Tuesday, February 16, 2010
The Great Plaza in Tikal was surrounded by grand palaces and temples. This is Temple I.
Peeling Back the Jungle
By the time the Spanish conquered Honduras in the 1520s, Copán had long been overgrown by rainforest. Several explorers visited it in the early 19th century and wrote about the barely visible ruins. In 1839, explorer and travel writer John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852) paid a Maya guide to lead him to the site. In Stephens’s book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, he offers this riveting account of how the jungle was stripped away to rediscover the ruins.
It is impossible to describe the interest with which I explored these ruins. The ground was entirely new; there were no guide-books or guides; the whole was virgin soil. We could not see 10 yards before us, and never knew what we should stumble upon next. At one time we stopped to cut away branches and vines which concealed the face of a monument, and then to dig around and bring to light a fragment, a sculptured corner of which protruded from the earth. I leaned over with breathless anxiety while the Indians worked, and an eye, an ear, a foot, or a hand was disentombed. When the machete rang against the chiseled stone, I pushed the Indians away, and cleared out the loose earth with my hands. The beauty of the sculpture, the solemn stillness of the woods, disturbed only by the scrambling of monkeys and chattering of parrots, the desolation of the city, and the mystery that hung over it, all created an interest higher, if possible, than I had ever felt among the ruins of the Old World.
The Maya were master pyramid builders, but their magnificent cities were buried by the jungle until the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is a pyramid in Chichén Itzá, a great Maya city of the Postclassic Era.
Palenque was one of the great cities of the Classic Era. These ruins were once the temple complex.
Volcano peaks pierce the blanket of cool mist that hangs above the forest canopy. Ghostly howler monkeys scream, unseen, as if the ruined temples were part of a scene in an unearthly horror movie. For some, the sounds create the illusion that the lost city of Copán is haunted by tortured souls wailing deep within the stone pyramids. Only the occasional rustle of a tree branch reveals that the monkeys are the true source of the screams. They scramble across a platform where priests once addressed thousands of people. The platform is now buried in vines, and moss, and jungle growth. The remains of Copán, one of the richest centers of Maya civilization, lie deep in the tropical forest of modern Honduras. Copán became wealthy because of its rich soil and the Copán River’s annual flood. Each year, the river overflowed and the water left behind a new layer of rich, fertile soil. The huge quantity of precious jade found in the tombs of Copán’s kings is evidence of how wealthy they were.
Classifying Maya history
Archaeologists divide pre-Columbian (the time before Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492 c.e. Maya history into three major time periods: Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic. During the Preclassic Era, from about 1200 b.c.e. to 250 c.e., settled farming communities grew into complex societies. Many Maya kingdoms experienced rapid growth in this era. They built monumental structures, established long-distance trade routes, and developed governing systems. In the later part of the Preclassic Era, some kingdoms were enjoying their peak while others had already faded away.
The Classic Era was between about 250 and 900. From southeastern Mexico to upper Central America, this varied landscape supported millions of people in Classic times. During the height of Maya civilization in the eighth century, as many as 60 independent kingdoms dotted the Maya area, as well as hundreds of smaller towns and villages.
Unlike the Aztec people, their neighbors to the north, the Maya never unified into a single empire. Instead, they built commerce centers that grew into city-states (cities that function as separate kingdoms or nations) ruled by kings. These kingdoms formed alliances with one another one day, only to turn into sworn enemies the next.
Robert J. Sharer wrote in The Ancient Maya that the capitals of independent kingdoms were “interconnected by commerce, alliances, and rivalries that often led to war.” By the end of the Classic Era, the southern lowland capitals had collapsed, leaving modern scholars to wonder what catastrophe forced the Maya to abandon their cities.
The northern lowlands kingdoms rose and fell during the Postclassic Era, from 900 to 1524. Some kingdoms flowered dramatically, but probably did not reach the heights of the kingdoms from previous eras. It was in the Postclassic Era that kings lost their grip on centralized power and nobles greedily stepped in to break the kingdoms up into smaller pieces.
The Postclassic Era ended with the arrival of the Spaniards, who found that most Maya were living in medium-sized kingdoms and groups of allied cities throughout the Maya area.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
In Cuchulainn and the Morrigan we return to the supernatural theme that underpins his adventures. It is partly through his relationship to this primal Celtic goddess of death, procreation, and life, that Cuchulainn is so successful, for she is also goddess of war. Only after she withdraws her support can the Champion of Ulster be defeated.
The Celts have many myths and beliefs that center around the number three. The Morrigan, Danu, and Brigd are often seen as a single trifaced goddess, and many of the legends of Celtic heroes involve three tests, three challenges, or three possible outcomes. Thus, it is only natural that they would ascribe the number three into the physical world, as well. For the Celts, nature involves three earthly realms: the land, the sea, and the sky. Each has a connection with the spiritual realm. The spirits of nature live within the land, the dead live in a paradise beyond (or, in some legends, beneath) the sea, and the sky is the home of the noblest and most powerful of gods.
The Morrigan embodies all that is ferocious and terrifying about war. Her powers are great, and her anger is a force that even the gods fear. A dark deity, the Morrigan’s aspect is that of an ancient crone with iron teeth and a great reaping scythe. She delights in visiting battles, watching from above in the form of a great crow. She is a violent goddess, one who causes strife and war but whose powers can also end it – though only at a great price.
The Morrigan’s sister is Badb, known in Gaul as Cauth Bodva. Badb follows behind Morrigan on the battlefield, ensuring that death comes quickly after war.
The Morrigan is a goddess of battle, strife, and fertility. Her name translates as either “Great Queen” or “Phantom Queen,” and both epithets are entirely appropriate. The Morrigan frequently appears in the guise of a hooded crow, cawing stories of death and decay to all those who will listen. She was instrumental in the defeat of the Fomorians, and is known to hate them with an unrivaled passion.
Cuchulainn and the Morrigan
When Cuchulainn lay in sleep in Dun Imrid, he heard a cry sounding out of the north, a cry terrible and fearful to his ears. Out of a deep slumber he was aroused by it so suddenly, that he fell out of his bed upon the ground like a sack, in the east wing of the house.
He rushed forth without weapons, until he gained the open air, his wife following him with his armour and his garments. He perceived Laegh in his harnessed chariot coming towards him from Ferta Laig in the North. 'What brings thee here?' said Cuchulainn. 'A cry that I heard sounding across the plain,' said Laegh. 'From which direction?' said Cuchulainn. 'From the north-west,' said Laegh, 'across the great highway leading to Caill Cuan.' 'Let us follow the sound,' said Cuchulainn.
They go forward as far as Ath da Ferta. When they arrived there, they heard the rattle of a chariot from the loamy district of Culgaire. They saw before them a chariot harnessed with a chestnut horse. The horse had (but) one leg, and the pole of the chariot passed through its body, so that the peg in front met the halter passing across its forehead. Within the chariot sat a woman, her eye-brows red, and a crimson mantle round her. Her mantle fell behind her between the wheels of the chariot so that it swept along the ground. A big man went along beside the chariot. He also wore a coat of crimson, and on his back he carried a forked staff of hazelwood, while he drove a cow before him.
'The cow is not pleased to be driven on by you,' said Cuchulainn. 'She does not belong to you,' said the woman; 'the cow is not owned by any of your friends or associates.' 'The cows of Ulster belong to me,' said Cuchulainn. 'You would give a decision about the cow!' said the woman; 'you are taking too much upon yourself, O Cuchulainn!'
'Why is it the woman who accosts me?' said Cuchulainn. 'Why is it not the man?' 'It is not the man to whom you addressed yourself,' said the woman. 'Oh yes,' said Cuchulainn, 'but it is you who answer for him.' 'He is Uar-gaeth-sceo Luachair-sceo.' 'Well, to be sure, the length of the name is astonishing!' said Cuchulainn. 'Talk to me then yourself, for the man does not answer. What is your own name?' 'The woman to whom you speak,' said the man, 'is called Faebor beg-beoil cuimdiuir folt scenb-gairit sceo uath.'
'You are making a fool of me!' said Cuchulainn. And he made a leap into the chariot. He put his two feet on her two shoulders, and his spear on the parting of her hair.
'Do not play your sharp weapons on me!' she said. 'Then tell your true name,' said Cuchulainn. 'Go further off from me then,' said she. 'I am a female satirist, and he is Daire mac Fiachna of Cuailgne; I carry off this cow as a reward for a poem.' 'Let us hear your poem,' said Cuchulainn. 'Only move further off,' said the woman. 'Your shaking over my head will not influence me.' Then he moved off until he was between the two wheels of the chariot. Then she sang to him. . .
Cuchulainn prepared to spring again into the chariot; but horse, woman, chariot, man, and cow, all had disappeared.
Then he perceived that she had been transformed into a black bird on a branch close by him. 'A dangerous enchanted woman you are!' said Cuchulainn. 'Henceforth this Grellach shall bear the name of the 'enchanted place" (dolluid),' said the woman; and Grellach Dolluid was it called.
'If I had only known that it was you,' said Cuchulainn, 'we should not have parted thus.' 'Whatever you have done,' said she, 'will bring you ill-luck.' 'You cannot harm me,' said he. 'Certainly I can,' said the woman. 'I am guarding your death-bed, and I shall be guarding it henceforth. I brought this cow out of the Sidh of Cruachan so that she might breed by the bull of Daire mac Fiachna, namely the Donn of Cuailgne. So long as her calf shall be a yearling, so long shall thy life be; and it is this that shall cause the Tain Bo Cuailgne.'
'My name shall be all the more renowned in consequence of this Tain,' said the hero:
I shall strike down their warriors
I shall fight their battles
I shall survive the Tain!
'How wilt thou manage that?' said the woman; 'for, when thou art engaged in a combat with a man as strong, as victorious, as dexterous, as terrible, as untiring, as noble, as brave, as great as thyself, I will become an eel, and I will throw a noose round they feet in the ford, so that heavy odds will be against thee.'
'I swear by the God by whom the Ultonians swear,' said Cuchulainn, 'that I will bruise thee against a green stone of the ford; and thou never shalt have any remedy from me if thou leavest me not.' 'I shall also become a grey wolf for thee, and I will take from thy right hand, as far as to thy left arm.'
'I will encounter thee with my spear,' said he, 'until thy left or right eye is forced out; and thou shalt never have help from me, if thou leavest me not.'
'I will become a white red-eared cow,' said she, 'and I will go into the pond beside the ford, in which thou art in deadly combat with a man, as skilful in feats as thyself, and an hundred white red-eared cows behind me; and I and all behind me will rush into the ford, and the ' 'Faithfulness of men'' will be brought to a test that day, and thy head shall be cut off from thee.'
'I will with my sling make a cast against thee,' said he, 'so that thy right or thy left leg will be broken, and thou shalt never have help from me, if thou dost not leave me.'
Thereupon the Morrigu departed into the Sidh of Cruachan in Connacht, and Cuchulainn returned to his dwelling.
Tara E. Nummedal. Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. xvii + 260 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-60856-3.
Reviewed by Warren Alexander Dym (Huntington Library, Los Angeles)
Published on H-German (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Published on H-German (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Toward a Social History of Alchemy
The historiography of alchemy, following upon the groundbreaking work of Allen Debus, Walter Pagel, Francis Yates, and others, is moving into its third generation. With numerous studies now devoted to the subject, one can experience a feeling of déjà vu reading certain recent examples--the same alchemists, the same princes, the same arguments about craft knowledge. But this was not my experience with Tara Nummedal's Alchemy and Authority. Nummedal, appealing to historians of early modern science and early modernists more broadly, proposes a social history of alchemy in sixteenth-century Germany, or alchemy "from below" (p. 10). Rather than focusing on the alchemical interests of major natural philosophers like Robert Boyle or Sir Isaac Newton, who pursued a learned or otherworldly practice, this book discusses an "entrepreneurial alchemy" more closely associated with the economic interests of patrons. The names of many familiar alchemists course through these pages, to be sure--Leonhard Thurneisser, Heinrich Khunrath, Michael Maier, Andreas Libavius--but Nummedal also discovers a handful of lesser known figures who proposed projects of more immediate economic significance to their patrons.
Chapter 1 is a useful overview of the means through which an aspiring adept acquired knowledge of alchemy. This was no university or guild activity, so possibilities were limited: one scoured the texts, traveled to other experts, studied the crafts, and even sought divine illumination. Different alchemists claimed one or another route as the only true path. Chapter 2 draws on the work of Lorraine Daston and Otto Sibum, but also Pamela Smith's The Business of Alchemy (1997), to argue that the early modern alchemist had several personae, or social masks, from which to choose. Prior to the sixteenth century, he was "scholar," "artisan," or "prophet," but the satire of humanists like Sebastian Brant and Desiderius Erasmus, who presented the alchemist as a Betrüger, or fraud, put practitioners further on the defensive. The most attractive persona then became "economic advisor." Nummedal develops the idea of the entrepreneurial alchemist in chapter 3, where she argues that mining, metallurgy, and alchemy were overlapping interests to the German princes, as they sought to diversify their state's incomes. Patrons like Duke Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, Elector Augustus of Saxony, Emperor Rudolph II, Landgrave Moritz of Hesse-Kassel, and Duke Friedrich of Württemberg promoted metallurgical and alchemical projects simultaneously. Contemporaries did not distinguish easily between smelting techniques (Scheidekunst) and alchemy, and the language that a famous "metallurgist" like Lazarus Ercker used to promote a new process at the Dresden court was similar to that of contemporary entrepreneurial alchemists who also vied for patronage.
The next two chapters place alchemists at court. First, Nummedal studies a series of contracts between patrons and clients that exposes the business-like nature of the exchange, and similarity to mining and metallurgical projects. The author then dispels the notion that images of alchemical labs as produced by the author and alchemist, Andreas Libavius, or painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, depicted the court-based lab accurately. Nummedal turns rather to archival sources such as inventories, supply orders, architectural details, and official reports to reconstruct the real space of alchemy. She argues that patrons and practitioners differentiated alchemical processes, and organized their labs according to the relative status of the workers--servants, Laboranten, or alchemists--and relative degree of secrecy required for each task. In the final chapter, Nummedal returns to legal cases of Betrug to prove that actors distinguished between fraud and legitimate alchemy. She has found some eleven cases of alchemical fraud between 1575 and 1606 for four German principalities.
Nummedal should be praised for expanding our conception of alchemy and suggesting a new methodological approach. In the end, the work points squarely in the right direction, though we still await the equivalent for alchemy of Wolfgang Behringer's or Manfred Wilde's studies of witchcraft. Future research might expand on Nummedal's work on fraud by considering Münzfälschung (counterfeiting) cases conducted by town councils, among other Münzsachen that are well represented in the archives. Also, the tie between mining, metallurgy, and alchemy deserves more focused attention. Did mining administrations in the Harz Mountains or Erzgebirge of Saxony, like the princes Nummedal and others discuss, patronize alchemists? Which metallurgical processes resembled entrepreneurial alchemy, and, since not all metallurgy was alchemy, how did contemporaries distinguish the two? Finally, Nummedal hints on occasion that female alchemists were more common than the historiography would suggest, though she discusses only one case--that of Anna Maria Zieglerin. How women engaged in this activity, and how common female alchemists were in premodern Europe are questions Nummedal will certainly address in a forthcoming work on alchemy and gender.
The time for a social history of alchemy is now, and Nummedal's innovative work will number among the earliest contributions.
. Lorraine Daston and Otto H. Sibum, "Introduction: Scientific Personae and Their Histories," Science in Context 16 (2003): 1-8.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
The hare, in Ireland, was believed to be a WITCH in disguise, perhaps because the animal was mythically connected to that witch-like being, the CAILLEACH. When a hare was injured, a witch in the neighborhood would sport an identical injury. The same belief is found on the Isle of Man, where a wounded hare would always get away unless shot with a silver bullet; the transformed witch would thereafter be found, either alive or dead, with an identical wound.
In Scotland it was believed that witches took the form of hares in order to steal MILK—a common target of magical theft. Disguising herself as a hare, the witch would sneak into a barn and suckle the milk from a COW’s udder. If caught, the hare would instantly turn back into human form. Hares seen in unusual places, including in regions where they were not typically found, were similarly believed to be disguised witches. If pursued, such hares would run into houses, revealing the witch’s habitation. If one found a group of hares together, it was clearly a gathering of a witches’ coven.
The fierce temperament of hares was sometimes assigned to the FAIRY Rabbit, a bold being that tried to drown people at sea; if the potential victims were carrying earth from their home, or from legendary Tory Island, they could survive even the onslaught of this malicious spirit.
Such folklore may be a late recollection of an earlier religious meaning for the hare. Caesar recorded that eating the flesh of the hare was taboo to continental Celts, which suggests that the animal was seen as sacred or ancestral; Dio Cassius mentioned a DIVINATION using hares that was employed by the Celtic warrior queen BOUDICCA before she entered battle. Such fragments of ancient lore suggest that the SHAPESHIFTING character given to hares in folklore may be a vestige of ancient religious imagery.
Sources: Campbell, John Grigorson. Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1970, pp. 8, 33; O hEochaidh, Séan. Fairy Legends from Donegal. Trans. Máire Mac Neill. Dublin: Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, 1977, p. 247; Ó hÓgain, Dáithí. Irish Superstitions. London; Gill & Macmillan, 1995, p. 57; O’Sullivan, Patrick V. Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds. Cork: Mercier, 1991, p. 76.
The aged Merlin waits deep in a rock for the right time to return. He carries with the secret of Nimue.
Merlin…but one version…
…Merlin thereafter became enamoured with Nimue, a young Lady of the Lake, and a beautiful maiden. Merlin became so love-struck by her that he followed her to Benwick in France, forsaking King Arthur at the Battle of Humber (In which the High King was almost killed in a night ambush, saved only by his personal bodyguards). During Merlin’s trip to Benwick, Merlin told Queen Elaine of Benwick that her son Lancelot would grow to become a great knight. He also told her she’d survive to see him revenge the Ganis clan against King Claudas.
Merlin also took the time to teach Nimue magic, and showed her many great wonders around the Logres. Nimue was glad for the instruction, but increasingly couldn’t stand Merlin’s overt lechery. She was a beautiful maiden in her teens; he was in his sixties. She was also afraid that he was a demon’s son. Because of this, she paid particular attention when Merlin showed her a great stone in Cornwall that hid a mysterious and great wonder underneath it. She let him go underneath the stone to show her more, then caused the stone to trap Merlin beneath it. No matter what Merlin tried, he could not get out from beneath it. And Nimue did not not wish to let him out either.
Nimue left Merlin trapped and all-but forgotten. She eventually fell in love with and married Sir Pelleas, and little more was said of Merlin for a long while. Yet others came across Merlin’s stone prison years later, including King Bagdemagus and Sir Gawaine. Bagdemagus found him after Tor was chosen to the Round Table instead of him. He had ridden out in search of adventure (to make him more famous and thereby a better candidate) when he encountered Merlin. He tried to lift the stone, but to no avail. Merlin told him to stop trying because only Nimue could free him. A few years later, the encounter repeated itself with Gawaine. Merlin bid Gawine carry his blessings to Arthur and Guenever, for he predicted no one would ever speak to him again. No one knows whether anyone else before or since encountered Merlin or what activities he undertook during his imprisonment. Near thirty years later, the candles at King Lot’s tomb went out as predicted, at the exact time when Galahad took the Siege Perilous.
There are some who say that Merlin did not die, but Nimue finally came back to take Merlin away, just as she did later for Arthur. If such was the case, perhaps she reunited the High King with Merlin at Avalon. Others say he was rescued from beneath the stone during the Grail Quest by Percival or perhaps Galahad himself. But since neither of these knights returned from their Quest, no one will ever know for sure until they meet these noble knights, or the great magician himself, sometime in the hereafter…
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Cosmological concept. The Celts arranged the most familiar and valuable TREES of their lands into a series that had mystical meaning and could be used for DIVINATION. These formed the OGHAM alphabet, each letter of which was named for a tree. The ogham letters were drawn using a system of horizontal and diagonal lines; the letters and sounds these symbols stood for are represented below, along with the tree that each letter was linked with. The sound of each letter is the same as the initial sound of the tree’s Irish name.
B Birch (beith)
L Rowan (luis)
F Alder (fearn)
S Willow (saille)
N Ash (nuin)
H Hawthorn (huathe)
D Oak (duir)
T Holly (tinne)
C Hazel (coll)
Q Apple (quert)
M Vine (muinn)
G Ivy (gort)
NG Broom/fern (ngetal)
STR Blackthorn (straif)
R Elder (ruis)
A Fir/pine (ailm)
O Gorse (onn)
U Heather (ur)
E Aspen (edhadh)
I Yew (ido)
EA Aspen (ebhadh)
OI Spindle (oir)
UI Honeysuckle (uileand)
IO Gooseberry (iphin)
AE Beech (phagos)
This alphabet has been the source of some controversy, with some scholars dismissing its importance, while others stress it. It was not used as our alphabet is, as a means of transcribing literary works and other compositions for later reading, but rather as a divinatory tool and as a means of memorizing.
Continental Celtic and British god. This relatively obscure Gaulish god may have been a local divinity (GENIUS LOCI) worshiped in a TREE, for his name seems to derive from two words for “great tree” or “giant tree” (ollo-vidio). His special region was the islands off the south of France called the Antibes, where he was honored by the tribe called the Narbonenses. Olloudios was also found in Britain, where in Gloucester he was depicted as having huge ears that stuck out from his head like wings.
Source: Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967, pp. 37, 172.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Ot sain op
Local sprite, house guardian by Maria Lombide Ezpeleta
The very feel of the forest imparts a sense of wonder and hidden power, of spirits and unseen creatures, and of a time stretching back into the dim past where anything and everything was possible. “The edge of the forest,” writes Carol and Dinah Mack, “is always the boundary between the wild and domesticated, the animal and the human community. It holds its genius loci, which may appear as demonic guardian species of wilderness and wild creatures and attack trespassing hunters, mischievous fairies…and the many huge man-eating species….” This statement may be applied to any forest in the world, for they all seem to be populated with these local spirits and fairies who are not often kind to human intrusion. The Cherokee, according to anthropologist James Mooney, believed that “trees and plants also were alive and could talk in the old days, and had their place in council.” The intelligence of trees and plants, as well as other inanimate objects, were taken for granted by the Cherokee and the other indigenous people around the world.
The Lakota believed in a race of “ugly” small men and women that they referred to as “tree dwellers.” Similar to tales of other fairy folk around the world, the tree dwellers, called Can Otidan, reportedly stayed in the woods and forests and “would lure hunters away and lose them or they would frighten them so that they would lose their senses.” The Can Otidan apparently were more than simple fairy spirits as they were classed in a group referred to as “bad gods.”
Little people referred to as “travel-two” were among the forest spirits in the Nehalem Tillamook (Oregon) world. Called “travel-two” because they always traveled in pairs, these fairy-like creatures were hunters and would often give a human they encountered on their travels the skills to become a good hunter — if they happened to speak to him.
The Coos Indians along Oregon’s southern coast believed that the forests were filled with ghosts and spirits. There were five types of spirits identified as residing in the forest:
Ghosts or spirits that “reentered a corpse and escaped into the forest to do evil things to humans, especially poor people” A “mirror image” of oneself, a doppelganger; if you should see one of these, your life would be shortened
Giant people who live on the fish in the streams; they are neither good nor bad “and do not scare people” A visible spirit or ghost, and The “noisy ones,” the little people usually covered in long hair, who leave tracks along creek banks. These creatures are usually seen only at night and are known to throw rocks at people’s homes.
Other Oregon tribes such as the Alsea and Yaquina believed in longhaired female wood sprites called osun, who could give certain special powers to humans that would enable them to become shamans.
The Russians had their own form of Can Otidan. Called the Leshy, this mysterious creature inhabited the forests (mostly forests of birch trees) and would disappear and reappear with the falling leaves and the sprouting vegetation. Philpot described him as having “human form, with horns, ears, and feet of a goat, his fingers are long claws, and he is covered with rough hair, often of a green colour.” Some have described him as having green, bark-like skin and green hair. They could also change their stature at will, remaining as small as grass stalks or as tall as the tallest tree. Each spring the Leshy would awaken from hibernation and seek out travelers to cause them to become lost in the new and rich growth of vegetation. “He springs from tree to tree, and rocks himself in the branches, screeching and laughing, neighing, lowing, and barking.” The trees and animals of the forest, however, are under his protection. Philpot wrote, “The migrations of squirrels, field-mice, and such small deer are carried out under his guidance.” The animals protected the Leshy as well, as he was prone to drinking and vulnerable to attacks from other woodland spirits. “Uprooted trees, broken branches and other storm damage were a clear indication that leshie had been fighting among themselves,” wrote Michael Kerrigan. The only way to protect yourself from the Leshy while traveling through the forest was to wear your clothing inside out, shoes on the wrong feet, continuously making the sign of the cross or making peace offerings of tobacco and food.
The person who was most in danger from the wrath of the Leshy was the woodcutter. Even though this tree spirit was greatly feared, he could also be summoned — if one dared. According to Porteous, “very young Birches are cut down and placed in a circle with the points towards the center. They then enter the circle and invoke the spirit, which at once appears. Then they step on the stump of one of the cut trees with their face turned towards the east, and bend their heads so that they look between their legs. While in this position they say: ‘Uncle Lieschi, ascend thou, not as a grey wolf, not as an ardent fire, but as resembling myself’. Then the leaves tremble, and the Lieschi arises under a human form, and agrees to give the service for which he has been invoked, provided they promise him their soul.” As in many cultures that were eventually dominated by the Christian Church, the spirits and deities of the Slavs were slowly changed. As Porteous noted above, the Lieschie bargained for the soul of the person in exchange for supernatural aid and thus are cast as acolytes of Satan.
Another Russian vegetation entity is the “polevoi.” Michael Kerrigan wrote that the polevoi’s body “matched the colour of the local soil, and grass grew in tussocks from his head instead of hair.” The polevoi could be friendly to humans but could signify disaster, as well, should one spot him in the forest.
Tree elves have been said to inhabit the elm, oak, willow, yew, fir, holly, pine, ash, cherry, laurel, nut, apple, birch and cypress trees. Because each of the tree elves is created from the specific tree, it takes on the characteristics of that tree. While all of these species of trees have a resident elf, “the elder,” writes Nancy Arrowsmith, “has without doubt the highest elf population.” The lives of the “elder elves” are tied directly to their trees and so they are very protective of them. According to German folklore one should always ask permission (and be sure to leave an offering!) before cutting or otherwise harming an elder tree. The consequences of not doing so are usually serious and can result in blindness or ill health to the woodsman’s children or cattle.
The appearance of tree elves varies according to the tree from which they originated. The oak elf will appear as a gnarled old man and the birch elf appears as a thin white female.
In England, an Apple Tree Man was said to reside in the oldest apple tree in each orchard. According to Franklin, “He can grant a good harvest for the whole orchard, and other benefits besides. The last of the crop should be left on the ground for him…”
To the Saxons, elves were to be feared. They were “hostile creatures [that] brought disease…as well as nightmare.”
The belief that trees are somehow supernatural beings is apparently universal. Lore from the Ozark Mountains says that agents of the Devil propagated the ironwood tree and that the sassafras tree does not grow from seeds, but rather “somehow sprout from grub worms.” The belief in “Devil Trees” was common in Africa and the Malay Archipelago. However, these trees are receptacles of evil and not sources of evil. Like the holy wells in England and elsewhere, where people tie strips of cloth and ribbon (known as “clooties”) to nearby trees, Devil Trees are also sought out for this purpose. In both cases the purpose is the same, to tie a piece of cloth that belongs to an ill person to the tree so that the disease is transferred from the human to the tree.
In Celtic lands, the gods were worshipped in sacred groves, which removed the need to have temple structures — although a few did exist. The Romans and then the Christians destroyed these groves in their attempts to destroy the fabric of Celtic pagan traditions. However, there is significant evidence that these groves, or rather their descendants, did survive into later ages in the form of “gospel oaks” in Britain and innumerable place names across Europe. Hutton writes that these groves, after Christianization, “kept their place in the sentiments of the tribes even while apparently losing all direct religious connotations.”
Because tree worship and sacred groves were so ingrained in the human mind, the Church fought long and hard to eliminate all aspects of them, passing law after law and levying heavy fines on those who continued to honor the tree. “S. Martin of Tours,” wrote J.A. MacCulloch, “was allowed to destroy a temple, but the people would not permit him to attack a much venerated pine-tree which stood beside it — an excellent example of the way in which the more official paganism fell before Christianity, while the older religion of the soil from which it sprang, could not be entirely eradicated.”
The struggle to defeat and subjugate pagans who worshipped trees, or viewed them as sacred, or who believed that the gods live in certain trees, was not the only battle waged by the early Christians. H.R. Ellis Davidson reminds us, “a number of Christian missionaries…counted the felling of a tree sacred to a heathen god among their achievements in the cause of Christ.” The early Jews also waged this battle. Deuteronomy 12:2-3 depicts God instructing the Hebrew leaders to “utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree. “And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire…” Because of this, the Hebrews were forbidden to plant any tree near a sacred altar.
In many cultures (among them the Nordic peoples, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Persians, Indian and Native Americans as well as some African tribes) it was said that humans were created from trees. Porteous noted, “among the South American tribes of Guiana a great creator is acknowledged. They say that all created things came from a branch of a Silk-cotton tree which had been cut down by the Creator, but that the white man had sprung from the chips of a particularly useless tree.”
In Norse mythology three Creator Gods walked on a seashore, where, according to Davidson, “they found two trees, driftwood washed ashore, breathed vitality and spirit into them, and gave them movement, so that the first man and woman came to life.”
The belief that humans came from trees is also widespread in Africa. John S. Mbiti wrote, “The Herero tell that God caused the first human beings, a man and his wife, to come from the mythical ‘tree of life’ which is said to be situated in the underworld.” Similar stories were common throughout Africa from Angola to Zambezi, the Congo and Sudan.
The stories that predominate, however, are those of the nature spirits, gods and goddesses that inhabit the tree. Frequent discussions were held in the days of early Buddhism as to whether trees had souls. It was decided then that trees do not have souls but that they may be inhabited by wood spirits that, at times, may speak through the trees. Other people, however, such as the Tahitians and Greeks, did believe that each tree had a soul and an intellect of its own.
For some reason most tree-spirits are ambivalent at best and demonic at worst. Stories abound of tree-spirits that take savage revenge on those that dare to cut trees down. Indian legend says the Banyan tree is inhabited by spirits that will “wring the necks of all persons who approached their tree during the night.” The guardian spirit of the Brazilian rainforest is Corupira, who is not evil but will disorient those who are intent on harming the trees and the forest animals — much like Pan.
However, other tree and forest spirits exhibit traits of kindness towards humans. Some forest spirits were said to protect hunters and fishers, and in fact leading game to them. It was to these spirit-gods that the forests were dedicated and sacrifices made. In other cultures, tree spirits provided the rains and sun that made crops grow.
The Mesquakie, known as the Fox Indians of Iowa, believed that the spirits of their ancestors lived within the trees. It was said, “the murmur of the trees when the wind passes through is but the voices of our grandparents.” The Fox felt that all wood was sacred and that objects made from wood “were thought to contain the very essence of a tree’s spiritual substance.”
Belief in nature spirits, frequently described as miniature people but not necessarily the same as fairies, is common throughout most third world societies, providing a sense of linkage and connection with nature that the more “developed” and “western” societies have lost. The Gururumba, a New Guinea people, believe in nature spirits, some of whom live in the forests and others in the reeds along the riverbanks. Other than the location of territory, there is little difference between the two. The Gururumba say that these spirits are seldom seen because, even though they reside in our world, in our reality, they appear as mist or smoke. They are also always male. While generally ambivalent to the humans who live in the area, the spirits will attack anyone who stumbles into their territory. Ethnologist Philip L. Newman, who researched the Gururumba, writes that “each spirit has its own dwelling place — a certain clump of reeds, a particular configuration of boulders along the river, or the exposed roots of some tree. Anyone wandering into one of these sanctuaries is attacked by the spirit which may cause him illness or even death.”
The Gururumba have created a cooperative arrangement with many of the nature spirits by providing a small dome-shaped house (about two feet in diameter) in an enclosure in the family garden. The Gururumba provide housing, food and information to the nature spirit in exchange for the spirit’s protection of the garden and care for the Gururumba’s pig herds.
Tree spirits are also commonly believed in throughout Africa. The Ashanti reportedly believe that certain nature spirits are present that animate trees, stones and other “inanimate” objects as well as animals, rivers and charms. The powers of these spirits are great and respected. John Mbiti reports in his book African Religions and Philosophy an incident that took place in Ghana in the 1960s. During the construction of a new harbor at Tema, equipment was repeatedly stolen and a company investigator, and Englishman, was sent to look into it. After his investigation was over, one of the European supervisors mentioned to him that a lone tree was causing him a great deal of trouble. All the other trees in the area had been cleared but this one, which was relatively small; it remained in place as all the heavy equipment stalled when approaching the tree. One of the African foremen said that the tree was magic and could not be removed unless the tree spirit could be persuaded to move on to another tree. A shaman was called in, who sacrificed three sheep and poured three bottled of gin onto the roots of the tree as an offering. Evidently, the ritual worked; soon, the machinery could be started. In fact, a few of the workers simply walked up to the tree and were able to pull it up out of the earth by hand.
The gods of vegetation, discussed in another chapter, were all originally tree spirits who are credited with giving the gift of agriculture to humankind as well as the arts and other learning that create civilization. They were also closely connected with death and the underworld.
The sycamore fig tree located in many desert areas of Egypt is said to be inhabited by goddesses. “These goddesses or spirits,” Porteous noted, “sometimes manifest themselves, and…the head, or even the whole body, would emerge from the trunk of the tree, after a time re-entering it, being reabsorbed, or, as the Egyptian expression has it, the trunk ate it again.” The goddesses said to reside in the sycamore are Hathor (given the epithet “Lady of the Sycamore”), Nut, Selkit, and Isis. While certain male gods were also associated with trees (such as Osiris with the willow, Horus with the acacia and Wepwawet with the tamarisk), only these few goddesses were so closely associated with sacred trees. Like the carvings of females rising from vegetation found in contemporary architecture, these goddesses were most often shown as a “composite of the upper body of the goddess rising from the trunk at the center of a tree.” In the Egyptian world, the maternal deities were the tree goddesses, offering food to the deceased or, in the case of a mural in the tomb of Tuthmosis III, nursed by Isis in the form of a sycamore tree. Dryads, or tree goddesses in India, are often depicted giving the trunk of a tree a little kick. The reason for this, according to Heinrich Zimmer, is found in a formula derived “from a ritual of fecundation. According to an ageless belief, nature requires to be stimulated by man; the procreative forces have to be aroused, by magic means, from semi-dormancy.” This ritual formula continues to be used in contemporary Indian culture. Zimmer adds, “There is in India a certain tree (aśoka) which is supposed not to put forth blossoms unless touched and kicked by a girl or young woman. Girls and young women,” Zimmer wrote, “are regarded as human embodiments of the maternal energy of nature. They are diminutive doubles of the Great Mother of all life, vessels of fertility, life in full sap, potential sources of new offspring. By touching and kicking the tree they transfer into it their potency, and enable it to bring forth blossom and fruit.” The Persians as well, according to J.H. Philpot, “venerated trees as the dwelling-place of the deity, as the haunts of good and evil spirits, and as the habitations in which the souls of heroes and the virtuous dead continued their existence.”
In ancient Crete, the Great Mother goddess was also known as the Lady of Trees and Doves — representing birth and fertility. In her early form the Great Mother of Crete, the Earth Mother, was rather vague — she was an ancient Neolithic goddess. In time, she became Demeter, goddess of animals, crops and forests.
The gods and goddesses also lived within the trees of old Hawaii. The goddess of the ohia-lehua forest is one of these. The flower of the ohia tree is considered sacred and to pick it is forbidden unless proper invocations are said. One of the sacred ohia trees located in a cave of the god Ku-ka-ohia-laka is regarded as the body of this forefather-god. The Hawaiian wind god, Makani-keoe, is another tree deity. Also known as a “love god,” he is able to transform himself into a tree at will. An amulet made from such a tree is a powerful love charm but causes visions and voices to be heard by the one who obtains it.
Sacred groves in Germany were the homes of the gods as well. At Romove, the chief sacred grove, a holy oak figured in religious ceremonies and images of the gods were placed in its trunk. The Prussians who remained pagan long after the rest of Germany had converted to Christianity used these groves into the 16th century. Davidson notes “writers who visited them described sacred woods in which they made sacrifices and sacred springs which Christians were not allowed to approach.” The god worshipped in the Prussian groves was Perkuno — the thunder god. Sacred groves dedicated to Perkuno were still utilized in Lithuania and Estonia into the 18th century. As Frazer wote, Perkuno “presents a close resemblance to Zeus and Jupiter, since he was the god of the oak, the thunder, and the rain.” Every Dying God, such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Dionysus and Jesus, died on a tree. Medieval Christian carvings of the Tree of the Living and the Dead (fruit of good and evil on opposite sides) depict Jesus as the trunk of the tree.
Gautama Buddha is said to have been a tree spirit “no less than forty-three times” in past incarnations.
By Gary R. Varner
Alhambra: Granada´s hidden gardens
Islamic gardening drew on traditions going back to the very early civilization of ancient Mesopotamia. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (third millennium BC) there are descriptions of cities with lavish gardens and orchards. And we know from relief carvings and wall paintings that the later kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon were full of orchards and pleasure gardens, carefully irrigated and stocked with a wide variety of flowering shrubs and trees. Unfortunately no visual record remains of the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world, built on a rising series of terraces by King Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 605–562 BC), although many artists have attempted to depict them from imagination. The ancient Egyptians also had gardens (albeit mainly for practical purposes such as fruit growing), as did the Persians from about the sixth century BC – and it was the latter that most directly influenced the Islamic style of gardening.
A central idea which Islam took over from these earlier civilizations was that of the garden as an image of paradise. The Greek word paradeisos comes from the old Persian pairidaeza, meaning a walled enclosure, that is to say what we would today understand as a garden or park. Among the key features of paradise, as conceived by the ancients, were four rivers, which then flowed out to the four extremities of the world itself. Frequently paradise is identified with the Garden of Eden, the primal state of innocent bliss which the virtuous will regain after death. In the second chapter of Genesis we read: ‘Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads.’ And the Quran (47:15) refers to four rivers of wine, water, milk and honey. This concept merges conveniently with the classic quadripartite garden design (chahar bagh in Persian) dating back to ancient Mesopotamia, with four water channels formed by two crossed axes – being a practical way to irrigate a square or rectangular area – but it is also a reflection of the ancient idea that the whole world itself is divided by the four rivers. This quadripartite form is, in the view of C.G. Jung, one of the archetypal patterns that lie deep in the collective unconscious of the human race. The arrangement of four channels in the form of a cross, dividing the garden into quarters, which became the standard pattern for Islamic gardens, was therefore a powerfully meaningful one on a number of levels.
Idealized representations of paradise gardens can be seen depicted in Persian miniatures and woven into carpets, showing the traditional four channels, often with an octagonal pool at the centre. Islamic poets such as Rumi often use garden imagery in their work, and the Quran itself, which the Muslim believes to be the literal word of God, contains abundant references to gardens. To quote the horticultural writer, John Brookes:
The garden is constantly cited as a symbol for paradise, with shade and water as its ideal elements. ‘Gardens underneath which rivers flow’ is a frequently used expression for the bliss of the faithful, and occurs more than thirty times throughout the Quran. . . Also frequently mentioned are the abundant fruit trees in the paradise garden and the rich pavilions set among them, wherein the owners of the gardens and their friends might relax.
Brookes emphasizes that ‘God has actually defined paradise as a garden, and it is up to the individual not only to aspire to it in the after-life, but also to try to create its image here on earth’. He identifies two contrasting ways in which the paradise garden concept was applied. One is the walled private garden, hidden away behind the house and providing a refreshing and meditative refuge from the crowded and busy streets of a Muslim city. This he characterizes as having a centripetal, or inwardly directed, quality. The other is the centrifugal, outwardly directed form, typified by the chahar bagh, with its four channels radiating outwards from a central pavilion and/or fountain.
The enclosed garden thus becomes a defined space, encompassing within itself a total reflection of the cosmos and, hence, paradise. Within it, this concept fosters order and harmony and can be manifested to the senses through numbers, geometry, colour and, of course, materials. . . Within this space the traditional pool provides a centre and an upward-reflecting surface for directing the creative imagination.
Sometimes the fourfold pattern became a symbol of worldly power as well as heavenly bliss. Timur (Tamerlaine) the first great Muslim conqueror of India, was fond of placing his throne at the centre of the garden; ‘thus he symbolically ruled the four quarters’.
I have already mentioned the symbolic importance of the entrance to a garden. In the Islamic tradition this is often expressed in the form of an intermediary structure, such as the porch-like building known in Iran as the talar. ‘Metaphysically, the talar is viewed as the locus of the soul moving between garden and building, where the garden is spirit and the building body. It is therefore the transitional space between the spiritual and terrestrial worlds.’ Thus, the talar is an Islamic counterpart to the Chinese moon gate.
How was the idea of paradise represented, apart from the motif of the four rivers? Since Islam is monotheistic and has for most of its history forbade the depiction of human or animal images in sacred art and architecture, we find in Islamic gardens almost no counterparts to the mythological figures that we shall discover later in the gardens of Renaissance Europe, no equivalent of the Chinese worship of rocks, and no concept of trees or plants as sacred to particular deities or objects of veneration in themselves – the only exceptions being where there was some surreptitious influence from earlier indigenous traditions, as happened to some extent in Mughal India. Instead we find the idea of paradise conveyed in various other ways. We have seen the importance of the four rivers, but this is only one example of the use of water, a virtually sacred element in the arid Middle East – water made to flow, ripple, dance, spurt from fountains and catch the light in a thousand ingenious ways. Water is surely the most sensual and seductive of the elements, and the garden of paradise is a highly sensual place. But in Islam even sensual pleasures are sanctioned by being part of a divinely ordered pattern. Hence the importance in the paradise garden of form, proportion, pattern, geometry and number.
Many Islamic gardens are built in terraces, ornamented by water chutes, which the visitor is meant to experience in ascending order, as though approaching heaven. There are some particularly fine examples in Kashmir, such as the Shalamar Bagh, built by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1569–1627) and his son Shah Jahan (1592–1666). At the entrance to the Shalamar Bagh is a quotation in Persian which reads: ‘If there be a Paradise on the face of the earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.’ The number of terraces in a garden is significant. Eight is the number of the divisions of the Muslim heaven, with its corresponding eight pearl pavilions, while seven corresponds to the planets and 12 to the signs of the Zodiac. Many gardens with 12 terraces are found in Mughal India, an example being the Nishat Bagh in Kashmir not far from the Shalamar (although the terraces have now been reduced by a road that cuts through the garden). Eight is the number of glorietas, arbours of rose and jasmine, found in the garden of the Alcazar at Cordoba in Spain and probably representing the eight pearl pavilions of heaven. The number eight was also found in the form of the octagon, often used for pools, platforms and other garden features. ‘The octagon as the circle squared – the circle symbolizing eternal perfection, the square symbolizing earthly order – represented man’s wish for order.’
When we hear the word “mythology,” we think of stories, fables, and fairy tales. Nevertheless, myth is not make-believe. Myth is based on true events and real people — somewhat exaggerated over time, true — but not fairy tales. Mircea Eliade defined “myth” as “‘living’ in the sense that it supplies models for human behavior and, by that very fact, gives meaning and value to life.” It was only with the predominance of Christian thinking that myth came to mean “fiction” and “illusion,” and worse, as “falsehood.” Eliade noted that myth came “to denote ‘what cannot really exist’” in our contemporary society. The mythology of the Green Man is a living mythology. The “meaning and value” it gives to our lives is fluid and continues to unfold and evolve for us.
The story of Gawain and the Green Knight, which is really a poem, was written in the 14th century — a time when many of the foliate heads were being carved on the cathedrals of Europe. Since the time of Gawain and the Green Knight, a variety of myths and legends of a more contemporary setting have originated. Some of these legends (some that can be defined as “urban legends”) have appeared in the later part of the 20th century — at a time when the foliate head has again become “popular,” occurring in mainstream society via jewelry, wall plaques, statuary and garden decorations. In this chapter, we will look at a few of the older as well as more recent legends of the Green Man. Before we enter the realm of myth and legend, let us consider the importance of green. Is the color itself important in our study? Does the color alone symbolize the underlying meaning of the Green Man?
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
One of the best-known stories of the 14th century is that of the nephew of King Arthur, Sir Gawain. Written during the peak of popularity of the Green Man stone and woodcarvings, the author of this famous poem remains unknown but is believed to have been a resident of northwestern England. The poet is also a sophisticated and talented alliterative stylist, adept in the style that was common during the older Anglo-Saxon period. The poetic story, as summarized by Richard Cavendish:
At Camelot on New Year’s Day there rode into Arthur’s hall a gigantic green warrior on a towering horse, holding a holly branch in one hand and an immense battle-axe in the other. His skin was green, his hair was green, and even his horse was green. He had come to play what he called a game. Any champion who dared could strike him one blow with the axe, on condition that a year later the champion submits to a return blow from the Green Knight. Gawain took up the challenge and struck the Green Knight a blow that cut his head clean off his shoulders and sent it rolling to the floor. The Green Knight calmly picked up his head by the hair and turned the face towards Gawain. The eyelids opened and the mouth spoke, telling Gawain to meet him for the return blow a year later at the Green Chapel.
The year passed and Gawain set out on his journey to the Green Chapel to meet the gigantic Green Knight.
After a long journey he came to a noble castle, where he was welcomed by the jovial Sir Bercilak and his lovely young wife. He stayed there until New Year’s Day, royally entertained by Bercilak and, though sorely tempted, resisting the persistent attempts of Bercilak’s wife to seduce him.
On New Year’s Day Gawain went as he said he would to the Green Chapel. There “the Green Knight appeared and Gawain bravely bared his neck for a stroke of the axe. The Green Knight raised the axe high, but struck Gawain only a glancing blow, which nicked his skin. He then explained that he was Sir Bercilak, transformed into the Green Knight by the magic of Morgan le Fay, who had planned the whole adventure in the hope of discrediting the Round Table. Gawain had been spared because he had honorably refrained from making love to Bercilak’s wife and had shown himself to be the most faultless knight in the world.
An interesting note about the Green Chapel, according to J.D. Wakefield, is that it was not a structure but rather a green mound situated in a valley beside a stream of bubbling water. Wakefield believes that the Green Chapel was, in reality, Silbury Hill — a sacred man-made mound in Cornwall not far from West Kennett Long Barrow and Avebury — two other ancient sacred sites. Some researchers believe that the Green Chapel was symbolic of a Fairy Mound.
How do we associate the Green Knight to the Green Man? This was obviously a test for Gawain, and one he passed, but this is also a story of “truthbringing” through a mixture of pagan ritual and the confused teachings of medieval Christianity. The poem also is an alliterative telling of the turning of the year, taking place at a time between two winters, which signifies a time of death of vibrant vegetation, and then a changing back to life through renewed growth, and then again, a return to death. The Green Knight is beheaded, and through his sacrifice he shows that life still goes on and, as John Matthews notes, “he challenges us to honor the sacrifice he makes every winter.” In addition, according to Matthews, the poem tells us that “one of the gifts of the Green Man is that he instructs us in how to face our deepest fears and conquer them. In this way he becomes a companion as well as a challenger, a dual role that is present in the archetype in virtually all of its manifestations.”
Other associations with the Green Man are found in the Green Knight’s long hair and beard, both green of course. His beard “is like a bush…his long green hair covers his chest and back…down to his elbows. He carries a holly branch in one hand…”
As the poem reads:
Men gaped at the hue of him
Ingrained in garb and mien,
A fellow fiercely grim,
And all a glittering green.
And garments of green girt the fellow about —
And verily his vesture was all vivid green,
So were the bars on his belt and the brilliants set
In ravishing array on the rich accouterments
About himself and his saddle on silken work.
…Yes, garbed all in green was the gallant rider,
And the hair of his head was the same hue as his horse…
Brian Stone, in his essay on the Green Knight, also discusses this mixture of the Green Knight’s character:
…the Green Knight’s combination of greenness, hairiness, energy, earthiness and mainly rough, imperative speech incline us irrevocably to think of two common medieval types, one an outcast and the other a rural deity. The wild man of the woods, the “wodwose,” was often an outlaw who…had developed sub-human habits and the fierce unpredictable behavior of a wild beast. The green man, on the other hand, was a personification of spring, a mythological supernatural being who persists to this day in English folk dance and in the name of many pubs.
The Green Knight is a mixture of the heroic tales of knights, of Christian value teaching and of the lore of the pre-Christian god of vegetation and the Wild Men. The tale of the Green Knight continues into “modern” times through the festivals of the Mummer Plays. I do not believe that we can interpret the Green Knight’s actions in this poem as easily as Matthews seems to. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does indicate that the underlying archetype was equally important in the 14th century to the literate and peasant classes in England, through storytelling and carved images, as he is universally important today as exhibited through carvings, novels and other forms of expression.
Professor Christopher Fee believes that the poem is “concerned with decapitation and fertility, and these concerns have important implications regarding comparative British mythology. The Celtic incarnation of the Green Man motif is reflected in this poem’s treatment of the relationship between the beheading of the Green Knight and the changing of the seasons….”
Littleton and Malcor noted that the “Green Knight may derive from Cernunnos, the god of abundance and forests,” which would seem to directly link the mysterious knight to the Green Man and the gods of vegetation.
By Gary R. Varner
Sunday, January 17, 2010
By Jeff Quick
The High Forest is dense with nothingness. Unprepared wanderers can travel for days without finding a friendly face, or even an unfriendly one. Because of its forbidding reputation, people who don't know how to treat nature responsibly tend to stay out, minimizing the danger to the local ecology.
As a result, the Caretakers of the Emerald Enclave are more concerned about internal threats to the forest than external threats. There are sufficient external threats, true. But as balance-loving worshipers of nature can tell you, evil entities are not the only threat to nature.
More than a year ago, the Emerald Enclave began discussions with Turlang, a great treant and de facto ruler of most of the High Forest. The Chosen of Eldath and Mielikki requested that they be allowed to send representatives to the wood to see if they could be of any assistance. Since the High Forest is said to be under the direct protection of these two gods, Turlang gladly accepted representatives in their name.
So the Caretakers constructed a portal from Ilghon to a cave mouth near one of Turlang's homes and sent two Caretakers to assess threats to the forest: Kressna Pisacar (LN female human Drd9) and Naeva Waterborn (N male moon elf Drd5/Brd5). After several months of travel and observation through the High Forest, the two druids came to a sobering conclusion: The chief threat to the High Forest's long-term safety is Turlang himself.
Turlang has spent the last 400 years pushing the boundary of the forest north, toward the Nether Mountains. While druids would normally applaud arboreal expansion, it must be done with an eye toward long-term consequences. After some study, Kressna and Naeva have come to believe that pushing the High Forest north creates more problems than it solves, borrowing trouble the forest wouldn't have otherwise. The treant's expansionism has become a threat to the entire wood.
The main instance of this threat is Turlang's behavior around Hellgate Keep. Having pushed the treeline past the Hellgate Keep crater, the treant claims to have sealed off the area. The Caretakers believe that this so-called "sealing" has made both the treant and his protectorate a target. If the High Forest did not cover Hellgate Keep, the baatezu trapped within would be less of an issue and easier to keep out. Instead, they're already in it and not shy about recklessly using fire magic.
Further, Turlang has become fixated on destroying the baatezu and tieflings he has contained in a long, slow siege. He takes his fight against the Hellgate Keep fiends personally and as an affront to all he has created, while forgetting other problems -- mainly the pillaging orcs streaming off the Spine of the World mountains.
However, one does not simply tell a treant that he is mistaken and then carry on, especially one who takes his duties so seriously as Turlang does. Using all their diplomacy and reasoning, Kressna and Naeva are attempting to redirect their ally as a vine up a trellis. They tell Turlang tales of the wood to the west and south, toward the Dessarin and Larch Hills, where they believe expansion would be simpler and less troublesome. They also discuss with him the malignancy of war and how it affects surrounding nature. They hope that with enough indirect cues, Turlang will allow them to take over the "war effort" in the north, and go back to planting trees in safer areas.
Turlang, however, is fixated on his current plans and will not be swayed by pleasant alternatives. Further, he has suspicions that the Enclave druids who come in the name of Eldath and Mielikki are trying to steer him away from where he is most needed in the High Forest -- away from the trees he has worked so hard to plant and nurture.
The situation is not quite tense, but not as cordial as when the druids first arrived. As diplomatic entrappings drop away and both sides' true positions become clearer, residents of the forest are beginning to pick favorites. Turlang and the Caretakers probably will not come to blows over the matter, but the repercussions of a conflict between the forces could be as damaging as a natural disaster.
What might push it over the edge is the portal the druids use to travel between the High Forest and their home island. The portal is situated squarely within territory controlled by Turlang and is guarded by some of Turlang's best agents. Originally this was done to honor his esteemed guests, but with Turlang's increasing suspicion about the Caretakers' motives, his agents eavesdrop as much as they guard.
The druids themselves know that they have increasingly less freedom to speak openly in the High Forest, but they must remain to continue the delicate negotiations with the treant while helping the fight against pressing forces within the wood. They hope that they can get through to the treant before his shortsightedness brings trouble none of them can contain.
This legendary forest in eastern Brittany is said to have been the site where the great magician MERLIN was imprisoned by his mistress, the fair but ambitious VIVIANE, in an attempt to trick his magical knowledge from him; legend claims that he lives forever within a great tree there. Also within the forest is a piercingly cold fountain that brews storms at the behest of its lady guardian. As the Celts were known to believe in the sacredness of TREES, this still-standing primeval forest near Rennes (now called the Forest of Paimpont) may be Europe’s last remaining NEMETON.
Nemeton Ritual site.
The Celts worshiped not indoors but outside, in groves of TREES and at other sacred sites. There are many evidences that trees played an important part in Celtic religious life, never more so than when rituals were held in forest clearings called nemetons, a name related to words in other Indo-European languages (Greek némos, “glade,” Latin nemus, “sacred”) and may connect with the ancient Irish root, nem-, which meant “heaven” but referred symbolically to anything sacred.
Ancient classical authors made much of the outdoor location of Celtic rituals; Strabo described the OAK groves in which the Galacians met, while Pliny the Elder and Tacitus both spoke of the same among continental Celts. Lucan, in a vivid passage, described groves “untouched by men’s hands from ancient times, whose interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade,” wherein “images of gods grim and rude were uncouth blocks formed of felled tree-trunks.” He reported a legend that the trees would sometimes appear on FIRE or stricken by earthquake but would in reality be untouched and unharmed. Lucan also offhandedly mentioned that this sacred grove was leveled by Caesar because it was too near some buildings the Romans were erecting.
After Romanization, the word nemeton was sometimes used of a stone TEMPLE, when such buildings replaced the sacred groves that gave way to Roman axes. The word became part of the names of many Celtic settlements; thus we have Drunemeton near Ankara, Turkey, where the Celtic Galacians lived; Nematacum and Nemeton in Gaul, Nemetobrigia in the Celtic region of Spain called Galacia, Vernemeton in England, and Medionemeton in Scotland.
Sources: Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 198; Lonigan,
Paul R. The Druids: Priests of the Ancient Celts. Contributions to the Study of Religion, No. 45. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996, p. 3.
Canopied live oak forest
Large and impressively long-lived, the oak was one of the most important TREES to the Celts. In part, this was because of the oak’s usefulness: It provides abundant acorns, which were in ancient times a favored food of PIGS, whose flesh then became part of the human diet; its long-lasting wood is sought after for building; its bark produces a substance useful for tanning leather. The oak’s usefulness extended to the spiritual plane as well; according to Roman author Pliny the Elder, the Celts harvested MISTLETOE from oak trees for ritual use in curing disease and encouraging human FERTILITY.
Oak forests were common in continental Gaul, where we find early evidence of their sanctity: Construction of oak funeral houses by HALLSTATT and LA TÈNE peoples suggests that the tree was connected with the afterlife or OTHERWORLD. The oak may have been associated with a specific god, although which one is not clear, because documents date only to Roman times, when Maximum Tyrius claimed the oak symbolized the father of gods, who lived within the tree; the so-called Jupiter columns (JUPITER being the Roman version of Zeus) found in Gaulish temples have been interpreted as indoor substitutes for great trees dedicated to the god.
Although trees in general were sacred to the Celts, who practiced their rituals in NEMETONS or sacred groves, the Celtic priesthood of DRUIDS held the oak to be the most sacred tree; indeed, the very word druid is connected to an ancient word for “oak.” The Roman poet Lucan described the druids as using acorns in their prophetic rituals, masticating them until they saw visions; the story is hard to credit, because no hallucinatory substances have been isolated in acorns. Wooden images from the pre-Roman and Roman periods have been found, carved of the strong and lasting wood of the oak.
Belief in the sanctity of the oak survived into the post-Celtic era, when folklore envisioned the oak as a living being that, when cut, cried out or took revenge upon the forester, maiming or killing him as it fell. An oak was believed to make a desperate racket when felled, loud enough to be heard a mile away. FAIRY folk were thought to live in or around oaks; together with the ASH and the THORN, the oak constituted the sacred tree trinity that marked fairy places.
The centrality of the oak in ancient Celtic life can still be detected in names that embody the tree: the Celtic capital of the Galacians in Turkey, Drunemeton (“sacred oak grove”); and the Irish abbey towns of KILDARE (“church of the oak”) and of Durrow (“plain of oaks”).
Sources: Green, Miranda. Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art. London: Routledge, 1989, p. 152; Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967, p. 33.
British folkloric figures. Occasionally in the north of England, references are found in oral literature to FAIRY people who lived in great OAKS; an old rhyme holds that “fairy folks/are in old oaks.” Especially powerful were oaks that regenerated themselves after being cut; the saplings that came forth in such circumstances were regarded with awe. In the Cotswolds each village had a sacred tree, usually an oak, where fairy beings were believed to hide. The artist Beatrix Potter used the tradition in her book The Fairy Caravan, in which oak people wore toadstools for caps.
Source: Briggs, Katharine M. The Folklore of the Cotswolds. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1974, p. 121.
British folkloric figure. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare speaks of Herne as a hunter who hanged himself from an oak tree and was thereafter forced to haunt the woods where he died. Herne the Hunter appears in various legends as a horned spirit, suggesting that he may have originated as a woodland deity like CERNUNNOS. One tale from Windsor Forest describes Herne in language typical of FAIRIES, for he was said to shoot his victims with invisible darts if they intruded upon magical places.
Gwynn ap Nudd
(Gwyn ap Nudd, Herne, Herne the Hunter, Gabriel) Welsh hero. The Welsh king of FAIRYLAND, “White One, son of the Dark,” was said to reside under GLASTONBURY TOR, the small pyramidal hill that is southwestern England’s most significant feature. Gwynn reigned over the folk called the TYLWYTH TEG, beautiful tiny people who wore blue and danced all night in the fashion of Irish FAIRIES. His special feast was spring’s beginning, BELTANE, when he led the WILD HUNT to raid the land of the living. His name means Gwynn, son of Nudd; his father was king of a Hades-like Otherworld called ANNWN. He could materialize at will, surrounded by his beautiful host playing FAIRY MUSIC. His queen was the daughter of LLUDD, CREIDDYLAD, on whom Shakespeare based the character of Cordelia in King Lear.
Alternative names used of Gwyn ap Nudd are Herne the Hunter, the frightening figure who skulks around Windsor Forest in England; and Gabriel, known best for his vicious fairy hounds.
Sources: Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe Humanities Press, 1911, pp. 152 ff; Lonigan, Paul R. The Druids: Priests of the Ancient Celts. Contributions to the Study of Religion, No. 45. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996, p. 169; Spence, Lewis. The Minor Traditions of British Mythology. New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1972, p. 109.
In most Celtic lands, it was considered very unlucky to burn the wood of an elder TREE (genus Sambucus), because the spirits of FERTILITY were thought to live within it. If a desperate situation arose that demanded use of elder wood, it was important to ask permission of the tree and its spirits; even with appropriate begging, the branches might bleed when you cut them. The tree’s name hints at a connection with the ELF people; it was called the eller tree in the north of Britain where, until quite recent times, rags were offered to these trees to bring good luck. In the Cotswolds, elders were associated with WITCHES; an elder tree might be a transformed sorceress or carry malign power, so it was avoided in building furniture, especially cradles. In Ireland and on the Isle of Man, the elder was one of the trees most often connected with the FAIRIES and with GIANTS. Despite its frightening reputation, the elder tree was used to make berry wine and flower tea.
Sources: Briggs, Katharine M. The Folklore of the Cotswolds. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1974, pp. 13, 120; Spence, Lewis. The Minor Traditions of British Mythology. New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1972, pp. 107–108.