Category Archives: Abduction

An Underworld Journey


It is no surprise to me that amongst the earliest writings yet found we find a version of one of the most widely spread and evocative stories known to man. In marks made with a stick on clay tablets by the inhabitants of the first cities, in the land of Sumer (where Iraq is today) roughly five thousand years agois the earliest known Underworld Journey. In this Sumerian myth Inanna, the goddess of fertility, sex and war, travels to the the land of the dead from which no one can return.

I dare say many of you will be familiar with the Greek tale of Persephone who is abducted by the god of the Greek underworld, Hades. She is eventually rescued by her mother, Demeter (the goddess of the harvest) but has to return to Hades for a number of months each year due to the incautious ingestion of several pomegranate seeds.

Whilst there are similarities between Inanna and Persephone, both tales involving a subterranean excursion and both having an ending that explains the annual cycle of growth and decay, the differences are more interesting. Inanna is no hapless victim. This goddess once declared war on the mountains because they did not bow down to her; and won! She goes to the underworld, ruled by her sister Ereskigal, by choice: “From the great heaven Inanna set her mind on the great below.” What is more, she knows it is a dangerous mission and briefs her trusted minister, Ninsubur on the extensive and painful mourning ritual (involving the laceration of eyelids, nose, ears and buttocks) she must perform to restore Inanna should she fail to return. Inanna descends through the seven gates of the underworld and at each gate has one of her symbols of earthly power taken from her. Thus naked and stripped of everything, she stands before her sister but still has enough power to take Ereskigal’s throne for herself. Here we come to one of the chief points of this tale, “The Anuna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.”

The Underworld has laws that hold sway even over the most powerful of divine beings.

Ninsubur, follows her instructions to the letter and Inanna is restored to life, not through force or magic but through sympathy, for it is only by sympathy that those who have entered the darkest depths can be reached. Although alive again, the laws of the Anuna, the underworld judges, still hold her and she is only permitted to return to the light if she finds someone to take her place. Inanna does not let the Anuna take anyone who has mourned her absence but eventually finds her husband, Dumuzid showing no signs of remorse and gives him in to the demons hands. Dumuzid’s sister begs them to take her instead so it is decreed that they will share the job with each spending half the year below. In typically contrary fashion Inanna mourns for the six months Dumuzid is away thus giving us the seasons.

Many scholars would have it that this is just a vegetative myth, that it is a ‘primitive’ explanation for the cycle of winter and summer, but I think that is merely a side effect of the main event; the bit that resonates for us is the descent, the search for… something in the darkness. It is the sense of loss or depression, of something hidden beyond our grasp, that drives us in to the doorway to the underworld. For Inanna and many other travellers in the great below, there is no material gain, only the experience which brings with it some intangible wisdom, a knowing that only those who have walked beyond deaths door and been to the home of darkness may have. When it comes to the Underworld it really is the Journey that matters.

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

Details for October tour dates where you can see the Talesman perform “Inanna In The Underworld” amongst other Underworld Journeys are:

Saturday 22nd London Inn, Polson Hill, Morchard Bishop, Crediton, Devon, EX17 6PQ 7.30pm, £5

Thursday 27th South Hill Park Arts Centre, Ringmead, Bracknell Berkshire, RG12 7PA 7.30, £10 £8 concessions.

Friday 28th The Hyde Tavern, 57 Hyde Street, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 7DY, 7.30 £5.

Sunday 30th The Elm Tree Public House, 16a Orchard Street, Cambridge, CB1 1JT, 8.00, Free

Monday 31st The Hobgoblin, 2 Broad Street, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 2BH, 8.00

More details available via the Talesmn’s Facebook page, scroll down for the relevant gig and click on the event link. http://www.facebook.com/#!/TheTravellingTalesman

Unsuitable for under 12s

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Filed under Abduction, Autumn, Folk Tale, October, Otherworld, stories, Storytelling, Underworld, Winter

He’s Behind You!


So it’s Mid-winter, it’s cold, it’s dark and everything is slower. There’s not so much work to do in the fields and all you want to do is sit inside by a warm fire and be entertained by stories. It’s how it’s been for years, and with a few changes it’s still how it is now. Maybe not so many people book a storyteller to come and entertain their guests at the fire side (wonderful as it is), but we maintain folk-tales at midwinter with the very British tradition of the pantomime.

 

The vast majority of favourite panto plots are traditional folk tales, and it has traditions all of it’s own: the man in a dress, with his slapstick routine at the start of the second half; the girl as a boy (winning the hand of the girl as a girl by the end of the tale) and villains who always enter and leave stage left. Characters even slip in to the role of narrator and address the audience directly, telling us what other characters have been up to, echoing panto’s storytelling roots. Above all pantomime is folk tales told in a big, bright, shiny way, to keep the darkness of winter at bay. Oh yes it is!

 

A popular midwinter’s tale type across northern Europe was the Search for the Vanished Husband, which is the feminine equivalent of the summer hero’s quest for golden apples. A typical example is the Scottish/borders tale The Black Bull of Norraway. It uses the classic rule of three repeatedly, starting with there being three princesses, the first two seek their fortunes and and are carried away in fine coaches to good marriages, despite their widowed mothers lack of wealth, whilst the youngest princess is fated instead to be carried away on the back of the wild and fearsome Black Bull of Norraway. After travelling for three days, each ending with a gift from their host of the night that she is mysteriously told to “keep until she is in direst need”, their journey reaches “a dark and ugsome glen” where the princess is told to remain absolutely still whilst the bull (who she has grown quite fond of) goes off to fight with a demon and regain his human form. She fails to keep her single instruction and they are lost to each other in the darkness. After searching for many months her way is blocked by a glass mountain and she spends seven years in service to a blacksmith earning the iron boots she needs to scale this representative of winter and ice.

All variants culminate in a bizarre sequence involving a blood stained shirt that belongs to her lost lover, now betrothed to a tricksome washerwoman’s daughter. Bribery with the gifts garnered earlier gets her three tearful nights spent singing in his chamber, for the first two he is drugged by the washerwoman but on the third they are finally re-united.

 

I can’t help but hear the echo of some long forgotten solstice ritual in the princess’ three night vigil, singing the sleeping sun’s return. The teaching themes here are of gathering and putting away good things in times of plenty to use in times of need; of using wisdom as well as strength; and the classic example of accepting an unavoidable fate and working to make it a positive thing. Bursting with symbolism these tales take us in to darkness, both physical and metaphorical, filled with trouble, loss and trickery, but through courage and dedication we come to the restoration of light.

 

So if this winter you find yourself going out to the pantomime, between the cries of “behind you” and “oh yes it is!” see if you can spot any of these themes in your own mid-winter traditional folk tale performance.

 

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Now the above was written for the local mag with a tight word count so I had to leave out the alternative tale from the same group, Prince Hat Under The Ground, that I was going to compare with the Black Bull.

 

This is a Swedish version of the tale, here the princess finds herself given to the eponymous Prince who lives (you’ll never guess) underground and can only come to her under the cover of darkness as she must not see his face.

She is comfortable and well looked after while he is kind and gentle. Three years pass each year bringing a child and an opportunity to visit home where, after two failed attempts, her step mother persuades her to take a candle in to the bedroom and sneak a peak at her sleeping hubby who turns out to be as handsome as he is rich and kind. All perfect you may think but she has now broken her vow and their wonderful, snug underground house becomes a dank cave filled with snakes and frogs. She must next follow him as she wanders the land. They visit his three sisters and she is instructed to drop a child off with each whilst he stays out of sight but she again fails to keep to this and allows the third sister out to see him whereupon he is whisked away by a whirlwind.

She then seeks the aid of a series of three troll witches who live up an icy mountain, to whom she is very polite and as a result receives a gold spinning wheel, a gold bobbin and a purse which always has money in it. Thus armed she makes her way to the castle of the troll queen who has enchanted Prince Hat and intends to marry him where she concludes the action by bargaining with her magical gifts for three nights singing to her lover who is once again drugged for two but gets a tip off on the third and the pair are reunited.

Together they trick the troll witch in to looking in to a huge cauldron of boiling water and thus able to throw her in, freeing themselves and regaining the treasures and, eventually, their children and families.

 

It would be easy, from a twenty first century perspective, to be dismissive of this tale as simply an injunction for wives to obey their husbands but please, stay your anger. Notice instead that the princess is not punished for her lack of obedience, the husband shows no anger. The separation that follows is a consequence of the curse or spell under which Prince Hat or the Black Bull labour. If I were to apply a modern interpretation I would look to the work of psychologist Carl Jung and try to understand this tale in the light of the relationship between the persona and the animus or soul.

Having grown up without a father the masculine principal is hidden from the princess and she is seeking to unite with her inner self but cannot do so until she knows herself better and is less easily swayed by the whims of others. The quest, in all it’s parts, is essential to her inner development and leaves her richer, having gained the symbols of womanhood and conquered her dark side, in the form of the witch who seeks to dishonestly posses and control the masculine power instead of working with it.

 

Now you may be confused by the two meanings offered. Is it a tale of careful storage and use of resources to see us through the privations of winter or is it a deep psychological tract? Why can it not be both? It may also have been a teaching tale for young girls who might find themselves married to suit their parents rather than their hearts, a story to encourage them to be good wives, fruitful, diligent and obedient; and to give them hope.

 

It is one of the great things about folk tales that they often work on many levels, sometimes accruing details at a simplistic, material level that obscure the roots which delve in to the past; if you can follow these roots though, they may lead you to rich seams of powerful meaning.

 

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Abduction, December, Fairytale, Folk Tale, Quest, stories, Storytelling, Winter

I do like to be beside the seaside


Travelling out on your apple hunting quest you will inevitably come to a place many of us visit around this time of year – the coast. So as you are enjoying the sun and sand, we will explore who else may be enjoying the sea.

Around the world, particularly the British Isles, and most frequently in Cornwall we find mermaids. Many folk on meeting mermaids are captivated by their beautiful looks and voices, (not to mention their wish granting abilities). If you find one stranded be very kind, take them home to the sea and in future they might help you with warnings of storms and, if you are a fisherman, by improving your catch. Do not be tempted to steal her tail, get her to become human, mortal or your wife (mermaids often being the folk tale equivalent of mail-order brides): Resist the temptation as it will only bring you woe!
However beautiful they are, however well you try to treat them, your dry, cosy house is not their natural habitat and it will all end in salty tears if they stay too long. Resentment builds, and once they’ve escaped, as they inevitably do, it’s wisest to avoid the sea, move inland and definitely never, ever again, go out in a boat.

Further up on the northern coast there are similar creatures, rather than a tail to steal there is the seal-skin of the Selkie (well it’s colder, you’d want a fur coat too) who transform from seal to human when they hide their coat behind a rock. The stories are often similar to those of mermaids except in one classic tale: The Selkie Vow. Here our protagonist is a veteran seal hunter, one day out hunting he loses his knife in the biggest seal he’s ever seen as it escapes, bellowing in to the sea. Later he is visited by a well-dressed man offering a valuable commission for many seal skins. He offers to show the hunter where he can find the best seals. Trustingly, the hunter follows him to the top of a cliff where he is suddenly grabbed and whisked over the edge. The two plummet deep into the sea. The seal hunter is transformed into a seal himself and they swim down into sandy, air filled caves where the king of the selkies lies wounded. The hunter removes his damning knife, heals the wounds and solemnly swears to do the seal people harm no more. Later, returned to land (and his customary shape), he takes up a different craft, usually fishing, where-upon his nets are always full and he holds true to his Selkie Vow.

Now you may chose to avoid all this by heading further inland, but even here water courses can be treacherous as they are often frequented by Kelpies. Despite the similarity in name and also being shape shifters, they are a different kettle of fish all together, a horse of a different colour so to speak. Kelpies usually appear in the form of a fit young horse, frisky and fun, willing, nay even keen for you to get on their back and ride about. This is not through some desire to give you a pleasant trot around the heather and glens or take you on a magical journey, but the opener for a short and terrifying gallop into the nearest water deep enough to drown you!

So enjoy your holiday, but with the wildlife, both mythological and natural, the rules are the same: observe from a safe distance and leave them in peace in their natural habitat.

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

The Travelling Talesman http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Abduction, Fairytale, Mermaid, sea creatures, Selkie, stories, Summer

May Eve Mayhem


What better time to start Folk Tales Corner than May Eve – the date with more stories attached to it than any other in the calendar.  Some of the FTCs will be tied to the tales of the time of year, others spun around singular stories. Some introduce us to particular characters but all welcome us to the wonderful world of storytelling.

May Eve tales are traditionally tales of magic and enchantment, more often than not they involve a trip to fairy land, usually an involuntary one.  For all that halloween is reputed to be laden with access to the other world and folks from “the other side” visiting us,  folk tales tell us that its opposite, May Eve is when we’re most likely to be kidnapped off beyond.  Although anyone who ventures abroad is at risk of being abducted by the fey, the highest insurance group would surely be for children and beautiful young maidens, all very likely, if wandering out on April 30th, to find themselves transported or transformed.

Now if just going out is risky, walking into or around stone circles, fairy rings of mushrooms, into woodland or anywhere slightly misty and vaguely unfamiliar, almost guarantees an adventure.  Though for Tiernan in The story of Pwyll and Rhiannon even staying at home is troublesome as he loses a new foal every May eve until he sits guard in the stables over it with his sword.

If you do find yourself spirited away remember to be civil to the fairy folk, they make very bad enemies, but do not eat or drink anything whilst there, in many tales this is how you get permanently connected and find it harder to come back (unlike Persephone who got an unusual pro rata deal).  If you make a bargain to get home, be very sure you know what you’re promising and be exact in the wording.   If you have folks who love you here, and know you well then your chances of getting back are improved:  Loved ones can recognise your distinguishing marks (missing fingers or toes are particularly useful), and pick you out of the line-up of fifty other identical maidens, or swans if you have been transformed, that they are presented with. In some cases it requires sheer determination and brute force, holding onto you as you go through weird transformations.  All in all you will probably come back wiser, possibly with a debt owed. Broken promises have dire results so do remember to pay back any debt.  When you do get back also be prepared for time to have passed oddly, more often than not a short evening passed in fairy is many years in our own world, so often children stolen away come back to find all their friends have grown, and died of old age!

If you’re luck enough to be out and about on May Eve or Morn and aren’t whisked away then take the opportunity to listen well, especially if you are near a gibbet, in several tales it’s the magical moment you can understand the language of the birds, who’s conversation is surprisingly often about the location of buried treasure.

So you survived through to May morn; now is the time to sing, dance, decorate maypoles and wells, welcome in the May, bring meadowsweet, broom and hawthorn, celebrate, and leave a little offering out for the ‘good folk’.  But remember don’t bring the may blossom into the house – that just invites the fairies in with you and as the stories tell us that is a whole new host of trouble.

If you are out early, remember Cormac Mac Art who on successive May Morns, first makes a new friend; then looses his son, then his daughter, his wife, and finally a whole army, but after some very bizarre and unsettling experiences has all of them, and some magical gifts, returned to him, all in exchange for….  why in exchange for a story of course!

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

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Filed under Abduction, Fairytale, May, Otherworld, Spring, stories