Classical Sunday: Traditional Scandinavian Folk Songs

Something to celebrate the cold season with. Enjoy.

Traditional Swedish Folk Songs

Here’s what they say concerning this video on YouTube:

The Music of Sweden shares the tradition of Nordic folk dance music with its neighboring countries in northern Europe, including polka, schottische, waltz, polska and mazurka. The accordion, clarinet, fiddle and nyckelharpa are among the most common Swedish folk instruments. The instrumental genre is the biggest one in Swedish traditional music. Swedish folk songs are dominated by ballads and kulning; the latter was originally used as a cow-herding call and is traditionally sung by women. The fiddle is perhaps the most characteristic and original instrument of the Swedish folk tradition.

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Our Dear Own John Ronald: Riddles

Alive without breath, / As cold as death, /Never thirsty, ever drinking, /All in mail, never clinking.

“Sssss” said Gollum, and became quite polite.  “Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciousss.  It likes riddles, praps it does, does it?”  He was anxious to appear friendly, at any rate for the moment, and until he found out more about the sword and the hobbit, whether he was quite alone really, whether he was good to eat, and whether Gollum was really hungry.  Riddles were all he could think of.  Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago, before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down into the dark under the mountains.

“Very well,” said Bilbo, who was anxious to agree, until he found out more about the creature, whether he was quite alone, whether he was fierce or hungry, and whether he was a friend of the goblins.

“You ask first,” he said, because he had not had time to think of a riddle.

~ J.R.R.T:  The Hobbit: Riddles in the Dark

bilbo and gollum.jpeg

Hobbits (…) ‘have a fund of wisdom and wise sayings that men have mostly never heard or have forgotten long ago’.

Bilbo’s riddle exchange with Gollum actually falls into the latter category, of things forgotten, for the whole idea of testing by riddles, and some of the actual riddles, come from the ancient and aristocratic literature of the Northern world rediscovered in the nineteenth century by Tolkien’s professional predecessors.  (…)  Gollum’s riddles, unlike Bilbo’s tend to be ancient ones.  Thus his last riddle, delivered when he thinks ‘the time has come to ask something hard and horrible’, derives from a poem in Old English, the riddle game, or more precisely the wisdom testing exchange, between Solomon and Saturn.  In this, Saturn, who represents heathen knowledge, asks Solomon, ‘What is it that … goes on inexorably, beats at foundations, causes tears of sorrow … into its hands goes hard and soft, small and great?’  The answer given in SOLOMON AND SATURN is, not ‘Time’ as in Bilbo’s desperate and fluky reply, but ‘Old age’: ‘She fights better than a wolf, she waits longer than a stone, she proves stronger than steel, she bites iron with rust: she does the same to us’. (…)

Gollum’s fish riddle (…) is echoed by a riddle set in the Old Norse wisdom contest in THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE (to be edited many years later by Tolkien’s son Christopher), and has a further slight analogue in a medieval poem from Worcestershire which Tolkien admired, LAYAMON’S ‘BRUT’: in this dead warriors lying in a river in their mail are seen as strange fish.  (…)  Gollum’s riddles, cruel and gloomy, associate him firmly with the ancient world of epic and saga, heroes and sages.

But Bilbo can play the game too; though his riddles are significantly different in their sources and their nature.  Three of them (…) come from traditional nursery rhyme.  But where, one might ask, does traditional nursery rhyme come from?  Tolkien certainly had asked himself this question (…).  In 1923 he had published a long version of the familiar ‘man in the moon’ nursery-rhyme, ‘Why the Man in the Moon Came Down too Soon’ (…).  In the same year he published ‘The Cat and the Fiddle: A Nursery Rhyme Undone and its Scandalous Secret Unlocked’ (…).

It may seem surprising that anyone should find nursery-rhymes worth quite so much time and trouble, if it does not quite extend to taking them seriously.  But behind all these rewritings and reminiscences lies the philologist’s conviction that, just as the children’s fairy-tales of elves and dwarves had some long-lost connection with the time when such creatures were material for adults and poets, so modern playground riddles and rhymes were the last descendants of an old tradition.  (…)

The difference [between Bilbo and ordinary people] is that he has not quite lost his grip on old tradition.  Nor, of course, have all ‘ordinary people’.  But they have downgraded old tradition to children’s tales and children’s songs, become ashamed of it, made it into ‘folklore’.  Bilbo and hobbits are in this respect wiser.  [His] unforgotten wisdom puts Bilbo (…) on a level with a creature from the world [of heroic saga and fairy tale] into which he has ventured.

~ Tom Shippey: Author of the Century: The Hobbit: Reinventing Middle-Earth

Classical Sunday: Wagner’s Tannhäuser

Happy Father’s Day to all fathers out there.

Our choice of music for today is particularly inspired by my maternal grandfather’s musical preferences.  He loved Wagner.  And Goethe’s Faust, incidentally.

Tannhäuser (full title Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, “Tannhäuser and the Minnesingers’ Contest at Wartburg”), is an 1845 opera in three acts by Richard Wagner, (WWV 70).  It’s content is based on the two German legends “Tannhäuser” (a legendary medieval German Minnesänger and poet) and the tale of the Wartburg Song Contest.  The story centers on the struggle between sacred and profane love, and redemption through love.

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

Bayreuth, 1978

Elisabeth – Gwyneth Jones
Venus – Gwyneth Jones
Landgraf – Hermann Hans Sotin
Tannhäuser – Spas Wenkoff
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Bernd Weikl
Walther von der Vogelweide – Robert Schunk
Biterolf – Franz Mazura
Heinrich der Schreiber – John Pickering
Reinmar von Zweter – Heinz Feldhoff




Cultured Wednesday: Thoughts on Brownies

Something to ponder as you go about your business today, wondering where your car keys might have ended up this time.

Although I chose two of Arthur Rackham’s brownies for illustration purposes, this post is not about Arthur Rackham, the book illustrator, but about the Brownie, his model.

house sprite
A brownie sweeping with a handmade broom by Arthur Rackham

Rackham most famously illustrated fairy tales and the fairies, brownies, hobs, Heinzelmännchen, sprites, undines and nisse in them.  If you have ever read Grimm’s “Children’s and Household Tales”, or Hans Christian Anderson’s “Fairy Tales”, or William Butler Yeats’ “Irish Folk and Fairy Tales”, or any other European collection of poems and stories, you surely know the Little People who I am talking about.

But did you know that these little household companions used to be far more than helpers for decent people and pests for lazy scullery maids?  They used to be understood and revered as the souls of our dead ancestors.  In fact, it appears as though Europeans, more precisely Proto-Indo-Europeans, first experienced the existence of something beyond their material experience when they were confronted with death.  If you look at different types of household deities, you will find that they are wide-spread in European mythology and fairy tales.


“This religion of the dead appears to be the oldest that has existed among this race of men.  Before men had any notion of Indra or of Zeus, they adored the dead; they feared them, and addressed them prayers.  It seems that the religious sentiment commenced in this way.  It was perhaps while looking upon the dead that man first conceived the idea of the supernatural, and began to have a hope beyond what he saw.  Death was the first mystery, and it placed man on the track of other mysteries.  It raised his thoughts from the visible to the invisible, from the transitory to the eternal, from the human to the divine.”

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges: “La Cité Antique” (The Ancient City), 1864, p. 28-29

In other words, Brownies originated as domestic tutelary spirits, very similar to the Lares of ancient Roman tradition.  Jacob Grimm equated the Roman lar familiaris to the brownie and explains in his “Deutsche Mythologie”, in good linguistic manner, thus:

“Larva betrays its affinity to lar…, and the good kindly lares were often held to be manes or souls of departed ancestors.  So in our German superstition we find instances of souls becoming homesprites or kobolds, and still oftener is there a connexion between unquiet spirits and spectres.”

A tutelary is a guardian deity or spirit.  He can be a patron of a particular place, be it a geographic feature or a homestead.  He can also be a protector of a person, lineage, people, culture, or even occupation.  In late late Greek and Roman religion, one type of tutelary deity, the Genius or Juno, functioned as the personal deity of an individual from birth to death, very similar to the concept of the guardian angel in the Christian tradition.

Another form of personal tutelary spirit are the spirits of European folklore, and those are the kinds we are so familiar with, the little men and women who danced through our childhood dreams, who populated our childhood gardens, who we expected to catch in the closet or behind the curtain if only we could be quick and quiet enough.

If you look into Ancient Greek and Roman religious practices, you will find how these deities related to the ancestors.  In essence, they believed that upon death, the soul and the body of the deceased person did not separate, which is why a proper burial was so very important to the Greeks and Romans back in the day.  Homer and Virgil give plenty of examples of this.  Because the soul stayed with the bones that were buried in the crypt or catacomb, the family was responsible for providing their ancestors with a peaceful rest (hence R.I.P.) by offering food and libations to them.  This was done on little household altars, or hearths, on which live coals were kept as the sacred fire.  As long as the family was alive, so were the coals, and it was the responsibility of the head of the household to tend to them: A cold hearth meant that the family line was ended.  If a family neglected the rites and did not provide food and drink, their ancestors would have no peace in death and plague their living family members with diseases and ill fortune until the proper rights were restored, while ancestors that were well cared for were protectors of the family, tutelary spirits as described above.

Isn’t it fascinating how something that is from of old, that has been formative for our people from the very beginning, is still right here and accessible to us today?  People as formidable as C.G. Jung didn’t tire pointing out the significance of fairy tales for our psychological health because they provide a bridge to that within us which is from ancient times.

Consider this in connection with Jung’s collective unconscious:

“It is a strong proof of the antiquity of this belief, and of these practices, to find them at the same time among men on the shores of the Mediterranean and among those of the peninsula of India.  Assuredly the Greeks did not borrow this religion from the Hindus, nor the Hindus from the Greeks.  But the Greeks, the Italians, and the Hindus belonged to the same race; their ancestors, in a very distant past, lived together in Central Asia.  There this creed originated and these rites were established.  The religion of the sacred fire dates, therefore, from the distant and dim epoch when there were yet no Greeks, no Italians, no Hindus; when there were only Aryas.  When the tribes separated, they carried this worship with them, some to the banks of the Ganges, others to the shores of the Mediterranean.  Later, when these tribes had no intercourse with each other, some adored Brahma, others Zeus, and still others Janus; each group chose its own gods; but all preserved, as an ancient legacy, the first religion which they had known and practised in the common cradle of their race.”

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges: “La Cité Antique” (The Ancient City), 1864, p. 35

Something to ponder as you go about your business today, wondering where your car keys might have ended up this time.


Featured, you see Rackham’s illustration “O waken, waken, Burd Isbel”, from Young Beichan, Child ballad number 53; here in all its beauty:

brownie rackham2
“O waken, waken, Burd Isbel”, from Young Beichan, Child ballad number 53


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