Last week a story in the international press blew the lid off anthropology. Specifically, elfin anthropology.
Yes, we learned from one C. Michael Forsyth of Reykjavik, Iceland, that Kalena Sondergaard had been found.
— Seven years after she vanished without a trace, a female anthropologist emerged from a mysterious cave where authorities believe she may have been held hostage by real-life elves!
Danish researcher Kalena Søndergaard was stark naked, covered by dust and babbling incoherently when rescuers found her outside a tiny opening in the famous Elf Rock, traditionally believed to house the underground dwelling place of mankind’s tiny cousins.
“She was crouching like an animal and spoke only in a language unrelated to any we know,” said Arnor Guðjohnsen of the National Rescue Service, which airlifted the 31-year-old survivor to a hospital by helicopter.
“The only word we could understand was ‘alfur,’ an old Icelandic word for elves. On her back were strange tattoos similar to those markings Viking explorers found on rock formations when they settled Iceland in 874, traditionally known as ‘elf writing.’ ”
DISORIENTED: Missing anthroplogist Kalena “babbled incoherently” when rescued.
Though found without a stitch of clothing, the bedraggled woman did not appear to have been sexually abused. But authorities have not ruled out the possibility that she had voluntary relations with her captors.
“Elves reputedly have an interest in human females and are known to use mind control to seduce them,” observes folklore expert Eva Bryndísarson.
But truth be told, all anthropologists search for elves (alfur, goblins, maslai, little people, gnomes and hobbits of the shire). It's madated by Malinowski's ethnographic method. A little-known prerequisite to the profession. And it dates from those years between the two World Wars when the Granddaddy of modern anthropoloogy found himself alone somehow on the Islands of Love, where he set up camp next to the Paramount Chief'ss wee little house in Omarakana, Kiriwina.
That's when the penny dropped for his Polish-Hungarian polyglot: what real society puts a chief---not to mention a Paramount Chief----in a tiny little house?("You must be kidding me," he was said to have uttered).
From there of course, all the mystification and subterfuge of the trobriands slowly unraveled, and we learn from our interlocator's Diary in the Strictest Sense of the Word that beneath all the big hair and shell valuables, despite the fetching banana leaf skirts and stylish over the shoulder men's jewelry, what we we were really looking at was a society of elves. Pointy ears and all. Of course the bombshell of pulp anthropology for the era has to be Malinowski's painstakingly literal Sexual Lives of Savages (sold in brown paper wrapper). But the most demystifying of his books was and will remain the impressively pedantic Coral Gardens and their Magic, which some say out of spite for not getting laid, divulges every single garden charm, love magic and beauty spell of his hosts. He really was pissed off.
And to some extent, everyone dislikes elves. While they may be cute and seasonally important in Western countries (Santa tolerates them), and while they seem to be experiencing a revival in children's literature and ironic greeting cards (in different guises), no one outside their closed miniature world really understands them. They remain today, as ever, an anthropological mystery.
The fact is that all other people are elves, trolls, fairies, dwarfs and otherwise-diminutive being; they speak strange tongues and believe in unbelievable forms of magic.
But our fascination with them comes from the early modern era's zeitgeist --the age of discovery, when the idea was to demystify, reveal and make transparent all things previously confounding. Like quantum physics, monopoly capital and British humour. This was the 'teens. And just as Malonowski was liting the veil, so to speak, of Trobirand pointed ears, Sir Conan Doyle was taking a break from Sherlock Holmes to announce to the world he had found proof of the reality of fairies. The Cottingly Fairies, the world's first big Photoshop hoax, became the author's unmaking of course, and he staked his reputation for keen observation on the photo evidence of something his cohort Malinowski was coming to understand through participant observation: the fact that little people are all around us. But only sometimes are they photogenic.
I myself continue the Doyle-Malinowski ethno-fictive legacy. My subjects are also elves.
But in my world there are also trolls, goblins, woodland spirits and sing-sing participants of many kinds.
You really never know when they will materialize.
But look closely now. Squint alittle and you might spy them yourself.
They dwell all around.
UNEXPLAINED: the mosquito proof sleeping baskets of the Sepik shaped like elf dwellings.
Now I myself believe that some of us are better suited to recognizing these creatures. We carry a sort of Lamarckian predisposition to the small, what you might call an ethnographic empathy. Or a genetic legacy. The Ó Súileabháins themselves come from a long line of leprechauns.
The Southwesterners of Ireland have always been a queer, and somewhat short people. They like to story, wet their whistle, and live under clover. We have been called primtive, yes, and on the offshore islands, like the Blaskets, we remained untamed until the twentieth century---indeed, until roughly the same time that Malinowski found the Trobrianders and Sir Conan the Cottinglys.
But these rough and ruddy folk were discovered half a century earlier.
In 1843, a Mrs. D. P. Thomson, wife of a Protestant cleric on the mainland...visited the Great Blasket and and, she wrote that she “was more affected than I have the power to describe, by witnessing human nature reduced to the savage state it is among these islanders, within almost ear-shot of religious light and civilization” of local women and children crowded into the schoolroom, “chewing seaweed incessantly,” who pressed lengths of it “into their mouths with their thumbs in a most savage manner, and spat about unceremoniously at will; they touched my dress, turned me round and round to look at every separate article, laughed with admiration at my shoes and gloves, kissed and stroked my old silk gown.” After submitting to this inspection, she proceeded to speak to them of Jesus Christ.
(Robert Kanigel (2012-02-07). On an Irish Island (Kindle Locations 168-169). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
Aye na dunna tha sound familiar?
In 1907 the Norwegian Carl Marstrander visited the Blaskets. He had been identified by his professors in Oslo as an unusually gifted student of linguistics. “Children of nature,” he termed his island friends, or neighbors, or hosts, or objects of study, or teachers, or whatever they really were. “They are rather unstable in their mind, like a lot of Celts, and one doesn’t have to do much to make them happy.” Sadness never lingered with them, but passed “like the short summer showers in Kerry that come and go. They do not seem to think of a day after today. They do not know,” he wrote, “the slow patient work which will bear fruit in years to come. But whatever will give them profits at the moment gives them enormous energy.”
Marstrander pictured the islanders as forever joking, prone to exaggeration, inexorably drawn to “the strange and horrible.” They were “superstitious and blinded by many prejudices,” prey to demanding priests, yet quick to disregard their pastoral injunctions. One priest, angry at being ignored, cursed them, according to Marstrander, going so far as to offer prayers “that the Almighty might lead your boats into destruction on the sea.” For a few days, at least, the islanders, white with fear, forsook whiskey, gave up dancing and song. Impossible for one priest’s intemperate reproof to exact such a price? No, wrote Marstrander, “the West of Ireland still lives in the dark middle ages.”
(Robert Kanigel (2012-02-07). On an Irish Island (Kindle Locations 168-169). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
According to one folktale, a pair of brothers had a close encounter with the hidden people. The younger brother Sveinn often disappeared for days without explanation and was rumored to have learned to talk with Elves. One night, his brother Arnór went to Elf Rock in search of him. To his amazement, a secret opening in the hill appeared and Arnór saw Sveinn surrounded by knee-high, pointy-eared men who were about to initiate the mesmerized youth in a bizarre ritual. Arnór convinced his brother to escape with him. Furious at having been denied their prize, the elves chased the brothers and almost killed them...
“Kalena may have stumbled onto an entryway to their kingdom,” Dr. Kristiansen speculates. “That act of trespass may have angered the hidden people and perhaps they took her captive so she couldn’t reveal their secret doorway to other outsiders.”
Tradition holds that elves use magic for either good or ill. They can establish a psychic link with humans, although people who engage in such contact run the risk of becoming insane. That might explain why the brainy Ph.D’s mind is scrambled.
“Kalena’s brain is Swiss cheese now. She has been through a terrible ordeal,” says Dr. Kristiansen. “We are hopeful that she will someday be able to provide a lucid account of what happened.”
Field notes: a million things I will never know
Ethnographic fieldwork is about imperceptible differences. First they must be made sensible to you before you can make sense of them in situ. But my notebooks contain long messy lists of things I will never be able to explain. The well wrought pencilled logo on the back of a young mans white dress shirt says Revaival Yuts of Daxu. --To me, it's better than a printed logo, and not for ironic cool reasons but for the handiwork. But is it better to him?
In Karawari last month I found myself reading two things at once: The memoirs of a Blasket Islander, and the novel in Henry James’ voice by Colm Toibon, called The Master. I was trolling for distinctions that were never made in other times and places, something Toibon is especially good at recognizing. His James character is so perceptive but completely unreflexive at the same time, representing a kind of 'otherness' that Toibon is trying to celebrate I think. Similarly, we used to believe so many things that we couldn't know to be a hoax---like the Cottingly fairies--because our eyes weren't trained to see. Sir Conan Doyle, another master of evidentiary description, sees the fairies as absolutely real---even Elementary, Dear Watson.
The imperceptables: I see a hand drawn logo on the guy's shirt, not a silkscreen, and Conan Doyle sees fairies. Not young girls staging a prank. But what we don't see is still out there. The ethnographer's job, like the private eye's, and the emoirists', is to understand the filters.
'She was a strong and rugged an hearty girl,' says the 19th c Irishman in his memoirs.Of course to the Protestant missionary quoted above, she might really have been a frightful primitive without charm at all.
What does it take to see the difference?
I have also just finished reading a true crime story of a 1930s serial murderer, a woman from Cincinatti who is considered at the time to be a femme fatale, and her presentability a great smokescreen to the police. Everyone calls her pretty, so flashy, so glam, such easy bait for the old men she killed---a regular bombshell. But then we see from one photo that she is, in my cosmopolitan twentyfirst century eyes, really as plain as can be---virtually a man in drag. What do they see? The grooming, the nails and hair were ever so important signififers back then, that to put them on was to beome beautiful I suppose.
15th C paintings of beauty are not beautiful to us---but why? Because cultural standards of beauty change over time. Thus we see early photos of relatives taken with adoration that just look fussy and overdone today. In Papua New Guinea, early shots of people by FE Williams and Frank Hurley are similarly reverent, and yet many women (not all) see their ancestral counterparts as ungroomed and overexposed--primitive.
Everywhere you go in PNG and West Papua, there is a spoken disdain for the villagers who have yet to 'change.' The arse tanget line. They might live a few yards away, and they may have produced your own grandmother, but they are visible embarrassments to modernity. Neighbours and dominant groups call them stupid, backwards and sometimes SMALL. They are related to the little people over the hill, the realm of half-human masalai of middle history.
And when you spend the day recording the lore of the most remote of people, you begin to glean an understanding. The stories tap a realm of magical determinism that is all too easily forgotten.
Ive translated one such story of the Penale about a culture hero. Reading through, it makes more sense to me now than ever before. But I wonder if this has to do with my being steeped in my children's sem-literate world of Harry Potters and Hobbits.
As he was approaching the cave he was following the river and found a huge white stone in the middle of the water, and he realized that this huge rock was the entrance to a ston haus [cave] under the water. So he dived in and reached the middle of the cave. There he discovered two women who had their backs joined together. Their names were Wandabis and Muguwi. They greeted him and asked for his name and then they asked him what he was after. ‘I’m hunting for flying foxes,’ he told them. The women then told him that these flying foxes were their children. They ordered him to leave that area as soon as possible as that was women’s place and men were forbidden. They told to him to look for the haus man [men’s house] in their underwater world, and they gave him directions to look for a flower in front of the haus man [another cave], which was also painted.
The way PNG kids, especially rural kids, embrace the neo-medeivalism of children's literature and film (Game of Thrones, for example)---replete with dragons and honourable gestures and kings and serfs---make me wonder about my own predispositon to these kinds of stories as a child. I always felt at home with goblins, elves and leprechauns---until a time when I was compelled to foresake them for more civilized characters.
In the Sepik, opacity is a sport. Evading straight answers, parsing every bit of gossip, deflecting the compromising questions ---I find myself committing the opposite. It’s my own form of heresy. It can backfire, however. Just when the foretry team is laughing and joking with Imboin villagers, spreading big slathers of good will, I find myself turning to Lukas, who has always been a sparring partner with me, and reminding him that we know he has conflicting motives. ‘What about that gold dredger you still owe money on? You mean you’ll give up courting gold miners and ILGs now? What happened to ‘we don’t want conservation’? I’m niggling and can’t stop. It's just wrong. Fortunately, he’s not really listening. New friends are slapping him on the back.
Transparency is the novelty. Why show your cards? It’s a knowledge-as-power world, where no one has wealth, but everyone has a special song or story to keep close. Preferably in a dialect. Because differentiation is the way status is brokered, the slight differentiations between clans and families and neighbours. It begins with slander of course. The Awim and the Imboin repeatedly dissemble facts about the Meakambut, about how brutal or savage they are, what depths they go to. A story about Pasu bashing a pregnant Lydia runs through us for days, until one of our team returns from a visit to the Meakambut scoffing at the story. The day after one team treks up to Tembakopa to visit them, one of the Awim men returns home eager to report to me that all the sago we’d provisioned--20 kilos!---is gone, and they have no more food us there. Im told that the Meakambut have eaten it all, and now have absolutely nothing to eat or serve their visitors. Strange, I say. They normally eat very well. Later we learn this is another complete lie, concocted to slander their backward cousins.
Chris is in the smoky kitchen telling US stories, old saws by now but forever good for a laugh and surprise. These are morsels of extreme exotica, like rare tales of Arabian Nights, that secure his cosmopolitan status amongst all of the Karawari. They are tales from the days when he got a cornea transplant in the US, and recovered in LA with me amongst a set of film industry friends. He talks about the time a Sudanese model tried to pick him up at a party, and when we saw a TV actress we recognized. Mythic.
But he likes to tell his best stories with drama, acting out segments in ways that might surprise their protagonists to hear them now. Chris was nearly blind and very shy when we spent time in LA, but a decade and five children later, his raconteur skills have really been polished. There’s the story of hanging out with his good friend, a ‘very famous black American actor’ Tom, who took him to a black Barbar Shop, and for a cup of burnt coffee in Venice that Chris filled with packs and packs of sugar. How they drove in Tom’s big black Esplanade SUV along a highway one afternoon, listening to James Brown as Tom talks about stunt acting. Tom tells Chris to hold on now. Chris stands to tell the story. Tom then he breaks the vehicle so it slides into a 360 degree--on the spot. Very Van Damme. Then (Chris tells us) Tom simply presses the gas and continues on his way.
This is how legends are made.
But I have arrived, in my research, at a provisional theory. The world of maslai, mudmen and cold weather elves have come to merge with leprechains, O'Neills and the blarney stone.