The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Spectral coachmen, demonic coachmen, headless coachmen, coachmen with glowing eyes…Phantom coachmen are the subjects of many ghost and horror stories. The seemingly innocuous appearance of a coachman in a fairy or folktale signals an ominous note to those familiar with the tradition. Throughout Central Europe and beyond, coachmen were often identified as powerful sorcerers, sometimes even as the devil and not just in fairy tales: the very last woman executed for witchcraft in the Germanic lands, Anna Maria Schwaegel, beheaded in 1775, told the court that the devil tempted her in the form of a coachman. (See WITCHCRAZE!: Germany.)
Why? What’s so significant about a coachman? It seems like a fairly straightforward profession. Before the invention of automobiles, if you wanted to get somewhere that was too far to walk, you either got on a horse or hired a coach, the equivalent of a horse-drawn taxi. The coachman is the driver. People wealthy enough to own a coach and horses kept one or more coachmen on staff as personal chauffeurs, so they could go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.
So what’s so significant, powerful or threatening about what was theoretically nothing more than a skilled but relatively menial profession? Once upon a time, after all, back before automobiles, trains, and airplanes, coachmen were pretty crucial: if you wanted to get somewhere, you needed one. One should be glad to have a coachman; the alternative was an incredibly long walk or a trip not taken. So then, why are coachmen often depicted as so malevolent?
The coachman is the exception among professions associated with sorcery and witchcraft. In general, the magical professions involve the ability to transform one substance into another. Coachmen play a different role.
What precisely does the coachman do? A coachman ferries people from one spot to another; he shuttles people from one destination to another, back and forth if needed. He makes sure they arrive safely at their destination; he is familiar with routes and shepherds them safely back home, too, ideally as painlessly as possible.
Who else plays a role similar to this? A shaman—someone who soul-journeys from realm to realm. And, more especially, a shaman responsible for ferrying others from realm to realm.
A metaphysical theory suggests that certain types of illness, particularly comas, catatonia or some emotional disorders, are caused by “soul loss.” Usually caused by intense fear or emotional trauma, a piece or an aspect of the soul (in extreme cases, sometimes the entire soul) is lost. Shamanic healing involves locating, then returning the lost soul.
Sometime dead souls (ghosts) are believed stuck in the realm of the living, whether inadvertently or because for one reason or another they’ve refused to depart for the Realm of Death. A skilled shaman serves as a coachman, transporting—by force, if need be—the dead soul to the realm where it now belongs.
“Coachman,” thus, can be a euphemism for “shaman.” Many shamans were also priests or high-ranking practitioners of ancient Pagan faiths; following the rise of Christianity, these traditions—and shamanism in general—were forbidden and diabolized. Shamanism developed a notorious reputation, and the position of coachman was tainted by association. (Of course, although many shamans could be considered coachmen, not all coachmen were shamans.)
However, uneasy associations with coachmen may pre-date Christianity. After all, what is the most frequent destination of the shamanic coachman? What mythological figures play a similar role?
Charon, the ancient Greek ferryman, shuttles dead souls from the Realm of the Living to Hades’ Realm of Death. Charon is among the sons of Nyx (see DIVINE WITCH: Nox/ Nyx). He only ferries those who have been given spiritually correct funeral rites including payment for his services (the source of the practice of placing coins in a corpse’s mouth or over its eyes.) Others are left stranded. Like a skilled, professional coachman, Charon must be paid or his services are withheld.
Theoretically, Charon only ferries souls in one direction but legends recall shamans, notably Psyche, who know the right tricks and techniques to persuade Charon to make it a round-trip, returning them to the Land of the Living again.
Charon may originally have been an angel-of-death-like figure who did more than just chauffeur: the name of the Etruscan spirit of death is usually spelled Charun in English to distinguish between them, although Charon and Charun are most likely the same deity. Charun wields a hammer while accompanying his friend Mars, Lord of War, onto battlefields, the better to finish off victims before carrying them off to his realm. The connection with coachmen is even more explicit with Charos, an angel-of-death-like figure of modern Greek folklore, who rides a horse to ferry dead souls to their next home.
On the other hand, maybe Hades, ancient Greek Lord of Death, is the prototype for the supernal coachman: a coachman himself, he drives a coach pulled by black stallions. When Demeter received a description of the vehicle in which her kidnapped daughter Persephone was last seen, the identity of the kidnapper was immediately apparent.
The association of vehicles with death survived. The devil was often envisioned as a coachman transporting damned souls. Krampus, Santa Claus’ diabolical sidekick, is often portrayed carrying crying children off to Hell, sometimes in a car and sometimes driving a sled down a torturous, slippery slope. Of course, Krampus’ friend Santa has his own sled, famously pulled by reindeer, the animal intimately identified with Saami shamans. (See HORNED ONE: Krampus, Santa Claus.)
In many cultures, deities are envisioned driving a chariot pulled by various animals; the type of animal that pulls their chariot reveals much about the nature of the spirit. Aphrodite’s chariot is pulled by doves; Freya’s by cats. Thor drives a chariot pulled by goats while Hecate’s chariot is pulled by dragons. The ability to command animals’ cooperation and assistance was perceived as magical and a sign of tremendous spiritual and shamanic power.
Once upon a time, emblems representing deities were transported in wagons during sacred processionals—as is still done with saints on their feast days. This occurred through much of the world, especially in Germanic areas—a region with particularly intense associations between coachmen and wizards. The wagon driver fulfilled the function of the coachman but was usually the deity’s trusted priest.
Associations between wagons and shamanism survived for centuries, even after the introduction of Christianity, among the Nordic siedkona. (See DICTIONARY: Seidh, Siedkona.) The siedkona was a traveling shaman and diviner, going from community to community in her wagon. Although it might not be the primary listing on her résumé, she—or whoever drove her—was also a skilled and competent coachman, shamanically and also literally.
The invention of the automobile made the occupation of coachman obsolete. Most people can learn to drive a car sufficiently well to get from one destination to another. Although perhaps most people can learn to ride a horse sufficiently well to get from one place to another, not everyone can drive a team of horses attached to a coach, especially because the nobility preferred having their coaches pulled by beautiful, powerful but high-strung and frequently temperamental stallions, not nice tame, old, slow donkeys. The coachman who could drive the most difficult team of horses, those horses who couldn’t be driven by just anyone, was the most prized, valued coachman of all.
Driving a team of horses is not the same as beating circus animals into submission so that they’ll perform simple, repetitive tricks. To be an accomplished coachman implied the ability to communicate with horses.
The Hungarian táltos is strongly identified with coachmen. During the witchhunt era, being a táltos was forbidden on pain of death. Rumor had it that individual táltos sought safety and the ability to discreetly maintain their craft by becoming coachmen. Although not all coachmen were táltos, many táltos became coachmen. Those who required their services thus knew where to find them.
In Europe, alongside ravens, bears, and wolves, horses are the animals most identified with shamanism. Horses were once considered exceptionally sacred, and vestiges of this tradition survive in the magical, talking horses that populate fairy tales. In Hungary, not only a human can be a táltos, the indigenous powerful shaman, certain animals can too—most notably horses. (See DICTIONARY: Táltos.)
The coachman who commands horses, simultaneously maintaining a good relationship with them—crucial to long-term success at the occupation—is intrinsically tied to shamanic horse-whispering, the gift of communicating with horses. This coachman can harness the horses to take him on magical journeys as well as on mundane.
Although the professional coachman is now largely obsolete, the coachman remains identified with wizardry and magical powers, especially in creative works but also in legend, although few recollect why:
In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, the count’s coachman commands wolves (and presumably werewolves!)
In the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz, actor Frank Morgan portrayed the wizard, the conjurer Professor Marvel, and the coachman of Oz.
Theologian and folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt amassed a massive folkloric archive, personally interviewing over 1600 people, with special focus on African-American and German-American folk traditions. During the later 1930s, one German-American informant from Quincy, Illinois identified a whipcracking coachman as a witch.