Jew's harp stories from Norway, Part II: What legends tell us about the Munnharpe

DAN MOI Clemens Voigt & Sven Otto GbR
Jew\'s harp stories from Norway, Part II: What legends tell us about the Munnharpe - Jew\'s harp stories from Norway, Part II: What legends tell us about the Munnharpe

"Fangjen" performed by the Baikal Jew's Harp Orchestra

Although the history of the Jew's harp in Norway before 1900 can only be partially reconstructed, due to the fact that only a few written testimonies regarding its use are known to us, the link between some Jew's harp melodies and legends indicate that there is an oral tradition which has been handed down with the instruments from generation to generation. Two of these legends are to be told here. One story stems from the Valdres region. It describes the belief in the magic power of the Jew's Harp to do good for mankind. The second story from the Gudbrandsdalen region deals with a prisoner who was a skilled Jew's harp player and is said to have written the melody to the well-known song "Fangjen".

There are many legends about the Jew's Harp in Valdres. The folklorist Knut Hermundstad has collected some of them and published them. One of the legends tells of Hölje, who had gone fishing in the woods and spent the night in a small hut. Hölje could play the Jew's harp well. On this particular night he sat in the hut and played his instrument. All of a sudden, he heard noises outside the hut. People were dancing to the sound of his music. How could that be? Hölje knew that no other human was in the area apart from himself but he wasn't afraid and went on playing. Outside the dancing continued. When he grew tired he stopped playing and decided to head to bed. At that moment one of the dancers opened the door and said: "Oh, Hölje, you have been playing such lovely music." Holje answered: "you danced very well." The dancer replied: "Please, Hölje play one more song for us." You will not regret it. So please continue playing, Hölje. He played the whole night through, right until dawn. Hölje slept briefly and then rose to begin his work and to get his nets ready to go fishing. But when he arrived at the fishing nets, he found a big haul already in there. An amount of fish so great that it was too heavy to take it home with his bare hands. He had to walk back home to find a horse that would be able to transport the catch. The large haul was the payment for his Jew's harp music.

A Jew's harp's ability to reach unearthly worlds is a subject which is to be found in other cultures too. In Russian shamanism the Jew's Harp is highly important. The Jew's Harp serves as a tool for humans on earth to contact people in another world. Today, the Jew's Harp, thanks to its unique sound, is also considered a spiritual medium connecting the organic and the transcendental. The artist Wang Li is of the belief that the Jew's Harp can create a connection between man and universe due to its vibrations. His greatest goal is that he will be played by the Jew's Harp and not the other way round.

The second legend is called "Fangjen", the prisoner, and is told in Norway. It is the story of a young woman who was admired by two men The woman decided for one of the two men. The name of the other man was Kristen Forbergje. Hölje was known as good player of the Jew's Harp. It annoyed Kristen so much that he had not been chosen by the woman that he murdered his rival and dumped his body in a lake. However, his corpse was discovered a little bit later. When the funeral took place Kristen hid in a cave from where he had a good view of the road on which the funeral cortege passed by. One version of the legend has it that in the course of the funeral procession blood was dripping from the coffin as Kristen played his Jew's harp . The murder was solved and Kristen was sent to prison. Today, it is thought that the melody entitled "Fangjen" can be traced back to Kristen. He is said to have been executed in 1736. "Fangjen" is nowadays one of the most popular tunes in Gudbrandsdalen; it is played on the fiddle, the langeleik (Norwegian dulcimer) and the Jew's harp.

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