There are many cases in recent times where towns and villages have been deliberately flooded by humans where a change in the landscape was required for purposes such as to form a reservoir for fresh water. These are usually well-documented and their history known though folklore and legends may evolve from them.
All around the world there are also legends of towns, cities and lands that have been destroyed or lost, leaving only rumor and myths of their existence and demise. Many such places were rich and successful, well established and populous, making their loss all the more tragic and mystifying. These legends often tell of a catastrophic natural event such as a flood caused by high tides, storms or perhaps covered by sand or snow. Sometimes it is some geological phenomenon such as an earthquake and sometimes this is combined with a natural event or act of war. The loss of such well-established and prosperous places left a deep impression on following generations. Myths and legends evolved to explain the cataclysmic event and very often these were carefully crafted to provide a warning to following generations of the consequences of breaking God’s laws or their excessive pride or hubris.
Myth of Origin
These places were very often situated on a site that became transformed by a disastrous natural event in t a new feature of the landscape. An inland town situated in a valley may be covered by a watery lake. A town situated by the sea may be flooded and drowned by the waves or covered by sand becoming a massive dune. A town in the mountains may be covered by snow and ice becoming a glacier. The story created to explain the disaster may be mostly fictional but based on some historic cataclysm like a powerful storm, earthquake or other natural disaster that actually happened. Sometimes these myths and legends can help archaeologists and scientists investigate real disasters that happened long ago. In some cases such disasters are well documented from the time but the legends and myths evolve after.
These events when combined with the mysterious origin of some well known feature in the landscape create a compelling story that can have a profound and lingering effect on those it is told to. Especially when the narrator is a local priest or who uses the story to impress upon their audience the consequences of offending the Almighty. Although such myths and legends are often designed to uphold Christianity, other religions and philosophies have also used such techniques for this purpose. In some case it is pagan deities or spirits that have been angered in some way by rulers or citizens. Although warnings may be given they are ignored invoking the wrath of the powerful divinity to wreak some form of divine retribution.
Once divine retribution is invoked the fate of the town is sealed. Often it unfolds as a weather event such a rain, sand or snow storm. Once divine retribution manifests the end is inevitable. All that will remain will be the myths and legends of a once rich and prosperous society that was drowned, buried or destroyed along with most of its population. Perhaps a lake or some other feature of the landscape appears where the town once stood.
From this a talented storyteller can weave a tale that will work quietly among following generations for centuries that impresses and extols the danger of angering the all powerful deity. In this way a naturally occurring catastrophic event such as a storm or earthquake may be transformed into something altogether more sinister and in many ways more dangerous. Very often it becomes the judgement of God that is dispensing retribution for wrongdoing on an immoral and corrupt society. This and similar themes are quite common in these legends. Warnings of impending retribution and vengeance are offered in an attempt to change people’s behaviour but are ignored. Punishment is inflicted often destroying that society in its entirety not just the perpetrators. Sometimes a few are saved but often the innocent perish along with the guilty.
There is a concept of collective guilt that runs through generations until some chosen time when punishment is enacted. Sometimes vengeance is suspended for several generations and the deviant behaviour forgotten by people. Sometimes it becomes part of normal behaviour. Nevertheless, the Almighty works at his own pace and punishment eventually arrives when least expected with devastating consequences. This does seem harsh on those who were not born when the original sin was committed but it seems there is an expectation to strive to recognize and put right the wrongs of the past. The message is that the sins of one, even when committed in the past, must not be tolerated either at the time, or perpetuated in the future. What is sown will eventually be reaped in a time and in a way that suits the Almighty. This obligation to right and discontinue past wrongs does not mean that they be wiped from history or that they should be. It is important to keep records of such wrongs and our attempts to right them to monitor our own evolution and to make sure we do not make the same mistakes again.
The All-Seeing Eye
There is a sense that the individual and collective behaviour of people is being watched by some all-seeing eye. It sees and knows all our deeds and looks into our hearts and minds making judgements upon us. Legends such as these warn that we are always being watched and judged and even our innermost thoughts are known to the Almighty. They emphasize we must remember and obey the laws of God and will be held answerable for any transgressions at anytime in the present or future no matter how long ago the indiscretion. Furthermore, we have a collective responsibility that runs through the past, present and future to keep ourselves and others in society on the straight and narrow. The message is the all-seeing eye sees everything and in a manner and time that suits the Almighty we will reap what we sow and then –
The fabled Firebird from Russian and Slavic mythology and folklore is a magical, mysterious bird, both rare and elusive and the inspiration of many folk and fairy tales. Its plumage is the color of red, yellow and orange flames of fire or maybe like the setting or rising of the sun.
According to tradition it appears from the east lighting up the sky causing all the creatures of the world to fall silent in deference to its glory. The Firebird appears in many stories as a blessing and a bearer of good fortune but it can also be a harbinger of doom for those of a wicked disposition. However, for Alexis, the hero of this story, the finding of the feather of the Firebird is the catalyst for inner growth and strength. He is sent on a journey completing a set of difficult tasks bringing out his own inner resources to win through. In doing so he rises from lowly beginnings to a prominent position in the world.
Finding the Feather
In this story our hero is a young man who despite being rather naive is true of heart and courageous and it is he who finds the feather. For those who find a feather of the Firebird great changes befall them. To pick it up sets off a life changing chain of events putting their life at risk and bringing them real fear. When Alexis finds the feather he does not listen to the warning of his horse of power and decides to pick it up and take it to the Tsar. From then on his problems snowball and for the first time he begins to experience real fear.
The Firebird is usually said to represent the whole truth, or enlightenment of the world. Princess Vasilisa represents love. The finding of a single feather from the Firebird represents the finding of a single grain of truth. If the whole truth is desired then the whole Firebird must be sought to gain enlightenment. The Tsar is not satisfied with a feather but demands the whole truth, represented by the Firebird and sends Alexis to bring it back. Yet, he is not satisfied with the whole Firebird and demands love in the form of Princess Vasilisa. Again, he sends Alexis to find her but does nothing himself to win her love.
Although the Tsar seeks enlightenment and love he never does anything himself to find either and consequently never finds them. Enlightenment comes from the experience gained from completing the journey and the tasks of the quest and love is earned by the way others are treated along the way, yet he never learns this.
Animal Helper – The Horse of Power
As with other Firebird stories our hero has a wise animal and magical helper who accompanies him on the quest. In, The Feather and the Firebird, the magical animal helper is a horse of power who has the gift of speech and foresight and is named Perdun.
Perdun warns against picking up the feather, which is only a small part of the truth. The horse is important to our hero as it represents his own natural wisdom – his gut instinct which he suppresses. It is the suppression of his inner instinct that gets him into trouble in the first place. As he learns to listen to and trust his horse of power, or gut instinct, he at last triumphs.
So when our hero embarks on his quest at the command of the Tsar who is not satisfied with part of the truth but craves the whole truth the Tsar is making a huge mistake. He does not experience the journey and the hardships so he remains none the wiser, but the hero through the trials on his journey learns the whole truth and the world is his. On the way he finds love while the stay-at home Tsar never does.
While the Tsar ends up with death the hero is rewarded with marriage to Princess Vasilisa and becomes the new Tsar, His own inner resources have grown to the point where he recognizes that the Firebird, like the truth and enlightenment, is something that cannot be caged and sets it free to roam the world as it should. Perhaps one day, somewhere, someone else will find one of its feathers and embark on their own journey of discovery.
Beowulf was originally written in Anglo-Saxon times as a poem in Old English by an anonymous writer. It tells the story of its heroic protagonist, Beowulf, who embodies the much revered Anglo-Saxon qualities of strength, courage, heroism and virtuous behaviour. It is these qualities, blended with fictional, legendary and historical elements that make Beowulf the ideal role model for the Anglo-Saxon warrior aristocracy. Presented her is a retelling of the story after his arrival in Denmark to his triumphant return to Geatland drawn from the sources below.
Beowulf comes of Age
The story of Beowulf begins in a part of Scandinavia called Geatland that was a land of tall mountains, narrow valleys and a long rugged coastline. It was populated by a brave and virtuous people called the Geats who were ruled over by King Hygelac and his wife Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair.At regular times King Hygelac would call his earls and warriors to his great hall for feasting and drinking. These were popular and events that brought together his people from distant parts and helped bond his nation to him and each other. At these events the stories of their valour and that of their of their ancestors were told by the bards and sometimes one of them might be called upon to tell of a heroic deed they had performed. Young Beowulf would sit in the great hall taking in all of the stories. He was the son of the king’s sister who from a very young age had caught the eye of his uncle for his physical stature and strength.
One night a great feast was held in the king’s hall and all of the bravest and renowned warriors and noble of Geatland gathered to enjoy the festivities. As the evening progressed, King Hygelac stood up and introduced a visiting minstrel, whom he named as The Wanderer, and asked him to sing a song.The minstrel brought a stool before the king and sat down and began to play his harp. He sang of the wild northern lands and of the forbidden mountains that were home to beasts and demons far more dangerous than any of those found in Geatland. He told of terrible dragons and of their slaying by brave men and he told of the sea serpents and wild things of the sea.
The Song of Grendel
The song of The Wanderer began to change and took on a darker and more disturbing tone. It told of King Hrothgar of Denmark and of the terrible calamity that had struck that land. He sang of a demon that was part animal, part man and part all terrible creatures and the name of the demon was Grendel. He told how Grendel had appeared one fearful night, twelve years ago after a great feast in the great hall of King Hrothgar that was called Hereot. After all had ate and drank their fill and the king and queen retired to their own apartments his earls and warriors lay asleep in the great hall. As they had lain peacefully sleeping unaware of any pending peril, Grendel had come and forced aside the great door and carried away thirty of the sleeping earls, murdering and devouring them.
This had caused great sorrow throughout the land and although there had been many attempts to kill Grendel he violently defeated and killed all of his attackers showing no mercy at all.Now no one dared to sleep in the great hall of Heorot because Grendel often visited it and wreaking his havoc wherever it was in use. He has killed most of the young and vigorous warriors of the Danes who has dared to stand up to him and now all that remained were defenseless women, children and the elderly. Beowulf was now completely taken with the song and a fire sprang up in him lighting up his blue eyes. As he listened he knew what he must do. Springing from his seat he thumped the table shouting,
“My King and Queen and earls of Geatland, in days gone by King Hrothgar of Denmark was the friend of Ecgtheow my father in his hour of need. I, Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, will slay Grendel for King Hrothgar in thanks for his friendship to my father and the glory of Geatland!”
The Wanderer stopped his song and throughout the hall a silence fell. King Hygelac stood up and commanded silence and turning to Beowulf said in a voice that all could hear,
“Beowulf your time has come to prove yourself. You have been blessed with the strength and vitality of thirty men and you should use your powers to help everyone. Hrothgar, our friend and neighbor has great need. Go now to Denmark and prove yourself and slay Grendel!”
King Hygelac ordered that Beowulf should be given suitable equipment for his purpose and told him to choose fourteen comrades to accompany him. These should be such as Beowulf, young men who had come of age and in need of proving themselves.At last suitable equipped and attired the company made their way to the harbour where a ship had been prepared. At sunrise the next day Beowulf and his company set sail on their great adventure.
Their voyage across the sea was not to be an easy one as they sailed into a great storm. At last they came safely through and arriving on the shores of Denmark they pushed their ship up a beach. There they met an old man who welcomed them and showed them the path to the great hall of King Hrothgar of Denmark and promised to stray and guard their ship until their return.
The Hall of King Hrothgar
Beowulf and his company followed the path through dense forest for many miles until the came into a long valley. At the far end of the valley stood the once fair hall of Heorot. As they passed through the valley they saw the deserted farms and the homes of the people while all around there hung the stench of death like the very land rotted. There was no sign of humans so Beowulf led his company onwards towards the great hall. until at last came to it gates.
Three times Beowulf knocked upon the gates and at last a frightened gatekeeper appeared and nervously asked what business they had at the hall. Beowulf requested the man go to King Hrothgar telling him that a band of warriors from Geatland had arrived wishing to speak to him and were asking for food and lodging.
The gatekeeper hurried off and presently Beowulf saw the king approach in the company of a band of elderly warriors. King Hrothgar was now an old man himself with a full beard of flowing white and eyes that told of days of fear and sorrow. As he approached he opened his arms wide saying,
“Welcome strangers, I can see by your bearing you are friends and here on some errand to my sad and unhappy kingdom. Therefore, speak of your errand and who you so that I may help you as I can.”
Stepping forward Beowulf loudly proclaimed, “I am Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow whom you befriended and KIng Hygelac of Geatland is my uncle. We come to Denmark to slay the demon called Grendel and free you from his terror.”
Then Hrothgar looked long and hard at him and said, “Ecgtheow was my friend and brother-in-arms. You and your friends are very welcome in Denmark but I warn you Grendel comes often to Heorot and is hungry for young men to devour. Now come rest and tonight for the first time in twelve years there will be feasting in Heorot and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautifulwill pass to you the drinking-horn as is our tradition of friendship.”
For the first time in twelve years the great hall of Heorot was made ready for a great feast and fires were lit cooking meats of every kind. When all was ready the king and queen arrived followed by a great company and took their seats in the hall according to rank. Their number had been greatly diminished by Grendel and now it was mostly old men who sat with the king and queen. It was not a very joyful atmosphere for fear dwelt in the hearts of all those present of the evil of Grendel.
King Hrothgar sat at the head of the assembly with Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful. In a place of honour below the king sat Beowulf. Beside him on the right his right sat Aescher the king’s most trusted advisor. Next to him on his left sat Unferth, whom The Wanderer had sang about that night in Geatland in his uncle’s hall. At the word of the King the feast began and as the drinking-horns were passed around many oaths were uttered encouraging the slaying of Grendel. It was only Beowulf’s company of Geat warriors that were joyful and as the drink flowed they began boasting of the prowess and courage of Beowulf.Aescher endorsed their praises of their leader but Unferth became increasingly sullen and silent never offering a single word of praise as was the Danish custom.
Beowulf noticed this and turning to him said, “You keep very quiet Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, tell us of your deeds of valor that we may give praise to you. Come, tell us and then I can drink from the cup with you!”
At this Unferth stood up and slamming his fist on the table cried, “Beowulf! Who is this Beowulf but a beardless boy who stands before us telling us he will save us from Grendel? Who are the beardless boys who accompany him over the sea? Does anyone think that what so many good Danes have failed this stripling will succeed? Let him and his friends return to Geatland instead of laughing at our sorrow and loss!”
Beowulf felt his anger burn hot for this was the same Unsferth the Wanderer had sung about who had not dared to fight the demon himself. Beowulf rose, but knowing the words of his accuser to be false spoke clearly and softly without anger, “Take back your words they are dishonorable. I come in friendship offering to rid Denmark of this vile Grendel. Unferth, tell us of your great battle with Grendel?”
A murmur of approval of Beowulf’s words from Danes and Geats ran around the hall and KIng Hrothgar stood up and said, “Having listened to the quiet words of Beowulf I know he is a hero. There has been too much sorrow these last twelve years and makes us bitter and say things we do not mean. Beowulf, forgive us!”
Then Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful took up a jewelled cup and filling it with wine passed it to Hrothgar who drank from it and then she took it to Beowulf. He drank and she went around the company of Geatland and thanked them for coming to Denmark in their time of great need and asking each to drink. When they had done so she went around the king’s earls and they also drank to the king and queen and the death of Grendel.
Then the festivities were reopened with much good will from both Danes and Geats. While the Danes praised the glory of King Hygelac and Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair, the Geats praised KIng Hrothgar and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful. At last Hrothgar rose from his chair and taking his queen by the hand said, “Now it is time for us Danes to go to our beds and leave Beowulf and his company alone and pray their sleep be untroubled.”
He led his queen out through the great door of Heorot followed by all of his earls and retainers and the Geats were left to face the night as the great fires slowly burnt out.
The Demon Grendel
Beowulf ordered that the doors of the hall be secured and his companions made them so well no mortal man could have entered. With the doors safe the company spread their cloaks over the benches and lay down to sleep. One of Beowulf’s favorite companions named Hondscio took it upon himself to lay next to the door vowing to be the first to do battle should Grendel choose to appear. Soon all except Beowulf were sound asleep. He had vowed to stay awake and lay still and quiet listening as silence crept over the hall. He could hear the breathing of his comrades but little else.
Outside fog was forming and hiding the moon. Slowly all sounds died away and even the wind stopped its sighing and all was silent. As the fog crept across the land and wrapped itself around the hall, despite his vow, Beowulf became very drowsy. He fought to stay awake but his limbs felt heavy and his eyes closed and he sank into a deep slumber.
Outside the fog thickened and completely obscured the moon and tightened its hold upon the hall. For a second the fog parted and a gigantic black shape loomed and slowly moving towards the great hall and stood before the door in the weird light.
Inside, unaware of the horror that lay outside, Beowulf and his company slept under the bewitchment Grendel had wrought upon them. Beowulf fought hard to break the spell and desperately tried to crawl out of the nightmarish pit he found himself in.
Outside Grendel slowly brought his strength to bear silently pushing the door open despite its securings. Beowulf, fighting hard, crawled from the pit and saw the door wide open and fog streaming in. He saw the great shape of Grendel bend down and picking up the sleeping Hondscio tear his limbs from his body and now he saw clearly the nature of the demon he faced. It resembled a gigantic but twisted and deformed man yet there was something beast like about it. Its body was covered in grey scales that rattled when it moved and a pale light flickered from its eyes. Struggling to his feet he watched in horror and disgust as it crushed the body of Hondscio and greedily ate his remains. Then it turned its vile gaze around the hall until it fell upon Beowulf. Slowly the monster moved towards him.
Beowulf, full of loathing and disgust shook off the spell and ran at the beast. Clashing together the two grappled to gain a hold on one another. Although the claws of Grendel were strong and dug into his flesh, Beowulf was quicker and slipped easily from his hold. As Grendel sought to grasp, hold and tear his opponent apart, Beowulf moved quickly around him dodging his grabbing hands. While his company lay in spell induced sleep he and Grendel engaged in a deadly hand to hand fight for life.
Grendel tried to grasp and crush the head of Beowulf who in turn evaded him and continued to seek some advantage or weak spot. At last Grendel managed to grab Beowulf but his quick turn forced both of them to the ground and for a split second the demon experienced fear and doubt. Like a true warrior Beowulf sensed this and quickly took advantage of this lapse and managed to grasp him briefly by the throat, but its scales prevented him from taking a killing grip.
Then Grendel thrashed out and almost gained the advantage but Beowulf grasped hold of his arm and giving a quick twist jumped behind the brute pushing it high up its back causing it to scream in agony. The two fell to the floor and Beowulf continued to grip his arm wrenching this way and that until he felt the muscles and sinews weaken and give way and he pulled the arm free from its socket. Grendel stumbled up and through the door disappearing into the fog leaving the exhausted Beowulf clutching his severed and bleeding limb. With the spell broken his companions awoke and gathered around in wonder and horror.
As dawn broke people slowly appeared at the great hall to see how the Geats had fared though they expected the worse. Soon a great crowd of people thronged the hall and they were astounded by what they saw. Hanging high from one of the roof beams was the massive severed and bloody arm of Grendel. Upon the king’s dais stood Beowulf wearing a scarlet cloak his blue eyes flashing fire and his fair hair shining like gold like some god of old.
King Hrothgar was sent for and quickly arrived and said, “Give thanks now to Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, to be sure, this is the end of Grendel and his terror. Hail, to Beowulf hero of Geatland!” Then Queen Wealhtheow praised him and called on the servants to prepare a great feast. The celebrations went on all day and into the night and Beowulf was greatly honored by all.
Vengeance of the Water Witch
The next day a messenger rushed in his face white with fear, body shaking and eyes wild and kneeling before the king said in a trembling voice, “Sire, I have just run as fast as I could from Heorot; The good and wise Aescher has been most terribly murdered. His head has been severed from his body and his limbs crushed to a pulp.”
With that Hrothgar and Wealhtheow, accompanied by Beowulf, hastened to the great hall. They found the mangled remains of Aescher amid a scene of great destruction and the severed arm of Grendel had been removed. Queen Wealhtheow cried, “This is the revenge of Grendel’s mother. In our gladness at the defeat of Grendel we had forgotten her evil presence. Unless she too is slain she will wreak unending devastation upon us. Beowulf, we implore you to hunt her down and slay her too!”
On hearing this Beowulf called his company to him saying, “Come, let us finish this evil once and for all before night comes,” and begged Hrothgar for horses and hounds to hunt down the monster. Then Unferth, stepped forward from the crowd and said, “Beowulf, I am put to shame that I have ever doubted you. Take with you my sword. Its name is Hrunting. It is a magical sword and will be of help to you. Forgive my foolishness and let us be friends.”
Gladly, Beowulf embrace Unferth and taking the sword he and his company mounted the horses that had been brought for them. He called for the dogs to be set loose and they soon picked up the powerful scent and raced away on the trail with Beowulf and the Geats and King Hrothgar and the Danes following on behind. The dogs ran over hill and fen for many miles until at last they reached a small dark mere. Strange and slimy things moved in its depths and putrid vapours rose from its surface. The dogs stopped at the water’s edge and Beowulf and his company rode up. Throwing off his cloak and unbuckling his sword he cried, “I go into the mere alone. Wait here until I return!”
All of his companions protested, each wanting to accompany him but he would not allow it. He embraced his followers in turn and paid homage to King Hrothgar and turned and ran into the dark water holding Hrunting before him. The mere covered him and he found himself sinking into the cold darkness. To his surprise the water was deep and as he sank through the darkness he entered into light. Looking down he found he was being dragged by a most vile hag. Her hair was a mass of twisting and hissing snakes. Her mouth was filled with long green fangs and her eyes burned red like hot coals. She held him by her skinny arms and dragged him into the cave.
Quickly, looking around Beowulf saw he was in a cavern with a great fire at one end. Huddled in one corner was a dark mass that he knew to be Grendel and now he knew this to be Grendel’s mother who now gripped him. In that cave at the bottom of the world Beowulf grappled with the fiend striking her with his sword but it could not pierce her skin while she clawed at him trying to reach his throat. She cast a spell and he found the strength ebb from his body. He managed to trip her off balance and threw her in the air, but she fell on top of him and he felt her claws around his throat. Confident she had him in a death grip she relaxed a little and for a split second the spell lifted.
Quickly, he threw her from him and staggered to his feet and moved to put his back to the wall. There he found driven into the wall the hilt of an old sword. Grasping it he heaved with all of his might and pulled it free. As she attacked he struck a blow that cut her clean in two. Turning to Grendel he cut off his head and then threw both bodies into the fire. Clasping the severed head of Grendel he ran to the cave’s mouth and into the mire and surged upwards through the water until he reached the surface where his friends were waiting.
His companions were still there but King Hrothgar and the Danes had gone for he had been absent for a very long time. He was greeted joyfully as they all crowded around wanting to hear his story, but he would tell them nothing. Instead he showed them the head of Grendel as proof of his victory. With that he commanded them to mount their horses and they returned to Heorot and King Hrothgar.
When the company arrived back at Heorot bearing the head of Grendel, Hrothgar was delighted Beowulf had survived and even more so to see the head of the demon he carried. He presented all of the company with rich gifts of fine swords and weapons and chests of gold, silver and precious jewels rewarding Beowulf the greatest of all.
Having achieved all he had set out to achieve Beowulf thanked the King and Queen of Denmark and took his leave deciding to sail for home with his company. He led the company back along the forest path and at last they reached the beach where the old man still sat guarding their ship. With all aboard he gave the order to set sail for Geatland.
Return to Geatland
King Hygelac was delighted to welcome his nephew home bearing riches from his exploits in Denmark. After hearing of his heroics in freeing Denmark of its monsters he acclaimed Beowulf the greatest hero of his people. The minstrels made songs of his bravery and heroism and he became famous throughout the northern lands but there were still further exploits written in the stars including a great flame dragon for him to overcome.
This work is a retelling of a kaiden, a traditional Japanese ghost story from a collection retold by Grace James titled, Japanese Fairy Tales, and called The Peony Lantern. There are also versions called Kaidan Botan Dōrō. In many ways it is passionate and romantic yet has more than a hint of horror involving necrophilia while hinting on the consequences of the karma of the two main characters.
The Peony Lantern
It is said that by the strong bond of illusion the living and the dead are bound together. Now, there was a young samurai who lived in Yedo. His name was Hagiwara and he had reached the most honorable rank of hatamoto. He was a very handsome man, very athletic and light on his feet and his good looks made him very popular with the ladies of Yedo. Some were very open about their affections, while others were more coy and secretive. For his part he gave little of his time and attention to love. Instead he preferred to join other young men in sports and joyous revelries. He would often be seen socializing and having fun with his favorite companions, very much the life and soul of the party.
The Festival of the New Year
When the Festival of the New Year came he was to be found in the company of laughing youths and happy maidens playing the game of battledore and shuttlecock in the streets. They had roamed far from their own neighborhood to the other side of town to a suburb of quiet streets and large houses that stood in grand gardens.
Hagiwara was good at the game and used his battledore with impressive skill and technique. However, the wind caught the shuttle after he had hit it taking it way over the heads of the other players and over a bamboo fence and into a garden. He ran after it but the others cried, “Leave, Hagiwara, let it stay! We have plenty more shuttlecocks to play with. Why waste time on that one?”
Hagiwara heard them but answered, “No my friends, that one was special. It was the color of a dove and gilded with gold. I will soon fetch it!”
“Let it stay!,” they cried, “we have a dozen here that are dove coloured and gilded with gold. Let it stay!”
Hagiwara stood staring at the garden. For some reason he felt a very strong need for that particular shuttlecock and did not know why. Ignoring his friends he quickly climbed the bamboo fence and jumped down into the garden. He had seen exactly where the shuttlecock landed and thought he would be able to retrieve it quickly, but when he went to the spot it was not there. For some reason he now considered that particular shuttlecock was his most valuable treasure. He searched up and down the garden, pushing aside bushes and plants, but all to no avail. His friends called him again and again but he ignored them and searched feverishly around the garden for the lost shuttlecock. Again his friends called, but he ignored them and continued searching. Eventually, they wandered off leaving him alone searching the garden.
He continued searching into the evening ignoring the glorious spectacle of the setting sun and as dusk fell gently he suddenly looked up. To his surprise there was a girl standing a few yards in front of him. Smiling, she motioned with her right hand while in the the palm of her left she held the shuttlecock he had been searching for. He moved eagerly towards her but she moved back still presenting the shuttlecock to him, but keeping it out of reach, luring him into him into following her. He followed her through the garden and up three stone steps that led into the house.
On one side of the first step a plum tree stood in white blossom and on the third step stood a most beautiful lady. She was dressed in celebration of the festival in a kimono of patterned turquoise with long ceremonial sleeves that swept the ground Underneath she wore garments of scarlet and gold and in her hair were pins of coral, tortoiseshell and gold.
O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew
On seeing the the beautiful lady, Hagiwara immediately knelt before her in reverence and adoration touching his forehead to the ground as a sign of respect. The lady smiled down on him with shining eyes and then spoke softly, “Welcome, Hagiwara Sama, most noble samurai of the hatamoto. Please allow me to introduce myself and my handmaiden. My name is O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew and this is O’Yone my handmaiden. She it it is that has brought you to me and I thank her. Glad am I to see you and happy indeed is this hour!”
Gently raising him she led him into the house and into a room where ten mats were placed upon the floor. He was then entertained in the traditional manner as the Lady of the Morning Dew danced for him while her handmaiden beat upon a small scarlet and gold drum. They set the red rice for him to eat and sweet warm wine to drink as was the tradition and he ate all he was given. It was getting late when he had finished and after pleasant conversation he took his leave and as she showed him to the door the Lady of the Morning Dew whispered, “Most honourable Hagiwara, I would be most happy if you came again.”
Hagiwara was now in high spirits and flippantly laughed,“And what would it be if I did not return? What is it if I do not come back, what then?”
O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew flinched and then stiffened and her face grew pale and drawn. She looked him directly in the eye and laid a hand upon his shoulder and whispered, “It will be death. Death for you, death for me. That is the only way!”
Standing next to her O’Yone shuddered and hid her face in her hands.
Perplexed and very much disturbed, Hagiwara the samurai went off into the night wandering through the thick darkness of the sleeping city like a lost ghost, very very afraid.
He wandered long in the pitch black night searching for his home. It was not until the first grey streaks of dawn broke the darkness that he at last found himself standing before his own door. Tired and weary he went in and threw himself on his bed and then laughed,“Hah, and I have forgotten my shuttlecock!”
In the morning he sat alone thinking about all that had happened the day before. The morning passed and he sat through the afternoon thinking about it. Evening began to fall and suddenly he stood up saying, “Surely, it was all a joke played on me by two geisha girls. They will be laughing at me expecting me to turn up but I will show them. I will not let them make a fool of me!”
Therefore dressing in his best clothes he went out into the evening to find his friends. For the next week he spent his time sporting and partying and through all these entertainments he was the loudest, the happiest, the wittiest and the wildest, but he knew things were not right. At last he said,“Enough, I have had enough! I am sick and tired of all this charade!”
Leaving his friends he took to roaming the streets alone. He wandered from one end of Yedo by day and then back again at night. He sought out the hidden ways of the city, the lost courtyards, the back alleys and the forgotten paths that ran between the houses, searching, always searching, for what he did not know.
Yet, he could not find the house and garden of the Lady of the Morning Dew although his restless spirit searched and searched. Eventually finding himself outside his own home he went to bed and fell into a sickness. For three moons he ate and drank barely enough to keep himself alive and his body grew weak, pale and thin, like some hungry, restless, wraith. Three moons later during the hot rainy season he left his sickbed and wrapping himself in a light summer robe set out into the city despite the entreaties of his good and faithful servant
“Alas, my master has the fever and it is driving him mad!”wailed the servant.
Hagiwara took no notice and looking straight ahead set out with resolve saying,“Have faith! Have faith! All roads will take me to my true love’s house!”
Eventually he came to a quiet suburb of big houses with gardens and saw before him one with a bamboo fence. Smiling, Hagiwara quickly climbed the fence and jumped down saying,“Now we shall meet again!”
Hagiwara the samurai stood in shocked silence staring at it. An old man appeared and asked,“Lord, is there something I can do for you?”
However, he was shocked to find the garden was overgrown and unkempt. Moss had grown over the steps and the plum tree had lost its white blossom, its green leaves fluttered forlornly in the breeze. The house was dark, quiet and empty, its shutters closed and an air of melancholy hung over it.
The Lady Has Gone
“I see the white blossom has fallen from the plum tree. Can you tell me where the Lady of the Morning Dew has gone?” Hagiwara sadly replied.
“Alas, Lord, the Lady of the Morning Dew has fallen like the blossom of the plum tree. Six moons ago she was taken by a strange illness that could not be alleviated. She now lies dead in the graveyard on the hillside. Her faithful handmaiden, O’Yone, would not be parted from her and would not allow her mistress to wander through the land of the dead alone and so lies with her. It is for their sakes that I still come to this garden and do what I can, though being old now that is but little and now the grass grows over their graves.”
Devastated by the news Hagiwara went home. He wrote the name of O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew, on a piece of white wood and then burned incense before it and placed offerings before it. He made sure he did everything necessary to pay the proper respects and ensure the well being of her spirit.
The Festival of Bon
The time of the returning souls arrived, the Festival of Bon, that honors the spirits of the dead. People carried lanterns and visited the graves of those deceased. They brought them presents of flowers and food to show they still cared. The days were hot and on first night of the festival Hagiwara unable to sleep walked alone in his garden. It was cooler than the blazing heat of the day and he was thankful for it. All was quiet and calm and he was enjoying the peacefulness of the night. It was around the hour of the Ox, that he heard the sound of footsteps approach. It was too dark to see who it was but he could tell there were two different people that he thought were women by the sound of their footsteps. Stepping up to his rose hedge he peered into the darkness to catch sight of who it was approaching. In the darkness he could make out the figures of two slender women who walked along the lane hand in hand towards him. One held before them on a pole a peony lantern such as those the folk of Yedo used in their traditions to honour the dead and it cast an eerie light around them. As they approached the lantern was held up to reveal their faces and instantly he recognized them and gave a cry of surprise. The girl holding the peony lantern held it up to light his face
“Hagiwara Sama, it is you! We were told that you were dead. We have been praying daily for your soul for many moons!” she cried.
“O’Yone, is it really you?” he cried, “and is that truly your mistress, O’Tsuyu, the Lady of the Morning Dew, you hold by the hand?”
“Indeed, Lord, is is she who holds my hand,” she replied as they entered the garden, but the Lady of the Morning Dew held up her sleeve so that it covered her face.
“How did I ever lose you?” he asked,“How could it have happened?”
“My Lord, we have moved to a little house, a very little house in the part of the city they call the Green Hill. We were not allowed to take anything with us and now we have nothing at all. My Lady has become pale and thin through want and grief,”saidthe handmaiden.
Hagiwara the samurai gently drew his Lady’s sleeve away from her face but she turned away.
“Oh, Lord, do not look upon me, I am no longer fair,”she sobbed.Slowly he turned her around and looked into her face and the flame of love leapt in him and swept through him but he never said a word
As he gazed upon her the Lady of the Morning Dew shrank away saying,“Shall I stay, or shall I go?”
“Stay!” he replied without hesitation.
The Green Hill
Just before dawn Hagiwara fell into a deep slumber, eventually awakening to find himself alone. Quickly dressing he went out and went through the city of Yedo to the place of the Green Hill. He asked all he met if they knew where the house of the Lady of the Morning Dew was but no one could help him. He searched everywhere but found no sign or clue as to where it could be. In despair he turned to go home, lamenting bitterly that for the second time he had lost his love.
Miserably he made his way home. His path took him through the grounds of a temple situated on a green hill. Walking through he noticed two graves side by side. One was small and hardly noticeable but the other was larģe and grand marked by a solemn monument. In front of the monument was a peony lantern with a small bunch of peonies tied to. It was similar in fashion to many of those used throughout Yedo during the Festival of Bon in reverence of the dead.
Nevertheless, it caught his eye and he stood and stared. As if in a dream he heard the words of O’Yone, the handmaiden,
“We have moved to a little house, a very little house in the part of the city they call the Green Hill. … My Lady has become pale and thin through want and grief,”
Then he smiled and understood and he went home. He was greeted by his servant who asked if he was alright. The samurai tried to reassure him that he was fine emphasizing that he had never been happier. However, the servant knew his master and knew something was wrong and said to himself,“My master has the mark of death upon him. If he dies what will happen to me who has served him since he was a child?”
The faithful servant of Hagiwara realized someone was visiting his master in the night and grew afraid. On the seventh night he spied on his master through a crack in the window shutters and his blood ran cold at what he saw. His master was in the embrace of a most fearful and terrifying being whose face was the horror of the grave. He was gazing lovingly into its eyes and smiling at the loathsome thing while all the time stroking and caressing its long dark hair with his hands.
Illusion and Death
Nevertheless, Hagiwara was happy. Every night the ladies with the peony lantern came to visit him. Every night for seven nights no matter how wild the weather they came to him in the hour of the Ox. Every night Hagiwara lay with the Lady of the Morning Dew. Thus, by the strong bond of illusion were the living and dead merged and bound to each other
Just before dawn the fearful thing from the grave and its companion left. The faithful servant, fearing for his master’s soul went to seek the advice of a holy man. After relating to him all that he had seen he asked,“ Can my master be saved?”
The holy man thought for a moment and then replied, “Can humans thwart the power of Karma? There is little hope but we will do what we can.”
With that he instructed the servant in all that he must do. When he got home his master was out and he hid in his clothes an emblem of the Tathagata and placed them ready for the next morning for him to wear. After this, above all the doors and windows he placed a sacred text. When his Hagiwara returned late in the evening he was surprised to find he had suddenly become weak and faint. His faithful servant carried him to bed and gently placed a light cover over him as he fell into a deep sleep.
The servant hid himself that he may spy on whatever might come to pass that night. With the arrival of the hour of the Ox he heard footsteps outside in the lane. They came nearer and nearer and then slowed down and stopped close to the house and he hears a despairing voice say,
Entry is Barred
“Oh, O’Yone, my faithful handmaiden, what is the meaning of this? The house is all in darkness. Where is my lord?”
“Come away, come away, mistress, let us go back. I fear his heart has changed towards you,”whispered O’Yone.
“I will not go. I will not leave until I have seen my love. You must get me in to see him!” whispered the Lady of the Morning Dew.
“My Lady, we cannot pass into the house – see the sacred writing over the door over the windows, we cannot enter,” warned the handmaiden.
The Lady wailed and then began sobbing pitifully, “Hagiwara, my lord, I have loved you through ten lifetimes!” and then footsteps were heard leaving as O’Yone led her weeping mistress away.
It was the same the next night. At the hour of the Ox, footsteps in the lane were heard and then a long pitiful wail followed by the sound footsteps disappearing back down the lane as the ghosts departed sobbing and crying.
The next day Hagiwara got up, dressed and went out into the city. While he was out a pickpocket stole the emblem of Tathagata but he did not notice. When night came he lay awake unable to sleep but his faithful servant, worn out with worry and lack of sleep dozed off. In the night a heavy rain fell and and washed the sacred text from over the round window of the bedroom
The hour of the Ox crept round and footsteps were heard in the lane and entering the garden. Hagiwara listened as they came nearer and nearer until they stopped just outside.
The Power of Karma
“Tonight is the last chance, O’Yone. You must get me inside to my lord, Hagiwara. Remember the love of ten lifetimes. The power of Karma is great but we must overcome it. There must be a way you can get me in to see him!”said the Lady mournfully.
Inside Hagiwara heard them and called out,“Come to me my beloved, I await you!”
“We cannot enter. You must let us in!” she cried.
Hagiwara tried to sit up but he could not move.“Come to me my beloved!”he called again.
“I cannot enter and I am cut in two. Alas, for the sins of our previous life!” wailed the Lady.
Then, O’Yone grasped the hand of her mistress and pointed at the round window,“See, Lady, the rain has washed away the text!”
Holding hands the two rose gently upwards and passed like a mist through the round window into the bedroom of the samurai as he called out, “Come to me my beloved!,”
“Verily Lord, verily, I come!”answered the Lady.
The next morning the faithful servant of Hagiwara of the most honorable rank of hatamoto found his master grey lifeless and cold. By the side of him stood a peony lantern that still burned with a pale, yellow flame. The faithful servant seeing his master lying still and cold wept saying, “I cannot bear it.”And so the strong bond of illusion bound together the living and the dead.
The theme of the abduction of Queen Guinevere runs throughout Arthurian tradition and is taken up by numerous medieval writers. Caradoc of Llancarfan mentions it in his version of the Life of Gildas, as does Geoffrey of Monmouth, in Historia Regum Brittaniae, (History of the Kings of Britain). The theme is also taken up by medieval French poets Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron, and in the work of Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur. Here we look in brief at various versions of the abduction and then discuss ideas about how they may have been influenced by pagan elements and may be distant echoes of the dramas of ancient gods and goddesses before the arrival of Christianity.
Caradoc of Llancarfan
Probably one of the earliest examples of the abduction of Guinevere comes from The Life of Gildas, By Caradoc of Llancarfan (c.1130-1150). Guinevere’s abductor is the evil King Melwas of the Summer Country, or Somerset. He may have been an early prototype for Chrétien de Troyes Méléagant, and Malory’s Meliagrance.In this story Guinevere is abducted and violated and Arthur, who is referred to as a tyrant, spends an entire year seeking her out. Finally learning she was being in held by King Melwas in Glastonia, or Glastonbury. He raises a vast army intending to free his wife but as the two sides were about to clash, the cleric, Gildas and the clergy step between them. Gildas persuaded the two kings to parley and negotiated that Guinevere be returned to Arthur in peace and goodwill preventing a bloody battle to free her.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth names Mordred, Arthur’s nephew and illegitimate son, as the villain who attempts to covet Guinevere. Arthur had left Britain in Mordred’s stewardship while he went off fighting the Procurator of Rome, Lucius Hiberius, leaving Guinevere at home. While he was out of the country with most of his army, Mordred seduced Guinevere and claimed the crown from Arthur forcing him to return to Britain and fight. This culminated in the catastrophic Battle of Camlann where Mordred was killed and the badly wounded Arthur taken across the sea to Avalon to recover and the end of the Arthurian realm.
Chrétien de Troyes
In Lancelot, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, also known as Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, by Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot is the hero of the story who saves Guinevere from the Méléagant, the evil son of King Bagdemagus. In this story he races to the rescue of Guinevere having a series of adventures along the way. These include having to suffer the indignity, for a knight, of riding in a horse and cart driven by a dwarf that was carrying criminals to their execution. He then had to scramble over a sword bridge whose edge was turned upright and razor sharp. Although sustaining serious wounds crossing the bridge he was still ready to combat Méléagant, but Guinevere at the request of King Bagdemagus stopped the fight.
Later he was forced to fight Méléagant after the badly wounded Sir Kay was accused of raping Guinevere while she slept. Sir Kay was too bad wounded and had no strength available for such exertions and had been wrongly accused. Blood had been found on her sheets and because he was laid recuperating in the same room as her, he was blamed. In fact the blood was from Lancelot who had kept an illicit tryst with the queen and slept with her. Lancelot, knowing, but not admitting the truth, stepped in to fight and clear Sir Kay who was too weak to defend himself.
Malory’s, Le Morte d’Arthur
In Malory’s, Le Morte d’Arthur, wehn the month of May came, Guinevere decided she would participate in the age old tradition of a-Maying in the woods and fields of Westminster. Therefore, she set off with a party of ladies-in-waiting, along with servants and ten lightly armed Knights, who she insists wear all wear green. Sir Meliagrance, a name probably derived from the Méléagant in Chrétien de Troyes work, had long lusted after the queen and with 160 men-at-arms attacked the small company. Although her knights fight valiantly they are lightly armed and hopelessly outnumbered. To prevent their slaying she agreed to surrender provided they are spared and remain by her side. Meliagrance agrees but she manages to send a messenger boy to Lancelot telling of her abduction and requesting his aid.
On hearing the news Lancelot immediately set off in pursuit. Meliagrance, realising he would follow, set a trap for him and archers killed his horse. Lancelot was forced to hijack a horse and cart carrying wood for the fires of Meliagrance’s castle. From this he was given the name, Knight of the Cart. On arrival at the castle gates he shout for Meliagrance demanding he come down and face him. On learning Lancelot is at his gates Meliagrance begs Guinevere her forgiveness for his behaviour and begs that she protect him from the enraged knight. She agrees and persuades Lancelot to put his sword away. Lancelot agrees and she leads him to the chamber where the ten knights are kept.
They are both so glad to see each other they agree on a secret midnight tryst. Lancelot appears at her window at midnight and Guinevere tells him she would prefer it if he was inside with her. Although the window is barred Lancelot pulls the bars out cutting himself in the process and climbs in through the window. The two slept together that night and Lancelot stole away before Sunrise, replacing the bars of the window as he left.
The next morning Meliagrance seeing blood on the sheets of Guinevere’s bed accuses her of sleeping with one, or more, of her wounded knights. Lancelot, without revealing the truth, challenges Meliagrance to a fight to clear the queen’s name. Meliagrance brings a charge of treason against Guinevere believing she had slept with one or more of the knights. Although innocent of this accusation, Guinevere had slept with Lancelot which is not revealed to him, but he was not one of the individuals accused. The case is brought before King Arthur and he reluctantly agrees she must be burnt at the stake unless Lancelot proves her innocence by defeating Meliagrance. In the resulting duel Lancelot slays Meliagrance proving her innocence of the charges brought against her and freeing her.
Mordred’s Attempted Abduction
In Le Morte d’Arthur, Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son and nephew by his sister Morgause, covets Guinevere, but does not quite manage to abduct her. Mordred lied to Guinevere telling her4 Arthur had been killed by Lancelot and claimed the throne for himself intending to marry her. Guinevere persuaded Mordred to allow her to go to London so she could procure all the things a wedding needed but instead locked herself in the Tower of London with her entourage. Although Mordred tried to persuade her to come out his efforts were cut short by the news that Arthur had arrived back in Britain with his army. Consequently, he was forced to leave Guinevere and confront Arthur, resulting in his own death and Arthur being severely wounded and taken to Avalon.
Gods of the Round Table
Some scholars of Arthurian legend and romance see many of the stories of King Arthur and his knights, in legend and medieval romance, as being dramatizations of the adventures of Celtic gods and important natural events. They believe there was a special relationship between the king and the gods and the king and the land and to ensure the fertility of the land the king was wedded to the goddess of the land.
David Dom, in his book King Arthur and the Gods of the Round Table proposes that Arthur, Guinevere and the main companions of the Round Table to be a the distant and distorted memories of the old Celtic gods and Arthur is seen as representing a Solar God. To complicate matters, these stories were overwritten, or influenced by various culture over time, including Roman, English, French and European medieval Christianity and modern thinking. It centers around the idea that Arthurian legends and stories originally were dramatizations of the deeds and adventures of ancient pagan gods with the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table making up the pantheon, being a part of it.
There is an intriguing idea that the stories of the abduction of Guinevere are echoes of earlier pagan traditions centered around the annual cycle of the seasons in Northern Europe. One of the ways this annual cycle may have been dramatized was in that the seasonal changes were due to the activities and adventures of the gods. In both Malory’s version and that of Chrétien de Troyes, Guinevere is abducted in the spring, and in Malory’s it is while she is celebrating May Day, or Beltane, the time of the renewal of vegetation. Many scholars see this as evidence that the kidnapping was originally a season myth with Guinevere being a goddess and her abductor a god. In the original versions by Chrétien de Troyes , after being abducted Guinevere was take across water – an indication that she was leaving the Earthly world for the Otherworld – and her rescuers had to cross the water to reach her in that world. After her rescue Guinevere and Lancelot became lovers which also happened in the spring, around Beltane.
This comes after the bleak barren days of winter and is seen to represent the marriage of the god and goddess heralding the end of the dark, bleak period of winter and the greatly looked forward to renewal of vegetation and fertility to the Earth. In the Chrétien de Troyes version the entire episode takes place over one year, tying it further to the annual seasonal cycle. The abduction stories while only hinting at pagan influence on the surface have been heavily overwritten with Christian influences which tend to cover up the inherent pagan elements of the loves and romances of the gods. To pursue this further it is worth taking a look at the annual cycle of seasons for Northern Europe and what follows is a very simplified version of one of the many versions
In winter the days are cold, dark and short. Vegetation dies and crops do not grow and food becomes in short supply. In some pagan northern European societies winter was thought of as the imprisonment of the eternally young, Earth goddess in the depths of the Earth by the aging winter solar god. As winter progressed the power of the Sun god waned as the Sun rode low in the sky. As his power waned he became more like a malignant god of the underworld and feared the arrival of a young, potent Sun god who would steal the Earth goddess from him. Desperate to preserve his own power and survive, he imprisoned the Earth goddess in the underworld to prevent anyone from stealing her. The imprisonment of the Earth Goddess resulted in a loss of fertility and renewal being withdrawn from the Earth, causing dramatic and disastrous consequences for humanity.
In spring the young Sun god arrives and takes a higher path across the sky providing longer days, more daylight and warmer weather. His youth, strength and virility defeats and supplants the aging Sun god and frees the Earth goddess from imprisonment. With a more agreeable climate and the freeing of the goddess the Earth returns to life and seeds germinate, plants bud and grow and animals breed. The young Sun god takes the eternally young Earth goddess for his bride around the time of the festival of Beltane, commonly held on the 1st of May, or halfway between the March, or vernal equinox and the summer solstice, or midsummer, when the Sun’s power is at its height.
As the days grew longer and warmer, with the marriage of the Sun god and the Earth goddess the Earth is fertilized, plants grow and thrive and harvest time arrives which is the product of this marriage. The young Sun god has reached the heights of his power at midsummer and the coming days will see his power decline.
With the decline of power of the now aging Sun god there is a steadily decrease in sunlight and warmth, the days grow steadily shorter, vegetation begins to shrivel and die. The cycle of the previous years repeats and slowly and inevitable the aging Sun god loses his strength, vigor and virility just as his predecessors had and just as those who come after him will.
As his strength and potency diminish he appears lower in the sky, days become shorter and darker as winter sets in. In a desperate attempt to keep his beautiful and eternally young wife he imprisons her in the underground. The Sun god reaches his lowest and weakest point at midwinter, or the Winter Solstice and is defeated by the young Sun god who frees and marries the Earth goddess. This cycle must continue eternally to bring fertility, renewal and growth to the Earth.
In the version of the abduction of Guinevere by Chrétien de Troyes the drama was played out over one year with Meleagant, Guinevere’s abductor representing the doomed and aging Sun god and Lancelot the virile and potent, young Sun god.
Goddess of Sovereignty
There is also an idea that Guinevere was either an ancient Goddess of Sovereignty, or a representative of one. A Goddess of Sovereignty was an aspect or servant of the Earth goddess, also known as the Earth Mother or Mother Earth and Goddess of the Land, in some cultures.
Those who follow this idea point to the fact that the story begins in May which is around the festival of Beltane. It is at this time of year the everywhere is green and fertile and in celebration Malory tells how Queen Guinevere decides she will go a-Maying. Those who see Arthurian characters as divinities, see Guinevere as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty that bestows the sovereignty of the land onto the King, who in this case is Arthur. As such his role is taking care of the land and inhabitants ensuring it remains fertile. To do this she needs a strong, virile king but in these stories Arthur is usually portrayed as aging and losing power. Lancelot being the younger and more potent of the two may be seen by a Goddess of Sovereignty as an ideal replacement, but despite his love for Guinevere he remains loyal to Arthur not wanting the crown.
It may also be the case that simply being in possession of a representative of the goddess would be enough to give authority to the claim of kingship. This would make Guinevere a valuable prize for anyone who would be king and helps explain her numerous abductions, especially Mordred’s interest in her. It also explain why, for the most, part Arthur appears reluctant to acknowledge, or deal with the situation of her affair with Lancelot until he is forced into it.
The affair with Lancelot may not have been about Guinevere’s alleged sexual promiscuity but more about her fulfilling her role as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty. Furthermore her abductions may not necessarily have been about love, lust or desire for her as a woman, but more about possessing the representative of the goddess. For all of that these are just ideas and theories and it is up to each person to decide what it means to them.
Sir Galahad first appeared in medieval Arthurian romance in the Lancelot-Grail cycle of works and then later in Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. He was the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic and became one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. When he came of age he was considered the best knight in the world and the perfect knight and was renowned for his gallantry and purity becoming one of only three Knights of the Round Table to achieve the Holy Grail. The other two were Sir Bors and Sir Percival. Pieced together here is a brief look at his early life and how through his immaculate behavior he rose to such an exalted status achieving the Holy Grail and a spiritual dimension which remained frustratingly out of reach of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and most of the the other Knights of the Round Table and concludes by comparing his achievements with those of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot.
King Pelles the lord of Corbenic the Grail Castle, in the land of Listeneise and was Galahad’s maternal grandfather. He was also one of the line of the guardians of the Holy Grail. In some Arthurian romances Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Britain and gave it to Bron, his brother-in-law, to keep safe and Pelles was descended from Bron. In some versions of Arthurian romance Pelles is also known as the Fisher King or Maimed King.
Pelles had been wounded in the legs or groin resulting in a loss of fertility and his impotence was reflected in the well-being his of kingdom making it infertile and a Wasteland. This is why he was sometimes called the Maimed King. The only activity he appeared able to do was go fishing. His servants had to carry him to to the water’s edge and there he would spend his time fishing which is why he is sometimes called the Fisher King. Galahad was important to King Pelles as he was the only one who could heal his wound.
Elaine and Lancelot
King Pelles had a daughter named Elaine and he had been forewarned by magical means that Lancelot would become the father of his daughter’s child. This child would grow to become the world’s best and most perfect knight and be chosen by God to achieve the Holy Grail. He was the chosen one who would be the only one pure enough to be able to heal his wound. There was a problem though. Lancelot was dedicated solely to Guinevere, his true love and would never knowingly sleep with another woman. Nevertheless Pelles was desperate for the liaison to take place and decided to seek magical help from Dame Brusen. She was one of Elaine’s servants who was skilled in the art of sorcery to help his cause. She gives Pelles a magic ring for Elaine to wear which gives her the likeness of Guinevere.
Elaine wears the magic ring and transforms into the a double of Guinevere. Lancelot is fooled by the masquerade and they sleep together. When he discovers the deception he is angry and ashamed and threatens to kill her. She tells hims she is with his child and he relents but leaves Corbenic.
Elaine in due course gives birth to his son who she names Galahad. This is the name Lancelot was baptized with when he was born. It was the Lady of the Lake who fostered and raised Lancelot in her magical realm and it was she who named him Lancelot du Lac, or Lancelot of the Lake.
The madness of Lancelot
Soon afterwards Elaine goes to a feast at Arthur’s court. Although Lancelot is also there he refuses to acknowledge her, making her sorrowful and lovelorn. She calls her servant Dame Brusen to her and tells her how she is feeling and asks for her help. Dame Brusen tells Elaine that she will fix it so Lancelot lies with her that night. Pretending to Lancelot that Guinevere has summoned him she leads him to her chamber, but it is Elaine waiting there for him in bed in the dark and again he sleeps with her.
While he is with Elaine, Guinevere summons him and is furious to discover he is not in his bed chamber and even more so when she discovers him lying with Elaine in hers. She tells him that she never wants to see or talk to him again and will have nothing more to do with him. Lancelot is so upset and disturbed at what has happened and with Guinevere’s admonishments that madness takes him and he leaps out of the window running off into the wilderness.
Lost in madness and consumed by grief and sorrow he wanders alone through the wild places before he eventually reaches Corbenic where Elaine finds him insane her garden. She takes him to a chamber in Corbenic Castle where he is allowed to view the Holy Grail, but only through a veil. Nevertheless this veiled sight of the holy relic is enough to cure him of his insanity. Although he sees it through the veil, having committed adultery he is not pure enough so he can never be the perfect knight that achieves the Grail.
When his son is born he finally forgives Elaine but will not marry her and instead returns to the court of King Arthur. The child is named Galahad, after his father’s former name and given to his great aunt to bring up in a nunnery. Merlin foretells that Galahad will be even more valiant than his father and will achieve the Holy Grail.
Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail
It was not until Galahad became a young man that he was reunited with Sir Lancelot, his father, who makes him a knight. Lancelot then takes Galahad to Camelot at Pentecost where he joins the court. A veteran knight who accompanied him leads him to the Round Table and unveils an empty chair which is called the Siege Perilous or the Perilous Seat. At the advice of Merlin this seat was kept vacant for the knight who was to achieve the Quest for the Holy Grail.
This was his first test or worthiness as this chair in the past had proved deadly for any who had previously sat there who had hoped to find the Grail. Galahad sits in the seat and survives. King Arthur sees this and is impressed seeing that there is something special about him and leads him down to a river where there is a floating stone with a sword embedded in it which bears an inscription which says,
“Never shall man take me hence but only he by whose side I ought to hang; and he shall be the best knight of the world.”
Galahad tries and takes the sword from the stone and Arthur immediately declares that he is the greatest knight ever. Arthur invites Galahad to become a member of the Round Table which he accepts. Not long after the mystical presence of the Holy Grail is briefly experienced by those at King Arthur’s Court and the quest to find the grail is immediately begun. All the Knights of the Round Table embark on the quest leaving Camelot virtually empty. Arthur is sad because he knows many will die or not return and fears it is the beginning of the end of his kingdom.
Galahad mainly traveled alone and became involved in many adventures. In one he saves Sir Percival when he was attacked by twenty knights and rescued many maidens in distress. Eventually he meets up again with Sir Percival who is accompanied by Sir Bors and together they find the sister of Sir Percival who takes them to a ship that will take them over the sea to a distant shore. Sadly when they reach the shore Percival’s sister has to die that another may live. To ensure she gets a fit and proper burial Sir Bors takes her body back to her homeland.
Sir Galahad and Sir Percival continue the quest and after many adventures arrive at the court of King Pelles and his son Eliazar. Pelles and Eliazar are holy men and take Sir Galahad into a room to show him the Holy Grail and they request that he take it to a holy city called Sarras. After being shown the Grail, Sir Galahad asks that he may he may choose the time of his own death which is granted.
While he is on the journey back to Arthur’s court Joseph of Arimathea comes to him and he experiences such feeling of ecstasy that he asks to die there and then. He says his goodbyes to Sir Percival and Sir Bors and angels appear and he is carried off to heaven as his two friends watch. Although there is nothing to say that the Holy Grail will not once again be seen on earth it was said that since the ascension to heaven of Galahad there has not been another knight with the necessary qualities of achieving the Holy Grail.
Galahad’s achievement of the Holy Grail
Sir Galahad and the quest for the Holy Grail is one of the later stories that appeared as Arthurian romances grew in popularity. The thought is that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were not pure enough to achieve such an important religious task. Galahad was introduced into the fold as one of the few who had the purity and personal qualities to qualify him as worthy enough to achieve the Holy Grail. Just as when Arthur drew the sword from the stone and became the chosen one, Galahad did the same and also became the chosen one. He chose the kingdom of God whereas Arthur built a kingdom on earth. In taking up the quest for the Holy Grail the priority is to the spiritual rather than the earthly life and Galahad fulfills the spiritual dimension of Arthurian romance and becomes the example for his contemporaries and those coming after him to aspire to.
The three hares is an ancient symbol that is found in many religious places, buildings and caves ranging from the British Isles, Germany, France and other parts of Europe to the Middle East and parts of China in the Far East. In Britain the symbols are mostly architectural ornaments or found in church roofs and sometimes on ceilings of private homes. In Europe they are found mostly in churches and synagogues. It is also used as a motif in heraldry, jewelry, ornaments, tattoos and other works of art. It has been wrought in many different materials and can be thought of as a puzzle, a topological problem, or a visual challenge, and can be found in stone sculptures, wood carvings, paintings, drawings and metal work.
Threefold rotational symmetry
Essentially the motif consists of three hares, or rabbits, chasing each other the same way around a circle. There is a threefold rotational symmetry with each of the three ears being shared by two hares.The ears form a triangle that appears at the centre of the circle, where, instead of there being six ears visible, there are only three, even though individually the hares all show two. Occasionally a Four Hares motif is found in some places which is a similar but shows four ears, instead of eight, even though all the hares have two ears, making a square in the center.
The Tinners Rabbit’s
In the county of Devon and other parts of the south west England the motif is sometimes known as the Tinner’s Rabbits. This refers to the trade of tin mining that was once an important industry in the area. The theory was that a tin miners trade association or union that used the Three Hares motif as its emblem was the patron to a number of churches. This might explain its high proportion of representations in churches in the area. However, the motif is also found in parts of England with no association with tin mining, though it could have represented some other association that patronized these churches, but the theory is not accepted by everyone and the truth remains elusive.
The symbol is similar to the triskelion the triquetra and the triple spiral, or triskele. The meaning of the motif is unknown today though it is believed to have a number of symbolic and mystical associations and was possibly something to do with fertility and the cycle of the moon in paganism. Its presence in Christian churches is thought to symbolize the Trinity though this cannot be proved and the fact that it is found in so many different countries over such a wide distance it may in fact have more than one meaning or purpose depending on the culture where it is found.
The Three Hares motif seems to have spread from the Far East westwards between 600 AD and 1500 AD. The earliest known examples comes from the Sui Dynasty of China where it was found in sacred caves used for temples from the 6th to 7th century. From there the motif was believed to have become connected to Buddhism and possibly spread along the Silk Road to the Middle East and eventually to Europe.
A researcher named Guan Youhui, now retired from the Dunhuang Academy, spent 50 years studying the patterns and symbols that are found in the Mogao Caves. He believed the Three Hares motif represent “peace and tranquility” while others think they may represent “to be”.
The Three Hares can be found in “Lotus” motifs and Mongol metalwork from the 13th century. It has been found on a copper coin from Iran dated 1281 and on other artifacts from diverse origins.
TIt is a mystery to how the Three Hares motif is found over such a large range from China the Middle East, Europe and the British Isles. Although the earliest examples are found in China it is unknown why it occurs in so many diverse countries.It is possible it spread along the great trading route of the Silk Road to other regions of the world but it could also have developed independently in different places with different meanings attached to it. In the first instance it may have incorporated in the design of silks and artifacts simply because it was a pleasing design or it had some special significance. With the second instance the majority of the occurrence of the motif are found in churches and synagogues in Germany and England, implying some religious significance was attached to it.
Christian use of the Three Hares
The Three Hares motif is found in a number of churches in some European countries. In Lyons, France the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière and in Germany, the Paderborn Cathedral display excellent examples of the use of the motif.The southwestern parts of England has the most examples and the Three Hares Trail can be followed to see them. They are often placed on carved wooden knobs, or bosses in a prominent position in the ceilings or roof of medieval churches, giving weight to the idea that they had some special significance and not just the trade symbols of masons or carpenters. The Dartmoor area has a number of Three Hares motifs found in churches. A fine example of a carved wood boss can be seen on a roof boss in the church of St Pancreas, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, near Dartmoor, Devon.
In Christianity there are at least two possible reasons why it it placed in churches. The first is that in ancient times the hare was believed to be a hermaphrodite that reproduced without sexual intercourse and in doing so retained its virginity. As such it became associated with the Virgin Mary and its image used in illuminated manuscripts and paintings of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus.
The second reason is that the motif could be representative of the Holy Trinity. The three ears from the three hares form a triangle in the centre of the motif possibly representing One in Three and Three in one. Triangles and interlocking rings were quite often used to represent the Holy Trinity.
Intriguingly the Three Hares symbol is often found next to the so called Green Man symbol. Like the Three Hares symbol little or possibly less is known about the Green Man. It is speculated to be an Anglo-Saxon symbol though many people think it may be a far older originating Celtic times. What it is doing in a Christian church is unknown. Some speculate that the two together are meant to show the difference between the divine and the earthly nature of humans.
An ancient German riddle
Curiously the motif is found in many of the more well known wooden synagogues in the Ashknaz region of Germany dating from the 17th and 18th century along with the following riddle:-
Three hares sharing three ears,
Yet every one of them has two.
Coat of Arms of Hasloch – Public Domain
The meaning of the Three Hares motif
The hare is an animal that is involved in many myths and legends in many different cultures around the world. The Three Hares motif can be found from Britain across Eurasia to China and was found in Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Hindu cultures. If there was a thread that linked them all together, or a common meaning attached to the motif, it is lost now but it is intriguing to find it in such diverse places.
Symbolism of the Three Hares
But there may be something that they may all have in common. The use of symbols or icons, or imagery helps make learning and remembering important information easier especially for people who cannot read or write. The use of images is an invaluable aid for people in such circumstances as they convey meaning and information quickly and easily. The paintings in the caves of Mogao Caves of China to the churches in the English countryside appear to be intended to convey some, but not necessarily the same message, or idea. The symbol of the Three Hares was at least one possible way that the information was conveyed. What exactly the message was is not known but if one looks at the places and the cultures that they are found in it could be that ideas will naturally spring to mind. Could it be that by looking at and thinking about the puzzle the beholder is being deliberately placed in a situation where they have to use their own knowledge and experience in combination with the location and culture the symbol is found in to make sense of it in the world that they find themselves in?
One last question
There is probably no right or wrong answer, but do you think The Three Hares symbol has a meaning; does it change with culture and location, or is it just an attractive image used for decoration?
In Greek mythology Gaia appeared out of Chaos and was the primal Mother Goddess who gave birth to the Earth and the universe. According to some sources she was seen as the personification of the Earth and the mother of all.
Ouranos the god of the skies
Ouranos was the personification of the sky or the heavens in Greek mythology and is also known by his Latinized name of Uranus. He was also known as Father Sky. Sources differ but Hesiod in his work Theogony says that Gaia was his mother while other sources say his father was Aether.
Gaia gave birth to Ouranos who became the sky crowned with stars and of equal splendor to her and made so as to fully cover her. She then created the mountains and the sea. After the universe had been formed the next task was to populate it.
The birth of the Titans
Ouranos was not only her son but her husband too. Gaia united with Ouranos to give birth to the twelve Titans, six male and six female and the first race upon the earth. Their sons names were Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus and Cronus, and their daughters names were Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe and Tethys.
The birth of the Cyclops
Ouranos and Gaia then produced the Cyclops, who were named Brontes, Steropes and Arges. These were giants with one eye in their foreheads and who possessed incredible strength.
The birth of Briareus, Cottus and Gyes
Their next offspring were three monsters who each had one hundred powerful arms and fifty heads. They were known as the Hecatonchires, or the Centimanes, and their names were Briareus, Cottus and Gyes.
Ouranos regarded his children with horror and revulsion and was also thought to be fearful of their strength, and possibly usurping him. As soon as they were born he imprisoned them in the earth, which was inside Gaia who was the Earth goddess.
Victory, Janus, Chronos, and Gaea – by Giulio Romano – Public Domain
Gaia was distraught at this, and feeling great sorrow for her children and great pain for herself planned vengeance against Ouranos. From her bosom she manifested a sharp sickle and asked her children to join in with a plan she had made to set them free and wreak vengeance. The plan was to castrate Ouranos when he visited her at night. Only Cronus agreed to help her and she gave him the sickle.
When evening fell Ouranos returned to rejoin Gaia. While Ouranos was asleep, Cronus and Gaia mutilated him, cutting off his genitals and throwing them in the sea. From the blood that seeped from the terrible wound onto the earth sprang the Furies, the Giants and the ash-tree nymphs. From what was thrown into the sea the goddess of love and desire, known as Aphrodite, was born.
Cronus becomes king of the gods
With Ouranos now impotent and the sky separated from the earth, Cronus liberated his fellow Titans, but not the Cyclops and Hecatonchires, and became king of the gods. Later he too was to be deposed by his son Zeus, who became the chief god of the Greek Pantheon.
Barley has a long association with human society because of its uses for food, drink and medicine that goes back some 12,000 years. Used for animal feed and to make bread for human consumption, it is also used to make popular alcoholic drinks such as beer, barley wine, whisky and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
Beer is the oldest and the most common of all alcoholic drinks and after water and tea the third most popular beverage. With its ancient importance, barley has given rise to many myths and is the source of much folklore and many people think that hidden in an old traditional folk song of the British Isles called John Barleycorn, lies the story of barley.
Barley – Public Domain Image
The Ballad of John Barleycorn
A traditional British folk ballad, called John Barleycorn, depicts the lead character as the personification of barley and its products of bread, beer and whisky. The song is very old and there are many versions from all around the British Isles. The song does have strong connections with Scotland with possibly the Robert Burns version the most well-known though the song goes way back to before the times of Elizabeth 1st.
In the song, John Barleycorn is subject to many violent, physical abuses leading to his death. Each abuse represents a stage in the sowing, growing, harvesting, malting and preparation of barley to make beer and whisky.
In many versions there is confusion because it is brandy that is consumed even though brandy is made from grapes, rather than whisky or beer made from barley. John Barleycorn is also a term used to denote an alcoholic drink that is distilled such as a spirit, rather than fermented like beer.
In some versions of the song there is more emphasis on the way different tradesmen take revenge on John Barleycorn for making them drunk. The miller grinds him to a powder between two stones. However John Barleycorn often proves the stronger character due to his intoxicating effect on his tormentors and the fact hat his body is giving sustenance to others making humans dependent upon him.
Through the savagery inflicted upon John Barleycorn the song metaphorically tells the story of the sowing, cultivating and harvesting cycle of barley throughout the year. The ground is ploughed, seeds are sown, and the plant grows until ready for harvest. It is then cut with scythes, and tied into sheaves, which are flayed to remove the grain.
Pagan and Anglo-Saxon Associations
Wikipedia says that some scholars think that John Barleycorn has strong connections with the pagan Anglo-Saxon character of Beowa also known as Beaw, Beow, or Beo or sometimes Bedwig. In Old English ‘Beow’ means ‘barley’ and ‘Sceafa’ means ‘sheaf.’ From Royal Anglo-Saxon lineage, Beowa is the son of Scyld who is the son of Sceafa in a pedigree that goes back to Adam.
Many scholars also think that there are strong associations with Beowa and Beowulf and the general agreement is that they are the same character. Some scholars also think that Beowa is the same character as John Barleycorn while others disagree.
The Golden Bough
Wikepedia says, Sir James George Frazer, in his book, ‘The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion’ asserts that many of the old religions of the world were derived from fertility cults which had at their core the ritual sacrifice of a Sacred king who was also known as the Corn King, who was the embodiment of the Sun god. Each year he went through a cycle of death and rebirth in a union with the Earth goddess, dying at the harvest time to be reborn in the spring.
The Corn King
The Corn King was chosen from the men of a tribe to be the king for a year. At the end of the year he would then dance, or perform thanksgiving and fertility rituals in the fields before being ritually killed. So that the soil would be fertilised his body was dragged through the fields to enable his blood to run into the soil. It may be that he may then have been eaten by the tribe in completion of the ritual.
As well as other uses, the barley was made into cakes which would be stored for the winter and were thought to hold the spirit of the Corn King. Around the time of the winter solstice when the sun was at its weakest and as it started to strengthen, the cakes would be fed to children giving them the spirit of the corn king.
There are also theories that possibly an earlier form of John Barleycorn represented a pagan rite before the rise of Christianity. There are suggestions that the early Christian church in Anglo-Saxon England adapted this to help the conversion of the pagan population to Christianity. This is a tactic that was used with Yule and other pagan festivals and traditions. In some versions of the song, John Barleycorn suffers in a similar way to Christ, especially in the version by Robert Burns.
After undergoing ritualistic suffering and death, his body is ground into flour for bread and drink. Some scholars compare this with the Sacrament and Transubstantiation of Christian belief though not all agree.
We will probably never know the true origins and meaning that are hidden in the story of John Barleycorn but the song and its mysteries still have a powerful effect on people today. Many popular musicians and folk artists have performed versions of the song in the recent past and it is still a popular song today.
In 1970, the progressive rock group, ’Traffic’ made an album entitled, John Barleycorn Must Die, featuring a song of the same name which went on to become a classic.
The song is popular with recording and performing artists and a favourite with audiences. Folk rock bands Fairport Convention and Steel-eye Span and many other rock and folk artists have recorded versions of the song ensuring the story of John Barleycorn is still sung and celebrated, so that even though the meaning may be lost in time, the story lives on.
The popular legend of how Lady Godiva rode naked on horse back through the streets of Coventry to save the people from a crippling and unjust tax known as the Heregild, is one of the most renowned stories in British folklore. The Heregild was a tax imposed on the English by the Danish King Canute to pay for his body guard.
Lady Godiva, by artist John Collier – Public Domain Image
According to the legend the event happened on a market day and had profoundly beneficial consequences for the people of Coventry.
The problem with legends is that there are often more than one versions of the same story and events that happened in the distant past get changed and exaggerated until it is difficult to discern the accuracy of accounts. This article presents a version of the popular legend of Lady Godiva as it exists today and has been put together from a number of other versions. It is the first of a planned series on the subject each of which will present different view points on the legend, such as the historical and pagan contexts of the story.
The Heregild Tax
Earl Leofric was a powerful lord loyal to King Canute and owed his position to his goodwill. As such he was not prepared to risk losing that goodwill. He strictly imposed the Heregild on the people and made sure it was collected
Lady Godiva was also rich and owned valuable land and assets in her own right in the area and was very fond of the local people. One of those assets was the town of Coventry. She was a devout Christian and was renowned for being pious, virtuous and faithful to the Christian Church and its ideals. In comparison, it was said that Leofric, although thought to be a Christian, did not hold quite the same religious convictions as his wife.
Lady Godiva could see the suffering it was causing to her beloved people and persistently begged Leofric to put an end to the tax. With his patience running thin through his wife’s continuous pestering he is reputed to have told her that she would have to ride naked through the streets of Coventry before he would repeal the tax.. He probably said this out of exasperation, thinking his very prim and pious wife would never do such a thing. However, Leofric badly underestimated his wife’s devotion to the people and her determination to help them.
Lady Godiva takes up the Challenge
Godiva took up the challenge and rode naked on a horse through the streets of Coventry. There are a number of variations to the legend, but one says that the people of Coventry were so grateful to Godiva, that they kept to their homes and covered the windows and no one took advantage of the situation to try and peek at her.
Another later variation tells how she had sent out messengers to clear the streets in front of her as she rode. All the citizens of Coventry obeyed except for one who tried to peep but was immediately struck blind. His name was Tom who was a tailor, and from that day on he became known as Peeping Tom.
In Coventry’s Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre there is a rather peculiar carved painted wooden effigy said to be a depiction of Peeping Tom. Its eyes are blank possibly because the paint has worn off or possibly for other reasons. Either way, Lady Godiva completed the ride veiled only by her long golden hair which was long enough to cover her body, leaving only her face and legs visible.
Leofric Keeps His Promise
It seems her husband, Leofric, was so impressed that his demure and pious wife would dare to do such a thing for the people of Coventry and so amazed that no one had seen her that he changed his own religious convictions. He regarded it as a miracle and keeping his word to his wife he repealed the hated Heregild and founded a Benedictine monastery with her, although no trace of this remains today.
The grateful people of Coventry held an annual fair keeping alive the story of Godiva and her heroism. Unfortunately this was banned during the Reformation.
The Godiva Procession
Around 1678 the fair was revived with a representative of Lady Godiva riding through the streets on a snow white horse accompanied by a man making lewd and suggestive gestures. The Godiva Procession is an annual event which takes place in June.
Although the naked ride of Lady Godiva is one of Britain’s most famous legends there is no proof that it actually happened though Godiva and Leofric were both historical and important figures in their day. It is still debated whether this was the same Godiva or a different person. Historically, back in the days when the event was supposed to have happened Coventry was just a small settlement and nothing like the city we know today. Many scholars think that the legend has its roots in pagan ceremonies such as the May Queen. These and other ideas will be dealt with in future articles.
The legend of the Christmas Rose tells the story of how a young shepherdess named Madelon, through her love and devotion, came to give the baby Jesus a gift more precious than gold, frankincense or myrrh.
Madelon and the Christmas Rose – Public Domain
The Christmas Rose
The Christmas rose (helleborus niger) is actually a perennial herb and grows in the cold, snowy mountains and high valleys across Europe. The flowers are white and star-shaped and tipped with pink. It is also known as the Snow Rose and the Winter Rose as it blossoms in the mid-winter season when most other vegetation lies dormant and covered by snow.
The tradition tells how the shepherds, while watching their flocks, were visited by an Angel who was leading the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus. The Angel told them of the birth of Jesus who would be known as the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings and the Saviour of their people. Overjoyed, the shepherds left their flocks to visit the new born king taking him such gifts as they could afford and were befitting of their status such as, honey, fruit and snow-white doves.
Now on that cold winter night when Jesus was born, the shepherds were not the only ones out on the hillside tending their flocks. A young shepherdess, called Madelon, was also out tending her family’s flock and had witnessed the arrival of the Angel and the Magi and heard what the Angel told the shepherds.
Love And Devotion
Hearing the news, the young girl’s heart became full of love and devotion and filled with faith. At a distance she followed the Angel, the Magi and the shepherds to the stable where Jesus lay in the manger, cared for by Mary and Joseph.
The Magi Give Baby Jesus Wonderful Gifts
She watched as they entered the stable and the Magi laid their wonderful gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense before the baby Jesus. She watched as the shepherds gave their gifts of honey, fruit and snow-white doves. Realizing she had nothing to give she rushed back to the hillside to try and find flowers that she could lay before him.
Finding none on the snow covered hillside she became full of shame and despair and began crying. As she cried her tears fell down her face onto the snowy ground around her. Seeing this from on high the Angel came down and touched the ground and a bush of the most beautiful winter roses sprang forth at her feet.
A Precious Gift Of Pure Blooms
The Angel told her, “No gold, no frankincense, no myrrh, is as precious, or as fitting a gift for the Prince of Peace as these pure blooms that are born from the pure tears of love, faith and devotion.”
Christmas in the modern world is a time of revelry, eating and overindulgence of drink, the giving of presents, carol singing and much more. The Roman festival of Saturnalia is believed to have been a forerunner of the Christmas we know and celebrate today giving us many customs and traditions that we use and enjoy.
Dice players – Author: WolfgangRieger – Public Domain Image
The Roman Festival of Saturnalia
An early forerunner to Christmas was the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. This festival was held in honour Saturn an agricultural deity who reigned during the Golden Age. This was a time of peace, when all was prosperous and plentiful. A time when people’s needs were met with out having to work and every one lived in a state of social equality with one another. The festival commenced on the 17th December to the 23rd of December. Saturnalia could be celebrated anywhere in the Roman Empire not just Rome.
Saturnalia was time of great feasting, making merry and revelry with copious amounts of drinking and over indulging in food. People went out in the streets singing from door to door. It was a time for the giving and receiving of presents. The revelry was supposed to reflect the conditions of the Golden Age.
During Saturnalia leaves and branches of evergreens were fashioned into wreathes and carried by priests in processions. Gambling and throwing dice, which in ancient Rome was discouraged became permitted for both masters and slaves over the duration of the festival.
Public buildings and squares were adorned with flowers and lit with candles. Candles may have represented the search for truth and knowledge and also the return of the sun after the winter solstice. In later times the 25th of December by the Julian calendar, Romans celebrated Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, or the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.”
Role reversal during Saturnalia
During Saturnalia roles were reversed between master and slave, with slave becoming the master and the master, the slave. Some reports from ancient sources say slaves and masters ate at the same table together. Other reports say the slaves ate first and others say that the masters served the slaves their food. No doubt it was the slaves who did the actual preparation and clearing up.
Slaves were also said to be allowed to show a certain amount of disrespect to their masters but in reality it was probably more of an act. This is because the role reversal was temporary, only lasting through Saturnalia so slaves still needed to be wary of upsetting their master too much.
Dressing for Saturnalia
As can be expected during important festivals people like to dress up and wear their best clothes and Romans were no different. During Saturnalia men set aside the toga, their usual garment, in favour of Greek styled clothing. They also wore a conical cap of felt called the pilleus, which was a token of a freedman. Even slaves were allowed to wear the pilleus during Saturnalia.
Giving presents during Saturnalia
December the 23rd was known as “The Sigillaria and on this day presents and gifts were given. Against the spirit of the season the value of gifts given and received was a sign of social status. These might be candles, items of pottery, wax figurines, writing tablets, combs, lamps and many other such articles. Sometimes bird or animals were given. The rich sometimes gave a slave or an exotic animal of some kind. Children were given toys.
The Lord of Misrule
The ruler of Saturnalia and the master of ceremonies was called Saturnalicius princeps and was chosen by lot. A similar figure is seen in medieval times presiding over the Feast of Fools and was known as the Lord of Misrule. He would issue absurd and whimsical commands which had to be obeyed, hence creating chaos and (mis)rule and an absurd world.
The influence of Saturnalia on Christmas today
Many historians and scholars see the festival of Saturnalia as being as one of the original sources of many of today’s Christmas practices. The giving of presents, carol singing, the lighting of candles and the use of evergreen plants for decorations all continue to this day. The practice of eating and drinking to excess and the carnival atmosphere that prevails over the season are reminiscent of the festival of Saturnalia.
This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.
The northern lights and the southern lights are natural phenomena that occur in the night skies over the polar regions of the planet. Today, we know they are caused by gas molecules in the atmosphere colliding with solar particles. This releases energy as light and creates colourful displays of light that display in fold-like shapes, streamers, rays, arches and many other amazing forms.
The northern lights are also known as ‘Aurora borealis’ and the southern lights as ‘Aurora australis.’ In Roman mythology Aurora was the goddess of the dawn, so Aurora borealis means ‘dawn of the north,’ and Aurora australis means dawn of the south.
They can be very beautiful and awe-inspiring and at the same time mysterious and even frightening. Many different cultural and ethnic groups who lived in places where they are seen have developed many myths and legends to try and explain and make meaning of them in their own terms.
The Fox-fires of Lapland
In the language of the Finnish people the northern lights are known as “Revontulet.” In English this means “Fox Fires” and comes from a very old Finnish myth which says that the lights were produced by magical snow foxes whose swishing tales sent snow spraying into the skies.
North of Finland, Norway and Sweden live the Lapp people in Lapland. This is a huge area within the Arctic Circle which ranges across parts of all three of these Scandinavian countries. The Lapps are closely related to the Finnish people. Their traditions say that the lights are the shining souls of the dead.
When the lights are in the skies people are expected to behave in a solemn and respectful way. Children were also expected to be solemnly too out of respect for the departed ones. To show disrespect would bring down bad luck, sickness and the risk of death.
The shamans of the Lapps painted runes representing the fires on their on their drums to help them attract and capture their magical energy. They were also believed that the lights had soothing powers over conflicts and arguments.
There was also a belief that if you whistled when the lights were active they would come to you and take you away with them.
The ride of the Valkiries
A red aurora of this magnitude is rare, and icomplements the green colour. Image taken Hakoya island, Norway. October 25th, 2011 by photographer Frank Olsen. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Norwegian folklore tells that they were the souls of old maids who danced and waved across the skies.
While in other parts of Scandinavia and Germany the belief was that it was the Valkiries who had taken to the air when the lights appeared.
In Scotland, which also has strong Norse links, the lights were sometimes referred to as “the merry dancers.”
Warriors battling in the skies
In other parts of the world the aurora borealis was believed to be heroes or warriors battling in the sky. In many places further from the Arctic and Antarctic Circles the lights are a rare occurrence and when they did appear they were seen as signs of coming war or sickness and were harbingers of doom.
Among some Eskimo tribes of Greenland the lights were connected with dancing. In some parts of Greenland the lights were thought top be the souls of children who had died at, or soon after birth.
In Labrador, young Eskimos believed the lights were the torches lit and carried by the dead as they played a kind of ball game in the skies with the skull of a walrus. They would dance as the lights played across the skies.
Spirits of animals
Aurora image taken at Hillesoy island, Norway. September 2011. Author Arctic light -Frank Olsen, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
In eastern parts of Canada, the Salteaus Indians, along with the Kwakiutl and Tlingit tribes of south eastern parts of Alaska the lights were thought to the spirits of humans. Tribes living along the Yukon River thought that the lights were the spirits of animals such as elk, deer, salmon, seal and whales.
While to some Native American tribes of Wisconsin, North America, they were a bad omen as they believed the lights were the ghosts of the enemies they had killed who were now seeking revenge.
Many cultures around the world looked up at them and made their own meanings and stories to explain them but here the last word goes to the Algonquin Indians. They believed the northern lights were the fires of the great creator god, Nanahbozho. After creating the world he retired to the far north. There he builds great magical campfires which light up the northern skies to remind them of the everlasting love he holds towards them.
The Atacama Desert (Desierto de Atacama) of Chile, South America, located between the Andes Mountains and the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range is the oldest desert on the planet. However, with an average temperature of 18 C or 63 F it is not the hottest desert in the world but being sandwiched between two mountain ranges creates special atmospheric and weather conditions making it the driest non-polar desert in the world. The desert landscape is dry and arid with an otherworldly appearance and has been used for simulations of future expeditions to Mars. The driest part of the desert receives less that a millimeter of rain annually on average though rainstorms do occur on rare occasions which bring rapid but fleeting growths of wildflowers.
Although the Atacama is a desolate, inhospitable place today there is much evidence of ancient human presence. There are more that 5,000 prehistoric works of art known as geoglyths that have been situated on or created from the landscape. A geoglyph is a work of art or construction that is formed on the ground in parts of the landscape. They are usually 4 meters or more in length and constructed of durable materials found in the locality such as stone, rocks, gravel or earth. They are considered a type of ancient land art and in some cases rock art and are usually highly visible from a distance. In some cases such as some of the famous Nasca lines of Peru they appear to have been constructed to be viewed from above though it is not certain that was intended. The Nazca lines were built between 200-800 BC and about 800 kilometers distant. However, the Atacama glyphs are believed to have been built between 600 and 1500 AD and although not thought to be as old are more numerous and with varied styles covering a much larger region.
It is believed both sets of geoglyphs had multiple symbolic and ritual purposes and communicated certain information to people who understood their symbolism. The Atacama geoglyphs are thought to have played an important role in the transportation system and networks that connected the great civilizations of South America in pre-Hispanic times. They were believed to have been built and improved upon by more than one early South American culture including The Tiwanaku and Inca Empires as well as other groups. The geoglyphs are formed in many different shapes including human, animal and geometric in about fifty varying types. Some of these works were placed or created in isolated sites while others appear in panels of figures up to fifty in number. They are located throughout the Atacama Desert in valleys, or on pampas or hillsides and always close to pre-Hispanic paths or tracks which were the routes of the llama caravans through the arid and desolate landscape connecting the ancient people of the region.
Types and Forms of Geoglyphs
There were three methods that have been identified that were used to create the geoglyphs. One method was to scrape away the top layer of the landscape such as soil or sand revealing a contrasting color below. Another way was to use rocks and stone and other materials to form shapes on the landscape. They also used a combination of these two methods and sometimes paint to create other geoglyphs.
Geoglyphs in geometric shapes are the most numerous. There are many different types of these including rectangles, circles, concentric circles, arrows, crossed parallel lines, rhomboids and other shapes. There are also zoomorphic figures especially llamas and alpacas, but also animals such as fox and monkeys, birds such as eagles, flamingos, and seagulls and fishes such as dolphins or sharks. There are also depictions of amphibians such as lizards, snake and toads which were believed to represent ancient divinities associated with water. One of the most often repeated depictions are of caravans of llamas with 3 or more ranks of up to 80 animals in lines. Humans are also depicted engaged in activities such as fishing, hunting, religious ceremonies and sex.
Luis Briones in his paper, “The geoglyphs of the north Chilean desert: an archaeological and artistic perspective”, published in the March 2006 issue of the journal Antiquity discussed the geoglyphs and came up with some interesting ideas. The real function and purpose of the geoglyphs may never be known but Briones believes they may have served several functions. Their location along the trade routes through the Atacama seems to have been deliberate. It may be they acted as signposts providing the travelers, who would know their meaning, with certain types of invaluable and useful information.
They may have served as pointers or landmarks perhaps indicating where water or fodder for animals may be found, or warning of difficulties in the landscape and indicating safe paths. It may be that they are part of an early religion or cult which may have combined commercial traveling with religion. Following such a path may have been a rite or ritual or perhaps an initiation or pilgrimage. If they did contain information they may have been an early form of writing. However, to read their meaning you would have to know what the shapes and the way they were set meant along with how punctuation and syntax was used. Unfortunately, that knowledge is now lost, if it ever existed and we can only guess.
The trade routes would have been an important part of the economy for any civilization or culture. The moving or essential items such as corn, potatoes, fish and other food as well as commodities such as turquoise, copper and cotton to distant markets helps bind civilizations and empires together. Moreover, they transported news and perhaps orders or commands from the government centers.
The Atacama Giant
One of the most spectacular of these geoglyphs is known as the Atacama Giant, a large anthropomorphic figure set on the side of the hill of Cerro Unitas. It is the largest known prehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world being 390 ft (119 m) long and believed to depict a deity of a local population from 1000 – 1400 AD. It was believed to be an early astronomical calendar that told those who knew how to read it important dates such as crop cycles and seasons in relation to how certain parts of it aligned with the moon. Anything that might help predict rain or weather would be very useful in the dry, barren regions of the Atacama Desert.
Hill figures are often thought to have been intended to view from some distance, suggesting the giant may have been strategically placed. The giant has a stylized unnatural appearance made up of squares, rectangles and parallel lines at varying angles to create a geometric representation of a massive anthropomorphic figure. It appears to be either wearing a headdress such as one made of feathers or had rays emanating with from its head or from behind it. How the moon or other astronomical objects related to these lines was believe to give the season and times of the year.
The Giant and the other geoglyphs provide evidence of the activities of humans in these inhospitable regions. There are many similar examples of such landscape art found all around the world including the Nasca lines, and the White Horse of Uffington and other English hill figures, the Blythe Intaglios of California USA and the Steppe Geoglyphs of Kazakhstan are but a few examples.
This article was first published on 21st January 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com under the title Top 5 Trees in Celtic Mythology, Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans.
It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. Of course, wood was also used for everyday needs such as fire wood and making shelters, spears, arrows, staffs and many other items. Trees also supplied nuts and berries for themselves and their animals as food. Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore and presented here are five trees that played an important role in these tales and lore.
The oak was the king of the forest having many associations throughout the Celtic world with religion, ritual and myth and many practical uses. For the Druids – the Celtic priesthood – it was an integral part of their rituals and was also used as a meeting place. According to the 1st-century geographer Strabo, Druids in Galatia, Asia Minor, met in a sacred grove of oak trees they named Drunemeton, to perform rituals and conduct other Druidic business. In 1 CE, Pliny the Elder, writing in Historia Naturalis, documented how a Druidic fertility rite held on the sixth day of the moon involved a Druid cutting mistletoe from the branches of an oak and the ritual sacrifice of two white bulls.
Oaks also played important parts in Welsh mythology. In the Math fab Mathonwy, the last of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the sorcerers Gwydion and Math create a maiden they named Blodeuwedd or flower-faced from the blossoms of the oak, the broom and meadowsweet. She was created to be the bride of their nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who could not marry a human woman due to a curse placed on him by Arianrhod, his mother. He married Blodeuwedd who never learnt the social conventions never having experienced the learning process of growing up. She had an affair with Gronw Pebyrv and together they plotted to kill Lleu. He was badly wounded by Gronw but turning into an eagle flew into an oak tree to escape being murdered. The oak appeared to be a refuge between the living world and the world of death and he remained there until Gwydion found and cured him.
Barnacle geese are a migratory species of water bird that have a very weird myth of origin attached to them that was once widely believed. During the medieval period there was a belief that barnacle geese were not hatched from eggs but actually grew on trees or spontaneously on pieces of driftwood that floated in the sea. This strange myth was widespread at the time and believed by many eminent people of the day. In this work we will look briefly at the barnacle followed by a look at barnacle geese both of which are real creatures. This will be followed by discussing some of these strange ideas before concluding with our views on them today.
During the months of October through to March, parts of the British Isles and certain parts of Europe played host to flocks of barnacle geese. This puzzled medieval people as they seemed to arrive out of nowhere and leave in the same manner. No one had seen their nests, or their eggs, or their young and no one knew how, or where, they bred giving rise to speculation about their origin.
A strange theory evolved that they actually grew from crustaceans called gooseneck barnacles (Lepas anatifera) that were found on pieces of driftwood around the sea shores. Many people thought that a tuft of brown cirri that protruded from the capitulum of the crustacean looked very similar to the down found on unhatched goslings of other species. This similarity is not obvious to many other people but the barnacles were seen as the result of spontaneous generation from the driftwood which will be briefly discussed later.
Real Barnacle Geese
We know today that real barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) live and breed mainly on the three islands of Greenland, Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the oceans of the far north during the summer months. After a long flight they would suddenly appear at British, Irish and other European sites as fully grown adult geese. People were puzzled because they had seen no signs of a nest, eggs or even goslings but still they would appear at certain times of the year with unerring regularity. To solve this puzzle some very peculiar answers evolved.
The Barnacle Goose Tree
One such answer was the barnacle goose tree. According to this myth young barnacle goslings grew on branches of a tree that overhung water in a similar way to nuts, fruit or berries sometimes do. On becoming ripe, or big enough they drop from the branch safely into the water and are able to swim and float immediately eventually growing to maturity. Those that missed the water and fell on to the ground died.
Sir John Mandeville
In the 14th century the traveller and writer Sir John Mandeville wrote in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, his travel journal,
“I told them of as great a marvel to them, that is amongst us, and that was of the Bernakes, (barnacle geese). For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man’s meat. And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be. (1)
This and similar strange answers to the origin of the barnacle goose was widely accepted especially among the clergy of the day.
Gerald of Wales
Another myth of origin of the barnacle goose tells how it was born from driftwood from the sea. Gerald of Wales, also known as, Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis, was 12th century Welsh bishop who published a book, Topographia Hiberniae after the invasion of parts of Ireland by King John where he mentioned how Irish clergy ate the barnacle goose on fast days which surprised him,
“Nature produces [Bernacae] against Nature in the most extraordinary way. They are like marsh geese but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells, and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth “ (2)
His observation, although erroneous, gave the myth credence and it spread across Europe. However he took a dim view of the clergy eating them on fasting days saying,
“…Bishops and religious men (viri religiosi) in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh … But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat.” (3)
Sir E. Ray Lankester
In 1915, Sir E. Ray Lankester, a British zoologist in his book, “Diversions of a Naturalist,” speculated on why this myth may have been popular with medieval clergy especially in Britain and France. He picked up on the practice of the clergy eating them on fasting days for the popularity of the myth among them.To make it an acceptable fasting meal they declared the barnacle goose to be more fish than a fowl and as such acceptable to be consumed on fasting days.
Pope Innocent III was concerned enough about this practice to prohibit the eating of Geese during Lent at the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215. Nevertheless he still seemed to accept the myth of their reproduction but pointed out that they lived and fed in a similar way to ducks and concluded that their nature was the same as other birds.
A Shift in Thinking
The bizarre myth of the reproduction of barnacle geese looks a typical example of superstition, ignorance and imagination run wild, but is it? In the Middle Ages the Church drew moral lessons from nature but a shift in thinking appeared that saw nature as being worthy of studying in its own right. This is where the myth of the origin of the barnacle goose comes in.
A theological idea became tangled up in the debate of whether it was fowl or fish which centered around the idea of spontaneous generation. it was argued that gooseneck barnacles were spontaneously generated from the rotting driftwood. There was a common belief going right back to Aristotle that if the right conditions were present then the spontaneous generation of living organisms could and did occur arising from inorganic or nonliving material. Despite the remarkable nature of the supposed origin of these lifeforms they had an ordinary lifestyle of sorts and manifest in a predictable way without divine intervention. It was the assumption that they lacked parents which led to all sorts of theological arguments among Christians about Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth (which are not the same as each other) and cannot be fully dealt with here.
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily and Jerusalem about 200 years after Gerald of Wales was rather more doubting in his assessment of the spontaneous generation of the barnacle goose. He wrote saying,
“There is also a small species known as the barnacle goose, arrayed in motley plumage …, of whose nesting haunts we have no certain knowledge. There is, however, a curious popular tradition that they spring from dead trees. It is said that in the far north old ships are to be found in whose rotting hulls a worm is born that develops into the barnacle goose. This goose hangs from the dead wood by its beak until it is old and strong enough to fly. We have made prolonged research into the origin and truth of this legend and even sent special envoys to the North with orders to bring back specimens of those mythical timbers for our inspection. When we examined them we did observe shell-like formations clinging to the rotten wood, but these bore no resemblance to any avian body. We therefore doubt the truth of this legend in the absence of corroborating evidence. In our opinion this superstition arose from the fact that barnacle geese breed in such remote latitudes that men, in ignorance of their real nesting place, invented this explanation.” (4)
It had previously been thought that the Barnacle Goose migrated to the British Isles via Scandinavia and the strange transformation occurred in the Norse countries. He was at least right that they did breed in the remote regions of the north that were largely still unknown and not generated from rotting wood.
Morals from Nature
It has long been a practice for Christians to draw moral points from the natural world to reinforce theological ideas. This began in the 2nd century with the Physiologus where nature was seen as the second book of God,until the early 17th century when natural history became better studied and understood. However, as science progressed people became more skeptical about such ideas.
Albert the Great
Around the middle of the 14th century Albert the Great came up with a simple way of testing the spontaneous generation theory by breeding them and noting that they did in fact lay eggs calling the myth,
“altogether absurd as I and many of my friends have seen them pair and lay eggs and hatch chicks”. (5)
Despite this there were still those as late as the 16th century such as Joseph Justus Scaliger who insisted that the spontaneous generation theory was right claiming to have witnessed it.
Belief in the myth, either through self-interest and wanting to dine on meat on fast days, or ignorance, still lingered for a while. Finally, science and reason prevailed and finally managed to explain how barnacle geese really reproduced. It is very easy for us today to look back at certain erroneous absurd beliefs that were held to be true in the past but which were eventually proved false. This itself highlights the frailty of human reason and we cannot help but wonder what people living in future time will make of some of our own beliefs we hold dear in our own times. Let us hope they will not judge us too harshly.
This article was first published January 14, 2021 on FolkloreThursday.com as Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts by zteve t evans
The ancient Celts were believed to practice a form of animism in their religion and belief system that provided a meaningful way for them to experience and make sense of the world they lived in. In this work we will discuss animism and the various aspects of animism that the ancient Celts possibly followed concluding with a short discussion of their belief system.
Rather than a religion, animism is more an expression of the energy connections that are believed to flow through all things connecting each to the other and to the greater consciousness. It is this greater consciousness that is the source of all energy and that endows everything with life and sentience. Many early creeds embraced aspects of animism and it is still found in many modern religions and philosophies.
The Celts were a varied collection of ethnic groups inhabiting a wide swathe of continental Europe from the west coast of Ireland to the Black Sea and other scattered areas. As a group they appear to have been bound together by common aspects of language, culture and religion rather than ethnicity. They worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses which varied from region to region as could the importance and attributes of those divinities. Animism is seen as the one of the threads that connected the beliefs of this vast and diverse group of people together.
In animism there is a belief that all things possessed a spirit and a consciousness that connects everything together. The sky, Earth and underworld were connected along with natural phenomena such as the weather and everything was all part of a greater conscious universe. Furthermore, even certain words objects and images had sentience and were alive and could be used in conjunction with the greater consciousness to benefit humanity. For the Celt, death was the transmigration of the souls while their ancestors were revered and regarded as alive.
Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”). The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty. He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter. These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children ofLlŷr. They are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brânwas a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him.
One day at Harlech, one of his courts in Wales, he sat with his brother Manawyddan on high cliff looking out over the sea. They were accompanied by Nissien and Efnissyien, his two half brothers from his mother’s side that were of completely different character to one another. Nissien was a good man who always strove to achieve peace and harmony between two opposing forces. Efnissyien, was of a darker character instigating and causing conflict where there was none. These four were accompanied by various nobles ofBrân’s court. As they looked out over the sea they spied a fleet of ships approaching the Welsh coast. One of the ships had taken the lead and displayed upon its side a shield with its point positioned upwards as a token of peace
Matholwch, King of Ireland
Concerned about their intentions in Wales, Brân ordered his warriors to arm themselves and go down to meet them and discover their purpose.This was done and messengers brought back the reply that the ships belonged to King Matholwch of Ireland who came on an important mission in peace and friendship. He came seeking King Brân’s permission to marry his sister Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, fairest maiden in the world and one of the Three High Matriarchs of Britain. Such a marriage would create a powerful and influential alliance between the two kingdoms bringing great benefit to both.
Brân invited the Irish king ashore with all his retinue, servants and all their horses. The next day he and Brân met to discuss the marriage of Branwen. Brân decided in favor of the marriage and with his sister’s agreement the wedding was held the next day at Aberffraw.
The following day the Welsh and Irish guests gathered for the wedding feast. There was no building in existence big enough to hold Brân therefore a massive marquee was used instead.At the feast, the two sons of Llŷr – Brân and his brother Manawyddan – sat on one side. Matholwch, king of Ireland sat next to Branwen, the daughter of Llŷr, on the other. It was a happy occasion and the guests ate and drank their fill in peace and friendship. At last they retired for the night and Branwen became the wife of King Matholwch.
Efnissyen was greatly insulted that he had not been consulted about his half-sister’s marriage. In revenge he cruelly disfigured the horses of the Irish king slicing off their eyelids, lips and ears rendering them unfit for any purpose. When the stable hands discovered the malicious act they immediately informed King Matholwch.Initially, Matholwch was not convinced Brân had anything to do with it. Why would he have willingly given his permission for the wedding to go ahead and then performed such a senseless, cruel and insulting act to his guest and new brother-in-law?
After all, Branwen was the fairest and one of the highest maidens in the land, beloved of her family and people. He could rightfully have refused his marriage to her and offered someone else of lesser status instead. It made no sense at all. The more he thought about it the worse it seemed. His advisors persuaded him that it was intended as an insult and angrily Matholwch made ready to return home taking Branwen with him. On learning of the imminent departure of the Irish with his sister Brân sent a messenger asking why they were leaving without his permission and without even saying goodbye.
Matholwch replied saying had he known of the great insult he would suffer he would never have asked for Branwen’s hand in the first place. He declared his bemusement at why Brân had given him his sister in marriage only to insult him after. Brân answered, insisting the insult was not inflicted by him or his court and as his host his own dishonor was greater. To which Matholwch replied that though this was true the insult and injury he had suffered could not be undone.
Brân, not wanting the Irish to leave with such bad feeling, sent further messages. At last it was agreed reparations should be made to compensate the Irish king for the horses and the insult to his standing that he perceived he had suffered. An agreement was made that Brân replace the mutilated steeds. In further compensation he would also give a staff of silver and a plate of gold equal to the width of his face.Furthermore, the culprit would be named, but he warned that because he was his own half-brother he would be unable to put him to death. He asked Matholwch to accept what was offered and come and meet with him and once again be friends.
The emissaries of Brân gave Matholwch this message and the Irish king consulted with his counselors. Finally it was decided to refuse the reparations, which they considered generous, would bring dishonor on King Brân as well as King Matholwch and also themselves, his loyal subjects. Therefore, they resolved to accept them and meet with Brân.
The two met and in his conversation with the Irish king, Brân realized he was still not fully content. Desiring peace and friendship above all else he generously made him the offer of a magical cauldron known as the Cauldron of Rebirth, which returned the dead to life. At last Matholwch seemed satisfied and they ate and drank for the rest of that day. In the morning he set sail for Ireland taking his bride with him.
The Irish people were delighted at the return of their king accompanied by his bride. When at last he introduced her to his court and all of his nobles there was great joy. As was the custom, Branwen gave each one an expensive gift of royal jewellery which gave great honor to those who received and wore it. In the first year of her arrival in Ireland she was very popular and greatly loved. The Irish lords and ladies praised and lauded her and she enjoyed life very much. To crown it all she gave birth to a son named Gwern. In the second year of her marriage a dark cloud appeared from the past. The dreadful maiming of King Matholwch’s horses that had occurred on her wedding day was reawakened. Some of the Irish nobles seeking to make trouble for the king used this to make mischief for their own purposes.
The chief among them were Matholwch’s foster brothers who re-opened old wounds. They blamed and derided him for accepting an inferior settlement which they claimed was insulting. Stirring up hatred and resentment they turned upon Branwen demanding vengeance, taking out their malice upon her. They pressured and harried the king who eventually gave way to them. She was barred from his chamber and forced to work in the kitchens cooking and carrying out menial tasks for the court. For a woman of Branwen’s royal stature this was a terrible humiliation and indignity. To add insult to injury they ordered that she be given a blow upon her ear each day.
Knowing her King Brân would be wrath at such treatment of his sister they that advised Matholwch ban all travel between Ireland and Britain. This would prevent Brân hearing of the maltreatment of his sister. To further prevent news reaching Brân they imprisoned anyone in Ireland from Brân’s realm
Branwen and the Starling
For three years Branwen suffered this mistreatment. Her once happy life had been turned upside down to become one of humiliation, pain and misery. In desperation she raised and trained a starling. She taught it how to speak and understand human language enough for it to understand what kind of a man her brother was and how to find him.
Writing her troubles down in a letter she tied it to the bird in a way as not to impede its flight. Finally, she set it free bidding it find Brân and give him the message. Flying over the Irish Sea to the island of Britain it found Brân at Caer Seiont in Arvon. Settling on his shoulder the bird ruffled its feathers so as to display the message it bore. Seeing the bird had a degree of domestication and training Brân looked closely and saw the letter and read it. In this way he learnt of his sister’s troubles and grieved greatly for her.
Angrily he ordered a muster of the armed forces of the Island of Britain summoning his vassals and allies to him. He explained to their kings and leaders the mistreatment of Branwen his sister by the Irish and took counsel with them about what should be done.
Bran goes to War
The council agreed that the situation with Branwen was intolerable and decided on invading Ireland to set her free and punish the Irish. Therefore, Brân’s host took to the ships to sail to Ireland to the aid of Branwen. Being too large for any ship to carry Brân strode through the sea before them.
Strange news reached King Matholwch. Witnesses explained they had seen a moving wood approaching the shores of Ireland. Even stranger and more terrifying they had seen a moving mountain besides the wood with a tall ridge which had on each side of it a lake. The wood and the mountain moved together and were approaching Ireland fast. Puzzled by the news Matholwch sent messengers to Branwen to see if she could enlighten him. She told them it was the army of her brother Brân who had come to rescue her.
“What, then, is the great forest we see moving on the sea?” they asked.
“The masts of the ships of the Island of Britain,” she replied.
“What is the mountain that is seen moving before the forest?” they asked.
“That is Brân the Blessed, my brother. No ship can contain him and he needs none,” replied Branwen.
“What is the high ridge with the lake on either side,” they asked.
“Those two lakes are his eyes as he looks upon the island of Ireland. The ridge is his nose and he is angry at the mistreatment of his beloved sister!” replied Branwen.
The messengers returned to Matholwch bearing Branwen’s answer. Fearing to face such a huge army in battle he turned to his nobles for advice. They agreed it was too risky and decided their best option was to retreat over the River Linon, destroying the single bridge across after them. There was no other bridge and Brân would have to march miles out of his way to find another suitable crossing point.
Brân the Bridge
Brân and his army came ashore unimpeded but found the bridge over the river destroyed. Brân’s chieftains went to him saying, “Lord, the river cannot be crossed. The bridge is broken and there is no other crossing point for many miles. What would you have us do?”
Brân replied, “He who would be chief will be the bridge himself,” and laid himself down bridging the river with his body. In this way his host passed over to the other side.
Hearing how Brân had bridged the river worried King Matholwch who sent messengers expressing greetings, goodwill and proposals he hoped would placate him. He proposed that Gwern, his son, be given sovereignty of Ireland for the mistreatment of his sister, Branwen.
Brân replied, “Why should I not take the kingdom myself? I will take counsel. Until I have considered it no other answer will you get. Go tell your king.”
“Indeed, they said, “we shall bear your answer to him. Will you wait for his reply?”
“I will wait, but return quickly,” replied Brân. The messengers returned to their king with Brân’s answer and Matholwch took counsel with his nobles.
House of Betrayal
His counselors unanimously agreed it would be best to avoid direct conflict with the host of Brân fearing certain defeat at the hands of such a powerful army. Therefore a conciliatory approach was decided to appease Brân and put him at ease while quietly enacting a treacherous plot to defeat him. They decided to try to appease him by building a house big enough to hold his own gigantic self. It would also be big enough to hold his warriors and those of Matholwch. In this massive structure they would hold a great feast of friendship and make formal agreements and Matholwch would pay him homage. They hoped this would please and flatter him, making him more amenable to their other proposals. They also reasoned he would be more likely to relax and drop his guard which would leave him open to a deadly betrayal.
Matholwch was not sure Brân would accept the proposals. Therefore, he sent for Branwen for advice telling her nothing of the full scope of his treachery. After listening carefully at what he said she advised that she believed he would accept. Therefore, Matholwch sent messengers to Brân with his proposals. Brân listened and asked his own lords and also sent to his sister for advice. Knowing nothing of the betrayal and for the sake of peace and prevent the laying waste of the country she advised her brother to accept. Brân accepted and a peace was made with the Irish and a massive house was built as agreed. With the structure finished and the final preparations for the feast being made Matholwch pursued further his treacherous plot.
Brass hooks were fixed upon the pillars and a leather bag hung from each bracket. Each leather bag contained a fully armed Irish warrior. At the command of King Matholwch when Brân’s own warriors were in a drunken state they would cut themselves from the bag to assassinate the unsuspecting Britons
The great house of betrayal was quickly built and its interior was prepared for the great feast. Efnissyen, who had mutilated Matholwch’s horses, entered the hall to inspect progress. Seeing the leather bags he asked what was inside. He was told the King of Ireland had made a gift of flour for Brân which was contained in the bags. Efnissyen felt one of the bags and felt a man’s head. He squeezed it until his fingers met in the middle. He did this to each of the leather bags and crushed a man’s head in each one killing two hundred hidden assassins.
The Killing of Gwern
The two kings eventually entered the house with their followers and the proceedings began. The negotiations and agreements were made in a spirit of peace and friendship. Sovereignty of Ireland was conferred upon the young boy Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen and nephew of Brân. After all the talking was over Brân called the boy to him. Gwern went willingly and showed him great affection. From Brân, Gwern went happily to Manawyddan and from one to another showing great affection with each he went to.
Efnissyen looked on and he grew jealous of the boy’s attention to others saying, “Why does the boy not come to me, his uncle? He is the son of my sister and is my nephew but he ignores me when I would be glad to give the boy my love!”
“Let the boy go to you if he wants to,” said Brân.
Gwern happily went to Efnissyen who taken by some dark mood without warning seized the boy by his feet and swung him head first into the roaring fire. Branwen screamed and attempted to leap into the fire after her son. Brân grabbed her hand and with his other hand placed his shield between her and the fire keeping her safe between his body and his shield.
Immediately the great hall was in uproar as the two sides rapidly armed themselves intent on killing one another. All the while Brân kept his sister safe between his shield and his body as the fighting ensued all around.
The Cauldron of Rebirth
The Irish immediately lit a fire under the Cauldron of Rebirth that had been part of the compensation Brân gave for the malicious disfigurement of their horses. They placed their dead in the cauldron and they were restored to fully fit fighting men save they had lost the power of speech and hearing.
Efnissyen, seeing the warriors of Brân were slaying the Irish noted they were also being slain. However, unlike the Irish, their dead did not return to the battle and the Irish were gaining the advantage. Feeling remorse and great guilt that he had been the cause of all this murder and mayhem he resolved to save Brân and his warriors. Therefore, he hid among the piles of the Irish dead waiting to be revived in the cauldron until he too was cast in. As soon as he was inside he stretched himself out to his full bodily dimensions causing the cauldron to burst asunder but bursting his own heart in the process. With this advantage removed from the Irish theBritons quickly gained the upper hand.
The Seven Survivors
Although the warriors of Brân eventually triumphed it was a pyrrhic victory costing them dear. Brân was mortally wounded from a wound in his foot from a poisoned spear. Of his army only seven lived and these were Manawyddan, Pryderi, Taliesin the Bard, Grudyen the son of Muryel, Ynawc and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen. Brân had shielded Branwen throughout the battle and she also lived.
Of the Irish people only five pregnant women survived who went and lived in caves. They gave birth to five sons and over time the Island of Ireland was repopulated incestuously.
The Assembly of the Wondrous Head
Knowing he was dying and being too large to bury or take back on a ship Brân ordered the seven surviving warriors to sever his head from his body. He instructed they carry it to the White Hill in London where they were to bury it facing the sea to deter invasion from France. He advised them this task would take many years. In that time they would spend seven years feasting in Harlech while being regaled by the Birds of Rhiannon. They would then travel to Gwales where they would spend a further eighty years and become known as, “The Assembly of the Wondrous Head”. All this time the head would be able to converse with them and keep them company despite it being severed. They would be untouched by time but eventually, the time would come when they would leave Gwales to journey to London where their task would be completed as he had instructed. He then ordered them to “cross over to the other side.” The seven survivors accompanied by Branwen crossed over to the other side (2) of the sea to Wales bearing the head of Brân.
However, as she turned to look back across the sea to Ireland and gazed around her at the Island of Britain she was overwhelmed with grief and anguish. Her heart broke in two and she groaned and collapsed and died of a broken heart. Thus, ended the life of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, Fairest Maiden of Britain. The seven survivors made a four sided grave on the banks of the River Alaw for her internment.
The Seven Survivors discovered the crown of Britain had been usurped by Caswallawn and Brân’s son had died of a broken heart after his companions were killed in an ambush by the usurper. Nevertheless, as Brân had ordered and in the manner he had predicted, his head was finally buried in London to deter any invasion of Britain from France. Here ends the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the story of two of the Seven Survivors, Pryderi and Manawyddan are continued in the Third Branch, known as Manawyddan.
The Hedley Kow was a troublesome, shape-shifting, trickster sprite or spirit that made mischief around the area of Hedley-on-the-Hill, Northumberland. More mischievous than dangerous, it had the ability to turn itself into any animal or item. It delighted in using this talent to play tricks on unsuspecting local people before revealing its true self and vanishing with a resounding peal of mocking laughter (1). Several tales tell of its antics and pranks on local people which result in the victim becoming bewildered or embarrassed. Presented here are a few examples of such encounters followed by a tale of an irrepressible old lady whose attitude is a lesson to us all.
The Dancing Kow
In one tale an old woman went out collecting firewood. As she was searching she came across a long dry stick she considered perfect for kindling a good fire. She picked it up and placed it into her basket and continued her search. As she searched she noticed her basket was getting heavier and heavier and she dropped it spilling the sticks on the ground.
To her surprise the stick she had considered perfect suddenly jumped in the air turning into a large gangly cow. She was even more shocked when it started jigging up and down and swaying from side to side as if it was performing an old-fashioned country dance. It continued to caper up and down and then let out a loud braying laugh as it jigged down the road and out of sight leaving only the mocking echo of its laughter.
Tricked by the Kow
Another tale tells how two young men dressed in their Sunday best clothes intending to meet up with their girlfriends by the River Derwent. The young men set off full of anticipation and excitement of what the liaison might bring. On reaching the river bank they saw their girlfriends ahead walking arm in arm in the opposite direction. They shouted several times trying to attract their attention but the girls did not seem to hear them and carried on walking.
Therefore the young men set off after them and being young and fit expected to catch up with them easily. However, the faster they walked and the harder they tried the more they failed. The girls just continued strolling along unhurriedly but the distance between them did not diminish and they stayed ahead.
This state of affairs continued for sometime but suddenly the two lads found themselves in a bog and up to their knees in mud. As they looked towards the girls they saw their forms slowly dissipate into a wispy mist as a deep mocking laugh echoed back at them. Realizing that they had been tricked by the Kow they scrambled from the bog and ran home with the Kow in close pursuit taunting and mocking them all the way. Once safe inside they told their families of the unnerving experience of their encounter with the Hedley Kow.
Tricks of the Kow
Despite its mischievousness the Kow appeared to possess a degree of compassion. It was never known to trouble people experiencing great sadness or mourning for loss of loved ones. Nevertheless, for unknown reasons it would sometimes make trouble at births. This might take the form of knocking on the door of the residence where a birth was taking place and disappearing when someone opened the door only to be greeted by mocking laughter. Other times it would frighten the horse of servants of the attending midwife whom she might send on errands.
It was also known to mimic voices to sound like someone known to its victim. Tales tell how it could impersonate the voices of the servant girl’s lovers or change into a replica of him to appear at their windows. Sometimes it would mimic the voice of their employers, shouting down corridors for their attendance only for them to find they had been tricked (2).
The Hedley Kow
The following is a retelling of a story collected by Joseph Jacobs in “More English Fairy Tales.” It tells of an encounter with the Kow by an irrepressible old lady who made a sparse living doing cleaning, cooking and washing chores around the village. She was poor and was often paid by being given a good meal and a cup of tea or just a few pennies so she never had much money. Nevertheless, she was always of good cheer and always looked on the bright side. Her demeanor was of someone who had not a care in the world despite her poverty.
Walking home one summer evening after completing all her chores for the day she found a large black pot sitting in the middle of the road. Surprised at the find she looked at it closely wondering who ever could have left it so carelessly in the middle of the road like that. Despite looking all around she could see no one else and it just seemed to have been left there. She thought it was just the thing for her to put a few flowers in from her small garden in so she decided to take it home. Bending her aching back she lifted the lid and looked inside and to her complete astonishment saw inside it was full to the top with gold coins.
“Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!” she said to herself over and over again as she walked around it wondering what to do. It was too heavy for her to lift and the only thing she could think of was to wrap her shawl around it and drag it along the road. She did this and made considerable progress homewards all the time saying to herself, “Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!”
She noticed it was getting dark, but rather than let it disturb her she thought it would stop people seeing her treasure and lessen the risk of theft. She kept thinking to herself how grand she felt and thought upon ways of spending the gold. She fancied, a big house, new clothes and she would sit by the warm fire drinking tea all day, never again go hungry and live like a queen. She thought perhaps she would give the gold to the local priest to look after and he could give her a little at a time to spend when she needed it. Alternatively, she thought she might bury some in the garden and hide some up the chimney and about the house.
All this time she was dragging the heavy pot full of gold along and she grew very tired and her back began to ache. She stopped and rested but could not resist the temptation to lift the lid to look at the gold. To her astonishment it had turned into a great lump of pure shining silver, although earlier, she swore it had been full of gold coins worth a fortune.
Now, silver being worth less than gold you might think she would be upset, but not a bit of it. She reckoned that when she started to buy things using gold coins word would get round and she would become a target for thieves. “Never mind, I shall be better off and safer and still very rich so what does it matter?” she said happily.
Once again she started on her way dragging the pot behind all the time planning on how she would spend the money and live an easy life. After a while her back began to ache and she began to tire so she stopped to have a little rest. Looking back at the pot she was astounded to see that it had turned into a large lump of iron and worth much less than the silver. Now you expect her to be very disappointed but she simply shrugged and said, “Never mind, at least it will be easier to sell and it will still be worth a fair piece and I won’t have to fret about robbers breaking in to steal my fortune! It is still worth more than enough to ease my old age so I am still very lucky!”
Once again she began dragging the lump of iron along the road home until once again her back began to ache and she grew tired. She stopped and looked back but to her astonishment instead of the lump of iron she saw it had turned into a large stone.
She stood staring at and said, “Well I never and who would have thought such things possible! It must have realized I have a great need for a good stone to prop open my door in the summer. Well now isn’t that the most amazing luck! I am so lucky to have such good luck!”
Happily she continued on her way excitedly imagining how the stone would look with her front door propped open by it. At last reaching her front gate and quickly lifted the latch and hauled the stone up to her front door.
Turning around she bent to unwrap her shawl. The stone sat on the path and there was still enough light for to see it plainly. As she unfastened her shawl from around it she had a shock. For a second or two the stone, free of the shawl, sat still and peacefully on the path as you would expect it to. Suddenly it sprang in the air and from it sprouted four long legs, a long neck beset by the head of a cow with horns, two long ears and behind grew a long tail. It was the most ungainly looking creature she had ever seen. It pranced around her two or three times while laughing mockingly at her before dashing off back down the lane.
The old lady stared in disbelief as it ran off. Now you might think after all the disappointments she had experienced she would be very upset. Not a bit of it! She just shook her head and said, “Bless me but I am the lucky one! I have just seen the Hedley Kow and all by myself. Not many people in the whole wide world can say that. Why, I feel special and grand and I think I need a cup of tea to think things over and celebrate!” (4)
If that old lady was alive today she would probably be a world famous guru on the art of positivity with her own YouTube channel and a following of millions!
Welsh mythology and folklore is crammed with fantastical people and creatures and the Adar Rhiannon, or the Birds of Rhiannon, are a trio of magical birds mentioned in early Welsh literature and myth. They were associated with Rhiannon who many scholars see as goddess from the Welsh Celtic Otherworld. She was a significant figure in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi and her birds were mentioned in the Second Branch. Presented here is a short discussion involving some of what is known about the Adar Rhiannon looking briefly at the Mabinogi and the adventure story, Culhwch and Olwen. This will be followed by a look at the mysterious Rhiannon and the properties of the magical birds in these stories and conclude by referring back to The Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are generally considered one work consisting of four parts that tell stories of the gods and heroes from Celtic Welsh mythology. The stories are thought to be older than medieval times but rewritten, probably by monks of that era. The Four Branches along with Culhwch and Olwen and other works are included in the compilation of medieval Welsh literature known as the The Mabinogion, first published in full by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45. The Adar Rhiannon, briefly appear in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and are mentioned and sought after in the story of Culhwch and Olwen. Although they only appear to play a small role in both stories they possess unique and important properties that lend magical qualities to the tales.
Time and Space
The singing of the birds can awaken the dead while inducing the living to sleep. Their singing also causes time and space to behave differently. They seem to be singing very near while in fact they are far away. Their singing also alters the passing of time making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed and preserve from the effects of time.
These birds are named after and associated with Rhiannon one of the most enigmatic characters in Welsh myth. He first husband was Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and Chief of Annwn and their son was Pryderi. She was falsely accused of the murder of her son and eating him but later proved innocent after public humiliation. Her second husband was Manawyddan whom she married after Pwyll’s passing.
Rhiannon also displayed the power to warp time and space, but differently to her birds. This is shown, in the manner of her first appearance on horseback from the Otherworld seeking Pwyll to propose their marriage which he accepts. Secondly, she produces a magical bag that can be filled with any amount of without getting full with enough room for a fully grown human. This is used to trick and trap an unwelcome marriage suitor so that she can marry Pwyll.
From her first appearance it is clear she is no ordinary woman and is someone of special status and importance. She is considered to be a goddess or representative of sovereignty and being strongly associated with horses is usually thought of as a horse deity or derived from one. Therefore, like Rhiannon, her birds are not ordinary birds having the magical qualities mentioned previously.
Culhwch and Olwen
In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen the birds are given two more magical attributes. The story tells how Culwhch was given a host of impossible tasks by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, a giant and the father of Olwen, who demanded their achievement before he would give permission for his daughter to marry him. The severity of the tasks was possibly because he was doomed to die on her wedding night and he hoped Culwhch would fail that he might live. One of his demands was to be brought the Adar Rhiannon possibly because they would soothe his passing into death. Therefore he asked Culhwch to bring,
“The Birds of Rhiannon: the ones which can wake the dead and put the living to sleep I want to entertain me that night.” (1)
The night he is referring to is his daughter’s wedding night which is the night he is doomed to die if the marriage goes ahead. From this we see they have two other magical attributes. The first is their singing puts the living to sleep and the second is that it wakes the dead. They may have been a useful insurance against death from the giant’s point of view or at least eased his passing.
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
The Adar Rhiannon also appears at the end of the Second Branch which is the tale of Branwen ferch Llŷr. Branwen, the sister of the Welsh King Bendigeidfran, also known as Brân the Blessed, had been married to the Irish King Matholwch and lived with him in Ireland. However, it was not a happy marriage and she was subject to physical and psychological abuse. In her unhappiness she trains a starling to take a message back over the sea to her brother King Bendigeidfran telling him of her plight and seeking his aid. Enraged and offended by his sister’s treatment Bendigeidfran gathers his army and invades Ireland and a cataclysmic war follows. All the Irish are killed leaving only a five pregnant women in Ireland who took to living in a cave. Each gave birth to a son and eventually incestuously repopulated the island of Ireland.
On the Welsh side there were seven surviving warriors, as well as Branwen. These were Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and Manawyddan, brother of King Bendigeidfran and Rhiannon’s future husband. These were accompanied by Taliesin the great bard, Gluneu Eil Taran, Ynawc, Grudyen the son of Muryel, and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.
In the conflict King Bendigeidfran was mortally wounded by a poisoned spear and knew he would soon die. He ordered the survivors to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London where it was to be buried to protect Britain from invaders. He prophesied they would encounter the singing birds of Rhiannon and remain in one place for seven years spellbound by them,
“And take you my head and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France. And a long time will you be upon the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body.”
Bendigeidfran’s severed head retained the power of speech and continued talking to the survivors as he predicted. Sadley, Branwen died of a broken heart through grief for the dead.
The Adar Rhiannon
Before setting off with the head to London the survivors feasted in Harlech and as also predicted by Bendigeidfran they were visited by the singing birds of Rhiannon,
“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.” (2)
Translation of different texts may vary but it is thought these are the same birds mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and at the end of the Second Branch where, “the singing of the birds of Rhiannon” is referred to which demonstrated time was altered,
“And thus ends this portion of the Mabinogi, concerning the blow given to Branwen, which was the third unhappy blow of this island; and concerning the entertainment of Bran, when the hosts of sevenscore countries and ten went over to Ireland to revenge the blow given to Branwen; and concerning the seven years’ banquet in Harlech, and the singing of the birds of Rhiannon, and the sojourning of the head for the space of fourscore years. (3)
Rhiannon and her singing birds along with King Bendigeidfran, Culhwch and Olwen and the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr are just a few of the strange and magical characters and creatures that dwell in the landscape of Welsh Celtic myth and medieval literature.
According to tradition there has always been a high interest in the magic arts among the dwellers of Longdendale. There is an old saying referring to the people of Longendale as being too bad for Heaven and too clever for Hell. The following is a retelling of a folktale from Legends of Longdendale, a collection of folktales from the area, by Thomas C. Middleton, that allegedly explains its origin.
A Conjuror of High Degree
A rhyme by an unknown author tells a little of one such dweller,
From the verse we see that the dweller was a doctor who was skilled in magic, mysticism and astrology. He was able to predict and understand the mysteries of the movements of the stars and how they would affect us here on Earth. In his day he was someone who possessed great knowledge and power and these attributes are great gifts if used wisely and for the benefit of humanity.
To be fair he did use his skills to the benefit of humankind. However, power corrupts and even those with great knowledge and wisdom there can arise the desire to increase their blessings. This is exactly what happened to our good doctor. He began to yearn for more power and deeper knowledge of the secrets of the universe to enable him to do more good in the world.
To begin with he put aside this desire realizing that there are some things that are best left unknown. However, once the tiniest yearning for power manifests in a person without the utmost care it can grow silently inside until it takes over the reason. Again, this is exactly what happened to our good doctor and it drove him to take a daring chance and make a deal with the Devil.
He had delved into books of ancient lore in search of the secret of increasing his abilities. After many years of long, lonely study and dark and dangerous research he came to the conclusion there was but one way he could achieve his dream. He knew others had tried it and each one failed and forced to suffer the most appalling consequences. Nevertheless, he was hooked and could not put aside the temptation and at last he decided he must take the terrible chance.
The Ultimate Test
Therefore, he prepared himself for the ultimate test of his power and knowledge which would be to raise the Devil. He had thought long and hard about it and put it off time and time again but it was the only way. No one else could give him the power and knowledge he craved. He knew the price Satan would demand but did not want to pay it. Nevertheless, the craving for power made him think he could reach a more amicable agreement with the devil and he decided it was worth a try.Therefore he set about making his preparations. He learnt the right spell. Collected all the materials he required and readied his equipment in preparation.
The Midnight Hour
With everything prepared and the approach of the midnight hour the doctor entered his chamber of magical experimentation. After making special signs and uttering a brief incantation he set up a lamp upon the table and over a flame he hung a small cauldron. Into the cauldron he poured certain liquids of dark properties and dropped various powders and items of dubious qualities. Some of these items were too gruesome to name. The powders and liquids were of undoubtedly odious origin possibly even human but he alone knew the true source of these materials.
Raising the Devil
With his brew bubbling he then uttered further incantations. He continued to repeat the spell over and over while beseeching the powers of darkness for their attention. He continued like this for over an hour with no sign any dark power or spirit had heard. However, he persisted and at last his persistence was rewarded.
The flame beneath the cauldron sprang and flared red then extinguished but the mixture within the cauldron continued to bubble. Soon a vile vapor rose thick and fast and spread rapidly throughout the chamber. In the center of the chamber there hovered a thick and unwholesome fog which was darker and denser than the rest.
The Devil’s Answer
Inside the fog the vapors were whirling and twisting forming a dark terrifying figure. From that form there came a terrible voice that spoke in whispers that cut through the fabric of reality shaking and terrifying the doctor. “Who dares summon Satan from Hell? Step forward and speak. Tell me thy heart’s desire!”
The doctor was almost overcome with fear and awe but managing to master himself stepped boldly forward and said, “It is I that has summoned you for, I would have certain powers that you and only you, can endow.”
The Devil looked into his eyes and knew immediately what powers he yearned for.
“Indeed, I can bestow thee with these powers but you know there is a price to be paid. Are you willing to pay it?” sneered the Devil.
The doctor faltered and quailed for a moment but quickly mastered himself and asked, “Name your price and we shall see!”
“Ha! You know the price!” whispered the Devil, “There is only one price and the terms are not negotiable. Agree that price and I will grant you the powers of your heart’s desire. Be warned I shall return seven years from today and call upon you to deliver up your very soul to me. Do you agree?”
“Surely that is too high a price,” replied the doctor.
“It is the only price and the terms are not negotiable. What do you say?” demanded the Devil.
The doctor hesitated realizing trying to bargain with him was hopeless and said, “Then I must pay that price. I agree to the contract and the price!”
The Devil produced two sheets of paper. With his long, sharp fingernail, he slit the wrist of the doctor causing blood to seep forth. Dipping his quill into the oozing wound he wrote the contract out on both pages using the doctor’s blood for ink. With that same quill and ink the doctor signed. With a look of extreme satisfaction, Satan placed the contract in his cloak and declared, “Thy wish is granted, enjoy to the full what time you have left it will not be long enough. Be sure seven years from now I shall return for my fee!”
There was a peal of thunder and a flash of lightning and the Devil was gone. All that was left behind was the doctor’s copy of the contract written and signed in his own blood and the mocking echo of the Devil’s laughter.
The Devil was true to his word and from the beginning of the agreement the doctor received all the powers he had yearned for. He used them to further his own knowledge and skills but instead of using them to benefit humankind he used it for his own pleasure and leisure. His life was everything he wanted it to be with power, knowledge, riches and great acclaim.
However, time passed and after a couple of years he still thought he had a long time to enjoy his powers. Three years passed and then four and he realized that time was passing too quickly. Five years passed and then six and he was now getting nervous. Despite his power and knowledge he knew he could not hold or alter time. Therefore he began to repent his contract with the Devil realizing he had been foolish and selfish and searched for ways of avoiding paying the price. Seven years passed and he knew he had to come up with something quick but could not think what.
A Crazy Chance
At last he came up with something, it was but a glimmer of a crazy chance yet it was a crazy chance that might just work. He consulted his books on astrology and charted the movement of the stars and came to the conclusion it could work. That afternoon he purchased the fastest and best horse in Longdendale. That evening, as he knew would, Satan appeared before him in his chamber of magic. Satan duly arrived with his usual theatrics but the doctor remained calm as he faced him.
“Are you ready to fulfill the contract,” demanded the Devil.
“Indeed I am, but I am wondering if you are not open to a little wager first?” he asked nonchalantly knowing the Devil loved to gamble.
“Hmm, now just what have you in mind?” asked the Devil his interest aroused.
“I thought maybe a race on horseback to the crossroads. It is one mile to the crossroads and the first to pass the center wins. If you win you take my soul. If I win I keep it and you leave me in peace. But … perhaps, you are not up to such a gamble and I have the fastest horse in Longdendale,” taunted the doctor gently.
Indeed, Satan had a fine black horse that was faster and stronger than any ordinary horse. He loved to race it and he loved to gamble, though it never really was a gamble because he would always win. He would lay any odds on his horse winning against any challenger.
“A race it is, be outside on horseback in 30 minutes and the race will begin!” cried the devil excited at the prospect.
The doctor saddled his new horse and waited on the road. Thirty minutes later the Devil appeared by his side mounted on a magnificent black stallion the like never before had been seen on earth.
“Ah! A truly magnificent steed, but surely you are breaking the spirit of our race by riding an unearthly steed. No earthly horse could surely match one born and bred in your realm, the challenge cannot go ahead. You best take my soul here and now!” said the doctor.
The Devil had been looking forward to the race and was disappointed. He could rightly have taken the doctor’s soul there and then but believed he would have it after the race anyway. He so loved to race and gamble but rarely got the chance and his face dropped.
The doctor, seeing the look of disappointment on his adversary’s face said, “Tell you what! How about if you give me a half mile start?”
To begin with the Devil was not having it. After some very subtle provocation and a play to his vanity from the doctor he accepted.
“You realize, it is not my normal practice to allow the terms of the contract to be changed, especially when I can rightfully claim payment? Never before have I given a single minute’s grace when collecting my payment, let alone listen to further proposals to extend the period in the hope of saving their souls. I have never before accepted any change in terms or payment. Still, today I fancy some sport and will make an exception in this case. Therefore, I accept. Let the race begin as soon as you are ready. The signal shall be a thunderbolt!” said the Devil.
Race With the Devil
So while the Devil remained at the start line the doctor trotted a half mile ahead. As soon as the Devil saw the doctor had reached the half mile he let fly a thunderbolt that flashed and crashed mightily and the race began.
The Devil spurred his mount forward using all speed while the doctor, determined not to be complacent by the half mile start, spurred his own horse on. This was just as well for the Devil set off at unbelievable speed and was fast gaining on the doctor. He reached the half mile point with the doctor not quite making the three quarter of a mile point.
The Devil was now excited and enjoying himself. Uttering wild shouts and cries he spurred his horse forward, second by second gaining on the doctor. His opponent, his face grim and set and ever looking over his shoulder encouraged his own steed forward.
With less than a quarter of a mile to go the Devil was but a few yards behind and whooping wildly while the doctor, casting anxious glances back, continued to press his own steed. He desperately wanted to beat the Devil to the ford where a fast flowing stream of water flowed over the road but the chances of this were now slim.
As the Devil came up fast behind the doctor’s mount he reached forward laughing with glee and grabbed the tail of the doctor’s horse giving it a viscous twist. The terrified horse cried out in shock and pain and surged forward.
The Devil kept a grip on the poor beast’s tail trying with all his might to hold it back. They were approaching the ford where a stream of running water flowed over the road. Had he seen this, things might have turned out different, but the Devil, being intent on holding on to his challenger’s horse’s tail did not see it. The terrified beast surged forward again and its tail broke and the horse free from the Devil’s grip took one mighty leap clear over the running steam of water.
The Laws of Magic
The Devil was forced to pull up abruptly. By the laws of magic and sorcery which even the Devil is obliged to adhere to he could not cross running water in pursuit of a victim. This law applies to all witches, evil spirits and the like and it must be obeyed. The doctor raced on to the crossroads to win the race and keep his soul.
In mockery of the Devil the doctor turned and waved joyously at his adversary who was fuming with rage. He now saw how the doctor had tricked and goaded him into the race with this outcome in mind. He howled with rage at his own gullibility and the doctor’s cleverness.
Too Bad For Heaven, Too Clever For Hell!
Nevertheless, despite his anger there was nothing he could do except ride off on the wings of a storm back to Hell in disgust. He swore an oath that no mortal from Longdendale would ever again be allowed inside his domain for they were too bad for Heaven and too clever for Hell!
Presented here is a retelling of an old folktale from the days when the great city of New York in New York was known as New Amsterdam. It is from a collection of early American folktales and traditions collected by Charles M. Skinner in his book, The Isle of Manhattoes and Nearby Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land, Volume I and called Van Wempel’s Goose.
Nicholas Van Wempel
The hero of the story is Nicholas Van Wempel, of Flatbush who was almost as wide as he was tall though he was not very tall. Nevertheless, he was of a mild and timid nature which led to him being badly henpecked by his wife, Vrouw Van Wempel. Despite his timidity he remained unruffled despite, or perhaps, to spite her and was renowned for being something of a harmless fantasist. To be fair to his good wife her husband had a fatal flaw that if not kept under strict control would land him in all sorts of trouble. Therefore, she did her best to moderate it for his own good.
He was a fairly well off man but his greatest pleasure was to escape into the comforting arms of schnapps. He sure loved his schnapps and this was his fatal flaw! Sadly for him his wife kept tight control only allocating just enough cash to get her groceries or to buy himself clothes.
The New Year’s Goose
On the eve of the New Year of 1739 she called him to her. Placing ten English shillings into his hand she firmly instructed him to hurry down to Dr. Beck’s store to procure a fat goose she had ordered for their New Year’s Day celebration dinner. As he waddled through the door glad for a bit of respite the errand would bring she gave him one last instruction,
“Do not under any circumstances go near, walk by or stop at the tavern! Stay away, stay clear, do not enter and keep out of the tavern. If you enter the tavern for any reason my wrath shall fall upon you like a ton of bricks from a great height! Just bring back the goose! Do you understand?”
In a shrill voice she then threatened a number of other dire and deadly consequences should he dare to disobey.
“Do you understand?” she barked again, glaring at him with a look that could curdle vinegar. Indeed, Nicholas understood perfectly and shot her a weak smile in acceptance as she sent him scurrying down the path.
“As if I would ever dream of entering the tavern of all places!” he called back in answer.
Outside, the snow had fallen in the night and it was a cold, icy day. As he struggled along against the biting wind a sudden gust lifted his hat clean off his head and rolled it into the doorway of the forbidden tavern. Had he but allowed it to lie and passed it by things might have turned out very different, but it was a bitter wind that whistled around his ears. He also thought he could hear someone calling to him from the doorway, but dismissed this. He thought it was just the icy wind on his neck and decided he needed his hat back.
Alas, as he bent to pick it up a strong aroma of beer, booze, tobacco and schnapps assaulted his nostrils along with the sound of merry voices and a tinkling piano. It was a heady mix!
He remembered his promise and all the dire and deadly consequences that would befall him. Well, it was icy outside and the wind froze to the bone and inside the tavern was warm, hazy and friendly. He was sure he heard someone inside calling his name and after a few minutes of staring at his feet they gave him permission to enter.
Inside he met an old friend who called him over and treated him to schnapps. They chatted and laughed reminiscing about old times and it only seemed right that he should return the treat and bought his friend and himself another schnapps.
To his surprise and delight more of his old friends appeared who treated him and of course he returned the treat. His friends knowing of the dominance of his wife in his life teased him in good nature. They urged him to stand up for himself and put her firmly in her place.
Slowly but surely the goose money left his pocket to find a new home behind the bar in the till of the landlord. Realizing his money was gone he thumped the bar. Loudly he declared that it was his money anyway and he would spend it however he saw fit without leave of his good wife.
The last thing he remembered was standing by the bar with his friends cheering and applauding him wildly for his heroic stand. After that the world seemed to merge into snores. When he came round he had his head on a table at the back of the tavern. He could hear the sound of low voices talking over the far side of the bar.
Sleepily he opened his eyes and saw two strangers deep in conversation with each other. He saw they had black beards and rings in their ears and around their foreheads they wore brightly colored bandanas.
He pretended to be asleep but carefully listened to what they said. They were talking of gold hidden on the marshes at the tide mill. Before he could fully grasp what his ears had heard through his schnaps sodden mind the idea had worked its way beyond reason. With a sudden burst of more energy and enthusiasm than he found in years he jumped to his feet and left the tavern.
“Gold …” – “the marshes …” – “tide-mill …”
These words revolved round and round in his schnapps sozzled brain. Fueled by these and the schnapps he crunched through the snow back to his home.
Quietly and carefully so as not to arouse his good wife, who would surely ask the embarrassing question of the whereabouts of the goose, he crept to the shed. There he procured for himself a shovel and a lantern. With unbelievable speed and quietness considering his drunken state he made his way to the old tide-mill on the marsh.
On reaching the mill he decided to start in the cellar and began digging up the floor. He had been so eager to commence work he had not thought to check if there was anyone else in the building, therefore he did not know there were four men upstairs.
After a short while his shovel struck something hard. He dug quickly around the object discovering it to be a large, but old, canvas bag similar to what a sailor might possess.
Excitedly he brushed the dirt from it and found it was heavy but he managed to lift it out of the hole. As he did so a shower of gold coins fell from it and cluttered to the ground. Tying up his trouser legs he filled them and his coat pockets with as many coins as he could. However, in the floor above he had been heard and four rough looking men came down the cellar steps to confront him. He recognized two of these as the men from the tavern.
The men saw the lantern, the bag and Nicholas who despite his inebriation realized these were not just sailors but pirates. His trousers were so full of gold he could hardly move and they laid their hands on him and dragged him upstairs. They poured for him another schnapps and made him drink to the health of their flag and brotherhood. Roughly they turned him upside down and shook him vigorously causing all the gold coins to fall from his trousers and coat pockets.
With no further ceremony they grabbed hold of him and threw him out of the window thinking he would drown in the tide or the fall would kill him. In the brief struggle he managed to grab hold of something before he was forced out.
Fortunately for him, the tide was out and his fall was cushioned by the mud of the tidal marsh around the mill. Finding himself unscathed he held up his hand to see he clutched a plump, plucked, goose which the pirates had stolen earlier for their New Year’s Day dinner.
After the schnapps the pirates had given him he now found the energy to struggle through the mud as the tide began creeping up on him. Things looked bleak, but perhaps, mercifully, thanks to the power of schnapps, he remembered no more.
The Wrath of Vrouw Van Wempel
When at last he awoke it was to the shrill voice of his good wife. She was standing over him loudly berating him as he lay in a snow drift not far from their home. Opening his eyes and hearing her shrill voice and seeing her formidable form all he could do was smile sweetly.
“What did I tell you about the tavern? Where did all that mud come from? Where is the goose? “she growled menacingly.
From behind his back he brought forth the plucked, oven ready goose he still clutched in his hand and proudly presented it to her. Seeing he had at least come back with a goose placated the angry wife diverting her attention from the state she had found her husband in.
Snatching the goose from him, Vrouw Van Wempel, turned on her heels and marched directly back home. After struggling to his feet Nicholas followed sheepishly behind.
In later days he tried to explain to her about the pirates and the gold and how he was lucky to still be alive. She asked why if he had found gold he now had none to show for it? He would reply that if his story was not true how did he come by the goose after he had spent all of the ten shillings in the tavern but he soon learnt this was a mistake. The very mention of the tavern would cause his good wife to fly into a rage and spend the rest of the day berating him.
Whenever he got the chance he would slip off to the tavern and tell his story to more sympathetic ears and point towards the old tide mill to collaborate his story. His friends would just laugh and tease him.
Nevertheless, every now and then, thanks to the power of schnapps, he would find himself taken off on some bold adventure. Unfortunately he would be brought back with a bump when his good wife caught up with him.