"We are often creating the very conditions for the fascism we seek to stop..."
This is excerpted from one of the chapters I wrote for next year’s book, Here Be Monsters: How to Fight Capitalism Instead of Each Other. The book will be released in September, 2023 through Repeater Press.
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A few years ago I found myself flipping through the pages of a very surprising book. It was a grimoire, a collections of spells and incantations, entitled The Magic Secrets of Guidon. Published in 1670 as an appendix to the Grimoire of Pope Honorarius, the short text recounts various folk magic practices of Norman shepherds against all manners of ills and evils.
It’s a rarely cited fact that, while the vast majority of those accused of witchcraft in Europe and Britain were women, the opposite was the case in Normandy.1 Shepherds in particular were often suspect, especially because their work meant they were often in the wilderness (and thus less civilized), and had a parallel male society with other shepherds in the same way that bandits, rogues, pirates and others outsider groups developed.2
Somewhat rare for grimoires of the time, the spells in The Magic Secrets of Guidon are for practical matters, rather than for binding demons for power and wealth. Quite a few spells are for protecting sheep and horses or for healing ones that are sick; another protects small garden plots from rabbits. A few are directed at other people, mostly to turn away bandits and thieves or to counteract the spells of rivals. In addition, several spells are to deal with personal health problems, including bleeding, hemorrhoids, and other illness.
A particular health problem merits two spells: that of “mange” or scabies, a contagious affliction transmitted by touch. In the second of these two spells, we find the following peculiar curse aimed at the cause of the skin condition:
“May the werewolf farrier’s dick rot, because he fucked me.”3
A farrier is a blacksmith who focuses on shoeing horses, and the implication of the curse is that the farrier passed scabies along to the shepherd and to his animals after sexual relations. While this alone could merit an entire discussion of late-medieval sodomy and folk magic beliefs, most relevant is the accusation that the farrier is also a werewolf.
While less common than those regarding witchcraft, accusations that a person was a werewolf often resulted in public trials. The most prominent of these occurred in Switzerland in the early 15th century alongside a significant wave of witch trials which soon spread throughout Europe. Famous accusations (such as that of Peter Stumpp) became printed as pamphlets and distributed widely throughout Europe.
The Werewolf is much, much older than these trials. Like the Vampire, the Werewolf is also a widely-known monster. The ability to change from human into an animal (or the other way around) is a core feature of many shamanic and animist traditions, and stories of humans turned into animals by the gods as punishment for some offense or even as divine favor against an attacker abound in animist and pagan lore throughout the world and especially in European paganisms.
The ability to shapeshift into animals was a common accusation against witches in the medieval and pre-capitalist period of Europe: indictments against people accused of being Werewolves often occurred alongside the witch hunts, though—as with Norman shepherds—suspected Werewolves were rarely women and most often men.
Unlike the Vampire or the Zombie, the Werewolf is a living human. It is neither a ghost nor a revenant, nor does the Werewolf lack a wandering soul or animating spirit. Instead, like the Cyborg, the Werewolf is fully human, fully alive, but also a hybrid being as well.
Accusations against Werewolves often followed a similar pattern to those accused of witchcraft, except for one significant difference. Witches supposedly knew they were witches, were accused of actively seeking relations with the Devil or demons, actively performing malefica (curses), and were otherwise accused of choosing to be witches. Those who accused others of being werewolves, on the other hand, assumed their target didn’t even realize what they were.
The vast majority of recorded myths we have about the Werewolf are from France, but the word we use for it in English is specifically Germanic. In fact, the French word for them, loup-garou, is derivative of the word the Germanic Frankish peoples used for it, werawulf, which meant “man wolf.”4 For ancient Germanic peoples, the Werewolf was both a mythic creature but also an exile or outcast marked for death and reliant only upon the gods for protection.
The Threat of the Wolf
To understand how these two ideas were related, we need first to contemplate actual wolves and their relationship to settled society or “civilization.” In Europe particularly, wolves were the primary threat to the keeping of cattle, sheep, and other animals for meat, milk, and wool. A wolf could quickly destroy a family’s personal herd (usually just a handful of animals) before the humans could even intervene. Such a loss meant not just the loss of a few animals, but also loss of wealth and even life due to starvation.
Without attacking a single person, a small group of wolves could cause the death of an entire village by killing off their livestock. As such, in many places wolves took on a symbolic sense of destruction, famine, and also of an unstoppable natural or external threat to society. They also were sometimes seen as forms of punishment from displeased gods or ancestors, or a herald of a change in rulership since leaders and kings who couldn’t protect their people from such threats were soon replaced.
Wolves became themselves part of the rituals of punishment within society, including in one of the oldest recorded prescriptions for ritual capital punishment, the “poena cullei.” In that ritual, the condemned first has his head covered with a wolf skin before being put into a sack with other animals and thrown from a cliff or drowned in a river.
In his excellent book, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Georgio Agamben details how the connection between punishment for severe, unpardonable crimes and wolf-men extended from both ancient German and Roman law into the medieval period of Europe. Men who were exiled as murderers or bandits were defined as Werewolves or “wolf heads” even in English law:
“...the laws of Edward the Confessor (1030-35) define the bandit as a wulfesheud (a wolf’s head) and assimilate him to the werewolf (lupinum enim gerit caput a die utlagationis suae, quod ab anglis wulfesheud vacatur, “He bears a wolf’s head from the day of his expulsion, and the English call this wulfesheud”). What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city—the werewolf—is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city. That such a man is defined as a wolf-man and not simply as a wolf (the expression caput lupinum has the form of a juridical statute) is decisive here. The life of the bandit, like that of the sacred man, is not a piece of animal nature without any relation to law and the city. It is, rather, a threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man, physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion: the life of the bandit is the life of the loup garou, the werewolf, who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither.
Perhaps you noticed something in Agamben’s final sentence. He calls the Werewolf “a threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man,” adding that it is “precisely neither man nor beast” and “dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither.”
That is, the Werewolf is the shadow of the Cyborg, or rather they are inverse twins of each other. The Cyborg is part-human, part-machine, a hybrid being with one foot in the human world and one foot in our technological dreaming. The Werewolf, on the other hand, is part wolf, part human. Each are both and neither, both part human but not fully human, part animal or machine but not fully those things, either.
This leads to several immediate conclusions. First of all, the Cyborg is not the first monster to arise into our consciousness when our definitions of what it means to be human become unclear. The Werewolf is a much older monster who arose from the very same sort of problem, the complications of understanding how we are different from the rest of the world and from what we create.
Secondly, both the Cyborg and the Werewolf were born from political questions. The Cyborg appeared just at the point capitalist societies began trying to overcome naturalistic ideas of what life is and what humans are capable of doing. Technologies that allowed for extending life, replacing human organs and functions with machines, and even surgically changing the genitals to switch people between man and woman created not just theological or philosophical questions but political ones. If “natural” laws or limits could be transcended and even shown not to exist at all, then the very basis of “natural” rights and protections, as well as questions of race and identity itself, seemed to fall away underneath us.