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

Legendary Ship’s Cats


Image by IsaszaCC BY 4.0Source
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com titled Ship’s Cats in Legend and Folklore written by zteve t evans.

Ship’s Cats

Ship’s cats have been sailing the seven seas alongside humans for centuries. They were not usually taken along as pets or tourists, but performed an essential role controlling vermin. Rodents managed to find their way on to most types of ships and cats being a natural enemy were taken along to reduce their number.

Vermin Control

Rats and mice could cause all sorts of problems for sailors. Ships carried many different types of cargo and the profits of the ship owners and crew depended on keeping that cargo as safe as possible. Rodents would eat and contaminate anything edible such as grain or food and ships also carried sufficient provisions and stores for the crew which needed protection. Rodents also gnaw and chew inedible items such as rope or woodwork causing problems with the working of the ship. In modern ships, electric cables or hoses were also vulnerable to rodent attack, often leading to fires or breakdowns. Rodents carried disease, and in the small enclosed community of a ship infections could spread rapidly. Cats, being natural predators, made a good choice for rodent control onboard while offering companionship to the sailors.

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Welsh Folklore: The Mythical Beasts of Llyn Cowlyd

cat jackson / Llyn Cowlyd / CC BY-SA 2.0

Llyn Cowlyd

Llyn Cowlyd is a long and narrow lake almost two miles long and about a third of a mile wide situated in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales.  It is the deepest lake in northern Wales and has given soundings of 229 feet. Today it is used as a reservoir and its depths have been raised twice from its natural depth and its natural depth was believed to be about 184 feet.  Today, it has a bleak, treeless appearance though according to the Red Book of Hergest, written around 1382 from oral tradition  it was once forested. According to legend and tradition there were three mythical beasts associated with it; the water horse, the water bull and the Owl of Cowlyd. This work will briefly discuss the myths associated with each of them.

The Legendary Ceffyl Dŵr, the Water Horse

Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain]

According to ancient tradition Llyn Cowlyd is the home of a legendary Ceffyl Dŵr or water horse, which are featured in many legends and folktales.  They are said to have been shape-shifters that could also fly and despite their solid appearance could evaporate quickly into a fine mist. Although there were many alleged sightings of water horses during the 18th century no records were made until the 19th century.

According to tradition the water horse has fiery eyes and it is dangerous for humans  to look into them. It is said that when a water horse is close a dark and forbidding feeling is experienced and those who work near its known haunts will quickly make themselves scarce.   Sabine Baring-Gould in 1903 gave the following warning for anyone who should encounter a water horse, 

“Should he see a horse, however quiet and staid, browsing near, let him not venture to mount it, although the beast seems to invite the weary traveller through the heather to take a seat on its back. No sooner is he in his seat than all its want of spirit is at an end. It flies away with its rider towards the lake, plunges in, and will never be seen again. It is the Ceffyl y Dwfr, the Water-horse, a spirit that lives in the depths, with a special taste for human flesh, which it will munch below when it has its victim at the bottom of the blue water.” (1)

The water horse of Llyn Cowlyd was believed to be an evil entity that only appeared at night assuming the shape of a horse and trying to entice unwary people to try and ride it.  Once a rider was mounted it would fly into the clouds, perhaps over the mountains or over water and then suddenly dissipate into fine mist leaving the rider to fall to their death.   It was said that members of the clergy alone could safely ride the water horse as long as they did not speak a word. Although Llyn Cowlyd had its own water horse another was said to haunt Llyn Crafnant.

Sometimes in Wales, the water horse is associated with the sea and is said to be the bringer of storms.   They are believed to change their appearance before and after the storm. Before the storm they would be seen stamping around in the waves their coats a dapple grey or white.  After the storm they changed their coats into a chestnut or piebald coloring and were seen trotting along the shore. During long stormy periods their coats became the colour of sea foam.

The Water Bull of Llyn Cowlyd

by George W. Hobbs [Public domain]

Llyn Cowlyd is also the home of another mythical beast called a water bull, which is also found in Scotland.  Water bulls are usually seen as being nocturnal and make moorland lakes their homes and also have amphibious and have shape shifting abilities.   Water bulls can be dangerous and alarming and are sometimes seen with fiery horns and hoofs with flame spouting from their nostrils. According to tradition, solitary walkers near the lakeside have been known to have been dragged into the water to their deaths.

The Owl of Cowlyd

artist – Miller [Public domain]

The Mabinogion the tale of Culhwch and Olwen mentions the Owl of Cowlyd as one of the oldest animals in the world that lived in the cwm, or valley of Cowlyd.   Culhwch the protagonist of the story, has to find him in order to complete a series of near impossible tasks as ordained by Ysbaddaden the giant, before he will grant  permission for him to marry his beautiful daughter, Olwen. Culhwch recruits the aid of King Arthur who is his cousin. Arthur provides Culhwch with companions to help him on his quest and the adventures begin.

One of the tasks he was set by Ysbaddaden  was to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron whose whereabouts were unknown.  Mabon was essential to the success of the quest of Culhwch. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar. the Twrch Trwyth.  The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth was 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 and no one knew where.

It was believed only  the oldest and wisest animals in the world may possess the knowledge  of the whereabouts of Mabon therefore these were sought out. The questers came to the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led them to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cowlyd,  living in the valley surrounding the lake.  The owl told them,

“If I knew I would tell you. When first I came hither, the wide valley you see was a wooded glen. And a race of men came and rooted it up. And there grew there a second wood; and this wood is the third. My wings, are they not withered stumps? Yet all this time, even until to-day, I have never heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, I will be the guide of Arthur’s embassy until you come to the place where is the oldest animal in this world, and the one that has travelled most.” (2)

The Owl of Cowlyd led them to the Eagle of Gwern Abw, who led them to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw who revealed that Modron was being held prisoner and showed them the whereabouts of his prison. 

Lesson For The Future

Llyn Cowlyd is associated with some very strange mythical beasts although by its appearances today you would not think it possible but the lake and its valley have not always been as they are now.   If we look closely at what the owl says we will see it has changed from a wooded vale into the bleak and treeless place we see today through human activity. Indeed, the lake itself has been altered by humans to serve the needs of humans and we see how humanity changes the landscape and environment for its own needs perhaps providing a lesson for the future, or a warning.

© 06/11/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames, London

Thomas_Wyke-_Thames_frost_fair.jpg

Thomas Wyke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com as London Folklore: The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames by zteve t evans on December 27, 2018

The legendary frost fairs on the River Thames are depicted in a number of works of art that show just how cold, icy and severe the weather became during winter, in comparison to the weather experienced in London in modern times.

The idea of a frost fair on the icy surface of the River Thames in London may seem a flight of fantasy today, especially when one appears, or is mentioned several times in one of the UK’s favourite sci-fi television series, Dr Who.  In one of the scenes set during the 1814 Thames frost fair, the doctor encounters an elephant walking across the frozen surface of the Thames.  In another episode the doctor takes River Song to the same event to celebrate her birthday. The Thames frost fairs are also featured in two tracks on Snow on Snow, by The Albion Christmas Band, a beautiful collection of Christmas and winter songs on CD.  Today, the idea of such a novel event with crowds of people, stalls, entertainments and all the fun of the fair on the frozen River Thames may seem surreal, but it did happen several times in the past.  Here we look at some of these times and see how it affected Londoners; what they did and how they coped in those frigid times.

The Little Ice Age

The River Thames has long been an important trade and transport route, and many kinds of businesses, large and small, flourished around it.  The river swarmed with large and small boats, manned by watermen who ferried people and goods up, down and across the river.   Many people lived, worked and died around the river and a rich culture of folklore and legend evolved, some of which remains today.

With the great river of such importance to Londoners, how would they cope when it suddenly froze solid, allowing no ships or boats to travel up, down or across it?

Although it is written in legends and folklore, it is also historic fact that the River Thames has frozen over a number of times, hard enough for the usual daily commerce to be brought to a halt.  These extreme cold events happened during a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ that some people believe lasted from 1300 to 1870.  (Expert opinion varies on this subject,  and is not dealt with here.) During the winter of 1536, Henry VIII was said to have enjoyed a sleigh ride to Greenwich from the centre of London on the Thames ice and in 1564, Elizabeth I strolled upon the ice and practiced archery on the frozen river.

The worst of the big freezes occurred between 1550 and 1750. During the winters of 1683 – 1684 and 1715 – 1716, the Thames was frozen for three months, but most events were usually much briefer.   When it did freeze over it not only brought the river to an abrupt halt, it brought the every day business of the city and its people to a standstill too.  However, Londoners, being innovative and enterprising, adapted.   In its frozen state, the river effectively became a highway that wagons and coaches could traverse while the boats were stuck in the ice.  Furthermore, it became an extension to the land, offering new opportunities not just to make money but also to have fun. Londoners like to have fun.

The First Frost Fair (1607-08)

In 1608, the first recorded London frost fair took place on the icy surface of the River Thames. During December, 1607, the ice was thick enough to walk upon from Southwark to the City, and by January 1608 the ice was thick and strong enough for a whole host of activities on its surface.  A small town of stalls, booths and tents sprang up selling many different kinds of food and drink.  Tradesmen such as shoemakers and barbers set up stalls selling their wares and services and even lit fires on the ice to keep warm and use for cooking.  Among them, skittles and bowling and many other sports and activities took place to the enjoyment of the people, including “folk“ football. This was not like the modern game of football where two teams compete and rules are followed.  This competition was between two mobs with virtually no rules and they often became free-for-all, no holds barred, riotous events.

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The Griffin: The Legendary King of All Creatures

Knossos fresco in throne palaceCC BY-SA 3.0
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 18/04/2019, under the title, Mythical Beasts: The Griffin, the Legendary King of all Creatures, written by zteve t evans.

Griffins

A griffin is a legendary beast believed to be the offspring of a lion and an eagle, depicted in various ways by many different human cultures in different places throughout antiquity. It is usually depicted as having the back legs, tail and body of a lion, with the head of an eagle, sometimes having projecting ears. It is usually shown with eagle wings, but sometimes is wingless and sometimes has eagle talons on its forefeet. The eagle part was sometimes covered in feathers while the lion part had fur.

King of all Creatures

The lion was considered to be the king of the beasts, while an eagle was the king of the birds. The griffin, as a hybrid of these two, inherited the qualities of both, making it very powerful and the king, or ruler, of all creatures. Griffins were also known by a number of other names including ‘griffon,’ ‘griffon,’ or ‘gryphon.’ They were often depicted as having wings, but sometimes found wingless, as in the fine example found in the Palace of Knossos and shown here. The Palace of Knossos was the ancient ceremonial and political centre of the Bronze Age Minoan civilisation on Crete, described as the earliest in Europe, indicating the age and importance of the griffin motif.

Griffins in Mythology

Depictions of griffins are found in the art and mythology of many diverse ancient cultures, including Iranian, Anatolian, Egyptian, European, and Indian. In early Greek art they were shown pulling the chariots of the gods Apollo and Nemesis, and were said to be the hounds of Zeus. By their association with Apollo they became associated with the sun, and through their service to Nemesis became known as protectors and guardians, carrying out retribution for injustice on offenders. One legend tells how Alexander the Great captured two griffins and chained them to his throne. He eventually managed to tame one and rode on its back as it flew him around his realm for seven days.

Guardians of Treasure

Griffins were often seen as the guardians of treasure and priceless objects. They were associated with gold and said to guard gold mines, and often appear on tombs as guardians. According to Pliny the Elder, griffins laid eggs in burrows in nests lined with gold nuggets. Other accounts say griffins built a nest like an eagle’s and lay eggs of agate, which is a semi-precious stone.

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Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons

This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on 18th April 2018 titled, British Legends: Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons

 British Legends: Aurelius Ambrosius, Legendary King of the Britons

This is the story of the legendary Aurelius Ambrosius, a King of the Britons in the 5th century AD.  According to some medieval writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was the uncle of the famous King Arthur, who would later take the crown.  Most accounts say he was a modest, just, and determined man who exercised self-discipline in all of his ways.  He was a skilled warrior both on horseback and on the ground; an inspiring leader of men and an outstanding military tactician and general. Aurelius harbored a burning hatred for King Vortigern, who had usurped the crown of the Britons from his family.  Vortigern had, however, been betrayed by his Saxon allies, resulting in the deaths of many of the ruling Britons in an incident known as “The Treachery of the Long Knives.”  With the Britons defeated and under Saxon tyranny, Aurelius Ambrosius with his brother Uther returned to free their countrymen and reclaim the crown of the Britons.  Presented here and drawn from several sources listed below is the story of how Aurelius defeated Vortigern and the Saxons led by Hengist to become King of the Britons, restore law and order, and begin the process of rebuilding a wounded and shattered nation.

The Burning of Vortigern

While the Saxon takeover of Britain was unfolding, in exile, Aurelius Ambrosius was making a name for himself in the battles of Armorica, and his fame spread across Europe.  Finally, after meticulous preparation, he arrived on the shores of Britain at Totnes with his younger brother Uther, at the head of a powerful invasion force of Armorican cavalry and footmen.  Word of the coming of Aurelius and his brother spread rapidly across Britain.   The few war leaders and nobles that were left after ‘The Treachery of the Long Knives had been scattered and leaderless, but were now united under the banner of Aurelius, burning for vengeance.  They came together from all parts of Britain to join with him and brought together the clergy, who anointed him the King of the Britons.

The Britons wanted to attack Hengist immediately but Aurelius overruled them.  Instead he was intent on first wreaking vengeance on Vortigern, and led the Britons to his last stronghold. Aurelius was joined by Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester, the only British noble of those present, apart from Vortigern, to have survived ‘The Treachery of the Long Knives.  Once his army had taken up their positions, Aurelius gave the command for the great siege engines to set to work.  Though these laboured long and hard, they could not break through the walls.  After all attempts had failed, Aurelius gave the order to burn the tower. Ordering wood to be piled around it and set on fire,  his archers fired burning arrows into the stronghold, where they found plenty of fuel.  There was no escape for Vortigern: along with his wives and followers, he perished in the flames.

The Return of Aurelius Ambrosius

The arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius to take the throne of the King of the Britons put fear into the hearts of Hengist and his Saxons, who was well aware of his reputation.   Hengist knew full well that, being the rightful heir to the throne of Britain, Aurelius had right on his side. He also knew all about his prowess as a warrior and military strategist and he feared Aurelius above all his other enemies.

As Aurelius made his way north, Hengist realised he had to fight.  He urged his warriors not to fear Aurelius,  telling them his Armorican horsemen were few and that the army of the Britons numbered less than ten thousand, while pointing to their own superiority in numbers. Having greatly motivated his men,  Hengist set them in battle formation at a place he knew Aurelius would have to pass through, thinking to catch him by surprise and unprepared.  Aurelius anticipated this however, and instead of being caught out,  marched his men with more vigour to meet the Saxons and provoke open conflict. He gave each regiment their orders and would himself lead the Armorican cavalry into a frontal attack on the Saxon line.

For Eldol, the Duke of Gloucester, this was the moment he had been waiting for. Ever since the mass murder of the British nobility, he had been hoping to engage Hengist in single combat where there would only be one winner.  All of the Britons in that battle had scores to settle. They were determined to avenge the wrongs done to their homeland by the Saxons — who were still a formidable and dangerous fighting force — and drive them out of their country.  The scene was set for a grim and bloody battle for supremacy, with the prize being the control of the island of Britain.

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The Rule of Vortigern, Legendary King of the Britons

This post was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on 18th March, 2018, titled, British Legends: Treachery, Murder, Lust and Rowena – The Rule of Vortigern

hamilton_vortigern_26_rowena

Rowena and Vortigern By William Hamilton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

British Legends: Treachery, Murder, Lust and Rowena – The Rule of Vortigern

Vortigern was legendary 5th century King of the Britons featured in the work of early British writers such as Gildas, Nennius, Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others. There is a debate over whether Vortigern was a term for a high king who was chosen by a form of consensus to rule or whether it was the name of a person such as a warlord, lesser king, or political leader. This work takes it as the name of a person of high status who through his ruthless cunning and experience took over the rule of the Britons during dangerous times. 

Vortigern is usually presented in a bad light, as a man of immoral and selfish character who used duplicity and deception to rise to the top of the British establishment of his day. He is usually blamed for encouraging the arrival of the Saxon and Germanic invaders to Britain. At first, these were employed as his mercenaries to support his own power and to fight against the Picts and Scots but later he was to find he could not control them. Some scholars say the ruling elite of the Britons may deserve at least an equal share of the blame through their own weakness and disarray in facing their enemies. It may be that as far as the defense of realm was concerned, he did the best he could with the resources he had available to him which had been seriously depleted by the actions of earlier rulers. Yet questions are posed by some of the early writers about his morality and behaviour. Indeed, acts of lust, intrigue, murder, duplicity, and treachery are usually seen to be the hallmarks of his reign. This work presents a brief overview of the rule of Vortigern, looking at some of these alleged acts and incidents some of which resonate through the ages to the present and are the very stuff of legends.

Vortigern Takes the Crown

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern set up Constans, the eldest of the sons of King Constantine II who had been assassinated, to rule the Britons because he rightly believed he could control him and eventually take over the crown. After arranging for his murder, he usurps the crown to find that one day a cleverer and more ruthless man would appear on the scene. That man was Hengist, the leader of the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes in Britain.

After the assassination of Constans by Pict mercenaries controlled by Vortigern, there was no one of suitable status, experience or age to take his place. The rightful heirs to the throne of the Briton were Aurelius Ambrosius and his younger brother Uther, who were the sons of King Constantine II and the younger brothers of Constans, but they were just children and deemed too young to take the throne. Vortigern was the most experienced political figure of the Britons at the time and very ambitious. Insidiously, he had wormed his way into becoming the chief advisor of Constans, while all the time working secretly to promote his own ambitions and quietly gaining power, authority, and the king’s trust.

With the murder of Constans that he carefully and covertly set up, he stepped forward and seized the crown for himself. Not all of the British lords were friends of Vortigern, and some of these, fearing for the safety of the two young heirs, sent them into exile to Armorica for their own safekeeping. There they grew up safely and were taught the arts of royalty and leadership while all the time preparing to return one day and claim back the crown of the Britons.

Having seized the throne, Vortigern would find the rule of the kingdom was far from an easy task. In the north, Picts and Scots made frequent raids into his realm, but there was also another impending and growing threat that he feared. As the years passed by, he was aware of the maturing and coming of age of the royal brothers. He received reports of the building of a vast fleet and the mustering of a great army, and his spies confirmed his fears that they were intent on taking back their rightful inheritance. Taking stock of the situation, he found he was desperately short of men at arms to defend the kingdom.

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