The Wild and Messed Up History of ‘Demonic’ Pregnancies

Candida Moss
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

This week video footage emerged of Pastor Paula White calling for prayers to end all “satanic pregnancies.” White serves as an adviser to the Trump administration’s Office of Public Liaison with the Faith and Opportunity Initiative, and so, quite naturally, the footage went viral. Critics of White lampooned her both for her lack of empathy for expectant parents and those who have experienced pregnancy loss. Others couldn’t help but note the apparent hypocrisy of a pro-life advocate asking God to kill unborn children. For most observers, however, the first response was “what on earth is a satanic pregnancy?”

For connoisseurs of horror movies, this question is quite easy to answer. It’s a staple of the genre; from The Omen’s Damian, to Rosemary’s Baby, or even the perhaps underrated Netflix show Eli, the idea that Satan can procreate with human women via sexual intercourse is well established. This is not only the stuff of movies. The Roman Catholic Church teaches at its annual exorcism course in Rome that people can be possessed in the womb and transgenerational possession is a thing. It’s theoretically possible, therefore, that a child could be possessed by a demon even if Catholic teaching would call for an exorcism rather than the end of a pregnancy.

Historically, there have been a number of occasions on which people—either the mother herself or those around her—have designated a particular pregnancy as satanic. One of the most famous examples occurred in 17th century France when an attractive and charismatic priest named Urbain Grandier became a parish priest in the town of Loudun. According to the reports, Grandier was a ladies’ man who regularly disregarded his vows of celibacy. One nun, Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges (“Joan of the Angels”), claimed that she had been seduced by Grandier, who was actually a demon. The seduction was made possible by the fact that he pretended to be an angel and appeared to her as a radiant being. Jeanne claimed that Grandier the Angel-Priest-Demon had gotten her pregnant and her accusations were soon supported by similar allegations of sexual impropriety by other Ursuline nuns.

A pact allegedly signed between Grandier and the devil was produced and submitted as evidence at the trial. It was a veritable who’s who of the demonic world: apart from Grandier, other signatories included Satan, Leviathan (a primordial sea creature mentioned in the Bible), and Astaroth (the so-called Great Duke of Hell who teaches his acolytes mathematics). Following a lengthy investigation conducted primarily through torture, Father Grandier was burned at the stake. As for Jeanne’s pregnancy after a lengthy period of convulsions, speaking in tongues, and distress it simply went away. Later analysts have diagnosed her condition as a psychosomatic pregnancy and many have speculated that she was just obsessed with Grandier from the beginning. All of which shows that there is such a thing as too good-looking.

A second example comes to us from 18th century New Jersey. In 1735 Englishwoman Deborah Leeds became pregnant with her 13th child. She had emigrated to Pine Barrens, New Jersey, at the beginning of the century to live with her husband Japhet. There are multiple slightly conflicting accounts of the demonic origins of the child. In some Mrs Leeds invoked the devil as she gave birth, in others she predicted and even invited demonic parentage because she was unhappy at the prospect of another child, and in another the child was cursed by a local pastor. In any case the most popular version of the birth maintains that the child was born a "monster" and that Mrs. Leeds looked after it until her death at which point the child flew off into the swamps of New Jersey. In the ensuing 200 years Deborah Leeds’ child has become an iconic figure: the New Jersey Devil. There have been numerous sightings of the “Jersey Devil” in woodland areas and, in 1890, a fisherman claimed to have seen the devil’s spawn serenading a mermaid (Those mythical creatures really have to stick together). It seems likely that the original “New Jersey Devil” was simply a disabled child whose condition was unfairly interpreted by locals as “demonic.” If this analysis is correct and “devil child” is simply a take on “atypical birth” you have to wonder if “flew off into the swamps” is a euphemism for “murdered by family members or locals.” In any case this child is immortalized in local legend and as the friendly looking mascot of the NHL team the New Jersey Devils.

Some medieval stories articulate the idea that in the wrong hands a child can become demonic immediately after birth. The 1487 text Malleus Maleficarum (or “Hammer of Witches”) by the Alsatian academic, priest, and witch-hunter Heinrich Kramer tells a story in which a husband spied on his wife and daughter dedicating his newly born child to Satan. Immediately after the ritual he observed his newborn shimmying up a chain that was used to hold pots and knew that something was amiss. According to Kramer, witches did not only sacrifice babies, they also turned them into prodigious athletes.

It’s not only women that can get involved in demonic progeny. Both Jewish and Christian medieval folklore contains stories of succubi, beautiful women who would seduce human men at night. In some instances, succubi would use the semen stolen from men to impregnate human women. Their offspring, known as cambions, were supposedly deformed. The most famous alleged victim of a succubus was Pope Sylvester II (946-1003). According to one somewhat defamatory 12th century legend, this French priest had a long-term relationship with a succubus called Meridiana, whom he met after learning the occult arts from an Arabic book he encountered in Spain. In some versions of the story the two were in love and in addition to helping him become pope, Meridiana tried to shield him from physical harm. The only contemporary biography of Pope Sylvester II associates his achievements with divine powers, but even so Meridiana and Sylvester II have quite the online following.

Satanic babies are not just a thing of the past. A series of horrifying events reveal the way that ideas about the demonic continue to influence the world. In September 2017, a Pittsburgh woman stabbed her 8-day-old son to death because he was created “by the devil.” A Tampa woman drowned her 5-week-old baby claiming that she knew he was the devil after he started talking to her. These more recent examples draw our attention to the tragic misunderstandings and prejudices that underly the phenomenon of demonic progeny. The historical reality is that in most of these cases either a mother is suffering from mental illness or the murder of a disabled is justified under the guise that the child is "demonic." In a few, like the story of the burning of Grandier, personal animosity and jealousy can lead to unfounded accusations.

In her defense of her recent statement, White responded that her comment had “been taken out of context” and explained that she “was praying Eph 6:12 that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Anything that has been conceived by demonic plans, for it to be cancelled and not prevail in your life.” She says that she was speaking figuratively and didn’t mean that babies are literally conceived by the devil à la Rosemary’s Baby. (Fun fact: Eph 6:12 doesn’t mention demonic plans). But White does mean that we are all engaged in a literal spiritual battle with agents of Satan. The place that struggle plays out in 21st century America is in the political arena. And just as the logic of “satanic babies” justifies the rejection of children that don’t look the way that they were ‘supposed’ to, the logic of a cosmic war between good and evil justifies the rejection of those who don’t look or believe the things that some Christians think that they should. White’s statements might be less eccentric than advertised, but they aren’t less scary.

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