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Shapeshifters on Trial

By Lucas Cranach the Elder – Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

In The Netherlands in the 1590s, tales of the Devil’s evil machinations once again conjured up fear and horror in the minds of the inhabitants of Amersfoort and Utrecht. This time the cause was a trial that combined accusations of witchcraft and sorcery with the unnatural state of animal shapeshifting.

The trial held in 1595, led to the execution of Folkt Dirks a 62-year-old farmer from the Hoogland province of Utrecht and his 17-year-old daughter Hendrika along with members of their ‘coven’; Anthonis Bulck and Maria Barten. The main evidence against them was provided by Dirks’ sons, in particular 14-year-old Hessel and 13-year-old Elbert.

Elbert in his testimony spoke of having had made a pact with the Devil, along with his father, sister, older brother, and two younger brothers; 11-year-old Gijsbert and 8-year-old Dirk. He also claimed that the Devil had given his father a hairy belt after receiving the family’s oaths of loyalty. The belt gave them the power to turn into wolves. In this form, they had, after accepting the gift, immediately gone to the fields in Eemland, where he, together with his older brother, and his father had drunk the blood of cattle [1]. Elbert continued that the Devil had also ordered them to undress and had changed them into cats. In this guise, they had been taken to a place near Amersfoort where they had found other cats with whom they danced until two in the morning [2].

“The Water Torture.— Facsimile of a Woodcut in J. Damhoudère’s Praxis Rerum Criminalium: in 4to, Antwerp, 1556.” – Used to illustrate. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Hessel’s confession ran on very similar lines to his brother’s. He recalled that on one occasion while he was with his godmother, the Devil had come down the chimney along with a woman who danced for the Devil’s pleasure. In the original text, the woman is described as a “red cat (Tom)” (although it is unclear if she was already in the form of a cat when she first appeared). The Devil had given him a piece of black leather and a black cloth with pins in it [3]. Eventually, the Devil had stopped the woman’s dance with the words “Thou ugly beast, now you will go with me” and had tied a leather belt around her, changing her into a wolf. The Devil and the female were-wolf had then, along with Hessel (also in his wolf form) flown up the chimney to a field, where they attacked and fed on the local livestock [4].

After hearing this evidence, the local officials brought Folkt Dirks to listen to his sons’ accusations. After having gone through two separate stints of torture, the water test, and hearing his sons condemn him to his face, Dirks finally broke and on his knees confessed to being an emissary of the Devil, practicing witchcraft, and having taken the form of a wolf. He told his torturers how after receiving a black doublet a few years earlier he had been compelled to commit evil acts and had been given the ability to shapeshift. On the 14 June 1595, Dirks was sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake the very same day [5].

A week later, Hendrika Dirks, followed in her father’s footsteps. She admitted to having surrendered to the Devil when she was eleven years old and having for the last few years been sexually intimate with him. She spoke of attacking cattle in the fields [6] and described how she, accompanied by some unnamed female relatives, attended dances during the witches’ sabbath in the form of either a cat or a wolf [7] (there seems to be some confusion here as to which). During her interrogation, whether under duress or not, she gave her torturers the names of others whom she claimed had been present at these orgies. Based on her testimony; Grietje Segers, Cornelius Hendrik Bulck and his son Anthonis and Maria Barten were also condemned. Grietje Segers committed suicide in prison but Cornelius Hendrik Bulck managed to escape and was never heard from again. Anthonis and Maria were tortured and were finally executed alongside Hendrika [8].

The lives of Dirks’ sons; Hessel, Elbert, Gijsbert and Dirk were spared due to their youth but they were severely whipped until their backs ran with blood. They were also forced to watch the executions of their sister and Maria

The case of Folkt Dirks is an interesting one. It is more than likely that the Dirks’ family had been under suspicion for a long time. If they hadn’t then Hessel and Elbert must have really hated their father and sister in order to accuse them of committing such terrible, heretical crimes. At certain points during the trial, the boys seemed confused, unsure of what they were saying. This is reflected in their testimonials where they sometimes contradict themselves e.g. they state that they had never taken part in the mutilation of cattle but a local official testified that they had admitted to him of having been involved. Maybe they were under pressure to testify or were being controlled or were simply terrified.

One story which had floated about for about a year prior to his arrest, alludes to Dirks’ dark skills and in particular his unnatural control over animals. According to a female neighbour, Dirks had bewitched her horse with the words “what a nice bay that is, god bless him” [9]. The woman gives no further details about why he would want to curse her horse. Possibly she thought he had done it out of envy or spite. It is also interesting that another rumour existed that Dirks’ wife was descended from a matrilineal hereditary line of witches. Although there is no mention of her (probably she had already died), it might explain the accusations against Hendrika and possibly why it was considered safe to allow the boys to go free.

There is one more case that occurred at the same time in the same area and that was the trial of Kanti Hans and his wife. They admitted to being followers of Satan and having been given the power to turn into bears as a reward. There is no evidence as to why they were arrested and since their statements were made whilst they were being tortured, it is difficult to believe the sincerity of their confessions. The fascinating point with the case of Hans and his wife is that they were given the power of transforming into bears and not wolves. Compared to the number of witchcraft trials happening in Europe at the time, only a small proportion included accusations of shapeshifting into were-wolves [10] and even less involved were-bears.

German Woodcut 1722. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Studies of this case have agreed that the judgment passed on the Dirks’ family was one based on witchcraft rather than on werewolfery (although werewolf trials at that point in time were being held, albeit in much lower numbers than witchcraft trials). That being said there is one main element of both these stories that link them to the more straight-forward trials of suspected were-wolves e.g. the 1598 trial of Peter Stumpp, that is the role of the wolfskins and bearskins in the Dirks’ and Hans’ confessions.

The Battle Lust of the Berserkers

By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The idea that a bite can cause a person to become a were-wolf is a relatively recent idea. More common in the past was the belief that the change was caused by a salve rubbed on the body or by the wearing of animal skins. The concept of the transformational power of animal skins has a long history which more than likely originated with the emergence of powerful and feared fighters who eventually became the berserkers of Viking sagas and legends.

When someone talks of berserkers the image that appears in our heads has been so strongly influenced by the mythology that arose around them that it is hard to extract the reality from the fantasy. The berserkers ‘bear-shirts’ were originally an elite group of warriors who served under the Scandinavian kings in honour of Odin, alongside another group known as the wolfskins (heathen wolves). There seems to be confusion in the sources over whether or not the wolfskins were part of the berserker brotherhood or a separate group altogether [11]. It is possible that berserkers and wolfskins form two subcategories of one group, with each choosing a different totem and as a result assuming the characteristics and mannerisms of that animal. It is more than probable that these warriors wore either a wolf or bear skin over their armour [12]. This would have accomplished a number of things; the skins would have provided insulation from the harsh weather of Northern Europe, afforded them extra protection in battle which would partly explain their reputation as being invulnerable to weapons and also given them the “appearance of grimness and ferocity” [13] which would strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Add this to them being intoxicated with battle lust; biting their shields, attacking boulders and trees, and even killing each other whilst waiting [14] and you get a striking image.

The Haraldskvadet, a 9th-century skaldic poem honouring King Harald at Hatrsfjord perfectly captures the maniacal nature of the berserkers when it describes how the “Berserkers roared where the battle raged, wolf-heathens howled and iron weapons trembled” [15]. It is not then surprising that their foes seeing the berserkers’ primeval and maniacal behaviour would assign them supernatural powers, abilities which to their minds would have been attributed to the wearing of animal skins.

The Legend of Sigmund and Sinfjotli

Woodcut image of one of the Vendel era Torslunda plates found on Öland, Sweden. It probably depicts the god of frenzy Óðinn followed by a Berserker.  Public domain via Wikimedia.

This idea that by covering yourself in animal skins the wearer can take on the power of the animal was passed down through popular tales and legends in northern Europe and was initially associated with sorcery. In the wild saga of the Volsungs, it is told how Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli came across a house where they found two men asleep and above them hanging up, wolfskins. Knowing that the sleeping men had dealing with witchcraft the brothers dressed themselves in the wolfskins and were immediately overtaken by the “nature of the original beast” [16]. With the power of the wolf, they went on a ten-day rampage which ended when Sigmund gave his son a lethal bite on the neck. The son only survived because a kind raven gave Sigmund a feather imbued with healing powers [17].

The Werewolf of Landes

By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The belief that wolf skins could turn someone into a wolf was not confined to Northern Europe, it existed all over Europe and even further afield. Eventually, the story subtly changed and by the medieval period, it was believed that it was the Devil who gave those who he wished to corrupt, pellets or belts, in order to commit atrocious acts in his name.

This can be seen in the story of Jean Grenier who lived in Landes in the South of France. Jean admitted to local officials that he had sold his soul to the Devil who had in return given him a salve and wolf pelt which had conferred on him the power of transforming into a wolf. He said he had the wolf skin in his possession and that he went out hunting for children to devour at his master’s command.  Jean’s evidence matched the circumstances surrounding reported child disappearances and several children testified to having been attacked by him. An enlightened sentence for the time stated that Jean was an imbecile and dismissed his confession of being in league with a demonic figure. Jean was sentenced to confinement at a local monastery for the rest of his life [18].

The Beast of Bedburg

The most notorious and famous werewolf case is that of Peter Stubbe, a wealthy farmer who lived in the late 1500s in Bedburg, Germany. He was accused of the killing and mutilation of livestock and multiple murders including 13 children and two pregnant women, whose foetuses he ripped from their bellies, feeding on the unborn babies’ hearts. He was also believed to have sexually molested his own daughter and having killed his son and eaten his brains. The townspeople of Bedburg initially believed that the crimes had been committed by wolves but later feared that it was the responsibility of a demonic force or a werewolf. At his trial, Stubbe admitted to having received a wolf’s pelt from the Devil at the age of 12 which would turn him into the likeness of a wolf with an insatiable hunger. He said when he removed it, he would return to his human state again. His confession obtained on the rack does make one wonder about its veracity. His punishment was severe and terrible, he was placed on a wheel and his flesh removed with red hot pincers. His arms and legs were broken and his head cut off. His daughter and mistress were accused of being his accomplices, strangled and their bodies burnt along with his. Suffice it to say, the belt was never found [19].

Composite woodcut print by Lukas Mayer of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne. Public domain via Wikipedia.

One recent interpretation of Stubbe’s case is that the accusation was motivated by greed and jealousy; Stubbe was a very wealthy and powerful man. It would have been in some people’s interests to destroy him and his family and in that, they were successful!

Conclusion

Returning to the Dirks family, the fascinating part of their story is not their being accused of witchcraft; witchcraft trials were numerous during this period, but the werewolf side of it. In many countries in Europe, witches were believed to have the power to shapeshift, so these accusations were not unusual in itself but linking their tale and that of Hans and his wife to were-wolves and were-bears is. It combined two elements that people in the medieval period feared the most, witches and werewolves, whilst at the same time continuing a long-held belief that went back to the berserkers and the power of the ancient gods.

The Company of Wolves. Directed by Neil Jordan. Palace Pictures 1984.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Werewolf Witch Trials, https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Werewolf%20witch%20trials&item_type=topic

Willem de Bleucourt, https://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20281b/Philosophy%20of%20Magic/Arcana/Witchcraft%20and%20Grimoires/deBlecourt-womenaswitch.pdf

The Truth about Viking Berserkers, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.historyextra.com/period/viking/the-truth-about-viking-berserkers/amp/

The Wild and Insane Viking Warriors, https://www.historia.ro/sectiune/general/articol/the-wild-and-insane-viking-warriors

Berserkers and other Shamanic Warriors, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/others/berserkers-and-other-shamanic-warriors/

History of the Werewolf Legend, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.history.com/.amp/topics/folklore/history-of-the-werewolf-legend

Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden tijdens de zestiende en zeventiende eeuw, https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_tie002200201_01/_tie002200201_01_0037.php

The Werewolf of Bedburg: The true story of a monster that terrorized a German village, https://www.liveabout.com/the-werewolf-of-bedburg-2597445

Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe, ed. Alison Rowlands, 2009

Peter Stubbe, http://www.scaryforkids.com/peter-stubbe/

Germany’s Brutal Werewolf Belt and The Gut-Wrenching Execution of Peter Stubbe, https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/germany-s-brutal-werewolf-belt-and-gut-wrenching-execution-of-peter-stubbe

Werewolf Witch Trials, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werewolf_witch_trials

Werewolf Trials, https://m.ranker.com/list/werewolf-trials-facts/Inigo-gonzalez

The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1865

Mythical Creatures: Mysteries, Legends and Unexplained Phenomena, Linda S. Godfrey, 2009

NOTES

[1] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[2] Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden

[3] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[4] ibid

[5] Werewolf Witch Trials

[6] Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden

[7] Werewolf Witch Trials

[8] ibid

[9] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[10] Werewolf Witch Trials

[11] The Truth about Viking Berserkers

[12] The Book of Were-Wolves

[13] ibid

[14] The Truth about Viking Berserkers

[15] ibid

[16] The Book of Were-Wolves

[17] History of the Werewolf Legend

[18] The Book of Were-Wolves

[19] History of the Werewolf Legend