Finfolk and The Odyssey: a perspective on the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Worlds

Francesca Meneghetti is an archaeology and literature student at Orkney College UHI. Last semester, she wrote this essay for Dr Ragnhild Ljosland’s Tradition, Custom and Belief module, in which she compared the Finfolk legends of the Northern Isles to Mediterranean beliefs as portrayed in The Odyssey.

FIG.1: In many Shetlandic tales, finfolk took on the appearance of marine mammals. Their furry skin was a magic device, through which men could gain control over finwomen (Kickingereder 2008, Dunnigan 2011). Finn brides made good housewives, although characterized by a melancholic longing for the sea; they could regain freedom by getting ahold of their stolen seal skin. Credit: unknown artist.

The sea and its dwellers, whether these are the products of nature or belief, constitute a body of entities people have interacted with since the ancient times, in a fundamental encounter with the other and the unknown. Such a confrontation fundamentally contributed to new perspectives on the human experience and was often imbued with symbolic significance, giving life to a rich body of oral and written narration concerning the marine world.

In this way, the sea became the place of the preternatural, where reality and imagination met, while the theme of the journey by sea became a fundamental anthropological motif. These cultural processes often bore significant implications in terms of identity and perception of self, detectable in the texts available to the contemporary reader. This research project proposes a parallel between literature concerning the Finfolk and The Odyssey.

The early-modern folklore of the Northern Isles will be compared to that of Archaic Greece, bringing the North Sea and the Mediterranean world close to each other in a narrative universe where disguise, magic, and shrewdness dominate. The comparison will focus on the themes of identity and deception, formulated through sight and hearing, and of travel, as encounter with the other, both as individual and place.

“There are frequently Finmen feen here upon the coafts, as one about a year ago on Stronfa… his boat is made of feal-skins, or fom kind of leather, he alfo hath a coat of leather upon him, and he fitteth in the middle of his boat… and when in a ftorm he fees the high furge of a wave… he hath a way of finking his boat, till the wave pafs over…” (Brand 1701:758).

When John Brand, a minister of the Church of Scotland, visited Orkney at the beginning of the 18th century, he noted the presence of so-called “Finmen”, foreign seamen equipped with unusual gear and boats, capable of blending with the sea. Although these figures are surrounded by an aura of mystery, their characterization is human, strongly distinct from that of “fea-creatures having the likenefs of men and women… fea-monsters, mermen and mermaids” (Brand 1701:789, Grydehøj 2013).

A similar account was given a few years earlier (Wallace and Sibbald 1883), when James Wallace wrote of “these men which they call Finmen… sometym sailing sometym rowing up & dooun… [they] drive away fishes from the place to which they come.” (Wallace 1684:26-27).

As pointed out by Westaway (2020), between the 17th and the 18th century, there was a spike of reports of encounters with Finmen in the Northern Isles. These early-modern records of figures oscillating between the mystical and the mundane represent an encounter with alterity rooted in historical events, that yet because of a narrative instability, was quickly adorned with fantastic motifs. From there, popular folklore revolving around the sea as the source of preternatural creatures was reinforced, enriching the distinctive mythos of Orkney and Shetland (Westaway 2020). In this way, finmen were a product of a “fabulous transmogrification” (MacRitchie 1890:2) of foreign people approaching the archipelagos, with all probability coming from modern Scandinavia, into mischievous creatures of the sea, protagonists of tales of travel, abduction and imprisonment.

The perception of finfolk in the Northern Isles, based on an interplay of alterity and mimesis between people and the sea (Westaway 2020), developed along two routes.

In Shetland, the figures of the finman and finwoman were often interchangeable with that of the selkie (FIG.1). In Orkney, a more demarcated distinction between selkies, merfolk, and finfolk was developed instead (FIG.2). The latter was a sea-abiding community characterized by an astute mind and versed in magic, often maintaining unfriendly relationships with humans.

According to the Orcadian tales, finfolk had two homes: the underwater city of Finfolkaheem, at the bottom of the North Sea, and Hildaland, an idyllic island invisible to mortal eyes, where human captives were brought to marry (Muir 2014).  Finfolk, selkies, and merfolk constituted a cosmos founded on shapeshifting, magic, and deception. While in Shetland Finfolk were subjected to sugar-coated domestic slavery sealed by an imposed wedding, in Orkney they were the ones implementing such a treatment for humans.

FIG.2: In Orcadian folklore mermaids are daughters of the finfolk, songsters who charm men in the hope of preserving their beauty. They do not have a seal skin but a tail embroidered in silver and gold that they can discard onshore (Muir 2014). If mermaids marry finmen instead, they become repulsive finwives, sent on shore to make money with their healing abilities. (Dennison 1891). Credit: John Bauer.

Finfolk appear to be unreliable figures, their disposition ever-changing as the element they belong to, moved by convenience and profit, and gifted with impressive cunning. However, there are tales of mortals capable of outdoing these creatures in shrewdness, such as those of The Fetlar Finnman (Tullock 2014) and The Fin Folk and the Mill (Muir 2014).

In the latter, an old beggar frees a village from the scourge of a group of finmen regularly sacking the Mill of Skaill. She does so tricking a finman into believing a false name, and then hurting him so that when asked who did that to him, he would reply “Myself in the mill”. Aware of the power she would grant the finfolk by revealing her identity, the old lady adopts a cunning strategy, becoming a master of disguise.

The same stratagem is adopted by Odysseus in his encounter with Polyphemus, the feral cyclops. When told “δóς…μοι τεòν οΰνομα” “give me your name” by the cyclops, Odysseus replies “Οΰτις εμοί γ’όνομα” “Nobody is my name” (Di Benedetto 2010:524).

Once again, the protagonist of the tale conceals his identity so that when Polyphemus is asked by the cyclopes who blinded him, he replies “It’s Nobody’s treachery” (Rieu 2009:120) (FIG.3). It must be noted that in Greek “oΰτις”, meaning “nobody”, is synonym with “μήτις”, as they both constitute the negation of “τίς”, “somebody”. However, μήτις can also be translated into “guile”, unveiling a further word game and another layer of cunning attributed to both the protagonist and the author of the epic poem.

What prevents the ninth book of The Odyssey from achieving the happy ending of the Orcadian tale, is Odysseus’ arrogance, which brings him to boast about his victory and reveal his name to Polyphemus after escaping from the cave. This will enable the giant to curse Odysseus and prolong his journey back to Ithaca. The idea of identity as a vehicle of power can therefore be found in both stories.

FIG.3: Odysseus and his companions blinding Polyphemus with the scorching trunk of an olive tree. Archaic pottery, Archaeological Museum of Argos. Credit: unknown.

Although the blinding of Polyphemus is a culturally-specific response to the violation of sacred social conventions of archaic Greece, the motif of the purposeful obstruction of sight is a cross-cultural one, that can be observed in Orcadian folklore as well.

In The Blinding of Tam Scott, Orkney’s storyteller Tom Muir (2014) describes how a sailor is blinded by a finman through the use of a magical powder, after having helped him to get to Hildaland. Here, the blinding is functional to the protection of the island’s location and the identity of the finfolk.  However, if we were to look at this tale with the eyes of Odysseus, it could be argued that Tam Scott is blinded by the finman because he, just like Polyphemus, violated the sacred rules of hospitality, repeatedly asking the stranger his name: “What’s your name?” “A close tongue keeps a safe head” (Muir 2014:75).

Nonetheless, sight and knowledge can be impeded in many other ways: a popular literary device is that of the mist, or fog, blurring the surroundings and altering perception. This is present both in Orcadian accounts of Hildaland and in the Homeric description of the islands Odysseus stumbles upon. However, if knowledge and awareness are interpreted as fundamentally regulated by sight, there exists a character capable of defying such definitions: Teiresias, the Theban seer.

FIG.3: Odysseus and his companions blinding Polyphemus with the scorching trunk of an olive tree. Archaic pottery, Archaeological Museum of Argos. Credit: unknown.

Teiresias makes his appearance in the eleventh book of the Odyssey, which narrates Odysseus’ descent in Hades (FIG.4,5) (Podlecki 1967).

There, the shadow of the prophet is summoned by the hero and predicts to him the possible outcomes of his journey: “If you… fix your mind on returning home, there is some chance that all of you may yet reach Ithaca…but if you hurt [the sacred cattle of Helios] … then I predict that your ship and company will be destroyed” (Rieu 2009:143).

A significant academic debate was raised around the Book of the Dead: nowadays, it is believed to contain the traces of an ancient, pre-Olympic religion (Rossi 2015). Within the process of stratification of cultures that took place in the long redaction of the poem, the “προφήτης” “inspired interpreter” (Montanari 2013:2077) becomes a key figure.

FIG.5: Detail, Teiresias emerging from the ground just before the consultation. Credit: unknown

Teiresias is “αυτοδίδακτος” “he who needs no teacher but himself” (Montanari 2013:443),the chosen possessor of a social and cultural memory that cannot be learnt, of a “σοφία” “knowledge” (Montanari 2013:2553) that is divine, and that saves the values of a society from the abyss of the past. In this titanic process of formation and transmission of social and cultural identity, sight is not a requirement: Teiresias is blind.

On his journey to Hades, Odysseus goes beyond the thresholds of the human world, pushing himself to the realm of death (Torres 2014). Here, mist and fog wrap the hero in a space of liminality between worlds. In The City Under the Sea (Muir 2014), young Arthur Dearness follows a beautiful mermaid to Finfolkaheem, in the depths of the ocean, to marry her.

In a curious analogy, both heroes descend in an underworld, whether this is a metaphorical or a physical one, and experience the otherness of existence: Odysseus with the shadows of the dead, Arthur with the finfolk. However, Arthur, contrarily to Odysseus does not choose to cross the barriers between worlds but is forced to do so, spellbound by the voice of the finwoman. As if he represented an Odysseus who indulged in the charming songs of the sirens, and consumed by them, forgot his family in Ithaca (Segal 1994), Arthur is lost in the deep waters of the sea, without the memories of his loved ones to guide him back home.

In this tale, the songs of the mermaid cause the annihilation of self. It is the external intervention of family and magic that saves the boy: aunt Marion sends a black cat to Finfolkaheem to establish a communication between the two worlds. The furry messenger manages to free Arthur step by step “…the cat had broken a powerful spell…” (Muir 2014:66), allowing his return to shore.

In other Orcadian tales, a shapeshifting black cat is kept by finwives, to communicate with their relatives in Finfolkaheem (MacRitchie 1890, Jennings 2010). The motif of the godly messenger, the mediator between worlds, protector of the hero, is present in the Homeric poem as well: Hermes, winged herald of the Olympians, repeatedly comes to Odysseus’ aid, carrying out the will of Zeus and Athena.

In Aea, Hermes advises the man on how to break Circe’s spells: “Where are you off to now, poor fellow? … I will save you and deliver you from trouble… I will tell you exactly what to do” (Rieu 2009:132). Later on, after Odysseus has been trapped on Calypso’s island for seven years, Hermes refers to the nymph the wish of Zeus, bringing the hero’s imprisonment to an end: “It was Zeus who sent me…he says that you have here a man…and now Zeus bids you to send him off without delay” (Rieu 2009:65).

Calypso’s lair is the embodiment of the locus amoenus: “the cave was sheltered by a copse of alders and fragrant cypresses…a thriving garden vine, with great bunches of grapes…from four separate springs four crystal rivulets were channeled… and in soft meadows… iris… flourished” (Rieu 2009:64). 

A similar characterization is that of Hildaland, the magic floating island with rich cornfields, green hills, sleek cattle, and singing streams (Marwick 2011). The outstanding difference between the two is the characters’ attitude towards the idyllic imprisonment. While Odysseus perceives it as a mutilation of those relations that fundamentally contribute to his identity (Murnaghan 2011), stories of abductions operated by the finfolk reveal a much lighter attitude to captivity, such as narrated in Hildaland (Muir 2020). The sweetness of escapism in a world where everything is better, even when this implies the revocation of freedom, in Orcadian folklore is at times embraced.

FIG.6:  Despite the island being “a spot where… even an immortal visitor must pause to gaze in wonder and delight” Odysseus “[sat] disconsolate on the shore… tormenting himself with tears…he desired to…come to his high-roofed house and his native land once more” (Rieu 2009:64-66).

In conclusion, although finfolk tales and The Odyssey were developed in distinct cultural and historical contexts, they both constitute narratives of selfhood, sharing an interest in people’s interaction with the sea and the mysterious entities in it concealed.

Whether these interactions happen on a heroic or domestic scale, they can bear both wonderful gifts and great danger, relying on magic and cunning as tools of deception, formulated through appearance and voice. To overcome such trials, protagonists have to master the senses of sight and hearing, becoming experts of cunning, deceit, and disguise. In such a way, a cathartic process starts, prompting the protagonists’ identity into a new fluidity, symbolized by the journey by sea.

The otherness the heroes of these tales have to confront can take many shapes and forms, challenging and reinforcing the protagonists’ awareness of self. Although such a quest can be completed, a great prize is at stake: identity, in its individuality as well as in its communal dimension.

More than once, external help, whether this comes from family or a divine force, is granted to the hero to support their journey back home, the conclusion of the quest of self-discovery.

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