Tag Archives: pagan

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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Hellboy: Krampusnacht

Tis the season: lights, decorations, Yule logs, nativity scenes, mistletoe, holiday cheer, and of course, Krampus.

One of the things that I love about the Hellboy series is the way that the creative team incorporates myths, legends, and the occult. Myths are such powerful forms of storytelling and they convey profound wisdom and insight into the human condition that they are able to be re-imagined with each new generation. And that is exactly what this issue does—it presents the story of Krampus in a way that resonates with the average American reader.

You’re going to have to bear with me. I’m an American. Over there we’ve got Santa Claus and the elves with toys. Over here… you’ve got Saint Nicholas and his monster sidekick, the Krampus. While Nick’s handing out toys, Krampus–that’s you–hits the bad kids with sticks and rides them around in a basket.

Toward the end of the tale, Hellboy and the professor discuss the possible origins of the Krampus legend.

Professor: Well, I wonder what old Harry Middleton will make of this. I’ll have to call him in the morning… For years he’s maintained that the Krampus was actually the demon goat of the witches’ sabbath, done up in fancy dress for the holidays. And I’ve argued that it was just a slightly nastier variation on the Scandinavian Yule Goat.

Hellboy: “Yule Goat.”

Professor: Yule Goat. Joulupukki. The pre-Christian goat-man version of Father Christmas.

I had never heard of Joulupukki before, but a quick search online provided me with some background on the myth.

Joulupukki is a Finnish Christmas figure. The name “Joulupukki” literally means “Christmas goat” or “Yule Goat” in Finnish; the word pukki comes from the Teutonic root bock, which is a cognate of the English “buck”, and means “billy-goat”. An old Scandinavian custom, the figure eventually became more or less conflated with Santa Claus.

Pagans used to have festivities to honour the return of the sun and some believe Joulupukki is the earliest form of present-day Santa. The Yule Goat was thought by some to be an ugly creature and frightened children while others believe it was an invisible creature that helped prepare for Yule.

Most theorists believe when Christianity began incorporating Pagan ways into their festivals in order to justify the action, they merged the Pagan figure with an already existing Catholic legend known as Saint Nicholas to create Santa Claus.

(Source: Wikipedia)

While the holiday season is a time of celebration throughout cultures and traditions, there is also a touch of the mystical associated with it, and this is often conveyed through ghost stories related to the season.

There must always be ghost stories at Christmas, Elizabeth.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you have a blessed holiday season and a joyous New Year.

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Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Picasso: Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

According to the Eden myth, there were two trees in the Garden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. In this poem, Yeats uses these two trees as symbols for the creative and the mortal aspects of the human psyche, respectively. The first stanza corresponds with the Tree of Knowledge, and the second stanza corresponds to the Tree of Life.

While the story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is often interpreted as something negative, a rebellion and fall from grace, Yeats does not seem to see it this way. For Yeats, knowledge of good and evil is essentially what makes us godlike, and the true mystical power of god is the power to create. The first stanza is filled with imagery of growth and flowering, which symbolizes the blossoming of the creative spirit in an individual. He encourages the reader to “gaze in thine own heart,” because that is where the “holy tree” of creativity is rooted, within the deeper self.

Other metaphors that Yeats uses in the first stanza are music and circles. Music is a fairly standard metaphor for poetry, which Yeats attributes to the eating of the fruit from the first tree. The circle conjures images of pagan rituals, most likely Druid or Wiccan, but possibly also of the Golden Dawn. The circles, spirals, and gyres evoke a sense of ritual performed within a circle around a fire. Yeats would have likely believed that the development of spiritual and occult arts was a result of the symbolic eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

And this brings us to the second stanza, and the Tree of Life. It is important to keep in mind that the archetypal humans did not eat of this tree, and as such are destined to wither and die. The effects of this tree are manifested on the outside of a person, as opposed to the Tree of Knowledge which is internal. Hence the demons hold up “the bitter glass,” which is a mirror. Gazing in to it, one becomes aware of aging, of mortality, of impending death. All the symbols that Yeats uses in the second stanza—night, snow, broken boughs, blackened leaves, barrenness, ravens—are all associated with death.

So what is the larger message that Yeats is trying to convey here? It seems to me that he is encouraging us to shift our focus from our outer selves, away from the flesh and our mortality, and instead focus on the inner self, the spirit, the divine essence within all of us. We will die, that is inevitable; but we do not have to spend our lives worrying about getting old and dying. We should live full, spiritual, and creative lives, building loving relationships with others, and creating beauty for future generations.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and as always, please feel free to share yours in the comment area below. Cheers!

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“Beltane” by Ian Anderson

Image Source: YouTube

Since today is Beltane, I decided to listen to Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood” on my run. Since it is the extended remastered version, it includes the song “Beltane,” appropriate for today. For today’s post, I decided to analyze the lyrics as a poem. For those who are unfamiliar, here is the text:

Have you ever stood in the April wood
And called the new year in?
While the phantoms of three thousand years fly
As the dead leaves spin?
There’s a snap in the grass behind your feet
And a tap upon your shoulder.
And the thin wind crawls along your neck
It’s just the old gods getting older.
And the kestrel drops like a fall of shot and
The red cloud hanging high
Come a Beltane.

Have you ever loved a lover of the old elastic truth?
And doted on the daughter in the ministry of youth?
Thrust your head between the breasts of the fertile innocent.
And taken up the cause of love, for the sake of argument.
Or while the kisses drop like a fall of shot
From soft lips in the rain
Come a Beltane.

Happy old new year to you and yours.
The sun’s up for one more day, to be sure.
Play it out gladly, for your card’s marked again.

Have you walked around your parks and towns so knife-edged orderly?
While the fires are burned on the hills upturned
In far-off wild country.
And felt the chill on your window sill
As the green man comes around.
With his walking cane of sweet hazel brings it crashing down.
Sends your knuckles white as the thin stick bites.
Well, it’s just your groaning pains.
Come a Beltane.

Here is a little background information on Beltane.

Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May), and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the “symbolic use of fire”. There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth. The aos sí (often referred to as spirits or fairies) were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain) and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease them. Most scholars see the aos sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. Beltaine was a “spring time festival of optimism” during which “fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun”.

Wiccans use the name Beltane or Beltain for their May Day celebrations. It is one of the yearly Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year, following Ostara and preceding Midsummer. Unlike Celtic Reconstructionism, Wicca is syncretic and melds practices from many different cultures. In general, the Wiccan Beltane is more akin to the Germanic/English May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans enact a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.

Source: Wikipedia)

OK, now we will look at the poem.

In the first stanza, Anderson evokes a pastoral setting that is on the threshold of seasonal change. But there is some interesting symbolism hidden in here which I feel is a reference to the Yeats’ great occult poem, “The Second Coming.” Anderson’s image of the dead leaves spinning calls to mind the gyres in Yeats’ poem, and the kestrel is a type of falcon, which strengthens the connection to the opening lines of “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

The old gods are described as getting older, possibly symbolizing the readiness for rebirth.

In the second stanza, Anderson incorporates the sexual and fertility symbolism associated with Beltane. He expresses the concept of sympathetic magic, where human sexuality and fertility is connected with the fertility of the earth.

The third stanza celebrates the dawn of the new year, and acknowledges the importance of the sun in the continuation of life.

The final stanza forms a unique bridge between the old and the modern, between the wild and the “civilized.” We are presented with images of manicured parks, of towns built in a sterile and uniform fashion. But in the far-off wild country, fires are burning and the green man is ready to strike with his cane, causing our fragile construct of a world to collapse. I see the fire as symbolic of the deep desire to reject the industrial world that we have built and return to a more stable and sustainable way of life in accordance with Nature. And the green man is the embodiment of Nature. Ultimately, if we do not change our ways, the green man will smite us and we will be forced to return to our primal state.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. If you celebrate, I hope you and yours have a very merry Beltane!

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Jews in the Qur’an

I have been struggling with the mixed messages in the text regarding people of the Jewish faith. At some points, God affirms His covenant with the Israelites and states that the Qur’an is intended to reaffirm what was handed down through the Torah. But then there are other passages that are highly critical of the Jews, and if taken out of context, are easily used to justify anti-Semitic sentiments.

Here is an example of where God speaks favorably in regard to the Jews.

Children of Israel, remember how I blessed you. Honour your pledge to Me and I will honour My pledge to you: I am the One you should fear. Believe in the message I have sent down confirming what you already possess.

(p. 6)

Compare the previous passage with the following excerpt.

How evil their practices are! Why do their rabbis and scholars not forbid them to speak sinfully and consume what is unlawful? How evil their deeds are! The Jews have said, ‘God is tight-fisted,’ but it is they who are tight-fisted, and they are rejected for what they have said.

(p. 74)

Finally, Jews are depicted as being the most hostile toward Muhammad and the followers of the faith.

You [Prophet] are sure to find that the most hostile to the believers are the Jews and those who associate other deities with God;

(p. 75)

So having read the introduction to the text, I am aware of the importance of the context of these passages. My understanding (and I am not a scholar, so it is just my limited understanding) is that the text is critical of a certain group of Jews who aligned themselves with the Arab Meccans who persecuted Muhammad and his followers. It is unfortunate that snippets of text are pulled and used out of context to justify ideologies, which I believe happens way too often. And this goes for other religious texts too, such as the Bible and the Torah. Human history is brimming with instances where quotes were cherry-picked from these texts to justify what I would consider non-spiritual acts.

In all fairness, the text is also critical of Christians and Pagans. I’m not sure I whether I will explore those aspects of the text. Honestly, there are some spiritual and inspiring passages that I have noted which I would like to focus on in future posts. I’d much rather look at the positive and spiritually uplifting aspects of the text. That said, I will try to get another post up soon. Cheers!

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Scarlet Witch: Issue #10

scarletwitch_10

It has been a while since I wrote about a Scarlet Witch episode, although I have continued reading them. The last few were just not really blog-worthy, but this one warrants a few words.

The story is set in Kyoto, where Wanda is investigating the murder of an Aoi warrior. The artwork is beautiful and captures the essence of Japanese artistic style. The story is also well written, and weaves along the magical landscapes depicted in the panels.

I would like to talk about a quote that appears early in the issue, which captured my attention.

I should be content. All I have done. And yet…it is the way of all creatures with intelligence, that once they have awareness of their looming demise, all they can think of is the things they haven’t done.

For much of my life, I felt this way. I always thought about the things I had not done, the places I had not been, the paths I had not taken, and wondered how my life would have been different had I done things differently. I wrote a poem back then and in it, called this feeling “the weight of what if.” But over the years, I’ve learned not to dwell on the things I had not done, but instead think of the things I have done, the wealth of experiences, and the magical connection between them that has brought me to this place in life—a place where I am happy and content.

I have never made a formal bucket list. I find it pointless. Instead, I choose to walk through the doors that life opens for me, to explore and learn and experience as much as I can, and be grateful for the opportunities that have presented themselves. I am confident that I will do all the things I was meant to do in this life.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you do something interesting today.

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Scarlet Witch: Issue #05

ScarletWitch_05

I had mixed feelings about this issue. There were aspects that I really liked, and then there were things about it that I thought failed.

I’ll start with what I liked. I loved the concept and the story. Wanda is asked to investigate cases of possession at a vineyard in Spain that is operated by the Catholic Church. It is made known that the vineyard was once a nunnery and during the Inquisition, the nuns were accused of witchcraft and burned on the site. So it’s not surprising that issues of misogyny and religious prejudice are addressed, and they are done so in a very engaging and creative way which works really well. In addition, as a twist, people become possessed as a result of speaking (the nuns had taken a vow of silence and whoever speaks breaks the vow and becomes possessed), so the central bulk of the story is driven solely through images, and textual dialog only occurs at the beginning and the end. I found this very creative, and having the image-driven section flanked by the text-driven sections was interesting and engaging.

But this leads me to the problem with this issue: the artwork. For a story that is so image-focused and that is basically driven by the visuals, the artwork seemed flat. It almost felt like this was thrown together in a rush to meet a deadline. The characters lacked depth and expression, and many of the panels looked like duplicates where Photoshop was used to slightly alter the images. For a story that relies so heavily on the graphics, more time and energy should have been invested in the artwork. That’s just my opinion. Also, I checked my older issues and there was a new artist for this installment. I wonder if something happened that resulted in a last-minute change of artists. Regardless, I would rather have waited for something a little better, but I guess Marvel has a schedule they must adhere to.

Anyway, like I said, the story is really good and that alone makes this worth reading. That said, I’ll leave you with a snippet of dialog from the early pages that addresses prejudice and open-mindedness, important issues in these times:

Wanda: I’m sorry if my being a witch upsets him.

Sister Lorenz: You’re a woman, Wanda, and you have power in the world. You’re known. That’s more than enough to upset a man like Father Gabaldon, even before you start casting spells.

Wanda: You, on the other hand, Sister… My being a witch doesn’t bother you?

Sister Lorenz: Oh, I’m very much a bride of Christ, but like my Savior, I keep an open mind on all things.

 

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