The Man in Black

By September 13, 2013 Witchcraft & Magic 12 Comments

It was midnight and I was heading home from visiting the chaos magician, standing under a street light and moonlight waiting for my bus at the station, a crossroad of trains and buses and cars. I first heard the click of his shiny black dress shoes against the pavement and looked up and there he was dressed all in black; black button up shirt, black tie, black vest, black dress slacks, black socks, black shoes, and a black fedora with a black band. Rich rings covered his fingers which clutched an old-fashioned black doctor’s briefcase. A perfectly trimmed black mustache and beard sat perfectly on his dark, middle-aged Latin face beneath his black eyes. He just needed a black, silver tipped cane and he would’ve been the Devil, stepped right out of a movie or the description from a witch’s trial. He wasn’t there for me, perhaps just on his way home from some nefarious deed or deal and perhaps the bus he was catching wasn’t headed for a destination in this world.

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Perhaps you’ve seen him too on some lonely street corner or windy hill and were too afraid to speak to him or beg a favour. Maybe you knew he grants one’s darkest desires and summoned him at a crossroad one night with a splatter of black rooster blood hoping to get a deal like blues musician Robert Johnson. According to folklore, it would only cost you your immortal soul.

He has many names: the Man in Black, the Black Man, Janicot, Herlechin, Hellekin, Harlequin, the Great Black Goat, Old Scratch, Old Nick, Old Hob… Sometimes he takes the form of a black cat, toad, wolf, rooster, owl, crow, serpent or goat. Most times he takes the form of a man dressed all in black, sometimes with the horns of a stag, goat, or bull, and other times a man’s body with the head of a boar, wolf, bull, or goat. More often than not he is half goat, half man, black from head to toe, with a large erect phallus he is most proud of. His imagery crosses the boundaries of cultures and continents appearing as Black Donald in Scotland, Old Nick in New England, Legba in Benin and Nigeria, the black-suited Baron Samedi in Haiti, and the horned cave god Tio in Bolivia who still receives blood sacrifices — tricksters all. Is it the same spirit, or many? Is it the Devil himself or his officers or servants?

Early 20th century folklorist R. Lowe Thompson believes the archetype of the Man in Black as representative of the Devil can be traced back to paleolithic times where he was originally a god of the underworld, the dead, wealth, regeneration, and fertility — hence the consistent imagery of the black colour, the horns, and erect phallus that have continued to permeate many cultures’ representations of this spirit. Black for caves, darkness, death, and the underworld, horns as a symbol of regeneration and wealth (wealth as in animals to hunt and herds of livestock as well as metals found within the earth), and the phallus again for fertility and virility. Our ancestors believed that all life came from death and that the dead were our source of fertility. In the lore of the European witches’ sabbath, Thompson views the Man in Black as the Witch-God or a representative of him within a coven. He is Saturn and his opposite and dual nature within early modern witch-lore is the Verdelet — also known as the Green Man or Robin Goodfellow.

“The Devil was represented as black, with goat’s horns, ass’s ears, cloven hoofs, and an immense phallus. He is, in fact, the Satyr of the old Dionysiac processions, a nature-spirit, the essence of joyous freedom and unrestrained delight, shameless if you will, for the old Greeks knew not shame. He is the figure who danced light-heartedly across the Aristophanic stage, stark nude in broad midday, animally physical, exuberant, ecstatic, crying aloud the primitive refrain, ‘Phales, boon mate of Bacchus, joyous comrade in the dance, wanton wanderer o’ nights’ … in a word, he was Paganism incarnate, and Paganism was the Christian’s deadliest foe; so they took him, the Bacchic reveller, they smutted him from horn to hoof, and he remained the Christian’s deadliest foe, the Devil.”

Montague Summers, 1926

Adding up accounts from witch trials and folklorists, the title of “The Man in Black” is used for the Witch God, the Grand Master of multiple covens, and also the 13th man of a coven — its officer or magister. He was responsible for initiations of new witches into the coven. In the sensationalized witch trial accounts, usually under torture, witches state how they had to kiss the Man in Black’s ass or have sex with him in order to be initiated, describing him as having an abnormally cold and hard body. In other accounts they have to kiss a toad or an oral pact that is made, completed with a witch’s mark in the form of a brand or tattoo.

“A variant of this ritual was for the Man in Black to lay his hand upon the new witch’s head, and bid her to ‘give over all to him that was under his hand’. This, too, is recorded from Scotland, in 1661.”

Doreen Valiente, An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present (p.242)

“When a postulant wishes to become a member of their congregation, he is led into the midst of a meeting, whereupon the Devil appears in the form of a toad, goose, or duck, as a black cat with erect tail which descends a statue backwards to meet his worshippers, or as a thin, pale man with black, shining eyes. The postulant kisses the apparition either on the mouth or on the anus. When he has done, the master of the sect, and then the other initiates, also give the obscene kiss.”

Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (p.161)

 In more modern witch-lore, it was believed that the Man in Black was the only one who knew the true names and residences of all the witches in the coven(s). One of the roles of the Grand Master, or Man in Black, was to summon coven members to gather for the witches’ sabbath traditionally held near water, in a grove, on a hill, or at an woodcut-3ancient sacred site. Sensationalized tales describe the rites of the sabbath as including much debauchery, alcohol, flying ointments, orgies, as well as sacred dances and animal sacrifices as offerings to the Witch God. In the very superstitious and Catholic Middle Ages these would’ve been disgusting horrors, but today we know many were actual components of ancient rituals performed by the ecstatic cults of Pagan deities such as Dionysus, Artemis, and Pan.

The Man in Black wasn’t alone, he often had a consort nicknamed “The Queen of Elphame” (the title of the queen of the fairies in Scotland) who was considered either the priestess of the coven or simply the Magister’s current favourite female member of the coven (i.e. the one he was sleeping with).  These nicknames thinly guise this pair as fleshly representatives of Hades and Persephone and their other cultural equivalents. The lore is inconsistent when it comes to finding this pair as equals. More misogynistic lore theorizes that the role of the Queen of Elphame within the coven was minimal with a woman not possibly having anywhere near the power or influence of the Man in Black, but as merely his sexual partner or at most his “handmaiden”. Older Scottish and Scandinavian folklore, however, portrays the Queen of Elphame as powerful head priestess and witch, representative of the fairy queen Nicnevin or Hel, with an unnamed consort or constantly changing consorts as in the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. The same debate can carry forward into whether the leader of the Wild Hunt is female or male. When it comes down to it, it seems to depend on locality as each village or cluster of villages seems to have their very own lore on the Wild Hunt with the leader having names that only mean something to the locals — likely a local deity or ancestor. It is probably the same with the organization of a coven — leadership of equal gender or only one gender differing from one locality and/or coven to another.

woodcut-4Within the lore of the Wild Hunt, again we find the Man in Black and also the Queen of Elphame, this time leading a host of the dead, the Hidden Company, in a hunt or procession in the forms of Hellekin, Herlechin, Holda, and Nicnevin. Due to the age of Wild Hunt lore, it is likely based on both ghostly and fleshly processions. The spectral one being a host of the dead and fey signalling disaster and death to come or with the purpose of hunting down lost souls and evil-doers. The corporeal ones in lore are likely survivals of the processions of our ancient Pagan ancestors to sacred sites at Samhuin and the Winter Solstice in order to honour their dead. Such a procession could  easily be recreated today with a man and woman dressed in black to lead the host to a site for a ritual honouring the beloved and mighty dead.

And so, after diving through all this lore, we find the Man in Black to have connections with ancient, chthonic Pagan gods, European fairy lore, and witch-lore from the Middle Ages and early modern period. The further back one reaches into the lore, the more animistic his origins, stemming from the ancestor and nature worship of the animist, Pagan ancestors of Europe and perhaps the world. His more sinister lore a modern black-wash painted by frightened Christians and their clergymen to discourage people from consorting with him and all he represents. Peel away the Satan paint job and the god of the dark year and the dead is revealed with his many ancient names. He is the patron of those who would follow the Old Ways and worship the Old Ones, unafraid of magic and nature. Now do you dare venture to a crossroad in some wild place at the witching hour with your coven, dress one of your own in black, and call upon him to empower your rites, accept your offerings, and grant your boons? What would such a rite look like? To find out I will end with Robert Cochrane’s story of a Witches’ Esbat in a cave.

Happy Friday the 13th to all the thirteenth men out there.


References:

  • Burton Russel, Jeffrey. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press, 1984.
  • Spence, Lewis. The Fairy Tradition in Britain. Rider and Company, 1948.
  • Thompson, R. Lowe. The History of the Devil: The Horned God of the West. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd, 1929.
  • Valiente, Doreen. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Article © 2013 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use this article without the express permission of the author. All artwork used is in the public domain.

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Never has a more perfect post been dragged into the light than this one, on this very day. Skål!

  • Varum says:

    A very good article!

    Nonetheless the position of the Man in Black its seems to differ from coven to coven, since, for example, Huson said that the Magister was the Leader and the Black Man was his second in command or lieutenant while others, such as you, mix the title of Magister with thay of the Black Man. Can you say more about this?

    • Sarah says:

      The only related reference I’ve found that is older than Huson’s work is in Thompson’s History of the Devil where he states that in rare cases there are two Men in Black within a coven – one being an older man who took on more of a leadership role (though he never uses the word Magister – just Man in Black) and a younger man who helps him and carries a whip (mainly for the dances so the “devil could take the hindmost”).

      I think it’s important to remember that most of the lore surrounding “Magisters” and the Man in Black within Traditional Witchcraft today is modern lore created by our contemporaries and put into use. I used the word magister in this piece simply as a synonym to officer – it simply means a person in a position of authority and didn’t take on it’s current meaning until the early twentieth century (used by Crowley) – it wasn’t used in any of the lore I researched. I tried my best to purely base this piece on folklore from the Middle Ages and early modern period.

      In the folklore I researched the Man in Black who was never seen, or was unknown to the coven members, was whoever wore the costume of the Witch God during ritual – usually animal furs and a horned headdress, usually black. Again, there’s no mention of this person having a title other than the Man in Black.

  • Mike Howard says:

    The late Cecil Hugh Williamson, founder of the Museum of Witchcraft on the Isle of Man in the 1950s now located at Boscastle in Cornwall ,described a form of traditionl historical witchcraft called the Walsingham Craft. In it the ‘Man in Black’ was a man who supervised several individual witches or covens in a particlar geographical area. Sir Francis Walsingham was a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth’s government I with the role of spymaster. According to Cecil, Sir Francis – the founder of the British Secret Service – recruited witches as spies and informants to uncover plots against the queen. All very romantic and needless to say there is no historical evidence to back up this claim!

    Mike.

  • Lovely. Thank you. In cartomantic lore the Man in Black is the Jack of Spades. He acts on behalf of the Magister and often represents too the witch’s fetch, or familiar. He is the visible part of a power that remains invisible, or inarticulate. It is for this reason that we associate the Man in Black with performing, eloquence, and fancy dress. The Magister’s power resides in the fact that he eludes presence. Whereas the Magister possesses knowledge, the Man in Black deals with the dissemination of knowledge. There is thus a difference between understanding something (which the Man in Black may help you with), and feeling the force of that something (which the Magister may help you with). But you will never know the Magister, nor will you ever see him.

  • Nicely done!

    Yesterday while I was working out some timelines of my personal history I determined the year when I first met the Man in Black. Funny you posted this the same day!

    All I will say is he scared the shit out of me when I was 11. And that was before I knew what was coming down the pike!

    Best of Blessings!

  • Lee says:

    Great article Sarah. I am going to reblog a link to this on my blog, and if that is not ok with you let me know and i will delete it.

  • Mailitios says:

    I journeyed one night to a crossroads outside of town.I did this to call up the Black man or Master said to appear at such a location.

    I had my wife drop me off with a folding chair and backpack.She left reluctantly with worries I would be assaulted out there by myself.I told her to go on home I’d be fine and that I had my phone with me.

    I opened up the chair sat down and unzipped the pack took out my water turned my phone to vibrate and set out to call to this being.

    “I supplicate and invoke

    the Lord of the unseen land

    Father of the savior goat

    Lord and Horseman,be kind to me

    I share blood and spirit with you

    Be kind to me and grateful I shall be.”

    I lit my incense and pricked my finger allowing the blood to fall on the earth.I waited.

    I called again,and waited.

    And did so again.

    I sat down in my chair feeling silly and frustrated wanting at least something to happen.So I closed my eyes and began to regulate my breathing and enter a meditative state.

    Then I heard what sounded like keys on a chain coming from down the four intersecting roads.

    I opened my eyes and waited.The jingling grew louder and what sounded like footsteps was now accompanying it.I strained my eyes to see if it was someone messing with me but all I saw was the dark of night.

    Then I noticed it.

    At the four roads the darkness was thicker and seemed to be moving towards the center of the crossroads.After a minute or so they formed an shapeless mass in the center.I waited.

    After another minute it took roughly the form of a man but like it was out of focus and still not quite solid.

    Then I heard it’s voice.”Come greet me at the place twix and ‘Tween” the voice was deep and the sound of dry leaves being moved by the wind was with it.I stood.Again it said “you have called now come and greet me”.

    I moved toward the being as I got closer the smell of flowers, rose’s maybe and wet dirt came to me.

    I got to ten feet away and said “who are you?”.

    “I have been called by many names and none at all.But Master will do for now.”I watched as the shadow form shifted between man,to man with horns,to canine and other forms I couldn’t distinguish.

    “I don’t want a master,I am free and do not seek slavery.”

    A laugh erupted that sounded like thunder and the falling of a huge tree.”I am the Master of this world and the next of things seen and unseen.Call me what you will it doesn’t change what I am.”Then it said “You seek a teacher and initiation into the mysteries do you not” “Yes,” I answered.

    “Then let’s begin.”

    The next thing I knew I was knocked to the ground by something strong and wild growling and tearing at me I was screaming I was being torn apart.

    It stopped and the thing spoke.

    “I am your fetch now and ever more,I am of you and you of me.”

    It laid on top of my mangled body and dissolved into me and I was back to being whole again.

    I got to me feet shaken and scared.”What the fuck just happened?” I screamed at the shifting shadow.”Your first step onto the crooked path”.”Now you have the means to met me at the Sabbath,and to cross the Hedge,but you still have much more to learn.Call on me when you have need.”

    Then it vanished.

    I stood for what seemed a long time,then looked around.I saw my body sitting in the chair eyes closed.”What the fu………” everything went black and I felt like I was falling and with a sudden jerk I opened my eyes and was back in my chair.