What do Anansi, Raven, Coyote, Pérák, Aradia, the Golem of Prague, Robin Hood, Wild Edric, and Ned Ludd have in common? They are all folk heroes of resistance to tyranny, oppression, slavery, and fascism.
It’s Folklore Thursday today on Twitter, and the thoughts of several contributors have turned to folk heroes who resisted tyranny and fascism. It started with Christian Read’s tweet about Pérák, and continued with contributions from me, Sarah Rance-Riley, Austin Hackney, Creative Histories, and Folklore Film Fest.
Pérák was a legendary figure in Prague who leaped across trains and tall buildings, sabotaging the Nazi war effort and leaving anti-Nazi graffiti in inaccessible places:
During the darkest days of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, a strange rumor arose in the capital city; the mysterious Pérák (“Spring-man”) was said to be haunting the alleys and rooftops of Prague.
Some reports insisted that Pérák had been seen jumping right over speeding trains and even leaping across the widest point of the Vitava river valley, flying through the air “like a shuttlecock” before disappearing into the night with an unearthly, shrieking whistle. Anti-Nazi graffiti attributed to Pérák began to appear throughout the city, often painted in prominent but seemingly inaccessible spots.
Fearing an encounter with the phantom mystery-man, factory workers became reluctant to undertake night shifts, slowing the production of munitions for the German war machine.
And Folklore Film Fest shared a 1946 animated film about Pérák:
In light of recent events, we give you Jiří Trnka’s 1946 film ‘Pérák a SS’ – ‘Springman and the SS’. Czech folk hero outwits the fascists. pic.twitter.com/Xu2DO34HB0
— Folklore_Film_Fest (@FolkloreFilmFes) August 12, 2017
Rabbi Loew and the GolemNaturally, on mention of Prague, my thoughts turned to the legendary Golem of Prague, reportedly created by the wonder-rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to defend the Prague ghetto from antisemitic attacks. A golem is animated by inscribing the Hebrew word Emeth (truth) on its forehead. The great rabbi temporarily lost control of the golem, so he removed the first letter of the word Emeth, so that it now read “meth” (dead), whereupon the golem fell into several pieces. The fragments of the golem were said to be stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue in Prague. A recent legend recounts that a Nazi agent climbed to the synagogue attic during World War II and tried to stab the Golem, but he died instead. There’s an important article by Nathan Goldman in Lit Hub on Reclaiming the Golem as a Symbol of Jewish Resistance. Spencer, a Trump apologist, had tried to use the image of the golem to dehumanise Jews – Goldman triumphantly reclaims the golem as a symbol of Jewish resistance.
The trickster Anansi has recently been portrayed in American Gods, but he is a very old character. In the Caribbean, he is celebrated as a symbol of survival and of resistance to slavery. People still tell Anansi stories in Jamaica:
The Maroon leader Nanny, Bernard informed me, was also like Anansi. She used her intelligence to overcome her opponents. “She was tricky. She used her brains. She use science. When them shoot her with the gun, she catch the balls in her behind and shoot them right back out. Science. She kill thousands of them.”
The stories of Anansi’s skill inspired Maroon survival tactics, explained Bernard. “That is a plan of the Maroon, you know. Is these tricks of the Anansi. Now, you coming for a little Anansi story. But you are gaining bigger than that. Because you wanted to know how Anansi started to talk his story. Through we Maroon. We get in de bush. And we ambush!”
There are many stories of Anansi, who started as a god of the Akan people of present-day Ghana, became a trickster folk hero who outwitted oppressors through cunning and guile, and is now a symbol of individuality and resistance.
The development of Aradia in Italian folklore is highly complex, as this paper on her legend by Sabina Magliocco demonstrates, but many Pagan authors are beginning to see her as a personification of rising up against the oppressor, based on Charles Godfrey Leland’s book, Il Vangelo delle Streghe, where the Goddess Diana teaches her daughter Aradia to bind and poison oppressors:
And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all i’ the world;
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor’s soul (with power)
I have myself called upon Aradia for her aid in overcoming oppression, and it seems to me that she is strongly on the side of the oppressed and marginalized.
Robin Hood and Wild Edric
The story of Robin Hood’s resistance to tyranny has inspired many people, from medieval peasants to Russian communists to the proposers of the Robin Hood Tax. Everyone knows that he robbed from the rich to give to the poor; and he has also been depicted as an Anglo-Saxon hero resisting the Norman yoke.
A real-life resister of the Normans was Hereward the Wake (still fondly remembered in Norfolk, where all rise from the table and raise a glass whenever he is mentioned).
But rather fewer people have heard of Wild Edric, a Saxon nobleman who fought the Normans, but surrendered too soon, and was therefore condemned to lead the Wild Hunt across the Shropshire hills with his faerie wife, Lady Goda, and defend England whenever it was threatened. Richard “Mogsy” walker takes up the tale:
One much told tale has it that he is not dead at all but alive and imprisoned in the mines of the wild west of Shropshire. He cannot die until all wrong is made right and England is returned to the state it was in before the troubles of his days. Meanwhile he is condemned to inhabit those lead mines as punishment for listening to the Conqueror’s words and making peace with him. He lives there with his wife and his retinue and the miners used to call them “the old men” and would sometimes hear them knocking. Now and then they would show themselves and ride the Wild Hunt as a warning of war. A young woman from Rorrington, in the west of Shropshire, claimed to have seen the Wild Hunt before the Crimean War, in 1853 or 1854. She was with her father, a miner from Minsterley, when she heard the sound of the horn. They passed by her; Wild Edric had (she said) short dark hair with a green cap and white feather, a short green coat and cloak and a horn and sword hung from his golden belt. He was riding a white horse and next to him was the Lady Godda with wavy golden hair falling loosely to her waist and round her forehead a band of white linen with a golden ornament in. The rest of her dress was green and she had a short dagger at her waist.
It is also said that a great fish in Bomere Pool guards the sword of Wild Edric, and will only give it up when the true heir of his house returns.
Ned LuddThe development of the character of Ned Ludd, from a young boy who smashed a weaving-frame, to captain of the resistance to industrialization, is a fascinating one. He may have been based on a real person, but any and all acts of resistance to industrialization were attributed to him.
A folk-song of the time, The Triumph of General Ludd, made the connection between the imposition of the new machines and methods with impoverished and hungry workers:
Ye may censure great Ludd’s disrespect for the laws
Who ne’er for a moment reflects
That foul imposition alone was the cause
Which produced these unhappy effects.
Let the haughty the humble no longer oppress
Then shall Ludd sheath his conquering sword
His grievances instantly meet with redress
Then peace shall be quickly restored.
Folk music has been very important in resisting oppression. Modern folk singers like Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Chumbawamba, Robin Grey, Rachel Rose Reid, Three Acres and a Cow, Shake the Chains, are the continuation of a fine old tradition of sticking it to the man with music and song.
In 1942, Woody Guthrie compiled a song book, Anti-Fascist Songs of the Almanac Singers. It was international in its scope, and challenged the Jim Crow laws, the Nazis, and much more (some of the war songs would be best consigned to oblivion though). Rather famously, Guthrie painted the words “This machine kills fascists” on his guitar. He also protested about Fred C Trump’s segregated housing, and wrote this protest song, Old Man Trump, about it.
Chumbawamba’s album, English Rebel Songs 1381–1984 is an important contribution to the folk music of resistance, showing a continuous tradition over 6 centuries. It came out at the height of resistance to the poll-tax in Britain.
Three Acres and a Cow provides an important alternative history about resistance to the enclosure of the land. One of the key features of the show is the Washing Line of History, which is a wonderfully Brechtian prop. It starts out with three or four things on it, representing all the history that most people remember from school (if you’re English, that would be 1066, the Norman Conquest; the Tudors and Stuarts, 1600s, and the Second World War). As the show progresses, it gets filled in with stories from the history of land rights and protest.
The people of the First Nations of Turtle Island also have trickster figures of resistance, which have re-emerged in indigenous art since the 1980s.
“The trickster in indigenous culture, whether he is called Raven or Coyote, has always been a figure of resistance, an entity that is always keeping you on your toes,” says Chartrand, a 31-year-old Métis with a Master of Museum Studies from the University of Toronto.
“You can’t anticipate what the trickster is going to say or do. He’s unpredictable and he’s unapologetic. That’s what is so brilliant about these works: they are acting like tricksters. Sometimes the message is very overt, and sometimes it is very subtle. It is really up to the viewer to decode that. Humour, irony and satire play a huge role in this work.”
Trickster figures include Raven and Coyote, and they use subversive humour to undermine the oppressor:
In unequal power relations, laughter can have tremendous power; it can afford the
weak the means to disarm the powerful. Making light of a situation diffuses the tense relations and undermines the rigid order of those relations. By laughing with, and laughing at, the oppressor, the oppressed upset the established order, if for a moment, and allow for an alternate relationship. And beyond humor, irony
accomplishes the same thing.
Alfred Arteaga (1999)
Steven Loft, a Mohawk of the Six Nations and a curator, scholar, writer, and media artist, says that both art and traditional symbols like the trickster coyote have a place in the ongoing struggle against colonialism and exploitation.
Need I add that it is unhelpful for other people to appropriate these symbols into other cultural contexts? If you want to share the stories of Raven and Coyote, invite indigenous storytellers to your event – and pay them properly.
Stories and resistance
The stories and songs of people down the centuries resisting tyranny, slavery, oppression and fascism are important because they nourish the inner life of the resistance. They give us hope, they give us heroes and heroines, they give us tactics, and they give us songs. All too often, history is a story told by the victors, telling us to keep quiet and wait for the crumbs to be handed down from the tables of the oppressors. That isn’t how it works, and that is never how it has worked.