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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
“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.
The Khasi people live in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya with populations in the neighboring state of Assam and some regions of Bangladesh. They evolved their own unique mythology and folklore and created many wonderful folktales that attempt to explain different aspects of the natural world. There are all sorts of stories featuring monkeys, tigers, lynxes and other wild animals. The domestication of some animals is also dealt with telling how dogs, cats, goats and oxen came to live among humans and give explanations of cosmic creation and natural phenomena. The Khasi divinities, such as the twin goddesses Ka Ngot and Ka Iam, who gave their names to the rivers Ngot and Lam respectively, are found along with other divine beings. All this and more can be found in Folktales of the Khasis by Mrs. K. U. Rafy (1920) and presented here is a retelling of the story What Makes the Lightning?
What Makes the Lightning?
The story begins in the
young days of the world when animals socialized with people. They spoke their
language and tried to copy human customs and manners. Every thirteen moons the people held a great
festival where there were many sports and events. People competed against each other and
demonstrated their abilities in many different activities and one of the most
popular was the sword dance. All the
people from the hills and the forest would come and take part and it was a gay
and happy time. The animals loved this
event and would watch the people competing, dancing and having fun and the
younger beasts began to ask the elders for a festival of their own. After
considerable thought the elders agreed and said that the animals should appoint
a day when their own festival should be held.
U Pyrthat’s Drum
With great enthusiasm
the animals learnt all the skills and rules for the competitions and all the
moves and steps for the dances. When
they were ready they set a date for the festival to begin, but no one knew how
to let everyone know the event was taking place. Someone suggested that perhaps
U Pyrthat, the thunder giant, would beat his drum to tell everyone the event
was beginning. U Pyrthat agreed
and began to beat his drum summoning all the animals to their great
festival. His drum could be heard in the
farthest of hills and the most remote places of the forest and the animals
flocked towards the sound excitedly and a soon a great multitude gathered
around U Pyrthat and his drum.
The animals had gone to
great trouble to prepare grooming and preening themselves to look their
very best. Each one carried either a musical instrument or a weapon relevant
to how they intended to participate in the festival events. There was much merriment when the squirrel marched in
banging on a small drum followed by a small bird called the Shakyllia playing a
flute, who was followed by a porcupine clashing cymbals together. It was a very
happy day and all the animals were jolly and laughing, sharing a jokes and
having fun. The mole looked up and saw
the owl trying to dance but because her eyes were not used to daylight she kept
bumping into objects. The mole laughed so much his own eyes became
narrowed and his vision unclear and that is how we find him today.
The Sword Dance of U Kui, the Lynx
When the fun and
merriment reached its height U Kui, the lynx appeared carrying a most splendid
silver sword which he had lavished a lot of money on. He had bought it just
for the festival because he wanted to show off his skills in the sword
dance. Calling everyone to attention he
began his dance leaping and stepping with energy, grace and precision. Everyone cheered and admired his elegance of
movement and technique but his success went to his head and he began to see
himself as better than the others.
U Pyrthat’s Sword Dance
Pyrthat, the thunder giant, saw the performance of the lynx and was full of
admiration for his dancing skills and was very impressed with the silver sword.
He had not brought a sword himself as he had brought the drum he used to
summon everyone. Thinking that he should like to try a dance or two wielding
such a fine sword he asked the lynx if he could borrow it as a favor. U Kui was reluctant to
allow the thunder giant to borrow his silver sword not only because it was so
fine and expensive but because he did not like the idea that he might be
upstaged. The crowd seeing his reluctance began to shout,
“Shame! shame! shame!”
and booed and hissed
thinking that it was rude and ungracious of him to refuse being as the thunder
giant had beat his drum to summon them all. In the end the lynx was shamed into lending the the giant
his sword and reluctantly the handed it to him.
Taking hold of the magnificent silver sword the
thunder giant prepared himself to dance. When he was ready he suddenly
burst into life leaping high and whirling the flashing blade in circles all
around him. He danced so furiously and leapt
high and the flashing blade dazzled everyone. As he danced he beat on his drum so hard the
earth shook and the animals fled in terror.
Thunder and Lightning
U Pyrthat was inspired
by the silver sword and danced faster and faster, leaping higher and higher.
Carried away by his dancing and the wonderful blade he leaped right into
the sky with the silver sword flashing all around him while he beat on his drum,
the sound rumbling and crashing down to earth.
At times, the noise of the drum and the flashing of the sword are still
heard and seen by people all around the world.
They called it thunder and lightning, but the Khasis people know that it
is the drum of U Pyrthat, the thunder giant and the stolen sword of U Kui, the
lynx, that the people hear and see.
U Kui’s Heartbreak
U Kui was heartbroken at
the loss of his fine silver sword. Folks
say that afterwards he made his home near a great hill and would sit and look
at the sky when U Pyrthat danced. He kept piling stones upon the hill
hoping one day to make it high enough to reach the sky where he hoped to
to reclaim his sword from the dancing
A Faustian pact or bargain is also sometimes known as a Deal with the Devil. This is where someone makes an agreement or contract with the Devil or his demonic representative. It is named after a character from German literature, legend and folklore named Faust, sometimes known as Dr Faustus or Faustus, who made just such a contract. The devil grants their material or worldly desires such as riches, knowledge and power, usually for a set length of time, in return for their soul. The pact must be honored and when that time comes the devil or his representative arrives to take the soul of his contract partner.
Presented here is a retelling of a tale from Goblin Tales of Lancashire, a collection of folktales by James Bowker that appeared as The Demon of the Oak. For those who like a little bit of history with their folk tales the story is set in an ancient fortified manor in Lancashire, England called Hoghton Tower. This was the ancestral home of the de Hoghton family descended directly from Harvey de Walter, who was a companion of William the Conqueror. Their female line of descent is also impressive descending from famous Lady Godiva of Coventry, wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. The setting in time is uncertain but it is known the the land has been in the hands of ancestors of the de Hoghton’s since at least the 12th century and the present house dates from about 1560–65 and rebuilt and extended between 1862 and 1901. The narrative centers around a young gentleman named Edgar Astley who in the story stayed at the manor and whose actual existence is much more nebulous than that of his hosts.
In fact, Edgar was a rather earnest young man whose habit of dressing in black indicated that he was still in mourning for someone dear who had passed away. The servants of the tower, much like servants everywhere, discussed among themselves the reason for his sombre style of dress and melancholy air. They came to the conclusion he mourned for a woman whom he greatly loved and had deceived him and had married a rival instead of him. The lady in question had died mysteriously soon after for reasons unknown.
The speculations were sufficient to give the young man an aura of mystery and romance among the servants. This was fueled when it was reported among them that strange colored lights had been seen from his room in the Tower at night. This increased their suspicion making them wary and uncomfortable with the air of melancholy that he exuded
The more the superstitious servants thought about him the more they saw in him that was strange and abnormal. They noticed how he would suddenly start out of a gloomy mood when approached making no secret of his desire to avoid where possible all society and companionship. Even so, no one could ever accuse him of being unfriendly or rude and he was always very kind and patient with the youngsters of the household. He always found time to chat cordially with the females of the household. When asked he would accompany them on rambles through the woods and countryside and escort them on excursions to the local towns.
Yet it was noticeable that he did so more out of a sense of duty and chivalry rather than his own pleasure and quickly return to his station under the oak. There he would read his dark books lost and become lost in dark thoughts. The ladies regarded him with an affectionate pity. They would try to encourage him to join them in more cheerful and sociable activities. All though he complied he would only bear so much before politely returning to his books and dark dreaming.
The Baronet who was his host and master of the Tower liked him greatly despite his melancholy and strange ways. Everyone else looked on him with pity. The general consensus was that time alone would eventually heal the darkness that appeared in his soul and were happy for him to be amongst them. For his part, Edgar appreciated their sympathy and the freedom they allowed him in their home. He came and went as he pleased and the hosts were content to allow him this freedom asking no questions, just accepting him and his ways as they were.
In the servant’s quarters the talk about Edgar was of very different kind. One particular servant claimed he knew a servant who had known a footman, who had worked for Edgar’s family and there was a tragic story attached to the young man. Apparently Edgar had once been betrothed to a young lady by the name of Anna. She was a very attractive lady and had many suitors but she narrowed these down to Edgar and another young man. She saw both of them at intervals and was very much in love with both but could not decide which she preferred and was well aware which ever one she rejected would be terribly hurt.
Nonetheless, she enjoyed the attentions of both men and would play them off against each other. Both suitors had been the best of friends but then a bitter rivalry developed between them for the love of Anna. Both loved her with a passion and would have done anything in the world to win her favor and it seemed when she accepted Edgar’s proposal of marriage that he had won. The date was set for the happy event and Edgar was looking forward to spending the rest of his life with the woman of his heart’s desire.
Edgar’s rival was not one to simply accept whatever fate should throw at him and the night before the wedding went to Anna and begged she elope that night with him. She agreed and the two made off in her father’s coach and horses with all speed heading for Gretna Green.
The next morning word came to Edgar of the disappearance of Anna. Of course he was devastated. Knowing that it could only have been at the instigation of his rival he took off after them intending a final confrontation with his rival.
Such was the talk in the servant’s quarters and their curiosity towards Edgar grew and grew and were fed by the peculiarity of his own habits. It had been noticed that he stayed up late at nights in his room and strange lights and sounds could sometimes be seen and heard coming from it. It was therefore decided that one of them should creep up to his room at midnight and listen at the door and look through the keyhole to try and learn more of this mysterious young man’s behaviour. To his chagrin it was the servant who knew a servant who knew a footman that worked for Edgar’s family that was chosen for this dubious task. Therefore at the stroke of midnight, wishing he had kept quiet, the servant was sent up stairs to listen at Edgar’s bedroom door and spy through his keyhole.
Once at his station the reluctant spy knelt and put his eye to the keyhole listening intently for any sounds that should come through the door. Through the keyhole he saw that Edgar was seated at a table intently studying an ancient black book he had spread out before him. With one hand he shaded his eyes from a flame that burnt in a small cauldron upon the table.
The Pale Student
Suddenly he leaned forward and with a quick movement of his hand took a pinch of a bright blue powder placed in a saucer and sprinkled it upon the flame. The room was filled by strange, sickly aroma while the flame burst upwards with sudden life. The pale student of unhallowed arts turned over a page in the book and began to softly chant strange words unaware he was being watched. Then he looked puzzled and muttered,
“Strange, I have bat’s blood, the severed hand of a dead man, viper’s venom, mandrake root and the flesh of a newt. These are the ingredients stated and yet I still fail. Must I use the spell of spells at the risk of losing my life?
Think, man! What is there for one such as me to fear in death? So far I remain unharmed from my experiments but were it otherwise I must still proceed to the bitter end.
There was a time when I would have given all my future happiness for her to be called by my name. What is there left in this empty life for me that I should fear in this desperate enterprise to gain one last glimpse of her lovely face?”
As thepale student bent over the book studying the dreadful words on the cracked pages for the spy at the door the silence was almost palpable. The night appeared to stand still and a harsh, rasping voice from the air cut through the silence saying,
Answer truly, will you give your very soul in exchange for a glimpse and a brief exchange of speech for she who you were once betrothed.”
The pale student quickly jumped to his feet excited and declared,
“Make no mistake, what ever you are, whoever you are, if you deliver her to me for a glimpse, a brief word or two for the briefest of time my soul shall be yours forever!”
The night, inside the house and outside, fell silent and the world seemed to stand still. The spy at the door could hear the beating of his own heart and the the disembodied voice spoke once again,
“So it shall be! You have one last spell left that you must invoke at midnight beneath the spreading arm of the old oak and there and then shall you be rewarded with your heart’s desire. Dare you look upon my face?”
replied the pale student.
“Devil or demon, whatever kind of beast you may be, I have no fear of seeing you”
This was not the case for the spy at the keyhole who knelt shivering in
fear at what he was witnessing and as soon as the lights flared a lurid
blue he fell in a faint at his station by the door.
The Spy Discovered
When the spying servant finally came to he found himself inside the dread room with the pale student standing over him demanding,
“Who are you? Why do you spy on me and what have you seen? Tell me all, tell me true!”
Trembling in fear the terrified servant told him everything he had seen and heard while Edgar listened gravely. When the servant had finished he would not allow him to leave until he had sworn on all that he held valuable that he would not tell a soul of what he had seen and heard that night. To ensure the complete silence of the servant Edgar bound him by several terrifying threats of what would happen should he speak and then gave further instructions.
When the servant returned to the servant’s quarter his fellows all wanted to know what he had seen and heard. They were disappointed when he told them he had spied so long and seen nothing and overcome with fatigue and boredom fallen asleep at his station. Nevertheless, this appeared to satisfy his eager friends who could not help wondering what would have happened should he have been discovered.
The day passed in much the same way as other days with the only notable exception being Edgar’s absence from the table under the old oak. As evening fell dark clouds swept in from the distant sea and the wind began to rise and shake the old oak in its rage.
As usual the household had retired at eleven that night and only Edgar and one other were awake. Edgar sat in his room at studying intensely the black book, but every now and then glancing impatiently at the clock. At last he stood up and sighing to himself said,
“The time I have longed for draws near. Once again we shall meet!”
Taking up his small cauldron, the book and a few other items he left his room and went down the ancient staircase. As he did so the servant stepped from the shadows and followed him. Calmly walking down to the old oak Edgar place his items at the foot of the tree and then taking a hazel wand from his pocket drew a circle around him and the servant. Placing some red powder in the cauldron he put it down before him. As he did so a red flame leapt up from cauldron blazing with a steady flame while the wind roared in fury all around.
In the gateway of the tower the chained guard dogs howled mournfully but Edgar pressed on with his task, striking the ground three time with his hazel wand, crying,
“Anna my love, my heart’s desire I summon thee! Hear my words and obey, come to me this night!”
No sooner had he stopped speaking when the filmy figure of a most beautiful child appeared and floated around the outside of the circle. The servant groaned in fear and sunk to his knees covering his eyes. The necromancer took no notice and as lightning flashed and thunder rolled he began incanting a new spell before finishing with these words,
“Soul of Anna, spirit of my love, spirit of my heart’s desire, I summon thee! Come to me with all haste and without deceit and without power over my earthly body, spirit or soul. May the shadow of death fall upon thee for ever if you refuse! Come now to me”!
With these last word the storm abated and all around fell to brooding silence. Suddenly the flame in the cauldron flared upwards several yards in height and a sweet voice could be heard engaged in a melodious chant. A rasping, invisible voice said,
“Are you ready to behold the dead?”
“I am ready!”
Before his eyes a column of mist formed and swirled and in that column slowly appeared the form and face of a beautiful woman still wrapped in her burial shroud. She looked at him with sad, mournful eyes and asked,
“Why, Egar, why”
“Because I loved you, Anna! Did you love me?”
“And did you love him Anna, did you really love him?
Edgar gazed upon the ghost of his betrothed in tortured silence for some time. Slowly he reached out into the mist trying to embrace her. As he did so the servant fainted at his feet as if struck down by death and thunder broke the silence.
“Edgar Astley, thy time is done and thou art mine forever!”
hissed a harsh disembodied voice at his side. As these word were spoken the door of the tower were flung wide open and out rushed the baronet followed by his servants.
“Keep back, keep back! Save yourselves!”
“We would save you too! In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti!”
cried the baronet striding forward to the circle holding a silver crucifix before him. No sooner had he spoken when the thunder fell quiet and the lightning ceased to flash and the moon broke through the dark clouds throwing down a soft light.
The servant was found face down trembling in the circle and carried indoors. Edgar was found leaning against the trunk of the old oak. His eyes glazed and fixed upon the spot in the air he had last seen the ghost of his betrothed. Gently the baronet took him by the hand and led him away as one would lead an innocent and trusting child. All reason and purpose had left his mind and his body was but an empty husk for he had gained his heart’s desire but in doing so given away his soul.
The Anansi Tales are a body of traditional stories that originated in Ghana and spread throughout West Africa. They were carried to the Caribbean and the New World with the unfortunate African people who were transported there to spend their lives in slavery. They were passed on orally and from generation to generation producing many variants of the same tale. The stories center around a protagonist called Anansi who is both human and spider. He can appear in either form or anthropomorphically with a human head and a spider body. He is often seen as a trickster or as a intermediary between the gods and humankind. During the dark days of slavery he was seen as a symbol of hope and resistance by showing how someone who was considered small and weak could overcome the big and powerful by using cleverness and courage and was a reminder of the old ways back in Africa. The following is a retelling of an Anansi tale which highlights his cleverness and trickery.
How the Tales were Named
In the early days of the people, all of the tales that were told were stories about the chief of the gods whose name was Nyankupon. Spider who was known as Anansi was jealous and thought all of the stories should be about him. Therefore, Anansi went to Nyankupon and asked that in future all the tales people told should be about him.
Nyankupon told Anansi that he would agree to this but only if Anansi could fulfill three tasks. For the first task, Anansi had to bring him a jarful of living bees. The second, was for him to bring Nyankupon a live boa-constrictor. For the third, Anansi had to bring him a living leopard. Anansi agreed and taking a clay pot he went to a place where he knew bees lived in great numbers and sat down and began talking aloud to himself saying,
“They will not be able to do it.” “Yes, they will.” “No, it is too difficult!” “Of course they will be able to do it!”
He kept this debate up for some time and eventually the bees took notice of him and asked him what he was talking to himself about. He told them he and Nyankupon had been arguing over whether the bees were skillful enough fliers to be able to fly into the clay pot. He told them he believed they were, whereas Nyankupon argued they were not.
The bees were indignant and told Anansi firmly that of course they could and to prove it they all flew into the pot until it was packed tight with them. Anansi quickly put the lid on the pot and sealed and took it to show Nyankupon that he had succeeded in the first task.
The next morning Anansi went out and found a long stick and then went to a place where he knew a boa-constrictor lived. When he arrived at the home of the boa-constrictor he began talking to himself saying,
“Surely he cannot be as long as this stick”
“Yes, he will be as long!”
“Oh, no he won’t!”
“Of course he will! “
And he kept on talking to himself for some time until the snake came and asked him what he was talking about. Anansi told him that in Nyankupon’s town people are saying the stick is longer than the snake was whereas but he believed the snake was longer than the stick.
“Would you be as kind as to lay yourself along so that I may measure you? asked Anansi politely. The boa-constrictor the stretched himself along the stick from end to end and Anansi lost no time in binding him around the stick with his spider thread. Then he took him to Nyankupon successfully completing the second task.
Leopard by Jacques Christophe Werner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The third morning Anansi sewed up one of his own eyes and went to a place he knew where a leopard lived. As he drew near he began to shout and sing at the top of his voice and he made such a din that the leopard came out to his home to see what all the noise was about.
“Why are you shouting and singing in such a joyous manner?”
said the leopard to Anansi.
“Look, can you not see? Look, I have stitched my eye up and now I can see such wonderful things that I have to sing and shout about them,”
The leopard looked and he saw that Anansi’s eye was indeed sewn up and then he said,
“Sew my eyes up too and then I will also see wonderful things!”
So Anansi the Spider quickly sewed up the eyes of the leopard rendering him blind and helpless. Then he led him to Nyankupon who was both impressed and astounded at the ingenuity of Anansi and granted him his wish. That is why all the old tales that people tell today are known as Anansi tales.
The following story is a retelling of The Golden Butterfly from Indonesian Legends and Folk Tales by Adele de Leeuw.
Princess Kembang Melati
There was once a beautiful young princess named Kembang Melati. She lived in a palace situated along the banks of a great river. On the other side of the river in a palace that was all of the colors of the rainbow lived Rajah Bajir who was the Monarch of the Rains. At his will, Rajah Bajir could cause the land to flood and his tears were the streams that fed the great river.
When he looked out from his palace of rainbow colors over the river he would often see on the far bank Princess Kembang Melati weaving her wedding robe. As she worked away on the other side of the river he could sometimes catch the sound of her sweet voice singing a song of love and he was enchanted. He hoped that the princess would look up from her work for a second and see him on the other side and perhaps smile at him. She never did.
Still, the Monarch of the Rains continued admiring her from the other side of the river. The more he gazed across at her, the bigger and sadder his eyes grew and he wept. As he wept the tears swelled the streams that ran into to the great river causing its waters to rise. His sighs ran through the trees and branches around his rainbow-colored palace and carried across the river.
On the other side, Princess Kembang Melati heard his sighing and thought it was just the wind. She saw the river grow higher and higher and thought it was rain from the mountain. She did not know it was Rajah Bajir, the Monarch of the rains who was weeping and sighing for the love of her.
A Golden Butterfly
For many sad and lonely days, Rajah Bajir yearned and pined for the love of Kembang Melati. At last, he transformed himself into a golden butterfly and fluttered across the river. He flitted back and forth across her window until Princess Kembang Melati finally noticed him. When at last she looked up and saw him she went to the window to get a closer look at the beautiful golden butterfly that had come to visit her. She watched in delight as it fluttered before her and held out her hand. Gently and softly it settled in her a palm and to her delight kissed her fingertips. Then it quickly fluttered out of the window and was gone.
by William Chapman Hewitson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)
The princess put the butterfly from her mind and a couple of days later as she was weaving her wedding dress the golden butterfly fluttered in through the window. It fluttered around the room and then settled gently on her right cheek and whispered softly into her ear, “Princess Kembang Melati be quick and weave your wedding dress, for you bridegroom will soon appear.” However, she only heard the word “bridegroom” and she asked, “Where is my bridegroom?” But the butterfly had flown off through the window.
Nasiman the Cruel
Princess Kembang Melati had an old nurse named Sarinah who had looked after her since she was born. Sarinah had a son named Nasiman who was selfish and wicked. He had been listening outside the window and heard the princess ask the butterfly where her bridegroom was. Quickly he ran his mother and said, “Mother, as I passed by the window of Princess Kembang Melati I heard her ask a question. She said, ‘Where is my bridegroom?’ Mother, I want you to go and tell her I am her bridegroom. Please go now.”
“But my son, you are not of noble birth and can never marry Princess Kembang Melati,”
replied his mother. Although Nasiman was her son and she loved him she was frightened of him because she knew how cruel and wicked he could be. Therefore, she went to the princess and told her that her bridegroom had now arrived and had come to claim her for his bride. At that moment the golden butterfly flew in through the window and settled behind the ear of the princess and whispered, “Your true bridegroom has not yet arrived and this one is false. His name is Nasiman and he is the son of Sarinah, your nurse. Do not marry him! Wait instead for your true bridegroom to comes!” and with that the butterfly fluttered out of the window.
Princess Kembang Melati looked at her nurse and said, “No Sarinah, I will wait until my true bridegroom comes to claim me.” This terrified Sarinah who greatly feared what her son would do if he did not get his way, “Forgive me, Princess Kembang Melati please, please marry him now or I know we will both be killed!”
Princess Kembang Melati looked at her frightened nurse in shock. She did not want her nurse to die and she did not want to die herself. Then she said, “You must go to the bridegroom who is here now and tell him that I must have seven days to contemplate marriage to him. He must wait on the river bank and I will send my answer to him there before the seven days are up. Go now and tell him!”
Sarinah went and told Nasiman what Princess Kembang Melati has told her. He was silent for a few minutes thinking, then decided it was a good idea. So that he could be ready and wait for the answer he had seven days of food and drink prepared for him and taken to a spot on the river bank where he would await the decision of the princess.
The White Crow
It so happened that on the very same day as Nasiman settled down to wait on the river bank the Monarch of the Rains wrote Princess Kembang Melati a letter and filled a small chest full of gold and jewelry. Then he called his white crow to him who was his fastest and best messenger. The Monarch of the Rains bound the chest to the crow’s back and placed the letter in her claws and ordered her to take both directly to Princess Kembang Melati without delay. The white crow promised she would fly directly to the princess with the letter and the chest and off she went at full speed flying high and flying fast.
As she flew she looked down and saw Nasiman sat on the bank eating a fish. The white crow loved fish to eat fish and she circled around him crying, “My, but that fish looks so good. Please, may I have some?” Nasiman glared up in the sky at her flying around him and said angrily, “Who are you dare to ask me that? Where are you from and where are you going with that letter in your claws? What have got in that chest on your back?”
“It so happens I am the messenger of none other than the great Monarch of the Rains. He has ordered me to take this letter and chest to none other than Princess Kembang Melati and I must place them in her hands myself,” said the white crow importantly. On hearing this Nasiman quickly formulated a devious plan. “Well, in that case, I expect you are hungry. Come an sit here with me. Take off your chest and put down the letter and eat some of this delicious fish.” he told the white crow.
Fish was her favorite meal and the white crow placed the letter and the chest on the river bank and began busily pecking up the fish. While the bird was so occupied Nasiman quickly opened the box and took the gold and jewelry out. He replaced them with great big spiders and vicious looking scorpions and quickly closed the lid. Then with the bird still busily eating the fish he took the letter to his mother saying, “Quick mother, although I cannot read I am sure this letter contains beautiful words and loving thoughts to Princess Kembang Melati. Change them so that they are horrible words and hateful thoughts. While you are doing that I will hide this gold and jewelry.”
Nasiman the Liar
Through fear, his mother did as he had told her. When she had finished he took the letter and chest back to where the white crow was still busily pecking up the fish. She was enjoying the fish so much she had not noticed his absence at all. The white crow finished off the fish and then went for a drink at a nearby spring.
“Why ever did you not take the letter and the chest directly to Princess Kembang Melati as you had been instructed to by the Monarch of the Rains?” murmured the spring softly. However, the white crow did not hear and neither did she hear the breeze that whispered, “White crow, white crow, now something terrible is going to happen all because of your greed!” But the white crow did not hear the warning and something terrible did happen.
The white crow took off across the river and swooped down through Princess Kembang Melati’s window. She dropped the letter in her hand and then perched on the window sill to let her take off the chest from her back. When Princess Kembang Melati saw the white crow bearing the chest and the letter she believed they had been sent by her bridegroom and that he must near. Naturally, she was very excited and decided to read the letter first, but she was in for a shock. The letter said, “Princess Kembang Melati you are so ugly and your skin is foul and wrinkled and your hair is all dirty and matted. What is in the chest is horrid and nasty and so are you!” Opening the little chest she saw the spiders and scorpions and threw out of the window into the river in a rage.
After a moment of disbelief the princess became very, very angry. She tore up the letter then fell to pacing up and down and weeping while wondering what she had done to deserve such cruel treatment. The white crow looked on in amazement. She could not believe her master had written such an awful letter and put the spiders and scorpions in the chest as she knew he loved the princess greatly.
Nasiman was pleased and laughed to himself. It was just what he had hoped for and was now sure she would agree to marry him. However, Princess Kembang Melati after her shock and disappointment now had no desire to marry anyone and was deeply hurt by the letter. She spent all her time weeping and pacing up and down her chamber, wringing her hands. Her ladies tried to comfort her but she was beyond help and ordered them to take away her weaving stool and wedding drèss declaring that she would never work on it again.
by William Chapman Hewitson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)
As the sad day drew to a close and evening began falling the golden butterfly flitted in through the window and settled next to the princess’s ear and whispered, “Beautiful Princess Kembang Melati, why do you not wear the jewelry and gems that your bridegroom has given to you?” But the princess flapped her hand angrily at the butterfly, but Rajah Bajir thought she was playing and whispered, “Dear Princess Kembang Melati, would you like to meet your bridegroom in the morning? He will take you to see his rainbow-colored palace where the sun rays are transformed into a thousand beautiful colors. There you will see cloth so finely woven it is like moonbeams. Princess Kembang Melati finish weaving your wedding dress for your bridegroom comes tomorrow!” This infuriated the princess even more and she ordered her servants to chase out the butterfly and not let it return.
When the Monarch of the Rains heard her orders he became so angry that he caused the land to flood in the night. Everything that was not drowned in water along with the current. The palace of Princess Kembang Melati also floated along with the princess, Sarinah her nurse, Nasiman and all her servants trapped inside.
Along the swollen river the palace began to drift and was taken near to the bank on the other side where Rajah Bajir, the Monarch of the Rains stood glumly watching the flood. Although he saw the palace of the princess come floating along he turned his head away as if he had not noticed it. The princess was looking out of her window in horror as the flood carried her and the palace along with its flow. When she saw Rajah Bajir she cried out to him appealing for help but he just looked the other way, making out he could not hear her.
Then Sarinah, feeling guilty because she was sure this was all something to do with the letter, cried out, “Oh Rajah Bajir, great Monarch of the rains, it is all my fault. I am the one to blame. I changed your beautiful words into ugly words. It was Nasiman, my son, who took the gems and jewelry from the chest and replaced them with spiders and scorpions. It was Nasiman who gave your white crow the fish so that he could make the change while the white crow was busy eating!”
Hearing this, Rajah Bajir, the Monarch of the rains understood it all. He ran from his rainbow-colored palace down to the river and pulled the princess and all those in the palace safely onto dry. Then he led them to his own palace, but he would not allow Sarinah and Nasiman to enter. Instead, he turned them away and roared, “May the waters cover you, may the waters drown you!” And the waters rose swiftly and engulfed the nurse and her son. Then he called the white crow before him and turned her plumage black and took away her power of speech. Thereafter, all she could say was “Kaw … kaw … kaw!” which meant gold. She spent the rest of her life searching for the gold and jewels which Nasiman had taken from the chest and hidden.
With punishment meted out to the wrongdoers, Rajah Bajir commanded the floods to stop and recede. Soon all the world was above water and dry and then he turned to Princess Kembang Melati and explained to her who he was. He told her her he had watched her for many days and had fallen in love with her and he had transformed himself into a golden butterfly to bring her his messages.
Hearing this, the realisation came upon Princess Kembang Melati and she pitied him and understood that he was her true bridegroom by the tender and loving way he spoke to her. She finished weaving her wedding dress and the two were married and lived happily in the rainbow-colored palace until the end of their days. It is a most curious thing but nevertheless true to say that no human has ever found the rainbow covered palace, or visited Princess Kembang Melati and the Rajah Bajir, the Monarch of the Rains.
Bisclavret (The Werewolf), is a Breton lai, by a medieval female writer and poet known as Marie de France. It is one of twelve narrative poems known as The lais of Marie de France. Many of the lais were derived from Breton folklore and legends with Celtic influences and elements of the supernatural all interwoven together. She claimed the lais were based on ballads she had heard from troubadours and minstrels.
In the poem translated Judith P. Shoaf, Marie explains that Garwalf is the Norman name for a werewolf and Bisclavret, the Breton name. However, Bisclavret, although still a werewolf, is significantly different from the Garwolf, displaying more restrained and disciplined behavior than the wild savagery usually associated with such beasts. (1)
Marie’s lais tell stories that move in and out of the supernatural and real world exploring complex emotions and morals that wreak havoc in the human condition. The lai of Bisclavret tells of a shape-shifting baron whose perfect world is marred by what he deems to be a terrible and shameful affliction. To hide his shame and in a sense to protect his own humanity from the perceptions of others, he keeps this a secret. This work presents a discussion of what it means to be human and then provides a version of the story concluding with a discussion on the humanity and “beastliness” shown by the main characters.
Human or Beast?
The shifting of human to beast amid the dark, tangled forest explores some of our primal fears, challenging our concept of humanity. Is it just the clothing we wear and the adornments, the accessories, and jewelry and the paraphernalia that we think give us status and make us attractive and carry with us that make us human? Or is it our behavior, our manners, the way we conduct ourselves and the way we treat and think of other people that make us human or worthy of love, respect, and acceptance?
Marie de France lived in medieval times in medieval society with medieval culture and philosophy. Her lais utilize legends and folklore of her time skilfully woven into narrative poems that tell stories that explore and challenge our understanding of the human condition and reflect the ethos of her times. But that world of Marie has passed and we now live in the modern world with all its trappings, culture, and philosophy. What can we make of Bisclavret (The Werewolf) by Marie de France today?
The Story of Bisclavret
There was once a most honorable and cultured baron who lived in Brittany many, many, years ago. He was a great favorite of the king and was great friends with all the other barons and lords of the land and they all held him in high esteem. He had a most beautiful wife who he loved dearly and she also loved him dearly. All, in all he would seem to be living a perfectly happy and fulfilling life but unbeknown to anyone else he had a most terrible secret.
Although she was very happy with her husband and her marriage his wife had one small concern about him that she did not understand and it worried her greatly. For three days in every single week, he would leave home and disappear completely from the household and no one knew his whereabouts or what he was doing. To begin with, she just accepted it as being part of their life together thinking he must have important business somewhere else, after all, he was baron with land and responsibilities. As time passed these absences began to worry her greatly thinking maybe he was seeing another woman. At last, she decided she must ask him where he went to and what he did.
One day after he had returned from one such outing she decided she could bear it no longer and confronted him. “I have something that is preying on my and I need to ask you something but I do not want to make you angry. It is for this that I am reluctant to ask,” she said. He looked at her lovingly and took her in his arms kissing her tenderly. “Make any request of me that you desire and surely if it is in my power to grant then I will grant it. How could I ever be angry with you?”
“I ask that you place your trust in my love for you and I beg you to tell me where it is you go during the days you spend away from me. I fear there is some trouble you are in and my mind is taken up with worrying about you when you are gone! Have you another woman you are seeing? Please, please tell me where you go and what you do – I cannot bear it when you are gone for so long, please will you not tell me?” She looked at him with imploring eyes as tears ran down her cheeks.
He was shocked and pushed his wife away from him. “For the love of God do not ask of me to reveal this to you. It is a burden I alone must bear and no one can help me. No good can come of me telling you this it would only cause evil and destroy your love for me bringing eternal damnation and sorrow to me. Do not ask what you do not understand!”
“ It is a cruel joke – do not joke with me I mean what I say in all seriousness. Unless I know where you go and what you do I can never again have peace of mind until I know!” she cried.
He was greatly discomforted by this and was torn between keeping the secret from her or revealing all. He decided he could not tell her and that she would just have to be satisfied with that. His good wife, however, was a determined woman and did not give in easily. Every time he returned from one of his absences she would approach him with tears in her eyes and beg he tell her where he had been. Again and again, she begged of him to lay his trust in her love for him and tell her. At last one day, he returned home and she was waiting for him and again begged him, “My husband please tell me where you have been, please trust my love for you. Surely you are seeing another woman!”
This time the baron worn down by her persistence and thinking that he could indeed trust her love told her to sit down and prepare herself for a great shock and looked into her eyes and said,“The reason I have to be away for three days every week is because I have to go deep into the forest where nobody goes. I take my clothes and off run naked. I kill and eat wild animals and plants and go like a beast in the woods where no one can find me. I am Bisclavret!”
And as she looked into his dark eyes she saw herself reflected in his eyes and as she listened his good wife turned white with horror and shock as he spoke and sat staring aghast at him. She would have preferred him to tell her he had taken a lover than this for she knew as all Bretons knew that Bisclavret was the werewolf. Eventually, she recovered herself and became determined to learn the full truth no matter how terrible about his fearful transformation.
“My husband I know I cannot conceal from you the shock and horror I feel but you know I have never done anything to hurt you and never done anything to make you lose your love and trust in me. Therefore, I implore you to tell me everything there is to know. Where do you keep your human raiment when you transform into a werewolf?”
“Do not ask! Do not ask this question! I can never reveal the place I hide my raiment! If I am seen taking it off, or if I lose it I must forever remain Bisclavret! Never could I ever become a man again until it is returned – never! Please do not ask this of me!” he replied shaking and turning white.
His wife hung her head and turned away distraught, “So you do not love me or trust me enough to tell me this secret. I am your loving wife and what have I ever done to earn such distrust? You no longer trust me, no longer love me?” she cried. “Alas, alas that I have forfeited your confidence! Oh, that I should live to see such a day!” and she fell to weeping bitterly. The baron looked at his weeping wife with love in his eyes and began to feel ashamed at what he had said.
At last, to ease his wife’s misery, he sat his her down beside him and told her everything. She sat and listened quietly and intently but avoiding his eyes as he revealed the full horror of transformation he went through and the secret place he hid his raiment. When he had finished he turned and left her but as he was leaving he could not see the fearful look in her eyes as he departed. Now he had told her his terrible secret his wife’s love for him had died. She was now terrified of him and began to think of a way to release herself from this cursed husband. The terrifying thought struck her that he might transform one night while they lay together and as well as fearful she was also revolted at the thought of lying with such a strange unnatural man or was he a beast?
At length, as she pondered about how she had come to this terrible situation she remembered a handsome Knight from her past who had once been her suitor. He had pleaded for her hand in marriage telling her he loved her more than anything and would do anything to please her. She had rejected him to marry the baron and he had been heartbroken.
So she went to him and apologized for her past rejection and promised him faithfully if he would help her she would give him her body and soul. She looked deep into his eyes and told him all about her husband and his terrifying affliction and begged his help. Realising he still wanted her as he looked into her eyes he readily agreed to help her. That night she gave him her body. The next day she took him and showed him where Bisclavret hid his raiment when the transformation took him and begged him to steal it and bring it to her.
And so the day came when the baron went off into the forest alone to endure his lonely transformation as he usually did but this time he never returned. His wife, putting on an act of concern, called on their friends and neighbors asking if they had seen him or knew of his whereabout but none did. Search parties were sent out but no trace of the baron could they find. They searched for a year and a day and then finding no trace of him abandoned the search. The lady went into mourning and after an appropriate period married the knight.
And the wheel turned, months passed and the King happened to be hunting in the forest not too far from the lost baron’s castle. His hounds picked up a strong scent and began baying and yelping and so the King ordered that they should be unleashed. They sprang upon the trail and were soon locked in a crazed pursuit of some wild beast. The King or his huntsmen had no idea of the manner of beast his dogs were in pursuit of but followed on behind for many hours. Eventually, the dogs cornered their quarry and were about to tear it to pieces when a very strange thing happened.
The exhausted beast turned to face the baying, snarling, pack and seeing the King ran to his horse and knelt before it clasping his great paws in supplication and prayer. He looked with pleading eyes into those of the King and its great maw moved as if struggling to speak but no words came out. The King was astounded. As he saw the beast in supplication before him and looked into its dark eyes his heart was touched for there was something familiar about the beast and yet unfamiliar and the sight of it making such a human gesture made him curious.
“Huntsmen, leash your dogs!” he cried, “for this is a beast I have never seen the like of before and will not kill such a wondrous thing. We will take it back to the palace alive and learn about it!”
So the dogs were leashed and the King and his party returned to the palace with the forest beast following tamely behind the King.
When they returned to the Court the beast was a source of fascination for one and all. It was friendly and playful and had the most gentle and benign nature. It followed the King everywhere he went and was like a great friendly playful dog with him. The King for his part grew to love the beast and would not be parted with it and it would sleep in the King’s chamber at the foot of his bed. A more remarkable beast the Court had never seen or heard of.
The beast turns
The day came when the King held a great feast and all of his liege lords from all of his dominions attended and among them came the knight who was now the husband of Bisclavret’s former wife. As soon as he saw his wife’s husband Bisclavret turned from a gentle docile creature into a raging beast and launched a savage attack on him. Fortunately for the knight, the King intervened and ordered Bisclavret to stop. Reluctantly he obeyed ending the attack and ran behind the King.
Bisclavret made two further attempts that evening to attack the knight requiring the King’s intervention on both occasions. The King and all the of his courtiers were shocked and puzzled at Bisclavret’s behavior as had only ever seen him like a big playful, friendly dog. Nobody could understand the sudden change and some assumed that the knight had done something that had threatened Bisclavret but none knew or could say what. Things calmed down and the evening wore on and the Knight was the first to leave the feast.
Some time later the King went hunting again in the same part of the forest where he had first encountered Bisclavret, taking him with him as he had grown exceedingly fond of the strange creature. As the evening drew in the King decided they would stay at one of his hunting lodges nearby for the night. Hearing of the King’s presence not far from her home Bisclavret’s former wife decided she would take a present for the King.
When she was shown into the King’s chamber immediately he saw her Bisclavret changed from a gentle docile creature into a savage beast. Leaping upon her he bit her nose off completely mutilating her beautiful face permanently. If the King and his servants had not intervened he would undoubtedly have torn her to pieces.
Although the King loved Bisclavret and did not understand the change in him he could not allow such savagery to continue and would have had him put to death. Fortunately one of his wise councilors spoke up, “Wait for surely something in the past has happened to it that has caused it to react in such a savage manner. Why is it that the very sight of these two – this husband and his wife – has caused this usual affectionate and gentle creature to become a raging, savage beast? Let these two be brought before you to explain why should it bear them such hatred. The woman was once the wife of one of your best and loyal barons. Someone you were greatly fond of who has not been seen, seeming to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Have them brought before you that you may question them of their knowledge of this matter honestly.”
The King listened to his counselor and thought about what he said. He could not understand why the creature should have reacted so savagely and he was genuinely very fond of it and did not want it killed unjustly. “Bring them to me and I will question them as you suggest and we will see what they have to say.”
So the two were brought before him and he questioned them long and hard and they continuously denied any knowledge of a reason why the creature should attack them. But the King was no fool and as he continued to probe them with questions he could see they were holding something back. Nevertheless, he persisted determined to get to the truth and at last the woman confessed.
She told the King about her first husband who became Bisclavret and how she had become terrified and revolted by the thought of him possibly transforming while he lay with her. Then she told him how she had persuaded Bisclavret to reveal the secret place where he hid his human raiment when the transformation took him. She confessed she had approached her former suitor to beg his help in stealing the raiment so that he could never again return to human form while she had them and told them that the reward for his help was his marriage to her. Tearfully she told the King that this Bisclavret was certainly her former husband the baron who had been his great friend.
At last, the King understood and now demanded she provides the raiment that had been stolen and be returned that Bisclavret may dress in them and once again become human. The hiding place of the raiment was revealed and they were brought and laid before Bisclavret. To everyone’s surprise, the beast completely ignored them as if they did not exist.
Once again it was the King’s wise councilor who spoke saying, “Can it be wondered at that he refuses to put them on in front of everyone here. He cannot surely return as a man without feeling great shame and embarrassment at what he has endured. Surely we cannot ask him to do this in front of us and I counsel you, Sire, that he be taken to your private rooms where he may put on his human form in his own time, in privacy, away from all eyes.”
The King agreed and took Bisclavret to his private room and left him alone. He later returned with two of his lords to see how Bisclavret was doing. On entering the room found him returned to the man who he had loved so much and sleeping soundly in his bed.
The King was overjoyed to have his friend back and roused him from his sleep. When the baron was ready he told his friend the King all about his affliction, the great shame he felt and all that had happened to him. The king was delighted to have him back and returned to him all that had been taken from him and gave him much more besides. As for the woman who betrayed him and her lover they were banished forever from his realm and it was said that many of the females in their family line thereafter were born without a nose and so ended the tale of Bisclavret.
Humanity and Beastliness
There are many different interpretations of the story by many different people. Some are concerned that it paints women in a poor light even accusing the author, Marie de France, of hating women. Nevertheless, there are many other interpretations and many see it as addressing the suppression of the beast within the human being and it is not certain that humans come out of it looking too good.
It is worth noting the twists that each of the main characters performs which bring out their “beastly” side. The wife originally portrayed as beautiful and loving reveals the “beast” in her by betraying the baron. Although it is understandable to feel fear and be revolted by his condition she does not attempt to come to terms with the “beastly” side of her husband. Instead, she sells herself by persuading the knight to steal her husband’s clothes knowing this would trap him in the werewolf form, promising her body and marriage in return. By accepting the proposal and carrying it out he allows his “beastly” nature to get the better of him while condemning the baron to remain Bisclavret running naked and beast-like in the forest .
The good King is taken very much by the humanity shown by Bisclavret in his wolf form and becomes fond of him breaking down the barrier between beast and human. The wise counselor although saving Bisclavret and urging the King to put faith in him lets his beastly side come to the fore by advocating torture to Bisclavret’s ex-wife. The good King by assenting to this allows the beast in himself to come out. But it is the terrible act of vengeance, the violent disfiguring of his ex-wife and generations of females in her line to come after Bisclavret bites off her nose that emphasize the difficulty of keeping the inner beast in check. This, surely, is a terrible act of vengeance even though he had suffered so and after he had displayed such humanity in his wolf form.
The days of Marie de France are long gone and here we are in the modern world and as we look around us we may wonder if there is indeed hope. Can we keep the beast within hidden and in check by fine clothing and good manners and behavior and all the trappings of the modern digital world, or is it all an act that will eventually reveal itself when the opportunity arises?
Rapa Nui is better known as Easter Island and is one of the most isolated populated places in the world. Situated in the south eastern Pacific Ocean around 4,000 kilometres from Chile, South America its nearest inhabited neighbour is Pitcairn Island 2,075 to the west. There in the extreme isolation of the vast Pacific Ocean a unique and amazing civilization evolved that created the most wonderful giant statues and left behind a fascinating and mysterious legacy. Today the inhabitants of the island are known as the Rapanui. According to legend the original settlers named the island Te Pito Te Henua which translates as Navel of the World.
Rapa Nui mythology tells how the first settlers arrived on the island and later how the island was divided to be ruled by different clans whose chiefs were descended from a legendary chieftain called Hotu Matu’a.
The location of Hiva is not known for certain but it is thought likely that it was somewhere in the Marquesas Islands, some 3,200 km way, or the Gambier Islands, 2,600 km distant. It was shown in 1999, that it was possible to sail from Mangareva, in the Gambier Islands to Rapa Nui, using traditional Polynesian sea vessels in 19 days.
According to oral tradition Hotu Matu’a lived in a place called Marae Renga, which may have been an island in the region of Hiva, or a land location. According to some versions, Hiva was found in the Marquesas Islands but sunk beneath the sea after a natural disaster, possibly a volcanic eruption. It could have been this that drove Hotu Matu’a into making the arduous journey to Rapa Nui and pioneer a new life for his family and his people. Other oral traditions say that it was internal conflicts that drove him to seek a new way of life.
According to most versions of the legend of how the people came to Rapa Nui it was a priest called Hau-Maka who had a dream which he then told to Hotua Matu’a. In that dream Hau-Maka had flown out over the sea and discovered an island called Te Pito ‘o te Kāinga’, which means ‘the centre of the earth’ He then appeared to Hotu Matu’a in a dream to tell him this news. Hotu Matu’a believed the dream was his destiny and that of his people, so he sent out seven scouts in canoes to find this place. When they found it they ate and rested and planted crops of yams, and other plants on the new island so that when they returned with their King and people they would have something ready to eat.
Landing at Anakena beach
Oral tradition states that Hotu Matu’a and his people landed at Anakena beach in double hulled canoes similar to what Polynesians use to this day. From there they colonised the rest of the island which eventually was to be divided between his sons who went on to head their own clans.
The hanau eepe and the hanau momoko
Rapa Nui mythology tells that once two different ethnic groups lived together on the island. One group or tribe of people was called the hanau eepe. This term has been mistranslated as meaning ‘long-ears’ when it actually means ‘stout’ or ‘stocky.’ However one of the traits of the hanau eepe was that they inserted pebbles into their ear lobes causing them to elongate overtime. The other group was the hanau momoko. They did not practise ear elongation and kept their ears short, mistakenly becoming known as the ‘short-ears,’ when the term really means slender or thin.
Some experts think that the hanau eepe may have had higher status and were better fed than the hanau momoko who they thought were the workers or lower classes of their society. Other experts argue that the hanau epee came from South America and were an entirely different ethnic group from the hanau momoko who were of Polynesian origin and there is no agreed consensus among by the experts on this at the moment, other than to disagree with each other.
In some versions of the mythology the hanau epee arrived after the people of Hotu Matu’a and tried to enslave them. It was the hanau eepe who brought the stone-carving skills to Rapa Nui. In other versions the hanau eepe were already on the island when Hot Matu’a arrived. In yet other versions they came with Hotu Matu’a and had been defeated by him in a conflict in Hiva and he had brought them with him to work the land. Whatever the case, conflict again erupted between the two people resulting with the slaughter of all but one of the hanau eepe. His life was spared and he was said to have took a wife and had many descendants.
In 1722, the Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 gave the island its European name of Easter Island because he discovered it on Easter Day. In his accounts of his encounters with the islanders he records that there are two distinct ethnic groups. One group easily recognised as of Polynesian origin and the other group of white appearance with elongated earlobes, some to such an extent that they could be tied behind necks. He also records that some of the islanders were of large stature and this was also noted by Spanish explorers in 1770 who measured some of the inhabitants to be 196-199 cm tall.
South America or Polynesia?
There are arguments among the experts as to the origins of the Rapa Nui people. Some theories give Polynesia as their origins whereas others, notably by Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian ethnographer, who argued for South America. He cited the similarity of some of the stonework found on the island to that found in South America and also the cultivation of sweet potatoes and other plants that originated in South America. This raises the question of how the sweet potato came to Rapa Nui and other Polynesian islands suggesting some contact between Polynesians and South Americans. Whether this was one-way or two-way cannot be determined but the possibilities exist.
The Sweet Potatoes mystery
Sweet potatoes originate in South America but are found on Rapa Nui as well as other Polynesian islands. There are theories that they were washed off the South American landmass by heavy storms and floated to the islands where they took root, grew and were eventually cultivated by Polynesians.
There are also those see this as evidence of contact between South America and Polynesian cultures. They argue that either South Americans reached Polynesian islands, possible drifting on rafts of balsa wood and driven by currents to Polynesian islands. Once there they either lacked the knowledge or capacity to return against the currents, or did indeed manage a return trip taking back with them parts of Polynesian culture. Or Polynesians did arrive in the Americas and with their better navigational and boat building skills were equipped to make return journeys bringing back parts of American culture with them. The Mapuche Indians of southern and central Chile appear to have possible connections with Polynesians.
Motu Motiro Hiva
Situated 390 km east-northeast of Easter Island and 3,210 km west of Chile is Isla Salas y Gomez. In the language of Rapa Nui it is known as Motu Motiro Hiva or Manu Motu Motiro Hiva, which means ‘Bird’s islet on the way to a far away land.’ From Rapa Nui it points the way to mainland South America. Hive was the legendary land from which Hotu Matu’a is said to have originated and the similarity in name stand out, but there are also several other Polynesian islands part named ‘Hiva’ means ‘far away land,’ especially in the Marquesas Islands so it is difficult to draw conclusions.
With the great movement of the Polynesian people from island to island it may be a name for a previous island home, though there are those who argue that it points to South America as their original home. Either way it is inconclusive. The island was certainly known to the Rapa Nui and it is believed they used to visit at regular intervals to harvest eggs from the great colonies of sea birds that use the island for breeding and nesting. The island is surrounded by steep cliffs and rocks and Rapa Nui tradition says that it was made this way by MakeMake to protect the sea-birds.
The cult of the moai
Author: Aurbina:- Moai at Rano Raraku, Easter Island
In its isolation over the centuries its people evolved a unique culture whose most visual manifestation is the huge stone statues called moai, that are found all around the island. Little is really known of their purpose or how they were made and moved into position by people who had only Stone-Age tools and implements at their disposal.
They are believed to have been representations of some of their most important forefathers and were part of a system of ancestor worship. Care needs to be taken with the word ‘worship’ as it does not necessarily mean the moai were revered as gods, or were deified.
In many forms of ancestor worship there was a symbiotic relationship between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. It was the task of the living to provide for the needs of the dead in the afterlife in the form of offerings. In return the dead looked after the needs of the living ensuring, health, good fortune and fertility of land to grow food.
Most of the Moai were situated with their backs to the spirit kingdom of the sea looking inland to the realm of the living looking over the villages where the people lived.
In Rapa Nui mythology MakeMake, or sometimes written as Makemake, or Make-Make was the creator of humanity, god of fertility and god of the ‘Tangata manu’ or bird-man cult. He was frequently depicted in petroglyphs found on Rapa Nui. Along with MakeMake there were three other gods associated with the bird-man cult. They were Hawa-tuu-take-take who was the ‘Chief of the eggs’ his wife Vie Hoa and Vie Kanatea.
Tangata manu and the cult of the bird-man
Despite all the effort put into the creation and situating of the Moai the culture was abandoned and most of the statues pulled down. There seems to have been some kind of civil war which swept aside the cult of ancestor worship to replace it with what is known as the cult of the bird-man, though Make-Make was still retained as the chief god of the cult. The cause of the conflict is believed to have been over the diminishing natural resources of the island.
The bird-man cult existed, though with lesser importance during the era of the ancestor worship. In essence the bird-man cult appears to have centred on an annual ritualistic competition which decided which clan would win the rights to harvest the island’s birds and their eggs and also who would be Tangata-Manu or bird-man for the year.
The contestants were the prophets of the clans, known as ivi-attuas, who would appoint an individual known as Hopu, who had been revealed to them in dreams to represent them and their clan by competing in the race to bring back the first egg.
Just off Rapa Nui there lies a small islet called Motu Nui that was home to a colony of Sooty terns. Starting from the sacred cliff-top village of Orongo, the hopu would have to climb down the cliffs to the sea, swim across dangerous shark infested waters to reach Motu Nui, and then scale the cliffs there to find the first egg and return it unbroken to again swimming the seas and climbing the cliffs to Orongo. The task was arduous and dangerous and some competitors were killed in the process. The ivi-attuas would await the return of the hopu in Orongo.
The hopu who found the first egg was allowed to rest on Motu Nui until he was physically and spiritually ready to carry the egg safetly back to Orongo. The other hopu returned to Orongo with news of the winner to their waiting patrons. The winning patron shaved his head and painted it either red, or white.
When the winning hopu returned bearing the egg he would hand it to his patron who would then be declared Tangata-Manu. With the egg in his hand he would lead a procession from Orongo to the place where he would spend a five month residence. This would be Anakena if he was a member of the western clans or Rano Raraku if he was from a clan from the east of the island.
When he arrived at his place of residence he became ‘tapu’, or sacred for the next five months of the year long term and grew his fingernails without cutting them for the term and wore a headdress made of human hair and received a new name. He was allowed special privileges as well as gifts of food and tributes. His clan was awarded the sole rights to harvest the birds and their eggs from Motu Nui for that season. He would then spend the rest of his term in seclusion in a special ceremonial residence.
Celebrating the past, present and future
After the arrival of Catholic missionaries in the 1860s the cult was suppressed and subsequently went into decline. Unfortunately the Rapanui were to suffer devastating raids by slave traders which decimated their population and contact with Europeans brought smallpox and other diseases which nearly wiped them out completely.
In this way many of their leaders and wise men perished and with then went most of the knowledge of the past.
But the Rapanui people are resourceful and resilient and their population has increased again to more healthy levels. We will probably never know the secrets of their past or of their origins and the answers to the mysteries of Rapa Nui.
Nevertheless, lets us celebrate the past of this truly wonderful island and its people while congratulating them on their present achievements and wish them the best – the very best, for the future.