The Legend of St. Frideswide of Oxford

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Saint Frideswide hiding among the pigs – Public Domain

Frideswide

Frideswide was the daughter of Didan the king of Lower Mercia and Selfrida, his wife.  She lived in the middle of the 7th century and was born in the royal palace in Oxford.  She was brought up at what is now called Didcot which belonged to her father and was named after him.  Frideswide was known as Fritha to her family and friends and placed under the guidance of a holy woman named Elgitha, or Algiva, who was her governess.  Elgitha came to have a tremendous influence on Frideswide teaching her that, “Whatever is not God is nothing”.  So it was that she grew up in a spiritual environment and was a very quick and enthusiastic student, especially with her Christian studies.

When her mother died she moved back to Oxford to be with her father and managed to persuade him to give her a substantial plot of land to build a church on which was situated at the city gates.  Along with twelve companions, she took the holy vows and her father built a convent next to the church for them.   Although they were bound by rules of chastity and seclusion they were not bound by the rules of the cloister which was consecrated by Edgar the bishop of the diocese and her father gave generous lands and farms to the convent and church.

Frideswide and the Devil

Frideswide was a very beautiful young woman.  Word of her beauty spread far and wide and as a royal princess, she would come with a rich dowry.   Consequently, she was seen as was a highly desirable prize by neighboring princes and royals and had many suitors.  Nevertheless, Frideswide was dedicated to her faith and had no wish for marriage, instead she intended to devote herself to God and Jesus.  According to legend, Satan was jealous of the peace she found in her life and was jealous of the rewards she would surely be given in the afterlife for her devotion and good works.

Although he knew she would never directly be tempted by him and what he had to offer he tried to deceive her by devious means.  He caused her to have a dream where he visited her in the guise of Jesus urging her to follow him.  Frideswide saw straight through the deception and called upon her Lord who drove him from her presence.

Aelfgar

Although Satan failed he had not given up and reverted to other means.  One of his servants on earth was Aelfgar, a Prince of the Royal House of Mercia and Earl of Leicester.  He reveled in drunkenness and debauchery and committed many acts of sin.   Encouraged by Satan, Aelfgar decided that he wanted Frideswide for his wife and sent messengers to her asking for her consent in marriage.  Aelgar was the type of man who used to getting what he wanted by any means and he had ordered his messengers to bring back Frideswide either willingly or by force.

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Frideswide in window in the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral – Weglinde – CC BY-SA 3.0

Frideswide made it clear to the messengers that although she was greatly flattered by Alfgar’s  proposition she had made a solemn vow of chastity which she would never break and was dedicated to her Lord Jesus . The messengers as they had been instructed by Aelfgar warned her of their intent  and approached  to take her under their control.  Frideswide fearing their intent remembered the ordeal of St Agnes for strength.  She told them that she would withhold consent and though her body may be stained her heart would remain pure.  She prayed to God and like the persecutors of St Agnes, the messenger of  Aelfgar were struck blind.

When the people of Oxford heard of these events they feared the wrath of Aelfgar and went to Frideswide and begged her to give the messengers back their sight. Being a kind Christian soul she prayed to the Lord and the messengers were given back their sight.   So glad were they to regain their vision they got down on their knees and begged her forgiveness and gave thanks to her and God.  They then returned to Aelfgar to make their report of her rejection and their alarming experience.

Aelfgar ignored the event completely as if it had never happened and his passion for Frideswide grew.  He refused to believe anyone had the strength of will and courage to oppose his will and in a temper, he rode to Oxford intent on subjugating  Frideswide to his will by any means.

Escape by the River Thames

It was the practice of Frideswide to sometimes spend the night in peaceful and quiet prayer and in such a moment an angel appeared to her and warned her of the approach of Aelfgar.  The angel told her to go  with two of her sisters down to the nearby River Thames where they would find a boat.  Upon that boat was another angel who would take them down the river to safety.  She followed the heavenly instructions and she and her sisters found the boat and were taken about ten miles downstream to be put ashore near a place called Abingdon. From there they traveled on foot through the forests coming to a place that was then known as Bentona and today is called Yattendon.

They found a small building that had been used by local swineherds to keep their pigs in during the autumn when they brought them to feed on the abundant acorns in the forest.  The pigsty had become overgrown the foliage of many plants  but the three friends tidied it up and made it into a tiny oratory.  There in that humble place, they lived for the next three years living off the forest and drinking from a well that had sprung forth after Frideswide had prayed for water.

Aelfgar’s Wrath

Aelfgar had not forgotten Frideswide and searched throughout the land for her sending his emissaries to seek her but to no avail.  Angry and desperate he gathered an army and marched on Oxford.  Arriving at the city gates he threatened to burn down the city unless Frideswide was brought to him.  King Didan was prepared to fight to the death for his daughter but some of the citizen’s of Oxford did not want their homes burnt down and opened the city gates to give Aelfgar entry into the city.   Frideswide had been in contact with her father to reassure him of her well being but news of her whereabouts fell into the wrong hands and she was betrayed.

That night Aelfgar held a party and the drink flowed freely.  Drunkenly he boasted that he would take Frideswide by force and take his pleasure on her regardless with or without her consent.  However, when morning came he thought better of his boasting and decided to try a less forceful courtship.  He thought an open, persistent and less  threatening display of his love for her might change her mind.

Choosing fine and expensive gifts he sent two of his messengers to deliver these to her along with romantic messages, love songs, and poems.  Frideswide patiently and respectfully listened to the messages, love songs, and poems and looked at and admired the fine presents. She then carefully and quietly and with great reverence and respect declined the offer of marriage.  The two messengers took back her answer to Aelfgar but as they were passing through the city gates of Oxford they were struck blind but still gave the news to their prince.

Aelfgar was furious and humiliated to be rejected again and called for his horse which he rode furiously into the forest to confront Frideswide with his men desperately trying to keep up with him.  As he neared the place where Frideswide and her friends had made their oratory her two friends who were out foraging for berries and food heard his approach and ran to warn their mistress.

Frideswide was dismayed.  Her strength was sapped and her resolve gone.  She realized there was no escape now but she had vowed to keep her chastity and she intended to do so whatever the cost to herself.  Fully aware of what Aelfgar would do when he caught her she prepared herself for what she had to do.  As she  resigned herself to meeting God she remembered St Catherine and St Celia whose defense of their chastity cost them their lives and she prayed upon them for strength and help.

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Church of St Frideswide, Frilsham, Berkshire – Michael FORD CC BY-SA 2.0

Struck Blind

Aelfgar arrived and furiously jumped from his horse and moved to take hold of her.  Just as he was about to lay his hand on her he cried out in fear and froze in motion for a second.  He had been struck blind just as his messengers had been and he fell to the ground groveling and crying in the mud.

He begged her for help promising that he would never trouble her again if only he could have his sight back and begged for forgiveness saying that he truly repented his behavior towards her.  Being a naturally compassionate person Frideswide led him by the hand to the spring where she washed his face and eyes in the water and prayed to God for the restoration of his sight.  Her prayers were heard and answered and his sight was miraculously restored.

After this Frideswide decided she would return to the convent at Oxford but politely refused the horses that Aelfgar offered insisting that she and her companions would return on foot together unescorted by him or his men.

The Leper

As she and her companions made their way through the lanes and forest tracks they came across a leper whose disease had left him deformed and hideous.  Seeing the three women he approached them and asked them for a kiss.  The two companions of Frideswide were repulsed by this request but she made the sign of the cross and in the way that a sister would kiss her brother she kissed his lips.  Immediately his scarring and deformities healed up and his skin became fair and as healthy as any man’s and was miraculously cured.

Canonization

Frideswide lived in the Oxford convent for many happy years and eventually chose to retire in seclusion to Thornbury Wood at Binsey where she built a small chapel.  Once again she prayed for water but this time to St Margaret and a spring miraculously bubbled up out of the ground and was sufficient for all her needs for the rest of her life.  She died on 19th of October 735 and was buried in Oxford at the convent.   Many pilgrims have visited her grave and many miracles were said to have occurred and she was eventually canonized.  The oratory in the forest near Yattendon also became a place of pilgrimage and a small settlement grew there that evolved into the village of Frilsham.

© 23/11/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 23rd, 2016 zteve t evans

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Chinese Mythology: The Eight Immortals

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The Eight Immortals – Public Domain

The Eight Immortals

In Chinese mythology, the Eight Immortal were a legendary group of eight individual beings who had transcended the human state to become endowed with divine and supernatural attributes or powers.  Each immortal is endowed with a power that can give life or help their fight against evil.  Most of the Eight Immortals were born during either the Tang or Song dynasties and venerated by Taoists and became popular in Chinese culture.  This work is a brief introduction to the Eight Immortals who were; He Xiangu, Cao Guojiu, Li Tieguai, Lan Caihe, Lü Dongbin, Han Xiangzi, Zhang Guolao and Zhongli Quan and concludes with an observation about their popularity.

He Xiangu

He Xiangu was the only known female member of the Immortals.  While Lan Caihe, another Immortal, is often depicted dressed as a young girl, or sometimes a young boy, making gender uncertain, that of He Xiangu is clearly female. He is her family name and her father was known to be He Tai and was thought have lived during the Tang Dynasty.  She is often depicted holding a lotus flower and a musical instrument called a sheng.  Sometimes she is accompanied by the Fenghuang a mythical bird that was said to reign over all birds.

According to legend when she was born she had six long hairs growing from her head which indicated her as special. When she reached the age of 14 or 15 years old she experienced a dream where a divinity instructed her to eat powdered mica to make her body become light and delicate and to give her immunity from death.  She followed these instructions and abstained from sex and cut down on her food intake becoming like a wraith.  During the reign  of  Emperor Zhongzong during the Tang Dynasty, she gained immortality and transcended to Heaven.

Cao Guojiu

According to tradition, Cao Gujiu was descended from Cao Bin a distinguished Chinese general who went to great lengths to avoid killing non-combatants and innocent people and discouraged looting and pillaging by his troops over his defeated enemies.  Cao Gujiu was believed to be the younger brother of Empress Cao, who was married to Emperor Renzong of the Song Dynasty.  Cao had a younger brother by the name of Cao Jingzh who abused his position who and was corrupt and bullied those below him.

The actions of his younger brother embarrassed and ashamed Cao and he begged him to stop but to no avail.  Cao would use his own fortune to try and make amends for the misdeeds of his brother.  His younger brother’s bad behavior had made him enemies at the court of the emperor and he was charged with abusing his power and position.  Cao was so ashamed of his brother that he resigned from his own position and became a recluse in the countryside.   While living as a recluse he met Zhongli Quan and Lü Dongbin who taught him the magical arts. After many years of practice and dedication to Taoist principles he transcended the human condition to become immortal.

Li Tieguai

Li Tiegua had a reputation of being irritable and bad-tempered but was seen as being compassionate and caring towards the poor, sick and those in need.   He carried a gourd in which he carried special medicine which he dispensed to those in need.  Li Tiegua is often depicted in a rather unattractive way as being an old man with a wispy beard and unkempt hair.  He used an iron crutch to aid his walking and was often depicted as a type of clown or beggar who used his powers to benefit those in need.  He could be found wherever the sick needed curing or the oppressed needed freeing.   Li had been the apprentice of Lao-Tzu the founder of Taoism.

Lan Caihe

The age and gender of Lan Caihe are not known for sure.  Lan can be depicted as either a boy or girl often in clothing that was worn by either sex and  often carrying a flower basket made of bamboo, or castanets of the same material.  According to legend Lan was carried to Heaven by a crane or a swan while in a drunken stupor. Lan and was said to have become an Immortal when five hundred years worth of magic was transferred him by Sun Wukong who was also known as the Monkey King.

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The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea – Public Domain

Lü Dongbin

Lü Dongbin was said to have been born on the 14th day of the 4th month of the Chinese calendar.  When he was born the room was magically filled with a sweet fragrance.  According to tradition Lü Dongbin was a clever scholar and poet who was elevated to immortal status.  He is often depicted wearing the clothes of a scholar and carrying a sword on his back that he used to banish evil spirits. He was one of the most famous of the Eight Immortals and was especially revered by Taoists.

He was regarded as someone who was intelligent and scholarly with a strong desire to help others elevate their own spiritual growth but was seen as having certain character flaws. For example, he was known to be a “womanizer’ who was susceptible to getting drunk and he had bouts of anger, but he was also known for being a prolific poet.

Lü ‘s master was Chang An who put him through Ten Trials before he was told the secrets of life to become an Immortal.  He then improved upon the method so that more people could benefit which was considered to be his major contribution to the wellbeing of mankind and he strove to improve the health and life of many people.

Han Xiangzi

Han Xiangzi was a student of Lü Dongbi.  He is often seen in depictions holding a dizi, which is a kind of Chinese flute and was honored as the patron of flutists. He was believed to have composed a piece of music called Tian Hua Yin.  It is not known if Han Xiangzi actually existed at all but if he did he was thought to have been a grandnephew of an important scholar, poet, and politician by the name of Han Yu who was said to have dedicated three poems to him.

Zhang Guolao

Zhang Guolao was believed to have been a real historical figure and sometimes known as Zhang Guo.  He was thought to have lived from the about the end of the 7th century to about the middle of the 8th, living on Zhongtiao Mountain as a hermit at the time of the Tang Dynasty.

Zhang was a practitioner of necromancy and claimed he has been the Grand Minister to the legendary Emperor Yao in a previous existence.  He was known to enjoy drinking wine and made his own which was reputed to have medicinal and healing powers and greatly favored by others of the Eight Immortals.   Zhang was also a qigong master and was said to be able to abstain from food for many days existing only on small sips of his wine.

He had many special powers and was said to be able to turn invisible, drink poison without harm, make flowers wilt by pointing his finger at them and snatch birds from out of the sky.  In art, he is often depicted on the back of a white mule.  When the journey was over he would fold the mule up and place it in a box, or in his pocket for safe keeping.  When he needed the mule again he would he would pour water from his mouth onto it and the mule would regain its shape. His symbol was a fish-drum a kind of percussion instrument and sometimes he is shown with a peach or phoenix feather.

Zhongli Quan

Legend tells how when Zhongli was being born the room was filled with light and that he cried non-stop for seven days.  From this and because had was born with special physical features such as high cheeks and red lips, a square shaped mouth, deep-set eyes, long eyebrows wide ears, and a broad forehead he was known to be destined for greatness.  The first words he was said to have spoken  were,

 “my feet have wandered in the purple palace of the immortals, my name is recorded in the capital of the jade emperor.”

When he grew up he became a general and led his army against Tibet.  He was beaten in battle by the Tibetans and had to escape into the mountains.  He was found in the mountains by an old man who took him back to his spiritual sanctuary. The old man taught him alchemy and magical rituals and after three days of intensive teaching dismissed him telling him to go back into the world and use his powers to help people.  He left the sanctuary with a magical fan that could bring the dead back to life and turn stones into gold or silver and he used this to alleviate hunger and poverty wherever he found it.

There are two versions of how he finally achieved immortality.  The first tells how the frequent use of his magical powers and special fan to help people caused him to join the shimmering cloud and become immortal.   In the second he was meditating near a wall when it collapsed on top of him but behind the wall was a vessel of jade that bore him to the shimmering cloud to become one of the Immortals.

The Popularity of the Eight Immortals

Since ancient times the depiction of the Immortals in art has been popular with Chinese artists and the tradition was continued when Taoism flourished and they depicted the Immortals in their own style.  Perhaps their popularity was their association with prosperity and longevity but they were also the seen as the heroes of the general population who cured them of illness and disease, fought for them against oppression and taught them how to evolve spiritually to greater heights.

© 16/11/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright November 11, 2016 zteve t evans

 

 

Cornish Folklore: The Legendary Tom Bawcock of Mousehole

Cornish Folklore: The Legendary Tom Bawcock of Mousehole

The sea and the rugged Cornish coastline dotted with fishing villages and harbors is a fertile breeding ground of many legends and traditions.  For many of the Cornish folk living around the coast, the sea provided them with a means to make a living by fishing.  As well as selling their catch for small profits it was the basic ingredient of their diet.  To catch the fish they needed suitable weather so their livelihoods were inextricably linked to the sea and the weather.

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Georges Jean-Marie Haquette (1854 – 1906) – Public Domain

Stormy Weather

Tom Bawcock was a legendary fisherman in the 16th century who lived in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole. Like many other local people, he made his living from fishing the seas around Cornwall.  According to legend during one wintertime the area was afflicted by a series of storms and bad weather which prevented the local fishermen from putting out to sea.  This is said to have happened around Christmas time and the fishing boats remained stationary in the harbor. This bad weather continued over a prolonged period and the local people could not catch the fish that consisted of their main diet and began to starve.

Brave Tom Bawcock

According to local folklore this state of affairs continued for some time and by the 23rd of December with the village people in dire straights, one man decided something had to be done.  Tom Bawcock decided he would chance the weather and take his boat out to try and make a catch. Bravely he took his fishing boat out in the most appalling of weather and horrendous seas but good fortune was with him.  He managed to drop his nets and haul in a huge catch of fish.  When he returned he found he had several different kinds of fish all mixed together.

baked_stargazy_pieBy KristaBaked stargazy pieCC BY 2.0

Stargazy Pie

These were all placed together in one big pie with egg and potatoes providing enough to feed the entire village.  They called the dish stargazy pie.   In this dish, some of the fish heads are deliberately placed to poke through the pastry as if looking at the stars and the tails protrude as well so that it looks like the fish are leaping in and out as they would in water.  Placing them this way is also said to let the fish oils run back into the pie improving the taste and nutritional value.

Tom Bawcock’s Eve

Naturally, the villagers were delighted and Tom became their hero. A festival has been held on 23rd December which became known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve ever since in the village of Mousehole. During the evening of the 23rd, a huge stargazy pie is the centerpiece of a parade through Mousehole accompanied by villagers carrying lanterns and the pie is then eaten.  But even the Cornish weather can affect this and sometimes the lantern parade is postponed if the weather is particularly bad.

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The lantern parade for Tom Bawcock’s Eve – Public Domain

There was once an older festival held in the village during the end of December which also featured a fish pie made with several varieties of seafood and it may be that Tom Bawcock’s Eve has evolved from that. Over the years the festival has grown and since 1963 the famous Christmas festive illuminations of Mousehole are included adding extra color and sparkle.

The origin of Tom Bawcock

There are alternative theories as to how the festival originated.  One proposed by a nautical archaeologist, Robert Morton Nance (1873–1959) an authority in his time on the Cornish language and one of the founders of the Old Cornish Society put forward the idea that the name Bowcock  was derived from the French Beau Coq. He thought the festival was from an era that pre-dated Christianity and thought the cock in pagan times was the bringer of light or the sun in the morning with its crowing.

Another explanation is that the name Bawcock in Middle English is a nickname for someone who is regarded as a good fellow and Tom a generic name used to describe any man.  So Tom Bawcock would mean any good fellow and perhaps, in this case, any good fellow, who was brave enough to risk his life to feed the village.  It could have been a kind of Harvest Festival celebration in honor of any or all of the village’s brave fishermen if read like this.

The Devil in a Pie!

There is a tradition that the Devil never went to Cornwall.  According to Robert Hunt, after the Old Nick crossed the River Tamar he noticed the Cornish people liked to put everything in pies.  Not fancying his chances he decided to hightail it back  before they decided to place him in one!

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Copyright zteve t evans

 

Cornish Folklore: The Bells of Forrabury

There are many legends and folktales from around the world that tell of sunken bells that have either been sunk in the sea or in a lake inland.  This folktale comes from Boscastle, Cornwall in England, which is a fishing village and harbor and part of the civil parish of Forrabury and Minster and tells how the bells of Forrabury Church were lost to the sea. According to the legend there was once a degree of rivalry between the church of Forrabury and the nearby church of Tintagel whose bells were said to have pealed merrily at the marriage of King Arthur and most solemnly when he died.

The Captain and the Fisherman

The church of Forrabury had no bells and the parishioners decided that their church should also have a fine peal of bells and so they commissioned a Spanish foundry to cast a set of bells that would surpass their neighbor’s.  When the bells were cast they were blessed and carefully transported to Forrabury on a ship under the command of a Spanish captain.  The ship sailed under fair winds from Spain to England then along the rugged coast of Cornwall under the guidance of a local fisherman who was familiar with the dangers of the coastline and a good safe voyage was made.  When the ship arrived the bells of Tintagel rang out a welcome.  The pilot on hearing them realized they were safely at their destination and went down on his knees to give thanks to God for their safe keeping and the speed of their journey.

The captain was a surly fellow and laughed at the pilot, mocking him and calling him a superstitious fool.  He told the pilot that their safe and swift journey was down to a combination of his own knowledge,  the skill and hard work of his captaincy, and the hard work of the crew. He told him that soon they would come to a happy and successful end to the voyage thanks to themselves alone and pored scorn on the idea of any divine intervention.  As he finished berating the fisherman he uttered an oath and profanity to end his speech.

The fisherman told the captain to moderate his language and show gratitude to God for their safe voyage.  The captain swore and laughed and continued to insist that the only one to thank for their safe and speedy voyage was themselves and uttered a string of expletives and mocked the fisherman mercilessly.  The fisherman shook his head and said, “May God forgive you!”

The Weather Changes

Now, the seas off the Cornish coast can be changeable.  A ship’s captain may believe that because the voyage has encountered mild seas and favorable winds all will be well the entire journey.  However, a wise captain will wait until he is safely ashore before judging the quality of the voyage and will always treat the sea and weather with respect knowing they at the bidding of God.  So when the seas and weather suddenly changed within sight of the harbor this would have come as no surprise to an experienced mariner such as the fisherman and change it did.   As the weather changed and the seas grew dangerously wild a huge wave rampaged towards the ship carrying the Forrabury bells.

The Bells of Forrabury

A vast throng of local people had come out to the harbor to welcome the bells.  As the captain was uttering his profanities they watched in awe and fear as a great swell in the sea far out beyond the ship formed into a massive wave.   This then swept towards the shore catching the ship bearing the bells tossing it to and fro and finally overwhelming it and sinking it close to the shore.  As the vessel sank the horrified watchers from the shore heard the sound of the bells muffled by the water like a death knell and indeed it was.  The only person who survived the sinking of the ship was the good fisherman with the captain and everyone else on board going down with the ship.  And so it is said that when the storms rage and the wild waves race across the sea to batter that part of the Cornish coast the dull clanging of the bells can be heard rising from the depths of the foamy ocean.  Their muffled tone, though dulled by the water, ring out a warning  to the wicked and the profane to change their ways. The church of Forrabury did not get its fine bells to better those of its neighbor and perhaps there is another lesson in that.

© 01/11/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 1st, 2016 zteve t evans