Giant Tales: Goram and Vincent and the Origin of the Avon Gorge

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Myths of Origin

All around the British Isles there are myths and legends that tell how giants and giantesses have shaped the landscape, often forming significant landmarks.   Here we look at two who are credited with forming the Avon Gorge and other parts of the landscape around the Bristol area in South West England.

The Giant Brothers 

 In the most well known version of the story there were two giants named Goram and Vincent who were brothers.  In some older tales Goram’s brother is named Ghyston and not Vincent.  There is a tradition that the change came because Bristol was an important port in the Middle Ages and had commercial connections with the Iberian wine business.  As well as wine this led to the importing of the cult of Saint Vincent who was the patron of São Vicente, Lisbon; Diocese of Algarve; Valencia; Vicenza, Italy, vinegar-makers, wine-makers; Order of Deacons of the Catholic Diocese of Bergamo (Italy) (1).

The cliff face of the Avon Gorge was once known as Ghyston Rocks or sometimes just Ghyston in earlier times and there was a cave known as either Ghyston’s Cave or the Giant’s Hole. Situated at th narrowest part of the Avon Gorge was an ancient hermitage and chapel dedicated to St. Vincent.  The cave became known as St Vincent’s cave and it seems the “Ghyston” became “Vincent” and that is the name he will be referred to this work.

Avona, the Giantess

Both brothers fell in love with a giantess from Wiltshire named Avona who the River Avon takes its name from. She was the female personification of the river and  possibly a distant memory of an ancient goddess or spirit. Avona could not decide who she preferred between Vincent and Goram so she set them a task that would display their talents.  According to this myth there was once a lake situated between Bristol and Bradford-upon-Avon in the neighboring county of Wiltshire.  She proposed that the one who managed to drain the lake first would win the right to marry her. After giving much thought to the problem the giants came up with different ideas on how to achieve the task.  Vincent chose to dig a channel on the south side of Clifton while Goram chose to dig a different channel that went through Henbury.

Both giants set to work and while Vincent toiled at a steady pace Goram worked furiously determined to be the winner.  He worked so hard that eventually he became hot and sweaty and in need of a drink.  He was a long way in front of Vincent and he thought he could afford to take a break and quench his thirst.  So he sat down in his favorite chair and quaffed a  large tankard of ale.  It tasted so good and cooled him down so much he drank another, and another and another.  He drank so much he fell asleep.   

Meanwhile Vincent, who had paced himself better, finished his channel and drained the lake.  From this story comes an explanation of how the narrow gorge the Hazel Brook flows through in Henbury and the Avon gorge which the River Avon passes through and other features of the landscape.

Goram’s Footprint

On the nearby Blaise Estate,   In woods above Henbury Gorge is a formation supposedly created when Goram stamped his foot when he found out he had lost Avona to Vincent.  He was so distraught he drowned himself in the River Severn estuary creating two islands, one called Steep Holm and the other called Flat Holm which are said to be his head and shoulder.  There are also two other features attributed to him in Henbury gorge.  The first is a short pillar topped with earth called the Soap-Dish and the second is a pool.

The Giant’s Footprint, Blaise Castle Estate – by
Mojo0306CC BY-SA 4.0

Another Version

In another version the characters of the two brother giants are as different as chalk and cheese.  Vincent was presented as being energetic and productive whereas Goram was considered to be a greedy idler.  One day Goram had the idea that they should do something so that people in the future would remember them. He suggested they build a massive monument to themselves out of rocks that were to be supplied by Vincent and the bones that were leftovers from his gorging of himself with food.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vincent declined but instead suggested they work together and build a most beautiful channel for the river to run through.  This seemed a bit like too much hard work for Goram who watched as his brother set about the task working steadily and energetically towards his goal.  As Goram watched his brother progress he realized that Vincent’s name would live on forever through the fruits of his labor and grew jealous.  Therefore, so that his own name would not be forgotten he began building his own channel some three miles distant from Vincent’s.

The Death of Goram

Having  no pick-axe of his own he borrowed his  brother’s and being a lazy fellow the first thing he did was use it to cut a chair in the rock so that he could sit and rest from toil.  The brothers took it in turns to use the pick-axe.  They would shout a warning and hurl it through the air the three miles or so one to the other.  One day Goram fell asleep in his chair and never heard his brother shout a warning and the pick-axe hit him on the head, breaking his skull, killing him.

Death of Vincent

Vincent was distraught at his brother’s death, entirely blaming himself.  From then on he put all of his energy into his work making the beautiful gully we know as the Avon gorge which the River Avon flows through today.  Despite his achievement and his hard labour he still felt guilty about his brother’s unfortunate death and to use up his pent up energy built a stone circle at Stonehenge and another at Stanton Drew.  Even these labors had not used  up all his energy so he swam over to Ireland and built the Giant’s Causeway which finally tired him out.  He was exhausted by his labors and still feeling guilt and grief for the death of his brother whom he missed greatly.  In despair he returned home to spend the last hours of his life sitting upon the rocks looking out over the beautiful gorge he had dug that the River Avon flowed through.

These are just two versions of the legends of how the Avon gorge and parts of the surrounding landscape were formed.  There are many other versions and many other legends from the rest of the British Isles crediting giants with making  features  of the landscape.

© 30/09/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 30th, 2020 zteve t evans

Wishes, Curses and a Sister Saves her Brothers: The Tale of the Seven Ravens

We all have dreams that we wish would come true.  Sometimes we make a wish and that wish is granted but what we actually get may be the result of how we have made that wish. If we make a detrimental wish against someone or something that wish becomes a curse.  Sometimes unforeseen consequences may be unleashed that affect others who have to pay some kind of a price even though they were not the ones who did the wishing.  The following is a retelling of a folktale called The Seven Ravens and explores how wishes are made and how they are fulfilled and what can happen when wishes are made in haste or anger.   It appeared in  Household Tales by Brothers Grimm by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm and is classed as Aarne-Thompson type 451, The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds tale type.  Similar tale-types are found throughout Europe and other parts of the world. It has a female protagonist who sets out to rescue her brothers who were inadvertently turned into ravens by their father in anger.  Other tales with similar themes and a female protagonist are The Twelve Brothers, Brother and Sister, and The Six Swans.

The Tale of the Seven Ravens

This story begins with an old married couple who had seven sons.  Although the old man loved each son dearly he still he wished for a daughter.   After many years his wife again fell with child and to the great joy of the old man a baby girl was born but she was a very small and very weak and prone to illness and he thought she might die.  On account of this he decided to baptize her and told one of his sons to run to a nearby well and bring back water for the task.  His six brothers all ran with him for they were all greatly excited by having a baby sister and each wanted to be the one to fill the jug. In the tussle that followed for the task the jug was dropped down the well and could not be retrieved.  The boys were all aghast and stood staring at each other not knowing what to do.

Back home there father was waiting for the water and when they did not return he began to grow impatient and angry saying,  “Wherever can they be?  I bet they have begun some silly game and forgotten the task I set them.” Then he began worry about the health of his daughter and became frightened she would die without being baptised and he grew fearful. In his fear he grew angry and he cursed them crying, “I wish my sons to be turned to ravens.”

The Truth is Revealed

Then to his surprise he heard the whirring sound of wings overhead.  Looking up he saw seven jet black ravens fly quickly across the sky. Of course, the father was sad and angry with himself for making the rash curse and devastated at the loss of his sons.  Nevertheless, life went on and he and his wife now had a baby daughter who they gained great joy from. With lots of tender loving care and devotion she shook off her fraily and began to grow hale and hearty and very, very beautiful.  Her parents never once spoke of their seven sons and she grew up thinking she was an only child not knowing she had brothers. Then one day she overheard her neighbours saying, “She such is a lovely girl but It is her fault about the terrible curse that fell upon her seven brothers.”

This both shocked and worried the girl who went to her parents and asked them if it was true she had brothers and wanted to know where they were now.  Now that the truth was out her parents felt they could no longer keep secret what had happened to her brothers. They explained how her birth had innocently and unwittingly caused the sequence of events that had caused her father to curse her brothers and how they had been turned into ravens.  Although they tried to reassure her by saying that it was the will of God and not her fault at all the news had a profound effect on her.

She would have loved to have had brothers and was shocked to find out she had seven of them.   Furthermore, she took it to herself that she had been the cause of their being turned to ravens and thereafter was constantly fretting and worrying about them.  She felt a great sense of guilt and could not get them off of her mind. Secretly, she wished that she would find them and resolved to bring them home no matter what danger or hardship she had to face.

The Ends of the World

Early one morning before the sun was up she stole quietly out of the house taking nothing but a ring that her parents owned, a loaf of bread, a jug of water and a small chair that she could sit upon when she grew tired on her journey.  She walked on and on for many, many days and at last came to the very ends of the world where she looked up and saw the sun.  However, the sun was too hot and scorched and burnt terribly so she ran away from it and came to the moon. The moon was cold and nasty and when it saw her said, “I smell the people flesh,” and she ran away from that and came to a place where she saw the stars.   The stars were all sat on their own chairs and twinkled kindness towards her so she sat on her own chair and told them about her quest for her brothers.  Then the morning star rose in the sky and gave her a drumstick of a chicken telling her, “This drumstick will open the door to the Glass Mountain and in that mountain and through that door you will find your brothers!”

The Glass Mountain

Thanking the morning star she took the drumstick and carefully wrapped it up in cloth and placed it in her pocket and off she went to find the Glass Mountain.  She walked and walked and walked and at last she came to the mountain but found the door shut. Thinking she would use the drumstick to open it she looked in her pocket but discovered it had gone.  Greatly disappointed she sat down and thought about what to do. At last she made a decision. She wished to find her brother so much she took out a little knife she carried and despite the pain cut off one of her own fingers and tried it in the keyhole.  To her delight and relief the door opened and she went inside. As soon as she entered a dwarf appeared who greeted her in friendly way asking what she sought.  “I seek my seven brothers who are the seven ravens,” she told him.

“The Raven lords are not at home at the moment but you can wait until they return,” the dwarf told her and led her to a chamber where a large table was placed in the middle.  Then the dwarf busied himself bringing seven plates of food and seven goblets of wine which he told her were the raven lord’s dinner.   The girl took a bite of food from each plate a sip of wine from each goblet but in the last she dropped the ring that had been her parent’s.

The Return of the Ravens

Suddenly, the air was filled with the sound of whirling and flapping wings and the dwarf said, “The Raven Lords are nearly home,”  and the girl quickly hid behind the door just as the ravens arrived.  They were hungry and looking forward to a meal but they looked at their plates and said, “What is this?  Someone has been eating from my plate! Look, someone has drunk from my goblet and it was a human mouth!”  Then one of the ravens looked into his goblet and saw at the bottom their parent’s ring and said, “The ring of our parents lies in my goblet.  Please God we wish it be that our sister has arrived to free us!”

When their sister heard this wish she was full of joy and stepped out from behind the door to the great surprise and delight of the ravens who were instantly returned to their human form again.  Great was all of their joy and they went home to their parents and lived happily as a family together for the rest of their lives.

The End

A Curious Tale

It is indeed a curious tale but what does it all mean? There is a school of thought, but not universally accepted, that this type of tale maybe an echo from a time when young men and boys were called upon to serve their king and country.  They were sent to fight an enemy and their sister’s desperately wanted to free them and return them to the family. One of the consequences of the draft was that females, although made the heirs to family fortunes or estates when their brothers never returned, were subject to greater degree of personal control and especially over who they married.  Apart from sisterly love for her brother rescuing and returning them would also release her from this strict management of her life. The problem with this idea is that the conditions it springs from are not found in every country that the story appears in though it is possible it could have been transported either orally, or in written form and adapted.

Themes and Motifs

There are a number of common folklore motifs such as the old couple, seven brothers, there is the quest the girl embarks on, the Glass Mountain and  human transformation to birds. There is also a Goldilocks-type scene where she eats food from the plates of the brothers while they are absent and the ring of her parents.  All these and more are woven into several themes to create a story with hidden meaning some of which religious in nature.

There is the importance of baptism that Christians believe washes away original sin.  It is not only a symbolic burial and resurrection but also a supernatural transformation.  Its purpose is not just to cleanse or purify but also symbolic of dying and rising in Christ and was necessary for the cleansing of original sin.  This is why it is a common Christian practice to baptize children and babies though it can be done at anytime in life.

It may be that the father believed that if his daughter died without baptism she would not receive these perceived benefits of it, which may explain his fear and urgency, but not excuse his anger and hasty wish. Curiously, despite the importance her father attached to it, we never learn if she was actually baptized but we are told she grew into a strong, healthy and beautiful girl.

Wishes

The thing about wishes is that although they can be beneficial they can also be dangerous when done in haste.   The story begins with an old man wishing he had a baby daughter and eventually this wish is fulfilled. He then hastily wishes his sons were ravens and this wish is granted.  However, because it was invoked in haste and anger it turned into a curse and his sons were transformed into what he wished for. Why did he wish they were ravens? It is not certain but one possible answer could lie in the story of Noah who sent out a raven first to see if the floods had abated and it did not return and like the raven the boys did not return.

The girl, on learning of the fate of her brothers, though it could not have been any fault of her own, had experienced great, though unnecessary guilt at her father’s hasty wish. To a  lesser extent her brother’s childish behaviour arguing about who would fill the jug with water for her baptism was also to blame, being the trigger for her father’s anger.

On hearing the news she had seven brothers who had been turned to ravens at her birth the girl blamed her own entry into the world for an event she could have had no control over.  To rid herself of the guilt she erroneously experienced, she wished to find and rescue her brothers and in the process of doing that wished entry into the Glass Mountain. Both these wishes were granted but not without a long arduous journey to the end of the world and the painful cost of her finger.  As well as a physical transformation the seven brothers appear to have been elevated to lords, but despite this change in status they wished she would come and find them and take them home.  That wish was granted and the story ends happily.

© 07/03/2017zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 7th, 2018 zteve t evans