Thursday, 18 August 2016

Berthe Tuppenhaug’s Stories

“Berthe Tuppenhaug’s Stories” is a fascinating text, both in the frame narrative and in the embedded tales and legends. Berthe Nielsdatter Toppenhaug was a real person, but not the source of the tales that Asbjørnsen has ascribed to her. Details other than her repetoire appear to match with what we know of her, however. She was a folk-healer, a so-called signekjerring from Hadeland who moved to Gjerdrum, and lived in a cabin on Fjellstad farm.

The Norwegian, signekjerring, which I have translated as “signing woman”, comes from the Latin: signum crucis (the sign of the cross), and denotes one of the elements common to the practitioners of these arts: making the sign of the cross. The recital of (secret) magical formulas, as Berthe also demonstrates, is also a cornerstone of the signing arts.

In the course of the text, Berthe mentions a number of folk-remedies that in these enlightened times of medical science mean very little to us. A book, Norsk Folkemedisin: kloke koner, urtekurer og magi by Per Holck (Cappelen, 1996) has come to my rescue:

  • Measuring
    The afflicted body part is measured with a length of undyed yarn. The measurement is used to determine the source of the affliction, and the yarn is worn for three days before being burned, at which time, the affliction will also disappear.

  • Casting
    Dropping molten lead, tin, or pewter through a hole in a slice of bread into cold water creates strange, random figures from which the signer may read which preternatural creature causes the affliction. According to the folklore, when this is revealed, the creature loses its power over the afflicted, and healing will occur.

  • Blood stopping
    The preternatural ability to stem bleeding, that certain folk possess, is a phenomenon that occurs in the shamanism of many regions of the world. The ability is often hereditary

  • Transference
    When an affliction gets too much to bear, folk-healers may be able to transfer the suffering to something or someone who can better deal with it: trees, the soil (especially of graveyards), the dungheap, or one may use the dead. In the latter case, the affliction will cease to exist as the body decomposes.

Toppenhaug farm

There are other interesting points in this text, though perhaps a little more mundane. Asbjørnsen was house tutor in Gjerdrum in his early twenties. Despite his young age, Berthe shows him every deference due to his station in relation to hers. For once, not all the linguistic markers are removed through translation. Berthe speaks to the narrator in the third person—the implication being that she is not worthy of speaking directly to him. This extreme form of deference has died out in Norwegian, although remnants remain (use of third person pronouns in certain contexts). Asbjørnsen’s young age is perhaps excuse enough for his rotten treatment of Berthe; for while she represents a different world view from his, he shows little respect for the traditions that he sets out to document; he teaches his pupils Berthe’s formula, and he allow them to mock her when she visits.

Lastly, there are elements in the legends that cause me to ask myself whether the Norwegian hulders are identical with the fairies in other folkloric galleries. It is a discussion that I dislike taking a position on, mainly due to the connotations and associations that follow the term fairy. I cannot deny, however, that the huldrin of the Christians, the enchantment of mud, dung, and creepy-crawlies to present themselves as food and drink, and the wedding sprung on an unsuspecting Christian by a preternatural host remind me very much of stories that feature fairies.

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