South Sea Island Folktales: Sina and the Eel

Sina and the Eel

South Seas Myths

In many places in the South Seas there is a myth of origin of the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) and its nut.   It is a popular and well known tale in Oceania with many different variations found from region to region. Names and details vary from region to region but there is a similar structure and story-line in many of these tales.   It should be noted that in the folklore of the people of Samoa there is a legend they call “Sina ma le Tuna” which tells of the origin of the coconut tree and in the Samoan language, “Tuna,” means, “eel.” (1) Presented here are two versions of folktales that deal with this myth.  The first is from the island of Savai’I, Samoa and the second comes from American Samoa.  

The Savai’l Samoan Version

This folktale begins with a girl named Sina who was famous around the South Seas for her loveliness.  The King of Fiji, who was known as the Tui Fiti, heard of her beauty and was intrigued.  Although he was much older than Sina he decided he had to meet the beautiful one in person to see if all he had heard was true.  Calling on his Mana, which is his own personal magic, he transformed into an eel and swam to the island home of Sina.  Discovering the village pool was used by all the villagers as a communal bath he slithered into its waters hoping Sina would come to bathe.

Concealing himself at the bottom of the pool he waited patiently hoping she would enter the pool.  Many of the villagers came to the pool to bathe but he remained hidden knowing that these were not the beautiful one he sought. Eventually, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen or imagined entered the pool to bathe.  Immediately he knew it was her for such outstanding loveliness could only belong to the famous Sina, the beautiful one, he sought.   He lay at the bottom of the pool staring up through the water at her lovely face.

Eventually, Sina felt a peculiar sensation and noticed the eel staring at her.  Taken by surprise she became angry, shouting in Samoan, “E pupula mai, ou mata o le alelo!” which means, “You stare at me, with eyes like a demon!” (2). However, after the initial alarm Sina noticed the eel did not look dangerous or aggressive.  In fact it actually seemed very nice and friendly so she took it home for a pet.

Many years passed and the King of Fiji lived happily as Sina’s pet enjoying the love and attention she unknowingly lavished on him as an eel.  Nevertheless, the king was growing older and with age his magic weakened and he found it harder to keep his eel form.  Therefore, he decided that it was time to reveal his true identity and explain himself to her. 

He told her how he was the Tui Fiti, the King of Fiji, who had heard of her great beauty and come to see it for himself.  To make the long sea journey from Fiji to Sina’s island home he had transformed himself into an eel so that he could swim the great distance. In this way he could wait in the pool until she arrived and he could see her.  Once he had seen her he fell in love. 

Realizing he was too old and she would rightly reject him he had kept his eel form so that she would not recognize him as an old man.   He had been overjoyed when she had taken him as a pet because he would remain always near her and enjoy her love and care.  Sadly, because of his great age, his magic had grown weak and he could not keep his eel form much longer and would die.  Therefore, he wished for her to plant his head into the ground near her home. Sina had loved him greatly as her pet and was heartbroken when he died and granted his wish.

From his head there grew the first coconut tree.  On a coconut there are three round marks which look like two eyes and a mouth.   When the coconut is pierced to drink the milk through one of these holes the milk is taken through the pierced hole through the drinker’s mouth.  According to the legend, whenever Sina took a drink of coconut milk from a coconut she was kissing the mouth of the eel.

In Samoa in the village of Matavai, in the district of Safune on the island of Savai’i,is a fresh spring pool. This pool is called, Mata o le Alelo, from the words that Sina first spoke to the eel and is still strongly associated with the legend.

An American Samoan Version

Another version from American Samoa tells how the King of Fiji, heard heard of the beauty of Sina and decided he wanted her for his wife.  However, she lived on a distant island so using his magical power he transformed himself into a young eel and swam all the way from Fiji to Sina’s island home (3).

One day as she was out foraging for shellfish along the seashore she noticed the young eel looking at her from a rock pool.  She thought it looked harmless and had a friendly face and being quite small would make a nice pet.  Therefore, she caught it and put it in the container she used for her shellfish and took it home.

She kept it in a bowl in her home and carefully nurtured it and it became very placid and affectionate towards her.  Under her care it soon grew too big for the bowl so she placed it in a spring near her home.  However, the eel soon grew too big for the spring and she did not know what to do with it.  She asked her mother who suggested she put it in the large freshwater spring the villagers used as a communal bath.  Sina thought this a good idea as the large pool would give the eel space to grow and be free so she placed it in the pool and it hid its self at the bottom.

All the villagers used the pool to bathe but none of them ever seemed to notice the eel. It would come out of hiding to greet Sina as soon as she stepped into the water.   It grew very long and big but was always very affectionate towards her and very playful with her yet no one seemed to notice its presence.  One day the eel became too boisterous and playfully wrapped itself around Sina in a loving embrace.  This frightened her and after that she would not bathe in the communal pool.

From then on she bathed in the small spring near her home.  This was fine at first but somehow the eel found out where she was bathing and appeared in the water as she bathed.   Still no one else could see the eel and its behaviour alarmed her and began to make her angry and frightened.  

Determined to escape the eel, one morning just before dawn, while her family still slept, she quietly left her home to walk to the next village.  It was good distance and she would stop at a spring along the way for a refreshing drink and to cool down and rest.  To her dismay at every spring she stopped at the eel would appear staring out of the water at her.   This terrified her and she continued journeying from village to village trying to escape the eel.  Each time she stopped at the springs along the way it would appear.  Where ever she went the eel appeared and it was growing longer and longer and to her fear and bewilderment, no one else could see it.  

There came a time when it left a pool she had found it in and wriggled onto the land and followed on behind her like pet dog.  Wherever she went it followed her and still no one else could see it.   On her wanderings she came across a group of people having a meeting.  In desperation she ran and sat between the two lead speakers. 

This surprised everyone but the eel had now grown as long as a person. Now everyone could see and hear it and all sat terrified at the strange creature.  It slid through the crowd to rest before where Sina was sitting between the two speakers.   Raising itself up to look her in her eyes the eel said,

“Sina, my beautiful one, please forgive me!   Know now that my true shape is that of a human.  I am the King of Fiji.  I have used my magic to attain this eel form you see me in now.  I took this form when I first heard of your beauty and grace that I might swim the great distance from Fiji to your home on this island to see you for myself.

My intention was to woo you and win your love but I now see that the form I took frightened you and I am sorry.  After so much traveling and keeping this form my magic and power is all used up.  I am tired and my death draws near. Before I die I wanted to explain these things to you hoping you would think better of me. 

In compensation for alarming you I have a valuable gift to offer you.  When I die cut off my head and plant it outside your home.  It will soon grow into a tree that will be of great value to you and your people.  It will have long green leaves that can be used as a fan to cool you in the summer’s heat.  

These leaves will also provide good covering for the roofs of your homes.  The leaves, bark and wood you will find will have many uses that will be of great service to people.  It will also bear a nut that gives food and a nourishing drink.   The nut will have three marks that resemble human features.  To drink from the nut puncture one of these holes and you will pour its milk from its mouth!”

With that it died.  Sina felt sorrry for the King of Fiji and thought perhaps if she had known the full story in the first place things might have turned out differently.  She did as he had asked and planted his head.  As he had foretold a tree grew from it bearing long green leaves and a large nut.  The tree and the nut proved to be extremely useful to humans and became an important part of their lives.  It spread beyond Sina’s isle to neighboring islands and beyond often carried by humans and some times carried by the sea.  The same tradition of kissing the eel when drinking from the coconut applies to this legend as well.

© 21/07/2021 zteve t evans

FURTHER PUBLICATIONS BY ZTEVE T EVANS

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Copyright July 21st, 2021 zteve t evans

The Curious Case of the Scholar, the Maid Servant and the Peony Soul

The Peony Soul

The following is a retelling of a story of Chinese origin from, “The Romance of the Milky Way, and Other Studies & Stories,”  by Lafcadio Hearn. The story tells of a Chinese scholar known as Tō no Busanshi who was a great scholar and a keen gardener. To him the acquisition and appliance of knowledge was the planting and cultivation of a garden that was his soul. 

Indeed, he was renowned for his love of flowers of all kinds.  He was especially fond of peonies which he cultivated himself spending many hours attending to their smallest needs with great love, skill and patience.  Under his loving care and attention the peonies blossomed brightly and beautifully and their leaves dripped green.  He would speak to them softly and affectionately whenever he was tending to them.  In response they all appeared to gaze towards him, nodding and smiling and displaying their beauty, while appearing to lean towards his love. He thought he could hear them whispering but he could not quite understand what was being said.

The Scholar

One day there came to his house a very pretty girl who begged him to take her into his service in his household.  She explained she had received a good literary education and loved learning but had become the victim of unfortunate circumstances that forced her to seek employment.  Knowing he was a great and famous scholar she thought she would like to work in his household which was a shrine of knowledge and great learning.  She told him she was a hard and diligent worker and asked if could employ her. 

Surprised, Busanshi looked at her and thought there was something charming and familiar about her as if he had known her from somewhere else.  It was something about the way she gazed and gently leaned towards him. He was more than a little flattered and also greatly impressed by her loveliness. Thinking that for her looks alone she would be an elegant and pleasing asset for his household he took her on as a maid servant.  Indeed, she proved to be a great asset her beauty enlivened and brought delight to any room she entered. Her work and industry rate was exceptional and she was very obedient and attentive. 

The Maid Servant

As well as her work she was adept and perfectly at home with the etiquette and cultivated demeanor one would expect from a lady of the highest circles.  Her literary skills were excellent and she composed wonderful poetry which she expressed with great skill using the arts of calligraphy and painting.  She impressed him so much he thought she must have been brought up in the court of some high ranking noble family or great lord.   There was something that with all his great learning he could not describe which was so appealing about her.  Something about her shining eyes, her smile and the way she leaned towards him.  It was not long before Busanshi fell hopelessly in love with her and sought ways to please her.

On occasions he was visited by friends who were also also great scholars.  He would send for her that she might entertain and impress them with her loveliness, intelligence and grace.  All who beheld her were greatly impressed and further charmed by her gentle and amiable nature.

One day one of his friends, a great academic and teacher of morals and high principles, named Teki-Shin-Ketsu arrived at his door unexpectedly.   Busanshi was thrilled to receive such a famous celebrity and called his maid servant to meet him expecting her charm and intelligence to impress the great man.  However, unusually there was no reply and she did not appear smiling and radiant as she always had before.  In fact, although he called again she did not appear at all. 

Busanshi really wanted to impress his great friend with his charming and educated maid servant and was mildly irritated that she did not appear obediently and instantly as she usually did.  Perturbed by her non-appearance he went seeking her out.   With growing irritation he searched the entire house calling and looking in every room but could find her nowhere.  

Greatly disappointed and very puzzled he was returning back to his esteemed guest when he caught a glimpse of her gliding quietly and effortlessly before him down the corridor.   Calling to her he hurried after her.  On hearing him she half turned to see him but flattened herself fearfully against the wall just like a spider in fear might. 

The Peony Soul

As he caught up with her he was astounded to see her appearance change. As she flattened her back hard against the wall her entire body became flatter and flatter until there was nothing left that remained of her but a two dimensional image as if painted on the surface of the wall.  This flat image slowly began to fade before his eyes until there was nothing else to be seen but a flat barely visible colored shadow.  As he watched in fear and amazement he could still see the faded image of her pretty eyes and her beautiful lips which spoke to him in a whisper,

Please, forgive your humble maid servant for not answering your call.  As you now see I am not human but the soul of the peonies that you love so much and take so much good care of.  Because of the greatness of your love and care I was able to manifest into human form so that I might repay your love and devotion. 

I have treasured my time with you but now an enemy has come into your home.  You and other humans consider him a great scholar and wise teacher of morality. I warn you he is a sly one – a being of no morals and evil to the core.  He is my enemy searching for me and I dare not keep this form any longer.  I must change back to my true shape and return to the peonies. That is where you shall find me and when the time is right join me.  Tend well your peony soul with love and dedicated devotion!”

With that she simply faded into the wall leaving no trace of her form to his bewilderment and great sorrow. He still carried on tending his peonies lavishing great care and love upon them.  Softly and lovingly he talked to them and more than ever they appeared to lean towards him.  At times when he believed he had no more love to offer they attuned to his feeling and he knew they had always been his lover and would always remain that way and with dedication and devotion he continued with the cultivation of his peony soul.

© 14/07/2021 zteve t evans

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Copyright July 14th 2021 zteve t evans

Celtic Lore: Exploring the Otherworld

Image by Varun Maharaj from Pixabay

This article was first published on #FolkoreThursday.com under the title, Exploring the Otherworld of the Celts, on 18 March, 20211, written by zteve t evans.

The concept of a magical, mysterious, “Otherworld” has been a common component in many myths and legends of diverse human cultures all around the world throughout history. The ancient Celtic people also had their own ideas of this enigmatic and ethereal region. Their territories included Ireland, the United Kingdom and a swathe of continental Europe, including areas of the Iberian Peninsula and Anatolia. As such there were variations in philosophies concerning this world and the next from region to region.  Presented here is a brief exploration of their idea of the Otherworld and how it appears in different Celtic regions.

Celtic Mythology

The Celtic Otherworld is sometimes presented as the realm where their deities lived, or the place of their dead and sometimes both. Other stories tell of a magical paradise where people enjoyed eternal youth, good health and beauty, living in joy and abundance with all their needs satisfied. It could also be the abode of the fairies, Twylyth Teg, Aos Sí and many other similar magical entities.

Entry to the Otherworld

The Otherworld is usually hidden and difficult to find but certain worthy people manage to reach it through their own efforts. Others may be invited, or escorted by one of its dwellers, or given signs to follow. Sometimes entry is gained through ancient burial mounds or by crossing over, or under, water, such as a river, pool or the sea. There are also special places such as certain lakes, bogs, caves, burial mounds or hills where access to and from the Otherworld can be gained. Another idea is that the Otherworld exists in a different dimension alongside the earthly one as a kind of mirror-world. At certain times of the year, such as Samhain and Beltane, the veil that separates the two grows thin, or withdraws, making entry and exit easier.

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ANANSI TALES: CRYING FOR NOTHING!

Anansi the Spider

AFRICAN FOLKTALES

Presented here is a retelling of an Anansi tale found in West African Folktales by William H. Barker and Cecilia Sinclair. Anansi the spider is a trickster who has many roles in the folklore and traditions of West Africa, Jamaica and throughout the African diaspora. He features in many roles in many tales sometimes as a hero bringing knowledge and benefits to humans or as a villain. Anansi tales explore human nature and very often by contrasting his behaviour with that of other characters or situations in the story important lessons are found as is the case in the following story.

ANANSI AND NOTHING

Anansi lived in a rundown shack and his nearest neighbor was someone called Nothing who was exceedingly rich and lived in a grand and luxurious palace. One day Anansi and Nothing decided to go into town with the purpose of both finding a wife.  They set off and as they were walking along Anansi became aware of the great contrast in their appearances that revealed their financial status for all to see.  Whereas he was dressed in ragged old cotton clothing, Nothing was smartly attired in fine velvet and satin.  Anansi was dismayed.  He knew there would be competition between the two and women would want to be the wife of the smart and affluent Nothing instead of himself.

After carefully considering the situation he came up with a plan. Nothing liked to be flattered so he told him how smart he thought he looked today.  As he expected Nothing was pleased and very flattered. Anansi then gently and very politely asked Nothing,  if he may try on his clothing to see what it was like to wear such fine apparel.  He promised he would give it back before they reached town.

Again Nothing felt flattered and allowed Anansi to wear his clothes on the condition that they put on their own clothes before they entered town.  When they reached the outskirts of town Nothing reminded Anansi of his promise.  Anansi made many excuses on false pretexts not to change clothing and refused to comply.  All of  Nothing’s pleas fell on deaf ears so he had to continue wearing Anansi’s old cotton rags, much to his displeasure and ire.

ATTRACTING A WIFE

At last they arrived in the town center where it was the custom for people to gathee to show off their finest clothes and parade up and down hoping to attract a spouse.  Anansi, wearing Nothing’s fine clothing of velvet and satin soon came to the attention of the women.  They flocked around him and he had the pick of the best.  He was greatly admired and could have had as many wives as he wished but he chose just one knowing he would somehow have to support her.

In comparison, Nothing dressed in Anansi’s old cotton rags was being ignored and worse still the subject of much derision by the women.  Eventually, one woman saw more to him than his clothes and offered to become his wife.  All the other women laughed and taunted her for wanting to be the wife of such an impoverished and raggedly man as Nothing appeared to be.  However she was a woman who knew her own mind and very wisely ignored them.

Anansi chose the most beautiful woman of the many who flocked around him, making the others madly jealous. With the matter of marriage now decided, Anansi and Nothing accompanied by their respective wives, went home.  However, when they reached the point where the road split into two paths which led to their new husband’s homes the two wives were in for a surprise.

ARRIVING HOME

When Nothing reached the path to his grand house all the servants ran out to greet him and his new wife.  All around the house the servants had decorated it in bright colors and inside had prepared a lavish wedding feast for the couple to enjoy.  Nothing’s new wife was happily surprised as they dressed her and her husband in fine clothing and escorted them singing and dancing along the path into the house. Anansi, to the shock of his new wife, led her up his path which was but dirt and ashes to his tumbledown shack. There was no one to greet these two newlyweds, no food, no decorations and no servants singing happy songs.

Nothing’s wife was well rewarded for her perceptiveness and judgement.  Instead of being the wife of a pauper she was the wife of the richest man in the entire district.  She lived in a grand and luxurious house, ate the best food, wore the finest clothes and lived like a queen. In comparison, the wife of Anansi lived in a tumbledown hovel. She was forced to eat the cheapest food and had to wear old cotton rags for clothes.  

Nothing’s wife was a generous and compassionate woman. Despite having been subject to taunts and derision by her initial decision to marry the seemingly poor Nothing, she invited Anansi’s wife to visit her.  Not because she wanted to get her own back or gloat but because she was kind and generous and wanted to help her. 

When she arrived she was very impressed by the luxury and good life Nothing’s wife lived.  Furthermore, she saw how wrong she had been to judge a person by the cut and splendor of their clothes.  She begged Nothing’s wife for her forgiveness and told her of her miserable impoverished existence with Anansi.  Nothing’s wife told her she was welcome to stay in her home if she did not want to go back to Anansi.

REVENGE

When his wife did not return and he discovered why Anansi was very angry.  He blamed Nothing and decided he would take revenge by murdering him.  He tried several times but without success but then hit on a plan.  He persuaded some rat friends of his to dig a deep tunnel just before Nothing’s front door.  After they had dug the hole he lined it with knives, spikes and broken glass and finally smeared oil upon the front step to make it very slippery.  Then he hid himself in the garden and waited until it grew dark and those in the house had gone to bed.  Softly he called through the window for Nothing to come out into the garden to see what was there.  

On hearing a voice in the night Nothing got up to investigate but his wife, using her good sense and judgement dissuaded him from going outside.  This was repeated for several nights running with his wife stopping him going outside each time.  Eventually, he grew angry with the voice when it called again and would not listen to his wife.   Angrily, he marched out the front to confront the voice but as he stepped out he slipped and the ground fell away below him and he tumbled into the trap Anansi had set.   

His wife and servants heard him cry out and rushed to the front door but his wife stopped the servants from rushing out.   Carefully opening the door and looking this way and that she found him dead in the hole pierced by many spikes and knives and cut by broken glass.

CRYING FOR NOTHING

His wife was heart-broken by his death and grieved greatly.  In the hope of alleviating her grief, she followed the local tradition of cooking and sharing yams. She took them around to each of her neighbors and especially the children so that they might help her to cry out her grief.  This is why when you ask why a child is crying you will often be told, “They are crying for Nothing!”

© 18/06/2021 zteve t evans

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Copyright June 17th 2021 zteve t evans

Celtic Lore: Shapeshifters of Myth and Legend

This article was first published 11 March 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Shapeshifters from the Celtic World by zteve t evans.

Shapeshifters

Shapeshifters are found in most mythologies and folk traditions around the world from ancient to modern times. In such traditions, humans change into vampires, werewolves, frogs, insects, and just any about any other creature imaginable and back again. Sometimes the transformation is controlled by the transformer who shifts shape at will.  Other times it is an unwelcome event such as a punishment and sometimes it is forced by a magical spell but there are many other reasons besides. Shapeshifters can be good or bad, often moving the story forward in a novel way or have some kind of symbolism that the teller wants to get across to their audience. There are many different kinds of shapeshifting and here we look at different examples from Ireland, Wales and Scotland that provide differing glimpses of shapeshifters in action in the myth, folklore, and tradition of these three Celtic nations.

Irish Shapeshifters

In Irish mythology, the Morrigan was a shapeshifting war goddess who could transform into a woman of any age and also change into animal or bird form. She had the power of prophecy and as a war goddess would sing her people to victory in battle. Sometimes she could be seen swooping over the battlefield in the form of a raven or crow and devouring the bodies of the slain.

In the story of the “Táin Bó Cúailnge”, or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” the Morrigan appears as a crow to warn the bull named Donn Cuailnge that Queen Medb is plotting to abduct him. Queen Medb attacks Ulster after the bull but is resisted single-handedly by the hero Cú Chulainn fighting a series of duels with her champions at a ford. In battle, Cú Chulainn undergoes a spectacular change in his form described as ríastrad or “warp-spasm” that sees him his body twist and contort into the most grotesque and fearsome appearance terrifying his opponents.

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Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

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

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

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

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

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

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

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

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

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

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

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

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

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

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

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

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

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

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

King Arthur, Rhitta Gawr and The King’s Whiskers

© 03/02/2021 zteve t evans

The Mantle of Kings’ Beards

Many, many years ago, in the time of King Arthur, when our ruler’s beards were greater than their commonsense, there were two other kings named Nynio and Peibo.  Each ruled over a fine and rich kingdom and their subjects enjoyed peace and prosperity.  The two kings were friends and liked to go walking in the countryside in the evenings.  They would often indulge in friendly banter trying to out do each other bragging about their accomplishments or possessions to one another.  Most of the time this was just good-natured teasing but on one occasion things got wildly out of hand.  One evening as they were out strolling, as the stars were appearing, Nynio looked about and making an extensive gesture to the sky with his hands said,

Look above and all around, Peibo, my friend, see what a wonderful and extensive field I possess!”

Peibo looked all around the sky and asked, “Well now, where is it?”

“It is there, above and around as far as eyes can see, the entire sky is my field and mine alone,” boasted Nynio with pride.

“Oh, is that so? answered Peibo.

“It is,” said Nynio.

“Well, now,” said Peibo, not wanting to be out done, “Can you see all of the great herds of cattle and flocks of sheep that are in that field and grazing.  Each and every animal is mine and mine alone.”

 “I see no herds of cattle, I see no flocks of sheep,” replied Nynio.

“Look harder,” replied Peibo “they are the great swathe of stars that stretch across the sky with smaller herds and flocks scattered here and there.  See how each one shines with gold or silvery brightness.  See how the moon, their beautiful shepherdess guards and takes care of them for me and me alone!”

“It is my field and they shall not graze in my field,” replied Nynio indignantly.

‘Yes they shall,” replied Peibo firmly.

“They most certainly shall not!” replied Nynio angrily.

Both kings were now becoming very heated and angry with each other and became possessed by a madness.

“Shall!” snapped Peibo.

“Shan’t!” Shouted Nynio.

“‘Tis war!”  They both cried together.

In their madness they returned to their kingdoms, mustered their armies and wrought bloody and merciless war on each other.  Both kingdoms were laid waste as both armies fought each other in a cruel and merciless war of attrition.   The fighting only stopped because of the sheer exhaustion of the two sides.  There was no victor save foolishness and what were once two fine and prosperous kingdoms lay in smoking ruins with the people left traumatized and starving.

The King of Wales, a giant named Rhitta Gawr, heard about the madness of the two kings and how they had destroyed their own fair and prosperous kingdoms through their foolishness. He consulted with his wise men and his barons and it was agreed that they should take advantage of the present weakness of these once strong and prosperous kingdoms.   Therefore, he mobilized his army and invaded and conquered the two broken kingdoms, capturing the two monarchs and cutting their beards off to teach them a lesson.

News that Rhitta Gawr had invaded and conquered the two warring kingdoms spread throughout the island of Britain and reached the ears of twenty-eight kings.  They were appalled at the foolishness of  Nynio and Peibo and the wanton destruction of the two kingdoms and outraged by the invasion of Rhitta Gawr.  However, what really made them angry was the shaving of the royal whiskers of the two mad kings by the giant.   They deemed inflicting this humiliation on two monarchs, despite their foolishness, had gone too far.  Therefore, to avenge what they saw as a degrading and humiliating act on two of their own status they united their armies and declared war on Rhitta Gawr. The battle was long and bloody and Rhitta Gawr eventually defeated the coalition of kings and had them brought before him.

“Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies.  All you see is my vast field.  All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!” he told them in jubilation.  With no further ado or ceremony he ordered the royal whiskers of the defeated kings to be shaved off completely.

News spread beyond Britain of the victory of Rhitta Gawr and how he had shaved the beards of his enemies. The kings of twenty-eight neighboring realms were outraged.  Not so much at the initial mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo, or the defeat of the twenty-eight kings.  No, it was the shaving of the royal whiskers that outraged them and they merged their armies and attacked Rhitta Gawr. The battle was ferocious and bloody but once again Rhitta Gawr defeated and captured his enemies and once again jubilantly declared,

 “Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies.  All you see is my vast field.  All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!”

With no further ceremony he ordered that the beards of the defeated be cut off.  When they had all been shaved clean he stood before them and addressing his own troops pointed at the beardless, defeated, kings and declared, 

“See, these animals that once grazed here!  These are now my pastures and I now drive them out and they shall graze here no more!”

Rhitta Gawr now possessed the beards of a sizeable number of kings which made a sizeable pile of whiskers and somehow, for some reason a very strange idea came into his head.  Somehow, the notion grew on him that he would use the pile of royal whiskers to make a fancy mantle to wear around his shoulders.  He believed he would look very elegant and magnificent and the cloak being made from the whiskers of kings he had defeated would emphasize his own power and glory. 

The more he thought about it the more obsessed  he became with the idea while the sheer grossness of it completely escaped him.  Therefore he had a mantle made from the king’s whiskers to wear around his broad shoulders that reached down to his heels.  Rhitta Gawr was at least twice as large as the largest man so the size of the garment and volume of whiskers he had collected was considerable.  

When the mantle was made he tried it on.  In his own mad mind he thought he looked very elegant and the height of fashion but realized there was something missing.  After considerable contemplation he decided he needed an exceptionally splendid beard to make a collar to finish off the entire magnificent piece.  There was only one royal beard that would be magnificent enough to do his mantle justice and that was on the chin of King Arthur, the greatest king of Britain.

He sent a messenger bearing a demand to King Arthur commanding him to shave off his beard without delay and give it to the messenger to bring back to him.  He promised out of respect to Arthur his royal whiskers would adorn the most prominent place on his wonderfully elegant new mantle which would be the height of fashion.  If he refused to comply he warned he would fight him in a duel to decide the matter.

Unsurprisingly, Arthur was not impressed by the command.  He was, however, angry with the mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo and the defeat and humiliation all the other kings by Rhitta Gawr. Surprisingly, he did not seem the least perturbed at the giant’s taste in mantles but the forced shaving of the beards of all of the vanquished really annoyed him.  Furthermore, the very idea that he would willingly offer up his own royal whiskers to the arrogant giant really inflamed him. 

Angrily, he informed the messenger that but for the laws of his Court, which even he must obey; he would have slain him there and then for bringing such an offensive suggestion before him.  He told him to tell his master this was the most arrogant and insulting demand he had ever heard and for his impudence he would take his head, beard and all.  Wasting no time he mobilized his army and marched to Gwynedd in Wales to meet Rhitta Gawr in battle.

The two met face to face, beard to beard and the giant towered above glowering down. Arthur stood his ground and glared back fiercely.

“Give me your whiskers!” demanded Rhitta Gawr.

“Shan’t” replied Arthur angrily.

“Shall!” roared Rhitta Gawr.

“Shan’t! replied Arthur.

“T’is war!” they both cried together and immediately began fighting, trading blow for blow with great ferocity and strength. 

Although both received many wounds and were greatly bloodied they fought long and hard neither yielding to the other, each giving as they received.  At last Arthur was taken by a fury.  He drove forward catching the giant a mighty blow slicing through his helmet and splitting his forehead and quickly followed through with a strike to his heart.  Rhitta Gawr died and Arthur kept his royal whiskers. 

The giant was placed on top of the highest mountain of that region which was known as Eryi in those days.  Arthur ordered the soldiers of both armies to each place a stone over his body raising a cairn to cover him.  That place became known as Gwyddfa Rhitta or  Rhitta’s Barrow.  Today the Welsh call it “Yr Wyddfa” which means “tumulus” and the English call it “Snowdon”, meaning “snow hill,”  One consolation for Rhitta Gawr was that at least he did come to adorn a truly magnificent work of nature though judging by his taste in mantles it is doubtful he would have appreciated it.

To think that all this came about through the madness of two kings and the fact that the rulers of Britain had greater beards than their commonsense.  Looking around today it is worth noting that few of our rulers wear whiskers and perhaps that speaks for the greatness of their commonsense!

© 05/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 5th, 2021 zteve t evans

Celtic Lore: Cauldrons – The Magical, the Mythical and the Real

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 11th February 2021, titled , “Ancient Celtic Cauldrons: The Magical, the Mythical, the Real,” by zteve t evans.

Cauldrons

In the ancient mythologies of the Welsh and Irish Celts, the cauldron played an important role in some of their most enduring stories and myths. In these, they were often attributed with magical properties but in the everyday life of the Celts, they were also very useful and versatile utensils. Here we take a brief look at the everyday usage of cauldrons followed by a look at five mythical cauldrons. To conclude we will discuss one real, very ancient and very special cauldron found in a bog in Denmark.

The Cauldron of Ceridwen

One of their most famous cauldrons was the cauldron of knowledge, inspiration, and rebirth. It belonged to a sorceress named Ceridwen. She used her cauldron to brew a potion that would imbue knowledge and wisdom to whoever drank of it, yet she intended it solely for her son. The concoction had to be boiled and stirred for a year and a day. She tasked a blind man named Morda with the job of feeding the fire, and a boy named Gwion Bach with stirring the brew. Many people see the continuous stirring of the cauldron as blending the attributes of divine wisdom and inspiration with the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth to create the perfect brew of existence.

The Gundestrup Cauldron

The Gundestrup cauldron is most spectacular of real ancient Celtic cauldrons so far recovered, dated to the Iron Age. It is made of silver and beautifully and intricately decorated with many fine images.  The silversmiths are unknown, but in those days few craftsmen could produce such craftsmanship in silver. They may not even have been Celts, but the best available craftsmen at the time. However, because of the Celtic iconography, it displays it was thought to have been commissioned by an unknown, high-ranking Celt, probably for purely ceremonial purposes. The imagery was believed to express one or more Celtic myths, and possibly display several deities mixed with other images of a different style.

The Importance of Cauldrons

Many scholars think in Celtic times people came together around a cauldron to engage in the enjoyable, sociable activity of eating. The Gundestrup cauldron, being made of silver, was probably not used for cooking on a fire, but may have held pre-cooked food or drink or was purely ceremonial.

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The Giant and the Geoglyphs of the The Atacama Desert, Chile

Atacama Desert – Image by Julian Hacker from Pixabay

The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert (Desierto de Atacama) of Chile, South America, located between the Andes Mountains and the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range is the oldest desert on the planet. However, with an average temperature of 18 C or 63 F it is not the hottest desert in the world but being sandwiched between two mountain ranges creates special atmospheric and weather conditions making it the driest non-polar desert in the world.  The desert landscape is dry and arid with an otherworldly appearance and has been used for simulations of future expeditions to Mars.  The driest part of the desert receives less that a millimeter of rain annually on average though rainstorms do occur on rare occasions which bring rapid but fleeting growths of wildflowers.

Geoglyphic Art

Although the Atacama is a desolate, inhospitable place today there is much evidence of ancient human presence.   There are more that 5,000 prehistoric works of art known as geoglyths that have been situated on or created from the landscape.  A geoglyph is a work of art or construction that is formed on the ground in parts of the landscape.  They are usually 4 meters or more in length and constructed of durable materials found in the locality such as stone, rocks, gravel or earth.  They are considered a type of ancient land art and in some cases rock art and are usually highly visible from a distance.  In some cases such as some of the famous Nasca lines of Peru they appear to have been constructed to be viewed from above though it is not certain that was intended.  The Nazca lines were built between 200-800 BC and about 800 kilometers distant.   However, the Atacama glyphs are believed to have been built between 600 and 1500 AD and although not thought to be as old are more numerous and with varied styles covering a much larger region.

It is believed both sets of geoglyphs had multiple symbolic and ritual purposes and communicated certain information to people who understood their symbolism.   The Atacama geoglyphs are thought to have played an important role in the transportation system and networks that connected the great civilizations of South America in pre-Hispanic times.  They were believed to have been built and improved upon by more than one early South American culture including The Tiwanaku and Inca Empires as well as other groups.  The geoglyphs are formed in many different shapes including human, animal and geometric in about fifty varying types.  Some of these works were placed or created in isolated sites while others appear in panels of figures up to fifty in number.   They are located throughout the Atacama Desert in valleys, or on pampas or hillsides and always close to pre-Hispanic paths or tracks which were the routes of the llama caravans through the arid and desolate landscape connecting the ancient people of the region.

Types and Forms of Geoglyphs

Image by SznegraCC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There were three methods that have been identified that were used to create the geoglyphs.  One method was to scrape away the top layer of the landscape such as soil or sand revealing a contrasting color below.   Another way was to use rocks and stone and other materials to form shapes on the landscape.   They also used a combination of these two methods and sometimes paint to create other geoglyphs.

Geoglyphs in geometric shapes are the most numerous. There are many different types of these including rectangles, circles, concentric circles, arrows, crossed parallel lines, rhomboids and other shapes.  There are also zoomorphic figures especially llamas and alpacas, but also animals such as fox and monkeys, birds such as eagles, flamingos, and seagulls and fishes such as dolphins or sharks.   There are also depictions of amphibians such as lizards, snake and toads which were believed to represent ancient divinities associated with water.  One of the most often repeated depictions are of caravans of llamas with 3 or more ranks of up to 80 animals in lines.   Humans are also depicted engaged in activities such as fishing, hunting, religious ceremonies and sex.

Ancient Signposts

Luis Briones in his paper, “The geoglyphs of the north Chilean desert: an archaeological and artistic perspective”, published in the March 2006 issue of the journal Antiquity discussed the geoglyphs and came up with some interesting ideas. The real function and purpose of the geoglyphs may never be known but Briones believes they may have served several functions.   Their location along the trade routes through the Atacama seems to have been deliberate.  It may be they acted as signposts providing the travelers, who would know their meaning, with certain types of invaluable and useful information.

They may have served as pointers or landmarks perhaps indicating where water or fodder for animals may be found, or warning of difficulties in the landscape and indicating safe paths.   It may be that they are part of an early religion or cult which may have combined commercial traveling with religion.  Following such a path may have been a rite or ritual or perhaps an initiation or pilgrimage.   If they did contain information they may have been an early form of writing.  However, to read their meaning you would have to know what the shapes and the way they were set meant along with how punctuation and syntax was used.  Unfortunately, that knowledge is now lost, if it ever existed and we can only guess.

The trade routes would have been an important part of the economy for any civilization or culture.   The moving or essential items such as corn, potatoes, fish and other food as well as commodities such as turquoise, copper and cotton to distant markets helps bind civilizations and empires together.   Moreover, they transported news and perhaps orders or commands from the government centers.

The Atacama Giant

One of the most spectacular of these geoglyphs is known as the Atacama Giant, a large anthropomorphic figure set on the side of the hill of Cerro Unitas.  It is the largest known prehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world being 390 ft (119 m) long and believed to depict a deity of a local population from 1000 – 1400 AD.   It was believed to be an early astronomical calendar that told those who knew how to read it important dates such as crop cycles and seasons in relation to how certain parts of it aligned with the moon.   Anything that might help predict rain or weather would be very useful in the dry, barren regions of the Atacama Desert.  

Hill figures are often thought to have been intended to view from some distance, suggesting the giant may have been strategically placed.  The giant has a stylized unnatural appearance made up of squares, rectangles and parallel lines at varying angles to create a geometric representation of a massive anthropomorphic figure.    It appears to be either wearing a headdress such as one made of feathers or had rays emanating with from its head or from behind it.    How the moon or other astronomical objects related to these lines was believe to give the season and times of the year. 

The Giant and the other geoglyphs provide evidence of the activities of humans in these inhospitable regions. There are many similar examples of such landscape art found all around the world including the Nasca lines, and the White Horse of Uffington and other English hill figures, the Blythe Intaglios of California USA and the Steppe Geoglyphs of Kazakhstan are but a few examples.

© 23/04/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 4th, 2021 zteve t evans

Five Trees Featured in Celtic Lore

Image by mbll from Pixabay

This article was first published on 21st January 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com under the title Top 5 Trees in Celtic Mythology, Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans.

Animists

It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. Of course, wood was also used for everyday needs such as fire wood and making shelters, spears, arrows, staffs and many other items. Trees also supplied nuts and berries for themselves and their animals as food. Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore and presented here are five trees that played an important role in these tales and lore.

Oak Trees

The oak was the king of the forest having many associations throughout the Celtic world with religion, ritual and myth and many practical uses.  For the Druids – the Celtic priesthood – it was an integral part of their rituals and was also used as a meeting place. According to the 1st-century geographer Strabo, Druids in Galatia, Asia Minor, met in a sacred grove of oak trees they named Drunemeton, to perform rituals and conduct other Druidic businessIn 1 CE, Pliny the Elder, writing in Historia Naturalis, documented how a Druidic fertility rite held on the sixth day of the moon involved a Druid cutting mistletoe from the branches of an oak and the ritual sacrifice of two white bulls.

Oaks also played important parts in Welsh mythology. In the Math fab Mathonwy, the last of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the sorcerers Gwydion and Math create a maiden they named Blodeuwedd or flower-faced from the blossoms of the oak, the broom and meadowsweet. She was created to be the bride of their nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who could not marry a human woman due to a curse placed on him by Arianrhod, his mother.  He married Blodeuwedd who never learnt the social conventions never having experienced the learning process of growing up. She had an affair with Gronw Pebyrv and together they plotted to kill Lleu. He was badly wounded by Gronw but turning into an eagle flew into an oak tree to escape being murdered. The oak appeared to be a refuge between the living world and the world of death and he remained there until Gwydion found and cured him.

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