The Strange Fate of King Herla

King Herla

King Herla was a legendary King of the ancient Britons who along with his men became caught in a strange spell.   After attending  the marriage of the Dwarf King in the Otherword, Herla and his host of men became trapped in an endless cycle.  They became doomed to wandering the world on horseback never being able to set foot on the ground.   Along the way they attracting the souls of the newly dead into their company who joined them in riding the earth in wild, meaningless circles and were often called The Wild Hunt in England by those who witnessed them.

This unearthly and unwelcome situation arose through an agreement he made with a king from the dwarf realm.  According to the legend the Dwarf King visited King Herla and together they made a binding promise with each other that they would  attend each others wedding.

The Dwarf King

The story begins with King Herla and his retinue traveling through an ancient forest. Feeling tired he decided he needed a rest so he bid his men to leave him in peace while he lay down underneath the trees to sleep.  As he began to doze he heard a sound of rustling coming towards him through the undergrowth.  Drawing his sword he readied himself for what should appear.  To his surprise he was greeted by a small human figure riding on the back of a large goat.

Compared to the humans the dwarf was smaller and squatter and probably about half as tall.  The dwarf had a huge head and a bright face with a long red beard down to his chest. His skin was light yellowish brown and his shoulders, arms and chest were very hairy.  His legs were also hairy and he had cloven hooves instead of feet and he rode upon a huge mountain goat.

Riding up to him the Dwarf King told Herla his people had chosen him to be a guest at his wedding because he was the only king at the time who they regarded as having the wisdom and goodness to attend such  an important occasion.  The Dwarf King told him,

I, the king of many kings and chiefs and of a people numerous beyond all count, come willingly, sent from them to thee, and though I am to thee unknown, yet I glory in the fame which hath raised thee high above other kings, since thou art the best and the nearest to me in place and blood, and art moreover worthy of having me grace with high honour thy wedding as a guest, when the King of the French giveth his daughter to thee—an arrangement concluded without thy knowledge, and Jo, his messengers come this very day. Let there be an abiding compact between us, that I shall attend thy wedding, and thou mine a year later to the day.’ (1)

Dismounting he bowed and held before Herla a bronze horn of exquisite workmanship and asked him to drink from it to seal the compact.  Herla was unsure about accepting this strange and unworldly binding agreement.  Nevertheless, taking the horn he drank from it and handed it back to the Dwarf King who drank the rest, sealing the contract between them. He then rode off into the undergrowth on his goat without another word.  Herla rejoined his men and returned to his court thinking no more of the peculiar affair other than it had probably been a dream when he was half asleep.

The wedding of King Herla

Nevertheless, arriving back home and to the King’s amazement ambassadors from France arrived accepting the terms of his marriage to the daughter of the King of France.  As the wedding was about to begin the Dwarf King entered with many of his subjects and servants.  There were so many more chairs and tables were needed to accommodate them all.

From tents pitched by the Dwarf King’s followers fine wines were served from pitchers exquisitely decorated and studded with precious gemstones and poured into goblets of silver and gold and crystal.  They had brought the most wonderful food with them and they laid a banquet the like that has never been seen before and their minstrels entertained the guests.   Even though they worked like beavers they were so pleasant and courteous that that King Herla and the Britons were made to feel wonderfully honored.  At the end of the banquet the Dwarf King stood and bowed before King Herla and his wife and said,

‘0 best of kings, the Lord is my witness that, according to our compact, I am present at thy wedding. But if anything that thou cravest besides what thou seest here can be asked of me, I shall willingly supply it; but if not, thou must not put off thy requital of this high honour when I shall ask for it.’ (2)

Abruptly the Dwarf King turned on his heel and left the wedding reception taking his retinue and servants with him.  the tents were packed quickly away and all signs of them vanished in a trice.

The wedding of the Dwarf King

King Herla heard or saw nothing of the Dwarf King until one year from his wedding day when once again he appeared riding on his goat with a retinue behind him. Standing before Herla he reminded him of their agreement and asked him if he was willing to fulfill it.  Herla agreed and along with a retinue of knights followed the Dwarf King along strange paths through the forest until at last they came to a towering cliff.  There Herla and his men followed the Dwarf King into a small cave and along a passage that opened into a huge and marvelous cavern that was lit my many hundreds of lights.

There were many thousands of dwarves gathered there awaiting their arrival for the wedding of the Dwarf King.  The Dwarf King was married and King Herla and his knights bore witness to it and celebrated with the dwarves and the contract between the two was fulfilled.

The warning

Before he left the Dwarf King gave Herla and his men many presents of hawks, dogs and horses such as were used in the hunt.  As they were about to leave the underground world to enter the world above ground he presented the king with a small bloodhound which he told him should be carried before him on the saddle of his horse.  He then issued a stern warning telling him that the world he had known had changed and it was not safe for him and his men to leave and begged them to stay.

King Herla, not understanding why the Dwarf King spoke in this way politely refused saying he wanted to return to his wife and kingdom.  Shaking his head the Dwarf King then gave him another warning.  He told him that no rider’s foot should touch the ground before the bloodhound he had just given Herla jumped to the ground on its own accord from its seat on the saddle. If this was not followed death would strike as soon as the foot of a rider touched the ground.  With this warning the Dwarf King turned abruptly and left them.

Returning to the outside world

Herla and his men rode into the sunlight and they deemed they had been in the cavern for no more than three days.  On the way back Herla came across an old shepherd tending his flock and stopped to ask him what news he had of the queen.  The shepherd looked at him in confusion and said,

‘My lord, I scarce understand thy language, since I am a Saxon and thou a Briton. But I have never heard of the name of that queen, save that men tell of one so called, a queen of the very ancient Britons, and wife of King Herla, who is reported in legends to have disappeared with a pigmy into this cliff and to have been seen nevermore on earth. The Saxons, having driven out the natives, have possessed this kingdom for full two hundred years.’ (3)

Herla and his men had only thought they had spent no more than three days in the cavern and they were greatly surprised to learn this.   Some of them, forgot the warning of the Dwarf King and dismounted, but as soon as their feet touched the ground their bodies disintegrated into dust.  Remembering the Dwarf King’s warning, Herla immediately forbade his men to dismount until the bloodhound that sat before him should leap to the ground on its own cause.

Herla’s fate

Now there are those that say the dog has never taken that leap to earth and that Herla and his men are fated to ride their horses across the world without rest, or stopping for all eternity.  However, others say their strange ride was was seen by many over many centuries until the first year of the Coronation of King Henry II.  Then it was seen around noon by the River Wye near Hereford.  According to some accounts an army was raised to challenge them to battle but the host took to the air and vanished into the clouds and has not been seen since.  Others say the Wild Hunt still at times can be seen before some disaster such as war, or famine occurs and is seen as a portent of doom.  Yet still, other accounts say that the bloodhound jumped to the ground breaking the spell upon the king and his men and they are now at rest.

The Otherworld

Now some also say this story is a warning for those that visit the Otherworld that time there passes slower and the outside world changes faster and can never be the same on the return. They also say it is a warning of the danger of dealing with the people of the the Otherworld for they can be capricious and deceptive in their dealings with humans who have never really understood them.  They doubt why the Dwarf King would want such a strange compact with King Herla anyway.

Now, what do you think?

© 20/01/2016  zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright January 20th, 2016 zteve t evans

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Legends about Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Bedivere throwing Excalibur into the lake – Public Domain

Dozmary Pool is a small lake hidden away in the bleak wilderness of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. It is a wild, remote and desolate place that is associated with a number of Cornish and British legends.

King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake

This is a place of ancient legend and traditions that tell of great people and great events and evil people who must pay their dues to the devil.  This is the place where the Lady of the Lake received Excalibur from Bedivere after the mortal wounding of King Arthur, after the Battle of Camlan his last battle.

Jan Tregeagle

It is also the place where the evil Jan Tregeagle was committed to endless toil until the Final Judgement Day after making a Faustian pact  with the Devil.   Read more … Continue reading

British Folk Songs: The Ballad of John Barleycorn

Barley has a long association with human society because of its uses for food, drink and medicine that goes back some 12,000 years.   Used for animal feed and to make bread for human consumption, it is also used to make popular alcoholic drinks such as beer, barley wine, whisky and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Beer is the oldest and the most common of all alcoholic drinks and after water and tea the third most popular beverage.  With its ancient importance, barley has given rise to many myths and is the source of much folklore and many people think that hidden in an old traditional folk song of the British Isles  called John Barleycorn, lies the story of barley.

Barley – Public Domain Image

The Ballad of John Barleycorn

A traditional British folk ballad, called John Barleycorn, depicts the lead character as the personification of barley and its products of bread, beer and whisky.   The song is very old and there are many versions from all around the British Isles.  The song does have strong connections with Scotland with possibly the Robert Burns version the most well-known though the song goes way back to before the times of Elizabeth 1st.

Different Versions

In the song, John Barleycorn is subject to many violent, physical abuses leading to his death.  Each abuse represents a stage in the sowing, growing, harvesting, malting and preparation of barley to make beer and whisky.

In many versions there is confusion because it is brandy that is consumed even though brandy is made from grapes, rather than whisky or beer made from barley.   John Barleycorn is also a term used to denote an alcoholic drink that is distilled such as a spirit, rather than fermented like beer.

In some versions of the song there is more emphasis on the way different tradesmen take revenge on John Barleycorn for making them drunk.  The miller grinds him to a powder between two stones.  However John Barleycorn often proves the stronger character due to his intoxicating effect on his tormentors and the fact hat his body is giving sustenance to others making humans dependent upon him.

Through the savagery inflicted upon John Barleycorn the song metaphorically tells the story of the sowing, cultivating and harvesting cycle of barley throughout the year.  The ground is ploughed, seeds are sown, and the plant grows until ready for harvest. It is then cut with scythes, and tied into sheaves, which are flayed to remove the grain.

Pagan and Anglo-Saxon Associations

Wikipedia says that some scholars think that John Barleycorn has strong connections with the pagan Anglo-Saxon character of Beowa also known as Beaw, Beow, or Beo or sometimes Bedwig. In Old English ‘Beow’ means ‘barley’ and ‘Sceafa’ means ‘sheaf.’ From Royal Anglo-Saxon lineage, Beowa is the son of Scyld who is the son of Sceafa in a pedigree that goes back to Adam.

Many scholars also think that there are strong associations with Beowa and Beowulf and the general agreement is that they are the same character.  Some scholars also think that Beowa is the same character as John Barleycorn while others disagree.

The Golden Bough

Wikepedia says, Sir James George Frazer, in his book, ‘The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion’  asserts that many of the old religions of the world were derived from fertility cults which had at their core the ritual sacrifice of a Sacred king who was also known as the Corn King, who was the embodiment of the Sun god.  Each year he went through a cycle of death and rebirth in a union with the Earth goddess, dying at the harvest time to be reborn in the spring.

The Corn King

The Corn King was chosen from the men of a tribe to be the king for a year.  At the end of the year he would then dance, or perform thanksgiving and fertility rituals in the fields before being ritually killed.  So that the soil would be fertilised his body was dragged through the fields to enable his blood to run into the soil.  It may be that he may then have been eaten by the tribe in completion of the ritual.

As well as other uses, the barley was made into cakes which would be stored for the winter and were thought to hold the spirit of the Corn King.  Around the time of the winter solstice when the sun was at its weakest and as it started to strengthen, the cakes would be fed to children giving them the spirit of the corn king.

Christianity

There are also theories that possibly an earlier form of John Barleycorn represented a pagan rite before the rise of Christianity. There are suggestions that the early Christian church in Anglo-Saxon England adapted this to help the conversion of the pagan population to Christianity.  This is a tactic that was used with Yule and other pagan festivals and traditions.   In some versions of the song, John Barleycorn suffers in a similar way to Christ, especially in the version by Robert Burns.

After undergoing ritualistic suffering and death, his body is ground into flour for bread and drink. Some scholars compare this with the Sacrament and Transubstantiation of Christian belief though not all agree.

Popular Culture

We will probably never know the true origins and meaning that are hidden in the story of John Barleycorn but the song and its mysteries still have a powerful effect on people today.  Many popular musicians and folk artists have performed versions of the song in the recent past and it is still a popular song today.

In 1970, the progressive rock group, ’Traffic’ made an album entitled, John Barleycorn Must Die, featuring a song of the same name which went on to become a classic.

The song is popular with recording and performing artists and a favourite with audiences. Folk rock bands Fairport Convention and Steel-eye Span and many other rock and folk artists have recorded versions of the song ensuring the story of John Barleycorn is still sung and celebrated, so that even though the meaning may be lost in time, the story lives on.

References and Attributions
File:Hordeum-barley.jpg From Wikimedia Commons 
Read the lyrics HarvestFestivals.Net - John Barleycorn
AudioEnglish.org -John Barleycorn
The Golden Bough - from Wikipedia
Sacred king from Wikipedia
Frazer, Sir James George -  The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
Traffic - John BarleyCorn  
Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music