Narratives and Rituals of the Nightmare Hag in Scandinavian Folk Belief
- ISBN: 9783030489182
- Published By: Springer International Publishing AG
- Published: February 2021
Folktales provide us with a keen insight into the culture, beliefs, desires, and fears of any given society. Folktales not only offer answers and knowledge for members of the community for whom the folktales were created, but also provide an outsider with a glimpse into the culture of others, which is precisely what Catharina Raudvere’s Narratives and Rituals of the Nightmare Hag in Scandinavian Folk Belief accomplishes.
Raudvere’s book is an exceptional addition to the Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic series which explores the “lesser known or little studied aspects of the history of witchcraft and magic” (3) in Europe. This addition specifically delves into the world of Scandinavian pre-Industrial society, examining the elements of the nightmare hag (mara) narratives and rituals utilized against the mara within the broader history of magic and witchcraft.
Raudvere begins by analyzing the available archived narratives of the nightmare hag, drawing from the folklore collections of the Nordic countries and chiefly from prominent researcher and writer Valter W. Forsblom’s work in the 1910’s.
Through her analysis, Raudvere demonstrates how Christianity influenced the moral and social fabric of peasant and local communities, particularly in their perceptions of the devil and witchcraft. The nightmare hag narratives predominantly revolve around women who are thought to be associated with the devil, witchcraft, and other dreadful deeds. The author skillfully explores the themes of sexual morality, social behavior, and gender expectations prevalent in rural Scandinavian society. Additionally, she highlights the connection between sexuality and aggression portrayed in these tales, where rituals involving brutal force were employed to ward off the nightmare hag and expose her to the rest of the community. The rituals to repel the mara reiterate women’s place in society and affirm that in order to stop wayward behavior, one must use brutal force. “They are whipped, slashed by scythes, and exhorted to return to hell from whence they supposedly came (5).”
Raudvere delineates the three major kinds of texts where these narrative stories are found and gives detailed descriptions of various themes and motifs found in local oral stories of the time. Along with recounting various stories of encounters with the hag and legends kept alive from one village to another, the narratives provide advice for warding off and tossing out the mara through the use of charms and rituals. This section sets the groundwork for the narrative structure, themes, and moral and social context of, as well as literary and oral evidence for the mara throughout history by demonstrating the stories’ abilities to cross geographic locations and ages. Raudvere also touches upon definitions and potential translation issues in regard to Scandinavian witchcraft that assists the reader in forming a detailed and well-informed picture of the practices. Forsblom’s archival work of these narratives helps to distinguish between folk beliefs and vernacular religion, demonstrating how the belief in the mara was integrated into the everyday lives of everyday people.
The next section of the book examines the varying forms the hag can take and reiterates that while the hag can occasionally manifest as a man, the majority of cases present the hag as a female figure. Raudvere explores the relationship between the nightmare hag and other shapeshifting creatures within vernacular religion, such as werewolves and witches. The section also delves into the rituals and charms used for protection against the hag, revealing the intersection of bodily functions, power, evil, and sexuality within these practices.
Significantly, we begin to see patterns between the mara, nocturnal transformation, and the moral and societal expectations of women in pre-industrial Scandinavian society. The methods utilized to expose and capture the mara involved punishment and violence, often with sexual connotations. Raudvere notes that the aggression was “aimed at a female being with sexual overtones, and, therefore, ultimately at the free expression of female sexuality” marking the social boundaries society placed on the female body (90).
In the final section of this book, Raudvere argues that the mara narratives should be analyzed through the literary framework of legends. She draws parallels between the mara narratives and literary legends, emphasizing their rootedness in everyday life and exploring the relationships with other figures in folk belief. Raudvere provides readers with an analytical framework for interpreting mara narratives, examining recurring themes, cultural contexts, and recurring characters. Raudvere notes that the hag, as with many folkloric creatures, is representative of abstract emotions like fear and anxiety. Unveiling the hag relieves the tension and solves the problem.
Narratives and Rituals of the Nightmare Hag in Scandinavian Folk Belief is a well-structured and accessible book, that provides a comprehensive exploration of the mara narratives and their historical and cultural significance. Raudvere expertly navigates the complex interplay between folklore, history, gender, and sexuality. Most crucially to my mind, is the book unveils societal pressures on women and, expectations of female sexuality, and interrogates how women and the female body was regarded in terms of sexuality, power, aggression, and punishment.
Folktales do so much more than entertain or instruct. They create portals into the lives and minds of unfamiliar societies, in this case, provide us with a glimpse into the past. Narratives and Rituals of the Nightmare Hag in Scandinavian Folk Belief would make a great addition to graduate course curricula focused on pre-industrial Scandinavia and the study of folklore and will also be valuable to those with an interest in feminism, gender studies, and depictions of women in a religious or social context.
Freia M. Titland is a PhD student in the Department of Women’s Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies.Freia M. TitlandDate Of Review:August 21, 2023