7 June 2016
Medieval Spirits: An Interview with Claude Lecouteux

Thanks to Inner Traditions, we were recently able to conduct a rare english language interview with the amazing French medieval scholar, Claude Lecouteux.

Ben & Sol: Many sources which have never appeared in English have found its way into your new publication Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic. We really like this book as it extends beyond Norse myth and into tracing the subjects of the Western mystery tradition itself”something your work is well known for.

One of the best examples of this we’ve noted in your new Encyclopedia, is that one of the earliest published listing for Elemental Spirits of which you claim stems from the great and by now very well know scholar Paracelsus (born in late 1493, September 24, 1541).

Do you feel that working with a lot of French sources gives your English publications an advantage with readers? We ask this as it seems that you really attempt to refrain from publishing unless you’re really bringing something new to the history of publications, a trait we admire.

Claude Lecouteux: I work from all the sources that I can find, French is just one of these languages and is not enough on its own. So I go through texts in Latin, German (old and new German), English (same), Scandinavian languages or Romanian languages (Italian, Spanish). I have a good command of these languages and I use them for translations, so my research is relatively simplified.

My analysis is also based on texts and a lot less on studies; that’s the only way to not undermine their message. It allows me to bring unpublished information to the attention of the reader and to correct assumptions made by people who tend to extrapolate from an incomplete corpus.

Ben & Sol: In the period of 2009-2011 were you working simultaneously on research for The Return of the Dead  and Phantom Armies of the Night? The two seem to be deeply thematically intertwined, while your other books remain a little more varied in subject matter. Do you typically conduct research for just one subject in a single book, or plan for many future books simultaneously while researching?

Rather than publishing a single massive book, I prefer to split the complex subjects that I deal with into digestible chunks. But I’m not immune from mistakes. If I died, everything I have discovered would be lost.

My books are organized along three axes and form a coherent whole each time:

The death and the dead: Return of the Dead, History of Vampires, Poltergeist, which brought me to write Witches, Werwolves & Fairies to explain the belief in the return of the dead.

Wizardry/Magick: Book of Grimoires, Talisman & Amulets, Lapidary of Sacred Stones, Dictionary of Ancient Magic Words.

Fantastic creatures from folk belief: Household Spirits, and Demons & Spirits of the Land, this last book being an extension of the one about the Poltergeists.

Ben & Sol: In The Secret History of Vampires you detail a story known in Slavic lore of:

The folk possessing two hearts and two souls, the dvoeduschniki of the Slavs, made excellent vampires because one of their souls what is called the outer soul, the alter ego was able to leave the body for a time and cause harm to other people. This kind of vampire hid his soul beneath a stone and could not die unless it was found. (p. 67)

This sounds very much like Voldemort hiding horcruxes in Harry Potter. Were you spurred on for your research of Vampires in light of how popular they have become in modern media? Are you a fan of any gothic films or TV?

I tend to stay away from cultural fashions because they are just passing fads. I prefer Murnau’s Nosferatu or the first Dracula to modern movies.

With that said, during my research I did watch a lot of movies to see how a particular theme or pattern would evolve because the cinema is also a vector of beliefs. From movies I’ve been able to develop the typology of the evil dead and of the Werewolf in two separate articles.

Ben & Sol: This is kind of a personal question but do your colleagues, family, or friends ever wonder why you are so focused on metaphysical subjects like gods and spirits that would otherwise appear to be fantastical i.e. not practical to many in the modern world, or provable by science? Have you ever had arguments with your colleagues over these subjects? Do you remember being interested in these subjects as a child?

As a child, I was always attracted to tales, legends and mythology. Well, anything related to the Wonderful! Much later, when I started to realize the themes behind these stories, I devoted myself to the study of the philosophy of cultural anthropology.

My colleagues at the Sorbonne never really understood my work and used to condescendingly call me a “folklorist”, which is pejorative in the French Alma Mater.

Ben & Sol: In what ways does the internet help to fuel your research? Do you think a theory of everything that many readers seem to be rightfully interested in is related to understanding our world from the view of higher spirits or gods?

The Internet is like a goldmine for me because I can have access to a lot of manuscripts and old books that have been digitized.

Basically, I do not have theories necessarily, I just expose some facts from a phenomenological perspective. From these facts I then deliver an interpretation that simply comes from the collected corpus. I carry out my studies like if they were investigations in which the reader is a partner that should (hopefully) reach the same conclusion as me at the end of his reading.

I have developed a methodology that conforms to the study of the irrational, with a guiding principle: to double check everything!

No need to evoke spirits or even Gods! I am still convinced that our distant ancestors had a certain idea of nature and the world that still deserves attention nowadays. Just listen to what the ecologists or the WWF are saying today!

Ben & Sol: The forward to Demons and Spirits of the Land deals with the controversy of why a scholar might choose to focus on the beings of so-called lower mythology, of ghosts, brownies, revenants, wild hunts. In your words “we dwell in a haunted space, where the spirits may come still come to rest or live beside us, as in animistic philosophy.

Medieval philosophers like Paracelsus held the belief that there are beings grouped by each element radiating at an intelligence higher than us, and that even the most lowly of spirits have an opportunity to teach all pagans something new. Of course, this belief is certainly ancient, but remains fascinating when assembling as much scholarly evidence as you have.

In what ways do you feel that the so-called land spirits, elves, or nature spirits can teach us, that certain higher spirits or Gods may not be as willing to? 

What I mean when I talk about living in a haunted world is that our environment is haunted by the legacy from our ancestors: by their own traditions and beliefs. They have filled the nature with creatures that met their need for explanation and transcendence. I think the subliminal message here is a code of conduct: respect what is around you, do not irritate the visible or invisible beings living there, or everything will go wrong.

In the Middle Ages, Gods are almost forgotten; their avatars, the beings of the lower mythology, closer to the men, take their place. And so they are the ones we turn to for help.

Ben & Sol: In Witches Werewolves and Fairies you talk about there being evidence for an astral double; known as as a spirit guardian, higher guardian angel, or astral assistant that can take flight into these sort of spiritual realms, in order to attain information about their own destiny or the fates of others.

With that being said, it’s also the reason why a person may want to consult another text of yours called The High Magic of Talisman and Amulets, in order to learn how to fashion an object that can equally repel or protect against any forces that wish to do anyone harm. 

Equally, A Lapidary of Sacred Stones is also an amazing guide to earth or mineral/crystal based magic that goes well beyond the well known (and valid) views of the quartz, the most favorite of all the aspiring Jedi.

Our prying question here is; in what sense do you find yourself practicing or believing the subjects you write about? Do you feel that publishing books become a magical healing ritual in a way?

I do not believe in wizardry, I’m like Saint Thomas, I believe in what I can see. I read this revealing note in a manuscript recently: “The magic happens only if you believe in it”.

It is a research subject for me and since I am a Cartesian and a rationalist, I assess the facts while simultaneously respecting the distance required in any academic research. I have read too many books based on assumptions (a priori) and on the subjectivity of their authors, which I think discredits their conclusions more than once.

So publishing my studies is not necessarily like a magic ritual, it is more just sharing with the audience what I am interested in. It is like building a bridge between yesterday and today.

I will tell you a secret however in regards to publishing: investigating is exciting, writing the sequence and results is a lot less exciting, and then looking for a publisher is the worst, because you never know if your book is going to be accepted or not. One of my books has been re-published five times and published two times in a smaller version and this particular book had been rejected by twelve publishers previously…

Ben & Sol: In Household Spirits one of the most remarkable pieces of information is the way you present the details of the appearance of medieval creatures said to protect the hearth, down to the exact clothing in which they typically appear. This also reminds us of the loyal and most noble of house elves like Dobby, in Harry Potter. Have you ever had experiences with such creatures either in this life or in the past?

I never have personally. But I do know some research teams that have taken disturbing testimonies and then revealed the resiliency that makes some of these kind of events happen. Dr Philippe Wallon, doctor of psychiatry, is the head of one of these teams at the National Institute of Medical Research. The Freiburg University in Breisgau also has a department working on these kinds of para-psychic phenomena.