Tea and a Story: Stories of Hallowe’en and Samhain

Happy Hallowe’en and blessed Samhain! In honor of the holiday that marks the beginning of the dark quarter of the year, I thought I’d talk a bit about the stories and legends I’ve encountered that deal with this spooky time of year. Hallowe’en falls at a time that is approximately halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, so it’s about halfway from an equinox to the longest night of the year. And, really, Hallowe’en is around that time of year where you really start noticing that the days are getting shorter. All of a sudden, the sun isn’t coming up until I’m on the train, with my morning commute well under way. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that we change our clocks to give us a bit more light in the mornings right around Hallowe’en.

In folklore and legend, Hallowe’en or Samhain is the time at which the boundary between light and dark becomes thinner and, in many traditions, the veil between the mortal world and the spirit world is more easily traversed. In neo-Pagan traditions, Samhain is a time to meditate on your ancestors. It’s also no surprise that this thinning of boundaries would bring spirits and ghosts into the world, hence the Hallowe’en imagery involving ghosts and other supernatural beings. Divination was also said to be more successful at this time, which is a part of a lot of old Hallowe’en traditions, and most of which center around determining when and whom one is to marry [1].

But I’m here for the stories, not the general descriptions of traditions. And one of the stories that has the most explicit link to Samhain is the story of the Kelpie in Celtic mythology [2]. The Kelpie is a water spirit that takes the shape of either a human or a horse, and lives in water. In the Celtic story of the Kelpie, the sons of the chiefs of the tribes of Ireland are lured onto the back of a Kelpie in his horse form and dragged into the water because they stick to the horse once they’ve touched him (similar to the story of the goose that lays golden eggs). One man escapes by cutting off the hand that touched the horse, and goes on a quest to try to free the princes. He encounters a magician who tells him that the princes have been taken to the Otherworld, which is the Celtic spirit world, and the only time they can be brought back is during the feast of Samhuinn, when the veil between worlds is thin. I would definitely suggest reading the original story (or at least listening to the Myth Podcast treatment of it) because I haven’t done the complexities of the plot justice here, but suffice to say, they are successful in rescuing the lost princes.

Another legend that I’ve come to associate with Hallowe’en is the traditional folk theme of the Wild Hunt. I first encountered the idea of the Wild Hunt in the book Dead Beat by Jim Butcher in his Dresden Files series. In the book, a wizard can summon the Wild Hunt on Hallowe’en because it is the best time for the spirits to come through. After reading the book, I looked up more legends and folktales of the Wild Hunt and found that it has a deeply-rooted tradition in Germanic and Celtic folklore [3]. In Germanic traditions, the Hunt is often led by Odin or Woden, as a god of both battle and the dead. In Celtic tradition, the hunt is led by legendary heroes, including King Arthur in some traditions. There are also varying derivative traditions that have the hunt being led by any of a litany of unpopular figures at the time of the particular story. In general, the stories of the Hunt have evolved to be a party of infernal or evil characters. There is even a story in the American wild west, immortalized in song by Stan Jones, of damned cowboys who hunt the Devil’s cattle across the sky [4]. They warn the cowboy who sees them that he will join them unless he changes his ways (presumably to become a better person, although it’s unclear why the cowboy is particularly in danger of becoming damned). In this version, the unseen “leader” of the Hunt would be the Devil himself, dooming the spirits of damned cowboys to chase his herds forever. While the story doesn’t explicitly take place on Hallowe’en, it seems as likely a “dark and windy day” as any for a visitation of damned spirits.

Finally, no Hallowe’en festivity is complete without a Jack o’Lantern. So I thought I’d talk a little about the folkloric story of “Jack o’ the Lantern.” In Irish folklore, there’s a story of “Stingy Jack,” who borrowed money from the devil and then tricked his way into not giving up his soul when the debt came due [5]. Through a series of annoying deceptions, Jack ended up being barred from hell by an exasperated devil, but because he wasn’t exactly a good person, he wasn’t allowed into heaven. Doomed to walk the earth as a spirit for eternity, Jack found himself possibly worse off than if he’d just gone to hell. The devil ended up taking a bit of pity on him and gave him a perpetually-glowing ember to help him light his way, which Jack put in a carved-out turnip. From then on, he was known as Jack o’ the Lantern and was something of a will o’ the wisp type of spirit. Originally, people on the British isles carved turnips before the tradition was taken to North America, where there were pumpkins.

So there you have three stories of the season. What’s your favorite Hallowe’en or Samhain story?

Sources:

1. http://www.americas-most-haunted.com/2016/09/21/halloween-and-the-lost-art-of-divination/

2. https://www.amazon.com/Mammoth-Book-Celtic-Myths-Legends-ebook/dp/B00OGV0KTU

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Hunt

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/(Ghost)_Riders_in_the_Sky:_A_Cowboy_Legend

5. https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/jack-olantern-history

Tea and a Story: The Apocryphal Origins of Tea

It’s been such a long time since I’ve done a folklore post that I thought I’d get back into it a bit. And given that I’ve been very focused on tea lately, what better way than to investigate the stories around the origins of tea? Tea has certainly gained a reputation as a drink with a certain amount of ceremony and mystery around it over the centuries, from the tea ceremony of Japan to afternoon tea in the United Kingdom. So it’s only natural that stories have sprung up surrounding the origins of this seemingly-magical beverage.

One of the most well-known apocryphal stories of the origins of tea comes from China, where its discovery is attributed to the emperor Shennong, who may or may not exist only in myth. He seems to have been something like an Arthur figure in Chinese mythology and literature, and many advances in Chinese culture and society are attributed to him, particularly the knowledge of agriculture and healing plants. In this story, the emperor has decreed that everyone must boil their water before drinking it for health and safety reasons. One day, while boiling his water, the emperor noticed that some leaves from a nearby tree had fallen in. Rather than discarding the contaminated pot of water in annoyance, he tasted the resulting brew and found it not only delicious, but invigorating. He declared to his people that “Tea gives vigor to the body, contentment to the mind, and determination of purpose.” I, for one, agree with him. The fact that such an important figure in Chinese legend is attributed with discovering tea speaks to its importance in Chinese society.

My favorite story of the origins of tea comes from the Zen/Chan Buddhist tradition. When Buddhism first spread out of India, it was brought by the Indian sage Bodhidharma. One of the great feats of meditation that Bodhidharma achieved was meditating while gazing at a wall for nine years. There is a story that he fell asleep seven years into his nine-year meditation, and when he awoke, he was so disgusted with himself that he cut off his own eyelids for betraying him, flinging them to the ground. When they hit the ground, they sprouted the first tea plants, which are thought to be a gift to Buddhist practitioners to encourage wakefulness. To this day, Zen Buddhist meditation sessions are often punctuated with a cup of tea, and supposedly for a long time, the Japanese used the same character for tea as for eyelid. Personally, if Bodhidharma did sacrifice his eyelids for the origin of tea, I would thank him for it, and find the little Daruma dolls of him, with their wide, staring, lidless eyes, to be a welcome addition to my tea table when I enjoy a cup in his memory.

I thought I’d finish with a story related to one of my favorite kinds of tea: Tieguanyin oolong tea. I’ve written before on a story of the Guanyin in China, the goddess of mercy who became a bodhisattva in Buddhist tradition. One story of the origin of tieguanyin tells of a poor farmer named Wei who walked past an abandoned temple with an iron statue of the Guanyin as he walked to and from his fields every day. Distressed by the poor condition of the temple, Wei began to take some time out of his day every day to maintain the temple grounds and light incense to the Guanyin when he passed by, always wishing he had the means to do more. One night, he had a dream of the Guanyin in which she told him of a treasure he would find behind the temple. The next day, he looked and found a small tea shoot, which he took home and nurtured. When he made tea from the plant, he found it delicious, named the tea in her honor: Tieguanyin, which means “iron Guanyin” (or, colloquially, “iron goddess of mercy”). I love stories of the Guanyin because they generally involve someone getting rewarded generously for simply doing the right thing quietly and without the expectation of reward, and I love tieguanyin as a cup of tea, so this story was a natural finish to this collection, I think.

So there you have three stories of the origins of teas to go with your morning cuppa.

Sources:

  1. Saberi, Helen. Tea: A Global History [link]
  2. “About Tieguanyin Oolong Tea,” Tea Adventure [link]

Currently Listening: The British History Podcast and The Folklore Podcast

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about media and entertainment, but I’ve started listening to more podcasts while I commute again. Since I’ve exhausted most of my backlog of old episodes of Myths and Legends, I had to find some new podcasts with large archives to work through. So I thought I’d share two that I’ve been enjoying recently.

As longtime readers of my blog know, I’m a bit of an anglophile, and since getting back from our trip to Scotland, I’ve had even more of an interest in the history of Britain. So I downloaded The British History Podcast on a whim, and I have to say, I was blown away by how entertaining it is. The host, Jamie, has a similar style to Myths and Legends’ Jason, infusing the stories from history with humor and balancing modern commentary with taking into account historical context. I do think that my favorite thing about the BHP is that Jamie does make a sincere effort to focus not just on the “great men” model of history that is so common, but does shows on other aspects of the history of Britain, including a really fascinating series on Anglo-Saxon period medicine, food, and clothing. He also got a fantastic series of interviews with researchers who were studying the Staffordshire hoard.

As someone with an interest in folklore, mythology, and legend, I particularly enjoy how the history of the island has helped frame my understanding of the stories I know from Britain. I also found the Romano-British period surprisingly fascinating. Despite starting my college life as a classics major, I focused more on Greek classicism than Roman, and never really delved into the intrigue that is Roman history. I might actually check out a Roman history podcast to fill in the non-Britannia-related gaps in the stories I heard on the BHP.

Another podcast I’ve been enjoying is the Folklore Podcast. Hosted by Mark Norman of the Folklore Society, this is a different style of podcast from the BHP. It’s a bit drier in tone and style, and more educational, though it is obviously entertaining enough to hold my interest for several episodes. Norman focuses on the connections and context of various aspects of folklore, revolving around a common theme within each episode. Rather than telling a single story or a set of stories, the way Myths and Legends does, Norman spends most of his time discussing the folklore and tales. He also brings in some great guests for the show so that people can offer a scholarly perspective in their own specialties of study, rather than focusing exclusively on the host’s knowledge and special focus. It’s particularly interesting to hear the same stories told by the Folklore Podcast and Myths and Legends, just as it was interesting to hear the BHP cover King Arthur.

One caveat: The production quality of the Folklore Podcast is not as refined as other podcasts I listen to, and I find myself having to adjust the volume up and down during a single episode, especially when there is a guest speaker who’s volume is much higher or lower than the host’s. But it is a minor annoyance at worst and doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the content.

So those are two podcasts I’ve really been enjoying. They’re similar in content, though very different in style, and they’ve served me well on my commutes and some long plane rides lately.

Tea and a Story: Floods

I’m back again! I’ve resolved to try to post at least once a week for a while. And I thought, since I’m still recovering after my own personal hardship, I would offer something a bit more uplifting: A “Tea and a Story” post about natural disasters!

Lake Wakatipu. Queenstown. NZ

Seriously though, I have always been fascinated by the prevalence of flood stories across cultures. Whether this is some primordial memory of a great global flood, or simply a disaster that a lot of locations have in common, stories about the floods are always stories of renewal and transition. So that’s how stories about natural disasters and the near-elimination of humans as a whole count as uplifting.

Of course, the story that those of us in the Christian world grew up with was the story of Noah and his ark. In that story, God (the god of the Abrahamic religions) decides that human beings are too wicked and he’s going to destroy them all in a flood. All except for Noah, who “found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” So God instructs Noah to build an ark and take a mating pair of every animal and his family and ride out the flood. Eventually, the flood waters recede enough that the ark comes to rest on the top of a mountain and Noah sends out birds to see if the waters have receded, with the final sign of land being the dove returning with an olive leaf.

The most fascinating thing about this story, to me, is that is is actually incredibly similar to an ancient Babylonian story, one version of which is recorded in the Epic of Gilgamesh, even down to the birds and the fact that the Hebrew Bible uses a similar word for “pitch” to the original Babylonian story. It’s widely accepted that the Noah story is actually based on the older story from Babylonian mythology.

The most famous version of the Babylonian myth is actually the one from Gilgamesh. In the story, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, who is the survivor of this ancient great flood. Utnapishtim recounts his experience of the great flood. In it, the gods decide to destroy humanity, but because the god of wisdom, Ea, likes Utnapishtim, he finds a way to tell the man about the impending flood and instruct him on how to build an ark and save his life and the lives of his family members, along with animals, craftsmen, and grains. After riding out the flood, he comes to rest on a mountain, and like Noah, sends out birds to check if the waters have receded. First he sends out a dove, which returns because it has found nowhere to alight, then a swallow, which also returns. Finally, he sends out a raven, which finds dry land and doesn’t return. After that, he sets everyone free and sacrifices to the gods. After discovering that a mortal survived, the gods discover Ea’s betrayal and are angry, but ultimately decide to bestow immortality upon Utnapishtim and his wife and have them live far away from humanity.

Of course, this isn’t the only flood narrative. My favorite of the narratives comes from Greek mythology and is the story of Deucalion, the son of Prometheus. Once again, Zeus decides that humans have become too wicked. This may or may not have something to do with the woman bearing a jar full of evils that he sent down in a fit of pique after Prometheus not only steals fire, but also teaches men how to cheat the gods when choosing sacrifices. But never mind that. Ultimately, Zeus decides to drown everyone in a great flood. Prometheus tells his son, Deucalion, how to save himself and his wife, Pyrrha, by building a “chest” and provisioning it (in this story, there’s no mention of saving animals, so presumably ancient Greek animals were all strong swimmers) to ride out the deluge.

Once the flood recedes, Deucalion and Pyrrha make a sacrifice and ask the goddess Themis (or Zeus, depending on the story) how to repopulate the earth. They are told to cover their heads and cast behind them the stones of their mother. Naturally, good Greeks that they are, they’re aghast at such desecration of an ancestor. But eventually, they figure out that the “mother” Themis means is the great mother of all life, Gaia, and her bones are stones. So they cover their heads and cast stones behind them. The stones that Deucalion throws become men and the stones Pyrrha throws become women.

I liked this myth growing up for two reasons: one, I loved Greek mythology and for some reason I found it easier to swallow a capricious god like Zeus because his overall characterization is not an omnipotent, infallible deity; and two, I liked the detail at the end of repopulating the earth from the original creative matter of life, Gaia (plus, as I got older, I realized it helped do away with some of the weird, incestuous overtones of stories that just have a family do all the repopulating). But now, the most striking part of this set of stories is how the stories that include a pantheon of gods include some dissent, whereas the Judeo-Christian story has god make a decision and then second-guess himself by finding someone he wants to save. Instances like these in the Bible intrigue me because they show the complex nature of God and suggest that he is perhaps an amalgamation of past pantheons.

Theological discussions aside, it’s interesting that the idea of a great, world-ending flood has persisted throughout so many cultures’ folklores. Stories of great floods exist in stories from the Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Oceanic islands, and are generally among the oldest stories from those traditions. Whether this is because of some collectively remembered event in prehistoric times, or for thematic reasons, something about this story seems to speak to all of us, as humans. Water is an interesting thing in human history, as it is both vital for life and extremely dangerous. The idea of a hero triumphing over the elements itself is kind of an analogy for much of human existence in general.

So that’s my discussion of uplifting, hopeful floods. I find these stories fascinating and would love to hear about any of your favorite folk tales of great floods.

Sources:

The King James Bible, Genesis 6-9 (link)

The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Gerald J. Davis, Tablet XI (link)

Ovid, The Metamorphoses, translated by Henry T. Riley, Book I (link)

Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard (link)

[Image Source]