- Fairies, Demons, and Nature Spirits: 'Small Gods' at the Margins of Christendom ed. by Michael Ostling
fairies, demons, "small gods", Christianity, animism, paganism, demonization, superstition, popular culture, popular belief, folklore
During a visit to my hometown last Christmas, I was asked by a friend if I had heard anything about something called an "Albatwitch" in my reading on the folklore and religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch. This friend of mine had a coworker who had described a tradition in her own hometown where newlyweds are woken up at midnight for an "Albatwitch hunt," a kind of harmless hazing like the (much more common) tradition of "snipe hunts," in which the presumably very confused and tired newlyweds would be made to chase nondescript beings called Albatwitches through the woods and fields at the midnight hour. I had, in fact, heard of Albatwitches, but only in books, so I was delighted to hear that this particular legendary "small god" was alive and well in central Pennsylvania, even if it was only (apparently) to be hunted by half-sleeping newlyweds.
These beings called "small gods" are the focus of Michael Ostling's edited collection in Palgrave's admirable series, Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic, edited by Jonathan Barry, Willem de Blécourt, and Owen Davies. The present volume marshals a vast array of periods, places, and methodologies in pursuit of beings "at the margins of Christendom," including but not limited to fairies and demons. But what is a small god, precisely?
Michael Ostling provides an operational definition of his new category "small god" in his sweeping introduction to the volume, an essay that might be worth the price of admission alone: "they are found within the encompassing, totalizing framework of a world religion that tends to find problematic the relationships characteristic of animism, and therefore seeks to condemn, contest, and marginalize continued belief in 'small gods' among the adherents of the world religion in question" (10). Ostling's definition highlights the main historical claim of this volume: "small gods" are represented, written, understood, and encountered within the framework of a major religion that, at best, feels ambivalent toward them. Belief in small gods is always in dynamic tension with a totalizing religious framework that might dismiss, reject, diabolize, or pathologize such a belief. Ostling and the other essayists in the volume (mostly) set aside questions of pagan survivals and parallel traditions coexisting with Christendom. Indeed, Ostling sets this particular temptation to rest in no uncertain terms in his introduction: "There are no pagan survivals: small gods are Christian creations with which to think the limits of Christianity" (43).
This is a major claim at the outset of the volume, and it is perhaps a necessary one to follow through on the major project of the collection: organizing [End Page 291] and classifying the varieties of relationships that small gods might have with Christianity. Ostling classifies these relationships along a spectrum ("Variations on a Goblin Theme," he calls it) from full-on belief/demonization to a "Post-Christian Re-Enchantment." The essays in the volume are helpfully organized into a chart of their place on the spectrum in the introduction. (The essays are arranged more or less chronologically by period in the volume; this review and Ostling's chart arrange them schematically).
The first variations of Ostling's Goblin Theme are what he calls "Negative Cults," in which small gods are recognized as ontologically real diabolical agents to be exorcized or destroyed. Within this framework, typified by examples like the medieval Christian church or contemporary Pentecostal movements, small gods are deadly serious threats that demand sustained attention. In so doing, they demarcate "the limits of Christianity," by representing the danger and evil of the spiritual world beyond its borders. Essays in the volume under this category include David Frankfurter's analysis of "headless beings" in late antique Egypt, Dmitriy Antonov's study of early modern Russian demonology, and Artionka Capiberibe's study of contemporary Amazonian experiences of Crise, or demon attacks. The Negative Cult variation is perhaps...