Thursday, March 21, 2019
Ostara is the Germanic goddess of spring and the rising morning sun. She represents nature’s resurrection from its deep winter sleep. A daughter of Woton and Fricka, she accompanied her brother Donar when he led the many processions celebrating victory over the winter giants in spring. She was also called the May Queen and the figures known as the May Count and May Countess, who often presided over Easter pageantry and spring festivals, most certainly are references to Donar and Ostara.
Reverence for the goddess was so firmly rooted in ancient ceremonies celebrating the vernal equinox that her name was subsequently transferred to the Christian feast day commemorating the resurrection of Christ. “Ostar” means morning, or rather, the direction from which the first spring rays of sunshine emanate. Easter month is the month of April, the time of nature’s reawakening and the Christian festival of resurrection.
On Easter Sunday the sun purportedly took three leaps of joy – delighting over the return of spring according to early pagan beliefs. The priests said these “jubilatory jumps” honored the risen Christ.
According to folk tradition, Easter water must be collected from a flowing stream at daybreak and the person who carries it home must not let any sound escape from his lips. If he forgets, the Easter water becomes babbling water and it loses all of its healing properties. The water must be scooped up at the precise moment the sun rises and the collector must bow three times in the direction of the sun. Sealed bottles of this holy water were stored in dark places and used throughout the entire year as healing agent against eye ailments and other sufferings.
The rabbit, considered to be Ostara’s favorite animal because of its fecundity, and the egg, considered to be a symbol of germinating life, were therefore dedicated to the goddess and forever associated with springtime celebrations. This gave rise to the belief that the Easter Bunny laid Easter Eggs on Maundy Thursday. Naturally, the eggs were dyed the colors of Donar and Ostara, red and yellow. Such colorful eggs were then brought to the gods as spring offerings. The custom of dying and presenting eggs at Easter has survived to this day.
The first night in the mild month of May was dedicated to the goddess Ostara. Giant fires were lit symbolizing the power of Donar and May flowers were strewn to honor the goddess Ostara. There were celebratory processions and in some locations it was popular to burn an effigy representing the giant-winter. Conquered by Donar’s superior power, this ritual burning signified winter’s power now broken. As Europe became Christianized, this spring narrative changed from “Nature is awakening” to “Christ is risen”.
Later, an attempt was made to remove the fervently revered goddess Ostara from the picture altogether, replacing her with the Holy Saint Walpurga. The saint’s feast day was set on the eve of April 30 to May 1st. Easter bonfires were now referred to as the devil’s fire and Ostara and her attendants became witches. The festival associated with the goddess was now referred to as the witch’s Sabbath and was supposedly held at Blocksberg Mountain. Blocksberg is the Brocken, the highest mountain in the Harz region of Germany. This mountain is closely tied to German folklore as is the Teutoburg Forest. On Walpurgistnacht witches were said to ride their firey broomsticks through the air and meet at this dancing site.
To protect against such dreadful demons, a farmer was advised to paint three crosses on his barn door and place a broom across the threshold because malevolent spirits were said to retreat at the sight of a cross and broom. Whoever did not take such precautions might find that his cows had been visited by a dreadful disease in the morning, or that they now gave red instead of white milk.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
From the Gesta Romanorum: The Drinking Horn
There is a small mountain in the kingdom of England (also known as land of the Angles) that looks like the shape of a man reaching for the pinnacle. Knights and huntsmen often sought this place as a refuge when they were exhausted from heat or thirst. Indeed, once it happened that a solitary wanderer who had been separated from his comrades climbed this mountain. He spoke to himself as if in the company of another: “I am really quite thirsty!” And immediately a cupbearer appeared at his side and in his extended hand he held a large drinking horn decorated with gold and precious stones. This is the type of drinking horn some people used instead of a cup. The cupbearer offered him this vessel filled with an unknown but extremely sweet nectar. Immediately after he drank from it, the heat and fatigue faded from his body and it seemed that he hadn’t exerted himself at all but rather should now take up the task at hand with renewed vigor. After he had sipped the drink the servant gave him a clean linen cloth to dry his lips. And upon finishing this service he vanished without expecting a reward for his assistance nor was there another request or demand. The wanderer did this for many years until he reached an advanced age and it had become a well known and daily occurrence. Finally a certain knight was out hunting and arrived at the very spot and demanded a drink. When he received it he did not return the drinking horn after he sipped, as was the custom, but rather he kept it for his own further use. When his lord discovered this matter he condemned the thief to death and gave the drinking horn to an English King, Henry the Old, so that no one would think that he had approved such an enormous transgression.
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Why Speech is Sweet Music to God’s Ears
Whenever he heard music Kaiser Tiberius was wondrously delighted. Once it happened that he was out hunting, heard a zither playing and was so pleasantly charmed by its sweetness that he was overcome with emotion. He turned his horse toward the place from where the music emanated and rode on. But when he arrived at the place he saw in some distance a cheerful brook and next to the stream sat an old man with a zither on his lap. From his zither came such unforgettable music that the Kaiser became pleasurably captivated. Kaiser Tiberius spoke to the man: “My dear, tell me why your zither rings so dear?” He answered: “Your Majesty, I have sat here by this brook for thirty years and God has shown me such grace that as soon as I touch the strings of my zither, a beautiful melody breaks forth and the fishes swim toward my hand and jump out of the water. And in this way I feed my wife and family. But alas, it is a shame that now a piper comes to the other side of the water. He plays so sweetly that the fish have left me and swim to him. That is why dear sir, because you are powerful and the Kaiser of the entire kingdom, give me aid and let me prevail against the piper!” The Kaiser answered “My dear man, I can only help you in one thing, and that must be enough for you. I have in my bag a golden fishhook. I will give it to you and you can attach it to the tip of your rod. Touch it to the strings of your zither and the fishes will begin to move. Then pull the hook ashore (the fish will follow) and the piper will withdraw in embarrassment.” The poor man did everything and before the fishes reached the piper, he pulled them with his hook. When the piper saw this he left the place in confusion.
Saturday, February 9, 2019
When wise Theodosius ruled his eyesight deteriorated. He therefore issued an edict: a bell would be installed in his palace and anyone who had a matter to bring before him would ring the bell with his own hand. When the bell rang the judge who was then appointed would come immediately and issue justice.
It happened that a snake built its nest underneath this bell and within a short time had babies. When these young vipers could slither, the snake made its way with its young to a spot outside the city. While the snake was away, a toad occupied its nest; when the snake returned with its young vipers, it saw how the toad had taken over the nest. It battled with the toad, but could not remove it on its own and so the toad took possession of its nest. When the snake realized this, it wrapped its tail around the bell’s rope, pulled it efficiently and rang the bell as if saying “Come down, you judge, and give me justice, for a toad has violated every law and taken possession of my nest.”
When the judge heard the bell ringing he came down but didn’t see anyone so he went upstairs again. When the snake noticed this, it rang a second time. When the judge heard this and saw the snake ringing the bell rope, and saw how the toad had occupied its domicile, he climbed the stairs to the palace and told the king everything. The king spoke: “Go down and don’t only drive the toad from the nest, but kill it also, because the snake must assume its rightful place once more.” And so it happened.
One day after this incident, the king was lying in bed; the snake came into his chamber and carried in its mouth a precious stone. And when the king’s servants saw this, they said to their master that a snake had come in. But Theodosius spoke: “Do not prevent it from entering, because I believe it won’t harm me.” The snake crept onto his bed and approached his face. And when it stared into his eyes, it dropped the stone and then retreated from the king’s chamber. When the stone touched both of his eyes, the king’s eyesight returned. He rejoiced and had his servants search for the snake. But they could not find it. The king kept the precious stone and lived in peace until his dying day.
Saturday, January 19, 2019
The Path to Paradise (a Swiss Folk Tale)
Many years ago a poor tinsmith, who repaired pots and pans for a living, could no longer feed his family for he could not find work. Wherever he went he only found people living in greatest need and terrible suffering for the plague had infested villages and towns. Often entire families were struck down, including cattle and even the family dog. The survivors ran wildly through the streets as if insane or sat lifeless in front of their houses, stunned and brooding. The poor tinsmith had passed through all the villages on the shaded side of the Rhone River and had sold only a few small scraps. Tired and dejected, he crossed the Rhone River and thought he would now try walking on the sunny side. But the plague had wreaked havoc there also. He climbed up the mountain slag, panting and gasping for breath. From time to time he had to wipe the sweat from his brow. His only wish was to lie down and rest, rest for all time. In the village he was now passing through it was deathly still. The house doors were wide open; the evil smell of corpses wafted through the alleyways and made him shudder. No one responded to his knocking. On the threshold of the last house sat a man as old as the stone cliffs, he had a long snarled beard and green, bulging frog eyes. Sadly, the little man gazed up and said in a rattling voice: You don’t need to come here with your tin pots, you won’t sell any here, the plague has been guest in this abode. Yes, I am the sole survivor of the village and I won’t buy anything from you. I have plenty of good and bad utensils – in excess. I have become a rich man, the entire village belongs to me and me alone,” and he laughed wildly and struck his forehead with his palm. Then he glared at the tinsmith with the same sad gaze. “Should I show you the way to where you will find work?”
The tinsmith shifted the heavy bundle on his back and said: “Yes, I’d be happy to find some work, but I’m sure there is nothing anywhere and the pots will stay on my back!”
The little man made a sign that the man should follow him. He placed a thick hazel branch between the pots and tin pans, shifted the bundle with the stick and plodded behind the little man, who slowly climbed the mountain. Every ten steps the man stopped, coughed but finally led him to an open field, which was easy to climb at the far end. But the front end of the field was a jagged drop-off, filled with fir trees. The sun had just sunk behind the mountain and it would soon be dark. The little man pointed to a narrow path, which led from the base of the cliff, on which they stood, in a straight direction but always upward, over the broad Rhone Valley to the peak of the Eliserhorn, which projected through the dark mass of the cliff with its snow-covered peak. On the peak of the Eliserhorn there burned a light, not larger than a star in heaven. The little man cried: Take this path and always, always follow the light! A deep, dark night will break and evil spirits will seemingly build broad bridges for you; you must not lose sight of the light, otherwise you will sink into endless night. The ocean lies below the bridge. It will remain calm as a green mountain lake, then it will become red and then roaring and finally will become sulfur-yellow and putrid. The raging waves will beat over your path and threaten to devour you.”
The tinsmith thanked the old man as the distant, remote light started to awaken new hope within him. He grasped his bundle of pots tightly and with the little light firmly in his gaze, he began his climb up the narrow aerial path. His stride was slow and deliberate, his steps long so that the tin ware on his back rattled with each step. He looked at the green shimmering surface of the water, which extended before him like an endless sea. But soon the sea glimmered a purple-red; the waves began to curl over and became larger and larger. Soon, they began to rock back and forth and he became dizzy. He began to stagger and stumble but found his equilibrium again and again with his hazel branch. When he looked into the water’s depths for only a heartbeat, he thought he would crash into the waves, but he immediately gazed up into the radiating light and stepped weakly in that direction. He paid no attention to the beautiful, wide and brightly illuminated bridge, which enticingly rose from the water and formed a bridge to the narrow and bumpy path he was on. The closer the little light appeared on the peak of the Eliserhorn, the brighter it burned. The path was now enveloped in the depths of darkness and below him the waters raged like an ocean storm. The yellow shimmering waves rolled with unceasing force against the ramp he walked on. Now the water breached the path and threatened to tear him away. The spray, hitting the granite cliff edges, splashed up striking his face and enveloping him in a veil of foam, drenching his clothes. The putrid water took his breath away. But now he was close to the light and with his last strength, he pushed himself through the foaming surf and the waves, which rose up to his left and right were as high as towers.
The sea suddenly subsided below him. A great calm descended all around. He was at his destination and stood on a large, level place. Before him stood a mighty church built of snow-white marble. In its beautiful, richly decorated façade he counted twelve doors. The tip of the tower seemed to extend into the heavens and shone like a star, in white blinding light. It all seemed so solemn, so beautiful and holy that he had to fold his hands in prayer. Over the entrance gate could be read: Church of Eternal Joy. On both sides of the gate guards stood in white shirts with golden collars, on which were written S Z (sit Zion). The one held a pick on his shoulder, the other a shovel.
The tinsmith wanted to put down his heavy bundle to enter the church properly, as is fitting; but the guards motioned to him he should take everything with him. So he stepped through the gate with the rattling bundle and entered a richly illuminated hall filled with people. It looked like the inside of any church at home, but only here it was much larger, majestic and solemn. The hall at the front and back was crossed by a passage. On the right side of the front passage he noticed a funeral pyre. He set down his tin ware as quietly as possible, kneeled completely exhausted and covered in sweat on a riser and listened to the beautiful heavenly music, which came to him from the choir. The sound was like the rushing of the organ, and other times was like the rushing of a forest stream, which fell from the heights and then rushed peacefully through a green meadow. The souls in the passage were enveloped in white robes, turned their backs to the gate and held both hands before their faces. But the souls in the passage before the choir, under which he was also standing, supported their arms on the prayer stool and did not pay any attention to him.
The tinsmith hardly dared breathe, he was gripped by such solemn feelings. As far as the eye could see, all were rigid, unmoving figures. Only in the choir before him was there bright laughter as if the angels themselves were rejoicing. It must be wonderful there; he had to reach that spot.
He stood up, but two white-clad youth approached him, softly taking his arm, they said he must not enter the choir so dirty. He should wait a bit. He sank back onto the prayer bench, but when the youth vanished, he tried going forward again. Something pulled him there with irresistible force. Two men appeared in red robes and said to him “Follow us, you are not yet clean, we will wash you and cleanse you, then when you may join the throng that sing and praise in the choir!”
They led him by the arm through the throng, which silently made room for him. Proceeding through the door of a passage, he climbed the steps of a high tower and opened the door to a lovely room. On the table lay a scourge and tightly twisted cords. On the wall stood washing utensils and fastened to the wall sparkling faucets could be seen. The men removed his clothes, filled the barrels with water: first tepid and then boiling water. They scourged him with the whip so that his skin fell off, then they splashed him with ice-cold water and immediately his body was covered with young, fresh skin. The horrible pain turned into a wonderful, heavenly feeling of comfort. After this, they dressed him in a soft muslin shirt and said he could now pass through the door. This led him down the steps and through the passageway to singing saints, who asked him to kneel on a large, cushioned riser. He should now ask the Heavenly Father for a beautiful cap of eternal life and imagine something of indescribable beauty, then wish for it. He knelt in the choir and fervently prayed the Our Father so that he soon forgot to wish. He was hardly done, when the youth were once more at his side and waved him to follow so that he could make room for others. They stepped out to the temple and arriving before its doors, wandered almost a half hour on a beautiful and wide street. High trees with large leaves marked the path. The trees were of such splendor, he had never laid eyes on such marvels. Between the branches he saw a garden of inestimable size, from which the most wonderful sweet smells of flowers emanated. He drank in the fragrance and could not get enough of it. Before him stood vineyards, which hang ripe with fruit.
“Eat your fill,” the guide said to him. He picked a grape but each time he raised the fruit to his lips, he felt already satisfied. When he had tried every assortment, one of the youth presented him with the key to his house, which hung on a green band. He would now be the occupant of this house.
He could not really say what it looked like, for the splendor glimmered before his eyes and completely enveloped him. He only saw how enormous carnation stalks from the darkest red to the brightest snow-white hung over the wall. When he asked whether he could open all doors with this single key, the youth replied, this one key opened every door. Then he asked whether he could not fetch his family and his relatives and friends, because it was so beautiful here and he felt so happy. The youth replied: “They will come but not all. Do you see over there in front of the large gate to the cathedral? There stands the bishop with his tall miter cap and long staff. He has been standing there for a long time and must wait even longer, for he won’t be let inside!”
He nodded his head and thanked them once more. Then the youth vanished.
Thursday, January 17, 2019
Arminius purportedly defended the freedom of German tribes and defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. In gratitude they erected an Irmensauele, or pole of Arminius.
A tradition of erecting and worshipping a pole is alluded to in numerous legends and saga and has a wide geographic distribution. The opening paragraph of Grimm’s Saga No. 518 is a reference to this tradition:
“Now it happened that the Kaiser’s bailiff named Grissler rode out to Uri. And when he had lived there some time he erected a pole under the linden tree and everyone had to pass by it. On this pole he placed a hat and ordered a farmhand to sit there and keep watch. He ordered the following public proclamation: Whoever passes must bow to the hat as if the master himself stood there.”
Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Grimm’s Saga No. 518: Wilhelm Tell
Now it happened that the Kaiser’s bailiff named Grissler rode out to Uri. And when he had lived there some time he erected a pole under the linden tree and everyone had to pass by it. On this pole he placed a hat and ordered a farmhand to sit there and keep watch. He ordered the following public proclamation: Whoever passes must bow to the hat as if the master himself stood there. And if a person did not see the hat and did not bow, he would be punished and have to pay a hefty fine.
Now a pious man resided in the land; his name was Wilhelm Tell. He stood before the hat but would not bow. The servant who guarded the hat now accused Tell before the bailiff. The bailiff had Tell brought before him and asked why he did not bow before the tree and hat, as was commanded. Wilhelm Tell answered: “Dear sir, it is something like this; I do not believe that Your Grace is held in high regard. If I were a funny fellow, I would not be called Tell.”
Now Tell was a good marksman, his equal could not be found in all the land. He also had handsome children whom he loved. The bailiff had the children brought before him and when they arrived he asked Tell, which child was the dearest of all. “I love them all the same,” Tell replied. Grissler replied “Wilhelm, you are a good shot. One cannot find your equal in all the land. You shall now prove it to me. You shall take your children and shoot an apple from one of their heads.”
The goodly Tell recoiled. He begged for mercy for what was asked was not natural. He would do anything else asked. But the bailiff forced him with his servants and placed the apple on the child’s head himself. Now Tell saw that he could not avert the issue. He took the arrow and placed one in his quiver. With the other hand he took another arrow, loaded it in the crossbow and asked God to protect his child. He aimed and shot and the arrow happily struck the apple on the child’s head. Geissler said it was a master shot. “But one thing you shall tell me: What does it mean that you hold another arrow behind in your quiver?”
“It is the habit of marksmen.” But the bailiff would not cease needling him and wanted to hear an explanation. Finally Tell admitted that he feared for his life if he told the truth. When the bailiff promised to preserve his life, Tell spoke: “I did it because of this: if I had missed the apple and shot my child, I wouldn’t have missed hitting you with the next arrow. When the bailiff heard this he said: “Your life has been promised you; but I want to put an end to all this so that sun and moon cease shining for you!” He had him seized and bound and placed in a boat so that he could be conveyed back to Schwyz. As they were traveling on the sea and came near Axen, they met a strong wind. The ship swayed back and forth and they all thought they would meet a miserable end. None of them knew how to steer the vehicle through the waves. One of the servants spoke to the bailiff: “Unbind Tell. He is a strong and powerful man and understands what to do in such weather. We want to escape this calamity.” The bailiff spoke and called to Tell: “If you help us and do your best so that we can escape, I will have you unbound.”
Tell replied: “Yes gracious sir. I will do it gladly. Trust me.” Tell was then unbound and stood at the helm of the ship in good faith. And so he waited for his advantage, espying his crossbow lying on the floor. They now approached a large rock which since has been called Tell’s Plate and is stilled called that today. It dawned on him that he might now escape and cried out to them all to row hard until they arrived at the base of the rock, because when they passed it they would be through the worst of the waves. So while they rowed close to the rock he forcefully turned the ship as he was a strong man. He reached for his crossbow and jumped onto the rock, pushing the boat back where it rocked back and forth on the water.
Quickly retreating into the shadows of Schwyz (through the dark mountains), he finally arrived in the empty streets of Kuessnacht. There he waited for the bailiff and his men. When the bailiff arrived with his men, Tell stood behind a brushy shrub and heard the noise of the attackers coming his way. He spanned his crossbow and shot an arrow into that man, who fell down dead. Tell ran away quickly over the mountains to Uri, found his comrades and told them all that had happened.
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Thursday, January 3, 2019
268. Mistress Berta or the Woman in WhiteA woman in white appears in castles of many royal families, especially at Neuhaus in Bohemia, Berlin, Darmstadt and Karlsruhe, wherever the blood of an ancient family has mingled with her own race through marriage. She is gentle, harming no one and when encountered, she bows her head and says nothing. Her visit portends the imminent death of a loved one but may also foretell a happy event: as long as she is not wearing black gloves. She carries a ring of keys and wears a bonnet with white veil. Some folk say her name was Perchta von Rosenberg and she lived in Neuhaus in Bohemia. She was married to Johann von Lichtenstein, a mean, mulish man. After her husband’s death she lived as a widow in Neuhaus and began to build a castle to the great distress of her subjects, who had to work like slaves. While they were working, she called to them and urged them to work diligently: “When the castle is finished I shall give you and yours a sweet porridge,” for this is how old folk spoke when they invited someone as guest to dinner. In the autumn after the building was complete, she not only kept her word, but also established the custom that throughout the ages the Rosenbergs would always give their people such a meal. And this tradition continued. If there was a lapse, she would appear with a stern countenance. It was said that sometimes at night she would visit the nursery of a princely house, while the nursemaid slept. She rocked the children in their cradle or carefully carried them to and fro. Once an unknowing maid woke up alarmed and asked “What are you doing with that child?” and scolded her severely. Mistress Berta replied “I am not a stranger in this house like you are, I belong to this house. This child has sprung from my own blood, from my children’s children. But because you have not shown the honor due me, I will never more return here.”
Fairy Tale Factum:
According to Jakob Grimm, Perchta (Berchta or Berta) is mentioned in Old High German in the 10th century as a white-clad Germanic goddess. She is known in the upper regions of Germany from Alsace to Austria and is associated with ancient hunting cultures and with spinning and weaving. She thus shares many similarities with Frau Holle (see Christmas Tales). In Christian traditions she is often associated with St. Lucia and her festival day is January 6. Her name means the Shining One. Wise folk in fairy tales do not provoke the wrath of Mistress Berta and make sure they eat the traditional meal of porridge on her feast day.
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