Or fairies? Or dragons? Or tree spirits?
The other day I was reading a review of My Neighbor Totoro (which is next up on the anime list for the little Darwins) from a Catholic film-reviewing site, and it cautioned parents that at one point in the movie one of the sisters goes to a giant tree which she has been told is the "guardian of the forest" and asks it to watch over her younger sister, currently lost in the forest. Hints of paganism such as this, the reviewer said, made the movie more suitable for teens and older children than youngsters.
Now, I don't believe any forests that I have run into to be shepherded by tree spirits, but it struck me as interesting that the reviewer seemed to believe that a) belief in such things is totally incompatible with Catholicism and b) asking the tree spirit to protect one's sister is inherently an act of supplicatory prayer, and thus pagan worship. Imagine for a moment that there are spirits which inhabit trees, and some of which are capable of overseeing the other trees and animals in the wood. Now, if this were the case, would it necessarily be "praying" to ask the spirit to protect your sibling?
Two things, I think, cause Christians these days to be deeply skeptical of anything regarding lesser members of the spiritual realm wandering the earth. First, there's a very justified fear of anything which smacks of spiritualism, witchcraft or satanism. Second, religious people are so often accused by the more secular members of society as being "nothing but superstitious" that we have a certain desire to show just how rational believers can be.
Yet throughout much of Christian history, a wide ranging folklore of ghosts, sprites, hobs, nobs, witches, dragons, trolls and goblins thrived. Was this simply a hold-over of paganism, as both modern "pagans" looking for a continuity with the "old faith" and also modern critics of "medieval superstition" (whether rationalist or fundamentalist) often claim?
Whether these folk beliefs can properly be call hold-overs from paganism strikes me as very open to interpretation. On the one hand, Christian folklore of the middle ages and renaissance did share some of its cast of characters with pagan folklore from before the coming of Christianity. On the other hand, Christians had in most cases reinterpreted what these folkloric creatures were based on their new Christian beliefs. Thus, nature sprites and household hobs which had previously been seen as bottom rung deities were now often seen as lesser demons or in many cases, as angels who failed to decide for or against God at the time of Lucifer's fall, and were thus banished to Earth until such time as they made up their minds.
This clearly made such spirits dangerous to know, both because they clearly weren't decisively good enough to have remained explicitly loyal to God, and also because one never knew which alliegance they might be trending towards at the moment. Some spirits were believed to be demonic in all but name, consorting with witches and corrupted material beings such as goblins, and fearing holy days and water (symbol of baptism). Others were simply attached to specific places, and more or less benevolent so long as they were treated with respect. Yet others might be generally well disposed to God and man.
Not to say that superstition and incipient paganism aren't dangers. But I think it's also important to keep in mind the ways in which many of these folk beliefs differed from paganism or from religious belief in general, in the sense that we as Christians think of it. Putting a bowl of cream out for the household nob was not necessarily a pagan offering, since nobs were not generally seen as any sort of god, but rather a local creature who could cause trouble if he was displeased, and do occasional favors if well taken care of. You get a glimpse of this worldview this in Milton's L'Allegro where a sprite threshes the grain in return for an offering of cream:
And he by Friars Lanthorn led
Tells how the drudging Goblin swet [ 105 ]
To ern his Cream-bowle duly set,
When in one night, ere glimps of morn,
His shadowy Flale hath thresh'd the Corn
That ten day-labourers could not end,
Then lies him down the. [ 110 ]
And stretch'd out all the Chimney's length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And Crop-full out of dores he flings,
Ere the first Cock his Mattin rings.
The consensus seems strong these days that this case of characters semi-supernatural are not real, though one can always hope they've simply become reclusive. And so there's no good reason why people should believe in them. But aside from the probably fact of their non-existence, I'm not sure that there's any moral reason why they shouldn't.
UPDATE FROM MRSDARWIN: Our Neighbor Totoro has arrived from Netflix and has fast become the favorite of the small Darwins, supplanting Kiki's Delivery Service (sent back to keep it safe from the tender mercies of the girls, who loved it so). At least in the English translation, I don't see any signs of spirit-worship. The girls talk to the Totoro (which might mean troll or tree spirit) and accept it as real, but there's no homage paid it or worship given it.
Actually, it's the SWEETEST MOVIE EVER and left both Darwin and me misty-eyed.
1 hour ago