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

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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