Dark Shadows of Turning
Eric Scheske on Evil in Legend & Life
From sixteenth-century Germany comes the terrible tale of Stubbe Peeter. Stubbe grew up in the area of Collin, Germany, seemingly well-known to his fellow citizens. He often strolled about Collin and neighboring villages, attractively dressed, greeting acquaintances he met on the streets.
But Stubbe Peeter was an evil man, inclined to evil from his youth. The devil became well pleased with his young disciple, so he gave him an inconspicuous belt with which Stubbe Peeter could transform himself into a wolf. For twenty-five years, werewolf Stubbe Peeter committed terrible atrocities: slaughtering and eating animals raw; killing and eating small children; tearing children from their mothers’ wombs and eating their hearts raw; killing his own son and eating his brains; raping women; and committing incest with his daughter—monstrous acts that seem unbelievable until one recalls the fiendish deeds of those such as Jeffrey Dahlmer and other serial killers, ritual child abusers, and similar criminals of our own day.
Finally, hunters and their dogs successfully tracked the ravenous wolf and cornered him. Seeing himself surrounded, Stubbe Peeter removed the belt and resumed human shape right in front of them, hoping the hunters would not be able to believe their eyes. But they believed what they saw, and so apprehended him and took him to the magistrates for examination. After Peeter confessed his crimes, his executioners laid him on a wheel, pulled his flesh from his bones with red-hot pincers, broke his arms and legs with a hatchet, and then decapitated and burned him.1
We don’t know precisely where fact and fiction cross in Stubbe Peeter’s story. While it is obviously unlikely that he really was a werewolf, he could have been one of the criminally insane about whom grew a legend that reflected the surrounding culture (sixteenth-century Europeans greatly feared the wolf). But even if only a legend, the depiction of Stubbe Peeter as a “shapeshifter”—one who walked among his fellow villagers as a man but changed into a ravenous animal to perpetrate his crimes—is more than a reflection of sixteenth-century fears; it also contains a universal truth. For the shapeshifting that made Stubbe Peeter notorious in his day is a consistent feature of evil in all times: Evil things shift shapes.
Shapeshifting in Lore & Literature
This is a constant theme in folklore. For instance, almost every culture has its fearsome stories about were-beasts. In Asia, there are tales of the fearful were-tiger; in Africa, stories of the man who shifted shapes into a lion or hyena. Lore in the Amazon region tells of the jaguar-men—sorcerers who became jaguars at night in order to attack humans.
Shapeshifting has also been associated with witchcraft. During the Middle Ages, witchcraft was commonly suspected when an attacking animal was wounded at night and a woman then was discovered the following morning with wounds to the corresponding parts of her body. Such evidence was deemed convincing against a medieval woman named Finicella. She was convicted of using witchcraft to take the form of a cat and attack a small child after exhibiting a stab wound corresponding to that inflicted on a cat by the child’s father on the night of the attack. Between 1395 and 1405, a secular court near Bern burned many people for witchcraft. Among other crimes, the witches were accused of stealing children, draining their body fluids to make ointments, and using the ointments to change themselves into animals.2
Shapeshifting is also a feature of mythology. For example, every Viking knew of the shapeshifting Norse god Loki (the “Trickster”), a god who, after vacillating for some time between good and evil, eventually succumbed wholly to evil and became hateful of everything. According to myth, the goddess Frigg doted on her beautiful son Balder and sought to assure his immortality by seeking, and securing, from every substance on earth but one, a promise not to hurt him. Loki changed into a tiresome old woman and so pestered Frigg with questions that finally, at the end of her patience, she revealed her secret: she had failed to get a promise from the mistletoe.
The gods, meanwhile, would get harmless fun out of throwing deadly things at the seemingly invincible Balder, and Balder’s blind brother Hod joined in the sport. Loki made a dart from the mistletoe and gave it to Hod, who threw it at his brother. The dart pierced and killed Balder.
Loki’s spiteful cruelty did not end there. When the goddess Hel agreed to permit Balder to return from the dead on condition that every creature on earth weep for him, Loki turned himself into a giantess named Thokk, who refused to cry. When the gods heard of Loki’s further outrage, they hunted him. He turned into a salmon to try to escape, but was captured and bound to a rock with his own son’s entrails. He now awaits Ragnarok, the day of the last great conflict between good and evil, when he will be unbound to fight on the side of evil.
Evil’s shapeshifting character is also seen in literature. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for instance, Dracula shifts into a dog and a bat, and communes with the wolves around his castle. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll gives free reign to his debased urges by creating and shifting into Mr. Hyde and committing contemptible acts. He eventually throttles a gentleman with his cane, audibly shattering his bones as he kills him, and then afterwards gloats about it to himself while devising other crimes for the future. When C. S. Lewis’s small-souled character Eustace discovers a dragon’s treasure hoard in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” he is overcome by greed, stuffs his pockets with treasure, then lies down to sleep on the dragon’s hoard, with “dragonish thoughts in his heart.” When he wakes up, he finds himself turned into a dragon.
In his stories about Middle Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien describes Sauron, Middle Earth’s personification of evil, as a shapeshifter. In the First Age of Middle Earth, Sauron assumes the shape of a wolf to fight with the good hound Huan. Huan takes wolf-Sauron by the throat and will not let go, so Sauron shifts into a serpent, then into a monster, and finally into his accustomed form in an attempt to break loose, but cannot. Eventually Sauron negotiates for his release, and upon securing it, assumes the shape of a vampire and flies away.
Shapeshifting as a Sign of Evil
The most notorious shapeshifter, of course, has been the devil. This was taken as common knowledge in the Middle Ages. Stories abound of the devil’s numerous metamorphoses. He frequently appeared as an old man or woman, an attractive boy or girl, a pauper, fisherman, merchant, student, or shoemaker. He could appear holy, posing as a priest or pilgrim. He was often persuasive, posturing as a mathematician, physician, or grammarian. He could transform himself into a beast—a goat, wolf, bear, pig, raven, stag, or any of dozens of other types of animals. He could appear as a natural wonder such as a whirlwind. He shifted his shape to suit his purpose.3
Connecting shapeshifting with evil purposes, and especially seeing it as an attribute of the devil, reflects a certain fundamental metaphysical understanding: God is good. God is also changeless.4 The opposite of good is evil. Therefore, the opposite of God is changeful. The further a thing hurls itself from God, the more unlike God it becomes. As it becomes more unlike God, its changefulness becomes more pronounced, and the velocity and frequency of its changes increase. The devil, being the creature most removed from God, is the master of evil and therefore the master shapeshifter, as indicated by the plethora of shapes he is reported to have assumed.
Shapeshifting also sheds light on another metaphysical issue—the nature of evil. St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing on St. Augustine and the neo-Platonists, pointed out that evil is a privation of being. God is good, and God creates all things good. Being is therefore good; good’s opposite, evil, lacks being. Shapeshifting underscores this fact by attempting to hide it—a creature assumes different shapes to substitute for and disguise its lack of being, as one might don different masks in an attempt to give character to a faceless head.
Sin, Temptation & Shapeshifting
Shapeshifting tales are entertaining as long as they remain tales; it is a different story when they become real, when the abstract, metaphysical facts they symbolize become tangible experiences. And they are frequently more real and closer to home than people realize. Anne Rice, author of modern vampire novels, once said that vampire stories fascinate because they relate to real horror: The vampire story reflects every person’s predatory nature, the desire to feed off the essence of others. Stubbe Peeter ate others’ flesh, but everyone else is tempted to devour souls.
Everyone is prone to some form of shapeshifting because every person is born with original sin. This condition puts the self in opposition to God, seeking to develop traits that are opposed to those he implanted in us as creatures made in his image—including his trait of immutability. If not checked, this inborn rebelliousness hurls the individual farther and farther away from God, the Good and the Changeless, resulting in an increasingly evil and changeful being.
The criminal can provide an excellent modern illustration of shapeshifting’s evil nature. Despite his crimes, the criminal (as his defense attorney always points out) is rarely thoroughly corrupt, a criminal “at heart.” But he is still a shapeshifter: he may assume one shape to disguise his malice—as Loki took the shape of an old woman in order to learn Frigg’s secret—but later, after getting caught, he may shift shapes again into a remorseful penitent, so that the judge, jury, and social workers will endorse a lenient sentence. Should he get one, he is likely to shift shapes yet again after his release and assume a form better suited for the streets.
But no one should be smug just because he is not a criminal. Every person is susceptible to shapeshifting; the devil tempts us all to shift shapes to the form most likely to gain us our immediate desires. The lawyer who spends his day table-pounding or plotting becomes the benevolent community worker at night as he tries to lure more clients to his office. The pretty young girl becomes a motorcycle slut when trying to lure a wild youth who will shock her parents, a bookworm when trying to seduce a good-looking professor, and a modest and religious young lady when trying to pin down a nice young man. A man is pious in church on Sunday morning because he wants his neighbors’ respect, but rowdy at the bar on Friday evening as he tries to fit in with his friends.
All such people would scream if they saw Dracula swooping towards them, but they never scream upon seeing a vampire in the mirror every morning. They are willing to change shapes to achieve their goals, even if it means misleading and manipulating others. Like the devil, they just want their prizes. Like the devil, they change shapes to serve the self. And like the devil, they can spend eternity serving the self if they shift far enough from God, the Changeless One, and are overcome by the evil that catalyzes their shift, like Dr. Jekyll overcome at the end by evil Mr. Hyde.
The Christian Way
Charles Williams’s War in Heaven features Gregory Persimmons, a wholly evil man, a pure sadist who takes glee in destruction. When the holy man Prester John meets Persimmons, John detects an objectionable smell. The smell is the decaying Persimmons—the decay that is inevitable when existence rots away.5 Gogol touched on the same theme when he wrote, “When souls start to break down, then faces also degenerate.”6
The person with a decaying soul needs different masks to hide his degenerating face and assumes different shapes to conceal his decaying existence. But the Christian shouldn’t need masks and shapes. The Christian is called upon to imitate Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of the Good and Changeless. The Christian is required to shed the various forms that sin leads him to assume, so he can better dwell in his simple existence as created by God, an existence that is good and essentially changeless because it is created in God’s image.
Kallistos Ware hinted at this obligation when he wrote in his modern classic, The Orthodox Way, that “each man and woman is a living icon of God.”7 This icon merits reverence. The person who thinks evil thoughts and performs evil actions defaces this icon and becomes, in the most literal sense, an iconoclast. He eventually needs to find substitute shapes or masks as his self-vandalizing mutilates his true existence. The Christian must avoid this. He must realize that he is an icon of God, “but only insofar as he is fully human” and radiates “the presence of Christ.”8
1. For the story of Stubbe Peeter, see A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture, ed. Charlotte F. Otten (Syracuse University Press, 1986), pp. 69–76.
2. See Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1972), p. 216.
3. See Jeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1992), pp. 67–68.
4. Cf. James 1:17.
5. Analysis taken from Thomas Howard, The Novels of Charles Williams (Ignatius Press, 1991), pp. 97–98.
6. See Michael Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), p. 147.
7. See Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), p. 161.
8. Quenot, op. cit., p. 158.
Eric Scheske lives in Sturgis, Michigan, where the small-town practice of law leaves time for study and writing. He and his wife have four small children and attend Holy Angels Catholic Church, where he teaches local high-school students about unconventional aspects of religion.
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“Dark Shadows of Turning” first appeared in the March/April 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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