by Professor Barbro Klein, SCASSS, Uppsala

Anna Birgitta Rooth died on June 5, 2000. With her passing the world lost an important folklorist and a generous human being who had much success but also met with many hardships.

Born in 1919 into a well-to-do family in the small southern Swedish town of Ängelholm, Anna Birgitta Rooth chose nearby Lund to pursue her university studies. At Lund she became a student of Carl Wilhelm von Sydow and, in 1951, she defended her Ph.D. dissertation under his direction. In 1964, she was appointed research scholar (forskardocent) at Lund University and in 1973 she succeeded Dag Strömbäck as full professor at Uppsala University. But while, during his tenure, the position was specified as one in “Nordic and Comparative Folklife Research, Particularly Folkloristics”, it was named a position in “Ethnology” only, when Anna Birgitta Rooth took over. The word “folkloristics” had been deleted. Indeed, in a formal sense, a folkloristic specialization had ceased to exist in Sweden in 1972, when Folklife Research and Folkloristics were united into one field, Ethnology. Although this unification eventually had significant consequences for folklore study in Sweden, a folkloristic specialization did in fact continue, at least until 1984, when Anna Birgitta Rooth retired from her position at Uppsala University.

From Cinderella to The Garden of Delights

Anna Birgitta Rooth’s scholarly output comprises seven major books, several smaller monographs, two or three books intended for teaching and a great number of articles, lectures and conference papers. The topics range across genres, periods, geographical areas and themes. In her work many early signals of coming disciplinary developments can be detected; at the same time her own interests come forth loud and clear throughout her career.

In many respects, Anna Birgitta Rooth’s first three major works constitute one group. The first of these, her highly praised doctoral dissertation The Cinderella Cycle (1951), is still required reading in folklore courses around the world. In this study of motif distribution she criticizes an idea that was common among students of the historic-geographic method, namely that the Cinderella story, along with other wonder tales, was, as a matter of course, a part of “the Indo-European heritage”. This, Rooth notes, was not true: the paths of dissemination were far more complex than that. In her investigation of the Cinderella cycle she also emphasizes that the ultimate goal of studies such as hers is not only to elucidate folktale connections as such but, above all, “to contribute to the knowledge of the relationship between different cultures” and “to further anthropological science” (p. 234).

In other words, Anna Birgitta Rooth was already formulating wide-ranging ambitions in her dissertation. Such ambitions were spelled out also in her second major work, Loki in Scandinavian Mythology (1961). In this study of “the kaleidoscopic trickster character” Loki, Rooth threw herself into debates with celebrated scholars in folkloristics, comparative religion, philology and other fields. She ends her long treatise connecting Loki to locke, a Swedish dialect word for “spider” and to such trickster figures as Anansi the Spider in African and African American traditions. Although Rooth’s book on Loki has met with a great deal of criticism, not least because of the bold leaps of faith that it requires from the reader, there can be no doubt that her reasoning is clear and logical. A similar clarity characterizes yet another substantial study which appeared only a year after the Loki book: The Raven and the Carcass. An Investigation of a Motif in the Deluge Myth in Europe, Asia, and North America (1962). It is exciting to follow Rooth’s discussion of the deluge story from the Gilgamesh epos to North American Indian nineteenth century traditions. It is equally exciting to follow her learned perusal of iconographic material. In my view, The Raven and the Carcass is one of the best of all Rooth’s works.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Anna Birgitta Rooth published anthologies and other works (mostly in Swedish) intended for use in teaching. Foremost among these is the book Folklig Diktning. Form och teknik (“Folk Poetry: Form and Technique”, 1965) in which she analyzes metaphors, imagery, dialogue and other formal aspects of the traditional verbal arts. While in some ways this book remains useful, it is also strikingly out-of-date, not least in the light of the many ethnographically based publications on oral literary style and textualization that have appeared during the past few decades. Rooth’s lack of attention to oral style is especially surprising, since fieldwork was by no means foreign to her. During the 1960s and 1970s, in particular, she was deeply engaged in studying the storytelling of the Athabascan Indians in Alaska among whom she worked on several occasions. However, it must remembered that to Rooth, the ethnography of storytelling was no end in itself; to her, fieldwork was closely linked to comparative textual studies. Indeed, she emphasized many times that the impetus for her work in Alaska came from her diffusion studies: her original motivation for going there was that she had not been able to find material from that part of the world when she did research for The Raven and the Carcass. But once in the field, she became fascinated with the people themselves, with their lives and their stories. Her field studies in Alaska generated two substantial books. In one, The Alaska Expedition 1966: Myths, Customs and Beliefs among the Athabascan Indians and the Eskimos of Northern Alaska (1971), she presents an annotated collection of narratives and songs; but in the book she also describes and critiques her methods of interviewing and transcribing. In the other, a small book entitled The Importance of Storytelling. A Study based on Field Work in Northern Alaska (1976), she analyzes the collected material. This book is full of astute observations on oral style, narrative technique and the role of narration in the upbringing of children (cf. Janssen 1978). But the study is also disorganized and fragmentary; in some ways, it seems unfinished.

It appears that her experiences in Alaska inspired Anna Birgitta Rooth to take a greater interest than she had shown before in the study of folklore as situated communication. The clearest evidence of this interest is L. O. En Analys av en småbrukarhustrus trosvärld (“L. O. An analysis of the belief world of a sharecropper’s wife”, 1981). In this book she endeavours to understand her informant’s many stories about experiences with supernatural beings and forces. The methodological discussion concerns the extent to which interviews and transcriptions of these are at all capable of saying much about the “panorama” of a person’s beliefs and experiences with the supernatural. The discussion is important methodologically and, clearly, in this book Rooth was ahead of her time in addressing questions of epistemology and ethics. At the same time, it is striking that, despite her orientation toward Anglo-American folklore studies, she did not seem to be aware of such methodological innovations of the 1960s and 1970s as the ethnography of speaking and ethnopoetics. In her works, Rooth never debates these “schools”; she neither rejects nor accepts them. Furthermore, as is the case with The Importance of Storytelling, the book about L. O. is rhapsodic and fragmentary.

During the final decades of her life, Anna Birgitta Rooth returned to themes and ideas that she had touched upon many times before. But now she added a great deal of new material and many fresh ideas. In the penultimate of her substantial works, Från lögnsaga till paradis (“From tall tale to paradise”, 1983), she continued the discussion of the domains of belief. But in this book, the perspectives differ from those that dominate in the book about L. O. and Rooth now focuses on the conditions needed for belief in the improbable. The materials she analyzes in this richly illustrated book range from tall tales and miracle stories to verbal and visual descriptions of paradise.

“From tall tale to paradise” constitutes a stepping stone to Anna Birgitta Rooth’s last major work, Exploring the Garden of Delights. Essays in Bosch’s Paintings and the Medieval Mental Culture (1992). Here her long interest in visual imagery is at the center of attention and she utilizes, as much as possible, the resources of the Iconographical Archives which she had founded in Lund and subsequently moved to Uppsala. In special focus are paintings made by Bosch or attributed to him; the painting “The Garden of Delights” is of central interest. Rooth wishes to demonstrate that Bosch was no mystic, cryptic or alchemist, as has often been claimed. Rather, his paintings represent a late Medieval “mental culture”. What Bosch does, she emphasizes, is to utilize or allude to late Medieval beliefs, laws, carnival customs, narratives, proverbs and the like, i.e. to materials that would have been comprehensible to his contemporaries and appreciated by them.

Anna Birgitta Rooth is said to have regarded Exploring the Garden of Delights as her best work and, to be sure, in the book communicates a profound sense of completion and closure. Yet, this work has not received a great deal of recognition among Swedish folklorists. On the contrary, it has hardly been discussed at all. One reason for this is perhaps that Anna Birgitta Rooth studied visual art in ways that are more unusual in the Nordic countries than in continental and southern Europe. But there are also other reasons to which I shall return presently.

Anna Birgitta Rooth and folkloristics in Sweden

In many ways, Anna Birgitta Rooth’s work is exciting. It spans a great number of approaches, genres, geographical areas and historical periods. It includes intensive fieldwork in local communities as well as investigations of the distribution of narratives and visual forms. Yet, in my view, Rooth is stronger in her studies of large-scale motif distribution than in analyses based on fieldwork. Indeed, as I have hinted at above, she often criticized scholars involved with intensive field studies with a few informants, warning against the risk of such studies becoming ends in themselves. The large questions of historical and geographical connections must never be forgotten, she observed. She herself never hesitated to ask the large questions. In some ways, through her insistence that micro studies had to be linked to studies of macro connections, she foreboded today’s interests in the interrelationships between the local and the global: as early as 1969, she entitled an anthology of her own articles, Lokalt och globalt (“Local and global”). And there can be no doubt that it was Rooth’s life-long ambition to go beyond narrower local interests that helped to make her an internationally noted scholar. Indeed, she became almost as well known among folklorists around the world as her teacher, Carl Wilhelm von Sydow. At the same time, and not unlike him, she seems to have been underestimated in her home country. Yet, if one looks for Swedish members among such internationally recognized bodies as the editorial board of the Folklore Fellows’ Communications, one finds von Sydow and Rooth who both served the series many years as internationally oriented outstanding folklorists of their country.

There are many reasons why the work of Anna Birgitta Rooth does not stand at the center of folkloristic attention in Sweden – and never has done. One is that she was not particularly successful as professor of ethnology at Uppsala University. Although she was a good teacher in the sense that she was an engaging speaker, she did not create a student following. Although some interesting Ph.D. dissertations were written under her tutelage, such as Kerstin Rodin’s (1981) study of a proverb in late Medieval iconography, Rooth did not create a school of folkloristics. What was perhaps even more detrimental was her failure as an administrator and university politician. The anecdotes and other forms of folklore portraying her difficulties in those respects are legion. Another problem was the kind of woman she was. Many stories allude to Anna Birgitta Rooth’s charming and, allegedly, whimsical femininity and, not least, to the fact that she was beautiful and often elegantly dressed. Her dramatic entré at a faculty dinner, wearing a white robe and a large white fur collar, is proverbial. “The Swan Queen”, a well-known (male) professor is said to have whispered aloud (Andræ 2000). Like other forms of folklore, this anecdote can be understood in many ways. One way is to interpret it in the light of Rooth’s position as a woman professor in the male-dominated faculty of humanities at an ancient and ceremonious university. She had to find ways to assert herself among colleagues who could be condescending and patronizing. It seems to me that Anna Birgitta Rooth suffered much more as professor of ethnology at Uppsala University than she let on. In any case, to me it is clear that she did her best scholarly work before and after her tenure in Uppsala.

It is perhaps significant that not only Anna Birgitta Rooth but also Sven Liljeblad died in the year 2000 and that, thus, two internationally known Swedish folklorists of grand stature, both with anthropological interests and both students of Carl-Wilhelm von Sydow, passed away within a few months of each other. It is to be hoped that this coincidence will lead to a re-evaluation of folkloristics in Sweden in the past and to reflections on the future of the discipline in the country. In many ways, it seems to me that the Swedish folkloristic achievements have been richer, more varied, and more suggestive than recent debates – inside and outside Sweden – have indicated.


Andræ, Carl Göran 2000: Minnesord den 6 november 2000 [“Commemorative remarks, November 6, 2000”]. Saga och Sed. Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademins Årsbok 2000: 5–12.

Janssen, William Hugh 1978: Review of “The Importance of Storytelling” by Anna Birgitta Rooth. Journal of American Folklore 87: 96–98.

Rodin, Kerstin 1983: Räven predikar för gässen. En studie av ett ordspråk i senmedeltida ikonografi [“The fox preaches to the geese. A study of a proverb in late Medieval iconography”]. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis (= Studia Ethnologica Upsaliensia 11).

Anna Birgitta Rooth’s main works:

The Cinderella Cycle. Lund: CWK Gleerup. 1951.

Loki in Scandinavian Mythology. Lund: CWK Gleerup (= Acta Reg. Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis, LXI). 1961.

The Raven and the Carcass. An Investigation of a Motif in the Deluge Myth in Europe, Asia, and North America. FF Communications No. 186. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. 1962.

Folklig Diktning. Form och teknik [“Folk poetry. Form and technique”]. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. 1965.

Livet i Lergökastan [“Life in ‘Clay Pipe Town’”], edited by Anna Birgitta Rooth. Lund: CWK Gleerup. 1966.

Ordspråk från södra Sverige. Ordnade efter åsikter, värderingar, samhällssyn. Med en inledning om etnologiska och sociala aspekter på ordspråken [“Proverbs from southern Sweden. Arranged in accordance with opinions, values, social views. With an introduction on ethnological and social aspects on the proverbs”]. Lund: Studentlitteratur. 1968.

Lokalt och globalt [“Local and global”]. 2 volumes. Lund: Studentlitteratur. 1969.

Folkdikt och folktro [“Folk poetry and folk belief”], edited by Anna Birgitta Rooth. Lund: CWK Gleerup. 1971.

The Alaska Expedition 1966. Myths, Customs and Beliefs among the Athabascan Indians and the Eskimos of Northern Alaska, collected and annotated by Anna Birgitta Rooth. Lund: CWK Gleerup (= Acta Universitatis Lundensis, Sectio I:14). 1971.

The Importance of Storytelling. A Study Based on Field Work in Northern Alaska. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell International (= Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Ethnologica Upsaliensia 1). 1976.

L. O. En Analys av en småbrukarhustrus trosvärld [“L. O. An analysis of the belief world of a sharecropper’s wife”]. Uppsala: Uppsala universitet: Repro. 1981.

The “Offering” of the First Shed Tooth and the Tooth-Formula. A Study of a “Physiological” Custom. Uppsala: Etnologiska institutionen. 1982.

Från lögnsaga till paradis [“From tall tale to paradise”]. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell International (= Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Ethnologica Upsaliensia 12]. 1983.

Exploring the Garden of Delights. Essays in Bosch’s Paintings and the Medieval Mental Culture. FF Communications No. 251. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. 1992.

Erzählstoff und Symbole in Bosch Malerei. Einige Beispiele. Arv. Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore 52 (1996): 63–85.

(FFN 22, November 2001: 10-12)

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This