Wednesday, October 01, 2014

STRUGGLES WITH THE CLIMATE

The comparison between the Ponnivala legend and Iceland’s Vatnsdaela Saga is straight forward when it comes to climate. Iceland is cold and snowy. Therefore, to establish a toehold in this new land the story heroes must confront the hardships of deep snow and ice right away during their first winter. The physical climate causes the young heroic family to suffer. To survive they must live together in one simple home. Overcoming the difficulty the elements pose is itself the first step in their character formation as heroes. It is trial number one. When summer finally arrives the Vatnsdaela heroes are finally able to begin their first farming efforts… in an almost vacant land. But they continue to live in their first home for at least one more winter.

The early situation of the heroes of the Ponnivala story is quite similar. Only here the challenge of the new land facing the grandfather of the clan, Kolatta, are ones of heat and drought. Furthermore there is a small difference in the two genealogical accounts. Kolatta, the clan ancestor, is also the first pioneer. In the Vatnsdaela tale Ingimund’s father (Thorstein) provides the closest parallel to Kolatta. But Thorstein is technically NOT the clan ancestor as there are four named men in the male line that precede him. Even if we take Thorstein to be Kolatta’s equivalent, it is only his son who migrates to the new world called Iceland. In contrast, Kolatta and his eight younger brothers are created right on the land, by a goddess (Lord Shiva’s wife Parvati). These men begin their lives as young adults not as new born babes. However, they too start off sharing a single and quite humble house.

The first climatic challenge also comes early in the Ponnivala story and all nine brothers face it together. A terrible drought afflicts the area. The land is hot and dry. It will not grow anything. Everything withers and becomes brown. As a result all nine men have to pull up stakes and relocate. Kolatta leaves first but eventually all of his eight brothers follow. These refugees find a neighboring kingdom (where there has been no drought) and are taken in as laborers there. After pleasing a prosperous king there with their hard work, he decides to thank them and make them into allies. The grateful king (unnamed) then sends all nine brothers up river to settle a new, uncultivated area along the Kaveri river. This is the area known as Ponnivala. These men are to cut down the trees and bring this wild region under the taming influence of their ploughs. In sum, the influence of climate shapes the early actions of the heroes in both epic stories. And in both cases that harsh environment has something of a positive impact on the formation of each ancestral hero’s courageous character.

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Birth in a New Place

Up until now I have focused mainly on similarities between the Vatnsdaela Saga and The Legend of Ponnivala. However, when it comes to women these two stories diverge in a striking way. In the Icelandic tale the wife of the key hero Ingimund is featured as a young beauty by the name of Vigdis. She is a socially well positioned woman whom he marries and who then bears him many children. Interestingly, there is significant resistance to her wedding by her father. This is not surprising since Ingimund had earlier killed his son, this young maiden’s brother. But his resistance is overcome when Vigdis’ mother intercedes on behalf of her daughter’s suitor. After Ingimund’s wedding, furthermore, this “in-law problem” is left behind due to a simple, practical solution: the couple immigrate to their new homeland while their potentially troublesome relatives stay behind in Norway.

In the Ponnivala story the hero Kunnutaiya has a similar problem. The two elder brothers of the woman he loves also resist him, saying he is an inappropriate suitor for their young sister. (The father of these three siblings is not mentioned). Again the story hero’s wedding proceeds, in defiance of her two brothers’ resistance. The Ponnivala wedding, furthermore, takes place “outside” the bride’s village. The great god Vishnu holds the event deep in a forest because the ceremony has not been publically sanctioned. But it is backed this god. He declares that the bride and groom are actually cross-cousins which “rationalizes” this event. The son of a woman, according to local tradition, actually has a “right” to demand the hand of his mother’s brother’s daughter in wedlock. But the relationship Vishnu is referring to is not publically known. Both the Vatnsdaela and Ponnivala stories follow up the wedding with a similar outcome: each set of newlyweds is immediately forced to leave the family’s home area and settle in a completely different locale. In the Ponnivala case, but not in the Saga story, the bride later wants to return and visit her brothers. Then the in-law problem raises its head again. That later chapter in the conflict is not easily resolved.

However, there is one striking difference between the Icelandic Saga and the Ponnivala epic tale that must be mentioned. Vigdis is a fertile and compliant bride who raises many children to her husband’s name. Ingimund’s wife is featured at the moment she gives birth to her daughter Thordis. She does this in a heroic manner, by herself, in a copse of trees while her husband stands at a distance.

In the Ponnivala story Tamarai gives birth to her precious daughter in her own palace upon returning from a very long pilgrimage. But the bride-heroine in this South Indian case turns out to be barren (due to Lord Shiva having laid a curse on her husband’s family years earlier). Kolatta is thus (technically) the founder of a barren family line. Shiva does this because Kolatta has inadvertently caused the death of nine sacred cows. As a remedy, Kolatta’s son Kunnutaiya is born using a work-around. As the story explains the matter, Shiva’s heart eventually softens and he creates a little boy that he places him under a rock pile for Kolatta to find. When this boy grows up and marries, however, the same curse reappears and is now laid upon Kunnutaiya’s wife Tamarai. Tamarai suffers as a childless woman for years and spends much time seeking ways to obtain the gift of fertility by asking for god’s grace. She feeds beggars, helps the poor and finally goes on a long, long pilgrimage.

In a sense both heroines give birth after meeting a challenge, but the back story related to this seemingly similar event in the two stories is very different. I mention this because the contrast reflects a significant difference in the two legends. Many children are born in the Vatnsdaela Saga, through many years. All the wives are fertile and not a single childbirth appears to be problematic. In the Ponnivala story, by contrast, every key woman suffers from barrenness and because of this a big issue looms in every generation over who will inherit the family lands. Bearing children seems to be the main function in life for the women of Vatnsdaela.

By contrast we see only one woman in the Ponnivala story bear children, and that happens only after a superhuman effort on her part! And even then Tamarai cannot achieve a single childbirth without significant assistance from the gods. The Ponnivala story, therefore, depends on a key story device: an emphasis on female suffering and subsequent divine intervention. Indeed something similar happens to the Ponnivala heroines repeatedly. This core motif reappears for three generations running. In both legends one of a women’s key responsibilities is to bear children who can carry on the family line. But in the Ponnivala tale this is no easy matter. Furthermore, female chastity and self restraint are very big issues in this latter account while neither theme is given much emphasis in Iceland’s Vatnsdaela Saga world.  

~ Brenda E.F. Beck

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Beloved Land


The lands of the Vatnsdaela valley are surrounded by beautiful green hills. These hills are celebrated in the Vatnsdaela Saga and the tapestry being prepared at the Icelandic Textile Center honors them in its design layout. Such clear links between a core legend and its landscape are both essential and predictable. The Ponnivala story makes a set of similar connections. There too the hills that border the area are where the heroes undergo many of their more challenging adventures and where they meet their fiercest foes. There is a sense, in both stories, that the hills are the wild lands where bandits and dangerous animals can appear suddenly from behind rocks or bushes and where danger always lurks. The valley lowlands, by contrast, are open and well cultivated in both legends. Here is where civilization reigns and where the heroes made their homes. This view of a landscape that is tame at its center and chaotic at its boundaries is shared by both epics.


In both the Vatnsdaela saga and the Legend of Ponnivala the pioneer founder-hero decides to establish his farm at the center of a fertile watershed. The climate is strikingly different, of course, in these two areas. Iceland is cool all year round, and very cold in the winter. Ponnivala is a tropical land, warm all the time and very hot in the summer months. It is home to irrigated rice paddies and coconut palms. The style of agriculture practiced is bound to be different, of course, but the lifestyle in other ways is not. Both regions feature cattle, sheep and the importance of the plough. Life in both areas is centered around largely self-sufficient homesteads. Multiple generations often live under the same roof. In sum, striking climatic contrasts between these two landscapes does not necessarily make for major sociological differences in these two story’s core construction details!

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Arrival of the Pioneers



The Vatnsdaela Saga and the Ponnivala stories both begin with a clan forefather. Both legends then proceed to focus in on a key hero and a fine ruler born into this descent line. In the Icelandic case we hear briefly about Ketil the Large and his son Thorstein before the story proceeds to describe the key figure Ingimund. For the sake of comparison we can say that Ketil and Thorstein in this European case are “collapsed” into the figure of one forefather Kolatta, in the Ponnivala case. In both cases the story concerns the immigration of men into a new previously unfarmed area where they hope to settle and begin both cultivation and animal husbandry. These settlers arrive by sea in the case of Iceland, and on foot along with their ox carts, in the case of Ponnivala.


In the Ponnivala story it is the first generation of men, namely Kolatta and his eight brothers, who immigrate to this new land in hopes of a new life. Ingimund travels from Norway to Iceland as a Viking and is looking to start a farm in this new, wild, unpopulated area. Ingimund is already a man of statue in Norway. He arrives in Iceland with three fine ships, their crews and ample supplies. He is carrying with him ample supplies obtained from previous wars, all spoils that have been gifted to him by King Herald. Of course he expects Ingimund’s political support and loyalty in exchange. Kolatta is not quite so well-endowed but his basic situation is quite similar.


Kolatta his brothers have been loyal and hard workers under a Chola king. Over several years they have brought prosperity to his fields by their skilled labour. In response, this Chola ruler decides to reward Kolatta, and his eight male siblings, by granting the family land in an area lying well upstream of his own palace which was situated on the banks of the great river Kaveri. Hence Kolatta also followed water to reach a new land, even though he did not use a boat to get there. And the Chola king also expects to maintain Kolatta as a loyal ally and to expand his power into a new territory. The land is soon divided into two adjacent parcels, one for Kolatta to enjoy on his own and the other for his eight younger brothers. It seems likely that the lands in and around the Vatnsdaela valley soon became divided into individual family areas in much the same way.


The story symbolizes Kolatta’s bond to the land with a short mythical tale in which Lord Vishnu places the hero under the earth. He then causes him to rise up out of the land in front of an audience of local residents. This “legitimizes Kolatta’s claim but does not much please those who watch. These earlier claimants to the land try to repulse the new comer, but with little success. Ingimund has a similar myth establishing his land claim. A sorcerer’s prediction helps him to find a magical ring buried in the earth at the exact spot where he then decides to settle.   

Monday, September 22, 2014

Can An Icelandic Saga Be Viewed Side By Side With A South Indian folk Epic?

Icelandic Sagas are famous all over the world as one of just a handful of founding legends on which later Western literature has built. These marvelous tales are presented in a very direct prose style, unlike many other tales that belong to a much larger corpus of literary epics with which they are often grouped. The Saga tradition is considered to be a kind of primitive, early record of Icelandic culture. This is a collection of discrete stories that together represent a magnificent and unique human achievement. I am going to discuss only one core tale here, the one known as The Vatnsdaela Saga. This tale describes the very first people to settle in the Vatnsdal region. These immigrants were from Norway and were backed by the king there. He hoped these wealthy landed men from in his own country would remain his allies and establish new farms in this far away land. Their success abroad would eventually flow back to Norway, bringing him added power and fame.

My underlying intent in this essay, however, is not to delve into Iceland’s colorful history, but rather to compare this particular Saga with an equivalent South Indian story known as The Legend of Ponnivala. The Ponnivala tale is a core oral legend initially known only in one interior area of South India, the area along the south bank of the Ponni (Kaveri) a little bit West of Trichy near the smaller city of Karur, in Tamilnadu. The Vatnsdala and Ponnivala epics have much in common but unlike the Icelandic Sagas, the latter is virtually unknown to the world. I wish to stimulate interest in both stories, but particularly in the latter, so that it may begin to claim its rightful place amongst other tales of its kind.

I only visited Iceland for one week, and the Vatnsdaela Saga was the one story for which I was able to collect some details. I was also lucky in that I encountered some very interesting visual images that depict most of the key characters in this particular epic tale. Many other Icelandic sagas await my further study and then additional comparative work.

The Vatnsdaela and Ponnivala legends have absolutely no direct cultural links, even though both the Vikings and the Tamil traders of South India were nurtured by skilled sea-going merchant cultures. Both had a zest for foreign adventure, and as far as we can tell, the two traditions both thrived during roughly the same time period (800 to 1500 AD). Yet I do not believe they ever met up, even through intermediaries. What my comparison will hopefully show is that both stories provide an entertaining narrative folk account of a regional population’s linguistic and cultural roots.

Both legends rest their development on larger-than-life social ancestors. Their heroes and heroines are men and women whose exploits and courage clearly shaped the social traditions of a proud people who live on today. In both regions, one very hot and the other very cold, modern-day residents still love to recount their links to these hero(ines).

In both cases, too, the core story lives on locally through references in folk art, folk festivals and local landmarks a traveler can see on the ground. Both are lively and very human narrative masterpieces meant to honor certain unique events now seen as related to laying down the social foundations of that region. I will tackle the ambitious comparison of the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Legend of Ponnivala under twenty four separate headings:

  1. ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST PIONEERS
  2. THE BELOVED LAND
  3. BIRTH IN A NEW PLACE
  4. STRUGGLES WITH THE CLIMATE
  5. A REGIONAL IDENTITY LINKED TO WATER
  6. THE PIONEER HOMESTEAD
  7. THE TAMED LANDS AND SOCIAL CONTRACTS
  8. THE WILD LANDS AND MAGIC
  9. A WISE LEADER & FATHER FIGURE
  10. THE STORY TELLERS
  11. HEROES VERSUS VILLAINS
  12. WOMEN VERSUS MEN
  13. FEUDS AND ARGUMENTS
  14. MORALITY AND DIVINE JUSTICE
  15. ADOPTION
  16. PRESTIGIOUS GIFTS
  17. STORY WOMEN
  18. MAGICAL TOOLS
  19. NEGATIVE POWERS & CURSES
  20. DIVINE FORCES
  21. BIRDS
  22. HORSES
  23. EDLER AND YOUNGER BROTHERS
  24. EACH A KEYSTONE STORY