Academic journal article Western Folklore

What of the Siren Who Has No Song? Lessons from the Basque Lamina

Academic journal article Western Folklore

What of the Siren Who Has No Song? Lessons from the Basque Lamina

Article excerpt


Sirens and fairies abound in European folklore. Often depicted as young women, they are infamous for entrapping young men with their beauty and their song. And then there are the Basque sirens or fairies, called laminak1. Ironically, despite the Basques' well-documented penchant for song, laminak do not sing. Nor are they always beautiful, young, or female. Given these deviations from the usual "beware the beautiful mythical female creature lest she ensnare you" script, what are we to learn from stories about Basque sirens?

In this article, 1 examine folk stories about laminak collected by Jean Francois Cerquand and Jean Barbier between 1875 and 1931. While the meanings of these narratives-like those in other cultures-are often difficult to decipher and certainly multi-vocal, 1 focus here on the values and life lessons these tales about laminak impart to readers (or at least, this reader). Specifically, I will show that these stories present human beings (especially women) and laminak (who are usually female) in symbiotic-but simultaneously, potentially antagonistic-relationships with each other. Laminak and human beings have powers the others do not have. It behooves humans to cooperate with laminak as Basque sirens can make gold and silver, grant wishes, and construct edifices with remarkable speed and efficiency. Yet somehow laminak lack the ability to bring their own children into the world or to break spells cast upon them-for this they rely on human females. As humans and laminak negotiate and interact with each other, several life lessons emerge. To contextualize that discussion, the next section provides some background to Basque folklore. This is followed by a section detailing the powers of the Basque laminak in particular, for the reader unfamiliar with them. (I assume the reader is already familiar with the potential powers of humans.)


I would like to begin with a word on how I came to these texts in the first place. The daughter of Basque immigrants to California whose first language was Basque ("Euskera"), I have been immersed in Basque culture my entire life, participating in Basque dance groups throughout my childhood and joining in spontaneous outbursts of Basque song around the table. A sociologist of language, I came to the archives to better understand a language change that my ethnographic research in the Basque Country had uncovered. Specifically, I had noticed that the only gender marked aspect of the language-second person familiar singular pronouns, which sometimes mark the gender of the addressee-were "socially unequal" even as they were "linguistically equal": the familiar form for a female addressee ("noka") has practically disappeared from speech, while its male counterpart ("toka'') is still used with boys and men with whom speakers feel closeness or trust. I have argued (Echeverría 2003) that this was due, in part, to the social meanings ascribed to toka versus noka. Toka continues to be used in culturally-valued domains such as rural sports and ritual verbal dueling ("bertsolaritza"), and thereby indirectly indexes hegemonic masculinity (Echeverría 2003). Noka, in contrast, has no unambiguously positively valued domains associated with its use. Indeed, many informants-in the Basque Country and the diaspora-simply told me that using noka was "looked badly upon" or considered disrespectful, and left it at that.

As no one had a convincing explanation for how noka had come to have such negative connotations, I embarked on an archival project tracing the use of these pronouns in the historical record. This took me on a journey to repositories throughout the Basque Country as well as to the British Library and-most fruitfully-to Oxford's Bodleian Library. The bulk of this material until the beginning of the 20th century comprises biblical texts, songs and folklore. I have already shown that when it comes to the first two kinds of these source materials, use of noka is infrequent and often negative (Echeverría 2003, 2006, 2014a, 2014b, In press). …

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