ATU 780 "The Singing Bone" Supplement

Hello, and welcome to the first Animism, Folklore, and Storytelling supplement of the Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In late February, I mentioned to followers of my Facebook page that I was planning to explore intersections between folklore, ecological activism, animism, and climate change, all with the needs of storytellers in mind. Animism, Folklore, and Storytelling is part of this plan; a sandbox for testing these intersections before I write the Folklore & Fiction material into a book series. Not everything in my queue is a good fit for the supplement, so sometimes I'll release a whole dispatch and podcast, sometimes I'll tack a paragraph or two onto the monthly offering, and sometimes I won't include anything at all. That said, folk narrative is a rich repository of motifs, plots, and themes related to these topics, so I hope you'll find the discussions interesting, if irregular.

My interest in ecological issues runs deep on both the folklore and fiction sides of my work. I've been researching expressive culture in the animal rights movement for about three years, and my dissertation-in-progress is based on that research. I also joined the Climate Fiction Writers League in December of last year because so much of my writing contains ecological themes, and I'll be sharing a bit of that writing with you on the summer solstice. Beneath this work is my fundamental belief that the Earth is sacred and deserving of respect, not as a natural resource but as a place of relationship where our needs as stewards must be kept in equilibrium with the needs of other species and the ecosystems they inhabit. As a sacred art, storytelling can support this relationship by creating connections between the natural world and its human denizens in ways that inspire, move, and warn us.

Discussion

The backbone and guiding principle of this supplement is animism, so I'll begin with a definition from Graham Harvey, noted scholar of religious studies and researcher of the topic. He writes that "Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others...In reality, there are no individuals (with apologies to Monty Python's Brian). There are only relatives and acts of relating."1 With this idea of relatives and relating in mind, two motifs listed under ATU 780 "The Singing Bone" caught my eye this month. Here they are again, for your reference:

  • E631. Reincarnation in plant (tree) growing from grave.2
  • E632. Reincarnation as musical instrument. The Singing Bone. A musical instrument made from the bones of a murdered person, or from a tree growing from the grave, speaks and tells of the crime.3

I'll be riffing on the person/tree connection in this supplement, and while these motifs are a great starting point for that discussion, there are four additional motifs worth mentioning, since they can be found in my examples. These are:

  • D212.3. Transformation: woman to lotus.4
  • D950. Magic tree.5
  • F811.20. Bleeding tree. Blood drops when tree is cut.6
  • R49.1. Captivity in tree.7

There are a few interesting elements of the first two motifs to note from the perspective of relationship between Harvey's human and non-human persons. First, there is a pairing of human consciousness with a non-human body, specifically that of a tree. Second, a pronouncement of critical importance emerges from the pairing. Third, the success of this pronouncement depends upon the relationship between the two halves of the blended being. We find similar blended beings in the dryads of Greek mythology such as Dryope, who was transformed from a nursing mother into a tree after plucking a purple lotus blossom for her son, which was itself part of the nymph Lotis' body:

“At play with her sweet infant, Dryope
plucked them as toys for him. I, too, was there,
eagerly, also, I put forth my hand,
and was just ready to secure a spray,
when I was startled by some drops of blood
down-falling from the blossoms which were plucked;
and even the trembling branches shook in dread.

“Who wills, the truth of this may learn from all
quaint people of that land, who still relate
the Story of Nymph Lotis. She, they say,
while flying from the lust of Priapus,
was transformed quickly from her human shape,
into this tree, though she has kept her name.

“But ignorant of all this, Dryope,
alarmed, decided she must now return;
so, having first adored the hallowed nymphs,
upright she stood, and would have moved away,
but both her feet were tangled in a root.
There, as she struggled in its tightening hold,
she could move nothing save her upper parts;
and growing from that root, live bark began
to gather slowly upward from the ground,
spreading around her, till it touched her loins:
in terror when she saw the clinging growth,
she would have torn her hair out by the roots,
but, when she clutched at it, her hands were filled
with lotus leaves grown up from her changed head."8

In the cases of Lotis and Dryope, the pairing of human and tree is painful, frightening, and in Lotis' case a refuge of last resort. However, it also illustrates the importance of right relationship between Harvey's human and non-human persons. Lotis bleeds when her flowers are plucked, and Dryope's punishment for treating her body like a toy is transformation into a tree. How might we treat non-human persons differently if the punishment for mistreating them was transformation into bodies like theirs? How might we express this idea as storytellers in our fiction?

Pain and terror aren't the only ways to express the pairing of human and tree, as Alix Harrow amply demonstrates in "The Sycamore and the Sybil." In Harrow's rich and evocative tale, tree-ness is also a refuge of last resort and a place of communion with other non-human persons:

Before I was a sycamore I was a woman, and before I was a woman I was a girl, and before I was a girl I was a wet seed wild in the hot-pulp belly of my mother. I remember it: a pulsing blackness, veins unfurling in the dark like roots spreading through the hidden places of the earth. You remember things different, once you’re a tree.

Of course that’s about all trees can do: stand there and remember. We can’t run or spit or sing; we can’t fuck or dance or get good and drunk on a full moon; we can’t hold our mother’s hands or stroke the cheek of a fevered child. We’re towers without any doors or windows; we are prisons and prisoners both, impregnable and alone.

But they can’t hurt us any-damn-more, at least not without working up a sweat, and that’s not nothing.

And later:

The owl that lived in my hollow branch gave a small cough of disgust. Ain’t the first time he’s said that, she muttered. Owls tend to overhear a lot of this kind of thing, given their habit of swooping silently through the night and perching in haylofts and trees, and in general they hold low opinions of romance, sex, and menfolk. Minnie, who was almost twenty and had seen more human night-doings than most owls, was bitter as twice-brewed coffee.9

Again, the pairing of woman and tree is an equal one. The sycamore has a woman's voice, and the woman has a sycamore's body. Together they are a single, blended being, concerned for the welfare of human women but constrained by their body's response to the cycle of seasons. What other non-human persons might become the sites of blended beings, and why? How might we express this idea as storytellers in our fiction?

I explore the blended being of person and tree as a site of gnosis in an alliterative poem I wrote some years ago, in which a spacefaring priest of Woden goes to an alien world full of plant-based sentient beings and finds himself fused to a tree there:

He fell in a faint, but the tree fed him,
piercing his flesh and pushing in painlessly,
knotting, nesting near his marrow.
His head lolled; his lips loosened.
The tongue of the tree twined with Pieter's
and runes flushed, flowered, fell from his mouth.
The crowd caught them, came to ken them
and spat on the priest, who sang and swayed
with the bending branch, above the people.
Some say he swings in that garden, still.10

My poem is a comedic piece that evolves into something strange and sacred, in which Pieter re-enacts his god's nine nights hanging on the wind-tossed tree in a peculiar and permanent way. What other folk narratives contain elements like Odin's sacrifice on Yggdrasil, which might be adapted to include blended human and non-human persons in pursuit of gnosis?

Finally, once we have a blended being and a motivation for their blendedness in mind, what do we do with them as ecologically-minded storytellers? My first impulse is to approach a project like this from a similar trajectory to "The Singing Bone" and create a blended character who has an urgent ecological message for living human beings, but this is only the most overt of the motifs' applications. A more understated approach might be to simply include these motifs in a story and let the idea of a blended human-and-tree character take root in the minds of your readers, as Alix Harrow has done. Indeed, her story isn't about ecology at all but rather the agency of women. Yet it still draws us into that sacred space of relationship between human and non-human persons, calling us to remember that the natural world is alive, powerful, and worthy of respect.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of ATU 852 "Lying Contest." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.

 

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  • 1. Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World, Second Edition. (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers Ltd., 2017): xiii.
  • 2. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E, Electronic. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957).
  • 3. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E, Electronic. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957).
  • 4. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E, Electronic. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957).
  • 5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E, Electronic. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957).
  • 6. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Three F-H, Electronic. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957).
  • 7. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Five L-Z, Electronic. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957).
  • 8. Ovid, “Metamorphoses,” Perseus Digital Library, accessed March 31, 2021, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:latinLit:phi0959.phi006.perseus-eng1:9.324-9.417.
  • 9. Alix E. Harrow, “The Sycamore and the Sybil,” Uncanny Magazine, accessed April 18, 2021, https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-sycamore-and-the-sybil/.
  • 10. C.S. MacCath, “Bringing Woden to the Little Green Men,” PanGaia, January 2008.