The Gods of Mount Teide: Mythology and Folklore of Tenerife

Mount Teide, Tenerife – Public Domain

MOUNT TEIDE, TENERIFE

The Canary Islands are a popular holiday destination for many people from the United Kingdom and Western Europe and the most southerly of the autonomous communities of Spain. One of the most popular tourist attractions is Mount Teide, an active volcano on the island of Tenerife, whose last eruption was in 1909 and is visible from many parts of the island. A cable car takes tourists part of the way to the summit for the journey completed on foot with a permit. Those who have undertaken the trip to the top will probably understand why it meant the same to the Guanches as Mount Olympus meant to the ancient Greeks. It was the home of their gods and believed to hold up the sky.

ORIGIN OF THE GUANCHES

The Guanche people were the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands. Their myths and legends still resonate through the ages giving small glimpses of these remarkable people. Some of their traditions and folklore still endure adding depth, color, and flavor to the modern culture of the islands. The Guanches inhabited the islands long before the arrival of the Spanish and are descendants of the Berber people on the African mainland who migrated to the islands about 1,000 BC or possibly earlier. Although the Guanches became culturally and ethnically assimilated with the Spanish, remnants of their original culture still survive today. For example, the people of La Gomera still use a traditional whistled language to communicate with each other over distances, and some of their mythology, legends, and traditions persist. Presented here is a brief discussion of their pantheon of gods and other supernatural entities and a look at some of the Guanche traditions found today.

ACHAMÁN

The supreme god of the Guanches of Tenerife was Achamán, their creator and father god, whose name means “the skies.” He was the immortal omnipotent creator of the land, air, fire, and water. All living creatures owed their existence to him. Achamán lived in the sky but would sometimes manifest himself on mountain tops to look upon the world he had created.

GUAYOTA

In Guanches mythology, Guayota was the equivalent of the Devil and shared similar characteristics to other divinities around the world associated with volcanoes. For example, in Hawaiian mythology, the goddess Pele, like Guayote, had her home in the Hawaiian volcano of Kīlauea and was believed to be responsible for causing eruptions. Guayota lived inside the peak of Mount Teide, known as Echeyde. It was a place similar to Hell and the entrance to the underworld and abode of certain lesser demons.

THE BLACK DOGS OF GUAYOTA

These lesser demons were called Guacanchas, or Jucanchas, depending on the island, and took the form of wild dogs with shaggy black coats and red eyes said to be the offspring of Guayota. On Gran Canaria, they were known as Tibicenas and made their home in the depths of hidden caves in the mountains. At night they emerged to ravage livestock and attack people they encountered. Guayota often appeared as a monstrous black dog leading a pack of these supernatural hounds across the countryside.

THE ABDUCTION OF MAGEC

In the Guanche pantheon, the god of the sun and light was called Magec and was the most important of their divinities. Although the gender of Magec is ambiguous, the name means “possess radiance” or “mother of brightness.” According to Guanche legend, Guyota kidnapped and imprisoned Magec in Mount Teide. With Magec incarcerated inside the volcano, the world fell into darkness. The people grew afraid and prayed to the supreme god Achamán to free Magec. Achamán heard the people and fought and defeated Guayota setting Magec free restoring sun and light to the world. He imprisoned Guayota in the volcanic crater of Mount Teide, where he has remained trapped ever since. Whenever Mount Teide erupted, the people would light fires on its slopes to taunt and frighten Guayota.

CHAXIRAXI

Another important goddess of the Guanche pantheon was Chaxiraxi, considered the Sun Mother and the Great Celestial Mother and associated with Canopus, the star. She may have evolved from Tanic, a goddess worshipped by their Berber ancestors. Mediation between Chaxiraxi and humanity was the task of minor gods or spirits called Maxios, or sometimes Dioses Paredros. These were also the guardians of hallowed places on Tenerife and were also the domestic spirits of the home. In recent times the worship of Chaxiraxi has been revived by the Church of the Guanche People, whose aim is to practice and promote the ancient religion of the Guanches.

ACHUGUAYO, THE FATHER OF TIMES

Achuguayo was the god of the Moon and the “Father of Times” who controlled time and seasons. According to tradition, he lived in the mountains, sometimes coming down to hear the prayers and supplications of the Guanches conducted under sacred trees or in caves in the mountains.

GUANCHE RELIGION

The Guanches had many sacred places that needed to be maintained, believing their maintenance kept Heaven and Earth in balance. Hallowed places may have been rocks or caves, such as the Cave of Achbinico, or natural features in the landscape where a variety of offerings were left. On Tenerife, the most important of these hallowed places was Mount Teide. Many offerings of tools and clay pots or vessels have been found, hidden in small nooks and natural cavities in rocks around the National Park Las Cañadas del Teide.

They left in the hope of appeasing or pleasing the gods or help the donor become one with nature. These votive offerings were often crude figures or sculptures which were idols and associated with health, fertility, animals, or people and often used by families. The Guanches on Tenerife had four major ceremonies; the proclamation of a new Mencey, a ceremony to relieve drought, their New Year Festival, and their Harvest Festival or Great Annual Festival of Beñasmen.

THE PROCLAIMING OF THE NEW MENCEY

Tenerife had nine small kingdoms, each ruled by a Mencey, the Guanches equivalent to a king, and the highest official in each realm. At times for the good of all the kingdoms, they needed to meet together. When a ruler died, the title did not necessarily pass from father to son. Sometimes it passed from brother to brother, but it was the task of the Council, known as the “Tagoror” that elected a new king

The proclamation came at a ceremony involving the oldest bone of the ancestor of the dynasty. This relic was venerated and carefully guarded and bought before the new Mencey for him to kiss in a special ceremony. Afterward, the members of the Tagoror recognized him as the new king, each saying,

“Agoñe Yacorán Iñatzahaña Chacoñamet”
(I swear by this bone of He who made you great).

THE RAIN RITUAL

Sometimes there were periods of drought, and the Guanches enacted a ceremony they hoped would bring rain. The people would fast and refrain from dancing and other forms of entertainment. Driving their flocks to high places in the mountains, they separated the lambs from the sheep and the kids from the goats, causing the animals to bleat piteously. The people also cried and wailed, hoping the gods would hear and look mercifully upon them and send rain to ease their plight.

THE FEAST OF THE NEW YEAR

The Guanches followed a lunar calendar, their year beginning towards the end of April or the early days of May. Many festivals with dances, feasts, and sporting events celebrating the arrival of Spring took place.

THE HARVEST FESTIVAL

Another important Guanche Festival was their Harvest Festival, or the Beñasmen, held between July and August. During this time, all conflict and wars between the nine kingdoms ceased, and a truce was put in place, allowing everyone to celebrate together and join each other in feasts, dances, and sporting events. During this period, the Menceys provided food for the entire population while the festivities and celebrations endured. The people wore flowers and leaves and also used them to decorate their villages.

SPORTS AND GAMES

Sporting competitions rook place with various athletic events such as running, throwing, and jumping competitions. There were also more dangerous events, such as throwing and avoiding spears, fighting with poles, and many other types of competitions. There were also wrestling matches similar to those practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. The winner had to throw their opponent to the ground or wrestle him out of the fighting area.

MUSIC

Although the Guanches had few musical instruments, they did use conch shells, small pebbles in clay pots, and beat sticks together to create rhythm and they also sang and danced. In the XVIth century, one version of a Guanche dance called “El Canario” became fashionable in the courts of Europe. Another traditional dance, called the “Tajaraste,” is still performed today.

© 20/10/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 20th, 2021 zteve t evans

Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world.  Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America.   The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal.  Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights.   These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten.  For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green.  Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted.  Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.

Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless.  When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster.  It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats.  According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros.  These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish.  It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.

Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness.  If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness.  If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death.  One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore.  This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also  known as the “Fire Rooster”.    It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture.   According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.

They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements.   The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped.  If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it.  The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name.  The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room.   They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist.   It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger.  This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.

The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero.  All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable. The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout.  The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king.  On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess.  On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire.  In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form.  It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull.  The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region.   When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land.   It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses.  However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk.  Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.

The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator.  Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep.  Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa.   They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.  Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by.   Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe.   Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well. 

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun.  She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib.   Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.

Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf.   He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves.  The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

Medieval Lore: The Curious Myth of the Origin Barnacle Geese

Ray Oaks, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myth

Barnacle geese are a migratory species of water bird that have a very weird myth of origin attached to them that was once widely believedDuring the medieval period there was a belief that barnacle geese were not hatched from eggs but actually grew on trees or spontaneously on pieces of driftwood that floated in the sea.  This strange myth was widespread at the time and believed by  many eminent people of the day.   In this work we will look briefly at the barnacle followed by a look at barnacle geese both of which are real creatures.  This will be followed by discussing some of these strange ideas before concluding with our views on them today.

Migration

During the months of October through to March, parts of the British Isles and certain parts of Europe played host to flocks of barnacle geese.  This puzzled medieval people as they seemed to arrive out of nowhere and leave in the same manner.  No one had seen their nests, or  their eggs, or their young and no one knew how, or where, they bred giving rise to speculation about their origin.  

Real Barnacles

A strange theory evolved that they actually grew from crustaceans called gooseneck barnacles (Lepas anatifera) that were found on pieces of driftwood around the sea shores.  Many people thought that a tuft of brown cirri that protruded from the capitulum of the crustacean looked very similar to the down found on unhatched goslings of other species. This similarity is not obvious to many other people but the barnacles were seen as the result of spontaneous generation from the driftwood which will be briefly discussed later.

Real Barnacle Geese

We know today that real barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis)  live and breed mainly on the three islands of Greenland, Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the oceans of the far north during the summer months.  After a long flight they would suddenly appear at British,  Irish and other European sites as fully grown adult geese.  People were puzzled because they had seen no signs of a nest, eggs or even goslings but still they would appear at certain times of the year with unerring regularity.   To solve this puzzle some very peculiar answers evolved. 

The Barnacle Goose Tree

One such answer was the barnacle goose tree.  According to this myth young barnacle goslings grew on branches of a tree that overhung water in a similar way to nuts, fruit or berries sometimes do.  On becoming ripe, or big enough they drop from the branch safely into the water and are able to swim and float immediately eventually growing to maturity.  Those that missed the water and fell on to the ground died.

Sir John Mandeville

In the 14th century the traveller and writer Sir John Mandeville wrote in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, his travel journal,

“I told them of as great a marvel to them, that is amongst us, and that was of the Bernakes, (barnacle geese). For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man’s meat. And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be. (1)

This and similar strange answers  to the origin of the barnacle goose was widely accepted especially among the clergy of the day.  

Gerald of Wales

Another myth of origin of the barnacle goose tells how it was born from driftwood from the sea.  Gerald of Wales,  also known as, Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis, was  12th century Welsh bishop who published a book, Topographia Hiberniae  after the invasion of parts of Ireland by King John where he mentioned how Irish clergy ate the barnacle goose on fast days which surprised him, 

“Nature produces [Bernacae] against Nature in the most extraordinary way. They are like marsh geese but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells, and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth “ (2) 

His observation, although erroneous, gave the myth credence and it spread across Europe.   However he took a dim view of the clergy eating them on fasting days saying, 

“…Bishops and religious men (viri religiosi) in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh … But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat.” (3)

Sir E. Ray Lankester  

In 1915, Sir E. Ray Lankester, a British zoologist in his book, “Diversions of a Naturalist,” speculated on why this myth may have been popular with medieval clergy especially in Britain and France.   He picked up on the practice of the clergy eating them on fasting days for the popularity of the myth among them.  To make it an acceptable fasting meal they declared the barnacle goose to be more fish than a fowl and as such acceptable to be consumed on fasting days. 

Pope Innocent III was concerned enough about this practice to prohibit the eating of Geese during Lent at the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215.  Nevertheless he still seemed to accept the myth of their reproduction but pointed out that they lived and fed in a similar way to ducks and concluded that their nature was the same as other birds.

A Shift in Thinking

The bizarre myth of the reproduction of barnacle geese looks a typical example of superstition, ignorance and imagination run wild, but is it?  In the Middle Ages the Church drew moral lessons from nature but a shift in thinking appeared that saw nature as being worthy of studying in its own right.  This is where the myth of the origin of the barnacle goose comes in.

Spontaneous Generation 

A theological idea became  tangled  up in the debate of whether it was fowl or fish  which centered around the idea of spontaneous generation.  it was argued that gooseneck barnacles were spontaneously generated from the rotting driftwood. There was a common belief going right back to Aristotle that if the right conditions were present then the spontaneous generation of living organisms could and did occur arising from inorganic or nonliving material.   Despite the remarkable nature of the supposed origin of these lifeforms they had an ordinary lifestyle of sorts and manifest in a predictable way without divine intervention.  It was the assumption that they lacked parents which led to all sorts of theological arguments among Christians about Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth (which are not the same as each other) and cannot be fully dealt with here.

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily and Jerusalem about 200 years after Gerald of Wales was rather more doubting in his assessment of the spontaneous generation of the barnacle goose.  He wrote  saying, 

“There is also a small species known as the barnacle goose, arrayed in motley plumage …, of whose nesting haunts we have no certain knowledge. There is, however, a curious popular tradition that they spring from dead trees. It is said that in the far north old ships are to be found in whose rotting hulls a worm is born that develops into the barnacle goose. This goose hangs from the dead wood by its beak until it is old and strong enough to fly. We have made prolonged research into the origin and truth of this legend and even sent special envoys to the North with orders to bring back specimens of those mythical timbers for our inspection. When we examined them we did observe shell-like formations clinging to the rotten wood, but these bore no resemblance to any avian body. We therefore doubt the truth of this legend in the absence of corroborating evidence. In our opinion this superstition arose from the fact that barnacle geese breed in such remote latitudes that men, in ignorance of their real nesting place, invented this explanation.” (4)

It had previously been thought that the Barnacle Goose migrated  to the British Isles via Scandinavia and the strange transformation occurred in the Norse countries.  He was at least right that they did breed in the remote regions of the north that were largely still unknown and not generated from rotting wood.

Morals from Nature

It has long been a practice for Christians to draw moral points from the natural world to reinforce theological ideas. This began in the 2nd century  with the Physiologus where nature was seen as the second book of God, until the early 17th century when natural history became better studied and understood.  However, as science progressed people became more skeptical about such ideas.

Albert the Great

Around the middle of the 14th century Albert the Great came up with a simple way of testing the spontaneous generation  theory by breeding them and noting that they did in fact lay eggs calling the myth, 

“altogether absurd as I and many of my friends have seen them pair and lay eggs and hatch chicks”. (5)

Despite this there were still those as late as the 16th century such as  Joseph Justus Scaliger who insisted that the spontaneous generation theory was right claiming to have witnessed it. 

Belief in the myth, either through self-interest and wanting to dine on meat on fast days, or ignorance, still lingered for a while.  Finally, science and reason prevailed and finally managed to explain how barnacle geese really reproduced.  It is very easy for us today to look back at certain erroneous absurd beliefs that were held to be true in the past but which were eventually proved false.   This itself highlights the frailty of human reason and we cannot help but wonder what people living in future time will make of some of our own beliefs we hold dear in our own times.  Let us hope they will not judge us too harshly.

© 25/03/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 25th, 2021 zteve t evans

Tales of the Lost, the Drowned and the All-Seeing Eye – Vengeance Will Come!

Human Activity

There are many cases in recent times where towns and villages have been deliberately flooded by humans where a change in the landscape was required for purposes such as to form a reservoir for fresh water. These are usually well-documented and their history known though folklore and legends may evolve from them.

Legends

All around the world there are also legends of towns, cities and lands that have been destroyed or lost, leaving only rumor and myths of their existence and demise.  Many such places were rich and successful, well established and populous, making their loss all the more tragic and mystifying. These legends often tell of a catastrophic natural event such as a flood caused by high tides, storms or perhaps covered by sand or snow.  Sometimes it is some geological phenomenon such as an earthquake and sometimes this is combined with a natural event or act of war. The loss of such well-established and prosperous places left a deep impression on following generations.  Myths and legends evolved to explain the cataclysmic event and very often these were carefully crafted to provide a warning to following generations of the consequences of breaking God’s laws or their excessive pride or hubris.

Myth of Origin

These places were very often situated on a site that became transformed by a disastrous natural event in t a new feature of the landscape.  An inland town situated in a valley may be covered by a watery lake.   A town situated by the sea may be flooded and drowned by the waves or covered by sand becoming a massive dune.  A town in the mountains may be covered by snow and ice becoming a glacier. The story created to explain the disaster may be mostly fictional but based on some historic cataclysm like a powerful storm, earthquake or other natural disaster that actually happened.  Sometimes these myths and legends can help archaeologists and scientists investigate real disasters that happened long ago.  In some cases such disasters are well documented from the time but the legends and myths evolve after.

Cautionary Tales

These events when combined with the mysterious origin of some well known feature in the landscape create a compelling story that can have a profound and lingering effect on those it is told to.  Especially when the narrator is a local priest or who uses the story to impress upon their audience the consequences of offending the Almighty.  Although such myths and legends are often designed to uphold Christianity, other religions and philosophies have also used such techniques for this purpose. In some case it is pagan deities or spirits that have been angered in some way by rulers or citizens.  Although warnings may be given they are ignored invoking the wrath of the powerful divinity to wreak some form of divine retribution.

Divine Vengeance

Once divine retribution is invoked the fate of the town is sealed. Often it unfolds as a weather event such a rain, sand or snow storm.  Once divine retribution manifests the end is inevitable. All that will remain will be the myths and legends of a once rich and prosperous society that was drowned, buried or destroyed along with most of its population. Perhaps a lake or some other feature of the landscape appears where the town once stood.

From this a talented storyteller can weave a tale that will work quietly among following generations for centuries that impresses and extols the danger of angering the all powerful deity. In this way a naturally occurring catastrophic event such as a storm or earthquake may be transformed into something altogether more sinister and in many ways more dangerous. Very often it becomes the judgement of God that is dispensing retribution for wrongdoing on an immoral and corrupt society. This and similar themes are quite common in these legends. Warnings of impending retribution and vengeance are offered in an attempt to change people’s behaviour but are ignored. Punishment is inflicted often destroying that society in its entirety not just the perpetrators. Sometimes a few are saved but often the innocent perish along with the guilty.

Collective Guilt

There is a concept of collective guilt that runs through generations until some chosen time when punishment is enacted. Sometimes vengeance is suspended for several generations and the deviant behaviour forgotten by people.  Sometimes it becomes part of normal behaviour.  Nevertheless, the Almighty works at his own pace and punishment eventually arrives when least expected with devastating consequences. This does seem harsh on those who were not born when the original sin was committed but it seems there is an expectation to strive to recognize and put right the wrongs of the past. The message is that the sins of one, even when committed in the past, must not be tolerated either at the time, or perpetuated in the future. What is sown will eventually be reaped in a time and in a way that suits the Almighty. This obligation to right and discontinue past wrongs does not mean that they be wiped from history or that they should be.  It is important to keep records of such wrongs and our attempts to right them to monitor our own evolution and to make sure we do not make the same mistakes again.

The All-Seeing Eye

There is a sense that the individual and collective behaviour of people is being watched by some all-seeing eye.  It sees and knows all our deeds and looks into our hearts and minds making judgements upon us. Legends such as these warn that we are always being watched and judged and even our innermost thoughts are known to the Almighty.  They emphasize we must remember and obey the laws of God and will be held answerable for any transgressions at anytime in the present or future no matter how long ago the indiscretion.  Furthermore, we have a collective responsibility that runs through the past, present and future to keep ourselves and others in society on the straight and narrow. The message is the all-seeing eye sees everything and in a manner and time that suits the Almighty we will reap what we sow and then –

“Vengeance will come!”

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Psychopomps in Breton Myths and Folktales: Entering the Afterlife

Breton Folklore

Breton myths and folktales are often a dark blend of Celtic, pagan and Christian influences that result in magic and wonder mixed with the morbid and macabre.  There are many tales, myths and legends concerning everyday and important issues such as  love and death.

For all of us, death is the great unknown and people all around the world throughout history have invented many different ways of thinking about the subject.  One of the most universal ways of representing death  was through the use of personifications.  In simple terms this the giving of human characteristics or form to abstract ideas, inanimate objects or something that is not human. 

Death itself can be personified in many other ways such as the personification known as the Grim Reaper, but there are many other representations, some as dark, others lighter.

Psychopomps

In many societies death needed a servant that would guide or bring the soul of the deceased to the place of the afterlife.  Such servants were called psychopomps and presented here is a brief discussion of two psychopomps from Breton folklore and mythology.  The first is a rather grim and forbidding entity known as the Ankou who was  a collector of souls for his master Death.  The second tells of a fair knight who came back from the dead to guide his betrothed to the afterlife.  In the course of the discussion we also look at a few folkloric motifs present in the examples given.

The Ankou

In Breton mythology and folklore the Ankou can appear in various guises in different regions of Brittany. There are also Welsh, Cornish and Anglo-Norman interpretations of him.  In some versions he is either a tall, gaunt man wearing a long black cloak or a skeleton  carrying a long scythe though earlier traditions say it was an arrow.  He is often mistaken for the Grim Reaper, but they are not the same.  In other versions he appears as an old man accompanying a horse drawn coach or cart. His role is not to judge or punish but to ensure the transition of the soul to the afterlife and will tolerate no interference in this.   

When he stops outside the house of the dying person he may knock on the door, or he may utter a low mournful wail to summon the dead to his cart.  Sometime accompanied by two ghostly assistants he will enter a home and take away the soul of the dead.

He is presented as a very grim and macabre figure and in some places he is the king of the dead.  His subjects move in processions along particular paths to the afterlife.  Some traditions say he is the last man to die in a parish in the  year who will automatically assume the role of the Ankou and the supervision of the souls of the dead.  

Nola and  Gwennolaïk

A very different kind of psychopomp appears in a Breton folktale called The Foster Brother.  This story revolves around a relationship between a young man named Nola and a young woman named Gwennolaïk. The story tells how the two fell in love when Gwennolaïk was eighteen years old after her natural mother and two sisters had passed away.   After her mother’s death her father had remarried twice and she had gained an older foster brother who was not a blood relative.  They had grown to know and love each other deeply spending all their time together.  Their relationship deepened and the two promised that they would wed with each other and no one else.

Strange Dreams

They were very happy in those days thinking and planning their future together but there came a time when Nola grew troubled.  He told Gwennolaïk that he had been experiencing strange dreams telling him he had to leave home and find his fortune.  This broke Gwennolaïk’s heart but not wanting to stand in his way she consented and gave him a ring that had belonged to her mother to remember her by.  

Promising he would return one day to marry her he took a ship to distant shores.  During his absence she missed him terribly, spending many hours pining alone and praying he would soon return to marry her.  This would release her from the awful life of drudgery and misery she now endured, partly because he was gone and partly because her step-mother treated her cruelly.  

The Stepmother

She gave poor Gwennolaïk all the hard and dirty jobs berating her with harsh words and kept her hungry all the time making her wear rags.  Six years passed in this way and Gwennolaïk was getting so run down and tired she believed she would  be better off dead.

The Fair Knight

One day while fetching water from a nearby brook she met a fair knight on horseback waiting by the water. His face was hidden and she could make out none of his features. To her surprise and embarrassment he asked her if she was betrothed.  After telling him she was not the knight reached down and placed in her hand a ring.  He told her to go back and tell her stepmother she was now betrothed to a knight from Nantes.  Furthermore, she was to say that there had been a bloody battle and her betrothed had been badly wounded but would in three days time come and claim her for his wife.

Saying no more he quickly turned and rode off leaving Gwennolaïk staring at the ring too surprised to even move.  As she gazed at the ring she realized it was the same one she had given to Nola when he departed and realized the fair knight was none other than him.

Disappointment

She waited in vain those three days and to her heartbreak and disappointment Nola did not come.  Worse still her stepmother told her she had decided that she would marry and had chosen someone for her.  Gwennolaïk was horrified by the idea and showed her the ring and told her of the knight.  She insisted it was Nola who had returned to marry her.  Her step-mother would not listen and took the ring from her.  

What they did not know was that a knight who had been mortally wounded in the battle at Nantes had been given a Christian burial in the nearby White Chapel.  

Marriage

The husband her stepmother had chosen for her  was the stable lad and to Gwennolaïk’s grief and mortification they were married.  After the marriage there was a banquet but Gwennolaïk was depressed and miserable and unable to face the reception and her guests.   Appalled and driven mad by the thought of being married to anyone other than Nola she ran off into the woods.

Fever

A thorough search of the locality was undertaken but no trace of her could be found.  In fact she had hidden herself deep in a thicket where she lay weeping and shivering in the cold and damp.  As night came black and cold she shivered more and more and weeping and crying for the hardness of the world caught a fever.  In her delirium she thought she heard something moving through the thicket towards her and cried out in fear and alarm.

Nola Returns

A voice told her that it was Nola and that he had come for her.  Disbelieving him at first she looked up and saw  a fair knight approach on a white steed.   Reaching down he easily lifted her up to sit behind.  He told her to hold on tight and he would take her to her mother and sisters in a place where they would all be together forever.  

W. Otway Cannell (Illustrator), Lewis Spence (Author), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Magical Journey

From this point she is close to death and he has appeared from beyond the grave to find her and take her back to join him and her family in the afterlife.   As her life fades he takes her on a magical journey.  They cross the land to the sea and the horse gallops over the top of the waves to a beautiful island where a celebration was being made ready.  He explains it is their wedding celebration that is being prepared.  The two were married and to her joy she was reunited with her dead mother and two sisters .   There was great singing and dancing  and at last Gwennolaïk found peace and happiness in the afterlife.

Meanwhile, as the wedding takes place, back in the earthly realm searchers finally find the expired body of Gwennolaïk and give her a proper Christian burial.

Folkloric Motifs

There are several interesting folkloric motifs in the story.  For example, the loss of Gwennolaïk’s real mother and the wicked stepmother.  There is also the foster brother as the love who goes off to find his fortune and in this case returns to die before the wedding.  The initial and inexplicable failure of Gwennolaïk to recognise Nola on his return is at first puzzling but then becomes clear that something else will happen.  It is a device used in  many fairy and folktales as is the ring given by Gwennolaïk to Nola which he gives back to identify himself. 

Nola, having had a Christian burial and Gwennolaïk a Christian marriage and finally a Christian burial become entwined in pagan and Celtic influences.

The horse he rides is interesting because it takes them on a magical journey over the sea to a magical island.  In many traditions the Celtic Otherworld could be reached by crossing the sea and in several tales such as the Irish tale of Oisin and Naimh of the Goldenhair, a magical horse is used to take them there.

Nola as a Psychopomp

Perhaps the most interesting contrast is how the soul of Gwennolaïk is taken to the afterlife by her beloved Nola who she has waited and yearned for.  Surely a much more welcome and comforting transition to the afterlife than via the macabre Ankou!

Guiding the Soul to the Afterlife

However, in cultures all around the world psychopomps appear in various forms which may be familiar and comforting taking the form of a family member or friend or they may be dark and forbidding.  In whatever form they appear they perform an important task in guiding or helping the soul of the deceased to find their place in the afterlife.

© 19/11/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 19th, 2020 zteve t evans

Animals and Injustice: Exploring The Motif of the Faithful Hound

Gelert – en:Charles Burton Barber – Public Domain

Motif of the Faithful Hound

In the study of folktales and folklore there is a classification system known as the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU Index) which catalogues folktale types.  It is not a perfect system and not not all folklorists recognise it but it can provide some useful insights.  Presented here is a discussion of the folkloric motif of The Faithful Hound, classified as Aarne–Thompson-Uther type 178A, that is found in a number of folktales from many different parts of the world. 

In this work we will briefly discuss human relationships with animals followed by a look at the main structure of the tale tale type of The Faithful Hound.  Three examples of such tales from different countries will be retold before concluding with a few reflections that may offer a deeper insight into the story.

Animal Helpers

Animals have always been popular characters in folk and fairy tales reflecting the close relationship humans share with them.  They have long been an integral part of our daily lives, still are today and undoubtedly will be in the future. We eat them, make clothes and other items from them, use them for many different kinds of work, but best of all welcome them into our homes as pets and companions.  Sadly, sometimes we mistreat them. Therefore, it is not surprising they are often featured in our stories, myths, legends, traditions and customs and make wonderful subjects for artists to paint.

The Story Structure

The structure of the tale type of The Faithful Hound is simple and unfolds roughly in the order shown below:

  • A fairly high-ranking person has a much loved pet and a baby
  • The baby of the high ranking person is left in the care of a parent or child nurse who negligently leaves the child alone.
  • A dangerous animal appears and threatens the baby.
  • The pet heroically defends the baby.
  • The dangerous animal is killed by the heroic pet
  • The jubilant pet greets its master/mistress.
  • A hasty and injudicious  judgement is made on the spot.
  • The pet is killed
  • The baby is found safe and sound. 
  • The body of a dangerous animal is found.
  • The parent suffers remorse, sorrow and grief because of their hasty decision and because they loved the pet.
  • There is a prevailing sense of disappointment and betrayal over the hasty decision by the high ranking person.

The structure of the story remains fairly consistent around the world.  The heroic and dangerous creatures differ from place to place to suit local conditions.  The human involved usually remains fairly high ranking in that society.

The Earliest Version

Possibly the earliest version comes from India. It is found in the Panchatantra, a book of Sanskrit verse, dated to about 200 BCE and called “The Loyal Mungoose” and later “The Brahmin’s Wife and the Mongoose.”  In these versions the heroic animal is a mongoose and the dangerous creature is a snake.  There are three humans involved; an infant, a Brahmin and the Brahmin’s wife.  In In Hinduism a Brahmin is someone of fairly high status such as a priest, teacher or trader so the story involves quite an important family in Indian society.

A mongoose is a natural enemy of snakes and vermin in the same way cats are enemies of rodents.  Therefore, a mongoose may seem like a sensible pet in places where snakes are common.  The following is my retelling of that story.

Finn, Frank – Public domain

The Brahmin’s Wife and the Mongoose

The wife of a Brahmin had a single son and she also had a pet mongoose that she loved as if it was her second son.  She brought the two up together treating both as her babies and they both suckled from her breast. One day as her son is sleeping she tells her husband, the Brahmin, she is going to fetch water from the local well and takes up a heavy stone jar to carry it in.   She warns him that he must keep his eye on their son because even though she loves the mongoose she mistrusts it because it is an animal. 

After she had gone, her husband became hungry and went off to find food leaving the child completely unprotected. While he was out a venomous snake slithered into the house and made its way towards the helpless child.  The mongoose having been closely brought up with the baby boy regarded him as its brother.  Therefore in his brother’s defense it attacked the snake, killed it and tore it to pieces. In jubilation at its victory in defense of its brother the mongoose ran to meet the mother with the snake’s blood smeared all over its mouth and face.

On meeting the jubilant mongoose the woman is horrified to see the blood around its mouth and on its face. Hastily she jumps to the conclusion that the mongoose had killed and eaten her baby son.  In anger and grief she hits the animal with the heavy stone jar she carries, killing it. Rushing home to her great joy and relief she finds the baby is safe and sound.  Close by lies the torn up body of the deadly snake and she realizes her mistake.   She is overcome with remorse and shame for her hasty judgement in killing the mongoose whom she had indeed loved as a son.  

Eventually, her husband returned bearing food but now the distraught mother turned her anger towards him,  “Greedy, foolish man!” She cried, ” All because of your greed and foolishness I must now endure the sorrow of death!”

The most obvious point is the hasty and unjust killing of the mongoose.  However,  there is also the question of the right and wrongs of loving an animal as much as a human and raising it like a human child.  The neglect of the Brahmin is also significant.

The Story’s  Journey

The story traveled west towards Europe and east further into Asia with variation of animals and story but keeping similar motifs, themes and structures.  A Persian version has a cat as the heroic animal.  From Malaysia comes a story of a pet bear that saves the daughter of a Malay hunter from a killer tiger only to be hastily and unjustly killed by the hunter who feared it had killed his daughter.  His daughter is found safe leaving the hunter full of shame and regret for his hasty killing of the bear.

In some cases stories such as these may have evolved independently in distant locations without human transmission.  This is not as mysterious as it may seem.  Although there are many different human cultures and societies we share many of the same needs and values as each other.  We also share similar emotions and fears and everyone likes a good story.

Guinefort: A French Version

In Europe, the heroic animal became either a dog or hound  and the dangerous animal a snake or a wolf.  In France the story also provides an explanation of the origin of the cult of the greyhound folk saint called Guinefort and presented below is a retelling of that story.

The Legend of Guinefort 

A knight living in a castle near Lyon in France had a faithful greyhound named Guinefort.  The dog had shown a great attachment and affinity with his infant son. Such was his placid nature and gentle disposition the knight trusted him completely to be left alone with the infant whom he loved dearly.   

One day the knight and his wife left his son in the company of Guinefort while he went out hunting.  Such  was  his unwavering faith in his dog’s affinity with his son, the knight had no reservations about leaving the sleeping  boy with the greyhound lying protectively by his side in the nursery.

After a good day of hunting he returned to find the nursery in disarray with the cot overturned and no sign of his infant son.  Guinefort greeted his master with delight jumping and fawning at his feet.  The shocked knight, seeing the disarray and the signs of violence, the blood on the dog’s jaws and not seeing his son anywhere, believed that Guinefort had killed the baby.  In grief and anger he drew his sword and struck the greyhound down.

As the dog lay dying the knight heard the sound of a baby crying underneath the overturned cot.  There, to his relief and joy  he found his infant safe and sound.  Looking around the scene he saw torn and tattered remains of a great viper that had somehow got into the nursery threatening the life of his son.  It then dawned on him as he looked about what had happened.  On discovering the threat to the baby, Guinefort had attacked and killed the viper at great risk to himself to defend the infant.  

The knight was now ashamed of his killing of the dog.  He and his family lowered the body of Guinefort down a well and sealed it with stone.  They then planted trees and flowers around it and turned it into a shrine dedicated to the memory of the faithful hound who had suffered such injustice. The shrine of Guinefort became a popular place where local people brought their babies for healing and the greyhound became a folk saint of the people.   Furthermore, it is said that God punished the knight by decimating his castle and lands.

The Welsh Version

In Wales, the savior animal was also a faithful dog but the threat came from a wolf.  The dog’s name was Gelert and was either a greyhound or wolfhound depending on the versions.  He belonged to Prince Llywelyn the Great, one of the most influential nobles in the history of Wales who was married to King John’s daughter, Joan.  

Byam Shaw / Public domain

The story was used as a selling point by David Prichard, an enterprising Victorian publican of the Goat Inn, Beddgelert, Snowdonia.  He used the romantic elements of Gelert’s story to attract customers to his pub which is conveniently close to the supposed grave of the courageous hound. Although the publican may have commercialized and added to the story, the structure is far older than the Victorian era and from much further afield than Wales. The following retelling of the story tells how the prince was a great huntsman and Gelert was his favorite hunting dog.

The Legend of Gelert

One day while out hunting with his wife Prince Llywelyn noticed his best hunting dog named Gelert has gone missing.  Feeling concerned about their favorite hound  they return home.

The scene that greets them fills them with horror and fear. There is blood all over the floor and the baby’s cradle is lying askew on the ground. The baby’s blankets are bloody and strewn around the room and no sign of the infant can be seen. Stricken with grief and anger Llewelyn draws his sword and plunges it into the dog. As Gelert dies he lets out a cry that is answered by the baby boy lying out of sight behind the fallen cradle. 

Llewelyn gently lifts the cradle to discover his baby son safe and unharmed. Lying alongside him was the body of a massive wolf covered in blood with its throat ripped out. Instantly, the Prince understood what had happened. The wolf had entered the lodge while the nurse and servants were out leaving the child unprotected. 

Gelert must have had some kind of premonition of the baby’s danger and had returned to the lodge in time to save the child and fight and kill the wolf. Now, it is said the Prince Llywelyn was so distraught from grief and guilt from his hasty deed that he never smiled again. Llywelyn buried Gelert in honor in a nearby meadow and placed stones over the body.”  – The legend of Gelert

Points to Consider

It is interesting that the savior animal changed from a humble mongoose in India  to a greyhound or wolfhound in Europe.  Greyhounds and wolfhounds were once the hunting dogs of the rich and powerful.  They were greatly prized and important animals even featuring on the coat-of-arms of many of Europe’s elite.

Both the masters of  Gelert and Guinefort were rich and powerful of very high status and seen as exemplars of behaviour as was the Brahmin.  At the same time the dangerous animal was a snake with the mongoose story, a viper with Guineforte’s story and a wolf with Gelert.

This type of story is embedded with powerful emotions.  We can identify with the love, fear and grief a parent experiences when entering such scenes of carnage and even empathize with their hasty killing of the pet.  With the sweet moment the child is found  safe and sound comes a bitter twist with the awful realization they have made a terrible mistake. We also identify with the unfortunate pet who we believe has behaved heroically and proved itself loyal and faithful, only to be condemned and killed unjustly in an instant, hasty act of gratuitous revenge.

The tale explores the positive human virtues of love, faith and loyalty that come into conflict with the negative human traits of negligence, selfishness and impetuous and unthinking behaviour. The Brahmin neglects his charge to satisfy his own hunger while the French knight and the Welsh prince leave others in charge of their infant and go out hunting to satisfy their own pleasure. 

It is a cautionary tale warning that even the great and the good can make mistakes to the injury of the innocent when acting in haste, or while satisfying their own pleasures.  The stories also subtly  emphasize the power of life and death the influential characters held over their servants and their responsibility in making just and correct decisions.  

In their unjust killing of their pets, the pet owners are seen to have let themselves down by their haste and poor judgement of the event because they failed to properly investigate the situation.  This is especially worrying when the innocent are loyal and faithful servants who should have a right to a fair trial and a fair judgement. 

Punishment

The stories highlight a real and important matter that affects everyone because even Brahmins, knights and princes have social codes and morals they are expected to adhere to.  In killing their loyal pets in such an unworthy manner the masters revealed their unworthiness and were punished for it.  The Brahmin’s wife was forced to endure the sorrow of death, the French knight lost his castle and his land and Prince Llywelyn the Great never smiled again.  Are these tales nothing more than stories to tell the children that tug at the heartstrings, or is there something else going on?  

Do Not Act In Haste!

The obvious moral of the story is not to act in haste, but if we accept  that explanation on the face of it are we not simply acting in haste?  For those who wish to take this further they may look at the meaning of haste and hastiness and examine this alongside the model of how their own personal religion or philosophy may place expectations of behavior upon them in such circumstances. 

© 12/11/2019 zteve t evans

Reference, Attribution and Further Reading

2Copyright November 12th, 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

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

Medieval Lore: The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

The Lady and the Unicorn: Sight – Source

This article was first published 28th May, 2020 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Unicorn Lore: Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, by zteve t evans

The Mythical, Magical Unicorn

The rare and elusive, mythical, magical unicorn has been part of folklore and legend for centuries, evolving spectacularly into the modern age.  Despite its reputed elusiveness and rarity you do not need to go far to find one these days.  Unicorns appear in a range of products such as toys or works of art sold in high streets and feature in literature, films, television and much more.  In the distant past it was a very different creature but it has grown into the very embodiment of purity, elegance, innocence and beauty that we are familiar with today.

Many of today’s perceptions of the unicorn evolved from the medieval and Renaissance eras where they appeared in works of art, tapestries, and coats-of-arms of the rich and powerful. Presented here is a brief look at a set of six late medieval tapestries known as La Dame à la licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn.  Today reproductions of these designs appear in various places but notably adorning the walls of the Gryffindor Common Room in the Harry Potter films.

Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn

The tapestries are believed to have an original meaning and purpose that has been lost over time and their interpretation is uncertain today. Medieval people would have understood what each of the figures, motifs and symbols in each scene meant and how they were all part of an extended allegory that came together to create an overall meaning or message …

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Virgil and the Roman Goddess Laverna

Laverna

Of all of the gods of Rome perhaps one of the strangest and most devious was the goddess Laverna.  The following example shows just how devious she could be while revealing how the great Roman poet, Virgil, answered a tricky question posed by the Emperor.  It is retold here from The Unpublished Legends of Virgil by Charles Godfrey Leland. 

A Tricky Question

The Roman Emporer asked Virgil what he made of the following verse from Aesop’s Fables.

"One day a fox entered a sculptor’s shop,
And found a marble head, when thus he spoke:
‘O Head! there is such feeling shown in thee
By art—and yet thou canst not feel at all!"

After a little thought Virgil gave the following answer, “Well now, it is very difficult for me to tell whether or not it is all introduction or all conclusion.  It reminds me of those types of fish where it is difficult to know the head from the tail, or if they are all head, or all tail. Indeed, it also reminds me of the goddess Laverna of whom no one could ever tell if she was all head, or all body, or in fact both.”

The Emperor looked puzzled telling the poet he had never in his life heard of such a deity. Therefore, Virgil gave the following explanation,  “Of all the ancient gods and goddesses in the history of Rome, Laverna was the most cunning, the most mischievous and the most deceitful. She was not well known by the other deities as she tended to keep herself to her own wicked ways, rarely spending time in heaven among them. Most of the time she could be found mingling with vagabonds, scoundrels, pickpockets and thieves, living in the dark and hidden places of human society.

One day it happened that she changed herself into the form of an extremely beautiful priestess and visited a great priest and proposed a bargain with him.   She proposed he sell his estate to her and she would build on it within one year a great temple. Furthermore, at the end of that year she would pay in full for the estate and he would also get the temple for free.  She told him that as surety for the proposal she would swear on her body.

The great priest was completely convinced. He gave her his estate thinking he would be paid its full value and get a free temple in the bargain.  In that time Laverna was very busy selling up all his houses, land, livestock and assets until she had sold everything of any little worth. On the day when payment was due she was nowhere to be found and the great priest never received a penny in payment and no new temple.

Now, Laverna was not satisfied with defrauding the great priest and hatched another scheme.  She went to a great lord and persuaded him to sell her a castle with a great estate. This time she promised with her head as surety to pay him in six months the full value of the castle and estate. The great lord was completely taken in by her and agreed the deal.  Once again, Laverna sold the castle, the land and everything on it lock, stock and barrel, leaving nothing at all of any value.

The great priest and the great lord went together to the assembly of gods and goddesses to voice their complaints. The first before them was the priest. The gods heard his complaint and the goddess Laverna  was summoned before them to answer.  

Jove asked her what she had done with the property of the priest whom she had sworn with her body to repay in the allotted time.  Standing before him and the other gods she answered in a very strange way which entirely astonished Jove and the assembled divinities. She cried aloud,

‘Behold! He says I swore by my body, but I have no body!’

Her body vanished leaving just her head floating in the air. Jove and the others all laughed and called upon the great lord to next make his petition to them. He told how Laverna had defrauded him and promised by her head to repay him by the allotted time.   Jove demanded an explanation from her and in reply she showed her body to all present and it was indeed a very beautiful body, but it did not have a head.  Then a voice came from the body saying, 

‘Behold me, I am Laverna!  I say this of the lord’s complaint of me. He says I swore on my head.  See!  I have no head, yet he calls me a thief.  As you can see having no head I could not have sworn such an oath!’

Once again the gods broke into peals of laughter. At length Jove spoke and ordered her to return her head to her body.  When she stood before them in full he ordered that she pay what was due to her creditors with no more tricks.  Reluctantly, she complied.  

Jove told her and all present that as she was of such knavish and deceitful nature from hence forward she would be the deity of all rogues, scoundrels thieves, cutthroats, vagabonds and those of similar nature. 

That is why Laverna is now the patron of all of the wicked and deceitful people of the earth and a goddess of the Underworld.  When such people make their wicked plans they could enter into her temple and call upon her for aid and advice and she would appear as a woman’s head. If they did their work badly and incorrectly she would appear as a female body. If they worked well and were successful she appeared before him as the whole goddess.”

Virgil then pointed out that she was as chaste as she was honest taking many lovers and bearing many children.  However he hastened to add she was not entirely  evil-hearted and often repented her ways but no matter how hard she tried her passions got the better of her.

The Arts of Virgil

So that was how the poet Virgil answered a tricky question he had no idea the answer to.  It may be the Emperor lost track of his original question or was completely bamboozled by the  brilliance of the answer.  Whatever the reason he asked no more of it but this small event did not go unnoticed in history.

In the modern age, here in the UK, our elected rulers pay homage to Laverna and master the arts of Virgil from an early age.

© 08/07/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 8th, 2020 zteve t evans