Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Woman in White: Richmodis von Aducht

From Cologne: The Tale of Richmodis von Aducht

In the mid-fifteenth century plague spread through the city of Cologne. In its shadows, a woman in black could be seen creeping through the narrow streets. It was the Black Death. Its poisonous breath seeped through the window cracks of meager huts but was also seen in palaces and fine houses alike. Without pity it took the life of many thousands.
The gravediggers painted a black cross on innumerable house posts – a sign that the pestilence had visited.

The number of dead rose so quickly that it soon became impossible to bury them all. The bodies of the unfortunate were pushed into a common grave, covered with earth and a wooden cross was placed on top.  It was a time when crying, moaning and wailing filled the narrow lanes of the old city of Cologne.

Near the New Market close to the Church of the Apostles there lived a rich councilor by the name of Mengis of Aducht . But fate visited him and plucked his youthful bride from his arms. The young councilor’s grief was without bounds. He could not pull himself away from the corpse of his bride wearing the white wedding dress she had worn only a few years before. After decorating the coffin with flowers, he adorned his silent wife with the beautiful earrings she had worn in life.

Even the night seemed to mourn the loss of Lady Richimodis. It was deadly still in the cemetery near the church when suddenly the bar of the wooden door was raised. Two shadows slid by through the dark rows of newly dug graves. It was the two grave diggers of the Holy Apostle’s Church, who had buried the young wife of the councilor.  They had closed the lid of the casket while the knight bowed before his wife one last time. But they could not help noticing the sparkling gems, precious rings and costly fabric that enveloped the young woman.

But now from the darkness the rustling of dried flowers in the funeral wreath could be heard. The two grave diggers returned, but this time with sinister intent. Slowly they dug up the tomb and the clods of earth piled high. A dull noise rang out and the light from the lantern flickered as the two men hastily opened the lid of the coffin and gazed upon the lifeless face of the lady. The light of the lantern fell on the folded hands of the corpse and the rings on her fingers glistened.

Suddenly the lifeless body twitched in its coffin. The small, narrow fingers moved. In horror the grave robbers raced from that place, leaving the coffin open and their tools lying on the ground.

A deep sigh emanated from the crypt. Several minutes later the woman who had been buried there sat up. Her eyes searched the dark surroundings. Slowly she understood what had happened: in a death-like state they had buried her while she slumbered.  But her horror only gave her a new vitality. She stood up and gripped the lantern left behind. And without restraint she opened the door the robbers forgot to lock.

The streets were empty. Only the silent stars looked down on the lonely figure in the snow-white gown as she made her way home.

To read the latest about the Black Death in the NYT, go to:

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Three Tells of Switzerland

Grimm’s Saga No. 298: The Three Tells

The Three Tells

According to common folk and shepherds of Switzerland there is a cleft in the craggy rock near Lake Waldstaetter. Here the three liberators of the land sleep; they are called the Three Tells. They wear the ancient dress of their ancestors and shall rise again and go out as liberators when the time of dire need arrives for their homeland. But access to this cave is only given to the fortunate finder.
A shepherd boy once told the following story to a traveller: his father, searching for a lost goat in the mountain crags, entered a cave. When he remembered that the three men sleeping inside were the three Tells, the old man who was the real Tell sat up and asked:  

“What time is it?” And when the frightened shepherd said “It is high noon!”, he replied: “Then it is still not time for us to return.” He went back to sleep. The father and his comrades went out looking for the Tells to wake them in a time of need for the fatherland. He searched often for the cave, but never found it again.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Grimm's Saga: Wilhelm Tell

Grimm’s Saga No. 518: Wilhelm Tell

Now it happened that the Kaiser’s bailiff named Grissler rode out to Uri. And when he had lived there some time he erected a pole under the linden tree and everyone had to pass by it. On this pole he placed a hat and ordered a farmhand to sit there and keep watch. He ordered the following public proclamation: Whoever passes must bow to the hat as if the master himself stood there. And if a person did not see the hat and did not bow, he would be punished and have to pay a hefty fine.
Now a pious man resided in the land; his name was Wilhelm Tell. He stood before the hat but would not bow. The servant who guarded the hat now accused Tell before the bailiff. The bailiff had Tell brought before him and asked why he did not bow before the tree and hat, as was commanded. Wilhelm Tell answered: “Dear sir, it is something like this; I do not believe that Your Grace is held in high regard. If I were a funny fellow, I would not be called Tell.”
Now Tell was a good marksman, his equal could not be found in all the land. He also had pretty children whom he loved. The bailiff had the children brought before him and when they arrived he asked Tell, which child was the dearest of all. “I love them all the same,” Tell replied. The man replied “Wilhelm, you are a good shot. One cannot find your equal in all the land. You shall now prove it to me. You shall take your children and shoot an apple from one of their heads.”
The goodly Tell recoiled. He begged for mercy for what was asked was not natural. He would do anything else asked. But the bailiff forced him with his servants and placed the apple on the child’s head himself. Now Tell saw that he could not avert the issue. He took the arrow and placed one in his quiver. With the other hand he took another arrow, loaded it in the crossbow and asked God to protect his child. He aimed and shot and the arrow happily struck the apple on the child’s head. Geissler said it was a master shot. “But one thing you shall tell me: What does it mean that you hold another arrow behind in your quiver?”
“It is the habit of marksmen.” But the bailiff would not cease needling him and wanted to hear an explanation. Finally Tell admitted that he feared for his life if he told the truth. When the bailiff promised to preserve his life, Tell spoke: “I did it because of this: if I had missed the apple and shot my child, I wouldn’t have missed hitting you with the next arrow. When the bailiff heard this he said: “Your life has been promised you; but I want to put an end to all this so that sun and moon cease shining for you!” He had him seized and bound and placed in a boat so that he could be conveyed back to Schwyz. As they were traveling on the sea and came near Axen, they met a strong wind. The ship swayed back and forth and they all thought they would meet a miserable end. None of them knew how to steer the vehicle through the waves. One of the servants spoke to the bailiff: “Unbind Tell. He is a strong and powerful man and understands what to do in such weather. We want to escape this calamity.” The bailiff spoke and called to Tell: “If you help us and do your best so that we can escape, I will have you unbound.”
Tell replied: “Yes gracious sir. I will do it gladly. Trust me.” Tell was then unbound and stood at the helm of the ship in good faith. And so he waited for his advantage, espying his crossbow lying on the floor. They now approached a large rock which since has been called Tell’s Plate and is stilled called that today. It dawned on him that he might now escape and cried out to them all to row hard until they arrived at the base of the rock, because when they passed it they would be through the worst of the waves. So while they rowed close to the rock he forcefully turned the ship as he was a strong man. He reached for his crossbow and jumped onto the rock, pushing the boat back where it rocked back and forth on the water.
Quickly retreating into the shadows of Schwyz (through the dark mountains), he finally arrived in the empty streets of Kuessnacht. There he waited for the bailiff and his men. When the bailiff arrived with his men, Tell stood behind a brushy shrub and heard the noise of the attackers coming his way. He spanned his crossbow and shot an arrow into that man, who fell down dead. Tell ran away quickly over the mountains to Uri, found his comrades and told them all that had happened.  

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Quiet Gnomes of Plesse

The Quiet Folk of Plesse
There are many springs, wells, ravines and caves near the Hessian mountain castle Plesse, where, according to the saga, gnomes live and dwell. People call them the quiet or silent folk.  They are all quiet and good-natured, preferring to serve people whom they like. If some misery afflicts this silent folk, they do not take their rage out on people, but rather revenge themselves on the cattle, which they torment to no end. In truth this underground race of gnomes rarely communes with people, instead preferring to live inside where there are rooms and chambers filled with gold and precious stones.  When a gnome has some business to tend to up on earth, he doesn’t do this during the day, but rather waits ‘til night. This mountain folk is made of flesh and blood like any other people; they have children and die. But only they have the gift of making themselves invisible. They can as easily pass through rock and walls as one passes through air. Sometimes they appear to people, take them into a rocky chasm and give them presents if they are so disposed, but always precious objects. The main entryway to a gnome’s dwelling is near a deep well; the tavern nearby is called zum Rauschenwasser (or the place of the rushing water).

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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.