Sunday, July 27, 2008

Reading Newt and Cuckoo

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The Cuckoo
No other bird in European mythology is more generally associated with the gift of prophecy than the cuckoo. Its loud cry is often awaited in spring in the freshly sprouting leaves of the forest canopy. An old song describes a dispute between spring and winter, both claiming the cuckoo as its own. But the cuckoo’s call heralds the dearest time of year, namely spring, and according to folk belief, whoever hears the cuckoo’s cry first can inquire of the bird how long he will live. Children in Switzerland call out “Cuckoo (Gugger), how long shall I live?” The caller must then listen and count the number of times the cuckoo calls in response and that will be the number of years left to live. It was said the bird was an enchanted baker or miller and that is why its feathers were dusted with flour. But it is bad luck to hear the cuckoo call after St. John’s Day (summer solstice) for then it foretells hard times. It was believed that the bird was never heard to call before April 3rd and never after St. John’s Day. But it was impossible for the cuckoo to call until he had eaten another bird’s egg. The direction from which the bird called was also significant. To hear its call from the north forebode sadness, but from the east or west meant the greatest fortune. When his call was first heard in spring it was important to have money in your purse for then a year of plenty lay ahead. But if you had no money you would suffer want and hunger the entire year. Because the cuckoo was rarely heard calling after the summer solstice, it was a common belief that it turned into a hawk or bird of prey for the remainder of the year.
The cuckoo is commonly associated with marriage and allegedly could foretell the number of children a person would have. According to Serbian folk tradition, after her brother’s death a young maiden was transformed into a cuckoo; her mournful call gave voice to the sadness and despair of her loss. In the Latvian folk tale below it is the wife, who mourning the loss of her husband, transforms herself into a cuckoo. The cuckoo’s call reputedly alerted a husband to an unfaithful wife. The word cuckold is based on the bird’s behavior of placing its eggs in another bird’s nest for care. Thus the cuckoo’s call was not a welcome sound to a married man.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Fairy Tale of Newt and Cuckoo

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(If you are dead, let a maelstrom of blood rise up...)
How the Cuckoo Came to Call

There once was a mother who raised a flea in her bathroom. The flea became so large that she was able to make an entire pair of shoes from its skin for her daughter. Soon thereafter the mother was invited to a wedding with her daughter. At the wedding feast the mother promised to give her daughter’s hand in marriage to the first person who could guess the kind of hide the shoes were made from. One after another tried to guess, but in vain. Suddenly a newt poked his head through a crack in the floorboard and cried “The shoes are made from the skin of a flea!” And so, nothing could be done, the mother had to give her daughter to the newt in marriage.

The newt led his wife to his castle by the sea. They lived there for a long time. One day, the wife became restless and desired to see her parents again. But the newt would not allow it, she must first find her way and walk in iron shoes, then he would allow it. Well and good, after seven years she had mastered walking in iron shoes and they were ripped to shreds. The wife took her three children by the hand to visit her parents. The newt led all four to the seashore. He said: “When you return, step very closely to the edge of the sea and call out: “Newt, if you live, let a maelstrom of milk rise up; if you are dead, let a maelstrom of blood rise up. When I hear your words, I will come to meet you.”

And so they said their good-byes. After the newt’s wife had spent some time with her parents, she became homesick for her newt. Her parents did not want her to go. But the newt’s wife praised her life with the newt; life in the castle by the sea was good for her and her children; it was now time to go home. The parents wanted to follow her and find out how she met the newt by the big water and how they could find the castle, but she would not tell them. So, if she would not say, they would have to worm it out of the small, dumb children.

They asked the oldest: he said nothing. They asked the middle child: she also said nothing. They asked the youngest, he said it. As soon as the father found out the secret, he went to the seashore and called out: “Newt, if you live, let a maelstrom of milk rise up; if you are dead, let a maelstrom of blood rise up!” The newt whirled up an eddy of milk and emerged on shore. But the father took aim and shot him dead. The next morning when the wife went to the seashore with her children and called out: “Newt, if you live, let a maelstrom of milk rise up; if you are dead, let a maelstrom of blood rise up!” The newt whirled up an eddy of blood. The mother was terrified and asked the children, which of them had divulged the father’s secret. The youngest acknowledged his misdeed. The mother spoke her judgment on each one. “You my eldest son, shall become an oak tree, so that everyone admires you. You, my middle daughter, shall become a fresh linden tree, so that the maidens adorn themselves with your branches. You, my youngest chatterbox shall become a stumbling block, which shall break the axle of even the largest cart. I myself will become a cuckoo and will call for my newt for ever and always.” And so it was.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

July Fairy Tale: Tanzwut or the Dangers of Dancing Rage at the Height of Summer

Grimm’s Saga No. 51: Dance with the Waterman

Near the town of Laibach a water spirit lived in a river of the same name. He was called Nix or Waterman. He showed himself to fishermen and sailors by night and to others by day so that everyone knew how he rose up from the water and revealed himself in human form.

In the year 1547 on the first Sunday in the month of Julius, the entire village gathered according to an old custom at the old Laibach market near the fountain, under the cheerful shade of a beautiful linden tree. Here they ate their meal in a joyful, communal spirit whilst music played and not a few danced merrily. After a while a finely shaped, well-dressed young swain entered the throng, as if he wanted to join in the dance. He nodded politely to the assembled folk and offered each dancer his hand in a friendly way. But his grip was limp and ice-cold and upon touching his hand, a gray shudder went through the limb of the person he greeted. Soon he selected from the group a splendidly adorned, fresh-faced but impudent maid, who was known as Ursula the shepherdess and began the dance. He was a graceful dancer and commanded all the unusual steps. After they had danced wildly with each other for a time, they veered from the platform, which had marked off the dance space and swirled ever farther and farther away. From the Linden tree across the Sittich square and on down to the Laibach River, where he in the presence of many seamen, grabbed the waist of his partner and jumped into the splashing waters. Both disappeared before their very eyes.

The linden tree stood until 1638, when it had to be chopped down because of age.

Fairy Tale Factum:
St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers for allegedly his powers included the ability to alleviate Tanzwut or hysterical dancing mania. The symptoms included frenzied leaping and swirling, even uncontrollable gyrations. Folk tradition often frowns on dancing and music, for it seems these two pastimes inevitably led to the unhinging of village youth. Unfortunately in this story the impudent Ursula could not be rescued by St. Vitus. Perhaps his cult had not yet been sufficiently established in Laibach or had already been diminished after the Reformation. Of interest in this saga is the description of a rather romanticized peasant life, with al fresco dancing, eating and celebrating at the height of summer on the village green. Two characteristics described in this tale can still be found today in many towns throughout Europe: the linden (or lime) tree and the fountain on the square.

According to folk tradition it was believed that a Wasserman (or Nix) held fast to the souls of the drowned in his underwater dwelling. Varying accounts describe him as having either a beautiful form or an ugly and terrible countenance. Like dancing, the church uniformly frowned upon these spirits and equated them with the diabolical and dangerous. Folk tradition, however, preserves a certain amount of awe and reverence for them.

Translation: Copyright
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Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Magical Properties of Plants and Herbs

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The magical properties of herbs are celebrated in numerous fairy tales, saga and myths. In the sagas of the Brother Grimm, the plants springroot (or springwort), wonderflower, bird’s nest (Vogelnest), alraun/mandrake and thief’s key all have magical properties that often overlap. According to tradition, the wonderflower only blooms on St. John’s Eve (summer solstice) or every hundred years. If a person hesitates and does not pluck the flower immediately, it vanishes under lightning and thunder. Finding one of these flowers often coincides with the appearance of a gnome or woman in white. These flowers are usually blue (sometimes yellow) and when they appear in a grouping of three are associated with redemption and transformation. In conjunction with these magical flowers, the saga often uses the phrase “but don’t forget the best” (meaning don’t forget the flower itself for its magical properties are worth more than all worldly treasures. German: Vergissmannicht). Over time, this name was changed to Vergissmichnicht (or Forget-me-not) now a common name for beautiful blue spring flower. These plants confer the ability to uncover secret treasure, unlock chests or doors and make one invisible. In the case of Vogelnest, the plant was probably associated with a sacred bird and the notion of invisibility might come from the real difficulty in finding or seeing a bird’s nest in a tree. The alraun or mandrake was prized as the most potent of all plants. Folk tradition regarding this plant is simultaneously creepy and alluring (See Saga Nr. 84 below).

Grimm's Saga No. 304 The Gnome and the Wonderflower

A young, poor shepherd from Sittendorf on the southern side of the Harz Mountains in Golden Aue once drove his flock near the foot of the Kyffhaeuser Mountain and climbed the mountain, but with each step he grew sadder. At the top he found a beautiful flower, the likes of which he had never seen before. He picked it and placed it in his cap with the intention of giving it to his bride as a gift. But as he walked on, he found a cavern at the top of the old mountain. The entryway was cluttered and buried under some debris. He entered, saw many glittering stones lying on the ground and filled his pockets with them. As he turned and left the cavern he heard a muffled voice sound: “Do not forget the best!” He didn’t know what had happened and how he had left the cavern but suddenly he found himself squinting at the sun and heard the door slam shut behind him, which he hadn’t even noticed before. When the shepherd touched his hat, he realized the flower had fallen out of his cap when he had stumbled. Immediately a gnome stood before him: “Where is the wonder flower, which you found?” – “Lost,” the shepherd said sadly. “It was intended for you,” the gnome said “and it is worth more than the entire Rothenburg Mountain.” When the shepherd felt his pocket at home, the glistening stones had become splendid gold coins. But the flower had vanished and to this day the mountain folk search for the flower, not only in the caverns of the Kyffhaeuser mountain but also on Questenburg Mountain and even on the north side of the Harz, because it is said that hidden treasures lie buried there.

Grimm’s Saga No. 84: Der Alraun / The Mandrake

The saga tells of congenital thieves to whom stealing comes naturally. This happens when a man has descended from a long line of thieves or when a person has become a thief because his mother stole while she was pregnant. In this instance he has at least an overwhelming desire to steal (according to others, when an innocent man confesses to thievery under torture) and he is a pure youth but is hanged for the crime and waters the ground with his seed (aut sperma in terram effundit), then the mandrake plant or Gallow’s Man grows at that spot. The top of the plant has broad leaves and yellow flowers. When this same plant is dug up there is great danger for when the plant is pulled out it sighs, howels and screams in such a frightful manner that the person who has dug it up soon dies. In order to acquire the plant, the man must approach the plant on a Friday before sunup. After plugging his ears with cotton, wax or pitch, he goes out with a black dog, which must not have spots of any other color on its body. The man makes the sign of the cross three times over the mandrake and carefully digs up a circle around the plant so only a few fibers of the root remain in the earth. Then he must tie it with a string to the dog’s tail, show the dog a piece of bread and run away quickly. The dog, desiring the bread, takes off quickly and pulls out the root. But the dog promptly drops over dead when he hears the groaning scream emanating from the plant. The man must now pick up the plant, wash it until clean with red wine and wrap it in a white and red silk cloth, place it in a small chest, wash it every Friday and give it a new white shirt every new moon. If you ask the mandrake a question, it will respond and reveal your future. It will tell you about concealed things regarding your future welfare and prosperity. From that time forth the owner has no enemies, can never become poor and if he has no children his marriage will soon be blessed. If you place a coin next to the mandrake at night, the next morning you will find twice as much. If you want to enjoy the services of the mandrake plant for a long time and make sure that it does not die, never overtax it. You can easily place a half-taler coin next to it every night, but maximum a ducat. But don’t do this always only very rarely.

When the owner of the Gallow’s Man dies, his youngest son inherits the plant. But he must place a piece of bread and a coin in the coffin and bury these things with his father. If the heir dies before the father, then the oldest son inherits the alraun, but the youngest son must also be buried with bread and money.

To read about the magical power of birds' nests:

Or toadstools:

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Monday, July 14, 2008

The Strange Power of Bird's Nests, Part II

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Grimm's Saga Nr. 9 Die Springwurzel / The Springroot

In ancient times a shepherd tended his flock peacefully on the Koeterberg Mountain. One day he was in the meadow when he turned around and suddenly a magnificent queen stood before him. She spoke: “Take this spring root and follow me.” The spring root is found by following a green woodpecker (magpie or hoopoe) to his nest. Blocking off his nest with a wedge of wood, the bird, when he notices the obstruction, flies away and knows where to find the wonderful root, which men look for in vain. He brings it back in his bill and uses it to open his nest. When he holds the root in his bill above the wooden wedge, it slips out as if driven by a hard knock. If you hide and make a loud noise, the bird is startled and drops the root (but if you place a white or red cloth below the nest, the bird throws the root onto the cloth as soon as he has used it.) The shepherd had such a spring root and so he left his animals to wander freely and followed the woman. She led him into the mountain and then deep inside a cave. As the two approached a door or a closed off passage, each time the shepherd held up his root. Immediately the door opened with a loud groan. They continued on their way until they were almost at the center of the mountain. There sat two maidens who were busily at work spinning. The Evil One was also present, but he was without power and sat bound underneath the table where the two women sat. Around them were baskets of gold and shiny precious gems stacked up and the king’s daughter spoke to the shepherd, who stood and gazed lustfully at the treasures. “Take as much as you want.” Without hesitating, he reached into the baskets and filled his pockets to the brim. And when he turned to depart, richly laden, she spoke: “But don’t forget the best!” He thought she meant nothing else but the treasure and that he had already supplied himself well. But she meant the spring-wort. As he emerged into the daylight without the root, which he had left on the table, the door slammed shut hard on his heels but without injuring him for he could easily have lost his life. He happily brought enormous riches home but he could never again find the entrance to the mountain.

To read about the magical powers of toadstools, click on the link:

Or about the strange power of birds' nests:

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Strange Power of Bird's Nests Revealed Here: Grimm's Saga No. 86 Vogelnest

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In some areas people still believe that there are certain bird nests (also called Zwissel or Zeissel nests), which make all persons carrying the nest invisible. To find the nest, you must by chance see it in a mirror or in the reflection of a pool of water. The saga is probably a reference to Bifolium, a two-leaf plant genus, which is called birds nest in almost every European language. There seems to be something magical or mandrakelike about it. This is elaborated upon in an account from the 17th century, most certainly originating from a folk tradition:

While I was talking, I saw the reflection of the tree in the water, but there was something lying on the branch, which I could not see in the tree itself and for this reason, I pointed it out to my wife. When she found it and the branch, on which it lay, she climbed up the tree and brought down the object we had seen in the reflection of the water. I watched her and saw her the moment she disappeared. It vanished when she picked up the nest whose shadow (image) we had viewed in the water’s reflection. I still saw my wife in the reflection of the water: how she climbed down from the tree and held the small birds nest in her hands, which she had removed from the branch. I asked her what kind of bird’s nest she carried. In reply she asked me if I could see her. I said “I can’t see you in the tree but I can see your shape in the water’s reflection.” --- “It’s best,” she replied, “if I would come down now. Then you shall see what I have.” It seemed strange to me to hear my wife talking in this manner, because I couldn’t see her and it was even stranger that I should see her shadow movements in the sun but could not see her. And because she could approach me better in the shade (when she didn’t have a shadow because she was outside of the sunlight in the shade) I couldn’t see anything more of her, except I heard the faint sounds she made with her footfalls and her clothing, as if a ghost were passing me by. She sat down next to me and placed the nest in my hand. As soon as I held it, I saw her again, but she in turn no longer saw me. We repeated this several times and each time we found that whoever held the nest in their hand, that person was completely invisible. She finally wrapped the little nest in a handkerchief, so that the stone or herb or root, which was giving the nest these powers, could not fall out and be lost. And after she placed the bundle beside her, we saw each other again, just as before she climbed the tree. We could not see the handkerchief with the nest, but could feel it at the spot where she had laid it.

To read about the strange power of toadstools, click on the link:

Monday, July 7, 2008

Grimm's Saga No. 181: Saint Wilfried or the Holy Saint Boniface

St. Boniface's Chapel

When Saint Winfried (called Boniface) wanted to convert the Hessians, he came to a mountain where a pagan temple stood. He had the building torn down and built the first Christian church. Since that time the mountain is called Christenberg (four hours distant from Marburg). Two-hundred paces from the church, people still point to a footprint in stone, which is attributed to Boniface when he stamped the ground in holy zeal. He said “As sure as my foot presses into this stone, so surely shall I convert the pagans.” The pagans called the mountain Castorberg. Boniface wanted to retain the C of this word by naming the place Christenberg. In the area around Christenberg people still speak of Boniface’s Way, the path he took through the forest when he came and went. Farmer’s fields abutting against this path are still free from Zent law but all other land is still encumbered. A harsher penalty must be paid for any misdeeds occurring there. When farmers from the surrounding villages die, their bodies are still carried with enormous effort up the steep path and buried in the graveyard enveloping Christenberg Church. When Boniface came to Thuringia, he had a church built at Grossvargula, which he wanted to consecrate himself. He struck his staff into the earth, entered the church and read the mass; after the service was over his staff sprouted green shoots.

Grimm's Saga No. 182 The Huelfenberg of St. Boniface
(Or: The Mountain from Whence Help Comes)

Huelfenberg lies an hour away from Wanfried at the oak-field boundary. St. Boniface ordered a chapel built on this mountain. During construction, a man often came by and asked about the ongoing work. What kind of building was it going to be? The carpenters always answered: “Oh, it will be a barn when we are finished.” The man went on his way. But finally, with the church almost finished and the altar erected, the cross was happily mounted. When the Evil Foe returned and viewed it all, he shuddered in rage and flew out through the gable roof. The hole that he made there can still be seen today and can never be repaired. He also went inside the mountain and tried to destroy the church from there. But it was all in vain. Supposedly an oak tree sacred to the pagan deity was bricked in under the chapel. The hole, into which he vanished, is called the Stuffenlock (as the entire mountain today is also called the Stuffensberg). At times, steam and fog supposedly can be seen rising from the mountain. Another story is told of the chapel, that it was dedicated to a Saint. If a sick person touched the saint’s garment, that person was restored to good health within the very hour. This saint had once been a beautiful princess, but her father had fallen in love with her. In her dire distress she called upon God in heaven. Thereupon she grew a beard and her earthly beauty found an end.

Fairy Tale Factum
When Saint Boniface began his missionary work in Germany (~ 723 A.D.), he struggled to establish a Christianity that was free of pagan custom. According to tradition, he was able to demonstrate to the heathen population how utterly powerless their gods were by felling the the sacred oak of Jupiter (most probably this tree was sacred to Woton), at Geismar, near Fritzlar. From the wood he had a chapel built. When the pagans saw that their god was powerless to avert this assault on their religion, great numbers were allegedly converted. It is interesting to read these accounts of St. Boniface's missionary work in conjunction with Reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin and Tannhauser, where the struggle between pagan and Christian elements is also of central importance for understanding the story. The Huelfenberg saga is another example of a pagan deity being first flummoxed by the rise of Christianity and then being transformed into a demon in the narrative.

To read a fairy tale about another saint, St. Joseph in the forest, click on the link:

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin

Bone Flutes, Müstair, Switzerland

John and Paul’s Day was celebrated throughout Europe on June 26 but was originally a pagan festival commemorating the summer solstice. On this day it was custom for huge throngs of people to gather and dance around a bonfire, play music, sing, and augur the future. According to Petrarch, it was the custom of women in Cologne to bathe in the Rhine River on the evening before St. John’s Day. The surging waters supposedly washed away all evil and misfortune from the bathers. The custom was apparently practiced throughout Germany in its largest rivers and was considered to be distinctly pagan. Processions and parades, dancing and singing, bathing in the river and jumping through or dancing around bonfires were all part of the revelry. Frowning on the unbridled passion of townspeople engaged in such activities, the early Christian Church appropriated the day. It linked the custom of river bathing to John the Baptist and symbolical purification through water. These summer celebrations coincided with the sun reaching its highest point in the sky and usually lasted several days. The dates given in the Pied Piper of Hamelin are the exact days this celebration would have been held and the saga accurately incorporates elements of this folk tradition.

In the Pied Piper of Hamelin we find the elements of playing music and processing down to a river (and immersing oneself in the water) to eradicate pestilence. The figure charged with the expulsion of rats and mice is distinctly pagan. He uses magic and music to take control of the rats first and children second. He is a wandering rogue of a most peculiar sort. His clothing and visage are described in some detail. His coat of many colors is reminiscent of that other famous wanderer in Germanic mythology, Woton (as called by Southern Germanic tribes) or Odin (as called by Northern Germanic tribes). Woton traditionally wears a blue cloak with golden flecks and broad hat. The Germanic God Woton underwent many transformations at the hands of Christian priests, who attempted to Christianize the deity. Wotan alternately became the Archangel Michael, the Holy St. Martin, the Wild Huntsman and finally the devil. In his role as Wild Huntsman, Wotan was said to lead a fearsome procession that raced through the air and lasted 12 days. Other pagan figures lead similar parades or processions including Frau Holla and True Eckhart, and Tannhäuser and Frau Venus. These duos always have the same destination: the inside of a mountain. In many folk tales and saga, entering a mountain as part of a procession is actually a metaphor for dying (see Gratzug). In fact there were many mountains throughout Europe that were considered sacred to Woton (Othensberg, Odensberg, Godesberg, Gudenesberg and Wodenesberg to name a few).

There are sagas and legends from the Middle Ages which reflect the dismay and even anger of the deposed deities toward the rising power and prestige of Christian intruders. Tannhäuser and Frau Venus are perhaps the most well-known examples. But is it possible to interpret the tantalizing character of the Pied Piper and the disappearance of 130 children within the context of an enraged (and perhaps, dislodged) deity?

This extraordinary tale reads like an historical narrative with eye-witness accounts to bolster its veracity. I am inclined to view the story as a cautionary tale to a population wavering between the older pagan belief and the newer Christian belief systems. Participating in pagan revelry, with its gods, music, dancing and wildness, can have dire consequences. The old deities are no longer mourning their loss of status, but ready to take revenge. At the end of the tale, a ban on music is imposed and presumably the pagan revelry and festivities that accompanied it. But the surface message of the tale is also quite clear. The mendacity of town leaders contradicts the Gospel message that “a laborer is worthy of his hire.”

The mountain where the children disappeared has been renamed Calvary, or the Place of the Skull (Köppen = obsolete German word for head or skull). As Europe became Christianized, it was common to rename pagan sites to give them Christian significance. Calvary or site of the Crucifixion would be a fitting name for a place of great tragedy. After reading this tale it is easy to imagine that the story is based on a folk memory of a tragic event involving the loss of children.

Ancient Bone and Ivory Flutes

The Pied Piper is playing one of the oldest known musical instruments: the flute or pipe. Archaeologists have found numerous flutes fashioned from bone or ivory throughout Germany and Switzerland. At the Cloister in Müstair, Switzerland, archaeologists found two bone flutes which they have dated to the Carolingian period and two from the 11th/12th and 14th centuries. They are made from the tibia bone of a sheep or goat and have three finger holes. These Müstair flutes are capable of producing a five-tone or eight-tone scale respectively.

A flute that is believed to be between 30,000 – 37,000 years old was found in pieces in the Geissenkloesterle Cave in Southern Germany. It was made in the Upper Paleolithic Era, a time when Europe was occupied by the last Neanderthals and the first modern humans. This flute was carved from solid ivory and was capable of playing relatively sophisticated tunes. Based on experiments, it seems the flute followed the pentatonic scale.

The sound of these flutes was shaped by human breath. After singing, playing the flute was the most immediate form of communication. Because of its special sound and shape, the flute was also used in religious and cultic ceremonies. The music of the flute or pipe was said to have magical and healing properties. The shepherd played the pipe to calm his flock and keep them together. And in the saga, the Pied Piper uses the magical tones of the flute to exercise control over both animals and humans. The ancient Greeks mistrusted flute music as being overly powerful and seductive and according to Indian tradition, when Lord Krishna played his flute, listeners forgot their individuality and were drawn irresistibly to the music.

Further Reading: If Stones Could Speak, Searching for the Meaning of Stonehenge, National Geographic: New interpretation of ancient ceremonial processions along routes and rivers.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Grimm's Saga No. 245: The Children of Hameln or the Pied Piper of Hamelin

The place called Calvary.

In the year 1284 a strange man was seen in the town of Hamelin. He wore a parti-colored coat and a colorful scarf and that is why he was called Bundting (one colorfully dressed). He claimed he was a rat catcher and promised to free the town of all mice and rats in return for a certain sum of money. The town folk reached agreement and assured him he would receive the designated wage. Thereupon the rat catcher pulled out a little flute from his pocket and began to play. Immediately the rats and mice crept out from every house and gathered round him. When it seemed he had collected them all, he went out from town and the entire throng of mice and rats scampered behind him. And so he led them to the Weser River. Binding up his colorful cloak, he entered the swift waters. The animals eagerly following him were swept up by the swift current and drowned.

But when the townspeople saw that they were free from the pestilence, they regretted the promised reward and they denied him his wage with every manner of excuse until he became enraged and went away embittered. Early in the morning at 7 o’clock on June 26, John and Paul’s Day, (but according to others in the afternoon) he appeared again, but now in the shape of a huntsman with frightful visage and a strange red hat. He sounded his pipe in the alleyways and narrow streets. This time it was not rats and mice that came running but rather children, boys and girls aged four and up, in large numbers. Among them, was the grown daughter of the mayor. A procession of children followed him and he led them out to a mountain, where they all promptly disappeared. A child’s maid had seen it all; she carried a babe on her arm and had followed the crowd from afar, but returned to town to tell the story. The parents streamed out of the city gates and laden with grief, searched for their children. Mothers bewailed their loss. At that hour messengers were sent by land and water to all the surrounding towns to find out whether the children had been seen, but it was all for naught. In total, 130 children were lost. Some said two children had hurried behind the throng but were too late and had to return. The one was blind, the other mute, so that the blind child could not tell the location, but could only tell how they had followed the music. The mute child could point to the location, but couldn’t say anything. One boy ran out of the house only in his shirtsleeves. He returned to the house to get his jacket and thus escaped the misfortune. When he followed, he could see the other children arriving at the bottom of the mountain then he saw them vanish.

The street, where the children left the town through the gate was still called the Bungelose (silent street, where no drumbeat or music is heard) in the mid-eighteenth century because no one was allowed to dance or strum a musical instrument there. When a bride was brought to the church accompanied by music, the players had to silence their instruments when they crossed the road. The hill near Hamelin, where the children disappeared, is called Poppenberg. Here at the left and right two stones have been set up in cross-shape. Some say the children were taken into a cave and came out on the other side in Siebenbuergen (Transylvania).

The citizens of Hamelin had the story recorded in their city register and after that they always counted years and days according to the loss of their children. Seyfried recorded that it was the 22nd of June instead of the 26th when it happened. At the town hall the following words can be read:

In the year of our Lord 1284 in Hamelin, 130 children were lost to a piper at the place called Calvary.

In 1572 the Mayor had the story memorialized in a church window with the necessary caption, but the words are mostly illegible today. A coin was also made to commemorate the event.

To read more about the Pied Piper of Hameln:

Read more fairy tales and saga:

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reading The Fairy Tale Friend

Bear Goddess, Bernese Historical Museum
Deae Artioni

The Lithuanian folktale The Fairy Tale Friend (see full text below) features a most unusual alliance between bear and wolf. In Northern European mythology the wolf is often an object of fear and hatred, personifying the qualities of stealth, evil and cunning. Its fierceness as a predator and wily disposition led to eradication campaigns and near extinction in Europe.

The bear, on the other hand, enjoyed higher status. The bear goddess Artio first appears as an object of veneration in the Rhineland-Palatine area of Germany and her name Artio can be traced back to pre-historic times and the Celtic language. (Latin: Ursus and Gallic: Arto). A symbol of strength and virtue, the bear was considered sacred in Eastern Europe and its appearance portended good fortune.

But wolves and bears never appear together in the real world and this would be quite an unnatural phenomena. The theme of an unusual alliance is perhaps at the heart of this fairy tale, told from the Lithuanian perspective. Russia and Lithuania have a complicated historical past and like the bear and wolf, a natural affinity between the two is difficult to imagine. In this tale, the Lithuanian takes the shape of the more noble bear and the Russian is the wily wolf. Striking out together into the bright summer sunlight, it is the union of their strengths and virtues that allows them to wander unencumbered the entire summer long, fulfilling a dream that perhaps many of us have and few will ever experience.
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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Fairy Tale Friend: For those who would ramble, wander and rove the entire summer long and run free as long as they live.

The Fairy Tale Friend

A long time ago an old man lived with his old wife and the old man loved to hear fairy tales. One day a Russian came to the old man and beseeched him for a night’s lodging. The old man consented, but in return the Russian would have to tell fairy tales the entire night long.

The Russian agreed. The old man ate his evening meal with the Russian. Then the two men lay down sideways on the old wooden plank. The old wife sat nearby on the hearth bench and spun by the light of a pine torch. Soon the Russian began his tales.

For a long time the Russian spoke of his life, where he had been and what had happened. And so, he told stories well into the morning until the cock crowed. Then he was silent for a while and asked the old man:

“Pater, do you know who is lying next to you on this plank bench?” –
“Who then?” the old man asked. “Naturally, you are a Russian.” –
“No, I am not a Russian but a wolf.”

The old man threw a hasty glance at the Russian and saw it was true. He was a wolf. The old man was terrified, but the wolf said to him: “Do not be afraid! Look at me! In truth you are a bear!”

The old man hastily took a look at himself. He had become a bear. “Can you hear me, Pater?” the wolf said. “We cannot stay here on the wooden bench. It is better that we run free as long as we live.”

They ran from there and met the horse of the old man. The wolf saw the horse and said: “We shall devour him!” --- “What! Don’t you see that it is my horse?” the old man said.
“What do I care if it your horse. Hunger knows no law.” They devoured the horse and ran ahead and met an old woman. It was the wife of the old man. The wolf spoke again: “We shall also devour the old woman!”
“Why do you want to eat her? Don’t you see that it is my wife?” the bear said.
“What do I care about your wife?” the wolf replied. And so, they devoured the old woman.

They rambled and wandered and roved, the bear and the wolf, the entire summer long. Then winter came and the wolf spoke: “We want to crawl into a cave! You creep deeper inside; I will lay closer to the opening! If hunters see us, they will shoot me dead first. Then watch and listen! As soon as they shoot me dead and want to take my fur, flee from the cave, jump over me and you will be a man again!”

The wolf and bear rested in the cave. Then the hunters came, shot the wolf dead and wanted to rob him of his fur. And now as the bear attempted to run out of the cave and wanted to jump over the wolf, the old man fell from the plank bench screaming “Ouw, ouw, ouw! Someone has struck me in the behind.”

The old woman was startled and jumped up from the hearth bench. “What is wrong, father? What is the matter with you? Why have you fallen down? You weren’t drinking.” -- “Why?” the old man asked. Don’t you know what I look like?” And the old man began his story. “The Russian and I were wild animals; he was a wolf and I a bear. We roamed around all summer. We ate our horse and we ate you.”

The old woman gripped her sides and laughed out loud: “Ha, ha, ha,” she said. “You two lay on the wooden bench for almost an hour and snored with all your might while I sat and spun.”

The old man injured himself not a little and since that time he no longer listens to tall tales until the cock crows.
Translation: Copyright
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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Grimm's Saga No. 17, The Toy of the Giant Maiden

A tale to honor of all those who labor in field or garden.
In ancient times, the knights residing in Elsass at Nideck Castle near the waterfall were giants. Once a young giantess went down into the valley to see how things were down there. She went almost as far as Haslach and stopped at a farmer’s field before the woods. The farmer was just plowing up the dark earth. Full of wonder, the young giantess came to a stop and gazed at the plow, horse and man. Everything was new and amazed her. “Ah,” she said and approached them “I’ll take them home with me.” She knelt down in the field and spread out her apron. Sweeping her hand over the field she gathered them all up inside the cloth. Now she ran happily home, jumping up the sheer rocky cliffs where the mountain is so steep that a man must labor to climb up the precipice. The maiden took only one step and was on top.

Her father was just sitting down at the table when she reached home. “My dear child,” he said, “What are you bringing me that you laugh so and your eyes sparkle with joy?” She opened up her apron and let him look inside. “What do you have wiggling there?”
“Oh, father, I have a most wonderful plaything! I have never had such a splendid toy.” She took each one out and set it on the table: the plow, the farmer and the horse. She ran round the room, laughed and clapped her hands for joy when she saw how the little creatures wiggled and moved back and forth. But her father said: “Child, that is no plaything. Now you’ve done a fine deed! Go back down into the valley and return them immediately.” The young giantess cried, but it did not help. “The farmer is no plaything,” the knight said sternly. “I will not stand for it or let you grumble. Put everything back at once and take it to the place where you found it. If the farmer did not plant his field, we giants sitting up here in our rocky nest would have nothing to live on.”

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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
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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.

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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