The History of Exorcism!

feat_demons
Got a demon? Have an exorcism!

Exorcism has a long history in human society. The casting out of evil spirits. Rituals to remove demons that were destroying crops or bringing illness into communities. Even Jesus is reported to have done some exorcism in the bible.

Only recently I was reading of the terribly sad story of three children sacrificed by the Inca around the year 1500 to please their Gods. The community was worried about their harvest. So two girls and one boy were imprisoned in a cave and starved. We only know about this because their mummified bodies survived.

There is a reviving belief in exorcism in the US and Europe. The casting out of devils is coming back into vogue. It’s something our ancestors would have understood. Evil spirits were all around them waiting to make them sick, mad or even kill them.

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Violent demons were expelled angels

Violent demons were believed to be extremely dangerous and their power was derived from the fact that they were originally angels – living in heaven.  They rebelled against God and were cast out.  They became ugly and hideous. 

But they did not lose their power.  Even when they fell from heaven, the power of their fall created the pit of hell.  And forever, they are trying to escape from hell. Beneath the earth these demons are trying to grab at your soul while up above, angels are trying to guide you to God.

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How demons entered your body

It was once believed that demons could enter your body as a vapour through any opening.  That might be your open mouth for example.  Chester girl Anne Millner was possessed in this way in the 16th century when she found herself surrounded by a white cloud.  She had no doubt it was a physical entity and it entered in to her.

People in the Middle Ages truly believed that demons could turn in to everyday objects like food – there are accounts of people inadvertently admitting a demon by consuming an apple or even a lettuce leaf. 

Bad case of food poisoning?  Maybe.  Very probably.  But the resulting fevers and lack of medicine to help meant these sick folk appeared to be possessed.

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How to get rid of a pesky demon?

So how to get rid of a demon?  How to treat a ‘demoniac’?  Well, an exorcism of course. 

In 1585, Sarah Williams was subjected to an exorcism.  Sarah truly believed herself to be possessed.  She could not cross herself.  She behaved strangely.  Her verbal outpourings were taken to be the demon talking. 

So, like a scene out of the Hollywood movie The Exorcist, she had holy water chucked at her and Sarah called her tormentors all sorts of unpleasant and profane words.

As there was no sign of improvement – the treatment became more intense.  A cauldron stew of powdered root that smelt disgusting was held under nose and the smoke turned Sarah’s face black. Sure sign of possession! 

The next step was to cram the bones of a dead saint in to Sarah’s mouth!  And she was touched over and over again with a crucifix – particularly the extremities like the feet.  And the rite of baptism and other prayers were chanted over her.  After several months, Sarah was ‘cured’.

READ MORE: The strange disappearance of the bodies of medieval kings

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Some people rather liked demons

Not everybody wanted to get rid of demons – some people wanted to harness their power through necromancy…the conjuring up of spirits through spells.  A crime punishable by death.  Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1400-1452), was an infamous necromancer. 

She consulted two astrologers who predicted that King Henry VI of England would suffer a life threatening illness.  For this she was forced to do penance while one of the astrologers was hung, drawn and quartered.

The Munich Handbook was hugely popular in the Middle Ages and gave detailed instructions on just how to summon up the spirits. One spell described how to turn a beautiful maiden in to a love slave. 

This involved finding a white dove, bite in to it near its heart, draw with the blood using a quill from an eagle on a parchment made from a female dog on heat….no, I’m not making this up!  The dove, by the way, was seen as being the symbol of Venus while the dog was the symbol of lust.

Having turned the maiden one is after in to a slave, the demon that has been summoned would create a replica human in the shape of the maiden who would return to her home and pretend to be her.  So you could never be sure who was a real human being and who was a demon in disguise.

DISCOVER: The weird belief in lizard people

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: A fairy can also be a demon

Aaaah…but fairies you say.  They’re nice spirits aren’t they?  Cute little things with pink wings. Well, not in the Middle Ages.  The medieval mind had not heard of Peter Pan or Walt Disney.  To them, fairies did not have gossamer wings – a Victorian invention – and were not necessarily small – a Shakespearian invention.

Fairies were human size – possibly inherited from the Roman idea of nymphs.  They were only invisible when they wanted to be. 

Fairies could kill you, ruin your crop and worst of all, abduct your child and replace it with a ‘changeling’. In medieval Britain, the belief in changelings led to women advising new mothers to surround the cradle with cold iron – like shears, which should be placed near the head. 

Draw a chalk circle around the cradle and recite prayers as you did it. But even this didn’t guarantee a child’s safety.

Demon changelings – when evil spirits replaced family members

If the child inherited an abnormality – a fairy had probably taken its place.  A child being deaf, not moving much or throwing violent tantrums – could very well be a fairy changeling. 

A parent in the Middle Ages might do something odd to test the child.  They would bake bread in an eggshell to see if the baby or toddler laughed – thereby proving it was an old knowledgeable fairy in a child’s body.

So if the baby was proven to be a changeling – what then? 

Well, according to contemporary sources, babies were left exposed on a dung heap or placed near a fire and the terrified fairy would fly out of the body and it would be replaced by your real baby.

Unfortunately, babies did die.  And as late as 1895, a man killed his wife in England because he believed his own wife to be a fairy changeling.

So, as you can see, exorcism has a long and violent history – which I rather hope will not return!

The vampire Countess Bathory!

Bathory
Don’t accept that invitation to dinner!

Countess Bathory isn’t that well known outside of her native Slovakia but she really ought to be. This was a real-life female vampire aristocrat who had young women round for dinner – and then, literally – had them for dinner.

She indulged her vampiric passions with gusto!

The other day, I met a Slovakian gentleman called Lukáš in the English town of Farnborough who had seen me on TV talking history and was very keen to share the story of this murderous noble woman from his country.

Her name was the Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed (1560 to 1614). And she is believed to have tortured and killed up to 650 women between 1585 and 1609.

Yes – you didn’t misread that – six hundred and fifty women.

Most infamously, the vampire Countess Bathory was accused of bathing in the blood of victims who were virgins at the time of their death. The reason? To remain young of course!

It may not be surprising therefore to discover that her uncle was the highest ranking official in Transylvania – the mountainous land where the fictional Dracula had his castle. Well, that’s according to the nineteenth century Anglo-Irish author Bram Stoker.

Eventually, crimes of the blood soaked countess were brought to the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor who ordered an investigation. Some three hundred witnesses all but fell over each other to spill the beans on the vampire princess.

They had seen the vampire Bathory abducting peasant girls and biting at their flesh or burning them with red hot tongs – before ending their lives.

Worse, from the point of view of the aristocracy, this ghoulish killer had even enticed girls of high birth to her castle. She had promised them lessons in etiquette. What they actually got was a lesson in why not to trust the vampire countess Bathory!

She tried to plead her innocence but the evidence was pretty overwhelming. Although the death penalty was called for, it was decided that as an aristocratic woman, she would endure something more refined but equally terminal.

The vampire Bathory was walled up in a small series of rooms with a big enough gap to pass her food. It took four years for this royal serial killer to die.