Influential Women: Sammuramat to Semiramis – From History to Myth

Queen Semiramis was a mythical queen who appears in many myths, legends, works of art and literature through the ages.  She was was believed to have evolved from a real, historical Queen Sammuramat who ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire for a brief period.   Here we look briefly what is known of the historical Queen Sammuramat and her transformation to the mythical, semi-divine, Queen Semiramis.

QUEEN SAMMURAMAT

Sammuramat ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century after her husband, King Shamshi-Adad V, died until her young son Adad-nirari III came of age in 806 BC.  It is not clear whether she ruled as regent or in some other capacity but it was only believed to have lasted for five years.  According to the myths Semiramis ruled for 42 years as queen regnant but it is necessary to separate the historical from the mythical in thinking of Sammuramat.

Although much of her prestige may have come through being the wife and queen of King Shamshi-Adad V, history shows she briefly had great political influence over a great empire.  This stretched from the Arabian Peninsula in the south to the Caucasus Mountains in the north and in the west as far as Cyprus and in the east western Iran.   She was highly regarded by her subjects and neighboring states and appeared to have been a good ruler in what ever capacity she reigned. Like many other powerful and famous rulers throughout history her achievements were embellished, exaggerated and added to.  In the centuries after her death she became a mythical or legendary figure and given the name Semiramis.

EVIDENCE OF HER EXISTENCE

Not all archaeologists and historians are convinced of the existence of Queen Sammuramat.  Those who are point to four pieces of evidence they claim prove she once existed.  Two of these are statuettes found in the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq.  These are dedicated to the Babylonian god of knowledge and writing named “Nabu” and both mention her name.  The other pieces are two stellae; one from Kizkapanli, situated in modern day Turkey and the other from Assur in Iraq which mention her.

Stele of the Assyrian queen Shammuramat, from AssurOsama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When considered together these show she was highly esteemed and exercised an unusually high degree of political power for a woman of that epoch.  The Assur Stela inscription reads,

“Sammuramat, Queen of Shamshi-Adad, King of the Universe, King of Assyria; Mother of Adad-nirari, King of the Universe, King of Assyria.”

FROM HISTORY TO MYTH

The classical historian, Herodotus, in the fifth century B.C. used the Greek form of her name, Semiramis, which helped perpetuate her memory.  It is by this name she is perhaps better known today.   According to some traditions an entity known as Semiramis was the wife of the mythical Nimrod who reputedly built the Tower of Babel.  This entity does not appear to be the same character as the Semiramis who evolved from Sammuramat though there may have been some conflation through the ages.

After her name was Hellenized she became the subject of many enduring myths and legends as an Assyrian queen.  In this role she was the semi-divine daughter of the dove and fish goddess Derceto of Askalon, who in shame of conceiving a baby by a mortal flung herself into a lake.   Her body transformed into that of a fish while her head remained human.  Her baby girl was fostered by doves and grew up to become Semiramis.

In some legends she plays the role of the beautiful “femme fatale” in tragic love storiesbut in others she is a formidable commander and military leader winning impressive battles extending her empire greatly.  She is also cast as a great civil ruler who built the walls of Babylon and other monuments throughout her domain.

The Greek scholar, Diodorus Siculus, enlarged upon her legend inventing an exaggerated and inaccurate account of her life and deeds.  He claimed Semiramis was born in Ashkelon, now in modern day Israel and was the daughter of the Syrian goddess, Derceto, who many scholars see as a version of the Phonecian goddess Astarte and the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar.

RAISED BY DOVES

Her father was a mortal and her mother in shame of falling in love and conceiving with a mortal man abandoned her baby who was then raised by doves.  Eventually she was adopted by the chief shepherd of the king of Assyria and named Semiramis and grew up to be a woman of great and rare beauty and intelligence.  

One day while inspecting the royal flocks Onnes, the royal governor of Syria came across her and struck by her beauty gained her adoptive father’s consent to marry her.  After the wedding she went to live with him in Nineveh.

When Onnes was sent on a military mission to central Asia to besiege the city of Bactra by King Ninus of Assyria he began to miss her badly.  Therefore, he sent a message asking that she join him.  When she arrived the siege was still in place but she came up with a strategy and led an attack that gave her husband and his army the victory.

When King Ninus heard about how she had formulated the winning strategy and led the attack he wanted to meet the rare female with such military ability.  Ninus was completely besotted by her beauty falling in love with her at first sight.  He ordered her husband to exchange his wife for one of his daughters but Onness refused.  Ninus was determined he would marry her and subjected Onnes to terrible threats causing him to take his own life.  Ninus got his way and Semiramis became his wife and queen of Assyria. 

BUILDER AND COMMANDER

According to Diodorus she embarked on a number of large civil projects including the rebuilding of the city of Babylon along the Euphrates River, including the royal palace, the temple of Marduk and the city walls.  Other Greco-Roman authors such as Strabo credit her with creating one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon though this is not supported by evidence.

Variations of her name were applied to many ancient monuments in Anatolia and Western Asia often with little or no evidence they originated with her.   She was also credited with building the city of Van as her summer residence and may have been known as Shamiramagerd (city of Semiramis).

MILITARY CONQUESTS

According to Diodorus Siculus after the completing works in Babylon she turned her attention to the empire.  She launched several military campaigns in Persia, Libya and North Africa.  Furthermore, in an act of supreme ambition she organized and launched an invasion of India ruled by King Stabrobates. This was an incredibly difficult and risky operation and would prove although she was a capable and formidable commander and general she was not invincible. 

Nevertheless, she was very bold and inventive conceiving a daring plan of deception to use against Stabrobates.  She instructed her craftsmen to construct a herd of fake elephants by covering camels with the dark hides of buffaloes.  In this way she initially managed to give the impression she had a formidable battalion of real elephants to unleash in battle.   Initially, this deception was successful in an attack but her enemy strongly counterattacked. Her army was routed with the survivors forced to retreat back over the Indus River.  The invasion failed disastrously and she was injured in the fighting.

THE ORACLE OF AMUN

While campaigning in Africa she had consulted an oracle of the deity Amun.  The oracle predicted her son Ninias would conspire to supplant and kill her.   According to Diodorus this was to come true and after her failure in India on discovering her son’s plot she decided to hand over power peacefully to him rather than fight him for the throne.  However, other historians give differing versions of her death.  Some say she threw herself on a burning pyre while others say her son killed her.

ARMENIAN TRADITION

In Armenian tradition, Semiramis, was often portrayed negatively because of her military successes against Armenia.   One of the most well known Armenian legends about her is her romance with a King of Armenia known as Ara the Handsome.    Armenian traditions say Semiramis had fallen head over heels in love with him and proposed marriage.  To her dismay he refused and in a display of extreme petulance she mustered her army and made war on him ordering her commanders to capture him alive. She was victorious but contrary to her explicit instructions Ara was killed in battle.  

Semiramis was reputed to be a sorceress and the death of Ara had left her in an awkward position.  She did not want to continue warring with the Armenians who were now determined to avenge their leader. Therefore she came up with a plan to end the war.  She openly prayed to the gods to raise Ara from the dead but secretly disguised one of her lovers as him.  When the Armenians arrived for battle she presented him to them claiming she had raised him from the dead by her love for him.   The deception convinced the Armenians he was alive and ended the fighting.  There is also a tradition that she actually succeeded in resurrecting Ara and there is a village not far from Van called Lezk where his resurrection allegedly took place.

INGREDIENTS FOR A GOOD TALE

Her legend has much in common with other myths from the region that tell of great leaders or powerful people.  There is the theme of her divine origin being born of Derketo, the goddess and then abandoned at birth to be found and brought up by animal or bird foster parents. 

The evolution of Queen Semiramis from Queen Sammuramat provided an example for other female rulers to follow.  Her legendary and mythical status was achieved possibly because it was unusual in patriarchal societies for females to be allowed to shine or display their intelligence and talents.  According to these traditions, she proved herself to be a as good or better than males in her governing abilities, civil building works and military prowess.  This was unusual and may be part of the reason why she was elevated to such status.  Her mystique and appeal lasted for centuries after her death and was the inspiration for many works in art and literature. Perhaps because of her legendary beauty and reputation, or maybe, just because she was a woman, she was often cast in erotic and immoral roles. 

Over the ages her achievements became embellished and exaggerated and new stories emerged about her.  In many ways the little that was known about her added to her mystique and after her death the myths and legends grew. In later times was held as a model for good female rulers who exhibited similar characteristics as her and such as Margret I of Denmark, and  Catherine the Great of Russia who were called Semiramis of the North after her. 

Throughout the ages the mythical Queen Semiramis evolved a long way from the original historical Queen Sammuramat but such is the stuff that legends are made from.

© 29/09/2021 zteve t evans

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Copyright September 29th, 2021 zteve t evans

South Sea Island Folktales: Sina and the Eel

Sina and the Eel

South Seas Myths

In many places in the South Seas there is a myth of origin of the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) and its nut.   It is a popular and well known tale in Oceania with many different variations found from region to region. Names and details vary from region to region but there is a similar structure and story-line in many of these tales.   It should be noted that in the folklore of the people of Samoa there is a legend they call “Sina ma le Tuna” which tells of the origin of the coconut tree and in the Samoan language, “Tuna,” means, “eel.” (1) Presented here are two versions of folktales that deal with this myth.  The first is from the island of Savai’I, Samoa and the second comes from American Samoa.  

The Savai’l Samoan Version

This folktale begins with a girl named Sina who was famous around the South Seas for her loveliness.  The King of Fiji, who was known as the Tui Fiti, heard of her beauty and was intrigued.  Although he was much older than Sina he decided he had to meet the beautiful one in person to see if all he had heard was true.  Calling on his Mana, which is his own personal magic, he transformed into an eel and swam to the island home of Sina.  Discovering the village pool was used by all the villagers as a communal bath he slithered into its waters hoping Sina would come to bathe.

Concealing himself at the bottom of the pool he waited patiently hoping she would enter the pool.  Many of the villagers came to the pool to bathe but he remained hidden knowing that these were not the beautiful one he sought. Eventually, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen or imagined entered the pool to bathe.  Immediately he knew it was her for such outstanding loveliness could only belong to the famous Sina, the beautiful one, he sought.   He lay at the bottom of the pool staring up through the water at her lovely face.

Eventually, Sina felt a peculiar sensation and noticed the eel staring at her.  Taken by surprise she became angry, shouting in Samoan, “E pupula mai, ou mata o le alelo!” which means, “You stare at me, with eyes like a demon!” (2). However, after the initial alarm Sina noticed the eel did not look dangerous or aggressive.  In fact it actually seemed very nice and friendly so she took it home for a pet.

Many years passed and the King of Fiji lived happily as Sina’s pet enjoying the love and attention she unknowingly lavished on him as an eel.  Nevertheless, the king was growing older and with age his magic weakened and he found it harder to keep his eel form.  Therefore, he decided that it was time to reveal his true identity and explain himself to her. 

He told her how he was the Tui Fiti, the King of Fiji, who had heard of her great beauty and come to see it for himself.  To make the long sea journey from Fiji to Sina’s island home he had transformed himself into an eel so that he could swim the great distance. In this way he could wait in the pool until she arrived and he could see her.  Once he had seen her he fell in love. 

Realizing he was too old and she would rightly reject him he had kept his eel form so that she would not recognize him as an old man.   He had been overjoyed when she had taken him as a pet because he would remain always near her and enjoy her love and care.  Sadly, because of his great age, his magic had grown weak and he could not keep his eel form much longer and would die.  Therefore, he wished for her to plant his head into the ground near her home. Sina had loved him greatly as her pet and was heartbroken when he died and granted his wish.

From his head there grew the first coconut tree.  On a coconut there are three round marks which look like two eyes and a mouth.   When the coconut is pierced to drink the milk through one of these holes the milk is taken through the pierced hole through the drinker’s mouth.  According to the legend, whenever Sina took a drink of coconut milk from a coconut she was kissing the mouth of the eel.

In Samoa in the village of Matavai, in the district of Safune on the island of Savai’i,is a fresh spring pool. This pool is called, Mata o le Alelo, from the words that Sina first spoke to the eel and is still strongly associated with the legend.

An American Samoan Version

Another version from American Samoa tells how the King of Fiji, heard heard of the beauty of Sina and decided he wanted her for his wife.  However, she lived on a distant island so using his magical power he transformed himself into a young eel and swam all the way from Fiji to Sina’s island home (3).

One day as she was out foraging for shellfish along the seashore she noticed the young eel looking at her from a rock pool.  She thought it looked harmless and had a friendly face and being quite small would make a nice pet.  Therefore, she caught it and put it in the container she used for her shellfish and took it home.

She kept it in a bowl in her home and carefully nurtured it and it became very placid and affectionate towards her.  Under her care it soon grew too big for the bowl so she placed it in a spring near her home.  However, the eel soon grew too big for the spring and she did not know what to do with it.  She asked her mother who suggested she put it in the large freshwater spring the villagers used as a communal bath.  Sina thought this a good idea as the large pool would give the eel space to grow and be free so she placed it in the pool and it hid its self at the bottom.

All the villagers used the pool to bathe but none of them ever seemed to notice the eel. It would come out of hiding to greet Sina as soon as she stepped into the water.   It grew very long and big but was always very affectionate towards her and very playful with her yet no one seemed to notice its presence.  One day the eel became too boisterous and playfully wrapped itself around Sina in a loving embrace.  This frightened her and after that she would not bathe in the communal pool.

From then on she bathed in the small spring near her home.  This was fine at first but somehow the eel found out where she was bathing and appeared in the water as she bathed.   Still no one else could see the eel and its behaviour alarmed her and began to make her angry and frightened.  

Determined to escape the eel, one morning just before dawn, while her family still slept, she quietly left her home to walk to the next village.  It was good distance and she would stop at a spring along the way for a refreshing drink and to cool down and rest.  To her dismay at every spring she stopped at the eel would appear staring out of the water at her.   This terrified her and she continued journeying from village to village trying to escape the eel.  Each time she stopped at the springs along the way it would appear.  Where ever she went the eel appeared and it was growing longer and longer and to her fear and bewilderment, no one else could see it.  

There came a time when it left a pool she had found it in and wriggled onto the land and followed on behind her like pet dog.  Wherever she went it followed her and still no one else could see it.   On her wanderings she came across a group of people having a meeting.  In desperation she ran and sat between the two lead speakers. 

This surprised everyone but the eel had now grown as long as a person. Now everyone could see and hear it and all sat terrified at the strange creature.  It slid through the crowd to rest before where Sina was sitting between the two speakers.   Raising itself up to look her in her eyes the eel said,

“Sina, my beautiful one, please forgive me!   Know now that my true shape is that of a human.  I am the King of Fiji.  I have used my magic to attain this eel form you see me in now.  I took this form when I first heard of your beauty and grace that I might swim the great distance from Fiji to your home on this island to see you for myself.

My intention was to woo you and win your love but I now see that the form I took frightened you and I am sorry.  After so much traveling and keeping this form my magic and power is all used up.  I am tired and my death draws near. Before I die I wanted to explain these things to you hoping you would think better of me. 

In compensation for alarming you I have a valuable gift to offer you.  When I die cut off my head and plant it outside your home.  It will soon grow into a tree that will be of great value to you and your people.  It will have long green leaves that can be used as a fan to cool you in the summer’s heat.  

These leaves will also provide good covering for the roofs of your homes.  The leaves, bark and wood you will find will have many uses that will be of great service to people.  It will also bear a nut that gives food and a nourishing drink.   The nut will have three marks that resemble human features.  To drink from the nut puncture one of these holes and you will pour its milk from its mouth!”

With that it died.  Sina felt sorrry for the King of Fiji and thought perhaps if she had known the full story in the first place things might have turned out differently.  She did as he had asked and planted his head.  As he had foretold a tree grew from it bearing long green leaves and a large nut.  The tree and the nut proved to be extremely useful to humans and became an important part of their lives.  It spread beyond Sina’s isle to neighboring islands and beyond often carried by humans and some times carried by the sea.  The same tradition of kissing the eel when drinking from the coconut applies to this legend as well.

© 21/07/2021 zteve t evans

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Copyright July 21st, 2021 zteve t evans

Celtic Lore: Exploring the Otherworld

Image by Varun Maharaj from Pixabay

This article was first published on #FolkoreThursday.com under the title, Exploring the Otherworld of the Celts, on 18 March, 20211, written by zteve t evans.

The concept of a magical, mysterious, “Otherworld” has been a common component in many myths and legends of diverse human cultures all around the world throughout history. The ancient Celtic people also had their own ideas of this enigmatic and ethereal region. Their territories included Ireland, the United Kingdom and a swathe of continental Europe, including areas of the Iberian Peninsula and Anatolia. As such there were variations in philosophies concerning this world and the next from region to region.  Presented here is a brief exploration of their idea of the Otherworld and how it appears in different Celtic regions.

Celtic Mythology

The Celtic Otherworld is sometimes presented as the realm where their deities lived, or the place of their dead and sometimes both. Other stories tell of a magical paradise where people enjoyed eternal youth, good health and beauty, living in joy and abundance with all their needs satisfied. It could also be the abode of the fairies, Twylyth Teg, Aos Sí and many other similar magical entities.

Entry to the Otherworld

The Otherworld is usually hidden and difficult to find but certain worthy people manage to reach it through their own efforts. Others may be invited, or escorted by one of its dwellers, or given signs to follow. Sometimes entry is gained through ancient burial mounds or by crossing over, or under, water, such as a river, pool or the sea. There are also special places such as certain lakes, bogs, caves, burial mounds or hills where access to and from the Otherworld can be gained. Another idea is that the Otherworld exists in a different dimension alongside the earthly one as a kind of mirror-world. At certain times of the year, such as Samhain and Beltane, the veil that separates the two grows thin, or withdraws, making entry and exit easier.

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Celtic Lore: Shapeshifters of Myth and Legend

This article was first published 11 March 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Shapeshifters from the Celtic World by zteve t evans.

Shapeshifters

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.

Irish Shapeshifters

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.

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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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Medieval Lore: The Curious Myth of the Origin Barnacle Geese

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

Myth

Barnacle geese are a migratory species of water bird that have a very weird myth of origin attached to them that was once widely believedDuring the medieval period there was a belief that barnacle geese were not hatched from eggs but actually grew on trees or spontaneously on pieces of driftwood that floated in the sea.  This strange myth was widespread at the time and believed by  many eminent people of the day.   In this work we will look briefly at the barnacle followed by a look at barnacle geese both of which are real creatures.  This will be followed by discussing some of these strange ideas before concluding with our views on them today.

Migration

During the months of October through to March, parts of the British Isles and certain parts of Europe played host to flocks of barnacle geese.  This puzzled medieval people as they seemed to arrive out of nowhere and leave in the same manner.  No one had seen their nests, or  their eggs, or their young and no one knew how, or where, they bred giving rise to speculation about their origin.  

Real Barnacles

A strange theory evolved that they actually grew from crustaceans called gooseneck barnacles (Lepas anatifera) that were found on pieces of driftwood around the sea shores.  Many people thought that a tuft of brown cirri that protruded from the capitulum of the crustacean looked very similar to the down found on unhatched goslings of other species. This similarity is not obvious to many other people but the barnacles were seen as the result of spontaneous generation from the driftwood which will be briefly discussed later.

Real Barnacle Geese

We know today that real barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis)  live and breed mainly on the three islands of Greenland, Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the oceans of the far north during the summer months.  After a long flight they would suddenly appear at British,  Irish and other European sites as fully grown adult geese.  People were puzzled because they had seen no signs of a nest, eggs or even goslings but still they would appear at certain times of the year with unerring regularity.   To solve this puzzle some very peculiar answers evolved. 

The Barnacle Goose Tree

One such answer was the barnacle goose tree.  According to this myth young barnacle goslings grew on branches of a tree that overhung water in a similar way to nuts, fruit or berries sometimes do.  On becoming ripe, or big enough they drop from the branch safely into the water and are able to swim and float immediately eventually growing to maturity.  Those that missed the water and fell on to the ground died.

Sir John Mandeville

In the 14th century the traveller and writer Sir John Mandeville wrote in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, his travel journal,

“I told them of as great a marvel to them, that is amongst us, and that was of the Bernakes, (barnacle geese). For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man’s meat. And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be. (1)

This and similar strange answers  to the origin of the barnacle goose was widely accepted especially among the clergy of the day.  

Gerald of Wales

Another myth of origin of the barnacle goose tells how it was born from driftwood from the sea.  Gerald of Wales,  also known as, Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis, was  12th century Welsh bishop who published a book, Topographia Hiberniae  after the invasion of parts of Ireland by King John where he mentioned how Irish clergy ate the barnacle goose on fast days which surprised him, 

“Nature produces [Bernacae] against Nature in the most extraordinary way. They are like marsh geese but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells, and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth “ (2) 

His observation, although erroneous, gave the myth credence and it spread across Europe.   However he took a dim view of the clergy eating them on fasting days saying, 

“…Bishops and religious men (viri religiosi) in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh … But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat.” (3)

Sir E. Ray Lankester  

In 1915, Sir E. Ray Lankester, a British zoologist in his book, “Diversions of a Naturalist,” speculated on why this myth may have been popular with medieval clergy especially in Britain and France.   He picked up on the practice of the clergy eating them on fasting days for the popularity of the myth among them.  To make it an acceptable fasting meal they declared the barnacle goose to be more fish than a fowl and as such acceptable to be consumed on fasting days. 

Pope Innocent III was concerned enough about this practice to prohibit the eating of Geese during Lent at the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215.  Nevertheless he still seemed to accept the myth of their reproduction but pointed out that they lived and fed in a similar way to ducks and concluded that their nature was the same as other birds.

A Shift in Thinking

The bizarre myth of the reproduction of barnacle geese looks a typical example of superstition, ignorance and imagination run wild, but is it?  In the Middle Ages the Church drew moral lessons from nature but a shift in thinking appeared that saw nature as being worthy of studying in its own right.  This is where the myth of the origin of the barnacle goose comes in.

Spontaneous Generation 

A theological idea became  tangled  up in the debate of whether it was fowl or fish  which centered around the idea of spontaneous generation.  it was argued that gooseneck barnacles were spontaneously generated from the rotting driftwood. There was a common belief going right back to Aristotle that if the right conditions were present then the spontaneous generation of living organisms could and did occur arising from inorganic or nonliving material.   Despite the remarkable nature of the supposed origin of these lifeforms they had an ordinary lifestyle of sorts and manifest in a predictable way without divine intervention.  It was the assumption that they lacked parents which led to all sorts of theological arguments among Christians about Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth (which are not the same as each other) and cannot be fully dealt with here.

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily and Jerusalem about 200 years after Gerald of Wales was rather more doubting in his assessment of the spontaneous generation of the barnacle goose.  He wrote  saying, 

“There is also a small species known as the barnacle goose, arrayed in motley plumage …, of whose nesting haunts we have no certain knowledge. There is, however, a curious popular tradition that they spring from dead trees. It is said that in the far north old ships are to be found in whose rotting hulls a worm is born that develops into the barnacle goose. This goose hangs from the dead wood by its beak until it is old and strong enough to fly. We have made prolonged research into the origin and truth of this legend and even sent special envoys to the North with orders to bring back specimens of those mythical timbers for our inspection. When we examined them we did observe shell-like formations clinging to the rotten wood, but these bore no resemblance to any avian body. We therefore doubt the truth of this legend in the absence of corroborating evidence. In our opinion this superstition arose from the fact that barnacle geese breed in such remote latitudes that men, in ignorance of their real nesting place, invented this explanation.” (4)

It had previously been thought that the Barnacle Goose migrated  to the British Isles via Scandinavia and the strange transformation occurred in the Norse countries.  He was at least right that they did breed in the remote regions of the north that were largely still unknown and not generated from rotting wood.

Morals from Nature

It has long been a practice for Christians to draw moral points from the natural world to reinforce theological ideas. This began in the 2nd century  with the Physiologus where nature was seen as the second book of God, until the early 17th century when natural history became better studied and understood.  However, as science progressed people became more skeptical about such ideas.

Albert the Great

Around the middle of the 14th century Albert the Great came up with a simple way of testing the spontaneous generation  theory by breeding them and noting that they did in fact lay eggs calling the myth, 

“altogether absurd as I and many of my friends have seen them pair and lay eggs and hatch chicks”. (5)

Despite this there were still those as late as the 16th century such as  Joseph Justus Scaliger who insisted that the spontaneous generation theory was right claiming to have witnessed it. 

Belief in the myth, either through self-interest and wanting to dine on meat on fast days, or ignorance, still lingered for a while.  Finally, science and reason prevailed and finally managed to explain how barnacle geese really reproduced.  It is very easy for us today to look back at certain erroneous absurd beliefs that were held to be true in the past but which were eventually proved false.   This itself highlights the frailty of human reason and we cannot help but wonder what people living in future time will make of some of our own beliefs we hold dear in our own times.  Let us hope they will not judge us too harshly.

© 25/03/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 25th, 2021 zteve t evans

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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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

Zoophyte Folklore: The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb – Source

History of Cotton

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was  a very strange idea that sprang up in the middle ages to explain the origin of cotton.  People have used cotton since ancient times and it was  thought to have been first cultivated in the Indus delta and later spread from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Nubia.  In the 1st century Arab traders introduced it to Spain and Italy eventually reaching northern Europe during the medieval period becoming  a popular and valuable commodity.

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

During the Middle Ages the world outside Europe was relatively unknown to most Europeans.  The few intrepid explorers who did travel through unknown regions brought back mysterious and outlandish tales.  They told of exotic countries and strange things beyond the experience and imagination of most Europeans.  Fantastic claims were made that could not be verified by ordinary people as to what they had encountered and were generally believed because no one could effectively disprove  them.  

Their reports had a lasting influence on European societies.  One of the strangest stories that was brought back told of the existence of animals that had similar characteristics to plants, and vice-versa called zoophytes. There were several kinds and were claimed to exist in far and remote parts of the world.  One of the most famous of these was known as the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, sometimes known as the Lamb Tree, or  the Borametz and as well as other names.

Sir John Mandeville

One of these early travelers was known as Sir John Mandeville.  He is credited with writing a journal of his travels called,  “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville,” which was being circulated from 1357-71.  The actual identity of Sir John Mandeville is open to debate.  He claimed to be  a knight from St. Albans in England but this is disputed by some historians today. According to his book, Mandeville traveled through many remote and unknown regions seeing many new and incredible places, animals, plants, birds and people previously unheard of in Europe.

His memoirs were very popular and translated into every European language and were believed to have influenced Christopher Columbus.  Among many strange things he reports was  the existence of the Vegetable Lamb as the source of the fluffy pods that were processed to make cotton.  Cotton had begun to reach northern Europe where there was little knowledge of how it was derived.  

Earlier Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BC), the 5th century Greek historian, had written in Book III of his Histories that in India there was a plant, assumed to be a  tree and not a shrub, that grew in the wild and produced wool.  Because unprocessed cotton resembles wool it was believed to have been obtained from a hybrid plant-sheep type of zoophyte and Mandeville’s  account backed up Herodotus.

Source

Zoophytes

Zoophytes are animals that closely resemble plants such as a sea anemone. The term “zoophyte” is not often used in science today but during the Middle Ages it was in popular usage.  It was not until the 17th century that the term began to be refuted. 

During medieval times and the later renaissance era many weird types of zoophytes were widely accepted.  For example the mandrake root was shaped like a human and was said to be able to run away from people.  Another weird example was the barnacle goose tree. This was supposedly a combination of a tree and a crustacean that produced barnacles each of which had baby geese growing inside of them.   

The Vegetable Lamb was supposed to be a type of these zoophytes, essentially a lamb growing from a plant either through a pod or being connected to the ground by a stem from its navel.  It was believed to have originated in Tartary which was a great region of Europe and Central Asia.  The Tartar word for “lamb” was “Borametz,” which explains one of its alternative names.

Henry Lee

As well as Mandeville other medieval writers and travelers wrote about the Vegetable Lamb.  In some texts it was described as a plant that produced pods that had unborn lambs inside. One of the more questioning of these writers was Henry Lee, a naturalist and author.   He  became sceptical while researching for other books he was writing and began delving into this bizarre notion.  He wrote another book called, “The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant.”  In his book he gives a typical description of the day of this weird, fantastical being,

“the fruit of a tree which sprang from a seed like that of a melon, or gourd; and when the fruit or seed-pod of this tree was fully ripe it burst open and disclosed to view within it a little lamb, perfect in form, and in every way resembling an ordinary lamb naturally born… (1)

He provides other versions of the myth describing how the lamb  were attached to the plant by a stem from their navel.  The stem was flexible enough to allow the lamb to graze in a circle around the main plant while still remaining tethered to it.   When all of the grass was eaten or if the stem was broken the lamb would die,   

Source

“a living lamb attached by its navel to a short stem rooted in the earth. The stem, or stalk, on which the lamb was thus suspended above the ground was sufficiently flexible to allow the animal to bend downward, and browse on the herbage within its reach. When all the grass within the length of its tether had been consumed the stem withered and the lamb died. This plant-lamb was reported to have bones, blood, and delicate flesh, and to be a favorite food of wolves” (2)

Lee was not convinced.  Nevertheless, despite his doubts the existence of the Vegetable Lamb was widely accepted by others up until the 17th century.  The main arguments raged not over its existence, which was not widely doubted, but over the tricky question of whether it was a plant or an animal. 

Vegetable Wool

In his research Lee looked to Scythia, an area  that covered many other regions of Europe and Asia.  He looked specifically at the region bordering India, an area Alexander the Great had conquered in the 4th century.   One of Alexander’s officers named Nearchus had reported that they had found the local people wore “vegetable wool”.  He reported, 

 “Garments the material of which was whiter than any other … made of the wool like that of lambs, which grew in tufts and bunches upon trees,”

This was probably the product we know of as cotton wool but this term can be used for two different products.   The first term describes it in its unprocessed state the second is where it has been subject to increased processing especially to help increase absorbancy.  In fact, the term “cotton wool” is an anomaly with cotton coming from a plant and wool coming from sheep or other animals.

Banishing the Myth

In medieval northern Europe it was being imported  unprocessed  but people had no idea of its origin or what it was.  All they were certain of was that it was derived from some kind of a plant.  They believed this because the Greek historian, Herodotus, had written about claiming that in India it came from trees growing in the wild that produced wool.  Therefore Europeans assumed that it must be a tree that it came from.  This can be seen in the German word, Baumwolle, meaning tree wool.   With its similarity to wool, people came to the erroneous conclusion that it must have come from some kind of a plant-sheep life form and  Mandeville simply reinforced this belief.  This European myth was  banished by the end of the 16th century with cotton cultivation in Asia and the New World.

© 07/10/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 07, 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