Devil Muppets

26 March 2024

Somewhere, long ago, I encountered the theory that delusions are culturally constructed and coded. No one had a Napoleon complex before Bonaparte; no one thought they were Jesus before Christianity had permeated their society; ancient Greek conspiracy-theorists were not convinced that the Truth about little grey men was Out There. That our imaginations are culturally bounded makes good sense to me, but every now and again–as a historian–I wonder what that does to our ability to engage with the cultural imaginations of societies whose touchpoints are less accessible to us.

What prompts my deep thoughts this morning? An author describing a manuscript illustration of demons vexing a set of virgin martyrs (what do you read about over your morning tea?). You have the demonic forms anyone who’s studied the later Middle Ages has come to expect: a dragon that is “half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than a horse” (that’s a contemporary description of the beast, fyi). Then there is the demon who impishly tries to blow out the candle held by the virgin martyr St. Geneviève. According to a modern scholar, this one is “purple and furry, rather like a Muppet.”

I am left imagining the Chilly Down Muppets from Labyrinth, only purple. They’re certainly impish enough.