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.
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.
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 business. In 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.
Barnacle geese are a migratory species of water bird that have a very weird myth of origin attached to them that was once widely believed. During 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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.
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.
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 calledThe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 thering 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.
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.
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.
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,
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These words by Thomas Babbington Macaulay succinctly sum up the deadly duel of life and death to decide the Rex Nemorensis, the legendary High Priest of Diana Nemorensis of the Sacred Grove of Lake Nemi. The Rex Nemorensis was a shadowy figure in ancient Greek and Roman myth and legend. Most versions of his story agree that he earned his title and role by winning a fight to the death to become the “ghastly priest” of the above verse. Here we shall briefly discuss the mythical goddess of the Sacred Grove, Diana Nemorensis, followed by a look at her high priest and his deadly duel, followed by a look at the possible origins of the cult. Finally, there will be a brief discussion centered on “The Golden Bough,” a work by Sir James George Frazer inspired by the legendary Rex Nemorensis.
Diana Nemorensis was an important goddess in ancient times whose sanctuary and temple were situated on the northern shore of Lake Nemi. The lake has been referred to as “speculum Dianae” which means “Diana’s Mirror”. The important Roman festival of Nemoralia was held on the site.
There were also other lesser deities associated with her and the Sacred Grove. These were Egeria, who was the spirit of a nearby stream who also shared with Diana the protection of childbirth. The other was Virbius, the Roman counterpart of the Greek Hippolytus. A third goddess possibly worshiped at the Sacred Grove was Vesta. She was believed to have eventually become conflated with the goddess Artemis.
The Rex Nemorensis
According to legend, the cult of Diana Nemorensis was recognized as one of the most ruthless, brutal and mysterious cults of ancient Rome. The high priest who was said to have presided over her rituals was known as the ‘King of the Sacred Grove’ or the ‘King of the Wood,’ or more famously the ‘Rex Nemorensis.’ According to some traditions the cult was populated by fugitives or runaway slaves who had dedicated themselves to the worship of Diana. However, there is little evidence to support this, though the role of the Rex is linked to such outsiders.
Tradition says growing inside the grove was a huge oak tree. It was strictly forbidden for anyone to break a branch off this special tree and it was guarded to prevent this. The only exception to this rule were runaway slaves or fugitives. If one succeeded they were rewarded with the right to challenge the incumbent high-priest to a duel to the death. If the incumbent killed his challenger he remained in his post and lived. If his challenger killed the incumbent he became “the ghastly priest who slew the slayer” – the new Rex Nemorensis – High Priest of Diana, King of the Grove, King of the Wood and Guardian of the Sacred Grove, but it came with a high price.
Having fought for and won the post he had to remain on his guard for the rest of his life. Should a runaway slave, or fugitive, make it to the oak and break a branch off then that slave then earned the right to fight him for his titles and his life as he had done his predecessor. The victor would become the Rex Nemorensis, until he too was defeated, with his conqueror taking his place. There could only ever be only one Rex Nemorensis.
This murderous cycle ensured that that incumbent high-priest was always kept at the pinnacle of his powers. As the Rex Nemorensis he was the embodiment of fertility of nature and the woods. As such he could not succumb to either illness or old age. Death had to be violent because the spilling of blood on the ground was seen as necessary to bring fertility to the earth. Despite the certainty of meeting a violent death it did at least offer sanctuary, albeit temporarily, to any such fugitive.
The Cult of Diana Nemorensis
The cult of Diana Nemorensis was very ancient and its beginnings are shrouded in myth and legend. Many scholars think that it had its roots in ancient Greece. There are two Greek traditions of how the cult originated. One traces its origins through the story of Orestes and Iphegenia, while the other is based on the tradition of Hippolytus.
Orestes and Iphegenia
The first account tells how Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, a king of Mycenae and his wife Clytemnestra, brought the cult of Diana Nemoresis to Italy. On discovering his mother’s affair with Aeegistus, Orestes murders him to avenge his father who is on his way to fight the Trojans. Orestes was told by the god Apollo to go to Tauris to purify himself as an act of atonement. In Tauris, Artemis was a revered goddess and it was the custom for any foreigners landing upon the shores to be brought to her temple to be ritually sacrificed before her effigy by the high priestess.
On his arrival Orestes was taken before the High Priestess of Artemis to be prepared for sacrifice. Fortunately for him she was his long lost sister who he believed had been sacrificed by their father. She had been saved from this fate by the goddess Artemis and transported to Tauris where she was set in place as the high priestess of her cult. Recognizing Orestes, Iphegenia could not kill her brother and by deceiving Thoas, the King of Tauris, they both escaped by ship taking with them the effigy of Artemis. They sailed around the coastline finding their way to the south of Italy, finally making their way to Nemi and settling there.
With the theft of the effigy of Artemis and their escape from Tauris, Orestes and Iphegenia had placed themselves outside of society and the laws as they stood and were effectively fugitives. Once they became established at Lake Nemi, the cult grew in popularity and strength. Unlucky foreigners who landed on the shores were brought inland to Nemi for sacrifice. Eventually the tradition evolved so that runaway slaves and fugitives could claim the right to fight the incumbent high priest and claim his position.
The Story of Hippolytus
The second version of the origin of the Rex Nemorensis tells how Hyppolytus, the son of Theseus, became the first Rex Nemorensis. His step-mother was Phaedra who made sexual advances towards him which he rejected. To gain revenge she accused him of raping her. He was cursed and banished by his outraged father and was dragged to death by his chariot’s horses after they had been frightened by a sea monster sent by Poseidon. Ascelapius, the god of medicine, with help from the goddess Artemis returned him to life as an old man named Virbio (Vir bis is Latin for man for the second time) to prevent him being recognized. He was taken to Lake Nemi where he was installed as high priest of the cult of Diana, becoming known as Virbius. Pausanius in his “Description of Greece,” says,
“The Aricians tell a tale … that when Hippolytus (the son of Theseus) was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asclepius raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father; rejecting his prayers, he went to the Aricians in Italy. There he became king and devoted a precinct to Artemis, where down to my time the prize for the victor in single combat was the priesthood of the goddess. The contest was open to no freeman, but only to slaves who had run away from their masters.” (2)
The Golden Bough
The legend was the inspiration for The Golden Bough, a comparative work of religion and mythology by Sir James George Frazer first published in 1890. Although the book was influential in its time many of the ideas he proposed are not accepted by many modern scholars. He appears to have expected this saying,
“Books like mine, merely speculation, will be superseded sooner or later (the sooner the better for the sake of truth) by better induction based on fuller knowledge.” (3)
Maybe he saw his role as starting the conversation for others to continue. Many of his contemporaries appeared rather disappointed with his success and popularity though his ideas were very controversial. Fraser appeared to favor Virbius as the origin of the legend of the Rex Nemorensis,
“In his character of the founder of the sacred grove and first king of Nemi, Virbius is clearly the mythical predecessor or archetype of the line of priests who served Diana under the title of Kings of the Wood, and who came, like him, one after the other, to a violent end. It is natural, therefore, to conjecture that they stood to the goddess of the grove in the same relation in which Virbius stood to her; in short, that the mortal King of the Wood had for his queen the woodland Diana herself.” (4)
Whether the legendary Rex Nemorensis was a real historical figure is difficult to say and many think not. Nevertheless, he still cuts a dramatic figure lurking in the darkness of the sacred groves at the back of our minds.
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 28th November, 2019, as The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd and Oldest Animals in the World, by zteve t evans
The Owl of Cwm Cowlyd
In Welsh legend and myth the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd lived in the woods that once surrounded Llyn Cowlyd. Today the woods are gone but the legends live on in two tales that feature a search for the oldest and wisest animals in the world. In the first the owl is said to be among the oldest animals in the world, whereas in the second the owl is attributed as being the oldest.
Culhwch and Olwen
The first is ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, an action packed hero tale from the Red Book of Hergest, written just after 1382. It was also contained in fragments in the White Book of Rhydderch, written about 1320. Both books were sources for the Mabinogion, a compilation of early Welsh oral stories by Lady Charlotte Guest from which the first of these tales draws.
Culhwch was the son of King Cilydd and his wife, Goleuddydd, who died soon after giving birth to him. Cilydd remarried, but Culhwch became estranged from his step-mother after she tried to persuade him to marry her daughter from another marriage. Culhwch refused and she took offence, casting a spell on him so that the only woman he could marry was Olwen, the beautiful daughter of the dangerous giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, in the belief that it would be impossible.
Despite never having met or even seen Olwen, Culhwch became obsessed and besotted by her. His father told him he would never be able to find her alone and must seek out the assistance of his cousin, King Arthur. Culhwch visited Arthur and was given a band of heroic companions to aid him in his quest. They eventually found Ysbaddaden and Olwen but the giant insisted that to marry his daughter, Culhwch must perform a series of tasks he believed to be impossible.
One of the tasks required him to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron, whose whereabouts was unknown, but was essential to the overall success of the quest. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar, the Twrch Trwyth. The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth is the hunting dog named Drudwyn, and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon. The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place.
The Oldest Animals in the World
In the hope that one of the oldest and wisest animals in the world might know where he was, advice was sought from the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led hem to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd. The owl told them …
This article was first published under the title of British Legends: Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen on #FolkloreThursday.com, 28/02/2019 by zteve t evans
The Faerie Queen
The epic unfinished poem, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, published 1590-96, created a parallel of the medieval universe that alluded to events and people in Elizabethan society. The narrative draws on Arthurian influences, legend, myth, history, and politics, alluding to reforms and controversial issues that arose in the times of Elizabeth I and Mary I. It is an allegorical work that both praised and criticised Queen Elizabeth I, who is represented in the poem by Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. The six human virtues of holiness, chastity, friendship, temperance, justice, and courtesy are all represented by a knight. Spenser raises many questions about Elizabethan society, especially about the role of women in maintaining the patriarchal order. This is represented by a spectacular battle between Britomart, the Knight of Chastity, and Radigund, the Amazon Queen.
Britomart the Knight of Chastity
Britomart is a virginal female
knight, who not only represents chastity but is also associated with
English virtue, especially military power. The “Brit” part of her name comes from “Briton” while “martis” comes from the Roman god of war, “Mars,” meaning
war-like person. From an early age she refrained from the traditional
activities of girls at the time, and was trained in the use of weapons
and combat, preferring such typically masculine activities. She dressed
in the armour of a knight, acted like a knight, fought like a knight,
and wielded a magical black spear.
After a long quest and many
adventures seeking him, Britomart married Artegall, the Knight of
Justice whom she had seen in the magic looking glass belonging to
Merlin. Yet, as was often the way with knights, Artegall was bound to a
quest he could not abandon without losing his honour. Gloriana, the
Faerie Queene, had given him the task of rescuing the Lady Eirena from
the tyrant Grantorto. It was his chivalric duty to complete the quest or
die trying. Despite her sorrow at his leaving, Britomart knew she had
to allow her husband to complete his quest, and looked forward to his
Queen Radigund, the Warrior Queen
On his quest, Artegall, accompanied by Talos, an iron-man who helped him in the dispensation of justice, came to the country of the Amazons, ruled by the warrior Queen Radigund. She fought against any knight who arrived in her realm and would not submit to her will. After conquering them, she forced them to obey her every command or die. Radigund made all defeated knights remove their armour and against their will wear female clothing, forcing them to work by spinning thread, sewing, washing clothes, and other tasks that women usually did. If any refused or complained, she executed them.
The Khasi people live in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya with populations in the neighboring state of Assam and some regions of Bangladesh. They evolved their own unique mythology and folklore and created many wonderful folktales that attempt to explain different aspects of the natural world. There are all sorts of stories featuring monkeys, tigers, lynxes and other wild animals. The domestication of some animals is also dealt with telling how dogs, cats, goats and oxen came to live among humans and give explanations of cosmic creation and natural phenomena. The Khasi divinities, such as the twin goddesses Ka Ngot and Ka Iam, who gave their names to the rivers Ngot and Lam respectively, are found along with other divine beings. All this and more can be found in Folktales of the Khasis by Mrs. K. U. Rafy (1920) and presented here is a retelling of the story What Makes the Lightning?
What Makes the Lightning?
The story begins in the
young days of the world when animals socialized with people. They spoke their
language and tried to copy human customs and manners. Every thirteen moons the people held a great
festival where there were many sports and events. People competed against each other and
demonstrated their abilities in many different activities and one of the most
popular was the sword dance. All the
people from the hills and the forest would come and take part and it was a gay
and happy time. The animals loved this
event and would watch the people competing, dancing and having fun and the
younger beasts began to ask the elders for a festival of their own. After
considerable thought the elders agreed and said that the animals should appoint
a day when their own festival should be held.
U Pyrthat’s Drum
With great enthusiasm
the animals learnt all the skills and rules for the competitions and all the
moves and steps for the dances. When
they were ready they set a date for the festival to begin, but no one knew how
to let everyone know the event was taking place. Someone suggested that perhaps
U Pyrthat, the thunder giant, would beat his drum to tell everyone the event
was beginning. U Pyrthat agreed
and began to beat his drum summoning all the animals to their great
festival. His drum could be heard in the
farthest of hills and the most remote places of the forest and the animals
flocked towards the sound excitedly and a soon a great multitude gathered
around U Pyrthat and his drum.
The animals had gone to
great trouble to prepare grooming and preening themselves to look their
very best. Each one carried either a musical instrument or a weapon relevant
to how they intended to participate in the festival events. There was much merriment when the squirrel marched in
banging on a small drum followed by a small bird called the Shakyllia playing a
flute, who was followed by a porcupine clashing cymbals together. It was a very
happy day and all the animals were jolly and laughing, sharing a jokes and
having fun. The mole looked up and saw
the owl trying to dance but because her eyes were not used to daylight she kept
bumping into objects. The mole laughed so much his own eyes became
narrowed and his vision unclear and that is how we find him today.
The Sword Dance of U Kui, the Lynx
When the fun and
merriment reached its height U Kui, the lynx appeared carrying a most splendid
silver sword which he had lavished a lot of money on. He had bought it just
for the festival because he wanted to show off his skills in the sword
dance. Calling everyone to attention he
began his dance leaping and stepping with energy, grace and precision. Everyone cheered and admired his elegance of
movement and technique but his success went to his head and he began to see
himself as better than the others.
U Pyrthat’s Sword Dance
Pyrthat, the thunder giant, saw the performance of the lynx and was full of
admiration for his dancing skills and was very impressed with the silver sword.
He had not brought a sword himself as he had brought the drum he used to
summon everyone. Thinking that he should like to try a dance or two wielding
such a fine sword he asked the lynx if he could borrow it as a favor. U Kui was reluctant to
allow the thunder giant to borrow his silver sword not only because it was so
fine and expensive but because he did not like the idea that he might be
upstaged. The crowd seeing his reluctance began to shout,
“Shame! shame! shame!”
and booed and hissed
thinking that it was rude and ungracious of him to refuse being as the thunder
giant had beat his drum to summon them all. In the end the lynx was shamed into lending the the giant
his sword and reluctantly the handed it to him.
Taking hold of the magnificent silver sword the
thunder giant prepared himself to dance. When he was ready he suddenly
burst into life leaping high and whirling the flashing blade in circles all
around him. He danced so furiously and leapt
high and the flashing blade dazzled everyone. As he danced he beat on his drum so hard the
earth shook and the animals fled in terror.
Thunder and Lightning
U Pyrthat was inspired
by the silver sword and danced faster and faster, leaping higher and higher.
Carried away by his dancing and the wonderful blade he leaped right into
the sky with the silver sword flashing all around him while he beat on his drum,
the sound rumbling and crashing down to earth.
At times, the noise of the drum and the flashing of the sword are still
heard and seen by people all around the world.
They called it thunder and lightning, but the Khasis people know that it
is the drum of U Pyrthat, the thunder giant and the stolen sword of U Kui, the
lynx, that the people hear and see.
U Kui’s Heartbreak
U Kui was heartbroken at
the loss of his fine silver sword. Folks
say that afterwards he made his home near a great hill and would sit and look
at the sky when U Pyrthat danced. He kept piling stones upon the hill
hoping one day to make it high enough to reach the sky where he hoped to
to reclaim his sword from the dancing