Ülo Valk, The Black Gentleman. Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion.
FF Communications No. 276. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 2001. 217 pp.
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The doctoral dissertation published by Professor Ülo Valk in 1994 deals with the distribution and traditionality of cultural phenomena surrounding manifestations of the devil in Estonian folk religion. Professor Valk acts on the premise that the devil is an empirical being who works among, and in this case reveals himself to humans. Valk examines various visual manifestations of the devil in relation to 1) teachings on the devil in the 15th–17th centuries (religious and demonological literature), 2) the belief and narrative traditions of neighbouring peoples, 3) Estonian witch trials, and 4) to some extent the concepts of demons in the high religions. The text operates with ease and assurance with demonological high culture and the author discovers interesting analogies and parallels between different traditions. His methodology draws its analytical strength from comparative religion, folkloristics and literary research and he uses archive material for the statistical frequency and motif analysis of various manifestations. The monograph does not, however, include a methodological section as such, and nor does Valk explicitly define his position in relation to the history of research in this discipline or the various methods used.

The nature of primary materials

Valk reports that the folklore texts analysed by him are taken from the collections and card indexes of the Estonian Folklore Archives in Tartu (and that some of the material was copied from other Estonian institutions). The data for comparison consists of earlier analyses on Lithuanian and German archive materials and clearly supports his results. The primary material for the research consists mainly of beliefs, memorates and legends recorded between 1888 and 1940 (a total of 1,723 texts). Being an archive researcher myself, I would have been interested to know something about the objectives and motives of collection at that time, the types of methods used in the field, and the names of the Estonian folklore collectors. I rather suspect that not one of the collectors concentrated exclusively on the demon tradition and that the material was a by-product of other linguistic, ethnological and folkloristic collection. This has undoubtedly left its mark on the material, because telling of personal supernatural experiences, for example, usually calls for a certain degree of trust between the interviewer and the interviewee for an open narrating situation to be even possible.

It should also be borne in mind that the folktales analysed by Valk indicate that strangers from outside the community are not to be trusted or should be treated at least with great reservations. Valk mentions at a few points that certain collectors were not reliable, but the reader is left wondering why this was so. The examples translated into English suggest that texts were edited and stylised even before being deposited in the archives. The oral legends in the book are presented as being stylistically and structurally coherent without any of the nuances, filler words and interrupted thoughts of oral discourse. The minor qualitative variations and source-criticism problems are not, however, fatal in the statistical analysis of representatives of the devil in folk belief.

Somewhat surprisingly, Valk describes the texts for analysis as religious material, though estimating the function, context and religiosity of archive entries is often very difficult or outright impossible in the case of early materials. On the other hand, the author himself says on the very next page that the devil is a mythical being that appears in folk tradition in non-religious contexts, too, such as fairytales. One of the questions that remain unanswered is, to my mind, the extent to which the bearers of tradition (the narrators and listeners) really did believe in the various manifestations of the devil at the time of collection. Among the basic criteria for the credibility of a narrative from the point of view of research into folk belief are: 1) precise, detailed accounts of real people in the real world, 2) the encounter with the supernatural in accounts, i.e. the conflict to which a rational solution is sought, and 3) the narrator’s own assessments or comments on the narrative. A wealth of contextual information and detail in a folklore text is not necessarily any measure of the narrator’s real knowledge of a series of events tied to local history but of a desire to give the narrative credibility. (Blehr 1965: 37 and 1974: 14; Klemettinen 1997: 47–50.)

Cohabitation of belief and non-belief

Allowing for these considerations, there was probably no such thing as a uniform folk belief shared by all, and opinions undoubtedly differed on the supernatural experiences described in the material. The models for interpreting and explaining phenomena have varied from one era and place to another in folk culture, as elsewhere. For some of the people the narratives were pure entertainment seasoned with a touch of excitement and bearing a moral lesson through the bad deeds of the leading characters. For other members of the tradition community, however, the narratives are a confirmation of their belief in the existence of an empirical devil.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the beliefs and legends that found their way into the tradition archives were, of course, primarily stereotypical ones that, from the scholar’s and collector’s point of view, represented valuable oral folklore in danger of vanishing and hence recorded in an attempt to rescue it. The book could well have included a separate chapter about the research material, giving a closer account of the nature of folk belief and other topics I have mentioned. There could, for example, have been brief biographies of the major collectors of demonological lore. The same chapter could further have debated the influence of the collectors’ intentions and other such considerations on the results of their collection. But these observations are those of an archive researcher, and excessive probing of the background and metadata would in all likelihood have hindered what is in fact a coherent monograph proceeding in a logical manner.

The study is of an ahistorical nature, for although Valk examines similarities and dissimilarities between images of the devil appearing in Europe at different times, he does not place the Estonian folklore phenomena for study on a linear timescale or in any particular cultural-historical era. Maximilian Rudwin (1931), for example, drawing on legends and literature, generalised the devil as appearing in history first as an animal (influence of tribal and natural religions), then as a cross between human and animal (the medieval satyr-figure) and finally as a fully human being (the learned gentleman of the Enlightenment and Romantic era). The demonological tradition described by Valk is not presented as a dynamic genre of oral folklore evolving regionally but rather as a shared cultural inheritance spanning a long period of time. This is highly understandable, seeing that Valk is examining the mythical figure of the devil in folk belief primarily from the perspective of a thousand years of Western Christian demonology. The social reality of the tradition and examination of tradition communities themselves thus receive very little attention. It is not entirely clear from the work just who propagated the demon tradition and why, and how the Christian demonological doctrines were in practice assimilated into Estonian folk belief.

Demons of the oppressed

The reader obtains the best insight into the real world referred to in the texts in the excellent sections dealing with the Black Gentleman and German nobleman. The German element and its demonisation stand in the Estonian tales of devils for the alien, other and evil, all of which must be warded off. All nations seem to have their own real or imaginary demons who are believed to come from outside the community (cf. the accusations of witchcraft). The narratives of an oppressed nation handed down from the 17th and 18th centuries reflect lasting tensions between different social classes. It is to my mind in dealing with this particular narrative genre of the tradition peculiar to the Estonians that Valk is at his strongest, and for this reason the monograph merits a special place in the international research literature on the devil and demonology.

The comparative study brings to light various international types of migratory legends in context, insofar as the Estonian material supports this. As an aid in constructing his monograph Valk uses the major type classifications for fairytales, beliefs, belief legends, migratory legends and medieval religious narratives. He could have made a closer analysis of the relationship between various Estonian legend types and its influence on the research results. A quantitative study appears to reveal the most frequent manifestations of the devil in the popular legend tradition rather than the demons existing in empirical folk religion. In practice, the beliefs and the belief legends based on them support one another, but the reader would have been interested to see some comparative data on the manifestations of the devil within different folklore genres, too.

Closer analysis of memorates and beliefs might have yielded more information about the Estonians’ own world of belief and its inherent features. This is, however, no real problem in the study because as the text proceeds, Valk gives excellent coverage to rare manifestations of the devil and, in examining the Estonian corpus as a whole, outright curiosities (such as a moving haycock and a black ball). The study is to my mind thus also qualitative, i.e. Valk progresses via individual texts and the motifs appearing in them to broader cultural interpretations and frames of reference.

Varieties of manifest devils

The study deals with anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and material manifestations and metamorphoses of the devil. Valk devotes most pages in his motif analysis to human forms. I do not wish to dwell here on interesting individual manifestations, tempting though it would be in the light of my own personal research. Suffice it to say that the devil as satyr featuring in religious publications and, for example, medieval stone churches appears relatively seldom in the belief traditions of various nations. As an explanation for this Valk quotes the serious religious information contained in legends: “In Christian popular culture, the Devil is not merely a fairytale character but a living religious image, even a perceptible reality. The statistical analysis of the manifestations reflects the warning function of the legends: more attention is paid to the seemingly innocent guises of the Devil; because it is more difficult to see through them therefore the people must be warned about them. These could be the reasons why the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms are mentioned so frequently.” (189–90.) In a folk context, even a small narrative motif and cognitive clue may allude to the devil, familiar to all; the criteria for supernaturalness may then be specific physical traits and the unexpected appearance or disappearance of the figure.

Personally I suspect that other reasons for the rare appearance of the classical devil figure are probably the integration of the Christian tradition with the familiar observation environment, and the complex relationship between the devil and other creatures existing simultaneously in the belief tradition (e.g. spirits of natural elements, earth-dwellers and ghosts). As Valk himself demonstrates, the tradition-dominated devil as the archenemy approved and seconded by the Christian faith has with the passing of the centuries been endowed with functions and features of pagan beings both good and evil. This has undoubtedly been a common process and tendency wherever Christianity has, in spreading, encountered a strong and thriving folk religion.

How to deal with the supernatural

Valk does not in his monograph touch upon the supernatural experiences of individuals, though the memorates would have permitted this. If the devil is regarded as an empirical being, Valk could have analysed the experiencers’ reality and sought answers to such questions as why the devil existed for some people, and how the community regarded or reacted to this. The failure to do so is understandably a consequence of the deliberate constraints placed by Valk on his subject and my comment should therefore be taken primarily as a personal note in the margin.

Of the experiencers Valk says in drawing his conclusions: “Among the experiencers the number of drunk men and those coming from the pub is remarkably large. They are sinners and also mentally apt to see visions and delusions” (p. 194). This interpretation appears to be founded on the explanations provided in the stereotypical legends rather than on reports by the experiencers themselves of encounters with the devil. In reality, the people living in the tradition communities did not automatically have experiences of a certain kind in a certain situation. In the cognitive sense, previous experiences and tradition awareness do admittedly tend to have a guiding, but not a mechanical influence. A clear distinction should in my opinion be made between the world of legends and the reality of the experiencers in making the analysis. Those who have suffered negative supernatural experiences have, through no will of their own, often been assigned the role of scapegoat in the community, and only in retrospect has a strange sequence of events been interpreted as the work of the devil. Even today, communities still need people who see devils and serve as a warning to others so that order and discipline may be maintained or at least justified.

The fairly brief chapter on delusions raised many questions, but I would have expected the topic to be examined not only through religious and demonological literature but in the light of others’ research and theories, too. In my view, experiences of the devil cannot be categorically branded as what the psychologists call delusions, since there are numerous alternative scientific, pseudo-scientific and folk explanations for the phenomena experienced. According to Lauri Honko, the various tradition-psychological models previously used in an attempt to prove that supernatural experiences did not exist are not alone sufficient to describe the nature of the tradition of experiencing the supernatural. Honko does not directly deny the reality experiences of, say, people who have visions of spirits, and instead asks whose reality, and why the spirits exist (Suurla 1991: 30–31, 91). In this chapter, if not before, Valk would have done well to define what he means by “supernatural”, because if all experience is delusion, then from the researcher’s point of view, nothing that is supernatural exists in reality.

In my own folkloristic research into poltergeists I define the supernatural as follows: “The term ‘supernatural’ can be applied to phenomena which the experiencer himself regards as falling outside the domain of the normal laws of nature or causalities and that operate or occur independently. In folkloristics, the concept of the supernatural does not require that phenomena be objectively verifiable; rather, the focus is on the significance of the personal experiences of individuals or communities and their manifestations.” (Klemettinen 1997: 113.) The definition does not exclude the possibility that people who have visions or broader experience of belief beings themselves regard their experiences as normal and part of their everyday reality. The question is where they believe the (mythic) beings come from and what they believe them capable of with their superhuman powers. Among the criteria for supernatural beings are, in addition to their physical attributes, their immortality, invisibility, materialisation and dematerialisation, their rapid movement from place to place and their ability to pass through solid substances (especially spirit beings).


Why was the devil such a central figure in Estonian folklore? Valk’s answer to this is quite simply the same as in, say, Finnish folklore: “The scope of the Devil’s activities broadens in Christian folk religion and his tricks are a convenient explanation to any mystery or supernatural phenomena that people may ever experience” (p. 188). Above all, the work or influence of the devil was believed to be behind supernatural phenomena and manifestations felt to be negative, and behind accidents, unsolved crimes and mysterious deaths. Valk’s monograph is a conspicuous addition to the folkloristic research tradition based on the systematic control of extensive archive materials. In addition to fieldwork and its techniques, the maintenance and development of quality archive research should, I believe, be part of the training in the tradition disciplines. The sizeable archive collections alone, permitting the qualitative and quantitative study of the most varied cultural phenomena, are a sufficient argument for this.

As Valk sees it, the manifestations of the devil in Estonian folk religion are primarily part of the Western European and Christian cultural domain and not of the Finno-Ugrian or Eastern tradition. There is a temptation in the present EU day and age to view the work of Professor Valk at the beginning of the 1990s as an attempt to link Estonia with Western Europe in the broader sense of research as well. Finally, I must congratulate the translator on the extremely careful rendering of the Estonian to produce a text that in this sense, too, makes pleasant reading.

Pasi Klemettinen
Finnish Literature Society
Helsinki, Finland


Blehr, Otto 1965: Noen synspunkter på analysen av folketrofortellinger. (Universitets etnografiske museum. Årbok 1965.) Bergen.
— 1974: Folketro- og sagnforskning. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget.
Klemettinen, Pasi 1997: Mellastavat pirut. Tutkimus kansanomaisista paholais- ja noituuskäsityksistä Karjalan kannaksen ja Laatokan karjalan tarinaperinteessä. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.
Rudwin, Maximilian 1931: The Devil in Legend and Literature. Chicago: Open Court Publishing.
Suurla, Riitta 1991: Paradigmojen muutosprosessi Lauri Hongon tuotannossa. An unpublished M.A. thesis. Dept. of Folklore, University of Helsinki.

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