South Sea Island Folktales: Sina and the Eel

Sina and the Eel

South Seas Myths

In many places in the South Seas there is a myth of origin of the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) and its nut.   It is a popular and well known tale in Oceania with many different variations found from region to region. Names and details vary from region to region but there is a similar structure and story-line in many of these tales.   It should be noted that in the folklore of the people of Samoa there is a legend they call “Sina ma le Tuna” which tells of the origin of the coconut tree and in the Samoan language, “Tuna,” means, “eel.” (1) Presented here are two versions of folktales that deal with this myth.  The first is from the island of Savai’I, Samoa and the second comes from American Samoa.  

The Savai’l Samoan Version

This folktale begins with a girl named Sina who was famous around the South Seas for her loveliness.  The King of Fiji, who was known as the Tui Fiti, heard of her beauty and was intrigued.  Although he was much older than Sina he decided he had to meet the beautiful one in person to see if all he had heard was true.  Calling on his Mana, which is his own personal magic, he transformed into an eel and swam to the island home of Sina.  Discovering the village pool was used by all the villagers as a communal bath he slithered into its waters hoping Sina would come to bathe.

Concealing himself at the bottom of the pool he waited patiently hoping she would enter the pool.  Many of the villagers came to the pool to bathe but he remained hidden knowing that these were not the beautiful one he sought. Eventually, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen or imagined entered the pool to bathe.  Immediately he knew it was her for such outstanding loveliness could only belong to the famous Sina, the beautiful one, he sought.   He lay at the bottom of the pool staring up through the water at her lovely face.

Eventually, Sina felt a peculiar sensation and noticed the eel staring at her.  Taken by surprise she became angry, shouting in Samoan, “E pupula mai, ou mata o le alelo!” which means, “You stare at me, with eyes like a demon!” (2). However, after the initial alarm Sina noticed the eel did not look dangerous or aggressive.  In fact it actually seemed very nice and friendly so she took it home for a pet.

Many years passed and the King of Fiji lived happily as Sina’s pet enjoying the love and attention she unknowingly lavished on him as an eel.  Nevertheless, the king was growing older and with age his magic weakened and he found it harder to keep his eel form.  Therefore, he decided that it was time to reveal his true identity and explain himself to her. 

He told her how he was the Tui Fiti, the King of Fiji, who had heard of her great beauty and come to see it for himself.  To make the long sea journey from Fiji to Sina’s island home he had transformed himself into an eel so that he could swim the great distance. In this way he could wait in the pool until she arrived and he could see her.  Once he had seen her he fell in love. 

Realizing he was too old and she would rightly reject him he had kept his eel form so that she would not recognize him as an old man.   He had been overjoyed when she had taken him as a pet because he would remain always near her and enjoy her love and care.  Sadly, because of his great age, his magic had grown weak and he could not keep his eel form much longer and would die.  Therefore, he wished for her to plant his head into the ground near her home. Sina had loved him greatly as her pet and was heartbroken when he died and granted his wish.

From his head there grew the first coconut tree.  On a coconut there are three round marks which look like two eyes and a mouth.   When the coconut is pierced to drink the milk through one of these holes the milk is taken through the pierced hole through the drinker’s mouth.  According to the legend, whenever Sina took a drink of coconut milk from a coconut she was kissing the mouth of the eel.

In Samoa in the village of Matavai, in the district of Safune on the island of Savai’i,is a fresh spring pool. This pool is called, Mata o le Alelo, from the words that Sina first spoke to the eel and is still strongly associated with the legend.

An American Samoan Version

Another version from American Samoa tells how the King of Fiji, heard heard of the beauty of Sina and decided he wanted her for his wife.  However, she lived on a distant island so using his magical power he transformed himself into a young eel and swam all the way from Fiji to Sina’s island home (3).

One day as she was out foraging for shellfish along the seashore she noticed the young eel looking at her from a rock pool.  She thought it looked harmless and had a friendly face and being quite small would make a nice pet.  Therefore, she caught it and put it in the container she used for her shellfish and took it home.

She kept it in a bowl in her home and carefully nurtured it and it became very placid and affectionate towards her.  Under her care it soon grew too big for the bowl so she placed it in a spring near her home.  However, the eel soon grew too big for the spring and she did not know what to do with it.  She asked her mother who suggested she put it in the large freshwater spring the villagers used as a communal bath.  Sina thought this a good idea as the large pool would give the eel space to grow and be free so she placed it in the pool and it hid its self at the bottom.

All the villagers used the pool to bathe but none of them ever seemed to notice the eel. It would come out of hiding to greet Sina as soon as she stepped into the water.   It grew very long and big but was always very affectionate towards her and very playful with her yet no one seemed to notice its presence.  One day the eel became too boisterous and playfully wrapped itself around Sina in a loving embrace.  This frightened her and after that she would not bathe in the communal pool.

From then on she bathed in the small spring near her home.  This was fine at first but somehow the eel found out where she was bathing and appeared in the water as she bathed.   Still no one else could see the eel and its behaviour alarmed her and began to make her angry and frightened.  

Determined to escape the eel, one morning just before dawn, while her family still slept, she quietly left her home to walk to the next village.  It was good distance and she would stop at a spring along the way for a refreshing drink and to cool down and rest.  To her dismay at every spring she stopped at the eel would appear staring out of the water at her.   This terrified her and she continued journeying from village to village trying to escape the eel.  Each time she stopped at the springs along the way it would appear.  Where ever she went the eel appeared and it was growing longer and longer and to her fear and bewilderment, no one else could see it.  

There came a time when it left a pool she had found it in and wriggled onto the land and followed on behind her like pet dog.  Wherever she went it followed her and still no one else could see it.   On her wanderings she came across a group of people having a meeting.  In desperation she ran and sat between the two lead speakers. 

This surprised everyone but the eel had now grown as long as a person. Now everyone could see and hear it and all sat terrified at the strange creature.  It slid through the crowd to rest before where Sina was sitting between the two speakers.   Raising itself up to look her in her eyes the eel said,

“Sina, my beautiful one, please forgive me!   Know now that my true shape is that of a human.  I am the King of Fiji.  I have used my magic to attain this eel form you see me in now.  I took this form when I first heard of your beauty and grace that I might swim the great distance from Fiji to your home on this island to see you for myself.

My intention was to woo you and win your love but I now see that the form I took frightened you and I am sorry.  After so much traveling and keeping this form my magic and power is all used up.  I am tired and my death draws near. Before I die I wanted to explain these things to you hoping you would think better of me. 

In compensation for alarming you I have a valuable gift to offer you.  When I die cut off my head and plant it outside your home.  It will soon grow into a tree that will be of great value to you and your people.  It will have long green leaves that can be used as a fan to cool you in the summer’s heat.  

These leaves will also provide good covering for the roofs of your homes.  The leaves, bark and wood you will find will have many uses that will be of great service to people.  It will also bear a nut that gives food and a nourishing drink.   The nut will have three marks that resemble human features.  To drink from the nut puncture one of these holes and you will pour its milk from its mouth!”

With that it died.  Sina felt sorrry for the King of Fiji and thought perhaps if she had known the full story in the first place things might have turned out differently.  She did as he had asked and planted his head.  As he had foretold a tree grew from it bearing long green leaves and a large nut.  The tree and the nut proved to be extremely useful to humans and became an important part of their lives.  It spread beyond Sina’s isle to neighboring islands and beyond often carried by humans and some times carried by the sea.  The same tradition of kissing the eel when drinking from the coconut applies to this legend as well.

© 21/07/2021 zteve t evans

FURTHER PUBLICATIONS BY ZTEVE T EVANS

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 21st, 2021 zteve t evans

Celtic Lore: Exploring the Otherworld

Image by Varun Maharaj from Pixabay

This article was first published on #FolkoreThursday.com under the title, Exploring the Otherworld of the Celts, on 18 March, 20211, written by zteve t evans.

The concept of a magical, mysterious, “Otherworld” has been a common component in many myths and legends of diverse human cultures all around the world throughout history. The ancient Celtic people also had their own ideas of this enigmatic and ethereal region. Their territories included Ireland, the United Kingdom and a swathe of continental Europe, including areas of the Iberian Peninsula and Anatolia. As such there were variations in philosophies concerning this world and the next from region to region.  Presented here is a brief exploration of their idea of the Otherworld and how it appears in different Celtic regions.

Celtic Mythology

The Celtic Otherworld is sometimes presented as the realm where their deities lived, or the place of their dead and sometimes both. Other stories tell of a magical paradise where people enjoyed eternal youth, good health and beauty, living in joy and abundance with all their needs satisfied. It could also be the abode of the fairies, Twylyth Teg, Aos Sí and many other similar magical entities.

Entry to the Otherworld

The Otherworld is usually hidden and difficult to find but certain worthy people manage to reach it through their own efforts. Others may be invited, or escorted by one of its dwellers, or given signs to follow. Sometimes entry is gained through ancient burial mounds or by crossing over, or under, water, such as a river, pool or the sea. There are also special places such as certain lakes, bogs, caves, burial mounds or hills where access to and from the Otherworld can be gained. Another idea is that the Otherworld exists in a different dimension alongside the earthly one as a kind of mirror-world. At certain times of the year, such as Samhain and Beltane, the veil that separates the two grows thin, or withdraws, making entry and exit easier.

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ANANSI TALES: CRYING FOR NOTHING!

Anansi the Spider

AFRICAN FOLKTALES

Presented here is a retelling of an Anansi tale found in West African Folktales by William H. Barker and Cecilia Sinclair. Anansi the spider is a trickster who has many roles in the folklore and traditions of West Africa, Jamaica and throughout the African diaspora. He features in many roles in many tales sometimes as a hero bringing knowledge and benefits to humans or as a villain. Anansi tales explore human nature and very often by contrasting his behaviour with that of other characters or situations in the story important lessons are found as is the case in the following story.

ANANSI AND NOTHING

Anansi lived in a rundown shack and his nearest neighbor was someone called Nothing who was exceedingly rich and lived in a grand and luxurious palace. One day Anansi and Nothing decided to go into town with the purpose of both finding a wife.  They set off and as they were walking along Anansi became aware of the great contrast in their appearances that revealed their financial status for all to see.  Whereas he was dressed in ragged old cotton clothing, Nothing was smartly attired in fine velvet and satin.  Anansi was dismayed.  He knew there would be competition between the two and women would want to be the wife of the smart and affluent Nothing instead of himself.

After carefully considering the situation he came up with a plan. Nothing liked to be flattered so he told him how smart he thought he looked today.  As he expected Nothing was pleased and very flattered. Anansi then gently and very politely asked Nothing,  if he may try on his clothing to see what it was like to wear such fine apparel.  He promised he would give it back before they reached town.

Again Nothing felt flattered and allowed Anansi to wear his clothes on the condition that they put on their own clothes before they entered town.  When they reached the outskirts of town Nothing reminded Anansi of his promise.  Anansi made many excuses on false pretexts not to change clothing and refused to comply.  All of  Nothing’s pleas fell on deaf ears so he had to continue wearing Anansi’s old cotton rags, much to his displeasure and ire.

ATTRACTING A WIFE

At last they arrived in the town center where it was the custom for people to gathee to show off their finest clothes and parade up and down hoping to attract a spouse.  Anansi, wearing Nothing’s fine clothing of velvet and satin soon came to the attention of the women.  They flocked around him and he had the pick of the best.  He was greatly admired and could have had as many wives as he wished but he chose just one knowing he would somehow have to support her.

In comparison, Nothing dressed in Anansi’s old cotton rags was being ignored and worse still the subject of much derision by the women.  Eventually, one woman saw more to him than his clothes and offered to become his wife.  All the other women laughed and taunted her for wanting to be the wife of such an impoverished and raggedly man as Nothing appeared to be.  However she was a woman who knew her own mind and very wisely ignored them.

Anansi chose the most beautiful woman of the many who flocked around him, making the others madly jealous. With the matter of marriage now decided, Anansi and Nothing accompanied by their respective wives, went home.  However, when they reached the point where the road split into two paths which led to their new husband’s homes the two wives were in for a surprise.

ARRIVING HOME

When Nothing reached the path to his grand house all the servants ran out to greet him and his new wife.  All around the house the servants had decorated it in bright colors and inside had prepared a lavish wedding feast for the couple to enjoy.  Nothing’s new wife was happily surprised as they dressed her and her husband in fine clothing and escorted them singing and dancing along the path into the house. Anansi, to the shock of his new wife, led her up his path which was but dirt and ashes to his tumbledown shack. There was no one to greet these two newlyweds, no food, no decorations and no servants singing happy songs.

Nothing’s wife was well rewarded for her perceptiveness and judgement.  Instead of being the wife of a pauper she was the wife of the richest man in the entire district.  She lived in a grand and luxurious house, ate the best food, wore the finest clothes and lived like a queen. In comparison, the wife of Anansi lived in a tumbledown hovel. She was forced to eat the cheapest food and had to wear old cotton rags for clothes.  

Nothing’s wife was a generous and compassionate woman. Despite having been subject to taunts and derision by her initial decision to marry the seemingly poor Nothing, she invited Anansi’s wife to visit her.  Not because she wanted to get her own back or gloat but because she was kind and generous and wanted to help her. 

When she arrived she was very impressed by the luxury and good life Nothing’s wife lived.  Furthermore, she saw how wrong she had been to judge a person by the cut and splendor of their clothes.  She begged Nothing’s wife for her forgiveness and told her of her miserable impoverished existence with Anansi.  Nothing’s wife told her she was welcome to stay in her home if she did not want to go back to Anansi.

REVENGE

When his wife did not return and he discovered why Anansi was very angry.  He blamed Nothing and decided he would take revenge by murdering him.  He tried several times but without success but then hit on a plan.  He persuaded some rat friends of his to dig a deep tunnel just before Nothing’s front door.  After they had dug the hole he lined it with knives, spikes and broken glass and finally smeared oil upon the front step to make it very slippery.  Then he hid himself in the garden and waited until it grew dark and those in the house had gone to bed.  Softly he called through the window for Nothing to come out into the garden to see what was there.  

On hearing a voice in the night Nothing got up to investigate but his wife, using her good sense and judgement dissuaded him from going outside.  This was repeated for several nights running with his wife stopping him going outside each time.  Eventually, he grew angry with the voice when it called again and would not listen to his wife.   Angrily, he marched out the front to confront the voice but as he stepped out he slipped and the ground fell away below him and he tumbled into the trap Anansi had set.   

His wife and servants heard him cry out and rushed to the front door but his wife stopped the servants from rushing out.   Carefully opening the door and looking this way and that she found him dead in the hole pierced by many spikes and knives and cut by broken glass.

CRYING FOR NOTHING

His wife was heart-broken by his death and grieved greatly.  In the hope of alleviating her grief, she followed the local tradition of cooking and sharing yams. She took them around to each of her neighbors and especially the children so that they might help her to cry out her grief.  This is why when you ask why a child is crying you will often be told, “They are crying for Nothing!”

© 18/06/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 17th 2021 zteve t evans

Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world.  Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America.   The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal.  Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights.   These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten.  For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green.  Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted.  Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.

Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless.  When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster.  It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats.  According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros.  These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish.  It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.

Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness.  If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness.  If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death.  One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore.  This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also  known as the “Fire Rooster”.    It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture.   According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.

They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements.   The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped.  If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it.  The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name.  The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room.   They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist.   It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger.  This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.

The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero.  All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable. The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout.  The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king.  On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess.  On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire.  In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form.  It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull.  The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region.   When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land.   It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses.  However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk.  Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.

The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator.  Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep.  Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa.   They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.  Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by.   Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe.   Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well. 

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun.  She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib.   Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.

Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf.   He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves.  The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

Northumberland Folklore: Close Encounters With The Hedley Kow

The Hedley Kow – zteve t evans

The Hedley Kow was a troublesome, shape-shifting, trickster sprite or spirit that made mischief around the area of Hedley-on-the-Hill, Northumberland.  More mischievous than dangerous, it had the ability to turn itself into any animal or item. It delighted in using this talent to play tricks on unsuspecting local people before revealing its true self and vanishing with a resounding peal of mocking laughter (1). Several tales tell of its antics and pranks on local people which result in the victim becoming  bewildered or embarrassed.  Presented here are a few examples of such encounters followed by a tale of an irrepressible old lady whose attitude is a lesson to us all. 

The Dancing Kow

In one tale an old woman went out collecting firewood.  As she was searching she came across a long dry stick she considered perfect for kindling a good fire.  She picked it up and placed it into her basket and continued her search.  As she searched she noticed her basket was getting heavier and heavier and she dropped it spilling the sticks on the ground.  

To her surprise the stick she had considered perfect suddenly jumped in the air turning into a large gangly cow. She was even more shocked when it started jigging up and down and swaying from side to side as if it was performing an old-fashioned country dance.  It continued to caper up and down and then let out a loud braying laugh as it jigged down the road and out of sight leaving only the mocking echo of its laughter.

Tricked by the Kow

Another  tale tells how two young men dressed in their Sunday best clothes intending  to meet up with their girlfriends by the River Derwent.   The young men set off full of anticipation and excitement of what the liaison might bring.  On reaching the river bank they saw their girlfriends ahead walking arm in arm in the opposite direction.  They shouted several times trying to attract their attention but the girls did not seem to hear them and carried on walking.  

Therefore the young men set off after them and being young and fit expected to catch up with them easily.  However, the faster they walked and the harder they tried the more they failed.  The girls just continued strolling along unhurriedly but the distance between them did not diminish and they stayed ahead.

This state of affairs continued for sometime but suddenly the two lads found themselves in a bog and up to their knees in mud.  As they looked towards the girls they saw their forms slowly dissipate into a wispy mist as a deep mocking laugh echoed back at them.   Realizing that they had been tricked by the Kow they scrambled from the bog and ran home with the Kow in close pursuit taunting and mocking them all the way.   Once safe inside they told their families of the unnerving experience of their encounter with the Hedley Kow. 

Tricks of the Kow

Despite its mischievousness the Kow appeared to possess a degree of compassion.  It was never known to trouble people experiencing great sadness or mourning for loss of loved ones.  Nevertheless, for unknown reasons it would sometimes make trouble at births.  This might take the form of knocking on the door of the  residence where a birth was taking place and disappearing when someone opened the door only to be greeted by mocking laughter.   Other times it would  frighten the horse of servants of the attending midwife whom she might send on errands.

It was also known to mimic voices to sound like someone known to its victim.  Tales tell how it could impersonate the voices of the servant girl’s lovers or change into a replica of him to appear at their windows.   Sometimes it would mimic the voice of their employers, shouting down corridors for their attendance only for them to find they had been tricked (2).

The Hedley Kow

The following is a retelling of a story collected by Joseph Jacobs in “More English Fairy Tales.”  It tells of an encounter with the Kow by an irrepressible old lady who made a sparse living doing cleaning, cooking and washing chores around the village.  She was poor and was often paid by being given a good meal and a cup of tea or just a few pennies so she never had much money.  Nevertheless, she was always of good cheer and always looked on the bright side.  Her demeanor was of someone who had not a care in the world despite her poverty.

Walking home one summer evening after completing all her chores for the day she found a large black pot sitting in the middle of the road.   Surprised at the find she looked at it closely wondering who ever could have left it so carelessly in the middle of the road like that.  Despite looking all around she could see no one else and it just seemed to have been left there. She thought it was just the thing for her to put a few flowers in from her small garden in so she decided to take it home.   Bending her aching back she lifted the lid and looked inside and to her complete astonishment saw inside it was full to the top with gold coins.

“Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!”  she said to herself over and over again as she walked around it wondering what to do.  It was too heavy for her to lift and the only thing she could think of was to wrap her shawl around it and drag it along the road. She did this and made considerable progress homewards all the time saying to herself, “Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!” 

She noticed it was getting dark, but rather than let it disturb her she thought it would stop people seeing her treasure and lessen the risk of theft.  She kept thinking to herself how grand she felt and thought upon ways of spending the gold.  She fancied, a big house, new clothes and she would sit by the warm fire drinking tea all day, never again go hungry and live like a queen.  She thought perhaps she would give the gold to the local priest to look after and he could give her a little at a time to spend when she needed it.  Alternatively,  she thought she might bury some in the garden and hide some up the chimney and about the house.  

All this time she was dragging the heavy pot full of gold along  and she grew very tired and her back began to ache.   She stopped and rested but could not resist the temptation to lift the lid to look at the gold.  To her astonishment it had turned into a great lump of pure shining silver, although earlier, she swore it had been full of gold coins worth a fortune.  

Now, silver being worth less than gold you might think she would be upset, but not a bit of it.  She reckoned that when she started to buy things using gold coins word would get round and she would become a target for thieves.  “Never mind, I shall be better off and safer and still very rich so what does it matter?” she said happily.

Once again she started on her way dragging the pot behind all the time planning on how she would spend the money and live an easy life.   After a while her back began to ache and  she began to tire so she stopped to have a little rest.  Looking back at the pot she was astounded to see that it had turned into a large lump of iron and worth much less than the silver.  Now you expect her to be very disappointed but she simply shrugged and said,  “Never mind, at least it will be easier to sell and it will still be worth a fair piece and I won’t have to fret about robbers breaking in to steal my fortune! It is still worth more than enough to ease my old age so I am still very lucky!”

Once again she began dragging the lump of iron along the road home until once again her back began to ache and she grew tired.  She stopped and looked back but to her astonishment instead of the lump of iron she saw it had turned into a large stone.

She stood staring at and said, “Well I never and who would have thought such things possible!  It must have realized I have a great need for a good stone to prop open my door in the summer.  Well now isn’t that the most amazing luck!  I am so lucky to have such good luck!”

Happily  she continued on her way excitedly imagining how the stone would look with her front door propped open by it.   At last reaching her front gate and quickly lifted the latch and hauled the stone up to her front door.  

Turning around she bent to unwrap her shawl.  The stone sat on the path and there was still enough light for to see it plainly.  As she unfastened her shawl from around it she had a shock.  For a second or two the stone, free of the shawl, sat still and peacefully on the path as you would expect it to. Suddenly it sprang in the air and from it sprouted four long legs, a long neck beset by the head of a cow with horns, two long ears and behind grew a long tail. It was the most ungainly looking creature she had ever seen.  It pranced around her two or three times while laughing mockingly at her before dashing off back down the lane.

The old lady stared in disbelief as it ran off.  Now you might think after all the disappointments she had experienced she would be very upset. Not a bit of it!  She just shook her head and said, “Bless me but I am the lucky one!  I have just seen the Hedley Kow and all by myself.  Not many people in the whole wide world can say that.  Why, I feel special and grand and I think I need a cup of tea to think things over and celebrate!” (4)

Positivity

If that old lady was alive today she would probably be a world famous guru on the art of positivity with her own YouTube channel and a following of millions!

© 27/01/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 27th, 2021 zteve t evans

Psychopomps in Breton Myths and Folktales: Entering the Afterlife

Breton Folklore

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

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

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

Psychopomps

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

The Ankou

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

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

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

Nola and  Gwennolaïk

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

Strange Dreams

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

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

The Stepmother

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

The Fair Knight

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

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

Disappointment

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

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

Marriage

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

Fever

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

Nola Returns

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

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

A Magical Journey

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

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

Folkloric Motifs

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

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

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

Nola as a Psychopomp

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

Guiding the Soul to the Afterlife

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

© 19/11/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 19th, 2020 zteve t evans

English Folklore: The Werewolf of Longdendale

Werewolf – Copyright 28/20/2020 zteve t evans

Longdendale

Presented here is a retelling of an old folktale collected by Thomas C. Middleton and published in his book “Legends of Longdendale.”  The story centers around Longdendale, a long valley in the Peak District, Derbyshire and is set in the time of King Henry II, after he had bestowed the monks of Basingwerke Abbey in Wales the nearby town of Glossop.  Longendale is situated just north of Glossop.  In earlier times it was part of the Royal Forest of the Peak and home to wolves, boar, deer and smaller animals.

The Abbots Chair

The tale begins at a place called the Abbot’s Chair, which originally was a large stone cross situated on a highway known as the Monk’s Road.  All that can be seen today is the stone socket which held the cross.  According to this tale the Abbot of Basingwerke Abbey held court and received the rents and tithes of his tenants in the area while sitting on the stone.  He also heard the petitions and grievances of the people of his estates and other such administration.

A Tale of Woe

On one such occasion there came to him an old widow full of misery and woe shedding bitter tears. Tearfully, she told the Abbot that she lived in fear of a very powerful witch who was skilled in the black arts and sorcery.  This evil witch had caused the death of her husband and all of her children and was now seeking to murder her.  The widow told him she was all alone in the world and had no one she could go to for help  and shelter.  Furthermore, her enemy was a cunning shape-shifter who could change her physical appearance into that of any animal or bird to commit crimes and escape capture and punishment.  She could also change herself to resemble any man, woman or child she desired that may suit her own evil purposes.

The Abbot’s Curse

The Abbot being a good and kindly man was outraged at the plight of the old widow and very angry with the witch.  He distributed bread and alms to her to ease her poverty and then laid a terrible curse upon the wicked old witch who persecuted her, 

“The eye of God that sees all shall see this wicked woman in whatever form she may be wearing here and now.  From this moment on she will remain in that form never being able to revert to human or other form until the time justice is done and she has paid for her sins!”

He declared that he foresaw the wrath of heaven falling upon the old witch and foretold she would face a cruel death shortly.

The Royal Hunt

On that very morning at that exact time the witch had transformed into a werewolf and was out in the forest seeking victims.   Moreover, King Henry II was visiting the Baron of Ashton-under-Lyne accompanied by his son, Prince Henry.  These three along with the Baron of Aston, the Lord of Longdendale and other nobles and dignitaries were out hunting in the Royal Forest. 

It was the practice of the Royal hunting party to hunt every corner and every nook and cranny of the forest.  Beaters were sent into the densest parts of the forest to drive the game into the paths of the hunters.  They were unaware of the alleged crimes of the witch and were not seeking her  but this practice increased the chances of her being driven before them.

Her shape-shifting abilities had allowed her in the past to simply transform into human form and send pursuers on a wild goose chase looking for her. Other times she would transform into a bird and fly away. 

And so as the Abbot was uttering his curse the Royal Hunt was out in the forest.  The star of the day was the Lord of Longdendale who slew an exceedingly large and ferocious wild boar after it had given a fierce battle.

Werewolf Attack

The young Prince Henry desperately wanted to match the feat of the Lord of Longdendale to prove his own valor.  He went off alone and sought out the wildest and remotest part of the forest hoping to find some worthy test of his courage and skill.  As he was roaming through the forest he was suddenly attacked by the werewolf and was almost killed.  Fortunately his trusty steed sensed the impending attack and veered sharply to the right as the werewolf sprang.  This allowed Prince Henry to push away the attacker and with his spear deliver a wound in its side.  He thrust hard, blood spurted and the beast wailed a savage but almost human cry.  In its desperation it managed to seize the spear and bite the weapon in two with its great jaws.  The prince quickly drew his long hunting knife to defend himself as best he could.

With the beast uttering unearthly but almost human-like cries it grasped his legs trying to pull him from his horse.  Quickly Henry stabbed the beast in its shoulder but in its frenzy it succeeded in dragging him to the ground.  

With his knife stuck in his foe’s shoulder Henry managed to grasp the beast around the throat.  Although he fought hard and bravely he could feel his own strength ebbing as he wrestled cheek to jowl with the attacker.  

He thought it was his end but as he was slipping into death the Baron of Ashton, who had heard the commotion arrived.  Seeing the dire peril of the king’s son he immediately sprang to his aid and engaged the werewolf in a deadly fight that was long and vicious. Finally, he managed to deliver a killing blow to its skull.  

The Baron of Ashton received great praise and honor not just from Henry but from the king and the rest of the Royal hunting party when they caught up. The body of the slain beast was given as a trophy to the baron who returned with it to his castle.  As the beast was being prepared for exhibition it was cut open and the heads of three babies that it had eaten earlier were found in its stomach.

This again caused much talk about the ferocity and evil nature of the beast.  Prince Henry emphasized again and again it’s savagery and the wild human-like cries it had uttered as it had attacked him.  

The Forester’s Testimony

On hearing the news of the slaying of this savage beast a forester stepped forward to give a most strange testimony to the lord’s and ladies saying, 

“If it may please my lords I have something to say that may be of interest to you concerning this strange and wild beast.As one of his Royal Foresters it was my duty to seek out and put a stop to those who dare to poach my king’s game.Having concealed myself in thick bushes I lay quietly in wait  hoping to catch a certain poacher in the act.  As I lay waiting I was startled by strange and ghoulish wailing.  On creeping through the forest to its source I was astounded to see a werewolf tearing and clawing at its very own skin.  It was as if it desired to shed it quickly such as a person would undress themselves.It’s cries were both hideous and pitiful and I thought it sounded like a twisted version of an old woman’s voice.  Human or other, it was a cracked and hideous cry that it uttered. I am afraid that on seeing and hearing this my courage failed.  I fled as fast and as far as I could from the frightful thing before its attention should fall upon myself.”

Then one by one other witnesses appeared who bore similar testimony concerning the beast.

The Abbot

That same evening a banquet was held in the hall of the Baron with the king, prince and the rest of the Royal hunting party in attendance.  Also invited was the good Abbot of Basingwerke Abbey  who was informed of the strange events of the day and inspected the body of the slain beast.   The Abbot had absolute faith that the werewolf was the wicked witch he had cursed earlier and evidence was brought that showed this to be true and she was never seen again.   The good Abbot took the old widow under his protection and from then on she lived the rest of her life in safety and comfort.

© 28/10/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright 28, October, 2020 zteve t evans

Giant Tales: The Making of the Wrekin

The Wrekin, Shropshire – Public Domain

The Wrekin 

In Shropshire, England, is a large hill called the Wrekin. It is about 407 metres (1,335 feet) high situated about five miles west of Telford. It is an impressive landmark visible from miles around, including  Cleeve Hill, Gloucestershire, Staffordshire and the Black Country and even Beetham Tower, Manchester, and Winter Hill, Lancashire.  Probably because of its prominence a number of myths, legends and folklore traditions are associated with it.  Here we look at two different folktales that tell how it was by giants and there are several versions some may differ in detail.  The first concerns a Welsh giant who sought revenge against the people of the town of Shrewsbury.  The second tells how the hill and nearby River Severn were created by two exiled giants working to build themselves a new home.  

 Gwendol Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynyddmawr 

Long ago in the land of Wales there lived a giant by the name of Gwendol Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynyddmawr.  For many years he had demanded tribute from the town of Shrewsbury which was paid in the form of young maidens which he ate.  On one occasion one of the maidens managed to escape and return home to Shrewsbury and told the people of the fate of the maidens they sent the giant.  The people were outraged and refused to send anymore.

In revenge the giant decided he would drown them all by blocking the flow of the River Severn which ran through the town.  To achieve this he took his giant spade and pushed it into the ground collecting a great wad of earth which he intended to drop into the river to block its flow and flood Shrewsbury.  

It so happened that he was not the brightest of giants and did not have a  clear idea of the location of the river and town.   Nevertheless, he set off carrying his spade holding the wad of earth intending to carry out his plan.  He seemed to have lost his way and somehow missed Shrewsbury.  Eventually he grew very tired and as he approached the town of Wellington he met a cobbler returning to his home after visiting Shrewsbury market for trade.  The cobbler was carrying a large sack of assorted footwear that people had commissioned him to repair.  The giant asked the cobbler the way to Shrewsbury revealing his plan to block the river with the earth on his spade and drown the town and its people.   The cobbler was aghast at the idea but feared upsetting the giant so he quickly came up with a clever ruse telling him, 

“Well, actually Shrewsbury is miles and miles away as is the River Severn.  See this sack, it is full of shoes that I have worn out walking from Shrewsbury to this very spot and it has taken days and days to get here.”

The giant looked at the sack and saw how full it was and he was greatly  dismayed at the thought of walking such a great distance.  Feeling tired and disillusioned he dumped the great spadeful of earth on the ground there and then and in later years it became known as the Wrekin.  Scraping the mud off his boots with his spade he created a smaller heap of earth which became known as Ercall Hill and wearily made his way home.   What became of him after that this tale does not tell.

The Quarreling Giants

The second myth of origin tells how the Wrekin was formed by two giants who had been exiled from their own land and needed somewhere to live.  They decided to build a huge hill big enough for them both to live in.  To begin with they worked hard and quickly created a huge mound of earth.  They dug out a long and winding ditch which filled with water and became the River Severn.  The earth from the ditch they piled up high to create a huge mound which became known as the Wrekin.

However, the giants began to quarrel with one another possibly over the use of their only spade. One picked it up and struck the other who fought back with his bare hands.  As they were fighting a raven flew by and taking the side of the unarmed giant attacked the one who wielded the spade pecking at his eyes. This caused the armed giant’s eyes to water.  A tear fell into a small cleft in the rock which became known as the Raven’s Bowl, or the Cuckoo’s Cup.   It is said to hold water even in the hottest weather.

With the help of the raven the unarmed giant won the fight and imprisoned the other in a nearby hill he built for the purpose which is called Ercall Hill today.  The prisoner is said to be still there today and can be heard at times groaning in the night.

Folklore and Tradition

Another tradition tells how the victor hurled a blow spade at his enemy, missing him but hitting a rock making a narrow split which became known as the Needle’s Eye.  All true Salopians – that is someone born in Shropshire – are said to have climbed through the needle.  Girls who do this are advised to never look back because they will never marry if they do.

© 21/10/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 21st, 2020 zteve t evans 

Zoophyte Folklore: The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb – Source

History of Cotton

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was  a very strange idea that sprang up in the middle ages to explain the origin of cotton.  People have used cotton since ancient times and it was  thought to have been first cultivated in the Indus delta and later spread from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Nubia.  In the 1st century Arab traders introduced it to Spain and Italy eventually reaching northern Europe during the medieval period becoming  a popular and valuable commodity.

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

During the Middle Ages the world outside Europe was relatively unknown to most Europeans.  The few intrepid explorers who did travel through unknown regions brought back mysterious and outlandish tales.  They told of exotic countries and strange things beyond the experience and imagination of most Europeans.  Fantastic claims were made that could not be verified by ordinary people as to what they had encountered and were generally believed because no one could effectively disprove  them.  

Their reports had a lasting influence on European societies.  One of the strangest stories that was brought back told of the existence of animals that had similar characteristics to plants, and vice-versa called zoophytes. There were several kinds and were claimed to exist in far and remote parts of the world.  One of the most famous of these was known as the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, sometimes known as the Lamb Tree, or  the Borametz and as well as other names.

Sir John Mandeville

One of these early travelers was known as Sir John Mandeville.  He is credited with writing a journal of his travels called,  “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville,” which was being circulated from 1357-71.  The actual identity of Sir John Mandeville is open to debate.  He claimed to be  a knight from St. Albans in England but this is disputed by some historians today. According to his book, Mandeville traveled through many remote and unknown regions seeing many new and incredible places, animals, plants, birds and people previously unheard of in Europe.

His memoirs were very popular and translated into every European language and were believed to have influenced Christopher Columbus.  Among many strange things he reports was  the existence of the Vegetable Lamb as the source of the fluffy pods that were processed to make cotton.  Cotton had begun to reach northern Europe where there was little knowledge of how it was derived.  

Earlier Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BC), the 5th century Greek historian, had written in Book III of his Histories that in India there was a plant, assumed to be a  tree and not a shrub, that grew in the wild and produced wool.  Because unprocessed cotton resembles wool it was believed to have been obtained from a hybrid plant-sheep type of zoophyte and Mandeville’s  account backed up Herodotus.

Source

Zoophytes

Zoophytes are animals that closely resemble plants such as a sea anemone. The term “zoophyte” is not often used in science today but during the Middle Ages it was in popular usage.  It was not until the 17th century that the term began to be refuted. 

During medieval times and the later renaissance era many weird types of zoophytes were widely accepted.  For example the mandrake root was shaped like a human and was said to be able to run away from people.  Another weird example was the barnacle goose tree. This was supposedly a combination of a tree and a crustacean that produced barnacles each of which had baby geese growing inside of them.   

The Vegetable Lamb was supposed to be a type of these zoophytes, essentially a lamb growing from a plant either through a pod or being connected to the ground by a stem from its navel.  It was believed to have originated in Tartary which was a great region of Europe and Central Asia.  The Tartar word for “lamb” was “Borametz,” which explains one of its alternative names.

Henry Lee

As well as Mandeville other medieval writers and travelers wrote about the Vegetable Lamb.  In some texts it was described as a plant that produced pods that had unborn lambs inside. One of the more questioning of these writers was Henry Lee, a naturalist and author.   He  became sceptical while researching for other books he was writing and began delving into this bizarre notion.  He wrote another book called, “The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant.”  In his book he gives a typical description of the day of this weird, fantastical being,

“the fruit of a tree which sprang from a seed like that of a melon, or gourd; and when the fruit or seed-pod of this tree was fully ripe it burst open and disclosed to view within it a little lamb, perfect in form, and in every way resembling an ordinary lamb naturally born… (1)

He provides other versions of the myth describing how the lamb  were attached to the plant by a stem from their navel.  The stem was flexible enough to allow the lamb to graze in a circle around the main plant while still remaining tethered to it.   When all of the grass was eaten or if the stem was broken the lamb would die,   

Source

“a living lamb attached by its navel to a short stem rooted in the earth. The stem, or stalk, on which the lamb was thus suspended above the ground was sufficiently flexible to allow the animal to bend downward, and browse on the herbage within its reach. When all the grass within the length of its tether had been consumed the stem withered and the lamb died. This plant-lamb was reported to have bones, blood, and delicate flesh, and to be a favorite food of wolves” (2)

Lee was not convinced.  Nevertheless, despite his doubts the existence of the Vegetable Lamb was widely accepted by others up until the 17th century.  The main arguments raged not over its existence, which was not widely doubted, but over the tricky question of whether it was a plant or an animal. 

Vegetable Wool

In his research Lee looked to Scythia, an area  that covered many other regions of Europe and Asia.  He looked specifically at the region bordering India, an area Alexander the Great had conquered in the 4th century.   One of Alexander’s officers named Nearchus had reported that they had found the local people wore “vegetable wool”.  He reported, 

 “Garments the material of which was whiter than any other … made of the wool like that of lambs, which grew in tufts and bunches upon trees,”

This was probably the product we know of as cotton wool but this term can be used for two different products.   The first term describes it in its unprocessed state the second is where it has been subject to increased processing especially to help increase absorbancy.  In fact, the term “cotton wool” is an anomaly with cotton coming from a plant and wool coming from sheep or other animals.

Banishing the Myth

In medieval northern Europe it was being imported  unprocessed  but people had no idea of its origin or what it was.  All they were certain of was that it was derived from some kind of a plant.  They believed this because the Greek historian, Herodotus, had written about claiming that in India it came from trees growing in the wild that produced wool.  Therefore Europeans assumed that it must be a tree that it came from.  This can be seen in the German word, Baumwolle, meaning tree wool.   With its similarity to wool, people came to the erroneous conclusion that it must have come from some kind of a plant-sheep life form and  Mandeville simply reinforced this belief.  This European myth was  banished by the end of the 16th century with cotton cultivation in Asia and the New World.

© 07/10/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 07, 2020 zteve t evans

Bee Folklore and Superstition: Telling the Bees

Image by Sven Lachmann from Pixabay

Bee Lore

Bees are a familiar sight around the world being native to al continents except Antarctica.  There are 16,000 known species and the most common is the western honey bee, also known as the European honey bee.  It is this species that this work mostly refers to.  Since early times humans have watched bees go about their everyday business and marveled at their sheer industry while being intrigued by the mystery of their societies.  This has led to the evolution of a rich body of folklore and tradition and many superstitions and customs.  Present here are a few small samples of this bee lore mingled with a few facts.

Bee Products

Bees provide us with many different useful products including honey, royal jelly, pollen propolis, wax and even bee venom. However, there are many other less obvious products of bees we depend on that are more important and more widely used.  Bees help pollinate many different fruits, vegetables and plants of all kinds which we make into many different products such as jam, dried fruit, even alcoholic beverages such as mead and much more.   They are not just useful to humans but also other animals and plants and are an essential part of local ecosystems which integrate into the global system.  An army of bees and other insects help pollinate these products and many other vegetables and plants used by humans. Without bees this army would be sorely depleted.  Our ancestors may not have realised the full extent of their usefulness but knew enough to want to develop an intimate relationship with them.  

Telling The Bees

It was seen as important for a beekeeper to keep his bees updated on any important information as news came in.  This was because bees could become upset and stop producing honey, abandon the hive or even die if not kept informed.  Therefore, it was seen as important that news that might affect them was broken gently but not withheld.  The origin of this custom is not known but there is an idea it may have evolved because people in many countries in ancient times thought  bees had the ability to bridge the living world with the afterlife. 

Deaths

There is a longstanding custom of telling the bees important events such as births, deaths and marriages that happen in the life of a beekeeper.  This tradition is found in the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland and other European countries as well as North America.

When someone in the household passed away it was deemed essential that the bees should be informed so that they could mourn properly.  Furthermore, it was essential that the bees were informed of any death in the family otherwise some tragedy would afflict the keeper’s family or perhaps jinx the hive.

Image by Charles Napier Hemy – Public Domain

An English custom required the wife of the house, or housekeeper, to drape something black over the hive while humming a sad tune.  In Nottinghamshire the words to one such tune were,

“The master’s dead, but don’t you go; 

Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.” (1)

Whereas in Germany the song was, 

 “Little bee, our lord is dead;

 Leave me not in my distress.” (2)

In some places the head of the household was required to knock on each hive until he thought he had the attention of the bees.  Next, in a sombre and serious voice he explained a certain person had died revealing the name of that person.  Sometimes the key to the family home was used to tap upon the hives.

Funerals

Where it was the case that the beekeeper had passed away food and drink from the funeral was left near the hives for the bees.  Sometimes the hive would be lifted and then put down at the same time as the funeral. It was draped in a mourning cloth and rotated to face the funeral procession.

In parts of the Pyrenees they buried an old piece of clothing belonging to someone who had died under the hive.  Many people believed the bees and hives should never be given away, sold or swapped after their keeper had died as it brought bad luck.

In the USA in parts of New England and Appalachia it was important to tell the bees when a family member died.  Whoever was the family beekeeper would ensure the bees were properly informed of the death so that the news could be passed around.

Weddings

In some regions it was believed bees liked to be told about weddings  and happy events  as well as funerals.  A tradition from Westphalia, Germany says to ensure good fortune in their married life, when moving into their new home, newlyweds must first introduce themselves to the bees.  A Scottish  newspaper, the Dundee Courier reported on the tradition in the 1950s, stating that the hive should be decorated and a slice of wedding cake left for the bees near the hive.  A custom from Brittany involved decorating the hive with scarlet cloth which would allow the bees to join in with the celebrations.

Messengers of the Gods

There was a belief in ancient Greece and Rome that bees were the messengers and servants of the gods. Romans avoided a flying swarm of bees but not for fear of being stung.  Instead they thought they were swarming at the command of the gods and bearing their messages and did not want to impede them in their work for the divinities.

Ancient Egyptians believed honey bees had been generated from the tears of Ra, their sun god, that had fallen to earth becoming his messengers between him and humanity.  Between 3000 b.c.e. and 350 b.c.e., the honeybee was used as a symbol by the  pharaohs of ancient Egypt.  Similar to the Egyptian and Roman view, the ancient Celtic people saw the honey bee as a messenger between heaven and earth. 

Importance of Bees

Bees continue to play an important role in the ecosystems and their importance to humans is undiminished, if anything, as we learn more about the world around us it increases. 

© 19/08/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 19th, 2020 zteve t evans