Giant Tales: The Making of the Wrekin

The Wrekin, Shropshire – Public Domain

The Wrekin 

In Shropshire, England, is a large hill called the Wrekin. It is about 407 metres (1,335 feet) high situated about five miles west of Telford. It is an impressive landmark visible from miles around, including  Cleeve Hill, Gloucestershire, Staffordshire and the Black Country and even Beetham Tower, Manchester, and Winter Hill, Lancashire.  Probably because of its prominence a number of myths, legends and folklore traditions are associated with it.  Here we look at two different folktales that tell how it was by giants and there are several versions some may differ in detail.  The first concerns a Welsh giant who sought revenge against the people of the town of Shrewsbury.  The second tells how the hill and nearby River Severn were created by two exiled giants working to build themselves a new home.  

 Gwendol Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynyddmawr 

Long ago in the land of Wales there lived a giant by the name of Gwendol Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynyddmawr.  For many years he had demanded tribute from the town of Shrewsbury which was paid in the form of young maidens which he ate.  On one occasion one of the maidens managed to escape and return home to Shrewsbury and told the people of the fate of the maidens they sent the giant.  The people were outraged and refused to send anymore.

In revenge the giant decided he would drown them all by blocking the flow of the River Severn which ran through the town.  To achieve this he took his giant spade and pushed it into the ground collecting a great wad of earth which he intended to drop into the river to block its flow and flood Shrewsbury.  

It so happened that he was not the brightest of giants and did not have a  clear idea of the location of the river and town.   Nevertheless, he set off carrying his spade holding the wad of earth intending to carry out his plan.  He seemed to have lost his way and somehow missed Shrewsbury.  Eventually he grew very tired and as he approached the town of Wellington he met a cobbler returning to his home after visiting Shrewsbury market for trade.  The cobbler was carrying a large sack of assorted footwear that people had commissioned him to repair.  The giant asked the cobbler the way to Shrewsbury revealing his plan to block the river with the earth on his spade and drown the town and its people.   The cobbler was aghast at the idea but feared upsetting the giant so he quickly came up with a clever ruse telling him, 

“Well, actually Shrewsbury is miles and miles away as is the River Severn.  See this sack, it is full of shoes that I have worn out walking from Shrewsbury to this very spot and it has taken days and days to get here.”

The giant looked at the sack and saw how full it was and he was greatly  dismayed at the thought of walking such a great distance.  Feeling tired and disillusioned he dumped the great spadeful of earth on the ground there and then and in later years it became known as the Wrekin.  Scraping the mud off his boots with his spade he created a smaller heap of earth which became known as Ercall Hill and wearily made his way home.   What became of him after that this tale does not tell.

The Quarreling Giants

The second myth of origin tells how the Wrekin was formed by two giants who had been exiled from their own land and needed somewhere to live.  They decided to build a huge hill big enough for them both to live in.  To begin with they worked hard and quickly created a huge mound of earth.  They dug out a long and winding ditch which filled with water and became the River Severn.  The earth from the ditch they piled up high to create a huge mound which became known as the Wrekin.

However, the giants began to quarrel with one another possibly over the use of their only spade. One picked it up and struck the other who fought back with his bare hands.  As they were fighting a raven flew by and taking the side of the unarmed giant attacked the one who wielded the spade pecking at his eyes. This caused the armed giant’s eyes to water.  A tear fell into a small cleft in the rock which became known as the Raven’s Bowl, or the Cuckoo’s Cup.   It is said to hold water even in the hottest weather.

With the help of the raven the unarmed giant won the fight and imprisoned the other in a nearby hill he built for the purpose which is called Ercall Hill today.  The prisoner is said to be still there today and can be heard at times groaning in the night.

Folklore and Tradition

Another tradition tells how the victor hurled a blow spade at his enemy, missing him but hitting a rock making a narrow split which became known as the Needle’s Eye.  All true Salopians – that is someone born in Shropshire – are said to have climbed through the needle.  Girls who do this are advised to never look back because they will never marry if they do.

© 21/10/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 21st, 2020 zteve t evans 

Zoophyte Folklore: The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb – Source

History of Cotton

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was  a very strange idea that sprang up in the middle ages to explain the origin of cotton.  People have used cotton since ancient times and it was  thought to have been first cultivated in the Indus delta and later spread from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Nubia.  In the 1st century Arab traders introduced it to Spain and Italy eventually reaching northern Europe during the medieval period becoming  a popular and valuable commodity.

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

During the Middle Ages the world outside Europe was relatively unknown to most Europeans.  The few intrepid explorers who did travel through unknown regions brought back mysterious and outlandish tales.  They told of exotic countries and strange things beyond the experience and imagination of most Europeans.  Fantastic claims were made that could not be verified by ordinary people as to what they had encountered and were generally believed because no one could effectively disprove  them.  

Their reports had a lasting influence on European societies.  One of the strangest stories that was brought back told of the existence of animals that had similar characteristics to plants, and vice-versa called zoophytes. There were several kinds and were claimed to exist in far and remote parts of the world.  One of the most famous of these was known as the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, sometimes known as the Lamb Tree, or  the Borametz and as well as other names.

Sir John Mandeville

One of these early travelers was known as Sir John Mandeville.  He is credited with writing a journal of his travels called,  “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville,” which was being circulated from 1357-71.  The actual identity of Sir John Mandeville is open to debate.  He claimed to be  a knight from St. Albans in England but this is disputed by some historians today. According to his book, Mandeville traveled through many remote and unknown regions seeing many new and incredible places, animals, plants, birds and people previously unheard of in Europe.

His memoirs were very popular and translated into every European language and were believed to have influenced Christopher Columbus.  Among many strange things he reports was  the existence of the Vegetable Lamb as the source of the fluffy pods that were processed to make cotton.  Cotton had begun to reach northern Europe where there was little knowledge of how it was derived.  

Earlier Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BC), the 5th century Greek historian, had written in Book III of his Histories that in India there was a plant, assumed to be a  tree and not a shrub, that grew in the wild and produced wool.  Because unprocessed cotton resembles wool it was believed to have been obtained from a hybrid plant-sheep type of zoophyte and Mandeville’s  account backed up Herodotus.

Source

Zoophytes

Zoophytes are animals that closely resemble plants such as a sea anemone. The term “zoophyte” is not often used in science today but during the Middle Ages it was in popular usage.  It was not until the 17th century that the term began to be refuted. 

During medieval times and the later renaissance era many weird types of zoophytes were widely accepted.  For example the mandrake root was shaped like a human and was said to be able to run away from people.  Another weird example was the barnacle goose tree. This was supposedly a combination of a tree and a crustacean that produced barnacles each of which had baby geese growing inside of them.   

The Vegetable Lamb was supposed to be a type of these zoophytes, essentially a lamb growing from a plant either through a pod or being connected to the ground by a stem from its navel.  It was believed to have originated in Tartary which was a great region of Europe and Central Asia.  The Tartar word for “lamb” was “Borametz,” which explains one of its alternative names.

Henry Lee

As well as Mandeville other medieval writers and travelers wrote about the Vegetable Lamb.  In some texts it was described as a plant that produced pods that had unborn lambs inside. One of the more questioning of these writers was Henry Lee, a naturalist and author.   He  became sceptical while researching for other books he was writing and began delving into this bizarre notion.  He wrote another book called, “The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant.”  In his book he gives a typical description of the day of this weird, fantastical being,

“the fruit of a tree which sprang from a seed like that of a melon, or gourd; and when the fruit or seed-pod of this tree was fully ripe it burst open and disclosed to view within it a little lamb, perfect in form, and in every way resembling an ordinary lamb naturally born… (1)

He provides other versions of the myth describing how the lamb  were attached to the plant by a stem from their navel.  The stem was flexible enough to allow the lamb to graze in a circle around the main plant while still remaining tethered to it.   When all of the grass was eaten or if the stem was broken the lamb would die,   

Source

“a living lamb attached by its navel to a short stem rooted in the earth. The stem, or stalk, on which the lamb was thus suspended above the ground was sufficiently flexible to allow the animal to bend downward, and browse on the herbage within its reach. When all the grass within the length of its tether had been consumed the stem withered and the lamb died. This plant-lamb was reported to have bones, blood, and delicate flesh, and to be a favorite food of wolves” (2)

Lee was not convinced.  Nevertheless, despite his doubts the existence of the Vegetable Lamb was widely accepted by others up until the 17th century.  The main arguments raged not over its existence, which was not widely doubted, but over the tricky question of whether it was a plant or an animal. 

Vegetable Wool

In his research Lee looked to Scythia, an area  that covered many other regions of Europe and Asia.  He looked specifically at the region bordering India, an area Alexander the Great had conquered in the 4th century.   One of Alexander’s officers named Nearchus had reported that they had found the local people wore “vegetable wool”.  He reported, 

 “Garments the material of which was whiter than any other … made of the wool like that of lambs, which grew in tufts and bunches upon trees,”

This was probably the product we know of as cotton wool but this term can be used for two different products.   The first term describes it in its unprocessed state the second is where it has been subject to increased processing especially to help increase absorbancy.  In fact, the term “cotton wool” is an anomaly with cotton coming from a plant and wool coming from sheep or other animals.

Banishing the Myth

In medieval northern Europe it was being imported  unprocessed  but people had no idea of its origin or what it was.  All they were certain of was that it was derived from some kind of a plant.  They believed this because the Greek historian, Herodotus, had written about claiming that in India it came from trees growing in the wild that produced wool.  Therefore Europeans assumed that it must be a tree that it came from.  This can be seen in the German word, Baumwolle, meaning tree wool.   With its similarity to wool, people came to the erroneous conclusion that it must have come from some kind of a plant-sheep life form and  Mandeville simply reinforced this belief.  This European myth was  banished by the end of the 16th century with cotton cultivation in Asia and the New World.

© 07/10/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 07, 2020 zteve t evans

Giant Tales: Goram and Vincent and the Origin of the Avon Gorge

Public Domain – Source

Myths of Origin

All around the British Isles there are myths and legends that tell how giants and giantesses have shaped the landscape, often forming significant landmarks.   Here we look at two who are credited with forming the Avon Gorge and other parts of the landscape around the Bristol area in South West England.

The Giant Brothers 

 In the most well known version of the story there were two giants named Goram and Vincent who were brothers.  In some older tales Goram’s brother is named Ghyston and not Vincent.  There is a tradition that the change came because Bristol was an important port in the Middle Ages and had commercial connections with the Iberian wine business.  As well as wine this led to the importing of the cult of Saint Vincent who was the patron of São Vicente, Lisbon; Diocese of Algarve; Valencia; Vicenza, Italy, vinegar-makers, wine-makers; Order of Deacons of the Catholic Diocese of Bergamo (Italy) (1).

The cliff face of the Avon Gorge was once known as Ghyston Rocks or sometimes just Ghyston in earlier times and there was a cave known as either Ghyston’s Cave or the Giant’s Hole. Situated at th narrowest part of the Avon Gorge was an ancient hermitage and chapel dedicated to St. Vincent.  The cave became known as St Vincent’s cave and it seems the “Ghyston” became “Vincent” and that is the name he will be referred to this work.

Avona, the Giantess

Both brothers fell in love with a giantess from Wiltshire named Avona who the River Avon takes its name from. She was the female personification of the river and  possibly a distant memory of an ancient goddess or spirit. Avona could not decide who she preferred between Vincent and Goram so she set them a task that would display their talents.  According to this myth there was once a lake situated between Bristol and Bradford-upon-Avon in the neighboring county of Wiltshire.  She proposed that the one who managed to drain the lake first would win the right to marry her. After giving much thought to the problem the giants came up with different ideas on how to achieve the task.  Vincent chose to dig a channel on the south side of Clifton while Goram chose to dig a different channel that went through Henbury.

Both giants set to work and while Vincent toiled at a steady pace Goram worked furiously determined to be the winner.  He worked so hard that eventually he became hot and sweaty and in need of a drink.  He was a long way in front of Vincent and he thought he could afford to take a break and quench his thirst.  So he sat down in his favorite chair and quaffed a  large tankard of ale.  It tasted so good and cooled him down so much he drank another, and another and another.  He drank so much he fell asleep.   

Meanwhile Vincent, who had paced himself better, finished his channel and drained the lake.  From this story comes an explanation of how the narrow gorge the Hazel Brook flows through in Henbury and the Avon gorge which the River Avon passes through and other features of the landscape.

Goram’s Footprint

On the nearby Blaise Estate,   In woods above Henbury Gorge is a formation supposedly created when Goram stamped his foot when he found out he had lost Avona to Vincent.  He was so distraught he drowned himself in the River Severn estuary creating two islands, one called Steep Holm and the other called Flat Holm which are said to be his head and shoulder.  There are also two other features attributed to him in Henbury gorge.  The first is a short pillar topped with earth called the Soap-Dish and the second is a pool.

The Giant’s Footprint, Blaise Castle Estate – by
Mojo0306CC BY-SA 4.0

Another Version

In another version the characters of the two brother giants are as different as chalk and cheese.  Vincent was presented as being energetic and productive whereas Goram was considered to be a greedy idler.  One day Goram had the idea that they should do something so that people in the future would remember them. He suggested they build a massive monument to themselves out of rocks that were to be supplied by Vincent and the bones that were leftovers from his gorging of himself with food.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vincent declined but instead suggested they work together and build a most beautiful channel for the river to run through.  This seemed a bit like too much hard work for Goram who watched as his brother set about the task working steadily and energetically towards his goal.  As Goram watched his brother progress he realized that Vincent’s name would live on forever through the fruits of his labor and grew jealous.  Therefore, so that his own name would not be forgotten he began building his own channel some three miles distant from Vincent’s.

The Death of Goram

Having  no pick-axe of his own he borrowed his  brother’s and being a lazy fellow the first thing he did was use it to cut a chair in the rock so that he could sit and rest from toil.  The brothers took it in turns to use the pick-axe.  They would shout a warning and hurl it through the air the three miles or so one to the other.  One day Goram fell asleep in his chair and never heard his brother shout a warning and the pick-axe hit him on the head, breaking his skull, killing him.

Death of Vincent

Vincent was distraught at his brother’s death, entirely blaming himself.  From then on he put all of his energy into his work making the beautiful gully we know as the Avon gorge which the River Avon flows through today.  Despite his achievement and his hard labour he still felt guilty about his brother’s unfortunate death and to use up his pent up energy built a stone circle at Stonehenge and another at Stanton Drew.  Even these labors had not used  up all his energy so he swam over to Ireland and built the Giant’s Causeway which finally tired him out.  He was exhausted by his labors and still feeling guilt and grief for the death of his brother whom he missed greatly.  In despair he returned home to spend the last hours of his life sitting upon the rocks looking out over the beautiful gorge he had dug that the River Avon flowed through.

These are just two versions of the legends of how the Avon gorge and parts of the surrounding landscape were formed.  There are many other versions and many other legends from the rest of the British Isles crediting giants with making  features  of the landscape.

© 30/09/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 30th, 2020 zteve t evans

Japanese Folktales: The Butterfly Soul

François Gérard – Public domain

Presented here is a retelling of an old Japanese legend about butterflies and the human soul from Myths & Legends of Japan, by F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland) Davis and illustrated by Evelyn Paul. In this work it was titled the The White Butterfly.

The Butterfly Soul

In old Japan there was a belief that the souls of people alive or dead could take the form of a butterfly. Therefore any butterfly that entered a house was treated respectfully.  It may be that people whose loved ones had departed this world looked for and welcomed the presence of a butterfly and silently prayed, “Oh, come butterfly and I shall sleep tonight, where the flowers sleep.”

A very old legend tells of a poor old man by the name of Takahama.  His home was just behind the cemetery of the temple of Sōzanji and never seemed to go far from it. Sadly,  it is a trait of human nature that sees people who do not behave in what is considered a normal way to have some degree of madness.  He was by all accounts the most affable and amiable person you could wish to meet and all his neighbors greatly liked and respected him though they considered him a little mad.  This madness appears to have come from the fact that he never took a wife or was known to have considered taking one.  Furthermore, he was wrongly believed to have had no intimate relationship with a woman.  

It so happened that one bright summer day the most affable Takahama fell sick.  So sick that he sent for his sister-in-law to come and take care of him.  She duly arrived bringing her son with her to bring what help and comfort they could in his final hours.  While they kept vigil over him there fluttered into the room a beautiful white butterfly that rested gently on the sick man’s pillow.  Fearful that it might disturb his final hours the young man attempted to carefully drive it out without harming it. Each time he drove it through the door it returned.  This happened three times as if the butterfly was reluctant to leave the dying man.

At last the young man grew more forceful chasing it out the door and into the nearby cemetery where it fluttered over the tomb of a woman before mysteriously vanishing to where he did not know.

The young man was puzzled and intrigued.  On examining the tomb he found an inscription with the name “Akiko”  and a brief account of how she had died when she was 18 years old.  This indicated her death had happened some 50 years earlier.   The tomb was very well maintained with fresh flowers and water provided.   Intrigued but unsure what he had found the young man returned to the house to find Takahama had passed away.   

The young man told his mother about the butterfly and what he had seen in the cemetery. His mother sat down with tears in her eyes and told him, 

“Not many people know but your uncle was once betrothed to Akiko. He was very much in love with her but just before the wedding day she died of consumption.  Understandably, he was heartbroken and vowed that he would never marry or have any kind of a relationship with any other woman.  

He stayed close to her grave and prayed over it daily, no matter if the sun was shining and the day was fair and pleasant, or burning hot.  No matter how cold the rain or how thick the snow, or wild the wind, he would grit his teeth and pray,  ‘Oh, come, butterfly, come!’

 Maintaining her grave, keeping weeds at bay and ensuring there were alway fresh flowers all through the long lonely years he kept his vow.  In his heart of hearts he kept clean and shining all the loving memories of his only love.  As he lay dying he no longer had the strength to perform his labor of love and Akiko from beyond saw this and came to him.  The white butterfly was her tender, loving soul that came to guide him to the Land of the Yellow Springs where they will be reunited once again.”

***

For Takahama his passing prayer may been words such as the following poem written by Yone Noguchim many, many years later. Just maybe the writer was thinking of the old man when he wrote,

“Where the flowers sleep,

Thank God! I shall sleep tonight.

Oh, come, butterfly!”

© 09/09/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 9th, 2020 zteve t evans

Celtic Mythology: Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Image by John James Audubon – Public Domain – Source

This article by zteve t evans was first published on FolkloreThursday.com on 30th July, 2020 under the title, Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods in Celtic Mythology

Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Animals played an important part in the everyday life of the ancients Celts. In Celtic mythology the lives of animals, birds, humans and gods are interwoven to provide rich stories alluding to important matters in their society such as life and death, love and hate, jealousy and lust. Provided here is a brief review of some of those myths and legends.

The Dream of Aengus

Swans were much admired by the Irish Celts and had some special places in their mythology. One story from Irish mythology called the Dream of Aengus, tells how a young god named Aengus fell in love with a beautiful woman from his dreams. Her name was Caer Ibormeith and she was the goddess of sleep and dreams.

Aengus set out to find her and discovered that she was a real person who had been placed under a spell which transformed her into a swan. Every other Samhain she was able to return to human form for one day beginning at sunset and then revert back to swan form for one year until the following Samhain when the transformation cycle would be repeated.

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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

Influential Women: Enheduanna – High-Priestess, Astronomer, First Known Author

File:Disk of Enheduanna.JPG from Wikimedia Commons – Author: Mefman00CC0

Daughter of Sargon

The world’s first known author is widely attributed to have been the daughter of Sargon (1) of Akkad in the 23rd century BC.  We know her today as Enheduanna, which may have been a title of office, in which case her real name is unknown.  She was the High Priestess of Nanna-Suen, a moon deity of Mesopotamia presiding over his temple complex in the city of Ur.  The “En” part of her name signifies “leadership” and “ heduanna,”  means “Ornament of Heaven” reflecting the divinity she served.

Clearly, she was of very high status in the society of her time and her writing was greatly influential then and in later times.  Considerable parts of her work still exist in her original poetic form which has been influential in various religious systems throughout history.

Enheduanna lived through tumultuous times as her father, also known as Sargon the Great,  forged the Akkadian-Sumerian empire which many consider the world’s first great empire.  During this period the northern and southern parts of Mesopotamia were united and the city of Akkad became one of the largest known cities in the world.

Sargon needed someone loyal with the intellectual and creative ability to combine the two main religions of his empire.  His  appointment of her as the first High-Priestess of Nanna-Suen of the city of Ur was a master-stroke as she seems to have had considerable success in this.

Cunieform

The early form of pictorial writing that Enheduanna used was believed to have originated in about 3,400 BC.  This was etched into tablets damp clay and known as Cuneiform.  Although these tablets may look primitive, modern literature and administration systems evolved from them.  They carry the thoughts, philosophy, religious knowledge and records of everyday life of the ancients carefully etched upon them.  A large number of these cuneiform tablets have been found that were designed to teach the arts of the scribe to future generations. Many examples have been discovered in the Sumer region carrying a great variety of information. 

In this way we have access to the thoughts of Enheduanna, a woman who lived about 4,300 years ago and other ancient people through the ages.

First Named Author

In her work as High Priestess, Enheduanna composed a canon of important literature.  These included two hymns to the goddess, Inanna, later known as Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love as well as the myth of Inanna and Ebih and 42 temple hymns.  She was thought to have composed them herself and dictated them to scribes.  

We know she wrote them because she claims authorship in the inscriptions and her seals are used as her stamp of authority.  Although there were earlier writers she is the first named author claiming responsibility for her work that has so far been identified in the world.  Her works come across as deeply personal including biographical information and her role as High-Priestess.  Her temple hymns are finished with the following declaration: 

The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”

In providing this she is asserting they were produced from her own intellectual creativity and effort in a similar way copyright is claimed by an author today.  Her assertion is the earliest known claim of authorship yet to be found.

She appears to have worked diligently and intelligently often through the night  in creating her compositions to be performed the next day.  Her works were performed to a live audience though it is uncertain if she performed them herself or someone else stood in.

Her poetry contains the first religious belief system and these works were studied and performed some five hundred years after she died.  It also contains personal information such as a power struggle with a usurper which saw her banished from the temple of Ur for a period.

Her works reveal the challenges she had in creating them and finding ways to express her thoughts.  From what she explains she appears to have sometimes suffered from writer’s block which shows it is not a phenomenon of the modern age!

Role in Society

As well as being the first recognized writer and one of the earliest scientists she was also the first in a long line of High-Priestesses of Nanna-Suen.  Over the following five hundred years the king’s daughter was appointed this highly influential role that would have required someone of high education and intelligence to fulfill.

Her role included more than that of a High-Priestess; she also controlled the administration of the temple and agricultural complexes.  Her religious ceremonies required accurate reading of the celestial sky as did her agricultural duties and she needed to articulate this information in ways that others could understand.   

She is also believed to have built into her works astronomical principles that were relevant to the celestial divinities of her religion.  In doing so she appears to have engaged in astronomy and mathematics as her observations and calculations  are regarded as accurate today and considered as one of the earliest known scientists.

Astronomy and Mathematics

Her eighth hymn is believed to give clues as to her role as High-Priestess and astronomer,

      ” in the gipar the priestesses’ rooms

        that princely shrine of cosmic order

        they track the passage of the moon.”

The private and sacred apartment of the High-Priestess was called the “gipar”.  This verse tells that this was the place or observatory where the movements of the moon in the night sky was observed and recorded.

As the High-Priestess of Nanna-Suen, the moon deity she needed to practice astronomy for both practical and ceremonial purposes.  Observing  the phases of the moon and movement of stars was important for practical purposes such as keeping track of the year and for agriculture and animal breeding. 

The modern liturgical calendars evolved from observations and calculations that Enhedaunna and other early priest astronomers observed and recorded. 

Enheduanna the Scientist

From her poetry we gain a really good insight into who she was and what her role was.

“The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom,

       She consults a tablet of lapis lazuli

        She gives advice to all lands…

        She measures off the heavens,

        She places the measuring-cords on the earth.”

(3)

This provides a good description of her role as scientist and High-Priestess making observations and calculations and distributing the information and conclusions she reaches.  Lapis lazuli is a blue rock but some people think she is referring to the blue sky as it fits with her role as astronomer.

Exile

In what must have been a period of great anxiety and despair for Enhedaunna she was exiled during  one of the many uprisings by a revolutionary named Lugal-Ane.

She pleaded to the god Nanna-Suen for restoration but he appeared to ignore her despite her being his High-Priestess.  Therefore, she appealed to the goddess of love, procreation, fertility and war, Inanna, also known as Ishtar, for succour and was eventually restored to her position.   These events are recorded in her poetry which tells how she was ignored by Nanna-Suen but succoured by Inanna.  Her reverence and gratitude is shown in her hymn“The Exaltation of Inanna”(4),  a deeply personal account of her banishment and restoration.

Modern Society

She is considered as the first  known author and poet and considered one of first among the earliest of astronomers, mathematicians and scientists.  Her works are an important part of the rich history of Mesopotamia and her achievements have shone out through the centuries.  The  influence this remarkable woman had on modern society has been immense and we have much to thank her for today.

© 29/07/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 29th, 2020, zteve t evans