On Platonic ideas

18 08 2010

Thence, Mr. Kirk glides into that singular theory of savage metaphysics which somewhat resembles the Platonic doctrine of Ideas. All things, in Red Indian belief, have somewhere their ideal counterpart, or “Father”. Thus, a donkey, when first seen, was regarded as “the Father” or archetype. “of rabbits”. Now, the second-sighted behold the “Double-man,” “Doppelganger”, “Astral Body”,” “Wraith,” or what you will, of a living person, and that is merely his counterpart in the abstruse world… From personal experience, and the experience of friends, I am constrained to believe that we may think we see a person who is not really present to the view – who may be in the next room or downstairs, or a hundred miles off. This experience has occured to the sane, the unimaginative, the healthy, the free of superstition, and in circumstances by no means mystic… All things universally have their types, their reflex: a man’s type, or reflex, or “co-walker” may be seen at a distance from or near him during his life – nay, may be seen after his death.

-Andrew Lang, in the introduction to Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies



3 responses

18 08 2010
Henry Karlson

While you are right in saying the distinction is not always so clear cut, I do think the rejection of all things “pagan” and the pursuit of “the pure Christianity” uncorrupted by “the traditions of men” led more and more to a negative, hostile reaction to the landscape find in medieval Christendom. The further you get, the more true this is… and I would even say the criticism against elves ended up becoming the same as we find today when people say “aliens” must be “demons.” When “Biblical purity” becomes the lens for one’s view of the world, anything which didn’t fit had to be demonized; the early reformation would itself be rejected because of this.

The final thrust to have them seen as devils, in the English tradition, seems to come from King James I (any surprise)?

As for Catholics, they were slow in the transformation, but I do think the Counter-Reformation took on some of the qualities of the Reformation, including a more rigid view of what is or is not acceptable for a “pure” faith. Yes, there were debates before, but the further one goes, the more the average person themselves have to be “pure” as well as the clergy who teach them.

18 08 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Kirk’s book is about good Presbyterian Calvinists, so I don’t think the observation is fair. Luther himself believed in changelings, and spoke about it in his Table Talk.

The more proper division is not necessarily between Protestant and Catholic, but between new religion and old religion (and even this is problematic). New religion is the rational stuff that people argue about on the Internet, and is shared just as much by the Dominican friar as the Calvinist divine. Old religion took the form of healings, folk tales, and ambiguous preternatural spirits, and was shared by everyone from the Mexican curandero to the “cunning man” in Elizabethan England. Often, the former could not hide well enough its disdain for the latter, not without reason, I might add.

18 08 2010
Henry Karlson

Interesting quote of Lang’s. Another interesting fact about elves is that they were believed by Catholics, and so the Reformers criticized Catholic belief in elves, saying elves were really demons. Lewis comments upon this phenomena in The Discarded Image, and it is clear Tolkien borrows this idea in some of his lesser writings.

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