Esoterica, Scholarship

Prestigious Demons 1

Originally published on January 25, 2011

The Disappearing Member

Note: the following is the first of three sections of an essay I wrote as part of my Rice University graduate work. As such it is a different genre of writing than most of the pieces that appear on this site. But it’s still kinda weird…


The Malleus Mallifacarum (Hammer of Witches) is aptly named, as reading it can feel like an unrelenting encounter with a blunt and oppressive force: an obsessive cut-and-paste scholastic argument fused with toxic misogyny and a belligerent Inquisitional certitude that, in our era of expert discourses and religious fundamentalisms, is sadly impossible to simply relegate to a less reflective age. Which is not to say that this veritable summa of late medieval demonology and witch paranoia is without its marvels. Against its own purported theological aims (or perhaps in support of them, as we will see), the thickets of choppy and feverish argumentation give rise on occasion to striking images—detailed, almost theatrical scenes of evil doings that, regardless of their possible origins in popular folklore or (more likely) the minds of demonologists, seem designed to stimulate and arrest the imagination. Certainly one of the most extraordinary of these exotic scenes is the maleficum that Heinrich Kramer, the principal author of the Malleus, relates in a chapter that Montague Summers, in his famously flawed but sometimes evocative translation into English, calls “Whether Witches may work some Prestidigatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be entirely removed and separate from the Body”.[i] Kramer refers to this fascinating operation nonchalantly, as if it were an established social fact rather than a new and horrifying revelation—an almost blasé presentation that, for today’s reader, only intensifies the atmosphere of anomaly.

Employing some jerky scholastic machinery, Kramer initially lays out arguments for the actual physical removal of the member. These include the shameful role the genitals played in the fall of man; the natural shapes that Pharaoh’s magicians were able to conjure; and the evil angel who, with God’s permission, turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt that “can still be seen, as is reported.”[ii] To counter these straw men, or salt women, Kramer invokes one of the most important—and often forgotten—aspects of traditional demonology: that the devil, unlike God, is categorically denied the ability to enact truly miraculous transformations of material bodies, and that therefore he works within the context of natural law. Kramer cites the firm conviction of Augustine, and later Aquinas, that the devil cannot, in reality, change humans into beasts, which leads Kramer to conclude that, in reference to the penis, “he cannot take away that which contributes to the reality of the human body.”[iii] By denying the devil miraculous powers, however, demonologists only deepened his connection with illusion and trickery.  “Having attacked him ontologically with one argument,” says Stuart Clark, “Thomistic theologians gave him epistemological assistance with another.”[iv] So while demonic castration must be only apparent, that appearance nonetheless marks the world through the epistemological problems this (apparent) lost of reality breed—problems that are already apparent in Kramer’s discussion of where, exactly, the illusion “takes place.”

This illusion does not, however, take place in the imagination of the person affected, since his imagination can really and truly estimate that the thing is not present, (he does not perceive its presence through any working of the external sense, namely vision or touch). Hence, it can be said that there is a true removal of the member from the point of view of the imagination of the person affected, though not from that of the thing itself.[v]

In this epistemologically wobbly passage, we can sense the paradoxical instability introduced by the category of demonic appearance, which must be essentially absent of reality while still “being real” enough to manipulate men in the acctual world. So while the absent penis is an illusion, the “glamour”—as Summers has it—does not take place only in the imagination of the sufferer; or, rather, from the point of view of that imagination, the removal is “true,” although not from the point of view of the thing itself—in other words, from the point of view of the penis, who becomes an actor or at gets its own POV shot in this strange little scene. The epistemological fluctuations do not end here either, for this apparent absence not only conceals a something (the actual member) but indexically establishes the activity of a demonic agent who is, nonetheless, behind the scenes, and who, moreover, is theologically a nothing, a being without being.

As we will see (perhaps), the ambivalence of demonic illusion, its paradoxical fluctuation of presence and absence, truth and appearance, is not a static reverberation, but an acute instability that breeds contradictions, fears, and opportunities. This paper will attempt to trace this fluctuation through a few historical eras and discourses while manifesting some of that instability itself, at least around the central question of what, exactly, constitutes “demonic appearance.” For the epistemological paradoxes of demonic illusion are not confined to the Malleus Malifacarum or the early modern discourse of witchcraft, but begin, or rather have a beginning, with the early Church fathers, and their ontological understanding, alluded to a moment ago, of the nonbeing of the devil. This linkage between epistemological and ontological ambivalence will be traced through Plato as well, and particularly to The Sophist, where Plato attempts, and arguably fails, to ground a distinction between faithful copies and errant simulacra. The theological assertion of evil as nonbeing, coupled with a Platonic distrust of tricky simulacra, contribute to a variety of patristic attacks on idolatry and the phantasmagoric illusions of pagan magic, attacks that both frame and unleash the reverberant and instable paradoxes of demonic illusion. But this current of demonic distrust will also play, as we will see, a significant role in the early modern period as the witchcraft theories of the Malleus become the site of a skeptical discourse that helps put in motion a more “disenchanted” (though no less stable) model of marvels and perceptual anomalies.

Whether in the ancient, medieval, or early modern context, the eternal return of demonic instability is not due simply to the aporias that, I will suggest, the category of nonbeing introduce to the ontological surfaces of theology or metaphysics. It is also due to the sorts of epistemological doubts that are unleashed, almost by necessity, by the “rhetoric of suspicion” that motivates the attitudes and arguments of demonologists as they strive to expose what one might call the “mechanics” behind demonic appearances. To appreciate this paradox, as Clark insists, we need to abandon those stereotypical views of the development of rationality and naturalism that insist on the sharp cleavage between scientific skepticism and credulous demonology. Instead, we should recognize that

witchcraft theory presupposed a thoroughgoing naturalism…one of [whose] main aims was to demystify demonic pretensions by subjecting them to careful, and essentially negative, scrutiny—sorting out, in particular, just where the limits of demonic efficacy via second causes were reached and the realm of fantasy and delusion began.[vi]

Though Clark is explicitly targeting the early modern period, I hope to show that a similar logic is at work even in patristic demonological accounts. In both cases, demonological discourse often relies on accounts of prestidigitation, optics, and what we would now consider to be “psychological” conceptions of cognition. At the same time, such explanations are generally framed in terms of demonic ontologies that, while acceptable topics in natural philosophy through the early modern period, current ontological commitments would have us recognize as credulous, or at least, insubstantial.

Here I am not particularly interested in the role that witches themselves play in the Malleus, even though the book’s great claim to fame is its enormously influential and pernicious construction of the human female witch over and against the devil as the active agent of evil in the world. By shifting the locus of responsibility onto the witch, however, the Malleus actually clarifies the naturalistic character of demonic activity by reframing the power of the devil into a merely efficient cause of the witch’s plots and vengeances. Once set in motion by the will of the witch, there is an automatic or mechanical character to demonic powers; in Hans Peter Broedel’s words, “the powers of the devil are utilized very much like any other natural force or property, without his overt presence being known in any way.”[vii] By displacing the agency of evil onto the witch, the phenomenon of demonological appearance actually becomes more readily apparent as a technical system or a consequence of natural laws. For my purposes, the important shift in the Malleus is not from the devil to the witch, but from the notion of the demonic as an internal Augustinian tug on the sinful will to the external (but concealed) mechanisms of magical appearance.

And what are these mechanisms, at least insofar as they can make penises disappear? Leaving Occam’s razor safely wrapped up in its case, Kramer explains the glamour of castration by offering a variety of technical possibilities. One possible demonic strategy is to distort the sense faculties themselves, creating illusory perceptions the way that fever transforms the tongue of a sufferer so that sweet wine tastes bitter. A far more baroque and theatrical technique is to interpose, in front of the man’s real body, some other body “of the same color and appearance”—a “smooth body” that is registered by the unimpaired senses but mistaken for the real thing it somehow cloaks. Working with more vaporous materials, the devils may also directly manipulate the humors and fluxes that compose the inner sense, the principia sensitiva that we might translate as the perceptual imagination: the phantasmic assemblage, interjected forcefully into medieval psychology by Averroes and Avicenna, whose various subcomponents sort, process, and recombine both incoming impressions and images stored in memory.[viii] Finally, Kramer offers up an explanation that is “easier to understand and preach:” conjuring, or prestidigitation. Clowns, jugglers, and other human wonder-workers may use sleight of hand or rare natural objects (particularly minerals) to create their effects, though they may also resort to demonic aid. Logically the, demons can resort to sleight of hand as well, for “whatever a human knows how to do by art, a demon can know better.”[ix]

Though fanatically certain about the existence of the witchcraft conspiracy, Kramer nonetheless adapts the stance if not the commitments of a naturalizing skeptic when he exposes the demonic mechanics behind the scenes of the illusion. In contrast to the popular view that witches physically remove actual members, the Malleus instead presents more nuanced causal explanations grounded in canon, first-hand reports, and Kramer’s own efforts at scholastic reasoning. At the same time, of course, Kramer invokes demonic and witch powers that even some early modern readers of the Malleus found implausible. And there are other ways in which Kramer’s technical explanations undermine his efforts to “fix” or expose the demonic illusion in terms of a causal or naturalistic scheme. By declaring the explanation of prestidigitation as the easiest “to understand and preach,” Kramer tips his hand: what he is offering to his readers, at least in part, is the social force of explanations as such—a rhetorical “effect” of power that they can redeploy rather than the specific truth of any particular causal chain. After all, by multiplying these causal chains—so that the demons may be fabricating smooth bodies, or distorting sense perception, or manipulating internal phantasms, or practicing sleight of hand—Kramer paradoxically underscores the indeterminacy of the effect—an indeterminacy that I am arguing is inherent to the demonic phantasm as such, at least as it has bedeviled Western theology and epistemology. In other words, by decoupling the phantasmic event—the shocking perception of a lost penis—from any particular line of causality, Kramer allows the phantasm to “float free” from any specific naturalistic account—a decoupling that, by suspending the relation between causes and effects, defines the oscillating absent-but-present ontology of the demonic phantasm itself.

The glamour of castration is a primal scene for Kramer’s demonology; as Walter Stephens notes in Demon Lovers, Kramer believes it to be the most convincing example of infernal praestigium he offers in the whose Malleus.[x] So why castration? Stephens argues that, in contrast to what many post-Freudian readers might think, the loss of the penis does not reflect a general castration anxiety; elsewhere Kramer discusses happy castrations performed by good angels working for the benefit of pious monks.[xi] In place of castration anxiety, however, we might instead introduce a different psychoanalytic concept: the Lacanian notion of the phallus and its relationship to the Symbolic order. For Lacan, the Symbolic order is the order of signification, the Law of signs and collective determinations, that “cuts” the amorphous, ontologically absolute realm of the Real, and thus constitutes apparent reality as such. As Lacan declared, eminently clearly for once, “It is the world of words that creates the world of things.”[xii] As a relational system of signifiers conceived at one remove from the signifieds it nonetheless constructs, the Symbolic is made up of a network of binary relations of presence and absence, a network whose “privileged signifier” is, of course, the phallus. Here is Lacan:

In Freudian doctrine, the phallus is not a fantasy, if we are to view fantasy as an imaginary effect. Nor is it such an object (part-, internal, good, bad, etc.) inasmuch as “object” tends to gauge the reality involved in a relationship. Still less is it the organ—penis or clitoris—that it symbolizes. And it is no accident that Freud adopted as a reference the simulacrum it represented to the Ancients. For the phallus is a signifier, a signifier whose function, in the instrasubjective economy of analysis, may lift the veil from the function it served in the mysteries. For it is the signifier that is destined to designate meaning effects as a whole, insofar as the signifier conditions them by its presence as a signifier.[xiii]

In other words, meaning is a product of the Symbolic order, but requires the “presence” of a founding signifier, the phallus, which therefore cannot be reduced to either mere fantasy or the physical reality of the organ(ized). The phallus is instead that sign that grounds the semiotic network of relations and mutual determinations that characterizes the Symbolic. For Lacan, it is “not accidental” that Freud ties his discussion of the phallus to the pagan simulacra, a coincidence that we will exploit as well. Freud makes the connection in his essay on Leonardo, where he points out that many ancient gods, including those associated with Dionysus and Aphrodite, were hermaphrodites, and that therefore their simulacra—their statues—displayed a phallus that, juxtaposed and combined with the feminine form, signified the divine plenitude and self-engendering perfection of the gods.[xiv] For Lacan, the phallic revelations he associates with such ancient mysteries become an analogy for the situation of analysis, where the signifier that grounds the Symbolic order as such is finally unveiled as the origin of meaning. But the revelatory surprise, at least for Lacan, is that the phallus is precisely a lack, an absence. There is no “thing” that grounds the network of signs; it floats free, a non-existent, negative object, an index of its own impossibility.

How does Lacan’s absent phallic simulacrum help us clarify the phantasmic castrations of the Malleus? For one thing, it may help us grasp the curious fact that this most central apparition is itself an absence. Unlike most of the demonic appearances discussed in the Malleus —the “now you see it” displays of demonic copulation, or bestial transformations, or the witch of Endor’s necromantic shade—the castration is a negative apparition, the “now you don’t” side of disappearance. In Thinking with Demons, Stuart Clark argues that it is important for historians of witchcraft to understand witchcraft as a semiotic system that follows the Saussurian orientation that so deeply marks Lacan as well: the meaning of signs is a differential effect of the sign system itself, rather than deriving from representation, reference, or presence. Pointing out that the sort of witchcraft beliefs enshrined in the Malleus are examples of signs that “have no referent in the real world,” Clark declares witchcraft itself as a “classic example of the Saussurean sign.”[xv] As we will see in a moment, Clark wants to suggest that witchcraft is, in particular, a sign system constituted by oppositional relationships. But just as the evil witch is dependent on the “demon machine” to effect her ills, so is the sign system of witchcraft constituted by the founding signifier of the demon itself. As Stephens puts it, “demons were what modern psychoanalysis would call the phallus, a principle of reality.”[xvi] But the trick is that the demon, like the Lacanian phallic signifier, is absent, not simply in the sense that the demon has no referent in the real world, as Clark argues, but that he is, from the beginning, a constitutive lack that mobilizes the whole phantasmic system even as it renders it void—a distributed instability.

There are different valences to this instability, a important one for the vitality of witchcraft theories being the fact that the oppositional play of presence/absence is not at all symmetrical. Stephens explains the logic: “The Devil must always be present just when he seems to be absent, like the genitalia hidden under a praestigium of illusory castration. Yet Satan must not be absent when he appears to be present…He must be present constantly, both when he appears to be present, and when he seems to be absent.”[xvii] This asymmetry accounts for the infectious or “paranoid” quality of the demonological sign system, a brutal explanatory regime that was able to thrive for well over a century and a half following the first edition of the Malleus—and thrive despite a corresponding rise of skepticism about witchcraft and other systems of occult causation. Nonetheless, Stephens argues that even this successful belligerence masked a lack: the sneaking suspicion, which Stephens believes was shared by Kramer and other aggressive witchcraft theorists, that demons—and by extension the whole world of spirit—did not exist at all. Kramer “was never quite convinced by his own claims,” and the compulsive systematizing and oppressive argumentation of the text attempt to mask the anxious crevice in his conviction. The issue “was not belief but rather resistance to skepticism, a desperate attempt to maintain belief.”[xviii] The Malleus opens, for example, not with an attack on witches, but with an attack on “heretics” who disbelieve the witchcraft conspiracy; in the mid-sixteenth century, Pico della Mirandola declared that the “hammer” in the title was really designed for smashing skeptics, not witches. For Stephens, Kramer and other witchcraft theorists were not principally motivated by misogyny or even the tacit desire to exert social control. Instead, they were driven by a cognitive crisis, a psychological amalgam of repression, anxiety, and—literally—bad faith. “Their fantasy of witches’ corporeal ravishment translated their own desire for an overwhelming intellectual conviction, one that would annihilate their involuntary resistance to the idea of demonic reality.”[xix]

Stephens’ argument is insightful, although one would like a more careful delineation of the skeptical forces, arguments, or cultural formations that Kramer and the other witchcraft theorists were attempting to evade—as well as employ. But there is another, more formal sense in which the demon that haunted withcraft could be seen as a constitutive lack. In characterizing witchcraft as a Saussurian sign system, and therefore an effect of a differential network, Clark stresses the importance of the oppositions, inversions, and contraries that, he argues persuasively, were so characteristic of early modern thought. Witchcraft, he says, “was construed dialectically in terms of what it was not; what was significant about it was not its substance but the system of oppositions that it established and fulfilled.”[xx] The opposition good/evil lay, for example, at the root of this construction, but was superimposed and associated with a number of other oppositions, which could be said to include presence/absence, substance/privation, body/soul. Clark largely confines himself to early modern thought and its relentlessly analogic networks of correspondences, but he is also right to point to an even more definitive opposition at the heart of the demon. “Evil and demonism were the inferior (we might even say the ‘fallen’) terms of the hierarchical oppositions most fundamental to the organization of religious discourse in the West.” Indeed, the demons were do disavowed that they were not only declared radically inferior, but non-existent, “entities defined as deficients.” Semiotically, however, there is no clean break between the poles of a binary opposition, no final decoupling: the demon in all its nonentity is wedded to the theological structure of being. What Derrida says about the role of writing in western thought could, for Clark, just as well be said about the demon: “a debased, lateralized, repressed, displaced theme, yet exercising a permanent and obsessive pressure from the place where it remains held in check.”[xxi] Demons are necessary, in other words, but also necessarily void, an ontological instability that cannot, in the end, entirely be held in check and which therefore insinuates itself throughout the entire system of theological and metaphysical signs. And this insinuation takes the form of perhaps the most labile and liminal of signs, a flux of sense that, as we will see, skates across the surface of all determinations, including the sign itself: the apparition, the glamour, the phantasm.


[i]Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum: Or, The Hammer of Witches (Forgotten Books, 2008), 98. All other citations of the Malleus from Christopher S. Mackay, The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[ii]Hammer, Part 1, question 9, 194.

[iii] Ibid, 195. For Augustine’s discussion of the role of demons in the physical metamorphosis of creatures, see De Civate Dei, Book XVIII; Aquinas employs these arguments in his own discussion in De Malo, Question XVI, Articles 1, 9, 10.

[iv] Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009), 125.

[v]Hammer, 195.

[vi]Stuart Clark, Thinking with demons: the idea of witchcraft in early modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 1999), 153.

[vii] Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft: theology and popular belief (Manchester University Press, 2003), 52.

[viii]Under normal conditions, the traffic of phantasms in and out of the lower regions of the soul allow perception, cognition, and mnemonic retrieval to faithfully occur; the ability of demons to confuse this process in a sense simply underscores the inherent instability of the phantasm itself as a labile and liminal element of cognition. For a discussion of the theory of the phantasm and its influence on magic, see Ioan P. Culianu, Eros and magic in the Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 1987), especially 3-27.

[ix]Hammer, 198.

[x] Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (University of Chicago Press, 2003); for a full discussion, see 300-321.

[xi] Ibid, 304.

[xii] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: a selection, trans. Bruce Fink (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 65.

[xiii] Ibid, 274-5.

[xiv] Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (The Standard Edition), trans. Alan Tyson (W. W. Norton & Company, 1990). 46-55.

[xv] Clark, Thinking with Demons, 7, 9.

[xvi]Stephens, 312. The psychoanalytic point is undeveloped but fertile.

[xvii] Ibid, 311.

[xviii] Ibid, 35, 27.

[xix] The core of the argument here is found in Stephens, 26-31.

[xx]Clark, Thinking with Demons, 9.

[xxi] Ibid, 135, 138.