Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Little Karin

Here comes a short post about a ballad that was recently relatively widely known in Sweden (as Liten Karin) as it was printed in many school songbooks and other songbooks. It is a bit of a grisly one, and has not been widely recorded by modern artists, though there are some recordings.


The story goes something like this: Little Karin is serving at the young king's court. The  king notices her, and asks her to be his. Quite a few verses of the ballad are spent with the king offering Karin various fancy gifts: a grey horse with a gold saddle, a gold crown, half of his kingdom, and so on. Each time, Karin refuses, saying that the king should give those things to the queen instead, and leave her (Karin) alone, with her honour intact.

The king then tells Karin that he will lock her in the tower. She replies that God will know whether or not she deserves that.

Next, the king tells her that he will put her in a nail-barrel. The nail-barrel (spiketunnan) we may understand is a torture device consisting of a barrel pierced by nails that may be rolled around with someone inside (apparently not widely attested outside of folklore). The king puts Karin in the nail-barrel and rolls it around ... you may understand she did not survive this. At the end of the ballad, two white doves come down from heaven and take Karin away, and then two black crows arrive from hell to take away the king.

This ballad is one of those that is classified as a legend ballad, as it tells a version of a legend of one of the saints. In this case, it is St Catherine. St Catherine is famous for her martyrdom involving a wheel (after she had upset a certain emperor). The Catherine wheel fireworks and the wheel emblem used as a symbol of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges that are named after her are a couple of examples of where how this wheel may be seen and remembered. The unusual nail-barrel rolling torture device that the king uses in the ballad to kill Karin is also a manifestation of this Catherine wheel ....

St Catherine (Gualenghi-d'Este Hours)

Geijer and Afzelius wrote that the Little Karin ballad was sung almost everywhere in Sweden, and that it was rare to hear the same version in more than one place. They printed two versions of the ballad in their collection (full text here). According to S-B Jansson, one of these was reprinted many times after that as a broadside, so that version of the ballad came to dominate. This ballad is also known in Denmark (as Liden Karen) and Norway.


There is one Swedish melody for Liten Karin in Berggreen (No. 15) and Ahlström (No. 49). It is quite unusual in that it does not have chorus (omkväde) lines, but every line in the ballad is sung twice.


Rosenbergs Sjua is a band started by the Swedish folk musician Susanne Rosenberg. Their take on Liten Karin was included on their only album release: R7 (1999).

Øyonn Groven Myhren is a Norwegian folk singer. Here his her version of Liten Karin from the album Gullveven (2008)

Finally I will post a couple of live recordings: here Jan Hammarlund plays his one man and a guitar version of Liten Karin live at the Visklubben in Västervik (2013).

And a bigger band rather drum heavy version of Liten Karin from Slingerbult live in Gävle.


J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878, Nr 49, Liten Karin
A. P. Berggreen, Svenske Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860, Nr 15, Liten Karin
E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816, Nr 3, Liten Karin

Sven-Bertil Jansson, Liten Karin, Musikverket

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Valraven / Valravnen

Ravens hold a special place in the oldest Scandinavian legends ... raven imagery often features in viking-age artwork, ravens are famous as a battlefield bird associated with death, and ravens named thought and memory are strongly associated with the god Odin. And as we can see here, there are raven stories in more recent Scandinavian folklore as well!

The Danish ballad I am writing about here tells a story of shapeshifting into the form of a raven (and another bird), and what must be done to escape from this curse and regain human form.

The ballad is called Valravnen, or The Valraven. The word valravn seems to come from this ballad, and it is used to mean a raven that is actually a human in raven form. (One of the tales in Winther's Danske Folkeeventyr tells a similar story, and is also called Valravn, but Grundtvig supposes that this tale could be based on the ballad.) The second part of the name, ravn, means raven. This much is clear. The first part, val, is sometimes taken to mean "of the slain", in a similar way to the Old Norse names Valhalla and Valkyrie. But this part of the name is very inconstant across the different versions of the ballad, and it seems to have been misunderstood and distorted. I won't list all of the variations here. Grundtvig speculates about various alternative interpretations of the name to do with shapeshifting, including var-ravn (were-raven, cf varulv, werewolf).

The ballad is pretty gruesome ... but carry on reading, I'm sure it'll all be all right in the end. Remember, in a world where you accept that people are transformed into birds, other far-out magical things are also going to happen.

The Boy and the Raven by John Bauer


The ballad begins with a verse about the raven before the action proper starts: The raven flies in the evening, he may not fly by day, and he will have bad luck if he cannot have good. And this thought of the sinister raven is remembered throughout the ballad as the repeated chorus (omkväde) line is just the same as the first line: But the raven flies in the evening.

The action starts with a maiden, Ermeline, standing in the high loft, looking out wide across the land, and seeing the valraven flying. She calls the valraven to her, promising to tell him her secret sorrows. She then explains what has happened (you will understand that the valraven was surely aware of at least some of this already!).

She tells of how her father remarried. Unfortunately the stepmother turned out to be an evil troll who turned Ermeline's brother into the valraven, and how he must remain unhappily in that shape until Ermeline has a daughter and until the girl can talk. Not only this, the stepmother also turned Ermeline's lover into another bird, silver and golden, and he must remain in that shape until he has drunk Ermeline's heart-blood. Not only that, but the stepmother also sent Ermeline away to an island to marry the stepmother's sister's son ... not a very attractive prospect.

The valraven then tells Ermeline that if she gives him the first child that she has, then he will take her to the land where her lover is. She agrees. So Ermeline gets onto the valraven's back, and they fly far away until they reach the land where her lover is flying in the sky like a bird.

As soon as the lover (a bird, remember) sees Ermeline, he strikes her with both his legs, and tears her into two pieces. He then drinks her heart-blood, and is at once transformed into a big strong knight.

Well ... the valraven puts the girl onto his back, and flies to a certain spring. He dips her into the water there, and Ermeline stands up, all healthy once again. So again she gets onto the valraven's back, and again he flies off across the wild sea. And he lands on a mountain top where Ermeline's lover is waiting. Ermeline and the knight apparently get on well, despite what has just happened. She thanks the valraven, and tells him to fly away, and that she will keep her promise.

Not long after that, Ermeline has a baby girl, and she gives it to the valraven. The valraven wishes that the baby girl could talk, and she does speak ... and at that, the valraven is at once transformed into a good strong knight.

So things finish off well for Ermeline in the end: she gets her brother, her child, and her lover.

Other versions of this ballad have some significant variations of the plot: typically, it is only the brother who is transformed into the valraven – the lover remains in human form and is merely sent away by the stepmother to a faraway land. (So the episode in which Ermeline is killed is absent.) The valraven again demands the firstborn child as payment for carrying the maiden to her lover. But now rather than waiting for the child to talk, the valraven must drink the baby's heart-blood to be transformed back into a man. The valraven does this (after pecking out the baby's eye!), and is duly transformed, and the baby is brought back to life again, so things all turn out all right again ...

Full texts for two versions of the ballad from old Danish manuscripts are given here and here.

A very famous illustration by Arthur Rackham of another ballad. The Two Corbies.
Veering off topic somewhat, but that ballad was actually translated into Danish by Grundtvig (as Ravnene)


A Danish melody for the ballad is given: Valravnen, Berggreen (Danish), No. 24.


These four renditions all use basically the same melody (very close to the one given above), but showcase rather diverse musical styles. As is typical, the ballad texts are all rather abbreviated from the versions found in the early manuscripts, but where it is possible to discern, they seem to be based on versions of the story with only one bird transformation ...

Gny - Valravnen: a rendition from the Danish medieval music group Gny

Sorten Muld - Ravnen. Sorten Muld have a rather original approach to traditional ballads (the name of the band means black soil, and is one of those phrases that shows up often in ballads ... for example as a suitable place for burying dead bodies). The style is called folktronica. Ravnen was something of a hit for this band, and versions appeared on both of their first two albums. If this traditional dance tune deserves a modern dance rendition then it has found it here!

Krauka - Valravnen: a rendition from the Danish viking folk music group Krauka

Dronningens Livstykke – Valravnen: from Dronningens Livstykke's album Katten i Sækken.


S. Grundtvig, Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser, vol. 2, Copenhagen, 1856, No. 60.
A. P. Berggreen, Danske Folke-sange og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860, No. 24.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Sir Olof and the Elves II

Following on from the first post on this ballad blog, about Sir Olof and the Elves (Herr Olof och Älvorna), I have posted a recording on YouTube of me singing a version of this ballad in translation. It's just 20 verses, so there are bits missing, but hopefully you can follow what's going on. Hope you like it ...

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Agneta and the Merman

The ballad of Agneta and the Merman tells one version of what can happen if you fall in love with a supernatural sea creature.

An unusual feature of this ballad is that it was (indirectly) illustrated by the Swedish artist John Bauer. Bauer's illustrations were actualy produced to accompany a fairytale based on the ballad story written by Helena Nyblom for Bland Tomtar och Troll.

The ballad is known in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Typically, it is called Agneta och Havsmannen (or Agnete og Havmanden, etc). But sometimes the merman is called the sea-king (Havskonungen or Sjökonungen).

Agneta meeting the Sea King, by John Bauer


Agneta was out walking by the seashore, when a merman appeared from the depths. This merman was quite good-looking, we may understand. He asked Agneta to go with him to the bottom of the sea, and she replied that she would be very happy to do that if he would take her there. So the merman blocked up her ears and mouth, and took her down to the bottom of the sea.

After some time, about 8 years, Agneta heard the church bells ringing, and she asked the merman whether she might go to church. The merman replied that yes she could go, but that she must come back to her children afterwards. Also, he told her that she must not let her hair down, she must not speak to her mother, and she must not kneel in church. The merman then blocked her ears and mouth, and took her out of the sea.

Well, when Agneta came to the church, you may know that she did let her hair down, she spoke to her mother, and she knelt down. When her mother asked her where she had been, Agneta told her that she had been with the merman, and that she had had 7 (or so) children with him. She also told her mother that the merman had given her a gold ring (and sometimes some other gifts).

At that, the merman appeared in the church, and all the pictures of the saints turned around. The merman was very upset. He told Agneta that the children were crying for her, and he urged her to come back to them.

But the ballad ends with Agneta telling the merman that she doesn't care that they are crying. She doesn't think about them at all, even the little one in the cradle. In some versions of the ballad, she says that she has already forgotten all about the children.

Agneta and the Sea King, by John Bauer

Although this ballad was known in Sweden (more than 50 variants are given in the Sveriges Medeltida Ballader list), it was not included in either Geijer & Afzelius's or Arwidsson's collections. No tunes for the ballad are included in Swedish songbooks.

The three Swedish texts that I have seen, one from Wikström's Folkdiktning (Asmundtorp, Skåne; full text here), and two from the Södermanland collection, are all very similar. They are also all very similar to Danish versions of the ballad, albeit slightly abbreviated.

In Denmark, the ballad was certainly popular. It also inspired a number of literary retellings, including those by Baggesen, Oehlenschläger, and H.C. Andersen, which spread the story more widely. As recently as 1992, a bronze sculpture (partly underwater) by Suste Bonnen celebrating this story was installed at the Slotsholms Canal in Copenhagen.

The ballad of Agneta and the Merman is reminiscent of the ballad of Little Kerstin and the Mountain King (Den Bergtagna / Liti Kjersti / Marit Hjukse). In both ballads, a girl runs away with a supernatural creature, lives with him for many years, has several children, and then returns to see her mother. But the differences lie not only in the fact that in one ballad the girl runs away with a mountain spirit, and in the other a sea creature. The endings of the two ballads can be quite different. In the Swedish and Danish versions of the ballad I have seen, Agneta refuses to return to her children at the bottom of the sea. In one Danish version, the ballad ends with her standing on the shore, laughing at the merman: the omkväde line hå hå hå perhaps comes from this final verse! In contrast, Little Kerstin is forced to return to the mountain, and only lives happily ever after after she has drunk a forgetfullness drink to forget her former life. Quite different. I will write about this Little Kerstin ballad soon ... I know, though, that there are Norwegian versions of the Agneta ballad where she too is forced to return and to drink.

The idea that church bells may be rung to disrupt the activities of trolls and other supernatural creatures, and to summon back those who have been abducted by them, can also be seen in Norwegian folk tales. Church bells tend not to appear in versions of the Little Kerstin ballad that I am familiar with.

Agnete og Havmanden by Vilhelm Kyhn


I am not aware of any modern recordings of Swedish versions of the ballad, but it has been recently recorded in Danish and Norwegian.

Virelai are a group from Denmark. They play medieval music and Danish folk music. They have recorded many Scandinavian ballads, and are definitely worth checking out! Here they are playing Agnete og Havmanden live:

And a studio version from their album Fra Bølger og Bjerge (2011):

Mynsterland are also a Danish group, a young big-band folk group. Their recording of Agnete og Havmanden is on their eponymous EP (2017). The melody is the same as the one used by Virelai, but the song is rather longer.

A Norwegian version of Agneta og Havmannen by Lajla Renate Buer Storli and Kim André Rysstad with harp accompaniment from Lajla Storli's album Møya som Drøymde (2013).

An unaccompanied song in Norwegian by Halvor Håkanes from Eg Heiter Halvor (1999). Quite a short version (Agneta og Havmannen).

Another unaccompanied version in Norwegian by Agnes Buen Garnås, Halvor Håkanes, and Eli Storbekken (Agneta og Havmannen) ...


E. Wigström, Folkdiktning, Copenhagen, 1880, No. 1.

Bidrag till Södermanlands Äldre Kulturhistoria, Södermanlands Fornminnesförening, Vol III, 1882, No. 25, p 43 and p 46.