Harvard Course Search page

Fall Term 2020:

The Folklore of Emergency: Change, Continuity, and Communal Creativity Amid Crisis

FOLKMYTH 130 - Lowell Brower  

This course tracks the maneuvers of folklore and expressive culture through crises, conflict zones, and emergency situations. By examining the creative interventions of storytellers, performers, and artists in response to a wide range of profound ruptures—from political upheaval, to genocidal violence, to forced migration, to social revolution, to ecological disaster—the course illuminates and interrogates the powers, potentials, politics, and poetics of cultural performance, communal storytelling, and ritual praxis in the face of destabilizing change. Exploring case studies from Africa to the Arctic, we’ll ask how storytellers revive and revise old stories to confront new challenges, how preexisting expressive forms weather unprecedented socio-cultural storms, how individuals and communities attempt to re-narrate themselves after calamity. How do folks turn their afflictions into art, how do they make sense of their sufferings, how to they treat their traumas, and transform their tragedies? What roles can folklore play in reimagining communities, in rehabilitating selves, in remaking worlds? Course work will include close readings of expressive texts, analytic and creative projects, class excursions, and a social engagement option.




Magic and Faith in Medieval Medicine

FOLKMYTH 168 - Joseph Nagy  
This course explores the ways in which medieval medicine operates at the nexus of science, religion, and magic. Through analyses of medieval literature (medical texts, prose narratives, and poetry) we will seek to better understand how knowledge of the body and healing was preserved and transmitted over time. We explore the role of 'learned medicine,' folk practice, and religion in the medieval concept of healing from an interdisciplinary approach—including folkloristics; economic/urban history; sociology and anthropology of science; gender studies; colonial studies; and cultural history. The major project of the semester will allow each student to develop a writing project centered on aspects of the course that most interest them. A pre-med or potential pre-med student might choose to research and write on medieval herbal medicine in dialogue with modern development of medicines by “Big pharma.” A student who is more interested in cultural studies or religious studies might choose to examine the role of environment (urban v. rural), gender, or religious reform in, for example, the healing traditions of the British Isles and Ireland in the years leading up to the Early Modern period. Similarly, someone with an interest in folklore and mythology might explore the oral-traditional background to popular medical remedies of the Middle Ages, and might even consider the wide-reaching continuity of such traditions, many of which are still relevant today.












Assertive Stitches: Domestic Arts and Public Conflict

FOLKMYTH 177 - Felicity Lufkin  
In January 2017, the Pussy Hat Project turned the Women’s March on Washington into an eye-catching “sea of pink,” but this is not the first time that needlework has played an important role in a political demonstration. Needlework’s traditional associations with femininity and domesticity have made it a potent symbol in protests that are critical of traditional gender roles, or that evoke domestic morality to challenge public policy, or in some cases, both. In addition to the 2017 Pussy Hat project, we will look at cases like the ongoing NAMES Project AIDS memorial quilt, and the anti-nuclear-arms Piece Ribbon project of the mid-1980s within broader historical and theoretical contexts of needlework, of protest and demonstration, and of collective and/or community-building artistic practices.












The Celtic Arthur

CELTIC 110 - Joseph Nagy  
We will be reading, in translation, the earliest surviving British Celtic texts featuring the figure of Arthur as well as the prototypes of the legendary figures (such as Merlin, Tristan, Isolde, and Guinevere) popularly associated with him.  We will also study the historical context behind the evolution of Arthur from Roman Britain to the era of the Norman Conquest and its aftermath; possible analogs to "Celtic Arthur" and Arthurian tales in Irish tradition; reflections of Arthur in Celtic folklore; and Celtic elements in the treatment of Arthurian story in more recent cultures, including operas and films.









Spring Term 2021:

Tradition, Performance, and Culture

GENED 1097 - Joseph Nagy  
What is culture, and how does it shape us? This class explores how folklore (a broad term meant to include all aspects of tradition, custom, and heritage) and its expressive manifestations shape national, regional, and ethnic identities. In particular, we examine the function of folklore within the communities that have, perform and use these cultural goods, as well as the ways traditions are expressed and performed in daily life. In this course, you will study major forms of folklore (e.g., myths, legends, beliefs, rituals, festivals), as well as the theoretical approaches (e.g., performance theory, the ethnography of communication) used to interpret cultural documents drawn from the world of traditional expression and ritualized behavior.  








Fieldwork and Ethnography in Folklore

FOLKMYTH 97 - Lowell Brower  
Introduces concentrators to the study of traditions - their performance, collection, representation and interpretation. Both ethnographic and theoretical readings serve as the material for class discussion and the foundation for experimental fieldwork projects.  







Internet Folklore, Online Communities, and Digital Ethnography

FOLKMYTH 150 - Lowell Brower  


Quilts and Quiltmaking

FOLKMYTH 172 - Felicity Lufkin  

Are quilts the great American (folk) art? From intricately stitched whole-cloth quilts, to the improvisational patchworks of Gee's Bend; from the graphic simplicity of Amish quilts to the cozy pastels of depression-era quilts; from the Aids Quilt to art quilts; quilts have taken on extraordinary significance in American culture. This class surveys the evolution of quilt-making as a social practice, considering the role of quilts in articulations of gender, ethnic, class and religious identities, and their positions within discourses of domesticity, technology, consumerism, and cultural hierarchy.











Courses Offered in Future Terms:

History and Theory of Folklore and Mythology

FOLKMYTH 98A - Stephen Mitchell  
Examines the development of folklore and mythology as fields of study, with particular attention to the methodological approaches suited to their areas of enquiry. Considers the study of folklore and mythology in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but focuses especially on theoretical contributions to the study of folklore, mythology, and oral literature in recent decades.  



Tattoo: Histories and Practices

FOLKMYTH 176 - Felicity Lufkin  
Tattooing has been practiced in many different social and cultural settings, in many different time periods, to different ends. In the United States, tattooing was long associated with marginalized and stigmatized groups, but since the 1970s, has become increasingly popular and even mainstream. This seminar style class will explore distinct regional histories of tattoo, the development of tattooing in the US, and the different ways that contemporary tattoo practitioners situate themselves historically and negotiate boundaries of race, class and gender. We will also consider tattoo as an art form that both invites and resists aesthetic judgments.  









The Storyteller in Flight: Migrant Narratives, Refugee Camp Cultures, and the Arts of Displacement

FOLKMYTH 131 - Lowell Brower  
What are the effects of displacement on tradition, storytelling, and cultural belonging? How does migration influence narration, creative expression, and imagination? What are the powers and potentials of artistic communication after existential rupture? What is the role of the storyteller in flight? This course explores expressive cultures in motion, amid crisis, and out of place, and asks how tradition bearers and creative innovators adapt when the communities in which their preexisting cultural practices had once flourished are destroyed, uprooted, transformed, or dispersed. It also asks how researchers, aid workers, activists, and other outsiders might engage in ethical and beneficial ways with individuals and communities in exile. In examining the impacts of forced migration on cultural production, transmission, and innovation, we will put classical theories of Refugee and Migration Studies in conversation with recent ethnographies and folklore collections, as well as memoirs, novels, songs, and films by and about displaced persons. With case studies ranging from colonial Africa, to post-war Europe, to contemporary America we will explore what, if anything, holds together “the refugee experience,” while also interrogating our own neighborly obligations and scholarly commitments as we navigate what has famously been deemed “the century of the migrant.” Course work will include analytic and creative projects as well as experiential learning opportunities. The social engagement option for this course will offer students the chance to investigate our course topics in collaboration with local community members. 









Celtic Mythology

CELTIC 137 - Joseph Nagy  
Medieval Irish and Welsh texts reflect underlying story patterns, characters, and motifs that are rooted in pre-Christian tradition and in some cases witnessed in the archaeological evidence and in the ethnographic writings of ancient Greek and Roman authors.  We will examine these texts in translation and track the reconstruction of the “pagan past” undertaken by medieval Celtic writers, as well as the new mythologies they developed to suit the evolving ideological agenda of their world, from ca 600 to 1500 CE.

















Food and Fantasy in Irish Tradition

CELTIC 120 - Joseph Nagy  
Many aspects of food—growing, cooking, eating, drinking, and distributing it—have served as powerful cultural symbols in Irish oral and literary tradition from medieval to modern times.  A survey of the environmental, historical, and economic background to food and its production in Ireland of the early Middle Ages will lead to the close reading of medieval texts (in translation) such as “News about Mac Dathó’s Pig,” “The Vision of Mac Conglinne,” and “The Battle of Mag Tuired,” in each of which the “what,” “why,” and “how” of eating determine the outcome of the story.  In addition, we will examine the lively symbolism of food as perpetuated in Irish legend and folktale, and also in post-medieval Irish literature.

African Storytellers and Oral Traditions: Folklore and the Verbal Arts from Abidjan to Zanzibar

FOLKMYTH 116 - Lowell Brower  
African Storytellers and Oral Traditions introduces students to the pasts, presents, and futures of Africa's verbal arts, and to a vibrant cast of African storytellers, poets, performers, and artists engaged in various projects of meaning-making, tradition-bearing, connection-forging, and world-building. Exploring folktales, myths, legends, praise poems, proverbs, and songs -- as artistic texts, as situated performances, and as social acts -- this course attempts to do justice to the powers, potentials, politics, and poetics of African storytelling circa 2020. Organized thematically rather than temporally, this course seeks to trouble both the typical assumptions about “modern” vs. “traditional” expressive culture (as well as long-standing debates about “orality and literacy”) by highlighting the coexistence and co-pollination of cattle songs and battle raps, trickster tales and Nollywood screenplays, sacred origin myths and neoliberal critiques, supernatural legends and human-rights testimony. Highlighting the relationship between communal storytelling performances, ancient oral traditions, and contemporary expressive texts, our course readings, discussions, and social engagement activities will amplify and illuminate the myriad forms of creative expression though which African storytellers are making their voices heard.












The Vikings and the Nordic Heroic Tradition

SCAND 150R - Stephen Mitchell  
Examines the historical events in Europe A.D. 800 to A.D. 1100, and the resulting heroic legacy in medieval poetry and Icelandic sagas. The course focuses on Viking Age figures as warriors, kings, poets, outlaws and adventurers; pre-Christian religion, the Viking raids and the Norse experience in "Vinland" carefully considered.















Scandinavian Folklore: Trolls, Trolldom and the Uses of Tradition

FOLKMYTH 160 - Stephen Mitchell  
Examines Nordic folklore and folklife, with an emphasis on narratives, supernatural beliefs, and material culture from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, interpreted against additional sources of information drawn from the archaeological and historical records. Key strategies used in the fields of folklore, literature, and cultural history to interpret such texts discussed in detail, and applied in analyzing our materials. Also carefully considered, the history and development of folklore studies in Scandinavia and the role of folklore (and folklore studies) as, and in, anti-colonial and nation-building movements.




History of Witchcraft and Charm Magic

FOLKMYTH 106 - Stephen Mitchell  
This course examines witchcraft (and the "magical world view") from cross-cultural, historical, and literary perspectives. Although witches and witchcraft are considered in their non-Western settings, the course focuses on the melding of Christian and pagan views of witchcraft and magic in the European Middle Ages, and the evolving construction of witchcraft ideologies through the witch crazes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the rise of modern paganism.




The Folktale and Its Tellers: The Powers, Politics, and Poetics of Enchantment

FOLKMYTH 132 - Lowell Brower  

In defiance of Walter Benjamin’s premature 1936 lamentation that “the art of storytelling is coming to an end,” this course explores the enduring powers of once upon a time in the here and now.By studying “the folktale” genre cross-culturally and trans-historically, in its myriad local forms and historical manifestations, we will explore what folktales are, how folktales move, what folktales mean, and what folktales do. On our folkloric journey, we’ll meet a colorful cast of unlikely heroes, wicked stepmothers, swallowing monsters, and bawdy tricksters, as we visit with storytellers from the cattle kraals of South Africa, to the film studios of Hollywood, to the alleyways of India, to the turf fires of Ireland, to the post-genocide villages of Rwanda. Along the way we’ll delve into narrative conventions, formal properties, character studies, common motifs, interpretive frameworks, literary and filmic adaptations, theories of transmission and variation, the poetics of performance, and the politics of storytelling. At the center of our investigations will be the figure of the storyteller – that master of enchantment, wielding words to change the world.

While exploring folktales from academic point of view through scholarly readings and intellectual theorization, we will also engage with storytelling on the ground, through community engagement, embodied performance, sensuous listening, and intersubjective exchange. Experimenting with both folkloristic research and folklore-in-performance, we will gain practical experience in storytelling and story-collecting. Working with local yarn-spinners, we will try our hands at collaborative folkloristic research: documenting, presenting, and interpreting a contemporary tale-in-performance. In order to better understand the storyteller’s art, we will also experiment with tale-telling and embodied performance ourselves.

Course readings will include oral-literary texts, ethnographic studies, artistic performances, theoretical works, creative writing, songs, and films. Course work will include close readings of expressive texts, analytic and creative projects, social engagement activities, and storytelling performances.