Elves, aliens and Slender Man

Under Ljungby berättarfestival arrangerade vi ett internationellt tvådagarsseminarium om muntligt berättande. Ett blogginlägg från 1 augusti handlar om seminariet. Här kommer folkloristen Tora Walls föreläsning.

Elves, aliens and Slender Man 

This text was originally a talk, given at the seminar Oral Storytelling tradition – From Kenya to Hälsingland during the storytelling festival in Ljungby. It aims to give a short introduction to contemporary notions of supernatural beings, from a folkloristic perspective. 

Tales about supernatural beings sharing the world with us have been told as long back as written sources can be found. And even further back in time. There are pictures drawn on cave walls by artist of the stone age, giving us glimpses of a magical world now forgotten.

When the vikings, crossing the sea in their long ships a thousand years ago, got near the coast of Iceland, they took the dragon heads down from the bow. They couldn’t risk provoking the creatures – called landvättar -protecting the land. In the Middle Ages Saint Birgitta raged about how people sacrificed food to tomten – a being who was believed to protect the farm. In the late peasant society of Sweden, the tomte was still there. A small, kind of grumpy man working hard and drawing luck by magic to the farm, only asking for a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve as payment. Lonely men were sometimes said to be seduced by a dangerous lady in the forest. Beautiful if seen from the front but with a tail or with hallow back if seen from behind. But sometimes she helped them. Warning the coal-burner if the stack caught fire or giving the hunter good luck in hunting. 

It was a wise thing not to fall asleep outside a mountain or to trust a too handsome man or a too beautiful woman. Especially if you met them in the forest. They might be a troll or a vittra and if not careful you would found yourselves living the rest of your life as a prisoner in the mountain. Or, if you were a woman, at the bottom of the river if you were fooled by the water creature Näcken. These are just a few of the beings that lived alongside with humans in the landscape surrounding them, at least if the folklore is to be believed. 

But then everything changed. New kinds of machinery were invented. Factories were built. Railroads took people from coast to coast with a speed never imagined before. More and more people moved from the countryside to the cities. They worked in the industries instead of farming the land. The old beliefs and stories begun to fade away. Luckily some of them were saved by researchers who wrote them down and created archives to save at least pieces of the knowledge for future generations. For a while folklorists thought that magical believes and stories of supernatural beings were something that belonged in the past. That they had no place in this new time of science and technology and in the new, urban lifestyle. But they were wrong. The folklore was not gone. It had just changed with the society. Like it always does. The magic was still present but in new forms.

The new technology didn’t just change everyday life, it also changed the fantasy. The French author Jules Verne is sometimes called the father of science fiction. In his books, written in the second half of the 19th century, he created stories around the new technology of his own time and of technology he imagined was yet to come. In 1865 his novel From the earth to the moon was first published. It´s a story about the struggles of three adventurous men from the Baltimore Gun Club trying to build a canon powerful enough to shoot them all the way up to the moon. In the end of the first book they succeeds and the reader leaves them on their way out in space. The thought of travels in space was present long before the first actual space travel took place a hundred years later (not only from Jules Verne work of course). If you imagine yourself exploring the space, the one big question is: are there other lifeforms out there and if so – can we trust them?

Aliens are one of the first things that comes to mind when speaking of contemporary notions about supernatural beings. There are two opposite notions when it comes to alien lore. One fearing the aliens and their supposedly supreme technology and the other one longing for the aliens to come. 

In 1947 the pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine flying objects that he couldn’t identify. Later he described their movements in the air as how a saucer would move if skip stoned across water. A journalist misunderstood him and later published a story of flying objects looking like saucers. Soon other people begun to tell stories of similar events and the legend about flying saucers was born. 

Other legends was added to the folklore of UFO:s and aliens. Stories of people who believed they had been abducted and experimented on begun to spread, both in media and popular culture but also as legend wandering from one person to another. Many folklorists have noticed the similarity between those legends and legends of abduction by supernatural beings in the older folklore. In a Swedish context a comparison with the stories about people believed to been taken into the mountains by trolls can be made. In scenarios humans are taken away from their own world by something not human. The trolls are frightening because of their magic. The aliens because of their advanced science (so advanced it seems almost like magic). After returning to the human world (if returning at all) they have a hard time recalling what actually happen while being a prisoner and for how long they have been gone.

In some new religious movements and in occulture (meaning for example notions born in the occult and esoteric movements of the late 19th century and now a part of contemporary folklore) aliens are seen like a kind of gods or superior being that either are coming or already have been here. In the first case it’s a sort of Messiah myth. The aliens expected will teach the humans and enlighten them. In some cases, there are also a fear of (or a longing for) the end of the world. The true believers will be saved by the aliens and taken some place else – to a sort of paradise. 

In the other case the aliens have already been here, helping us build the ancient civilizations of the world. The pyramids of Egypt for example and also the mythical city of Atlantis.  One common notion in this context is that the knowledge and wisdom of the aliens are supposed to have been lost but traces of it can be found in folklore and proof of the alien visits are believed to be found in archeological findings. The Stonehenge is said to have been created by (or with help) of aliens. Proof of aliens are also found, according to the believers, in rock art from the pre-historic time. These notion are often both used and created in interaction with popular culture. The television show X-files in which agent Scully and agent Mulder are investigating cases of supernatural nature might be the most obvious example. 

But space is not the only nor the latest unknown territory in which tales about new supernatural beings are born. I am, of course, talking about the internet. Here new scary figures are created and spread in a kind of interactive horror stories. Those are made credible with photos or films created with the help of photoshop, and background stories told as if they were real. Slender Man is one of the most well-known of these viral horror figures. He was created in 2009 in a competition on the chatt forum Something Awful. The goal was to create the scariest creature imaginable and one of the participants came up with Slender Man. He is a tall, pale, faceless man with bizarre long arms and legs and wearing a black suite. He is often seen as a spooky figure in the background of photos of children. A movie has also been made about him (I´ve not seen it but I heard it´s not very good) and a computer game. He has his own fandom who creates new stories about him, stories in which children are taken or killed by Slender Man.

But the internet is also the home of less scary beings. Try goggle fairies or angels and be prepared for an overload of rainbows and love. 

Angels in contemporary folklore are not always associated with Christian believes. They have been incorporated in the quite amazing web of notions that used to be called new age (but many researchers nowadays choose not to use this term). Angels are often believed to guard the living and provide them with spiritual advices. They are by some seen as the guarding spirits of a deceased loved one and by others as ancient spirits with divine knowledge. 

Fairies in contemporary popular culture are often pictured as small, beautiful creatures with long hair and wings. Light and ethereal and associate with nature and love. This image was mostly formed in the Victorian age as a romantic version of older folk believes. In Sweden the same tendency is seen. The supernatural beings we tend to picture today when thinking of folklore in the peasant society was formed by artists and authors in the late 19th century. In this period the view of folklore, were very romantic. Traditions was considered as survivals from pre-historic times and a key to historical knowledge. Folklore was also used to glorify the nation history and in doing so forming notions of an imagined past. 

The supernatural beings moved from the hills, waters, mountains and underground to new arenas. One of those was children literature. New stories were written, borrowing some feature from fairy tales and legends, but adapted for children (and quite filled with moral and ethical ideal of the time) and formed into a new literary tradition. In these stories a set of stereotyped characters have been formed. The tomte, fairies, troll and the witch are the most popular of these and are still found in children culture of today.

I´m currently working on my thesis in folkloristics at Åbo akademi university. In this I study how folklore about supernatural beings are used in Swedish tourism. I focus on Trolska skogen, a tourist attraction in Hälsingland on the east coast of Sweden. Families come there to experience an interactive fairy tale adventure and to meet supernatural beings inspired by folklore and popular culture. The children are sent out on an adventure by one of the forest beings, making the children the hero of the story. 

The little people are living under the ground in Swedish folklore. In Trolska skogen they are seldom seen but their houses can to be found among the trees

On their way they can for example meet:

The magician Filijokus. He loves coffee and are always looking forward to the next cup.Filijokus can be seen as a sort of gatekeeper of the forest. When you pass him you go deeper into the forest and at the same time deeper into the story. The Elven queen. She is noble and a clearly a little above humans but kind and wants the children to take care of the forest. A dragon, luckily fast asleep. There is a door into its belly. In there a treasure is hidden and sometimes also animals or supernatural beings in danger are protected inside of the dargon. The little people are living under the ground in Swedish folklore. In Trolska skogen they are seldom seen but their houses can to be found among the trees. You can hear them talk to each other in the local dialect and a fiddler plays traditional music. The witch Aska-Etter is the witch of Trolska skogen. She is kind of a trixter. Not exactly evil but not good either.

Tomten

The tomte who lives in a house built around a tree, since he doesn´t want to cut it done. In Trolska skogen the tomte can be seen as a symbol of safety and a slow lifestyle.

In Trolska skogen the supernatural beings are often used as symbols of  nature and of past times. The funder of Trolska skogen, Helena Brusell, said in an interview (done during my fieldworks) that she sometimes thinks that the things they do in Trolska skogen might attract real supernatural beings. She has a feeling, she says, that “Trolska skogen has a soul of its own. Trolska wants to be Trolska skogen.” 

I will end with this rather fascinating thought of how a tourist attraction in contemporary folklore also can be seen as a place for real magic.

Literature:

Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. 1981.

Ellis, Bill. Aliens, ghosts, and cults : legends we live. 2003.

Gunnell, Terry. How Elvish Are the Alfar. In Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in Honour of T. A. Shippey. 2007

Hammer, Olav. På spaning efter helheten: New Age, en ny folktro? 2004.

Klintberg, Bengt af. Svenska folksägner. 1998.

-Råttan i pizzan: folksägner i vår tid. 1986.

Rothstein, Mikael. UFO: myten om rymdvarelser och flygande tefat. 2001.

Partridge, Christopher. The re-enchantment of the West. Alternative spiritualities, sacralization, popular culture and occulture. 2006.

Stattin, Jochum. Näcken: spelman eller gränsvakt? 1984.

Werner, Jack. Creepypasta: spökhistorier från internet. 2014.

Seminariet genomfördes med stöd av Kungliga Gustav Adolfs Akademien.

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