The fabled Firebird from Russian and Slavic mythology and folklore is a magical, mysterious bird, both rare and elusive and the inspiration of many folk and fairy tales. Its plumage is the color of red, yellow and orange flames of fire or maybe like the setting or rising of the sun.
According to tradition it appears from the east lighting up the sky causing all the creatures of the world to fall silent in deference to its glory. The Firebird appears in many stories as a blessing and a bearer of good fortune but it can also be a harbinger of doom for those of a wicked disposition. However, for Alexis, the hero of this story, the finding of the feather of the Firebird is the catalyst for inner growth and strength. He is sent on a journey completing a set of difficult tasks bringing out his own inner resources to win through. In doing so he rises from lowly beginnings to a prominent position in the world.
Finding the Feather
In this story our hero is a young man who despite being rather naive is true of heart and courageous and it is he who finds the feather. For those who find a feather of the Firebird great changes befall them. To pick it up sets off a life changing chain of events putting their life at risk and bringing them real fear. When Alexis finds the feather he does not listen to the warning of his horse of power and decides to pick it up and take it to the Tsar. From then on his problems snowball and for the first time he begins to experience real fear.
The Firebird is usually said to represent the whole truth, or enlightenment of the world. Princess Vasilisa represents love. The finding of a single feather from the Firebird represents the finding of a single grain of truth. If the whole truth is desired then the whole Firebird must be sought to gain enlightenment. The Tsar is not satisfied with a feather but demands the whole truth, represented by the Firebird and sends Alexis to bring it back. Yet, he is not satisfied with the whole Firebird and demands love in the form of Princess Vasilisa. Again, he sends Alexis to find her but does nothing himself to win her love.
Although the Tsar seeks enlightenment and love he never does anything himself to find either and consequently never finds them. Enlightenment comes from the experience gained from completing the journey and the tasks of the quest and love is earned by the way others are treated along the way, yet he never learns this.
Animal Helper – The Horse of Power
As with other Firebird stories our hero has a wise animal and magical helper who accompanies him on the quest. In, The Feather and the Firebird, the magical animal helper is a horse of power who has the gift of speech and foresight and is named Perdun.
Perdun warns against picking up the feather, which is only a small part of the truth. The horse is important to our hero as it represents his own natural wisdom – his gut instinct which he suppresses. It is the suppression of his inner instinct that gets him into trouble in the first place. As he learns to listen to and trust his horse of power, or gut instinct, he at last triumphs.
So when our hero embarks on his quest at the command of the Tsar who is not satisfied with part of the truth but craves the whole truth the Tsar is making a huge mistake. He does not experience the journey and the hardships so he remains none the wiser, but the hero through the trials on his journey learns the whole truth and the world is his. On the way he finds love while the stay-at home Tsar never does.
While the Tsar ends up with death the hero is rewarded with marriage to Princess Vasilisa and becomes the new Tsar, His own inner resources have grown to the point where he recognizes that the Firebird, like the truth and enlightenment, is something that cannot be caged and sets it free to roam the world as it should. Perhaps one day, somewhere, someone else will find one of its feathers and embark on their own journey of discovery.
Presented here is a retelling of the story of the time Pwyll of Dyfed spent in Annwfn in the body of Arawn. It is the first part of the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed or Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, which is the First Branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It tells how he and Arawn became friends and of his sojourn in Annwfn.
Pwyll of Dyfed
One day as Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed was out hunting in the region of Glyn Cuch his hounds raised a stag. The stag took off at great speed with the hounds hard on its trail and Pwyll spurred his horse forward in pursuit sounding his hunting horn. The stag was moving fast but the hounds were keeping up and he was keeping up with the hounds. In the speed and excitement of the chase he lost the other members of his party who were left far behind.
Following the sound of his pack he became aware that he could also hear another pack of hounds which sounded very different to his own. Arriving in a glade in the woods he was surprised to see in the middle a large stag holding at bay a pack of strange hounds. As Pwyll looked on they brought the beast to the ground. Although an experienced and accomplished huntsman Pwyll had never seen dogs like these before. They had coats of pure, shining white and the tips of their white ears glowed red. Moving purposely forward he drove the pack of strange dogs off and set his own on the stag.
The Anger of Arawn
No sooner had he done this when he heard the blowing of a hunting horn and the approach of a fast riding horseman. The horseman cut an intimidating figure being tall and well built and dressed in grey hunting clothes. Around his neck hung a hunting horn which he blew notes on heralding his arrival. Reining in his horse he glared coldly upon Pwyll and spoke in a blunt and unfriendly manner, “Chieftain, I know who you are but I will not welcome you!”
“Indeed,” replied Pwyll taking offense at the tone of the address, “you appear lacking of such dignity and manners and it is best you do not do so!”“Indeed,” saidthe stranger, “it is not my dignity and manners that prevent me!”
“Chieftain, what then is it? Am I the one at fault, is it my courtesy and manners that are at fault? Tell me what is the fault that I have committed?” replied Pwyll in anger and bewilderment. Replied the huntsman, “Never have I seen anything so discourteous and bad-mannered! You have driven my dogs away from their kill and set your own upon it. Though I may not gain revenge for the value of the offense, I swear I will bring you more dishonor than the worth of a hundred stags!”
Realizing he was at fault Pwyll said, “Chieftain, I indeed have done wrong. How I can make it up to you and become your friend? You say you know who I am, therefore, tell me who you are?” The other replied, “I am Arawn, a King of Annwfn,” and Pwyll answered, “Then Arawn, a King of Annwfn, I ask how I may redeem myself and win your friendship?”
“I have a neighbor named Hafgan who forever makes trouble and seeks war and is also a King of Annwfn. Rid me of him and gain my undying friendship and amend the wrong you have done me,” replied Arawn. “I will do this, but how?” said Pwyll. Arawn replied,
“Change places with me and live as I have lived as a King of Annwfn. You will have the fairest lady ever seen as your Queen, who is my wife.We must exchange bodies. Your mind and soul will live in my body and my mind and soul will live in yours. I will make it so no one in the world will ever be able to know the difference, not your closest friend, not even my wife. I will know what you know, you will know what I know. We will live like this for a year and a day and in that time you will have accomplished the task. We shall meet on that anniversary in this place and I will return us to our true forms. Only we will know! ”
“I will do this, but how shall I know and find your enemy,” Pwyll asked. “The time and date are already set for us to meet in single combat to the death. One year from today you will find him waiting at the ford. Be there and with one stroke rid me of him and gain my never ending friendship. One word of warning I give! Should he ask you to strike again to bring his life to a quick end you must refuse. Last year I made this mistake after dealing him a fatal blow and he recovered. You must let him die slowly!” advised Arawn. “It is understood and this I will do,” replied Arawn, “but what will happen to my own kingdom while I am away?”
“Fear not for your kingdom. In your own semblance I will rule in your stead and none will ever know the difference,” answered Arawn. “Then, let us begin!” said Pwyl. “Nothing shall hinder you until you come into my lands and then I will guide you to my palace in my kingdom,” said Arawn,” and it shall begin.”
Arawn led Pwyll through the forest to a place close to his palace and said, “Behold, my palace. Here I must leave you to enter alone as I. Have no fear, no one will see anything different and all will accept you as being myself. Furthermore, you will find you have knowledge of all the ways of the court. “
Sojourn in Annwfn
Therefore, Pwyll entered court and it was as Arawn had told him. He was welcomed as their king by the servants and his wife who noticed nothing amiss. Two knights helped to dress him in the finest silks of gold and scarlet and the hall was prepared for feasting and they noticed nothing. He saw that those who joined him were of the most comely and handsome of looks and ways. They all appeared to know him paying him great obeisance. Arawn’s wife entered and sat next to him talking as she had always known him. Just as Arawn had said, she was the fairest woman he had ever seen. She was dressed in scarlet and gold and talked and conversed with him most agreeably throughout the meal. After the feasting there were wonderful stories and songs and Pwyll thought that this must be the most entertaining and courteous of courts on Earth.
The Fight at the Ford
He spent the next year hunting and feasting, enjoying the entertainments of the court and his conversations with the Queen and the courtiers. Eventually the year passed and the time came around when he must meet Hafgan, the enemy of Arawn, at the ford in single combat. The nobles and everyone in the kingdom had been waiting for this time to come and a great throng of warriors assembled to accompany him to the fight at the ford. As he arrived a knight spoke up to address the throng saying, “Lords, this conflict is between two kings who claim ownership of each other’s realm. It is not your battle therefore stand aside and let the kings do battle alone.”
Turning he said the same to those on his side of the Ford and all but the two kings fell back to watch the fight. The two kings approached each other and met in the middle of the ford and without ceremony the fight began. With his first blow Pwyll struck the shield of Hafgan such a mighty blow that it was split in two and Hafgan was knocked to the ground mortally wounded. “Chieftain,” said Hafgan, “I am dying but what right have you to cause my death as I have done you no harm in any of this. As You have dealt me a killing blow I ask of you to strike again and strike fast to end my life quickly.”
“Chieftain,” replied Pwyll, “it may well be that I come to regret the blow I dealt you and the one that I will not deal, but I will give no more blows.” Calling out to his knights Hafgan said, ” I say to my subjects, I shall no longer be able to support you, therefore follow who you will, for I die now.”
Pwyll said, “Let those who have followed Hafgan come over to me without fear and in peace. There can only be one victor and that will be Arawn.” Those nobles on the opposite side of the ford went over to join with him. Next he rode through Hafgan’s kingdom subduing those who would not follow and subjecting the land to Arawn as the undisputed king of all of Annwfn. By noon the next day the two kingdoms were united and Pwyll made his way to keep his tryst with Arawn.
When he arrived Arawn was waiting and the two rejoiced to meet again. Arawn said, “I know the news you bring and I am thankful for your fulfilling the promise. You have my undying friendship and when you return to your own realm you shall see what I did for you in your absence.”
” Whatever that may be,” said Pwyll, “may Heaven reward you.” With that, Arawn reinstated each to their own natural bodies and set off for his home in Annwfn. When he arrived home none of his court or his queen realized he had been away or noticed any difference in him. When the time came for him to go to bed he took his wife with him who seemed both surprised and delighted. She told him she had been grieved that he had not shown any interest in sleeping with her the last long year. Arawn realized the extent of Pwyll’s mastery over himself and was glad but made sure he was fully reconciled with his wife.
Pwyll also went home and none of his nobles or servants appeared to notice any difference. Therefore he asked them their opinions of how his judgements and rule had been over the past year. They told him that he had appeared to have ruled with great justice, wisdom and perception and his kingdom had benefited greatly from this. Pwyll told them about the exchange of places with Arawn and said they should be grateful to him for how he had treated them.
To strengthen the friendship between Annwfn and Dyfed, Arawn sent greyhounds, horses, hawks and such presents he thought would please Pwyll. In turn Pwyll reciprocated in kind. The friendship between Arawn and Pwyll blossomed and grew bringing great prosperity and benefit to both kingdoms. From that time on he also became known as “Pwyll, Pen Annwfn” or “Pwyll, Head of Annwfn“.
The Northern Isles of Scotland generally refers to the two archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland. The islands have been inhabited since very early times and have many ancient archaeological sites with human activity going back to the Mesolithic Age. There are still many Pictish and Norse influences which have combined to create a rich tradition of mythology and folklore on the islands.
Folklore and Tradition
One such tradition tells of an annual battle between the forces of summer and winter for supremacy. This battle is expressed in folklore with summer being represented by a mythical female spirit called the Sea Mither, or Mither of the Sea. Her opponent is called Teran, a mythical spirit of the winter who sends the wild waves, storms and high winds at sea and the death of vegetation on land. Both spirits are invisible to humans directly but their force is experienced in the weather and seasons around the islands that play an integral part of island life.
The Sea Mither
The Sea Mither brings growth, renewal, rebirth and harvest. The word “Mither” is the Orcadian way of saying “mother” so she is the mother of the sea in the sense she gives birth to all living creatures in the sea.
It is the power of the Sea Mither that reawakens the world after the harsh, barren wilderness days of winter, driving out darkness and bringing warmth and light. She brings growth and fertility to the sea and land giving life to all living things and calms the stormy seas.
Her enemy, Teran, brings the cold and dark and causes the winter gales and winds. It is he who causes the waves to rise wildly and dash against the rugged coastline of the islands and it is his voice who rises above the wind in anger that the islanders hear in the winter gales.
Vore Tully – the Spring Struggle
Around the time of the vernal equinox, about mid-March, there begins a titanic struggle for supremacy between the Teran and the Sea Mither when she returns to challenge him.For weeks the seas all around become a frothing, churning cauldron as the battle between the two foes ensues. Finally Teran is overcome and the Sea Mither confines him to the ocean’s depths. Every so often he attempts to break free which manifest as spring and summer storms.
During this period the power of the Sea Mither quells the storms and seas allowing growth and renewal to take place all around. The continued stress of keeping Teran confined and maintaining the summer seas and weather begins to wear down the Sea Mither.
Gore Vellye – The Autumn Tumult
Around the time of the autumn equinox when the Sea Mither is at her weakest and Teran has regained his strength the conflict is renewed. He breaks free from his prison and challenges the Sea Mither to regain supremacy and gain control of the weather and seas. The Sea Mither having used up her strength in renewal, calming the seas and keeping her foe in check is defeated and Teran rules the seas and the weather.
However, as was the case with Teran, defeat is temporary. Come the vernal equinox she will be ready to take up the fight again and win back the sea and land and spring and summer will come again.
It is in the battle of the Sea Mither and Teran that the local people made sense of the forces that brought the changing seas and weather. To personify these unseen forces makes them easier to understand and to come to terms with. It is a tactic that is used all around the world by many different human cultures in an attempt to explain the invisible forces that bring such dramatic and crucial changes to their environment.
Balance and Harmony
This cycle was seen as important because although it is natural to want continuous and permanent summer that is not how nature works. Neither does it work by providing continuous and permanent winter. Each has its time of precedence and decline which comes in cycles and is necessary to provide balance and harmony to the earth. In their own way one is essential as the other to the well-being of the Earth and life on the planet. Although lacking modern science and technology, the ancients knew this making sense of it and giving it due respect in their own way.
Presented here is a retelling of a Japanese folktale called The Goddess of Mount Fuji, from Myths & Legends of Japan, by F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland) Davis and illustrated by Evelyn Paul.
When smallpox hit the village where Yosoji lived it struck down his mother. Fearing she would soon die he visited Kamo Yamakiko, the magician and begged for his help. Kamo Yamakiko asked Yosoji to describe the symptoms and after listening very carefully told him he must go to the south-west side of Mount Fuji where a stream flowed down its side. He explained that it was a long and difficult journey and told him,
“Follow the stream back to its source. There you will find a shrine to the God of Long Breath. You must fetch water from that place for your mother to drink. This is the only cure there is in the world for her.”
The Shrine on Mount Fuji
Therefore taking up a gourd Yosoji set off full of hope to find the shrine at the source of the stream. It was indeed a long and difficult journey but eventually he came to a place where three paths crossed and he had no idea which one to take. He was tired and hungry and despair washed over him. He thought about giving up but he thought of his mother lying ill and knew he was her only chance and became determined to continue. Nevertheless he still had no idea which way to go, As he pondered upon this problem he was surprised to see a lovely girl step out of the forest. She beckoned to him bidding him to follow and as he had no idea which way to go he followed her.
It was not too long before they reached a stream and she led him upwards to its source and just as the magician had said there was a shrine. As they reached the shrine the girl told Yosoji to drink and then fill the gourd. The water from the stream was cool, sparkling and refreshing and he drank deeply and then filled the gourd. The girl then led him back to the place they had met and said,
“You will need to fetch more water for your mother so meet me here in three days time and I will be you guide.”
After she bid him farewell he took the water back to his mother. The water helped his mother greatly and he also gave some to other people in his village which helped them too. He returned to the sacred shrine five more times for water and each time he met the girl. After his last visit he was pleased to see that his mother was now back to her normal self and the villagers had all improved marvelously.
Yosoji was made a hero of the village and was greatly praised by everyone for saving them. Being an honest lad he realized he owed all the thanks to the lovely girl who appeared and guided him to the shrine. Therefore, he went back to find and thank her.
The girl was not at her usual meeting place and after waiting some time he resolved to go on to the shrine. He was greatly disappointed to find she was not there either. Nevertheless, he still wanted to show his gratitude for helping him save his mother and the villagers. All he could think to do was to kneel by the shrine and offer a prayer straight from his heart hoping that it would find its way to her somehow. When he had finished he stood up and looked around and was surprised and delighted to find the girl standing before him smiling.
The Goddess of Mount Fuji
He thanked her for her help from the bottom of his heart in the most eloquent words he could find and begged her to tell him her name. The girl smiled sweetly but gave no reply but reaching out a branch of camellia appeared in her hand. She waved it in the air as if beckoning to some invisible spirit. In answer to her floral signal a small white cloud floated down from the peak of Mount Fuji and settling before her she lightly stepped upon it.
The cloud rose bearing her up and slowly moved up the flank of the mountain before disappearing at the top. Yosoji was awestruck for he realized that the girl was Sengen, the Goddess of Mount Fuji and he fell down upon his knees. In his face was rapture and in his eyes light for he knew in his heart that mixed with all the gratitude he felt was a deep love for the lovely girl. As he knelt the goddess looked down and dropped the branch of camellia so that it landed just before him. Quickly, she turned away her face reddening.
In Irish mythology Queen Mebd is a colorful character – an archetypal warrior-queen – ambitious and strong-willed, who knew her own mind and how to get what she wanted.She was described as a lusty fair haired wolf-queen who was so beautiful men were robbed of two thirds of their valor on seeing her (1). Probably her best known role is the instigator of the Cattle Raid of Cooley or Táin Bó Cúailnge which she undertook with her husband Aillil during a more congenial time in their relationship. Presented here is a brief glimpse of the roles Mebd filled as wife, queen and goddess of sovereignty, looking her most famous exploit, The Cattle Raid of Cooley and finally her death.
Husbands and Marriage
During the Ulster Cycle in Irish mythology she was a much married queen of Connacht. Her main consort in the important stories of this period was Ailill mac Máta. She ruled from Cruachan, now known as Rathcroghan, County Roscommon. One of her former husbands was the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa who became her enemy.
There is no doubt that marriage to Mebd was a challenge for any man and needed someone of powerful character to fulfill the role. Mebd had three demands her husband had to agree to in order to marry her. First, he must be completely without fear. Second, he must be without meanness. The third and most important was he must be devoid of all jealousy. The last was essential for Mebd took many lovers and she was not a woman who could be possessed. One of these lovers was Fergus mac Róich.
According to tradition it took seven men to satisfy her sexually but Fergus only once. Ailill, on learning of the affair, forgot Mebd’s third demand and became jealous of Fergus and had him killed. However, such were the intrigues of the Connacht court that when Mebd learnt Ailill was having an affair behind her back she ordered Conall Cernac to kill him. He gladly took on the task in revenge for the killing of Fergus but as he was dying Aillil ordered his warriors to kill Conall.
A traditional patriarchal view of Mebd might see her as an immoral sex-predator who lusts for men, but a closer look may reveal a different idea of who she was and what she represented.
Goddess of Sovereignty
There are several versions and spelling of her name including Maeve, Maev, Mave or Maiv, may have meant the ruler. Another interpretation is “mead-woman” or “she who intoxicates,” which many see as evidence of her being a goddess of sovereignty or representative of one. In ancient and medieval Ireland, mead and its consumption played an important part in the inauguration ceremony of a new king. Her many marriages to kings and her liberated sexual behaviour are also considered as evidence of her status as a sovereignty goddess. She may have been one and the same with Medb Lethderg who was the wife or lover of nine kings at Tara.
According to one version of the myth the sovereignty of the land was bestowed upon the king by a goddess of sovereignty, or her representative, on behalf of the Earth Mother. Her presence by his side as consort signified the approval of the goddess and a powerful public symbol the king was divinely chosen. The king acted as the steward of the land ensuring its fertility and wellbeing which promoted regrowth and renewal of vegetation and crops. Traditionally he was expected to be without blemish and if he was sick, injured, or grew old he was replaced by a younger more virile man.
It is the association with the goddess of sovereignty that causes a rethink of her being labelled as merely promiscuous or immoral. Modern morals should not be used as a yardstick; these were different times with different ways of doing things and different social values.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
Mebd was never the subordinate wife and queen. She believed she had a right to be of equal wealth as her husband. After taking stock of both their total possessions she realized her husband owned a more powerful and virile stud bull named Finnbennach. This gave him a slight edge which greatly annoyed her.
The only bull in Ireland that could rival Finnbennach was named Donn Cúailnge who was owned by Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal of Conchobar’s her former husband.Mebd decided she must have Donn Cúailnge to make her equal to her husband and she was determined to get him by any means.
She sent messengers to Dáire requesting him to loan her the bull. In return she offered wealth, land and sexual favours. Dáire initially agreed to the deal. However, he changed his mind when one of her messengers in a drunken state foolishly revealed that she would have taken it by force anyway. On hearing this Dáire reversed his decision.
Mebd was still determined to have the bull and mustered her army and war bands from all over Ireland rallied to her. With the support of her husband, Ailill, she launched an invasion of Ulster to take Donn Cúailnge.
The defenders of Ulster were stricken by a curse that rendered them unfit for battle at the time of their greatest need. This had been inflicted on them as revenge and punishment by the goddess Macha, whom the king of Ulster had forced into a chariot race with while she was heavily pregnant.
The only one left to oppose Mebd’s invasion was the young warrior Cúchulainn who with the help of his charioteer waged a guerrilla war against the invaders. He used a custom that enabled him to claim single combat against one of Mebd’s champions at each river ford her army needed to cross. Using this tactic he held up the invasion while the Ulster defenders recuperated. However, despite the hold up, Mebd managed to take Donn Cúailnge.
Eventually the incapacitated defenders of Ulster recovered and led by King Conchobar rally to the defence of the realm. After a final battle against Conchobar, Mebd retreated having got what she came for took the bull back to Connacht. To decide who was the most powerful and valuable bull Donn Cúailnge and Finnbennach were matched in a fight against each other. Donn Cúailnge killed Finnbennach but also died of his wounds leaving Mebd and her husband Aillil equal in wealth and status.
Death of Mebd
In later years it Mebd’s custom to bathe in a pool on an island named Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery. However, this was to prove to be her undoing. Mebd had previously murdered her sister. Her son Furbaide seeking revenge for his mother’s death waited for Mebd until she came to bathe. According to tradition, he killed her with a hardened piece of cheese fired from his sling, which was the nearest projectile he could find in a hurry. Her son Maine Athramail succeeded her to the throne of Connacht.
Her final resting place is uncertain. She is said to be buried standing upright to face her enemies. According to one legend she is buried in a 40 foot high stone cairn in the top of Knocknarea in County Sligo. Another possible site for her burial place is her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon at a place now called ‘Misgaun Medb’.
There is no shortage of colorful and extraordinary characters in Irish mythology and Queen Mebd must surely rate somewhere at the top of the list.
Some people believe cats to be superior beings who carefully train their humans to provide for their needs. Presented here is a retelling of a story by Charles Perrault which was a retelling of earlier stories by other authors. He called his story, The Master Cat or Puss in Boots, which features a rather magical cat and a very adept trickster.
Death of the Miller
The story begins with the death of a miller who left his three sons all he had. The eldest son received the mill. The second eldest received a donkey, while the youngest received a cat. The young man, aggrieved at only receiving the cat, complained to his brothers, “You are lucky! You might earn a living from your inheritance by working together, but of what use is a cat?”
The cat overheard this and, as cats do, went and sat in a cardboard box to think about it. After a short while he went to the young man and said, “Master, do not worry about your wellbeing. If you provide me with a bag and a pair of new boots I shall prove to you that your lot is far better than you may see.”
His master did not see, but he was very fond of the cat. He knew he was very clever, having seen the tricks he had invented to catch the rodents around the mill. For example, he had witnessed him hanging by his heels from a rafter and dropping on victims, or hiding in sacks of grain, waiting to pounce. Sometimes he would even play dead to catch unwary victims. Now the youth was about to discover just how clever his cat really was.
Puss in Boots
Thinking he had little to lose, with his last few pennies he purchased his cat a bag, and had some boots made especially for him. Thus equipped, Puss in Boots set about earning his master a living.
Mother Shipton was one of the most famous soothsayers in Britain and a familiar figure in English folklore and traditions. Stories about her were published in chap-books from the middle of the 17th century onward. These were usually embellished and exaggerated but succeeded in capturing the public’s attention even though many of her prophecies only appeared after her death.
She was believed to have been born in the time of King Henry VII, in Knaresborough, Yorkshire in 1488 and named Ursula Sontheil. There are several variant spellings of her surname. Her mother was believed to have been a poor single girl about fifteen years old named Agatha.According to legend she gave birth to her during a violent thunderstorm in a cave near the River Nidd. Despite being forced to appear before the local magistrate Agatha refused steadfastly to name the baby’s father. She appeared to have no family or friends to support her and lived alone in the cave bringing her baby daughter up the best she could. Eventually after two years the Abbot of Beverley heard of her plight and she was taken to a distant nunnery. Baby Ursula was taken in by a local family but in the nunnery Agatha lost contact with her daughter and later died. As an adult, Ursula became known as Mother Shipton and the cave became known as Mother Shipton’s Cave and today is a popular tourist attraction.
According to tradition, Ursula was a very unattractive baby to such an extent that no one wanted to nurse her. Eventually a foster mother was found who lived on the edge of Knaresborough. Strange things happened around baby Ursula. One legend tells how one morning her foster mother discovered she and her crib missing. She roused several neighbors who set about searching the home for clues to her whereabouts. According to this legend the neighbors were attacked by strange ape-like imps and other unearthly entities that pricked and scratched them. Eventually, to the shock of all, baby Ursula was found still in her crib but suspended in mid-air halfway up the chimney. Eerie events of this kind happened on many occasions as she grew up. Plates, crockery and ornaments would fly around the room and furniture would slide across the floor to a different position. As she grew older her power of prophecy began to develop.
Unfortunately for Ursula, as she grew into a woman her looks did not improve and all descriptions of her are terribly unflattering. With a thin and sharp face covered in warts and a large hooked nose she became the archetypal image of a witch. Despite her unfortunate appearance she was said to have married a carpenter from York named Tobias Shipton at the age of twenty four. Sadly, he died a few years later and the couple had no children.
To earn a living she appears to have taken on a role as a cunning woman and made potions and remedies out of herbs and flowers to alleviate health problems for local people. She began making prophecies and her fame spread far and wide and she became known as Mother Shipton.
There were many prophecies attributed to her including events like the Spanish Armada in 1588, English Civil War from 1642–1651, Great Fire of London of 1666 and many other important events. She was said to have prophesied her own death that occurred in 1561 at the age of seventy three. One of her alleged prophecies that did not come true was the end of the world,
Like other prophets her predictions were placed in verses, rhymes and riddles that were difficult to interpret and ambiguous. However, this technique did make them suitable for many kinds of events and situations that arose.
False Prophecies, Fake News
It was many years after her death when the first publications in the form of books and pamphlets appeared in 1641 and later in 1684. It is believed that the writers of these publications were creative in the use of facts and events and many events that happened after her death were made to look like she had predicted them.
It may be that predictions sell and what is novel and unusual can strike a chord with the public who become eager for more information. This increases the chances of writers and publishers making money which increases their creative juices to flow, while inventing new stories to sell to the gullible public. Fake news is not a modern invention!
Richard Head who edited the 1684 publications was believed to have created her life story and the descriptions of her on existing legend and folklore. This had been passed on orally and possibly twisted, embellished and exaggerated along the way. Although this makes it difficult to get to know the real person, or even if there was a real person behind the legends.
Mother Shipton’s Cave
The cave where Ursula was born and later lived is now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, or sometimes Old Mother Shiptons’s Cave. It is situated near the River Nidd at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. Close by is the Petrifying Well that has been visited by paying sightseers since 1630 making it the oldest entrance-charging tourist attraction in England. The water in the well is high in carbonate and sulphate and immersed objects eventually become encrusted in stone.
Mother Shipton’s Legacy
We will probably never know the real truth and full story of Mother Shipton or Ursula Sontheil and very often the truth turns out more interesting than the fiction. In many ways she is the archetypal witch with her strange and lonely ways and her unfortunate physical appearance. All around the British Isles there are cases from history of women such as her who made a meager living from selling potions, telling fortunes or perhaps delivering babies. Sometimes they were known as cunning women or perhaps the local wise-woman. Although they often lived on the edge of society they performed important roles that could not be done by those within. In many cases the different behaviour they displayed might see them as being part of the autistic spectrum or perhaps some psychological disorder. Nevertheless in her life, she seems to have achieved a reasonable degree of success with stories of how she could find lost or stolen objects and predict the future with some success. It seems that after her death her reputation was exaggerated and embellished by others to suit their own purposes and some scholars doubt she ever existed.
The 1st of May is also known as May Day, Beltane or in Wales Calan Mai or Calan Haf. In Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature it is often linked to the beginning of an adventure or the unfolding of significant events. More sinisterly, it is also linked with the abduction of a female by a male suitor, a recurring theme in Welsh mythology and Arthurian literature. Presented here is a brief discussion on the abduction of Creiddylad and the battle by two warring suitors for possession of her, which takes place every May Day until Doomsday, when there must be a final victor.
Gwyn ap Nudd
In Welsh mythology Gwyn ap Nudd was a ruler of Annwn and the Tylwyth Teg and also associated with Glastonbury Tor. His name means “white son of Nudd,” though he is often described as having a blackened face. His father was Ludd, who was also known as Lludd of the Silver Hand and he may have had a sister, or step-sister named Creiddylad, but the relationship, if any, is not clear. He accompanied King Arthur in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen.
Creiddylad briefly appears in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. She has been likened to Persephone, the Greek vegetation goddess associated with spring and fertility who had been abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld. Her mother, Demeter searched for her neglecting her duties and causing the earth to stop growing. She is eventually found and after the intervention of Zeus is compelled repeatedly to spend half the year in Hades and the other on Earth, representing winter and summer respectively.
Creiddylad was considered the most beautiful maiden in the island of Britain. She had two suitors; Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr ap Greidawl. Some scholars regard Creiddylad as the prototype for the legendary Queen Cordeilla of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical, The History of the Kings of Britain. Later William Shakespear’s character Cordelia from his play King Lear was thought to have been inspired by Geoffrey’s version though not everyone accepts this view.
Gwythyr ap Greidawl
Gwythyr ap Greidawl was the son of Greidawl Galldonyd, one of King Arthur’s knights. Gwythyr was also one of Arthur’s knights and a member of his retinue along with Gwyn in the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen.
The Abduction and Conflict
Creiddylad and Gwyther were betrothed but before they were married Gwyn ap Nudd forcefully abducted her. Gwythyr raised an army to confront Gwyn and win back his betrothed. In the ensuing battle Gwyn is victorious taking a number of important prisoners. These included Dyfnarth his son, Glinneu son of Taran, Gwrgwst Ledlwm, Graid son of Eri, Pen son Nethog, Nwython and his son Cyledyr. In an act of sheer cruelty the Gwyn made Cyledyr eat the heart of his father which drove him mad. From then on the epitaph Wyllt meaning madness was added after his name with him becoming Cyledyr Wyllt.
On hearing of the hostilities, King Arthur intervened setting the prisoners free and making a peace agreement between the two. This stipulated that Gwyn and Gwythyr would fight for Creiddylad every year on the 1st of May until Doomsday. Whoever won the fight on Doomsday would win Creiddylad for his bride. Through all this time she would remain unmarried living with her father until the contest had been settled.
Creiddylad as a Goddess
There is an idea that Creiddylad may represent a fertility goddess and the battle between the two rivals is to choose the strongest and most virile to be her husband to ensure the fertility of the earth.Caitlin Mathews in her book, King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land – The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion, explains how certain female characters in the Mabinogion may be seen as representing a Goddess of Sovereignty. The possession of such a female by a male gives the possessor sovereignty over the land. Some times she is called the Flower Bride and considered the spirit of new growth, renewal and fertility.
With both ideas possession is one thing and keeping her is another. In both roles her task is to ensure the fertility of the land. Therefore, he who would be king must be the strongest and most virile. He must also be the steward of the land taking care of it and its inhabitants in return for sovereignty over it. There is an idea that the well being of the land is intimately tied up with the well being of the king. Should the king weaken and fail so will the land. There will never be a shortage of suitors for the goddess or Flower Bride and inevitably she must choose the strongest and the most potent for her consort to ensure the fertility, renewal and well being of the land she bestows. This may look immoral to a patriarchal society but it is her sacred duty to protect and ensure the continuance of life on the land and her morality cannot be judged in such terms.
Birth, Death and Renewal
These abduction stories are also often linked to birth, death and renewal of life and crops and nature. They may also be connected with the battle of light and dark and the cyclical changing of the seasons but not all scholars accept these ideas. In Arthurian literature there are several similar examples involving the abductions of Queen Guinevere and other ritualistic duels between two warring males that may also be seen in this light.
These words by Thomas Babbington Macaulay succinctly sum up the deadly duel of life and death to decide the Rex Nemorensis, the legendary High Priest of Diana Nemorensis of the Sacred Grove of Lake Nemi. The Rex Nemorensis was a shadowy figure in ancient Greek and Roman myth and legend. Most versions of his story agree that he earned his title and role by winning a fight to the death to become the “ghastly priest” of the above verse. Here we shall briefly discuss the mythical goddess of the Sacred Grove, Diana Nemorensis, followed by a look at her high priest and his deadly duel, followed by a look at the possible origins of the cult. Finally, there will be a brief discussion centered on “The Golden Bough,” a work by Sir James George Frazer inspired by the legendary Rex Nemorensis.
Diana Nemorensis was an important goddess in ancient times whose sanctuary and temple were situated on the northern shore of Lake Nemi. The lake has been referred to as “speculum Dianae” which means “Diana’s Mirror”. The important Roman festival of Nemoralia was held on the site.
There were also other lesser deities associated with her and the Sacred Grove. These were Egeria, who was the spirit of a nearby stream who also shared with Diana the protection of childbirth. The other was Virbius, the Roman counterpart of the Greek Hippolytus. A third goddess possibly worshiped at the Sacred Grove was Vesta. She was believed to have eventually become conflated with the goddess Artemis.
The Rex Nemorensis
According to legend, the cult of Diana Nemorensis was recognized as one of the most ruthless, brutal and mysterious cults of ancient Rome. The high priest who was said to have presided over her rituals was known as the ‘King of the Sacred Grove’ or the ‘King of the Wood,’ or more famously the ‘Rex Nemorensis.’ According to some traditions the cult was populated by fugitives or runaway slaves who had dedicated themselves to the worship of Diana. However, there is little evidence to support this, though the role of the Rex is linked to such outsiders.
Tradition says growing inside the grove was a huge oak tree. It was strictly forbidden for anyone to break a branch off this special tree and it was guarded to prevent this. The only exception to this rule were runaway slaves or fugitives. If one succeeded they were rewarded with the right to challenge the incumbent high-priest to a duel to the death. If the incumbent killed his challenger he remained in his post and lived. If his challenger killed the incumbent he became “the ghastly priest who slew the slayer” – the new Rex Nemorensis – High Priest of Diana, King of the Grove, King of the Wood and Guardian of the Sacred Grove, but it came with a high price.
Having fought for and won the post he had to remain on his guard for the rest of his life. Should a runaway slave, or fugitive, make it to the oak and break a branch off then that slave then earned the right to fight him for his titles and his life as he had done his predecessor. The victor would become the Rex Nemorensis, until he too was defeated, with his conqueror taking his place. There could only ever be only one Rex Nemorensis.
This murderous cycle ensured that that incumbent high-priest was always kept at the pinnacle of his powers. As the Rex Nemorensis he was the embodiment of fertility of nature and the woods. As such he could not succumb to either illness or old age. Death had to be violent because the spilling of blood on the ground was seen as necessary to bring fertility to the earth. Despite the certainty of meeting a violent death it did at least offer sanctuary, albeit temporarily, to any such fugitive.
The Cult of Diana Nemorensis
The cult of Diana Nemorensis was very ancient and its beginnings are shrouded in myth and legend. Many scholars think that it had its roots in ancient Greece. There are two Greek traditions of how the cult originated. One traces its origins through the story of Orestes and Iphegenia, while the other is based on the tradition of Hippolytus.
Orestes and Iphegenia
The first account tells how Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, a king of Mycenae and his wife Clytemnestra, brought the cult of Diana Nemoresis to Italy. On discovering his mother’s affair with Aeegistus, Orestes murders him to avenge his father who is on his way to fight the Trojans. Orestes was told by the god Apollo to go to Tauris to purify himself as an act of atonement. In Tauris, Artemis was a revered goddess and it was the custom for any foreigners landing upon the shores to be brought to her temple to be ritually sacrificed before her effigy by the high priestess.
On his arrival Orestes was taken before the High Priestess of Artemis to be prepared for sacrifice. Fortunately for him she was his long lost sister who he believed had been sacrificed by their father. She had been saved from this fate by the goddess Artemis and transported to Tauris where she was set in place as the high priestess of her cult. Recognizing Orestes, Iphegenia could not kill her brother and by deceiving Thoas, the King of Tauris, they both escaped by ship taking with them the effigy of Artemis. They sailed around the coastline finding their way to the south of Italy, finally making their way to Nemi and settling there.
With the theft of the effigy of Artemis and their escape from Tauris, Orestes and Iphegenia had placed themselves outside of society and the laws as they stood and were effectively fugitives. Once they became established at Lake Nemi, the cult grew in popularity and strength. Unlucky foreigners who landed on the shores were brought inland to Nemi for sacrifice. Eventually the tradition evolved so that runaway slaves and fugitives could claim the right to fight the incumbent high priest and claim his position.
The Story of Hippolytus
The second version of the origin of the Rex Nemorensis tells how Hyppolytus, the son of Theseus, became the first Rex Nemorensis. His step-mother was Phaedra who made sexual advances towards him which he rejected. To gain revenge she accused him of raping her. He was cursed and banished by his outraged father and was dragged to death by his chariot’s horses after they had been frightened by a sea monster sent by Poseidon. Ascelapius, the god of medicine, with help from the goddess Artemis returned him to life as an old man named Virbio (Vir bis is Latin for man for the second time) to prevent him being recognized. He was taken to Lake Nemi where he was installed as high priest of the cult of Diana, becoming known as Virbius. Pausanius in his “Description of Greece,” says,
“The Aricians tell a tale … that when Hippolytus (the son of Theseus) was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asclepius raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father; rejecting his prayers, he went to the Aricians in Italy. There he became king and devoted a precinct to Artemis, where down to my time the prize for the victor in single combat was the priesthood of the goddess. The contest was open to no freeman, but only to slaves who had run away from their masters.” (2)
The Golden Bough
The legend was the inspiration for The Golden Bough, a comparative work of religion and mythology by Sir James George Frazer first published in 1890. Although the book was influential in its time many of the ideas he proposed are not accepted by many modern scholars. He appears to have expected this saying,
“Books like mine, merely speculation, will be superseded sooner or later (the sooner the better for the sake of truth) by better induction based on fuller knowledge.” (3)
Maybe he saw his role as starting the conversation for others to continue. Many of his contemporaries appeared rather disappointed with his success and popularity though his ideas were very controversial. Fraser appeared to favor Virbius as the origin of the legend of the Rex Nemorensis,
“In his character of the founder of the sacred grove and first king of Nemi, Virbius is clearly the mythical predecessor or archetype of the line of priests who served Diana under the title of Kings of the Wood, and who came, like him, one after the other, to a violent end. It is natural, therefore, to conjecture that they stood to the goddess of the grove in the same relation in which Virbius stood to her; in short, that the mortal King of the Wood had for his queen the woodland Diana herself.” (4)
Whether the legendary Rex Nemorensis was a real historical figure is difficult to say and many think not. Nevertheless, he still cuts a dramatic figure lurking in the darkness of the sacred groves at the back of our minds.
This article was first published on 23rd January 2020 titled Top Five Mythical Birds in Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans on #FolkloreThursday.com
Five Fabled Birds
The alkonost, the sirin, the caladrius, the roc and the phoenix are all five mythical birds from legend and folklore. Each were attributed their own magical qualities and roles by various human societies in history and presented here is a brief description of these five fabled creatures.
In Russian legends, the alkonost was a creature with the head of a woman and the body of a bird. It could sing the most enchanting melodies. Those who heard its song let go of everything they had ever known, desiring nothing more as long as they lived.
Before Christian influence, the alkonost was believed to live on the magical island of Buyan. Similar to a bird of paradise in appearance, it was considered to be a wind spirit, able to summon up storms. The alkonost lays her eggs on the gently sloping seashore and moves them into the sea to hatch. Their hatching causes the sea to become rough while a thunderstorm manifests and they are considered to be wind spirits.In Christian times, the home of the alkonost became the Garden of Eden, while she became God’s messenger to the saints, singing them wonderful songs to inspire and encourage them.