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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

A Roundup of Mythology News; Folklorist's Notebook

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

An avenging Medusa, Abenaki Folklore, a new Beowulf, a fascinating take on Norse Mythos, and the 2020 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Louise Glück.

I am happily researching a few projects that will take more time to develop into posts, but I wanted to try to share a bit of my research methods and the excitement of the chase with you, so here are some of the topics I’ve been working on!

Abenaki Folklore

I discovered on Columbus Day that I could text my zip code to a number and a chatbot would tell me which native peoples lived in my area. All the groups in Southern New Hampshire spoke an Algonquian language and seemed to have had an affiliation with the Abenaki Tribe, which was also the easiest to research quickly online. The Abenaki people would have ranged from present day Quebec though most of New England, part of New York state, as far south as Delaware. The name Abenaki stems from the place name Wabanahkik, which means the “Dawn Land.” Not only do I find it a beautiful name, but it immediately forces me to alter my perspective, which considers the US to be of the West. But a people who developed their identity as the easternmost dwelling people before the coming of the Europeans are appropriately the people of the Dawn Land.

Researching the folklore of native peoples presents a few new challenges, political and logistical. The first is that I don’t have reliable sources to turn to. It isn’t a mainstream topic of study in the US. Wikipedia has the greatest amount of material, but I have come to find that Wikipedia, at least when researching unusual folklore related texts, sometimes heads off in directions that don’t have the best support. Picking books from Amazon by authors who do not have a university background is no better, but again, this isn’t a mainstream topic of study for American universities. I ordered two texts, one of is a history, by a scholar of native heritage at Amherst College, another is by authors who have no other publication, but it just looked appealing. Lisa Tanya Brooks’s Our Beloved Kin; A New History of King Philip’s War (Yale, 2018) should tell me quite a bit that I can trust is well-researched, but it’s a heavy book for me to read during the school year, particularly when I am reading other texts. I also bought Seven Eyes Seven Legs; Supernatural Stories of the Abenaki, by Tsonakwa and Yolaikia, (Kiva, 2001). This book was a shot in the dark, but I love what I’ve read so far. It is a visually beautiful book and the stories force me into a different perspective, which I also love. I hope that I will find some other sources to try to verify what I’ve read here, but I can’t see the authors benefitting terribly by fraudulently claiming to write from an Abenaki perspective so I expect I will share some of the ideas and stories that I’ve enjoyed.

Rydberg’s Norse Myths

I am also reading a book of Norse Mythology by the 19th Century Swedish novelist, poet and mythologist, Victor Rydberg. A few years ago, I read a fascinating and somewhat head-spinning essay by Rydberg about Freya’s famous necklace, the Brisingsamen. Rydberg is an unusual scholar with unusual theories, and again, it is difficult to research the methods that allowed him to come to many of his conclusions. I must add though, that Rydberg’s Norse Myths address problems that have always bothered me about Norse Myths; centrally, that there aren’t enough stories and the stories that exist are fairly narrowly focused on Thor, Loki and Odin. Rydberg may have arrived at a lusher set of tales by mixing later materials together with the old reliables, but there may be reason to suspect that later heroic tales were based on earlier mythological versions. I just feel the need to understand the logic that led him to do it. I’ve corresponded with the translator of Rydberg’s Our Fathers’ Godsaga, William P. Reaves, who maintains the prolific and I hope that he, or his website, can help direct me to the sort of information I seek. As with the Abenaki folklore text I am reading, Rydberg is worth reading. Even if Rydberg’s research methods would not be supported today by scholars, I suspect that they will be an interesting case study in mythology.

Avenging Medusa

Sculptor Luciano Garbati's Medusa, recently installed outside a Manhattan Courthouse.

There was an interesting story recently that really suits the original purpose of Practical Mythology, in that it is a mythological tale being used to address a modern purpose. A park across from the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse apparently now has a seven-foot tall statue of a nude Medusa holding the severed head of Perseus (her killer in Greek Myth) and a sword. The statue, which plays upon a version of the tale in which Medusa is cursed with snakes for hair after being raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, turns Medusa into an avenger for women who have suffered violence at the hands of men. The story has gotten good play (a post in Newsweek) and it was hard for me to think of a way I could turn it around as a fully researched piece as quickly as I’d like. Curiously, I also think that because I hadn’t before heard the version of the story where Medusa was raped, I needed time to adjust to seeing one of the first monster villains I can remember from childhood as the hero. I identified with Perseus after watching Clash of the Titans, but I logically understand sculptor Luciano Garbati’s purpose, and I’m happy for women who are happy to see themselves in a Medusa who turns the tables on men trying to kill her.

Nobel Prize for Poetry

I have been poring through an anthology of American poet, Louise Glück's work after she was announced the 2020 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and heard that mythology was a common theme in her work. I have found several poems on the topic that I like and I have a post planned when I finish reading -- yes, I’m trying to read everything she wrote and, yes, that feels a bit crazy now that I write it. One of my favorite finds so far is a poem about the writer's life, “The Mountain,” which plays on the myth of Sisyphus, and feels about right some days.

A New Translation of Beowulf

Most Beowulf scholars would be afraid to approach Maria Dahvana Headley in a bar.

I have read through most of Maria Dahvana Headley’s lively and irreverent Beowulf and found passages I like, and passages I don’t like. I've been dragging my heels a bit because I wrote several pieces on Beowulf in August and September, and I feel a greater responsibility when I write on the topic from having studied the text for so many years. On the whole, Headley's isn’t a Beowulf for me, but then, I don’t particularly need a new Beowulf, and someone else surely does. Seamus Heaney’s translation was an accessible entry point for many new readers who would not have read the poem otherwise, but Heaney was not the most accessible text for the teenagers I taught. If I were teaching the text today, I would find some way to bring Headley into the classroom. I think she could very well be the right voice for a teenage reader.

Christmas Tomtes and Other Scandinavian Folksong

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

Finally, I have been working on several folksongs with my seven-string Kravik-style lyre. This is a monthslong process as I am learning to play and sing with the lyre and also developing songs for it that require a bit of finagling sometimes because of the limited number of strings. I am also dedicated to singing these songs in a language my listeners will understand, which means that I usually have to adapt lyrics from literal translation. My current focus is a Norwegian Christmas song called "Haugebonden." I had to pester some people in Norway to find a kind folklorist to translate its archaic Telemark dialect for me, but now I have to make the lyrics match up to the rhythm of the song and make reasonably good enough sense for an English-speaking audience to follow. A haugebonde is a kind of helpful spirit that dwells on a farm. The word, mound farmer, or farmer from under the mound, comes from the belief that he is spirit of the first farmer who cleared the land. The tradition is similar enough to that of the tomte that a haugebonde may today be visualized as a little man with a beard and red hat, a sort of gnome or fairy that protects the farm. It is a very sweet song and I hope to be able to perfect it to record it before Christmas this year. That might be a stretch as I have had a hard time finding a way to play it in a key that allows me to sing it. This, again, is a result of playing an archaic instrument. But hope abounds and I made some progress with my teacher this week. So hopefully I will debut my first song here by the end of the year!

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