Category Archives: August

The Blame Game

As I write this in early July the weather has been so bad that there is already talk of a poor harvest and a need to import grain. In days gone by, when imports were somewhat harder to organise and the community relied on it’s harvest for survival, this would be a considerably more troubling situation than it is today, and the person it would trouble most was the king. This was not just because the headache of working out the rationing would fall to him but because, as the divinely appointed ruler, such exceptionally prolonged rainfall was obviously his fault.

From a recent outburst by a high up member of the clergy right back in to antiquity long patches of dodgy meteorology have been blamed on poor governance. Interestingly it is not just shambolic or misguided leadership that brings out this particular superstition. It is only when the leaders have become morally or ethically negligent, when protectors have turned oppressors, when providers have become hoarders, that dissatisfaction is perceived to have entered the spirit realm and hence manifest in excessive precipitation.

Why then, you may ask, would a cold hearted tyrant, who is happy to see his people suffer deprivation for the benefit of himself and his cronies, care if they start blaming him for a bit of flooding too? Well, let me begin my answer with a story.

Once upon a time in Phrygia there lived a man called Lityerses, who was the illegitimate son of King Midas (yes, he of the golden touch). Every year, when Lityerses was harvesting his fields he would keep an eye open for any strangers passing by. On spotting one he would invite them to dine with him, laying on a sumptuous feast, then he would force them to help with his harvest. When the last sheaf was cut, Lityerses would wrap his unfortunate assistant in it, slice off his head with a sickle and dump his stalk swathed corpse in the river. One year, however, Hercules happened to be the stranger who passed by so, after making light work of his host’s feast and reaping across the field in record time, he put an end to the Phrygian’s murderous practice by wrapping Lityerses in the final sheaf and cutting his head off.

“We’re all in this together!”

This story and many others like it, including folk customs from the UK, carry an echo of the old belief that human sacrifice was a sure fire way to secure a good crop; life was taken from the field so a life would be given to the fields. That Hercules doesn’t just escape with his life but stops Lityerses from inflicting his ritual on any further hapless victims shows that the late bronze age’s more civilised and literate society would no longer support human sacrifice as a regular procedure. The folk customs also indicate that a symbolic sacrifice of the Corn King can take the place of the real thing.

The reason this might have been a cause for concern to the self-serving ruler of yore is that, once the food supply is in danger, a peasant, no matter how down-trodden, has little to lose. If the peasants believe the unhappy spirits of the land have, in the past, been propitiated with a little blood then what better way to rescue the situation than to kill two birds with one stone and turn your corrupt leader in to fertiliser?



Filed under August, Harvest, stories, Summer

Harvest Time

Harvest used to be the centre of the year for pretty much the entire population, it is what the long school summer holiday was for, It wasn’t time off: it was time to do some real work! We may not be the agrarian society we once were but we all know of annual events that hold great importance and carry extra stress. Tax returns, exams, stock take; we plan for them, work towards them and celebrate with a drink when they are over, but we don’t really talk about them… unless something goes wrong.

So, harvest appears in folk tale as a marker in time or a backdrop of activity that was understood by any audience, in the same way that shopping in the third week of December might be nowadays. If the actual business of bringing in the crops is important to the plot then you can be pretty sure that trouble is on it’s way. Despite many tales from other times of the year indicating the superiority of the female intellect, sending a young wife off with a scythe to tackle a field on her own is apparently a bad idea as she is likely to fall asleep or accidentally cut her own clothes off, instead of cutting the crop, and then suffer a personality crisis as she fails to recognise herself and thinks she must be someone else!

The most well known tale of harvest is “The Tops And The Butts”. This simple tale has been told, with little variation, across the whole agricultural world for hundreds of years. Sometimes the protagonists are a fox and a bear, or some other animal pairing, but mostly it’s a human farmer and a devil / bogle / boggart / (insert supernatural being of choice). The farmer (or fox) is preparing a field for planting when their antagonist appears and claims that they own the land. After some negotiation the devil (or bear) allows the farmer to proceed on condition that they share the crop. The wily farmer (or… you’ve got the point by now) asks their new partner if they would like the tops or the bottoms and when the poor dupe says “tops” the farmer plants beets, resulting in a full harvest for himself and a pile of waste leaves for his “landlord”.

Naturally the next year the bogle requests the bottoms, whereupon the farmer plants wheat and pulls in a second harvest whilst leaving the fall guy with roots and stubble. Many versions end there with the stooge muttering “This land is rubbish! You can keep it.” and wandering off in a huff.

This breaks the story telling rule that ‘Anything that happens twice happens three times.’ and I rather like it for that. Some variants though, have a third year which I am sure has been added on to make up the magic three. The field is divided in two along it’s length, planted with wheat and both parties agree to a mowing match: whoever finishes their half first gets the whole field. So the farmer cheats by planting thin metal rods amongst the wheat in the other’s half which sufficiently slow their opponent, who thinks the scythe-blunting rods are “burdocks”, that he gives up the race.

Entertaining as it is, “The Tops And The Butts” does not stand up to examination if what you want is a moral at the end of your story. The boggart’s ownership of the land may not be proven but neither is it disputed and he gives no provocation for the farmer’s trickery save being different and maybe a little slow. The story seems to suggest it’s ok to cheat people of other races, that the ‘civilised’ farmer has a right to displace the ‘ignorant’ native from their ancestral foraging grounds.

For a more ethically palatable harvest tale I recommend “The Field of Genies” which not only teaches the whole process of preparation and planting but warns against the employment of forces we do not fully comprehend. The genies who own the field (and increase in numbers exponentially as the story progresses) enthusiastically repeat the actions of the farmer, which is tremendously helpful when doing the back-breaking tasks of digging and raking etc, but accidentally giving them the wrong actions to follow results in disaster.

As artificial fertilisers and indiscriminate pesticides deplete our soil or reduce our essential biodiversity and genetically engineered crops promise magical returns that are too good to be true, we would do well to listen to the message of this old yarn.

Be it harvest, exam or stock take, if you want to reap the rewards then you have to put in the hard work: There are no short cuts.

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


Filed under August, Folk Tale, stories, Storytelling, Summer

There are nine and sixty ways…

I’ve been rebuilding my bookshelves and sorting the massive collection of storybooks back into categories.  It’s amazing how many of them feature the same stories, only slightly different.   Some vary only in the voice in which they are told; some may be a name change here or there; sometimes the same story is in rhyme; in others the motivation for action is entirely different although the main plot features settle into their familiar pattern once things get going. Sometimes you come across entire stories welded on to the end of one you know… or maybe that was it’s original form and parts have been left out in later tellings.  I remember my surprise on discovering that the famous dragon slaying episode in St. George’s tale is near the beginning of a much larger adventure. For me these discoveries are part of the exciting detective work that leads to the heart of the story!

Take Cinderella (no please take her, she’s been overshadowing her folktale sisters for far too long),  you will find variations of this tale all over the world.  They go by the various names of Tattercoats; Cap o’ Rushes; Mossycoat; Nipitfit and Clipitfit; with never a glass slipper or a pumpkin coach in sight.

Many of them are more empowered than Cinderella and don’t rely on a fairy godmother to do the work for them (though Tattercoats does get a hand from her only friend the crippled goatherd). The sisters rarely play more than a cameo role, neither ugly nor evil, they simply contribute to a misunderstanding between our heroine and (this may surprise you) her father, the king, leading to her banishment from court and a stint in lowly service.  However the main plot reveals itself as the same over and again with the poor-maid-turned-anonymous-beauty winning the heart of the Prince at three successive balls.

Now for some of us reading a variation we may find ourselves missing the familiar elements, but if we can accept the differences they often show the story in a new light revealing valuable, previously obscured aspects of the tale. Without the special effects of transformed mice or the demonised step-mother, the climax of the story shifts from Cinderella’s ‘escape’ into marriage, to Cap  O’ Rushes’ clever reconciliation with her father, making it less of a black and white Good-Versus-Evil tale and more a triumph of wit and perseverance over foolishness and pride.

One of the skills of a storyteller is to search out these variants of a story, and in exploring their individualities, get to know the essence of each tale.  These different tales may have evolved through chinese whispers one to another, or sprung up simultaneously and spontaneously from the pool of human archetypes; either way the exploring storyteller may choose to weave them into a fresh, informed, new telling of the tale, their very own contribution to the evolutionary Folk process.

As Kipling says –

“There are nine and sixty ways
of constructing tribal lays
and Every Single One of Them

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

The Travelling Talesman

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Filed under August, Cinderella, Fairytale, Folk Tale, stories