Friday, May 30, 2008

Grimm's Saga No. 561: The Wartburg Singing War

Grimm’s Saga No. 561 The Wartburg Singing War

In the year 1206, six virtuous and reasonable men came together in song to compose hymns at Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. Years later this was often referred to as The Singing War at Wartburg Castle. The names of the troubadours were: Heinrich Schreiber, Walther von der Vogelweide, Reimar Zweter, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Biterolf and Heinrich von Ofterdingen. They sang and quarreled over who sang most like the sun and the day. Most compared Hermann, the Count of Thuringia and Hessia to the day and placed him over all other princes. Only Ofterdingen praised Leopold, Duke of Austria even more and compared him to the sun. When setting the rules of the singing contest, the troubadours determined that the loser would lose his head. Stempfel the henchman stood ready with noose in hand and would hang the loser immediately. Heinrich von Ofterdingen sang cleverly and skillfully; in the end he was superior to all the others but they were cunning and entrapped him. Because they were jealous, they wanted to remove him from the Thuringia Court. But he complained that the contest had been rigged and he had been given the wrong dice to play their game. The five others called Stempfel and ordered him to hang Heinrich from a tree. But Heinrich fled to the Landgravine Sophia and hid behind her coat. They were forced to let him go and they reached agreement that they would leave him in peace for one year. He would go to Hungary and Siebenbuergen and fetch the Meistersinger Klingsor. The troubadours would then settle the singing contest and they would abide by his decision. At the time, Meistersinger Klingsor was considered to be the most famous of all German Meistersingers. Because the Landgravine Sophia had granted Heinrich protection, the others had to follow her bidding.

Heinrich von Ofterdingen started his journey. First he visited the Duke of Austria and with his letters of recommendation continued on to Siebenbuergen to the Meistersinger. He told Meistersinger Klingsor the reason for his trip and performed his songs.

Klingsor praised his singing and promised to return with him to Thuringia and settle the dispute. But on the way, they spent their time in idle amusement and the deadline given Heinrich was fast approaching. Because Klingsor still gave no sign of starting the journey, Heinrich became fearful and said: “Meistersinger Klingsor, I fear you are abandoning me and I must sadly accept my punishment alone. I shall lose my honor and never again be able to return to Thuringia.” But Klingsor replied “Do not worry! We have strong horses and a light wagon. We shall manage the distance in a short time.”

Heinrich could not sleep because of his anxiety; in the evening Klingsor gave him a drink so that he fell into a deep sleep. Klingsor commanded his ghosts to bring Heinrich quickly to Eisenach in Thuringia and to set him down in the best inn. It happened and they brought him to Helgrevenhof before daylight. Heinrich recognized the bells ringing in his morning sleep and said “It seems as though I have heard these bells before and that I’m in Eisenach.”
“You must be dreaming,” the Meister replied. But Heinrich stood up and looked round and he noticed that he really was in Thuringia. “Thank God that we are here, this is Helgrevenhaus Inn and I can see St. George’s Gate and the people standing in front of it want to cross the field.”

Soon the arrival of the two guests was heralded at Wartburg Castle. The Count ordered that Meistersinger Klingsor be received honorably and presented him with gifts. When Ofterdingen was asked what had happened to him and how he had faired in the last year, he replied “Yesterday I went to sleep in Siebenbuergen and by early morning I was here. I myself don’t know how it happened.” Several days passed before the singers were to assemble and begin the contest that Klingsor was to judge. One Evening, he sat in the innkeeper’s garden and looked up at the stars. The gentlemen asked what he saw in heaven. Klingsor said “Do you know that tonight a daughter shall be born to the King of Hungary. She will be beautiful, chaste and holy and will be married to the Count’s son.”

When this message was taken to Count Hermann, he rejoiced and invited Klingsor to Wartburg, honored him and presented a fine dinner at the princely table. After dinner, he went out to the Knight’s Hall, where the singers sat. All wanted to be free of Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Klingsor and Wolfram sang their songs but Wolfram sang with such beauty and agility, that the Meister could not surpass him. Klingsor entreated one of his ghosts, who appeared in the form of a youth. He said “I bring you my servant; he will continue the contest with you for a while.” The ghost began to sing a song, starting with the creation of the world and continuing to the time of grace. But Wolfram’s song praised the sacred birth of the Eternal Word. When he began to sing of the transformation of bread and wine, the devil was silent and had to depart. Klingsor listened to everything and heard Wolfram sing with such noble bearing and learned words of the divine secret. He believed that Wolfram was a scholar. The two then departed. Wolfram went to his place in Titzel, Gottschalk’s House, across from the bread market in the center of town. At night when he slept Klingsor sent him another of his devils to ascertain whether he was a scholar or layman. But Wolfram was only trained in God’s word, a simple man and inexperienced in other arts. The devil sang to him of the stars in heaven and asked him questions the singer could not answer. And when he was silent, the devil laughed loudly and wrote with his finger on the stone wall, as if it were soft dough: “Wolfram, you are a layman, schnipf-schnapf!” The devil withdrew but the writing remained on the wall. Many people came to see the miracle, which annoyed the innkeeper. He broke the stones out of the wall and threw them in the Horsel River. After he had done all this, Klingsor left the Count with all his gifts and rewards and with his servant wrapped in a rug, departed in the same way that he had come.

Richard Wagner used this saga as inspiration for his opera Tannhäuser. To read a translation of Grimm's Saga Tannhäuser, please hit the link: Tannhäuser

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Opera Lover's Series: Tannhäuser

The Last Judgement, Fra Angelico

Deutsche Sagen, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm (Brueder Grimm), 1816/18
No. 171

Noble Tannhäuser, a German knight, traveled through many countries and also spent time with the many beautiful women residing in Mistress Venus’s mountain. Passing the time among these fair ladies, he spent his hours gazing upon all the magnificent wonders. For some time he stayed there happily, but his conscience finally urged him to go out and reunite with the world. He longed to take his leave from Venus but she offered to give him anything his heart desired so he would stay. Finally she presented one of her companions to be his wife. He should only remember her red mouth and think of her red lips, which filled every hour with laughter. Tannhäuser replied that he did not desire any other woman than the one he intended for himself for he did not want to burn in eternal hell fire. The red mouth was not important to him. He could not remain because his life had become something sick and foul. But the devilish temptress tried to lure him into her chamber so they could continue to seek the pleasures of love. The noble knight scorned her loudly and called upon the Heavenly Virgin to bring an end to his misery. Filled with remorse, he made a pilgrimage to Rome to seek out Pope Urban. He would confess all his sins to him so that penance would be prescribed and his soul would be saved. But when he confessed that he had passed an entire year with Frau Venus in her mountain, the pope replied: “When this thin staff in my hand sprouts green leaves, then your sins shall be forgiven. Until then, you remain a sinner.” Tannhäuser replied: “And if I only have one year to live on earth, I should show such remorse and penance that God would have mercy on me.” Full of pain and suffering because the pope had damned him, he went out from that city and re-entered the devilish mountain with the intent to live there until eternity. Mistress Venus welcomed him, like one welcomes home a long lost lover. But on the third day the staff began to sprout green buds and the pope sent a message throughout all the countryside to find the noble knight Tannhäuser. But it was too late. He had returned to the Venusberg and to his life of pleasure. Now he must sit there until the Day of Judgement, when God will perhaps deal differently with him. A priest should not dispense such despair and misery to a sinner, but rather grant forgiveness when he comes in penance and remorse.

To read the Wartburg Singing War, Grimm's Saga No. 561, on which the opera Tannhäuser is also based, hit the link: Wartburg Singing War.

You also might be interested in reading  Grimm's Saga No. 542, Lohengrin from Brabant, click on the link.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Of Fairies, Gnomes and Men

In addition to their pantheon of gods, ancient Germanic tribes acknowledged a number of supernatural beings, who were capable of help or harm. Air, meadow, forest, water, even the interior of the earth – in short, everything that surrounded them was populated by such beings. They were generally called Alben (goblins) or Elben (elves) and they inhabited the realm of light (Lichtalben) or darkness (Schwarzalben). Those inhabiting the realm of light lived in Lichtalbenheim, between Midgard and Asgard. They were delicate and gentle creatures of indescribable beauty. They seemed to be woven out of a sheer fabric of sunlight and vapor. They were so light and transparent, that when they landed in the calyx of a flower, it did not tremble. A dewdrop did not break when such a creature alighted on it but rather vibrated ever so slightly. More than anything else, the Light Elves or Light Fairies loved music and their greatest pleasure was dance and play. In forest clearings on quiet moonlit nights, they performed their round dances faster and faster, with ever-higher leaps into the air. Sometimes they preferred to sing their gentle songs quietly, sometimes with an even solemn grandeur. If they were disturbed by curious onlookers, they vanished immediately. Such troublemakers had to take care that the outraged elves did not seek to play some unkind prank in retaliation.

Schwarzalben or gnomes were different from their dear relatives the Light Fairies. The gods created them from the same dark fabric they used to make the monsters. They resided in Schwarzalbenheim, deep inside the earth. Many of them were so small, they could duck inside the shell of an acorn cap. They were a diminutive folk; an entire group could ride a ship fashioned from a leaf. When they celebrated a feast, the amount of water boiled in an egg-shell would be enough for all the guests. Others were about the size of a thumb but the largest among them rarely reached the height of a two-year-old child. They were ugly, their faces dark gray, ashen and full of wrinkles. Beards were wild and unkempt. They lived together in underground holes and the glitter of gold and precious stones that decorated their abodes was so radiant that they did not miss the light of day. Like the Light Fairies and Elves, they loved to dance and play in the moonlight. But they were mindful of the rising sun, for a single ray was enough to turn them to stone. Gnomes were masters of the art of finding precious stones and fashioning beautiful objects from them. They also used magic rings to uncover every treasure deep inside the earth. With their magic caps, they were able to make themselves invisible to humans.

Usually, gnomes were friendly toward humans. They richly rewarded anyone who helped them, but they did not like to be showered with gratitude. If they felt kindly toward a human, they would appear before him at night but never when the sun was shining. They did work for those they favored and it was always perfectly executed, much better than if human hands had performed the task. But woe to the man who offended them! He could be certain that the insulted dwarves would never forgive the misdeed and would seek revenge at every opportunity. They would milk the cows until their udders were dry and at night destroy all the work their enemies had finished the day before. Whatever they could steal, they carried off, including the baby in the cradle. When a human slept who had fallen from their graces, they sat on his chest and weighed down the unsuspecting slumberer like a stone. It was then said the goblin had been pressing again last night. People did everything in their power to ward off the vengeful gnomes, but this was an impossible thing to do. It was best not to kindle their wrath, but to submit to their will. There were many types of gnomes: so-called Heinzel-men, Wichtel-men, Klabauter-men (protective spirits of a ship) and Poltergeist.

Translation: Copyright
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Friday, May 23, 2008

Reading Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin is an odd fellow. Sharing traits of both wild man and witch, he is indeed a rare breed of fairytale figure. It might be said that he represents two opposing attitudes toward paganism: on the one hand, paganism can be thought of as a virtuous and more natural way of life. On the other hand, it may also be associated with a demonic or unnatural lifestyle, one that should be shunned. Rumpelstiltskin does not fit neatly into the typical template for a fairytale fiend. He is a diligent worker, honest and true to his word. He is compassionate for he shows mercy to the queen and allows her to win back her child. We can only laud his priorities and agree with him when he says: “A living thing is more dear to me than all the treasures of the earth.”This is contrasted with the ignoble king, who loves gold above all else and only marries the miller’s daughter to enrich himself. He admits “Even if she is only a miller’s daughter, I will not find a richer woman in the whole world.”
And the queen might be quick-witted but is not necessarily a principled character. She relinquishes her first-born child because it is expedient and makes sense to her at the time.

The wild man of ancient mythology often appeared on German heraldic shields with uprooted tree in hand. He is wild, rough and crude like a satyr or faun and is associated with plants, trees and wild animals. But Rumpelstiltskin bakes and brews and this also connects him to witches, who frequently performed such tasks in fairy tales. Baking and brewing were essential tasks for survival in ancient cultures. It is very unusual to encounter a male witch in a German fairy tale and so it is worthwhile to read this story very carefully.

Another theme in Rumpelstiltskin is the power of language and naming things. But what exactly does the name Rumpelstiltskin mean? I have read several explanations, including one that interprets Rumpel as the sound made by little stilts (stiltzchen) or little legs of this diminutive character. It is impossible to ascribe a precise meaning to the name, but it does evoke the idea of a person of small stature and unknown magical properties. See commentary on The White Snake or Taboo for more on the topic of language and naming things.
There are several versions of the story. In the one printed here, Rumpelstiltskin is seized by such a powerful rage that he tears himself in two, an apt metaphor for two worldviews colliding and ripping apart the very essence of his being. In another version, he merely flies out the window on a spoon (reminiscent of a witch on a broomstick). His wretched lament at the end that “the devil told you” brings to mind a person indicting a world he doesn’t really understand or expect fair treatment from. He remains illusive but in the end, the story is still very entertaining.

To read the Brother Grimm's Version of Rumpelstiltskin, hit the link:

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 55: Rumpelstiltskin

There was once a miller who was poor, but he had a beautiful daughter. Now it happened that he came into conversation with the king and to gain his favor told him “I have a daughter who can spin straw into gold.” The king replied “That is an art, which I hold dear. If your daughter is as clever as you say, bring her to my castle in the morning. I will test her skill.” When the maid was brought to him, he led her to a chamber, which was packed full with straw, gave her a spinning wheel and bobbin and said “Now get to work and if you do not spin this straw into gold by morning, you must die.” With that he closed the door to the chamber and she sat all alone.

The poor miller’s daughter sat quietly and did not know how to save her life. She knew nothing about how straw was spun to gold. Her fear grew until she finally began to cry bitterly. At once the door opened and a small man came inside. He spoke “Good evening, dear miller’s daughter, why are you crying so pitifully?”
“Oh,” the maid replied, “I must spin straw into gold and I don’t know how.” The little man spoke “What will you give me if I spin it for you?” “My necklace,” the maid replied. The little man took her necklace, sat in front of the wheel and whirr, whirr, whirr, the wheel turned three times and the spindle was full. Then he placed another spindle on the wheel and whirr, whirr, whirr, the wheel turned three times and the second spindle was also full. And so it continued until morning. All the straw was spun and all spindles were full of gold. When the sun went up the king entered the chamber. When he saw the gold, he was amazed and happy. But his heart was greedy for even more gold. He took the miller’s daughter to another chamber full of straw, which was even larger and commanded her to spin this too into gold if she cherished her life. The maid did not know what to do and cried bitter tears. The door opened once more and the small man appeared and said “What will you give me if I spin the straw into gold?” “The ring on my finger,” the maid replied. The little man took the ring and began once more to turn the wheel and had spun all the straw into brilliant gold by morning. The king’s joy was without bounds but he was still greedy for gold. He took the miller’s daughter to an even larger chamber full of straw and said “You must once more spin this night. But if you succeed you shall become my wife.” “Even if she is only a miller’s daughter,” he thought, “I will not find a richer woman in the whole world.” When the maid was once again alone, the little man came to her a third time and said “What will you give me if I spin the straw for you this time?” “I have nothing more that I can give,” the maid replied. “So promise me when you become queen that you will give me your first child.” “Who knows what will happen,” the miller’s daughter thought and she did not know what else to do. She promised the little man what he demanded and once more the little man spun the straw into gold. And in the morning the king came and found everything as he desired it. He celebrated his marriage with her and the beautiful miller’s daughter became queen.

Over a year later the queen bore a beautiful child and she didn’t even think about the little man again. Suddenly he entered her chamber and said “Now give me what you have promised.” The queen recoiled in fear and offered the little man all the riches of the kingdom if he would leave her the child. But the little man replied: “No, a living thing is more dear to me than all the treasures of the earth.” The queen began to weep and wail, so that the little man had compassion for her. “I will give you three days time,” he said. “If you know my name by then, you shall keep your child.”

The entire night through the queen recalled all the names she had ever heard and sent a messenger throughout the land to find all the names that existed far and wide. When the little man returned the next day, she began with Caspar, Melchior, Balzer and said all the names that she knew in order. But each time the little man said “My name that is not.” The second day she asked around the neighborhood, what people were called there and recited to the little man the most unusual and strange names. “Are you perhaps called Beastyrib or Lambchop or Stringbone? But he always replied “My name that is not.” On the third day, the messenger returned and said “I could not find out any new names, but when I reached a high mountain and came around a bend in the wood, where fox and hare say goodnight to each other, I saw a small hut and in front of the hut burned a fire and around the fire jumped a funny little man. He hopped on one leg and cried:

“Today I bake, tomorrow I brew,
Next, the queen’s child is mine;
How good it is that no one knows
Rumpelstiltskin is my name!”

You can imagine how happy the queen was when she heard the name. And soon after the little man entered her chamber and asked “Now, Mistress Queen, what is my name?” She first asked “Is your name Kunz?” “No.” “Is your name Heinz?” “No”.

“Is your name perhaps Rumpelstiltskin?”

“The devil told you, the devil told you,” the little man cried and in his rage stamped his little foot so with such force that he sank into the ground up to his waist. Then he stamped his left foot into the ground in rage and with both hands tore himself in two.

To read more about Rumpelstiltskin:

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Lorelei

Source: Ludwig Bechstein, German Saga Book, Leipzig 1853
The Lorelei (or Lurlei)

The Rhine River flows through a valley and pushes through jagged cliffs at its narrowest point near Kaub. At this lonesome place echoes reverberate off the black stone and mournful sounds ricochet upward. The river flows faster and the waves swell noisily here; then they hit the jagged rock and form a foaming eddy. The gorge is eerie and the current quick. A story is told about the beautiful water nymph of the Rhine, the dangerous Lurlei or Lorelei, who was been banished to these cliffs. She often appears to passing ships, combing her long golden hair, which shines radiantly like the bright harvest moon. She sings a sweet, beguiling song. Those who are lured to the rock, attempt to climb the cliff and fall to their death in the maelstrom of waves below. Upstream and downstream all folk speak of the Lorelei. She is most like an echo emanating from the cliff wall. Her song breaks like the waves and then repeats itself over and over. Many poets have described her charms but she remains illusive.

Lorelei is the Nymph of the Rhine. Whoever sees her and hears her song, loses his heart. High above on the highest peak of the cliff you can see a maiden in white, with flowing veil and hair, waving her arms in a beckoning gesture. But whenever someone approaches or climbs the cliff peaks, she retreats. She lures unsuspecting youth to the abrupt abyss with her supernatural beauty. The beholder only has eyes for the Lorelei and as he approaches, he believes he is standing on firm ground but takes one step forward and is dashed to the rocks below.

Some folk say that the devil himself once steered a ship down the Rhine and arrived between the Lorelei rocks. The passage seemed too narrow and he wanted to take the boat out farther, either toward the adjacent rock or break against it so that the boat would block the river and make it unnavigable. He turned his back on the Lorelei cliff and pushed himself toward the adjacent mountain. This cliff began to sway when the Lorelei started her song. The devil heard her singing and a strange feeling overcame him. He concentrated on his work but was only able to withstand the song with enormous effort. His greatest desire was to win the Lorelei as his own and kidnap her, but he had no power over her. He became so agitated that steam could be seen rising from his body. When Lorelei ended her song, he hastened away; he had already come to believe that he would have to stay forever banished at that rock. But as he slipped away, a miracle occurred. His entire shape including his forked tail left a black imprint on the cliff wall. Today, this image still marks his visit to the Lorelei. After this encounter, the devil took enormous care never to approach the siren song of the Rhine again. He was afraid of being seized by her power and being pulled into the eddy of chaos and enchantment, would cease to be able to perform his work. The Lorelei, however, still sings in the moonlight on quiet evenings. She is seen on the peak of the cliff and awaits her coming redemption. But those who love her, the beguiled, have all died out. Today the world has no time to climb her cliff or approach her in the moonlight. The wheels of the steamship turn, boats still pass by, but now without stopping. Through the swell of the waves you can no longer hear the voice of the nymph’s sweet song. 

Fairy Tale Factum

Ironically, the very steamships that the author bemoans created a new generation of Lorelei admirers in the 19th century. Flocks of tourists were now able to float down the the Rhine River leisurely and admire its charms. With Heine's poem in hand, The Lorelei, they passed jagged cliffs, picturesque villages and sleepy castles that dotted the Rhine Valley. From the comfort of a cruise ship, this new generation rediscovered national myth. Alexander Dumas, writing about the Germans love affair with the Rhine wrote of "the profound veneration" they held for the river. "The Rhine is might; it is independence, it is liberty; it has passions like a man or rather like a God. .. It is an object of fear or hope, a symbol of love or hate, the principle of life and death." Modernity, it turns out, did not kill myth but rather rekindled interest. (From: Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama, Vintage Books)

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Grimm's Saga No. 221: The Snake Queen

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The Snake Queen

Once a shepherdess found a sick snake lying high up on a rocky cliff, fading fast. The maid took pity and offered the creature her milk can. The snake lapped up the milk hungrily and soon regained strength. The maiden continued on her way and it was not long after that her lover asked for her hand in marriage. But to her rich, proud father, the suitor was too poor and thus was mockingly rejected. He was told to come back when he owned as much cattle as the old herdsman. From that moment on, the old farmer had no luck but only misfortune. It was said at night that a firey dragon hovered over his fields and soon his property lay in ruins. But the poor youth became very rich and once more asked for the maid’s hand in marriage, which was now granted. On the wedding day a snake appeared in the room, on its coiled tail was a beautiful maiden, who said it was she whom the kind shepherdess had fed milk when she lay starving. Full of gratitude she took her brilliant crown from her head and threw it into the bride’s lap. The Queen Snake immediately vanished but the young couple were blessed with abundance in their household and they were very prosperous all their lives.

Snakes and Milk? Where did this come from?
A friend in India writes the following:
On Naag Panchami (Naag in Hindi means snake), we feed snakes milk. It’s symbolic as snakes don’t drink milk. The snake charmers just take the milk with them. Naag Panchami follows some time after the Spring festival. Snakes are sacred to us so we worship them. They are the companion of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva is a Hindu God; he wears snakes as garlands.

Thank you reader in India for this wonderful contribution! It is interesting to see the overlap between Swiss and Indian traditions. In fact, I was quite surprised to hear this!

The same reader has sent me an Indian folk tale about a snake. It's wonderful!:
The story tells a different aspect of snake behavior.Though we are all scared of snakes but in the story it is shown that snakes do have feelings of pity and forgiveness.A similar story I would like to narrate which is famous in India. This has been taken from" Panchatantra " a fairytale book famous in India.

"There was once a Brahmin(upper caste person) who had two daughters .The elder daughter was from his first wife ,who died many years ago, while the second daughter was from his second wife who was alive. His wife didnot love the elder daughter.So one day she sent the elder daughter to a forest to fetch some water.In the forest the elder daughter found a snake, who was going to die, but the good girl fed it water and the snake regained its posture, the snake asked the girl if she would marry him? The daughter took the snake to her parents and told them about its proposal. Her step mother immediately agreed as she wanted to get rid of her stepdaughter. So the marriage between the girl and snake took place. They were given a separate room. The snake went inside the room , while the girl had some work to do so after a few minutes she too went into the room. To her surprise instead of a snake she found a handsome young man and the snake skin was lying aside. She immediately took the snake skin and burnt it. The young man was so happy , then he told her that actually he was a prince but was cursed to be a snake and his curse has now been broken .The prince and his wife the lived happily ever after"
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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Reading the White Snake

For the Western mind, it is hard to read The White Snake without noticing the abundance of references to one of the most famous Biblical stories of all, the creation story.

In the book of Genesis, God planted a garden that contained many trees but two trees bore distinction: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. The Tree of Life offered immortality to persons who ate its fruit, or put in another way, they were unable to die. The Tree of Knowledge conveyed an understanding of good and bad. The serpent uses language to speak to Eve and tempt her. Remarkably, Eve understands the serpent’s language immediately.* This understanding of serpent speech causes the first humans to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and leads to man’s downfall. Speech and language are an integral part of the creation story. Here, the first instances of language are described: God speaking (“Let there be light”) and man speaking (naming the animals). God’s language brings into being, creating essences and the cosmos. Man’s language names and designates things.

In The White Snake we encounter the same elements: snake, language/speech, tree and apple. They are similar but somehow different and strange here.
Germanic tribes believed that men were created out of trees. The cosmos were actually a giant ash tree. Its branches shaded the earth and extended up into heaven The Tree of Life (or World Tree) had three roots. One extended down to Midgard the realm of men. A second root reached into Joetunheim, or the realm of giants. The third root extended into the underworld. The cosmos were under continuous threat, for the roots of the tree were gnawed by a giant worm or snake.
Iduna, the goddess of health, eternal youth and immortality was referred to as the “Evergreen”. She was indispensable to the gods, because she tended the garden and was in charge of the precious golden apples, which the gods needed to preserve their eternal youth. Once robbed of these fruits, the gods became old, their hair gray, their faces ashen and full of wrinkles. In the Fairy Tale The White Snake, the youth must first acquire knowledge (of languages) by eating the snake (not the apple). To prove himself a worthy husband he must then acquire the golden apple, conferring health, happiness and eternal youth.

*In some traditions, Adam and Eve had the innate ability to understand animal languages when they lived in Paradise. They lost this ability after the Fall.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 17: The White Snake

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A very long time ago a king lived, whose wisdom was renowned throughout the entire land. There was nothing he did not know and it was as if news of the most hidden things was carried to him through the air. He had a very strange habit. Every afternoon, when everything was carried away from his dinner table and no one was present, he had a trustworthy servant bring him one more bowl. But the bowl was covered and the servant himself did not know what was under the lid for the king kept it closed and would not eat from the bowl until he was completely alone. This went on for some time until one day the servant who was carrying the bowl away was gripped by a curiosity he could not resist. He took the bowl into his chamber. When he had carefully closed the door he raised the lid and looked underneath and there lay a white snake. As he gazed upon it he could not restrain his desire to taste some. He carefully cut off a piece and placed it in his mouth. It had barely touched his tongue when he heard the strange whisper of fine voices. He went toward the sound and listened. He noticed that the sound was coming from sparrows, which were talking to each other and were telling everything they had seen in field and forest. Eating the snake had given him the ability to understand the language of animals.

Now it happened that just at that time the queen had lost her most beautiful ring and the suspicion of theft fell on the trusted servant, who had access to everything. The king called him to appear before him and threatened him under harsh words that if the culprit was not found by the morning, he would be considered the guilty one and charged. It didn’t help for him to assert his innocence. He was left with no better prospects. In his trouble and fear he went down to the courtyard and considered what he could do to alleviate his troubles. The ducks sat peacefully near the pond and rested, they preened their feathers with their bills and while resting, held a confidential conversation. The servant stood still and listened. They told each other how they had all waddled out in the morning and found such good food. One said sorrowfully, “How heavy it lays in my stomach, for in my haste I swallowed a ring, which lay under the queen’s window.” The servant immediately grabbed the duck by its neck, carried it into the kitchen and ordered the cook “Kill this one, for its plump and ready.”
“Yes,” the cook replied and weighed it in his hand. “This one wasted no time in fattening itself and should have been roasted a long time ago.” He cut off its head and when it had been removed, he found the queen’s ring in the duck’s stomach. The servant could now easily prove his innocence to the king. The king, who wanted to make good the injustice done to the servant, permitted him to request a favor and promised him the best honorary position at his court.

But the servant ruled out everything the king proposed. He asked for only a horse and travel money because he wanted to see the world and wander for a while. When his request had been fulfilled, he made his way and arrived at a pond where he noticed three fish, which had become entrapped in a pipe and were gasping for water. Although it was said that fish were without speech, he could understand their laments that they should die such a pitiable death. Because he had a compassionate heart, he dismounted and set the three captives back in the water. They wriggled and splashed for joy, stretched their heads out of the water and called to him, “We shall thank you and yours, that you have saved us.” He rode on and after a while it seemed as if he heard a voice at his feet in the sand. He listened carefully and heard how the ant king cried “If only men with their clumsy animals would stop stepping on us! The stupid horse with his heavy hooves is kicking my people without any mercy!” He turned to take a side path and the ant king called to him “We will remember you and yours.” The path led to a forest and there in the woods sat a raven father and raven mother; they stood by their nest and threw out their young. “Away with you, you gallows birds,” they cried. “We can no longer feed you until you are satisfied. You are big enough and can feed yourself.” The poor birds fell to the ground and fluttered and beat their feathers and cried “We helpless children, we should feed ourselves and can’t even fly! What else can we do but die of hunger here!” The good youth dismounted, killed his horse with his sword and left it to the ravens for food. They hopped toward him, ate their fill and cried “We will remember you and yours!”

Now he had to use his own legs and when he had walked a long way he came to a large city. There was much noise and the streets were filled with people. A rider pushed his way through the throng and announced that the king’s daughter was looking for a husband, but whoever would woo her must complete a difficult task. If he could not accomplish it with success, he would lose his life. Many had already tried and wagered their lives for naught. When the youth gazed upon the king’s daughter, he was blinded by her radiant beauty. He forgot the danger and went before the king and announced himself a suitor.

No sooner said than he was taken to the sea and before his eyes a golden ring was thrown into the waves. The king ordered him to fetch the ring from the ocean floor and added, “If you return to the water’s surface without the ring, you will be sent back to the ocean’s depths where you will die in the waves.” Everyone regretted the demise of the beautiful youth and left him standing on the beach by himself. He stood and considered what to do for he saw three fish swimming and they were no others than those whose life he had saved. The middle fish held a shell in his mouth, which he placed on the shore at the feet of the youth. When the youth picked up the shell and opened it, the golden ring lay inside. Full of joy he brought it to the king and expected him to grant him the said reward. But the proud king’s daughter, when she heard that he was not of equal birth, scorned him and demanded that he should fulfill another task. She went down to the garden and spread ten sacks full of millet in the grass. “You must pick up the millet by tomorrow before the sun comes up,” she said, “and no grain may be missing.” The youth sat in the garden and thought about how he could complete the task. But he could think of nothing and sat sadly. He awaited his death at the break of dawn. When the first sun beams fell in the garden, he saw the ten sacks and all were standing full next to each other. Not a granule was missing. The ant king with his thousand upon thousand of ants had arrived at night and the grateful animals had gathered the millet with enormous diligence. The king’s daughter came down to the garden herself and with wonder gazed upon the youth and saw he had accomplished what had been set before him. But she could not overcome her proud heart and spoke “He has solved both tasks, but he shall not become my husband until he has brought be an apple from the tree of life.” The youth did not know where the tree of life stood but took up the journey. He thought he would walk as long as his legs could carry him, but he had no hope of ever finding the tree of life. When he had already walked through three kingdoms and arrived in a forest in the evening, he sat under a tree and wanted to go to sleep. Suddenly he heard a noise in the branches above and a golden apple fell into his hands. Three ravens flew down to him and sat on his knee and said “We are three young ravens, who you saved from starvation. When we grew up and heard that you were looking for the golden apple, we flew over the ocean to the end of the earth where the tree of life stands and have brought you the apple.” Full of joy the youth made his way home and brought the beautiful king’s daughter the golden apple. Now there was no excuse. They divided the apple of life and ate it together. Her heart was filled with love for him and together they lived to old age in undisturbed happiness.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Saint Severus and The Three Languages

The fairy tale The Three Languages roughly follows the life of Saint Severus, whose relics were translated to the Severikirche in Erfurt, Germany sometime after 836 A.D. (See article below for details).
There are several churches in Germany that have been dedicated to the Saint, including those in Blankenhain, Boppard, Otterndorf, Gemuenden and Fulda. Saint Severus can also be seen in mosaic in the Basilica San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, where he appears with dove on shoulder.

In the world of the fairy tale, the acquisition of languages (especially the knowledge of animal languages) was held in high regard. According to earliest traditions, gods and men spoke different languages. Folklore and mythology mention several ways to acquire the understanding of animal tongues; two of these methods involve snakes. Consuming the flesh of a white snake supposedly granted men the power to understand animal language. Another way was to have your ears licked by a snake. In the fairy tale appearing next week, The White Snake, the hero prevails because of his compassionate heart* and the special linguistic abilities he acquires after eating a white snake. (For the full text of The Three Languages, scroll down or hit the link to the right.)

* Compassion in a fairy tale comes in many startling forms. It may even involve committing acts which today seem cruel, barbaric or totally incomprehensible.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Saint Severus and The Three Languages

Any Liberal Arts major can identify with the fairy tale The Three Languages (full text below). At first glance, the story seems to be a simple and slightly humorous account of generational conflict with happy resolution. The theme of a parent’s objection to a child’s career choice is a common one, but rarely does a parent threaten murder. The oddity of this story is perhaps that the newly married protagonist takes an unexpected trip to Rome with young wife in tow. Strange, we might think, for a young man who speaks fluent barking, croaking and chirping to become pope. After all, he is married. It might be a surprise to learn that this fairy tale is probably based on a true life history, that of Saint Severus. *

According to legend, a new bishop was to be elected in Ravenna at Pentecost in the year 342 A.D. There was some uncertainty about who should be elected. When the wool weaver Severus appeared on the scene, a dove circled overhead three times and landed on his shoulder. The church community interpreted this as a sign from God and elected him bishop. Severus was buried near the harbor of Ravenna, which today no longer exists. In the year 836 the German Archbishop had his remains transferred from Ravenna to Mainz and ultimately they were moved to Erfurt. The stone sarcophagus of Saint Severus can still be seen in the Erfurt Church and it includes both wife and daughter of the saint (Vincentia and Innocentia). The story of Saint Severus’ divine selection would have been circulated at the time his relics were moved and used to promote Christianity among the pagan population.

The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit and according to Christian tradition has inspired church elders to expound the doctrines of Christian faith. In addition to Saint Serverus, Pope Gregory, Thomas Aquinas and Augustine are commonly associated with the dove. They are often depicted with a dove sitting on their shoulders or hovering overhead. The dove flies down from heaven, announcing God's will and provides concrete instructions to humans, which it whispers in their ears.

* (Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, an account of his life history that was circulated at the time and is impossible to verify. In other words, a legend.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

May Fairy Tale: The Three Languages

Translation: Copyright
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A count once lived in Switzerland and he had only one child, a son. But this child was a very simple lad who would learn nothing. One day the father said to him “Listen, my son, try as I may, I can’t get anything to stay in your head. Now you shall go forth into the world and let a famous master try his luck with you.” The youth was sent to a foreign city and remained with the master an entire year. At the end of this time, he returned home and his father asked him “Now my son, what have you learned?” “Father, I have learned to understand the barking of dogs.” “God be merciful!” the father cried, “is that all that you have learned? I will send you to another city and to another master.” The youth was brought to this new city and stayed with a new master another entire year. When he returned, the father asked him again “My son, what have you learned?” He replied, “Father, I have learned to understand the chirping of birds.” The father was filled with rage and replied angrily “O, you lost and forsaken boy, you have wasted your valuable time and not learned anything at all. Aren’t you ashamed to appear before me? I will send you to a third master, but this time if you don’t learn anything, I will no longer be your father.” So the son stayed with the third master another entire year and when he returned home, the father asked “My son, what have you learned?” He replied “Dear father, this year I have learned to understand the croaking of frogs.” The father was seized by such rage, he jumped up and called his servants. “This man is no longer my son. I am now washing my hands of him and ask that you take him into the forest and kill him.” They seized him and led him out, but when they were about to kill him, they could not for they pitied him, so they let him go. They cut out the eyes and tongue of a doe and this is what they brought the old man as proof of their act.

The youth wandered forth and after some time he came to a castle, where he requested lodgings for the night. “Yes,” the master of the castle replied, “If you want to spend the night down below, in the old tower, go ahead. But I must warn you, it is a most dangerous place for it is filled with wild dogs that bark and howl without end. At certain hours they demand that a human being be thrown to them, whom they devour immediately.” The entire region was filled with alarm, but no one was able to help. The youth, who was not afraid said “Let me go down to the barking dogs and give me some food I can throw to them. They won’t do anything to me.” Because he insisted on going, they gave him some food for the wild animals and brought him down to the tower. When he entered, the hounds did not bellow at him, they wagged their tails in a friendly manner and ran around him, ate what he placed before them and did not harm a single hair on his head. The next morning to everyone’s surprise he returned healthy and whole. He said to the master of the castle “The hounds have revealed to me in their language why they rage and romp and bring harm to the countryside. A curse has been placed on them and they must guard a magnificent treasure in the tower until the treasure has been raised. Only then will they be allowed to rest. Their speech has also revealed to me the way the treasure must be uncovered.” Everyone who heard this rejoiced and the count promised his daughter to the youth, if he would raise the treasure. He happily complied, the wild dogs disappeared and the country was free of the nuisance. The beautiful maiden was given to the young man as wife and they lived happily together for some time.
It was not long after that the young count sat down happily beside his wife in a wagon and began a trip to Rome. On the way they passed a marsh where frogs sat and croaked. The young count listened and when he heard what they said, he became thoughtful and sad. At first, he would not tell his wife the reason. Finally, they arrived in Rome and found the pope had just died. Among the cardinals there was doubt about who should be elected successor. They at last agreed that the man would be revealed by a divine sign from God and this divinely designated man would then be voted pope. Right at the very moment it was decided, the young count entered the church and suddenly two snow-white doves flew down and landed on his shoulders. And there they remained seated. The priest recognized the sign from God and asked the young count immediately whether he wanted to become pope. He hesitated for he did not know if he was worthy of the job. But the doves murmured to him that he should do it and he responded “Yes”. He was anointed and blessed and thus, what the frogs had foretold before en route to Rome came true. The frogs had croaked he would become the blessed pope, which initially disturbed him. He was soon asked to sing mass and didn’t know a single word. But two doves perched on his shoulders and they whispered everything into his ear.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Frouwa: Portrait of a Witch as a Young Woman

Diminutive Ancient Wagon, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

The Germanic goddess Frouwa was the sister of the sun god Fro. Because of this solar connection, she is associated with things that shine and glisten, such as brilliant gems and the perfect sunshine of a cloudless spring day. As goddess of love, fertility and beauty, she was held in high esteem by Germanic tribes. But by the Middle Ages she had become associated with witches, devils and other demonic beings.

Frouwa had endured hardship as a young goddess. The source of her trial lay in the fact that she was not married to a god, but rather a human, who in stealth abandoned her. Full of longing, she searched the world over for her lost love. She had barely caught up with him, when he vanished again. The tears that fell from her eyelashes reached the ground as pearls or droplets of gold. That is why the pearl often represents a tear in German mythology.

The greatest hope of a Germanic woman was to become part of Frouwa’s sacred realm after death. The heavenly palace where Frouwa received these departed women was called Freistatt.

Like other gods, Frouwa also held a procession that lasted twelve nights. On these nights she often appeared riding a boar with golden bristles (witches were also known to ride boars on Walpurgis Night). But usually she traveled in a wagon that was pulled by cats. The cat was sacred to Frouwa and that is why her realm was filled with a large number of these animals. Carefully tended and revered, no one was allowed to touch them.

The ladybug (or ladybird) was given a special place of honor by Frouwa. It was said that the number of black spots on its back foretold the number of Talers a bushel of corn would cost in the coming year. Later Christian priests renamed this insect after the Virgin Mary, because it was thought the Virgin was most similar to the goddess in regard to purity, goodness and beneficence. The ladybug in German is therefore often called Marienkaefer. Likewise, the church transformed Frouwa’s cats into witches or devils and these became known as the fearful creatures accompanying her on her night flight.

As leader of the Valkyries she also had a swan-feather shirt, which gave her the power to take on the shape of swan and travel through both air and water, doing the gods’ bidding. By some accounts she could also transform herself into a falcon or bird of prey. However, her actions were always honorable and she was therefore considered to be the model of feminine virtue.
By the time of the poet Snorri (12th century AD), Frouwa was the only pagan goddess that was still venerated in Iceland.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Walpurgisnacht: in Germanic countries, the night of April 30 to May 1st. On this night witches fly from all directions on broomsticks to dance, drive away the last remnants of snow and herald the beginning of spring. According to folk tradition, the devil presides at the witches’ Sabbath until the May Queen appears at midnight, signifying the end of winter. The witches must report all their misdeeds of the past year at this gathering. Those who have not done their fair share receive a beating as punishment. By all accounts, it is a night of boisterous obscenity and indecency.

In times past, farmers were advised to bore three holes over the door of their cowshed and place special roots and herbs in these cavities on Walpurgisnacht. The time and manner for digging up the roots was precisely defined for it was believed that such herbs had power over witches and could prevent them from entering the cowshed and doing harm to the cattle. The name Walpurgisnacht is taken from St. Walpurga, who was the daughter of Richard of England. According to tradition, her bones were taken to the Eichstatt Church on May 1, 870 and the church used her feast day in an attempt to Christianize these pagan practices.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Ideas of Good and Evil in Jorinda and Joringel

The old woman in Jorinda and Joringel (full text provided by clicking here) is no ordinary sorceress. In fact she is a magician of the highest order, an arch-sorceress or Erzzauberin. She has gruesome physical characteristics and other unusual attributes, including red eyes and yellow skin, the ability to spit poison and bile and the power to transform herself and others into birds. She is also able to cast spells, which transfix people. Clearly she is aligned with a malignant force. But curiously she is also aligned with Zachiel, who has the power to break her spells and does so at her request. Zachiel in this fairy tale is probably a reference to the archangel Zadkiel, the Biblical angel of mercy (alternative spellings: Zachiel, Zadkiel or Zachariel). Zadkiel is the Patron Angel of all who forgive and according to Judaic tradition, it was Zadkiel who prevented Abraham from sacrificing Isaac.

The relationship between arch-sorceress and archangel is an interesting one. The witch seems to have authority over the archangel Zadkiel for it is at her request that Zadkiel releases Joringel from the spell. It seems they are working together in some capacity. Or, are they merely representatives of the two forces acting in creation, light and darkness or good and evil? In the Middle Ages these powers were frequently described as angelic or demonic beings. The Biblical portrayal in the New Testament (Pauline Epistles, Colossians, Romans and Corinthians) emphasizes that God has created these powers and they are under his dominion. Some religions claim that there is no omnipotent good power, but rather good and evil are equal forces acting in the world and the human being and creation itself are seen as their battleground.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Ideas of Good and Evil / Vorstellungen von Gut und Boese

An die (deutschsprachige) Leserschaft des Fairy Tale Channels:

Willkommen! Ihre Meinung ist uns wichtig. Bitte ihren Kommentar unter Comments eintragen. Leserbriefe auf Deutsch oder Englisch sind erwuenscht.
Vielen Dank fuer Ihre Bemuehungen! Besonders interessant waeren Ihre Vorstellungen von Gut und Boese bezueglich des Maerchens Jorinde und Joringel. (Siehe unten fuer vollen Text)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 69: Jorinda and Joringel

As Walpurgisnacht is approaching (evening of April 30th to May 1st), it might be appropriate to read a fairy tale about a witch. This tale is remarkable for many reasons, also because it contains both archangel and arch-witch, personifications of ultimate mercy and ultimate evil. The link between the two is especially interesting in this tale.

There was once an old castle in a deep and impenetrable forest. An old woman lived alone there and she was an arch-sorceress. During the day she took the shape of cat or night owl, but at night she took the form of an ordinary human. She would lure wild animals and birds into her snare and when she caught one, it was cooked or roasted. The wanderer who came within one-hundred feet of the castle was brought under the sorceress’s spell. With feet frozen to the ground, the person could not move from the spot until the enchantress released him. When a chaste maiden entered the castle perimeter, the old witch turned the girl into a bird, which she immediately snatched up and locked in a basket. She carried the basket to a chamber deep inside the castle. The sorceress probably had seven-thousand baskets containing such rare birds in her castle.

Now there was once a maid called Jorinda; she was more beautiful than all other maidens. She had promised herself to a handsome young man by the name of Joringel. Each took enormous pleasure in the company of the other for they were still celebrating their engagement. They loved to walk by themselves and whisper softly to each other so that no one else heard while they spoke. And so it was that one day they took a walk in the forest. “Be careful,” Joringel warned “that you don’t come too close to the castle.” It was a beautiful evening and the sun shone between the tall trunks of the majestic trees and the bright yellow light pierced the shadows of the deep green wood. Overhead a turtledove sang a mournful song among the last May buds of the beech tree.

Before long Jorinda began to cry, sat down in the sunshine and was inconsolable; Joringel did the same. They were deeply distressed and cried like one going to die. They looked around and were lost and did not know the way home. The sun could still be seen illuminating half the mountain, but the other half was already in shadow. When Joringel peered through some underbrush, he saw the old wall of the castle and became deathly afraid. Jorinda began to sing:

“My little bird, with ring so red
Sing of sorrow sorrow sorrow:
For the dove sings of her death
On the morrow morrow morrow – zickuth, zickuth, zickuth.”

Joringel turned to Jorinda but Jorinda had been turned into a nightingale who sang Zickuth, Zickuth, Zickuth. Suddenly an enormous owl with glowing eyes swooped out of the bush. It circled her three times and cried out three times “Schu, hu, hu, hu.” Joringel could not speak: he stood as still as stone, he could not cry out, he could not talk, he could not move hand or foot. Now the sun was sinking: the owl flew into the bush and an old and crooked woman, yellow and lean emerged. She had enormous red eyes and a crooked nose that extended to the tip of her chin. She murmured and caught the nightingale and carried it away in her hand. Joringel could say nothing and could not move from the spot; the nightingale was gone. Finally, the old woman appeared again and spoke in a muffled tone “Greetings to you Zachiel, when the moon shines in the basket then unbind, Zachiel, in good time.” Joringel was released from the spell and fell to his knees before the old woman. He pled for the return of his Jorinda, but in vain. The sorceress replied that he would never ever see her again and walked away. He called, he cried, he lamented but all for naught. “Uu, what shall happen to me?” he cried.

Joringel walked until he arrived in a strange village: there he took on the job of sheep herder for many years. Often, he walked around the castle but never came too close. Finally he dreamt one night that he found a blood-red flower and in the center was a beautiful large pearl. He broke the flower, and walked toward the castle. Everything that he touched with the flower was released from the spell. He also dreamt that Jorinda returned to him in this way. In the morning when he awoke, he began to search hill and dale for the flower. He searched and searched until the ninth day, when he found the blood-red flower in the early morning. In the center was a large dewdrop, as large as the most beautiful pearl. He carried this flower day and night until he arrived at the castle. As he came within one-hundred steps of the castle, he did not become frozen fast in his tracks as last time but instead could continue walking to the castle door. Joringel was overjoyed, touched the gate with the flower and it fell open. He went inside, through the courtyard and listened for the warbling of many birds. Finally he heard the trilling sound. He followed it and found the hall and the enchantress feeding birds in seven-thousand baskets. When she saw Joringel she became very angry, so angry that she scolded and spat poison and bile at him, but she could not come within two feet of him. He did not turn back at the sight of the sorceress but walked around, peering into each basket with a bird. But there where many hundreds of nightingales, how could he find his Jorinda again? As he looked he noticed that the old woman secretly took away a basket with a bird and was walking to the door. Quickly he jumped toward her, touched the basket with the flower and also brushed against the old woman. Now the sorceress could no longer cast spells and in the same moment Jorinda stood before him, her arms fell round his neck, and she was as she had always been. Joringel now returned all the other birds to their prior maidenly form. He then returned home with his Jorinda where they lived happily together for many years.

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Translation: Copyright
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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Reading and Understanding Folk Tales & Fairy Tales

Fairy Tale Factum:

Hooting Ursula is a wonderful illustration of elements commonly encountered in German folk tales. At first glance, the narrative offers a confusing combination of Christian images and pagan beliefs. Despite a complex story line and a rather dark sub-text, the tale remains witty and fun.
What we modern readers take from the story is probably quite different from what the earliest audience would have understood. If we accept the premise that such tales, based on an oral tradition, reflect values and attitudes of a time long past, we come a step closer toward deciphering the original meaning.
In 12th century Europe pagan sentiments still persisted: demons and other malevolent spirits took nightly flights through the woods. In some traditions, these apparitions were said to be the wild huntsman led by a hooting owl; in others, an entire army of ghosts and spirits assembled and rampaged through the forest. Frouwa was the Norse goddess of war, love and magic. She had numerous powers including the ability to change into a hawk or owl and the cat was her sacred animal. As patroness of witches, it was likely Frouwa who initiated the annual assembly on Walpurgisnacht, the night of April 30 to May 1st. On this night witches flew from all directions on broomsticks to dance, drive away the last remnants of snow and herald the beginning of spring.
This story starts with the ancient pagan notion of witches and devils taking flight through the air but gives it a Christian explanation: Hooting Ursula was originally a nun gone bad. In fact it was the church that exorcised and banished such spirits and in the end it is the Christian God that is shown to have power over life, demons and creation.

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Grimm's Saga 312. Hooting Ursula

At midnight in storm and rain the Hackelnberg Huntsman races through the Thuringia Wood. His wagon, horse and hounds make a crackling and creaking noise as he breaks through the brush of his favorite haunt: the Hackel Forest. A night owl flies ahead of him and folk call it Hooting Ursula. Wanderers who happen to meet this terrible pair fall down flat on their stomachs and let the wild huntsman pass by. Soon they hear the barking of hounds and the call: Uh-hu!

Many years ago in a remote cloister in Thuringia there lived a nun named Ursula. During her lifetime she always disturbed the choir with her shriek-like singing. For that reason they called her Hooting Ursula. But things only got worse after her death. Each night starting at eleven o’clock she stuck her head through a hole in the church tower and hooted wretchedly. Every morning at four she came uncalled and sang with the sisters. They could endure it for only a few days; on the third morning one nun said softly and full of terror to the nun singing next to her “That is most certainly Ursula!” Suddenly everyone fell silent, their hair stood on end and the nuns ran screaming from the church crying: “Hooting Ursula, Hooting Ursula!” No punishment would induce the nuns to enter the church again until a famous exorcist was called from a Capuchin monastery on the Danube. He banished Hooting Ursula in the form of an owl to the Dummburg region of the Harz Mountains. It was there that Ursula met the Huntsman Hackelnberg. She became charmed by his Uh-hu and he in turn was charmed with her Uh-hu! And now they both go out together, flying through the air on the wild hunt.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

The Buxtehude Hedgehog

April Fool’s Day

On this day, tricks are played on the April fool: a credulous person who suffers some hoax or conspiracy, often to make him look ridiculous. The deception frequently involves sending the fool on a fruitless journey or bogus errand, with many back-and-forths. This Fairy Tale of the Brother’s Grimm is a cautionary tale for the proud and arrogant, who might view themselves as refined and distinguished. It is precisely this sort of person who is especially susceptible to becoming an April fool.

The Buxtehude Hedgehog

This story is really a lie, but there is some truth in it, for my grandfather who told the story to me, always said the following when he told it: “True it must be, my son, or you wouldn’t be able to tell it.” The story happened this way. It was a Sunday morning in autumn, just when the buckwheat was blooming, the sun had risen on the horizon and the wind blew softly through the stubble. The larks sang as they soared high in the air and the bees hummed busily round the buckwheat. People wore their Sunday best to church and all creatures were cheerful, the hedgehog too. He stood in front of his door with his arms crossed and looked out into the morning sunshine. He warbled a little song and sang as beautifully as any hedgehog can sing on a Sunday morning. While he stood there and trilled like a little bird, he suddenly had the idea that while his wife was washing and dressing the children, he would go out and take a little walk in the field to see how the turnips were doing. The turnips grew quite close to his house and it was his habit and that of his family to eat them. That is why he considered them to be his own.

No sooner thought than done. He closed the front door behind him and took the path to the field. He had not gone very far and was just about to go round the blackthorn bush, which marked the edge of the field, when he saw the hare. The hare was walking on ahead engaged in similar pursuits, namely looking after his cabbage. When the hedgehog saw the hare, he wished him good morning in a cordial way. But the hare, who in his own right was a distinguished gentleman and furthermore, was terribly conceited, did not respond to the hedgehog’s greeting. Instead with a scornful countenance he replied icily: “How is it that you are already running about so early in the morning?”
“I’m going for a walk,” the hedgehog replied.
“A walk?” laughed the hare. “You should use your little legs for better things.”
This remark annoyed the hedgehog very much, who was a very good-natured fellow. He could tolerate anything except disparaging remarks about his legs, because they were naturally crooked.
“You imagine that you could do more with your legs?” he said.
“I do indeed,” the hare replied.
“Well, we will have to try it then,” the hedgehog said. “I bet that if we run a race, I will run faster than you.”
“You – with your crooked little legs?” the hare said. “That’s rich! But if you have such a keen desire let’s have a go at it – what shall we wager?”
“One gold coin and one bottle of brandy,” the hedgehog said.
“Accepted,” replied the hare. “Go ahead and we can start the race right now.”
“No, there is no need for such haste,” the hedgehog replied. “I haven’t had anything to eat. I want to go home first and have some breakfast. I’ll be back in an hour.”

With that, he left and the hare was satisfied. But on the way home he thought to himself: “The hare is counting on his long legs to win the day, but I will show him. He is indeed a refined gentleman but a stupid rabbit, and for that he will pay.” When he arrived home he said to his wife: “Wifey, dear, get dressed quickly, you must go with me to the field.”
“What is it?” his wife asked.
“I have made a bet with the hare for one gold coin and one bottle of brandy that I will win a race with him. And you will be there.”
“O my God, husband,” the wife began to cry, “Have you lost your mind? How can you race the hare?”
“Woman, silence your blabbermouth,” the hedgehog said, “that is my concern. Don’t interfere with a man’s business! Go now, get dressed and come along!”
What else could the wife of the hedgehog do? She had to comply but she did not like it. When they were walking together the hedgehog said to his wife: “Now listen very carefully to what I say. I will run the race up there in the long field. The hare will run in one furrow and I in the other. We will start up there. You have nothing else to do but to wait down here in the furrow. And when the hare comes running in his furrow, call out to him as he approaches and say: “I’m already here!”

And so they arrived in the field. The hedgehog indicated the spot to his wife and went up the hill. When he arrived at the top, the hare was already there. “Can we begin?” he asked.
“Of course,” the hedgehog replied.
“Then let’s go.”

Each positioned himself in his furrow. The hare counted: “On your mark, get set, go!” and off he ran down the hill like the rushing gale wind. But the hedgehog ran only three steps, then he crouched down in the furrow and sat there calmly. And when the hare arrived down below at the finish line at full speed, the hedgehog wife called out to him “I’m already here!”

The hare was astonished not a little, but believed that the hedgehog stood before him. For it is well-known that Mrs. Hedgehog looks exactly like her husband. “Something is quite strange here,” he cried out. “Let’s race again, in the opposite direction!”
And once again the hare took off like the storm wind and his long rabbit ears were pressed down to his skull. The wife of the hedgehog remained sitting calmly in her place, and when the hare arrived Mr. Hedgehog called out to the hare “I’m already here!”
The hare was beside himself with rage and cried “Once more, the other way!”
“All right,” the hedgehog replied. “As often as you wish.” So the hare ran seventy-three times, and the hedgehog always kept up. Each time, when the hare arrived at the top of the field or arrived at the finish line at the bottom, the hedgehog or his wife called out “I’m already here!”.

But the seventy-fourth time, the hare did not arrive at the finish line. He fell to the ground in the middle of the field, blood came out of his nose and he lay dead. The hedgehog took the gold coin and bottle of brandy that were his prize and called to his wife at the end of the furrow. Cheerfully they returned home. And if they have not died, they are still living today. And so it happened that on the Buxtehude Heath the hedgehog ran the hare to death and since that time no other hare has dared to run a race with the Buxtehude hedgehog.

The moral of the story is, first, no one (regardless of how distinguished he might be) should make fun of a small man, even if the small man is only a hedgehog. And second, it’s a very good idea to marry a woman of your own stature, one that looks exactly like you. Whoever is a hedgehog must make sure that his wife is also a hedgehog.

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