In a few weeks, I’ll be giving a paper at the Durham MEMSA conference on demonic attacks on the human body found in Anglo-Saxon sources. Unlike cases of possession, where the demon or demons invade and take control of the human body, the Anglo-Saxons sources attest to something entirely different: demons attacking the human body from without rather than within.
I’ve found this interesting because this is not typical of medieval Christian demonology. Felix’s Vita Sancti Guthlaci, (or Life of Guthlac), written in the early eighth-century, is a rich source for the belief in these attacks. In the vita, Guthlac is shot with an arrow by the devil (c.29), bound and dragged through a thicket by demons (c.30), beaten with iron whips (c.30) and tossed in the air on the points of demonic spears (c.34). My paper focuses specifically on the arrow, arguing that, in the context of the other physical assaults upon the body in the vita and in other sources, it should be taken literally rather than metaphorically. But on the whole, without giving too much away on my paper to come, Felix paints an extremely vivid portrait of a saint tormented in flesh and in spirit by the forces of darkness.
I came across an article by Benjamin Kurtz that highlights how Felix leant heavily upon the Latin translation of Athanasius’ Life of Antony when he was structuring the Life of Guthlac. The dramatic climax of Antony’s battle against demonic forces occurs when the devil ‘so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain’. This account might parallel the beating of Guthlac with iron whips, but the Life of Antony does not specify ‘iron whips’ as Felix does, nor does it contain analogues for any of the other physical torments experienced by the Anglo-Saxon saint.
Indeed, this belief in the ability of demons to physically injure the body appears to be a distinctive trait of Anglo-Saxon demonology. The Lacnunga, a late tenth or early eleventh century medical manuscript from Anglo-Saxon England, ascribes a variety of afflictions to demonic attack. This far exceeds the expected examples of fevers and possession-related illnesses. Examples include ‘flying poison’ (c.126), pain in the joints (c.157) and toothache (c.158). This amalgamation of afflictions demonstrates how deeply rooted was the belief that demons possessed a frightening array of injurious powers.
The frequent appearance of these demonic attacks was one of the main lines of enquiry that drew me into the subject of demons in the first place. If demons were ascribed with so much power, how did they compare with the all-power, omnipresent God? And where did these ideas come from? I have some thoughts in response to these initial questions, but I shall avoid giving the game away before presenting the paper. As Audrey Meaney has warned: The devil can seriously damage your health. So, be on your guard!
‘Life of Antony’. In Select Writings of Athanasius. Translated by H. Ellenshaw. New York: Library of Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, 1924. (available here)
Felix. The Life of Guthlac. Translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.
Kurtz, Benjamin. From St Antony to St Guthlac: A Study in Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1926. (available here)
Meaney, Audrey. ‘The Devil Can Seriously Damage Your Health: Reflections on Anglo-Saxon Demonology’. In The Devil in Society in Premodern Europe. Edited by Richard Raiswell with Peter Dendle, pp.69-108. Toronto: CRRS, 2012.
Pettit, Edward. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from the British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga. 2 vols. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.