What is a memorate?

Introduction

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about the memorate genre with help from scholars Carl W. von Sydow, Lauri Honko, Diane Goldstein, and others, helping you analyse a memorate, and discussing ways to bring memorates to your story craft.

Folkloric Definition of Memorate

Swedish folklore scholar Carl W. von Sydow coined the term "memorate," which he defined as a personal experience narrative that often includes an encounter with a supernatural being (Dundes 1999, chap. 16). However, folklore scholars have since expanded the definition to include any first person narrative that includes a supernatural component. So if you see a ghost and tell someone about it, you're telling a memorate. If you have a premonition that comes to pass and tell someone about it, you're telling a memorate. If you've felt the presence of the divine and tell someone about it, you're telling a memorate. The conversation around the term, its definition, and its application in narrative scholarship remain somewhat flexible, but it's stable enough that I was taught to understand memorates this way in my PhD coursework.

In a discussion of von Sydow's definition, Lauri Honko writes that "Belief in the existence of spirits is founded not upon loose speculation, but upon concrete, personal experiences, the reality of which is reinforced by sensory perceptions (Honko 1964, 10)." Narrative scholar Diane Goldstein cares about the ways these "concrete, personal experiences" are expressed, writing that because memorate narrators are concerned about the possibility of negative judgement, their accounts are "...detailed and careful, incorporating numerous strategies that outline the nature of the observations, the testing of alternative explanations, and often including a reluctance to interpret what occurred as 'supernatural' (Goldstein 2007, chap. 2)." Goldstein later writes that "A characteristic feature of the memorate is its structured narrative exploration of evidence. In this sense, not only is the narrative reasoned and logical but it appears to be largely about reasoning and logic (Goldstein 2007, chap. 2)." I would argue, as other folklore scholars have, that this emphasis on the rational is a by-product of post-Enlightenment focus on science over other ways of understanding the world and that this focus has stigmatized discussion of the supernatural. Folklore belief scholars have done a great deal of work on this topic, but therein lies another of those rabbit holes I promised to avoid, so I'll leave a few articles by David Hufford in the bibliography for you and move on.

There are two more points to consider before we begin our analysis of a memorate. The first is that while you might expect the content of a supernatural personal experience narrative to be unique as the person who tells it, these narratives are often influenced by culture and community. I spoke about this a bit in a recent conference presentation:

In "Ambiguity and the Rhetoric of Belief," David Hufford writes that a heterogeneity of personal meaning often underlies a tradition but can give the appearance of considerable homogeneity. This ambiguity allows individuals to speak with one another about the supernatural with a feeling of mutual understanding that draws upon a cultural consensus, when in fact the participants in such a conversation might privately hold different meanings and different levels of belief (Hufford 1976). In a later discussion of the Old Hag tradition in Newfoundland, Hufford writes that when one member of a community has a supernatural experience and knows other members have had similar experiences, that knowledge is often accompanied by a shared set of words and phrases employed to describe them (Hufford 1982). Given these parameters, homogeneity of supernatural narratives arises from a cultural consensus about supernatural traditions and a shared language for describing supernatural events. Together, these point back to the community and its members as people to whom such events happen and with whom a collective understanding about them resides (MacCath-Moran 2018, 1).

Finally, there's the matter of narrative transmission. If you tell a story about a ghost you saw, it's a memorate, but what if you tell a story about a ghost your mother saw? What if your aunt saw the ghost, but your mother told the story, and now you're telling it to a friend? What do we call the narrative then? If you just answered "a legend," good on you! Narrative transmission is messy, which means that one kind of story can turn into another kind of story in the telling of it.

Need a handy checklist? I've got you covered. Memorates are:

  • First-Person Prose Narratives: Narrated by the individual who had the experience.
  • Supernatural in Content: Containing elements outside the realm of everyday reality.
  • Founded upon Concrete Personal Experiences: Rooted in things the narrator saw, heard, touched, tasted, felt, or otherwise sensed.
  • Told in a Way that Foregrounds the Rational: Featuring a "structured exploration of evidence" and other strategies that demonstrate rational thinking about the supernatural.
  • Influenced by Culture and Community: Often including the beliefs and descriptive language of the narrator's family, friends, and neighbours.
  • Capable of Becoming Legends: Shifting from one kind of story to another as the narrative passes from the person who had the experience into the repertoires of other narrators.

Example of a Memorate

Ready to work? Great! Give the piece that follows a good read, and using the checklist above, see what elements of memorate you find in it.

Danny Butler's Fairy Memorate, Collected by Katelyn Vardy

Katelyn Vardy: Okay. Have you ever encountered the fairies?

Danny Butler: Yes, I have.

Katelyn Vardy: Could you explain those encounters for me?

Danny Butler: Twice. Twice. Yeah, the first time was in 1985. Ah...me and another female was in ah...a commu...a...ah...was in a car park. Actually, we were having Mary Brown's (a local carry-out restaurant).

Katelyn Vardy: Okay.

Danny Butler: It was...ah...late August, and so we were just sat down having a chat, having someting to eat. And so we heard a little thumping sound (thumps slowly on hard surface). And back then, a lot of the children would go berry picking.

Katelyn Vardy: Okay.

Danny Butler: And so when you went berry picking, you had...you had the bucket of berries on the bike, and you'd always hear that click-clack click-clack click-clack. So we were listening to it, and I just said, "Well, it's...it's just somebody on a bike coming...coming with a bucket of berries."

Katelyn Vardy: M-hm.

Danny Butler: So then we heard (thumps more rapidly on a hard surface). And it got closer. So, I got kinda scared, so did she, and then we heard three big thumps on the back of the car. So, when we heard that, I put the car...tried to put the car in reverse to get out from where we were to. The car wouldn't start first. So on the second try, she started. And so we headed out towards our community.

Katelyn Vardy: M-hm.

Danny Butler: And..ah...by this time it was pretty dark, and I had my headlights on. And so I'm looking...looking out the road. And I look at her and said, "Do you see what I see?" She said, "Do you see what I see?" And she said, "Yeah." And there was a little fairy, about...probably about two feet tall. It had a set of coveralls on. It was bearded. And it was running out the road with a little...a little gallon bucket. So, at the same time, there was a car coming in the road, facing us, and it stopped. The fairy stopped. And when it stopped, it looked...it looked towards us, and it let out this screech, a very, very loud screech. And it opened...it opened its mouth. If you've ever seen the movie Predator.

Katelyn Vardy: Okay.

Danny Butler: That's what it opened its mouth like and let out this weird, weird screech, and ran up through the woods.

Analysis

How did you make out? Here's what I found.

To my eye, this is a first-person prose narrative because Danny is telling a story about something he experienced. It's also supernatural in content because it contains a fairy encounter. It's founded upon concrete personal experiences because Danny both heard and saw the fairy. It's told in a way that foregrounds the rational because Danny reports that both he and his companion first thought the sound they heard was a bicycle carrying a bucket of berries and only believed they had encountered a fairy after they both saw it together. As a folklorist who has researched fairy encounters in Newfoundland, I can tell you that berry picking is a recurring narrative feature in these stories (likely because the province is carpeted in blueberries), so there is also a local/cultural component to Danny's account. Finally, this memorate is certainly capable of becoming a legend if Danny's family and friends tell it to others. Indeed, it might become a legend if you tell it to others!

How a Memorate Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Utilizing Existing Memorates

Memorates are directly connected to the people who tell them, and I care very much about the dignity of those people. Note that I asked and obtained written permission from the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore Archive (the place where I found the above memorate), Katelyn Vardy (the person who collected the memorate), and Danny Butler (the person who told the memorate) before including it in this edition of the newsletter. Further, MUNFLA, Katelyn, and Danny all know exactly how I plan to use Danny's narrative, and they all have the right to retract their permission at any time. With this in mind, I do not recommend that you use existing memorates in your fiction writing unless you have undertaken similar, stringent measures. I would also remind you that memorates are often stigmatized, so be careful you aren't exposing living people to ridicule by fictionalizing their supernatural experience narratives.

Creation of New Memorates

Here you can have quite a bit more fun. Remember though, that memorates are not encounters with the supernatural. They're narratives about encounters with the supernatural. So if you write a story with a ghost in it, you haven't written a memorate. However, if you write a story with a person in it who tells a story about a ghost she saw, her story is a memorate. You might also want to ask yourself these sorts of questions before you begin:

  • What does the teller see, hear, touch, taste, feel, or otherwise sense that leads her to believe she's encountering the supernatural?
  • How does the teller try to explain the encounter rationally, both during and the experience and afterward, as she tells others about it?
  • Is the teller part of a community where such narratives are common?
    • If so, is there a shared belief and/or language about her experience that influences her to describe it in a certain way?
    • If not, how does she describe what she experiences?
    • How is what she actually experiences different from what she describes to others?
  • How does the narrative change when other people tell it?

It also might be useful to think about the ways a memorate might be different in a fictional universe where rational thinking isn't privileged and/or supernatural narratives aren't stigmatized. This happens quite a bit in speculative fiction, and it's handled in lots of interesting ways, but the example I'll share with you here comes from Naomi Novik's gorgeous, get-thee-hence-and-read-it novel Spinning Silver. In this scene, the primary character, Miryem, tells of an encounter with the Staryk, who are fairies:

One time, we heard the hooves behind us as they came off their road, a sound like ice cracking, and the driver beat the horses quick to get the cart behind a tree, and we all huddled there in the well of the wagon among the sacks, my mother’s arm wrapped around my head, holding it down so I couldn’t be tempted to take a look. They rode past us and did not stop. It was a poor peddler’s cart, covered in dull tin pots, and Staryk knights only ever came riding for gold. The hooves went jangling past, and a knife-wind blew over us, so when I sat up the end of my thin braid was frosted white, and all of my mother’s sleeve where it wrapped around me, and our backs. But the frost faded, and as soon as it was gone, the peddler said to my mother, “Well, that’s enough of a rest, isn’t it,” as if he didn’t remember why we had stopped.

“Yes,” my mother said, nodding, as if she didn’t remember either, and he got back up onto the driver’s seat and clucked to the horses and set us going again (Novik 2018, chap. 1).

What's missing from this account is Miryem's effort at rational explanation, since everyone in her world knows the Staryk exist. However, Novik gives us the added spice of a glamour the Staryk cast on humans who see them, which causes the peddler and Miryem's mother to forget what they have seen. Of course, Miryem herself has not forgotten, and therein lies the beginning of a great story...

A Closing Passage on Memorate

An essential element of the Enlightenment process was the discrediting of the modes of thought and behavior that previously had been taken for granted. In order for rationalist, scientific, enlightened forms of knowledge to prevail, former ways of knowing had to be displaced: to be labeled as ignorant, primitive, or superstitious and to be banished from the discourse of the educated (Motz 1998, 341).

Conclusion

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of the non-supernatural personal experience narrative.

Bibliography

  • Dundes, Alan. 1999. International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore. Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Goldstein, Diane E. 2007. ‘Scientific Rationalism and Supernatural Experience Narratives’. In Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore, edited by Sylvia Grider, Jeannie Banks Thomas, and Diane E. Goldstein. Logan: Utah State University Press.
  • Honko, Lauri. 1964. ‘Memorates and the Study of Folk Beliefs’. Journal of the Folklore Institute 1 (1/2): 5–19.
  • Hufford, David. 1976. “Ambiguity and the Rhetoric of Belief.” Keystone Folklore 21 (1): 11–24.
  • ———. The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • ———. 1985. ‘Reason, Rhetoric and Religion: Academic Ideology Versus Folk Belief’. New York Folklore 11: 177–94.
  • ———. 1995. ‘Beings Without Bodies: An Experience-Centered Theory of the Belief in Spirits’. In Out Of The Ordinary: Folklore and the Supernatural, 11–45. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
  • MacCath-Moran, Ceallaigh. 2018. ‘Fairies, Phantom Ships, and Neo-Shamans: Framing Engagement With the Supernatural’. presented at Carried on the Waves: Contemporary Currents in Folklore and Ethnology, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, May 26.
  • Motz, Marilyn. 1998. ‘The Practice of Belief’. The Journal of American Folklore 111 (441): 339–55.
  • Novik, Naomi. 2018. Spinning Silver. New York: Del Rey.
  • Vardy, Katelyn. 2016. The Faeries in Butlerville, Newfoundland. Digital Recording. MUNFLA 2017-108. November.

Acknowledgments

This edition of Folklore & Fiction contains materials from the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive. The original collector of these materials was Katelyn Vardy. The original donor of these materials was Danny Butler. My thanks to them all for permitting me to use the materials here.


My name is Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. I'm a PhD candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and I'm also a speculative fiction writer under the pseudonym C.S. MacCath. The Folklore & Fiction newsletter synthesizes these passions with a focus on folkloric scholarship aimed at writers. You'll find the newsletter archive (and the rest of my work) online at csmaccath.com. #FolkloreAndFiction #csmaccath #FolkloreThursday