The Werewolf of Ansbach

It is estimated that over the course of only 300 years, from the 14th to the 17th century, up to 100,000 people were executed in Europe on the charge of being werewolves .
France and Germany especially found themselves under attack by these supernatural creatures, and in both countries the lycanthropy “epidemics” caused a real collective fear.
The werewolf could sometimes be the victim of a curse, but more often he was seen as a worshiper of Satan. Since turning into a wolf was considered the result of magical arts, lycanthropy trials fell into the wider phenomenon of witch-hunt.
Among historical accounts of werewolves, there is one in particular that is absolutely noteworthy.

In 1685 the Principality of Ansbach included the surroundings of the Bavarian town of the same name; here a wolf began attacking livestock. The threat suddenly became more serious when the animal killed several children within a few months.
The idea immediately spread that this was no normal wolf, but rather a werewolf — on whose identity there was little doubt: the detested Michael Leicht, Burgomaster of Ansbach (a figure halfway between a mayor and a ruler), had recently died after subjecting the town to its cruel and fraudulent yoke for many years.

It was rumored that this much-hated public officer had actually managed to escape death by transferring his spirit into the body of a wolf. Some swore they saw him attend his own funeral; a contemporary flyer shows Michael Leicht who, in the form of a wolf wrapped in a white-linen shroud, returns to his old apartment, scaring the new tenants.

Thus hunting the fierce wolf became an imperative not only in order to protect children from further carnage, but to free the city from the spirit of the Burgomaster still haunting those places, and to avenge years of harassment.

The hunters prepared a Wolfsgrube. This “wolf pit” consisted of a hole with stone walls, about three or four meters deep, covered with branches and straw, and it was used to trap wild animals. Pieces of raw meat were placed at the bottom of the well, and often a live bait was used: a sheep, a pig or a goose. The wolf, smelling the prey, would wander around the scrubs until it fell into the trapping pit.

In this case, the bait was a rooster. The wolf fell into the hole and was killed by hunters.
But what happened next is the really interesting part.

The carcass of the animal was paraded through the streets, to show the danger was over. The men had prevailed over the beast.
But since this was no ordinary wolf, a more grotesque spectacle was staged. After skinning the animal, the men severed its muzzle and placed on its head a cardboard mask with Leicht’s features; they dressed it with a wig and a cloak, and hanged the wolf by a gibbet erected on a nearby hill, so that it was clearly visible.

A poem from the time reads:

I, wolf, was a grim beast and devourer of many children
Which I far preferred to fat sheep and steers;
A rooster killed me, a well was my death.
I now hang from the gallows, for the ridicule of all people.
As a spirit and a wolf, I bothered men
How appropriate, now that people say:
“Ah! You damned spirit who entered the wolf,
You now swing from the gallows disguised as a man
This is your fair compensation, the gift you have earned;
This you deserve, a gibbet is your grave.
Take this reward, because you have devoured the sons of men
Like a fierce and ferocious beast, a real child eater. “

The punishment reserved for this demonic beast is subtler than it might seem, because it actually serves a double symbolic purpose.

On the one hand, depriving the wolf of his fur and replacing it with human clothes meant showing Satan himself that his tricks did not work. The townspeople of Ansbach were able to recognize the man concealing under the fur; this was therefore a warning, addressed to the Devil himself — this how your evil servants end up, around here! — and it had a clear apotropaic intent.

On the other hand, there was an undeniable political aspect. This was a “by proxy” execution of the former ruler; the commoners, who had failed to overthrow their oppressor while he was alive, did so post-mortem.
One may wonder: was this a warning to the new burgomaster, so that he would keep in line? Or was the new ruler himself behind this staging? Such a striking public show could be a good way for him to earn his subjects’ trust, a way of distancing himself from the tyranny of his predecessor.
In any case, the political message was clear, even for those who did not believe in werewolves: this act was meant to mark the end of a dark era.

As this episode demonstrates, we would be wrong to see lycanthropy trials as simple and blind mass hysteria, fueled by superstition. Even though they were a product of  fear in times of great epidemics, as well as economic, political and social instability, werewolf trials sometimes involved stratified levels of meaning which were far from being unintentional.
While courts condemned hundreds of people to be burned at the stake, intellectuals debated how it was possible for a man to turn into a wolf. And they were surprisingly quite aware that the problem lied in telling the legend from the truth.

For instance one of the most brilliant treatises on the subject, the Discourse on Lycanthropy (1599) by Jean Beauvoys de Chauvincourt, traces the origins of the werewolf in Greek mythology, spending several pages to discern between which ancient stories had to be considered simple allegories, and which ones could hide a kernel of truth.

But what exactly was this truth? What was going on during a lycanthropy episode? Can we in all rationality, wonders Beauvoys, believe that a man has the magical power of changing his physical form?
And then there was a more delicate question, of theological nature. How could Satan transform what God had created, replacing the Almighty in a sort of “second creation”? Crediting the Devil with such high power was inadmissible, since only God could turn water into wine, Lot’s wife into salt, or Moses’ rod into a snake.

In his treatise Beauvoys devises an extremely ingenious solution, a true marvel of balance to get himself out of the impasse.
Since endorsing the possibility of an actual man-to-wolf transformation would lead him dangerously close to blasphemous or at least heretical positions, he opts for a double demonic illusion.

The first illusion affects the werewolves themselves: Satan, “thanks to his pure and simple subtlety, by penetrating into their bodies and occupying their internal organs, becomes their true owner, and persuades them of what he wants. Troubling their imagination, he makes them believe they are brutal beasts, and infuses them with the same desires and attractions those animals have, up to the point that they begin having frequent carnal unions with those of their kind“. Thus the werewolf is nothing but a man, who has lost his way and got tricked by the devil; his body is not really covered in fur, his nails do not turn into claws nor his teeth into fangs. Everything just happens in his mind (an extraordinary idea, if you think that something close to psychiatry will only appear two centuries later).

Then, by administering ointments, eye drops, creams and powders to these slaves, the Devil is able to create hallucinations even in those who have the misfortune of meeting the werewolf: “such is the smell and the air so infected by this filth that they not only affect his patient, but they are so powerful as to act on the external senses of the audience, taking possession of their eyes; disturbed by this poison, they are persuaded that these transformations are real“.

Therefore on a more superficial level, the werewolf represents the danger of abandoning oneself to bestial instincts, of losing one’s own humanity; it is a moral figure meant to illustrate what happens when man turns away from the divine light, and it signifies a recession to barbarism, the loss of the logos.

But the most frightening and uspetting fact is that a werewolf confuses and overturns the common categories of meaning. According to Beauvoys, as we have seen, its condition is both supernatural (Satan is behind it all) and natural (no actual metamorphosis is taking place). Similarly, Ansbach’s wolf is deprived of its real skin, which is seen as a fake, and it is made to wear a mock human face, recognized as its authentic nature.

The werwewolf’s destabilizing power lies in this dimension of epistemological mystery — the werewolf is like a magic trick, an illusion; it is both true and false.

The Grim Reaper at the Chessboard

Few games lend themselves to philosophical metaphors like the game of chess.
The two armies, one dark and one bright, have been battling each other for millennia in endless struggle. An abstract fight of mathematical perfection, as mankind’s “terrible love of war” is inscribed within an orthogonal grid which is only superficially reassuring.
The chessboard hides in fact an impossible combinatory vertigo, an infinity of variations. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the scheme (the estimate of all possible games is a staggering number), and remember that famous Pharaoh who, upon accepting to pay a grain of wheat on the first square and to double the number of grains on the following squares, found himself ruined.

The battle of 32 pieces on the 64 squares inspired, aside from the obvious martial allegories, several poems tracing the analogy between the chessboard and the Universe itself, and between the pawns and human condition.
The most ancient and famous is one of Omar Khayyám‘s quatrains:

Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This idea of God moving men over the chessboard as he pleases might look somewhat disquieting, but Jorge Luis Borges multiplied it into an infinite regress, asking if God himself might be an unknowing piece on a larger chessboard:

Weakling king,  slanting bishop, relentless
Queen, direct rook and cunning pawn
Seek and wage their armed battle
Across the black and white of the field.

They know not that the player’s notorious
Hand governs their destiny,
They know not that a rigor adamantine
Subjects their will and rules their day.

The player also is a prisoner
(The saying  is Omar’s) of another board
Of black nights and of white days.

God moves the player, and he, the piece.
Which god behind God begets the plot
Of dust and time and dream and agonies?

This cosmic game is of course all about free will, but is also part of the wider context of memento mori and of Death being  the Great Leveler. Whether we are Kings or Bishops, rooks or simple pawns; whether we fight for the White or Black side; whether our army wins or loses — the true outcome of the battle is already set. We will all end up being put back in the box with all other pieces, down in “time’s common grave“.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Death many times sat at the chessboard before Man.

In the oldest representations, the skeleton was depicted as cruel and dangerous, ready to violently clutch the unsuspecting bystander; but by the late Middle Ages, with the birth of the Danse Macabre (and possibly with the influence of the haunting but not malevolent Breton figure of Ankou) the skeleton had become unarmed and peaceful, even prone to dancing, in a carnival feast which, while reminding the viewer of his inevitable fate, also had an exorcistic quality.

That Death might be willing to allow Man a game of chess, therefore, is connected with a more positive idea in respect to previous iconographic themes (Triumph of Death, Last Judgement, the Three Kings, etc.). But it goes further than that: the very fact that the Reaper could now be challenged, suggests the beginning of Renaissance thought.

In fact, in depictions of Death playing chess, just like in the Danse Macabre, there are no

allusions or symbols directly pointing to the apocalyptic presence of religion, nor to the necessity of its rituals; for instance, there are no elements suggesting the need of receiving, in the final act, the extreme confort of a priest or the absolution as a viaticum for the next world, which would stress the feeling of impotence of man. Portrayed in the Danse Macabre is a man who sees himself as a part of the world, who acknowledges his being the maker of change in personal and social reality, who is inscribed in historical perspective.

(A. Tanfoglio, Lo spettacolo della morte… Quaderni di estetica e mimesi del bello nell’arte macabra in Europa, Vol. 4, 1985)

The man making his moves against Death was no more a Medieval man, but a modern one.
Later on, the Devil himself was destined to be beat at the game: according to the legend, Sixteenth Century chess master Paolo Boi from Syracuse played a game against a mysterious stranger, who left horrified when on the chessboard the pieces formed the shape of a cross…

But what is probably the most interesting episode happened in recent times, in 1985.
A Dr. Wolfgang Eisenbeiss and an aquaintance decided to arrange a very peculiar match: it was to be played between two great chess masters, one living and one dead.
The execution of the game would be made possible thanks to Robert Rollans, a “trustworthy” medium with no knowledge of chess (so as not to influence the outcome).
The odd party soon found a living player who was willing to try the experiment, chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi; contacting the challenger proved to be a little more difficult, but on June 15 the spirit of Géza Maróczy, who had died more than 30 years before on May 29, 1951, agreed to pick up the challenge.
Comunicating the moves between the two adversaries, through the psychic’s automatic writing, also took more time than expected. The game lasted 7 years and 8 months, until the Maróczy’s ghost eventually gave up, after 47 moves.

This “supernatural” game shows that the symbolic value of chess survived through the centuries.
One of the most ancient games is still providing inspiration for human creativity, from literature (Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was built upon a chess enigma) to painting, from sculpture to modern so-called mysteries (how could chess not play a part in Rennes-le-Château mythology?).
From time to time, the 64 squares have been used as an emblem of seduction and flirtation, of political challenges, or of the great battle between the White and the Black, a battle going on within ourselves, on the chessboard of our soul.

It is ultimately an ambiguous, dual fascination.
The chessboard provides a finite, clear, rationalist battlefield. It shows life as a series of strategical decisions, of rules and predictable movements. We fancy a game with intrinsic accuracy and logic.
And yet every game is uncertain, and there’s always the possibility that the true “endgame” will suddenly catch us off guard, as it did with the Pharaoh:

CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly):
Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.

(Thanks, Mauro!)