felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
From Theoi.com, a Dionysus legend I'd never come across before:

"Someone asked Aesop why lesbians and effeminates [or gay men] had been created, and old Aesop explained, 'The answer lies once again with Prometheus, the original creator of our common clay.

All day long, Prometheus had been separately shaping those natural members which modesty conceals beneath our clothes, and when he was about to apply these private parts to the appropriate bodies

Liber [Dionysos] unexpectedly invited him to dinner. Prometheus came home late, unsteady on his feet and with a good deal of heavenly nectar flowing through his veins.

With his wits half asleep in a drunken haze he stuck the female genitalia on male bodies and male members on the ladies."

- Aesop, Fables 517 (from Phaedrus 4.16)
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
Still reading the Mabinogion. Illness and manga have prevented me from finishing it, but I'm nearly done now.

I'm reading the story of Gereint -- a story I've read in Chrétien de Troyes as "Erec and Enide." Mostly it's the same story, but one thing surprised me -- Morgan the healer, later known as Morgan le Fay -- is male in the Welsh version.

Now the Welsh version was written down later, but in general it's a much more perfect version, accurate in terms of geography and such, and in the original language of these stories.

It's possible that an increasingly sexist story made Morgan male, but a translation error when Chrétien got hold of the story seems much more likely. He was pretty sloppy.

Chrétien's version is the version that first really inspires the Morgan le Fay stories -- a Morgan is mentioned once briefly at the end of Geoffrey of Monmouth's earlier version, but she seems to be a random fairy with no part in Arthur's story. I think Chrétien may have confused the two Morgans, and fused them, and that's where she came from.

In other readings, I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim. Who knew that being vegan gave you telekinetic powers?
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
I was in bed with a fever most of yesterday. I tried my best to go into work this morning, but started throwing up. I left a message with one of my coworkers, but she didn't come into work either (her daughter has the same thing), so I got an irritated call from another coworker around 9 asking why I wasn't in.

I'm doing a fair bit better, now. I can get around, now, and even went down to Pharmaprix to get my allergy medication.

I only got 800 words written yesterday.

I did finally finish reading the Peredur cycle in the Mabinogion. Turned out that half the women Peredur interacted with (including the maiden carrying the Spear of Longinus, and the severed head that replaces the Grail in this version) were actually a shapechanging teenage boy in magical drag.

I'll let you make of that what you will.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
So I got to a part in the Mabinogion where Sir Peredur/Perceval is fighting the 9 Witches who've been a scourge in the countryside, and who've taken most of this poor countess's lands. When Peredur confronts the most powerful of the 9 Witches, she's wearing full armour and carrying a sword.

This surprised me for two reasons.

The academic in me thought,

"This is interesting. I've never come across medieval British literature with a woman in arms and armour. Between the disappearance of Celtic and Germanic warrior-women, and the lady knight Britomart in the Renaissance epic The Faerie Queene, there don't seem to be any female soldiers. I wonder if, like 'The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale,' it captures that moment when things were starting to get worse for women in Britain. Here, we have a woman who isn't weak and feeble, but her use of male weaponry restricts her to the role of 'evil witch.'"
Meanwhile, the Dungeons and Dragons geek in me was thinking,

"Wait a minute -- a magic-user can't wear chainmail. That's a 30% chance of spell failure right there, going up to 45% if she has any kind of decent shield."
As you were.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
So I've reached a curious moment in the Mabinogion -- the story of Peredur. This is obviously the Perceval story from the Chrétien de Troyes romances, and is quite funny (intentionally funny for once -- in the early days, long before Monty Python, the first Grail stories were played for laughes).

What intrigues me is the Grail. Specifically, both versions started off as the same story -- one written down in the late 1100s and the other in the 1300s -- but Chrétien's is the first version to have the Holy Grail, and there's no Grail in the second.

Chrétien's version has Perceval going to a knight's castle, and watching as the Grail is brought back and forth on a silver platter, during the dinner, right after the Spear of Longinus. The dinner continues as if nothing was going on, even though the Grail shines like a miniature sun.

But the word "Grail" -- un graal -- is never explained, as if Chrétien expects his audience to know what un graal is already. Also interestingly, it's not a proper noun, nor is its function ever explained -- Chrétien never got to that, dying before his poem was finished.

In the Mabinogion version, the bleeding spear is followed with a head on a platter, which is carried by crying women.

This makes me wonder when the two stories diverged, and how a magic cup got replaced by a severed head, or vice versa. Given how important the severed head is in many Celtic legends, maybe modern critics are too hasty in rejecting the theory that the Grail started off as the Celtic cauldron of life, a once-popular theory that's lost favour these days.

I think most critics have a hard time understanding the effect of old pre-Christian religious traditions, and their lasting power in Christian (and secular) society.

Critics are a largely secular group, and historical and literary criticism these days seems more and more eager to reduce religious belief to merely a way of shoring up society's power relationships, not something people were actively engaged in, and reluctant to give up.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
Few know that England has its own indigenous lion species. The English lion (panthera leo anglicus) is very rarely sighted now, and its lack of presence on the endangered species list can only be ascribed to politics.

Fortunately, we have the Arthurian stories in Mabinogion to provide us with an undoubtedly accurate natural history of the English lion, which makes an appearance most prominently in the story of the "The Lady of the Fountain."

From this, we learn:
  • The English lion is a loyal, intelligent creature that will follow you around if you save its life -- as the knight Owein discovers when he saves one from its natural predator, the Giant Snake.
  • The English lion does not need to sleep -- after all, it watches over Owein whenever he does, but Owein never returns the favour.
  • The English lion can gather firewood -- and indeed, gathers enough firewood for Owein in a short time to last them three days.
  • The English lion can claw through stone -- and indeed, claws its way out of a stone prison to save Owein.
Hopefully, with such a fund of scrupulously obtained data, biologists will finally turn towards the study of this magnificient creature, which was clearly once plentiful on the English moors.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
More Mabinogion -- I hope no one minds being spammed by ancient Welsh mythology.

I'm still reading the oldest King Arthur Story, the 1000-year-old "Culhwch and Olwen." I'm at the part where the Giant-King Ysbadaddan sets the price on Cwlhwch for marrying his daughter. There are a handful of minor items -- plowed fields, a magic sword, the birds of Rhiannon -- but the majority of them relate to the Giant-King's desire to have a trimmed beard and hair for his daughter's wedding.

Apparently he has very difficult hair. It requires the tusk of a magical boar (taken while the boar was still alive, and which can only be harvested by a prince of Ireland) to shave him. The tusk can only be carried by a Welsh prince.

As for shaving cream, the only stuff that'll work is the warm blood of the Black Witch of the Valley of Grief in the Uplands of Hell. It has to be kept warm by the magic bottles of Gwyddolwyn the Dwarf.

Worst of all is getting him a haircut. Only the magic shears and comb caught in the hair of the monstrous giant boar Twrch Trwyth will work.

This boar can only be hunted by magic dogs, who can only be leashed with a magic chain and a magic leash -- and the magic leash must be made by from the beard-hair of a wild man named Dillus, harvested with wooden tweezers while he is still alive.

The magic dogs can only be handled by a houndsman named Mabon, who has been missing since the age of three months, and who can only be found by his cousin (who's in prison). The leashes, meanwhile, can only be held by Cynedyr the Wild, son of Hetwn the Leper. Several dozen other magic huntsmen and horses are required to hunt the boar Twrch Trwth, to get his magic comb and shears.

So there you have it -- the oldest surviving King Arthur story is not about the grail, or Launcelot and Guinevere, or the treachery of Mordred, or the sword in the stone. King Arthur's first quest was the search for the magical hair-care products to make a giant pretty.

Giants, apparently, are very high-maintenance, but at least now we know why they're called fabulous beasts.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
I'm reading the oldest surviving Arthurian tale right now, Culhwch and Olwen, in the Mabigonian. It's approximately 1000 years old, and includes the first-ever list of the Knights of the Round Table, most of whom never made it into later tales. The list is huge, covering pages 89 to 95 in my edition.

Also, many of them have strange powers that don't appear in later versions. Like Sir Kay -- he can deliver wounds that never heal, and on rainy days he can turn up his body temperature to the point where the rain evaporates before it hits him and his companions.

Some of the long-forgotten original Knights of the Round Table:
  • Medyr son of Medredydd, who could fire an arrow from England and hit a bird in the crotch in Ireland,
  • Sugyn son of Sugnedydd, who could suck up the ocean -- his named means "Suck, son of Sucker," and he was no doubt popular on those long journeys in the wilderness,
  • Gwefyl son of Gwastad -- according to my book "on the day he was sad, one of his lips he would let down to the navel, and the other would be as a cowl on his head" (!),
  • Gwaddyn Osol, who had the power to stomp mountains flat
  • Two kings of France, who have nothing better to do than run around with Arthur -- Gwilenhin, and Paris -- for whom the city was named,
  • Osla Big-Knife, who carries a knife so big, it can be used as a bridge over rivers,
  • Echel Big-Hip -- no explanation given,
  • Sandde Angel-Face, Arthur's prettiest knight,
  • And my personal favourite, Gwydden the Abstruse
0_o On second thought, I guess it doesn't surprise me too much that they never did make it into later versions.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
Happy Jesus/bunny day to those who celebrate it. In Montreal, it seems we've got a white Easter, in place of the white Christmas we didn't get. Yesterday, it was bright and sunny and snowing, which I'd never seen before.

I know April showers bring May flowers, but what do April snowstorms bring?

I'm spending this long weekend in the office. It's quite peaceful. I'm averaging 2,500 words a day now, and I'm proud of that since it's mostly new material (harder to write), and I've worked most of those days.

I'm also on the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, which is the one I've been lifting second-hand fairy-tales to weave into my novel. Since I got all those stories about Math and Gwydion and Llew Llaw Gyffes second-hand, I decided to return to the source.

There are some definite gaps in the the storyline, which is to be expected in mythology -- like, "Why does the wizard Math have to keep his feet in the lap of a virgin most of the time?" That's just dropped in, without explanation. When Aranrhod is revealed as not-a-virgin by Math's magic, I was half-expecting her to shout, "I didn't think that counted!"
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
'And he arose and put his two feet into the bag and Pwyll [Prince of Dyfed] turned the bag so that [Lord] Gwawl [Son of Clud] was over his head in the bag, and slipped a knot upon the thongs, and blew a blast on his horn.
...
As each of his host came inside, each man struck a blow upon the bag, and asked, "What is here?" "A badger," they replied. After this fashion they played: each one of them struck a blow upon the bag, either with his foot or with a staff, and thus they played with the bag.

Each one, as he came, asked, "What game are you playing thus?" "The game of Badger in the Bag," said they. And then was Badger in the Bag first played.'

-- from the Mabinogion, the cycle of Welsh legends
And there you have it! All these years you've all been playing "Badger in the Bag," and I bet none of you knew where it came from!

I have to admit, my first thought was Grandpa Simpson saying, "I was wearing an onion in my belt, as that was the fashion at the time."
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
I'm still laying low -- though not quite as low as I had been during my months at school. I'm very slowly getting caught up on my friends' pages.

I've just been recovering from my last exam. I've started entering detox from my academic factory -- even though I don't yet know the results of my exam -- and easing myself back into the real world.

Today I started reading for pleasure again, the Mabinogion, the cycle of Welsh mythology. I've borrowed stories (stories I've read second-hand) from that book, so I figured I ought to get the stories right from the horse's mouth. I picked up a great, very modern translation while I was in BC, and it's been sitting on my to-read shelf ever since.

Mostly, though, I've been able to throw myself into my novel in a way I haven't been able to while I was going for my master's. I've been writing mostly original material this last week, balancing out some of the stuff that's been cut. I usually do my best work while I'm in BC, but this is stuff of the same quality. I think school was the source of the blockage.

This week, my work schedule is wonky, owing to the once-a-month attendance drive falling on Easter weekend. The gist of it is that I have today off, then work two days, a day off, work two days, a day off, and then work two days :/
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
You know, the modern fashion of having women act the women's roles in Shakespeare means that some of the humour in these plays is lost.

Take As You Like It. The big joke of the play is that Rosalind is a woman pretending to be a man. The play is chock full of double entendres, and in-jokes that the audience gets while the characters are clueless.

But if you remember that Rosalind is being played as by a boy -- since women weren't allowed onstage in England until 44 years after Shakespeare's death -- then you realize the double-entendres are actually triple-entendres, and the whole thing is a lot funnier.

To top it all off, Rosalind takes the name Ganymede. Ganymede, ferzeussakes!

For those of you who don't know, Ganymede was the beautiful teenage Phrygian boy that the Greek god Zeus fell in love with, and kidnapped to to his penthouse apartment atop Mount Olympus.

(Mythology does not record the outcome of the story, but I strongly suspect that he was reduced to a Phrygian-boy-sized bloodstain by dinnertime, as Zeus's violently jealous wife Hera did not like to have rivals.)

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a ganymede was yet another word for "passive homosexual" -- intriguingly, the English Renaissance had a lot of words for that -- so Rosalind's nom-de-drag may as well be "What-a-fabulous-window-treatment."

I also hope I live long enough to see a major-motion-picture production of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is played by a man, the way Shakespeare intended.

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