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Posts Tagged ‘folkloristics’

[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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Hey folks, I’ve recently had some great interviews and other resources for those interested in digital folklore come across my Facebook page, so I thought I’d share them here. Interview with Trevor Blank here (second part here), a free electronic copy of his anthology on Digital Folklore here, an interview with Robert Glenn Howard here, free online journal New Directions in Folklore here, and an interview with Dan Perkel about the DeviantArt community here–the latter was fun to run across as I have been a member of DeviantArt for a while now, and have found it pretty fascinating to see the interactions between amateurs and professionals of all stripes and philosophies as they negotiate what art is and what the relationship is between artist, work, and audience.

I realize “digital” and “folklore” may seem like very contradictory topics to those who associate the latter with legends and fairytales (and the Grimm brothers, nursery rhymes, traditional dances, etc), but as is pointed out in several of these links, while the study of folklore certainly did fetishize the “folk” as illiterate peasants naively bearing some innate national authenticity (see the linked book for a very thorough and learned discussion of all this), the phenomenon of “low-culture,” unofficial transmission of cultural knowledge, texts, images, etc, clearly encompasses traditionally understood “folklore” as well as it does UFO-abduction stories (which really very nicely replace supernatural abduction stories), “internet-memes,” as well as all the misinformation that gets passed around via email or facebook (and then discredited on Snopes). Robert Glenn Howard puts it nicely in his interview:

…a lot of people imagine “folklore” as “old stuff.” But that just isn’t the case. When the word was invented, it meant the stuff people shared back then—so we think of old stories like Cinderella as being folklore.  And at that time there was this idea that true folklore was disappearing because of modernization—but now we know that folklore changes, but it doesn’t ever disappear because its really just any stuff (the “lore”) that people (the “folk”) share.  A better definition might be that folklore is the informally shared knowledge that we perceive as connecting us to each other.

I like how Robert emphasizes the generality of the term “folk” (i.e., ALL of us), in contrast with the somewhat less democratic way the term has often been used and understood since the establishment of folkloristics as a field. When we continue to define “folklore” as the exotic bits of the European peasantry of the past, we recapitulate the understanding of the folk as “Other” from our own educated selves, as communal bearers rather than as creative producers (i.e., full subjects like ourselves). This is of course not to downplay the fact that the tools and norms with which people create, receive, and transmit these things vary dramatically from community to community and from discourse to discourse, but it is a very important (and productive) move to understand ourselves as “folk” and not just reserve the term for some researchable Other. The human know-er is always a part of the world which is studied–there is no such thing as an objective, uninvested, disembodied perspective on the world, at the same time that our western approach to science and knowledge has assumed such a position (OK, this is a less problematic posture to assume in certain fields…). Objectivity is something to strive for, true, but that begins with the condition that we are already embedded in the world, already a part of it, and when we act in it, even in terms of taking an “academic” posture towards something or someone, we change that whole that we are acting within. Objectivity is, in other words, a reflexive engagement with our own subjectivity, and if we think of it any other way, then objectivity becomes just another ideological fetish to make ourselves feel superior and right. When we turn our folkloristic gaze onto ourselves and our own engagement with “vernacular culture,” we gain a richer understanding of ourselves and our relationship to those we study, and we exercise a more nuanced and empathic ability to engage with those Other than ourselves (in other words, folkloristics is for everybody! 😀 ).

With regard to the topic of digital folklore itself, I realize people might say, “Hey wait, just where are the boundaries here? How can you separate out one sort of cultural product from another?” Looking at this ocean of media that we swim in, it does seem that there is a lot of blurriness (increasingly so) between the things shared and the way they are shared in “informal discourse” and more formal or official discourse (for example, new programs on TV share viral videos of the day now, and newspapers are often caught reporting the sorts of urban legends you find on Snopes). This isn’t actually a new problem, however–back in the heyday of collecting “traditional” folklore, collectors sometimes found that their informants had learned their stories from published collections of folktales. Well, shoot, that ruins all our nice, neat categories of authentic versus non-authentic, don’t it? Certainly labeling something as a “folk” product versus a “mainstream” or “formal” product is an act of power and, like all linguistic acts, involves a degree of arbitrariness, and so is one of the many things we need to engage in reflexively–but hey, welcome to the human epistemological and linguistic condition. And really, a term doesn’t lose its pertinence just because its referent is slippery and unfixed. I mean, what, are we going to throw all of language out?

And of course, if I’m going to post about digital folklore, then I ought to at least get one meme up on here (not made by me!). Make your own here!

Norse meme by the great Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology blog.

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