Welsh Celtic Lore: The Adar Rhiannon – The Singing Birds of Rhiannon

The Adar Rhiannon – The Singing Birds of Rhiannon by zteve t evans – 18 January 2021

The Birds of Rhiannon

Welsh mythology and folklore is crammed with fantastical people and creatures and the Adar Rhiannon, or the Birds of Rhiannon, are a trio of magical birds mentioned in early Welsh literature and myth.  They were associated with Rhiannon who many scholars see as goddess from the Welsh Celtic Otherworld.  She was a significant figure in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi and her birds were mentioned in the Second Branch. Presented here is a short discussion involving some of what is known about the Adar Rhiannon looking briefly at the Mabinogi and the adventure story, Culhwch and Olwen. This will be followed by a look at the mysterious Rhiannon and the properties of the magical birds in these stories and conclude by referring back to The Second Branch of the Mabinogi.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are generally considered one work consisting of four parts that tell stories of the gods and heroes from Celtic Welsh mythology.  The stories are thought to be older than medieval times but rewritten, probably by monks of that era.  The Four Branches along with Culhwch and Olwen and other works are included in the compilation of medieval Welsh literature known as the The Mabinogion, first published in full by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45. The Adar Rhiannon, briefly appear in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and are mentioned and sought after in the story of Culhwch and Olwen.  Although they only appear to play a small role in both stories they possess unique and important properties that lend magical qualities to the tales.

Time and Space

The singing of the birds can awaken the dead while inducing the living to sleep.  Their singing also causes time and space to behave differently.  They seem to be singing very near while in fact they are far away.  Their singing also alters the passing of time making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed and preserve from the effects of time.

Rhiannon

These birds are named after and associated with Rhiannon one of the most enigmatic characters in Welsh myth.  He first husband was Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and Chief of Annwn and their son was Pryderi. She was falsely accused of the murder of her son and eating him but later proved innocent after public humiliation.  Her second husband was Manawyddan whom she married after Pwyll’s passing.

Rhiannon also displayed the power to warp time and space, but differently to her birds.  This is shown, in the manner of her first appearance on horseback from the Otherworld seeking Pwyll to propose their marriage which he accepts.  Secondly, she produces a magical bag that can be filled with any amount of without getting full with enough room for a fully grown human.  This is used to trick and trap an unwelcome marriage suitor so that she can marry Pwyll.

From her first appearance it is clear she is no ordinary woman and is someone of special status and importance.  She is considered to be a goddess or representative of sovereignty and being strongly associated with horses is usually thought of as a horse deity or derived from one. Therefore, like Rhiannon, her birds are not ordinary birds having the magical qualities mentioned previously.    

Culhwch and Olwen

In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen the birds are given two more magical attributes.  The story tells how Culwhch was given a host of impossible tasks by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, a giant and the father of Olwen, who demanded their achievement before he would give permission for his daughter to marry him.  The severity of the tasks was possibly because he was doomed to die on her wedding night and he hoped Culwhch would fail that he might live. One of his demands was to be brought the Adar Rhiannon possibly because they would soothe his passing into death.  Therefore he asked Culhwch to bring,  

“The Birds of Rhiannon: the ones which can wake the dead and put the living to sleep I want to entertain me that night.” (1)

The night he is referring to is his daughter’s wedding night which is the night he is doomed to die if the marriage goes ahead. From this we see they have two other magical attributes.  The first is their singing puts the living to sleep and the second is that it wakes the dead. They may have been a useful insurance against death from the giant’s point of view or at least eased his passing. 

The Second Branch of the Mabinogi

The Adar Rhiannon also appears at the end of the Second Branch which is the tale of  Branwen ferch Llŷr.  Branwen, the sister of the Welsh King Bendigeidfran, also known as Brân the Blessed, had been married to the Irish King Matholwch and lived with him in Ireland.  However, it was not a happy marriage and she was subject to physical and psychological abuse.  In her unhappiness she trains a starling to take a message back over the sea to her brother King Bendigeidfran telling him of her plight and seeking his aid.  Enraged and offended by his sister’s treatment Bendigeidfran gathers his army and invades Ireland and a cataclysmic war follows.  All the Irish are killed leaving only a five pregnant women in Ireland who took to living in a cave.  Each gave birth to a son and eventually incestuously repopulated the island of Ireland. 

On the Welsh side there were seven surviving warriors, as well as Branwen. These were Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and Manawyddan, brother of King Bendigeidfran and Rhiannon’s future husband.  These were accompanied by Taliesin the great bard, Gluneu Eil Taran, Ynawc, Grudyen the son of Muryel, and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.

In the conflict King Bendigeidfran was mortally wounded by a poisoned spear and knew he would soon die.  He ordered the survivors to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London where it was to be buried to protect Britain from invaders.  He prophesied they would encounter the singing birds of Rhiannon and remain in one place for seven years spellbound by them,

“And take you my head and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France.  And a long time will you be upon the road.  In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while.  And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body.”

Bendigeidfran’s severed head retained the power of speech and continued talking to the survivors as he predicted.  Sadley, Branwen died of a broken heart through grief for the dead.

The Adar Rhiannon

Before setting off with the head to London the survivors feasted in Harlech and as also predicted by Bendigeidfran they were visited by the singing birds of Rhiannon,

“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.” (2)

Translation of different texts may vary but it is thought these are the same birds mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen and at the end of the Second Branch where, “the singing of the birds of Rhiannon” is referred to which demonstrated time was altered,

“And thus ends this portion of the Mabinogi, concerning the blow given to Branwen, which was the third unhappy blow of this island; and concerning the entertainment of Bran, when the hosts of sevenscore countries and ten went over to Ireland to revenge the blow given to Branwen; and concerning the seven years’ banquet in Harlech, and the singing of the birds of Rhiannon, and the sojourning of the head for the space of fourscore years. (3)

Rhiannon and her singing birds along with King Bendigeidfran, Culhwch and Olwen and the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr are just a few of the strange and magical characters and creatures that dwell in the landscape of Welsh Celtic myth and medieval literature.

© 20/01/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 20th, 2021 zteve t evans

The Curious Tale of Van Wempel’s Goose

Presented here is a retelling  of an old folktale from the days when the great city of New York in New York was known as New Amsterdam.  It is from a collection of early American folktales and traditions collected by Charles M. Skinner in his book,  The Isle of Manhattoes and Nearby Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land, Volume I and called Van Wempel’s Goose.

Nicholas Van Wempel

The hero of the story is Nicholas Van Wempel, of Flatbush who was almost as wide as he was tall though he was not very tall. Nevertheless, he was of a mild and timid nature which led to him being badly henpecked by his wife, Vrouw Van Wempel.   Despite his timidity he  remained unruffled despite, or perhaps, to spite her and was renowned for being something of a harmless fantasist.  To be fair to his good wife her husband had a fatal flaw that if not kept under strict control would land him in all sorts of trouble. Therefore,  she did her best to moderate it for his own good.

He was a fairly well off man but his greatest pleasure was to escape into the comforting arms of schnapps.  He sure loved his schnapps and this was his fatal flaw!  Sadly for him his wife kept tight control only allocating just enough cash to get her groceries or to buy himself clothes.

The New Year’s Goose

On the eve of the New Year of 1739 she called him to her.  Placing ten English shillings into his hand she firmly instructed him to hurry down to Dr. Beck’s store to procure a fat goose she had ordered for their New Year’s Day celebration dinner.  As he waddled through the door glad for a bit of respite the errand would bring she gave him one last instruction, 

“Do not under any circumstances go near, walk by or stop at the tavern! Stay away, stay clear, do not enter and keep out of the tavern.  If you enter the tavern for any reason my wrath shall fall upon you like a ton of bricks from a great height! Just bring back the goose! Do you understand?”

In a shrill voice she then threatened a number of other dire and deadly consequences should he dare to disobey.

“Do you understand?” she barked again, glaring at him with a look that could curdle vinegar. Indeed, Nicholas understood perfectly and shot her a weak smile in acceptance as she sent him scurrying down the path.

“As if I would ever dream of entering the tavern of all places!” he called back in answer.

Outside, the snow had fallen in the night and it was a cold, icy day.  As he struggled along against the biting wind a sudden gust lifted his hat clean off his head and rolled it into the doorway of the forbidden tavern.  Had he but allowed it to lie and passed it by things might have turned out very different, but it was a bitter wind that whistled around his ears.  He also thought he could hear someone calling to him from the doorway, but dismissed this.  He thought it was just the icy wind on his neck and decided he needed his hat back.

The Tavern

Alas, as he bent to pick it up a strong aroma of beer, booze, tobacco and schnapps assaulted his nostrils along with the sound of merry voices and a tinkling piano.  It was a heady mix!

He remembered his promise and all the dire and deadly consequences that would befall him.  Well, it was icy outside and the wind froze to the bone and inside the tavern was warm, hazy and friendly. He was sure he heard someone inside calling  his name and after a few minutes of staring at his feet they gave him permission to enter.  

Inside he met an old friend who called him over and treated him to schnapps.  They chatted and laughed reminiscing about old times and it only seemed right that he should return the treat and bought his friend and himself another schnapps.  

To his surprise and delight more of his old friends appeared who treated him and of course he returned the treat.  His friends knowing of the dominance of his wife in his life teased him in good nature.  They urged him to stand up for himself and put her firmly in her place.

Slowly but surely the goose money left his pocket to find a new home behind the bar in the till of the landlord.  Realizing his money was gone he thumped the bar. Loudly he declared that it was his money anyway and he would spend it however he saw fit without leave of his good wife.  

Snores

The last thing he remembered was standing by the bar with his friends cheering and applauding  him wildly for his heroic stand.  After that the world seemed to merge into snores.  When he came round he had his head on a table at the back of the tavern. He could hear the sound of low voices talking over the far side of the bar.  

Sleepily he opened his eyes and saw two strangers deep in conversation with each other.  He saw they had black beards and rings in their ears and around their foreheads they wore brightly colored bandanas.  

He pretended to be asleep but carefully listened to what they said.  They were talking of gold hidden on the marshes at the tide mill.  Before he could fully grasp what his ears had heard through his schnaps sodden mind the idea had worked its way beyond reason. With a sudden burst of more energy and enthusiasm than he found in years he jumped to his feet and left the tavern.

“Gold …” – “the marshes …” – “tide-mill …”

These words revolved round and round in his schnapps sozzled brain.  Fueled by these and the schnapps he crunched through the snow back to his home.  

Quietly and carefully so as not to arouse his good wife, who would surely ask the embarrassing question of the whereabouts of the goose, he crept to the shed.  There  he procured for himself a shovel and a lantern.  With unbelievable speed and quietness considering his drunken state he made his way to the old tide-mill on the marsh.

The Mill

On reaching the mill he decided to start in the cellar and began digging up the floor.  He had been so eager to commence work he had not thought to check if there was anyone else in the building, therefore he did not know there were four men upstairs.

After a short while his shovel struck something hard.  He dug quickly around the object discovering it to be a large, but old, canvas bag similar to what a sailor might possess.

Pirate Gold

Excitedly he brushed the dirt from it and found it was heavy but he managed to lift it out of the hole.   As he did so a shower of gold coins fell from it and cluttered to the ground.   Tying up his trouser legs he filled them and his coat pockets with as many coins as he could.  However, in the floor above he had been heard and four rough looking men came down the cellar steps to confront him.  He recognized two of these as the men from the tavern.

The men saw the lantern, the bag and Nicholas who despite his inebriation realized these were not just sailors but pirates.  His trousers were so full of gold he could hardly move and they laid their hands on him and dragged him upstairs.  They poured for him another schnapps and made him drink to the health of their flag and brotherhood.  Roughly they turned him upside down and shook him vigorously causing all the gold coins to fall from his trousers and coat pockets.  

With no further ceremony they grabbed hold of him and threw him out of the window thinking he would drown in the tide or the fall would kill him.  In the brief struggle he managed to grab hold of something before he was forced out.  

Fortunately for him, the tide was out and his fall was cushioned by the mud of the tidal marsh around the mill.  Finding himself unscathed he held up his hand to see he clutched a plump, plucked, goose which the pirates had stolen earlier for their New Year’s Day dinner.

After the schnapps the pirates had given him he now found the energy to struggle through the mud as the tide began creeping up on him.  Things looked bleak, but perhaps, mercifully, thanks to the power of schnapps, he remembered no more.  

The Wrath of Vrouw Van Wempel

When at last he awoke it was to the shrill voice of his good wife.  She was standing over him loudly berating him as he lay in a snow drift not far from their home.  Opening his eyes and hearing her shrill voice and seeing her formidable form all he could do was smile sweetly.  

“What did I tell you about the tavern? Where did all that mud come from? Where is the goose? “she growled menacingly.

From behind his back he brought forth the plucked, oven ready goose he still clutched in his hand and proudly presented it to her.  Seeing he had at least come back with a goose placated the angry wife diverting her attention from the state she had found her husband in.

Snatching the goose from him, Vrouw Van Wempel,  turned on her heels and marched directly back home. After struggling to his feet Nicholas followed sheepishly behind.  

In later days he tried to explain to her about the pirates and the gold and how he was lucky to still be alive.  She asked why if he had found gold he now had none to show for it?  He would reply that if his story was not true how did he come by the goose after he had spent all of the ten shillings in the tavern but he soon learnt this was a mistake. The very mention of the tavern would cause his good wife to fly into a rage and spend the rest of the day berating him.  

Whenever he got the chance he would slip off to the tavern and tell his story to more sympathetic ears and point towards the old tide mill to collaborate his story.   His friends would just laugh and tease him.  

Nevertheless, every now and then, thanks to the power of schnapps, he would find himself taken off on some bold adventure.  Unfortunately he would be brought back with a bump when his good wife caught up with him.

© 09/12//2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 9th 2020 zteve t evans

Psychopomps in Breton Myths and Folktales: Entering the Afterlife

Breton Folklore

Breton myths and folktales are often a dark blend of Celtic, pagan and Christian influences that result in magic and wonder mixed with the morbid and macabre.  There are many tales, myths and legends concerning everyday and important issues such as  love and death.

For all of us, death is the great unknown and people all around the world throughout history have invented many different ways of thinking about the subject.  One of the most universal ways of representing death  was through the use of personifications.  In simple terms this the giving of human characteristics or form to abstract ideas, inanimate objects or something that is not human. 

Death itself can be personified in many other ways such as the personification known as the Grim Reaper, but there are many other representations, some as dark, others lighter.

Psychopomps

In many societies death needed a servant that would guide or bring the soul of the deceased to the place of the afterlife.  Such servants were called psychopomps and presented here is a brief discussion of two psychopomps from Breton folklore and mythology.  The first is a rather grim and forbidding entity known as the Ankou who was  a collector of souls for his master Death.  The second tells of a fair knight who came back from the dead to guide his betrothed to the afterlife.  In the course of the discussion we also look at a few folkloric motifs present in the examples given.

The Ankou

In Breton mythology and folklore the Ankou can appear in various guises in different regions of Brittany. There are also Welsh, Cornish and Anglo-Norman interpretations of him.  In some versions he is either a tall, gaunt man wearing a long black cloak or a skeleton  carrying a long scythe though earlier traditions say it was an arrow.  He is often mistaken for the Grim Reaper, but they are not the same.  In other versions he appears as an old man accompanying a horse drawn coach or cart. His role is not to judge or punish but to ensure the transition of the soul to the afterlife and will tolerate no interference in this.   

When he stops outside the house of the dying person he may knock on the door, or he may utter a low mournful wail to summon the dead to his cart.  Sometime accompanied by two ghostly assistants he will enter a home and take away the soul of the dead.

He is presented as a very grim and macabre figure and in some places he is the king of the dead.  His subjects move in processions along particular paths to the afterlife.  Some traditions say he is the last man to die in a parish in the  year who will automatically assume the role of the Ankou and the supervision of the souls of the dead.  

Nola and  Gwennolaïk

A very different kind of psychopomp appears in a Breton folktale called The Foster Brother.  This story revolves around a relationship between a young man named Nola and a young woman named Gwennolaïk. The story tells how the two fell in love when Gwennolaïk was eighteen years old after her natural mother and two sisters had passed away.   After her mother’s death her father had remarried twice and she had gained an older foster brother who was not a blood relative.  They had grown to know and love each other deeply spending all their time together.  Their relationship deepened and the two promised that they would wed with each other and no one else.

Strange Dreams

They were very happy in those days thinking and planning their future together but there came a time when Nola grew troubled.  He told Gwennolaïk that he had been experiencing strange dreams telling him he had to leave home and find his fortune.  This broke Gwennolaïk’s heart but not wanting to stand in his way she consented and gave him a ring that had belonged to her mother to remember her by.  

Promising he would return one day to marry her he took a ship to distant shores.  During his absence she missed him terribly, spending many hours pining alone and praying he would soon return to marry her.  This would release her from the awful life of drudgery and misery she now endured, partly because he was gone and partly because her step-mother treated her cruelly.  

The Stepmother

She gave poor Gwennolaïk all the hard and dirty jobs berating her with harsh words and kept her hungry all the time making her wear rags.  Six years passed in this way and Gwennolaïk was getting so run down and tired she believed she would  be better off dead.

The Fair Knight

One day while fetching water from a nearby brook she met a fair knight on horseback waiting by the water. His face was hidden and she could make out none of his features. To her surprise and embarrassment he asked her if she was betrothed.  After telling him she was not the knight reached down and placed in her hand a ring.  He told her to go back and tell her stepmother she was now betrothed to a knight from Nantes.  Furthermore, she was to say that there had been a bloody battle and her betrothed had been badly wounded but would in three days time come and claim her for his wife.

Saying no more he quickly turned and rode off leaving Gwennolaïk staring at the ring too surprised to even move.  As she gazed at the ring she realized it was the same one she had given to Nola when he departed and realized the fair knight was none other than him.

Disappointment

She waited in vain those three days and to her heartbreak and disappointment Nola did not come.  Worse still her stepmother told her she had decided that she would marry and had chosen someone for her.  Gwennolaïk was horrified by the idea and showed her the ring and told her of the knight.  She insisted it was Nola who had returned to marry her.  Her step-mother would not listen and took the ring from her.  

What they did not know was that a knight who had been mortally wounded in the battle at Nantes had been given a Christian burial in the nearby White Chapel.  

Marriage

The husband her stepmother had chosen for her  was the stable lad and to Gwennolaïk’s grief and mortification they were married.  After the marriage there was a banquet but Gwennolaïk was depressed and miserable and unable to face the reception and her guests.   Appalled and driven mad by the thought of being married to anyone other than Nola she ran off into the woods.

Fever

A thorough search of the locality was undertaken but no trace of her could be found.  In fact she had hidden herself deep in a thicket where she lay weeping and shivering in the cold and damp.  As night came black and cold she shivered more and more and weeping and crying for the hardness of the world caught a fever.  In her delirium she thought she heard something moving through the thicket towards her and cried out in fear and alarm.

Nola Returns

A voice told her that it was Nola and that he had come for her.  Disbelieving him at first she looked up and saw  a fair knight approach on a white steed.   Reaching down he easily lifted her up to sit behind.  He told her to hold on tight and he would take her to her mother and sisters in a place where they would all be together forever.  

W. Otway Cannell (Illustrator), Lewis Spence (Author), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Magical Journey

From this point she is close to death and he has appeared from beyond the grave to find her and take her back to join him and her family in the afterlife.   As her life fades he takes her on a magical journey.  They cross the land to the sea and the horse gallops over the top of the waves to a beautiful island where a celebration was being made ready.  He explains it is their wedding celebration that is being prepared.  The two were married and to her joy she was reunited with her dead mother and two sisters .   There was great singing and dancing  and at last Gwennolaïk found peace and happiness in the afterlife.

Meanwhile, as the wedding takes place, back in the earthly realm searchers finally find the expired body of Gwennolaïk and give her a proper Christian burial.

Folkloric Motifs

There are several interesting folkloric motifs in the story.  For example, the loss of Gwennolaïk’s real mother and the wicked stepmother.  There is also the foster brother as the love who goes off to find his fortune and in this case returns to die before the wedding.  The initial and inexplicable failure of Gwennolaïk to recognise Nola on his return is at first puzzling but then becomes clear that something else will happen.  It is a device used in  many fairy and folktales as is the ring given by Gwennolaïk to Nola which he gives back to identify himself. 

Nola, having had a Christian burial and Gwennolaïk a Christian marriage and finally a Christian burial become entwined in pagan and Celtic influences.

The horse he rides is interesting because it takes them on a magical journey over the sea to a magical island.  In many traditions the Celtic Otherworld could be reached by crossing the sea and in several tales such as the Irish tale of Oisin and Naimh of the Goldenhair, a magical horse is used to take them there.

Nola as a Psychopomp

Perhaps the most interesting contrast is how the soul of Gwennolaïk is taken to the afterlife by her beloved Nola who she has waited and yearned for.  Surely a much more welcome and comforting transition to the afterlife than via the macabre Ankou!

Guiding the Soul to the Afterlife

However, in cultures all around the world psychopomps appear in various forms which may be familiar and comforting taking the form of a family member or friend or they may be dark and forbidding.  In whatever form they appear they perform an important task in guiding or helping the soul of the deceased to find their place in the afterlife.

© 19/11/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 19th, 2020 zteve t evans

Celtic Warrior Queens: Boudica of the Iceni

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 8th October 2020, titled Celtic Warrior Women: Queen Boudica of the Iceni by zteve t evans.

Queen Boudica

Queen Boudica, ruler of the Iceni people of Britain, was famous for leading a violent uprising against Roman rule. She was married and had two young daughters whose names are unknown. Her husband Prasutagus had ruled as a client-king of Rome and his realm was roughly the area of modern Norfolk. As a client-king he had entered into an alliance with Rome which allowed him to rule and receive Roman patronage in return for recognizing its overall authority and keeping law and order. When he died he left his kingdom jointly to the emperor and his two daughters, perhaps hoping to avoid trouble.  Despite this, his kingdom and property was annexed by Rome and his family maltreated, sowing the seeds of rebellion among the Britons. According to Tacitus, Boudica was beaten with rods, her two young daughters raped, and the estates of the Iceni nobles confiscated. This spurred Boudica to lead a bloody rebellion against the might of Rome.

Suffragettes

As a woman, widowed with at least two children, the qualities that people would traditionally call female were plain to see. Yet after the maltreatment inflicted upon her and her young daughters by the Romans, other, less ‘traditionally female’ qualities emerged, transforming her into a powerful, avenging force. Qualities of leadership, intelligence, aggression, courage and assertiveness in a struggle to free her people came to the fore. Such attributes were seen as subversive for women to openly display in a patriarchal society, but were some of the very qualities that the suffragettes were keen to promote as acceptable in women to help and inspire their struggle against the system.

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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