Oral Tradition Fieldwork Feature
The Enchantment of Dark Folklore:
A Conversation with Margaret Lyngdoh
The Khasi people of Shillong, and other Northeast Indian cities, are largely Christian, and eschew the older religions. In the rural areas of the Khasi Hills, however, Khasi maintain indigenous rituals and practices that include magic, deity possession, and animal transformation. Her research seeks to understand the place of “dark folklore” in Khasi life. “This sense of enchantment is very palpable within the belief world of the Khasis,” despite an outward modernity and urbanity, she explains. At the same time, part of her mission in folklore studies is to roll back the stigma and fear resulting from the stereotypes ascribed to certain families and individuals, such as the belief that certain families have obtained their wealth by rearing demons. These whisperings, Lyngdoh describes, “are very harmful and people have lost their lives and women have miscarried because of the violence that was leveled against them because of these kind of belief ascriptions.”
Lyngdoh describes her conversion from literature scholar to folklorist as sudden and dramatic, a “crisis moment.” Though she already had degrees in English literature—“To my mind, I was going to become the next Shakespeare,” she laughs—she found herself assisting on a folklore project about Khasi rituals. A Khasi herself, she initially found the indigenous practices to be “incredibly stupid,” and could not understand why anyone would care about these rituals. However, a transformative moment came when she was asked to transcribe one of the recordings, and experienced something powerful and new. “What came out was this kind of poetry that was so expansive, that was so beautiful, that -although not being Shakespeare or John Keates, it was something else, something entirely more primeval. More earthly,” she relates. “And suddenly, that was the moment of humility for me, and that was the moment I dived into folklore, and I said, ‘That's it. I'm going to become a folklorist.’”
Since that time, Lyngdoh’s fieldwork has taken her all over the Khasi Hills of Northeast India, into many exciting and dangerous situations. She has encountered murderous magical practitioners, terrifying deities, and affectionate weretigers. She has uncovered narratives of the supernatural, of death and dying, of human-animal transformation, and of divine possession.
Lyngdoh earned her PhD at the University of Tartu in Estonia, where she is currently a junior researcher in the department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. Lyngdoh was the visiting Lord scholar at the University of Missouri’s Center for Studies in Oral Tradition in 2016.