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In Celtic mythology, there is a mysterious group of supernatural beings, the aes sídhe, who belong to a realm which is beyond human understanding (yet which lies athwart the mortal world). The greatest among these aes sidhe were gods and goddesses—divine incarnations of nature, time, or other abstract concepts. Other members of the fairy host were thought of as elves, goblins, sprites, or imps (for example, the leprechauns–the disconcerting little tricksters of fairydom). Most ominously, Celtic mythology was filled with the restless dead…beings whose failures and miseries in life kept them connected to this plain of existence. These dark spirits comprised the sluagh sidhe—the airborne horde of cursed, evil, or restless dead.
The sluagh sidhe (also known simply as the sluagh) were beings who were cursed to never know the afterlife. Neither heaven nor hell wanted them. Like Jack O’Lantern they were condemned to roam the gray world. Unlike Jack O’Lantern, however, the sluagh were reckoned to be a dangerous and horrifying force. They appeared en masse in the darkest nights and filled the air like terrible rushing starlings or living mist. One of the most horrible aspects of the sluagh was the extent to which their horde existence erased all individual personality (like eusocial insects—but evil and spooky).
Before the advent of Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, and the northlands, the sluagh were thought of as a horrible, otherworldly aspect of the wild hunt. When the dark gods came forth to course the world with hell hounds, the sluagh were the evil demons and fallen fairies which flew along beside the grim host. After Christian missionaries began to arrive, the idea of losing one’s soul forever became worse than the idea of merely being torn apart by dark monsters—and the sluagh was reimagined as a force which hunted and devoured spirits.
The sluagh were imagined to fly from the west. They were particularly dangerous to people alone in wastelands at night (which sounds dangerous anyway) and to people on the threshold of death [ed.--that sounds dangerous too]. Some of the Irish death taboos against western windows and western rooms are thought to be related to fear of this demonic horde. Although the sluagh could apparently be dangerous to healthy people in good spirits, they seem to have been most dangerous to the depressed, the anxious, and the sick. From my modern vantage in a warm well-lit (northerly-facing) room, the idea of the sluagh seems to be an apt metaphor for depression, despair, and fear. Hopefully they will stay far from all of us!
Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) are medium sized Arctic Geese which spend their summers on the Arctic islands of the North Atlantic (in places such as the Northern coast of Greenland or the Svalbard archipelago). In winter, these places become utterly uninhabitable (actually they strike me as uninhabitable in summer as well, but I am a tropical hominid). The geese fly south to spend winter in the soft warm lands of Scandinavia, northern Europe, Scotland, and Ireland.
To the medieval inhabitants of these regions, barnacle geese were a mystery. They arrived fat and numerous in the coldest time of year, in the northernmost parts of Christendom. The geese breed in their summer ranges, so nobody other than Sami and Inuit had ever seen them nesting. They just showed up with more geese every winter.
Unfortunately the natural historians of the day tended to be of the “sit in a library drinking wine and making things up’ school of thought. Instead of renting an ice-breaker and following the barnacle geese to Svalbard, the scholars of the day just assumed the geese spontaneously generated from driftwood.
To quote the not-very-accurate twelfth century Welsh chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis (a Welsh-Norman archdeacon who wrote the Ferrebeekeeper of his age):
Nature produces [Bernacae] against Nature in the most extraordinary way. They are like marsh geese but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells, and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth.
It seems that poor Giraldus was taken in by observing barnacles on driftwood. He did not trouble to ascertain that the tenacious crustaceans never actually turned into geese. Interestingly/stupidly, the English name for barnacles is derived from the popular barnacle goose. The myth of the barnacle goose’s bizarre underwater larval parthenogenesis was of tremendous interest to medieval churchmen since it meant that the birds were not a prohibited food on various fast days. Irish and Scottish clergymen would not eat meat on Lent by enjoying sumptuous goose dinners! Pope Innocent III however was not swayed by the misinformation about the birth of barnacle geese and in the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215 AD) he explicitly forbade the consumption of barnacle geese on fast days.
The actual egg-laying and birth of barnacle geese is nearly as harrowing as the medieval legend. In order to avoid the arctic foxes and polar bears of the northern islands, barnacle geese nest on jagged cliffs. When the goslings hatch they do not have wings, but they must jump down from these high cliffs onto sharpened rocks in order to reach the grasslands and wetlands where they can feed. Many of the fuzzy little goslings suffer, um, mishaps during this process (which sounds like the high point of the year for the arctic fox). This bloody rite of passage has however benefited the barnacle geese in the modern world. The sharp cliffs of remote Arctic islands are so unappealing that humans have not gone there to build ugly subdivisions or plant soybeans. In our world of extinctions and endangered animals, barnacle geese are doing just fine and are not even remotely threatened.
The first animal to be domesticated was the wolf (modern humans call domesticated wolves “dogs”). This happened thousands (or tens of thousands) of years before any other plants or animals were domesticated. In fact some social scientists have speculated that the dogs actually domesticated humans. Whatever the case, our dual partnership changed both species immensely. It was the first and most important of many changes which swept humanity away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into the agricultural world.
Today’s post isn’t really about the actual prehistory behind the agricultural revolution though. Instead we are looking at an ancient Chinese myth about how humans changed from hunters into farmers. Appropriately, even in the myth it was dogs who brought about the change. There are two versions of the story. In the version told by the Miao people of southern China, the dog once had nine tails. Seeing the famine which regularly afflicted people (because of seasonal hunting fluctuations) a loyal dog ran into heaven to solve the problem. The celestial guardians shot off eight of the dog’s tails, but the brave mutt managed to roll in the granaries of heaven and return with precious rice and wheat seeds caught in his fur. Ever since, in memory of their heroism, dogs have one bushy tail (like a ripe head of wheat) and they are fed first when people are done eating.
A second version of the tale is less heroic, but also revolves around actual canine behavior. In the golden age, after Nüwa created humans, grain was so plentiful that people wasted it shamefully and squandered the bounty of the Earth. In anger, the Jade Emperor came down to Earth to repossess all grains and crops. After the chief heavenly god had gathered all of the world’s cereals, the dog ran up to him and clung piteously to his leg whining and begging. The creature’s crying moved the god to leave a few grains of each plant stuck to the animal’s fur. These grains became the basis of all subsequent agriculture.
Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.
Chinese mythology features numerous animal-spirits with magical powers. One of the most bizarre is a shen—a giant clam/mollusk monster capable of creating illusory landscapes and cities. Classical Chinese texts use the word “shen” to describe large bivalve mollusks such as oysters, clams, or mussels; and, indeed, such shells seem to have had an (unknown) magical usage in funerals and sacrifices. Later texts emphasized the Shen as a mythical giant oyster/clam which was the source of huge magical pearls. By the middle ages the shen had evolved into its current manifestation—an immense clam-like spirit creature which could blow bubbles from its tubes which gave the illusion of towering cities and fantastical fairylands.
I wish I could write more about the shen—where it came from, what it wants, and so forth, but there isn’t much information on the beast. Some sources seem to suggest that it is affiliated with dragons (the protean universal mythological being of Chinese culture) or with nāgas—magical serpent people. When gifted with magical powers of illusion these beings are imagined to hide themselves as big green clams (from which base they weave fairy-like illusions for unknown purposes). Slightly more practical individuals have explained the illusory cities supposedly produced by the shen as the Fata Morgana, an optic illusion caused by thermal inversion which distorts ships, islands, and detritus at the edge of the offing into weird grotesque towers and blobs. If anybody knows anything else about the mysterious shen I would love to hear it!
This blog has described cherry blossoms as one of the crowning beauties of spring, but there is a darker and more haunting beauty of the season which might possess equal floral splendor. Bluebells are woodland flowers which need very little light. They create dense colonies under full canopy forests where few other plants can grow. In May, they bloom simultaneously in a shimmering ocean of lavender blue. If cherry trees are written in a major key of pink and white, bluebells are in a minor key of silver and ultramarine shadows. At a distance they look like a pool of some exotic liquid, but this illusion vanishes up close (an effect which tends to draw the viewer toward a goal he never reaches). Individual flowers are actually also quite attractive looking like the related hyacinths, but with each blossom hanging like, well, like a pretty little lavender bell.
Carpets of bluebells are a particularly British phenomenon. The flowers colonized Britain late in the ice age, before the seas rose; the flowers thereby avoided competition with many other European woodland plants which never naturally reached the Sceptred Isle.
Because of their otherworldly loveliness, and the way they made familiar woods seem completely alien, bluebells have an ancient and somewhat sinister place in folklore. Bluebell woods were regarded as portals to fairyland where unwise aesthetes could be trapped between worlds—or children could be stolen outright.
Bluebells feature in Rip Van Winkle style tales of people who wander into the flowers grasping at absolute beauty only to emerge and discover the world has changed by hundreds of years and everyone they knew and loved was dead. Another tale told about the bluebells is that anyone who hears them ring will soon die—although this story might have a hint of truth since the flowers are poisonous. If you find yourself disoriented in the midst of a bluebell woods with your ears ringing you might be in trouble (although scientists are poring over the chemically active compounds within bluebells to see if they have potential medical applications).
Bluebells also produce a sticky sap which was used for fletching arrows and binding books in ages past when arrows and books were everyday items. The bulbs themselves were also ground into a starchy powder used for…get ready for it…starching Elizabethan lace ruffs.
Beyond providing a dark portal to supernatural realms and stiffening ill-thought out fashion accessories, bluebells are a sign of ancient forests. Since they outcompete other woodland plants when beneath dense shade, a large vibrant colony of bluebells indicates that the forest has stood for a long time. Magnificent bluebell displays are rare in the new world unless you find a place which had dedicated and visionary gardeners a lifetime ago.
The genus Lynx consists of four furtive species of medium-sized wildcats which inhabit giant swaths of the northern hemisphere. The cats are solitary hunters which prey on a wide range of animals including lagomorphs (rabbits and pikas), rodents, foxes, sheep, goats, various species of deer and chamois, as well as gamebirds such as grouses, turkeys, ptarmigans, and waterfowl. This list is hardly comprehensive–all four species of lynx are opportunistic predators which will catch and eat all sorts of insects, reptiles, fish, and amphibians.
Lynxes share common features such as bobbed tails, large paws, tufted ears, buff spotted coats, ruffs under the neck, and long whiskers. All four species also utilize a common reproductive strategy. Lynxes and bobcats mate in winter and the female then raises her litter of two to four kittens over the course of a second winter. After one winter with their mother, the young adults move out on their own. Lynxes like to sleep in sheltered dens provided by caves, deadfalls, or hollow logs. They are strongly territorial (although males maintain larger territories which overlap each other and may contain the territories of many females).
Although the classification of the family Felidae is continuously being revised, the current members of the Lynx genus are as follow:
The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is the largest lynx, which ranges from Europe, across all of Siberia to China. Male Eurasian Lynxes weigh from18 to 30 kg (40 to 66 lb) and can stand up to 70 cm (28 in) at the shoulder. Like all lynxes, the Eurasian lynx is a stalking predator which silently shadows its prey before pouncing for the kill.
The Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) a specialist of the arctic forests of Canada which preys largely on snowfoot hares. The Canadian lynx has huge paws which spread its weight out over the snow in the manner of snowshoes. In winter the Canadian lynx grows a thick multilayered coat.
The bobcat (Lynx rufus) is an adaptable predator which ranges from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Southern Canada deep into Mexico’s deserts. An adaptable generalist, the bobcat can live in any type of forest, as well as in deserts, swamps, and mountains. The successful creatures even live in agricultural or developed lands.
In contrast to the bobcat, the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is the world’s most endangered cat species. At present there may be fewer than a hundred left in the wild. Once overhunted, the Iberian lynx now suffers from habitat loss (thanks to overdevelopment) and attendant traffic fatalities. In Spain and Portugal rabbit populations (the Iberian lynx’s preferred prey) have crashed because of myxomatosis, a viral disease from the Americas which was introduced to Europe by a short-sighted French bacteriologist. Finally, the once diverse forests of Iberia were replaced with agricultural monoculture which exacerbated the ecosystem destruction.
If the Iberian lynx does indeed go extinct, it will be the first cat to do so since Smilodon. Fortunately the other 3 lynxes are all relatively secure in numbers (although habitat destruction sometimes drives them out of specific areas–particularly in Western Europe).
Superb stealthiness, nocturnal habits, and highly effective camouflage render the lynxes nearly invisible to humans (although people do sometimes hear their unearthly haunting yowls at night). Because of this elusiveness (combined with their keen eyesight and hearing) lynxes have acquired a somewhat otherworldly reputation in folklore and myth. In ancient legends and stories, bobcats and lynxes were said to hold secret wisdom hidden from the comprehension of men or other creatures. They were animals of augury and foresight which occasionally appeared to sorcerers, oracles, and shamans with occult knowledge. According to “Animal Speak” by Ted Andrews, “The Greeks believed the lynx could see through solid objects. In fact it is named for Lynceus, a mythological character who could also do this.” During the middle ages and the Renaissance, the lynx’s ability to see without being seen was linked with the omniscient vision of Christ.
The long association of lynxes with sharp-sightedness lingered into the early modern world where the lynx’s piercing vision became a metaphor for scholarly insight and scientific breakthrough. The world’s first Academy of Science (well, the first one which wasn’t disbanded by the Inquisition) took its name from the lynx: The Accademia dei Lincei, (“Academy of the Lynx-Eyed”, or Lincean Academy), was an Italian science academy founded in 1603 by Federico Cesi, an aristocrat from Umbria. Cesi was passionate about natural science (particularly botany) and he gathered a group of polymaths and geniuses together to observe the natural world and explain it by means of experiments and the inductive method. The society was one of the first to use lenses for scientific purposes and they produced an important collection of micrographs—drawings created with the newly invented microscope. Their most famous member, Galileo Galilei was famous the discoveries he made with a telescope—discoveries which altered the way humankind perceived the universe. Even as the Church turned the zealous eye of the Inquisition upon Galileo, the society supported him and made sure his books were published and his ideas were disseminated (thanks largely to Cesi’s aristocratic connections and fortune). In fact, after joining the society, Galileo always signed his name as Galileo Galilei Linceo.
In Norse folklore the universe was envisioned as Yggdrasil an immense tree with roots and branches winding through many different worlds and realms. An immense serpent, Níðhöggr, forever gnawed at the roots of the tree thus threatening to bring the entire universe down– however Níðhöggr was not the only gigantic serpent in the Norse pantheon.
Between the chthonic roots of the tree and its lofty branches (at ground level, as it were) lay the world of humankind, called Midgard. Midgard was protected by the gods and, to a lesser extent, by humankind, from the ice giants who were always attacking and from Loki, the strange trickster god, who was forever plotting. Loki knew the ice giantess, Angrboða, and together the pair had three children. One was Hel, who went down to icy Niflheim to rule over the damned and lost (our word “Hell” comes from her name and her realm). Another was Fenris Wolf, the all-devouring giant wolf who was chained by magic fetters to an immense stone thrust deep into the roots of Yggrasil. The last of the three children of Loki and Angrboða was Jörmungandr, a colossal sea serpent also known as the Midgard Serpent. When Odin perceived how quickly the serpent was growing, he cast it into ocean which the Norse believed ringed the whole world. There the serpent grew to colossal size, eventually surrounding the entire world and swallowing its tail. In some ways the monster became synonymous with the world-girding ocean.
Jörmungandr is ever opposed by the god Thor. Twice the two met in the Norse mythical canon. The first time, Thor was fooled into thinking the world-sized ocean monster was a large indolent housecat (it should be noted that Thor was not only drinking heavily but also being magically fooled by a trickster king of the Jötnar). Despite using all his divine strength, Thor was unable to lift the cat off the floor and only managed to heft one paw up for a moment. The seemingly trivial feat of strength was revealed as more impressive when the nature true of the cat was manifested (the entire story is a very amusing one). Thor again encountered the serpent when he was fishing for monsters with the giant Hymir. Thor had struck the head off the great ox belonging to the giant in order to catch two whales. Against Hymir’s protests, the two proceeded farther out to sea, towards the edge of the world. Thor hooked the Midgard serpent and dragged the creature’s head to the surface. The monster’s fanged mouth was dripping with poison and blood and it was moving towards the boat to finish the two off. Before Thor could lift his hammer to kill the serpent (or the serpent could devour the two fishermen), Hymir cut the line and the creature escaped.
Thor is slated to encounter the monster one last time at Ragnarök. When the last battle comes, the serpent will swim towards land poisoning everything it touches and causing huge tidal waves. This will be the signal for Naglfar to sail, bringing the hordes of walking dead back to the world of the living. Thor will finally fight the serpent and, after a great battle, the thunder god will triumphantly kill the mighty creature. Thor will then walk nine steps before dying from his poisoned wounds as the mortally wounded Fenris Wolf swallows the sun and the world comes to an end.
It has been a while since I wrote a post concerning mascots. That’s because…well, frankly there is something a bit grotesque and disorienting about the entire topic. The bilious cartoony figures speak of the snake oil which lubricates our consumer culture. And most of the characters are teetering right at the edge of nineteenth-century jingoism and ethnic stereotypes. If Aunt Jemima, Chief Wahoo, Uncle Ben, the Gordon Fisherman, and Ole’ Miss don’t make you a bit anxious, then they aren’t doing their jobs.
All of which is why this subject is entirely perfect for Saint Patrick’s Day! This holiday has long since dismissed any semblance of reasoned discourse. The downtown of every major city in the United States fills up before noon with intoxicated teens garbed crown-to-toe in Kelly green and red-faced, red-haired firemen wielding bagpipes! So bring on the leprechaun mascots.
Traditionally leprechauns were members of the aes sídhe, supernatural beings who dwell in a mythical land beyond human kin. This unseen realm may be across the western sea, or in an invisible world parallel to ours, or in an underground kingdom accessible only through the pre-Christian burial mounds and barrows lying throughout Scotland, Ireland, and the ancient places of Western Europe. The aes sídhe tended to be impossible beautiful and strange in such a way that they could only be apprehended by dying people, insane people, or William Butler Yeats. Leprechauns were the money-grubbing cobblers and grabby tricksters among the lofty fairy folk. The first mention of leprechauns is found in a medieval epic: the hero recovers consciousness from a dreadful wound only to discover that he is being dragged into the sea by leprechauns. Yeats writes of the leprechaun “Many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time, has he now for his own.” In folklore Leprechauns originally wore red coats.
In America today all of this has been somewhat bowdlerized: leprechauns are small bellicose Irishman garbed completely in green. They ride on rainbows, possess pots of gold, and never quite grant wishes. Anyone who says otherwise is liable to get punched in the mouth by an electrician from Jersey City.
Lucky the leprechaun, the spokesbeing for Lucky Charms cereal since 1964, is probably the most famous of these contemporary leprechauns. His ancient bog sorcery has been condensed into the trademark phrase “magically delicious” and six talisman-like marshmallow shapes calculated to best please the discerning six-year old palate.
Sports teams also like leprechauns. The most famous sports-leprechauns are the pugnacious fighting Irish leprechaun of Notre Dame and the slippery dandy leprechaun of the Boston Celtics.
However an alarming range of other leprechaun mascots exist. They have different waistcoats from various historical eras, sundry prankish expressions, and wear a rainbow of different greens but they are all instantly recognizable.
I don’t know…I was going to be more cynical, but just look at them up there, drinking and hoarding and dancing away. There is something appealing about the wee folk. Shameless stereotype or not, t’is all in good fun. There’s a bit of a March hare in all of, longing to run wild after the long winter. If our culture chooses to exemplify this spring atavism through images of a little irrepressible green man, then so be it. Sláinte, dear readers! Have a happy Saint Patrick’s Day, a merry March, and a glorious spring.
The Australian Aboriginal people believe there is a world or era which exists beyond this world, the Dreamtime. In that timeless transcendent realm, totemic forces and mighty spirit beings perpetually shape the earth. One of the most important of these spirits was the great rainbow serpent, an immense magical snake which lives simultaneously in the watercourses, deep billabongs, and underground springs of Australia, in the rain, and, of course, in the eternal Dreamtime.
According to myth, the rainbow serpent created the rivers and mountains of Australia in the course of his or her travels. Serpent stories vary from tribe to tribe. Different groups even call the spirit serpent by various names, but the concept is pan-Australian. Aboriginal tribes which live in the monsoon regions of Australia tell stories about the serpent’s interaction with the sun and the wind to bring the seasonal rains. Tribes from the deep desert tell about its underground travels through the underworld between the permanent waterholes.
The serpent can appear in the sky as a rainbow, however its true nature is as fickle as ever-changing water. To some people, the serpent brings healing, knowledge, and fertility while he gulps down others, drowns them, or visits sickness upon them. The voice of the rainbow serpent is the sound of a didgeridoo. George Chaloupka, an expert on folklore and rock art describes the Rainbow Serpent as follows:
|“The belief in the Rainbow Snake, a personification of fertility, increase (richness in propoagation of plants and animals) and rain, is common throughout Australia. It is a creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits to all the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones, which turn into stone, thus documenting such events. Rainbow snakes can also enter a man and endow him with magical powers, or leave ‘little rainbows’, their progeny, within his body which will make him ail and die. As the regenerative and reproductive power in nature and human beings, it is the main character in the region’s major rituals.”|
The first humans whose titanic existence marked the dreamtime, who brought flora to the world were said to have been swallowed up by the rainbow serpent. Although timeless and nigh omnipotent, the rainbow serpent did come from somewhere. Aborigines believe that it was an offspring of the vast cosmological serpent, visible as the dark streak in the Milky Way.