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.