This article was first published 11 March 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Shapeshifters from the Celtic World by zteve t evans.
Shapeshifters are found in most mythologies and folk traditions around the world from ancient to modern times. In such traditions, humans change into vampires, werewolves, frogs, insects, and just any about any other creature imaginable and back again. Sometimes the transformation is controlled by the transformer who shifts shape at will. Other times it is an unwelcome event such as a punishment and sometimes it is forced by a magical spell but there are many other reasons besides. Shapeshifters can be good or bad, often moving the story forward in a novel way or have some kind of symbolism that the teller wants to get across to their audience. There are many different kinds of shapeshifting and here we look at different examples from Ireland, Wales and Scotland that provide differing glimpses of shapeshifters in action in the myth, folklore, and tradition of these three Celtic nations.
In Irish mythology, the Morrigan was a shapeshifting war goddess who could transform into a woman of any age and also change into animal or bird form. She had the power of prophecy and as a war goddess would sing her people to victory in battle. Sometimes she could be seen swooping over the battlefield in the form of a raven or crow and devouring the bodies of the slain.
In the story of the “Táin Bó Cúailnge”, or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” the Morrigan appears as a crow to warn the bull named Donn Cuailnge that Queen Medb is plotting to abduct him. Queen Medb attacks Ulster after the bull but is resisted single-handedly by the hero Cú Chulainn fighting a series of duels with her champions at a ford. In battle, Cú Chulainn undergoes a spectacular change in his form described as ríastrad or “warp-spasm” that sees him his body twist and contort into the most grotesque and fearsome appearance terrifying his opponents.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 11th February 2021, titled , “Ancient Celtic Cauldrons: The Magical, the Mythical, the Real,” by zteve t evans.
In the ancient mythologies of the Welsh and Irish Celts, the cauldron played an important role in some of their most enduring stories and myths. In these, they were often attributed with magical properties but in the everyday life of the Celts, they were also very useful and versatile utensils. Here we take a brief look at the everyday usage of cauldrons followed by a look at five mythical cauldrons. To conclude we will discuss one real, very ancient and very special cauldron found in a bog in Denmark.
The Cauldron of Ceridwen
One of their most famous cauldrons was the cauldron of knowledge, inspiration, and rebirth. It belonged to a sorceress named Ceridwen. She used her cauldron to brew a potion that would imbue knowledge and wisdom to whoever drank of it, yet she intended it solely for her son. The concoction had to be boiled and stirred for a year and a day. She tasked a blind man named Morda with the job of feeding the fire, and a boy named Gwion Bach with stirring the brew. Many people see the continuous stirring of the cauldron as blending the attributes of divine wisdom and inspiration with the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth to create the perfect brew of existence.
The Gundestrup Cauldron
The Gundestrup cauldron is most spectacular of real ancient Celtic cauldrons so far recovered, dated to the Iron Age. It is made of silver and beautifully and intricately decorated with many fine images. The silversmiths are unknown, but in those days few craftsmen could produce such craftsmanship in silver. They may not even have been Celts, but the best available craftsmen at the time. However, because of the Celtic iconography, it displays it was thought to have been commissioned by an unknown, high-ranking Celt, probably for purely ceremonial purposes. The imagery was believed to express one or more Celtic myths, and possibly display several deities mixed with other images of a different style.
The Importance of Cauldrons
Many scholars think in Celtic times people came together around a cauldron to engage in the enjoyable, sociable activity of eating. The Gundestrup cauldron, being made of silver, was probably not used for cooking on a fire, but may have held pre-cooked food or drink or was purely ceremonial.
Bees are a familiar sight around the world being native to al continents except Antarctica. There are 16,000 known species and the most common is the western honey bee, also known as the European honey bee. It is this species that this work mostly refers to. Since early times humans have watched bees go about their everyday business and marveled at their sheer industry while being intrigued by the mystery of their societies. This has led to the evolution of a rich body of folklore and tradition and many superstitions and customs. Present here are a few small samples of this bee lore mingled with a few facts.
Bees provide us with many different useful products including honey, royal jelly, pollen propolis, wax and even bee venom. However, there are many other less obvious products of bees we depend on that are more important and more widely used. Bees help pollinate many different fruits, vegetables and plants of all kinds which we make into many different products such as jam, dried fruit, even alcoholic beverages such as mead and much more. They are not just useful to humans but also other animals and plants and are an essential part of local ecosystems which integrate into the global system. An army of bees and other insects help pollinate these products and many other vegetables and plants used by humans. Without bees this army would be sorely depleted. Our ancestors may not have realised the full extent of their usefulness but knew enough to want to develop an intimate relationship with them.
Telling The Bees
It was seen as important for a beekeeper to keep his bees updated on any important information as news came in. This was because bees could become upset and stop producing honey, abandon the hive or even die if not kept informed. Therefore, it was seen as important that news that might affect them was broken gently but not withheld. The origin of this custom is not known but there is an idea it may have evolved because people in many countries in ancient times thought bees had the ability to bridge the living world with the afterlife.
There is a longstanding custom of telling the bees important events such as births, deaths and marriages that happen in the life of a beekeeper. This tradition is found in the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland and other European countries as well as North America.
When someone in the household passed away it was deemed essential that the bees should be informed so that they could mourn properly. Furthermore, it was essential that the bees were informed of any death in the family otherwise some tragedy would afflict the keeper’s family or perhaps jinx the hive.
An English custom required the wife of the house, or housekeeper, to drape something black over the hive while humming a sad tune. In Nottinghamshire the words to one such tune were,
“The master’s dead, but don’t you go;
Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.” (1)
Whereas in Germany the song was,
“Little bee, our lord is dead;
Leave me not in my distress.” (2)
In some places the head of the household was required to knock on each hive until he thought he had the attention of the bees. Next, in a sombre and serious voice he explained a certain person had died revealing the name of that person. Sometimes the key to the family home was used to tap upon the hives.
Where it was the case that the beekeeper had passed away food and drink from the funeral was left near the hives for the bees. Sometimes the hive would be lifted and then put down at the same time as the funeral. It was draped in a mourning cloth and rotated to face the funeral procession.
In parts of the Pyrenees they buried an old piece of clothing belonging to someone who had died under the hive. Many people believed the bees and hives should never be given away, sold or swapped after their keeper had died as it brought bad luck.
In the USA in parts of New England and Appalachia it was important to tell the bees when a family member died. Whoever was the family beekeeper would ensure the bees were properly informed of the death so that the news could be passed around.
In some regions it was believed bees liked to be told about weddings and happy events as well as funerals. A tradition from Westphalia, Germany says to ensure good fortune in their married life, when moving into their new home, newlyweds must first introduce themselves to the bees. A Scottish newspaper, the Dundee Courier reported on the tradition in the 1950s, stating that the hive should be decorated and a slice of wedding cake left for the bees near the hive. A custom from Brittany involved decorating the hive with scarlet cloth which would allow the bees to join in with the celebrations.
Messengers of the Gods
There was a belief in ancient Greece and Rome that bees were the messengers and servants of the gods. Romans avoided a flying swarm of bees but not for fear of being stung. Instead they thought they were swarming at the command of the gods and bearing their messages and did not want to impede them in their work for the divinities.
Ancient Egyptians believed honey bees had been generated from the tears of Ra, their sun god, that had fallen to earth becoming his messengers between him and humanity. Between 3000 b.c.e. and 350 b.c.e., the honeybee was used as a symbol by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Similar to the Egyptian and Roman view, the ancient Celtic people saw the honey bee as a messenger between heaven and earth.
Importance of Bees
Bees continue to play an important role in the ecosystems and their importance to humans is undiminished, if anything, as we learn more about the world around us it increases.
This article was first published 28th May, 2020 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Unicorn Lore: Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, by zteve t evans
The Mythical, Magical Unicorn
The rare and elusive, mythical, magical unicorn has been part of folklore and legend for centuries, evolving spectacularly into the modern age. Despite its reputed elusiveness and rarity you do not need to go far to find one these days. Unicorns appear in a range of products such as toys or works of art sold in high streets and feature in literature, films, television and much more. In the distant past it was a very different creature but it has grown into the very embodiment of purity, elegance, innocence and beauty that we are familiar with today.
Many of today’s perceptions of the unicorn evolved from the medieval and Renaissance eras where they appeared in works of art, tapestries, and coats-of-arms of the rich and powerful. Presented here is a brief look at a set of six late medieval tapestries known as La Dame à la licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn. Today reproductions of these designs appear in various places but notably adorning the walls of the Gryffindor Common Room in the Harry Potter films.
Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn
The tapestries are believed to have an original meaning and purpose that has been lost over time and their interpretation is uncertain today. Medieval people would have understood what each of the figures, motifs and symbols in each scene meant and how they were all part of an extended allegory that came together to create an overall meaning or message …
In North American folklore apples are strongly associated with the legendary Johnny Appleseed who is affectionately remembered for his wandering lifestyle planting apple tree nurseries across the great American frontier. His real name was John Chapman and he was born in Leominster, Massachusetts on September 26, 1774.
His father, Nathanial Chapman, had served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War. Sadly, he lost his mother to tuberculosis during that war. When he was old enough to work he became apprenticed as an orchardist to a local orchard where he learnt the trade that made that him a legend in his own lifetime.
Johnny Appleseed – Author: H. S. Knapp – Public Domain Image
Folklore paints a picture of him dressed in rags with a tin pot on his head striding across the land with a pocketful of apple seeds. These he planted on his way, for all to enjoy out of his sheer generosity. In fact the planting of orchards, or more accurately apple tree nurseries, was his business and he grew apples trees as a business enterprise. His plan was to plant nurseries along the frontier where ever he thought settlers would build new communities. When his trees were between one and two years old he would sell them to the settlers for six cents each. He travelled and planted apple tree nurseries in many places along the Ohio Valley with bases in Western Pennsylvania and in Ohio, in Richland County.
One of the folk stories about Johnny Appleseed tells how during the War of 1812 many Indians took the British side looking to avenge themselves against the settlers who they believed had done injury to them. Although they attacked many settlements they did not threaten or interfere with Johnny Appleseed. However, he would often warn the settlements of imminent Indian attacks.
A legend tells of how he made a desperate run of 26 miles through the wilderness from Mansfield, Ohio to Mount Vernon in a bid to bring help to the beleaguered settlers besieged by Indians. It is said that as he ran he blew a horn to warn other settlers of the danger along the way. Thanks to his desperate run and courage the settlers at Mansfield were reinforced and saved.
Chapman followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and was a member of the Church of New Jerusalem, which was based on Christian teachings and followed Pacifist principles and advocated individualism and simple living.
As he travelled he would spread the message of his church to those he visited and would tell stories to the children in exchange for a meal and a place to sleep on the floor of the house.
Love of Animals
Despite his rather rough and rustic appearance and his eccentricities Johnny Appleseed was a gentle and kind man with great intelligence and charisma and a heart of gold. Indeed, he was also a rarity for his time as he was a vegetarian; not wishing animals should suffer for him. His kindness and concern for animals was legendary.
One story is told of how he extinguished his campfire when he saw mosquitoes flying to their deaths into it. He believed that none of God’s creatures, no matter how small, should have to suffer to alleviate his discomfort. Another story tells of the time he set up camp in one end of a hollow log and built a fire for warmth. On discovering the log was already inhabited by a bear with her cubs, rather than disturb them, he moved his camp to the other end, sleeping unsheltered in the snow.
Folktales tell how he would buy a horse that was about to be put down and purchase some grassland for the animal to recuperate on. When the horse had recovered he would give the horse to a poor settler on the sole condition that it was to be treated properly and with kindness.
Entering into Folklore
One can well imagine how this rather wild, raggedy man, may appear as a larger than life figure to the settlers along the frontier as he came and went about his business growing apple nurseries. He may have been regarded as eccentric but he was well received and seen as a welcome relief by the isolated settlers bringing news and helping out where he could. On 18th of March, 1845, John Chapman died of pneumonia and was buried near Fort Wayne, Indiana, entering into American folklore.