Azorean Folktales: Why the Owl Flies at Night

Presented here is a retelling of a folktale called, Why the Owl Flies at Night,  from, The Islands of Magic,  Legends, Folk and Fairy Tales from the Azores – by Elsie Spicer Eells and illustrated by E. L. Brock.

Why the Owl Flies at Night

In days gone by, on the steep slopes of the volcanic hill of Monte Brasil that overlook the Bay of Angra, stood a little chapel dedicated to St. Anthony.  It was built to hold an image of that same saint that had been carried from some unknown place by the strong currents and rough waves of the sea to rest upon the shores of the bay below the hill.

Pedro

In that time there was a young boy named Pedro who after his mother had died lived with his father nearby.  His father had married again but his new wife treated young Pedro cruelly. She made him wear old, worn ragged clothes and all the children in the parish would mock and point at him because of the state of his clothing.

Pedro would often go to the little chapel and pray to St. Anthony for strength and comfort.  One day as he was getting up off his knees after a prayer to the saint he noticed a very strange thing had happened.  To his surprise he found his old, worn ragged clothes had suddenly become new and unblemished and he was now immaculately dressed in very smart clothing as good – indeed better – than any other child in his village.

His Stepmother

When he got home his stepmother stares at him in disbelief, “Where did you get those clothes from?” she demanded,  “You must have stolen them!  Why, you are nothing but a little thief!”

Pedro truthfully told her what had happened but she refused to believe him.

“Your father can deal with it!” she cried, “In the meantime take the water jars to the spring and bring me back some water.  Do it now and understand that I don’t want to be kept waiting for water, now go!”

The Spring

Picking up the heavy jars he made his way to the top of the hill where the little spring bubbled out.  The spring supplied Pedro and his family as well as the neighbors with water most of the year round, but at times it failed and this was one of those times.  His stepmother had been told this earlier by neighbors but still out of spite she sent the boy to the top of the hill carrying two heavy stone jars on a task she knew he could not fulfill.  On his way up, Pedro met an old man coming down. “There is no water in the spring,” the old man told him, “maybe tomorrow.”

He had almost reached the spring and the jars were making his arms ache. The other spring was much further away and he doubted if he got there he would have the strength to carry two full jars of water all the way home.  He decided he would continue on and see for himself.

When he arrived at the spring he was surprised and very pleased to see that there was plenty of good clean water bubbling up, indeed, bubbling up much faster that he could remember.  As he stared with amazement he thought about how somehow he had been furnished with the brand new suit of clothes that he was wearing and he began to wonder.

“This  must be my lucky day,” he cried happily filling both jars with water,  “St. Anthony is smiling upon me.  He must have heard my prayers and given me my new clothes and made the waters of the spring run,”   and he offered up a  silent prayer of thanks to the saint.

With  his jars full of water Pedro took them home.  His mother was gobsmacked when he came through the door with two jars full of water.  “What! Where did you get that water from?” she demanded.  Pedro truthfully told her it had come from the spring on the hill.

“You lie! That spring is dry today.  Wait until I tell your father, he will give you a sound beating!” she cried.  As well as being frightened by the threatened beating Pedro was puzzled why his stepmother had sent him up the hill to the spring when she believed it was dry.  

Fire Wood

The next thing he knew was she had dumped a large basket in his hands saying, “Go into the garden and pick up all of the wood for the fire.  Now hurry I don’t want to be kept waiting. Go!”

Pedro thought this a very strange request as all of the wood in the garden had been used up long ago.  The evening was falling and he went into the garden in failing light but there was nothing there but red, white, yellow and pink roses.  The night fell quickly but stoically he went and looked anyway but there were no sticks of wood to be found just the roses. The only place he knew where he could get some wood was high on the steep slopes of Monte Brasil.  However, it was dark and it was a long hard path climbing the steep slopes of Monte Brasil and he was feeling very tired. As two great tears rolled down his face he felt a presence next to him and turning saw it was St Anthony who stood smiling down kindly upon him.

St. Anthony

“Why the tears, young man?” he asked kindly,  “I have been watching you for a long time and I know you do not cry easily, even when life is hard.  Boys with less courage than you would spend their time weeping.”

“I weep because I have to fill this basket with fire wood from the garden, but there is nothing in the garden but roses.  I am very tired and I have been threatened with a beating and it is becoming too dark, much too dark to go up to Monte Brasil and search for firewood.”

“Listen to me,” replied St Anthony, “and have faith in what I say.  Go into the garden and fill the basket with roses and  when it is full take it to your stepmother and give it to her.  You must have faith in what I say and remember I shall be with you.”

Pedro went into the dark  garden and filled it with all the different colored roses and then he took it into the house to his stepmother.  As he handed the basket to his stepmother he was surprised to see that instead of roses the basket contained firewood.

“What!” cried his stepmother in shock, “Where ever did you get this wood from?  There are only roses in the garden and you have not been gone long enough to go up to Monte Brasil in the dark.  Where did you get it from?”

Grabbing him roughly by the collar of his smart new shirt she shook him fiercely terrifying him.  He looked around hoping to escape but St Anthony was stood behind smiling kindly and then in a voice like thunder said,

St Anthony’s Punishment

“Woman, cease your violence!  This boy has done you no harm and obeyed your every request.  I have been watching the spiteful and malicious way you have been treating him and you will be punished.  As you have sent this young boy out into the dark night you too shall go into the dark.”

With these words spoken the stepmother changed from being a woman into an owl with great circles for eyes, for those eyes gazed upon the wrath of St Anthony.  From that moment on she lived in darkness.  That is why the owl is a creature of the night.

© 12/06/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attribution and Further Reading

Copyright June 12th, 2019 zteve t evans

Welsh Folktales: The Maiden of the Green Forest

In Wales there are many folktales and legends that tell how humans and people from the Otherworld sometimes fall in love and marry.  Very often it is a man who meets a woman from the other world and they fall in love. The woman or her father, often insists on a marriage contract being agreed by the bride’s groom that must be strictly followed. The groom agrees and the marriage takes place and they live for a time in happiness and then something happens that destroys or breaks the contract and destroys their happy life. There are many variations of this theme and presented here is a retelling  of a Welsh tale taken from Welsh Fairy Tales by William Elliot Griffis.

Prince Benlli

It is said that on the rare occasions when women of the Otherworld consent to marriage with a mortal they will only do so if the prospective husband makes a contract with them that must not be broken and must be strictly adhered to.  This story tells how a prince of Powys named Benlli found this out to his own cost. He had a fanciful notion in his head that to woo a woman all he had to do was say, “Come and be my bride,”  and they would instantly follow him saying “Thank you for asking, of course I will be your bride.” and the two would stroll off to church for the wedding.  At least this in his simplicity was what he thought,

The Maiden from the Green Forest

It so happened that sometime, somehow,  in the past he had been successful with this style of wooing.  He was married to a woman who had once been fair and beautiful but whose beauty and youth had quickly fled after marriage leaving her grey haired and wrinkled. It was probably the thought of a lifetime with her conceited husband that caused this, but Benlli now wanted a young pretty wife with rosy cheeks and long flowing golden hair and hoped to find one to satisfy his vanity.

One day he went hunting in the Green Forest and while his dogs were flushing out a wild boar he was surprised to see a beautiful woman with long golden flowing hair ride out of a cave on a milk-white horse,  She was the loveliest woman he had ever seen and he fell in love with her there and then, but she was gone before he could react. The next day he rode to the same cave in the forest and waited hoping to see her again.  Sure enough, the same beautiful woman came galloping out of the cave into the forest and in an instant had passed him by and was gone.

On the third day Prince Benlli again rode to the cave in the forest and once again the beautiful woman came galloping out on a milk-white steed.  This time he spurred his horse forwards forcing her to stop and as was his style simply told her her to follow him to his palace and be his wife.

The Marriage Contract

The beautiful woman looked at him and said,

“I will will be your wife if you promise to fulfill these three conditions.  First, your present wife must go. Second, you must agree that one night in every seven nights on Fridays I shall be free to leave you and you will not follow me.  Thirdly, you will not ask where I am going, or what I do and you will not spy on me. You must swear to me that you will uphold these conditions and if you keep them my beauty will remain unblemished.  If you break your word the waters shall rise and the pike and the perch shall play between the the bulrushes and the long waving, water reeds shall grow in your hall. Do you agree?”

Without further delay, Benlli, agreed to these conditions and a solemn contract was made between the two and the Maid of the Green Forest became his wife.

As mentioned earlier, Benlli was already married and yet he had just wed the Maid and promised her that his first wife would go so how was he going to manage this situation?  Curiously, when the two arrived at his palace she had gone and never once returned, so that saved him a task.

Marriage

In the days that followed Benlii was very happy with his new wife who, everyday grew prettier and prettier.  They would spend days together chatting in the palace, or they would go horse riding in the Green Forest, or sometimes hunted deer. Indeed, the more her loveliness grew the happier he became. For a wedding present he gave her a ring that was set with a big and beautiful diamond and alone was worth a king’s ransom.  He gave her lavish jewelry of gold and silver and and a diadem studded with rubies and sapphires and loved his beautiful wife so much he would have given her anything. In those early days never once did he ever think of breaking his marriage contract.

However, time flies and in time all things change.  Three times three equals nine and after nine years with his wife disappearing every Friday night he began to grow curious as to what she was up to and where she went.  So much did he begin to dwell on the matter that it began to depress and worry him and became irritable and miserable in the company of others.  All of his servants and friends noticed the change in him but none dared to ask what the problem was.

Wyland the Monk

Then one night he had invited a very learned monk named Wyland to dinner and he had ordered the banqueting hall to be brightly decorated and that the best food and drink should be served.  He hired the best minstrel to provide the best music and entertainment.

Now, Wyland as well as being a monk, was also a man of magic and he knew and saw things that others could not see.  That night at dinner, despite all the finery, glamour and happy entertainment he could see Benlli was deeply unhappy and thoroughly miserable. He did not say anything to begin with but after the banquet was over he went home and decided he would call again in a few days time to see Prince Benlli and find out what was troubling him.  The next time he met Benlli, Wyland sat him down and said, “Tell me my friend, why are you so unhappy and miserable with life?”

Then Benlli related all to Wyland of how he had met and married the Maid of the Green Forest and of the three conditions of their wedding contract and said,

“Every Friday night, there am I with the owls hooting and the nightingales singing and my wife is absent from my bed until the sun rises.  I lay alone there wondering where she can be and what she is doing. Eventually, I fall asleep to wake in the morning finding her by my side.  I am overcome with curiosity and jealousy worrying about who she may be seeing and this is weighing down my soul. Even with all of my wealth, my luxurious palace and all its finery I am unhappier than any beggar in Wales or on the island of Britain!”

As Wyland listened to Benlli’s woes his quick mind realized there was a way he could make money from the prince’s woes and benefit his monastery at the same time.  All he had to do was to cure the troubles of Benlli’s soul and so he said,

“My friend, I have an idea that may help to ease your soul.  If you are but prepared to give the monks of White Minster one tenth of the flocks of sheep in your domain, one tenth of all the riches that flow into your treasury from the rents of the lands, and give the Maiden of the Green Forest to me, I can guarantee your soul will be free of all your troubles and at peace.  What do you say?

Benlli readily agreed and shook hands on the deal.

A Battle of Spells

On the next Friday night Wyland the Monk took his book of spells and went to the cave in the forest which he knew as being an entrance to the Otherworld.  There, he waited under the silvery moonlight. He had not been waiting too long when out of the cave on horseback there galloped a lady dressed in the finest clothes wearing a glittering crown upon her head.  He knew it was Benlli’s wife, the Maiden of the Green Forest and he stepped in front of her holding his book before him calling upon her to stop.  There then followed a battle of spells that saw lightning and fire light up the night as the two hurled spells and counter spells at each other.  Finally, summoning up the spirits of the air Weland told them of his plan to enrich the monastery and called upon them to assist and bind the Maiden of the Green Forest to his will saying,

“Spirits of the air, I call upon you to bind this maiden to me that she will always be at my side.  Bring her to me at the dawn of day to the crossroads before the town of Whiteminster and there I will marry her and she will be my own for all time!”

Waving his hands in the air and uttering special words he cast a spell that would prevent anyone from interfering with this and could not be broken.  Then he made his way to the crossroads to await the arrival of his bride-to-be at dawn. Arriving at the crossroads as the sun rose, to his disgust the first thing he saw was a hideous old hag who cackled and hissed and raised her hand pointing her bony finger at him. Set upon it was the big, beautiful diamond ring that Benlli had given to the lovely Maiden of the Forest when she had become his wife.

The Hag of the Green Forest

“Ha, ha, haaaa!  I hear my love approaching,  Come sweet lover and clasp me to thine bosom!” she shrieked through a mouthful of rotting teeth,

“Look at me, Wyland my love, look deep into my red and burning eyes and know that I am your betrothed.  This foul hag that stands before you was once the beautiful bride of Prince Benlli. When my beauty left me his love left with it but on the seventh night my magic brings back my beauty.  He has broken our wedding contract and I warned him, I said, ‘If you break your word the waters shall rise and the pike and the perch shall play between the the bulrushes and the long, waving, water reeds that shall grow in your hall.’   This promise is now fulfilled and both your spell and mine are complete. From you he has received the freeing of his soul and eternal peace, for he is dead. My promise caused the a rivers and springs to gush and rise into his halls which is now covered in water and perch and pike play among the bulrushes and reeds.   The clashing of our spells means they cannot be undone and no charm or counter spell will avail. Therefore, Wyland my love, come to me and claim me as your reward for we have both kept our promises. Come take me, I am yours!”

So it was that Prince Benlli broke his marriage contract and paid the price as the waters of the land rose drowning him in in own halls. As for  Wyland the Monk – man of God and magic – he reaped what he had sown for himself in the tender loving arms of the Maiden of the Green Forest.

© 04/07/2018 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 4th, 2018 zteve t evans