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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Folklore in Hilda

 As part of my ongoing series on folklore found in mass media I'm going to take on the popular Netflix show Hilda. This is an animated series based on an existing comic/graphic novel that pulls heavily from Icelandic and related folklore. It is aimed at children and features a main character who is a child and so we go into this understanding that the folklore within the show has been softened for modern views on what is appropriate for children. 

Hilda is an entertaining series, so far having two seasons and movie which follow the adventures of the eponymous Hilda who is something of an expert in the magical and unusual. Where most people in Hilda's world fear the supernatural its Hilda's main focus and many of her adventures occur because she engages with something other people avoid. 
So that all said, let's dive into some of the folklore we find in the series:

  • Elves -  Elves are one of the more important groups of folkloric beings found in Hilda, with the elf Alfar (literally named elves, which to be honest is a bit confusing) as an important secondary character. The elves of Hilda are extremely small, only a few inches tall, and effectively powerless (lacking magic); this is at odds with elves in wider folklore, even the places where they are described as small they are seen as powerful magically and able to protect themselves. However inline with folklore the elves are invisible to mortals unless they choose to be seen - and in Hilda's world the human signs paperwork. 
  • Giants - Giants are a common being found within folklore and another which appears in Hilda as a blend of actual folklore elements and creative license. In folklore giants are usually dangerous and often described as somewhere around 12 to 13 feet tall. Hilda's versions are truly gigantic - one sleeping giant being mistaken for a mountain - but are only dangerous in that their size means they often unwittingly cause destruction. 
  • Trolls - Trolls exist across a range of folk belief  sometimes as outright dangerous beings and sometimes as a sort of rough mannered fairy being. In most folklore its agreed that they turn to stone in the sunlight, with this transformation understood to be permanent. They sometimes steal human children and their characters can range across stories from vicious to very human-like. Hilda's versions of trolls follow some of this folklore, in that they are rough and dangerous creatures who turn to stone during the day, but they are different in that the stone transformation is temporary. Hilda's trolls initially appear almost animalistic but they are later shown to be intelligent beings with a society and relationships.
  • Mara -  Folkloric Maran or Mare are night hags that cause sleep paralysis, night terrors, and sometimes death. Since this would obviously be a bit intense for a children's show the Mara in Hilda are mean teenage girls imbued with supernatural powers who cause nightmares and torment sleepers with their worst fears. 
  • Nisse -  Nisse is the Danish and Norwegian term for a type of spirit that helps around a home or farm. Described as male and usually appearing with a beard and wearing a hat they live in the house and protect the home. Hilda's versions, as usual, follow the broad strokes of the folklore but with differences: there are female Nisse for one thing, and while folkloric Nisse will leave if offended in Hilda Nisse can be thrown out of a home by an angry homeowner. Also in Hilda all the Nisse are named Tontu, which is just the Finnish word for Nisse.
  • Barghest -  In northern English folklore a type of giant monstrous dog which sometimes is said to kill people and other times is an omen of death. Hilda plays with this idea, featuring a gigantic black dog which is terrorizing the area but is eventually found to be friendly when reunited with its original owner. 
  • Lindworm -  Lindworms are beings found across centuries of folk belief, specifically Norse, and are usually depicted as what we might understand as a sort of wingless dragon. They could be dangerous or malefic but were also connected to knowledge of medicine and the natural world. Hilda stays true to this idea although her Lindworm is friendlier than the usual run. 
  • Changelings - showing up in the recent Hilda movie is the concept of changelings, something found widely across folk belief. In traditional folklore a changeling is a fairy or object exchanged for a stolen human; this is also what it is in Hilda. The main difference in Hilda's depiction of changelings is the method used to get the human back (usually very brutal in folklore) and the motivation behind the change. In stories a fairy is swapped for a human because the fairies want the human for various reasons, while in Hilda the swap occurs because of a supernatural being that decides her own child will be safer among humans.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Recommended 'Celtic' Resources

 So I am occasionally asked for good places to start studying Celtic culture or otherwise learn about the Celts. This would seem like a pretty straightforward request but actually its a really complicated topic; what I usually suggest is that people start with a specific culture rather than going to the wider, older idea of 'Celtic'. What many people mean when they say Celtic is a single homogenous or unified culture which they think is a monolith and therefore easy to study. However Celtic is actually a loose term for a constellation of cultures related by language, art, and mythic motifs which were at one point influenced by or grew out of a single source culture - that source culture is understood via archaeology and commentary from outside sources like the Greeks and Romans. Even that older source culture however wasn't actually a cohesive group but an array of groups that shared a root language. Historically there were a multitude of cultures labelled Celtic; currently there are 6 that are referred to as Celtic nations: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. So studying this becomes a bit difficult. 

Its important to note several things here as well:
1. This is a field which is constantly changing and in which theories come and go. Scholarship is fluid not fixed, for the most part, and there are several perpetual fierce debates about things. A theory that may have been widespread 50 years ago may still be seen as valid or may have been entirely refuted - or may be argued over today. Bias is a factor that must be kept in mind in this field and new information must be incorporated regularly. 
2. Despite the way it is often discussed there is no 'Celtic pantheon' per se. The group of deities labelled as Celtic represent an array of beings from across the various Celtic cultures: only a few are pan-Celtic (ie found across all or most of the groups) and most of the cross cultural ones weren't historically worshipped together in the way that the idea of a Celtic pantheon. Its also vital to note that the handful of pan-Celtic deities were not cohesive between cultures - the Irish Lugh isn't identical to the Welsh Llew even if they likely share a common root and are seen as cognates. 
3. Celtic doesn't equal Irish. I often see people treating Celtic and Irish interchangeably and that is inaccurate. Ireland is one culture that falls under that Celtic language speaking cultural umbrella but not the only one.
4. There is a huge amount of romanticism around this subject, some of it harmless and some of it manipulated for nationalist, fascist, and supremacist ends. When studying this subject and especially when vetting sources extra discernment and caution is needed in my opinion because of this, particularly when considering sources outside academia. 

That all said I will offer a few recommendations here, with the caveat that these are based on my opinion of good places to start with the subject and my own interest in this is tangential. 

  1. Rees and Rees - Celtic Heritage. A bit dated at this point, but a solid resource. 
  2. Simon James - Exploring the World of the Celts. this isn't what I'd call an academic text but is a great intro to the subject and includes a large number of illustrations and photos. 
  3. Koch and Carey - The Celtic Heroic Age. Focusing on literary sources across Europe, Ireland, and Wales this is a good book to get an idea of many of the sources people pull from.
  4. Barry Cunliffe - The Ancient Celts. A wide overview of the subject. I would also suggest Cunliffe's work on 'Celtic from the West' with the understanding that is a debated theory. 
  5. Sjoestedt - Celtic Gods and Heroes - definitely dated (originally published in 1949) but an easy accessible introduction to the subject and it covers all the highlights. Definitely don't rely on this one alone. 
  6. MacKillop - A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Caveat on this one, MacKillop doesn't clearly cite his sources in the text and some of his material can't be verified outside his own book. So take this one with a grain of salt but it can be a good starting point and a good quick reference. 
  7. Miranda Green - assorted titles. Green has written extensively about various aspects of Celtic culture. As with MacKillop she requires a caveat in that she is primarily an archaeologist and her material focused on that is strong but when she theorizes outside of that always double check her assertions which can be creative. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022


 One of the more well-known types of fairy, by name at least, are goblins but many people are vague on what exactly goblins are. So today lets take a look at goblins, what they are, and some folklore surrounding them. The following is an excerpt from my book 'A New Dictionary of Fairies'

The word goblin itself dates back to about the 14th century and is believed to possibly come from the Latin Gobelinus, and to be related to the German Kobold; the meaning is given as an ugly fairy or devil (Goblin, 2016). Originally the word goblin was not applied to a specific type of fairy being but rather was used as a generic term, in line with the older uses of fairy and elf, to indicate a more general type of being. In Scots, for example, we can see more than a half dozen kinds of fairies which are described as goblins, from Gunnies to Whaups (SLD, 2016). The name goblin was used in earlier periods as a synonym for other negative types of fairies, such as thurs and shuck, both of which had connotations of maliciousness and evil (Williams, 1991). The prefix 'hob' was added in front of the word goblin, giving us hobgoblin, to indicate a goblin type spirit which was less negative and more benevolent; hobgoblins were inclined to mischief but also known to be helpful to people where goblins were not (Briggs, 1976). MacKillop posits that the word as well as the being were borrowed into Celtic belief from outsiders, likely from Germanic folk belief probably of the Kobold (MacKillop, 1998). The Irish Púca is sometimes described as a goblin, and goblins are often seen as equivalent to bogies. An array of subgruops of fairies are considered goblins or hobgoblins including the aforementioned Púca (and more general Puck), Bogies, the Fuath - themselves a general term inclusive of specific types - Boggarts* and Bogles, who are usually considered the more evil sort of goblins, the Welsh Coblynau, and Irish Clauricaun and Dullahan (Briggs, 1976; MacKillop, 1998). Even the usually benevolent Brownie is sometimes considered a goblin, or perhaps more properly a hobgoblin (SLD, 2016; Briggs, 1976).

When they appear in folklore goblins are generally described as wizened or smaller than the average human and unattractive in their features, ranging from grotesque to animalistic. In Rossetti's poem 'The Goblin Market' the depiction of the goblins directly relates them to animals describing them with whiskers, tails, and with fur (Rossetti, 1862). Dickens described them as small, with long arms and legs, and rounded bodies (Silver, 1999). These descriptions are typical of those found in older folklore as well where goblins are usually referred to as grotesque and ugly. Generally goblins are male and their physical descriptions reflect ideas closer to imps or devils than the usual fairies who appear fair on the outside no matter how dangerous they may be on the inside. This may reflect a belief that goblins, although a type or kind of fairy, were closer to or on the border of being demonic; this is muddy water at best as there was often a fine line between fairies and demons in the medieval period especially among the literati. Briggs suggests that it was particularly the influence of Protestant belief which edged the goblins into the category of the demonic as they directly equated them to 'imps from Hell' (Briggs, 1967). In fact imp is often given as a synonym for goblin, further confusing the issue. Specific types of goblins, such as the bogies, were known as shapeshifters as well and could alter their appearance at will in order to more easily deceive people. Because of their fearsome reputation many people were afraid of goblins, and even the generally more benevolent hobgoblins (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Goblins were known to favor specific locations and might set up residence in a home; in one story a bogey takes over a farmer's field and had to be tricked into leaving (Evans-Wentz, 1911; Briggs, 1976). In Rossetti's poem they have their own market and a well worn path which is taken to and from it each dawn and dusk. Like many Fey goblins are usually considered nocturnal and are most likely to be encountered at night (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Goblins of various sorts might also be associated with wilder locations and with the ruins of former human habitations and were known to lead people astray, either as part of a frustrating but ultimately harmless joke or to the person's eventual death (Briggs, 1967). By modern reckoning goblins fall under the dominion of the Unseelie court and may be either solitary or trooping fairies, depending on what kind of goblin is being discussed (Briggs, 1976). Hobgoblins, however, are harder to be certain of as they are usually seen as more benign and can be associated with helpful spirits like Brownies.

There is at least one well known piece of more modern literature which refers to goblins, Rossetti's poem 'The Goblin Market' which I have written about previously. In the poem the goblins appear in a fairly typical form being deceptive, malicious, and grotesque in appearance. They play the usual role of a group of fairies trying to trick mortals, in this case by getting them to eat dangerous fruit. In the poem when the person the goblins are seeking to trick resists they become violent, which is also inline with the general temperament normally seen with them. Goblins play a prominent role in the film 'Labyrinth' where they are depicted more as hobgoblins, being somewhat dangerous and set against the story's heroine but overall more mischievous than actually malicious. 

Ultimately goblins are a difficult group of fairies to define, both a specific type of being and also a class of being. The word itself is just as ambiguous, the etymology uncertain beyond the 12th century, and the ultimate root unknown. The term goblin can be used to indicate a specific being which is small, grotesque and malicious or a broader category of beings that were generally described as 'imps' and ran a gamut from devilish to mischievous. When the prefix hob is added it indicates a more benign nature to the creature being discussed; Shakespeare's Puck is referred to as a hobgoblin in the play A Midsummer Night's Dream. However Protestant influence did add a darker reputation even to the hobgoblin who were considered out-right demonic in some places. The only way to be certain of the usage of goblin or hobgoblin is to look at the context of the reference, however one can safely say that goblins were generally viewed as dangerous and to be feared, whatever sort of goblin was being discussed.

*boggarts may also be angered brownies and there is a somewhat fine semantic line at times between a hobgoblin and a brownie.

Goblin (2016) Online Etymology Dictionary
SLD (2016) Dictionary of the Scots Langauge: Goblins
Williams, N., (1991). The Semantics of the Word Fairy: Making meaning out of thin air
Briggs, K., (1976). A Dictionary of Fairies
Silver, C., (1999) The Strange and Secret Peoples: fairies and the Victorian consciousness
Rossetti, C., (1862) The Goblin Market
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
MacKillop, J., (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Briggs, K., (1967) The Fairies in Tradition and Literature