Monday, April 23, 2018

T: Tarnkappe

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This is the German name for the magic hat ("camouflage cap" or "cap of concealment") that appears in both Norse and German mythology and legend. The cap made its owner either invisible or unrecognizable via transformation. In Wagner's Der Ring des Niebelungen, it is a helmet (tarnhelm) which is stolen from the dwarves by Loge/Loki.

The tarnkappe is also the must-have accessory for an Alp, a supernatural being in German folklore. In its earliest appearances, the Alp is elf-like, responsible for mischief, trickery, and deception. Later, the Alp is more of an incubus, which visits during the night to cause terrible dreams. (The German word for nightmare is alptraum, which means "elf dream.") The Alp is also known for its shapeshifting abilities, which is where the tarnkappe comes in. Using the power of the cap, the Alp was able to take the form of a cat, pig, dog, snake, or small, white butterfly. Interestingly, the tarnkappe remained visible. So, if you see one of these creatures coming toward you and it's wearing a jaunty hat, you should probably turn around and go the other way.

The tarnkappe was sometimes described as more of a mantle or cloak, and as such it pops up in Welsh folklore, Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Lord of the Rings, and, of course, the Harry Potter series.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

S: Sucellos

Image result for sucellos

Tomorrow is T day for A to Z, but I decided to forego a post about Thor and instead use today to highlight a lesser-known thunder god. In Celtic mythology, Sucellos, whose name means Good Striker, also carried a hammer. But he was often portrayed not as a golden boy, but as a kindly old fat man with a long curling beard, who carried a cask and was accompanied by a dog. He is sometimes seen in the company of Nantosuelta, the Celtic goddess whose name is thought to mean "She of the Winding River" and/or "She of the Sun-drenched Valley." (Note to my friends and family: please feel free to start calling me either of those.)

A hammer was an important symbol in world mythology because it could represent a weapon of protection or a tool for craftsmen such as smiths, coopers, and masons. It is uncertain what Sucellos used his for, but he doesn't seem to have a terribly war-like reputation. All in all, he was apparently a strong but benevolent dude who was also a master multi-tasker. In addition to thunder, he was the god of: the sky, the underworld, abundance, protection, dogs, trees and forests, ravens, agriculture, hammers, and alcoholics.

Friday, April 20, 2018

R: Robigo/Robigus

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The Roman goddess Robigo (or perhaps god Robigus; the gender is uncertain) was invoked to protect grain fields from diseases such as mildew and wheat rust. She was seen as a very ancient, and destructive, goddess. The festival in her honor, Robigalia, was held on April 25, when the crops were most susceptible to disease. Rituals included burning the entrails of a red dog and a sheep, and offerings of incense and wine.

The Roman poet, Ovid, quotes the ceremony's flamen (priest) as follows:
"Cruel Robigo, do not injure the young wheat; let its tender tip quiver on the surface of the ground. I beg you to allow the crop, nurtured under heaven’s propitious stars, to grow until it is ripe for harvest. Yours is no gentle power. The wheat which you have marked, the sorrowful farmer counts as already lost. Neither winds nor rain harm the wheat so much, nor does the nip of the white-glistening frost so fade it, as the sun scorches the wet stalks. Then this is the occasion for your anger, dread goddess. Forbear, I pray you, and take your rough hands from the harvest; and do not harm the farmer’s work. It is enough that you have the power to do harm."

When I first learned that Robigo was the goddess of mildew, I chuckled. It seemed oddly specific, and I wondered if maybe she was a little miffed that she didn't get a better job. Goddess of love, maybe. Or wine. Or chocolate. But after I read Ovid's account, I thought, wow, she sounds like a badass, and the Romans were really afraid of her. It makes sense that they would want to safeguard their crops from her influence, because a few years of bad harvests can lead to famine and all kinds of societal ills. 

I'm not 100% sure the statue above is Robigo, but she looks pretty intimidating. Dread goddess, indeed!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Q: Questing Beast

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This fanciful creature comes from Arthurian legend. Called Glatisaunt, he had the head of a serpent, the body of a leopard, the rump of a lion, and the feet of a deer. The name "Questing Beast" refers to the deep, loud sound emanating from the beast's belly, said to be the noise of thirty hounds questing (baying as in pursuit). Various knights hunted Glatisaunt, with no great success.

As should any self-respecting mythological animal, the Questing Beast continues to appear in popular culture, including T.S. White's The Once and Future King, Lost in Space (1967), the BBC series Merlin, and probably many fantasy novels. It is also the name of a blog and YouTube channel devoted to gaming. Specifically, I think, Dungeons and Dragons, but I don't know enough about that stuff to say for sure.

The obvious takeaway to all this is that the next time you hear a hungry person's stomach growling, you can tell them it reminds you of a Questing Beast. And won't you sound smart? :-)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

P: Parsley

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That little sprig of greenery used as the ubiquitous plate garnish has a long history. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was associated with death and resurrection. To say someone was "in need of parsley" meant he or she didn't have long to live--and may also refer to parsley's deodorizing properties. The herb was dedicated to Persephone, goddess of the underworld, and tombs were often bedecked with parsley wreaths. Because of this reputation, the Greeks and Romans apparently weren't super thrilled about eating parsley but grew it for ornamental purposes and to feed to the chariot horses. In English folklore, things were a bit cheerier, as it was believed that babies were found in parsley beds.

These days, parsley gets a lot more respect in the kitchen. It is an excellent source of vitamins A, K, C, and folate, and may lower cholesterol. The compounds myricetin and apigenin found in parsley have anticancer properties. Myricetin can also lower blood sugar and decrease insulin resistance.

I don't mind the taste of parsley, but some people do. Fortunately, parsley doesn't have to be eaten plain. It can be added to soups, salads, smoothies, and can even be juiced. And a little goes a long way, in taste and for health benefits.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

O: Ouroboros

Image result for ouroboros symbol
Image result for ouroboros symbol

Ouroboros, a Greek word that means "tail devourer," is symbolized by a snake or dragon eating its own tail. In the shape of a circle or figure-eight (i.e. infinity), it's one of the oldest symbols in world mythology, dating back to ancient Egypt. It usually represents the cyclical nature of life and the eternal cycle of destruction and re-creation. Perhaps it goes without saying that because snakes periodically undergo the process of renewal as they shed their skins, they're a natural fit for this gig.

Notable ouroboros(es?) include the Norse serpent Jormangandr, who guarded the Tree of Life; the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl; and the serpent-like dragons of China. In alchemy, the ouroboros stands for the element mercury and the harmony of opposites. Due to its portrayal in black and white in that context, it is sometimes seen as an analog of the yin-yang symbol.

Monday, April 16, 2018

N: Nakk and Nakineiu

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Welcome to the second half of the A to Z Challenge!

To the Estonians, Nakk was an evil spirit who lived in the deepest part of the water. He could take many animal and human forms, though he was usually thought of as a gray old man who swallowed whatever came his way. Occasionally, he would sit on shore to bewitch people and animals with his songs, which forced them to dance until they fell in the water and drowned.

Nakk had a female counterpart, Nakineiu, a beautiful young woman who sat on a stone combing her long blonde hair. She also sang, and sometimes appeared with a half-human, half-fish body.

Sounds a lot like a mermaid, right? Not too surprising, as mermaid-type creatures appear in folklore from all over the world. They may be known as sirens, naiads, rusalkas, maneli, jengu, iara, oceanids, and many other names. They pop up in hoaxes, such as P.T. Barnum's Fiji Mermaid and Animal Planet's "docu-fiction", and in art, literature, and popular culture, including the iconic Starbuck's logo.

Mermaids may be good, evil, or a bit of both. (Hey, it's complicated being a half-human, half-fish.) And they are enjoying a bit of a moment these days, because why should Disney princesses have all the memes?

Image result for mermaid meme