Report from the Bushland: Research Findings from the University of Newcastle

Marguerite Johnson, who is collaborating with me on a Guide to Classical Antiquity in Children’s  Literature, has built a wonderful community of folklore scholars at the University of Newcastle.  It was my privilege to participate in a day of presentations and thought on the broad topics of fear and myth, to meet her terrific students, and to see their work.  I didn’t see any of the wildlife Marguerite identifies in her blog, but the human inhabitants of the university were very impressive! 

— Liz Hale

 

Springtime at The University of Newcastle is a magical season. It’s warm and the bushland campus is waking up from winter slumber. This includes all the reptiles as well as the buds on native trees and shrubs. Walking through parts of 140 hectares of natural bushland during spring, staff and students are often surprised by snakes making their way across paths; ducklings waddling across roads (often with a line of cars behind them); and, at twilight, baby possums and wallabies making their first outings. We are always advised not to approach the wildlife, but they are regularly photographed. Sunny the Snake can be seen each year basking in the sun on one of the bridges over a small creek, and even has his own Facebook page.

Amid a time of awakening and looking forward to the long summer break, my postgraduates, honours students and a few enthusiastic undergraduates known collectively as Folklore @ UoN welcomed Dr Elizabeth Hale to our bushland campus.

Liz, Marguerite, Excalibur, and the wonderful students of Folklore@UON
Marguerite, Liz, Excalibur, and the wonderful students of Folklore@UON

It was a rainy, slightly humid day that was one of presentations, sharing of ideas, feedback and food. Liz had made her odyssey to discuss Our Mythical Childhood with my students, many of whom are working on folklore, myth and reception projects. Liz began by inviting students to bring along a childhood memento to explain their early interest in the ancient Mediterranean. We were treated with childhood photographs of honours student, Gabrielle Brash dressed as Xena. We even had a modern-day Excalibur wielded by honours student, Matthew Howe. And PhD student, Natalia Polikarpova, shared a truly frightening image of Medusa from a Russian television cartoon.

 

Following this, Liz participated in discussions stemming from a series of student presentations, complete with lavishly illustrated PowerPoints and terrific ideas. The presentations began with our two Classical Studies honours students, Gabrielle and Matthew. Gabrielle presented on ‘Metamorphosis of the Russian Vampire: Folkloric and Ancient Origins’, which examined the comparisons between Greco-Roman folkloric beings and early examples of Russian vampires.

Matthew Howe, in ‘Transformations as a Game Mechanic’, considered the theme of shapeshifting and how it translates in games such as World of Warcraft.

Postgraduate students presented papers on their theses. Of the four presentations, three were based on aspects of myth, folk tale and fairy tale from Greco-Roman traditions and their reception in various post-antiquity environments – from the early modern European age, to the contemporary west.

Tanika Koosmen discussed ‘Why Werewolves Eat People: The Origins of Cannibalism in Werewolf Narratives’. Nicole Kimball talked about ‘What is a Witch? Images of Witchcraft in the Malleus Maleficarum’. Adam Turner asked: ‘Does She Scare You?’ (on female monsters in gaming culture).

Natalia Polikarpova, presented on ‘Gender and Death in Seneca’ as part of her PhD research in Classics. We are thrilled to have Natalia (Natasha) with us all the way from Rybinsk. Gabrielle is particularly pleased to have her in Newcastle to discuss Baba Yaga (the topic of Gabrielle’s honours thesis).

We were also joined by three of my most engaged and talented undergraduates. Erica Wright, studying Ancient History and English, chaired one of our sessions, and is already known to Our Mythical Childhood and Antipodean Odyssey through her blog-essay on the character, Mercy in Overwatch. Natasha Schroder and Jennifer Murray have been key members of Folklore @ UoN, participating in the honours / postgraduate research days, which we have held each Friday during the second semester of our 2017 academic year.

A Day of Fear and Mystery . . .

Folklore @ UoN is the result of a teaching experiment I began a few years ago. Owing to  the small number of honours students enrolling in the non-compulsory fourth year program following the awarding of their Bachelor of Arts, I began to invite postgraduate students as well as interested undergraduates to the honours classes. This proved to be a worthwhile and thoroughly enjoyable teaching experience. What has gradually resulted is a collective of students from three levels of study, with different research experience, and shared scholarly interests. The students support and mentor each other. Now we have enough momentum to begin inviting visiting academics to share their research with us.

 

Liz is the first of many wonderful colleagues to visit a Folklore @ UoN event, and we thoroughly enjoyed her time with us and for sharing the joy that is Our Mythical Childhood.

 

— Marguerite Johnson

 

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Report from the field: our colleagues from Cameroon

Our colleague from Cameroon, Prof. Daniel Nkemleke, is leading the African wing of the Our Mythical Childhood project.  His team is carrying out pioneering work in gathering data on Cameroonian myths, and children’s literature.  As we enter the second year of the project, he writes a report from the field.

 

Training Seminar for Writers of Survey Entries[1]

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Ecole Normal Supérieure, University of Yaoundé 1, Cameroon

October 28, 2017: 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.

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Screenshot 2017-11-07 17.51.05
From left to right … the Cameroonian team! Eleanor Dasi, Daniel Nkemleke, Stanley Itoe, Divine Neba, Didymus Tsangue, Patrick Enama. (One other scholar, Julius M. Angwah, left before the photo was taken)
  1. Introduction

Members of the Cameroon/Africa research team for the project “Our Mythical Childhood (OMC)…The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges” held an intensive one-day training seminar at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of the University of Yaoundé 1 on October 28, 2017, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The goal of the seminar was to familiarize the new team of writers of survey entries with the project’s requirements and how they should approach the task of writing entries for the database in line with OMC ethical guidelines. The discussion opened with an overview of the project by Daniel Nkemleke, who emphasized the international scope of the project and highlighted its objectives. He briefed the participants on work that has been done in the past one year, and expressed the hope that the experiences of last year help improve activities for this year. He moved on to talk about the benefit of introducing other colleagues with whom we work in our different institutions, to the project as a strategy to identify potential collaborators.

  1. Activities

2.1. What is a survey entry?

Templates for writing survey entries (myth, literary, video film) were studied. Copyright questions and related issues were clarified. The group then moved on to read some of the best entries written by colleagues from other institutions, comparing style and taking note of text specificities. Considering the fact that many of the participants have not written survey entries of the type envisaged in this project before, it was decided that after their first 2-3 entries would have been written, another brief meeting will be held to discuss overall performance and harmonize style to the extent possible.

2.2. Ethical guidelines for writing survey entries

The ethical guidelines for writing entries were studied and questions of participants addressed. The most important aspect here was the focus on originality. Participants were instructed that each entry written must represent the work of the writer, and any foreign material will have to be duly acknowledged, as in all standard research and publication. All the participants pledged their commitment to uphold the integrity of what they will contribute and to live up to the expectations as indicated in the guidelines. The participants were informed that there will be an internal peer-review process and an external second reviewer. A successful entry would therefore be one that must have gone through these processes.

2.3. Distinguishing myths, legends and folktales

Divine Che Neba, an expert in African literature and orality, gave a talk on the differences between a myth, a legend and a folktale. These distinctions will help each writer to discriminate what is a myth and what is not. We maintained that myth is an important category as far as Cameroon/Africa is concerned and priority for this second year of the project is on the identification and the collection of myths from different parts of the country.

2.4. Participant consent form

Consent participant forms were multiplied and distributed to participants as an accompanying indispensable document for any field trip to collect myths. Given the low literacy level of some people in rural areas where some of these myths will be collected, participants were asked to approach the matter of obtaining narrators’ signature with tact and wisdom. Since in some cases asking for a formal signature may create an unnecessary fear on the part of the narrator, the latest directive (from ERC) on the matter, namely that a verbal recorded consent may be enough, was discussed. But it was also made clear that such a recording should not be done surreptitiously.

Seri_Mask_Honoring_Mami_Wata,_Cote_d'Ivoire,_Guro_people,_1960s,_wood,_enamel_paint_-_Chazen_Museum_of_Art_-_DSC01752
Mami Wata, a water goddess, appears in many Cameroonian myths.  (Seri Mask honoring Mami Wata, Cote d’Ivoire (Guro people) By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)
  1. New questions

As the participants reviewed the range of areas for survey entries (myth, literature, songs, music etc.), questions were asked about what Cameroon/Africa can offer more and in a unique manner, to the survey database, apart from the exiting text categories. We contemplated the possibility of writing about secret societies that is common practice in Cameroon, for example. Secret societies and secret cults abound in Cameroon, and elsewhere in Africa (e.g. the Mami-Wata cult, the Jengu cult). Most villages in Cameroon have secret cults. Some are well-established institutions in the court of the powerful and influential traditional Chiefs and some are more or less urban phenomena. There are some radio programmes in Cameroon that discuss this phenomenon. Can we include Mystical Cults as an entry category?

Further, Cameroonian culture is very rich in traditional songs which are performed during special annual events, enthronements of traditional chiefs, marriages, births and deaths. Can the music category be extended to include these?

  1. Conclusion

The seminar discussions were as interesting as they were exciting. The participants were eager to explore possibilities to start writing their first survey entries. Some pledged to use their workplace colleagues to identify potential rural communities where myths may be collected. This exercise may even begin from the people in urban areas, since almost every urban dweller in Cameroon comes from a village. some pledged to undertake field trips with Divine Neba to distant villages in due time.


[1]
Report by Standley Sakwe Itoe, edited and revised by Daniel Nkemleke