Thursday, 6 April 2017

'The Museum of Shadows and Reflections' by Claire Dean: Review

Claire Dean’s fairy stories are for adults, not because anything in them is inappropriate for children, simply because most children would find them difficult to understand. Much is left hanging in the air, hinted yet unsaid. I was already familiar with a few of the stories which have previously appeared in various new fairy tale journals, and the words I’d have used to describe them would have been ‘beautiful', 'airy', 'delicate’. Now, ‘delicate’ is a word that isn’t always welcome: it can signal ‘slight’; surely ‘delicate’ rules out ‘powerful’? Well, Hans Christian Andersen could write beautiful, airy, delicate fairy tales which have the emotional kick of a mule. At her best so can Dean, and this collection showcases a very talented writer whose work is getting better and better. The illustrations by Laura Rae perfectly complement the text.  

‘You have to catch their coats while they’re young’ is the mantra of a faded and nameless north-country village where most of the locals are married to or descended from swan maidens.  In ‘Feather Girls’ a man makes an habitual visit to the local pub to share a couple of pints and a packet of crisps with the swan-maid whom, unlike the other village men, he has refused to trap. In Dean’s elegant, sharp writing the ‘feather girl’  comes to life, ‘tall and slight in her downy white under dress, and she compulsively twiddled her fingers, as though when she had them she couldn’t bear not to be using them’. And ‘she plucked at the crisps … as though her fingers became her beak and her long thin arm took the place of her graceful neck’. It’s a story about love, loneliness and the price of freedom: it’s also perhaps a story about the way custom turns the strangest things into the quotidian. But I was left asking myself why the feather girl would join the man at all?  How far should gratitude for not being enslaved take you?  Is she sorry for him? Are there no feather men in the lake? 

People in Dean’s stories tend to be nameless: often only the subsidiary characters have names. In traditional fairy tales it’s usual for the main character to be ‘the boy’, ‘the maiden’, ‘the king's daughter’, and so universal rather than particular. Dean takes this further towards anonymity by referring to her characters with simple pronouns: ‘he’, ‘she’. It usually works I think, but occasionally the anonymity can get a little characterless. The opening story, ‘Raven’, is based on another animal transformation tale, ‘The Raven’ from the Brothers Grimm. An exhausted mother wishes her restless child would change into a raven and fly away.  In the traditional fairy tale this is the beginning of magical adventures out in the forest. Dean shows the interaction of raven-child and mother within doors, within the domestic setting. The bird-baby is active, full of energy, curiosity, boldness; the mother is passive: she copes better with the raven than she did with the child, but is emotionally numb:

I watched her watch the flock of ravens as they flew out of sight over the terraced roofs, chasing wind-torn scrags of cloud. I was still holding my arms as though to cradle her and support her head.

It’s very dreamlike. ‘I watched her’; ‘I was still holding my arms as though to cradle her’ – such physical stiffness and inability to react seem at odds with the vigorous, lively descriptions of the first-person narration. The mother seems to feel neither surprise nor responsibility for her daughter’s transformation, though maybe that too is the point: the baby has always felt alien to her.  

In ‘Growing Cities,’ a little girl visits the greenhouse where her Granddad grows cities from seed. A woman who works in the seaside ‘Museum of Shadows and Reflections’ takes an unexpected revenge when she is overlooked for a position. In the lovely ‘Chorlton-under-Water’ a resident clings on to life in her own home even after it’s been submerged in the new reservoir, and ‘A Book Tale’ is a charming, topsy-turvy, inside-out story reminiscent of traditional fairy tales in which girls travel east of the sun, west of the moon to rescue their lovers, or fall down wells into fairy kingdoms. These are all delightful, and there are many more.  

I did occasionally wish Dean had drawn with bolder strokes: when she does, the effect is electrifying.  The best stories in the collection are also the most recent. ‘The Sand Ship’ is a splendidly weird tale about the power of imagination, narrated by a bossy, rather unpleasant little boy as he plays with his sister on a toy ship in a playground. It’s tough and funny and I loved the sudden, surreal ending. In ‘The Stone Sea’, the growing, miniature stone seafront (complete with stone funfair) in Rivalyn’s living room seems to parallel the gradual petrification and loss of her memory. Finally, ‘Glass, Bricks, Dust’ is outstanding: a softly sinister tale of a boy playing alone on a mound of rubble by a demolition site: ‘At the top of the mound he was king.’  On summer evenings he stays out late, making play cities from bits of broken glass, ‘balancing roofs on them, building towers’. As dusk is falling, 

He heard nine chimes of the town hall clock. For a moment, the lamppost looked like a tall thin man wearing a large black hat. When the man turned towards him, he looked like a lamppost…  face to face with the boy with his feet still planted in the pavement.

Dark and utterly assured, this story has the strength and coherence of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’ and is a terrific achievement. ‘The Museum of Shadows and Reflections’ is a collection of beautiful, disturbing stories which will bear reading and rereading. I unreservedly recommend it and look forward to whatever this author does next.

THE MUSEUM OF SHADOWS AND REFLECTIONS by Claire Dean, illustrated by Laura Rae, is published by Unsettling Wonder and available from Amazon (click here)

Read more about it, and other publications, at Unsettling Wonder's website (click here)

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Here Be Griffins!

Some years ago my mother handed over to me this book, which had been my grandfather's. I suppose it must have been given to him by someone else - in fact, it must have been handed down for generations. 

It's an atlas of the classical world dated 1785, 'Designed for the Ufe of Schools, and of Gentlemen who make the Antient Writers their Delight or Study.' The maps cover all areas which such Gentlemen might wish to consult while following the journeys of Herodotus, or perhaps the campaigns of Alexander, or the Gallic Wars.

Of course the maps are deliberately limited to those parts of the world known to ancient geographers, but they aren't themselves 'Antient'. They're drawn to an eighteenth century knowledge of the shapes of coasts and continents.

Like any historical atlas of today, they fit the old stories into what was then a modern frame. Here for example is Mesopotamia, with squiggly rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. A graceful line of mountains (the Taurus range, somewhat attenuated) drapes itself across the top of the map like a paper-chain.

I wanted to look for griffins, though (or gryphons, griffons, spell as you please), and in a way I found them. In Book Two of Paradise Lost, Milton describes how Satan launches himself out on his 'Sail-broad Vannes'  into the abyss of Chaos:

As when a Gryfon through the Wilderness
With winged course ore Hill or moarie Dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stelth
Had from his wakeful custody purloin’d
The guarded Gold...

All right: who were the Arimaspians? It turns out they come into the first century 'History of Alexander the Great' by Quintus Curtius Rufus: they were also known as the Euergetae, the Benefactors, whose kindness once saved the army of Cyrus the Great of Persia. Alexander, a fan of Cyrus, respected these people for assisting his hero, and he was also impressed by their laws and customs which the 2nd century historian Arrian reports 'had as good a claim to fairness as the best in Greece.' Nothing, sadly, about stealing gold from griffons. That's left to Herodotus, in Book 4 of his History: 'Aristeas ... son of Caystrobius, a native of Proconnesus, says in the course of his poem that wrapt in Bacchic fury he went as far as the Issedones. Above them dwelt the Arimaspi, men with one eye; still further, the gold-guarding griffins; and beyond these, the Hyperboreans, who extended to the sea.'

Wow. They have only one eye and still succeed in stealing gold from griffins? But here they are, if you can make out the name: the ARIASPAE [sic] and Euergetae, halfway down the map on the left-hand side. By that way, that graceful curve of mountains just below the legend at the top is named as the Parapamisus Mons and Imaus Mons. That's the Hindu Kush.

I went hunting for more. Here, at the top of the map of Scythia and Serica (peppered with cities called Alexandria) on the very verge of 'Terra Incognita' - thrilling to see - are the Anthropophagi, Eaters of Men, while below them, fittingly a little less distant, a little less uncivilised, we encounter the Hippophagi, eaters of horseflesh.

Lots of almost ruler-straight lines of mountains are scattered across the map. We really do seem to be somewhere in Middle-earth!

Pliny the Elder describes how the Anthropophagi, 'whom we have previously mentioned as dwelling ten days' journey beyond the Borysthenes, according to the account of Isigonus of Nicæa were in the habit of drinking out of human skulls, and placing the scalps, with the hair attached, upon their breasts, like so many napkins."

It doesn't sound utterly impossible, but I feel that Pliny's next source, Ammianus Marcellinus, may have been embroidering at little when he adds: "And these men are so avoided on account of their horrid food, that all the tribes which were their neighbours have removed to a distance from them. And in this way the whole of that region to the north-east, till you come to the Chinese, is uninhabited."  Although that's the China Sea, there, at the eastern edge of the map...

I've always had a soft spot for the Anthropophagi since first meeting them in T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone:  Robin Hood explains:

‘Now, men... Tonight the Anthropophagi are holding one of their feasts of sacrifice and it behoves us to slay them at it. You know how many varieties they have.  The Scythians, who wrap themselves in their ears, can hear a twig break half a mile away. The Pitanese, who live by smell, can detect a man upwind for three miles. The Nisites, with three or four eyes, can distinguish the faintest movement anywhere. All these men, or beast if you prefer to call them so, are ... armed with poison arrows.  Our chances are small.’

Sir John Mandeville knew of creatures like these, living in the Island of Dodyn - not to be found anywhere in my maps, alas - and he had more to say on griffins, this time from Bactria, north of the Arimaspians:

'In that land are trees that bear wool, as it were sheep, of which they make cloth. In this land are ypotains that dwell sometimes on land, sometimes on water, and are half a man and half a horse, and they eat naught but men, when they may get them. In this land are many gryffons, more than in other places, and some say they have the body before as of an Egle,  and behind as a Lyon, and it is trouth, for they be made so, but the Griffen hath a body greater than viii Lyons and ... worthier than a hundred Egles. For certainly he will bear to his nest flying, a horse and a man upon his back... for he hath long nayles on his fete, as great as it were hornes of Oxen,  and of those they make cups there to drink of, and of his rybes they make bowes to shoot with.'

Ypotains are hippos, I suppose? And the wool growing on trees, might that be cotton, or even silkworm cocoons?  Since things so strange turn out really to exist, then why on earth not griffins?,_Livre_des_merveilles,_Fr._2810,_Tav._88_(Dettaglio_Detail).PNG

Marco Polo too had something to say about griffins, which he located - possibly - on the island of Madagascar. In this wonderful early 15th century illustration, we see a number of gentlemen looking on with calm disapproval as a griffin gobbles up a sheep or goat in the background. I love the little white pygmy elephants - which appear to live in burrows? Marco Polo writes:

''Tis said that in those other Islands to the south, which the ships are unable to visit because this strong current prevents their return, is found the bird Gryphon, which appears there at certain seasons. The description given of it is however entirely different from what our stories and pictures make it. For persons who had been there and had seen it told Messer Marco Polo that it was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size; so big in fact that its wings covered an extent of 30 paces, and its quills were 12 paces long, and thick in proportion. And it is so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air, and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having so killed him the bird gryphon swoops down on him and eats him at leisure. The people of those isles call the bird Ruc, and it has no other name. So I wot not if this be the real gryphon, or if there be another manner of bird as great. But this I can tell you for certain, that they are not half lion and half bird as our stories do relate; but enormous as they be they are fashioned just like an eagle.'

Such fun for the eighteenth century Gentleman to muse on all this as he sat in his library, drinking his port.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Women who lead the Wild Hunt

As an appropriate post for International Women's Day, fortuitously following on from my last post - are there any female leaders of the Wild Hunt? The answer is yes, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever heard of a Valkyrie.  Njal’s Saga tells of a man in Caithness named Dorrud, who on Good Friday sees ‘twelve people riding together to a women’s room’ who disappear inside. Looking in, he sees these twelve women working a loom. They are using severed heads for the weights, and intestines for the thread. As they wind the finished cloth on to the loom beam, the women chant a poem known as ‘The Song of the Spear’ which includes these lines:

Valkyries decide
who dies or lives.
Let us ride swiftly
on our saddle-less horses
hence from here
with swords in hand.

Njal’s Saga, tr. Robert Cook (Penguin Classics)

The women then pull down the cloth and tear it to pieces; each keeping a torn piece in her hand, they climb on their horses and ride away, six to the south and six to the north.

In Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Hilde Ellis Davidson cites an Old English charm known as Wið færstice (‘Against sudden pain’ – probably cramp or stitch), which visualises the pain as ‘caused by the spears of certain supernatural women’:

Loud were they, lo, loud, riding over the hill.
They were of one mind, riding over the land,
Shield thyself now, to escape from this ill.
Out, little spear, if herein thou be.
Under shield of light linden I took up my stand
When the mighty women made ready their power
And sent out their screaming spears…

Davidson thinks this may once have been a battle-spell, though the charm addresses supernatural causes of pain – elf-shot, witch-shot, gods’-shot – rather than human. (Cramps do seem to come out of nowhere…)  In another Old English charm a swarm of bees is addressed as sigewif, ‘victory-women’. This implies that Anglo-Saxons correctly assumed worker bees to be female, which was neither obvious nor scientifically proved until the late 18th century. At any rate, the image conjured up is a flying host of warrior women, armed of course with stings. 

Gold plaques embossed with bee goddesses, 7th C Rhodes. British Museum

In England, at least one Wild Hunt still possesses a female leader. In Shropshire, the Lady Godda rides the hills forever with her partner Wild Edric at the head of their troop.  First found in the late 12th century account of Walter Map, the tale tells  how the lord of the manor of Ledbury North, Edric Salvage (a real person named in Domesday Book) snatches an unnamed fairy woman he has found dancing with her sisters in a cottage in the woods. She marries him on condition he must never reproach her with her fairy origin: when he breaks this prohibition she vanishes and Edric dies. However, as Katharine Briggs remarks in ‘A Dictionary of Fairies’, ‘Tradition restored him to his wife, and they rode together over the Welsh borders for many centuries after his death.’  To see them was unlucky. Charlotte Burne in ‘Shropshire Folklore’ (1883) knew a servant girl who as a child had seen them with her own eyes: by this time, the fairy lady had acquired a name:

It was in 1853 or 1854 or, just before the Crimean War broke out.  She was with her father, a miner, at Minsterley, and she heard the blast of a horn. Her father bade her cover her face, all but her eyes, and on no account speak, lest she should go mad. Then they all came by; Wild Edric himself on a white horse at the head of the band, and the Lady Godda his wife, riding at full speed over the hills. 

Hold that thought please, and read this account from Jacob Grimm. 

There was once a rich lady of rank named frau Gauden; so passionately she loved the chase, that she let fall the sinful word, ‘could she but always hunt, she cared not to win heaven’. Four-and-twenty daughters had dame Gauden, who all nursed the same desire. One day, as mother and daughters in wild delight hunted over woods and fields and once more that wicked word escaped their lips, that ‘hunting was better than heaven,’ lo, suddenly before their mother’s eyes the daughters’ dresses turn into tufts of fur, their arms into legs, and four-and-twenty bitches bark around their mother’s hunting car, four doing duty as horses, the rest encircling the carriage; and away goes the wild train into the the clouds, there betwixt heaven and earth to hunt unceasingly as they had wished, from day to day, from year to year. 

They have long wearied of the wild pursuit, and lament their impious wish, but they must bear the fruits of their guilt till the hour of redemption comes. Come it will, but who knows when? During the twölven* (for at other times we sons of men cannot perceive her) frau Gauden directs her hunt towards human habitations; best of all she loves on the night of Christmas eve or New Year’s eve to drive through the village streets, and wherever she finds a street door open, she sends a dog in. Next morning a little dog wags his tail at the inmates, he does them no other harm but that he disturbs their night’s rest by his whining. He is not to be pacified or driven away. Kill him, and he turns into a stone by day, which, if thrown away, comes back to the house by main force and is a dog again at night. So he whimpers and whines the whole year round, brings sickness and death upon man and beast, and danger of fire to the house; not till the twölven comes round again does peace return to the house. 

* twölven: the twelve nights of Yule or Christmas

Frau Gauden and the Lady Godda are both supernatural wild huntresses and the names are surely too similar to be coincidence. But who was Frau Gauden? Grimm continues with another story. 

Better luck befalls those who do dame Gauden a service. It happens at times that in the darkness of night she misses her way and comes to a crossroad. Crossroads are to the good lady a stone of stumbling: every time she strays into such, some part of her carriage breaks, which she cannot herself rectify. In this dilemma she was once when she came, dressed as a stately dame, to the bedside of a labourer at Böck, awaked him and implored him to help her in her need. The man was prevailed on, followed her to the crossroads, and found one of her carriage wheels was off. He put the matter to rights, and by way of thanks for his trouble she bade him gather up in his pockets sundry deposits left by her canine attendants during their stay at the crossroads, whether as the effect of great dread or of good digestion. The man was indignant at the proposal … incredulous, yet curious, he took some with him. And lo, at daybreak, to his no small amazement, his earnings glittered like gold, and in fact it was gold.  He was sorry now that he had not brought it all away.

Notable here (apart from the enjoyable comic element) is that though like the Valkyries, Godda rides a horse, Frau Gauden travels in a wagon, which seems a cumbersome thing to go hunting in. 

But here is a goddess or priestess riding on a wagon. It’s made of bronze and was found in a cremation grave of the 7th century BC, near Strettweg in Austria. The female figure in the middle who supports an offering bowl towers above a crowd of smaller figurines, male and female, some on horses. Facing outwards at both the front and back is a stag flanked by figures of indeterminate sex who are holding its antlers. There is of course no knowing for sure what all this may have meant, or of connecting it in any direct way to the Wild Hunt or to the wagons of Frau Gauden or Frau Holle. But deities in wagons are certainly known from prehistory. The Norse gods called the Vanir presided over fertility and the domestic arts: the two most powerful were brother and sister Freyr and Freyja – titles which mean simply ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’, and from which the word ‘Frau’ is derived.  

If a sly story told in the 14th century Icelandic Flateyjarbòk (the ‘Flat Island Book’) has any truth in it, an image of Freyr used to be taken about the Swedish countryside in a wagon accompanied by a priestess: the wagon gets stuck in a snowstorm and all the attendants desert it except the priestess and a young man called Gunnar. The two keep each other warm in the time-honoured way: a few months later when the priestess is discovered to be with child, the worshippers are delighted at the fertility of their ‘god’. It’s quite possible that Freyr’s sister Freyja also travelled in a wagon. A beautifully carved ceremonial wagon was placed in the Oseberg ship, itself the burial-place of two high-status women who may have been priestesses. Carefully dismantled wagons have been found in Danish bogs, presumably cult offerings.

The Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56-120) tells of a Danish goddess, Nerthus, who represented ‘Mother Earth’ and  whose occasional dwelling was a sacred wagon in a grove of trees on an island:

One priest, and only one, may touch it. It is he who becomes aware when the goddess is present in her holy seat; he harnesses a yoke of heifers to the car, and follows in attendance with reverent mien. Then are the days of festival, and all places which she honours with her presence keep holiday. Men lay aside their arms and go not to war; all iron is locked away … until the priest restores her to her temple, when she has had enough of her converse with mortals. Then the car and the robes and (if we choose to believe them) the goddess herself are washed in a mystic pool. Slaves are the ministers of this office, and are forthwith drowned in the pool. Dark terror springs from this, and a sacred mystery surrounds those rites which no man is permitted to look upon. 

Tacitus, Germania, 40, tr. RB Townshend, 1894

Wagons are associated with another supernatural woman, Frau Holda. Grimm suggests she is originally a sky deity associated with the weather – and therefore able to move through the air. She appears in the Grimms fairytales as the kindly but powerful Mother Holle (KHM 24) whose country the heroine arrives at by jumping down a well. 

At last she came to a little house, out of which an old woman peeped; but she had such large teeth that the girl was frightened, and was about to run away. But the old woman called out to her,  ‘What are you afraid of, dear child? Stay with me; if you will do all the work in the house properly, you shall be the better for it. Only you must take care to make my bed well, and to shake it thoroughly till the feathers fly – for then there is snow on the earth. I am Mother Holle.’

'The Old Woman is plucking her geese' was the phrase my mother used when I was small... In a story very similar to the one about Frau Gauden, Mother Holle needs the linchpin of her wagon mended, and rewards the helpful peasant with the woodshavings left from his work: these too turn to solid gold. 

But Holda had her dark side. ‘At other times,’Jacob Grimm continues, ‘Holda, like Wotan, can also ride on the winds, clothed in terror, and she, like the god, belongs to the ‘wütende heer’ [furious army]. From this arose the fancy, that witches ride in Holle’s company … in Upper Hesse and the Westerwald, Holle-riding, to ride with Holle, is equivalent to the witches’ ride.’ The souls of unbaptised infants were held to join Holle’s wild company.  

The unnamed author of a 9th century document called the Canon Episcopi denounces the the wicked folly of those who believe in witches and their power. ‘Have you shared in a superstition to which some wicked women have given themselves?’ he demands. ‘Fooled by demonic phantasms, they believe themselves in the hours of the night to ride with Diana the pagan goddess, with Herodias and with innumerable other women, mounted on the backs of animals and travelling great distances in the silence of the night.’ 

Diana or Artemis is an obvious Wild Huntress. Nor is it surprising that a cleric should place Herodias in the witches' wild hunt, though it’s worth noting his main point is that witches don’t exist, not that they do. (It took a long time for the church to pass from this relatively healthy scepticism to the crazed witchhunts of later centuries). Herodias is the name given in the Middle Ages to the girl who danced before Herod and asked him for the head of John the Baptist. Though known today as Salome, that name is not in the Gospels; some Greek versions read ‘Herod’s daughter Herodias’, while in  the Latin she is named only ‘the girl’ or ‘the daughter of Herodias’ - who was her mother. Jacob Grimm suggests that Herodias ‘was dragged into the circle of night-women … because she played and danced, and since her death goes booming through the air as the “wind’s bride”.’  Medieval poets really went to town on Salome/Herodias’ fate; Grimm quotes from a medieval Latin poem which tells how  

From midnight to first cock-crow she sits on oaks and hazel-trees, the rest of her time she floats through the empty air. She was inflamed by love for John which he did not return: when his head is brought in on a charger she would fain have covered it with tears and kisses, but it draws back and begins to blow at her; she is whirled into empty space and there she hangs forever.

Frau Gauden and Frau Holle both have connections with crossroads. One of the many titles of the Greek goddess Hecate was ‘She of the crossroads’, and she was represented as three bodied, able to face in all directions.  Dogs were sacred to her, and she presided over thresholds and crossing-places, including the threshold between life and death. The dog is of course the guard-dog of the threshold into the underworld. According to Everyman’s Classical Dictionary Hecate was probably ‘a pre-Hellenic chthonian deity’ and Hesiod represents her as able, like the Norse Vanir, to gift mankind with wealth and all the blessings of daily life.  With her troop of ghosts and hell-hounds she visited crossroads where offerings of meat, eggs and fish were left for her. And in the 3rd century BC Argonautica, Medea tells Jason to sacrifice a ewe to Hecate, pour honey over the offering and leave without looking back – even if he hears the sound of footsteps or the baying of hounds. (Argonautica Book III lines 1020-1040)

Finally, what about the Breton legend of the Ankou who drives about the countryside in a cart, picking up souls? ‘At night,’ says Sabine Baring-Gould, ‘ a wain is heard coming along the road with a creaking axle. It halts at the door, and that is the summons.’ The Ankou is a male figure, but as Baring Gould points out:

The wagon of the Ankou is like the death-coach that one hears of in Devon and Wales. It is all black, with black horses drawing it, driven by a headless coachman. A black hound runs before it, and within sits a lady – in the neighbourhood of Okehampton and Tavistock she is supposed to be a certain Lady Howard, but she is assuredly a personification of Death, for the coach stops to pick up the spirits of the dying.

This seems to bring us back to the valkyries again – the choosers of the slain. 

It’s hardly possible or even desirable to come up with a single explanation for stories of the Wild Hunt, but it does seem to me that its female leaders are even more complex in origin than the males. The leaders of most British Wild Hunts have assumed the names and characters of local heroes such as Edric Salvage, Hereward, King Arthur, Sir Francis Drake, a tendency which makes them somehow easier to grasp, more comprehensible.  But the only remaining British Wild Huntress, Lady Godda, has a name similar to the German Frau Gauden, stories of whom include items – wagons, dogs, crossroads – reminiscent of ancient goddesses such as Nerthus and Hecate who held sway over domestic affairs such as fertility and farming, which literally implies over life and death.  And since the Wild Hunt has always been associated with death, its appearance in tales from Germany and Scandinavia also suggest the weaving in of a separate strand of bloody battle-spirits. Hilda Davidson thinks the valkyries may originally have been believed to devour the dead of the battlefield, rather than merely, as later, to escort them to Valhalla. 

Herodias, whirling in the windy blast from the lips of John the Baptist’s severed head – Frau Gauden with her carriage and her dogs and their golden poo – Lady Godda riding on her white horse in her green gown like many a later Queen of Elfland – the phantasmal spear-women galloping over the hill while drops of blood shake from their horses’ manes – the lady in the black death-coach – these are wonderfully various stories which deserve to be better known. 

Picture credits 

Hilde, one of the valkyries, by Ludwig Pietsch, 1894

Frigga or Frau Gode hunting, by Ludwig Pietsch, 1894

Gold plaques embossed with winged bee goddesses, perhaps the Thriai, found at Camiros Rhodes, dated to 7th century BCE (British Museum)

Strettweg cult wagon, photo by Thilo Parg, Wikimedia Commons  

Nerthus in her wagon, by Emile Doepler (1855-1922)

Goldmarie shaking Mother Holle's bedding, by Herman Vogel (1854-1921)

The Wild Hunt, by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1831-1892

Salome dancing before Herod, by Gustave Moreau, Wikimedia Commons

Valkyries leading the slain to Valhalla, by Ludwig Pietsch, 1894

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Wodan and the Peasant

There is a great story about the Wild Hunt in Jacob Grimm’s ‘Teutonic Mythology’:

That the wild hunter is to be referred to as Wôdan, is made perfectly clear by some Mecklenburg legends. Often of a dark night the airy hounds will bark on open heaths, in thickets, at cross-roads. The countryman well knows their leader Wod, and pities the wayfarer who has not reached his home yet; for Wod is spiteful, seldom merciful. It is only those who keep in the middle of the road that the rough hunter will do nothing to; that is why he calls out to travellers: ‘midden in den weg!’

A peasant was coming home drunk one night from town, and his road led him through a wood; there he hears the wild hunt, the uproar of the hounds and the shout of the huntsman up in the air: ‘midden in den weg!’ cries the voice, but he takes no notice.  Suddenly out of the clouds there plunges down, right before him, a tall man on a white horse. ‘Are you strong?’ says he, ‘here, catch hold of this chain, we’ll see which can pull the hardest.’  The peasant courageously grasped the heavy chain, and up flew the wild hunter into the air. The man twisted the end round an oak that was near, and the hunter tugged in vain.

‘Haven’t you tied your end to the oak?’ asked Wod, coming down. ‘No,’ replied the peasant, ‘look, I am holding it in my hands.’ ‘Then you’ll be mine up in the clouds,’ cried the hunter as he swung himself aloft. The peasant hurriedly knotted the chain around the oak again, and Wod could not manage it. ‘You must have passed it around the tree!’ said Wod, plunging down. ‘Not I,’ said the peasant, who had deftly disengaged it, ‘here I have it in my hands.’ ‘Were you heavier than lead, you must up to the clouds with me!’ He rushed up quick as lightning, but the peasant managed as before. The dogs yelled, the waggons rumbled and the horses neighed overhead; the tree crackled to its roots and seemed to twist round.  The man’s heart began to sink, but no, the oak stood its ground. 

‘Well pulled!’ said the hunter, ‘many’s the man I have made mine, you are the first that ever held out against me, you shall have your reward.’ On went the hunt, full cry: hallo, holla, wol, wol! The peasant was slinking away, when from unseen heights a stag fell groaning at his feet and there was Wod, who leaps off his white horse and cuts up the game. ‘Thou shalt have some blood, and a hindquarter to boot.’ ‘My lord,’ stammered the peasant, ‘thy servant has neither pot nor pail.’ ‘Pull off thy boot,’ cries Wod. The man did so. ‘Now walk, with blood and flesh, to wife and child.’

At first, terror made the load seem light, but presently it grew heavier and heavier and he had hardly strength to carry it.  Bent double and bathed in sweat at last he reached his cottage and behold! – the boot was filled with gold, and the hindquarter was a leather pouch full of silver. 

‘Teutonic Mythology’ Book III  p924

I love the humour in this story: first that the powerful and terrifying hunting god is still too simple to realise that the peasant is tricking him; then the unwelcome gift of raw flesh and blood, of supernatural and uncertain origin, which the peasant must lug painfully home. (In other stories, the Hunt pursues harmless little creatures called woodwives, and sometimes a quartered woodwife will be hung up as a horrifying gift beside a helpful peasant's door.) One feels this peasant thoroughly deserves its fairy transformation into silver and gold once Wodan's little joke is over.

A very excellent book, ‘European Paganism’ (Ken Dowden, Routledge 2000) provides a comprehensive, fact-based overview of just about everything that is actually known about pagan Europe. At one point Dowden,  an academic at the University of Birmingham, discusses a type of Gaulish priest described by the Greek writer Poseidonius as wateis (specifically distinguished from druids or bards).  Dowden explains the meaning of the term:

Wateis is evidently the same as the Latin vates, a rather olde-worlde word denoting a prophet or seer, but in any case implying some inspiration: the Gothic word is wods, ‘frenzied or possessed’, as in the German Wodan or the daemonic Wütende Heer [furious army] that is let loose at Yule.

European Paganism, p236

In English, the meaning of ‘wode’ or ‘wood’ as ‘mad’ survived at least into the late 16th century. In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Demetrius exclaims that he’s crazy for love of Hermia:

And here am I, and wood within this wood
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Act 2 Sc 1

The word can been traced back all the way to proto-Indo-European where it’s been reconstructed as *weh₂t- with the meanings ‘excited, inspired’, ‘possessed, raging’. So Wodan or Odin is an inspired, prophetic, raging, furious god, and this is certainly how he appears as one – maybe even the first, who knows? – of the many leaders of the European-wide Wild Hunt.  Ken Dowden tentatively connects this phenomenon with ancestor worship, and pagan festivals of the dead which were often held at the end of the year: 

Evidence for Yule as a pagan religious festival may be slender, but it is so very suggestive that this is the period when the Wild Hunt (Wilde Jagd, or the ‘Raging Army’, Wütende Heer) flies through the air, a spectral army corresponding to the ancestors once worshipped in ritual. Does this awareness of the dead survive in the custom of Serbian coledari (derived from the Latin Kalendae), a sort of masked Christmas-carol group who include in their visits houses where there has been a death during the year, and ‘intone funeral chants and bring news from the departed’?  Have they taken on the character of the dead themselves? 

European Paganism, p266

Whatever the truth of it, the Wild Hunt has a very long history.

Picture credits:
Johann Wilhelm Cordes: Die Wilde Jagd, Wikimedia Commons 
Friedrich Wilhelm Heine: Wodan's Wild Hunt, Wikimedia Commons
August Malmstrom: Odin, Wikimedia Commons
Lorenz Frolich:Odin riding Sleipnir with the ravens Huginn and Munin, Wikimedia Commons