Have You Got A Light?


Mostly, when I am researching a new subject, it is the similarities between religions, which are separated by miles and years measured in the thousands, that leap out. In the last two days however, it is the extraordinarily wide array of variations that is striking. One might think that the creation of the sun would be an event of sufficient significance to rank alongside the existence of primordial chaos as a pretty much constant component of the worlds disparate creation stories. Likewise one would probably imagine the status of any solar deity to be high enough to make them one of the best cards to hold in a game of Divine Top Trumps. By this point I expect the regular reader will have worked out that in both cases one would be wrong.

In Ancient Egypt it was Ra, the sun himself, who first rose out of the void and made all the other stuff, but he is far from typical. On the other side of the Sahara, in south west Nigeria, we find the Yoruba mythology. Here Oloron, the chief sky god of a quite large and established pantheon, sends Obatala down from heaven to the marshes on a golden chain. After Obatala has made land in the waters, built himself a home, planted the palm nut that he brought with him and moved in with his cat, it occurs to him that it is a bit grey and dull so he asks Oloron for some light. In answer to this request Oloron knocks up the sun and Obatala is able to get on with the important business of making humanity and palm wine.

A little to the east of Egypt, Yahwey has the good sense to invoke some photons at step one, day one, but takes until day four to come up with the source for them. In these and several other instances the celestial lamp is completely devoid of personality or divine spark.

Sidling to the north before turning back west gets us to Greece, where chaos brings forth Gaia (Earth), Erebus, (Darkness), Tartarus (an abyss) and Nyx (Night). Nyx has a prodigious number of children including Sleep, Pain, Death and Day. Gaia gives birth to Uranus (Sky) who then becomes her husband and together they begat the numerous Titans including Theia (Brightness). Following her mother’s example for keeping it in the family, Theia marries her brother Hyperion (The High One). It is only at this point, not the fourth day but the fourth generation, that Helios (The Sun) is finally born, and two generations further on he has to give up the post to his grand nephew, Apollo. Turning east again and skipping over most of a continent brings us to the Land of the Rising Sun where Amaterasu (The Great Divinity Illuminating Heaven) is held in high regard, for when she goes away the world is plunged in to darkness and all things die. Despite her exalted position, she is an eighth generation goddess brought in to being by her father wiping water from his eye at the end of a story that has seen him married, widowed and divorced (yes, in that order) by his sister. Along the way they created the earth, oceans, mountains, plants, animals, humans, death and the underworld; presumably by touch. I could go on: the sun is variously the child of night, earth, day, the sky, the moon, the reed marshes, the great void, the realm of fire, or is a lantern carried in to the sky by a woman looking for her lost child.

One oddly counter intuitive element that does seem to be consistent is that day and night almost always exist before the sun does. Why would the sun arrive so late in our mythologies? I wonder if, in the mesolithic world of hunter gathering, when the great majority of habitable land was covered by a near continuous forest, anyone really saw the sun that much. Day and night would come and go, but it is only when the neolithic people cut down the trees and started growing crops that the sun became sufficiently obvious and important to get a deity of its own. With the exception that might prove the rule being the desert dwelling Egyptians, for whom an all-seeing, all-powerful, solar creator makes total sense.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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You Haven’t Got A Prayer


When you spend as much time getting to know the gods and goddesses of different cultures as I do, pretty much all of whom inhabit a realm that is variously described as “in the sky”, “on high” or the delightfully vague “above”, your concept of the heavens becomes very odd. As well as being highly multicultural it appears on the surface to be a phenomenal resource. Whatever you want to do, there will be a deity to pray to there: growing stuff, herding cattle, shoemaking, metalwork, pottery, making false teeth… and what ever befalls you there should also be a corresponding demiurge to seek help from.

If all that activity is too much for you there are deific beings to call on when you want some down time too. Without looking beyond the Greeks (because we don’t want to overtax ourselves do we?), we can put in a request to the relaxing Goddess Pasithea for some much needed rest. If that isn’t enough then a plea to her husband Hypnos, god of sleep, could be in order.

Mind you, there are some you should probably avoid. Enkairos, for example, got in to trouble with Zeus after he was sent off to earth early one morning, to bring a specific human to Olympus by sundown the same day. It shouldn’t have taken that long but Enkairos was rather known for leaving things to the last minute. Down he went, located the mortal in question and was about to return when he had a thought: since he had all day… as he didn’t get a day out in the human world very often… he could fit in a bit of sight seeing while he was there! He enjoyed the pleasures of the city, ate the local food and visited the theatre. As he noticed the sun was setting, Enkairos looked around for the being in question who was now nowhere to be found. Zeus waxed mighty wrathful, as well he might, shouting: “I gave you plenty of time!” He never asked Enkairos to do anything again. With no other obvious career ahead of him the dilatory Olympian became the god of procrastination. Presumably some time later.

One step down from Enkairos, who will at least attempt to respond to your prayers and might get round to it eventually, is Aergia. She is one of the daughters of Air and Earth, who, as parents, are probably very disappointed in her. Technically Aergia is a daimona, a spirit, rather than a goddess. She hangs around by The Cave of Sleep with her sister Lethe, or Forgetfulness. She does nothing and has no story of her own, which is hardly surprising as she is the personification of Laziness. Well, I suppose somebody has to do it… or not.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

Hmm, I seem to have written a rather short piece this month. I better quickly burn something in offering to the husband of Pandora and all round pointless deity, Epimetheus. After the creation he was charged with the job of handing out abilities to all the creatures on the earth. With no sense of forward planning, he used up all the good stuff on the animals and had nothing left for humanity. Luckily his brother Prometheus sorted us out with the civilising arts and fire, but no thanks to Epimetheus, the God of Afterthought.

 

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The First Christmas Tree, A German folk tale


Once upon a time there was a Count, by the name of Otto, who lived near Strasburg. Although handsome and single he was so indifferent to the flirtations of the ladies that they called him “Stone Heart”.

One year Count Otto hosted a Christmas Eve hunt in the forests around his castle. He and his guests rode for hours through woods and wastes until, as is pretty much compulsory for a noble who goes hunting in a story, Otto found himself alone and lost. Finding a spring he stopped to wash the dust of the chase from his hands. He was surprised to find the water warm despite the time of year and plunged his arms deeper into the bubbling well head. As he did so he felt as if a smaller softer pair of hands met his own and drew from his finger his favourite gold ring. When he withdrew his hands the ring was indeed missing so he made a mental note to send some servants to fetch it out the following day.

As he lay in his bed that night he heard sounds as of the drawbridge going down and a host of people arriving. Rather shortly afterwards he also heard coming from his own Great Hall the sounds of music and merriment, rather like some throng feasting. When he threw open the doors he found that was indeed the case as colourfully clad dancers whisked past him. In the centre of the room a fir tree stood, bedecked with gold rings, diamond encrusted bracelets, bejewelled belts and ruby pommeled daggers in silver sheaths. As Otto stood staring in disbelief, the dancers parted and as the music faded away the most beautiful woman he had ever seen swayed towards him with raven hair and fine dress in plush satins and velvets. “We have come to return your Christmas visit to our fairy well” she said, “and return to you something you have lost.” She held out a small gold casket which, when opened, revealed his ring. “I am Ernestine, Queen of the fairies” she said holding out her hand. As the music began again Otto found himself taking her hand and joining the dance. As they danced the other fairies shimmered away leaving only Ernestine in his arms. Entranced he sank to one knee and asked her to marry him. Ernestine smiled and said: “As long as you never speak the word “Death” in my presence.”

The two were wed the very next day and spent many happy years together. Otto still enjoyed hosting the occasional hunt and Ernestine joined in too. One day, when everyone was in the courtyard ready to set off on for the pursuit, Ernestine was still in her chambers. Otto held up the departure. Time trickled away and Otto grew impatient. Eventually Ernestine came out through the doors. Otto was quite angry by this time, “You have kept us waiting so long,” he cried, “that you would make a good messenger to send for Death!”

There was barely time for her to utter one anguished scream and then she was gone, vanished in to thin air. Otto was frantic. He searched the castle and the forest, dived in to the fairy well and ranged up and down the banks of the stream that flowed from it, all to no avail.

Every year he brought a fir tree in to his hall and dressed it in bright shiny jewels and candles in remembrance of their first night together and the hope that its sparkling lights might bring her home.

After a while Otto’s neighbours began to put up decorated trees of their own. Slowly the custom spread until now, if the queen of the fairies should return to seek her lost love, she would find his signal shining from houses all over the globe.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Fairytale, Folk Tale, December, Christmas

Take Care Out There


Transformation is often used as a punishment. The White Cat, in the French folktale of the same name, is originally a princess who has been given to the fairies by her mother as payment for some enchanted fruit (well that’s the currency you buy your enchanted fruit with isn’t it?). Everything ticks along nicely until the princess tries to escape whereupon the fairies turn her in to a white cat, making all her subjects feline too. Her restoration depends on a prince falling in love with her for her personality, which she keeps along with her ability to speak. Naturally, even though she now lives in a secluded palace hidden in a dense forest, the youngest of three king’s sons turns up on a quest. The White Cat has also been given some magic abilities and is able to help the prince out by providing the small dog he has been sent to get. It’s not enough of course and he is soon back for some cloth so fine it can pass through the eye of a needle. The third time he turns up she helps him out by once more becoming her beautiful human self so they can get married. Not much of a punishment really.

Prince Dung Beetle does less well. We meet him in his insect form when a poor girl who is running to the doctors to get medicine for her ailing mother slips and nearly crushes him. Since she sprains her ankle avoiding this rather sudden end to the story he helps her out saying “climb on my back” (notice he retains his speech as well) then flying her to the doctors and back home with the necessary medicaments. The mother is instantly cured and suggests the girl should feed her “little horse” but he is nowhere to be seen. Moments later the restored prince turns up and explains that he had been turned in to a dung beetle to do penance for being cruel to helpless creatures in his youth and had spent many years suffering, only to be freed if someone was kind to him. Since the girl had affected his cure he naturally offered to marry her and make her family wealthy as well. So that turned out all right too.

They don’t all end happily ever after. When an old woman in rags came in to the bakery asking for just a little bit of bread the bakers daughter at first refused to give her any. After some additional pleading from the beggar woman the baker said “Tear off a bit of dough and make her a roll.” The daughter tore off a tiny little piece and left it to prove with the rest. When she came back she found the dough had risen enough to be a whole loaf. She ignored the good fortune that luck had bestowed on the old lady and tore off an even smaller bit than before then put it back down for a second proving. Once more the tiny piece of dough gained the size of a full loaf so she tore off an even smaller bit and put it in to bake. Those of you who know your folk tales will not be surprised to hear that when they took the bread out of the oven there was no small roll but only full sized loaves. Still the baker’s daughter tore off a chunk from the end of one and handed it to the old woman saying “I don’t know what’s going on here but that’s all you are getting”. The old woman began to change, growing taller and more beautiful, and revealed herself to be a fairy. “You had many chances to be kind with no loss to yourself” she said, “but you chose to be mean. Now I curse you to live in darkness and feast on vermin!” and with that she waved her wand. The baker’s daughter began to shrink, feathers sprouted from her skin, her eyes grew wide and a mournful hooting escaped the beak that grew where her lips had been. She spread her new wings and flew away to the woods. There she lives still, only coming out at night to hunt for rats and mice. So always be kind, even to the lowliest creature they may be a prince or a fairy, after all the owl was a baker’s daughter.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Time to get Changed


I’m off on tour again from the end of September ’till early November. Starting in Bristol on the 29th I make my way across the South as far as Cambridge and Brighton, taking in a new northern extremity in Oswestry, and hitting 18 venues along the way. Well, I have to live up to my name.

The next couple of weeks are jam-packed with stuff that has to be done before I leave. Not just preparation for the show but sales for next spring’s tour, which have to be started now as many venues sort out their year in September. I’ve just done all the contracts, invoices and posters for this run and spent a few precious days editing the recordings from the last tour in the hope that I will get a new CD of “The Nectar Of The Gods” pressed in time for the first gig. At some point I have to find/make/borrow something for the backdrop and select any other items of stage dressing… and of course there is learning the Danish ballad I have chosen to sing (It’s been translated) and a couple of hours of stories. It doesn’t leave much time for rehearsal.

I had a conversation with a musician friend who has never performed live. He said: “I’m not good enough yet”. He’s been playing for twenty years. I told him that he just has to get out there and do it. Live performance is reliant on the audience, it’s an interaction, rehearse as much as you like but the show changes instantly when you put it in front of people. You change. However well rehearsed and practised you are the first performance will be shaky, you will make rookie mistakes. If you wait until it is perfect you may never do it. To a fair extent it is impossible to do a proper rehearsal without an audience because an essential ingredient is missing. If you are practising any kind of performance art, but keep putting off the day when it actually becomes a performance, I say the same: get out there and do it. In fact that goes for any kind of art. Sharing your creativity with the general public on a daily basis sharpens you up much faster than any number of years spent chasing perfection in your living room.

Audiences are amazingly forgiving, they care far less about the occasional fluff than you do (mostly they don’t know of course, because they don’t know what is supposed to happen), they even find a little fumbling and scrappiness endearing. I frequently speak some of the stories for the first time on the first night of the tour. I’m totally open about it. The early audiences get an adrenaline fuelled thrill ride, an artist on the edge, flirting with disaster! (Ok, I’m exaggerating but that is part of my job after all). The later audiences get a slick, knowing performance shaped by their predecessors reactions, but they of course, are a different audience and they change the show as well. Beyond a fairly basic level, practise is only procrastination.

I would illustrate this wisdom with a story but which one to choose? Pretty well every protagonist gets thrust in to the action and has to think on their feet. The stories only exist because someone is taking a risk, and in every one they reap the rewards of the adventure.

I’ll bring you the rewards of my adventure. By the end of the tour the show, which is called “Changed” Tales of Transformation, Transmutation and Transfiguration, will have been properly rehearsed in front all sorts of people, and changed by them. Maybe I will have been changed by them too,find out at one of the shows http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml

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Pond Life


Although the Beauty And The Beast variations may appear simple on the surface, it is clear that this yarn would never have captured the imagination so widely if there wasn’t more to it. The transformation of the beastly suitor into a handsome Prince at the climax of the tale is most readily interpreted as simply a change of perception on the part of the Princess and, through her, everyone else. He doesn’t actually change physically, it is just that no-one sees him as repellant anymore.

Of course it would be impossible to examine this tale type without referencing the problems of gender politics which so often beset fairy tales. For instance, the Beast has a lot of information about Beauty’s family which could only have been gained by stalking, he and Beauty’s father enter in to a deal which would be condemned by a modern court as trafficking and, after months or even years of captive grooming, Beauty eventually develops a love for her captor which would make a text book example of Stockholm Syndrome. Less of a romance and more of a horror story!

However, in the type of psychological analysis in which all the characters are representative of elements of a single psyche, the marriage and transfiguration can also be seen as the internal unification between the ego and a shadow part of the mind, a trait or aspect of personality that has been rejected but is finally accepted and incorporated into the self. And we’re back to a happy, though slightly deeper, ending. Phew!

The amphibian versions are often the most succinct with the action condensed into a couple of days: A princess drops the golden ball she is playing with into a pond and a frog offers to retrieve it if she will take him back to her pad for an evening at her side and a night in her bed. The princess agrees and gets her ball back but reneges on the deal and runs home. The next day, during tea, the frog turns up (usually talking in rhyming couplets for no really good reason), and the princess’ parents insist that she has to go through with the deal she made. She reluctantly shares her food with the slimy pond dweller and has to sit with him on her lap then take him to her room at the end of the evening. She leaves him in a corner but he climbs into bed with her. Annoyed at his sliminess and not keen to sleep in a wet patch, she throws him against the wall. This breaks the spell, releasing the enchanted prince from his green exterior, upon which they get married. It’s classic folktale.

The Frog Prince appears to keep the message of the story simple: “don’t judge a frog by its colour”, but in doing so it seems it misses out on the rich, psychological layer cake of interpretative fun that can be had with the longer versions. In order to move the story along the princess has no sisters, her parents are an authoritative presence but little more, the frog’s back-story is a line at best and the action and motivation are kept firmly in the binary relationship between she and he. As a result of this, the coercion that the disfigured man uses to get access to the woman has to be exerted directly on the princess, rather than on her father as it is in Beauty. So the girl becomes the deal breaker, making her the antagonist and turning the frog in to a sympathetic character pretty much throughout and often leaving me wondering why he wants to marry the rather selfish girl after he is restored. Unless prince froggy is just as much an internal shadow as the Beast and the Black Bull and the only way anyone gets any peace is when the soul is unified in the inevitable psychological marriage. Do you see why I am fascinated with this stuff? Even the pond life is deep!

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Beardy and the Beast


When I grew my beard It was purely an accident precipitated by the breakdown of the beard trimmer with which I had previously maintained a very tidy long-stubble goatee. The unexpected effect this was that a couple of years and several inches of facial hair later I discovered I had unintentionally preempted the trend and was, for the first time in my life, fashionable. When beards are ‘in’ long hair also becomes acceptable and I have rather enjoyed not being seen as beastly.

This tour I am looking in to transformation, transfiguration and transmutation So I thought I might have a go at Beauty And The Beast. I started looking for a version of it in my library. I couldn’t remember coming across one but, it being a classic and me having spent many years avoiding those, I thought I might have just passed it by. A search through the most likely collections has so far turned up several frog princes, and a small tooth dog, a black bull, two bears, and an invisible man, but no lead male simply referred to as a beast.

All of the above are essentially the same story of a beautiful young woman pursued by an ugly and undesirable male who is really a rich and handsome prince under a curse. In most she has a pair of selfish, older sisters for contrast. However it is usually the girl’s father that does something wrong and, to save his own life, enters into a contract with a powerful and frightening entity to hand over his beloved youngest daughter. She is at first scared but slowly comes to appreciate her inhuman captor’s kindness, though still rejecting his advances. Eventually some action of hers brings her unsightly suitor near to death, she realises that she loves him and her love restores his humanity and good looks. Sometimes he is removed from her and she, left with nothing, has to search for him for several years, climb a glass mountain, collect a series of magical objects and trade them with another woman to win him back. It is known in storytelling circles as “The Search For The Lost Husband”. Which is all well and good but still not the populist, crowd pleasing, fairy tale that I was trying to track down: I simply don’t have it!

Puzzled that such a well loved romance should be absent from the works of the assorted collectors on my shelves, I resorted to the internet. There, I discovered why: the title and the particulars of the most well known form of this anti physical prejudice story, are the work of a sixteenth century French publisher called Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, who edited down her version from the novel length original by the equally over-named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Between the two of them, these writers have nurtured and distilled the essence of a genre sufficiently well that they have all but replaced the folk tales from which they took their inspiration.

Hmmm, so left with a literary tale on the internet instead of a folk tale in a book I rather went off the idea. But… the essential story is such a classic form of transformation that I feel it really should be represented. On the other hand, it’s a lot of story for only one change. Well, now I am on a search of my own, hopefully I won’t have to wear out my shoes or climb a glass mountain to get it. I wonder if I can find a version that fits the brief?

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