Article MT260

Once Upon a Time ...

A look at some universal folklore themes

When I was growing up in rural Lancashire I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandfather, Arthur Hart.  Although his father had moved from Cambridgeshire to Lancashire, my grandfather seemed to have a great deal of knowledge about the area where we lived.  He knew a number of stories, including one that told of a group of hunters who were out on the local moors.  Their hounds soon spotted a hare, which they chased hither and thither.  Eventually, the hare, spotting a hole in the side of a barn, managed to escape through the hole and into the barn, but not before one of the hounds had caught hold, and bitten, one of the hare's legs.  The huntsmen went towards the barn door but, before they could open it, the door opened from the inside and out came a well-known witch, 'Owd Mother Demdike'.  As she walked off, cursing the hunters as she did so, the hunters noticed that blood was coming from a wound in the witch's ankle.

I now know that this is quite a well-known folktale, versions of which have been recorded from all over the country.  But, the addition of 'Owd Mother Demdike' turned it into a local story; Elizabeth Southerns, Demdike's real name, being one of the so-called Pendle Witches, twelve of whom were hanged in 1612 CE.  Demdike herself died in Lancaster Gaol while awaiting trial, but my grandfather was in no doubt that she was a witch - trial or no trial!1

There were two things that fascinated me about this story.  The first was the fact that these events had happened in the region where I lived - this was 'real' history, not the stuff that my teachers were trying to instill in me - and, secondly, I loved the idea that a witch could turn herself into an animal.  Years later I came across the story of Isobel Gowdie, another 17th century witch, this time one from Scotland.  Gowdie left us an incredible 'confession', one apparently not obtained under torture, in which she talked about many of her supernatural powers.  She too had the ability to turn herself into a hare by uttering the following spell.

I sall gae intil a haire,
Wi sorrow and sych and meikle care;
And I sall gae in the Devillis name,
Ay quhill I com hom againe.

If she wished to turn into a cat, then she would utter another similar spell.

I sall gae intil a catt,
Wi sorrow and sych and a black shat;
And I sall gae in the Devillis name,
Ay quhill I com hom againe.

A further rhyme, this time used to turn oneself into a crow, ran as follows.

I sall gae intil a craw,
Wi sorrow and sych and a black thraw;
And I sall gae in the Devillis name,
Ay quhill I com hom againe.

When Gowdie wished to change back into her human form she would then recite this three-lined verse.

Haire, Haire (catt, craw, etc) God send thee caire (back),
I am in a hairis likenes just now,
Bot I sall be in a woman's likenes evin now,

So, where does the idea of 'shape-shifting' come from?  Well, it is certainly a very ancient and wide-spread idea.  Shamans, who could be found in vast areas of the world, from Finland to Siberia, from Turkey to China, were certainly believed to be able to transform themselves into all manner of birds and animals.  The Samoyed people, for example, who live in between the White Sea (to the north of Finland) and the River Khatanga in northern Siberia, believe that Shamans can turn themselves into bears by leaping over fallen trees and uttering specific formulae.2  In a Kachin Turk epic poem, Kara Tygan and Suksgal, from the Abakan region around the Yenisei River in central Siberia, the hero Kara Tygan and his brother-in-law set out upon an epic journey.  For part of their travels they turn themselves into swallows and their horses into swans.  A third shamanic example of shape-shifting comes from a Kazakh prose epic, one in which the hero Shentäi has to seek out a bride who lives behind a circle of fire.  At one point of the story Shentäi is disguised as a beggar by a wise maiden called Synshy Sary Kus (shades of the Odyssey here, where Athena disguised Odysseus at the end of the story).  In another part of the tale Synshy Sary Kus asks Shentäi to turn himself firstly into a blue dove, secondly into a hawk and, finally, into a handsome hero.  This triadic-transformation formula is a common feature of such stories.  One final story comes from another Siberian people, the Buriat of Irkutsk, who believed that their first shaman, Morgon-Kara, was so powerful that he could bring back souls from the dead.  This so annoyed the Lord of the Dead that he complained to the Great God of Heaven, who decided to test the shaman.  The Great God took the soul of a man and placed it into a small glass bottle.  He then covered the opening with his thumb and hid the bottle in his hand.  The man, whose soul had been taken, became ill and so his relatives begged Morgon-Kara to search for the missing soul.  He searched everywhere in the forests and in the waters.  He travelled into the highest mountains and into the land of the dead, but without success.  At last, 'sitting on his drum', he floated up to the highest heavenly realms, where he saw the Great God.  Morgon-Kara noticed that the Great God had something hidden in his hand and so, turning himself into a hornet, he stung the Great God on the forehead.  The shock was such that the Great God opened his hand and the soul escaped.3  And, of course, shamanic beliefs were also taken to the Americas by early Asian settlers.  For an entertaining account of such beliefs, have a look at Tony Hillerman's excellent detective novel The Shape Shifter from 2006.

Nearer home we have the tale of the Welsh hero, Gwion Bach, who found himself in the 'Land under the Waves' (actually at the bottom of Lake Bala in North Wales).  It is quite a long story, but in one part we find Gwion being pursued by a lady called Caridwen, the wife of a giant.

I am sure that most Musical Tradition readers will know of shape-shifting by way of the ballad The Twa Magicians (Child 44), which Professor Child described as 'a base-born cousin of a pretty ballad known all over southern Europe, in especially graceful forms in France.'  According to Child, the ballad probably originated from stories about a young man and a maiden who were pursued by a sorcerer, or else from a tale about a young apprentice of the black arts who was pursued by his sorcerer master.  In both cases the young people escape by means of shape-shifting.  This is Bert Lloyd's take on the story: Actually, the ballad has not survived all that well in Britain and Professor Child was only able to report one text.  This had been noted by the Scottish collector Peter Buchan and had been printed by Buchan in his Ancient Ballads and Songs of 1828.  It runs as follows: On 8th August, 1904, the English song collector Cecil Sharp noted a set from a Mr Sparks, of Minehead in Somerset, while, in Scotland, both Gavin Greig and James M Carpenter were able to find later versions.  In 1973 Gwilym Davies noted a version from an Annie Dodds of Steep in Hampshire and, three years later, Bob and Jacqueline Patten found it being sung by a gentleman called Austin Wookey, of East Harptree, Somerset, an area once covered by Cecil Sharp.  Finally, in 2000, I was able to record a set from the Scottish Traveller, Duncan Williamson, then living in Fife.  Duncan had first heard the piece told as a folktale, but later picked up, and possibly adapted, the song from singers that he met at folk clubs and festivals.6

Returning, now, to the time when I was growing up.  My grandfather had a small collection of 78rpm gramophone records, mainly of dance-band recordings.  But there was also one classical 12' disc, a recording of The Swan of Tuonela by Jean Sibelius.  The piece is from his 'Four Legends from the Kalevala for Orchestra', although when I first heard this recording I had no idea what the Kalevala was.  I loved the piece and I would play it over and over, trying in my mind to imagine this graceful bird gliding over the water.  Again, it was to be many years before I discovered the Kalevala, Finland's great saga.  Written in the early 19th century, the Kalevala is an epic poem that had been compiled by the folklorist Elias Lönnrot (9th April 1802 - 19th March 1884) and first published in 1835.  A later edition, from 1849, comprises some fifty stories set out in 22,795 verses.  The title means 'The land of Kaleva'.  Lönnrot was the district health officer of Kainuu, in Finland, who took it upon himself to collect the folktales and oral poetry that he found still being told by the people in that area.  It took him fifteen years to complete his task.

The Kalevala opens with a series of creation myths, before continuing with a range of tales about all manner of heroes and their exploits.  Some of these stories must be extremely old.  In one, for example, we find a character whose story is similar to that of Oedipus in Greek mythology.  But another tale is even older.  This is part of the story of Lemminkäinen, who is asked to shoot the swan of Tuonela (the underground land of the dead).  Before he can complete his task Lemminkäinen is killed and his body dismembered by someone whom he has previously insulted.  Lemminkäinen's mother finds the remains, which she drags out of the river of Tuonela, and then stitches the body parts back together again.  She then asks a bee to firstly fetch honey from the surrounding flowers and grasses, then, secondly, from a cabin on an island in the sea, and, finally, from heaven.  This done, Lemminkäinen's mother uses the honey to bring her son back to life.  In fact, this is but a retelling of an older Egyptian myth, one in which Osiris is killed and dismembered by Seth before being found, reconstituted and revived by Isis.  Interestingly, there is another point of similarity in Elias Lönnrot's version of the tale.  Lemminkäinen is killed by a 'permanent bachelor' called Väinämöinen, and the term 'bachelor' is stressed to indicate a person of irregular sexuality, just like Seth, who was a bisexual rapist.

Of course, as a young boy I had no idea of just what lay beneath the waters of Tuonela as I listened to Sibelius's haunting tune.  Nor did I realize that a possible explanation for one of England's greatest stories, that of King Arthur and the sword in the stone, lay but a few miles away from my home - in the ancient Roman fort at Ribchester.

Over the years, the Arthurian tales have come to be seen as stories based, largely, on various Celtic myths.7  Indeed, some of the characters who make up the stories clearly have Celtic backgrounds.  Guinevere, for example, appears to be based on the Irish Aphrodite figure Finnabar (from the old Irish Findabair or the Welsh Gwenhwyfar).  And we may say that Merlin, or Myrddin, who is mentioned in the oldest known Welsh manuscript, the Black Book of Carmarthen that is dated to c.1250 CE, is also a character from Welsh mythology.  King Arthur's father, Uthar Pendragon, is yet another Welsh addition.  But, over the past thirty or forty years, some scholars had began to look elsewhere, to the East rather than to the West, to see if they could find mention of the stories that make up the Arthurian tales.  Things kicked off in 1978 when C Scott Littleton and Ann C Thomas published a paper, 'The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends', in the Journal of American Folklore (91:512-527).  The Sarmatians, along with the closely related Alans, were a group of people who lived in the steppes of southern Russia, in an area to the north of present day Iran, some two thousand years ago.  But what is the connection between these people, their beliefs, and the Roman fort at Ribchester?

To understand this we have to understand how the Roman Empire grew and sustained itself.  We know that when the Romans conquered an alien people they would often offer them a chance to live, but only if the men agreed to serve in the Roman army, and this is what happened to many Sarmatians.  In the year 175 CE, at the end of the Marcomannian War, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius sent a contingent of 5,500 Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry from Pannonia (modern Hungary) to Britain.  Once in Britain, some were posted to Ribchester.  Others were moved to the north of England, to man Hadrian's Wall.  (It was Roman policy to send captured troops far away from their homelands.) The Sarmatian soldiers were expected to serve for a period of twenty-five years before they were able to retire as full citizens of Rome.  And many retired to the vicus, the area outside the fort at Ribchester, where they settled with their families.  No doubt some of the soldiers married local girls and their different cultures would have led to new ideas being accepted by their descendents. 

One thing that the Sarmatian's brought with them was their belief in a sword cult, the sacred sword being a symbol for the Sarmatian's war-god.  It seems that during their cult ceremonies sacred swords would be repeatedly thrust into and withdrawn from the ground.  Could it be that this ritual lies behind the later 'sword in the stone' motif?  Certainly Littleton and a few others believe this to be the case and they have set out their views in the book From Scythia to Camelot.8  Some of the other ideas have been summarized by the Arthurian writer Geoffrey Ashe, in his book The Discovery of King Arthur:

In fact, Ashe is being rather general here, because the stories of, say, the sword in the water, or of the Nart vessel, contain far more details than Ashe suggests.  And these details do tie in with many of the motifs found in the Arthurian versions of the stories.10  I should, perhaps, add that Geoffrey Ashe could not resist adding the following comment. While I do find some of these ideas plausible, I should, in fairness, say that there is no mention of the 'Sarmatian Connection' in Richard Barber's important book The Holy Grail.  The History of a Legend (first published in 2004) and there is only a brief, indeed very brief, mention of it in The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend.11  But, of course, such connections are not necessarily speculative.  Again we can turn to Bert Lloyd, who pointed out the connection between the illustration on a 2000 year old Scythian sword scabbard, now housed in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and the old Child ballad of The Outlandish Knight (Child 4).  The scabbard depicts a girl sitting under a tree.  A knight, or suchlike, is lying with the girl, his head on her lap, and she appears to be delousing his hair.  The girl is looking up into the tree and she can clearly see the man's bloody weapons, with which he intends to kill her.  Lloyd, taking his lead from Lajos Vargyas 12 mentions similar scenes depicted on the walls of medieval churches both in Hungary and in Slovenia.13  This scene is a part of the story of The Outlandish Knight and is evidence of a transmission that has been on the move, possibly from Siberia to Britain, via Europe, for at least a couple of millennia.  Or, to use Bert Lloyd words: Let me end by going back ten years, to an afternoon spent with that most marvellous of story tellers, the late Duncan Williamson.  One short story that Duncan liked to tell was a story that he had picked up from one of his father's cousins, Willie Williamson, who called it The White Butterfly.  We recorded the tale and it is now available for all to hear on the CD Travellers' Tales.  Volume 1 (Kyloe CD100).14  Another version, collected by Hugh Miller in 1854, is printed in The Penguin Book of Scottish Folktales edited by Neil Phillip (1995), under the title 'The Humble-Bee' (pp.430-31), while an Irish version, originally printed in Folktales of Ireland by Sean O'Sullivan (1966), was included in Folk Tales of the British Isles by Kevin Crossley-Holland (The Folio Society, 1985), as 'The Soul as a Butterfly' (pp.373-75).  In fact, the story is well-known throughout Europe and folklorists usually call it 'The Soul of a Sleeping Person Wanders on its Own', or some similar title.  But what fascinates me about this tale is that fact that we have a version of it that was noted down, not by a folklorist but by a court scribe, sometime during the first quarter of the 14th century.

Between 1318 and 1325 Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers, later Pope Benedict XII at Avignon, carried out an inquisition into the heretic Cathars (who were also known as Albigensians) in a village in the Pyrenees, in what was then the independent Comté de Foix.  Montaillou, the name of the village, comprised some 250 farmers and shepherds, and their families, who became the subject of one of the most detailed and exhaustive inquisitions ever held.  This version of Duncan's story, in which a lizard replaces Duncan's white butterfly, was given to Bishop Fournier by one Phillipe d'Alayrac.  It was, he said, a Cathar exemplum, one which was used by the Cathar Perfects (who were the nearest the Cathars had to priests) to explain the difference between the soul and the spirit:

Stories, such as those of 'Owd Mother Demdike', of Siberian 'shape-shifters', of The Kalevala , of King Arthur, or of 'the White Butterfly', and ballads such as The Two Magicians or The Outlandish Knight can be seen on various levels.  On one level they are simply entertainments, something either told or sung to pass the long winter nights.  Then again they could be seen as didactic, tales which carried meanings and instructions for life.16  But I see something else.  To me, these tales and ballads, which have spread out so far across the globe, link so many different people together.  They confirm the fact that we all share common interests and understanding and, surely, suggest that we have far more in common than we sometimes like to admit.  I love these stories, and love the fact that they do have the power to bring us all together.  And that, so far as I am concerned, cannot be a bad thing in this day and age.

Mike Yates - 8.11.10


Article MT260

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