Category Archives for Fairytales and Folklore

Yggdrasil

I find Yggdrasil to be somewhat confounding, but maybe that’s because the Edda isn’t exactly the clearest of texts. But I’m going to try to patch it all together in a way that I understand and, hopefully, you will as well.

 

Simply put, Yggdrasil is the world tree in Norse mythology.  The branches spread out across the sky and heavens. It has three great roots that extend great distances. One of these roots extends over Niflheim—a frozen realm of ice and mist. The dragon Nidhogg gnaws at the bottom of this root. Underneath it is also the spring Hvergelmir.

 

The second root extends to the realm of the frost giants. Underneath this root is Mimir’s well. Mimir was apparently a master of knowledge, gaining his wisdom from drinking water from the well. Odin had to give up one of his eyes for a single sip.

 

The third root extends up to the heavens and to the realm of the Aesir. Underneath this root is Weird’s well. This is where the Aesir hold court, and they ride there every day by crossing the rainbow bridge Bifrost. Apparently the red in the rainbow signifies burning fire, and keeps unsavory giants from going up into heaven. The norns that live by Weird’s well use the water to keep Yggrasil from rotting. For this reason, Weird’s well is the holiest of all the wells, and anything that comes in contact with it turns white. Two swans feed in the well, and are said to be where all swans in the world have originated.

 

In the middle of all this is Midgard. The index in the Edda translates it as “middle enclosure” and describes it as “the rampart surrounding the world of men and protecting it from giants” (Sturluson p. 247). I wrote about that rampart in an earlier post. This is where my head starts to hurt. But let’s dive in.

 

This realm is described as being circular, with the sea on the outer edge. Along the shore of the sea live the races of giants. Then there is a fortification that separates the world from the hostile giants, “and for this fortification they used the giant Ymir’s eyelashes, and they called the fortification Midgard.” (Sturluson p. 12, 13). It’s stated later that the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, were given a place to live under Midgard. I’m not sure why it’s “under” and not “within”. The best I can figure is maybe the fortification is more like a bubble, rather than a wall (which is what I think of at the mention of “fortification”.) Anyway, apparently Ymir’s brains were also used to make the clouds in the sky. Think about that next time you’re finding cute bunny shapes in the clouds above.

 

This all makes my head hurt because certain details overlap without any explanation being given. It’s said that Ymir’s eyelashes were used to construct Midgard, but then there’s another story of a giant building the fortification without any mention of eyelashes. Is this the same fortification, or is it completely different? Also, the land of the giants is on the shores of the world outside of Midgard. But then, the realm of the frost giants is down by one of Yggdrasil’s roots. Does this root extend up to Midgard just as one of the roots extends up to Asgard? I don’t know. I find it all very convoluted. Perhaps my issue is that I’m trying to get a clear picture of it, which is probably not the point of these myths. But I’m not the only one trying to understand, as this lovely picture attests.

 

Yggdrasil

From Northern Antiquities, an English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847. Painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge via Wikimedia Commons

 

If you have a better understanding of Norse cosmology, please chime in. I’d love to read a clear explanation of it all.

 

 

Source: Sturluson, Snorri, Edda, Everyman, 1995. Translated and edited by Anthony Faulkes.

 


Supernatural AtoZ

Xbalanque

Xbalanque and his twin brother, Hun-apu, are described as “hero-wizards, warriors and mischief-makers, both the pride and torment of Guatemala.” (Garner p. 16) In one story, Xbalanque and Hun-apu take on Vukub-Cakix—a troublesome creature in the form of a great bird. Vukub-Cakix was one to gobble up harvests, and his sons–Zipacna the Earthmaker, and Cabrakan the Earthshaker–would raise up mountains and then topple them.

 

One day, Hun-apu climbs into Vukub-Cakik’s nanze-tree and eats all the fruit. When Vukub-Cakix discovers this, he goes into a rage. He gets into a tussle with Hun-apu, rips off his arm, and makes off with it. Wanting to get the arm back before it’s cooked beyond repair, the twins head over to Vukub-Cakix’s lair, pose as physicians, and essentially convince the poor bird to allow them to pull out his teeth and eyes. Vukub-Cakix was forever considered harmless after that.

 

The story doesn’t stop there, though. Not wanting to wait for Vukub-Cakix’s sons to seek vengeance, the twins go after both Zipacna and Cabrakan. It’s kind of a long story, but essentially Xbalanque and Hun-apu recruit 400 young men to take on Zipacna. Together, they manage to bury Zipacna in the ground, but Zipacna quakes the earth and the young men are sent into the sky and become the Pleiades. Zipacna’s eventual downfall comes when he eats a great stone made to look like a crab and is then both drowned in a river and buried underneath a mountain.

 

As for Cabrakan, Xbalanaque and Hun-apu find him throwing boulders around and flattening villages. They pretend to be unimpressed by these antics, which makes Cabrakan try all the harder until he becomes weak with hunger. So, the twins cook for him a bird baked in poisoned clay. With Cabrakan sick with fever, the twins then taunt him that he couldn’t lift a certain massive mountain. Wanting to prove them wrong, Cabrakan tries to do it, but fails. He tries so hard that eventually the top of his head blows off, and that was the last of him.

 

 

Source: Garner, Alan, “Vukub-Cakix”, Collected Folk Tales, Harper Collins, 2011.

 


Supernatural AtoZ

Wood Woman

The wood woman, or wood wife, is a fertility spirit that lives within forests. In Sweden, she is the skogsfru (or skogsrå)—a woman with a hollow back who couples with men and will sometimes bless their hunting endeavors. In Greece she is the hamadryad, and all the dryad nymphs for the various trees that follow.

 

It is said that men who couple with a wood woman will waste away, pining for her touch. Wood women will sometimes marry humans, though this usually ends poorly. They are feral spirits, and will eventually return to their forest homes.

 

Theodor_Kittelsen_Huldra_forsvant

Huldra forsvant (The Fairy That Disappeared) by Theodor Kittelsen via Wikimedia Commons

 

Source: Froud, Brian, Good Faeries, Bad Faeries, Simon & Schuster, 1998.

 


Supernatural AtoZ

Verdandi

Verdandi is a norn that is said to determine the fates of men. She is one of the three most important norns in Norse mythology: Weird (“happened”), Verdandi (“happening”), and Skuld (“future” or “debt”). What is interesting about norns is that they are said to be women from different origins, i.e. humans as well as elves and dwarves. Good norns of noble parentage will shape prosperous lives for men. Evil norns of lesser birth shape only misfortunate lives.

By Ludwig Burger (1825-1884). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ludwig Burger (1825-1884). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of information regarding Verdandi. Skuld gets to ride into battle to determine who will be slain and to govern the killings. Weird seems to get stuck at home, tending her well under the branches of Yggdrasil. Verdandi is named only once in the Edda, and that’s just to drop her name. Is she like a red-headed step-norn? Someone the other norns don’t like to talk about? Who knows.

 

It is, however, kind of interesting if you think about it. Verdandi is the norn who determines the present. Her absence in the pages of the Edda makes me wonder if this is a reflection of man’s tendency to focus more on the past and future than on the present moment. I think we all do this at times–wonder about “what could have been”; worry about the future and what is to come. It’s sometimes harder to focus on the present, which is, perhaps, less interesting. Now often is a calm moment, lacking the bells and whistles of past problems and future worries.

 

Because of this, I will imagine Verdandi as the quiet girl that goes unnoticed. She never gets asked to dance, even though she’s the one that set up all the decorations. And while men might chase after her sisters and mourn Weird as “the one who got away” or pursue Skuld as a coveted conquest, Verdandi is the one who is fiercely loyal. She’ll stand by you through all of your days. At least, until that day when you finally do catch Skuld’s attention.

 

 

Source: Sturluson, Snorri, Edda, Everyman, 1995. Translated and edited by Anthony Faulkes.

 


Supernatural AtoZ

Uncle Wolf

The story of Uncle Wolf begins with a greedy little girl who was upset when she didn’t get any pancakes at school because she fell asleep in the privy. She goes home to her mother and cries. Her mother, taking pity on her, says she will make her some pancakes. Unfortunately they don’t have a skillet, so the little girl is sent to Uncle Wolf’s house to fetch one. Continue reading

Tereshichka

The story of Tereshichka is a Russian tale of an old man and wife who mourned their childless existence. So they cut a block of wood, bundled it in swaddling clothes, put it in a cradle, and rocked it and sang lullabies to it. (Creepy…) Lucky for them, the little block of wood turned into a little boy, whom they named Tereshichka.

 

When he was a little older, Tereshichka would go out fishing on a boat his father had built for him. His mother would bring to him milk and cheese, calling him to shore when it was time to eat. Then one day, a wicked witch named Chuvilikha tried to trick him and called him to shore like his mother always did. But Tereshichka was not fooled.

 

Not one to be stymied, Chuvilikha found herself a singing teacher, who then taught her how to have a voice like Tereshichka’s mother. When she called to him a second time, Tereshichka was fooled. When he came to shore, the witch snatched him and put him in a bag. She then took him to her home, where she told her daughter to roast him for dinner.

 

But Tereshichka was clever, and he instead put the witch’s daughter into the oven to roast before running away to hide in a tree. When Chuvilikha returned, she ate the entire roast and was really quite pleased with herself. Seeing her revelry, Tereshichka called down to her from the tree that she had, in fact, just eaten her daughter.

 

Rightfully enraged, Chuvilikha starts gnawing at Tereshichka’s tree in order to knock it down. She made good progress, but before the tree came down, a little plucked goose flew by and saved the boy. They returned to Tereshichka’s home, and his parents, who had been serving Tereshichka’s funeral repast, were very happy to see him. They rewarded the little plucked goose with food and drink and then let him go. And the little goose thereafter was quite proud and flew at the head of the flock for having saved Tereshichka.

 

Source: Afanas’ev, Aleksandr, “Tereshichka”, Russian Fairy Tales, Pantheon Books, 2006. Translated by Nobert Guterman.

 


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