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“They say that there is a shrine also of the heroine Iphigenia…Hesiod, in his Catalogue of Women, says that Iphigenia did not die, but by the will of Artemis became Hecate.”

-from Pausanias’s Description of Greece, vol. 1, trans. with a commentary by James George Frazer (1898).

 To the Ancient Greeks, heroes and heroines were exalted beings—a genus—as it were, of humans magnified to the umpteenth power. Their ranks included some of the most well-known figures in classical mythology; Heracles, Theseus, Alcmene, Ariadne—the list went on and on. All members of this superlative “club” endured great travail, but only a select few could boast of divine parentage. These were the mythic godlings of epic and tragicomedic writers like Homer and Euripides. Those who lacked ichor-blooded progenitors had to forge their own path alongside their immortal counterparts.They were persecuted, abused, and debased before the world. They struggled against all the elemental forces the Moirai cast at them and either surmounted their foes or perished in the process. Among this group of fate-treading mortals were the local heroines venerated by devotees in polities and city-states across the Greek Isles.

Iphigenia. Art by Max Nonnenbruch. Photogravure via Internet Archive.

The story of these multifaceted women and their corresponding religious cults is the subject of Greek Heroine Cults, a fascinating study by Professor Jennifer Larson. We caught up with Professor Larson to gain a better understanding of heroine worship in Ancient Greece and its place in everyday societal relationships.

The Custodian: What qualified someone as a heroine? Did heroine “origin stories” generally follow a specific narrative pattern?

Professor Jennifer Larson: From early in the Iron Age, the Greeks worshiped certain dead people in a sporadic way, without having a name (so far as we know) for this religious category, or a fixed mode of offering. We know that these powerful dead included warrior-chieftains, city founders, and recently-deceased ancestors, but there may also have been cults for legendary people and harmful dead who were similar to ghosts. By the sixth century, some of these practices coalesced into a “cult of heroes”, which involved the worship of the men and women who figured in the traditional tales of each Greek region and city (“cult” in this sense is a technical term for organised worship, with no negative connotations). Such a man was called herōs, and a woman hērōinē or hērōissa. Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Oedipus all had cults. Although cult heroines were less common, they include many of the heroines familiar from Greek myths, like Penelope, Ariadne, Alcmene (the mother of Heracles), and Iphigenia (the daughter of Agamemnon).

Most cult heroines, however, figured in local myths rather than the grand epic tales. An example is Antinoë, a woman who was guided by a snake to establish the site for the Arcadian city of Mantinea. In the second century CE, the traveller Pausanias wrote about seeing her tomb in the city, a round stone which the people called the Public Hearth. Still other heroines never had names at all, but were simply known as “the heroine on the plain”, or “the heroines near the property of Kalliphanes”.

Penelope, wife of Odysseus and (in Arcadian tradition) the mother of Pan. Art by Patten Wilson. Photogravure via Internet Archive.

There were no systematic selection criteria for heroines (or heroes); the cults sprang up spontaneously as a kind of folklore, although many of them were adopted as public cults, meaning that the town or polis undertook to fund the annual offerings. Still, certain narrative patterns are regularly associated with heroine cults. A very common one is the story of a girl who is impregnated by a god, and persecuted (often by her own relatives) as a result of her pregnancy. She usually has to abandon the baby, who is then adopted by someone else. The great Swiss scholar Walter Burkert called this storyline “the girl’s tragedy”. Sometimes the girl dies, like Alope, the mother of the Attic hero Hippothoön, who was killed by her own father. Koronis, the mother of Asclepius, and Kallisto, the mother of the Arcadian hero Arcas, were both shot with arrows by Artemis. In other cases, the heroic son grows up and is reunited with his mother. The twin sons of Antiope by Zeus were the Theban heroes Amphion and Zethus. When these twins reached adulthood, they rescued their mother from persecution by a rival named Dirce (who had her own cult). The cults of these heroines were usually associated in one way or another with those of their sons—in the festival calendar, or spatially, by means of neighbouring tombs.

Ariadne. Image via Internet Archive.

Another common storyline was that of the sacrificial virgin. This was a popular tale type in Attica, the territory of Athens. The narrative usually begins with an oracle saying that a maiden must be sacrificed in order to win a war or end a plague. Sometimes the virgin is a willing sacrifice, and sometimes not. The daughters of an early Athenian king, Erechtheus, were voluntarily sacrificed in order to gain victory in the war against Eleusis. The same story is told about one of king Cecrops’ daughters, Aglauros, and the young men of Athens took their citizenship oaths at her sanctuary on the Acropolis, demonstrating similar loyalty.

Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, was sacrificed against her will in order to appease the anger of Artemis and restore the winds needed to carry the Greek armies to Troy. She was worshiped in a sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, in Attica, and elsewhere. (No such human sacrifices are known from the historical record, although there is limited evidence for ritual killings in the archaeological records of the Bronze Age through the tenth century.)

Mercury Changes Aglauros to Stone, from the Story of Mercury and Herse. Tapestry design attributed to Giovanni Battista Lodi da Cremona. Image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A third story pattern is the wrongful death of the heroine. According to legend, some Spartans once raped and murdered a group of sisters who lived in Leuktra near Thebes, then threw their bodies into a well. Their father Skedasos, unable to hold the Spartans to account, killed himself at their tomb. Years later, the Thebans were preparing for battle with Sparta. The Theban commander, Pelopidas, had a dream in which he was directed to sacrifice a white colt to the girls. As a result, he defeated the Spartans and avenged the “Leuktrides”, as they were called. It is easy to see how a story like this could arise after the fact, to explain why the supposedly invincible Spartans suffered such a crushing loss.

C: How did the varying classes of Greeks view their semi-divine compatriots? For example, did aristocrats hope to one day achieve apotheosis–or were they convinced that such a possibility was restricted to the “Age of Heroes”?

J: The Greeks distinguished ritually between cult honours paid to the denizens of the earth and underworld (the dead, heroes/heroines, and underworld gods), and cult honours paid to deities (such as the Olympian gods) who were thought to reside in the upper world and heaven. The distinctions were sometimes subtle, but (to generalise) underworld beings tended to receive more libations, especially of blood from sacrificial animals, and the meat from animal sacrifices was less often consumed by the participants in the ritual for underworld beings (instead, all or part of the meat would be burned).

These procedures were derived from somber funerary ritual, and can be contrasted with the joyous feasting characteristic of sacrifices for the “upper” gods. From early times, founders and warrior chieftains might expect to be honoured this way after their deaths, and there were sporadic instances of what we might call “ancestor cult”. As the Greek polis system developed, cults were established for local heroes, who then could act as “ancestors” for the community as a whole. Still, we find historical tyrants aspiring to this type of recognition during the Classical period, and athletes being worshiped after their deaths. They were not regarded as gods, however, but as dead men who happened to retain the ability to act in the world.

Athena attacking a giant. Image via Internet Archive.

True apotheosis, and the apellation of theos (god), was reserved for only a tiny number of people. The most notable example is Heracles, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. During the late seventh century, a new story about Heracles began to circulate: at the end of his life, Athena escorted him to heaven in a chariot, where he was accepted among the gods of Olympus and married Hera’s daughter Hebe (“Youth”). Around the same time, worship of Heracles as a full-blown god, with temples, statues, sacrifices and festivals, began to spread. Still, although Heracles was unquestionably a theos, there remained certain doubts about his status and questions about the proper mode of worship (Pindar calls him hērōs theos, “hero-god”). When Odysseus visits the underworld in the Odyssey (11.601-4), he sees the dead hero— or does he?

“And afterward I perceived mighty Heracles, his phantom, that is: for he himself, in the company of immortal gods, takes pleasure in the feast and has as his wife slender-ankled Hebe, the daughter of Great Zeus and gold-sandaled Hera.”

The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that some cities had dual cults of Herakles, one for sacrifice “as to a god”, and the other “as to a hero”. He attributed this oddity to the existence of two figures named Heracles, one an ancient Phoenician god, and the other a Greek hero.

Heracles and Ceryones. Image via Internet Archive.

Among women, the most famous case of “apotheosis” is the beautiful Helen, the daughter of Zeus and the cause of the Trojan War, although there is no equivalent story of her entry to Olympus. According to the Odyssey (4.561-9) the hero Menelaus would never die, but instead would live forever in a special place called Elysium, because Helen was his wife and he was therefore the son-in-law of Zeus. Helen was regarded as a goddess by many Greeks, particularly at Sparta, where she and Menelaus were worshiped in a sanctuary of their own. Still another example of female apotheosis is mentioned in the Odyssey (5.333-5), where Odysseus is rescued from drowning by “Ino Leucothea, who of old was a mortal of human speech, but now in the depths of the sea has acquired honour from the gods”. Ino had been a daughter of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, but leapt into the sea in a fit of madness. There, instead of dying, she was transformed into a sea deity known as “the White Goddess”. Many cults were devoted to her throughout the Greek world, and in this respect she resembles Heracles.

Ino Leucothea rescuing Odysseus. Art by Friedrich Preller. Photogravure via Internet Archive.

In general, then, most people could not expect to be heroised, much less treated as gods, but there were exceptions for people regarded as especially blessed, skilled, or beautiful, those who seemed to measure up to the great men and women of the “Age of Heroes”. For the average person, ancient mystery cults (addressed below) also offered a tantalising hope of immortality. Another special case was the deification of dead and living kings and queens, starting with Alexander the Great, and continuing with his successors in the Hellenistic kingdoms.

C: Would it be fair to draw a comparison between the ritual worship of heroines and heroes at sanctuaries and the veneration of Christian saints in cathedrals?

J: This is a much-debated question. Superficially, there are many similarities between the veneration of Christian saints and the cults of heroes and heroines. First is their local character, and the folkloric elements emphasising the hero or saint’s protection for those living nearby. In both cases we find special attention to the tomb and relics. Most hero cults were attached to a “tomb”, marked by a mound or a stone monument; these might be remains from the Bronze Age, or other local landmarks. In several instances, the Greeks cherished what they believed were the relics of heroes, such as the ivory “shoulder” of the hero Pelops, displayed at Olympia, or the huge bones of the exiled Theseus, recovered from the island of Scyros and ceremoniously conveyed home to Athens (these were probably fossil bones).

Possession of such relics conferred the hero’s protection, and quarrels over ownership were not unusual. At least three cities claimed to possess the tomb of Heracles’ mother Alcmene, who was buried with her second husband, Aleus. In 379, the Spartans invaded Boeotia and opened the “tomb of Alcmene” in Haliartos, intending to remove her remains to Sparta. It is unclear whether they found bones, but the other contents of the tomb were a bronze bracelet, two pots filled with what seemed to be hardened earth, and a bronze tablet with unknown writing. Disasters and portents followed the violation of the tomb, and the heroised pair had to be propitiated.

There are significant theological differences, however, between Christian saints and heroes. Because Christianity is nominally monotheistic, saints are to be “venerated” rather than worshiped. Saints are also envisioned as mediator figures between humans and God, which was not the case with heroes and heroines. Finally, saints achieve this status because of their moral virtues and/or martyrdom. While narratives of the manner of death were important in the legends of both saints and heroes, the Greeks did not heroise people on the basis of moral excellence, but for a variety of other reasons, such as legendary status, power, talent, beauty, or uncanny manifestations after death.

Artemis. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Were heroines usually pledged or allied to a specific goddess such as Hekate?

J: Most heroines were not tied to a particular goddess, but there are several cases of heroines with special connections to Artemis and/or Hekate, both virgin goddesses. Originally these two deities were separate, but by the late Classical period, Hekate was sometimes described as the underworld aspect of Artemis. Artemis killed many young women in myth, while in real life, the deaths of unmarried girls and of women who died in childbirth were attributed to her. Perhaps the idea was that through her death and heroisation, a woman remained forever young and virgin like the goddess herself. A fragment of Hesiodic poetry states that Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia “became Hekate by the will of Artemis”, while another story says that Artemis brought Iphigenia to the White Isle, an Elysium-like place in the Black Sea. Artemis, meanwhile, took the surname Iphigenia. Another legend tells of Aspalis, a girl of Pthia in Thessaly, who hanged herself to escape being raped by a tyrant. Her body disappeared and was replaced by a statue, which stood in Artemis’ temple.

Selene or Luna, goddess of the moon. Image via Internet Archive.

Three-formed Hecate. Image via Internet Archive

C: Were nymphs and sirens sometimes considered to be heroines?

J: Generally speaking, heroines were dead women with a human genealogy and ties to man-made monuments, while nymphs were minor goddesses who inhabited the wild spaces and personified features of the landscape, such as springs, trees, and mountains. In practice, however, there was overlap between the two categories. Many heroines were connected with springs or wells. The heroine Dirke had a tomb at Thebes, but there was also a spring called Dirke. The same is true of Leukonoë, a heroine of Arkadia. Both heroines and nymphs were worshiped in anonymous groups, probably reflecting the cultural institution of group dances (“choruses”) of maidens.

A calendar of sacrifices from the Attic town of Thorikos mentions four distinct groups of this type: the Heroines of Thorikos; the Heroines of Hyperpedios; the Pylochian Heroines, and the Heroines of the Koroneians. Three of the four groups receive offerings together with a local hero who seems to represent a feature of the landscape. The sirens are a special case. According to legend, they were hybrid bird/women creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their irresistible song, but after Odysseus heard their song and lived to tell the tale, they killed themselves. The perception that they were mortal seems to have made possible siren “tombs” and corresponding cults. A siren named Parthenope was worshiped by Greek colonists at Naples, and they held a gymnastic contest in her honour.

Pegasus with Nymphs. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Was there any overlap between heroine rites, mystery traditions, and divinatory practices?

J: Beginning with the Eleusinian Mysteries in the eighth or seventh century, the Greeks explored the possibility that with the aid of special rituals, they might gain access to a more “blessed” afterlife than the common run of mortals, who shared a dismal fate in Hades. Such cults were called “mysteries” because initiates were sworn to secrecy. During the sixth century, a new mystery cult devoted to Dionysus/Bacchus emerged, with a revisionist theology making the god the son of Persephone, queen of the dead (rather than the son of Semele, as Homer and Hesiod taught). Initiates were buried with tiny inscribed gold tablets, which functioned like passports and guides to the “blessed” regions of the underworld. Some of these groups promised that their adherents would rule in Hades “with the other heroes” or even “become a god instead of a mortal.” From excavation of the burials, the content of the tablets, and other evidence, we know that these mysteries were quite popular with women. So in a sense, these cults offered ordinary men and women a chance to share the “blessed” status of heroes and heroines, a privilege which had previously been reserved for various elites.

Persephone Enthroned. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Can you tell us a bit more about your current research and forthcoming publications?

J: Greek Heroine Cults was my first book, published in 1995. I followed it up with Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore (2001), which explored another neglected aspect of Greek worship, paying particular attention to the emotional and erotic components cults of of the nymphs. Since then I have published other books and articles on ancient Greek religion, most recently Understanding Greek Religion: A Cognitive Approach (2016). In this work, I applied insights from an emergent discipline, the cognitive science of religion, to better understand phenomena like ritual reciprocity with the gods, divination, purity rites, sympathetic magic, and afterlife beliefs.

In my current research, I am continuing to explore the relationship between cognition and religion, particularly the way human cognitive structures help to shape religious beliefs and practices. For example, most humans share certain intuitive, implicit beliefs about what constitutes a “miracle”, and their expectations have an impact on which stories get reported and transmitted. A god’s healing of a stomach ailment is only mildly, if at all, “miraculous” enough to give rise to a legend, while restoration of an amputated limb seems to be a very extreme sort of miracle, rarely reported in healing cults. The most oft-reported kind of healing miracle exists in between these extremes, in cures which seem to heal irreversible conditions, while not wildly violating our expectations of natural law. For example, the miracle healings attributed to the Greek god Asclepios include many cures of paralysis, blindness, infertility, and (most amusingly) baldness, but only a few cures of the “unimpressive” or “extreme” types. If I am correct about the impact of shared intuition on the perception of miracles, patterns similar to this should be detectable in other healing cults across cultures.

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  “As an expert in military discipline…This valorous woman, with sword in hand, commanded troops of soldiers like a captain…”

 -from Gynevera de le clare donne by Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, eds. C. Ricci and A. Bacchi della Lega (1888).

“From her earliest years she hunted wild beasts in the woods, and almost like another Diana, she led many companions along the way, coursing through the countryside…”

-from Della officina historica libri quattro: nella quale si spiegano essempi antichi e moderni by Giovanni Felice Astolfi (1622).

The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmed II sent shockwaves across Western Europe. While Christendom struggled to come to terms with the Ottoman victory, scores of Byzantine intellectuals scrambled and fled south to the courts of Italian elites, such as the Medici. Meanwhile, forces loyal to the Church expected the Venetians (then the custodians of one of the oldest regimes on the Italian peninsula) to defend their interests in the Aegean and check the expansion of the Ottoman navy. For commercial reasons, the Ottomans and Venetians managed to enjoy a short-lived peace. However, war eventually broke out in the 1460s.

Venice in the fifteenth century. Image via Internet Archive.

During this period, The Venetian Republic commissioned a married couple to defend Negropont (modern-day Chalkis) a Greek city of considerable strategic importance. One of these officers was Captain Pier-Brunero Sanvitale, a seasoned soldier and scion of the Sanvitali, a noble family from Parma. The other was a battle-hardened woman named Bona Longobarda (or Bona de Vultulina). Each was a decorated warlord, but Bona, unlike her highborn husband, had none of the advantages of a formal education.

Excerpt from De memorabilibus et claris mulieribus (1521). Edited by Johannes Ravisius.

Bona Longobarda. Image via Internet Archive.

Born in Valtellina (then part of the Duchy of Milan) to a peasant family, Bona was entirely self-made, an autodidact when it came to the art of war. Like Joan of Arc and countless other commandresses, she became something of a living legend in her own lifetime, and her accomplishments did not go unnoticed. Thus, when Venetian senators charged her with the protection of one of the republic’s most important maritime cities, they were making a decision based on Bona’s undisputed track record of military prowess. At the time, she had all the necessary skills down pat: castle-sieging experience, horsemanship, diplomacy, and hand-to-hand armoured combat. These she had acquired after spending a number of years in the company of condottieri, the for-hire martial enforcers or men-at-arms employed by Italian lordlings and despots.

Image of Bona from De Claris Mulieribus (1497) by Jacobus Philippus Bergomensis. Image via Internet Archive.

Excerpt from Gynevera de le clare donne by Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti (written circa 1490; first published in 1888).

Bona was first discovered by her future husband Pier-Brunero while he was stationed near her home in Morbegno in the 1430s. According to Jacobus Bergomensis and Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, Bona originally worked as a herdswoman who routinely walked around the woods and countryside with her mules and hunting dogs. At some point during Brunero’s tour of duty, so the story goes, Brunero and Bona struck up a relationship of some kind and became paramours. Brunero, attracted to Bona’s masculinity, vivacity, and confidence, took her under his wing and she, disguised as a soldier, accompanied him on his other military campaigns for Francesco Sforza.

Excerpt from the Dictionnaire Royal, françois et anglois by Abel Boyer (1702).

Brunero’s peers were rapscallions and freebooters, true adventurers in the original sense of the word (i.e. men who hazard all in the pursuit of some risky enterprise). From these armed picaroons who possessed both the guile of Mercury and the bellicosity of Mars, Bona learned the business and politics of conflict in the Italian city-states. Mercenary artifice differed greatly from the stratagems openly espoused by imperial rulers. Bribery, intimidation, sabotage; these were the kind of strong-arm tactics that Bona likely picked up from her fellow soldiers and employed in battle.

Francesco Sforza and his wife, Signora Bianca Visconti. Image via Internet Archive.

Bona put her skills of persuasion to use in 1443, when Alfonso I, King of Naples jailed her partner in Valencia for intrigue. In actuality, Brunero’s former employer Francesco Sforza had orchestrated Brunero’s imprisonment by sending letters that questioned his allegiances. Bona spent the following years soliciting letters from European potentates to persuade Alfonso to secure Brunero’s release. Finally, in 1453, Alfonso pardoned his prisoner and Bona arrived in Valencia to meet him. In his Commentaria rerum gestarum a Jacobo Picinino, Porcellio de’ Pandoni, one of Alfonso’s court humanists praised her as an “incredible woman” who had “traversed the ocean many times to secure her lover’s freedom”. Like some kind of earthbound Diana, Bona appeared in full Amazonian dress, equipped with a helmet, bow, arrows, and calf-length boots.

Title page of Commentaria Rerum gestarum 1452-53, by Porcellio de’ Pandoni (edited by Ludovico Antonio Muratori in 1751).

Excerpt from Commentaria Rerum gestarum.

After the prison reunion, Brunero and Bona made their relationship official by getting married, and Bona helped her husband to gain a lucrative contract (20,000 ducats to be exact) with the Venetian Republic. Under the command of their new patron, Brunero and Bona laid siege to a Sforza fortress in Brescia. Bona swiftly became the rallying spirit of the Venetian troops and attacked the walls with matchless bravura. Apparently her ferocity and courage impressed the Venetian doge Pasquale Malipiero, who then sent Bona and her husband east to fight the Turks.

At Negropont, Bona and Brunoro fought in what would be the most important conflict of their shared military career. Tragically but not unexpectedly (as both warriors were over the age of fifty) Brunero was slain in battle and Bona fell victim to disease. She died in Modon (modern-day Methoni) in 1468 while en route to see her children in Venice. Negropont was eventually captured by the Ottomans in 1470. The defeat signalled the beginning of Venice’s waning influence as the dominant sea power in the Greek isles.

Map of Greece with Negropont highlighted. Image via Internet Archive.

Like all folk heroes, Bona’s demise failed to tarnish her larger-than-life reputation. Renaissance moralists gushed about her virtues and ethics, and historians—hundreds of years after her death—continued to extol her exceptional valour and intrepidity. But her life was not the typical rags-to-riches moral tale. Given the nature of her profession as a woman-at-arms , Bona encountered adversity at every turn. She excelled because she was an adventurer at heart, one who could dominate fortune and adapt to the rolling tides of fate. Uprooted from the peasantry, Bona ascended to the world of geopolitics and became one of the many military leaders chosen to engage the seemingly indomitable Ottoman navy. In every way she exemplified the old Latin adage: “Fortune favours the bold.”

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 “Remember the true story of the licentiate Torralva, whom the devils carried through the air, riding on a cane…”

 -from The life and exploits of the ingenious gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, vol. II, by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Charles Jarvis (1749).

According to tradition, the first person on the Iberian Peninsula to make a name for himself in the dark arts was none other than Hercules, the barrel-chested son of Jupiter. Apparently medieval fabulists thought that the demigod was unsatisfied with one-upping Atlas and erecting pillars at Gibraltar—not to mention ridding the earth of monsters. They therefore added an extra “oomph” to his curriculum vitae and he became a first-rate professor of magic. In retrospect, the move was probably an attempt to reimagine the hero as an intellectual or scholarly icon. Indeed, Hercules is described in one Renaissance epic as “the wisest Clerk in the world”.

View of Toledo. Image via Internet Archive.

The academy of Hercules, which was said to run out of a cave or grotto near Salamanca or Toledo, also functioned as a magical laboratory. There, amid an array of miraculous class supplies, such as gilded automata, Hercules delivered lectures on the occult sciences:

Excerpt from the English translation of Raoul Lefèvre ‘s renaissance epic, The Destruction of Troy (1708).

  In the Renaissance, this cavern of wizardry (sometimes described as a “fatal palace”) developed its own folklore and became, in essence, the sum of all fantasies about magical education. Its arcana were hermetically sealed off to bar the uninitiated from entering. Few could penetrate its recesses. Those who ventured too far into its depths either lost an empire, such as the Visigothic monarch Roderick who ceded the kingdom of Hispania to the Umayyad Caliphate; or fell victim to mysterious diseases, like the company of Cardinal Juan Siliceo. 

Illustration of Toledo. Image via Internet Archive.

Legend has it that this unfortunate party of adventurers descended into a vault in Toledo in 1546 and discovered bronze statues and an altar. The explorers cautiously delved deeper into the cave but eventually turned around and fled in fear. Pedro Salazar, the recorder of the tale notes that immediately following the expedition, many of the men became ill and died. Whether these effects were the result of devious elementals or natural causes like hypothermia or dehydration is a question perhaps best left to the imagination. Regardless, “Cave of Hercules” legends like this, many of which originated in the early Middle Ages, fuelled Spain’s magical reputation. Spanish magic schools gradually became elite institutions who counted alleged magicians like Michael Scot, Pope Sylvester II, and Virgil among their most revered alumni.

Excerpt from the English translation of Eusèbe Salverte’s The Occult Sciences (1846).

Yet, in the sixteenth century, a new adept appeared in Castile—a curious doctor who kept a familiar spirit. As opposed to Hercules and the other mythical or semi-mythical magi of Spanish extraction, this man’s existence is attested by court documents. He was Eugenio Torralva (or Torralba) and he was destined to become one of Castile’s most memorable personages.

A View of Cuenca. Image via Internet Archive. 

Doctor Torralva was a physician and licentiate from Cuenca. Juan Antonio Llorente, in his History of the Inquisition of Spain, says that Torralva initially served as a page to the bishop of Volterra, Francesco Soderini. In Rome, Torralva struck up a friendship with a Jewish converso and amateur philosopher named Alfonso. Under Alfonso’s tutelage, Torralva became a Pyrrhonist or a sceptic. Everything changed after Torralva received a fateful proposition from his friend Pietro, a Dominican friar. Pietro offered to transfer his familiar spirit Zequiel to Torralva gratis. Torralva accepted—and did not regret it.

Doctor Torralva communicating with spirits. Image via Internet Archive.

Zequiel (who, interestingly enough, bore the same name as the prophet in the Bible most known for his surrealistic visions) was quite literally a “free spirit”. He heeded no contracts, loved only friendship, hated charging money for miracles, and praised the Christian religion. He also regularly appeared as a dashing gentleman and wore a red suit and black overcoat. Although he forbade Torralva from earning money through magic, the daemon was not in the least against helping his human friend advance his career. He had two ways of doing this: political forecasting and social broadcasting.

Excerpt from the English translation of Juan Antonio Llorente’s History of the Inquisition of Spain (1826).

A natural intelligencer, Zequiel acquired information about far-off political events and encouraged Torralva to relate the information to the right people. He also assisted Torralva in his dealings with ghosts and haunted houses. Torralva and Zequiel made sure to spread the news of their capabilities and, over time, their strategy dramatically increased Torralva’s reputation and gained him patronage from friends in high places, such as the Infanta Eleanora of Portugal, the Admiral of Castile, and various members of the episcopate. Despite his controversial powers, Torralva did not come onto the radar of inquisitors until 1528. Like other adepts, Torralva was also said to have the power of transvection, or supernatural flight, and it was this ability and the diplomatic consequences associated with it that probably led to his downfall.

Illustration of the Colosseum in Rome. Image via Internet Archive.

Llorente records that in 1525, Torralva foresaw the Sack of Rome during a nocturnal time-travel flight (Torralva witnessed the sack in 1525 even though the historical event occurred in 1527). He accomplished the transcontinental flight to Rome with the aid of a “knotted stick” or “cane” given to him by Zequiel. This was probably the nail in the coffin for the self-made prophet, and Torralva soon found himself in the hands of befuddled inquisitors. Considering the horrid treatment of witches elsewhere in Europe at the time, Torralva’s four-year imprisonment was comparatively mild. In the end, prosecutors failed to prove that Zequiel was a corrupting influence. Torralva’s captors effectively let him go with just a slap on the wrist in 1531.

Was this a win for the reputation of magic in Spain? Not exactly. Torralva was most likely shielded from severe punishment by his powerful friends, some of whom were Castilian policymakers. Still, this illustrious heir to the tradition of Herculean magic in Spain should not be forgotten. His creative partnership with a benevolent and liberal-minded spirit was, in its own way, a restructuring of the typical sorcerer-familiar spirit dichotomy. Like Hercules, the pagan god who gained renown as a magic teacher in Western Christendom; Zequiel who fundamentally resembles a Socratic daemon, was implanted seamlessly into a predominately Christian culture. As Spain was then the centre of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish learning, this marrying of ideas could not have happened at a better place.

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“It is well known that until the nineteenth century, treasure seeking was steeped in magic.”

-Professor Johannes Dillinger

“A very deep meaning lies in that notion, that a man in search of buried treasure must work in utter silence ; must speak not a word, whatever appearance, either terrific or delightful, may present itself.”

from Characteristics of Goethe, vol. II, by Sarah Austin (1833)

The treasure-hunters of early modern Europe were a wild bunch of interloping rogues, antiquaries (crudely speaking), and scholars. They probably had more in common with adventurers in pulp fiction serials than with modern-day archaeologists. Some had criminal backgrounds and honed their skills as grave-robbers and fraudsters. Others were essentially middle class “everyman-types”, burghers such as notaries and merchants who saw prospecting as a profitable hobby. One thing brought these thrill-seekers together, whatever their vocation: the desire for fortune and glory.

The Discoverers of Antiquities (detail) by Hubert Robert. © Musée de Valence, Art et Archéologie.

Illustrations for Walter Scott’s novel, The Antiquary. Images via Wikimedia Commons.

Excerpt on divining rods from Isaac D’israeli’s Amenities of Literature, vol. II (1842).

Equipped with trowels, dowsing or “Mosaical” rods, and (sometimes) a treasure-hunting licence, they plundered necropolises, abbeys, and caves hoping to find some rare artefact. To keep evil spirits at bay, the excavators usually had certain spells on hand that could be recited on the fly. These, and other secret arts and rituals were solemnly performed on an ad hoc basis. The spirits were not easily appeased, and this reality, in addition to the dangerous working conditions (loose stones, decrepit ceilings, etc.) meant that every precaution needed to be taken to avoid casualties.

Description of the scholastici vagantes in Viktor Rydberg’s The Magic of the Middle Ages (1879).

  While it is tempting to assume that treasure-hunters only wanted a chest of coins or gems, this was not always the case. Indeed, some prospectors, such as the infamous scholastici vagantes (wandering scholars)  were said to hunt for magical objects. For example, one popular legend from the Middle Ages features a “learned Englishman” who obtains permission from Roger II of Sicily to dig on Virgil’s gravesiteHe ultimately recovers Virgil’s magic book on the ars notoria and spirits it away, angering local Neapolitans in the process:

Excerpt from the essay Virgil in the Middle Ages, which appeared in volume 139 of The London Quarterly Review (1875).

  Another fascinating thing about the treasure-hunters was that sometimes women took part in their expeditions. One such woman was Mary Middlemore (or Midlemore) a maid of honour to Queen Anne, the royal consort of King James I of England. In a special patent granted in 1617, King James himself gives Mary exclusive licence to hunt for treasure troves in various abbeys and monasteries within “the Realme of England”. Unfortunately however, Mary died before she could start her quest.

Excerpt from Foedera, Conventiones et Cujuscunque generis Acta Publica, edited by Thomas Rymer and Robert Sanderson, vol. VII (1727).

English history is full of stories about these kinds of sponsored excursions and misadventures. Continental Europe however, had its own treasure-hunting cultures which were just as quixotic. In fact, the literary romanticisation of treasure-hunting likely owes its origin to a farrago of German folktales and anecdotes. At the time, “Germany” as we know it today was non-existent. The region was composed of loose-knit principalities headed by burgomasters, princes, and councillors. It was however, for various geographical and political reasons, a land of buried mysteries.

To get a better grasp of this history, we spoke to Professor Johannes Dillinger of Oxford Brookes University. Dillinger has written extensively on magic and witchcraft in early modern Europe and (in addition to being the descendant of suspected witches) is the author of a book that has been described as the “first comprehensive history of magical treasure hunting from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century”.

 The Custodian: Can you tell us more about the average treasure hunter’s skills and social background? What were his or her tools? What magical rituals or incantations could this person be expected to perform or have on hand?

Professor Johannes Dillinger: Early modern treasure hunts were magical ventures. In every group of treasure hunters there was an expert magician. He used magic to locate the treasure and to communicate with the spirits that supposedly guarded the treasure—mostly ghosts, at time demons or fairies. Treasure magicians used a variety of tools that could be combined in various ways: An extreme example would be a treasure hunt that took place in Swabia in 1679. The treasure magician discovered the treasure site with a divining rod over which he had said a secret spell. He drew a magical circle with some symbols in it on the ground with a ceremonial sword. He put birch twigs on the edge of the circle. After that he said a lengthy conjuration. Only after this ceremony the other treasure hunters were allowed to start digging in strictest ritual silence.

Early modern British treasure hunters spent considerable sums of money on magical equipment like lead tablets with mysterious characters and spellbooks. There was clearly a market for magical texts and objects.

In contrast to the victims of the witch trials, apart from a very few exceptions, treasure magicians were male. Catholic clergymen and monks were said to be the best treasure magicians, but we also find a great number of vagabonds among them. There were professional frauds who made their living posing as experts for treasure magic.

Dragon image via Internet Archive.

C: You’ve written some fascinating things about the treasure-finding Drache, a household “domesticated” dragon. How did one become a Drache owner? What other things were Drachen supposed to be capable of doing?

J: The connection between dragons and treasures seems to be obvious. The dragons we know best, the dragon in Beowulf or the dragon Fafnir in the Sigur/Siegfried tales possess huge treasures—Tolkien’s Smaug is a parody of that kind of dragon. In early modern sources, especially in witch trials, we find dragons that are quite unlike the medieval monsters. These dragons (called “Drache” in German or “Żmij” in Polish) are household spirits. This kind of dragon was said to look like a fiery snake or just like a ball of fire with a long tail that throws sparks. These dragons served witches: They brought them money, grain, milk or other readily usable or saleable goods. The owner of such a dragon became rich very quickly and effortlessly. The dragon was said to steal everything it brought to its master or mistress from somebody else. In a way, the dragon was the embodiment of transfer magic.

A wizard and his dragon. Image via Internet Archive.

This might sound like a quaint story. However, in the early modern period, persons who were economically more successful than their neighbours could be said to have a dragon. As only witches had dragons, such rumours could turn into very serious accusations of witchcraft. In the witch trials, the dragon is clearly a demonic figure. It was sometimes said to have sex with witches. You became a dragon owner simply because the dragon or rather the demon had approached you in the first place. Folktales tell a somewhat different story: Here, the dragon might first come to its owner’s house in the form of a little dirty chicken that eventually turns into a monster. Dragons as household spirits seem to occur only in the magical culture of the Baltics, the West Slavic countries and Eastern Germany.

C: To what extent did politics play into the “application process” for obtaining permission to dig in the German principalities? How much leeway did treasure hunters have in negotiating the terms of their excavations?

J: The laws concerning treasure trove are rather complicated. There was a heated and unending debate among early modern jurists about them. In practice, governments were open to negotiations. Treasure hunters enjoyed some considerable leeway. Some governments issued official permits for treasure hunts without demanding a fixed share of the find. Obviously, they did not believe in the existence of the treasure—and their scepticism proved to be justified.

There was—in theory at least—one basic rule: Treasure hunters were not allowed to use magic. Of course, this rule was ignored all the time. If a government or a prince believed in the existence of the treasure, as a rule it or he looked the other way when the treasure hunters used magic. Some treasure hunters said very clearly that a ghost had alerted them to the treasure when they applied officially for a permit to search for treasure trove. Even though this rather smacked of magic—especially in Protestant countries because Protestantism officially maintained that all ghosts were really demons—the authorities would as a rule still issue the permit.

C: Elsewhere you’ve stated that “witch-hunting” institutions in early modern German provinces contributed to state-building and diplomacy. Would you say that treasure-hunting had a comparable role as an organising or revenue-generating force?

J: There was never a full-fledged treasure hunt administration that I am aware of even though some people—Goethe for example—seem to have toyed with the idea. Still, we have to thank the financial interest in treasure trove for the very first steps some rulers took toward what we would call monument protection.

We should see state-sponsored treasure hunts or at least treasure hunts that had officially been permitted by the authorities as rough equivalents to mining or alchemy. My favourite example is duke Friedrich of Württemberg (1557-1608) who tried to improve the economic situation of his impoverished country: He was very interested in mining, he permitted treasure hunts and he invested huge sums of money in alchemical experiments. From our point of view, the money spent on treasure hunts and alchemy was wasted. However, Friedrich and his contemporaries could not yet know that for sure. Princes eagerly competed for the services of the most talented treasure seekers and alchemists. This caused some serious diplomatic frictions from time to time. Again, Friedrich is a good example: At times, the somewhat quick-tempered duke caused considerable irritation when he demanded rather harshly that other princes should extradited alchemists who had not yet fulfilled their contract with him. At one point, Friedrich was accused of kidnapping the favourite alchemist of the king of Poland—a major scandal and a diplomatic disaster.

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“…the sect of the Inspired became so numerous that the valleys swarmed with them, the mountains were covered with them, and the dioceses…were overspread with such a number of prophets, that in the Cevennes and the lower Languedoc only, they were computed at eight thousand souls.”

-from Enthusiastick Impostors no Divinely-inspired Prophets, vol. I, by Richard Kingston (1707).

After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (a law that formally provided for the civil rights of French Protestants) in 1685, Catholic forces escalated their persecution of Huguenot communities. At the time, the most infamous of the remaining strongholds of Protestantism in France was located in the Cévennes mountains of Languedoc. In response to the king’s threats, Cévenol enthusiasts defiantly mounted a clandestine resistance and assembled in caves, woodlands, and canyons. Their “autonomous zones” became the stuff of legend and helped foster a homegrown culture of syncretised prophetism and anti-authoritarianism.

Cover page of A Cry from The Desart (1707).

In a word, their conventicles became crucibles of charismatic power, turning out illuminates at an incredible rate. As far as the Camisards (as these Cévenol rebels would later be called) were concerned, God was indiscriminate. Heaven doled out its spiritual gifts to men, women, and children and confirmed them with demonstrations of miracles. But the Camisard prophet-rearing programme could not last forever. Like the “neo-Gnostic” Cathars (or Albigensians), whom church-supported crusaders had mercilessly exterminated in Languedoc centuries earlier, the Camisards were no match for the entrenched strength of the Catholic establishment. Some turned violent and died engaging their enemies in guerrilla warfare. Others influenced leaders such as Paul Rabaut and Antoine Court (the father of Tarot theorist Antoine Court de Gébelin). These pastors went on to downplay ecstatic experience and promote the spread of open air assemblies.

The most celebrated of the eighteenth-century revival congregations was called the “Church of the Desert”. It met in rural areas near Nimes, and helped to change the face of French Protestantism. Still, some mystical movements continued to thrive underground—that is, according to researcher and cicerone Dr Lionel Laborie. Laborie, who has been scouring European archives for the past five years, has found evidence of flourishing transnational “millenarian networks” that interacted with the long-persecuted Camisards. We caught up with Laborie to find out more about his research and findings.

A meeting of the Church in the Desert. Image via Internet Archive.

The Custodian: On Valentine’s Day, you wrote that you had recently completed a five-year “grand tour” of European archives. Can you tell us more about your “Millenarian Networks in the Eighteenth Century” project and tease us with some of your findings/upcoming publications (without giving too much away)?

Lionel Laborie: My tweet on Valentine’s Day was a coincidence, but I like to think of it as a sign of my love story with the archives. I started this project a little more than five years ago when it became clear to me that the Camisards had capitalised on pre-existing underground networks to spread their prophetic movement. I began following their missions across Europe to study their encounters with other religious groups, reconstruct their network for the first time and shed light on the inner workings of their influential movement. This is a piecemeal project. Like most millenarian communities of this period, the Camisards never founded a Church, but tried instead to reconcile Christendom in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming and his thousand-year reign, the Millennium.

Nineteenth-century map of the Cévennes region. Image via Internet Archive.

They constantly travelled and left no centralised archive, hence their lack of visibility. The sources for my project are scattered over several countries. They consist mostly on individual letters that are not identified as part of a particular community. So far, I have worked in over forty libraries and archives across Europe to put the pieces of my puzzle back together and reveal the bigger picture. Chronologically, I now trace this “French connection” into the 1760s, when it is generally assumed they had disappeared by 1710.

Prosopographically, I have discovered connections to prominent eighteenth-century figures, including Newton, Defoe, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Franklin, Gainsborough and Swedenborg. I aim to publish my findings in my second book. I also have a forthcoming article (in French) that will give a preview of my project and I am currently writing another article (in English) that reveals overlaps between millenarian, commercial, and diplomatic networks in the eighteenth century.

C: How did you first come across the Camisards? Did they really believe that they were related to the Cathars?

L: My background is actually in English and American studies. I wrote my MA dissertation The Treatment of Insanity in Eighteenth-Century England and became more and more interested in the notion of “enthusiasm” in this period and its medicalisation into a religious madness. While researching the topic at the British Library, I came across the controversy around the Camisard Prophets, which rapidly became the focus of my PhD. I suppose there is also a personal dimension to it. I come from a dynasty of peasants from the south of France and I was about to move to England when I discovered their story.

Detail from William Hogarth’s engraving, Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism (1762). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As for their Cathar ancestry, this was simply a case of oral history used for propaganda purposes. There is no evidence to support it outside of the fact that Languedoc had been a hotbed of heresies and revolts for centuries. The supposed Cathar heritage became a prominent argument to rally foreign support at the height of the Camisards’ uprising in 1703-1704, but disappeared from the sources soon afterwards as the rebellion was crushed.

A gathering of the Church in the Desert. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Have you found anything that suggests the French Prophets experimented with hallucinogens?

L: Actually, yes. As I show in my book, there is evidence that the French Prophets drank posset–a hot drink made of curdled milk, ale and spices– during their assemblies. Other eye witness accounts suggest they consumed some sort of “magic” bread, liqueur and powder before falling in ecstatic trances. Like many devout Christians of the period, they also fasted regularly, sometimes for weeks, which certainly contributed to their religious experiences.

C: How were the French Prophets generally received in eighteenth-century England?

L: A short and simplistic answer would be to say: “very negatively”. However, it all depends on the sources you look at. Like most religious movements of the early modern period, we only know them through polemical literature. I was fortunate enough to have discovered many manuscript records written by the Prophets themselves, which gave me a better idea of who they really were and what they believed in. It turns out that the Prophets were socially respectable and counted clergymen, lawyers, physicians, teachers, merchants and even noblemen and fellows of the Royal Society among their followers.

Surprising as it may seem to the modern reader, this is consistent with other groups of the period like the Pietists and Quietists, for example. We should bear in mind that people knew their Bible inside out in the eighteenth century and that believing in the imminent Second Coming of Christ was not crazy. So there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the French Prophets, and millenarian groups more generally, also had many supporters, including among the elite, throughout the eighteenth century. My job as a historian is to consider this inconvenient reality and not to sweep it as “superstitious” dust under the Enlightenment carpet.

C: Have you found any substantial connection between the Prophets and intellectual occultists in nineteenth-century France? Eliphas Levi, for example was supposed to have been mentored by a cross-dressing, politically-conscious “prophet” named Simon Ganneau (also known as Mapah). Likewise, Eugene Vintras (another priestly occultist) is said to have been influenced by a visionary and royal pretender named Charles Naundorf.

L: I haven’t looked into this yet, so I can’t really say. However, there was definitely a renewed interest in the Camisards’ revolt among French and German Romantics in the nineteenth century.

C: You’ve written for The Conversation about the “progressive” and egalitarian role some prophets and millenarians have played in society by challenging the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Elsewhere you’ve also written about a correlation between “severe conditions” and prophetic leaders.  In light of this enduring history, what do you think we can say about the future of messianism and fanaticism?

L: The point I was making in this article was that the notion of “fanaticism” is a relative one. Giving women a public voice, opposing slavery and capital punishment, claiming freedom of conscience or engaging with Jews was widely considered as “fanatical” ideas in early modern Europe. Today it is normal and even enshrined in law because radical dissenters first challenged religious and secular authorities, forcing Western societies to reform themselves and evolve over time. Such challenges are healthy. That is not to say, of course, that all radical beliefs are necessarily good. Sadly, there are plenty of violent and hateful ideologies around today, and we should certainly not ignore them. Utopian and dystopian ideologies tend to thrive in times of conflict or crises because they offer hope for a “better” –another relative term– future either on earth or in an afterlife.

In this sense, I regard prophecies as an emotional genre that gives insight into the hopes and fears of their time. Whilst political and social activists continue to challenge dominant values in our secular societies today, I also think that religion will play a more important part in the twenty-first century than it did in the previous one. Don’t expect me to predict a war, market crash, natural disaster nor the next messiah – I’ve read enough prophecies to know that they almost always fail! – but I think new religious movements and charismatic spiritual leaders certainly have a future ahead of them.

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