Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Song of the Whippoorwill

How old are Coyote stories in North America? We don't know for certain - and, in fact, we can't know for certain, because they predate good written records of American Indian folklore. But stories in which a (sometimes semi-divine) Coyote functions as a trickster (and sometimes a fool) are spread over a vast area, including being shared among tribes with only limited contact in recent history, which suggests that a tradition of such stories is fairly old - most probably (but not certainly) pre-Columbian, as a lot of the decline in contact between different Indian tribes resulted from the precipitous population decline caused by European diseases that spread across the continent at a pace far exceeding that of the people who had brought them. Further, they don't seem to have been incorporated into the package of cultural ideas and images known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, which did not spread Coyote-related imagery, but their range overlaps it; this may mean nothing (they might have spread across that territory without being picked up and spread into the Southeast), but it may imply that they either spread into the upper Midwest before the period when that cultural exchange reached its zenith (so, prior to about 1200 CE), or that they spread across that space after the trading network which propagated the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (which was centered around the city of Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the present-day city of St. Louis) was already in decline (which would put the spread of Coyote stories after about 1350 CE) - which, of course, is an annoyingly useless clue, but still a real enough one to be tantalizing.

No particular Coyote tale is especially widespread, which is consistent with a few centuries of each tribe separately developing its own particular Coyote mythos. Unfortunately, it also means we don't know which Coyote stories are of particularly great age; all we know is what ones are part of the oral tradition at the time various folklorists collected them. This one, collected by Mary Magoulick in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, seems to rely on the audience already being aware that Coyote is not to be trusted, so it's probably not the oldest, but it could still be very old. We wouldn't know - that's the difficulty of studying the history of peoples without written records.

Here, then, is a Coyote story, in the words of Ogimakwe, a woman of the Nishnaabe tribe. I've removed an aside or two and a couple of Magoulick's notes on Ogimakwe's precise pronunciation, but otherwise, the story is unedited, exactly as told.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pagan Survival Hypotheses

Cecil Sharp, in collecting English sword dances, proposed that they were a continuation of pre-Christian fertility rites, and that the mock execution of the captain (who often wears fur) in many was a memory of ancient animal sacrifices. It's not uncommon to see it suggested that the Easter Bunny reflects the fact that eggs and rabbits were both symbols associated with an early Germanic fertility goddess named "Ostara," from whose name we get the modern English word "Easter." James Frazer's The Golden Bough posits that Germanic sacral kingship, as practiced in early England, was remembered in the poem "John Barleycorn." The "thumbs-up" and "thumbs-down" signs are frequently said to relate to how Roman emperors signaled their wishes at gladiatorial games. And the list goes on.

No, no, and no! Sword dances originated in the fourteenth century, the hare as an Eastertide symbol in the sixteenth, and "John Barleycorn" in the late fifteenth century at the earliest - and, in those early versions, he doesn't undergo the resurrection that inspires Frazer to connect the alleged folk practice with his dubious category of "life-death-rebirth deities." The thumbs-up connection is actually reasonable, except that the modern gestures come to us from later paintings which seem to have misinterpreted the written descriptions of the ancient versions, and of course we no longer use either in a way that literally calls for somebody to die violently. In truth, the supposition that modern folk customs so often preserve accurate memories of ancient practices otherwise forgotten is pure Victorian fantasy.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

King John and the Abbot of Canterbury

I'le tell you a Story, a Story anon,
Of a noble Prince & his Name was King John
For he was a Prince, and a Prince of great might
He held up great Wrongs, he put down great Right.
     Derry down, down hey derry down.

Friday, September 20, 2013

How the Bear Lost his Tail

I don't believe you understand a story until you can tell it simply enough for a child to understand. What follows is a medieval trickster tale which has survived into the modern era in Scandinavian folklore; it is an example of Aarne-Thompson Tale Types #1 and #2, which are often combined in sequence. Medieval versions typically cast Ysengrim the wolf in the leading role here, but I have opted for Bruin the bear as in the modern Scandinavian tellings, which customarily present the story as explaining why bears have such short tails.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Trickster Stories

The trickster archetype is abundant in the world's myths and legends, and examples are found in traditional folklores from every continent. The trickster is a being who defies the laws of men, gods, and nature through acts of deception, often with beneficial results for the wider world. The deceptions may paradoxically serve to affirm or rebuild the normal order of things, and may take the form of pranks, larceny, or malicious lies which lead others into danger or even death. Many tricksters are shapeshifters, and often even change genders. In general, the trickster belongs to the realm of myth or fable rather than of everyday life, swindling gods and vexing talking animals. The trickster may himself end up being deceived by those he sought to trick, but in many stories his deceptions are more successful.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Burns' Merry Muses as Folkloristic Collection

Robert Burns is best-known today as an early Romantic or proto-Romantic lyricist, but he was also a collector of traditional lyric. He also loved traditional melodies, and much of his poetry is intended to be sung to airs far older than what he wrote; this is, of course, perfectly in keeping with the core notions of Romanticism, which are best spelled out in the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1789), which describes a poet's task as "fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation" - something at odds with much of the poetry of the 18th century, which used deliberately archaic and learned forms. Burns did no such thing, preferring commonsense Scots just as Wordsworth favored everyday English.

A number of Burns' poems are light tweaks of preexisting ballads. "John Barleycorn" is likely one such, for example. In many cases, it's likely he wasn't even so much writing his own versions as attempting to present a version that would fit within an occasionally varied tradition.

The Merry Muses of Caledonia is a collection of such, printed ca. 1800 from a manuscript collection of verse Burns compiled throughout his adult life. This singular volume records the folk doggerel of the mid to late 18th century. The material in it likely does not originate with Burns, but he is known to have been fond of it and chose to compile quite a collection of such work, and it stands as an account of the 18th century's oral culture. The collection is united by a single common feature: every song in it is sexual in nature.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hobby-Horse Dancing at Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire

In the village of Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, September 9th this year is Wakes Monday, which will be celebrated as it has been for as long as anyone can remember: the Fowell family will once again borrow a dozen large antlers from the local parish church and use them to perform a unique and improbable dance. The dance will continue for about twelve hours, before the antlers are at last returned to the church. During this time, the dancers will pass throughout the parish, including by all of the local pubs, along a route about ten miles in length.

The dance is performed by twelve people. Six dancers carry pairs of fairly colossal antlers. One is dressed as Maid Marian, another as a fool, and another rides a hobby-horse. Their numbers are rounded out by two children, one with a bow and arrow and the other with a triangle, and an accordion player. While the precise details of the dance have evolved over the centuries, this custom dates back to at least the 17th century - and there is evidence which suggests, unexpectedly, that it may originate prior to the Norman Conquest.