Kissing Under The Mistletoe

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I thought I would beguile you this week with a tale about mistletoe. The ‘season to be merry’ time approaches after all. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe grows out of Norse mythology and here is the story.

Baldur the Beloved

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One of the most beloved of the gods was Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg. He was the god of the summer sun and just one of those handsome, generous, happy, brave guys that was a pleasure to hang out with.

However dark dreams began to trouble Baldur and so the rest of the gods, fearing the worst, got together and voted Odin the man most likely to find out the meaning of the dreams. Odin saddled up his trusty steed Slepnir and rode, incognito, into the underworld to seek out a dead seeress. When he arrived he found the place all decked out in splendour as though waiting for the guest of honour…yep you guessed it, Baldur.

Odin returned to base in Asgard and gave the gods the bad news. Frigg in her distress went around every entity, the four elements, all things living and non-living and got them to swear an oath never to harm her son. What mother could do less?

At this point everyone cheered up and began teasing Baldur throwing rocks and sticks and anything else they could find to test his invincibility. All of which he took in great good humour.

Enter the Villain, Stage Left.

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The villain, Loki was an irreverent, malicious trickster. He asked Frigg whether she had really asked all things to swear the oath and she told him ‘all except the mistletoe; small innocent as it is what harm could it do?

‘Ah-ha’ thought Loki, ‘time for mischief’. He cut a bough of mistletoe to make a spear and whispered to the blind god Hodr.

‘Such a shame you cannot join in the fun. Let me help you. Throw this branch at Baldur.’

He put the spear in Hodr’s hand and, standing behind him helped him to hurl it right at Baldur. It pierced him through and through.

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The Ransom

Frigg offered to pay a ransom for the return of her son and whilst another of Odin’s sons, (to be called the obscure son), galloped off to the underworld the rest of the gods prepared for Baldur’s funeral.

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They took his ship ‘Hringhorni’ (the-ship-with-a- circle-in-the-stem) piled it with goodies, including Baldur’s wife who had dropped dead with grief and his horse. They couldn’t push the ship off the shore and into the water so recruited the help of a giantess who launched it with one mighty shove that shook the world.

Meanwhile Back in the Underworld…

The obscure son of Odin found Hel, the goddess of that region sitting with a pale and wan Baldur. Hel set the ransom thus:

‘let every living thing in the cosmos weep for him and I will send him back; should but one refuse to weep, I will keep him.’

Loki’s Last Trick

The obscure son hastened back to Asgard and messengers were despatched across the cosmos. Everyone wept…except one a giantess who said.

‘Let Hel keep him.’

And so the ransom could not be paid and Baldur remained dead in the cold, dark damp of the underworld.

The giantess was actually Loki in disguise.

*****

However, weep not – there is an alternative ending to this tale that goes:

for three days the cosmos wept for Baldur. His mother’s tears turned into the white berries of the mistletoe. However, all the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth did the trick and Baldur was resurrected. Frigg vowed to kiss all who pass under the mistletoe. Hence the tradition of a mistletoe kiss was born.

 

 

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Getting in touch with the Thirteenth Century

I have been taking a sabbatical from social media as I was finding it extremely difficult to promote my books  and continue with the research and writing of the next one. In the end I took time out to try to create a more sensible regime for book promotion. This has freed up a bit of time for research and allowed my mind to wander around the thirteenth century (the era of my next book).

One question I was trying to answer was how would some of my characters react, feel and think about some of the natural phenomena that occur on this beautiful planet? Phenomena that we now understand and can explain. How would things such as meteors and comets, whirlpools, fossils, disappearing springs and ‘petrifying’ cascades be reasoned and explained? There are few eyewitness accounts but a wealth of folklore to pick through that give us some insight into the average medieval man’s mind.

Taking examples from my own environment here in France – how would my characters react to the disappearing spring at Fontestorbes? Regularly, throughout the day the water appears gushing out of a cave in the mountain-side and then it vanishes leaving the cave dry-ish  – all done in the space of half an hour. Did they really believe in fairies? Did they think that it was some sort of magical launderette and the local fées took all the water to do their washing and woe betide any human that got in the way?

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Now you see it – the stream making its appearance

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Now you don’t!

Then again what would people have made of Les Cascades de la Turasse tumbling down thirty metres of steep wooded hillside at Roquefort les Cascades? We know that minerals in the water created the petrified objects lying in the stream and the basins of tufa. Would they wonder who created this tufière and how? Did my thirteenth century peasants fear that they would be turned into stone and so whispered a little prayer as they passed by? Or is that some later folklorique aimed at the passing tourist trade?

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The Cascade – all the green is moss in various stages of ‘petrification’

 

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Part of an old tree getting petrified

However, above all, we have the pronouncements of churchmen and monks who interpreted these phenomena for their less-educated flocks – albeit within limited parameters: God or Devil; Good or Evil.

For example there are springs of Belesta and Celles. In both instances events took place that were quickly attributed to the Virgin Mary and the church took control.

At Belesta a poor shepherd tormented by ulcers on his legs came to drink at the spring known as the Amourel. There he was allegedly visited by the Virgin Mary who instructed him to wash his legs in the spring and he would be healed. Overcoming a natural (for the time) reluctance to bathing he did as she bid him and the next day…not an ulcer to be seen. The news got around and local folk made a simple shrine by the spring. Then the churchmen took over and  built a chapel on top of the spring itself.  Pilgrims from far and wide travelling there to be healed, now had to descend into the crypt to drink the water  leaving their offerings of gold and silver .

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Just my luck – on the day I visited the spring had run dry.

The spring at Celles was the scene of another Virginal visit.  Appearing as a white dove before taking up a corporeal form she had a wee bit of a chat with local boy Jean Courdil. She warned Jean that the inhabitants of Celles had to change their ways and asked him to spread the news. (There was at the time much discord and dissension about religious matters throughout France and allegedly four of the local women had beaten up the curé). There was, the Virgin said, a greater likelihood of all the villagers going to The Other Place rather than Heaven unless they all repented. A procession of repentance was duly held and calm and order returned to the village. It was then that the spring where Jean met the Virgin was transformed into a source of healing and relief of suffering. As at Belesta, the pilgrims flocked there to a little chapel that was erected alongside the stream.

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Chapel at Celles

Turning away from watery subjects to stony ones. When I lived on the Holderness coast in East Yorkshire I regularly came across fossils on the beach.  My medieval characters held a host of superstitions and beliefs about fossils. What they were; where they came from. In particular they endowed many of them with magical or curative properties.

The Ammonites were known as Snakestones (it is not by chance that this is the title of my next book) and were thought to be headless serpents that had turned to stone. William Camden in his work Britannia describes them as:

“Stony serpents wreathed up in circles but eternally without heads.”

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Ammonites aka Snakestones

Attributed with several useful properties Ammonites were believed to provide an antidote to snake bites, cure blindness, barrenness and impotence to say nothing of warding off lightning and evil spirits.

Echinoids (sea urchins) some of the most common fossils, were considered to be fairy loaves because of their bun-like shape. In Medieval homes one was often placed by the hearth to ensure there was always bread in the house. If there was a week when the house was bread-less, it was thought that witches had been at work and blocked the fairy loaf’s protective powers,

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Echinoid (Fossilised Sea Urchin)

Gryphaea (bi-valves) were believed to be toenail clippings from Old Nick himself and acquired the title of the Devil’s Toenail because of the curved shape and growth bands. For some strange reason they were often worn as a cure for rheumatism and arthritis.

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Gryphaea

Sadly, although I have several in my little fossil collection and they ain’t done nuffink for me!

 

Stormy Nights and Ladies in White

The church clock struck midnight. Outside the rain fell in torrents beating a tattoo on the porch roof. Wind moaned through a gap in the shutters. In my office the chandelier lights flickered and the computer gave an apologetic “huff” and died only to mysteriously self-resuscitate a few seconds later.

I was researching more ghosts, myths and legends for another set of spooky stories and had arrived at the legends of the Dames Blanches – White Ladies. They’re everywhere in France but especially in Normandy and the Pyrenees. There are two around me haunting Chateaux Puivert and Puylaurens. At Puylaurens, the great-niece of Phillipe le Bel, restlessly walks the battlements. At Puivert (click for the full story) their Dame Blanche appears on rainy nights at one of the tower windows and just over the border in Andorra there is one who defended the principality from a huge wolf which was really an angry bishop in disguise. Goodness knows how many more there are lurking in the shadows.

What’s with it with these ladies; flitting around in the most inclement of weather wearing little more than some flimsy draperies?

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Jesuit Martin Antonio Delrio writing in the sixteenth century reassures me. He writes that these ladies are generally benevolent towards we mere humans, they are merely feés appearing in the woods and on the plains. They appear to be kind to animals too as he asserts that often the ladies appeared, carrying a lighted candle, in stables. There, they would let a few drops of wax fall on the incumbents’ manes and tails and then proceed to tenderly and carefully comb and plait them.

Another writer, Thomas Keightley makes me nervous though. In his book “The Fairy Mythology” he recounts tales of the malevolent nature of the Dames Blanches where they lurk at cross-roads, narrow bridges and ravines and insist on forfeits. If you want to pass by you may have to dance with them, get on your knees to them or assist them in some way. Woe betide you if you refuse. You may end up in a patch of nettles and brambles. These unkind phantoms are said to be found mainly in the north of France, particularly Normandy. Did I tell you I’m going to Normandy at the end of April?  Me with my cronky knee. Just my luck.

 

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PS Did I also tell you that my collection of spooky stories – “Spook Me Out” will be available from Amazon at the end of March?

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The Man in the Moon

Did you see the “Super Moon” last week? I missed it; too much cloud cover. I think had I seen it I would have howled – I’m not turning werewolf so put away those silver bullets! It has been one of those months. Grrr.

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However I did see it a couple of days later, fat and round with a handlebar moustache of wispy cloud across its face. It got me thinking. Where did all the stories about the Man in the Moon come from?

European tales hold that he was banished to the moon for gathering sticks on a Sunday,  – a warning to all good folk:

“See the rustic in the Moon,
How his bundle weighs him down;
Thus his sticks the truth reveal,
It never profits man to steal.”

 Apparently he can be seen there with a bundle of sticks on his back and sometimes accompanied by a little dog.

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Roman legend places him there as a sheep-stealer. German tales tell of both a man and a woman banished; the man for gathering thorny sticks and strewing them in the path of churchgoers and the woman for the sin of making butter on the Sabbath. Dutch tales emphasise honesty as the best policy as they relate the fate of a man punished for nicking cabbages and sentenced to carry them on his back for eternity. Presumably up there in the cold they won’t rot and go whiffy.

Our man makes an appearance throughout the centuries. He’s there in Chaucer’s “Testament of Cresside”, in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream and “The Tempest”. Dante gives him a bit part in his “Inferno” and there is Tolkien’s poem in “Lord of the Rings” – “a ridiculous song that Bilbo had been rather fond of…”  Salvador Dali was quite fond of him too, immortalising him in several of his paintings.

Clearly I’m sadly lacking in perception – I fail dismally in those rorschach tests  – to me an ink blot is an ink blot etc – hence I’ve never quite been able to see the old gentleman as others do. So I turned to the wonderful world of Wikipedia for help in visioning. This is what they came up with.

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Common interpretation of the “Man in the Moon” on the surface of the moon as seen from earth.

Key:

  1. The Sea of Showers (Mare Imbrium).
  2. The Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis).
  3. The Sea of Vapors (Mare Vaporum).
  4. The Sea of Islands (Mare Insularum).
  5. The Sea That Has Become Known (Mare Cognitum).
  6. The Sea of Clouds (Mare Nubium).
(By Luc Viatour. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mmm, yes OK.

Perhaps my man-in-the-moon blindness needs a little help. In England he was often associated with drink and drunkards. A number of London pubs bore his name with pride. This snippet of 12th century verse seems to sum it up:

Our man in the moon drinks clarret,
With powder-beef, turnep, and carret.
If he doth so, why should not you
Drink until the sky looks blew?

So time to pour a generous glass of vino and go for a walk. On second thoughts it is ‘as black as the Earl of Hell’s Waistcoat’ outside, pouring down and with intermittent thunder and lightning for good measure. However much I quaff the sky will not look blue!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common interpretation of the “Man in the Moon” on the surface of the moon as seen from earth.
Key:

  1. The Sea of Showers (Mare Imbrium).
  2. The Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis).
  3. The Sea of Vapors (Mare Vaporum).
  4. The Sea of Islands (Mare Insularum).
  5. The Sea That Has Become Known (Mare Cognitum).
  6. The Sea of Clouds (Mare Nubium).

 

By Luc Viatour. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons