Tag Archives: Goddess

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

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under African, Mythology

Of Cats, Queens and Star Mice


Where, you might ask, did witchcraft come from? How did this magic lark get started? Well, I could answer with talk of tribal shamanism, of ancient herbalists who also practised a little psychological manipulation of simple folk… but that story is a modern construct, a theory advanced by anthropologists and authors of fantasy and, for my taste, has to ferment a little longer before it can officially be recognised as folklore. The story I am going to tell you has been around a bit longer, even if it hasn’t been around as long as it claims.

The story starts at the very beginning when the goddess Diana is the first created being. Containing all within herself she splits herself in two, producing from her own darkness the light, simultaneously her son and her brother, who’s name (don’t get carried away now) is Lucifer. Here I have to interject to point out that, although the name means “morning star” and “shining” and “lord of light” depending on your translation, this Lucifer is not the same one that you find in that famous book from the middle east. This radiant fella is from Italy. Treating the one as the other would be like assuming that a chap called Peter from Weatherfield is the same as another bloke called Peter who lives in London when one of them is in Coronation Street and the other in Eastenders. The two mythologies are unconnected.

Diana having a rest after creating the earth, trees, water, bows, arrows and cloth, but not apparently clothing.


Diana, seeing the beauty of the light wishes to reunite with her other half and chases him but Lucifer is having nothing to do with her. Diana then makes the world and all that goes in it and both she and Lucifer take mortal forms and step down on to the earth. Diana busies herself teaching magic and sorcery to her creations, also bringing fairies, goblins and other supernatural creatures in to being. Lucifer has a pet cat that sleeps on his bed which, unbeknownst to him, is actually a fairy. Diana persuades the fairy to swap likenesses with her and settles on Lucifer’s bed as his cat. In the night she re-takes her own form and seduces the bringer of light. He is not entirely happy with this when he wakes in the morning but she sings to him using her craft and, quite literally, enchants him.

For some unknown reason Diana is in disguise as a mortal and none of the witches know she is their creator. She decides to impress them by putting some earth and some mice in an ox bladder (as you do) and inflating it until it bursts at which point the earth inside becomes the heavens, the mice become stars and it rains for a few days. The witches are sufficiently impressed that they take her as their queen.

Later, after Diana passed on from the mortal world, the rich people on earth cruelly enslaved and mistreated the poor, so Diana sent the daughter of her union with Lucifer, Aradia, to teach the poor people spells, magic and poison potions to use against the rich. Aradia also taught them about Diana queen of the witches, the cat who ruled the star-mice, the heaven and the rain.

Now the story of this story is that it was told by the “stregheria” or Italian witches of Roman times and was passed down an unbroken line in secret. It was first published by an American folklorist called Charles Leland in 1899 who claims it came to him from his Italian assistant Maddelena whilst they were collecting folktales in Italy. She originally wrote it down and gave it to Leland before mysteriously vanishing… It is however entirely possible that one or other of them simply made it up so it may well be a piece of literature and not mythology at all.
I expect we will never really know where witches came from, even if they do tell us themselves!

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Goddess

The Last Place You Want To Go


If you take a walk deep in to the forest of Russia you may find yourself at a strange dwelling. Before you stands a fence made of human bones. On the larger posts, regularly spaced along the bleached white barricade, sit skulls, their eyes flickering with a sickly flame. Within this gruesome enclosure a hut, with windows like eyes and a door like a wide open mouth, spins round and round on giant chicken legs. This is the home of The Baba Yaga, the most famous witch on the planet.

The Baba Yaga’s home by Thomas Denmark

The skinny, bony legged Baba Yaga has a long, hooked nose and iron teeth. Her method of travel is rather unusual: she uses a pestle and mortar, pushing the latter along with the former and swinging a broom behind her to sweep away the traces of her passing. As the pestle hits the ground it strikes sparks and makes a sound like thunder. Sometimes this peculiarly culinary form of transport, rather like having a car designed as a massive Moulinex, can even take flight.

Her name translates with difficulty, Yaga being such an old word that it’s meaning is lost in time. Through various related languages we come to Horror, Witch or Wicked Spirit. The first part, Baba, is easier meaning an elderly female relative. So how about Grandmother Evil?

Despite all the build up The Baba Yaga is an ambivalent character, as likely to hand out good advice and put everything right as she is to fire up the stove and chase children through the land licking her dry old lips in anticipation of a feast. She is probably best known as the antagonist to Vassilissa, who is variously The Beautiful or The Wise. Vassilissa is persecuted by her stepmother and step sisters who eventually put out the fire and send her to The Baba Yaga to get a light… and hopefully to get eaten. Although fearing for her life Vassilissa does various domestic chores for the Baba Yaga who, pleased with her work, sends her home with one of the flame-eyed skulls for a light. When Vassilissa arrives home the Baba Yaga’s gift incinerates her duplicitous step family.

Vasilisa by Ivan Bilibin (1902)

There are similarities here with the Grimm’s tale of Mutter Holle, in which the industrious step daughter goes down a well to retrieve her lost spindle. She finds herself working for Mutter Holle, or Mother Hell, a similarly scary, hook nosed, big toothed, bony old crone. The girl is made to shake the duvet until the feathers fly which makes it snow in the world above. When she decides to return home she is showered with gold. Sometimes The Baba Yaga is attended by three horsemen: one in red armour who rides by at dawn; one in white armour who rides by at midday and one in black armour who rides by at dusk. The symbolism will not escape you I am sure, placing Baba Yaga in charge of the daily cycle of the sun. These remnants of global powers in the natural realm give our woodland dwelling witch a somewhat different background.

In some tales there are three sisters, all called Baba Yaga. Now we have a final clue to her true nature. The Baba Yagas were once a triplicate nature goddess, mysterious, terrifying and deadly but also bountiful if approached without fear. Maybe the name translates better as Grandmother Death, not a witch at all but the ultimate power in the world… and one day we must all pass through the fence of fear and pay her a visit.

2 Comments

Filed under Russian folktale, Witches

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

2 Comments

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