The Gods of Mount Teide: Mythology and Folklore of Tenerife

Mount Teide, Tenerife – Public Domain

MOUNT TEIDE, TENERIFE

The Canary Islands are a popular holiday destination for many people from the United Kingdom and Western Europe and the most southerly of the autonomous communities of Spain. One of the most popular tourist attractions is Mount Teide, an active volcano on the island of Tenerife, whose last eruption was in 1909 and is visible from many parts of the island. A cable car takes tourists part of the way to the summit for the journey completed on foot with a permit. Those who have undertaken the trip to the top will probably understand why it meant the same to the Guanches as Mount Olympus meant to the ancient Greeks. It was the home of their gods and believed to hold up the sky.

ORIGIN OF THE GUANCHES

The Guanche people were the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands. Their myths and legends still resonate through the ages giving small glimpses of these remarkable people. Some of their traditions and folklore still endure adding depth, color, and flavor to the modern culture of the islands. The Guanches inhabited the islands long before the arrival of the Spanish and are descendants of the Berber people on the African mainland who migrated to the islands about 1,000 BC or possibly earlier. Although the Guanches became culturally and ethnically assimilated with the Spanish, remnants of their original culture still survive today. For example, the people of La Gomera still use a traditional whistled language to communicate with each other over distances, and some of their mythology, legends, and traditions persist. Presented here is a brief discussion of their pantheon of gods and other supernatural entities and a look at some of the Guanche traditions found today.

ACHAMÁN

The supreme god of the Guanches of Tenerife was Achamán, their creator and father god, whose name means “the skies.” He was the immortal omnipotent creator of the land, air, fire, and water. All living creatures owed their existence to him. Achamán lived in the sky but would sometimes manifest himself on mountain tops to look upon the world he had created.

GUAYOTA

In Guanches mythology, Guayota was the equivalent of the Devil and shared similar characteristics to other divinities around the world associated with volcanoes. For example, in Hawaiian mythology, the goddess Pele, like Guayote, had her home in the Hawaiian volcano of Kīlauea and was believed to be responsible for causing eruptions. Guayota lived inside the peak of Mount Teide, known as Echeyde. It was a place similar to Hell and the entrance to the underworld and abode of certain lesser demons.

THE BLACK DOGS OF GUAYOTA

These lesser demons were called Guacanchas, or Jucanchas, depending on the island, and took the form of wild dogs with shaggy black coats and red eyes said to be the offspring of Guayota. On Gran Canaria, they were known as Tibicenas and made their home in the depths of hidden caves in the mountains. At night they emerged to ravage livestock and attack people they encountered. Guayota often appeared as a monstrous black dog leading a pack of these supernatural hounds across the countryside.

THE ABDUCTION OF MAGEC

In the Guanche pantheon, the god of the sun and light was called Magec and was the most important of their divinities. Although the gender of Magec is ambiguous, the name means “possess radiance” or “mother of brightness.” According to Guanche legend, Guyota kidnapped and imprisoned Magec in Mount Teide. With Magec incarcerated inside the volcano, the world fell into darkness. The people grew afraid and prayed to the supreme god Achamán to free Magec. Achamán heard the people and fought and defeated Guayota setting Magec free restoring sun and light to the world. He imprisoned Guayota in the volcanic crater of Mount Teide, where he has remained trapped ever since. Whenever Mount Teide erupted, the people would light fires on its slopes to taunt and frighten Guayota.

CHAXIRAXI

Another important goddess of the Guanche pantheon was Chaxiraxi, considered the Sun Mother and the Great Celestial Mother and associated with Canopus, the star. She may have evolved from Tanic, a goddess worshipped by their Berber ancestors. Mediation between Chaxiraxi and humanity was the task of minor gods or spirits called Maxios, or sometimes Dioses Paredros. These were also the guardians of hallowed places on Tenerife and were also the domestic spirits of the home. In recent times the worship of Chaxiraxi has been revived by the Church of the Guanche People, whose aim is to practice and promote the ancient religion of the Guanches.

ACHUGUAYO, THE FATHER OF TIMES

Achuguayo was the god of the Moon and the “Father of Times” who controlled time and seasons. According to tradition, he lived in the mountains, sometimes coming down to hear the prayers and supplications of the Guanches conducted under sacred trees or in caves in the mountains.

GUANCHE RELIGION

The Guanches had many sacred places that needed to be maintained, believing their maintenance kept Heaven and Earth in balance. Hallowed places may have been rocks or caves, such as the Cave of Achbinico, or natural features in the landscape where a variety of offerings were left. On Tenerife, the most important of these hallowed places was Mount Teide. Many offerings of tools and clay pots or vessels have been found, hidden in small nooks and natural cavities in rocks around the National Park Las Cañadas del Teide.

They left in the hope of appeasing or pleasing the gods or help the donor become one with nature. These votive offerings were often crude figures or sculptures which were idols and associated with health, fertility, animals, or people and often used by families. The Guanches on Tenerife had four major ceremonies; the proclamation of a new Mencey, a ceremony to relieve drought, their New Year Festival, and their Harvest Festival or Great Annual Festival of Beñasmen.

THE PROCLAIMING OF THE NEW MENCEY

Tenerife had nine small kingdoms, each ruled by a Mencey, the Guanches equivalent to a king, and the highest official in each realm. At times for the good of all the kingdoms, they needed to meet together. When a ruler died, the title did not necessarily pass from father to son. Sometimes it passed from brother to brother, but it was the task of the Council, known as the “Tagoror” that elected a new king

The proclamation came at a ceremony involving the oldest bone of the ancestor of the dynasty. This relic was venerated and carefully guarded and bought before the new Mencey for him to kiss in a special ceremony. Afterward, the members of the Tagoror recognized him as the new king, each saying,

“Agoñe Yacorán Iñatzahaña Chacoñamet”
(I swear by this bone of He who made you great).

THE RAIN RITUAL

Sometimes there were periods of drought, and the Guanches enacted a ceremony they hoped would bring rain. The people would fast and refrain from dancing and other forms of entertainment. Driving their flocks to high places in the mountains, they separated the lambs from the sheep and the kids from the goats, causing the animals to bleat piteously. The people also cried and wailed, hoping the gods would hear and look mercifully upon them and send rain to ease their plight.

THE FEAST OF THE NEW YEAR

The Guanches followed a lunar calendar, their year beginning towards the end of April or the early days of May. Many festivals with dances, feasts, and sporting events celebrating the arrival of Spring took place.

THE HARVEST FESTIVAL

Another important Guanche Festival was their Harvest Festival, or the Beñasmen, held between July and August. During this time, all conflict and wars between the nine kingdoms ceased, and a truce was put in place, allowing everyone to celebrate together and join each other in feasts, dances, and sporting events. During this period, the Menceys provided food for the entire population while the festivities and celebrations endured. The people wore flowers and leaves and also used them to decorate their villages.

SPORTS AND GAMES

Sporting competitions rook place with various athletic events such as running, throwing, and jumping competitions. There were also more dangerous events, such as throwing and avoiding spears, fighting with poles, and many other types of competitions. There were also wrestling matches similar to those practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. The winner had to throw their opponent to the ground or wrestle him out of the fighting area.

MUSIC

Although the Guanches had few musical instruments, they did use conch shells, small pebbles in clay pots, and beat sticks together to create rhythm and they also sang and danced. In the XVIth century, one version of a Guanche dance called “El Canario” became fashionable in the courts of Europe. Another traditional dance, called the “Tajaraste,” is still performed today.

© 20/10/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 20th, 2021 zteve t evans

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

Other Publications by 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

FURTHER PUBLICATIONS BY 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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Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world.  Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America.   The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal.  Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights.   These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten.  For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green.  Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted.  Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.

Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless.  When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster.  It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats.  According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros.  These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish.  It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.

Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness.  If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness.  If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death.  One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore.  This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also  known as the “Fire Rooster”.    It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture.   According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.

They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements.   The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped.  If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it.  The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name.  The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room.   They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist.   It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger.  This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.

The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero.  All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable. The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout.  The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king.  On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess.  On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire.  In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form.  It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull.  The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region.   When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land.   It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses.  However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk.  Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.

The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator.  Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep.  Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa.   They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.  Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by.   Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe.   Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well. 

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun.  She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib.   Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.

Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf.   He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves.  The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

Five Trees Featured in Celtic Lore

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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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Celtic Mythology: Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

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This article by zteve t evans was first published on FolkloreThursday.com on 30th July, 2020 under the title, Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods in Celtic Mythology

Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Animals played an important part in the everyday life of the ancients Celts. In Celtic mythology the lives of animals, birds, humans and gods are interwoven to provide rich stories alluding to important matters in their society such as life and death, love and hate, jealousy and lust. Provided here is a brief review of some of those myths and legends.

The Dream of Aengus

Swans were much admired by the Irish Celts and had some special places in their mythology. One story from Irish mythology called the Dream of Aengus, tells how a young god named Aengus fell in love with a beautiful woman from his dreams. Her name was Caer Ibormeith and she was the goddess of sleep and dreams.

Aengus set out to find her and discovered that she was a real person who had been placed under a spell which transformed her into a swan. Every other Samhain she was able to return to human form for one day beginning at sunset and then revert back to swan form for one year until the following Samhain when the transformation cycle would be repeated.

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Virgil and the Roman Goddess Laverna

Laverna

Of all of the gods of Rome perhaps one of the strangest and most devious was the goddess Laverna.  The following example shows just how devious she could be while revealing how the great Roman poet, Virgil, answered a tricky question posed by the Emperor.  It is retold here from The Unpublished Legends of Virgil by Charles Godfrey Leland. 

A Tricky Question

The Roman Emporer asked Virgil what he made of the following verse from Aesop’s Fables.

"One day a fox entered a sculptor’s shop,
And found a marble head, when thus he spoke:
‘O Head! there is such feeling shown in thee
By art—and yet thou canst not feel at all!"

After a little thought Virgil gave the following answer, “Well now, it is very difficult for me to tell whether or not it is all introduction or all conclusion.  It reminds me of those types of fish where it is difficult to know the head from the tail, or if they are all head, or all tail. Indeed, it also reminds me of the goddess Laverna of whom no one could ever tell if she was all head, or all body, or in fact both.”

The Emperor looked puzzled telling the poet he had never in his life heard of such a deity. Therefore, Virgil gave the following explanation,  “Of all the ancient gods and goddesses in the history of Rome, Laverna was the most cunning, the most mischievous and the most deceitful. She was not well known by the other deities as she tended to keep herself to her own wicked ways, rarely spending time in heaven among them. Most of the time she could be found mingling with vagabonds, scoundrels, pickpockets and thieves, living in the dark and hidden places of human society.

One day it happened that she changed herself into the form of an extremely beautiful priestess and visited a great priest and proposed a bargain with him.   She proposed he sell his estate to her and she would build on it within one year a great temple. Furthermore, at the end of that year she would pay in full for the estate and he would also get the temple for free.  She told him that as surety for the proposal she would swear on her body.

The great priest was completely convinced. He gave her his estate thinking he would be paid its full value and get a free temple in the bargain.  In that time Laverna was very busy selling up all his houses, land, livestock and assets until she had sold everything of any little worth. On the day when payment was due she was nowhere to be found and the great priest never received a penny in payment and no new temple.

Now, Laverna was not satisfied with defrauding the great priest and hatched another scheme.  She went to a great lord and persuaded him to sell her a castle with a great estate. This time she promised with her head as surety to pay him in six months the full value of the castle and estate. The great lord was completely taken in by her and agreed the deal.  Once again, Laverna sold the castle, the land and everything on it lock, stock and barrel, leaving nothing at all of any value.

The great priest and the great lord went together to the assembly of gods and goddesses to voice their complaints. The first before them was the priest. The gods heard his complaint and the goddess Laverna  was summoned before them to answer.  

Jove asked her what she had done with the property of the priest whom she had sworn with her body to repay in the allotted time.  Standing before him and the other gods she answered in a very strange way which entirely astonished Jove and the assembled divinities. She cried aloud,

‘Behold! He says I swore by my body, but I have no body!’

Her body vanished leaving just her head floating in the air. Jove and the others all laughed and called upon the great lord to next make his petition to them. He told how Laverna had defrauded him and promised by her head to repay him by the allotted time.   Jove demanded an explanation from her and in reply she showed her body to all present and it was indeed a very beautiful body, but it did not have a head.  Then a voice came from the body saying, 

‘Behold me, I am Laverna!  I say this of the lord’s complaint of me. He says I swore on my head.  See!  I have no head, yet he calls me a thief.  As you can see having no head I could not have sworn such an oath!’

Once again the gods broke into peals of laughter. At length Jove spoke and ordered her to return her head to her body.  When she stood before them in full he ordered that she pay what was due to her creditors with no more tricks.  Reluctantly, she complied.  

Jove told her and all present that as she was of such knavish and deceitful nature from hence forward she would be the deity of all rogues, scoundrels thieves, cutthroats, vagabonds and those of similar nature. 

That is why Laverna is now the patron of all of the wicked and deceitful people of the earth and a goddess of the Underworld.  When such people make their wicked plans they could enter into her temple and call upon her for aid and advice and she would appear as a woman’s head. If they did their work badly and incorrectly she would appear as a female body. If they worked well and were successful she appeared before him as the whole goddess.”

Virgil then pointed out that she was as chaste as she was honest taking many lovers and bearing many children.  However he hastened to add she was not entirely  evil-hearted and often repented her ways but no matter how hard she tried her passions got the better of her.

The Arts of Virgil

So that was how the poet Virgil answered a tricky question he had no idea the answer to.  It may be the Emperor lost track of his original question or was completely bamboozled by the  brilliance of the answer.  Whatever the reason he asked no more of it but this small event did not go unnoticed in history.

In the modern age, here in the UK, our elected rulers pay homage to Laverna and master the arts of Virgil from an early age.

© 08/07/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 8th, 2020 zteve t evans

The Feather of the Firebird

The Fabled Firebird

The fabled Firebird from Russian and Slavic mythology and folklore is a magical, mysterious bird, both rare and elusive and the inspiration of many folk and fairy tales. Its plumage is the color of red, yellow and orange flames of fire or maybe like the setting or rising of the sun.  

According to tradition it  appears from the east lighting up the sky causing all the creatures of the world to fall silent in deference to its glory. The Firebird appears in many stories as a blessing and a bearer of good fortune but it can also be a harbinger of doom for those of a wicked disposition.  However, for Alexis, the hero of this story, the finding of the feather of the Firebird is the catalyst for inner growth and strength.  He is sent on a journey completing a set of difficult tasks bringing out his own inner resources to win through.  In doing so he rises from lowly beginnings to a prominent  position in the world.

Finding the Feather

In this story our hero is a young man who despite being rather naive is true of heart and courageous and it is he who finds the feather.  For those who find a feather of the Firebird great changes befall them.  To pick it up sets off a life changing chain of events putting their life at risk and bringing them real fear.  When Alexis finds the feather he does not listen to the warning of his horse of power and decides to pick it up and take it to the Tsar.  From then on his problems snowball and for the first time he begins to experience real fear.

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The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa

The Firebird is usually said to represent the whole truth, or enlightenment of the world.  Princess Vasilisa represents love. The finding of a single feather from the Firebird represents the finding of a single grain of truth.  If the whole truth is desired then the whole Firebird must be sought to gain enlightenment. The Tsar is not satisfied with a feather but demands the whole truth, represented by the Firebird and sends Alexis to bring it back.  Yet, he is not satisfied with the whole Firebird and demands love in the form of Princess Vasilisa.  Again, he sends Alexis to find her but does nothing himself to win her love.

Although the Tsar seeks enlightenment and love he never does anything himself to find either and consequently never finds them.   Enlightenment comes from the experience gained from completing the journey and the tasks of the quest and love is earned by the way others are treated along the way, yet he never learns this.

Animal Helper – The Horse of Power

As with other Firebird stories our hero has a  wise animal and magical helper who accompanies him on the quest.   In, The Feather and the Firebird, the magical animal helper is a horse of power who has the gift of speech and foresight and is named Perdun.

Perdun warns against picking up the feather, which is only a small part of the truth.  The horse is important to our hero as it represents his own natural wisdom – his gut instinct which he suppresses.  It is the suppression of his inner instinct that gets him into trouble in the first place.  As he learns to listen to and trust his horse of power, or gut instinct, he at last triumphs.

So when our hero embarks on his quest at the command of the Tsar who is not satisfied with part of the truth but craves the whole truth the Tsar is making a huge mistake.  He does not experience the journey and the hardships so he remains none the wiser, but the hero through the trials on his journey learns the whole truth and the world is his.  On the way he finds love while the stay-at home Tsar never does.

While the Tsar ends up with death the hero is rewarded with marriage to Princess Vasilisa and becomes the new Tsar,  His own inner resources have grown to the point where he recognizes that the Firebird, like the truth and enlightenment, is something that cannot be caged and sets it free to roam the world as it should.  Perhaps one day, somewhere, someone else will find one of its feathers and embark on their own journey of discovery.

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© 01/07/2020 zteve t evans

Scottish Folklore: The Battle of the Sea Mither and Teran

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The Northern Isles

The Northern Isles of Scotland generally refers to the two archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland.  The islands have been inhabited since very early times and have many ancient archaeological sites with human activity going back to the Mesolithic Age.  There are still many Pictish and Norse influences which have combined to create a rich tradition of mythology and folklore on the islands.

Folklore and Tradition

One such tradition tells of an annual battle between the forces of summer and winter for supremacy.  This battle is expressed in folklore with summer being represented by a mythical female spirit called the Sea Mither, or Mither of the Sea.  Her opponent is called Teran, a mythical spirit of the winter who sends the wild waves, storms and high winds at sea and the death of vegetation on land.  Both spirits are invisible to humans directly but their force is experienced in the weather and seasons around the islands that play an integral part of island life.

The Sea Mither

The Sea Mither brings growth, renewal, rebirth and harvest.  The  word “Mither” is the Orcadian way of saying  “mother” so she is the mother of the sea in the sense she gives birth to all living creatures in the sea.

It is the power of the Sea Mither that reawakens the world after the harsh, barren wilderness days of winter, driving out darkness and bringing warmth and light.  She brings growth and fertility to the sea and land giving life to all living things and calms the stormy seas.  

Teran

Her enemy, Teran, brings the cold and dark and causes the winter gales and winds.  It is he who causes the waves to rise wildly and dash against the rugged coastline of the islands and it is his voice who rises above the wind in anger that the islanders hear in the winter gales.

 Vore Tully – the Spring Struggle

Around the time of the vernal equinox, about mid-March, there begins a titanic struggle for supremacy between the Teran and the Sea Mither when she returns to challenge him.  For weeks the seas all around become a frothing, churning cauldron as the battle between the two foes ensues.  Finally Teran is overcome and the Sea Mither confines him to the ocean’s depths.  Every so often he attempts to break free which manifest as spring and summer storms.  

During this period the power of the Sea Mither quells the storms and seas allowing growth and renewal to take place all around.  The continued stress of keeping Teran confined and  maintaining the summer seas and weather  begins to wear down the Sea Mither.  

 Gore Vellye – The Autumn Tumult 

Around the time of the autumn equinox when the Sea Mither is at her weakest and Teran has regained his strength the conflict is renewed.  He breaks free from his prison and challenges the Sea Mither to regain supremacy and gain control of the weather and seas.  The Sea Mither having used up her strength in renewal, calming the seas and keeping her foe in check is defeated and Teran rules the seas and the weather.  

The Cycle

However, as was the case with Teran, defeat is temporary.  Come the vernal equinox she will be ready to take up the fight again and win back the sea and land and spring and summer will come again.

It is in the battle of the Sea Mither and Teran that the local people made sense of the forces that brought the changing seas and weather.  To personify these unseen forces makes them easier to understand and to come to terms with.  It is a tactic that is used all around the world by many different human cultures in an attempt to explain the invisible forces that bring such dramatic and crucial changes to their environment.

Balance and Harmony

This cycle was seen as important because although it is natural to want continuous and permanent summer that is not how nature works.  Neither does it work by providing continuous and permanent winter.  Each has its time of precedence and decline which comes in cycles and is necessary to provide balance and harmony to the earth.  In their own way one is essential as the other to the well-being of the Earth and life on the planet.   Although  lacking modern science and technology, the ancients knew this making sense of it and giving it due respect in their own way.

© 17/06/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 17th, 2020 zteve t evans