Mar 15

Baba Yaga

Today we’re travelling to Slavic regions to learn about Baba Yaga, the old crone-like witch who lives deeps in the forests of Russia and Eastern Europe. Baba Yaga is not your boring, run of the mill witch who wears a pointy hat. Instead, she lives in a hut which walks around on long chicken legs with a mind of its own, surrounded by glowing red skulls. Baba Yaga also forgoes the traditional broom-method of transportation, and travels by sitting in a giant floating mortar, her bony legs tucked under chin, and rows herself through the forest with her giant pestle. Baba Yaga is known for being quite thin, despite her appetite for pretty young girls and handsome youths. She also has quite a reputable nose, which is said to scrape against the ceiling of her hut as she snores in her sleep. Baba Yaga is a mysterious character at the best of times. She has been portrayed with several different facets, and symbolizes aspects that range from an earth-mother goddess to death itself.

One of the most famous Russian children’s stories about Baba Yaga follows a young girl named Natasha, and begins quite similarly to the Grimm brothers’ tale of Hansel and Gretel. Natasha lived happily with her widower father in the forests of Russia. Happily, that is, until he decided to marry again. Natasha’s stepmother was a cruel woman who hated children. One day the stepmother got the wicked idea in her head to get rid of Natasha for good, and instructed the girl to go deep into the forest to see the stepmother’s sister, Baba Yaga, for a needle and thread. Natasha was reluctant to go, for she had heard tales of Baba Yaga, and how any children who entered her home were never seen again. But the stepmother insisted, shoving a handkerchief full of stale meat and cheese into Natasha’s hands before sending her off.

Natasha followed the step mother’s directions, soon coming to Baba Yaga’s hut in the forest. The creaky old house turned around on its chicken legs, seeming to stare at her before kneeling down and allowing Natasha to enter through it’s mouth-like door. Baba Yaga was waiting for her.

“Good day, Auntie,” Natasha said to her, trying not to sound afraid, “My stepmother has sent me to you for a needle and thread.”

“Has she, my niece?” Baba Yaga grinned slyly. She knew her sister hated Natasha. “Sit down at this loom and go on with my weaving while I fetch it for you.”

Natasha sat down at the loom and Baba Yaga left, snickering. Of course she had no intention of getting the needle and thread. Instead, she meant to make a meal out of her niece, and began dragging buckets of hot water into the tub to wash the dirt from her skin.

“Are you weaving my pretty?” she called, emptying the first bucket.

“I am weaving, Aunty,” Natasha answered in despair, for she suspected Baba Yaga’s plan. As she wove, and scrawny black cat slunk in, looking hungrily about for mice.

How lucky, Natasha, reaching for her cherif of food. She gave the meat and cheese to the cat, who gobbled it up, and then blinked gratefully at Natasha.

“Little girl,” said the cat, “do you want to get out of here?” Natasha nodded vigorously. The cat whispered, “There is a comb and towel for your bath on the stool. You must take both of them and run. When Baba Yaga chases after you, throw each of them behind you. I’ll take care of the loom.”

Natasha got up, and the cat immediately started working the pedals of the loom for her, so the clickety-clack of the machine never stopped to give away her absence. The girl took the comb and towel and ran as fast as she good back the way she came.

“Are you weaving, my pretty?” Baba Yaga called.

“I am weaving, Aunty,” said the cat.

“That doesn’t sound like my dinner!” cried Baba Yaga, bursting in to find the cat at the loom, the thread in a massive tangle.

edouard-zier-the-baba-yaga-chases-the-girl-in-a-pestleThe witch ran outside and clambered into her enchanted mortar, shrieking with rage. She paddled through the air with her pestle, gaining on Natasha quickly. Natasha whimpered in fear and threw the towel behind her, amazed as it transformed into a wide river. Baba Yaga cursed her, unable to get across, and conjured up a herd of horses to slurp down the river. They did so quickly, and the witch gave chase again. Natasha, still running hard and fast, panicked as she saw her so close behind her. But then she remembered the comb, and threw that down behind her. The comb sprouted up into a forest, with trees so dense and tall that even Baba Yaga couldn’t get through. The witch howled in frustration, finally giving up and returning to her hut.

Natasha returned home to her worried father and astonished stepmother. She told her father everything as it had happened, and he was so angry that he drove his wife out of the hut. From that point on, Natasha lived happily with her father, who never let a stranger come between them again.

Hope you enjoyed! Again, please comment your requests!

Mar 15

Yemen Descends Into Chaos

This Monday, Great Britain withdrew its remaining special forces from Yemen, just days after the U.S. made a similar move. Both did so because of the country’s worsening security conditions, which Jamal Benomar, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen describes as, “the edge of civil war.”

Anti-Houthi protesters demonstrating in Taiz on Monday

The conflict began earlier this year when a group of Shiite rebels calling themselves the Houthi Fighters stormed Sanaa, the capital, and seized control of Yemen’s parliament. The Houthis’ main campaign is for greater autonomy for Northern Yemen. However, the group is also embroiled in several religious disputes, seeing as they are a Shiite Muslim organization within a chiefly Sunni country. Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen has already begun to encourage Yemen’s neighboring Gulf States–the overwhelming majority of which are also Sunni–to intervene militarily against the Houthis’ advances.

“We have addressed both the [Gulf Cooperation Council] and the U.N. for the need of [imposing] a no-fly zone and banning the use of warplanes at the airports controlled by the Houthis,” Yaseen told al-Sharq al-Awsat, the pan-Arab newspaper. This statement came at the same time as regional unrest was stirring about Iran, which is also a Shiite state, and is seen as backing the Houthis (Bayoumy, Ghobari). This supposed alliance is particularly worrisome to Saudi Arabia, which is already uneasy about Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq and Tehran’s negotiations with West over its nuclear program (Calamur). And this is where the U.S. comes in.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s repulsive human rights record, their inefficient regional security, and America’s advances in shale oil productivity, the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia more than ever. The primary reason, of course, is oil, with Saudi Arabia being the most dominant of all the members of OPEC. While the shale oil boom now has America pumping nine billion barrels of oil a day, we have nowhere near the amount of reserves Saudi Arabia still has laid away as a result of OPEC’s raising of petroleum prices in 1973 ($10 billion in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s $750 billion) (Schiavenza). According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, American shale oil production will plateau by 2020, and we’ll be back to drinking OPEC’s kool-aid once again.

As you might predict, Yemen’s neighboring countries have a similar incentive as the U.S. to make Saudi Arabia happy, aside from their shared religious ideology. So as long as Saudi Arabia is against the Houthis, the rebel group could end up having a bad time, despite support from Iran. However, something interesting to note about these rebels is that, while they are avowedly anti-U.S., they have also spent a lot of time battling al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, where the most powerful branches of the nefarious organization are hiding. And now with the Islamic State coming out last Friday as responsible for two bombing attacks on Mosques frequented by Houthi supporters, it looks like the rebels could have it out for ISIS as well. At the same time, Al-Qaida and ISIS, which are both Sunni organizations, regard the Shiites Houthis as heretics, and appear to be against them too. (Calamur). So aside from the dawning civil war in Yemen, what we essentially have brewing is a war between three different Islamic terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has recently announced that it’s lost track of $500 million worth of equipment given to Yemen. With the country in turmoil and its government splintering, the United States has lost its ability to monitor things like small arms, ammunition, patrol boats, and vehicles–the situation having growing particularly worse after the U.S. closed its embassy in Sanaa (Whitlock). “We have to assume [the U.S.’s donations to Yemen are] completely compromised and gone,” an anonymous legislative aid reported last week.

Last September, President Obama offered Yemen as a successful example of America’s counter-terrorism strategy (Peralta). Six months later, it no longer seems like that is the case. And having to pull out of Yemen actually loses the U.S. a lot of ground for the U.S. As The New York Times reported Monday, “The loss of Yemen as a base for American counterterrorism training, advising and intelligence-gathering carries major implications not just there, but throughout a region that officials say poses the most grievous threat to United States global interests and to the country itself.” It goes on to explain how one of Al-Qaida’s deadliest bombmaker resides in Yemen, the plots of which the U.S. has already had to thwart three times since 2009. And while covert CIA agents will still remain on scene, the loss of American special forces on the ground makes any counter-terrorism effort far more difficult (Schmitt).

BBC News. “Yemen Crisis: Who is Fighting Whom?” BBC. March 23, 2015.

Calamur, Krishnadev. “Yemen Descends into Chaos as Foreign Minister Seeks Help from Neighbors.” NPR. March 23, 2015.

Peralta, Eyrder. “Obama Says U.S. Will ‘Take Out’ Islamic State ‘Wherever They Exist.’” NPR. Sept. 10, 2014.

Schiavenza, Matt. “Why the U.S. is Stuck With Saudi Arabia.” The Atlantic. Jan. 24, 2015.

Schmitt, Eric. “Out of Yemen, U.S. is Hobbled in Terror Fight.” The New York Times. March 22, 2015.

Whitlock, Craig. “Pentagon Loses Track of $500 in Weapons, Equipment Given to Yemen.” The Washington Post. March 17, 2015.

Mar 15

1001 Nights

Few regions are as renowned for their fantastic stories and epic poetry as Arabia, the area of Northern Africa and the Middle East. Probably the most famous collection of stories are the volumes of 1001 Nights (titled Arabian Nights in the first English publication). The many tales held within the collection all stem from one main frame story. It begins with a Sultan, Shahryar, who learns his wife is cheating on him. Outraged and heartbroken, he executes her, and remarries a young virgin. However, in his bitterness and grief, he decides that all women are the same, and the morning after consummating the marriage, executes his new wife before she can become unfaithful to him. This happens multiple times, with Shahryar executing each of his brides, until there are no more suitable virgins left for him to marry. Instead, the daughter of the Sultan’s vizier, who was not a virgin, offers to marry him. Her father reluctantly agrees, and the daughter, Scheherazade, goes to bed with Shahryar.  What her new husband did not know, was that Scheherazade was a fantastic storyteller, and on the first night she spun Shahryar the most captivating tale he’d ever heard. But Scheherazade, who was clever, never finished the story that night. Instead she told Shahryar that she was tired, and promised to finish it the following night. Shahryar, who was too curious to go without hearing the end of the story, decided to post-pone his wife’s execution until the next day. That night, Scheherazade finished the story as promised, but then began another, leaving it similarly incomplete at night’s end and promising to finish it the next evening. And so it went, with Scheherazade beginning, but never finishing, a new story each night, for 1001 nights. These are the tales that now make up the pages of this great work.

Three of the most famous of these stories are Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, and Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp. In the first, Ali Baba discovers a cave kept by forty thieves filled with treasure, whose entrance only opens with the words, “Open Sesame.”  He manages to get into the cave and take much of the treasure for his poor family, but soon his richer brother grows jealous and goes back to the cave to steal some for himself. But by the time he goes to leave with his prize, he’s forgotten the password and gets stuck inside the cave, where he is discovered and killed by the bandits. Ali Baba eventually goes back and removes his brother’s body from the cave, which alerts the thieves to there being another person aware of their secret. Thus the search for Ali Baba begins, with each attempt made by the thieves to find and kill him being thwarted by Ali Baba’s clever slave, Morgiana–one of the toughest women you’ll ever read about.

Sinbad is a sailor who consistently runs into trouble on his voyages, but always manages to return to Baghdad with more treasure than ever before. Some examples of the challenges he must face include landing on what his crew thinks is an island, but is actually a giant fish which then drags their ship underwater; or when Sinbad is enslaved by the Old Man of the Sea, who forces Sinbad to swim with him on his back until the sailor manages to get him drunk and hit him in the head with a rock.

Most famous perhaps is the story of Aladdin, the inspiration for the Disney movie.  It’s a story of an impoverished boy who is tricked into entering a dangerous cave by a malicious sorcerer. Aladdin ends up being trapped in the cave with the oil lamp he was sent to find. As he rubs his hands for warmth around the lamp, a powerful genie appears. With the help of the genie, Aladdin escapes the cave, marries the emperor’s daughter and creates his own, beautiful palace. Although the sorcerer eventually tricks the princess into giving the lamp to him, Aladdin is able to stop him by summoning a lesser genie from the ring the sorcerer had once given to him for protection. The lamp is returned to him, and Aladdin and his family are able to live happily ever after.

As always, I’m over my word count. Again, hope you enjoyed, and please comment your requests!

Mar 15

Thor and Loki: Un-Marveled

By now you’ve probably heard about Marvel’s Thor and Loki: The burly, blonde, hammer wielding thunder god who joins the Avengers, and his estranged adopted brother with a penchant for sorcery and world domination. They’ve been all over the mainstream media lately, from blockbuster movies to tumblr fan sites. What you may not know is that Thor and Loki actually have a much more ancient fan base: Germanic and Scandinavian tribes–also known as the Vikings. The purpose of today’s entry is to shed some light on the original personalities of these two Norse gods, and maybe see what Marvel got right, and what they pulled out of left field.

First, a history lesson: about 2000 years ago in southern Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was looking to expand its territory. Soldiers and colonists pushed into the lands of present-day Germany and Poland and met the natives. This is when we get the first records of a pagan deity named Donner–the old German word for “thunder.” Donner eventually got his own day of the week: Donnerstag (which literally translates as “Thunder’s Day”). Naturally, the Holy Roman Empire couldn’t have pagan heathens living in their lands, and quickly imposed the Christian religion. However, some Germanic tribes were unwilling to give up their culture, and fled to present day Scandinavia, taking their Gods with them. This is how an entire religion managed to travel halfway across a continent.

This move also gave way to the Viking age, and a change in the German language. Donner’s named changed to Thórr, giving name to modern English’s Thursday (literally “Thor’s Day”)–the same day of the week as Donnerstag. A little more about Thor: Thor is one of the sons of Odin, who is the King of the Norse Pantheon. While Odin is the herald to all the nobility on Earth, Thor watches over its peasantry and merchants, and is often prayed to in order to invoke his powers of fertility and his ability to bring rain. First and foremost though, Thor is the God of Thunder, and he is able to conduct lightning through his giant hammer, Mjolnir (pronounced mee-OAL-neer). He very rarely parts with it, and is often depicted using it in battle, or with it strapped to his belt as he drinks with his warrior friends–two of his favorite activities. When the Romans eventually reached Scandinavia with their darned Christianity, those who were still loyal to Thor would surreptitiously wear wooden carvings of Mjolnir around their necks, as a last rebellion.

Now we’re on to Loki, an extremely complex character. Whether Loki is a God or a Jotunn (frost giant) is often a source of contention. He is said to be the son of Laufey, the fallen King of the frost giants, who once waged war against Asgard (the realm Odin and Thor hail from). While Marvel tells a story in which Loki grew up as Thor’s only brother in the palaces of Asgard, in original mythology, Loki was rarely associated with Thor or Odin. In fact, his hair isn’t even black–it was usually portrayed as red (fangirls, we’ve been lied to). However, as the God of Mischief, Loki did get into trouble quite often. In fact, he’s the reason we consider the number 13 to be unlucky today. The story goes like this: One day 12 Gods were having a party, which they had decided not to invite Loki to because, well, he’d cause trouble. Loki, miffed that he wasn’t invited, showed up anyway, making him the 13th guest. During the party, Loki challenged Hoder, who was blind, to an archery contest. When Hoder took his shot at what Loki told him was the “target,” he accidently hit and killed Baldir, the God of joy, which ushered in a time of darkness and mourning throughout the world. As in the comics, Loki was no sweetheart.

Thank you to everyone who’s commenting their requests! Keep ‘em coming!

Mar 15

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Wild Hunt

This week I thought I’d take a stab at some old Welsh mythology. For those of you who don’t know, before the land of Great Britain was ever Great Britain, it’s primary religions were forms of paganism, often based in the worship of various spirits of nature and the underworld. That’s right: Fae; otherwise known as fairies.

To be clear, Welsh mythology goes far beyond pixies and gnomes when it comes to tales of the fair-folk. Among these creature are sea serpents, dragons, merfolk, and animagi. Most of these creatures were considered peaceful unless provoked, although many of them were notoriously mischievous. But then, there were those who were outright warriors of their kind. Which brings me to our feature presentation: Gwyn ap Nudd.

Gwyn ap Nudd (that’s pronounced “GWIN app NEED” for those of you unfamiliar with the Welsh dialect) looks similar to how you might imagine the elves from Lord of the Rings, but a lot more brutal and war torn, and he’s typically portrayed hefting his favorite weapon, the longbow, as he chases his prey through the Welsh forests. Gwyn is actually a very important figure in the fae world. Aside from making several appearances in Arthurian tales, he is also the king of the fair-folk, and the keeper of the Welsh Otherworld, Annwn, which houses the darkest, nastiest spirits.

Basically, Gwyn is in charge of all things fae, and woe to the those who challenge his power. One of the most famous tales of his wrath begins with the abduction of his sister, Creiddylad, who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, by Gwythyr ap Greidawl. Gwyn, never one to take that sort of BS from anyone, goes and kidnaps Creiddylad right back. Gwythyr, in retaliation, raises a great host against Gwyn, leading to a vicious battle between the two. As I mentioned earlier, Gwyn is a great warrior, and comes out victorious. Following the battle, he captures several of Gwythyr’s former henchmen, including a nobleman named Nwython and his son, Cyledr. To send a message to his remaining enemies, Gwyn would eventually murder Nwython and force Cyledr to eat the heart freshly carved from his father’s corpse, driving the boy to insanity.

Like I said, there’s a reason nobody messes with Gwyn anymore.

Another thing Gwyn is particularly famous for is the international Wild Hunt. In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting events in mythology anywhere. Imagine if the creatures from from English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Scandinavian, and German mythology all got together to hunt a mystical forest spirit as a form of transnational bonding. That’s what the Wild Hunt is: the Olympics of Western European mythology. While each country has it’s own lore behind the Wild Hunt, and the leaders of it are said to rotate year by year, there is no single figure more associated with it than Gwyn ap Nudd. With the weight of past wars and his kingship off his shoulders, Gwyn is said to become an almost entirely different person throughout the festivities. He sprints deftly through the forest on foot, while the hounds and fae riding on horseback struggle to keep up. Despite Gwyn’s status, like every other fae, giving himself up to the wills of nature is what has and always will allow him to be free.

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