Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fairy Lore from Athanasius Kircher

Athanasius Kircher’s Underground Demons

Presented here is another excerpt from Athanasius Kircher's Mundus Subterraneus. Like its companion piece, A Natural History of Dragons, this brief treatise is good example of the kind of learned credulity which the rigors of Cartesian logic was about to abolish forever from Western scientific thought. The text is interesting today primarily for providing documentation of Europe's pre-modern fairy lore, two centuries prior to the work of the great folklorists of the nineteenth century. For that reason, I have provided a link to Thomas Keightley's monumental study The Fairy Mythology (1870), so that the curious reader can compare. Copyright of the translation is owned by the translator, Darius Matthias Klein.

Not only do secular authors unanimously confirm the existence of spirits that live underground, but religious authors do also. Concerning these spirits Delrius [unknown person – tr.] writes: “Since the powers of darkness flee the light as if it were a manifestation of the countenance of the Divine, it is certainly most appropriate for them to live nowhere else than an eternal underground abyss of darkness, as according to the Epistle of Jude, 1:6: ‘In truth the angels who did not observe His rule, but rather abandoned their home, He reserved for the judgment of the Great God, in darkness with eternal chains.’” Thus it is certain that the underground spirits have been endowed with the powers of darkness – and no one could doubt this without throwing away his faith. By the just dispensation of God these spirits appear to humans after they have become phantasms in human form for the purpose of tempting or tormenting those to whom they appear. I have deemed it appropriate to discuss them here lest anything be lacking in this work treating of all things subterranean. Further, whatever the reader finds in this account can be used to resist the wiles of the underground demons.

Historians have related that the underground demons are most commonly observed in three places: in the northern regions where perpetual darkness reigns; in desolate desert wastes; and in mines excavated for metals. These little demons very often appear as dwarves a cubit high, and from this the legend of the pygmies making war with the cranes at the Ryphaean Mountains [located in Scythia, or Central Asia – tr.] seems to have been born. Because of this ascription, Arab geographers claim that the underground demons inhabit the northernmost kingdoms. In particular they are placed in the kingdoms of Gog and Magog, a fact with which all other authors who treat of northern history and geography agree. In his Book of the Embassy to Moscow, Paul Jovius [unknown person – tr.] writes: “Beyond the Lappland, in the region ‘twixt Corum and Aquilo [exact locations unknown – tr.], where heat is forever absent, pygmies can be found – so some witnesses of exceptional trustworthiness have related. These pygmies, even after they grown to the greatest height to which they can attain, do not exceed the height of a lad of ten years of age. They are an uncanny species of human being, using a grunting form of speech, so that they seem to be as closely related to apes in their behavior as they are distant from actual humans in their bodily mass, mentality, and height.” With regards to these pygmies, the reader ought to consult Olaf Magnus, who refers to them as Screlingeri, i.e., “Cubit-Highs”. The most venerable authors – Plutarch, Ctesios, Pliny - have also made mention of monsters of this sort – and likewise assert that they do indeed exist, so that I cannot thus easily deny that they do. But I do not readily conclude that these pygmies are a true species of human being, since no nation can be found, even if one combs the entire earth, with any knowledge of humans of this kind, let alone where such a species flourishes.

My conclusion, therefore, is as follows. It is certain that these pygmies are seen by shepherds and farmers in the most remote corners of the Arctic lands, those lands condemned almost entirely to perpetual darkness. Since shepherds and farmers are, according to Olaf Magnus, disposed to every sort of superstition, and delude themselves easily with regards to the existence of spirits, it ought to seem remarkable to no one that they ordinarily see the demons manifesting under the form of a human pygmy. In this way the demons can both perpetuate the superstition among the minds of the credulous, and to confer benefits upon those to whom they have manifested. If, moreover, such a genus of little human indeed exists in the foggy septentrional regions, why have they remained hidden from the Batavians, that exceedingly curious race, who has done naught else for the past sixty years other than engage in the exploration of the most hidden recesses, not only of the north, but of every corner of the entire world? Why have the Batavians found nothing of pygmies of this sort in any nation? Why have no dwarves of this kind ever been taken from Lappland, Karelia, Cremesia [location unknown, perhaps Estonia or Vepsia – tr.], Finland, or from any of those countries hard by Germany – Suevia [now the province of Schwabenland in Germany – tr.], Denmark, or the Netherlands? Furthermore, monsters from even the most remote regions of the Indies are not ordinarily brought to our country, nor can anyone be found who would dare to claim that they had ever seen a pygmy answering to the description of the Cubit-Highs in any of the aforementioned nations. Thus all the accounts of the ancient Geographers concerning pygmies of this kind, written primarily for an unsophisticated readership, are purely mythical. And as water puts forth water, so does fable beget fable, and we accordingly classify the Stork Battle of the dwarves as a miracle. That is, the cranes imagine themselves to be in perpetual war with an army arrayed against those whom they hate. For a fuller treatment of such matters, the reader ought to consult Jordanes or Olaf Magnus.

I therefore declare that if these pygmies were ever actually seen, they were nothing other than those demons that love the misty regions of the aforementioned sort, which have been described as appearing to a rural populace which lacks any law or religion, for the purpose of perpetually enslaving them. As a result, the fabulous accounts of pygmies have subsequently filtered through to the entire world – and what is even more remarkable, they have found belief even among the wisest of men. These fabled and so-called “pygmies” can thus be numbered among those beings not infrequently encountered by miners, which are called mountain demons. Concerning these, George Agricola writes in his book on underground animals: “A twofold genus of these little demons occurs, the first being fierce and wild, and terrifying to look upon. It is called the Sneberg, because it inflicts tremendous damage on the miners whenever it is angered. There are also certain small demons which some of the Germans and Greeks call Kobalts, for they are believed to imitate humans, laughing as if delighted with happiness. They seem to do many things, but in fact do nothing. Some call them Little Mountain Men, or Bergmen, referring to the height to which many of them attain – that is, about three-quarters of the height of a dwarf. They seem to be aged and dressed in the manner of the miners, wearing both a fillet about the head and a leather hide hanging around the groin area. They do not usually harass the miners, but they do wander around in the pits and the tunnels. Although they do nothing, they seem to be engaged in every kind of labor, as if they were mining lodes, or pouring them into containers after they had been dug, or turning the digging machine. On occasion, however, they do pelt the operators with ice; but they rarely attack them and never actually harm them, unless first provoked by laughter or cursing. They are not dissimilar to those demons which the Germans call Gutels, or Trolls, which can disguise themselves as either sex. Among other nations, especially among the Suevians, it is said that these beings were originally in a state of servitude.” Thus writes Agricola.

It is apparent from Agricola’s account that the little mountain demons are the same as those which he states to have been employed in the capacity of servants in the northernmost regions. It was also related to me that these little mountain demons can be seen in Tyrolean mines, for whom the miners daily set aside small portions of food, always consisting of porridge, little cakes, and cheese. And unless they remember to do so, they are accordingly exposed to danger on that day. The cunning of the demons makes fools of the superstitious miners, so that there are some who consider this kind of extortion a religious obligation, and strive to appease the demons in any way. This is especially true when they hear the blows of a demon wielding a hammer: at that time the lucky miners persuade themselves that this is a signal that they can immediately uncover a gold-bearing vein. Cysatus confirms that this takes place often in his description of that Swiss mountain known as Mount Pilate. We have translated his account from German into Latin:

“Among other marvels there are certain tales concerning the little mountain men, whom the locals call Bergmen, which are endowed with the form and stature of dwarves. They are said to inhabit the mountain’s caverns and tunnels, and to have performed prodigies for the miners. They repay some gifts lovingly with gold, while they attack others in horrible ways. They have even hurled some persons over the rocky cliffs of the mountain when enraged. In all likelihood this was the result not of the actions of the fabled pygmies, but through the devices and various illusions of evil spirits, by the just judgment of God.”

Not long ago, this same learned man Cysatus wrote to me in response to various questions that I had posed. He stated that diabolic phantoms of this sort have appeared to various persons, both farmers and miners, in the form of dwarves. He also stated that one day he himself entered a very long subterranean passage for the purpose of uncovering lodes wherever he might find one [aliquousque = ?]. Next to a certain river he found the footsteps of a three-year-old child in the wet sand, which he curiously examined. Since he could not possibly believe that a boy of this age could have entered this frightful underground channel, he at last understood from the villagers that the footprints were those of one of the little mountain demons. The demons are believed to customarily delude superstitious men as much as possible with such footprints for the purpose of exciting greed among the miners.

When not long ago I inquired of the magistrates and prefects of the Hungarian mines whether the little underground demons – which they called Bergmen, or mountain pygmies - ever appeared there, they replied to me with the following: “Such demons have been seen by the miners in past times. They have even provoked the miners to flight and pushed them out of the mine, sometimes inciting a great uproar and clamor. This most especially happens as a portent or warning when the miners approach a rich lode.”

In a correspondence with me, Herr Schapelmann, Superintendent of Minerals in Herrengrundt [located in modern Slovakia – tr.], related the following: “The illustrious Ferdinand of Erun [location unknown – tr.], Superintendent of the Hungarian mines, thusly concerning the little mountain men, wrote to me: ‘It is most certain that spirits or phantoms can be seen in the mines, not only as if they were performing various labors, of which no actual outcome can be observed; but they also throw pebbles at the miners, savagely vexing many of them so that they are unable to perform their duties. This very thing happened not long ago to a certain miner who is now dead, named George Egger. This man testified that he himself saw phantoms of this sort when he was alone in the mine. However, they are more often heard than seen – and whenever anything of this nature occurs, often it presages some good or evil event. The miners also hold to the superstition that if anyone has seen a spirit of this kind, and at once reveals his vision, he will die shortly thereafter. There are many examples of this, among them the case which occurred in Selmec [located in modern Slovakia – tr.]. Twenty years after the event, a certain Simeon Krauss, when he related similar sights to his companions, suddenly perished. For more confirmation of this, there are many reliable old men who have declared the following statements with clear conscience under oath:

1. Martin Lichy, a metallurgist, states that sixteen years ago, on a certain Sunday evening, in a mine called the Oberpicherstollen Mine, he turned around and saw a little man the height of a boy of six to eight years, wearing a leathern vest, a wide hat, with large flashing eyes. The metallurgist, being alone, was thoroughly terrified by the little man’s appearance. But, since he held a club in his hand, he hurled it at the little man, who then vanished and did not appear again.

2. Paul Wetzstein, a miner at Oberpicherstollen, states that, twenty-five years ago, at a certain mine in Selmec, there was a miner named Mohrer Erbstollen, who heard someone hard at work. Wishing to know who it was, and believing the sound to be made by one of his companions, he went toward that place from which he heard the sound emanating. But, finding no one, he believed that his companions had hidden themselves to play a joke on him. From just past that place where a lantern was shining, he heard someone cry out “Ba-ba”; and for this reason he was quite terrified, knowing that there was nothing right in front of him. He hurriedly left the mine and sought out his companions. When he began to relate to them what had befallen him, they ordered him to be silent. Nevertheless, he presently fell ill, and remained so for the space of three weeks. A kind of rash erupted on his face; and it did not clear up until he regained his health three weeks later.

3. Christian Muller, a miner from the same place, affirms that the same thing happened to him just one week after the aforementioned incident had occurred. A fellow miner left him alone in the mine and ordered him to remain there a little while longer. While still inside the mine he heard someone hard at work above him; and, wishing to know who was working there, he looked around – but saw no one. Terrified, he fled from the mine. When his fellow miner wondered why he had followed him so hurriedly, he began to tell him what had happened. His companion enjoined him to silence: but still a paralysis overcame him for the space of two weeks, during which time he was struck dumb.

These men were able to tell much more besides, how similar phantoms or pygmies perform various acts in the mines, how they throw things up and down, and how such tumults often portend disaster. And, just as if the commotion they made was done in water, no trace is left of their activity, when the source of the disaster is sought.’”

So writes the Selmecian. George Schultz [unknown person – tr.] adds: “A long time ago, a pygmy or little mountain man (not called ‘little’ without reason) was seen. That he was very small was apparent from one of his footprints which he left in the muddy, adhesive ground – it was similar in size to that of a boy of two or three years. The lamp which he was accustomed to carry in his hand shone brilliantly, and if he preceded the miners in entering the mine, he gave them a good hope of finding a rich lode.” He then goes on: “The little mountain men, or pygmies, are found only in wealthier mines, and in the copper mines when they are prosperous.”

P. Andreas Schaffer [unknown person - tr.] has related similar things to me. And since he had great familiarity with the Hungarian mines, he also diligently sought the meaning of these phantasms. As his reports are already entirely in agreement with what I have already reported here, there is no need to repeat them.