Folklore of the Orkney Islands

A Pilgrimage to the Orkney Islands - Why We Became Human

Orcadian Folklore covers the folk traditions, superstitions and myths of the Orkney Islands. This archipelago, in the northern tip of Scotland, shares traditions with the Shetlands and Faroe Islands that reflect its Norse-Gaelic heritage. It includes eerie accounts of sea serpents, trows and shapeshifting seals.

The Orkneys have a population of 22,000 and a landscape of treeless hills and towering crags. Strong winds are common and temperatures rarely exceed 12 degrees celcius. 

In the Stone Age, indigenous Orcadians built villages and megaliths out of stone slabs. The Picts inhabited the islands in Roman times. In the 9th century, Vikings took over and ruled the Orkneys until Scotland annexed the region in 1472. Today both the Orkney dialect and gene pool is three-quarters Scottish and one-quarter Scandinavian. 

Two factors give Orkney folklore its unique flavour:

  • Geography. The North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean in the Orkneys, making for notoriously stormy waters. Seals, sharks and sea birds are a common sight, drowning a common death. 
  • Ruins. Megaliths, barrow mounds and ancient stone villages dominate the Orkneys. Built around 3,000 BC, they awed later inhabitants and earned a hallowed reputation. Ancient sites inspired myths of fairies and ‘hidden people’ who called them home.
Which would be the countries for "North Atlantic" since it ...

Trows are the foremost of these ‘hidden people’. Squat goblin-like creatures, they inhabit hinterlands and barrows of Orkney. Their name derives from the Scandinavian ‘troll’. Like trolls, they are ugly and malicious, like fairies small and mischievous. Trows kidnap human babies and replace them with their own. The ‘hogboon’ was a more benevolent house-spirit.

Sea Serpents are common. The Stoorworm was a sea dragon with a monstrous appetite. According to legend, Assipattle the farmer’s son, slew it by sneaking into the Stoorworm’s belly and lighting a peat fire in its liver. In 1804 fishermen found the Stronsay Beast, an unidentified carcass washed up at sea – 4 feet wide and 10 feet long. Scientists concluded it was a decomposed basking shark. 

Selkies are shapeshifters who take the form of humans on land and seals at sea. While their human forms are beguiling, they can only revert through their sealskin. Stories abound of selkies who take human lovers and the complications that subsequently arise. Selkie myths spread from the Orkneys to Iceland, the Faroes, Shetlands, western Scotland and parts of Ireland.

Finnfolk are malicious sea spirits who abduct humans. Their summer home is the vanishing isle of Hildaland, their winter home is Finnfolkaheem, deep beneath the sea. Finnmen prey on fishermen who sail too far out to sea. Their daughters are mermaids. If one fails to find a human husband, she must marry a finnman and will rapidly wither into a haggish ‘finnwife’ thereafter. They then take to land and funnel silver back to their husbands. Orcadians blamed finnfolk for death at sea. 

Selkies and Finnfolk may be of common origin. There are three possible explanations:

  1. Sami. The Norwegians used to view their reindeer herding neighbours as magic-workers to be feared and avoided. They called them ‘Finnar’. The finnfolk could have come from misremembered accounts brought by Norwegian colonists.
  2. Inuit. Orcadian fishermen occasionally saw Greenland Inuit at sea. Dressed in sealskin robes and rowing canoes, they looked alien to the fisherman, who kept their distance and reported the sightings to their families.
  3. Medical conditions. Syndallacty is when children have conjoined fingers and/or toes resembling a seal’s flipper. It is hereditary and used to be common in the Orkneys; people claimed it came from selkie ancestry.

Sources: Orkneyjar, Owlcation.

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The Polar Bear Invasion of 2019

Polar Bears Have Invaded a Russian Outpost, and They’re ...

In February 2019, 52 polar bears descended on a Russian settlement in the Arctic Circle. They ransacked rubbish dumps and overran the town in search of food, walking through schoolyards and open corridors. The village of Belushya Guba declared a national emergency.

Russia declares emergency - mass Polar Bear invasion in ...

Novaya Zemlya, meaning ‘New Land’ is an island chain around the size of Cuba in the Russian Arctic. Its 3,000 inhabitants include those in the military, oil and gas industry and their families. 1,987 of them live in Belushya Guba, its largest settlement. Since the 1950s, the Soviet and Russian governments have used the island for airfields, oil extraction and nuclear testing.

Polar bears live on the island’s coasts. During the summer they converge on the southern end to hunt seals but usually avoid the inland settlements. As global temperatures increase and ice sheets melt, the bears stray closer and closer to human settlements. Specialist patrols keep the polar bears at bay and scare them off when they get too close. Polar bears are endangered and under Russian law and it is illegal to kill them or shoot them with live rounds. Whilst polar bears are the only bears to eat only meat, and the only species known to purposely hunt humans, they rarely attack humans unless acting out of fear or desperation. 

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Fifty-two bears converged on the outskirts on Belushya Guba in December 2018. Patrols tried to ward them off with vehicles, warning shots and dogs but, undeterred, the bears marched on. By February the ursine ‘invaders’ entered the town. They gathered at local rubbish dumps and scavenged for food as the town’s inhabitants locked their doors and hid inside. On the 16th of February, the provincial government declared an emergency as the bears roamed free through the streets and schoolyards. While the inhabitants cowered in terror, the polar bears amazingly left them be with no reported casualties. Governemnt watchdogs denied a town request to shoot the bears.

'Invasion': Polar Bears Terrorize Arctic Town | Climate ...

Polar bears need sea ice to hunt seals. 2019 was the hottest year on record and, as the Arctic Ice sheet continues to melt, the bears search for alternative food sources. Polar bears are massive animals however and, unlike their smaller cousins, cannot sustain themselves on human scraps. A high protein diet is essential to their survival.

A team of specialists eventually fended off the bears and the town set up more rigorous patrols and bear-proof fences around schools and kindergartens. Though not matching the ‘invasion’ of February, polar bears continued to wonder into villages throughout Novaya Zemyla.

Sources: BBC, BGR, Polar Bear Science, RT

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Giraffe Ghosts

All About Giraffes

Giraffe ghosts are a phenomenon alleged by the Humr people of Sudan. They emerge after one consumes umm nyolokh, a drink made from giraffe liver and bone marrow. 

The Humr are a tribe within the Arabic-speaking Messiriya, themselves a part of North Africa’s Baggara (cattle herder) people. Humr inhabit the narrow belt of savannah between Lake Chad and the White Nile. Although many now live in cities, Humr traditionally herded cattle and supplemented their diet by hunting elephants and giraffes. 

Scottish anthropologist Ian Cunnison (1923 – 2013) documented Humr customs in the early 1950s on behalf of Sudan’s government. He described umm nyolokh, a ‘delicious drink’ made from grounded liver and marrow of giraffes. Its consumers, according to Cunnison, experienced dreamlike visions of phantom giraffes walking the horizon. He did not try it himself. Cunnison believed the ‘ghosts’ were hallucinations, though as giraffes do not contain psychedelic properties, he attributed them to placebo.

From ‘Hunting the Giraffes’, Sudan Notes and Records (1958):

“I have already mentioned the drink umm nyolokh of giraffe liver and marrow, which many regard as the supreme moment of the expedition. It is said that a person, once he has drunk umm nyolokh, will return to giraffes again and again. Humr, being Mahdists, are strict abstainers and a Humrawi is never drunk (sakran) on liquor or beer. But he uses the word to describe the effects of umm nyolokh upon him. (It is also used for a man’s condition on drinking large quantities of sour milk, which results in a breakdown of inhibitions.) I can only assume there is no intoxicating substance in the drink and that the effect it produces is simply a matter of convention though it may be brought about subconsciously. Its warmth, its delicious taste, and consistency produce an effect of physical contentment on Humr, and probably do to whoever drank it.

It is followed frequently by dreams of giraffe, and I have heard a man wake shortly after drinking it shouting “giraffe on your left”. This was regarded as a typical effect. In the waking state, also, men swear they see giraffe through the forest or over the plain where there are none at all. In the absence of any physiological explanation, these phenomena may perhaps be regarded as an indication to which the Humrawi’s being is permeated with thoughts of giraffe.”

Richard Rudgley’s ‘Encyclopedia of Psychedelic Substances’ (1998) pulled Cunnison’s observations from obscurity. Rudgley speculated the visions came from Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in the umm nyolokh. Both Sudan’s giraffe species – the Kordofan and Nubian – eat an acacia tree containing DMT.

The theory holds that the psychoactive chemicals were stored in the giraffes’ liver and marrow, which in turn was consumed as umm nyolokh. The only known psychedelic animals are species of fish and frog, though mammals can store chemical compounds in their bloodstream after consuming hallucinogens. Siberian shamans used to eat magic mushrooms and produce hallucinogenic urine. 

DMT elicits amorphous visions which differ according to the person seeing them. Of all hallucinogenic compounds, it is the most powerful and least understood. Shamans and the esoterically inclined believe its visions are not the product of one’s mind but glimpses of phenomena ‘out there’, independent of the viewer and imperceptible in regular, waking consciousness. Such thought aligns with the claim of giraffe ghosts though is near impossible to prove by scientific methods. In either case, it is likely cultural presuppositions which inform the specific vision of giraffes rather than the fact that animal filters the DMT.

Cunnison was the only person to write about umm nyolokh first hand; no one else reported it since. While the Humr are far from an obscure hunter-gatherer band, their way of life has changed since the 1950s, as savannah turns to desert. Today both Nubian and Kordofan giraffes teeter on the verge of extinction. Whether their ghosts still walk, or if they ever did, we simply do not know. 

Sources: Giraffe Conservation, The Guardian, Ian Cunnison – Sudan Notes and Records (1958), Richard Rudgley – Encyclopedia of Psychadelic Substabces (1998)

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Rule of Three

Up on Haliburton Hill: Three Billy Goats Gruff

The rule of three is a storytelling convention popular in fables, folk tales and children’s stories. It is when something happens two times with the same result then a third with a different one. Examples include:

  • The Three Little Pigs
  • The Three Billy Goats Gruff
  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears

You see it a lot in western fairy tales. Snow White’s stepmother tries to kill her three times. Jack climbs the beanstalk three times. In Aesop, the boy cries wolf three times. In modern screenwriting, Aristotle’s Three Act Structure still predominates.

In other fields, the rule of three goes much further. Popular wisdom claims ‘third time’s the charm’. Art theory employs the parallel ‘rule of thirds’ and rules of three apply to statistics, survival and aviation. Of the world’s 194 recognised countries, 174 have three colours in their flags.

Rhetoric also uses the rule of three. Adages with three beats are easier to remember and recall. In his 1940 address, Churchill actually promised ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat, but people remembered it as ‘blood, sweat and tears’.

Consider also:

301 Moved Permanently
  • Veni, vedi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)
  • Liberte, egalite, fraternite
  • Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
  • Friends, Romans, countrymen
  • Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll
  • Stop, look and listen
  • On your marks, get set, go!
  • Mirror, indicate, manoeuvre
  • First, second and third place
  • Rock, paper scissors
  • Mind, body and soul
  • Past, present, future
  • Beginning, middle and end

We see three dimensions. There are three primary tenses and three primary colours. Modern governments have three branches and there are three emergency services.

Pythagoras claimed three was the noblest number as it was the only one who equalled the sum of its predecessors. 1+2=3. The Socratic method relies on asking three questions in a row. Chinese numerology considers the number three lucky. 

You also see the motif in religion and mythology. Hinduism has the Trimurti (Brahman the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer), Christianity has its Holy Trinity, Greek mythology has the three sons of Chronos (Zeus, Poseidon, Hades), Buddhism has the Threefold Path of ethics, wisdom and meditation. The Zoroastrian mantra is ‘Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.’ Divisions of existence into three planes (generally, but not always Heaven, Earth and Underworld) is also common. The trope is most prevalent in Indo-European traditions, perhaps owing to their societies’ ancient threefold division into warriors, priests and farmers.

Trimurti From Elephanta (Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesha)

The rule of three makes telling it easier to tell a story from memory – especially true with jokes – where the punchline is delivered on the third try. Three allows sufficient variety and complexity without confusion. The first two beats start a rhythm, the third adds a surprise. Three is the smallest number to make a pattern.

Sources: Jonathon Crossfield, TV Tropes, Wikipedia

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