Friday, October 17, 2014

A Wise Leader and Father Figure – PART 2

Ingimund becomes wealthy but remains loyal to the king of Norway. When eventually asked to settle in Iceland, Ingimund serves as a king’s representative, a man commissioned to establish a new outpost for his overlord. When Ingimund returns to Norway with gifts and a report the king gives him both material rewards and also a talisman to mark his identity as an ally. The same monarch also arranges Ingimund’s marriage to a high status woman who accompanies him to Iceland and bears him several children: several strong sons and also one fine daughter. Ingimund dies of a sword wound after living many good years. He is now a respected elder. Two close friends pierce their breasts with their swords to express their unconditional loyalty and thereby die with him. The suicides of these close friends of Ingimund resembles the deaths of the two heroes in the Ponnivala story who also commit voluntary suicide. The Ponnivala men (Ponnar and Shankar) die a double death on the tips of their own swords. We can read this a sacrificial gift to the gods (honoring a message sent to them just a short while earlier by Lord Vishnu). These two heroes’ loyal assistant Shambuga then kills himself in order to join his two masters. This self-willed death of a loyal follower of Ponnivala’s local ruler(s) directly parallels the statement made by Ingimund’s two special friends when they immediately offer up both their own lives the moment they learn of their leader’s demise.

Kunnutaiya is Kolatta’s only son (albeit technically an adopted one). He also matures early, having been orphaned by his parents’ simultaneous deaths when he was only six years old. This event forces Kunnutaiya to become self-sufficient. He soon runs away from clansmen try to abuse and take advantage of his pitiful condition. Kunnutaiya defies all odds, now fending for himself over many years while exhibiting physical skills and also good street-smarts. In this he parallels Ingimund’s early life, first living under the wing of an adopted father and then as a self-sufficient young Viking warrior. Kunnutaiya eventually marries a woman of high status with the help of Lord Vishnu. Ingimund marries with the help of a king. Kunnutiaya then returns to his father’s homeland where he re-establishes the family farm and accumulates substantial wealth. Ingimund immigrates to Iceland and establishes a homestead there.

Kunnutaiya, like Ingimund, is loyal to a great king (an unnamed South Indian Chola monarch) to whom he reports and takes gifts. In return he receives various honors and even a small crown. Kunnutaiya always behaves like his royal master’s ally. He recognizes that he holds territory in an outpost area over which the king wishes to claim sovereignty. Kunnutaiya is soft spoken, kind and a gentle landlord whose actions are much admired. He performs good works along with his wife. Then, with Lord Shiva’s help, she eventually gives birth to two brave boys and one lovely little girl. It is presumed they will carry forward the good family name. Just before Kunnutaiya and his wife die they offer important words of advice to their two sons. Then they lie down, surrounded by their children, and die a natural, non-violent death.

Both Ingimund and Kunnutaiya are both remembered as wise, even-handed rulers who care deeply for their subjects. Both are said to share their wisdom to others in their later years. Both are admired fathers and true clan heroes. A set of paired sons is born to each of these ruler. Remarkable, these two sets of story characters resemble one another as well. For a discussion of Thorstein The Younger and his brother Jokul plus the tale of Ponnar and his brother Shankar see the up-coming blog segment devoted to the theme of elder versus younger sons.  

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Wise Leader and Father Figure – PART 1

 The Vatnsdaela Saga and The Legend of Ponnivala both feature a distinguished clan ancestor, a sort of “grandfather” figure. In the Icelandic case this is Thorstein (The Elder). We are told that this senior Thorstein was preceded by a named four-generation lineage of males said to have resided in Norway before him (Giant-Bjorn followed by Hrossbjorn, then by Orm Broken-shell and then Ketil the Large). But these are largely just names mentioned in passing. A few details are provided that describe Ketil, the last in line before the venerable senior Thorstein, as noble and wealthy man. But the real story begins with Thorstein The Elder himself. Thorstein is not a pioneer farmer and he never leaves Norway. However he is a brave man who sets out at age 18 to establish himself as a brave and honorable man. He soon kills a man who made himself wealthy by robbing others. He then gives the victim’s money back to the people. When he returns he receives fame and respect for his brave deed. Thorstein then goes on to marry the murdered man’s sister, a woman named Thordis. Interestingly, both Thorstein’s name and Thordis’ name repeat two generations later when these names are reused to label this couple’s first born male and female grandchildren.
The parallel character in the Legend of Ponnivala is Kolatta, the pioneer grandfather. Instead of having a genealogical lineage of four preceding males, Kolatta is directly created by the goddess Parvati along with eight younger brothers. This gives him a different but equally “prestigious” status in this South India story. Kolatta does not go out and kill another man at age eighteen, but he does marry a woman (also created by the goddess) and at roughly the same age he enters Ponnivala as an immigrant with the plan to become a pioneer farmer there. He is opposed by previous sword-bearing residents. Instead of killing them (Kolatta has no sword) he bravely rises from the earth (symbolically positioned as its son) and we learn that because he is backed by Lord Vishnu, no sword can kill him. He goes on to adopt a son whose wife eventually bears the clan line several grandchildren. These children are not given his (and his wife’s) name(s). However, they are what is called cross-cousin grandchildren, a local Tamil tradition where two male clans consistently intermarry by giving women back and forth to each other over several generations. This is not “repeat naming” but a kind of social equivalent we can call “repeat intermarrying.” Kolatta also resembles Thorstein in that he is an honorable and sincere man despite the fact that he unintentionally kills several sacred cows at one point. Poor Kolatta builds a fence that whose sharp fence posts these innocent cows die on, believing they can jump over it. In sum, both Thorstein and Kolatta are responsible for a kill, though in different ways and within very different cultural frameworks. Both remain honorable men and become, as their two epic stories progress in parallel. Both die relatively natural deaths and each stands as a venerable clan forefather that later generations can look up to.

Ingimund is Thorstein’s only son and he becomes a main story hero. He matures early and is said to be handsome as well as very talented physically. As a child he goes to live with his father’s friend Ingjald where he shares adventures with Ingjald’s son. As a young man he leads the life of a Viking raider. This helps him to build his skills and self-confidence as a successful fighter and brave man.   

~ Brenda E.F. Beck

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Wild Lands and Magic

In both the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Legend of Ponnivala the wild, mountainous areas are important. These uplands provide a contrast to the much flatter farmed (or grazed) lands in each case. The Vatnsdaela valley is hemmed in by hill rocky hills of volcanic origin. These hills are where the magicians, sorcerers and spirit beings generally reside. These are dangerous areas not to be entered thoughtlessly. 

The Land of Ponnivala is also surrounded by high hills that are filed with wild animals and populated by fierce hunters. In these areas the paths are full of thorns, a wild boar stalks intruders and a fierce goddess (Kali) reigns. In both stories three underlying contrasts are fairly obvious: wild versus civilized, chaos versus order and danger versus safety.

The Vatnsdaela Saga speaks of Porolfur (the dark skinned trouble-maker) who lives in a fortress in the hills and who is suspected of animal sacrifice (in other words, of sorcery). Here the hero of the third generation, Jokul, scales Porolfur’s defensive wall in order to get at him and destroy this dangerous adversary. 

In the Ponnivala Legend Shankar, the third generation hero, has an assistant who visits the hunter’s forest palace on his behalf. This residence is also fortified just like the one in the hills of Vatnsdaela. But there is no need to scale its walls, because Shambuga is shrewd and knows how to speak candied words with the forest princess who rules this domain. However, Shambuga is a very strong man and certainly could scale the fortress walls if he so wished. The hills among which this hunting palace sits are visible in the background. And the geographic area referenced as belonging to these hunters also has a likely volcanic history.

The wild hills of Ponnivala are full of tigers and cobras. And these are not ordinary animals. The palace princess mentioned above controls them and can speak to them in their own language(s). She can also speak with parrots and there are two very special parrots, descended from the heavens above, that live in a fine banyan tree near her residence. This hunter’s sister has the power to anticipate future events and she knows that her two lovely parrots (a couple) are at risk of being stolen by her adversaries, the farmers who live on the flat lands below. So this young princess (also a virgin) asks 5,000 tigers and 5,000 cobras to guard these two treasured birds and keep them from harm. Unfortunately, with Shambuga’s help, the farmers eventually outwit her, and steal her beloved female parrot. This theft of a bird (likely a symbolic substitute for the princess herself) signals the start of a great confrontation between the hunter-tribal forest dwellers and their non-forest neighbors.

In these two pictures, one from each epic, we see the third generation hero in the process of killing his dark-skinned forest-dwelling adversary. In the first image Porolfur has been on the run and is exhausted. Jokul’s kill appears easy though the lead up to it was challenging. In the second image we see Shankar confronting a skillful fighter. But these hunters are true athletes and martial artists too. Even armed with just one stick they can do real damage in a fight. Shankar wins the struggle and the story uses this outcome as one more demonstration of his courage. Of course Shankar also carries the superior weapon.

Finally (not pictured), there is a tenacious wild boar named Beigad in the Vatnsdaela Saga that Ingimund chases. Eventually it jumps in the water and then runs up a hill. There, exhausted, it dies. There is a similar tale in old Norse mythology with a boar of the same name. By contrast that boar escapes and spares the exhausted hunters! The story we are examining shines much glory on the Vatnsdaela hero! In the Ponnivala tale we find a similar wild boar and he is considerably more important than is his Vatnsdaela Saga equivalent. Komban is a magical boar, perhaps a kind of sinister yogi. His roots likely lie entwined with a very ancient tribal belief system seen in petroglyphs from South India. Komban is eventually killed by Shankar’s great boar spear but not without a huge struggle. His identity is also more complex that Beigad’s as Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva also (both) take the form of wild boars (albeit very different ones) in their own well-known Hindu mythologies.  

~ Brenda E.F. Beck

Friday, October 10, 2014

Artisans vs. Farmer-Landowners and Their Backers

The text of the Vatnsdaela Saga available to me (in English) does not mention the occupations of the various adversaries described. However, piecing matters together using information from the Saga Museum in Reykjavik, we can guess that several of these men may have been blacksmiths. We do know that a well-known blacksmith, Kveldulfur, was forced to leave Norway with his son Grimur. These two managed to escape to Iceland by boat but the senior sailor died on the way. Upon reaching Iceland his son built a settlement known as Borg. But Grimur but was clearly not a farmer and he did not bring livestock with him. Instead Grimur lived by hunting and fishing in this new land. After a time, Grimur found iron deposits in some wetlands nearby and then was able to start a smithy by the shore. Grimur is described as having a dark and unattractive complexion, as being reticent and as not being interested in the company of others.

The above description evokes a similar situation in the Legend of Poninvala where a group of artisans (who know many skilled trades) are the first residents of the area where the heroes want to settle. They are first called upon for their blacksmith skills, but later are described as sawyers or woodcutters too. These artisans are friendly with the native hunters living in the hills nearby. These craftsmen, significantly, do not farm and they are a key adversarial group the heroes must face. Indeed, the artisans challenge this leading family once in every generation. In sum, there is a similar situation in both stories. Indeed, this sociological parallel, focused on an artisan-farmer confrontation, is really quite striking!

We can further analyze the confrontation of Berg The Bold of Borg symbolically. As he enters a wedding hall Berg deliberately pushes Thorstein aside so violently that he almost falls into the big fire that burns in the middle of the longhouse. Berg is in a rush to get to the fire. His clothes are frozen stiff and he is freezing. Blacksmiths normally work in a very hot and enclosed setting. The fact that Berg’s clothes were frozen (due to a foolish decision he made to show off by carrying people across a river full of chunks of ice) may serve to mark his lack of survival skills out-of-doors. Berg should not have depended on his strength alone to resist the frigid outside temperature that wintery day. Indeed, Berg’s rush to the fireplace might even be a kind of “inside farmer’s joke” about the nature of his character. After all, the entire Vatnsdaela story is told from the farming-hero’s perspective, just as the Ponnivala story is. Furthermore, Berg’s skin is said to be dark. This fact fits well with his presumed work environment, a smithy where there is plenty of soot and constant smoke. Farmers may have sneered at his occupation, though they would have been dependent on his skills to acquire new plow points and many other iron tools needed for their work. Note the cat in the background of this 3D scene featured in the Saga Museum display (Reykjavik) of the smithy at Borg. The cat seems to convey the idea that magic or of other related occult powers may reside in this dark, hot setting,

Like the famous sword that belongs to the Vatnsdaela heroes, named Aettartangi, the swords of the Ponnivala heroes also have some magical power within. But interestingly, these swords only acquire their mystical force due to a blessing that the heroes’ sisters can give them just before their use. In this as well as in other ways, the women in the Ponnivala story have a strong impact on events, especially via their backing of their husbands’ and brothers’ exploits. The force these Ponnivala women have available to transfer derives from their chastity (self restraint in sexual matters) and in particular from their virginity. I refer, in particular, to examples set by the several unmarried girls in this story. Chastity and virginity are not given anywhere near the same importance in the Vatnsdaela case, a story which speaks of a man’s mistress at least one point, as well as of a child born out of wedlock. There are no parallels for either of these situations in the Legend of Ponnivala. The Vatnsdaela Saga also has key roles for several female sorcerers, women who operate solely on the negative as opposed to the positive side of the heroes’ balance sheet.

Insults to a hero’s honor and self respect are important in both stories. Even the specific nature of an intended insult finds a parallel in at least one case. In this image the elder brother-hero Thorstein is made to bend low to get under an arch, meaning that he has to place his head below that of his adversary. 

A similar situation occurs in the Ponnivala legend when the elder brother in the third generation, Ponnar, is made to swim through a sluice-tunnel while his adversary stands on top of it.

In both epics there are accounts of what amounts to the murder of several unfortunate people pretty much at once. In this Vatnsdaela image it is the killing of two “berserks” in an action sanctioned by the Bishop himself. This is a kind of justice enforced by crowd behavior. It is also an incident that expresses a fear of outsiders and of those who are “different” or behave strangely. 

In the Ponnivala Legend there are some rather similar moments. Here the twin heroes’ key assistant (third generation) kills a large group of disliked clansmen by simply dropping a heavy stone pillar on them using his magical strength. In another case (not shown) the goddess herself kills a group of artisans (depicted as both sly and deceitful) during a village ceremony by causing them to fall to their deaths from her magically “flying” temple cart. As for people who are strange, the main heroine, Tamarai, is vilified for being a barren woman… by her own brothers, as well as by others!

In the Vatnsdaela Saga the Bishop and his assistant wield significant authority. But they live in a world where Christian beliefs are only half the picture. Vatnsdaela society is described as containing many pre-Christian ideas about sorcery and magic. Curses delivered via rune-writing are widely respected.

This co-existence of orthodox religious beliefs and earlier tribal traditions is not so obvious in the Ponnivala case, though one can see it if one looks below the story surface. The Ponnivala heroes clearly live in a Hindu world where the great gods Vishnu and Shiva, (not shown here) are seen to rule. There can be no doubt that these orthodox divinities of Hinduism call the shots and manipulate men’s fates as they wish. Nonetheless, traces of earlier belief systems can also be seen. There is a great wild boar in the Ponnivala story, for example, for which there is strong evidence of a wild-divine-boar precursor in Indian rock art from the area. Other details (too complex to describe here) also point to the persistence of earlier tribal beliefs present in the background surround, particularly at the point where Tangal attempts to “resurrect” her twin brothers from death.    

~ Brenda E.F. Beck

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Tamed Lands and Social Contracts

In both the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Legend of Ponnivala there are stories about outsiders arriving and being resisted by those already living on land in the area. One Vatnsdaela example is a boat that lands near the hero’s homestead. It has a skipper called Hrafn. As leader and first man of the area Ingimund went to meet him as the ship docked. He politely offered to let the new guest stay in his home and Hrafn accepted. But it was also the custom that the first man to meet any ship could select from its wares whatever he fancied. Hrafn had a fine sword with him that Ingimund admired and which he asked to purchase. Hrafn refused and Ingimund nursed a feeling of insult. Sometime later the two men went into Ingimund’s nearby homestead shrine together. Ingimund went in first. Then he turned around and found Hrafn coming at him with his sword drawn. Ingimund was now doubly angered and said that no sword should be drawn inside a temple. He then asked that Hrafn hand over his sword to pay amends to the gods. Hrafn did this and soon afterwards he left the area for good. The fine sword became treasured by Ingimund and was later handed down to his two sons and then on to their descendants. (Note that Kolatta and Kunnutaiya worshipped at similar shrines near their homes. Kolatta’s temple was dedicated to his own family goddess – Celatta. No other information and no image of Ingumund’s family temple was available to me (at the time of writing this blog).

There is a somewhat similar but inverted set of stories about Kolatta and his grandsons that, like the above, involves swords. Again there is an outsider/insider confrontation but in Ponnivala the artisans are the first settlers and they have the swords. Kolatta is the newcomer and has arrived without this important tool. The artisans resist Kolatta’s announcement that he is going to plough “their” lands as a skilled farmer. They then proceed to throw their swords at him in an attempt to behead the newcomer.

Vishnu then steps into the scene (unseen in the image used) and sees to it that the artisans’ swords are ineffective. Kolatta lives and the physical confrontation ends, at least for some time.

Furthermore, as a result of Vishnu’s divine intervention a social contract formulated. The great Lord announces the terms: The newcomers will be awarded the right to plow the lands of Ponnivala, but every time an artisan makes a plough for them to use the craftsman responsible will receive three handsome measures of grain. There is no social contract mentioned in the Icelandic case. However, soon after a key moment where Berg insults Thorstein at a wedding and Thorstein’s younger brother Jokul then tries to even things out by launching a reciprocal attack on Berg. The two are separated but Berg then raises the matter later in a public forum at the Hunavan Assembly. A decision is reached. Jokul is to lower himself before Berg by crawling under a mossy arch (see an image of this in this same blog segment). This public announcement of a resolution somewhat resembles Vishnu’s to the gathered Ponnivala crowd that there will now be a set of payment rules detailing what a farmer must pay an artisan for any completed work delivered (a new plough, for example). Jokul refuses to crawl under the arch so Thorstein, his elder brother, steps in to replace him. Apparently one brother could “replace” another in settling a matter like this.

In sum, in the South Indian epic the causes of social tension differ from those described by the Icelandic story to some extent. In the Ponnivala tale we see mostly group-to-group confrontations. Most of these concern a dispute between the representatives of the three contrastive modes of production described there (artisans, hunters and farmers). The Icelandic story is more focused on personal confrontations between evil doers and those upholding what is presented as “right” or moral behavior. There the heroes oppose sorcery, theft, and personally insulting behaviour). In this sense we can say that the Ponnivala story has the stronger “sociological” perspective, perhaps due to the presence of a denser population and more highly evolved local economy in the area during the period depicted. In part two of this segment, however, we will look below the surface and notice that the artisans versus farmers is a common underlying theme that does appear to be present in the Icelandic case as well.

It seems fair to say that in the Vatnsdaela Saga the owner of the finest sword (and perhaps also the most magical one) makes the rules. Some kind of divine backing may also be implied by the presence of a temple near Ingimund’s home, but this theme is not well developed. We can be sure that this finest of swords, Aettartangi, came from an outsider, a somewhat intrusive guest who seems to have had other fine goods on his ship as well. This is relevant because of the hint that this visitor had artisan or merchant connections. Clearly the sword’s original owner was not a farmer. Later, in Part Two of this segment I will revisit this probable confrontation between a merchant-artisan and a hero-landowner. (Image 6) This image extends the theme of divine backing. In the Ponnivala case, as one further example, Kunnutaiya and his wife turn to Lord Vishnu for advice before deciding exactly where to locate their new palace. Indeed, Vishnu’s backing of the Ponnivala family is seen repeatedly, right through the story. Interestingly, however, Lord Vishnu switches sides and supports these landowners’ hunter enemies when it really counts, at the very end of the tale (a reversal too complex to discuss further here).

In the Legend of Ponnivala’s third generation Kolatta’s grandsons have fine swords though we are not told exactly how they acquired them. This South Indian story also exhibits more continuity in terms of the long list of adversaries family heroes must face. And grudges last longer. Now the artisans, who were the area’s original inhabitants, continue to hold a grudge against the farmers for three generations. In this image one artisan tries to steal a sword from Kolatta’s grandsons by sneaking into a palace storeroom where their family weapons are kept. But the heavy instrument slips in the thief’s hands and cuts him instead. 

Skipping a few in-between events, the confrontation ends when one grandson, Shankar, arrives on horseback, rescues his brother and beheads the thief with exactly the same tool this man had earlier tried to steal!

~ Brenda E. F. Beck