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At the crossroads

<strong>A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits</strong>


Outside parts of western culture there is a universal belief in what the ancient Greeks called daimons. These are intermediate beings, partly physical and partly spiritual, partly here and partly not here, both benevolent and malign. They are ambiguous, elusive, shape-shifting creatures whom we encounter at borders both in the mind - between sleeping and waking, for instance - and in fact: at dusk, at crossroads, on bridges. Most of Carol and Dinah Mack's hundred or so entries in their inventory of "demons" fall into this category, from the Scottish kelpie and the Norwegian hulder to the fox fairy of Japan and the kitchen fairy of China.

The debate about the daimons' status has always been heated: are they "real"? Or are they "all in the mind"? The daimons themselves do not recognise such literalistic distinctions. Their very purpose is perhaps to subvert western epistemology by straddling both sides of its dualism, by being simultaneously subjective and objective, psychical and physical. Another boundary the daimons bridge is the one between fact and fiction. Folklorists distinguish between "memorates" (actual sightings of, say, fairies) and "fabulates" (formal tales of fairy lore); but each is always eliding into the other within that twilit realm where the literal and metaphorical meet - the autonomous, shape-changing realm of imagination.

To their credit, the Macks gesture towards this daimonic ambivalence, yet they do not tackle it. They prefer to muddle through. The muddle begins with their claim that "universally, demons have been considered agents of both good and evil". Eh? Surely we all know that, on the contrary, demons are a bad lot. Not so, say the Macks: demons are not to be confused with devils. They go on to paraphrase Plato's views on daimons, as if this is what they mean by demons, but then they change the spelling to the Latinate daemon, and then back to demon. In the rather twee section "How to Identify a Common Fairy", the Macks prefer to identify the Victorian gossamer-winged flitty things instead of, for example, the larger-than-life Irish sidhe who ride, laughing, across the countryside, their silver eyes flashing.

The Macks divide their demons between six habitats: water, mountain, forest, desert, domicile and - aha! - psyche. They include gods such as Pan and Tiamat; nature spirits such as jinns; Jewish demons which are part of a complex demonology; Buddhist demons, which are quite different, more like obstacles to enlightenment; and so on. None of them is differentiated. It's a right old hotchpotch. Curiously, the seven deadly sins are included, as well as Freud's id, Jung's concept of the shadow and, in a jump from myth to fiction, Dr Jekyll's alter ego, Mr Hyde. The kindest way of describing their method of selection is to call it random.

Most entries are divided into three sections: a Description of the demon or fairy in question; the Lore, usually a tale in which the entity features; and "Dispelling and Disarming Techniques", tips on how to survive an encounter with it. Thus the South African Tikoloshe is described as short, hairy and long-armed; the lore tells us the story of a man who caught his wife copulating with the Tikoloshe, which he killed; and the disarming technique is to raise your bed on bricks to prevent the devilish little short-arse from jumping upon your spouse.

And so it goes, amiably enough. I was pleased to be introduced to several new demons, such as the Kishi of Angola, who have two faces - one human, the other hyena. The first face chats up girls; the second devours them. The Kuru-pira of Brazil is tall, with pendulous genitals, no joints and feet facing the wrong way. He appears to hunters who have taken too much game and kills them with his urine. No one knows what the Palis of the Arabian Desert look like, but they tickle your feet in the night, drawing out all your blood. The remedy? Why, sleep sole to sole with someone else, of course.

The style is pleasantly unacademic, but not simplistic. There is a bibliography, but I would have liked proper references in the Lore sections, as well as direct quotations, to give some cultural flavour to the Macks' bland paraphrases. I would also have liked the book to have been less a bit of fun and more scholarly - something like Kath arine Briggs's Dictionary of Fairies; or else less scholarly and more fun, like a kind of phantasmagoria for children. Unfortunately, the Macks, unlike their demons, fail to straddle their stools, and fall between them.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech