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The Fisherman and His Wife

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived together in a filthy shack near the sea. Every day the fisherman went out fishing, and he fished, and he fished. Once he was sitting there fishing and looking into the clear water, and he sat, and he sat. Then his hook went to the bottom, deep down, and when he pulled it out, he had caught a large flounder.

Then the flounder said to him, “Listen, fisherman, I beg you to let me live. I am not an ordinary flounder, but an enchanted prince. How will it help you to kill me? I would not taste good to you. Put me back into the water, and let me swim.”

“Well,” said the man, “there’s no need to say more. I can certainly let a fish swim away who knows how to talk.”

With that he put it back into the clear water, and the flounder disappeared to the bottom, leaving a long trail of blood behind him.

Then the fisherman got up and went home to his wife in the filthy shack.

“Husband,” said the woman, “didn’t you catch anything today?”

“No,” said the man. “I caught a flounder, but he told me that he was an enchanted prince, so I let him swim away.”

“Didn’t you ask for anything first?” said the woman.

“No,” said the man. “What should I have asked for?”

“Oh,” said the woman. “It is terrible living in this shack. It stinks and is filthy. You should have asked for a little cottage for us. Go back and call him. Tell him that we want to have a little cottage. He will surely give it to us.”

“Oh,” said the man. “Why should I go back there?”

“Look,” said the woman, “you did catch him, and then you let him swim away. He will surely do this for us. Go right now.”

The man did not want to go, but neither did he want to oppose his wife, so he went back to the sea.

When he arrived there it was no longer clear, but yellow and green. He stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

The flounder swam up and said, “What does she want then?”

“Oh,” said the man, “I did catch you, and now my wife says that I really should have asked for something. She doesn’t want to live in a filthy shack any longer. She would like to have a cottage.”

“Go home,” said the flounder. “She already has it.”

The man went home, and his wife was standing in the door of a cottage, and she said to him, “Come in. See, now isn’t this much better?”

There was a little front yard, and a beautiful little parlor, and a bedroom where their bed was standing, and a kitchen, and a dining room. Everything was beautifully furnished and supplied with tin and brass utensils, just as it should be. And outside there was a little yard with chickens and ducks and a garden with vegetables and fruit.

“Look,” said the woman. “Isn’t this nice?”

“Yes,” said the man. “This is quite enough. We can live here very well.”

“We will think about that,” said the woman.

Then they ate something and went to bed.

Everything went well for a week or two, and then the woman said, “Listen, husband. This cottage is too small. The yard and the garden are too little. The flounder could have given us a larger house. I would like to live in a large stone palace. Go back to the flounder and tell him to give us a palace.”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, “the cottage is good enough. Why would we want to live in a palace?”

“I know why,” said the woman. “Now you just go. The flounder can do that.”

“Now, wife, the flounder has just given us the cottage. I don’t want to go back so soon. It may make the flounder angry.”

“Just go,” said the woman. “He can do it, and he won’t mind doing it. Just go.”

The man’s heart was heavy, and he did not want to go. He said to himself, “This is not right,” but he went anyway.

When he arrived at the sea the water was purple and dark blue and gray and dense, and no longer green and yellow. He stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Oh,” said the man sadly, “my wife wants to live in a stone palace.”

“Go home. She’s already standing before the door,” said the flounder.

Then the man went his way, thinking he was going home, but when he arrived, standing there was a large stone palace. His wife was standing on the stairway, about to enter.

Taking him by the hand, she said, “Come inside.”

He went inside with her. Inside the palace there was a large front hallway with a marble floor. Numerous servants opened up the large doors for them. The walls were all white and covered with beautiful tapestry. In the rooms there were chairs and tables of pure gold. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The rooms and chambers all had carpets. Food and the very best wine overloaded the tables until they almost collapsed. Outside the house there was a large courtyard with the very best carriages and stalls for horses and cows. Furthermore there was a magnificent garden with the most beautiful flowers and fine fruit trees and a pleasure forest a good half mile long, with elk and deer and hares and everything that anyone could possibly want.

“Now,” said the woman, “isn’t this nice?”

“Oh, yes” said the man. “This is quite enough. We can live in this beautiful palace and be satisfied.”

“We’ll think about it,” said the woman. “Let’s sleep on it.” And with that they went to bed.

The next morning the woman woke up first. It was just daylight, and from her bed she could see the magnificent landscape before her. Her husband was just starting to stir when she poked him in the side with her elbow and said, “Husband, get up and look out the window. Look, couldn’t we be king over all this land?”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, “why would we want to be king? I don’t want to be king.”

“Well,” said the woman, “even if you don’t want to be king, I want to be king.”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, “why do you want to be king? I don’t want to tell him that.”

“Why not?” said the woman, “Go there immediately. I must be king.”

So the man, saddened because his wife wanted to be king, went back.

“This is not right, not right at all,” thought the man. He did not want to go, but he went anyway.

When he arrived at the sea it was dark gray, and the water heaved up from below and had a foul smell. He stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then,” said the flounder.

“Oh,” said the man, “she wants to be king.”

“Go home. She is already king,” said the flounder.

Then the man went home, and when he arrived there, the palace had become much larger, with a tall tower and magnificent decorations. Sentries stood outside the door, and there were so many soldiers, and drums, and trumpets. When he went inside everything was of pure marble and gold with velvet covers and large golden tassels. Then the doors to the great hall opened up, and there was the entire court. His wife was sitting on a high throne of gold and diamonds. She was wearing a large golden crown, and in her hand was a scepter of pure gold and precious stones. On either side of her there stood a line of maids-in-waiting, each one a head shorter than the other.

“Oh, wife, are you now king?”

“Yes,” she said, “now I am king.”

He stood and looked at her, and after thus looking at her for a while he said, “Wife, it is very nice that you are king. Now we don’t have to wish for anything else.”

“No, husband,” she said, becoming restless. “Time is on my hands. I cannot stand it any longer. Go to the flounder. I am king, but now I must become emperor.”

“Oh, wife” said the man, “Why do you want to become emperor?”

“Husband,” she said, “go to the flounder. I want to be emperor.”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, “he cannot make you emperor. I cannot tell the flounder to do that. There is only one emperor in the realm. The flounder cannot make you emperor. He cannot do that.”

“What!” said the woman. “I am king, and you are my husband. Are you going? Go there immediately. If he can make me king then he can make me emperor. I want to be and have to be emperor. Go there immediately.”

So he had to go. As he went on his way the frightened man thought to himself, “This is not going to end well. To ask to be emperor is shameful. The flounder is going to get tired of this.”

With that he arrived at the sea. The water was all black and dense and boiling up from within. A strong wind blew over him that curdled the water. He stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Oh, flounder,” he said, “my wife wants to become emperor.”

“Go home,” said the flounder. “She is already emperor.”

Then the man went home, and when he arrived there, the entire palace was made of polished marble with alabaster statues and golden decoration. Soldiers were marching outside the gate, blowing trumpets and beating tympani and drums. Inside the house, barons and counts and dukes were walking around like servants. They opened the doors for him, which were made of pure gold. He went inside where his wife was sitting on a throne made of one piece of gold a good two miles high, and she was wearing a large golden crown that was three yards high, all set with diamonds and carbuncles. In the one hand she had a scepter, and in the other the imperial orb. Bodyguards were standing in two rows at her sides: each one smaller than the other, beginning with the largest giant and ending with the littlest dwarf, who was no larger than my little finger. Many princes and dukes were standing in front of her.

The man went and stood among them and said, “Wife, are you emperor now?”

“Yes,” she said, “I am emperor.”

He stood and looked at her, and after thus looking at her for a while, he said, “Wife, it is very nice that you are emperor.”

“Husband,” she said. “Why are you standing there? Now that I am emperor, and I want to become pope.”

“Oh, wife!” said the man. “What do you not want? There is only one pope in all Christendom. He cannot make you pope.”

“Husband,” she said, “I want to become pope. Go there immediately. I must become pope this very day.”

“No, wife,” he said, “I cannot tell him that. It will come to no good. That is too much. The flounder cannot make you pope.”

“Husband, what nonsense!” said the woman. “If he can make me emperor, then he can make me pope as well. Go there immediately. I am emperor, and you are my husband. Are you going?”

Then the frightened man went. He felt sick all over, and his knees and legs were shaking, and the wind was blowing over the land, and clouds flew by as the darkness of evening fell. Leaves blew from the trees, and the water roared and boiled as it crashed onto the shore. In the distance he could see ships, shooting distress signals as they tossed and turned on the waves. There was a little blue in the middle of the sky, but on all sides it had turned red, as in a terrible lightning storm. Full of despair he stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Oh,” said the man, “she wants to become pope.”

“Go home,” said the flounder. “She is already pope.”

Then he went home, and when he arrived there, there was a large church surrounded by nothing but palaces. He forced his way through the crowd. Inside everything was illuminated with thousands and thousands of lights, and his wife was clothed in pure gold and sitting on a much higher throne. She was wearing three large golden crowns. She was surrounded with church-like splendor, and at her sides there were two banks of candles. The largest was as thick and as tall as the largest tower, down to the smallest kitchen candle. And all the emperors and kings were kneeling before her kissing her slipper.

“Wife,” said the man, giving her a good look, “are you pope now?”

“Yes,” she said, “I am pope.”

Then he stood there looking at her, and it was as if he were looking into the bright sun. After he had looked at her for a while he said, “Wife, It is good that you are pope!”

She stood there as stiff as a tree, neither stirring nor moving.

Then he said, “Wife, be satisfied now that you are pope. There is nothing else that you can become.”

“I have to think about that,” said the woman.

Then they both went to bed, but she was not satisfied. Her desires would not let her sleep. She kept thinking what she wanted to become next.

The man slept well and soundly, for he had run about a lot during the day, but the woman could not sleep at all, but tossed and turned from one side to the other all night long, always thinking about what she could become, but she could not think of anything.

Then the sun was about to rise, and when she saw the early light of dawn she sat up in bed and watched through the window as the sun came up.

“Aha,” she thought. “Could not I cause the sun and the moon to rise?”

“Husband,” she said, poking him in the ribs with her elbow, “wake up and go back to the flounder. I want to become like God.”

The man, who was still mostly asleep, was so startled that he fell out of bed. He thought that he had misunderstood her, so, rubbing his eyes, he said, “Wife, what did you say?”

“Husband,” she said, “I cannot stand it when I see the sun and the moon rising, and I cannot cause them to do so. I will not have a single hour of peace until I myself can cause them to rise.”

She looked at him so gruesomely that he shuddered.

“Go there immediately. I want to become like God.”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, falling on his knees before her, “the flounder cannot do that. He can make you emperor and pope, but I beg you, be satisfied and remain pope.”

Anger fell over her. Her hair flew wildly about her head. Tearing open her bodice she kicked him with her foot and shouted, “I cannot stand it! I cannot stand it any longer! Go there immediately!”

He put on his trousers and ran off like a madman.

Outside such a storm was raging that he could hardly stand on his feet. Houses and trees were blowing over. The mountains were shaking, and boulders were rolling from the cliffs into the sea. The sky was as black as pitch. There was thunder and lightning. In the sea there were great black waves as high as church towers and mountains, all capped with crowns of white foam.

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Oh,” he said, “she wants to become like God.”

“Go home. She is sitting in her filthy shack again.”

And they are sitting there even today.


Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Inaka musume Otsuna (Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, woodblock print)

Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Inaka musume Otsuna (Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, woodblock print)

One of the classics of Japanese folklore is Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari, the tale of a gallant shape-shifting ninja who can become a giant toad or summon a different giant toad to ride.  The work has been adapted into a series of 19th century novels, a kabuki drama, numerous prints and paintings, several films and a manga series—it is clearly a staple of Japanese culture (even if the fundamental conceit sounds a trifle peculiar to western ears).

Tsunade by HaneChan

Tsunade by HaneChan

As awesome as a ninja who becomes a toad or rides a toad sounds, it is not what concerns us here.  Instead this post is dedicated to the wife of the protagonist, the beautiful maiden Tsunade (綱手) who is a master of slug magic!  She was able to summon a giant slug or become a slug.

Slug Princess Tsunade by Orcagirl2001

Slug Princess Tsunade by Orcagirl2001

I wish I could explain this better but I haven’t (yet) read Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari.  Perhaps these woodblock and manga images from various incarnations of the work will speak for themselve. At the top of this entry is a picture of the ninja with toad magic (right) along with his wife the slug magician (left), but the rest of the prints and cartoons are pictures of Tsunade.   Based on the contemporary cartoon here below, and on some of the Edo-era prints, it seems like there may be an erotic component to this tale of heroic magical slugs and toads.

Tsunade from Naruto (?)

Tsunade from Naruto (?)

If western mythmakers and storytellers could think like this, maybe sitcoms would not be so agonizing.  This is some weird and lovely stuff.  We have made next to no headway understanding Japanese culture, but we have certainly looked at some weird slug girl art!

800px-Succubus-1

In writing about dreams and nightmares, I would be remiss not to write about the dominant dream monsters from western mythology—incubus and the succubus. Stories about these dream demons and demonesses originated in ancient Mesopotamia and have been common ever since (actually, considering that writing originated in Mesopotamia, myths about this sort of dream demon probably go back even further). As you have noticed, these demons are very prominently gendered: an incubus is male and a succubus is female (indeed the former is extravagantly male and the latter amply female). This fact explains the enduring popularity of the concept: these beings are sex demons which represent fundamental human drives and fears. According to tradition, they steal into a person’s bedroom at night and lay with him or her. The nocturnal demons are also reckoned to be spirit vampires of a sort—they steal the life force of their victims by sleeping with them.

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

While all sorts of gods, goddesses, demons, monsters, and supernatural entities were curtailed by the spread of monotheism (with its jealous single god), the incubus and succubus effortlessly jumped right into the folklore of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at the very beginning and have stubbornly remained there ever since. Lilith—the demonic first consort of Adam–came into the Babylonian Talmud directly from Babylon (although some modern Talmudists dispute this and assert that the sexual demons are an eighth century addition to the Talmud). In Islamic folklore, there is a persistant belief in the qarînah (قرينة) which are invisible demons which have relations with humans in dreams (according to superstition they can be seen by some holy/magical folk and frequently hide in animal bodies).

 

The Malleability (artist unknown)

The Malleability (artist unknown)

There is no shortage of supernatural beings analogous to incubi in other parts of the world either. An incomplete list of these demons includes the Tokoloshe of South Africa; the Trauco of Chile (which preys exclusively on unmarried women); the pink botu of the Amazon, a shape-shifting river dolphin which seduces adolescents; the Indian pori (a seductive angel whichleads men towards suicide); and the Turkish Karabasan. The Teutonic mare or mara is a heavy goblin which crouches upon the victim’s chest (straddling the line between sleep apnea and salaciousness)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

There are very obvious reasons why this myth winds through so many human cultures: the dream demon is a fairly transparent proxy for powerful erotic dreams and feelings (I probably don’t have to explain the specifics of this to anyone who has passed through puberty). I have included some “heavy metal” looking paintings and prints in this article to illustrate the dream demon as a symbol of unbridled adolescent lust and nighttime dreams of forbidden lovemaking.

 

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

All of which seems to be a part of growing up. Disturbingly, though the incubus and succubus have a much darker abusive side. In traditional cultures (and therefore probably in ancient ones as well) the incubus was often blamed for pregnancies which should have been impossible (as for young women who were secluded or kept under close chaperone). It is not unreasonable to suppose that the demon was thus as a pretext for incest or sexual abuse at home. This makes the original definition of the monster especially sad and appropriate. For too many people, abuse is indeed a life drinking demon which can not be escaped or even discussed. The happy world of people with upstanding loving families…and indeed the law itself are only beginning to find out about some of these kinds of abuses, so it is no wonder they were originally cloaked in myth. Nevertheless, this illustrates that those sanctimonious people who say stuff like “these things never used to happen in the old days” have a rather shallow grasp of history AND human behavior. Additionally it illustrates that made-up supernatural horrors are no match for actual human abuse.

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

sluaghIn 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).  However the supernatural world was also filled with the restless dead…beings who were once mortal but whose failures and miseries in life kept them connected to this plain of existence.  A particularly ominous group of these dark spirits comprised the sluagh sidhe—the airborne horde of cursed, evil, or restless dead.

shadow_peopleThe 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 malicious and deadly 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).

article-2077359-0F3F563E00000578-477_634x320Before the advent of Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, and the northlands, the sluagh were thought of as a dreadful, 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.

Wodan's Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

Wodan’s Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

The sluagh were thought 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!

Irish Graves 3872

Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) on Svalbard

Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) on Svalbard

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.

Barnacle geese flying over Tantallon Castle, Scotland (photo by John Downer for ebury press)

Barnacle geese flying over Tantallon Castle, Scotland (photo by John Downer for ebury press)

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.

An ancient illuminated manuscript from the British Library shows the supposed birth of barnacle geese

An ancient illuminated manuscript from the British Library shows the supposed birth of barnacle geese

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.

Innocent III: When he wasn't smiting Cathars he was busy ruining dinner.

Innocent III: When he wasn’t smiting Cathars he was busy ruining dinner.

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.

Barnacle Goose Goslings
Barnacle Goose Goslings from duckoftheday.co.uk

Barnacle Goose Goslings from duckoftheday.co.uk

chinese_dog

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.

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

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.

dog

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.

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.

An artist’s conception of the shen creating illusions

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.

 

The main character of the manga series “Naruto” fights a Shen (or at least I think that’s what is going on here)

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!

A distant boat distorted into a weird monolith by Fata Morgana

Bluebells in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

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.

Portrait of a Woman (Michiel Jansz van Miereveldt, 1628)

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 Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx)

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.

A Lynx Finishes Off a Hare.

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).

Baby Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis)

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.

The Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus)

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).

There is a bobcat (Lynx rufus) somewhere in there I think.

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 Crest of Accademia dei Lincei

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.

Frontispiece of Galileo’s Istoria e Dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari

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.

The Midgard Serpent

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 Battering the Midgard Serpent (Henry Fuseli, 1790, oil on canvas)

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.

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