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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