Priests are some of the most popular characters in old stories. But did you know that Luxembourg's clergy was once rumoured to wield mythical magic power?
On our travels through the mystical world of legends and folk tales, we encounter religious beliefs (read: Christian beliefs) at almost every corner: Want to kill a werewolf? Get your hands on a blessed bullet. Local ghost getting on your nerves? Put him in a lead cloak to stop him floating up from hell. Next-door witch keeps milking your cows from a distance? Slap a cross on those bad boys. Across many types of media, priests have regularly been presented as a significantly less exciting version of the Ghostbusters, fighting demons and other supernatural forces with all the pizzazz of a sixth form Latin teacher.
Luxembourg's priests are no different and in fact, they are said to have possessed a rather intriguing ability in the olden days.
I. Binding: The mysterious ability of the Luxembourgish clergy
While numerous supernatural abilities were associated with the clergy, there is one power in particular that is mentioned extensively in Luxembourgish folklore: "Binding," or the ability to freeze all sorts of beings into place.
Dr Nicolas Gredt's Sagenschatz des Luxemburger Landes dedicates a whole section to this topic and gives the following overview:
"In earlier times, there was a strong belief that the clergy possessed a unique power to 'immobilise' individuals and animals who posed a threat to them. This power allowed them to bind these dangerous entities to a specific location through the recitation of a secret prayer formula. The banished individuals or animals were then compelled to remain motionless until the clergyman, who had managed to escape the danger by fleeing, released the binding spell. Many stories about these incidents have been passed down through the generations, particularly among the elderly."
There are numerous stories about priests using this ability, including two about clergymen who had refused to swear allegiance to the French republic during the occupation. In both stories, the priests fend off gendarmes sent to arrest them by casting binding spells on them and only releasing them once they were a safe distance away.
The second of these stories, about a priest from Rindschleiden (which is, fun fact, the smallest village of the Grand Duchy), also reveals another interesting detail about these spells. In this story, the priest is visited by the gendarmes at his home and tells his housekeeper to "pour them a drink," which, according to the priest, would render them motionless. Once the housekeeper believed him to be far enough away, she was to say "Get out of here!" to the gendarmes to release them from the spell. This story therefore suggests that the priests did not have to cast or release the curse themselves but could "delegate" it to others.
Many stories mention the priests giving their assailants something, such as tobacco, a drink, or some coins, and by accepting this offer, the assailants fall under the curse.
A story about a priest from Diekirch introduces another element of this power. In this tale, the priest falls victim to an attempted mugging and uses the binding prayer to escape from his predicament. Once safe, he tells a fellow priest about it who insists that he has to return to the scene and release the culprit "before sunrise" because "otherwise he will be a slave to the devil with body and soul."
While the previous story ends with the priest releasing the target of his spell on time, a different story reveals the unsettling consequences of what would happen to someone who was not released in time. In this story, set in Niederanven, a priest binds a young man who intended to slay him for refusing to give absolution (a rather counterintuitive reaction if you ask me). The next morning, he sent someone to release the young man, but it was already too late:
"However, to his horror, he found the young man standing there lifeless and completely transformed. The rays of the sun had cast an eerie darkness upon him, turning him into a devilish figure. This was the fate that befell anyone who was bound and exposed to the morning sunlight."
While the old tales mainly associated this binding power with priests, there are stories about a hermit who used to live at the shores of the Moselle that suggest that the power seemed to be a result of spiritual prowess rather than coming with the office of priest.
II. The Legend of Brother Anthony
Once upon a time, there stood the remnants of an ancient and dilapidated hermitage in a vineyard known as Diefert, not far from the town of Stadtbredimus and the Moselle river.
In the middle of the 18th century, a devout and revered man named Antonius resided there, earning the love and admiration of the entire region. According to local beliefs, Brother Anthony possessed various supernatural abilities, including… the power of binding.
With a simple act of placing his hat on the juniper stick he always carried, accompanied by a short prayer, he could bind a person to the spot they stood.
One eventful day, during a festive occasion in the neighbouring village of Greiveldange, Brother Anthony went to pay homage to his God. Seizing this opportunity, two young men ventured into the hermitage, intent on finding the rumoured hidden treasures. They searched tirelessly in every nook and cranny, but their efforts proved fruitless.
As they were about to depart, carrying a few small valuables—a silver crucifix and an old Bible—they reached the lower valley meadow. It was at this moment that Brother Anthony, descending the Primelberg from Greiveldange, spotted them. Anticipating their intentions, he recited the fateful prayer, binding the two intruders in place.
Taking their loot from them, Brother Anthony held them under his binding spell. It was only after a considerable period, during which they pleaded and promised to renounce their godless ways and embrace a better path, that he released them from the binding.
To this day, the location where this extraordinary event occurred is known as an der Bannwies ("in the binding meadow").
III. Binding beyond the border
These stories of priests being able to immobilise people are rather interesting, particularly because it was very difficult to find anything similar in other European folklore.
I was eventually able to find a source that seems to suggest that similar tales exist in Irish folklore, i.e., another country famous for its relationship with Catholicism in particular.
Since I am relentless in my pursuit of knowledge, I eventually unearthed another document that provides an interesting perspective on the topic of binding: A master's thesis submitted by Brittany Short entitled "Being Unbound: Forays into Romanian Magical Practices."
The first thing to note is that Short defines "binding" more broadly, describing it as "some limit magically placed upon a person intentionally, indirectly, or accidentally." Binding in this sense goes beyond simple immobilisation, as encountered in the Luxembourgish stories, and can include mental "limits," such as a perceived never-ending streak of bad luck.
For her paper, Short interviewed various practitioners of Romanian magic, who shared some intriguing insights into the practice of binding with her. For one, the Romanian tradition suggests that while any practitioner of magic can gain the ability to bind, priests are considered "the most powerful," due to their close connection with the divine.
Perhaps most intriguingly, however, Short provides an explanation of where this power is believed to originate from, affirming that "this ability stems from the belief that when Jesus rose from the dead and breathed upon the Apostles, he instilled the power to bind and unbind within them."
This is referenced in the Bible, specifically in John 20:19-23, with Jesus saying to the Apostles "if you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." We should note that "forgiving sins" in the context of binding means releasing someone from the magical bond that is keeping them trapped, whether that may be a physical or a mental bond.
There are many more fascinating details in Short's paper, but seeing as the Romanian definition of binding is quite a bit broader than the one encountered in Luxembourgish folk tales, I think we can leave it at that as we reminisce about the bizarre time when Luxembourg's priests apparently went around casting spells left and right – and sometimes turned people into demons when they forgot to lift the curse.
More Literary Legends
In the first instalment of this series, we encountered the creepy moor spirit that haunts the woods near Moutfort.
We then revisited a folklore classic by diving into some of Luxembourg's very own werewolf legends.
Our next trip converted us to teetotallers in a desperate attempt to flee the spirits that specifically haunt drunk people.
We also revelled at the powers of some of Luxembourg's most infamous witches and wizards.
In the next instalment, we glimpsed into some of the darkest corners of folklore as we uncovered the gruesome myth of the Thieves' Lights – and found out how Luxembourg somehow made it even worse.
Sticking with the dark and macabre, we then gathered all of our courage to face Luxembourg's terrifying Black Knight. Meet Grieselmännchen!
We gathered around a campfire and spent the evening shouting "I'm not scared, you are!", while sharing ghost stories from the four corners of the Grand Duchy.
Continuing our fringe travels, we almost got fooled by the devious will-o'-the-wisps, the nightmare of all hikers.