Updated: 11 hours ago

My Christmas eve recording of the traditional Norwegian Christmas carol "Haugebonden."

A farmer and a gnome meet on a cold evening on Christmas eve and get into an argument. It sounds unusual, perhaps a joke, but it isn’t. The peasant is gathering Christmas greens to decorate his home when he hears a voice singing in the woods, and then he sees him, the haugebonde, a Scandinavian farm spirit I picture as a bearded little fellow with a red hat, dancing in his magic grove. Thus begins the traditional Norwegian Christmas carol, “Haugebonden.”

“Haugebonden” delighted me before I knew what it was about. The melody arrested me at once, put me under its spell, you might say. But learning the story, old and rooted in folklore, with verses that confused me, much as many old Christmas carols did when I was a child and did not understand all the words, I became enamored. The peasant runs into this supernatural being and it turns out that not only do they know each other, but they get into an argument about the proper way to celebrate Christmas eve.

Author Ian Cumpstey, who has published several books of English translations of Scandinavian ballads and maintains the blog Balladspot, recently told me that this sort of supernatural occurrence on Christmas eve or Christmas night is actually common. "I can think of quite a few ballads where there is a troll that comes knocking on the door at Christmas, or a troll tells a story of how they visited "the Christian country" at Christmas and it's not just in ballad stories of course," Cumpstey said. It occurs to me that this practice finds its way into many English tales, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to A Christmas Carol to the Dr. Who Christmas specials. Christmas in Christian tradition is full of miracles and visitations as well, with its angels and stars and magi.

The haugebonde of the song (the final -n in the song title indicates the definite article in English) is upset because the peasant's boys are partying loudly. The little fellow has tried repeatedly to set the lads straight about quiet respectful cheer, but they throw things at him and poke him and are not at all respectful in the way a human should be with one of his fairy neighbors. If it were not for his long-standing relationship with the peasant, the haugebonde warns, magical mayhem would occur! In another unusual turn, the peasant recalls the many years the haugebonde lived on his ship and how in all that time the haugebonde never paid him any rent. The haugebonde complains that the peasant never asked him for rent and in the final section of the song informs the peasant that his ship is full of presents which he describes in detail.

To my knowledge, mine is the first recording of “Haugebonden” in English. I’ve heard many renditions of it in Norwegian, but I could not even find an English translation of the song and the particular version of the carol’s lyrics I’d found were in the northern Telemark dialect and therefore were fairly impenetrable to me. I put out general calls on social media for help from Norwegian speakers and bothered Scandinavian friends, but had no luck. I finally had to reach out to universities and a school of folk performance to find a knowledgeable and friendly translator and found that in the scholar, Håkon Asheim, from the Ole Bull Academy, a Norwegian folk music college in Bergen, Norway. He translated the song for me and helped me understand the context of lyrics to allow me to understand the story. I have not run this piece by him, so any inadvertent errors are solely my own.

Harald Wiberg's illustration of the helpful farm protector from Astrid Lindgren's The Tomten.

The haugebonde is a creature whose name roughly translates to “the farmer from the barrow,” but the figure in the song is less a Tolkien barrow wight and more a Norwegian jultomte, a Christmas gnome. And like the tomte of the Astrid Lindgren’s books, this creature lives on the farm for many generations, looking after the animals while the farmer is asleep. The closest thing to compare the phenomenon to for Americans may in fact be garden gnomes, but we might also know the Grimms’ tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” about elves who make shoes at night for a cobbler who was kind to them. But these elves do not like to be seen, and tomte are generally private creatures, and given to being grumpy and fickle. The haugebonde of the song seems a creature in this line as well by his complaints about how Christmas eve should be celebrated.

The word haugebonde suggests to me an even older set of beliefs than the belief in little people. The notion is that the haugebonden is the spirit of the man who first settled the farm. He has remained to look after the farm. This may sound spooky, and I suspect that it could have been spooky at one time. Some of the haugebonde’s threats, of silencing the farmer’s lads or of making the house shake, are likely reflections of that folklore tradition. But even tomtes are persnickety creatures endowed with supernatural powers and physical strength greater than a man. I think that the friendship between the man and the haugebonde takes on an even lovelier hue in this light. The haugebonde has put up with all manner of indignities, having beer mugs and bowls thrown at him, because he is friends with this man.

Swedish nisses, another word for tomte, in a 1909 illustration by John Bauer.

The maritime element of the song at first seemed a leap to me, but we know that the Scandinavians have always been mariners, and even farmers may have had cause to do some fishing during the year. Asheim told me that there are versions of the song that include more details of the haugebonde’s work on the peasant’s ship, such as helping save it when it was damaged at sea. There are stories of ship tomtes (skeppstomte) guardian spirits that care for the well being of the ship and function much as the tomtes that live on farms. The Norwegian Wikipedia article on the topic suggests that "Haugebonden" may have started as a nautical ballad and evolved the farmhouse elements in Telemark.

A klabautermann, a kind of ship tomte, from Buch Zur See, 1885.

The last part of the song is all about gifts the haugebonde has left in the ship for the peasant. These range from a valuable cup and bowl, to fancy Christmas clothes and a tablecloth. The cup seems magical, in that fourteen (plus one) can get drunk from it. There is a river dam with mills on it, each mill built with whale bones holding up iron roofs. The mills in particular made me think of “Herr Mannelig,” but the entire gift section recalls that ballad. “Haugebonden'' is a rather long song with verses that are sometimes repetitive, and I did not set words for all of the gift verses, favoring the ones I thought would make the most sense to the general listener. I will make Asheim’s entire English lyrics available for the sake of folklorists and curious readers. The gifts section also refers to the haugebonde’s wife and daughter by name (Maalfrid and Ingeri.) I’ve retained the daughter’s name, but not the wife’s, simply because the lyric scanned more easily without it. I also did not mention that the song takes place in a rose grove, which is shorthand for a magical location in some Scandinavian ballads (cf. “Herr Mannelig”). Two of the gifts in the song (the cup and a bowl) also seem, in their history, to have served as weregild, payment for murders committed, but I have not confirmed that with Asheim or other expert.

Many months and much work have gone into making it possible for me to be able to sing a Norwegian folk song in English with my seven-string lyre. Getting a literal translation was the beginning of my work, which involved adapting the words to fit the rhythms of the song. The words I sing are my own, but they are based on Asheim’s translation and I tried to be as truthful to them as I could. I also needed to arrange the song to play on my archaic instrument. Lyres have no fret boards and are limited (without retuning strings) to a single pitch per string. My lyre sometimes requires that I simplify a melody or accompaniment for this reason. In arranging the song I received guidance and feedback from my music coach, Tobin Eckian, but much of what I did was experiment on the lyre until it sounded right.

I discovered “Haugebonden” last summer while looking for new melodies to work out with my lyre and fell in love with it. The recording I heard was made by four performers, British and Norwegian, with tight, gorgeous harmonies playing bouzouki, mandolin and a Hardanger fiddle used in Norwegian folk songs. My first impression of the arrangement was that I was hearing American Appalachian music with harmonies and instrumentation that would be at home on an Alison Krauss album. Two of the performers, Janice Burns and Jon Doran, have since released a collection of English folk songs with tight, lovely harmonies, and I am a fan of their sound. As much as I love this particular version of the song, I cannot reproduce the harmonies of a quartet and my lyre requires certain allowances. That said, I also discovered that there are many, many versions of “Haugebonden” and I don’t think I do it a disservice to make it my own. There are already starker acapella versions and a pop version with an accordion, and even what I suspect to be an all-girl college acapella group version. The version that most stuck with me the most and that I found I could sing the best was by the Norwegian folk singer Arve Moen Bergset. Bergset’s performance with the group Bukenne Bruse in 2009 became a teaching tool in following the Norwegian words to set the English lyrics and developing the music. Bergset has been performing since he was a boy soprano and has produced many renditions of songs I admire. With this breakthrough, I felt I would have a performance to share and I have worked on bringing together my arrangement with my words for a few months! I hope you enjoy it. Special thanks to everyone who contributed to it.

Updated: 11 hours ago

Freya and Svipdag, by the illustrator John Bauer. This is one of several stories I had never read about before reading Viktor Rydberg's Norse mythology.

A thrice-burnt witch; a vengeful smith; an orphan hero seeking out a beautiful goddess held by giants: these are some of the little-known tales woven into the tapestry of Norse mythos by the 19th century Swedish writer Viktor Rydberg! Newcomers to Rydberg’s vision of a consolidated Germanic mythos will find a number of ideas, both fascinating and controversial, and a dizzying constellation of figures, some familiar, others not, who relate to one another in ways that differ from traditional tellings of mythic and legendary history. Rydberg's theories were largely rejected in his lifetime, but despite this, he made often fascinating uses of scraps of details from extant sources that were probably too scant for other anthologists to present as part of the canon of Norse myth stories. Here I share some of the most compelling stories Rydberg included in his Norse mythos that you may not have heard elsewhere. This is meant as the simplest introduction I can provide a newcomer to to the changes and additions Rydberg made and shared in his text, Our Fathers’ Godsaga, translated by William P. Reaves. Some knowledge of Norse mythology will be helpful, but I've tried to explain enough of the common details of the myths to aid the memory of someone who would benefit from a review. I have only begun to follow up my reading of this text with a study of Rydberg's purposes and methodology and expect to follow up with a companion to this piece.

Rydberg was a man of varied literary talents who came to prominence in his native Sweden in the second half of the 19th century. He was a philosophical and political thinker who spent time in the Swedish parliament, but he rose to prominence as a Romantic novelist and also published a highly regarded collection of poems. I recently learned that Rydberg's poem "Tomten" was the inspiration of a series of children's books by Astrid Lindgren. Rydberg was given an honorary doctorate at Uppsala University, was elected to the Swedish Academy and became a professor at the University of Stockholm. Rydberg wrote two volumes devoted to Germanic mythology in the 1880s, in which he tried to unify stories from the Scandinavian tradition with legends and tales from Old German and Old English sources. Rydberg's Our Fathers' Godsaga is the child of his studies.

Viktor Rydberg and Our Fathers' Godsaga, translated by William P. Reaves.

Rydberg's attempt to present a pan-Germanic mythos that consolidated legends from Norse myth, later German romances and tales from Old English poetry was not embraced by the philologists of the time and he is likely not more than a footnote in the study of Norse mythology today. The stories Rydberg draws together are all pulled from known manuscripts and the sources of the commonly known stories of Thor, Loki and Odin, but to these he adds lesser-known Eddaic tales and also tales I only knew from my Old English studies and my reading of the Saga of Dietrich of Bern. Some of Rydberg's consolidations make better sense than others and throughout this piece I will point out unusual interpretations and why I think they work or do not.

A Mill that Turns the Heavens and the Seas

Kepler's illustration to describe the orbit of Mars. I could find no illustrations of the World Mill, but this comes closest to what I see in my mind's eye (it's short seven giant maidens.)

I most enjoyed reading Rydberg’s version of the ordering of the cosmos because it made the history of the world of Norse myths feel richer. In most tellings of Norse myths we hear about the Aesir and Vanir gods trading hostages. Rydberg adds the surviving giants to this list and also the elves (who have always seemed interchangeable with dwarves in Norse myth, apologies to Lord of the Rings.) By this exchange, Loki and the giantess Gullveig come to Asgard. I have seen Gullveig mentioned as a witch, but here she is very much the female version of Loki, and takes over the role of Angrboda in an interesting way I will get to later. Representing the elves are Mimir and Ivaldi, whose families play a significant role in the rise and fall of the age of the Aesir gods. Mimir plays the role of decapitated (but animated) head in the myths you know, but more on that later. At least one of the Aesir (Iduun) is the daughter of one of the elves.

Rydberg’s interest in the creation of the world gives birth to another addition to the myths we know, which is the World Mill. At the foundation of the world are two great mill stones powered by nine giantesses (according to Rydberg, the nine mothers of Heimdall) which churn the oceans and spin the heavens. The World Mill’s job is to grind down the flesh of the primeval giant Ymir and spit out the earth that becomes the world and the salt which fills the sea. There is nothing new about Ymir’s body being used to form the world (his skull serving as our heavens) but the World Mill seems to be unique to Rydberg. I love the idea and I’m interested in knowing what suggested it to him and whether there is a source in existing literature for it. My searches online for the World Mill seem attached to Rydberg and have no obvious avenues for further sources. In extant sources, Heimdall is said to be the son of nine mothers, but to my knowledge the mothers aren’t identified and this statement isn’t explained. Rydberg has Heimdall born from the holy fire generated by the friction of the stones in the world mill, which is, in turn, generated by the nine giantesses. Heimdall, the white and shining, who seems to have had a more important role than he does in extant stories, is a character I am dying to know more about.

This is very good storytelling and as important as it is to me to know how Rydberg derived his new details, I was more or less enthusiastic and suspending that part of me that is a stickler for sources. But then he began to mix mythological characters with characters generally considered to be from later legendary sources. Heimdall comes to earth to help order human society (which is standard Norse mythology) but he comes in the form of Skef/Sceaf, whom you may know from the opening of Beowulf. To use the Old English name, Sceaf arrives in the land of the Danes as a foundling child in a boat, lying on the sheaves of grain that give him his name and surrounded by treasures. In Rydberg, Heimdall does everything he does in standard tellings of the myths disguised as Sceaf: he establishes the three classes of society and is a sort of Promethean figure helping mankind. As Sceaf he also gives birth to the figure known as Scyld in Old English which leads to the great hero-king Halfdane, the father of Hrothgar in Beowulf. To me, the Sceaf genealogy is hard to reconcile with Heimdall because the established story about Heimdall creating the freemen, karls and jarls has Heimdall stay as guest with three couples and the woman of each house later bearing Heimdall’s child. This competes with the notion that as Sceaf he establishes another family line. A tale about the origin of a social order seems to be a typical myth. A tale about a line of kings being founded by a god seems a propaganda tool more serving of that line of kings. Both can be said to be a kind of propaganda, but they seem different to me.

Wayland's Vengeance

The smith Wayland on the Franks Casket, an 8th Century whalebone box roughly the size of a tissue box and one of my favorite artifacts at the British Museum, London.

Many of my concerns and troubles with Rydberg stem from similar mergings of figures. Sometimes it seems reasonable. For instance, Rydberg makes the legendary smith Volund (Wayland in English) the son of the legendary smith Ivaldi. This seems reasonable. For those who do not know Wayland, he is a sort of Daedelus of Northern legend, who is imprisoned by a king, and even constructs a pair of wings to escape. Beowulf has a piece of armor fashioned by Wayland. It was fashionable for heroes to have one. Wayland was vengeful though, and before escaping his imprisonment he kills the king’s two sons and turns their heads into wine goblets. He also rapes the king’s daughter. Rydberg keeps these elements, but makes the king Mimir, who in Rydberg is the patriarch of the rival clan of elvish smiths. The story about the contest over who creates better crafts for the gods becomes part of the downfall of the Aesir gods. Volund nurses his vengeance by sending waves of blizzards to freeze Middle Earth. Rydberg suggests that Volund's magics are the source of the harsh winters that precede Ragnarok. Volund freezes the world while forging a sword of vengeance that will best Thor’s hammer. This seems like a fair myth, but elevating a figure like Volund to such prominence without more stories about him starts to feel thin. Volund’s sword of vengeance eventually falls into the hands of Frey, who gives it up for the love of a woman. Volund's sword falls into the hands of Surtr, the fire giant that attacks Asgard during Ragnarok.

The Burning of Gullveig

The Aesir burn Gullveig in an 1895 illustration by Lorenz Frølich.

Some of Rydberg’s shifts though, make very good narrative sense, regardless of whether he was reconstructing tales as a mythologist or creating them as a storyteller. The elevation of Gullveig is one of them. In the sources I have seen, Gullveig is a witch who is burnt three times and reborn in different guises. Gullveig’s burning is also said to be the cause of the war between the Aesir and Vanir. I don’t know if there is more information about Gullveig in the sources than that, which is a bit tantalizing or frustrating. In Rydberg, each time Gullveig is burnt, her icy heart remains and Loki eats it. Loki later gives birth to one of the monstrous children attributed in other sources to his union with Angrboda. This still isn’t a lot of detail for a tale, but the series of three deaths, three hearts, three monsters, is good mythmaking. The story of Svipdag has a Cinderella flair to it, with a stepmother with questionable motives sending him on a dangerous quest. Svipdag meets his true mother at her grave and she puts charms on him to protect him while he faces challenges by giants who hold Frey and Freya captive. This is an extant story I did not know. Likewise extant are the associations between Svipdag and Freya and I did not know them either.

Much of the end of Our Fathers’ Godsaga impressed me the least, with characters from different story traditions quickly collapsing into each other. A battle between mortals drags the Aesir and Vanir into the conflict. The legends associated with the vengeful Goth king Jormunrek/Ermanrich is played out with Loki posing as Ermanrich's evil counselor Bekki. Hadding becomes Dietrich of Bern. Svipdag the elf-god is also Svipdag the legendary king. The rabbit hole is convoluted and I was already familiar with many of the stories that Rydberg injected into the Norse myths. I found the genealogies difficult to follow, which isn’t necessarily bad. I usually can't follow all of the figures in a complex mythos the first time I read it. But once I recognized the sources and saw the use Rydberg made of them I didn’t feel there was much of a reason to commit to understanding. They just didn't feel consequential to the overarching narrative of the rise and fall of the Aesir, which is the throughline of Norse mythology. Ragnarok felt a bit paler for the Aesir gods to have been benched for so much of the book to make way for Rydberg's larger cast of characters. I also wondered why, among all of the stories he reached for, Rydberg left out the crown jewel of the north, the Volsunga Saga, known to the Germans as the Nibelungenlied, or as Wagner’s Ring Cycle. To me the Volsunga Saga is the closest northern literature got to its own Iliad.

By the end of Our Fathers’ Godsaga, it was hard for me to think that Rydberg was still reconstructing old myths, though I could be wrong. Details I learned that I am grateful for were from the stories of Gullveig and Svipdag. I think that my encounter with Rydberg makes me wonder how many details I've passed over in Voluspa or other texts in the Eddas that I have not held onto because they didn't fit together with the stories I am familiar with, which have been curated by hands other than Rydberg's. Rydberg has made me think about mythological canons and how they came about; who constructed them and with what purpose; and whether we can still search through the records to answer these questions. I feel myself at the beginning of a new search through the Norse texts with an eye of capturing the details that do not seem to fit or make sense. I am also interested in following up with Rydberg to understand his methodology.

But what do you think? Have you hungered for a deeper, lusher Norse mythology as I have? Do you want the legends of the North to get treatments worthy of Homer and the writers of the south? Do you prefer that sense of longing and loss that J.R.R. Tolkien sought to emulate and share? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Germanic Mythology Website

The front page of, which led me to Viktor Rydberg and which I have not begun to plumb the depths of.

Our Fathers’ Godsaga’s translator, William P. Reaves, is an independent scholar who has worked for many years to present Rydberg’s writings and other works related to the Norse myths. I cannot read Swedish, so there is a limit to my ability to comment on Reaves' translation, but I can say that the text is exceptionally clean of typos and other distractions that can make their way into small publications. The print is also very easy to follow, which sounds like a small matter, but again, many small publications like this are printed in fonts too small or hard on the eyes. Reaves maintains the sprawling website, where I first encountered Rydberg through his essay “Brisingamen’s Smiths,” also translated by Reaves.

  • Ben Hellman

Updated: 11 hours ago

The Abenaki's Promethean Gluscabe, outside the Millbrook Heritage Centre in Nova Scotia, Canada, part of the ancient lands stretching as far south as Massachusetts, known as Wabanaki, or the Dawnland.

The native peoples of New England remember a time when monsters and giants roamed the land I was born in. While I lay in bed as a child reading about the man-eating cyclops of the Greek isles and the dragons of Europe, the trolls and ice giants of Scandinavia, the land all around me had stories I knew nothing of, and have only begun to learn. I can report to you already, that these stories are just as thrilling as the ones we have inherited and carried from other lands, but they have the benefit of speaking of the places we live now: A primal creature that created much of the landscape of the northeast and then came to rest in Lake Champlain; an intelligent chimera that haunts Mount Katahdin; creatures scarier than White Walkers; children with magic and animals that speak. These are details from a few of my favorite tales of the people of the Dawnland!

That is what the Abenaki people called New England and a part of Canada stretching to Nova Scotia. The individual tribes, described by Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac as cousins, include: the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, but they belonged to a larger group that spoke related languages and lived in the Wabanaki, the Dawnland, a more elegant and beautiful name (and concept) than New England, I think. The people here were in the far east, the place on this continent where the sun rose first, and I’ve been searching out and reading as many of their legends as I could find.

Map of Wabanaki Land

Map of traditional Wabanaki territory, reprinted in Joseph Bruchac's The Faithful Hunter.

Of the three volumes I’ve read, my favorite was Giants of The Dawnland, collected by Alice Mead and Arnold Neptune. Mead has a collection of young adult literature and Neptune was a member of the Penobscot Nation. The stories in the collection are attributed to storytellers who are identified by name, tribal affiliation and (for about half) the date the story was recorded. Some of the stories are dated as far back as 1882, though Mead explains that these stories were passed down orally and may date back many thousands of years.

My favorite story from Mead and Neptune’s collection was “The Chenoo’s Icy Heart,” about a wife and husband who face one of the terrible monsters of the north. A chenoo is a giant, magical being and a cannibal, capable of changing size and killing a man with its scream. “His lips looked like they had been chewed upon in a frenzy of hunger.” Without giving away too much of the story, the wife and husband must use their wits to survive, but the storytellers retain the tension between the dangerous creature and the couple. The chenoo sounds very much like the wendigo, thought to be a symbol of starving in the winter months. The chenoo may have been more human once, an element not lost in the story, which makes the story more interesting.

“The Chenoo’s Icy Heart” and the two other tales I most enjoyed in this collection explored the elements of human relationships: one of a mother and father and the other, about a spurned orphan. “The Magic Giants” reminded me a bit of a Thor story, with a mother and father finding themselves lost in the fog in the ocean and saved by giants who take them in and give them supper but say that the couple must repay the favor. The mother and father had been poor providers, but are given powers by the giants to better support their children. “The Orphan and the Mikumwess” is not the only story to show how sometimes the village is run by mean or unfair people, but it is the only story to examine the relationship between a human and an elf, or “little person.” The orphan has solid Cinderella street cred, but when his guardian Mikumwess endows him with special powers, his outcome is so much more satisfying than Cinderella’s.

I have also read two collections by Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac, The Faithful Hunter and The Wind Eagle. The three Abenaki collections I've read each had two-page stories that would be great to read to a child: stories about the origins of animals, and animal tricksters like Azam the Racoon and Gluscabe’s uncle, the turtle person. However, my favorites of Bruchac, as with Mead and Neptune, were the longer, more developed tales with danger and interesting mythological creatures and beliefs. “The Deer Wife,” is a sort of selkie or mermaid tale with a twist. The Faithful Hunter’s title comes from an eerie tale about a husband who cannot be stopped from providing for his family. Surviving the northern climate and providing for family were two themes common to most of the Abenaki stories I’ve read. Even animal tales, some of which take on the air of fables by Aesop, are about the sorts of behaviors that make one a valuable member of a community. Laziness is looked on with judgement and those who are simply bad at hunting and providing are pitiable figures with a problem they must solve.

The mythological dimension of the tales includes a creator god, who is not very present in the stories, but a Promethean figure who is. Gluscabe is mercurial, sometimes portrayed heroically, sometimes as a trickster, never all-knowing or powerful, but generally a well-intentioned and helpful figure. It must say something that the Abenaki saw Gluscabe, in such human terms. The story of "The Wind Eagle," portrays him as well-intentioned, but adolescently naive and misguided. His quest is to end the powerful winds that make the Dawnland cold, but in doing so he upsets the balance and must go back to right it. A similar story has Gluscabe facing off against Winter himself, and again, it takes a couple of tries to make the climate of the Dawnland as livable as it is today. Bruchac, Mead and Neptune all stress that the Abenaki settled in New England at the end of the last ice age and these stories, like that of the violent, hungering ice giant, the Chenoo, may represent that.

Gluscabe usually seems to be an agent of positive change, of changing the Dawnland in a way that makes it what it is today, a region friendlier to human settlement. There are a number of stories that also have him making animals smaller, and less menacing than they once were. Defeating selfish characters is a theme, particularly when they hoard things the creator meant all people to have, like water, or in one of my favorite stories, "How Gluscabe Stole Tobacco." In a true hero's journey tale, Gluscabe must seek out knowledge (from his usual mentor, Grandmother Woodchuck) develop his unusual stone canoe and seek out the wizard who has hoarded the tobacco. The wizard figure, like the monster in "Gluscabe and the Water Monster," is a delightful surprise. Some stories say Gluscabe left when the white people came, but “Dusk” from the Mead and Neptune collection, says that Gluscabe left when the people stopped following his teaching. And when Gluscabe paddles away to the east, his magic leaves the Dawnland, confounding the languages of the humans and animals. The world is lesser for his passing.

Rock Dunder, or Odzioso

A few of the local Abenaki landmarks that a New Englander might visit are Rock Dunder in Lake Champlain of Vermont and Mount Katahdin of Maine. Rock Dunder is said to have been the only creature that created itself, named Odziozo, a name that means, "he who created himself." Odioso dragged himself around the northeast, creating the landscape with his movement. He created Tuxis Island in Long Island Sound and came to rest in Lake Champlain, where, satisfied with his work, he settled down and did not move again. Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the easternmost part of North America and first place the rising sun strikes, was sacred and off-limits. It was thought to be home of the winged creature, the Pomola, who is depicted as an eagle-like creature, sometimes with the horns of a stag or moose. According to “The Thunders and the Mosquito Person,” a Mi'kmaq tale, Katahdin was also home of the winged thunders, creatures like humans that could change their size and bear wings to create storms. Pamola seems to be a thunder creature himself in some sources. I hope and expect I will find more local landmarks that bear interesting native stories. One does not have to travel to Iceland to find rocks that were once magical creatures.

Rosy-Sloped Mount Katahdin

Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp, by Frederic Edwin Church, 1895.

An element all of the Abenaki folktale collections sought to communicate was the age of the tales. Each of the texts claims that the Abenaki people lived in this area from the time of the last Ice Age, when glaciers and now-extinct megafauna roamed the landscape. Mead and Neptune’s collection says the Abenaki people were here as many as 12,000 years ago. Bruchac makes similar claims. The stories’ fixation with the dangers of winter and ice monsters may reflect the struggle to survive in an age when prehistoric animals, real giants, roamed the landscape.

To a student of folklore, ancient tales, and oral tradition, such claims of longevity of tales, of stories handed down for so long, fascinated me and challenged my credulity, but in my limited research, it seems that they could be possible. According to Patrick D. Nunn, geographer and anthropologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia who has studied the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, orally transmitted tales can be passed down for 10,000 years when conditions are right. Those conditions, he says, include having specialized story tellers, and being relatively isolated. By these conditions, the Tjapwurung, a people in current day southern Australia have kept alive stories of hunting a prehistoric and deadly seven-foot tall bird, mihirung paringmal, 5,000-10,000 years ago. The Klamath people of Oregon have likewise retained memory of an ancient event, the collapse of the volcano that formed Crater Lake, some 7,600 years ago.

Such ancient times are apt to dwarf the Western imagination. They certainly do mine! I can think of nothing we have that is that old. The language I am writing in has changed so much in the last thousand years alone, one requires special training to read texts before the year 1000 CE. Two thousand years ago: the Roman Empire. Five thousand years ago on the Russian steppes: the peoples whose language would give birth to ancient versions of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, the Celtic, Germanic and Slavik languages, people for whom the domestication of horses and the invention of the chariot were game-changing technologies. The great pyramid of Giza (2560 BCE) had not been built. The Bible had not been written.

Accessibility of New England Native Folklore

I decided to research and write this piece after seeing that there was a chatbot that would tell me what native groups once lived in the zip code I live in. I found the chatbot on Columbus Day on social media. It says something already that an educated person with an interest in folklore made it to his forties without knowing the first thing about native American folklore or the peoples who once had the free roam of the lands I was born in and have lived in for most of my life. Upon getting a list of tribes that lived, and in some part still live, where I live, I became curious about what they believed in, cared about, what stories they told. I did not know where to start because there are no go-to names in the native folklore of New England, no Grimms or Andersen, Ferdowsi or Lönnrot, no programs of study that (again) are obvious and easy to find. When I ordered the books I’ve written about here, they were not as easy to get as many of the hundreds of books I’ve purchased online (most of them folklore and mythology-related.) Of the five texts I bought, one (not one I’ve written about here) was out of print and obtainable only as a used copy. Another was not available on the biggest online retailer in the U.S. Another was priced in such a way as to make me think it was published as a very limited run. All of the Abenaki folklore texts I’ve gotten my hands on were published by very small publishers or self-published.

The point I’m trying to make is that we in the U.S. do not place a great value on the cultures of native peoples, and that may be putting it lightly. I probably own ten complete editions of the Brothers Grimm, and I could buy ten more new editions, each by a different publisher, and have them by tomorrow. I can say the same about Greek mythology. It was easier for me to identify and receive important texts about the cherished tales of the people from India. I have always felt that Americans lacked a certain something in the way of folklore. We have an embarrassment of wealth if we count the stories of the cultures of our melting pot, but we are cut off from the stories of the lands around us, perhaps because to us, the history of these lands began in the 1600s. Before that it was another people's history, a people we don't seem to feel particularly comfortable thinking about. I think that it is a shame to be cut off from the stories of the land, particularly when there are such very good stories. It is a shame not to value native folklore as highly as the folklore of places we may never step foot in. I hope in time I will be able to research and review more of this valuable yet underrepresented folklore to perhaps make it easier for others to find and enjoy the oldest stories of the land they were born in.

But what do you think? Are you familiar with the folklore native to your area? Would Americans benefit from a more formal study of the stories and cultures of its original native peoples? Do you have a favorite native tale to share? Do so in the comments.


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