The Wisdom of Great Eagle: The Lesson of the Stubborn Elm

Presented here is a retelling of a Cherokee folktale called “The Lesson of the Elm Tree.”  It was told by a boy named James Ariga who was part Cherokee in 1947 at the Ten Mile River Scout Reservation and included in the, Treasury of American Indian Tales, by Theodore Whitson Ressler.

The Lesson of the Elm Tree

There was once a young boy of about eleven years of age named White Eagle who lived with his mother and father.  They were of the Cherokee people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains on the shores of a large lake.  In those days there was much talk of war and there were frequent skirmishes between his people and the different people who lived outside Cherokee territory.  His father’s name was Great Eagle and was a great and fearless warrior.  He was much respected and honored among his people not just for his bravery in battle but for his wisdom and nobility of spirit.

The Cherokees usually did not need to go far afield to catch game but there came a time there was little to be had close to home.  Therefore, Great Eagle led a hunting party north beyond Cherokee territory into the lands of the northern people.  He knew there would be fighting if the northerners discovered them but luckily they were quickly successful in the hunt and headed home without encountering any problems.  However, before they left the northern lands they came across a young boy wandering in the wilds alone who was clearly lost and famished. 

Great Eagle gave him food and contemplated what he should do with him.  He thought about his own son who was of similar age and did not like to think of him lost and alone in the wilderness.  

Therefore, he decided he could not leave the young boy alone to starve and there were many dangerous animals in these parts.  Thinking he would be a good companion and playmate for his own son he decided he would adopt him if the boy consented.  

After gently explaining to the boy his plan he asked if he would like to become part of his family and go home with him.  The boy agreed and told Great Eagle that his name was Little Frog.

The Cherokees lived in a fortified village patrolled with armed guards.  His father had told him about the fierce warriors of the Cherokee people and when Little Frog saw this he became very frightened.  On seeing the boy’s fear Great Eagle put his arm gently around his shoulder and spoke reassuringly to him.  Leading him to his lodge he introduced him to his wife who was to be his mother and then to his son, White Eagle, who would be his brother and playmate.

White Eagle was mighty pleased to have Little Frog, a boy of his own age, as his brother, companion and playmate.   Little Frog was also pleased and realized how lucky he had been when Great Eagle had found him. That night with the return of the hunting part bearing much game there was a great celebration with much singing, dancing and merrymaking.

The next morning, Great Eagle roused the boys from sleep as dawn was breaking.  He told them they were going to practice their skills with the bow and arrow and learn how to find game. He gave them both breakfast and both a bow and a quiver of arrows to match their stature and led them into the forest in search of game.  

Little Frog was feeling much happier and more secure.  His own father, mother and brother had been killed when hostile neighbors had attacked their village by surprise. Now, he was beginning to think of Great Eagle as his father and White Eagle as his brother and he liked it.  

As Great Eagle led them stealthily through the forest the two boys copied everything he did.  They heard the birds singing and then the snap of a twig as some animal stood on it.  Great Eagle crouched low and raised his hand for them to stop and they crouched low beside him.  Motioning them to stay he crept forward cautiously and quietly to investigate but soon returned to tell them that whatever snapped the twig was no longer there.

After traveling on through the forest Great Eagle decided it was time for rest and refreshment.  As they sat together on the trunk of a dead tree that lay across the forest floor he shared out food.

Little Frog asked White Eagle if he often went out into the forest with his father.  White Eagle replied, “Yes, my father is teaching me how to hunt and be a great warrior like him.”

Little frog was very impressed and once again realized how lucky he was that Great Eagle had adopted him.  Keeping up the conversation, White Eagle asked, “Are you missing your people and home village?  Do you miss your family?”

Little Frog replied, “No, after my family was killed I had no one to look after me.  No one in the village would help me and I had to work hard and beg for food.  One of the village braves took over my family wigwam and I was forced to sleep outside alone without shelter.  I miss my family but not my village.”

This made White Eagle realize just how lucky he was having a great warrior for a father, a mother to take care of him and give him food, shelter and love.  Now he had a brother and playmate as well and thought himself doubly lucky.

After a drink of cool water from a nearby spring Great Eagle led the boys onward signalling to them to be more stealthy.  The two boys followed, mimicking him carefully as they moved quietly forward.   Coming to a river they saw a beaver had built a dam and made its home there. 

Great Eagle motioned them to wait while he scouted around for the beaver.  He soon returned saying he could not see the beaver but it was time to make their way back home.  Along the way they would keep an eye open for turkeys and rabbits.  Both boys were disappointed they had not had a chance to try out their new bows and arrows but both trusted and obeyed Great Eagle unfailingly.

Coming to the edge of the forest, Great Eagle suddenly motioned for them to stop and pointed up along the trail where a cotton-tailed rabbit was sitting.  Seeing the rabbit White Eagle quickly raised his bow and fired off an arrow.  The aim was good and hit the rabbit.  

He was very pleased and excited and danced and sang, shouting at the top of his voice that he would take it for his mother to cook. His father calmed his son and looked at Little Frog and walked over to the rabbit.  He saw two arrows had hit it making it impossible to say whose had actually done the deed realizing Little Frog had fired simultaneously with his son.  Both boys began to claim the rabbit and began arguing over it.

Great Eagle found himself in a quandary.  He was always fair in his decisions and judgements and did not want it to look like he was taking sides especially as his own son was involved.  Therefore, after a pause for thought he said, 

“We can all  agree that both arrows were equally responsible as were those who fired them.”  

It is plain to see that you are both like stubborn elm trees and are both far better shots with a bow and arrow than I had realized!”

Saying no more Great Eagle picked up the rabbit and led them homewards.  Both boys followed on both happy with the decision he had made. That night in bed Little Frog turned over to face White Eagle and whispered, “What did he mean by saying we were like stubborn elms?”

White Eagle whispered back, “In the morning I will show you, but for now go to sleep.”

The next morning after breakfast Little Frog was still eager to know what Great Eagle had meant by calling them stubborn elms.  As he had promised the night before White Eagle led him out into the forest.  Every now and then he broke a branch from a tree and told Little Frog to copy what he did.  After breaking several branches from different trees they came to a young elm and White Eagle grasped a branch and tried to break it but he could not.  All he could do was bend it. Little Frog tried to help his friend but despite their combined strength they could not break it only bend it.

They had not noticed that Great Eagle had followed them and now he came up behind them and put his hand on their shoulders making them jump saying, 

“Now you can see for yourselves the reason I said you were like stubborn elms.  On your way you broke many trees.   In doing so you have observed how many trees can be broken and forced down.  Only the stubborn elm resists and can only be broken when several warriors lay their hands to it.

It is exactly the same with two proud boys who both believe they are in the right and place their equal strength against each.  Neither will give way just as the stubborn elm will not give way.

If I had applied my strength to the argument in favor of one or the other the loser may have bent to the earth and broken.  

When you believe yourself to be absolutely and with all honesty right, you can stand straight and tall as the stubborn elm tree.  

When you do things you do not truly believe in you leave the path of truth and wisdom and your enemies can break and defeat you.  Therefore, always remember the stubborn elm!”

© 26/08/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 26th, 2020 zteve t evans

Bee Folklore and Superstition: Telling the Bees

Image by Bernd Buchfeld from Pixabay

Bee Lore

Bees are a familiar sight around the world being native to al continents except Antarctica.  There are 16,000 known species and the most common is the western honey bee, also known as the European honey bee.  It is this species that this work mostly refers to.  Since early times humans have watched bees go about their everyday business and marveled at their sheer industry while being intrigued by the mystery of their societies.  This has led to the evolution of a rich body of folklore and tradition and many superstitions and customs.  Present here are a few small samples of this bee lore mingled with a few facts.

Bee Products

Bees provide us with many different useful products including honey, royal jelly, pollen propolis, wax and even bee venom. However, there are many other less obvious products of bees we depend on that are more important and more widely used.  Bees help pollinate many different fruits, vegetables and plants of all kinds which we make into many different products such as jam, dried fruit, even alcoholic beverages such as mead and much more.   They are not just useful to humans but also other animals and plants and are an essential part of local ecosystems which integrate into the global system.  An army of bees and other insects help pollinate these products and many other vegetables and plants used by humans. Without bees this army would be sorely depleted.  Our ancestors may not have realised the full extent of their usefulness but knew enough to want to develop an intimate relationship with them.  

Telling The Bees

It was seen as important for a beekeeper to keep his bees updated on any important information as news came in.  This was because bees could become upset and stop producing honey, abandon the hive or even die if not kept informed.  Therefore, it was seen as important that news that might affect them was broken gently but not withheld.  The origin of this custom is not known but there is an idea it may have evolved because people in many countries in ancient times thought  bees had the ability to bridge the living world with the afterlife. 

Deaths

There is a longstanding custom of telling the bees important events such as births, deaths and marriages that happen in the life of a beekeeper.  This tradition is found in the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland and other European countries as well as North America.

When someone in the household passed away it was deemed essential that the bees should be informed so that they could mourn properly.  Furthermore, it was essential that the bees were informed of any death in the family otherwise some tragedy would afflict the keeper’s family or perhaps jinx the hive.

Image by Charles Napier Hemy – Public Domain

An English custom required the wife of the house, or housekeeper, to drape something black over the hive while humming a sad tune.  In Nottinghamshire the words to one such tune were,

“The master’s dead, but don’t you go; 

Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.” (1)

Whereas in Germany the song was, 

 “Little bee, our lord is dead;

 Leave me not in my distress.” (2)

In some places the head of the household was required to knock on each hive until he thought he had the attention of the bees.  Next, in a sombre and serious voice he explained a certain person had died revealing the name of that person.  Sometimes the key to the family home was used to tap upon the hives.

Funerals

Where it was the case that the beekeeper had passed away food and drink from the funeral was left near the hives for the bees.  Sometimes the hive would be lifted and then put down at the same time as the funeral. It was draped in a mourning cloth and rotated to face the funeral procession.

In parts of the Pyrenees they buried an old piece of clothing belonging to someone who had died under the hive.  Many people believed the bees and hives should never be given away, sold or swapped after their keeper had died as it brought bad luck.

In the USA in parts of New England and Appalachia it was important to tell the bees when a family member died.  Whoever was the family beekeeper would ensure the bees were properly informed of the death so that the news could be passed around.

Weddings

In some regions it was believed bees liked to be told about weddings  and happy events  as well as funerals.  A tradition from Westphalia, Germany says to ensure good fortune in their married life, when moving into their new home, newlyweds must first introduce themselves to the bees.  A Scottish  newspaper, the Dundee Courier reported on the tradition in the 1950s, stating that the hive should be decorated and a slice of wedding cake left for the bees near the hive.  A custom from Brittany involved decorating the hive with scarlet cloth which would allow the bees to join in with the celebrations.

Messengers of the Gods

There was a belief in ancient Greece and Rome that bees were the messengers and servants of the gods. Romans avoided a flying swarm of bees but not for fear of being stung.  Instead they thought they were swarming at the command of the gods and bearing their messages and did not want to impede them in their work for the divinities.

Ancient Egyptians believed honey bees had been generated from the tears of Ra, their sun god, that had fallen to earth becoming his messengers between him and humanity.  Between 3000 b.c.e. and 350 b.c.e., the honeybee was used as a symbol by the  pharaohs of ancient Egypt.  Similar to the Egyptian and Roman view, the ancient Celtic people saw the honey bee as a messenger between heaven and earth. 

Importance of Bees

Bees continue to play an important role in the ecosystems and their importance to humans is undiminished, if anything, as we learn more about the world around us it increases. 

© 19/08/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 19th, 2020 zteve t evans

Strange Folklore: The Mystery of Concealed Footwear

Collection of St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, St Edmundsbury Borough Council – Image by Edmund PatrickCC BY-SA 3.0

A Very Peculiar Practice

Footwear such as shoes have been part of folklore and folktales for centuries and there are many tales and rhymes that refer to them.  For example Cinderella’s glass slippers, The Red Shoes, by Hans Christian Anderson, the nursery rhyme of The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, and I am sure you can think of many other examples. There are also many traditions and customs concerning footwear and a very strange practice of concealing them in buildings.  Presented here is a brief discussion concerning this very peculiar practice of concealment.

Hidden Footwear

In many parts of Europe and other parts of the world footwear has been found concealed in the  structure of buildings for many centuries. They are often found hidden in parts of the structure such as under floors, in ceilings, roofs, chimneys and other structural cavities.  The reason for this is unclear.  Some people suggest  they may be lucky charms intended to bring good luck or ward off evil supernatural beings such as ghosts, witches and spirits. 

Another suggestion is that they were intended to bring fertility to the females in the home and may have been an offering to a household deity.  This may have been a deity or spirit of some kind such as Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth and home, the family, domesticity and the state.

Footwear has been found concealed within the structure of many different types of buildings.  For example, some but not all, public houses, country houses, a Baptist church and a Benedictine monastery and many other ordinary and less ordinary buildings have been discovered to hold hidden shoes.   

The Concealed Shoe Index

The English town of Northampton has a strong tradition of shoe making.  The local museum keeps a Concealed Shoe Index that has collected 1900 reports of findings of concealed shoes by 2012.  About half are believed to date from the 19th century.  It appears the majority of  finds had been worn or repaired and strangely most finds were of single items, rather than pairs and approximately half were children’s shoes.  The practice of concealing footwear  appears to have faded out during the 20th century.

Spiritual Middens

Since the late Middle Ages it was quite a common practice to hide different objects in the structures of buildings.  Many different kinds of objects have been found including such peculiar items as horse skulls, witch bottles, dried cats, charms written on paper and many other strange objects.  There is an idea that the items were intended as lucky charms to ward off evil or perhaps attract good luck. Hidden caches of such items are sometimes called spiritual middens.

Modern Practice

After 1900, the practice seems to have tailed off. Although it is rarely practised, documented, or  admitted today, there have been a few instances in recent years of such concealments.  The shoe manufacturer, Norvic deliberately placed a pair of women’s  boots in the foundations of its new factory in 1964.  More recently, after finding an old court shoe behind wood paneling, at Knebworth House, an English stately home in Hertfordshire,  it was replaced by one of the estate worker’s shoes to maintain custom.

Location of Finds

The custom of shoe concealment seemed to have been more prevalent in Europe and the USA, especially in New England and northeastern states.  There were many immigrants to these areas from places where the custom was practiced such as East Anglia, in England and other European regions.

A study by June Swann a British footwear historian,  revealed the Concealed Shoe Box Index, in Northampton Museum showed 22.9% of items found were hidden ceilings and floors and the same number accounted for roofs, while 26% were hidden in chimneys, fireplaces and hearths. Other places of concealment were around doors and windows, under stairs and buried in foundations.

Footwear has been found concealed in many different types of build used for many different purposes.  For example, thay have been uncovered in public houses, factories, warehouses, ordinary and stately homes and even in the Oxford colleges of St. John’s and Queen’s.  An English Baptist Church in Cheshire, England and a Benedictine monastery in Germany have also rendered up concealed footwear.  The earliest known find was discovered in Winchester Cathedral at the back of the choir stalls dated from 1308.

Characteristics of Hidden Footwear

There have been many different fashions, styles and types of footwear found that have been deliberately concealed.  Although the majority were made of leather;  rubber boots and wooden clogs have been found and others made from other materials.  From what has been found 98% appear to have been worn or repaired at some time prior to concealment.

All ranges of sizes have been found from babies to adult footwear. Slightly more female footwear has been found making about 26.5% against 21.5% of male and about 50% accounted for children’s footwear.  It is usually single items that are found rather than in pairs.

Although the custom of concealing shoes may seem quirky, finds do render up important information to archaeologists and historians.  As well as giving clues to what fashions and styles people from another time wore they also tell us about the different types of materials that were available.  They also give clues to the social status of the dwellers or uses of the building and the different types of occupation they were involved in and the local economy.

Explanations

Of course, the big question is why would anyone want to conceal such items in the first place?   There are many answers possible but one is that they were fertility charms.   There has been a long association between footwear and fertility.  For example, there is the custom where a shoe is thrown after the bride as she leaves or tied to the back of her car or carriage. Another example is the nursery rhyme called The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.  There are many versions similar to the one below,

Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810-) – Public domain
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed. 

In the English county of Lancashire when a woman wanted to conceive she tried on the shoes of another who had successfully given birth.  This practice was called smickling.

Witch Traps

There is an idea that the hidden footwear was deliberately placed to act as a protective charm against supernatural beings such as demons, ghosts, witches and other undesirable entities. There was an old belief that witches were attracted to the human odour found in used footwear and attempt to enter the shoe.  However, once they entered they became unable to turn around or go backwards to get out and were trapped.

Another idea is that shoes had protective powers and may be associated with an unofficial 14th century saint named John Schorne.  He was the rector of the English Buckinghamshire village of North Marston. He was a very devout and godly man who was credited with a number of miraculous cures including toothache and gout.   According to legend, one year during a particularly bad drought he discovered a  well whose waters had wonderful curative properties.  He was renowned for his piety and dedication to God and there is a tradition that he trapped the devil in a boot.   Nevertheless, the idea of trapping the devil in a boot or shoe existed long before Shorne and gout was also sometimes called “the devil in the boot.”

Household Deities

Archaeologists and historians think that the custom of hiding footwear in buildings may be connected with ancient pagan deities and spirits and the legend of Shorne may relate to the protective power footwear was once seen to hold.  Therefore an old shoe under the floorboards or buried under the fireplace may be seen as an easy and prudent tactic to thwart malevolent beings just in case.

Substitute for Sacrifice

Another idea is that the hiding of footwear was a substitute for sacrificing something live such as an animal or even a child.  In some places around the world babies and children were sacrificed or placed in foundations.  From  Geofrey of Monmouth, in his pseudo-history, “History of the Kings of Britain,” we learn when King Vortigern was looking to build a stronghold the walls kept collapsing. His wise men advised the sacrifice of a child to put a stop to this.  The child chosen for this sacrifice was the young Merlin who persuaded the King there was an underground pool that held two fighting dragons.  Vortigern excavated the pool and found the dragons. Merlin was set free and went on to fame and glory with King Uther and King Arthur, while Vortigern had to find another site.  Certainly an offering of footwear is much more humane than a human or animal sacrifice and leather is an animal product.

The Essence of the Wearer

There may also be another reason.  Many types of footwear adapt shape to suit the wearer.  It is not unusual for new shoes or boots to have to be “broken” in by the wearer before they feel comfortable. They are seen as containers and were believed to contain some of the “essence” of the wearer possibly guarding against evil but perhaps also preserving that essence for the future.  Nevertheless, the concealing of footwear in buildings is still very much a mystery and will probably remain so.

© 12/08/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 12th, 2020 zteve t evans

Russian Folklore: The Domovoi – A Spirit of Hearth and Home

Russian folklore: Domovoi   

In Russian and Slavic folklore a domovoi or domovoy, was a household spirit.  Domovoi are usually small bearded males who sometimes have bodies covered in white fur, or hair and  sometimes they are affectionately called “Grandfather” or “Master.”  Sometimes they appear as the miniature double of the head of the household and sometimes, but rarely, they have a female companion.

According to tradition there are two kinds of domovoi.   One kind lives inside people’s houses and the other, called a dvorovoi, lives outside in the yard or garden and can only be found in the country. Sometimes they have a wife and are considered less friendly and more dangerous than a domovoi especially to animals and livestock that have white fur.

Origins of the Domovoi

Some people think they have originated before Christianity and were part of an ancestor cult.    Another tradition  tells that they were once malevolent spirits who were thrown from the skies.  Some of these spirits landed in human dwellings and overtime grew to like people in the dwellings and grew less evil.  They still retained the ability to cause mischief when they wanted if they were not adequately placated, or were treated disrespectfully.  However,  overtime as they got used to humans they became more benign and helpful.  They can grow fond of people who take care of their home environment and will help maintain it but dislike those who neglect it and begin causing trouble.

The Shapeshifting Domovoi

There have been claims that domovoi can take on the appearance of the owner or householder of the home.  Witnesses have claimed to see the owner of the home outside in the garden or yard when in fact he has been sound asleep in bed.  They are also thought to have the ability to change their shape into replicas of the cat or dog of the home and even rats and snakes.  The voice of the domovoi is said to sound rather harsh and hollow.

Domovoi Folklore

By tradition every home has its own domovoi.  Although the middle part of the home is said to be their domain they also live under the threshold, or under the stove, stairs, or sometimes outside in the chicken or cattle shed.  Every human house, cottage, apartment, flat or dwelling of any kind large, or small, has a domovoi to look after it and its human dwellers.

The domovoi can sometimes be a trickster or maker of mischief and sometimes tickles people when they are asleep.  He will also knock on the walls and throw crockery and pans for the sake of making mischief.  Usually he will be friendly and on good terms with the domovoi next door but if they start stealing from the home he protects he will defend the property from his neighbour.

The domovoi is the guardian of a home and it is wise to keep him happy by leaving rewards such as salt, porridge, bread, milk or tobacco.  If he is kept happy he will guard the home and maintain order and peace and will help with household chores and outside jobs, but a word of warning.  If a domovoi is disrespected or abused, or the homeowner becomes untidy and slovenly the domovoi can become angry and bad things start to happen.  He becomes like a poltergeist making objects move and fly through the air and things happen that should not, though he will rarely harm humans directly. 

Sometimes when the domovoi is producing unhelpful or unwelcome behavior this can be called barabashka which means knocker or pounder.  The domovoi can become greatly offended at times and will abandon the home and family.   This was something that caused great concern as his presence usually ensured a benevolent and harmonious atmosphere in the home prevailed.

Foretelling the Future

It was believed that the future could be foretold by the behaviour of the domovoi.  If the domovoi was laughing and joking, or singing and dancing, then happy times can be looked forward to.  When he sweeps his thumb up and down a comb like he is strumming a guitar a wedding is pending.  The touch of the domovoi can also dictate the future. Good luck will abound when his furry hand feels warm but when it feels cold then beware because bad luck is on its way.  Beware when a domovoi becomes visible, puts out the flame of a candle, or cries in the night. These are signs of an impending death of someone in the family and very often the head of the home.

Respect Your Domovoi!

All in all, according to tradition, a domovoi in the home can be of great benefit to the homeowner.  To keep him content they must respect, reward and placate him in an appropriate manner and do their utmost to maintain the home environment in a clean and tidy state.  If these things are done then the home will be a happy and harmonious environment for all.

© 05/08/2020 zteve t evans

References,  Attributions and  Further Reading

Copyright August 5th, 2020 zteve t evans