because they don’t believe in the devil. Satan is a mere theory now. 81. But they believed in him once, and therefore killed people that were suspected of having to do with him. 82. And we don’t sympathize with the persecuted witches, although we make a great fuss about the sufferings of the Reformers. 83. The witches in Macbeth. Some take them to be Norns. 84. Gervinus. His opinion. 85. Mr. F.G. Fleay. His opinion. 86. Evidence. Simon Forman’s note. 87. Holinshed’s account. 88. Criticism. 89. It is said that the appearance and powers of the sisters are not those of witches. 90. It is going to be shown that they are. 91. A third piece of criticism. 92. Objections. 93. Contemporary descriptions of witches. Scot, Harsnet. Witches’ beards. 94. Have Norns chappy fingers, skinny lips, and beards? 95. Powers of witches “looking into the seeds of time.” Bessie Roy, how she looked into them. 96. Meaning of first scene of “Macbeth.” 97. Witches power to vanish. Ointments for the purpose. Scot’s instance of their efficacy. 98. “Weird sisters.” 99. Other evidence. 100. Why Shakspere chose witches. Command over elements. 101. Peculiar to Scotch trials of 1590-91. 102. Earlier case of Bessie Dunlop–a poor, starved, half daft creature. “Thom Reid,” and how he tempted her. Her canny Scotch prudence. Poor Bessie gets burnt for all that. 103. Reason for peculiarity of trials of 1590. James II. comes from Denmark to Scotland. The witches raise a storm at the instigation of the devil. How the trials were conducted. 104. John Fian. Raising a mist. Toad-omen. Ship sinking. 105. Sieve-sailing. Excitement south of the Border. The “Daemonologie.” Statute of James against witchcraft. 106. The origin of the incubus and succubus. 107. Mooncalves. 108. Division of opinion amongst Reformers regarding devils. Giordano Bruno. Bullinger’s opinion about Sadducees and Epicures. 109. Emancipation a gradual process. Exorcism in Edward VI.’s Prayer-book. 110. The author hopes he has been reverent in his treatment of the subject. Any sincere belief entitled to respect. Our pet beliefs may some day appear as dead and ridiculous as these.
111. Fairies and devils differ in degree, not in origin. 112. Evidence. 113. Cause of difference. Folk, until disturbed by religious doubt, don’t believe in devils, but fairies. 114. Reformation shook people up, and made them think of hell and devils. 115. The change came in the towns before the country. Fairies held on a long time in the country. 116. Shakspere was early impressed with fairy lore. In middle life, came in contact with town thought and devils, and at the end of it returned to Stratford and fairydom. 117. This is reflected in his works. 118. But there is progression of thought to be observed in these stages. 119. Shakspere indirectly tells us his thoughts, if we will take the trouble to learn them. 120. Three stages of thought that men go through on religious matters. Hereditary belief. Scepticism. Reasoned belief. 121. Shakspere went through all this. 122. Illustrations. Hereditary belief. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Fairies chiefly an adaptation of current tradition. 123. The dawn of doubt. 124. Scepticism. Evil spirits dominant. No guiding good. 125. Corresponding lapse of faith in other matters. Woman’s purity. 126. Man’s honour. 127. Mr. Ruskin’s view of Shakspere’s message. 128. Founded chiefly on plays of sceptical period. Message of third period entirely different. 129. Reasoned belief. “The Tempest.” 130. Man can master evil of all forms if he go about it in the right way–is not the toy of fate. 131. Prospero a type of Shakspere in this final stage of thought. How pleasant to think this!
1. It is impossible to understand and appreciate thoroughly the production of any great literary genius who lived and wrote in times far removed from our own, without a certain amount of familiarity, not only with the precise shades of meaning possessed by the vocabulary he made use of, as distinguished from the sense conveyed by the same words in the present day, but also with the customs and ideas, political, religious and moral, that predominated during the period in which his works were produced. Without such information, it will be found impossible, in many matters of the first importance, to grasp the writer’s true intent, and much will appear vague and lifeless that was full of point and vigour when it was first conceived; or, worse still, modern opinion upon the subject will be set up as the standard of interpretation, ideas will be forced into the writer’s sentences that could not by any manner of possibility have had place in his mind, and utterly false conclusions as to his meaning will be the result. Even the man who has had some experience in the study of an early literature, occasionally finds some difficulty in preventing the current opinions of his day from obtruding themselves upon his work and warping his judgment; to the general reader this must indeed be a frequent and serious stumbling-block.
2. This is a special source of danger in the study of the works of dramatic poets, whose very art lies in the representation of the current opinions, habits, and foibles of their times–in holding up the mirror to their age. It is true that, if their works are to live, they must deal with subjects of more than mere passing interest; but it is also true that many, and the greatest of them, speak upon questions of eternal interest in the particular light cast upon them in their times, and it is quite possible that the truth may be entirely lost from want of power to recognize it under the disguise in which it comes. A certain motive, for instance, that is an overpowering one in a given period, subsequently appears grotesque, weak, or even powerless; the consequent action becomes incomprehensible, and the actor is contemned; and a simile that appeared most appropriate in the ears of the author’s contemporaries, seems meaningless, or ridiculous, to later generations.
3. An example or two of this possibility of error, derived from works produced during the period with which it is the object of these pages to deal, will not be out of place here.
A very striking illustration of the manner in which a word may mislead is afforded by the oft-quoted line:
“Assume a virtue, if you have it not.”
By most readers the secondary, and, in the present day, almost universal, meaning of the word assume–“pretend that to be, which in reality has no existence;”–that is, in the particular case, “ape the chastity you do not in reality possess”–is understood in this sentence; and consequently Hamlet, and through him, Shakspere, stand committed to the appalling doctrine that hypocrisy in morals is to be commended and cultivated. Now, such a proposition never for an instant entered Shakspere’s head. He used the word “assume” in this case in its primary and justest sense; _ad-sumo_, take to, acquire; and the context plainly shows that Hamlet meant that his mother, by self-denial, would gradually acquire that virtue in which she was so conspicuously wanting. Yet, for lack of a little knowledge of the history of the word employed, the other monstrous gloss has received almost universal and applauding acceptance.
4. This is a fair example of the style of error which a reader unacquainted with the history of the changes our language has undergone may fall into. Ignorance of changes in customs and morals may cause equal or greater error.
The difference between the older and more modern law, and popular opinion, relating to promises of marriage and their fulfilment, affords a striking illustration of the absurdities that attend upon the interpretation of the ideas of one generation by the practice of another. Perhaps no greater nonsense has been talked upon any subject than this one, especially in relation to Shakspere’s own marriage, by critics who seem to have thought that a fervent expression of acute moral feeling would replace and render unnecessary patient investigation.
In illustration of this difference, a play of Massinger’s, “The Maid of Honour,” may be advantageously cited, as the catastrophe turns upon this question of marriage contracts. Camiola, the heroine, having been precontracted by oath to Bertoldo, the king’s natural brother, and hearing of his subsequent engagement to the Duchess of Sienna, determines to quit the world and take the veil. But before doing so, and without informing any one, except her confessor, of her intention, she contrives a somewhat dramatic scene for the purpose of exposing her false lover. She comes into the presence of the king and all the court, produces her contract, claims Bertoldo as her husband, and demands justice of the king, adjuring him that he shall not–
“Swayed or by favour or affection,
By a false gloss or wrested comment, alter The true intent and letter of the law.”
[Footnote 1: Act v. sc. I.]
Now, the only remedy that would occur to the mind of the reader of the present day under such circumstances, would be an action for breach of promise of marriage, and he would probably be aware of the very recent origin of that method of procedure. The only reply, therefore, that he would expect from Roberto would be a mild and sympathetic assurance of inability to interfere; and he must be somewhat taken aback to find this claim of Camiola admitted as indisputable. The riddle becomes somewhat further involved when, having established her contract, she immediately intimates that she has not the slightest intention of observing it herself, by declaring her desire to take the veil.
5. This can only be explained by the rules current at the time regarding spousals. The betrothal, or handfasting, was, in Massinger’s time, a ceremony that entailed very serious obligations upon the parties to it. There were two classes of spousals–_sponsalia de futuro_ and _sponsalia de praesenti_: a promise of marriage in the future, and an actual declaration of present marriage. This last form of betrothal was, in fact, marriage, as far as the contracting parties were concerned. It could not, even though not consummated, be dissolved by mutual consent; and a subsequent marriage, even though celebrated with religious rites, was utterly invalid, and could be set aside at the suit of the injured person.
[Footnote 1: Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals, 1686, p. 236. In England the offspring were, nevertheless, illegitimate.]
The results entailed by _sponsalia de futuro_ were less serious. Although no spousals of the same nature could be entered into with a third person during the existence of the contract, yet it could be dissolved by mutual consent, and was dissolved by subsequent _sponsalia in praesenti_, or matrimony. But such spousals could be converted into valid matrimony by the cohabitation of the parties; and this, instead of being looked upon as reprehensible, seems to have been treated as a laudable action, and to be by all means encouraged. In addition to this, completion of a contract for marriage _de futuro_ confirmed by oath, if such a contract were not indeed indissoluble, as was thought by some, could at any rate be enforced against an unwilling party. But there were some reasons that justified the dissolution of _sponsalia_ of either description. Affinity was one of these; and–what is to the purpose here, in England before the Reformation, and in those parts of the continent unaffected by it–the entrance into a religious order was another. Here, then, we have a full explanation of Camiola’s conduct. She is in possession of evidence of a contract of marriage between herself and Bertoldo, which, whether _in praesenti_ or _in futuro_, being confirmed by oath, she can force upon him, and which will invalidate his proposed marriage with the duchess. Having established her right, she takes the only step that can with certainty free both herself and Bertoldo from the bond they had created, by retiring into a nunnery.
[Footnote 1: Swinburne, p. 227.]
This explanation renders the action of the play clear, and at the same time shows that Shakspere in his conduct with regard to his marriage may have been behaving in the most honourable and praiseworthy manner; as the bond, with the date of which the date of the birth of his first child is compared, is for the purpose of exonerating the ecclesiastics from any liability for performing the ecclesiastical ceremony, which was not at all a necessary preliminary to a valid marriage, so far as the husband and wife were concerned, although it was essential to render issue of the marriage legitimate.
6. These are instances of the deceptions that are likely to arise from the two fertile sources that have been specified. There can be no doubt that the existence of errors arising from the former source–misapprehension of the meaning of words–is very generally admitted, and effectual remedies have been supplied by modern scholars for those who will make use of them. Errors arising from the latter source are not so entirely recognized, or so securely guarded against. But what has just been said surely shows that it is of no use reading a writer of a past age with merely modern conceptions; and, therefore, that if such a man’s works are worth study at all, they must be read with the help of the light thrown upon them by contemporary history, literature, laws, and morals. The student must endeavour to divest himself, as far as possible, of all ideas that are the result of a development subsequent to the time in which his author lived, and to place himself in harmony with the life and thoughts of the people of that age: sit down with them in their homes, and learn the sources of their loves, their hates, their fears, and see wherein domestic happiness, or lack of it, made them strong or weak; follow them to the market-place, and witness their dealings with their fellows–the honesty or baseness of them, and trace the cause; look into their very hearts, if it may be, as they kneel at the devotion they feel or simulate, and become acquainted with the springs of their dearest aspirations and most secret prayers.
7. A hard discipline, no doubt, but not more hard than salutary. Salutary in two ways. First, as a test of the student’s own earnestness of purpose. For in these days of revival of interest in our elder literature, it has become much the custom for flippant persons, who are covetous of being thought “well-read” by their less-enterprising companions, to skim over the surface of the pages of the wisest and noblest of our great teachers, either not understanding, or misunderstanding them. “I have read Chaucer, Shakspere, Milton,” is the sublimely satirical expression constantly heard from the mouths of those who, having read words set down by the men they name, have no more capacity for reading the hearts of the men themselves, through those words, than a blind man has for discerning the colour of flowers. As a consequence of this flippancy of reading, numberless writers, whose works have long been consigned to a well-merited oblivion, have of late years been disinterred and held up for public admiration, chiefly upon the ground that they are ancient and unknown. The man who reads for the sake of having done so, not for the sake of the knowledge gained by doing so, finds as much charm in these petty writers as in the greater, and hence their transient and undeserved popularity. It would be well, then, for every earnest student, before beginning the study of any one having pretensions to the position of a master, and who is not of our own generation, to ask himself, “Am I prepared thoroughly to sift out and ascertain the true import of every allusion contained in this volume?” And if he cannot honestly answer “Yes,” let him shut the book, assured that he is not impelled to the study of it by a sincere thirst for knowledge, but by impertinent curiosity, or a shallow desire to obtain undeserved credit for learning.
8. The second way in which such a discipline will prove salutary is this: it will prevent the student from straying too far afield in his reading. The number of “classical” authors whose works will repay such severe study is extremely limited. However much enthusiasm he may throw into his studies, he will find that nine-tenths of our older literature yields too small a harvest of instruction to attract any but the pedant to expend so much labour upon them. The two great vices of modern reading will be avoided–flippancy on the one hand, and pedantry on the other.
9. The object, therefore, which I have had in view in the compilation of the following pages, is to attempt to throw some additional light upon a condition of thought, utterly different from any belief that has firm hold in the present generation, that was current and peculiarly prominent during the lifetime of the man who bears overwhelmingly the greatest name, either in our own or any other literature. It may be said, and perhaps with much force, that enough, and more than enough, has been written in the way of Shakspere criticism. But is it not better that somewhat too much should be written upon such a subject than too little? We cannot expect that every one shall see all the greatness of Shakspere’s vast and complex mind–by one a truth will be grasped that has eluded the vigilance of others;–and it is better that those who can by no possibility grasp anything at all should have patient hearing, rather than that any additional light should be lost. The useless, lifeless criticism vanishes quietly away into chaos; the good remains quietly to be useful: and it is in reliance upon the justice and certainty of this law that I aim at bringing before the mind, as clearly as may be, a phase of belief that was continually and powerfully influencing Shakspere during the whole of his life, but is now well-nigh forgotten or entirely misunderstood. If the endeavour is a useless and unprofitable one, let it be forgotten–I am content; but I hope to be able to show that an investigation of the subject does furnish us with a key which, in a manner, unlocks the secrets of Shakspere’s heart, and brings us closer to the real living man–to the very soul of him who, with hardly any history in the accepted sense of the word, has left us in his works a biography of far deeper and more precious meaning, if we will but understand it.
10. But it may be said that Shakspere, of all men, is able to speak for himself without aid or comment. His works appeal to all, young and old, in every time, every nation. It is true; he can be understood. He is, to use again Ben Jonson’s oft-quoted words, “Not of an age, but for all time.” Yet he is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit and opinions of his era, that without a certain comprehension of the men of the Elizabethan period he cannot be understood fully. Indeed, his greatness is to a large extent due to his sympathy with the men around him, his power of clearly thinking out the answers to the all-time questions, and giving a voice to them that his contemporaries could understand;–answers that others could not for themselves formulate–could, perhaps, only vaguely and dimly feel after. To understand these answers fully, the language in which they were delivered must be first thoroughly mastered.
11. I intend, therefore, to attempt to sketch out the leading features of a phase of religious belief that acquired peculiar distinctness and prominence during Shakspere’s lifetime–more, perhaps, than it ever did before, or has done since–the belief in the existence of evil spirits, and their influence upon and dealings with mankind. The subject will be treated in three sections. The first will contain a short statement of the laws that seem to be of universal operation in the creation and maintenance of the belief in a multitudinous band of spirits, good and evil; and of a few of the conditions of the Elizabethan epoch that may have had a formative and modifying influence upon that belief. The second will be devoted to an outline of the chief features of that belief, as it existed at the time in question–the organization, appearance, and various functions and powers of the evil spirits, with special reference to Shakspere’s plays. The third and concluding section, will embody an attempt to trace the growth of Shakspere’s thought upon religious matters through the medium of his allusions to this subject.
* * * * *
12. The empire of the supernatural must obviously be most extended where civilization is the least advanced. An educated man has to make a conscious, and sometimes severe, effort to refrain from pronouncing a dogmatic opinion as to the cause of a given result when sufficient evidence to warrant a definite conclusion is wanting; to the savage, the notion of any necessity for, or advantage to be derived from, such self-restraint never once occurs. Neither the lightning that strikes his hut, the blight that withers his crops, the disease that destroys the life of those he loves; nor, on the other hand, the beneficent sunshine or life-giving rain, is by him traceable to any known physical cause. They are the results of influences utterly beyond his understanding–supernatural,–matters upon which imagination is allowed free scope to run riot, and from which spring up a legion of myths, or attempts to represent in some manner these incomprehensible processes, grotesque or poetic, according to the character of the people with which they originate, which, if their growth be not disturbed by extraneous influences, eventually develop into the national creed. The most ordinary events of the savage’s every-day life do not admit of a natural solution; his whole existence is bound in, from birth to death, by a network of miracles, and regulated, in its smallest details, by unseen powers of whom he knows little or nothing.
13. Hence it is that, in primitive societies, the functions of legislator, judge, priest, and medicine man are all combined in one individual, the great medium of communication between man and the unknown, whose person is pre-eminently sacred. The laws that are to guide the community come in some mysterious manner through him from the higher powers. If two members of the clan are involved in a quarrel, he is appealed to to apply some test in order to ascertain which of the two is in the wrong–an ordeal that can have no judicial operation, except upon the assumption of the existence of omnipotent beings interested in the discovery of evil-doers, who will prevent the test from operating unjustly. Maladies and famines are unmistakeable signs of the displeasure of the good, or spite of the bad spirits, and are to be averted by some propitiatory act on the part of the sufferers, or the mediation of the priest-doctor. The remedy that would put an end to a long-continued drought will be equally effective in arresting an epidemic.
14. But who, and of what nature, are these supernatural powers whose influences are thus brought to bear upon every-day life, and who appear to take such an interest in the affairs of mankind? It seems that there are three great principles at work in the evolution and modification of the ideas upon this subject, which must now be shortly stated.
15. (i.) The first of these is the apparent incapacity of the majority of mankind to accept a purely monotheistic creed. It is a demonstrable fact that the primitive religions now open to observation attribute specific events and results to distinct supernatural beings; and there can be little doubt that this is the initial step in every creed. It is a bold and somewhat perilous revolution to attempt to overturn this doctrine and to set up monotheism in its place, and, when successfully accomplished, is rarely permanent. The more educated portions of the community maintain allegiance to the new teaching, perhaps; but among the lower classes it soon becomes degraded to, or amalgamated with, some form of polytheism more or less pronounced, and either secret or declared. Even the Jews, the nation the most conspicuous for its supposed uncompromising adherence to a monotheistic creed, cannot claim absolute freedom from taint in this respect; for in the country places, far from the centre of worship, the people were constantly following after strange gods; and even some of their most notable worthies were liable to the same accusation.
16. It is not necessary, however, that the individuality and specialization of function of the supreme beings recognized by any religious system should be so conspicuous as they are in this case, or in the Greek or Roman Pantheon, to mark it as in its essence polytheistic or of polytheistic tendency. It is quite enough that the immortals are deemed to be capable of hearing and answering the prayers of their adorers, and of interfering actively in passing events, either for good or for evil. This, at the root of it, constitutes the crucial difference between polytheism and monotheism; and in this sense the Roman Catholic form of Christianity, representing the oldest undisturbed evolution of a strictly monotheistic doctrine, is undeniably polytheistic. Apart from the Virgin Mary, there is a whole hierarchy of inferior deities, saints, and angels, subordinate to the One Supreme Being. This may possibly be denied by the authorized expounders of the doctrine of the Church of Rome; but it is nevertheless certain that it is the view taken by the uneducated classes, with whom the saints are much more present and definite deities than even the Almighty Himself. It is worth noting, that during the dancing mania of 1418, not God, or Christ, or the Virgin Mary, but St. Vitus, was prayed to by the populace to stop the epidemic that was afterwards known by his name. There was a temple to St. Michael on Mount St. Angelo, and Augustine thought it necessary to declare that angel-worshippers were heretics. Even Protestantism, though a much younger growth than Catholicism, shows a slight tendency towards polytheism. The saints are, of course, quite out of the question, and angels are as far as possible relegated from the citadel of asserted belief into the vaguer regions of poetical sentimentality; but–although again unadmitted by the orthodox of the sect–the popular conception of Christ is, and, until the masses are more educated in theological niceties than they are at present, necessarily must be, as of a Supreme Being totally distinct from God the Father. This applies in a less degree to the third Person in the Trinity; less, because His individuality is less clear. George Eliot has, with her usual penetration, noted this fact in “Silas Marner,” where, in Mrs. Winthrop’s simple theological system, the Trinity is always referred to as “Them.”
[Footnote 1: Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages, p. 85.]
[Footnote 2: Bullinger, p. 348. Parker Society.]
17. The posthumous history of Francis of Assisi affords a striking illustration of this strange tendency towards polytheism. This extraordinary man received no little reverence and adulation during his lifetime; but it was not until after his death that the process of deification commenced. It was then discovered that the stigmata were not the only points of resemblance between the departed saint and the Divine Master he professed to follow; that his birth had been foretold by the prophets; that, like Christ, he underwent transfiguration; and that he had worked miracles during his life. The climax of the apotheosis was reached in 1486, when a monk, preaching at Paris, seriously maintained that St. Francis was in very truth a second Christ, the second Son of God; and that after his death he descended into purgatory, and liberated all the spirits confined there who had the good fortune to be arrayed in the Franciscan garb.
[Footnote 1: Maury, Histoire de la Magie, p. 354.]
18. (ii.) The second principle is that of the Manichaeists: the division of spirits into hostile camps, good and evil. This is a much more common belief than the orthodox are willing to allow. There is hardly any religious system that does not recognize a first source of evil, as well as a first source of good. But the spirit of evil occupies a position of varying importance: in some systems he maintains himself as co-equal of the spirit of good; in others he sinks to a lower stage, remaining very powerful to do harm, but nevertheless under the control, in matters of the highest importance, of the more beneficent Being. In each of these cases, the first principle is found operating, ever augmenting the ranks; monodiabolism being as impossible as monotheism; and hence the importance of fully establishing that proposition.
19. (iii.) The last and most important of these principles is the tendency of all theological systems to absorb into themselves the deities extraneous to themselves, not as gods, but as inferior, or even evil, spirits. The actual existence of the foreign deity is not for a moment disputed, the presumption in favour of innumerable spiritual agencies being far too strong to allow the possibility of such a doubt; but just as the alien is looked upon as an inferior being, created chiefly for the use and benefit of the chosen people–and what nation is not, if its opinion of itself may be relied upon, a chosen people?–so the god the alien worships is a spirit of inferior power and capacity, and can be recognized solely as occupying a position subordinate to that of the gods of the land.
This principle has such an important influence in the elaboration of the belief in demons, that it is worth while to illustrate the generality of its application.
20. In the Greek system of theology we find in the first place a number of deities of varying importance and power, whose special functions are defined with some distinctness; and then, below these, an innumerable band of spirits, the souls of the departed–probably the relics of an earlier pure ancestor-worship–who still interest themselves in the inhabitants of this world. These [Greek: daimones] were certainly accredited with supernatural power, and were not of necessity either good or evil in their influence or action. It was to this second class that foreign deities were assimilated. They found it impossible, however, to retain even this humble position. The ceremonies of their worship, and the language in which those ceremonies were performed, were strange to the inhabitants of the land in which the acclimatization was attempted; and the incomprehensible is first suspected, then loathed. It is not surprising, then, that the new-comers soon fell into the ranks of purely evil spirits, and that those who persisted in exercising their rites were stigmatized as devil-worshippers, or magicians.
But in process of time this polytheistic system became pre-eminently unsatisfactory to the thoughtful men whom Greece produced in such numbers. The tendency towards monotheism which is usually associated with the name of Plato is hinted at in the writings of other philosophers who were his predecessors. The effect of this revolution was to recognize one Supreme Being, the First Cause, and to subordinate to him all the other deities of the ancient and popular theology–to co-ordinate them, in fact, with the older class of daemons; the first step in the descent to the lowest category of all.
21. The history of the neo-Platonic belief is one of elaboration upon these ideas. The conception of the Supreme Being was complicated in a manner closely resembling the idea of the Christian Trinity, and all the subordinate daemons were classified into good and evil geniuses. Thus, a theoretically monotheistic system was established, with a tremendous hierarchy of inferior spirits, who frequently bore the names of the ancient gods and goddesses of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, strikingly resembling that of Roman Catholicism. The subordinate daemons were not at first recognized as entitled to any religious rites; but in the course of time, by the inevitable operation of the first principle just enunciated, a form of theurgy sprang up with the object of attracting the kindly help and patronage of the good spirits, and was tolerated; and attempts were made to hold intercourse with the evil spirits, which were, as far as possible suppressed and discountenanced.
22. The history of the operation of this principle upon the Jewish religion is very similar, and extremely interesting. Although they do not seem to have ever had any system of ancestor-worship, as the Greeks had, yet the Jews appear originally to have recognized the deities of their neighbours as existing spirits, but inferior in power to the God of Israel. “All the gods of the nations are idols” are words that entirely fail to convey the idea of the Psalmist; for the word translated “idols” is _Elohim_, the very term usually employed to designate Jehovah; and the true sense of the passage therefore is: “All the gods of the nations are gods, but Jehovah made the heavens.” In another place we read that “The Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” As, however, the Jews gradually became acquainted with the barbarous rites with which their neighbours did honour to their gods, the foreigners seem to have fallen more and more in estimation, until they came to be classed as evil spirits. To this process such names as Beelzebub, Moloch, Ashtaroth, and Belial bear witness; Beelzebub, “the prince of the devils” of later time, being one of the gods of the hostile Philistines.
[Footnote 1: Psalm xcvi. 5 (xcv. Sept.).]
[Footnote 2: Psalm xcv. 3 (xciv. Sept.). Maury, p. 98.]
23. The introduction of Christianity made no difference in this respect. Paul says to the believers at Corinth, “that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils ([Greek: daimonia]), and not to God; and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils;” and the Septuagint renders the word _Elohim_ in the ninety-fifth Psalm by this [Greek: daimonia], which as the Christians had already a distinct term for good spirits, came to be applied to evil ones only.
[Footnote 1: I Cor. x. 20.]
Under the influence therefore, of the new religion, the gods of Greece and Rome, who in the days of their supremacy had degraded so many foreign deities to the position of daemons, were in their turn deposed from their high estate, and became the nucleus around which the Christian belief in demonology formed itself. The gods who under the old theologies reigned paramount in the lower regions became pre-eminently diabolic in character in the new system, and it was Hecate who to the last retained her position of active patroness and encourager of witchcraft; a practice which became almost indissolubly connected with her name. Numerous instances of the completeness with which this process of diabolization was effected, and the firmness with which it retained its hold upon the popular belief, even to late times, might be given; but the following must suffice. In one of the miracle plays, “The Conversion of Saul,” a council of devils is held, at which Mercury appears as the messenger of Belial.
[Footnote 1: Digby Mysteries, New Shakspere Society, 1880, p. 44.]
24. But this absolute rejection of every pagan belief and ceremony was characteristic of the Christian Church in its infancy only. So long as the band of believers was a small and persecuted one, no temptation to violate the rule could exist. But as the Church grew, and acquired influence and position, it discovered that good policy demanded that the sternness and inflexibility of its youthful theories should undergo some modification. It found that it was not the most successful method of enticing stragglers into its fold to stigmatize the gods they ignorantly worshipped as devils, and to persecute them as magicians. The more impetuous and enthusiastic supporters did persecute, and persecute most relentlessly, the adherents of the dying faith; but persecution, whether of good or evil, always fails as a means of suppressing a hated doctrine, unless it can be carried to the extent of extermination of its supporters; and the more far-seeing leaders of the Catholic Church soon recognized that a slight surrender of principle was a far surer road to success than stubborn, uncompromising opposition.
25. It was in this spirit that the Catholics dealt with the oracles of heathendom. Mr. Lecky is hardly correct when he says that nothing analogous to the ancient oracles was incorporated with Christianity. There is the notable case of the god Sosthenion, whom Constantine identified with the archangel Michael, and whose oracular functions were continued in a precisely similar manner by the latter. Oracles that were not thus absorbed and supported were recognized as existent, but under diabolic control, and to be tolerated, if not patronized, by the representatives of the dominant religion. The oracle at Delphi gave forth prophetic utterances for centuries after the commencement of the Christian era; and was the less dangerous, as its operations could be stopped at any moment by holding a saintly relic to the god or devil Apollo’s nose. There is a fable that St. Gregory, in the course of his travels, passed near the oracle, and his extraordinary sanctity was such as to prevent all subsequent utterances. This so disturbed the presiding genius of the place, that he appealed to the saint to undo the baneful effects his presence had produced; and Gregory benevolently wrote a letter to the devil, which was in fact a license to continue the business of prophesying unmolested. This nonsensical fiction shows clearly enough that the oracles were not generally looked upon as extinguished by Christianity. As the result of a similar policy we find the names and functions of the pagan gods and the earlier Christian saints confused in the most extraordinary manner; the saints assuming the duties of the moribund deities where those duties were of a harmless or necessary character.
[Footnote 1: Rise and Influence of Rationalism, i. p. 31.]
[Footnote 2: Maury, p. 244, et seq.]
[Footnote 3: Scot, book vii. ch. i.]
[Footnote 4: Middleton’s Letter from Rome.]
26. The Church carried out exactly the same principles in her missionary efforts amongst the heathen hordes of Northern Europe. “Do you renounce the devils, and all their words and works; Thonar, Wodin, and Saxenote?” was part of the form of recantation administered to the Scandinavian converts; and at the present day “Odin take you” is the Norse equivalent of “the devil take you.” On the other hand, an attempt was made to identify Balda “the beautiful” with Christ–a confusion of character that may go far towards accounting for a custom joyously observed by our forefathers at Christmastide but which the false modesty of modern society has nearly succeeded in banishing from amongst us, for Balda was slain by Loke with a branch of mistletoe, and Christ was betrayed by Judas with a kiss.
[Footnote 1: Milman, History of Latin Christianity, iii. 267; ix. 65.]
27. Upon the conversion of the inhabitants of Great Britain to Christianity, the native deities underwent the same inevitable fate, and sank into the rank of evil spirits. Perhaps the juster opinion is that they became the progenitors of our fairy mythology rather than the subsequent devil-lore, although the similarity between these two classes of spirits is sufficient to warrant us in classing them as species of the same genus; their characters and functions being perfectly interchangeable, and even at times merging and becoming indistinguishable. A certain lurking affection in the new converts for the religion they had deserted, perhaps under compulsion, may have led them to look upon their ancient objects of veneration as less detestable in nature, and dangerous in act, than the devils imported as an integral portion of their adopted faith; and so originated this class of spirits less evil than the other. Sir Walter Scott may be correct in his assertion that many of these fairy-myths owe their origin to the existence of a diminutive autochthonic race that was conquered by the invading Celts, and the remnants of which lurked about the mountains and forests, and excited in their victors a superstitious reverence on account of their great skill in metallurgy; but this will not explain the retention of many of the old god-names; as that of the Dusii, the Celtic nocturnal spirits, in our word “deuce,” and that of the Nikr or water-spirits in “nixie” and old “Nick.” These words undoubtedly indicate the accomplishment of the “facilis descensus Averno” by the native deities. Elves, brownies, gnomes, and trolds were all at one time Scotch or Irish gods. The trolds obtained a character similar to that of the more modern succubus, and have left their impression upon Elizabethan English in the word “trull.”
[Footnote 1: Maury, p. 189.]
28. The preceding very superficial outline of the growth of the belief in evil spirits is enough for the purpose of this essay, as it shows that the basis of English devil-lore was the annihilated mythologies of the ancient heathen religions–Italic and Teutonic, as well as those brought into direct conflict with the Jewish system; and also that the more important of the Teutonic deities are not to be traced in the subsequent hierarchy of fiends, on account probably of their temporary or permanent absorption into the proselytizing system, or the refusal of the new converts to believe them to be so black as their teachers painted them. The gradual growth of the superstructure it would be well-nigh impossible and quite unprofitable to trace. It is due chiefly to the credulous ignorance and distorted imagination, monkish and otherwise, of several centuries. Carlyle’s graphic picture of Abbot Sampson’s vision of the devil in “Past and Present” will perhaps do more to explain how the belief grew and flourished than pages of explanatory statements. It is worthy of remark, however, that to the last, communication with evil spirits was kept up by means of formulae and rites that are undeniably the remnants of a form of religious worship. Incomprehensible in their jargon as these formulae mostly are, and strongly tinctured as they have become with burlesqued Christian symbolism and expression–for those who used them could only supply the fast-dying memory of the elder forms from the existing system–they still, in all their grotesqueness, remain the battered relics of a dead faith.
29. Such being the natural history of the conflict of religions, it will not be a matter of surprise that the leaders of our English Reformation should, in their turn, have attributed the miracles of the Roman Catholic saints to the same infernal source as the early Christians supposed to have been the origin of the prodigies and oracles of paganism. The impulse given by the secession from the Church of Rome to the study of the Bible by all classes added impetus to this tendency. In Holy Writ the Reformers found full authority for believing in the existence of evil spirits, possession by devils, witchcraft, and divine and diabolic interference by way of miracle generally; and they consequently acknowledged the possibility of the repetition of such phenomena in the times in which they lived–a position more tenable, perhaps, than that of modern orthodoxy, that accepts without murmur all the supernatural events recorded in the Bible, and utterly rejects all subsequent relations of a similar nature, however well authenticated. The Reformers believed unswervingly in the truth of the Biblical accounts of miracles, and that what God had once permitted to take place might and would be repeated in case of serious necessity. But they found it utterly impossible to accept the puerile and meaningless miracles perpetrated under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church as evidence of divine interference; and they had not travelled far enough upon the road towards rationalism to be able to reject them, one and all, as in their very nature impossible. The consequence of this was one of those compromises which we so often meet with in the history of the changes of opinion effected by the Reformation. Only those particular miracles that were indisputably demonstrated to be impostures–and there were plenty of them, such as the Rood of Boxley–were treated as such by them. The unexposed remainder were treated as genuine supernatural phenomena, but caused by diabolical, not divine, agency. The reforming divine Calfhill, supporting this view of the Catholic miracles in his answer to Martiall’s “Treatise of the Cross,” points out that the majority of supernatural events that have taken place in this world have been, most undoubtedly, the work of the devil; and puts his opponents into a rather embarrassing dilemma by citing the miracles of paganism, which both Catholic and Protestant concurred in attributing to the evil one. He then clinches his argument by asserting that “it is the devil’s cunning that persuades those that will walk in a popish blindness” that they are worshipping God when they are in reality serving him. “Therefore,” he continues, consciously following an argument of St. Cyprianus against the pagan miracles, “these wicked spirits do lurk in shrines, in roods, in crosses, in images: and first of all pervert the priests, which are easiest to be caught with bait of a little gain. Then work they miracles. They appear to men in divers shapes; disquiet them when they are awake; trouble them in their sleeps; distort their members; take away their health; afflict them with diseases; only to bring them to some idolatry. Thus, when they have obtained their purpose that a lewd affiance is reposed where it should not, they enter (as it were) into a new league, and trouble them no more. What do the simple people then? Verily suppose that the image, the cross, the thing that they have kneeled and offered unto (the very devil indeed) hath restored them health, whereas he did nothing but leave off to molest them. This is the help and cure that the devils give when they leave off their wrong and injury.”
[Footnote 1: Froude, History of England, cabinet edition, iii. 102.]
[Footnote 2: Calfhill, pp. 317-8. Parker Society.]
30. Here we have a distinct charge of devil-worship–the old doctrine cropping up again after centuries of repose: “all the gods of our opponents are devils.” Nor were the Catholics a whit behind the Protestants in this matter. The priests zealously taught that the Protestants were devil-worshippers and magicians; and the common people so implicitly believed in the truth of the statement, that we find one poor prisoner, taken by the Dutch at the siege of Alkmaar in 1578, making a desperate attempt to save his life by promising to worship his captors’ devil precisely as they did–a suggestion that failed to pacify those to whom it was addressed.
[Footnote 1: Hutchinson’s Essay, p. 218. Harsnet, Declaration, p. 30.]
[Footnote 2: Motley, Dutch Republic, ii. 400.]
31. Having thus stated, so far as necessary, the chief laws that are constantly working the extension of the domain of the supernatural as far as demonology is concerned, without a remembrance of which the subject itself would remain somewhat difficult to comprehend fully, I shall now attempt to indicate one or two conditions of thought and circumstance that may have tended to increase and vivify the belief during the period in which the Elizabethan literature flourished.
32. It was an era of change. The nation was emerging from the dim twilight of mediaevalism into the full day of political and religious freedom. But the morning mists, which the rising sun had not yet dispelled, rendered the more distant and complex objects distorted and portentous. The very fact that doubt, or rather, perhaps, independence of thought, was at last, within certain limits, treated as non-criminal in theology, gave an impetus to investigation and speculation in all branches of politics and science; and with this change came, in the main, improvement. But the great defect of the time was that this newly liberated spirit of free inquiry was not kept in check by any sufficient previous discipline in logical methods of reasoning. Hence the possibility of the wild theories that then existed, followed out into action or not, according as circumstances favoured or discouraged: Arthur Hacket, with casting out of devils, and other madnesses, vehemently declaring himself the Messiah and King of Europe in the year of grace 1591, and getting himself believed by some, so long as he remained unhanged; or, more pathetic still, many weary lives wasted day by day in fruitless silent search after the impossible philosopher’s stone, or elixir of life. As in law, so in science, there were no sufficient rules of evidence clearly and unmistakably laid down for the guidance of the investigator; and consequently it was only necessary to broach a novel theory in order to have it accepted, without any previous serious testing. Men do not seem to have been able to distinguish between an hypothesis and a proved conclusion; or, rather, the rule of presumptions was reversed, and men accepted the hypothesis as conclusive until it was disproved. It was a perfectly rational and sufficient explanation in those days to refer some extraordinary event to some given supernatural cause, even though there might be no ostensible link between the two: now, such a suggestion would be treated by the vast majority with derision or contempt. On the other hand, the most trivial occurrences, such as sneezing, the appearance of birds of ill omen, the crowing of a cock, and events of like unimportance happening at a particular moment, might, by some unseen concatenation of causes and effects, exercise an incomprehensible influence upon men, and consequently had important bearings upon their conduct. It is solemnly recorded in the Commons’ Journals that during the discussion of the statute against witchcraft passed in the reign of James I., a young jackdaw flew into the House; which accident was generally regarded as _malum omen_ to the Bill. Extraordinary bravery on the part of an adversary was sometimes accounted for by asserting that he was the devil in the form of a man; as the Volscian soldier does with regard to Coriolanus. This is no mere dramatist’s fancy, but a fixed belief of the times. Sir William Russell fought so desperately at Zutphen, that he got mistaken for the Evil One; and Drake also gave the Spaniards good reason for believing that he was a devil, and no man.
[Footnote 1: See also D’Ewes, p. 688.]
[Footnote 2: Froude, xii. 87.]
[Footnote 3: Ibid. 663.]
33. This intense credulousness, childish almost in itself, but yet at the same time combined with the strong man’s intellect, permeated all classes of society. Perhaps a couple of instances, drawn from strangely diverse sources, will bring this more vividly before the mind than any amount of attempted theorizing. The first is one of the tricks of the jugglers of the period.
“_To make one danse naked._
“Make a poore boie confederate with you, so as after charms, etc., spoken by you, he unclothe himself and stand naked, seeming (whilest he undresseth himselfe) to shake, stamp, and crie, still hastening to be unclothed, till he be starke naked; or if you can procure none to go so far, let him onlie beginne to stampe and shake, etc., and unclothe him, and then you may (for reverence of the companie) seeme to release him.”
[Footnote 1: Scott, p. 339.]
The second illustration must have demanded, if possible, more credulity on the part of the audience than this harmless entertainment. Cranmer tells us that in the time of Queen Mary a monk preached a sermon at St. Paul’s, the object of which was to prove the truth of the doctrine of transubstantiation; and, after the manner of his kind, told the following little anecdote in support of it:–“A maid of Northgate parish in Canterbury, in pretence to wipe her mouth, kept the host in her handkerchief; and, when she came home, she put the same into a pot, close covered, and she spitted in another pot, and after a few days, she looking in the one pot, found a little young pretty babe, about a shaftmond long; and the other pot was full of gore blood.”
[Footnote 1: Cranmer, A Confutation of Unwritten Verities, p. 66. Parker Society.]
34. That the audiences before which these absurdities were seriously brought, for amusement or instruction, could be excited in either case to any other feeling than good-natured contempt for a would-be impostor, seems to us now-a-days to be impossible. It was not so in the times when these things transpired: the actors of them were not knaves, nor were their audiences fools, to any unusual extent. If any one is inclined to form a low opinion of the Elizabethans intellectually, on account of the divergence of their capacities of belief in this respect from his own, he does them a great injustice. Let him take at once Charles Lamb’s warning, and try to understand, rather than to judge them. We, who have had the benefit of three hundred more years of experience and liberty of thought than they, should have to hide our faces for very shame had we not arrived at juster and truer conclusions upon those difficult topics that so bewildered our ancestors. But can we, with all our boasted advantages of wealth, power, and knowledge, truly say that all our aims are as high, all our desires as pure, our words as true, and our deeds as noble, as those whose opinions we feel this tendency to contemn? If not, or if indeed they have anything whatsoever to teach us in these respects, let us remember that we shall never learn the lesson wholly, perhaps not learn it at all, unless, casting aside this first impulse to despise, we try to enter fully into and understand these strange dead beliefs of the past.
* * * * *
35. It is in this spirit that I now enter upon the second division of the subject in hand, in which I shall try to indicate the chief features of the belief in demonology as it existed during the Elizabethan period. These will be taken up in three main heads: the classification, physical appearance, and powers of the evil spirits.
36. (i.) It is difficult to discover any classification of devils as well authenticated and as universally received as that of the angels introduced by Dionysius the Areopagite, which was subsequently imported into the creed of the Western Church, and popularized in Elizabethan times by Dekker’s “Hierarchie.” The subject was one which, from its nature, could not be settled _ex cathedra_, and consequently the subject had to grow up as best it might, each writer adopting the arrangement that appeared to him most suitable. There was one rough but popular classification into greater and lesser devils. The former branch was subdivided into classes of various grades of power, the members of which passed under the titles of kings, dukes, marquises, lords, captains, and other dignities. Each of these was supposed to have a certain number of legions of the latter class under his command. These were the evil spirits who appeared most frequently on the earth as the emissaries of the greater fiends, to carry out their evil designs. The more important class kept for the most part in a mystical seclusion, and only appeared upon earth in cases of the greatest emergency, or when compelled to do so by conjuration. To the class of lesser devils belonged the bad angel which, together with a good one, was supposed to be assigned to every person at birth, to follow him through life–the one to tempt, the other to guard from temptation; so that a struggle similar to that recorded between Michael and Satan for the body of Moses was raging for the soul of every existing human being. This was not a mere theory, but a vital active belief, as the beautiful well-known lines at the commencement of the eighth canto of the second book of “The Faerie Queene,” and the use made of these opposing spirits in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” and in “The Virgin Martyr,” by Massinger and Dekker, conclusively show.
[Footnote 1: Scot, p. 506.]
37. Another classification, which seems to retain a reminiscence of the origin of devils from pagan deities, is effected by reference to the localities supposed to be inhabited by the different classes of evil spirits. According to this arrangement we get six classes:–
(1.) Devils of the fire, who wander in the region near the moon.
(2.) Devils of the air, who hover round the earth.
(3.) Devils of the earth; to whom the fairies are allied.
(4.) Devils of the water.
(5.) Submundane devils.
These devils’ power and desire to injure mankind appear to have increased with the proximity of their location to the earth’s centre; but this classification had nothing like the hold upon the popular mind that the former grouping had, and may consequently be dismissed with this mention.
[Footnote 1: Cf. I Hen. VI. V. iii. 10; 2 Hen. VI. I. ii. 77; Coriolanus, IV. v. 97.]
38. The greater devils, or the most important of them, had distinguishing names–strange, uncouth names; some of them telling of a heathenish origin; others inexplicable and almost unpronounceable–as Ashtaroth, Bael, Belial, Zephar, Cerberus, Phoenix, Balam (why he?), and Haagenti, Leraie, Marchosias, Gusoin, Glasya Labolas. Scot enumerates seventy-nine, the above amongst them, and he does not by any means exhaust the number. As each arch-devil had twenty, thirty, or forty legions of inferior spirits under his command, and a legion was composed of six hundred and sixty-six devils, it is not surprising that the latter did not obtain distinguishing names until they made their appearance upon earth, when they frequently obtained one from the form they loved to assume; for example, the familiars of the witches in “Macbeth”–Paddock (toad), Graymalkin (cat), and Harpier (harpy, possibly). Is it surprising that, with resources of this nature at his command, such an adept in the art of necromancy as Owen Glendower should hold Harry Percy, much to his disgust, at the least nine hours
“In reckoning up the several devils’ names That were his lackeys”?
Of the twenty devils mentioned by Shakspere, four only belong to the class of greater devils. Hecate, the principal patroness of witchcraft, is referred to frequently, and appears once upon the scene. The two others are Amaimon and Barbazon, both of whom are mentioned twice. Amaimon was a very important personage, being no other than one of the four kings. Ziminar was King of the North, and is referred to in “Henry VI. Part I.;” Gorson of the South; Goap of the West; and Amaimon of the East. He is mentioned in “Henry IV. Part I.,” and “Merry Wives.” Barbazon also occurs in the same passage in the latter play, and again in “Henry V.”–a fact that does to a slight extent help to bear out the otherwise ascertained chronological sequence of these plays. The remainder of the devils belong to the second class. Nine of these occur in “King Lear,” and will be referred to again when the subject of possession is touched upon.
[Footnote 1: It is perhaps worthy of remark that in every case except the allusion in the probably spurious Henry VI., “I speak not to that railing Hecate,” (I Hen. VI. III. ii. 64), the name is “Hecat,” a di-syllable.]
[Footnote 2: V. iii. 6.]
[Footnote 3: II. iv. 370.]
[Footnote 4: II. ii. 311.]
[Footnote 5: II. i. 57. Scot, p. 393.]
[Footnote 6: sec. 65.]
39. (ii.) It would appear that each of the greater devils, on the rare occasion upon which he made his appearance upon earth, assumed a form peculiar to himself; the lesser devils, on the other hand, had an ordinary type, common to the whole species, with a capacity for almost infinite variation and transmutation which they used, as will be seen, to the extreme perplexity and annoyance of mortals. As an illustration of the form in which a greater devil might appear, this is what Scot says of the questionable Balam, above mentioned: “Balam cometh with three heads, the first of a bull, the second of a man, and the third of a ram. He hath a serpent’s taile, and flaming eies; riding upon a furious beare, and carrieng a hawke on his fist.” But it was the lesser devils, not the greater, that came into close contact with humanity, who therefore demand careful consideration.
[Footnote 1: p. 361.]
40. All the lesser devils seem to have possessed a normal form, which was as hideous and distorted as fancy could render it. To the conception of an angel imagination has given the only beautiful appendage the human body does not possess–wings; to that of a devil it has added all those organs of the brute creation that are most hideous or most harmful. Advancing civilization has almost exterminated the belief in a being with horns, cloven hoofs, goggle eyes, and scaly tail, that was held up to many yet living as the avenger of childish disobedience in their earlier days, together perhaps with some strength of conviction of the moral hideousness of the evil he was intended, in a rough way, to typify; but this hazily retained impression of the Author of Evil was the universal and entirely credited conception of the ordinary appearance of those bad spirits who were so real to our ancestors of Elizabethan days. “Some are so carnallie minded,” says Scot, “that a spirit is no sooner spoken of, but they thinke of a blacke man with cloven feet, a paire of hornes, a taile, and eies as big as a bason.” Scot, however, was one of a very small minority in his opinion as to the carnal-mindedness of such a belief. He in his day, like those in every age and country who dare to hold convictions opposed to the creed of the majority, was a dangerous sceptic; his book was publicly burnt by the common hangman; and not long afterwards a royal author wrote a treatise “against the damnable doctrines of two principally in our age; whereof the one, called Scot, an Englishman, is not ashamed in public print to deny that there can be such a thing as witchcraft, and so mainteines the old error of the Sadducees in denying of spirits.” The abandoned impudence of the man!–and the logic of his royal opponent!
[Footnote 1: p. 507. See also Hutchinson, Essay on Witchcraft, p. 13; and Harsnet, p. 71.]
[Footnote 2: Bayle, ix. 152.]
[Footnote 3: James I., Daemonologie. Edinburgh, 1597.]
41. Spenser has clothed with horror this conception of the appearance of a fiend, just as he has enshrined in beauty the belief in the guardian angel. It is worthy of remark that he describes the devil as dwelling beneath the altar of an idol in a heathen temple. Prince Arthur strikes the image thrice with his sword–
“And the third time, out of an hidden shade, There forth issewed from under th’ altar’s smoake A dreadfull feend with fowle deformed looke, That stretched itselfe as it had long lyen still; And her long taile and fethers strongly shooke, That all the temple did with terrour fill; Yet him nought terrifide that feared nothing ill.
“An huge great beast it was, when it in length Was stretched forth, that nigh filled all the place, And seemed to be of infinite great strength; Horrible, hideous, and of hellish race, Borne of the brooding of Echidna base, Or other like infernall Furies kinde, For of a maide she had the outward face To hide the horrour which did lurke behinde The better to beguile whom she so fond did finde.
“Thereto the body of a dog she had, Full of fell ravin and fierce greedinesse; A lion’s clawes, with power and rigour clad To rende and teare whatso she can oppresse; A dragon’s taile, whose sting without redresse Full deadly wounds whereso it is empight, And eagle’s wings for scope and speedinesse That nothing may escape her reaching might, Whereto she ever list to make her hardy flight.”
42. The dramatists of the period make frequent references to this belief, but nearly always by way of ridicule. It is hardly to be expected that they would share in the grosser opinions held by the common people in those times–common, whether king or clown. In “The Virgin Martyr,” Harpax is made to say–
“I’ll tell you what now of the devil; He’s no such horrid creature, cloven-footed, Black, saucer-eyed, his nostrils breathing fire, As these lying Christians make him.”
But his opinion was, perhaps, a prejudiced one. In Ben Jonson’s “The Devil is an Ass,” when Fitzdottrell, doubting Pug’s statement as to his infernal character, says, “I looked on your feet afore; you cannot cozen me; your shoes are not cloven, sir, you are whole hoofed;” Pug, with great presence of mind, replies, “Sir, that’s a popular error deceives many.” So too Othello, when he is questioning whether Iago is a devil or not, says–
“I look down to his feet, but that’s a fable.”
And when Edgar is trying to persuade the blind Gloucester that he has in reality cast himself over the cliff, he describes the being from whom he is supposed to have just parted, thus:–
“As I stood here below, methought his eyes Were two full moons: he had a thousand noses; Horns whelked and waved like the enridged sea: It was some fiend.”
It can hardly be but that the “thousand noses” are intended as a satirical hit at the enormity of the popular belief.
[Footnote 1: Act I. sc. 2.]
[Footnote 2: Act V. sc. ii. l. 285.]
[Footnote 3: Lear, IV. vi. 69.]
43. In addition to this normal type, common to all these devils, each one seems to have had, like the greater devils, a favourite form in which he made his appearance when conjured; generally that of some animal, real or imagined. It was telling of
“the moldwarp and the ant,
Of the dreamer Merlin, and his prophecies; And of a dragon and a finless fish,
A clipwinged griffin, and a moulten raven, A couching lion, and a ramping cat,”
that annoyed Harry Hotspur so terribly; and neither in this allusion, which was suggested by a passage in Holinshed, nor in “Macbeth,” where he makes the three witches conjure up their familiars in the shapes of an armed head, a bloody child, and a child crowned, has Shakspere gone beyond the fantastic conceptions of the time.
[Footnote 1: I Hen. IV. III. i. 148.]
[Footnote 2: p. 521, c. 2.]
44. (iii.) But the third proposed section, which deals with the powers and functions exercised by the evil spirits, is by far the most interesting and important; and the first branch of the series is one that suggests itself as a natural sequence upon what has just been said as to the ordinary shapes in which devils appeared, namely, the capacity to assume at will any form they chose.
45. In the early and middle ages it was universally believed that a devil could, of his own inherent power, call into existence any manner of body that it pleased his fancy to inhabit, or that would most conduce to the success of any contemplated evil. In consequence of this belief the devils became the rivals, indeed the successful rivals, of Jupiter himself in the art of physical tergiversation. There was, indeed, a tradition that a devil could not create any animal form of less size than a barley-corn, and that it was in consequence of this incapacity that the magicians of Egypt–those indubitable devil-worshippers–failed to produce lice, as Moses did, although they had been so successful in the matter of the serpents and the frogs; “a verie gross absurditie,” as Scot judiciously remarks. This, however, would not be a serious limitation upon the practical usefulness of the power.
[Footnote 1: p. 314.]
46. The great Reformation movement wrought a change in this respect. Men began to accept argument and reason, though savouring of special pleading of the schools, in preference to tradition, though never so venerable and well authenticated; and the leaders of the revolution could not but recognize the absurdity of laying down as infallible dogma that God was the Creator of all things, and then insisting with equal vehemence, by way of postulate, that the devil was the originator of some. The thing was gross and palpable in its absurdity, and had to be done away with as quickly as might be. But how? On the other hand, it was clear as daylight that the devil _did_ appear in various forms to tempt and annoy the people of God–was at that very time doing so in the most open and unabashed manner. How were reasonable men to account for this manifest conflict between rigorous logic and more rigorous fact? There was a prolonged and violent controversy upon the point–the Reformers not seeing their way to agree amongst themselves–and tedious as violent. Sermons were preached; books were written; and, when argument was exhausted, unpleasant epithets were bandied about, much as in the present day, in similar cases. The result was that two theories were evolved, both extremely interesting as illustrations of the hair-splitting, chop-logic tendency which, amidst all their straightforwardness, was so strongly characteristic of the Elizabethans. The first suggestion was, that although the devil could not, of his own inherent power, create a body, he might get hold of a dead carcase and temporarily restore animation, and so serve his turn. This belief was held, amongst others, by the erudite King James, and is pleasantly satirized by sturdy old Ben Jonson in “The Devil is an Ass,” where Satan (the greater devil, who only appears in the first scene just to set the storm a-brewing) says to Pug (Puck, the lesser devil, who does all the mischief; or would have done it, had not man, in those latter times, got to be rather beyond the devils in evil than otherwise), not without a touch of regret at the waning of his power–
“You must get a body ready-made, Pug, I can create you none;”
and consequently Pug is advised to assume the body of a handsome cutpurse that morning hung at Tyburn.
[Footnote 1: Daemonologie, p. 56.]
But the theory, though ingenious, was insufficient. The devil would occasionally appear in the likeness of a living person; and how could that be accounted for? Again, an evil spirit, with all his ingenuity, would find it hard to discover the dead body of a griffin, or a harpy, or of such eccentricity as was affected by the before-mentioned Balam; and these and other similar forms were commonly favoured by the inhabitants of the nether world.
47. The second theory, therefore, became the more popular amongst the learned, because it left no one point unexplained. The divines held that although the power of the Creator had in no wise been delegated to the devil, yet he was, in the course of providence, permitted to exercise a certain supernatural influence over the minds of men, whereby he could persuade them that they really saw a form that had no material objective existence. Here was a position incontrovertible, not on account of the arguments by which it could be supported, but because it was impossible to reason against it; and it slowly, but surely, took hold upon the popular mind. Indeed, the elimination of the diabolic factor leaves the modern sceptical belief that such apparitions are nothing more than the result of disease, physical or mental.
[Footnote 1: Dialogicall Discourses, by Deacon and Walker, 4th Dialogue. Bullinger, p. 361. Parker Society.]
48. But the semi-sceptical state of thought was in Shakspere’s time making its way only amongst the more educated portion of the nation. The masses still clung to the old and venerated, if not venerable, belief that devils could at any moment assume what form soever they might please–not troubling themselves further to inquire into the method of the operation. They could appear in the likeness of an ordinary human being, as Harpax and Mephistopheles do, creating thereby the most embarrassing complications in questions of identity; and if this belief is borne in mind, the charge of being a devil, so freely made, in the times of which we write, and before alluded to, against persons who performed extraordinary feats of valour, or behaved in a manner discreditable and deserving of general reprobation, loses much of its barbarous grotesqueness. There was no doubt as to Coriolanus, as has been said; nor Shylock. Even “the outward sainted Angelo is yet a devil;” and Prince Hal confesses that “there is a devil haunts him in the likeness of an old fat man … an old white-bearded Satan.”
[Footnote 1: In The Virgin Martyr.]
[Footnote 2: In Dr. Faustus.]
[Footnote 3: Coriolanus, I. x. 16.]
[Footnote 4: Merchant of Venice, III. i. 22.]
[Footnote 5: Measure for Measure, III. i. 90.]
[Footnote 6: I Hen. IV., II. iv. 491-509.]
49. The devils had an inconvenient habit of appearing in the guise of an ecclesiastic–at least, so the churchmen were careful to insist, especially when busying themselves about acts of temptation that would least become the holy robe they had assumed. This was the ecclesiastical method of accounting for certain stories, not very creditable to the priesthood, that had too inconvenient a basis of evidence to be dismissed as fabricatious. But the honest lay public seem to have thought, with downright old Chaucer, that there was more in the matter than the priests chose to admit. This feeling we, as usual, find reflected in the dramatic literature of our period. In “The Troublesome Raigne of King John,” an old play upon the basis of which Shakspere constructed his own “King John,” we find this question dealt with in some detail. In the elder play, the Bastard does “the shaking of bags of hoarding abbots,” _coram populo_, and thereby discloses a phase of monastic life judiciously suppressed by Shakspere. Philip sets at liberty much more than “imprisoned angels”–according to one account, and that a monk’s, imprisoned beings of quite another sort. “Faire Alice, the nonne,” having been discovered in the chest where the abbot’s wealth was supposed to be concealed, proposes to purchase pardon for the offence by disclosing the secret hoard of a sister nun. Her offer being accepted, a friar is ordered to force the box in which the treasure is supposed to be secreted. On being questioned as to its contents, he answers–
“Frier Laurence, my lord, now holy water help us! Some witch or some divell is sent to delude us: _Haud credo Laurentius_ that thou shouldst be pen’d thus In the presse of a nun; we are all undone, And brought to discredence, if thou be Frier Laurence.”
Unfortunately it proves indubitably to be that good man; and he is ordered to execution, not, however, without some hope of redemption by money payment; for times are hard, and cash in hand not to be despised.
[Footnote 1: See the story about Bishop Sylvanus.–Lecky, Rationalism in Europe, i. 79.]
[Footnote 2: Hazlitt, Shakspere Library, part ii. vol. i. p. 264.]
It is amusing to notice, too, that when assuming the clerical garb, the devil carefully considered the religious creed of the person to whom he intended to make himself known. The Catholic accounts of him show him generally assuming the form of a Protestant parson; whilst to those of the reformed creed he invariably appeared in the habit of a Catholic priest. In the semblance of a friar the devil is reported (by a Protestant) to have preached, upon a time, “a verie Catholic sermon;” so good, indeed, that a priest who was a listener could find no fault with the doctrine–a stronger basis of fact than one would have imagined for Shakspere’s saying, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
[Footnote 1: Harsnet, p. 101.]
[Footnote 2: Scot, p. 481.]
50. It is not surprising that of human forms, that of a negro or Moor should be considered a favourite one with evil spirits. Iago makes allusion to this when inciting Brabantio to search for his daughter. The power of coming in the likeness of humanity generally is referred to somewhat cynically in “Timon of Athens,” thus–
“_Varro’s Servant._ What is a whoremaster, fool?
“_Fool._ A fool in good clothes, and something like thee. ‘Tis a spirit: sometime ‘t appears like a lord; sometime like a lawyer; sometime like a philosopher with two stones more than ‘s artificial one: he is very often like a knight; and, generally, in all shapes that man goes up and down in, from fourscore to thirteen, this spirit walks in.”
[Footnote 1: Scot, p. 89.]
[Footnote 2: Othello, I. i. 91.]
[Footnote 3: II. ii. 113.]
“All shapes that man goes up and down in” seem indeed to have been at the devils’ control. So entirely was this the case, that to Constance even the fair Blanche was none other than the devil tempting Louis “in likeness of a new uptrimmed bride;” and perhaps not without a certain prophetic feeling of the fitness of things, as it may possibly seem to some of our more warlike politicians, evil spirits have been known to appear as Russians.
[Footnote 1: King John, III. i. 209.]
[Footnote 2: Harsnet, p. 139.]
51. But all the “shapes that man goes up and down in” did not suffice. The forms of the whole of the animal kingdom seem to have been at the devils’ disposal; and, not content with these, they seem to have sought further for unlikely shapes to assume. Poor Caliban complains that Prospero’s spirits
“Lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark,”
just as Ariel and Puck (Will-o’-th’-wisp) mislead their victims; and that
“For every trifle are they set upon me: Sometimes like apes, that mow and chatter at me, And after bite me; then like hedgehogs, which Lie tumbling in my barefoot way, and mount Their pricks at my footfall. Sometime am I All wound with adders, who, with cloven tongues, Do hiss me into madness.”
And doubtless the scene which follows this soliloquy, in which Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano mistake one another in turn for evil spirits, fully flavoured with fun as it still remains, had far more point for the audiences at the Globe–to whom a stray devil or two was quite in the natural order of things under such circumstances–than it can possibly possess for us. In this play, Ariel, Prospero’s familiar, besides appearing in his natural shape, and dividing into flames, and behaving in such a manner as to cause young Ferdinand to leap into the sea, crying, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!” assumes the forms of a water-nymph, a harpy, and also the goddess Ceres; while the strange shapes, masquers, and even the hounds that hunt and worry the would-be king and viceroys of the island, are Ariel’s “meaner fellows.”
[Footnote 1: For instance, an eye without a head.–Ibid.]
[Footnote 2: The Tempest, II. ii. 10.]
[Footnote 3: Ibid. I. ii. 198.]
[Footnote 4: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II. i. 39; III. i. 111.]
[Footnote 5: I. ii. 301-318.]
[Footnote 6: III. iii. 53.]
[Footnote 7: IV. i. 166.]
52. Puck’s favourite forms seem to have been more outlandish than Ariel’s, as might have been expected of that malicious little spirit. He beguiles “the fat and bean-fed horse” by
“Neighing in likeness of a filly foal: And sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl, In very likeness of a roasted crab;
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob, And on her withered dewlap pour the ale. The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale, Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me; Then slip I from her, and down topples she.”
“Sometime a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound, A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire; And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn, Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.”
With regard to this last passage, it is worthy of note that in the year 1584, strange news came out of Somersetshire, entitled “A Dreadful Discourse of the Dispossessing of one Margaret Cowper, at Ditchet, from a Devil in the Likeness of a Headless Bear.”
[Footnote 1: A Scotch witch, when leaving her bed to go to a sabbath, used to put a three-foot stool in the vacant place; which, after charms duly mumbled, assumed the appearance of a woman until her return.–Pitcairn, iii. 617.]
[Footnote 2: III. i. 111.]
[Footnote 3: Hutchinson, p. 40.]
53. In Heywood and Brome’s “Witch of Edmonton,” the devil appears in the likeness of a black dog, and takes his part in the dialogue, as if his presence were a matter of quite ordinary occurrence, not in any way calling for special remark. However gross and absurd this may appear, it must be remembered that this play is, in its minutest details, merely a dramatization of the events duly proved in a court of law, to the satisfaction of twelve Englishmen, in the year 1612. The shape of a fly, too, was a favourite one with the evil spirits; so much so that the term “fly” became a common synonym for a familiar. The word “Beelzebub” was supposed to mean “the king of flies.” At the execution of Urban Grandier, the famous magician of London, in 1634, a large fly was seen buzzing about the stake, and a priest promptly seizing the opportunity of improving the occasion for the benefit of the onlookers, declared that Beelzebub had come in his own proper person to carry off Grandier’s soul to hell. In 1664 occurred the celebrated witch-trials which took place before Sir Matthew Hale. The accused were charged with bewitching two children; and part of the evidence against them was that flies and bees were seen to carry into the victims’ mouths the nails and pins which they afterwards vomited. There is an allusion to this belief in the fly-killing scene in “Titus Andronicus.”
[Footnote 1: Potts, Discoveries. Edit. Cheetham Society.]
[Footnote 2: Cf. B. Jonson’s Alchemist.]
[Footnote 3: A Collection of Rare and Curious Tracts relating to Witchcraft, 1838.]
[Footnote 4: III. ii. 51, et seq.]
54. But it was not invariably a repulsive or ridiculous form that was assumed by these enemies of mankind. Their ingenuity would have been but little worthy of commendation had they been content to appear as ordinary human beings, or animals, or even in fancy costume. The Swiss divine Bullinger, after a lengthy and elaborately learned argument as to the particular day in the week of creation upon which it was most probable that God called the angels into being, says, by way of peroration, “Let us lead a holy and angel-like life in the sight of God’s holy angels. Let us watch, lest he that transfigureth and turneth himself into an angel of light under a good show and likeness deceive us.” They even went so far, according to Cranmer, as to appear in the likeness of Christ, in their desire to mislead mankind; for–
“When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows.”
[Footnote 1: Bullinger, Fourth Decade, 9th Sermon. Parker Society.]
[Footnote 2: Cranmer, Confutation, p. 42. Parker Society.]
[Footnote 3: Othello, II. iii. 357. Cf. Love’s Labour’s Lost, IV. iii. 257; Comedy of Errors, IV. iii. 56.]
55. But one of the most ordinary forms supposed at this period to be assumed by devils was that of a dead friend of the object of the visitation. Before the Reformation, the belief that the spirits of the departed had power at will to revisit the scenes and companions of their earthly life was almost universal. The reforming divines distinctly denied the possibility of such a revisitation, and accounted for the undoubted phenomena, as usual, by attributing them to the devil. James I. says that the devil, when appearing to men, frequently assumed the form of a person newly dead, “to make them believe that it was some good spirit that appeared to them, either to forewarn them of the death of their friend, or else to discover unto them the will of the defunct, or what was the way of his slauchter…. For he dare not so illude anie that knoweth that neither can the spirit of the defunct returne to his friend, nor yet an angell use such formes.” He further explains that such devils follow mortals to obtain two ends: “the one is the tinsell (loss) of their life by inducing them to such perrilous places at such times as he either follows or possesses them. The other thing that he preases to obtain is the tinsell of their soule.”
[Footnote 1: See Hooper’s Declaration of the Ten Commandments. Parker Society. Hooper, 326.]
[Footnote 2: Daemonologie, p. 60.]
[Footnote 3: Cf. Hamlet, I. iv. 60-80; and post, sec. 58.]
56. But the belief in the appearance of ghosts was too deeply rooted in the popular mind to be extirpated, or even greatly affected, by a dogmatic declaration. The masses went on believing as they always had believed, and as their fathers had believed before them, in spite of the Reformers, and to their no little discontent. Pilkington, Bishop of Durham, in a letter to Archbishop Parker, dated 1564, complains that, “among other things that be amiss here in your great cares, ye shall understand that in Blackburn there is a fantastical (and as some say, lunatic) young man, which says that he has spoken with one of his neighbours that died four year since, or more. Divers times he says he has seen him, and talked with him, and took with him the curate, the schoolmaster, and other neighbours, who all affirm that they see him. _These things be so common here_ that none in authority will gainsay it, but rather believe and confirm it, that everybody believes it. If I had known how to examine with authority, I would have done it.” Here is a little glimpse at the practical troubles of a well-intentioned bishop of the sixteenth century that is surely worth preserving.
[Footnote 1: Parker Correspondence, 222. Parker Society.]
57. There were thus two opposite schools of belief in this matter of the supposed spirits of the departed:–the conservative, which held to the old doctrine of ghosts; and the reforming, which denied the possibility of ghosts, and held to the theory of devils. In the midst of this disagreement of doctors it was difficult for a plain man to come to a definite conclusion upon the question; and, in consequence, all who were not content with quiet dogmatism were in a state of utter uncertainty upon a point not entirely without importance in practical life as well as in theory. This was probably the position in which the majority of thoughtful men found themselves; and it is accurately reflected in three of Shakspere’s plays, which, for other and weightier reasons, are grouped together in the same chronological division–“Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth,” and “Hamlet.” In the first-mentioned play, Brutus, who afterwards confesses his belief that the apparition he saw at Sardis was the ghost of Caesar, when in the actual presence of the spirit, says–
“Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil?”
The same doubt flashes across the mind of Macbeth on the second entrance of Banquo’s ghost–which is probably intended to be a devil appearing at the instigation of the witches–when he says, with evident allusion to a diabolic power before referred to–
“What man dare, I dare:
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear, The armed rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger, Take any shape but that.”
[Footnote 1: Julius Caesar, V. v. 17.]
[Footnote 2: Ibid. IV. iii. 279.]
[Footnote 3: Macbeth, III. iv. 100.]
58. But it is in “Hamlet” that the undecided state of opinion upon this subject is most clearly reflected; and hardly enough influence has been allowed to the doubts arising from this conflict of belief, as urgent or deterrent motives in the play, because this temporary condition of thought has been lost sight of. It is exceedingly interesting to note how frequently the characters who have to do with the apparition of the late King Hamlet alternate between the theories that it is a ghost and that it is a devil which they have seen. The whole subject has such an important bearing upon any attempt to estimate the character of Hamlet, that no excuse need be offered for once again traversing such well-trodden ground.
Horatio, it is true, is introduced to us in a state of determined scepticism; but this lasts for a few seconds only, vanishing upon the first entrance of the spectre, and never again appearing. His first inclination seems to be to the belief that he is the victim of a diabolical illusion; for he says–
“What art thou, that _usurp’st_ this time of night, Together with that fair and warlike form In which the majesty of buried Denmark Did sometimes march?”
And Marcellus seems to be of the same opinion, for immediately before, he exclaims–
“Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio;”
having apparently the same idea as had Coachman Toby, in “The Night-Walker,” when he exclaims–
“Let’s call the butler up, for he speaks Latin, And that will daunt the devil.”
On the second appearance of the illusion, however, Horatio leans to the opinion that it is really the ghost of the late king that he sees, probably in consequence of the conversation that has taken place since the former visitation; and he now appeals to the ghost for information that may enable him to procure rest for his wandering soul. Again, during his interview with Hamlet, when he discloses the secret of the spectre’s appearance, though very guarded in his language, Horatio clearly intimates his conviction that he has seen the spirit of the late king.
[Footnote 1: I. i. 46.]
[Footnote 2: II. i.]
The same variation of opinion is visible in Hamlet himself; but, as might be expected, with much more frequent alternations. When first he hears Horatio’s story, he seems to incline to the belief that it must be the work of some diabolic agency:
“If it assume my noble father’s person, I’ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape, And bid me hold my peace;”
although, characteristically, in almost the next line he exclaims–
“My father’s spirit in arms! All is not well,” etc.
This, too, seems to be the dominant idea in his mind when he is first brought face to face with the apparition and exclaims–
“Angels and ministers of grace defend us!– Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned, Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell, Be thine intents wicked or charitable, Thou com’st in such a questionable shape, That I will speak to thee.”
For it cannot be supposed that Hamlet imagined that a “goblin damned” could actually be the spirit of his dead father; and, therefore, the alternative in his mind must have been that he saw a devil assuming his father’s likeness–a form which the Evil One knew would most incite Hamlet to intercourse. But even as he speaks, the other theory gradually obtains ascendency in his mind, until it becomes strong enough to induce him to follow the spirit.
[Footnote 1: I. ii. 244.]
[Footnote 2: I. iv. 39.]
But whilst the devil-theory is gradually relaxing its hold upon Hamlet’s mind, it is fastening itself with ever-increasing force upon the minds of his companions; and Horatio expresses their fears in words that are worth comparing with those just quoted from James’s “Daemonologie.” Hamlet responds to their entreaties not to follow the spectre thus–
“Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life at a pin’s fee; And, for my soul, what can it do to that, Being a thing immortal as itself?”
And Horatio answers–
“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff, That beetles o’er his base into the sea, And there assume some other horrible form, Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, And draw you into madness?”
The idea that the devil assumed the form of a dead friend in order to procure the “tinsell” of both body and soul of his victim is here vividly before the minds of the speakers of these passages.
[Footnote 1: See ante, sec. 55.]
The subsequent scene with the ghost convinces Hamlet that he is not the victim of malign influences–as far as he is capable of conviction, for his very first words when alone restate the doubt:
“O all you host of heaven! O earth! _What else?_ And shall I couple hell?”
and the enthusiasm with which he is inspired in consequence of this interview is sufficient to support his certainty of conviction until the time for decisive action again arrives. It is not until the idea of the play-test occurs to him that his doubts are once more aroused; and then they return with redoubled force:–
“The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and, perhaps, Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
(As he is very potent with such spirits,) Abuses me to damn me.”
And he again alludes to this in his speech to Horatio, just before the entry of the king and his train to witness the performance of the players.
[Footnote 1: I. v. 92.]
[Footnote 2: II. ii. 627.]
[Footnote 3: III. ii. 87.]
59. This question was, in Shakspere’s time, quite a legitimate element of uncertainty in the complicated problem that presented itself for solution to Hamlet’s ever-analyzing mind; and this being so, an apparent inconsistency in detail which has usually been charged upon Shakspere with regard to this play, can be satisfactorily explained. Some critics are never weary of exclaiming that Shakspere’s genius was so vast and uncontrollable that it must not be tested, or expected to be found conformable to the rules of art that limit ordinary mortals; that there are many discrepancies and errors in his plays that are to be condoned upon that account; in fact, that he was a very careless and slovenly workman. A favourite instance of this is taken from “Hamlet,” where Shakspere actually makes the chief character of the play talk of death as “the bourne from whence no traveller returns” not long after he has been engaged in a prolonged conversation with such a returned traveller.
Now, no artist, however distinguished or however transcendent his genius, is to be pardoned for insincere workmanship, and the greater the man, the less his excuse. Errors arising from want of information (and Shakspere commits these often) may be pardoned if the means for correcting them be unattainable; but errors arising from mere carelessness are not to be pardoned. Further, in many of these cases of supposed contradiction there is an element of carelessness indeed; but it lies at the door of the critic, not of the author; and this appears to be true in the present instance. The dilemma, as it presented itself to the contemporary mind, must be carefully kept in view. Either the spirits of the departed could revisit this world, or they could not. If they could not, then the apparitions mistaken for them must be devils assuming their forms. Now, the tendency of Hamlet’s mind, immediately before the great soliloquy on suicide, is decidedly in favour of the latter alternative. The last words that he has uttered, which are also the last quoted here, are those in which he declares most forcibly that he believes the devil-theory possible, and consequently that the dead do not return to this world; and his utterances in his soliloquy are only an accentuate and outcome of this feeling of uncertainty. The very root of his desire for death is that he cannot discard with any feeling of certitude the Protestant doctrine that no traveller does after death return from the invisible world, and that the so-called ghosts are a diabolic deception.
[Footnote 1: sec. 58, p. 59.]
60. Another power possessed by the evil spirits, and one that excited much attention and created an immense amount of strife during Elizabethan times, was that of entering into the bodies of human beings, or otherwise influencing them so as utterly to deprive them of all self-control, and render them mere automata under the command of the fiends. This was known as possession, or obsession. It was another of the mediaeval beliefs against which the reformers steadily set their faces; and all the resources of their casuistry were exhausted to expose its absurdity. But their position in this respect was an extremely delicate one. On one side of them zealous Catholics were exorcising devils, who shrieked out their testimony to the eternal truth of the Holy Catholic Church; whilst at the same time, on the other side, the zealous Puritans of the extremer sort were casting out fiends, who bore equally fervent testimony to the superior efficacy and purity of the Protestant faith. The tendency of the more moderate members of the party, therefore was towards a compromise similar to that arrived at upon the question how the devils came by the forms in which they appeared upon the earth. They could not admit that devils could actually enter into and possess the body of a man in those latter days, although during the earlier history of the Church such things had been permitted by Divine Providence for some inscrutable but doubtless satisfactory reason:–that was Catholicism. On the other hand, they could not for an instant tolerate or even sanction the doctrine that devils had no power whatever over humanity:–that was Atheism. But it was quite possible that evil spirits, without actually entering into the body of a man, might so infest, worry, and torment him, as to produce all the symptoms indicative of possession. The doctrine of obsession replaced that of possession; and, once adopted, was supported by a string of those quaint, conceited arguments so peculiar to the time.
[Footnote 1: Dialogicall Discourses, by Deacon and Walker, 3rd Dialogue.]
61. But, as in all other cases, the refinements of the theologians had little or no effect upon the world outside their controversies. To the ordinary mind, if a man’s eyes goggled, body swelled, and mouth foamed, and it was admitted that these were the work of a devil, the question whether the evil-doer were actually housed within the sufferer, or only hovered in his immediate neighbourhood, seemed a question of such minor importance as to be hardly worth discussing–a conclusion that the lay mind is apt to come to upon other questions that appear portentous to the divines–and the theory of possession, having the advantage in time over that of obsession, was hard to dislodge.
62. One of the chief causes of the persistency with which the old belief was maintained was the utter ignorance of the medical men of the period on the subject of mental disease. The doctors of the time were mere children in knowledge of the science they professed; and to attribute a disease, the symptoms of which they could not comprehend, to a power outside their control by ordinary methods, was a safe method of screening a reputation which might otherwise have suffered. “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?” cries Macbeth to the doctor, in one of those moments of yearning after the better life he regrets, but cannot return to, which come over him now and again. No; the disease is beyond his practice; and, although this passage has in it a deeper meaning than the one attributed to it here, it well illustrates the position of the medical man in such cases. Most doctors of the time were mere empirics; dabbled more or less in alchemy; and, in the treatment of mental disease, were little better than children. They had for co-practitioners all who, by their credit with the populace for superior wisdom, found themselves in a position to engage in a profitable employment. Priests, preachers, schoolmasters–Dr. Pinches and Sir Topazes–became so commonly exorcists, that the Church found it necessary to forbid the casting out of spirits without a special license for that purpose. But as the Reformers only combated the doctrine of possession upon strictly theological grounds, and did not go on to suggest any substitute for the time-honoured practice of exorcism as a means for getting rid of the admittedly obnoxious result of diabolic interference, it is not altogether surprising that the method of treatment did not immediately change.
[Footnote 1: 72nd Canon.]
63. Upon this subject a book called “Tryal of Witchcraft,” by John Cotta, “Doctor in Physike,” published in 1616, is extremely instructive. The writer is evidently in advance of his time in his opinions upon the principal subject with which he professes to deal, and weighs the evidence for and against the reality of witchcraft with extreme precision and fairness. In the course of his argument he has to