Academic journal article Western Folklore

World Flutelore. Folktales, Myths, and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power

Academic journal article Western Folklore

World Flutelore. Folktales, Myths, and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power

Article excerpt

World Flutelore. Folktales, Myths, and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power. By Dale A. Olsen. (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013. Pp. 238 + xx, prelude, 23 photographs, conclusion, notes, bibliography, subject index. $85.00 cloth. $28.00 paper.)

In his prelude (like an introduction, but more lyrical) to World Flutelore, Dale Olsen prepares the reader for a study of the flute that is unlike any other. Rather than writing a detailed history of the instrument, Olsen has chosen the path of a seasoned ethnomusicologist, focusing on "process rather than product, that is, how flutes are a part of human and non-human behavior, rather than how they exist as material objects"; his belief that flutes have power to bond "people, animals, and spirits throughout the world" unifies World Flutelore (xvi). With compelling examples of folktales, myths, and legends from many diverse cultures to support his thesis, he promotes a deeper understanding of the flute as a magical force.

Flutelore (a term coined by Olsen) refers to the larger cultural significance of flutes, flute players, and flute playing throughout the world. As Olsen points out, the flute is one of the world's most ubiquitous instruments. More importantly, flutes are magical and powerful because their sounds are produced "directly and solely by the player's breath" (xvii). Their tones, especially the high-pitched ones, may recall the songs of birds. Flute melodies can allow for supernatural communication, and they often are described as "beautiful."

The power that flutes offer will amaze even the most jaded reader. Beyond the more obvious examples of unparalleled success in enchanting and seducing women, the music of the flute can promote the growth of crops, bring necessary rain to a parched land, cure the infirm, rid a town of unwanted vermin, provide protection from vicious beasts or attacking armies, and even reveal a crime. This last category, which Olsen alludes to in his chapter, "Flutes that Talk," could be expanded here or in the chapter "Flutes and Ethical/Unethical Behavior" to include stories of flutes made from the bones of victims of violent crimes or from reeds that spring from their graves. Many folklorists and ethnomusicologists are familiar with the ballad, "The Two Sisters," in which a harp made from the remains of a murdered sister "speaks" to reveal the identity of her murderer, the older sister. In his discussion of this ballad, Francis James Child cites other crime narratives that feature the flute (124-26). For example, in a Polish tale documented by Child, a herdsman makes a pipe from a willow that has grown from the grave of a young woman. …

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