A good point – folklore and conflict


I just liked this point:

“…apart from its entertainment value, folklore also acts as a record of social events and processes. Myths thus act as social texts which record the various kinds of conflict, negotiation, and human and social relations that take place in society.” (p.8)

Actually, I liked this one, too, which summarises the gist of this article:

“Indian society is stratified into many castes and communities that manifest themselves in a myriad of fractured and contesting socio-cultural and political hierarchical layers. Many of these castes and communities belonging to the lower socioeconomic strata are engaged in a struggle to carve out their identity and acquire social prestige. In such a situation, the memory of an asymmetrical love relationship may sharpen the conflict among these castes, leading to violence and feuds. Each of the castes may remember and narrate the myths from their own vantage-point, giving rise to multiple texts and narratives of these memories that may be the foundational element of their collective memory and narrative. Thus the hiatus between the prevailing myth and the existential realities are completely blurred and the myths become transformed into reality and the reality becomes transformed into myth. Myth is no less powerful in creating contestations and violence around such happenings than the real incidents.” (p.23)

Ref: Badri Narayan (2003) Honour, Violence and Conflicting Narratives: A Study of Myth and Reality. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 5, 1 (June, 2003): 5-23.

Psychogeography and song


According to Anthony Hutchison: “Country music is a genre defined by a sense of place. From its inception, however, the ethnomusicology and academic treatment of ‘roots’ music was more informed by temporal than spatial ideas.” (p.268) Describing the spatial aspect of John and Alan Lomax’s seminal work in the field, Hutchison observes that “There were, nevertheless, a number of tentative spatial dimensions to [Alan] Lomax’s analyses and theorizations that ran alongside the more historically oriented elements. In ‘America Sings the Saga of America,’ […] for instance, Lomax details what he describes as a number of ‘dangerous potentialities’ that folklore movements must reckon with. Among these are the processes of industrialization and urbanization that have radically altered much of the spatial context for American folk music: [-p.269]
[‘]Rural folklore can be, falsely, opposed to city folklore, thus creating or widening the split between city and country populations. We are coming to find, however, that oral literature exists in the factories and slums, as another aspect of the rural folklore.[‘]
As well as noting the significance of the city as a site of American folklore, Lomax is also alert here to heterogeneous spatial elements at a national level that might account for regional patterns in the origins and geographical spread of the various forms of roots music. This extends to questions of taste and preference as well as others of genre and style as ways in which the relationship between musical forms and specific cities, states, or regions might be determined. These were issues that were undoubtedly pressing given the new technologies of recording reproduction and dissemination that drove the ‘nationalization’ of roots music in the postwar period. The fact that such forms had once been largely confined, in terms of both their production and reception, to relatively circumscribed geographical zones of origin undoubtedly gave this music much of what was regarded as its cultural integrity; it also nonetheless ensured an immense degree of variation across regions. This variation, however, could only be widely recognized once the technologies became available to bring it to wider attention. As Lomax notes in his introduction to Folk Songs of North America, ‘the map’ sings.” (pp.268-269)

“[By the 1970s, i]t was time, according to the cultural geographers, for American folk music to be subjected to “a locational analysis [that seeks] to understand why various phenomena are where they are.” The first edition of The Sounds of People and Places, a landmark work in this field edited by George O. Carney, appeared in 1978, and was the culmination of an enormously fruitful first wave of scholarship. Despite a subsequent slowdown, by 1993 a network of more than fifty of those interested in the sub-discipline had been established and, in 2003, Sounds itself moved into a fourth edition. In recounting the various experiences he acquired in a career given over to this topic, Carney has also usefully tabulated a number of “conceptual subdivisions” that have helped him to organize Sounds, such as “spatial variation” and “culture hearth” (which denote musical taste preferences and origins as they relate to region or locale). Yet just as Lomax identified possible concerns that would later be taken up by more spatially [-p.270] oriented musicologists and folklorists, so too has Carney pinpointed potential areas of study for those who might wish to permeate the boundaries of his own geomusicological research. It is the subdivision of “psychological and symbolic elements” more commonly negotiated by cultural critics that perhaps offers the most potential among the possible new fields identified by Carney. Such psychological and symbolic factors inherent within musical forms, Carney believes, can effectively reconstruct the spatial environment out of which they emerge; that is, they can enrich or perhaps even reconceptualize what we take to be the actual “character of a place.” The example he invokes for illustrative purposes is that of “surfin’ rock” as a crucial cultural component in shaping perceptions of Southern California (16).” (pp.269-270)

The term “psychogeography” first appears in Guy Debord’s 1955 essay “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography” where it is defined as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” For Debord, the need for a form of critical inquiry premised on the relationship between geography and human consciousness arises out of the novel conditions of postwar urban existence. Crucial to this postwar transformation of urban life is the rise of the automobile and the refashioning of cities such as Paris in response to what Debord describes as the demand for “the smooth circulation of [automobiles’] rapidly increasing quantity” (5).” (p.270)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in bold blue, mine) Anthony Hutchison ‘Following the Ghost’: The Psychogeography of Alternative Country, pp.268-281 in Esther Peeren, and María del Pilar Blanco (Eds.). Popular Ghosts : The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.

Reference is to: George Carney, The Sounds of people and places: a geography of American Folk and Popular Music (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), 2

Guy  Debord ‘Introduction to a critique of urban Geography’ reprinted in ken Knabb, ed. Situationist International Anthology (Berkely: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), 5

Nationalism, urbanisation, and vampires


There is a folklore study, titled Slayers and their Vampires, by Bruce McClelland, which shares an enormous amount of folklore around the figure of the vampire. It’s clearly written (as not all folkloric studies are!) and it’s interesting. Mostly, as I say, it focuses on folklore, but within the framework of how the vampire and its counterpart, the vampire slayer, have been adopted and changed by more recent representations of the figure.

vampires, nationalism, and Christianity

I particularly found interesting the connection shown by McClelland between the vampire tales and nationalism (which is bound into recent vampire tales in popular fiction – see much of the discussion around Dracula and Irish studies, or Martine Beugnet, for example). Here are a couple of points made by McClelland:

The systematic collection of folklore in rural Bulgaria did not begin until the overthrow of the “Ottoman yoke.” However, as a sign of the growing nationalism that had spurred Bulgaria and other Balkan nations to finally evict their Turkish overlords in the last decades of the nineteenth century, ethnographers and folklorists from the Slavic regions of the Balkans began to investigate in earnest the customs and tales of Bulgarians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Macedonians, and other groups living in or near the Bulgaro-Macedonian region of the BalkansElicited reports of customs and beliefs were collected in the field, then written up and submitted for consideration to such encyclopedic publications as the Sbornik za bâlgarski narodni umotvorenija (SbNU), a regularly published collection of folklore and customs. There are several references to vampire slayers in SbNU, dating back to 1891.

In the earliest SbNU report of a vampire slayer, from the Demir-Haskov region, the vampire, called in this case a vrkolak, appears as a shadow (sjanka). The vampire slayer is referred to as either a sâbotnik […] or a vâperar. The vrkolak in this region was said to come into existence from the blood of someone killed with a gun or a knife: the blood that poured out from the violent wound could become a vampire after fourteen days had passed. The shadow is quite explicitly considered a double, that is, an invisible simulacrum that can only be seen by the vâperar, who is called on to kill the vampire. In this report, the existence of the shadow/vampire was evidenced by an epidemic among livestock.

Like the vâperar, the sâbotnik may also be called on to kill the vrkolak, using, according to the report, a knife or a gun. The specification that the vampire slayer use the same tools to return the violence as that which ultimately brought the vampire into existence is intriguing: [-p.98] not only do we see the vampire as a double who has been engendered (or contaminated) by violence, but the vampire’s mortal enemy—who has the capacity to become a vampire—is here also his “reverse” double, who ritually reverses the vampire’s coming into existence by reenacting the violent scene that promoted a victim to a villain. There is a kind of antisymmetrical connection that persists throughout the folklore in the relationship between the vampire and the slayer, and this quite Slavic theme of doubles and reversals, while certainly encountered frequently enough in various notions of ritual magic, appears even in the later, popular literary conception of the vampire as having no reflection (the mirror image is his enemy).” (pp.97-98)

“Because he is able to detect a vampire that otherwise is unseen or goes unnoticed, the vampire slayer is the vampire’s natural enemy. I have already hinted that this function, of seeing and eliminating demonic [-p.105] forces, is a religious one: the task of purifying the community by identifying the spiritual cause of a calamity or disease and driving it out is performed by the heroes of many religions, Christianity among them. Since the earliest vampires were linked, in the minds of Orthodox Christianizers in the Balkans, with pre-Christian beliefs, we might expect to find evidence that the vampire’s folkloric enemies emerge from that same crucible.

Of course, the vampire’s truly greatest enemy is Christianity itself, which vehemently condemned, in the image of the vampire, the pagan’s literalization of the Eucharist and Resurrection as blood drinking and reanimation or reincarnation, respectively. But at the community level, the tension between the personages embodying evil or anxiety and those embodying good or wholeness must be resolved internally. The vampire and the vampire slayer are similarly marked as “non-Christian”; they are in a sense related to each other and in all likelihood reenact a mythological struggle that pre-dates Christianity. In other words, where Christianity finds the vampire, it also finds his slayer. At the purest theological level, Christianity abhors annihilation even for the sake of expiation, Jesus having served as the ultimate scapegoat. It therefore can condone neither vengeful violence nor deliberate contact with the unholy or defiled.” (pp.104-105)

Note also that in his introduction to this book, McClelland explains these connections and his own interest in them:

Ever since the publication of Dracula, or at least since movies adopted that novel’s central characters and narrative points in 1922 (Nosferatu) and 1931 (Dracula), the nature, origin, and meaning of the vampire have been frequent subjects of inquiry by European and American scholars. Historical, literary, cultural, political, and even psychoanalytic discussions of the nature and role of the vampire have abounded since the vampire became widely known in Western Europe in the early eighteenth century. But the tradition of the vampire and, indeed, of the word vampire itself, which also had a prefolkloric meaning, goes back several centuries before Europeans living north and west of the Danube had ever heard of such things. As we ought to expect, the meaning of the Slavic term vampir changed considerably over a millennium, yet most writers on the subject have ignored both the cultural context in which the term arose and the possible changes in the nature of the thing designated by the word across time.

Among the more significant causes of this inattention to the broader development of the vampire motif is the understandable, if Orientalistic, cultural ignorance on the part of Europeans living far from those areas of Europe – in particular, the Balkans and the Carpathians – that were dominated for so long by the Ottoman Turks. Toward the end of [-p.4] the seventeenth century, as the power of the Ottoman Empire began to wane in southeatern Europe, scientists and journalists who were curious about rumors of strange vampire phenomena ventured more intrepidly into such places as Serbia, Croatia, and other areas around the borders of the Habsburg Empire. Their noble intention was first to record and then explain the exotic and perhaps supernatural goings-on at the boundaries of the civilized world. This they did with a vengeance, writing reports and learned treatises to explain away the very possibility of the ambulatory dead. To prevent a resurgence of the extreme and irrational religious persecution that characterized the Inquisition, the journalists and scientists drew on the scientific methods that were emerging during the Enlightenment.

Thus, the conception of the vampire on which virtually all subsequent vampire literature (and, by technological extension, cinema) was based derived from a handful of notorious episodes. These ‘epidemics’ occurred over the span of only a couple of decades at the fringes of Western Europe, where Balkan folklore had come into direct contact with and had thus been contaminated by contemporary ideas about witches and witchcraft. Though a few reports by seventeenth-century travelers accurately described the Greek vampire, or revenant, known by the borrowed Slavic name broukolakos, there was no understtanding at the time of the vampire’s role within a much broader demonological or lower mythological system. The phenomenology of the vampire was appropriated in its entirety into a new, Enlightenment worldview, while the semantics and cultural history of the Old Slavic term vampir were almost completely ignored.

Perhaps the most profound consequence of this appropriation was that important, structural aspects of the vampire motif went unrecognized. The significance of the vampire hunter, for example, was for a long while overshadowed by a natural fascination – which preoccupied early Western writers on the subject – with the vampire’s appearance, power, and behavior.” (pp.3-4)

Because a familiarity with such oral tales was lacking in many recent studies of ‘the figure of the vampire’, McClelland goes on to explain that: “The dynamic of the vampire report, in which the real focus is on the methods used to identify and thereby dispatch the evil vampire, is missed as a consequence. What remains misunderstood is how the appearance of evil always seems to require counteraction or expiation at the hands of someone possessing both the necessary insight to recognize a vampire and the knowledge of the necessary rituals to destroy one. The meaning of the symbols in the original folkloric system is not carried over into the new, literary adaptation of the vampire theme. [/] The present work, then, attempts to restore the balance – between the vampire and his heroic adversary – that was disturbed with the transfer of the vampire from his home within Slavic lands, especially the South Slavic cultures of the Balkans. In particular, it is important to recognize first that the vampire hunter or slayer is not at all a modern phenomenon, dreamed up by Gothic writers for dramatic or literary purposes. More likely, this character is a reflex of an ancient shamanic figure possessing the healing power to peer into the world of the dead.” (p.5)


I found the following statement about the drop in folkloric vampire narratives as a result of urbanisation kind of interesting, too – since urbanisation seems to be a huge feature of the vampire’s recent popularity in popular culture…

McClelland writes: “In the twentieth century, the forces of urbanization and secularization began to erode the folkloric base of the vampire, and this erosion accelerated after World War II, in part due to the imposition of Sovietstyle communism, with its antagonism toward religious expression. By the mid-twentieth century, authentic vampire lore in the Bulgarian (and Yugoslavian) village context appeared to be dying off. More and more narratives recorded in the later decades of the century are of the “fabulate” type, in which the teller speaks of vampire or vampire-killing activity as hearsay rather than personal encounter (the latter being characteristic of the “memorate” narrative). Virtually all of the informants of contemporary ethnographers that admit to having knowledge of vampires are semiliterate farmworkers in their late seventies or eighties.” (p.102)

Ref: (italics in original emphases in blue bold mine) Bruce A. McClelland (2006) Slayers and Their Vampires : A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press

Reference is to: Martine Beugnet (2007): Figures of Vampirism: French Cinema in the Era of Global Transylvania, Modern & Contemporary France, 15:1, 77-88

fighting evil, being good? – the Slayer


“Like evil, the vampire is a force that must be struggled with and overcome, and he thus represents [-p.3] only a single pole in a moral dyad. Whether or not we choose to label the vampire’s antagonist ‘good,’ there is not much of a story if the violence and destruction wrought by the vampire goes unchecked. While it is rare that a vampire tale or a treatment of the vampire legend does not include an episode in which the vampire is destroyed or banished by some agency, little attention has been paid to the history and character of the vampire’s personal nemesis, now popularly known as the vampire slayer.

In the elaborate heroic tales found in epics, the central theme is ordinarily the hero’s transformation in the struggle against evil (in the form, say, of a dragon) or oppression. In most vampire motifs, however, the ostensible forces of good who would identify, oppose, and destroy vampires tend to be nameless and often incidental to the narrative. In fact, it is only fairly recently that the vampire slayer has had anything like a leading role: Abraham van Helsing, in Dracula (1897), is arguably the first significant self-professed vampire slayer in a tradition that culminates in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).” (pp.2-3)

“The heroic nature of the vampire slayer is predicated on his ability to identify the force that saps the energy from the life of the community. Something unnatural, unholy, invades and disturbs the natural order of things, and through this puncture in the tissue of everyday existence, something – is it a certain trust in the impermeability of that which separates us from the dead? – drains out. Yet because this intruder is invisible or, at the very least, unnoticeable – he is one of us, after all – only those with a special understanding of his nature are able to intervene and stop the hemorrhage. Like the vampire, the slayer must be marked – externally, by some sign of birth or accident; internally, by his symbolic connection to the world of the dead.

The nature of this bipolar relationship between the vampire and his adversary, the hunter or slayer, and the ways in which this connection becomes manifest and changes over several hundred years have not been adequately investigated. An examination of early Balkan folklore reveals that the vampire slayer, whose perceptive powers transcend those permitted ordinary Christian villagers, is the vampire’s true mirror image. The slayer is the heroic and opposing reflection that is curiously, but necessarily, generated by the presence of evil, and he is as closely bound to evil as a reflection is to its original. If the vampire is a dangerous and antihuman replica of the human, the seer or slayer is the rejector or suppressor of the replica, who restores order by allowing the community to differentiate the authentic from the false. This critical difficulty in distinguishing the true from the false, the beneficent from the treacherous, is, as we shall see, also the basis of the conflict between early Christianity and paganism and heresy. Historically, it was out of that conflict as it was played out in the Balkans that the folkloric meaning of the vampire arose.

Contemporary culture-based interpretations of the vampire ‘myth’ have great value in explaining our apparent need to continually retell the vampire story, with all its attendant variations.” (p.7)

“The linkage between the literary vampire and the folkloric one is a topic beginning to receive a great deal of attention. However, most scholars in this area take the modern vampire, especially as it has been configured since Dracula and its immediate precursors, as their starting point. They then go back into the folklore only as far as the literature itself allows, glossing over the significance of the enormous lacunae in the knowledge of vampire folklore drawn on by those earliest investigators into the subject.” (p.9)

“While folklore about vampires seems to be dying out in the Balkans as a result of the inexorable processes of westernization and urbanization, it is not clear whether the literary and cinematic vampire theme is likewise cooling down. More precisely, it is not yet clear, as of this writing, whether we are witnessing a return of the hero within the popular vampire narrative. Certainly, the success of Buffy, which makes of the slayer a complicated superhero in a fantastic suburban universe, would seem to indicate that we are becoming more interested in making the heroic primary and the vampiric evil secondary. (In Buffy, for example, almost all of the vampires and demons that are killed are more or less nameless and unsympathetic). But the low U.S. attendance figures for universal’s high-budget Van Helsing (Universal Pictures, 2004) suggest that stories of monolithic, violent vanquishers of one-dimensional monsters cannot sustain interest and in fact miss the central point of the dual nature of the vampire-slayer pair. These days, the evil that walks among us unrecognized is more often played by the sociopathic serial or mass killer, while the hero who is intuitively connected to that disturbed orientation takes the form of a forensic psychologist, or profiler. It may be that solving the problem of real evil with real (human) agents in today’s world has surpassed any need to dally with the purely imaginary.” (p.14)

Ref: (italics in original) Bruce A. McClelland (2006) Slayers and Their Vampires : A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press

From Game to War and Other Psychoanalytic Essays on Folklore


It may be old, but it caught my eye as potentially interesting:

From Game to War and Other Psychoanalytic Essays on Folklore – by Alan Dundes (1997)

“Although folklore has been collected for centuries, its possible unconscious content and significance have been explored only since the advent of psychoanalytic theory. Freud and some of his early disciples recognized the potential of such folkloristic genres as myth, folktale, and legend to illuminate the in intricate workings of the human psyche. Alan Dundes is a renowned folklorist who has successfully devoted the better part of his career to applying psychoanalytic theory to the materials of folklore. From Game to War offers five of his most recent and mature essays on this topic. Dundes begins with a comprehensive survey of the history of psychological studies of folklore in the United States. He then presents a striking analysis of the spectrum of behavior associated with male competitive events ranging from traditional games — such as soccer and American football — to warfare. He argues that all of these activities can be seen as forms of macho battle to determine which individual or team feminizes his or its opponents. This is followed by a study of the saga of William Tell, one of the most celebrated legends in the world. A novel treatment of the biblical flood myth in terms of male pregnancy is the penultimate essay, while the concluding article proposes an ingeniously imaginative interpretation of the underpinnings of anti-Semitism.

Table of Contents

The psychological study of folklore in the United States — Traditional male combat : from game to war — The apple-shot : interpreting the legend of William Tell — The flood as male myth of creation — Why is the Jew “dirty”? : a psychological study ofanti-Semitic folklore.”



Urban legends and travel


Mike Hanne once pointed out (in a lecture – COMPLIT 202: Interpreting Folktales, University of Auckland 2001) that lots of urban legends are associated with travel… ‘What is attractive and what is frightening about being away from home/where you are comfortable?’ he asked…

Consider stories about losing kidneys (for example) in the airport, on the plane, in Disneyland, etc…

or the urban legends associated with restaurants – especially those run by other ethnic groups (cats going missing near Chinese neighbourhoods, for example, or – more recently – near the New Zealander living in small town France)

“In the telling of these stories,” Mike explained, “part of the psychological point is that they’re pushing the question ‘what will you believe?'”

Do these legends require the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’? or is some other narrative tradition in play?

Who tells the stories???


With regards to the collection and interpretation of urban legends, Jan Brunvand writes:

What little we know about who tells the stories, when, to whom, and why invariably contributes towards understanding how legends function and what they mean. Too frequently, however, our contextual and background information is limited to the name, age, sex, and address of informants; seldom do we find scholarly studies that give close descriptions of actual storytelling events.” (p.15)

Ref: Jan Brunvand The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban legends and their Meanings, New York/London: WW Norton, 1981.