Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Meeting the Hamaja'lu?

Life sometimes does imitate art, and without any explanations, either.

When I was writing 'Troll Blood' (the third part of my trilogy 'West of the Moon') I spent a great deal of time researching Mi'kmaq folklore.  The Mi'kmaq are the Native American inhabitants of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and I thought their ancestors might well have encountered the Viking intruders who sailed from Greenland to North America - 'Vinland' - to cut timber.  And I wanted to include legendary creatures from the beliefs of both nations - the Norse and the Native Americans - in my historical fantasy: and not merely frivolously, for such beliefs were an important part of the world picture of those peoples at that time, just as Christianity and other religious beliefs are for so many people today. 

One of the traditions of the Mi'kmaq, documented by a researcher called Elsie Clews Parsons who talked to various Mi'kmaq people in the mid 1920's, was as follows:

(Informant: Isabelle Googoo Morris)
These are very small beings, no larger than two finger joints.  There are thousands of them who live along the shore.  Water-worn, pitted stones are associated with them, "they have chewed in them, picked in them".  Once when some men landed on shore for a short time, before they took to their boat again they saw a model of themselves and their boat made in stones by the hamaja'lu.  They work very fast.

(Elsie Clews Parsons, 'Micmac Folklore', p 94, Journal of American Folklore Vol 38, 1925).

In 'West of the Moon', after consultation with a modern authority on Mi'kmaq folklore, and after considerable thought, I changed the name of these creatures to the wiklatmuj'k. She gave me much invaluable advice, and explained that 'hamaja'lu' is a word which has disappeared from the Mi'kmaq language since the 1920's, owing to repressive policies then in vogue for taking First Nations children away from their families, divorcing them from their heritage and punishing them for speaking their native tongue.  Many words and traditions were lost, and 'hamaja'lu' was one of them.  Wiklatmuj'k would be the word used today. Still, I'm glad to be able to provide the earlier usage here. (If you are interested in a longer discussion of my thoughts on the fictional use of folklore from other cultures, you can visit my post 'Cultural Appropriation and the White Saviour'.)

Anyway, use the legend I did: and here, somewhat abbreviated, is the passage from the book: an idyllic moment and something of a breathing-space between two episodes of violence and drama.  Peer and Hilde, my hero and heroine, go for a walk on the beach in the moonlight with their Norse spirit-friend the Nis.

The moon was up, clear of the headland, casting sharp shadows.  The beach ticked, clicked, pattered, as though thousands of little people were pecking and hammering among the stones.  Peer looked harder.  The gravel danced in patterns.

The Nis dashed past again, jinking and skipping making little rushes here and there, picking up stones.  "What are you doing?" Peer called.

"Playing with the wiklatmuj'k," the Nis cried in a reedy voice like a birdcall.

"What did it say?" said Hilde.

"Look!"  Peer pointed. Ahead, on a patch of smooth sand, someone had laid out figures in lines of pebbles.  One had legs, one a triangular skirt.  

"That's us," Hilde whispered... "Did the Nis do it?"

Peer shook his head.  He straightened, his face alive with delight.  "Hilde, the whole beach is full of tiny people. ...They're everywhere.  But I can only see them when I'm not looking straight."

Hilde half-shut her eyes and peeped out of the corners.  Nothing.  Wait. there was something, scurrying about in the gravel. "It's crabs," she said.

"No it isn't," Peer insisted.  "They're all over the place, knocking and chipping at the pebbles. Don't try so hard.  Try looking at them the way you look at a very faint star."

The moonlit beach didn't change, but something happened behind Hilde's eyes. For a second she was doing something very difficult: seeing the stones all alive with hurrying busy little creatures, all tugging and pushing and rearranging the pebbles, making patterns and scattering them again.  She saw their little black shadows, the size of her thumb.

Imagine my delight, then, when on a recent walk near the ruined castle of Dunstanborough, on England's North-East coast, I found these figures lined out in pebbles on the rough sea grass near the beach...

I don't know who made them...

but several people must have been involved...

Here's a mermaid... and here's something quite scary:

Whoever did, it, I rather like the idea that they may have been very very small...

But they knew about cows... and Groucho Marx?

Don't you think making pictures out of pebbles must be one of the oldest, oldest forms of art?  And still one of the most delightful?


  1. What a delight!
    I had never heard of these wonderful beings before. Thank you.

  2. Lovely post - and oddly thought-provoking at the end.

  3. Thank you for sharing all of this!

  4. How brilliant! Whoever made them has done an amazing job of it! I like the mermaid...