By: Jonah Hoffmann
This blog series focuses on magical creatures, artifacts, and folk belief in various countries during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Witchcraft and sorcery, as illustrated by contemporaries of these eras, were part of a wider magical world filled with an array of supernatural beings and objects. These could be created either explicitly through rituals for a practitioner’s own personal use, or simply exist outside of conjuring as one of the many otherworldly creatures or objects of legend said to exist within the European landscape. In this series, we will highlight a specific belief in a certain artifact or creature to give a window into the wider supernatural world that witches and witchcraft existed within.
The name Nicolas Flamel is most often associated with the practice of alchemy and the creation and discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone. Pop culture portrays Flamel as an elusive figure that holds the key to immortality and alchemical perfection. In reality, the historical individual lived and worked in Paris during the 14th and 15th centuries as a well known scribe and manuscript seller. There is no proof that at any point during his life the famous Frenchman ever worked in medicine or alchemy. Despite the lack of evidence, Flamel remains as arguably the most famous figure in the history of natural philosophy and proto-science.
Born in Pontoise, France in 1330, Nicolas Flamel owned several stores where he worked as a scribe and later accumulated wealth with his wife Perenelle. She had been married twice before and brought a considerable amount of money and influence to their marriage. The couple owned properties throughout the city and were well-renowned for their philanthropy. Records show that a number of homes for the poor, hospitals, and churches received considerable funding and even commission due to their altruism.
Hundreds of years after his death, rumors began to spread about Nicolas Flamel’s work in alchemy and his supposed discovery of both immortality and the Philosopher’s Stone. Several books published in the early 17th century were attributed to him and illustrate his quest for both the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone. These texts purportedly detail he and his wife’s journey to decode a mysterious book that contains the recipes needed to achieve the goals of alchemy and transform any base metal to gold.
By the late 18th century these legendary tales came under fire and writers began to doubt the validity of the story. Sightings of the supposed alchemy master and his wife at the Paris Opera House and other locations throughout the city clashed with current ridicule over the truth of his life and books attributed to him. As the texts supposedly created by Flamel only appeared hundreds of years after his death, public belief began to shift from that of lost, alchemical texts to a more contemporary fabrication. At the Musée de Cluny in Paris, the gravestone designed by Flamel for himself is on display for public viewing; all but eradicating claims of his eternal life.
Today, though his legendary life and work has all but been disproven, Nicolas Flamel remains a popular and celebrated figure. Modern audiences may be most familiar with depictions found in the Harry Potter series as well as other movies that rely upon his fantastical feats.
As with children all around the world, those in Italy wait impatiently for the arrival of Babbo Natale; the country’s very own version of Santa Claus. This relatively new tradition, though much revered, may actually be secondary to the highly anticipated arrival of The Good Witch of Christmas: La Befana.
The legend of La Befana has pagan roots with documentation of her story circulating since roughly the 13th century. While her identity as an old, wart-ridden woman with a broom remains intact, the tale has now become intertwined with Christianity and, in particular, the Nativity. As the story goes, while traveling to meet the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, the three Magi, or Wise Men, met La Befana at her home. Like any courteous host, she welcomed them in, gave them food and lodging, and inquired about their journey. So impressed by her hospitality, the three Magi invite her to accompany them in paying homage to the newborn king. She declines the generous offer, however, for the reason of having too much housework.
Not long after parting with the men, La Befana has a change of heart as she sweeps her floors and decides to chase after the trio and meet the baby Jesus. She packs a sack full of treats and sets out to follow the star they indicated as their guide, stopping at each house along the way to leave gifts in the hopes of meeting the child. Despite her efforts, she never finds her way and rides on her broom every year on Epiphany Eve with sweets in hand to try and find the newborn king.
The Feast of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th and marks the arrival of the three Magi in Bethlehem and a national holiday in Italy. The long-awaited arrival of the gift-bearing La Befana is also celebrated as children across the nation will wake up to find the gifts she has left for them during the night. Similar to the traditions of Santa Claus, good children receive sweet treats while bad ones find lumps of coal. Not to worry though as the coal is really candy and allows even those who have misbehaved to enjoy a small present.
The legend remains strong as children all across Italy look forward to Epiphany Eve and the knowledge that La Befana will make a stop at their home to deliver treats on her yearly quest to find the baby Jesus.
In the Alsace-Lorraine region of France a fearsome figure stalks along with the procession of St. Nicholas in search of children who have misbehaved to receive his particular brand of holiday justice. While those who are good receive a present from the friendly saint, those who are bad will receive nothing more than a good beating from Hans Trapp: The Christmas Scarecrow.
According to legend, this fearsome figure lived during the 15th century as a rich, powerful, and nasty individual who stole from and terrorized the people of France. Not satisfied despite his status, he allegedly began making deals with the Devil in order to achieve even more wealth and power. Word of his activities eventually reached the Pope who excommunicated him and led to his banishment from the Alsace-Lorraine region and the confiscation of all of his money and assets. Now nothing more than a penniless outcast, Hans Trapp lived in a shabby cottage where, dressed as a scarecrow, he waited to surprise unfortunate travelers and make them into his next meal. His reign of terror was brought to an end when, like divine intervention, he was struck by a lightning bolt and killed; leaving only his spirit behind to lurk in the woods.
Perhaps the only thing more terrifying about Hans Trapp than his horrible deeds is that his legend is based on that of a real individual: Hans von Trotha. The man behind the Christmas Scarecrow was a knight who lived from 1450 to 1503 and commanded two castles in the French and German territory of Palatine. Surviving documents paint von Trotha as a difficult person who became embroiled in a bitter ownership dispute with the Catholic Church over one of his castles. He and the abbot of Weissenberg Abbey engaged in a lifelong feud that went so far as to destroy an entire town through flooding. Not even the Emperor could stop the bitter fighting and was forced to contact the Pope who excommunicated von Trotha. This did not totally destroy the knight’s life, however, as he went on to serve the French royal court despite being shamed out of his home.
Cautionary tales surrounding von Trotha appeared during his lifetime and predate the origin of the Hans Trapp legend. The story of the Black Knight terrified children throughout the region and told of a fearsome phantom who would punish those unworthy of gifts from St. Nicholas. As time passed, the infamous legacy of von Trotha and the Black Knight further morphed into the story of Hans Trapp. This latest shift is recorded as early as the turn of the 19th century and includes the characterization of a cannibalistic scarecrow rather than a shadowy specter. There is no definitive origin story for how von Trotha or either of his personas came to be a companion of St. Nicholas, but beginning with the contemporary Black Knight legend, there appears to have always been an association.
What is for certain, is that Hans Trapp continues to be a fearsome figure in the minds of the people of Alsace-Lorraine. Dressed in his scarecrow disguise, he follows solemnly behind St. Nicholas on Christmas Day, awaiting his opportunity to scare naughty children into better behavior.
In recent years, the Krampus figure has become a popular, darker alternative to the otherwise merry and bright holiday season. While the frightening, horned beast spawned from East Alpine culture may be the most well-known purveyor of holiday frights, the so-called “Christmas Devil” is only one of the yuletide season’s array of monsters.
The harsh landscape of Iceland is home to countless creatures from elves and trolls to sea monsters and ghosts. Such an unforgiving environment spawned tales of magical beings in order to help make sense of the otherwise unpredictable conditions and give Icelanders the feeling of control through reason. One of the oldest standing legends is that of the ruler of the mountains; a terrifying ogress known as Grýla.
For the majority of the year, Grýla is said to inhabit a cave deep in the mountains accompanied by her husband, thirteen sons, and a giant cat. She listens to the whispers that flow through the wind, collecting information on which children have been good and bad, waiting for the perfect time to strike. During jól, a version of the Old Germanic word for Yule, she is said to come out of hiding and collect naughty children in order to make stew for herself and her unusual family. With her many tails dragging behind her, she stuffs the ill-fated youngsters into her large sack where they wait to meet their final, terrible fate.
Iceland’s earliest tales of Grýla come from the 13th century where she is characterized as a looming threat with no direct connection to Christmas or the holiday season. Rather, she acts as a personification of winter and the impending danger of darkness and snow that make up the harsh environment. Undeterred by the elements, she simply wanders the country as a beggar asking for misbehaving children and is said to have eaten her first two husbands. The third husband, Leppalúði, lives in fearful servitude of his overbearing wife and is always characterized as brow-beaten. This dynamic of a weak husband and powerful wife is a common trope in Icelandic folklore and is meant to represent the high threat level posed by such an individual.
In the 19th century, the story of Grýla became tied to Christmas through poetry and added the legend of the Yule Lads and the Yule Cat to her story. While previously standalone characters in holiday folklore, Grýla became the Christmas Witch and matriarch of a now large, dysfunctional family. Her thirteen sons, the Yule Lads, visit Icelandic households on specific days in December to cause their particular brand of mischief. The family pet, the Yule Cat, follows a less rigorous schedule but still roams the countryside in search of anyone without new clothes. While an encounter with the lads is meant to be nothing more than inconvenient, those unlucky enough to run into the man-eating cat without a new pair of socks or long underwear, will meet a much more dire fate.
The growing popularity of American Christmas in the 20th century saw a short-lived shift away from the darker tales of the holiday season. The Yule Lads began being depicted as a troupe of Santa-like fellows who leave presents rather than take them while stories of Grýla and The Yule Cat became less frequent altogether. These changes were only temporary as Icelanders have held on to their traditions and institutions like The National Museum of Iceland have made great strides in recent years to return these folk tales to their roots. Visitors to the museum will hear cautionary tales of Grýla and the Yule Cat and see the Yule Lads as they first appeared; looking troll-like and wearing dark brown, wool outerwear. Throughout the capital of Reykjavik the likeness of the Christmas Witch can be found in both artistic interpretation, and sometimes, the flesh.
Grýla has seen many transformations over the years and continues to be an important part of Icelandic culture. She is embraced in her terrifying glory and remains a testament to Iceland’s living folk history.
In recent years, the Krampus has become a more well-known name in the United States largely due to depiction in media and popular culture; most notably Michael Dougherty’s hit 2015 horror film by the same name. The mysterious, terrifying creature with hooved feet and a sagging face reminiscent of the classic Coca-Cola Santa Claus spawned an array of accompanying merchandise from books to masks and animatronics to clothing. While popularity surrounding the Krampus grew, the true history behind the character dwindled. Who really is the frightening, horned beast that is sometimes referred to as the antithesis of Santa Claus?
There is no definitive origin for the Krampus figure outside of being born from early Eastern and Central Alpine culture. Folklorists and anthropologists agree that the belief sets are decidedly pre-Christian and likely exist within the wider scope of early paganism. The word Krampus originates from the German word “krampen,” meaning claw, with the creature himself being referred to as the son of the Norse god of the underworld. Although the appearance varies from region to region, the Krampus consistently retains devilish horns, a long tongue, coarse fur, cloven hooves, chains, and a large sack with bells. Sometimes, depending on the region, the figure is depicted with a bundle of birch sticks, a large basket instead of a sack, or as having one human-like foot and one similar to that of a goat.
As early as the 12th century, the Catholic Church made attempts to ban celebrations surrounding what they believed to be a figure too closely resembling the Devil. These efforts were unsuccessful, as were future banishment attempts by both church and state, and the traditions of Krampus continue to live on throughout the Alpine regions. The failure to do away with this figure led the church to instead incorporate aspects of the tradition into the Christianization of wintertime celebrations. Krampus became a companion of St. Nicholas and part of the saint’s entourage as he rewarded good children with treats and toys on his feast and celebration day of December 6th. However, misbehaving children would receive a very unpleasant visit from the Krampus the night before.
Chains thrash and bells jingle all for frightening, dramatic effect as the so-called Christmas devil makes his way to punish misbehaving children. The click of the hooved foot on the rooftop would sound every other beat in tandem with the smack of the more human-like foot as the creature closed in. Those who are lucky may only receive a few swats from the birch branches or a minor spanking. Particularly bad children, however, would be stuffed into the sack to either be dropped into Hell, drowned in a river, or simply eaten alive. Survivors of the visit would wake on St. Nicholas’ feast day to nurse their wounds while other children would happily await their reward, thankful to have dodged a meeting with Krampus.
Today, the celebration continues in the Alpine areas where the figure originates with the evening of December 5th referred to as “Krampusnacht,” literally, Krampus Night. While an elegantly dressed St. Nicholas hands out presents, the frightfully outfitted Krampus awaits the chance to playfully swat a naughty child or strike fear into the misbehaving. In some areas, in the days leading to Krampus Night, a “Krampuslauf,” Krampus Run, may take place. Individuals dress in costumes as the horned figure and run amok through the streets: scaring spectators, chasing youngsters, or sometimes engaging in friendly sparring with other Krampus costume-wearers. A gift of holiday spirits are given to those engaging in the festivities from the homes and businesses they may enter on either of the Krampus-centered nights.
The importance of this tradition to portions of Europe survives through these continuing festivities of old. Some craftsmen specialize in, and make a living from, creating the hand-carved wooden Krampus masks worn during celebrations. Elaborate costumes are the labor of months of work from artisans replicating the earliest examples of dress from the pre-modern era. Museums throughout the world showcase these handmade objects as examples of living folk art and belief. The survival of the Krampus tradition is a remarkable testament to the power and importance of ancient belief; and the tenacity of the people keeping this unique tradition alive.
Shoes have been found in all manner of locations throughout Europe and North America from the fireplaces of small homes to the doorways of the most elaborate castles. While believed to have existed on a wide scale since before the Early Modern period, there is no documented reason behind the practice of deliberately hiding shoes in buildings. Scholars are left only with speculation concerning the true nature of this curious custom.
Despite the lack of contemporary records, notable similarities between the footwear point to this being a deliberate practice. The overwhelming majority of discoveries consist of only one shoe instead of a pair, over half are children’s sizes, and nearly all are worn down or have noticeable repairs indicative of heavy use. The earliest find relating to this mystery is thought to be the single shoe found hidden in the Winchester Cathedral choir stalls which were installed in 1304.
The lack of documentation surrounding the concealed shoes may point to a level of secrecy intertwined with superstition. A personal item such as this, thought to potentially retain some of the good energy from the wearer, could be placed in and around various entry points to the house in order to repel any potential negative energy or influence. On the other hand, rather than act specifically to avert negativity, the shoe could simply function as a good luck charm for the home and family.
The Northampton Museum & Art Gallery hosts a concealed shoe index that records the findings and locations of hidden shoes across the globe. The database and accompanying information can be found here:
Appalachian Folk Magic
The area known as Appalachia stretches from the Southern Tier of New York to the northern portion of Alabama and over to Mississippi. While the Appalachian Mountain range is mapped as beginning in northeastern Alabama with Cheaha Mountain and ending in Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, the term “Appalachia” typically refers to the cultural region of the central and southern portion of the range. A number of stereotypes such as extreme racism, rampant ignorance, and inbreeding families have plagued those living in this region since the area first became settled. Most media portrayals and early journalism center around these labels and other sensationalistic aspects of the culture such as clan-feuding, moonshining, and lawlessness. These conventional images of Appalachian life and culture take away from the region’s rich history and the storied traditions of magic that have been passed down through generations.
A combination of folk magic, superstition, and faith healing, the magical customs of Appalachia incorporate a mixture of traditional herbal medicine with religious scripture to form a unique set of beliefs and practices. European settlers brought with them the folk magic of their home countries and mixed these pre-existing beliefs with the customs of the Native Americans and those of African descent. The intersection of these customs brought about the birth of an entirely new kind of culture and the beginning of the distinctly Appalachian folk magic.
While this melting pot of culture is referred to as folk magic and incorporates sorcery and otherwise supernatural based aspects, the people of this distinctly Protestant region may likely disagree with the notion of practicing magic or witchcraft of any kind. The intersection of magic and traditional religious faith are not seen as conflicting and are regarded as part of the overall way of life that has been passed down through generations. What some may think of as inherently magical, others may see as “the old ways” and the means of which ancestors were able to make do with their environment and create the resources needed to survive.
From dowsing, the practice of searching and locating water using a pair of bent rods or sticks, to utilizing local plant life to keep away haints, and saying a prayer for good health over a healing soup, many of the aspects of American folk belief can be found rooted in the mountains of Appalachia.
To learn more about Appalachian Folk Magic from a primary source, check out this interview with Ashville, North Carolina’s village witch Byron Ballard.
A clay body or clay corpse, referred to as “corp criadhach” in Scottish Gaelic, is a magical tool supposedly used by witches to inflict harm. These clay effigies are native to Scotland and resemble the more familiar “poppets” or “poppits” of England and New England in both likeness and usage. A witch would form a lump of clay into the shape of a person to whom they held ill-will and would then place the figure underneath a stream or other moving body of water so that a steady drip or trickling would fall on the clay body. As the water slowly ate away and deteriorated the form, so too did the person who the figure was based on. The individual would waste away as the water eroded their clay effigy and would eventually die once the object was no more. Should the witch be feeling even more venomous toward the recipient of the curse, pins could be added to various parts of the clay body and inflict further pain to the person who presumably would already be wasting away soon enough.
If someone was lucky enough to find their source of harm and preserve the object, the spell would be broken and the individual safe from an untimely death. However, there is no way to say for sure who a clay corpse represented as, presumably, only the creator knew the inspiration behind each of their builds. These clay corpses are one of many curse related effigies existing in various magical cultures worldwide, but remain unique in the focal point of their gradual deterioration; rather than quick, sharp pains or a swift death.
The volcanic deserts, ice fields, mountains, and fjords of Iceland sit beneath a dazzling display of lights from the Aurora Borealis. With an island full of such picturesque backdrops and breathtaking scenery, the remarkable stories of the supernatural that have been told since people first settled in the 9th century seem hardly unbelievable. Trolls, dwarves, ghosts, and sea monsters are some of the many fantastical beings said to roam the land of ice and fire. Among them, however, is a particular human-like group that seems to dominate these supernatural conversations: the Huldufólk.
The word Huldufólk translates to “hidden people” and is used to refer to the race of invisible beings that are said to live alongside humans. These unseen people supposedly bear a strong resemblance to the average person, behave and live much as we do, and wear simplistic, green clothing. While the word “Huldufólk” may seem foreign to some, there is another more familiar word that can be used in reference to these beings. Icelanders tend to shy away from such a term out of respect, but still acknowledge that most people outside of Iceland would know and refer to the hidden people as elves.
The true origin of the Icelandic Huldufólk is unclear as oral traditions surrounding the hidden people have existed since the island was first inhabited. Interestingly, Medieval Iceland also holds the oldest records of something resembling the common elf, with the description and characteristics of these creatures being consistent across the continent of Europe. Jón Árnason, the author, librarian, and museum director who created the first collection of Icelandic folktales, found that the term “álfar,” the Icelandic word for elf, is pejorative but otherwise synonymous in meaning. Some contemporaries disagree, however, with many modern day Icelanders stating that they view elves and the Huldufólk as separate groups by means of their difference in clothing and activities. With Christianization in the 11th century, a folk origin emerged for the Huldufólk claiming that Eve had a number of children that she hid from God. When finally discovered, an angry God stated that “what man hides from God, God will hide from man.” The children then vanished and have been living alongside humanity invisibly ever since. This religious origin story has further wedged the differences between the Huldufólk and elves, but scholars, historians, and the people of Iceland remain divided.
As they are only visible at will, encountering one of the hidden people is unlikely as they prefer to remain in their parallel world. Even still, tales of encounters with the Huldufólk have been shared for centuries and usually begin with an accidental disturbance of their home. While most people would not give a lava rock or large boulder a second glance, a geological feature such as this could potentially be hiding a small community of these beings. As early as the 1930’s, there has been documentation of construction and roadwork being halted or discontinued totally due to perceived interference by the hidden people or in an effort not to disturb them. To this day, many buildings in Iceland incorporate boulders and other earthly features into their construction so as to not disturb their potential inhabitants. To see a wall with jagged rock sticking out from the bottom, or a road curving around a mound, is all part of the belief in, and the respect for, the Huldufólk.
Whatever these creatures may be, they are an important piece of uniquely Icelandic culture and society. As stories and belief in the hidden people have been preserved over centuries and generations, their importance to the country’s identity seems clear. While a perfect, invisible world full of peace and prosperity may speak to a greater wish of the early inhabitants to this harsh yet beautiful land, a sincere belief in the Huldufólk perseveres to this day.
The witch was often blamed for the various misfortunes that could befall a family in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period in Europe. However, this oft-depicted ugly or grotesque hag was not the only unsightly human-like entity to wander across the continent and cause mischief and mayhem. A uniquely English supernatural creature called a Boggart would be just as likely to be blamed for disappearing objects, sour milk, and the health issues of animals. Short, naked, and horribly unattractive, this being could be found in the home of an unlucky family and was said to follow them wherever they traveled. Should the antics of the Boggart become too much, the family could try to flee however far, but their household spirit would be sure to follow. Some tales in the northern portion of England describe these creatures as living not only in homes, but in the wetland areas of nearby villages. As the Boggart is exclusively malevolent, the disappearance of people in the woods, bogs, or marshes would often be blamed on these entities and their evil disposition.
Most people are familiar with the Boggart as tales of this horrible creature have existed for centuries. Children are often warned to behave and stay in bed as the knocks, creaks, and scrapes heard at night likely originate from their household Boggart. Whether under the bed or behind a closed door, this creature could be lurking in any part of the darkest corner of the most ordinary home.
As language changes and words shift in spelling or meaning, the original form may be lost or forgotten as is with the Boggart. While still a familiar name in England, many other parts of the world, including the United States, would perhaps know the Boggart from another name: the Boogeyman.