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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Grimm's Saga: The Little Red Mouse


Grimm’s Saga No. 248: The Saga of the Little Mouse 

The following story purportedly took place at the estate of a noble family at the beginning of the 17th century near the village of Saalfeld in Thuringia. The maids and servants were all in the kitchen peeling fruit when one of the girls was overcome by fatigue. Removing herself from the workers, she lay down on the kitchen bench to rest, not far from the others. When she had lain there quietly for some time, a little red mouse crept out of her open mouth.  Most of the workers saw it and silently pointed to the animal scurrying away. The little mouse ran hurriedly to the window that was cracked open, slid out and was gone for some time. Now a saucy kitchen maid became curious. Even though the others warned and  tried to dissuade her, the girl approached the  lifeless, soul-less sleeper, shook her, moved her from one spot to the next, and then walked away. Soon the mouse returned, ran to the prior spot where the girl had lain and where the mouse had crept out the girl’s mouth. But now the little mouse could only run back and forth, and because it could not find the place it had originally emerged, it finally disappeared. And so the girl was dead and remained dead. The saucy kitchen girl regretted her deed, but it was all for naught. It was said that in the same household a servant was often pressed while he slept by the Trude, or night spirit. He could not get any rest. But this finally stopped when the maid died.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thor Battles the Serpent of Midgard


Thor Visits the Giant Hymir

King Utgard Loke once foiled Thor’s plans. Angered by the king’s actions, Thor decided to take revenge on the Serpent of Midgard, also called the “gray cat”, the one who had deceived him so cunningly before.

A powerful ice giant lived at the end of heaven. His name was Hymir, or the dusky one *. Thor made his way to the giant, who invited the thunder god to be his guest. This giant was a loathsome host, not only because his wild and shaggy beard was frozen into icicles that gave him a frightful appearance. Thor first met up with the giant in the evening, when he was coming home from the hunt. The look the giant gave the young god was so penetrating and sharp that the tree Thor leant against broke in two. But  Hymir still greeted his guest in a friendly way and prepared a rich meal for him. How amazed he was when Thor immediately devoured two of the three oxen he had slaughtered and drank empty the barrel of mead.

When Hymir saw this hunger, he decided to go fishing the next morning. It would be too difficult to feed the hungry guest if he didn’t find some big fish!

Thor offered to go to sea with the giant if he would give him some bait. When Hymir said Thor should find his own bait, the god seized an oxen grazing near by, ripped off its head, and used this as bait.

Now Thor rowed the boat out to sea. Hymir had not intended to go so far, but Thor knew that they would come close to the Midgard Serpent, that horrible monster enveloping the world that had once stopped Thor in his tracks.

The giant began to fish for whales. Smaller fishes wouldn’t have stilled the hunger of his guest. The thunder god took the steer’s head and hung it on his fishing rod and searched for the serpent. It wasn’t long until the monster snapped at the steer’s head and the rod’s hook penetrated deep into the serpent’s jaws. Thor now pulled on the line with all his strength so that he could pull the horrible beast above the water’s surface and kill it with his hammer. Finally he pulled the head of the serpent above the water. It was horrible to gaze upon the poison-swollen jaws that now opened. The monster stared at his hunter with bulging eyes.

Thor kept his fire-spewing gaze locked on the monster and with his right hand seized his hammer. At the same moment the giant fell upon Thor from behind, who would naturally join forces with anything that could harm the gods.  He cut the fishing line in two, which Thor held in his left hand. The serpent sank back into the sea and terrible groans could be heard gurgling below the waves.

Thor in his rage threw his hammer after the beast. He even hit its head, but he couldn’t kill it. He now turned to the giant, who had cunningly spoiled his revenge. With one blow from his mighty fist, the giant hit Thor so hard on the ear, that he fell over the edge of the boat into the water. The god waded ashore and returned to Asgard, as if nothing had happened.


(*or one in a semi-conscious state)

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thor Visits the Giant Skrymir


Thor Visits the Giant Skrymir

Thor wandered with Loki and Thialsi through the mountains a long, long time ago. Evening came and they arrived at a building they thought was a mountain shelter. They entered the hut and found all the rooms empty. Disappointed, because they had hoped for a hearty meal, they went to bed.
The companions lay hungry on the wooden slats of their beds. At midnight a terrifying noise could be heard. They thought it was an earthquake shattering the ground around them. The entire house groaned and creaked so the three crept into a smaller antechamber, where they believed themselves to be better protected. But the terrifying roar continued through the night.
The next morning when they got up and looked outside, they found a giant lying next to the hut in deep sleep and snoring frightfully. The giant had been the source of the terrifying sound during the night!
Thor was just about to wake the noisy fellow with his hammer when the sleeper awoke and looked around in amazement. He recognized Thor immediately and said his name was Skyrmir. Then he got up and looked for his glove. Thor looked on in wonder when he recognized the giant’s glove as the house they had been sleeping in! The little corner where they had crept for protection was the thumb of the giant’s glove!
Skyrmir observed the three travelers for a short time. He then took his breakfast and when he was finished he tied his belongings into a bundle and led the others into the forest. When they had walked for a while and it was evening, they rested. The giant lay down and left his food to his companions. But the bundle had been tied so tightly that Thor could not open it. He also tried waking the giant by striking the forehead of the sleeper with his hammer. It was all to no avail. The giant only rubbed his forehead in his sleep and probably thought a leaf or acorn had fallen on his head.
When the companions separated the next morning, Skrymir pointed out the way to King Utgard-Loke. But he instructed them to be unassuming and unpretentious in demeanor because otherwise things would go badly for them.
King Utgard received the strangers but did not think much of them. As he considered them carefully and even recognized Thor, he expressed his surprise that he was so small in stature. Hopefully, he said, his strength and skill were all the greater.
The next day several contests were held. Loki bragged that no one could surpass him in eating. He took a trough full of meat and ate until it was empty. The cook of the king ate the same sized portion, but also swallowed the bones. Loki was not pleased.
Thialsi began to race a young man named Hugin. Despite his incredible speed, his opponent won the race. Now it was Thor’s turn. He was to empty the wine in the drinking horn by taking one swallow, but at most three. Thor drank and drank but the level in the drinking horn did not diminish.
Then he was told to lift up the gray cat of the king. But he could hardly raise it a finger’s width from the ground. Finally he was to wrestle the old nursemaid of the king. But here, too, he was inferior.
This failure also troubled him and his companions. They decided to continue on their journey the next morning. When they took their leave the king said to them:
“Now it will be revealed to you that yesterday during the contest you were blinded by magic. Skrymir – that was me! When you administered the beatings to my brow, I used a mountain to protect myself. With your hammer you beat into that mountain three deep valleys. The cook who ate everything was the all-consuming wild fire, which nothing can withstand. Hugin, the racer, is actually my thinking, my thoughts. Even you, swift-footed Thialsi, could not win that race. The drinking horn was the world ocean and you drank so much of it that the water receded from the shore and an enormous ebbing resulted. The gray cat was the Midgard snake. You couldn’t tell that you were raising it to the heavens and it almost was ripped in two. That would have caused enormous trouble on earth. The old nursemaid was old age. It comes slowly and in stealth, but no one can keep old age at bay forever. Now return happily to your home!
As soon as he said this he vanished in the fog so that Thor could not fulfill his keenest desire to mow down the giant with his hammer. This time the three returned home to Aasgard but they were not as satisfied as they usually were.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Of Tooth Grinders, Tooth Cracklers and Red-bearded Thor


(Click on picture to enlarge.)

Germanic tribes revered Thor almost as much as they honored his father Wotan, the god of heaven.  Thor’s mother was Nirdu-Fricka, the goddess of the earth. Thus all things between heaven and earth, including the infinite universe, were Thor’s realm. He controlled the weather and, as god of thunder, he spread the benefice of the storm over the earth. By shattering the ground with his lightening blitz, he loosened the soil and enriched it with delicious rain. At the same time he cleared the atmosphere of humidity and steam with his stormy showers. (Germanic tribes attributed all harmful aspects of weather to another god, the treacherous Loki). Thor was also the most diligent fighter of the earth-hating giants.

Thor was large and strong of stature. A red beard enveloped his face and his hair and eyes gleamed like glowing coals. He rushed through the air like the wind in a cart pulled by two goats (Tooth Crackler and Tooth Grinder) and when his wheels touched down upon the clouds, the sound of thunder could be heard on earth.

But he could not cross the bridge Bifrost in this cart because it would have been set on fire under the cart's fiery wheels. If Thor wanted to attend the meeting of the gods at the Urd Fountain, he had to walk and wade through many streams.

Thor had three treasures. The first was his hammer, which he called Milnir (The Crusher). The second was a pair of steel gloves, which he needed when he used his hammer. The third was his magic belt. Whoever wore the belt doubled his normal strength.

The hammer had been made by two dwarves by the name Schlackensprueher (Cinder Sprayer) and Zischer (Hisser). Schlackensprueher wanted to give the gods an extraordinary gift. That is why he combined every piece of iron he could find, placed them all in the fire, melted them, and stirred them together. His brother Zischer had to work the bellows and Schlackensprueher warned him repeatedly that he must be careful not to stop a single time, because if the air stopped flowing even briefly, the entire piece would be ruined.
Zischer promised his utmost attention and pursued working the bellows with such zeal, that no one was his equal.

But among the tribe of Asen there lived a deceitful one, who did not wish anything good to come to his fellows. He wanted to harm them however he could. He was named Loki and quickly took action to ruin the work of the dwarves. He transformed himself into a fly and sat on the right eyelid of Zischer working the bellows. He bit him so murderously that the poor dwarf cried out in pain. When Schlackensprueher heard the screams of his brother, he called to him: “Persevere only a few more moments, then the hammer will be ready.”

The fly continued to bite him brutally so that the poor Zischer sweated beads of blood. Overcome by pain, he smote the fly with his hand. And so he released the bellows and Loki’s purpose was achieved. Because a single bellow-blow was missing, the hammer had a fault: it’s stem was somewhat too short.

Translated from Aus Unsere Vaeter Tagen by Hermine Moebius

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Finding Thor in Fairy Tales


Reading the Swiss Fairy Tale: The Phantom Rider

The phantom in this Swiss fairy tale comes from a long line of bearded villains. Following the tradition of arch-rogue, this booted rider’s sole purpose in life is  to inflict harm on the local population.  He is thoroughly despicable like Knight Goldbeard or Eppela Gaila (hit links to read more). Yet, he is not simply an evildoer. His wrongdoings have been preserved in folk memory and have a faint otherworldly character. But what exactly sets his misdeeds apart and what elevates them to fairy tale status? 

The magic here is concealed in the minutiae of the narrative, those curious details provided toward the end of the story almost as an afterthought. The peculiar features of this knight are the spoon and comb found hidden in his beard and his enormous boots filled with dirt from the cloister garden. These attributes link him to other supernatural beings. What exactly the comb and spoon signify escapes the modern audience. But the dirt in his boots points to a Thor-like being, who is not solely preoccupied with destruction. Like Thor, the malaise many bearded knights leave behind ultimately sows the seeds of future prosperity, most readily manifest in a bounteous harvest.  The story in its current form has probably come down to us as a stub. Left out are the subsequent rich harvest, good fortune or success that usually follows a protagonist's encounter with the thunder god. This might be because storytellers eventually forgot the original beliefs associated with Thor, whose legends seem to have been revived in the tales of many bearded knights. In this story the character is human but his capacity for evil gives him otherworldly aura.  The reader only sees a strange man wearing tall boots with dirt in the tips and strange utensils tucked into his red beard. Reader beware: a red beard in fairy tales and saga is usually a reference to Thor or a Thor-like demigod.

Read more about bearded knights as Thor-like demi-gods in Reading Knight Bluebeard.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Phantom Rider Unleashes the Floodwaters of Spring

The Phantom Rider of Switzerland

On stormy spring nights the  Reuss River rushes wildly through the jagged rocks in the Aargau Valley in Switzerland. The river, swollen from the melted snow, causes the incoming tributaries to gush over their banks. On such wild spring evenings folk do not like to walk near the Muri Cloister for it is then that the ghostly Booted Rider is seen mounted on his snow-white steed. With his skull set backwards on his shoulders, the phantom rider can be seen racing through mountain and valley and often he is seen in two villages at the same time.

Once many, many years ago the rich cloister appointed a very treacherous overlord to be its protector. The abbot believed they had found the most capable man in the country because he multiplied the cloister’s treasures and prosperity year by year. But the good abbot was blinded by riches. He never saw the other face of the cloister’s protector, the face he showed the people in the valley. In truth he was the most hard-hearted man imaginable. Begging and pleading would not soften his stone-cold heart and when he saw a widow or orphan crying, he only laughed. He wore enormous boots, which extended far above his knees. When the poor people saw the evil overlord of the cloister come riding toward them on his mighty steed, they hid behind their houses and barns; the children ran screaming in terror: “The booted rider is coming!” and they all fled. They were terrified especially of his inhumanly gigantic head, his terrifying eyes and his horrible red beard.

He terrorized people of all sorts. The cloister was entitled to every tenth sheaf of corn that grew in the valley, but the overlord also viciously seized the eleventh and twelfth bundle of grain. He even stole the hay from the farmers, had their wood piles carted off and stole the fruit off the trees. In short, he did harm wherever he could. Woe to the person who was indebted to him! During the coldest days of winter he would turn the family out of its home and even ripped away the blankets from those who lay sick in bed. If they held up the cross to ward off his evil, he spat on them.

Near Schongau in the neighboring area of Lucerne there lived a pious woman. She decided to leave her entire property to the Muri Cloister in her will. The booted rider liked this idea. He rode over to the old woman to view her property. But while she sat at her table eating her soup, he told her she should also leave the cloister the small parcel of land that jutted into the larger piece of property. The woman became angry when she heard this and threw the booted rider out of her house. The small parcel he spoke of belonged to her niece, who lived there in a miserable straw hut. It was because of this poor family that the woman had left her extensive holdings to the cloister, so that her poor brother’s daughter would have the Muri Cloister nearby as sole protectorate.

But the booted rider could not forget the smaller property. Besides the extensive land holdings, he also wanted this smaller parcel. He stole the last will and testament from the old woman and by forging the woman’s handwriting, wrote the following: This shall include the little hut and property, which up to now has been occupied by my brother’s daughter.

When the pious woman died, the booted rider rode on his steed to the court and presented the will to the justice. Frightened, the poor brother’s daughter came to court and contested the false will. But the booted rider offered to swear an oath to the veracity of the document. He swore that as God was his true creator and judge ruling over him, he now stood on  cloister land.

He had barely finished uttering the words of this oath, when a blood-curdling scream emanated from his lips and he fell down dead. The people rushed forward and recognized he had made a false oath. In his thick red hair they found hidden a spoon and comb and his enormous boots had been filled in the tips with dirt from the cloister garden. So God had executed him on the spot.

Today when the children in the area misbehave and will not mind their grandmother, the window is opened and the following words called out into the darkness: 

“Booted rider, come gallop! 
Seize my misbehaving trollop!”   

The children promptly withdraw into the chimney corner and become as obedient as a white lamb being led on a slender string.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fairy Tale of the Lithuanian Hedgehog and the Gentleman's Daughter


Fairy Tale of the Lithuanian Hedgehog and the Gentleman’s Daughter

Here is another intriguing version of the fairy tale Hans My Hedgehog, this time from Lithuania. At first glance the differences between the Grimm's version and this story may seem slight. But I think they are significant. For further reference please also hit the link Reading Hans My Hedgehog.  

 (Click on picture to enlarge.)

Once a long, long time ago, there lived a farmer and his wife. They had six acres of land but no children. It was their habit to kneel devoutly every evening and place their heads in a wooden barrel. Their tears flowed liked rivers while they prayed fervently to Dear God to give them a son. But God did not hear their prayers. One evening as hot tears rolled down their faces into the wooden vessel, they asked God to at least give them a child like a little hedgehog. And what happened! The next morning a little hedgehog lay in the wooden barrel. He started talking just like a little boy and began running back and forth in the kitchen.

Now the husband had one small piglet, one grown pig and a rooster. The hedgehog said to his father: “Go into the forest and find the strongest oak standing in the most beautiful spot! The farmer did what he was told. He went into the forest, selected the strongest oak and when he came home he said to the hedgehog: “I have made my selection.”

“Good! Then give me the small piglet and the grown pig and take me into the forest!” The father guided him to the oak and left him there. The hedgehog now lived in the forest eleven years. In the first year the grown pig had seven young sows and one boar. But the pigs multiplied every year bearing ten sows and one boar. That was quite a number after eleven years! Once, the father visited his son in the forest. The hedgehog said to his father: “Father drive these thirteen pigs home! Slaughter one and sell the others. You will get a pretty penny.” In the meantime, the pigs had become as large as oxen from their rich feed in the forest. “With the money buy wheat and feed your rooster well!” The father did as he was told.

As the hedgehog was living with his herd of pigs in the forest, a gentlemen rode by. He had become lost and rode directly into the herd of pigs. The pigs jumped and squealed around him, tore the reins from the rider’s hands and blocked the man’s escape. As wild pigs do not understand mirth or humor, the man believed he was staring into death’s open jaws. But suddenly the hedgehog appeared and said to the man: “Promise me your daughter! If you do, you will escape with your life and find your way out of the forest!”

The man mulled it over. In the end he preferred to live. He promised his daughter to the hedgehog and placed himself in the creature’s service. The hedgehog chased away the pigs and the man rode home. When he arrived he told his household what had happened. He said “Dear daughter. I would not have been able to save my life if I hadn’t promised you to the hedgehog!” The daughter began to cry. The father replied: “Do not cry. The hedgehog will not be able to prick you here with his needles! We will dig a deep furrow round our castle, fill it with water, encircle it with a fence and then the hedgehog will not be able to break through.”

Another gentleman soon came riding into the woods. He also got lost in the forest and had to promise his daughter to the hedgehog. A third gentleman came riding and he, too, fell in among the swine and had to promise the hedgehog his daughter. The man rode home and told his household everything, just as it had happened. He said: “Dear daughter, I wouldn’t have been able to save myself from dying if I hadn’t promised you to the hedgehog!” And the daughter replied: “As soon as he rides by, I shall marry him!”

Soon the father of the hedgehog came to visit him in the forest and the hedgehog said: “Father, let us drive all the pigs home now!” And he drove the entire herd of wild pigs home, as if they were tame and the six acres of land became completely filled with pigs. Then the hedgehog said: “Father, sell the pigs. You will get a pretty penny for them and then build a new house! I will ride out to my maid!”

The farmer had fed his rooster with wheat for several years now and it had become as large as a horse. The hedgehog mounted the rooster and rode out to his maid. When he arrived he found the entire courtyard under water. The rooster flew through the air, above the water and arrived below the window of the maid. The bird flapped his wings and cried: “Ki-ki-ker-ri-ki!” The father and his daughter peered through the window and said: “The hedgehog is here!”

Now the hedgehog entered the house and said: “Where is your daughter?” I have come to lead her home!” When the daughter saw the hedgehog, she began to cry and wanted to bury herself in the ground. But the father said “Hedgehog, take whatever you desire from me. Only leave me my daughter!” And so, they negotiated for some time but in the end he gave the hedgehog a coach, a pair of horses and a wagon full of money. Furthermore, the father gave the hedgehog a servant to drive the wagon and now the hedgehog rode on his rooster to the second man. The same thing happened. The man also gave the hedgehog a lot of money. The hedgehog released the second maid from the promise. The man relinquished his money and the hedgehog rode off to the third gentleman.

He rode below the window, the rooster flapped its wings and cried. Now they could see that the hedgehog had arrived. The hedgehog entered the house. But the daughter was not afraid of him. She said: “Father, if you have promised me in marriage, I will marry the hedgehog.” The girl’s mother said to her daughter: “When you are married and go to bed, he will take off his hedgehog skin and place it on a chair. Then he will become a handsome youth.” But before you go to bed, tell your maid servant she must heat water. Then go out immediately, take the skin and place it in the boiling water! Then return and lie down next to him!

The mother immediately got into the carriage with the money and rode off. And the hedgehog rode on his rooster. The parents were happy that their hedgehog son had such a beautiful wife, horses, a carriage and a lot of money. It did not take long for the wedding celebration to be held. The hedgehog brought his maid home.

When they entered the bedchamber to go to sleep, he took off his skin and placed it on the chair. The daughter pretended she wanted to go to sleep. Took the skin and placed it in boiling water and boiled it. In the morning when he got up, he wanted to take the skin from the chair immediately. But it had vanished. What could the poor fellow do? He had to remain in human form. Now that he had become a man, how they celebrated the wedding feast! And I was also there and celebrated the happy event with all the others!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's Spring, Almost, in Fairy Tale Land


The weather (finally) seems to be a bit more like spring! And surely beautiful days are on the way! In these times of hopeful anticipation, it's best to read fairy tales celebrating all things related to the garden, flowers, birds' nests and hedgehogs. Here is a selection of my favorite spring fairy tales:


To read tales about mysterious vegetation, including the Wonderflower, Bird's Nest and the spooky Alraun or Mandrake plant, hit the link.

Have you planted your carrots yet? Before you do, read this tale about the King of All Carrots.

Essential reading for understanding the gory mythology of the garden, spring planting and the natural cycles of the earth:  the Three Golden Apples.

And my favorite hedgehog tale takes place in the furrows of the garden: Garden States and Merry Mornings

According to European folk tradition, the song of the cuckoo announces spring. Read a fairy tale of How the Cuckoo Came to Call and the fairy tale of the Newt and Cuckoo.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Fairy Vision and an Easter Vision: the Castle of High Regard (Hohe Acht)


(Click on picture to enlarge.)

In this fairy tale for Easter: the blasphemy of harp playing, the incredible power of the first blossoms of spring, and a fairy vision. 

From the village of Kesseling you can take the road near Weidenbach and travel toward Kaltenborn. About three hours past the Aare River you arrive at the Castle of High Regard. This fortress belonged to one of the knights of Kaltenborn. Later in life this knight had to relinquish the fort to the Archbishop of Cologne,  only to seize the property back from this powerful cleric when it became a well-fortified and protected fief. In the last century the ruins of the old castle finally vanished when the last of its owners abandoned it once and for all. These owners lived in Cologne but were not of the Hoacht lineage and did not bear the name. 

In ancient times a wild and dissipated robber-baron lived at Hoacht. On the Eve before Easter he and his knights profaned the holy feast with vile dancing, harp music and gluttony. Suddenly the heavens blackened and the sound of their raucous boozing was interrupted with a loud roar. From black clouds came bolts of lightning and thunder could be heard louder and louder. All of the revelers whitened in fear and froze in terror. A lightning bolt hit the chamber and soon flames burst through the doors and windows. The walls crackled and caved under the terrible raging storm, finally crushing the assembled and burying them in the debris. 

It was said the robber baron had unimaginable treasures of gold, silver and gems, also valuable utensils and objects hidden in the chambers of his castle. But all trace of such things had vanished in the rubble.

Many years after the fall of the castle, a knight appeared on the Eve before Easter. Alighting on the shore of the Rhine River, his oarsman told him the legend of Hoacht Castle. According to the saga, only one without blemish and pure of heart would be granted a vision of the castle’s treasures. This was the Easter Eve of legend and the oarsman urged the young knight not to hesitate but hasten up the path to the fortress before midnight. 

Together oarsman and knight hurried up the stony path. It seemed to widen as they went along, until finally at the top of the mountain it opened into a huge chasm. There stood a maiden clothed in snow-white garments. She motioned to the knight with her hand that he should approach while she slowly placed a lily on the ground. If the knight had been thinking properly, he would have immediately seized the flower. But alas, he did not. She motioned a second time and pointed to a hidden spot below the ground.

The knight believed she was pointing to the place the treasure lay buried. That is why he approached the spot but left the lily lying where she had placed it.

At one o’clock there was a terrible noise. The robber baron of yore now stood before the young knight with drinking cup in hand, just as he had stood hundreds of years before. His drinking companions surrounded him, throwing silver and gold coins into the air. But before the knight and oarsman could pick up one of the gold pieces, they all vanished. The lily which the maiden had placed on the ground now became an enormous viper, with thrashing tail and hissing tongue. The knight and oarsman had to retreat from the mountain to safety and were not able to retrieve any of the castle’s treasures.
As they ran down the steep path to the river, scornful laughter followed.


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

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fairy Tales for Palm Sunday


Intimations of Summer, Illustration Maurice Sendak

Fairy Tales for Palm Sunday

The Palm Sunday tradition of carrying and waving palm branches is reminiscent of Jesus’s procession into Jerusalem. But ancient European folk customs probably provide the basis for modern Palm Sunday celebrations. In fact ancient spring rituals tied to “palm” festivities can still be found in fairy tales and saga.  This website provides two popular tales with Easter ritual as the backdrop: Jorinda and Joringel and the Bird Who Tells the Truth

In German folk tradition, the word “palm” designated all manner of foliage associated with the new budding green blossoms of springtime. Three “palm” branches could signify three stems of boxwood or sallow, also known as goat willow. Often the native blossoms of hazel branches, juniper or even oak stems were referred to as “palms”. This "palm" custom seems to be tied to the belief that a mysterious life force lay dormant in seemingly dead twigs. Now in springtime, these invisible forces were gathering strength, revealed in the blossoms and buds of local flora. Imbued with miraculous healing and regenerative powers in fairy tales, these switches, branches or rods offer redemption and transformation to characters experiencing some sort of malaise, often life-threatening. By touching or stroking the person with the switch, branch or palm, the curative energy of the branch was transferred to the person, facilitating startling transformations in fairy tales. In Christian tradition, these first budding branches were carefully preserved after the spring Easter procession, and were often hung in the home behind the crucifix or in the window, where their blessing continued to flow out and touch both people and animals during the year. In pagan tradition, these first buds of spring were associated with the power to ward off witches and demons.  The magical properties of the palm were said to keep goblins, pixies, water men and other malevolent forces at bay. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

It's time to think about gnomes: fairy tale of the Venetian Gnome.


(Illustration by Harald Wiberg)


A Fairy Tale from Switzerland:


The Venetian Gnome

In ancient times dark-haired persons often traveled from Wales to the Swiss Alps. There they searched for gold in the cliffs and wild mountain streams. The local folk called these dark-haired visitors Venetians. They were popular among the Swiss because they were well-mannered and entertaining and told many stories about foreign lands and their city by the sea. But alpine shepherds thought it odd that these Venetians always carried leather purses round their necks. These little sacks were always filled with gold, even though the villagers themselves never found a single grain of gold dust despite all their searching. They knew that the Venetians were highly skilled and did a great deal more than eat rye bread.
It happened that such a Venetian, a plain-spoken little man, came every summer to Clarus, which is today a beautiful village near the alp called Glaernisch. As soon as the summer cow herders drove their herds into the high mountains, the Venetian Gnome followed. He helped the herders ladle out the milk, ate cheese and bread with them, and also slept in their wild mountain cabin. But while the cow herders kept watch over their cattle and made cheese and butter, the Venetian Gnome vanished between the cliffs and marched through streamlets and gathered stones that glistened in the bright sunlight. When his seven sacks were full, the Venetian disappeared but no one ever knew quite how it happened. When they all thought he was long gone, he reappeared on the alp and began collecting new stones in seven new sacks.
The herders thought the little man’s comings and goings a bit strange, but nothing more. One day, they decided to play a trick on the gnome. They secretly took one of his seven sacks and hid it in a place they thought he could never find. When the gnome returned in the evening from his gold search and entered the cabin, the Swiss herders were lying around on the grass outside. The gnome approached them: “I have noticed that you have hidden one of my sacks and the stones inside. Shall you fetch it, or shall I?” They laughed and replied “Go get it yourself!” To their amazement the little man ran directly to the spot under a steep drop-off where the cow herders had hidden his sack. Angered, the little man now returned the sack and the stones to the cabin.
As summer ended, the grass no longer grew so tall and snow hung in the air. The shadows were longer these days and the wind nipped at the cow herders’ cheeks. The Venetian Gnome took leave as he did every year. But this time he spoke to the herders in a friendly way: “I am returning to Venice. If one of you ever visit me there, I will give you a sack full of silver!”
The Venetian Gnome had hardly departed from the alps when the herders forgot his friendly invitation. Only one remembered; he was a poor man and owned a small parcel in the valley. He remembered the Venetian’s words. One sack full of silver would come in handy and help him care for his sick wife and many children.
When the herders now descended the mountain and returned to the valley, the larch trees and oaks had turned crimson and orange. But the poor herdsman quietly departed, crossed the river and the Gotthard Pass, until after a long march he arrived at the sea. In the distance he saw a city with many towers reaching into the heavens. It was the seaside city of Venice, about which the gnome had spoken so often.
When he arrived in the city, which only had a few streets because it was built in the middle of water on a few sand bars, he felt a bit strange because he did not know the house or street where the Venetian Gnome lived. He didn’t even know his name. Sadly he walked through several lanes and was already thinking about returning home, when suddenly someone tapped him on his shoulder. He turned around,  and a small, distinguished gentleman extended his hand and welcomed him. He immediately asked how things were in Clarus and how the cow herders were faring, whereby he referred to many of the villagers by name.
When the poor herder saw the finely dressed little man, he recognized the unassuming Venetian Gnome, who had shared so many summer days in the mountains with him and his comrades. He was happy when the little man invited him to come to his house and find accommodations there. He was amazed at the beautiful house the Venetian took him to, it was made of marble and the walls glistened. In front of the windows there lay a dark canal and above flew snow-white doves. Now things were going well for the cow herder. He received every sort of food that he desired and wine that was as red as blood. He soon regained his strength.
It wasn’t long before the poor cow herder tired of the good life, although he could have spent the entire day lying in silken sheets in bed. His thoughts always returned to his wife and children.
One day he sat in front of the Venetian’s fine marble palace, looked sadly around and remembered his distant homeland. The Venetian came out of the house and when he saw him sitting there so dejectedly, tears came to his eyes and he said in a friendly way: “I think you are bored here in Venice! Or are you homesick?”
“That’s it,” replied the cow herder.” I am plagued with homesickness. I don’t know what to do.”
The Venetian laughed, led him inside his house into a chamber the cow herder had never entered before. There was a magnificent mirror hanging on the wall. “Look into the glass,” the Venetian said, “See how things are going in the village of Clarus!”
Wonder of wonders! The cow herd now saw the village of Clarus clearly before him. But he also saw his own homestead, his wife bathing the children and her eyes were full of tears because she was thinking about her husband.
The Venetian now said “Go home! I will give you enough provisions in gold or silver. If you prefer gold, I will you give it to you. If you want silver, then you can fetch it yourself from my treasury.” The Glarner herder replied “I only want a sack of silver, like you promised me in Clarus on the alp.!” And with the permission of the Venetian he went into his treasury and filled a sack with silver.
When the cow herder left the marble palace and departed, the Venetian gnome said to him: “Pay attention to that sack so that you do not lose it on your journey. And if you sleep in an inn, take it with you to bed and place it under your head.” The cow herd thanked his host for every good thing that had been done and made his way from the seaside city. He wandered higher and higher into the mountains and toward his home.
When he had walked an entire day and night threatened to fall once again, he had to find accommodations in a Welsh village . This was difficult because he was still far from his hometown and the sack he carried was very heavy. But he searched out an inn, went to bed and placed the sack of silver under his head.
When he opened his eyes the next morning he found himself in Clarus, in his own bed with a mattress stuffed with leaves. He heard his cuckoo clock ticking in the kitchen and in front of the cabin he heard his goats bleating! First he thought he had dreamt it all and had never been to Venice. But then he noticed something hard under his head and found the sack full of silver. He rushed to his wife and children who squealed in glee! And how happy his poor wife was when she found his strange pillow. The poor cow herd now became a rich man. His descendants still live honorable lives in Clarus but the villagers call them the family from Venice.

Translation Copyright FairyTaleChannel.org

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Three Feathers


Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 63: The Three Feathers

A long time ago there lived a king who had three sons.  Two of them were smart and clever. But the third son did not say much. He was a simpleton and was also called the Dumbling.  When the king had become old and weak and saw his end approaching, he did not know which of his sons should inherit the kingdom. So he said to them: Go out into the world and whichever one of you brings me the finest carpet shall be king after my death!” He did not want them to argue amongst themselves so he led them outside before his castle, blew three feathers into the wind and said “As they fly, you shall follow.”

One feather flew to the east, the other to the west. But the third feather flew straight ahead and did not go far. It soon landed on the ground. The first brother went to the right, the second to the left and they laughed at the Dumbling who stood still next to where his feather had fallen.
The Dumbling sat down and was very sad. Suddenly he noticed a trap door next to where the feather was lying. He opened it and found a stairwell, which he promptly descended. There he found another door. He knocked and listened to the voice he heard within:

                “Maid, so green and fine,
                Hutzel-bine,
                Hutzel-bine’s little dog,
                Hutzel-here, Hutzel there,
                Quick run and see who’s there.”

The door opened and he saw a fat little toad sitting on the floor surrounded by a large number of little toads. The fat toad inquired what he wanted. He replied “I seek the most beautiful and finest carpet .” The toad cried out:

      “Maid, so green and fine,
                Hutzel-bine,
                Hutzel-bine’s little dog,
                Hutzel-here, Hutzel there,
                Quick run and see who’s there.”

The young toad fetched a satchel and the fat toad opened it and gave the Dumbling a carpet that was more beautiful and fine than any that could be woven on earth. He thanked her and ascended the stairs again.
The other two brothers thought their youngest brother much too stupid to find anything to bring back. “So why should we work so hard?” they asked. From the first shepherdess they encountered, they took the coarse cloth she carried and brought it to the king. At the same time the Dumbling returned and brought his beautiful carpet. When the king saw it, he was amazed and said “According to law, the  youngest should now own the kingdom!” But the two brothers would not give their father any peace and said it was impossible for the Dumbling to become king, because he was not intelligent enough. The father replied “Whoever brings me the most beautiful ring shall become king.” He led the three brothers out before his castle, blew three feathers into the air, and told the brothers to follow them. The two  oldest brothers once again went east and west. But the the Dumbling’s  feather flew straight ahead and once again fell near the earthen door. Again the youngest son descended to the fat frog and explained that he needed the most beautiful ring of all. The toad had her large satchel brought immediately and from this, she gave the youngest son a ring brilliantly shining with gems. It was so beautiful that no goldsmith on earth could have made it. The two oldest brothers had laughed at the Dumbling, who wanted to go out looking for a golden ring. They didn’t want to expend such effort, but instead took the nails out of an old wagon ring and brought them to the king. When the Dumbling presented his golden ring to the king, the father said again “The kingdom belongs to him.” The two oldest brothers would not stop bothering the king until he allowed a third condition to be made. The son who brought home the most beautiful woman as wife should have the kingdom. Once again he blew the three feathers in the air and they flew as they had the first two times.  

The Dumbling descended immediately to the fat little toad and said “I must now bring home the most beautiful woman.” “Ay,” replied the toad. “The most beautiful woman is not immediately available, but you shall have her.” She gave him a hollowed-out yellow turnip pulled by six little mice. The Dumbling was exceedingly sad “What shall I do with that?” The toad replied “Just select one of my little toads.” So he chose one of the little toads and placed it in the yellow turnip. It was hardly inside when it became a beautiful maiden, the turnip had become a carriage and the six little mice were now horses. He kissed his maid, raced  away with the horses and soon arrived at the king. His brothers soon followed. They hadn’t exerted themselves at all trying to find a wife, but rather chose one amongst the first servant girls they encountered. When the king saw them he said “The youngest shall inherit the kingdom after my death.” But the two oldest brothers once again complained to the king with their moaning. “We can’t  allow the Dumbling to become king.” And they demanded that the one whose wife could jump through the ring lying in the middle of the ballroom should become king. They thought to themselves “Servant girls can do that. They are strong enough. But the delicate maiden will die jumping!” The old king allowed this also. The two servant girls jumped through the ring but were so fat they fell and broke their arms and legs. Then the pretty maiden jumped, whom had been brought by the dumbling. She jumped through the ring as easily as a deer and all complaining had to end. The youngest son received the crown and he ruled wisely for a very long time.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Where God's Finger Points


(God's Finger)

Grimm’s Saga No. 350: Oxen Reveal the Holy Site 

Near Matten in a village not far from the mouth of the Fermel Valley in Switzerland there lie the ruins of a mighty stone structure. The following legend is told about it: In ancient times the community wanted to build a church to honor St. Stephan. A site was found where the wall was to stand. But every night, to the terror of all involved, the entire day’s work of the industrious builders was destroyed. The villagers now decided to span their building tools in the yoke of a team of oxen while praying. Wherever the oxen remained standing, that is where God’s finger pointed and where the new church would be built. The animals forded the river and remained standing where the Church of St. Stephan was then constructed.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dragons Take Flight in Spring


Grimm’s Saga No. 217
Spring Awakenings: the Time of Dragons Stirring

Alpine folk in Switzerland have preserved many legends about dragons and lindworms. In ancient times they dwelled in mountain caverns often raining down destruction on the valleys. Today when a mountain river breaks out of its banks, tearing in its torrent trees and rocks as it descends, people still say: “The dragon has flown out.” The following story is one of the strangest of all:
A barrel binder from Lucerne went out to find wood for his barrels. He became lost in a barren, remote area when night fell. Suddenly he slipped into a deep hole filled with mud. It was as if a spring fed its waters into the depression. On both sides of the floor of this cave were passageways leading into enormous caverns. When he wanted to examine these areas more carefully, to his horror he met two terrifying dragons. The man prayed fervently but the dragons wound their tails around his body. But they did him no harm. One day passed and then several. He had to share the dragons’ company from November 6 until April 10. He nourished himself on the salty moisture that formed on the cave walls. When the dragons sensed that winter was over, they decided to take flight. The first one departed with loud flapping noise while the other dragon also prepared itself. Seeing this the unfortunate barrel binder seized the tail of the dragon and was pulled upward as the beast flew out of the cave. Once above, the man let go and soon found himself in the city. To commemorate the incident he had a priest’s robe embroidered, which can still be seen in Saint Leodagar’s Church in Lucerne. According to church records, the story took place in the year 1420.