Friday, March 19, 2010

Kannus and quobdas: with the Lapland witches

‘Nor uglier follow the Night-Hag, when call'd
In secret, riding through the Air she comes
Lur'd with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland Witches, while the labouring Moon
Eclipses at thir charms…’

‘Then to work,
To work, my pretty Laplands: pinch, here scratch,
Do that within, without we’ll keep the watch…’

From high literature, and from a popular theatre entertainment, two examples of the many references to ‘Lapland witches’ in early modern English literature. These are from Paradise Lost, and The Late Lancashire Witches. I have finally got round to looking at the 1658 translation of Olaus Magnus, and the later, and far more sober account in Johannes Scheffer’s The History of Lapland in its 1674 translation, so as to see what those Lapland ‘witches’ were up to.

My two images, as Scheffer expounds, are actually of the same basic scene. In the 1555 woodcut (the whole splendid array of cuts in the original edition are web-posted here
the shaman (‘magician’, or ‘witch’) lies on his back on the floor. Behind him, a metalworker’s hammer and anvil can be discerned. It has a serpent wrapped round it, or just struck by the hammer, against it is what is meant to be a frog. A woman who is probably meant to be the shaman’s wife presides: Schaffer explains that once a magician has gone into his trance, those accompanying him will not let even a fly or gnat land upon him. The shaman can be understood to be travelling in spirit to another country, and his trance will go on correspondingly longer, according to the distance from which news is sought. He will bring back some small items that validate his having genuinely been elsewhere.

When we turn to the excellent images in Scheffer (and the images in the book are to a very high standard), we have the same kind of séance represented, but in a way a modern anthropologist would applaud. Scheffer was sent from Sweden to report on the Laps, and not come back with any hearsay and old tales. The shaman or witch is shown on the right beating his divinatory ‘kannus’ or ‘drum’ (Olaus Magnus termed it an anvil) with a little hammer of reindeer horn. The rune drum was not played for music, but tapped to set into motion a ‘quobdas’ or ‘arpa’, an ‘index’ – it is translated. This is a ring or other shape of copper or other metal, which moves by the vibrations from one of a selection of starting points on the drum head. For instance, a reading for the success of a hunt would set off with the index placed over the sun symbol. The course it takes (in directions which are themselves significant) leads to it passing over the many images painted in alder bark dye (or blood) on the skin. It is the same principle as the planchette or ouija board. A rightwards vibratory rotation of the ring was a good omen, while from the overall movement of the index, the shaman might deduce which direction game may best be found on a hunt, and from the symbols it crosses as it moves, discover the outcomes of illnesses, and the most acceptable sacrifice to the god who is causing a difficulty. From these observations, action can be taken to promote a cure or some other remedy. Schaffer gives several examples of the symbolic designs: a lateral division will separate off the gods (Thor, Storjanker and their attendants) from the world, with maybe a lesser rank for the Christian God and his son. Other aerial things occupy this celestial upper portion, below are terrestrial things: symbols of different nations, geographical features, various animals, always with a lot of reindeer.

At some point, the shaman, assisted by those chanting around him, entered a trance state. No hallucinogens are mentioned in the text. He then arranged himself face down, with his drum drawn up near his head, while assistants kept up their chant, and looked after his physical body. The early woodcut gets the posture for trance wrong, and literalised the variety of animal names which were apparently given to the moving quobdas: serpent, frog, toad, etc, for it was symbolic of one of a set of animals thought auspicious for divination.

The divinatory instrument and its ancillary equipment was very carefully made and looked after. For the hollowed wood, the root stem of a tree with a right to left spiral up its bark was chosen. The finished item was, when not in use, kept wrapped up in the skin of a loon, and was never to be approached or touched by (particularly) any unmarried woman. To let such a thing happen risked the operator’s health. It would even be carried along paths such women were meant never to take, unless they appeased the rune drum with a gift. Scheffer is frustrated that he has not been able to discover the particular designs and ceremonies for malignant magic: “Impairing mens health, or depriving them of their lives; which is frequently enough practised among them, tho not so publicly as heretofore”. He says that contemporary shamans now considered this the only unlawful use of their magical method; no-one will disclose to him how they operated to hurt or kill.

Scheffer was reporting on a very old, and dying tradition: “In these latter times they do not so frequently practise this, and dare not profess it so publicly as before, being severely prohibited by the King of Sweden”. We can see how witch stereotypes were imposed on the Sami practices: Schaffer says spirit familiars were bequeathed to children, the earlier woodcut is decorated with zoomorphs out of depictions of pacted witches.

Scheffer reports of Lapland that “Diverse of the Inhabitants are almost naturally Magicians”, but like J K Rowling’s ‘squibs’, not all could practise with any success: “The Laplanders do not all agree in the same disposition, so neither do they arrive to the same perfection in this art. For some are so stupid and dull, that howsoever they may seem qualified for other employments, they prove altogether unfit for this.”

“Here it is indeed, where, rather than in America, we have a new World discovered”, says the preface to the 1674 translation.


bdh said...

As always, a fascinating post, Roy!

Helen Ostovich's recent edition of The Late Lancashire Witches for Richard Brome Online offers the following gloss on the reference to "Laplands" in the play:

"Lapland was thought to be the home of witches, according to a theory that the north was the region of evil, possibly the location of hell; cf OED 1a , citation for 1621, Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy: ‘And nothing so familiar... as for Witches and Sorcerers, in Lapland, Lituania, and all ouer Scandia, to sell winds to Marriners, and cause tempests.'"

DrRoy said...

Thanks, Brett. I suppose that note you cite just about does the trick. But 'Richard Brome Online' could link to this for the fuller story, seeing that they are online (and all that). I am having real troubles with Blogger these days, and can't get this blog to look as it should. Partly it's a product of cutting and pasting text rather than just composing in the frame. But I think it is also a bad interface with the latest Firefox. Most discouraging. Roy.