From the Mabinogion: The Dream of Macsen Wledig

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This was article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com 30/11/2017,  titled British Legends: The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig written by zteve t evans.

British Legends:  The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig

The Dream of Macsen Wledig from the Mabinogion tells the story of how the Emperor of Rome experienced a dream in which he traveled to Wales, then met and became obsessed with a beautiful maiden named Elen. It is a story telling of a mythical past with legendary heroes involved in extraordinary adventures, that many people feel resonates today. The tales were created from traditional and existing works, using both written and oral sources, and were not original works. They were often reworked to reflect current issues, and are seen by many as an interpretation of a mythical past age while also providing an interpretation of the present. Presented here is a retelling of ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ from The Mabinogion Vol. 2 by Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and Lady Charlotte Schreiber. 

Macsen Wledig

Macsen Wledig was an emperor of Rome who had thirty-two vassal kings in his retinue. One day, he proposed that they all join him for a day of hunting. The next day, bright and early, he set off leading the party into the countryside to a beautiful valley that a river flowed through on its way to Rome. It was a hot, sunny morning, and the party hunted throughout the valley until midday. With the sun at its height, Macsen Wledig suddenly began to feel very tired and ordered the party to take a break while he slept by the river.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

His servants made a shelter for him out of shields, made a place on the ground for him to rest his head. Then they left him in peace and he lay down, and as he fell asleep a strange dream came to him. He found himself following the river along the valley, and eventually reaching its source at the foot of a mountain that was as high as the sky. He travelled on over the mountain, and on the other side found himself travelling through a fair country which he deemed the most beautiful in the world. Travelling on, he came across the wellspring of a river and followed it towards the sea where it grew into the widest river he had ever seen.

The City by the Sea

Standing majestically at the mouth of the river was a fair city that was enclosed by the walls of a massive castle. Its tower and turrets reached high into the sky, and many flags and banners of all colours and designs fluttered gaily in the breeze. Below the castle wall in the mouth of the river lay a great fleet of ships. The greatest and fairest of these had planks of gold and silver, and a bridge of white whale bone spanned the distance from the harbour side to the ship. Macsen Wledig found himself walking slowly over the bridge to stand on the ship. As soon as he was on board, the bridge of bone raised itself and the ship set sail towards the distant horizon to an unknown destination. After many days, the ship came to a beautiful island and lay at anchor.

The Fairest Island in the World

In his dream, Macsen Wledig went ashore and explored the island; travelling through its forests and valleys and crossing mountains and moors from coast to coast. Never before had he seen its like, and he thought it the fairest and most beautiful island in the world. Eventually, he came to a place in the mouth of a river where a majestic castle looked out over the sea. He went down to the castle and entered through its gates. Inside, he found the fairest hall he had ever seen. The walls were studded with gems of all kinds that glittered and shimmered in the sun, and the roof was of gold and gleamed gloriously.

Inside the Golden Hall

Stepping inside the hall, Macsen Wledig saw many fine pieces of furniture and rich decorations wherever he looked. On the far side of the hall, he saw two young men engaged in a game of chess on a wonderfully ornate chessboard. Sitting in a chair of ivory by a pillar of stone was a man with a rugged face and wild hair. On his head, he wore a diadem of gold and on his fingers were rings of precious metals set with gemstones. Golden bracelets adorned his wrists and arms, and around his throat he wore a torc of gold. Although the man was seated, it was clear he had a powerful physique and bearing, and he was engaged in the task of carving chess pieces.

Sitting before this strange man on a chair of burnished gold was a maiden whose beauty was more dazzling than the sun, and Macsen Wledig was almost blinded by her radiance. In his dream, she rose from her chair and he rose from his and they threw their arms around each other.  Then they sat down together, and their faces drew closer, and they sat together cheek to cheek and were poised to kiss.

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Raven and the Haida People

The Haida people are native to areas of British Columbia, Canada and Alaska, USA. The  the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, is considered to be their heartland especially the two main islands.  The Haida tell many wonderful stories featuring Raven who in their mythology, legends and traditions is seen as a provider and bringer of light to humanity while also being a trickster.  It was Raven who was the transformer, healer and magician and yet is often presented as being greedy, lustful and mischievous. Yet despite these contradictions Raven is very much a cultural hero of the Haida.

Raven and the First People

In one creation myth they tell that before Raven all of the world was one enormous flood. The myth tells how there was once a time when there was nothing but water everywhere. One day Raven became bored and spread his wings and flew.  As he flew the waters began to recede. When Raven became hungry land was formed and Raven  settled on it and found food.

One day Raven heard strange noises coming from a shell.  This both intrigued and confused Raven. The strange sound from the clam became louder and more frantic and so Raven having a fine singing voice thought he would sing to it in the hope of soothing whatever was making the noise.  So Raven sung to it and eventually a small but extraordinary creature broke out of the shell. Indeed, it was a very peculiar with two legs, a head that was round and covered at the top in long black hair and soft skin. Unlike Raven it had no wings and no feathers.   This creature was the very first of the First People and more came from the shell and all of these were male.

To begin with Raven was intrigued but gradually grew bored with them and thought about putting them all back in the shell. Then he decided he would look for some females to keep all of these males company.   It so happened that Raven found some more people who were inside a another shell. Setting them free Raven discovered they were female people. He was enthralled as he watched how male and female interacted with each other and began to feel protective and responsible towards them.

Creation Myths

The Haida have other versions of  tales that tell how the world was created such as the one that follows.  There was a time when the world was just sky and water and in the water was a reef where the first beings lived.  The greatest of these beings lived upon the highest part of the reef and looked down on the lesser beings who lived on the lower parts of the reef.

Raven flew over the reef looking for a place to settle but could see no room to land. Therefore he decided to fly to the sky country and there he found the daughter of a Chief who had a young baby.   In the darkness of night Raven stole the child with the intention of taking its place as Raven Child.

Raven Brings the Sun, Moon and Stars

There is a very old story that tells how Raven brought the Sun, the Stars, the Moon and fresh water and fire to the world to benefit the people.  It tells how in the the beginning of the world the guardian of the Sun, Moon, Stars, fresh water and fire was Gray Eagle. He hated people and hid beneficial things from them. He hid the Sun, the Moon, the Stars and fresh water and fire from them and the people were cold and lived in darkness.

In these early days of the world Raven was pure white and he fell in love with the daughter of Gray Eagle who thought him very handsome in white.  One day she invited him to visit her in her father’s longhouse. When Raven arrived he saw that the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, along with fresh water were all hanging up around the sides of Gray Eagle’s home. When he knew no one was looking he stole them and also took a burning brand from the fire and flew out of the smoke hole in the roof  with his loot.  Flying up high in the sky he hung the Sun up and its light flooded out over the Earth lighting and warming  he day. In fact there was so much light he could see far enough to fly out across the ocean to an island situated in its middle .  When the Sun wet down he hung up the Moon and Stars in different parts of the sky and by this light he flew back to the land carrying the fresh water and the firebrand.  

When he reached the land he found what he thought was a good place and dropped the fresh water.  Where it landed on the ground became the source of all of the freshwater that creates all of rivers, lakes and  streams in the world today.

Raven flew on holding the flaming brand in his beak and as he flew the smoke from the fiery brand flowed over his snowy white feathers turning them black. As he flew the brand burnt smaller and smaller and eventually it began to burn his beak and Raven was forced to drop it.  The burning brand fell from the sky and crashed into rocks and instantly concealed itself inside of them. This is how the sparks that appear when two stones are struck together got in the stone and why we can make fire from them.

As for Raven he lost his white plumage after it was covered in soot from the firebrand and that is why today all of his feathers are black.

© 11/04/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 11th, 2018 zteve t evans

Haida Tales: Raven and the Coming of the Salmon

The Haida are a native North American people living around Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands and parts of Alaska.  Their territory spans between British Columbia, Canada and Alaska, USA.  As islanders they lived in a rugged landscape with abundant wildlife and cedar forests, and developed an affinity with the sea which also provided food for them.  Over the centuries their environment helped to shape a rich and wonderful culture. One of the products of that culture was a mythology that produced stories that explained how the natural world around them worked.  Many of these stories feature Raven who has a twofold nature of being a provider bringing benefit to humans or a trickster. Presented here is a retelling of one of those stories.

The Coming of the Salmon

Long ago among the Haida people a little girl had a magnificent dream.  She dreamed of a beautiful fish that she had never seen before.  When she awoke from her dream she cried because she wanted the beautiful fish so much.  Her father who was an Haida Chief asked her why she cried and she described the fish to him.  However, he could not help her because he had never seen such a fish and did not know where to find one.  So he went among his people and described the fish to them and asked them if they knew where he could find one. The people had seen plenty of fish of many different kinds but they had never seen a fish like the one his daughter described in her dream and could not help him.

Meanwhile his little daughter continued to cry and cry and cry for what no one could give her.  She cried so much her health began to fail. Her worried father called a Great Council of the medicine men and chiefs from the neighboring villages to seek their help. They all came and sat around the fire in his great lodge.  After all the formalities were over he told them of the dream that was upsetting his little girl.  He described the fish to them as she had told him and asked if they knew anything of it.

All the chiefs and all of the medicine men listened carefully to what he said. They thought long and hard but none of them knew anything of the big, beautiful, fish or where it could be found.  Then one medicine man stood up and after paying his respects tothose present said,

“Our Chief’s daughter weeps for something from a dream that we have never seen.  None of us have seen a fish likes she describes. There are many fish in the waters and some are big but not as big as she describes.  If we could find such a fish our people would benefit greatly. Maybe there is one among us who knows where such a big and beautiful fish can be found.”

Then one very old and  wise medicine man stood up and after paying his respects to all present said,

“With the agreement of this council I will go to the cedar trees where my good friend Raven lives and ask him for his counsel.   He is very wise and knowledgeable and I ask permission to bring him before the Council and seek his advice.”

All of the chiefs and the medicine men agreed so he went to Raven to ask if he would attend the council and bring his wisdom to bear on the problem. Raven agreed and returned with his friend the old medicine man who sat before the council with the wise bird perched on his shoulder.  Thus spoke Raven,

“I know the fish in the dreams of the daughter of the chief. I know its name and where it lives.   She is dreaming of a big and beautiful fish called a salmon. These fish live a long way from here at the mouth of a great river.   The Haida people are my friends and so I will fly far and swift and I will bring back a salmon.”

With that Raven flew fast and hard high up in the sky until he saw far below the mouth of a mighty river opening into the sea.  Circling around he saw swarms of salmon swimming in the sea. Swooping down quickly he caught in his claws the small son of the Salmon Chief and flew quickly back to the village of the Haida people with the fish in his talons.

The Salmon Chief was shocked at the loss of his son and sent out scouts who leapt high in the air out of the water and saw the direction in which Raven flew.   The Chief Salmon called together his people and they followed their scouts in pursuit.

Arriving back at the Haida village Raven dropped the salmon before the young daughter of the chief.  Immediately on seeing the fish she stopped her crying and laughed and clapped her hands in delight. Then Raven told the old medicine man that many, many, salmon now followed him and would soon be swimming into the mouth of their river.

The medicine man then told the counsel what Raven had said and it was decided that a great net would be woven ready for their arrival.  When the salmon swam into the mouth of the river many of them were caught in the net. To keep all of the salmon from escaping the people passed a leather thong through their gills tying one end to a large boulder and the other to the people’s great totem which was a living cedar tree.  They named it ‘Nhe-is-bik’ and carved the images of a Thunderbird, a chief, and a salmon upon it.   This was the beginning of a magical event that happened from then on every year as the salmon returned looking for their lost son.

© 04/04/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 4th, 2018 zteve t evans

 

Catalina of Dumaguete: A Folktale from the Philippines

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com October 12th, 2017 as Philippine Folktales and Legends: Catalina of Dumaguete by zteve t evans

The City of the Gentle People

Dumaguete is the capital town of the province of Negros Oriental in the Philippines. Like most great cities, Dumaguete has a long history and there are many myths and legends from its early days that have helped to create its culture and character. Dumaguete is also known as the City of the Gentle People, although it is uncertain why, but the people who live there are renowned for their friendliness making it a popular tourist destination. The name “Dumaguete” is thought to come from the Visayan word “daggit” meaning “to snatch,” possibly because it often fell victim to pirates and raiders who robbed, kidnapped, and enslaved the Gentle People. Presented here is a folktale from the early days of Dumaguete, which tells the story of a strange girl with a faraway look in her eyes named Catalina who was greatly loved by her people.

The Legend of Catalina of Dumaguete

It is said that even the wild people who once roamed the remote mountains spoke of Catalina with love. Around the coastal towns and villages of the island, when the wind whips the waters of the Tañon Strait into a frenzy and storms rampage in from the sea, the old men and women would gather their grandchildren around the glow of burning coconut lamp. As the wind howled and shook the walls and the roof they would tell the story of Catalina of Dumaguete.

They would tell how many, many years ago, there was an old man named Banog who made his living by making daily rounds of the town selling the sweet water from the coconut tree. This was before the custom of making it into strong liquor became widespread. Although Banog was poor, he was very much respected and considered a good man despite his poverty. Banog had a daughter named Catalina, and everyone did all they could to support them because the Gentle People always supported one another the best they could.

At the age of sixteen, Catalina was a very pretty and hardworking girl. She always wore a long white dress, which she kept spotlessly clean and in good repair. Everyone agreed she was very good of character, with a lovely nature, and everyone liked her. But in some ways she was a very strange girl. She very rarely spoke, and was often found standing staring out over the sea while shading her eyes with one hand. At other times she would suddenly stand tall while clasping her hands together and gaze into the sky, as though she could see something that no one else could. Because of these strange characteristics, the people believed she had some mysterious power of sight.

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Eldol the Mighty, Duke of Gloucester

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James William Edmund Doyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Three Vigorous Ones of Britain

One of the lesser known and unsung heroes of the legend and mythology of the Britons was Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester.  Although mentioned in History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth he is largely unknown but his story tells of treachery and revenge in wild, wild times.  He was also known as Eldol the Mighty and was also mentioned in the Triads of Britain by Iolo Morganwg, as one of the Three Vigorous Ones of Britain.  The other two were  Gwrnerth of the sharp shot, who shot and killed the greatest bear that had ever lived using a straw arrow and Gwgawn of the mighty hand.   Gwgawn alone rolled the Stone of Maenarch, which normally needed sixty of the strongest oxen to move it, from the bottom of the valley to the top of the mountain.

Eldol gained his place as one of the vigorous three because he survived the terrible event in the history of the Britons known as the Treachery of the Long Knives by fighting his way free.   He also joined with the new King of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius and burnt the traitor King Vortigern in his tower.  Then he fought for Aurelius against the Saxons dueling with and capturing alive their warlord Hengist bringing him to face the justice of the King of the Britons.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

The event that became known as the Treachery of the Long Knives happened when Vortigern, the King of the Britons invited the Saxon warlord, Hengist to a peace conference at a monastery on the mythical Mount Ambrius on Salisbury Plain.  All participants were supposed to attend unarmed and this rule was strictly followed by the Britons.  However, Hengist had ordered his chieftains to conceal a long knife in their clothing to use at his command.  They were to act in  a peaceable and friendly manner and socialize with the Britons putting them at ease.  When Hengist gave the agreed  signal the Saxons stabbed the nearest Briton to them.  This act of treachery resulted in the deaths of most of the leading Britons.  Only Eldol and Vortigern of the Britons survived the attack. Eldol found a wooden stave which he used with deadly effect to kill six hundred and sixty Saxons in a desperate  fight between the setting of the sun and darkness before fighting his way to a horse and escaping to his home town of Gloucester.

Vortigern was purposely spared on the orders of Hengist because he was married to his daughter, Rowena, but also to draw ransom from and to manipulate further.  In return for his life Hengist demanded all of the fortified towns and places of the Britons be handed to him. With no other choice Vortigern agreed virtually handing over the rule of Britain to him.   This event profoundly affect the ability of the Britons to resist the Saxons as they were now virtually bereft of experienced leadership and no strong places. Vortigern, in an attempt to keep himself safe, looked for a site where he could build a place of strong refuge now that Hengist had all the fortified places of the Britons.

Merlin and the Two Dragons

At one site he made continued attempts to build a tower but the works would keep falling down overnight.  He was advised by Merlin that underground was a pool of water and that was what was making the walls fall down.  In the water there were two dragons; one red and one white that had been imprisoned there many, many, years ago in another age by KIng Lludd.

Merlin advised Vortigern to drain the pool and the dragons were revealed and set about fighting each other.  The red dragon drove out the white after a long and violent struggle. Merlin told him this represented the victory of the Britons over the Saxons and advised him that he saw two deaths for him.  One from the Saxons and one from the Britons but he could not say which would come first. He also prophesied the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius who would unite the Britons and be crowned their king.  He would drive out the Saxons and come looking to avenge his father and elder brother who had been murdered by Vortigern when he usurped the throne. He made it clear his fate was sealed and the only question was who would get to him first.

Aurelius Ambrosius

Eldol and the few nobles who were left who had not been present at the massacre of the Britons by Hengist stepped up to take the leadership of the Britons and now joined forces with Aurelius recognising him as the rightful heir to the throne and making him their King.   They wanted him to drive out the Saxons first and then bring Vortigern to justice for bringing them in in the first place but Aurelius refused insisting Vortigern would be dealt with first. Eldol paid homage to him and told him how he had survived the Saxon treachery and of those who had fallen.

The Burning of Vortigern

Aurelius listened sympathetically but made it clear he wanted to defeat Vortigern first saying,

“See, most noble duke, whether the walls of this city are able to protect Vortigern against my sheathing this sword in his bowels. He deserves to die, and you cannot, I suppose, be ignorant of his desert. Oh most villainous of men, whose crimes deserve inexpressible tortures!  First he betrayed my father Constantine, who had delivered him and his country from the inroads of the Picts; afterwards my brother Constans whom he made king on purpose to destroy him. Again, when by his craft he had usurped the crown, he introduced pagans among the natives, in order to abuse those who continued steadfast in their loyalty to me: … Now, therefore, my countrymen, show yourselves men, first revenge yourselves upon him that was the occasion of all these disasters; then let us turn our arms against our enemies, and free our country from their brutish tyranny.” (1)

Wasting no more time, Aurelius and Eldol then put on their armour together intent on the destruction of Vortigern.   Aurelius set siege engines to work to break down the walls of the defenses but these failed. Determined to waste no more time he ordered the moat be drained and  filled with wood and combustible material and set ablaze. He commanded his archers to let fly burning arrows into the stronghold that found plenty of fuel. Vortigern was burnt to death in the tower of his last refuge along with his wives.

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James William Edmund Doyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Defeating  the Saxons

With Vortigern defeated the King of the Britons turned his attention to Hengist and the Saxons and moved his army northwards to confront him.   Hengist realised he had to fight the Britons head on or risk becoming trapped. To motivate his men he pointed out that they had the advantage in numbers telling them this would ensure victory.   Then he moved his army to a place where he knew the Britons would have to pass through hoping to take them by surprise. However, Aurelius had anticipated this and quick marched his men to confront the Saxons before they were ready.   He had given each regiment strict instructions and would himself lead the cavalry in a charge on the Saxon positions.

This had been the moment that a Eldol the Duke of Gloucester had been yearning for ever since the Treachery of the Long Knives.  His big hope was to find Hengist on the battlefield and engage in single combat to the death with him.   Many of the Britons also had old scores to settle against the Saxons and were determined to avenge the crimes they had committed against them.  Even so, the Saxons were still a powerful army and to defeat them would require a massive effort by the Britons.

With the arrival of the Britons the battle was quick to flare up and raged with unrestrained ferocity from both sides.   Eldol scoured the field searching out Hengist but the fighting was to thick and fierce and in the fray it was impossible to find him.   Despite urging his men on and presenting a fine example of bravery and leadership Hengist realised the Britons had gained the advantage and led his men in a retreat to the town of what is now Conisburgh.

Again Hengist resisted taking his army into the city fearing Aurelius would lay siege to it preventing escape.  He knew his Saxons were still a powerful force and he marshalled them and regrouped outside the town and prepared them to face the Britons outside the town.  His thinking was that he would rather defeat them in outright battle of force a way through and escape heading for Scotland, or to their ships on the coast.

Aurelius wasted no time and attacked the Saxons on arrival and there began a most terrible and bloody battle.   The Britons attacked with all their might hoping to overpower the Saxons who fought back courageously. Seeing the ferocity of the Saxon defense Aurelius sent in cavalry against them breaking their ranks and preventing them from regrouping and  causing confusion. This disarray encouraged the Britons who attacked now with greater ferocity.

Aurelius again urged the cavalry against the Saxons driving them before him.  Eldol fighting on foot leading the infantry took the fight to the Saxons killing all in his path but always seeking out his deadly archenemy, Hengist.   Eventually the two met face to face and a deadly duel followed. Hengist was a skilled swordsman and as ferocious as any warrior and Eldol the champion of the Britons now had his wish come true and while the battle raged all around them the two fought one another in a ferocious duel.

At times Hengist drove forward against his opponent but Eldol parried blow after blow and through the power in his arms and body and the steel of his will fought back. Hengist recovered and again with his swordsmanship began to take the advantage but at that moment the arrival of a fresh contingent of cavalry led by Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall gave renewed energy to the Britons and Eldol surged forward and managed to take a strong grip on the war helmet of Hengist and catching him off balance pulled him into the ranks of the Britons.

A clamour rose among the Britons for Hengist to be killed immediately.  Eldol refused telling them that Hengist would face the justice of Aurelius Ambrosius, the King of the Britons.   He had him bound in chains and taken from the battlefield to await the justice of the king. With Hengist now in their hands the Britons gained great heart and fought harder.  Although the Saxons had lost their general and great inspirational leader they continued to fight on but gradually, lacking his direction they were steadily and surely pushed back until they were forced to flee for their lives.

The Vengeance of Eldol

With the Britons victorious Aurelius decided to rest his army in Conan driving out any remaining Saxons.  Then he gave orders for the dead to be given a proper burial and tended the wounded of his own army and rested his troops.   To help him decide the fate of Hengist he called a council of his lords and bishops and had Hengist brought before him. Eldad the bishop of Gloucester and the brother of Eldol stood up and said,

“Though all should be unanimous for setting him at liberty, yet would I cut him to pieces. The prophet Samuel is my warrant, who when he had Agag, king of Amalek, in his power, hewed him in pieces, saying, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. Do therefore the same to Hengist, who is a second Agag.” (2)

Aurelius and all those present unanimously agreed that this would.  Therefore, Eldol led Hengist from the council and executed him as had been decided.   King Aurelius Ambrosius who always showed respect to others ordered that earth should be raised over the body of Hengist as was the traditional burial practice of the Saxons in their homeland.  So it was that Eldol who had survived that terrible night of Saxon treachery came at last to wreak his vengeance on his archenemy, Hengist and become one of the mightiest heroes of the Britons.

© 12/07/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright zteve t evans

Anansi Tales: How the Tales were Named

The Anansi Tales are a body of traditional stories that originated in Ghana and spread throughout West Africa.   They were carried to the Caribbean and the New World with the unfortunate African people who were transported there to spend their lives in slavery. They were passed on orally and from generation to generation producing many variants of the same tale. The stories center around a protagonist called Anansi who is both human and spider.  He can appear in either form or anthropomorphically with a human head and a spider body.  He is often seen as a trickster or as a intermediary between the gods and humankind.  During the dark days of slavery he was seen as a symbol of hope and resistance by showing how someone who was considered small and weak could overcome the big and powerful by using cleverness and courage and was a reminder of the old ways back in Africa. The following is a retelling of an Anansi tale which highlights his cleverness and trickery.

How the Tales were Named

In the early days of the people, all of the tales that were told were stories about the chief of the gods whose name was Nyankupon.  Spider who was known as Anansi was jealous and thought all of the stories should be about him. Therefore, Anansi went to Nyankupon and asked that in future all the tales people told should be about him.

Nyankupon told Anansi that he would agree to this but only if Anansi could fulfill three tasks. For the first task, Anansi had to bring him a jarful of living bees. The second, was for him to bring Nyankupon a live boa-constrictor. For the third, Anansi had to bring him a living leopard. Anansi agreed and taking a clay pot he went to a place where he knew bees lived in great numbers and sat down and began talking aloud to himself saying,

“They will not be able to do it.”
“Yes, they will.”
“No, it is too difficult!”
“Of course they will be able to do it!”

He kept this debate up for some time and eventually the bees took notice of him and asked him what he was talking to himself about. He told them he and Nyankupon had been arguing over whether the bees were skillful enough fliers to be able to fly into the clay pot. He told them he believed they were, whereas Nyankupon argued they were not.

The bees were indignant and told Anansi firmly that of course they could and to prove it they all flew into the pot until it was packed tight with them. Anansi quickly put the lid on the pot and sealed and took it to show Nyankupon that he had succeeded in the first task.

The next morning Anansi went out and found a long stick and then went to a place where he knew a boa-constrictor lived. When he arrived at the home of the boa-constrictor he began talking to himself saying,

“Surely he cannot be as long as this stick”
“Yes, he will be as long!”
“Oh, no he won’t!”
“Of course he will! “

And he kept on talking to himself for some time until the snake came and asked him what he was talking about. Anansi told him that in Nyankupon’s town people are saying the stick is longer than the snake was whereas but he believed the snake was longer than the stick.

“Would you be as kind as to lay yourself along so that I may measure you? asked Anansi politely. The boa-constrictor the stretched himself along the stick from end to end and Anansi lost no time in binding him around the stick with his spider thread. Then he took him to Nyankupon successfully completing the second task.

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Leopard by Jacques Christophe Werner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The third morning Anansi sewed up one of his own eyes and went to a place he knew where a leopard lived. As he drew near he began to shout and sing at the top of his voice and he made such a din that the leopard came out to his home to see what all the noise was about.

“Why are you shouting and singing in such a joyous manner?”

said the leopard to Anansi.

“Look, can you not see? Look, I have stitched my eye up and now I can see such wonderful things that I have to sing and shout about them,”

cried Anansi.

The leopard looked and he saw that Anansi’s eye was indeed sewn up and then he said,

“Sew my eyes up too and then I will also see wonderful things!”

So Anansi the Spider quickly sewed up the eyes of the leopard rendering him blind and helpless. Then he led him to Nyankupon who was both impressed and astounded at the ingenuity of Anansi and granted him his wish. That is why all the old tales that people tell today are known as Anansi tales.

© 14/03/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 14th, 2018 zteve t evans

 

 

 

Wishes, Curses and a Sister Saves her Brothers: The Tale of the Seven Ravens

We all have dreams that we wish would come true.  Sometimes we make a wish and that wish is granted but what we actually get may be the result of how we have made that wish. If we make a detrimental wish against someone or something that wish becomes a curse.  Sometimes unforeseen consequences may be unleashed that affect others who have to pay some kind of a price even though they were not the ones who did the wishing.  The following is a retelling of a folktale called The Seven Ravens and explores how wishes are made and how they are fulfilled and what can happen when wishes are made in haste or anger.   It appeared in  Household Tales by Brothers Grimm by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm and is classed as Aarne-Thompson type 451, The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds tale type.  Similar tale-types are found throughout Europe and other parts of the world. It has a female protagonist who sets out to rescue her brothers who were inadvertently turned into ravens by their father in anger.  Other tales with similar themes and a female protagonist are The Twelve Brothers, Brother and Sister, and The Six Swans.

The Tale of the Seven Ravens

This story begins with an old married couple who had seven sons.  Although the old man loved each son dearly he still he wished for a daughter.   After many years his wife again fell with child and to the great joy of the old man a baby girl was born but she was a very small and very weak and prone to illness and he thought she might die.  On account of this he decided to baptize her and told one of his sons to run to a nearby well and bring back water for the task.  His six brothers all ran with him for they were all greatly excited by having a baby sister and each wanted to be the one to fill the jug. In the tussle that followed for the task the jug was dropped down the well and could not be retrieved.  The boys were all aghast and stood staring at each other not knowing what to do.

Back home there father was waiting for the water and when they did not return he began to grow impatient and angry saying,  “Wherever can they be?  I bet they have begun some silly game and forgotten the task I set them.” Then he began worry about the health of his daughter and became frightened she would die without being baptised and he grew fearful. In his fear he grew angry and he cursed them crying, “I wish my sons to be turned to ravens.”

The Truth is Revealed

Then to his surprise he heard the whirring sound of wings overhead.  Looking up he saw seven jet black ravens fly quickly across the sky. Of course, the father was sad and angry with himself for making the rash curse and devastated at the loss of his sons.  Nevertheless, life went on and he and his wife now had a baby daughter who they gained great joy from. With lots of tender loving care and devotion she shook off her fraily and began to grow hale and hearty and very, very beautiful.  Her parents never once spoke of their seven sons and she grew up thinking she was an only child not knowing she had brothers. Then one day she overheard her neighbours saying, “She such is a lovely girl but It is her fault about the terrible curse that fell upon her seven brothers.”

This both shocked and worried the girl who went to her parents and asked them if it was true she had brothers and wanted to know where they were now.  Now that the truth was out her parents felt they could no longer keep secret what had happened to her brothers. They explained how her birth had innocently and unwittingly caused the sequence of events that had caused her father to curse her brothers and how they had been turned into ravens.  Although they tried to reassure her by saying that it was the will of God and not her fault at all the news had a profound effect on her.

She would have loved to have had brothers and was shocked to find out she had seven of them.   Furthermore, she took it to herself that she had been the cause of their being turned to ravens and thereafter was constantly fretting and worrying about them.  She felt a great sense of guilt and could not get them off of her mind. Secretly, she wished that she would find them and resolved to bring them home no matter what danger or hardship she had to face.

The Ends of the World

Early one morning before the sun was up she stole quietly out of the house taking nothing but a ring that her parents owned, a loaf of bread, a jug of water and a small chair that she could sit upon when she grew tired on her journey.  She walked on and on for many, many days and at last came to the very ends of the world where she looked up and saw the sun.  However, the sun was too hot and scorched and burnt terribly so she ran away from it and came to the moon. The moon was cold and nasty and when it saw her said, “I smell the people flesh,” and she ran away from that and came to a place where she saw the stars.   The stars were all sat on their own chairs and twinkled kindness towards her so she sat on her own chair and told them about her quest for her brothers.  Then the morning star rose in the sky and gave her a drumstick of a chicken telling her, “This drumstick will open the door to the Glass Mountain and in that mountain and through that door you will find your brothers!”

The Glass Mountain

Thanking the morning star she took the drumstick and carefully wrapped it up in cloth and placed it in her pocket and off she went to find the Glass Mountain.  She walked and walked and walked and at last she came to the mountain but found the door shut. Thinking she would use the drumstick to open it she looked in her pocket but discovered it had gone.  Greatly disappointed she sat down and thought about what to do. At last she made a decision. She wished to find her brother so much she took out a little knife she carried and despite the pain cut off one of her own fingers and tried it in the keyhole.  To her delight and relief the door opened and she went inside. As soon as she entered a dwarf appeared who greeted her in friendly way asking what she sought.  “I seek my seven brothers who are the seven ravens,” she told him.

“The Raven lords are not at home at the moment but you can wait until they return,” the dwarf told her and led her to a chamber where a large table was placed in the middle.  Then the dwarf busied himself bringing seven plates of food and seven goblets of wine which he told her were the raven lord’s dinner.   The girl took a bite of food from each plate a sip of wine from each goblet but in the last she dropped the ring that had been her parent’s.

The Return of the Ravens

Suddenly, the air was filled with the sound of whirling and flapping wings and the dwarf said, “The Raven Lords are nearly home,”  and the girl quickly hid behind the door just as the ravens arrived.  They were hungry and looking forward to a meal but they looked at their plates and said, “What is this?  Someone has been eating from my plate! Look, someone has drunk from my goblet and it was a human mouth!”  Then one of the ravens looked into his goblet and saw at the bottom their parent’s ring and said, “The ring of our parents lies in my goblet.  Please God we wish it be that our sister has arrived to free us!”

When their sister heard this wish she was full of joy and stepped out from behind the door to the great surprise and delight of the ravens who were instantly returned to their human form again.  Great was all of their joy and they went home to their parents and lived happily as a family together for the rest of their lives.

The End

A Curious Tale

It is indeed a curious tale but what does it all mean? There is a school of thought, but not universally accepted, that this type of tale maybe an echo from a time when young men and boys were called upon to serve their king and country.  They were sent to fight an enemy and their sister’s desperately wanted to free them and return them to the family. One of the consequences of the draft was that females, although made the heirs to family fortunes or estates when their brothers never returned, were subject to greater degree of personal control and especially over who they married.  Apart from sisterly love for her brother rescuing and returning them would also release her from this strict management of her life. The problem with this idea is that the conditions it springs from are not found in every country that the story appears in though it is possible it could have been transported either orally, or in written form and adapted.

Themes and Motifs

There are a number of common folklore motifs such as the old couple, seven brothers, there is the quest the girl embarks on, the Glass Mountain and  human transformation to birds. There is also a Goldilocks-type scene where she eats food from the plates of the brothers while they are absent and the ring of her parents.  All these and more are woven into several themes to create a story with hidden meaning some of which religious in nature.

There is the importance of baptism that Christians believe washes away original sin.  It is not only a symbolic burial and resurrection but also a supernatural transformation.  Its purpose is not just to cleanse or purify but also symbolic of dying and rising in Christ and was necessary for the cleansing of original sin.  This is why it is a common Christian practice to baptize children and babies though it can be done at anytime in life.

It may be that the father believed that if his daughter died without baptism she would not receive these perceived benefits of it, which may explain his fear and urgency, but not excuse his anger and hasty wish. Curiously, despite the importance her father attached to it, we never learn if she was actually baptized but we are told she grew into a strong, healthy and beautiful girl.

Wishes

The thing about wishes is that although they can be beneficial they can also be dangerous when done in haste.   The story begins with an old man wishing he had a baby daughter and eventually this wish is fulfilled. He then hastily wishes his sons were ravens and this wish is granted.  However, because it was invoked in haste and anger it turned into a curse and his sons were transformed into what he wished for. Why did he wish they were ravens? It is not certain but one possible answer could lie in the story of Noah who sent out a raven first to see if the floods had abated and it did not return and like the raven the boys did not return.

The girl, on learning of the fate of her brothers, though it could not have been any fault of her own, had experienced great, though unnecessary guilt at her father’s hasty wish. To a  lesser extent her brother’s childish behaviour arguing about who would fill the jug with water for her baptism was also to blame, being the trigger for her father’s anger.

On hearing the news she had seven brothers who had been turned to ravens at her birth the girl blamed her own entry into the world for an event she could have had no control over.  To rid herself of the guilt she erroneously experienced, she wished to find and rescue her brothers and in the process of doing that wished entry into the Glass Mountain. Both these wishes were granted but not without a long arduous journey to the end of the world and the painful cost of her finger.  As well as a physical transformation the seven brothers appear to have been elevated to lords, but despite this change in status they wished she would come and find them and take them home.  That wish was granted and the story ends happily.

© 07/03/2017zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 7th, 2018 zteve t evans