The Shaman of Oberstdorf

Wolfgang Behringer. The Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night. University Press of Virginia. 1998.

One evening, about week before Shrove Tuesday in 1578, two herdsmen of the village of Obertsdorf in the Bavarian Alps, Chonrad Stoeckhlin and Jacob Walch, were drinking in the inn when their conversation turned to matters of life after death. They entered a compact that the first of them that died would return from the the dead to inform the other of the nature of the post-mortem realm. Within days, on Ash Wednesday itself, Jacob died, and eight days after that his spectre returned to warn Chonrad of the fires of purgatory, and the need to reform his drunken life in order to escape them.

So far this sounds like a traditional Christian ghost story, versions of which abounded from the 16th to the 19th centuries, if not before. However this experience was just the start for Chonrad, he was to encounter Jacob on other occasions, and about a year later he met the apparition of "a person dressed in white with a red cross on his (or her) forehead". This announced itself as his personal angel and called on him to follow it; whereupon Chonrad went info a swoon and his soul journeyed with the angel to a place of joy and sorrow, where he saw many people, but could not identify any of them.

These encounters with the angel and the trances were to occur regularly on the ember fast days, and in these trances they would travel with the nachtschar, a term which the translator renders as 'Phantoms of the Night', but which has connotations of 'legion' or 'horde' but need not necessarily be military or imply a vast crowd (perhaps 'Comrades of the Night' or even 'Night Gang' might convey the idea). These were groups of men and women who travelled vast distances to the realms of the dead.

These stories are part of the tradition of the secret night journey, and Behringer takes us on a tour of these legends and who was met on various parts of the journey. There were the nachtvolk, who are sombre and dark and walk at a leisured pace, and to meet them is a sign of one's own death. There were the souls on the 'good journey' to their appointed place in the afterlife, and there were the woutos, the Wild Hunt, whose cries were the screams of the storm winds in the mountains; and there was the witches flight on the Sabbath. Within German folklore these encounters with the various denizens of the night were often accompanied by unearthly music, which induced a nameless longing, and the good company of these travelling souls could invoke images of joy and plenty.

Readers will see that these beliefs have much in common with the fairy beliefs of Britain and Ireland, as documented by nineteenth century folklorists: the idea of the trooping company, the cloud of souls which can seize the living and transport them along, the fairy music and the enchantment The secret night journey also recalls the journey women might make with Diana or Hecate or whatever named lady of the night.

For Chonrad they set him on the road as healer and witch finder, drew him to the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities. Like the inquisition confronting the Italian 'good walkers', who travelled in virtual journeys to fight with the dark witches to protect the village crops, the authorities did not understand and did not want to hear these stories. Like David Jacobs they knew what the truth was, and with the appropriate amount of torture Chonrad confessed to being a witch and ended up burning at the stake, along with a number of village women.

Behringer sees Chonrad as a shaman, not that he imagines that any actual shamanic cult, or even a coherent set of ideas had survived, but rather echoes of echoes in popular folklore. We can still hear these echoes in the modern stories of abductions and near-death experiences, part of a tradition which continued from rural tradition, till its incorporation into spiritualism and popular occultism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today Chonrad would have been a contactee and abductee and the pains he sometimes felt on his journeys would have been interpreted as the pains of medical experimentation.

A direct line of descent is by no means improbable, many of these folk beliefs would still have been around in the mid 19th century, as the great waves of European immigrants reached America. Certainly one can imagine them surviving in the largely rural German, Scandinavian and Scots communities there, even after they began to fail at home. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson , from Magonia 66, March 1999.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing such eloquent review of a difficult reading of this amazing book.