The Elements – Fire

OK, so I’ve come to the second of my posts on element-themed folklore, and so we’ve reached… fire.

That, of course, can only mean one thing – dragons!

(Well. not just dragons – but dragons are always a good place to start).

The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf gives us a solid template for the popular image of dragons in the Western imagination:

“He lived on a cliff, kept watch over a hoard

in a high stone barrow…”

When a slave wanders into the dragon’s lair and steals some of his treasure, he takes his revenge:

“Then the dragon began to breathe forth fire,

to burn fine buildings; flame tongues flickered,

terrifying men…

He had girdled the Geats with fire,

with ravening flames…”

Beowulf, no longer the young warrior of the first part of the poem, but now an aged king, goes into battle one last time to protect his people, and time and time again is beaten back by the dragon’s fiery breath (“he who had ruled a nation suffered agony, surrounded by flame”). But one of his companions, Wiglaf, runs to his aid, and drives his sword into the dragon’s belly, and Beowulf is then able to finish it off with his knife. But he is mortally wounded by the dragon’s venomous bite, and the mourning Geats build a pyre for him on the headland:

“And there on Whaleness, the heroes kindled

the most mighty of pyres; the dark wood-smoke

Soared over the fire, the roaring flames

mingled with weeping – the winds’ tumult subsided –

until the body became ash, consumed even

to its core.”

(Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World).

In vernacular British folklore, dragons tend to be less like the dragon of Beowulf, and more like snakes, who often live in the sea or in marshland, and kill their victims by wrapping themselves around them and crushing them. But still, a story like The Dragon of Wantley tells of a dragon who “…ate trees and cattle, and once he ate three young children at one meal. Fire breathed from his nostrils, and for long no man dared come near him.” (Katharine Briggs, British Folk-Tales and Legends).

The Dragon of Wantley.

Of course fire is not just a destroyer, but a creator also, and the Titan Prometheus is punished for stealing it from the gods and giving it to mankind by being chained to a mountainside and having his liver pecked out each day by an eagle, whereupon it regrows each night, and the torment is repeated.

There are other versions of this story beyond Greek mythology – in Polynesian myth, the hero Maui challenges the guardian of fire, Mahu-ika, to a contest, in which each shall compete to throw the other as high as possible in the air. But when it is Maui’s turn to throw Mahu-ika, he cheats him:

“Mahu-ika turned over and over in the air and commenced to fall back; and when he had nearly reached the ground Maui called out these magic words: ‘That man up there – may he fall right on his head!’

Mahu-ika fell down; his neck was completely telescoped together, and so Mahu-ika died. At once the hero Maui took hold of the giant Mahu-ika’s head and cut it off, then he possessed himself of the treasure of the flame, which he bestowed upon the world.”

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces).

The idea that the world will one day be consumed by flame, and a new one reborn, is common across different cultures and mythologies – the Aztecs believed that flames would end the aeon of fire (our present aeon), and the Stoics believed in “cyclic conflagration”, i.e. that fire will destroy all, before the universe and everything in it is reborn, exactly as it was, and we all get to live our lives all over again.

The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo

In Norse mythology, this idea finds its fullest expression in Ragnarok, when Loki’s wolf, Fenrir, will be free from his bonds (“Flames will dance in [his] eyes and leap from his nostrils”) and Jormungand, the snake that encircles Midgard, will “spew venom”. The giant Surt, who was there at the beginning of creation, will “…fling fire in every direction. Asgard and Midgard and Jotunheim and Niflheim will become furnaces – places of raging flame, swirling smoke, ashes, only ashes. The nine worlds will burn and the gods will die.”

Out of this great conflagration, however, a new world will emerge: “The earth will rise again out of the water, fair and green… There will be life and new life, life everywhere on earth.”

(Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Penguin Book of Norse Myths).

 

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It’s elemental… Water

Andy Scott's magnificent Kelpies at Grangemouth

The Kelpies by Andy Scott, Grangemouth, Scotland (perphotography.co.uk). Kelpies are shapeshifters or water-nymphs from Scottish folklore.

Thought I might try writing a series of posts on the four elements – earth, fire, air and water – and how they feature in folklore. So I’ve decided to start with water, for no other reason than that some of my favourite mythological creatures spring from there – undines, rusalky, selkies, kelpies, good old mermaids (and mermen) – there are tons, and I wondered where it came from, this belief that, lurking in the deep, are our shadow selves, our lost selves, our reflections.

We’re both attracted and repelled by water – by lakes, rivers, the sea – and though it gives us life, and we love to play in it, and travel on it, we also know that it is a terrifying and ultimately unknowable place, dangerous and unpredictable. It has to be respected.

In Beowulf, the monster Grendel and his mother live at the bottom of a terrifying lake – “blood-stained and turbulent” – where Grendel retreats to die after Beowulf wrenches off his arm, and where Beowulf himself plunges to do battle with his mother:

…many wondrous creatures

Harassed him as he swam; many sea-serpents

with savage tusks tried to bore through his corslet…

Beowulf’s great sword, Hrunting, is useless against his foe, and after fighting with her hand-to-hand he finally manages to decapitate her with a supernatural sword he finds in her lair, and in so doing the lake, which had been full of “strange sea-dragons… and water-demons” is cleansed, “purged of its impurity”.

Danish Lake

Not all creatures of the deep are as deadly as Grendel’s mother, though many are ambiguous. There are several tales of mermaids (“sea-morgans” in the West Country and Brittany, “selkies” or seal-women in Scotland) who are caught by crafty fishermen to be their wives. Though the details differ, the basic story tends to run thus: a lone mermaid is surprised while dancing or “passing her shapely fingers through her bewitching ringlets”, and relieved of her “mantle” – her mermaid’s skin – without which she cannot return to her underwater home. She marries the fisherman, and bears him children, but then one day by chance she discovers her skin, which he has carefully hidden, and “…no sooner did she grasp it than she laughed so loudly that her laugh was heard all over the village… In an instant she regained her former youth and beauty, she no longer cared for husband and children, and swifter than the velocity of the March winds she returned joyfully to her beloved Tirnanog on the blue rim of the western ocean.” (The Kerry Mermaid)

Likewise, the rusalky, of Russian folklore, are beautiful water-nymphs, who at Christmastime leave the lakes and rivers that are their home to dance and sing. But, like the Sirens of Greek mythology, to hear their song means your doom, for you lose your sanity – and your soul.

In Robert Aickman’s short story, The Fetch, the protagonist, Brodick Leith, realises that his old Scottish family is haunted by a carlin – a wraith – who appears, like a banshee, whenever a relative – either by blood or by marriage – is about to die.

Mason, the manager of Brodick’s country estate, tells him of how she arises from out of the nearby sea loch, and Brodick recalls seeing her when his mother died:

“‘I saw no face,’ I said.

‘If you’d seen that, you wouldn’t be here now,’ said Mason.”

At one point, as he descends in the lift from his London flat, having kissed his wife goodbye, Brodick sees the carlin in the adjoining lift, ascending to his floor. In his desperation, he presses the emergency button, but the lift gets jammed, and by the time he returns to the flat, his wife, Shulie, has disappeared:

“The first thing I saw… was a liquid trail in from the street up to the gate of the other lift. Not being his hour,the caretaker had still to mop it up, even though it reeked of seabed mortality.

Shulie and I lived on the eighth floor. I ran all the way up. The horrible trail crossed our landing from the lift gate to under out front door…”

Of course, water is not only the source of strange or demonic beings, but can also be a protection against them – the Devil cannot cross running water, it is said. And a story from Watchet in Somerset tells of how its patron saint, St Decuman, was beheaded by local pagans, and where his head fell, a spring appeared, which was afterwards said to have healing properties. Incidentally, St Decuman wasn’t unduly perturbed by this apparent misfortune – he just picked up his head, put it back on his shoulders, and went back home to Wales!

Watchet (St. Decuman)

St Decuman’s church, Watchet, Somerset (photo: westcountrychurches.co.uk)

Sources:

The Anglo-Saxon World (Kevin Crossley-Holland)

A Treasury of Irish Folklore (editor: Padraic Colum)

Gramarye – the Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales & Fantasy, Issue 4

The Enchanted World – the Book of Christmas (Brendan Lehane)

The Wine-Dark Sea (Robert Aickman, collection)

The Folklore of Somerset (Kingsley Palmer)

 

Dragons Part Three

Dragons never seem to vanish from popular culture.

Whether they are used to describe supposedly fearsome venture capitalists in Dragons’ Den, or are reinvented on film and television (Game of Thrones, The Hobbit), they retain a stubborn hold on our imaginations.

The Enlightenment, and subsequent industrialization, didn’t quite manage to eliminate such creatures from the darker recesses of our minds. Indeed, for some, they became synonymous with them.

In George Cruikshank‘s cartoon “The Railway Dragon”, a family are disturbed at Christmas dinner by a terrifying steam train, which intones:

I come to dine, I come to sup;

I come, I come, to eat you up!

This specifically refers to the collapse of the railway stock market bubble in 1845-46, but leading Nineteenth Century figures such as William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and Charles Dickens, saw the railway as a destructive force, causing social and environmental harm.

Growing up on the edge of Birmingham, J.R.R. Tolkien witnessed the city gradually encroaching upon the rural Worcestershire of his childhood, and it was this, as well as his experience of the mass mechanized slaughter of the First World War, which informed The Lord of the Rings as much as Beowulf or Norse mythology.

For all the apparent wealth and security of the Western world – even in these straitened times – we still fear those things we cannot explain, which are many, whilst, paradoxically, enjoying the vicarious thrill of seeing the fearsome creatures of our worst imaginings wreak havoc (before, ultimately, being vanquished) in the world of literature or film. We feel better for it. And so the defeated dragon is continually reborn for our benefit, its power both attracting and repelling us, as our own terrible power to desecrate and destroy the world does. We conjure the dragon into existence because we need it, and probably always will. For all our advances, our scientific achievements, our great civilizations, we know that catastrophe is always lurking there, somewhere; that all that we have is as fragile as tissue-paper. We keep such fears at bay with stories, and if the stories are good ones, we are ennobled by them, and they give us courage. The dragons of our imagination can be strong and even noble, but we know that in a moment they can turn, and burn all to ashes.