Fairies, Demons, and Nature Spirits

"Small Gods" at the Margins of Christendom

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Michael Ostling
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , November
     366 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For far too long there has been a reticence among many scholars of religion—as well as in other fields—to take beliefs in fairies, goblins, pixies, and sprites seriously as objects worthy of academic enquiry. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries the topic was tackled by a handful of folklorists, but it has only been in the present century that a greater number of historians, specialising in various periods, have turned their attention to these ambiguous beings on the theological margins of European society. It is as part of this growing trend that the present volume, edited by Michael Ostling, a historian and scholar of religion based at Arizona State University, is situated. For Ostling, the book “intends to inject fairies (and goblins, brownies, huacasmotobilsetihuldufólktontbanaka etc.) firmly back into space and time and context—into history and culture” (2).

In his substantial introduction, Ostling offers an important and extensively referenced look at what he calls “small gods.” This is arguably the most valuable contribution to the volume and looks to become essential reading for anyone researching beliefs about fairies and similar entities in future. Proposing “small gods” as a cross-cultural category, he nevertheless limits the scope of this framework by tying it explicitly to Christianization. For Ostling, “[small gods] 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, context, or marginalize continued belief in “small gods” among some adherents of the world religion in question” (10). Thus, escaping older perspectives that saw such entities as fossilized Tylorian survivals, Ostling considers “small gods” to be “Christian creations with which to think the limits of Christianity” (43). He further establishes a fivefold model comprising “modes of survival” through which beliefs in “small gods” persist in Christian societies (22). These reflect processes of diabolization and demonization; of continued propitiation; of ambivalent redefinition; of mockery; and ultimately of (an often romanticized) celebration (23).

This is an intriguing approach to the topic and it will be interesting to observe whether future scholars find it useful or whether they instead choose to adapt or ignore it. Of course, Fairies, Demons, and Natural Spirits has the advantage of acknowledging that such beliefs are often embedded in Christian socio-cultural contexts and cannot simply be interpreted as leftovers of a bygone age. However, one weakness may be that such an approach does not readily facilitate comparative analysis of beliefs in Christian and non-Christian social contexts; for instance, in what ways do the fairy beliefs of Europe resemble beliefs about spirit-entities among the non-Christian communities of southern and eastern Asia? How do these latter beliefs fare under the interpretative impact of literate Hindu, Buddhist, and Shinto interpretations, and in what ways are these akin to the Christian interpretations seen elsewhere in the world? And what of beliefs about “small gods” in those communities yet to encounter the broader, proselytizing worldviews of the so-called “world religions”?

Following Ostling’s introduction is David Frankfurter’s chapter on the place of the “demonic” in Christian Egypt, looking in particular at amuletic texts referencing “headless” entities which may demonstrate a symbolic link to the pre-Christian god Osiris. Lisa Bitel follows with her discussion of the place of the sídin 8th to 9th-century Irish texts. The volume remains with medieval Europe for Coree Newman’s analysis of “neutral angels” in the 12th to 15th centuries, angelic beings which neither joined Satan’s minions nor remained in the direct service of God. Dmitriy Antonov proceeds with a chapter on 17th and 18th-century Russian demonology, arguing that, at this point, ideas from vernacular culture began to filter into literary interpretations in a manner not present in the middle ages. The section rounds off with Artionka Capiberibe’s piece on beliefs regarding spirit attacks in the lower Oiapoque region of Amazonia, based in part on her own ethnographic research.

In part 2, “Enlightenment and its Ambiguities,” Julian Goodare discusses the attempts by various early modern Scots, most notably Robert Kirk, to understand fairies within a scientific framework. Heading north to Iceland, Terry Gunnell follows a similar course by looking at how álfar and related beings were reassessed by Enlightenment-era writers like Þormóður Torfason. Ülo Valk details the place of the Devil in 19th-century Estonia and how this frightful character shifted from being a figure of theological to folkloric interest. Contemporary Zambia is the subject of Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps’s examination of the role that snakes play in people’s dreams, discussing how indigenous understandings of such portents have been shaped by both Christianity and secularity. 

Part 3, “Remnants, Relocations, and Re-Enchantments,” kicks off with Éva Pócs’ examination of how Christianity influenced what she characterises as the “archaic fairy cult” of central and south-eastern Europe. Lorraine V. Aragon draws attention to south-eastern Asia, focusing on the Tobaku of central Sulawesi (with whom she has carried out fieldwork) while also bringing in material from other communities in the region. Aragon deals with how particular individuals use “small gods” to legitimize their authority and how they incorporate them into a Christian cosmology. Heading further south, Michael Wood examines the Kamula of Papua New Guinea and how their interpretations of bush spirits have shifted under the impact of both Christianization and increasing resource extraction. Sabina Magliocco’s penultimate contribution looks at contemporary fairy beliefs among modern Pagans, especially in the United States, but also in other parts of the Anglophone Western world. She argues the point that many Pagans adopt such beliefs as a means of re-enchanting the natural world at a time of ecological crises. Finally, the book ends with an afterword by the well-known historian Ronald Hutton, in which he considers the place of pre-Christian entities in Christian societies more broadly.

Ostling’s edited volume is one of a number of recent studies delving deeper into the oft-overlooked realms of European fairylore and, of these, is among the most significant. It is a volume made all the stronger by its willingness to look beyond Europe’s borders to consider ethnographic parallels and utilise a framework—that of the “small gods”—which has cross-cultural utility. While Ostling’s introduction provides invaluable theoretical and methodological considerations, several other chapters will also help set the stage for future research. Magliocco’s pioneering chapter, for instance, should hopefully encourage greater work into modern beliefs about fairies in the esoteric milieu, while Kroesbergen-Kamps and Wood’s chapters offer pertinent reminders that it is not just Christianization, but economic and broader cultural change that can alter conceptions of “small gods,” a point that historians of European folk belief should bear in mind. Fairies, Demons, and Nature Spirits constitutes essential reading for anyone studying European (or non-European) fairy beliefs or traditions—as well as by historians and scholars of religion more widely—for whom it may serve as a useful corrective to the longstanding neglect of spirit-entities inhabiting the cultural margins. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Doyle White is a doctoral student in Early Medieval Religion at the University College London.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Ostling is Honors Faculty Fellow at Arizona State University, and Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland, Australia. Author of Between the Devil and the Host: Imagining Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland (2011), he writes on witchcraft, popular religion, history of emotions, theory in Religious Studies, and critical pedagogy.


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