3 THE POWERS OF EVIL
THE MIDDLE WORLD
THE basis of Jewish magic lay the belief in a vast, teeming “middle world,” a world neither of the flesh nor altogether and exclusively of the spirit. Demons and angels, to be counted only in myriads, populated that world; through their intermediacy the powers of magic were brought into operation. The most frequently employed terms for magic were hashba‘at malachim and hashba‘at shedim, invocation and conjuration of angels and demons. The peculiar rôle of the angels, heavenly counterparts of all earthly phenomena, as well as the direct servants and emissaries of God, closest to His ear, rendered powerful indeed the man who possessed the secret of bending them to his will. The demons, on the other hand, invested with all the fearsome potencies that a still primitive, animistic folk-imagination could conjure up, were equally capable of making the fame and fortune of those who could exert a magic power over them.
Talmudic Jewry owned a highly elaborated demonology, distinguishing between classes and even individuals, with a wealth of detail concerning the nature and pursuits of the evil spirits. Its elements grew naturally out of the fertile popular imagination, convinced as it was of the reality of the spirit world, and fortified by a rich tradition drawn largely from the folklores of Egypt and Babylon and Persia. This lore served a dual need: it conveyed the power of control, and at the same time of self-protection. But the rabbis were generally opposed to demon-magic, and though they were not so severe with it as with sympathetic magic (some of the most distinguished Talmudic authorities themselves had recourse to it at times), they frequently expressed their strong disapproval. Even in the Middle Ages a few rabbis were ready to permit it, but the ancient strictures against a method which is “forbidden but not punishable by death” had taken effect.
The intensification of the religious spirit that had proceeded through the intervening centuries produced a feeling that the demons had no proper place within Judaism, though they could not be ousted and the widespread fear of them persisted. Traffic with the “spirits of uncleanness,” as they were often called, was repugnant to the Jew, who regarded them as inimical not alone to mankind, but to the pursuit of the religious life. The great development of name-magic, on the other hand, crowded out the earlier form. Invocation of demons, therefore, occupied a very minor position in medieval Jewish magic. The demons were employed almost exclusively in divination.
Jewish demonology, consequently, experienced little inner development during the Middle Ages, but clung closely to its early forms, and new departures were mainly borrowings from French and German sources, which in itself is an indication that the estimation of demons in magic had depreciated. Interest in the evil spirits centered mainly about their malevolent nature and implacable enmity toward man, and hence about the need and the best methods of protection against them.
Hardly a murmur of doubt do we hear of the existence and reality of the evil spirits. The Talmudic literature, both the Aggadic folklore and the Halacha, accepted their presence as axiomatic.1 We may readily understand then, how it is that in the Middle Ages a people fed on this literature no longer questioned. The Kabbalah, indeed, accorded the demons an integral rôle in a cosmic design in which the right and the left are the opposing currents of pure and impure powers filling the world and dividing it between the Holy One and His Adversary. In all of medieval Jewry there were few who raised their voices against this superstition. Some Karaites vigorously repudiated such beliefs, and characterized them as “merely human imaginings.” Maimonides and Ibn Ezra took a similarly strong stand. But these were citizens of southern, Mohammedan lands. Not a word to this effect do we hear in the north of Europe. Our literature takes them as much for granted as did the Talmudic. Certain works, especially from the school of Judah the Pious, reveal their activities on almost every page. Rashi repeated the Midrashic comment that “every living thing” represented in the ark included even the demons.2
If we are to believe Moses of Tachau,3 Ibn Ezra paid dearly for his hardihood in denying the existence of demons. “Ibn Ezra wrote in his book,” he says, “‘Of a surety there are no demons in the world!’ .Verily he erred in this matter, for they were ever at his side . . . and indeed they proved their existence to at him. I have heard from the people of Iglant [England?], where he died, that once when he was travelling through a forest he came upon a large band of black dogs who glared at him balefully; undoubtedly these were demons. When he had finally passed through their midst he fell seriously ill, and eventually he died of that illness.” This incident was apparently evidence enough for R. Moses, though we may question whether, if it occurred, it sufficed to convince the doughty Ibn Ezra.
Menasseh b. Israel, writing in the middle of the seventeenth century, summed up the thought of the Middle Ages when, after demonstrating to his own satisfaction that demons do exist, by calling into service proofs on the threefold basis of tradition, reason, and the senses, he cited a long list of appropriate passages from Jewish literature, and concluded, “The opinion of all Jewish authorities is that the Biblical references to spirits are to be taken literally.” He lightly brushed aside the Maimonidean strictures against such superstitions with the familiar objection that their author had been “seduced” by the philosopher’s predilection for the testimony of reason and experience, to the damage of his piety and faith in revelation.4 Menasseh b. Israel was expressing not his own opinion but the judgment of Jewish folk-belief.
It may not be amiss if before we proceed to a consideration of the features of this demonology, we devote a few lines to the nomenclature employed in our literature. The terms most frequently met with are those made familiar in the ancient literature of the Jews: mazzik, from a root which means “to damage, destroy”; shed, an obscure word which occurs in the Bible in the plural,5 and which in the Talmudic literature acquired the exclusive sense of “demon”; and ruaḥ, “spirit,” often ruaḥ ra‘ah, “evil spirit.”6 These words were not at all differentiated in our period, though a rather academic attempt was at times made to distinguish among them on the basis of Talmudic statements. In general, however, these three terms were used indiscriminately in a generic sense, and were often employed interchangeably in a single paragraph. An effort at schematization, which produced a list of ten categories of demons to balance a similar angelic list, introduced seven additional terms, which found little place in the general literature. One of them, however, lilin, regarded as the plural of Lilit, “night-demons,” used in the Talmud, occurs fairly often, sometimes as liliot.7
I may also mention here the malache ḥabbala, “angels (or demons) of destruction,” who made their initial appearance in the Talmud, and who were not absent from the medieval scene. Their names end with the letter peh, we are informed. The fact that the titles of the daily synagogue services, the eighteen benedictions, the prayer Yoẓer Or, and the grace after meals do not contain this letter, was cited as proof that prayer serves as a protection against these destroying angels.8
The Lurianic Kabbalah brought into common currency an old but little used term, kelippah, originally “scale, husk, skin”; occurring in the earlier mystical works and in the Zohar, this word rarely appeared in our literature. Its Lurianic popularization, reflected in the writings of the famous Polish mystic, Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630), marked the beginning of a new development in Jewish demonology which is outside the scope of this study.
These traditional terms were used only to designate the general phenomenon. It is of interest to inquire why none of them acquired a specialized sense in our period, to single out those differentiated demonic types which people the folklore of all nations. The explanation is not far to seek. The Hebrew of the Bible and the prayers, while familiar to most Jews, was not the vernacular; nor did the Talmud, which so strongly colored Jewish life, provide Jewry with a spoken tongue. Words lifted from these sources entered into the everyday language of the people, to be sure, but their very antiquity and traditional meanings made it difficult to squeeze them into new molds. They sufficed as generic terms, but to designate the specific, the differentiated, the peculiarly contemporary, the Jews turned to the vernacular for their nomenclature. Specialized types of demons were not wanting in medieval Jewish folklore, but they appeared under their non-Hebraic names, words borrowed from the German and the French. […]
THE GENESIS OF DEMONS
The number of demons in the world was prodigious. One Christian census estimated them as somewhat more than one for each person on earth. Our sources spurn such conservative figures; their number is uncountable, the simple unit employed in referring to them is no smaller than the myriad.9
The question of the origin of this demonic horde naturally agitated the medieval mind. It was of especial interest to the Jews, for in a world altogether fashioned ex nihilo by the Creator of all things, the demons alone have no recorded birthday; the first chapter of Genesis is silent concerning them. Talmudic tradition, however, provided the clew which was followed in the Middle Ages. On the first Sabbath eve, at twilight, as God was putting the finishing touches to His great work of creation, He turned His hand to the construction of these beings, who, though included in the plan of things as they were to be, might well be left for last. He had not progressed beyond the fashioning of their souls, however, when the hastening Sabbath overtook Him, and He was obliged to cease His labors to sanctify the first day of rest. So it is that the demons have no bodies, but are constituted wholly of spirit.10
But this explanation did not suffice to still all doubts, and a medieval rabbi,11 during the course of a disputation with a renegade Jew, appended an interesting codicil to this theme. There remained yet another category, unaccounted for by the rabbinic theory and known to Jews under their non-Jewish names (R. Jeḥiel, our disputant, mentioned specifically the lutin and the fae), which possessed both soul and body. These obviously required something more than the traditional explanation. This R. Jeḥiel provided. He utilized a rabbinic legend to the effect that during the 130 years after the expulsion from Eden, when Adam was parted from Eve, he had relations with female demons who bore him demonic offspring, to account for this corporeal group which the Talmudic rabbis didn’t know. The spirits whom we know as the lutins and faes are the children of Adam by this unnatural union, said R. Jeḥiel.
We read also of still another demonic category, whose members were created afresh daily out of the ranks of the most recent tenants of the grave. It is not altogether correct to hold, as some students have, that in the popular conception the spirits of the dead roamed the world as specters and vampires, recruits to the demonic armies.
[paragraph continues] On the contrary, the spirits of the dead were believed to remain in close contact with the living, retaining their old interests, and often performing signal service for their relatives and friends who still inhabited this earth in the flesh. Provocation, it is true, might stir them up to strike back at their enemies. But in general the dead were not regarded as malevolent; rather were they seen as wistful, harmless shades haunting the graves which shelter their bones. The spirits of the wicked, however, do become bona fide demons, and it is these that constantly replenish the demonic ranks. So vicious were they believed to be that special warnings were posted against them; wounds which they inflict can be cured by no human means, but their healing rests in the hands of God alone.12
I may add that the idea, so frequently encountered in Christian writings, that the demons are the gods of the heathen, is to be found in medieval Jewish works as well.13 But it played no part in the popular belief.
It should be noted, finally, that in all this the demons, evil as they were, remained the creatures of God, subject to His will and respectful of His divinity, and actually subservient to the angels.14 We have here no dualism; even the Kabbalistic mysticism which divided the universe between two opposing forces of good and evil, did not oust God from His position of overlordship. The German mystics, immersed in a deep piety peculiar to themselves, did not for a moment countenance any such heresy, and nowhere in the literature of Northern Europe do we find a suggestion of the autonomy of the demon world.
ATTRIBUTES AND FUNCTIONS
In what guise were these demons visualized? Altogether invisible to men, though the more acute sensitivity of animals responded to their presence,15 it is not to be wondered at that the prevalent conception was as vague and undefined as these creatures themselves.
The rabbis of the Talmud had long since postulated certain demonic attributes which remained constant during the Middle Ages. “The demons, in accordance with their origin, are between angels and men. They have wings like the former, and move about from one end of the earth to the other, and know what will come to pass; but, like the latter, they eat and drink, propagate their kind, and die.” “They see but are themselves invisible.” In consequence of their lack of bodies they cast no shadow.’ These characteristics, whose Talmudic authority permitted no questioning, were the constant features of the medieval conception. A few new details were added but they were not, I am afraid, of much help in making the evil spirits more readily recognizable.
Rashi, for one, attempted a degree of differentiation on the basis of several Talmudic remarks. Among the “various kinds of demons (mazzikin),” he wrote, “shedim have human forms, and eat and drink, like men; spirits (ruḥin) are completely disembodied and formless; lilin, which are possessed of human forms, also have wings.” The rabbinic view, which was applied generally to the entire demon world, presented difficulties to the logical mind. A fifteenth-century authority essayed an explanation of how it was that these creatures of spirit could simulate man in certain respects. Their eating and drinking is, according to him, nothing more than a licking or lapping up of fire, water, air, and slime. Their decease, again, is not to be understood in our mortal sense; “when they dry up [from lack of these sustaining substances] they return to their primordial state; this is the manner of their death.” But our author’s ingenuity gave out in the matter of propagation; here he was forced to accord them physical shapes: “When they copulate they are possessed of bodies, but they will not unite in the presence of a third demon, or of man.”17
There is little more to be said about the appearance of these evil spirits. One source attributed to their non-existent heads—hair! “Male demons have hair on their heads, but the females have none. This is why Boaz placed his hand on Ruth’s head [when he awoke to find her at his feet]. When he discovered that she had hair [he knew that this was no demon] and asked, ‘Who art thou?'” Demons, however, may temporarily assume physical shapes. There is in the folklore of the Middle Ages, as indeed of all times and all places, no definite and impassable line of demarcation between the worlds of man, of beast, and of spirit. Angels and demons may become men and animals, men may be transformed into cats or wolves or hares. We have already beheld the spirits embodied in the skins of dogs; Boaz apprehended a demon taking woman’s shape. A medieval legend relates that a demon which had laid plans to enter the body of a certain pious rabbi transformed itself into a hair, which the rabbi was expected to swallow with his food.18 Their stock of disguises was infinite. Many of the demons we encounter in medieval literature have conveniently masked themselves in human or animal bodies, so that they may make their appearance in the flesh. The test by hair is the only clew we are afforded against their evil designs, and even here half the demon world is immune.
Like the angels, the demons have especial posts and functions; when, for instance, a man has suffered an attack at the hands of one, he and his family must forever avoid the place where the attack occurred, for the demon is posted there awaiting another opportunity. Nor should one imprison the demons, who are everywhere, by shutting the doors and windows of a house tightly. Their paths of ingress and egress are prescribed, along with their functions, and to impede their freedom of movement is to invite their displeasure. Far wiser is it to pierce a small hole in door or window and thus enable them to move about freely.19
Demons frequented uninhabited places, deserts and forests and fields, as well as unclean places. Privies especially were believed to be haunted and the Talmud prescribed special incantations invoking the protection of guardian angels in these places. This prescription was frequently repeated by medieval authorities, but there is evidence that the dread attached to privies had worn off, and the incantations, if recited, had degenerated into mere formal vestiges of a traditional usage. The explanation was that the privies of Talmudic times were located outside of the villages, in the fields, whereas medieval privies were closer to home, within the settled area.20
The connection between demons and uncleanness was made to serve important hygienic ends. Evil spirits, sometimes called “spirits of uncleanness,” and once identified by the name bat melech, rest upon unwashed hands, contaminate foods handled with them, and endanger the lives of those who eat such food. Seven occasions which require a ritual washing of the hands (which destroys or dislodges the demons) were enumerated; most important among these was upon arising in the morning, for the night creates a special susceptibility to spirit contamination. Even on Yom Kippur when no ablutions might be performed, the hands must be washed in the morning. Touching the eyes, ears, nose and mouth with unwashed hands spells trouble; no doubt it was feared that the evil spirits would enter the body through these orifices. (Plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose; if, in speaking of infection, our vocabulary is more “scientific,” the sense remains the same.) The demon of uncleanness, entering the eyes, could cause one’s glance to have a devastating effect upon the innocent passer-by; it might even be responsible for the loss of one’s memory, and ultimately complete loss of mind.21
Humans who established their homes on a spot already preempted by spirits were in a parlous way. The demons are jealous of their property rights and their privacy, and resent intrusions. Once a group of Jews, who had settled in a previously unoccupied place in Hungary, noticed that their death-rate had suddenly risen markedly. They fasted and prayed but to no avail. One day the head of the community met a large band whose leader sat astride a lion, using a snake for a bridle. He realized at once that these were no ordinary men, but demons. Their chief demanded the immediate removal of the trespassing Jews, for his spirit followers had previously selected that spot for a meeting-place. Needless to say they obeyed with alacrity, and their death-rate became normal once more. This incident explains why certain houses are very unlucky for their inhabitants, one after another dying off for no apparent cause. The only remedy in such a case is to move far away, where the demons who have been provoked by the intrusion cannot get at them. Pious deeds, fasting, prayer, usually so effective, are of no help.22
The best plan, of course, is to observe proper caution before establishing oneself in a new home. One should not erect a house on unoccupied land; but if he does he should certainly not construct it of stone (for a stone house has an air of stability and permanence that is sure to irritate the demons) . Even a house of wood is suspect under these circumstances. If the new house is on the site of an old one the builder must be careful to place the windows and doors in the same positions they formerly occupied, for the local demons whose habits have become fixed, are bound not to be enamored of the innovations. Finally, it is wise not to move into a new house at all, but to sell it if one can. If this proves unfeasible, it must be left uninhabited for a time, or some skeptical friend must be prevailed upon to occupy it. People were actually paid to live in new houses!23
The general rule was that bad luck clings to a place or a person or a family—because once the spirits have chosen them for their special prey they cannot be shaken off. A house or a city in which children die young, a family that has been frequently bereaved, a woman whose husbands do not survive, all must be avoided like the pest. To illustrate the strength of this belief in the tenacity of misfortune I may cite this tale: A woman who had become barren came to Judah the Pious for counsel; the mystic should succeed where medicine was powerless! He told her that nothing would help, except that she be forgotten like a corpse moldering in the earth. To carry out his prescription he had her children place her in a grave and then had armed men, hired for this purpose, make a sudden attack upon them so that they were frightened and ran away, completely forgetting their mother. She arose out of the grave, newborn, and in short order proved the efficacy of the remedy. The symbolic interment and rebirth freed her from the misfortune that was her lot in what had now become her previous existence.24
Demons consort in the shade of trees, and in shadows cast by the moon. In fact, children who are moon-struck display symptoms that point definitely to the demonic source of their illness: their alternating chills and fevers are due directly to the fact that the demons who inhabit moon-shadows are compounded of fire and hail. Sefer Ḥasidim reports that upon a certain tree there were to be noticed drops somewhat like candle-drippings. When a man wished to cut this tree down he was warned by a sage, “Beware that you do not bring about your own death! Don’t even shake that tree! For if you anger them they will certainly do you harm. In this tree the liliot foregather.” Nut trees in particular were to be shunned as the meeting-places of the spirits.25
A special connection exists also between the storm-winds, tempests, whirlwinds, and the evil spirits. The home of all is in the north, which indeed is the source of all evil.26 One writer even domiciled the demons in Norway, which to him was the farthest edge of the north.27 This almost universal belief in the close relation between demons and storms was expressed in the idea that thunder and lightning are the bolts which the demons, aligned in two hostile camps, discharge against one another during a storm. Certain men are peculiarly susceptible to harm from these bolts, and can be healed only by magic.28
Our discussion, devoted thus far to the general aspects of medieval Jewish demonology, does not exhaust the subject. Certain demonic types stood out from the undifferentiated mass, and to these we must turn our attention before we may consider the picture complete.
Among “Jewish” demons and spirits, that is, the vast horde which the Middle Ages inherited with the Talmudic tradition, there are few indeed that possess any individuality, any definitely distinguishing characteristics. Those few who in Talmudic times were sufficiently personalized to be accorded the distinction of a name, naturally survived into the Middle Ages, but in attenuated form. The tendency was to repeat the Talmudic characterizations, but with a mechanical air, as though rehearsing a lesson rather than describing a living, terrifyingly contemporaneous phenomenon. We do not find in the field of demonology that exuberance of invention which characterized medieval Jewish angelology—the reasons being, as I have suggested, that the magical utility of demons had depreciated, while a full-blown non-Jewish folk demonology lay ready at hand to be assimilated into Jewish folk-belief.
Satan himself, king of the underworld, though he made frequent appearances in the moralizing literature of the period, possessed none of the vividness, the immediacy of his Christian counterpart. He was little more than a word, a shade whose impress on life was real enough, but whom one could hardly hope to identify from the vague, colorless comments about his person and activity. Quite probably he stood out more clearly in the popular conception than in the literature (he was not a personage of theological import, as in medieval Christianity); but that conception did not impress itself so deeply on the folk-mind as to find its way into the literature as well. Satan in medieval Jewish thought was little more than an allegory, whose moral was the prevalence of sin.29
The tendency to push into the background those demons that are named in the Talmud, to deny them an important rôle in the contemporary demon world, is demonstrated by the comparatively few references to them, and by the nature of these comments. The demon Shibbeta, for example, who strangles people, and especially children who eat food touched by unwashed hands—not one of those “spirits of uncleanness” already mentioned, but an individualized spirit which rests upon foods and is dispelled only by washing the hands prior to the handling of the foods—this demon no longer frightened medieval Jewry. “The reason why people no longer observe the precaution of washing before feeding their children is that this evil spirit is not to be found in these lands.”
This attitude was applied to many of the Talmudic superstitions which lacked the element of contemporaneity. As a later writer naïvely put it: the explanation of the neglect on the part of late authorities of many of the early superstitions is that “the nature of man has changed since those early days.” He adduced as proof that “there are many things against which the Gemara warns us as being fraught with great danger [from the demons], but we have never seen nor heard of anyone who suffered harm from disregarding the Talmudic warnings.” It was not that the belief in demons was weakening; rather, a host of modern spirits had displaced the ancient ones.30
Keteb Meriri, which according to the Talmud is most harmful at noon, and especially during the hot summer months, undoubtedly a personification of the sun’s heat, made his momentary appearance during the Middle Ages. Sefer Ḥasidim reports that a group of children on their way to school one noon were suddenly confronted with this demon; all but two died, the fortunate ones surviving only after a severe illness. Even more evanescent is the rôle of Ashmedai, the “king of demons,” and of Igrat, the Talmudic “queen of demons,” and her mother Maḥlat. These and others appear only as names standing out momentarily from the midst of a horde of unidentified spirits.31
Alone among the spirits known through Jewish tradition, Lilit retained her position during the Middle Ages, if indeed she did not strengthen it by virtue of the closer definition of her activities. Originally a wind-spirit, derived from the Assyrian lilitu, with long disheveled hair, and wings, during Talmudic times the confusion of her name with the word layil, “night,” transformed her into a night spirit who attacks those who sleep alone. Laylah appears also as the angel of night, and of conception. Out of the assimilation to one another of these two concepts grew the view that prevailed during the Middle Ages.
Though Lilit and the popularly derived plurals, the lilin, and the liliot, appeared often in nondescript form, merely as another term for demons, as when we are told that the liliot assemble in certain trees, the lilits proper possessed two outstanding characteristics in medieval folklore which gave them distinct personality: they attacked new-born children and their mothers, and they seduced men in their sleep. As a result of the legend of Adam’s relations with Lilit, although this function was by no means exclusively theirs, the lilits were most frequently singled out as the demons who embrace sleeping men and cause them to have the nocturnal emissions which are the seed of a hybrid progeny.32
It was in her first rôle, however, that Lilit terrorized medieval Jewry. As the demon whose special prey is lying-in women and their babes, it was found necessary to adopt an extensive series of protective measures against her. The line of development of this type of Lilit from the rabbinic concept is not altogether clear. We seem to have here a union of the night demon with the spirit that presides over pregnancy, influenced no doubt by the character of the Babylonian Lamaššu, and the lamiae and striga of Greek and Roman folklore. While it is incorrect to assume that this type of demon was an invention of post-Talmudic Judaism, there can be no question that, its sources reaching far back into the past not only of Jewish folk-belief, but of that of neighboring peoples as well, the fully rounded concept is not met with before the Geonic period, when it made its appearance in Aramaic incantations of about the seventh century and in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, a work composed in Persia or Arabia some time before the year 1000. It is in this region that one might expect to find traces of old Babylonian beliefs, as well as the ghoul of the Arabian desert, influencing Jewish folklore. In Europe the persistence in various forms of the lamia and striga in the local non-Jewish superstition served to preserve and accentuate this feature of the Lilit concept.
According to the earliest Jewish literary version of the legend, Lilit, Adam’s first wife, left him after a quarrel; in response to his plea God dispatched three angels to bring her back, but she refused to return, in consequence of which one hundred of her children were doomed to die daily. “Let me be!” she commanded the angels, when they overtook her. “I was created only to weaken children, boys during their first eight days [i.e., until circumcision], girls until their twentieth day” [perhaps a reminiscence of an earlier initiatory rite for girls]. Elijah Levita in referring to this legend wrote, “I am loath to quote it at length, for I don’t believe it at all.” But his co-religionists did not share his skepticism, as he himself admitted when he proceeded to describe a popular measure of protection against Lilit: “This is a common practice among us German Jews,” he confessed.33
It constitutes a rather significant commentary upon the close cultural relations prevailing between medieval Jewry and its neighbors, that the Franco-German names of so many spirits were assimilated into Jewish folklore. Since our literary sources are the product of the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the times, whose scholarship and official position must have served to accentuate their natural predilection for the traditional ways and beliefs of the Jewish past, the easy and unquestioned acceptance of these non-Jewish elements is indicative of the hold they must have gained upon the popular imagination. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries some of them had already become part of the Jewish demonology. But the occurrence of French, German and Latin names and terms became especially notable only in the thirteenth century. There can be no doubt that the rise in Jewish superstition generally, and especially in the belief in demons in this period, was a reflex of the spirit of the times.
Most often mentioned were the estrie, the broxa, the mare, and the werwolf.34 The transliteration into Hebrew of these names is often confusing, and the description of these creatures even more confused, but it is not difficult to recognize in them their non-Jewish prototypes. So intimately had they entered into Jewish folklore that it was possible for some writers to identify them with those original demons whose souls were created on the eve of the Sabbath, when the press of time left them in a bodyless condition. According to one source, estrie, mare, and werwolf are to be included in this category; others, however, would exclude the mare, which possesses both body and soul.35
It is difficult to determine whether the estrie was regarded as a true demon, or as a witch; it was described, sometimes in the same source, as both. Included among the incorporeal spirits, it was none the less also a woman, a flesh-and-blood member of the community. In either guise her character was that of the vampire, whose particular prey was little children, though she did not disdain at times to include grown-ups in her diet.36 The sense of these passages appears to be that she is an evil spirit who adopts woman’s form and spends her life among men, the more readily to satisfy her gory appetites. The equation of the estrie with the broxa leads one to believe that she was best known in her human form.
The estrie had the faculty of changing her shape as she willed, and of returning to her original demonic state when she flew about at night. A certain woman, who, it transpired, was an estrie, fell ill and was attended during the night by two women. When one of these fell asleep the patient suddenly arose from her bed, flung her hair wildly about her head, and made efforts to fly and to suck blood from the sleeping woman. The other attendant cried out in terror and aroused her companion; between the two of them they subdued the demon-witch and got her back into bed. “If she had succeeded in killing this woman she would have preserved her life, but since her effort was thwarted she died.” These creatures sustained themselves on a diet of human blood, which preserved their lives when they were desperately ill.
If an estrie was wounded by a human being, or was seen by him (in her demonic state), she must die unless she could procure and consume some of his bread and salt. A man who was attacked by an estrie in the shape of a cat and beat her off, was approached by the witch the next day and asked for some of his bread and salt. When he was innocently about to grant her request an old man intervened and scolded him sharply for his generosity. “If you enable her to remain alive, she will only harm other men.” If the precentor, during services, offers up a prayer for the health of a sick woman who is known to be a vampire, the congregation must not respond with an “Amen!” When a broxa or an estrie is being buried, one should notice whether or not her mouth is open; if it is, this is a sure sign that she will continue her vampirish activities for another year. Her mouth must be stopped up with earth, and she will be rendered harmless.37
According to one source the mares are creatures which consort in forests in groups of nine, for if there were ten of them Satan would seize the tenth one; they do no harm to humans. The more authentic version, however, is that the mare is a being which rests upon man while he sleeps and deprives him of the power of speech by grasping his tongue and lips and choking off his breath, so that he cries out fitfully. It is the mare which is responsible for nightmares (here we have the word incorporated in our own speech and folklore); in French the phenomenon is known as the cauche-mare.38
The werwolf is a sorcerer, or a demon which inhabits the earth in man’s form, but which at will assumes the shape of a wolf and attacks and consumes men. Like his feminine counterpart, the estrie, he requires human blood in his diet—another version of the vampire.39
We read of other familiar spirits as well.40 The kobold makes its appearance in a thirteenth-century manuscript, a demonic homunculus which mimics and echoes man’s voice in order to bewilder him, and which is used by ventriloquists. Another work of the same century tells of a “tiny demon called a wichtchen.”41 The spirits which dwell in waste places and attack men who are up alone at night were naturalized in Northern France and renamed faes.42 “Many of these are to be found among us,” lamented one pious rabbi, referring specifically to the faes and their associates the lutins (or the nuitons43), the hobgoblins which play such a prominent rôle in French folklore; nor was their German counterpart, the alp (elf) missing.44
The watersprite, the nixe,45 and her sisters, the sirens,46 also put in an appearance. Genii were the familiars of witches and sorcerers, and the dragon became a demon with unusual attributes.47 A blow struck by a man can have no effect upon the dragon; only a child from his own loins can wound him. When he is within a man’s house he is harmless, but no sooner does he depart than the house goes up in flames. Thunder and lightning he dreads, and if he can he flees from them into a human habitation, where he is safe. Once a dragon cohabited with a princess who bore him a son. He confessed that he feared none but his own child. When the boy was grown to man’s estate he was induced by the king to kill his dragon-father, and taking him unawares one night smote him a mortal blow. The demon begged that the blow be repeated, for strangely enough, one wound could kill him, but a second would save his life. His son, however, refused him this courtesy, and the dragon promptly expired, a consummation which proved rather embarrassing, for his body swelled until it had to be cut up into bits and carted off in a great number of wagons.
The familiar name for the Sabbath-loaf among German Jews, Barches or Berches, and the distinctive, plaited appearance of the bread, have led some scholars to suggest that we have here a Jewish version of an ancient pagan practice. The Teutonic goddess of fertility, Berchta or Perchta, was worshiped by the women with rites which included offering their hair to her. In time this ceremony became obsolete and was replaced by a symbolic offering of the hair in the shape of a loaf representing the intertwined braids, the Perchis- or Berchisbrod. This is the word, and the practice, which Jewish ceremonial, curiously, has preserved in the loaf prepared especially for the Sabbath, say these scholars. Both the name and the shape are distinctive of German-Jewish usage. Yet even if this theory should be correct (other scholars have vigorously denied that there is any relationship with the goddess, and the issue is still —and will probably remain—moot) we should not be justified in concluding that the Perchta cult had found a place in Jewish ritual and belief. At most, all we can read into the Berches is an odd assimilation and survival of a long meaningless word.48
A chance remark in a thirteenth-century code leads us to perhaps the most interesting item in this catalogue. Jewish practice required that before entering the ritual bath all obstructions on the body, such as jewelry, which might prevent contact of the water with the skin, must be removed. The question arose whether a man or woman whose hair is badly matted must cut off this impediment to complete contact before bathing. “My opinion,” our source states, “is that we should not require people to cut their hair when it is tangled and matted like felt, a condition called in German יילק״ש, and in French פלטרי״ד, for this disarray is caused by a demon, and we consider it to be courting mortal danger to shear such hair.” The terms are obscure. A later authority, quoting this first one, comments, “ולקר״ט [probably another transliteration of the word represented by פלטרו״ד] is what we call היל״א לוק״א.” The riddle is solved! These last words are the German Holle-locke, of which יילק״ש (spelled also in the first היילק״ש) is no doubt a variant; פלטרי״ד must be the French feltre, feutre, our “felt.”49 The belief that in the night demons entangle the manes of beasts and the hair of humans is very widespread; we may recall Shakespeare’s lines:
This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night;
And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes.
Who was this Holle after whom the elf-lock was named? Among the ancient Teutons Holle, or Holda, or Hulda, appeared as an ugly old witch, with long, matted hair and protruding teeth. In medieval Germany she had developed into the demon-witch who gobbles up children. She was held responsible for entangling hair at night; “er ist mit der Holle gefahren” was said of one whose hair was disheveled and knotted. Corresponding with Holle-locke is the term Hollenzopf.50
The lady made her way into Jewish life in her other rôle as well. It is reported that as early as the fourteenth century the ceremony called Hollekreisch was widely observed in Jewish circles in Germany. The Jewish boy receives his Hebrew name on the occasion of his circumcision; the girl child usually upon the first Sabbath after birth. Since the earliest days of the dispersion, however, Jews have also borne names drawn from the nomenclature of the people in whose midst they reside—names we may term secular or vulgar as distinguished from the Hebrew, the classical name. These secular cognomens usually correspond in one way or another to the Hebrew, whether as colloquial forms or translations, or related only by sound or appearance. The ceremony of the Hollekreisch, which marked the bestowal of its secular name upon the child, comprised these features: the baby (or the cradle containing the baby) was lifted into the air three times, usually by the children especially invited for the occasion, and each time the name was shouted out by the guests in unison. Often this shouting followed a formula. In modern times such formulas as “Hollekreisch! What shall this child’s name be?” with the appropriate response, or “Holle! Holle! This child’s name shall be . . . ,” have been employed. In the seventeenth century the custom of Hollekreisch was observed in naming boys and girls only in South Germany, while in Austria, Bohemia, Moravia and Poland it was not used for boys at all, and only rarely for girls.
The earliest writer to speak of this custom, Moses Minz (fifteenth century), explained the term as a combination of a Hebrew and a German word—ḥol, “profane, secular,” and kreischen, “to shout, call out”—which would render it “the ceremony of calling out the secular name.” This explanation was accepted and repeated in the later references to the practice. A modern writer has derived the first part of the term from the call “Holla!” But it is unlikely that these explanations even approach the truth.
As we have seen, Holle was the demon-witch who attacked infants; in this respect she provided a close parallel to the familiar Lilit. The further correspondences between the two: their connection with the night; the distinguishing physical feature, long hair, which they had in common; their propensity to attack prior to the naming of the child; all of these made the identification of the two a natural one. Shouting the child’s name, which is mentioned in all the references to the ceremony, and tossing the infant in the air three times, were devices intended to drive off the demon Holle, and her fellows, just as in the Wachnacht ceremony on the night before the circumcision measures were taken to ward off attacks by Lilit. So close a parallel to Jewish belief and practice as that embodied in the Hollekreisch could have found no difficulty in winning a wide popularity among Jews.51
We are not yet ready to dismiss our unsavory friend Holle-Hulda. We must follow her devious course in Jewish folklore one step farther, though here we shall leave her playing a more attractive rôle. In a thirteenth-century manuscript there appears an invocation, in Middle High German written in Hebrew characters, to this self-same lady, Hulda, this time the goddess of love. In this passage there is a reference to Hulda’s hof, which is nothing else than the famous Venusberg of the Tannhäusersage. “Der Venusberg ist Frau Hollen Hofhaltung, erst im 15. 16. Jahrhundert scheint man aus ihr Frau Venus zu machen,” wrote Grimm. Ugly, cruel Holle becomes the lover’s goddess, Venus! And thus she appears in a fifteenth-century Hebrew-Yiddish love-receipt: “Secure an egg laid on a Thursday by a jet-black hen which has never laid an egg before, and on the same day, after sunset, bury it at a crossroads. Leave it there three days; then dig it up after sunset, sell it and purchase with the proceeds a mirror, which you must bury in the same spot in the evening ‘in Frau Venus namen,’ and say ‘allhie begrab ich diesen spiegel in der Libe, die Frau Venus zu dem Dannhäuser hat.’ Sleep on that spot three nights, then remove the mirror, and whoever looks into it will love you!”52