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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Look to the Light; A Folklorist’s Notebook for February

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

Dawn in southern New Hampshire, the first week of February.

The light is returning. Every day the afternoon seems to last longer and that’s a reason to celebrate. Imbolc was officially the first of February, but this is the season of returns. With the cold weather and persistent snow, it might be hard to believe that we are headed to spring, but look to the light when you despair. It is coming. In my neck of the woods, maple sugaring has begun, the time of year when the shifting temperatures between day and night get the sap flowing that will be boiled down to maple syrup. I’ve got a bit in my beard from adding it to my oatmeal this morning, which puts it in my mind. The Abenaki people of the area have a story that the syrup once ran straight from the trees, without needing to be boiled down, but people got fat and lazy lying on the ground with syrup dripping straight into their mouths. Gluskabe, the helper (and trickster) god, saw that something must be done to help the people and watered down the sap.

This is the week of February vacation for Massachusetts schools and should be a time of rest and recharging for me, but I’ve had so many ideas running through my head, that it’s taken longer for me to give myself a break. I’ve been rereading John Colarusso’s Nart Sagas from the Caucasus, which I believe had its moment of fame because the independent women of the Circassian people likely fueled the Greek imagination, giving them Amazons. Any template for strong, independent women in past is a thing to celebrate and the stories of the Narts do have remarkably independent women, by the standards of many of the human women in Greek myth. The word Amazon itself, says Colarusso, is a rendering of a female name from one of these tales, not a word denoting the lack of a breast.

People Like Horses with Personality

Rostam sleeps while his horse Rakhsh fights off a lion, a painting in gouache on paper, from a tale in the Shahnameh. Dated to 1515. Made in Tabriz. Part of the British Museum's collection.

I watched a bit of Disney’s Tangled earlier in the week and was struck by the personality of the horse Maximillian. It has such personality and agency that I was reminded of Rakhsh, the Iranian hero Rostam’s horse, which actually helps Rostam fighting dragons and protects him from lions. (Rakhsh means lightning, a terrific name for a horse!) That made me think of a refrain from a ballad about Sigurd, the dragon slayer, about his horse Grani. In working on an English adaptation of it for people who didn’t know the story, I was struck that the refrain was about the horse carrying the gold and not the hero who slew the dragon to get the gold. Why would the writer have done that? And then I looked at Maximillian, the horse in Tangled, and I got it. People like horses with personality.

I finished a draft of lyrics based on the Norwegian ballad “Margit Hjuska” yesterday and made a preliminary video with questionable sound. The song is one of a series of ballads about young women being stolen by a troll or a mountain king. It is thought of as a variant of “Little Kjersti,” another ballad that also exists in a number of forms. Add these to “Sir Mannelig” and you see a trend of stories about creatures bent on taking human spouses against their will. I was struck also though that Margit’s particular Mountain King husband seems more like an abusive and controlling spouse than a supernatural terror. He reminds Margit of their children and how they need their mother to come home (and not leave the mountain again.) Human relationships seem remarkably stable over the ages.

Highlighting my Catoblepas

I’ve been working on my wall sculpture this week, the Catoblepas, trying to get the paint right to make his features visible from the floor. I take on art projects without having learned the prerequisite skills to complete them. This coupled with a stubborn streak of perfectionism means that I sometimes work on a project for a very long time before I feel it’s right. My Catoblepas could be ready to hang next week or in a year, if the past tells me anything. (Hopefully closer to next week) The Catoblepas is a fantasy creature from medieval bestiaries based on earlier Greek writings. The name of the animal comes from the Greek word meaning “to look downward” and indeed, the Catoblepas was said to have a neck that did not support the weight of its head. It literally always looked down. But this is a good thing because the stare of Catoblepas was thought to kill. My Catoblepas will stare directly at the main entrance of my home, greeting all comers. Don’t tell my friends. It can be our inside joke.

I love bestiaries, but I came across the Catoblepas as a kid playing Dungeons and Dragons, which has also been on my mind. I’ve been curious about how playing D&D as a child colored my expectations of folklore, gave me the expectations that folkloric beasts met the modern standards of scientific taxonomies. (They don’t.) This has swirled around my brain with another project I have wanted to pursue, of creating a linguistic tree documenting the spread of all creatures with a name related to the word goblin.

I had hoped to write a more cohesive piece for the blog this week, but clearly, I’m a bit scattered. I think that brings me back to the opening of this post, about the return of the daylight and the coming of a fresh solar year in March. The winter that started in 2020 may feel like it is lingering, but it cannot hold. The trees will wake back up and everything else will eventually fall into place for a more civilized spring and summer to come.

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