Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Land of the Rising Sun

Transforming itself from a nation of feudal warlords to a modern, industrialised nation in less than fifty years, Japan is something of miracle. Now Japan is one of the world's foremost powers, headed by the oldest monarchy in the world. The sole remaining nation on Earth with an Emperor as its Head of State, Japan has been ruled by the Imperial House for at least 2,600 years. The further back you go, the more shrouded in the mists of mythology the story becomes. So how did the story of Japan, the story of the Land of the Rising Sun, begin?


Izanagi and Izanami create
the Islands of Japan
Painting by Kobayashi Eitaku
In the oldest times, the cosmos was as a chaotic mass of matter, swirling and churning in a space between spaces. Soon, within this maelstrom, the purer elements rose softly from the anarchy and formed the ethereal and united array of the Heavens, known as Takamagahara. The storm raged again, and this time, the heavier elements fell to slowly form the Earth. In the soaring matter between Takamagahara and Earth, three beings were cast into existence. Just then, a great reed burst forth from the Earth, and two more spirits were born. These five kami, or gods, were known as the Kotoamatsukami. These first gods were strangely formed, neither god nor goddess, but Heavenly beings. This first generation simply faded away, never to be seen or heard from again. Time passed, and two more gods were born, a little different, yet still lacking true form. At last, five male gods, and five female goddesses were born. These Kamiyonanayo, or 'Seven Divine Generations' were elemental beings of formidable power, sentient and strong. Particularly so were the final pair - the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami. The other Kamiyonananyo saw their talent, and charged them with the creation of a new land. Izananagi and Izanami accepted this challenge, and set about the burden of creation. Standing at the heart of the bridge which joined Heaven and Earth, the young deities took up a naginata and stirred the raging torrents of the Ocean far below. Lifting the blade high from the whirlpool it had now created, Izanagi looked on as one drop of brine fell from its sharp and tapered point. Where the droplet struck the surf below, a new land was formed, the Island of Onogoro, the first land. Overjoyed at their success, Izanagi and Izanami came down to their newly created island home, with growing affection for each other.



The Islands of Japan
Image taken by the NASA Visible Earth Program
Resolving to create new beings, the two approached each other. Izanami spoke first, greeting Izanagi, and from their union two new gods were born, but something was wrong. Both infants were horribly misshapen and deformed, far from the image of their parents. Izanagi and Izanami, dismayed for their children, sent them far away over the sea, and consulted the other kami. Their council was unanimous - it was improper for a woman to speak before a man, for a man ought to greet a lady first. The two young kami united once more, though this time, Izanagi was careful to extend his manners first. From this union, the eight great Islands of Japan, the Ōyashima, were born; Honshū, Kyūshū, Shikoku, Awaji, Oki, Iki, Tsushima and Sado. Overjoyed, Izanagi and Izanami gave birth to a plethora of deities. However, one day a terrible new kami was born, Kagatsuchi, the god of fire. Such was the intensity of his blaze that Izanami was burned to death as she gave birth to him. Devastated by a towering grief, Izanagi wept bitterly for his wife, and as the tears flowed down his cheeks, more gods were born. His grief turning to fury, Izanagi lashed out with his sword and severed Kagatsuchi's head. From the droplets of the fire god's blood, yet more kami were born. In his fury, Izanagi refused to bow to Death, and chased after the soul of Izanami, determined to win her back.

Entering the shadowly land of Yomi, the dark land of the Dead, Izanagi was overcome with an immediate sense of not belonging. The cold swept over him as a wave of ice cold water, and the darkness closed in on all sides. Shaken, but unbroken, he continued into the blackness. Calling Izanami's name, before long Izanagi heard her voice, though her body was veiled in darkness. "The lands that I and thou made are not yet finished making; so come back!" Izanagi frantically cried. "Lamentable indeed that thou earnest not sooner!", Izanami mournfully replied, sorrowfully explaining that she had already eaten of the food of this land, and thus was forbidden to leave. Desperate to leave with Izanagi she remained, however, and she resolved to speak with the god of the realm to ask permission to leave, warning Izanagi not to look upon her until she returned.


Susanoo
Painting by Utagawa Kuniteru
Time passed, and she did not return. Izanagi waited long, but after a time, his patience snapped. Seizing a lock of his own hair and a comb, he created a spark and crafted a torch and set off in pursuit. Angrily bursting through the door, nothing could have prepared Izanagi for the horror he now saw. For in his determination, he had forgotten both Izanami's warning and the terrible power of Death. It was not the beautiful Izanami he remembered standing before him, but a rotting cadaver, swarming with maggots and the hellish visage of Death. Jolted with terror, with an earth shattering scream Izanagi turned and ran. He did not stop even when he left Yomi, clutching his head, willing the tormenting image of what he had seen to leave, but unable to banish it from his mind. Coming to the ocean shore, he filled his hands with the icy water and splashed it over his face, still shaking with fear. When the freezing water touched his face however, he was afforded some small respite. Something strange happened though. From the droplets which fell from his face, new gods were born. Drip. From his left eye sprang Amaterasu, the goddess of the Sun. Drip. From his right eye sprang Tsukuyomi, the god of the Moon. Drip. From his nose sprang Susanoo, the headstrong god of storms and the sea. As they grew to maturity, Izanagi divided the cosmos between them, granting Heaven and the Day to Amterasu, the Night to Tsukuyomi, and the Sea to Susanoo. Susanoo, however, impatient, arrogant and impetuous, quarrelled with his father ever more violently. One day, Susanoo went too far, and Izanagi cast him out of Heaven, commanding him to go to Yomi.

Grudgingly, Susanoo turned to leave Heaven, but decided to visit mayhem upon Amaterasu one last time. As he made such a noise, Amaterasu heard his approach. Knowing the devious nature of her brother, Amaterasu was highly suspicious when he arrived. When Susanoo spoke that he intended only to bid her farewell, she declared a contest by which he could prove his good faith. Whichever of the two could produce the fairest gods would be the victor. This seemed reasonable to Susanoo, and both kami faced each other. In a flash, Amaterasu seized Susanoo's sword and shattered the blade into three shards. Clasping her hands together, she crushed them into fine dust. As the silvery cloud fell from her fingers, three young maidens were formed. Susanoo, in turn, seized the jewels from Ameterasu's arm and crushed them in his fists, before gently blowing the dust into the wind, from which five males were born. So were created the first ancestors of the people of Japan. Amaterasu claimed victory, for out of the sincerity of her actions she had created fair ladies, and Susanoo, with his malicious intent, had created coarse men.


Amaterasu emerges as the Rising Sun
Woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada
Susanoo, however, also claimed victory. When Amaterasu persisted, Susanoo flew into a rage. He wrecked the crops and desecrated her holy shrine. His anger building, the storm god seized a piebald horse sacred to Amaterasu and tore the flesh from its body, before hurling its bloodied corpse into his sister's weaving chamber, to the terror of her maids. In fear, Amaterasu fled her Heavenly halls, seeking desperate shelter in a cave on the Earth. As the lady of the Sun, however, the moment the boulder rolled across the entrance, sealing her inside, the sky grew dark as the light vanished - the world saw its first solar eclipse. The light failed, and the Earthly realm grew dank as Yomi, and the gods grew worried. The kami ruled out seizing her by force, thinking that she would only hide again. Many tried to reason with Amaterasu, but none prevailed, for each god's plea fell upon deaf ears. After many fruitless attempts, only that of Ama-no-Uzume, the kami of merriment, remained. A simple Sakaki tree grew before the mouth of the cave, and Uzume decorated its boughs richly, with ribbons, jewels and mirrors. Careful to ensure the mirrors were aligned, the kami then overturned a wash basin and began to dance for the gathered gods. She danced a glorious dance, and soon all the gods were transfixed by her. Indeed, so vigorous did she move her body, the flowers and leaves which clad her form were cast off, leaving her modesty completely exposed. The other gods, stunned, burst into raucous laughter that rang around the cosmos. Curious, Amaterasu rolled the boulder aside to see what was causing the noise. Immediately her eyes met the splendid panoply adorning the Sakaki tree. As her gaze touched the polished surface of the mirrors, she was amazed at the sight she saw - a bright goddess wreathed in flame, sparkling and emitting all colours. She approached, struck by the image before her, unaware that it was her own reflection. For from the moment she had peered out of the cave, the light had rushed back to the world, bringing its first Dawn. Promptly, one of the gods soared down and rolled the boulder back. Amaterasu realised with a start their ploy, but surrounded by their jubilation, forgot her fear and paranoia, and took her glorious place once more. She would shine forth over the Earth forever more, and give birth to an exalted progeny of gods and men. Indeed, her great great great grandson would one day become Japan's first Emperor. But for now, she rose, in the Land of the newly Rising Sun...

United Kingdom

The Kojiki:
The Kojiki: Japanese Records of Ancient Matters (Forgotten Books)
(The oldest chronicle of Japan, highly readable, and the cornerstone of a culture!)

The Nihongi:
The Nihongi: Part I, II, III & IV (Forgotten Books)
(Also called the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest chronicle is more poetic)

United States

The Kojiki:
The Kojiki: Japanese Records of Ancient Matters (Forgotten Books)
(The oldest chronicle of Japan, highly readable, and the cornerstone of a culture!)

The Nihongi:
The Nihongi: Part I, II, III & IV (Forgotten Books)
(Also called the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest chronicle is more poetic)

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Monkey Who Would Be King

When we in the West think of the Medieval era, often what comes to mind are armoured knights, courtly ladies, corrupt clergy, devastating plagues and the Crusades. All too easily one can forget that there was a vibrant world beyond Europe. Yet whilst King Henry VIII of England and the Pope were tearing themselves and Christianity apart, an ancient civilisation flourished in the East. For the Ming Dynasty of Imperial China was a force to be reckoned with, riding the wave of an illustrious culture which today is at least three thousand years old. Global trade boomed, religious wars were an alien concept and the arts underwent a Renaissance. Here is one of the many stories hailing from those times, the tale of the Monkey who desired the Heavens.


The Monkey jumps the Waterfall
Woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
Legend tells of an ancient mountain, rising from the distant Eastern Oceans. Living beings, both mortal and divine, knew it as the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, for its towering heights were bountiful, lush and green. The denizens of the Mountain, however, were not quite so idyllic. For everywhere one looked, demons ran amok, and order was always far away. Only one cavern in the cliffs was free of them, the Water Curtain Cave, so named for the the roaring waterfall which plunged over its entrance, and no being dared cross it. One day, from the shifting powers of chaos and order in the cosmos, a strange egg of stone was formed at the very summit of the Mountain. The fauna of the land were puzzled by this strange object, and more so when it hatched. For one day, with a deafening crack, the two halves of the shell blasted apart, and from the midst emerged a monkey. An inquisitive creature, the monkey soon found a tribe of others like him on the slopes of the Mountain. The other monkeys were welcoming, and proudly showed their tranquil domain, but were careful to explain to the newcomer that the cavern beyond the thundering waters was where no monkey trod. The newcomer, however, a stranger to the superstitions of the world, merely laughed, and with a spectacular jump, soared through the falls, landing gracefully upon the bare rock within. The other monkeys looked on, shocked, but in awe. Revering the newcomer, the tribe named him as the Monkey King.


Sun Wukong - the Monkey King
Woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
The Monkey King relished his new station, and soon all the monkey tribes of the Mountain were united under his rule. But after a time, he grew haughty. Calling himself the 'Handsome Monkey King', he soon began to tire of the limits that mortality brings. So, one day, he bundled several sticks together and built a raft, setting off over the horizon of the Great Ocean. Coming at last to the civilised spheres of the world, the Monkey King travelled far and wide, on a quest for knowledge and power. Now there were only a few beings on Earth who wielded the arcane power that linked Heaven and Earth, and these were the Xian (in Taoism, the Xian are a race of immortals). After an age, the Monkey King tracked down one of the Xian, determined to become his disciple and rise above his lowly station as a monkey. At first, the Xian turned the monkey away, again and again, mistrusting the creature and suspecting deceit. But when the monkey implored the Xian for knowledge, that he had travelled across Ocean and land to find him, the great spirit began to listen. Intrigued, the Xian asked him where he had come from, expecting the animal to reply 'the trees'. "All I remember is that there was a magic stone on the top of the Flower and Fruit Mountain, and that one year the stone split open and I was born", the monkey replied. The Xian was amazed at this, declaring "you were born of Heaven and Earth". The Xian took the monkey on as his apprentice, granting him a new name - Sun Wukong - a name which means Monkey Awakened to Emptiness. Soon, Sun began to gain mastery over human speech, and as the Xian grew impressed at his eagerness to learn, began to learn the ways of magic. Sun learned the secret of shapeshifting, and could soon morph his lowly form into seventy two different creatures. He learned, too, how to soar thirty four thousand miles in a single leap. Each of the hairs on his simian body he could bend to his will, transforming each to whatever he desired, even a clone of himself.


Sun Wukong before the Jade Emperor
Woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
Before long, Sun began succumb to pride once again. Boasting of his sheer power to the Xian's other disciples, Sun soon earned the scorn of his master. When the monkey's arrogance went too far, the Xian turned him away from his realm, commanding Sun never to reveal to another soul where he had learned his sorcery. Believing himself greater than the Xian, Sun returned to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, and enthroned himself once again, this time to be worshipped as a demigod by the creatures of the world. Ravenous for power, Sun could no longer be sated by the Earth itself. Diving to the depths of the Ocean, the monkey turned his hand to thievery, breaking into the watery domain of Ao Guang, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. For he sought Ruyi Jingu Bang, a magical staff, a weapon of immense power and the very tool by which the gods had pushed the Ocean floor to the depths. The Staff glowed bright when Sun approached, acknowledging its new master. Hungrily, Sun stole it, and made his escape, conquering the Dragon Kings of the Four Seas with the boundless power over the oceans which the Staff brought him. The forces of Heaven, however, began to grow angry with Sun, and after an immense struggle, overpowered the monkey and bound him in Hell. It was then that Sun realised with a jolt that, as a mortal, he could still die. So the monkey broke free of his bonds, slew his guards and tore his name from the pages of the Book of Life and Death. In this tome was recorded the fates of every creature on the earth, and its word was law. Now that Sun's name was absent, the monkey was immortal, and the gods, outraged at his blasphemy, conspired against him.


The Jade Emperor
Image taken from a Chinese painted silk,
Ming Dynasty, 16th century
The Heavenly Spirits appealed to the Jade Emperor, the god who ruled Heaven and the mortal worlds, for help. A peaceful being, the Jade Emperor sought a peaceful solution to the crisis. Summoning Sun to him, he offered the monkey the position of Keeper of Heaven's Horses, believing that a station in Heaven would satiate the creature's ambition. Happily, Sun accepted. It was not long after, however, that Sun discovered that this was the lowliest position in Heaven. Enraged, the monkey threw open the gates to the Stables, and the Horses of Heaven bolted, causing havoc. Fawning and apologetic, the gods made Sun the Keeper of the Heavenly Garden. Satisfied, yet mistrustful, Sun accepted. However, when a vast banquet was held in the Garden, and all the gods and goddesses were invited, and Sun was not, the monkey once again went on the rampage. Turning once again to thievery, the monkey stole the peaches of immortality, the property of the mother goddess Xi Wangmu, and the pills of longevity that were the property of Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism), and the royal wine that was the property of the Jade Emperor himself, before sprinting back to his island home. The gods, furious, sent the armies of Heaven to arrest Sun. Though a hundred thousand strong, the hosts of Heaven were no match for the arcane might of the Xian that Sun had learned, as the Monkey King conquered them all. Drunk with an unbridled thirst for power, Sun let his guard down, just enough so that the combined power of all the gods could restrain him at last. Angry this time, the Jade Emperor commanded Lao Tzu to seal the monkey into a cauldron and set a fire beneath it, to eradicate Sun once and for all. Lao Tzu, still seething at the thievery he had suffered, obeyed without hesitation. Celebrating, the gods departed, and for a while, peace was at hand in the cosmos.

Forty nine days later, when many of the gods had even forgotten about Sun, they broke the seal on the cauldron. Spitting with deranged fury, out jumped the monkey with not so much as a singed hair. For the gods had forgotten that, since the monkey had torn his name from the Book of Life and Death, he could not be killed. Howling with frustration, the gods despaired. Desperate, and no longer able to contain Sun, the weary Jade Emperor turned to the very power behind the cosmos - the Buddha himself.


The Buddha
13th century Bronze statue in Kamakura, Japan
Meanwhile, such was the boundless reach of his ambition, Sun had fashioned yet another name for himself - the Great Sage, and now sought to be sole ruler of Heaven. Then, the voice of power sounded in the Great Sage's mind, the voice of the Buddha. The Buddha chastised the monkey for desiring to seize the Heavenly Palace. The Great Sage retorted with boasts of his prowess, how he could transform into seventy two shapes, and travel thirty four thousand miles in a single jump, doubting even that the Buddha could match him. Calmly, the Buddha responded with a wager. If Sun could, with a single jump, outleap the Buddha himself, the Jade Emperor would abdicate and the throne of Heaven would be his. If, however, he did not, he would be cast below the Earth, to meditate on his loss for eons. The proud monkey accepted at once. Bracing, Sun breathed in deeply, crouched down, and eyed the horizon, poised for the jump of his life. With a shout he was off, and what a leap it was! The monkey was but a blur, soaring through the sky. It was with such power that he kicked off, he even left the atmosphere, hurtling through the cosmos. Soon, the monkey saw the five great pillars which marked the boundaries of the Universe, as he began to lose speed and came back down again, landing atop the central pillar. The pillar was curiously round, and the drop terrifying, but all the same, Sun marked his name where he landed, howling with triumph.

Turning back, he jumped back to where he started from, and found the Buddha awaiting him there. "Tell the Jade Emperor to hand the Heavenly Palace over to me", Sun declared. "You wretch!" the Buddha angrily retorted "You never left the palm of my hand". Bemused, Sun described that he had reached the very pillars of the Universe - "do you dare come and see it with me?" There was no need, the Buddha replied, all he had to do was look down. When the monkey looked down, he felt a pang of horror. For the Buddha had held out his hand, and there on the top of his middle finger, were the words Sun had written. The pillars he had seen were the Buddha's own fingers! So the monkey saw the full extent of his vanity at last, and could not believe it. Turning to run, he saw those great pillars closing in on him until he was in their grip. In a flash, they became mountains, and the monkey was now buried beneath them, left to ponder the price of his arrogance...

United Kingdom

Journey to the West:
Monkey (Penguin Classics)
(One of the four great Classical novels of China, the story is surprisingly easy to read)

United States

The Journey to the West:
Monkey (Penguin Classics)
(One of the four great Classical novels of China, the story is surprisingly easy to read)

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Seeds of the Pomegranate

Myths have, in so many civilisations, sought to explain what science could not. As science evolves, so too do myths. For man today ever seeks to understand the world in which he lives, no less than the man of three thousand years ago. One such phenomenon in nature was the changing of the seasons, a thing so critical to man's bond with the land. Here is one such story of how the seasons came into being.


Demeter
Photograph taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen
Sculpture in the Vatican Museums
One of the quieter goddesses, Demeter yet held a honoured position on Mount Olympus. She remained, after all, the sister of Zeus himself, and a daughter of Kronos, greatest of the Titans (for the story of their birth, please click here). Whilst her illustrious brothers reigned at the forefront, diligently watching over the affairs of man and the deeds of heroes, Demeter took a quieter role in the cosmos. For she was the lady of the harvest, to whom all men prayed to grant abundance to their crops. In these most ancient times, the bounty of the Earth was great all year round, as bushels of corn burst forth from the fields each day. There was, however, one thing Demeter treasured above all else. Persephone, her daughter, was renowned throughout the world as a paragon of beauty. Where mother and daughter walked, the sun shone brightly, flowers bloomed, the grasses rippled in the gentle breeze and the maize swelled at their fertile touch. Many gods had sought her favour, but Demeter had refused all suitors to Persephone. One god, more than any other, grazed by Cupid's arrow, was transfixed by her. His cold and dark demeanour could not have been further away from the sun drenched world above. For he was Hades, the god of death and lord of the Underworld, who rued the grisly world gifted to him at the Creation. His divine flesh was tinged with a sickly pallor, deprived of sunlight far below the surface of the Earth, and the light of life was far distant from his eyes. But longingly did he look upon Persephone.


Enna
Photograph taken by Massimiliano Canale
One day, Hades could endure the torment no longer, and came before Zeus, high on Mount Olympus. The Thunderer, surprised to see his brother in the Overworld, was stunned to see the anguish upon Hades' face. The god of the dead bowed before Zeus, and implored him to grant Persephone to him so that she could be his wife. The King of the gods was troubled by this request. For Persephone was also his daughter (incest being an alas regular occurrence in Greek Mythology), and she would never forgive her father for sending her to the dank depths of the Underworld. What was more, Demeter would never allow it, having spurned so many other deities before. Yet Hades was his brother, and he had no wish to offend him. What then, was the King of the gods to do? Torn by his duties, Zeus resigned to neutrality, neither granting Hades' wish, nor denying it, sending his brother away while he deliberated. Time passed, and the lord of the dead grew restless in his black abode. If Zeus had not forbidden it, then he must be allowed to, he thought. His patience gone at last, Hades resolved to take Persephone himself.


Hades seizes Persephone
Painting by Nicolò dell'Abate
Meanwhile, far above on the golden meadows of Sicily, Persephone and her handmaidens were dancing in the rolling fields. Revelling in the summer bloom, the goddesses were picking flowers near Enna, for a magnificent garland. Just then, Persephone noticed the particularly vibrant petals of a narcissus. Leaning over, she clasped the flower. As her soft fingers closed around the stem, a deafening roar shook the Earth. The goddesses screamed and jumped back in fear, for before them a vast fissure had torn the Earth asunder, a pit to the black abyss. Bursting forth from within came the god of the dead himself, in all his deathly glory, on a mighty chariot pulled by four towering black steeds. With a strength belying his ghostly complexion, Hades seized Persephone by the waist and took her into his chariot. With a crack of the whip, the god made haste, and hurtled back to the blackness of the abyss, as the handmaidens looked on, paralysed with shock and terror. The gaping maw of the chasm pulled shut with a roar, and the gateway between this world and the nether world sealed. Where once there was song, only silence prevailed.


Demeter, as yet unaware of Persephone's fate, called out to her daughter. When no reply came, she called again and again. Confused, and worried, the lady of the harvest looked, but did not find. Soon her worry turned to fear, as she could find her nowhere. Across the land she frantically searched, but no trace of her was to be found. For nine days the goddess searched, oblivious to hunger and fatigue. Distraught, soon Demeter found Persephone's belt, lying where she had been seized.


  " When she saw the gate-keepers fled, the house unguarded,
     the rusted hinges, the overthrown doorposts, and the miserable state
     of the silent halls, pausing not to look again at the disaster,
     she rent her garment and tore away the shattered corn-ears along with her hair.
     She could not weep nor speak nor breathe and a trembling
     shook the very marrow of her bones; her faltering steps tottered... "
                              - THE GRIEF OF DEMETER


Weeping, and angry, soon she neglected her duties as goddess of the harvest. Crops failed throughout the land. The grass withered and dried, green became brown, and maize became empty husks.  Wherever she trod, desert spread. Soon cattle, stricken with famine, collapsed in the barren fields. Mankind began to suffer too. Starving, soon people felt death's stricken hand drag them down to the House of Hades. The other gods came to Demeter and begged her to release the world from the deadly grip it was now locked in. But their pleas fell upon deaf ears, for Demeter thought only of  finding Persephone. Crying with frustration, Zeus ordered Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to travel down to Hades' realm, and release Persephone from the dark god's grip.


The Abduction of Persephone
Photograph taken by Steffen Heilfort
Meanwhile, deep in the depths of the Underworld, Persephone lay, a sad and melancholic shadow of her former self. Hades tried in vain to bring her round, and reconcile her with her new life, showing her the wealth that lay below the ground. The god of the dead held a large banquet to celebrate their wedding. Just as Persephone, resigned to her torment, placed her hand upon a pomegranate before her, a blinding light flashed throughout the darkness. Hermes appeared, in all his divine glory, commanding Hades to release his new bride. The dark god dared not disobey a direct order from Olympus, and reluctantly set her free, but with an odd indifference. Puzzled by the ease with which Hades handed her over, Hermes nevertheless took flight upon his winged sandals, bearing the new Queen of the Dead high to Olympus' lofty heights.


The Return of Persephone
Painting by Frederic Leighton
A storm of cheers raised the heights of the Divine Mountain as Persephone tentatively stepped into the banqueting hall, with the array of gods enthroned before her. With a cry of exultation, Demeter threw herself forward and embraced her daughter, tears of joy rolling down her fair cheek. All seemed well at last. The rains came, the drought subsided, and the crops grew plentiful once more. But then, at the moment of triumph, came forth the god Ascalaphus. A servant of Hades, who yearned for favour from his dark master, Ascalaphus, with a look of savage pleasure on his face, informed the assembled crowd that since Persephone had eaten the food of the Underworld, she was forbidden to leave it. The joy broke to silence. Jolted to the very core, Zeus realised he was right. The laws of the Fates were absolute, for it was indeed the law that any who took the food or drink of the Underworld was condemned to spend an eternity there. Persephone broke down in tears, for in her absent minded grief, she had eaten four seeds from the pomegranate at Hades' table. Demeter rounded on Ascalaphus in fury, and in her anger turned him into an owl, and he was forever banished from the domain of the gods. Pleading at the feet of Zeus, she begged the Thunderer for help. The gods debated long into the night. If the Fates were defied, the cosmos would be overturned in Chaos. But if Persephone could not be free, man would, for a second time, be hurled headlong into the grasp of death.

Dawn arrived. Demeter came before Zeus, awaiting his verdict with terror. Torn by inner conflict, the Thunderer decreed that since Persephone had eaten four seeds of the pomegranate, for four months of the year she would dwell with Hades in the Underworld. For the remaining eight, however, she was free to return to the Earth. So ever after, for much of the year the world was bathed in light and burdened under the fruits of the trees. As Persephone's time in Hades approached, Demeter grew sad again, and the land turned a shade of brown, and leaves began to fall from the trees, bringing Autumn. When Persephone descended to the Underworld, Demeter's grief was absolute, and the world was shrouded in white, and ice spread her glittering sheets across the land, bearing Winter. So the comings and goings of the seasons were born...

 United Kingdom

The Library of Mythology:
Apollodorus - The Library of Greek Mythology
(A vast collection of the myths of old Greece, written in ancient times, and a great intro)

The Theogony:
Hesiod - Theogony and Works and Days
(A tale of the beginning of the world, and the creation of the gods, briefly mentioning this story)

The Rape of Proserpina:
Claudian - The Rape of Proserpina
(Here is a link to a poetic retelling of the story, for the adventurous!)


United States

The Library of Mythology:
Apollodorus - The Library of Greek Mythology
(A vast collection of the myths of old Greece, written in ancient times, and a great intro)

The Theogony:
Hesiod - Theogony and Works and Days
(A tale of the beginning of the world, and the creation of the gods, briefly mentioning this story)

The Rape of Proserpina:
Claudian - The Rape of Proserpina
(Here is a link to a poetic retelling of the story, for the adventurous!)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Forbidden Tree

One of the most curious things about the myths and legends of the past is how strikingly similar they can be, even when arising in total isolation from others. When all other traditions of culture seem alien, our stories unite us all. One such story from Aztec lore holds this particularly true. For on first reckoning there seems never to have been two more unlikely faiths to have common ground as Christianity and the religion of the Aztecs, but common ground there is aplenty.


Xochiquetzal
Image taken from the Codex Rios
" Hail to our Mother, from whose hand
  the yellow flowers blossomed,
  the seeds of the maguey were scattered,
  as she came forth from Paradise...

  Hail to the goddess,
  radiant as the bright butterfly
  in the bush of thorns.... "
        - HYMN TO THE ALL MOTHER

Long ago in the most ancient times, when the gods were at constant war with one another, each yearning for mastery over the cosmos, there lived a fair goddess in a fair land. Xochiquetzal, as she was called, was a youthful deity, and a sight of wonder to behold. With flowers in her hair, and a soothing, songlike voice, she reigned in a lost age of innocence, an age of dance and laughter. The land within which she dwelled was a Paradise worthy of her beauty. For this was Tamoanchán, the fairest of all the Thirteen Heavens. Vast, sweeping fields rolled away for eternity, towering peaks soared into the sky, topped with a snow which did not melt. The boughs of the trees bowed under the abundance of fruits and blossoms, as the eternal rays of the sun shone through to the soft grass below. One tree above all others stood in the very centre of this land, towering above all others in stature and in splendour. When the golden rays of the radiant sun fell upon its leaves, the Tree released the most alluring perfume into the air, which the breeze would soon carry to the four corners of this idyllic land. It was said that the birds which roosted in its branches serenaded Tamoanchán with the most enchanting evensong the Thirteen Heavens ever heard. This was a land of the purest tranquillity. The Great Creator, Ometeotl (for his role in the Creation, please click here), had gifted this land to Xochiquetzal with but one command - that she never eat from the fruit of the Tree.


Mictlantecuhtli
Statue in the National Museum
of Anthropology, Veracruz
Meanwhile in the cosmos, it was the dawn of the fifth age of the Sun. The hopes of an at last peaceful era were high, in the wake of the terrible destruction unleashed in the first four incarnations, the last ending in a cataclysmic flood at the hands of the goddess Chalchiúhtlicue (for the story of these struggles, please click here). Now Quetzalcóatl, the Plumed Serpent, and Tezcatlipoca, Lord of the Smoking Mirror, united to build the world anew (two friends who would one day become the most terrible of foes, in a story told here). From the body of the Earth Monster Tlaltecuhtli they wove the new land, and from her skin and bones they fashioned new gods. But the infant world was barren and lifeless, for all had been destroyed in Chalchiúhtlicue's wrath. It was Quetzalcóatl who reasoned that only from the bones of the previous races of man to walk the earth could a new one rise. The gods agreed, and the Plumed Serpent set off in search of the bones, held in the grim world of Mictlán - the Underworld. For while all else on Earth may change, the land of the dead never shows a new face. No less stubborn was the grisly lord of the dead, the god Mictlantecuhtli, who personally tore the souls of men from their mortal forms, and ruled Mictlán with his consort Mictecacíhuatl. No one, not even a god, could enter Mictlán whilst alive. With no other god eager to venture into that dark realm, Quetzalcóatl resolved to embark on the grim quest. Raising a pyre high, and setting in its heart a flame, Quetzalcóatl faced death with valour, and stepped into the roaring conflagration.


Isla Bay - the furthest corner of the Aztec World
Photograph taken by 'Intersofia'
The pain at last subsiding, Quetzalcóatl awoke with a start. The darkness was heavy here, and a ghastly smell of rotting corpses poisoned the air. Turning north, the air grew fouler still, in a world so far away from idyllic Tamoanchán. After a while, when the stench of death choked even the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcóatl at last found he who no other dares to seek - Mictlantecuhtli. Sitting upon a high throne, skeletal, emaciated and grimacing, Mictlantecuhtli gazed upon the intruder with unblinking, baleful eyes. The Plumed Serpent bowed before Death, and asked for the bones of the extinct animals, fish and men who had once walked the Earth. The dark god, who resented the other gods for residing in the sunlit lands, had no desire to grant Quetzalcóatl's request. Glowing with malice, he agreed to relinquish the bones on the condition that Quetzalcóatl travel four times around Mictlán whilst trumpeting on a holeless conch shell, a feat he deemed impossible, and indeed would at once make a fool of the god. Quetzalcóatl, however, was unfazed. Looking around him, he saw the worms and carrion that feasted upon the decaying corpses of Mictlán, and hatched a plan. Summoning the dark creatures to him, he commanded the worms to burrow through the shell, and the swarm of bees to enter it. The buzzing of the bees, amplified by the shell, became a pleasant music, such that had never been heard in Mictlán before. Mictlantecuhtli, furious that he had been outwitted, caused the very ground to quake and rend asunder in his rage.


Seizing his chance, Quetzalcóatl dived for the bones and made his escape. Just as he neared the mouth of Mictlán, however, he tripped on a fissure the dark god's anger had torn in the ground. Slamming into the bones, with a sickening crunch many of them broke, but the Plumed Serpent recovered and stole away. Coming to Tamoanchán, the gods resolved to create a new human race, to populate this perfect land. Taking blood from each god, Quetzalcóatl prepared the rites necessary to craft a man. Upon opening the pouch which contained the bones, however, the Plumed Serpent saw that they were broken, and knew not how they should be. It is for this reason that mankind has such infinite variety.


Pico de Orizaba
Photograph taken by 'Marte'
For a time, the harmony in Xochiquetzal's domain was absolute, and it seemed that the serenity would endure for all time. But soon, Xochiquetzal, distracted by her new company, began to forget the warning Ometeotl had decreed. One day, when the sun rose, and the perfume of the Forbidden Tree rose hhigh into the sky, Xochiquetzal could resist the temptation no longer. The other gods, and first humans, who had not known of their true nature, encouraged her to seek out the fruits of the Tree. There were so many fruits hanging from its leafy, blossomed boughs, that no one would notice if just one went missing? Tentatively, she edged towards the tree, entranced by its beauty. The Great Creator would not notice if she were to just pick one, she thought. Stretching out her hand, her fingers clasped a ripe, blood red fruit, and gently, she pulled it free. From the moment her fingers touched the fruit, however, a ripple of foreboding thundered through her. Blood dripped from the branch from whence the fruit came. With a scream, she backed away, as the Tree split clean in two, blasted apart by some unseen power. Lightning arced through the sky, and darkness rolled across the land. Spirited away to a lonely mountainside, Xochiquetzal wept, and Ometeotl condemned her for her actions. Since she had disobeyed the Creator's command, she would henceforth be banished from Tamoanchán, never to return. She, along with mankind, would be sent down to the dry, dusty plains of the Earth, and would know suffering. For ever after, Xochiquetzal would never be able to enjoy the beauty of flowers around her, for her eyes would ever stream with tears, tears at her Paradise lost...

The story of Xochiquetzal's exile was a shameful event to the Aztecs, as the reason why they lived in a world of peril. But what must have been equally, if not more, shocking, was the realisation in the minds of the Spanish conquistadores when they heard this tale from their newfound subjects. The parallel between this story and the events in the Garden of Eden are striking, yet the Aztecs had never before known the ways of the Old World. Perhaps the Aztecs were not the aliens they had first appeared after all...

United Kingdom

Aztec Prayers:
Rig Veda Americanus
(A small collection of prayers and hymns to the pagan gods, translated from the Nahuatl language)

Spanish account of the Conquest of Mexico:
The Conquest of New Spain
(A written account of the conquest given by a soldier who actually served under Cortés himself)

Mythology:
Mythology of the Aztec and Maya
(A colourful and nicely presented introduction to Aztec and Mayan Mythology, and an excellent choice for 'getting into it'. The actual cover is different from the one Amazon displays, and the book itself has many high quality photographs in it)

United States

Aztec Prayers:
Rig Veda Americanus
(A small collection of prayers and hymns to the pagan gods, translated from the Nahuatl language)

Spanish account of the Conquest of Mexico:
The Conquest of New Spain
(A written account of the conquest given by a soldier who actually served under Cortés himself)

Mythology:
Mythology of the Aztec and Maya
(A colourful and nicely presented introduction to Aztec and Mayan Mythology, and an excellent choice for 'getting into it'. The actual cover is different from the one Amazon displays, and the book itself has many high quality photographs in it)

  

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Death and the Wishes

True heroism is not a thing which only resides on the field of war, in the face of oppression, or in the words of great speakers. It can manifest all around us, every day, in the most startling form, from the most unexpected of people. Here is the story of a woman, who through her devotion and virtue, overcame the last enemy that will be defeated, death.


Savitri
Image taken from a 19th century
watercolour - artist unknown
A long time ago, in the forgotten kingdom of Madra, a land in the north western reaches of India, there lived a young princess. Savitri, as she was called, was a most unusual princess. Whilst the other girls of the court made merry in the palace, dancing and enjoying themselves, Savitri was quite the opposite. A shy, studious and intelligent girl, Savitri preferred to read and hear the stories of the great sagas of the past over song and dance. Indeed, Savitri's father, old King Ashwapati, began to grow concerned for his daughter. For she had now turned eighteen, the age when most princesses had to marry, and none had come to make a proposal. The old King cared dearly for his daughter, remembering all too well how precious a gift she was, for many years ago, the ascetic King had longed for a child. Savitr, god of the sun, was impressed by the King's ascetic lifestyle, and the many offerings he faithfully made. Coming to the King in a dream, he promised him a daughter. Nine months later, the Queen gave birth to Savitri. Lost in his memories for a moment, the King suggested to Savitri that she seek out a suitor. Savitri gently declined. She was not yet ready, she told him. First she must embark on her travels, learning from the holy men who walked the land and praying at the sacred shrines so that she may grow closer to the Righteous Spirit. The old King reminded her that she was eighteen, and that it was expected of her. With a laugh, Savitri reasoned that if she found no one on her travels, he could arrange something on her return. Satisfied, King Ashwapati agreed, and Savitri set out into the wilderness.

Casting aside all the panoply of royalty, and the luxuries of the court, Savitri wandered through the land. Hearing the teachings of the holy men, seeking only the simplest foods for sustenance, and sleeping under the stars, she was a model of temperance, and none could have guessed for a moment when looking upon her that she was a princess at all.


Narada
Image taken from an 18th century painting - artist unknown
For a year the young princess lived the ascetic life, until one day, she found herself walking in a great forest. Just then a heavy thud rent the air. Savitri turned to see the source of the disturbance, and saw before her a man chopping wood. Savitri was intrigued by the man, for though he bore an axe in one hand, and a stack of firewood in the other, there was something in his bearing, an indescribable essence of nobility. The man's clothes were threadbare, and his appearance rugged, yet Savitri could not help wondering whether this man was like herself - perhaps high born once? Consumed by curiosity, and something else, Savitri approached the woodsman, and asked him of his past. Laying aside the heavy axe, and wiping the sweat from his brow, the kindly man introduced himself as Satyavan. He told an enraptured Savitri that he had once been raised in a palace, waited on by a vast array of courtiers. His father was the King of that domain, but as he grew old in body, he had lost his sight. Seizing advantage of this disability, the courtiers had conspired and schemed and deceived. Satyavan confessed his sorrow that he himself was not old enough to protect his father, as he was overthrown and his kingdom seized. Banished and exiled, Satyavan and his father now lived in the forest, and Satyavan was cutting wood to take back to his father in the hut. Savitri was utterly enthralled by Satyavan, and hung on to every word as the unfortunate woodsman finished his tale.

Some time later, with much jubilation, Savitri returned to the palace of her father King Ashwapati. The old King was overjoyed to see her again, and even more astonished when she told him of her choice of husband. Turning to Narada, a wise and holy man whose travels had brought him to court, the King asked him of Satyavan. "Is he a good man?" the King asked. "Yes", replied the sage. "Is he strong in body, and wondrous to behold?" the King asked. "He is magnanimous like Yayati, and beautiful like the Moon", Narada replied. Ashwapati was delighted, but the old prophet had one, devastating, revelation:


     "He hath only one defect, and no other. Within a year from this day, Satyavan,
      endued with a short life will cast off his body..."
                                          - NARADA FORETELLS SATYAVAN'S DOOM


Yama - The God of Death
Image taken from a mid 17th to early 18th
century Tibetan piece - artist unknown
Dismayed, the King reluctantly requested Savitri to choose another, lest she live a life of sorrow and grief. For if there was one being on Heaven or Earth who always kept his promise, it was the god of death. Undeterred, Savitri was adamant "With a life short or long, possessed of virtues or bereft of them, I have, for once, selected my husband". The old sage was humbled by her devotion, and applauded the King for having such a noble daughter. Attempts to dissuade her will be fruitless, Narada told the King, but be thankful for the time they will have. Honoured, but uneasy, the King gave his permission, and the Savitri and Satyavan were wed. Abandoning her precious jewels and majestic silks once again, Savitri went to live with Satyavan, happily wed, in the forest with his father. Savitri never spoke of the the macabre prophecy she had heard to husband, but not a day went by when she did not remember it. After some months, their tranquillity was absolute, and Savitri prayed that Death would not come. But Death never breaks his promise.

Summer came, and the sun rose high in the sky, heralding a year to the day since Savitri had returned to her father. The grass was dappled with golden light, and the sky a brilliant blue. Satyavan had gone out to cut some wood for his father, and Savitri was singing merrily to him. For a while, Savitri began to wonder, perhaps the prophecy would not come true after all? The thought of it welled up inside her. Just then, Satyavan stopped, putting a hand to his head. The axe fell to the floor with a thud, and Satyavan complained of dizziness. He staggered, and, terror flooding through her, Savitri ran to him. Tears streamed from her eyes, as Satyavan fell, and his head came to rest in her lap. Looking up, she saw a cloud pass in front of the face of the sun, and the glade was plunged into shadow. Time seemed to stand still, and the land was thrown into eerie silence. Death never breaks his promise.


Savitri pleads with Death
Image taken from a 19th century
watercolour - artist unknown
Not a sound pierced the silence. No wind in the trees, no birdsong. With a start, Savitri looked back and saw a figure standing over them. Clad in robes the colour of blood, with dark skin stretched tightly over his visible bones, Death stood in deafening silence, his crimson eyes fixed on Satyavan. Savitri, ravaged with grief, saw in one withered hand that he carried a noose. Death never breaks his promise. Desperate for any chance that what had been foretold might never come to pass, Savitri, shaking with fright, asked the horrifying apparition who he was. Death turned slowly to face her, and spoke. Savitri was surprised, for Death spoke with a voice that seemed musical, both distant and close. "Oh Savitri, thou art ever devoted to thy husband, and thou art also endorsed with ascetic merit. It is for this reason that I hold converse with thee". Death continued, and told the weeping Savitri that he was indeed Yama - the god of death. Since Satyavan was a model of virtue and a wonder to behold, Death himself had come to claim him. Leaning slowly forward, his robes billowing in an ethereal wind, Death claimed Satyavan's soul and bound it in the noose. Turning, Death ambled southwards, his latest soul borne effortlessly in his skeletal hand. Just then, a crack rent the silence, as a twig snapped. Death turned, and saw Savitri following him:


  " Desist, O Savitri! Go back, and perform the funeral obsequies of thy lord!
    Thou art freed from all obligations to thy lord.
    Thou hast come as far as it is possible to come"
                        - DEATH WARNS SAVITRI NOT TO FOLLOW 


Savitri refused to leave Satyavan. Death, impressed by her devotion, and that any mortal would choose to follow the god of death, offered her one wish, provided that she not ask for the life of her husband. Savitri tearfully told Death of her father-in-law, how fortune had deprived him of his sight, and asked that Death restore his sight. "It is done", Death declared, warning her to come no further. Death continued his march through the forest, as the shadow grew darker, and the silence heavier. A rustle sounded in the bushes. Death turned and saw Savitri there once again. At once angered and warmed, Death asked if she was not weary from taking this road. "What weariness can I feel in the presence of my husband?" Savitri replied, refusing to leave his side. As much to be rid of her as to reward her admirable loyalty, Death granted her a second wish, provided that she not wish for the life of her husband. Savitri told Death of the betrayal her father-in-law had fallen afoul of, his throne usurped by cruel men. Savitri asked Death if he would restore her father-in-law to his rightful throne, and that his fortunes might be whole again. "It is done", Death commanded, impressed once more at the selflessness of Savitri, "Do thou now desist! Return! Do not take any future trouble". For the third time, Death turned South, and continued on the road to shadow. For an age he marched slowly on, as the forest grew wilder, the shadow darker and the silence louder.

The Redemption of Satyavan
Painting by Mahadev Dhurandar
Death turned once again, and found Savitri still there. Incandescent, Death offered her a third wish, provided she did not wish for the life of her husband. Savitri replied "that lord of Earth, my father, is without sons. That he may have a hundred sons begotten of his loins, so that his line may be perpetuated, is the third wish I would ask of thee". "It is done", Death commanded, and for the third time he bid her leave. But Savatri refused to abandon Satyavan. Since Savitri had wished only for others, Death offered her a fourth wish, but this time, one for her, provided she did not wish for the life of her husband. "Both of me and Satyavan's loins, begotten by both of us, let there be a century of sons possessed of strength and prowess". "It is a good wish, and it shall be done", Death commanded, turning to face her fully for the first time. Savitri steadfastly refused to depart her husband, for "The righteous are never cheerless in the company of the righteous". At last, moved by her unwavering devotion and virtue, Death joyfully spoke "Oh thou that art so devoted to thy lord, ask for some incomparable boon!". This time, Savitri smiled. For Death had promised her and Satyavan a hundred sons, yet how could this come true if was in Death's grasp? "Beyond all other wishes, I ask for this, may Satyavan be restored to life!" Savitri cried. Death smiled, and happily declared that all she had wished for would come true. Unravelling the noose, Death released Satyavan, declaring that Savitri's father-in-law sight restored, his usurper defeated, and his fortunes high once more. Her father would beget a line of a hundred sons, whose might would be known throughout the world. Her and Satyavan would live for four hundred years, and beget a noble line, spoken of far and wide. Bidding them a warm farewell, Death departed, and the cloud lifted, the sun shone and the birds sang once again. Satyavan opened his eyes, and Savitri wept with happiness...

The tale of Savitri and Death is an ancient one. It can be found in it's entirety in a book known as the Mahābhārata. An ancient work of literature from India, the Mahābhārata is one of the two great Sanskrit epics (the other being the Rāmāyana). With a story dating to at least the ninth century BC, the Mahābhārata is one of the cornerstones of human literature, and being ten times longer than both the Homeric epics combined, it is a gargantuan mine of stories, set against one dramatic war story. The story of Savitri can be found in Book Three of the Mahābhārata, but do not let it's length intimidate. It is quite possible to dip in and out of it - there are plenty of short stories throughout it, of which you have just read one. So why not give it a go? For a work so truly titanic in scale, it is easily obtained for a very good price from Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics)
(A Titan in the history of human writing, the Mahābhārata is a literary juggernaut with a vast array of stories)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics)
(A Titan in the history of human writing, the Mahābhārata is a literary juggernaut with a vast array of stories)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Blacksmith's Revenge

Legend tells of a King who once lived in the far northern wastes of Sweden, a King infamous for his cruelty his greed and his savage megalomania - King Nidud. His subjects, and his servants, lived in constant fear of the King's wrath, which could be sparked by the most trivial of things, or even by his boredom. The feared King, however, would learn to rue the day he turned his ferocity toward the blacksmith Völundr.


Völundr
Image in the public domain
One day, long ago, the three sons of the King of the Finns went hunting in the high mountains. Their names were Eginn, Slagfinn, and the youngest was called Völundr. Blissfully lost in the woods, the brothers came to a clearing by the side of a great lake, a place so beautiful they decided to build a house there. Their tiring work done, the brothers admired their handiwork, and slept soundly in their new abode. When the brothers awoke the next morning, they were transfixed by the sight before them. Three young women, laughing and spinning flax, were relaxing by the calm waters. Stricken by their beauty, the stunned brothers realised who they were - Valkyries (for more about them, please click here). Overjoyed at their fortune, the brothers invited the maidens to their new dwelling, and were gracious hosts to their glamorous guests. Time passed, and soon each brother had fallen for a Valkyrie. Völundr was captivated by the Valkyrie Alvit, and soon the two were bound in matrimony. For seven years they lived in joyful serenity, having a son, until one day, Völundr awoke to find her missing. Searching far and wide, he could find no trace of her, and soon discovered that the same had happened to his two brothers. The Valkyries had departed the land, for as the servants of Odin, they were bound to his will and obeyed his summons. Alvit had left her beloved Völundr with just a golden ring to remember her by. Racked with grief, Eginn and Slagfinn set off in vain search of their Valkyries, whilst Völundr remained behind, sad, yet hopeful that he may one day see Alvit again. He lived a life of quiet grace, focusing his mind on his ability to work metal in place of his sorrow. Soon, his skill was such that he became famous throughout the lands of the North for the fabulously ornate objects that emerged from his forge.


Völundr at the Forge
Image taken from the 'Franks Casket' (British Museum)
Far away, word reached the ear of King Nidud of Völundr's talent. A greedy and heartless man, Nidud resolved to make a slave of this blacksmith, so that no other might boast of riches greater than his own. Like many wicked men, he sought such riches not to admire their beauty, but simply to possess them.  The cruel King sent forth his soldiers to seize the smith and his treasures, and to bring Völundr before him. The soldiers found Völundr asleep, dreaming of the return of Alvit, when they seized his possessions, and hurled the blacksmith himself into a sack. When Völundr opened his eyes again, he found himself, hands bound, staring into the harsh face of King Nidud himself. The King eyed the smith, running his fingers over a golden ring. Völundr saw, to his anger, that it was the ring which his beloved Alvit had left him. Nidud declared that Völundr would henceforth make riches only for him, until the day he died. His anger building, Völundr cried "Never!" The King, secretly a coward, was unnerved that someone would not be afraid of him. His fear soon turning to fury, Nidud ordered his guards to take Völundr to the tiny island of Saevarstad, where the blacksmith would either comply, or die. Just then, the King's wife, who was no better a person than her husband, suggested that the sinews in the blacksmith's legs be severed, so that he may never run, or swim, and escape. Nidud's two sons howled with laughter as Völundr's screams of pain pierced the night.


When Völundr regained consciousness, he found himself on the smallest, most miserable and lonely island one can imagine. So small he could easily see the whole coast, and the raging torrents crashing upon them, he was given a squalid hut in which to work, and if the previous day's work was satisfactory to the King,  a messenger would bring food. There would be no comforts here. Tears of rage flowed down Völundr's fair cheek, with Alvit as distant as ever, whilst Nidud besmirched the glory of his works with his cruel hand:


                                           " Shines Nidud's
                                             sword in his belt,
                                             which I whetted
                                             as I could best,
                                             and tempered,
                                             as seemed to me most cunningly;
                                             that bright blade forever
                                             is taken away from me:
                                             never shall I see it borne
                                             into Völundr's smithy... "
                                                    - THE MELANCHOLY OF VÖLUNDR


Descended from the Elves, Völundr possessed some of the cunning of that race, and thought desperately of how to escape his sorry plight. Time passed, and soon the treasuries of King Nidud overflowed with the most exquisite works of gold and silver imaginable, and the King was pleased, for he was the envy of the land. Every night, after his backbreaking work for the King's lust for riches was done, Völundr set to work, crafting for himself a set of wings, with struts of silver, and feathers of the most finely beaten brass. Slowly, over time, the wings began to take shape.


Bodvild and Völundr
Relief by Johannes Gehrts
One day, when the wings were nearing completion, a visitor came to Völundr's island - the King's daughter, Bodvild. Now Bodvild was something of a black sheep in her family. Spared the cruel nature of her father, mother and brothers, Bodvild had a warmer, gentler nature. Indeed, from the moment she saw Völundr in her father's hall and pitied him, had fallen for him. Now she came before him, and tentatively asked the lame smith if he might adjust a ring for her, too big for her own finger as it was. Turning to face her, Völundr saw that she was running her finger over a golden ring - Alvit's ring. Burning with fury, Völundr took back the ring and seized his hammer, determined to slay her then. If he could not reach the King, then she would have to do. Neither Völundr nor Boldvid could have imagined what was going through the other's mind. But then, just as Völundr advanced upon her, she declared her anger with her father for his cruelty, and confessed her feelings.  Blinded with silent rage, Völundr would not be swayed from his vengeance, yet saw now a new way to retaliate. The morning after, Völundr spurned her advance, commanding her to leave him and never seek him out again, knowing that he would condemn her to a lifetime of mournful melancholy. The princess fled in tears, distraught, and truly alone. Völundr, who had suffered such torments, now rapidly descended into the very thing he hated so much.


Back in the palace, selfish though he was, Nidud could not help noticing that Bodvild was a shadow of her former self, wandering the corridors as though a shade. But fresh disturbances began to plague him. His sons, his heirs to his kingdom, had not been seen since the day before. As the royal family sat down to their banquet that evening, messengers brought fresh gifts from Völundr to the High Table. King Nidud marvelled at his latest treasure - two goblets. The cups were rather grander in size than any normal chalice, rather similar in size, in fact, to a human skull. Gazing hungrily at the silver gilt cups, the greedy King drank deeply from them, as the heartless Queen placed her gift around her neck - a magnificent necklace, of four precious stones. Each stone was unlike any seen before, circular, and rather like the shape of a human eyeball. The Queen rather thought it reminded her of her two boys, but she could not place her finger upon exactly why. Bodvild, dejected, barely noticed her own gift, of a golden brooch, inlaid with many rows of nuggets, each rather like a human tooth in size.


Völundr's forge
Image taken from Ardre Image Stone VIII
Far away, on the lonely isle, the vengeful blacksmith had at last finished work on his shiny new wings. As a storm raged outside, Völundr took flight, heading toward Nidud's castle. As the night closed in, a flash of thunder suddenly roused the King from his slumber, and he was afraid. It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps his boys had visited Völundr, and maybe the blacksmith might know of their fate? He did not have to wait long to see him. For there, framed in his window, stood Völundr himself, dripping with rainwater, his face contorted with savage pleasure. "Where are my brave boys?" demanded King Nidud. Völundr laughed. They had both come to his smithy, demanding him to craft for them swords of gold. He had slain them both, gilt their skulls in silver and cast their bodies beside his forge. He further had wrenched their eyes from their sockets and set them too, in metal, and wove them into a necklace, which the boys' own mother now wore. He had broken their teeth and set them in a brooch of gold, which the boys' own sister now wore pinned to her chest. Völundr mocked Nidud, as now he had slain both his sons, and broken the heart of his daughter. The King wailed, as to his horror, he realised that he had drunk wine from the skulls of his own sons. The Queen, her sanity broken forever, simply laughed maniacally at the night, whilst the King, for the first time in his life, wept. Völundr, who now had truly forgotten his old self, leapt from the window, and took flight...

The saga of Völundr is at once a tragedy, a moral tale and a warning. It is common for heroes to grow in virtue as their quest develops, but Völundr is completely the opposite. As a result of his arduous life, each test served only to shake the foundations of his humanity, and is a stark reminder that cruelty so often breeds more cruelty, and that life does not always have a happy ending...

United Kingdom

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(A grand collection of tales, mythology and fable from across the Norselands)

United States

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(A grand collection of tales, mythology and fable from across the Norselands)

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Fall of Croesus

Today we return to the story of Croesus, King of Lydia, paragon of wealth and eager for greatness (for the first part of the story, please click here). "No man may know if he has had a happy life until it is over", came the warning from Solon, but it had fallen upon deaf ears. Croesus had it all, how could it possibly go wrong?


The Summit of Mount Olympus
Photograph taken by 'Jkelly'
However, no man or woman could become too powerful or too beautiful without disaster befalling them. For it was always upon the tallest trees that the old gods hurled their thunderbolts. One night, soon after Solon departed, the gods sent a dream to Croesus, a dream with a dire prophecy, that his own son Atys would be slain by an iron spear. Roused, shaken, from his slumber, Croesus was afraid. Croesus had two sons, one deaf and dumb since birth, and Atys, the pride of the Kingdom. Desperate to ensure the dream would never come to pass, Croesus ordered all spears, swords, javelins and all manner of weapons removed from the men's quarters, and forbade his son to leave the Royal Palace. One day soon after, a delegation arrived from Mysia in Greece. They bowed before the King and pleaded with him to send Atys and his finest men to help them, for a monstrous boar had descended from Mount Olympus, spreading carnage wherever it went. Fearful of the dream, Croesus replied that Atys would have to remain behind, but he would send his finest warriors in his stead. The Mysians were disappointed, but gratefully accepted. Seeing the disheartened delegates, Atys implored his father, begging to be allowed with them. Seeing no way to delay so any longer, Croesus reluctantly told to his son the story of his vision, and how he could never let it come to pass. "What a dream!", Atys exclaimed. Though humble before the gods, Atys was a brave man, and he tried to console his father, explaining that the dream had referred to an iron spear, not a tusk, and he would march against boar, not man, and so he was quite safe. As the commander of the Lydian army, it was his duty to prove himself a man before it too. Delighted at this line of thought, Croesus, relented, and bade his son farewell.


Days passed, and then, a messenger appeared in Sardis, burdened and torn with grief. Atys, the man told Croesus, had been killed. "But how can this be?!" the enraged King shouted. Relating his tragic story, the man told the King that the party had tracked the boar to the very slopes of Olympus, after a long and gruelling chase. As their victory drew near, the boar made to gore the King's son, and, meaning to save him, one of the men had hurled his spear at the creature. But in the thrashing and chaos, the iron point flew far of its target, and transfixed Atys where he stood. Croesus, and Lydians far and wide mourned their heroic prince, and an ominous sense of foreboding gripped the land.



The Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great
Map created by the author
For two whole years, Croesus mourned his son, until news was borne to Sardis that events in the East were moving fast. Far away in Asia, the once great land of the Medes had been overturned in a bloody rebellion, lead by a new man, spoken of far and wide as a divine prodigy. This man's name was Cyrus, and it would not be long before he would take the title of 'the Great'. The new nation that rose in his wake would one day become one of the world's greatest powers - the Persian Empire. Jarred from his grief, Croesus awoke to this new danger. Hearing rumours of Oracles around the world which could bear word of the future, Croesus resolved to send envoys to each, and find for himself which one was truly the greatest conduit to the gods. To the Oasis of Ammon in Libya, to the Sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona, to the Abae in Phocis, to the Pythia at Delphi, and to countless others Croesus sent messengers. Deciding upon a test for each, Croesus sent his men to ask each Oracle exactly what he was doing at that moment in time. Carefully working out on which day his messengers would arrive at the Oracles, Croesus lay in wait. Soon after, the answers of the Oracles began to flood in, and Croesus was disappointed. Just then, the messenger who had been sent to Delphi burst into the Palace with the Pythia's reply:


             " I know the number of grains of sand and the extent of the sea;
               I understand the deaf-mute and hear the words of the dumb.
               My senses detect the smell of tough-shelled tortoise
               Cooked in bronze together with the flesh of lambs;
               Beneath it lies bronze, and bronze covers it "
                                  - THE ORACLE ON CROESUS


Many in the court were deeply puzzled, but Croesus was stunned. For, as a test of the gods, on the day that his messengers came before the Oracle, Croesus decided to do something no person could predict. Going to the beach, he had cut up a tortoise ad a lamb and boiled them inside a bronze pot. The eyes of the Oracle were omniscient indeed if she had seen this. Delphi was declared the greatest Oracle under Heaven, and Croesus showered the sanctuary in his riches, with countless ingots of gold towering high in the treasuries of the Oracle. Croesus sent to the Oracle one last time. Sensing the time had come to face Cyrus at last, the King asked the Oracle whether, if there be war between Lydian and Persian, he would emerge triumphant. In one of the most famous prophecies ever to come from Delphi, the Pythia replied "If you make war on the Persians, you will destroy a great empire". Overjoyed, jubilant and relishing his coming victory, Croesus immediately made preparations for the coming storm. Soon Solon would surely have to concede he was the happiest man alive?


Marching with all haste towards the Halys River, the boundary between Lydia and Persia, Croesus sent gifts and an offer of alliance to the Spartans of Laconia, since the Oracle had advised him to march with the strongest nation in Greece. Sure that he needed no help, Croesus did not wait for assistance, but pressed on, eager for glory. One man who marched with the King, however, had a bad feeling. Speaking the words of the gods, Sandanis, as he was called, urged Croesus to turn back:


             " Their food consists of what they can get, not what they might want,
                because of the ruggedness of their land. They drink no wine, just water,
                and figs are the only good thing they have to eat. They have nothing!
                So if you win, what will you gain from them? But if you are defeated,
                think of all the good things you will lose!... "
                                      - SANDANIS URGES CROESUS TO WITHDRAW


Cyrus the Great
Image taken from a modern sculpture,
currently in Sydney
But Croesus was deaf to all warning. Bridging the Halys in haste, the Lydians and the might of Asia clashed. For a whole day the two powers fought, and thousands fell, both Lydian and Persian alike. As night fell, both sides withdrew to lick their wounds. Croesus, putting the stalemate down to lack of numbers, decided to withdraw to Sardis and await his allies there, assuming that Cyrus' losses were too great to pursue him. But the legions of Asia were without number, and the charisma of their leader was great. A spy in the Lydian camp informed the Persian Great King of Croesus' designs, and he set off in close pursuit. Before the very walls of Sardis, Croesus turned to fight once more, certain that whatever transpired, he would be victorious. The Lydian horseman charged, but were soon thrown into disarray. For as yet a Western horse had never before encountered a camel, and the sight and smell of the strange beasts struck panic into the hearts of the Lydian mounts. Scattering to and fro, the Lydians were thrown behind their walls, and the siege began.


Expecting the siege to be long and his allies to arrive soon, Croesus sat back, still confident of victory. For the great city of Sardis sat atop a dramatic plateau, surrounded by a vast wall but for the short stretch of near vertical cliff at the acropolis where the Palace stood. But, fourteen days later, Cyrus witnessed an opening. A Lydian soldier, who dropped his helmet, scrambled down the escarpment to reclaim it, and quickly climbed back up. Realising it was not as impregnable as it first seemed, Cyrus waited for nightfall, then offered a reward for the first man to reach the top. After an exhausting climb, chaos reigned, and Persian troops rampaged through the city, burning all in their path. Croesus lamented over the darkness of war, for "in peace sons bury their fathers and in war fathers bury their sons". As Persian soldiers bore down upon him within his towering, glittering and golden halls, the terrible truth was at last revealed to Croesus. The Oracle had said that he would destroy a great empire if he marched on Cyrus. She had meant his own.


Croesus on the Pyre
Image taken from a 6th century BC Attic Vase
Croesus was hurled to the floor before the Great King, and the two most powerful lords of Asia met at last. Resolving that he would leave the fate of the former Lydian King to the gods, Cyrus ordered that Croesus be bound atop a vast funeral pyre. If he was truly favoured, the gods would spare him. At the command of the Great King, torches were cast into the timbers, and the flames kindled. As the crackle of burning reached his ears, and sparks began to rise before his eyes, Croesus remembered the words of Solon. The old man had been right, fortune is fickle and only at his death does a man know that his life has been fortunate. Seeing the divine inspiration behind these words, Croesus sighed, and simply repeated the name "Solon" to the Heavens. Far below, Cyrus looked on, curious, and eager to know who it was this man called upon in his last moments. Cyrus's translators called up to him, asking him who Solon was. "Someone whom I would give a fortune to have every ruler in the world meet", Croesus solemnly replied. Stunned, Cyrus begged to know more, as the flames began to rise higher and higher. Accepting his fate, Croesus told Cyrus the story of Solon's lesson, of how he had dismissed all his wealth as meaningless, and how everything had transpired as it had been foretold. As the fire licked the soles of Croesus' feet, Cyrus took pity on him, seeing before him not a foe to be conquered, but another human being, who could just as easily be him. Desperately calling out, Cyrus ordered his men to douse the flames, but it was too late, and the conflagration roared. Embracing his end, Croesus raised his head to the skies, prepared to die. But Apollo, lord of prophecy, remembering Croesus' generosity toward his sanctuary of Delphi, took pity on him, and sent a cloud of rain to douse the fire.


Awed at the sight before him, Cyrus took the broken old man down, weeping that he had tried to destroy a man who was good at heart. "Who was it that persuaded you to invade my country, and be my enemy over my friend?" the Great King asked of him. "It was the god of the Greeks", he replied. So would be sown the first seeds of conflict between the East and the West...

United Kingdom

The Histories:
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
( I can not recommend this enough. The sheer number of the most gripping stories inside is formidable)

United States

The Histories:
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
(I can not recommend this enough. The sheer number of the most gripping stories inside is formidable)