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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Jan-Öjvind Swahn (1925-2016)

Monday, March 21, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate
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By Barbro Klein (Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study) — 

On March 21, 2016, Swedish folklorist Jan-Öjvind Swahn passed away at the age of ninety.  He is survived by four children and their families. 


To Swedes at large, Jan-Öjvind Swahn will be remembered as one of the great personalities from the childhood of television.  In the 1960s, as anchor for “The Learned in Lund” he won the hearts of wide audiences when he, wittily and self-ironically, combined dry academic jargon with bold folk humor. In the Swedish world of learning, he will be remembered for his many contributions both to academic life at Lund University and to nationwide institutions, such as the Academy of Gastronomy.  He infused an aura of joy and festivity into formal social occasions and his dinner speeches are proverbial.  Among friends and colleagues he will be remembered for his broad learning and his kindness.  He was an excellent listener who never tried to overpower others with his wit. Indeed, he often appeared shy and sometimes also sad.  That sadness gave special resonance to his expansive humor. Some of us were awed by his home in the historic part of Lund; its walls were covered from floor to ceiling by books, many of them rare.


In 1943, when Jan-Öjvind was to begin his studies at Lund University, his father and a friend of the family called  “Uncle Wilhelm” arranged a room for him in Villa Holma, where the folklife archives were later to be housed.  Young Jan-Öjvind was to pay for his room by working ten hours a week as an “extra amanuensis” for Uncle Wilhelm, who is better known in the world at large as Carl-Wilhelm von Sydow.  It is uncertain how much time Jan-Öjvind actually devoted to the study of folklore at the outset; he soon came to share his room with refugee students from occupied Denmark.  He writes that for a while an “international student life of a previously unknown intensity” took over the sedate town of Lund (1996:113). 


When the war was over and his room-mates had left, Jan-Öjvind stayed on in the villa as a graduate student of folklore.  Like other folklore students in Lund, including Sven Liljeblad (who had gone to the United States in 1938) and Anna-Birgitta Rooth, he was captivated by the subject matter and by von Sydow’s charisma.  He earned his Ph.D. in 1955, dedicating his highly praised doctoral dissertation The Tale of Cupid and Psyche (AA-Th 425 + 428) to Carl Wilhelm von Sydow.  Yet, he never accepted all of his mentor’s ideas.  He clearly distanced himself from von Sydow’s “terminological jungle” at the same time as he emphasized that the oikotype and the active storyteller were notions of lasting importance.


Jan-Öjvind Swahn was a prolific writer.  His bibliography contains more than 3000 entries on a variety of subjects: foodways, Old Norse religion, folk belief, festivals, and many others. In the 1980s and 1990s, he served as editor-in-chief of one popular encyclopedia (Bra Böckers Lexikon) and wrote hundreds of entries for another (Nationalencyklopedien).”  His booklet, Swedish tradition, which appeared in Swedish in several editions in the 1990s, has been translated into at least seven languages, including Japanese. 


Despite his engagement in a multitude of topics, Jan-Öjvind Swahn never abandoned his interest in the folktale and throughout his career he edited folktale collections and wrote scholarly articles on folktales, many in German.  During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, he was engaged in a collaborative project involving folktale collecting among the Kammu of Thailand and Laos.  The project was carried out by different departments at Lund University and at Mahidol University in Thailand.  Jan-Öjvind served as folkloristic commentator to six volumes of Folktales from Kammu and also traveled extensively in south-east Asia. He recently told a journalist that the Kammu project was among “the best” of all his experiences.


Indeed, for all his emphasis on Swedish culture, Jan Öjvind Swahn’s outlook was broadly international. Like Carl Wilhelm von Sydow he firmly believed that the study of folklore must have global dimensions as well as local public appeal.  Professor Jan-Öjvind Swahn made important contributions to our field in these and many other respects.

 

Reference:

Swahn, Jan-Öjvind.  1996.  Arvet från von Sydow.  Rig 79: 87-116.



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