Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fairy Tale of the House in the Woods

(Image, Maurice Sendak from Dear Mili)

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 169 The House in the Woods

A poor woodcutter lived with his wife and three young daughters in a small hut at the edge of a desolate wood. One morning. when he was setting off to return to work, he said to his wife “Let the oldest daughter bring the noon-day bread to me in the woods. Otherwise, I shan’t finish. And so that she does not lose her way,” he added "I will take a sack with millet and scatter the grains across the path.”
When the sun stood in the middle of the sky high above the woods, the maiden began her walk carrying a pot of soup. But the field and forest sparrows, the larks and finches, the blackbirds and siskins had already pecked the path clean of any millet and the maid could not find her way. Trusting luck, she continued on her way until the sun sank and night fell. The trees rustled in the darkness, the owls hooted and the girl became frightened. In the distance, she saw a light blinking between the trees. “People must live there,” she thought “and they will keep me over night.” She continued to walk toward the light. It was not long before she came to a house whose windows were brightly illuminated. She knocked and a rough voice called out from inside “Come in.” The girl entered a dark hallway and knocked on the parlor door. “Enter,” the voice called and when she opened the door, there sat an old, icy gray man at a table. Supporting his head in both hands, his white beard flowed over the table and almost reached the floor. But on the hearth three animals rested: a chicken, a rooster and a brindle cow. The maid told the old man about her fate and requested lodgings for the night. The man spoke:
“Lovely hen, Pretty cock,
And beautiful brindle cow, too,

How do you moo?"

The animals replied “Duks!”. (Which translated probably meant: “We are satisfied, healthy and happy!”) The old man continued, “We live in abundance here, go to the stove and cook us dinner!”
The maid found the kitchen. Everything was stocked to excess and the girl was able to cook a hearty meal. But the animals thought differently. When the girl entered the room carrying the bowl, she placed it on the table, sat down beside the old gray man and stilled her hunger. Soon she had eaten her fill and said “But now, I am tired. Where is a bed so that I can lie down and sleep?” The animals replied
“You ate with him, You drank with him,
About us you have not thought,
You shall stay the night where you ought.”
The old man spoke “Just climb the stairs, you will find a chamber with two beds. Shake out the bed and cover it with white linen. I will also come up and lie down.” The girl went up and when she had shaken out the feather bed and covered it with fresh linen, she laid down in one of the beds without waiting for the old man. After some time the old gray man came, illuminated the girl with his candlelight and shook his head. When he saw that she was almost fast asleep, he opened a trap door and let her drop into the cellar.
The woodcutter came home late that evening and accused his wife of letting him starve the entire day long. “I’m not to blame,” she replied “The girl went out at midday. She must have lost her way. Tomorrow she will return again.” But the woodcutter rose before daylight, wanted to go into the woods and asked for his second daughter to bring lunch this time. “I will take a little sack with lentils” he said. The grains are larger than millet, the girl will see them better and then cannot miss the path.” At lunchtime the girl also carried out the meal, but the lentils were gone: the birds of the forest had eaten them like the day before and none were left. The girl wandered around in the woods until night fell. She also arrived at the house of the old man, heard the voice call out inviting her in and requested food and lodgings for the night. The man with the white beard once again asked the animals:
"Lovely hen,
Pretty cock,
And you beautiful brindled cow, too,
How do you moo?"

Once again the animals responded “Duks,” and everything repeated itself like the day before. The maid cooked a good meal, ate and drank with the old man and did not take care of the animals. When she asked about her accommodations for the night, they responded:
“You ate with him,
You drank with him,
About us you have not thought, You shall stay the night where you ought.”
When the girl had fallen asleep, the old man came, looked upon her and shook his head. Then he opened the trap door and let her fall into the cellar.
On the third morning the woodcutter spoke to his wife “Today send me the youngest child with the food. She has always been good and obedient. She will find the right way and not like her sisters, swarm around like wild bumble bees.”
The mother did not want to heed his request and replied “Must I also lose my dearest child?”
“Do not worry,” he replied, “the girl shall not go astray. She is too smart and understanding. I will take peas in abundance with me and scatter them on the path. They are even larger than lentils and will show her the way.” But when the girl went out with her basket on her arm, the forest doves already had the kernels in their gullet. She did not know where to turn. Full of dismay, she only thought about how her poor father would hunger and how her good mother would wail if she did not return. Finally, when night fell, she saw the little light flickering in the woods and came to the forest house. In a friendly voice, she asked if she could stay the night and the man with the white beard asked his animals once more
“Lovely hen,
Pretty cock,
And brindle cow too,
What do you moo?"

“Duks,” they replied. The girl went to the hearth where the animals lay and caressed the chicken and rooster and ran her little hand over their smooth feathers. She rubbed the brindle cow between its horns. And when at the request of the old man she prepared a good soup and the bowl was on the table, she asked “Am I to eat my fill and the good animals still have nothing?” There is abundance here. Let me care for them first.” She went and fetched barley and scattered it before the hen and cock. She brought the cow fragrant hay, an entire arm full. “I hope you enjoy it, dear animals,” the girl said. “And when you are thirsty you should also have a fresh drink.” She carried a pail full of water inside. The chicken and rooster jumped onto its rim and stuck their beaks inside. Then they held their heads in the air, like birds do when they drink and the brindle cow also took a hearty gulp. When the animals had been fed, the girl sat down next to the old man and ate what he had left over for her. It was not long before hen and cock began to place their heads under their wings. The spotted cow blinked its eyes. The girl spoke “Shall we not go to bed?”
“Lovely hen,
Pretty cock,

And you beautiful brindle cow, too,

What do you moo?

The animals replied “Duks,”
"You ate with us,
You drank with us,
You always remembered us,Now we wish you a good night."
The girl climbed the stairs, shook out the feather pillow and covered it in fresh linen. And when she was finished, the old man came and laid down in bed so that his white beard extended to his feet. The girl lay down in the other bed and said her prayer. Then she fell asleep.
She slept calmly until midnight. Then it became so noisy in the house that the girl awoke. Crackling and rustling sounds began to come from the corners, the door fell open and hit the wall, the beams groaned as if they would be torn from their joints and it seemed as if the stairs were about to collapse entirely. Finally there was a loud crashing sound as if the roof had fallen in. But then it became quiet again and because nothing had happened to the girl, she fell asleep once more. But in the morning when she awoke and the sun was shining brightly, what did she see? She awoke in a large hall and all around her everything glistened in royal splendor. On the walls, golden blossoms sprang up on a green silk background. The bed was made of ivory and the coverlet was red satin. Nearby on the stool lay a pair of slippers with pearl stitching. The girl thought it was all a dream but when three richly clothed servants appeared and asked her what her desires were, the girl replied “Just go, I will get up soon and cook a soup for the old man and then feed the lovely hen, pretty cock and brindle cow.”
She thought the old man had already risen and looked over to his bed. But he did not lay there, instead there lay a strange man. And when she gazed upon him and saw he was young and handsome, he awoke. He sat up and said “I am a king’s son and was enchanted by an evil witch. I had to live in the woods as an old, icy gray man. No one was allowed to serve me except my three servants, a hen, a cock and a brindle cow. And the enchantment would not end until a maiden came to us, of such good heart, that she not only showed kindness to people but also animals. And you are that maiden and tonight at midnight we have been redeemed by you and the old house in the woods has been once more transformed into a royal palace.”
And when they got up, the king’s son said the three servants should go out and fetch the father and mother of the maid and bring them to the wedding celebration.
“And where are my two sisters?” the girl asked. “I have locked them in the cellar. Tomorrow they will be led into the forest and shall work for the man who burns charcoal until they have improved themselves and do not let poor animals starve.”

To find out more about the history of charcoal burners:

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


Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Fairy Tale of Life as an Enchanted Frog

Life as an Enchanted Frog

A variation of the woman-as-snake theme.

The Lithuanian Fairy Tale of a King’s Son and an Enchanted Maiden

There once lived a king, who had three sons. He decided that they should all marry at once so he said to them “Children, you have come of age. You shall all marry at once! As soon as you ride out to your intended ones, I shall shoot off my blunderbuss. Wherever the bullet flies, ride in that direction. The person who catches my bullet shall be your bride. That is maiden you shall bring home.”

The oldest son decided to ride out to his maiden. His father went out and shot his blunderbuss. The bullet sailed slowly through the air and the son rode after it. He arrived at a kingdom. There at the king’s court a princess stood on a flight of stairs. She caught the bullet in mid-air. This daughter was not particularly beautiful because she had pock marks. The son led her home. He now had a wife. And so the second son wanted to ride out. The father went outside again and shot his blunderbuss. The son rode out and arrived in a kingdom. Here the king’s daughter held the bullet in her hand. She was slightly more beautiful and the king’s son led her home. Now the second son also had a wife.
The third son also wanted to ride out. The father went outside and shot his blunderbuss. The son rode after the bullet and arrived in another kingdom and king’s court. There stood a green frog on the stairs and held the bullet in its mouth. The king’s son was frightened. But what could he do? His father had commanded that he bring back the one who caught the bullet. He took home the frog and placed it under his bed. There it hopped around and croaked. Shortly before the wedding the brides opened their windows. All manner of royal presents flew inside. When the frog opened its window, gifts of even rarer beauty arrived.

During the day, the frog was a frog. But at night, it slipped out of its skin and became a beautiful woman. There was no one more beautiful in all the world. And every night the little frog lay down in the bed and how happy the son was when it became a beautiful woman! But when daylight came, the son was sad, because he knew what he had to do. Finally he thought of a way out of his dilemma. He must burn the frog skin so he fetched coal to do it. In the evening when his wife had removed the frog skin, the king’s son threw it onto the fire and it burned. The wife noticed the smell and jumped up immediately. “Now you have destroyed me.” She sat down and wrote a letter to her oldest sister and said to him: “Go to the smithy and have him forge iron shoes and a sack. He shall give you a piece of iron that is as large as a slice of bread! Place this in the sack and take this letter to my sister! You will find a bed made there for you. As soon as you are there, lay down immediately and place the letter on your neck! If you do exactly as I say, you and I can be together again. Otherwise I will not be yours and you shall not be mine. You have caused the greatest torment for me.” And she flew out of the window.

The king’s son immediately went to the smithy. He made him iron shoes, a sack and a piece of iron as large as a slice of bread. Then he took the letter and went out. He wandered and wandered and finally reached a court. There was nothing there, not even a dog. He went into the house and found a bed made. He lay down immediately and placed the letter on his neck. It wasn’t long before the sister flew inside with the sound of thunder crashing all around. She was spitting and sputtering and screamed: “Who smells like man flesh here? O, brother-in-law, it is you! You are good bird for me to rip to shreds!” But she took the letter from his neck and read it. “So,” she said. “Get up! Come over here. I will give you something to eat! You have come a long distance and are tired.”
He stood up immediately and said: “Here is your iron bread.”

She cut it into little pieces and he ate it. Then she said: “Go into the garden back and forth!” He did this and soon saw that his shoes had become tattered to bits. He went back inside the room. Immediately the thunder roared again as someone approached. She said “Where shall I hide you?” She hid him behind the oven. Then someone entered the room and said mournfully “What did the evil one do? What torment I have suffered!” The sister replied: “If you saw your husband, what would you do with him?” “I would cut him into little pieces.” Then she flew away.

He crept out from behind the oven and the sister said: “Now go to the smithy and have another pair of iron shoes and sack forged. I will give you another letter for my other sister. When you arrive there, you shall find another bed made. Lay down, cover yourself to your chin, and place the letter under your chin." He did everything as commanded, took the letter and departed. He wandered and wandered. Finally he reached a court. Again he found nothing. Then he went into the house, saw a bed made, lay down inside and placed the letter under his chin. It wasn’t long before someone approached amidst great roaring of thunder, entered the house, spit and sputtered and screamed “Who smells here like man flesh? Oh brother-in-law, I would like to tear you to bits!" But then she took the letter, read it and said: “Get up, come here and eat! Do you have your bread?" He gave her the sack. As soon as she touched it with her knife, the iron turned into bread. She cut it and ate it. Then she said: “Go out into the garden and walk back and forth!” He did this too. Then he saw how his shoes had become tattered to bits. He went back into the house and listened as someone approached. “Where shall I hide you?” the sister asked. “Creep behind the bed!” He crept behind it. Someone entered the room and said: “If you only knew how I suffer!” But the sister said: “If you saw your husband, what would you do to him?” She answered “I would tear him into four pieces.” After uttering these words, she flew away and he crept from behind the bed.

Then the sister said to him: “Go to the smithy and have iron shoes and a sack made. I will give you a letter for my youngest sister. When you arrive at court, you shall find a bed made. Lay down to sleep and cover yourself. Place the letter on your breast!” He went to the smithy, who made him the iron shoes and sack and he departed. He wandered and wandered until he came to a court and found nothing there, not a single living being. He went inside the house. There he found a bed made. He lay down, covered himself and placed the letter on his breast. It wasn’t long until someone rushed inside the house, removed the letter from his breast, read it and said: “Get up and eat!” Once again she took his sack. As soon as she placed her knife on the iron, it became bread. She cut it into pieces and he ate. “Now go into the garden and walk back and forth!” He went into the garden and wandered back and forth. There he saw that his shoes had become tattered to bits. He went back inside the house and while they spoke, someone again approached in a roaring, buzzing sound. She said “Where shall I hide you? Creep behind my skirt!”

Immediately he crept behind it. His wife came happily into the room and the sister said: “If you saw your husband now, what would you do to him? “I would do nothing to him, nothing at all.” She immediately lifted her skirts and said “See, here is your husband.”
She welcomed and thanked him for redeeming her. They both returned to their homeland. When they reached the kingdom, they prepared the wedding feast. All three sons married at once and the father gave the youngest son the kingdom. His bride, the princess, had been enchanted before she was born. It was her fate to remain in frog form until her wedding day. If he had not burned her frog skin, she would have become a woman when she married.

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

Women who Become Snakes

Grimm’s Saga No. 224: Maiden of the Meadows

A boy from Auerbach near the Mountain Road tended his father’s cows on the narrow valley floor, from which one can see the ruins of the old castle. Suddenly he felt a soft hand stroking his cheek from behind. He turned around swiftly and saw a beautiful maiden standing before him. From head to toe she was dressed in white. She was just about to open her mouth to speak and address him. But the lad was terrified as if it were the devil himself and hastily retreated back to the village. But because his father had only one meadow, he had to tend the cows in the same field, whether he liked it or not. A long time passed and the youth had almost forgotten the apparition. But one warm summer’s day something rustled in the leaves and he saw a little snake creeping along. It carried a blue flower in its mouth and suddenly began to speak: “Listen, good youth. You can redeem me if you take this flower that I carry. It is the key to my little chamber high above in the castle. There you will find money and enormous riches.”

But the shepherd boy was frightened when he heard the snake speak and ran back home. And on one of the last days of autumn, he once more tended his cows in the meadow. A third time the apparition appeared, now in the form he had seen first, a white maiden. She brushed his cheek again with her hand and entreated him to redeem her; she would convey the means and the way to do this. But all her pleading was for naught because fear overcame the lad. He crossed and blessed himself and wanted nothing to do with the ghost. The maiden let out a deep sigh and said “Oh, that I placed my trust in you! Now I must sit and wait until a cherry tree grows in the meadow, from its wood a cradle shall be made. Only the babe that is first rocked in that cradle will be able to redeem me.” She then vanished and it is said that the youth never grew to become a man; how he died, I do not know.

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


Monday, November 1, 2010

Fairy Tale for Late Autumn: The Maiden Notburga and Her White Stag

Grimm’s Saga No. 351: The Maiden Notburga

In the lower Inn Valley in Tyrol lies Rostenburg Castle,* where in times of old a pious maid served a royal family. Her name was Notburga and she was a mild and charitable maid. She distributed whatever she could to the poor but because the greedy royal family despised her charity, they beat the pious girl and finally chased her away. She found refuge with poor farmers at the nearby Mount Eben

God soon punished the evil mistress of Rostenburg Castle with a miserable death. Her husband now felt that injustice had been wrought against Notburga and brought her down from Mount Eben back to the Rottenburg, where she led a devout life. Finally the angels came and took her up into heaven. Two oxen bore her corpse over the River Inn and although its waters raged, the surging flood became gentle and quiet when the saint approached. She was buried in the Chapel of Saint Ruprecht.

There is another saga people tell on the River Neckar. Towers and walls of the old Hornberg Fortress still stand on this river. In times of old a powerful king lived there with his beautiful and pious daughter, Notburga. This maiden loved a knight and was engaged to marry him. But he had set out for distant lands and never returned. The maid cried night and day after his death and refused every other suitor. Her father was hard-hearted and thought little of her sadness. One day he said to her “Prepare your wedding finery, three days hence a groom shall arrive; the one I have chosen for you.” But Notburga said in her heart: “I would rather go away, as far as the heavens are blue, than break my word.
At night when the moon rose, she called a faithful servant and said to him: “Take me into the forest heights, high above St. Michael’s Chapel. I will stay there hidden from my father and live my life in the service of God!” When they had reached the highlands, the tree branches rustled and a snow-white stag came running and when it reached Notburga, it stood still. She sat on the stag’s back, held on to his antlers and was quickly carried away. The servant saw how the stag easily swam with her over the River Neckar and disappeared on the other side.

The next morning when the king could not find his daughter, he had everyone search for her. He sent out messengers to all parts of his kingdom. But they all returned without finding a trace of the girl. The faithful servant did not want to betray her. But when it was lunch time, the white stag came to the servant at Hornberg, and when the servant wanted to give him some bread, the stag bowed his head so that the old man could place it in his antlers. Then the animal jumped away and brought it to Notburga in the wilderness. He came every day and received nourishment for her in this manner. Many saw it, but no one knew what it meant, except the faithful servant.

Finally the king noticed the white stag and forced the old man to reveal his secret. The next day at lunch time, he mounted his horse and when he saw the stag return for the food, he hurried after, chased the animal through the brush, across the river and followed it up to cave perched high above on a cliff. The king dismounted and entered. There he found his daughter with folded hands, kneeling before a cross. Next to her rested the white stag. Because she had not been touched by the sun’s rays, she was as pale as death and the king recoiled at the sight of her.

He spoke “Return with me to Hornberg Castle.” But she responded “I have promised my life to God and do not wish to live among mankind.” The king could not say anything to dissuade her and she would not answer him. He fell into a rage and wanted to exert force. But she held fast to the cross and when he pulled her arm it separated from her body and remained in his hand. He was overcome by such horror that he hastened away and never more returned to that cave.

When the people heard what had happened, they venerated Notburga as a saint. The hermit who lived near St. Michael’s Chapel sent all penitents to her when they sought help from him. She prayed with them and took on the heavy burden they bore in their hearts. In the autumn when the leaves fell, the angels came and carried her soul to heaven. They wrapped her body in a shroud and adorned it with roses, although all the flowers had long since withered. Two snow-white steers, who had never been under yoke, carried her across the river without wetting their hooves and the bells in the nearby church began to ring on their own. In this way her body was brought to repose in St. Michael’s Chapel. 

Today there still stands in the village church of Hochhausen on the River Necker the image of Saint Notburga hewn in stone. You can still see Notburga Cave, also known as the Maiden’s Cave and this is still known to every child in the area.

According to another version of the story it was King Dagobert who held his court at Mosbach. His daughter fled from him because he wanted to force her marriage to a pagan Wendt. She was only kept alive in a cave by a snake who brought her herbs and roots, until she finally died there. Wandering will o’the wisps revealed the girl’s grave and the king’s daughter was later found. Two steers pulled the wagon carrying her corpse and they remained standing at the place she is now buried. A church now marks the spot. Many miracles happen at that place. A picture of the snake is also carved in the stone at Hochhausen. An altar portrait shows the same, but here Notburga appears with her beautiful hair, before she was beheaded to satisfy her father’s rage.

*I believe this is the castle referred to in the fairy tale. Your comments are most welcome!

To read more fairytales, click on the link:

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Devil as Advocate

Grimm’s Saga No. 211: The Devil as Advocate

Once a farmhand living in the Mark gave his landlord money for safekeeping. When he asked for it again, the landlord said he had never received it in the first place. When the farmhand could not convince his host to return the money, he stormed out of the house. The landlord sent out men to catch him because he wanted to be rid of him once and for all so that he could keep the money. He accused the farmhand as the very one, down to his skin, hair, neck and belly, who had broken the peace of his house. The devil came to the farmhand in prison and said: Tomorrow they shall bring you in front of the court and chop off your head because you disturbed the peace of the house. But if you give me your life and soul, I shall help you.”

But the farmhand would not hear of it. The devil replied: “Do as I say when you enter court and they accuse you. Insist that you gave the landlord the money and say you were ill-advised, one should grant you an advocate to talk on your behalf. I won’t be standing far away. You will recognize me in my blue hat with white feather. I will then take over and represent your interests.”

And so it happened. But because the landlord was so obstinate in his lying, the farmhand’s barrister in the blue hat said: “Dear landlord. How can you deny it! The money is lying in your bed under the master post: Judge and bailiff go out and you will find the money lying there.”

The landlord then reflected on this turn of events and spoke “If I did receive the money, may the devil take me away!

When the money was found and brought before the judge, the man in the blue hat with white feather said “I knew I would get one of them! Either the landlord or his tenant!” With that he twisted off the head of the landlord and carried him off through the air.

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

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Maidens with Keys and the Passing of the Seasons

Grimm’s Saga No. 222

The Chatelaine of Oselberg

In ancient times a castle stood on the Oselberg Mountain between Dinkelsbuehl and Hahnkamm. Here a widow lived with her father as chatelaine, keeping the keys to all the rooms of the castle in her possession. In the end she fell to her death when the castle walls collapsed. Screams can  often be heard at that place but it is only her spirit that floats round the fallen stone. She often appears on the evening of the four Ember days*; then she is in the form of a maiden, carrying a ring of keys at her side. Old farmers say the land was once owned by her father and the maiden was a pagan daughter of old. She became enchanted and was transformed into a terrible snake; others say they have seen her as viper but with the head and shape of a woman down to her waist. She always carries a ring of keys round her neck.

* Ember days: Four days immediately after 1) the first Sunday in Lent 2) Pentecost 3) Holy Cross Day (Sept. 14) or 4) St. Lucy’s Day (Dec. 13). Traditionally this is a fast day. These days designate each of four periods or seasons of the year, which were times of fasting (but became times of ordination in the Anglican Church).

And here is a beautiful song for the passing of the seasons:

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

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Grimm's Saga No. 276: The Legend of the Monks Crossing the Rhine at Speyer

Grimm's Saga No. 276
The Legend of the Monks who Crossed the Rhine

In ancient times there lived a certain fisherman in the City of Speyer. One night when this man went down to the Rhine River to let out his fishing line a man approached him wearing a long cowl-necked robe in the manner of monks. The fisherman respectfully greeted the man, who replied “I come as messenger from far away and need to cross the Rhine.”

“Enter my boat,” replied the fisherman. “I will ferry you across.”
After he had ferried the man across the river, he returned to find five more monks standing on shore. They also wanted to cross the river. The fisherman modestly asked what moved the men to travel in such a vain night? “Necessity drives us,” said one of the monks. “The world has become a hostile place for us; take us on and God shall pay your reward.”

The fisherman demanded to know what they would give him for his labours. “Now we are poor, but when things are better for us, you shall feel our gratitude.” The oarsman shoved off, but when his vessel reached the middle of the Rhine, a fearful storm blew up. Waves crashed down upon the ship and the fisherman paled in terror. “What is this,” he thought, “at sunset the sky was clear and promising and the moon shone beautifully. Whence comes this fast tempest?” And as he raised his hands to pray to God, one of the monks cried out “Why are you filling God’s ears with prayers? Steer the ship!”
With these words he tore the rudder from the boatman’s hand and began beating the poor fellow. Half-dead he lay in his vessel until daylight broke and the dark strangers had vanished. As the first rays of sunlight broke on the horizon, the heavens were once again as clear as before. The boatman took heart, sailed back to shore and reached his dwelling in sore need.

The next day a messenger who was traveling in the early morning hours from Speyer encountered these same monks driving in a rickety black wagon. The cart had only three wheels and was driven by a long-nosed driver. In confusion the man allowed the wagon to pass and saw it hasten by with much clattering, until it vanished altogether in thin air. All the while the messenger heard the sound of swords clanging like an army in battle. The messenger promptly returned to town and reported everything.

Read more fairy tales by clicking on the link:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Golden Stag of Magdeburg

Grimm’s Saga No. 445

The Golden Stag of Magdeburg

In Magdeburg near Roland there once stood a stag with golden collar mounted on a stone pillar, which Charlemagne purportedly had captured. Others say Charlemagne released the animal but tied a golden collar round its neck, on which stood a cross and the words: “Dear hunters, let me live, To you my golden collar shall I give.” It was said this stag was only first captured again many years later during the reign of Friedrich Redbeard.

Other animal tales:
To read a mysterious tale about sheep:

To read more fairy tales, click on the link:

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Fairy Tale God for MBA's and Entrepreneurs

Reading the Fairy Tale The Spirit in the Glass

However far-fetched it might seem, the claim that this fairy tale has been thousands of years in the making is probably not an overstatement. We find clues to bolster this notion in three rather puzzling words: Mercurius, the name of the spirit in the glass, and the words dangerous oak describing the enormous and forbidding tree, which is the scene of enchantment in this tale.

First let’s take a look at the dangerous oak tree in the narrative. The ancient forests of Germany purportedly produced many incredible oaks and some of them were true giants. Thomas Pakenham in his book “Remarkable Trees of the World” cites an historical description of such a tree, quoting a 16th century writer who says of its enormity that it was “130 feet from the ground to the nearest bow” and another German tree had “a girth of over 90 feet”. Sadly, no trees of this stature have survived to this day, but we do have fragmented references in folklore and oral tradition attesting to the ancient notoriety of such trees. They are still described as “menacing, eerie, sinister” because they allegedly mark the spot where, according to Pakenham, pagan shrines once stood and “the dark rites of Woton” were performed. Pakenham goes on to explain that the so-called Feme-Eiche (Feme-Oak), which can still be seen today at Erle/Germany, was made a secret court of justice in the 13th century to try opponents of the king, but by the 19th century the practice had lapsed. One can only imagine the verdicts pronounced in the shadows of this oak!

A 17th century reference to a “deity-locked-inside-a-tree” can be found in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. In the following lines Prospero explains how the witch Sycorax imprisoned the spirit Ariel within the confines of a pine tree:

”And for thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorr’d commands,

Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,

By help of her more potent ministers,

And in her most unmitigable rage,

Into a cloven pine, within which rift
Imprison’d, thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years; within which space she died,

And left thee there, where thou didst vent thy groans…”

And in Goethe’s famous poem The Erlkoenig, the child-grabbing hobgoblin is probably a reference to a spirit inhabiting an Erle or Alder Tree, most likely another reference to popular folk tradition (although disputed, I think the claim is ludicrous that the word Erlkoenig entered German literature as a result of a translation error, see the Wiki page on Erlking to read more). Jacob Grimm suggests as much by placing the origin of the word in the French aulne, aune, and German Erle and daemon).

These are all trees with strong personality (per Pakenham). Likewise the oak tree in our fairy tale, The Spirit in the Bottle, also conceals a forceful presence, nothing less than the God Mercurius. So who is this Mercurius and how does he get into a German fairy tale?

In short, the Romans brought their gods with them when they conquered Europe. Statues of the god Mercury dating from the 2nd and 4rd centuries have been found in present-day Switzerland (one such statue can be seen in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, CA), but these statutes still bear the Gallic name for the god (Cobannus, Deo Cobanno, or a variation Gobannus) . Gradually Latin displaced native languages in conquered regions, and Cobannus became Mercury (these two gods presumably merged into one because the Gallic deity was very similar in temperament or function to the Roman god Mercury). Over time the Gallic term disappeared altogether. As god of commerce and business, Mercury was a very popular figure. Edith Hamilton in Mythology describes Mercury as “the most entertaining of all the gods, the shrewdest and most resourceful.” He was Jupiter’s favorite companion. Graceful and swift, this god wore winged sandals and a winged hat. He was the gods’ cunning messenger and protector of traders and business people. He understood that speed was often a prerequisite for business success and the essence of his character seems to be he could be everywhere and anywhere at once (like the Internet?). In short, he was a god that any MBA could appreciate and all those who aspired to entrepreneurial verve revered him. How fitting that he should appear in a fairy tale about a parent’s concern for his child and musings about whether all the book-learning in the world can translate into practical business sense. Some themes, it appears, are timeless.

Photo of bronze statue of the God Cobannus, private collection S. While/L. Levy, New York, Height 17.2 cm. Inscription on the shield: To the King and the God Cobannus dedicated by Marcus Tutus Cassio. Late 2nd century B.C., from Helvetia Archaeologica, No. 37/2006 - 145

Mercurial = of or pertaining to the god or planet Mercury. Characteristics include: eloquence, ingenuity, aptitude for commerce. Present day usage especially: lively, sprightly, ready-witted, but also volatile. Grimm notes that this god was among those who accepted (possibly demanded) human sacrifice, where many of the other gods were appeased with animal or vegetable offerings.

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