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Posts Tagged ‘folklore’

Night Doctors

October 11, 2016 | by

Nineteenth-century medical schools plundered the graves of African Americans.


“I remember a colored lady was going to work early in the morning, about half past five o’clock. She was standing at Twelfth and Market Streets when an automobile came up. A man in the automobile spoke to her, ‘Mary, which way are you going? I’ll take you where you want to go in a hurry. The trolleys are all blocked.’ But the lady wouldn’t get in the automobile.” The story, collected in Tristram Potter Coffin and Henning Cohen’s 1966 Folklore in America, begins with a fair degree of menace but is otherwise unremarkable: a single woman harassed by a stranger in a car, the kind of danger women everywhere in America face. Only at the end does it become strange. “The man kept on insisting,” the unnamed respondent continues, “and the woman became frightened. Just then a colored man across the way saw her and started towards her. At that the man in the automobile left. He was a night doctor and was going to take the lady to the hospital.”

Shadowy, elusive, terrifying—for well over a century after the Civil War the night doctors moved through the cities and through American folklore, looking for their victims. Read More »

Rise Up

October 5, 2016 | by

Alexander Bedward’s mythical powers of flight.



Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many people amassed in August Town, Jamaica, on New Year’s Eve, 1920, to watch Alexander Bedward fly to heaven. Some eyewitnesses claimed thousands: dense clumps of people wading in the shallow waters of the Hope River, crowding the banks or perched in the branches of the surrounding trees. Most of them were unquestioning believers to whom Bedward’s words had the weight of Scripture. For thirty years he had built a vast following by healing, rejuvenating, and baptizing in this very stretch of water, helping ordinary people to know God—and themselves—in ways they’d never imagined possible. Now in his seventies, Bedward sat in a wooden throne, dressed in pristine white robes, awaiting the sweet moment of prophetic fulfillment when he, like Elijah before him, would soar into the unknowable beyond. His ascent, he promised his followers, would hasten the Rapture; before the sun had set, he would be gone and they would be free.

Some had their doubts. In fact, a great many Jamaicans dismissed him as either a charlatan or one of the island’s growing number of feebleminded unfortunates. The idea that Jamaica was suffering an epidemic of insanity had first surfaced in the 1890s, when the Gleaner newspaper ran reports about the vast overcrowding of the island’s only asylum: supposed proof that a contagion of madness was spreading out of control, especially among the black population. According to the historian Leonard Smith, in 1863/64 the Jamaican Lunatic Asylum admitted seventy-one black people and two white people; twenty-five years later, the annual white intake had stayed exactly the same, but the number of black patients had increased to 153. Read More »

Hy-Brasil Is Wherever You Want It to Be, and Other News

September 22, 2016 | by

Hy-Brasil in Petrus Plancius’s “Orbis Terrarum Typus de Integro Multis in Locis Emendatus,” Amsterdam, 1594. Image via Mapping Boston Foundation and Hyperallergic

  • Today in cartographical howlers: a new exhibition in Boston, “Hy-Brasil: Mapping a Mythical Island,” chronicles the exciting centuries when no one really knew where anything was and mapmakers had carte blanche to draw whole islands anywhere they damn well pleased: “O Brazil, or Hy-Brasil as it was frequently labeled, had haunted maps since the fourteenth century, first as a mistake, then as a mythological tribute. Its size and shape often morphed, its location wandered from Ireland to North America, and its name varied, but for five centuries it endured in Western cartography … There are all sorts of legends attached to Hy-Brasil, including giant black rabbits that lived with a sorcerer, gods hidden by the mists, lost civilizations, and, more recently, UFOs. However, its greatest connection is to Irish folklore, particularly the belief in the ‘Otherworld’ and its Elysium, a ‘Land of Youth.’ When it first was illustrated on a 1325 map, Hy-Brasil was considered to only be visible once every seven years due to the heavy mists, its land housing an immortal race of people.”
  • Planning your next family vacation? Why not force your loved ones to embark on a literary pilgrimage of Russia? You can tour the places where Dostoyevsky suffered, and where Tolstoy suffered, and then you can bicker among yourselves about which one of them suffered more productively. Jacqueline Carey did it, and she makes it sound more appealing: “We had the chance to visit the place where [The Brothers Karamazov] was written—Dostoyevsky’s last apartment, now a museum … Tea was always kept hot in the samovar, and he thought only he could make it right. When he drank tea made by his wife, he would say, ‘Oh, how wretched I am.’ He died on the couch, gazing at the Bible … In the Tolstoys’ sixteen-room winter house were many objects: books, a chess set, a piano, a tiger skin, a closet of clothes. On the landing an upright stuffed bear held a plate for visiting cards. Tolstoy was a man of obsessive enthusiasms. At the back of the house was a workroom with his cobbler tools, which he used to make shoes, including a pair for his oldest daughter Tatyana’s future husband.” 

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East of the Sun and West of the Moon

December 3, 2015 | by

Kay Nielsen, illustration from “The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain” ("No sooner had he whistled ... ”), 1914. All images © Courtesy of TASCHEN

If you’ve seen Fantasia, you are, whether you know it or not, familiar with the work of Kay Nielsen, a Danish artist whose illustrations collide light and dark in sublime, often disquieting quantities, with patterns of feverish detail abutting vast stretches of negative space. His work was used in Fantasia’s “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences, but his stint at Disney came late in his career. It’s worth, instead, seeking out his work as a book illustrator, especially 1914’s East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which Taschen has just reissued in a lavish new edition.

East of the Sun comprises fifteen stoical and weirdly moving Norwegian folktales, boasting names like “Prince Lindworm,” and “The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body.” The stories came hard-won from the folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, who had spent years in the mid-nineteenth century journeying across the fjords to remote fishing, farming, and mining villages to transcribe the local lore. A cast of trolls, ogres, and witches roots the stories clearly in Norse pagan mythology, but what makes them distinctly Scandinavian, Taschen’s editor Noel Daniel told me, is the outsized, often personified role of the natural world: the North Wind is a character, brawny and menacing, and nature itself is a character, alternately gloomy and glowing. After a four-hundred-year sleep in which Norway had been subjugated to Denmark, tales from the vernacular like these helped to form the country’s national identity. As the art historian Colin White writes in an introduction to the new edition, “Snow, ice, and brittleness determined the character of these northern legends. The clash of sword blades echoed the crack of ice. The crunch of frozen ground was all the more sinister when it was made with an armored foot or a heavily shod battle charger.” Read More »

Letter from Mitla

November 10, 2015 | by

Visiting the altars for Dia de los Muertos.


All photographs by Shona Sanzgiri.

Thirty miles from the city of Oaxaca is San Pablo Villa de Mitla, where, according to Mesoamerican lore, the dead go to rest. It’s a small town surrounded by mountains and distinguished by an arid climate, which has preserved relics up to ten thousand years old and attracted archaeologists from all over the world. During the days around Dia de los Muertos, Mitla transforms into a gateway for the deceased lured by the town’s many altars, built by their loved ones, still living here in this world.

The ornate displays are abundant with ofrendas, offerings of food and drink. Pyramids of fruit, bursting marigolds, packs of Marlboros—or Camels or Chesterfields, depending on one’s preference—ripe plantains, candles of all sizes, meticulously decorated loaves of pan de muertos, and clay gourds of mescal and water (even the dead suffer from hangovers) comprise most offerings. Pictures of the deceased, typically unsmiling, feature in the center of the room, encircled by votives and depictions of different Catholic saints and apostates. The room often smells of woodsy black and white copal, an incense made from tree resin. Read More »

Sir George Douglas’s “The Strange Visitor”

January 16, 2013 | by

When my brother and I were small, our parents would read to us each evening. When it was my mother’s turn, she generally read poetry. I don’t know from which children’s collection she read, but it was terrifying: in particularly heavy rotation (at my request) were “Don’t Care,” in which the insouciant protagonist is made to care by being “put in a pot / and boiled til he was done,” “Ozymandias” (I found the idea of the head lying in the sand frightening), and my favorite, “Strange Visitor.”

When I decided to find the poem online, I came across several variations; in the original, compiled by the folklorist Sir George Douglas, the dialect is Scottish; in other adaptations (including that anthologized by George Jacobs) more modern English. The plot is always the same: a woman, sitting at her spinning wheel, wishes for company. A series of mismatched, disembodied parts come in—knees, shoulders, neck, hands—and the figure gives a series of gnomic answers to her questions. “What have you come for?” she asks at last. “FOR YOU!” the reader shouts, leaving any listening children in a state of blissful petrification. The following is Douglas’s transcription, and his stage directions.

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