Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Devil as Advocate

Grimm’s Saga No. 211: The Devil as Advocate

Once a farmhand living in the Mark gave his landlord money for safekeeping. When he asked for it again, the landlord said he had never received it in the first place. When the farmhand could not convince his host to return the money, he stormed out of the house. The landlord sent out men to catch him because he wanted to be rid of him once and for all so that he could keep the money. He accused the farmhand as the very one, down to his skin, hair, neck and belly, who had broken the peace of his house. The devil came to the farmhand in prison and said: Tomorrow they shall bring you in front of the court and chop off your head because you disturbed the peace of the house. But if you give me your life and soul, I shall help you.”

But the farmhand would not hear of it. The devil replied: “Do as I say when you enter court and they accuse you. Insist that you gave the landlord the money and say you were ill-advised, one should grant you an advocate to talk on your behalf. I won’t be standing far away. You will recognize me in my blue hat with white feather. I will then take over and represent your interests.”

And so it happened. But because the landlord was so obstinate in his lying, the farmhand’s barrister in the blue hat said: “Dear landlord. How can you deny it! The money is lying in your bed under the master post: Judge and bailiff go out and you will find the money lying there.”

The landlord then reflected on this turn of events and spoke “If I did receive the money, may the devil take me away!

When the money was found and brought before the judge, the man in the blue hat with white feather said “I knew I would get one of them! Either the landlord or his tenant!” With that he twisted off the head of the landlord and carried him off through the air.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Maidens with Keys and the Passing of the Seasons

Grimm’s Saga No. 222

The Chatelaine of Oselberg

In ancient times a castle stood on the Oselberg Mountain between Dinkelsbuehl and Hahnkamm. Here a widow lived with her father as chatelaine, keeping the keys to all the rooms of the castle in her possession. In the end she fell to her death when the castle walls collapsed. Screams can  often be heard at that place but it is only her spirit that floats round the fallen stone. She often appears on the evening of the four Ember days*; then she is in the form of a maiden, carrying a ring of keys at her side. Old farmers say the land was once owned by her father and the maiden was a pagan daughter of old. She became enchanted and was transformed into a terrible snake; others say they have seen her as viper but with the head and shape of a woman down to her waist. She always carries a ring of keys round her neck.

* Ember days: Four days immediately after 1) the first Sunday in Lent 2) Pentecost 3) Holy Cross Day (Sept. 14) or 4) St. Lucy’s Day (Dec. 13). Traditionally this is a fast day. These days designate each of four periods or seasons of the year, which were times of fasting (but became times of ordination in the Anglican Church).

And here is a beautiful song for the passing of the seasons:

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Grimm's Saga No. 276: The Legend of the Monks Crossing the Rhine at Speyer

Grimm's Saga No. 276
The Legend of the Monks who Crossed the Rhine

In ancient times there lived a certain fisherman in the City of Speyer. One night when this man went down to the Rhine River to let out his fishing line a man approached him wearing a long cowl-necked robe in the manner of monks. The fisherman respectfully greeted the man, who replied “I come as messenger from far away and need to cross the Rhine.”

“Enter my boat,” replied the fisherman. “I will ferry you across.”
After he had ferried the man across the river, he returned to find five more monks standing on shore. They also wanted to cross the river. The fisherman modestly asked what moved the men to travel in such a vain night? “Necessity drives us,” said one of the monks. “The world has become a hostile place for us; take us on and God shall pay your reward.”

The fisherman demanded to know what they would give him for his labours. “Now we are poor, but when things are better for us, you shall feel our gratitude.” The oarsman shoved off, but when his vessel reached the middle of the Rhine, a fearful storm blew up. Waves crashed down upon the ship and the fisherman paled in terror. “What is this,” he thought, “at sunset the sky was clear and promising and the moon shone beautifully. Whence comes this fast tempest?” And as he raised his hands to pray to God, one of the monks cried out “Why are you filling God’s ears with prayers? Steer the ship!”
With these words he tore the rudder from the boatman’s hand and began beating the poor fellow. Half-dead he lay in his vessel until daylight broke and the dark strangers had vanished. As the first rays of sunlight broke on the horizon, the heavens were once again as clear as before. The boatman took heart, sailed back to shore and reached his dwelling in sore need.

The next day a messenger who was traveling in the early morning hours from Speyer encountered these same monks driving in a rickety black wagon. The cart had only three wheels and was driven by a long-nosed driver. In confusion the man allowed the wagon to pass and saw it hasten by with much clattering, until it vanished altogether in thin air. All the while the messenger heard the sound of swords clanging like an army in battle. The messenger promptly returned to town and reported everything.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Golden Stag of Magdeburg

Grimm’s Saga No. 445

The Golden Stag of Magdeburg

In Magdeburg near Roland there once stood a stag with golden collar mounted on a stone pillar, which Charlemagne purportedly had captured. Others say Charlemagne released the animal but tied a golden collar round its neck, on which stood a cross and the words: “Dear hunters, let me live, To you my golden collar shall I give.” It was said this stag was only first captured again many years later during the reign of Friedrich Redbeard.

Other animal tales:
To read a mysterious tale about sheep:

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Monday, October 11, 2010

A Fairy Tale God for MBA's and Entrepreneurs

Reading the Fairy Tale The Spirit 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,

Into a cloven pine, within which rift
Imprison’d, thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years; within which space she died,

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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