CHRISTMAS IN BJÄRNUM: Voodoo and tomtar

This year we celebrated Christmas in our house in Bjärnum and while I leafed through the more or less forgotten books I had stashed away in closets and storage rooms I found several that I long ago had acquired in Santo Domingo, among them a collection of poems by Tomás Hernández Franco, in which I found his remarkable Yélida, which in an exorbitant, surreal language tells aboy how a Norwegian sailor marries a Haitian lady.

The poem was written in 1942, when it was published privately in an edition limited to one hundred copies, but it soon came to be considered a Dominican classic and it is now included in almost all anthologies of Dominican poetry I have seen so far and may even appear in an occasional compilation of Caribbean poetry.

Hernández Franco had, at least for its time, an unusually vast knowledge of voodoo lore. In any case, his poem is one of the first Dominican publications which take up voodoo themes, a religion that under Hernández Franco's lifetime was forbidden, but nevertheless had fervent adherents everywhere in the Dominican Republic.

Hernández Franco was born in 1904 to wealthy landowners in Tamboril, a village just outside the city of Santiago, in the fertile landscape of Cibao in the Dominican Republic. Seventeen years old, he travelled to Paris to study law, but soon left the university studies to devote himself to literature, mainly inspired by Baudelaire, though he eventually was attracted by the literary experiments in Dadaist and Surrealist circles and wrote poems with titles like The Idyllic boxer and Chewing Gum Poems.

When his mother died in 1929 Hernández Franco returned to his homeland where he joined the coup d´etat of the future dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. He wrote, among other things, one of the first glorifying tributes dedicated to the genius of Trujillo, America's Most Beautiful Revolution, which soon would be followed by an ever increasing number of exorbitant eulogies, written by numerous authors.

Hernández Franco's devotion to the megalomaniac Trujillo resulted in several lucrative missions and diplomatic posts. It was as ambassador to El Salvador that Hernández Franco published his Yélida, a long, strange and overloaded poem that blends Nordic and Caribbean mythology in a lurid account of how Scandinavian culture and not least Nordic "blood" become overwhelmed and weakened by tropical voodoo and exotic sensuality. The poem is filled with racist overtones and thinly veiled misogyny. The introduction describes how a healthy, Norwegian lad on a ship travels to the tropics:

Erik, a Norwegian boy with

his heart and soul in the fog of the fjords,

could when he travelled towards the horizon not know

that his Nordic blood urged him on to a remote shrine.

 

Erik is a beautiful, strong, naive and fatherless youth, "a beach's child, half angel, half triton":

He was born in the year´s longest month,

in a fishing cabin; outside the nets lay in

the sea and the midnight sun.

His father, a distant shipwrecked,

imprisoned in the depths, among sand and algae,

fish scales, gills and fins.

 

Erik's longing for the tropics is awakened when one of his uncles tells him about the attractive women who can be encountered down there:

When ship hulls were sealed

with flaming fire and tar,

Erik was twenty years old, a virgin in rubber boots

who believed that children are born like fish in the ocean

during quiet nights in a calm sea,

it was then that his uncle the Captain told him about faraway islands

with leaky, blueing bridges

from which hundreds of naked women loaded coal onto ships

while green birds shouted obscene words

and nights were flourishing in the brothels

to the deep breaths of beaten drums.

 

Erik decides to become a sailor and escape to the Caribbean:

He longed for islands with mountains of sugar,

where the night smells like cedar barrels with rum.

Where Norwegian sailors abandoned their ships,

until their captains found them drunk in dirty taverns

and booted them back on the ships

back to Norway,

lean, taciturn and distressed.

 

 

In Haiti, Erik became infatuated by a prostitute´s love as she "anchored the boy to her bordello´s cabin" until he decided to marry her and open a shop where he sold Norwegian stockfish. However, with time Erik became seriously ill, delirious and with burning fever he cannot get out the bed in which his wife fetters him with lovemaking and rum:

Erik loved Suquié between bouts of fever,

pallor and chills, between sips of rum and quinine.

He wanted to escape his black girl's flesh,

so his blonde's mind could fly

from her arms and body,

from the smell of polished brass and intoxicating jungle,

away to his Norwegian beaches where overturned boats

lay like beached whales.

 

After making his Suquié with child Erik dies in agony: 

During a sultry night of fever and swamps,

a sailor stranded at Suquié´s body and night,

the sleepless Erik left a heritage, soiled by haematosis and nostalgia,

in his wife's fertile soil

and died, a day between Jesus Christ and Damballa-Oueddó,

like a sailing ship lost in the Sargasso,

while his lost soul hovered towards Norway,

to his memory of a white woman's delicate feet

preserved as footprints in wet sand.

 

The hapless Norwegian leaves behind a beautiful mulatto girl - Yélida:

... black one day, white another,

immersed in voodoo and with a stranger's name,

a colourful tongue with

the heart of an iceberg,

a flaming belly,

a north wind caught within a nocturnal underworld.

 

The poem becomes increasingly mad. High up in the distant north the Norse gods are reached by news that one of Norway's sons has left a daughter trapped in the tropics and some of them decide to leave for the south to rescue Yélida and take her back with them up to the far north:

 

The snow's small, childish gods,

old men dressed in red,

shaking mist from their beards.

aimlessly throwing around the embers

from human fires

letting them dance in the howling wind,

which sketches the Northern Lights in an Arctic sky.

Gods of cotton and apples,

running across the timid, lush life of juicy moss

while playing with snow crystals.

Elves of Northern lands who in sledges follow the reindeer.

 

The Viking blood swelled in tiny gods,

as male adventures became women's chores

among islands with shells and spices,

where Arctic blood was being lost

within a flaming, liquid archipelago.

 

 

But the tomte gods are powerless against the wild voodoo divinities:

Gods of drums and assegais,

man-eaters, keepers of living corpses,

like the cemeteries´ master, Wangol, god of thunder,

keeper of obsidian eyes of zombies and snakes.

They sought out Ayida-Oueddó who

ignites the red lamp of rape

and deep in the caves of drums hide

a hundred snakes, crazed by the pain of life,

while Legba´s black night unleashes the dogs of lust

to shatter the sex in two.

The sacred dance teacher who

supresses shrieks and seizures.

 

The Nordic gods implore one after another of the tvoodoo deities for permission to salvage a "drop of Erik's blood." They visit the war god

:

Ogoun, master of the fist and the poison,

drifting spirit of the sugar fields.

Father of envy and anger.

He who with a light touch of his black hand sets fire to houses

and violates children in their sleeping mothers' wombs.

 

They searched for the water god Agoué:

... with an abdomen swollen with water,

partly evaporated by sun and fire,

half imprisoned in the marshes,

tired of flies and eternal dampness,

he sat in his house of wind and funghi.

 

Though the snake goddess Ayida-Oueddó heats up Yélida´s blood by "dancing to the rooster's crow, with breasts gleaming from sweat and shining stars" and when Yélida succumbs to a black lover, the distressed Northern gods realize that they have been defeated, give up and returns tired and dejected to their cold abode, while a new, "black" life germinates inside Yélida:

In her bosom the north wind is stifled

by the teeth of her womb,

vegetative and glowing

from fungi and moisture

so hot, so hot,

decaying leaves fermenting in a future dusk while

the moonlight filtered through strange words.

 

 

When I read the poem, I remembered how I had once, many years ago walked along the Malecon, the waterfront promenade in Santo Domingo, where the Caribbean Sea constantly breaks its waves against the cliffs, making their foam whirling in over the strollers who seek the shadow under the palm trees. I was in the company of my good friend Padre Antonio Lluberes, a historian and Jesuit. While we conversed about the difference between Sweden and the Dominican Republic and how it happened that I married a Dominican lady, we came to talk about Yélida. I remarked that I found it somewhat strange that analyses I had read of the poem emphasized its sensuality and the surreal language, while I had not come across anyone who had taken up  the distasteful racist ideology that permeates the entire poem; the twaddle about purity of the blood and the undisguised contempt for women. Padre Antonio smiled and remarked:

- All that racist filth that filtered through the entire society during the Trujillo era´s thirty long years of uninhibited propaganda and cowardly compliance eventually became an integral part of bourgeois thinking and now it appears as if several of the country's intellectuals do not even notice the prejudices that thrive in almost everything that was written during that time, and continues to be written today. I have actually not thought about it myself, more wondering where Hernández Franco got the notion that Nordic gods were childish and of small stature. I imagined that they were large, fearless fighters like Thor and Odin. Isn´t it so?

It was the day before Christmas Eve and I could not help thinking about snow, tomtar and trolls:

- I think that Hernández Franco was not completely wrong. He was probably better informed than most intellectuals on the island. To me it seems that it is not any mighty Norse gods he describes, but a kind of beings that we up there call tomtar. There are even people who still believe in them. On Christmas Eve it is not a chubby, rosy-cheeked and laughing old man who comes down through the chimney while the children are sleeping, up in Sweden the kids usually are visited by a real-life tomte who brings them gifts in a big sack.

I told him that a tomte was an ancient creature, maybe the first inhabitant of a farmstead, an ancestor who cared for everyone who lived there, both people and animals. I thought the name might come from the word tomt, which denotes the land on which a cottage stands. That the tomte helps those who respect him. Those who give him a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve, if not - he becomes angry and sullen and can even injure and kill crops and livestock. It was not entirely wrong of Hernández Franco to liken the Nordic gods to tomtar. This creatures were probably as old as Thor and Oden, St. Bridget of Sweden, who Padre Antonio knew about, had during the fourteenth century warned against worshipping tomte gods, tompta gudhi.

I told him that I had heard that the Americans´ Santa Claus was probably a mixture of the Europeans' Saint Nicholas, who brings gifts to, among others, Dutch children, and the Swedish tomte. The looks of the tomte had largely been defined by the Swedish artist Jenny Nyström and Haddon Sundblom, whose father came from the Swedish speaking island of Åland and his mother from Sweden, certainly had Nyström´s pictures in mind when he created a Santa Claus for The Coca Cola Company, combining Nyström´s tomte with Saint Nicholas.

Padre Antonio stopped and took hold of my arm:

- What does the tomte look like?

- He is a very old, wrinkled man, usually not higher than half a meter. Generally he is dressed in grey, but he may have a red cap and always a long beard. I think his eyes glow in the dark, like those of a cat.

- Then I have seen a tomte, said Padre Antonio.

- Here on the island?

- No, no, many years ago when, when I as a young priest was working high up among the Yugoslav Alps. It was a cold winter with lots of snow and I stayed with a peasant family in a guest cabin with a large stove. In the middle of the night I was awakened by the cold, the stove door was open and embers were still glowing red inside it. It had a feeling like someone was watching me and when I looked into a corner by the stove I saw two dots of shining yellow in the dark. When my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I discovered that it was the eyes of a wrinkled, little old man with a long beard. He was just like you described the tomte. With bent back and crooked legs, he stood and looked at me. "Who are you?" I wondered aloud. "Do you want something from me?" I was not afraid, but very surprised, because I did not understand how the man had entered the room, I had bolted the door from the inside. He was under seized, but did not look like a dwarf. He did not answer my questions, but silently turned his back at me and disappeared into the darkness. At first I thought I had dreamt it all, but the experience had been so concrete that I assumed it had been a living creature I´d seen. When I asked the peasant family if there lived a small old man on their farm they denied it, but I assumed that there must have been some weak-minded family member they had been ashamed of. The experience had been so real and the old man had looked so long and intensively at me that I could not pretend that it had been a hallucination, or something I had dreamt. That was why I became puzzled when you told me about the tomte, since your description so closely matched what I had seen that night.

In Bjärnum´s forest and dense darkness, I thought of the tomte, while Christmas hymns sounded from the gramophone:

Starlight on sea and sand,
distant reflection.
Light that at God’s command,
heralds redemption,
shines forth from heaven’s dome,
leads not away, but home.
Shepherds and children

follow you joyfully,
brilliantly shining star,
brilliantly shining star.

 

My grandfather had been very fond of the works of  Zachris Topelius and Viktor Rydberg, two authors who have influenced the image of the tomte. Due to him I am fairly familiar with their work. Victor Rydberg had written The Star of Bethlehem, which I quoted above in a rather clumsy translation, and in his tale Little Vigg´s Adventure on Christmas Eve from 1871, it was the tomte, and not as it was customary at the time – the Christmas Buck - who handed out presents to the children.

When I was a child, we often read Little Vigg´s Adventure on Christmas Eve by Christmas time and my sister Nunno liked to quote a tomte who in the tale complained about the people in the house he lived under: 

The Father´s a butt

The Mother´s a slut

The children are naughty

And always nasty.

 

 

It was Jenny Nyström who first illustrated Little Vigg´s Adventure on Christmas Eve and also Rydberg's poem about a tomte that he wrote ten years later. The poem is not precisely tied to the Christmas season, but is about a yard tomte who in the winter night walks from house to house to ensure that animals and people are well kept and secure:

Deep in the grip of the midwinter cold 
The stars glitter and sparkle.  
All are asleep on this lonely farm, 
Deep in the winter night. 
The pale white moon is a wanderer, 
snow gleams white on pine and fir, 
snow gleams white on the roofs. 
The tomte alone is awake.

It is a philosophical poem. The tomte has survived for hundreds of years and seen people of the homestead being born and dying. After checking that everything is alright he stands in the moonlight and ponders about the passage of time and the circumstances of existence:

Still is the forest and all the land, 
Locked in this wintry year. 
Only the distant waterfall 
Whispers and sighs in his ear. 
The tomte listens and, half in dream, 
Thinks that he hears Time’s endless stream, 
And wonders, where is it bound? 
Where is its source to be found?

Early on I learned that poem by heart, mostly because I during the school´s yearly Lucia procession rather would be a tomte than Star Boy.

My relationship with Christmas, the tomte and Viktor Rydberg has been characterized by feelings of security, cosiness and joy. My Christmas has been about roots and centuries-old traditions. There is night, darkness and deep snow, open fire, family solidarity and good food. Out in the dark, cold night is the tomte, who protects the family estate and its inhabitants, the place´s first settler, who for me has become a guarantee for and symbol of where I come from, who I am. There has not been any room for ho-hooting American fatsos with reindeers and a Christmas gift factory by the North Pole, coloured twinkling Christmas tree lighting, or Disney Christmas celebrations on TV. My Christmas has been mainly Viktor Rydberg´s Christmas – The Star of Bethlehem, Little Vigg´s Adventure on Christmas Eve and his watchful yard tomte. And that's where Yélida and the small Nordic gods unfortunately enter the picture.

Not so long ago a couple of lines from Viktor Rydberg´s poem Heaven´s Blue hit me in an ill-fated manner:

To Aryan blood, the purest and the oldest, 
to Swedish I was wed by a friendly Norn.
 
My race, for symbol of their fathers' story,
have heaven's blue in the fair eyes of childhood, 
and heaven's blue in flags crowned with glory.

 

(Norns were in Norse mythology female beings who ruled over the destiny of gods and men)

 

Could the hearty Viktor Rydberg have been a racist and bigoted Swede? Was the early orphaned Rydberg – the radical who wrote The New Grotte Song in which he eloquently denounced Capitalists´ violation of the working class – have been a chauvinist, who with approval and esteem could be quoted by any prejudiced Sweden Democrat? Could he be likened to a racist machista like Hernández Franco? To some extent - yes. You cannot avoid considering Rydberg´s novel Singoalla as a kind of companion piece to Yélida.

Like by Hernández Franco Rydberg´s hero is a strapping, blond Nordic youth, in his case he is a knight named Erland, who helplessly falls in love and enters a sexual relationship with an enticing, exotic beauty, the gypsy Singoalla. Erland marries, in accordance with gypsy traditions, with Singoalla and their relationship results in a boy who they name Sorgbarn, Child of Sorrow, who eventually grows up without his father. Then father and son later reunite, Erland does not recognize that Sorgbarn is his son and the young man becomes his slave. Through various magic tricks Sorgbarn manipulates and weakens his father until Erland cold-bloodedly murders his own son. Erland has yet another son, with his Aryan blond wife, this son is however kidnapped by Singoalla and like Yélida, who was lost to voodoo and exotic sensuality, this blond child unites with the drifting and undisciplined gypsies.

The story is more complicated than that and there is undoubtedly an intense and sincere love between Erland and Singoalla, but there is no doubt that Rydberg´s novel is akin to the numerous racist stories about Romani people that have been told since Cervantes´ La gitanilla up until Sam Raimi's horror movie Drag Me to Hell, in which Romani men are portrayed as unreliable and thieving, while Romani women are described as mysterious, seductive and sexually available.

Romani people are in countless legends, old and new, summarized as a unified group and defined as erudite criminals, genetically predisposed to abducting children and thriving on honest, but sentimental, decent citizens. To put it mildly a sad tradition that robs this unique and culturally unusually significant ethnic group of its dignity and reinforces the Romani people´s marginal position in virtually every society.

In his excellent book Det rena landet: Om konsten att uppfinna sina förfäder, “The Pure Land: The Art of Inventing Your Ancestors” the Swedish historian Maja Hagerman achieves a powerful and robust settlement with stale Swedish myths about Sweden as a unique country inhabited by tall Aryans differencing from decadent foreigners. Unfortunately, Viktor Rydberg plays a prominent role in this "invention of traditions" and his Investigations into German Mythology is by Hagerman described as an important contribution to the creation of Swedish, racist patriotism.

Investigations into German Mythology is reminiscent of Rydberg´s  Our Fathers´ Godsaga Retold for the Young, which I as a young boy read with great pleasure and interest, in the sense that he depicts the Viking world of gods as a coherent narrative from the creation of the world, throughout prehistoric eras until sin and tiredness enter into the divine realm resulting in world wars and Armageddon to finally culminate in world renewal.

In his Investigations into German Mythology Rydberg rejects the prevailing idea that European Aryans had immigrated from Asia. On the basis of common vocabulary, he argues that they originally were a Stone Age people settled in a temperate climate. He believes that "European Aryans lived within indefinite boundaries encompassed by central and northern Europe." His work is not really a celebration of Swedes, “tall, with white skin, blue eyes, and blond hair ", by the way on his mother´s side Rydberg descended  from Poles, but more of an attempt to unite various myths and legends to reconstruct a coherent story and thus explain why Sweden became what it is. He writes that he intended to investigate "the sacred songs, which from primeval times had been inherited from generation to generation", songs that for Rydberg were carriers of "the true Aryan spirit." It is according to him, not race but folklore, beliefs and traditions that consistute a nation.

Viktor Rydberg was an early reader of Nietzsche and felt decidedly ill at ease by most of the racist speculations that thrived in Germany and Sweden at the time. In a letter he wrote about "Nietzsche's horrible fantasies which force upon man criminal traits within blond Aryan heads".

The poem Heaven´s Blue does not begin with a depiction of Swedish specificities but with a vision of Hindu mysticism in which Rydberg perceives the blue colour seen as a symbol of boundless infinity, how all limitations cease to exist in Nirvana, which for him is a blue expansion. Here we find Rydberg within Goethe's universe, more specifically the German author's colour theory, which Rydberg was familiar with after studies while preparing for his Swedish translation of Goethe´s Faust. Goethe wrote about the blue colour that:

… as a hue it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and it its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitements and repose. As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us. But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.

Unfortunately, in the second part of his poem Rydberg slipped into the prevailing chauvinist Swedish nationalism that was one expression of a mighty wave of patriotism and tributes to the genuine culture of various territories,  which like a plague swept through the European continent. One expression of this was that national flags, which primarily had been used as distinguishing ships and warring factions, became iconic carriers of national pride and began to be hoisted in front of both official and private buildings. The Swedish flag's blue colour became for Rydberg a symbol of a Swedish, Aryan spirit of purity.

It is not possible to completely absolve Viktor Rydberg from Swedish chauvinism and certainly there are racist elements within the ideology he propagated. But let us not throw the baby out with the bathing water. As Padre Antonio explained to me when he asserted that Hernández Franco´s kind of racism had become an "integral part of bourgeois thinking" and that the Dominican Republic "intellectuals do not even notice the prejudices that thrive in almost everything," Viktor Rydberg was certainly more or less subconsciously influenced by the racism of his time. However, let it not hinder us from the possibility of enjoying the conviviality of a traditional Swedish Christmas - the warmth you feel by being inside during a dark, starry Nordic winter night, Swedish tomtar, the abundant, tasty food, The Star of Bethlehem and Little Vigg´s Adventure on Christmas Eve.

Most of my sources were in Swedish and I translated the excerpts from Yélida from Hernández Franco, Tomás (1976) ”Yélida” in Poésia afroantillana y negrista. San Juan: Editorial Unversitaria Universidad de Puerto Rico. My translations of The Star of Betlehem and Tomten are based on translations I found on the web by Mark Safstrom and Steven Michelsen. Rydberg´s writings about Norse mythology have been translated into English as (2001) Teutonic Mythology. Boston: Adamant Media, (2007) Investigations into German Mythology. Volume II Part 1: Indo-European Mythology. Lincoln NE: iUniverse Books and (2003) Our Fathers´ Godsaga Retold for the Young. Lincoln NE: iUniverse Books. The quote from Goethe is from Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (2006) Theory of Colours. New York: Dover Publications.

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