Folk and Myth: Beyond Witches & Ouijas

When Harvard senior Merrill Kaplan's parents are asked about their daughter's major, they have a standard answer.

"She's a pre-med," her father says. "She's studying to be a witch doctor."

Kaplan, who concentrates in Folk-lore and Mythology, says her father usually enjoys the ensuing conversation about "whatever this person thinks folklore is," ranging from urban legends to Halloween.

Kaplan's parents are not alone: many people find it difficult to explain that they pay $25,000 a year for classes about Ouija boards and vampires.

Folk and Myth majors simply have to be "not afraid to say `Mom, Dad, I am studying something completely bizarre and I don't know how I am going to get a job," Kaplan says.

But concentrators say that despite the skepticism others feel about Folk and Myth, they are incredibly happy in the tiny department.

Students praise the flexibility of their interdisciplinary plans of study, which allow a "build-your-own-major" approach, and the intimacy and unique character of their 14-person concentration.

And while the concentration only has one-and-a-half faculty slots, students say they can get the classes they want by using other departments' resources.

Folk and Myth concentrators say they are often forced to explain their major, which few people seem to understand.

"When you tell people what your major is, they will think it's a joke or they will have think it's a joke or they will have absolutely no idea what it's about," Kaplan says.

Even Folk and Myth chair Stephen A. Mitchell admits that concentrators have to be "willing to put up with the abuse of telling their roommates and parents that they will major in folk-lore and Mythology."

It's worth the abuse for the concentrators, however. Classes are nearly always 20 people or fewer and the concentration's three faculty members know the name of everyone in the department.

Mark J. Millman '94 switched into Folk and Myth from the slightly more traditional biochemistry concentration.

"Chemistry both literally and figuratively stank," he says. "Folklore, unlike, say, English, or history, is a small concentration in which you have a lot of choice and a lot of personal contact with the instructors."

Few concentrators arrive at Harvard intending to be Folk and Myth concentrators. Like Millman, they are often drawn by the course topics and the intimacy of the department.

"I actually came to Harvard planning to do math or science of some sort," says Orin E. Johnson '96.

He later switched to music and then to Folk and Myth because it allowed him tofocus on enthnomusicology.

Clare A. Sammells '95 says she came to Folk andMyth after deciding she "didn't want to studyrocks for the rest of her life" in Geology becauseshe "found people more interesting."

Kaplan also came to Harvard thinking she wasgoing to concentrate in something else.

"Freshman year I will certainly admit to havinggone through the essential 'come to Harvardthinking you know what you are doing and find outthat you are sadly mistaken," she says. Kaplan hadbeen planning to major in science, but changed hermind when she found the Physics department"unfriendly."

But, like Millman, Folk and Myth's "tiny andwonderful" classes drew her in, she says. Unlikein Harvard's larger departments, she can get afaculty recommendation whenever she wants, Kaplansays.

And despite the fun-sounding course topics like"Withcraft" and "Witches, Werewolves and OuijaBoards," concentrators say Folk and Myth is nohaven for guts.

This is no "slough-your-way-through Harvard"concentration, Johnson says.

Sammells says that often 60 people will show upfor a Folk and Myth class during shopping periodbecause they are drawn by the name.

"Then they see the 30-page paper and theyleave," she says.

Folk and Myth majors do concede, however, thatcourses with topics slightly more off-beat thanchemistry or calculus can be less dry than thetraditional class work.

Millman wanted to do something that he "knewwould be fun," he says.


Another major attraction for Folk and Mythconcentrators is the concentration's extremelyinter disciplinary course list.

Eleni N. Gage '96, chose Folk and Myth overEnglish or the Romance Languages because of theflexibility it offered her.

She is enhancing her study of Greek Folkloreand Mythology with the study of Spanish and Frenchliterature, which also count for concentrationcredit.

"Within this very small department, we have avery diverse group of people," says Deborah D.Foster, lecturer in Folklore and Mythology.

Concentrators are required to take only sixsemesters of Folk and Myth courses, includingthree tutorials. Their other courserequirements--which total 14 semesters--arelargely determined by their "special fields,"which each student creates for him or herself.

Most of these classes are offered in otherareas of the Faculty, since students can draw frinalmost any other department at Harvard.

"It has kind of tentacles everywhere," saysProfessor of Music Kay K. Shelemay, anethnomusicologist. "Folklorists are likechameleons," because they can fit in anywhere andconstruct their own opportunities.

The intellectual justification for such abroadly-based concentration is the "naturalaffinity" between its topics, says Patrick K.Ford, Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages andLiteratures and a member of the Committee onFolklore and Mythology.

Mitchell says Folk and Myth really supplies anapproach which students then apply to theirindividual interests.

Folk and Myth also offers a "midpoint" betweenthe social sciences and humanities, Mitchell says.Students can focus more on anthropology or onliterature, or anything in between the two.

Students and faculty members praise thestructure of Folklore and Mythology, which is acommittee, not a department, for allowing studentssuch a broad sampling of courses.

But the structure has disadvantages as well,Mitchell says.

Mitchell, Foster and Professor of English andFolklore Joseph C. Harris--on leave thissemester--are the only faculty members appointedin Folklore and Mythology.

The other six members of the committee are notappointed professors of Folklore and Mythology.

And Mitchell and Harris must divide their timewith other departments.

Mitchell said that "a marginal increase in[their] teaching allotment" would be a one way tostrengthen the committee.

According to Mitchell, it would be difficultfor the committee to accommodate any more studentsthan they currently do without the addition offaculty members.

The committee has no power to appoint newfaculty members, even in fields where they areneeded.

But Folk and Myth does beef up its offeringswith visiting lecturers.

Last year visiting lecturer Maria Hererra-Sobektaught a course on the Mexican stories calledCorridos. Next year, Enrique Lamadrid will becoming to give a course on Hispanic Folklore.

Millman agrees that despite his happiness withthe concentration, more faculty members wouldstrengthen the committee.

"We don't have anyone there who does materialculture," he said. "We only have three permanentfaculty members...and I'd like to see it expand abit."

It's So Unusual

Concentrators and faculty members feel theirconcentration is nothing off the beaten path, butsome course topics, theses and concentrators seema bit unusual to say the least.

Classes, aside from the notorious ones onwitchcraft and ouija boards, focus on topics like"The Salem Witchcraze" and "Alchemy, Astrology andMagic: The Occult Sciences,"--a class whoseresources were diminished by the mysterious thefta few years ago from Widener Library of severalvaluable books on alchemy.

According to Associate Librarian LawrenceDowler, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ispresently searching for the lost books.

Coursework for Folk and Myth classes caninvolve studying anything from satanic cults totarot cards and UFO abductions.

O'Malley says that she spends "a lot of timeworking with role players who play a game called'Vampire: The Masquerade." She is analyzing thisgame for Mitchell's course on "preceptions of thesuper natural" because of its use of vampires.

Mitchell says that other students haveinterviewed escaped UFO abductees, or people whohave had near death experiences, in efforts tobetter understand the way people deal with imagesof the supernatural.

Folk and Myth thesis topics, like the coursework, sometimes seem a little bit strangesometimes to be uninitiated.

Millman's thesis was on the ethnic implicationsof Rhode Island snail salad, a dish which only hasthat name in Rhode Island and is consumed mostlyby the Italian-Americans, he says.

He considered studying steamed cheese burgersin Connecticut, but decided against it becauseRhode Island was geographically closer.

Sammell's thesis is on the societalimplications of consuming llama meat in La Paz,Bolivia. She is studying the class structure andurban mythology surrounding the dish, she says,which is only eaten by the lower classes.

Even the concentration's building isinteresting.

Lodged in its own small house, a small grayhome with a flowery yard near Kirkland House, Folkand Myth keeps its library in the former coalstorage area.

And, while concentrators say no generalizationcan capture all 17 of them, many seem to beinvolved in the Harvard-Radcliffe Science FictionAssociation (HRSFA).

"Currently a lot of students who are Folk andmyth majors have a lot of other similarinterests," says J. Adam Holland '94. "They justtend to do things together."

One such activity is the annual "Wyld Hunt"sponsored each Halloween by the Science FictionClub.

According to Millman, "A bunch of Folk and Mythalums and present students joined the localScience Fiction Association" and originated theWyld Hunt, which started three years ago.

The practice is based on Germano-Celticfolklore honoring the god of the hunt.

For last year's Hunt, students removed as muchclothing as they considered advisable and paintedblue designs on one another's skin in the style ofthe ancient Picts.

They then ran through the streets of Cambridge,screaming and chasing someone dressed like a stag.When they caught this unfortunate victim, he orshe was ritually sacrificed in TercentenaryTheatre and carried back across Mass. Ave.

Kaplan said she came up with this idea as asophomore and was surprised to find that she "alsoknew a lot of people who for some reason thoughtthat this was a sublimely good idea."

"We were having a Conan party and we all gottogether and decided that what we all wanted to dowas dress up in blue paint and go howling throughthe streets," says Elena O'Malley '94, also a Folkand Myth concentrator.

Another ceremony in which some folk and mythstudents participate as part of the sciencefiction club is the "Coming of the Hour." Studentsdress in black and perform a candle-lit ceremonyon the steps of Widener in observance of thechange to daylight savings time.

But Folk and Myth concentrators point out thatnot all of them participate in HRSFA activities.

And Sammells, who is a co-chair of HRSFA, says"I don't really think that [Folk and Mythconcentrators] are weirder than everyone else,although we certainly do get that reputation."

Employment Opportunities

The alleged "weiredness" of classes andconcentrators, however, has hurt no one lookingfor post-graduation employment, according toMitchell.

There are opportunities for those concentratorswho want to stay in the field, says Rebecca M.Joseph, former state folklorist for Connecticut.But "you have to create opportunities foryourself."

Joseph, who has a degree in anthropology, saidthat state folklorist jobs have been establishedin almost every state by the universities, privateorganisations, or the National Endowment for theArts.

"There are very few jobs with the job title'Folklorist," she says.

But she and Mitchell both say the field isexpanding. Folklorist can often address issues"that are concerns of the public agencies orprivate sector firms" Joseph says.

Most students, however, defy the Folk and Mythreputation and go from the classes in witchcraftto law school, medical school, the entertainmentindustry, or even Wall Street, Mitchell says.

Despite this evidence of "normality," Folk andMyth is unlikely to be mistaken for the Governmentdepartment anytime soon.

"I have plans for the future," Kaplan says. "Ihave been doing research on the Berserker. This isthe next thing that has caught my interest."

In these rituals, a young warrior, dressed inan animal skin, ritually fights and kills ananimal or person dressed as an animal.

"It is something that really wants to be doneagain in an outdoor ritual," Kaplan says.CrimsonJohn C. MitchellFolk and Myth chair STEPHEN A. MITCHELLstands in front of the concentration'sbuilding.