Welsh Celtic Lore: The Adar Rhiannon – The Singing Birds of Rhiannon

The Adar Rhiannon – The Singing Birds of Rhiannon by zteve t evans – 18 January 2021

The Birds of Rhiannon

Welsh mythology and folklore is crammed with fantastical people and creatures and the Adar Rhiannon, or the Birds of Rhiannon, are a trio of magical birds mentioned in early Welsh literature and myth.  They were associated with Rhiannon who many scholars see as goddess from the Welsh Celtic Otherworld.  She was a significant figure in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi and her birds were mentioned in the Second Branch. Presented here is a short discussion involving some of what is known about the Adar Rhiannon looking briefly at the Mabinogi and the adventure story, Culhwch and Olwen. This will be followed by a look at the mysterious Rhiannon and the properties of the magical birds in these stories and conclude by referring back to The Second Branch of the Mabinogi.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are generally considered one work consisting of four parts that tell stories of the gods and heroes from Celtic Welsh mythology.  The stories are thought to be older than medieval times but rewritten, probably by monks of that era.  The Four Branches along with Culhwch and Olwen and other works are included in the compilation of medieval Welsh literature known as the The Mabinogion, first published in full by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45. The Adar Rhiannon, briefly appear in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and are mentioned and sought after in the story of Culhwch and Olwen.  Although they only appear to play a small role in both stories they possess unique and important properties that lend magical qualities to the tales.

Time and Space

The singing of the birds can awaken the dead while inducing the living to sleep.  Their singing also causes time and space to behave differently.  They seem to be singing very near while in fact they are far away.  Their singing also alters the passing of time making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed and preserve from the effects of time.

Rhiannon

These birds are named after and associated with Rhiannon one of the most enigmatic characters in Welsh myth.  He first husband was Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and Chief of Annwn and their son was Pryderi. She was falsely accused of the murder of her son and eating him but later proved innocent after public humiliation.  Her second husband was Manawyddan whom she married after Pwyll’s passing.

Rhiannon also displayed the power to warp time and space, but differently to her birds.  This is shown, in the manner of her first appearance on horseback from the Otherworld seeking Pwyll to propose their marriage which he accepts.  Secondly, she produces a magical bag that can be filled with any amount of without getting full with enough room for a fully grown human.  This is used to trick and trap an unwelcome marriage suitor so that she can marry Pwyll.

From her first appearance it is clear she is no ordinary woman and is someone of special status and importance.  She is considered to be a goddess or representative of sovereignty and being strongly associated with horses is usually thought of as a horse deity or derived from one. Therefore, like Rhiannon, her birds are not ordinary birds having the magical qualities mentioned previously.    

Culhwch and Olwen

In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen the birds are given two more magical attributes.  The story tells how Culwhch was given a host of impossible tasks by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, a giant and the father of Olwen, who demanded their achievement before he would give permission for his daughter to marry him.  The severity of the tasks was possibly because he was doomed to die on her wedding night and he hoped Culwhch would fail that he might live. One of his demands was to be brought the Adar Rhiannon possibly because they would soothe his passing into death.  Therefore he asked Culhwch to bring,  

“The Birds of Rhiannon: the ones which can wake the dead and put the living to sleep I want to entertain me that night.” (1)

The night he is referring to is his daughter’s wedding night which is the night he is doomed to die if the marriage goes ahead. From this we see they have two other magical attributes.  The first is their singing puts the living to sleep and the second is that it wakes the dead. They may have been a useful insurance against death from the giant’s point of view or at least eased his passing. 

The Second Branch of the Mabinogi

The Adar Rhiannon also appears at the end of the Second Branch which is the tale of  Branwen ferch Llŷr.  Branwen, the sister of the Welsh King Bendigeidfran, also known as Brân the Blessed, had been married to the Irish King Matholwch and lived with him in Ireland.  However, it was not a happy marriage and she was subject to physical and psychological abuse.  In her unhappiness she trains a starling to take a message back over the sea to her brother King Bendigeidfran telling him of her plight and seeking his aid.  Enraged and offended by his sister’s treatment Bendigeidfran gathers his army and invades Ireland and a cataclysmic war follows.  All the Irish are killed leaving only a five pregnant women in Ireland who took to living in a cave.  Each gave birth to a son and eventually incestuously repopulated the island of Ireland. 

On the Welsh side there were seven surviving warriors, as well as Branwen. These were Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and Manawyddan, brother of King Bendigeidfran and Rhiannon’s future husband.  These were accompanied by Taliesin the great bard, Gluneu Eil Taran, Ynawc, Grudyen the son of Muryel, and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.

In the conflict King Bendigeidfran was mortally wounded by a poisoned spear and knew he would soon die.  He ordered the survivors to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London where it was to be buried to protect Britain from invaders.  He prophesied they would encounter the singing birds of Rhiannon and remain in one place for seven years spellbound by them,

“And take you my head and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France.  And a long time will you be upon the road.  In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while.  And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body.”

Bendigeidfran’s severed head retained the power of speech and continued talking to the survivors as he predicted.  Sadley, Branwen died of a broken heart through grief for the dead.

The Adar Rhiannon

Before setting off with the head to London the survivors feasted in Harlech and as also predicted by Bendigeidfran they were visited by the singing birds of Rhiannon,

“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.” (2)

Translation of different texts may vary but it is thought these are the same birds mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and at the end of the Second Branch where, “the singing of the birds of Rhiannon” is referred to which demonstrated time was altered,

“And thus ends this portion of the Mabinogi, concerning the blow given to Branwen, which was the third unhappy blow of this island; and concerning the entertainment of Bran, when the hosts of sevenscore countries and ten went over to Ireland to revenge the blow given to Branwen; and concerning the seven years’ banquet in Harlech, and the singing of the birds of Rhiannon, and the sojourning of the head for the space of fourscore years. (3)

Rhiannon and her singing birds along with King Bendigeidfran, Culhwch and Olwen and the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr are just a few of the strange and magical characters and creatures that dwell in the landscape of Welsh Celtic myth and medieval literature.

© 20/01/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 20th, 2021 zteve t evans

Faustian Pacts: The Devil and the Doctor

The People of Longdendale

According to tradition there has always been a high interest in the magic arts among the dwellers of Longdendale. There is an old saying referring to the people of Longendale as being too bad for Heaven and too clever for Hell. The following is a retelling of a folktale from Legends of Longdendale, a collection of folktales from the area, by Thomas C. Middleton, that allegedly explains its origin. 

A Conjuror of High Degree

A rhyme by an unknown author tells a little of one such dweller,

“Long years ago, so runs the tale,

A doctor dwelt in Longdendale;”

“Well versed in mystic lore was he—

A conjuror of high degree;

He read the stars that deck the sky,

And told their rede of mystery.” (1)

From the verse we see that the dweller was a doctor who was skilled in magic, mysticism and astrology.  He was able to predict and understand the mysteries of the movements of the stars and how they would affect us here on Earth.  In his day he was someone who possessed great knowledge and power and these attributes are great gifts if used wisely and for the benefit of humanity.  

To be fair he did use his skills to the benefit of humankind. However,  power corrupts and even those with great knowledge and wisdom there can arise the desire to increase their blessings.  This is exactly what happened to our good doctor.  He began to yearn for more power and deeper knowledge of the secrets of the universe to enable him to do more good in the world.  

Power Corrupts

To begin with he put  aside this desire realizing that there are some things that are best left unknown.  However, once the tiniest yearning for power manifests in a person without the utmost care it can grow silently inside until it takes over the reason.  Again, this is exactly what happened to our good doctor and it drove him to take a daring chance and make a deal with the Devil.

He had delved into  books of ancient lore in search of the secret of increasing his abilities.  After many years of long, lonely study and dark and dangerous research he came to the conclusion there was but one way he could achieve his dream. He knew others had tried it and each one failed and  forced to suffer the most appalling consequences.   Nevertheless, he was hooked and  could not put  aside the temptation and at last he decided he must take the terrible chance. 

The Ultimate Test 

Therefore, he prepared himself for the ultimate test of his power and knowledge which would be to raise the Devil.   He had thought long and hard about it and put it off time and time again but it was the only way.  No one else could give him the power and knowledge he craved.  He knew the price Satan would demand but did not want to pay it.  Nevertheless, the craving for power made him think he could reach a more amicable agreement with the devil and he decided it was worth a try.Therefore he set about making  his preparations. He learnt the right spell.  Collected all the materials he required and readied his equipment in preparation.  

The Midnight Hour

With everything prepared and the approach of the midnight hour the doctor entered his chamber of magical experimentation.  After making special signs and uttering a brief incantation he set  up a lamp  upon the table and over a flame he hung a small cauldron.  Into the cauldron he poured certain liquids of dark properties and dropped various powders and items of dubious qualities.  Some of these items were too gruesome to name.  The powders and liquids were of undoubtedly odious origin possibly even human but he alone knew the true source of these materials.

Raising the Devil

With his brew bubbling he then uttered further incantations.  He continued to repeat the spell over and over while beseeching the powers of darkness for their attention.   He continued like this for over an hour with no sign any dark power or spirit had heard.  However, he persisted and at last his persistence was rewarded. 

The flame beneath the cauldron sprang and flared red then extinguished but the mixture within the cauldron continued to bubble.  Soon a vile vapor rose thick and fast and spread rapidly throughout the chamber.  In the center of the chamber there hovered a thick and unwholesome fog which was darker and denser than the rest.

The Devil’s Answer

Inside the fog the vapors were whirling and twisting forming a dark terrifying figure.  From that form there came a terrible voice that spoke in whispers that cut through the fabric of reality shaking and terrifying the doctor. “Who dares summon Satan from Hell? Step forward and speak. Tell me thy heart’s desire!”

The doctor was almost overcome with fear and awe but managing to master himself stepped boldly forward and said, “It is I that has summoned you for, I would have certain powers that you and only you, can endow.”

The Devil looked into his eyes and knew immediately what powers he yearned for.  

The Price

“Indeed, I can  bestow thee with these powers but you know there is a price to be paid.  Are you willing to pay it?” sneered the Devil.

The doctor faltered and quailed for a moment but quickly mastered himself and asked,  “Name your price and we shall see!”

“Ha! You know the price!” whispered the Devil, “There is only one price and the terms are not negotiable.  Agree that price and I will grant you the powers of your heart’s desire.  Be warned I shall return seven years from today and call upon you to deliver up your very soul to me.  Do you agree?”

The Contract

“Surely that is too high a price,” replied the doctor.

“It is the only price and the terms are not negotiable.  What do you say?” demanded the Devil.

The doctor hesitated realizing trying to bargain with him was hopeless  and said, “Then I must pay that price. I agree to the contract and the price!”

The Devil produced two sheets of paper.  With his long, sharp fingernail, he slit the wrist of the doctor causing blood to seep forth. Dipping his quill into the oozing wound he wrote the contract out on both pages using the doctor’s blood for ink.  With that same quill and ink the doctor signed.  With a look of extreme satisfaction, Satan placed the contract in his cloak and declared,  “Thy wish is granted, enjoy to the full what time you have left it will not be long enough.  Be sure seven years from now I shall return for my fee!”

There was a peal of thunder and a flash of lightning and the Devil was gone.  All that was left behind was the doctor’s copy of the  contract written and signed  in his own blood and the mocking echo of the Devil’s laughter.

Repentance

The Devil was true to his word and from the beginning of the agreement the doctor received all the powers he had yearned for.  He used them to further his own knowledge and skills but instead  of using them to benefit humankind he used it for his own pleasure and leisure.  His life was everything he wanted it to be with power, knowledge, riches and great acclaim.

However, time passed and after a couple of years he still thought he had a long time to enjoy his powers.  Three years passed and then four and he realized that time was passing too quickly.  Five years passed and then six and he was now getting nervous.  Despite his power and knowledge he knew he could not hold or alter time.   Therefore he began to repent his contract with the Devil realizing he had been foolish and selfish and searched for ways of avoiding paying the price.  Seven years passed and he knew he had to come up with something quick but could not think what.   

A Crazy Chance

At last he came up with something, it was but a glimmer of a crazy chance yet it was a crazy chance that might just work.  He consulted his books on astrology and charted the movement of the stars and came to the conclusion it could work.  That afternoon he purchased the fastest and best horse in Longdendale. That evening, as he knew would, Satan appeared before him in his chamber of magic. Satan duly arrived with his usual theatrics but the doctor remained calm as he faced him.

“Are you ready to fulfill the contract,” demanded the Devil.

“Indeed I am, but I am wondering if you are not open to a little wager first?” he asked nonchalantly knowing the Devil loved to gamble.

“Hmm, now just what have you in mind?” asked the Devil his interest aroused.

“I thought maybe a race on horseback to the crossroads. It is one mile to the crossroads and the first to pass the center wins.  If you win you take my soul.  If I win I keep it and you leave me in peace.  But … perhaps, you are not up to such a gamble and I have the fastest horse in Longdendale,” taunted the doctor gently.

Indeed, Satan had a fine black horse that was faster and stronger than any ordinary horse. He loved to race it and he loved to gamble, though it never really was a gamble because he would always win.  He would lay any odds on his horse winning against any challenger.

“A race it is, be outside on horseback in 30 minutes and the race will begin!”  cried the devil excited at the prospect.

The Challenge

The doctor saddled his new horse and waited on the road. Thirty minutes later the Devil appeared by his side mounted on a magnificent black stallion the like never before had been seen on earth. 

“Ah! A truly magnificent steed, but surely you are breaking the spirit of our race by riding an unearthly steed.  No earthly horse could surely match one born and bred in your realm, the challenge cannot go ahead.  You best take my soul here and now!” said the doctor.

The Devil had been looking forward to the race and was disappointed.  He could rightly have taken the doctor’s soul there and then but believed he would have it after the race anyway.  He so loved to race and gamble but rarely got the chance and his face dropped.

The doctor, seeing the look of disappointment on his adversary’s face said,  “Tell you what! How about if you give me a half mile start?”

To begin with  the Devil was not having it.  After some very subtle provocation and a play to his vanity from the doctor he accepted.

“You realize, it is not my normal practice to allow the terms of the contract to be changed, especially when I can rightfully claim payment?  Never before have I given a single minute’s grace when collecting my payment, let alone listen to further proposals to extend the period in the hope of saving their souls.  I have never before accepted any change in terms or payment.  Still, today I fancy some sport and will make an exception in this case.  Therefore, I accept. Let the race begin as soon as you are ready.  The signal shall be a thunderbolt!” said the Devil.

Race With the Devil

So while the Devil remained at the start line the doctor trotted a half mile ahead.  As soon as the Devil saw the doctor had reached the half mile he let fly a thunderbolt that flashed and crashed mightily and the race began.

The Devil spurred his mount forward using all speed while the doctor, determined not to be complacent by the half mile start, spurred his own horse on.  This was just as well for the Devil set off at unbelievable speed and was fast gaining on the doctor.  He reached the half mile point with the doctor not quite making the three quarter of a mile point.  

The Devil was now excited and enjoying himself. Uttering wild shouts and cries he spurred his horse forward, second by second gaining on the doctor.  His opponent, his face grim and set and ever looking over his shoulder encouraged his own steed forward.

With less than a quarter of a mile to go the Devil was but a few yards behind and whooping wildly while the doctor, casting anxious glances back, continued to press his own steed. He desperately wanted to beat the Devil to the ford where a fast flowing stream of water flowed over the road but the chances of this were now slim. 

As the Devil came up fast behind the doctor’s mount he reached forward laughing with glee and grabbed the tail of the doctor’s horse giving it a viscous twist.  The terrified horse cried out in shock and pain and  surged forward.  

Running Water

The Devil kept a grip on the poor beast’s tail trying with all his might to hold it back.  They were approaching the ford where a stream of running water flowed over the road.  Had he seen this, things might have turned out different, but the Devil, being intent on holding on to his challenger’s horse’s tail did not see it.  The terrified beast surged forward again and its tail broke and the horse free from the Devil’s grip took one mighty leap clear over the running steam of water.

The Laws of Magic

The Devil was forced to pull up abruptly.  By the laws of magic and sorcery which even the Devil is obliged to adhere to he could not cross running water in pursuit of a victim.   This law applies to all witches, evil spirits and the like and it must be obeyed.  The doctor raced on to the crossroads to win the race and keep his soul.

In mockery of the Devil the doctor turned and waved joyously at his adversary who was fuming with rage. He now saw how the doctor had tricked and goaded him into the race with this outcome in mind.  He howled with rage at his own gullibility and the doctor’s cleverness.

Too Bad For Heaven, Too Clever For Hell!

Nevertheless, despite his anger there was nothing he could do except ride off on the wings of a storm back to Hell in disgust.  He swore an oath that no mortal from Longdendale would ever again be allowed inside his domain for they were too bad for Heaven and too clever  for Hell! 

© 17/12/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 17th, zteve t evans

The Curious Tale of Van Wempel’s Goose

Presented here is a retelling  of an old folktale from the days when the great city of New York in New York was known as New Amsterdam.  It is from a collection of early American folktales and traditions collected by Charles M. Skinner in his book,  The Isle of Manhattoes and Nearby Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land, Volume I and called Van Wempel’s Goose.

Nicholas Van Wempel

The hero of the story is Nicholas Van Wempel, of Flatbush who was almost as wide as he was tall though he was not very tall. Nevertheless, he was of a mild and timid nature which led to him being badly henpecked by his wife, Vrouw Van Wempel.   Despite his timidity he  remained unruffled despite, or perhaps, to spite her and was renowned for being something of a harmless fantasist.  To be fair to his good wife her husband had a fatal flaw that if not kept under strict control would land him in all sorts of trouble. Therefore,  she did her best to moderate it for his own good.

He was a fairly well off man but his greatest pleasure was to escape into the comforting arms of schnapps.  He sure loved his schnapps and this was his fatal flaw!  Sadly for him his wife kept tight control only allocating just enough cash to get her groceries or to buy himself clothes.

The New Year’s Goose

On the eve of the New Year of 1739 she called him to her.  Placing ten English shillings into his hand she firmly instructed him to hurry down to Dr. Beck’s store to procure a fat goose she had ordered for their New Year’s Day celebration dinner.  As he waddled through the door glad for a bit of respite the errand would bring she gave him one last instruction, 

“Do not under any circumstances go near, walk by or stop at the tavern! Stay away, stay clear, do not enter and keep out of the tavern.  If you enter the tavern for any reason my wrath shall fall upon you like a ton of bricks from a great height! Just bring back the goose! Do you understand?”

In a shrill voice she then threatened a number of other dire and deadly consequences should he dare to disobey.

“Do you understand?” she barked again, glaring at him with a look that could curdle vinegar. Indeed, Nicholas understood perfectly and shot her a weak smile in acceptance as she sent him scurrying down the path.

“As if I would ever dream of entering the tavern of all places!” he called back in answer.

Outside, the snow had fallen in the night and it was a cold, icy day.  As he struggled along against the biting wind a sudden gust lifted his hat clean off his head and rolled it into the doorway of the forbidden tavern.  Had he but allowed it to lie and passed it by things might have turned out very different, but it was a bitter wind that whistled around his ears.  He also thought he could hear someone calling to him from the doorway, but dismissed this.  He thought it was just the icy wind on his neck and decided he needed his hat back.

The Tavern

Alas, as he bent to pick it up a strong aroma of beer, booze, tobacco and schnapps assaulted his nostrils along with the sound of merry voices and a tinkling piano.  It was a heady mix!

He remembered his promise and all the dire and deadly consequences that would befall him.  Well, it was icy outside and the wind froze to the bone and inside the tavern was warm, hazy and friendly. He was sure he heard someone inside calling  his name and after a few minutes of staring at his feet they gave him permission to enter.  

Inside he met an old friend who called him over and treated him to schnapps.  They chatted and laughed reminiscing about old times and it only seemed right that he should return the treat and bought his friend and himself another schnapps.  

To his surprise and delight more of his old friends appeared who treated him and of course he returned the treat.  His friends knowing of the dominance of his wife in his life teased him in good nature.  They urged him to stand up for himself and put her firmly in her place.

Slowly but surely the goose money left his pocket to find a new home behind the bar in the till of the landlord.  Realizing his money was gone he thumped the bar. Loudly he declared that it was his money anyway and he would spend it however he saw fit without leave of his good wife.  

Snores

The last thing he remembered was standing by the bar with his friends cheering and applauding  him wildly for his heroic stand.  After that the world seemed to merge into snores.  When he came round he had his head on a table at the back of the tavern. He could hear the sound of low voices talking over the far side of the bar.  

Sleepily he opened his eyes and saw two strangers deep in conversation with each other.  He saw they had black beards and rings in their ears and around their foreheads they wore brightly colored bandanas.  

He pretended to be asleep but carefully listened to what they said.  They were talking of gold hidden on the marshes at the tide mill.  Before he could fully grasp what his ears had heard through his schnaps sodden mind the idea had worked its way beyond reason. With a sudden burst of more energy and enthusiasm than he found in years he jumped to his feet and left the tavern.

“Gold …” – “the marshes …” – “tide-mill …”

These words revolved round and round in his schnapps sozzled brain.  Fueled by these and the schnapps he crunched through the snow back to his home.  

Quietly and carefully so as not to arouse his good wife, who would surely ask the embarrassing question of the whereabouts of the goose, he crept to the shed.  There  he procured for himself a shovel and a lantern.  With unbelievable speed and quietness considering his drunken state he made his way to the old tide-mill on the marsh.

The Mill

On reaching the mill he decided to start in the cellar and began digging up the floor.  He had been so eager to commence work he had not thought to check if there was anyone else in the building, therefore he did not know there were four men upstairs.

After a short while his shovel struck something hard.  He dug quickly around the object discovering it to be a large, but old, canvas bag similar to what a sailor might possess.

Pirate Gold

Excitedly he brushed the dirt from it and found it was heavy but he managed to lift it out of the hole.   As he did so a shower of gold coins fell from it and cluttered to the ground.   Tying up his trouser legs he filled them and his coat pockets with as many coins as he could.  However, in the floor above he had been heard and four rough looking men came down the cellar steps to confront him.  He recognized two of these as the men from the tavern.

The men saw the lantern, the bag and Nicholas who despite his inebriation realized these were not just sailors but pirates.  His trousers were so full of gold he could hardly move and they laid their hands on him and dragged him upstairs.  They poured for him another schnapps and made him drink to the health of their flag and brotherhood.  Roughly they turned him upside down and shook him vigorously causing all the gold coins to fall from his trousers and coat pockets.  

With no further ceremony they grabbed hold of him and threw him out of the window thinking he would drown in the tide or the fall would kill him.  In the brief struggle he managed to grab hold of something before he was forced out.  

Fortunately for him, the tide was out and his fall was cushioned by the mud of the tidal marsh around the mill.  Finding himself unscathed he held up his hand to see he clutched a plump, plucked, goose which the pirates had stolen earlier for their New Year’s Day dinner.

After the schnapps the pirates had given him he now found the energy to struggle through the mud as the tide began creeping up on him.  Things looked bleak, but perhaps, mercifully, thanks to the power of schnapps, he remembered no more.  

The Wrath of Vrouw Van Wempel

When at last he awoke it was to the shrill voice of his good wife.  She was standing over him loudly berating him as he lay in a snow drift not far from their home.  Opening his eyes and hearing her shrill voice and seeing her formidable form all he could do was smile sweetly.  

“What did I tell you about the tavern? Where did all that mud come from? Where is the goose? “she growled menacingly.

From behind his back he brought forth the plucked, oven ready goose he still clutched in his hand and proudly presented it to her.  Seeing he had at least come back with a goose placated the angry wife diverting her attention from the state she had found her husband in.

Snatching the goose from him, Vrouw Van Wempel,  turned on her heels and marched directly back home. After struggling to his feet Nicholas followed sheepishly behind.  

In later days he tried to explain to her about the pirates and the gold and how he was lucky to still be alive.  She asked why if he had found gold he now had none to show for it?  He would reply that if his story was not true how did he come by the goose after he had spent all of the ten shillings in the tavern but he soon learnt this was a mistake. The very mention of the tavern would cause his good wife to fly into a rage and spend the rest of the day berating him.  

Whenever he got the chance he would slip off to the tavern and tell his story to more sympathetic ears and point towards the old tide mill to collaborate his story.   His friends would just laugh and tease him.  

Nevertheless, every now and then, thanks to the power of schnapps, he would find himself taken off on some bold adventure.  Unfortunately he would be brought back with a bump when his good wife caught up with him.

© 09/12//2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 9th 2020 zteve t evans

Hertfordshire Folklore: Jack O’ Legs

Jack1956, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jack O’ Legs

In the folklore of Hertfordshire, England, Jack O’ Legs was a giant and legendary outlaw who helped the poor people of his locality.  He was a good archer and used a huge bow to match his size. He was said to live in a cave in the Weston Hills or Weston Wood near the village of Weston which is about four miles from Stevenage and two and a half miles from Baldock.  The site of Jack’s cave is a field called “The Cave” and the adjacent field is called “Weston Wood.”   (1)

Jack Strikes

Although the area has been continuously settled by humans through the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age times to the modern town of Baldock was established by the Knights Templars sometime in or after 1140 (2). According to tradition after a poor harvest had caused the bakers of Baldock to increase the price of flour and consequently bread beyond the price of the poor. Jack, feeling sorry for the poor people of Weston, decided to act.  On the Great North Road near Gravelly there is a steep incline known as “Jack’s Hill.” which is where he would ambush the bakers and steal their flour to distribute it to the poor people of Weston.

The Bakers Strike Back

The bakers in revenge managed to arrest Jack and he was put on trial under the practice of infangthief (3).  This was originally an Anglo-Saxon practice that allowed a lord of the manor to put to death a thief caught on his land.   He was found guilty, blinded and told he would face the gallows and given a final wish.  Jack was said to have asked to be allowed to shoot a final arrow and the spot that it landed was where he wanted to be buried.  This was allowed and his bow and an arrow was given to him and he was orientated as to his directions.  He shot the arrow which flew three miles to land in the churchyard of the Holy Trinity Church in Weston.  After his execution that is where he was said to have been buried.   According to legend his grave lies between two stones in the churchyard about fourteen feet apart allegedly marking where his head and feet lay and giving  an idea of how tall he was said to be.   

Oral Tradition

Whatever we know about Jack and it is not really very much has been passed on orally from generation to generation since early medieval times.   In 1521 John Skelton wrote a poem called “Speak Parrot” criticizing Cardinal Wolsey which contained a line ‘The gibbett of Baldock was made for Jack Leg’.  From this  it is believed the legend must be known at  that time as he appeared to expect his audience to understand the line.  

 Certain parts of the story may be true such as there being a shortage of flour and its increase in price.  This would possibly have led to difficulty in being able to buy it for poor people causing resentment.  It may  even have made someone angry or desperate enough to do something about it.  Step forward Jack, but while it is possible it cannot be proved. It may be that the legend is a folk memory of an exceptionally tall robber who once existed and was generous with his ill gotten gains to the people of Weston and the  locality who would  probably have been thankful for his largess. The story of him being buried where his arrow landed may have been added later as an embellishment and he may have been buried in Weston churchyard because he was born in its parish.  It may be that each generation added a little to the story taking  it to its present stage.  

Nevertheless, it is a good story and gives the area a popular and colorful folk hero and center of interest as his depiction in the above mural in the Grange Junior School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire shows.   

        © 03/12/2020 zteve t evans                   

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright zteve t evans December 3rd, 2020

English Folktales: The Curious Case of Johnny Reed’s Cat

Image by Gorkhs from Pixabay

There is a very curious tale that comes from a village in the north of England just outside Newcastle-upon-Tyne.   It is called Johnny Reed’s Cat and comes from a collection of folktales garnered by Charles John Tibbits, in a book titled Folk-lore and legends: English. Presented here is a retelling of that tale.

Johnny Reed’s Cat

Johnny Reed was the sexton of the village looking after the upkeep of the church and the churchyard.  Sometimes he rang the bells and sometimes dug the graves and kept everywhere tidy and in order.  

He lived in a small cottage nearby that belonged to the church and went with his job.  He had a good wife who kept their home clean and tidy but they had no children.  However, they did have a cat and a very well behaved one at that.  It was a very beautiful cat with a most luxurious jet black coat and as cats go it was as friendly and as loving as any such creatures could. Like all of its kind it kept a fascination for anything that moved or wriggled and could get up to the craziest antics.  Although he could be very playful displaying great bursts of energy at short intervals he would often spend his time sitting and gazing into the fire.  

The cat had been with Johnny and his wife since it was a kitten and they had watched him grow to maturity into a most handsome feline.  He would sit with them in the evenings  keeping them company and gazing into the fire with half closed eyes as if in some distant dream.  

Johnny thought he knew everything there was to know about him but cats can be very whimsical changing with the wind and then back again leaving onlookers baffled.  There was always a faint air of mystery about Johnny’s cat.

Nevertheless as cats go Johnny Reed was more than satisfied  and very fond of him and the cat appeared very loving towards Johnny more so than his wife.  The cat lived contentedly with the couple for many years until a very strange thing happened.

Digging A Grave

Johnny had spent the day digging a new grave for someone who had suddenly and unexpectedly died and was to be buried the next day.  This meant he had to carry on working in the dark so the grave was ready for the morning.  Nevertheless he carried on working by the light of a lantern until he had finished digging and the grave was ready to use the next day.  At last he finished and packed up his tools taking them to store in the shed in the far corner of the churchyard.  He was tired and glad to have finished and looking forward to his supper and a warm fire in his snug cottage with his wife and his cat beside him.  Storing the tools and locking the shed he turned and walked briskly home in the cold dark air.

Nine Black Cats

He did not have to go far but it necessitated him passing by a gate which opened into a field.   It was dark and as he walked towards it he thought he saw dark shadows and lots of small gleaming fires dancing about.  They seemed like little flashes one might see of a fire through a window at a distance but these moved.  

Johnny was a steady man and perhaps because of his occupation was not one to be frightened easily by queer things that might unsettle others easily.  Therefore, he walked up to the gate and leaned on it peering into the blackness at the dancing lights.  Now that he was nearer the shadows were much blacker and the lights much brighter but as his eyes became more accustomed he realized he was looking not at shadows and lights.  Instead the lights were the eyes of nine black cats and the shadows were their bodies. 

They looked like they were holding court over some important matter.  The largest feline was positioned in the middle of the baseline of a semicircle of black cats sitting before him.  Thinking they were up to mischief he thought to scare them off and made a loud “wssshhhing” sound while clapping his hands loudly.

The cats took no notice whatsoever and carried on their business.  Annoyed by their indifference he sought a stone to throw, not to hurt, but to scare, but it was too dark to find one.  As he searched in the dark he was shocked to hear someone call his name, “Johnny Reed!”

The Black Cat’s Request

Johnny looked but could see no one other than the cats.

“Johnny Reed!” said the voice.

Who is there?” demanded Johnny, not a little vexed.

“Johnny Reed!” repeated the voice.

Image by Schmidsi from Pixabay

“I am Johnny Reed!” replied Johnny, perplexed and growing a little nervous and added jokingly, “Why, it must be one of you cats that is calling me.”

“Yes, indeed Johnny Reed,” said the largest of the cats who appeared to be their leader, “It is I calling you.”

Realizing it was the cat speaking Johnny was bewildered.  Although his own cat could be very expressive in its own way he had never before heard a cat speak in English as plain as any human.  Thinking that these were extraordinary circumstances that he could not explain and did not know how to react he thought a bit of courtesy would not go amiss.  

Therefore, taking off his cap he bowed slightly  to show respect and said politely, “Well sir, pardon my bewilderment you have plain taken me by surprise.  Is there anything I can do for you?”

“It is not much I ask of you but it is important you do as I request,” replied the cat.

“And what might that be?” asked Johnny civilly.

“I ask that you tell Dan Radcliffe that Peggy Poyson is dead!” answered the cat.

“Yes sir, I will certainly do that.” replied Johnny totally bemused but sensibly wishing to seem amenable. After all he had no way of knowing what strange power this large black cat and his friends may wield.

With that answer given all the cats disappeared into the darkness leaving Johnny alone in the night wondering who in the world Dan Radcliffe was?  He had never heard the name before, or that of the poor deceased Peggy Poyson.  

Who is Dan Radcliffe?

He ran home getting all hot and flustered in the process.  Rushing through the door to find his good wife sitting by the fire with his supper on the table.  His cat with its eyes half closed sat next to her staring dreamily into the fire.

Bursting in he gasped, “Wife, tell me if you can, who is Dan Radcliffe?”

“Why,” says she, “I have never heard of any such person from these parts or from anywhere else, why do you ask and why are you all a fluster?”

“I must find him and tell him some important news I been given for him!” He replied then told her of his strange meeting with the black cats.  As he told the story his own cat sat staring into the fire looking as snug and cosy as only cats can look.  

When he came to the part where the black cat said, “Tell Dan Radcliffe, Peggy Poyson is dead,” his own cat suddenly jumped up and exclaimed in plain English,  “What? Peggy Poyson dead?  Then I must go!”  With that he dashed out the door that Johnny had left a jar and vanished into the night never to return.

For a long time Johnny pondered the meaning of the black cat’ s message but neither he or his wife could fathom it.  All they could think of was that Dan Radcliffe was none other than their very own cat but who Peggy Poyson was they had no idea.

Mysterious Creatures

Johnny Reed and his wife never did see that cat again although being fond of it they searched all over the neighborhood to no avail. Johnny also searched for Dan Radcliffe to tell him the sad news about Peggy Poyson as he had promised.  Although he asked in his own and neighboring villages no trace could he find of Dan Radcliffe or Peggy Poyson and eventually he gave up.

Indeed, cats are very mysterious creatures! We think we own them and give them names of our choosing but know little of what they get up to at night or while we are absent. Moreover, we know nothing of what goes on in those minds even while they sit dreaming through half closed eyes before the fire.  It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that they may have their own names for themselves and indeed, may have names they give to us. Now I wonder what they call us and I wonder what you think of that?

If you do hear of anyone by the name of Dan Radcliffe do drop Johnny Reed a line so he can fulfill his promise, assuming he has not already done so.

© 26/11/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 26th 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

Celtic Warrior Queens: Boudica of the Iceni

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 8th October 2020, titled Celtic Warrior Women: Queen Boudica of the Iceni by zteve t evans.

Queen Boudica

Queen Boudica, ruler of the Iceni people of Britain, was famous for leading a violent uprising against Roman rule. She was married and had two young daughters whose names are unknown. Her husband Prasutagus had ruled as a client-king of Rome and his realm was roughly the area of modern Norfolk. As a client-king he had entered into an alliance with Rome which allowed him to rule and receive Roman patronage in return for recognizing its overall authority and keeping law and order. When he died he left his kingdom jointly to the emperor and his two daughters, perhaps hoping to avoid trouble.  Despite this, his kingdom and property was annexed by Rome and his family maltreated, sowing the seeds of rebellion among the Britons. According to Tacitus, Boudica was beaten with rods, her two young daughters raped, and the estates of the Iceni nobles confiscated. This spurred Boudica to lead a bloody rebellion against the might of Rome.

Suffragettes

As a woman, widowed with at least two children, the qualities that people would traditionally call female were plain to see. Yet after the maltreatment inflicted upon her and her young daughters by the Romans, other, less ‘traditionally female’ qualities emerged, transforming her into a powerful, avenging force. Qualities of leadership, intelligence, aggression, courage and assertiveness in a struggle to free her people came to the fore. Such attributes were seen as subversive for women to openly display in a patriarchal society, but were some of the very qualities that the suffragettes were keen to promote as acceptable in women to help and inspire their struggle against the system.

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English Folklore: The Werewolf of Longdendale

Werewolf – Copyright 28/20/2020 zteve t evans

Longdendale

Presented here is a retelling of an old folktale collected by Thomas C. Middleton and published in his book “Legends of Longdendale.”  The story centers around Longdendale, a long valley in the Peak District, Derbyshire and is set in the time of King Henry II, after he had bestowed the monks of Basingwerke Abbey in Wales the nearby town of Glossop.  Longendale is situated just north of Glossop.  In earlier times it was part of the Royal Forest of the Peak and home to wolves, boar, deer and smaller animals.

The Abbots Chair

The tale begins at a place called the Abbot’s Chair, which originally was a large stone cross situated on a highway known as the Monk’s Road.  All that can be seen today is the stone socket which held the cross.  According to this tale the Abbot of Basingwerke Abbey held court and received the rents and tithes of his tenants in the area while sitting on the stone.  He also heard the petitions and grievances of the people of his estates and other such administration.

A Tale of Woe

On one such occasion there came to him an old widow full of misery and woe shedding bitter tears. Tearfully, she told the Abbot that she lived in fear of a very powerful witch who was skilled in the black arts and sorcery.  This evil witch had caused the death of her husband and all of her children and was now seeking to murder her.  The widow told him she was all alone in the world and had no one she could go to for help  and shelter.  Furthermore, her enemy was a cunning shape-shifter who could change her physical appearance into that of any animal or bird to commit crimes and escape capture and punishment.  She could also change herself to resemble any man, woman or child she desired that may suit her own evil purposes.

The Abbot’s Curse

The Abbot being a good and kindly man was outraged at the plight of the old widow and very angry with the witch.  He distributed bread and alms to her to ease her poverty and then laid a terrible curse upon the wicked old witch who persecuted her, 

“The eye of God that sees all shall see this wicked woman in whatever form she may be wearing here and now.  From this moment on she will remain in that form never being able to revert to human or other form until the time justice is done and she has paid for her sins!”

He declared that he foresaw the wrath of heaven falling upon the old witch and foretold she would face a cruel death shortly.

The Royal Hunt

On that very morning at that exact time the witch had transformed into a werewolf and was out in the forest seeking victims.   Moreover, King Henry II was visiting the Baron of Ashton-under-Lyne accompanied by his son, Prince Henry.  These three along with the Baron of Aston, the Lord of Longdendale and other nobles and dignitaries were out hunting in the Royal Forest. 

It was the practice of the Royal hunting party to hunt every corner and every nook and cranny of the forest.  Beaters were sent into the densest parts of the forest to drive the game into the paths of the hunters.  They were unaware of the alleged crimes of the witch and were not seeking her  but this practice increased the chances of her being driven before them.

Her shape-shifting abilities had allowed her in the past to simply transform into human form and send pursuers on a wild goose chase looking for her. Other times she would transform into a bird and fly away. 

And so as the Abbot was uttering his curse the Royal Hunt was out in the forest.  The star of the day was the Lord of Longdendale who slew an exceedingly large and ferocious wild boar after it had given a fierce battle.

Werewolf Attack

The young Prince Henry desperately wanted to match the feat of the Lord of Longdendale to prove his own valor.  He went off alone and sought out the wildest and remotest part of the forest hoping to find some worthy test of his courage and skill.  As he was roaming through the forest he was suddenly attacked by the werewolf and was almost killed.  Fortunately his trusty steed sensed the impending attack and veered sharply to the right as the werewolf sprang.  This allowed Prince Henry to push away the attacker and with his spear deliver a wound in its side.  He thrust hard, blood spurted and the beast wailed a savage but almost human cry.  In its desperation it managed to seize the spear and bite the weapon in two with its great jaws.  The prince quickly drew his long hunting knife to defend himself as best he could.

With the beast uttering unearthly but almost human-like cries it grasped his legs trying to pull him from his horse.  Quickly Henry stabbed the beast in its shoulder but in its frenzy it succeeded in dragging him to the ground.  

With his knife stuck in his foe’s shoulder Henry managed to grasp the beast around the throat.  Although he fought hard and bravely he could feel his own strength ebbing as he wrestled cheek to jowl with the attacker.  

He thought it was his end but as he was slipping into death the Baron of Ashton, who had heard the commotion arrived.  Seeing the dire peril of the king’s son he immediately sprang to his aid and engaged the werewolf in a deadly fight that was long and vicious. Finally, he managed to deliver a killing blow to its skull.  

The Baron of Ashton received great praise and honor not just from Henry but from the king and the rest of the Royal hunting party when they caught up. The body of the slain beast was given as a trophy to the baron who returned with it to his castle.  As the beast was being prepared for exhibition it was cut open and the heads of three babies that it had eaten earlier were found in its stomach.

This again caused much talk about the ferocity and evil nature of the beast.  Prince Henry emphasized again and again it’s savagery and the wild human-like cries it had uttered as it had attacked him.  

The Forester’s Testimony

On hearing the news of the slaying of this savage beast a forester stepped forward to give a most strange testimony to the lord’s and ladies saying, 

“If it may please my lords I have something to say that may be of interest to you concerning this strange and wild beast.As one of his Royal Foresters it was my duty to seek out and put a stop to those who dare to poach my king’s game.Having concealed myself in thick bushes I lay quietly in wait  hoping to catch a certain poacher in the act.  As I lay waiting I was startled by strange and ghoulish wailing.  On creeping through the forest to its source I was astounded to see a werewolf tearing and clawing at its very own skin.  It was as if it desired to shed it quickly such as a person would undress themselves.It’s cries were both hideous and pitiful and I thought it sounded like a twisted version of an old woman’s voice.  Human or other, it was a cracked and hideous cry that it uttered. I am afraid that on seeing and hearing this my courage failed.  I fled as fast and as far as I could from the frightful thing before its attention should fall upon myself.”

Then one by one other witnesses appeared who bore similar testimony concerning the beast.

The Abbot

That same evening a banquet was held in the hall of the Baron with the king, prince and the rest of the Royal hunting party in attendance.  Also invited was the good Abbot of Basingwerke Abbey  who was informed of the strange events of the day and inspected the body of the slain beast.   The Abbot had absolute faith that the werewolf was the wicked witch he had cursed earlier and evidence was brought that showed this to be true and she was never seen again.   The good Abbot took the old widow under his protection and from then on she lived the rest of her life in safety and comfort.

© 28/10/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright 28, October, 2020 zteve t evans

Giant Tales: The Making of the Wrekin

The Wrekin, Shropshire – Public Domain

The Wrekin 

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

 Gwendol Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynyddmawr 

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

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

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

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

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

The Quarreling Giants

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

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

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

Folklore and Tradition

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

© 21/10/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 21st, 2020 zteve t evans 

Zoophyte Folklore: The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb – Source

History of Cotton

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

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

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

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

Sir John Mandeville

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

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

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

Source

Zoophytes

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

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

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

Henry Lee

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

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

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

Source

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

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

Vegetable Wool

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

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

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

Banishing the Myth

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

© 07/10/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 07, 2020 zteve t evans