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Tommy Kuusela: Making folklore accessible

Through folklore, we speak "about ourselves".

When the game Year Walk, based on an archaic form of Swedish divination that would provide glimpses of the following year, was released in 2013, it captured the imaginations of people around the world. Norse folklore researcher and archivist Tommy Kuusela, who works at the Institute for Language and Folklore in Uppsala, saw an opportunity to share his knowledge on the ancient tradition leading to his chapter published in Folk Belief and Traditions of the Supernatural on the practice. Kuusela wanted to share the history of this ancient tradition with the broader audience that the game attracted.

A fascination with old beliefs isn’t a new phenomenon. Prehistoric sites like Stonehenge have been a tourist attraction for centuries. Egyptomania swept the Victorians following the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt towards the beginning of the 19th century. More recently, video games have been a new avenue for people to explore this interest. For example, games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla that pull from the visual language of the period provide a new immersive experience.

Kuusela attributes this sustained interest in people finding their cultural roots to a world where more and more people are living in cities instead of the countryside.

“I think maybe there’s a fatigue about contemporary times,” he says. “It’s a very disenchanted world, everything’s very mechanical.”

One of Kuseela’s goals is to make information that would typically dwell in the inaccessible language of academia available to everyone who has an interest in Swedish folklore. To do so, Kuusela avoids jargon in his work. In his PhD dissertation, which was in Swedish, he wrote in plain language and noticed right away that it had reached a broader audience, when it reached 10,000 downloads.

“Sometimes you can hide behind, you know, complicated words and things like that,” he says. “You can have these very posh, nice-looking sentences, but it doesn’t really mean anything because it’s only in for academia. If you’re using more simple language, something with simpler words, you have to think about everything you put down there,” he said.

Kuusela also make his work on folklore and myth accessible through his Instagram, public lectures, and articles.

“I enjoy reaching out and talking about my favourite subjects,” Kuusela says.

‘När man talar om trollen’ a Swedish saying meaning ‘speaking of the devil’, is a podcast Kuseela created with his friend. The project started life when Kuusela wanted to give a lecture on his friend’s popular Facebook page. But his friend suggested they do more than just a Zoom lecture, and the podcast was created. It has now reached 1 million downloads.

Kuusela’s own fascination for folklore stemmed from reading Tolkien as a kid, playing tabletop games, and hiking in nature with his brother and grandparents in Sweden’s north. He loves the feeling of being in nature, even though he grew up in Stockholm, Sweden’s largest city.

“Nature becomes unreliable in a way but also beautiful and magical, everything at once,” he says. “Nature can be wild and there’s so many things we don’t know about nature still, and it’s always been the case.”

Kuusela says that in the pre-industrial world, the forest was a place that naturally bred stories. And it is through stories of trolls and giants, werewolves and whatever else that the world becomes enchanted. They could be deadly if you lost your bearings. People would hear things, think they saw things, and then fill the uncertain gaps with the stories they heard as children. These stories became the way we communicate with others and our relationship to nature.

“Through them we are speaking about ourselves,” he says. “I found it very fascinating.”

Article | Sam McNeill is a second-year journalism student in Media and Communications at La Trobe University. You can find him on Twitter @samsheretoo

Photo | Image by Robin Kuusela, supplied by Tommy Kuusela with permission.

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