I’m in the middle of the coronavirus quarentine zone in my state, so I’m actually catching up on my reading, which is nice. I’ve been mostly reading history – I’ve always been an advocate to the fact that cultural context is important (like the Dee archives) – and so I’ve been looking for books to scratch the itch between the history and magic. Since magic is mostly a cultural phenomenon, it becomes important to ask “What is the cultural view?” Since culture is a collection of people, and the view is shaped by how it can be expressed, language has been a major emphasis.
The Shaman of Oberstdorf is light on the magic, but heavy on the language. Modern Dutch is compatible with most of the languages spoken in the region and tends to be a less rigid version of German, or Swedish, or even French, and it’s filled with loanwords. But typically the modern Dutch can be understood (and speakers can understand) most of the European language cousins local to where it’s spoken. Unlike French or German, there’s no Académie française or “Legal German” in Dutch. It’s always been bedded with a spirit of compatibility and flexibility which it owes mostly to it’s history of the Dutch doing extensive trading and commercial interests. Being light on magic is also an interesting choice – the people involved in the original myth (and eventually the expansion into the general topic of mythology) are not practicing magic. Not in an active sense. Rather they are apprehended by magic. The lends a certain credence and weight to the story during what would bump directly into the Inquisition. These folks were really just minding their own business and suddenly come face to face with spiritual forces. The first bit of the book is based off their testimony.
My first brush with the language in the book left me scratching my head. I have German, a bit of highschool French, and some of the local Deisch from the farming community where I grew up, but I felt like the author was off base with a lot of the translation. Turns out H. C. Erik Midelfort is actually a savant in language and specifically studies the language in it’s period context, so he’s eminently qualified to translate it however he sees fit. I stopped second guessing his excellent academics after doing a bit of research. What we might call “Wizards” is Wuetes, which has no direct relation to any word I could derive. However Midelfort makes the connection that the Wuetes members of the Wuottisheer is actually Odin’s Army – The Wild Hunt – and so it’s in the same word family as Wotan. Similarly “Witch” is Hex, Striegen, Unholderi, or Zauberer. The excellent notes hold the language together so it’s not too confusing, while the original terms are presented and give us an excellent view into the loanwords which comprise the testimony. Most people would recognize Hex immediately, and understand Streigen is probably a loanword from the Italian Striga. Zauberer is straight German, meaning witch or enchantress, or fairy, which lends some ambiguity to the classification of who is in each myth. In that vein, Nachtschar becomes a catch-all classification of “things which go bump in the night”.
What occupies the hills? The spiritual forces are (for the most part) human, they do human sorts of things, and if we want to simply the whole thing down to DnD terms, they’re all chaotic neutral. Trying to seek them out produces no effect, but sometimes leaving offerings out attracts the fairies. The fairies are not the little cartoon people, but rather described as normal folks, except short, usually eating. Similarly there’s a class of elves who really don’t distinguish themselves from fairies, except that they are short and concern themselves with music. And finally there’s witches and wizards who occupy the skies. The witches are seen as beneficial and caring, while the wizards are seen as loud and unruly. The important part to understand is that these are not strong identifications and words are often used interchangeably to describe an experience which is beyond the comprehension of the person experience it.
All the interactions with the elves and fairies boil down to some rules and offerings. The fairies are frequently encountered eating the host’s food (or livestock) and drinking their wine, and if they’re welcomed, the encounter ends on a happy note with all the food and wine replaced the next day. Sometimes doubled, or the livestock slaughtered for food will be fattened the next day or even pregnant. If someone rebuffs the fairies, their livestock is killed or injured and their house is left in disarray. The elves bestow the arts – if someone is welcoming to the dance or festival, they know a stunning dance the next day or receive a beautiful instrument capable of playing an intoxicating song. If someone is refractory, they may be struck deaf or mute.
The witches and wizards are the most human, and given the broadest treatment in the book. They start out simply being a parallel society of people, either folks practicing magic or even possibly the dead, and seem to be mostly removed from interacting with people. They’re either coming or going, but never addressed in an individual sense. Witches are benevolent, and Wizards are loud and usually armed, but neither one is really interacting with the common folks. Later, as the Church applies pressure to root out Witches (where did the heavily armed Wizards of the Wild Hunt go?), Witches become malicious, individual members of the community, and in league with the Devil himself. The Elves and Fairies are gone, and the masses with once flew through the night sky are forgotten to whatever poor soul stood accused of witchcraft. The Witch Hunt is discussed in the book, and sparks The Peasant Rebellion chapter where attempts to suppress the folk beliefs directly only resulted in them being preserved.