Tag Archives: wolf

Mothers, Grandmothers, Bananas and Tradition

Folk culture is a fascinating thing. It can be a thing of deeply distinct nationalistic pride one moment and continent wide inclusivity the next. Here in England we can be rather disparaging about our national folk customs, people who will happily wrap themselves in a St. Georges Cross flag will make jokes about morris dancers and mummers. Over the Scottish border, in what is to the rest of the world the same country, laughing at a man doing a jig in a kilt is likely to get you stabbed with the dirk that is traditionally kept in the very accessible sock of the wearer.

Oppression by invaders and occupiers often brings about a renewed pride in ancient forms of traditional dress, dance, song and story as a means of identification. Witness the winning entry to the Eurovision Song Contest: The intro and chorus sound like part of a folk song sung with traditional harmonies and the band were dressed in a variety of traditional folk costumes from the regions of their country. The lyrics are about the singers mother, with strong hints that it is a metaphor for the mother land of Ukraine. As a musician I particularly enjoyed the use of the telenka, a local overtone flute, which has no finger holes and is played by a mixture of breath control and partial or fully covering the end of the pipe. I hope we do not witness a completion of the Russian invasion as all of the above elements of Kalush Orchestra’s delightful performance will almost certainly be instantly banned and violently persecuted, as the folk practices of conquered nations nearly always are.

Meanwhile, from a little further north and west, the same competition brought us a fully modern dance floor friendly take on a folk tale. A folk tale so classic that Norway clearly expected the entire continent to get the joke of deflecting a wolf from eating grandma with the worlds default comedy fruit, if it was a joke, since the maned wolf of South America does actually eat bananas. Either way the Little Red Riding Hood reference was clear for all to see, as was it’s thoroughly international reach.

Greece, Sweden and particularly the UK, fielded some very fine songs with very fine singers which will undoubtedly get to single figure places in their own countries charts if not several others. I doubt however, that we will still have any of them on regular rotation in three years time.

The national distinctiveness of ‘Stefania’ and international inclusivity of ‘Give That Wolf A Banana’, both borrowing extra depth and connection from folk tradition and teaming that up with some solid up to date beat production, will probably be filling dance floors across Europe and beyond even a decade or so from now.


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What Big Teeth You Have.

When the moon is full take care, for that is the time that someone afflicted by a curse may undergo the terrible transformation, their feet and hands grow long and hair sprouts all over their body as they writhe in agony. Finally their face pushes forwards in to a slavering, canine snout and, head back, they let out a spine chilling howl. Now, in this monstrous form, they search for a lonely victim to rend, tear and devour. Only a silver bullet can stop them.

This werewolf, however, is a Victorian literary concoction. The werewolf of folktale is a very different beast. The full moon plays no part. Transformations being brought on by the donning of a wolf skin, the application of an ointment, or simply because the mood takes them. How are we to cope? At least with the lunar induced metamorphosis we know when to get the special ammunition on standby. Fortunately as well as being less predictable the folk wolfman is less invulnerable and can be killed by most normal methods for dispatching mammals.

The Daughter Of Ulkolak has a werewolf for a father. He is a woodcutter and one day starts eliminating his nine daughters because the are too expensive. When the youngest (and prettiest) is brought to the edge of the pit in which her sisters lie dead she asks Ulkolak to turn away while she undresses for her impending immolation. When his back is turned she pushes him in the pit and runs away. The werewolf is soon in pursuit so she throws her handkerchief behind her which he stops to rend into pieces. As she flees amongst the trees with the paws of death hot on her trail, she slings bonnet, gown, apron, petticoat and shift behind her, each buying her valuable moments. The now naked girl comes to a hay field and hides in a rick where the wolf fails to find her and she is eventually rescued.

“You want me to do what?”

In a little Red Riding Hood variant the werewolf, having slaughtered granny and disguised himself in her bed, bids the girl take off her clothes one by one, throw them in the fire and climb in to bed with him. At the end of the the classic “Oh, granny what big eyes you have” sequence, when they reach “All the better to eat you with” she cleverly escapes and is chased naked through the forest.

In these two tales we see a number of common threads: the separation from older feminine family members, the sequential destruction of clothing and a naked woodland flight to safety. The origin of this story lies, not in the transmutation of man in to wolf, but in the rebirth of girl in to woman. The story has been told for generations by mothers to daughters to prepare them for the inevitable changes of life, a classic warning of what is to come. The werewolf is either a symbol of the predatory male or a metaphor for the newly awakened sexual urges of adolescence. The youthful maiden ventures out of the home environment leaving the support and advice of her family. Her childish self is stripped away from her bit by bit and she has to face the frightening world of sexuality.

Our attitudes to the wolf are changing. In more recent re-workings of the werewolf trope, such as Being Human, they are regaining control. Maybe the warnings of this tale help us all towards taking responsibility for our animal side. 

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