Vortigern's Rule: The Assassination of King Constans

Image by by Matthew Paris – Public Domain

Vortigern and the Chaos  of Britain

According to the Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1136, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern was a 5th century King of the Britons. He was considered one of the most notoriously devious and immoral kings in British history. To be fair he was only doing behaving as his contemporaries behaved. It was a question of dog eat dog in those days with no quarter given or asked for. He was attributed with most of the blame for inviting the Anglo-Saxon war-leaders Hengist and  Horsa into Britain as his mercenaries, sowing the seeds for the eventual Anglo-Saxon takeover of much of England and the many years of war and strife that was to come.

This is a retelling of how Vortigern usurped the crown of Britain based on the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Although his work was once considered reasonably accurate it is now no longer seen as reliable by modern scholars.  Nevertheless his work does provide his own version of the history of Britain and its kings and still has its merits as a cultural product of its times and still wields considerable influence in many Arthurian creations in the modern times. This part of the story of the history of the island of Britain begins with the assassination of King Constantine and the succession of his son Constans.  It continues to reveal how Vortigern grabbed power and ends with the threat of war hanging over him and the arrival of Hengist and Horsa.

The  Assassination of  King Constantine

After King Constantine of Britain had been in power for ten years he was assassinated by a Pict who stabbed him in the back.  After his death the crown of Britain was greatly disputed. The legitimate successor to the throne was Contans, the eldest son of Constantine, but his father had placed him in a monastery.  Although he was unhappy with the monastic life he was not really interested or suited to being king.  The next oldest and second in line was Aurelius Ambrosius his younger brother and the third was the youngest brother whose name was Uther.  Some nobles favored Aurelius to rule while others preferred Uther.  It was finally agreed that both were too young and all were at a loss as to what to do.  

Vortigern Becomes Ambitious

Vortigern had his own ambitions and his own ideas on who should be King of the island of Britain. He preferred Costans knowing that he had little interest in ruling and lacked the necessary qualities and strength of character that a monarch of Britain would need to control and unite the nation. Furthermore, he knew that he had no desire to remain a monk all his life.  Vortigern reasoned that if he helped him escape the clutches of the monastery to become king he could easily manipulate him while all the time working towards his ultimate unspoken goal of taking the crown for himself.  To further his ends he offered to set the unhappy Constans free from the monastery and make him king if in return he would make him his chief adviser. 

Constans: The Puppet King

Constans agreed and left the monastery and  Vortigern took him to London to be crowned king.  The consent of the nobles or the people was never asked for or obtained. Inconveniently the recent death of Archbishop Guethelin meant there was no one else of sufficient authority and stature in the clergy to fulfill such an important role. Conveniently for Vortigern the only other person with sufficient governmental experience and authority to fulfill such a role was himself and he performed the coronation ceremony. 

Constans lacked any knowledge or experience of government and had little or no credibility with the nobles or the people.  He relied heavily on the experience and guile of Vortigern for advice making him the effective ruler of Britain in all but name.  With many of the more experienced nobles killed in the wars with the Picts there were few alive who could match his statecraft and experience and Vortigern was using these personal assets to further his own ambitions ruthlessly.  

The next part of his plan was to remove Constans from the throne and set himself upon it. As always he was patient and bided his time while always seeking ways to consolidate his power at home by clandestine means.  At the same time he secretly used his position to increase his influence with nearby countries. He persuaded King Constans to give him control of the Royal Treasure to keep it safe. The inexperienced king at his Chief Advisor’s request also gave him control of all of the fortified towns and cities of the realm after claiming a fictitious threat of foreign invasion was imminent.  As soon as he had control of the cities he replaced their rulers and governors with his own men ensuring total control over the major fortified population centres.

Vortigern’s Treachery

He then persuaded King Constans that he was in danger and needed more men in his bodyguard to protect him from assassination.  Constans, perhaps bearing in mind what had happened to his father and trusting fully in Vortigern gave his permission to hand pick his personal bodyguard.  This made it easy for Vortigern who told the king that he had received word that an alliance of Picts and Dacians were preparing to attack Britain. He also assured him he knew of some trustworthy Picts who were not involved in the plot and he advised they should be offered a place at his court to form his new bodyguard. They would be loyal to Constans and act as spies informing him on what their compatriots were plotting.  Despite his father having been assassinated by a Pict such was his trust and reliance on Vortigern that Constans agreed.

Vortigern’s real intention was not to protect the king but replace his loyal bodyguards with men of his own choosing whom he believed he could control.  He knew the Picts were quarrelsome and often indulged in heavy drinking and in such a state they were unruly but easily manipulated. He also knew full well that they would have no qualms about assassinating Constans if the seeds of the idea were sown carefully and the right conditions prevailed. Therefore, he was confident that if he set the stage right they would act out the part he planned and take the blame while he looked beyond suspicion and took the crown.

To bring his plan into action he sent messengers to Scotland seeking one hundred Pictish warriors whom he could install as the King’s household guard.  When the Picts arrived he made a great show of welcome.  He gave them expensive presents and a luxury table for them to dine from and he showed them more respect than he gave the King’s original bodyguard.  So pleased were they with his welcome of them they began to see him as their lord and master above King Constans, exactly as Vortigern had planned.

Soon they began to make songs revering Vortigern and belittling Constans.  In these they praised Vortigern as king suggesting Constans was unworthy. They sang these songs in the streets in full view of the public pleasing Vortigern greatly. The greater they praised him the more he praised them in return and bestowed greater favor upon them.  Soon the next stage of his plan was ready to put into action.

The Killing of King Constans

He waited until one day when the Picts were well and truly drunk and solemnly told them the day was coming when he would leave Britain.  Mournfully, he told them he did not want to go but could no longer afford to keep more than fifty men in his retinue. With that he feigned great sorrow and left them drinking to think about it. The Picts were sorry to hear this for Vortigern had been good to them.  They began to think about their own position and how that could change and one of them said,

“Why do we suffer this monk to live? Why do not we kill him, that Vortigern may enjoy his crown? Who is so fit to succeed as he? A man so generous to us is worthy to rule, and deserves all the honour and dignity that we can bestow upon him.” (1) 

After more drinking and such talk between one another they broke into the King’s bedchamber.  They killed him while he slept and then proudly presented his severed head to Vortigern. Putting on a great show of sorrow and tears, while really elated with joy, he ordered the assassins to be bound. Wasting no time he summoned the citizens of London to witness their execution for what he called their terrible crime.

Not all of Britain’s nobles were taken in by Vortigern’s show of false sorrow. Many suspected villainy but with no one left in Britain powerful enough to stop him Vortigern seized the crown.  In fear of their own lives and for the safety of the brothers Aurelius and Uther – the true heirs – they fled across the sea to Armorica.    The brothers were well treated by King Bude who educated and kept them in a manner befitting their royal blood.

As time passed his treason was at last discovered. The Picts were furious at the execution of their own people and constantly attacked and ravaged the border country.  Vortigern was at daily war with them and lost many of his best warriors keeping them at bay. 

The Threat of Aurelius

Over the years in Armorica, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther were coming of age and sought revenge for the murder of their father and elder brother.  Aurelius, the elder of the two had built himself a formidable reputation on the continent as a war leader and was mustering an army to retake the crown of Britain.  He remembered how Vortigern had favoured the Picts and now he knew he had orchestrated their deaths to remove any witnesses. Now with his own star on the rise he was burning to avenge his father and elder brother and reclaim the crown of Britain.

Although Vortigern was now High King of the island of Britain his troubles were just beginning.  With the growing threat of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther he began receiving reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army. His spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their inheritance.  Therefore an invasion force was expected to land at any time somewhere along the south coast of England.  

With the Picts making daily forays in the north of his realm he knew he was in trouble. Taking stock of the situation on both fronts he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom. Despite his military weakness he still had  his political guile and ruthlessness which he used to quell any opposition among his own war leaders. Nevertheless, these were dangerous times with the promise of worse to come but things were going to take an unexpected turn that he would at first welcome and then live to regret.   As the clouds of war were gathering on the northern and southern edges of his realm there appeared completely unexpectedly off the coast of Britain three long ships carrying a detachment of armed warriors from foreign parts. These warriors were under the command of two brothers named Hengist and Horsa and they came ashore at Kent.

To begin with the presence of these two brothers looked to be a welcome gift in nullifying the brothers Aurelius and Uther and countering the Picts and Vortigern welcomed. However, while he was ruthless and treacherous Hengist would prove to be a master beyond compare of deceit and treachery. Hengist also has had a beautiful daughter name Rowena who Vortigern would become obsessed with and marry. All the time across the sea in Armorica, Aurelius was preparing his revenge.

© 12/02/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 12th, 2020 zteve t evans

Greek Mythology: Cassandra – the Gift and the Curse of Apollo

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan [Public domain] (cropped)

Cassandra

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a prophetess who could accurately foretell the future but was never believed.  This talent had been a gift from the god Apollo but when she rejected his advances he cursed her so that her predictions were never believed. She was also known as Kassandra and occasionally Alexandra.   Her parents were King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy and she had a twin brother named Helenus. Paris, whose abduction of Helen of Sparta helped spark the Trojan War was one of her brothers, as was the Trojan hero and war leader Hector. According to legend although very beautiful and intelligent she was regarded as being insane.

The Gift and the Curse

She served as a priestess of Apollo and took a vow of chastity swearing to remain a virgin for life.  In some versions of her story Apollo seeking to win her love gave her the power of prophecy on the condition that she bestowed her favors upon him.  However, after receiving the gift she went back on her word. With the gift of a divine power already given Apollo could not take it away so he added a curse to it. Although she would predict the future accurately her predictions would never be believed. In some later versions she receives her prophecies from a snake that whispered to her as she slept in the temple. 

The Gift of Prophecy

The gift of prophecy should have brought her great esteem and reverence among her people but the curse of Apollo turned it into a terrible blight on her life.  Although her predictions were always correct no one would believe her.  She was forced to watch her predictions unfold unable to do anything to alleviate their consequences until it was too late.  Her family and the Trojan people regarded her as a madwoman and a liar.  She was locked up on the orders of her father and her wardress was ordered to report all of her prophecies to him.

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan [Public domain]

Helenus

Cassandra had a twin brother named Helenus whom she taught how to foretell the future.  His prophecies were just as accurate as his sister’s but where her’s were disbelieved his were generally believed. She had predicted the death of her mother and had foreseen that the abduction of Helen by Paris would lead to the Trojan War warning him not to go to Sparta.  When Paris returned with Helen, Cassandra attacked her tearing away Helen’s golden veil and tearing at her hair because she knew her arrival in Troy heralded the ultimate destruction of the city.

Cassandra’s Prophecies

Cassandra had correctly prophesied the fall of Troy warning of the Trojan Horse concealing Greek soldiers. She also correctly foretold of the ten year journey and the return  of Odysseus. She predicted how her cousin Aeaneas would escape the destruction of Troy and is descendants  Romulus and Remus would found Rome. 

After the Greeks had captured the city she was taken by Agamemnon as one of the spoils of war.  Despite being consistently accurate with her predictions she continued to be disregarded and ignored to the cost of others and herself. She  forewarned him of a plot by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, to both kill him and her but he ignored her and both were murdered.  

The Love of Coroebus

Coroebus, the son of King Mygdon of Phrygia fought on the side of the Trojans because he was in love with Cassandra. During the Sack of Troy he persuaded some of the Trojan defenders such as Aeneas to disguise themselves by wearing the enemy armour.  He tried to defend Cassandra from rape by Ajax the Lesser but was killed in her defence.

Othryoneus

Another suitor mentioned in the Illiad, by Homer was Othryoneus from Cabesos.  He took part in the war on the side of the Trojans solely with the purpose of marriage to Cassandra which her father, King Priam had agreed to.  However, he was killed by Idomeneus in the Battle of Ships who cruelly mocked him as he lay dying.

Cassandra in Greek Drama

There are several versions of the story of Cassandra in Greek drama.  Quintus Smyrnaeus in The Fall of Troy, tells how Cassandra desperately tried to warn the Trojans of the danger presented by the Trojan Horse during a victory feast over the Greeks.  The Trojans refused to believe her. In desperation she grabbed a burning torch and an axe and ran towards the wooden horse intent on destroying it and the Greeks hidden inside. The disbelieving Trojans stopped her sealing their own fate.  The Greeks inside the wooden horse could see and hear what was happening but would have been helpless should the horse have been torched. They were greatly relieved she failed but alarmed she had so quickly and easily realized their plan.

Carlo Raso from Naples, Italy [Public domain]

Nevertheless, when the time was right the Greeks put their plan into action and caught the Trojans by surprise.  As they took control of the city Cassandra sought sanctuary in the temple of Athena but was followed by Ajax the Lesser.  Coroebus tried to defend her but was killed and although she embraced the feet of the statue of Athena begging her protection Ajax dragged her from it and raped her.  According to some accounts despite the goddess Athena’s support for the Greeks she found this act by Ajax abhorrent and the cheeks of the statue flushed red in anger.  Tears fell from her eyes which she averted so that she would not see the violation and made a sound that caused the floor to tremble and shake. The goddess was enraged and demanded the Greeks punish Ajax.

Despite Odysseus calling for him to be stoned to death the Greeks would not carry it out because Ajax clung to the feet of Athena.  However Athena was furious at the Greeks for not bringing Ajax to justice and sought the help of Poseidon and Zeus. As the victorious Greeks sailed home from Troy Poseidon sent storms and strong winds which sank much of the fleet and Athena herself killed Ajax.

The Cursed Chest

According to some sources Cassandra had left a cursed chest in Troy intended for the first Greek who should open it.  The chest contained an image of Dionysus which had been created by Hephaestus and given to the Trojans by Zeus. The chest was given to Eurypylus, a Greek war lord as part of his reward for helping fight the Trojans.  When he opened it he saw the image and was instantly struck by madness

The Cassandra Syndrome

It was said that when she died her soul went into to the Elysian Fields the resting place of good and worthy souls.  She also became a figure of epic tradition and tragedy. The Cassandra Syndrome is a term named after her because it applies to predictions of doom by some oracle or prophet that are disbelieved and rejected when made but later prove to be true.  It is a form of psychological denial blocking out bad, unwelcome news or inevitable outcomes. This leaves the seer in the dilemma of knowing that something good or bad will happen but powerless to influence the outcome because no one will act upon their prediction to change or minimise the impact of the prediction.

© 15/01/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 15th, 2020 zteve t evans

Winter Folklore: Traditions and Customs of the Cailleach Bheur

Gustave Doré [Public domain]

In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or the Cailleach Bheur, which means old woman or hag. In Celtic mythology she had a similar role to Jörð in Norse mythology  and Gaia, in Greek mythology.

Donald Alexander Mackenzie

The Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873 – 1936) wrote frequently on the subjects of mythology, anthropology and religion and developed a theory that there was a matriarchal society spread across Europe in Neolithic times.  In his book,  Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe (1917), he argues that these early societies were gynocentric and matriarchal venerating goddesses above gods but during the Bronze Age a patriarchal society evolved supplanting it.  Mackenzie called the Cailleach Bheur by the name of Beira, Queen of Winter.  

He saw her as a giantess with  a single eye who had her mountain throne on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and the highest in the British Isles.  According to him she had white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She had a magic hammer that she used to create the mountains and valleys  of Scotland.  Loch Ness was created when she changed a careless maid named Nessa into a river which then formed the loch.  Each year her rule would come to an end when the longest night of the year arrived when she would seek out the Well of Youth and drink its waters which made her grow younger by the day. 

As the Cailleach

In Scottish folklore and mythology, as the Cailleach she was believed to have created many of the mountains and hills.  She carried a wicker basket containing rocks and as she strode across the land at such a pace many of these rocks accidently fell out creating hills and mountains as she went. Sometimes she was said to have created the mountains on purpose and carried a hammer which she used to shape the hills and valleys.   She opposed Spring and herded deer and when she strikes the ground with her staff the ground freezes. 

The Cailleach and Brigid

Sometimes she is seen with the goddess Brigid in partnership or operating as two faces or aspects of one goddess.  They ruled the winter and spring months between November 1st or Samhain to May 1st or Beltane. Brigid rules from Beltane through summer and autumn  to Samhain.

In some traditions the Cailleach turns to stone on Beltane and reverts to her human form on Samhain to rule the winter and spring months. However, this is not straightforward,  in some traditions the transfer of jurisdiction between the two goddesses and winter to spring can be celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brigid or February 1st, Latha na Cailliche or March 25th and Beltane or May 1st.  Festivals named after either of the two goddesses are held in between these dates.

Saint Brigid’s Day

According to tradition the Imobolc, or the 1st of February or  Là Fhèill Brigid is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for winter.  If she is planning a long winter she will make that day sunny and bright to help her find plenty of fuel to last her through the cold days of winter.  Therefore with this legend in mind people are pleased if the weather on February 1st is wet and dismal as the winter will be short. A tradition on the Isle of Man  where she is called Caillagh ny Groamagh, says that on St. Bride’s day she has been seen to take the form of a giant bird that flies around collecting sticks in its beak.

The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Another tradition from the west coast of Scotland tells how the Cailleach by washing her great plaid, which can be a kind of kilt, or sometimes a large shawl, in the waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan causes the whirlpool in the gulf and brings in winter.  This also causes a storm that can be heard twenty miles away and lasts for three days.  When she is finished her plaid is clean and white and covers the land as snow. 

Harvest Traditions

There was an old custom in Ireland and Scotland where the farmer who was first to finish harvesting his crop of grain made a corn dolly that represent the Cailleach from the last sheaf that he cut.  This would be thrown into the field of one of his neighbors who had yet to finish bringing in his harvest.  If the farmer finished before his other neighbors this was passed to one of them. This was passed on until it at last came into the hands of the last unfortunate farmer to finish who it was implied had the misfortune to have to take care of the corn dolly for the following year. In doing so he was obliged to feed and house the Cailleach, the hag of winter, until summer returned.  This gave all of the farmers the encouragement and motivation to get their harvest in quickly.

© 06/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attribution and Further Reading

Copyright December 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

The Griffin: The Legendary King of All Creatures

Knossos fresco in throne palaceCC BY-SA 3.0
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 18/04/2019, under the title, Mythical Beasts: The Griffin, the Legendary King of all Creatures, written by zteve t evans.

Griffins

A griffin is a legendary beast believed to be the offspring of a lion and an eagle, depicted in various ways by many different human cultures in different places throughout antiquity. It is usually depicted as having the back legs, tail and body of a lion, with the head of an eagle, sometimes having projecting ears. It is usually shown with eagle wings, but sometimes is wingless and sometimes has eagle talons on its forefeet. The eagle part was sometimes covered in feathers while the lion part had fur.

King of all Creatures

The lion was considered to be the king of the beasts, while an eagle was the king of the birds. The griffin, as a hybrid of these two, inherited the qualities of both, making it very powerful and the king, or ruler, of all creatures. Griffins were also known by a number of other names including ‘griffon,’ ‘griffon,’ or ‘gryphon.’ They were often depicted as having wings, but sometimes found wingless, as in the fine example found in the Palace of Knossos and shown here. The Palace of Knossos was the ancient ceremonial and political centre of the Bronze Age Minoan civilisation on Crete, described as the earliest in Europe, indicating the age and importance of the griffin motif.

Griffins in Mythology

Depictions of griffins are found in the art and mythology of many diverse ancient cultures, including Iranian, Anatolian, Egyptian, European, and Indian. In early Greek art they were shown pulling the chariots of the gods Apollo and Nemesis, and were said to be the hounds of Zeus. By their association with Apollo they became associated with the sun, and through their service to Nemesis became known as protectors and guardians, carrying out retribution for injustice on offenders. One legend tells how Alexander the Great captured two griffins and chained them to his throne. He eventually managed to tame one and rode on its back as it flew him around his realm for seven days.

Guardians of Treasure

Griffins were often seen as the guardians of treasure and priceless objects. They were associated with gold and said to guard gold mines, and often appear on tombs as guardians. According to Pliny the Elder, griffins laid eggs in burrows in nests lined with gold nuggets. Other accounts say griffins built a nest like an eagle’s and lay eggs of agate, which is a semi-precious stone.

Read More

Mother Moon – A Folktale of the Pueblo People of New Mexico

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

The Pueblo people of New Mexico have a tradition that the moon has only one eye. Presented here is a retelling of a folktale of how this came called Mother Moon from Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories  (1910) collected by Charles Lummis.

The Moon-Maiden

In the Pueblo culture the moon was the Moon-Maiden who was named P’áh-hlee-oh.  She was most beautiful and was the first woman in the world having neither mother or father, sister or brother.  It was from her beauty that all of the seeds of humanity, all life, all love and goodness had their source.

The Trues

The invisible spirits – the high rulers – known as the Trues made the Sun who was called T’hoor-íd-deh so that he would be the father of all things.  T’hoor-íd-deh was alone so the Trues made him a companion who was the first female. Her name was P’áh-hlee-oh, the Moon-Maiden.

P’áh-hlee-oh and T’hoor-íd-deh

From these two the world and all that is in it began.  Children came and grew strong and good P’áh-hlee-oh, the Moon-Maiden became Mother Moon, the Mother-all and T’hoor-íd-deh, the Sun became Father-all.  They were very happy took turns to watch over their chilodren keeping them safe.  

In those far off times P’áh-hlee-oh had two eyes.  She saw just as distinctly as T’hoor-íd-deh, the Sun and her glance was  just as brilliant as his and the light from their eyes together illuminated the world.  In those times there was no night and no darkness, only day so they watched half of the day each.  

Continuous Light

In those days of continuous light the birds always sang and flew.  The flowers never closed and the children sang and played unceasingly for none knew how to rest  The Trues looked down and saw that the never ending light was making the young eyes of the children, the birds, animals and the plants tired and heavy. They said,

“All is not well with the world.  The children are tired. The animals and birds are tired and so are the plants.  We must make it so the Sun and the Moon do not see the same. We must put out one of the eyes of the Sun so that the world is in darkness for half of the time and the children can sleep.”

Therefore they summoned T’hoor-íd-deh and P’áh-hlee-oh and told them their decision.  When P’áh-hlee-oh heard this she wept for her husband and begged,

“Please do not take an eye from my strong, handsome husband.  Please do not blind the sun. He is the father of our children.  How will he be able to watch over them? He is our provider providing game.  How will he be able to find game without his bright eyes? Please do not do this.  Instead blind me and leave him all-seeing!”

The Trues thought about it and agreed and they took one of her eyes so that she could never again see so brightly.

The night came and the tired world at last rested.  Bird, animals and the children all slept for the first time and all was good.  The Trues were pleased and they were impressed by the self-sacrifice of P’áh-hlee-oh.  So that she should not look ugly they healed her scar and gave to her the beauty. This is the beauty we see in the hearts of mothers and shines from their faces.  Now she is lovelier than ever and the Pueblo people sing,

So mother-pale above us  

She bends, her watch to keep,

Who of her sight dear-bought the night  

To give her children sleep. (1)

© 29/05/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright May 29th, 2019 zteve t evans

Australian Folktales: How Fire Was Stolen

Image by James Whitley Sayer (1847 – 1914) Public Domain (cropped)

This is a retelling of a folktale from Australia. It gives an explanation of how humans gained the use of fire when Tatkanna, the Australasian robin, stole it from Mar, the red-crested cockatoo, also known as Leadbeater’s cockatoo (Plyctolophus leadbeateri). There is also an explanation as to how the robin got its red breast and why the kookaburra is found in trees. The source of this retelling is from a story called How Fire was Stolen from the Red-Crested Cockatoo from a collection by W. J. Thomas and begins in the Dreamtime.

The Dreamtime

The Dreamtime is sometimes referred to as “the Dreaming”.  In simple terms it is the period of time when the creator-beings made the land and the animals, birds and plants. In that time humans  lived in the shape of beautiful birds and wild animals. One day as sunset neared a family of people were returning to their camp after a day out hunting when they came across a stranger.  He was an ancient looking man and appeared tired and hungry and carried a long spear, a possum skin rug and a dilly bag that was used to carry food.  Laying his spear on the ground as a sign of peace he showed them the inside of his bag which was empty and said,

“Many, many moons ago I left the hunting grounds of my people and went on a great journey.  I traveled across the land until I reached the great waters whose voice is like the rumbling thunder.  I traveled into the grey mist far beyond the mountains to the red rolling plains. In that place there are no birds or animals and the sun is hidden behind dark clouds.  I passed beyond this into the land that is beyond dawn and experienced many strange adventures.

I am old now and my people are gone.  They are blown like dead leaves in the wind and I must seek them out, but before I do I would rest awhile and tell you the secret I have discovered of the fire of the sun.  When I have done this I will go and one of your people who is daring and bold may seek out and bring back this fire to your people.”

The headmen discussed the request from the stranger and agreed to provide him with food and hospitality  in exchange for the tale. They all loved tales so when they reached the camp they quickly prepared a fine communal meal and gave the stranger the best of the food they had.  When they had finished eating they made a semi-circle before him and eagerly waited for him to begin his tale. It should be said that these were the days before people had learnt how to make fire. Furthermore, at this time they had no idea of how to use it to cook with or to harden their spear heads but they could see the sun up in the sky beyond their reach and could  feel its warmth.. They often contemplated how they could get the fire out of the sky and on to Earth for the light, warmth and comfort it brought on cold, days and dark nights. The ancient man wrapped himself in his possum skin rug and began to tell the people if his tale

The Stranger’s Tale

He began,

“I traveled beyond the dawn far into the east and the mountains that blot out the sun.  In that place water had forsaken the creeks and the water holes were dry and animals lay dead in the river beds and death threw its shadow upon the land.  I hurried on without stopping to rest in case death should come upon me.

I traveled on without water and my tongue grew swollen in my mouth and my legs became weak and when I thought I could go no further I saw the gleam in the distance of a water hole.  I ran towards it but fell. I crawled until I reached it but as I drew near blackness like night fell upon me although the sun was still high in the sky and I slept. I was eventually awoken by a loud buzzing noise in my ears like the sound of thousands of flies.  I crawled forward to the water hole and bent my head to drink but my lips only touched hot, dry sand. What I thought had been cool gleaming water had been hot gleaming sand but now I was desperate and I used my hands to dig deep into the sand until they were grazed and bleeding.  Despite the pain, despite the blood I carried on digging and at last the sand grew damp and water began to fill the hole I had dug until at last I had enough to drink. I was exhausted so I rested up for a day and then continued on my way.


One day after many more moons had passed I came to a country of tall trees.  One morning just before before the sun has begun its journey across the sky I was surprised to see its fire gleaming through the mirk of the trees.  Carefully, quietly and with great stealth I crept nearer and then I saw Mar, the Cockatoo. As I watched he reached up into his crest and brought out fire which he used to light a stick to show him the way.  In my surprise and eagerness to see more I stood on a dry twig and he heard it crack and saw me. He was angry and hurled a spear at me so I decided to flee. From there I spent many weary days traveling back to the land of my people hoping to find them but they were gone. I followed their track until I came across you folk. If there is one along you hardy enough and bold enough to face and complete the long arduous journey and daring enough to steal the fire from under the crest of Mar the Cockatoo, then humans will sing their praises for evermore.”

Mar, the Cockatoo

The people sat listening intently to him enthralled by his tale and when he had finished they all became very excited at the possibility of gaining access to fire.  The headmen talked together and agreed on a plan. They would invite the cockatoo to a great dance ceremony and get together they called a corroboree. There would be singing, dancing and mock combat. and while he was relaxed, off his guard and enjoying himself one of them would steal his fire.  

The day came and Mar the Cockatoo came to the corroboree and was enjoying all the singing, dancing and mock fights.  He was very relaxed but gave no opportunity for them to steal the fire. They offered him kangaroo meat to eat but he refused this.  Instead, they offered him kangaroo skin to eat which he accepted but to their consternation left their camp with it and returned the great distance to home.  Despite their efforts Mar had given them no opportunities to steal his fire and now he was gone

Prite

One small fellow named Prite decided to follow the cockatoo. He followed him across the bush and over the mountains for a great distance and grew very tired and thought of turning back for home.  Just as he had made up his mind to return he saw Mar reach under his crest feathers and pull out the fire.

He could not think of a plan to steal the fire so he returned home and told his family that what the ancient stranger man had told them was true.   The headmen discussed the news all through the night ànd finally decided that Tatkanna, the Robin, should follow the directions of Prite to the camp of Mar the cockatoo and steal the fire.

Tatkanna, the Robin

The next morning Tatkanna set out bright and early following the directions Prite had given him to the camp of Mar the Cockatoo.   It was a long tiring journey and luckily he arrived at Mar’s camp just as the cockatoo was reaching under his crest to pull out the fire to light a fire stick.   He then began singeing off all the hair from the kangaroo skin that he had been given.

Tatkanna could not believe his luck in witnessing this and in his eagerness to steal the  fire he edged too close scorching his breast feathers. Ever since then he has had a red breast and known as Robin Redbreast.  However, scorching his feathers frightened him and Mar saw him. Realizing he had been discovered, Tatkanna decided he had to do something quick or fail in his quest, so boldly running forward he grabbed the fire stick from Mar and ran off into the bush.  

As he ran the fire stick caused everything it touched to burst into flames and soon all the dry grass and bushes were burning and even the trees caught light. The animals and birds were all bewildered and frightened and ran off trying to escape. The flames that swept over the dry grass and bush also the consumed trees leaving a smouldering charred black and gray waste land of ash behind

When Mar realized his fire had been stolen he grew very angry and went in search of the thief meaning to kill him.  Tatkanna made it back home and showed the fire stick to his family who were all tremendously pleased and heaped praise upon him.  Then Mar, who had tracked the robin, arrived in their camp and demanded to fight the thief who had stolen his fire.
Tatkanna although very bold and daring was terrified of fighting the cockatoo as he was only a small fellow and begged his friend Quartang the Kookaburra to be his champion. Quartang agreed but Mar quickly defeated him forcing him to escape by flying up into the tree and that is where kookaburras have been since that day

Tatkanna, the Hero

Mar did not get his fire back and sadly returned home but the family of people were all mighty pleased with Tatkanna, the Robin for his bravery and daring. His scorched red breast reminds us of the great deed he did for his family of people.  Now, when they see the red-crested cockatoo they remember how fire was stolen from him for their benefit by Tatkanna, the Robin

© 03/04/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright zteve t evans April 3rd, 2019

Khasi Folktales: The Origin of Thunder and Lightning

The Khasi People

The Khasi people live in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya with populations in the neighboring state of Assam and some regions of Bangladesh. They evolved their own unique mythology and folklore and created many wonderful folktales that attempt to explain different aspects of the natural world.  There are all sorts of stories featuring monkeys, tigers, lynxes and other wild animals.  The domestication of some animals is also dealt with telling how dogs, cats, goats and oxen came to live among humans and give explanations of cosmic creation and natural phenomena. The Khasi divinities, such as the twin goddesses Ka Ngot and Ka Iam, who gave their names to the rivers Ngot and Lam respectively, are found along with other divine beings.  All this and more can be found in Folktales of the Khasis by Mrs. K. U. Rafy (1920) and presented here is a retelling of the story What Makes the Lightning?

What Makes the Lightning?

The story begins in the young days of the world when animals socialized with people. They spoke their language and tried to copy human customs and manners.  Every thirteen moons the people held a great festival where there were many sports and events.  People competed against each other and demonstrated their abilities in many different activities and one of the most popular was the sword dance.  All the people from the hills and the forest would come and take part and it was a gay and happy time.   The animals loved this event and would watch the people competing, dancing and having fun and the younger beasts began to ask the elders for a festival of their own.  After considerable thought the elders agreed and said that the animals should appoint a day when their own festival should be held.

U Pyrthat’s Drum

With great enthusiasm the animals learnt all the skills and rules for the competitions and all the moves and steps for the dances.  When they were ready they set a date for the festival to begin, but no one knew how to let everyone know the event was taking place. Someone suggested that perhaps U Pyrthat, the thunder giant, would beat his drum to tell everyone the event was beginning.   U Pyrthat  agreed and began to beat his drum summoning all the animals to their great festival.  His drum could be heard in the farthest of hills and the most remote places of the forest and the animals flocked towards the sound excitedly and a soon a great multitude gathered around U Pyrthat and his drum.

The animals had gone to great trouble to prepare  grooming and preening themselves to look their very best.  Each one carried either a musical instrument or a weapon relevant to how they intended to participate in the festival events.  There was much merriment when the squirrel marched in banging on a small drum followed by a small bird called the Shakyllia playing a flute, who was followed by a porcupine clashing cymbals together. It was a very happy day and all the animals were jolly and laughing, sharing a jokes and having fun.  The mole looked up and saw the owl trying to dance but because her eyes were not used to daylight she kept bumping into objects.  The mole laughed so much his own eyes became narrowed and his vision unclear and that is how we find him today.

The Sword Dance of U Kui, the Lynx

When the fun and merriment reached its height U Kui, the lynx appeared carrying a most splendid silver sword which he had lavished a lot of money on.  He had bought it just for the festival because he wanted to show off his skills in the sword dance.  Calling everyone to attention he began his dance leaping and stepping with energy, grace and precision.  Everyone cheered and admired his elegance of movement and technique but his success went to his head and he began to see himself as better than the others.

U Pyrthat’s Sword Dance

U Pyrthat, the thunder giant, saw the performance of the lynx and was full of admiration for his dancing skills and was very impressed with the silver sword.  He had not brought a sword himself as he had brought the drum he used to summon everyone. Thinking that he should like to try a dance or two wielding such a fine sword he asked the lynx if he could borrow it as a favor. U Kui was reluctant to allow the thunder giant to borrow his silver sword not only because it was so fine and expensive but because he did not like the idea that he might be upstaged.   The crowd seeing his reluctance began to shout,

 “Shame! shame! shame!”  

and booed and hissed thinking that it was rude and ungracious of him to refuse being as the thunder giant had beat his drum to summon them all.  In the end the lynx was shamed into lending the the giant his sword and reluctantly the handed it to him.

Taking hold of the magnificent silver sword the thunder giant prepared himself to dance.  When he was ready he suddenly burst into life leaping high and whirling the flashing blade in circles all around him.  He danced so furiously and leapt high and the flashing blade dazzled everyone.  As he danced he beat on his drum so hard the earth shook and the animals fled in terror.

Thunder and Lightning

U Pyrthat was inspired by the silver sword and danced faster and faster, leaping higher and higher.  Carried away by his dancing and the wonderful blade he leaped right into the sky with the silver sword flashing all around him while he beat on his drum, the sound rumbling and crashing down to earth.  At times, the noise of the drum and the flashing of the sword are still heard and seen by people all around the world.  They called it thunder and lightning, but the Khasis people know that it is the drum of U Pyrthat, the thunder giant and the stolen sword of U Kui, the lynx, that the people hear and see.

U Kui’s Heartbreak

U Kui was heartbroken at the loss of his fine silver sword.  Folks say that afterwards he made his home near a great hill and would sit and look at the sky when U Pyrthat danced.  He kept piling stones upon the hill hoping one day to make it high enough to reach the sky where he hoped to to  reclaim his sword from the dancing thunder giant.

© 13/03/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 13th, 2019 zteve t evans