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When Did Supernatural Creatures Become Part of Fantasy?

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How did people understand encounters with supernatural beings? What was their relationship to accepted “norms of truth”? To what extent were supernatural beings perceived as physical beings and how was their physical appearance interpreted? How can we use various kinds of sources to gain knowledge about these matters? What are the long-term continuities in the ways that the supernatural has been understood in the Scandinavian and geographically close (Baltic, Finnish etc.) cultural areas?

These were the issues discussed at the 4th symposium of Old Norse Folklorists’ Network, a gathering of the top researchers of this field at Tartu last week. The conference focused on the controversial issue of “truth” or “real experience” behind the narrative depictions of supernatural encounters.

“It’s all about how we understand the relations between humans and supernatural encounters, and how time has changed the way we see supernatural encounters—as something real or part of a fantasy,” explains Ülo Valk, Professor of folklore at the University of Tartu. This subject was also covered by one of the visiting researchers, Professor John Lindow from the University of California, Berkley, who specialises in Scandinavian medieval studies and folklore. He showed how Christianity changed the way people perceived the other world and how the focus shifted from pagan deities and ancestors to the transcendent God and saints.

The question whether supernatural beings are understood as part of fantasy or our own world is predominant in the folkloric debates everywhere according to Dr Daniel Sävborg, Professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Tartu. “There are a lot of strange beings that would definitely be seen as supernatural these days in old Icelandic sagas. What we are trying to find out by analysing old tales, texts and other materials is to what extent was this written as experience and how much of it was seen as a fantasy, or science fiction, as you will,” he explains. As one might expect, there are a lot of different opinions in this matter and the debate remains fascinating to researchers in that field.

Still, according to Sävborg, bringing together folklorists and medievalists as it was done at this conference brings a lot to the table. “Scandinavian folklorists are focusing on legends from 19th and 20th century materials; then again, mediaevalists have worked with texts dating back to the 15th century. Combining folklorist’s understandings with background stories from medieval times offers us a whole new perspective,” notes Sävborg.

Thus, it is to be expected that the two December days highlighted some interesting topics. Valk recalls the presentation given by Lund University’s Mikael Häll who gave an in-depth overview about a Swedish court case during which a man received a punishment for having sexual relations with a forest spirit. Erotic relationships between people and supernatural creatures, especially men and elves, are widespread in Scandinavian folklore. What makes it fascinating from an academic point of view, however, is how these relations are interpreted. “What happens during these encounters? What are these creatures—humans, monsters, demons or animals? These were the questions asked during that time but today we are asking how the questions were answered and what the replies depended on,” explains Valk. There are several discourses trying to classify different supernatural creatures. “But what should be noted about such court cases per se is that they described the creatures through stories of personal experience, not as fantastic beings from traditional legends. Still, we see that these ʽfirst-hand experiences’ have changed into descriptions of someone else’s experiences through stories,” he adds.

Although folklorists usually study a specific time period at a time, comparisons between beliefs and the effects of these beliefs on life play an important role in the research conducted in this field. What is more, the way we feel and react to the so-called Other is largely universal. “Notwithstanding the era or society, there have always been thrilling or unexpected moments when a person experiences something which he can’t explain, whether it happens in a dream or during daydreaming etc. However, the key question is whether we pay attention to this, and how? Are the occasions seen as significant events or psychiatric problems, are they considered important or reflected in tabloid media only, if at all? There are also cultures where the cases are taken seriously and valued highly. It’s all about how culture sees them—as we have been strongly affected by Enlightenment, it is normal that we perceive these encounters rationally, and view them as something impossible,” says Valk.

The University of Tartu has a long tradition of Scandinavian and folkloristic studies, partly thanks to longstanding cooperation with Finnish universities. This has also helped to attract renowned foreign scholars. What is more, Estonia has a large collection of folk songs and folk tales, as they have also played a very important role both in the lives of regular people and in academic disciplines. When the professors were asked how folkloristic studies have changed over the years, as technology is always an important player when it comes to discoveries, both professors say that it is not so much about new devices but the overall change in paradigms.

“One of the most important changes that has occurred in the past 30–40 years is the change in the folklorists’ awareness and the altering level of complexity of how the folklorists see the material they study. It’s not only about writing down and collecting the stories but more about studying the environment and social context these stories came from,” says Sävborg.

Yet, according to Valk, technology has also had a more indirect role, as modern cultural phenomena offer new exciting material for folklorists. “Both the Internet revolution and globalisation have created new communities that need to be studied. It’s a new and creative field.”

This article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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