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  • A Journey to Hell: Reconsidering the Livonian “Werewolf”
  • Willem de Blécourt

When in 1691 the judges of Jürgensburg (at present in Latvia, about 100 kilometers due east of Riga) interrogated the octogenarian Thies of Kaltenbrun, they were certainly not looking to create another werewolf. On the contrary, they were more or less forced to question him since he was a witness in an unrelated case about a church robbery. They had, however, been told that everyone knew that he consorted with the devil and was a werewolf. Thies readily conceded the last point. Certainly, he had been a werewolf, but he had given it up ten years ago. He had been to court then, too, because his nose had been broken by a farmer from Lemburg (Malpilis). This had happened in hell and his nose had been damaged by a blow with a broomstick, decorated with a bunch of horses’ tails. The werewolves had been to hell to retrieve the grain and the wheat germs that the farmer had hidden there. On that occasion, the judges had laughed at his testimony and had let him go. This time they did not laugh and wanted to know whether Thies was of sound mind and not mad, but several people present in court who knew him well said that his common sense had never failed him. It also emerged that his status had risen since his previous encounter with the law. One of the judges confirmed that the old man’s nose had indeed been broken.

“How did you reach hell?” the judges asked Thies. “Where was it located?” “The werewolves went on foot in the shape of wolves,” he replied. Hell was “at the end of the sea,” that is to say, in a swamp near Lemburg, about half a mile from the estate of the chairman of the court. Asked precisely how Thies and his companions had turned into wolves, Thies first answered that they put on wolves’ pelts. He had gotten his from a farmer and a few years ago he had passed it on to another. But when pressed for their names, he changed his story: he and his werewolf companions just went into the bushes, discarded their clothes, and became wolves. Then, they roamed [End Page 49] around and tore apart every farm animal they came across. Before eating the meat they roasted it. “How could they manage to do it,” the questioning continued, “since they had the heads and paws of wolves?” At that point they were human, said Thies; they did not have bread but had brought salt. Later he told yet another version of becoming a werewolf. In an exchange about how being a werewolf could have profited him while he was still a beggar, he disclosed that “a rascal” had drunk a toast to him. He could pass his ability on by toasting someone else, breathing three times into the jug and saying “you will become like me.” If the other person took the jug, the ability to become a werewolf would pass to him. But he had not yet found anyone ready and willing to take over.

Thies’s interrogators had difficulty in understanding this. They thought that he had sinned and that he had been deluded by the devil. Their general strategy was to reveal the implausibility of his stories and his reliance on the devil. The old man, on the other hand, categorized his ritual enemies in this way and not himself: the wizards they had fought in hell belonged to the devil, but the werewolves were the “hounds of god.” The wizards dined with the devil in hell, whereas the werewolves only dashed in and made away with morsels of food to avoid the iron whips of the guardians the devil had appointed. The souls of the werewolves went to heaven while those of the wizards were seized by the devil. Thus the werewolves only went to hell to recapture cattle, grain, fruit, and fish in order to ensure a good crop for the coming year. They did so on the feast of Saint Lucia (December 15) and sometimes at Whitsun and the feast of Saint John...


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pp. 49-67
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