Lands of Legend: the Underworlds

Trigger warning: references to incest, rape and domestic abuse

It is nearly the end of the year, nearly the end of this project, and it’s time to talk about death! If I was to write about all the Underworlds out there, this would be a book, not a blog post, so I have made a selection of three. Consider this month’s Land of Legend as a holiday brochure of sorts for your afterlife needs. We’ll visit the sights, gossip about the royalty, and hopefully avoid any fiery pits.

Hades is named for, well, Hades: son of Cronus and Rhea, brother to Zeus and Poseidon (among others), and king of the Greek underworld. An isolated figure in comparison to his many hectic relatives, Hades is best known for that time when he completely lost his head and kidnapped the goddess Persephone, thereby making a mortal enemy of her terrifying mother. That shambles turned out better than it had any right to. Hades convinced Persephone to eat six seeds of a pomegranate and by so doing, she was committed to an existence halfway between worlds – six months of the year among the living, and six months ruling alongside Hades as queen of the dark realm they now shared.

The Greek underworld was divided into three lands. Great heroes went to the glorious Elysian Fields and the Fortunate Isles. Notorious villains received highly personalised and excruciating tortures in Tartarus, which was basically the underworld of the Underworld, far beneath the rest of Hades. Most people, though, went to the Asphodel Fields, the land of shadows, which by all accounts that I’ve read was just…boring.

At the entrance to Hades stood an elm tree, its leaves thick with false dreams, and through the lands flowed five rivers. The Styx was the river of hatred, encircling the underworld seven times over. The Acheron was the river of pain, and the main point of entry for the recently dead, who were carried across its waters by the ferryman Charon for the price one obol, a coin that had to be buried with each corpse. Sometimes Charon would make an exception for souls bearing a golden bough, but the unburied were always out of luck, stranded on the far bank of the afterlife. The Lethe brought oblivion, its waters erasing the memories of the dead. The Cocytus was the river of wailing and Phlegethon was the river of fire. The eastern boundary of Hades was marked by yet another river, the Oceanus, which encircled the world.

For a god as unsociable as Hades, he had a lot of associates. Charon, of course, and the three-headed dog Cerberus, but also the Furies – Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone – who acted as avengers, in particular on behalf of wronged parents. In fact, hanging around outside the entrance to Hades were a veritable compendium of miserable types such as Grief, Anxiety and War. Once a soul entered the Underworld, they were never to leave, but sometimes a plea that would fall on deaf ears with the king would receive a more merciful response from his wife. The musician Orpheus pursued his dead lover Eurydice, bewitching Charon, Cerberus and even the Furies with his playing. By appealing to Persephone with his song of broken hearts and loneliness, he won a chance to save the woman he loved, if only he could walk the long way to the surface without looking back to see if Eurydice was still there behind him.

But of course he did look back, and Eurydice was lost. In time Orpheus fell foul of the Maenads, who killed him, and he made his own way down to Hades, still singing.

The Norse underworld, Niflheim, was the province of Hel, the trickster god Loki’s only daughter. In one disturbing version of events, Loki ate the heart of the giantess Angerbotha and from that Hel was born. Above the waist, Hel was a beautiful woman; below the waist, a rotting corpse. The leader of the gods, Odin, condemned her to an existence in the underworld in the same way he imprisoned her brother Jörmungandr in the sea and Fenrir with unbreakable chains – to be Loki’s child was to be born with a legion of enemies – but Hel took Odin’s lemons and turned them into the lemonade of vengeance. First, she made the place her own. Hel had a palatial hall called Éljúðnir, Hunger for her dish and Famine for her knife, and three servants: a serving man called Ganglati, the maid Ganglöt and the guardswoman Modgud, who stood watch on the bridge over Gioll, the river of death. Then, when Odin’s beloved son Baldr was killed, the gods begged for Hel to return him to the land of the living. She agreed…on the stricture that every living thing in the world should weep for him first.

She never let him out. And at the final battle, Ragnarok, death came for Odin himself.

Another lady of the Underworld is Hine, the guardian of Death in Maori mythology. She was the daughter of the creation god Tane with Hine-ahu-one, the woman he had sculpted from earth. Hine had many names: Hine-titama, meaning ‘Dawn Maid’, Hine-i-tauira, meaning ‘Patterned Maid’ and Hine-manuhiri, meaning ‘Newly Arrived Maid’. Then Tane tricked her into becoming his second wife. Together they had five children: Tahu-kumea, Tahu-whakairo, Tahu-otiatu, and Tahu-kumea-atepo and Hine-tītamauri. But Hine was curious about herself and her life, and when she found out that Tane was her father as well as her husband, she was so horrified that she fled for the safety of Rarohenga, the Maori underworld. There she became Hine-nui-te-po, the goddess of death.

After leaving Tane she bore three more children: Te Pō-uriuri, Pō-tangotango, and Pare-kōri-tawa. She also married again – this time, her husband was her uncle, Rūaumoko, the god of volcanoes.

Unlike Hel, Hine was an almost maternal presence. By freeing the spirits of the dead to return to the Sky Father, she acted as a guide instead of a gaoler, but just because she took a gentler approach did not mean it was at all a good idea to mess with her. The trickster Maui found that out the hard way. Fresh from feats such as fishing islands out of the sea and beating up the actual sun, he decided he would achieve immortality for all humanity by creeping up on Hine while she was sleeping, crawling…through her vagina…and emerging from her mouth. Disney Maui this is not.

As Maui crawled inside Hine, a watching bird laughed at the sight of him. The goddess woke immediately and crushed Maui to death with the obsidian teeth inside her vagina. So perish all rapists.

The path between Rarohenga and the world of the living was guarded by Kuwatawata, but the living could visit the realm of the dead, at least to begin with, and Rarohenga was also the home of Ue-tonga, the god of tattooing, and Niwareka, his daughter. Niwareka married a chief called Mataora and went to live on the surface of the world. At first they were happy, but Mataora was a jealous man and began to abuse her, and Niwareka followed in Hine’s footsteps by retreating to the safe haven of Rarohenga. Mataora pulled an Orpheus, searching for his wife and singing of his regrets, and Niwareka chose to forgive him. Unfortunately for Mataora, he forgot to pay his respects to Kuwatawata on the way out, and in consequence the living were barred from entry to Rarohenga.

In these stories, the Underworld is not necessarily a place to be afraid of. Persephone and Hel started out as prisoners and became queens; Hine sought sanctuary and ended up granting it. The dark is not always something to fear.

Though it may be worth taking a few singing lessons, in case there’s a goddess to bribe on the way out.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes from around the World – ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherin Headlam (Kingfisher Publications, 1998), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_underworld, https://pantheon.org/articles/r/rarohenga.html, https://pantheon.org/articles/h/hine-nui-te-po.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hine-nui-te-pō

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Lands of Legend: Fairyland

Do you believe in fairies?…If you believe, clap your hands!

– J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

The Fairylands of popular children’s authors such as Enid Blyton and J.M. Barrie tend to be colourful but fairly moralistic wonderlands complete with pixies and unicorns and the children who will in time outgrow them. The winged mischief-maker archetype can be traced back through Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. Shakespeare, of course, had quite the influence on the literary perceptions of Fairyland with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A poem attributed to Ben Jonson describes an evocative scene:

From Oberon, in fairyland,

The king of ghosts and shadows there,

Mad Robin, I at his command,

Am sent to view the night-sports here;

What revel-rout

Is kept about

In every corner where I go,

I will o’ersee,

And merry be,

And make good sport, with ho, ho, ho!

But in the folklore and ballads I’m going to talk about in this post, it is not a dramatic, domineering Fairy King who rules the roost. It is the Fairy Queen you need to worry about. For instance, in the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, the titular knight was out hunting when a bitter wind caught hold of him and the Queen of Fairyland snatched him out of his world to be her pet. Tam Lin didn’t even mind, for a while. “The life in Fairyland is pleasant, Janet, the life in Fairyland is gay. None tires there, and none grows old,” he says in Ruth Manning-Sanders’ Stories from the English and Scottish Ballads. He would gladly stay there, but every seven years the Fair Folk were obliged to pay a tithe to Hell and Tam Lin feared his time was nearly up. In order to save him, Janet waited at Miles Cross in the hours between midnight and one on Halloween, ready to seize Tam Lin off his horse as he passed by in the Queen’s company.

And it worked, Tam Lin was saved, but the Queen sure took it personally.

The ballad of Thomas the Rhymer is a similar story: handsome young mortal meets Queen of Elfland while she is out for a jaunt in the human world and effectively signs a seven year contract as her toyboy with a single kiss. Of the return journey to Elfland, Ruth Manning-Sanders writes: ‘the horse galloped faster than any wind that blows. Away and away and far away, right out of the land of the living, and came at last to a vast desert where no man had ever been.’

In the desert, three roads materialised before Thomas like mirages. The first was ‘a long, long narrow stony road, thicketed with thorns and briars; and in some places the thorns spread right across the road and choked it, so that it seemed there could be no passing’. This was the Path of Righteousness, the least popular of the three. The second road was wide and easy, surrounded by lilies. “That is the path to wickedness,/ Tho some call it the road to heaven,” the Queen tells Thomas (Child Ballad No.37). Then there is the third road, a green and winding way that leads to Elfland.

They rode through the night, into a sunless, moonless dark and the swirl of unseen water rising around them. There was the sound of waves in the distance. Riding on, the horse waded through a yet more alarming substance. Every drop of blood shed on mortal earth flowed through the rivers of Elfland, and Thomas’s mount was up to the knee in it. But they passed through this obstacle as well and in time came to a beautiful garden, and beyond that, an orchard. The Queen pressed an apple on Thomas that would compel him to always speak the truth, whether he wished to or not.

At the end of the agreed-upon seven years, Thomas was returned to Huntley Bank, the spot where the Queen had found him. He went home to Ercildowne, where he made a name for himself with soothsaying and startling truths, until one day a snow white, golden-horned hart and hind walked out of the forest and Thomas understood the Queen wanted him back. He followed the deer into the forest and was never seen again.

The Queen’s preferences aside, the Fair Folk were not solely interested in pretty boys plucked out of the countryside. There were practicalities to consider as well. The Fair Folk sometimes called on the services of a human midwife, presumably because their own birth rate was too low to have many experts in the field, and in Katharine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies, she details a story about a young woman who acted as wet nurse to a fairy baby. The nurse was handsomely paid for the work and at the end of the summer, the fairy mother returned, leading the nurse to a green hill, which opened at their approach. The fairy mother applied three drops of an ointment on the nurse’s left eye to give her fairy sight. Onward they went, into a beautiful country of abundant orchards and ripe cornfields. Labouring in those fields were people the nurse had once known, spirited away under the hill as punishment for what the fairy mother called ‘evil deeds’. There are some interesting shades of ‘tithe to Hell’ to unpack in that.

The nurse was loaded down with remarkable cloth, rich food and fairy medicines before she left, but there was one more thing she wanted. After the fairy mother had restored her mortal sight, the nurse managed to steal the magical ointment and reapplied it. For many years she used the power safely, but on seeing the fairy mother again, the nurse unthinkingly greeted her and even more unwisely, admitted to seeing her with both eyes. The fairy mother breathed on them, and the power was gone. It’s unclear whether all sight was taken with it.

Another girl, Jenny Permuen, had a similar experience. Hired by an apparently courteous and sympathetic (if oddly omniscient) widower to care for his young son for a year and a day, she was led away on an eastward road and through an opening in the ground to a land thick with jewel-bright flowers. To quote Katharine Briggs ‘There were rivers clearer than any water she had ever seen on the granite hills, and waterfalls and fountains; while everywhere ladies and gentlemen dressed in green and gold were walking, or sporting, or reposing on banks of flowers, singing songs or telling stories’. All very civilised and pastoral and completely untrustworthy. Jenny was taken to an opulent mansion, where her employer’s adorable little son was asleep in a cot made of seashell. However much she loved him, and however much the child appeared to love her, a deal was a deal; at the end of a year and a day, Jenny woke in her mother’s cottage, left with only the monumental task of explaining what had happened to her.

So, Fairyland: fields of flowers, rivers of blood, work visas available. One surefire way to get there was by eating fairy food, although that might come with a spectrum of other side effects. Animal transformation, for instance. Another route was through a fairy ring – a circle of mushrooms or standing stones or unnaturally green grass – where the Folk would hold their revels. A mortal entering the ring could not be seen on the other side of it. They might dance until they dropped or emerge only to find that centuries had passed in their own world, Fairyland time zones being a nightmare to navigate.

There are what you might call associated fairylands in other folk tales, such as the Transylvanian story ‘The Three Witch Maidens’, in which a Yggdrasill-type tree led to three enchanted lands: one where all things living and man-made were of copper, the second where they were all made of silver, and the third where all were of gold. Each was ruled by a witch-maiden who took the shapes of birds. They had seized power from a beautiful queen and turned her into a frog, though she eventually got her own back with the help of one of those random charming boys who show up in these stories to be loved and used by powerful women. In Thistle and Thyme, there is a Scottish fairy tale called ‘The Ailpein Bird’, in which otherworldly lords who took the shape of birds ruled over, respectively: an icy wilderness, a fiery hellscape and last but definitely not least, a green paradise hidden away behind the impassable slopes of a glass mountain. The Sicilian fairy tale ‘Unfortunate’ seems to take place firmly in the human world, but the immensely unlucky protagonist was obliged to set off past the sandhills to find her Destiny, who was sitting angrily in a hazel thicket – and hazel is a particularly beloved tree of the Fair Folk.

However you get there, Fairyland is not a place that is easy to leave behind. Its human expatriates were said to pine away in longing for it. If, on the other hand, Fairyland’s changeable borders happen to close in behind you, it may be best to remember Miles Cross and arrange to have your own Fair Janet waiting on the other side.

After all, it’s nearly Halloween. Can’t be too careful.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: The Three Witch Maidens – Ruth Manning-Sanders (Beaver Books, 1977), The Encyclopedia of Fairies – Katharine Briggs (Pantheon Books, 1976), Stories from the English and Scottish Ballads – Ruth Manning-Sanders (E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1968), The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), http://tam-lin.org/versions/oxford.html, https://tam-lin.org/stories/Thomas_the_Rhymer.html, Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland – Sorche Nic Leodhas (The Bodley Head Ltd, 1967)

Lands of Legend: Atlantis

When we talk about lost kingdoms and sunken realms, it is a conversation with an elephant in the room called Atlantis. It is so well-known it has a Disney movie and multiple TV shows to its credit. But where does Atlantis originally come from?

Not myth, is the answer, which I for one feel a tad aggrieved about. The Greek philosopher Plato is the only source for the story of Atlantis, which makes it more of a literary fable. According to Plato’s writings, Atlantis was an enormous island located in the Atlantic Ocean, close to Spain. This island was under the protection of the god Poseidon. His relationship with a mortal woman, Cleito, resulted five sets of twins and the eldest, Atlas, was not only the first king of the island, it was named after him. His twin Eumelus was given territory on the western edge of Atlantis, while the other brothers – Ampheres, Evaemon, Mneseus, Autochthon, Elasippus, Mestor, Azaes and Diaprepes – were also given fiefdoms.

The north of the island was predominantly mountainous and in the south there was a large plain. Atlantis was a utopian kingdom of rich natural resources and a peaceful, law-abiding populace, basically a dream to rule, the kind of cushy positions a god probably would bestow on his children. For their mother, Poseidon built an enormous palace ringed by three concentric moats. The city was also constructed in defensible walled rings, using the local red, white and black stone. Among the magnificent art and architecture of Atlantis, there was of course a glorious temple dedicated to a certain sea-god.

For a time, the people of Atlantis were content to follow Poseidon’s laws, but eventually they rebelled and went empire-building. They conquered a swathe of North Africa from the Pillars of Hercules (i.e. the Strait of Gibraltar) all the way to Egypt, and a big chunk of southern Europe too. When they marched on Greece, the city-states fell before them one by one until only Athens was left. Then, in a startling turn of events, the Athenian army not only beat back the Atlanteans, they freed the rest of their empire.

Take a wild guess where Plato came from.

But because crushing military defeat was apparently not a strong enough moral judgement, a terrible earthquake struck and in a single day and night the island of Atlantis disappeared beneath the sea. Plato claimed that these events took place less than two hundred years before he wrote the story, and that the resulting mud shoal was still there as evidence.

There are a slew of theories about Atlantis, some dating back millennia. It is entirely possible that there was a natural disaster in the region Plato references; a volcanic eruption took place on Thera (modern day Santorini) in the mid-second millennium B.C., effectively destroying the Minoan civilisation on the surrounding islands. In The Greek Myths, Robert Graves suggests that Plato may have been drawing heavily on Minoan Crete in his descriptions of Atlantis, but that the ‘real’ Atlantis was in Western Libya.

Whether or not Atlantis was based on history or legend, or was simply Plato’s literary fable, it’s stuck around for the long haul. It has provided the inspiration for generations of storytellers and become a cultural touchstone.

Maybe it’s not officially a myth, but what the hell. It’s part of the family.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Atlantis-legendary-island, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Greek Mythology – Sofia Souli (Editions Michalis Toubis, 1995)

Lands of Legend: Yggdrasill

Yggdrasill, known in Old Norse as Mimameidr, was the World Tree, a towering ash that held up the universe. It grew from the corpse of Ymir, who was oldest of all the giants and killed by the sons of the first god. His blood became the saltwater of the oceans; from his bones rose mountains. His flesh turned to earth and his skull was the sky, with his brains for the clouds. Even the maggots on his corpse were repurposed in this cosmic disembowelment. They transformed into dwarves that held up the sky.

And there was war between the Norse gods and the giants pretty much forever after.

In early Norse legend there were said to be nine worlds growing on the world tree. The realm of mortals was called Midgard. Ygdrasill had three vast roots, each drawing strength from different waters. One reached into Asgard, home of the gods, where it was tended by the goddesses known as the Norns. They were guardians of Urdarbrunnr, the Well of Fate.

The way between Asgard and Midgard was across the Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. The gods lived on the other side of it within a fortress that was built on trickery, broken oaths and murder. The builder of its colossal walls was promised as payment the sun, the moon and the beautiful goddess Freyja, if he could finish his work by the end of a single winter – but when he came too near to earning the gods’ treasures, the gods (well, specifically Loki) sabotaged him so that they would not have to pay up. The builder revealed himself to be a very angry giant, upon which discovery the gods felt their oaths were null and void and Thor smashed his head open.

Within Asgard was the hall of Valhalla, where fallen heroes went to feast in the company of Odin. They ate the meat of the boar Schrimnir, who returned to life each day only to be killed and eaten again, and drank mead milked from the goat Heidrum, who fed on the leaves of Yggdrasill.

The second of Yggdrasill’s roots led to Jotunheim, realm of the giants, and it was watered by the well Mimisbrunnr, a source of wisdom so powerful that Odin gave up an eye to drink from it. In Jotunheim was the city of Utgard, ruled by Utgardloki, a king of giants. He once tricked Thor, Loki and their friend Thialfi into a series of impossible tasks. Thialfi was set against a giant called Hugi in a foot race, but was really trying and failing to outrun Thought itself. Loki was equally unlucky in his eating contest against Logi, who was Fire. Thor was asked to drain a horn that was full of the world’s oceans, to lift a cat that was in fact Jormungand the World Serpent, and wrestle an old woman who was Old Age, implacable even to gods.

It’s fun little get-togethers like this, by the way, that lead howling battles and a lot of dead giants and all the way to Ragnarok, that being the end of the world. Thank you, performative masculinity.

The third root of Yggdrasill plunged into the dark and cold underworld of Niflheim, where it drew water from the well of Hvergelmir but was constantly gnawed upon by the serpent Nidhogge. The Kingfisher Book of Mythology calls it an ‘evil dragon-monster’ but I feel that’s unnecessarily judgy, just because Nidhogge liked to snack on dead people too. Niflheim was one of the first places to ever exist, the other being its counterbalance, the raging fires of Muspell. The land of the dead could be found in Niflheim, ruled over by Loki’s daughter Hel, as could Nastrond, the shore of corpses. Which, incidentally, is where Nidhogge liked to hang out.

The four winds ran across Yggrasill’s branches in the shape of deer, feeding off its buds, and a squirrel darted along the trunk, passing insults from the eagle that lived in the uppermost branches to the serpent at its roots, then back again. I cannot find an origin for that feud but I would really love to know more. Meanwhile, beneath the roots of the universe lay Ymir, shifting uneasily in his death from time to time, causing the tree and the worlds it carried to sway.

Yggdrasill survived Ragnarok. What, though, might happen if Ymir ever woke up all the way?

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yggdrasill, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes from around the World – ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherin Headlam (Kingfisher Publications, 1998), Bulfinch’s Mythology – Thomas Bulfinch (Gramercy Books, 2003)

Lands of Legend: The Drowned Lands

There have always been stories about a flood coming down to wash the wicked world away.

In mythology, this tends to happen when the gods nope out of a situation. Excess and the very debatable concept of sin are the usual grounds for this sort of divine spring-cleaning. If legendary lands are on a spectrum, the utopian islands would probably be at one end and the drowned lands would be at the other. These are the cautionary tales. There are very few survivors.

Let’s start in Ker-Ys. According to Breton legend, this was a wealthy city-state on the coast of south-west Brittany, under what is now the Bay of of Douarnenez. It was protected from both its enemies and the rapacious sea by an enormous dike. Ker-Ys was ruled by Gradlon Meur, a pious Christian prince, but he lived in a beautiful marble palace decorated with cedar and gold and the city itself was a place of art and beauty and excess – no doubt the influence of Gradlon’s only child, a princess who was known for anything but piety.

Her name varies between versions of the legend – Ahès, Ahè, Dahud, Dahut – and her personality varies even more. Depending on the telling, she was either

a) a careless girl who threw a private party for her lover and drowned the city in a drunken prank gone wrong, or

b) a full-on serial killer who seduced boys then had her servants strangle them and chuck their bodies into a gorge, ultimately bewitching a young man into opening the dike for her. Ahès is described as having made ‘a crown of her vices and…taken as pages the seven deadly sins’, which frankly sounds a lot more awesome than I imagine it was intended to.

Whatever her motivation, the destruction of Ker-Ys is laid squarely at the princess’s door. The king was warned in time to escape and took his daughter with him, but the waters caught up with their horse and the king was told to throw off the ‘she-devil’. Ahès fell into the sea. The king survived, but the city was lost.

Ahès survived too, becoming a spirit of the sea and luring sailors to the deaths. So really, apart from an amphibious lifestyle, not that much changed for her.

The story of Lyonesse is quite similar. According to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it was neighbour to Cornwall and the birthplace of the knight Tristan. The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson made Lyonesse the setting for King Arthur’s final battle, describing it evocatively in The Idylls of the King:

Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse—
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.

The landscape of Lyonesse received another loving description in Alan Seeger’s 1917 poem ‘Lyonesse’, quoted below:

In Lyonesse was beauty enough, men say:
Long Summer loaded the orchards to excess,
And fertile lowlands lengthening far away,
In Lyonesse.

Came a term to that land’s old favoredness:
Past the sea-walls, crumbled in thundering spray,
Rolled the green waves, ravening, merciless.

Through bearded boughs immobile in cool decay,
Where sea-bloom covers corroding palaces,
The mermaid glides with a curious glance to-day,
In Lyonesse.

How exactly Lyonesse came to sink beneath the sea is something of a mystery. None of the sources I have to hand go into any detail at all. This sort of thing just happens sometimes.

It happened, for instance, in Wales. Cantre’r Gwaelod, also known as Maes Gwyddno, is a lost land in Welsh legend, underneath what is now Cardigan Bay. This was part of the kingdom of Meirionnydd, with Caer Wyddno was its capital. In one early version of the legend, the land was drowned when a maiden named Mererid allowed her well to overflow; in another version, two princes were charged with the management of the sluice gates that protected their land. One was called Seithenyn and due to his drunken negligence, the gate was left open, allowing the sea to pour through. Folklore has it that the church bells still ring in times of trouble.

It has been suggested that this story shares origins with another drowned land in Wales, known as Llys Helig. Rumoured to be under what is now Conwy Bay, it was ruled by Helig ap Glannawg. Once again, the blame for the downfall of the kingdom is laid at the feet of a wicked princess: Helig’s daughter Gwendud. A beautiful girl with freezing arrogance, she told her suitor Tathal that she would not marry him unless he wore a nobleman’s golden torque. Tathal then went out and promptly killed a nobleman for his torque, and told Gwendud that he had won it in a duel with an outlaw. Which, I’d like to point out was a hundred percent his own decision, and a terrible decision it was too, because the nobleman’s ghost rocked up and cursed the entire family. Four generations later, the curse finally came to fruition as the sea came welling up under the castle and swallowed Llys Helig whole.

The moral of the story seems to be, if disaster is lapping at your heels, find a woman to blame for it. And if that is blame you’re willing to take, go forth and make your crown of vices.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: The Enchanted World: Fabled Lands by Time-Life Books (Time-Life Books, 1986), http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803125227732, http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-myths-legends-europe/lost-land-lyonesse-legendary-city-bottom-sea-002490, http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/seeger-lyonesse, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofWales/Tyno-Helig-The-Welsh-Atlantis/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llys_Helig, http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/wales/w_mid/article_3.shtml, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), Tennyson: Poems and Plays by Lord Alfred Tennyson, ed. T. Herbert Warren (Oxford Paperbacks, 1975)

Lands of Legend: The Garden of the Hesperides

This month, we’re touring into Greek mythology to visit the Garden of the Hesperides, which was the perfect secluded getaway until the notorious hero Hercules got tasked with raiding the place.

Before we get to the garden, let’s start with the Hesperides themselves. As with many lesser gods in mythology, these nymphs are credited with a great many different parents. Contenders include Nyx, goddess of night, and Atlas, the Titan tasked with holding up the sky. The sisters were Aegle, Erythraea and Hespera, all names that reference different stages of sunset. They were goddesses of the evening, which now that I type it sounds rather like a euphemism, and guardians of the Garden’s arboreal treasure: the golden apples of immortality.

The tree – or, depending on the version, grove – was a wedding gift from the earth goddess Gaia to the queen of the Pantheon, Hera. The apples also had the protection of a hundred-headed dragon, clearly Hera knew her family well enough to be prepared, but its best defence was the fact the Garden was so fiendishly difficult to find. When Hercules was assigned his eleventh Labour and told to steal apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, it was only by utilising his semi-divine might to capture and bully the sea god Nereus that he learned how to reach the Garden, and only with the support of the sun god Helios, who lent Hercules his own enormous golden cup in which to sail across the sea, that he actually got there.

And once he did get there, Hercules was smart enough not to do his own dirty work. He offered Atlas an opportunity that he could not resist; what wouldn’t Atlas agree to, in order to unload his terrible burden for a short time? Hercules would hold up the sky while Atlas stole the apples. Of course, after he had collected the prize, Atlas saw no reason to return to his servitude, but Hercules insisted he needed to settle the weight of the sky properly, with a cushion to soften the load, and he absolutely would if Atlas would only take hold of it for a minute…Obviously, as soon as Atlas was back in place, Hercules grabbed the apples and was gone. Apparently Athena later returned the apples, which makes the whole endeavour entirely pointless, but that’s divine intervention for you.

The Atlas mountain range passes through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, so based on the implied proximity in this myth, it seems likely that the Garden of the Hesperides was intended to be somewhere in North Africa. Another possible location is in southwestern Europe, in the Iberian peninsula, this being favoured by the poet Stesichorus and the geographer Strabo.

Golden apples are a recurring image in Greek mythology. The goddess of discord, Eris, set off a chain reaction that started with a spiteful beauty contest and ended in the destruction of Troy by producing a golden apple ‘for the fairest’ of the Pantheon. The famed athlete Atalanta was slowed in the race that would decide her marriage by the distraction of three golden apples, gifts to her suitor from Aphrodite. The connection might be tenuous, but after all, even the strangest of fruit has to grow somewhere. So perhaps it’s rather lucky that Athena put those beautiful apples back, before they could take root anywhere else.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hesperides, http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Hesperides.html, Greek Mythology – Sofia Souli (Editions Michalis Toubis, 1995), Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills

Lands of Legend: Hildaland and Hether-Blether

Two weeks late and it’s not actually May any more, but look, at least I wasn’t kidnapped by Finfolk and whisked away to a disappearing island.

The Finfolk are a nomadic shapeshifting people from Orkney myth and legend. In the winter, they lived in the underwater stronghold of Finfolkaheem: a crystal castle lit by glowing sea creatures, complete with extensive seaweed gardens. Hildaland was their summer home, an island only visible to a rare few and only then when it happened to appear above water. The name, appropriately enough, means ‘Hidden Land’, and may have originally referred to a group of islands as opposed to one. Travellers would pass through a fog and find themselves transported from their own world to the realm of the Finfolk, which was honestly not a great place for humans to be.

While Hildaland was very beautiful, in the grand tradition of paradise islands – rich green pastures, lush fields of bountiful crops – it was also a prison. The Finfolk had a habit of stealing mortal spouses. Stealing mortal anything, in fact, precious metals were good too, but in what sounds like a classic case of folklore misogyny, a Finwife was said to lose her beauty if she married a Finman so they preferred to take their chances with a human bride instead and Finwives tended to pick human men. Methods of abduction varied from seductive singing to posing as floating debris until they got close enough for a snatch and grab. The end result was a life sentence for the human unlucky enough to catch a Finfolk eye.

Eventually, however, the practice backfired badly. A newlywed farmer called Thorodale lost his wife to one such abduction and took it hard; the wife lost her freedom and took it harder. She managed to get word to him of where he might find vengeance for them both. After hearing the advice of the wise woman of Hoy, Thorodale performed a ritual of nines around the Odin Stone at Stenness – circling the stone nine times on his knees for nine full moons, until he had something of its power of clear sight. Then he packed for a heist and took his three full-grown sons to go avenge their stepmother. The Finfolk tried to repel the human invaders, first with illusions, then with mermaid charm, then with physical force, but Thorodale would not be turned aside and reached the shore of Hildaland. He and his sons sowed the land with nine rings of salt and cut nine crosses into the earth, claiming it for their own. He did not succeed in rescuing his wife, because the story really doesn’t care about her.

This version of events ties Hildaland to the entirely factual island of Eynhallow, which lies between Rousay and the Orkney mainland. Rousay is also linked to a story of Hether-Blether. A girl from Rousay went missing and for years there was no trace of her, until one day her father and brothers were lost in a fog and washed up on an unknown island. The girl greeted them there, ensconced in her new life: a happily married mother of three, a rare success story from the Finfolk marriage market. She refused to come home with her family, but offered them a piece of iron – in one version a stake, in another a knife – that would allow them to find her again. They didn’t even make it away from the island before dropping the wretched thing into the water, and Hether-Blether sank beneath the sea at once. Given what happened to Hildaland, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/hildaland, http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/finfolk/hilda.htm, http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/finfolk/hether.htm, http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/finfolk/eynfree.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finfolk