Category Archives: Mythology

Drizzle and Drink


Here in the UK we are not kind to our rain deities and grumble incessantly when they go about their business, which is especially harsh considering that sorting out precipitation is invariably only a fraction of their duties. Looking after the fertility of the land and keeping an eye on agriculture are often part of the job, and they can also get lumbered with storms, giants, livestock, weather in general, the year, alcoholic beverages and dragon slaying.

Rain is a feature of storms so you are fairly likely to get both as a job lot and sometimes end up with all the weather by default, though it is fairly common for everyday wind to be left to someone else and the Sun deity is unlikely to hand over their crown without a fight. The problem with being a storm god is that you will almost certainly be considered rather short on temper: Thor, Zeus, Jupiter and Susanoo-no-Mikoto (the Shinto storm god), are all famously quick and unpredictable rag-losers.

The link between rain and growing stuff is obvious so it’s no surprise to find agriculture on their chore list and once you have the crops you may as well handle the pastoral side too. The alcoholic beverage link may not be so obvious to us twenty-first century types but it follows on quite logically when you think about the crops that brewers use combined with water.

Mbaba Mwana Waresa, the South African rain and agriculture goddess, finds the gods a little too obsessed with weapons for her taste and decides to look for a husband amongst the mortals. She thinks she has found the right man when she hears Tandeeway singing about the crops, the cattle and the rain. After appearing to him in a dream she sets him a couple of tests: a storm that he does not hide from and a temptingly beautiful girl who he does not mistake for the goddess. As they enter in to marriage the gods suddenly start taking notice and get rather huffy about her having married a mortal as they do not consider the mortals as good as the gods. Mbaba Mwana Waresa, distressed that the two sides of her family have fallen out, goes for a walk on the plains, ambling between the great sorghum grasses. The ripe grasses give her an idea and she takes their seeds back to the village and mixes them with water. After a while the mixture ferments and becomes the first beer. She gives it to the mortals and it makes them more like the gods! The gods, looking down from the clouds and wonder if, maybe, they are not so different after all. They also wonder if they can have some of the new drink themselves. The goddess gives them the beer and after a while… it makes them more like the mortals! So by inventing beer Mbaba Mwana Waresa solves the conflict… and gets another thing to be goddess over.

As the June skies darken again and another downpour falls on our veg plot like someone tipping an olympic swimming pool over the garden, I know it is giving the crops just what they need to grow and fatten. With any luck we’ll get a bumper crop of raspberries and my own domestic goddess, Jo, will brew them in to another vat of her excellent mead.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Cheers!


I’ve got a 40 pint bucket of a yeasty sugar mix bubbling gently in my office. If all goes well it will transform over the next month in to 40 pints of cheap but very drinkable beer. The best thing about it is that I can honestly say that it is part of my research for work. A new year brings a new tour, “The Nectar Of The Gods”, in which I shall be looking at the place taken in mythology by the fermentation of alcoholic beverages.

My old favourites the Norse Gods have a couple of adventures on the subject. In one, the truce between the Aesir, the gods of Asgard, and the Vanir, the ‘shining ones from beyond’ is sealed by all of these divine beings spitting in to a cauldron. Odin makes Kvasir, a man of great wisdom, from the resultant holy goo and sends him off in to the world to do good. Two dwarves kill him, mix honey with his blood and brew a sublime mead that can bestow a magical ability to speak with great skill and weave words together in rhythm and rhyme.
The giant Suttung steals the three cauldrons, putting them under guard of his daughter Gunlod in a cave deep under a mountain. Odin then embarks on a long and arduous journey to retrieve the Mead Of Poetry for the gods. In another Norse tale there is no ale for a feast and no cauldron big enough to brew it so Thor is despatched to the land of the giants to fetch an appropriate brewing vat.

The theme of not having the necessary equipment seems common in the North. The Finnish epic “The Kalevala” contains a section in which the wedding beer will not start its fermentation. It appears they know about barley, hops and water but not yeast. A magic virgin despatches a squirrel, a marten and a bee on quests to bring back pine cones, bear spittle, and honey respectively. Even when they finally get the bubbles to rise the beer itself refuses to have a beneficial effect unless someone sings about how marvellous it is.

In the cuniform tablets of the ancient Sumerians we find a hymn to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi, which also contains the full recipe and instructions. Similarly, in the epic of Gilgamesh, when the wild man Enkidu comes to Uruk it is not the eating of bread that civilises him but the drinking of beer. No story that I have come across recounts the amazing discovery of leavening bread with yeast. Despite all the associations we, as modern people, have with grain goddesses, there are relatively few deities of bread and apparently no existing recipes from the earliest writings. It is also an interesting point that the instigators of agriculture were not growing wheat but barley. It is not surprising then, that some archaeologists and historians are of the opinion that the driving force behind the spread of agriculture was not food supply but the discovery of the delights of beer! Certainly the mythological record accords far more importance to beer than bread.

The journey into the origins of the myths about beer has lead me to the possibility that the amber nectar may be behind the greatest shift in human society we have yet experienced: the move from nomadic hunting and gathering to a settled agrarian society with cities and all that they bring. With my foaming bucket of barley and hops I am following in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors (except for the pinecones and bear spit), and I look forward to a very civilised March before I head off on tour in April, May and June.

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The Secrets of Wizards and Kings


Last Month a friend passed on a request from a Swedish radio programme asking for someone to talk to them about King Arthur on location at Glastonbury and Tintagel. Nice work if you can get it (which I did and it was), but it wasn’t without difficulty. The problem with the Arthurian cycle is that there is so much of it. The initial tale carried sufficient weight and gravity that it began to pull other stories to it, some remain distinct, merely orbiting the Arthuriad, like Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight. Others, like the pre-Christian celtic hunt for the magic cauldron of rebirth, are pulled through the atmosphere and spread over the surface in a highly altered form as the quest for the Holy Grail.

Tectonic forces bend and fold the accreted layers of legend so that Morgan Le Fey, who is originally the Lady of the Lake and on Arthur’s side, becomes twisted in to his most vociferous opponent; the romance of Tristan and Isuelt slides over and is impressed upon the characters of Lancelot and Guinevere; the victorious but truncated campaign against Rome is buried so deeply that all that remains is a trip to France.

infront of a distant medieval tower, a vast host of armed men and an anvil, a young man holds aloft a shining sword

Arthur draws Excalibur from an anvil

Somehow the underlying myth survives. The tyrannical King Uther Pendragon uses Merlin’s art to commit adultery with the beautiful Igraine, wife of Gorlois and mother of Morgause, whilst Gorlois is simultaneously killed in battle by Uther’s men. Uther marries Igraine and as payment for his help Merlin takes the offspring of this union and heir to the throne, Arthur, placing him in fosterage with Sir Ector. Merlin sets a challenge to any would be kings that they have to pull a sword from a stone. Arthur grows up as a poor person of no consequence until he accidentally achieves the test and is proclaimed king. War ensues because he is not of noble birth. He meets and adulterously sleeps with his half sister, Morgause, while he is unaware of the family connection. Merlin tells everyone that Arthur is Uther and Igraine’s son, thus putting an end to the conflict but making Morgause and Arthur somewhat uncomfortable. Arthur, having been brought up without privilege, sets up the Round Table, instituting an ideal of equality and promoting the code of chivalry to put an end to the abuses of power previously enjoyed by knights and kings. So far, so much in line with Merlin’s plan and a Golden Age ensues. This is the point at which knights go on quests and the various tales set “in the time of King Arthur” happen. Unfortunately Morgause had a son as a result of her fling with Arthur and she tells the boy, Mordred, that he should be King in his turn. Embarrassed by the incestuous circumstances, Arthur does not recognise Mordred as his son but treats him as his nephew. When Arthur takes his army out of the country on campaign, Mordred is left in charge but takes things too far by claiming that Arthur has died and he is now King. Arthur returns to reclaim his throne and both armies are destroyed while father and son kill each other.

The apparently inevitable tragic ending can leave one feeling the whole thing is rather pointless, but Merlin’s plan to raise an empathic and caring monarch actually works! Where he goes wrong is that Morgause never forgives Merlin or Uther for the rather callous way they use her mother and dispose of her father. This resentment is extended to Arthur and transferred to Mordred. Merlin’s second mistake is in not telling Arthur about his parentage soon enough to prevent his fateful dalliance with Morgause. Arthur then has a chance to diffuse the impending doom by acknowledging and nurturing Mordred… which he fails to do.

So, this myth’s lessons are: 

1. Deception carries a cost even when used to “do good” if anyone gets hurt, the good gets cancelled out; secrets are like explosives, the longer they are kept the less predictable the results.

2. (and most importantly), our deepest regrets, fears or sins, our inner darkness, must be acknowledged, loved, integrated… or it will destroy us.

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The Wrath Of Thor


I’m taking a set of Viking tales out on tour at the end of February, which is, for me, a return to what I started with. At my very first storytelling I told three tales of the Norse gods, one of which, “The lay of Thrym” more commonly known as “The Theft Of Thor’s Hammer”, has remained in my ‘ready bag’ almost continuously for the twenty something years since. Almost. There are many reasons why a teller will drop a story, maybe we become over familiar and begin to gabble through it, or some other tale with too similar a theme takes our fancy; fear that one may be struck by lightning is not generally amongst them.

Possibly the most accurate image of Thor on the internet by Canadian artist Daniel Andrews. Note: iron gloves, belt of strength, sensible clothes, red hair and beard, iron hammer, absence of winged/horned helmet. You can find more of his work here http://danielandrews.ca/

Thor is the popular, people’s god, the adventuring bearded redhead who protects mankind, gods, elves and dwarves from the constant threat of the Frost Giants with the aid of his magic hammer, Mjollnir. One morning Thor woke up to find Mjollnir had been stolen. After much hullabaloo in Asgard, the home of the gods, it transpired that the thief was none other than Thrym, the king of the giants. Thrym’s terms for the return of the hammer are that Freya, the beautiful fertility goddess, is sent to be his bride. When the gods cook up a plan to send Thor in a wedding dress and veil he is at first somewhat reticent but eventually Loki, offering to tag along as a bridesmaid, persuades him. The ensuing scene in the giants hall builds as Thor all but gives himself away, while Loki cleverly keeps the laughably dense Thrym in a state of ignorant excitement until Mjollnir is brought forth to bless the wedding. After Thor is reunited with his weapon it is all downhill for the giants and, leaving them lying in the blood drenched hall he and Loki head back across the sky in Thor’s chariot. The thunder rolls, the rain falls and the ice of winter is washed away.

This tale is rooted in the very serious struggle against the cold northern winters, but in a time when the Scandinavians felt familiar enough with Thor to not only worship but have a laugh with him, it developed in to a comic interlude in the mythological cycle with the reluctantly cross-dressing sky god as the main source of the humour. As my own performance of this classic developed I portrayed Thor as less and less intelligent. Audiences were increasingly amused by my befuddled thunderer.

One fine sunny, summer’s day I was playing a festival in Romsey, a great location with around 150 people gathered to enjoy live music, beer and storytelling in a historic garden. After a couple of other stories, I launched in to “The Theft”. About half way through, just as Thor and Loki were preparing to set of for Thrymheim, it began to cloud over. Then the rain began to fall, harder and harder, until the audience had to run for cover. A month later I was the entertainment for two hundred eager scouts huddled around a camp fire. Once again the weather was clear and fine until I began “The Theft”, whereupon it quickly deteriorated in to driving rain. We decamped to the marquee where it was almost impossible to finish the story because of the water thrashing against the roof. When another beautiful day was ruined as the same thing happened for a third time, this time augmented with thunder, that I recognised the pattern and began to worry about lightning strikes.

You can’t leave a good story untold though, so when I was telling some friends about the experiences above I ended with a public apology to Thor, and have taken care ever since to keep my portrayal of the God of Storms a bit more respectful. So far it seems to be working, I have not been struck with a hundred thousand volts and even this summer I was able to get to the end of the tale with the sky blue and the audience dry. It will probably get a few tellings on my Viking Raid in Feb and March*, if I do it well enough it might keep it from snowing.

*Currently confirmed dates:
Thursday 28th Feb The Ale House, Reading
Sunday 3rd March The Elm Tree, Cambridge
Monday 4th March The White Lion, Norwich
Tuesday 5th March The Devonshire Arms, Cambridge
Saturday 9th March The London Inn, Morchard Bishop, Devon

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The Gift of Fire


So there I was lighting the fire, a simple task when you have a lighter and newspaper to help you along, and I took myself to wondering which came first, the fire or the sitting around telling stories?

It didn’t take me long to decide that language would have been necessary for the successful dissemination of fire skills through the population. Therefore, if they had language, they already had stories. The next ponder that ambled in to my mind, as I gently steered my collection of assorted sized bits of wood between smokey extinction and wild, house threatening inferno, was how did our ancestors come by this knowledge?

It’s not an easy business, starting a fire from scratch without any of the modern aids. I have seen a Viking re-enactor strike a flint and catch a spark, with a little blowing and a carefully prepared stack he had a good blaze in about ten seconds. I have only seen people rubbing two sticks together on telly or heard it described and it takes a good deal more effort and time. Both methods require skill and preparation that make them unlikely candidates for accidental discovery, but without a way to make fire we would have remarkably few technologies and be confined to a far smaller area of the earths surface.

The Greek God Prometheus escapes through the sky with stolen fire on a stick

Prometheus

It is a surprising thing that nowhere (that I have come across) in the mythological past is there any mention of how the wheel was invented. The acquisition of fire, on the other hand, is a story told in nearly all cultures around the globe. Although the cast of characters may change the essence remains the same: someone had to steal it, usually with a stick. The criminal benefactor may be divine or semi-divine: Maui in Polynesia, Prometheus in Greece; some Australian Aboriginal stories have a man climbing a rope to nab fire from the sun or stealthily stealing it from a neighbours camp fire; assorted animals are credited by the various native tribes of America and elsewhere; from Normandy to Nantucket, the wren, the rat, the fish and the hawk have all turned tea leaf for a flame.

Neither Prometheus, Maui nor any of the other burglars of the blaze are fire gods themselves. In Hawaii the goddess Pele rules fires and volcanic activity, in Greece Hephaestus has the same job. In these unpredictably explosive areas fire must have been rather common, the deities of burning mountains were surely generous enough with their gifts, why do we need a lesser supernatural being to half inch a bit of combustion? My belief is that volcanic eruptions, forest or grass fires, lightening struck trees and any other form of naturally occurring conflagration were very sensibly kept away from by our ancestors as extremely dangerous and uncertain. Only after the first very brave warrior put aside rational fear, risked life and limb to get close to the rage of the gods and poke it with a stick did fire become something safe enough to consider sitting near.

The hero is often punished by the gods for their unselfish act. Prometheus ends up chained to a rock having his immortal liver lunched on by an eagle on a daily basis. I wonder if this element of the story recalls how our bold robber suffered from smoke inhalation or heat damage? So next time we sit warming ourselves around some merrily crackling logs telling each other tales, maybe we should spare a thought for our audacious ancestor who risked the anger of the gods to bring us the gift of fire.

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

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Filed under Mythology, stories, Storytelling