Monday, January 17, 2011

Fairy Tale of the Beggar Woman and the Fire

(Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman with Handkerchief, 1937)

Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 150: The Old Beggar Woman

There once lived an old woman, surely you have seen this type of person begging?
When the old woman went out crying for alms, if she received something, she said to her benefactor, “May God give you your just reward.” Now the beggar woman arrived at the door of a rapscallion, a young chap warming himself by the fire. The fellow greeted the woman friendly enough and asked why the woman stood at the door shivering. “Come here, old mother and warm your bones.” She approached the fire but came too close so that her old rags began to burn, but she did not notice what had happened. The youth stood quietly, and saw it all. He should have done something! Even if he didn’t have any water, then he should have cried bitter tears so forcefully, that two watery streams flowed from his eyes to quench the fire.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fairy Tale New Year's Eve Celebrations

Fairy Tale Parties, and Dancing, and Feasting on New Year's Eve
Designing your own New Year's Eve Traditions:
Starting at 11:59 p.m.:
1. Ring bells to signify the ending of the New Year
2. Sing a song or recite an appropriate verse
3. Open the front door to let in the New Year (and close it again)
4. Raise a toast to commemorate events in the past year
5. Raise a toast to mark your hopes for the New Year
6. New Year's resolutions
7. Open the back door to let the old year out
8. Ring bells to celebrate the New Year

We must learn to trust the future…..
but for those who are curious about what the future has in store…

Augury for the 21st century (adapted by the editorial staff)
Love augury to foretell one’s future true love during the course of the year:
Unmarried maids take four onions and place them in the corners of the room, assigning a young man’s name to each of the bulbs. Let the onions stand from Near Year’s Day until Three King’s Day (Jan. 6). Whichever onion sends out a green shoot, the person associated with that onion will become a suitor during the year; if no onion sprouts, no wedding will be celebrated during the year.
On New Year’s Eve, those persons who find themselves in a city at midnight, and who will make their way to a festive communal celebration (like fireworks at midnight), can follow this custom:
City dwellers buy a roll and divide it into three parts. As they walk down the first street, they eat the first part of the roll. In the second street they eat the second part of the roll. In the third street they eat the third part and there they shall meet their future true love.

Weather augury to foresee the New Year’s weather patterns.
The weather on December 31st forecasts the trend for the entire month of January and so on, see table below:
December 31st : Weather for month of January
January 1st : Weather for month of February
January 2nd : Weather for month of March
January 3rd : Weather for month of April
January 4th : Weather for month of May
January 5th : Weather for month of June
January 6th : Weather for month of July
January 7th : Weather for month of August
January 8th :Weather for month of September
January 9th :Weather for month of October
January 10th : Weather for month of November
January 11th : Weather for month of December

Example: If the weather on December 31st is mild most of the day but a winter storm hits an hour before midnight: expect a January with wildly fluctuating weather, but the predominate theme for January weather is mild with surges of excess.

Coin toss to predict a year of failure or success.
(If you don’t like the first outcome, you can always take the average of several tosses).
Bread under the pillow to predict one’s future true love.
Buy a perfectly shaped roll, carve out an emblem or face with a knife, place under pillow and sleep on it New Year’s Eve. In the morning, try to determine whose face the roll most closely resembles. (However, a perfectly smashed roll means there is little hope of marriage during the New Year.)

Customs to follow on January 1st and month of January:
Extend good wishes for the New Year to friends and family (a phone call, card, or personal greeting).
Make resolutions for the New Year, think about things you would like to change, self-improvement, goals, hopes or aspirations for the New Year. Think about your blessings and joys. Write all this down on a piece of paper and put it in a safe spot. (Read your list again Next New Year’s Eve.).

The custom of giving New Year’s gifts is outmoded but should be revived. This is a great time to give small tokens of appreciation, not fancy or expensive gifts. For example: a jar of home-made jam, honey from a local farmer, a loaf of freshly made bread, a small New Year’s wreath you have made yourself with fresh greens from the yard or a card you made especially for the person. If all this seems too involved, a simple E-mail message is also quite nice!

And if you dance on New Year's Eve, follow the example in the picture above only metaphorically, by severing yourself from those things that have frightened or sapped your energies in the past year, thus chopping off a head.

Translation Copyright
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Friday, December 17, 2010

The Farmers of Kolbeck Dance on Christmas Eve

(Illustration Tomi Ungerer, Das Grosse Liederbuch)

Grimm’s Saga No. 232: The Farmers of Kolbeck

In the year 1012 a farmer in the village of Kolbeck near Halberstadt by the name of Albrecht started to dance on Christmas Eve. He began his dance in the churchyard with fifteen other farmers while the other villagers celebrated mass inside the church. There were three women among the dancers. The priest came out of the church with the intent of punishing each and every one of them. Finally the farmer stepped forth and said “They call me Albrecht, you are called Ruprecht; You are happy inside, so let us be happy outside. You sing your songs inside, so let us dance our roundelay outside.”
The priest replied: "May God and the Holy St. Magnus make you dance for an entire year!”
And so it happened. God gave those words power so that neither rain nor snow nor frost touched the heads of the dancers. Nor did they feel the pangs of heat, hunger or thirst, but rather they all danced and their shoes did not become worn. The verger ran over to the throng and wanted to pull his sister out of the dance, but she only flapped her arms and continued. When the year was over, Bishop Heribert of Cologne came and broke the spell. Four of the dancers immediately fell to the earth and died. The others became very sick. It was said that they danced until their shuffling feet had hollowed out a huge hole in the earth, which can still be seen today. A nobleman had as many stones erected as there were dancers. They still stand in the churchyard today as sign of what has passed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Medieval Christmas Carol: King Charles the Fat Encounters His Christmas Ghost

Grimm’s Saga No. 467: King Charles Sees his Ancestors in Hell and in Paradise

On Christmas Eve King Charles (The Fat) lay in bed early in the morning wanting to rest after the long mass. He was almost asleep when he heard a terrifying voice that spoke to him: “Charles, your spirit shall now leave your body, you shall see God’s judgment and then you will return again!” Immediately his ghost left his body and he found himself in the presence of a spirit that was completely white. It held an illuminated thread that shone as brightly as a falling star and said: “Hold onto the end of this string, bind it firmly around the thumb of your right hand. I will lead you to the place of infernal agony.” After these words the spirit stepped in front of him, unwound the thread from a glowing ball and led him through deep valleys filled with smoking pools and fountains. In these fountains boiled sulfur, pitch, lead and wax. There he recognized the bishops and priests from the time of his father and ancestors. Charles fearfully asked them why they were to suffer such torments. They replied, “Because we spread war and discord among the nobility instead of admonishing peace.”

While they were still talking, black demons flew toward him riding glowing hooks and they all tried to seize the string the king was holding. But they could not do it because of the king’s quick thinking and they all had to fall back. Now coming from behind, the devils  wanted to pull Charles with their long hooks and induce him to fall. But the spirit guiding him wrapped the thread around his shoulders and held him back tightly.

They then climbed a high mountain, at the foot of which smoldering rivers and seas lay. Here he found the souls of his father’s people, his ancestors and brothers submerged by the boiling water up to their scalps, others stood up to their chins, still others were submerged up to their navels. They lurched toward him crying “Charles, Charles. Because we committed murder, war and robbery we must remain in these tortures!” And behind them others screamed. He turned around and saw on the banks of the river iron ovens full of dragons and snakes, and he recognized the faces of many men known from among the nobility. One of the dragons flew toward him and wanted to ensnare him. But his guide bound a loop of the thread around him a third time, restraining him by the shoulders.

Finally they reached an enormous valley, which was light on one side. But the other side was completely immersed in darkness. Several kings, all of them his ancestors, lay there in  darkness in horrible agony. Peering through the light emanating from the thread, Charles recognized his own father in the boiling water, King Ludwig, who now pitiably admonished him and showed two equal-sized vats to the left. They had been prepared for him if he did not do penance for his sins. He was terrified but his guide brought him safely to the illuminated side of the valley. Here Charles saw his Uncle Lothar sitting on a large gem. Other kings sat round him, crowned and in bliss; They warned him and announced that his kingdom would not last much longer, but his realm would go to Ludwig, Lothar’s daughter’s son. When Charles saw this child, Ludwig, standing there, Lothar his ancestor said  “Here is Ludwig, the innocent child. Now you must give him the power of your realm via the string you hold in your hand.” Charles unwound the string from his thumb and gave the child his kingdom. In that moment the thread unfurled, shimmering like a ray of sunlight, in the child’s hand.

After this the spirit of Charles returned to his body; he was completely exhausted and fatigued.

Copyright Translation
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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Fairy Tale Goddesses and Spectres of Christmas

Perchta, Woodcut ca. 1486

Grimm’s Saga No. 269: Beware of Wild Berta

In Swabia, Franconia and Thuringia people often admonish stubborn children by saying: “Be silent, or Wild Berta will get you!” Other people call her Bildaberta, Hildaberta or even Iron Berta. On the last day of the year in December she appears as shaggy-haired Wild Woman and besmirches the spindles of maidens, who have not spun their entire amount of flax. On this day many folk eat dumplings and herring*. Others claim the woman is Perchta or Prechta, the one who will cut open your stomach, take out the food first eaten and replace it with stones**. Then she sews up the incision with a ploughshare instead of a needle, and instead of a thread she uses a chain.

* Food eaten during a period of fasting.
** Probably a reference to persons who have broken the prescribed fast and their purported punishment.

The Fairy Tale Goddesses and Spectres of Christmas

A coterie of fairy tale goddesses presides over the fast days of December, the time of the winter solstice. Frau Holle, Frau Bertha, Perahta, Frau Lutz and the Dirneweible all appear at the end of the year in the month of December. Their importance, though impossible to completely reconstruct today, was linked to the season with the longest amount of darkness and shortest amount of light. The winter solstice was celebrated as the turning point back to light and illumination. The goddesses connected to this tradition were celebrated with processions, lighted candles, singing and fasting. According to The Oxford Book of Days*, by the third century A.D. the Sun was considered to be the one true God by vast segments of the population. The Roman emperor Aurelian made December 25th the official birthday of the sun and proclaimed the day as Natalis Solis Invicti (birthday of the unconquerable sun). When vast segments of Europe became Christianized, the traditions associated with the pagan solstice goddesses were also transformed. In parts of Bohemia and Scandinavia, Frau Berta became St. Lucy and her feast day was set on December 13th. It was at this time of year that Frau Holle and Frau Bertha reputedly marched in procession for 12-days, marking the time between Christmas and New Year. The procession itself was probably a dramatic reenactment of the natural cycle of the earth, turning from darkness and returning to light.
Nordic countries still celebrate Saint Lucy with a December festival or Luciatag. The day is commemorated with singing and parades marking the twelve days preceding Christmas. Saint Lucy was revered as the patroness of weavers, spinners and the harvest. Consequently, all weaving, spinning and threshing had to be completed by her feast day. Participants in her festival wore white and sang songs in her honor with typically one child being selected to represent the saint. This maid wore a white dress, a crown of lighted candles and a red sash to set her apart from the other participants, who were also clothed in white but wore silver crowns and sashes. The name Lucy itself suggests light and lucidity. According to Christian tradition, Lucy refused to marry the suitor her parents had selected for her. As punishment for her disobedience, her eyes were pulled out. A gory fate, we might think, but only a minor setback for a spunky saint. Miraculously Lucy was able to reinsert her eyeballs. Thereafter she was associated with persons suffering from eye ailments and was soon known as the patron saint of the blind. According to another tradition popular since the Middle Ages, Lucy was so filled with the Holy Spirit she became quite heavy. A whole group of men and team of oxen could not budge the saint from where she stood. Such weightiness might be the ultimate horror for girls her age and a most terrifying fate. But Lucy used her supernatural torpor to her advantage. Nothing could dislodge her and so she was able to continue arguing her innocence before the proconsul. (In summary the attributes of Saint Lucy: 12-day procession in December; patroness of harvest, weavers and spinners; red sash; name meaning light and lucidity; bringer of luck and prosperity; connection to eyesight, vision and seeing; supernatural weightiness resulting in immobility).
Perchta, Berchta, Perahta (old high German Perahta) or Berta (English) are various names for a Southern Germanic Goddess who was also prominent at the end of the year. These names mean the illuminated or shining one. Frau Holle, revered in areas where Berta left off, was also said to make shining white snow when she shook out her feather bed. According to pagan tradition, maidens were responsible for filling their spindles with neatly spun flax by the end of the year. If this was not accomplished, the goddess would cut open the girl’s stomach while she lay sleeping and fill it with hay and stones. In other traditions, the goddess demanded that a fast be kept and if the typical food prescribed for such fasts was not eaten, the goddess would exact her revenge in a similar manner. Instead of using a needle to sew up the disobedient girl’s stomach, a particularly irked goddess would use a ploughshare bone and instead of thread, an iron chain was used. Apparently the sleeping maiden never woke up during the ordeal and only noticed something amiss upon waking when she was unable to move under the weight of the stones in her stomach. Like Saint Lucy, Perchta also had an eye connection. She had the power to blow out a person’s eyes and thus, she was a force to be reckoned with. (In summary the attributes of Frau Berta, Perchta or Frau Holle: 12 day procession in December; patroness of weavers and spinners; white garment, name meaning light and the shining one; connection to eyesight, vision and seeing; bestower of supernatural weightiness resulting in immobility).
These December goddesses are associated with the life-giving forces of the sun, which wane in December but then dramatically begin to ascend. In Nordic mythology the sun represents life and eternity. The ability to see the sun was equated with being alive; by contrast the dead could no longer see the light of day. The color red, the only color that can be traced back to an Indo-European root, represented the dawn, or the color of the rising sun. This might be why red is a frequent marker and associated with the gods. The gods themselves are concerned with maintaining their health and longevity. To prevent aging, they ate apples tended by the goddess Idunn. In Ossettic mythology, apples are life-giving, bestowing immortality and protecting against disease. An appropriate gift at the arrival of winter and the cruel months of the year.
A lesser goddess among the powerful personages of December was the Dirneweibl. She appeared at a specific bush in the woods, often referred to as the Christmas Bush, and is more like a nymph of the forest than a full-fledged goddess. She wore a bright red cloak and offered mortals red apples from the basket she carried. Anyone accepting such a gift was rewarded with health and prosperity. But should the person not accept her offering, she retreated further and further into the forest crying pitifully. She is a mysterious figure, both luring the unsuspecting passerby deeper and deeper into the woods but also offering health and happiness in the form of her apples. She is simultaneously dangerous yet beneficent. It is only fitting that her cloak be red, symbolizing all those emotions associated with arousal, including anger, passion, love and even death. Thus, red is tied to those things that are fundamental to our very survival, security and prosperity. A signifier of what is both essential and longed for. (In summary, the attributes of the Dirneweibl: her connection to light is only through the red garment she wears and the red apples she offers; she is a potential bringer of health and prosperity but is misunderstood by mortals; appears in the forest or near a specific shrub or tree.)
And finally we get to the most famous winter solstice fairy tale of all (which is usually not associated with December): Little Red Riding Hood. The protagonist LRRH is perhaps most like the Dirneweibl. In fact, in the opening line of the fairytale she is referred to as eine kleine suesse Dirne. The word Dirne reflects the dual attributes of her character, she is both a temptress yet seemingly innocent. Like the color red, she symbolizes strong emotions, including lust and passion. Dirne is an antiquated word for Maedchen and in its modern-day usage it designates both a girl and a prostitute. Like the goddess Idunn, Red Riding Hood brings her grandmother life-giving food and nourishment at a particularly vulnerable time. The passage in the narrative about seeing the sun beams flicker through the trees might be considered only a weak marker tying her to other December goddess associated with the winter solstice. But her fate as ballast in the wolf’s stomach and then later, the supernatural torpor, immobility and subsequent death of the wolf induced by large stones placed in his belly are clearly reminiscent of this pre-Christian tradition.Thus, elements of the LRRH story most probably allude to winter solstice folk traditions, victory of the sun over darkness and death, and the uncanny powers of the Christmas Fairy Tale Goddesses*.

(*According to Nordic folk tradition, the sun is consumed by a wolf in December when it briefly vanishes altogether, possibly another winter solstice element of the LRRH story that would have been understood by ancient audiences but is now completely overlooked by modern readers.)

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Spirits Haunt the Land in December

Killing the Wild Man, After Pieter Breughel, ca. 1566

Grimm’s Saga No. 270: The Tuerst, the Posterli and the Straeggele, the Wild Ghosts of Christmas

When the storm howls and rages in the woods at night, people in Lucerne say: “The Tuerst (or Thirst) is on the prowl!” In Entlebuch they know this spirit as the Posterli. He is a demon, who leads an enormous procession on the Thursday before Christmas Day, with frightful noise and loud clanging sounds. The people of Lucerne call this ghost the Straeggele, a witch, who on the Holy Wednesday Fast Night before Christmas haunts the landscape. She brings special trouble to maids who have not spun their daily portion of flax, exacting punishment in many different ways. That is why this evening is also call the Straeggele Night.

Christmas Ghosts in Switzerland: the Straeggele

On Holy Wednesday Eve before Christmas, pious folk in Switzerland keep a fast. On this eve, maids also hurry to complete their spinning; they are especially diligent in binding off the last bit of flax from their spindles because at night, the Straeggele is known to appear. She is a wild woman with depraved demeanor. Her hair is smeared and unruly; she has a savage countenance and she rubs pitch on the doorknobs while doing all kinds of mean acts. She howls and moans and roars around the corners of the house. Often you can see her leading a long procession of ghosts, hear their rattling of chains and the ringing of bells as they follow her in the darkness.

Once the Straeggele was seen in the Lucerne village of Urswil. A hard-hearted stepmother once thought to terrify her weak step-child by giving her an impossible amount of wool to spin. When at 9 o’clock her spindle was still not empty, the woman threatened the child and said she would reach the girl through the window and deliver her into the arms of the Straeggele. When the appointed time came and the child was still busy spinning, the step-mother took the screaming child and held her through the window. Suddenly the screams retreated into the darkness and were heard far above the house. The terrified woman gazed out into the dark night and into her outstretched, empty hands. The child had been ripped away. The next morning they found pieces scattered round the village and collected them as a reminder of the horrible fate that awaited those who did not believe.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dark Nights of the Fairy Tale: the Wild Man and Wild Woman of Christmas

Dark Nights of the Fairy Tale: The Wild Man and Wild Woman of Christmas

Storm spirits polt through the air in December. When their feet touch the ground and they arrive at the doorstep they are known as the Wild Man and Wild Woman.
They are ominous, fate-altering beings, as fickle as the weather and as destructive as the gale wind. It is best to appease such spirits with small offerings. They might also be swayed by demonstrations of diligence or industriousness. Whatever the method, folk tradition makes it clear that it is best to keep these spirits on your side.
Knecht Ruprecht is cast from the same mold. He appears in early December as St. Nicholas’s shadowy helper, ready and willing to do harm to all those who rile him.

Grimm's Saga No. 151 The Wild Ghosts of Christmas

Among the Vicentine and Veronese Germans (who inhabit the Italian Alps), it is widely known that from the second half of December until mid-January it is ill-advised for even the most daring hunter to visit the Wildbahn. All fear the Wild Man and Wild Woman. During this time shepherds do not drive their cattle. Instead children fetch water in containers from the nearest available source and water their herds in the stable. The women spin a piece of their hair onto spindles to appease the wild woman or woods wife, as she is known. Then they throw it into the fire to placate this spirit. On Christmas Eve, every place in the house with a chimney or an opening, through which air enters, is spread with ash. In the morning the footprints in the ash are carefully studied to see their position, size and whether they are moving into or out of the house. This tells which good or bad ghosts are visiting the dwelling.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Attitudes toward the Feminine through the Prism of Fairy Tales and Music

Attitudes toward the Feminine through the Prism of Fairy Tales and Music
Here is a musical romp through various fairy tale themes I have explored in the past months.
First, the changing of the seasons: This is a dominant subject at the end of November when blustery and stormy weather arrives heralding a darker season. As nature itself seems to be slipping into unpredictability, danger and even sadness seem everywhere . German fairy tales (and in particular saga) reflect this unsteady time, but stress that the seed of all future happiness is most often sown when times are the bleakest. Accepting life’s difficult changes is likened to the acceptance of seasonal transformations, and at the absolute heart of the fairy tale.
Here is a most beautiful and poignant song that takes up these notions, sung by Judy Collins and Pete Seeger.
It is the shape-shifting female who often provides the key to life’s troubles. Read here about the significance of Ember Days (marking the changing of the seasons) and the Chatelaine of the castle.
The beginning of December is an especially spooky time in fairytale land. Weather and storm are dominant themes and likewise those goddesses and spirits residing within the storm cloud or tempest are important at this time. On this website, read about Frouwa, Queen of the Valkyrie. These feminine virtues prized and promoted in many a fairy tale are readily apparent in the following two video clips:
Kirsten Flagstad singing Valkyrie with introduction by Bob Hope.
This staged performance by Diva Flagstad is only a small part of the opera. In the following clip, the Valkyries are engaged in performing another important function: collecting the bodies of dead soldiers. This clip has it all: bad weather, strong women and inklings that from lost lives future life emerges.

And finally, toward the end of the season we will once more reach a place of calm and hope, where feminine beauty is expressed in its most idealized state, absolute love and acceptance, here most fittingly rendered in the German folksong Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging:
Which is best read alongside The Singing Fir Tree
Happy December to you all!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fairy Tale of the Importance of Giving Thanks for Our Daily Bread

Our Daily Bread

Grimm’s Saga No. 241: Bread Becomes Stone

In many places, especially Westphalia, the story is told of a hard-hearted sister, who in time of terrible famine denied her sister bread for herself and her babe with the words: “And if I had bread, I would rather that it turned to stone!” Immediately her bread supply became stone. In Leiden in Holland such stone bread is held up in St. Peter’s Church as a sign to the people that the story is true.

In the year 1579 a baker in Dortmund had purchased much corn during a time of famine and thought he would prosper as a result. But in the middle of transacting this business, all the bread in his house was turned to stone. When he grabbed a loaf and and wanted to cut it open with a knife, blood flowed out. Soon thereafter he hung himself in his chamber

In the main church of Holy St. Castulus in Landshut there hangs a round stone in silver casing in the shape of bread. There are many small indentations on its surface. The following saga has been told about it: Just before the Holy Saint Castulus died, he approached a widow in the city dressed as a pauper and begged for alms. The woman told her daughter to give the stranger the only bread they had left. The daughter did not like the idea of giving it away. She wanted to break off a few pieces, but in that moment it turned into stone and you can still see the imprint of her finger.

At a time of great famine a poor wife took her child on her arm and wandering the streets of Danzig cried out for bread. There she met a monk from Cloister Oliva, whom she begged for a bit of bread for her children. The monk replied: “I have none.” The woman said: “But I see you have concealed some near your breast.”—“That is only a stone I like to throw to the dogs,” the monk replied and walked away. After a while he wanted to reach for his bread to eat it. He found that it had actually turned to stone. He recoiled in fear, admitted his sin and relinquished the stone, which now hangs in the cloister church.