Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Gods and Monsters 2: A Review

I saw the second part of Tony Robinson's Gods and Monsters on Demons, Exorcisms, Fairies and Changelings.

The first part was on exorcisms, and it was clear how neurological problems like epilepsy, or psychological problems like psychosis or schizophrenia could easily have been attributed to demons. The mindset of the Middle Ages was one steeped in angels and demons, and within that framework, the attribution of strange and alarming behaviour to demons was a rational explanation.

We have replaced the religious model with a medical one, but that itself is not without flaws. Looking at that was perhaps beyond Tony Robinson's scope, but while I am sure the scientific explanations are far better than the religious ones, it would be hubris to believe that they are not without flaws.

To speak of "mental illness" is to suggest that psychological problems are very similar to any other illnesses,
and can be treated by medical means. The history of the 20th century was a happy hunting ground for bogus medical interventions such as lobotomy, leucotomy or electro-convulsive therapy. Homosexuality was treated as a kind of mental illness, and drugs were used, as notable in the case of Alan Turing, to chemically castrate the individual. While drugs may be needed to help control psychosis and schizophrenia, they often have debilitating side effects, which are often not appreciated enough by those cheerfully prescribing them, who cannot understand why the people concerned often deliberately fail to take their medication. And in a final triumph of bogus scientism, Richard Dawkins speaks of religion as a "virus of the mind", thus creating a new scientific demonology.

Robinson also covered sympathetic magic, of using like effect for like. The idea is that the magician, can influence something based on its relationship or resemblance to another thing.

Many popular beliefs regarding properties of plants, fruits and vegetables have evolved in the folk-medicine of different societies owing to sympathetic magic. This include beliefs that certain herbs with yellow sap can cure jaundice, that walnuts could strengthen the brain because of the nuts' resemblance to brain, that red beet-juice is good for the blood, that phallic-shaped roots will cure male impotence (Wikipedia)

Sympathetic magic is however alive and well in two places today, one is obviously homeopathy, which is built around a very similar structure:

practitioners claim to treat patients using highly diluted preparations that are believed to cause healthy people to exhibit symptoms that are similar to those exhibited by the patient. [Wikipedia]

But the other area is Neopaganism, itself enjoying a resurgence in Western society. Spellworking in Neopaganism still uses forms of sympathetic magic, although often in a more sophisticated way that that described above, and is still used by some individuals for evil intent, to deliberately (as they believe) cause harm, in the same way as voodoo does.

Regarding demons, a number of fundamentalist Christians still believe in demons. The American religious landscape is perhaps a richer soil for this kind of belief than Britain, although there are believers here. Deliverance ministries are big business in America, along with the "Rapture ready" mythology of the Left Behind books, with their ideas that the Antichrist will return with demonic powers.

In 1941, theologian Rudolf Bultman made this statement:

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. And if we suppose that we can do so ourselves, we must be clear that we can represent this as the attitude of Christian faith only by making the Christian proclamation unintelligible and impossible for our contemporaries.

In fact his idea that you cannot believe in miracles and the electric light bulb is too dismissive of the way in which people can departmentalise their beliefs; it is perfectly possible for people to believe in such things.

But I think the mindset of "the evil eye" or demons have largely gone from our urban, secular society in Britain; it's been relegated to fantasy films and books, Buffy, Twilight etc, outside of Neopaganism and Fundamentalism. It's still present though in Africa, and that has led to deaths in London as a result of beliefs in witchcraft and demon possession.

But Tony Robinson's last section is something that has definitely gone. That is the notion of the fairy folk, mysterious beings that inhabited a world almost next door to ours, and would work mischief (as in A Midsummer Night's Dream); these are amoral beings that would steal away children or adults and replace them with changelings, fairies in a simulacra of human form.

The notion of the fairy changeling has pretty well completely gone from our society, even among people who believe in magic. Parents, especially mothers, would resort to desperate measures to get the child returned to them, like placing them in a fire, or leaving them in the woods. It seems clear that much of that related to desperate parents, especially mothers, faced with what to do with children that we'd now see as autistic, or mentally handicapped in some way.

Yet the same desperation is still there though, and parents now chase after supposedly scientific cures for their children. As science is the new magic, so the apparent cures take that form as well. The main difference is that any snake oil salesmen selling cures dress them up in scientific jargon. But I've seen parents with autistic children clutching at any straw for a miracle cure. We don't believe in changelings, but we do believe that there can be medical experts who can provide cures. A medical mythology has replaced a folk mythology.

The Victorian images of tweeness - the faked Cottingley Fairies, small sprites with gossamer wings - and cute Edwardian Tinkerbelle, taken up by Disney as an asexual being, have relegated fairies to the nursery. Only PJ Hammond had a very good attempt to revive older darker ideas in his Torchwood story a few years ago about fairies.

It was shocking, however, to hear the 1890s tale of a murder in Ireland by a husband of his wife; convinced she was a changeling, and his conviction only of manslaughter. That is not that long ago.

As always, there was a good assembly of historians, psychiatrists and medical experts to hand, and it was nice to actually see Diane Purkiss, having read several of her books on witches and fairies.


James said...

Regarding demons, a number of fundamentalist Christians still believe in demons. The American religious landscape is perhaps a richer soil for this kind of belief than Britain, although there are believers here.

I think this may be understating matters.

The evangelical wing has largely taken control of the Church of England, and a significant number of those coming into ministerial posts are linked to the New Wine network. NW has strong links with the Vineyard church which came out of California with John Wimber: part of its credo is a specific expectation of seeing "signs and wonders" - and that includes the discerning of demonic activity and activity against it.

It is worth pointing out that of the 20-odd Anglican churches in Jersey, around half are led by members of NW.

I am not comfortable with the NW view of demonology. But the whole question of "spiritual powers" - a subject that encompasses demons, but also goes some way beyond it - is without doubt a significant reality worthy of study.

Were you interested in doing so, I would commend Walter Wink as a very good author to start with.

Anandita said...

Hmmm...Tony, quite thought provoking indeed but then open to surmise