SIX QUESTIONS XXIV: DANICA BOYCE
Interview conducted by Joseph S. Hopkins through email, August 2019.
Canadian folklorist Danica Boyce operates Fair Folk Podcast, a regular program focused on the general topic of folklore and its immense variety of expressions. Mimisbrunnr.info readers will find Boyce’s podcast of interest not only for the large amount of original fieldwork Boyce conducts and original analyses Boyce provides for her episodes, but also because Boyce frequently dips into topics relevant to ancient Germanic studies and related fields, such as Boyce’s recent episodes on traditional Icelandic folk music, modern North Germanic Heathenry, and authors relevant to the field. Readers can tune in to Fair Folk Podcast on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, and a variety of other podcast-related services.
1. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a mining town of a few hundred people on a fjord next to a glacier in northwestern Canada. There were many bears and salmon around. The snow often buried our house, but sadly, school was seldom cancelled.
2. Can you remember when you first encountered Norse mythology or, more generally, Germanic mythology? And what was the context?
I would have first encountered the shoots and branches of Germanic mythology in the fairy tales of Hans Andersen and the Grimm brothers, but I didn’t find Norse mythology proper until quite recently, in 2015. At that time I was unemployed and living in my parents’ basement, writing a fantasy novel based on the idea that bodies of water are openings into the otherworld. I had built a world for the book and written a number of chapters before I began investigating the European folklore and mythology of wells and springs, and discovered the prevalence of wells in Norse mythology. I was struck to see how much resonance there was between my own “invented world” and Yggdrasil and the Well of Urðr (Old Norse Urðarbrunnr) in particular. And then I learned that Germanic worlds for ‘soul’, such as modern English soul, may derive from an early Germanic word for ‘sea’—and I was hooked!
From there I began researching more into Nordic mythology and folklore, which led me to begin producing the podcast Fair Folk based on the research I was doing on folklore and mythology more broadly.
3. How would you describe your religious beliefs (or lack thereof)?
I am a folklore-pagan animist. I say “folklore-pagan” because my spiritual practices are strongly influenced by what we now call folklore. I have found that in many many cases, folklore is a storehouse for the motifs of ancient mythology, a body of knowledge we often tacitly assume was lost in the sweeping takeover of Christianity, and which, by some accident of terminology, we separate categorically from the lived practices of human beings during and after the Christian Era.
I strongly believe that Germanic (and other) mythologies endure in traditions like seasonal feasts and celebrations, saint’s days and hagiography, symbols and mark-making, fairy tales, and—most compellingly for me—folksong.
Here’s just one example of how folksong carries on Old Norse culture. While conducting folk music research in Iceland last summer, I came across a ballad called Fagurt Syngur Svanurinn—“Beautifully Sings the Swan.” In the song, a young woman has a dream full of cryptic imagery, and she asks (or rather bribes) her stepmother to interpret the dream for her. Luckily, the dream fortells that the young woman will have successful and healthy children and live a fruitful life.
To me, what’s so cool about this ballad is that while looking into precedents for the song’s content, I learned that dream interpretation (along with dream books) has been a strong tradition in Icelandic culture since the Viking Age. And though Fagurt Syngur Svanurinn takes the medieval form of a ballad, if the story’s elements were found in a newly discovered saga manuscript tomorrow, I bet no medievalist would blink. That’s because dream interpretation, and this song’s natural imagery and predictions in particular, is very common and even central to Icelandic saga literature. So that’s just one of the countless ways that culture from the pre-Christian era survives and thrives in everyday life as folk custom. You just have to scratch the surface a little bit to find it, but once you do, it’s everywhere!
Gods may seem to have very fixed realms and deeds in mythology, but in folklore, they shapeshift, they multiply, their eyes catch the light behind saint’s lives, place-lore, characters in ballads, story-motifs and natural elements. Also, being from a mixed Celtic-Germanic background, I like to observe where different traditions are related; the more shared a motif is across cultures, the older it tends to be: thunder gods, the sun’s chariot, sacred springs and wells, dragon-slayers…
4. How would you describe your political beliefs (or lack thereof)?
I long to return to pre-industrial ways of life, and I wish that was on the ballot. For now I will settle for being generally anti-capitalist and concerned about the well being of natural places and of people, especially those who are displaced and oppressed by big business and colonialism, like the indigenous peoples of North America.
5. Do you have a formal academic background connected to Germanic studies? Where do you do your research on the topic?
I did a masters in Middle English literature, on the topic of miracle stories from medieval England accusing Jews of ritual child murder and host-desecration. This degree gave me a broad foundation in medieval English culture, and also gave me enough familiarity with the folklore of early Christianity to make good guesses about what motifs likely pre-date it when I encounter them in texts or songs from the Christian era. During this time I developed an interest in syncretism, and discovered how much so-called “unorthodox” belief easily coexists with dominant ideologies through time. As far as specifically Germanic material, I’ve been doing that research independently for the last four years. I took a course in modern Icelandic language (the nearest living relative to Old Norse) a couple of years ago from the University of Iceland, which has given me a small foothold in Scandinavian languages as well. Most recently I’ve done field work in Iceland, surveying people on the role of Icelandic folk music in contemporary culture and recording performances of the traditional singing style called tvísöngur. I presented that research in 2018 at a conference on traditional polyphony in Tbilisi, Georgia.
6. Does Norse mythology and/or general Germanic mythology influence your creative output?
This is an interesting question, because Germanic mythology is often the subject of my creative output, such as my podcast episode on Norse Neo-Paganism. But on a deeper level, I see my creative output as a devotion to the gods, so I guess that would be a hard yes!
Joseph S. Hopkins thanks Danica Boyce for her participation.