Updated: Jan 26

A winter festival performer from Christiansand, Norway, playing a Julebukk, a figure who goes door to door between Christmas and New Year's Day in a masquerade that incorporates elements of caroling and trick or treating. Photograph by Charles Fréger, 2019.

By now, folklore-savvy Americans know about Santa’s dark other, Krampus, who parades the streets of Alpine countries near Christmas menacing and delighting children with his birch rods and sack for carrying away the naughty. But the winter is long and dark and Krampus is only among the first of the frightening festival figures who have entertained and brought together Europeans in rural communities for generations. Christmas comes and goes, but the parade of horribles continues into February and beyond, often attaching itself to the Christian liturgical calendar like all good pagan relics.

Jack in the Green, a traditional May Day figure from Rochester, England, 2019, by Charles Fréger.

French photographer Charles Fréger has captured many of them. In 2012, Fréger’s Wilder Mann; The Image of the Savage, also captured the hearts and coffee tables of those whose concept of beauty was a bit more encompassing than most. Fréger’s book of portraits of monsters, lovingly crafted by locals for annual performances in town squares dotted across the European continent, was unlike anything most Americans had seen before. The general theme of these midwinter festivals is of man transformed into beast only to be captured, tamed and returned to human form, but Fréger’s images show how spectacularly varied is the notion of beast from culture to culture. Men encased in suits of straw, fur and bones. Some whimsical; some downright frightening; all striking in Fréger’s iconic photographs.

Images from Charles Fréger's 2012 Wilder Mann

(Right to left) Ours, or Bear, bear festival, Arles-sur-Tech, Pyrenees-Orientales, France, February; Tschäggättä, (no translation) Lötschental, Canton of Valais, Switzerland, February 2 to Shrove Tuesday; Schnappviecher, or "Snappers," likely from the sound of their chomping jaws, also called Wudulin, Tramin, South Tyrol, Italy; January 7 to Shrove Tuesday; Chiapra, or Goat, carnival of the Liptov region, Shrovetide, Ružomberok, Slovakia.

While it is not possible to completely generalize the many festivals represented by the portraits in Wilder Mann, many of them occur in February when the bonds of winter need breaking and people need to start anticipating the spring. Many of the stylized costumes are meant to conjure the image of the bear, a creature that hibernates in the winter, and whose return is as certain as the return of spring. The Fête de l'Ours, or Festival of the Bears, of Arles-sur-Tech is representative of many of these masquerades and reenacts a widespread folk belief of a bear kidnapping a woman. The stories of the offspring of this pairing can be found in tales collected by the Grimms and other anthologists, and have inspired epic storytelling and sagas in northern Europe. The bear in the festival tries to catch young girls and is "shot" by men playing hunters and then the bear's body returns to life, is shaved and revealed to be a man.

Many of the festivals, though obviously not Christian in origin, occur before the Catholic Lenten season, ending during the day or days before Ash Wednesday, which are named Shrove Tuesday and Shrovetide. Shrove refers to absolution for sins, when Catholics are "shriven" of sin, prior to Lent. As unusual as the Wilder Mann costumes may be, these festivals coincide with and may be thought of as analogous to the better-known Carnival of Brazil, which likewise features masks, costumes and pageantry. It is not by accident that many pagan traditions and festivals coincide with Christian holidays. The Catholic church chose to celebrate its feast days on the existing holidays of pagan Europeans as a means of Christianizing them, which is why so many of the costumed festivals in Fréger's Wilder Mann occur during the Christmas season or in the lead-up to Lent.

After Wilder Mann, Fréger moved onto other projects, but he has never left behind his groundbreaking work documenting the strange festival creatures of the dark months in Europe. He has spent the last two winters in Scandinavia and other countries continuing to photograph these human grotesques. Fréger made himself available recently to discuss his work and answer some of my questions.

I expected Fréger to be a man as interested in folkloric monsters as I was, but the thesis of his work is more challenging, and to me, more fascinating. Fréger sees community as the underlying theme of his work: “To me these are still communities and these masquerades are taking part in places where people just want to be together. The reason why these populations are doing such traditions is not to honor a tradition, but more to be together. And for that reason I find it as interesting as (photographing) a football team. Especially these days, the wish to be together is strong enough and is more valuable than certain religions or beliefs.”

Klausen, a figure associated with Advent, Oberjoch, Bayern, Germany, 2017, by Charles Fréger.

I would add that Fréger’s work seems to have the theme of costumes or clothing that bring people together. Fréger’s work has encompassed the monstrous more than once (his Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters project in Japan documented figures in a similar vein to his wilder men) but Fréger has photographed series of men from various countries in traditional military uniform, people in native cultural garb, performers from the Peking Opera and even majorettes. “Everything I photographed a few years before I started Wilder Mann was very delicate, complex, codified, structured, full of protocol and traditional. I was in (search of) something which was working the same way; it’s really comparable. You can compare one of these groups doing this wilder mann tradition and any of the other groups that I photographed before. It’s really similar in the way people get together. It’s just that here there’s this visual radicality; the landscape connecting with the costume."

Beyond Wilder Mann: Images Since 2012

(Right to Left) Dimonis di Algeida, Majorca, Spain; Wren Boy, Armagh, Northern Ireland, from Wren Day, December 26; the Iltis, or Straw Weasel, Buschwiller, Alsace, France; Máska, Sivas, Crete, associated with Carnival. Images taken by Fréger since the publication of Wilder Mann.

Fréger does not see himself as an anthropologist or ethnographer or as a journalist. He takes the festival performers out of the town centers where the festivals occur to place the wilder men performers in what strikes him as the proper setting, “distancing them from the anachronism” of modern life. His role, he says, is to create the portraits. This said, it seems to me that Fréger’s outings, and the popularity of his book, which has remained in print and is available in five languages, may have led to more festival groups. Fréger said that tourism is a potential driver of some of the events. Many of my searches online for more information about the festivals listed in Wilder Mann have led to travel and tourism websites. I anticipated that Fréger would tell me that he was documenting an ancient phenomenon and that this sort of tradition must be endangered in our modern world, but this is not the case. “They are more appearing than disappearing. There are new groups every year.” Fréger says that some festivals that may have gone out of existence in the last century have also made resurgences. Fréger took many of the photographs shown in this article in the nine years since his Wilder Mann book was published.

Fréger also surprised me by saying that these traditions are as much as or more a part of modern life than recreations of the past. “Tradition is politics. Tradition is about expressing identity.” The young men who frequently play the role of beast and build the costumes grew up with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. “You can see the influence of heavy metal from the nineties and the eighties.” Fréger said modern costumes are also far more elaborate than historic costumes because they represent the people taking part in the festivals, both performers and, crucially, the audience, without which, the festivals would lose energy and end. "There must be some synergy. Just because you have one mad guy from the village dressing himself like a devil, he needs to have his audience."

Charles Fréger holds the copyrights to all images in this article. See more of his wilder men and other projects at:

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Updated: Mar 6

Painted wheel of the year, from the Museum of Witchcraft, in Boscastle, England. (Wikipedia.)

The wheel of the year reminds of me of the medieval wheel of fate, which spins ever on, never leaving us in misery or ecstasy for long. And so 2020 comes to an end. The dark season is upon us and a tough year draws to a close. It is a good time to read and recharge and look forward to brighter days ahead. New England Bard and Practical Mythology went live six months ago in July 2020 and I’ve managed to post at least one article every other week, which was my goal for the year. My early articles were lucky to get ten views and recently, with some serious hustling, I am averaging about a hundred.

It is hard to gauge beyond views, which of my articles have been most well-liked and because I’ve gotten more views as the year has gone on I am uncertain whether more people are just recognizing my posts and clicking because they’ve enjoyed past stories. By far my most viewed story of the year was “The Protester and the Power of Ancient Ireland,” about the Seattle protester who sat in what I identified as a sheela-na-gig pose as part of her protest against police overreach in that city. I have to think that the popularity of that post is linked to the Oregonian photographer Dave Killen’s image of the nude protester from behind, but it was also the first interview I conducted for Practical Mythology with the scholar Dr. Eamonn P. Kelly, author of Sheela-na-Gigs; Origins and Functions (Town House and Country House, 1997).

Some 2020 Highlights from Practical Mythology

Images from my Beowulf series, my adventure to Castle Dracula, my curious Christmas carol, and my examination of Victorian scholar and folklorist Marjory Wardrop.

My most ambitious enterprise work of the year was in my series about a Georgian folk tale I identified as a Bear’s Son tale that bears some remarkable similarities to the Grendel section of Beowulf. The series ended with “Two Trolls and a Dragon Walk into a Tale,” which is a nod to my scholarly interest in Beowulf. Practical Mythology hadn’t had many regular views per post at the time and it was likely heavy reading for the general folklore audience. I was just happy to have a few fellow students and scholars of Beowulf see it and offer me feedback.

I was introduced to the Georgian Beowulf analogue “Asphurtzela” through Marjory Wardrop’s collection of Georgian folk tales and when the Bodleian Library released a text on its Wardrop Collection, I was able to write “‘This Little Book’ Marjory Wardrop and the Tales of the Georgians.” Wardrop continues to be an interest to me and I hope to take time this year to learn more about this fascinating Victorian scholar. This article was the first I posted to the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic Facebook group, and the moderators of the page, Drs. Brittany Warman and Sara Cleto have graciously welcomed my articles on their site, which has boosted my views and remains an important outlet for Practical Mythology posts. I’m very grateful for my Carterhaugh School views, but I hope to find some additional regular homes for Practical Mythology this year.

Orpheus and Eurydice Go Shopping

From my poem, "Orpheus and Eurydice Go Shopping."

I believe one of my most important articles this year was “Discovering the Dawnland,” about the tales of the Native Peoples of my home New England. I loved reading the collections of Abenaki tales and I love sharing tales that are not as widely read, particularly when they are so good. I would like to return to the subject in 2021, particularly if I can find a native storyteller to interview.

I ended the year with a project that I hope will become more common in 2021. “The Farmer from the Barrow: An Unusual Christmas Story” featured my first recording of myself singing while accompanying myself with my lyre. The project was a monthslong affair and still felt rushed as I sat recording on Christmas eve. I adapted the English words of the traditional Norwegian Christmas carol “Haugebonden” from a Norwegian scholar’s literal translation and arranged the song’s accompaniment for my seven-string lyre. Being able to write a worthwhile folklore post on one of my personal projects brought together my skills in a rewarding way. I anticipate recording more folk songs this year with entertaining stories to research further and write about.

This week I’ve been putting together an article about the photographic series Wilder Mann; The Image of the Savage after interviewing photographer Charles Fréger. Fréger’s perspective on costume, performance and community have excited my mind and I look forward to sharing his thoughts and images in a week or so. I’ve also been reading Hilda (H.R. Ellis) Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, recommended to be by a professor of Norse Myths after I asked him his opinion of Viktor Rydberg. Davidson’s text is a blast to read. She gives the straight scoop, but she isn’t reticent about speculating past what she can say for sure. I am also reaching out to potential sources to write about NASA’s Artemis program, which gets to the heart of my original mission to explore uses of folklore and mythology in the modern world.

I have been remiss about other sections of the New England Bard website and I am trying to crack away at adding images and text to the unfinished sections. This is easier said than done, but I am sure 2021 will see new projects and the finishing of old projects.

There is a world of folklore and fun ahead of us in 2021. If you are reading this post, thank you. Your continued interest makes this work worthwhile and the work has brought me much joy and satisfaction during a difficult year for all of us.

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Updated: Jan 26

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.

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