Metamorphosis and ritual battles in the myth and folklore of the Eurasian populations

di Marco Maculotti

The zoomorphic metamorphosis topos is widely present in the folkloric corpus of a large number of ancient traditions, both from archaic Europe (on which we will focus mainly in this study), and from other geographical areas. As early as the fifth century BC, in Greece, Herodotus mentioned men capable of periodically transforming themselves into wolves. Similar traditions have been documented in Africa, Asia and the American continent, with reference to the temporary metamorphosis of human beings in fairs: bears, leopards, hyenas, tigers, jaguars. Sometimes, in some historically documented cases of the ancient world (Luperci, Cinocefali, Berserker) "The paranormal experience of transformation into an animal takes on collective characteristics and is at the origin of initiatory groups and secret societies" (Di Nola, p.12).

Zoomorphic metamorphosis and belonging to initiatory societies are also found in the cultures of extra-Eurasian geographical areas: we find their existence both in pre-Columbian America (Aztec warriors-jaguars) and in black Africa (warriors-leopards). We immediately notice how, regardless of the geographical location of the cults and beliefs that we will analyze, most of the time these secret brotherhoods of shape-shifting warriors venerate as a totemic animal the fair that best represents certain characteristics, such as brute strength, isolation and danger for the human consortium: in European countries, fairs such as the wolf (especially in the Indo-European tradition) and the bear (mainly in proto-Indo-European cultures, such as those of the Siberian area) are preferred, while in the American and African sub-equatorial countries the totemic animal which, possessing the initiate, allows his temporary metamorphosis is almost always a large and particularly aggressive feline (jaguar, leopard, lion). Beliefs regarding other shape-shifting characters of folklore, such as the Wendigo among the Native Americans of present-day Canada [cf. Psychosis in the shamanic vision of the Algonquians: The Windigo], do not include the mention of initiatory societies and battles for fertility, but are instead comparable to the more modern European ones, widespread in medieval times, regarding werewolves.

Anthropologists and scholars of ancient traditions and folkloric beliefs have always struggled in an attempt to frame the phenomenon from a rational, or at least scientifically acceptable, point of view. In the Middle Ages, bishops and theologians tried to explain these beliefs, on the one hand, by appealing to the theme of demonic possession and, on the other, by citing phantom "illusions created by the devil" as an explanation. According to the studies of the universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg in the late 600s, on the basis of information collected in the Baltic countries, since the metamorphosis was always preceded by a deep sleep or - better to say - by the achievement, in trance, of an ecstatic state, it was to be considered purely imaginary (natural or diabolical, according to the interpreters).

According to Olao Magno, bishop of Leipzig around the middle of the sixteenth century, however, "the alleged werewolves were actually members of sectarian associations, formed by enchanters or individuals disguised as wolves, who identified themselves in their rituals with the army of the dead "(Ginzburg, p.136). According to Carlo Ginzburg, who reports these hypotheses, the connection between ecstatic fighters and secret societies of the archaic world is undoubted, but it must be understood in a purely symbolic way: in his opinion, the nocturnal raids of the Baltic werewolves had to be compared to those carried out. in spirit by the Friulian benandanti [cf. The Friulian benandanti and the ancient European fertility cults]. Di Nola, on the other hand, cites the opinion of Van der Leeuw, who "seems inclined to reduce all zooanthropic facts to a result of mystical or drug-induced ecstasy experiences. The hallucinatory images emerging in ecstasy and dreams would be assumed as real experiences of transformation "(Di Nola, p.16).

After this brief introduction, we now proceed to a comparative analysis of the folklore of the ancient Indo-European populations; later in the research we will try to frame the phenomenon in such a way as to allow a unitary explanation, regardless of the geographical area, trying where possible to decipher the reasons for the multiple variations on the theme.

African wild dog punished by Jupiter, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius.

Hellenic tradition:


The ancient Hellenes located in Arcadia - and, in part, in Thessaly - the populations who, due to their cannibalistic habits, had the power to transform themselves into wolves. The Scythians and Greeks who lived in Scythia, at the time of Herodotus, considered the Nerves (or Neuri according to Ginzburg) as a people of sorcerers, because "once a year each Nerve becomes, for a few days, a wolf, then returning to its first form "(Di Nola, p.14; see Herodotus, History 4, 105). Unfortunately, many historical sources of this mysterious population have not reached us. In the Middle Ages they were thought to have inhabited a region corresponding to Livonia — the Baltic region which we will encounter later in this study; some scholars believe that it was a Proto-Baltic ethnic population. In the Mediterranean area of ​​antiquity the wolf was associated with the kingdom of Hades: in the Etruscan tomb of Orvieto, for example, the god of the afterlife is represented with a wolf's head as a headdress.

Still in the Hellenic context, the most famous myth on the subject narrates that Lycaon (from lycos, wolf), son of Pelasgio, having offered human flesh to Zeus, was transformed by the god into a wolf. Pausanias, Plato and Pliny tell us of a human sacrificial cult, which would have been practiced in honor of Zeus on Mount Liceo in Arcadia (it is the chthonic god Zeus Lyceus, with characteristics more similar to those of Hades rather than Jupiter, therefore not to be confused with the more famous Zeus Olympus). Those present devoured the remains of a human victim, turning into wolves for the next nine or ten years, subsequently regaining their ordinary appearance only if, for all that time, they had not fed on human flesh again. According to another legend - handed down by Pausanias, Plino and Agostino - the families of Arcadia were drawn by lot to decide who was destined to change into a wolf. The person on whom the lots fell was led to a lake, immersed, and came out metamorphosed. Again, it was believed that the person would regain human form only if he abstained from anthropophagy for nine years.

The doctor Paolo di Aegina, between the fourth and seventh centuries of our era, instead describes the phenomenon as a pathology: "Those who work under lycanthropy go out at night imitating wolves in all respects, and wander around the cemeteries up to the next morning. You can recognize such people by the following traits: they are pale, their sight is weak, their eyes are dry, their mouths even drier, their salivation blocked; they are thirsty, their legs are badly injured by the numerous falls ». But the esoteric beliefs about lycanthropy in Greece were still alive in the medieval era, at the time when Cornelius Agrippa, in By occulta philosophia in 1510, he wrote that once upon a time, in Hellas, "men changed into wolves after having tasted what was sacrificed to Jupiter Lyceus, which Pliny says happened to a certain Demarco ».


Italic tradition:


In the ancient Roman world, once a year for a day the balance between the civilized world and the wild world was broken, between order and chaos: this date fell on February 15, the defined holiday. Lupercalia, and it is at the origins of the modern carnival. According to the authoritative opinion of George Dumézil, in this key period of the agricultural calendar (which also included the Feralia), ruled by Faun, "a necessary and disturbing link was also established between two other worlds, that of the living and that of the dead [...] those days ritually called into question the very schemes of social and cosmic organization" (Dumézil [1 ], p.306). At the origin of the "festival sacred to the bicornuate Faun" (Ovid, Glories, II) there was probably a magical ceremony, imported according to the legend from Evandro, or from the Irpini, by which the pastoral communities defended the flocks from the wolves and ensured the fertility of the human and animal consortium. Ovid again tells us that "the ancient Arcadians are reputed to be honored by Pan […] There [in Arcadia] Pan was the divine keeper of herds and mares and received gifts to protect the flock".

During the feast, goats were sacrificed (as well as a dog), whose torn skins the Luperci girded themselves; subsequently a meal was consumed washed down with a large quantity of wine, then proceeded to a purifying race around the Palatine Hill, during which the Luperci brandished pieces of the butchered meat and hit anyone who came within range, especially the women, to whom thus ensured fertility (Petoia, p.74). The link between zoomorphic disguises, agricultural calendar, abundance of flocks and ritual fights appears indissoluble: Dumézil reports that "the Lupercians formed two groups, which legend linked to Romulus and Remus [...] however it seems that they were directed by a single magister and associates in their only annual exhibition ». They represented the nature spirits of which Faun was the leader; Cicero defines them as "the wild society, in all pastoral and rural areas, of the Luperci brothers, whose sylvan group was established before human civilization and laws" (Dumézil [1], p.307).

Another Italic tradition, perhaps at the origin of the Latin one, concerning zooanthropy was handed down by the Sabines of central Italy, who knew the "figure of the wolf-man with supernatural powers called hirpus», The same term from which the name of another population derives, the Irpini (residing in the current Campania), who, according to legend, originated from the Samnites through a rite of Ver sacred, adopting the wolf as a totemic animal: it is probably the Irpini who are the importers of the Lupercalia in the Roman cult.


In more modern times, in the Italian popular tradition, according to Petoia, «lycanthropy loses all its demonic aspects that had characterized it during the Middle Ages, and takes on a pathological characterization (Petoia, p.205). Nevertheless, a precious recent testimony collected in 1894 in Calabria by Argondizza and reported by Petoia, allows us once again, even in such a modern era, interesting connections between ritual metamorphosis and abundance of flocks. According to "Uncle Francesco", "these such never cause harm where they practice, and above all to the animals, which they guard and for which they are responsible" (p.207).

Unlike many other geographical areas more affected by inquisitorial fury and more imbued with Christian dogmas, we note how in rural Calabria the figure of the werewolf, even at the dawn of the twentieth century, is not seen as demonic or dangerous for livestock and people… far from it! As in the archaic traditions that have come down to us in the folds of history, they fight for the abundance of flocks, and are careful not to attack them! Until a few generations ago, the theme was also recurrent in Sicily (lupunaru) and in Abruzzo (lupemenar wolf panaru) where it was believed that those born on Christmas Eve would become a sorcerer or werewolf if male, witch if female. In recent testimonies from these two regions, however, the pathological reading of the phenomenon is predominant, and any connection with ancestral cults has been lost like dust in the wind.

The anthropologist Mario Polia (My father told me) has collected an exhaustive amount of testimonies about the folklore of Leonessa, a small village in the province of Rieti where the legends about panaru they are extremely widespread. With this denomination we mean an individual «subject to periodic nocturnal crises, by some informants related to the growing moon. He behaves like a wolf (he howls, acquires terrible strength, can bite or tear passersby with his nails) "(Polia, p.185). It is curious to note how many testimonies do not recognize the panaru a wolf-man, but rather an anthropoformed bear: this is evidently to be placed in relation to the Germanic tradition—Which we will have the opportunity to analyze later—In which we find exactly i Berserker or Ulfhedinn, or respectively «those who have bearskin» and «those who have wolfskin».

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On the other hand, even the reference to the "terrible force" and the invasion that follows the metamorphosis are characteristics that we find punctually in the Germanic context. There's more: the panaru «He is prey to a sort of inner fire which devours him; to extinguish it he must throw himself into the icy water of the fountains or ditches, even in the middle of winter ». It was also believed that "the energy that transforms man into a werewolf resided in the blood" and that in recent times the capacity for transformation has mostly disappeared, even though certain individuals still show the other symptoms mentioned above. Some elderly people interviewed by Polia, when asked by the anthropologist about the existence of gods today panaru, they replied: "Yes, yes, they exist, but today they no longer see them because they no longer have to anna 'to bathe them in the fountains at night, since today there is water inside every house» (p.186).

image004.jpgIn the same work, Polia also analyzes the belief in the metamorphosis capacity of witches, who take the form of a cat with particular predilection - a topos found throughout Europe in the Middle Ages - or even in "big black asses" (p. 204). ). According to Chiavarelli, «the donkey evokes the dark side of underworld entities, fallen as Hecate, the Empuse, Lilith - all characterized by a donkey end - and, above all, like the Babylonian Lamaštu, daughter of An, the more ancient female divinity compared to the animal », which on the amulets is represented in the act of breastfeeding a dog and a pig, animals that later also characterize Hecate (Chiavarelli, p.58). Leaving aside here the best known aspects concerning the mythical witchcraft corpus, we limit ourselves to mentioning an important note from Polia, who was told that "the body of the witch, submerged in a deep sleep, or in a state similar to sleep, remained inert in the place where the witch lived, or from which she acted, while the spirit traveled taking on zoomorphic forms "(Polia, p.205). Reaching a state of catalepsy, "flight" in the underworld, assuming an animal form: taking into account these three key points it seems natural to frame the complex of beliefs regarding witches and their power to metamorphosis to the shamanic sphere of the cult of the Goddess, as also Ginzburg came to hypothesize when dealing with the question in Night story and, before that, ne The benandanti [cf. The Friulian benandanti and the ancient European fertility cults]

Returning for a moment to the classical sphere, among Roman writers, Virgil tells of women able to transform themselves into a wolf thanks to the use of magical filters (Bucolicae 8, 95-99):

These herbs and poisons collected in Pontus
Meri himself gave them to me (in Pontus they are born in abundance);
with these I often saw Meri transform into a wolf
and hide in the woods, and evoke souls from deep tombs,
and carry the crops sown from one field to another.

This testimony of the ancient world in our study is particularly important with reference to the last verse, which talks about how these individuals are able to change shape, as well as dialogue with the souls of the dead (a common theme to the entire shamanic world of the age archaic) carried the crops sown from one field to another: in this we seem to see references to the ritual battles fought for the fertility of the fields and the abundance of crops or, to put it in the words of a Friulian benandante, "for the love of fodder".

Reproduction of a bronze table found near Öland, Sweden.

Germanic Tradition:


A sacred recurrence analogous to the Roman Lupercalia is found in the Germanic tradition: we are talking about Jul, commonly identified with the midwinter festival (Midwinter, Mittinterfest), during which men and boys dressed and masked themselves, making use of animal skins, adorning themselves with horns and tails, and thus walking through the streets in disguise. Petaia states that behind this disguise the adoration of theriomorphic and demonic creatures variously named (jolesveinar, Julbukk o Julgeit), connected to fertility cults (Petoia, p.75). According to Jan De Vries these traditions are to be related to the totemic religious conception, according to which the animal sacrificed, and so sacralized (the Italian verb "to sacrifice" derives from the Latin sacer-facere, or "to make sacred"), once killed and eaten by the participants in the rite, transmitted to them the power, the vitality, the strength necessary to increase the fertility of the community; moreover, De Vries believes that even the existence of the werewolf finds its motive in the same anthropological substratum.

But the best known beliefs of the Germanic tradition on the subject are those concerning the Berserker or Ulfhedinn, or respectively «those who have bearskin» and «those who have wolfskin». These categories of warriors, present among the ancient Nordic populations, used to cover themselves with the skins of the animals they killed themselves, thus absorbing their powerwhich they then used in battle when, fallen into some sort of trance, as under the influence of a fury divine they hurled themselves upon their enemies with superhuman strength. Typical characteristics of this special warrior caste were, therefore, shamanic ecstasy, feral metamorphosis, invasion or sacred fury (wut) and the bloody brutality exhibited during the clashes. One of the first historical testimonies relating to the berserking we have it in Germany of Tacitus, with reference to the Harii and Chatti populations, but we find countless traces of it also in the medieval period (Petoia, p.76).

Di Nola writes that "these special classes of warriors dedicated their lives to Odin and, in the event of death from diseases in their homes, they let themselves be fatally wounded with the so-called" Odin's wound ", to avoid being excluded, not being perished in battle, from the following of God "(Encyclopedia of Religions) [cf. Cernunno, Odin, Dionysus and other deities of the 'Winter Sun']. After the conversion of the Germans to Christianity, as Petoia reports, «the figure of berserker loses his almost sacred aura, he is no longer Odin's warrior but, as can be seen from various sources, the condition of berserker it comes to be accepted as a kind of disease, of misfortune, of sad fate to be endured; he is considered possessed. Furthermore, his metamorphic characteristics disappeared as soon as he received baptism "(Petoia, p.81). Furthermore, it seems significant to us to note that in ancient Germanic law the proscribed, expelled from the social consortium and considered symbolically dead, were indicated with the term wargr o wargus, or "wolf".

And it is precisely a symbolic death that allows the werewolves of European folklore, as well as the benandanti and many other "ecstatic fighters", to leave their bodies in spirit to go to the battlefield: we thus notice that both the feral metamorphosis and the night flight aboard an animal express, in the traditions we have mentioned, the temporary removal of the soul from the examining body, which occurs on certain occasions, after the individual has reached the state of trance ecstatic (Ginzburg, p.136). In our same opinion, although more inclined to judge the phenomenon as "illusions of the devil", was the theologian of the 500th century Johan Wier, who argued that "these people can be compared to ecstatics, who, as if out of themselves and deprived of every sensation and movement, they lie like dead and when they are awakened from deep sleep, or recalled from death to life, they come to their senses and tell strange stories and extraordinary fables "(Petoia, p.249).


Lombard tradition:


In the Lombard tradition, i cynocephali they were warriors who wore totemic masks in the shape of a dog's head for ritual purposes. According to Stefano Gasparri, «from the functional point of view they actually seem to be the perfect counterparts of berserker o ulfhednhar Vikings: groups of warriors devoted in a particular way to the Odinic cult, who fought possessed by the fury divine-a kind of trance shamanic"Which multiplied their forces" (Gasparri, p.17) and which actually allowed him to feel possessed by the god, transformed into bears or angry wolves. It is Paolo Diacono who talks about it, hypothesizing the existence of a propitiatory ceremony for the war, during which the sacred possession of the warriors took place. On the other hand, the dog, as well as the bear and the wolf, were considered sacred animals to Odin, also having demonic and chthonic aspects, which connected him to the moon and to the night: the canine-looking demon of the dead has very ancient origins (yes think, for example, of the Egyptian Anubis alone).

Gasparri notes the double value of the initiatory society of cynocephalics: on the one hand we can glimpse an infernal cult, linked to the sphere of fertility, and on the other a military function. The element that unites the two components is, as in other traditions, the ecstatic one: the cynocephalus reached the state of metamorphosis through a state of trance obtained by means of ritual dances. Karl Huack believed to identify in these beliefs the faded memory of an ancient totemic cult for the goddess Frea (Freyia), in the form of a bitch, an animal symbol of fertility: the mythical ruler of the Lombards, Lamission, "would in fact be presented in the myth as son of the goddess-bitch and, through their king, all Winnili would also descend from the goddess ». The same denomination Winnili it should be etymologically explained as "mad dogs" and thus betrays the ancient lineage of the dog goddess. Recall that in the Mediterranean area the dog was sacred to Diana, goddess of the moon and fertility: in Roman iconography a pack of dogs followed the goddess in their nocturnal wanderings through the woods and countryside. Gasparri points out how effectively "the existence in very ancient times of cults for female divinities symbolizing fertility" is sufficiently proven, for the Germanic populations, "by the mention made by Tacitus to the goddess Nerthus", a deity of Germanic paganism and Baltic associated with fertility (Gasparri, p.14).

There is more: according to Giuseppe Cocchiara the importance of the famous Walnut of Beneventocity ​​that for over half a millennium (571-1078) was a Lombard duchy - where the witches of the 400th century performed their rites, has Germanic origins: the tradition would have been imported into Italy (first in the north, then in the south) by the Lombards . In the Vita Barbati Episcopi Beneventani of the ninth century, we talk about the devotion to this tree, which included a real ceremony: the Lombards, gathered under the walnut tree, affixed sheep skins to the branches and, therefore, on horseback, they pushed themselves at a wild ride. Anyone running, and with their backs turned, was able to seize a fragment of skin was sure to earn the protection of the spirits: the connection with the play rituals of the Roman Luperci. The place where the ceremony took place was called vote: some have interpreted this term as the Latin translation of the Germanic Wotan - or the god Odin - assuming, consequently, that the rite of the walnut had Germanic origins and envisaged the worship of the god in question (Cocchiara, p.128). This is, in our opinion, highly probable: George Dumézil, speaking of berserker and of Odin, he reports that, according to the myth, when the god "wanted to change his appearance, he left his body on the ground, as if asleep or dead, and became a bird or a wild animal, a fish or a snake. For his own business or those of others, he could travel to the most distant countries in the blink of an eye "(Dumézil [2], p.56). Odin himself therefore, as witches and berserker, would be an ecstatic and a shapeshifter: his adepts, worshiping him, become Odin themselves, thereby gaining the powers of the god - coming out of oneself, traveling long distances in spirit, transforming into animals, and attaining clairvoyance.

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William Granger (1685)

Celtic tradition:


Of primary importance in the Celtic tradition is the mythical figure of Cû Chulainn: Jean Markale affirms that «his famous" contortions "belong to the same order of metamorphosis [...] he deforms by himself until becoming monstrous under the effect of an indisputable “Warrior fury” »(Markele, p.212). It is evidently, as the author suggests, a phenomenon of trance shamanic. Cû Chulainn, he continues, «which deforms itself and becomes monstrous, that is to say other than itself, therefore passes from a human state to a superhuman, almost divine state […] but then it is necessary that return to his human form, you have to come down to earth"(P.214; italics ours). This fury divine, this sort of frenzy that kidnaps the hero is called "internal heat": a term very similar to the "inner fire" we encountered in Abruzzo folklore about werewolves! Furthermore, also in the tradition from beyond the Alps, one encounters the topos of ritual fights by the druids.

According to Markele, "the faculty of shamans to transform themselves and, according to what is said, their habit of fight against each other in the form of animals, are additional elements to add to the others: the druids face off in magical fights"And further on he adds," as for the continuous battles of Celtic heroes against monsters, dragons, disturbing supernatural beings, of the Fomorian type, they are similar to the image of the fight that all shamans carry out to reconstitute the primitive state of the world and restore the free passage between Heaven and Earth eliminating those who are lurking around the Ponte Stretto "(p.219; italics ours).

Regarding the beliefs, in the Celtic area, following the Christian colonization, it is worth mentioning, here, the legend according to which the natives of Ossory were cursed by Santa Claus and were forced to assume the appearance of a wolf, two at a time (a male and a female) every December 25, for a period of seven years, then returning men. Later, the descendants of the lineage kept the secret, handed down to them by their ancestors, on how to carry out the transformation. On the other hand, in another region formerly inhabited by Celtic peoples, Ireland, it is handed down that Saint Patrick cursed a certain lineage and that, due to this anathema, the descendants are condemned to turn into wolves for a certain time period (Di Nola, p.15).

It is easy to hypothesize that these legends are to be read as the attempt of Christian colonists to insert in their own, new theological corpus the reminiscences of the beliefs of these pagan populations, legacies of ancestral ecstatic cults in their double infernal aspect (or of fertility, linked to worship of the moon goddess) and military (linked to the myth of feralis exercitus, the furious horde led by Odin). In addition to the furious army, other aspects of the Celtic religion hint at dianaticus, the procession of the souls of the deceased who at night crossed woods and fields following the goddess: in this regard, we report the belief in Nieneven, a sort of Hecate from beyond the Alps, who "framed the legions of wandering spirits under his banner and she moved with the storm […] sometimes […] accompanied by a dog named Gurm »(Bosc, p.63).

In the French area the belief in the werewolf (werewolf) was still widespread in the Middle Ages. In this period, it was believed that wolves gathered in the forests on predetermined dates ("especially on the eve of Good Friday, May 800st, St. John's Day, All Saints' Day and during the nights ranging from Christmas to Candlemas" ). These beliefs remained in vogue until the XNUMXth century; still towards the middle of the XNUMXth century, in the Bourbon area it was said that werewolves lost their human form at midnight and found themselves in front of large fires in the middle of the woods. A very singular figure connected to werewolves, adds Petoia, is that of the "meneur des loups», The leader of the wolves, a mysterious character also able to appear with feral features (Petoia, p.149).

Livone tradition:


Even at the dawn of the modern era we find evidence of metamorphic transformations and ritual fighting. Carlo Ginzburg in Night story reports the case of an elderly gentleman named Thiess of Jürgensburg, Livonia (between present-day Estonia and Latvia), who during a trial in 1692 confessed to the judges that he was a werewolf and that he participated three times a year (in the nights of St. Lucia before Christmas, St. John and Pentecost) to ecstatic battles against the devil and his sorcerers. According to the testimony, he went to an indefinite place ("at the end of the sea" or "underground") to chase, together with his fellow men armed with iron whips, the devil and the sorcerers, brandishing wrapped broomsticks in their turn. in ponytails. The stake of the battles, similarly to the Friulian tradition of the benandanti, was the fertility of the fields: "the sorcerers steal the sprouts of wheat, and if you fail to snatch them, famine ensues". Despite the judges, understandably astonished by Thiess's statements, they tried in every way to induce him to confess that he had made a pact with the devil, he vehemently denied the accusations leveled against him, continuing to repeat that "the werewolves they are the dogs of God ”and the worst enemies of the devil. Because he refused to repent, he was sentenced to ten strokes of the whip (Ginzburg, p.130).

Nikolai Roerich, Sorcerers (1905)

Istria: i KRESNIK

Moving to the Balkans, numerous and surprising folklore beliefs of Istria, Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro are reported by Ginzburg in Night story. Since the 600s, Monsignor Tommasini observed that in Istria people believe "and it cannot be deduced from the imagination that there are men, who are born under certain constellations, and those especially who are born dressed in a certain membrane (these call chresnichi and those others vucodlachi, i.e. vampires) go at night on the streets crossed with the spirit and also for the houses to cause fear or some damage, and which are usually congregated together in some of the most famous cruises, particularly in the time of the four tempora, and there they will fight with each other for the abundance or famine of each kind of income».

In Krk it is said that every people and every lineage are protected by a kresnik and settled by a kudlak, or rather by a vampire, the equivalent of the Friulian sorcerers or "marauders". These ritual fights of which Monsignor Tommasini speaks are "savage clashes between animal-boars, dogs, oxen, horses, often of contrasting color (black the sorcerers, white or piebald their adversaries)". Animals are, for Ginzburg, the spirits of the contenders or, better, we would say, the double astral of the individual who goes to the predetermined place to contend with the sorcerers for the fruits of the harvest. Small animals are also sometimes referred to (although, in our opinion, what follows should only be interpreted as a metaphor for the ability to  come out of oneself): "of the kresniki it is said that, while they sleep, the spirit comes out of their mouth in the form of a black fly. '  (Ginzburg, p.138).

A research on krsnik was conducted by Piero Del Bello who, first of all underlining the purely positive function of these ecstatic healers, known in Balkan folklore for their ability to fight and cancel the evil of witches and evil spirits, puts them in close connection with the benandanti Friulians and with a series of "mystical-mythical-shamanic characters who geographically form an arc that goes from Asia to Europe" (Del Bello, p.159) and who historically suggest ancient origins, based on the cults of fertility and dead. The author also identifies other beliefs of Istrian folklore (such as heavyweight, a variant of the blackberry of Anglo-Saxon countries, similar toincubus and succubus Latin [cf. The phenomenon of sleep paralysis: folkloric interpretations and recent hypotheses]) which rightly allow us to hypothesize a substratum common to the various Slavic, Celtic and Mediterranean traditions of the archaic world.

Balkan Peninsula and Central-Eastern Europe:


As Emanuela Chiavarelli suggests, "the demonization secondary to the impact with Christianity has created a sort of split within the ideological context" of many European populations, including those who resided in the Balkan area of ​​Central-Eastern Europe. Here, the individual capable of transforming into a wolf was soon branded as demonic (in the Bohemian tradition it is called vllodlak, in the Lithuanian one vovkulak, in the Serbo-Croatian one vukodlak, in the Bulgarian one vlukolak). Afanasief, quoted by Petoia, relates these folklore figures to the okrutniki, namely "masked people disguised as various animals, who used to participate in the religious games of the old Slavs, and who still today, although their original meaning has been forgotten, play a role in the peasant festivals of spring and Christmas" ( Petoia, p. 191). This note is truly surprising: it allows us to undoubtedly connect them okrutniki to the Latin Luperci and the Longobard Cinecefali: these groups were, in their respective societies, the drivers of the public rite which, duly repeated on a regular basis, allowed the traditional transmission for countless generationsat least in the exoteric form of festivities and pantomimes.

In neighboring Romania, i calusari, worshipers of Doamna Zinelor (the equivalent of the Latin Diana and the Anglo-Saxon Dana), they always carry in a bag garlic, which among other things they are used to chew in the course of ritual fights, and absinthe, magical plants that protect from the evil power of zine, the local folklore witches. They represent, quoting Chiavarelli's words, "a real" secret society "that treats the victims of fairies and striae, witches". The author links them to santoaderi named by Eliade, "horse-men with long feet, hoods and a mane covered with a cloak who go around the villages singing and beating on their drums." Their survival until relatively recent times is due to the derivation of the name of their sect from San Teodoro: the reference to the saint allowed the ancestral cult to survive behind the mirror of syncretism (Chiavarelli, p.184).

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On the left, a it's delicious; on the right, an actress impersonating an Eastern European witch.

Hungarian tradition: i TALTÓS

Another folkloric belief cited by Ginzburg is that of the Hungarian gods it's delicious, a name probably of Turkish origin with which, since the end of the 500th century, men and women tried for witchcraft were designated. However, they, as well as the Friulian benandanti and the Livone Thiess, strongly rejected the accusations that were made against them. A woman, András Bartha, tried in 1725, claimed that God himself appointed her to head the gods it's delicious: God would choose the predestined from the womb, and then take them under his own protection and make them "fly in the sky like birds to fight for the dominion of the sky against witches and sorcerers". Even according to Hungarian folklore their fate is marked by an extraordinary birth (with the shirt, with six fingers in one hand, etc). At a certain age an apparition, a it's delicious older in the form of stallion or bull who invites the novice to fight, which he will have to win to fully enter the divine army; generally the initiation is preceded by a sleep lasting three days.

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Before carrying out the metamorphosis, the chosen individual "is invaded by a kind of warmth and stammers disconnected words, coming into contact with the world of spirits"; then, after the transformation into bull or stallion, he goes periodically (in most of the testimonies three times a year) to fight against witches and sorcerers. In addition, sometimes the it's delicious "Dreams of being torn to pieces, or overcomes extraordinary tests, for example by climbing very tall trees" and the connections with the Siberian shamanic tradition and not only appear so evident that they no longer leave room for doubt: in the first "dream" we find the phenomenon of "Ritual dismemberment" by the spirits, in the second ascension to the supernal world by means of the Cosmic Tree, two topos that are found, with minimal variations, in the shamanic traditions of the whole world (Ginzburg, p.139).

Northern Caucasus: THE OSSETS

The North Caucasus Ossetians, descendants of the Scythians, professed a curious devotion to the prophet Elijah, who in biblical iconography is represented covered in animal skins. It is undoubtedly an attempt at religious syncretism by these very ancient Indo-European populations (of Ario-Iranian stock), which suggests a much more remote cult that once again unites an infernal and agrarian aspect to a warrior. and initiatory. From what Ginzburg affirms, "in the caves that are consecrated to him [to Elijah] they sacrifice goats, of which they eat the flesh: then they spread the skins under a large tree and venerate them in a particular way on the feast day of the prophet, so that he may deign to ward off the hail and to grant a rich harvest "(Ginzburg, p.140). If the rite that provides for the ritual flaying of sheep indisputably recalls that of the Italic initiatory society of the Luperci and Cinocephali among the Lombards, the function of the ceremony is instead the same as in many other traditions we have encountered: to remove the dangers that loom over the harvest, in order to guarantee abundant crops.

Not only that: in these caves «the Ossetians often go to get drunk with the smoke of rhododendron caucasicum, which makes them fall into sleep: the dreams made in this circumstance are considered omens "; "When they wake up, they say they have seen the souls of the dead, now in a great swamp, now instead riding pigs, dogs or goats"; "To reach the meadow of the dead they use the most varied mounts: doves, horses, cows, dogs" (Ginzburg, p.141). Chiavarelli reports that i burkudzäutä Ossetians (this is their denomination according to the author's studies) "they managed to travel until they reached the beautiful plain of the dead where all the cereals in the world are found", adding that "this verdant area recalls" the green valleys ... with young groves "By Erlik, creator of barley" (Chiavarelli, p.186) [cfr. Divinity of the Underworld, the Afterlife and the Mysteries]. Once again, we find lost echoes of ancestral ecstatic traditions exercised by initiatory groups of warriors who fight for the fertility of the fields, also in this geographical area in close relationship with the theme of the encounter with the spirits of the dead at the field where they live. (the "Josefat meadow" of medieval trials) and with the topos of the nocturnal flight on the back of animals, which are regularly found in the shamanic traditions of archaic Eurasia and even in the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the inquisitive procedural acts concerning witches, ecstatic and benandanti.


Other populations adjacent to the Ossetians, adds Ginzburg, share the same beliefs: the author reports the incredible testimony of the geographer and traveler Evliya Çelebi on what he saw on April 28 (curiously close to the Walpurgis night of the Germanic tradition) of 1666 at a Circassian village. Having learned from the locals that this was «the night of the Kara-Konjolos (vampires) », left the camp with hundreds of natives, assistant to a battle in the skies between two opposing factions, made up of sorcerers riding uprooted trees or carcasses of horses and oxen. The battle, according to the testimony, lasted six hours, after which "at the crowing of the cock the contenders had dissolved, becoming invisible", but the ground was "strewn with corpses, objects, animal carcasses" (Ginzburg, p. 142). Also in the Caucasus area, therefore, in addition to the issues already highlighted, we also find that ofexercitus feralis and of the procession of the deceased.

Ginzburg's notes are numerous and of primary interest, and for this reason we strongly recommend the integral reading of his work Night story; here, due to the brevity of the space granted, we would especially like to underline with the author that, although the fighting sorcerers presented themselves in local folklore as beneficial figures, charged with fighting evil spirits for the success of the harvest, nevertheless the power of which enjoyed by these individuals was, in the eyes of the community, "inherently ambiguous, ready to transform into its opposite." This is a duplicity that is found everywhere, in many traditions: the ecstatic individuals, who participate in these ritual battles in spirit for fertility and being able to enter the underworld, they can use their powers for good as well as for evil, for abundance as well as for famine. Hence, the distinction in traditional societies between the beneficial figure of the shaman-healer-medicine man and the evil one of the sorcerer who uses "bad medicine", as the Native Americans of New Mexico and surrounding areas would say.


Analyzing the traditions of the Eurasian populations of the ancient world, in many cases surviving in the geographical areas less influenced by the dogmas of Christianity than others, we note how in folklore the metamorphosis into an animal does not always take on a demonic value. Moreover, it is not even the most relevant feature of the phenomenon: it is believed that the transformation happen only in spirit and, therefore, that the phenomenon does not affect the physical world but the astral one: it is precisely for this reason that the Christian bishops, denying the existence of the "hidden world", interpreted all this as "fantasy", as a simple imagination, with the 'sometimes aggravating that it was caused by the devil. In reality, we note with Ginzburg that behind these incomprehensible phenomena there is "a symmetrical version, predominantly male, of the predominantly female ecstatic cult" (Ginzburg, p.137), that is the one concerning the "Bona Dea" with a thousand names (Diana, Hera , Herodias, Frau Venus, Pertcha and so on) that we have analyzed in great detail elsewhere [cf. The Friulian benandanti and the ancient European fertility cults].

In any case, both cultic traditions, present almost at every latitude of archaic Eurasia, allow us to glimpse ancient shamanic cults dating back to the dawn of time, linked to the triple sphere of fertility (of the vegetable and / or animal kingdom), of the kingdom of deaths and ritual battles, as suggested by the multiple references in various traditions to the "furious army" formed by the souls of sorcerers who fight for the success of the harvest, led by an infernal god variously named according to the geographical area. The possession by the god (Odin, Erlik Khan), which occurs after reaching a state of trance, now allows to reach in spirit the regions of the underworld (the medieval "Prato di Josefat" reached in flight by the witches) and there to fight against evil spirits and adverse sorcerers (benandanti, kresniki, Ossetians), now to feel burned, so to speak, by a "sort of inner fire" that multiplies the physical strength and ferocity of the possessed individual (berserker, cynocephalus, werewolves).

Of other traditions, such as the Latin one, we have evidence only concerning the exoteric aspect of the myth, that is to say the public ritual, without any mention of the possibility- however, not to be excluded—That the Luperci also fought secretly in spirit in the nights pre-established by the pagan calendar, as did the Ossetians with whom, as we have seen, they presented notable points of contact.


The most recent testimonies, such as those collected by Polia in modern Abruzzo, seem instead to agree in affirming that almost all the powers that these individuals could boast in the past are now only a memory to be relegated to the sphere of folklore: the panaru nowadays it is only an individual suffering from a nervous disease, and that when the inner fire he feels an irrepressible need to immerse himself in cold water or to attack anyone who comes within range. If the rise, in modern times, of the indubitable dogma of scientism and rationalism has played an indubitable role in regard to the progressive disappearance and impairment of these popular beliefs, in other geographical areas the possibility of a survival of these traditions has been brutally and irremediably hindered. and prevented by totalitarian regimes: among the tens and tens of millions of Russians eliminated during the years of the communist terror of Lenin and Stalin (1918/1953) there were also the inhabitants of rural communities dedicated to ancestral fertility cults.

These human agglomerations, lost in the lands of Siberia or the Caucasus, despite having been able to keep the ancient tradition alive for millennia until relatively recent times (think only of the Ossetians), have been unable to do anything in the face of excessive military power and vision. culturally speaking, anti-traditional of the Soviet regime: religion being considered the "opium of the peoples", none homo religiosusto use Julien Ries' terminologyhe would have had the right to stay alive and to pass on traditional knowledge to his descendants. What Christians did in Europe, in the first instance with the prohibition of ancestral cults and the systematic slaughter of pagans and then with the Inquisition, what the British and the Spaniards accomplished in the Americas in four centuries, the Bolsheviks accomplished in Eurasia in a few decades, amid general indifference. Faced with these modern hosts of "diabolical sorcerers", the ecstatic who for millennia fought in spirit for fertility and abundance could do nothing: from that moment on they would have been only a tarnished memory of a mythical past, lost among the folds of folklore and popular superstition.


  1. Ernest Bosch, Belisama. Celtic occultism (Mimesis, Pavia, 2003).
  2. Emanuela Chiavarelli, Diana, Harlequin and the flying spirits. From shamanism to the "wild hunt" (Bulzoni, Rome, 2007).
  3. Joseph Cocchiara, The devil in the Italian popular tradition (Editori Riuniti, Rome, 2004).
  4. Piero Del Bello, Against evil spirits, here is the "Krsnik" (available for consultation here).
  5. Alfonso M. Di Nola, introduction a Vampires and werewolves (see 12).
  6. George Dumezil [1], Ancient Roman religion (Rizzoli, Milan, 1977).
  7. George Dumezil [2], The gods of the Germans (Adelphi, Milan, 1974).
  8. Stefano Gasparri, The traditional culture of the Lombards (Italian Center for Studies on the Early Middle Ages Foundation, Spoleto, 2009).
  9. Charles Ginzburg, Night story. A decipherment of the Sabbath (Einaudi, Turin, 1989).
  10. Jean Markale, Druidism. Religion and divinity of the Celts (Mediterranee, Rome, 1991).
  11. Ovid, Glories, II.
  12. Erberto Petoia, Vampires and werewolves (Newton Compton, Rome, 1991).
  13. Mario Polia and Fabiola Chavez Hualpa, My father told me. Tradition, religion and magic in the mountains of Alta Sabina (The Circle, Rimini, 2002).

18 comments on “Metamorphosis and ritual battles in the myth and folklore of the Eurasian populations"

  1. There is a mistake, though. The photo in the paragraph on the Balkan Peninsula is not a Hungarian witch, it is Maria Germanova, an actress, who played the witch in Materlinck's The Blue Bird.

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