Supernatural Animal Helpers, the Grateful Dead and the Quest for the Bird “Grip”

Themes and motifs in folk and fairy tales are devices that help to enrich the story.  They are not the story-line but are woven into the narrative to enhance and highlight certain parts, or points the narrator wishes to make, or to provide an overall meaning, which is sometimes deliberately hidden.  Presented here is a retelling of a Swedish fairy tale called The Bird “Grip” whose song was said to cure blindness of kings.  This tale is classified as  Aarne-Thompson folktale type 550, “The Golden Bird”, a Supernatural Helper in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system and it also involves the Grateful Dead (type 505). This is followed by a brief discussion about some of the motifs and themes that appear in the story and what they may mean.

The Quest for the Bird “Grip”

This tale begins with a great king who ruled a great kingdom.  However there are some things in the world that do not recognize greatness in either kings or kingdoms and this king was afflicted by a condition that closed both of his eyes tragically leaving him blind. All of the great physicians in his entire great kingdom could not bring back the sight of the king no matter what they tried.   Many great physicians from many other great countries also tried to cure him but to no avail.  At last a poor old woman came to the palace and asked to see the king because she thought she could help him.  Out of desperation he agreed and let her examine him.  She told him that although she could not cure him herself his only hope was to seek out the bird “Grip” whose song alone brought light and vision to all who heard it, even the eyes of the king.

The bird Grip was kept by another king in distant realm in a golden cage.  This king thought the bird was beyond price and he kept it  closely guarded at all times.  How he would possibly seek out this rare and treasured bird the blind king did not know and fell into despair.  Now, the king had three sons.  When the eldest of these heard this he offered to go and seek out the bird Grip and bring it back to his father so he could listen to its song and it would open up his eyes.

The Eldest Son

This greatly pleased his father and he agreed to this proposition.  He gave his son plenty of food supplies, a good horse, and a big bag full of gold coins.  So the prince began his journey with the intention of finding and bringing back the bird Grip to cure his father’s blindness.  He rode many miles though woods and dales until he came to an inn.  Feeling tired and in the need of refreshment he placed his horse in the stables and went into the inn.  As he entered he became aware of many people all drinking and chatting happily. Seeing him enter they all greeted him cordially making him feel very welcome.  A drink was thrust in his hand and soon he was laughing and chatting, playing dice and singing and he began to feel very jolly.  He was enjoying himself so much that he decided to stay for just a bit longer.  Indeed, he was enjoying himself so much he kept putting off his departure.  In fact, he was having such a good time he completely forgot about his poor blind father and his quest to bring back to him the bird Grip and there he stayed enjoying the company and revelry of the inn.

While the eldest prince was making merry his poor blind father was sitting at home waiting patiently and hopefully for his son’s return with the bird Grip to cure his blindness.  The more days that passed by with no sign of him the more he began fretting about where his eldest son had got to.  His second eldest son saw his father’s worry and went to him seeking permission to go and look for his brother and search for and bring back the bird Grip to cure his poor blind father.

The Second Eldest

The King agreed and furnished his second eldest son with a plentiful supply of food, a good horse and a big bag of money.  The prince set out following the same road as his brother and after many days arrived at the inn where he found his brother drinking and making merry.  His elder brother welcomed him warmly and introduced him to his friends who made a great fuss of him.   Soon he was chatting and singing and playing dice and having such a wonderful time that he clean forgot about his poor blind father and his promise to bring back to him the bird Grip to cure his blindness.

Back at the Palace

Back in his palace the king waited in hope that his sons would safely return to him not just to cure his blindness but because he loved them dearly and was genuinely concerned for their welfare.  When his youngest son saw how worried his father was he felt so sorry for him. He went to him and asked him for permission to go and look for his brothers and to search out and bring back the bird Grip to cure his blindness.  He told him he was certain that he would succeed in finding them and also be able to bring back the bird.  However, having lost two son the king was reluctant to give permission to his youngest son for fear of losing him too.   Nevertheless, his youngest son was adamant that he should go and continued to beg his father’s permission until he eventually reluctantly agreed.  The young prince was given a fine horse and provisions of food and a big bag of money to help him on his way.

The Youngest Son

He took the same road as his two brothers had taken and after many days of traveling came to the inn where they had stopped.  Just as they had been, he was tired and in need of refreshment so he took his horse to the stable and went inside the inn.  There he found both his brothers drinking and making merry in the bar.   As soon as they saw him they made a great fuss of him and entreated him to join them but refused to go back to their father or join him on the quest for the bird Grip.

However, as tired and in need of refreshment as he was the young prince refused to stay. As he had now succeeded in finding his brothers and was sure of their safety he continued alone on the quest not wanting his poor blind father to suffer longer than he needed to.  Bidding his brothers farewell he went off alone looking for another inn in which to spend the night further on along the road.

He rode on and came to a dark tangled forest and he followed the road on through the trees which took him deep into the woods.  Just as the sun was going down he came to an inn.  Now feeling very tired and in need of refreshment he thought he would knock on the door and ask politely for board and lodging for the night as he still had all of the money that his father had given him.  So he knocked on the door.  It was opened and he was greeted by the innkeeper in the most friendly and sociable way possible which put him at ease.   The innkeeper told him he would be pleased to put him up for the night and invited him in.  He told a servant to take the horse to the stable while he showed the prince to his room.  He called for a maid who came in and promptly lay a table cloth over a table and brought in dishes and plates of different food and goblets of wine for him to enjoy for his supper.

Inside the Inn

Outside the sun had now gone down and it was very dark in the forest and the prince was glad he was now inside eating heartily by a warm fire.   As he was enjoying his supper he suddenly heard the most terrible screaming and wailing coming from the  room next door.  Jumping up in fright he called to the maid who came running in.  “What in the world is that terrible screaming and wailing?” he asked anxiously.

Looking terrified the maid told him

“Those are not the shrieks of this world, they are from the next!  They come from a dead man who was murdered by the master because he could not pay for the board and lodging he had taken.  Furthermore, because the man had not enough money to pay for a funeral either the master refused to give him one.  Every night he goes into that room where the dead man lays and whips and scourges the corpse.  Those shrieks you hear come from the man who is now in the place of the living dead.  There he must remain until his debts are paid.”

As she finished speaking she quietly lifted the cover of a large dish on the table.  Lying on that dish there was an axe and a sharp knife and as he looked in horror upon it he knew that the master of the inn was going to offer him the choice of his own death unless he paid a ransom. Therefore, he called to the master and gave him a large sum of money in ransom for his own life.  Then he paid him what the dead man had owed him and then gave him more money to ensure the deceased at last had a proper burial, which to his credit at least, the murderer did arrange.

Escape

Despite having paid the ransom the prince still feared for his life and asked the maid to help him escape in the night.  She agreed but only on the condition that he take her along with him telling him she was a prisoner and also feared for her own life.  Then she told him the master kept the key to the stables under his pillow at night and if he would keep watch she thought she could take it.  In the dead of night she bravely crept into the room of her sleeping master while the prince stood ready to aid her in case he woke and managed to take the key without disturbing him.

The two quietly saddled his horse and with her seated behind the prince they rode off into the night leaving the master of the house still sleeping peacefully.   They rode through the night and for many days thereafter until at last they came to an inn where they rested.  The innkeeper agreed to take on the maid as a servant and the prince left her there while he rode on in search of the bird Grip.

The Fox

He continued long the forest road for many days until one morning as he was riding along he came across a fox sitting in the middle of the road as if waiting for him.

“Good morning,” said the fox, “and where are you going this fine sunny morning?”

“It so happens,” said the prince, “that I am on a quest that is too important to tell to any stranger that I may meet along the road.”

“Yes, indeed,” said the fox, “your quest for the bird Grip is far too important to tell to any old strange fellow you meet on the way.  Of course you must never tell how you hope to find it and take it home to cure your poor blind father, the King.  If you like I can help you to complete your task, but in return you must follow my instructions and my advice to the letter.”

The prince was astounded that the fox seemed to know all about his quest, nevertheless he realized he had no idea where to find the bird Grip and so he agreed.

The Castle of the Bird Grip

The fox told him that the bird Grip sat in a golden cage in a castle and that he would lead him there.  Then he told him when they arrived he would then tell him exactly what he must and must not do.  So after a few days of traveling the fox led the prince to the castle. The fox then gave the prince three grains of gold and told him that he must throw one grain into the guardroom as he passed by.  Another grain must thrown into the room where the bird they called Grip sat in his golden cage before he entered it.  The last grain of gold was to be thrown into its cage.  When that had been done it would then be safe to open the cage and take the bird but he must not on any account stroke the stroke the bird Grip or disaster would follow.

So the prince crept into the castle and as he tiptoed past the guard-room he threw a grain of gold inside and all of the guards fell asleep.  When he came to room where the bird  Grip was kept he threw in another grain of gold and all those whose duty it was to guard and take care of it fell asleep.  Then he went to the cage and threw the last grain of gold inside and the bird Grip fell asleep.  The Prince opened the cage door reached in had gently took hold of the bird and brought it out.  As he looked at it admiringly he was struck by how beautiful it was.  Gently he caressed its neck with his finger but as he did so the bird immediately awoke and began to screech.  All the people in the room awoke and the guards in the guard-room awoke and ran to the room and taking him prisoner threw him into jail.

In his small bare cell the prince thought how foolish he had been to ignore the advice of the fox.  His disobedience it had brought him to this miserable jail but worse it had destroyed any chance his father had of regaining his sight.  As he was lamenting his own stupidity the fox suddenly appeared before him.   The prince was delighted to see him and took his reproaches meekly promising that in future he would obey his instructions to the letter, if the fox would only get him out of the dreadful fix he was in now.

The fox nodded and told him he had indeed come to help him.  He told the prince that when he was brought to trial the judge would ask him questions and that he must answer “yes” to all of them.  If he did that the fox promised everything would be alright.  So when the prince was brought before the judge, the judge asked him directly if he had come to steal the bird Grip.

The prince said, “Yes.”  

Then the judge asked him if he was a master-thief.

The prince said, “Yes.”

The king who was attending the trial heard this and said he would forgive the prince and would pardon him for trying to steal the bird Grip.  However there was a catch,  The King told him to earn forgiveness and a pardon he would have travel to a neighboring kingdom and steal a  princess who was the most beautiful woman in the world and bring her back to him.

The prince, as before said, “Yes.”

The Princess

So he was set free and taking his leave set off along the road to the neighboring kingdom to steal the princess who was the  most beautiful woman in the world.  As he walked along the fox appeared next to him and showed him the way to the castle where she resided.   When they arrived outside the fox gave the prince three grains of gold.  He told the prince to throw one into the guard-room, one into the chamber of the princess and the last one into her bed.  Then he gave him a stern warning telling him that he must not kiss the princess.

With that he prince crept into the castle.   When he came to the guard-room he threw a grain of gold inside and the guards all fell asleep.  When he came to the chamber of the princess hr threw in a grain of gold and all of he maids-in-waiting fell asleep. Then he threw a grain of gold on the princess’s bed and she fell asleep.   He went to her and as he lifted her in his arms he noticed how beautiful she was and he could not help but steal a kiss as she slept.  As he did so she immediately awoke and so did her maids-in-waiting who screamed and woke the guards who ran up and arrested the prince and threw him into jail.

As the prince was lamenting his foolishness the fox appeared in front of him and sharply rebuked him off for his stupidity in not obeying his instructions.  Nevertheless, he promised to help him on condition that when the judge questioned him he would answer “yes” to all his questions to which the prince agreed.   When he was brought to trial the judge asked him if he had meant to steal the princess.   The prince replied “yes.”  Then the judge asked if he was a master-thief and the prince said, “yes”.

The king was attending the trial and when he heard this he told the judge that he would pardon the prince if he would but go into the next kingdom and bring back for him the horse with the four golden shoes.  To this the prince said “yes” and he was set free to go and steal the horse with the four golden shoes for the king.

The Horse with the Four Golden Shoes

He had not gone far along the road when the fox appeared next to him as he walked along.  This pleased and comforted the prince and he asked the fox the way to find the horse with the four golden shoes.  The fox told him he would take him there and after a few days of journeying they arrived outside the castle where the fox said the horse with the four golden shoes was kept in a stable.

For the third time the fox gave the prince three grains of gold.  One to make the guards in the guard-room sleep, one to make the stable boys sleep and the third to throw into the stall where the horse with the four golden shoes was kept.   The fox told him that on the wall behind the horse there was a hook with a beautiful saddle made of gold was hung. He warned him that on no account should he touch it or worse would befall him than had already befallen him and he would no longer be able to help him.

So the prince did exactly as he was told and when he threw the last grain of gold into the horse’s stall he noticed the beautiful golden saddle hung on a hook in the wall.  He thought how splendid it would look upon the horse with the golden shoes.  Although he fought the urge he found himself reaching out and was just about to touch it when something suddenly knocked his hand away.  With that sharp shock he quickly recovered his senses and led the horse quietly out of the castle while everyone still slept soundly.

Along the road the fox appeared next to him as he led the horse along.  “I almost touched the saddle,” said the prince.

“Yes, it is a good job I jumped up and knocked your arm or you would have been beyond my help,” said the fox.

Heart’s Desire

They traveled on taking the horse with four golden horseshoes back to the castle of the king where the princess was. The prince told the fox that he could not get the beautiful princess out of his mind and that she was his heart’s desire.  He asked the fox if he thought it would be a good idea for him to ride home to his poor blind father on the horse with four golden shoes with the princess sitting behind him and with the bird Grip on his arm.  The fox agreed that would be something quite special and when they arrived at the castle he gave the prince three grains of gold with the exact instructions he had previously given him.

This time the prince did exactly as the fox had instructed and carried off the princess while she slept without kissing her.   As he set her upon the horse with the four golden horseshoes she woke up and smiled at him and together they rode happily along their way with the fox trotting alongside.  Eventually, they came to the castle where the bird Grip sat in its golden cage.  The fox gave the prince three grains of gold and the exact instructions he had previously given him and this time while everyone was asleep the prince resisted the urge to stroke the bird and carried it back to where the princess, the horse with the four golden shoes and the fox were waiting for him.

Parting of Ways

The prince was now very happy as he would be able to return to his father with the bird Grip and restore his sight.  He also had the horse with the four golden horseshoes and the beautiful princess who he had fallen in love with and who now loved him.  So they all traveled together until at last they came to the place in the forest where the prince had first met the fox who turned to him and said,

“This is the place where you found me and I can go no further.  Now you have obtained your heart’s desire it is time for us to part.  Listen well! I will tell you that you will have a good and safe journey back to your father, but do not on any account pay a ransom for the life of anyone.  Do not forget!”

The prince was sorry they were parting ways.  He had come to rely on the wisdom of the fox but he thanked him for all of his help and promised that he would note his warning after all that had happened to him. The fox vanished before his eyes and the prince rode on chatting happily to the princess and on his arm he carried the bird named Grip back to his poor blind father.

Return to the Inn

After a few days they arrived back at the inn where he had found his brothers merrymaking with their quest forgotten.  However, he was now struck by how grim and glum it seemed and there was no merrymaking now.  As he drew neared he was chilled to see two gallows standing upright in the yard.  He noticed all of the windows had been covered by black curtains and there was a sorrowful and depressing atmosphere hanging over the inn, where once it had been bright, warm and cheery.

Feeling concerned, he asked what had happened to bring such changes to the place.  He was told that everyone was sad and gloomy because two princes were to be hanged that day.  They told him that they had spent all their money drinking and merrymaking. Instead of stopping when their money ran out they had run up a massive bill with the innkeeper which they could not pay.  It was the law in these parts of the world that those who were in debt and could not pay must be hanged unless someone was prepared to pay a ransom for their lives.

Immediately the prince realized it was his two brothers who were to be hanged having spent all the money their father had given them and run up debt merrymaking.  Despite their foolishness he was sorry that they should come to such an ignoble end.  Therefore, as he had enough money he settled the ransom by paying off all their debts and saving their lives.

The Lion’s Den

Of course, his brothers were relieved and grateful to begin with but when they saw that he had a princess along with, the horse with the four golden shoes and the bird Grip their gratitude turned to jealousy and resentment.  They began to plot to kidnap the princess, and steal the horse with the four golden shoes and the bird Grip.  They wanted to ride back to the castle with these treasures and present them to their grateful father who would be cured of his blindness and heap rewards upon them.

After much thought they at last agreed on a strategy to be rid of him forever and take his prizes for themselves.   They lured him to a den where a pride of lions lived and pushed him into it and left him thinking they would eat him leaving no trace.  Then they took the princess on the horse with the four golden shoes and the bird Grip. They told the princess to say nothing of their younger brother and if anyone asked she was to say that it was they who had brought her here or they would kill her.

The two brother rode proudly back to their father at his palace in triumph.  He was delighted at their return and ordered great feasting and celebrations and praised them for their courage and dedication to him.  Then their father asked if they had seen anything of their younger brother.  They told him that they had found him merrymaking at the inn and had spent all of the money he had been given.  He had run up a great debt with the innkeeper and because he could not pay had been hanged as was the law.

This news greatly upset the king as his youngest son was his favorite and furthermore the happiness for the treasures that the two brothers had brought back faded.  The princess cried bitterly day and night and would speak to no one.  The horse with the golden shoes turned vicious and could not be approached so no one could see its golden shoes.  The bird Grip, whose sweet voice could cure blindness would not sing.

The Return of the Fox

It so happened that when the young prince was flung to the lions he had closed his eyes expecting the worst.  When nothing happened he opened them and saw the fox sitting before him with the pride of lions all friendly and docile towards him.  The fox was not angry that he had forgotten his warning.  All he would say was that brothers who would forget their poor blind father while making merry were nothing but a disgrace to their royal blood.  As such he was not surprised that they would cruelly betray their younger brother.  Then he led the prince out of the lion’s den and gave him instructions to follow that would return to him all that had been lost.  The prince was truly grateful and thanked the fox for all of his help and for being a true friend.  The fox replied that it was the prince that had he had been of service to him he would now ask for a service in return.  The prince told him he would do anything that was possibly in his power and asked him what he could do for him.   The fox became deadly serious and told him sternly.

“I have but one thing and one thing only that I ask of you.  To be of service you must take your sword and cut off my head,”

This greatly shocked the prince who insisted he could never do such a thing to his good friend.  The fox was adamant that it must be done.  He insisted he would be doing him a great service but the prince continued to refuse.  At last the fox hung his head in sorrow and told the prince that if he would not comply with his request he would have to do a terrible thing himself and that was to kill the prince.  At this the prince realized the fox meant what he said and he took out his sword and cut off the head of his friend but as he did so a handsome youth sprang up from out of the fox and stood before him smiling.

“From the bottom of my heart I thank.  You have broke the spell that even death could not undo.  You should now know that I am the dead man who lay so long without burial and rites who was murdered by the innkeeper.  You paid my debts, ransomed me and gave me a proper funeral and because of this I have helped you gain your heart’s desire!”

Then he took his leave and left the prince vanishing before his eyes.  Now, although the prince was on his own he knew just what to do without the help of the fox.

The Return of the Prince

He disguised himself as a blacksmith and went to the palace of his father to offer his services.  The King’s servants opened the door and told him that there was a horse that needed his shoes looked at but it would not let anyone near it.  Although many had tried, no one had been able to complete the job.  The prince told them he was confident he could do the job so they took him to the stable where the horse with the four golden shoes was angrily stamping the ground whenever anyone went near it.  As soon as it saw the prince its demeanor changed.  It stopped stamping and took on a docile and friendly manner and was obedient and calm as the prince lifted its hooves one by one to reveal its golden shoes.

The King’s servants were very impressed and told the prince about the bird Grip and how it would not sing no matter what was tried.  The prince told them he knew the bird very well for he had attended to it when he had visited another King who had kept it in a golden cage.  He told them he knew more about its ways than anyone else and if it would not sing it was because there was something that it did not have.  If they took him to see it he was sure he would be able to tell what was amiss and provide what was missing so that it would sing.

The King is Cured

The servants decided they would go and ask the poor blind king for his permission as the bird was kept in the same room where he would sit along with the princess who would not stop crying floods of bitter tears.  The king was desperate and readily agreed and the prince was led into the room.  As soon as the princess set eyes on him she stopped crying and began smiling radiantly and the bird Grip began to sing.  It sang and it sang and the darkness that had blighted the king’s eyes were driven away and he could see everything.  He looked at the blacksmith and saw through his disguise recognizing his youngest son and he embraced him happily.  Then he saw through the lies that his two sons had told him about his youngest son and he banished them from his kingdom.

As for the young prince, he married the princess and his father gave him the horse with the four golden shoes and half of the kingdom.  From then on peace and happiness flooded into the the king’s court which was filled with the wonderful singing of the bird Grip.

Curious Motifs

There are several curious recurring patterns or motifs throughout the story that are also found in folktales around the world. The number three has a special role. The king has three sons. There are three brothers. There are three tasks. Three grains of gold. The prince fails three times then has three successes and wins the three prizes; the princess, the horse with the four golden horseshoes and the bird Grip. An exceptionally curious motif and perhaps the grimmest of all is the decapitation of the fox. Decapitation is found in many folktales around the world. In this case, it seems to be a device to reveal the identity of the magical fox who turns out to be the soul of the dead man whose ransom was paid by the prince. Perhaps understandably, it also often represents a change in the nature of a person from the physical plane to that of the spiritual.

Interwoven Themes

The appearance of the dead man, whose burial the prince had paid for, as a magical fox is unusual. In most folktales involving the Grateful Dead – those of the dead who return to repay the living – usually appear as human or a ghost. The Grateful Dead theme explores the Law of Spiritual Reciprocity, which is also known as the Law of Sowing and Reaping, but there are two aspects of this presented in the story. The Prince’s two older brothers would have reaped the grim consequences of their bad behavior and were only saved from the gallows by the intervention of their younger brother. Yet still, they did not change their wicked ways and ended up banished from the kingdom by their father when the bird Grip finally sang and cured his blindness to see through them. The young prince who keeps true to his purpose is helped find his heart’s desire by the magical fox which was an incarnation of the soul of the dead man’s whose burial and ransom he paid.

There is also the blindness of the king who despite his own greatness and that of his kingdom succumbs to a natural tragedy that could just as easily have afflicted anyone one of his subjects from the highest to the lowest, but in this story it afflicts the greatest. Great though his physicians are they cannot help him and it is only through the advice of a poor old woman that the cure he seeks is eventually found, thus greatness is humbled and the quest to cure the king’s blindness is born.

The theme of the quest for a special bird is also found in many other folktales around the world and often involves an animal or supernatural helper. During the quest, the young prince undergoes a coming of age through which he is offered the good advice of the fox but does not follow it. It is only when he learns to follow the advice of the fox that his own personal growth begins until he can, at last, be confident enough to follow his own animal instincts which the fox perhaps may represent. Of course, all stories are very much open to interpretation and the one that matters is always your own.

© 27/02/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 27th, 2018 zteve t evans

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Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns and the Door to the Otherworld in Welsh Folklore

This article was originally posted on the #FolkloreThursday.com as Folklore of the Welsh Lakes: Reflecting on Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns, and the Otherworld by zteve t evans September 28th, 2017.
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Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Welsh Lakes

There are may lakes scattered around Wales, each with their own unique characteristics and history. Many also have the most amazing legends and folklore associated with them, and the purpose of this work is to discuss some of them. This work does not attempt to be academic or scholarly. Instead, it attempts to explore thoughts that are more intuitive and reflective, and hopefully look towards stimulating ideas within the reader to construct their own interpretations of the folk tales and lakes mentioned should they wish to. 

A few things to note: Articles on the following lakes (Lake Bala also known as Llyn Tegid, Llyn Barfog, Kenfig Pool, Llyn Coch or the Red Lake, Llyn Cwm Llwch and Llyn y Fan Fach) all appear on the #FolkloreThursday website and links are placed in this article for easy access to them. The term ‘llyn’ is the Welsh word for ‘lake,’ and they are often used interchangeably. There are also a great many more lakes in Wales than can possibly be mentioned here, and many of them have other folk tales and folklore. Finally, there are many different versions of the same legends, and the ones mentioned here may be different to the ones you know. 

Origin of the Tales

Although only six lakes are discussed, it will be seen that these have a rich heritage in folklore and in some cases share similar stories. In other cases, the stories appear very different though there may be threads that link some together. The age of the tales and folklore is very much open to debate. Many scholars think they date from the Middle Ages but have far older elements built into them. These elements may be of Christian, Celtic, or possibly even older cultures. For example, are the legends of drowned towns and cities distant, faded memories of real towns (or at least settlements) that once existed either alongside or were built over a lake/replaced by a lake in some sudden flooding or disaster? It may that each succeeding human culture altered or added to the stories to reflect their own beliefs and situation, as will be discussed later. There is also a possibility that they were transported to the lakes from outside Wales, perhaps in the early movement of people across Europe from as far away as the Black Sea region.

The Doorway to the Otherworld

The Welsh lakes are often remote and situated on the edge of human society. In some tales they are presented as the doorway to the Otherworld in Welsh folklore, as is the case with the Red Lake, Llyn Cwm Llwch, and Llyn y Fan Fach. The lakes themselves are not the Otherworld, but the portal that is passed through to enter and exit it. The faerie brides, their fathers, and their sisters can pass through and visit earth, and sometimes they bring animals with them. In certain other Welsh fairy tales this occasionally happens to humans, as is the case with Llyn Cwm Llwch where an island of the Otherworld was made available to human visitors every May Day. This privilege was withdrawn after it was abused. For humans who visit the Otherworld or have dealings with it there is often a sad ending. They are often betrayed by their own frailties and, in many ways, it is the human frailties that are explored in the stories referenced here.

The Faerie Bride and the Mirror of Nature

The story of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach also looks at human frailties. In her first appearance at the lakeside, the lady is brushing her long, fair hair with a golden comb and using the lake as a mirror. It is a scene that is reminiscent of descriptions of mermaids on the seashore. Yet she is not half fish as a mermaid is, and is not really human either and this is not by the seashore. Neither is the female in the story of the Bride of the Red Lake. Both are unmistakably not human and appear to be more of a mere-maid, possibly of the Gwragedd Annwn, the female dwellers of the Otherworld of Annwn who according to Welsh folklore also appear from Llyn Barfog.

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A Tale of Three Rivers: The Ystwyth, the Severn and the Wye

pumlumon_fawr

Richard Webb [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many legends and myths that explain how different British rivers originated. Many of these have been influenced by pagan beliefs and the worship of water goddesses, spirits or nymphs and have distinct Celtic connections.   This work looks at a legend that tells how the three British rivers known today as the Ystwyth, Severn and Wye  had their beginnings on the flanks of Mount Plynlimon in the Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales.   It gives an explanation of how they formed and found their way to the sea to become part of the great rain cycle that brings growth and nourishment to the land and its inhabitants. The work presented here draws from more than one source and owes much to Pollyanna Jones and Bill Gwilliam.

The Sleeping Giant

The story begins on Plynlimon which is a massif that is the highest point in the Cambrian Mountains and the highest point in Mid Wales.  Underneath the massif there was said to be a sleeping giant.  This giant had three daughters who were Niskai in Celtic mythology, sometimes known as water goddesses or nymphs.  There names were Ystwyth, Hafren and Gwy.

Although the giant slept he watched over his daughters in his slumber seeing them grow safely from the rain and the mountain mist that settled upon the mountain sides.  He watched the raindrops form puddles which formed pools which joined together to form little rivulets that trickled gently down the mountain.   In his dreams, he looked upon them and saw the energy that was brimming up inside of them ready to overflow and gush forth and he knew their time had come.

The Giant Awakes

Waking from his slumber he called them to him and told them,  “The time has come when you should fulfill your destiny and join with the sea.” And then he asked, “How will you fulfill your destiny?”

Being water nymphs they greatly desired to visit the ocean and to explore the great and mysterious region of the Celtic Sea and the wonders that lay beyond. It is very often the case with sisters that each will have different personalities and strong characteristics and express their individuality in different ways.  The choice each sister would make for themselves would be an expression of their unique personalities and individuality.

Ystwyth’s Choice

 

Ystwyth, was the smallest and was always in a hurry and made decisions and accomplished tasks in great haste.   As might be expected she quickly made up her mind that she would join the sea by the quickest and shortest route.  Stepping forward  she told her father, “I long to see the sea, to smell the salt air and see the sun rise and set over its wide waters.   I would go west by the shortest and the quickest route I can find to the sea to fulfill my destiny.”

“Then goodbye and go and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”  her father said, kissing and her embracing her.   Saying her goodbyes to her sisters she skipped and danced down the mountainside, drawing strength and speed from the small brooks and streams from her father’s side and flowed westerly, sparkling and shimmering through the land of Wales reaching the sea much faster than her two sisters ever would.  The people who lived in the lands she flowed through called her the River Ystwyth and she arrived at the sea fulfilling her destiny at a place now called Aberystwyth that was named after her.

Hafren’s Choice

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River Severn in Shrewsbury – By The original uploader was Chrisbayley at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Then Hafren stepped forward.  She said she was in no great hurry and wanted to take a good look at the countryside and to see the cities of humans and flow through their kingdoms.  She told her father, “I would choose to roam over the land taking the long way to the sea.  Then I could meet other waters of the land and learn the wisdom of the earth.   I would wander through the great cities, the beautiful towns and the villages of the fair people and learn what I could of their ways before I rendezvous with my sisters in the sea.  I have no need for haste and wish to learn and take my time. On my way, I will water and nourish the meadows of those fair folk but woe betide them should they abuse my good nature.  This is how I want to fulfill my destiny.”

Then her father kissed and embraced her and said, “Then go now and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”

Saying goodbye to her remaining sister,  she did exactly as she said she would.  She took her time and wandered through the landscape visiting some of the wonderful cities, towns, and villages along the way before she eventually joined with the Celtic Sea.  Her flow became known as the River Severn that glides serenely through the land to join the sea in the Bristol Channel.  True to her word those who abused her by setting their buildings and homes too close to her banks, or by invading her water pastures caused her to rise up and inundate them but she fulfills her destiny as she should.

Gwy’s Choice

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Jonathan Billinger [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The giant turned to his last daughter, Gwy as she watched her two sisters go their separate ways saying, “And now it’s your turn.  What direction do you choose for yourself?”

Gwy was not in such a hurry as Ystwyth and unlike Hafren who yearned for knowledge she was more inclined towards beauty.  She decided she would like to visit some of the beautiful countryside before she joined with the sea.  She stepped forward and kissed her father saying, “Ystywyth is in a hurry to join the sea.  Hafren seeks knowledge and experience. Beauty and harmony with nature are what I seek.  I will seek a way to the sea through the valleys and forests and all creatures shall find in my flow a place of peace and fulfillment and a sanctuary where their needs shall be met.  I will bring happiness and tranquility where ever I go.”

Her father smiled kissed and embraced his daughter and said, “Goodbye.  Go and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”

So Gwy flowed down the mountain and happily wandered through the valleys and the forests visiting the prettiest of the countryside before she eventually joined with the sea.  Gwy would become known by the people who lived along her flow as the River Wye and join up with her sister Hafren at a place now known as the Severn Estuary.  No doubt as the two sisters continued their journey through the Bristol Channel they found much to talk about together and to tell their hasty sister Ystwyth when they finally all met up again in the Celtic Sea.

The Giant Sleeps

The giant, although he knew he would miss his daughters, was happy because he knew they were fulfilling their destiny in the great scheme of things.  He had watched for time untold as they had been born from the Welsh mists and rain that often covered the mountainsides forming droplets on plants and rocks which collected together to form puddles. These would eventual gather moss and became pools ready to overflow into brooks and streams that would join together to flow over the land to the sea.

He was not sad because he knew that in the great cycle his daughters would return and visit him riding in the clouds that formed high above the ocean.  They would then be blown across the sea to the land to fall as rain on the mountainside.  They would stay for a time before once again making their way to the sea.  And so the great cycle would continue bringing nourishment and life to the land and all living things that dwell upon it.  Feeling satisfied that all was as it should be the giant went to sleep.

© 14/02/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 14th, 2018 zteve t evans

The Grateful Dead: The Tale of Fair Brow

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Old Fisherman (cropped) – Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Grateful Dead Tale Type

In the study of folktales The Grateful Dead, sometimes known as the Grateful Ghost, is a tale type classified in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system as type 505 and found in many diverse folk and fairy tales from around the world.  It often entails someone dying in debt and being refused a proper burial preventing the soul of the dead entry into heaven until their creditors are paid in full.  The hero will pay off the debt and ensure a proper burial  using the last of their money to do so.  Then destitute they set off on a journey in which they meet up with a stranger who helps and guides them.  Often towards the end the integrity of the hero is tested in some way and when it is passed the stranger will reveal himself to be the the soul or ghost of the corpse whose debts and burial was paid for. In gratitude the protagonist is then often granted their heart’s desire, hence the term The Grateful Dead.

The Story of Fair Brow

The following is a retelling of one such story called Fair Brow from Italian Popular Tales by Thomas Frederick Crane and tells how there was once a rich merchant trader who had fair and handsome son.  He had sent him to the best school to receive a good education and when his son finally passed through the school his father decided that he should now learn how to make his way in life as a merchant trader.  He gave him a ship and he gave him a chest full of money to buy goods that he could fill the ship with and sail from port to port and sell his wares for a profit. He told his son, “Your schooling is finished and now you are of an age where you must learn to make your own way in life.  To help you start I will give you this ship with enough money to fill it with goods that you can sell in other places for profit.  Use that profit wisely to buy more goods to replace those sold that you can again sell at a profit. Be careful with what you buy.  Be careful with what you sell and be careful with what you do.  Go now and learn how to trade.”

The Corpse

So following his father’s advice the young man set sail for a distant port to buy merchandise that he could sell for a profit.  On the way, before he had bought anything at all, he stopped off at a passing port to take a break from the voyage and to see what the people were like.  As he roamed around the harbor side he came across a bier with a corpse laid out upon it. He was curious to see that although some people looked the opposite way as they passed it others would leave a coin or two alongside the corpse.  Perplexed the young man approached a passer by who had just placed a few coins on the bier and asked, “Surely this dead man should be buried properly and with dignity for surely he desires his grave.  Why do your people keep him so?”

The passer by replied, “When this man was alive he accrued a pile of debt.  Our custom is that no one is allowed to be given a proper and decent burial until all his debts are paid.  As he is dead the only way his creditors can be paid is by the good charity of others.  Until all his debts are paid in full we cannot bury him.”  This greatly shocked the young man, who declared, “Let it be known to all that he is indebted to that I will pay his creditors whatever he owes them in full.”  He went to the local authorities so that a declaration could be made public.   After all of the dead man’s creditors had been paid there was not a single penny left of the money his father had given him to buy merchandise so he went back to his ship and set sail for home.

On his return his father was delighted but surprised to see him return so soon and asked eagerly how much profit he had made so quickly.  The young man knowing his father would disapprove said, “Alas, father, as we sailed the open sea we encountered pirates who took all of the money you gave me in return for my life!  I fear we have made no profit at all.”  On hearing this father said, “In truth this is no consequence.  I am happy that you are still alive and I will give you more money to start again but this time head in the opposite direction to your last voyage.”

Pirates From the Levant

And so his son sailed off in the opposite direction to his previous voyage.  While he was at sea they came across a Turkish ship and thinking it would be better to communicate with them he hailed them as they drew near.  As they came along side he said, “And where have you come from?”

“We sail from the Levant,” replied the captain.

“And what is your merchandise?” inquired the young man.

“All have I is one beautiful girl to sell,”  replied the captain.

“How is that you have this girl to sell?” he asked

“We have stolen her from the Sultan and we will sell her for great profit because of her beauty,” replied the captain

“Show me this girl!” said the young man and the pirates brought her on deck, “I will buy her freedom from you.”

“How much will you give us?”  They asked.

“I will give you all the money in this treasure chest,” said the young man showing them his father’s money.

“Then you shall have her,” said the captain handing the girl to him.  As he had no more money was left the young man returned to his home port with the girl.  On arrival he married her and then went to see his father.

His Father’s Wrath

His father was delighted to see him saying, “Welcome home my fair and handsome son! What rare bargains have you made?  What vast profits have you gained? What riches do you bring home to me?”

His son said, “Father I bring you a most precious thing, the rarest of jewels, the most beautiful woman in the world, the daughter of a Sultan and I have brought her for my wife!  I bring her now to show to you my merchandise!”

His father looked at him in shock and disgust and then exploded into violence striking both of them rapidly with his fists and pushing them out through the door into the street crying, “Foolish, foolish wastrel is this all you have brought for all the money I have given you! Out of my house and take her with you. Go!”

He continued kicking and striking them both until he was out of breath.  Then he turned and silently went back inside his house and shut the door on them.  Of course his son was greatly upset both for himself and for his new wife but he also had a problem because he had never learnt how to make a living for himself in the wide world.   They wandered the town together and eventually found a room in a villa whose owner kindly allowed them to stay for awhile in return for work.

Fair Brow

The young man spoke to his wife saying,  “Whatever shall we do?  I do not know any trade and I have no profession or anything to sell.  How shall we live?”

“Fear not,” said his wife, “I have some talent as an artist and can paint the most beautiful works of art, though I say so myself.  I shall paint and you shall sell what I paint, but you must reveal to no one who the artist is,“ she added.

Indeed she was very skilled and renowned in her own land for her paintings and now while she created the most exquisite works and he sold them.  He soon found the best place to sell them was down on the harbor side as many ships would come and dock and many sailors and merchants and fine gentlemen would be found going about their business.  They would often look for mementos, souvenirs and things to buy to take home with them.  In this way the young man and his wife made their living and all though they did not make much money they had each other and found pleasure in each other’s company.  In the evenings he would play upon musical instruments and sing to her as he was a good musician and a talented singer though his father had never recognized such attributes as being of any value. Nevertheless in their own company they were very happy and she would call him her “Fair Brow” as he was very handsome.

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Claude-Joseph Vernet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sultan’s Servants

Meanwhile, the Sultan had been distraught at the theft of his daughter and had sent out ships carrying his servants to search the corners of the Earth for her.   One day one of these sailed into the bay and docked in the harbor in the town where the young man and his wife were living.   The ship carried many of the Sultan’s servants who came ashore in search of his daughter.  The young man saw them coming ashore and thinking this would mean good business went to his wife and said, “Paint as many pictures as you can for I sense a good day of business today!”  So his wife painted very many beautiful paintings and said to her husband, “Remember, never tell anyone that I am the artist!”

Fair Brow nodded reassuringly and told her that he would not and took all of the paintings down to the harbor to sell.  As he unpacked and exhibited her pictures many of the Sultan’s servants clustered around to admire the paintings and recognised her work. “Who is the the artist who paints such wonderful works?” asked one of the servants.  This greatly excited the young man and he forgot his wife’s warning and said, “Why, it is my wife,”   Then they said with great enthusiasm, “We will buy all of these.  Can she paints us some more.  We will buy all you can sell us!  Can we meet her?”  Thinking at last his luck had changed he told them, “Come to my house with me and she will paint all the pictures you could wish for!”

So he took them to his house and as soon as they saw his wife they knew she was the Sultan’s daughter and they took her and carried her back to their ship and sailed back to the Sultan who was delighted to have his daughter back again.  Once the Sultan had got his daughter back he kept her out of sight in a guarded tower surrounded by a magnificent garden so that no one else could steal her away again.

The Old Fisherman

Meanwhile, Fair Brow was alone and sad without his wife whom he loved dearly.  He was ashamed that he could not stop her being kidnapped and lacking the skills to make his way in the world alone he fell into a dark, bleak depression but was determined to go after his wife.  Miserable and alone he took to wandering along the seashore hoping to find a ship that would take him on as a crew member and go in search of his wife, but he had no luck there either.  Then one day he came across an old fisherman with his boat pulled up on the sandy shore and he was sat nearby mending his fishing net.

Approaching him he said, “Old fisherman, though I am strong and supple of body, you are far better off than I!” And the old man relied, “Why is that so young man?  I am old and my bones ache and my muscles are so stiff I can barely move sometimes?”

The young man said, “You have a skill that helps you make your way in the world and I have none. Would you allow me to join you when you go fishing?”  The old man looked him up and down and smiled saying, “That I will if you so wish it.  You can use the pole to fish while I use the nets and perhaps together we shall catch plenty of fish!”

The Solemn Oath

With that the two made a solemn oath that from that moment they they would share all they had with one another and all that came their way in the future, whether it was good or bad.   With the promise made the old fisherman then divided his supper into two equal parts giving one to Fair Brow and keeping the other.  After they had eaten they went to sleep in the boat.

While they slept a storm brewed up and took the boat from the shore across the wide open sea finally throwing it aground on the shores of Turkey.  Being strangers on the shore the people who found them claimed the boat and took them to the Sultan.   He looked them up and down and took them as his slaves giving the old fisherman the task of growing his vegetables and the Fair Brow the task of growing the flowers.  The two newcomers soon made friends with the other slaves and did not have a bad life.  The work was steady and fair and they were fed well and not mistreated and even had spare time.  In his spare time the old fisherman would make the most marvelous musical instruments such as guitars, flutes, violins and clarinets and the fair Brow would play them and sings songs and the others would join in.

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A Woman in Turkish Dress – Jean-Étienne Liotard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sultan’s Daughter in the Tower

High in the tower the music and singing floated up to the Sultan’s daughter with her maids in waiting.  Hearing it took her mind back to her husband and the times he would sing to her while he played upon musical instruments.  Then, she knew that this could only be her Fair Brow and she became excited.  Almost not daring to look she peeped through the blinds to the garden below and there she saw that it was indeed none other than her husband who was singing so fair and playing such wonderful music.

It so happened that every day her maids in waiting would come down from the tower with a large basket which they would fill with flowers that Fair Brow had grown and take them up to the top of the tower to brighten up the apartment of the Sultan’s daughter.   She said to her maids, “Today we will have some fun.  When you are in the garden picking my flowers put that young man in the basket and cover him over with blooms and carry him up to me. Tell the gardeners to help you.”

So her maids went down to the garden and whispered to the other gardeners what the Sultan’s daughter had ordered.  They thought it was a great joke so they put the young man in the basket. Despite his good-natured protests they covered him up and the maids carried him up to the Sultan’s daughter’s apartment at the top of the tower with no idea of what was in store for him.  When they set the basket down in front of her he jumped up like a jack-in-the-box thinking to surprise her but found he was the one to be surprised as he jumped straight into the loving arms of his wife.

Reunion

Surprised and delighted they hugged and kissed and then told each other their stories and then began planning how to escape the tower together.  His wife, being the Sultan’s daughter had a tremendous prestige and power and she ordered that a ship be laden with pearls, gold and other treasures should be made ready in the harbor.  The next day when the maids of honor took out the old flowers they hid in the baskets and the maids carried them down to the garden and down to the harbor and on to the ship.  Once aboard she ordered the captain to weigh anchor and set sail and on a fair wind quickly made it to the open sea.  Then Fair Brow realized he had forgotten something.   The old fisherman had been left behind and they had promised to share everything together both good and bad.  Despite his wife’s protests he made her order the captain to turn the ship around and go back for him even though this put them at risk of the Sultan catching them.  He told her of the old fisherman and the promise they had made each other and said, “My love, I must hold my sworn word even if caught for I must never break a promise!”

As luck or fate would have it they found the old fisherman waiting patiently by the shore as if he was expecting them.  With him safely on board they headed for the open sea and once far distant from land Fair Brow said to his friend, “Old fisherman we have a contract.  Let us divide all the treasure half for you and half for me as we agreed.”  The old man looked at him and replied, “Indeed we have promised each other and therefore I shall also have one half of your wife and you the other?”

The Grateful Dead

“My good friend, I am in your debt, therefore you take all of the pearls, gold and treasure and I will take my entire wife, or do you insist on me dividing her.” replied Fair Brow.  Then the old fisherman said, “My good young friend you are generous beyond measure and wise knowing what is your greatest treasure. Therefore, know now that I am the soul that once belonged to the poor corpse that you paid all of your money to pay off his debts. Please do not divide her!  All of the luck that you have now acquired stems from that one generous and merciful act of paying my debts and provide a proper burial that freed me from purgatory.  Now I go to my proper place in Heaven.  Farewell!” and with that he vanished and was never seen on Earth again.

And so the ship sailed on to the home port of Fair Brow and his wife and when they arrived their were great celebrations.  His father was waiting on the shore to greet them, begging their forgiveness and Fair Brow was now rich beyond measure and he lived in peace and happiness with his wife.  He would sing and play music to her and she would paint him marvelous pictures.

Curiosities of the Grateful Dead

As can be seen The Grateful Dead is a curious type of tale that explores the law of reciprocity and much more.  In this story the living had a degree of power over the dead preventing someone who had died without paying their debts from entering heaven by withholding a proper burial until the debts were paid.  Along comes Fair Brow and pays the debts and ensure a proper burial allowing the dead to enter heaven.  This explores the idea that the living have a power over the dead first by refusing proper burial and second when Fair Brow pays the debt releasing the dead man from the bond that held him from entering heaven.  It also explores the idea that the dead can come back and influence events on earth when the ghost of the dead man returns as the old fisherman to aid Fair Brow reach his heart’s desire.  There is also another idea that if the dead are released from debts they return to help the creditors achieve their heart’s desire but the creditors will be tested to see if they are truly worthy of being granted it.  Why?   Perhaps because it would then be too easy for creditors to write off debts in the expectation of reward from the dead.  They have to prove that their motive is purely altruistic and that they are truly worthy, hence the final test.

© 07/02/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 7, 2018 zteve t evans