This article was first published on #FolkloreThurday.com as Bat Myths and Folktales from Around the World by zteve t evans on 31st October 2019
Bats feature in many myths, legends and folklore from diverse
cultures around the world, and are often associated with darkness, death
and the supernatural. Unquestionably, they are strange creatures,
appearing as half animal and half bird, like something from a nightmare
world. From this duality and strangeness evolved a reputation of
duplicity and threat, appearing as neither one thing nor the other. In
fact they are mammals of the scientific order Chiroptera,
meaning “hand wing” in ancient Greek, because their forelimbs have
become adapted to be wings. Do they really deserve this sinister
reputation, or do they play a more important role in the world than
feeding the dark human fascination for the spooky and the supernatural?
Presented here are different viewpoints from around the world,
followed by a short look at the real significance of bats to humankind.
Aesop’s Fables: The Bat and the Weasel
The duality of bats is mentioned in one of Aesop’s Fables, which tells how a bat fell to the ground and was pounced on by a weasel. The bat begged to be spared but the weasel insisted that he could not do that because he was an enemy of all birds. The bat said, “Well look at me. I am a mouse, not a bird!” The weasel looked at the bat and agreed it was a mouse and released it. A little later the same bat was caught by another weasel and begged for mercy. The weasel replied, “No, I never let mice go!” The bat said, “Well, look closely at me. I am a bird. See my wings.” The weasel replied, “Well, so you are!” and let the bat go.
Maid Marian, famous as the legendary girlfriend of Robin Hood, took on many roles and personas over the centuries, changing greatly with the times. Although she is absent from the earliest known ballads of Robin Hood she later appear in many plays, ballads and stories. Her character and role varied greatly, sometimes appearing as a noblewoman at other times as a commoner or shepherdess. From her early beginnings which can be found in folklore she evolves through literature from a simple medieval shepherdess and May Day Queen, to the girlfriend of the famous Robin Hood.
Folklore is dynamic and changes with the ages reflecting changes in attitude and circumstances by society. This can be seen in action with Maid Marian and how she became a folk heroine. Over time she becomes a deeper, more complex character and much more than just the love interest of the famous Robin Hood and more than just an important character in someone else’s adventure. It is in comparison to her and her character and traits that much of the morality of these stories comes out, making her an important ingredient to the overall plot, exposition and denouement of the story through the ages. The overall impression is of a strong, independent lady in a relatively equal relationship with Robin. Her qualities of loyalty and compassion mixed with boldness make her a popular figure in the Robin Hood canon of literature providing a strong folkloric tradition. There is also more than a hint of her dangerous side when she is found in a role of noble woman covertly undermining the patriarchal and ruling order by passing information on to Robin. The fact that she has male suitors in high society and chooses Robin rather than them underlines her independence of mind and action.
Marion and Robin in France
In the pastourelle songs of France, Marian became Marion and she and Robin are found together but not in the way that we are familiar with. In these songs Marion is a shepherdess who rejects the romantic attention of a knight to stay faithful to Robin who is a shepherd. From this, Marion and Robin appeared in Jeu de Robin et Marion, a French play by Adam de la Halle in the later part of the 13th century.
Later they became connected to spring festivals and traditions in both France and England to celebrate the passing of winter and welcome the new growth of spring. These were often outside events enjoyed by the community with lots of feasting, singing, dancing, games and all sorts of fun activities and entertainment.
Marian as the May Queen
Maid Marian also has associations with the rustic figures of the May Queen and Lady May the personifications of May Day, springtime and summer connecting her with renewal, new growth, fertility and abundance. With the figure of Robin Hood becoming increasingly popular appearing in plays, games and ballads especially during Whitsun, Robin and Marian eventually became integrated into new roles as the King and Queen of the May Day.
The Virgin Mary
It was not Marian in the early works that was Robin’s important female interest but the Virgin Mary. However, society changed and England became more protestant. With Marian’s strong associations to nature and fertility she complemented the forest environment and was a good partner for the outlaw of Sherwoos, eventually taking on the role of his lover. However social attitudes modified her behaviour making her become much more modest, ladylike and virtuous rather than the lusty, rustic figure of fertility, vitality and renewal.
As Marian became more integrated in the Robin Hood stories her character, social status and circumstance change and evolve considerable. She is not just a damsel in distress in need of rescue by some bold heroic male, she evolves into a much more complex character. Some of the tales portray her as a robust woman of action, her fighting expertise matching, or even surpassing male counterparts and even that of Robin in some stories.
At times when she is found within the stately and highly patriarchal confines of Norman society within Nottingham Castle she is the secret rebel passing on information to Robin in Sherwood Forest. She can move between the two worlds of Norman and outlaw society while remaining true to her own values and personal beliefs and her love for Robin.
Nineteenth Century Marion
In the nineteenth century Marion loses much of her power becoming a highborn, chaste and delicate noblewoman of high birth and very much an archetype of the Victorian lady. Her love story with Robin becomes central but she is now a supporting character to her lover rather than one in her own right. Perhaps to please Victorian audiences she and Robin are married by King Richard the Lionheart in St Mary’s Church in Edwinstowe making the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marion more romantic and sanitized.
From the early days to the present we can see how the changes in society and attitudes to women have evolved and expressed at different times through the ages. Her character and her role are reflections of those times and the attitudes that prevailed towards the male and female role models. We have seen her evolve from the rustic mysticism of the May Queen to the archetypical lady of high society with a secret lover, to a more competent, confident and assertive female whose history in many ways reflects the lot of women through the ages. Marian stands out as one of the strongest female characters in folklore and literature and there is ample potential for further interesting developments in the modern age. The potential for further development for her is also seen in modern times with the greater freeing of women from their traditional archetypes.
Beowulf was originally written in Anglo-Saxon times as a poem in Old English by an anonymous writer. It tells the story of its heroic protagonist, Beowulf, who embodies the much revered Anglo-Saxon qualities of strength, courage, heroism and virtuous behaviour. It is these qualities, blended with fictional, legendary and historical elements that make Beowulf the ideal role model for the Anglo-Saxon warrior aristocracy. Presented her is a retelling of the story after his arrival in Denmark to his triumphant return to Geatland drawn from the sources below.
Beowulf comes of Age
The story of Beowulf begins in a part of Scandinavia called Geatland that was a land of tall mountains, narrow valleys and a long rugged coastline. It was populated by a brave and virtuous people called the Geats who were ruled over by King Hygelac and his wife Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair.At regular times King Hygelac would call his earls and warriors to his great hall for feasting and drinking. These were popular and events that brought together his people from distant parts and helped bond his nation to him and each other. At these events the stories of their valour and that of their of their ancestors were told by the bards and sometimes one of them might be called upon to tell of a heroic deed they had performed. Young Beowulf would sit in the great hall taking in all of the stories. He was the son of the king’s sister who from a very young age had caught the eye of his uncle for his physical stature and strength.
One night a great feast was held in the king’s hall and all of the bravest and renowned warriors and noble of Geatland gathered to enjoy the festivities. As the evening progressed, King Hygelac stood up and introduced a visiting minstrel, whom he named as The Wanderer, and asked him to sing a song.The minstrel brought a stool before the king and sat down and began to play his harp. He sang of the wild northern lands and of the forbidden mountains that were home to beasts and demons far more dangerous than any of those found in Geatland. He told of terrible dragons and of their slaying by brave men and he told of the sea serpents and wild things of the sea.
The Song of Grendel
The song of The Wanderer began to change and took on a darker and more disturbing tone. It told of King Hrothgar of Denmark and of the terrible calamity that had struck that land. He sang of a demon that was part animal, part man and part all terrible creatures and the name of the demon was Grendel. He told how Grendel had appeared one fearful night, twelve years ago after a great feast in the great hall of King Hrothgar that was called Hereot. After all had ate and drank their fill and the king and queen retired to their own apartments his earls and warriors lay asleep in the great hall. As they had lain peacefully sleeping unaware of any pending peril, Grendel had come and forced aside the great door and carried away thirty of the sleeping earls, murdering and devouring them.
This had caused great sorrow throughout the land and although there had been many attempts to kill Grendel he violently defeated and killed all of his attackers showing no mercy at all.Now no one dared to sleep in the great hall of Heorot because Grendel often visited it and wreaking his havoc wherever it was in use. He has killed most of the young and vigorous warriors of the Danes who has dared to stand up to him and now all that remained were defenseless women, children and the elderly. Beowulf was now completely taken with the song and a fire sprang up in him lighting up his blue eyes. As he listened he knew what he must do. Springing from his seat he thumped the table shouting,
“My King and Queen and earls of Geatland, in days gone by King Hrothgar of Denmark was the friend of Ecgtheow my father in his hour of need. I, Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, will slay Grendel for King Hrothgar in thanks for his friendship to my father and the glory of Geatland!”
The Wanderer stopped his song and throughout the hall a silence fell. King Hygelac stood up and commanded silence and turning to Beowulf said in a voice that all could hear,
“Beowulf your time has come to prove yourself. You have been blessed with the strength and vitality of thirty men and you should use your powers to help everyone. Hrothgar, our friend and neighbor has great need. Go now to Denmark and prove yourself and slay Grendel!”
King Hygelac ordered that Beowulf should be given suitable equipment for his purpose and told him to choose fourteen comrades to accompany him. These should be such as Beowulf, young men who had come of age and in need of proving themselves.At last suitable equipped and attired the company made their way to the harbour where a ship had been prepared. At sunrise the next day Beowulf and his company set sail on their great adventure.
Their voyage across the sea was not to be an easy one as they sailed into a great storm. At last they came safely through and arriving on the shores of Denmark they pushed their ship up a beach. There they met an old man who welcomed them and showed them the path to the great hall of King Hrothgar of Denmark and promised to stray and guard their ship until their return.
The Hall of King Hrothgar
Beowulf and his company followed the path through dense forest for many miles until the came into a long valley. At the far end of the valley stood the once fair hall of Heorot. As they passed through the valley they saw the deserted farms and the homes of the people while all around there hung the stench of death like the very land rotted. There was no sign of humans so Beowulf led his company onwards towards the great hall. until at last came to it gates.
Three times Beowulf knocked upon the gates and at last a frightened gatekeeper appeared and nervously asked what business they had at the hall. Beowulf requested the man go to King Hrothgar telling him that a band of warriors from Geatland had arrived wishing to speak to him and were asking for food and lodging.
The gatekeeper hurried off and presently Beowulf saw the king approach in the company of a band of elderly warriors. King Hrothgar was now an old man himself with a full beard of flowing white and eyes that told of days of fear and sorrow. As he approached he opened his arms wide saying,
“Welcome strangers, I can see by your bearing you are friends and here on some errand to my sad and unhappy kingdom. Therefore, speak of your errand and who you so that I may help you as I can.”
Stepping forward Beowulf loudly proclaimed, “I am Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow whom you befriended and KIng Hygelac of Geatland is my uncle. We come to Denmark to slay the demon called Grendel and free you from his terror.”
Then Hrothgar looked long and hard at him and said, “Ecgtheow was my friend and brother-in-arms. You and your friends are very welcome in Denmark but I warn you Grendel comes often to Heorot and is hungry for young men to devour. Now come rest and tonight for the first time in twelve years there will be feasting in Heorot and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautifulwill pass to you the drinking-horn as is our tradition of friendship.”
For the first time in twelve years the great hall of Heorot was made ready for a great feast and fires were lit cooking meats of every kind. When all was ready the king and queen arrived followed by a great company and took their seats in the hall according to rank. Their number had been greatly diminished by Grendel and now it was mostly old men who sat with the king and queen. It was not a very joyful atmosphere for fear dwelt in the hearts of all those present of the evil of Grendel.
King Hrothgar sat at the head of the assembly with Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful. In a place of honour below the king sat Beowulf. Beside him on the right his right sat Aescher the king’s most trusted advisor. Next to him on his left sat Unferth, whom The Wanderer had sang about that night in Geatland in his uncle’s hall. At the word of the King the feast began and as the drinking-horns were passed around many oaths were uttered encouraging the slaying of Grendel. It was only Beowulf’s company of Geat warriors that were joyful and as the drink flowed they began boasting of the prowess and courage of Beowulf.Aescher endorsed their praises of their leader but Unferth became increasingly sullen and silent never offering a single word of praise as was the Danish custom.
Beowulf noticed this and turning to him said, “You keep very quiet Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, tell us of your deeds of valor that we may give praise to you. Come, tell us and then I can drink from the cup with you!”
At this Unferth stood up and slamming his fist on the table cried, “Beowulf! Who is this Beowulf but a beardless boy who stands before us telling us he will save us from Grendel? Who are the beardless boys who accompany him over the sea? Does anyone think that what so many good Danes have failed this stripling will succeed? Let him and his friends return to Geatland instead of laughing at our sorrow and loss!”
Beowulf felt his anger burn hot for this was the same Unsferth the Wanderer had sung about who had not dared to fight the demon himself. Beowulf rose, but knowing the words of his accuser to be false spoke clearly and softly without anger, “Take back your words they are dishonorable. I come in friendship offering to rid Denmark of this vile Grendel. Unferth, tell us of your great battle with Grendel?”
A murmur of approval of Beowulf’s words from Danes and Geats ran around the hall and KIng Hrothgar stood up and said, “Having listened to the quiet words of Beowulf I know he is a hero. There has been too much sorrow these last twelve years and makes us bitter and say things we do not mean. Beowulf, forgive us!”
Then Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful took up a jewelled cup and filling it with wine passed it to Hrothgar who drank from it and then she took it to Beowulf. He drank and she went around the company of Geatland and thanked them for coming to Denmark in their time of great need and asking each to drink. When they had done so she went around the king’s earls and they also drank to the king and queen and the death of Grendel.
Then the festivities were reopened with much good will from both Danes and Geats. While the Danes praised the glory of King Hygelac and Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair, the Geats praised KIng Hrothgar and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful. At last Hrothgar rose from his chair and taking his queen by the hand said, “Now it is time for us Danes to go to our beds and leave Beowulf and his company alone and pray their sleep be untroubled.”
He led his queen out through the great door of Heorot followed by all of his earls and retainers and the Geats were left to face the night as the great fires slowly burnt out.
The Demon Grendel
Beowulf ordered that the doors of the hall be secured and his companions made them so well no mortal man could have entered. With the doors safe the company spread their cloaks over the benches and lay down to sleep. One of Beowulf’s favorite companions named Hondscio took it upon himself to lay next to the door vowing to be the first to do battle should Grendel choose to appear. Soon all except Beowulf were sound asleep. He had vowed to stay awake and lay still and quiet listening as silence crept over the hall. He could hear the breathing of his comrades but little else.
Outside fog was forming and hiding the moon. Slowly all sounds died away and even the wind stopped its sighing and all was silent. As the fog crept across the land and wrapped itself around the hall, despite his vow, Beowulf became very drowsy. He fought to stay awake but his limbs felt heavy and his eyes closed and he sank into a deep slumber.
Outside the fog thickened and completely obscured the moon and tightened its hold upon the hall. For a second the fog parted and a gigantic black shape loomed and slowly moving towards the great hall and stood before the door in the weird light.
Inside, unaware of the horror that lay outside, Beowulf and his company slept under the bewitchment Grendel had wrought upon them. Beowulf fought hard to break the spell and desperately tried to crawl out of the nightmarish pit he found himself in.
Outside Grendel slowly brought his strength to bear silently pushing the door open despite its securings. Beowulf, fighting hard, crawled from the pit and saw the door wide open and fog streaming in. He saw the great shape of Grendel bend down and picking up the sleeping Hondscio tear his limbs from his body and now he saw clearly the nature of the demon he faced. It resembled a gigantic but twisted and deformed man yet there was something beast like about it. Its body was covered in grey scales that rattled when it moved and a pale light flickered from its eyes. Struggling to his feet he watched in horror and disgust as it crushed the body of Hondscio and greedily ate his remains. Then it turned its vile gaze around the hall until it fell upon Beowulf. Slowly the monster moved towards him.
Beowulf, full of loathing and disgust shook off the spell and ran at the beast. Clashing together the two grappled to gain a hold on one another. Although the claws of Grendel were strong and dug into his flesh, Beowulf was quicker and slipped easily from his hold. As Grendel sought to grasp, hold and tear his opponent apart, Beowulf moved quickly around him dodging his grabbing hands. While his company lay in spell induced sleep he and Grendel engaged in a deadly hand to hand fight for life.
Grendel tried to grasp and crush the head of Beowulf who in turn evaded him and continued to seek some advantage or weak spot. At last Grendel managed to grab Beowulf but his quick turn forced both of them to the ground and for a split second the demon experienced fear and doubt. Like a true warrior Beowulf sensed this and quickly took advantage of this lapse and managed to grasp him briefly by the throat, but its scales prevented him from taking a killing grip.
Then Grendel thrashed out and almost gained the advantage but Beowulf grasped hold of his arm and giving a quick twist jumped behind the brute pushing it high up its back causing it to scream in agony. The two fell to the floor and Beowulf continued to grip his arm wrenching this way and that until he felt the muscles and sinews weaken and give way and he pulled the arm free from its socket. Grendel stumbled up and through the door disappearing into the fog leaving the exhausted Beowulf clutching his severed and bleeding limb. With the spell broken his companions awoke and gathered around in wonder and horror.
As dawn broke people slowly appeared at the great hall to see how the Geats had fared though they expected the worse. Soon a great crowd of people thronged the hall and they were astounded by what they saw. Hanging high from one of the roof beams was the massive severed and bloody arm of Grendel. Upon the king’s dais stood Beowulf wearing a scarlet cloak his blue eyes flashing fire and his fair hair shining like gold like some god of old.
King Hrothgar was sent for and quickly arrived and said, “Give thanks now to Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, to be sure, this is the end of Grendel and his terror. Hail, to Beowulf hero of Geatland!” Then Queen Wealhtheow praised him and called on the servants to prepare a great feast. The celebrations went on all day and into the night and Beowulf was greatly honored by all.
Vengeance of the Water Witch
The next day a messenger rushed in his face white with fear, body shaking and eyes wild and kneeling before the king said in a trembling voice, “Sire, I have just run as fast as I could from Heorot; The good and wise Aescher has been most terribly murdered. His head has been severed from his body and his limbs crushed to a pulp.”
With that Hrothgar and Wealhtheow, accompanied by Beowulf, hastened to the great hall. They found the mangled remains of Aescher amid a scene of great destruction and the severed arm of Grendel had been removed. Queen Wealhtheow cried, “This is the revenge of Grendel’s mother. In our gladness at the defeat of Grendel we had forgotten her evil presence. Unless she too is slain she will wreak unending devastation upon us. Beowulf, we implore you to hunt her down and slay her too!”
On hearing this Beowulf called his company to him saying, “Come, let us finish this evil once and for all before night comes,” and begged Hrothgar for horses and hounds to hunt down the monster. Then Unferth, stepped forward from the crowd and said, “Beowulf, I am put to shame that I have ever doubted you. Take with you my sword. Its name is Hrunting. It is a magical sword and will be of help to you. Forgive my foolishness and let us be friends.”
Gladly, Beowulf embrace Unferth and taking the sword he and his company mounted the horses that had been brought for them. He called for the dogs to be set loose and they soon picked up the powerful scent and raced away on the trail with Beowulf and the Geats and King Hrothgar and the Danes following on behind. The dogs ran over hill and fen for many miles until at last they reached a small dark mere. Strange and slimy things moved in its depths and putrid vapours rose from its surface. The dogs stopped at the water’s edge and Beowulf and his company rode up. Throwing off his cloak and unbuckling his sword he cried, “I go into the mere alone. Wait here until I return!”
All of his companions protested, each wanting to accompany him but he would not allow it. He embraced his followers in turn and paid homage to King Hrothgar and turned and ran into the dark water holding Hrunting before him. The mere covered him and he found himself sinking into the cold darkness. To his surprise the water was deep and as he sank through the darkness he entered into light. Looking down he found he was being dragged by a most vile hag. Her hair was a mass of twisting and hissing snakes. Her mouth was filled with long green fangs and her eyes burned red like hot coals. She held him by her skinny arms and dragged him into the cave.
Quickly, looking around Beowulf saw he was in a cavern with a great fire at one end. Huddled in one corner was a dark mass that he knew to be Grendel and now he knew this to be Grendel’s mother who now gripped him. In that cave at the bottom of the world Beowulf grappled with the fiend striking her with his sword but it could not pierce her skin while she clawed at him trying to reach his throat. She cast a spell and he found the strength ebb from his body. He managed to trip her off balance and threw her in the air, but she fell on top of him and he felt her claws around his throat. Confident she had him in a death grip she relaxed a little and for a split second the spell lifted.
Quickly, he threw her from him and staggered to his feet and moved to put his back to the wall. There he found driven into the wall the hilt of an old sword. Grasping it he heaved with all of his might and pulled it free. As she attacked he struck a blow that cut her clean in two. Turning to Grendel he cut off his head and then threw both bodies into the fire. Clasping the severed head of Grendel he ran to the cave’s mouth and into the mire and surged upwards through the water until he reached the surface where his friends were waiting.
His companions were still there but King Hrothgar and the Danes had gone for he had been absent for a very long time. He was greeted joyfully as they all crowded around wanting to hear his story, but he would tell them nothing. Instead he showed them the head of Grendel as proof of his victory. With that he commanded them to mount their horses and they returned to Heorot and King Hrothgar.
When the company arrived back at Heorot bearing the head of Grendel, Hrothgar was delighted Beowulf had survived and even more so to see the head of the demon he carried. He presented all of the company with rich gifts of fine swords and weapons and chests of gold, silver and precious jewels rewarding Beowulf the greatest of all.
Having achieved all he had set out to achieve Beowulf thanked the King and Queen of Denmark and took his leave deciding to sail for home with his company. He led the company back along the forest path and at last they reached the beach where the old man still sat guarding their ship. With all aboard he gave the order to set sail for Geatland.
Return to Geatland
King Hygelac was delighted to welcome his nephew home bearing riches from his exploits in Denmark. After hearing of his heroics in freeing Denmark of its monsters he acclaimed Beowulf the greatest hero of his people. The minstrels made songs of his bravery and heroism and he became famous throughout the northern lands but there were still further exploits written in the stars including a great flame dragon for him to overcome.
Insects and humans are a strange mix and yet in In Japanese folklore the human soul sometimes appears as a butterfly. Maybe it is something about the way they flutter from place to place or the fact that they have gone through metamorphosis to transform into a such a beautiful creature. When we look deeply into the populous and industrious colonies of ants many people see a microcosm of a human cities and society. Indeed, from above our cities often seem to be teeming with myriads of ant-like creatures.
In reality the idea of humans being insect-like in any way may seem absurd except in our dreams in which reality can be suspended, twisted and turned on its head and time has a completely different duration. In such dreams we may believe ourselves to have lived for years in a certain place but awake to be told that we have only been asleep for a few minutes. But what if when we return from the dream to the waking world we find evidence that there may indeed be some basis for the idea we actually existed in our dream – what then?
Presented here is a retelling of a Japanese folktale originally called, The Dream of Akinosuke, from a collection of tales, called Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn which has some strange things to say about ants, butterflies and dreaming humans.
THE DREAM OF AKINOSUKE
There once lived in the district of Toichi in the Yamato Province of old Japan a goshi named Miyata Akinosuke. These were feudal times and in such times goshi were a social class having certain privileges. They were soldiers and freehold farmers who owed their position and allegiance to an overlord. Akinosuke was just such a man and as a freeholder he had a very beautiful garden with an ancient and spreading cedar tree. He was very fond of his tree and during the hot, sultry days of summer he liked to recline and relax in the coolness of its shade.
One hot afternoon he was relaxing in the shade of his tree with two of his fellow goshi. They were having a very pleasant time drinking wine and conversing amicably on different topics and enjoying each other’s company. Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the warm sultry afternoon or maybe it was both, but Akinosuke grew very drowsy. He grew so sleepy that he asked his friends to excuse him while he took a brief nap. Teasing him they told him the wine had gone to his head, but agreed to excuse him and he lay down at the foot of his beautiful cedar tree and very soon he was dreaming a dream like no other.
In this dream he saw a great and grand procession of people coming over the crest of a nearby hill and he stood up to get a better view. It was indeed a very grand procession the likes of which he had never seen before. There were very many men and women all dressed in the finest of silks carry banners and flags and marching to the beat of a drum. There were so many in the distance it looked like a long line of ants coming over the hill.
At the heart of the procession was a carriage that was borne aloft proudly. Akinosuke watched and was surprised to see that it was making directly for his dwelling. As it drew nearer he could see that the carriage was richly decorated with silks of blue and gold and obviously carried someone who must have been very important indeed. The procession proceeded unerringly to his gate and stopped. The carriage door opened and a tall, thin man dressed in the most exquisite finery got out. In a mostly stately way he approached the surprised and bemused Akinosuke, who awestruck, bowed low while the visitor greeted him thus,
“Most honorable Miyata Akinosuke you see before you an envoy and servant of the King in Tokyo. I am commanded to greet you in the name of the King and put myself entirely at your service. He has commanded me to inform you that he seeks your presence at his palace and has tasked me to escort you into his esteemed presence. Therefore, please enter this most honorable of carriages that he has sent for this purpose and allow me to be your personal guide to his royal presence.”
With that the messenger stood aside holding the carriage door open, gesturing for the bewildered Akinosuke to step inside. He wanted to make some kind of fitting reply but was too astonished and overwhelmed. Instead, he meekly obeyed and stepped into the carriage and his guide sat down beside him. With a word of command the carriage proceeded to the King’s palace.
They traveled at surprising speed and within a short time were outside the palace gates. The envoy announced he would go and inform the King of Akinosuke’s arrival and he was to wait here until sent for. Presently two noblemen wearing the purple silks and caps of high rank arrived. They greeted him with all due respect and escorted him through a most beautiful garden, the vastness of which appeared to extend in all directions for many miles.
At last they entered the palace and Akinosuke was shown into a most splendid reception room with many ornate carvings and works of art upon the walls. He was seated in a place of honor while two servants brought him food and drink. After he had taken refreshment the two nobles in purple bowed low and speaking in turns said to him thus,
“It is our duty and pleasure to inform you that the reason you have been brought here is because the King, our most noble master, desires greatly that you become his son-in-law. It is his greatest wish that this will happen today. Therefore, you will marry his daughter the August Princess this day. When the time comes we will escort you to your wedding, but first we will provide you with appropriate apparel for such a splendid and important ceremony.”
Having finished their speech the two nobles went over to a great gilded chest and lifting the lid drew out various items of clothing. These were of the finest and richest silks and styled for royalty and were indeed most suitable for the bridegroom of a royal wedding. After he was dressed in the very finest of fashions befitting such a special occasion he was led into a hall where the King and his highest dignitaries and nobles awaited the arrival of Akinosuke.
Akinosuke saluted, bowed and knelt before the King who greeted him graciously and spoke to him thus,
“You have been informed that it is my desire that you will become my son-in-law and the husband of my only daughter – the August Princess. We shall now proceed with the wedding.”
With that he clapped his hands and the sound of joyful music filled the hall and a long line of beautiful ladies of the Royal court appeared. Solemnly they escorted Akinosuke to another hall where his bride awaited dressed most beautifully for her wedding.
The wedding hall was huge and richly decorated and despite its size it was barely big enough to seat all of the guests who swarmed everywhere. Everyone stopped and bowed as he entered escorted by the ladies of the court and he took his place kneeling on a cushion facing his bride. In her gorgeous silk wedding dress the color of the bluest summer sky she looked indeed the August Princess.
The marriage rites were performed with great ceremony and dignity and afterwards the newly married couple were escorted to a special suite of apartments especially prepared for them. The King and all the guests were overjoyed and Akinosuke and his wife radiating happiness received many wonderful presents and the blessings of everyone.
Although they had not met each other before or heard of one another in the past, Akinosuke and his wife were very happy together enjoying the company of each other. The days passed joyfully and presently Akinosuke was summoned to appear before the King. He feared he had done something wrong but instead the King spoke to him thus,
“The island of Rashi lies in the southwestern part of my realm and I have decided to appoint you the Governor of Raishu in my name. The people of the island are very loyal and peaceful but their laws have never been brought into alignment with the laws and customs of my realm. I am entrusting you with this task and with improving their lives and social condition as much as is possible. It is my desire that you rule them with kindness, justice and wisdom. All the preparations for the journey and your arrival have been made and you will leave in the morning.’
The Island of Raishu
The next morning Akinosuke and his wife left the palace with a great escort of nobles, palace officials and courtesans who accompanied them to the harbor. There he and his wife boarded one of the King’ s own ships to take them to Raishu and take up the governorship of the island. They had a good wind and fair weather and soon arrived safely in the harbor of the island to find the people had all come out and were lining the shores to welcome them.
After a warm reception from the people Akinosuke began his governorship and put his heart and soul into the task. In the first three years he reformed the laws to align with those of the King in Tokyo. He was lucky to have the help of wise counselors who knew the people very well. This helped him considerably and he never grew tired or bored with the task. When it was all complete he found he only had a few active duties to carry out and most of these were of a ceremonial nature.
The island was very fertile and grew all the crops the people needed and they also fished the seas. The weather always seemed to just right so there was never famine or starvation. The people were hard working and peaceful never broke any laws so there was little for him to do.
Akinosuke lived and ruled on the island for another twenty years making twenty three in total and in that time he was happy. He grew to love his wife and she him and they were very close and happy together. She bore him seven fine children – five strapping sons and two beautiful daughters.
In the beginning of the twenty fourth year of his governorship his beloved wife fell sick and died. Akinosuke was grief stricken but as tradition required he made sure she was buried with all the dignity and ceremony befitting her status. He had her buried on a beautiful hill with a fittingly splendid monument raised over her. Unfortunately and understandably her death had left him devastated and he no longer cared for himself or wanted to live.
After the customary period of mourning was complete a ship sailed in from Tokyo bearing a royal messenger from the King. The messenger hastened to Akinosuke to deliver a message of condolence directly from the King telling him thus,
“The King our lord and master sends his deep condolences to you and your children. You have worked hard and done a splendid job on Raishu but it is now time you returned to your own country. Have no fear for your seven children for they are also my grandsons and granddaughters and I will look after them.”
Akinosuke on hearing this order submissively prepared to leave the island. When all was made ready for his departure and all necessary rituals and ceremonies were completed he said goodbye to his children, councilors and officials and was escorted in a grand procession to the harbor where he took the ship for home.
The ship sailed out of the harbor into the blue sea and towards the blue sky of the horizon. Akinosuke turned to look at the island in a last farewell and watched as it’s shape turned to blue and then, grey and vanished forever from his sight – and at this point he woke up to find himself lying in the shade of the cedar tree in his very own garden. For a moment or two he was dazed and bewildered and rubbed his eyes. Looking around he saw his two friends sitting nearby drinking wine and chatting happily to each other and he cried out loud,
“How strange this is!!”
His two friends looked over to him and laughed when they heard him. “Ha!” laughed one, “Our friend, Akinosuke has been dreaming! Tell us your strange dream my friend.”
” I think the wine got the better of him,” teasedthe other, “but do tell us!”
Therefore, Akinosuke told them his strange dream and how he had spent over twenty three years living on the island of Raishu in the realm of the King of Tokyo. He told how he was married and of his children and finally how his beloved wife had died.
His two friends were astonished at his tale and insisted he had only been asleep for a few minutes at the most. One of them told him that while he had been asleep they had witnessed a very strange thing and he spoke thus,
“While you were asleep we saw a very strange thing happen.A small yellow butterfly appeared and fluttered and hovered over your face for a brief moment or two. We watched and saw it settle on the ground beside you as you lay close to the cedar tree. Almost immediately an exceptionally large ant rushed from a hole by the tree and seizing the butterfly ran back down the hole carrying it with him.
Just before you woke we saw the same yellow butterfly crawl out of the hole and flutter up to hover before your face before suddenly vanishing. I do not know where it went but it was gone.”
The second nodded in agreement and then he spoke,
“Maybe it was our friend Akinosuke’s soul. I thought perhaps it flew into his mouth but even if it was our friend’s soul it does not explain the dream.”
The Realm of the Ants
“Maybe the ants explain it,” said the first, ” they are peculiar beings and there is a large ant’s nest by the hole of the tree.”
Akinosuke jumped up and cried, “Let us investigate!” And rushed off to fetch a spade.
On his return he set about gently clearing the soil away to carefully reveal that the nest had been excavated and built in the most surprisingly complex way. The huge population of ants that lived there had turned the colony into a miniature world with some similarity to that of humans. There were tiny buildings made from straw, clay and stems that gave the nest the look of scaled-down versions of human towns and cities.
In the very center of the colony was a structure larger than all of the others which contained a swarm of small ants appearing to work around the body of one very large ant that had a black head and pale yellow wings.
” Look! There is the King in the palace of Tokyo that I saw in my dream! How amazing and extraordinary! If that is so, the island of Raisu should lie somewhere to the southwest – and there it is by that root … now can I find the green hill and the tomb of my beloved wife – Yes, there it is – how remarkable!”
Looking closely, Akinosuke saw the small hill in the nest and on top of the hill was a worn polished pebble very similar in shape to the monument he had placed over the body of his wife. Gently lifting up the pebble he was astonished to see covered in clay the dead body of a female ant.
Ants, Humans and the Butterfly Soul
There are some people who see parallels between ants and humans. Such philosophers see similarities in the two societies while comparing the differences. The cities humans build and live in are seen in parallel with the ant colonies and the two societies compared. In human cities the swarms of humans may all appear to be busy working for the greater good of their society. However, on closer inspection it is found that this is so only as far as it does not encroach upon their own selfish needs and desires which may be at odds with the well-being of their society and even their own butterfly soul.
Ants are seen to be regimented and industrious giving up or not possessing such selfish needs and desires working entirely for the good of their society. These same philosophers argue that humans with their selfishness damage the good of their society while the ants give up the wants of the self in favor of maintaining the good of their society and their butterfly soul – assuming ants have any kind of soul at all. Therefore, they claim ants are superior to humans and their society further evolved. Such philosophers are not renowned for their sense of humor, but personally I always think it one of the greatest of human attributes, though I am not sure ants have one. I wonder though, what do you think of these strange matters of ants, dreaming humans and the butterfly soul?
In Japanese folklore, Yuki-Onna or Snow Woman, is a yōkai, which is a kind of demon, spirit or supernatural monster. There are many different Japanese folktales and traditions that feature Yuki-Onna and accounts of them vary from region to region. Presented here is a retelling of a story called Yuki-Onna, from Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, by Lafcadio Hearn.
Mosaku and Minokichi were two woodcutters that lived in a village in Musashi Province. Mosaku was an old man and Minokichi was a lad of eighteen years of age and his apprentice. Everyday they would walk the five miles to the forest to find wood and on the way they were obliged to cross a river. The river was wide and in good weather could be swum but after heavy rains the current was too strong so they would use a ferry boat to cross to the other side. There had been several attempts to build a bridge but on each occasion as soon as the river rose its fast flowing current washed it away, therefore people who wanted to cross had to use the ferry.
One winter’s day and Mosaku and Minokichi had gone out as usual and used the ferry to cross the river. They spent the day gathering wood and as it was growing dark they realized a snow storm was approaching and made their way back the the river. Unfortunately when they arrived they found the ferryman had taken the boat to the other side of the river and gone home.
The Snow Storm
The snow storm hit them and as it was no weather to swim they took shelter in the ferryman’s hut nearby. It was small and cramped but as the snow came down theythought themselves lucky to have such shelter at all. Unfortunately there was no smoke hole or brazier to light a fire in, nevertheless locking the door they settled down to wait out the night covered only in their overcoats.
At first they were quite comfortable and expected the storm to pass over quickly. To begin with the heat from their bodies began to warm up the as the small hut and Mosaku fell asleep quickly. Minokichi could not sleep and lay listening to the howling wind outside. He could hear the snow crashing against the hut and the roaring of the river as it began to rise. The rickety hut began to creak and groan under the full force of the snowstorm and suddenly it grew very, very cold. The apprentice began to shiver and despite the cold he too fell asleep.
He was sharply awoken with a start by a snow hitting his face. Opening his eyes in surprise he saw the door had been forced open. Outside the snow had eased but was still falling and the ground had a thick white covering which glimmered strangely under the moon and stars.
The Snow Woman
In the snow-light he was shocked to see that there was someone else in the hut apart from his master and himself. He saw it was a woman who was dressed all in white and bending over Mosaku was blowing her breath upon him. It streamed over his face like bright white smoke. Seeing Minokichi stir the woman turned and began stooping over him, lower and lower and lower. He tried to cry out, but he couldn’t. He tried to move, but he couldn’t.
All he could do was watch in fear as her face drew nearer and nearer until it almost touched his and he could feel her cold breath. He saw she was very beautiful but he was afraid of her eyes. She stooped over him looking at him for awhile and then she smiled and whispered softly,
“You are young. You are so pretty! Minokichi, tonight I intended to do with you as I have done with your companion. Have no fear, I feel pity for you and I will not hurt you. You must never speak of what you have seen again, not to sun, moon, stars, not to anything. If you ever tell another person, even your own mother or another living being about what you have witnessed tonight I will immediately know. I will come for you and I will kill you. Do not say you have not been warned!”
For a few terrible moments she gazed into his eyes, then she straightened up, turned and walked out of the hut and into the snow and was gone.To his relief the spell that had held him transfixed was gone. He jumped up and looked quickly out of the door but could see no sign of her, not even her footprints and the snow was thick on the ground. He closed the door making sure it was secure wondering if he had been dreaming and the wind had blown the door open.
Turning to Mosaku, his master he was shocked to see that the old man had not moved through it all. He called to him but there was no answer, He touched his face and it was as cold as ice. He shook his body but it was stiff and lifeless and realized his master was dead. With nothing else he could do he settled down to wait out the night.
In the morning the storm was gone and the ferryman had crossed the river. On entering his hut he was surprised to see the unconscious figure of Minokichi and the body of his dead master. He promptly gave aid to Minokichi and managed to revive him but there was nothing he could do for Mosaku who was now frozen solid.
With care and over a period of time Minokichi recovered in full from his ordeal. The death of his master and his encounter with the Snow Woman had left profound mark on him. He spoke nothing of these to anyone not even his mother took care of him. Eventually he grew fit enough to resume woodcutting to make a living. Every morning he would walk to the river alone and cross over to the forest and collect bundle of sticks that he would take back and with the help of his mother sell.
Time passed in this way and some twelve months later one winter evening he was walking home with his bundle of sticks on his shoulder. He was walking fast wanting to get home when he caught up with a girl who was travelling in the same direction as he. She was very tall and very slim and also very pretty. As he was striding past, so as not to unduly alarm her, Minokichi called out a friendly greeting. She returned the greeting in a friendly way but Minokichi was struck by the sound of her voice which sounded very pleasant to listen to like that of a songbird. He slowed to her pace and walked beside her and as she seemed amenable to conversation he began chatting with her.
He told her his name and she told him her name was O-Yuki and that recently she had been bereaved of both her parents. She was on her way to Yedo where she had relatives and hoped they would help her find a place in a rich family as a servant.
He was absolutely intrigued by the girl and the more they talked and traveled together the more beautiful and entrancing she became to him. They chatted easily together of many things and laughed along together. As they walked along and at last he asked her if she was betrothed. She blushed and laughed but told him that she was absolutely free.
In return she asked if he was engaged or married and he told her that he too was free and only had his aging, widowed mother to support. Somewhere between them unspoken but in their minds were thoughts of an “honorable daughter-in-law”. Both silently considered and they walked on in silence. but there is an old saying,
“When the wish is there, the eyes can say as much as the mouth.”
The more they walked together the more they liked each other. When they reached the village lived Minokichi politely asked O-Yuki if she would like to rest and take refreshment at his home for awhile and meet his mother.
O-Yuki blushed and after hesitating agreed. His mother made her very welcome and made her sit down and rest while she made her a hot meal. O-Yuki was so polite and agreeable that his mother asked her to stop the night and take a break from her long journey. The next morning as she was preparing to leave his mother came to her and persuaded her to stay for a few days saying she really enjoyed her company.Of course this pleased Minokichi greatly and it came to pass that O-Yuki never left and was gladly accepted into the household as “An honourable daughter-in-law.”
An Honourable Daughter-in-Law
Indeed, O-Yuki became something of the perfect daughter-in-law and when Minokichi’s mother died five years later her last words poured nothing but love and affection upon her son’s wife. O-Yuki gave her husband ten beautiful children all, slim tall and as handsome as she.
All of neighbors and local people saw O-Yuki as a wonder. Unlike the local women who grew old early through hard work and poverty she remained as young, fresh and beautiful as she been the first day she had met Minokichi even after giving birth to ten children.
Minokichi loved her dearly and one night after the children had gone to sleep he sat watching her sewing by the light of a lantern and said,
“Watching you sewing with the lantern light reminds me of a very strange experience I had when I was a young lad of eighteen. In all of my life I have never met anyone as beautiful as you and as white and perfect as you, except once and she was very much like you.”
Without looking up or taking her eyes from her work O-Yuki said,
“Oh … Tell me about her. Where did you meet her?”
Minokichi thought for a minute recollecting his memories of the experience. Then he told her everything that had happened the night Mosaku and he had taken shelter from the snow storm all those years ago. He told her all about the mysterious Snow Woman and how she had smiled and whispered to him and about how Mosaku had frozen to death that night and said,
“In all of my life, either awake or asleep have I ever seen a person as beautiful as you. However, this … Snow Woman … was not … could not have been human and I was terrified of her she was so white … pure … perfect … yet terrifying! Sometimes I think it was all a dream or a spirit of the snow.”
O-Yuki snarled and flinging away her sewing jumped to her feet. Stooping over him where he sat in shocked silence at her sudden change she lowered her face to his and shrieked,
“Do you not see that it was I … I … I! … It was I! I told you that I would find you and kill you if you ever said another word about what happened that night. If not for our children I would kill you here and now! Listen and remember! If you do not take good care of them. If they come to any harm through you – I will return and I will kill you. Do not say you have not been warned!”
As she shrieked her voice became thin and wailed like the wind as she slowly dissolved into a pure, white mist that spiraled up and around the roof beams and left through the smoke hole, shrieking into the night and was never seen again.
This is a retelling of a folktale from Australia. It gives an explanation of how humans gained the use of fire when Tatkanna, the Australasian robin, stole it from Mar, the red-crested cockatoo, also known as Leadbeater’s cockatoo (Plyctolophus leadbeateri). There is also an explanation as to how the robin got its red breast and why the kookaburra is found in trees. The source of this retelling is from a story called How Fire was Stolen from the Red-Crested Cockatoo from a collection by W. J. Thomas and begins in the Dreamtime.
The Dreamtime is sometimes referred to as “the Dreaming”. In simple terms it is the period of time when the creator-beings made the land and the animals, birds and plants. In that time humans lived in the shape of beautiful birds and wild animals. One day as sunset neared a family of people were returning to their camp after a day out hunting when they came across a stranger. He was an ancient looking man and appeared tired and hungry and carried a long spear, a possum skin rug and a dilly bag that was used to carry food. Laying his spear on the ground as a sign of peace he showed them the inside of his bag which was empty and said,
“Many, many moons ago I left the hunting grounds of my people and went on a great journey. I traveled across the land until I reached the great waters whose voice is like the rumbling thunder. I traveled into the grey mist far beyond the mountains to the red rolling plains. In that place there are no birds or animals and the sun is hidden behind dark clouds. I passed beyond this into the land that is beyond dawn and experienced many strange adventures.
I am old now and my people are gone. They are blown like dead leaves in the wind and I must seek them out, but before I do I would rest awhile and tell you the secret I have discovered of the fire of the sun. When I have done this I will go and one of your people who is daring and bold may seek out and bring back this fire to your people.”
The headmen discussed the request from the stranger and agreed to provide him with food and hospitality in exchange for the tale. They all loved tales so when they reached the camp they quickly prepared a fine communal meal and gave the stranger the best of the food they had. When they had finished eating they made a semi-circle before him and eagerly waited for him to begin his tale. It should be said that these were the days before people had learnt how to make fire. Furthermore, at this time they had no idea of how to use it to cook with or to harden their spear heads but they could see the sun up in the sky beyond their reach and could feel its warmth.. They often contemplated how they could get the fire out of the sky and on to Earth for the light, warmth and comfort it brought on cold, days and dark nights. The ancient man wrapped himself in his possum skin rug and began to tell the people if his tale
The Stranger’s Tale
“I traveled beyond the dawn far into the east and the mountains that blot out the sun. In that place water had forsaken the creeks and the water holes were dry and animals lay dead in the river beds and death threw its shadow upon the land. I hurried on without stopping to rest in case death should come upon me.
I traveled on without water and my tongue grew swollen in my mouth and my legs became weak and when I thought I could go no further I saw the gleam in the distance of a water hole. I ran towards it but fell. I crawled until I reached it but as I drew near blackness like night fell upon me although the sun was still high in the sky and I slept. I was eventually awoken by a loud buzzing noise in my ears like the sound of thousands of flies. I crawled forward to the water hole and bent my head to drink but my lips only touched hot, dry sand. What I thought had been cool gleaming water had been hot gleaming sand but now I was desperate and I used my hands to dig deep into the sand until they were grazed and bleeding. Despite the pain, despite the blood I carried on digging and at last the sand grew damp and water began to fill the hole I had dug until at last I had enough to drink. I was exhausted so I rested up for a day and then continued on my way.
One day after many more moons had passed I came to a country of tall trees. One morning just before before the sun has begun its journey across the sky I was surprised to see its fire gleaming through the mirk of the trees. Carefully, quietly and with great stealth I crept nearer and then I saw Mar, the Cockatoo. As I watched he reached up into his crest and brought out fire which he used to light a stick to show him the way. In my surprise and eagerness to see more I stood on a dry twig and he heard it crack and saw me. He was angry and hurled a spear at me so I decided to flee. From there I spent many weary days traveling back to the land of my people hoping to find them but they were gone. I followed their track until I came across you folk. If there is one along you hardy enough and bold enough to face and complete the long arduous journey and daring enough to steal the fire from under the crest of Mar the Cockatoo, then humans will sing their praises for evermore.”
Mar, the Cockatoo
The people sat listening intently to him enthralled by his tale and when he had finished they all became very excited at the possibility of gaining access to fire. The headmen talked together and agreed on a plan. They would invite the cockatoo to a great dance ceremony and get together they called a corroboree. There would be singing, dancing and mock combat. and while he was relaxed, off his guard and enjoying himself one of them would steal his fire.
The day came and Mar the Cockatoo came to the corroboree and was enjoying all the singing, dancing and mock fights. He was very relaxed but gave no opportunity for them to steal the fire. They offered him kangaroo meat to eat but he refused this. Instead, they offered him kangaroo skin to eat which he accepted but to their consternation left their camp with it and returned the great distance to home. Despite their efforts Mar had given them no opportunities to steal his fire and now he was gone
One small fellow named Prite decided to follow the cockatoo. He followed him across the bush and over the mountains for a great distance and grew very tired and thought of turning back for home. Just as he had made up his mind to return he saw Mar reach under his crest feathers and pull out the fire.
He could not think of a plan to steal the fire so he returned home and told his family that what the ancient stranger man had told them was true. The headmen discussed the news all through the night ànd finally decided that Tatkanna, the Robin, should follow the directions of Prite to the camp of Mar the cockatoo and steal the fire.
Tatkanna, the Robin
The next morning Tatkanna set out bright and early following the directions Prite had given him to the camp of Mar the Cockatoo. It was a long tiring journey and luckily he arrived at Mar’s camp just as the cockatoo was reaching under his crest to pull out the fire to light a fire stick. He then began singeing off all the hair from the kangaroo skin that he had been given.
Tatkanna could not believe his luck in witnessing this and in his eagerness to steal the fire he edged too close scorching his breast feathers. Ever since then he has had a red breast and known as Robin Redbreast. However, scorching his feathers frightened him and Mar saw him. Realizing he had been discovered, Tatkanna decided he had to do something quick or fail in his quest, so boldly running forward he grabbed the fire stick from Mar and ran off into the bush.
As he ran the fire stick caused everything it touched to burst into flames and soon all the dry grass and bushes were burning and even the trees caught light. The animals and birds were all bewildered and frightened and ran off trying to escape. The flames that swept over the dry grass and bush also the consumed trees leaving a smouldering charred black and gray waste land of ash behind
When Mar realized his fire had been stolen he grew very angry and went in search of the thief meaning to kill him. Tatkanna made it back home and showed the fire stick to his family who were all tremendously pleased and heaped praise upon him. Then Mar, who had tracked the robin, arrived in their camp and demanded to fight the thief who had stolen his fire. Tatkanna although very bold and daring was terrified of fighting the cockatoo as he was only a small fellow and begged his friend Quartang the Kookaburra to be his champion. Quartang agreed but Mar quickly defeated him forcing him to escape by flying up into the tree and that is where kookaburras have been since that day
Tatkanna, the Hero
Mar did not get his fire back and sadly returned home but the family of people were all mighty pleased with Tatkanna, the Robin for his bravery and daring. His scorched red breast reminds us of the great deed he did for his family of people. Now, when they see the red-crested cockatoo they remember how fire was stolen from him for their benefit by Tatkanna, the Robin
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