Sunday, December 4, 2011



A long time ago, a little Chinese girl named Nvwa wanted to go boating with her father. Her father was none other then the Emperor Yandi, a very busy man, who sadly had no time for boating with his lovely young daughter. Being of determined temperment, Nvwa found an abandoned boat and took herself boating on the East Sea. In the way of such things, a terrible storm began, tossing Nvwa into the sea where she soon floundered and drowned. I'm sure her busy father was miserable indeed for such a tragic event. Though I must say, perhaps he was not surprised. 

His daughter Nvwa was angry with the sea for drowning her in such a cruel fashion. In revenge, she reincarnated as a white bird with strong wings to carry rocks and sticks and fill the sea up to its very top. By such an amazing action, she hoped to save other people from the similar fate of drowning. The sea was not impressed. 

"Ha!" the sea said in its sneering way. "Do you seriously think you can fill up me? Have you noticed how LARGE I am? You would fail with a MILLION years of effort!" The watery bully chuckled and preened its waves. 

"I don't care how long it takes!" said the determined Nvwa. Flying away for another load of sticks, she cried "Jingwei," as she was now a bird, and this was her new call. "If it takes me ten million years, or even one hundred million years," she promised, "I will not tire or give up." 

So from that day on, the relentlessly determined Nvwa continues her dogged pursuit of filling the sea. People now call her Jingwei, after her familiar bird cry, and honor her by saying "Jingwei filling the sea" when speaking of perseverance under impossible goals. 

Chinese Egret
Source: Surfbirds

Friday, November 11, 2011

Llamhigyn Y Dwr or Water Leaper

Llamhigyn Y Dwr
Artist: Unknown

The nightmare pictured above is a beastie from Welsh folklore called the Llamhigyn Y Dwr, or Water Leaper. It's given this name for its endearing habit of leaping from lakes, swamps, ponds, rivers, and other bodies of water and sinking its sharp little teeth into unsuspecting victims. Favorite prey of the Llamhigyn Y Dwr include hardworking fisherman, poor benighted sheep wandering too close to muddy banks, and anything else it can catch. The creature's appearance alone is enough to strike victims dead, never mind the cringeworthy screech, or sudden gut-wrenching attacks of this flying toad-bat. As you can see, it has the legless body of a frog, a long creepy tail, and wings that would make a bat proud. The nasty, thrashing, tail has a stinger on the end. When assaulting fishermen, its favored technique is to lurk below water, surge into flight, screech maniacally, snap the fishing line, then drag the terrified men to their deaths and consumption. It's enough to make you think twice about going for a swim. 

Don't give me that innocent look! 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Melodious Swan

A nice swan picture.
Bibliotheque Municipale de Reims, ms. 993, Folio 155r

My Swan

Years ago, I lived in an apartment overlooking a small pond. Like many ponds, this one attracted creatures searching for food left by humans. Our rat-like landlord sarcastically referred to certain of the creatures as "wildlife," and forbade the leaving of bread. Of the many "non-wildlife" creatures calling the pond home, my favorite was an elegantly bad tempered swan who promenaded the grounds begging for handouts. He (or she) would loiter near my building's door, stretching its long neck and hissing menacingly if no treats were offered. Myth and folklore tell us
swans have a lovely voice. Though I never heard my swan sing, I'll hold my skepticism in check and take their word for it. What else does myth and folklore say of swans?

Two Swans
Photographer: Sangfroid

Greek Mythology

Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was symbolized by a swan. Regettably, the swan image was utilized in a not so lovely way by the unstopable seducer Zeus. Following a quick swan transformation, Zeus mated with Queen Leda of Sparta, hatching two children named Helen and Polydeuces. Yes, that's the famously beautiful Helen of Troy, who inadvertently started the Trojan War when kidnaped by Paris. The Greeks told more than one version of Zeus as ardent swan. A second account claims the problematic goddess Nemesis as the mother of Helen. The goddess of retribution morphed into a goose, gambling a hapless bid to fool Zeus. The unfooled Zeus became a swan, and deaf to the poor goddess's objections, shamelessly did as he pleased. The resulting egg, being rejected by Nemesis, was left in a swamp and later found by a passing shepherd. The shepherd gave the egg to Leda, who hatched it and became the mother of Helen anyway in the weird roundabout way of myths and life in general. 

Leda and the Swan


Swans don't merely swim in ponds. There is a constellation in the Milky Way called Cygnus, or The Swan. The Greeks had a number of different myths regarding how Cygnus found it's way to the night sky. One version features two friends named Cygnus and Phaeton. Though very close, the friendship didn't stop Cygnus and Phaeton from constantly attempting to best one another. Their contending reached its zenith on deciding to race around the Sun and back to Earth. In a fit of competitiveness, the friends streaked too close to the Sun and plummeted to Earth, clinging to their charred and disintrgrating chariots. Though Cygnus landed safely, Phaeton was tangled in tree roots at the bottom of the Eridanus River. Cygnus tried mightily to recover Phaeton's body for proper burial, but could not manage to reach it. Desperately, he asked Zeus for help. Zeus, in his usual god-like way, offered to transform Cygnus into a swan, thus enabling him to reach his friend at the bottom of the river. Naturally, there was a catch. Cygnus would need to give up his immortality, remain feathered, and live the short years of the swan. Not hesitating, Cygnus chose to become a swan. Zeus rewarded Cygnus by placing him in the night sky as the constellation Cygnus. There's nothing like a really good friend to make life worth living. 


The Swan in German Myth

Phaeton was not alone in taking the form of a swan. The Valkyries, twelve goddesses who attended Odin and oversaw wars, could transform themselves into swans at will. After choosing their favorite warriors, and aiding them to victory, the Valkyries lead the brave fighters to the feasting halls of Valhalla. The Valkyries sometimes shed their feathers and appeared to men as human woman. If a devious man snatched the feathers, the unfortunate Valkyrie was compelled to cater and serve until her feathers were returned. 

Valkyies with shed feathers.
The Valkyrie Kara

The Valkyries were perfectly capable of falling in love. The Valkyrie Kara had a human lover named Helgi who she followed into battle. Flying over the pitched struggle in full swan regalia, Kara sang a song so enticing Helgi's opponents laid down their weapons and ceased to fight. Sadly, during another battle, the lovely Kara accidentally came to an abrupt end by the business end of a sword. The truly tragic bit was the ownership of the offending sword. Her husband, Helgi, was never the same after that event. 

The Swan in Hinduism

The goddess Saraswati

Is the swan revered with more enthusiasm anywhere other than the Hindu religion? The swans' very grace creates comparisons to spiritual people gaining worldly detachment equaling the birds' water warding feathers. The most spiritual are often called Paramahamsa or the Great Swan, who glide effortlessly between spiritual worlds like a swan in flight. 

 In Hinduism, the goddess of knowledge is Saraswati. This consort of Brahma represents not only music, literature, and art, but the sciences as well. She's associated with the color white, and is frequently pictured by a river denoting her early history as a river goddess. As you can see in the illustration above, her vehicle, or vahana, is a beautiful white swan. It's said if a swan is offered a mixture of milk and water, it will filter the milk and leave the water. This symbolises the ability to distinguish good from evil. 

Saraswati is a favorite of mine due to her association with the written word. One of her four hands holds the sacred book of Vedas. The Hindus feel such respect for books, accidentally touching a book with the foot elicits an apology in the form of a hand gesture called Pranama. The clumsy person touches the offended book (or any written material) with the finger tips, then carrys the finger tips to the forehead or chest. I wonder if such respect now includes the Kindle? I don't see why not!

Celtic Swan Myth

The Children of Lir
Painting by: Shauna Bloomingdale

From India, we now travel across continents to Ireland. One legendary Irish tale is the Children of Lir. It features rivals to a thone, hapless children, swans, and an extremely evil step-mother named Aoife. It all started when the sea god Lir lost his bid for the kingship of Tuatha De Danann to Bodb Derg. To lessen Lir's disappointment, Bodb Derg offered a daughter (Aeb) in marriage to his former contender. The marrage produced four happy and healthy children. In the way of such tales, no one can stay happy for very long. Aeb died, and in her place, Bodb Derg sent another daughter to mother the grieving children. As the children loved one another, and their father, before all else, Aoife soon grew insanely jealous of the family bond that did not include herself. She tried wheedling a servant into killing the children, but the servant would have no part of her nefarious plans. The notion of killing them herself proved a wash, as she had neither the strength, the courage, or the stomach, to murder them personally. She then thought of the perfect solution. Using her special talent for magic, she turned her step-children into swans tethered together by a golden chain. When Lir learned of her actions, he hit the roof and transformed Aeb into an air demon with no hope for redemption. 

So what happened to the children? They spent 300 years as swans living on Lough Derrauaregh, 300 years in the Sea of Moyle, and finally 300 more years swimming the Imus Domnann. There's more than one version of their ultimate fate. One version records their returning to land and being blessed by a priest. Once again human and 900 years old, they died quickly, went to heaven, and were reunited with their mother and father. As for Aeb, she's still out there being an air demon. Yikes! 

One Last Little Thing! 

The Ugly Duckling

The Ugly Duckling
Art by: Fernl

A famous swan story is The Ugly Duckling. It tells of the hideous little duckling who turned into a beautiful swan.

If you'd like to read the story, go HERE

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hedgehogs: The Little Prickly Guys

Long Spined Hedgehog
Huntington Library, HM 27523, Folio 228r

Hedgehogs are cute little creatures. As a pet sitter, I once cared for a hedgehog named Spike, a polite gentleman who lived in a deluxe cage and ate dog food from a tiny bowl. Spike got me wondering about the mythological history of the whimsical beasties, and their possible (guaranteed) misadventures with the human species. 

Ancient Egypt

It started off well enough. The ancient Egyptians venerated the hedgehog as a symbol of rebirth. Its autumnal hibernation and spring awakening made it a natural for such idealisation. Their prickly skins also made them a popular symbol for protection against predators, both real and spiritual.

Hedgehog Rattle
Middle Kingdom 1938-1700 B.C.E.

The hedgehog on a stick in the picture above is a rattle from the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. Such rattles were thought to chase away nefarious threats such as stinging scorpions, poisonous snakes, and nasty spirits bent on the wholesale corruption of humanity. I think the rattle is adorable, and I'd be delighted to use one to help me get through my day. 

Ancient Egyptian Hedgehog Amulet
Twelfth Dynasty 1981-1802 B.C.E.

I found this amulet photograph on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. Since the Ancient Egyptians viewed hedgehogs as a symbol of rebirth and protection, perhaps this amulet was worn by the departed to guard them through the difficult afterlife journey.

Model Boat

Journeys of the living were often made by boat. Small hedgehog statues sometimes graced the bows of Egyptian vessels for protection against dangerous water and other calamities. Strangely, the hedgehog statues faced backwards instead of forwards as might be supposed. It's unknown why this was so.  

Unfortunately, it wasn't all joy for the hedgehogs of Ancient Egypt.


According to Wikipedia, hedgehogs were eaten in Ancient Egypt. Be careful of the spines! 

Great old clock.

Romanian Creation Myth

   I hope you forgive my sudden leap in time and culture, as I will now write about the hedgehog in Romanian creation myth. 

The early Romanians, considering hedgehogs beings of massive wisdom, were obviously a people of taste and discernment. They had a creation myth featuring an eccentric hedgehog, a bee, and that big guy himself named God.      
How Hedgehog Saved Earth and All the Fish

The story goes that God, in his enthusiasm for creating earth, found he had no room for water. Knowing the hedgehog was the wisest of all creatures, God sent the bee to ask hedgehog what to do regarding this most difficult of dilemmas. Finding hedgehog ambling about, the bee said, "Oh, wise and worthy hedgehog. The earth is in a pathetic state and God is baffled. He made so much earth, there is hardly any water. What will the fish do?" Being a humble creature, the hedgehog refused saying, "Go away! God knows everything and  please stop bothering me." Since the bee was not so stupid either, he recalled hedgehog often talked to himself and sagely waited a few moments in the bushes for wise mumbling. Sure enough, it wasn't long before hedgehog said, "God needs to pick-up earth's skirts and create mountains and valleys." The bee flew back to God and this was how hedgehog saved planet Earth and all the fish.

Much water!

Pliny the Elder

 So know we know what the Romanians believed, but what did our dear good friend Pliny the Elder make of the hedgehog. He wrote in his Historia Naturalis:

Hedgehogs also lay up food for the winter; rolling themselves on apples as they lie on the ground, they pierce one with their quills, and then take up another in the mouth, and so carry them into the hollow of trees. 


Hedgehogs Gathering Apples
Bodeian Libary, MS. Douse 151, Folio 30r

Pliny the Elder
He looks a little peeved in this picture. I hope he's not mad at me!

Hedgehogs as Medicine 

Lurching some more through history, we learn hedgehogs were valued for their medicinal purposes. Many years ago, in Europe and other places, it was believed hedgehogs could cure a whole host of illnesses befalling humanity. They were guaranteed to end leprosy, colic, boils, stones and wonky vision. I'm not sure about pimples and bad breath. If you had a health eruption anywhere on your body, plaster a little hedgehog on it and call the doctor in the morning. 

A scholar and writer from the fourteenth century named Konrad of Megenberg wrote:

...the flesh of the hedgehog is wholesome for the stomach and strengthens the same. Likewise it hath a power of drying and relieving the stomach. It deals with the water of dropsy and is of great help to such as are inclined to the sickness called elephantiasis.

I wish I hath a picture of Konrad, but I don't. I apologise for the link to elephantiasis. It's not for the faint for heart.

The Hedgehog in Elizabethan Britain

Good Queen Bess answered English farmers' pleas when they complained hedgehogs were stealing milk from cows late at night. In 1566, parliament put a 3 pence bounty on every hedgehog captured and put to death. Needless to say, thousands upon thousands were killed. The irony of all this is that hedgehogs are lactose intolerent. Poor hedgehogs.

Here's Bess again. I used this picture in my last post. She sure had a lot of troubles.

Before rocketing away from Elizabethan England, I must quote Shakespeare, that minor writer who didn't think much of the hedgehog either. He wrote in Midsummer Night's Dream:

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, not be seen;
Newt and blindworms, do no wrong;
Come not near our Fairy Queen.

The original Groundhog was a Hedgehog

Americans all know about Groundhog Day. We wait for Punxsutawney Phil to hand down the verdict on spring's arrival. I bet many Americans don't know the first spring predicting beastie was a hedgehog. The ancient Romans swore by them. Don't tell Phil!

I'll end this post with a couple of nice links about the sweet hedgehog. 

Mrs. Tiggly Winkle
by Beatrix Potter

The Hedgehog Manor

The LINK to a cute blog.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Black Cats

Halloween is a time of ghosts, goblins and black cats. If you own a black cat, I would recommend keeping it indoors until the holiday is over. Even today, black felines have a persistantly fearsome reputation for bad luck and witchcraft, giving some disturbed individuals an excuse to harm them. Black cats were not always so maligned however.

Oagans-Bast was the sacred black cat god popular in the monotheistic religion of ancient Egypt. All cats, but especially black cats, were held sacred and kept in Egyptian homes for protection, fertility and luck. It was believed the god's spirit would enter the cat, and bless its family with prosperity. Killing any cat in ancient Egypt, even accidentally, would result in your death as well. 

This all changed during the Middle Ages. The black cat became associated with witches, and as a consequence were destroyed in hideous ways. Witches were believed to transmutate into a cat nine times during their life. In Hungry, cats in general were assumed to become witches between the ages of seven and twelve. To avoid this fate, crosses were cut into the cat's skin. The thirteenth century pope Gregory IX declared the Cathars (a heretical religious sect) bred black cats because the animals were the devil in disguise. A holy war against the Cathars was declared shortly after the Pope's announcement.  

Elizabeth the First 

At the coronation of Elizabeth the I of England in 1558, Protestants carried a cat filled wicker dummy of the pope through the streets, ultimately tossing the terrified creatures into a massive bonfire. If I were Elizabeth, I'd be worried about death looking over my shoulder too. 

 Author: Edward Topsell

In the seventeenth century it was thought various bits and pieces of black cats could cure illnesses. People wishing to avoid sickness often buried the tail of a black cat under the doorstep of  their homes. English naturalist Edward Topsell proscribed blowing the ashes of a black cat's burned head into painful or blind eyes three times a day.  

There is good news though. Buddhists consider all cats lucky, including the black ones. The Buddhists say if a black cat enters your home, and you treat it nicely, good luck will come your way. Also, if a black cat should cross your path, and doesn't harm you, luck is yours.

King Charles the First

Charles the I of England had a black cat he took everywhere. Believing the cat good luck, he was devastated when the cat died suddenly, and expected the worst. The very next day, Charles was arrested and ultimately beheaded.

More recently, black cats have appeared in literature, including "The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe. To read the story, click HERE. Other stories including black cats are "A Cat's Tail" by Mark Twain; "The Cat and the Moon" by William Butler Yeats; and "Mulliner Nights" by P.G. Wodehouse. 

Some businesses use black cats in their logos.  They include Eveready Batteries, and Ritz-Lanvin's "My Sin" perfume.

"My Sin" perfume.

I have no idea what this smells like, but the bottle is nice. Since cats are often associated with sensually, and the woman is portrayed with offspring, I'm not sure what they're trying to say. If you use "My Sin," you'll have numerous illegitimate children perhaps. 

A black cat game!

A board game by Parker Brothers called The Black Cat Fortune Telling Game was released in 1897. This looks like a more recent edition.

So I hope you and your cat, black or otherwise, celebrate this Halloween safely. Maybe a black cat will enter your home. That's good luck in Yorkshire, England you know.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010



It's Twins!

Though the world has seen many difficult births, there were none so difficult as Pegasus' arrival to the world. For the rare person totally unfamiliar with Pegasus, he's the fabulous winged horse of Greek mythology beloved by adolescent girls everywhere. He began his immortal existence when Medusa, his snake-haired mother, was efficiently beheaded by the hero Perseus. It's perhaps not so well known the great white horse had a twin. Pegasus sprang from Medusa's headless neck accompanied by his brother, the giant Chrysaor. Sadly, the gigantic twin didn't resemble a horse.

The Birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor

Sea Foam

By emerging from Medusa's neck, Pegasus and Chrysaor's birth, like Athena's from the head of Zeus, was considered higher than a common birth. Like many myths, there are other versions of Pegasus' birth. One variant confirms Chrysaor's delivery from Medusa's neck, but states Pegasus manifested from Medusa's blood murging with sea foam. The sea foam accounted for the white coat of Pegasus. Regardless of details, immediately after birth Pegasus flew to Mount Helicon, thrilling the muses by striking the ground and creating a well called Hippocrene (horse spring). Pegasus' name actually means "spring" in the Greek language. It seems everywhere he struck a hoof a spring would form.

Pappa Poseidon

If Medusa was Pegasus' mother, who was his father? That gentleman was Poseidon, in his persona as a horse god. Before Medusa developed her permanent hair trouble, she was considered an extremely beautiful, but vain, woman. So beautiful, that Poseidon had a torrid affair with her concluding in a soap opera worthy love scene on the floor of Athena's temple. Poor Athena was understandably upset, and punished Medusa by transforming her hair into snakes. The former beauty queen was now so ugly, a mere glance would turn men to stone. Though you may think Medusa's punishment enough for Athena, never underestimate the anger of an offended god. Athena's anger would lead directly to Pegasus' birth.

Artist: Caravaggio

Athena's Revenge 

Once, an evil intentioned King named Polydectes, sent Our Hero Perseus away on the impossible task of retrieving Medusa's head. Polydectes wished to aquire Perseus' lovely mother unhindered by the suspicious son. The wily Athena saw her chance. She helped Perseus gather the magical equipment needed to defeat the stony-gazed Medusa. Perseus collected a knapsack from Hesperides to contain the severed head, an extremely durable sword and helmet of invisibility from Zeus, winged sandals from Hermes and a mirrored shield from Athena herself. By looking at Medusa's reflection in the shield, Perseus avoided a granite future and freed Pegasus from Medusa's body. With the exception of Polydectes, and the now headless Medusa, everyone was happy with the outcome. 

Bellerophon, Pegasus and Chimaera
Date: ca 570-565 BC
Location: J. Paul Getty Museum

The Woes of Bellerophon

Perseus wasn't the only exile sent away for being inconvenient. Our next hero, named Bellerophon, approached King Proetus of Tiryns to absolve his crime of accidentally killing either his brother, or a mysterious man called Belleros. While there, the king's wife took a liking to the youthful Bellerophon, but to her disappointment, the liking wasn't mutual. Angry and vindictive, she accused  Bellerophon of molestation. Since the king didn't want to kill a guest, he sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law (Iobates). This behavior is usually referred to as "passing the buck." The father-in-law, on learning his appointed task, didn't want to kill a guest either, so he sent Bellerophon on the impossible quest of dispatching the terrifying Chimera. The Chimera was a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, body of a goat and a tail like a serpent. As the appalling creature was wreaking havoc in local villages, Iobates didn't hold much faith in Bellerophon's surviving its onslaught. Satisfied the troublesome Bellerophon was taken care of, father-in-law went to bed for a much needed rest. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to father-in-law Iobates, a seer told Our Hero that defeating the Chimera required the aid of Pegasus. 

Enter Pegasus

Pegasus with Athena

The helpful seer also informed Bellerophon that acquiring the untamed Pegasus demanded sleeping in the temple of Athena. While Bellerophon slept, Athena appeared in a dream. Placing a golden bridle next to the snoozing hero, she instructed him to sacrifice a white bull to Poseidon and approach Pegasus with the bridle. Upon waking, Bellerophon did as told and captured the wild Pegasus. A second version of this story relates that Athena tamed Pegasus herself, and gave the bridled Pegasus to Bellerophon in preparation for his Chimera showdown. In any case, Bellerophon had Pegasus in hand and was off to dispatch a monster. After a pitched battle the Chimera was defeated, but Bellerophon's victory was not enough for Iobates. The unsatisfied father-in-law sent the pair to fight fearsome Amazons. Eventually, a weary Bellerophon complained about the woefully ungrateful Iobates to Poseidon. After withstanding the resulting flood, Iobates concluded Bellerophon was innocent of molestation and gave him a daughter to marry.  

Bellerophon and Pegasus

Bellerophon's Fall

Our Hero's victories made him so disgustingly proud he tried riding Pegasus to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. The annoyed Zeus sent a fly to sting Pegasus, who bucked causing Bellerophon's sudden fall to earth. Though Athena cushioned his fall with soft ground, he was crippled and spent the rest of his life a begger. Pegasus, without Bellerophon, continued flying to Olympus and became the thunder bearer for Zeus. It's interesting the origin of Pegasus may have been Pihassassa, the ancient Hittite god of thunderstorms. Later, as a reward for faithful service, Zeus sent Pegasus to the sky as a constellation. On that day, a single white feather fell from Pegasus and landed near the city of Tarsus

The constellation of Pegasus

Monday, October 11, 2010

Unicorn Sighting

Here's a strange piece of news. A Toronto resident named Peter Hickey-Jones claims he captured an actual unicorn on film while bird watching in the Don Valley wetlands. Though obviously a hoax, it would be nice if true and unicorns really did exist. Oh well.

The film is being studied by the Ontario Science Centre who urge caution if sighting a unicorn.