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Calling until the Cows Come Home


Using swedish herding call "kulning" to call home escaping cows (4 July 2016). Video Source: Youtube.

In Sweden and other Nordic countries, girls used to herd cattle and goats by singing to them so that the animals would come running home from the verges of forests and hills. Above, see how Jonna Jinton practised this ancient herding call, called kulning, in 2016. She wrote:
"Yesterday (3 july) the cows in our village escaped out of their fence, and were on the way o[ut] of the village to the woods. For the first time in my life I really got use for the 'kulning', the ancient swedish herding call that were used long time ago to call in the cows. It really did work! They turned around to listen, and then they came running the right way towards me. With help from my mom we managed to get them into another cow pen. I can't describe what a wonderful feeling it was to see the cows following my song. Kulning really works and I will continue to learn this ancient voice techique. Especially now when I could help my neighbour to stop the cows from running into the woods."
Anyone who has ever tried to train an unruly pet knows how difficult that animal can be if it decides it does not want to cooperate. It is fascinating that kulning worked on modern, untrained cows, which had never heard this song before. There is a mystery there. Is there something in the female singer's intonation, which pulls the animals back from the compulsion to keep running and get lost?

Of course, not so long ago, a lost herd would spell death not just for the cows, but starvation for the people who owned them. The cowherdess might call to the cattle in a playful and cheerful way - but she had to be successful.

One Youtube commenter stated that the folklore about kulning likened the calling of animals to calling the soul out of amnesia, preventing it from being lost in forgetfulness about its higher awareness and purpose: "My granny used to say 'kuln', it calls back the soul to remembrance! It is the most restorative thing one can do!"

This folk song technique has been adapted by modern singers to create ambient music. You can hear an example from another singer here, a playlist from Jinton here, plus a stylized version from Jinton, below.

KULNING | ANCIENT HERDING CALLS | WINTER'S LULLABY (22 March 2019). Video Source: Youtube.

Another Youtuber stated of the top video: "When you got some distance away, and the echo got more intense, the sound made me envision you as a hulder or something like a forest siren."

A fake aged photo, using a wetplate collodion technique. The Hulder at Lommedalsbanen #2 by Julie Loen / Studio Stand Still. Image Source: Etsy.

The stylized, echoing version of Jinton's kulningWinter's Lullaby, sounds more like that. In this sense, a hulder might imitate a cowherdess to draw the animals away from the farm rather than towards it, deeper and deeper into the wilds, where they would be killed by predators.

This aspect resembles other folkloric nature spirits (like the wilis, wendigo, the kushtaka, or the rusalka), which are said to imitate the voices of people beloved by a weary traveler. In a moment of false trust, the victim wanders off the beaten path, into darkness. Believe me, being deceived and becoming lost is no joke, as the people from Sioux Lookout, Ontario, Canada will tell you (below). Imagine, in this analogy, the seductive siren calls transform abruptly into howls in the woods. Or, God forbid, the shrieks sound less supernatural, like the voices in the video below that, recorded a few days after Christmas, 2014, in the Virginia suburbs near Washington, D.C., USA.

strange unknown noise caught on video (4 October 2019). Video Source: Youtube.

unexplained screaming coming from the woods (31 July 2018). Video Source: Youtube.

The safe and dangerous distinctions between the two versions of kulning were obviously not Jinton's creative intention. However, in her two recordings of the same call, there is a real and a stylized version; they reveal how difficult it is to distinguish between the genuine call to safety, familiarity, and authentic awakening - and something that is a deadly, seductive substitute.


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