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Creatures in the Mist: Little People, Wild Men and Spirit Beings Around the World

Creatures in the Mist: Little People, Wild Men and Spirit Beings Around the World, a Study in Comparative MythologyCreatures in the Mist: Little People, Wild Men and Spirit Beings Around the World, a Study in Comparative Mythology by Gary R. Varner

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Though the title gives a misleading idea that the book is an exploration of folktales from around the world, the real scope of this work is limited mostly to the folklore and mythology of Native Americans and to a select few indigenous people like the Maori. Every chapter opens with this recurring note claiming that the subject of that chapter is ‘found in almost every remote corner and among almost all cultures‘, and then gives one or two greek and Indian examples before jumping right ahead into an exhaustive cataloguing of related Native Indian legends.

As the book proceeds, it starts to read suspiciously more and more like a mish-mash of doctoral theses of a group of the author’s students than a polished and structured work of non fiction. One place where I found this amateurish nature very clearly was when the chapter on ‘Rabbits and Hares’ opened with this phrase: “Perhaps fittingly we come to the hare and the rabbit following on the heels of the tortoise.” This would have been a witty and apt opining to the chapter if only they had taken care to incude the chapter immediately after the tortoise chapter, which was more than seven chapters ago.

The criticisms being said, the book is still an exhaustive and informative one, especially if the reader happens to have a special interest in comparative Native Indian legends. Also, the original intention of the author in writing the book is noble as he tries to bring together many tales of a mythic and folkloric nature to illustrate how universal our beliefs truly are — not how different one culture is from the next, but how similar they are.

The book is split into two parts and the first part is concerned primarily with the mystical creatures such as fairies, elves and vampires that are spoken of and written about for thousands of years in almost every corner of the world.

The second part is about the spirit beings appearing in animal and insect form that have accompanied spiritual belief and traditions around the world.

Some of the interesting legends explored include:

Little People – one of the most enduring and widespread legends of the world

Water People – is also found in most legends in surprisingly similar garbs. My major complaint at this point was that the author treated the legend of ‘Water Babies‘ in detail without mentioning Charles Kingsley even once!

Forest Folk – was perhaps the most interesting section of the book as it talked about the variety of elf lore. Here is an extract that I found particularly interesting:

Tree elves have been popular in many cultures; they have been said to inhabit the elm, oak, willow, yew, fir, holly, pine, ash, cherry, laurel, nut, apple, birch and cypress trees. Each of the tree elves is created from the specific tree and thus takes on the characteristics of that tree. While all of these species of trees have a resident elf, “the elder”, writes Nancy Arrowsmith, “has without doubt the highest elf population.”8 The lives of the “elder elves” are linked directly to their tree and so they are very protective of it.

The appearance of tree elves varies according to the tree from which they originated. The oak elf will appear as a gnarled old man and the birch elf appears as a thin white female. The oak has guardians in England, Italy and Germany.

Another insight from this chapter was about creation of contemporary myths. The story below illustrates the fact that myth and folklore continue to be created in contemporary times, often utilizing traditional lore as the basis for new stories and providing more fuel for the evolution of oral culture.

John Mbiti reports, in his book African Religions and Philosophy, an incident that took place in Ghana in the 1960s. During the construction of a new harbor at Tema, equipment was repeatedly stolen and a company investigator, an Englishman, was sent to look into it. After his investigation was over, one of the European supervisors mentioned to him that a lone tree was causing him a great deal of trouble. All the other trees in the area had been cleared but one relatively small tree remained. Every attempt to remove it had failed, as the heavy equipment always stalled when approaching the tree. One of the African foremen said that the tree was magic and could not be removed unless the tree spirit could be persuaded to move on to another tree. A shaman was called in; he sacrificed three sheep and poured three bottles of gin onto the roots of the tree as an offering. Evidently, the ritual worked as the machinery could be started, and a few of the workmen simply walked to the tree and were able to pull it up out of the earth.”

Giants – Interestingly enough, the author points out, Irish mythology links giants to the Little People. Barbara Walker is said to have theorized that the giants “shrank as popular belief in their powers waned before the encroachment of the new [Christian] religion. Eventually they became fairies or elves, not giants but ‘little people’…This reduction in their size was surely related to a reduction in their awesomeness.

Fairies – form the land-spirits and cover the gamut from leprechauns to gnomes.

Wild Man Legend - The story of ‘Enkidu’ from The Epic of Gilgamesh is mentioned before passing into native american lore

Horned Beings – The omnipresence of horns in mythic symbolism and the Pan and Devil connection and the origins of the devil archetype is well-explored in this section.

Ghosts and Vampires and Werewolves are also given separate chapters but I failed to find much of interest in these except that the Vampire legend is much older than I had expected and most of the contemporary stories and association are purely Hollywood generated.

Personal Conclusions

All these nature spirits may really be expressions of mankind’s primeval sense of the mystery and awe of nature. But the author tries to insinuate throughout the book that they might just be true and yet undiscovered species that existed on Earth, as in this excerpt:

We are only capable of guessing about the origins of these tales and if, in fact, the folklore of Fairy is based on some event or people that, while not really representing a mythic race of supernatural beings, did strongly alter oral traditions. Such mythic tales may have spread rapidly through trade and cultural interactions. H.R. Ellis Davidson, historian and former president of the British Folklore Society, summarized the difficulty in her book, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: “The idea of the fairies as a former race who remained hidden from men has been explained as memories of an earlier culture displaced by more powerful invaders, but it might also be based on traditions of the land-spirits, who, as in uninhabited Iceland, possessed the land before settlers came to live there.”

Fairy lore around the world, the author concludes, is remarkable for its uniformity between countries, cultures and times. What are the reasons for this, he asks and tries to speculate on whether these stories just that — stories or whether they are the tales passed down from generation to generation to explain the unknown or to persuade children to behave in certain ways or are maybe even something else…

The only real ‘scientific’ speculation that the author tries is based on a by now commonly known but remarkable discovery, in 2004. On the isolated Indonesian island of Flores a cave yielded the remains of half a dozen “little people” — described as ‘Hobbit-sized‘ (or, more accurately, only half the size of modern humans), that had existed on the island for some 95,000 years. It is possible that for 30,000 of those years they occupied the area alongside Homo sapiens — modern humans. While this was a plausible conjecture, the author then tries to project this theory to explain giants too even though he concedes no proof is available. Another interesting explanation for giants that the author mentions, if only in attempt to refute it is – “While many stories of giant skeletons may be attributed to excavated dinosaur and mammoth bones…

The section on animal and insect myths opens with a good anecdote:

It was not uncommon in medieval France for pigs to be tried for attacking and killing children. One sow was actually executed after being tried at Falaise, Normandy, France in 1386. Charged with infanticide, “Defence council for the accused animal,” wrote Nicholas Saunders “was provided at public expense.”

Some of the animals covered are:

Snake – With such detail it was amazing that the authors forgot to mention the dragon myth…

TurtlesWhile the turtle is symbolic of longevity, it is also symbolic of things that we mostly find distasteful, such as cowardice, the obscene, braggarts, and to the ancient Egyptians, an enemy of the sun god. However, the turtle’s larger cousin, the tortoise, is symbolic of all that is good. In ancient mythology, the tortoise carries the world on its back, while the Cosmic Tree grows out of that same carapace. The tortoise represents fertility, regeneration, the beginning of time and creation, and immortality. It is also symbolic of the moon, the waters and the earth mother.

CatsBlack cats are normally thought to bring bad luck — except in England, where they have the opposite effect. Images of black cats in England are made into good luck charms?

Other animals covered include; toads and frogs and their associations with magic and witches and regeneration potions, Dogs and theirs associations with death and the underworld, Bees, Bears etc…

In addition to the above, contemporary beliefs are also explored and the effect of christianity on folk lore was also given due emphasis.

Final Word

In the end, the author leaves us with a lot of examples and an illusion of connections but no real synthesis is attempted to bring together these disparate stories and try to construct a narrative linking them or try to explore their evolution. Which is why, even if a few mistaken assumptions may have discredited much of his work, Sir James George Frazer still rules, at least for me. I will take an attempt at coherence over obsession with data any day.

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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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