Beowulf: The Slaying of Grendel and the Water Witch

J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

Beowulf was originally written in Anglo-Saxon times as a poem in Old English by an anonymous writer.  It tells the story of its heroic protagonist, Beowulf, who embodies the much revered Anglo-Saxon qualities of strength, courage, heroism and virtuous behaviour.   It is these qualities, blended with fictional, legendary and historical elements that make Beowulf the ideal role model for the Anglo-Saxon warrior aristocracy.   Presented her is a retelling of the story after his arrival in Denmark to his triumphant return to Geatland drawn from the sources below.

Beowulf comes of Age

The story of Beowulf begins in a part of Scandinavia called Geatland that was a land of tall mountains,  narrow valleys and a long rugged coastline. It was populated by a brave and virtuous people called the Geats who were ruled over by King Hygelac and his wife Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair.  At regular times King Hygelac would call his earls and warriors to his great hall for feasting and drinking.  These were popular and events that brought together his people from distant parts and helped bond his nation to him and each other.  At these events the stories of their valour and that of their of their ancestors were told by the bards and sometimes one of them might be called upon to tell of a heroic deed they had performed.  Young Beowulf would sit in the great hall taking in all of the stories. He was the son of the king’s sister who from a very young age had caught the eye of his uncle for his physical stature and strength. 

One night a great feast was held in the king’s hall and all of the bravest and renowned warriors and noble of Geatland gathered to enjoy the festivities.  As the evening progressed, King Hygelac stood up and introduced a visiting minstrel, whom he named as The Wanderer,  and asked him to sing a song.  The minstrel brought a stool before the king and sat down and began to play his harp.   He sang of the wild northern lands and of the forbidden mountains that were home to beasts and demons far more dangerous than any of those found in Geatland.  He told of terrible dragons and of their slaying by brave men and he told of the sea serpents and wild things of the sea.

The Song of Grendel

The song of The Wanderer began to change and took on a darker and more disturbing tone.  It told of King Hrothgar of Denmark and of the terrible calamity that had struck that land. He sang of a demon that was part animal, part man and part all terrible creatures and the name of the demon was Grendel. He told how Grendel had appeared one fearful night, twelve years ago after a great feast in the great hall of King Hrothgar that was called Hereot.  After all had ate and drank their fill and the king and queen retired to their own apartments his earls and warriors lay asleep in the great hall. As they had lain peacefully sleeping unaware of any pending peril, Grendel had come and forced aside the great door and carried away thirty of the sleeping earls, murdering and devouring them.

This had caused great sorrow throughout the land and although there had been many attempts to kill Grendel he violently defeated and killed all of his attackers showing no mercy at all.  Now no one dared to sleep in the great hall of Heorot because Grendel often visited it and wreaking his havoc wherever it was in use.  He has killed most of the young and vigorous warriors of the Danes who has dared to stand up to him and now all that remained were defenseless women, children and the elderly.   Beowulf was now completely taken with the song and a fire sprang up in him lighting up his blue eyes. As he listened he knew what he must do.  Springing from his seat he thumped the table shouting, 

“My King and Queen and earls of Geatland, in days gone by King Hrothgar of Denmark was the friend of Ecgtheow my father in his hour of need.  I, Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, will slay Grendel for King Hrothgar in thanks for his friendship to my father and the glory of Geatland!”

The Wanderer stopped his song and throughout the hall a silence fell.  King Hygelac stood up and commanded silence and turning to Beowulf said in a voice that all could hear,

“Beowulf your time has come to prove yourself.  You have been blessed with the strength and vitality of thirty men and you should use your powers to help everyone.  Hrothgar, our friend and neighbor has great need. Go now to Denmark and prove yourself and slay Grendel!”

King Hygelac ordered that Beowulf should be given suitable equipment for his purpose and told him to choose fourteen comrades to accompany him.  These should be such as Beowulf, young men who had come of age and in need of proving themselves.  At last suitable equipped and attired the company made their way to the harbour where a ship had been prepared.  At sunrise the next day Beowulf and his company set sail on their great adventure.

Their voyage across the sea was not to be an easy one as they sailed into a great storm. At last they came safely through and arriving on the shores of Denmark they pushed their ship up a beach.  There they met an old man who welcomed them and showed them the path to the great hall of King Hrothgar of Denmark and promised to stray and guard their ship until their return.

The Hall of King Hrothgar

Beowulf and his company followed  the path through dense forest for many miles until the came into a long valleyAt the far end of the valley stood the once fair hall of Heorot.  As they passed through the valley they saw the deserted farms and the homes of the people while all around there hung the stench of death like the very land rotted.  There was no sign of humans so Beowulf led his company onwards towards the great hall. until at last came to it gates.

Three times Beowulf knocked upon the gates and at last a frightened gatekeeper appeared and nervously asked what business they had at the hall.  Beowulf requested the man go to King Hrothgar telling him that a band of warriors from Geatland had arrived wishing to speak to him and were asking for food and lodging.

The gatekeeper hurried off and presently Beowulf saw the king approach in the company of a band of elderly warriors.  King Hrothgar was now an old man himself with a full beard of flowing white and eyes that told of days of fear and sorrow.  As he approached he opened his arms wide saying,

 “Welcome strangers,  I can see by your bearing you are friends and here on some errand to my sad and unhappy kingdom.  Therefore, speak of your errand and who you so that I may help you as I can.”

Stepping forward Beowulf loudly proclaimed, “I am Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow whom you befriended and KIng Hygelac of Geatland is my uncle.  We come to Denmark to slay the demon called Grendel and free you from his terror.”

Then Hrothgar looked long and hard at him and said, “Ecgtheow was my friend and brother-in-arms.  You and your friends are very welcome in Denmark but I warn you Grendel comes often to Heorot and is hungry for young men to devour.  Now come rest and tonight for the first time in twelve years there will be feasting in Heorot and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful will pass to you the drinking-horn as is our tradition of friendship.”

For the first time in twelve years the great hall of Heorot was made ready for a great feast and fires were lit cooking meats of every kind.  When all was ready the king and queen arrived followed by a great company and took their seats in the hall according to rank. Their number had been greatly diminished by Grendel and now it was mostly old men who sat with the king and queen.  It was not a very joyful atmosphere for fear dwelt in the hearts of all those present of the evil of Grendel.

Queen Wealtheow Pouring Wine – J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

King Hrothgar sat at the head of the assembly with Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful.   In a place of honour below the king sat Beowulf. Beside him on the right his right sat Aescher the king’s most trusted advisor. Next to him on his left sat Unferth, whom The Wanderer had sang about that night in Geatland in his uncle’s hall.  At the word of the King the feast began and as the drinking-horns were passed around many oaths were uttered encouraging the slaying of Grendel.   It was only Beowulf’s company of Geat warriors that were joyful and as the drink flowed they began boasting of the prowess and courage of Beowulf. Aescher endorsed their praises of their leader but Unferth became increasingly sullen and silent never offering a single word of praise as was the Danish custom.

Beowulf noticed this and turning to him said, “You keep very quiet Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, tell us of your deeds of valor that we may give praise to you.  Come, tell us and then I can drink from the cup with you!”

At this Unferth stood up and slamming his fist on the table cried, “Beowulf!  Who is this Beowulf but a beardless boy who stands before us telling us he will save us from Grendel?  Who are the beardless boys who accompany him over the sea? Does anyone think that what so many good Danes have failed this stripling will succeed?  Let him and his friends return to Geatland instead of laughing at our sorrow and loss!”

Beowulf felt his anger burn hot for this was the same Unsferth the Wanderer had sung about who had not dared to fight the demon himself.  Beowulf rose, but knowing the words of his accuser to be false spoke clearly and softly without anger, “Take back your words they are dishonorable.  I come in friendship offering to rid Denmark of this vile Grendel.  Unferth, tell us of your great battle with Grendel?”

A murmur of approval of Beowulf’s words from Danes and Geats ran around the hall and KIng Hrothgar stood up and said, “Having listened to the quiet words of Beowulf I know he is a hero. There has been too much sorrow these last twelve years and makes us bitter and say things we do not mean.  Beowulf, forgive us!”

Then Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful took up a jewelled cup and filling it with wine passed it to Hrothgar who drank from it and then she took it to Beowulf.  He drank and she went around the company of Geatland and thanked them for coming to Denmark in their time of great need and asking each to drink. When they had done so she went around the king’s earls and they also drank to the king and queen and the death of Grendel.

Then the festivities were reopened with much good will from both Danes and Geats.  While the Danes praised the glory of King Hygelac and Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair, the Geats praised KIng Hrothgar and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful.  At last Hrothgar rose from his chair and taking his queen by the hand said,  “Now it is time for us Danes to go to our beds and leave Beowulf and his company alone and pray their sleep be untroubled.” 

He led his queen out through the great door of Heorot followed by all of his earls and retainers and the Geats were left to face the night as the great fires slowly burnt out.

The Demon Grendel

Grendel by J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

Beowulf ordered that the doors of the hall be secured and his companions made them so well no mortal man could have entered.  With the doors safe the company spread their cloaks over the benches and lay down to sleep. One of Beowulf’s favorite companions named Hondscio took it upon himself to lay next to the door vowing to be the first to do battle should Grendel choose to appear.   Soon all except Beowulf were sound asleep.  He had vowed to stay awake and lay still and quiet listening as silence crept over the hall.  He could hear the breathing of his comrades but little else.

Outside fog was forming and hiding the moon.  Slowly all sounds died away and even the wind stopped its sighing and all was silent.  As the fog crept across the land and wrapped itself around the hall, despite his vow, Beowulf became very drowsy.  He fought to stay awake but his limbs felt heavy and his eyes closed and he sank into a deep slumber.

Outside the fog thickened and completely obscured the moon and tightened its hold upon the hall.  For a second the fog parted and a gigantic black shape loomed and slowly moving towards the great hall and stood before the door in the weird light.

Inside, unaware of the horror that lay outside, Beowulf and  his company slept under the bewitchment Grendel had wrought upon them.  Beowulf fought hard to break the spell and desperately tried to crawl out of the nightmarish pit he found himself in.

Outside Grendel slowly brought his strength to bear silently pushing the door open despite its  securings. Beowulf, fighting hard, crawled from the pit and saw the door wide open and fog streaming in.  He saw the great shape of Grendel bend down and picking up the sleeping Hondscio tear his limbs from his body and now he saw clearly the nature of the demon he faced.  It resembled a gigantic but twisted and deformed man yet there was something beast like about it. Its body was covered in grey scales that rattled when it moved and a pale light flickered from its eyes.  Struggling to his feet he watched in horror and disgust as it crushed the body of Hondscio and greedily ate his remains. Then it turned its vile gaze around the hall until it fell upon Beowulf. Slowly the monster moved towards him.

Beowulf, full of loathing and disgust shook off the spell and ran at the beast.  Clashing together the two grappled to gain a hold on one another. Although the claws of Grendel were strong and dug into his flesh, Beowulf was quicker and slipped easily from his hold.  As Grendel sought to grasp, hold and tear his opponent apart, Beowulf moved quickly around him dodging his grabbing hands. While his company lay in spell induced sleep he and Grendel engaged in a deadly hand to hand fight for life. 

Grendel tried to grasp and crush the head of Beowulf who in turn evaded him and continued to seek some advantage or weak spot.  At last Grendel managed to grab Beowulf but his quick turn forced both of them to the ground and for a split second the demon experienced fear and doubt. Like a true warrior Beowulf sensed this and quickly took advantage of this lapse and managed to grasp him briefly by the throat, but its scales prevented him from taking a killing grip. 

Then Grendel thrashed out and almost gained the advantage but Beowulf grasped hold of his arm and giving a quick twist jumped behind the brute pushing it high up its back causing it to scream in agony.  The two fell to the floor and Beowulf continued to grip his arm wrenching this way and that until he felt the muscles and sinews weaken and give way and he pulled the arm free from its socket. Grendel stumbled up and through the door disappearing into the fog leaving the exhausted Beowulf clutching his severed and bleeding limb.  With the spell broken his companions awoke and gathered around in wonder and horror. 

As dawn broke people slowly appeared at the great hall to see how the Geats had fared though they expected the worse.  Soon a great crowd of people thronged the hall and they were astounded by what they saw. Hanging high from one of the roof beams was the massive severed and bloody arm of Grendel.  Upon the king’s dais stood Beowulf wearing a scarlet cloak his blue eyes flashing fire and his fair hair shining like gold like some god of old. 

King Hrothgar was sent for and quickly arrived and said, “Give thanks now to Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, to be sure, this is the end of Grendel and his terror.  Hail, to Beowulf hero of Geatland!” Then Queen Wealhtheow praised him and called on the servants to prepare a great feast. The celebrations went on all day and into the night and Beowulf was greatly honored by all.

Vengeance of the Water Witch

Beowulf and the Water Witch by J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

The next day a  messenger rushed in his face white with fear, body shaking and eyes wild and kneeling before the king said in a trembling voice,   “Sire, I have just run as fast as I could from Heorot;  The good and wise Aescher has been most terribly murdered.  His head has been severed from his body and his limbs crushed to a pulp.”

With that Hrothgar and Wealhtheow, accompanied by Beowulf, hastened to the great hall. They found the mangled remains of Aescher amid a scene of great destruction and the severed arm of Grendel had been removed.  Queen Wealhtheow cried, “This is the revenge of Grendel’s mother.  In our gladness at the defeat of Grendel we had forgotten her evil presence.  Unless she too is slain she will wreak unending devastation upon us. Beowulf, we implore you to hunt her down and slay her too!”

On hearing  this Beowulf called his company to him saying, “Come, let us finish this evil once and for all before night comes,” and begged Hrothgar for horses and hounds to hunt down the monster.  Then Unferth, stepped forward from the crowd and said, “Beowulf, I am put to shame that I have ever doubted you.  Take with you my sword. Its name is Hrunting. It is a magical sword and will be of help to you.  Forgive my foolishness and let us be friends.”

Gladly, Beowulf embrace Unferth and taking the sword he and his company mounted the horses that had been brought for them.  He called for the dogs to be set loose and they soon picked up the powerful scent and raced away on the trail with Beowulf and the Geats  and King Hrothgar and the Danes following on behind. The dogs ran over hill and fen for many miles until at last they reached a small dark mere.  Strange and slimy things moved in its depths and putrid vapours rose from its surface. The dogs stopped at the water’s edge and Beowulf and his company rode up.  Throwing off his cloak and unbuckling his sword he cried, “I go into the mere alone.  Wait here until I return!”

All of his companions protested, each wanting to accompany him but he would not allow it.  He embraced his followers in turn and paid homage to King Hrothgar and turned and ran into the dark water holding Hrunting before him.  The mere covered him and he found himself sinking into the cold darkness. To his surprise the water was deep and as he sank through the darkness he entered into light. Looking down he found he was being dragged by a most vile hag. Her hair was a mass of twisting and hissing snakes. Her mouth was filled with long green fangs and her eyes  burned red like hot coals. She held him by her skinny arms and dragged him into the cave.

Quickly, looking around Beowulf saw he was in a cavern with a great fire at one end.  Huddled in one corner was a dark mass that he knew to be Grendel and now he knew this to be Grendel’s mother who now gripped him.  In that cave at the bottom of the world Beowulf grappled with the fiend striking her with his sword but it could not pierce her skin while she clawed at him trying to reach his throat.  She cast a spell and he found the strength ebb from his body. He managed to trip her off balance and threw her in the air, but she fell on top of him and he felt her claws around his throat.  Confident she had him in a death grip she relaxed a little and for a split second the spell lifted. 

Quickly, he threw her from him and staggered to his feet and moved to put his back to the wall.  There he found driven into the wall the hilt of an old sword. Grasping it he heaved with all of his might and pulled it free.  As she attacked he struck a blow that cut her clean in two. Turning to Grendel he cut off his head and then threw both bodies into the fire.  Clasping the severed head of Grendel he ran to the cave’s mouth and into the mire and surged upwards through the water until he reached the surface where his friends were waiting.

His companions were still there but King Hrothgar and the Danes had gone for he had been absent for a very long time.  He was greeted joyfully as they all crowded around wanting to hear his story, but he would tell them nothing. Instead he showed them the head of Grendel as proof of his victory.  With that he commanded them to mount their horses and they returned to Heorot and King Hrothgar. 

When the company arrived back at Heorot bearing the head of Grendel, Hrothgar was delighted Beowulf had survived and even more so to see the head of the demon he carried.   He presented all of the company with rich gifts of fine swords and weapons and chests of gold, silver and precious jewels rewarding Beowulf the greatest of all.

Having achieved all he had set out to achieve Beowulf thanked the King and Queen of Denmark and took his leave deciding to sail for home with his company. He led the company back along the forest path and at last they reached the beach where the old man still sat guarding their ship.   With all aboard he gave the order to set sail for Geatland.

Return to Geatland

King Hygelac was delighted to welcome his nephew home bearing riches from his exploits in Denmark.  After hearing of his heroics in freeing Denmark of its monsters he acclaimed Beowulf the greatest hero of his people.  The minstrels made songs of his bravery and heroism and he became famous throughout the northern lands but there were still further exploits written in the stars including a great flame dragon for him to overcome.

© 20/11/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 20th, 2019 zteve t evans

Welsh Folklore: The Mythical Beasts of Llyn Cowlyd

cat jackson / Llyn Cowlyd / CC BY-SA 2.0

Llyn Cowlyd

Llyn Cowlyd is a long and narrow lake almost two miles long and about a third of a mile wide situated in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales.  It is the deepest lake in northern Wales and has given soundings of 229 feet. Today it is used as a reservoir and its depths have been raised twice from its natural depth and its natural depth was believed to be about 184 feet.  Today, it has a bleak, treeless appearance though according to the Red Book of Hergest, written around 1382 from oral tradition  it was once forested. According to legend and tradition there were three mythical beasts associated with it; the water horse, the water bull and the Owl of Cowlyd. This work will briefly discuss the myths associated with each of them.

The Legendary Ceffyl Dŵr, the Water Horse

Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain]

According to ancient tradition Llyn Cowlyd is the home of a legendary Ceffyl Dŵr or water horse, which are featured in many legends and folktales.  They are said to have been shape-shifters that could also fly and despite their solid appearance could evaporate quickly into a fine mist. Although there were many alleged sightings of water horses during the 18th century no records were made until the 19th century.

According to tradition the water horse has fiery eyes and it is dangerous for humans  to look into them. It is said that when a water horse is close a dark and forbidding feeling is experienced and those who work near its known haunts will quickly make themselves scarce.   Sabine Baring-Gould in 1903 gave the following warning for anyone who should encounter a water horse, 

“Should he see a horse, however quiet and staid, browsing near, let him not venture to mount it, although the beast seems to invite the weary traveller through the heather to take a seat on its back. No sooner is he in his seat than all its want of spirit is at an end. It flies away with its rider towards the lake, plunges in, and will never be seen again. It is the Ceffyl y Dwfr, the Water-horse, a spirit that lives in the depths, with a special taste for human flesh, which it will munch below when it has its victim at the bottom of the blue water.” (1)

The water horse of Llyn Cowlyd was believed to be an evil entity that only appeared at night assuming the shape of a horse and trying to entice unwary people to try and ride it.  Once a rider was mounted it would fly into the clouds, perhaps over the mountains or over water and then suddenly dissipate into fine mist leaving the rider to fall to their death.   It was said that members of the clergy alone could safely ride the water horse as long as they did not speak a word. Although Llyn Cowlyd had its own water horse another was said to haunt Llyn Crafnant.

Sometimes in Wales, the water horse is associated with the sea and is said to be the bringer of storms.   They are believed to change their appearance before and after the storm. Before the storm they would be seen stamping around in the waves their coats a dapple grey or white.  After the storm they changed their coats into a chestnut or piebald coloring and were seen trotting along the shore. During long stormy periods their coats became the colour of sea foam.

The Water Bull of Llyn Cowlyd

by George W. Hobbs [Public domain]

Llyn Cowlyd is also the home of another mythical beast called a water bull, which is also found in Scotland.  Water bulls are usually seen as being nocturnal and make moorland lakes their homes and also have amphibious and have shape shifting abilities.   Water bulls can be dangerous and alarming and are sometimes seen with fiery horns and hoofs with flame spouting from their nostrils. According to tradition, solitary walkers near the lakeside have been known to have been dragged into the water to their deaths.

The Owl of Cowlyd

artist – Miller [Public domain]

The Mabinogion the tale of Culhwch and Olwen mentions the Owl of Cowlyd as one of the oldest animals in the world that lived in the cwm, or valley of Cowlyd.   Culhwch the protagonist of the story, has to find him in order to complete a series of near impossible tasks as ordained by Ysbaddaden the giant, before he will grant  permission for him to marry his beautiful daughter, Olwen. Culhwch recruits the aid of King Arthur who is his cousin. Arthur provides Culhwch with companions to help him on his quest and the adventures begin.

One of the tasks he was set by Ysbaddaden  was to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron whose whereabouts were unknown.  Mabon was essential to the success of the quest of Culhwch. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar. the Twrch Trwyth.  The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth was the hunting dog named Drudwyn and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon.  The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place and no one knew where.

It was believed only  the oldest and wisest animals in the world may possess the knowledge  of the whereabouts of Mabon therefore these were sought out. The questers came to the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led them to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cowlyd,  living in the valley surrounding the lake.  The owl told them,

“If I knew I would tell you. When first I came hither, the wide valley you see was a wooded glen. And a race of men came and rooted it up. And there grew there a second wood; and this wood is the third. My wings, are they not withered stumps? Yet all this time, even until to-day, I have never heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, I will be the guide of Arthur’s embassy until you come to the place where is the oldest animal in this world, and the one that has travelled most.” (2)

The Owl of Cowlyd led them to the Eagle of Gwern Abw, who led them to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw who revealed that Modron was being held prisoner and showed them the whereabouts of his prison. 

Lesson For The Future

Llyn Cowlyd is associated with some very strange mythical beasts although by its appearances today you would not think it possible but the lake and its valley have not always been as they are now.   If we look closely at what the owl says we will see it has changed from a wooded vale into the bleak and treeless place we see today through human activity. Indeed, the lake itself has been altered by humans to serve the needs of humans and we see how humanity changes the landscape and environment for its own needs perhaps providing a lesson for the future, or a warning.

© 06/11/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames, London

Thomas_Wyke-_Thames_frost_fair.jpg

Thomas Wyke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com as London Folklore: The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames by zteve t evans on December 27, 2018

The legendary frost fairs on the River Thames are depicted in a number of works of art that show just how cold, icy and severe the weather became during winter, in comparison to the weather experienced in London in modern times.

The idea of a frost fair on the icy surface of the River Thames in London may seem a flight of fantasy today, especially when one appears, or is mentioned several times in one of the UK’s favourite sci-fi television series, Dr Who.  In one of the scenes set during the 1814 Thames frost fair, the doctor encounters an elephant walking across the frozen surface of the Thames.  In another episode the doctor takes River Song to the same event to celebrate her birthday. The Thames frost fairs are also featured in two tracks on Snow on Snow, by The Albion Christmas Band, a beautiful collection of Christmas and winter songs on CD.  Today, the idea of such a novel event with crowds of people, stalls, entertainments and all the fun of the fair on the frozen River Thames may seem surreal, but it did happen several times in the past.  Here we look at some of these times and see how it affected Londoners; what they did and how they coped in those frigid times.

The Little Ice Age

The River Thames has long been an important trade and transport route, and many kinds of businesses, large and small, flourished around it.  The river swarmed with large and small boats, manned by watermen who ferried people and goods up, down and across the river.   Many people lived, worked and died around the river and a rich culture of folklore and legend evolved, some of which remains today.

With the great river of such importance to Londoners, how would they cope when it suddenly froze solid, allowing no ships or boats to travel up, down or across it?

Although it is written in legends and folklore, it is also historic fact that the River Thames has frozen over a number of times, hard enough for the usual daily commerce to be brought to a halt.  These extreme cold events happened during a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ that some people believe lasted from 1300 to 1870.  (Expert opinion varies on this subject,  and is not dealt with here.) During the winter of 1536, Henry VIII was said to have enjoyed a sleigh ride to Greenwich from the centre of London on the Thames ice and in 1564, Elizabeth I strolled upon the ice and practiced archery on the frozen river.

The worst of the big freezes occurred between 1550 and 1750. During the winters of 1683 – 1684 and 1715 – 1716, the Thames was frozen for three months, but most events were usually much briefer.   When it did freeze over it not only brought the river to an abrupt halt, it brought the every day business of the city and its people to a standstill too.  However, Londoners, being innovative and enterprising, adapted.   In its frozen state, the river effectively became a highway that wagons and coaches could traverse while the boats were stuck in the ice.  Furthermore, it became an extension to the land, offering new opportunities not just to make money but also to have fun. Londoners like to have fun.

The First Frost Fair (1607-08)

In 1608, the first recorded London frost fair took place on the icy surface of the River Thames. During December, 1607, the ice was thick enough to walk upon from Southwark to the City, and by January 1608 the ice was thick and strong enough for a whole host of activities on its surface.  A small town of stalls, booths and tents sprang up selling many different kinds of food and drink.  Tradesmen such as shoemakers and barbers set up stalls selling their wares and services and even lit fires on the ice to keep warm and use for cooking.  Among them, skittles and bowling and many other sports and activities took place to the enjoyment of the people, including “folk“ football. This was not like the modern game of football where two teams compete and rules are followed.  This competition was between two mobs with virtually no rules and they often became free-for-all, no holds barred, riotous events.

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Japanese Folktales: The Dream of Akinosuke – Ants, Dreaming Humans and the Butterfly Soul

Source

Ants, Butterflies and Dreaming Humans

Insects and humans are a strange mix and yet in In Japanese folklore the human soul sometimes appears as a butterfly. Maybe it is something about the way they flutter from place to place or the fact that they have gone through metamorphosis to transform into a such a beautiful creature.  When we look deeply into the populous and industrious colonies of ants many people see a microcosm of a human cities and society. Indeed, from above our cities often seem to be teeming with myriads of ant-like creatures.

In reality the idea of humans being insect-like in any way may seem absurd except in our dreams in which reality can be suspended, twisted and turned on its head and time has a completely different duration. In such dreams we may believe ourselves to have lived for years in a certain place but awake to be told that we have only been asleep for a few minutes. But what if when we return from the dream to the waking world we find evidence that there may indeed be some basis for the idea we actually existed in our dream – what then?  

Presented here is a retelling of a Japanese folktale originally called, The Dream of Akinosuke, from a collection of tales, called Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn which has some strange things to say about ants, butterflies and dreaming humans.

THE DREAM OF AKINOSUKE

There once lived in the district of Toichi in the Yamato Province of old Japan a goshi named Miyata Akinosuke.  These were feudal times and in such times goshi were a social class having certain privileges. They were soldiers and freehold farmers who owed their position and allegiance to an overlord. Akinosuke was just such a man and as a freeholder he had a very beautiful garden with an ancient and spreading cedar tree.  He was very fond of his tree and during the hot, sultry days of summer he liked to recline and relax in the coolness of its shade. 

One hot afternoon he was relaxing in the shade of his tree with two of his fellow goshi.  They were having a very pleasant time drinking wine and conversing amicably on different topics and enjoying each other’s company.  Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the warm sultry afternoon or maybe it was both, but Akinosuke grew very drowsy. He grew so sleepy that he asked his friends to excuse him while he took a brief nap.  Teasing him they told him the wine had gone to his head, but agreed to excuse him and he lay down at the foot of his beautiful cedar tree and very soon he was dreaming a dream like no other.

The Procession

In this dream he saw a great and grand procession of people coming over the crest of a nearby hill and he stood up to get a better view. It was indeed a very grand procession the likes of which he had never seen before.  There were very many men and women all dressed in the finest of silks carry banners and flags and marching to the beat of a drum. There were so many in the distance it looked like a long line of ants coming over the hill.

At the heart of the procession was a carriage that was borne aloft proudly.  Akinosuke watched and was surprised to see that it was making directly for his dwelling.  As it drew nearer he could see that the carriage was richly decorated with silks of blue and gold and obviously carried someone who must have been very important indeed. The procession proceeded unerringly to his gate and stopped.  The carriage door opened and a tall, thin man dressed in the most exquisite finery got out. In a mostly stately way he approached the surprised and bemused Akinosuke, who awestruck, bowed low while the visitor greeted him thus,

“Most honorable Miyata Akinosuke you see before you an envoy and servant of the King in Tokyo.  I am commanded to greet you in the name of the King and put myself entirely at your service. He has commanded me to inform you that he seeks your presence at his palace and has tasked me to escort you into his esteemed presence.  Therefore, please enter this most honorable of carriages that he has sent for this purpose and allow me to be your personal guide to his royal presence.”

With that the messenger stood aside holding the carriage door open, gesturing for the bewildered Akinosuke to step inside.   He wanted to make some kind of fitting reply but was too astonished and overwhelmed.  Instead, he meekly obeyed and stepped into the carriage and his guide sat down beside him.  With a word of command the carriage proceeded to the King’s palace. 

The Palace

They traveled at surprising speed and within a short time were outside the palace gates.  The envoy announced he would go and inform the King of Akinosuke’s arrival and he was to wait here until sent for. Presently two noblemen wearing the purple silks and caps of high rank arrived.  They greeted him with all due respect and escorted him through a most beautiful garden, the vastness of which appeared to extend in all directions for many miles.

At last they entered the palace and Akinosuke was shown into a most splendid reception room with many ornate carvings and works of art upon the walls.  He was seated in a place of honor while two servants brought him food and drink. After he had taken refreshment the two nobles in purple bowed low and speaking in turns said to him thus,

“It is our duty and pleasure to inform you that the reason you have been brought here is because the King, our most noble master, desires greatly that you become his son-in-law.  It is his greatest wish that this will happen today. Therefore, you will marry his daughter the August Princess this day. When the time comes we will escort you to your wedding, but first we will provide you with appropriate apparel for such a splendid and important ceremony.”

Having finished their speech the two nobles went over to a great gilded chest and lifting the lid drew out various items of clothing.  These were of the finest and richest silks and styled for royalty and were indeed most suitable for the bridegroom of a royal wedding.  After he was dressed in the very finest of fashions befitting such a special occasion he was led into a hall where the King and his highest dignitaries and nobles awaited the arrival of Akinosuke.

The Marriage Of Akinosuke

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Akinosuke saluted, bowed and  knelt before the King who greeted him graciously and spoke to him thus,

“You have been informed that it is my desire that you will become my son-in-law and the husband of my only daughter – the August Princess.  We shall now proceed with the wedding.”

With that he clapped his hands and the sound of joyful music filled the  hall and a long line of beautiful ladies of the Royal court appeared. Solemnly they escorted Akinosuke to another hall where his bride awaited dressed most beautifully for her wedding.

The wedding hall was huge and richly decorated and despite its size it was barely big enough to seat all of the guests who swarmed everywhere.  Everyone stopped and bowed as he entered escorted by the ladies of the court and he took his place kneeling on a cushion facing his bride. In her gorgeous silk wedding dress the color of the bluest summer  sky she looked indeed the August Princess. 

The marriage rites were performed with great ceremony and dignity and afterwards the newly married couple were escorted to a special suite of apartments especially prepared for them.  The King and all the guests were overjoyed and Akinosuke and his wife radiating happiness received many wonderful presents and the blessings of everyone.

Although they had not met each other before or heard of one another in the past, Akinosuke and his wife were very happy together enjoying the company of each other.  The days passed joyfully and presently Akinosuke was summoned to appear before the King.  He feared he had done something wrong but instead the King spoke to him thus,

“The island of Rashi lies in the southwestern part of my realm and I have decided to appoint you the Governor of Raishu in my name.  The people of the island are very loyal and peaceful but their laws have never been brought into alignment with the laws and customs of my realm. I am entrusting you with this task and with improving their lives and social condition as much as is possible.  It is my desire that you rule them with kindness, justice and wisdom. All the preparations for the journey and your arrival have been made and you will leave in the morning.’

The Island of Raishu

The next morning Akinosuke and his wife left the palace with a great escort of nobles, palace officials and courtesans who accompanied them to the harbor.  There he and his wife boarded one of the King’ s own ships to take them to  Raishu and take up the governorship of the island. They had a good wind and fair weather and soon arrived safely in the harbor of the island to find the people had all come out and were lining the shores to welcome them.

After a warm reception from the people Akinosuke began his governorship and put his heart and soul into the task.  In the first three years he reformed the laws to align with those of the King in Tokyo. He was lucky to have the help of wise counselors who knew the people very well.  This helped him considerably and he never grew tired or bored with the task. When it was all complete he found he only had a few active duties to carry out and most of these were of a ceremonial nature.

The island was very fertile and grew all the crops the people needed and they also fished the seas.  The weather always seemed to just right so there was never famine or starvation. The people were hard working and peaceful never broke any laws so there was little for him to do.

Akinosuke lived and ruled on the island for another twenty years making twenty three in total and in that time he was happy.  He grew to love his wife and she him and they were very close and happy together. She bore him seven fine children – five strapping sons  and two beautiful daughters.

In the beginning of the twenty fourth year of his governorship his beloved wife fell sick and died.  Akinosuke was grief stricken but as tradition required he made sure she was buried with all the dignity and ceremony befitting her status.  He had her buried on a beautiful hill with a fittingly splendid monument raised over her. Unfortunately and understandably her death had left him devastated and he no longer cared for himself or wanted to live.

After the customary period of mourning was complete a ship sailed in from Tokyo bearing a royal messenger from the King.  The messenger hastened to Akinosuke to deliver a message of condolence directly from the King telling him thus,

Return Home

“The King our lord and master sends his deep condolences to you and your children.  You have worked hard and done a splendid job on Raishu but it is now time you returned to your own country.  Have no fear for your seven children for they are also my grandsons and granddaughters and I will look after them.”

Akinosuke on hearing this order submissively prepared to leave the island.  When all was made ready for his departure and all necessary rituals and ceremonies were completed he said goodbye to his children,  councilors and officials and was escorted in a grand procession to the harbor where he took the ship for home.

The ship sailed out of the harbor into the blue sea and towards the blue sky of the horizon.  Akinosuke turned to look at the island in a last farewell and watched as it’s shape turned to blue and then, grey and vanished forever from his sight – and at this point he woke up to find himself lying in the shade of the cedar tree in his very own garden. For a moment or two he was dazed and bewildered and rubbed his eyes.  Looking around he saw his two friends sitting nearby drinking wine and chatting happily to each other and he cried out loud,

“How strange this is!!”

His two friends looked over to him and laughed when they heard him.  
“Ha!” laughed one, “Our friend, Akinosuke has been dreaming!  Tell us your strange dream my friend.”

” I think the wine got the better of him,” teased the other, “but do tell us!”

Therefore, Akinosuke told them his strange dream and how he had spent  over twenty three years living on the island of Raishu in the realm of the King of Tokyo.  He told how he was married and of his children and finally how his beloved wife had died. 

The Butterfly

Source

His two friends were astonished at his tale and insisted he had only been asleep for a few minutes at the most.  One of them told him that while he had been asleep they had witnessed a very strange thing and he spoke thus,

“While you were asleep we saw a very strange thing happen. A small yellow butterfly appeared and  fluttered and hovered over your face for a brief moment or two.  We watched and saw it settle on the ground beside you as you lay close to the cedar tree.  Almost immediately an exceptionally large ant rushed from a hole by the tree and seizing the butterfly ran back down the hole carrying it with him.

Just before you woke we saw the same yellow butterfly crawl out of the hole and flutter up to hover before your face before suddenly vanishing.  I do not know where it went but it was gone.”

The second nodded in agreement and then he spoke,

“Maybe it was our friend Akinosuke’s soul.  I thought perhaps it flew into his mouth but even if it was our friend’s soul it does not explain the dream.”

The Realm of the Ants

“Maybe the ants explain it,” said the first, ” they are peculiar beings and there is a large ant’s nest by the hole of the tree.”

Akinosuke jumped up and cried, “Let us investigate!” And rushed off to fetch a spade.

On his return he set about gently clearing the soil away to carefully reveal that the nest had been excavated and built in the most surprisingly complex way.  The huge population of ants that lived there had turned the colony into a miniature world with some similarity to that of humans. There were tiny buildings made from straw, clay and stems that gave the nest the look of scaled-down versions of human towns and cities.

In the very center of the colony was a structure larger than all of the others which contained a swarm of small ants appearing to work around the body of one very large ant that had a black head and pale yellow wings.

Akinosuke cried,

” Look! There is the King in the palace of Tokyo that I saw in my dream!  How amazing and extraordinary! If that is so, the island of Raisu should lie somewhere to the southwest – and there it is by that root … now can I find the green hill and the tomb of my beloved wife – Yes, there it is – how remarkable!”

Looking closely, Akinosuke saw the small hill in the nest and on top of the hill was a worn polished pebble very similar in shape to the monument he had placed over the body of his wife.  Gently lifting up the pebble he was astonished to see covered in clay the dead body of a female ant.

The End

Ants, Humans and the Butterfly Soul

There are some people who see parallels between ants and humans.  Such philosophers see similarities in the two societies while comparing the differences.  The cities humans build and live in are seen in parallel with the ant colonies and the two societies compared.  In human cities the swarms of humans may all appear to be busy working for the greater good of their society. However, on closer inspection it is found that this is so only as far as it does not encroach upon their own selfish needs and desires which may be at odds with the well-being of their society and even their own butterfly soul.

Ants are seen to be regimented and industrious giving up or not possessing such selfish needs and desires working entirely for the good of their society.  These same philosophers argue that humans with their selfishness damage the good of their society while the ants give up the wants of the self in favor of maintaining the good of their society and their butterfly soul – assuming ants have any kind of soul at all.   Therefore, they claim ants are superior to humans and their society further evolved.  Such philosophers are not renowned for their sense of humor, but personally I always think it one of the greatest of human attributes, though I am not sure ants have one. I wonder though, what do you think of these strange matters of ants, dreaming humans and the butterfly soul?

© 23/10/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 23rd, 2019 zteve t evans

Faustian Pacts: Stingy Jack: The Man Who Stole the Devil’s Wallet

This All Hallow’s Read is a re-telling of an Irish folktale for Enchanted Conversation Magazine, by zteve t evans, published as ALL HALLOW’S READ – Stingy Jack: The Man Who Stole the Devil’s Wallet, 14th October 2019. It tells of the infamous, Stingy Jack, (also known as Jack the Smith, Flaky Jack, or Jack of the Lantern)- a character associated with Halloween. The pumpkin jack-o-lantern may have derived from this colorful character and his interaction with the Prince of Darkness.

Stingy Jack

Way back in old Ireland several centuries ago, there was a well known character in many towns and villages across the country known as Stingy Jack. He had a silver tongue and could be very persuasive and charming yet was unquestionably a drunkard, trickster, blaggard and a man of all round devious character. 

According to legend, the Devil heard all about Jack’s tricks and deviousness and decided to see if he lived up to his evil reputation. It also has to be said, although he would never admit it, that he may have been more than a little envious of his notoriety. Maybe he thought Jack was getting too big for his boots and stealing his thunder, but anyway he decided it was time he paid him a visit, intending to carry him back to Hell.

When he arrived at Jack’s door on a Saturday night, Jack was out in the bars and pubs boozing and carousing with anyone and everyone.  Eventually, deeply inebriated and skint, he staggered homewards. After knocking on Jack’s front door several times the Devil realized it was Saturday night and Jack would surely be out on the town. He knocked one last time just in case, and as he did so, he heard someone stumbling up the garden path. As Jack staggered up the path, he suddenly became aware of a dark figure knocking loudly upon his door. 

“Hey! Who is that a-knocking on my door at this time of night when I am not in?” he drunkenly inquired.  The dark figure slowly turned and looked at Jack square in the face. Despite his drunkenness, Jack knew it was the Devil, and he had come to take him back to Hell.  

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Azorean Folktales: Genadius the Necromancer and the Island of the Seven Cities

Artist: Oswald Walters Brierly [Public domain]

Genadius

The legend of the Archbishop Genadius and the Island of the Seven Cities is a folktale from the island of São Miguel in the Azores archipelago an autonomous region of Portugal.  It tells a version of the legend of the Island of the Seven Cities of Antillia and presented here is a retelling of that folktale based on the source below.  The story begins with a young man named Genadius who was born into a rich and powerful family in Portugal.  He was greatly spoiled and allowed many indulgences by his father. When ever he could not get his own way he would fly into a tantrum.

Necromancy

Nevertheless, he was a young man who possessed great curiosity about everything and he was very adventurous. He experimented with many strange and unorthodox ideas and practices and one day discovered he could summon up the dead.  This greatly excited him and he worked hard and learned all he could from books on the subject. He spent many hours in practice and became adept in the skills of necromancy and the black arts and even learnt how to call upon Satan. However he was a young man who soon tired of things and would move quickly from one project to another.

Christianity

He became disenchanted with necromancy and the black arts and gave himself to Christianity believing that it offered him the greater power.  He became a priest and hermit and dedicated himself to God. Although he stopped using the black arts he combined his abilities as a necromancer to the duties of a Christian priest and performed many good and astounding feats.  Eventually his feats came to the notice of the Supreme Pontiff who was impressed with what he heard and decided to promote and reward him and made him a bishop. Thanks to his powerful and influential family he was soon promoted to Archbishop of Porto.

A Baby Girl

One wet and cold night as he opened his cathedral door he discovered that a baby girl had been laid in a basket before it. There was no clue to who the baby girl’s parents were but she desperately needed a home and shelter so Genadius decided he would adopt her.  Therefore, he took her in and brought her up in fine style giving her the education of a princess and loved her as a daughter.

Invasion

It so happened that the Iberian  peninsula was invaded by hostile forces from North Africa who crossed the narrow straits intent on conquest and Portugal also came under attack.  Realizing the danger Archbishop Genadius called his six bishops to him and gathered his family and friends together. He had a fleet of seven ships built that would allow them to escape before the marauding invaders arrived.  He filled the ships with supplies, water and livestock and just as the enemy was closing in he gave the order to set sail. 

The Voyage

Each of the clergy took command of one of the ships and the small fleet set sail into the setting sun across the wild Atlantic Ocean.  Their great hope was to find a safe land they could settle in and build a new home for themselves and their families and live in their traditional ways.

Genadius had also taken the girl he had adopted and as many other citizens that the ships could safely carry.  After many days sailing the fleet came across an unknown island that had a great central peak that sloped gently down to the sea on all sides.   There was a good natural harbor where they anchored their ships. He sent out search parties to explore the island and make sure it was safe.

The Island

The reports from the search parties were all  good saying the island was very beautiful and a veritable paradise.   It was uninhabited by humans but abounded in plant and animal life. It was  was safe and fertile with plenty of fresh water and could support all of their people with ease.

Therefore, he gave the order to disembark and unload the ships.  He tasked some of the people to build a camp where they could live in reasonable comfort safe from the elements until more permanent shelter could be constructed.

The Seven Cities

When they were settled and comfortable he called a meeting of the bishops and the elders and told them he planned to build seven cities each with a cathedral.  He and the six bishops would each rule one of the cities and he would rule over them all. After a brief rest from their sea voyage they all got to work and built seven cities each with their own cathedral situated around the island and the people were distributed between them.

After the cities and cathedrals were built the people lived in peace and happiness living in their traditional way unhindered.  In that time the girl Genadius had adopted grew to become a beautiful young woman and began to draw the attention of many young men.

Having grown up mostly on the island she had only ever heard tales about her old home of Portugal faraway over the sea.  As is often the case the stories were exaggerated and embellished and she began to wonder why the people had ever left. She ached to see all the wonders they told her of and began to yearn to return to Portugal.

Unwanted Attention

Genadius could also not help but notice the attention she was receiving from young men and began to worry that she would lose her purity.  Although he knew it was natural for young men to be attracted to young women and vice-versa, he could not help but become increasingly concerned.  The more he saw and the more he thought about it, the more obsessed he became, wrongly believing he was protecting her. Furthermore, her continued questioning of him about their old home in Portugal made him realize she wished to return.

He had grown to love her greatly and did not want to lose her. Therefore, he resorted to his powers of necromancy to hide the island away from any passing ships in case they should dock  on the island by chance.

This worked for a while until one fine morning a caravel with the cross of Jesus emblazoned upon its sails and flying the flag of Portugal appeared on the horizon.  It proceeded to the harbor where it intended to anchor.

The Black Arts

Genadius was both furious and fearful of its arrival and flew into a rage.  He could not understand how his powers of necromancy had failed. As the caravel began to drop her anchor his rage erupted and in fury he resorted to his black arts and called upon Satan for help. As he did so the central peak of the island began spewing out smoke and fumes.  Fire and molten rock rained down destroying everything around. Eventually there was a massive explosion and the island sank slowly into the sea. 

A few survivors made it to the caravel who took them back home to Portugal, but of the island of the Seven Cities no trace afterwards could ever be found.  Some said that it sank below the sea but other seafarers returned with reports of an island that was hidden by mists but would sink below the ocean when approached.

© 25/09/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 25th, 2019 zteve t evans

Chinese Folktales: Lu-san, Daughter of Heaven

Kwan Yin by 6paramitasSource

Presented here is a retelling of Chinese folktale called Lu-san, Daughter of Heaven from a compilation by Norman Hinsdale Pitman called, A Chinese Wonder Book and Illustrated by Li Ch-T’ang.  The goddess known as Kwan-yin is also known as Guanyin and several other names that vary with country and region and its use here follows that of Pitman.

Lu-san, Daughter of Heaven

Out of dirt spring flowers; out of mud comes goodness and along the Great River in rickety, beaten-up boats lived the boat-people. The land all around was owned by landlords who charged high rents for homes.  Not everyone could afford such rents and such people constructed rickety boats that they moored to the river bank. The boats served as a home and a means to earn a meagre living catching fish which they ate or if there was surplus, sold in the city nearby.  It was a hard and miserable existence living from day to day with no hope of betterment. Although everyone tried hard to maintain their dignity and faith sometimes one or two failed and acted in unworthy ways.

It is in this setting we find a young girl named Lu-san who lived with her parents and four brothers in a boat moored on the Great River.  As usual, she had gone to bed hungry with no supper because there was no food to be had.   Although  she was famished, it was not food that she hungered most for, it was love.  At night she cuddled up close to her brothers but they pushed her away so even in sleep she was denied the affection she desperately sought.  In her short life all she had known was scorn and hard words from her family and she longed so much for warmth and affection. She could hear the water gently lapping against the boat and usually it sent her to sleep, but not this night.

Perpetual Struggle

Her father was a fisherman and all his life had lived on a knife edge barely surviving the grinding poverty while struggling to provide for his family.  He had become cold, devoid of emotion and wicked; hardened by the perpetual struggle to survive. He lost his faith, lost his dignity and lost his love for his wife and children and treated them cruelly. He blamed them for his lot in life but little Lu-san he treated worse of all.  He had threatened to drown all of his children in the past to be free of the responsibility of bringing them up and it was only his fear of the mandarin who administered the area that prevented him. His wife and his four sons had caught his affliction and they also treated poor Lu-san badly seeking to deflect his wrath from them to her.

It has to be said that her mother was almost as bad as her father.   She too was cold, impatient and cruel to the children always joining in when her husband berated them.  For some unknown reason both mother and father resented and even hated Lu-san more than her siblings and she always bore the brunt of their wrath.  Her parents had no love in them at all and Lu-san yearned to be taken into the arms of someone warm, kind and caring and cuddled like she had seen other parents do with their children.  It never happened. Instead of warmth and love she received nothing but hard words and beatings from her own parents who, sinking to undreamed of depths of depravity, had made plans to be rid of their little girl. 

Fear in the Night

On this night as she lay in bed below deck after another miserable and lonely day to her horror  she heard her parents talking above her on deck.“It will be alright.  We have a new mandarin and  he will be too busy administering for the emperor and will never find out,” said her father.

“The  girl is always in the way – always  in the wrong place and our boat is too small and she is growing and eats as much as the boys.  We will be better off without her,” replied her mother.

“That is true,” replied her father, “the sooner it is done the better!”
“Yes, but wait until the moon has  gone down then do it,” said her mother.
“As soon as the moon has gone down we will do it! Let us sleep until then …” replied her father.

Lu-san’s heart began to beat fast and fear washed over her as she realised they were talking about her.  She had no doubt what her parents meant to do and prayed to her goddess for guidance. As soon as she heard them snoring on deck above her she quickly and quietly dressed herself and carefully and silently climbed up the ladder to the deck above.  She had but one thought in her mind and that was to escape. She did not take any extra clothes or food because there was none. All she wanted to do was escape as quickly as possible without disturbing her sleeping parents.

Escape  in the Dark

The only single thing she took with her along with the rags that clung to her body was a small soapstone statuette of the goddess Kwan-yin.  She had found it one morning as she walked on the dried mud along the river shore. It had caught her eye as it stuck out of the dirt like a flower.  Throughout her few years of life this had been her sole treasure, the only plaything she had ever possessed that was hers alone. She knew if her mother or father ever found it they would beat her for not handing it to them and take it away and sell it.  Therefore, she kept it hidden close to her heart and she cherished this small image of Kwan-yin more than gold or jewels. She had listened to stories from an old priest and learnt that Kwan-yin was the Goddess of Mercy and cared for women and children who could pray to her in troubled times.  Lu-san had prayed to her often.

Like a small ghost she flitted silently across the deck and stepped on to the bank.  The moon had gone down, the air was cold and she could hear the frogs croaking. Without  looking back she ran silently along the shore. Each time she heard someone she hid in the shadows until they had gone and then ran on keeping her nerve.  The only time she was afraid was when a large dog ran snarling at her but stopped short to look at her and sniff before running off in the opposite direction.

She had not had time to make a plan  but she thought it likely that if her parents found her gone they would be only too glad and not come after her.  It was not her parents she feared but some of the boat people who if they caught her might sell her to the city folk as a servant. She had heard tell of some of the dreadful things that happened to those children who they caught and sold.  That was why she feared the boat people and ran as fast as her legs would carry her past the line of tied up boats along the river shore.

She wanted to flee the  cold, dark river and find her way to the sunshine lands which she loved. Carefully and quietly she ran as fast as she could past the last of the boats until she was a long way beyond them and completely alone in the dark.  At last her legs gave way and she fell in a heap on the dirt and hard baked mud breathless and lay on her back looking up at the stars that sprawled and glittered across the dark sky.  

Looking up at the vastness of the sky and the multitude of glittering stars she was struck by how small and insignificant she was and a great feeling of loneliness washed over her.  Now she had no siblings, no parents and no friends in the world. Indeed she had never had a friend or a playmate and now she lay alone in the darkness under the stars overwhelmed by the magnitude of the universe.  She knew the city was not far away with all its great buildings, multitudes of people and the roaring of voices. She felt inside her ragged clothing and pulled out the little statuette of Kwan-yin and clutching it to her small, lonely heart, whispered a childish prayer  and cried herself to sleep.

Kwan-yin

Awaking with a start she found a strange person standing over her looking down at her.  She saw it was a beautiful woman dressed in the most gorgeous clothes she had ever seen in her life.   Such clothes could only have been worn by a princess or someone very special. The woman stood tall and erect in the dirt and hard-baked mud of the river shore like a beautiful flower in the dark. As Lu-san gazed at the lovely face and looked into those deep, dark, eyes she was suddenly conscious of her own rags and impoverishment.  Embarrassed at her own condition she shrank away fearing that this perfect being would touch her and soil their own perfection.

Strangely,  she was overcome by the impulse to throw herself into the arms of this most perfect of women and beg her for mercy.  It was only the fear that she might vanish before her eyes that stopped her.  Therefore, slowly she held out the little statuette of Kwan-yin to the woman and said, “You must be  the most beautiful princess in the world!  This must belong to you. Please take it I found it in the dirt and mud.  It is all I have ever had, but please take it!”

The princess bent down and gently took the statuette and looked at it with great interest then smiled and said, “And do you know who it is that you are giving this statuette to?”

“I do not know,” replied  Lu-san, “I found it in the dirt and mud by the river.  All I know is that it is all I have ever had in the world and that you are so beautiful that it must surely belong to you.  Please take it.”

To little Lu-san’s  surprise and delight a wonderfully strange thing happened which she had never experienced before. The graceful, elegant lady bent her body towards her holding out her arms in invitation to the ragged and bedraggled little girl.  Lu-san hesitated for a second and then with a cry of sheer joy threw herself into the arms of the lady who took her up and whirled her around holding her close to her. At last little Lu-san had found the love that she had yearned  for so long and she clung to the lady who kept her in a tight embrace.

“My child, do you know who this statuette represents that you have kept so carefully, so lovingly and have given to me so unselfishly without a second thought?” asked the lady quietly.

“Yes, I do,” she replied, “It is the loving goddess Kwan-yin who loves and looks after children and women.”

“And this goddess looked after you  and kept you safe did she?” asked the lady flushing slightly at the innocence of the child.

“Indeed she did, for without her I would not be here with you now.” replied little Lu-san earnestly, “Indeed, without her I would not have escaped my father and mother tonight and would certainly have been killed.  It was the good lady that listened to my prayer and told me what to do.”

“So now that you have escaped, where will you go and what will you do in the world all alone? Where will you live – how will you survive?  Do you not fear to walk in the dark alone?” asked the lady.

“No, no, I have  no fear for the blessed goddess is with  me and will protect me. She has heard my prayers and shown me how to escape and she will show me how to live in the great big world.  She will keep me safe,” replied Lu-san as she cuddled  the lady.

The lady responded warmly to Lu-san who believed she must be in heaven.  She did not see the lady look upward to a certain star and catch its light in her eye.  She did not see a glistening tear roll from the lady’s eye and down her cheek. She did not feel it fall gently upon her forehead because she was sound asleep in the arms of her guardian and knew nothing of the gentle rain that fell from the stars that night.

The Next Morning

In the morning a ray of sunlight found its way through the warped and cracked planks to slip below the deck of her father’s rickety boat to where Lu-san was still sleeping.  As it touched her face she awoke to find herself all alone in her bed. Despite her terror the night before she now experienced no fear at all to be so close to where her parents were. 

She did not know that as she lay asleep her parents had crept down the ladder from the deck and up to the bed of their sleeping daughter.   She did not know they had crept silently to her side intending to grasp and throttle. She did not know of the strange and shocking thing had happened as she slept.  As her father had reached for her throat and her mother to pin her arms a disembodied voice cried out,

“On your knees! Do not dare threaten harm to one who has caused the tears of the great goddess  Kwan-yin to flow! Know that when Kwan-yin weeps the gods themselves weep with her! If you ever try and hurt this child again you will burn forever!  Know this – out of dirt spring flowers – out of mud comes goodness!”

With that her mother and father fell on their knees before their sleeping daughter and as they did so they felt a thousand red hot needles pricking into every part of  their bodies. The terrible sensation lasted but a few seconds and then their heads were forced down until their foreheads touched the wooden floor before their sleeping daughter and the terrible voice spoke again,

“Now swear obseiance to Lu-san and leave her to rest.  Go and await for this Daughter of Heaven to awake and then you will serve her faithfully!”

Her terrified parents crawled painfully across the wooden planks of the floor and up the ladder to wait on deck for their daughter to awake.  They gathered their sons together and huddled in a corner seeking shelter from the cold drizzle which now fell from the sky upon them.

The  Transformation

Below deck Lu-san gently awoke and lay listening and heard low voices talking on deck just above her head.  Unusually their voices did not sound harsh and cruel, instead they spoke in hushed tones as if not wishing to disturb the peace of their sleeping daughter.

“What happened?” asked her father trembling, “Did you hear that terrible voice?  Did you feel the burning needles?”

“I did feel those burning needles and heard that terrible voice,”  replied his wife, “It could  only have been the gods warning us!”

“Yes, it must have been the gods,” replied her husband, “but it is strange now that I think about it how we came to hate our daughter, for I now see how wrong and wicked we are.”

“Indeed, I do not know what happened to us.  We must have been blind that we could not see her goodness, our hearts numb that we could not feel her love.  We must be evil indeed and the gods will rightly punish us for our wickedness!” replied his wife.

As she listened to her parents she experienced great love welling up in her heart for them and rose  from bed . She decided that she would tell them she loved them despite their evil treatment of her and no matter what they did to her.   Looking around for her ragged clothes she was surprised she could not find them but instead found carefully placed on one side of the bed the most beautiful clothes she had ever seen.  They were made of the finest silk and gaily decorated with birds and flowers and as there was nothing else for her to wear she slipped these on discovering they fitted perfectly.

As she dressed she glanced at her fingers and saw they were now long and elegant and her hands that had been rough and worn with work were now smooth and soft.  Looking around she found a pair of red silk slippers on the bed and put them on. As she did so she was astounded to see that her feet that had been blistered, cracked and calloused were now healed.  She had always walked barefoot having never had shoes and sliding on the slippers she stepped daintily across the rough wooden planks that made the floor. 

To her surprise wherever she placed her feet the planks transformed into smooth rich red polished flooring.  As she looked around at the rude wooden room below deck wherever her glance fell the rough walls appeared gaily decorated.  As she climbed up the old wooden ladder it transformed into a magnificent wooden stair and as she stepped on deck the drizzle stopped and the sun came out.  As she crossed the deck the rough boards transformed beneath her feet to beautiful polished wood and wherever she glanced around the rickety old boat transformed into magnificent ship with a full crew of sailors.

Looking around for her parents she found them huddled with her brothers in a corner.  They were trembling with fear at her approach and looked terrified. Her mother tried to speak but her mouth would not open.  Her father stared in awe at her and mumbled, “A goddess has come down from Heaven, have mercy on us!”  Her brothers hid their eyes in their hands as if dazzled and sheltered behind their parents.

Transformation  Complete

Lu-san paused before them her transformation complete  and said, “Mother, father, my brothers, do you not recognise me?  Father, mother, I am Lu-san your daughter. My brothers I am your sister. Do you not know me?”

Her father looked at her in fear and wonder and his cruel face took on a strange light, while his body trembled and shook.  To her surprise he knelt before her and bent his head so low he touched the deck with his forehead before her feet. Her mother and her brothers did exactly the same and then gazed in awe at her waiting for her to speak.

“Tell me father, tell me that you love me,  Tell me that you will not kill your only daughter,” said Lu-san.

“You must surely be a daughter of the gods,” murmured her father in a daze, “ but I … “  and could not continue.

“Have no fear! Tell me father,” she said gently.

“Yes, I do love you.  Can you ever forgive me?” he replied.

Lu-san stepped forward and placed her left hand on her kneeling father’s forehead and placed her right hand over the heads of her mother and brothers and said,

“Just as Kwan-yin, Goddess of Mercy, has smiled upon me and given me her blessing, I bestow upon you my father, my mother and my brothers my love and the love of heaven.  When the time comes that only love shall rule your hearts this ship will be yours and all that it carries and I will leave. Out of dirt springs flowers; out of mud comes goodness!”

As Lu-san had been transformed so too were her parents and her brothers.  From the poor wretched family that had struggled to make a living along the Great  River they began to enjoy peace and happiness. For her parents, especially her father it was not an easy transformation for the misery of the years had ingrained deep in him.  Every now and then he flew into a rage before quickly calming himself down to feel ashamed. Her mother too, still hurled the occasionally spiteful word or retort before suddenly thinking better and holding her tongue.  Nevertheless, although it was a slow and painful lesson they did learn that love was the way and thanked the mud and dirt of river life for the lesson they received from their daughter.

The family sailed the great ship up and down the Great River its company of sailors obeying Lu-san’s every command.  Wherever she told them to cast the nets they caught masses of the largest and best fish and sold them in the markets of the towns and cities along the Great River.  Soon Lu-san and her family were deemed to be among the wealthiest that lived and worked along the river.

A Flight of Doves

One fine day Lu-san led her family to a temple to celebrate the birthday of Kwan-yin.  As they returned and boarded the ship her father pointed to a spot in the sky just above the horizon, “What is that!” he exclaimed, “What manner of birds  are they that are flying this way?  What is it they carry?”

As the birds drew near they saw it was a flight of pure white doves carrying a strange object below them.    Her mother and father gazed in wonder and her brothers became excited and began to jump up and down. Lu-san just smiled serenely and remained calm and quiet as if she had been expecting the arrival of these birds.

“Look!” cried her father, “It is a flight of doves, but what is it they carry?”

As the flight of doves drew closer they saw that from their necks trailed golden ribbons. These were attached to a most wonderful chair that was as pure white as the doves and inlaid with gold and precious gems and floated  below the birds as they flew. The flight of doves flew to the ship carrying the chair below them and on reaching the ship paused their flight. Hovering over the deck they gently let the chair descend before Lu-san. She turned to her parents and brothers and kissing them goodbye seated herself in the wonderful chair.   As the doves rose in the air and carried the chair and Lu-san towards the heavens a voice was heard from the skies saying,

“So it is that Kwan-yin, Mother of Mercies rewards Lu-san. Daughter of the Earth she will be no longer.  Now she will take her place as a star in the Western Skies as a Daughter of Heaven. Lu-san, know this, those tears you brought from the eyes of Kwan-yin fell upon the dirt and dried mud and from the dirt sprang flowers and from the mud came goodness.”

© 18/092019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 18th, 2019 zteve t evans