Celtic Mythology: Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Image by John James Audubon – Public Domain – Source

This article by zteve t evans was first published on FolkloreThursday.com on 30th July, 2020 under the title, Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods in Celtic Mythology

Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Animals played an important part in the everyday life of the ancients Celts. In Celtic mythology the lives of animals, birds, humans and gods are interwoven to provide rich stories alluding to important matters in their society such as life and death, love and hate, jealousy and lust. Provided here is a brief review of some of those myths and legends.

The Dream of Aengus

Swans were much admired by the Irish Celts and had some special places in their mythology. One story from Irish mythology called the Dream of Aengus, tells how a young god named Aengus fell in love with a beautiful woman from his dreams. Her name was Caer Ibormeith and she was the goddess of sleep and dreams.

Aengus set out to find her and discovered that she was a real person who had been placed under a spell which transformed her into a swan. Every other Samhain she was able to return to human form for one day beginning at sunset and then revert back to swan form for one year until the following Samhain when the transformation cycle would be repeated.

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The Wisdom of Great Eagle: The Lesson of the Stubborn Elm

Presented here is a retelling of a Cherokee folktale called “The Lesson of the Elm Tree.”  It was told by a boy named James Ariga who was part Cherokee in 1947 at the Ten Mile River Scout Reservation and included in the, Treasury of American Indian Tales, by Theodore Whitson Ressler.

The Lesson of the Elm Tree

There was once a young boy of about eleven years of age named White Eagle who lived with his mother and father.  They were of the Cherokee people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains on the shores of a large lake.  In those days there was much talk of war and there were frequent skirmishes between his people and the different people who lived outside Cherokee territory.  His father’s name was Great Eagle and was a great and fearless warrior.  He was much respected and honored among his people not just for his bravery in battle but for his wisdom and nobility of spirit.

The Cherokees usually did not need to go far afield to catch game but there came a time there was little to be had close to home.  Therefore, Great Eagle led a hunting party north beyond Cherokee territory into the lands of the northern people.  He knew there would be fighting if the northerners discovered them but luckily they were quickly successful in the hunt and headed home without encountering any problems.  However, before they left the northern lands they came across a young boy wandering in the wilds alone who was clearly lost and famished. 

Great Eagle gave him food and contemplated what he should do with him.  He thought about his own son who was of similar age and did not like to think of him lost and alone in the wilderness.  

Therefore, he decided he could not leave the young boy alone to starve and there were many dangerous animals in these parts.  Thinking he would be a good companion and playmate for his own son he decided he would adopt him if the boy consented.  

After gently explaining to the boy his plan he asked if he would like to become part of his family and go home with him.  The boy agreed and told Great Eagle that his name was Little Frog.

The Cherokees lived in a fortified village patrolled with armed guards.  His father had told him about the fierce warriors of the Cherokee people and when Little Frog saw this he became very frightened.  On seeing the boy’s fear Great Eagle put his arm gently around his shoulder and spoke reassuringly to him.  Leading him to his lodge he introduced him to his wife who was to be his mother and then to his son, White Eagle, who would be his brother and playmate.

White Eagle was mighty pleased to have Little Frog, a boy of his own age, as his brother, companion and playmate.   Little Frog was also pleased and realized how lucky he had been when Great Eagle had found him. That night with the return of the hunting part bearing much game there was a great celebration with much singing, dancing and merrymaking.

The next morning, Great Eagle roused the boys from sleep as dawn was breaking.  He told them they were going to practice their skills with the bow and arrow and learn how to find game. He gave them both breakfast and both a bow and a quiver of arrows to match their stature and led them into the forest in search of game.  

Little Frog was feeling much happier and more secure.  His own father, mother and brother had been killed when hostile neighbors had attacked their village by surprise. Now, he was beginning to think of Great Eagle as his father and White Eagle as his brother and he liked it.  

As Great Eagle led them stealthily through the forest the two boys copied everything he did.  They heard the birds singing and then the snap of a twig as some animal stood on it.  Great Eagle crouched low and raised his hand for them to stop and they crouched low beside him.  Motioning them to stay he crept forward cautiously and quietly to investigate but soon returned to tell them that whatever snapped the twig was no longer there.

After traveling on through the forest Great Eagle decided it was time for rest and refreshment.  As they sat together on the trunk of a dead tree that lay across the forest floor he shared out food.

Little Frog asked White Eagle if he often went out into the forest with his father.  White Eagle replied, “Yes, my father is teaching me how to hunt and be a great warrior like him.”

Little frog was very impressed and once again realized how lucky he was that Great Eagle had adopted him.  Keeping up the conversation, White Eagle asked, “Are you missing your people and home village?  Do you miss your family?”

Little Frog replied, “No, after my family was killed I had no one to look after me.  No one in the village would help me and I had to work hard and beg for food.  One of the village braves took over my family wigwam and I was forced to sleep outside alone without shelter.  I miss my family but not my village.”

This made White Eagle realize just how lucky he was having a great warrior for a father, a mother to take care of him and give him food, shelter and love.  Now he had a brother and playmate as well and thought himself doubly lucky.

After a drink of cool water from a nearby spring Great Eagle led the boys onward signalling to them to be more stealthy.  The two boys followed, mimicking him carefully as they moved quietly forward.   Coming to a river they saw a beaver had built a dam and made its home there. 

Great Eagle motioned them to wait while he scouted around for the beaver.  He soon returned saying he could not see the beaver but it was time to make their way back home.  Along the way they would keep an eye open for turkeys and rabbits.  Both boys were disappointed they had not had a chance to try out their new bows and arrows but both trusted and obeyed Great Eagle unfailingly.

Coming to the edge of the forest, Great Eagle suddenly motioned for them to stop and pointed up along the trail where a cotton-tailed rabbit was sitting.  Seeing the rabbit White Eagle quickly raised his bow and fired off an arrow.  The aim was good and hit the rabbit.  

He was very pleased and excited and danced and sang, shouting at the top of his voice that he would take it for his mother to cook. His father calmed his son and looked at Little Frog and walked over to the rabbit.  He saw two arrows had hit it making it impossible to say whose had actually done the deed realizing Little Frog had fired simultaneously with his son.  Both boys began to claim the rabbit and began arguing over it.

Great Eagle found himself in a quandary.  He was always fair in his decisions and judgements and did not want it to look like he was taking sides especially as his own son was involved.  Therefore, after a pause for thought he said, 

“We can all  agree that both arrows were equally responsible as were those who fired them.”  

It is plain to see that you are both like stubborn elm trees and are both far better shots with a bow and arrow than I had realized!”

Saying no more Great Eagle picked up the rabbit and led them homewards.  Both boys followed on both happy with the decision he had made. That night in bed Little Frog turned over to face White Eagle and whispered, “What did he mean by saying we were like stubborn elms?”

White Eagle whispered back, “In the morning I will show you, but for now go to sleep.”

The next morning after breakfast Little Frog was still eager to know what Great Eagle had meant by calling them stubborn elms.  As he had promised the night before White Eagle led him out into the forest.  Every now and then he broke a branch from a tree and told Little Frog to copy what he did.  After breaking several branches from different trees they came to a young elm and White Eagle grasped a branch and tried to break it but he could not.  All he could do was bend it. Little Frog tried to help his friend but despite their combined strength they could not break it only bend it.

They had not noticed that Great Eagle had followed them and now he came up behind them and put his hand on their shoulders making them jump saying, 

“Now you can see for yourselves the reason I said you were like stubborn elms.  On your way you broke many trees.   In doing so you have observed how many trees can be broken and forced down.  Only the stubborn elm resists and can only be broken when several warriors lay their hands to it.

It is exactly the same with two proud boys who both believe they are in the right and place their equal strength against each.  Neither will give way just as the stubborn elm will not give way.

If I had applied my strength to the argument in favor of one or the other the loser may have bent to the earth and broken.  

When you believe yourself to be absolutely and with all honesty right, you can stand straight and tall as the stubborn elm tree.  

When you do things you do not truly believe in you leave the path of truth and wisdom and your enemies can break and defeat you.  Therefore, always remember the stubborn elm!”

© 26/08/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 26th, 2020 zteve t evans

Russian Folklore: The Domovoi – A Spirit of Hearth and Home

Russian folklore: Domovoi   

In Russian and Slavic folklore a domovoi or domovoy, was a household spirit.  Domovoi are usually small bearded males who sometimes have bodies covered in white fur, or hair and  sometimes they are affectionately called “Grandfather” or “Master.”  Sometimes they appear as the miniature double of the head of the household and sometimes, but rarely, they have a female companion.

According to tradition there are two kinds of domovoi.   One kind lives inside people’s houses and the other, called a dvorovoi, lives outside in the yard or garden and can only be found in the country. Sometimes they have a wife and are considered less friendly and more dangerous than a domovoi especially to animals and livestock that have white fur.

Origins of the Domovoi

Some people think they have originated before Christianity and were part of an ancestor cult.    Another tradition  tells that they were once malevolent spirits who were thrown from the skies.  Some of these spirits landed in human dwellings and overtime grew to like people in the dwellings and grew less evil.  They still retained the ability to cause mischief when they wanted if they were not adequately placated, or were treated disrespectfully.  However,  overtime as they got used to humans they became more benign and helpful.  They can grow fond of people who take care of their home environment and will help maintain it but dislike those who neglect it and begin causing trouble.

The Shapeshifting Domovoi

There have been claims that domovoi can take on the appearance of the owner or householder of the home.  Witnesses have claimed to see the owner of the home outside in the garden or yard when in fact he has been sound asleep in bed.  They are also thought to have the ability to change their shape into replicas of the cat or dog of the home and even rats and snakes.  The voice of the domovoi is said to sound rather harsh and hollow.

Domovoi Folklore

By tradition every home has its own domovoi.  Although the middle part of the home is said to be their domain they also live under the threshold, or under the stove, stairs, or sometimes outside in the chicken or cattle shed.  Every human house, cottage, apartment, flat or dwelling of any kind large, or small, has a domovoi to look after it and its human dwellers.

The domovoi can sometimes be a trickster or maker of mischief and sometimes tickles people when they are asleep.  He will also knock on the walls and throw crockery and pans for the sake of making mischief.  Usually he will be friendly and on good terms with the domovoi next door but if they start stealing from the home he protects he will defend the property from his neighbour.

The domovoi is the guardian of a home and it is wise to keep him happy by leaving rewards such as salt, porridge, bread, milk or tobacco.  If he is kept happy he will guard the home and maintain order and peace and will help with household chores and outside jobs, but a word of warning.  If a domovoi is disrespected or abused, or the homeowner becomes untidy and slovenly the domovoi can become angry and bad things start to happen.  He becomes like a poltergeist making objects move and fly through the air and things happen that should not, though he will rarely harm humans directly. 

Sometimes when the domovoi is producing unhelpful or unwelcome behavior this can be called barabashka which means knocker or pounder.  The domovoi can become greatly offended at times and will abandon the home and family.   This was something that caused great concern as his presence usually ensured a benevolent and harmonious atmosphere in the home prevailed.

Foretelling the Future

It was believed that the future could be foretold by the behaviour of the domovoi.  If the domovoi was laughing and joking, or singing and dancing, then happy times can be looked forward to.  When he sweeps his thumb up and down a comb like he is strumming a guitar a wedding is pending.  The touch of the domovoi can also dictate the future. Good luck will abound when his furry hand feels warm but when it feels cold then beware because bad luck is on its way.  Beware when a domovoi becomes visible, puts out the flame of a candle, or cries in the night. These are signs of an impending death of someone in the family and very often the head of the home.

Respect Your Domovoi!

All in all, according to tradition, a domovoi in the home can be of great benefit to the homeowner.  To keep him content they must respect, reward and placate him in an appropriate manner and do their utmost to maintain the home environment in a clean and tidy state.  If these things are done then the home will be a happy and harmonious environment for all.

© 05/08/2020 zteve t evans

References,  Attributions and  Further Reading

Copyright August 5th, 2020 zteve t evans

Influential Women: Enheduanna – High-Priestess, Astronomer, First Known Author

File:Disk of Enheduanna.JPG from Wikimedia Commons – Author: Mefman00CC0

Daughter of Sargon

The world’s first known author is widely attributed to have been the daughter of Sargon (1) of Akkad in the 23rd century BC.  We know her today as Enheduanna, which may have been a title of office, in which case her real name is unknown.  She was the High Priestess of Nanna-Suen, a moon deity of Mesopotamia presiding over his temple complex in the city of Ur.  The “En” part of her name signifies “leadership” and “ heduanna,”  means “Ornament of Heaven” reflecting the divinity she served.

Clearly, she was of very high status in the society of her time and her writing was greatly influential then and in later times.  Considerable parts of her work still exist in her original poetic form which has been influential in various religious systems throughout history.

Enheduanna lived through tumultuous times as her father, also known as Sargon the Great,  forged the Akkadian-Sumerian empire which many consider the world’s first great empire.  During this period the northern and southern parts of Mesopotamia were united and the city of Akkad became one of the largest known cities in the world.

Sargon needed someone loyal with the intellectual and creative ability to combine the two main religions of his empire.  His  appointment of her as the first High-Priestess of Nanna-Suen of the city of Ur was a master-stroke as she seems to have had considerable success in this.

Cunieform

The early form of pictorial writing that Enheduanna used was believed to have originated in about 3,400 BC.  This was etched into tablets damp clay and known as Cuneiform.  Although these tablets may look primitive, modern literature and administration systems evolved from them.  They carry the thoughts, philosophy, religious knowledge and records of everyday life of the ancients carefully etched upon them.  A large number of these cuneiform tablets have been found that were designed to teach the arts of the scribe to future generations. Many examples have been discovered in the Sumer region carrying a great variety of information. 

In this way we have access to the thoughts of Enheduanna, a woman who lived about 4,300 years ago and other ancient people through the ages.

First Named Author

In her work as High Priestess, Enheduanna composed a canon of important literature.  These included two hymns to the goddess, Inanna, later known as Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love as well as the myth of Inanna and Ebih and 42 temple hymns.  She was thought to have composed them herself and dictated them to scribes.  

We know she wrote them because she claims authorship in the inscriptions and her seals are used as her stamp of authority.  Although there were earlier writers she is the first named author claiming responsibility for her work that has so far been identified in the world.  Her works come across as deeply personal including biographical information and her role as High-Priestess.  Her temple hymns are finished with the following declaration: 

The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”

In providing this she is asserting they were produced from her own intellectual creativity and effort in a similar way copyright is claimed by an author today.  Her assertion is the earliest known claim of authorship yet to be found.

She appears to have worked diligently and intelligently often through the night  in creating her compositions to be performed the next day.  Her works were performed to a live audience though it is uncertain if she performed them herself or someone else stood in.

Her poetry contains the first religious belief system and these works were studied and performed some five hundred years after she died.  It also contains personal information such as a power struggle with a usurper which saw her banished from the temple of Ur for a period.

Her works reveal the challenges she had in creating them and finding ways to express her thoughts.  From what she explains she appears to have sometimes suffered from writer’s block which shows it is not a phenomenon of the modern age!

Role in Society

As well as being the first recognized writer and one of the earliest scientists she was also the first in a long line of High-Priestesses of Nanna-Suen.  Over the following five hundred years the king’s daughter was appointed this highly influential role that would have required someone of high education and intelligence to fulfill.

Her role included more than that of a High-Priestess; she also controlled the administration of the temple and agricultural complexes.  Her religious ceremonies required accurate reading of the celestial sky as did her agricultural duties and she needed to articulate this information in ways that others could understand.   

She is also believed to have built into her works astronomical principles that were relevant to the celestial divinities of her religion.  In doing so she appears to have engaged in astronomy and mathematics as her observations and calculations  are regarded as accurate today and considered as one of the earliest known scientists.

Astronomy and Mathematics

Her eighth hymn is believed to give clues as to her role as High-Priestess and astronomer,

      ” in the gipar the priestesses’ rooms

        that princely shrine of cosmic order

        they track the passage of the moon.”

The private and sacred apartment of the High-Priestess was called the “gipar”.  This verse tells that this was the place or observatory where the movements of the moon in the night sky was observed and recorded.

As the High-Priestess of Nanna-Suen, the moon deity she needed to practice astronomy for both practical and ceremonial purposes.  Observing  the phases of the moon and movement of stars was important for practical purposes such as keeping track of the year and for agriculture and animal breeding. 

The modern liturgical calendars evolved from observations and calculations that Enhedaunna and other early priest astronomers observed and recorded. 

Enheduanna the Scientist

From her poetry we gain a really good insight into who she was and what her role was.

“The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom,

       She consults a tablet of lapis lazuli

        She gives advice to all lands…

        She measures off the heavens,

        She places the measuring-cords on the earth.”

(3)

This provides a good description of her role as scientist and High-Priestess making observations and calculations and distributing the information and conclusions she reaches.  Lapis lazuli is a blue rock but some people think she is referring to the blue sky as it fits with her role as astronomer.

Exile

In what must have been a period of great anxiety and despair for Enhedaunna she was exiled during  one of the many uprisings by a revolutionary named Lugal-Ane.

She pleaded to the god Nanna-Suen for restoration but he appeared to ignore her despite her being his High-Priestess.  Therefore, she appealed to the goddess of love, procreation, fertility and war, Inanna, also known as Ishtar, for succour and was eventually restored to her position.   These events are recorded in her poetry which tells how she was ignored by Nanna-Suen but succoured by Inanna.  Her reverence and gratitude is shown in her hymn“The Exaltation of Inanna”(4),  a deeply personal account of her banishment and restoration.

Modern Society

She is considered as the first  known author and poet and considered one of first among the earliest of astronomers, mathematicians and scientists.  Her works are an important part of the rich history of Mesopotamia and her achievements have shone out through the centuries.  The  influence this remarkable woman had on modern society has been immense and we have much to thank her for today.

© 29/07/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 29th, 2020, zteve t evans

Medieval Lore: The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

The Lady and the Unicorn: Sight – Source

This article was first published 28th May, 2020 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Unicorn Lore: Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, by zteve t evans

The Mythical, Magical Unicorn

The rare and elusive, mythical, magical unicorn has been part of folklore and legend for centuries, evolving spectacularly into the modern age.  Despite its reputed elusiveness and rarity you do not need to go far to find one these days.  Unicorns appear in a range of products such as toys or works of art sold in high streets and feature in literature, films, television and much more.  In the distant past it was a very different creature but it has grown into the very embodiment of purity, elegance, innocence and beauty that we are familiar with today.

Many of today’s perceptions of the unicorn evolved from the medieval and Renaissance eras where they appeared in works of art, tapestries, and coats-of-arms of the rich and powerful. Presented here is a brief look at a set of six late medieval tapestries known as La Dame à la licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn.  Today reproductions of these designs appear in various places but notably adorning the walls of the Gryffindor Common Room in the Harry Potter films.

Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn

The tapestries are believed to have an original meaning and purpose that has been lost over time and their interpretation is uncertain today. Medieval people would have understood what each of the figures, motifs and symbols in each scene meant and how they were all part of an extended allegory that came together to create an overall meaning or message …

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Virgil and the Roman Goddess Laverna

Laverna

Of all of the gods of Rome perhaps one of the strangest and most devious was the goddess Laverna.  The following example shows just how devious she could be while revealing how the great Roman poet, Virgil, answered a tricky question posed by the Emperor.  It is retold here from The Unpublished Legends of Virgil by Charles Godfrey Leland. 

A Tricky Question

The Roman Emporer asked Virgil what he made of the following verse from Aesop’s Fables.

"One day a fox entered a sculptor’s shop,
And found a marble head, when thus he spoke:
‘O Head! there is such feeling shown in thee
By art—and yet thou canst not feel at all!"

After a little thought Virgil gave the following answer, “Well now, it is very difficult for me to tell whether or not it is all introduction or all conclusion.  It reminds me of those types of fish where it is difficult to know the head from the tail, or if they are all head, or all tail. Indeed, it also reminds me of the goddess Laverna of whom no one could ever tell if she was all head, or all body, or in fact both.”

The Emperor looked puzzled telling the poet he had never in his life heard of such a deity. Therefore, Virgil gave the following explanation,  “Of all the ancient gods and goddesses in the history of Rome, Laverna was the most cunning, the most mischievous and the most deceitful. She was not well known by the other deities as she tended to keep herself to her own wicked ways, rarely spending time in heaven among them. Most of the time she could be found mingling with vagabonds, scoundrels, pickpockets and thieves, living in the dark and hidden places of human society.

One day it happened that she changed herself into the form of an extremely beautiful priestess and visited a great priest and proposed a bargain with him.   She proposed he sell his estate to her and she would build on it within one year a great temple. Furthermore, at the end of that year she would pay in full for the estate and he would also get the temple for free.  She told him that as surety for the proposal she would swear on her body.

The great priest was completely convinced. He gave her his estate thinking he would be paid its full value and get a free temple in the bargain.  In that time Laverna was very busy selling up all his houses, land, livestock and assets until she had sold everything of any little worth. On the day when payment was due she was nowhere to be found and the great priest never received a penny in payment and no new temple.

Now, Laverna was not satisfied with defrauding the great priest and hatched another scheme.  She went to a great lord and persuaded him to sell her a castle with a great estate. This time she promised with her head as surety to pay him in six months the full value of the castle and estate. The great lord was completely taken in by her and agreed the deal.  Once again, Laverna sold the castle, the land and everything on it lock, stock and barrel, leaving nothing at all of any value.

The great priest and the great lord went together to the assembly of gods and goddesses to voice their complaints. The first before them was the priest. The gods heard his complaint and the goddess Laverna  was summoned before them to answer.  

Jove asked her what she had done with the property of the priest whom she had sworn with her body to repay in the allotted time.  Standing before him and the other gods she answered in a very strange way which entirely astonished Jove and the assembled divinities. She cried aloud,

‘Behold! He says I swore by my body, but I have no body!’

Her body vanished leaving just her head floating in the air. Jove and the others all laughed and called upon the great lord to next make his petition to them. He told how Laverna had defrauded him and promised by her head to repay him by the allotted time.   Jove demanded an explanation from her and in reply she showed her body to all present and it was indeed a very beautiful body, but it did not have a head.  Then a voice came from the body saying, 

‘Behold me, I am Laverna!  I say this of the lord’s complaint of me. He says I swore on my head.  See!  I have no head, yet he calls me a thief.  As you can see having no head I could not have sworn such an oath!’

Once again the gods broke into peals of laughter. At length Jove spoke and ordered her to return her head to her body.  When she stood before them in full he ordered that she pay what was due to her creditors with no more tricks.  Reluctantly, she complied.  

Jove told her and all present that as she was of such knavish and deceitful nature from hence forward she would be the deity of all rogues, scoundrels thieves, cutthroats, vagabonds and those of similar nature. 

That is why Laverna is now the patron of all of the wicked and deceitful people of the earth and a goddess of the Underworld.  When such people make their wicked plans they could enter into her temple and call upon her for aid and advice and she would appear as a woman’s head. If they did their work badly and incorrectly she would appear as a female body. If they worked well and were successful she appeared before him as the whole goddess.”

Virgil then pointed out that she was as chaste as she was honest taking many lovers and bearing many children.  However he hastened to add she was not entirely  evil-hearted and often repented her ways but no matter how hard she tried her passions got the better of her.

The Arts of Virgil

So that was how the poet Virgil answered a tricky question he had no idea the answer to.  It may be the Emperor lost track of his original question or was completely bamboozled by the  brilliance of the answer.  Whatever the reason he asked no more of it but this small event did not go unnoticed in history.

In the modern age, here in the UK, our elected rulers pay homage to Laverna and master the arts of Virgil from an early age.

© 08/07/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 8th, 2020 zteve t evans

Welsh Mythology: Pwyll’s Sojourn in Annwfn

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Presented here is a retelling of the story of the time Pwyll of Dyfed spent in Annwfn in the body of Arawn.  It is the first part of the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed or Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, which is the First Branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It tells how he and Arawn became friends and of his sojourn in Annwfn.

Pwyll of Dyfed

One day as Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed was out hunting in the region of  Glyn Cuch his hounds raised a stag. The stag took off at great speed with the hounds hard on its trail and Pwyll spurred his horse forward in pursuit sounding his hunting horn.  The stag was moving fast but the hounds were keeping up and he was keeping up with the hounds.  In the speed and excitement of the chase he lost the other members of his party who were left far behind.

Following the sound of his pack he became aware that he could also hear another pack of hounds which sounded very different to his own.  Arriving in a glade in the woods he was surprised to see in the middle a large stag holding at bay a pack of strange hounds.  As Pwyll looked on they brought the beast to the ground. Although an experienced and accomplished huntsman Pwyll had never seen dogs like these before. They had coats of pure, shining white and the tips of their white ears glowed red.  Moving purposely forward he drove the pack of strange dogs off and set his own on the stag.

The Anger of Arawn

No sooner had he done this when he heard the blowing of a hunting horn and the approach of a fast riding horseman.  The horseman cut an intimidating figure being tall and well built and dressed in grey hunting clothes.  Around his neck hung a hunting horn which he blew notes on heralding his arrival. Reining in his horse he glared coldly upon Pwyll and spoke in a blunt and unfriendly manner,  “Chieftain, I know who you are but I will not welcome you!

“Indeed,” replied Pwyll taking offense at the tone of the address, “you appear lacking of such dignity and manners and it is best you do not do so!” “Indeed,” said the stranger, “it is not my dignity and manners that prevent me!”

“Chieftain, what then is it? Am I the one at fault, is it my courtesy and manners that are at fault? Tell me what is the fault that I have committed?” replied Pwyll in anger and  bewilderment. Replied the huntsman, “Never have I seen anything so discourteous and bad-mannered!  You have driven my dogs away from their kill and set your own upon it.  Though I may not gain revenge for the value of the offense, I swear I will bring you more dishonor than the worth of a hundred stags!”

Realizing he was at fault Pwyll said, “Chieftain, I indeed have done wrong.  How I can make it up to you and become your friend?  You say you know who I am, therefore, tell me who you are?” The other replied, “I am Arawn, a King of Annwfn,” and Pwyll answered, “Then Arawn, a King of Annwfn, I ask how I may redeem myself and win your friendship?”

Trading Places

“I have a neighbor named Hafgan who forever makes trouble and seeks war and is also a King of Annwfn.  Rid me of him and gain my undying friendship and amend the wrong you have done me,” replied Arawn. “I will do this, but how?” said Pwyll. Arawn replied,

“Change places with me and live as I have lived as a King of Annwfn. You will have the fairest lady ever seen as your Queen, who is my wife. We must exchange bodies.  Your mind and soul will live in my body and my mind and soul will live in yours.  I will make it so no one in the world will ever be able to know the difference, not your closest friend, not even my wife.  I will know what you know, you will know what I know.  We will live like this for a year and a day and in that time you will have accomplished  the task. We shall meet on that anniversary in this place and I will return us to our true forms. Only we will know! ”

“I will do this, but how shall I know and find your enemy,” Pwyll asked. “The time and date are already set for us to meet in single combat to the death.  One year from today you will find him waiting at the ford.  Be there and with one stroke rid me of him and gain my never ending friendship.   One word of warning I give! Should he ask you to strike again to bring his life to a quick end you must refuse.  Last year I made this mistake after dealing him a fatal blow and he recovered.  You must let him die slowly!” advised Arawn. “It is understood and this I will do,” replied Arawn, “but what will happen to my own kingdom while I am away?”

“Fear not for your kingdom. In your own semblance I will rule in your stead and none will ever know the difference,” answered Arawn. “Then, let us begin!” said Pwyl. “Nothing shall hinder you until you come into my lands and then I will guide you to my palace in my kingdom,” said Arawn,” and it shall begin.”

Arawn led Pwyll through the forest to a place close to his palace and said, “Behold, my palace.  Here I must leave you to enter alone as I. Have no fear, no one will see anything different and all will accept you as being myself.   Furthermore, you will find you have knowledge of all the ways of the court. “

Sojourn in Annwfn

Therefore, Pwyll entered court and it was as Arawn had told him.  He was welcomed as their king by the servants and his wife who noticed nothing amiss. Two knights helped to dress him in the finest silks of gold and scarlet and the hall was prepared for feasting and they noticed nothing.   He saw that those who joined him were of the most comely and handsome of looks and  ways.  They all appeared to know him paying him great obeisance.  Arawn’s wife entered and sat next to him talking as she had always known him.  Just as Arawn had said, she was the fairest woman he had ever seen.  She was dressed in scarlet and gold and talked and conversed with him most agreeably throughout the meal.  After the feasting there were wonderful stories and songs and Pwyll thought that this must be the most entertaining and courteous of courts on Earth.

The Fight at the Ford

He spent the next year hunting and feasting, enjoying the entertainments of the court and his conversations with the Queen and the courtiers.  Eventually the year passed and the time came around when he must meet Hafgan, the enemy of Arawn, at the ford in single combat. The nobles and everyone in the kingdom had been waiting for this time to come  and a great throng of warriors assembled to accompany him to the fight at the ford.  As he arrived a knight spoke up to address the throng saying, “Lords, this conflict is between two kings who claim ownership of each other’s realm.  It is not your battle therefore stand aside and let the kings do  battle alone.”  

Turning he said the same to those on his side of the Ford and all but the two kings fell back to watch the fight. The two kings approached each other and met in the middle of the ford and without ceremony the fight began. With his first blow Pwyll struck the shield of Hafgan such a mighty blow that it was split in two and Hafgan was knocked to the ground mortally wounded. “Chieftain,” said Hafgan, “I am dying but what right have you to cause my death as I have done you no harm in any of this.  As You have dealt me a killing blow I ask of you to strike again and strike fast to end my life quickly.”

 “Chieftain,” replied Pwyll, “it may well be that I come to regret the blow I dealt you and the one that I will not deal, but I will give no more blows.” Calling out to his knights Hafgan said, ” I say to my subjects, I shall no longer be able to support you, therefore follow who you will, for I die now.” 

Pwyll said, “Let those who have followed Hafgan come over to me without fear and in peace. There can only be one victor and that will be Arawn.” Those nobles on the opposite side of the ford went over to join with him.  Next he rode through Hafgan’s kingdom subduing those who would not follow and subjecting the land to Arawn as the undisputed king of all of Annwfn. By noon the next day the two kingdoms were united and Pwyll made his way to keep his tryst with Arawn. 

Rendezvous

When he arrived Arawn was waiting and the two rejoiced to meet again. Arawn said, “I know the news you bring and I am thankful for your fulfilling the promise.  You have my undying friendship and when you return to your own realm you shall see what I did for you in your absence.”

” Whatever that may be,” said Pwyll, “may Heaven reward you.” With that, Arawn reinstated each to their own natural bodies and set off for his home in Annwfn.  When he arrived home none of his court or his queen realized he had been away or noticed any difference in him.  When the time came for him to go to bed he took his wife with him who seemed both surprised and delighted. She told him she had been grieved that he had not shown any interest in sleeping with her the last long year.  Arawn realized the extent of Pwyll’s mastery over himself and was glad but made sure he was fully reconciled with his wife.

Home 

Pwyll also went home and none of his nobles or servants appeared to notice any difference.  Therefore he asked them their opinions of how his judgements and rule had been over the past year.  They told him that he had appeared to have ruled with great justice, wisdom and perception and his kingdom had benefited greatly from this. Pwyll told them about the exchange of places with Arawn and said they should be grateful to him for how he had treated them.

To strengthen the friendship between Annwfn and Dyfed, Arawn sent greyhounds, horses, hawks and such presents he thought would please Pwyll.   In turn Pwyll reciprocated in kind.  The friendship between Arawn and Pwyll blossomed and grew bringing great prosperity and benefit to both kingdoms.  From that time on he also became known as “Pwyll, Pen Annwfn” or “Pwyll, Head of Annwfn“.

© 24/06/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 24th, 2020 zteve t evans

Scottish Folklore: The Battle of the Sea Mither and Teran

Image by Наталья Коллегова from Pixabay

The Northern Isles

The Northern Isles of Scotland generally refers to the two archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland.  The islands have been inhabited since very early times and have many ancient archaeological sites with human activity going back to the Mesolithic Age.  There are still many Pictish and Norse influences which have combined to create a rich tradition of mythology and folklore on the islands.

Folklore and Tradition

One such tradition tells of an annual battle between the forces of summer and winter for supremacy.  This battle is expressed in folklore with summer being represented by a mythical female spirit called the Sea Mither, or Mither of the Sea.  Her opponent is called Teran, a mythical spirit of the winter who sends the wild waves, storms and high winds at sea and the death of vegetation on land.  Both spirits are invisible to humans directly but their force is experienced in the weather and seasons around the islands that play an integral part of island life.

The Sea Mither

The Sea Mither brings growth, renewal, rebirth and harvest.  The  word “Mither” is the Orcadian way of saying  “mother” so she is the mother of the sea in the sense she gives birth to all living creatures in the sea.

It is the power of the Sea Mither that reawakens the world after the harsh, barren wilderness days of winter, driving out darkness and bringing warmth and light.  She brings growth and fertility to the sea and land giving life to all living things and calms the stormy seas.  

Teran

Her enemy, Teran, brings the cold and dark and causes the winter gales and winds.  It is he who causes the waves to rise wildly and dash against the rugged coastline of the islands and it is his voice who rises above the wind in anger that the islanders hear in the winter gales.

 Vore Tully – the Spring Struggle

Around the time of the vernal equinox, about mid-March, there begins a titanic struggle for supremacy between the Teran and the Sea Mither when she returns to challenge him.  For weeks the seas all around become a frothing, churning cauldron as the battle between the two foes ensues.  Finally Teran is overcome and the Sea Mither confines him to the ocean’s depths.  Every so often he attempts to break free which manifest as spring and summer storms.  

During this period the power of the Sea Mither quells the storms and seas allowing growth and renewal to take place all around.  The continued stress of keeping Teran confined and  maintaining the summer seas and weather  begins to wear down the Sea Mither.  

 Gore Vellye – The Autumn Tumult 

Around the time of the autumn equinox when the Sea Mither is at her weakest and Teran has regained his strength the conflict is renewed.  He breaks free from his prison and challenges the Sea Mither to regain supremacy and gain control of the weather and seas.  The Sea Mither having used up her strength in renewal, calming the seas and keeping her foe in check is defeated and Teran rules the seas and the weather.  

The Cycle

However, as was the case with Teran, defeat is temporary.  Come the vernal equinox she will be ready to take up the fight again and win back the sea and land and spring and summer will come again.

It is in the battle of the Sea Mither and Teran that the local people made sense of the forces that brought the changing seas and weather.  To personify these unseen forces makes them easier to understand and to come to terms with.  It is a tactic that is used all around the world by many different human cultures in an attempt to explain the invisible forces that bring such dramatic and crucial changes to their environment.

Balance and Harmony

This cycle was seen as important because although it is natural to want continuous and permanent summer that is not how nature works.  Neither does it work by providing continuous and permanent winter.  Each has its time of precedence and decline which comes in cycles and is necessary to provide balance and harmony to the earth.  In their own way one is essential as the other to the well-being of the Earth and life on the planet.   Although  lacking modern science and technology, the ancients knew this making sense of it and giving it due respect in their own way.

© 17/06/2020 zteve t evans

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Copyright June 17th, 2020 zteve t evans

Japanese Folktales: The Goddess of Mount Fuji

Public Domain – Source

Presented here is a retelling of a Japanese folktale called The Goddess of Mount Fuji, from Myths & Legends of Japan, by F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland) Davis and illustrated by Evelyn Paul.

Yosoji

When smallpox hit the village where Yosoji lived it struck down his mother.  Fearing she would soon die he visited Kamo Yamakiko, the magician and begged for his help. Kamo Yamakiko asked Yosoji to describe the symptoms and after listening very carefully told him he must go to the south-west side of Mount Fuji where a stream flowed down its side.  He explained that it was a long and difficult journey and told him, 

 “Follow the stream back to its source.  There you will find a shrine to the God of Long Breath.  You must fetch water from that place for your mother to drink. This is the only cure there is in the world for her.”

The Shrine on Mount Fuji

Therefore taking up a gourd Yosoji set off full of hope to find the shrine at the source of the stream.  It was indeed a long and difficult journey but eventually he came to a place where three paths crossed and he had no idea which one to take. He was tired and hungry and despair washed over him. He thought about giving up but he thought of his mother lying ill and knew he was her only chance and became determined to continue. Nevertheless he still had no idea which way to go, As he pondered upon this problem he was surprised to see a lovely girl step out of the forest.  She beckoned to him bidding him to follow and as he had no idea which way to go he followed her.  

It was not too long before they reached a stream and she led him upwards to its source and just as the magician had said there was a shrine.  As they reached the shrine the girl told Yosoji to drink and then fill the gourd. The water from the stream was cool, sparkling and refreshing and he drank deeply and then filled the gourd.   The girl then led him back to the place they had met and said, 

“You will need to fetch more water for your mother so meet me here in three days time and I will be you guide.”

After she bid him farewell he took the water back to his mother.  The water helped his mother greatly and he also gave some to other people in his village which helped them too. He returned to the sacred shrine five more times for water and each time he met the girl.  After his last visit he was pleased to see that his mother was now back to her normal self and the villagers had all improved marvelously.

Gratitude

Yosoji was made a hero of the village and was greatly praised by everyone for saving them.  Being an honest lad he realized he owed all the thanks to the lovely girl who appeared and guided him to the shrine. Therefore, he went back to find and thank her.

The girl was not at her usual meeting place and after waiting some time he resolved to go on to the shrine.  He was greatly disappointed to find she was not there either. Nevertheless, he still wanted to show his gratitude for helping him save his mother and the villagers.  All he could think to do was to kneel by the shrine and offer a prayer straight from his heart hoping that it would find its way to her somehow.  When he had finished he stood up and looked around and was surprised and delighted to find the girl standing before him smiling.

The Goddess of Mount Fuji

He thanked her for her help from the bottom of his heart  in the most eloquent words he could find and begged her to tell him her name.  The girl smiled sweetly but gave no reply but reaching out a branch of camellia appeared in her hand.  She waved it in the air as if beckoning to some invisible spirit. In answer to her floral signal a small white cloud floated down from the peak of Mount Fuji and settling before her she lightly stepped upon it.

The cloud rose bearing her up and slowly moved up the flank of the mountain before disappearing at the top.  Yosoji was awestruck for he realized that the girl was Sengen, the Goddess of Mount Fuji and he fell down upon his knees.  In his face was rapture and in his eyes light for he knew in his heart that mixed with all the gratitude he felt was a deep love for the lovely girl. As he knelt the goddess looked down and dropped the branch of camellia so that it landed just before him. Quickly, she turned away her face reddening.

From high Mount Fuji,

Camellia from Sengen,

Ah! Goddess blushes

© 20/06/2020 zteve t evans

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Copyright June 10th, 2020 zteve t evans

Queen Mebd: Wolf-Queen – Goddess of Sovereignty

Queen Mebd: Wolf-Queen

In Irish mythology Queen Mebd is a colorful character –  an archetypal warrior-queen – ambitious and strong-willed, who knew her own mind  and how to get what she wanted.  She was described as a lusty fair haired wolf-queen who was so beautiful men were robbed of two thirds of their valor on seeing her (1).  Probably her best known role is the instigator of the Cattle Raid of Cooley or Táin Bó Cúailnge which she undertook with her husband Aillil during a more congenial time in their relationship. Presented here is a brief glimpse of the roles Mebd filled as wife, queen and goddess of sovereignty, looking her most famous exploit, The Cattle Raid of Cooley and finally her death.

Husbands and Marriage

During the Ulster Cycle in Irish mythology she was a much married queen of Connacht.  Her main consort in the important stories of this period was Ailill mac Máta.  She ruled from Cruachan, now known as Rathcroghan, County Roscommon.  One of her former husbands was the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa who became her enemy. 

There is no doubt that marriage to Mebd was a challenge for any man and needed someone of powerful character to fulfill the role.  Mebd had three demands her husband had to agree to in order to marry her.  First, he must be completely without fear. Second, he must be without meanness.  The third and most important was he must be devoid of all jealousy.  The last was essential for Mebd took many lovers and she was not a woman who could be possessed.   One of these lovers was Fergus mac Róich.  

According to tradition it took seven men to satisfy her sexually but Fergus only once.  Ailill, on learning of the affair, forgot Mebd’s third demand and became jealous of Fergus  and had him killed.  However, such were the intrigues of the Connacht court that when Mebd learnt Ailill was having an affair behind her back she ordered Conall Cernac to kill him.  He gladly took on the task in revenge  for the killing of Fergus but as he was dying Aillil ordered his warriors to kill Conall.

A traditional patriarchal view of Mebd might see her as an immoral sex-predator who lusts for men, but a closer look may reveal a different idea of who she was and what she represented. 

Goddess of Sovereignty

There are several versions and spelling of her name including Maeve, Maev, Mave or Maiv, may have meant the ruler.  Another interpretation is “mead-woman” or “she who intoxicates,” which many see as evidence of her being a goddess of sovereignty or representative of one.  In ancient and medieval  Ireland, mead and its consumption played an important part in the inauguration ceremony of a new king. Her many marriages to kings and  her liberated sexual behaviour are also considered as evidence of her status as a sovereignty goddess. She may have been one and the same with  Medb Lethderg who was the wife or lover of nine kings at Tara.

According to one version of the myth the sovereignty of the land was bestowed upon the king by a goddess of sovereignty, or her representative, on behalf of the Earth Mother.  Her presence by his side as consort signified the approval of the goddess and a powerful public symbol the king was divinely chosen.  The king acted as the steward of the land ensuring its fertility and wellbeing which promoted regrowth and renewal of vegetation and crops.  Traditionally he was expected to be without blemish and if he was sick, injured, or grew old he was replaced by a younger more virile man.

It is the association with the goddess of sovereignty that causes a rethink of her being labelled as merely promiscuous or immoral.  Modern morals should not be used as a yardstick; these were different times with different ways of doing things and different social values.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

Mebd was never the subordinate wife and queen.  She believed she had a right to be of equal wealth as her husband.   After taking stock of both their total possessions she realized her husband owned a more powerful and virile stud bull named Finnbennach. This gave him a slight edge which greatly annoyed her.

The only bull in Ireland that could rival Finnbennach was named Donn Cúailnge who was owned by Dáire mac Fiachna,  a vassal of Conchobar’s her former husband.  Mebd decided she must have Donn Cúailnge to make her equal to her husband and she was determined to get him by any means.   

She sent messengers to Dáire requesting him to loan her the bull. In return she offered wealth, land and sexual favours.  Dáire initially agreed to the deal.  However, he changed his mind when one of her messengers in a drunken state foolishly revealed that she would have taken it by force anyway.  On hearing this Dáire reversed his decision.

Mebd was still determined to have the bull and mustered her army and  war bands from all over Ireland rallied to her.  With the support of her husband, Ailill, she launched an invasion of Ulster to take Donn Cúailnge.

The defenders of Ulster were stricken by a curse that rendered them unfit for battle at the time of their greatest need.  This had been inflicted on them as revenge and punishment by the goddess Macha, whom the king of Ulster had forced into a chariot race with while she was heavily pregnant.

The only one left to oppose Mebd’s invasion was the young warrior Cúchulainn who with the help of his charioteer waged a guerrilla war against the invaders.  He used a custom that enabled him to claim single combat against one of Mebd’s champions at each river ford her army needed to cross.  Using this tactic he held up the invasion while the Ulster defenders recuperated. However, despite the hold up, Mebd managed to take Donn Cúailnge. 

Eventually the incapacitated defenders of Ulster recovered and led by King Conchobar rally to the defence of the realm.  After a final battle against Conchobar, Mebd retreated having got what she came for took the bull back to Connacht.  To decide who was the most powerful and valuable bull Donn Cúailnge and Finnbennach were matched in a fight against each other.  Donn Cúailnge killed Finnbennach but also died of his wounds leaving Mebd and her husband Aillil equal in wealth and status.

Death of Mebd

In later years it Mebd’s custom to bathe in a pool on an island named Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery. However, this was to prove to be her undoing. Mebd had previously murdered her sister. Her son Furbaide seeking revenge for his mother’s death waited for Mebd until she came to bathe.  According to tradition, he killed her with a hardened piece of cheese fired from his sling, which was the nearest projectile he could find in a hurry.  Her son Maine Athramail succeeded her to the throne of Connacht.

Her final resting place is uncertain.  She is said to be buried standing upright to face her enemies.  According to one legend she is buried in a 40 foot high stone cairn in the top of Knocknarea in County Sligo.  Another possible site for her burial place is her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon at a place now called ‘Misgaun Medb’.

There is no shortage of colorful and extraordinary characters in Irish mythology and Queen Mebd must surely rate somewhere at the top of the list.

© 03/06/2020 zteve t evans

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Copyright June 3rd, 2020 zteve t evans