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Hounds of God, a Reconstruction Problem

Once upon a time, existential threats were fairly clear and easy to see. Crop failure, disease, and war were clear and distinct, and joined by Death as riders of the apocalypse. They were obvious, inarguable. The forces that drove those happenings seemed part beyond human comprehension, but they also clearly had mortal allies, who could aggravate the problem or possibly even summon the supernatural to initiate the damage.

The case of the Livonian Werewolf is thus clearly responsive to that clear-cut world: there were evils, with human allies, who were acting to cause famine, and which could be opposed by mortal action. That action was direct, to the point, and necessary, because if the counter-actions were not taken, those evils would succeed unopposed.

“Ordinarily, [they went to Hell] three times: during the night of Pentecost, on Midsummer’s Night, and on St Lucia’s Night; as far as the first two nights were concerned, they did not go exactly during those nights, but more when the grain was properly blooming, because it is at the time the seeds are forming that the sorcerers spirit away the blessing and take it to hell, and it is then that the werewolves take it upon themselves to bring it back out again.”
The original trial record, 1691, as quoted in Duerr, 1985. (pulled from the Thiess of Kaltenbrun Wikipedia entry

Thiess’s cosmology, according to his testimony, was one in which the Devil and his sorcerous minions would steal away the very breath of life that blessed the grain and squirrel it away in Hell. Unless someone went in after it, defeated the guardians thereof, and retrieved the seeds from Hell, there would be no grain harvest, and there would be famine. (Thiess, prior to his more famous trial, was on the record at one point accusing a man of a neighboring village of breaking his nose while he was attempting to retrieve crops from Hell. The judges laughed him out of court, but did confirm his nose had been broken.)

At his later trial, the judges asked rather predictable and familiar sorts of questions. They could not conceive of someone going to Hell willingly without being allied with the Devil, no matter how many times Thiess explained that he was going where the fight was and, for that matter, where the stolen property (the field fertility) was stashed. Eventually they determined that in addition to his werewolfing, he did folk magic healings that were insufficiently Christian, which was enough to have him punished without having to resolve the baffling question of “How can a man go into evil’s lair without himself being allied with evil?”

To Thiess, famine was local. The enemies, too, were local, persons known or knowable, or the local conditions of weather which could be imagined as the sorcerous influence of the Devil and his minions. It might be within the realm of the possible that if the Devil were thwarted one place but not another that the famine could be partially alleviated, but that was hardly to be counted on. Everything was present in a fundamentally tangible, comprehensible form.

Of course, now famine is rather less local, in at least a substantial part of the world. If I go to my grocery store, I can find peppers from Mexico, greens from California, lamb from New Zealand (in season, at least). If the crops fail in one place, the flow brings them to me from somewhere else, at least in theory. In practice, Famine operates on a more abstract scale than it used to: Famine is the shadow of the way global climate change destabilises weather patterns, making predictable agriculture much more marginal, much more treacherous. And where Famine stalks, War follows, battles over water and access to that trade that would stave off Famine. And so it continues – much the same as it ever was, but under increasingly baroque levels of abstraction and distance.

It is that much harder to imagine that a small group of people could foray into Hell and bring back enough of what was stolen to save their village from doom. The Devil’s party is not a sorceror living in the next town over who could, in theory, be hit with a stick, but a powerful shadow in a corporate boardroom, confident in the knowledge that if someone were to hit him with a stick that person would be imprisoned, leaving him safe to let the Horsemen of the Apocalypse loose because they can be leveraged for profit.

It seems to me that a lot of pagan yearnings for a simpler time come down to a sort of constructed nostalgia for a place where, even if things were hard, the problems were simpler: will the crops succeed or fail? Is the person contributing to ruining everything someone one could identify and hit in the face with a stick? There is a lot of Agricultural Festivals Turning The Wheel talk and not a lot of addressing the ways in which the world has changed.

It is hard to hit carbon emissions in the face with a stick. All of the things at the scale of individual action are a drop in the bucket of what is going wrong, and are simultaneously used to construct a shame culture around “Are you doing ENOUGH?” with things that physically cannot be enough and provide things that keep people busy enough that nobody ventures into Hell.

Because venturing into Hell leaves you tainted. You went there.

But there, in Hell, is where the seeds are.

Nostalgia for a simpler time cannot make the present less complex. But we can, perhaps, find tools there and learn how to adapt those, too. Reconstruction – that idea that we can find those tools and give them meaning now – is not a process for artificial simplicity, but a process of recovering what was lost. Perhaps it is not lost in Hell, but it is lost somewhere, and needs to be retrieved.

Even if we cannot save ourselves by fetching out the blessings of our neighbors’ literal fields, we can still work to save ourselves.

The gates of Hell are no longer simple; their technologies have changed with the times. We cannot go under the water and across the way and find the gates open or closed. Hell’s gates are many and varied, now, lurking in corporate boardrooms and the halls of government and swirling cesspits on the internet. Tactics are more complex now. But the matter remains: the blessings of the world are enough for us all, but what belongs to the community as a whole has been stolen and stored up in Hell. We will have to build larger things, to breach those iron doors, where once a single wolf could wriggle through, but that does not mean that it cannot be done: those new walls were built by human hands as well.

And we know, from Thiess’s testimony, from his experience, that even people who believe in Hell will not believe in this fight. That they will laugh, and look for some way to get rid of us. And we know from now that casting healing charms, too, has evolved into a vast panoply of improprieties and deviances that can serve to have us flogged and banished.

We know that we will have to be shapeshifters, taking on new forms, looking at the world in new ways. We will have to walk perilous roads. We may have to answer for the cattle we eat to sustain us on our paths. We will have to keep handfuls of salt about us.

We know that the fight is metaphysical, that there is an ineffable essence we are seeking. That we are battling over what truth is, how the world itself can be seen. But we know that the fight, also, is real, tangible, conducted in the seen and material world, and that when we fight, we risk being hurt. We may die. Some of us certainly will.

And we know that if we don’t fight, we will die. All of us. Whether or not we believe that Hell is real and needs to be stormed to force it to give back what it has taken.

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