Saturday, April 30, 2011

King Herla, part 2

After a year, Herla personally set out to fulfill his agreement. He had promised and, provisioned with enough to repay the other king in like kind, he followed his word.
Thereupon, Herla and his men went into a cave in a very high cliff, and after some time in the shadows, they crossed over into the light, which did not seem as sunlight or moonlight but from a multitude of lamps, and arrived at the homes of the pygmy, an honorable dwelling which appeared in every way like Ovid described the palace of the sun. Then, they celebrated the wedding there, and fittingly repaid the pygmy in like kind. After he had been given permission, Herla withdrew, burdened with gifts, gifts of horses, dogs, hawks, and all manner of items which seem of surpassing excellence for hunting or for fowling. The pygmy conducted them back to the shadows and presented Herla with a small lap dog, forbidding the entire band in all manner from descending from their horses until the dog that he was carrying leaps down. And having wished them well, he returned home. After a little while, Herla arrived at the threshold of the sunlight and, having regained his kingdom, he addressed an old shepherd, seeking news about his queen. The shepherd, looking at him with wonder, said, "Lord, I can scarcely understand your speech, for I am Saxon and you are a Briton. Moreover I have not heard the name of your queen, unless she is the the queen they have spoken of from the ancient Britons who was the wife of King Herla, of whom it is being told in stories that he disappeared with a pygmy into this cliff on day. Moreover he never reappeared on this earth. For one hundred years, the Saxons have possessed this kingdom, having expelled the inhabitants." Then, the king was astonished, who reckoned himself to have tarried but three days. Moreover certain of his party, forgetting the warning of the pygmy, dismounted before the little dog and were immediately dissolved into powder. The king, immediately understanding the reason for this, forbade his men to dismount, under menace of a similar death, before the dog's paws should touch the earth. Moreover the dog has not yet jumped down. One story tells that King Herla wanders forever in an infinite circuit with his army remaining the wild ones, without rest or home. Many men have frequently seen him with his army, as they swear. The last time, as they say, was on the first year of the coronation of our king Henry, Herla departed our kingdom as quickly as he visited before. Then they had seemed to many Waldensians to have plunged into the river Wye next to Hereford. Moverover this legendary band has been quiet from that hour, as if they gave up their wandering for us, for their own rest. But if you wish to consider how it was lamented, not only by ourselves but everyone, the silence is more pleasing to me and certainly it seems more just. Is it not agreeable to give ear to these deeds for a little while?

(considering the Waldensians were viewed as heretics, it is probably not a good thing that Map says they saw the Wild Hunt. It just highlights their being in a state of damnation. Mind you, without looking at another translation of this story, it could be he means people of the forests because 'wald' is German for forest. I believe Map has only been translated once into English and that is one very expensive Oxford edition.)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

About King Herla, part one

Now that your nails are trimmed, it is time for a bedtime story from Walter Map. I am posting it in two parts because it is slightly long. Enjoy.

They tell of a similar story of our courts. They say King Herla of the most ancient Briton had been appointed on account of another king, who did not seem to be a pygmy, being of half height, who was not taller than a monkey. The manikin approached sitting on a great goat according to the story. The man was able to be described looking just like Pan, with a fiery face, large head, with a broad red beard, his chest was covered with a faun skin set with stars of great brightness, whose belly was shaggy and his legs ended with goat's feet. Herla was alone speaking with the man. The pygmy said, "I am a king of a great kingdom and a prince of an innumerable and infinite people, having been sent from them, I come to you willingly, indeed unknown to you, but having heard boasting about the reputation that you are above other kings, indeed, you are great and near to me in both place and blood, and it is fitting that you invite me as a glorious guest to your lovely wedding, when the King of the Franks gives his daughter to you, because it has been arranged with you not knowing, and (Behold!) the ambassadors come today. And let it be an eternal pact between us that I might first attend your wedding and you come to mine on the same day next year. " this having been said, he turned his back more swiftly than a tiger and vanished from his sight. Then, the king, returning from there with amazement, received ambassadors because he accepted their request. Whereby when settling down to the wedding feast, behold a pygmy appeared before the first course, with such a great multitude similar to himself that there were more reclining at full tables outdoors than inside in the pygmies' own tents which had been set up in a flash. Servants sprung up from among them with jars made of whole, precious stones and by inimitable arts. They filled up the palace and the tents with golden things which they carried. And everywhere they roasted eagerly, and the servants were not from the region but were strangers. All of the wine was served from their own stores, and everything they carried with them exceeded all prayers and vows. The things which Herla had prepared were spared, his servants sat in idleness, who were neither being sought nor served. The pygmies went around, followed by the esteem of all, lit up by costliness of clothes and of gems which were just as lights for the rest. No one was tedious in word or in deed either by their presence or by their absence. Therefore their king addressed King Herla in the middle of the ministering of his servants, "Best of Kings, Earthly Lord, I am present at your wedding according to our pact, if there are any greater arguments to be sought for you other than what you understand, I will supply them willingly. Now you must in turn honor me with what I sought." There was no response expected to these words, he suddenly returned the tents from whence they came and around break of day disappeared with his people.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Trim Those Nails

If you need a reason to be more diligent about trimming your toe nails, consider this: the ship Naglfar will be made from the nails of the dead. So this is a don't-leave-the-house-without-clean-underwear-on-in-case-you-have-an-accident type of warning because when the Midgaard Serpent starts thrashing, the world will be flooded and this flood will launch the ship. That ship will ferry the enemies of the Aesir to the battle of Ragnarok. You don't want them to get enough nails to finish that ship! So trim those nails or the destruction of the world might be on your head.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter, the Goddess

Eastre or Ostara was an Anglo Saxon or Germanic goddess of the rising sun. She was only mentioned once by any writer and he was the Venerable Bede in De Temporum Ratione. Since the Bede does not have a sense of humor and he hates heretics and heathens, if he mentioned her worship, then she had to have been real.
She gave her name to Easter in the countries where the Germanic languages rule, otherwise people followed the Biblical word for it, 'pascha'. Easter is Pacques in French.
Grimm stated that she seemed to have a male counterpart in the Norse Eddas, Austri, but that Easter was not his feast. They seemed to have lost the goddess, if they ever worshipped her at all. Hence the Norse call Easter 'Paskir'.
The name comes from the direction of the rising sun, Ost. Bonfires were lit at Easter. As when the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps. Me, too. Water drawn on the Easter morning is holy and healing. It would be nice to know more about this goddess but the Medieval Christians thought these matters were not worth preserving. Pity really, I would like to know how the egg and the bunny fit in.

(image from Wikicommons)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cuckoos and Lime Trees

I wonder how old does a scholarly text have to be before it is bad form to quote it in a paper? Or are there some texts that never go out of style? Sometimes, if I am at a loss for words, I find something appropriate from Aristotle and stick it in. Drives professors crazy but they don't want to mark you down cause you are quoting Aristotle as an authority fer cryin' out loud!
I was reading some texts yesterday about sacred trees and animistic beliefs about birds and deities. There is a passage in the Nibelungenlied where Hagen says "Are we to raise cuckoos?" and there is a lot of discussion about what that means with no real conclusions except that it means most likely bastards. However, the leaf that falls on Siegfried when he bathes in the dragon blood is a Linden which is a sacred tree and these elements are the relics of the pre-Christian story.
Most of the scholars agreed that the strange little line was left in by the last poet because it could not be left out. The Linden leaf and invulnerability part of Siegfried's story exists only in the Germanic tales. These don't occur in the Norse versions but made more complicated by the Linden being sacred to Freyja but there is no evidence for a Freyja in the Germanic pantheon.
I think the cuckoo comment is a dig at Siegfried's father, Sigmund, who in the Norse versions that remain, fathered a son on his own sister. Zeus seduced Hera in the guise of a cuckoo. But the cuckoo is connected to the birch tree and Donar, which hints at Siegfried being Thor in fact, especially since the Volsungs are sons of Odin. The Linden could be simply because the leaf is heart shaped but, since Siegfried dies beside a Linden Tree, this could mean that Freyja, who gets half of the dead who have fallen in battle (Odin takes the other half), collected Siegfried.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

An Easter Story

A few days ago, I was in the grocery store and spotted some Eccles cakes which I brought. Yum. It does not take much to get me wondering why these are associated with Easter and were these the cakes that King Alfred the Great is rumoured to have burned at Athelney?
In 879 around Easter, Alfred was hiding in the swamps of Somerset with a small remnant of his army. This is written by Alfred's biographer Asser. Asser does not mention any cakes, he does not even mention Alfred lodging with any peasants who fail to recognize their king. The story appears later in the Vita Prima Sancti Neoti. It is disputed if Neot was related to Alfred or not. It seems unlikely as his name is said to be Cornish and Alfred left nothing to Glastonbury where he is said to have visited Neot, but Asser also wrote that he was related to the king.
The story goes that while Alfred was in the Somerset swamps (or wetlands as some might prefer) he received a lesson in humility from the saint. Alfred had three older brothers and was never expected to gain the throne, hence the 'Alf' prefix to his name (which means elf-counsel) rather than 'Aethel' (meaning prince) like his brothers. His brothers all died fighting the Vikings, yet the clerics, Asser included, stated that the attacks by the Vikings, slaughter of people with no regard to age except those that were sellable as slaves were taken and sold, was all due to Alfred being a sinner. Could Alfred not have been afflicted with leprosy or something instead? The Vikings had been harassing England since before Alfred was born, how awful to blame his failures at battle on God being not pleased with him. As it was Alfred suffered from ill health ( said to possibly be Crohn's Disease) but he did his best to preserve his people. If Neot had been son of the King of Kent, then he was not any more successful in repelling Viking attacks in spite of his holiness.
While he was hiding in Somerset, St. Neot's Life says that he took shelter in the hut of a swineherd, being alone and without his men. One day, while the swineherd was tending his swine, and his wife was busy tending to domestic chores, she asked Alfred to keep an eye on the loafs (not cakes) that were in the oven. Alfred, who was a little pre-0ccupied, was deep in thought and did not notice the loafs were starting to burn. The housewife came back and chided him saying that he has no interest in tending them but he probably has no such difficulty in eating them. After which he recognized this as a duty sent to him by God and he tended the loafs with much diligence after that. When he left the swamps, after learning his lesson, he rallied the English and scored a decisive victory against the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun.
The Vita Prima Sancti Neoti was written 100-150 years after the events had taken place. The incident it reports also resembles the trials of Marius (Julius Caesar's uncle) at Mintunae when he was fleeing from Sulla. However it made its way into Asser's Life of Alfred in 1574, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, inserted it into the first printing of Asser's book. The story took hold and has been repeated ever since. It is a lovely story. If you eat any cake or loafs over the Easter Weekend, have a thought for poor Alfred and all the difficulties he endured. He was a fellow lover of books.

the above image is courtesy of Wikicommons
Here is a nice history on the Eccles cake by the Salford Town Council.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Treating Mental Illness The Medieval way

.....I have been reading Bede and his account of St. Oswald and the many miracles effected by the dirt on which he breathed his last. When one considers the demons and illnesses that a handful of dirt placed in a cup of water and drunk has cured, one has to wonder how much illness was due to micronutrient deficiency especially of minerals. It makes a case for orthomolecular psychiatry. As I often say, one has to eat one's peck of dirt before one dies.

Friday, April 8, 2011


.....My last class is over and today I am planning to begin my summer quest in search of the perfect Red Velvet Cupcake recipe today. I have a 'to read' list but that is another post. Baking is not just food preparation, it is also chemistry. I am an alchemist who is seeking not to turn base metals into gold but base food stuffs into red velvet.
.....Cake as we know it is a fairly recent invention. The ancients and people of the Middle Ages had cakes of a sort but not often. There were no cake pans. The main leavening agents would be egg or yeast since baking soda and especially baking powder are modern inventions. Although egg on its own is effective, I have a high gluten wheat flour available to me which probably helps. Most people in Europe had rye or barley flour and would have probably needed yeast to rise. I do not really know. I have not tried to make really old recipes.
.....Sugar was not readily available so honey or must (boiled down grape juice) would be a sweetener. Considering that wood ovens have no temperature controls, you can appreciate that making cake was a challenge. Still, people did make it, mostly with fruit and nuts, and it was probably closer to sweet bread than cake. Forget about icing.
......There are a few cookbooks, such as the Roman book ascribed to Apicius but, considering that most people who would do the cooking were illiterate, recipes were handed down by word of mouth. The Romans did have birthday and wedding cake, look up placenta, libum, and mustaceus. I think fruit cake has been with us forever but not chocolate since cocoa is from a New World plant and I could not tell you when vanilla made it's way into Europe, without which cake loses its luster.
.....When I achieve success, that is, a chocolate cupcake with a reddish colour which has been achieved without food coloring, I shall share my recipe with you. It is not as easy as it seems and it starts with non Dutch processed cocoa.

Monday, April 4, 2011

One Down

Last Friday I wrote a Latin exam. I think it went well but the poem was challenging as verse in any 'foreign' language can be, especially one in which word order is fluid.The poem was an homage to St. Oswald and his miraculous non decaying hand, which had been lopped off his body in a raid on the Mercians. At least it was not about St. Aethelwold. There is a reason Aethelwold is out of fashion. He liked to give disobedient monks a good thrashing. Turn the other cheek, Aethelwold, turn the other cheek!
In one incident, which his biographers offer as proof of his saintliness, Aethelwold was inspecting the kitchens and decides the cook was doing far too good a job of keeping it clean and doing all the cooking as well. So he saunters over to the poor bastard and tells him that he must have stolen his fantastic work ethic from him and that he should prove that he is such a good servant of Christ by putting his hand into the cauldron of boiling hot soup and extract a tasty morsel for him from the bottom. The poor fellow does as he is ordered but his hand comes out intact, not covered with raw weeping burns. Aethelwold is shocked and tells him not to tell anybody about this. Later, the miracle is attributed to Aethelwold not the saintliness of the obedient fellow who put his hands in the boiling pot and is offered as an example of how splendid an abbot Aethelwold was. Indeed.