The muse who inspires these essays is an unruly goddess. I was planning this week on picking up the threads of the sequence of posts I began at the start of this year, summing up what I’ve learned so far in my exploration of enchantment, disenchantment, and the rise and fall of civilizations, and sketching out the terrain ahead. Instead, a chance discovery in the course of research for an upcoming novel sent me chasing off in an unexpected direction—and that’s why we’re going to talk instead about lycanthropy, Donald Trump, and the persistence of primal archetypes in our supposedly oh-so-modern industrial society.
I think most of my readers know by now that I’ve recently launched a new series of novels in the occult-detective genre, featuring 18-year-old novice occultist Ariel Moravec and her adept grandfather Dr. Bernard Moravec. It differs from other occult-detective novels in that all of the magic that features in the books is the kind of thing that operative occultists today can actually do. The first book in the series, The Witch of Criswell, is out now; I trust it won’t startle anyone to learn that it features a witch—or, rather, three witches, one of them long dead but still very much a presence. The second volume, The Book of Haatan, is in the publisher’s hands now; it features a stolen grimoire, magical treasure hunting, and a quest for pirate gold.
Those two required little research, since they dealt with branches of magic I’ve studied in quite some detail already. The third volume in the series, The Carnelian Moon, is turning out to be a little more research-heavy. Its central theme is lycanthropy—not the Hollywood makeup-artist variety made famous by Lon Chaney Jr., much less the biologically impossible horror-fantasy cliché that has human beings physically turning into wolves, but the older, stranger tradition that Eliphas Lévi intuited from medieval records and anthropologists and archeologists have documented in quite some detail in recent years.
It was in the process of researching that tradition that I found a remarkable little paper published a few years back, “Donald Trump, Werewolf Spawn?” by Kevin D. Pittle and Nicholas A. Hopkins. The title sums up the basic theme of the paper tolerably well. Its authors speculate, on the basis of inconclusive but interesting evidence, that Donald Trump may be descended from Peter Stumpf, one of the most famous victims of Europe’s sixteenth-century werewolf trials.
Connoisseurs of werewolf lore will doubtless remember that Stumpf, also known as Peter Stubbe, was tortured on the rack until he confessed to murder, cannibalism, rape, incest, bestiality, and pretty much every other crime the local inquisitors could think of. He was then broken on the wheel, beheaded, and burnt at the stake in Cologne on October 31, 1589. (The authorities were nothing if not thorough.) His daughter and a woman named Katharina Trump, both of whom were accused of having affairs with him, were also burnt at the same time. The latter, Pittle and Hopkins note, may well have been the same as a Katharina Trump who features in the family tree of Donald Trump. If this is true—and again, this is a speculative hypothesis—Donald Trump is descended from a werewolf’s love child.
By now those of my readers who don’t happen to be connoisseurs of werewolf lore may be scratching their heads, so let me explain a few more details. Yes, there were werewolf trials in sixteenth-century Europe—quite a few of them, in fact, and more in the centuries immediately before and after. They were conducted in the same dubious fashion as the witch trials of those same years: that is to say, once an accusation was made, the accused was presumed to be guilty, tortured savagely in order to extract a confession, and then put to death, preferably after he’d implicated several other people who could then be subjected to the same treatment. It was an ugly chapter of history, though there are plenty of equivalents before and since.
The witch trials of the same period have gotten much more press recently, largely because they got reworked into a central theme in the historical mythology of modern Wicca. There’s a colorful story behind that transformation. In 1862, riffing off a contemporary media furore about revolutionary secret societies, French historian Jules Michelet introduced the idea of medieval witchcraft as an underground religion of sexual and social radicalism in his book La Sorcière (The Witch; the English translation is usually titled Satanism and Witchcraft). That idea got picked up promptly by an assortment of writers, notably American feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, who identified medieval witches as early feminists in Woman, Church, and State (1893), and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who claimed in Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899) that he’d found the sacred text of a witch-cult exactly like the one Michelet described still surviving in Italy.
From there it was an easy step to Margaret Murray, whose books The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches deployed a great deal of blatant academic fraud to identify medieval witchcraft as a surviving Pagan faith, and to Murray’s friend and fellow folklorist Gerald Gardner, who manufactured Wicca in the early 1940s out of a free mix of ceremonial magic, the Woodcraft youth movement, and the teachings of Aleister Crowley, and marketed it to an eager public as the Old Religion that Murray discussed in her works. The modern Neopagan movement followed promptly, and so did the widely circulated claim (promoted earlier by Matilda Joslyn Gage) that the medieval witch hunts slaughtered nine million peaceful, goddess-worshipping wise women.
More recent scholarship showed that Gage’s figure was wildly exaggerated. Maybe 50,000 people—men and women alike—were put to death as accused witches during the era of witch hunts: ugly enough, but not much higher than the annual death toll from auto accidents in the United States. The claim that modern Wicca is in any way descended from medieval witchcraft turned out to be equally inaccurate, as research into Wiccan origins proved readily enough. (That doesn’t make Wicca spiritually invalid, by the way; it simply means that like a great many new religious movements, it manufactured a mythic history for itself.)
What makes this all the more fascinating is that there seems to have been something other than superstitious terror behind the original witch panics. In his 1991 book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, historian of religions Carlo Ginzburg showed that behind the frantic claims of the inquisitors lay a body of relatively coherent beliefs that seem to have belonged to various more or less shamanistic cults, some surviving in isolated corners of Europe during the handful of centuries since the arrival of Christianity, some introduced from points further east with the migrations of Magyar, Slavic, and other newly arrived populations. Three decades of research since Ginzburg’s publication has strengthened his thesis, and provided ample evidence that folk traditions of magic and shamanism, some of them very ancient, contributed to the witch panics that burst over Europe in the fourteenth century and continued to claim lives until well into the eighteenth century.
This is where we return to werewolves, because all the same points recent research has made about medieval witchcraft can be made, and have been made, about medieval lycanthropy.
Follow the track of the werewolf back into the mists of Eurasian antiquity and it’s possible to trace the outlines of an archaic set of traditions of the Indo-European peoples back when they were cattle-herding tribes on the plains of what are now Ukraine and southern Russia. In those days, boys who reached puberty left their home villages to dwell in the forest under the tutelage of elder shamans. For a period of several years, they spent the summers living like wild things, eating raw meat, sleeping in the open, and raiding neighboring tribes to steal cattle. The winters, in turn, were devoted to harsh austerities and rituals of initiation.
The most important of those rituals centered on the mythic theme of casting off the participants’ identity as boys and becoming wolves: fierce, predatory, loyal, tough, attuned to the wilderness. Then, once their period in the forest was finished, they cast off their wolf-identity through another ritual process, became men, and returned to their villages to take up their social roles as husbands, fathers, providers, and warriors. For thousands of years, that was how the Indo-European tribes handled the turbulent transition from boyhood to manhood, and traces and mythic echoes of these same customs remained in Indo-European societies from India to Ireland long after the original tradition had faded out.
Did these boys in the wilderness actually turn into wolves? Not in any biological sense, surely. That said, human consciousness is capable of strange things. Certain bands of Norse warriors in historic times were called Úlfhednar, “wolf coat wearers;” like their close equivalents the Berserkir, “bear shirt wearers,” they could enter into a battle-frenzy in which they behaved like wild beasts, possessing superhuman strength, insensibility to pain, and the ability to walk over burning coals unscathed. (A priestly clan among the Faliscans, an Italian people absorbed by the Romans, had the same firewalking reputation; they were called hirpi Sorani, “wolves of the god Soranus.”) Certain kinds of out-of-body experience, in which the participants experience themselves as taking on animal form, also seem to be caught up in the same tradition. It’s a heady mix of practices, more than enough to make its initiates fierce and effective warriors in an age of hand-to-hand combat.
The initiation rituals referenced above aren’t simply a matter of speculation. Archeologists have dug up at least one site where they were performed: an isolated structure at Krasnosamarskoe in Russia, dating from around 1800 BC, where dogs were ceremonially sacrificed and eaten in the midst of other ritual activities. Dogs are considered good eating in many cultures, but in societies descended from the Indo-European tribes, the thought of eating dog meat gets an immediate reaction of repulsion. That’s the last dim echo of an archaic taboo that once restricted eating the flesh of canids to the wolf-boys in the forests. The dog sacrifices took place during the winter ritual season—you can tell such things these days from skeletal remains. Combine that evidence with input from myth, legend, and folk tradition and you can glimpse a little of the ancient wolf-magic as it once existed.
That, to sum up decades of scholarly research, is what lies behind the legendary image of the werewolf in European folklore. After the great Indo-European migrations and conquests, the bands of boys-become-wolves in the forests gradually changed into permanent warbands under the command of local chieftains, and then morphed further into the feudal system of medieval Europe, with each young generation of warriors absorbed into the retinues of barons and kings, and so no longer a threat to the status quo. The old traditions clung to shadowy life here and there, mostly in isolated areas, and gave rise to bands of outlaws: in several old Indo-European languages, as a result, the word for “wolf” is also the word for “outlaw.” (In Old Norse, that word is vargr—yes, this is where Tolkien got the word “warg.” He was a brilliant philologist fluent in all the Germanic languages, and knew all this stuff.)
As medieval European society settled down after the era of mass migrations, and Christianity became more centralized and dogmatic, surviving traces of the old shamanistic traditions got squeezed out a little at a time. Whether or not Peter Stumpf was involved in one of the last flickering traces of the old wolf-cult will probably never be known, but it is at least possible. It’s also possible that a few scraps of the old tradition still survive, either in Europe or in some corners of the European diaspora. The novel I’m writing assumes that one version of it has survived more or less intact into our times, but authors of fiction get to take such liberties.
Whether any remnant of the archaic wolf-cult endured, however, it’s safe to say that its archetype certainly did, and it remains a living and potent force today. Imagine for a moment how the reputation of the ancient wolf-initiates changed as the tribal cultures of Indo-European antiquity gave way to the settled societies of medieval Europe, as warriors were expected to become the loyal servants of feudal magnates and the new ideology of Christianity put its own spin on the legacies of the distant past. Here and there, as in the legends of Robin Hood, outlaws seized the popular imagination as an emblem of resistance to the status quo, but far more often the fierce, lonely men who had been driven out of polite society and dwelt in deep forests and mountainous regions were feared and despised by the respectable people of their time. It was proverbial in medieval England that outlaws “had a wolf’s head”—that is to say, like the wolf that was their ancient emblem, they could be killed out of hand by anyone tough enough for the job, and their deaths would be met with general rejoicing.
This, of course, is where we circle back to Donald Trump.
Love him or hate him, the man’s made an enduring mark on American culture in our time, and he’s done it by violating all the rules that polite society has erected to maintain the grip of today’s privileged classes on the levers of political and social power. It’s a piece of synchronicity that Carl Jung would have appreciated that Trump may be descended from a famous werewolf, because he’s the outlaw of today’s American politics, sporting a wolf’s head in the best medieval style, refusing to play by the rules that keep power in the hands of a failed managerial aristocracy that can’t lead but won’t get out of the way. That’s why he fields the same kind of blind hatred that Peter Stumpf got from the German authorities of his time. It’s no exaggeration to say that there are plenty of people who would gladly see Donald Trump broken on the wheel, beheaded, and burnt at the stake if they thought they could get away with it.
There’s more to the archetypal pattern than this, however. Of all the many people who rallied around Trump’s banner in 2015 and haven’t abandoned it yet, what’s the group that’s made the biggest mark? It’s primarily young men, the same group that would be out there in the forests learning how to be wolves if we still followed the folkways of Indo-European antiquity.
This is a bleak and bitter time to be a young man in America. Outside the narrowing circles of the well-to-do, boys and girls alike face a world in which every option pushed on them by their society—employment, college education, you name it—is a mug’s game rigged to make others rich at their expense. Boys, however, face the additional burden that maleness has been pathologized in our schools, so that boys are systematically punished and penalized for the crime of not acting more like girls. Those boys who can’t handle the demands for passivity and obedience imposed on them can count on being drugged into submission if they aren’t simply arrested and put into what has been usefully labeled the school-to-prison pipeline.
The military used to be the great escape hatch for young men who couldn’t find a place in civil society, but that door’s been slammed shut in recent years as Pentagon bureaucrats push an increasingly strident woke ideology on the rank and file, and the benefits of military service have become increasingly limited when they’re not wholly imaginary; the salary you get as an enlisted man these days won’t keep your family fed and housed, and the Veterans Administration medical system has turned into a sick joke. These days a rapidly growing fraction of the young men from working class backgrounds who used to keep the US military well supplied with recruits are walking away from military service, and they’re doing it with the encouragement of their elders; many of these latter, after all, are military vets who know exactly what the score is.
Rejected by the cultural mainstream, and as often as not condemned by woke ideologues as personally guilty of every wrong ever inflicted by their ancestors, a great many young men have been driven to the fringes of our society. The folk knowledge, the traditional customs and the largely intact ecosystems that would enable them to live in the forest, gnawing on raw meat and carrying out cattle raids on neighboring tribes? Those no longer exist, so the young men in question are finding refuges in the wilderness of the internet and cobbling together traditions of their own. That the raw material for those traditions comes from the things our mainstream society rejects is hardly a surprise.
Yes, I know that there have been various attempts to create models of male initiation in our time. All of the ones I’m familiar with—well, let’s just say that you can tell easily that they were invented by middle-class suburbanites. They provide a weak simulacrum of the tribal initiations of the past, lacking the terrifying intensity of those initiations’ head-on confrontation with the realities of death, violence, fear and pain. It was because the military provided that intensity through combat that it so often served as an initiatory experience. Lacking that, it’s no surprise that so many young men make a beeline for gangs, or find some other socially unacceptable way to define themselves in opposition to a society that so obviously hates and fears them.
Exactly how all this will play out is impossible to say. One of the core insights of depth psychology, though, is that you can’t get rid of something you don’t like by repressing it. All you’ll get by piling on the punishment is a more serious blowback. That’s a lesson both sides in today’s culture wars could stand to learn. Another such lesson is the reminder that the thing you hate most in other people is by and large the thing you refuse to see in yourself.
As I argued earlier in a series of blog posts and in my book The King in Orange, the first round of blowback from the repressions just discussed put Donald Trump in the White House. The second round could quite possibly repeat that, or it may lead in directions even more unpalatable to today’s status quo. Nor will a silver bullet solve the problem. (Why silver? The Moon’s metal, emblematic of feminine energy, represents the longing for marriage, family, and a settled life that once transformed the wolf into a man.) Look instead into the silvered mirror, dear reader. The wolf’s face that stares back at you may be your own.
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This month has five Wednesdays, and by a longstanding tradition on my blogs, that means the readers get to vote on what they want me to write about for the fifth Wednesday post. What do you want to hear about? Let me know.