Five Trees Featured in Celtic Lore

Image by mbll from Pixabay

This article was first published on 21st January 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com under the title Top 5 Trees in Celtic Mythology, Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans.

Animists

It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. Of course, wood was also used for everyday needs such as fire wood and making shelters, spears, arrows, staffs and many other items. Trees also supplied nuts and berries for themselves and their animals as food. Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore and presented here are five trees that played an important role in these tales and lore.

Oak Trees

The oak was the king of the forest having many associations throughout the Celtic world with religion, ritual and myth and many practical uses.  For the Druids – the Celtic priesthood – it was an integral part of their rituals and was also used as a meeting place. According to the 1st-century geographer Strabo, Druids in Galatia, Asia Minor, met in a sacred grove of oak trees they named Drunemeton, to perform rituals and conduct other Druidic businessIn 1 CE, Pliny the Elder, writing in Historia Naturalis, documented how a Druidic fertility rite held on the sixth day of the moon involved a Druid cutting mistletoe from the branches of an oak and the ritual sacrifice of two white bulls.

Oaks also played important parts in Welsh mythology. In the Math fab Mathonwy, the last of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the sorcerers Gwydion and Math create a maiden they named Blodeuwedd or flower-faced from the blossoms of the oak, the broom and meadowsweet. She was created to be the bride of their nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who could not marry a human woman due to a curse placed on him by Arianrhod, his mother.  He married Blodeuwedd who never learnt the social conventions never having experienced the learning process of growing up. She had an affair with Gronw Pebyrv and together they plotted to kill Lleu. He was badly wounded by Gronw but turning into an eagle flew into an oak tree to escape being murdered. The oak appeared to be a refuge between the living world and the world of death and he remained there until Gwydion found and cured him.

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Tales of the Lost, the Drowned and the All-Seeing Eye – Vengeance Will Come!

Human Activity

There are many cases in recent times where towns and villages have been deliberately flooded by humans where a change in the landscape was required for purposes such as to form a reservoir for fresh water. These are usually well-documented and their history known though folklore and legends may evolve from them.

Legends

All around the world there are also legends of towns, cities and lands that have been destroyed or lost, leaving only rumor and myths of their existence and demise.  Many such places were rich and successful, well established and populous, making their loss all the more tragic and mystifying. These legends often tell of a catastrophic natural event such as a flood caused by high tides, storms or perhaps covered by sand or snow.  Sometimes it is some geological phenomenon such as an earthquake and sometimes this is combined with a natural event or act of war. The loss of such well-established and prosperous places left a deep impression on following generations.  Myths and legends evolved to explain the cataclysmic event and very often these were carefully crafted to provide a warning to following generations of the consequences of breaking God’s laws or their excessive pride or hubris.

Myth of Origin

These places were very often situated on a site that became transformed by a disastrous natural event in t a new feature of the landscape.  An inland town situated in a valley may be covered by a watery lake.   A town situated by the sea may be flooded and drowned by the waves or covered by sand becoming a massive dune.  A town in the mountains may be covered by snow and ice becoming a glacier. The story created to explain the disaster may be mostly fictional but based on some historic cataclysm like a powerful storm, earthquake or other natural disaster that actually happened.  Sometimes these myths and legends can help archaeologists and scientists investigate real disasters that happened long ago.  In some cases such disasters are well documented from the time but the legends and myths evolve after.

Cautionary Tales

These events when combined with the mysterious origin of some well known feature in the landscape create a compelling story that can have a profound and lingering effect on those it is told to.  Especially when the narrator is a local priest or who uses the story to impress upon their audience the consequences of offending the Almighty.  Although such myths and legends are often designed to uphold Christianity, other religions and philosophies have also used such techniques for this purpose. In some case it is pagan deities or spirits that have been angered in some way by rulers or citizens.  Although warnings may be given they are ignored invoking the wrath of the powerful divinity to wreak some form of divine retribution.

Divine Vengeance

Once divine retribution is invoked the fate of the town is sealed. Often it unfolds as a weather event such a rain, sand or snow storm.  Once divine retribution manifests the end is inevitable. All that will remain will be the myths and legends of a once rich and prosperous society that was drowned, buried or destroyed along with most of its population. Perhaps a lake or some other feature of the landscape appears where the town once stood.

From this a talented storyteller can weave a tale that will work quietly among following generations for centuries that impresses and extols the danger of angering the all powerful deity. In this way a naturally occurring catastrophic event such as a storm or earthquake may be transformed into something altogether more sinister and in many ways more dangerous. Very often it becomes the judgement of God that is dispensing retribution for wrongdoing on an immoral and corrupt society. This and similar themes are quite common in these legends. Warnings of impending retribution and vengeance are offered in an attempt to change people’s behaviour but are ignored. Punishment is inflicted often destroying that society in its entirety not just the perpetrators. Sometimes a few are saved but often the innocent perish along with the guilty.

Collective Guilt

There is a concept of collective guilt that runs through generations until some chosen time when punishment is enacted. Sometimes vengeance is suspended for several generations and the deviant behaviour forgotten by people.  Sometimes it becomes part of normal behaviour.  Nevertheless, the Almighty works at his own pace and punishment eventually arrives when least expected with devastating consequences. This does seem harsh on those who were not born when the original sin was committed but it seems there is an expectation to strive to recognize and put right the wrongs of the past. The message is that the sins of one, even when committed in the past, must not be tolerated either at the time, or perpetuated in the future. What is sown will eventually be reaped in a time and in a way that suits the Almighty. This obligation to right and discontinue past wrongs does not mean that they be wiped from history or that they should be.  It is important to keep records of such wrongs and our attempts to right them to monitor our own evolution and to make sure we do not make the same mistakes again.

The All-Seeing Eye

There is a sense that the individual and collective behaviour of people is being watched by some all-seeing eye.  It sees and knows all our deeds and looks into our hearts and minds making judgements upon us. Legends such as these warn that we are always being watched and judged and even our innermost thoughts are known to the Almighty.  They emphasize we must remember and obey the laws of God and will be held answerable for any transgressions at anytime in the present or future no matter how long ago the indiscretion.  Furthermore, we have a collective responsibility that runs through the past, present and future to keep ourselves and others in society on the straight and narrow. The message is the all-seeing eye sees everything and in a manner and time that suits the Almighty we will reap what we sow and then –

“Vengeance will come!”

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Hertfordshire Folklore: Jack O’ Legs

Jack1956, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jack O’ Legs

In the folklore of Hertfordshire, England, Jack O’ Legs was a giant and legendary outlaw who helped the poor people of his locality.  He was a good archer and used a huge bow to match his size. He was said to live in a cave in the Weston Hills or Weston Wood near the village of Weston which is about four miles from Stevenage and two and a half miles from Baldock.  The site of Jack’s cave is a field called “The Cave” and the adjacent field is called “Weston Wood.”   (1)

Jack Strikes

Although the area has been continuously settled by humans through the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age times to the modern town of Baldock was established by the Knights Templars sometime in or after 1140 (2). According to tradition after a poor harvest had caused the bakers of Baldock to increase the price of flour and consequently bread beyond the price of the poor. Jack, feeling sorry for the poor people of Weston, decided to act.  On the Great North Road near Gravelly there is a steep incline known as “Jack’s Hill.” which is where he would ambush the bakers and steal their flour to distribute it to the poor people of Weston.

The Bakers Strike Back

The bakers in revenge managed to arrest Jack and he was put on trial under the practice of infangthief (3).  This was originally an Anglo-Saxon practice that allowed a lord of the manor to put to death a thief caught on his land.   He was found guilty, blinded and told he would face the gallows and given a final wish.  Jack was said to have asked to be allowed to shoot a final arrow and the spot that it landed was where he wanted to be buried.  This was allowed and his bow and an arrow was given to him and he was orientated as to his directions.  He shot the arrow which flew three miles to land in the churchyard of the Holy Trinity Church in Weston.  After his execution that is where he was said to have been buried.   According to legend his grave lies between two stones in the churchyard about fourteen feet apart allegedly marking where his head and feet lay and giving  an idea of how tall he was said to be.   

Oral Tradition

Whatever we know about Jack and it is not really very much has been passed on orally from generation to generation since early medieval times.   In 1521 John Skelton wrote a poem called “Speak Parrot” criticizing Cardinal Wolsey which contained a line ‘The gibbett of Baldock was made for Jack Leg’.  From this  it is believed the legend must be known at  that time as he appeared to expect his audience to understand the line.  

 Certain parts of the story may be true such as there being a shortage of flour and its increase in price.  This would possibly have led to difficulty in being able to buy it for poor people causing resentment.  It may  even have made someone angry or desperate enough to do something about it.  Step forward Jack, but while it is possible it cannot be proved. It may be that the legend is a folk memory of an exceptionally tall robber who once existed and was generous with his ill gotten gains to the people of Weston and the  locality who would  probably have been thankful for his largess. The story of him being buried where his arrow landed may have been added later as an embellishment and he may have been buried in Weston churchyard because he was born in its parish.  It may be that each generation added a little to the story taking  it to its present stage.  

Nevertheless, it is a good story and gives the area a popular and colorful folk hero and center of interest as his depiction in the above mural in the Grange Junior School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire shows.   

        © 03/12/2020 zteve t evans                   

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright zteve t evans December 3rd, 2020

Psychopomps in Breton Myths and Folktales: Entering the Afterlife

Breton Folklore

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

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

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

Psychopomps

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

The Ankou

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

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

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

Nola and  Gwennolaïk

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

Strange Dreams

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

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

The Stepmother

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

The Fair Knight

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

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

Disappointment

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

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

Marriage

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

Fever

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

Nola Returns

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

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

A Magical Journey

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

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

Folkloric Motifs

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

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

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

Nola as a Psychopomp

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

Guiding the Soul to the Afterlife

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

© 19/11/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 19th, 2020 zteve t evans

Animals and Injustice: Exploring The Motif of the Faithful Hound

Gelert – en:Charles Burton Barber – Public Domain

Motif of the Faithful Hound

In the study of folktales and folklore there is a classification system known as the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU Index) which catalogues folktale types.  It is not a perfect system and not not all folklorists recognise it but it can provide some useful insights.  Presented here is a discussion of the folkloric motif of The Faithful Hound, classified as Aarne–Thompson-Uther type 178A, that is found in a number of folktales from many different parts of the world. 

In this work we will briefly discuss human relationships with animals followed by a look at the main structure of the tale tale type of The Faithful Hound.  Three examples of such tales from different countries will be retold before concluding with a few reflections that may offer a deeper insight into the story.

Animal Helpers

Animals have always been popular characters in folk and fairy tales reflecting the close relationship humans share with them.  They have long been an integral part of our daily lives, still are today and undoubtedly will be in the future. We eat them, make clothes and other items from them, use them for many different kinds of work, but best of all welcome them into our homes as pets and companions.  Sadly, sometimes we mistreat them. Therefore, it is not surprising they are often featured in our stories, myths, legends, traditions and customs and make wonderful subjects for artists to paint.

The Story Structure

The structure of the tale type of The Faithful Hound is simple and unfolds roughly in the order shown below:

  • A fairly high-ranking person has a much loved pet and a baby
  • The baby of the high ranking person is left in the care of a parent or child nurse who negligently leaves the child alone.
  • A dangerous animal appears and threatens the baby.
  • The pet heroically defends the baby.
  • The dangerous animal is killed by the heroic pet
  • The jubilant pet greets its master/mistress.
  • A hasty and injudicious  judgement is made on the spot.
  • The pet is killed
  • The baby is found safe and sound. 
  • The body of a dangerous animal is found.
  • The parent suffers remorse, sorrow and grief because of their hasty decision and because they loved the pet.
  • There is a prevailing sense of disappointment and betrayal over the hasty decision by the high ranking person.

The structure of the story remains fairly consistent around the world.  The heroic and dangerous creatures differ from place to place to suit local conditions.  The human involved usually remains fairly high ranking in that society.

The Earliest Version

Possibly the earliest version comes from India. It is found in the Panchatantra, a book of Sanskrit verse, dated to about 200 BCE and called “The Loyal Mungoose” and later “The Brahmin’s Wife and the Mongoose.”  In these versions the heroic animal is a mongoose and the dangerous creature is a snake.  There are three humans involved; an infant, a Brahmin and the Brahmin’s wife.  In In Hinduism a Brahmin is someone of fairly high status such as a priest, teacher or trader so the story involves quite an important family in Indian society.

A mongoose is a natural enemy of snakes and vermin in the same way cats are enemies of rodents.  Therefore, a mongoose may seem like a sensible pet in places where snakes are common.  The following is my retelling of that story.

Finn, Frank – Public domain

The Brahmin’s Wife and the Mongoose

The wife of a Brahmin had a single son and she also had a pet mongoose that she loved as if it was her second son.  She brought the two up together treating both as her babies and they both suckled from her breast. One day as her son is sleeping she tells her husband, the Brahmin, she is going to fetch water from the local well and takes up a heavy stone jar to carry it in.   She warns him that he must keep his eye on their son because even though she loves the mongoose she mistrusts it because it is an animal. 

After she had gone, her husband became hungry and went off to find food leaving the child completely unprotected. While he was out a venomous snake slithered into the house and made its way towards the helpless child.  The mongoose having been closely brought up with the baby boy regarded him as its brother.  Therefore in his brother’s defense it attacked the snake, killed it and tore it to pieces. In jubilation at its victory in defense of its brother the mongoose ran to meet the mother with the snake’s blood smeared all over its mouth and face.

On meeting the jubilant mongoose the woman is horrified to see the blood around its mouth and on its face. Hastily she jumps to the conclusion that the mongoose had killed and eaten her baby son.  In anger and grief she hits the animal with the heavy stone jar she carries, killing it. Rushing home to her great joy and relief she finds the baby is safe and sound.  Close by lies the torn up body of the deadly snake and she realizes her mistake.   She is overcome with remorse and shame for her hasty judgement in killing the mongoose whom she had indeed loved as a son.  

Eventually, her husband returned bearing food but now the distraught mother turned her anger towards him,  “Greedy, foolish man!” She cried, ” All because of your greed and foolishness I must now endure the sorrow of death!”

The most obvious point is the hasty and unjust killing of the mongoose.  However,  there is also the question of the right and wrongs of loving an animal as much as a human and raising it like a human child.  The neglect of the Brahmin is also significant.

The Story’s  Journey

The story traveled west towards Europe and east further into Asia with variation of animals and story but keeping similar motifs, themes and structures.  A Persian version has a cat as the heroic animal.  From Malaysia comes a story of a pet bear that saves the daughter of a Malay hunter from a killer tiger only to be hastily and unjustly killed by the hunter who feared it had killed his daughter.  His daughter is found safe leaving the hunter full of shame and regret for his hasty killing of the bear.

In some cases stories such as these may have evolved independently in distant locations without human transmission.  This is not as mysterious as it may seem.  Although there are many different human cultures and societies we share many of the same needs and values as each other.  We also share similar emotions and fears and everyone likes a good story.

Guinefort: A French Version

In Europe, the heroic animal became either a dog or hound  and the dangerous animal a snake or a wolf.  In France the story also provides an explanation of the origin of the cult of the greyhound folk saint called Guinefort and presented below is a retelling of that story.

The Legend of Guinefort 

A knight living in a castle near Lyon in France had a faithful greyhound named Guinefort.  The dog had shown a great attachment and affinity with his infant son. Such was his placid nature and gentle disposition the knight trusted him completely to be left alone with the infant whom he loved dearly.   

One day the knight and his wife left his son in the company of Guinefort while he went out hunting.  Such  was  his unwavering faith in his dog’s affinity with his son, the knight had no reservations about leaving the sleeping  boy with the greyhound lying protectively by his side in the nursery.

After a good day of hunting he returned to find the nursery in disarray with the cot overturned and no sign of his infant son.  Guinefort greeted his master with delight jumping and fawning at his feet.  The shocked knight, seeing the disarray and the signs of violence, the blood on the dog’s jaws and not seeing his son anywhere, believed that Guinefort had killed the baby.  In grief and anger he drew his sword and struck the greyhound down.

As the dog lay dying the knight heard the sound of a baby crying underneath the overturned cot.  There, to his relief and joy  he found his infant safe and sound.  Looking around the scene he saw torn and tattered remains of a great viper that had somehow got into the nursery threatening the life of his son.  It then dawned on him as he looked about what had happened.  On discovering the threat to the baby, Guinefort had attacked and killed the viper at great risk to himself to defend the infant.  

The knight was now ashamed of his killing of the dog.  He and his family lowered the body of Guinefort down a well and sealed it with stone.  They then planted trees and flowers around it and turned it into a shrine dedicated to the memory of the faithful hound who had suffered such injustice. The shrine of Guinefort became a popular place where local people brought their babies for healing and the greyhound became a folk saint of the people.   Furthermore, it is said that God punished the knight by decimating his castle and lands.

The Welsh Version

In Wales, the savior animal was also a faithful dog but the threat came from a wolf.  The dog’s name was Gelert and was either a greyhound or wolfhound depending on the versions.  He belonged to Prince Llywelyn the Great, one of the most influential nobles in the history of Wales who was married to King John’s daughter, Joan.  

Byam Shaw / Public domain

The story was used as a selling point by David Prichard, an enterprising Victorian publican of the Goat Inn, Beddgelert, Snowdonia.  He used the romantic elements of Gelert’s story to attract customers to his pub which is conveniently close to the supposed grave of the courageous hound. Although the publican may have commercialized and added to the story, the structure is far older than the Victorian era and from much further afield than Wales. The following retelling of the story tells how the prince was a great huntsman and Gelert was his favorite hunting dog.

The Legend of Gelert

One day while out hunting with his wife Prince Llywelyn noticed his best hunting dog named Gelert has gone missing.  Feeling concerned about their favorite hound  they return home.

The scene that greets them fills them with horror and fear. There is blood all over the floor and the baby’s cradle is lying askew on the ground. The baby’s blankets are bloody and strewn around the room and no sign of the infant can be seen. Stricken with grief and anger Llewelyn draws his sword and plunges it into the dog. As Gelert dies he lets out a cry that is answered by the baby boy lying out of sight behind the fallen cradle. 

Llewelyn gently lifts the cradle to discover his baby son safe and unharmed. Lying alongside him was the body of a massive wolf covered in blood with its throat ripped out. Instantly, the Prince understood what had happened. The wolf had entered the lodge while the nurse and servants were out leaving the child unprotected. 

Gelert must have had some kind of premonition of the baby’s danger and had returned to the lodge in time to save the child and fight and kill the wolf. Now, it is said the Prince Llywelyn was so distraught from grief and guilt from his hasty deed that he never smiled again. Llywelyn buried Gelert in honor in a nearby meadow and placed stones over the body.”  – The legend of Gelert

Points to Consider

It is interesting that the savior animal changed from a humble mongoose in India  to a greyhound or wolfhound in Europe.  Greyhounds and wolfhounds were once the hunting dogs of the rich and powerful.  They were greatly prized and important animals even featuring on the coat-of-arms of many of Europe’s elite.

Both the masters of  Gelert and Guinefort were rich and powerful of very high status and seen as exemplars of behaviour as was the Brahmin.  At the same time the dangerous animal was a snake with the mongoose story, a viper with Guineforte’s story and a wolf with Gelert.

This type of story is embedded with powerful emotions.  We can identify with the love, fear and grief a parent experiences when entering such scenes of carnage and even empathize with their hasty killing of the pet.  With the sweet moment the child is found  safe and sound comes a bitter twist with the awful realization they have made a terrible mistake. We also identify with the unfortunate pet who we believe has behaved heroically and proved itself loyal and faithful, only to be condemned and killed unjustly in an instant, hasty act of gratuitous revenge.

The tale explores the positive human virtues of love, faith and loyalty that come into conflict with the negative human traits of negligence, selfishness and impetuous and unthinking behaviour. The Brahmin neglects his charge to satisfy his own hunger while the French knight and the Welsh prince leave others in charge of their infant and go out hunting to satisfy their own pleasure. 

It is a cautionary tale warning that even the great and the good can make mistakes to the injury of the innocent when acting in haste, or while satisfying their own pleasures.  The stories also subtly  emphasize the power of life and death the influential characters held over their servants and their responsibility in making just and correct decisions.  

In their unjust killing of their pets, the pet owners are seen to have let themselves down by their haste and poor judgement of the event because they failed to properly investigate the situation.  This is especially worrying when the innocent are loyal and faithful servants who should have a right to a fair trial and a fair judgement. 

Punishment

The stories highlight a real and important matter that affects everyone because even Brahmins, knights and princes have social codes and morals they are expected to adhere to.  In killing their loyal pets in such an unworthy manner the masters revealed their unworthiness and were punished for it.  The Brahmin’s wife was forced to endure the sorrow of death, the French knight lost his castle and his land and Prince Llywelyn the Great never smiled again.  Are these tales nothing more than stories to tell the children that tug at the heartstrings, or is there something else going on?  

Do Not Act In Haste!

The obvious moral of the story is not to act in haste, but if we accept  that explanation on the face of it are we not simply acting in haste?  For those who wish to take this further they may look at the meaning of haste and hastiness and examine this alongside the model of how their own personal religion or philosophy may place expectations of behavior upon them in such circumstances. 

© 12/11/2019 zteve t evans

Reference, Attribution and Further Reading

2Copyright November 12th, 2020 zteve t evans

Giant Tales: Goram and Vincent and the Origin of the Avon Gorge

Public Domain – Source

Myths of Origin

All around the British Isles there are myths and legends that tell how giants and giantesses have shaped the landscape, often forming significant landmarks.   Here we look at two who are credited with forming the Avon Gorge and other parts of the landscape around the Bristol area in South West England.

The Giant Brothers 

 In the most well known version of the story there were two giants named Goram and Vincent who were brothers.  In some older tales Goram’s brother is named Ghyston and not Vincent.  There is a tradition that the change came because Bristol was an important port in the Middle Ages and had commercial connections with the Iberian wine business.  As well as wine this led to the importing of the cult of Saint Vincent who was the patron of São Vicente, Lisbon; Diocese of Algarve; Valencia; Vicenza, Italy, vinegar-makers, wine-makers; Order of Deacons of the Catholic Diocese of Bergamo (Italy) (1).

The cliff face of the Avon Gorge was once known as Ghyston Rocks or sometimes just Ghyston in earlier times and there was a cave known as either Ghyston’s Cave or the Giant’s Hole. Situated at th narrowest part of the Avon Gorge was an ancient hermitage and chapel dedicated to St. Vincent.  The cave became known as St Vincent’s cave and it seems the “Ghyston” became “Vincent” and that is the name he will be referred to this work.

Avona, the Giantess

Both brothers fell in love with a giantess from Wiltshire named Avona who the River Avon takes its name from. She was the female personification of the river and  possibly a distant memory of an ancient goddess or spirit. Avona could not decide who she preferred between Vincent and Goram so she set them a task that would display their talents.  According to this myth there was once a lake situated between Bristol and Bradford-upon-Avon in the neighboring county of Wiltshire.  She proposed that the one who managed to drain the lake first would win the right to marry her. After giving much thought to the problem the giants came up with different ideas on how to achieve the task.  Vincent chose to dig a channel on the south side of Clifton while Goram chose to dig a different channel that went through Henbury.

Both giants set to work and while Vincent toiled at a steady pace Goram worked furiously determined to be the winner.  He worked so hard that eventually he became hot and sweaty and in need of a drink.  He was a long way in front of Vincent and he thought he could afford to take a break and quench his thirst.  So he sat down in his favorite chair and quaffed a  large tankard of ale.  It tasted so good and cooled him down so much he drank another, and another and another.  He drank so much he fell asleep.   

Meanwhile Vincent, who had paced himself better, finished his channel and drained the lake.  From this story comes an explanation of how the narrow gorge the Hazel Brook flows through in Henbury and the Avon gorge which the River Avon passes through and other features of the landscape.

Goram’s Footprint

On the nearby Blaise Estate,   In woods above Henbury Gorge is a formation supposedly created when Goram stamped his foot when he found out he had lost Avona to Vincent.  He was so distraught he drowned himself in the River Severn estuary creating two islands, one called Steep Holm and the other called Flat Holm which are said to be his head and shoulder.  There are also two other features attributed to him in Henbury gorge.  The first is a short pillar topped with earth called the Soap-Dish and the second is a pool.

The Giant’s Footprint, Blaise Castle Estate – by
Mojo0306CC BY-SA 4.0

Another Version

In another version the characters of the two brother giants are as different as chalk and cheese.  Vincent was presented as being energetic and productive whereas Goram was considered to be a greedy idler.  One day Goram had the idea that they should do something so that people in the future would remember them. He suggested they build a massive monument to themselves out of rocks that were to be supplied by Vincent and the bones that were leftovers from his gorging of himself with food.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vincent declined but instead suggested they work together and build a most beautiful channel for the river to run through.  This seemed a bit like too much hard work for Goram who watched as his brother set about the task working steadily and energetically towards his goal.  As Goram watched his brother progress he realized that Vincent’s name would live on forever through the fruits of his labor and grew jealous.  Therefore, so that his own name would not be forgotten he began building his own channel some three miles distant from Vincent’s.

The Death of Goram

Having  no pick-axe of his own he borrowed his  brother’s and being a lazy fellow the first thing he did was use it to cut a chair in the rock so that he could sit and rest from toil.  The brothers took it in turns to use the pick-axe.  They would shout a warning and hurl it through the air the three miles or so one to the other.  One day Goram fell asleep in his chair and never heard his brother shout a warning and the pick-axe hit him on the head, breaking his skull, killing him.

Death of Vincent

Vincent was distraught at his brother’s death, entirely blaming himself.  From then on he put all of his energy into his work making the beautiful gully we know as the Avon gorge which the River Avon flows through today.  Despite his achievement and his hard labour he still felt guilty about his brother’s unfortunate death and to use up his pent up energy built a stone circle at Stonehenge and another at Stanton Drew.  Even these labors had not used  up all his energy so he swam over to Ireland and built the Giant’s Causeway which finally tired him out.  He was exhausted by his labors and still feeling guilt and grief for the death of his brother whom he missed greatly.  In despair he returned home to spend the last hours of his life sitting upon the rocks looking out over the beautiful gorge he had dug that the River Avon flowed through.

These are just two versions of the legends of how the Avon gorge and parts of the surrounding landscape were formed.  There are many other versions and many other legends from the rest of the British Isles crediting giants with making  features  of the landscape.

© 30/09/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 30th, 2020 zteve t evans

Five Fabled Birds in Legend and Folklore

This article was first published on 23rd January 2020 titled Top Five Mythical Birds in Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans on #FolkloreThursday.com

Five Fabled Birds

The alkonost, the sirin, the caladrius, the roc and the phoenix are all five mythical birds from legend and folklore. Each were attributed their own magical qualities and roles by various human societies in history and presented here is a brief description of these five fabled creatures.

The Alkonost

In Russian legends, the alkonost was a creature with the head of a woman and the body of a bird. It could sing the most enchanting melodies. Those who heard its song let go of everything they had ever known, desiring nothing more as long as they lived.

Before Christian influence, the alkonost was believed to live on the magical island of Buyan. Similar to a bird of paradise in appearance, it was considered to be a wind spirit, able to summon up storms. The alkonost lays her eggs on the gently sloping seashore and moves them into the sea to hatch. Their hatching causes the sea to become rough while a thunderstorm manifests and they are considered to be wind spirits.In Christian times, the home of the alkonost became the Garden of Eden, while she became God’s messenger to the saints, singing them wonderful songs to inspire and encourage them.

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Welsh Folklore: The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 28th November, 2019, as The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd and Oldest Animals in the World, by zteve t evans

The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd

In Welsh legend and myth the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd lived in the woods that once surrounded Llyn Cowlyd. Today the woods are gone but the legends live on in two tales that feature a search for the oldest and wisest animals in the world. In the first the owl is said to be among the oldest animals in the world, whereas in the second the owl is attributed as being the oldest.

Culhwch and Olwen

The first is ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, an action packed hero tale from the Red Book of Hergest, written just after 1382. It was also contained in fragments in the White Book of Rhydderch, written about 1320. Both books were sources for the Mabinogion, a compilation of early Welsh oral stories by Lady Charlotte Guest from which the first of these tales draws.

Culhwch was the son of King Cilydd and his wife, Goleuddydd, who died soon after giving birth to him. Cilydd remarried, but Culhwch became estranged from his step-mother after she tried to persuade him to marry her daughter from another marriage. Culhwch refused and she took offence, casting a spell on him so that the only woman he could marry was Olwen, the beautiful daughter of the dangerous giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, in the belief that it would be impossible.

Despite never having met or even seen Olwen, Culhwch became obsessed and besotted by her. His father told him he would never be able to find her alone and must seek out the assistance of his cousin, King Arthur. Culhwch visited Arthur and was given a band of heroic companions to aid him in his quest. They eventually found Ysbaddaden and Olwen but the giant insisted that to marry his daughter, Culhwch must perform a series of tasks he believed to be impossible.

One of the tasks required him to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron, whose whereabouts was unknown, but was essential to the overall success of the quest. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar, the Twrch Trwyth. The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth is the hunting dog named Drudwyn, and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon. The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place.

The Oldest Animals in the World

In the hope that one of the oldest and wisest animals in the world might know where he  was, advice was sought from the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led hem to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd. The owl told them …

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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

Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen

Imaged by Frederic Shields [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] (Cropped) Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published under the title of British Legends: Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen on #FolkloreThursday.com, 28/02/2019 by zteve t evans

The Faerie Queen

The epic unfinished poem, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, published 1590-96, created a parallel of the medieval universe that alluded to events and people in Elizabethan society. The narrative draws on Arthurian influences, legend, myth, history, and politics, alluding to reforms and controversial issues that arose in the times of Elizabeth I and Mary I. It is an allegorical work that both praised and criticised Queen Elizabeth I, who is represented in the poem by Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. The six human virtues of holiness, chastity, friendship, temperance, justice, and courtesy are all represented by a knight. Spenser raises many questions about Elizabethan society, especially about the role of women in maintaining the patriarchal order. This is represented by a spectacular battle between Britomart, the Knight of Chastity, and Radigund, the Amazon Queen.

Britomart the Knight of Chastity

Britomart is a virginal female knight, who not only represents chastity but is also associated with English virtue, especially military power. The Brit part of her name comes from “Briton while martis comes from the Roman god of war, Mars, meaning war-like person. From an early age she refrained from the traditional activities of girls at the time, and was trained in the use of weapons and combat, preferring such typically masculine activities. She dressed in the armour of a knight, acted like a knight, fought like a knight, and wielded a magical black spear.

After a long quest and many adventures seeking him, Britomart married Artegall, the Knight of Justice whom she had seen in the magic looking glass belonging to Merlin. Yet, as was often the way with knights, Artegall was bound to a quest he could not abandon without losing his honour. Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, had given him the task of rescuing the Lady Eirena from the tyrant Grantorto. It was his chivalric duty to complete the quest or die trying. Despite her sorrow at his leaving, Britomart knew she had to allow her husband to complete his quest, and looked forward to his return.

Queen Radigund, the Warrior Queen

On his quest, Artegall, accompanied by Talos, an iron-man who helped him in the dispensation of justice, came to the country of the Amazons, ruled by the warrior Queen Radigund. She fought against any knight who arrived in her realm and would not submit to her will. After conquering them, she forced them to obey her every command or die. Radigund made all defeated knights remove their armour and against their will wear female clothing, forcing them to work by spinning thread, sewing, washing clothes, and other tasks that women usually did. If any refused or complained, she executed them.

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