Historical Accounts of Elves
[This is taken from Augustine Calmet’s Phantom World, originally published in 1850, revised and edited by D. J. McAdam, 2010. Copyright as such.]
On the 25th of August, 1746, I received a letter from a very worthy man, the curé of the parish of Walsche, a village situated in the mountains of Vosges, in the county of Dabo, or Dasburg, in Lower Alsatia, Diocese of Metz. In this letter, he tells me that the 10th of June, 1740, at eight o’clock in the morning, he being in his kitchen, with his niece and the servant, he saw on a sudden an iron pot that was placed on the ground turn round three or four times, without its being set in motion by any one. A moment after, a stone, weighing about a pound, was thrown from the next room into the same kitchen, in presence of the same persons, without their seeing the hand which threw it. The next day, at nine o’clock in the morning, some panes of glass were broken, and through these panes were thrown some stones, with what appeared to them supernatural dexterity. The spirit never hurt anybody, and never did anything in the night time, but always during the day. The curé employed the prayers marked out in the ritual to bless his house, and thenceforth the genius broke no more panes of glass; but he continued to throw stones at the curé’s people, without hurting them, however. If they fetched water from the fountain, he threw stones into the bucket; and afterwards he began to serve in the kitchen. One day, as the servant was planting some cabbages in the garden, he pulled them up as fast as she planted them, and laid them in a heap. It was in vain that she stormed, threatened, and swore in the German style; the genius continued to play his tricks.
One day, when a bed in the garden had been dug and prepared, the spade was found thrust two feet deep into the ground, without any trace being seen of him who had thus stuck it in; but they observed that on the spade was a riband, and by the spade were two pieces of two soles, which the girl had locked up the evening before in a little box. Sometimes he took pleasure in displacing the earthenware and pewter, and putting it either all round the kitchen, or in the porch, or even in the cemetery, and always in broad daylight. One day he filled an iron pot with wild herbs, bran, and leaves of trees, and, having put some water in it, carried it to the ally or walk in the garden; another time he suspended it to the pot-hook over the fire. The servant having broken two eggs into a little dish for the curé’s supper, the genius broke two more into it in his presence, the maid having merely turned to get some salt. The curé having gone to say mass, on his return found all his earthenware, furniture, linen, bread, milk, and other things scattered about over the house.
Sometimes the spirit would form circles on the paved floor, at one time with stones, at another with corn or leaves, and in a moment, before the eyes of all present, all was overturned and deranged. Tired with these games, the curé sent for the mayor of the place, and told him he was resolved to quit the parsonage house. Whilst this was passing, the curé’s niece came in, and told them that the genius had torn up the cabbages in the garden, and had put some money in a hole in the ground. They went there, and found things exactly as she had said. They picked up the money, which what the curé had put away in a place not locked up; and in a moment after they found it anew, with some liards, two by two, scattered about the kitchen.
The agents of the Count de Linange being arrived at Walsche, went to the curé’s house, and persuaded him that it was all the effect of a spell; they told him to take two pistols, and fire them off at the place where he might observe there were any movements. The genius at the same moment threw out of the pocket of one of these officers two pieces of silver; and from that time he was no longer perceived in the house.
The circumstances of two pistols terminating the scenes with which the elf had disturbed the good curé, made him believe that this tormenting imp was no other than a certain bad parishioner, whom the curé had been obliged to send away from his parish, and who to revenge himself had done all that we have related. If that be the case, he had rendered himself invisible, or he had had credit enough to send in his stead a familiar genius who puzzled the curé for some weeks; for, if he were not bodily in this house, what had he to fear from any pistol shot which might have been fired at him? And if he was there bodily, how could he render himself invisible?
I have been told several times that a monk of the Cistercian order had a familiar genius who attended upon him, arranged his chamber, and prepared everything ready for him when he was coming back from the country. They were so accustomed to this, that they expected him home by these signs, and he always arrived. It is affirmed of another monk of the same order that he had a familiar spirit, who warned him, not only of what passed in the house, but also of what happened out of it; and one day he was awakened three times, and warned that some monks were quarreling, and were ready to come to blows; he ran to the spot, and put an end to the dispute.
St. Sulpicius Severus relates that St. Martin often had conversations with the Holy Virgin, and other saints, and even with the demons and false gods of paganism; he talked with them, and learned from them many secret things. One day, when a council was being held at Nîmes, where he had not thought proper to be present, but the decisions of which he desired to know, being in a boat with St. Sulpicius, but apart from others, as usual with him, an angel appeared, and informed him what had passed in this assembly of bishops. Inquiry was made as to the day and hour when the council was held, and it was found to be at the same hour at which the angel had appeared to Martin.
We have been told several times that a young ecclesiastic, in a seminary at Paris, had a genius who waited upon him, and arranged his room and his clothes. One day, when the superior was passing by the chamber of the seminarist, he heard him talking with some one; he entered, and asked who he was conversing with. The youth affirmed that there was no one in his room, and, in fact, the superior could neither see nor discover any one there. Nevertheless, as he had heard their conversation, the young man owned that for some years he had been attended by a familiar genius, who rendered him every service that a domestic could have done, and had promised him great advantages in the ecclesiastical profession. The superior pressed him to give some proofs of what he said. He ordered the genius to set a chair for the superior; the genius obeyed. Information of this was sent to the archbishop, who did not think proper to give it publicity. The young clerk was sent away, and this singular adventure was buried in silence.
Bodin speaks of a person of his acquaintance who was still living at the time he wrote, which was in 1588. This person had a familiar who from the age of thirty-seven had given him good advice respecting his conduct, sometimes to correct his faults, sometimes to make him practice virtue, or to assist him; resolving the difficulties which he might find in reading holy books, or giving him good counsel upon his own affairs. He usually rapped at his door at three or four o’clock in the morning to awaken him; and as that person mistrusted all these things, fearing that it might be an evil angel, the spirit showed himself in broad day, striking gently on a glass bowl, and then upon a bench. When he desired to do anything good and useful, the spirit touched his right ear; but if it was anything wrong and dangerous, he touched his left ear; so that from that time nothing occurred to him of which he was not warned beforehand. Sometimes he heard his voice; and one day, when he found his life in imminent danger, he saw his genius, under the form of a child of extraordinary beauty, who saved him from it.
William, Bishop of Paris, says that he knew a rope-dancer who had a familiar spirit which played and joked with him, and prevented him from sleeping, throwing something against the wall, dragging off the bed-clothes, or pulling him about when he was in bed. We know by the account of a very sensible person that it has happened to him in the open country, and in the day time, to feel his cloak and boots pulled at, and his hat thrown down; then he heard the bursts of laughter and the voice of a person deceased and well known to him, who seemed to rejoice at it.
The discovery of things hidden or unknown, which is made in dreams, or otherwise, can hardly be ascribed to anything but to familiar spirits. A man who did not know a word of Greek came to M. de Saumaise, senior, a counselor of the Parliament of Dijon, and showed him these words, which he had heard in the night, as he slept, and which he wrote down in French characters on awaking: “Apithi ouc osphraine tén sén apsychian.” He asked him what that meant. M. de Saumaise told him it meant, “Save yourself; do you not perceive the death with which you are threatened?” Upon this hint, the man removed, and left his house, which fell down the following night.
The same story is related, with a little difference, by another author, who says that the circumstance happened at Paris; that the genius spoke in Syrian, and that M. de Saumaise being consulted, replied, “Go out of your house, for it will fall in ruins to-day, at nine o’clock in the evening.” It is but too much the custom in reciting stories of this kind to add a few circumstances by way of embellishment.
Gassendi, in the Life of M. Peiresch, relates that M. Peiresch, going one day to Nimes, with one of his friends, named M. Rainier, the latter, having heard Peiresch talking in his sleep in the night, waked him, and asked him what he said. Peiresch answered him, “I dreamed that, being at Nimes, a jeweler had offered me a medal of Julius Caesar, for which he asked four crowns, and as I was going to count him down his money, you waked me, to my great regret.” They arrived at Nimes, and going about the town, Peiresch recognized the goldsmith whom he had seen in his dream; and on his asking him if he had nothing curious, the goldsmith told him he had a gold medal, or coin, of Julius Caesar. Peiresch asked him how much he esteemed it worth; he replied, four crowns. Peiresch paid them, and was delighted to see his dream so happily accomplished.
Here is a dream much more singular than the preceding, although a little in the same style. A learned man of Dijon, after having wearied himself all day with an important passage in a Greek poet, without being able to comprehend it at all, went to bed thinking of this difficulty. During his sleep, his genius transported him in spirit to Stockholm, introduced him into the palace of Queen Christina, conducted him into the library, and showed him a small volume, which was precisely what he sought. He opened it, read in it ten or twelve Greek verses, which absolutely cleared up the difficulty which had so long beset him; he awoke, and wrote down the verses he had seen at Stockholm. On the morrow, he wrote to M. Descartes, who was then in Sweden, and begged of him to look in such a place, and in such a division of the library, if the book, of which he sent him the description, were there, and if the Greek verses which he sent him were to be read in it.
M. Descartes replied that he had found the book in question; and also the verses he had sent were in the place he pointed out; that one of his friends had promised him a copy of that work, and he would send it him by the first opportunity.
We have already said something of the spirit, or familiar genius of Socrates, which prevented him from doing certain things, but did not lead him to do others. It is asserted that, after the defeat of the Athenian army, commanded by Laches, Socrates, flying like the others, with this Athenian general, and being arrived at a spot where several roads met, Socrates would not follow the road taken by the other fugitives; and when they asked him the reason, he replied, because his genius drew him away from it. The event justified his foresight. All those who had taken the other road were either killed or made prisoners by the enemy’s cavalry.
It is doubtful whether the elves, of which so many things are related, are good or bad spirits; for the faith of the church admits nothing between these two kinds of genii. Every genius is either good or bad; but as there are in heaven many mansions, as the Gospel says, and as there are among the blessed, various degrees of glory, differing from each other, so we may believe that there are in hell various degrees of pain and punishment for the damned and the demons.
But are they not rather magicians, who render themselves invisible, and divert themselves in disquieting the living? Why do they attach themselves to certain spots, and certain persons, rather than to others? Why do they make themselves perceptible only during a certain time, and that sometimes a short space?
I could willingly conclude that what is said of them is mere fancy and prejudice; but their reality has been so often experienced by the discourse they have held, and the actions they have performed in the presence of many wise and enlightened persons, that I cannot persuade myself that among the great number of stories related of them there are not at least some of them true.
It may be remarked that these elves never lead one to anything good, to prayer, or piety, to the love of God, or to godly and serious actions. If they do no other harm, they leave hurtful doubts about the punishments of the damned, on the efficacy of prayer and exorcisms; if they hurt not those men or animals which are found on the spot where they may be perceived, it is because God sets bounds to their malice and power. The demon has a thousand ways of deceiving us. All those to whom these genii attach themselves have a horror of them, mistrust and fear them; and it rarely happens that these familiar demons do not lead them to a dangerous end, unless they deliver themselves from them by grave acts of religion and penance.
There is the story of a spirit, “which,” says he who wrote it to me, “I no more doubt the truth of than if I had been a witness of it.” Count Despilliers, the father, being a young man, and captain of cuirassiers, was in winter quarters in Flanders. One of his men came to him one day to beg that he would change his landlord, saying that every night there came into his bed-room a spirit, which would not allow him to sleep. The Count Despilliers sent him away, and laughed at his simplicity. Some days after, the same horseman came back and made the same request to him; the only reply of the captain would have been a volley of blows with a stick, had not the soldier avoided them by a prompt flight. At last, he returned a third time to the charge, and protested to his captain that he could bear it no longer, and should be obliged to desert if his lodgings were not changed. Despilliers, who knew the soldier to be brave and reasonable, said to him, with an oath, “I will go this night and sleep with you, and see what is the matter.”
At ten o’clock in the evening, the captain repaired to his soldier’s lodging, and having laid his pistols ready primed upon the table, he lay down in his clothes, his sword by his side, with his soldier, in a bed without curtains. About midnight he heard something which came into the room, and in a moment turned the bed upside down, covering the captain and the soldier with the mattress and paillasse. Despilliers had great trouble to disengage himself and find again his sword and pistols, and he returned home much confounded. The horse-soldier had a new lodging the very next day, and slept quietly in the house of his new host.
M. Despilliers related this adventure to any one who would listen to it. He was an intrepid man, who had never known what it was to fall back before danger. He died field-marshal of the armies of the Emperor Charles VI. and governor of the fortress of Ségedin. His son has confirmed this adventure to me within a short time, as having heard it from his father.
The person who writes to me adds: “I doubt not that spirits sometimes return; but I have found myself in a great many places which it was said they haunted. I have even tried several times to see them, but I have never seen any. I found myself once with more than four thousand persons, who all said they saw the spirit; I was the only one in the assembly who saw nothing.” So writes me a very worthy officer, this year, 1745, in the same letter wherein he relates the affair of M. Despilliers.