Tag Archives: Kalevala

Myths of Nationhood

MYTHS OF NATIONHOOD

by KEVAN MANWARING

(first presented at the Folklore, Ethology and Ethnomusicology Conference, Aberdeen University, July 2014)

Gather round the Story Fire and listen to each teller share a tale from his or her land...

Gather round the Story Fire and listen to each teller share a tale from his or her land…

INTRODUCTION

In this paper I will explore the construction and dissemination of national myths – more precisely, long-established oral narratives — how over the centuries they have been forged at times of perceived crisis, re-asserting a vision of the ‘nation’ which suits the agenda of those advocating or maintaining it, articulating and emphasising certain values deemed timely and intrinsic to national identity.

Y Mabinogi - a national epic for Wales, forged by Lady Charlotte Guest...

Y Mabinogi – a national epic for Wales, forged by Lady Charlotte Guest…

My agenda here is not to challenge the existence of such myths – many of which I hold a deep fondness for as a professional storyteller and novelist. My discipline is creative writing, not history, anthropology, or politics – although there may be times when I inevitably cross the borders of all of these (such is the nature of borders of all kinds – to me they’re like ‘keep off the grass’ signs). My wish is not to dismiss the sovereignty of nations, but to explore their narratives (which often help construct the idea of nationhood). My paper suggests these constructs are fabricated and permeable and should be acknowledged as such. They exist within a global multi-linear meshscape of narratives – never in isolation; part of a dialogue.

So often the trouble comes down to a definition of terms. What is nation? It differs widely, but to cite the Oxford Concise (2001): ‘Nation’ is: ‘a large aggregate of people united by common descent, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.’ Origin ME, via Ofr, from L. natio(n), from nat-, nasci- ‘be born’, from where we get the word ‘nativity’.

As its root word suggests ‘nation’ is an idea that is always coming into being – it is embryonic by nature. To see it in a fluid, rather than a fixed way, would solve a great deal of problems. An analogy might be Wikipedia itself – an evolving, self-editing database, assimilating vast amounts of influence, its definition of itself continually being refined. Nation is a work-in-progress.

THE STORY FIRE

In the beginning there was Story. When our distant ancestors gathered around those first fires they shared stories of their day, their journey to that place, the hunt, dreams, visions and longings. Stories to explain the thunder in the air, or the thunder that shook the ground. Stories to explain the thirsty sun that drank up all the water of the land, the mysterious and beautiful moon, or the weeping cloud bringing its bad news from over the horizon. Stories to explain the origin of things – of how the world came to be,1 how people came to be, and how tribe and clan came to be there.

This instinct has not left us. Now we might codify our Creation Myths or ‘narratives of becoming’ with constitutions (e.g. Declaration of Independence, 4th July); or present them on the big screen with the latest special effects and the biggest name actors (e.g. Noah, Jodorowsky, 2014). We might enshrine them with annual days of national celebration (e.g. 23rd April, St George’s Day – not established until 1222 AD by the Council of Oxford), and re-enact the founding myth in colourful pageants (George and the Dragon – based upon a Christian martyr born in Cappadocia, modern-day Turkey). It can be epitomised by a rough-and-ready Mummers Play – our ‘hero’ St George fighting the Turkish Knight, his own twin brother. This grassroots impulse ensures a long-term resilience beyond the fickle radar of the mainstream.

In countless apparently crude examples of Folk Art across the world national consciousness is celebrated – from Russian dolls, to Czech puppets, Mexican pinatas, African carvings, Welsh love spoons, Scottish shortbread, Bavarian steins, Spanish castanets, Amazonian blowpipes, models of the Eiffel Tower, and so on. The world’s culture, reduced to often tacky souvenirs, gathering dust on the mantelpiece. Yet, all, (in terms of the signified) at one time, had a living vitality to them. All have been fought for, challenged, changed. None are set in stone, although they might seem so (as permanent as the Union Jack – hanging threadbare from its flagpole).

Perhaps if we imagine ourselves back by that primal Story Fire …

It is a dark, chilly night. The sparks of the fire swirl up into the star-strewn sky. The Milky Way lays her glittering trail across the Heavens. For a moment, we are humbled by our tiny presence in this vast cosmos – and so we huddle closer to the fire. We are not alone. Others gather there also. Across the glow of flames, you see faces from different cultures, different times — an Inuit eskimo, an Aboriginal elder, a painted Pict, a fierce Viking warrior, an Iron Age Celt in torc and plaid, a Roman centurion, a Tibetan monk, and a Hindu fakhir, among others. The atmosphere is warm-hearted. You feel a bond with these people. All have travelled far, and tonight you are united in your need for a warm fire, a hot meal and hopefully a soft bed. And fellowship. For the journey is long and often lonely. An ancient, chipped, chalice is past around and you take a sip of its warming fire. One by one, the strange travellers relate their story – at first the words seem exotic, alien to your ear, but whether it is the potent brew or some other magic, but you find yourself suddenly being able to understand. The words click into place. And you hear the tale of each traveller’s country. The story of their homeland.

A nation that knows its story has a sense of identity. Of continuity. Its presence has longevity. Its people know their roots. Story and place are often inseparable. They help cultivate a sense of belonging. In the same way that when we know someone’s story, we can start to understand them, sympathise with them, even respect them; if we know the story of a nation we start to accept its ‘presence’, its right to be. It no longer remains an easily demonisable ‘other’ – the Red Man, the Gook, the Hun, the Bosch, the Kafir. They have a voice. A dignity. A place at the fire.

THE KALEVALA

Kalevala

In Finland, around the same time as The Mabinogion (Y Mabinogi) was being created by William Owen Pughe and Lady Charlotte Guest in Wales (1838-1849), a similar project was taking place — the Finnish ‘national epic’ — the Kalevala was being composed. Yet this is largely the creation of one academic, Elias Lonnrot (1802-84), a doctor of medicine and later Professor of Finnish at the University of Helsinki. It is a prime example of how national epics can be created.

Published in 1849 by the Finnish Literature Society, the Kalevala (’the land of Kaleva’) is a compilation of vast amount of folk poetry collected from the Baltic-Finnish area. Only a fraction of it found its way into those pages and yet it still totals 22,795 lines, and ‘has come to represent for the world the quintessence of Finnish traditional culture.’ (Intro, Kaleva). Geopolitical upheavals seemed to have given extra relevance to the ideas of German thinker JG Herder (1744-1803), ‘who argued the need for a nation to possess a distinctive cultural identity which was founded in the language and oral literature of the ordinary, unlettered people.’ (ibid, xi). Coupled with the ideas of Finnish historian HG Porthan (1739-1804) at a time when the Swedish Province of Finland had recently been annexed by Russia (in 1808-9) and Finland itself had become a Grand Duchy in the Empire, this created a perfect storm for a rise in national consciousness. Folkloric material was sought to feed this as ‘the cultivation of a national identity became a veritable duty for many educated Finns’ (xii). A national epic would help reassert its vulnerable sense of identity at a time of transition.

The one forged by Lonnrot told of how in the near mythical realm of ‘Perm’ (as described in the Russian chronicles: ‘a land inhabited by people of great wealth, speaking neither Norse nor Russian, and whose god Jomali was worshipped in a temple richly ornamented in gold’, xxxiii) the people of the south (Kalevala) fought off the yoke of the people of the north (Pohjola). This project gained blessing from St Petersburg because the authorities saw how ‘an emerging Finnish national consciousness was a sure means of weakening age-old and potentially dangerous links with Sweden.’ (xii) At the heart of this cycle is the culture dominant muscle-bound hero or giant called Kaleva (not dissimilar to the legends of Britain being a land of giants responsible for the great henges, overthrown by Brutus, newly arrived from Troy). Lonnrot took these West Finnish and Estonian folk traditions as evidence of a heroic age, a Hegelian heroenzeit – which fitted his agenda well, for he and his contemporaries believed that ‘without a heroic age there could be no national epic, and without that no real ‘national spirit’.’ (ibid, xxxii) In the forging of the Kalevala, Lonnrot not only collected and transcribed thousands of lines of poetry, he also sequenced them for dramatic effect and even added lines (’hardly more than 600 lines were composed by Lonnrot himself’, xxx). Although this smacks of Macphersonism, Lonnrot would have perhaps argued he was merely adopting a suitable methodology: the poetic technique of his ancestors. In the northern parts of Archangel Karelia heroic epic survived ‘most powerfully’. This was ‘where the great singers customarily combined stories of the traditional heroes to produce long narrative sequences’ (xvii). Using this technique, Lonnrot felt justified in forging a unified epic: ‘He now felt able to mould it for a specific purpose – to reconstruct the heroic age of the Finns’ (xxix). So from the so-called ‘proto-Kalevala’ published in 1835 to the extended edition of 1849, Lonnrot augmented and added to his material. This stitching together was possible largely due to the nature of the material: ‘a body of sung poetry consistent in form and structure and sharing a common stock of motifs and themes.’ (xiii) It was as though it merely waited for someone to come along and tidy it all up. And, lo, a national epic was born: ‘’Lonnrott offered to his countrymen in the Kalevala the chronicle of a heroic age that was to provide for Lonnrot’s contemporaries an essential foundation-stone in the construction of a Finnish national culture and nation-state’ (xxxiii). In doing so Lonnrot’s methods might be challenged, (the great folkloric scholar and fellow countryman, Lauri Honko, argued that the Kalevala was essentially a literary epic) but he was doing no less than Sir Thomas Malory with ‘Morte d’Arthur’, or Lady Charlotte Guest with ‘The Mabinogion’, and perhaps even Homer did with the The Odyssey and the The Iliad.

So often the apparently benign act of the Victorian antiquarian collector, keen to preserve a dying culture, in their acquisition and transcription, provided its death knell. What was organic and evolving now became ‘fixed’, as Albert J Lord describes in The Singer of Tales, discussing the evolution of Homeric epics: ‘…it was the collector and even more those who used his collection for educational, nationalistic, political, or religious propaganda who presented the oral society with a fixed form of its own material.’ (Lord, p138)

The poet or the folklorist compiles a large body of oral material, often polishing it up, and turns it from the spoken to the written form – codifying and enshrining it, from oral epic to literary epic. This is a terminal process – as soon as oral material is set down in print it risks becoming ‘fossilised’ (the written version is seen as definitive and any variation is frowned upon, is seen as inaccurate and non-canonical) and yet at the same time, without the literary masterpieces that we have, many of these ‘national epics’ would have been lost. [10.36]

MISAPPROPRIATION

Seigfried and Fafnir

In Germany, Das Nibelungenlied2 (’Song of the Nibelungs’)- a Middle High German epic poem written about 1200CE by an unknown Austrian from the Danube region – was seized upon and misappropriated by the National Socialists, yet though their association has regrettably tarnished the myth, they were not to be lured by the glitaheid. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states: ‘Probably no literary work has given more to Germanic arts than the Nibelungenlied. Many variations and adaptations appeared in later centuries. The most significant modern adaptation is Richard Wagner’s famous opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–74)’.

The remarkable and eerie Nibelungenhalle

The remarkable and eerie Nibelungenhalle

Despite its negative association with the Nazis, the myth itself is not ‘evil’. It is like the sword displayed in the Nibelungenhalle3 – based upon the one Sigurd was said to have pulled from the anvil. It is ‘neutral’ – it all depends upon who wields it and to what purpose. This museum, on the flanks of the dramatic crag known as the Drachenfels (which, according to the Nibelungen saga, is the place where the young Siegfried is said to have slain the dragon, then bathed in its blood and become invulnerable), is a chilling shrine to a corrupted myth of nationhood. The hall is like a film set of an occult temple, designed for the blackest magic — which it was used for in WW2. Its cold marble floor is dominated by a pentagram, with a giant snake (Fafnir) entangled within it, at the points of the pentagram there are five shrines, each alcove painted with scenes from the Teutonic myth. Originally built as a museum in 1913, to celebrate Wagner, in the Thirties it became popular with Nazi Youth Camps. Attached to it is a run-down reptile house complete with pythons and crocodiles. At its gloomy centre slumbers a giant stone effigy of Fafnir. It is now a curiousity — a creepy reminder of a dark period of Germany’s history.

JRR Tolkien was upset by this misappropriation more than anything. Here he writes to his son Michael, an officer cadet at Sandhurst ‘…I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler… Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved and tried to present in its true light.’ (Letters of JRR Tolkien, p55-56)

Similarly, nationalism in itself in not necessarily a bad thing — it manifests in different forms (civic; cultural), but Ethnic Nationalism (‘Das Volk’, as it was dubbed in Germany) is the most dubious, and the one that most often leads to violence: ‘What gave unity to the nation, what made it a home, a place of passionate attachment, was not the cold contrivance of shared rights, but the people’s pre-existing ethnic characteristics: their language, religion, customs and traditions.’ (Ignatieff, p4)

A.1998.9

Sometimes it is not the stories that get misappropriated, but cultural artefacts. The Elgin Marbles are a classic example of this, a legacy of the British Empire and its avaricious hubris. The Stone of Scone is another well-known example. Aboriginal ‘shields’ have been contentious exhibits, which are claimed to be sacred objects which belong with their people. More recently, the Ghost Shirt,4 once held in Glasgow Museum, illustrates how important these cultural artefacts are. The shirt was used in the ghost dance of Wounded Knee. A long campaign was conducted which eventually led to its return. Countless other artefacts linger in museums across the world – divorced from their settings, relics of other cultures, awaiting repatriation. Whoever controls these, as with universities and literary archives, have power.

DISPOSSESSED

The Tibetan epic of the Gesar of Ling

The Tibetan epic of the Gesar of Ling

The Tibetan epic cycle of King Gesar of Ling, relating the exploits of the culture dominant hero dating from the 12th Century, is performed across Asia (chiefly in what is known as the ‘Gesar belt’ of China). Its Tibetan version along occupies 120 volumes and a million words. It is recited, in hypnotic fashion, in a form known as chantfables over a series of days (BBC radio broadcast, ‘The Gesar of Ling’). A 100 ‘bards’ of this epic are still active in China today, many within minority peoples. The fact this epic has not only survived but is still being performed as part of a continuous oral tradition is remarkable, and has attracted much scholarly attention. A Tibetan scholar has written: ‘Like the outstanding Greek epics, Indian epics and Kalevala, King Gesar is a brilliant pearl in the world’s cultural treasure and is an important contribution made by our country to human civilization.5’ It is indeed a precious jewel, for the Gesar of Ling enshrines endangered beliefs, veering towards the shamanic pole in the continuum of Tibetan culture and religion (Samuels). Perhaps critical to its survival is that the fact that as an oral tradition, a large number of variants have always existed, and no canonical text can be written, yet within its vast and protean corpus a universal myth emerges. Although it is impossible to summarise the many versions, the gist of the epic is as follows:

King Gesar has a miraculous birth, a despised and neglected childhood, and then becomes ruler and wins his (first) wife ’Brug-mo through a series of marvellous feats. In subsequent episodes he defends his people against various external aggressors, human and superhuman. Instead of dying a normal death he departs into a hidden realm from which he may return at some time in the future to save his people from their enemies.[40]

It is the classic tale of the underdog winning through, with echoes of the Arthuriad: the once and future king returning in the hour of his country’s greatest need. Such a cthonic ‘liberator’ figure manifests across world culture (eg Charlemagne). One can see why such a tale has remained popular in the oppressed realms of the Orient. While Tibet remains annexed by China and its leader, the Dalai Lama, is in exile, and while human rights continued to be abused6 (eg the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners) the epic of King Gesar will continue to live on.

Sometimes, all that dispossessed people have left of their culture – when deprive of their homeland, their rights, their citizenship – is the stories of their country, their culture, which can be a moveable feast, transposed to diverse corners of the globe (in a process of adaptation, Honko categories as either milieu-morphological, functional, or cultural) . From a distance, this can become romanticised, tinged with nostalgia and longing, and set in amber – ossifying in a way it does not back in the mother- or fatherland, where it continues to evolve, impacted by the ongoing challenges and counter-narratives, jockeying for dominance.

When people are forced to move through difficult circumstances where does that leave their sense of nationhood? Does it move with them? So often it seems to increase, rather than diminish a sense of national identity, as Professor Chris Hann points out: ‘It is often precisely the experience of migration and displacement which increases consciousness of belonging to a group and to a place’ (Hann, p30)

Take for example the Boston St Patrick’s Day Parade – 17th March – a huge, brassy, kitsch celebration of Irishness enjoyed not only by Irish-Americans (whose ancestors were displaced by the Potato Famine) but also by a diverse cosmopolitan population and numerous visitors.

This experience of cultural diaspora and ‘islandisation’ has become increasingly common as pressures on resources, employment, etc increase. The nation state has become porous, challenged by historicism: ‘…the large-scale migrations of recent centuries have made it much more difficult to identify the members of a particular nation, or linguistic community, with participation in a shared culture. The assertion of a common culture, however, is increasingly made, despite realities that contradict the usual anthropological understanding of the term.’ (Hann, p31)

This has resulted in the ascendant phenomenon known asTransnationalism’, which ‘involves processes whereby traits originating elsewhere are (gradually) understood in terms of, and adapted to, the local, or whereby a person originating elsewhere gradually comes to terms with and adapts to his/her new locale (and the locale with/to him/her)’. A recent conference in Edinburgh (Imaginaries of home) has explored this. Convenors, Ullrich Kockel and Vitalija Stepusaityte  (Heriot Watt University) articulated this in their call for papers: ‘Home’ is a fluid concept in today’s transnational world.’

For nomadic people, the notion of ‘home’ is perhaps a more porous one, although often it relies upon a certain habitat (eg the Marsh Arabs of Iraq; the Tuareg of North Africa), one which can be annexed, exploited, and controlled. The Dreamtime stories of the Aboriginal culture of Australia have proven remarkably tenacious – evolving and surviving for possibly 176,000 years.7 For these first nation people, the whole of Australia is their patch, one with which they have an intimate knowledge and relationship. As with North America, the arrival of white settlers had a devastating effect, bringing disease, violence, division, and racial intolerance. And yet, against all odds (and deliberate persecution)8 their stories have survived – and, despite the many problems still facing the Aboriginal community, the Dreamtime lives on.

WRITING A NATIONAL EPIC

JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, in the First World War

JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, served in the First World War and survived the Battle of the Somme

A national epic does not arrive fully-formed. It emerges through a long process of oral and written traditions, many of which are anonymous, co-authored, of the ‘folk’. Yet sometimes from one pen within a lifetime. ‘Author of the century’ JRR Tolkien, mourning the lack of a national epic for England, set out to create one in his Middle Earth Secondary World – chiefly in The Lord of the Rings: ‘ [I] set myself a task, the arrogance of which I fully recognized and trembled at: being precisely to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own. ‘ (ibid, p144)

Tolkien vigorously dismissed any suggestion of allegorical dimensions in his writing, and yet it is undeniable that his own ‘myth for England’ emerged from the Trenches of the First World War, as Garth has explored.9 Something of the horrors he faced seem to be mythologised in Middle Earth (e.g. the Dead Marshes). The loss of two dear friends (of a close-knit collegial fraternity of four), the relationship between officer and infantry, the clash of traditional and mechanistic forms of warfare, the nightmarish imagery of the Trenches — all this surely fed his imagination; and indeed haunted him all of his life. The mythos of Middle Earth was born in the blood and mud of Flanders, provided a consoling fiction to its author, and was perhaps driven by survivor’s guilt for decades afterwards.

In 2014 we commemorate the centenary of the First World War, when we saw the devastating cost of maintaining national borders. National consciousness rose to prominence, and all parties involved pulled out the stops to motivate their citizens. Lord Kitchener’s call to arms was only the most obvious nationalistic button-pushing. Hearts and minds were being won over by the Arts – from Music Hall songs to newspaper cartoons. Sometimes the recruitment happened in unlikely guises.

During the summers of 1915-1916, Cecil Sharp collected ‘English folk songs’ in the Southern Appalachians with Maud Karpales (continuing the work of Olive Dame Campbell)10, a project designed, it seemed, to emphasize Anglo-American ties and thus motivate American involvement in the War. Poet and literary critic Edward Thomas was engaged in a similar project back home — commissioned to write books on Englishness.11 In WW2 Dylan Thomas, working for Strand Films who produced work for the Ministry of Information, wrote scripts for several documentaries.12 Initially these were blatantly propagandist — casting the enemy in a negative light, but this turned to films that focused on positive elements of home life, e.g. life in the Welsh valleys13; and homecoming veterans seeing their homeland in a new light.

A PLACE CALLED ENGLAND

'Isles of Wonder' The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, London 2012

‘Isles of Wonder’ The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, London 2012

Myths of nationhood are still being forged — sometimes to overwhelmingly positive effect. In 2012, Academy-Award winning director Danny Boyle devised a bold Opening Ceremony for the London Olympics, entitled ‘Isles of Wonder’, and in doing so created a modern narrative for the host country (written by Frank Cottrel Boyce, and with the help of thousands of volunteers, artists and technical crew). Watched by an estimated global TV audience of 900 million.14 It became the 2nd most popular TV event after the 1969 Apollo moon landings.15 Reaction was overwhelmingly positive in Britain and around the world, with only the odd right-wing politician deriding it (’lefty multicultural crap’).16 The dramatic volteface it created on public perception of the London Olympics, and the feel-good effect it had on the country is summed up Q magazine’s end of year review: “It could all have been so different. As the London 2012 Summer Olympics approached, the tide of scepticism seemed almost irreversible. There was the heavy-handed sponsorship, the draconian security, the ticketing problems, the ballooning budget, and the lurking fear that the Opening Ceremony might be, in director Danny Boyle’s pungent description, ‘shite’. It took less than four hours on the night of Friday 27 July to turn the whole country around. Not only was the ceremony demonstrably not shite, it was the most surprising, moving, spectacular cultural event this country had ever seen…modern Britain, in all its berserk, multi-faceted glory.”[18]

This ceremony, depicting the transformation of Britain from bucolic idyll, to Industrialised Empire, to post-colonial melting pot, cradle of the NHS and the WWW, shows the power of narrative — how a positive ‘myth of nationhood’ can connect to hearts and minds, and, for a while at least, provide a healing salve to ‘broken Britain’.

CONCLUSION

Utopia ('nowhere') - a nation that does not exist...

Utopia (‘nowhere’) – a nation that does not exist…

Myths of nationhood are never set in stone. They are a fabricated cultural artefact — sometimes created over centuries by many people, sometimes created by one person over a life-time. Even the idea of ‘nation’ itself is not sacrosanct. What we might mistakenly feel are stable entities, are in fact vulnerable, as we are seeing with the United Kingdom, these narratives of a nation can be challenged. The Irish Troubles are an extreme critique on the UK’s ‘Grand Narrative’, and despite the iconic Good Friday Peace Agreement17, the faultlines are still there, and sectarian violence continues to simmer away, fired up by the Orange Marches, the Real IRA, and scandals over political skeletons in the cupboard. In the case of the Scottish Referendum that narrative can be redacted by the will of the people. The story of the 1707 Act of Union can be rewritten, for better or worse.18

The Matter of Britain

The Matter of Britain

Now, more than ever, myths of nationhood are turning out to be very permeable constructions indeed. And yet, I argue, they still have a validity — not as justifications for violence, but as tools of understanding. A story is not a weapon, it is a window into someone else’s world.

The natural way of storytelling is the most powerful spiritual way to reach people, open their hearts, and sow the seeds of truth.’ (Francis Firebrace, Aboriginal storyteller, STCTE, p5)

Gather round the Story Fire and listen to each teller share a tale from his or her land...

Gather round the Story Fire and listen to each teller share a tale from his or her land…

The storytellers finish their tales and the fire dies down. All have spoken, although only a few of their tales have been heard here. What comes across loud and clear to me is that — firstly, all of these tales must be respected and the rights of the people they represent upheld; secondly, that these tales are part of a conversation — they belong in a complex web of narratives and are continually evolving. As any storyteller knows, you do not use a tale in a dogmatic way. You tell it and let it works its own magic. You allow the listener to make up their own mind about any messages, meanings, or symbols. You send it into the night and let it have a life of its own, to be retold by others. Happily Ever After is only the beginning. The real gift of these tales is in including the imagination in the important business of living, in negotiating one’s space on this planet. By telling such tales, we are able to entertain the possibility that other worlds are possible. By listening, we develop empathy and respect for other peoples, other ways of being. And that is surely a worthy myth to live by.

'We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men' The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
‘We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men’
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blood and Belonging: journeys into the new nationalism, Ignatieff, Michael, Chatto & Windus: London, 1993

Celtic Cornwall: nation, tradition, invention, Kent, Alan M, Halsgrove: London, 2012

Peoples, nations and cultures: an A-Z of the peoples of the world, past and present, MacKenzie, John M. John MacDonald 2005

Social Anthropology, Hann, C. M, London : Teach Yourself 2000

Stories That Crafted the World, Beckingham, Adrian, Gothic Image: Glastonbury, 2005

The Letters of JRR Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, Harper Collins, 1995

The Mabinogion, trans. Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin, 1976

The Scottish Nation: a modern history, TM Devine, Penguin, 2012

The Singer of Tales, Albert B. Lord, Atheneum: NY, 1976

The Story of Scotland, Neil Oliver, Phoenix, 2010

The theory of culture of folklorist Lauri Honko, 1932-2002 : the ecology of tradition / Matti Kamppinen, Pekka Hakamies, Lewiston, NY : Edwin Mellen Press, 2013

ARTICLES

Kuutma, K. ‘The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, JOURNAL OF AMERICAN FOLKLORE; 2006, 119(472):245-246, Database: British Library Document Supply Centre Inside Serials & Conference Proceedings

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 12-25 June 2014

1 Stories that Crafted the Earth, Beckingham, Gothic Image, 2005

2 Nibelungenlied, ( German: “Song of the Nibelungs”) Middle High German epic poem written about 1200 by an unknown Austrian from the Danube region. It is preserved in three main 13th-century manuscripts, A (now in Munich), B (St. Gall), and C (Donaueschingen); modern scholarship regards B as the most trustworthy. An early Middle High German title of the work is Der Nibelunge Not (“The Nibelung Distress”), from the last line of the poem. The superscription on one of the manuscripts from the early 14th century is “The Book of Kriemhild.”

4 This shirt is a replica of an original Ghost Dance shirt given back to the Lakota people of South Dakota by Glasgow City Council in August 1999. It was formally presented to Glasgow at a public hearing in November 1998 attended by the Lakota descendents of survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee in December 1890.

In 1892, the City Industrial Museum obtained a number of items from George C. Crager, interpreter for the Lakota performers at the Buffalo Bull Wild West Show in Dennistoun. Crager claimed that these objects had been taken from the battlefield of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 29th December 1890 including a Lakota Ghost Dance shirt. In 1999 this shirt was returned to the Lakota following Glasgow City Council’s approval of a repatriation request from the Wounded Knee Survivors Association. Marcella le Beau, a descendent of Rain in the Face, a noted Lakota warrior, was involved in the negotiations. In honour of Glasgow’s work she made and presented Glasgow City Council with a replica Ghost Dance shirt She decorated it with a buffalo hide strip and red clay from the Cheyenne River Reservation and ring-necked pheasant feathers,

Marcella le Beau, a descendent of Rain in the Face, a Lakota warrior who survived the massacre was Secretary of the Wounded Knee Survivors Association and was involved in the negotiations. In honour of Glasgow’s work she made presented Glasgow City Council with this replica Ghost Dance shirt Made of dyed calico, it is decorated with ring-necked pheasant feathers from the South Dakota Plains and a buffalo hide strip and red clay from the Cheyenne River Reservation.

http://collections.glasgowmuseums.com/starobject.html?oid=185741

7 Francis Firebrace, aboriginal storyteller,

Stories that crafted the Earth, Adrian Beckingham, Gothic Image, 2005, p5

8 ‘We weren’t allowed to practise our language, our culture, tell the stories…’ Francis Firebrace, Stories that crafted the Earth, p3

9 Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, John Garth, Harper Collins, 2011

10 English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, Cecil Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell, 1917

11 SELECTED PROSE OF EDWARD THOMAS:
The Heart of England
, Dutton, 1906.

The South Country, Dutton, 1906 (reissued by Tuttle, 1993).

Rest and Unrest, Dutton, 1910.

Light and Twilight, Duckworth, 1911.

The Icknield Way, Constable, 1913.

13 These are the Men, Balloon Site 568, Wales – Green Mountain, Black Mountain, New Towns for Old, The Battle for Freedom, CEMA, A City Reborn and A Soldier Comes Home.

14 Ormsby, Avril (7 August 2012). “London 2012 opening ceremony draws 900 million viewers”. Retuers. Retrieved 13 March 2013.

15 A British public survey by Samsung voted it the second most inspiring television moment of all time, second only to the 1969 moon landing.[204]

16 “MP attacks ‘leftie Ceremony'”. ITV News. 27 July 2012. Retrieved 28 July 2012.

18 The UK may yet end up in a rUK (GB-lite, or GBlit, for short).

Isles of the Ever-Living

Image

Islands of the Ever-Living

Kevan Manwaring

(the second part of a two-part article. Last time we looked at Isle of the Dead)

No Country for Old Men

Isles of the Dead often blur into Islands of the Ever-Living – in the mythic imagination it is hard to see the join – but the latter are completely in the Otherworld (despite claims that Avalon can be found in Somerset). Ever culture has them – consoling fictions to the reality of death perhaps. Ireland has one of the most famous, Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-young. WB Yeats visited it many times in his immortal poetry, as in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born and dies.

The American novelist Cormac Mccarthy probably had that last line more in his head when he wrote the novel that was turned into the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men (USA, 2007) – a paradigm away from the fey afterlife depicted in Irish myth, although the state of California seems to do its best at being a modern analogue for Tir nan Og, with its Tinsel-town fairy glamour and cult of the young and beautiful, in reality ‘youth without youth’ – perpetuated by plastic surgery ad nauseam. In science fiction, the tropes of myth, legend and fantasy have been transplanted into future utopias. In the Seventies’ Sci-Fi film Logan’s Run there is no old age – because everyone is culled when they turn thirty. This is akin to the cult of dead celebrities – of film stars (James Dean and Marilyn Monroe) and pop stars (Buddy Holly; Richie Valance; the ’27 Club’ of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain, Curtis, Hutchence, etc) forever young, forever beautiful.

In the ‘grey havens’ of the ageing West, where people are living longer, it seems few allow themselves to grow old gracefully – no one is willing to open the ‘strong door’ to let in reality, as in the tale from The Mabinogion. Bran’s company – the classic seven survivors – spend eighty years on a timeless island called Gwales, off the coast of south Wales (possibly Grassholm) in the enchanting presence of their decapitated leader, whose severed head – like Orpheus’s – began to sing. His potent presence dilated time – a cryogenic Face of Bo with the charisma of Captain Jack Harkness and John Barrowman’s vocal talents!

In the Celtic Tradition the Otherworld overlaps with our own and can be accessed via a spring, a grove, a cave, at dawn, twilight, at the cross-quarters (‘The Immortal Hour is always now’ Kathleen Raine). Tir nan Og can be visited through certain lakes, e.g. Lough Corrib, Lough Gur and Lough Neagh. Both Oisín and the warrior O’Donoghue entered Tir nan Og, according to some traditions, through the waters of Lake Killarney…Indeed, almost any body of water could serve this purpose, as it acts as a mirror for the subconscious and soporific effects extends brainwaves from Alpha to Theta, allowing greater synaptic leaps and more lateral connections.

Music and song can create this effect too – in another Irish legend, ‘Midhir’s Invitation to the Earthly Paradise’ is not only a classic description of the Ever-living Lands (‘‘the young do not die there before the old.’) it provides a sonic portal, altering the consciousness of the listener.

Timelessness and its unfortunate consequence, time displacement, are common traits of the Ever-living Lands – a day in Otherworld becomes a year here, or vice versa. The most haunting example of this Oisín’s three hundred year ‘honeymoon’ on Tir nan Og with Niamh of the Golden Hair.

Other Celtic heroes spend time enchanted in the form of animals – hawks, boars, stags, wolves, birds, even insects – their human selves in a kind of chronological stasis, surviving for sometimes millennia until finally released, fully cognisant of their time in animal form but physically unaged. The anamorphic poetry of Amergin and Taliesin (‘I am stag of the seven tines…’ etc) is possibly an example of druidic metempsychosis – the transmigration of the soul into different life-forms: reincarnational evolution and past life memory. The dream of other lives the awakened human soul remembers.

Sleeping by a fairy mound or tree is always a risky gambit – as Rip Van Winkle discovered. And stepping into a fairy ring can be even deadlier – seventeenth century Scottish minister, Robert Kirk, did just that and reputedly vanished from God’s Earth – leaving behind his ‘rough guide’ to Faerie: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, a MS of which can still be viewed in the National Library of Scotland.

Bardsey Island boasts ‘the time-eating goblins of Ynys Enlli’, at least the ferry over does on its behalf. The medieval monks spin-doctors claimed there is no death there, and ‘no one dies except of extreme old age’ – the rhetoric of a medieval version of a holiday brochure, a health farm for the soul?

Yet the monks of Mount Athos, belonging to a community of Greek Orthodox monks, are said to be the world’s healthiest people. The great and the good have gone there to be purged of the ills of Western civilisation.

Giraldus Cambrensis talks of Insula Viventum, an island whose inhabitants knew no death, reputedly ‘Inish na mBeo’, the ‘Isle of the Living’, in Lough Cre, east of Roscrea, County Tipperary.

In his novel Spiritwalk, (1992) Charles de Lint has a Djibwe elder, a First Nations tribe medicine man mention Epangishimuk: ‘the spirit land in the west where Nambush ruled and the spirits travelled after death’, (Spiritwalk, p120). The Path of Souls that spirits of the dead travel to reach the west is called ‘meekunnaug’. (ibid p144)

In the Finnish epic the Kalevala, the heroes LemminKainen and Ilmarinen makes various sorties into an otherworldly realm called ‘Pohjola’, that is The North Country, defined as ‘A dark and dismal country to the north of Kalevala, sometimes identified with Lapland itself.’ There the inhabitants lived free from care because they posses the Sampo, a magic corn, salt and coin-mill; the Scandinavian equivalent of the ‘land of milk and honey’.

Dunbavin, in his book Atlantis of the West suggests: ‘the Elysian Fields may indeed be held to be the ultimate source of the Atlantis myth’, (p282-3) albeit in a circuitous way, as he tries to prove they are in the Irish Sea.

In The Odyssey, that ultimate quest back home, to Ithaka (which to the hero, becomes a kind of paradise) blind Homer describes the Elysian Fields:

The Deathless Ones will waft you instead to the world’s end, the Elysian Fields, where yellow-haired Rhadamanthus is. There indeed men live unlaborious days. Snow and tempest and thunderstorms never enter there, but for men’s refreshments Ocean sends out continually the high-singing breezes of the west.

The Odyssey, Homer, IV, 549-643

Tied in with these geographical ‘lost’ islands in history, folklore, folk tales, place memory and genius loci – what currently is called psychogeography. These are more than rocks in the sea – they carry ‘freight’, the weight of our expectations, projections and participation with them over the years.

Celtic tradition and beliefs are expressed spiritually through the land: the landscape is filled with places where spirit is present. Every time we experience it, this presence encourages us to make an imaginative act that personifies the place to us. Then we perceive its qualities personally. This is the anima loci, the place-soul. When this is acknowledged and honoured, ensouled sacred places come into being.’ Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscape, p13

It is no coincidence that a plethora of sacred islands can be found like rosary beads around the shores of the British Isles – not only did the Celts migrate West via the water, but the monks and hermits would ‘island hop’ in the hope of more remoteness more solitude, so they could be closer to God (after the Synod of Whitby in 600 AD Celtic monks headed west to slip the yoke of Rome). These are ‘thin places’, as Ynys Enlli, Bardsey Island, is known as:

the membrane between Heaven and Earth seems to be less dense…nothing comes between: there is total transparency’

Quote from Ty Carreg visitors information, Bardsey Island.

One could say the same for any liminal place: spring, pool, cave, hill, mountain, wood, stream, bridge (e.g. Fairy Bridge, Isle of Mann). To the Celtic peoples all of these would have been places where the ‘veil was thin’ – and at certain times of year, even more so, e.g. Beltane, Samhain – the beginning and end of summer, respectively, when the Good Folk, the Sidhe, where abroad. Yet islands are especially sacred:

According to traditional thinking islands are inherently sacred, being places cut off by water from unwanted physical and psychic influences.’ Pennick (ibid, p105)

They offer a refugium – a place cut-off from the world where it is perhaps possible to survive hazardous times. These ‘arks’ are often more vulnerable than they wish – for no man is an island. Every Shangri-La is destined to be discovered, desecrated, lost.

Pennick continues:

Sacred places come into being when humans recognise and acknowledge them. They are ensouled locations where we can experience elevated consciousness, receive religious inspiration and accept healing.’ ibid, p14

Bob Trubshaw echoes this when he says: ‘the significance of a place has less to do with the physical landscape than with the meanings we give to the location.’ (Sacred Places, p3)

When people perform acts at a place that are in harmony with its inner qualities’, Pennick suggests, ‘then these qualities are enhanced and increased.’ This is what he calls Spiritual Gardening, akin to the work of the geomancer, who enhances the feng shui of a place – the flow of the earth dragon – through placing of objects, running water, etc.

In Iceland these ‘dragons’ are called landvaettir – landwights or earth spirits ‘where certain areas and landholdings were kept sacred’.

Mag Mell, ‘plain of joy’ is another Elysium…It is dealt with extensively in Maculloch’s article in The Druid’s Voice. We will instead venture further North.

Thule

It is easy to see why a dramatic country on the edge of the Arctic Circle is known as the land of ice and fire: Iceland. There is a strong Icelandic storytelling tradition, no doubt born out of the very long dark nights. Its corpus of legends and folktales – imported mainly from Scandinavia when it was settled a thousand years ago – have been enhanced by the dramatic landscape. Iceland is associated with the legendary island of Thule (pronounced Thoolay) and seems to fit later descriptions of it. Ancient European descriptions and maps located it either in the far north, often northern Great Britain, possibly the Orkneys or Shetland Islands, or Scandinavia, but by the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance Thule had drifted further out, into the west and north, often Iceland or Greenland – perhaps as a result of the pushing back of the boundaries of the known world. Ultima Thule, as it was also known in medieval geographies seems to denote any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world.” Some people use Ultima Thule as the Latin name for Greenland when Thule is used for Iceland. Iceland certainly is on the borders of known world – of both the American and Eurasian plates. It is one of the two places on Earth where it is possible to see this pulling apart of continent, and its ancient parliament, the Alþingi (All-Thing, as in the Manx Tynwald, Thing-Vollr: field of the parliament, with its own equivalent of Tynwald Hill, Law Rock) was held here, dramatically situated in its cleft like something out of Middle Earth. Here democracy was forged, but the justice it meted out was a keen-edged sword. Nearby is the ‘island of duels’, an island of sand formed in a manmade lake, created by a diverted river. Two men in dispute would go to it, only one could return – and the matter was settled. The trial-by-combat was viewed by judges, and not a few spectators one imagines! Holmganga is the Norse word for formalised single combat, meaning literally ‘going on an island’.

Fortunate Isles 
In the Fortunate Isles, also called the Isles (or Islands) of the Blessed (μακαρων νησοι makarôn nêsoi), heroes and other favored mortals in Greek mythology and Celtic mythology were received by the gods into a blissful paradise. These islands were thought to lie in the Western Ocean near the encircling River Oceanus; the Madeira and the Canary Islands have sometimes been cited as possible matches. Flavius Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana (book v.2) discussing these elusive islands, postulates:
the Islands of the Blessed are to be fixed by the limits of Libya where they rise towards the uninhabited promontory.’

The last phrase is a telling one – almost any ‘uninhabited promontory’ becomes susceptible to such speculative geography. Nature is not the only thing that abhors a vacuum. Mankind as populated the edges of the known with his imagination since the dawn of time.

Hyperborea

In ancient times Great Britain was famed as the island of the druid colleges, where trainee druids would come for instruction. Blake said:

All things begin and end on Albion’s ancient druid rocky shore.

Hyperborea, the Land Beyond the North Wind, is thought to refer to Britain: this is how it seemed to the Greeks – the back of beyond, dark, damp and primitive, the Antipodes of their zenith civilisation (from their perspective – that’s not to say there wasn’t civilisation below their radar in backwater Britain).

The earliest reference to the British Isles is as the ‘Tin Islands’ (Cassiterides, or Oestrymnides):

But from here it is two days journey by ship to the sacred island, as the ancients called it. This spreads its broad fields amongst the waves and far and wide the race of the Hierni inhabit it. Near it again lies the island of the Albiones

Massilote Periplus, c500 BCE

The ‘Hierni’ could well be the Hibernians, another name for the Irish, and the ‘island of the Albiones’ must surely be mainland Britain: Albion, inhabited by ‘the white ones’ – Caucasians. In my novel Windsmith, (awen 2006). I call these topographical ancestors The Chalk Folk. It is perhaps not surprising that ancient seafarers, presented with the white cliffs of Dover, called Britain the White Isle, however colourful its inhabitants – a home of migrant populations.

The classical myth is that Albion was a land formerly occupied by giants – cousins of the Tuatha de Danaan, the Irish aboriginal aristocracy diminised to ‘Little People’. These had conveniently vanished, justifying colonisation, although they had left their legacy in enigmatic stone temples.

Geoffrey of Monmouth compounded this creation myth in his History of the Kings of Britain, claiming Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, reached Britain, landing at Totnes in Devon, and dividing the land between his sons, Locrine, Camber and Alba (Logres; Cambria and Albion). This is a dindsenchas, a place-story, on a national scale.

It was thought by the Ancient Greeks that the god Apollo visited Hyperborea once in a course of nineteen years, a cycle known as the Great Year (‘in which period the stars complete their revolutions’ Hecateus). The ‘Temple of Apollo’ often alluded to could have been a reference to that great stone calendar Stonehenge. Britain was clearly a place was time itself was trapped in stone – as the myth that Cronus himself was chained beneath Hyperborea’s soil. Plutarch, in ‘The Decline of the Oracles’ recounts ‘the travels of Demetrius of Tarsus, an explorer sent out from Rome to survey the islands to the West of Britain. Demetrius describes a number of islands scattered in the sea. He met a few holy men who told him of a nearby isle where Cronus lay eternally imprisoned, watched over as he slept by the hundred-handed Briareus. Around about him were many daemons who acted as his servants.’

In Pindar’s Odes, we hear of such a place, guarded by fierce elementals:

Go by God’s road to the Tower of Cronus

Where the Airs, daughters of Ocean

Blow round the Island of the Blest

Pythean Odes, X, II

Long have wild seas and high winds kept all but the intrepid away from Britain’s coast, perhaps adding to its mystique. There is a Breton tradition that fishermen would ‘drop off’ the deceased on these haunted shores and it said they hear their names being called out. Author Robert Holdstock’s Merlin Codex depicts Britain as the Ghost Isle:

We were content on our island, the Island at the Edge of Dawn. Good plains for the wild hunt; good forests for the tangled hunt. Good valleys and hills. Good water. Groves where the vision of magic was comforting and sometimes enthralling.

Holdstock, The Broken Kings, p44

Islands in the Time-stream

Forbidden islands are common and the unwary traveller breaks the taboos of an otherworldly island at their peril. The immrama of the Celitc saints describe an archipelago of such Edenic places, each with their forbidden fruits – perhaps fantasized by ascetic monks, deprived of such pleasures. Ile de Sein, in the Atlantic off Cap-Sizun, ‘was once reputed to support a retinue of nine priestesses.’ This seems a common trope: the Cauldron of Plenty, held in Annwn, was ‘warmed by the breath of nine muses. This was held on Caer Wydyr (possibly Ynys Witryn) – the water-girdled fortress of crystal where nine maidens dwelt in an otherworldly place of seer-ship, itself echoing Merlin’s tower of seventy-seven windows, built for him by his sister, Ganeida – said to be located on Bardsey, with its square lighthouse, or more likely to be a kind of TARDIS, tucked into unlikely places, while the Arthurian timelord, ageing in reverse, tinkers with time.

My Mythic Reality novel The Well Under the Sea (RJ Stewart, 2009) is set on an island at the crossroads of time called Ashalantë, an amalgamation of the legends of Atlantis, Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod. It is governed by The Nine, based upon the nine priestesses of Avalon, and contains all the classic elements of a paradisal island – orchards, fair weather, deathlessness, beautiful women, legendary heroes… At its heart is a well (based upon the mythical Well of Segais in terms of imagery, if not function) where its inhabitants, when bored of their life of Elysium can return to Earth – stripped of their ‘bodies’ and returned to their primal essence, to be reborn again.

The End Of All Our Exploring

As Oisín finds, however pleasant paradise – in his case, Tir nan Og – there’s no place like home. And this becomes literally true for him – he returns to find three hundred years have passed and all those he once loved and knew turned to dust. The centuries catch up with him in a flash when he accidentally touches the ground, and he finds himself an old, old man – a man out of his time, a lost hero from another era, a ghost in his own land. His home is ‘no place’ – utopia – and perhaps that is the nature of all such places, a state of mind, always elsewhere, always unattainable. They slip out of our grasp as we reach them, or, if we hold onto them we pay a price, as one of Maeldun’s men found on their immram – each time they tried to leave the Isle of Women, its queen would cast out a sticky thread to haul them back, until finally the man cut off his hand and they passed on.

Setting out for these places is not as difficult as returning – the perilous Road Home on the Hero’s Journey – to return with something tangible is not easy (as the Babylonian king Gilgamesh found – having quested for the flower of life, he falls asleep on the way back, exhausted by his ordeal, and a snake eats it). Perhaps the best we hope for is to accept their temptation, their transience, learn from them and let them go… Blake said ‘he who kisses a joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise’.

It is part of the pleasure of our immram that we perceive our own lands with a fresh perspective – strangers in an estranged land, the native returning from a long voyage of many years. In Four Quartets, TS Eliot says:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Little Gidding’ (239-242)

***

Expanded extract from Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden by Kevan Manwaring, published by Heart of Ablion Press, 2008 (www.hoap.co.uk)

References:

Anon, Kalevala, Athlone Press, 1985

Eliot, TS, The Four Quartets, Faber & Faber, 1943

Haeberlin, Herman K., ‘Trails to the Ghost Lands’, Sacred Hoop #57, 2007

Holdstock,Robert, The Broken Kings, Gollancz, 2007

Macculloch, JA, ‘The Celtic Elysium’, The Druid’s Voice, #18, 2008

Pemberton, Cintra, Soulfaring: Celtic Pilgrimage, Then and Now, SPCK 1999

Pennick, Nigel, Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Thames & Hudson, 1996

Trubshaw, Bob, Sacred Places: prehistory and popular imagination, Heart of Albion Press, 2005

Kevan Manwaring is a writer and storyteller who lives in Stroud. He is the author of over a dozen titles including Lost Islands, The Bardic Handbook, The Way of Awen, Turning the Wheel and The Windsmith Elegy.

Author website: http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk