Periodically we read news reports to the effect that such and such a percentage of Americans or Europeans believe in angels, another percentage of Indians believe in spirits, yet another percentage of Chinese believe in ghosts, etc. This says nothing about the existence of angels, spirits, or ghosts, but it does remind us of the impact and continuation of premodern concepts in our own times, and the human proclivity to believe in unseen forces.
Since ancient times, people have observed and described a variety of creatures large and small that share this planet with us. Birds and beasts and insects have not only been seen and listed but domesticated and studied by ancient biologists. In our own times biologists have not only classified creatures but see them as belonging to hundreds of different species.
In the premodern worldview, there was another class of beings: supernatural or semi-supernatural that also populate the planet and often interact with human beings in different contexts. These beings are big or small, good or bad, visible or invisible, but always with magical qualities that ordinary creatures don’t possess.
One may surmise what could have given rise to this idea. In the early phases of wanderings, the very first strange creatures human encountered, whether it was a giraffe or an elephant, a mouse or a frog, must have impressed the human mind. From that it wasn’t difficult to extrapolate and imagine other such creatures. Then again, since these were only imagined, all kinds of powers and features were attributed to them. Given that fear was one of the emotions that stirred the imagination into fantasizing such entities, they were taken as beings possessing unusual powers, often malicious and capable of causing harm. On the other hand, perhaps to compensate for this early humans also pictured benign creatures in this supernatural world. In any case, as with many other ingredients of premodern worldviews no one can be sure about when or where or how these came into human culture.
In due course stories, amusing and frightening, grew around such creatures. Many of them were given specific names. Their numbers grew. They became part of the religions and lore of humanity, and have taken such deep roots in the human psyche that they continue to entertain, obsess, frighten, and persist in our human culture. The probability that some day humanity will regard supernatural beings to be no more than fictional characters of bygone ages, not any different from Batman or Spiderman, or Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck of modern mythology, seems to be rather small.
August 19, 2011