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

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 13th, 2019 zteve t evans

Faustian Pacts: The Soul of Edgar Astley

Public Domain Image

The Faustian Pact

A Faustian pact or bargain is also sometimes known as a Deal with the Devil. This is where someone makes an agreement or contract with the Devil or his demonic representative.  It is named after a character from German literature, legend and folklore named Faust, sometimes known as Dr Faustus or Faustus, who made just such a contract.  The devil grants their material or worldly desires such as riches, knowledge and power, usually for a set length of time, in return for their soul.  The pact must be honored and when that time comes the devil or his representative arrives to take the soul of his contract partner.

Hoghton Tower

Presented here is a retelling of a tale from Goblin Tales of Lancashire, a collection of folktales by James Bowker that appeared as The Demon of the Oak.  For those who like a little bit of history with their folk tales the story is set in an ancient fortified manor in Lancashire, England called Hoghton Tower.  This was the ancestral home of the de Hoghton family descended directly from Harvey de Walter, who was a companion of William the Conqueror. Their female line of descent is also impressive  descending from famous Lady Godiva of Coventry, wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. The setting in time is uncertain but it is known the the land has been in the hands of ancestors of the de Hoghton’s since at least the 12th century and the present  house dates from about 1560–65 and rebuilt and extended between 1862 and 1901. The narrative centers around a young gentleman named Edgar Astley who in the story stayed at the manor and whose actual existence is much more nebulous than that of his hosts.

Edgar Astley

In fact, Edgar was a rather earnest young man whose habit of dressing in black indicated that he was still in mourning for someone dear who had passed away.  The servants of the tower, much like servants everywhere, discussed among themselves the reason for his sombre style of dress and melancholy air. They came to the conclusion he mourned for a woman whom he greatly loved and had deceived him and had married a rival instead of him. The lady in question had died mysteriously soon after for reasons unknown.

The speculations were sufficient to give the young man an aura of mystery and romance among the servants.  This was fueled when it was reported among them that strange colored lights had been seen from his room in the Tower at night.  This increased their suspicion making them wary and uncomfortable with the air of melancholy that he exuded

The more the superstitious servants thought about him the more they saw in him that was strange and abnormal.  They noticed how he would suddenly start out of a gloomy mood when approached making no secret of his desire to avoid where possible all society and companionship.   Even so, no one could ever accuse him of being unfriendly or rude and he was always very kind and patient with the youngsters of the household.  He always found time to chat cordially with the females of the household. When asked he would accompany them on rambles through the woods and countryside  and escort them on excursions to the local towns.

Yet it was noticeable that he did so more out of a sense of duty and chivalry rather than his own pleasure and quickly return to his station under the oak.  There he would read his dark books lost and become lost in dark thoughts. The ladies regarded him with an affectionate pity. They would try to encourage him to join them in more cheerful and sociable activities.  All though he complied he would only bear so much before politely returning to his books and dark dreaming.

The Baronet who was his host and master of the Tower liked him greatly despite his melancholy and strange ways.  Everyone else looked on him with pity. The general consensus was that time alone would eventually heal the darkness that appeared in his soul  and were happy for him to be amongst them. For his part, Edgar appreciated their sympathy and the freedom they allowed him in their home. He came and went as he pleased and the hosts were content to allow him this freedom asking no questions, just accepting him and his ways as they were.

Servant’s Talk

In the servant’s quarters the talk about Edgar was of  very different kind. One particular servant claimed he knew a servant who had known a footman, who had worked for Edgar’s family and there was a tragic story attached to the young man.  Apparently Edgar had once been betrothed to a young lady by the name of Anna.  She was a very attractive lady and had many suitors but she narrowed these down to Edgar and another young man.   She saw both of them at intervals and was very much in love with both but could not decide which she preferred and was well aware which ever one she rejected would be terribly hurt.  

Nonetheless, she enjoyed the attentions of both men and would play them off against each other.  Both suitors had been the best of friends but then a bitter rivalry developed between them for the love of Anna.  Both loved her with a passion and would have done anything in the world to win her favor and it seemed when she accepted Edgar’s proposal of marriage that he had won.  The date was set for the happy event and Edgar was looking forward to spending the rest of his life with the woman of his heart’s desire.

Edgar’s rival was not one to simply accept whatever fate should throw at him and the night before the wedding went to Anna and begged she elope that night with him.   She agreed and the two made off in her father’s coach and horses with all speed heading for Gretna Green.

The next morning word came to Edgar of the disappearance of Anna.  Of course he was devastated. Knowing that it could only have been at the instigation of his rival he took off after them intending a final confrontation with his rival.

Such was the talk in the servant’s quarters and their curiosity towards Edgar grew and grew and were fed by the peculiarity of his own habits.  It had been noticed that he stayed up late at nights in his room and strange lights and sounds could sometimes be seen and heard coming from it.  It was therefore decided that one of them should creep up to his room at midnight and listen at the door and look through the keyhole to try and learn more of this mysterious young man’s behaviour.  To his chagrin it was the servant who knew a servant who knew a footman that worked for Edgar’s family that was chosen for this dubious task. Therefore at the stroke of midnight, wishing he had kept quiet, the servant was sent up stairs to listen at Edgar’s bedroom door and spy through his keyhole.

Once at his station the reluctant spy knelt and put his eye to the keyhole listening intently for any sounds that should come through the door. Through the keyhole he saw that Edgar was seated at a table intently studying an ancient black book he had spread out before him. With one hand he shaded his eyes from a flame that burnt in  a small cauldron upon the table.

The Pale Student

Suddenly he leaned forward and with a quick movement of his hand took a pinch of a bright blue powder  placed in a saucer and sprinkled it upon the flame. The room was filled by strange, sickly aroma while the flame burst upwards with sudden life. The pale student of unhallowed arts turned over a page in the book and began to softly chant strange words unaware he was being watched.  Then he looked puzzled and muttered,

“Strange, I have bat’s blood, the severed hand of a dead man, viper’s venom, mandrake root and the flesh of a newt.  These are the ingredients stated and yet I still fail. Must I use the spell of spells at the risk of losing my life?

Think, man! What  is there for one such as me to fear in death? So far I remain unharmed from my experiments but were it otherwise I must still proceed to the bitter end.

There was a time when I would have given all my future happiness for her to be called by my name.  What is there left in this empty life for me that I should fear in this desperate enterprise to gain one last glimpse of her lovely face?”

As the pale student bent over the book studying the dreadful words on the cracked pages for the spy at the door the silence was almost palpable.  The night appeared to stand still and a harsh, rasping voice from the air cut through the silence saying,

Answer truly, will you give your very soul in exchange for a glimpse and a brief exchange of speech for she who you were once betrothed.”

The pale student quickly jumped to his feet excited and declared,

“Make no mistake, what ever you are, whoever you are, if you deliver her to me for a glimpse, a  brief word or two for the briefest of time my soul shall be yours forever!”

The night,  inside the house and outside, fell silent and the world seemed to stand still.  The spy at the door could hear the beating of his own heart and the the disembodied voice spoke once again,

“So it shall be! You have one last spell left that you must invoke at midnight beneath the spreading arm of the old oak and there and then shall you be rewarded with your heart’s desire.   Dare you look upon my face?”

replied the pale student.

“Devil or demon, whatever kind of beast you may be, I have no fear of seeing you”  

This was not the case for the spy at the keyhole who knelt shivering in fear at what he was witnessing and as soon as the lights flared a lurid blue he fell in a faint at his station by the door.

The Spy Discovered

When the spying servant finally came to he found himself inside the dread room with the pale student standing over him demanding,

“Who are you?  Why do you spy on me and what have you seen?  Tell me all, tell me true!”

Trembling in fear the terrified servant told him everything he had seen and heard while  Edgar listened gravely. When the servant had finished he would not allow him to leave until he had sworn on all that he held valuable that he would not tell a soul of what he had seen and heard that night.  To ensure the complete silence of the servant Edgar bound him by several terrifying threats of what would happen should he speak and then gave further instructions.

When the servant returned to the servant’s quarter his fellows all wanted to know what he had seen and heard.  They were disappointed when he told them he had spied so long and seen nothing and overcome with fatigue and boredom fallen asleep at his station.  Nevertheless, this appeared to satisfy his eager friends who could not help wondering what would have happened should he have been discovered.

The day passed in much the same way  as other days with the only notable exception being Edgar’s absence from the table under the old oak.  As evening fell dark clouds swept in from the distant sea and the wind began to rise and shake the old oak in its rage.

As usual the household had retired at eleven that night and only Edgar and one other were awake.  Edgar sat in his room at studying intensely the black book, but every now and then glancing impatiently at the clock.  At last he stood up and sighing to himself said,

 “The time I have longed for draws near.  Once again we shall meet!”

Taking up his small cauldron, the book and a few other items he left his room and went down the ancient staircase.  As he did so the servant stepped from the shadows and followed him. Calmly walking down to the old oak Edgar place his items at the foot of the tree and then taking a hazel wand from his pocket drew a circle around him and the servant.  Placing some red powder in the cauldron he put it down before him. As he did so a red flame leapt up from cauldron blazing with a steady flame while the wind roared in fury all around.

The Spell

In the gateway of the tower the chained guard dogs howled mournfully but Edgar pressed on with his task, striking the ground three time with his hazel wand, crying,

“Anna my love, my heart’s desire I summon thee!  Hear my words and obey, come to me this night!”

No sooner had he stopped speaking when the filmy figure of a most beautiful child appeared and floated around the outside of the circle.  The servant groaned in fear and sunk to his knees covering his eyes. The necromancer took no notice and as lightning flashed and thunder rolled he began incanting a new spell before finishing with these words,

“Soul of Anna, spirit of my love, spirit of my heart’s desire, I summon thee!  Come to me with all haste and without deceit and without power over my earthly body, spirit or soul.  May the shadow of death fall upon thee for ever if you refuse! Come now to me”!

With these last word the storm abated and all around fell to brooding silence. Suddenly the flame in the cauldron flared upwards several yards in height and a sweet voice could be heard engaged in a melodious chant.   A rasping, invisible voice said,

“Are you ready to behold the dead?

“I am ready!”

Before his eyes a column of mist formed and swirled and in that column slowly appeared the form and face of a beautiful woman still wrapped in her burial shroud.  She looked at him with sad, mournful eyes and asked,

“Why, Egar, why”

“Because I loved you, Anna! Did you love me?”

“I did!”

“And did you love him Anna, did you really love him?

“I do!”

Edgar gazed upon the ghost of his betrothed in tortured silence for some time. Slowly he reached out into the mist trying to embrace her.  As he did so the servant fainted at his feet as if struck down by death and thunder broke the silence.

“Edgar Astley, thy time is done and thou art mine forever!”

hissed a harsh disembodied voice at his side.  As these word were spoken the door of the tower were flung wide open and out rushed the baronet followed by his servants.

“Keep back, keep back! Save yourselves!”

“We would save you too! In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti!”  

cried the baronet striding forward to the circle holding a silver crucifix before him. No sooner had he spoken when the thunder fell quiet and the lightning ceased to flash and the moon broke through the dark clouds throwing down a soft light.

The servant was found face down trembling in the circle and carried indoors.  Edgar was found leaning against the trunk of the old oak. His eyes glazed and fixed upon the spot in the air he had last seen the ghost of his betrothed.  Gently the baronet took him by the hand and led him away as one would lead an innocent and trusting child. All reason and purpose had left his mind and his body was but an empty husk for he had gained his heart’s desire but in doing so given away his soul.

© 06/03/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright Copyright zteve t evans

Tales from India: The Judas Tree

Presented below is a retelling of a short folk story from India called, The Judas Tree, from Eastern Stories and Legends,  by Marie L. Shedlock.

The Judas Tree

King Brahmadatta of Benares had four sons.   Like most boys they were naturally curious of many things in the world. One day someone mentioned a Judas tree which piqued their curiosity, but none of them knew what one was.  They decided they would like to see a Judas tree and they sent for their charioteer who would take them wherever they wanted and told him of their desire.

“Take us to see a Judas tree,” they told him.

“Very good, if that is your desire, then I will!   When I am ready I will come and take you.” he told them.

First of all, he came for the eldest son and drove him in his chariot to a place where he knew a Judas tree grew and showed it to him.  The boy was astonished to see that the tree was covered in brown buds.

The charioteer went for the second eldest son  at a time of year when the trunk and branches were covered with glorious pink blossom.  The third son he took when green leaves were beginning to unfurl and the fourth he took when its branches were heavy with fruit.

It so happened that some time later when the brothers were all together someone asked what kind of tree was the Judas tree.

The first brother said, “It is like a burnt stump!”

“No,” said the second, “It is like a banyan tree!”

“Not at all!” protested the third, “it is like a green cloud!”

“Never!” cried the fourth, “it is like an acacia!”

They were all puzzled at the very different answers they gave so they went to their father, saying, “Father, tell us what kind of tree is the Judas tree?”

Their father looked surprised at the question and said, “Why do you ask me that, my sons?”

They told him of how they had asked the charioteer to take them to see a Judas tree and he had taken them at different times individually.

“Ah, now I see!” said their father, “All four of you asked him to show you the Judas tree and he fulfilled your request and showed you one.  Your problem is that you did not specify you all wanted to see it together, you did not specify the season and that is why the Judas tree is different for all of you.  Listen now to this rhyme,

“All have seen the Judas tree

What is your perplexity?

No one asked the charioteer

What its form the livelong year!”

© 18/07/2108 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 18th, 2018 zteve t evans

The Grateful Dead: The Three Pennies, John Barleycorn and the Fate of the Rye

hippolyte_bellangc3a9_-_old_wounded_soldier_-_walters_371641.jpg

Image by Joseph-Louis-Hippolyte Bellangé – [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Stories of The Grateful Dead which tell of the gratitude of a dead  person to someone alive who has helped them to a proper burial are found in many parts of the world.  Under the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system used by many folklorists they are classified as type 505.  Many of these tale types share a basic structure where a debtor dies leaving their debts unpaid and are refused a proper burial or in this case absurdly intended to dig up a dead person expecting them to pay the debt.  In some cultures dying in debt or not getting a proper funeral prevented the dead from moving on to heaven. Along comes someone who out of the goodness of their heart pays off the debts allowing a proper burial to take place and allowing the soul of the dead person to enter heaven.  The ghost, or soul, then returns to Earth to reward that person, often helping them find their heart’s desire.  Presented here is a retelling of a Danish folktale called The Three Pennies that is classified as being of the Grateful  Dead Type 505 tale. Although it is fairly short it is rather a strange story having some rather curious motifs and dark undertones that echo a fertility rite and the idea of the dying and rising god.

The Three Pennies

The story begins with a soldier who had faithfully served his king and country for many years  and on a count of his age was given a discharge. As a thank you for his bravery, commitment and service he was given a small loaf of rye bread and three pennies.  On receiving these tokens of the King’s gratitude he was set free from service to go where he would and so set off into the world to see what providence would bring.

As he set off along his way, savoringdbt, his new found freedom, he met three men walking in the opposite direction to him.   In their hands they each carried some kind of digging implement. One carried a spade. Another carried a shovel and the third carried a pickaxe.  All three seemed to be in an agitated state of mind.

Curious as to what they may be up to the soldier stopped them and asked their what they were up to saying, “Where are you going with all of those tools?”

One of them replied,  “This I will tell you as you ask. Today a man died and was buried owing us all money.  We are determined that we should be paid and we are going to dig him up,”

“What a shocking notion!” exclaimed the soldier.  “Can you not see that he is incapable of making a payment.  The dead should not be disturbed, he cannot pay you so leave him in peace!”

“That we will not do,” said another, “ He owes us each one penny and we must have our payment, so he must be dug up!”

On seeing that the men would not listen to reason the soldier said, “If I pay you two pennies will you then leave the dead undisturbed?”

“Two pennies will only pay two of us what we are owed.  What about the third?” said on of the other men.   “How then is the third man to be compensated?”

Seeing that the men would only accept full payment the soldier said in disgust,  “Since your greed has taken over your reason I will also give a third penny.  Take these three pennies and be happy that you have now got that which is so dear to you.  Take it and go but leave the dead in peace!”

So content with being paid in full debt owed each of them they went on their way leaving the dead man undisturbed.  The soldier walked upon his way reflecting on the greed and foolishness of some people and as he walked he noticed that a pale stranger was now walking by his side.  He was somewhat puzzled as he had not noticed when he had joined his company. As the soldier turned to look at him the pale stranger turned and saluted him and continued to walk alongside him without saying a single word.  They continued to walk throughout the evening and as midnight approached they came to a church.  The pale stranger said, “Come my friend, let us visit this holy place tonight.”

The soldier looked at him in bemusement and asked, “Surely that would be improper at this hour?  What would we be doing in a church at midnight?”

However, the pale stranger was most insistent saying, “We have to go inside!  We must do this!”

After much argument the soldier and the pale stranger entered the church and walked down the aisle to the altar where there sat an old woman holding a light burning in her hand.

They walked up to her and the pale stranger said, “You must take a hair from her head and smell it.”

Puzzled, the soldier did as he was told but nothing happened.  The pale stranger again told him to pull a hair from her head. Again the soldier compiled but again nothing happened.  A third time the pale stranger told him to take a hair from her head and smell it. This time the soldier pulled a tuft of hair from the woman’s head to smell, but this enraged her and she marched out of the church carrying the lead vault with her.

The two followed her out of the church and down to the beach where they found the lead vault on the waterside.  Then the pale stranger said, “Come, we will go to sea therefore take your seat”

“Where is the ship?” said soldier who was now completely bewildered.

“You must have faith in me, just sit yourself in this lead vault and we will sail over the sea to a land where there is a princess, who it is told, is destined to marry a man who sails to her land in a lead ship.  This will make your fortune,” said the pale stranger.

So the soldier got in and sat himself down and the pale stranger sat next to him.  The tide came in and the lead vault rose in the water and floated out to sea. It floated on and on for many days across the wide open water and eventually came to rest on a beach on the other side of the sea.   People soon gathered around to welcome them and there was great joy and happiness that someone had arrived across the sea in a lead vault to claim the princess as the prophecy had foretold. The soldier and the princess were married with such splendour and magnificence as had never been seen before and was never seen thereafter.

After the ceremony the bride and groom left the church and entered into a carriage that was waiting for them and the pale stranger followed them and also got in.  The coachman asked where they would like to be taken and the pale stranger quickly said, “Drive with all possible speed to the other side where the sun rises!” In obedience the coachman whipped up the horse and drove off wildly heading for the other side.

On their way to the other side the soldier looked out of the carriage window and saw a herdsman and he called upon the coachman to stop.  The coachman quickly stopped the carriage and the soldier leaned out and asked the herdsman who he was. The herdsman then replied, “I am the Count of Ravensburg and there in the distance is my castle.”

The pale stranger then urged the coachman to drive on as quickly as possible and presently they arrived at Ravensburg Castle.  The coachman drove through the gates which shut behind them. As they were climbing out of the carriage they heard a knocking at the castle gates and went to see who it was.  Looking through a window in the gate they saw it was the herdsman who appeared anxious to come in. The pale stranger asked what he wanted and the herdsman, who was also a conjuror, told him that he had every right to enter the castle as it belonged to him.  The pale stranger thought about this for a minute or two and then said, “To be allowed in he must suffer the whole fate of the rye.”

Conjuror looked at him puzzled and suspicious and asked, “And what is the fate of the rye?”

 

The pale stranger then told him,

“To suffer the fate of the rye, when autumn comes you must be scattered and sown in the ground and lay under the cold earth through the dark days of winter.  When spring comes you will burst through the earth and grow and ripen in the sunshine and rain. When you are ready you will be harvested. You will be cut and dried and placed in a barn and then you will be threshed.  That is part of the fate of the rye”

“I am to be threshed?” cried the conjuror aghast.

“You will be threshed first and then ground in the mill,” replied the the pale stranger.

“Threshed and ground!”  shouted the  conjuror becoming angry.

“Yes and then sifted,” the pale stranger told him calmly.

On hearing he was also to be sifted the conjuror became so enraged that he burst into flint-stones.

The pale stranger then turned to the bride and groom and bid them goodbye saying,

“My friend, now you are married to the beautiful princess who loves you and you her.  The troll of Ravensburg Castle is dead forever and now all his treasures and his castle are all yours.  I have been as good and generous with you as you were to me when you gave away those three pennies to pay my debts purely out of the goodness of your heart.”

“I have no I regrets about giving away those pennies and have not once mourned their loss.  Why, I would do the same again to provide the dead with proper burial!” replied the soldier.

“That, I well know now, or I could never have been able to help you, but now having helped you attain your heart’s desire I have repaid you and can no longer stay. I go now to where I belong, therefore farewell!” With that he shook his hand and dissolved into nothingness before his very eyes and was gone.

Motifs and Themes

The number three crops up a number of times.  There are the three gifts from the king, his freedom, a rye loaf and three pennies,There are three pennies, three creditors, three debts,  three different garden implements and the curious behaviour of pulling hair from the old woman’s head and smelling it.

What was the purpose of this this bizarre act? The two appear before her like ghosts and she gives no indication she knows of their presence until her hair is pulled a third time. This provokes her into a superhuman effort of picking up the lead vault, box or probably coffin and carrying it to the seashore ready for them to use as a boat.

The herdsman claims he is also the Count of Ravensburghand a conjuror making three identities. He is told if he wants to pass through the gates of the castle he claims as his own he must undergo the fate of the rye. A herdsman, or shepherd is a euphemism sometimes used to describe someone such as a king or religious leader who had followers.  The herdsman provides, food, security, shelter and leadership to their herd or flock.

There is a Ravensberg Castle in Germany and there were Counts of Ravensberg.  There is also a town named Ravensburg which was a great trading center that did have a castle but was destroyed,  but it really is not clear if these are anything to do with the story.

John Barleycorn

Those familiar with the British folk song John Barleycorn will notice the similarity of the fate the rye that the conjuror is offered to that of John Barleycorn in the song.  It is also noticeable that the old soldier is given a loaf of rye bread when discharged from the King’s service.  Rye (Secale cereale) is a a grain closely related to barley (genus Hordeum) and has many uses including rye bread, flour, crisp bread, animal fodder,  beer, and some types of vodka and whiskeys.

In British folklore John Barleycorn is the personification of barley, or corn and the alcoholic drinks such as whiskey and beer that are made from it.  The violence, abuse and disrespect John Barleycorn has to endure before being reborn, regrown in a never ending cycle correspond to the different stages of barley or corn cultivation, harvesting and malting.

The figure of John Barleycorn may be derived from early pagan Norse deities such as Kvasir or Mímir band is associated with Beowa from Anglo-Saxon paganism who is associated with barley and agriculture.  This ritual is also associated with the very ancient idea of vegetation deities and the dying and rising god that is symbolic of the natural dying and regeneration seen in vegetation that is essential to human existence.  Jesus Christ is seen by some people as a dying and rising god.

The idea of a dying and rising god is not universally accepted or rejected by scholars and many have an open mind on the subject.  Although its meaning to this story cannot be proved for certain it is curious to find it present. Certainly, the conjuror’s bad tempered rejection of the fate of the rye causes him to turn into flint-stones, of all things.

Flint-stones are found naturally in many parts of the world and were a natural material that was used to make tools and implements in very ancient times such as arrowheads, and axes and knives.  These were sometimes found fields were ploughed or holes dug and were called thunderstones having thought to be thunderbolts from the gods. Flints also produce a spark when struck with steel that can light fires and in some cultures were believed to ward against the return of the dead.

The Grateful Dead Theme

The gratitude of the dead who have been given a proper burial thanks to the generosity and goodness of a person in stark contrast to the greed of the creditors of the dead is the underlying theme of the tale.  The soldier, although by no means rich, readily gives up his three pennies earned for long loyal service to the King to give to the creditors to pay the debt of a dead man he did not know. Despite the poverty this will leave him in he never once regrets his act seeing it more as a duty than an act of generosity even though all he is left with is a loaf of rye and that is the key to achieving his heart’s desire as explained by the pale stranger.   The implication of the story is that the living affect the transition of the dead to the afterlife while the dead can return and influence the lives of the living.

This short, strange story has generated more words in discussion that it consists of and probably a lot more could be written.  Is it just a rather bizarre, obscure fairy or folktale or is there some hidden purpose to its telling as suggested above?

© 09/05/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 9th, 2018 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

North American Legends: Johnny Appleseed

In North American folklore apples are strongly associated with the legendary Johnny Appleseed who is affectionately remembered for his wandering lifestyle planting apple tree nurseries across the great American frontier.  His real name was John Chapman and he was born in Leominster, Massachusetts on September 26, 1774.

His father, Nathanial Chapman, had served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War.  Sadly, he lost his mother to tuberculosis during that war. When he was old enough to work he became apprenticed as an orchardist to a local orchard where he learnt the trade that made that him a legend in his own lifetime.

Johnny Appleseed – Author: H. S. Knapp – Public Domain Image

Legend

Folklore paints a picture of him dressed in rags with a tin pot on his head striding across the land with a pocketful of apple seeds.  These he planted on his way, for all to enjoy out of his sheer generosity.  In fact the planting of orchards, or more accurately apple tree nurseries, was his business and he grew apples trees as a business enterprise.  His plan was to plant nurseries along the frontier where ever he thought settlers would build new communities.  When his trees were between one and two years old he would sell them to the settlers for six cents each.  He travelled and planted apple tree nurseries in many places along the Ohio Valley with bases in Western Pennsylvania and in Ohio, in Richland County.

One of the folk stories about Johnny Appleseed tells how during the War of 1812 many Indians took the British side looking to avenge themselves against the settlers who they believed had done injury to them.  Although they attacked many settlements they did not threaten or interfere with Johnny Appleseed.   However, he would often warn the settlements of imminent Indian attacks.

A legend tells of how he made a desperate run of 26 miles through the wilderness from Mansfield, Ohio to Mount Vernon in a bid to bring help to the beleaguered settlers besieged by Indians.  It is said that as he ran he blew a horn to warn other settlers of the danger along the way.  Thanks to his desperate run and courage the settlers at Mansfield were reinforced and saved.

Religion

Chapman followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and was a member of the Church of New Jerusalem, which was based on Christian teachings and followed Pacifist principles and advocated individualism and simple living.

As he travelled he would spread the message of his church to those he visited and would tell stories to the children in exchange for a meal and a place to sleep on the floor of the house.

Love of Animals

Despite his rather rough and rustic appearance and his eccentricities Johnny Appleseed was a gentle and kind man with great intelligence and charisma and a heart of gold.  Indeed, he was also a rarity for his time as he was a vegetarian; not wishing animals should suffer for him.  His kindness and concern for animals was legendary.

One story is told of how he extinguished his campfire when he saw mosquitoes flying to their deaths into it. He believed that none of God’s creatures, no matter how small, should have to suffer to alleviate his discomfort.  Another story tells of the time he set up camp in one end of a hollow log and built a fire for warmth. On discovering the log was already inhabited by a bear with her cubs, rather than disturb them, he moved his camp to the other end, sleeping unsheltered in the snow.

Folktales tell how he would buy a horse that was about to be put down and purchase some grassland for the animal to recuperate on.  When the horse had recovered he would give the horse to a poor settler on the sole condition that it was to be treated properly and with kindness.

Entering into Folklore

One can well imagine how this rather wild, raggedy man, may appear as a larger than life figure to the settlers along the frontier as he came and went about his business growing apple nurseries.  He may have been regarded as eccentric but he was well received and seen as a welcome relief by the isolated settlers bringing news and helping out where he could.  On 18th of March, 1845, John Chapman died of pneumonia and was buried near Fort Wayne, Indiana, entering into American folklore.

References and Attributions
Image - File:Johnny Appleseed 1.jpg From Wikimedia Commons - Johnny Appleseed - Author: H. S. Knapp - Public Domain Image