Category Archives: Otherworld

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

Inside A Storyteller


English is a cruel mistress, a temptress dressed in rich robes, with ruffles and rubies, elegant in smooth silks and satins.  I love her lines of Anglo-Saxon alliteration, as she dances forward in double stresses, stepping and stamping with pride and passion.  I love her softer side, scented prose, seducing with the smooth susurration of sweet assonance.  Her slyly smiling similes and magical metaphors beguile and entrance.  I love the very bones of her, words made of a calcium recycled long ago from some far off land, rugged enough for rigourous use yet still flexible enough to take on a new meaning in the mouths of our successive generations.

Yet her most sinuous moves seem always saved for the caress of another’s pen, her most delicate curves reserved for the brush of other lips.  With me her favourite game is hide and seek.  Here, at the computer I can draw and redraw her elusive beauty, tame her with tools, trap her with a thesaurus.  She teases me as I do so: “Too clumsy” she admonishes, “Too clever” she sighs, “Too much altogether!” she giggles and then hides.  Again.

But I am a spoken word artist.  I stand before you and invite language to dance on my tongue.  It’s live, real time action adventure, no tea breaks to ponder the next paragraph.  The matter in hand (or in mouth) is folk tale and, thankfully, the the choreography rarely requires the complexity of it’s more literary cousins: vernacular steps for vernacular material.  I release my love from the demands of convoluted contortions and ask only that she keeps going, a continuous forward motion.  Now, in peasants clothes and dirty, bare feet she kicks up her heels and she’s away, leaping and twirling, occasionally rewarding my generosity with a back flip and triple salco.  She still teases, hiding a word I need behind her back until the very last second or spinning, heart-stopingly, down a blind alley only to leap lightly on to fire escape that wasn’t there a moment ago.

Obviously keeping her in motion takes up a great deal of my attention but I am busy with other things too.  My internal director is barking orders: “Remember to make eye contact with the children in the front row.  There’s a princess coming up, find a woman to flatter with the description of her beauty.  Good work! Now back off – her husbands looking antsy.  Take it down, slowly now, almost a whisper, lets make this surprise really work, pause… and GO!  Now the king’s on in a moment, can you give him a bit more of an accent this time?”

For all our years of working together though, we are not in charge.  Above us all there is a higher power: the story itself.  I have chewed it over but, like a virus or a bacteria, it is not broken down by my digestive juices.  It has encysted inside me living a life of it’s own.  A strong story may even cannibalise some of it’s brothers, incorporating their best bits in to itself.  My internal team and I are only midwives assisting in the story’s re-entry to the world.  Older than the trees, it is used to waiting but it wants to be told, to burst forth and plant it’s seed in fresh ears.

As the story opens up before me I feed the pictures to Dame English and she dances on, step-step-jump-turn, and the Director does his best to keep the performance on track as it accelerates towards it’s climax.  This is the most dangerous moment, if we lose our footing now then all the work we have done is wasted.  My leading lady carefully sets herself up for the last dash while the director nudges me to centre stage and makes me do a quick sweep around the whole audience, meeting eyes, gathering you in.

But the story is a big boy now, asserting it’s reality on top of mine.  I can’t complain, I have encouraged it, but it is strange standing there in front of you, knowing you are listening while my eyes see another place and time entirely.  Under dragon attack for instance, my team flees screaming in to the distance.  As dust whirls and huge claws crash to the ground this side and that, I look down at the parched desert floor, scrabble for words to chuck out to you and catch only gravel, It spills from my mouth skidding beneath the hooves of the hero’s horse.  I duck and dive, weave this way and that as the scythe like claws whistle through the air just inches from my face.  Heart pounding, I babble a breathless commentary, my arms flailing wildly, hands reaching out for words half obscured amidst airborne sand and smoke, trying to pluck power and purpose from the hot unfocused air.

Deep, deep within, a small voice intones a constant prayer to the one eyed god of poetry: “Don’t let me die. Don’t let me die”.  I mean it both as the theatrical metaphor, and literally, as the dragon fixes me with it’s vast black eyes and raises his deadly claw to strike.  The story is running the show now – and it has an agenda.  Our stories tell us who we are, as individuals and as a nation.  This story reminds us we are heroes, that we can face our fears and overcome our monsters:  it has no intention of letting the claw come down.  Through the fog of combat it suddenly presents me with the hero’s magic sword and gratefully grasping the leather wrapped hilt, I-he-you-we are carried forward by our steadfast steed, between the dragon’s very legs and swiftly strike upward delivering shining steel death to our ancient enemy.

My team have returned, the director exhorting cheers from the audience and Lady Language tap dancing lightly to “happily ever after”.  The Manager takes over, smoothly handling the PR, “Thank you, thank you, I’ve been The Travelling Talesman, you’ve been a wonderful audience, see you next time!”.  People come up to me asking “Where do you get your stories from?” and “How do you remember it all?”.  The manager trots out professional platitudes, giving them something they can take away with them.  I do not mention the deep, dark well of the unconscious mind or the chaos that goes on backstage.  Oh, I can tell them all sorts of ways to learn a story but would they understand if I said that, in the white heat of telling, it’s often the story that remembers me? …And even I don’t know how my leading lady stays on that narrow, narrative tightrope… maybe she returns my love after all.

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Filed under Dragon, Folk Tale, Otherworld, stories, Storytelling

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