Mediterranean and Scandinavian fears | (3 min read)
What working for a cultural history museum in Denmark taught us
The word myth is derived from the Greek word mythos, which means "story".
With no particular form and no registered author, myths teach a lesson, explain a natural phenomenon or describe cultural rituals. Either to comfort people or to guide their behavior, they appear in all cultures and were initially created for issues that science and religion failed to explain effectively at the time. Myths and legends are a vital part of social history and like a living organism, evolve and reshape over time.
Famous psychoanalyst Jung noted: "Myths are first and foremost psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul." In his view, although myths are shared by all members of a society - and essentially by all mankind - their components are strictly personal and reflect on the individual’s fears and worries.
Recently we had the chance to explore this concept ourselves, while working for the Hjerl Hede Open-air Museum. Adding new elements to its main program, the museum created one new route named “What we feared”. The project included the illustration of several mythological characters as they appear in Danish folklore. Throughout this process we got to realise that several scandinavian myths are also present in the mediterranean mythology.
Modified to fit the country’s temperament, here are the most commonly shared mythical creatures.
A woman that visits you during the night, steps on your chest and restricts your breath. This myth appears in many countries with slight modifications on the woman’s appearance.
Today’s possible explanations of this myth include sleep paralysis, a sleep state, while falling asleep or waking up, where the individual is aware but cannot move or talk. The realization of being half awake usually evokes fear and related hallucinations.
Nymphs or elves, extraordinarily beautiful and enchanting women that appear to be dancing or singing in the woods. Possibly linked to religious entities of the past, nymphs are described as powerful spirits that seduce and bewitch passerbys. Most stories narrate their ambivalent relationship with humans, as they can either cause human disease or heal it. Today is thought that they were either used to protect people from going far out in the woods or to personify the secret, sinful human attraction.
A man that will kidnap you when you do not comply with the family’s rules. Posed as a threat to disobedient children, this story allows for a description that serves specific needs and its origin is quite clear.
The similarity in mythological creatures and stories extends to superstitions as well. Black cats, knock on wood and broken mirrors are symbols familiar to many cultures.
Realising the shared sense of fear and mystery stresses out the universality of human emotion and urge to decompose the great mysteries of life. Mediterranean or Scandinavian, people have faced similar challenges through the years and myths create the ideal mystical framework to express and tame them.
For Lazy snail,
*Featured image: illustration created by Lazy snail as part of Hjerl Hede's Guide of What we Fear