Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief
by Walter Stephens
University of Chicago Press, 451 pp., $35.00
Imagine this world: one in which many of the normal-looking people on the street consist not of flesh and blood, but of condensed air. They can move, and even speak. Though they cannot produce semen, they can have sex—which they strongly prefer to do in the most conventional way. Since they can take either female or male form, they harvest semen from human males, which they store up for later injections into human females. When touched—so one informant explains—they feel “very similar to flax or cottonwood that has been bundled and densely packed”—not the most attractive imaginable physique. But their “pleasing faces,” adept wooing, and enormous virile members, which “fill up the most secret parts” of the women they sleep with, make them irresistible: “probably they can stimulate something very deep inside…by means of which these women have greater pleasure than with men.” No wonder, then, that women are so often seen in the woods and fields, lying on their backs, legs in the air, making the motions and noises appropriate to copulation: they are having intercourse with their invisible demon lovers.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many Europeans inhabited this world—or said they did. The authors of a long and vile series of treatises on how to detect, interrogate, and prosecute witches—Johannes Nider, Heinrich Kramer, Jacob Sprenger, and many more, down to that pioneer of modern political thought, Jean Bodin—described it in detail. They claimed, moreover, that they knew this world by direct experience—not their own, but that of witches whom they and others had caught and interrogated. The descriptions of demonic sex quoted in the paragraph above, for example, come from a character in a dialogue, The Screech-Owl (Strix), written in Latin by Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola. This urbane philosopher, the nephew of the more famous Pico, who helped to create the European tradition of learned magic, ruled a small principality where seven men and three women were burned as witches between 1522 and 1525. Pico, as lord of the territory, involved himself in the actual trials, and made clear that in his dialogue he fictionalized what he had heard from the suspects in person. He went so far as to make one of his characters a female witch, whose graphic accounts confirmed that male and female witches alike had carnal congress with demons.
These books horrified the hardened readers of the sixteenth century—not, in most cases, because their contents seemed implausible and disgusting; on the contrary, their evidence of widespread demonic possession commanded its own forceful logic. The erudite German Hellenist and student of astrology Joachim Camerarius recalled how he had discussed “the dreadful crimes of certain female witches” with a visiting official, who had described demonic intercourse. He noted that treatises on witchcraft provided ample evidence to corroborate what his friend told him, and recalled how, after reading Pico’s book a little before bedtime, he had spent a terrible night, “my mind full of …