Some say that ghost stories are as old as storytelling itself – that people would gather in darkness to weave tales of warning. With shadows dancing menacingly on their faces by the dim light of a fire, elders would strike fear into the hearts of their children, lest they try to go astray. Edel Marit Gaino’s book, Ancient Ghosts, translated from the North Sámi language, seems to carry on this tradition. Writing in a manner that emulates traditional Sámi storytelling, Gaino retells 11 short tales based in Norwegian folklore. From stories set in the times of her forebears to ones set in modernity, Ancient Ghosts is a collection that remembers and celebrates the multi-faceted culture and mythology of the Indigenous Sámi people. The collection offers outsiders an intimate glimpse into integral aspects of Sámi tradition, language, and identity, which is not only educational and entertaining but also unifying.
At their core, these stories teach children the importance of respecting the burial sites of long-dead ancestors, of heeding warnings etched in tradition, and of reconciling the natural with the supernatural – themes relevant and similar to mythologies all over the world. Despite the fact that these stories are unique to the Sámi, there’s a universality that shines through.
Gaino conjures up a captivating unpredictability in the nature of the supernatural: the dead may appear as vengeful zombies or as protective guardian spirits, and protagonists may escape doom by the skin of their teeth or resign themselves to a grim and inescapable fate. The context and sometimes even the consequences of these supernatural encounters are left vague, perhaps because the necessary subtext already exists in the cultural knowledge of the Sámi, or perhaps to fuel the inexhaustible imaginations of young readers. Much like the collection’s “The Dream-Seers,” the stories resemble premonitory dreams: they’re open to interpretation and readers can fill in the gaps with their greatest fears. This effect is supplemented by Toma Feizo Gas’s haunting black-and-white illustrations, wherein monsters blend into the shadows, feeding our primordial fear of the unknown. Ancient Ghosts captures the spirit of the best ghost stories – ones that connect us to our past, and ones we can tell our children at night, perhaps with shadows dancing on our faces from the dim light of a campfire.