Walter Stephens, Ph.D. (Author,
Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, & the Crisis of Belief)
6.11 – Alien Breeders (3.14.14)
CAREER: Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, lecturer in Italian literature, 1978–79; University of Washington, Seattle, assistant professor of Romance languages and literature, 1981–83; Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, assistant professor, 1983–88, associate professor, 1988–93, Paul D. Paganucci Professor of Italian, 1993–98, professor of French, Italian, and comparative literature, 1998–2003. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies and vice chair of Romance languages and literature, 1999–, director of Villa Spelman, Forence, Italy, 2001–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Sears foundation research grant, 1990–92; Humanities Research Institute fellowship, 1991; Mellon Foundation/National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1997; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Walter Stephens specializes in the study of Italian and French works of literature from the late Medieval through the Renaissance periods. His first full-length work examines the way French author Rabelais used giants in his fiction to comment upon the political aspirations of the French monarchy. In a review of Giants in Those Days: Folklore, Ancient History, and Nationalism for Renaissance and Reformation, Philip R. Berk commended Stephens for presenting a “richly detailed and learned argument.” Renaissance Quarterly contributor François Rigolot noted that Stephens “develops a devastating critique of traditional and modern views on Rabelais’s giants.”
Stephens’s Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief closely observes the language in late Medieval and early modern treatises on witchcraft. The author demonstrates that, rather than misogynistic attacks on women, the essays and books attacking witchcraft reveal their writers’ need to believe in the reality of demons as a correlative of belief in angels and God. As such, witch hunts existed to justify intellectuals’ requirement of empirical evidence for both angels and demons. “This learned and fascinating book argues that witchcraft exists because Christianity finds it useful,” wrote E. Ann Matter in Church History.
In Demon Lovers Stephens also suggests that certain clergy—both Catholic and Protestant—used witchcraft to explain the existence of evil in the world. The many people—men, women, and children—who were murdered for witchcraft sacrificed their lives to a growing anxiety about the actual existence of the Christian God. In her review for Comparative Literature, Claire Fanger found the book “provocative and original” as well as “historically engaging and intellectually substantial.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion contributor Margaret R. Miles noted of Stephens: “His thesis is well supported, persuasive, and a welcome antidote to sensationalist accounts of witch persecution.”
According to Stuart Clark in Shakespeare Studies, Stephens’s Demon Lovers is part of a “scholarly seachange.” The critic added that the book “loosens yet further the causal connection between witchcraft trials and witchcraft theory in order to stress that what witchcraft meant for intellectuals involved much broader vocabularies—much broader trials, indeed.” Clark concluded: “No one will ever be able to consider the ingredients of a witch cauldron in the same way again.” In his Booklist review of Demon Lovers, Bryce Christensen called the work a “stunning investigation … unsettling and compelling.” 
On September 20, 1587, Walpurga Hausmännin of Dillingen in southern Germany was burned at the stake as a witch. Although she had confessed to committing a long list of maleficia (deeds of harmful magic), including killing forty—one infants and two mothers in labor, her evil career allegedly began with just one heinous act—sex with a demon. Fornication with demons was a major theme of her trial record, which detailed an almost continuous orgy of sexual excess with her diabolical paramour Federlin “in many divers places, . . . even in the street by night.”
As Walter Stephens demonstrates in Demon Lovers, it was not Hausmännin or other so-called witches who were obsessive about sex with demons—instead, a number of devout Christians, including trained theologians, displayed an uncanny preoccupation with the topic during the centuries of the “witch craze.” Why? To find out, Stephens conducts a detailed investigation of the first and most influential treatises on witchcraft (written between 1430 and 1530), including the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches).
Far from being credulous fools or mindless misogynists, early writers on witchcraft emerge in Stephens’s account as rational but reluctant skeptics, trying desperately to resolve contradictions in Christian thought on God, spirits, and sacraments that had bedeviled theologians for centuries. Proof of the physical existence of demons—for instance, through evidence of their intercourse with mortal witches—would provide strong evidence for the reality of the supernatural, the truth of the Bible, and the existence of God. Early modern witchcraft theory reflected a crisis of belief—a crisis that continues to be expressed today in popular debates over angels, Satanic ritual child abuse, and alien abduction.