Nu History Podcast – Episode 4: Beowulf and the Anglo Saxons

The fourth episode of our podcast is here!

For this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by Elton, a historian and “nerd guy about Beowulf” (his own words), who is here to talk about some of his recent work and projects, mostly relating to Beowulf of course!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain- Formation of New France

As many of you will know Canada and parts of the United States have historical ties to France. Today, Canada recognises French as an official language along with English and the recognised native languages of Chipewyann, Cree, Gwitch’ in, Inuinnqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and the Dogrib language. This post will explain the formation of New France which will detail Jacques Cartier’s exploration of the St Lawrence River and Samuel de Champlain’s charting of the St Lawrence. This in turn was a stepping stone to the area that is today known as Quebec in Canada. Although this post will focus on the foundations of New France that became Quebec, other places like Acadia, Louisiana and much of the interior of North America formed part of New France. By 1750, New France stretched from Quebec right down to the Bayous of Louisiana.

Cartier’s voyage occurred during the ‘Age of Discovery’ in the fifteenth century. Take the term as you will, it nevertheless was a time when a number of European nations started to explore other territories, notably in the Americas. The prominent nations at the time were; Spain, Portugal, Britain, the Netherlands and France. Cartier was born in St. Malo, the Duchy of Brittany. In 1534, by this time the Duchy of Brittany was amalgamated to the Kingdom of France. King Francis I commissioned Cartier to find a route to Asia so France can prosper from the wealthy Asian markets. However, Cartier had come across the area that is now known today as Newfoundland, the Gaspe Peninsula and other maritime lands near the opening of the St Lawrence River. Cartier and his men who sailed with him first made contact with a native population in the Chaleur Bay and some Iroquoian peoples around the Gaspe Peninsula. The Iroquoian peoples here should not be confused with the Iroquoians that were further south, in the area that is now New York. This contact was said to have not been hostile and some trading occurred, albeit the contact was not for very long. It was on the first voyage that Cartier took two Iroquoian captives with him to France and it was they who revealed the names of the land on that first voyage, ‘Honguedo’ and that the land allegedly featured areas of immense wealth.

 

In 1535 Cartier returned for his second voyage. However after travelling further up the St Lawrence River this time, Cartier and his men made contact with more Iroquoians living close to the river. The settlements were at Stadacona (now Quebec City) and Hochelaga (now Montreal). Cartier could not sail past Hochelaga as numerous rapids allowed him to go no further. Cartier much preferred the site of Hochelaga than Stadacona as he commented that Hochelaga seemed more appeasing. However, the area did not attract a lot of attention at this point for permanent settlement. Cartier returned to Stadacona before returning to France. However Cartier and his men were unable to due to adverse weather conditions. They had to remain in Stadacona for the winter. Again there was no track of hostility when Cartier and his men stayed during the winter of 1535-1536 before returning to France. Cartier and his men spent their time to strengthen their fleet, collect wood and combat a break out of scurvy. However when Cartier and his men were ready to leave in the spring of 1536 the Iroquoians became unhappy when Cartier decided to take a chief back to France.

Cartier returned for a third voyage, however this voyage was not as successful at least for him on a personal level. Cartier was replaced by a French Huguenot by the name of Jean Francois de la Roque de Roberval, who led that expedition. The goal of this voyage however changed considerably from the other two, whereby the goal was to find an alternative route to Asia. The purpose of this voyage was to find suitable land, full of the necessary resources to make a permanent settlement. Although Cartier did not lead the expedition, he did have permission by Jean Francois to sail before him as he wanted to wait for supplies to be ready for the voyage. Cartier decided to settle on an area further on from Stadacona. The area is a little west to Quebec City today and is now incorporated under the city. The area in question is Cap-Rouge. In addition to Cap-Rouge another area close to it was settled in and fortified to protect French interests. This area was called Charlesbourg-Royal. The land had proven to be successful as food crops like cabbage and root vegetables did grow and harvests were carried out. This proved that it was feasible to farm and grow food. By this time Cartier became interested in an Iroquoian legend from what he had been told during his second voyage. The legend in essence is about somewhere further north there was place full of gold and furs, named Saguenay. During the third voyage he wanted to go out and search for it. However, Cartier was prevented from doing so due to adverse weather conditions and he never came across it. Cartier was not the last person to go looking for it. Many men did try to find it but to no avail. It is unclear just how much truth there is to this legend, if it was misunderstood by Cartier and the French or that the specific Iroquoians who told the legend wanted the French to embrace it and travel further away from their lands. Nevertheless, what we do know is Iroquoian peoples relied in oral history as a way to pass down their stories and traditions for other generations. Before the coined term the ‘Age of Discovery’, Norsemen were the first known Europeans to land in North America. After all they established a settlement by the name of Vinland for a short time. Could it be that this was the origin of the legend? It may very well be, but one thing is for sure was that this was a legend that stuck with the French, particularly Cartier who wanted to set sail to find it. It soon became apparent that Cartier’s time on the North American continent would be short lived, failing to find the legend of Saguenay and failing to protect French fortifications from Iroquoians discontent prompted him to depart for St Malo, whereby he would spend the remainder of his life.

Although Cartier’s time on the North American continent was short lived, a man by the name of Samuel de Champlain was not. By the time Champlain crossed the Atlantic in 1603, trade was a more lucrative prospect. This idea in trade increased when Iroquoian tribes contracted European diseases and many of them left their riverside villages. This allowed a fur trade in the area to flourish. Champlain’s voyage in 1603 was to chart the St. Lawrence River even further as a way to help trade by King Henry IV of France. On a second voyage returning with Pierre Dugua Mons who led the expedition further north. Champlain was asked by Dugua to find a winter settlement. Port Royal, which is today situated in Nova Scotia was the site founded. This site became the start of a new colony, Acadia. This was a particularly potent point for New France as Champlain founded a settlement that was not on the St. Lawrence River. This was a good base for further exploration on the coast. In 1608 Champlain founded a new settlement, where the modern day Vieux-Quebec is. This site consolidated French claim to the area and was used as a base to help stimulate trading endeavours, regarding furs. It was from this point that Iroquoian contact was not relied upon. Many of the St Lawrence Iroquoians had died from European disease or through skirmishes. The Huron people were perceived by Champlain to be the primary suppliers, this proved effective for the French as they had gained an ally but not so much for other tribes known as the Five Nations that intensified discord between them. In addition to the founding of Quebec City, Champlain also settled on an island in the middle of the St Lawrence River. This area was to become Montreal and it was to be used for the same purpose as the previous settlement, for the furs trade further upstream. This settlement was called La Place Royale and later Ville Marie. This three tiered system appeared to work very well with fur traders as the extra site inland enabled them to acquire more territory for the trade to send back to France. By the mid-1600s as a result of the trading, this created a new identity, the Metis. This occurred as many European traders took native wives as a way to bridge the gap between the two distinct cultures. The wives would generally help with any cultural, language or lifestyle concerns. Eventually as the Metis children grew up they were able to interpret for fur traders and become traders themselves as a way to maximise production.

In spite of the fur trade, Ville Marie was unable to attract a considerable numbers of colonists. Most of them came to the area to start up Roman Catholic missions in the hope to convert the native population. Frequent raids occurred in the area from tribes, this offers one explanation as for why other would be colonists from France did not want to come. For those who were there, for many if the attacks persisted this was a sign to leave Ville Marie for Quebec upstream. By the turn of the century however, these raids stopped and this attracted more colonists to come to the area of Ville Marie. This happened because a missionary order under the name of the, Sulpician order convinced some of the native population to move away from Ville Marie to mission villages called Kahnewake and Kanesatake, which became reserves.

All in all this was the foundation for New France and other areas were established under French territory south of the continent. Although this vast area was lost by the French, the Francophone culture remains in the province of Quebec, Canada. Saint Pierre and Miquelon (near Newfoundland) is the only area that remains that was a part of New France, now a French overseas territory.

Monsters of Cantabria: Rural Epics, Ancient Myths

I am back with another update on Cantabrian mythology, as we are sporting a new look and the month is still young. So gather around to hear stories of my home land. This time, as promised, I bring you stories of monstrous creatures and impossible animals, which the Cantabros believe to inhabit their mountainous, green land.

I will first introduce you to a beast known only to inhabit in the area of Cabuerniga, which is one of the municipalities in the centre of the region: proper rural area, all full of stone houses and old farmsteads. This small odd-looking creature is called Cuegle. It is a bipedal, of humanoid shape but feral looks. It has a big, fat head, with a rough horn and hair like wild bush. Supposedly it has 3 eyes, one blue, another green and the last one red. Usually, it is also portrayed as having a long harsh beard. The Cuegle also has 3 arms but with no hands or finger, and its legs are very sturdy full of wounds and scratches, and they cover their bodies with the pelts of animals they kill. There is a popular believe, almost now forgotten, that these monsters are conceived from cursed Anjanas, who due to an evil spell turn into dreaded witches that every 30 years mate with old bears, giving birth to this abhorrent beast. It is said that Cuegles have a taste for meet, particularly foxes, but they will also eat small children. So the women of the villages put a small branch of holy or oak by the cradles for the smell of the trees sap makes the Cuegle have nausea and flee in horror. On a final note, and just so you see how all Cantabrian myths interlinks together, they say when a Cuegle dies, the insides turn into funny coloured worms, and if you catch one, this will bring you eternal luck and even prevent you from the evil doing of Ojacanos.

Now moving on to a relatively local legend for me, is the tale of the Sierpe de Peñacastillo. Peñacastillo used to be a small community outside of Santander, but now it has become part of the suburban area of the city. There is a cave known as Cueva del Tesoro (treasure cave), where it is said that inhabits a horrendous creature, half human-half serpent, that guards this treasure hidden in Peñacastillo. This legend goes back to the 16th Century, and it is said that Felipe II, sent an Italian wizard to find and defeat the beast, and steal the treasure. However, the legend says that upon seeing the monster, the wizard got so terrified that he run away never again to be seen or heard of again. And ever since, the secret of the cave and its treasure has remained a myth. And following on this serpents motif, we move on to the biggest and most epic monster of Cantabrian mythology: el Culebre.

In Spanish, particularly in the Cantabrian manner, a culebra is a word used as a synonym for a snake. In the rural areas of my region you hear lots of farmers using the work culebra rather than snake, simply because for us a culebra is a smaller kind of serpent type, (we would not use it to refer to a python, if you see what I mean). I remember being called “culebrin” (little culebra) many times, for being little and always twisting and turning, and moving from one place to another, trying to be sneaky but hissing and doing weird noises playing with the chickens and the like. So, you may get the hint by now what the Culebre may be: yes, Cantabria has its own Dragon! And a very famous one in fact! For it is said that this creature inhabited the caves located at the cliffs of San Vicente de la Barquera, a port town at the far west cast of Cantabria. This is the kind of dragon that spits fire, guards treasures and demands tributes. Legend has it that many centuries ago the people from San Vicente use to offer a maiden so the beast would leave them be. If you know a bit of your Spanish geography, Cantabria, and particularly San Vicente, is in the pilgrims route for El Camino de Santiago. And it is said that in his was to Compostela (Galicia) the apostle Santiago saw a maiden tie to a post on a path, as she was crying for help. He approached her and she explained that she was the sacrifice for the Culebre and that any time the beast would come to eat her. But Santiago being a courageous and noble apostle freed the maiden and rode into the cave where the Culebre lived, and slayed the monster. And there is the popular believe that, even nowadays, if you visit these caves you can see the imprints of Santiago’s mighty white steed on the rocks, from the fiery battle against the dragon.

Once again, Cantabrian myths prove that the people of the region were conscious of their harsh landscape, and the isolation of many communities allowed for these legends to pass down from generation to generation, perpetuating stories of strange ogre like creatures like the Cuegle. However, it also shows that not all these stories are just a local rumour, for guarding serpents and dragons that require the interventions of kings and apostles are the stuff the European medieval epics are made of. Thus, Cantabrian folklore is not only the reminiscence of the Celtic heritage, but it echoes the grand narratives of the Germanic tribes that inspired stories such as the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, or St. George and the Dragon.

…I would like to see you try to find dragons in the dry, arid lands of the interior like Madrid, though I am sure the Castilian farmers would like to blame their missing sweep on a Culebre or two, if you know what I am saying… 😉

Cantabrian Mythology: Into the Deep

Hi there! I come back with this third blog update on Cantabrian mythology for our month of local history. Today I am going to talk to your about folklore and creatures from the deep woods. As you may recall from my first blog post on the subject, Cantabria is a very green regions covers in forests, rivers and steep mountains. Due to the Celtic origin of the Cantabros, it only makes sense that a great part of the most mysterious stories of the region come from what happens in the forests and most isolated mountainous areas, as a residue of the Telluric tradition. In these areas of the region is where the more obscure and mysterious creatures and tales originate, evoking the isolation of sheep farmers, the unknown within the woods.

One of the most intriguing characters of the deep areas of Cantabria is el Musgoso. He is this solitary male figure that lives like a hermit in the forests, and who no one has ever heard speaking. But no words are needed from him. All the farmers and locals know him to be a kindred spirit, the keeper of the woods, the protector of nature. He is usually described as an elderly man, with a long beard and an outfit made of moss (hence the name musgoso: moss=musgo in Spanish). The also carries with him a flute of a very rare wood unknown to man. It is said he is always walking, and never stops, and he plays this flute on his way, warning the locals of any dangers that may come. But during the night he does not play, he only whistles. In this way he is supposed to not disturb the creatures of the forest but send this signal to the farmers that danger may be near. El Musgoso is not the only mysterious wanderer of the Cantabrian woods. A man of long ginger hair, who wears a white habit with purple paint splashes, he also has a green cross painted on his forehead, surrounded by keys and locks. Like the Musgoso, he always appears to be walking, and no one ever knows where he is going or where he came from. The one consistent thing in all stories about the Arquetu is that he dislikes people wasting their money. However, if he find in the woods someone who, because of their wasteful live style, has nowhere to live and is finding refuge with the trees, he takes pity and takes care of them. Then he opens this locked box he always carries around and gives them a couple of ounces of gold, so they can invest them in finding a job and a home. But if for whatever reason this wealth is wasted again, he condemns them to life of poverty, asking for charity and pity of others. 

In connection to wealth, there is another group of creatures that inhabit the rivers of Cantabria. I believe the reason why several of our creatures hold treasures is due to the very rural background of locals, who were mostly farmers or fishermen, people working the fields, who never had many earnings. Thus, these creatures of their legends reflected this social anxiety, in a land which is rich in other non material ways like its fertile vegetation. These creatures are known as Mozas del Agua: the water maidens. These girls share similarities with the Anjana regarding their beauty and wealth, but they are of a different kin. They live in luxurious palaces under the waters of the Cantabrian rivers. Their riches are displayed in their silver clothing, their many rings, and golden locks which they tie in long braids at their backs. A common characteristic of these women is that they are always said to be of small size, almost fay like. It is said that they only emerge to the surface on sunny days to dry reels of golden thread which they produce at night in their homes, for they do not sleep. While the threads dry, they hold hands and jump, sing and dance together always in a very jolly fashion. And it is said that while they play out of the water, wherever the step, little flowers grow, and if you were to catch one it would bring you eternal happiness. The tales say that when the threads are dry the go back into the water, but if a youngster was to catch the end of the thread, these water maidens will pull them into the river, but he would not drown. Instead, he would be taken into their palaces to live with them and marry, but they will never be able to live in the surface again. It is said they can then only emerge once a year with their otherworldly wife , for the purpose of leaving a jewell in the woods, visible only to maidens of virtue. These jewells are supposed to have healing qualities, and the folk say that the healers from Cantabria have acquire their powers from these supernatural gifts.

But not all the creatures that live in the depths of the Cantabrian region are of kindred spirits. Although these are not as well-known or as feared as the Ojancano, they are still regarded as malign spirits. Legends talks of a bird of yellow eyes that lives in the harsh mountain tops, particularly around the valleys between the rivers Nansa and Saja. Its said to be of different shades of blue feathers with red spots on his wings, and that his gaze would bring the death of any that would look into its eyes. The tales advise he was born from the unholy union of a bat and a barn owl. Oddly enough after 10 years this bird loses its wings, and seeks refuge under water, where it dies after a hundred years. Another strange creature of the deep wilderness is the Roblon. This was an old and common oak that developed a hollowness in its trunk. It is said one rainy eve, a beautiful maiden took refuge in the hollow part of the tree and its youthfulness activate the sap of the old tree, bringing it alive and absorbing the spirit of the girl. With time the Robon grew bigger and adopted human like features, and due to its size and need for life, it drained away other trees around leaving them dry and dead. A few years after this happening, it is said the Roblon got so big it felt the need to move so it pulled the roots out of the ground, and that since then he wonders the woods causing illness to the vegetation or smashing bushes while he walks. He is also made responsible for the mist in the forest and tremors of the land. However, it is a common story among the Cantabrian lumberjacks and hunters is that Roblon has now died, for some of this trade found the creature resting in the woods one day and manage to set it on fire…

Many other stories of strange wild beasts populate the deepest areas of the region, like the Monuca, and animal only known to Cantabria, born out of feral cats, blinded at birth and of fierce nature who lives of the blood of animals and children. Similarly, there are mythical creatures like the Alicornio: a unicorn with winged hooves, who lives in the most inaccessible mountain tops and drinks only from the purest water streams. It is said the only way of capturing such a wonderful creature is by the presence of a young fair maiden, and that if its horn is cut and you drink from it, you will never suffer any illness or evil. Nevertheless, this usually end with the death of the animal. Perhaps these reflect the fear of Cantabrian people to the wilderness which they ought to respect for their livelihood, but at the same time their will to control and use it for their own gain.

And thus I reach the end of my story today, but do not worry, I shall return perhaps once more, to tell you about the most feared monster that dwell in the Cantabrian caves…

The Anjana and The Ojancanu: Dualism in Cantabrian Mythology

Welcome to our second post on Cantabrian mythology. Today’s post will be dedicated to some of the best well-known figures within these legends. Like in many other supernatural narratives, there are agents of good and evil. This is in a way characteristic of the Celtic tribes, and it is likely that it all roots from their ancient cults of the Sun and the Moon, their funerary rites and their ideas of life and death. Moreover, the Celts had deep connections with the land, particularly the woods. In other cultures, like the Irish, we have myths of fairies, and gnomish creatures. The Old Norse believed in trolls and giants, and so did many other Germanic cultures. This is also reflected in the two main protagonists of Cantabrian mythology: la Anjana and el Ojancanu.

The Anjanas are fay creatures of beautiful appearance and kind spirit. They are characterised by their long blonde hair that falls down their backs to the ground, creating highlights of gold under the sun on their blue mantles. They are very pale, and usually appear wearing a crown of flowers, and a magical staff which they use to cure and protect the sick, lead the way to those that get lost in the forest, and stop the evil doing of the Ojancanus. They are said to inhabit old secret caves, where they hide their wealth of gold and silver, which they use to help those in need. There are stories of pasiegos (peasants and farmers inhabitants of the area around the river Pas) who claim that at night, they have seen these fairies visiting their villages and leaving these gifts in the doorsteps of the houses of those who called for their aid and who showed good intentions. However, the Anjanas are not to be summoned lightly. They are mighty creatures, and if their help is used for ill-doing or their advise is contradicted, they will issue a punishment for the aggravation. The Anjanas are also believed to be protectors of the trees, and they are often seen by travelers through the Cantabrian woods. They are said to strengthen the roots so the trees grow stronger, delicately tend to the branches, leaves and flowers, and keep their seeds to help the forests grow. This is a clear reminiscence of the Celtic telluric tradition associated with the cult of the trees. As we have said previously, Cantabria is a region full of woodlands and green areas. Therefore, the tradition preserved with the figure of the Anjana is one of existing at peace with nature, being respectful of the land and the land of others.

On the other hand, we have the Ojancanu. This creature is similar to that of the cyclops of Greek mythology, which is known to exist in some other Indo-European traditions. The Ojancanu has a yellowy flesh, covered by reddish hair covering most of his body except his round one-eyed face. They are completely the opposite of the Anjanas in nature. They are mean, destructive creatures, known for stealing sheep, breaking over trees, blocking wells and rivers streams, as well as causing landslides. The Cantabrian farmers fear them the most, for not only their lands suffer but also their families. There are many tales of how an Ojancanu has come down the valley before dawn, and stolen away young maidens never to be seen again, killing or eating most of the cattle in the process of this kidnapping. However, it is said that all these ogres have one white hair hidden somewhere in their red beards, and if it was to be pulled from their skin, the creature would die. Yet, the people of Cantabria say that once every 100 years a good Ojancanu is born, and if taken in by the people of the local communities, this creature would warn the inhabitants against when his kin are near, so the villagers could protect themselves. 

Nevertheless, the Ojancanu is not alone. This beast lives with another: the Ojancana, or Juancana. The Ojanca, however how has 2 eyes, long messy, dirty hair, and two enormous breasts that she puts over her shoulders when running or charging down the mountains. She is perhaps even worse than her husband. She steals children who she then devours, as she feeds on their blood. These evil ferocious creatures resemble in their aspect the giantesses of the Sagas. However, the most interesting aspect of this companionship is the way these creatures reproduce. It is said that when an Ojancanu is far too old, the rest kill him. Then they take those things inside him (treasures, body parts) that they desire and bury the body underneath a great oak. Then 9 months later from the oak spawn these yellow worms that the Ojancanas then feed with the blood of their breasts, nurturing more Ojancanus and Juancanas to roam freely in the mountains, caves and woods of Cantabria. 

Therefore, we see in the shape of these creatures how the myths have evolved from ancient Celtic believes into allegories of the sociocultural anxieties of the rural Cantabrian communities. These formed mainly by farmers and peasants. If their livestock and lands were ruined so would be their livelihood. The Anjanas and Ojancanus of Cantabria are the embodiment of the forces of nature that had such a great impact in the lives of the Cantabros. Perhaps the reason why out of our entire mythos these creatures are the best remembered is due to their ordinary, yet mighty characters.In addition, these are entities common to all the localities within the region, thus perpetuating the tradition across different sectors and producing a continuity within the oral history, which is not always possible with more local legends, only relevant for the inhabitants of a certain district.

Now that you have got to known the more famous figures of La Montaña, please stay tuned to discover some of the most obscure, yet interesting characters of Cantabrian mythology.

Discovering Cantabrian Mythology

We start again a series a theme posts – based on the supernatural, and/or local history. I have taken the task to combine these two synergies and to bring you something very personal for me. I want to tell you the stories of creatures now forgotten to many. I am talking about the mythology of my home region: Cantabria. The north of Spain is very different from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. It is cold, wet, and green. It is also blue, with the brave and treacherous Cantabrian sea shaping out the coasts of the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. Although the northern regions share similarities amongst themselves, Cantabria is, well, special. People from the  south say we speak like singing. Traditionally our diet was based on milk and beef, pulses, and fish: essentially what the farmers could grow in this tought landscape. As the modernisation of Spain occurred after Franco’s dictatorship, traditions, however, have become more like the rest of the country. Yet, we know Cantabria is different.

We still remember that the Cantabros kept the Romans away forcing them into a long campaign. Champions like Corocota forced Augustus to come in person to oversee the Cantabrian Wars (29 AC-19 BC), for my people came from a long lineage of bellicose celts, living in fortified castros. These dexterous and relentless warriors were so fierce that Roman accounts tell us how the legionaries would chop off the arms of the combatants to hinder the Cantabrian army. Yet, years later, when Cantabria raised in rebellion, the Romans noticed many of the warriors had become left-handed, and nothing would stop them from fighting. These warriors would also use the berries from one of their sacred trees – the Yew – to poison their weapons, or even eat them to take their own lives rather than falling at the hands of the enemy. The Cantabros, living in a well defended land by the sea, the mountains and the forests, had a rich culture of myths and legends, like many other celtic tribes. However, through the process of Romanisation, that was later on perpetrated by the Visigothic rule over Iberia, many legends were replaced by Christian traditions, or mingled and undermined as simple folk tales. They have been preserved thanks to oral tradition. Nevertheless, as the rural exodus increases due to modernisation – Cantabria was always a rural region – and the urban communities grow while villages drop dramatically in population, these tales are being lost.

Many of our folk tales are similar to those of other cultures. The celebration of San Juan, still popular nowadays that is, in essence, a summer equinox festivity. We light fires by the sea or in the woods to send away evil spirits. You can sometimes hear people speak in spells, drawing seven crosses over the fires to keep away the Caballucos del Diablo. These are seven faylike creatures, similar to dragonflies and fireflies, that go in groups. The red one leads the way followed by the other six: white, blue, black, yellow, green and orange. Legend has it that the Devil himself rides the on the red, and other demons and sinners ride the others. To keep them away you shall go to the forest searching for a four-leaved shamrock or flores del agua (water flowers). But this becomes a difficult task as by night the Caballucos destroy all the flowers and plants in their hellish ride. However, most people would just brush myths like this as blatant Christian superstition.

However, I was lucky to have known my great grandparents who owned a mountain house in a very remote village hidden in the mountains by the river Miera, close to the town of Liérganes. It was almost automated in the speech in the villagers to warn me against the Trenti or the Trasgu; these little gnome like creatures who were mischievous. Trentis would get travellers lost in the mountains for a joke. They wear clothes made of leaves and moss that allows them to camouflage in the woods. Trasgus, or trastolillos, are house gnomes who like messing around with your food, misplacing your items, and in general making a mess. But these creatures are mostly inoffensive. Whether the villagers actually believed in them or whether they were part of their cultural memory is difficult to tell. However, remember I just mentioned a place called Liérganes? Well, we used to go there regularly as it was the closest train station and the biggest town near by. Legend has it that many, many years ago there was a man there, who loved being in the water, he used to swim constantly in the Miera river. Turns out this man was somehow capable of breathing underwater. So his longing for the sea took him down river to the Cantabrico, actually to my natal city – Santander – and as he saw the vast sea before him, he became enamoured with it and disappeared into the deep. Some years later, it is said some mariners found this strange thing coming out of the water all the way down the bay of Cádiz (Andalucia). This creature did not look human to them, but fish like, however it could walk and talk, but he would say nothing except the word “Liérganes”. It seems some monks took pity of him and brought him back to his home town, to shortly after disappear into the water once more. This is was actually first recorded by Fray Benito Jerónimo Feijoo (a clergyman), and later on written by a Cantabrian author in 1877, José María Herrán. The book was called El Hombre-Pez de Lierganes – the Man-fish from Liérganes. I recall clearly, that when I was a child, one of the cafe places down in Liérganes operated under that very same name. 

Thankfully, there some attempts by the people of Cantabria to keep their legends alive. Many have now been amalgamated with other tales of the north – but those are not our tales. We do not have a Basque Maya, or Galician Meigas; we have our own stories. I was pleased to find out that last year, my family went to celebrate the fayre of Cantabrian Mythology to a village called Barriopalacio (Anievas). There the villagers make their own festivity about our mythsby crafting costumes, recreating scenes from the folktales, and they even have folklore talks, where someone shares these ancient stories. They even have a play!

http://jesusfrleal.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/fiesta-de-la-mitologia-2012-un-pueblo.html

In addition, the makings of the Parque Mitologico Mina Pepita are showing great progress:

http://www.turismomediocudeyo.es/web/parque-mina-pepita/

This is a natural park repurposed as well as a place where to celebrate Cantabrian mythology, although there are still many creatures to be included. It is nice knowing that the hard work of Manuel Llano, a famous Cantabrian author who compiled all these stories towards the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, was not in vain, and that Cantabrian people are slowly waking up to their own heritage.

So if you are intrigued by the creatures of La Montaña, please follow me in this personal trip and set of updates where I will share with you the rest of our mythos in the course of the next couple of months.

 

Incest and Royalty: The Reasons and the Effects

Jokes about inbreeding and incest are common in discussions about royalty, for non-historians such jokes can actually be some of the basis of their knowledge about royalty. However why royalty decided to choose incestuous unions and what the effects of such unions are less considered. This is despite incest and inbreeding being apparent across the world and history.

So why did royalty decide to marry relatives? The most simple and common answer was political stability. The offspring of two relatives who had strong individual claims to the throne would have an even stronger claim themselves, which theoretically should lead to an easier pass over of power. This was apparent with Incan emperors who went to the extreme of marrying their sisters, those who had the next best claim, to produce heirs. Thai kings married their half-sisters instead of their full blood sisters for the same reason. Such actions were not restricted to brother-sister marriages. Emperor Claudius married his niece Agrippa the Younger to strengthen his own claim as emperor. In Europe, many royals married cousins, although some, the Habsburgs in particular would have even more incestuous unions to strengthen their dynasties and political stability. Philip II of Spain married his niece Anne of Austria as his fourth wife. Of his three previous marriages one had been to his first cousin and one to his first cousin once removed, only Elizabeth of Valois was more distantly related. Philip IV of Spain married his niece Mariana of Austria and produced the sickly Charles II. While it did produce stability it did have ill effects on their health. However it is important to realise it was not a guarantee of political stability as infighting still would happen within families. The Ptolemy dynasty of Pharaohs is one example, instead of killing rival claimants from other families; they would often kill family members who were claimants.

Another, less common, reason for inbreeding was the ‘sacredness’ that such offspring would have this. This is apparent in societies where royalty were considered to be gods. For Pharaohs, incest meant that the sacred blood line was kept pure, which considering the emphasis placed on Pharaohs being gods was extremely useful. This was to the extent that in Cleopatra’s family tree only six individuals make up her sixteen great grandparents. In Hawaii inbreeding was preferred and sometimes even obligated for royalty. The child of two full blood siblings was considered to have the highest ‘mana’, meaning the most sacred. Avuncular relations, those between an aunt/nephew or uncle/niece were also accepted for similar reasons.

There was also the case that by a certain point with European royalty that almost everyone was related due to such a small pool of people who were considered eligible. However the effects of inbreeding were lessened somewhat as unions were not always within the first degrees of relation. For instance Henry VIII was related to all his wives however he was no closer than third cousins with any of his wives and in the case of Anne of Cleves they were ninth cousins.

The basis of many jokes about royalty and incest are that of the effects they have on the offspring of royalty. Surprisingly there does not always seem to be as many ill effects as one would imagine, especially in the case of brother-sister offspring. Although in some countries there may have been due to reliance on oral history which could mean such issues may not have been recorded. However there are two prominent cases of how disastrous inbreeding could be on health. The first is that of Tutankhamun who has been proved to be the product of incest. Work on his mummified body has shown that images of him in his tomb were far from accurate of what he looked like. Physically he had a club foot, which would have prevented him being able to stand independently; severely limiting activities as a Pharaoh he should’ve been able to participate in such as chariot racing. He also had an extreme overbite and what has been described as ‘feminine hips’. He also suffered from conditions such as Kohler’s disease and epilepsy. These problems are thought to have hastened his early death.

The second is the Habsburg family. While as previously mentioned above, intermarriage was practiced by all the European royal families, the Habsburgs took it up a notch. Family members married other close family members, such as their first cousins and as mentioned above there were several avuncular marriages. Such inbreeding led to the infamous Habsburg jaw which caused severe pain and a number of medical issues that made simple tasks such as eating difficult for those who were inflicted with it such as Charles V and Ferdinand I. The Habsburg jaw can still be seen in the Spanish royal family today, although in a much less exaggerated form. However the real victim of Habsburg inbreeding was Charles II of Spain, whose numerous difficulties are thought to have been the result of this inbreeding. He was unable to speak till the age of four and walk until he was eight. He is now believed to have suffered from two genetic disorders: combined pituitary hormone deficiency and distal renal tubular acidosis both of which do not allow the body to properly function. He was also infertile and failed to produce an heir which led to the extinction of the senior branch of the Habsburg family.

Incest was practised widely across the world by royal families, although the reasons and to what extent such incest was practised varies. Similarly the effects that inbreeding had on royalty has also varied, which somewhat challenges our preconceived ideas of what the results would be. Thankfully royalty these days generally don’t practise such close consanguinity.

Persian Mythology Challenge!

Myth plays a crucial part in all cultures including the Persian culture now (modern-day Iran), that developed in around 1500 BC. Myth is difficult to define with many definitions and connotations to it. However it can mainly be acknowledged as something that embodies epic tall tales. These tales were to be recited for generations and as such can be viewed as a fundamental aspect of Persian culture.

Not much is known about the earliest forms of Persian mythology for certain. However its source is likely to have developed from Indo-European peoples who migrated to Persia. It is also probable that the earliest forms of myth were likely to have been borrowed from neighbouring Mesopotamia.

Religion was a dominating factor in conveying Persian myth and there are many accounts that suggest so. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that was practiced heavily in Persia before the arrival for Islam in circa AD 656. It is from the Zoroastrian religion, which the oldest account, (although not an original) of Persian myth survives. Much of the content found was located in the sacred book, the Zend-Avesta, containing many stories based on myth that were said to be composed by Zoroaster (the prophet of Zoroastrianism). Zoroastrianism developed Persian myth further by adding themes to the existing mythological stories. These themes were centred around; good vs evil, new deities and set on a large universal scale.

The most famous of these myths, The Shahnameh written by Ferdowsi embodied the theme of good vs evil on a universal scale. This was seen in many famous Persian myths. For instance, the Ahura Mazda and Ahriman story. The first story indicates that Ahura and Mazda were the only specimens and what lay between them was barren emptiness. Ahura Mazda was a good wise lord that lived in Endless Light, whilst Ahriman was an evil spirit who lived in Absolute darkness. The story develops as a creation story, in that Ahura Mazda creates the sky, water, the Earth, man, animals etc. Ahura Mazda made contact with Ahriman and wanted him to aid his creations. However Ahriman did not want to help Ahura Mazda. Instead he created dark creatures to attack Ahura Mazda’s creations. He made; witches, demons and monsters. Ahura Mazda was wise and could foresee this and in retaliation made six spirits that were called the Holy Immortals that were designed to protect Ahura Mazda’s creations. Failing to destroy Ahura Mazda’s creations, all that Ahriman’s minions did was make the creations have faults. For example the water was made to be bitter, instead of destroying the Earth Mountains were formed. This is interesting to note as Persian Mythology is able to use myth as a tool to legitimate the natural landscape as to why in Persia the land has mountainous terrain. What’s more this story includes all items from the cosmos and mentioning new deities, Holy Immortals etc.

Although the most fundamental of the themes is that of good vs evil and Ferdowsi firmly elaborates that not only Ahura Mazda and Ahriman are battling against each other but so are the elements in the story; purity vs pollution to life vs death.

Persian myth also played a huge role on cultural identity. The Shahnameh for instance became the national epic of Iran and other Persian speaking countries like Afghanistan. It is a potent piece of literature that helped piece together the Persian language and to this very day the Persian language has changed very little since the publication of the Shahnameh, leading us to ponder: does this provide sufficient evidence that cultural identity stems from myth? Persian myth at no doubt can be acknowledged as a huge homage to Persian culture as it is recognised still as the country’s national epic, but is there more to it than that and why can it be?

It is important to remember that Persian mythology can be considered as historical, much like Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology. The Shahnameh also acts as a historical account of Persia, providing insightful information about Persia’s past and how the Zoroastrian faith, particularly the creation story of Ahura Mazda and Ahriham depicted the beginning of the Earth and how the Zoroastrian influence fell after the Muslim Caliphate crushed the Sassanid Empire.

However, having said that Persian Mythology does share some similarities to Western Mythology. Similarities often arise in mythological creatures. Regardless of what creatures of myth derived first in Persian or Western mythology is far from the real picture. What is interesting to note though is it is easy to think that cultural identity is limited to one place. For instance the tale of Dragons in mythological texts were not only used in Persian myth, a hero by the name of Rostam slays a dragon. Sounds familiar? Saint George and the Dragon? The same scenario is that of the Peri. At first glance it is simple to think that no other creature could possibly be like this but there is. The Peri is a winged creature. Sounds familiar? A fairy? Again the Peri is another example of how Persian Myth is no different to any other mythology. This strikes up much discussion on how far Persian myth can be intertwined as a sole cultural identity. One thing is certain though is regardless of what different opinions on the subject there are, Persian myth is argued to have universal features of myth from other cultures, whilst it appears at the same time to contain features predominately associated with Persia i.e. idea of myth from the Zoroastrian faith.

 

Review: The Almighty Johnsons

So this is my review, or more of an overview, of another TV series; The Almighty Johnsons. The Almighty Johnsons is a New Zealand based fantasy comedy/drama television series, which was created by James Griffin and Rachel Lang and aired from 7 February 2011 to 23 September 2013.

The story revolves around Axl Johnson, a typical university student who has just turned 21 years old—an event which triggers weird signs all over Auckland. Upon turning 21, his brothers tell him that he and his brothers are the living reincarnations of Old Norse gods, although their powers are not at full effect. It took a lightning bolt to make him realize the truth about his godhood, and he discovers that he is the physical incarnation of the Allfather Odin. After a rival goddess shoots an arrow which nearly pierces his heart, fulfilling the prophecy that proves he is Odin, his older brother Mike tells him about his quest: In order to get all their powers back, Axl (Odin) has to find his soul mate, Frigg, (who is Odin’s wife in mythology). If he doesn’t find her before he dies, his whole family dies with him. However, several goddesses have united to prevent him from finding Frigg, including the one who tried to kill him earlier.

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The series shows representations of many Norse gods, both major and minor ones, and even shows a couple of giants and a dwarf! I’m going to go through some of the examples and look at what mythological stories are represented involving them in the series:

Axl Johnson – Odin: In the series, Axl is destined to take the form of Odin, The leader of all gods. It’s interesting that in this series it is the youngest and perhaps least wise of the brothers that is Odin, and results in most of the story of the whole series showing Axl’s progression into a man and eventually showing some Odin’s authority and power.

Mike Johnson – Ullr: The oldest of the Johnson brothers, and the one who raised the others after the absence of their parents, is the incarnation of the Norse god of the hunt and games. In the series this is shown by his ability to find anyone he wants, although it may take time, and he is unable to lose at any game he tries. His powers and his responsibility for his family causes him to become very stressed and disliked by people, even when he tries to do the right thing. the result of all this is him becoming more of a rebel towards the end of the series, where he tries to take Axl’s place as Odin by finding Frigg first. This plot point plays upon the historic similarities between the meanings of Odin and Ullr’s names, as well as the myth where Odin’s brothers Vili and Ve have an affair with Odin’s wife Frigg.

Anders Johnson – Bragi: Anders (who we immediately recognized as the same actor who plays Fili in The Hobbit!) is the incarnation of the Norse god Bragi, the god of poetry. While he doesn’t seem to have any skill in poetry, he does have perhaps one of the more powerful powers in the show, with which he can persuade anyone to do or believe anything he tells them. While he uses his power somewhat practically in order to be a successful PR agent, he also uses it in order to get his way in most situations, mostly involving sleeping with any and all women he wants. This gets him in trouble more than a couple of times, however, he still manages to do it in such a cheeky way the he stays a likeable character to the audience, just not by his brothers, or most others for that matter.

Ty Johnson – Hodr: Ty is the gloomy one in the family, and perhaps rightfully so as he is the god of all things dark and cold. This results in his power as being something more of a curse most of the time as it means that he is extremely pale and cold to the touch, and can kill someone if he touches them for long enough, meaning for most of the series he is depressed over how he can’t be with the woman he loves. Despite this, his powers mean that his is an excellent ice sculptor, and quite amusingly, a fridge repairman. His powers are also used quite effectively in some cases to counter Loki’s power of fire.

Olaf Johnson – Baldr: Olaf is the Norse god of rebirth, light and beauty. His power of rebirth is not explicitly shown, but he is said to be the grandfather of the Johnson brothers despite appearing too young, which he explains by being reborn in his current form every morning. his powers related to light and beauty are not really shown, but may have something to do with the fact that he is the typical stoner/surfer dude stereotype, which may also explain his role as ‘the family oracle’, and not a very good one. Also, it may or may not be an excellently bad pun that his Baldr and the only bald character.

Some other important characters include other major gods, one being Loki, who appropriately spends the majority of his time in the series toying with and terrorizing the Johnsons and friends. Another is Thor, who is my favourite god in the series. He is in the form of a large, hairy Kiwi goat farmer named Derrick. He is the one who embraces his godliness the most by far, and shows the more violent and rage driven form of Thor. He always carries a hammer that he says is Mjolnir and is extremely skilled at throwing it. The series shows him doing many things appropriate to Thor such as wanting to kill the giants that show up in the series, and at one point is convinced to wear a wedding dress! Linking to the myth where Thor does the same thing as part of a plan to trick some giants. Another important god character is Heimdall, who is an interesting character in the series because, as the god of all-seeing, all hearing and foreknowledge, he spends the majority of the story in the background, subtly directing Axl’s actions so that he finds Frigg (who happens to be Heimdall’s sister in the series) but only once he has proven himself and become worthy. He also, as the gatekeeper of the Bifrost, the way into and out of Asgard, he is able to walk through doors and turn up in any location he chooses, and inflict this on other people as well.

Other mythological references that appear in the series include Anders journeying to Norway and finding Yggdrasil, the tree of life, and bringing back one of its branches, which apparently can only be used by goddesses, such as Sjofn who uses it to gain healing abilities and even brings people back to life with it. Another reference is when giants and a dwarf make an appearance. one of the giants is Eggther, who in mythology is one of the largest and most powerful, however despite being called the most ferocious hunter of the Giants, Eggther is no more dangerous than a mortal when it comes to brutishness and wants to be himself rather than the killer everyone thinks he is. Axl’s best friend, Zeb, who is a mortal but in on the secret identities of the gods, is captured by him and uses ‘reverse Stockholm syndrome’ to befriend him and gain freedom. Another reference comes from Zeb (who is the best character in my opinion) when, after doing his research on Norse mythology, takes on the nickname ‘Freki’ which is appropriate as the best friend of Axl, and Freki is one of Odin’s wolves.

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I could write much more about this relatively short-lived series, but this post is too long already, so I’ll end by saying; overall, this series can feel like a slightly silly and cheesy comedy or soap opera at times. If you don’t know a thing about Norse Mythology, then it may just be that. But for nerds of all things Norse, it will certainly be hilarious at times, and you may even be impressed by the way each character shows characteristics of their god at all times and many of the myths play out, but in a modern setting, which makes it even funnier. Not to mention the Kiwi accents… which make everything better!

The Legend of The Kraken

The Kraken is a legendary giant sea creature that was said to have lived in and around the coasts of Scandinavian countries. Tales of mythical sea monsters resembling a kraken would probably have existed since people first sighted a giant squid. Kraken have been depicted in a number of ways, primarily as large octopus or squid-like creatures, and it has often been alleged that the kraken might have originally been based on sailors’ observations of the giant squid. In the earliest depictions however, the creatures were more crab-like, and also possessed traits that are associated with large whales rather than with giant squid. Some traits of kraken resemble undersea volcanic activity occurring in the Iceland region, including bubbles of water; sudden, dangerous currents; and appearance of new land.

By looking at the characteristics of different descriptions of the kraken, it is quite easy to see how natural occurrences other than sea creatures have influenced the legends and stories. For example the 13th century Old Icelandic saga Örvar-Odds saga tells of two massive sea-monsters called Hafgufa (“sea mist”) and Lyngbakr (“heather-back”). The hafgufa is believed to be a reference to the kraken. In other sources, the kraken is told to usually appear, and attack vessels in patches of thick mist at sea, particularly around Iceland. The mist is also told to be created from the kraken itself, with the mist smelling awful, likened to rotting fish coming from the krakens stomach. This can most likely be explained by further volcanic activity under and around Iceland, explaining the cases with the foul-smelling mist. Other elements of a kraken attack include pulling apart ships with tentacles, or it simply lying in wait, appearing to be an island, and allowing for ships to flow into its mouth in the obscuring mist. These can also be explained; with the attacks form the creature’s tentacles perhaps really being the undersea volcanic activity mentioned earlier, creating sudden bubbles of water, and large dangerous waves and currents that would pull a ship apart in severe cases. The mentions of a kraken appearing as an island and allowing ships to sail into its mouth most likely also come from volcanic activity, with small islands being pushed above the surface of the water fairly frequently in the high activity volcanic area of which Iceland itself was made from. Overall, it is fairly simple to see how stories of a horrific and deadly sea creature emerged from such occurrences. With the combination of sudden, deadly currents of water, unexpected pieces of land popping up and the sightings of large creatures in the water, all obscured by a strange, disgusting smelling mist, it’s no wonder that the Scandinavian seafarers of the time thought something ‘supernatural’ was happening in their waters, Especially when ships went missing or were found wrecked and deserted.

Although the term kraken is first found used in the 18th century, as mentioned above, the most iconic representation of the creature comes from Icelandic, and other Scandinavian writings. But similarly sized and feared sea creatures have been around far longer than that. Examples of this include the Greek legend of Scylla, also paired with the Greek legend of Charybdis. These creatures, although having a more established mythological background relating to the gods, may also have similarly real origins as the Kraken. For example, Charybdis was said to swallow a huge amount of water three times a day, before belching it back out again, creating large whirlpools capable of dragging a ship underwater. This can be explained  simply by dangerous currents of water as well.

Although fictional and the subject of myth, the legend of the kraken continues to the present day, with numerous references existing in popular culture, including film, literature, television, video games. However the supposed original culprit for the stories of this gigantic creature, the giant squid, seems to have been trying to prove the reasons for fear of the kraken. On at least three occasions in the 1930’s they reportedly attacked a ship. While the squids got the worst of these encounters when they slid into the ship’s propellers, the fact that they attacked at all shows that maybe the legend of the kraken doesn’t seem as ridiculous as may have first thought.