The Lion, the Witch and the Walrus
Images of the Sorcerous North in the 16th and 17th centuries
Stefan Donecker (Florenz/Wien) [BIO]
In 1580, the eminent French political theorist Jean Bodin warned his contemporaries about the origins of the putative conspiracy of witches that was believed to threaten Christianity all over Europe: “Most witches and sorcerers are to be found in the Northern lands,” Bodin wrote, “because the devil has more power at Septentrio. There are more warlocks in Norway and Livonia and other Septentrional areas than in the entire rest of the world.” The notorious French witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre agreed: “Sorcerers used to be less numerous than they are today. They dwelt at remote places; in the mountains, in deserts or in the Northern lands, such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Götaland, Ireland and Livonia.”
This contribution to the KCTOS section “Arctic, Antarctica, Alps, Art – Imagining the Extreme” intends to explore the image of the North as an abode of witchcraft and idolatry. Rooted in medieval thought, this stereotype was shaped during the heyday of the European witch-hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Traces of the “Sorcerous North” surfaced in literature, travel accounts and cartography as well as in scholarly demonology. The presentation aims to examine selected sources that are representative for this discourse, contrasting the negative stereotype of “Northern witchcraft” to the opposed, positive image of the North as a resource of freedom and salvation (as expressed, for example, in the Paracelsian Lion prophecies). Particular consideration will be devoted to the relationship between the image of the “Sorcerous North” and contemporary 16th and 17th century perceptions of Northern nature and wildlife. Thus, the presentation should raise some questions on how Early Modern Europe “imagined the extreme” – not only in a geographical or naturalist, but also in a metaphysical sense.