Breton folktales: The Cursed Comorre

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Breton Folktales

Breton folktales have much in common with other European folktales and yet still retain their own unique characteristics.  The rugged forests and heaths with the mysterious standing stones and the ancient towns and villages, the wild sea coast, the church and paganism all bleed into one another creating incredible stories of morals to live by, adventure, life and death passing through wildness and darkness into light.

This is a folktale from Brittany I have curated, edited and adapted from a number of sources but the major influence has been Folk Tales of Brittany, by Elsie Masson, [1929], and the story of The Castle of Comorre a Breton folktale which she collected.  It tells of the plight of Tréphine, the daughter of the King of Vannes who had the misfortune to marry Comorre, also known as Conomor a Breton nobleman with an evil reputation.   Comorre is thought to one of the original sources of the Bluebeard character in folk tales.  Although the story is clearly fictional  the main characters do have a degree of historical basis.  Tréphine was a semi-legendary saint and the daughter of Waroch I who was the King of Vannes, who was a contemporary of Comorre, so there is so historical basis to the story though it has been embellished and exaggerated over the centuries and this is my version.

The Cursed Comorre

The King of Vannes daughter

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Pixabay – ClkerFreeVectorImages – Public Domain

There was once a king who ruled over the land of white corn and lived in his castle in the town of Vannes in Brittany. He had an only daughter that he loved with all of his heart.  Her name was Tréphine and called the white dove and she was the most beautiful princess in the whole of Brittany.  She was as pure as snow and had never, ever committed a mortal sin.  To her father she was everything and he would have given away all of his riches, castles and land and everything he owned rather than see his Tréphine unhappy.

There came a day when messengers came to him from the nearby land of the black corn that was ruled by a rich and powerful Count by the name of Comorre.   The messengers bowed low and presented the King with many gifts of honey and fine cloths, animals and jewels and then solemnly informed the King of Vannes that the Count Comorre desired the hand of his daughter, the Princess Tréphine, in marriage.  They told him that when the last festival was held in Vannes the Count had disguised himself as an ordinary soldier and mingled and mixed with the people of Vannes as they celebrated.  During those celebrations he had see the Princess Tréphine for the first time and had fallen deeply in love with her.

Count Comorre

The King of Vannes was devastated and filled with grief for although he knew she would one day marry, he hoped it would be to a man she loved.  Count Comorre although rich and powerful had a bad reputation and known for his cruelty and found joy in doing evil.  Even as a child his cruelty was legendary and when he was going into the town his own mother would ring the castle bells to warn the townsfolk he was on his way. The older he got the more cruel and evil he became. He rejoiced in wickedness of all kinds and his subjects were terrified of him and hated him, always avoiding him for fear he should pick on them.  When he grew into a young man he had four wives in quick succession each of whom he quickly tired of and were found dead in strange circumstances.

So when Count Comorre’s messengers stood before the King of Vannes asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage the King was filled with fear for his daughter. He did not want her to marry him of all men.  The King politely told the messengers that he thought his daughter much too young to marry hoping this would be enough.  Count Comorre’s messengers were prepared for such a reply and had received their orders from the Count himself. Roughly and rudely they told the King that permission must be granted immediately and the Princess Tréphine was to return with them to the Count without delay or a state of war would exist between them.  They warned him that  Count had assembled a vast and mighty army and would fall upon Vannes and take the Princess Tréphine for his wife and the crown of the city too.  Then they taunted the King telling him to refuse if he dared.

War is threatened

Now the King of Vannes knew Count Comorre was not bluffing and that his army was no match for such a fight,  Nevertheless anger flared in his heart and he bravely refused the request defying the evil Count  Comorre.  The messengers turned and rode furiously back to their lord with the King’s reply.

Three days past and then news came to the King of Vannes that a vast army led by  Count Comorre was approaching the city to attack.  The King mustered his knights, cavalry and foot soldiers and marched out to meet him.

Saint Gildas

Saint Gildas the Christian holy man, saw this and was alarmed at the sight of these two armies preparing to make war and slay each other.  The cloak the saint wore had once covered the boat that had brought him over the sea to Brittany and the staff he carried was made from its mast and a halo glowed around his head.  He went looking for the princess and found her praying and he begged her to stop the battle. Fearfully he told her that many men from both sides would die unless she agreed to the marriage and she could save many Christians by marrying Comorre despite his evil ways.

“If only I were a beggar girl I could marry any beggar of my choice,” she cried, “this tyrant will surely kill me like he has killed all his other wives!”

“Have no fear,” said Saint Gildas, “ I will give you this silver ring and it will warn you if there is a plot against you for it will turn as black as night.  Take it and save your fellow Christians from death!” He told her.

The wedding

So to save so much death and bloodshed she took the ring and consented to marry Count Comorre.  Saint Gildas rode at once to the battle and riding between the two armies he stopped them before the fight had begun, telling Count Comorre and the King of Vannes that Princess Tréphine had consented to the marriage.  The King  was devastated and would gladly have died rather than allow it.  Comorre was ecstatic and promised the King that his behavior would change for the better and that he loved Tréphine with all his heart. At last the King agreed and the wedding went ahead.  The most lavish wedding and feast was given and Comorre carried off his innocent young wife back to his castle like a hawk may carry a pure white dove in its talons.

During the first few months of marriage a great change came over the Count and he grew gentler and less wicked.  His dungeons were emptied and not once did he put anyone to death.  His subjects were surprised and pleased commenting at the change and thinking it would not last, but those who knew waited and kept their tongues.  Tréphine went to the chapel every day to pray on the burial vaults of his four previous wives.  She prayed to God for them and for herself not to suffer their fate.

Comorre leaves for Rennes

It was at this time that a messenger came to the Count telling him that all the rulers of Brittany had been summoned to a meeting in Rennes and he would be expected to attend as was his duty.  Comorre did not really want to go but felt compelled by his position to attend.  Just before he left he called Tréphine to him and handed to her the keys to the entire castle and told her to go and do as she liked within the castle. With that he left for Rennes with a retinue of his best knights.

Comorre returns

Comorre was kept at Rennes for six months and during that time thought of Tréphine constantly and missed her greatly.  On his return he hurried up to her chambers and entering her room was shocked to find her making a satin hood which she was embroidering with silver thread for a baby. When he saw what she was doing he grew pale and asked, “And whose child is that for?”

Tréphine looked up from her work and smiled thinking he would be pleased and said, “Why ours of course for I am with child!”

The ghosts of Comorre’s wives

Cormorre glared at her darkly and turned and abruptly left the room without another word.  Tréphine felt a strange sensation on her finger and looked down at the ring and to her fear saw it had turned as black as night.  Terror entered into her heart and she knew she was now in mortal danger.    As silently and stealthily as she could she made her way to the chapel and there prayed beside the burial vaults of her murdered predecessors. Hiding herself between the vaults she knelt in prayer while the chapel clock struck the hours and after what seemed like an age midnight struck  As the last stroke struck and to her terror she saw four black wraiths rising from the vaults.  Tréphine backed slowly away but the ghosts advanced and in fear she dropped to her knees.

alexandre_iii_28dictionnaire_infernal29The ghosts speak

One of the ghosts pointed at her and in a voice from beyond the grave said, “Beware, lost creature, Beware!  Count Comorre seeks your death!”

“But what have I done to deserve death?” Tréphine said trembling.

“You will be the mother of his child very soon and the prophecy foretells that the son of Count Comorre will destroy his father!” Answered the deathly voice.

“God above, is there no escape for me!” She cried.

“Return to your father in the land where the white corn grows,” replied the ghost.

“But how could I ever get across the courtyard with those great guard dogs Comorre has on the loose at nights?”

“Give the dogs this poison that killed me!” said the wraith handing her a vial,

“And how am I to get over the castle wall?”

“Use this rope that throttled me!” said another ghost handing her a rope.

“How will I find my way in this black night?”

“Use this fire that burnt me!” said the third.

“And how shall I walk so far when I am trembling with fear?”

“Lean on this staff that broke my skull!” said the fourth placing the staff in her hand.

Escape

So with the poison the rope, the fire and the staff she made her way to the courtyard. Throwing the poison for the dogs to devour she then made her way across the dark courtyard using the fire  and climbed over the castle wall using the rope.  Once over the wall she made off down the road towards her father’s city of Vannes using the staff for support.

The search for Tréphine

Commore had spent the night brooding about the prophecy and in the morning sent his servants to fetch Tréphine to him.  They searched high and low but no trace of her could they find.  Furious, Comorre ran to the top of his highest tower and looked out to where the four winds blew. Towards the midnight he saw a raven.  Looking towards sunrise he saw a swallow flying.  He looked toward midday and saw a seagull soaring so he turned towards sunset, There he saw a white dove fleeing and he knew it was Tréphine and where she was going.  Running to the stables he quickly saddled his horse and calling his servants to follow with hounds rode off in pursuit.

The shepherd’s hut

Tréphine had reached the edge of the forest that surrounded Comorre Castle but seeing the ring on her finger had turned black she knew Comorre was in close pursuit.  Running across a moor looking for shelter she came across an old shepherd’s hut.  Tentatively she knocked on the door but when no answer came she softly opened the door and looked in. All she could see was an old magpie in a cage on a shelf on the wall.

Tréphine stayed in the hut for the rest of the day but when night fell she left the hut and made her way across fields of flax guided by the fire and aided by the staff that the wraiths had given her.   For two days Comorre searched high and low but could not find her along the road.  Finally he found the shepherd’s hut and saw the old magpie and heard it imitating Tréphine’s voice crying and praying and he knew she had been there.

A baby is born

Telling his servants to loose the dogs they soon picked up her scent and ran yelping after her.  Leaping on his horse Comorre followed them with his servants coming along behind. With fear driving her on Tréphine ran for her life knowing she was nearing Vannes, her father’s castle but the exertion of the run was telling on her now and she knew she had to rest.  Finding a glade in the woods she stopped and rested and there to her absolute joy the most beautiful baby boy was born.  She named him Trémeur and he would live to be a holy saint and a great king but her time on earth at that moment was not so certain.

The falpsm_v51_d613_rough_legged_hawkcon

As she rested in the glade with the baby boy in her arms she saw a falcon swoop down and perch of on a nearby branch. Seeing it wore a ring of gold on one foot she knew it to be one of her father’s and she knew it by name and called it down to her. The bird flew down to land close beside her. Taking off her silver ring she gave it to the falcon who took it in its claw and she said, “Take this to my father as swift as you can.  Give it to my father and he will know my life is in grave danger.  Guide him back to me quickly for I fear my life will be ended as soon Comorre finds me!”

The falcon understood and flew like an arrow straight to King of Vannes.  The King was eating breakfast with Saint Gildas and the falcon flew in through the window  and dropped the ring into his drinking cup.  The king seeing the ring and knowing it urged the falcon to lead him to his daughter.

The death of Tréphine

But at that moment in the glade one of Comorre’s hounds picked up her trail and yelped and Tréphine knew her time was short.  Wrapping the baby boy in her cloak she hid him in the hollow of a tree and stepped back into the glade to face Comorre.  The dogs came yelping into the glade and Comorre followed on a great black horse.  Seeing her he cried out in anger and spurred his horse forward and sweeping out his sword cut her head off with one blow.  Riding round her headless body with a smile of satisfaction on his face he then turned and spurred his horse for home.

The King finds his daughter

Back in the castle in Vannes the King saw the ring and told the Saint that something terrible was happening to his daughter and they had to hurry to save her.   Telling his servants to raise his knights and saddle their horses he begged Gildas to come with him.

Gildas readily agreed and the company followed the falcon to the glade.  There the King of Vannes saw the terrible sight he had feared.  Lying in the glade was the headless body of his daughter.  Dismounting and falling to his knees the king cried and mourned for his daughter and all the rest of the company formed a protective ring around their king and his dead daughter. Gildas called them all to be silent and the sound of a crying baby was heard.  H went to the hollow tree and brought out the baby giving it to the King.

Gildas resurrects Tréphine

“On your knee and pray with me!” commanded Gildas and the entire company dropped to their knees in prayer.  When he had finished he motioned for them to stay kneeling and he rose and placed the severed head of Tréphine on to her neck and again prayed and then commanded, “Rise up whole,”  and to everyone’s surprise and delight she returned to life whole and one.  Tréphine rose and Gildas then gave her the baby and told her they must now return to the castle of Comorre for there was a task that had now to be done.

Tréphine was given a horse and she carrying the baby rode at the head of the company to Comorre.  The company rode like thunder but none could overtake Tréphine and her son and they soon reached the castle of Count Comorre.

Comorre had seen them coming from afar and had ordered that the drawbridge be brought up.   The company stopped outside the gates unable to enter and Gildas now rode to the head.  He dismounted and stood before the gates and cried, “Comorre!  See, I bring you back your wife and son that God in his grace has given you!  Will you take them back?

The prophecy is fulfilled

But no answer came from the castle and Gildas repeated the words twice more.  Still no answer came from the castle.  Then Gildas took the new born baby from Tréphine and placed  him standing upon the ground and a second miracle was seen.  The child strode towards the edge of the moat stooped and taking a handful of sand threw it against the castle and then raising his hands and looking up to heaven he called out “Justice shall be done!”  Instantly the skies resounded like thunder and the walls of the castle cracked and the walls disintegrated into a heap of rubble before their eyes and the once mighty stronghold of Count Comorre was reduced to ruin burying him and all those who followed him under rubble.  With Comorre and his followers now dead the King of Vannes took his daughter, Tréphine and his grandson with Gildas back safely to his castle now glad of heart that evil had been vanquished.  So the great fear of the prophecy that drove Comorre to kill his wives finally caught up with him and was now fulfilled by his own son.

© 26/04/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright 26/04/2016 zteve t evans

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Stoats in folklore and heraldry

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Public Domain

Stoats in folklore

The stoat (Mustela erminea), is a small animal that has a vast range and is native to both North America and Eurasia.  Consequently there is a great diversity of folklore and legend that has become attached to this small furry creature throughout the many different human cultures found throughout its territory.  This article briefly describes some of the folklore and legends that associate it with the royalty and institutions of Britain, followed by a discussion of the folklore of Brittany, France that lends it a possible spiritual symbolism that was attached to its use in heraldry.

Royalty and institutions

Stoats are animals that can change their coats with the seasons especially in northern regions of their range.  In the summer their fur is reddish-brown with a black, tipped tail. In winter the coat can turn pure white except for the tip of the tail which remains black.  Their winter pelt was much desired for many uses and often known as ermine.  

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Elizabet I with a stoat – Public Domain

The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England by William Segar depicts Elizabeth with a white stoat, possibly emphasizing her purity. It was seen as a symbol of high status and used by royalty around Europe as well as Britain where it was used as trim in ceremonial robes and garments of the royalty.  Members of the House of Lords used it and academics of Cambridge and Oxford also used it in ecclesiastical garments still worn by Prelates of the Catholic Church.  Its use was seen as a sign of the equality of their status with nobility.  Thankfully in modern times because of cost and the growing abhorrence towards using real animal fur and the growing realization that it looks far better on the living animal, synthetic fur is increasingly being used. Nevertheless ermine and its substitute forms still has a special historic place in the folklore and heraldry of many lands.

Stoats in heraldry

In the folklore of Brittany, France, it is believed that rather than soil its pure white winter coat the stoat would prefer to die.  It was claimed that when it was being hunted it would turn and surrender itself to death rather than sully its pure white coat. The coat of arms of the former Dutchy of Brittany features  a pattern of ermine and it also appears on the Flag of Brittany as a symbol of purity and the willingness to die rather than give in to lower morals.

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Coat of Arms of the former Dutchy of Brittany

The tradition is said to have come from the time of Anne de Bretagne (about 1477 – 1514), who had been married to two successive French kings and was the last independent ruler of Brittany.  She had seen a stoat in white winter coat being hunted and chased to the edge of a mud swamp.  The creature had turned to face its attackers and death rather than try to cross the mud.  Apparently Anne interpreted this as the animal choosing to face death rather than dirty its pure white coat. She was said to have saved it and chose it to become the symbol of her dynasty with the motto: Plutôt la mort que la souillure. (Death rather than defilement)

In heraldry, or ceremonial purposes, ermine is given black marks or patterns that as well as representing the black tip of the tale also represents nails. The symbolism of this originated with Plato who saw the Soul and the Higher spirit and being “nailed”to the body, so the nail symbolically joins the soul and the body as one.

Spiritual symbolism

Another aspect of its symbolism is that in summer it had a brown coat which turns white in winter.  This is viewed as being symbolic of someone on a spiritual journey who has traveled through the Four Seasons.

Life’s journey can be represented by a symbolic chart which depicts a 24 hour clock face but also marked are the four seasons and the Cardinal directions. The 24 hour point at the top represents midnight and the night and also North and Winter. The 6 o’clock point is East but also Dawn and Spring.  The 12 o’clock point is South and Noon but is also Summer.  The 18 hour point is West or Sunset but also Autumn.  This represents the path of the ordinary person on life’s journey and sometimes called The Wheel of Life.

For those seeking spiritual development and enlightenment the path is longer.  The birth time is Spring/Dawn and they progress to mid-life at Summer/Noon and then to later life Autumn/Evening.  For those on the spiritual path there follows another stage of experiencing Winter as a living human being.  This can be an extremely harrowing experience and is often called the “Dark night of the Soul.”   Those that successfully complete this path come to a new Dawn without the need to further reincarnate having achieved the ultimate destiny at the end and unite with their Higher self while alive becoming their Higher spirit or a “god in life.”

A hidden story

For a small and fairly common animal the stoat was given a greater significance than its natural stature would seem possible.  Like many other everyday animals and objects that we take for granted there lies a hidden folk story and perhaps more waiting to be told.

© 18/4/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright April 18th, 2016 zteve t evans

The Questing Beast and the doom of King Arthur

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Image by Howard Pyle – Public Domain

The Questing Beast in Arthurian legend

In Arthurian legend the Questing Beast was a strange, unworldly creature sought by some of the knights of the Round Table such as Sir Percival, Sir Palomides and Sir Pellinore.   The beast  was so named because of the noise it makes from its stomach that sound like a pack of questing hounds.  Sometimes because of this it was called the Beste Glatisant.  The word glatisant is related to a French word glapissant that means the barking or yelping of dogs.  It was also known as the Barking Beast and the Bizarre Beast.

Just as it was difficult to catch in the hunt it is an elusive beast in Arthurian legend and is presented differently in many of the versions of Arthurian stories at the different times in which it appears.  When it does appear it is usually in a short, symbolic way that prepares the ground for something of a profound or important nature.

The changing beast

The Questing Beast changed in appearance  from its first mention in early French Arthurian romances through various other works of literature through the ages.  The earliest versions described it as being a beautiful, pure white creature, smaller than a fox. The noise that issues from its belly was supposed to be the sound of its offspring that were tearing the insides of the beast apart. In later versions it becomes a very strange and unworldly beast having the body of a leopard, the head and neck of a snake, the haunches of a lion and the hooves of a deer depending on which text it appears in.

The first stories of the beast in Arthurian romance tells that it appeared after Arthur had an affair with Morgause, his half sister, which resulted in the conception of Mordred. They did not know they were related to each other when the incestuous affair began or how devastating the future consequences would prove to be.  Incest and adultery are significant themes in Arthurian legend which crop up in a number of stories.

Arthur and the Questing Beast

Arthur had to fight many battles and defeat many kings before he was acknowledged as overlord of all.  Throughout the fighting he had two invaluable aids that he relied upon. The first was Merlin his enigmatic mentor and trusted councilor.  The second was  his sword, Excalibur which he only drew from necessity.  As his conquests and fame spread knights came to follow him from across Britain.  Knights also came from over the sea such as Sir Lancelot, Sir Palomides and and the brothers Sir Ban and Sir Bors from Gaul.  It came to Arthur’s attention that one of his friends, the King of Cameliard was being attacked and was in dire need of assistance.  He and Sir Ban and King Bors went to his aid.  It was during this time that Arthur first saw and met with Guinevere who later became his queen.  After they had been victorious in the fighting Sir Ban and Sir Bors returned over the sea to Gaul but Arthur traveled to a town then called Carlion that lay upon the river Usk.

A dream of chaos

On his way he stopped to rest from his labors and while he rested he had a strange dream. He saw in this dream a land ravaged and haunted by gryphons, serpents and monsters of all kinds.  They preyed upon the people killing them and making them live in terror and chaos.  In his dream he fought against the monsters and although he finally killed them all bringing order to chaos he was badly wounded in the process.

The hart

He awoke from slumber with a heavy heart for the dream had seemed real and now it troubled him greatly.  In an attempt to drive it from his mind he called his knights telling them they would go hunting and the party rode off into the forest in search of game.  Once in the forest they soon roused a hart and Arthur  gave chase.   The hart ran hard and fast and his horse could not out pace it but Arthur would not give up and chased it all day long. Still he could not gain on it and eventually his exhausted horse died underneath him from its exertions.

The Questing Beast

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Arthur and the Questing Beast – Public Domain

Unable to continue the chase Arthur sat underneath a tree until he heard the sound of a pack of baying hounds coming in his direction. Raising his head to look he was astounded to see that a most strange and unworldly beast was coming through the forest towards him.

The sound of the yelping dogs was coming from inside it.  Never before had he seen or heard of such a creature as this and he watched in silent astonishment as it passed by.

The beast made its way to a nearby spring where it stopped and drank.  While it drank the terrible sound emitted from its belly stopped.  When it had  finished drinking the sound began again and the beast moved off disappearing into the forest.

Pellinore

As Arthur sat thinking about the strange creature along came a knight riding on an exhausted horse.  Seeing Arthur resting under the tree deep in thought he reined in his horse and asked Arthur if he had seen any sign of a bizarre and fell beast. Arthur told him that indeed he had and that it had appeared from the forest taken a drink at the well and then returned to the forest.  He also told him the way it had gone advising that it was probably two miles away by this time.  Curious about the knight, Arthur asked his name and what he wanted with such an unworldly creature.

The knight not seem to recognizing Arthur as king and replied that his name was Pellinore and he had followed the breast for a long time over a great distance.  He said he had ridden his poor horse nearly to death in pursuit of it and would continue still if he could only find a replacement.  In other stories Pellinore nearly kills Arthur who is saved by Merlin and Pellinor becomes a Knight of the Round Table and serves Arthur valiantly.

At that moment one of Arthur’s squires arrived with a fresh horse for Arthur. Seeing this the knight begged Arthur for the horse telling him he had pursued the breast for twelve months and swore that either he would kill it, or it would kill him.  Arthur then spoke to Pellinore and advised that he should let go of the pursuit and he would take it up for the same duration of time that he had hunted it, saying he had done his part and urged him to accept this offer.  Pellinore though would not accept this telling him it was his family’s doom to seek the beast and called Arthur a fool for making such a suggestion.  He told him that no one else in the world could kill the beast save himself and his next of kin, though he was mistaken possibly through his obsession with it.  The beast could only be killed by a few chosen individuals whose qualifications for the task are not revealed, but those who join the pursuit become totally obsessed to the point of derangement with it.

Pellinore then sprang forward pushing his squire aside and leapt upon the fresh horse he led. Arthur shook his head and told him that while he could steal his horse by force while he was unmounted he would like the chance to see which of them was the best horseman with a lance. Pellinore replied that when he wanted him he should come to this spring and there he would always be found. He then spurred the fresh horse in pursuit of the beast leaving Arthur bemused at Pellinore and the events that had unfolded.  Puzzled and annoyed Arthur watched as Pellinore rode off after the beast.  Then he sent his squire to fetch another horse and sat down under the tree again to wait.

Arthur meets a boy

Merlin, Arthur’s councilor and enchanter, transformed himself into a boy and appeared out of the forest to Arthur to his surprise and asked him why he seemed so thoughtful. Seeing only a boy Arthur told him that after what he had just seen he had  a lot to think about as it was the strangest thing in the world. The boy told him that he knew what he had just seen and that he should not let his mind dwell upon it.  He then told him that he knew all of his thoughts and that he knew Uther Pendragon was his father and that the Lady Igraine was his mother. This angered Arthur who demanded to know how he knew what he did not. The boy turned and told him that no one in the world knew him better than he and vanished into the forest.

Arthur meets an old man

Merlin then transformed himself into an old man and appeared to Arthur in this guise and went and sat down by the spring to rest. As Arthur approached to talk to him Merlin asked him why he looked so sad.  Arthur told him he had a lot to be sad about and that he had just met a boy who told him him things about himself that he should not know, adding that he knew the names of his mother and father.   The old man told him that the boy was right and that if he had only have listened to him he would have told him that he had made God angry when he lay with his sister.  From this would come a child that would bring down his realm killing him and his knights.  Astounded and angry Arthur demanded to know who he was he was now talking to.

Merlin’s revelations

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Merlin – Public Domain

The old man transformed into Merlin and told Arthur it was he who had come to him as a boy and then an old man.  He then told him that he knew all things that were to come and explained the origin of  the Questing Beast.

Merlin reveals to him that a human princess had given birth to the beast after she had lusted after her own brother.  A demon had promised to make her brother love her if she slept with it.  She agreed to the bargain but  when it was done the demon manipulated her into falsely accusing her brother of rape.  Her furious father ordered that her brother should be torn limb from limb by dogs.

Just before he died her brother foretold that his sister would conceive a monster that would make the same noise that the dogs made as he was torn apart.  As he had prophesied his sister gave birth to the monstrous Questing Beast.

Arthur’s doom revealed

Merlin then revealed to Arthur his destiny saying that he would die nobly being killed in battle. He then told him his own destiny would be shameful being imprisoned alive in the earth.  While they were talking Arthur’s squire returned with fresh horses.  Arthur and Merlin both mounted the  horses and rode off to Carlion.  When they arrived Arthur sent for Ulfius and Ector who had both known him since birth and asked them the truth about his parents and his conception.  They confirmed to him that Uther Pendragon was his father and Queen Igraine his mother. Arthur then sent for Igraine who came bringing with her fair daughter, Morgan le Fay with her.  Arthur welcomed them both in a way befitting their status and with great respect and Igraine confirmed what he had been told..

Chaos and balance

In this story the appearance of the Questing Beast  can be seen as a precursor to introduce a situation that is not right, or is unnatural, where the combination of wrongs, or even a single wrong, work to influence and manifest in the future.  For Arthur his incestuous liaison with Morgause will produce Mordred dooms him even though both were unaware of their relationship to each other. The beast was born from an incestuous relationship between the princess and her brother that produced the abominable creature. In the Arthurian world incest is against  the natural order creating chaos and unbalancing the human world.  Somehow the balance of nature must be restored and it is Pellinore and others after him who join the quest to kill the beast that tries to restore the balance of nature.

In the Arthurian world sin is not forgotten or cast aside it comes back in later life often with devastating effect and some see the  Questing Beast as a manifestation of the incest, violence and chaos that eventually destroys Arthur’s realm.  The irony is the beast itself is innocent, as was Arthur in the deception that Merlin placed on Igraine when Uther laid with her.   Both are the product of the wrongdoing of others and yet they become the instruments of god, or the gods.

The doom of King Arthur

So when Arthur meets the Questing Beast after dreaming of his own downfall he is told by Merlin about the circumstances  of his own birth.  He is told how he will be the father of the man who eventually kills him and brings his kingdom to ruin through his incestuous affair with Morgause.  Once Arthur had this knowledge he needed to find a way to deal with it which in later stories he attempts to do.  Although he cannot save his earthly life some might say he successfully saved his soul in how he later  eventually deals with Mordred and dies nobly in battle as foretold. Yet there is disagreement over whether he died.  Some accounts say he died while others say he was taken to Avalon for healing. Still others say he sleeps in a cave or waits in Avalon for the time he will return to save Britain from her enemies.

© 11/04/2016  zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright April 11th, 2016 zteve t evans

Tangata manu, the Birdman of Rapa Nui

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Birdman petroglyphs

On the remote Pacific island of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, an annual competition was held to determine who would be the Tangata manu or Bird-man for the next year.  The Tangata manu was an important post which held valuable privileges for the holder who was also given a special status.  The competition was centered around the Specatacled and  Sooty terns known as the  manutara.  These two species of seabirds nested on the nearby islet of Motu Nui between July and August each year.  Participants competed to collect the first egg laid by the Sooty tern and bring it back to the sacred village of Orongo. There the winner would become the Tangata manu for a term.  Presented here is a brief discussion about Rapanui culture, followed by a brief explanation of the competition and the cult of the Birdman and concluding with the cult’s demise.

A unique culture

Rapa Nui is a place of mystery whose people developed a unique culture and civilization. The most visible and famous product of this culture today is the moai.  These are giant stone statues in humanoid form positioned at different sites around the island.   The chief god of the islanders was Make-Make and they were known to perform ancestor worship and the moai were believed to be an integral part of this.

The people of the island are known as the Rapanui and must have spent a great deal of time and effort creating the moai.  Yet, for some reason they abandoned the statues and took up a new form of worship centred on the Tangata manu and the cult of the Birdman which seems to have replaced the cult of the moai. The Birdman cult was believed to have existed during the time of the moai building though it seemed to have had less significance.

Nobody knows why this radical change occurred but it is a huge step for any society to suddenly abandon long held beliefs and replace them with new ones. Whether some kind of revolution against the ruling order occurred or the Birdman was some kind of new messiah cult is not known but the Rapanui still retained their belief in Make-Make as their chief god. There does appear to be an oral tradition and some archaeological  evidence about an internecine war that ravaged the island but whether this was over dwindling resources or a power struggle between two cults or something else is unknown.  Perhaps the cult of the Birdman was brought in as a peaceful way to decide who would have control of the valuable Sooty tern eggs.

The Tangata manu competition

motu_nui_easter_island

Moto Nui

The Birdman competition appears to be a peaceful way of settling who should have the rights to the annual harvest of sea bird’s eggs and who would be the Tangata-Manu or Birdman during the year.  The annual arrival of the Sooty terns that nested and brought up their young on the islet of Motu Nui just off Rapa Nui was a major event and a valuable resource for the islanders.

It was the shamans of the clans, known as ivi-attuas, who competed by nominating one or two of the young men in the clan to compete for him who were known as hopu. These nominees would previously have been revealed to the ivi-attua in dreams.  They would be the representatives of their clan in the competition and their challenge was to be the first to bring back the first egg of the Sooty tern from the islet of Motu Nui where they laid their eggs and brought up their young each year.

The competition begins from the sacred village of Orongo, perched on the cliff tops looking over the sea to Motu Nui. The hopu must complete a difficult climb down to the sea and then swim across hazardous waters braving sharks to reach Moto Nui.  They then have to climb the cliffs of the islet to find the first egg.  Then they have to return keeping the egg unbroken by swimming back across the sea and climbing back up the cliffs to Orongo to the waiting ivi-attuas.  It was an incredibly difficult and dangerous task and sometimes hopu were killed in the attempt.

crater_del_volcan_rano_kau2c_isla_de_pascua2c_chile

Cliffs of Orongo – By Claire Provost – CC BY-SA 3.0

Who ever found the first egg was entitled to rest on Motu Nui until they had recuperated physically and were of the right frame of mind spiritually. They then had to climb down the cliffs to the sea.  Swim back to the cliffs of Orongo then climb up the cliffs to the sacred village with the egg unbroken.   The other competitors would then return to their respective patrons with the news.  The winning ivi-attua would have his head shaved and painted white, or red.

On the return of the hopu with the egg he would give it to his patron who would then be given the title Tangata-Manu.  He would then carry the egg in his hand at the head of a procession to Anakena if he was from a clan from the west of the island, or Rano Raraku if he was from an eastern clan.  He would then spend five months in residence there.

When he arrived at this residence he would then become tapu or sacred during the following five months of his 12 month term.  He would grow his fingernails and during this period, wear a special headdress made of human hair and be given a new name.  Presents of food and tributes were given and he was given special privileges. Importantly his clan was given the sole rights to harvest the eggs and Sooty terns of Moto Nui during his period of residence as tapu.  The rest of his period as tapu would be spent in solitude in a special house.

Decline of the cult

During the 1860s Catholic missionaries arrived from Europe and the cult was discouraged and consequently declined.  Most of the people were captured by slave traders and sold off  to the highest bidder.  Those that escaped and remained were wiped out by smallpox and other diseases the Europeans brought with them.   The Rapanui lost many of their leaders and wise men in this way and most of their knowledge and history died along with them.  The old religions were replaced by Christianity and the missionaries taught the survivors the European view of the world for good or bad.

Still special

Today, despite its isolation Rapa Nui and its citizens are still a major fascination for many people who still wonder at the remarkable people who produced such a rich culture and is still special today!

©  05/04/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright March 5th, 2016 zteve t evans