t 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.
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 ancient 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.
Within 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.
- 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.