Folklore Thursday

19/04/2018: #Body Lore

According to Jungian psychoanalytical approaches, the transformative power of fairy tales is one of the reasons why they are so popular with children and why we keep on returning to them: unlike the idiom “a leopard never changes his spots” the magical make-overs seen in ‘Cinderella’ and the restoration of human form seen in animal bridegroom tales act as metaphors for the journey of individuation where we can all aspire to change, grow and develop, not just from child to adult but from immaturity to maturity.

Perhaps the most famous and well-known of animal bridegroom tales is ‘Beauty and the Beast’ where the transformative power of love restores the beast to his human form. So, for Folklore Thursday this week, below are two illustrated examples of the story from our rare books collection:

First, from a Victorian Story Book c 1850 these hand coloured illustrations depict the beast as a bear, an animal typically associated with strength, authority and knowledge (cough: patriarchal constructs ahoy)!

Second, from Six Old World fairy Tales c 1920, the Beast can only be described as a chimera, appearing as a combination of part lion, part human, part snake.

The Beast as chimera

The Beast transformed, shedding his animal body like a snake

While the lion is similar to the bear in terms of it being symbolic of power and authority, the chimera and serpent are forms typically associated with temptation and female evil suggesting a fear of gender fluidity.

From a feminist perspective ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is certainly problematic, but the power of transformation at the heart of the tale should not be confused or conflated with the way it has been represented and illustrated.


12/04/2018: Good and bad Luck

I guess as its Friday 13th tomorrow, a combination of date and day traditionally associated with bad luck in some countries, it is only fitting that this week we explore folklore surrounding good and bad luck for #FolkloreThursday.

According to the book, Amulets and Superstitions, however, it is not only Friday 13th we should be ‘concerned’ about as in fact every day of every week has a period that is considered unlucky. The good news is there is also a corresponding period of good luck!

Amulets and Superstitions, 1930

Luck lore abounds in the natural world, from the way certain flowers are given to the sightings of various animals:

The dandelion for instance is meant to bring good luck to a newly married couple when woven into a wedding bouquet. From Wild Flowers, Vol 2, 1853.

And the daffodil should always be given in bunches, as to give a single stem bestows bad luck on the recipient. Image from ‘The Art of Walter Crane’, 1905.

At sea, it is considered lucky to see an albatross but very unlucky to kill one, as most famously told in Samuel taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, 1834.

The albatross guides the sailors out of treacherous anatarctic waters

After the mariner kills the albatross the crew are beset with troubles and the mariner is forced to wear the body of the dead albatross around his neck as a way of atoning for the suffering he caused.

So, don’t say we didn’t warn you: do not give daffodils as single stems, do not kill an albatross, especially one that helped you, and mind out for those witching hours every day!


05/04/2018: the #sea and sea-related lore.

For this week’s #Folklorethursday I’ve chosen two beautiful books illustrated by Edmund Dulac with a distinct #sea theme, The Kingdom of the Pearl and Sinbad the Sailor.

In The Kingdom of the Pearl Leonard Rosenthal explores humanity’s fascination with the beautiful gemstone, examining their origins, place in history, and, of course, the myths and legends associated with them.

Front cover c 1919


Formed inside the shell of an oyster after the building up of many nacreous layers, one such myth is that the finest of pearls are only to be found in the deepest waters. Their watery origins has perhaps also led to the belief that ‘pearls foretell tears or bring them upon their owner’ and they are often thought to be the transformed tears of ‘angels, naiads or sirens’.


‘The Birth of the Pearl’


In Sinbad the Sailor and Other Stories from the Arabian Nights we can read five of seven of Sinbad’s voyages as he encounters magical creatures and visits extraordinary places as well as being repeatedly shipwrecked.


Front cover, c 1914


The image below is taken from Sinbad’s first voyage in which he sets ashore on what he thinks is an island but which turns out to be an enormous sleeping whale.


From the first voyage, ‘Sinbad and the Whale’


29/03/2018: #nature and wildlife

It has been a long cold winter in the UK this year with more than average snowfall and the #beastfromtheeast, and it looks set to turn cold again for Easter this Sunday. But, believe it or not, #Spring is here and coming from a family of birdwatchers we are all looking forward to the arrival of the first swallows next month as a true sign that the seasons are changing and that the frosts will start to abate. So, I couldn’t resist including this beautiful bird for #FokloreThursday this week.

Spinetailed Swallow

According to A History of British Birds (1903) “the swallow always makes a friend among us… and is almost as respected and cherished as the Redbreast”. This is most likely not just because he heralds the arrival of warmer weather but bird lore says that if you get a swallow nesting in the eaves of your house they will bring you good luck and prosperity.


Coincidentally, we also included a feature on Nature in our current Newsletter, which will be available online soon – or you can always pop in and pick up a hard copy!


22/03/2018: #birds

#FolkloreThursday this week has a bird theme. Our feathered friends appear in many traditional stories, fairy tales, nursery rhymes and legends. Below is a small selection from our collection.

Thumbelina is rescued from marriage to a mole by a kind Swallow in this peepshow book from 1976

“Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” From Aunt Louisa’s Nursery Rhymes, c.1860

The nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ is extensively illustrated in this version from R Caldecott’s Picture Book of 1879.

Sing a Song of Sixpence

The first illustration shows a child given sixpence by an elderly relative, the charitable child then passes the coin to an elderly woodcutter in return for a song.

A Pocketful of Rye

The woodcutter is shown heading home and tipping his pocketful of grains over the table, presumably purchased with the sixpence.

Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds

The blackbirds are shown in flight and then the woodcutter’s son is seen waiting beside a trap, baited with the rye grains. Beside him birds already caught are held in a wicker basket.

Baked in a Pie

When the Pie was Opened

The Birds began to sing

The women of the household are shown preparing the pie, then the whole family gather for the wonderful moment when the crust is cut open:

Was not that a dainty dish

To set before the King?

The woodcutter is shown dashing off with the pie, trailed by his hungry family, before handing it over to a palace official who take it to the King and Queen:

The King was in his Counting-House,

Counting out his money.

The Queen was in the Parlour,

Eating Bread and Honey.

The Maid was in the Garden,

Hanging out the Clothes;

There came a little Blackbird,

And snapped off her Nose.

The unfortunate maid is shown hanging out the laundry watched by a patrolling palace guard, who shoots at the blackbird causing it to drop the nose.

But there came a Jenny Wren

and popped it on again.

The rhyme finishes with the maid showing the King and Queen the helpful Jenny Wren:

08/03/2018: #women and #International Women’s Day 2018

As this week’s #Folklore Thursday coincides with International Women’s Day we think it splendid to combine the two to explore women in folklore!

Female curiosity is a prominent theme in religious stories, myths and legends, and folklore, and is frequently used as a way of reinforcing patriarchal frameworks. Often associated with forbidden knowledge, women’s supposed inability to control their impulses means their curiosity frequently unleashes terrible things upon the world.

However, curiosity is better understood as the impulse to investigate, to discover what is unknown, to use knowledge to create a better world and to challenge the limitations that have been imposed upon us, such as the oppressive social structures of patriarchy and  class.

From ‘The Work of Walter Crane’ 1981

Our first discovery is this engraving of the Greek heroine Pandora by Walter Crane. Pandora supposedly unleashed all the horrors of the world when curiosity compelled her to open the jar in her charge. But in doing so, she also released hope.

‘The Temptation of Eve’ Engraving by Angelo Biggi

In the Old Testament Eve can not resist partaking of the forbidden fruit, the apple, offered to her by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In doing so, she and Adam gain worldly knowledge but are cast out of Paradise forever.

Bluebeard gives the key to his forbidden chamber to his new bride. From ‘Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales’, 1967.

In the folk tale ‘Bluebeard’, a husband gives his new bride the key to his forbidden chamber with strict instructions not to look inside. Once he has left the castle the heroine can not resist the temptation to peep inside. And this is what she found:

Extract from Fitcher’s Bird, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimms’ version of Bluebeard in Grimms’ Folk Tales, 1965.

While the discovery varies between versions, (sometimes it is Bluebeard’s seven previous wives – all murdered for disobeying their husband and succumbing to their curiosity) the new bride becomes aware that her husband is in fact a serial killer. Armed with this knowledge she seeks help and avoids death. While the story still punishes female disobedience it undoubtedly demonstrates that curiosity helps us to discover the truth.

The Grimms’ version is particularly pertinent as the heroine’s actions also helps other women. While these are all Western European examples, Special Collections stands in solidarity with all women today. Embrace your “female curiosity”, #pressforprogress and new knowledge to bring about gender parity.