Celtic Mythology: Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Image by John James Audubon – Public Domain – Source

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  It is retold here from The Unpublished Legends of Virgil by Charles Godfrey Leland.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

Image by Наталья Коллегова from Pixabay

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

Japanese Folktales: The Snow-White Inari Fox

Snow-White Fox by Shiokawa Bunrin – Public domain

The following is a retelling of a Japanese folktale called The Love of the Snow-White Fox, from a compilation by Frank Rinder called, Old-World Japan: Legends of the Land of the Gods.  The story is set in Old Japan in in the province of Izumo.  In these times evil ninko foxes, who with ogre-like creatures called oni, haunted the night.  Ninkos were invisible spirit-like foxes  that possessed humans but could only be sensed after possession had taken place. Any wandering man, child or maiden who had the misfortune to cross their path at night became their prey.  They robbed their poor victim of all they had, bewitched the maidens and carried off the little children.   All who dwelt in Izumo feared the night.

There were also other foxes who were not evil.  These were the rare snow-white Inari foxes that were good and kind.  The Inari fox was the enemy of the oni and the ninko foxes. Both Inari and ninko foxes were a type of Kitsune which are supernatural spirits or yōkai in Japanese folklore and mythology.

The snow-white Inari foxes guarded  the poor peasants, protected the little children and came to the aid of the poor, bewitched, maidens.  They were the servants and messengers of Inari, the spirit-god of fertility, fecundity agriculture, rice, sake, tea, prosperity and success.

The Love of the Snow-White Fox

This story begins many, many centuries ago when there lived a most beautiful Inari. She was snow-white with intelligent and piercing eyes and was kind and good and loved by all the people who looked forward to her visits.

She would take turns in whom she visited. The people would eagerly listen out at night for the knocking of her snow-white tail against the window and jump to let her in.  As soon as she was given entry she would play with the children and make a great fuss of everyone present. They would offer her a share of their humble fare which she would gratefully eat and then disappear into the darkness.  The Ninko foxes hated her because she protected all those who were kind to her. There were also hunters who wanted the blood of the beautiful, snow-white Inari. Several times she had come close to death at their hands.

On fine summer afternoons she would meet up with other foxes and they would frisk and play together in the sunshine.  One afternoon as she was playing with her friends two evil men caught sight of her and instantly wanted her blood.  They had fast dogs and themselves were fleet of foot. They unloosed their dogs whose yelping warned the Inari of her peril.  She bolted as fast as she could with the dogs and hunters hot on her trail. They expected her to make for the open plain but she took a different course.  She led the hunters on a long and difficult chase through the forest. Just as her strength was giving out she came to the Temple of Inari Daim-yojin and dashed inside seeking refuge under its hallowed auspices. 

Inside the temple was a young prince by the name of Yaschima.  He was of the most noble house of Abe and he was deep in meditation.  With her pursuers close behind and her strength failing fast she ran to the prince and took refuge in the long folds of his robes where she lay trembling in fear.

All though he was astonished Yaschima spoke kindly and softly to the snow-white fox promising he would protect her.  She looked up at the prince with her bright, intelligent eyes and understood. The prince went to the temple door just as the two hunters approached.  “Have you seen the white Inari?” they asked, “We believe we have one cornered in here and we want its blood.”

 “I know nothing of a white Inari! I have been here meditating and have seen no white fox,” replied the prince. As they were about to leave one of the men glanced down and saw the white tip of the Inari’ s bushy tail. “Ha, you lie,” snarled the hunter, “stand aside so that we can kill it!”

The Prince steadfastly refused and stood firm but the hunters were determined and attacked him.  In his defense the Prince drew his sword and as he struck out his elderly father appeared. Seeing his son beset by two assailants and despite his own age, he bravely rushed to his aid.  Yaschima struck but he had not seen his father and the blow struck him instead, killing him. Shocked and angry the Prince struck two more mighty blows each one dispatching an assailant.

With the fight finished Yaschima was overcome with grief for the loss of his father by his own hand.  As he grieved he became aware of sweet singing that filled the temple. As he turned, a beautiful maiden came slowly towards him and stood before him.  Looking into his eyes with her own bright eyes she saw he was deeply troubled and said, “Speak your heart!”

Yaschima looked into those bright eyes and told her of the white Inari and the hunters who would have killed her.  He told her of his father and of all the good things about him. With a broken heart and weeping he told her that it was by his hand that his father had died trying to help him.  The maiden spoke low words of kindness and sympathy. As she spoke the soft light of her eyes washed over him and he began to feel comforted.

Yaschima had never met such a maiden before who was so so pure and true and beautiful.  He fell deeply in love with her and begged her to be his bride. She replied,  “I would be your bride for I deeply love you. I know you are brave and your heart is pure and I would bring you comfort for the loss of your father.” The two were soon wed. Although his father remained always in his heart and memory he knew that his lovely wife was with him now and  he gave her all his love and attention.

The years passed and they were very happy together. With his Princess by his side the Prince ruled his people wisely and kindly.  Every morning they went to the temple together to give thanks to the good god Inari for the joy and love they shared. The Princess gave her husband a beautiful baby son and they named him Seimei. They were very happy for a long time but there came a time when the Princess began to take herself off alone and sit and weep for hours on end.  Deeply troubled by her sadness, Yaschima asked her what ailed her.  She shook her head and sadly looked away, her bright eyes dim and full of tears. There came a day when she went to her husband and taking both his hands she looked into his eyes and said,

“My Prince, my husband and my friend our life has been very wonderful together.  I have given you a fine son that you love very much and he will always be with you.  I have heard the voice of my god Inari and he calls me daily. He tells me I must leave you but for you and our son I have no fear.  Inari says he will guard you and our son as you guarded me when the hunters came to steal my blood. You should know that the snow-white fox you shielded and saved, though it cost you your father, was myself.”

One last time she looked deeply into his eyes and with no other word slowly faded before him and was gone. Yaschima, although devastated, gave thanks for the time they had enjoyed together and for his son Seimei.  He brought him up to be good, kind and true and to be respectful of Inari. The people of the province loved the Prince and his son but the snow-white fox was never seen again but her presence remained clear and bright in the heart of Prince Yaschima and his son.

© 25/03/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 25th, 2020 zteve t evans

Dark Beira: The Winter Queen and Maker of the Scottish Landscape

Dark Beira

In Scottish mythology, Beira, also known as Dark Beira, was the great mother of the gods and goddesses.  She was also known as the Cailleach,  or the Cailleach Bheur in the Gaelic traditions of Ireland and the Isle of Man.   According to Donald Alexander Mackenzie, she was usually described as being very  tall and very old and could be terribly fierce when provoked. Her anger could be as strong and bitter as the cold north wind and as wild and unforgiving as the storm laden sea. Every winter Beira reigned undisputed on Earth but as spring approached her subjects grew restless and rebellious against her stern, harsh rule.  They looked forward to the pending return of Angus of the White Steed who was the Summer King and Bride his beautiful consort and Queen.

The King and Queen of Summer

Angus and Bride were loved by all for their arrival brought an end to the dark cold days of winter heralding the return of spring and warmer and lighter days of abundance and happiness. The weakening of her power and the inevitable arrival of the King and Queen of Summer enraged Beira greatly. Although she did what she could to prolong winter by raising spring storms and sending blights of frost eventually  winter had to give way to spring and summer as her power weakened.

The Green Island and the Well of Youth

Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

Beira was ancient having lived for thousand of years. She kept herself alive by drinking from the Well of Youth  that has its wellspring on the Green Island of the West. The Green Island was a floating island and a place where there was only summer.  The trees were always laden with blossoms and fruit and the days were sunny and clear.   The island floated freely in the North Atlantic Ocean and the seas around the west coasts of Ireland, sometimes drawing close to the Hebrides.  

Although many bold sailors have tried to find the island few if any have ever succeeded as it is hidden by mists.  It is possible, even on the calmest and brightest of days to sail past it thinking it was just a bank of sea mist in the distance without  realising that the magical Green Island is concealed within. It can sometimes be glimpsed from shore but it will vanish when being gazed upon.  Sometimes it will sink below the waves to conceal it’s forbidden sights from human eyes. Nevertheless, Beira was not human and she knew how to reach the forbidden island when the time came. She knew that the waters of the Well of Youth were at their most potent  after the winter solstice. Therefore she would always visit the Green Island to drink the waters of the Well of Youth the night before the first lengthening day which was the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter.

It was important to drink the water at precisely the right time so she would arrive early and sit in darkness waiting for the very first glimmer of light in the east.  This was the signal for her to drink from pure water of the Well of Youth as it bubbled forth from a crevice in a rock. It was essential that she should drink of the waters in silence and alone, before any bird or animal.  If she should fail in this she would die, shrivel and crumbling to dust.

As soon as the water passed her lips she would begin to grow young.  She would leave the island and return to Scotland where she would fall into a long, magical sleep.  Eventually she would awake as a beautiful girl with long blond hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks to find herself in sunshine. Having rejuvenated herself she was now, with the exception of Bride the Summer Queen, the fairest goddess in the land.  She would wander through the land dressed in a robe of green and crowned with different colored flowers.

The Aging of Beira

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

However, as the months passed by so the year aged and Beira aged with it.  She would reach full womanhood at midsummer and when autumn came the first wrinkles began to appear on her brow and her beauty could be seen to be slowly fading. With the return of winter she was transformed fully into the old withered hag and become Queen of Winter.  She was often heard on stormy nights as she wandered alone through the bitter wind singing a strange and sorrowful song, 

 O life that ebbs like the sea!

  I am weary and old, I am weary and old–

Oh! how can I happy be

  All alone in the dark and the cold.

I’m the old Beira again,

  My mantle no longer is green,

I think of my beauty with pain

  And the days when another was queen.

My arms are withered and thin,

  My hair once golden is grey;

’Tis winter–my reign doth begin–

  Youth’s summer has faded away.

Youth’s summer and autumn have fled–

  I am weary and old, I am weary and old.

Every flower must fade and fall dead

  When the winds blow cold, when the winds blow cold.  (1)

Although the young rejuvenated Beira of the summer was a joy to look upon the aging and bitter Beira of the winter turned into something horrific.   She only had one large eye but her vision was sharp and clear while her complexion was of dark blue giving her a dull and dank appearance.  She had rust colored teeth and long, lank, white hair that covered her shoulders like a bright frost. Her clothes were grey and she carried wrapped around her shoulders a dun coloured shawl which she pulled tightly around herself.  Sometimes she was often heard singing sad songs to herself. 

Days Gone By

It was said that Beira was so old she could remember how changes had come to the land.  She could remember that in some places where there was water there had once been land. Furthermore, she remembered how places that were now land had once been covered by water.  She was once asked by a wizard how old she was and replied, 

“I no longer count time in years.  I will tell you that where the rock of Skerryvore that is the haunt of seals lies in the sea I remember as a mountain that was surrounded by fields.  I remember how people worked in them, plowed them and cultivated them and I remember how the barley grew tall and thick and laden with sunshine. I remember the loch over yonder that but a small tricking spring.  In those days I was young and blithe but now I am old, weak, dark and in misery!” 

Creating Loch Awe

The stories tell how Beira freed many rivers and made many lochs.  She made all the mountains and glens and all of the hills Scotland.  One legend tells how there had once been a well on Ben Cruachan in Argyle which Beira habitually used daily.   Every morning as the sun rose she would lift it’s lid off and in the evening when the sun went down she would replace it.  One evening she forgot to replace it at sunset and this disturbed the natural order of the world.  

With the sinking of the sun water gradually began to bubble forth from the well. The lower the sun sank the more water burst from the well.  Soon a great flood was rolling pouring from the well and streaming and roaring down the mountain into the valley below. The next morning when the sun rose Beira found the valley to be completely flooded in water and in later days this place became known as Loch Awe.

Creating Loch Ness

Beira had another well which also had to be kept from sunset until sunrise. One of her maids, whose name was Nessa, had charge of the well. One evening Nessa was late in returning to recover the well and as she drew near she saw great torrents of water flowing down so strong that she was forced to turn and run for her life.  Beira, who was watching from her home on top of Ben Nevis was furious and cried,

‘You have failed in my trust in you and neglected your task, therefore now you must run forever and remain in the water!”

Immediately Nessa was changed into a river which became known as the river Ness and the loch that was formed from it Loch Ness.   There is a tradition that once a year on the anniversary of the evening of her transformation Nessa appears from the loch as a maiden to sing a sad sweet song in a voice that is clearer and more melodious than any bird. She is accompanied by the beautiful music of golden harps and pipes more melodious than that of fairyland.

Making Mountains

Image by A Owen from Pixabay

In the early days of the world the rivers began to break free and formed lochs and this is when Beira began making the mountains of Scotland.  She carried a great basket strapped to her back filled with earth and rocks. Sometimes she would need to step over the valleys, rivers and lochs but this sometimes caused her basket to tilt to one side causing rocks and earth to fall out.  These would form into hills and cause lochs to form with islands.  

To help her in her task she had eight hags who each had a basket strapped to their backs which was filled with earth and rocks.  One after the other they emptied it in one place so that each basketful built into a huge pile forming a mountain that reached up through the clouds.

The Sons of Dark Beira

According to folklore there were two reasons why Beira made the mountains.  The first was to provide stepping stones for herself as she traversed the country.  The second was because she had many sons who tended to be quarrelsome and would fight one against the other for dozens of years at a time.  Therefore, to punish those who disobeyed her by fighting she would separate them and make them live in different mountain houses. However, this did not stop them fighting because they would climb to the tops of the mountains every morning and throw massive boulders across the landscape at each other.  This is the reason why today we see many great boulders and rocks are strewn on the sides of the mountains or lie in the valleys below.

Beira had other gigantic sons who lived in deep caves in the earth.  Others were horned like deer and others had more than one head. Her son’s were so strong they could easily lift cattle off the ground and placing them over their shoulders carry them away and roast them for dinner.  Each of her gigantic sons were known as a Fooar.

The Origin of Ben Wyvis

One of the hardest tasks Beira had was the building of Ben Wyvis.  She had given her hag servants tasks at other places and because she did not want to hinder their progress she was forced to work alone.  After one particularly arduous and tiring day she stumbled and all the contents of her basket fell in a heap on the ground and it was this that became the mountain known as Little Wyvis.

Magic Hammer

Beira had a magic hammer that she used to help her shape the Scottish landscape.  To make the ground as hard as a rock she struck it lightly with her hammer. To create a valley she struck the ground hard. After she had formed a mountain she would then use her hammer to sculpt  it into a unique form so that she knew one from the other and could use them as landmarks to find her way around. After they were created she would take great joy in roaming the valleys beneath and between them and wandering over the mountain passes.

Animals and Beira

Beira was beloved by all wild animals especially in her younger form.  Foxes would bark out a welcome and wolves would howl greetings from the mountains, while eagles soaring above shrieked in delight at her presence.  She gave her protection to the fleet-footed deer and wide horned shaggy cattle, the black pigs and other creatures that roamed the earth in those days.

She kept goats and cattle on the mountains so that they could graze the sweet mountain grass and these she milked. As soon as the wind began to blow milky froth from the milking pails she knew it was time to lead them down to the shelter of the valleys below.  The froth from the pails covered the hills and lay glimmering in the sunshine. When the rain hit the mountains in torrents and ran down the sides in streams people would look up and say,

“See, Beira is milking her today see how the buckets overflow with milk and run down the mountainside.”

The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Beira wore a great shaggy shawl which she sometimes needed to wash but the only place big enough was the sea in the Gulf of Corryvreckan which lies between the Western isles of Jura and Scarba.  She washed her shawl so vigorously she caused a whirlpool in the sea called the Whirlpool of Corryvreckan and was known as her wash pot. There is a legend that a Scottish prince named Breckan was drowned by the whirlpool when his boat became caught in its pull or upset by the waves Beira was making as she washed her shawl.  It took her hag  servants three days to prepare the water to wash her shawl.  When it was ready the noise of the Corry or sea could be heard roaring for twenty miles all around and Beira would commence washing her shawl.  

On the fourth day she would throw her shawl in the whirlpool and trample it with her feet.   She washed her shawl until it was as white as snow and then she draped it over the mountains to dry which was the sign that her reign as Queen of Winter had begun. 

The Creation of the Scottish Landscape

The myth and story of Beira is the story of how the ancient Scottish people expalined the creation of the magnificent landscape they lived and the forces that created it. It provides an explanation for the cycle of the seasons in a way that people understood and could relate to. Although unscientific and perhaps raw and mischievous at times it does have a certain charm and truth that science cannot answer for.

© 19/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 12th, 2019 zteve t evans

Winter Folklore: Traditions and Customs of the Cailleach Bheur

Gustave Doré [Public domain]

In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or the Cailleach Bheur, which means old woman or hag. In Celtic mythology she had a similar role to Jörð in Norse mythology  and Gaia, in Greek mythology.

Donald Alexander Mackenzie

The Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873 – 1936) wrote frequently on the subjects of mythology, anthropology and religion and developed a theory that there was a matriarchal society spread across Europe in Neolithic times.  In his book,  Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe (1917), he argues that these early societies were gynocentric and matriarchal venerating goddesses above gods but during the Bronze Age a patriarchal society evolved supplanting it.  Mackenzie called the Cailleach Bheur by the name of Beira, Queen of Winter.  

He saw her as a giantess with  a single eye who had her mountain throne on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and the highest in the British Isles.  According to him she had white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She had a magic hammer that she used to create the mountains and valleys  of Scotland.  Loch Ness was created when she changed a careless maid named Nessa into a river which then formed the loch.  Each year her rule would come to an end when the longest night of the year arrived when she would seek out the Well of Youth and drink its waters which made her grow younger by the day. 

As the Cailleach

In Scottish folklore and mythology, as the Cailleach she was believed to have created many of the mountains and hills.  She carried a wicker basket containing rocks and as she strode across the land at such a pace many of these rocks accidently fell out creating hills and mountains as she went. Sometimes she was said to have created the mountains on purpose and carried a hammer which she used to shape the hills and valleys.   She opposed Spring and herded deer and when she strikes the ground with her staff the ground freezes. 

The Cailleach and Brigid

Sometimes she is seen with the goddess Brigid in partnership or operating as two faces or aspects of one goddess.  They ruled the winter and spring months between November 1st or Samhain to May 1st or Beltane. Brigid rules from Beltane through summer and autumn  to Samhain.

In some traditions the Cailleach turns to stone on Beltane and reverts to her human form on Samhain to rule the winter and spring months. However, this is not straightforward,  in some traditions the transfer of jurisdiction between the two goddesses and winter to spring can be celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brigid or February 1st, Latha na Cailliche or March 25th and Beltane or May 1st.  Festivals named after either of the two goddesses are held in between these dates.

Saint Brigid’s Day

According to tradition the Imobolc, or the 1st of February or  Là Fhèill Brigid is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for winter.  If she is planning a long winter she will make that day sunny and bright to help her find plenty of fuel to last her through the cold days of winter.  Therefore with this legend in mind people are pleased if the weather on February 1st is wet and dismal as the winter will be short. A tradition on the Isle of Man  where she is called Caillagh ny Groamagh, says that on St. Bride’s day she has been seen to take the form of a giant bird that flies around collecting sticks in its beak.

The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Another tradition from the west coast of Scotland tells how the Cailleach by washing her great plaid, which can be a kind of kilt, or sometimes a large shawl, in the waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan causes the whirlpool in the gulf and brings in winter.  This also causes a storm that can be heard twenty miles away and lasts for three days.  When she is finished her plaid is clean and white and covers the land as snow. 

Harvest Traditions

There was an old custom in Ireland and Scotland where the farmer who was first to finish harvesting his crop of grain made a corn dolly that represent the Cailleach from the last sheaf that he cut.  This would be thrown into the field of one of his neighbors who had yet to finish bringing in his harvest.  If the farmer finished before his other neighbors this was passed to one of them. This was passed on until it at last came into the hands of the last unfortunate farmer to finish who it was implied had the misfortune to have to take care of the corn dolly for the following year. In doing so he was obliged to feed and house the Cailleach, the hag of winter, until summer returned.  This gave all of the farmers the encouragement and motivation to get their harvest in quickly.

© 06/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attribution and Further Reading

Copyright December 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

The Griffin: The Legendary King of All Creatures

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

Griffins

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

King of all Creatures

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

Griffins in Mythology

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

Guardians of Treasure

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

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Khasi Folktales: The Origin of Thunder and Lightning

The Khasi People

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

U 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 thunder giant.

© 13/03/2019 zteve t evans

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Copyright March 13th, 2019 zteve t evans

Raven and the Haida People

The Haida people are native to areas of British Columbia, Canada and Alaska, USA. The  the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, is considered to be their heartland especially the two main islands.  The Haida tell many wonderful stories featuring Raven who in their mythology, legends and traditions is seen as a provider and bringer of light to humanity while also being a trickster.  It was Raven who was the transformer, healer and magician and yet is often presented as being greedy, lustful and mischievous. Yet despite these contradictions Raven is very much a cultural hero of the Haida.

Raven and the First People

In one creation myth they tell that before Raven all of the world was one enormous flood. The myth tells how there was once a time when there was nothing but water everywhere. One day Raven became bored and spread his wings and flew.  As he flew the waters began to recede. When Raven became hungry land was formed and Raven  settled on it and found food.

One day Raven heard strange noises coming from a shell.  This both intrigued and confused Raven. The strange sound from the clam became louder and more frantic and so Raven having a fine singing voice thought he would sing to it in the hope of soothing whatever was making the noise.  So Raven sung to it and eventually a small but extraordinary creature broke out of the shell. Indeed, it was a very peculiar with two legs, a head that was round and covered at the top in long black hair and soft skin. Unlike Raven it had no wings and no feathers.   This creature was the very first of the First People and more came from the shell and all of these were male.

To begin with Raven was intrigued but gradually grew bored with them and thought about putting them all back in the shell. Then he decided he would look for some females to keep all of these males company.   It so happened that Raven found some more people who were inside a another shell. Setting them free Raven discovered they were female people. He was enthralled as he watched how male and female interacted with each other and began to feel protective and responsible towards them.

Creation Myths

The Haida have other versions of  tales that tell how the world was created such as the one that follows.  There was a time when the world was just sky and water and in the water was a reef where the first beings lived.  The greatest of these beings lived upon the highest part of the reef and looked down on the lesser beings who lived on the lower parts of the reef.

Raven flew over the reef looking for a place to settle but could see no room to land. Therefore he decided to fly to the sky country and there he found the daughter of a Chief who had a young baby.   In the darkness of night Raven stole the child with the intention of taking its place as Raven Child.

Raven Brings the Sun, Moon and Stars

There is a very old story that tells how Raven brought the Sun, the Stars, the Moon and fresh water and fire to the world to benefit the people.  It tells how in the the beginning of the world the guardian of the Sun, Moon, Stars, fresh water and fire was Gray Eagle. He hated people and hid beneficial things from them. He hid the Sun, the Moon, the Stars and fresh water and fire from them and the people were cold and lived in darkness.

In these early days of the world Raven was pure white and he fell in love with the daughter of Gray Eagle who thought him very handsome in white.  One day she invited him to visit her in her father’s longhouse. When Raven arrived he saw that the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, along with fresh water were all hanging up around the sides of Gray Eagle’s home. When he knew no one was looking he stole them and also took a burning brand from the fire and flew out of the smoke hole in the roof  with his loot.  Flying up high in the sky he hung the Sun up and its light flooded out over the Earth lighting and warming  he day. In fact there was so much light he could see far enough to fly out across the ocean to an island situated in its middle .  When the Sun wet down he hung up the Moon and Stars in different parts of the sky and by this light he flew back to the land carrying the fresh water and the firebrand.  

When he reached the land he found what he thought was a good place and dropped the fresh water.  Where it landed on the ground became the source of all of the freshwater that creates all of rivers, lakes and  streams in the world today.

Raven flew on holding the flaming brand in his beak and as he flew the smoke from the fiery brand flowed over his snowy white feathers turning them black. As he flew the brand burnt smaller and smaller and eventually it began to burn his beak and Raven was forced to drop it.  The burning brand fell from the sky and crashed into rocks and instantly concealed itself inside of them. This is how the sparks that appear when two stones are struck together got in the stone and why we can make fire from them.

As for Raven he lost his white plumage after it was covered in soot from the firebrand and that is why today all of his feathers are black.

© 11/04/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 11th, 2018 zteve t evans