Tag Archives: Norse

Folklore in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this play, and I have to say, I really liked it. It is very funny and accessible. And while I have also never seen it performed, the language is so rich that I could easily picture the scenes in my mind’s eye as they would be acted out on stage. The play is full of sexual jokes and puns, which I’m sure went over really well with audiences during Shakespeare’s time. But what interests me the most about this play is the folklore woven in to the story.

When plotting revenge on Sir John Falstaff, Mistress Page presents a folk tale about Herne the Hunter

There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

(Act IV, scene iv)

While the archetype of horned deities that roam the wooded areas are myriad and ancient, what is fascinating about this myth is that Shakespeare’s reference to Herne is the earliest known reference in existence.

In English folklore, Herne the Hunter is a ghost associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire. He is said to wear antlers upon his head, ride a horse, torment cattle, and rattle chains. The earliest mention of Herne comes from William Shakespeare’s 1597 play The Merry Wives of Windsor, and it is impossible to know how accurately or to what degree Shakespeare may have incorporated a real local legend into his work, though there have been several later attempts to connect Herne to historical figures, pagan deities, or ancient archetypes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So this begs the question: Was Shakespeare drawing on local folklore when writing this play, or did he just make up the tale of Herne to help drive the story? There is no way to know, but all mythology and folklore must begin by the telling of a story, and that’s what is really important here. It doesn’t really matter whether Shakespeare made this up, or if he heard it being told around a pub. What matters is that the tale was written down, and the myth was given birth, and it persisted. Herne may just be an artistic personification the archetypal forest god, but in the telling of the story and the acting of the play, Herne is given life and brought into existence within our collective consciousness.

The number three has been considered a mystical number for as long as humans have contemplated the magical nature of numbers, which is why Falstaff’s short passage regarding the number three caught my attention.

Prithee, no more prattling; go. I’ll hold. This is
the third time; I hope good luck lies in odd
numbers. Away I go. They say there is divinity in
odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death. Away!

(Act V, scene i)

This concept of the mystical power of 3 has become part of folk belief. The phrases are many: “Third one’s a charmer,” “Death comes in threes,” “Three strikes and you’re out.” Once a concept becomes planted in the collective consciousness, it manifests in folk sayings, as shown in the sayings concerning the number three.

Finally, no exploration of English folklore would be complete without mentioning the Fairy Folk, which Shakespeare also does in this play.

About, about;
Search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out:
Strew good luck, ouphes, on every sacred room:
That it may stand till the perpetual doom,
In state as wholesome as in state ’tis fit,
Worthy the owner, and the owner it.
The several chairs of order look you scour
With juice of balm and every precious flower:
Each fair installment, coat, and several crest,
With loyal blazon, evermore be blest!
And nightly, meadow-fairies, look you sing,
Like to the Garter’s compass, in a ring:
The expressure that it bears, green let it be,
More fertile-fresh than all the field to see;
And ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ write
In emerald tufts, flowers purple, blue and white;
Let sapphire, pearl and rich embroidery,
Buckled below fair knighthood’s bending knee:
Fairies use flowers for their charactery.
Away; disperse: but till ’tis one o’clock,
Our dance of custom round about the oak
Of Herne the Hunter, let us not forget.

(Act V, scene v)

While the fairies in this scene are just people pretending to be fairies in order to tease Falstaff, the imagery is consistent with the folklore surrounding fairies. And of particular interest is the custom of dancing around the oak tree. The idea of the oak as a sacred tree dates back to Greek mythology. It is mentioned in Celtic, Norse, Baltic, Slavic, Druid, and Wiccan mythology. It even has significance in the Bible as being the place where Jacob buries the foreign gods of his people and under which he erects a stone as the first covenant of the Lord. (Source: Wikipedia)

There is one more folk belief that is in this play that I want to mention, and it is a dark one: the “trial by fire.”

With trial-fire touch me his finger-end:
If he be chaste, the flame will back descend
And turn him to no pain; but if he start,
It is the flesh of a corrupted heart.

(Act V, scene v)

This conjures some very dark images for me. I cannot help but envision innocents accused of witchcraft or heresy tied to a stake and set a flame, as a way to test their guilt or innocence. This serves as a warning to us, that while there is much wisdom to be gleaned from folklore, we must also be vigilant and approach these tales with a critical mind.

In spite of the one dark spot, I still think this is a great and funny play. I hope to see it performed sometime in the near future.

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“Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

I had to travel for work recently, and this was the perfect book to read while on flights and in hotel rooms. It was a quick read, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Basically, everything you expect from Gaiman in the retelling of Norse myths. He took stories from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda and presents them in his own voice. It works really well.

There is an abundance of the usual characters that we expect in the Norse myths: Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya, and so on. But Gaiman also treats us to some lesser-known players, and some of these stories have resonant similarities to other myths. For example, in the following creation story, Ask and Embla are created from the Ash and Elm trees, and the names conjure images of Adam and Eve.

Ve carved the logs. He gave them the shape of people. He carved their ears, that they might hear, and their eyes, that they might see, and lips, that they might speak.

The two logs stood on the beach, two naked people. Ve had carved one with male genitals, the other he had carved female.

The three brothers made clothes for the woman and the man, to cover themselves and to keep them warm, in the chilly sea-spray on the beach at the edge of the world.

Last of all they gave the two people they had made names: the man they called Ask, or Ash Tree; the woman they called Embla, or Elm.

(p. 34)

It is rare that I actually laugh out loud when I am reading, but it happened during this book (glad I wasn’t drinking coffee – it would have come out my nose). It occurred during the myth about the Mead of Poetry, which Odin, in the form of a giant eagle, stole from a giant, carrying the mead in his mouth and spitting it into vats back as Asgard. But that is not the whole story.

There. That is the story of the mead of poetry and how it was given to the world. It is a story filled with dishonor and deceit, with murder and trickery. But it is not quite the whole story. There is one more thing to tell you. The delicate among you should stop your ears, or read no further.

Here is the last thing, and a shameful admission it is. When the all-father in eagle form had almost reached the vats, with Suttung immediately behind him, Odin blew some of the mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.

No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similes and ugly rhymes, you will know which of the meads they have tasted.

(p. 151)

I will forever have this image in my mind when I read a bad poem!

Many of the myths in this book are symbolic for issues that we as conscious beings have to grapple with. A great example of this is when Thor wrestles an old woman and is unable to defeat her. This tale is symbolic for how we, aware of our mortality, have to wrestle with the knowledge of our impending death as we enter into old age.

“And the old woman?” asked Thor. “Your old nurse? What was she?” His voice was very mild, but he had hold of the shaft of his hammer, and he was holding it comfortably.

“That was Elli, old age. No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only to one knee. We have never seen anything like last night, Thor. Never.”

(p. 176)

Something that has always fascinated me about mythology is how recurring themes appear across various myths, regardless of the time and place in which those myths originated. A great example is the river which the souls of the dead must cross. For me, it symbolizes the crossing of the stream of consciousness, which we must undertake in order for our consciousness to return to the divine source.

Hermod the Nimble rode for nine days and nine nights without stopping. He rode deeper and he rode through gathering darkness: from gloom to twilight to night to a pitch-black starless dark. All that he could see in the darkness was something golden glinting far ahead of him.

Closer he rode, and closer, and the light grew brighter. It was gold, and it was the thatch bridge across the Gjaller River, across which all who die must travel.

(pp. 242 – 243)

This book is outstanding on so many levels. It is simple and accessible, yet brimming with profound wisdom for those who want to dive deep into the text. I highly recommend this to all readers.

Cheers!

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“The Younger Edda” by Snorre Sturluson

YoungerEddaThis book has been on my list for a while and I finally got around to reading it. Essentially, it’s a collection of tales from Norse mythology. As I started reading it, I quickly learned that I had to disregard all the introductory text, as well as the footnotes. It may have just been the translation, but the sheer volume of academic blather and mental masturbation that was wasting pages almost made me delete the book from my reader. Once I skipped over all the analysis and got into the actual text, though, it got much more interesting.

As with many epics, there are sections that contain lists of names, and you can drive yourself crazy trying to remember them all, especially since the gods and persons in the book are referred to by multiple names. I didn’t spend a lot of energy trying to keep track of everyone, but instead focused on the stories.

The first thing that struck me about this text is how much it inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wasn’t completely surprised by this, since I recall reading about it somewhere. Yet it seems that Tolkien borrowed not just the epic style, but he also took names from the Edda. I was surprised to see Gandalf’s name appear in the Edda.

The earlier part of the book deals with the creation myth and it was interesting to compare the Norse version to other creation myths. For example, the god Surt seems a combination of divine beings from other texts. He is similar to the cherubim and St Michael the Archangel, with the sword of flame. He also seems to embody aspects of Shiva, the destroyer of worlds.

Surt is the name of him who stands on its border guarding it. He has a flaming sword in his hand, and at the end of the world he will come and harry, conquer all the gods, and burn up the whole world with fire.

There are some interesting differences, too. The one that stands out the most for me is that when the moon and sun are created, the genders attributed to them are the reverse of what is common. In everything that I have read so far, the sun is associated with masculine energy, while the moon with its cycles is symbolic of the feminine. Not so in the Norse mythology.

The sun knew not Where her hall she had; The moon knew not What might he had; The stars knew not Their resting-places.

I thought about how this type of gender reversal would affect the symbolism of the sun and the moon. I suppose in the cold north, the sun becomes a symbol for birth, life, and regeneration, causing plants to spring from the earth. The moon, associated with might in the text, has the power to shift the tides, a power that certainly must have been important to the Vikings. So the symbolism attached to these astral bodies makes sense when you look at it from that perspective. That’s the thing about symbols—they mean different things to different people.

Although the god Thor figures prominently in the text, I’m not going to say much about him. Personally, I found Thor to be arrogant and prone to hubris. It was like his attitude was always: If I hit it hard enough with my hammer, I’ll get what I want. Thor’s flaw as a hero is that he doesn’t really use his brains as much as he should. It’s all brawn for Thor, which is his defect, in my opinion.

Loke, on the other hand, I found infinitely fascinating. He is like Lucifer, Prometheus, Anansi, and Odysseus all rolled into one. He is beautiful; he is a trickster; he is sharp and cunning; he is the embodiment of all the things that make a character thrilling and interesting.

There is yet one who is numbered among the asas, but whom some call the backbiter of the asas. He is the originator of deceit, and the disgrace of all gods and men. His name is Loke, or Lopt. His father is the giant Farbaute, but his mother’s name is Laufey, or Nal. His brothers are Byleist and Helblinde. Loke is fair and beautiful of face, but evil in disposition, and very fickle-minded. He surpasses other men in the craft called cunning, and cheats in all things. He has often brought the asas into great trouble, and often helped them out again, with his cunning contrivances.

Loke, according to the Norse mythology, is the father of the ourosboros, which for me is one of the most powerful symbols. I was kind of surprised by this. I had always viewed the ourosboros as a symbol for cycles and eternity and had never considered that it was created by another divine entity.

Loke had yet more children. A giantess in Jotunheim, hight Angerboda. With her he begat three children. The first was the Fenris-wolf; the second, Jormungand, that is, the Midgard-serpent, and the third, Hel. When the gods knew that these three children were being fostered in Jotunheim, and were aware of the prophesies that much woe and misfortune would thence come to them, and considering that much evil might be looked for from them on their mother’s side, and still more on their father’s, Alfather sent some of the gods to take the children and bring them to him. When they came to him he threw the serpent into the deep sea which surrounds all lands. There waxed the serpent so that he lies in the midst of the ocean, surrounds the earth, and bites his own tail.

OurosborosI feel like I could write an entire book on Loke. He is by far the most interesting character in the Edda. But, I want to talk about Odin for a little bit, so I will say farewell to Loke, for now.

I learned a lot about the god Odin from this book. Not only is he the father of the other gods, or the Alfather (I like to think of him as the archetype from which the other gods were formed), but he is the source of magic and poetry, which are closely related. Poetry, or the art of “skald-craft,” was passed down from Odin, but Odin remains the master. It is said that: “With words alone he could quench fire, still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any quarter he pleased.”

Odin taught the magical arts to the priests and priestesses of old. Essentially, all magic, witchcraft, and sorcery was passed down from the Alfather.

He taught all these arts in runes and songs, which are called incantations, and therefore the Asaland people are called incantation-smiths. Odin also understood the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practiced, namely, what is called magic. By means of this he could know the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot, and also bring on the death, ill-luck or bad health of people, or take away the strength or wit from one person and give it to another. But after such witchcraft followed such weakness and anxiety, that it was not thought respectable for men to practice it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art… From these arts he became very celebrated. His enemies dreaded him; his friends put their trust in him, and he relied on his power and on himself. He taught the most of his arts to his priests of the sacrifices, and they came nearest to himself in all wisdom and witch-knowledge. Many others, however, occupied themselves much with it; and from that time witchcraft spread far and wide, and continued long.

This is not an easy book to read. It is very dense and the language is archaic. That said, if you are interested in mythology, magic, and the occult, it is a must read. I am glad that I persevered and finished the book. It was very insightful for me. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and comments. Thanks.

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