Archive for the ‘Folklore’ Category

Just some loose thoughts on Earth Day–not a comprehensive overview here, so if you are looking for comparative mythology check elsewhere for today. But you certainly don’t have to look far to find traditional (or non-traditional) personifications of the earth, whether we are thinking of the planet as a whole or, more locally, the ground beneath our feet or before our eyes. Regarding the latter, finding human features in the landscape is common enough, whether we are imagining trolls turned to stone or finding a profile in a cliff, and of course we love to take it a step further and actually shape the earth in our image–or tease the inanimate into more surreal human likenesses, as with my Inktober illustration to the left. The effect can range from the playful to the uncanny–after all, we don’t really want the world to look back, do we? It is an uncomfortable reminder that our visibility is such an essential element of our own existence–that we are as much a part of the world as what we are looking at, as prone to being seen, being used. Yikes, that turned dark quick…

At a bit of a remove from the animated earth we have the earth as “nature” (in opposition to human “culture”) inhabited by our mirror images, the “Hidden Folk,” the “Under-earthers,” “elves,” etc–in Scandinavian folklore of a century or two ago these communities overlap with our own spatially, except that they live under the ground, or in some other invisible manner (and to extend my “mirror images” metaphor, many stories about them feature dramatic inversions–their food is our feces and vice versa, their gold our rubbish). Further away from the human community the bodies of the otherworldly folk may even be inclined to blur a bit with the natural world they represent–the Swedish skogsrå, part temptress part forest sprite, may be recognized as a monster from her backside, which is a hollowed out tree, or at least barky, and of course the trolls one finds in the mountains may also end up part of the mountain, like the three in The Hobbit.

Jord (Earth) and Thor for Earth Day by Callego

My 2014 Earth Day illustration–a very particular interpretation of Thor’s mother, after watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” for the upteenth time.

But as for more explicit representations of the earth, I come up with primarily female figures, which seems pretty standard for the Western tradition. The “Mother Earth” figure can be an empowering, perhaps even subversive one (don’t know to what degree this is taken up in ecofeminism, but that would be a place to look), but this gendered association of female/earth brings with it (or has attracted) some patriarchal baggage as well. What is a landscape in Freud’s symbolism? A woman’s body, duh (and a cave represents the female genitals–and who hasn’t been subjected to the tomb/womb equivalence in some poetry class or another? OK, I confess that comment is motivated more out of embarrassment over an early poem of my own…). We don’t have to take Freud’s suggested symbols as somehow rooted in the fabric of reality (if I understand correctly, his understanding of his symbolism edged towards the historically situated later in life), but we can note that the association of women’s bodies with inanimate, if fecund, nature is not strange to us. We speak of “virgin territory,” for example, the metaphorical equivalences at play being the male explorer as virile lover (or rapist, since there is no volition on the side of the explored/ravished in this model) and the unexplored land as virginal–the land is defined in terms of its exploitation, impending or incomplete, just as a “virgin” (ie, a maiden–it is clearly female virginity that is at play here, though changing that around would be an interesting subversion) is thus defined by her impending or incomplete exploitation. While we should be cautious about projecting ideology we’ve inherited from the age of exploration and colonialism onto the medieval past, we do find comparable equivalence in the portrayal of the relationship of the king to the land/kingdom, the control and protection of women mapping onto the control and protection of territory–but I’m afraid I do not remember the reference (I think I’ve got an article by someone on the subject in my computer somewhere…). I will try to remember to note it here when I run across it again. But in any case, we should really not be surprised to find patriarchal ideology in anything to do with medieval kingship…

In Norse mythology there is of course the goddess Jörð (=Earth), whom I posted about for a previous earth day. I don’t think there is much we can hazard regarding her cult significance in the pre-Christian era, unfortunately (but keep in mind I specialize more in the medieval texts the myths were written down in). If we could take a peek at Viking age beliefs, perhaps we would find more developed images of Jörð to counter the more patriarchal frame of the myths as recorded in Christian Iceland (though of course, the “Viking Age” didn’t have any sort of uniform orthodoxy, and we certainly are free to work with Jörð’s character in new and liberating ways now), but in the context of the medieval Icelandic Eddas she is caught up with all the other women in the machinations of the male gods (note how place name evidence suggests a much larger cult significance for the goddesses than the surviving myths seem to indicate). While she is a giantess, she is counted among the gods as one of Óðinn’s many mistresses, a role which itself reinforces the state of negative reciprocity between gods and giants (as I touch on in this far-too-lengthy discussion of the mead of poetry). She is often referenced as mother of Þórr (Thor) (we might also note that Frigg’s largest role in the mythology revolves around her being mother of Baldr). As usual, we find a god in the patriline and a giantess (or sometimes a goddess) in the matriline–when this rule is broken, well, apparently then we get Loki (but we’ll leave that for another time). In Haustlöng, one of the early shield poems, we have Jörð’s role as both mother of Þórr and the earth highlighted in Þórr’s intimidating approach to his duel with the giant Hrungnir–in stanza 14 Þórr, explicitly kenned as Earth’s son, rides through the air with such violence that the skies (the “moon’s path”) resound under him (though keep in mind that he is clattering along in his cart pulled by goats… possibly a reference to how his idol would originally have been carried around for cult purposes, actually), then in stanza 15 this weather-god (thunderer, remember) makes his entry even more dramatic with a hail-storm that tears up the earth so that it was about to split. The kenning used for earth here is “Svölnir’s widow”–Svölnir being Óðinn, Óðinn being known for the fact that he will die (has died?) in Ragnarök. So the sense is “Óðinn’s bereaved.” From the context this must be Jörð (rather than Frigg–or any others of the big guy’s mistresses), since it is the ground that is being pummeled by the hail. Since Jörð is being kenned specifically by her relationship to Óðinn, her status as Þórr’s mother is highlighted here. The essentials are “The son of earth rode through the sky so hard it sounded like it was going to fall apart, and made such a bit hailstorm that his mother’s body was about to split apart.” So we have the body of a giantess, representative of the foundation of the natural world, and whatever her relationship to the men involved, sacrificed (only poetically here, don’t worry) for the sake of the giant killer’s grand entrance. A bit beyond the “step on a crack” rhyme, ain’t it. This is, as said, a pretty early poem, so we can’t blame Snorri here.

The death of Ymir, as imagined by Lorenz Frolich

Alas, violence against the matriline is not unheard of with the gods (though we should note that Icelanders actually reckoned kin bilaterally, including when it came to responsibility for bloodfeuds, so the story we get into now is in fact rather problematic…), and with this we will turn to our final example of a personification of the earth: The original (and originary) Frost Giant Ymir. Check out Prose Edda for a more thorough account in Gylfaginning (or at least Snorri’s version), but the basics are: the world started with a big gap between a world of ice and a world of fire. In the middle the two mingled and became a person (of course). This is Ymir! Ymir (whom we refer to with masculine pronouns, but for reasons about to be revealed this is problematic) lived on the milk of a cow, who in turn lived by licking ice. These were the people in the universe (well, Surtr was apparently off lurking by the realm of fire). How did we get more? Well, before we got to the birds and the bees, there were three ways: The cow licked a person out of the ice; Ymir sweated other giants out of his armpits; and Ymir’s feet had sex with each other and made more giants (OK, some birds and bees there I guess). Then at some point the boy licked out of the ice (or his son, but how did that happen…) married a girl who came out of… well, either an armpit or a foot, I guess, got together and from them the gods were born! Ta da! So Óðinn is non-giant in his patriline, and giant in his matriline (note this is the same as with his own son). And then Óðinn and his brother killed their maternal kinsman Ymir and made the world out of his body. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The surviving texts suggest to us that this is not the only creation myth in circulation (for example, there also seems to be a typical “land rising out of the ocean, causing a fight between a god of order and demon of chaos” myth, but we can only guess about that one), but this bloody origin of the world is the one we got in the most detail. I do always enjoy recounting the story to the uninitiated, but I think quite apart from all the weirdness Ymir is a fascinating figure, and has a lot of potential for thinking about gender, violence, and our relationship to the environment.

Concluding thoughts: Why personify the earth? What has driven that in the past, and why might we do so now? One possible explanation is it gives us a way to articulate the agency we witness/experience from the environment, whether in positive terms or negative terms–that the world acts on us and reacts to us we cannot deny, but even now the only language we really have for discussing “actors” is that of human agency. Another might be a denial of our participation in earth and environment, setting ourselves in opposition to it by placing our mirror image “over there.” And of course, if we understand our relationship to the environment as a competition, as exploitation, or if we haven’t yet formulated that thought but deep down are a bit uneasy… well, much easier to articulate a relationship of either exploitation or obligation with a “person” than with the vastness that is the “world.” Many other ways to “explain” this of course, and there is no reason to settle on one, once and for all.

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[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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Looking back at Solvorn from the Urnes stave church–the seter I hiked up to would in the hills to the left of the town (I think the tiny little bare patch you can see up next to the corner of the roof may be part of the pasture).

I’ve been putting off sharing my pictures from a Norwegian seter since August, so may as well make it my last post of 2015! As you may have noted in my August posts, I was able to scrape together some funding to visit Scandinavia this past summer–first time in Sweden in… maybe 7, 8 years, and first time in Norway since I was 15. I got to visit lots of awesome locations on this trip, relevant to my past research, my teaching, my favorite movies, or my family history, but one unexpected pleasure was finding that there was a seter (summer pasture, called a shieling in Scotland) right next to Solvorn, the town I stayed in when visiting the Urnes stave church (will have to post on that another time). I’ve got a professional interest in the seter, of course, but I’ve also been working the idea into some of the fiction I’ve been writing the last few years (one story got honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest), so it was nice to visit one personally!



I hiked from Solvorn up to the far end of the circle, before it continued on up the mountain.

The seter (Norwegian– säter in Swedish), is part of a tradition of transhumance in Norway and parts of Sweden (though not the parts my family is from, I believe). The seter/säter is basically summer pasture, or a summer dairy, run by women in Scandinavia (I believe the Scottish shieling is used by male shepherds, but I still hear the term used in connection with the Scandinavian phenomenon). A summer dairy could be run by an older woman, or, going by the legend tradition that I’m familiar with, you could have just unmarried girls running the summer pasture. Some places might have a distinction between närfäbodar (pastures closer to hand where the cattle are first moved) and långfäbodar (where they are moved later in the summer–see the Swedish wikipedia entry for fäbod for this


Gudbrandsdal, where Peer Gynt takes place–the seter would have been further up in the mountains.

info), and while some locations may have the seter nearby (I got a bit lost, but I think you can make it to the seter from Solvorn in 1-2 hours) there are others where (I believe) you might have to hike a good part of the day to get there–I imagine it goes even longer with the cattle. If you’ve read Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (you probably haven’t–it’s pretty different from his A Doll’s House, but a fascinating read), you might remember the three seter girls he encounters early in the play, who are crying out for the trolls living nearby to keep them company (a bit euphemistic here–Peer stays with them instead, and we catch a glimpse of the anxiety over sexually mature yet unattached young women staying alone out in the wild that we see in the legend tradition).


The first cow I encountered–right around where the trail runs into the lower end of the loop (the higher end was where the seter buildings were, so I imagine this was the start of the summer pasture here). When I came back down this way there were four or five cows lying around, completely blocking the path, so I had to clamber down through the brush, then back up to the path again. A city boy like me just doesn’t know what to do with these ferocious beasts…

My knowledge of the seter/säter is mostly limited to some of the ways it shows up in Scandinavian Folklore (a course I took with John Lindow when I started grad school at Berkeley back in 2002-3, and which I later got to teach as a lecturer in 2010), and I’ve never pursued the topic in my own research, just in my teaching, but I’ve been interested in it since I first heard of it. In the legend tradition I am most familiar with the story is usually one of a failed abduction–a young woman, engaged but not yet married, is alone at the seter with her dog. A cute guy from the huldre folk/hidden folk/underjordiska (the under-earthers)/elves/trolls/etc stops by and starts wooing her–potentially a very attractive offer, as there were certainly legends out there about girls abducted by the hidden folk who later appear to their parents and tell them to stop searching because they’ve married the prince of the mountain or some such and are actually a lot better off now than they used to be.


The first building I encountered up at the seter.

Of course in this story the girl is loyal to her fiance, but this other guy suddenly has all his hidden folk family and friends there and they are putting a bridal crown on her head and pretty much getting set for the I-dos, so she ties a ribbon around her dog and sends him running down the mountain for her fiance. And of course when her fiance sees the ribbon he knows something is up, so he rushes up the mountain, gun in hand, and when he sees the wedding going on he shoots a bullet over the wedding party (because, of course, you get power over the hidden folk when you pass iron/steel over them, duh), and they all scatter, and human boy and human girl live happily ever after, the end.

IMG_3885I’ll leave off more thorough analysis, but the narrative tradition surrounding the seter is obviously pretty preoccupied with young unmarried women and sex–some versions have outlaws visiting the girls instead of trolls, and I expect that in some versions the girl actually does marry the troll–and taking a cue from the cameo in Peer Gynt, I also expect there is bawdy folklore aplenty revolving around seter girls (not my specialty, so I don’t have much to say about that, sorry!). Folklorists have noted that the legend tradition often features threats at key points in the standard (local) human biography–in-between points, liminal moments, where someone is poised between two identities and is therefore vulnerable: the space between birth and christening is dangerous in changeling folklore, for example, and of course not being properly buried or given last rites at death can result in the dead walking again–the liminality of the living dead is right there in the name. For young men and women just reaching sexual maturity, the threat is–you guessed it. SEX. In the version of the story I gave above we see her liminality emphasized in her engaged status–pledged to be married, so not “single”, but not yet married. No longer a child, not yet an adult. Legends (as opposed to more explicitly fictional and escapist fairy tales) tend to be told by the farming class–maybe still poor, but nevertheless with a bit more of a stake in the status quo than the rural proletariat (those who tend to tell fairy tales, according to folklorist Bengt Holbek). Given this we shouldn’t be surprised to see the legend tradition expressing anxiety over these eligible and unattached young women out in the wilderness–lots of potential for transgression there. And of course, lots of potential for titillation on the other hand. Early folklore collectors tended to keep bawdier material out of circulation, but their informants were not necessarily so shy.

I didn’t actually hear about the seter first at Berkeley–during an undergraduate semester abroad in Lund, Sweden I took a course in Scandinavian Music history which began with the kulning, a traditional way of singing (or of herd-calls, however you want to think of it) that girls at the seter would use. You can see a nice traditional version here, and here you can see what a contemporary composer has done with the art. It’s a bit harsh at first, but it didn’t take too long for me to fall in love with it–haunting.

Below are more of my pictures (two sets) from the hike up to the seter and the seter itself. Enjoy!


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Old Mermaid SketchSorry if I’m overdoing the mermaid stories lately (check out my last much shorter post for the other one), but it seemed not only a handy coincidence, but also very appropriate for my own particular specialty that the story emailed out (and posted online) by Daily Science Fiction tonight is JY Yang‘s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt,” a nice little story (very short, as that is how DSF does it) inspired by Scandinavian folklore about the “Havsmannen”, or the merman–though there is a bit of a twist here (will try to avoid any spoilers though). And actually, not that it particularly matters, you may want to read the story before reading the rest of my bit below. Ready? Go! ….

Done? OK. In the “author’s note” JY Yang says that she was inspired by Swedish folklore in which the havsmannen (literally “man of the sea”, = mer-man) will visit a sailor’s wife while she is gone, in the form of her husband, sometimes leading to the birth of some fishy progeny.

A German vision of a merman, from the 1600s. Sorry, Swedish Wikipedia only gave me this image, not a specifically Swedish image…

To be honest, while some parts of my academic work have revolved around folk narrative (the relevant genre here is legend), I’m realizing right now that I haven’t really spent very much time with folklore of the sea at all–I know a few stories of mer-women driving their cattle up on land (apparently they have legs, as well as cattle, which humans can sometimes gain by means dastardly or fair, making them very similar to the hidden-folk or other varieties of supernatural communities in Scandi folklore), or a mer-man getting a glove from a fisherman, things like that, but when it comes to water-beings, I’m more familiar with the Swedish näcken, aka bäckahästen (creek-horse), a fresh-water male nature sprite. But there are some interesting parallels to other Scandi folklore that I think are worth mentioning in this context. One is the way JY Yang’s story starts out as a story of the return of someone drowned at sea–a common motif all the way from the sagas up through the rural folklore of the early 20th century, and an understandable one, as the dead tend to return when something is either left unfinished or they are not buried properly–ie, no ritual is performed to conduct them safely from one mode of existence to the next (actually an exemplary case of something left unfinished, now I think on it…). [spoiler alert] The mer-person in JY Yang’s story is obviously aware of this, and initially passes as such. 

As I noted above, the mer-person folklore does have some similarities to legends of the communities of supernatural others in general. When the supernatural others (again, the hidden folk, the under-earthers, etc) are represented as living in communities, they are often also represented as living parallel to the human community, as well as living very human-like lives. Sure, when you take something from one world to the next (for example, if they give you gold or food as a present), it may turn out to be some symbolic inversion of itself (dirt or crap), but there are stories where (somewhat) typical neighbor-problems come up between the two communities, and with both the mer-folk and the hidden folk we sometimes see one of their girls driving their cattle near the human community, or being given as a reward to a human.

Stattin’s book–in Swedish, I’m afraid. I can’t remember if there is an English translation…

That said, it seems to me that the stories of solitary nature-beings are a bit more relevant here. As opposed to the supernatural beings that live in community, these solitary supernaturals live alone out in the forest, and tend to be gender specific–some are always female, some are always male (not always though–trolls and giants, for example, can be male or female, and could fall into this category to some degree). We see (as noted in a book by Jochum Stattin on näcken) that the ways in which human men and women encounter these creatures can be pretty different–men tend to encounter these representatives of “wild nature” further out from the human community, which may be taken as a socially normative aspect of the legends, associating men with access to the wider and wilder world. Näcken, for example, shows up as a male humanoid figure (or not at all) for men who go to his hideaway at a stream to learn to play the fiddle from him (actually, näcken‘s legends overlap with Satan’s a bit when it comes to sinful pleasures like [shudder] music and dancing), and many a hunter has, wittingly or not, carried out a tryst with a skogsrå, a female forest creature who is beautiful from the front, but if seen from the back is hollow (or has a tail, or is a monster if seen after you cross yourself, whatever)–point being, men get to go out in to the realm of these creatures and treat with them, successfully or not. Women, on the other hand, do not meet the skogsrå, and when they meet näcken it is generally in a threatening way–in the form of the bäckahästen running around the farm (human space) attempting to trick women (or children) onto his back to then dive into the lake with them. The threat of the supernatural Other is often sexualized as well, more or less explicitly, and while men may successfully carry on trysts at times, for women the end result tends to involve a distancing from the human community (unless saved/recovered), including abduction.

The inspiration behind this story that JY Yang shares seems to fit this pattern as well–while men meet the havsmannen out at sea, and may even engage with him in some way (giving him a glove or a sock when he is cold, receiving cattle in return), women meet the havsmannen as an intruder at home–though perhaps even here the folklore is more concerned with the invasion of the “man’s” space–his house, “his” womb, his lineage. But hey, while much of the legend tradition of rural, patriarchal Sweden of the 1800s and earlier was pretty normative, there is still room for debate and dissenting voices at times–for example, differing opinions show up with regard to the potential salvation of the non-human (and therefore non-Christian) supernatural Others. JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt” is also nicely subversive of the patriarchy, moving from zombie-story to invasive-merman-story to a story of a woman embracing an unexpected opportunity for a mutual and authentic relationship after an unhappy and undesired marriage (and yeah, a little gender-bending here as well). Nice to see that Swedish legends are still “alive,” and in flux, as legends always are–and also nice to see that they have some purchase in Singapore as well. 🙂

And one more note–looks like Swedish novelist Carl-Johan Vallgren has a recent novel titled Havsmannen out as well–I will have to get my hand on a copy. Maybe someone will hire me to translate it… hint hint. Though I hear translating fiction really pays like crud. Or otherworldly gold, maybe. :/

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A friend fox (spirit?) is your companion and second playable character throughout, so here is a hasty bit of fanart from yours truly.

A friendly fox (spirit?) is your companion and second playable character throughout, so here is a hasty bit of fan-art from yours truly.

Myself and many of my folklorist friends have been excited about the new game Never Alone, finally out now. The game was developed in tandem with Alaskan native storytellers, and as you progress you unlock short snippets of what is basically a documentary about traditional native Alaskan life. The game looks beautiful, the cut-scenes (and to a degree the overall side-scrolling character of the game) referencing the scrimshaw aesthetic of native Alaskan art, and I’ve been enjoying the narration (not in English–there are subtitles, don’t worry). Unfortunately my laptop is too aged to really play it, so I’ve only been able to get past a few checkpoints–I’m still not really out of the “tutorial” stage since my computer keeps crashing. :/  I got it through Steam, but it is also available for Xbox 1 and PS 4 (I only have a PS 2 and Xbox 360, so no luck for me there… incidentally, I do need to buy a new computer, so if you want to help me out with that purchase go to Redbubble and buy some of my stuff! T-shirts are on sale today for Cybermonday!). I’ve also had some issues with the controls, but that may be my computer again–I am afraid I just can’t comment much on the gameplay itself so far, given my technical difficulties (or the story, since I haven’t been able to get very far yet). What I do know of the story is that it is based on a traditional tale of a never-ending blizzard that makes it so the hunters are unable to get food for their families. The protagonist is a little girl, who I assume will be resolving this problem. With her is a fox companion who grants her special access to the world of the spirits and follows along to help her on her journey. So far the story is more of a struggle with the harsh environment (and presumably a mystery as they try to get to the bottom of the never ending blizzard), rather than being centered around a conflict with a specific antagonist, but like I said, I haven’t been able to get very far yet. As you progress you unlock snippets of the documentary, and it gives you the option of watching these immediately–I recommend waiting till later to watch these, as it breaks up the action of the game, making it feel less like a game and pulling you out of the narrative. The context is nice for building up your understanding of the world you are engaging with in the story, so you should definitely watch them, but do it at the end of your gaming session, or better, at the beginning of your next session–or every half hour or hour, if you are playing for a long time.

I’ve been getting really interested in the narrative world of video games lately, partly thanks to a friend whose PhD deals with artificial intelligence and narrative in video games, so it is really fun to run across a game that attempts to bridge the gap between traditional narrative and video gaming in a way that is not simple appropriation and exploitation. At one point in the documentary portion of the game the native participants speak of the “authenticity” of the project. I know “authenticity” has become a bit of a dirty word in folkloristics (I’ve referenced Regina Bendix’s book on the subject several times), but we should note that the suspicion of that word comes out of the paternalistic attitude towards the “folk” on the part of early folklorists, as well as the appropriative, exploitative tendencies of the market–in other words, outsiders constructing the cultural products of the insiders as childlike, “ethnic”, naive, etc, making it acceptable to harvest it without credit or respect for the culture and people who made it, as well as serving to construct those people as “Other”, exotic, museum pieces rather than contemporary agents. In terms of these power dynamics, I think it is quite appropriate to think of “authenticity” in terms of who is doing the “speaking”, so if a native participant in the making of the game wants to sell its authenticity, I am all for it. Which is not to say that things might not be more complicated–from what I understand, this is to be the first in a series of “world games,” exploring traditional cultural material from all over the world, so obviously there is a bit of the usual mining of “traditional culture” for commercial commodities going on here. I think it will be interesting to see how they go about it, and how the populations they work with feel about the end result.

And below, the embedded trailer of the game! It seems great to me so far, despite my technical difficulties, so I recommend getting your hands on it!

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IMG_2833This is sort of a belated review, but John Lindow’s book Trolls: An Unnatural History is out now, and EVERYONE SHOULD BUY IT!!! OK OK, I’ll try to quit the salesperson schtick. This book is  a solid overview of the topic from a leading scholar in the field of Norse mythology and Scandinavian Folklore,  but is also super accessible (well, as much so as a book can be while still remaining academic in nature). John has always been very at home with both the super-erudite discourse of academic journals (OK, that’s a given for a professor in the field…) as well as with articulating the state of the field in a readable and understandable way for those not in the field–note, for example, his Norse Mythology Handbook. Take this and the two Eddas and you’re well on your way to being a super-duper Norse mythologist.

The book is a slim one, at 154 pp, so it is not like this is a comprehensive book of everything about trolls–but it is an excellent overview, and is the only text I can think of that follows the term/concept “troll” all the way from its earliest attestations through it dissemination and transformation in international culture. Chapter one covers the earliest Norse attestations, chapter two the slightly later Medieval attestations (well, this is a slightly problematic distinction, as the Viking age texts were themselves written down in the Middle Ages, but it still works), chapter three covers the trolls of folklore, chapter four the transformation of the troll in the early printings of popular collections of folklore (and the illustrations are great in this chapter for showing the progression towards the more sensational, big-nosed, distinct-species of troll that we are more familiar with now), chapter five covers “trolls in literature,” inclusive of one of my favorite movies, while chapter six gets into trolls in children’s lit and marketing–and then there is the epilogue, which gets into the slang use of the word “troll” in contemporary society, from patent-trolling to the trolls who haunt the internet.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer's trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow's book is also a Bauer illustration.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer’s trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow’s book is also a Bauer illustration.

Legend Trolls vs Fairy Tale Trolls

The first two chapters were mostly a review of trollology I’d learned (from John, of course) early in grad school, but I really appreciated the overview of the later reception of the idea of the troll the latter chapters, in particular in terms of the history of the visualization of the troll (seeing how I am slowly venturing into illustration myself, and have a few troll pics, or trollish-pics, which I’ve put below). I also appreciated the observation (which I believe I’d heard before, but had forgotten) that trolls, in the more general sense of supernatural beings, are more ambiguously colored in the legend tradition (i. e., tales that are ostensibly true and less about narrative entertainment), where, for example, it is open to debate whether these Others are subject to the same salvation that the Christian, human, insiders claim, while in the fairy tale tradition (more explicitly ludic, fictional, and escapist, and often told by the rural proletariat) trolls are more explicitly Bad, playing the role of Villain, and, according to Bengt Holbek’s interpretation (which John does not get into in this book, though he does have a very thorough review of in a 1989 or 1990 issue of Scandinavian Studies), the negative symbolic embodiment of authority figures like landowners, employers, or parents (in-law).

A trollish portrayal of Thor's mother Earth.

A trollish portrayal of Thor’s mother Earth.

Trolls, Fantasy, and Good and Evil

This got me thinking about the priority of the escapist function in Fairy Tales, especially since I’d just been reading Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories–while the rural proletariat may be more aware than most of the potential for moral ambiguity and abuse among those who are supposed to be “in the right” (as of course those in charge would think), or so my left-leaning sympathies had me thinking, the fact that it was primarily the poorest of the poor who tell fairy stories certainly highlights the importance of escape in their situation (a point Tolkien makes about all of us–it is the jailers who argue against escape–but let’s keep in mind the fact that some are more jailed than others), and we shouldn’t be surprised to find that one aspect of escapism is the isolation of Good and Evil, at least in certain places within a story. As horrible as it is when someone gets so bad that they are Just Bad, it is also a bit of a relief, isn’t it? To just say “THEY ARE BAD” and “THEY ARE GOOD.” But maybe a more nuanced take is possible as well–let’s keep in mind a key aspect of Tolkien’s celebration of the human ability to create coherent things which do not actually exist–green suns and the like. If I remember correctly, one of his points is that this linguistic ability to see green grass as both green and grass is at the root of the sort of work we do when we create fantasy worlds which are simultaneously coherent and yet impossible. Fantasy draws its power from the way in which it dances with the real world–if iron is ennobled by the forging of the sword Gram (as the Big T says), then our real world experiences of Good and Evil are legitimated, enhanced, sharpened, and affirmed by our fictional manipulations of these things (our reification of them, our treatment of them AS things) in a fantasy world. Green is greener by our ability to separate it from the grass that we perceive it on, and similar things could be said about Good and Evil. (gooder ? eviler ?  Hm, maybe I’ll work on this idea…) Of course, that is not to deny the great evil that has been done by the various fantasies of… well, of evil, that have been transferred into the real world and used to justify everything from rape to genocide–there needs to be a sufficient about of reflexivity if our fantasy is not going to just drive a two-dimensional ideology of us versus them.

Trolls trolls trolls

One last note–while John does not pursue a very developed thesis in this regard, he certainly does touch on the ambiguity of the world “Troll” itself (troll as magical, troll as extraordinary (if still maybe human), troll as generic supernatural creature, troll as giant, troll as a specific sort of monster, etc…). I’ve been meaning to write on this for a while, but just don’t have time at the moment–but well, now you can read his book! You can also read this article by Ármann Jakobsson on the topic (starts p 39, I think), which also reviews the academic literature a bit–but be warned, the article is written for those who are already “in” the academic conversation about trolls, so it won’t be quite the same sort of experience. I have to run now, but may revise/expand this review a bit… we’ll see.

Meanwhile, here are some more troll pics! (FYI–these are just for fun pics. Like, let’s pretend we are making up new creatures for a video-game type fun. Not authentic at all. You’ve been warned.)

Troll Sketch 1 14_edited-1

Lava Troll_edited-1

Ice Troll Sketch_edited-1

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