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Kulning: The Ancient Swedish Herding Call That Has Echoed Through the Ages

Kulning is a vocal art with its origins in the forests and mountains of Scandinavia. It was first used as a method to call back cattle who were left free to graze in the wild landscape, but it is undeniable that it is hauntingly beautiful and can be appreciated as an art form aside from its practical uses.

In theory, kulning can be compared to yodeling. It is a high-pitched call which is intended to be heard over a long distance and attract the attention of livestock. But the two practices sound nothing alike. What is it that makes kulning so unique? And what has allowed it to endure so long?

Ancient Origins of Kulning

Kulning has its origins in the middle ages. The job of looking after livestock and processing animal products such as milk and wool was predominantly left for women in Scandinavia at the time. In the summer, the fertile and arable land near domiciles was used to grow crops and livestock were free to roam and graze elsewhere. This meant that when it was time to call the animals back, it was the women who were tasked with doing so.

Kulning was used to call the animals. (JAFO / Adobe)

Kulning was used to call the animals. ( JAFO / Adobe)

Kulning as a vocal style developed around the strengths of the female voices that were practicing it. The resulting high tones are suited both to female vocalists and to carrying the songs over long distances, which meant they were perfect for calling back animals and relaying messages over long distances.

What Are the Songs About?

Although the basic use of kulning is a practical way to call back grazing animals, the way the songs were composed and used was far more complex. The songs were a way of expressing the realities of day to day life and the hopes and fears of the women who were singing them. There are uplifting and positive songs about love and the beauty of nature, and the freedoms of the lifestyle they were living.

But there are also songs which cast light on the very real fears of medieval farming communities. One example is the songs about losing animals – a reality which was common. For a family relying on their animals to get them through the winter the loss of a cow which supplied dairy, meat, and leather would have been devastating. Finding a lost animal could make the difference between a comfortable winter or starvation.

Related to these fears are the songs about searching for animals in the woods. These songs focus on the fears of the women who would have had to search the woods until a lost animal was found, even if the search went on into the night. They lament the dangers of tangible predators like wolves and bears, as well as fearsome esoteric forest spirits .

Searching for lost animals, Scandinavian women feared the forest spirits. (Vitalez / Adobe)

Searching for lost animals, Scandinavian women feared the forest spirits. ( Vitalez / Adobe)

These themes ran further than just storytelling, as kulning could also be used as a way to warn other woman of dangers such, for example if a bear had been spotted the women could warn each other through specific songs or sounds.

However, along with these known signals there was a strong tradition of improvisation and women often developed their own unique style and there are some known regional differences in kulning styles.

How is Kulning Used Today?

Kulning is still practiced today in some of the more remote regions of Scandinavia, though it is increasingly rare, and you are not likely to come across it if you are walking in the Swedish countryside.
However, artists such as Jonna Jinton, whose videos attract hundreds of thousands of views on You Tube, are shining a light on Kulning and introducing it to a whole new audience.

The story of my life - From a dream to reality. (Jonna Jinton / YouTube)

The story of my life - From a dream to reality. (Jonna Jinton / YouTube)

As well as having something of a cult following, it has been used on the soundtracks of a number of the TV shows and movies based in Scandinavia.
Kulning is sometimes described as an ‘ancient Viking herding call’, so it is no surprise that it has been used in the soundtrack of the show Vikings. Disney’s ‘Frozen’, which is based on the Scandinavian folk tale ‘the Snow Queen’, also featured traditional Norwegian kulning by singer Christine Hals.

The success of artists like Jinton and the use of Kulning in mainstream media show that even though it has been around for hundreds of years Kulning has definitely not lost its appeal.
It is a folksong so spellbinding it has managed to remain relevant even though it has long outlived its practical purposes as a herding call.

Top image: Woman in the countryside ( RUZANNA ARUTYUNYAN / Adobe Stock )

By Sarah P Young

References

Chaidez, D. 2018. What Is Kulning Anyway?. [Online] Available at: http://northparkspectrum.org/posts/2018/3/28/kulning
Nordic Voice. Date unknown. Kulning. [Online] Available at: https://nordicvoice.dk/about-kulning/
Rosenberg, S. 2014. Kulning – an ornamentation of the surrounding emptiness: about the unique Scandinavian herding calls. [Online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/23268263.2013.829712
Vartan, S. 2016.  Kulning: the haunting, beautiful Swedish herding call that’s also a song. [Online] Available at: https://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/blogs/kulning-haunting-beautiful-swedish-herding-call-thats-also-song

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