An adult, upon reflection, should be able to acknowledge that what we call the erotic is an integral part of what it means to be human. In fact, the erotic is a vital aspect of humanity, since most (but not all) of us owe our lives to an erotic encounter between a man and a woman. It should therefore come as no surprise that art—including literature—has always dealt with the erotic in a more or less direct manner.
From the “The Song of Solomon” in the Old Testament, through Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the bawdry of Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the innuendo that Shakespeare loved to play with, the preoccupation with sex in London of the early Restoration (see the poetry of the Earl of Rochester for a shock), the almost pathological sexual deferment in Samuel Richardson’s works, and all the way to the romance novel of today – literature is full of the erotic.
Folk literature has similar pursuits. The stepmother in “Cinderella” or in “Hansel and Gretel,” resented by the children (presumably because their father shows her sexual interest), is a hint towards the erotic. The witch riding her broomstick is a remnant of the erotic. The young girl who co-habits with the troll before she is rescued (e.g. “The Giant Who Had Not His Heart on Him”) is obviously in an erotic, albeit abusive, relationship with the beast. The very existence of the Freudian approach to folklore (see the work of Alan Dundes) is evidence that the erotic plays an important role.
In the same way that there is explicit literature, all the way to the extreme of pornography, some folklore is much more explicit than the tales mentioned above. There should be quite a lot of it, if Gershon Legman, the foremost authority on erotic folklore is to be believed: “In the field, the sexual material is offered along with all the other material” (Legman, p. 240). The collection of Norwegian folklore suggests he is correct, as I have stated elsewhere: “wherever folklore has been collected in Norway, the erotic varieties have nested themselves amongst the more socially acceptable tales, legends, anecdotes, folksongs, and beliefs” (Hughes, vi).
However, if Gershon Legman is correct in asserting that “the idea that there is a special kind of folklore that is sexual as differentiated from all other kinds, is an optical illusion caused by the operation of a purely literary censorship,” then the functions of erotic folklore are the same as those of folklore otherwise. Erotic folklore holds an additional dimension of interest, though: “Erotic folklore is to be collected for the same reason that it is proliferated: because it is about sex.” Gershon considers it “far more interesting, more valuable, and more important in every social and historical sense” than the brutal contents, including baby-killing of Child ballads, which he uses as an example of more socially acceptable(!) folklore (Legman, 240). Considering the sometimes horrific subject-matter of the tales, ballads, and legends that we enjoy so much, he does have a point.
More than its social and historical value, erotic folklore is hugely entertaining, and as William Bascom, who wrote the seminal essay on the functions of folklore, says: “Amusement is, obviously, one of the functions of folklore, and an important one” (Bascom, 343). Erotic tales are largely joke tales, humorous anecdotes, and wonder tales. They are funny, evoking smiles and laughter, and occasionally a shocked gasp. Given the nature of the subject matter, it is to be expected that people do sometimes find them inappropriate, even offensive.
Of course, historically, sexual material has been deemed unpublishable; some of the Norwegian collectors were so scandalised by tales their informants were offering that they sought to mitigate any offence by excising certain words, using foreign alphabets (including Futhark runes and Greek) to mask the naughtiness, or making it clear in their notes that they were unhappy recording it. G. O. Aaland, for example, who collected the tale “The Sexton and the Boy on the Parson’s Wife”, complained in his notes: “I was against writing this, but was pressed to do it” (quoted in Hughes, vii). With a few exceptions, the manuscripts and notes were hidden away in the university archives.
The Norwegian material was not published until the late 20th century, when Oddbjørg Høgset’s extensive work in the archives resulted in the publication of “Erotiske folkeeventyr” (1977). According to Gershon Legman, other languages have been a lot more conscientious in the publication of their erotic folklore:
In Russia, Germany, France, and Italy, the material was collected and completely published long ago – between 1865 and 1914 at the latest – and is now not considered of any except historical interest. The compilers were in most cases the greatest folklorists of their respective cultures: Afanasyev, Krauss, Gaston, Pâris, and Pitrè, among dozens of others. At least two very serious yearbook publications, Anthropophytéia (Leipzig, 1904–31), and Kryptádia (Paris, 1883–1911), were issued over a period of decades, running to some forty volumes, and solely devoted to the erotic folklore and folksong of all European languages except English. (Legman, 239)
Only a tiny fraction of the available material has been published in English translation. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the only English translations currently available are from Afanasyev’s Russian folktales, from Penushliski’s Macedonian folktales, and my own volume of Norwegian folktales from various collectors. What this means is that there are publications and archives of erotic folklore from the rest of the world, just waiting to be translated and released on an unsuspecting English-speaking world.
It is about time they were made available for us, don’t you think?
The following tale is taken from my translation of Erotic Folktales from Norway. It is one of the tamest of the collection, and suitably seasonal, to boot.
The Yule Buck and the Girl
One autumn a long time ago, there was such a long drought that the millrace dried up for folk. They had to use a hand mill to grind their flour and malt.
So there was a girl who sat milling for all she was worth, day after day, but it helped little, and she grew less and less eager, and more and more bored of it. Just as she sat like that, the Yule buck came to her and asked if she wanted help with the milling.
“I wouldn’t say no to that,” replied the girl, “if only there were someone who would.”
“I shall help you,” said the buck, “if I may lie with you Yuletide night.”
“Oh, well—yes, I suppose you may,” said the girl, a little lazily, “if only I may escape this blessed grinding.”
So the buck began to grind, and the girl just sat at her ease, watching.
So it went all Autumn; the buck milled so the flour flew, and all the while he sang:
Grind, grind now like a fool,
But fourteen days until Yule.
As Yuletide night draws on,
I’ll sleep on a maiden’s bosom.
But on Yuletide eve, the girl became horrified. She went to the farmer and told him of the wages she had promised the buck for milling, and asked for advice.
“Don’t be afraid,” said the man. “I shall help you.”
So when the evening came, and the girl should go to bed, he took a cauldron of pitch and hung it over the fire until it was at the point of boiling, and then he put it in the bed before her.
A while later something came thundering up the stairs and into the loft, straight towards the bed. There it tore off its clothes, and sat right in the cauldron of pitch. And then there was a dance, perhaps! The buck got up as quickly as he could, and went through the door with a screech and a scream:
Ow! Ow! The Christian girl was hot!
She was hot! She was hot!
She was burning hot!
Collector: Ole Tobias Olsen
Informant: Nils J. Olsen Bjeldaanæs
Location: Rana, Nordland
Do check out Simon’s new book Erotic Folktales from Norway
‘Some of it is VERY naughty, so buy it for your mum for Christmas and pretend you didn’t know.’
Simon Hughes has just released an excellent book of Erotic Folktales from Norway — impressively all translated by his fine self. Buy the book here!
References & Further Reading
Afanasyev, Alexander N. (1970) The Bawdy Peasant, The Libra Collection.
Bascom, William R. (1954) “Four Functions of Folklore” in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 67, No. 266 (Oct.–Dec., 1954), p. 333–349.
Hughes, Simon Roy (tr.).(2017) Erotic Folktales from Norway, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (also as drafts online).
Legman, G. (1964) The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography, University Books.
Penushliski, Kiril. Macedonian Erotic Folktales, translated by George Mitrevski and Christina Kramer (online).