19th-century depiction of a Wild Hunt, by Johann Wilhelm Cordes.
19th-century depiction of a Wild Hunt, by Johann Wilhelm Cordes. Wikimedia

The reformer and the ghosts

Ludwig Lavater was not only the successor to Huldrych Zwingli, but also a great lover of ghost stories, which he collected and published in a book.

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

A strange tale is said to have occurred in Chiavenna, in the Valtellina region of northern Italy, during the Reformation era. The local priest let crabs run around in the cemetery with tiny candles on their backs. In his sermon, this priest proclaimed the phenomenon as proof of ‘poor souls’: souls of the departed who could find no peace. But the deception was exposed, because the man of God didn’t manage to gather all the crabs in again. The story was popular in the 16th century and can be found in what is known as the Gespensterbuch (book of ghosts) compiled by Zurich priest Ludwig Lavater (1527-1587), which was first printed in 1569 by Zurich printer Froschauer. The tome has a long-winded title, but it describes the content of the book exactly: Von Gespänstern, Unghüren und Fällen, die meistens wenn Leute sterben sollen oder wenn sonst grosse Änderungen sich abzeichnen, kurzer und einfältiger Bericht, gestellt durch Ludwig Lavater, Diener der Kirchen zu Zürich im Jahr 1569 (Of spirits, ogres and incidents that usually occur when people are about to die or when other major changes are imminent: a brief and straightforward report, provided by Ludwig Lavater, Servant of the Church in Zurich, 1569).
Portrait of Ludwig Lavater, around 1670.
Portrait of Ludwig Lavater, around 1670. Swiss National Museum

When the theologian collected ghost stories

Ludwig Lavater was a theologian and, for a short time, head (antistes) of the Zurich church, succeeding Huldrych Zwingli. He primarily occupied himself with theological questions, and left behind a number a books. But he also put a great deal of effort into collecting ghost stories, an interest that was very much in tune with the times. The Humanists, a group to which he also belonged, combed through the known literature and assembled thematic collections of tales and legends. In the ghost book of 1569 there are dozens of stories about ghosts and spirits. They are wrapped up in a theological explanation: Lavater makes a precise distinction between genuine and false spirits, and has his own explanation for the existence of genuine spirits. For the Catholics they were poor souls, but he believed they were angels, so his explanation doesn’t differ significantly from the Catholic version. Father Lavater didn’t make up his stories himself, instead compiling them from the scholarly literature of the age. Unlike the Zurich natural scientist Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), his contemporary, who obtained many of his observations from local correspondents, Lavater restricted himself to written material from printed sources. His book is therefore also a fascinating tour through the spiritual life of the age. By Lavater’s own account, the story of the candle crabs came from the Humanist Erasmus von Rotterdam (1466-1536). It must have been very popular at the time, because it was told in countless variations.
Ludwig Lavater’s book of ghosts (Gespensterbuch) was first published in 1569 and has been translated into several languages.
Ludwig Lavater’s book of ghosts (Gespensterbuch) was first published in 1569 and has been translated into several languages. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

An armed legion in the sky

Another of his key sources was the polymath abbot Johannes Trithemius, also known as Johannes von Trittenheim (1462-1516). Trithemius apparently was deeply interested in strange stories with hidden messages. He wrote one of the first works on cryptography (Steganographia/Polygraphia). Trithemius also passed on a story about the raging army: The story relates that in the year 1098, near the monastery of Worms, a legion of armed men appeared in the sky. A monk went outside, crossed himself, and asked who the men were. ‘We are not living warriors, but the souls of those who once fought,’ he received in reply. They were encircled by fire, but it was not visible to humans. When the monk asked how they could be helped, they replied: with prayer and fasting. Soon after that they left, but before they went they cried out in chorus: ‘Pray for us.’ The story of the raging army is a legend that has been handed down throughout Europe in scores of versions, and found its way into countless 19th-century collections of myths and fables. The ghostly army is said to have walked abroad especially in the Raunächte, the nights from Christmas to New Year. In contemporary beliefs, visitations like these foretold impending disaster.
A Berggeist (mountain spirit, bottom right) gets up to his usual mischief. Illustration from Olaus Magnus’ 16th-century book.
A Berggeist (mountain spirit, bottom right) gets up to his usual mischief. Illustration from Olaus Magnus’ 16th-century book. Wikimedia
A mountain spirit and a little devil at work in a mine. Illustration from Olaus Magnus’ 16th-century book.
A mountain spirit and a little devil at work in a mine. Illustration from Olaus Magnus’ 16th-century book. Wikimedia

Of trolls and sprites

The stories of mountain spirits which Lavater brought together in his book are particularly entertaining. He refers, among other things, to Olaus Magnus, Archbishop of Uppsala, and Magnus’ monumental account of the Nordic peoples De gentibus septentrionalibus of 1555. However, his most important source is Georgius Agricola (1494-1555). The German doctor and scientist wrote the first comprehensive illustrated account of mining, De re metallica. The work contains a detailed section on the subject of mountain spirits, entitled On the living beings underground. Lavater adopts Agricola’s classification of the mountain spirits, according to which there are malicious spirits, against which one must be on one’s guard, and good-natured ones: trolls or sprites. These later became the dwarves which live on today in the figure of the garden gnome. One mountain spirit story, however, he obtained through correspondence with a friend from the Davos area: According to the story, a mountain spirit is said to have lived for a long time in a silver mine in Davos. People had noticed how he dumped stones from one vessel into another. The owner of the mine, Peter Buol, simply crossed himself, and remained unharmed. On one occasion, however, the miners are said to have sworn at the mountain spirit and showered it with curses. The spirit took hold of one of them and turned his head around until he was facing backwards. The miner is supposed to have lived on for many years with this deformation. This story was retold by various authors, and finally came to the ears of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. They incorporated the motif into one of their tales and mixed it in with other motifs; it can be found in the 1816 book German Fables.

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