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.

Feb 15

The Myth of the Wendigo

We’re heading back West this week, all the way to the Algonquin tribes of North America. Out of these tribes comes some of the oldest folklore around: the myth of the Wendigo. As with most mythology, there are many different versions of the Wendigo. Sometimes they are considered demons, other times monsters of the forest. But the most common lore states that Wendigos are creatures who were once human, and because of greed or hunger, they betrayed the laws of nature to get what they wanted. In most cases, this “betrayal of nature” refers to cannibalism–giving name to the term “Wendigo psychosis;” an intense desire to consume human flesh.

Wendigos are typically associated with winter because of how cold and hunger could often lead a human to do the unthinkable. Instead of facing famine with a resignation and a readiness for death (as was considered the proper response), a tribesman would resort to eating his own kin. Doing so would have caused him to be isolated from the tribe, and once deep into the forest, he would transform into a Wendigo.

It is unclear whether Wendigos are living, undead, or spritual creatures. Generally it is assumed they are some of each. Algonquin legend states that eating human flesh gives the consumer special powers–enhanced hearing, sight, speed and strength. However, once they take the first bite, they begin to crave more and more, until their hunger becomes their entire existence. Each time they eat a human, a Wendigo’s body is said to grow in proportion to their meal, expanding their stomach and never allowing them to be full. Therefore, Wendigos were portrayed as simultaneously gluttonous and emancipated from starvation. As they continued to survive this way, feeding day after day on their own kind and never able to satiate their hunger, their bodies would begin to decay and transform into something less than human. Basil Johnston, and Obiwi teacher from Ontario, provides us with this description:

“The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody [….] Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.”

As I mentioned earlier, cannibalism wasn’t the only way a person could become a Wendigo, though it was by far the most common. Alternatively, a person could become possessed by the spirit of a Wendigo, becoming violent and cannibalistic. Some tribes believed all it took was to be excessively selfish and greedy. Either way, the fear of the Wendigo was a strong deterrent against cannibalism and a great proponent of tribal unity. The taboo against such Wendigo-esque actions was so great that a ceremony was created in order to reinforce it. The ceremony, known as wiindigookaanzhimowin, was performed during times of famine, and involved wearing masks and dancing backwards around a drum. The last known Wendigo ceremony in the USA was conducted within the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota.

Hope everyone found this interesting. Again, please remember to comment your requests!

Feb 15

Maori Mythology and the Legend of Paikea

This week my passion blog centers around Maori culture, the ancient native tribes of New Zealand. For the most part, Maori mythology was inherited from a Polynesian homeland, then developed further in the new setting–similar to how Europeans brought their folk tales with them to America, before ultimately expanding upon the lore until it turned into something new, but not entirely original. That said, it’s important to understand some basic concepts of Polynesian culture before we go into specific Maori stories.

Similar to Native Americans, Polynesians believed they were inherently part of nature. In fact, every human was descended from the same couple: The Sky Father and the Earth Mother. Before felling a tree, Native Polynesians would be sure placate Tane Mutah, God of the Forest. While hunting for food, they would never speak of their purpose, for fear that their prey would hear them and make its escape.

Myths were always told as referring to the remote past, with the idea that the universe was still evolving and growing as the Maori lived in it. Some tribes liken this evolution to the growth of a tree, it’s branches and roots all stemming from a great trunk. Other versions speak of it as the development of a child in a womb, constantly growing, shaping, and refining itself.

This is all very general knowledge of the religion, but as I promised, I do have a story for you, and it’s specific to Maori mythology. The tale has it’s roots in the South Island and East coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s the legend of Kahutia-te-rangi, also known as Paikea: Whale rider.

The story begins with Kahutia-te-rangi’s half-brother, Ruatapu. Ruatapu is already angry because Kahutia-te-rangi is of a higher status than him (Kahutia-te-rangi’s mother was of noble birth, while Ruatapu’s mother was a slave). One day Ruatapu went to use Kahutia-te-rangi’s comb, and their father, Uenuku, rebuked him, reminding Ruatapu that he was of lower rank than his half-brother, and had no right to touch his things.

Livid at his father’s words, Ruatapu spun a plan for his revenge. He built a canoe, and when it was finished, he lured Kahutia-te-rangi and several other high-ranking sons of Uenuku into it with him. With the young men oblivious of his intentions, Ruatapu paddled the canoe far out to sea. What his half-brothers did not know, was that Ruatapu had knocked a hole into the bottom of the canoe, and was only temporarily plugging it with his heel. Once the canoe was far from prying eyes, Ruatapu removed his heel, and the canoe sank. One by one he fell upon each young man and drowned them. Every man, except Kahutia-te-rangi.

Kahutia-te-rangi had recited an incantation as the boat sank, invoking the Southern humpback whales (called “paikea” in Maori) to help carry him to shore. The whales did so, making Kahutia-te-rangi the sole survivor of Ruatapu’s evildoings. Soon after, Kahutia-te-rangi would assume the name Paikea, as a memorial to the whales that assisted him in his time of need.

I love exploring new cultures like this. Please, if you’re reading, shoot me a request! Any culture or story is fair game!

Feb 15

Shiva the Destroyer

This week on Isabella’s passion blog, we’re taking a trip to India to learn about Hindu mythology. Specifically, we’re going to be examining a deity named Shiva, also known as “the Transformer” or, more ominously, “the Destroyer.” Shiva is actually rather important; he’s the supreme God of Shaivism, and one of the three most influential denominations of contemporary Hinduism. In his most revered form, Shiva is limitless, transcending, constant and formless.

Like most all-powerful deities, Shiva has both his compassionate and terrifying moments. In benevolent aspects, he is portrayed as an omniscient Yogi, and as the patron god of yoga and the arts, you can often find statues of him meditating while facing the southern shores of India. He is said to reside on Mount Kailash with his wife Parvati (goddess of love, fertility, and devotion) and his two children, Ganesha and Kartikeya (Gods of wisdom and war, respectively). When Shiva is feeling cranky and/or needs to lay the beat down on someone, you might catch him slaying a demon or two. In this case, stabbing with his handy trident is his preferred method of annihilation.

You can actually learn a lot about Shiva just by considering the symbolism and stories behind his personal attributes. Shiva has 4 arms, resembling 4 vedas. He wears a serpent and a garland of skulls around each of his six heads. “But Isabella!” you’re probably thinking, “I only see five heads in that picture!” Well, obviously you haven’t reached enlightenment yet. Only those who have reached enlightenment can see Shiva’s sixth head, noob.

As I mentioned, Shiva’s weapon of choice is a trident, which he holds in his lower right arm. The trident, like most forms of Hinduism, can be understood as the symbolism of the unity of the three worlds a human faces: your inside world (your own thought process/emotions), your immediate world (the things you’re familiar with/your environment), and the broader world (everything else). At the base of the trident, all three forks unite, just like all three of these worlds.

You may have also noticed that Shiva’s skin is an interesting color: blue. However, according to my sources, Shiva is actually meant to have very pale skin, and is often sculpted from white clay or stone. Despite this, he is often depicted as having the blue skin you see above. I’ve turned up two reasons for this contradiction throughout my research.

The first comes in the form of a story: one day a young Shiva had the ingenious (or not) idea to drink the Halahala poison–churned up during one of the gods’ great wars, the Samudra Manthan–from the Kshirsagar manthan, or “Ocean of Milk” (…yes, you read that correctly). Shiva did this in order to destroy the poison’s destructive capacity. However, the god had forgotten one important detail: the universe was in his stomach. Luckily for us poor mortals, Goddess Parvati has some quick reflexes. She managed to strangle Shiva before he swallowed the poison, trapping it in his throat before it could destroy everything we hold dear. Still, the poison was so potent, it ended up turning Shiva’s neck blue, hence his nickname, Neelakanta (blue-throated one).

Another explanation for Shiva’s strange coloring is his habit of smearing his body with human ashes–reflecting how often he visits the cremation grounds, and possibly his blue-greyish complexion. The ashes are said to represent the end of all material existence. And why not? If Shiva is carrying around our universe in his stomach, we can make a sound guess that it will be he who eventually brings about all our ends.

He is the Destroyer, after all.


Feb 15

Greek Mythology: Hades and Persephone

Greek mythology has probably always been my favorite mythology, and this might be my favorite stories of all time. It’s also one of the most famous love stories ever told. Because the myth of Hades and Persephone, sometimes referred to as the “Abduction” or “Rape” of Persephone is a love story… just not necessarily a happy one. Sorry this is long, but I had to tell it right.

Once upon a time, Zeus, the King of the Gods, was having an affair with the goddess of the harvest, Demeter. They conceived a beautiful goddess named Persephone, who was loved by all for her lighthearted kindness. Demeter was very protective of her daughter, keeping her naive to the ways of the world and dressing her as a child, even as she grew into a women. She meant to keep her innocent and virginal forever, always by her mother’s side.

One day Hades, the God of the Underworld, happened to glance up at the world above and noticed Persephone playing with a group of nymphs in her fields. Now, the underworld was a dark, isolated place, and since it was Hades’ job to judge the souls of all the dead, there was so much work to be done and he hardly ever was able to see his family up above. The other gods had grown to fear him, and the mortals hardly dared to utter his name. Hades was a just god, but he grew lonely and cold as he carried out his duties over the centuries. But as he observed Persephone, he was struck immediately by her beauty and her tenderness towards the nymphs. He ended up going back to watch her every so often, feeling his old heart soften each time. Finally he roused himself to go to Olympus and ask Zeus for Persephone’s hand in marriage. Zeus was pleased with this turn of events: Hades was the richest and most stable of all the Gods, not to mention powerful. He gave his consent to the marriage. However, Hades knew Demeter would never allow the union, so he decided to spirit Persephone away.

One day when Persephone was alone in her fields, the ground suddenly split open, and out sprung a huge chariot being pulled by black horses. Hades leaned over the side and scooped Persephone up, and before the girl could even scream, plunged back into the earth. Demeter quickly noticed her daughter was gone and searched frantically for help. Eventually she found a farmer who had witnessed all of it, and Demeter grew livid, vowing that the ground would never produce a stalk of wheat until Persephone was returned.

Down in the Underworld, Persephone was distraught. Hades was kind to her and showered her with gifts, but she missed her mother and the world above. Hades was saddened, but he was also patient. He put Persephone’s thrown right next to his and, unlike the other Gods, allowed her equal rule along side him. He treated her not as property, but as someone who could eventually become a friend. When Persephone suggested that another realm be made for the best mortal souls to go to, Hades made it for her. It was called Elysium–the Underworld’s heaven. Persephone felt conflicted. She missed her mother, but Hades was the only person who’d ever treated like an adult. She was beginning to fall in love with him.

One morning Persephone went into the Underworld’s garden, and was offered a pomegranate by the gardener. Up until that point, Persephone had resisted eating anything offered to her–she knew that if she ate any food from the Underworld, she would be bound to it forever. But that morning, Persephone was so hungry, she took the pomegranate and ate six of its seeds. Then abruptly, Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, appeared before her. He told her that Demeter had caused the earth to freeze, and that no crops would grow. Mortals were dying in droves, and the only thing that would stop her was Persephone’s return. Persephone reluctantly allowed Hermes to take her to Olympus, where Zeus and Demeter were having it out. Zeus had promised his daughter to Hades without her consent, after all.

Persephone tried to convince Demeter that she was all right and that Hades had been kind to her, but Demeter insisted that she had to come home, or else she would let every mortal on earth die of famine. Suddenly the throne room darkened and the Gods turned as Hades stepped out of the shadows. He was holding the partially eaten pomegranate in his hand.

“Persephone has eaten the fruit of the Underworld,” Hades said cooly, “she must return and rule it with me.”

While Demeter resumed her tantrum, Zeus considered Persephone quietly.

“How many seeds did you eat, daughter?” he asked.

Persephone told him, “Six.” Zeus stood up from his throne and the assembly quieted.

“Since Persephone has eaten six seeds of the pomegranate, I rule that she will spend six months of each year in the Underworld with her husband, and six months tending to the mortal’s fields with her mother.” 

Neither Demeter nor Hades were completely happy with this agreement, but Zeus had made it so. Every year Persephone returned to the fields and restored them with Demeter, and when the time came, Hades would come to her and escort her to her throne in the Underworld. Each time she left, Demeter mourned and all vegetation died. and each time Persephone returned, the earth warmed and became fertile once again. This is how the Greeks explained the earth’s seasons, and how a goddess of life fell in love with the Underworld.

Hope you enjoyed. Remember, comment your requests!!


Jan 15

Caribbean Mythology: It’s Voodou, Child!

My first passion blog post of the semester goes out to Wilson, who gave me my first request: the folklore of the Caribbean! Now, when I say Caribbean, that includes islands like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and especially Haiti, which had the highest amount of slave trafficking in that region. This is important because there are plenty of places in the Americas where slaves brought along their tribal religions, but the Caribbean mythology derives in particular from the Dahomey, Ebo and Yoruba tribes in Africa, who were brought en masse to Central America to be slaves. The type of religion which developed there is one of the most unique I’ve ever researched. It’s a melting pot African, Spanish, and Creole cultures. I imagine it as though Christian characters went out the back door to practice voodoo with some African tribal gods.

What it’s all developed into is something called “Voodou;” the “Voo” meaning introspection, and “Dou” meaning the unknown. This is far from your Hollywood stuffed dolls with pins sticking out of them, but rather a production of a rich, provocative, and beautifully dark culture. Here are some highlights.

Bondye is the equivalent of Yahweh in the Christian religion. He is the supreme mono-god, and generally appears very aloof. He is considered the creator of life and humanity, and all of it belongs to him. Unlike the Christian God, he’s unlikely to help you if you ask, so it’s advised you don’t bother praying to him. Also unlike the Christian God, he has a wife: the mother Goddess, Gran-met. However, it’s sometimes thought that Gran-met is actually just a female manifestation of Bondye. Most people who practice Voodou will tell you that whichever story you believe is a personal preference.

In keeping with our shady Christian themes, Bondye and Gran-met are often accompanied by the spirits of Loa–the equivalent of angels, demons, or Catholic saints. Their primary purpose is to guide you or–more literally–ride you when you’re “prancing and trancing.” In short, the Loa are spirits of possession.

But to get off this Christian train, I now present to you Baron-samediwho is by far the most stylin’ spirit of the dead (As you can see in the picture to the right). Possibly the most infamously famous God of the Voodou Pantheon, he is about one step down from Bondye, and commands the Guede (death and fertility) family of the Loa. He usually appears as a tall, skinny man in a black suit, shiny top hat,and a dinner jacket, with a white, skull-like face and cotton plugs in his nose (as if he’s dressed to be buried in a traditional Haitian funeral). I think he actually looks a bit like a sassy Wilson… except more dead, I guess. Baron-samedi is noted for obscenity and debauchery, and has a particular fondness for tobacco and rum spiked with hot peppers. He’s constantly making filthy jokes to the spirits in the realm he resides in. Despite this, the Baron is a god you’ll want to pray to, especially if you ever find yourself caught up in a nasty hex. As long as Baron-samedi refuses to dig your grave, the hex cannot kill you (#ProTip).

But if you do die, you won’t have to worry too much, especially if you get picked up by his wife, Maman-brigitte. She’s so chatty and full of jokes, that it’s actually fun when you’re escorted to the Underworld.

Well, I’m already over the word count, and I haven’t introduced you to half of the Voodou pantheon yet. As I mentioned, there’s simply so many influences that the lore is practically overflowing with stuff. I’d have to write a book. However, if you’re interested in finding out more, go to this site: http://www.godchecker.com/pantheon/caribbean-mythology.php

The descriptions of the gods and goddesses are a little sparse, but it will point you in the right direction. I recommend exploring their characters there, and then looking for more depth descriptions of the ones you like on Wikipedia.

That’s all I got for now. I await your requests for next week!

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