One interesting way some Christian missionaries tried to make people understand the theology of the Bible was to interpret through a Christian lens the very cultures and mythologies that they considered to be pagan. They did this with much of the traditional folklore of Europe, as well as with the gods and supernatural creatures exposed to them by the people inhabiting the regions that Christians came to colonize, such as the Americas. By aligning benign deities with the Abrahamic God or angels, and monstrous evil beings with Satan and demons, Christian missionaries thought that foreign cultures would be more accepting of the supernatural realm described by the church.
One such instance of folklore and mythology being incorporated into Christian mythology is in The Malleus Maleficarum. Published around 1486-1487 by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, the peculiar text was the most influential source of information on witches, demons and monsters, and it was used by inquisitors and witch-hunters for nearly three centuries. Along with other creatures such as basilisks, changelings and werewolves, the authors of The Malleus Maleficarum also worked mythological beings such as fauns and trolls into the supernatural realm of angels and demons.
In Part II, Question 1, Chapter 3 of The Malleus Maleficarum, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger cited Cassian’s Collationes I, which confirmed the existence of odd demons or spirits that focused on pranking and scaring humans instead of causing serious harm. This is what they wrote:
“For it is manifest that some of them, which the common people call Fauns, and we call Trolls, which abound in Norway, are such buffoons and jokers that they haunt certain places and roads and, without being able to do any hurt to those who pass by, are content with mocking and deluding them, and try to weary them rather than hurt them. And some of them only visit men with harmless nightmares” (The Malleus Maleficarum. Part II, Qn.1, Ch. 3. Translated by Montague Summers, 1971).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.