Tag Archives: Myth

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

Back To The Beginning Again


Along with many other storytellers I am particularly drawn to mythologies, the sets of stories featuring the deities that shaped the world. The similarities and differences between our most fundamental perceptions of the universe we live in are fascinating.

Africa is a big continent. It’s bigger than Europe, India the United States and China put together. Across this vast area of deserts, mountains, jungles, plains, deltas and downlands (any of which make England look like Rutland), a great variety of peoples and cultures have developed, dwindled, fought, traded and flourished. Earlier this year I was given “A treasury of African Folklore” by Harold Courtlander, despite being over 600 pages and the size of a brick this tome barely offers a peek through a gap in the door to the treasure house of tales that the various African nations tell, but what a peek it is! Although only on page 193 I am already onto my third creation. This one comes from the Yoruba people of Western Nigeria.

A long time ago earth did not exist. There was sky above and water below. Oloron was the chief “orisha” (spirit, or god. As with the Japanese “Kami” it would appear to be a word that covers both without directly translating as either). Other orisha included Oloron’s children, Eshu, the god of unpredictability; Orunmila, the spirit of divination and the unrelated Obatala, King of the White Cloth (The Yoruban pantheon is conspicuously male, in stark contrast to their neighbours, the Fon people, who’s deities are predominantly couples and androgynes). All these orisha lived in the sky and paid no attention to the only female orisha, Olokun, who ruled over the waters and marshes below… until Obatala looked down and decided it would be a good idea to make some land for things to live on.

Obatala makes the earth

First he checked with Oloron who agreed it was a fine plan (notably, nobody bothers to consult Olokun which leads to trouble further down the line), then he called on Orunmila who divined what he would need. After a long process of gathering all the gold in heaven from a variety of unspecified orishas the goldsmith eventually makes a chain and Obatala climbs down, pours a snail shell full of sand into the sea, drops a hen on it who spreads it around in an uneven fashion thus creating hills and the like, plants a palm nut and settles down with a black cat. It’s all a bit dark so Obatala requests some light and Oloron, the sky god, makes the sun.

Eventually Obatala starts to feel lonely and begins to make people out of clay. The work is tiring and Obatala decides to take a break for some refreshment. He taps the palm trees for their sap, ferments it and quenches his thirst. Now that the world is a little softer Obatala returns to his labour but with drunken fingers he makes a number of misshapen figures, some with short arms, some with too few fingers, some bent or humped and because of his befuddled state he does not notice his mistakes. When they are all done he calls upon Oloron again to breathe life in to them and so the human race came to be. When Obatala sobered up and saw his handiwork he was filled with sorrow. He promised never to touch palm wine again and to take especial care of all those who are lame, formed imperfectly, blind or with no pigment in their skin.

It fascinates me how each different culture finds some specific question to answer, like why men and women are different or why death is irreversible, frequently leaving the generation of essential features like the sun with a brief, almost casual, passing reference. I am also struck repeatedly by the acceptance of imperfect gods and how their imperfections explain the world we experience, often far better than if they were all powerful and all knowing.

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

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The Secrets of Wizards and Kings


Last Month a friend passed on a request from a Swedish radio programme asking for someone to talk to them about King Arthur on location at Glastonbury and Tintagel. Nice work if you can get it (which I did and it was), but it wasn’t without difficulty. The problem with the Arthurian cycle is that there is so much of it. The initial tale carried sufficient weight and gravity that it began to pull other stories to it, some remain distinct, merely orbiting the Arthuriad, like Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight. Others, like the pre-Christian celtic hunt for the magic cauldron of rebirth, are pulled through the atmosphere and spread over the surface in a highly altered form as the quest for the Holy Grail.

Tectonic forces bend and fold the accreted layers of legend so that Morgan Le Fey, who is originally the Lady of the Lake and on Arthur’s side, becomes twisted in to his most vociferous opponent; the romance of Tristan and Isuelt slides over and is impressed upon the characters of Lancelot and Guinevere; the victorious but truncated campaign against Rome is buried so deeply that all that remains is a trip to France.

infront of a distant medieval tower, a vast host of armed men and an anvil, a young man holds aloft a shining sword

Arthur draws Excalibur from an anvil

Somehow the underlying myth survives. The tyrannical King Uther Pendragon uses Merlin’s art to commit adultery with the beautiful Igraine, wife of Gorlois and mother of Morgause, whilst Gorlois is simultaneously killed in battle by Uther’s men. Uther marries Igraine and as payment for his help Merlin takes the offspring of this union and heir to the throne, Arthur, placing him in fosterage with Sir Ector. Merlin sets a challenge to any would be kings that they have to pull a sword from a stone. Arthur grows up as a poor person of no consequence until he accidentally achieves the test and is proclaimed king. War ensues because he is not of noble birth. He meets and adulterously sleeps with his half sister, Morgause, while he is unaware of the family connection. Merlin tells everyone that Arthur is Uther and Igraine’s son, thus putting an end to the conflict but making Morgause and Arthur somewhat uncomfortable. Arthur, having been brought up without privilege, sets up the Round Table, instituting an ideal of equality and promoting the code of chivalry to put an end to the abuses of power previously enjoyed by knights and kings. So far, so much in line with Merlin’s plan and a Golden Age ensues. This is the point at which knights go on quests and the various tales set “in the time of King Arthur” happen. Unfortunately Morgause had a son as a result of her fling with Arthur and she tells the boy, Mordred, that he should be King in his turn. Embarrassed by the incestuous circumstances, Arthur does not recognise Mordred as his son but treats him as his nephew. When Arthur takes his army out of the country on campaign, Mordred is left in charge but takes things too far by claiming that Arthur has died and he is now King. Arthur returns to reclaim his throne and both armies are destroyed while father and son kill each other.

The apparently inevitable tragic ending can leave one feeling the whole thing is rather pointless, but Merlin’s plan to raise an empathic and caring monarch actually works! Where he goes wrong is that Morgause never forgives Merlin or Uther for the rather callous way they use her mother and dispose of her father. This resentment is extended to Arthur and transferred to Mordred. Merlin’s second mistake is in not telling Arthur about his parentage soon enough to prevent his fateful dalliance with Morgause. Arthur then has a chance to diffuse the impending doom by acknowledging and nurturing Mordred… which he fails to do.

So, this myth’s lessons are: 

1. Deception carries a cost even when used to “do good” if anyone gets hurt, the good gets cancelled out; secrets are like explosives, the longer they are kept the less predictable the results.

2. (and most importantly), our deepest regrets, fears or sins, our inner darkness, must be acknowledged, loved, integrated… or it will destroy us.

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Filed under King Arthur, Mythology

The Wrath Of Thor


I’m taking a set of Viking tales out on tour at the end of February, which is, for me, a return to what I started with. At my very first storytelling I told three tales of the Norse gods, one of which, “The lay of Thrym” more commonly known as “The Theft Of Thor’s Hammer”, has remained in my ‘ready bag’ almost continuously for the twenty something years since. Almost. There are many reasons why a teller will drop a story, maybe we become over familiar and begin to gabble through it, or some other tale with too similar a theme takes our fancy; fear that one may be struck by lightning is not generally amongst them.

Possibly the most accurate image of Thor on the internet by Canadian artist Daniel Andrews. Note: iron gloves, belt of strength, sensible clothes, red hair and beard, iron hammer, absence of winged/horned helmet. You can find more of his work here http://danielandrews.ca/

Thor is the popular, people’s god, the adventuring bearded redhead who protects mankind, gods, elves and dwarves from the constant threat of the Frost Giants with the aid of his magic hammer, Mjollnir. One morning Thor woke up to find Mjollnir had been stolen. After much hullabaloo in Asgard, the home of the gods, it transpired that the thief was none other than Thrym, the king of the giants. Thrym’s terms for the return of the hammer are that Freya, the beautiful fertility goddess, is sent to be his bride. When the gods cook up a plan to send Thor in a wedding dress and veil he is at first somewhat reticent but eventually Loki, offering to tag along as a bridesmaid, persuades him. The ensuing scene in the giants hall builds as Thor all but gives himself away, while Loki cleverly keeps the laughably dense Thrym in a state of ignorant excitement until Mjollnir is brought forth to bless the wedding. After Thor is reunited with his weapon it is all downhill for the giants and, leaving them lying in the blood drenched hall he and Loki head back across the sky in Thor’s chariot. The thunder rolls, the rain falls and the ice of winter is washed away.

This tale is rooted in the very serious struggle against the cold northern winters, but in a time when the Scandinavians felt familiar enough with Thor to not only worship but have a laugh with him, it developed in to a comic interlude in the mythological cycle with the reluctantly cross-dressing sky god as the main source of the humour. As my own performance of this classic developed I portrayed Thor as less and less intelligent. Audiences were increasingly amused by my befuddled thunderer.

One fine sunny, summer’s day I was playing a festival in Romsey, a great location with around 150 people gathered to enjoy live music, beer and storytelling in a historic garden. After a couple of other stories, I launched in to “The Theft”. About half way through, just as Thor and Loki were preparing to set of for Thrymheim, it began to cloud over. Then the rain began to fall, harder and harder, until the audience had to run for cover. A month later I was the entertainment for two hundred eager scouts huddled around a camp fire. Once again the weather was clear and fine until I began “The Theft”, whereupon it quickly deteriorated in to driving rain. We decamped to the marquee where it was almost impossible to finish the story because of the water thrashing against the roof. When another beautiful day was ruined as the same thing happened for a third time, this time augmented with thunder, that I recognised the pattern and began to worry about lightning strikes.

You can’t leave a good story untold though, so when I was telling some friends about the experiences above I ended with a public apology to Thor, and have taken care ever since to keep my portrayal of the God of Storms a bit more respectful. So far it seems to be working, I have not been struck with a hundred thousand volts and even this summer I was able to get to the end of the tale with the sky blue and the audience dry. It will probably get a few tellings on my Viking Raid in Feb and March*, if I do it well enough it might keep it from snowing.

*Currently confirmed dates:
Thursday 28th Feb The Ale House, Reading
Sunday 3rd March The Elm Tree, Cambridge
Monday 4th March The White Lion, Norwich
Tuesday 5th March The Devonshire Arms, Cambridge
Saturday 9th March The London Inn, Morchard Bishop, Devon

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Filed under Mythology, Norse Gods, Storytelling, Thor

“Death cometh, soon or late”


This week it has come to one of our beloved cats and our broadband router. Each case bringing it’s own particular suspension of time and normal activity; one through tears, reminiscence and digging; the other tortuous trouble-shooting and inaccessible e-mails.

Black hooded, scythe in hand, one skeletal finger pointed accusingly at the salmon mousse, the medieval European reaper has pretty much eclipsed all other psycopomps, those who guide our souls to their final resting place. Valkyries and angels occasionally wing their chosen ones away to a blessed afterlife but consensus of popular culture (the very definition of folk-tale) is that our last breath will be harvested by a cloak full of bones with a voice like tombstones and a good line in dry humour.

But where will Mr. Grim take us? Let me transport you across time and space to the shores of ancient Japan which, Shinto myths tell us, were brought into manifestation from primordial chaos by Izanami and Izanagi before they too took physical form and stepped down from the high heavens. These divine lovers then populated the world with the spirits of earth, wind, mountains, trees, and so on until, whilst giving birth to the spirit of fire, Izanami was burnt sufficiently badly to cause the first death in their new world and retired to Yomi, the land of the dead. Izanagi, bereft without his dear wife, heads to the underworld to bring her back. At the back door of the mansion of the dead he speaks with Izanami who explains that she may not be allowed to return as she has eaten the food of Yomi, but she will speak with the divine spirits in charge. She solicits assurance that Izanagi will wait outside and not attempt to look at her. After waiting for a day, Izanagi gets bored and goes searching through the mansion for her using a tooth from his comb as a torch. Eventually he finds his beloved but is horrified by her decaying, maggot ridden corpse. She is deeply angered by his betrayal and sets the Hags Of Yomi, several thunder spirits and a thousand dead warriors on him. After an exciting chase, Izanagi reaches the land of light and blocks the exit with a big bolder, thus ensuring that the dead stay down there, and the enraged Izanami becomes their goddess.

A picture of a large rock

The actual physical place, with the actual physical rock that blocks the exit of Yomi.
Seriously, you can go there.

My reason for telling you this tale is that it neatly illustrates a peculiarity which is common to the great majority of mythologies. whilst there is much detail of the creation of all that is above ground no mention is made of the creation of an underworld; yet, when Izanami becomes the first dead being ever, Yomi is already in existence, fully functional, complete with staff, hosts of dead warriors and hags. It seems that no action is needed on the part of the progenitors: the underworld simply appears spontaneously in response to the existence of the world above. In most cases these underworlds accommodate both good and bad where the former live in bliss, reunited with their dearest while the latter have to wade in rivers of spears and get eaten by snakes. Going up to live with the Gods above appears to have been added later as an exclusive option for the elite. The conditions for a beatific winged courier to carry one’s soul in to the sky are generally pretty stringent, however, the tickets to the eternal re-union parties of the various underworlds are simply attained by not stealing or committing murder and generally being kind.

So when the day comes, as certainly it will, and you feel a bony digit tap you on the shoulder, and you are somewhat behind on slitting the throats of goats whilst telling your chosen deity how fab they are, do not despair, all may yet be blissful.  I look forward to seeing our little tortoiseshell kitty again.  The router I’m less fussed about.

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Filed under Death, Shinto, Underworld

The Gift of Fire


So there I was lighting the fire, a simple task when you have a lighter and newspaper to help you along, and I took myself to wondering which came first, the fire or the sitting around telling stories?

It didn’t take me long to decide that language would have been necessary for the successful dissemination of fire skills through the population. Therefore, if they had language, they already had stories. The next ponder that ambled in to my mind, as I gently steered my collection of assorted sized bits of wood between smokey extinction and wild, house threatening inferno, was how did our ancestors come by this knowledge?

It’s not an easy business, starting a fire from scratch without any of the modern aids. I have seen a Viking re-enactor strike a flint and catch a spark, with a little blowing and a carefully prepared stack he had a good blaze in about ten seconds. I have only seen people rubbing two sticks together on telly or heard it described and it takes a good deal more effort and time. Both methods require skill and preparation that make them unlikely candidates for accidental discovery, but without a way to make fire we would have remarkably few technologies and be confined to a far smaller area of the earths surface.

The Greek God Prometheus escapes through the sky with stolen fire on a stick

Prometheus

It is a surprising thing that nowhere (that I have come across) in the mythological past is there any mention of how the wheel was invented. The acquisition of fire, on the other hand, is a story told in nearly all cultures around the globe. Although the cast of characters may change the essence remains the same: someone had to steal it, usually with a stick. The criminal benefactor may be divine or semi-divine: Maui in Polynesia, Prometheus in Greece; some Australian Aboriginal stories have a man climbing a rope to nab fire from the sun or stealthily stealing it from a neighbours camp fire; assorted animals are credited by the various native tribes of America and elsewhere; from Normandy to Nantucket, the wren, the rat, the fish and the hawk have all turned tea leaf for a flame.

Neither Prometheus, Maui nor any of the other burglars of the blaze are fire gods themselves. In Hawaii the goddess Pele rules fires and volcanic activity, in Greece Hephaestus has the same job. In these unpredictably explosive areas fire must have been rather common, the deities of burning mountains were surely generous enough with their gifts, why do we need a lesser supernatural being to half inch a bit of combustion? My belief is that volcanic eruptions, forest or grass fires, lightening struck trees and any other form of naturally occurring conflagration were very sensibly kept away from by our ancestors as extremely dangerous and uncertain. Only after the first very brave warrior put aside rational fear, risked life and limb to get close to the rage of the gods and poke it with a stick did fire become something safe enough to consider sitting near.

The hero is often punished by the gods for their unselfish act. Prometheus ends up chained to a rock having his immortal liver lunched on by an eagle on a daily basis. I wonder if this element of the story recalls how our bold robber suffered from smoke inhalation or heat damage? So next time we sit warming ourselves around some merrily crackling logs telling each other tales, maybe we should spare a thought for our audacious ancestor who risked the anger of the gods to bring us the gift of fire.

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

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Filed under Mythology, stories, Storytelling

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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Filed under Fairytale, Folk Tale, stories, Storytelling