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Friday, June 6, 2008

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 50: Sleeping Beauty (Or: Little Thorn Rose)

Edward Burne Jones, Sleeping Beauty

A very long time ago there lived a king and queen. Each day they said to each other “If only we had a child!” But they never had one. 

Now it happened that the queen was bathing and a frog crept out of the water and onto the shore and said to her “Your wish shall be fulfilled, before a year passes you shall have a daughter.” 

What the frog foretold did indeed happen and the queen bore a little girl. She was so beautiful that the king was beside himself with joy and called for a celebration. He not only invited relatives and friends, but also the Wise Women, so that they might be well disposed toward the child. There were thirteen Wise Women in his kingdom, but because he only had twelve golden plates for them to eat from, one had to stay home. 

The party was celebrated in splendor and when it was over, each Wise Women presented the child with a wonderful gift: one bestowed virtue, the next beauty, the third riches, and so on and so forth, with everything that could be wished for upon the earth. When eleven wise women had bestowed their blessingw, the thirteenth suddenly appeared. She wanted to take revenge because she had not been invited to the party. Without greeting or even looking at anyone, she called in a loud voice “The king’s daughter shall prick her finger in her fifteenth year and fall over dead!” And without uttering another word, she turned around and left the hall. All were aghast. But the twelfth wise woman still had one wish left. Because she could not undo the evil spell, she could only lessen the harm and thus said “The king’s daughter shall not die, but only fall into a deep sleep lasting one hundred years.”

The king, who wanted to save his dear child from this misfortune, sent out a command throughout the kingdom that all spindles should be burned. But all the blessings of the Wise Women were fulfilled for the child. She was so beautiful, demure, friendly and attentive that anyone who saw her had to love her. It happened that on the very day she turned fifteen, the king and queen were not at home and the girl remained all alone in the castle. She wandered through all the rooms and chambers and finally came to the old tower. She climbed the tight spiral staircase and reached a small door. In the lock was a rusty key and when she turned it, the door sprang open. In a small chamber sat an old woman with a spindle and spun her flax skillfully. “Good day, old grandmother,” the king’s daughter said. “What are you doing here?” “I am spinning,” the old woman replied and nodded her head. “What kind of thing is this that spins around so cheerfully?” the girl asked and picked up the spindle and also wanted to spin. She had barely touched the spindle, when the magic spell was fulfilled and she pricked her finger.

In the moment she felt the sting, she fell onto a bed beside her and was soon in a deep sleep. A deep slumber spread throughout the entire castle: the king and queen, who had just come home and entered the hall, fell asleep and the entire court with them. The horses fell asleep in their stall, the dogs in the courtyard, the doves on the roof and the flies on the wall. Even the fire in the oven flickered, became quiet and died down and the roast stopped roasting. The cook, who was pulling the hair of the kitchen servant, let it go and fell asleep. And the wind quieted and not a single leaf moved in the trees in front of the castle.

A thorn hedge began to grow around the castle, which was higher each year and finally encircled the entire castle. It grew over the castle walls and soon, nothing more could be seen, not even the banners on the roof. The story circulated throughout all the land that a beautiful Thorn-Rose slumbered inside, because that is what the king’s daughter was called. From time to time the sons of kings came and tried to penetrate the hedge and enter the castle. But it was not possible. It was as if the thorns had hands, which were clenched firmly together. The youths got stuck in the thick branches, could not free themselves and died a mournful death. After many years another king’s son arrived in the land and heard an old man tell of the thorn hedge. A castle supposedly stood behind it, in which a beautiful king’s daughter, named Little Thorn Rose, was already sleeping one hundred years, and with her slept the king and the queen and the entire court. The man also knew from his grandfather that many princes had already come and tried to penetrate the thorn hedge, but they all became entwined in the bramble and died a miserable death. The youth spoke “I am not afraid. I will go out and try to see the beautiful Little Thorn Rose.” The old man tried to dissuade him, but he did not listen to his words.
One hundred years had just passed and the day had arrived when Little Thorn Rose was to awake. When the king’s son approached the thorn hedge, it was full of beautiful flowers. The branches opened for him and the thorns parted and let him through unharmed. Behind him, the hedge closed again. In the courtyard he saw the horses and hunting hounds lying asleep and on the roof sat the doves with their heads tucked below their wings. When he entered the house, the flies on the wall still slept, the cook still held his hand in the air as if he wanted to strike the servant and the maid sat before the black hen that was to be plucked. He entered the hall and saw the entire court lying asleep and the king and queen lay on their thrones asleep. He walked further and everything was quiet, you could hear a person breathing. Finally he came to the tower and opened the door to the small chamber where Little Thorn Rose slept. She lay there and was so beautiful that he could not turn away his eyes and bent over and gave her a kiss. When he touched her mouth with a kiss, little Thorn Rose opened her eyes, awoke and blinked joyfully at the prince. They walked down the winding staircase and the king and queen and the entire court awakened. They all looked at each other in amazement wide-eyed. The horses in the courtyard stood up from their sleep and shook themselves; the hunting hounds jumped and wagged their tails; the doves on the roof pulled their heads from under their wings, looked around and flew out to the field; the flies on the wall began to hum; the fire in the kitchen rose up, flickered and cooked the food; the roast began to get crispy; the cook boxed the youth’s ears so that he cried out and the maid plucked the chicken. The marriage of the king’s son and Little Thorn Rose was celebrated in splendor and they lived happily ever after.

To read more about the Wise Women in this fairy tale, hit the Norns link at the right.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Norns

In the Fairy Tale One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes, the mysterious Wise Woman is probably a Norn (for complete text of fairy tale, see below). Norns are frequent characters in ancient Germanic mythology (Norn: Old Norse, "the whisperer" or "die Raunende"). They often provide help with childbirth and are associated with the Valkyries and Wise Women because of their overlapping functions. Originally there were many Norns but later tradition settled on the number three. They represented the three stages of time: What was, What is and What will be. Sleeping Beauty is the most well-known fairy tale featuring 13 Norns*.
(*The fairy tale refers to these 13 as wise women, but they are clearly Norns in that they appear at the birth of the child and award various blessings (and a curse).)

The NornsMany dangers threatened the Tree of Life. It probably would have been destroyed altogether were it not for the many beneficent powers laboring endlessly to preserve it.

First and foremost were the Three Norns. They were named Urd (The Past), Verdandi (The Present) and Skuld (The Future) and they lived at the Urd Fountain, a deep spring which flowed over the root of the Tree of Life and formed a lake around it. Beautiful, brilliant white swans swam on this lake. The Norns never ceased to dip their silver horns, which the gods themselves had given them, into the water of the spring to drench the roots of the Tree of Life so that it never withered.

The Gods revered the Norns. Every day the People of Asen came down from Asgard to receive words of wisdom from the sacred spring or to hold a court council. Often they approached the Norns for advice, for they were wise women and knew more about the future and the essence of all things than even the Gods themselves. But they were reticent and try as they may, the Gods did not receive any information from the Norns. They tended the Tree of Life and also did other work. They wove the threads of fate for all the world and humankind. That is why they were also called the Sisters of Fate.

Two of these women were kind and friendly but the third Norn had a hostile disposition. The first two awarded life and health but the third bestowed only death and destruction. At birth, all three stood round the infant in its cradle, dispensing to the sleeping child either fortune, health and blessings or murmured a curse. All that they said came true. For it is known that destiny itself comes from these all-powerful women. They impart glory and splendor, misery and poverty, a long life or an early death.
Here are two examples illustrating the overlapping roles of Norns, Wise Women and Valykyries:
The old Germanic tribes did not have priests or druids. But they had Wise Women, who appeared in white linen robes to their people and acted as seers in times of war and peace. The most famous of all was Velleda, who lived near the Rhine River. At a time of immense danger for the Roman army, she foretold the fall of the Roman Empire. Not only did the capital city burn, but huge campaigns were launched against the Romans.

The Acorn Stone
The Roman Field Marshal Drufus had penetrated Germany as far as the Elbe River. He stood thoughtfully on its banks, contemplating his next move, when a giant woman in white robe appeared to him. She was the most famous of all Germanic seers, who also appeared during battles and urged sons, husbands and lovers to fight honorably. She called to him “Where are you going Young Drufus, who cannot be satisfied? You want to have all of our lands, but fate does not will it! Flee! Flee! You stand at your life’s end!” Because of this apparition, Drufus retreated. He fell with his horse and broke his leg. Carried by his companions to Mainz, he died immediately. He was thus considered to be the founder of the City of Mainz. He was beloved by his legions. They therefore built a monument to honor his remains and it is called the Acorn Stone. It rises up from the ground and appears as a dark-gray, round, tower-like mass. The markings have long vanished, the height and shape of the stone have suffered many changes. Only the iron-hard core remains, which testifies to the human skill and artistry of the Romans.

Translation: Copyright FairyTaleChannel.com
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Monday, June 2, 2008

Grimm's Fairy Tale 130: One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three Eyes or Tree with the Golden Apples

The Tree with the Golden Apples, Gustav Klimt

This fairy tale illustrates that beauty really is in the eye (or eyes) of the beholder.
Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes

There was once a woman who had three daughters; the oldest was named Little One-Eye, because she had a single eye in the middle of her forehead. The middle child was named Little Two-Eyes, because she had two eyes like other people. The youngest was named Little Three-Eyes, because she had three eyes and her third eye was in the center of her forehead. But because Little Two-Eyes did not look any differently from other human children, her sisters and mother did not like her. They said to her “You with your two eyes are not any better than the common folk; you are not one of us.” They pushed her around and gave her ugly rags to wear and nothing to eat except leftovers and crumbs. They inflicted misery on the poor child in every way imaginable.

Now it happened that Little Two-Eyes went out into the field and tended the goat. But she was very hungry because her sisters did not give her enough to eat. She sat down at the edge of the field and began to cry so pitifully that two streams flowed from her eyes. And when she looked up in misery, there stood a woman beside her and asked “Little Two-Eyes, why are you crying?” Little Two-Eyes answered “Should I not cry? Because I have two eyes like other people, my mother and sisters can’t stand me, they push me from one corner to the next, give me old rags to wear and nothing to eat besides leftover scraps. That is why I am starving.” The wise woman said “Little Two-Eyes, dry your face. I will tell you something so you will hunger no more. Speak to your goat and say

“Little goat bleat”
Deck little table so neat.”

When you say this a neatly laid table will stand before you with the most wonderful food and you can eat as much as you desire. And when you are satisfied and don’t need the table anymore, say

“Little goat neigh”
Take little table away.”

And before your very eyes the table will vanish.” With that, the Wise Woman departed. Little Two-Eyes thought “I must see if what she said is true, because I am starving so,” and she said

“Little goat bleat”
Deck little table so neat”

She had hardly spoken the words when a table appeared covered with a white cloth. On it lay a plate with knife and fork and a silver spoon and the most wonderful food. The steam rose from the plate, spreading a wonderful aroma. Everything was still warm as if it had just left the kitchen. Little Two-Eyes said the shortest prayer that she knew “Dear God, be our Guest always. Amen”. She ate heartily and enjoyed the food. And when she was satisfied, she spoke as the Wise Woman had instructed her:

“Little goat neigh”
Take little table away”

No sooner said than the little table and everything on it vanished at once. “This is a nice way to keep house,” Little Two-Eyes thought and was quite content and happy.

In the evening, when she came home with her goat and found her little bowl with the food her sisters had left, she did not touch a single morsel. The next day she drove her goat out to the meadow and left the few crumbs in the bowl she had been given. The first and second time, the sisters did not notice but when it happened again they said “Something is not right with Little Two-Eyes, she always leaves her food untouched and before she ate everything we gave her. She must have found some other means.” To uncover the truth it was decided that Little One-Eye would accompany Little Two-Eyes when she drove the goat to the meadow. She would watch her very carefully and see what she did and whether someone brought her food and drink. As Little Two-Eyes prepared to leave, Little One-Eye approached her and said “I will go with you to the field and see the goat is well-tended and is driven into the rich grass.”
But Little Two-Eyes understood what Little One-Eye really meant and drove the goat up into the high grass and said “Come, Little One-Eye, we shall sit down and I will sing you a song.” Little One-Eye sat down and was tired from her such physical exertion and the heat of the sun and Little Two-Eyes sang sweetly

“Little One-Eye, are you awake?
Little One-Eye, are you asleep?”

And Little One-Eye shut her eye and fell asleep. And when Little Two-Eyes saw that Little One-Eye slept and could not see anything, she said

“Little goat bleat,
Deck little table so neat,”

And she sat down at the table, ate and drank until she was full. Then she called again

“Little goat neigh,
Take little table away.”

And everything vanished in that moment. Little Two-Eyes awoke Little One-Eye and said “Little One-Eye, you wanted to stand watch but you fell asleep. That goat could have roamed the entire world in the time you slept. Let’s go home now.” They went home and Little Two-Eyes once more left her little bowl untouched. Little One-Eye could not tell her mother why she did not eat and to excuse herself said “I fell asleep out there.”

The next day the mother said to Little Three-Eyes “This time you go along and watch whether Little Two-Eyes eats anything and whether someone brings food and drink. She must be eating and drinking in secret.” Little Three-Eyes approached Little Two-Eyes and said “I will go with you to the field and see the goat is well-tended and is driven into the rich grass.”
But Little Two-Eyes understood what Little Three-Eyes really meant and drove the goat up into the high grass and said “Come, Little Three-Eyes, we shall sit down and I will sing you a song.” Little Three-Eyes sat down and was tired from her unusual exertion and the heat of the sun and Little Two-Eyes sang sweetly

Little Three-Eyes, are you awake?

But now instead of singing
Little Three-Eyes, are you asleep?”

She sang imprudently
Little Two-Eyes, are you asleep”

And continued to sing

Little Three-Eyes are you awake?
Little Two-Eyes are you asleep?

And Little Three-Eyes shut her two eyes and fell asleep. But the third eye did not fall asleep because it was not lulled to sleep by the spell. Little Three-Eyes closed the eye, but only as a ruse to pretend that she slept. But her third eye squinted a bit and could see everything clearly. And when Little Two-Eyes thought that Little Three-Eyes was asleep, she recited her spell

“Little goat bleat”
Deck little table so neat”

She ate and drank to her heart’s desire and then dismissed the table again

“Little goat neigh,
Take little table away”

But Little Three-Eyes had seen everything. Little Two-Eyes came and woke her and said “Oh, Little Three-Eyes, you fell asleep? You are a good guard! Come, we shall go home.” And when they went home, Little Two-Eyes did not eat anything and Little Three-Eyes went to her mother and said “I now know why the proud thing does not eat: when she is out with the goat she says

“Little goat bleat,”
Deck little table so neat,”

And then a little table stands before her covered with the best food, much better than we have. And when she is satisfied she says

“Little goat neigh,
Take little table away,”

And everything vanishes again; I saw everything quite clearly. Two-Eyes can work magic with her singing and my two eyes fell asleep. But the one eye on my forehead, happily that one stayed awake.” The jealous mother turned to Little Two-Eyes in rage “So, you want to have it better than we do? Your appetite shall dry up!” She took a slaughtering knife and ran it through the goat’s heart, and it fell dead.

When Little Two-Eyes saw what had happened, she was filled with sadness, went out to the field, sat down at the edge of the meadow and cried bitter tears. At once the Wise Woman appeared beside her and said “Little Two-Eyes, why are you crying?” “Should I not cry?” she answered. “The goat, which laid the table so beautifully every day when I spoke your spell has been slaughtered by my mother. Now I must suffer hunger and sorrow .” The Wise Woman spoke “Little Two-Eyes, I will give you good advice. Ask your sisters to give you the entrails of the slaughtered goat and bury them in the earth before your house door. That will bring you luck.” She vanished and Little Two-Eyes went home and said to here sisters “Dear sisters, give me something from my goat. I’m not asking for any of the good parts, only give me the entrails.” The sisters laughed and said “You can have them, if you want them.” And following the advice of the Wise Woman, Little Two-Eyes took the entrails and buried them in the peace and quiet of the night right before the house door.

The next morning, when they all awoke and stepped out the front door, there stood a beautiful and glorious tree. It had leaves of sliver and fruits of gold hanging between the leaves. There was nothing more beautiful than the tree or more delicious than its fruits in all the world. But they did not know how the tree had come there during the night. Only Little Two-Eyes noticed that it had grown from the entrails of the goat; for it stood exactly where she had buried them in the earth. The mother spoke to Little One-Eye “Climb up my child and break off some fruit from the tree.” Little One-Eye climbed up but when she wanted to grasp one of the golden apples, the branch slipped away from her hands. This happened each time and she could not break off a single apple, try as she may. The mother then said “Little Three-Eyes, you climb up. With your three eyes, you can see better than Little One-Eye.” Little One-Eye slipped down and Little Three-Eyes climbed up. But Little Three-Eyes was not any more skilled and though she tried her best, the golden apples always slipped away. Finally, her mother became impatient and climbed the tree herself. But she had just as much success grasping the fruit as Little One-Eye and Little Three-Eyes and always slapped the empty air. Then Little Two-Eyes spoke “Let me climb up and maybe it will be different with me.” The sisters called to her “You with your two eyes, what can you do!” But Little Two-Eyes climbed up and the golden apples did not slide away from her but rather fell into her hands and she could pick one after another and fill her entire apron. She climbed down from the tree and the mother took them from her. But instead of treating Little Two-Eyes better, the mother, Little One-Eye and Little Three-Eyes only became jealous that she alone could pick the apples. They treated her even more harshly than before.

It happened that they were all together standing around the tree, when a young knight rode by. “Quickly, Little Two-Eyes,” the sisters cried, “creep underneath the barrel, so that we don’t have to be ashamed of you.” And they quickly pushed Little Two-Eyes into a barrel, which stood next to the tree and also pushed underneath the golden apples, which she had broken off. When the knight approached, they saw he was a handsome man who stopped in amazement at the beautiful tree full of gold and silver and said to the two sisters “To whom does this beautiful tree belong? Whoever gives me a branch could request his heart's desire.” Little One-Eye and Little Three-Eyes replied that the tree belonged to them and they would break off a branch. Both tried their best but they could not break off the branches and the fruits slipped away each time. The knight said “It is strange that the tree belongs to you and you don’t have the power to break off anything.” They persisted and said the tree was their property. As they spoke Little Two-Eyes rolled a few golden apples from underneath the barrel, so that they landed at the feet of the knight. Little Two-Eyes was angry that Little One-Eye and Little Three-Eyes did not tell the truth. When the knight saw the apples, he was amazed and asked from where they came. Little One-Eye and Little Three-Eyes replied, they did have one other sister, but they had to keep her hidden because she had only two eyes, just like other people. The knight demanded to see her and called “Little Two-Eyes come forth.” Little Two-Eyes emerged confidently from underneath the barrel and the knight was amazed by her beauty and said “You, Little Two-Eyes, are certainly able to break off a branch.” “Yes,” Little Two-Eyes replied. “That I can do, because the tree belongs to me.” And she climbed up and with ease broke off a branch with fine silver leaves and golden fruits and gave it to the knight. The knight spoke “Little Two-Eyes, what should I give you for this?” “Oh,” replied Little Two-Eyes “I suffer hunger and thirst, grief and want, from early in the morning ‘til late at night. If you could take me with you and free me from this fate, I would be happy.” The knight lifted Little Two-Eyes onto his horse and brought her home to has father’s castle. He gave her beautiful clothes, food and drink as much as she desired. Because he loved her so, he had their union blessed and the wedding was celebrated in great joy.

As Little Two-Eyes was taken away by the handsome knight, her two sisters envied her happiness. “Ha!” they said. “Even though she has married the young knight, the wonderful tree still belongs to us!” “Even if we can’t break off any of the fruits, everyone will stand before it in amazement; who knows where our wheat shall blossom tomorrow!” But the next morning the tree had vanished and their hopes along with it. As Little Two-Eyes gazed out of her window, there stood the tree in its full glory. It had followed her to her new home.

Little Two-Eyes lived a long time in happiness. Once, two poor women came to the castle and begged for alms. Little Two-Eyes looked into their faces and recognized her sisters Little One-Eye and Little Three-Eyes. They had fallen into such poverty that they were forced to wander and beg bread before doors of noble houses. But Little Two-Eyes welcomed them and cared for them and they were sorry that they had done such evil to their sister in their youth.

More fairy tales can be found by clicking on the link:

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Myth of Opera

Richard Wagner based his opera Tannhauser und der Saengerkrieg auf Wartburg on the two sagas provided below. The opera takes a romantic look at the Middle Ages and features a lively cast of troubadours, saints and even the Goddess Venus. Venus and the Venusberg are first mentioned in German mythology in the 15th century. Before this time the goddess was referred to as Frau Holla and her escort was Getreue Eckart. They both resided in the Horselberg. In the German Saga the character Tannhauser is wracked by longing for his old pagan religion and belief system, the one that was vanishing along with Frau Holla and Eckart. Christianity proved to be too rigid and harsh for Tannhauser and so, he withdrew to the Venusberg to await his Last Judgement.

His pain and longing for a world quickly disappearing is reminiscent of another famous pagan fairy tale personage, Rumpelstiltzchen. See the link Reading Rumpelstiltzchen at the upper right for more.

It is interesting to see how Wagner mixes the two sagas to produce his musical masterpiece. In Wagner's version, Tannhauser and Heinrich von Ofterdingen become one and the same character. The language in these two sagas is particularly dense and difficult to decipher. The first line of the Wartburg Singing Contest announces six virtuous and reasonable men coming together in song to compose hymns. But nothing virtuous or reasonable follows and the story is full of curious plot twists and turns. Luckily for opera-goers, when the plot sags the music usually soars.

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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.

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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 FairyTaleChannel.com
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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"
Hope you like this story!

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

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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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