Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part One

UndAdv Nornorna_vid_UrdarbrunnenNorms at the Well of Fate, L. B. Hansen 1893

Another Wedding

It’s three in the morning. My eyes pop open and I am wide awake. This never happens to me, but I feel I am not going back to sleep. I wrap my dressing gown around me and stumble down to my study. I am awake, but my muscles and their coordination are still asleep. Perhaps, if I read a bit, I will fall back into slumber.

Staring straight ahead, I run a finger along the spines of my books on the shelves. On impulse I choose a volume.

Modern Greek Folktales, by R. M. Dawkins. I am a little startled. I came up with this volume’s companion, More Greek Folktales, the last time I did this little game of random selection. I open the volume to its table of contents and, using the Thalia method, my finger falls on The Underworld Adventure. I head for my comfy chair. Let’s see what we got.

Three brothers hear of a well at the bottom of which are three beautiful women. The brothers decide to bring up the women, the youngest brother to marry the youngest woman, the middle to marry the middle, and the eldest the eldest.

The eldest brother is lowered into the well. The women are brought up, but as the eldest and most beautiful is to be taken up, she predicts his brothers will abandon him and vie for her. She gives him two nuts containing miraculous dresses and instructs him that two sheep will soon pass by, one white and the other black. If he can grab the white sheep, it will carry him to the upper world, the black to the underworld.

He fails to catch the white, and the black then carries him to the underworld, dropping him onto the top of a tree. He rescues baby birds about to be attacked by a snake. Their monstrous bird mother, when she returns, offers to carry him back to the upper world, but he must supply her with forty sheep to eat and forty skins of water to drink during the flight.

This he does, but the supply is not quite enough and he cuts flesh from his own body to feed her, which she restores after they land.

Entering the nearest town, he takes a job with a merchant in need of an assistant. After some time the merchant is given an order to produce two dresses, one of the sun and moon, the other of the earth and flowers, but neither with stitchery or needle work—these dresses demanded by the eldest woman before she will marry the middle brother.

The eldest brother offers to get these dresses for the merchant, if he will give him wine, sweets, and raisins. Of these the assistant indulges, then opens the two nuts given to him. When the merchant gives the dresses to the bride, she knows her true husband has returned to the upper world.

During the feast before the wedding of the eldest woman and the middle brother, which the assistant and his master attend, the merchant rises and states, with words coming from God, “If I take a vine branch and set it here on the table and it grows leaves and sets fruit and gives grapes for all of us to eat, then, oh then, we may give the bride to another husband.”

Thinking it a joke, the challenge is accepted. The merchant blesses the vine branch and it immediately blossoms, maturing into grapes, enough for all.

“The bride is to be taken in marriage by the young man whom I have with me,” says the merchant,  “and I myself will set on their heads the crowns of marriage.”

And so the proper husband is restored to the bride . . .  I awake in my comfy chair, bathing in the morning light flooding my study.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Two

undadv Phoenix-Fabelwesen Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822)

A Coincidence

Half a block down the street I see Melissa’s bookshop. Of course I am heading there. Ever since waking up with Modern Greek Folktales fallen into my lap, I have felt to be in a trance.

Still bleary-eyed, I enter her store. My focus returns with an almost audible snap when I spy Modern Greek Folktales sitting on her counter. I put my finger on the volume and stare at Melissa.

She looks at me, at the book, and back to me. “Are you accusing me of something?”

“No . . .  Yes . . . in a way. Why is this book here?”

“Because I am reading it.” Offense creeps into her voice.

“Were you reading it at three o’clock this morning and did you read The Underground Adventure?”

Her rising umbrage evaporates. “It called to you too? I woke and in my mind was the image of the book sitting in my ‘Stately Old Books’ section. I didn’t remember having that book on my shelves, but when I came down and looked, there it was.”

“I need a good, stout cup of tea.”

“We may need something stronger.”

“It’s early. Tea will do.”

We soon sit with teacups of steaming black tea. “Why now? Why this story?” Melissa asks.

“Let us ask what the story is about,” I suggest. “Maybe there is a clue in that.”

Melissa takes a long sip of tea. “It’s about marriage.”

“So many fairy tales are,” I say.

“It’s about the ‘true husband,’ ” Melissa adds, “rather than the ‘true bride.’”

“The ‘true husband’ is not as common,” I agree.

“Three women at the bottom of a well,” she muses.

“Great start for a fairy tale.”

Melissa ignores me. “The women are magical and yet cannot act for themselves.”

“A reflection of the attitude toward women at the time?” I suggest.

“Agreed,” she says, then goes on. “Only two magical dresses in nuts. The usual number is three. Another unusual point is that the protagonists are the eldest brother and eldest woman, and not the youngest of the two sets.”

“I assume the women are sisters.”

“The story does not say that,” Melissa warns.

“Then there are the sheep,” I say.

“Yes, the sheep. The sheep show up two times: the black and white sheep and the forty sheep as food.”

“That does suggest this story springs from a pastoral culture.”

“That is another assumption,” Melissa replies, “but I will allow it. What of the monstrous bird?”

“The phoenix popped into my head, but I have no valid reason to think that.”

Melissa sips her tea and I realize I have drained mine.

“Cutting off his flesh to feed the bird.” She frowns. “That is remarkable.”

I pour myself some more tea from the pot kept warm by its cozy. “We enter into the theme of sacrifice?”

“I am not sure how to categorize that. He does get his flesh back, softening the importance of the act in story terms.”

“And,” I state, “when he gets back to the upper world, he does not go home and claim his bride, but takes a position with a merchant.”

“The story gets odder and more unusual the more we think about it,” Melissa resolves.

“Are we any closer to answering our original question? What is the story about?”

“No,” says Melissa.

We brood over our cups of tea.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Three

uNDaDV Charles Thomas Bale 1881 Charles Thomas Bale 1881

More Reflection

“The story,” Melissa says carefully, constructing her argument, “is in three acts. Act One: The brothers go to the well and the eldest brother is abandoned there. Act Two: The eldest brother travels to the underworld and returns. Act Three: The eldest reclaims his bride with the help of the merchant.”

“In those acts,” I contribute, “I see these larger themes. In Act One I see the theme of the traitorous brothers. We can trace this one back to the biblical Joseph, his brothers throwing him into a pit, then selling him into slavery.

“In Act Two, well, is that not the hero’s journey? A bit truncated, but still the basic elements are there: the bird as magical helper, the near defeat when all is lost before he cuts off his own flesh.

“In Act Three, I cannot help thinking about Ulysses returning home to Ithaca to find a house full of suitors for his wife, and into which he enters in disguise.”

“Oh, I like that,” says Melissa, “especially that last bit. But now I am thinking about the two eldest not only being the protagonists, but how the younger brothers and younger women hardly appear in the story. We are told they are there. However, we never hear from them. The baby chicks have far more to say and do. No, the story is about the two eldest and their travail. Everything else is peripheral.”

“Except,” I say, “the merchant, specifically in the wedding scene. When God starts to speak through him, the story belongs to the merchant and we hear from no one else, not even the two eldest.”

“Yes,” agrees Melissa, with a bit of surprise in her voice. “Which is again unusual when you consider the story starts with the brothers going to and descending into a well. That’s pure pagan imagery.”

I look at my empty second cup of tea that I don’t remember drinking. “I am feeling suspicious that our God was tacked onto the end of this tale at a later date, much like Grimms’ Girl without Hands.  In the 1812 version, the story is quite pagan, but by the last edition Wilhelm has added an angel into the conclusion.”

“We,” smiles Melissa, “have now fallen into talking about older tales becoming victims of newer mores and we drift from our original purpose.”

“Again,” I return the smile.

“What is the story about,” Melissa restates, “and why did it call to us?”

“Right,’ I say, “let’s stick with it being about the two eldest struggling to marry and we’ll leave God out of it. “

“No, we should not,” Melissa say. (I think she is changing course.) “I observed when we started this conversation that the magical women could not act for themselves. For all of the eldest woman’s insight, she is powerless.

“The eldest brother’s courage is tested, he battles the snake and cuts flesh from his body. But by the end of the tale, he has given over his authority to the merchant, who is being instructed by God. Both she and he have ended up in the hands of fate.”

Why the word ‘fate’ triggers my memory I do not know.

“This is my anniversary,” I say.

“Of?” Melissa’s eyes widen.

“My marriage.”

Melissa exhales, “Mine as well. The tale called to us because it is about marriage after all, just as I first stated.”

We are quiet for some time.

“May I ask?” Melissa looks at me. “When did she die?”

My heart contracts. “Many years ago. In childbirth,” is all I can answer. Melissa does not press me.

“And you?” I ask.

“I think,” she sighs, “I ended up marrying the middle brother. Not the one who was meant for me.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2018 The Power of Saint Telga’s Well – Part One

Healing wells four dupathFrom Hope’s Legendary Lore

Healing Wells

For our traditional Sunday brunch, Melissa and I have decided on the Queen’s Lane Coffee House instead of the Vaults, so as not to be too much like sticks in the mud.

The coffee house deserves our attention, serving the public since 1654. It claims to be the oldest coffee house in all of Europe.

Melissa and I have seated ourselves right next to the long bank of small-pane windows looking out on High Street, lending the narrow room much light. The décor is simple and cheerful.

From of the menu, I order the Full English Breakfast. Melissa chooses the Niçoise Salad.

“I’ve started a new project,” Melissa announces. “A magical guide book for UK tourists.”

“That sounds like fun,” I remark. “Where does one start on such a thing?”

“Well, I want to feature the unusual, not the known tourist haunts. I decided to start with healing wells.”

“Really? How is that going?”

Melissa’s enthusiasm fades a little. “Most of them are gone, or at best not accessible to the public. Oh, there are still hundreds, but there had once been thousands. For my purposes, healing wells and springs that tourists can visit are down to a handful. With a few exceptions, I’ll confess, there is not a whole lot to see.”

“With that in mind, what attracts you to them?” I say as our food arrives.

“Their stories of course. For example, in my research I came across a Welsh tale, The Power of Saint Tegla’s Well.”

A farmer and his wife had an only son, but one given to unexplained fits. At the time he turned twelve there followed signs his parents took as predicting his imminent death.

It started with one apple tree blooming before its time. The old cock began crowing at midnight, and the wife dreamt of a wedding, which prognosticates a funeral. One night a bird flapped its wings against their window. They knew it must be the featherless Corpse Bird, meaning death will soon visit the home.

The culminating event came when the farmer was returning home one night and saw Cyhiraeth, the black-toothed, skin-and-bones Hag of the Mist, splashing her long, withered hands in the river, moaning, “My son. My son,” before she vanished.

This is followed by the poor man seeing the Corpse Candle floating before him as he travels. The candle is small and red flamed. Were the flame white, it would indicate his wife might die. The flame being red might indicate that he himself who would die. But the Corpse Candle being small meant his son’s death was coming.

I lose my appetite for the sausage I am digging into. Melissa is unaffected, sampling her salad.

The next day, the farmer goes to a wise man for advice. The wise man tells the farmer what his son must do.

The boy goes to Saint Tegla’s Well in Denbighshire after sunset. He walks around the well three times, uttering the Lord’s Prayer, and carrying a cock in a basket. Then he walks around the nearby church three times in the same manner.

Entering the church, he crawls under the altar and sleeps there until daybreak, a Bible for his pillow and the altar cloth as his blanket. Placing six pence on the altar and leaving the bird in the church, he goes home. The bird dies in a few days taking the youth’s illness with it, leaving the lad to live to a ripe old age.

My appetite returns and I eye the eggs.

 

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2018 The Power of  Saint Tegla’s Well – Part Two

Healing wells twoFrom Hope’s Legendary Lore

A Clootie

“Down near Penzance in Cornwall is Saint Madron’s Well,” Melissa continues her monologue. “It’s a clootie well, one which I must visit. I know that’s a bit of a drive, but it is one of the better-known wells.”

“Clootie well?” I ask.

“Clootie is Scottish for cloth.”

“So?” I say, attacking my beans with a fork.

Melissa grins. “At a clootie well a strip of cloth is dipped into the water and used to wash the diseased area of a person who is ill. Then the cloth is tied to a nearby tree limb, preferably one of a white thorn or an ash. As the cloth rots and disintegrates, the disease dissipates.”

“Ah,” I say, “sympathetic magic.”

“Quite. And then there are the pin wells, where a bent pin needs to be sacrificed into the well.”

“Hmmm,” I muse, reaching for a rasher of bacon, “an iron talisman?”

“Maybe, but the pin wells had a darker side. A piece of paper with someone’s name on it could be pierced with a pin and thrown into the well achieving the opposite effect of healing.”

“That’s a little nasty,” I say.

“There is always a dark side.” Melissa stares off into the distance.

“Do the supplicants ever get around to drinking the water?” I ask while finishing off the toast.

“Oh, yes. Both drinking and bathing. Often these wells and springs have high mineral content, which does not hurt. The Chalice Well at Glastonbury—very pretty, set in a garden—has so much ferrous oxide it’s also called the Red Spring.

“Drinking the water of a healing well had its own particular ritual. The cup usually needed to be made from the skull of a decapitated head. In the case of Saint Teilo’s well, it is the saint’s skull from which one needs to drink for the water’s healing to be effective.”

My appetite slips a little. Melissa finishes her salad.

“Besides healing, the wells were for fortune telling too,” Melissa continues, sitting back on her chair. “Some of the wells were attended by old women with an oracular bent. The future could also be divined out by drinking the water and sleeping at the well to receive a revealing dream.

“Celtic mythology speaks of the Well of Wisdom in the courtyard of Manannan mac Lir, king of the fairies, around which grow hazelnut trees that feed the Salmon of Wisdom. We can be sure the healing wells are a reflection of that well.

“Oh, there is an Arthurian connection too. In one of the medieval texts, The Damsels of the Well, in a place called Logres, brought food and drink to all travelers until an evil king raped one of them and stole her golden cup. The damsels never appeared again, the well dried up, and the place became The Wasteland, not to recover until the Holy Grail was found.”

A thought strikes me. “Do these wells have anything to do with wishing wells?”

“Pretty much one and the same. A few of these places have been excavated by archaeologists who uncovered coins, jewelry, and trinkets; sacrifices to the spirits of the spring.”

“‘Spirits of the spring’ sounds very romantic if a little pagan,” I say, sipping my coffee.

“Oh, the church fixed that by rebranding a spring or a well with a saint’s name and building a church beside it,” Melissa chuckles.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2018 The Power of Saint Tegla’s Well – Part Three

Healing wells six doninicksFrom Hope’s Legendary Lore

A Visit

As we step out onto Queen’s Lane, Melissa stops and takes my hand in both of hers.

“Will you take me to visit the nixie?”

“The nixie? You should be afraid of the nixie.”

“Are you afraid of the nixie?”

“Yes.”

“And still you visit her.”

She has me there. And she knows I cannot deny her anything.

“We’ll have to make some popcorn,” I say.

On our return walk, my thoughts stray back to The Power of Saint Tegla’s Well.

“I’m not familiar with Saint Tegla. I assume it is not made up?”

“Not at all. Saint Tegla’s Church is in Wales. She was a disciple of Saint Paul. Assigning her name to the church and well, I am sure, was arbitrary, but significant in that it was a female saint chosen. The Celtic spirits of the wells were female.

“Saint Tegla’s Well had the speciality of healing epilepsy. I did some extra research on this one and found some things not mentioned in the story. Besides the supplicant bathing in the well—in this case a sunken stone trough—a pin was stuck into a chicken. In the case of girls and women a hen was used, cockerels for boys and men, and the pin thrown into the well. There was also something about putting the bird’s beak into the patient’s mouth.”

“That’s rather disturbing,” I say.

“Oh, but it doesn’t come up to the level of violence associated with Saint Winifred’s Well, also in Denbighshire.”

“Oh dear me, tell me about that.”

“Saint Winifred was the niece of Saint Beuno, both seventh-century Welsh saints. As a member of a royal Welsh family, she was pursued by Prince Caradog. She refused his advances, wanting to be a nun. The prince then tried to take her by force. She escaped him, but in his rage at her rejection he caught up with her and cut off her head.

“It rolled down the hillside, and where it came to rest, up rose a spring. Prince Caradog, in short order, fell down dead and the earth swallowed him up. Winifred’s uncle rejoined the head to the body and with prayers restored her to life.”

“Well,” I reflect, “if a bit gory, it is a satisfying story.”

“And,” Melissa adds, “the well, known as Holywell, is now sheltered in Winifred’s Shrine, a structure worth seeing. It has been a pilgrimage site for thirteen centuries.”

“Admirable,” I say.

We soon arrive at my place and make some popcorn for the nixie. Thalia joins us briefly to consume a good bit of it before going off to her Brownie’s meeting.

Popcorn in bag, we head to the study and out the French doors toward the Magic Forest. When we get to the forest’s edge, Melissa stops again, and takes my hand once more.

“I want to visit the nixie alone.”

“Alone?” Dread flitters around the edges of that word.

“When last we visited the nixie’s pond, I spotted a spring along the path. I intend to bathe in it before I visit the nixie. That means I must be naked.”

For what disease? goes through my mind. My mouth says, “Won’t you need a towel?”

She laughs gently. “No, I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll build up the fire in the hearth. You’ll be chilled till you come back.”

“I’ll appreciate that.” She kisses me on the forehead, takes the popcorn, and turns. I watch the Magic Forest envelop her with its darkness.

Your thoughts.