Archive for October, 2016

[note: it occurs to me that, as with many stories taken from folklore, this is a bit of a NSFW post–for those not acronym-savvy, that means not so much that it is violent, which it is, but that some of the dismembered body parts involved are (in the normal course of events) used to make babies. So reader beware.]

inktober_10_31_16_the_grisly_box_by_callego-damzua7Happy Halloween! Now that the “Paganism Past” conference this last weekend is over, I’m relaxing today by, among other things, reading some non-Scandi folkloristic type stuff–right now Japanese Tales edited and translated by Royall Turner (who was apparently placed at the University of Oslo at one point, so it just goes to show that everything connects to Scandinavian Studies in the end). Appropriately enough today I hit the “Haunts” section of the book, and thought I would illustrate the short but grim story “The Grisly Box” for my last Inktober 2016 drawing.

Like most of the other texts in this volume, the story is from Heian-era Japan, so if I remember my Japanese history correctly (that one class in undergrad is a long time ago now…) this is prior to the Samurai, and instead the period of poetic aristocrats improvising on cherry blossoms in the court at Kyoto. Well OK, this story really has nothing to do with that. In “The Grisly Box” a bureaucrat who works for a regent is traveling home to see his family and comes across a woman on a bridge who gives him a box, which he is to 1) give to a woman on another bridge, whose name he does not need to know because she will be there, don’t worry, and 2) ABSOLUTELY NOT OPEN. Btw, his servants don’t see anyone and are wondering “What the hell is our master doing?” He takes the box, but forgets to stop at the other bridge so ends up taking the box home with him. His wife say “Well, Mr, that’s a nice box, where did you get that WHAT IS HER NAME” and, of course, because we can already tell we are in a story that is going to either stereotype women’s motives or turn them into absolute monsters, she opens it and inside there are EYEBALLS AND PENISES. (btw, spoiler alert). Then the husband is like “Oh heck, we better get this to the right person now” but when he gives it to the other bridge woman she says “hey you looked didn’t you” but he denies it, and some time later he dies. The end. I know, out of possible Japanese-themed stories I don’t know why they didn’t do this story instead of Kubo and the Two Strings…

Some comparative comments as a folklorist (OK, I am more a Scandinavianist than a Folklorist but whatever):

-Not uncommon in a patriarchal society to find female monsters/supernaturals coded as sexually threatening (male supernaturals can be as well, but they turn up in different sorts of stories), so this is not an especially surprising story to come across. The inclusion of a jealous wife highlights the theme as well, with whatever guilt we might impute to an unfaithful husband displaced onto the castrating, apparently voracious (what else do they need all those pricks for?) spooky women. I don’t have comparable castrating legends in mind at the moment from Scandi folklore (doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but my recall is not great at the moment), but we do find supernatural women coded as sexually threatening in many narratives, as with the Swedish skogsrå. The “point” of these stories (not that they were always intended explicitly as moral lessons) is not always consistent, which serves to remind us that each individual version of a legend comes from an individual, and so can be taken as part of a larger debate regarding, for example, gender norms, the status of the supernatural community, etc–but the threat in many of these stories is framed around the danger of leaving the human community, diminishing the reproductive and other capacities of that community, in favor of the supernaturals, who to some degree (not to say this is somehow the most primal or foundational meaning) stand in for competing communities in general. And of course, it inverts the usual run of things in a patriarchy–the woman becomes powerful, the man weak, perhaps simultaneously expressing patriarchal guilt (“if they treated us like we treat them…”) as well as justifying the status quo (“if we let them have power…”). But let’s also note that, again, there is no need to assume culture is monolithic, and what might seem subversive can nevertheless end up be a fairly prominent part of the cultural production–I’m thinking here of the fact that the Valkyries of Norse mythology in some instances (not all) get a fairly positive treatment while in others they seem tied to quite thoroughly patriarchal cautionary tales. Also, spooky, castrating women can be used in politically subversive ways rather than cautionary/kinky ways, and of course, subversive readings are always possible as well.

-The eyes–well, it is an easy enough Freudian move to take the eye itself as a phallic symbol. Not that we need to take Freudian symbolism and apply it “willy”-nilly (did you see what I did there?)–but if this is a matter of supernatural women subverting the patriarchy, then this is a good complement to the theme of castration, as the “woman as seen, man as see-er” is an obvious binary opposition in patriarchal ideologies (btw, I wrote a dissertation on this… well, on related things).

-The fact that these women show up at bridges is a great example of the association of supernaturals with liminal space (though I confess I have no idea if these bridge women are common in Japanese folklore or not). By liminal I mean in-between. This is easiest to see in terms of geography, as these women are found at rivers, common markers of boundaries (I think also of the fact that liminal spaces are common in oral poetry, a point I picked up somewhere but can’t remember, and that many important moments in Norse mythology take place in in-between places, like a coastline), but it has a semantic dimension as well, meaning, involving the boundaries between things/concepts. Think “both/and” or “neither/nor”–fairies show up at twilight, when it is neither day nor night, people in Scandinavian folktales, at least, are at-risk during in-between times of their life (between birth and baptism, between childhood and adulthood, etc), and (again in scandi folklore, sorry, it is what I know) you find spirits associated with water mills, which are often geographically on the periphery, between the human community and the wilderness, and semantically in-between in that it is both/and neither/nor land/water (build above a stream as it must be). The bridge location is an obvious one for a supernatural, then–both/and neither/nor land/water (which, of course, is why the Billy Goats Gruff run into a troll at a bridge). Liminality in this sense is, of course, bound up in some very basic cognitive/linguistic faculties, and so it is no surprise that this seems to be a pretty universal aspect of folk narrative (and other narrative–though this is not to say that we can’t find supposed “universals” expressed very differently, or expressive of very different concerns, from culture to culture and person to person).

And to end, I can’t help but note how even at the academic level it can be easy for us to think “what! penises! this is ridiculous, no one believes something like this might happen!”, given that at this conference this past weekend my friend and colleague Merrill Kaplan, who does both Old Norse lit and Scandinavian folklore like myself (but more and better, if I may say so) gave a talk reinterpreting one of the words in a particularly odd tale about the conversion in Norway in which our intrepid missionary comes across a cult in which women cuddle a dismembered and preserved horse prick. Yup. In the very lively discussion that followed (wow, people had Opinions on this…) one of the throw-away comments implied that none of us took seriously the idea that there ever actually was a cult practice like this, since it was really just totally ridiculous. Merrill (and for the record, I’m quite convinced by her argument throughout, but can’t say I am super familiar with the philological issues) insisted we had to take the story seriously–not meaning we had to assume a cult actually did look like this once, but that, however much it was meant to ridicule pagans, the story must be taken as believable against the (admittedly biased) horizon of expectations of medieval Christian Icelanders when it comes to what paganism might look like. I do find myself agreeing that, in a more explicitly historical text like the one in question (Flateyjarbók), however much the intent is to mock, it will still build on what people are willing to see as a reasonable expectation. And you know, there is so much crazy stuff (sorry, not an emic perspective there) in world religion and mythology (can’t single out my own religion here either) that at some point you have to say a horse-penis-cuddling-cult is not necessarily out of the question… Nor are spooky women collecting eye balls and pricks, apparently, at least at the level of legend.

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Grettir according to a late 1600s manuscript

Grettis saga, or The Saga of Grettir the Strong (I’ve used both the Scudder translation and the Fox/Palsson one) was the first saga I taught, way back in 2003, my first time as a Grad Student Instructor doing Reading and Composition for the Department of Scandinavian at Berkeley. It is counted as one of the Icelandic Family sagas, or Sagas of Icelanders, which were set in the period of about 930-1030. Some of these sagas take place primarily before the conversion to Christianity in 1000 (eg, Egils saga, Gisla saga--parts do take place after the conversion, but the main action takes place in the late pagan period), while others straddle the conversion (Brennu-Njáls saga, etc). Grettis saga, as far as the main character goes (the story of the earlier generations takes place in the pagan period), primarily takes place after the conversion. The saga itself is also believed to have been written relatively late compared to the other Sagas of Icelanders (they are generally thought to date in their original written forms from the early 1200s to the early 1300s), and has often suffered in comparison to the shining reputation of, say, Njáls saga, often seen as the height of the (classic, family) saga form. We can lay the blame on Grettis saga‘s relatively scattered plot (we can point to some central conflicts, but the story-matter itself tends to be very episodic) and the “folkloric” (read: monster fights) elements.


A (very cartoony) image of Grettir lifting a rock–there are standing stones in Iceland that are referred to as “Grettir’s lift”, and the saga tells us of one or two such stones that he supposedly lifted while lazing about waiting for someone. Grettir continues to make a point of reminding us that he is the strongest even across all these centuries…

Of course the more casual reader, especially the one raised on Tolkien, Martin, Rowling, etc, will probably enjoy the saga for precisely the over-the-top elements, though do brace yourself for the episodic nature of the story. Where the more “respectable” sagas can be read as largely revolving around a central feud or chain of feuds (it has even been suggested that the structure of the sagas corresponds in essence to the structure of a feud–for more on feuds in Medieval Iceland check out WI Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking), I suggest reading Grettis saga as revolving around the growth of the main character–well, OK, this is debatable, but I feel like the person who compiled the material for the saga (I am assuming here that much, not necessarily all, of the material was circulating in various forms in oral tradition, and we have some evidence of that with this saga) put it in its final form with an eye towards Grettir’s arc from “coal-biter” (a sort of male Cinderella, unpromising youth eventually rising to prominence–though in the male versions it is not so much a matter of being poor and badly treated, but of being a lazy, cocky little shit who doesn’t seem like they will ever make something of themselves) to tragic outlawed hero, doomed by the fact that he takes to long to (mildly) repent his hubris. Well, look for that arc and see what you think–I admit it does take a bit of work on the part of the reader…

Also, a quick trigger warning–a late scene in the saga appears to involve the rape of a serving girl. The saga frames it such that one of my students (long long ago) argued fairly convincingly that we were supposed to understand it as consensual, but the very patriarchal world of the sagas (in spite of the presence of many strong female characters) did not always distinguish so strongly between rape and “seduction”–at issue were the interests of the nearest male kinsman rather than the woman involved. As a woman of an unlanded family the serving girl of course did not have anyone to take issue, and the saga shows some of the typical saga disdain for the lower classes by portraying her as a “naughty wench who had it coming”. I don’t point all this out to excuse things, saying “oh, you know how the Middle Ages were…”, just a heads up since we do run across these things. :/ This particular episode is the most explicit thread in the ongoing “short sword” joke that runs through the saga. The erased bawdy poem Grettisfærsla is probably evidence that the traditions surrounding Grettir were often enough rather titillating–not a surprise when it comes to folklore about a famous outlaw, I would think.

Some last notes:

-The monster stories are interesting in that there are a decent number of echoes between individual episodes, and if you have read Beowulf (no, none of the movie versions count) you can try your hand as a scholar yourself and consider whether or not you think there are any plausible connections between the early 1000s Old English poem and the 1300s Icelandic saga. I do think the parallels between the monster fights in both works are compelling, but I’m willing to see them as migratory legends rather than direct borrowing.

-Speaking of monsters, one of the interesting points of Grettir’s character is how much he resembles the monsters he deals with. Well, don’t go thinking he is a simple brute–he is also a poet, and his orneriness initially manifests more in his obnoxious use of poetry and proverbs to deal with his father than in his strength–though his strength is enormous. As a great hero, Grettir ends up being the “who ya gonna call” guy, dealing with ghosts (not the same sort as in Ghostbusters tho), bears, trolls, you name it he’ll kill it. Many of these stories, like Beowulf, or like many other heroes of a more mythic cast, I expect, have Grettir standing in as either 1) the defender of human space (think Beowulf defending the Hall against Grendel) or 2) the invader of monstrous space (think Beowulf attacking Grendel’s mother and the dying Grendel in their underwater home–but for both of these, also consider the relationship between the gods and the giants in Norse myth). The tragedy seems to be that Grettir is a bit of a monster himself, or often confused for one, and at times more at home in the world of monsters–it is the world of other men that causes him trouble.

-The saga concludes with a mini-saga (a “thread” is actually the technical term) where Grettir’s half brother goes to Byzantium to get revenge on his behalf and the story suddenly turns into a Romance (in the sense of Tale of Chivalry–though there is romance in the modern sense as well), so those into the likes of King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, etc, will get a special treat at the end.

Well, those are a few quick thoughts, and now I really ought to go–sorry for this super late post, and sorry that it is only this one so far this month. I’m presenting at a conference this weekend, plus had some health issues, so I’m a bit delayed. That said, I have managed to keep up with Inktober on Tumblr and Deviantart, so check out my art there!

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