This month: fairy tales from ancient Egypt!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Ghost in the Glass


Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 99: The Ghost in the Glass (Also known as The Spirit in the Bottle or The Genie in the Bottle)


There once lived a poor woodcutter, who worked from morning until late at night. When he had finally saved some money, he said to his son “You are my only child. I want to use the money I have earned with the sour sweat of my brow for your education. You should learn something honest and decent so you can support me in my old age. The time will come when my limbs become stiff and I will have to sit at home and cannot work.”

The youth went to a school of higher learning and studied so diligently that all his teachers praised him. There he stayed for some time. But when he had learned his way through quite a number of subjects he realized he still had not mastered everything there was to know. The little bit that his father in poverty had put aside was all spent, so he returned home. “Ach,” the father said distressed “I cannot give you any more money. In these lean times I cannot even earn my daily bread.”

“Dear father,” the son replied. "Don’t worry about it. If it is God’s will, things will go well for me. I will make the best of it.”

When the father went out into the forest to earn something, his son said “I will go with you and help you.” 

“Yes, my son,” the father replied, “but it will be difficult for you, you are not used to hard work, you won’t be able to manage. I only have one axe and not enough money left  to buy another.” 

"Then go to the neighbor,” the son replied. “He will loan you his axe until I have earned enough to buy my own.”

The father borrowed an axe from his neighbor and the next morning at the break of day, they went out together into the forest. The son helped his father and was happy and joyful. When the sun stood high overhead in the sky, the father said “We shall rest now and have lunch. Afterward, we will continue.” 

The son took his bread in his hand and said “You rest, father. I am not tired. I will walk a bit in the forest and look for bird’s nests.” 

“Oh, you fool,” the father replied. “Why would you want to run around idly in the forest? Afterward you will only be tired and won’t be able to lift your arms; stay here and sit with me.”

But the son went out into the forest, ate his bread, was very happy and looked behind the green branches to see if he could find a nest. He went back and forth until finally he came to a large, menacing oak tree, which must have been many hundreds of years old for it would have taken more than five men holding hands to circle it’s girth. He stopped and gazed at the tree thinking “Many a bird must have built its nest in such a tree.” 

Suddenly he thought he heard a voice. He listened and finally could hear a low, muffled sound “Let me out, let me out!” He looked around but could find nothing. Finally he thought the voice was coming from below the earth. He called out “Where are you?” The voice replied “I am stuck here under the roots of the oak tree. Let me out, let me out!” 

The student began to dig below the tree and search around the tree roots until he finally found a small hollow in which there was a glass bottle. He raised it in the air and held it up against the light. There he saw a little thing, it had the shape of a frog. It jumped back and forth in the glass. “Let me out, let me out!” it cried again. 

The student, who didn’t think any harm would come by it, removed the cork from the bottle. Immediately a spirit emerged and began to grow. It grew so quickly that it soon became a frightful fellow, as big as half the tree where the student stood. “Do you know what your reward shall be for letting me out?” “No,” replied the student without fear, “How should I know that?” “I will tell you,” the spirit called out, “I will have to break your neck!” “You should have told me beforehand,” the student replied. “I would have let you stay stuck where you were. My head might be able to withstand you, but more people will have to be asked about this matter.”

“More people, ha!” the spirit cried out “You shall get what you deserve!” Do you think I stayed locked in there for so long out of charity? No it was my punishment. I am the powerful Mercurius. I must break the neck of whoever releases me.” 

“Wait,” replied the student. “Slow down, haste makes waste! First I must know that you really were sitting in that small bottle and that you are a true spirit. If you can go inside again, then I’ll believe it. Then you can do with me as you will.” 

The spirit replied scornfully “That is not much to ask and easier to do,” he said as he pulled himself together becoming as thin and small as he was before. He went through the same opening and crept through the neck of the bottle. He was barely inside when the student popped the cork back on the top and threw the bottle under the oak roots back to its prior place. The spirit had been deceived.

Now the student wanted to return to his father but the spirit called out mournfully “Ach, let me out, let me out.”
“No,” answered the student. “I won’t do it a second time. I won’t release the thing that threatened my life once before.”
“If you release me,” the spirit cried, “I will give you so much that you have plenty all the days of your life!” “No,”replied the student. “You are lying to fool me as you did the first time.”

“Don’t throw away your luck,” the spirit replied. “I won’t do anything to you, but will reward you richly.”

The student mulled it over, “I’ll take up the wager. Perhaps he will really keep his word and I don’t think he can harm me.” He removed the cork and the ghost emerged again, grew in size and ballooned into a large giant. “Now you shall reap your reward,” the ghost said and he gave the student a small cloth, the size of a small bandage. “When you rub a wound with the tip of this cloth, it will be healed. If, on the other hand, you touch steel or iron with the other end, it will become pure silver.”

“I’ll have to try that,” the student said. He went to a tree, cut the bark with his axe and rubbed it with the end of the bandage. Immediately the wood closed, grew together and was healed. “I see the things you said are correct,” the student said to the spirit. “We can now part ways.” The ghost thanked him for redeeming him and the student thanked the ghost for his gift and returned to his father.

“Where have you been?” the father asked “Why did you forget your work? I always told you that you would never amount to anything."
“Be of good cheer, father, I will make it up to you.”
“Yes, make it up,” the father replied angrily. “How do you propose doing that?”

“Watch, father. I will chop down the tree, so that it crashes to the ground.” He then took the bandage, rubbed his axe with it and struck a mighty blow. But because the iron had turned to silver, the blade bent upward. “Oh father. You have given me a bad axe, it is now bent.” The father became frightened and said “What have you done! Now I will have to pay for the axe and I don’t know where I shall get the money! That’s some benefit I have reaped from your labors!”

“Don’t be angry,” the son replied. “I will pay for the axe.”
“Oh you blockhead!” the father cried. “How will you pay for the axe. You have nothing but what I give you; the only thing in your head are student schemes! You don’t understand a thing about chopping wood.”

After a while the student spoke: “Father, I can’t work anymore. Let’s call it quits.”
“What is the matter with you,” the father replied. “Do you think I want to go home and twiddle my thumbs? I still have to work, but you can leave.”
“Father, I am in these woods for the first time. I don’t know the way back alone, please come with me.” Because his anger had subsided, the father finally relented and went home.

“Go and sell the ruined axe and see what you get for it. The remainder I will have to earn to pay the neighbor.” The son took the axe and went to the city to a goldsmith. The goldsmith tested it, placed it on a scale and said “It is worth four-hundred talers but I don’t have so much cash with me.” The student spoke “Give me what you have, the rest I shall loan you.” The goldsmith gave him three-hundred talers and owed him one-hundred. The student went home and said “Father I have the money. Go and ask the neighbor how much he wants for his axe.”
“I already know the answer” the old man replied. “He wants one-taler and six groschen.”

“So give him two talers and twelve groschen, that is twice as much and plenty enough. You see, I have the money,” and he gave his father one-hundred talers.  “You shall never lack anything again and shall live your life in comfort.”
“My God,” the old man replied. “How did you acquire such riches?” The son told him everything that had happened and how he had entrusted himself to luck to snag such riches. With the remaining money he returned to school and continued learning. And because he could heal every wound with his bandage, he became the most famous doctor in the world.


Reading the Fairy Tale The Ghost in the Glass


However far-fetched it might seem, the claim that this fairy tale has been thousands of years in the making is probably not an overstatement. We find clues to bolster this notion in three rather puzzling words: Mercurius, the name of the spirit in the glass, and the words dangerous oak describing the enormous and forbidding tree, which is the scene of enchantment in this tale.

First let’s take a look at the dangerous oak tree in the narrative. The ancient forests of Germany purportedly produced many incredible oaks and some of them were true giants. Thomas Pakenham in his book “Remarkable Trees of the World” cites an historical description of such a tree, quoting a 16th century writer who says of its enormity that it was “130 feet from the ground to the nearest bow” and another German tree had “a girth of over 90 feet”. Sadly, no trees of this stature have survived to this day, but we do have fragmented references in folklore and oral tradition attesting to the ancient notoriety of such trees. They are still described as “menacing, eerie, sinister” because they allegedly mark the spot where, according to Pakenham, pagan shrines once stood and “the dark rites of Woton” were performed. Pakenham goes on to explain that the so-called Feme-Eiche (Feme-Oak), which can still be seen today at Erle/Germany, was made a secret court of justice in the 13th century to try opponents of the king, but by the 19th century the practice had lapsed. One can only imagine the verdicts pronounced in the shadows of this oak!

A 17th century reference to a “deity-locked-inside-a-tree” can be found in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. In the following lines Prospero explains how the witch Sycorax imprisoned the spirit Ariel within the confines of a pine tree:

”And for thou wast a spirit too delicate 
To act her earthy and abhorr’d commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,
By help of her more potent ministers,
And in her most unmitigable rage,
A dozen years; within which space she died,


Into a cloven pine, within which rift
Imprison’d, thou didst painfully remain 
And left thee there, where thou didst vent thy groans…” 

And in Goethe’s famous poem The Erlkoenig, the child-grabbing hobgoblin is probably a reference to a spirit inhabiting an Erle or Alder Tree, most likely another reference to popular folk tradition (although disputed, I think the claim is ludicrous that the word  Erlkoenig entered German literature as a result of a translation error, see the Wiki page on Erlking to read more). Jacob Grimm suggests as much by placing the origin of the word in the French aulne, aune, and German Erle and daemon).

These are all trees with strong personality (per Pakenham). Likewise the oak tree in our fairy tale, The Spirit in the Bottle, also conceals a forceful presence, nothing less than the God Mercurius. So who is this Mercurius and how does he get into a German fairy tale?

In short, the Romans brought their gods with them when they conquered Europe. Statues of the god Mercury dating from the 2nd and 4rd centuries have been found in present-day Switzerland (one such statue can be seen in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, CA), but these statutes still bear the Gallic name for the god (Cobannus, Deo Cobanno, or a variation Gobannus) . Gradually Latin displaced native languages in conquered regions, and Cobannus became Mercury (these two gods presumably merged into one because the Gallic deity was very similar in temperament or function to the Roman god Mercury). Over time the Gallic term disappeared altogether. As god of commerce and business, Mercury was a very popular figure. Edith Hamilton in Mythology describes Mercury as “the most entertaining of all the gods, the shrewdest and most resourceful.” He was Jupiter’s favorite companion. Graceful and swift, this god wore winged sandals and a winged hat. He was the gods’ cunning messenger and protector of traders and business people. He understood that speed was often a prerequisite for business success and the essence of his character seems to be he could be everywhere and anywhere at once (like the Internet?). In short, he was a god that any MBA could appreciate and all those who aspired to entrepreneurial verve revered him. How fitting that he should appear in a fairy tale about a parent’s concern for his child and musings about whether all the book-learning in the world can translate into practical business sense. Some themes, it appears, are timeless.

Photo of bronze statue of the God Cobannus, private collection S. While/L. Levy, New York, Height 17.2 cm. Inscription on the shield: To the King and the God Cobannus dedicated by Marcus Tutus Cassio. Late 2nd century B.C., from Helvetia Archaeologica, No. 37/2006 - 145

Mercurial = of or pertaining to the god or planet Mercury. Characteristics include: eloquence, ingenuity, aptitude for commerce. Present day usage especially:  lively, sprightly, ready-witted, but also volatile. Grimm notes that this god was among those who accepted (possibly demanded) human sacrifice, where many of the other gods were appeased with animal or vegetable offerings.

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The god Cobannus



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