✨ A Gathering Place for Magical Readers and Writers ✨

Tag Archives: claude lecouteux

Tales & Legends of the Devil, by Claude and Corrinne Lecouteux

Tales & Legends of the Devil: The Many Guises of the Primal Shapeshifter, by Claude and Corinne Lecouteux
Inner Traditions, 1644116855, 240 pages, August 2023

The Devil captured the medieval imagination with a variety of epithets, such as “Lucifer,” “the Evil One,” “the Black Tempter,” “the Horned One,” “Beelzebub, the master of the devils,” and “Old Eric” or “Gamle Erik,” as he is known in Denmark. Being a more nuanced character than the theological Satan, the folkloric Devil was often depicted as a clever trickster who was morally ambiguous rather than evil, occasionally even doing good deeds, such as freeing a prisoner or helping someone in need, for a price.1

Tales & Legends of the Devil: The Many Guises of the Primal Shapeshifter is a collection of fifty-two medieval folktales from twenty European countries, compiled by medieval scholar Claude Lecouteux and his wife, co-author and translator Corinne Lecouteux. Many of these stories begin with the classic fairy tale opening “Once upon a time,” setting the stage for imaginal realms to encroach on reality through entertaining diabolical delusions.

In this treasury of infernal tales, the folkloric Devil is an elusive entity whose most defining characteristic is his ability to shapeshift. He can assume whatever form he pleases, appearing in the guise of a seductive woman or a handsome young suitor, a redhead, a hunter of souls, a man clad in the black cassock of a priest, or in the shape of an animal, often a black one, such as a goat, dog, cat, toad, serpent, crow, or wolf. When he appears in humanoid form, he often has horns and hobbles with a limp, and the cloven hooves peeking out from underneath his clothes give him away before he vanishes in a puff of smoke.

The Devil is a portmanteau figure whose quicksilver nature encompasses a myriad of mythical beings demoted by Christianity, such as gods, sorcerers, fairies, and nature spirits.2 This is often made clear when a folktale describes an entity as a devil rather than the Devil. In a Bulgarian tale titled How the Devil Recognized a Flea Skin, “a devil sprang out of the sea” and “changed into a man” in order to wed a princess.3 After the wedding, “he dragged her with him into the sea,” revealing his true identity as a “merman.”4 Stories like this no doubt evolved from pagan fairy lore about mortals being abducted by supernatural beings and carried away to otherworldly realms. These devils are also mortal, and can be outwitted or killed by clever human beings.

In many of these stories, the Devil abducts women and takes them as brides, bringing to mind the classical myth of the rape of Persephone. The Devil in the guise of a bridegroom feels like a cross between the fairy tale serial killer Bluebeard and the Greek god Hades. In one tale, a Persephone-like maiden picks a radish that drags her down into the Underworld to marry the Devil. In another, the Devil carries away a princess on a winged horse, and guards the multiple wives he has imprisoned in hell in the form of a dragon.

Some of these stories have recurring themes and complement each other with nearly identical endings. A tale from Switzerland titled The Devil for a Brother-in-Law and a longer story from Denmark called The Black School both conclude with the devil giving a young man who has served as his apprentice in the black arts a limitless coin purse under the condition that he stay in an inn and not groom or bathe for seven years. The young man’s nails grow into claws and his hairy, demonic appearance is so shameful that he is too embarrassed to leave his room. While in this disheveled and animal-like state, the man uses his diabolical wealth to aid the poor from behind closed doors. During the sixth year, he agrees to help a man who has gambled away his fortune pay his debts in exchange for the hand of one of his three beautiful daughters in marriage. The two eldest daughters are so disgusted by their benefactor’s foul odor and bestial appearance that they reject him outright. Although the youngest is also horrified by him, she is the most virtuous and agrees to marry him out of filial piety. After the seven years have ended, the beast cleans up and transforms into a handsome young man, much to his fiancée’s relief. Her older sisters, who had spurned him, commit suicide out of jealousy and the devil is delighted to have gained two wives of his own out of the bargain by collecting their souls.

In my favorite story, The Devil in the Cask Spigot, which comes from Transylvania, Romania, a princess evades marriage by out-dancing potential suitors to death. She meets her match in a devil, who forces her to dance with him until she faints. Then he curses the whole kingdom by turning everyone to stone. A thousand years later, a young man chances upon the overgrown ruins of the castle. A strange imp falls out of the chimney and tells the intruder that he is “the devil and the master of this castle,”5 and that his guest must fight him to the death in order to stay the night. The young man says he is too tired for a duel and asks to postpone it until the next day.

The devil agrees to advance his hospitality if they will have a drinking contest that night instead of a fight to the death tomorrow. The man agrees, and outsmarts the devil by trapping him in a wine cask. The kingdom is restored to life and the young man is betrothed to the princess as a reward for delivering her kingdom from the curse. The last line struck me as pure genius: “The young husband never gave a second thought to the fact that he had left his own time to travel one thousand years into the past.”6 Up until that point, the thousand year difference between his culture and theirs is not addressed, but that one line stimulated my imagination. A common motif in fairy tales is the timeless quality of fairyland, and I wondered if he had wandered through some sort of magic portal or temporal rift and had actually traveled back in time.

Tales & Legends of the Devil is a literary treasure trove glittering with fairy gold that will be cherished by anyone with an interest in European folktales and medieval lore. Creative writers may be inspired to craft their own fairy tales featuring devils, and practitioners of traditional witchcraft who honor the Devil as the sire of witches will appreciate the insights these tales offer about the mysterious nature of the Horned One. Whatever allure the Devil has for the reader, the beguiling schemes and mischief of this ultimate antihero are sure to entertain.

Mysteries of the Werewolf, by Claude Lecouteux

Mysteries of the Werewolf: Shapeshifting, Magic, and Protection, by Claude Lecouteux
Inner Traditions, 1644110784, 224 pages, August 2021

Ahhh-ohhhh, werewolves! Legends of werewolves are as popular as ever, but did you ever wonder about the origins of these stories? In Mysteries of the Werewolf: Shapeshifting Magic & Protection, Claude Lecouteux delves into folklore, legends, and historical accounts from all over the world, showcasing how the tale of the werewolf evolved through time.

Lecouteux’s impressive background certainly influences the way he wrote this book. As a professor emeritus of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne, it’s evident that he is dedicated to the scholarship of his work. Mysteries of the Werewolf is incredibly well sourced, and many of the translations in the book were done by Lecouteux himself. He has applied the same thoroughness to detail in his previously published works The Book of Grimoires, Dictionary of Ancient Magic Words and Spells, and The Tradition of Household Spirits.

What is very unique about this book is the way Lecouteux creates a cohesive cultural understanding of the werewolf through comparing texts side by side. While some books on werewolves try to play up werewolves as a form of cryptid, Lecouteux uses historical records to piece together a whole picture of this possible mythological, possibly real being. He states:

“The texts I’ve collected for this anthology are intended to document the history of the werewolf through the ages and include some excursions far from the European domain when there was a good reason to do so.”1

Hence, we have documentation from around the globe dating back to the 10th century of different aspects of lycanthropy. Topics include stories on becoming a werewolf, pacts with the devil and evil spells as cause, werewolves’ clothing and accessories, healing and free werewolves, testimonials and more!

A sixteenth century French story Lecouteux called “How the Werewolf Lost an Eye”:

“A young noblewoman of the land of Livonia was arguing with one of her servants about whether it was possible for a man to change into the shape of a wolf, and as she made it seem dubious, this servant, so that he could provide her more ample proof, asked her permission to turn himself into a wolf. She granted him such permission, and he retreated to a secret room in the house, which he left shortly afterward in the form of a wolf. After this a pack of dogs caught his scent and set off in pursuit of him, chasing him into a nearby wood where they ripped out one of his eyes. The next day when he regained his human shape he returned to the house missing an eye.”2

This is just one example of the many, many tales in the book (I would estimate at least one hundred!). It was certainly enjoyable and entertaining reading the stories; some are heartbreaking, others vicious, while some are infused with a bit of comedy. Some feature witches and wizards, while others are just common people who are plagued with the curse of the werewolf.

It’s a thrill to feel connected to people of centuries past through the common thread of werewolves. I couldn’t help but wonder what it might have been like to tell some of these tales prior to electricity, when animals and humans were in much closer contact.

To see the range of the stories, from all over the world, I can’t help but start to think about the commonality of this man turn beast archetype. And at some point, I did start wondering if there was any merit to these stories, given they have persisted for such a long span of time cross-culturally!

“Elsewhere, we see a warrior who changed into a bear lending his support to men battling an enemy. In Africa, people believe in jackal-men, hyena-men, and leopard-men; the Inuits believe in caribou-men, and the people of the Far East believe in tiger-men. Every land and every civilization has had its own distinctive view of lycanthropy.”3

I wonder what it is about the human turn beast that leaves such a lasting impression on our psyche. Perhaps approaching the book with this question in mind will yield some answers, as I read it mostly for the enjoyment of the stories the first time. Though, I will note that Lecouteux’s introduction is filled with background information and history of the werewolf, so this book is much more than just a fun-filled, entertaining read.

Any werewolf lover is sure to enjoy Mysteries of the Werewolf, but even those with a general interest in folklore would find it worth the read. These stories help weave a picture of how the tales of the werewolf have evolved over time, expanding the reader’s knowledge of lycanthropy folklore. Lecouteux has done a phenomenal job gathering all the stories in one collection for readers to compare and contrast how tales of the werewolf, and perhaps one day, may even add their own!