Within the peculiar pages of The Malleus Maleficarum, published around 1487 by the inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, an odd tale about a mysterious exterminator can be found filed away between the book’s accounts of witches, demons and spiritual creatures. The (unfortunately unnamed) exterminator in question was evidently magnificent at his craft. He was so skilled in luring and catching pesky creatures, that awed onlookers who watched his work could only attribute the man’s talents to magic. In the city of Salzburg, however, the exterminator finally met his match. Despite his knowledge of traps, lures, hunting, and possibly witchcraft, the exterminator would not survive his final mission.
At that time, Salzburg was apparently experiencing a horrible infestation of snakes. The slithering pests (so The Malleus Maleficarum claimed) were causing so much trouble for the city that certain unnamed leaders of Salzburg hired the mysterious exterminator to use all of his abilities to rid the region of its serpent situation. After accepting this contract, the hunter arrived in the city and began construction on a large pit. This pit was quite a deadly contraption, and whatever fell in was sure to die. Additionally, the exterminator put down powerful bait leading into the ditch, which would attract the city’s problematic snakes to the site of the pit of death. Before long, enticed by the bait (or magic), the city-slicking serpents began slithering their way toward the exterminator’s deadly trench, where they were killed by poison or other means (or more magic). Not all of the snakes, however, were willing to slink to the slaughter—one large leviathan of a snake tried to escape. The dutiful exterminator attempted to wrestle this beast into submission, but in his struggle to save the city from the massive monster, the heroic hunter fell into his own deadly trap and died. The Malleus Maleficarum reported the story in its own magic-obsessed way:
“In the town of Salzburg there was a certain mage who one day, in open view of all, wanted to charm all the snakes into a particular pit, and kill them all within an area of a mile. So he gathered all the snakes together, and was himself standing over the pit, when last of all there came a huge and horrible serpent which would not go into the pit. This serpent kept making signs to the man to let it go away and crawl where it would; but he would not cease from his incantation, but insisted that, as all the other snakes had entered the pit, so also must this horrible serpent. But it stood on the opposite side of the warlock, and suddenly leapt over the pit and fell upon the man, wrapping itself round his belly, and dragged him into the pit, where they both died” (Malleus Maleficarum, Part II, question 2, chapter 6).
Regardless of if the exterminator was actually a mage or not, his successful summoning of Salzburg’s snakes, and his ironic death by his own trap, solidified the rumors of his use of magic. The legend was accepted and believed by the authors of The Malleus Maleficarum, who used the tale of the exterminator with supernatural power as an example of how improper magic charms and incantations can go horribly awry.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).