Tag Archives: Legend

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

Legendary Romance


The greatest romances are, for a reason which eludes me, all about forbidden love. Whilst constancy is generally required of a hero, the romantic heroines in the stories which make women swoon do not appear to be governed by the same strictures. Lets just take a moment to look at Guinevere and Isuelt, the two most famous of romantic females, yet both appear to have round heels when it comes to their royal husbands best mate.  Is this really a desirable quality?

I don’t like Sir Lancelot.  Oh I know some will complain, but he was introduced to the corpus of Arthurian literature quite late on by the French writer Cretien De Troyes.  let’s face it, a French writer adding a character that cuckolds the British king and turns his (previously virtuous) queen in to a floozy desperate for a Gallic hunk is clearly having a laugh. Even Lancelot’s name is a dodgy pun, we shall speak of him no more.

The Cornish Tristan, although a skilled harpist and singer, is also a consummate martial artist, which is handy because he is a hot-head too and, like many a hero of days gone by, will get in to a ruck as soon as look at you.  Despite his skill he manages to get wounded by a poisoned sword whilst saving the Kingdom from it’s annual tribute to the Irish.  The only person who can cure him is the daughter of the man he has killed so off he goes, pretending to be a troubadour, to meet the beautiful Isuelt who nurses him back to health. On his return he tells his Uncle, King Mark, of the Irish belle and is promptly sent back to win her hand for the ageing monarch.  Fortunately there is a dragon to be slain and the princess is on offer as the prize for this act of oversized-vermin control.  Tristan duly tops the lizard, once again managing to get himself poisoned in the altercation, and is soon back in Isuelt’s tender care.

Once healthy, Tristan surprises everyone by claiming Isuelt for Uncle Mark instead of himself. Iseult’s

"Oh alright, what's the worst that can happen?"

mother, in an effort to save her daughter from a loveless marriage, mixes a love potion into a bottle of wine for the happy couple to drink on their wedding night.  Naturally, Tristan amuses his charge on the long sea journey with many songs until Isuelt accidentally shares out the enhanced wine and the two are overcome with desire for each other.

They try to pretend that nothing happened and the wedding goes ahead.  In some variations the bespelled pair manage better at keeping their feelings hidden than others but more often than not they are discovered and have to run away, living on moors and other inhospitable places while an enraged King Mark’s knights search the lands, hot for Tristan’s blood.  Eventually Isuelt is returned to her bitter husband while Tristan flees to Brittany and there marries another princess, also called Isuelt. Spending his frustration in a succession of combats, Tristan is wounded so badly that only the original Isuelt can save him but she arrives too late and dies of sorrow over his corpse.

la-muerte-de-tristan-e-isolda.jpg

“Doh!”

Apologists for Tristan and Iseult claim that their love was brought into it’s full heat by the accidental consumption of the love potion and it is therefore not their fault, but “we were drunk, we couldn’t help it” has never been a good excuse.  If you ever find yourself in the same situation then calling off the wedding is probably the best move and will save a lot of heart ache all round.  Unless you want to bring a kingdom to it’s knees and spend the rest of your life living on the run while your erstwhile friends attempt to bash the life out of you, I suggest you do not use medieval romances as a model for your love life.

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

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Filed under Love, Romance, stories

Smith of Smiths


Just before writing this months FTC I was out putting up posters for the Underworld Journeys show in my local village of Morchard Bishop and would like to thank our blacksmiths for such a well kept notice board. There are all sorts of smiths scattered through mythology. They are oft credited with magic powers (even beyond that of keeping a notice board orderly) and they have been respected for this over many years and in many lands. Not only magically skilled with materials and artisans of the elements, but often shape changers themselves, wise men and creators. Many are said to have wit beyond the lot of normal man.

Some cultures have deities named to them: Vulcan the Roman Forge keeper; the Greek Hephaestus, God of blacksmiths, craftsmen, sculptors, metallurgists and of course, volcanos, and as well as being the God of smiths he is also smith to the gods. All very hot powerful and awesome.

For all of their importance and power they live on the fringes, on the edge of the village. Culann, the smith of Irish mythology lives so far on the edge that it takes a day to travel to him and those who do visit have to stay overnight.

In Norse mythology we meet supernatural smiths, the dwarves,whose knowledge is so great that on more than one occasion the Norse Gods go to the dwarves to get themselves out of trouble (which Loki has inevitably got them into). These dwarven smiths are so skilled that they are able to use the breath of a fish, the sound of a cats footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear and the spittle of a bird to fashion the magical chain Gliepnir, which is as thin as a silk ribbon yet far stronger than any iron chain.

It must also be mentioned that iron, which blacksmiths work so powerfully, is one of the strongest protections against magics. Iron held, thrown over a bespelled creature or used in other ways, breaks spells and charms and shows the truth, it protects against curses, it is a magic of itself, as earthy and practical as our smiths are. This is partly where the protection granted by horseshoes comes from – it’s iron giving protection to buildings against the wiles of witches, fiends and fairies.

So the magic of smiths is earthy, the dwarves all live underground and mine the earth for it’s minerals to craft, iron comes from the earth, and one of my favorite smiths, who some consider a demi-god himself, and who, like Hephaestus is a smith to the Gods now, is said to be found (and in theory still available for work), in a neolithic burial chamber at the side of the ridgeway: Wayland’s Smithy.

 Talesman at Wayland's Smithy

Talesman at Wayland's Smithy

Wayland is sufficiently well known the he gets a name check in both the Nibelungenlied and Beowulf as the supplier of a sword and a mail shirt respectively.  In his own story, Wayland also makes wonderful jewelery, getting especially fixated on arm rings (making one a day for 700 days) after his beautiful wife (and Valkyrie), Hervor leaves him. Then, to add insult to injury he is cruelly enslaved by the wicked King Nidud on whom he eventually wreaks a savage revenge before flying off on a set of home made wings to set up home in Oxfordshire.

Within such stories the smiths are seldom really very good guys, they are also rarely the bad guy and often the true lesson in a smith’s story is that they should be treated with respect. Especially wise if you consider them to be magically skilled as well as talented metallurgists.

Here in Morchard we do parallel the mythological world nicely as we have our own smiths who are on the fringe of Morchard (in Frost) and though the forge may not actually be underground it can be said to be beneath Polson Hill, and clearly there’s good magic goes into Harold’s prize winning vegetables.

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

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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

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

Talesman FAQs


 

Often after storytellings I get asked general questions, so I thought, in case anyone was wondering, I’d answer a couple of the most regular ones here this month:

 

How did you get started?

A long, long time ago, in the ’80s, I was playing in a band. The other band members used to spend lots of time adjusting sounds and effects between each song. Being the bassist it was left to me to fill the “dead air” so I began reciting Lewis Carrol and constructing elaborate introductions to the folk songs. I found I enjoyed talking with the audience and wanted to do more. Then my parents took me along to the village gardening club Christmas dinner for company. For entertainment they had a lady reciting her own Pam Ayres style poems who was reasonably amusing for 10 minutes but 40 minutes was more than enough. With the arrogance of youth I said to my Dad “I could have done better than that”, so, being a committee member, the following year he said “I’ll put my money where your mouth is” and booked me to be the entertainment. Although my parents had always been very tolerant of my artistic activities, they had never appeared to take them seriously before so I was a bit surprised and determined not to let my father down. I scarfed up a bunch of Norse Gods stories and, (despite years of theatrical and musical performance experience) shaking like a leaf on a very breezy day, I stood up on my own and did my first storytelling… and was immediately booked for a gig in a local pub as a result!

 

Where do the stories come from?

In short “Days of Yore”!

I like stories with a bit of history, tales that have been matured in oak or earth and have roots that can be traced back through time. A recent lead took me to the Sumerian legends, written on clay tablets four and a half thousand years ago by the inventors of agriculture and the builders of the first cities, but they still speak strongly to us today. Some of the more widely spread “world stories” are even believed to have first been breathed in to life at the firesides of the tribes migrating out of africa for the very first time.

 

I’m a storyteller because I love the stories. Over the years I have collected about 6 metres of books filled with myths, legends and folktales. They cover not just those original Norse Gods but the popular Celtic hero cycles, great stores of British folk tales harvested during the 18th and 19th centuries and collections from across Europe and beyond.

 

A lot of the original material was the entertainment of kings and warriors in their feasting halls, from the roundhouses of the Celts and longhouses of the Saxons to medieval banquets. These stories were told again in great barns for the festivities of ordinary communities and at Victorian parlour recitals before TV dumbed us all down. Many tales were created or kept alive at pub firesides (which still make some of my best regular bookings), where people can relax with a drink and enjoy being taken on an adventure.

 

So how do you remember them all?

When I first started it was really hard but, like any muscle, the more you use your memory the easier it gets. If the story means something to you, then you get involved in the telling and it unfolds naturally as if there is no other way it could. As it happens, the myths of the Norse Gods are some of the hardest to remember and if I hadn’t started with them I might never have got round to them. Why? Because everything, every hall, every animal, every utensil, every rock, everything in the story has a name. In Old Norse.

 

So it’s actually your job then?

Yes indeed! Other things have grown from it over the years like historic interpretation, guided story walks and workshops for schools. I still make some of my income with my trusty bass and the odd bit of sound work but it’s, more often than not, the magic of the Gods, the strength of ancient heroes and the wit of clever princesses that pays my mortgage.

 

How do you get work?

Being freelance is a tough business, my partner Jo acts as my agent and we are always on the lookout for places we think would make good venues, so if you know of any likely spots for tales do let me (or the venue) know. I often get the best tellings when people like you decide you want it to happen.

 

 

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

 

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Golden Apples at Midsummer


In contrast to May day, June’s significant date, the summer solstice, has surprisingly few references in traditional folk tales and mythology considering it’s modern popularity. However, the seaways are clear; the roads less muddy; the crops have all been planted and harvest is a couple of months away: now is the time to set out on impossible missions in search of improbable objects!

The spur to action is often a sickness that has fallen upon a loved one and only the Water of Life (from the Fountain of Youth at the end of the world, guarded by an ogre/ giant/ multi-headed dragon) or a Golden Apple will cure them. Not much to ask. You might think that the apple is a better bet but the quest for the Golden Apple invariably leads our hero to far flung lands and, of course, in to myriad dangers facing exotic beasts.

It’s unsurprising that, with all these brave youths off scrumping, there is another set of tales which start with a king whose wondrous tree of life-giving fruit is raided every summer. The cure for this trouble tends to be the procurement of an equally wondrous, brightly plumaged bird which a posse of princes is dispatched to acquire.

Now, folktales are as much about learning as entertainment, so if you find yourself  in a foreign land hunting for a mythical avian or metallic fruit, here are some tips:
1. Horses, foxes, wolves (in fact, any kind of canine) and the maid at the first castle you are imprisoned in, should all be treated with respect as they usually turn out to be endowed with astonishing magical powers. Without their help you are likely to be eaten, put to death or left wandering and lost in the first impenetrable forest you come to.
2. If your elder brothers are on the same quest, watch out: They will nick anything valuable you have obtained and leave you stuck in a swamp as soon as look at you. (But don’t worry, after your supernatural assistant has sorted it all out you can really tick them off by forgiving them at the end of the story).

In the Norse myth “The Theft of Idun’s Apples”, the giant Thiazi, with help from Loki, steals Idun and her Golden apples of immortality from Asgard (home of the Norse Gods).  With these life giving treasures gone the Gods start to grow old, staggering and stammering beneath the hot summer sun until Loki, as he so often does, makes good again. This time it is achieved by borrowing Freya’s falcon skin to fly out and retrieve Idun. Thiazi pursues Loki in the form of an eagle, gets his wings singed, crash lands in Asgard and, in an almost Pythonesque scene, is set upon by the geriatric Gods before Idun hands out her apples thus returning the Gods to their youthful vigour.

But why all this fuss over apples? Wouldn’t golden ones be a bit difficult to chew? Well, some scholars believe that the unidentified illness suffered by the princess/ king/ Gods is actually scurvy, the cure for which is vitamin C. Come the summer, the fruit from the previous year had been used up, hence the need to travel to warmer lands. Historically ‘apple’ was a general term for any fruit: a Golden Apple is an orange!

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

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Filed under June, Quest, stories, Summer