Category Archives: Spring

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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Filed under Mythology, Spring, Uncategorized

For England and St. George!


I’ve been telling the tale of St. George for nearly twenty years now, it’s a rollicking tale! I always give George a nice big dragon to fight (and like any storyteller, it keeps getting bigger) partly because that is half the story and partly because, well, George makes such a meal of it. Despite the full complement of helpful horse and magic sword it takes him three goes, a shattered lance, melted armour and a lot of hiding in an orange tree to finish off the scaly adversary. Still, persevering in the face of overwhelming odds is the English way and the English way is what St George is all about isn’t it?

Dragon Hill in the Vale of White Horse bears witness to this most English of battles where the spilt dragon’s blood has rendered a patch of ground barren to this day. Except that a search through the archives for a more detailed re-counting of the legend fairly quickly shows this to be a recent transplant, with the medieval version set amongst the sands of Egypt. Here he saves the duskily beautiful Princess Sabia from a crispy death as reptilian appeasement and we hope, briefly, for an ending in interracial marriage and harmony. Unfortunately, George is subject to some political intrigue and religious persecution at the hands of Kings Ptolemy of Egypt, Almidor of Morocco and an unnamed King of Persia. Unjustly imprisoned for seven years he fights off two lions, escapes, kills a giant and a wizard, is reunited with Sabia and takes her back to England for a right royal wedding. Eventually George returns with a huge army to take his revenge on all three of his oppressors, conquering all of north Africa and the middle east in the process, whereupon the people proclaim him king and convert, on mass, to Christianity.

So the action may not take place in England but at least the hero is the noble son of the Lord of Coventry… unless one reads the story of Sir Bevois (Pronounced Bevis) of (South) Hampton. Apart from a few variations in the preamble and the order of events, the two tales are almost identical. A little further digging reveals that both versions came back from the middle east in the mouths of crusaders: not folk tales at all but a stirring call to action, carefully casting the Muslims as the bad guys, and it was during the creation of this propaganda that George received a birth certificate and passport for a country he never, in reality, set foot in.

Shovelling even deeper reveals that the original Saint George was a soldier in the Roman army who, after speaking out against the emperor’s persecution of the Christians, was martyred (killed very unpleasantly) for his beliefs. For those who are familiar with mummer’s plays in which St George fights with a Turkish Knight, there is a final twist in that George’s birthplace, Cappadocia, was in Turkey making him a Turkish Knight himself.

With the current moves to reinvigorate him with his own Bank Holiday, we can but wonder what a man who died turning the other cheek might think of the revisions that have been made to his biography for political reasons. What would the soldier who was killed for standing up to an unjust government think of the plans to take away the peoples ancient May Day celebrations?
We will never know, but what I do know is that I shall probably still be telling of his fictitious fight with a dragon in some form or another, for another twenty years or more because, after all is said and done, it is a cracking story!

…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 April, Dragon, Folk Tale, history, Quest, Spring, stories, Storytelling

Thrice Upon A Time


So as we reach the third month, March, what better time to talk about one of the golden rules of folk tale and storytelling: if it happens more than once then it happens three times. Oh yes, the third time’s the charm!
Three siblings set out to seek their fortune. The first two are really only there to show how difficult, dangerous or disgusting the task at hand may be, through trying and failing they elevate the third adventurer by contrast. It may be that they meet a giant each and you can be sure that, if the second outsized thug is more fearsome than the first by dint of having an extra head, then an even bigger giant with the full compliment of three heads will be along shortly.

Once you start to look there is no turning back the tide of trios, triplications and trinities: our protagonist befriends three magic helpers; is given three gifts; meets three consecutively older and uglier peasants; goes to three dances; answers three riddles; turns around three times; gets three chances; meets three crones on the heath… and here we find ourselves looping in to the sphere of mythology where the triple aspects of an ancient mother goddess, creator, sustainer, destroyer are reflected in the three Greek fates, the Norse Norns and Shakespeare’s witches. It’s not just goddesses that hang around in threes: The Norse God Odin is first encountered creating the nine worlds (3×3!) with his brothers Vili and Ve alongside him before, for the sake of brevity we assume, Vili and Ve vanish without trace and their deeds are referred to Odin alone. A similar thing happens with the Celtic God Lugh who is born one of triplets before they too are collapsed in to the singular name. Even in a nominally monotheistic religion we find a triple aspect of masculine deity in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Is it because three is the number of the divine then, that it is so popular? Well, it is also the basis of our physical world since we live in three dimensions, we all know the stability of a tripod, everything is either solid, liquid or gas. Even the business world will “tell you three times” while politicians talk about “Education, education, education.” and estate agents recite “Location, location, location”. It seems that, even in the most mundane of environments, if it happens more than once then it happens three times.

Maybe it’s because three gives us a beginning, a middle and an end, though it may be hard to know where the beginning is. In the case of the year it obviously begins on January 1st… Unless you’re Chinese when it gets going in February… or, if you have had a slow opening to 2011 and would like to start all over again then your third chance comes from following the Roman, Persian or astrological example, all three of which celebrate the new year in March.

It would appear that three is the natural number, the number of completeness, it just is the right number. So there you have a golden rule of folk tale, and like so much in these old traditions it is a microcosm of the world around us: if it happens more than once then it happens three times!

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

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Filed under Fairytale, Folk Tale, March, Rule of three, Spring, 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