The Feather of the Firebird

The Fabled Firebird

The fabled Firebird from Russian and Slavic mythology and folklore is a magical, mysterious bird, both rare and elusive and the inspiration of many folk and fairy tales. Its plumage is the color of red, yellow and orange flames of fire or maybe like the setting or rising of the sun.  

According to tradition it  appears from the east lighting up the sky causing all the creatures of the world to fall silent in deference to its glory. The Firebird appears in many stories as a blessing and a bearer of good fortune but it can also be a harbinger of doom for those of a wicked disposition.  However, for Alexis, the hero of this story, the finding of the feather of the Firebird is the catalyst for inner growth and strength.  He is sent on a journey completing a set of difficult tasks bringing out his own inner resources to win through.  In doing so he rises from lowly beginnings to a prominent  position in the world.

Finding the Feather

In this story our hero is a young man who despite being rather naive is true of heart and courageous and it is he who finds the feather.  For those who find a feather of the Firebird great changes befall them.  To pick it up sets off a life changing chain of events putting their life at risk and bringing them real fear.  When Alexis finds the feather he does not listen to the warning of his horse of power and decides to pick it up and take it to the Tsar.  From then on his problems snowball and for the first time he begins to experience real fear.

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The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa

The Firebird is usually said to represent the whole truth, or enlightenment of the world.  Princess Vasilisa represents love. The finding of a single feather from the Firebird represents the finding of a single grain of truth.  If the whole truth is desired then the whole Firebird must be sought to gain enlightenment. The Tsar is not satisfied with a feather but demands the whole truth, represented by the Firebird and sends Alexis to bring it back.  Yet, he is not satisfied with the whole Firebird and demands love in the form of Princess Vasilisa.  Again, he sends Alexis to find her but does nothing himself to win her love.

Although the Tsar seeks enlightenment and love he never does anything himself to find either and consequently never finds them.   Enlightenment comes from the experience gained from completing the journey and the tasks of the quest and love is earned by the way others are treated along the way, yet he never learns this.

Animal Helper – The Horse of Power

As with other Firebird stories our hero has a  wise animal and magical helper who accompanies him on the quest.   In, The Feather and the Firebird, the magical animal helper is a horse of power who has the gift of speech and foresight and is named Perdun.

Perdun warns against picking up the feather, which is only a small part of the truth.  The horse is important to our hero as it represents his own natural wisdom – his gut instinct which he suppresses.  It is the suppression of his inner instinct that gets him into trouble in the first place.  As he learns to listen to and trust his horse of power, or gut instinct, he at last triumphs.

So when our hero embarks on his quest at the command of the Tsar who is not satisfied with part of the truth but craves the whole truth the Tsar is making a huge mistake.  He does not experience the journey and the hardships so he remains none the wiser, but the hero through the trials on his journey learns the whole truth and the world is his.  On the way he finds love while the stay-at home Tsar never does.

While the Tsar ends up with death the hero is rewarded with marriage to Princess Vasilisa and becomes the new Tsar,  His own inner resources have grown to the point where he recognizes that the Firebird, like the truth and enlightenment, is something that cannot be caged and sets it free to roam the world as it should.  Perhaps one day, somewhere, someone else will find one of its feathers and embark on their own journey of discovery.

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© 01/07/2020 zteve t evans

Scottish Folklore: The Battle of the Sea Mither and Teran

Image by Наталья Коллегова from Pixabay

The Northern Isles

The Northern Isles of Scotland generally refers to the two archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland.  The islands have been inhabited since very early times and have many ancient archaeological sites with human activity going back to the Mesolithic Age.  There are still many Pictish and Norse influences which have combined to create a rich tradition of mythology and folklore on the islands.

Folklore and Tradition

One such tradition tells of an annual battle between the forces of summer and winter for supremacy.  This battle is expressed in folklore with summer being represented by a mythical female spirit called the Sea Mither, or Mither of the Sea.  Her opponent is called Teran, a mythical spirit of the winter who sends the wild waves, storms and high winds at sea and the death of vegetation on land.  Both spirits are invisible to humans directly but their force is experienced in the weather and seasons around the islands that play an integral part of island life.

The Sea Mither

The Sea Mither brings growth, renewal, rebirth and harvest.  The  word “Mither” is the Orcadian way of saying  “mother” so she is the mother of the sea in the sense she gives birth to all living creatures in the sea.

It is the power of the Sea Mither that reawakens the world after the harsh, barren wilderness days of winter, driving out darkness and bringing warmth and light.  She brings growth and fertility to the sea and land giving life to all living things and calms the stormy seas.  

Teran

Her enemy, Teran, brings the cold and dark and causes the winter gales and winds.  It is he who causes the waves to rise wildly and dash against the rugged coastline of the islands and it is his voice who rises above the wind in anger that the islanders hear in the winter gales.

 Vore Tully – the Spring Struggle

Around the time of the vernal equinox, about mid-March, there begins a titanic struggle for supremacy between the Teran and the Sea Mither when she returns to challenge him.  For weeks the seas all around become a frothing, churning cauldron as the battle between the two foes ensues.  Finally Teran is overcome and the Sea Mither confines him to the ocean’s depths.  Every so often he attempts to break free which manifest as spring and summer storms.  

During this period the power of the Sea Mither quells the storms and seas allowing growth and renewal to take place all around.  The continued stress of keeping Teran confined and  maintaining the summer seas and weather  begins to wear down the Sea Mither.  

 Gore Vellye – The Autumn Tumult 

Around the time of the autumn equinox when the Sea Mither is at her weakest and Teran has regained his strength the conflict is renewed.  He breaks free from his prison and challenges the Sea Mither to regain supremacy and gain control of the weather and seas.  The Sea Mither having used up her strength in renewal, calming the seas and keeping her foe in check is defeated and Teran rules the seas and the weather.  

The Cycle

However, as was the case with Teran, defeat is temporary.  Come the vernal equinox she will be ready to take up the fight again and win back the sea and land and spring and summer will come again.

It is in the battle of the Sea Mither and Teran that the local people made sense of the forces that brought the changing seas and weather.  To personify these unseen forces makes them easier to understand and to come to terms with.  It is a tactic that is used all around the world by many different human cultures in an attempt to explain the invisible forces that bring such dramatic and crucial changes to their environment.

Balance and Harmony

This cycle was seen as important because although it is natural to want continuous and permanent summer that is not how nature works.  Neither does it work by providing continuous and permanent winter.  Each has its time of precedence and decline which comes in cycles and is necessary to provide balance and harmony to the earth.  In their own way one is essential as the other to the well-being of the Earth and life on the planet.   Although  lacking modern science and technology, the ancients knew this making sense of it and giving it due respect in their own way.

© 17/06/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 17th, 2020 zteve t evans

Orkney Folktales: A Close Tongue Keeps a Safe Head

by Childe Hassam – National Gallery of Art – CC0

Orkney and the Finfolk

Orkney, also known as the Orkney Islands, is an archipelago that is part of the Northern Isles. It is situated off the north coast of Scotland  consisting of about 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited.  Over time the islands evolved their own folklore with Scottish, Celtic and Norse influences. An important part of that folklore are the tales of the Finfolk who have an underwater city named Finfolkaheem.  They were said to spend the winter in Finfolkaheem and summer on a  magical hidden island paradise called Hildaland.  The Finfolk were a dark mysterious race of humanoid amphibians who moved easily between sea and land.   The following is a retelling of an Orcadian folktale from various sources listed below that tells of a strange encounter an Orkney boatman had with one of the Finfolk that he would regret for the rest of his life.

A Close Tongue Keeps a Safe Head

In Kirkwall, on Mainland, the main island of the Orkney archipelago, the Lammas fair was a popular event that brought people together from the other islands. Many, many, years ago at one such gathering a local boat owner named Tom, struck a deal with a tall, dark morose-looking stranger.  The stranger wanted him to ferry a cow to somewhere east of another island called Sanday. Maybe Tom should have insisted the stranger be more specific in his destination but as he offered twice the normal fee he was pleased to accept. With the agreement concluded and to the surprise of the boatman the stranger, without hesitation, easily lifted the cow off the ground and carried it on to the boat. Tom was astounded by the strength of the stranger but once all was ready set sail as was agreed. 

Tom was an amiable, affable person who liked to chat.  To begin with he chattered away to the stranger who simply glowered back in silence. Eventually he growled,

“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”

Tom was staggered at his rudeness but he was getting a good price so he ceased trying to be friendly and sociable and concentrated on sailing.  The sullen stranger was not good company and he began to feel embarrassed and uneasy.

The stranger would only speak to direct the boatman to sail to the east of each island they passed. At last the boatman, puzzled by the route he was being instructed to take asked exactly where he was taking them. The stranger turned his dark glowering eyes upon him and  growled,

“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”

Once again, although upset by his abruptness, Tom thought of his fee and decided to keep quiet and follow the  instructions of the surly stranger.

After a while they came into a thick fog which persisted for some distance and then quickly lifted.  As it lifted Tom saw before them a magical island that basked in a shimmering light.  He could hear the sweet singing of the mermaids who had sensed the presence of a human male and the possibility of a husband.   

As he eased his boat towards the shore the stranger insisted on  blindfolding him. It  dawned on him that the silent stranger was none other than one of the feared Finmen of local legend and he asked if that was so.  The strange gave his usual surely reply,

“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”

Wanting to fulfill his contract with the stranger as quickly as possible Tom agreed to the blindfold but as it went on he noticed how the mermaids stopped their beautiful singing and began shrieking and wailing. 

The blindfolded boatman could not see how easily the Finman lifted the cow from the boat and placed it on shore before returning to drop a bag of coins beside him.  The Finman then turned the boat widdershins against the course of the sun and against all sea lore and with a mighty shove pushed it out to sea.  No human mariner would have done such a thing and Tom was angry at the Finman for breaking the lore of the sea.

 When he took the blindfold off he found the enchanted island was gone but found the bag of coins by his side.  When he reached home he checked the bag finding the money was exactly what was agreed though all the coins were copper.  The Finmen will not part with their silver.

Twelve months passed and Tom again visited the Lammas Fair at Kirkwall.  To his surprise he was approached by the same stranger he met the previous year at the fair and invited him to drink a jar of ale with him. 

 “I am happy to see you again!”  

said Tom cheerfully to the stranger taking a long draught of ale. The stranger’s gloomy face grimaced and he growled, 

“Indeed, did you ever really see me?  Be sure you will never see me again!”

As he was speaking, he took out a small box containing a mysterious white powder.  Puffing his cheeks he blew some into the eyes of the stunned boatman.  After promptly downing his ale the stranger left.  The powder covered the eyes of Tom and from that day on he was blind and for the rest of his life bitterly lamented the day he had met the dark, sullen stranger.

© 20/05/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 20th 2020 zteve t evans

English Legends: The Strange Life of Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton was one of the most famous soothsayers in Britain and a familiar figure in English folklore and traditions. Stories about her were published in chap-books from the middle of the 17th century onward. These were usually embellished and exaggerated but succeeded in capturing the public’s attention even though many of her prophecies only appeared after her death. 

She was believed to have been born in the time of King Henry VII, in Knaresborough, Yorkshire in 1488 and named Ursula Sontheil.  There are several variant spellings of her surname. Her mother was believed to have been a poor single girl about fifteen years old named Agatha. According to legend she gave birth to her during a violent thunderstorm in a cave near the River Nidd. Despite being forced to appear before the local magistrate Agatha refused steadfastly to name the baby’s father. She appeared to have no family or friends to support her and lived alone in the cave bringing her baby daughter up the best she could. Eventually after two years the Abbot of Beverley heard of her plight and she was taken to a  distant nunnery. Baby Ursula was taken in by a local family but in the nunnery Agatha lost contact with her daughter and later died. As an adult, Ursula became known as Mother Shipton and the cave became known as Mother Shipton’s Cave and today is a popular tourist attraction.

Baby Ursula

According to tradition, Ursula was a very unattractive baby to such an extent that no one wanted to nurse her.  Eventually a foster mother was found who lived on the edge of Knaresborough.  Strange things happened around baby Ursula.  One legend tells how one morning her foster mother discovered she and her crib missing. She roused several neighbors who set about searching the home for clues to her whereabouts.  According to this legend the neighbors were attacked by strange ape-like imps and other unearthly entities that pricked and scratched them. Eventually, to the shock of all, baby Ursula was found still in her crib but suspended in mid-air halfway up the chimney. Eerie events of this kind happened on many occasions as she grew up.  Plates, crockery and ornaments would fly around the room and furniture would slide across the floor to a different position.  As she grew older her power of prophecy began to develop. 

Marriage

Unfortunately for Ursula, as she grew into a woman her looks did not improve and all descriptions of her are terribly unflattering.  With a thin and sharp face covered in warts and a large hooked nose she became the archetypal image of a witch. Despite her unfortunate appearance she was said to have married a carpenter from York named Tobias Shipton at the age of twenty four. Sadly, he died a few years later and the couple had no children. 

To  earn a living she appears to have taken on a role as a cunning woman and made potions and remedies out of herbs and flowers to alleviate health problems for local people.   She began making  prophecies and her fame spread far and wide and she became known as Mother Shipton.

Her Prophecies

There were many prophecies attributed to her including  events like the Spanish Armada in 1588,  English Civil War from  1642–1651,  Great Fire of London of 1666 and many other important events.  She was said to have prophesied her own death that occurred in 1561 at the age of seventy three.  One of her alleged prophecies that did not come true was the end of the world,

“The world to an end shall come

In eighteen hundred and eighty one.”

Like other prophets her predictions were placed in verses, rhymes and riddles that were difficult to interpret and ambiguous.  However, this technique did make them suitable for many  kinds of events and situations that arose. 

False Prophecies, Fake News

It was many years after her death when the first publications in the form of books and pamphlets appeared in 1641 and later in 1684. It is believed that the writers of these publications were creative in the use of facts and events and many events that happened after her death  were made to look like she had  predicted them.   

It may be that predictions sell and what is novel and unusual can strike a chord with the public who become eager for more information.  This increases the chances of writers and publishers making money which increases their creative juices to flow, while inventing new stories to sell to the gullible public.  Fake news is not a modern invention!

Richard Head who edited the 1684 publications was believed to have created her life story and the  descriptions of her on existing legend and folklore. This had been passed on orally and possibly twisted, embellished and exaggerated along the way. Although this makes it difficult to get to know the real person, or even if there was a real person behind the legends.

Mother Shipton’s Cave

The cave where Ursula was born and later lived is now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, or sometimes Old Mother Shiptons’s Cave.  It is situated near the River Nidd at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. Close by is the Petrifying Well that has been visited by paying sightseers  since 1630 making it the oldest entrance-charging tourist attraction in England.  The water in the well is high in carbonate and sulphate and immersed objects  eventually become encrusted in stone.

Mother Shipton’s Legacy

We will probably never know the real truth and full story of Mother Shipton or Ursula Sontheil and very often the truth turns out more interesting than the fiction. In many ways she is the archetypal witch with her strange and  lonely ways and her unfortunate physical appearance. All around the British Isles there are cases from history of women such as her who made a meager living from selling potions, telling fortunes or perhaps delivering babies. Sometimes they were known as cunning women or perhaps the local wise-woman.  Although they often lived on the edge of society they performed important roles that could not be done by those within.  In many cases the different behaviour they displayed might see them as being part of the autistic spectrum or perhaps some psychological disorder.  Nevertheless in her life, she seems to have achieved a reasonable degree of success with stories of how she could find lost or stolen objects and predict the future with some success. It seems that after her death her reputation was exaggerated and embellished by others to suit their own purposes and some scholars doubt she ever existed.

© 13/05/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright 13th May 2020, zteve t evans

Folklore, Superstitions and Customs around Hertfordshire Puddingstone

Image by Chris Reynolds – CC BY-SA 2.0

Puddingstone Folklore

Hertfordfordshire puddingstone is mostly found in areas of England in the county of Hertfordshire and  Plumstead Common in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in south-east London. It is a conglomerate silicrete composed of pebbles embedded in a mass of silica making it very hard and enduring.   There are different types made of different materials from different regions. Here we look at the folklore, traditions and superstitions that have become associated with Hertfordshire Puddingstone.  

Supernatural Qualities

In folklore and tradition Hertfordshire puddingstone was believed to possess certain supernatural qualities and local people long believed it protected against witchcraft.  According to the parish records of the village of Aldenham in 1662 a local witch had a piece of puddingstone placed upon her coffin lid before it was covered over to prevent her from returning from the dead (1). Because of the supernatural connotations it was also given various names reflecting this. For example it was also known as Witch stone, Hag stone, or Woe stone.

However, there was a less sinister side to puddingstone, though arguably more bizarre.  Although geologists are not in exact agreement how puddingstone was formed local people believed it grew from the ground and gave birth to new stones which also grew and gave birth. Proof of this was seen when it was split open revealing many smaller pebbles and stones stuck together inside and was called the Breeding stone.  Because it appears out of the ground and said to grow it was called the Growing stone. A piece of puddingstone was given to the happy couple at weddings possibly to promote their fertility and bring luck.

This tendency for it to appear from the ground made it troublesome for arable farmers who can damage their ploughs upon it but its association with breeding makes it a good luck charm for dairy farmers  and it was believed to increase milk production. Pieces of it were kept in the milking shed for this purpose.

Uses for Puddingstone

Puddingstone was used in construction of the Church of St John the Baptist. (2), During Roman times it was used as a millstone for grinding corn.  It was later built into the walls of a number of Hertfordshire churches such as the tower of the church of St. Nicholas in Harpenden.  Nevertheless, it was not widely used for building because although it was a good material it was scarce. 

Puddingstone was used for grave markers and coffin stones and it was placed on top of the coffin to protect the deceased from evil spirits.  It was also used in this way to ensure witches could not come back from the dead. In the churchyard of Great Gaddesden there are still large pieces of puddingstone marking the graves.

 Despite having an unattractive  surface similar to concrete when it was sliced and polished it became something very attractive and desirable.  After it had been sliced and highly polished the sliced surface displayed a variety of multicolored pebbles turning it into a very attractive and beautiful material.  In Victorian times it was made into ornaments, jewellery and small table tops (3).

Lucky Charms

There are many superstitions centered on puddingstone and local people often used pieces of it for a good luck charm.  Because of its associations with good fortune it was also placed in doorways and gate posts. People also carried a small piece in their pockets for luck.

Names of Puddingstone

As well as those already mentioned, Puddingstone has many alternative names that reflect the use it was put to.  For example, to ward against witches it was called Witchstone or Hagstone. For good luck and positive purposes it was called Angel stone. It was also known as Plum puddingstone because it looks like a plum or Christmas pudding when sliced.

© 08/4/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 8th, 2020 zteve t evans

Japanese Folktales: The Snow-White Inari Fox

Snow-White Fox by Shiokawa Bunrin – Public domain

The following is a retelling of a Japanese folktale called The Love of the Snow-White Fox, from a compilation by Frank Rinder called, Old-World Japan: Legends of the Land of the Gods.  The story is set in Old Japan in in the province of Izumo.  In these times evil ninko foxes, who with ogre-like creatures called oni, haunted the night.  Ninkos were invisible spirit-like foxes  that possessed humans but could only be sensed after possession had taken place. Any wandering man, child or maiden who had the misfortune to cross their path at night became their prey.  They robbed their poor victim of all they had, bewitched the maidens and carried off the little children.   All who dwelt in Izumo feared the night.

There were also other foxes who were not evil.  These were the rare snow-white Inari foxes that were good and kind.  The Inari fox was the enemy of the oni and the ninko foxes. Both Inari and ninko foxes were a type of Kitsune which are supernatural spirits or yōkai in Japanese folklore and mythology.

The snow-white Inari foxes guarded  the poor peasants, protected the little children and came to the aid of the poor, bewitched, maidens.  They were the servants and messengers of Inari, the spirit-god of fertility, fecundity agriculture, rice, sake, tea, prosperity and success.

The Love of the Snow-White Fox

This story begins many, many centuries ago when there lived a most beautiful Inari. She was snow-white with intelligent and piercing eyes and was kind and good and loved by all the people who looked forward to her visits.

She would take turns in whom she visited. The people would eagerly listen out at night for the knocking of her snow-white tail against the window and jump to let her in.  As soon as she was given entry she would play with the children and make a great fuss of everyone present. They would offer her a share of their humble fare which she would gratefully eat and then disappear into the darkness.  The Ninko foxes hated her because she protected all those who were kind to her. There were also hunters who wanted the blood of the beautiful, snow-white Inari. Several times she had come close to death at their hands.

On fine summer afternoons she would meet up with other foxes and they would frisk and play together in the sunshine.  One afternoon as she was playing with her friends two evil men caught sight of her and instantly wanted her blood.  They had fast dogs and themselves were fleet of foot. They unloosed their dogs whose yelping warned the Inari of her peril.  She bolted as fast as she could with the dogs and hunters hot on her trail. They expected her to make for the open plain but she took a different course.  She led the hunters on a long and difficult chase through the forest. Just as her strength was giving out she came to the Temple of Inari Daim-yojin and dashed inside seeking refuge under its hallowed auspices. 

Inside the temple was a young prince by the name of Yaschima.  He was of the most noble house of Abe and he was deep in meditation.  With her pursuers close behind and her strength failing fast she ran to the prince and took refuge in the long folds of his robes where she lay trembling in fear.

All though he was astonished Yaschima spoke kindly and softly to the snow-white fox promising he would protect her.  She looked up at the prince with her bright, intelligent eyes and understood. The prince went to the temple door just as the two hunters approached.  “Have you seen the white Inari?” they asked, “We believe we have one cornered in here and we want its blood.”

 “I know nothing of a white Inari! I have been here meditating and have seen no white fox,” replied the prince. As they were about to leave one of the men glanced down and saw the white tip of the Inari’ s bushy tail. “Ha, you lie,” snarled the hunter, “stand aside so that we can kill it!”

The Prince steadfastly refused and stood firm but the hunters were determined and attacked him.  In his defense the Prince drew his sword and as he struck out his elderly father appeared. Seeing his son beset by two assailants and despite his own age, he bravely rushed to his aid.  Yaschima struck but he had not seen his father and the blow struck him instead, killing him. Shocked and angry the Prince struck two more mighty blows each one dispatching an assailant.

With the fight finished Yaschima was overcome with grief for the loss of his father by his own hand.  As he grieved he became aware of sweet singing that filled the temple. As he turned, a beautiful maiden came slowly towards him and stood before him.  Looking into his eyes with her own bright eyes she saw he was deeply troubled and said, “Speak your heart!”

Yaschima looked into those bright eyes and told her of the white Inari and the hunters who would have killed her.  He told her of his father and of all the good things about him. With a broken heart and weeping he told her that it was by his hand that his father had died trying to help him.  The maiden spoke low words of kindness and sympathy. As she spoke the soft light of her eyes washed over him and he began to feel comforted.

Yaschima had never met such a maiden before who was so so pure and true and beautiful.  He fell deeply in love with her and begged her to be his bride. She replied,  “I would be your bride for I deeply love you. I know you are brave and your heart is pure and I would bring you comfort for the loss of your father.” The two were soon wed. Although his father remained always in his heart and memory he knew that his lovely wife was with him now and  he gave her all his love and attention.

The years passed and they were very happy together. With his Princess by his side the Prince ruled his people wisely and kindly.  Every morning they went to the temple together to give thanks to the good god Inari for the joy and love they shared. The Princess gave her husband a beautiful baby son and they named him Seimei. They were very happy for a long time but there came a time when the Princess began to take herself off alone and sit and weep for hours on end.  Deeply troubled by her sadness, Yaschima asked her what ailed her.  She shook her head and sadly looked away, her bright eyes dim and full of tears. There came a day when she went to her husband and taking both his hands she looked into his eyes and said,

“My Prince, my husband and my friend our life has been very wonderful together.  I have given you a fine son that you love very much and he will always be with you.  I have heard the voice of my god Inari and he calls me daily. He tells me I must leave you but for you and our son I have no fear.  Inari says he will guard you and our son as you guarded me when the hunters came to steal my blood. You should know that the snow-white fox you shielded and saved, though it cost you your father, was myself.”

One last time she looked deeply into his eyes and with no other word slowly faded before him and was gone. Yaschima, although devastated, gave thanks for the time they had enjoyed together and for his son Seimei.  He brought him up to be good, kind and true and to be respectful of Inari. The people of the province loved the Prince and his son but the snow-white fox was never seen again but her presence remained clear and bright in the heart of Prince Yaschima and his son.

© 25/03/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 25th, 2020 zteve t evans

Bats in Myth, Legend and Folklore from Around the World

Original photo: אורן פלס Oren Peles Derivative work: User:MathKnight [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)]

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

Strange Creatures

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.

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English Folk Heroines: Maid Marian

Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938 Warner Bros. [Public domain]

Maid Marian  

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.

Modern Marian

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.

© 07/01/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 7th, 2020 zteve t evans

Beowulf: The Slaying of Grendel and the Water Witch

J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

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 valleyAt 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 Beautiful will 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.

Queen Wealtheow Pouring Wine – J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

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

Grendel by J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

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

Beowulf and the Water Witch by J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

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.

© 20/11/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 20th, 2019 zteve t evans

Japanese Folktales: The Dream of Akinosuke – Ants, Dreaming Humans and the Butterfly Soul

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Ants, Butterflies and Dreaming Humans

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.

The Procession

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. 

The 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.

The Marriage Of Akinosuke

Source

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,

Return Home

“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,” teased the 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. 

The Butterfly

Source

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.

Akinosuke cried,

” 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.

The End

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?

© 23/10/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 23rd, 2019 zteve t evans