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Dealing With The Devil

Posted Jul 16 2010 1:17pm

Although cases of demonic possession have been recorded  for centuries, Christoph Haizmann's case was something special.  According to available infomation, Johann Christoph Haizmann was born in Bavaria in 1651.  After the death of his father, the destitute painter reportedly entered into a pact with the Devil in 1668 which involved nine years of service to Satan.  Haizmann actually claimed to have made two pacts:  the first pact being written in ink and the second pact was written in blood a year later.   While living in Austria, Haizmann began experiencing terrible seizures on August 19th, 1677.  The seizures, which took place in a church, caused Haizmann to  be "seized by heavy convulsions and thus brought to confess his bondage".  After telling priests about his pact with Satan, he went on a pilgrimage to a monastery at Mariazell, Austria to end his deal. 

The Mariazell Basilica is still the most important pilgrimage site in Austria and is known for its stunning architecture and religious icons.  It must have been a natural choice for someone like Haizmann who wanted to rid himself of a demon.  After a round of exorcisms, Haizmann found himself free of the Devil's influence and the blood pact was "miraculously" returned to him (the stories say that other monks saw Satan personally return the contract while in the form of a winged dragon). Unfortunately, the seizures began again after Haizmann left the monastery to live with his sister in Vienna. As the seizures worsened (along with convulsions, hallucinations of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and paralysis in his legs), Haizmann confessed that he had a previous contract with Satan (the one written in ink).  A second pilgrimage to the monastery in May 1678 led to more exorcisms until the other contract with Satan was returned as well.  Inspired by his rescue from the Devil's influence, Christoph Haizmann became a Brother Hospitaller and, under his new name of Brother Chrystosomus, he devoted himself to religious works (including artwork) until his death on March 14, 1700. 

What little is known about Haizmann's case comes from a folk song that was likely written during Haizmann's lifetime as well as an account of Haizmann's possession written by a priest who lived at  Mariazell when the exorcism took place.  The most extensive account of Haizmann's  possession, known as the Trophaeum Mariano-Cellense (Trophy of Mariazell), was written decades after Haizmann's death.  Despite being one of the most well recorded cases of cacodaemonomania on record (at least for that time period), Haizmann's possession would likely have been forgotten.

Except for Sigmund Freud...

When Freud published his classic paper,  Eine Teufelsneurose im seibzehnten jahrhundert (A case of demonic neurosis in the seventeenth century ) in 1923, it represented a radical departure from his other psychoanalytic case studies.  Not only did Haizmann die long before Freud was even born, but the historical documents that Freud based his clinical impressions on were all available for independent review (as opposed to the confidential case files of other patients that he wrote about).  In his review of the Haizmann case,  Freud argued that the painter's delusions about the Devil were caused by depression and worry about the future due to his father's death.  Basically, Haizmann looked to the Devil to become a new father for him and help him regain his artistic inspiration. In Haizmann's description of his pact with Satan, he would spend nine years being Satan's "son" after which his soul would be forfeit.  As with his other psychoanalytic case studies, Freud found a hidden sexual subtext to Haizmann's preoccupation with the Devil as a father figure.  It was probably noteworthy that Haizmann described the form the Devil took on while making the pact as being a kindly older man with a "brown beard, a red coat, black hat, a walking stick and with a black dog beside him"' 

After speculating at length about the significance of God and Satan as alternate father figures,  Freud linked Haizmann's delusions with the Devil as being an unresolved "father complex" with repressed homosexual overtones.  In seeking out an exorcism, Haizmann turned to the Church and the priests at Mariazell for a lengthy series of exorcisms. Despite the apparent success of the ritual,  Haizmann's subsequent relapse likely caused him to invent the story of the earlier ink pact with the Devil to justify a second round of exorcisms (perhaps fearing that the Mariazell priests might have doubted the sincerity of his repentance otherwise).  Joining a iorder afterward might have been Haizmann's way of resolving his father complex and enabling him to restore the imbalance in his life caused by his father's death.

Although later psychoanalysts criticized Freud's interpretation of the Haizmann case , the story of Christoph Haizmann still has a certain fascination.  A true clinical diagnosis probably can't be made given the difficulty in separating the actual symptoms that Haizmann displayed from the available historical documents (which are far from objective).  Even assuming that the more fantastic elements of the story (including the appearance of the Devil as a winged dragon) were added in later, there definitely seems to be a self-serving element in Haizmann's description of his demonic possession since he wanted to convince the priests to carry out the exorcisms. 

While there have been later instances of delusions involving demonic possession (and exorcism ), Christoph Haizmann's case represents an early example of how easily psychiatric illness can interact with religious belief and how easily delusions can be exploited for political purposes.  Even after Haizmann's death, the story of how he was "saved" by exorcism became part of the local religious folklore and helped to reinforce support for the Church in an era of fading relevance during the Reformation.  It's worthwhile to note that exorcisms often continue to be used in cases of religous mania even today .  The use of "anecdotal" evidence of demonic activity to drum up support for religious movements is a worrisome trend across the world.

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