Wednesday, October 17, 2018

On Witches (St. John of Damascus)

On Witches (Περὶ Στρυγγῶν = Peri Stryggōn, Migne PG 94 1604) is perhaps the shortest treatise among the written works of John Damascene (676-749), and perhaps the earliest ecclesiastical text on the subject of the folklore surrounding witches, though this, along with his treatise On Dragons, may have been part of a larger treatise addressing such subject matter. As far as I know, though it is very short, it has never been fully translated before into English. Even the best known and the most important treatise on witchcraft, the Malleus Maleficarum, usually translated as the Hammer of Witches, published in 1487, does not even mention this text, although it does quote John Damascene as an authority on other subjects about a handful of times. Perhaps it doesn't mention this text because it refutes the myths and folklore about witches, as opposed to the contents of the Malleus Maleficarum, which was used to justify belief in such things and led to the deaths of thousands of falsely accused witches in both Europe and North America (most notably in Salem, Massachusetts during the Salem Witch Trials from 1692-1693).

Despite this text not being used in the West, the 11th century polymath of Byzantium Michael Psellos and the 14th century ecclesiastical historian of Byzantium Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos seem to have been influenced by it, or at least they confirm the things the Damascene wrote centuries earlier, who got his information from ancient writers such as Ovid.

On Witches*

By St. John of Damascus

This is something I do not want you to be ignorant of. For the ignorant say that Striges, who are also called Geloudes,** are women. They allege regarding them that they appear in the air at night, and they enter houses, unimpeded by doors and their bars, but they enter through secured doors, and they strangle infants. Others say that they devour their liver, and all their vital fluids, setting short limits to their lives. And they strongly maintain, by those who have seen, and others who have heard these things, that they enter houses with the doors shut, either in bodily form or with their naked soul. I inquire, for Christ our God, Jesus Christ, alone did this, after he rose from the dead and he entered the room with shut doors where his holy apostles were. If a female sorceress did this, and does this, then that which the Lord did with closed doors is not wondrous. Those who say she enters with her naked soul, while her body is asleep on her bed, listen to me, for our Lord Jesus Christ said: "I have authority to lay down my soul and authority to take it up again."*** And he did this at the time of his holy passion. That a shameful female sorceress can do this at will, the Lord did not make it to be so. And how can she live after devouring an infant? These things are heretical, and opposed to the holy catholic Church; nonsensical thinking, with the intention of distorting the true faith of the most simple-minded.


* The name στρύγγες used by John Damascene comes from the Latin strix that denotes a screech-owl which, according to the belief of the ancients, sucked the blood of young children, cf. Plaut. Ps .3.2.31; Ov. F.6.133 sq.; Plin. NH.11.39.95; Tib.1.5.52; Ov. M.7.269; Prop. 4(5).5.17; 3.(4, 5).6.29; Petr.134.1; the Latin term was likely adapted to Greek in late antiquity, and their beliefs about them influenced John Damascene to address the issue. John Damascene also gives Γελοῦδες (Geloudes) as another name for these demons: "γυναῖκές εἰσι Στρύγγαι, αἳ και Γελοῦδες λεγόμεναι." According to J.C. Lawson: Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion. A Study in Survivals. Oxford 1910, p. 179, in modern Greek folklore στρίγλες (strigles) are essentially different beings than λαμίαι and γελλοῦδες; the latter are demons while the former are simply women with the capacity to transform themselves into birds of prey or other animals; there is only the taste for blood that the στρίγλες share with demons.

In modern Western folklore, witches are women who have made pacts with the devil and maintain their youth by devouring or drinking the blood of infants, as seen in the old fairytale "Hansel and Gretel" and more recently the 2015 film "The Witch".

** The gello eventually came to be regarded as a type of being, rather than an individual. The plural form geloudes (γελοῦδες), not found in Ancient Greek, came into existence in the Byzantine period, and used in the 7th–8th century by John Damascene for the first time, in his treatise Peri Stryggōn (Περὶ Στρυγγῶν). The geloudes were considered synonymous to the stryggai (στρίγγαι) or "witches" by him, and described as beings that flew nocturnally, slipped unhindered into houses even when windows and doors were barred, and strangled infants.

Michael Psellos in the 11th century inherited the notion that the stryggai and geloudes were "interchangeable." He described them as beings that "suck blood and devour all the vital fluids which are in the little infant." Psellos documents a widened scope of the Gello's victims in the beliefs of the 11th century. Gello were being held responsible for the deaths of pregnant women and their fetuses as well. Gello (or Gillo) were also blamed for the condition of newborn infants who wasted away, and such infants were called Gillobrota (Γιλλόβρωτα), according to Psellos.

Psellos sought in vain for Ancient Greek sources of these beliefs, and formulated the theory that the gello derived from the Hebrew Lilith. Psellos further stated that the name "Gillo" could not be discovered in his usual sources for demonic names in antiquity, but were to be found in an esoteric or "occult" (ἀπόκρυφος) Hebrew book ascribed to Solomon. Later, the 17th-century Greek Catholic scholar Leo Allatios would criticize Psellos's confounding of the gello and Lilith.

The 14th-century ecclesiastical historian Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos still told of geloudes that "bring the infant from the bedroom, as if about to devour him."

*** Jn. 10:28