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).

 

Twelfth Night, Odin & the King of the Bean

The Bean King (The King Drinks) - Jacob Jordaens

The Bean King (The King Drinks), by Jacob Jordaens (1638)

Today, the 5th January, marks Twelfth Night, a date that, if they think about it at all, most people nowadays associate with two things – the Shakespeare play of the same name, and taking down the Christmas decorations.

But in pre-industrial Britain, the celebrations of Christmas once lasted the full Twelve Days, although there was some disagreement as to whether Christmas Day itself was counted as one of these – if it wasn’t, then the 6th January, Epiphany, became the Twelfth Day, though the 5th January was still called Twelfth Night, confusingly. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in Britain, in 1752, made matters more complicated still, as many people persisted in marking the old dates rather than the new ones. It is for this reason that many wassailing traditions in England are still held on January 17th – Old Twelfth Night.

What’s certain is that Christmastide was once regarded, across Medieval and Early Modern Europe, as a dangerous time, when Odin’s Wild Hunt rode through the sky, werewolves stalked the woods, and the dead came back to haunt the living. For all that, though, it was still no doubt a welcome break from work before the agricultural year began again on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany). People would elect an Epiphany King, or “King of the Bean” (in France the equivalent figure was called l’Abbé de la Malgouverné – the Abbot of Unreason), a “Mock King” tradition that goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, a festival held from the 17th to the 24th December, when a slave would be chosen to be King, and the usual order overturned, with men dressing as women, folk wearing animal masks, and feasting and general licentiousness prevailing.

The Mock King’s medieval descendant, the King of the Bean, was chosen by placing a bean and a pea in a cake called the Twelfth Cake. Whoever found the bean in their slice became King, and they were crowned and robed for the duration of the feast, and the woman who found the pea became the Twelfth Day Queen (if a woman found the bean, she had the right to name the King; if a man found the pea, he chose the Queen).

In France, the Twelfth Cake was called the gateau des Rois, and, when it had been cut into slices, a small child hidden under the table was asked whom each should go to. He would randomly nominate people from the assembled company until all pieces of the cake had been accounted for, and the finder of the bean became the Epiphany King.

In England, the King of the Bean ceremony has, to the best of my knowledge, long since disappeared, though Twelfth Cakes continued to be made and sold well into the Nineteenth Century, before the decline of Twelfthtide celebrations, and the increasing popularity of the Christmas cake, finally did for them.

It’s a shame, though – personally, I don’t think one should need much excuse for cake, so I’m all for reviving this particular tradition…

 

The Völvur

I went to the Vikings exhibition the other day at the British Museum with my friend Susan, and whilst the highlight for me was undoubtedly the Lewis Chessmen, especially the little berserker guys (they’re the chaps gnawing their shields – never has drug-addled ferocity looked so cute) I was also fascinated to discover some new things about Viking culture, especially the Völvur, prophetesses or seers who held an important place in society, divining the future, and practising magic.

They wore long cloaks of blue or black, and carried a distaff, and although she herself is not specifically identified as a seer, the goddess Freyja is nevertheless associated with the völvur, and to an extent they were her representatives in Midgard, the Middle World – the world of men.

When the gentle god Balder starts to have nightmares that presage his own death, his father Odin rides to Niflheim – the underworld – and wakes a völva sleeping there, and asks her whom she is expecting:

‘The shining mead,’ said the seeress, ‘is brewed for Balder; a shield covers the cauldron. For all their glory, the gods will be filled with despair…’

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