The Man In Black

“...a man in black, who was sometimes mistakenly called a devil by outsiders. He was merely a priest who represented the god in rituals and led their meetings.”
      -- Katherine Kurtz

The Man In Black is an occult and semi-mythical figure with a very deep and variated history that stretches back through many cultures. He is a leader of outcasts, a trickster, a divine fool, a demon in mortal form, and many other things besides. Following is a general overview of the Man In Black persona, as well as a sectioned look at some of the major aspects thereof.

The Man In Black is known by many names. In Italy he is the Capinera, in the Anglo-Saxon he was known as the Cunning Man, at Lake Nemi in Italy he was called Rex Nemorensis, “King of the Forest”. He was the Black Devil or the Horned Man at the so-called Black Sabbaths that were supposedly held by medieval and later witches. His role was almost always defined by his involvement with a group or community, usually one that was secret or otherwise hidden from public knowledge. The Man In Black was a leader, a director, an organizer, a weaver of threads, a keeper of lore and knowledge. In some tales he acted as a sort of “cell leader” for underground groups, as he was the only member of the group who knew the names of any of the other members. In some tales he was a recruiter for his group, always watchful for those who have no place in the orthodox world, those who might make good additions to his hidden community. The Man In Black could be many things, from a cult leader or an alternative priest, to a solitary mystic or wandering troublemaker.

“Somebody seen him, hangin' around
at the old dance hall, on the outskirts of town
He looked into her eyes, when she stopped him to ask
if he wanted to dance -- he had a face like a mask...”

      -- Bob Dylan, "Man In The Long Black Coat"
“And now I have sent a cunning man, endowed with understanding...”
      -- 2 Chronicles, 2:13

THE CUNNING MAN: (Anglo-Saxon, cunnan, to know.) A pre-Christian term that means many things, but usually indicates a leading practitioner of some kind of magick. The Scandinavian “klokman” was a word for the Cunning Man. He was known in France as “Le Devin du village”. The term was sometimes also used in reference to an Alchemist. Also used for a fortune-teller, or one who professes to discover stolen goods. Some theorize that the first books on medicine were written by people who could be referred to as Cunning Men. Some Cunning Men, in certain areas and cultures, were known to dress in animal skins and to wear antlers, emphasizing a connection to the elk-shamans that were depicted at the cavern of Trois Freres, among others. In times when the Cunning Man was a known and respected figure, the local villagers would often expect their Cunning Man to protect them from unseen dangers, and to provide them with charms and certain medicines; some people have theorized that Cunning Men were familiar with many natural psychedelics. The Cunning Man was also expected to perform rituals and dances that would ensure bountiful hunting or abundant harvests. Even when Christianity began to spread throughout Europe, the Cunning Men were often still heavily relied upon -- entire villages were converted to Christianity, but many were concerned that their new God would not know how to supply them with good crops, and so they continued to entreat the aid of the Cunning Men of their area.

Also, in Genesis 41:8, in the account of Jacob’s son Joseph, it says that Pharaoh “called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its Cunning Men” to interpret his dream. The Hebrew word used is chakam, which can mean “an intelligent or artful man“ as well as “a Cunning Man“. The same word is used throughout the rest of the Old Testament, except in the Book of Daniel, where instead the words chakamim or chakkaym are used (Daniel 2:12 etc), both from a root that corresponds to chakam. In this time period, there were three different types of Cunning Men: astrologers, soothsayers, and Chaldeans.

“When a cunning man dies, it's a cunning man who buries him....”
      -- African idiom
SUFFOLK: “Thy name affrights me, in whose sound is death.
      A cunning man did calculate my birth,
      and told me that by water I should die...”

        -- King Henry VI, scene one

REX NEMORENSIS: Lake Nemi in Italy was widely known as a haven and gathering-place for outcasts, criminals, and especially witches (followers and worshippers of the moon-goddess Diana). Diana was not just a moon-goddess, however; she was also considered the mistress of forests and hunting. The mysterious male consort of Diana was the god of forests, hunting, and darkness, and was known as Dianus. One of the official titles of Dianus, however, was Rex Nemorensis -- “the King of the Woods”, a role in which he was envisioned as a hooded hunter or outlaw. As the community of outcasts who lived in the shadowy oak woods near Lake Nemi grew, certain traditions began to form... always there was one particularly esteemed witch among the priestesses of Diana, and she was seen as embodying Diana herself, in human form. She would give visions and powers and spiritual guidance.

Likewise, Dianus Rex Nemorensis was thought to have a mortal embodiment who would protect and lead the community. Rather than being filled by some member of a priesthood, however, this role was generally filled by the wiliest, toughest, and most cunning of the men there at Nemi -- which, I would imagine, was saying something. At any time (but especially at certain ritualized times of the year) the position of Rex Nemorensis was subject to challenge. When a challenge came, there was always a combat: the challenger was required to take a branch from the oldest oak-tree in the woods and do battle with the incumbentDianus” on the rocks of the rushing river that ran at the foot of that oak. The loser never survived, according to the tales, and the winner took up the great hood and lived on as Rex Nemorensis. The hood concealed his mortal identity -- which was at that point forever lost, as he became quite literally, in some senses, the King of the Forest.

This legend has its obvious similarities to such legends as Robin Hood / Robin of the Hood, with its staff-fighting on rivers, its band of outlaws, and its mysterious forest. Indeed, all the figures of that more familiar legend -- Robin Hood, Little John, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and so on -- have in times past been well-known roles at such folkish celebration-times as Beltane and Midsummer, in England and other places.

“Fir Dubh”,
“Amadan Dubh”

      -- Irish-Gaelic names for the “Black Man”
        and “Black Fool” of the Fair Folk

FAERIE AND U.F.O. MYTH: One of the more persistent (but less well-known) of the fair-folk myths in Ireland and other areas is that of the Fir Dubh or Amadan Dubh -- the "Black Man" or "Black Fool". This was a mysterious and often trickster-like figure, appearing with the likeness of a young man with coal-black hair and strange completely black eyes, who would appear in deserted wastelands where other weird things lurked. Amid the will'o'wisps and shrieking glittering faerie hosts, he would appear, sometimes singing or piping. Sometimes he would warn the mortal wanderers away from the haunted place, sometimes he would try to convince them that the wild things they were seeing were something other than what they were, and sometimes he would simply trick them and entice them deeper into the wilds, never to be seen again.

What does all this have to do with UFOs, the persistent but impatient reader might ask? Well, let me tell you. You might be familiar with a relatively recent comic movie called "Men In Black", right? Or "The Matrix"? Or the long-running TV series, "The X-Files"? Or perhaps the White Wolf roleplaying game, "Mage: the Ascension"? If so, you're probably familiar with that figure of modern Conspiracy Theory lore: the Man In Black. Typically, in such genre pieces, these are mysterious figures who appear in strange places, usually just after the appearance of a UFO or some Fortean event. They dress in featureless black suits, and their eyes are completely covered by black mirrorshade sunglasses. They rely on witnesses' common assumption that they are government agents, sometimes warning civilians away from the area, sometimes trying to convince witnesses that they had not seen anything outside the ordinary, and sometimes performing outright abductions in which the potential witness is never seen again. Sound familiar? Some say this is just another manifestation of the old Fir Dubh, who had many other names and ways in other lands. And don't even get me started yet on the similarities between aliens and UFOs....

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