Of Familiar Spirits
By Augustine Calmet
If all that is related of spirits which are perceived in houses, in the cavities of mountains, and in mines, is certain, we cannot disavow that they also must be placed in the rank of apparitions of the evil spirit; for, although they usually do neither wrong nor violence to any one, unless they are irritated or receive abusive words; nevertheless we do not read that they lead to the love or fear of God, to prayer, piety, or acts of devotion; it is known, on the contrary, that they show a distaste to those things, so that we shall place them in earnest among the spirits of darkness.
I do not find that the ancient Hebrews knew anything of what we call esprits follets, or familiar spirits, which infest houses, or attach themselves to certain persons, to serve them, watch over and warn them, and guard them from danger; such as the demon of Socrates, who warned him to avoid certain misfortunes. Some other examples are also related of persons who said they had similar genii attached to their persons.
The Jews and Christians confess that every one of us has his good angel, who guides him from his early youth. Several of the ancients have thought that we have also our evil angel, who leads us into error. The Psalmist says distinctly that God has commanded his angels to guide us in all our ways. But this is not what we understand here under the name of esprits follets.
The prophets in some places speak of fauns, or hairy men, or satyrs, who have some resemblance to our elves.
Isaiah, speaking of the state to which Babylon shall be reduced after her destruction, says that the ostriches shall make it their dwelling, and that the hairy men, pilosi, the satyrs, and goats, shall dance there. And elsewhere the same prophet says, Occurrent dæmonia onocentauris et pilosus clamabit alter ad alterum, by which clever interpreters understand specters which appear in the shape of goats. Jeremiah calls them fauns—the dragons with the fauns, which feed upon figs. But this is not the place for us to go more fully into the signification of the terms of the original; it suffices for us to show that in the Scripture, at least in the Vulgate, are found the names of lamiæ, fauns, and satyrs, which have some resemblance to esprits follets.
Cassian, who had studied deeply the lives of the fathers of the desert, and who had been much with the hermits or anchorites of Egypt, speaking of divers sorts of demons, mentions some which they commonly called fauns or satyrs, which the pagans regard as kinds of divinities of the fields or groves, who delighted, not so much in tormenting or doing harm to mankind, as in deceiving and fatiguing them, diverting themselves at their expense, and sporting with their simplicity.
Pliny the younger had a freed-man named Marcus, a man of letters, who slept in the same bed with his brother, who was younger than himself. It seemed to him that he saw a person sitting on the same bed, who was cutting off his hair from the crown of his head. When he awoke, he found his head shorn of hair, and his hair thrown on the ground in the middle of the chamber. A little time after, the same thing happened to a youth who slept with several others at a school. This one saw two men dressed in white come in at the window, who cut off his hair as he slept, and then went out by the same window: on awaking, he found his hair scattered about on the floor. To what can these things be attributed, if not to an elf?
Plotinus, a Platonic philosopher, had, it is said, a familiar demon, who obeyed him from the moment he called him, and was superior in his nature to the common genii; he was of the order of gods, and Plotinus paid continual attention to this divine guardian. This it was which led him to undertake a work on the demon which belongs to each of us in particular. He endeavors to explain the difference between the genii which watch over men.
Trithemius, in his Chronicon Hirsauginse, under the year 1130, relates that in the diocese of Hildesheim, in Saxony, they saw for some time a spirit which they called in German heidekind, as if they would say rural genius, heide signifying vast country, kind, child (or boy). He appeared sometimes in one form, sometimes in another; and sometimes, without appearing at all, he did several things by which he proved both his presence and his power. He chose sometimes to give very important advice to those in power; and often he has been seen in the bishop’s kitchen, helping the cooks and doing sundry jobs.
A young scullion, who had grown familiar with him, having offered him some insults, he warned the head cook of it, who made light of it, or thought nothing about it; but the spirit avenged himself cruelly. This youth having fallen asleep in the kitchen, the spirit stifled him, tore him to pieces, and roasted him. He carried his fury still further against the officers of the kitchen, and the other officers of the prince. The thing went on to such a point that they were obliged to proceed against him by (ecclesiastical) censures, and to constrain him by exorcisms to go out of the country.
I think I may put amongst the number of elves the spirits which are seen, they say, in mines and mountain caves. They appear clad like the miners, run here and there, appear in haste as if to work and seek the veins of mineral ore, lay it in heaps, draw it out, turning the wheel of the crane; they seem to be very busy helping the workmen, and at the same time they do nothing at all.
These spirits are not mischievous, unless they are insulted and laughed at; for then they fall into an ill humor, and throw things at those who offend them. One of these genii, who had been addressed in injurious terms by a miner, twisted his neck and placed his head the hind part before. The miner did not die, but remained all his life with his neck twisted and awry.
George Agricola, who has treated very learnedly on mines, metals, and the manner of extracting them from the bowels of the earth, mentions two or three sorts of spirits which appear in mines. Some are very small, and resemble dwarfs or pygmies; the others are like old men dressed like miners, having their shirts tucked up, and a leathern apron round their loins; others perform, or seem to perform, what they see others do, are very gay, do no harm to any one, but from all their labors nothing real results.
In other mines are seen dangerous spirits, who ill-use the workmen, hunt them away, and sometimes kill them, and thus constrain them to forsake mines which are very rich and abundant. For instance, at Anneberg, in a mine called Crown of Rose, a spirit in the shape of a spirited, snorting horse, killed twelve miners, and obliged those who worked the mine to abandon the undertaking, though it brought them in a great deal. In another mine, called St. Gregory, in Siveberg, there appeared a spirit whose head was covered with a black hood, and he seized a miner, raised him up to a considerable height, then let him fall, and hurt him extremely.
Olaus Magnus says that, in Sweden and other northern countries, they saw formerly familiar spirits, which, under the form of men or women, waited on certain persons. He speaks of certain nymphs dwelling in caverns and in the depths of the forest, who announce things to come; some are good, others bad; they appear and speak to those who consult them. Travelers and shepherds also often see during the night divers phantoms which burn the spot where they appear, so that henceforward neither grass nor verdure are seen there.
He says that the people of Finland, before their conversion to Christianity, sold the winds to sailors, giving them a string with three knots, and warning them that by untying the first knot they would have a gentle and favorable wind, at the second knot a stronger wind, and at the third knot a violent and dangerous gale. He says, moreover, that the Bothnians, striking on an anvil hard blows with a hammer, upon a frog or a serpent of brass, fall down in a swoon, and during this swoon they learn what passes in very distant places.
But all those things have more relation to magic than to familiar spirits; and if what is said about them be true, it must be ascribed to the evil spirit.
The same Olaus Magnus says that in mines, above all in silver mines, from which great profit may be expected, six sorts of demons may be seen, who under divers forms labor at breaking the rocks, drawing the buckets, and turning the wheels; who sometimes burst into laughter, and play different tricks; all of which are merely to deceive the miners, whom they crush under the rocks, or expose to the most imminent dangers, to make them utter blasphemy, and swear and curse. Several very rich mines have been obliged to be disused through fear of these dangerous spirits.
Notwithstanding all that we have just related, I doubt very much if there are any spirits in mountain caves or in mines. I have interrogated on the subject people of the trade and miners by profession, of whom there is a great number in our mountains, the Vosges, who have assured me that all which is related on that point is fabulous; that if sometimes they see these elves or grotesque figures, it must be attributed to a heated and prepossessed imagination; or else that the circumstance is so rare that it ought not to be repeated as something usual or common.
A new “Traveler in the Northern Countries,” printed at Amsterdam, in 1708, says that the people of Iceland are almost all conjurers or sorcerers; that they have familiar demons, whom they call troles, who wait upon them as servants, and warn them of the accidents or illnesses which are to happen to them; they awake them to go a-fishing when the season is favorable, and if they go for that purpose without the advice of these genii, they do not succeed. There are some persons among these people who evoke the dead, and make them appear to those who wish to consult them: they also conjure up the appearance of the absent far from the spot where they dwell.
Father Vadingue relates, after an old manuscript legend, that a lady named Lupa had had during thirteen years a familiar demon, who served her as a waiting-woman, and led her into many secret irregularities, and induced her to treat her servants with inhumanity. God gave her grace to see her fault, and to do penance for it, by the intercession of St. François d’Assise and St. Anthony of Padua, to whom she had always felt particular devotion.
Cardan speaks of a bearded demon of Niphus, who gave him lessons of philosophy.
Agrippa had a demon who waited upon him in the shape of a dog. This dog, says Paulus Jovius, seeing his master about to expire, threw himself into the Rhone.
Much is said of certain spirits which are kept confined in rings, that are bought, sold, or exchanged. They speak also of a crystal ring, in which the demon represented the objects desired to be seen.
Some also speak highly of those enchanted mirrors, in which children see the face of a robber who is sought for; others will see it in their nails; all which can only be diabolical illusions.
Le Loyer relates that when he was studying the law at Thoulouse, he was lodged near a house where an elf never ceased all the night to draw water from the well, making the pulley creak all the while; at other times, he seemed to drag something heavy up the stairs; but he very rarely entered the rooms, and then he made but little noise.
This is taken from Phantom World, originally published in 1850.