The Gods of Mount Teide: Mythology and Folklore of Tenerife

Mount Teide, Tenerife – Public Domain

MOUNT TEIDE, TENERIFE

The Canary Islands are a popular holiday destination for many people from the United Kingdom and Western Europe and the most southerly of the autonomous communities of Spain. One of the most popular tourist attractions is Mount Teide, an active volcano on the island of Tenerife, whose last eruption was in 1909 and is visible from many parts of the island. A cable car takes tourists part of the way to the summit for the journey completed on foot with a permit. Those who have undertaken the trip to the top will probably understand why it meant the same to the Guanches as Mount Olympus meant to the ancient Greeks. It was the home of their gods and believed to hold up the sky.

ORIGIN OF THE GUANCHES

The Guanche people were the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands. Their myths and legends still resonate through the ages giving small glimpses of these remarkable people. Some of their traditions and folklore still endure adding depth, color, and flavor to the modern culture of the islands. The Guanches inhabited the islands long before the arrival of the Spanish and are descendants of the Berber people on the African mainland who migrated to the islands about 1,000 BC or possibly earlier. Although the Guanches became culturally and ethnically assimilated with the Spanish, remnants of their original culture still survive today. For example, the people of La Gomera still use a traditional whistled language to communicate with each other over distances, and some of their mythology, legends, and traditions persist. Presented here is a brief discussion of their pantheon of gods and other supernatural entities and a look at some of the Guanche traditions found today.

ACHAMÁN

The supreme god of the Guanches of Tenerife was Achamán, their creator and father god, whose name means “the skies.” He was the immortal omnipotent creator of the land, air, fire, and water. All living creatures owed their existence to him. Achamán lived in the sky but would sometimes manifest himself on mountain tops to look upon the world he had created.

GUAYOTA

In Guanches mythology, Guayota was the equivalent of the Devil and shared similar characteristics to other divinities around the world associated with volcanoes. For example, in Hawaiian mythology, the goddess Pele, like Guayote, had her home in the Hawaiian volcano of Kīlauea and was believed to be responsible for causing eruptions. Guayota lived inside the peak of Mount Teide, known as Echeyde. It was a place similar to Hell and the entrance to the underworld and abode of certain lesser demons.

THE BLACK DOGS OF GUAYOTA

These lesser demons were called Guacanchas, or Jucanchas, depending on the island, and took the form of wild dogs with shaggy black coats and red eyes said to be the offspring of Guayota. On Gran Canaria, they were known as Tibicenas and made their home in the depths of hidden caves in the mountains. At night they emerged to ravage livestock and attack people they encountered. Guayota often appeared as a monstrous black dog leading a pack of these supernatural hounds across the countryside.

THE ABDUCTION OF MAGEC

In the Guanche pantheon, the god of the sun and light was called Magec and was the most important of their divinities. Although the gender of Magec is ambiguous, the name means “possess radiance” or “mother of brightness.” According to Guanche legend, Guyota kidnapped and imprisoned Magec in Mount Teide. With Magec incarcerated inside the volcano, the world fell into darkness. The people grew afraid and prayed to the supreme god Achamán to free Magec. Achamán heard the people and fought and defeated Guayota setting Magec free restoring sun and light to the world. He imprisoned Guayota in the volcanic crater of Mount Teide, where he has remained trapped ever since. Whenever Mount Teide erupted, the people would light fires on its slopes to taunt and frighten Guayota.

CHAXIRAXI

Another important goddess of the Guanche pantheon was Chaxiraxi, considered the Sun Mother and the Great Celestial Mother and associated with Canopus, the star. She may have evolved from Tanic, a goddess worshipped by their Berber ancestors. Mediation between Chaxiraxi and humanity was the task of minor gods or spirits called Maxios, or sometimes Dioses Paredros. These were also the guardians of hallowed places on Tenerife and were also the domestic spirits of the home. In recent times the worship of Chaxiraxi has been revived by the Church of the Guanche People, whose aim is to practice and promote the ancient religion of the Guanches.

ACHUGUAYO, THE FATHER OF TIMES

Achuguayo was the god of the Moon and the “Father of Times” who controlled time and seasons. According to tradition, he lived in the mountains, sometimes coming down to hear the prayers and supplications of the Guanches conducted under sacred trees or in caves in the mountains.

GUANCHE RELIGION

The Guanches had many sacred places that needed to be maintained, believing their maintenance kept Heaven and Earth in balance. Hallowed places may have been rocks or caves, such as the Cave of Achbinico, or natural features in the landscape where a variety of offerings were left. On Tenerife, the most important of these hallowed places was Mount Teide. Many offerings of tools and clay pots or vessels have been found, hidden in small nooks and natural cavities in rocks around the National Park Las Cañadas del Teide.

They left in the hope of appeasing or pleasing the gods or help the donor become one with nature. These votive offerings were often crude figures or sculptures which were idols and associated with health, fertility, animals, or people and often used by families. The Guanches on Tenerife had four major ceremonies; the proclamation of a new Mencey, a ceremony to relieve drought, their New Year Festival, and their Harvest Festival or Great Annual Festival of Beñasmen.

THE PROCLAIMING OF THE NEW MENCEY

Tenerife had nine small kingdoms, each ruled by a Mencey, the Guanches equivalent to a king, and the highest official in each realm. At times for the good of all the kingdoms, they needed to meet together. When a ruler died, the title did not necessarily pass from father to son. Sometimes it passed from brother to brother, but it was the task of the Council, known as the “Tagoror” that elected a new king

The proclamation came at a ceremony involving the oldest bone of the ancestor of the dynasty. This relic was venerated and carefully guarded and bought before the new Mencey for him to kiss in a special ceremony. Afterward, the members of the Tagoror recognized him as the new king, each saying,

“Agoñe Yacorán Iñatzahaña Chacoñamet”
(I swear by this bone of He who made you great).

THE RAIN RITUAL

Sometimes there were periods of drought, and the Guanches enacted a ceremony they hoped would bring rain. The people would fast and refrain from dancing and other forms of entertainment. Driving their flocks to high places in the mountains, they separated the lambs from the sheep and the kids from the goats, causing the animals to bleat piteously. The people also cried and wailed, hoping the gods would hear and look mercifully upon them and send rain to ease their plight.

THE FEAST OF THE NEW YEAR

The Guanches followed a lunar calendar, their year beginning towards the end of April or the early days of May. Many festivals with dances, feasts, and sporting events celebrating the arrival of Spring took place.

THE HARVEST FESTIVAL

Another important Guanche Festival was their Harvest Festival, or the Beñasmen, held between July and August. During this time, all conflict and wars between the nine kingdoms ceased, and a truce was put in place, allowing everyone to celebrate together and join each other in feasts, dances, and sporting events. During this period, the Menceys provided food for the entire population while the festivities and celebrations endured. The people wore flowers and leaves and also used them to decorate their villages.

SPORTS AND GAMES

Sporting competitions rook place with various athletic events such as running, throwing, and jumping competitions. There were also more dangerous events, such as throwing and avoiding spears, fighting with poles, and many other types of competitions. There were also wrestling matches similar to those practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. The winner had to throw their opponent to the ground or wrestle him out of the fighting area.

MUSIC

Although the Guanches had few musical instruments, they did use conch shells, small pebbles in clay pots, and beat sticks together to create rhythm and they also sang and danced. In the XVIth century, one version of a Guanche dance called “El Canario” became fashionable in the courts of Europe. Another traditional dance, called the “Tajaraste,” is still performed today.

© 20/10/2021 zteve t evans

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Copyright October 20th, 2021 zteve t evans

Influential Women: Sammuramat to Semiramis – From History to Myth

Queen Semiramis was a mythical queen who appears in many myths, legends, works of art and literature through the ages.  She was was believed to have evolved from a real, historical Queen Sammuramat who ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire for a brief period.   Here we look briefly what is known of the historical Queen Sammuramat and her transformation to the mythical, semi-divine, Queen Semiramis.

QUEEN SAMMURAMAT

Sammuramat ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century after her husband, King Shamshi-Adad V, died until her young son Adad-nirari III came of age in 806 BC.  It is not clear whether she ruled as regent or in some other capacity but it was only believed to have lasted for five years.  According to the myths Semiramis ruled for 42 years as queen regnant but it is necessary to separate the historical from the mythical in thinking of Sammuramat.

Although much of her prestige may have come through being the wife and queen of King Shamshi-Adad V, history shows she briefly had great political influence over a great empire.  This stretched from the Arabian Peninsula in the south to the Caucasus Mountains in the north and in the west as far as Cyprus and in the east western Iran.   She was highly regarded by her subjects and neighboring states and appeared to have been a good ruler in what ever capacity she reigned. Like many other powerful and famous rulers throughout history her achievements were embellished, exaggerated and added to.  In the centuries after her death she became a mythical or legendary figure and given the name Semiramis.

EVIDENCE OF HER EXISTENCE

Not all archaeologists and historians are convinced of the existence of Queen Sammuramat.  Those who are point to four pieces of evidence they claim prove she once existed.  Two of these are statuettes found in the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq.  These are dedicated to the Babylonian god of knowledge and writing named “Nabu” and both mention her name.  The other pieces are two stellae; one from Kizkapanli, situated in modern day Turkey and the other from Assur in Iraq which mention her.

Stele of the Assyrian queen Shammuramat, from AssurOsama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When considered together these show she was highly esteemed and exercised an unusually high degree of political power for a woman of that epoch.  The Assur Stela inscription reads,

“Sammuramat, Queen of Shamshi-Adad, King of the Universe, King of Assyria; Mother of Adad-nirari, King of the Universe, King of Assyria.”

FROM HISTORY TO MYTH

The classical historian, Herodotus, in the fifth century B.C. used the Greek form of her name, Semiramis, which helped perpetuate her memory.  It is by this name she is perhaps better known today.   According to some traditions an entity known as Semiramis was the wife of the mythical Nimrod who reputedly built the Tower of Babel.  This entity does not appear to be the same character as the Semiramis who evolved from Sammuramat though there may have been some conflation through the ages.

After her name was Hellenized she became the subject of many enduring myths and legends as an Assyrian queen.  In this role she was the semi-divine daughter of the dove and fish goddess Derceto of Askalon, who in shame of conceiving a baby by a mortal flung herself into a lake.   Her body transformed into that of a fish while her head remained human.  Her baby girl was fostered by doves and grew up to become Semiramis.

In some legends she plays the role of the beautiful “femme fatale” in tragic love storiesbut in others she is a formidable commander and military leader winning impressive battles extending her empire greatly.  She is also cast as a great civil ruler who built the walls of Babylon and other monuments throughout her domain.

The Greek scholar, Diodorus Siculus, enlarged upon her legend inventing an exaggerated and inaccurate account of her life and deeds.  He claimed Semiramis was born in Ashkelon, now in modern day Israel and was the daughter of the Syrian goddess, Derceto, who many scholars see as a version of the Phonecian goddess Astarte and the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar.

RAISED BY DOVES

Her father was a mortal and her mother in shame of falling in love and conceiving with a mortal man abandoned her baby who was then raised by doves.  Eventually she was adopted by the chief shepherd of the king of Assyria and named Semiramis and grew up to be a woman of great and rare beauty and intelligence.  

One day while inspecting the royal flocks Onnes, the royal governor of Syria came across her and struck by her beauty gained her adoptive father’s consent to marry her.  After the wedding she went to live with him in Nineveh.

When Onnes was sent on a military mission to central Asia to besiege the city of Bactra by King Ninus of Assyria he began to miss her badly.  Therefore, he sent a message asking that she join him.  When she arrived the siege was still in place but she came up with a strategy and led an attack that gave her husband and his army the victory.

When King Ninus heard about how she had formulated the winning strategy and led the attack he wanted to meet the rare female with such military ability.  Ninus was completely besotted by her beauty falling in love with her at first sight.  He ordered her husband to exchange his wife for one of his daughters but Onness refused.  Ninus was determined he would marry her and subjected Onnes to terrible threats causing him to take his own life.  Ninus got his way and Semiramis became his wife and queen of Assyria. 

BUILDER AND COMMANDER

According to Diodorus she embarked on a number of large civil projects including the rebuilding of the city of Babylon along the Euphrates River, including the royal palace, the temple of Marduk and the city walls.  Other Greco-Roman authors such as Strabo credit her with creating one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon though this is not supported by evidence.

Variations of her name were applied to many ancient monuments in Anatolia and Western Asia often with little or no evidence they originated with her.   She was also credited with building the city of Van as her summer residence and may have been known as Shamiramagerd (city of Semiramis).

MILITARY CONQUESTS

According to Diodorus Siculus after the completing works in Babylon she turned her attention to the empire.  She launched several military campaigns in Persia, Libya and North Africa.  Furthermore, in an act of supreme ambition she organized and launched an invasion of India ruled by King Stabrobates. This was an incredibly difficult and risky operation and would prove although she was a capable and formidable commander and general she was not invincible. 

Nevertheless, she was very bold and inventive conceiving a daring plan of deception to use against Stabrobates.  She instructed her craftsmen to construct a herd of fake elephants by covering camels with the dark hides of buffaloes.  In this way she initially managed to give the impression she had a formidable battalion of real elephants to unleash in battle.   Initially, this deception was successful in an attack but her enemy strongly counterattacked. Her army was routed with the survivors forced to retreat back over the Indus River.  The invasion failed disastrously and she was injured in the fighting.

THE ORACLE OF AMUN

While campaigning in Africa she had consulted an oracle of the deity Amun.  The oracle predicted her son Ninias would conspire to supplant and kill her.   According to Diodorus this was to come true and after her failure in India on discovering her son’s plot she decided to hand over power peacefully to him rather than fight him for the throne.  However, other historians give differing versions of her death.  Some say she threw herself on a burning pyre while others say her son killed her.

ARMENIAN TRADITION

In Armenian tradition, Semiramis, was often portrayed negatively because of her military successes against Armenia.   One of the most well known Armenian legends about her is her romance with a King of Armenia known as Ara the Handsome.    Armenian traditions say Semiramis had fallen head over heels in love with him and proposed marriage.  To her dismay he refused and in a display of extreme petulance she mustered her army and made war on him ordering her commanders to capture him alive. She was victorious but contrary to her explicit instructions Ara was killed in battle.  

Semiramis was reputed to be a sorceress and the death of Ara had left her in an awkward position.  She did not want to continue warring with the Armenians who were now determined to avenge their leader. Therefore she came up with a plan to end the war.  She openly prayed to the gods to raise Ara from the dead but secretly disguised one of her lovers as him.  When the Armenians arrived for battle she presented him to them claiming she had raised him from the dead by her love for him.   The deception convinced the Armenians he was alive and ended the fighting.  There is also a tradition that she actually succeeded in resurrecting Ara and there is a village not far from Van called Lezk where his resurrection allegedly took place.

INGREDIENTS FOR A GOOD TALE

Her legend has much in common with other myths from the region that tell of great leaders or powerful people.  There is the theme of her divine origin being born of Derketo, the goddess and then abandoned at birth to be found and brought up by animal or bird foster parents. 

The evolution of Queen Semiramis from Queen Sammuramat provided an example for other female rulers to follow.  Her legendary and mythical status was achieved possibly because it was unusual in patriarchal societies for females to be allowed to shine or display their intelligence and talents.  According to these traditions, she proved herself to be a as good or better than males in her governing abilities, civil building works and military prowess.  This was unusual and may be part of the reason why she was elevated to such status.  Her mystique and appeal lasted for centuries after her death and was the inspiration for many works in art and literature. Perhaps because of her legendary beauty and reputation, or maybe, just because she was a woman, she was often cast in erotic and immoral roles. 

Over the ages her achievements became embellished and exaggerated and new stories emerged about her.  In many ways the little that was known about her added to her mystique and after her death the myths and legends grew. In later times was held as a model for good female rulers who exhibited similar characteristics as her and such as Margret I of Denmark, and  Catherine the Great of Russia who were called Semiramis of the North after her. 

Throughout the ages the mythical Queen Semiramis evolved a long way from the original historical Queen Sammuramat but such is the stuff that legends are made from.

© 29/09/2021 zteve t evans

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Copyright September 29th, 2021 zteve t evans

North American Mythology: The Mystery of the Piasa Bird

Piasa Bird – Burfalcy, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

PIASA BIRD OF ALTON

Just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis lies the city of Alton, Madison County, Illinois.  One of the city’s calls to fame is the mysterious Piasa Bird.   This is a Native American design of a strange bird or dragon-like creature painted on a limestone cliff face above the Mississippi River.  The first known Europeans to see it were early explorers traveling along the Mississippi Valley.  Although the original mural no longer exists through quarrying activities the existing designs were reproduced from 20th century sketches and lithographs of what once existed.  The images have to be restored at regular intervals because the rock face is an unsuitable canvas for painting.

IMAGES OF CAHOKIA

The original murals were believed to be created before the arrival of Europeans, possibly around 1200 CE and perhaps earlier by local Native America people.   As the original mural seems deliberately situated to be seen it may have acted as a warning to travelers that they were entering a territory controlled by local people.  Also, because of its visibility from the Mississippi river it may have been a warning to canoeists of the dangerous confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers a few miles further on.

Before Europeans reached the New World the region was inhabited by people of the Mississippian culture known as the Mound Builders, from approximately 800 CE to 1600 CE. These people were responsible for building a six mile square urban complex known today as the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.  It consists of multiple artificial earthen mounds that were built on a flood plain near of the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri rivers.  At its zenith it was believed to be home to around 30,000 people making it the largest known urban center in the New World north of Mexico.  This complex was believed to be the center of a civilization with trading links stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast.   It was from these people that the mural is believed to have originated.   They also created many other pictographs of animals and birds including thunder birds, falcons, bird-men, monstrous snakes and other subjects.  One that has particular relevance to the Piasa Bird was the Underwater Panther, as we shall see.

Other murals have been found in the area and on 27th May, 1921, the local newspaper, The Alton Evening Telegraph, mentioned seven smaller images believed to be of Native American origin.  They were painted on rocks some one and a half miles from the Piasa Bird site in the Levis Bluffs region discovered by George Dickson and William Turk in 1905.   These were believed to include an owl, a squirrel, a sun circle and a depiction of two unknown creatures in some kind of contest.  The rest of the depictions were of larger animals like a lion or coyote. 

DISCOVERY BY EUROPEANS

Kohl, J. G, Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin, and Louis Joliet. The Mississippi. [1850] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2002626428/>.

The first known Europeans to see the Piasa Bird  were the Jesuit missionary and explorer Father Jaques Marquette and his party in 1664, who saw it painted on a limestone cliff overlooking the Mississippi River.  However, the image they saw appears to have changed its appearance in modern time by growing wings.   According to Marquette,

 “While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. they are as large as a calf; they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face somewhat like a man’s, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish’s tail. green, red, and black are the three colors composing the picture.

Moreover, these two monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to reach that place conveniently to paint them. Here is approximately the shape of these monsters, as we have faithfully copied it.”

On an early map compiled by the French cartographer Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin a mural of a creature is shown (see images) as located east of the Mississippi and south of the Illinois River is shown but this also has no wings.  How it acquired wings is not clear but it seems it was first described as bird by Professor John Russell of Bluffdale, Illinois in an article entitled, “The Tradition of The Piasa” in 1836.

THE JOHN RUSSELL LEGEND

Russell claimed the name came from a nearby stream who local Native Americans called the Piasa which meant “the bird that devours men” in the language of the local Illini people.  The stream ran through parts of Alton until it was encased in drainage pipes in 1912.   He claimed that the depiction was of a huge bird-like creature that dwelt in a cave in the cliffs.  It had developed a taste for human flesh after a war had left many bodies lying out in the open which it scavenged upon.  According to him to satisfy this appetite it would fly down and attack and devour local people in nearby villages. 

He told of  a legend of how a local chief named Chief Ouatoga was sent a dream from the Great Spirit revealing how he could kill the monstrous beast.  The Great Spirit told the Chief to hide his bravest warriors near the entrance of the cave armed with poisoned arrows.  When they were in place he was to openly approach the cave acting as bait so that the Piasa Bird would rush to attack him.  Ouatoga enacted the plan and as the creature rushed out of the cave his braves let fly their poisoned arrows slaying the beast.  

According to Russell, it was this beast the mural was supposed to commemorate.   The mystery is what happened for the creature to acquire wings.  However, it is possible that what both Father Marquette saw and what Russell saw was accurate as the wings could have been added after the first sighting although why they were added is not known.   It was Russell’s colorful version which stuck although there are claims he later admitted to making up the story.

THE UNDERWATER PANTHER

Underwater Panther – Uyvsdi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A modern theory proposes a different origin.  According to this the mural depicts a mythical Native American creature known as the “Underwater Panther” but with added wings.  Some people think the original wingless depiction of the panther bears a strong resemblance.   Versions of the Underwater Panther are shown in petroglyphs, pictographs, and other art forms from the Great Lakes in North America, down to the Andes in South America.  There are a great many different Native American cultures and its attributes and meaning vary between them.  It is also know as the Underwater Lynx and other names but often referred to collectively as Underwater Panthers.

According to Esarey, Costa, Wood, the Piasa and the Underwater Panther are both linked to the legends of the “payiihsa” which was a small supernatural being with big feet with 4 to six toes.   It is often found in pottery and rock art   “payiihsa” along with images of the Underwater Panther. 

A legend from the Peoria people translated by Miami-Illinois language expert, David Costa is now thought  more likely to be the inspiration of the depiction. This tells how the cultural hero and trickster Wiihsakacaakwa and a Frenchman went on a boat trip along the river.  They had to pass by a cave which they knew to be the home of a supernatural man-eating monster.  To the dismay and fear of the Frenchman, Wiihsakacaakwa decided he would be as loud and irritating as possible, ignoring his companion’s pleas not to disturb the monster.  The raucous behaviour of Wiihsakacaakwa roused the beast which emerged from the cave finding them in their boat in the river.  Taking a great gulp of river water the monster sucked the boat into his cave where he imprisoned them.  They discover there are other captives held in the cave and that the monster ate them one by one when he gets hungry.   However, the monster, feeling secure in its cave went to sleep. 

Wiihsakacaakwa told the others to sneak out of the cave while he piled the gunpowder they had brought with them for hunting, around the monster.  After the others had escaped Wiihsakacaakwa blew him up.  Having defeated the monster Wiihsakacaakwa decided he liked the cave and made it his home until a pair of twin supernatural dwarfs known as the “payiihsaki,” appeared and drove him out stealing the cave from him.

The belief is the Piasa originated from “payiihsa”, an Miami-Illinois word that is used to refer to two small supernatural entities.  The Underwater Panther was often associated with two small supernatural dwarves.  From this comes the claim the original Piasa was wingless Underwater Panther which is reinforced by the 1682 map of the Mississippi that corresponds to the descriptions given by Jolliet and Marquette.

Although Russell’s  tale was the most colorful and heroic it is the legend of Wiihsakacaakwa that is now considered authentic with the monster possibly the Underwater Panther and the two dwarfs giving their name to the Piasa Bird.

Copyright 25/08/2021 zteve t evans

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Copyright August 25th, 2021 zteve t evans

South Sea Island Folktales: Sina and the Eel

Sina and the Eel

South Seas Myths

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

The Savai’l Samoan Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An American Samoan Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 21/07/2021 zteve t evans

FURTHER PUBLICATIONS BY ZTEVE T EVANS

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 21st, 2021 zteve t evans

Celtic Lore: Exploring the Otherworld

Image by Varun Maharaj from Pixabay

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

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

Celtic Mythology

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

Entry to the Otherworld

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

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Celtic Lore: Shapeshifters of Myth and Legend

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

Shapeshifters

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

Irish Shapeshifters

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

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

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Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

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

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

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

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

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

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

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

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

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

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

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

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

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

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

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

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

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

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

King Arthur, Rhitta Gawr and The King’s Whiskers

© 03/02/2021 zteve t evans

The Mantle of Kings’ Beards

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

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

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

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

“Oh, is that so? answered Peibo.

“It is,” said Nynio.

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

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

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

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

‘Yes they shall,” replied Peibo firmly.

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

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

“Shall!” snapped Peibo.

“Shan’t!” Shouted Nynio.

“‘Tis war!”  They both cried together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give me your whiskers!” demanded Rhitta Gawr.

“Shan’t” replied Arthur angrily.

“Shall!” roared Rhitta Gawr.

“Shan’t! replied Arthur.

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

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

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

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

© 05/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 5th, 2021 zteve t evans

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

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

Cauldrons

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

The Cauldron of Ceridwen

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

The Gundestrup Cauldron

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

The Importance of Cauldrons

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

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

Atacama Desert – Image by Julian Hacker from Pixabay

The Atacama Desert

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

Geoglyphic Art

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

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

Types and Forms of Geoglyphs

Image by SznegraCC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Ancient Signposts

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

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

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

The Atacama Giant

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

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

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

© 23/04/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 4th, 2021 zteve t evans