Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Introducing Folklore Blog Carnival - hometown folklore

In the past month I've come across some great folklore blogs that I never knew existed and it makes me really happy to see them. However, we're a really small and fractured community, but I reckon if we came together as one group of folklore bloggers our content will become richer and our folklore knowledge with expand.
That's why I'm introducing Folklore Blog Carnival, a monthly event that will bring the folklore blogs together under a common theme.

This month, I want participants to write a post (or a few!) about their favourite piece of folklore from their home area (town or wider area) and explain why you love it so much. At the end of the month I will list all the bloggers who took part and link to their posts.

The contentious origin of well dressing

I've just returned from a trip to Derbyshire, where I visited Chatsworth House. Seeing as though I generally try to document a bit of folklore for every new place I go, I did some research and some observations when I was down there.

Probably the most popular tradition the county is known for is well dressing, which is the practise of decorating water sources such as wells with a wooden frame covered in flower petals, often depicting a scene, usually religious (Christian).

I stayed in the tiny village of Pilsley, which hosts well decorating in July, so unfortunately I didn't get chance to see any while I was out there. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the practise and how it got its start in Derbyshire so I dug deeper. I found that there are really two conflicting origins for the tradition, but I have a theory. You see, one version puts it down to Celtic roots, as a celebration of water. This makes sense, as much of the land there is made from limestone which quickly absorbs water, meaning it was quite precious to the inhabitants of the land. Of course, water was also worshipped in this pre-Roman age and it was common practise to make offerings to wells, bogs and lakes, as it was said to appease the spirits therein. So well dressing probably came about as an amalgamation of those two reasons.

However, the second origin story puts the tradition forward hundreds of years, 1348, when the black death struck. A source of fresh, "non-contaminated" water would have been venerated, so it's easy to see why people think this may have marked the beginning of the tradition. It is said the practise was born in Tissington, which remained untouched by the plague. But I suspect that this origin wasn't the case and the people in these times just 'hopped on' the well dressing tradition as it were. We can see this happen throughout history and this smacks of 'folklore assimilation'. This is the same thing I suspect happened to Bonfire Night, which was tacked on to the Celtic harvest festival.

Although well dressing almost became extinct in the 1950s, it was revived due to renewed interest in Derbyshire from tourists. The well dressing ceremony signifies the beginning of the Wakes, or a week of celebrations in the area, ending in a carnival.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Folklore in a digital career

It might seem like an oxymoron to mix folklore and the digital realm together, but many people forget that the field isn't all about history. Folkloristics is actually a specific part of anthropology, which also studies contemporary cultures, practises and traditions. As such, a background or interest in folklore can be integrated into many current jobs, from archiving, business management and events co-ordinating.

My job is in digital marketing. Every day I communicate with bloggers and webmasters from all over the world who write about different things, from mothering and DIY to finance and travel. Every one of these genres has its own folklore and it's up to me to be aware of that and use it to help me in my job. I need to be sensitive to some issues and take advantage of others in order to form a relationship.

The internet is a breeding ground for folklore because it's so massive. One group of people may use Twitter much more often than another (such as tech bloggers) while maybe retirement webmasters prefer an email or a phone call. I know that if I'm speaking to someone based in Finland, I won't expect any responses from them on Midsummer's Eve because it's a Finnish holiday. A craft blogger may prefer a more creative competition idea than someone who runs a finance site.

By researching the folklore of each internet group that I'm frequently in touch with and finding out a little bit about each individual person, it gives me an edge when reaching out to them. Just because you're not in a job that deals with history doesn't mean that folklore study can't help with your job.

Plant folklore tied to Halloween

The Denver Post has done a great little article about something that we don't often think about when it comes to Halloween: plants!

Some of the folklore is well-known and widespread, such as garlic warding off vampires and rosemary keeping away witches; but there are other more rare examples in the article, such as sitting under the European Elder on midsummer's eve allowing one to witness the King of Fairyland.

Check out the article - it's well worth a moment of your time.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

King Arthur's round table located in Scotland?

Long has the belief been held that King Arthur's legendary round table was situated near Stirling Castle in Scotland; more specifically the earthworks known as King's Knot.

However, since these earthworks were created in the 17th century for King Charles I as part of the royal geometrical gardens, it's been a mystery as to why the Knot is tied to such old folklore.

Now a recent archaeological investigation undertaken by Glasgow University and the Stirling Local History Society (SLHS) has possibly uncovered the answer to this mystery: an ancient, round ditch lying beneath the Knot.

SLHS chairman, John Harrison, explained: "The finds show that the present mound was created on an older site and throws new light on a tradition that King Arthur's Round Table was located in this vicinity."

"Of course, we cannot say that King Arthur was there, but the feature which surrounds the core of the Knot could explain the stories and beliefs that people held."

Many places throughout Great Britain lay claim to being the site of King Arthur's round table, such as Caerleon, Penrith and Winchester.

Interestingly, in Geoffrey of Monmouth's original writings there was no mention of the table and it was only with the French translation Roman de Brut by Robert Wace that the notable piece of furniture came into existence.

So was the round table located in Scotland? Probably not, mostly because there is no hard evidence for it or any Arthurian legend actually existing in the first place. However, that is not important in the study of folklore; what's important is the evidence we uncover for certain beliefs. This new finding is a great example of that.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The folklore of trolls

Troll-fever is set to grip Hollywood as Harry Potter director Chris Columbus announced that he intends to remake The Troll Hunter, an independent Norwegian film that recently hit theatres in the UK.

The film is a mockumentary that follows a group of film students who set out to film real-life trolls in the wild. Blood and gore ensues as they run foul of these 50ft beasts and have to fight for their lives.

It sounds all kinds of hilarious and I'm glad we're seeing some folklore on the big screen. Check out the trailer:

It's theorised that the modern term 'troll' is descended from Jotun, a race famed in Norse mythology for being the enemy of the gods.  In these stories the original Jotun was Ymir, who lived in the Ginnungagap, which was a chaotic void. From Ymir's body came other Jotnar who then went on to create a race of frost giants. Odin, Vili and Ve eventually slew Ymir, whose blood drowned all but two of the giants, a husband and wife, who went on to repopulate their species.

Scandinavian folklore evolved the troll from the giants of old Norwegian texts to the more recognisable creatures we know today. It's unclear where the overlap began between the jotnar and trolls, but mythologist Lotte Motz theorised that there were originally four kinds of giants: jotun, troll, risi and purs, and this is where we can see the split in species. Motz's reasoning for this is because these are the four words that referenced to the jotnar in historical texts. She attributes different characteristics to each of these 'species', however her theory has been criticised due to a lack of textual evidence.

It can be agreed, though, that later texts portray trolls as supernatural beings with immense strength and hideous features who often made their homes in the hills and mountains of Scandinavia. Some were said to have multiple heads, no doubt a reference to Ymir's original six-headed son, and would turn to stone if exposed to sunlight.

During the Christianization of Scandinavia, priests would tell tales of trolls who fled when they heard the sounds of church bells and their hatred for Christian blood. The latter is likely where we get the giant's "Fe, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of a Christian.' Telling tales like this was a common tactic in conversion, which led to the integration of ideas into folklore.

Trolls are now immortalised across the Scandinavian landscape as rock formation, where they are meant to have been turned to stone by the sun. Some examples of such formations include Reynisdrangar and Trold-Tindterne (Troll Peaks).

Monday, 8 August 2011

Indonesian folk remedy: just lie on a train track {Folk Medicine}

Sci-fi and science blog io9 today reported that it has become a trend in Cengkareng, West Jakarta in Indonesia to lie outstretched on train tracks to cure ailments.

According to locals, the low-voltage that courses through one's body when lying on train tracks can trigger a healing process.

The Jakarta Post interviewed a woman about this strange practise:

[A woman named] Kusmiati, who said she suffered from asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes, is one of many locals who routinely undergo a unique alternative "therapy" in which one lies splayed out on the railway tracks near Rawa Buaya train station in Cengkareng, West Jakarta.

The "therapy" involves placing one's hands and feet on the steel rail tracks. By touching both sides of the tracks at once in this manner, one receives a low-voltage electric shock, which locals believe is a potent cure for many diseases.

The locals said the method became popular around a year ago when a taxi driver allegedly recovered after suffering a stroke, by frequently lying on the tracks.

Today, the therapy is attracting more and more people, from locals to people who travel from far away to experience the reportedly soothing effects of the therapy [...] Their growing fondness for the treatment soon saw them adopt the "therapy" into their daily routines. Every afternoon from around 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. there are typically 10-15 people lying on the tracks.

First off, don't try this. There is no evidence that low-voltage will help cure any condition you have and there is a real danger of being killed by an oncoming train.

Secondly, this is a fairly new 'fad' but it's also the beginning of a new piece of folklore. I hope that people stop doing it because, well, it's ridiculously stupid, but it's also an interesting look at how a folk remedy could have its origin.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The origin of Bloody Mary

If you're a horror fan like me then you will probably be acquainted with the Paranormal Activity series - a soon-to-be trilogy of films that 'document' violent hauntings through found footage. I have yet to see the sequel but I thought the first was a good effort from an independent director on a shoestring budget and showed how you can make a horror film without resorting to stupid CGI monsters and torture scenes.

Paranormal Activity 3 will be hitting the cinemas soon and from what I can tell in the trailer it may focus on the Bloody Mary urban legend, in which if you say her name three times in a mirror she will supposedly appear and eviscerate you. Fun stuff. But where did this folktale come from and why is it so prevalent in modern western cultures?

Like all good folk tales, this one comes with a few different variations on the ritual to summon the eponymous Bloody Mary. It is widely assumed that the room must be dark and her name must be chanted, but some lore tells that she will come if you run the tap, rub your eyes, repeat her name thirteen times or say "Bloody Mary, I killed your baby". Any way it's done, the ritual is said to summon Mary, who is widely considered to be a child murderer or someone wrongly accused of killing their child.

The legend was first properly researched by Janet Langlois in 1978 and published in an essay. Back then, the story was prevalent in younger girls and some boys, who would dare each other to carry out the ritual. Mary was called by many different names, but the most popular seems to be Mary Worth.

It's difficult to say whether Mary was a real person. Often Mary I, the 16th century English Queen, is cited as being the inspiration for the story. In 1555, Mary was convinced that she was pregnant, as were the doctors and all who surrounded her. However, in July it was found to be a phantom pregnancy and because of her overwhelming desire to have a child Mary fell into a pit of depression. The Queen gained the name Bloody Mary due to her persecution of the Protestants during her rule, of which she executed 287, and in 1563, only 6 years after her death, she was given the image of a bloodthirsty tyrant in Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

I've seen articles that say Mary Tudor would bathe herself in blood in order to stay young, which is a legend born out of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who was famously accused of murdering 650 girls. Of course, the propaganda espoused by the Protestants in the 16th century probably went a long way to skewing people's perception of Mary and perhaps that is what remains with us today with the Bloody Mary legend.

Like most folklore, the tale is a patchwork of stories from a variety of cultures and time periods, all culminating in what we have now. Indeed, the Greek Lamia and similar Aztec legends bare similarities with the modern story.

This folktale opens doors to a multitude of research opportunities to the discerning folklorist. For instance, why are mirrors often used for divination practises? Who began this practise? Why should it be a woman who is the killer?

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Iranian President accused of 'summoning djinns'

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been accused by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of dealing in occult magic and summoning magical spirits called djinns to cause harm to his enemies.

Several of Ahmadinejad's allies have been recently arrested following these allegations, including Abbas Ghaffari who is supposedly involved in communing with spirits and performing exorcisms.

It's no surprise that the Ayatollah is giving the President a hard time, considering their tense relationship, but this is a really bizarre story. The Ayatolla has given him the ultimatum to accept a Cabinet Minister or resign. Maybe the President can conjure a new minister from a lamp?

Djinns are prominent characters in Arab folklore and appear in Islamic texts as Jinn. They appeared in English as genies in 1665 in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, which is the more familiar term for westerners. In pre-Islamic folklore, djinns were shape-shifting spirits who wandered in the desert, sometimes turning invisible, and had the ability to drive people mad. The Koran contains a different version of these spirits who were made of fire who could also change their form. Interestingly, in Islam djinns had their own societal structures like humans, with royalty, traditions and law.

Djinn lore has made its way into other world cultures, including the indigenous Guanches of the Canary Islands and even Judeo-Christian mythology. Now we see them in popular culture, such as Aladdin and in various fantasy roleplaying games, video games and films.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Ukranian farmer opens first ever Brownie museum

And I don't mean the chocolate kind. Nicholas Ninon from the village of Zaps in Crimea has opened the first ever museum dedicated to the Brownie - a creature of folklore similar to a hob or goblin.

Apparently there are around 100 exhibits in the museum, with two Brownies (not real ones - unless you're wasted) standing at the entrance.

In Slavic mythology Brownies are known as Damovoi or Domovyk specifically in the Ukraine. They are household spirits, similar to those in English, Scottish, German and Scandinavian folklore, who guards the house from evil spirits and helps out every now and again.

There are various depictions of Damovoi, but they are usually hairy and sometimes quite large. If angered in any way these creatures can become malicious, smashing pots and holding people down in their sleep.

Brownies have quite a varied history, since their legends spread across Northern and Eastern Europe and to the British Isles, so if done correctly, this little museum could be full of interesting folklore goodies.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Hello and thanks to new followers

I just wanted to say thanks to the wonderful Faery Folklorist and the fabulous Ent from Westcountry Folklore for taking the time to follow Midnight Folklore. I hope you both enjoy my posts, as I do yours and perhaps in the future we could do some collaborative research on a folklore topic.

If you know of anyone else who might be interested in folklore, please give them a link to me and let me know so I can link them - I'll be doing the same with your fantastic blogs.

An update on Azerbaijan's folklore copyright

I've delved a bit more into this story and have come up with some interesting things. First of all, there is already a copyright in place on Azerbaijani folklore - the current news is highlighting an amendment to make foreigners pay to use folklore samples. There are actually quite a few countries that have legally protected folklore, such as Tunisia, but have slightly different criteria as to what ownership entails - usually a responsible authority and the community.

The Copyright Agency of Azerbaijan extensively explains that they copyrighted folklore to stop Armenia from 'stealing' it. Yeah, that's pretty much it. They say:

Falsifiers, eager to turn our monuments Stone -fish, Stone-ram, Stone -horse, came from ancient periods as well as ancient Alban lands and monuments into the territory of "Eastern Armenia" equally with misappropriated of our stella and cross-stones, indication stones, monumental masonries and our national decor engraved on their surfaces as well as our other material monuments, Armenianize our national "The history of Albania" by Musa Kalangatly, "The history" by Karakos Ganjali, "Alban chronicle" by Mukhtar Kosa and Rules on "Tradition law". Besides they related Alban alphabet and script, originated from ancient Turkish roots and having the same tone with Gamigaya script to the name of Mesrop Mashtots, who was not aware of Alban language.

Armenia and Azerbaijan aren't the most friendly of neighbours since the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1988. But it's a real shame that the Azerbaijani government have taken this narrow, and somewhat commercial, view of folklore, which is meant to be an evolving process. All great folklore has been merged at one time, such as when the Viking invaders brought Odin to England, which became Woden over time and numerous stories and practises stemmed from that religion. It's something that I'm totally against.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Today the Minehead Hobby Horse sleeps until next year

May Day is one of the biggest events in the English folklore calender, with all sorts of great events going on around the country - from maypole dancing to music and bonfires. This day has a special significance in Minehead, Somerset, as the morning echoes with drumbeats and a strange creature stirrs. The Hobby Horse (or 'Oss, if you're from the area) is a man dressed in a large clothed frame and wearing a colourful yet grotesque mask, who dances through the streets with an entourage of musicians, collecting money from passers-by and whipping those who don't cough up with his rope tail.

Historians and folklorists are unsure of how the tradition originated, but it has commonly been put down to being a commemoration ceremony of a wrecked ship. However other hypotheses include the Horse being an attempt to ward off Viking invaders, or even a phantom ship that came to the harbour without a crew or captain. The tradition can be traced back to 1792 from records in Dunster Castle.

The Hobby Horse dances through the streets for three days until on the 3rd May when the celebration culminates in a game where spectators must escape the Horse's tail whip.

Azerbaijani government copyrights folklore

This is pretty baffling. News came out yesterday that the government of Azerbaijan have discussed placing copyright protection on folklore samples so companies must pay to use them for commercial purposes.

Here's what the story said:

On Monday, the Azerbaijani Parliamentary Cultural Committee discussed amending the Law on "Legal Protection of the Samples of Azerbaijani Folklore."
According to the proposed amendment, legal and physical entities will be obliged to get permission from the government and to pay for samples of folklore for commercial purposes, Chairman Nizami Jafarov said at the meeting.

I agree that folklore should be protected to an extent, but to copyright a culture's folklore is ridiculous. Who is going to determine that a particular sample is unique to Azerbaijan? Many cultures share very similar folklore, and much of what Azerbaijan calls their own folklore may have originated elsewhere - so how would that be policed? Take Tepegoz, for instance. Tepegoz is Azerbaijan's mythical cyclops creature, similar to Polyphemus in The Odyssey. Should an advertiser steer clear of using a cyclops to promote their brand in fear of a lawsuit?

I'm going to keep on top of this story as it develops and we'll see what the outcome is. I hope they decide that this is a stupid move and that folklore should stay out of the realm of legalities.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Shamrock Folklore

Are you recovering from getting royally sloshed on St Patrick's Day? I'm sure a vast amount of our Irish cousins are still nursing a hangover (or maybe they're immune now) from excessive amounts of the liquid black. Proper Guinness, as you may know, comes with a clover etched into the bubbles with the tap. But what is the significance of the clover (or shamrock) in Irish folklore and why is it tied to St Patrick's Day?

It apparently came from St Patrick himself, who, when teaching Christianity in the 5th century, used the three leaves of the shamrock to represent the holy trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, it is believed that this story was likely spread by monks after St Patrick's death and may only be a myth.

The shamrock is more well-known for being synonymous with good luck, especially the rare four-leafed clover. Even before St Patrick supposedly used the shamrock to teach his religion, Celtic druids held the the plant sacred, believing the leaves formed a triad of hope, faith and love - with the fourth being for luck.

It seems likely that Christians took the symbol of the shamrock as they were converting Ireland to Christianity (which they have been known to do throughout history). Nevertheless, the shamrock presents an interesting piece of folklore.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Bulgarian "Dog -Spinning" ritual - not cool

Folklore is chock full of bizarre traditions and unfortunately some practises are a bit extreme. Take Dog-Spinning for example.

A Bulgarian Mayor last week defended an ancient ritual where a dog is suspended above water on a rope and spun rapidly until it falls in.

Unsurprisingly when this practise was first discovered by foreign media back in 2006, who were disgusted by this act of cruelty. Mayor Petko Arnaudov originally banned dog-spinning, or Trichane, in 2006 but it has recently being performed in its place of origin - Brodilovo.

Trichane is a Kukeri pagan tradition in the area that was thought to prevent rabies.

The Mayor defended the act by saying that it wasn't "dog-hanging" and that dropping it in water was tantamount to giving the poor pooch a bath.

While the Kukeri ritual is interesting from a folklore and anthropological point of view, it's definitely a crappy thing to do. How about using a doll or model dog instead?