torsdag 16 februari 2012

Jan-Öjvind Swahn: Häxor tomtar jättar och huldror ("Witches, gnomes, giants and huldras")

Well, I enjoyed Swahn's book Svenska mord ("Swedish murders"), so I figured I might try some of his other works. This one, from the sixties, is basically a collection of folklore causeries (that is, short, witty essays) he produced for Swedish radio and then set to print – for which I am thankful, as it is indeed an amusing series of little essays on various sorts of supernatural beings that populate our Swedish myths and legends. Swahn tells his readers about how the evil eye (and its cousins, the evil foot – yes, the evil foot – and the evil meeting) could harm and how to protect against it (and how Jacques Offenbach and Pope Pius IX were prominent culprits), legendary strongmen, werewolves, pixies and much more.

It is a most enjoyable read, not just because of his easy-flowing, gently ironic writing style, but also because the legends and episodes he retells often are good, strong stories in themselves. Like the Swedish soldier who was taken prisoner by the Russians after Karl XII's failed war and got on the bad side of a Russian mage, who turned him into a wolf. However, as a wolf, he could escape from Siberia and get all the way home to his wife, who wondered about this wolf roaming about her house and consulted a wise man who advised to address the wolf as her husband to check whether it was really him. She did, and the wolf was transformed back into her husband, because a werewolf will revert to his true form forever if addressed by his proper name. (Another, less savory, method is for the werewolf to tear out the unborn child of a pregnant woman and eat its heart; I think we can all agree that the other method is wildly preferable to this one.)

Apparently, there was quite the werewolf craze in medieval Europe; even in 1500s France, it occurred that innocent people were executed in significant numbers for being werewolves. Swahn's theory is that they were mentally ill or slow-witted people who may have even believed themselves to have become animals. (On occasion, doctors also managed to convince the judges of that.)

Werewolf-con in Chateaurouge, 1858.

In Northern Sweden, with its conflicts between the aboriginal Sami people and Swedish colonialists/farmers, there were myths about how some Sami could transform themselves into a wolf or bear by putting on a belt made out of the back hide of somebody who's hanged himself, and then killing the farmers' sheep or cows. The trick for catching the perpetrator was to surprise him as he was coming home in the morning and look into his mouth for tufts of wool...

In the werewolf chapter is also detailed the myths of the bäckahäst (kelpie), who lurks in and around lakes and river with the intent of dragging children into the water and drown them, and the rye wolf, which lurks in the rye fields to kill little children who dare stray there. These two latter myths are rather easily explained as a way of trying to keep children from going where they shouldn't be – near water, where they risk drowning, and in the fields, where they would trample the crop – which is why I found them particularly interesting.

Witches and their traditional voyage to Blåkulla to dance (and worse) with the Devil before Easter also get a chapter in the book. Now, since this particular myth gets rehashed every year before Easter in Swedish media, I'm pretty much fed up with it, but Swahn makes it interesting even for me as he concentrates on retelling various specific legends, like the soldier who went there in his wife's stead as she was simply too tired to go that year, or how there were so many witches in the air early on Holy Saturday that if you simply happened to fire your rifle up into the air, you had pretty good odds of hitting one of them, or how you could nail a saddle up over the church door to make the women who'd gone to Blåkulla neigh like a horse when passing under it, thus revealing themselves as witches.

One more myth: the huldra, a female entity living in the forest, luring men to sex and gaining magical power over them, gets a chapter of its own, and a number of really good anecdotes – like the milkmaid Bengta who was to meet her beau in the forest, but who instead encountered the huldra who had disguised herself as the fiancee; Bengta went crazy for three days after having kissed her. Any hunter who wanted to become a master shot only had to leave his rifle out in the woods by a tree stump and put some bread and meat next to it. The huldra would then blow into the barrel and load the gun, and from then on he'd always hit what he aimed at. (Of course, he also had to run out into the forest to satisfy the huldra whenever she felt the urge...)

Anyway, a most enjoyable book. Recommended.

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