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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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

 

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

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

The Quest for the Bird “Grip”

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

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

The Eldest Son

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

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

The Second Eldest

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

Back at the Palace

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

The Youngest Son

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

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

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

Inside the Inn

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

Looking terrified the maid told him

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

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

Escape

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

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

The Fox

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

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

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

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

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

The Castle of the Bird Grip

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

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

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

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

The prince said, “Yes.”  

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

The prince said, “Yes.”

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

The prince, as before said, “Yes.”

The Princess

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

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

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

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

The Horse with the Four Golden Shoes

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

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

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

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

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

Heart’s Desire

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

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

Parting of Ways

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

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

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

Return to the Inn

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

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

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

The Lion’s Den

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

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

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

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

The Return of the Fox

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

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

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

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

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

The Return of the Prince

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

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

The King is Cured

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

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

Curious Motifs

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

Interwoven Themes

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

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

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

© 27/02/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 27th, 2018 zteve t evans