Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Ways of Warmth in February: Grimm's Saga No. 161: Silver gushes from the ground.

In February of the year 1605, Duke Heinrich Julius von Braunschweig ruled the land. A mile from Quedlinburg in a place called the Valley, it happened that a poor farmer sent out his daughter to collect fire wood. The girl took a large wood basket and a smaller hand basket and went into the thicket. When she had filled both baskets and wanted to go home, a small man clothed entirely in white approached her and asked

“What are you carrying?”

“The wood I have collected,” the girl responded “It’s for heating and cooking.”

“Empty your baskets of wood,” the little man said. “Then follow me.” I want to show you something that is better and more beneficial than wood.”

He took her hand and led her back to a hill and showed her a place roughly two household tables wide. There lay shining silver coins, some large, some small, all of moderate thickness. Above it was a picture, the likeness of the Virgin Mary and around the image could be seen inscribed an ancient language. The silver was gushing steadily out of the earth and the girl became very frightened and recoiled in fear. She did not want to shake out the content of her wood basket. So the little man in white did it for her. He filled the basket with the money and gave it to the girl saying

“This will be better than wood.”

Confused, she took it from him. But when the little man urged her to shake out her other basket and fill it with silver, the girl declined and said she had to bring home firewood. There were small children at home and they desperately needed a warm room and wood for cooking. The little man was satisfied with this response and said

“Then go home with your baskets,” and then he vanished.

The girl returned home with the basket full of silver and explained what had happened. When the farmers of the region heard about it, they all ran into the forest in droves carrying rakes and other utensils and wanted to take their share of the treasure. But no one could ever find the place where the silver gushed forth from the earth.

The Duke of Braunschweig took one pound of silver from the coins in the girls’ basket, as did a citizen from Halberstadt, by the name of N. Everkan.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Where do Lutherans come from? A Lithuanian Fairy Tale

(Illustration, Tomi Ungerer Das Grosse Liederbuch)

A castle beyond the borderlands.

There was once a wealthy property owner who had only one daughter. Because she was so rich, many suitors rode from all corners of the land to woo her. Many were handsome and some were rich. But the girl did not like any of them. Finally her father said to her “My child, there is no longer anyone in the world who could be your groom. The devil would have to come for you to fall in love.” Not long after, a young gallant appeared. He told her he came from far away, beyond the borderlands. She soon fell in love with him and it was not long before she married him. After the wedding, the young man took her back to his manor across the border. It was very beautiful there and she had everything imaginable. She liked it and her life was peaceful. But soon she had an uncanny feeling that something wasn’t right, because her husband always left the castle at twilight and when the cock crowed in the morning he returned. He was in fact the devil. Now fear seized the maid because she did not know what to do. She discussed the matter with others. They gave her the following advice: “When he goes out, have a carriage and horse stand waiting. Get into the cart immediately and flee back over the border!” So the next time he went out, she immediately ran to the carriage and made her escape. And she was able to get back across the border. The devil noticed that she was no longer there and began a hot pursuit. But he could not catch her before she crossed the border and she was able to make it back to her father. It was not long thereafter that a son was born. The boy grew quickly, was very bright and learned things easily. He soon graduated from school and became a pastor. But soon after the son of the devil had become a pastor, he lost his faith and began to follow the teachings of the Prussians. That is where the Prussians come from, or rather the Lutherans.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Shrouded in Mystery: The Hooded Deity

According to the Roman poet Juvenal who wrote around 100 AD, the hood or cucullus was a Celtic invention. It was primarily worn by people close to the land or those routinely exposed to the elements, such as farm laborers, travelers or shepherds. It had a practical funnel-shape, which could be easily pulled over the head. But it was also worn separately or in conjunction with a cape or tunic. Besides having these utilitarian functions, the cucullus could also conceal the identity of the wearer. The most basic information about a person was wrapped in mystery, so-to-speak, because it was difficult to ascertain the gender, age, occupation or intent of such a cloaked figure.

In areas of Europe occupied by both Romans and Celts, archaeologists have found numerous representations of a hooded deity, which they refer to as genius cucullatus. Some of these figures are believed to be female and associated with earth goddesses. They often carry eggs or other fertility symbols. Others carry parchments or scrolls, possibly signifying the wisdom and power associated with healing. It is believed these cult figures were revered for their control over prosperity, health and fertility. In 1931 two altars were found in the village of Wabelsdorf, Austria with the inscription “genio cucullato” or “to the hooded deity”. This finding is important because it confirms a formal cult following for these hooded figures. In Britain, genius cucullatus usually appears in groupings of three but in the Rhine-Moselle region of Germany the figure is usually alone and appears dwarf-like. The number three was significant in Celtic thought and this is also reflected in the tale of Brigit, who simultaneously represented a mother figure, a guardian of childbirth and a goddess of prosperity.

Thus there are ample clues in the archaelogical record but proofs confirming the identity of this figure are slim. All we know with certainty is that a hooded deity has been prominent in the European imagination for thousands of years in an area extending from Bohemia in the East to Ireland in the West. The Dirneweibl (of Bavarian folk tradition) and the character Little Red Riding Hood share some of the attributes of this mysterious deity: they all wear a cloak, which to some extent conceals their real function; they bring life-giving nourishment in the form of wine, cake and apples and thus represent healing, security and prosperity; and the color red ties them to passion, love and fecundity. In short, they represent those basic things associated with the hooded deity. It is perhaps most fitting that such a character be forever shrouded in mystery, leaving most of the story to the imagination.

This article draws heavily on information provided at
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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 24: Frau Holle

Remnants of an ancient oven in the woods in Switzerland

A widow had two daughters. One was beautiful and industrious, the other ugly and lazy. But the woman preferred the ugly and lazy one, because she was her rightful daughter. The other girl had to do all the work and be the Cinderella of the household. Every day the poor girl went out to the big road and sat beside a fountain. She had to spin until the blood flowed from her fingers. One day the spindle became so covered with blood, the girl wanted to reach down into the fountain and wash it away. But the spindle slipped out of her hand and fell deep down into the pit of the well. The girl cried and ran to her stepmother and told her about her misfortune. 

Her stepmother scolded her so forcefully and was so pitiless that she said “You dropped the spindle, now you must fetch it.” The girl went back to the fountain and didn’t know what to do. In her terror she jumped into the fountain to retrieve the spindle. She lost consciousness and when she awoke and came to, she found herself in a beautiful meadow where the sun shone and many thousands of flowers bloomed. She got up and walked away and soon found herself in front of an oven. 

The oven was full of bread and the bread called out “Take me out, take me out. Otherwise I shall burn. I have been baked through for some time already!” The girl approached, took out the bread board, and removed all the loaves, one after another. 

Then she went her way and came to a tree. It hung full of apples. It called out “Oh shake me, shake me! We apples are all ripe!” The girl shook the tree so that the apples fell down as if it were raining. She shook until none were left hanging in the branches. And when she had gathered them all into a pile, she went her way. 

Finally she arrived at a house from which an old woman poked her head. But because the hag had such large teeth, the girl became frightened and wanted to run away. But the old woman called after her “Why are you frightened, dear child? Stay with me. If you do all the work properly in my house, things will go well for you. You must only make sure you make my bed well and carefully shake out my feather comforter so that the feathers fly. Then it will snow in all the world. I am Mistress Holle.”

Because the old woman spoke so reassuringly, the girl took heart and consented and entered into her service. She took care of everything to the old woman’s satisfaction and shook out the featherbed forcefully so that the feathers flew round like snow flakes. The girl had a good life with the woman. There was never an angry word and every day good victuals with boiled and roasted meats were served.

Now the girl had spent some time with Frau Holle. She became sad and in the beginning, did not know what was wrong. But in the end she knew that she was homesick. Even though she was a thousand times better off than at home, she had a longing for that place. Finally she said to the old woman “I am miserable and want to go home. Even if things are really better down here for me, I can’t stay any longer. I must go back up to my own people.”

Frau Holle replied “It pleases me that you want to return home. And because you have served me so well, I will bring you back up myself.” She took the girl by the hand and led her to a large portal. As the gate was opened and the girl stood underneath, a mighty shower of gold fell down and stuck to the child so that she was covered. “Because you were so diligent and hard-working, this is your reward,” Frau Holle said and she also returned the spindle, which had fallen into the fountain. The gate was closed and the girl found herself back up in the world, not far from her mother’s house. And when she arrived in the yard, the rooster sat on the fountain and cried

Our golden maid is back”

The girl went inside to her mother and because she was covered in gold, she was well-received by both mother and sister.

The girl told them everything she had experienced. When the mother heard about the enormous riches she had gained, she wanted the ugly and lazy daughter to have the same fortune. The lazy girl now had to sit by the fountain and spin. And so that her spindle would become covered with blood, she stabbed her finger by thrusting her hand into a rose hedge. Then she threw the spindle into the fountain and jumped after it. 

Like the other daughter, she arrived at the beautiful meadow and walked on the same path. When she came to the oven, the bread cried out “Pull me out, pull me out, otherwise I shall burn, I am already baked through!” The lazy girl replied “I don’t want to get dirty,” and ran off. She arrived at the apple tree, which called out “Oh, shake me, shake me. We apples are all ripe.” But she replied “That’s a fine request! One of you could fall on my head!” and she continued on. 

When she arrived at Frau Holle’s house, she was not frightened because she had already heard of her big teeth. She immediately entered into her service. The first day, she worked diligently, was busy and followed Frau Holle whenever she told her something. She remembered the rich reward of gold that the old woman would give her. But on the second day, she already began to get lazy. On the third day, even more so, and she did not even want to get out of bed. She refused to make Frau Holle’s bed, as was proper, and did not shake the feathers until they flew. 

Frau Holle soon became tired of this behavior and terminated her service. The lazy one was quite satisfied and now thought the gold rain would come as reward. Frau Holle led her out to the same portal, but when she stood underneath, instead of gold, a giant pot full of pitch poured out over her. “This is the reward for your service,” Frau Holle said and closed the door. The girl returned home, but now was covered with black pitch. The rooster on the fountain crowed out:

Our dirty maid is back.”

The pitch stuck fast to the maid and as long as she lived, it never wore off.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Becoming What You Are: the Egyptian Parable of the Doomed Prince

In the fairy tale The Doomed Prince, we meet a prince whose fate it is to die at a young age. As he grows, he longs to become independent but those closest to him are seized by a fearful sort of love, one that understandably desires to preserve his life as long as possible. But the prince is fascinated with the world and embraces life by acquiring a dog as faithful companion and then embarking on adventures. Finally he rebukes his father’s protectiveness and in complete acceptance of his doom he asserts “Because I am destined to have a sad fate, I should be allowed to act according to my own wishes. God will in the end do what He desires.” And so we watch him pass through the various stages of his life, his body grows older but he never really reaches full maturity. In the narrative he is usually referred to as a youth and his wife is always a girl.

It is perhaps not astonishing that such a doomed person would seek a rapid ascent in life and winning a flying competition is an apt metaphor for this yearning. The image of a throng of flying children being led by a boy who will never grow up is particularly poignant and a theme we find again in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. This story also shares the motif of the crocodile, representing an ever-present and looming fate that casts long shadows. Whether or not Barrie was inspired in any way by this fairy tale when he wrote Peter Pan is unknown (to me). Based on the dates the source text became known to the public (Papyrus Harris 500) it is entirely possible.

At the end of the tale we see the prince bravely meeting his destiny. From the sad circumstances of his existence, he has created a meaningful life. He has acquired certain virtues including courage and loyalty, he has forged loving relationships, he lives life without fear and has the freedom to make choices. He has followed the maxim of the Greek poet Pindar who wrote “Become what you are” (and love your fate). Embrace what is unique to you and live life to its fullest.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reading the Doomed Prince: The Hathors

In the puzzling tale of the Doomed Prince  we encounter a prince who never really grows to adulthood. His fate is foretold by the Hathors, beautiful women of ancient Egyptian mythology whose primary function was to provide food and protection for the dead. But in his 1906 collection of fairy tales Altaegyptische Sagen und Maerchen, the Egyptologist Alfred Wiedemann describes another function of these goddesses. Like the Norns revered by ancient Germanic tribes, the Hathors appear at the birth of a child, bestowing gifts and foretelling the infant’s destiny. Seven Hathors are depicted in a wall relief in the Temple of Dendera, the primary location of their cult. They are probably later forms of the goddess Hathor, who was originally the Egyptian goddess of the heavens. Her name means the “House of Horus”. Hathor was revered in the most ancient traditions as the mother of the sun god Horus until Isis superseded her. Based on a notion that likened the sky to a giant cow , the goddess herself was often depicted in cow form. Hathor, the sky-cow, often appears alongside the sky-bull. Frequently bearing horns on her head, the goddess uses them to lift the sun-child to heaven or to carry the red disk of the sun. She is also associated with an older tree cult and referred to as “Mistress of Date Palm Trees” or “Mistress of Sycamore Trees”. In addition to foretelling a person’s fate, the Hathors were called upon for protection from evil spirits. They used red ribbons to bind these malignant forces, a color often associated with ancient goddesses, the sun, light and heaven itself.

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