Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Synopsis

 

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English alliterative poem from the 14th century. It is a chivalric romance that uses the folkloric motifs of the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. The poem is from a single surviving manuscript known as Cotton Nero A.x which also hold three other narrative poems called; Pearl, Purity, and Patience. These three poems are of a Christian religious nature as is the Sir Gawain poem while many people see it as also containing pagan allusions. The author of the manuscript is unknown but generally referred to as either the Gawain Poet or the Pearl Poet. There are many different ways to interpret Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but what is provided here is a brief synopsis of the poem.

Brutus of Troy and the Founding of Britain

The poem begins by mentioning the mythical founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy in the Historical Prologue and tells how after the fall of Troy the descendants of the exiles founded new cities and countries.  According to the poem, Rome was founded by Romulus, Tuscany by Tiscius, Langoberde begins the settlement of the country later called Lombardy and Brutus became the founder of Britain.  This information is designed to give Camelot political significance and legitimacy and introduces King Arthur the noblest and greatest king and leader of the country.  This also gives him historical significance and legitimacy while also linking the poet’s own text with such classics as Virgil’s Aeneid, providing a literary link to those ancient times.

The Appearance of the Green Knight

The story begins in Camelot on the feast of New Year’s Day with the members of Arthur’s court giving and receiving presents from one another when Arthur requests to see or hear of a thrilling experience of exploit from someone before the feast commences. Apparently, in answer to this request there rides into the hall upon a massive green horse the huge figure of a knight.  He is not dressed for battle wearing and not wearing armor but his clothing and even his skin and hair are all green. In one hand he holds a most splendid battle axe while in the other he holds a branch of holly.

The Christmas Game

The Green Knight refused to enter into combat with anyone declaring there was no one present who could match him.  Instead he invited any who dared to take part in a special Christmas game. Explaining the rules he tells them that someone must strike him one blow with his axe but within one year and a day they must themselves take a blow from him. Whoever decides to play can keep the axe. On hearing these terms all the knights present at first refused to play but when it appeared that no one had the courage Arthur agreed. However, The youngest knight present, Sir Gawain, offered to step in and play the game for him which Arthur and the Green Knight accepted.

The Green Knight knelt and bows his head to receive a blow which is duly given by Sir Gawain severing the head from the body in one stroke. After the blow is delivered to the shock of all present the Green Knight is not killed but picking up his severed head mounts his horse. Holding the severed head to face Queen Guinevere the lips speak reminding Gawain and all those present that the two players in the game must meet again at the Green Chapel within the agreed space of time. The Green Knight then wheels his horse around and carrying his severed head aloft rides from the hall leaving the bemused Gawain, Arthur and his knights with little else to do other than admiring the battle axe left with Gawain. They made fun of the strange event, laughing while encouraging Guinevere to make light of the matter.  Life at Camelot soon returned to normal but time marched on.

Gawain’s Quest for the Green Chapel

With the approach of the allotted time and with only a few days left for the game to resume Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel to keep his promise to the Green Knight. On his way, he has many adventures which he overcomes but is severely tested by the cold and bitter weather of winter. On Christmas morning he prays he might find somewhere to hear mass and finds a beautiful castle. The lord of the castle is a knight named Bertilak de Hautdesert who has a beautiful wife and both are highly honored to have Gawain as a guest in their castle. There is also a female guest present at the castle who although being old and ugly was treated with great respect and reverence by the lord and lady.

The Castle of Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert

Gawain explains to them about the game with the Green Knight telling them he is due to meet up with him on New Year’s Day and has only a few days left to find the Green Chapel.  Bertilak reveals that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and suggests Gawain rests for the remaining time at his castle.  Gawain, after his long hard journey, is only too pleased to accept this proposition.

Bertilak tells Gawain he is going  hunting in the morning and that he should stay and rest himself in bed after his long and arduous journey.  He then proposed they make a pact with each other. Whatever he gains in the hunt he will bring home and give to Gawain. Whatever Gawain gains the next day by staying in the castle he will give to his host on his return. Gawain accepts the pact and goes to bed.

Gawain’s Pact with Bertilak

With Bertilak out hunting Gawain remains in bed in the castle and Lady Bertilak goes to his bedchamber and attempts to seduce him. Gawain though greatly tempted does not wish to betray Bertilak and at the same time does not wish to offend the lady.  Gently and politely he refuses her advances, but in doing so accepts a single kiss from her.  Bertilak has a successful day out hunting catching a deer which when he returns he fulfills his side of the bargain and gives it to Gawain. Gawain to fulfill his part gives Bertilak a kiss but does not reveal where he got it from pointing out that was not part of their pact.

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Sir Gawain and Lady Bertilak – By Anonymous (http://gawain.ucalgary.ca) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The next morning Bertilak again goes hunting leaving Gawain in his castle. Again Lady Bertilak tries to seduce him and although greatly tempted all he will accept is a kiss. Later that day Lady Bertilak tries again but  he will courteously only accept another kiss. When Bertilak returns he gives Gawain the head of a boar he has killed and receives from Gawain two kisses and again the source of these is not revealed.

On the third morning, Bertilak once again goes off hunting leaving Gawain in the castle with Lady Bertilak. She asks him for a small gift or keepsake to remember him by but he tells her he has no such thing worthy of her. Again Lady Bertilak tries to seduce Gawain while offering him a gold ring to remember her by. Gawain courteously refuses the gift but she begs him to accept the green and gold girdle of silk she wears telling him it is magical and wearing it will keep him safe from all physical harm.  Gawain is mindful that the next day he must face the Green Knight in the Green Chapel to complete their game which he does not expect to survive and accepts the gift.

This time when Bertilak returns from hunting he has caught a fox which he gives to Gawain as agreed.  In return, Gawain gives him the three kisses he had received again not revealing where he got them from but withheld Lady Bertilak’s gift of her girdle saying nothing about it at all.

The Green Knight at the Green Chapel

The next morning Gawain wraps the girdle twice around his body and sets off with a guide provided by Bertilak to take him to the Green Chapel to play the final part of the strange and grim game with the Green Knight. When they draw near the guide tells Gawain that if he should decide to give up the game and ride away he would tell no one. Gawain is determined to keep his promise to the Green Knight.  The guide tells him that he is too afraid to go further himself that shows Gawain the way who rides on alone. When he arrives at the Green Chapel he finds the Green Knight already there sharpening a massive battle-axe.

Gawain dismounts and kneels and bows his head to receive a blow from the Green Knight. As the Green Knight prepares to bring down the axe on his neck Gawain flinches slightly as he swings. This cause the Green Knight to stop and berate him for cowardice. This shames Gawain who then waits unflinchingly for the blow but the Green Knight swings again but holds it from the final blow telling Gawain he is testing his nerve. Gawain, now angry berates the Green Knight insisting he gets on with it. This time the Green Knight does bring the axe down on his neck but at the last instant withholds force, causing only minor wound to Gawain’s neck and with this, the game is over.

Gawain then arms himself preparing to fight but the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Bertilak de Hautdesert who had been magically transformed into the Green Knight. Bertilak then explains that the entire game was a trick caused by the old ugly woman who had been his other guest and that she was the sorceress, Morgan le Fay in an attempt to frighten Queen Guinevere to death and create a test for Arthur and his knights.

Return to Camelot

After this revelation, Gawain is ashamed and tells Bertilak about the gift of the girdle. Birtilak laughs and absolves Gawain of any guilt calling him the most blameless knight in all the land. The two part as friends and Gawain returns to Camelot where he tells Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table of his adventure. Arthur and the knights also absolve him of the blame for not revealing the gift of the girdle and in an act of solidarity with him, all agree to wear a green sash to remind them to keep their integrity.

© 20/09/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 20th, 2017 zteve t evans

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Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland

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Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland – By Katharine Cameron (1874–1965) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas was a real Scottish laird who lived in Scotland in the 13th century, though there is confusion over his name which was either Thomas Learmont or Thomas de Ercildoun.  Evidence of his existence is found in charters from 1294 and 1260-80 that mention him.   Although there is speculation that it was the prophetic verses that earned him his nickname it is thought more likely this came from a corruption of his surname. His father was named Thome or Thomas Rymour de Ercildoun.  Ercildoun was the name of the modern village of Earlston in Galashiels which is situated about 30 miles southeast of Edinburgh.       
 
In his time Thomas was a widely respected prophet and clairvoyant with many of his predictions coming true. He successfully predicted the death of King Alexander lll, the succession to the throne of Robert the Bruce, the defeat of Scotland in 1513 at Flodden and in 1603 the union of crowns  His talent for accurately foretelling the future is associated with his ability to create verse which was seen as the language of prophets. 
 
When ever he took up his harp to play or cleared his throat to sing all present; princes, nobles or peasants, would fall silent and stand in joy and awe at the sweet music he made.   All who heard were touched, for his voice and words stirred the emotions and his fingers that played upon the strings of the harp, stroked, strummed and soothed the people’s hearts.  He could move people to joy and then to sorrow and then back again and held all who heard him in the palm of his hand.  Although he was widely regarded as a gifted seer and comparable to Merlin and a talented singer and harpist he had not been born with these abilities and it was widely believed he been given them by the Queen of Elfland herself.  Presented next is a retelling of how Thomas met the Queen of Elfland and was given his remarkable talents.

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Welsh Folklore and Legend: The Drowned Town of Lake Bala

From #FolkloreThursday.com
By zteve t evans, March 9th, 2017

Drowned Towns and Sunken Cities: The Legend of Lake Bala, Wales

Lake Bala is also known as Llyn Tegid, and in Welsh folklore is known for its legend of having a sunken town beneath its surface.  It is situated in Gwynedd, Wales, and the modern day town of Bala lies on its eastern shore.  There are two different legends that give different accounts of how the flooding took place.  One concerns the spring of Ffynnon Gower or Gower’s Well, and the other involves the wickedness of a prince named Tegid Foel.  This article looks at the legend of Tegid Foel. 

The Legend of Tegid Foel

According to legend, Tegid Foel had a fine palace in the town now underneath Lake Bala and lived a life of opulence and excess.  He had a reputation for cruelty and greed, and oppressed his people.  The gods had sent several warnings and provided opportunities for him to change his ways, but still he unheedingly persisted in his greed and excesses.

When his first grandson was born, he decided he would celebrate the birth with a lavish feast.  He sent invitations to all the important princes in Wales and beyond, and invited all of his family to join him in the banquet at his palace in Bala.  Now, they say a man is known by the company he keeps, and there were many who would not attend the celebration because they refused to associate with this cruel and barbaric prince.  Sadly, like attracts like and the banquet was still attended by many powerful men of ill repute and behaviour.

Philippine Folklore: Maria Makiling of Mount Makiling

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By kellepics – Pixabay – CC0 Creative Commons

Maria Makiling

As is often the case in many parts of the Philippines and around the world, mountains and volcanoes became associated with legends, myths and ancient traditions and Mount Makiling is strongly associated with a mythical female entity named Maria Makiling. She is also known as Mariang Makiling and is considered to be a spirit or forest nymph known as a diwata or lambana in Philippine folklore. Before the Philippines were colonized she was known as Dayang Masalanta or Dian Masalanta who could be called upon to stop or prevent natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, or storms. She is also identified with the amount of fish caught in Laguna de Bay which is part of her realm and appears to be a spirit of abundance influencing the functioning of the natural world. She was seen as a benign spirit of nature that poor people could approach and ask for help whenever they needed it.

It is said that it is Maria who goes through the forest after a storm fixing broken branches and trees and repairing the nests of birds that have been damaged. She walks through the forest healing the broken wings of butterflies and clearing away debris from the forest floor and streams. Wherever she walks the sun shines and the birds sing and the flowers bloom and the animals frisk and play as she tidies up the forest after the storm.

Maria and the Mountain

It is not known whether Maria Makiling was named after the mountain, or whether the mountain was named after her. However, some people think that when seen from different locations Mount Makiling looks like the profile of a sleeping woman and this is said to be Maria.  In Philippine mythology, there are other similar supernatural entities who are also mountain goddesses or spirits such as Maria Sinukuan who are found on Mount Arayat, Pampanga and Maria Cacao of Mount Lantoy, Cebu.

Tradition says that Maria Makiling is a beautiful young woman in the prime of life and never grows any older. She is said to have long black shiny hair, bright sparkling eyes, and a light olive complexion. Her personality mirrors the enchantment and serenity of the mountain environment she is found in and she is also associated with the mists that often appear on Mount Makiling. In some traditions, her skin or hair is said to be white but in most stories, she wears radiant white clothes confuses people into believing the wisps of mist they saw through the trees on the mountain was Maria. According to tradition she lives in a small hut sometimes situated in a village while other traditions say her hut is on the mountain and can only ever be found if she allows it.

Tradition and Superstitions of Maria Makiling

Maria Makiling stories were part of the Philippines oral tradition long before they were written down. Some are not actual stories but more like superstitions which abound about her. One tells how that every now and then men who went into the forests on the mountain would not return. It was believed Maria had lured them away to her home hidden somewhere in the mountain wilds to be her husband. There they would spend the rest of their days in happiness and marital bliss alone with Maria in her hut hidden on the mountain.

There is another tradition that says that although anyone can go into the forest to pick and eat fruits no fruit should be taken home because this may anger Maria. Offenders have been known to lose their way and this is believed to be caused by Maria changing the paths to take them into thick thorn bushes, or become beset by stinging insects she has sent or led them into. If this happens the only thing the victim can do is leave the fruit in the forest and reverse all clothing which is seen as proof that they no longer carry the fruit of the forest with them.

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Mount Makiling – By Ramon FVelasquez (Own work) [CC Mount Makiling – BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Transforming Ginger into Gold

One of the best known stories about Maria Makiling is that she can transform ginger into gold which she does usually to help someone. In these stories, she often lives in a village as one of the community and is called upon to help one of the community in some way. Sometimes it is a mother with a sick child, or perhaps a husband may be seeking a cure for his sick wife.

However, when diagnosing the problem Maria recognizes the signs of malnutrition and poor diet rather than a disease or sickness and gives them ginger to take home. Invariably, by the time they get home the ginger has turned to gold which they can then sell or exchange. One foolish villager finding the ginger becoming heavy threw it away rather than carry it home.

In some traditions, Maria is a well-loved and respected part of the local community for her kindness and help. However, there is also a tradition that says that the villagers became greedy and went to her garden pulling up plants to see if they were gold. This distressed her so much that she ran away to live on the mountain.

A Loser in Love

In many legends, Maria Makiling is cast as a rejected lover. One story tells how she had fallen in love with a hunter who had wandered into her territory. The two soon formed a relationship and became lovers and the hunter would climb up the mountain everyday to see her and they promised eternal love to each other.  However, Maria was shocked to discover that her lover was being unfaithful and had married a mortal woman.

Naturally, Maria was devastated and concluded she could never trust the local people again realizing she was so very different to them and came to believe that they were just taking advantage of her good nature. Therefore, she withdrew her consent which allowed the trees and bushes to bear fruit and she stopped the animals and birds roaming the forest for the hunters to catch and stopped the fish from breeding in the lake. From then on she withdrew to the mountain and was seldom seen except occasionally by the light of the pale moon as she wandered through the forest alone.

Another legend tells how Maria would watch over a farmer she had fallen in love with. Because of this protection, the people said the farmer was living a charmed life or had a mutya that protected him. He was a young man of good nature though rather shy and reserved.  He would never reveal anything to his family or friends of his visits to Maria. Then one day the army came into his village recruiting single young men to fight a war. So that he would not have to enlist he decided he would marry a village girl.

Visiting Maria for the last time he tells her of his decision. She tells him,

“I believed you to be devoted and in love with me. I have the power to protect you and your family, but I now see you lack faith in me and need and earthly woman for your earthly needs.”

After telling him this she left and was never seen by the villagers again and no trace of her hut could ever be found.

The Curse of Maria Makiling

Another version of the story was supposed to have happened during the later years of the Spanish occupation. This tells how Maria was wooed by three suitors. One was a Spanish soldier named Captain Lara. Another was a student named Joselito who was studying in Manila and the third was a poor farmer named Juan.

Of the three, Maria Makiling preferred Juan despite his humble status. The two rejected men plotted together to frame Juan for the crime of setting on fire the Spanish barracks. Juan was taken and tried and sentenced to be shot as an enemy of the Spanish. As he was about to be shot he called out Maria’s name.

High up on the mountain she heard his cry but was too late to save him. Fearing her anger Joselito and Captain Lara fled to Manila. On discovering how Juan had been framed and shot she placed a curse on Joselito and Captain Lara and all men who cannot accept rejection in love. Maria’s curse quickly took effect and Joselito fell sick with an incurable illness and died and Captain Lara was killed fighting revolutionaries.

According to the legend from that time onwards Maria was never again seen by humans and whenever someone loses their way on the mountain they remember the curse of Maria Makiling and also of the great love she had for Juan.

© 30/08/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 30th, 2017 zteve t evans

Guatemalan Folklore: El Sombrerón

El Sombrerón

In the folklore and of Guatemala, El Sombrerón is a legendary bogeyman figure who also appears in other Latin American countries such as Mexico. He also is known by other names such as Tzizimite, Tzipitio, and the goblin, but generally appears as a short male dressed all in black. He wears a thick black, shiny belt and black shiny boots that click when he walks. On his head, he wears a large black sombrero hat.

He often has a horse and will braid its mane and tail. His favorite occupation is to court young ladies who have large dark eyes and long black hair which he likes to braid for her. He will serenade and play his guitar for her but will also place soil on her plate and she will have problems eating and sleeping.

His favorite time to appear is at dusk when he can sometimes be seen leading a line of four mules around the city or its urban districts. When a girl responds favorably to his advances he will tie his mules to her house and begin to serenade her by singing and playing his guitar.  Sometimes he will dance for her.  It is said by some residents of Parroquia Vieja and La Recolección districts in La Antigua, Guatemala, that when there is a full moon he can still be seen at times wandering through the steets.

Susana

One legend of El Sombrerón tells how an attractive young woman named Susana from La Recolección was troubled by this strange, amorous spirit. Susana was the daughter of a woman who was the owner of a local store. She was very pretty with long dark hair and big hazel eyes.  One pleasant summer night she was sat out on her balcony watching the stars come out when she was approached by a rather short man dressed all in black wearing a large black sombrero hat. He was carrying a silver guitar slung over his back.

He stood below her balcony looking up to her and he sang and strummed his guitar and she fell under his spell. Luckily her mother looked out and called her inside but from that moment on Susana could not get the strange man out of her mind. In fact, he would appear out of nowhere either in the house or outside and begin playing his guitar and singing to her. Sometimes he would begin to braid her long dark hair while she appeared helpless to stop him. Strangely each time she was given a plate of food it was found to be contaminated with soil. It made no difference who prepared it or who served it to her it still became contaminated preventing her from eating properly and her health began to suffer. Eventually, her worried mother cut her hair and took it to the church and asked the priest to soak it with holy water and to pray over it. The priest did as he was asked and after a few days, the strange little man stopped bothering her.

Another Victim

Another legend tells how one village girl went out one night to sit on her balcony and enjoy the light of the full moon. She was surprised to hear the sound of a guitar playing and a soothing voice singing a beautiful serenade. Looking over the balcony she saw a strange, dark, squat figure in a large sombrero hat playing a silver guitar while singing up to her. Struck by the music and singing she listened but was disturbed by her mother who heard and knew who was out there and came out and called her in quickly. However, it was too late for she had fallen under his spell and every night the strange man in the big hat would appear and serenade her keeping her awake all night long.

One night he climbed the balcony and entered her room and began to braid her hair as she sat spellbound. Tradition says that once he finishes the first braid she would become his bride for eternity but that never happened in this case. Although she was under his spell El Sombrerón likes to keep moving from one girl to the next and he grew bored with her and moved on to another victim. Although he has them under his spell rather than marry them he prefers to throw stones and dirt in their food so that they cannot eat and slowly starve and die of a broken heart. That is what happened to this poor girl.

Warning

The legend of El Sombrerón is a warning to young girls that moonlight and music can easily be used by men of bad intentions as a means of seduction and to remember and uphold the traditional family values and the standards of society. It reminds them that courtship has certain rituals and rules that should be obeyed and followed rather than fall for the charms of mysterious strangers on dark nights under the moonlight.

© 23/08/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 23rd, 2017 zteve t evans

Latin American Folklore: La Patasola

La Patasola - Public Domain

By Rafael Yockteng (http://leyenco.iespana.es/quindio.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

La Patasola

In Latin American folklore La Patasola, or one-foot,  is a predatory supernatural woman preying on those males who tend to live or work on the edge of civilization close to the wild such as hunters and forest workers.  La Patasola has only one foot or leg and appears to her victims as a beautiful woman often taking on the likeness of a victim’s loved one.  She will choose a victim and try and separate him from his companions and enticing him further and further into the jungle.  Once she has led him to a remote place she will change into a terrifying, one legged vampire-like creature that lusts after the blood and flesh of humans.   She will suck the blood from her victims until they are dry and then eat their raw flesh.

La Patasola haunts the remote mountains and dense untamed forests and other thickly wooded places with lush verdant vegetation.   She is seen as a guardian of the wild animals and the jungle and the enemy of those who kill animals or destroy the jungle environment that she lives in.

She mostly strikes at night tending to lurk on the fringe of semi-civilized places looking for male victims such as loggers, miners, hunters, shepherds and herders who tend to spend a lot of time around the edges of the wild places.  She will often disrupt their activities if they are interfering with her territory by blocking paths and shortcuts through the jungle and disrupt hunting dogs making them lose the scent trail.

La Patasola is found in different regions many South American countries and is known by different names with different attributes in different places.   A similar creature is found in the Colombian Pacific Coast region called La Tunda

A Shapeshifter

La Patasola is so named because she has only one leg which has an hoof for a foot.  Despite these apparent disadvantages she can move very swiftly around the jungle and wilderness.  She is said to only have one breast, a large hooked nose, bulbous eyes, thick lips and sharp teeth with elongated canines which she uses to puncture the skin of her victims and suck their blood.  Her head is a mass of long, wild, matted hair.  La Patasola is a shapeshifter who can change her body into different forms such as a loved one of an intended victim, or a huge black dog or cow.

It is said that when she is happy she will climb to the top of a tree or mountain and sing the following song,

I’m more than the siren ,

I live alone in the world

and no one can resist me

because I am the Patasola.

On the road, at home,

on the mountain and the river,

in the air and in the clouds

all that exists is mine.” (1)

The Origin of La Patasola

There are many different stories that tell how La Patasola originated.  In most cases she has been a woman of bad character displaying lecherous or lewd behaviour.  Some versions say she murdered her own son and was punished by being mutilated and banished to the jungle.  Another version says that she was evil and cruel to men and women.   She was punished by having her leg chopped off with an axe which was then burnt in front of her as she died,  Now she haunts the jungles, mountains and wild places on the edge of civilization.   Another account tells that she had an affair with her husband’s employer and when he found out he murdered her and his boss and although she died her soul now dwells in a one legged body.

Variations of La Patasola

There are similar entities to La Patasola found in many parts of Latin and South America. For example there is the Sayona in Venezuela, though they are more common in Columbia which tells of a vampiric female called La Tunda that is a shapeshifter with a wooden leg.  However what ever shape she assumes will also have a wooden leg which she carefully conceals from intended victims.

A Warning!

Gruesome entities such as La Patasola tend to serve as warning or morality tale in Latin American folklore.   Often, they reinforce the accepted roles of gender and sexual and moral behaviour in society especially for the lower classes.  It is believed that such legends and folktales help reinforce the family values especially the traditional nuclear families with a dominant male at their head.  Although La Patasola is used to warn against the sexual and moral behaviour in females it is the men who are her victims and also must moderate their behaviour.  Secret liaisons in the woods with females can bring a risk of horrific consequences.

© 16/08/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 16th, 2017 zteve t evans

Mountain Legends and Folklore: Devils Tower, Wyoming, USA

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Devil’s Tower, Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Devil’s Tower in Wyoming has a familiar look about it for many people who watched the classic 1974 sci-fi movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  That is because it was the place that people desperately tried to reach to rendezvous with the giant alien spacecraft.  It is situated in Crook County in the Bear Lodge Mountains which is part of the Black Hills and not far from Sundance and Hulett in the north eastern part of Wyoming and rises to a height of 5,112 feet above sea level.  In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national park.  It was named Devil’s Tower in 1875 when an interpreter working for an expedition led by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge who mistakenly interpreted a Native American name for it as “Bad God’s Tower”.   The Native Americans have several names for it including, Bear’s House, Bear’s Tipi, Bear’s Lodge and many others and features in many myths, legends and traditions.

Native American Folklore

The Kiowa and the Lakota people have a legend that tells how it originated.  This tells how a group of young girls were out playing when they came across several gigantic bears who on seeing then gave chase.  To escape the bears the girls climbed to the top of the summit and got down on their knees and prayed to the Great Spirit.   The Great Spirit heard their prayers and caused the rock to rise up from the ground towards the sky out of the reach of the bears. The bears tried to climb up to get them and dug their claws in the rock to gain a grip but kept sliding down because it was too steep for them to climb.  Their claws scratched the straight vertical marks that are seen to this day in the sides of the massive rock tower.  As the tower reached the sky the girls were transformed into a group of stars that are now called the Pleiades.

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Devil’s Tower, or Bear Lodge – Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Sioux Legend

One day two young Sioux boys roamed far from their village when they had the bad luck to come across Mato the bear. Mato was a gigantic bear who had massive sharp claws on his front paws.  As soon as he saw the boys he became intent on catching and eating them and chased after them.  Although the boys ran fast Mato ran faster and as he was about to pounce the boys prayed to the Great Spirit for help.   He heard their prayer and caused a great tower of rock to rise out of the ground underneath the boys who were lifted up beyond the reach of Mato who left his claw marks the sides of the tower of rock trying to climb up to get at them.   Eventually, tired and frustrated he sauntered off to look for an easier meal and eventually rested at a place now called Bear Butte.

The Cheyenne Legend

In a Cheyenne version of the legend a group of girls are chased by giant bears and most of them are killed.  Two sisters manage to escape and make it back to their village but the bear has followed them there.  The girls tell their brothers that the bear can only be killed by an arrow shot through the underside of its paw.  The brothers tell their sisters to lead it to Devil’s Tower and trick it into thinking they had climbed up it to escape.  This they did and the bear attempted to climb the rock tower clawing at its face but each time it slips down leaving its claw marks. As the bear is trying to climb the brothers are shooting arrows at its paws and eventually one arrow comes close to its mark scaring the bear off and the arrow continued to fly higher and higher and never came down.

The Northern Cheyenne Legend

There is a Northern Cheyenne legend which tells how a man fell asleep at the bottom of the tower of rock next to the head of a buffalo head.  In the morning when he woke up he discovered both he and the buffalo head by some unknown magic had been transported to the top of the rock.  Looking all around her could for see for miles in all directions but could see no way down.  He had no choice other than stay where was for another another day and night with no food or water.  So he spent the day praying and then went to sleep.  When he woke up the next morning  he had returned to the base of the massive rock where he has first gone to sleep.   According to legend the buffalo’s head could be still be seen on high by using a telescope and in those days the Devil’s Tower had never been climbed so there was no logical explanation as to how it got there.  The buffalo head had special significance to the Northern Cheyenne.  It was there practice in their camps to keep a sacred teepee dedicated to the Great Medicine where they kept the sacred objects of the people.  The sacred object of the Northern Cheyenne was a buffalo head which makes the story more significant for them.

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Bear by Pexels – Pixabay – Pixabay License

The Legend of Mato the Bear

Another legend tells how two young boys playing in the sagebrush on the great prairie.  They had been shooting arrows seeing how far they could fire them and roamed further and further from home.  As they were having fun they heard a noise like a small animal would make and went to investigate.   Creeping along in the direction came from they found a stream of fast running water that flowed over a bed of many colored pebbles.   The boys followed it for a while and came across a herd of deer, which they just had to track for a while.  After tracking the deer for a while they realized they were hungry and decided to return home, but realized they had no idea which way to go.  They decided to go in one direction but this only took them further and further from their home village.

As the day wore on the boys grew tired and finding a tree went to sleep under its branches.  The next morning they woke and still had no idea which way was home but chose to head west.  They managed to find berries and roots which ket them from starving and they slaked their thirst from the streams of clear water they crossed. For the next three days they continued walking into the west and despite being tired and footsore they found enough wild food and water to survive on.  They desperately wished their parents or their older brothers and sisters would turn up and find them but no one came.

On the fourth day the boys began to feel nervous and realized they were being tracked.  Although the boys had wanted to be found they wanted it to be by their family or friends or by someone who could help them, but they knew that this was no friend tracking them but Mato the bear.  Mato was a bear of gargantuan stature and so big both the boys together would be nothing but a snack to it.  He had picked up the scent of the boys from afar and followed it and was now hot on their trail and approaching fast.  Seeing him approach the boys ran off as fast as they could look for a place to hide but there was nowhere.  The giant bear was much faster than they and was rapidly catching them up and in their fear they stumbled.  He reared above them and they saw his great red maw full of sharp teeth and his hot breath was like a flame.   The boys had been taught about the Great Spirit and how to pray and called upon him to save them.  As Mato was about to strike the earth trembled and rose taking the boys high into the sky out of reach of the great bear.

The boys found themselves on tower of rock that kept rising higher and higher.  The boys looked all around and could see they were high above the ground and below them was the angry bear.  Mato had long sharp claws like steel and tried to climb up the rock tower after the boys but although he dug his claws in he kept slipping down.  As he slipped he left great grooves in the rock face from his claws that can be seen today.  Eventually he gave up and wandered off looking for easier game.    The boys were hundreds of feet in the air and could see the countryside for miles around and wondered how they could get down but they could see no way.  Wanblee the great eagle, who was a friend of their people saw him and came and carried them back safely to their people and they told them the marvelous tale of their escape from Mato the bear.

© 09/08/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 8th, 2017 zteve t evans