What if everybody knew… why a West African drummer was so serious about his European students understanding why he played? Or, why creatures like the Loch Ness Monster or the Mothman are so important to people… who don’t even believe they exist?
In the first episode of this two-part series, host and producer Dexter Thomas, ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow and a postdoctoral research associate in the Humanities Council, speaks to Allie Mangel ’22 and Lucy Ellen Dever ’22 about their senior thesis research.
While their research topics may seem unrelated at first, both students explore different ways that we connect with one another. How do our stories define us today? And how might future generations interpret them?
This episode was inspired by interdisciplinary senior thesis work completed by students pursuing undergraduate certificates in Humanities Council programs.
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“If Everybody Knew” is a new podcast brought to you by the Humanities Council at Princeton University. Each episode highlights innovative research, new ideas, and untold stories in the humanities at Princeton and beyond. Our episodes are free, and available on our podcast page, or wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was inspired by the interdisciplinary senior thesis work completed by students pursuing undergraduate certificates in Humanities Council programs. You can read more about these programs here.
- Djembeföla Film – the documentary about Mamady Keita mentioned in the podcast.
- A Life for the Djembe – Traditional Rhythms of the Malinke (Music CD included) – the book mentioned in Allie Mangel’s senior thesis.
About the Guests:
Lucy Ellen Dever ’22 graduated from Princeton with an A.B. in English and certificates in medieval studies and music performance. Her senior thesis is titled “Cryptologus: Symbolism in Monster Media from Medieval Bestiaries to Contemporary Cryptid Culture.” Sarah M. Anderson (English, Humanities Council) served as her thesis adviser.
Allie Mangel ’22 recently graduated from Princeton with an A.B. in comparative literature and certificates in humanistic studies and music performance. Her senior thesis is titled “Transcribing Identity: Musico-Oral Transcription in Postcolonial Francophone Literature.” Benjamin Conisbee Baer (Comparative Literature) and F. Nick Nesbitt (French and Italian) served as her thesis advisers.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
<< THEME SONG >>
NARRATION (Dexter):: What’s one thing you wish everybody knew? My name is Dexter Thomas, and I’m the producer and host of this podcast, which is presented by the Humanities Council here at Princeton. So, this episode and the next one are going to be a little different. In the first two episodes this season, I’ve interviewed people at Princeton and beyond that, and more or less had them help me explain a little-known story from history, whether that was from 1920s, Broadway, or 1990s Liberia.
I’m not going to do that this time though. This time, the stories are coming from four Princeton students and all of it’s based on their research. Now, the topics are pretty different from one another, but I actually think they’re connected. Based on the title of the episode, you might not believe me just yet, but stay with me and we’ll see if I can convince you by the end.
This episode is the first of two episodes in the series. In this one, one of the things we’re going to talk about is the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, and unfortunately, hyenas. But first, Some drums.
Allie Mangel: So, the rhythm that Olivier [Tarpaga] started us off with learning is something called Dansa, um, which is kind of like a joyful celebratory rhythm.
Dexter Thomas: Can you, can you play one for me?
Allie: Sure. The most common Dansa accompaniment rhythm would be something like this on djembe.
<<ALLIE plays a short rhythm on a djembe>>
Dexter: Cool. Yeah. And just keep, keep that vibe going?
Allie: You just keep going. Yeah. You can layer a bunch of different things on top of each other. You can add some slaps or some basses or whatever in between…
NARRATION (Dexter):: So, I said drums, but we’re talking about a specific kind of drum here. And what happens when you decide to write the rhythms of those drums down for future generations.
Allie: My name is Allie Mangel. I’m from Chicago, Illinois, and I’m a senior graduating from the Department of Comparative Literature. My thesis is about transcription of both oral and musical texts in the post-colonial Francophone Caribbean in West Africa.
NARRATION (Dexter):: So, in addition to being a beginner student in a drum called the djembe, Allie’s also written a thesis that partially talks about a djembe textbook. We’ll get to that book in a minute. But Allie told me that if I really wanted to get what it was, she was talking about in a thesis, I should watch this documentary called Djembefola, which focuses on a particular drummer named Mamady Keita. In particular, she wanted me to watch this one scene. I had her walk me through it.
Allie: So, Mamady is sitting in a classroom full of probably around 30 to 50 students. The majority of the students are white, which I guess makes sense when you know this is in Belgium. He’s sitting in the middle of the room and they’re all sitting around him in a semicircle. Um, everybody has a djembe in front of them. He says, “I’ve shown you the three sounds of the djembe. The tone, the slap, and the bass. That is to say tin, tan, and doum. Those are onomatopoeia.”
So, what Mamady is doing is he’s singing, or rather saying, what he wants the drum to sound like. So those articulations that he used to describe the tone slap in the bass, he’s using those and saying that he wants his students to repeat back to him on the drum, um, which might be hard to translate into musical sound if you maybe haven’t studied with him before and know exactly what he means by that.
<<We hear more from the scene, including Mamady eventually shouting ‘No!’ at a student after she messes up a cadence>>
NARRATION (Dexter):: So, the scene keeps going. And as you can probably hear, one of his students is having a lot of trouble with it, and she keeps getting it wrong. She eventually gets it right and the scene it’s sort of funny, but part of the reason that Allie wanted me to see this scene is because this is how she learned the djembe.
She never met Mamady directly. But her djembe teacher, whose name is Olivier Tarpaga – who is also the director of the African Music Ensemble at Princeton. He was one of Mamady Keita’s students. The reason Allie wanted to show me this was because you get to see Mamady Keita trying to teach people. And to understand why that was so important for him, we should probably talk a little bit more about who Mamady Keita was.
Allie: So, Mamady Keita was a djembefola, or a master drummer, from Guinea. And he was born in 1950, but he died just last year in 2021. Mamady, when he was a boy, he tells us in, um, the movie Djembefola. He tells us that he was drumming on everything. And so, his parents took him to start studying with another djembe master.
And he was so good essentially by the age of 14 that he was summoned to the capital of Guinea to participate in the national ballet or, in French, Les Ballets Africains. The African Ballets. This was a ballet troupe that was founded around the time of the Guinean Independence Movement. Mamadywas summoned to be a part of this thing when he was only 14 years old.
The ballets would kind of take all of the top musicians from all the different villages around Guinea and put them together – whether that’s like musicians, dancers, artists, all sorts of different performers. So, he was part of this as a performer. That group dissolved when the president of Guinea, Sékou Touré, at the time died. Mamady Keita shortly after moved to Brussels and started doing a lot of work with teaching the djembe to Western audiences in Europe.
NARRATION (DEXTER):: Mamady stayed in this group for years. This was the thing that made him famous. But after the death of president Sékou Touré in 1984, Mamady was a little more openly critical of the work that he’d been involved in.
Allie: So, Mamady does mention quite often the ballets and the kinds of work that he was doing in the ballets. And from that we can gather kind of like mixed sentiments, or at least I think they are mixed sentiments from the way that I read them. He never explicitly says that the ballets did anything wrong, but one of the main criticisms that he has of the ballets is the way they were using those rhythms.
Mamady Keita in his book makes a distinction between how quote unquote traditional Mandé music, Mandé being on the people from this region in West Africa, um, would have been performed in the villages, in places like, Guinea. Or also how it would be performed on stage in these national ballet productions.
And in the villages, these rhythms that he’s talking about, that he’s playing on the djembe would be accompanying dance. They would be accompanying singers. They’re very much part of, um, performances for different kinds of celebrations, initiation rites like circumcision, weddings, all sorts of ceremonial and community events. Whereas in the ballets, these rhythms were being kind of taken as a kind of art or music that you didn’t necessarily have to perform in conjunction with these kinds of ceremonial or community settings.
Dexter: So, it took it from something that people we’d gathered around in a circle performing for each other and then it put everybody on a line on the stage and the way that we’re used to going and seeing, you know, a concert?
Allie: Right. So that kind of turns this music that was once a form of participation, everybody in the community gets involved with they’re playing an instrument or clapping or singing you’re dancing, versus something that you watch. And it turns it more into something akin to a Western form of spectacle. And I say, Western, because often these ballets were touring in international places representing the new nation of Guinea to international audiences, particularly European and white audiences.
So, you end up with a situation where there’s a European white audience watching an African form of music instead of a participatory musical setting like you would have in the villages.
Dexter: So, the kind of the vibe where, “Here is our national art, we’re going to show it to you, European countries, in a format that you’ll understand and think that we’re also capable of the same kind of culture that you are capable of.”
Allie: Exactly. Yeah.
Dexter: So, let’s back up a little bit. You started out as a classically trained violinist.
Dexter: What was the process of learning djembe, what was that like?
Allie: Um, what is pretty unique in terms of how I learned to play the instrument is that Olivier taught us all orally. So, with violin or something like that, I would take a piece of sheet music and I would read the notation and play what’s on it. But in Olivier’s class, he really taught us how to play without any kind of sheet music at all. So, he would, we would all sit in a circle in this music classroom, and he would sit in the middle with his djembe, and he would start teaching us a rhythm piece by piece. So, he might tap out a certain pattern and then have us repeat it back, all the while instructing us about, you know, where to hit the djembe on your hands, the three different types of strokes or the three different types of articulations, like Keita said, the tone slapping the bass, saying if you’re hitting it with your left or your right hand, everything in the classroom was done orally slash sonically, which was definitely very different from how I learned music before.
NARRATION (Dexter):: But not everyone would have the opportunity to learn directly from a student of Mamady Keita’s. Mamady knew this, and he spent a lot of time, not only teaching, but attempting to record everything he knew. Allie has been focusing on one particular book that was published a little over 20 years ago.
Allie: So, the text that I’m working with is Mamady Keita’s book called “A Life for the Djembe – Traditional Rhythms of the Malinke.” Mamady Keita is from this Malinke ethnic group. The book itself is kind of a pedagogical text on how to play Malinke rhythms on a djembe. And the idea is that if you read it, you’ll gain a little bit of an introduction into the Malinke culture in West Africa, in Guinea.
He places an emphasis on telling you about the culture, as well as the music, kind of the ceremonies in which the music would be played in a village setting. But he really emphasizes that, if your teacher isn’t telling you these things then get a different teacher, which I think is really funny.
Dexter: He says that in the book?
Allie: Yeah, I don’t have the quote on me, but he says something to that effect.
Allie: Or like there are teachers in the West who like, don’t emphasize the other components of the rhythms, not just the rhythms themselves, right? And that he thinks aren’t as good teachers. So, he gives the name of a rhythm and gives a little bit of information about what context it would be played in, that kind of like community setting, like, why you would play this rhythm in that community at a certain time of year or for a particular kind of celebration, that kind of thing. And then the following pages of transcription.
NARRATION (Dexter):: And that transcription bit is part of what Allie found interesting. As you heard Allie say, the way she learned and the way her teacher learned, and the way Mamady learned, was orally.
And the book does have a CD that goes along with it, but otherwise everything is transcribed. Sort of, it’s a little hard to describe, but if you’re familiar with reading sheet music, the method used in the book kind of looks a little like that, but it’s not quite the same they’re lines. And they’re things that kind of look like notes.
But for a student of Western music, it probably feels a little ambiguous. Allie says that she finds a fact that Mamady was writing this down at all to be pretty interesting.
Allie: And then what I find interesting about that is, what happens when you’re writing down something that changes, like in these instances. Mamady says that the traditional rhythms of the village never change, but they do change. They evolve from to person, and they’re not the same exactly as they were 800 years ago.
And so, if you want to write something down – one of Mamady’s goals with this book is to preserve it for future generations, right? In case those traditional forms of – I hate using the word traditional so much, oh my goodness.
It’s, it’s really way more complicated than traditional versus contemporary. And like, I really hate falling into that cliche, but I can’t think of a synonym.
Dexter: It’s interesting that you even bring that up, right? Because I think it’s very common for a lot of us to pick almost any music that is not quote unquote Western and say, ah, yes, well it’s traditional and it must have always been like that. And it must have never, ever changed. And of course, it will never change, because this is how they have always played it in their tribal setting or whatever. Right? And I think we all kind of get caught into that and I think you can even see Mamady in the documentary that we’re talking about that, yeah, there’s a right way to do it, but he’s also, you could see him out there soloing and just making stuff up. You can tell he’s making up stuff and he’s having a great time at it.
And so, it’s not like, if you don’t play it like this, then that’s it, you know? But it sounds like that’s something you really kind of grappled with in your thesis also.
Allie: Yeah. It’s I guess, grappling with what tradition has to do with identity. The context, particularly, actually my thesis is post-colonial identity, um, because post-colonial in places like Guinea, you gain independence and then there’s a new nation and the foundation of that new nation and the unification of that people under a new identity is often done through the arts. That’s what the ballets were for, essentially was a big part of why Touré nationalized them was to kind of present an image of what it means to be Guinean and doing so by using these quote unquote traditional Mandé musics.
So like, “This is a great music, or musical form, that has come out of our people. We’re going to showcase this and really promote it.”
Dexter: Yeah. And it sounds like though Mamady spent time participating in that process that he maybe had some second thoughts about the best way to do that.
Allie: Yeah, maybe. Kind of, tradition is always inherently going to have those two kinds of tensions in it, right? And this is something that you see in a lot of different contexts, not just Mamady Keita, not just Mandé traditional music. But the idea of tradition as something that links you to the past, and that link being through like the idea of something unchanging, right? But also, tradition has to adapt and evolve as the people that it represents also adapts and evolves. So, tradition is something that’s, like, kind of a component of a particular cultural identity, but that cultural identity is not something static, not something fixed, because the people who identify with it also change.
What I find interesting about this kind of problem of tradition, static, unchanging versus evolution is how that interacts with writing and what the process of writing has to do in that transmission process. Which means, I think writing is often in a lot of like Western scholarship or like Western literature even, imagined as this thing that’s permanent. You write something down, that means it’s going to last forever in the form that it is, right? Or, like, you write a book. And that is the version of the book. And everybody’s going to interact with it as the same words. So, writing kind of as this fixing something in place, fixing something in time. I think that’s a lot of times how writing is presented.
Dexter: It’s not real until you write it down.
Allie: Maybe, yeah, some people might say that. One more component to this is that how that translates into circle music, line music – or circle text, line text – is that maybe we can boil it down to two ways of looking at a transcription in terms of how it interacts with sound, and I talk about this in my thesis using the theory of prescriptive versus descriptive transcription. So descriptive is you’re writing down a sound that already happened and prescriptive, more like Western musical notation, is writing down how you want the sound to sound in the future. So, kind of performance to text or text to performance.
And the interesting thing about something like Mamady Keita’s book is that it does both. It’s taking a rhythm that’s played in an oral slash sonic context and it’s turning it into a written object. But the point of the book is not just to read these notations and absorb it in your brain. Like you’re not necessarily going to remember the exact patterns from the notation. The point is to take these notations, read them and reproduce them on a djembe.
Dexter: But also, in whatever context that you’re doing it. He’s not asking you, “Hey, I want you to be a human iPod or a tape recorder,” right? He’s saying, “Hey, listen, here’s how this works, here is the context behind it. When you play it, it’s going to be pretty different, but I want you to understand what’s happening here so that you can go forth and participate in this.”
Allie: Yes, exactly. Yeah.
Dexter: Rather than just perform, participate.
Dexter: It sounds like, if I’m, if I’m picking up what you’re putting down, it sounds like a lot of this really is about – you’re trying to tell somebody who you are, but as you’re doing that, you’re still trying to nail that down yourself.
Allie: That’s maybe one way to think about it, yeah.
Dexter: I could feel my mind being kind of bent here, but I think I see where you’re going with this. This is really interesting.
Allie: It’s cool. It also bends my brain a little bit.
Lucy Ellen Dever: I do not want people coming away from this thesis, thinking that I go hunt for Bigfoot on weekends because I do not, there is no Bigfoot, he does not exist. But you know, it’s still really important to examine the sort of stories that we tell ourselves about these kinds of creatures, even knowing full well they aren’t real in a physical sense.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Up next, what cryptids teach us about ourselves. That’s C-R-Y-P-T-I-D-S cryptids. If that word doesn’t ring a bell for you, don’t feel bad. It didn’t for me either at first, but fortunately, I’ve got just the person to get you up to speed.
Lucy: My name is Lucy Ellen Dever. I’m an English major. My thesis work has focused a lot on medieval bestiaries, and medieval culture in general, and how that interacts with cryptids in the modern sense.
Dexter: What are the cryptids that people would be familiar with?
Lucy: The cryptids I chose for my thesis, I tried to choose, sort of, the five biggest players in this kind of space. So, chapter one is on the Mothman of West Virginia. Then, there is the Jersey Devil, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and El Chupacabra.
Dexter: Well, those are the big players in the space. This is very, this is fascinating. The way that you described this, it’s like, you know, the dream team of cryptids.
Lucy: Yes, essentially.
Dexter: So maybe let’s start with one of those. I was reading through your thesis, and I thought that the Loch Ness monster was pretty interesting.
Lucy: The modern phenomenon of the Loch Ness Monster started in 1933 with a sighting of a very strange creature that couldn’t really be identified, and it immediately became a media sensation. And you had just hundreds of reports flooding in about people who had seen the monster, or what they believe to be the monster.
A lot of times the monster was looked at as just that, as a monster, as something scary and unknown about like, oh my gosh, this terrifying dinosaur is going to eat me that lives in the lake.
You had newspapers hiring big game hunters, like, I think the Daily Mail hired this big game hunter and documentary filmmaker named Marmaduke Wetherell to – yeah, it’s a fantastic name.
Dexter: The fact, and the name are both perfect.
Lucy: Yeah. You had all of these investigations going, you had people taking photographs and it created this explosion of tourism around Loch Ness, which was just absolutely great for the local economy and Inverness and surrounding areas.
Dexter: Oh, wow.
Lucy: Yeah. Yeah.
But interestingly, even early on in these newspaper articles, you have the people who are sort of the forerunners of cryptid culture, taking this all very whimsically and just enjoying it. There’s a comic from 1934 that I love that’s about the Loch Ness monster becoming the mascot for a girl’s school, and just being like best friends with all the schoolgirls. It’s wonderful. It makes no sense, but it’s so great.
NARRATION (Dexter):: That phrase that Lucy just mentioned – cryptid culture—the culture part is what she studies.
These are communities of people – and a lot of it is online: there’s sites, books, forums, podcasts, that are dedicated to all sorts of creatures, which might sound weird because, I don’t know, who’s a fan of Bigfoot? But it gets a little deeper than that. Actually, a lot deeper.
Dexter: What is, what is crypted culture, when you use that phrase?
Lucy: So, cryptid culture as I define it. These are people who don’t necessarily believe in the factual existence of these creatures, but who are really interested in the folklore and the meaning, and the experience of sharing these stories. It’s not about finding, you know, a Bigfoot hair on a tree in the woods. It’s about the experience of telling that story with your friends. It’s about the enjoyment and the whimsical-ness of these stories.
Dexter: What is the difference between cryptid and monster?
Lucy: Yes. So, a cryptid in its most basic form is defined as a creature that has been theorized or purported to exist that has not been proven to exist by mainstream science.
Lucy: Cryptids are also, typically, not based in religious practices. Like a Sphinx, why is that not a cryptid? Why is that a mythological creature? And it’s because it’s based in religious practices, even from, you know, a very old culture, ancient Egypt, it still has its origins there.
Cryptids are more like the weird thing your uncle saw in the woods one time, if that makes any sense.
Dexter: Okay. Hold on. So, somebody asks you, “Hey, what are you researching? What’s your thesis on?” You say cryptids oh, what’s a cryptid you know, that weird thing your uncle saw in the woods that time, you know, that thing that, that’s what I research. Is that how this conversation plays out?
Lucy: Pretty much, yeah. Actually, at the beginning of the year I was checking out basically all of the library’s stock of books on cryptids. And the librarians laughed at me when I was checking out.
Dexter: Yo, you know, there’s something wrong with the library and laughs at you.
Lucy: Yeah, I know.
Dexter: But you kept doing it.
Lucy: Yeah, I kept doing it, but thankfully everyone has actually been really, really welcoming and really celebratory and excited about this work which I am extremely grateful.
NARRATION (Dexter):: So, yes, at first this might sound like a weird thing to study, but I think the reason that all of Lucy’s professors and fellow students are excited about her work is because, kind of like you heard in the beginning, aside from this being fun, we can all kind of intuit that the stories we tell ourselves, even when those stories are obviously fake, are important. Even if we can’t quite put to words why they’re important.
But to really put that into perspective, you actually have to go back a lot further than the Loch Ness monster to something called a Bestiary. Think of it as a kind of book that, in medieval Europe, was the primary way of understanding the animal world around them. And people took these a lot more seriously and not always in a good way.
Lucy: In short, um, Bestiaries are a genre of medieval manuscript which are collections of illustrations and descriptions of animals. Some of which are fantastical, most of which are fairly mundane, but the way that they function is not so much as like what we would consider zoological descriptions. It’s much more about the religious symbolism evoked by each creature. So, they are much more in line with religious reflections than they are with like an encyclopedia of animals.
Dexter: Yeah, so what kind of animals or beasts would you see in these things?
Lucy: Well, they almost always start with the lion, that’s usually the first one.
Dexter: Really, the lion, why is that?
Lucy: So, you know how we say today that like the lion is the king of the jungle?
Lucy: That kind of thinking actually goes back to medieval and even pre medieval thought. So, the lion is discussed in Bestiaries, as the king of beasts, and he is a representative of Christ and both divine and earthly kingship is mostly how they’re discussed in bestiaries. So as the king, it is the first entry usually.
Dexter: Is this an accurate photo, realistic drawing? What do these lions look like?
Lucy: They’re not photorealistic to our zoological concept of a lion. They are very odd usually. And that is true for a lot of the Bestiary images.
A lot of times they will have almost human-like faces because they’re not really sure what large cat faces look like or the proportions are off, or the coloring is off. They have text describing the creature, its physical appearances, and some of its behaviors, whether these are real things in a zoological sense or whether they are projected onto the creature.
Like for example, the lion is, one of the features of it, supposedly, is that it, its cubs are born dead. And then three days later, by licking it, the cubs come back to life and are babies.
Lucy: Yeah. Some of these things, they’re very odd from a modern zoological standpoint, but it’s mostly descriptions of these appearances and behaviors, and then reflections on how those appearances and behaviors teach readers about the Christian view of the world.
Dexter: So, it kind of functions as information about an animal, but also as moral lessons, is that what you’re saying?
Lucy: Essentially, yeah. It’s a lot about the, almost cosmology of the medieval mindset. Like, just the fact that lions, their cubs, supposedly come back to life after three days is a very obvious parallel of the resurrection of Christ and so just the fact that that exists is a validation of the resurrection of Christ. And it’s this validation that the world is created this Christological sense.
NARRATION (Dexter):: But the bestiaries also had a dark side. This is where another animal comes in: the hyena.
Lucy: So essentially the main trait of the bestiary hyena is that it is, sort of, dual-sexed. It is described as switching between biological masculinity and biological femininity. Most of the illustrations or images in the bestiaries will depict both sets of sex organs on the hyena.
Dexter: I see. And what does all this represent?
Lucy: So that dual-sexed nature is unfortunately, um, one of the incredibly problematic aspects of reading medieval bestiaries, because that nature of the hyena was used in the medieval period as an anti-Semitic caricature and an anti-Semitic tool for perpetuating the discrimination against and often massacre of Jewish people.
The medieval creators of these bestiaries viewed that mutability in terms of biological sex as an indicator of duplicity and faithlessness, which they also ascribe to Jewish people in the old anti-Semitic view of Jews as Christ killers, as ones who were once faithful to God and then turned away.
Of course, that is, you know, a horrific, horrific view. But it is true that is how this entry in the bestiary was used.
Dexter: Yeah. And this probably goes without saying, but the logic there and I mean, this is one of the things that really hits me when I read your thesis, is that it’s difficult to understand how truly seriously people took these kinds of connections.
Lucy: I mean, one of the reasons it’s difficult to understand that connection is because it’s pretty nonsensical. But essentially the structure of the medieval bestiary is such that each animal is given a symbolism to connect it to the wider world. So, for example, as we were discussing, the lion represents both earthly and divine kingship. The lion is then transferred onto kings. The tradition of connecting these creatures to people is already well-established within the bestiary tradition.
And so, when you get to the hyena, you get a very negatively viewed animal with these characteristics that are just incredibly demonized. And then as that is transferred onto a group of people who are also dehumanized and demonized within this broader Christian society. So that’s really how you get that connection. It’s just continuing this tradition of transferring this animal symbolism on to people within society.
Dexter: Right, then this takes us back to the community, to people that you’re interested in, the modern fans of cryptids right? With bestiaries, people genuinely believed what they were reading. The fans of the cryptids though, the cryptid culture, people know that this stuff is not real. How or why build a culture around something that you know is fake?
Lucy: This ties in with really what is the sort of main force behind my thesis which is the constituents of cryptid culture are largely members of marginalized communities.
Just, I mean, there’s not been really much academic work done on this subject, as you can imagine, but in my personal experience of being involved in this community for years now, the vast majority of people in cryptid culture are in some kind of marginalized community themselves, which usually will be, um, the queer community, the neurodivergent community, or the disabled community.
Dexter: What do you think that is?
Lucy: Yeah, so that was really the sort of big push behind the question of my thesis is why are these stories so important to these people specifically? And I have found through my work that it really comes down to sort of mutual exclusion, if that makes sense.
So, cryptids in general, are these weird monstrous things that kind of get shoved to the side by mainstream society. They’re just the weird things in the corner that nobody knows what to do with. And sort of viewed as these scary things that could hurt you. Whereas cryptid culture’s take on cryptids is usually 99% of the time that, oh, they’re not scary. They’re just friends. They’re just kind of weird.
Like the Mothman, for example, is described in the 1966 sightings as this terrifying, red-eyed thing that is flying at this car full of people. It’s just horrifying. And then you get into cryptid culture and every depiction is just like, “Oh my gosh, he’s so cool. He was just trying to warn them of danger. He’s just the best.” And actually, really portray him as this kindly character
Dexter: – just misunderstood.
Lucy: Yes, yes, exactly. And that is a way, that is a sentiment that I think a lot of people in those marginalized communities can relate to.
I do consider myself to be a part of the neurodivergent community. You know, I talk about in my thesis, how a lot of horror movies, like “Split” for example, take things like neurodivergence or mental illness or disability or whatever, and demonize them and turn them into these fearful and horrifying things. So that a lot of times people in this community sort of, you know, obviously wrongly, feel like monsters.
And so these cryptids as misunderstood things become something that you can relate to and become something that is very meaningful to you.
Dexter: This brings me back to your thesis then, because you spend a lot of time talking about the function that the bestiary plays in history, but this all sounds really different from when you talk about cryptid culture. So how do those two connect for you?
Lucy: The important thing to remember about that is that medieval bestiaries are, by definition, a mainstream media. Bestiaries were the most popular genre of medieval manuscript that we have. So of course they are not going to present this narrative of being misunderstood. They’re going to do the misunderstanding, because they are just the absolute representative of the societal norms at the time and of the mainstream perspective on these things.
Dexter: Essentially telling people, here is how you should understand the world around you.
Lucy: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. They’re very prescriptive, as you were saying for, for how you should understand the world and how you should see each of these creatures and what they should mean to you. You know, the hyena is not something that you’re supposed to identify with in a medieval bestiary. It’s supposed to be something that you hate.
Dexter: And thus, you should also hate these people who we identify hyenas with.
Lucy: Yes, unfortunately. The thing that they do that is similar is explaining the symbolic significance of animals to people. But they’re doing that from very different perspectives.
Medieval bestiaries are doing that, of course, from a medieval perspective, like not even to get into the time difference, but, um, they’re doing that from a very mainstream societal norm perspective.
Whereas contemporary cryptid culture is very much doing that from the opposite, like, marginalized underrepresented niche community that is actively sort of working against the mainstream perception.
Dexter: You know, what else this reminds me of is, are you familiar with “Wicked”?
Dexter: So “Wicked” of course being the book and then the play about the wicked witch of the west in the “Wizard of Oz.” And then “Wicked” is an alternate retelling, which just explains that, actually the wicked witch of the west was not wicked. She was just extremely misunderstood. And everything you heard about Dorothy? Dorothy is actually the bad person, and all this was a big misunderstanding. There’s something in that identifying with the misunderstood that appeals to everybody.
Lucy: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I mean, these are all narratives of people being judged as evil – and creatures as well – based on a single characteristic, whether that is physical or related to your neurotypicality or neurodivergence or your sexuality or whatever, you know, it’s all of these beings being judged for a single characteristic and just shoved in a box that says “evil” and then to be left alone.
Lucy: Which is exactly what happens to Elphaba the wicked witch of the west in “Wicked.” What all of these stories are about, and what “Wicked” is also about is literally like unpacking that box and to say, okay, no, that label is wrong. That was just decided on by society, kind of arbitrarily. That’s actually almost exactly what I have found through researching this, you know, it’s just that people see these things that have been kind of just viewed in a certain light that isn’t always favorable.
And they latch onto it like you were saying, and just say, “No, I’m reclaiming this. This is a good thing. This is something that represents me. And I am claiming this as my own to love because you didn’t,”
NARRATION (Dexter):: And there it is, two different areas of research from two different student scholars, that tell two very different stories. But I feel like they’re both connected somehow.
The one we just heard was about the meaning of the communities that we create, even when they are centered around something that we know doesn’t exist. And when we create those communities, what messages we’re sending ourselves.
The other one is about how hard it is to accurately write a rhythm down and what kind of messages we’re sending to people in the future, and to ourselves right here in the present, when we try to. But that’s just the connections that I see. Maybe you see something else.
Anyway, this is where we get to the part where I asked the guests, the question that’s in the title of this podcast. I started with Allie.
Dexter: This difficulty that you’re describing here about writing and tradition, what if everybody, when they listen to music or anything like that, what if everybody had that in mind?
Allie: That’s a really deep question. I guess that’s the find the podcast, right? But, if everybody knew about these relationships between language and music, and music and identity, and identity and nation, and nation and culture, I think there’s a lot of things that we could gain from that. We were talking about how there’s like this tendency to view things like traditional music as, oh, it’s unchanging and tribal and primitive and all these sorts of assumptions that you’ve seen get thrown around, especially in like 1960s ethno-musicological texts, with white researchers going to Africa and there’s more similarities between us than we often think.
Recognizing the more nuances that go into what a music is, what a language is, how it’s been used and appropriated in the past by different peoples, and how people are using it now as a product for the present and how to define ourselves for the future. I think that those kinds of considerations really push us to view each other more completely, more as equals, which I think is something that everybody could stand to do.
Lucy: If everybody knew how much these stories of cryptids say about the people telling them, and hearing them, and interacting with them, how much that really matters…it would make understanding and communicating with each other immensely easier.
Because these really just do have so much significance and they say so much about the person who is identifying with them. And of course, you know, understanding each other and misunderstanding each other is sort of the fruit of communication and miscommunication within society, which, you know, so many of our problems are caused by miscommunication and misunderstanding of each other.
So, things like this, while obviously this is a very small part of one thing, but just recognizing the importance of those small, little, seemingly frivolous things can really, really help everyone to just more fully understand each other and what experiences we are bringing to the table.
Dexter: Once again, today’s guests were Allie Mangel, who graduated this year with a degree in comparative literature and a certificate in humanistic studies, ones of the Humanities Council’s academic programs. Lucy Ellen Dever, also from the Class of 2022, majored in English and earned a certificate in medieval studies, another program within the Council. Both students also earned certificates in music performance. This episode was based on their senior thesis work, so it would not have been possible without them.
That being said, the framing and editorializing and everything else in this episode. That’s my own. If you’re curious to know more, you should definitely go to the source and please check out the show notes at humanities.princeton.edu/podcast. You can find a full transcript there, plus links to the books, documentaries, and everything else we referenced.
And like I said, the next episode is part two. It’s a continuation of this one. In that one we’ll hear about Serbian internet slang and one student’s experience in a hospital. I promise it’ll all make sense when you hear it. If Everybody Knew is produced with music composed by and hosted by me, Dexter Thomas. See y’all next time.
Esther “Starry” Schor: If Everybody Knew is brought to you by the Humanities Council at Princeton University. Our mission is to nurture the humanities local and globally, engage diverse perspectives past and present, and enrich public dialogue with humanistic approaches. For information about our programs and events, please visit our website at humanities.princeton.edu.