Topology of the Unknown: A Fantastic Anthropology

I suggest that the imagination feeds on realia— transforming, transposing, and projecting them into the realm of myth, or maintaining them in the sphere of beliefs that are mistakenly labeled superstitions.

-Claude Lecouteux,  Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices

I’ve started reading a collection of works by Claude Lecouteux the author of several books on the study of popular beliefs regarding supernatural entities in the Middle Ages, arguing that many of them had their origins in pre-Christian pagan world views that were, of course, expunged, suppressed, and eventually moved underground in fairy tales, legends, popular lore and ballads, etc.. His domain of research includes magic, mythology and folk tales. As a historian of medieval history he began to discover a great many incongruous accounts of ancient pagan beliefs and customs still arising throughout the literature, folk tales, popular ballads and poetry, as well as in many of the various tracts of monks, nuns, and clergy of the period that have for the most part due to our scientific and rationalist cultural matrix been overlooked, dismissed, and left in a scholarly dead zone, hidden an almost invisible except in unread journals and thesis’s etc. As he stated in an interview: “from the 19th century, we find everything, but we have never tried to attend the historic and diachronic dimension, in other words over the course of a long evolution, beliefs, the believers and the impact on their daily lives. However, from texts and archaeological excavations carried out burial sites, I made a panorama specific and amazing stories of ghosts and ghosts in the middle ages. So, I thought it would interest students. Certainly my seminar deals with cultural anthropology, but as soon as I touch these topics here, I expanded my audience to students and teachers of other disciplines.”

He began seeing a pattern of notions, ideas, figures, tropes in the various traditions that had been suppressed and written out of most modern absorption of this sunken literature of the medieval world. Notions like reincarnation, ghosts: the return of the dead, vampires, were-wolves, strange and mythical land spirits, house spirits, etc. All of these the Catholic Church began to codify and in a Manichaean scheme to imprison in a discourse of hell, purgatory, paradise in which the various entities would forever be placed and the folk beliefs associated with the old notions forever silenced.

In the old Germanic imagery, Death is a temporary exile, from where you return you reincarnating in one of your descendants, provided that it is given your name! Otherwise, the child could succumb to a disease. That is to say the weight of beliefs! And the Church has tried to kill the ghosts! If you take the dialogues of Grégoire le Grand, in the middle ages, the ghosts are beside us, on Earth. We talk to them! Coming from a Pope, it’s amazing! Then, from the [?]emesiecle, the Church attempted to imprison them in his Manichaean scheme: the dead among the dead (hell, purgatory and Paradise), the living at home! Without bridge between the two worlds. Literature of Revelations speaks constantly of the manifestations of the dead from the living, even in the 13th century, but most of the time, in dreams. Otherwise, it’s purgatory, and they leave an indelible trace of their passage, like a burn for example. A tip: never shake hands with a ghost!

One advantage that he enjoined was knowing all the Germanic languages. He was able to introduce in his study everything which was narrated in the Scandinavian countries, in the middle ages. Thus, he found texts that have not yet been “Christianized”, reflecting faithfully the mental concerns of people from the 10th to the 12th centuries, out of religious considerations. The Church having not yet managed to banish ghosts in the hereafter, nor to make their purgatory that associates the ghosts to souls in need, he was able to work with the literature of the dead and discovered in it that there was nothing separating or distinguishing the dead from the living: no boundaries of separation between the realms, no purgatory until after the introduction of Christianity. As he’d say

Ghosts have three dimensions: they talk, eat, copulate, mother, fight and enjoy revenge on their human doubles! It’s the true revenant! Because even the semblance of a living, the Ghost is an immaterial being that in the middle ages, mainly manifests in dreams or dreams. Even if in the morning when you wake up, you have evidence that he came to visit you, either by filing an object near you, or injuring you in your sleep! It is impossible to catch him to tackle or to kill… again! However, the revenant is a living death that can kill a second time! And even permanently, with certain methods…

Reading the above I kept thinking of Clive Barker’s famed Cenobites, those erotic monks of hell who torture their victims in love… In the lore of Scandinavia there was a good and bad death. As he’d discover you can’t forget those who come back. Because they have a reason to come back: the need to be Avenged, for they avidly lecture their descendants or to ask for favors, etc.. On the other hand, an idea that is dear and underlying studies he conducted was the notion that as long as the memory of the dead remains, the dead lives. “And when the memory disappears, the death is “mythisé”: if it has been a very good death, the dead one turns into another creature like an Elf and, if not, a Dwarf! Scandinavian texts were very explicit on these metamorphoses.”

Asked about the transcendent realms, of the beyond whether it was singular in the ancient lore like the notions of the Church:

No. There is not a single beyond. You have a fantastic and magical characters. An afterlife of the dead, that is not the same. Etc. It also distinguishes between beyond and other world, to avoid confusion, as far as possible. In-between, there are bridges which is in the transformation of the dead in mythical characters, such as the dwarf, Elves or fairies. For example, the white ladies are fairies, kinds of warning ghosts of death, called banshees in Celtic folklore. The legendary death, so it is a scary tackle world because information go in all directions. Real “mental archaeology” as calls it my friend Régis Boyer, the real work is to find the internal consistency of all these scattered elements. Like a gigantic puzzle that would have thrown in the air and which should now pick up the pieces. Why did we think? This is what interests me! And I finally found an explanation: a design of the very special soul, which derived directly from shamanism. That is to say if it’s old! From here, we kiss the multiplicity of souls in the body. And, according to the texts and vocabulary, which survived and allowed the body to live is his double!

So already we see prefigured many of the themes and tropes of the modern fantastic from Hoffmann to our current masters of the Literature Fantastique: doubles, plurality of souls, shamanistic time travel, other worlds, etc. He tells us in his travel around Europe that the “country  that has the most ghosts, to the point that people are amazed to see an ethnologist studying the phenomenon and lore, it’s the Iceland!” After that, comes the Norway, the United Kingdom, and other countries. He sent a team of journalists who met a ghost hunter in Iceland, dressed for the ritual of expulsion of the ghost as if it were just a daily routine for the Icelander. Looking at American TV here in the States one finds the same thing with SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, or the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, etc.. These 21Century ghost hunters pursue haunted houses, office buildings, court houses, prisons, asylums, etc. in search of the living revenant. They use advance imaging cameras, infra-red, sound equipment, specialized magnetic and ion capturing systems, a whole gamut of electronics to supposedly capture ghosts in these localize places. And, millions of viewers tune in every week to see the latest apparition chase some hunter around, or manifest bite or claw marks on their chests or arms, completely convinced that their in touch with either dead people or demons. What’s even stranger they make a living doing this…

When asked about these hunters in Iceland he laughed and said:

Except that this isn’t the fantastic! This is part of their daily lives. There are several decades, in the North of the Iceland, the Government had decided to build a hydro-electric plant. A public survey was conducted. And public opinion overwhelmingly objected to the project, arguing that it was going to bother the genius of the waterfall…

Asked if he is a believer in ghosts… he said: “I’m a Cartesian! We require proof, and so far there is only things that go bump in the night of ghost hunters and fools.” But he adds, “I still believe in literature, in the old ways that seem to live and live in our old tales… so who can say for sure, heh? And, both gods, demons, and ghosts vanish from the mind of man if we neglect them, allow them to disappear from our books, our texts… only then do they truly die the second death, banished from memory and time.”


Some of his books in cultural anthropology, folklore and the history the fantastic:

  • The Secret History of Vampires
  • Demons and Spirits of the Land
  • Phantom Armies of the Night
  • The Return of the Dead
  • The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses
  • The Tradition of Household Spirits
  • Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies
  • The Book of Grimoires
  • Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic

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