Monday, December 01, 2014

Each A Keystone Story


In this final segment of my Vatnsdaela Saga and The Legend of Ponnivala comparison I want to stress the important role both stories play as “keystones” in their respective cultures. Both celebrate foundation-forming events that oral tradition has come to associate with one specific geographic region. Both celebrate the increasing independence of that region from a distant and powerful monarch or king, the very political powerhouse initially involved in its creation. Both are stories about the beginnings of agriculture in a previously wild (unfarmed) area. Furthermore, both stories express local pride in a specific ancestry and in a variety of cultural details that describe the area’s unique social identity. Furthermore, each story fosters a special sense of social belonging that the residents of its core region still feel to this today. As is commonly the case for a keystone legend, folk art and local customs mark the conscious preservation of that tale in many ways. As one moves through the story landscape, in either case, one can see, hear and sometimes viscerally experience reminders of its legendary characters. These reminders are naturally expressed in various features of the local landscape and also are captured by their local geographic names. These same traits often find further celebration through folk art and in other artistic ways. Image one shows a key expression the Vatnsdaela Saga is currently finding in a huge embroidered folk banner/tapestry that is right now being created (July, 2014) by a large team of students at the Icelandic Textile Center in Blondos, Iceland. Image two shows a piece of a similar mural found on a temple wall by the author of this blog in 1965, right in the middle of the area where the Ponnivala story is most celebrated and remembered. South Indian temple murals come and go as strong sun and heavy rains usually destroy them within years of their making. However there are many other expressions of Ponnivala story interest as well. I will include just a few, below.


This next set of images shows two other ways in which the Ponnivala story is commemorated. The first picture captures a fleeting moment in a folk drama, a staged performance presented in a local temple compound. Parts of the legend are here being re-enacted by local bards for an enthralled audience. Such performances are rare these days, due to heavy competition from Bollywood the cinema, local television networks and a strong DVD industry. Nonetheless, people still enjoy watching these folk dramas which depict these popular and well-known local heroes’ role in shaping regional history. The second image shows a village drummer who is also a singer. His popular folk musical performances help keep the memory of this great story alive.


This next image sequence shows how, in both Iceland and in South India, various local commercial interest have incorporated story motifs and names into their own promotional strategies. First we see the façade of the Viking Hotel in Reykjavik where a Viking presence is celebrated in several visual ways. In the second image we see the same, on a smaller scale. Here a tourist lodge has been named after Ponnivala’s main heroes and then advertised on the cab of a motorized rickshaw which the driver is proud to show off. Many other local companies in Ihe Indian case, for sure, and likely in Iceland as well, use similar labels and epithets in an effort to keep the memory of ancient story heroes alive.



The final image sequence in this blog series shows a fanciful Reykjavik roof top with the Viking dragon as its feature motif. In the Indian parallel we see a trucking firm that has named itself after the Ponnivala heroes, Ponnar and Shankar. In sum, the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Legend of Ponnivala are not just stories that have come down to us from the past. Both legends still play an active role in the formation of a regional identity. Both stories are an essential vehicle used to convey and express local residents’ sense of ownership of a long, long tradition of cultural pride!

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Friday, November 28, 2014

Elder and Younger Brothers



The contrast between a pair of elder and younger brothers is a key theme that can be found widely in the world’s folklore. In is no surprise, therefore, to find this concept imbedded in both the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Ponnivala legend. Nonetheless, certain very noticeable similarities provide for a striking comparison. In both stories two key brothers often appear and act together as a set, even though they differ in significant ways, personality-wise. In both stories, too, this prominent brother pair are heroes who appear only in the third generation, or indeed even later if one counts the cursory mention of several additional ancestors in the Vatnsdaela case. In both tales, as well, the elder brother is the more passive, thoughtful and compassionate while the younger is the more aggressive, faster to anger and always quick to sense an insult. Note that in the image shown here that Thorstein (the elder one, in the blue cape) holds a sword but it is still in its sheath. Standing right beside him is Jokul (the younger one, in the red cape). Not only is his sword unsheathed but it is covered with blood! In the second image we see the two Ponnivala brothers (Ponnar the elder, in blue pants and Shankar the younger, in red pants). Shankar is in the lead and his arm positions are more energized, clearly showing that his elder brother (with lowered arms) is the “follower.”


There is not as much visual detail available to me for the Vatnsdaela Saga as there is in the Ponnivala case. But the principle concept, a key contrast between these two Icelandic heroes is nonetheless well developed by the story teller. Looking at the Ponnivala case in more detail I will just share a few (out of many) telling scenarios. First we see Shankar accusing his brother of being timid. He wants to go on a raiding expedition, but his elder brother is holding back, saying that their parents warned them both about taking this kind of warlike initiative. Shankar’s argument wins the day and Ponnar follows him on an expedition only his younger brother has planned. In the second scene we see the two brothers standing before their mother discussing their potential marriage. Neither brother wants to marry but their mother is insisting. Shankar makes the main argument while his brother Ponnar, standing close by, simply complies. The two end up marrying but resist is subtle but clever ways, all of which are invented by Shankar.



In this scene the two brothers have been stranded on a mountaintop by the Chola king. Shankar is complaining to his brother about his lack of willingness to challenge the Chola monarch. He blames Ponnar for their dreadful dilemma. Ponnar remains passive, implicitly accepting his brother’s criticism. In the second image the two brothers are seen playing dice in their palace gaming room. This game is a key predictor of terrifying events that follow soon after each gambling contest. Hence once again Shankar is the keener player, the man who throws the dice more forcefully. (Lord Vishnu even has to tie him down with an invisible chain at one point). Meanwhile his brother Ponnar keeps him company but always behaves as the secondary player. 

The core relationship between a set of two key heroic brothers is consistent across both story worlds. The elder is always the more contemplative and passive while his younger counterpart is portrayed as the “real” aggressor, a man to be feared and at times, even terrifying. Furthermore the more aggressive character in a heroic twosome is commonly the greater folk hero. Certainly Shankar is favored by legend over Ponnar. Jessie James the bank and train robber had a brother, but he was the real dare devil who killed many men and became the popular folk hero of many legends. Folklore often glorifies bravery and even bullying. But in the background there will usually be a complementary character (most likely a sibling) who balances out the unpredictability of that lead character by exhibiting significantly more restraint and calm-headedness.

~ Brenda E.F. Beck

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Horses


A magnificent horse and its rider function as cooperative team. This appears to be a key prestige symbol in both the Vatnsdaela and Ponnivala epic stories. In both stories some, if not all, of these animals are said to have special powers. In the Icelandic saga a variety of different men are portrayed on horseback. Indeed, both the heroes and their enemies possess horses. In the Ponnnivala story, by contrast, horses with magical attributes appear as mounts for the heroes but are not ridden by anyone else. In addition, these fine animals are a shinny blue-black in color. Lovely songs describe their unique speed and deft footwork. Such magnificent beasts are never associated with the heroes’ adversaries (with a possible exception posed by the Chola king, who clearly owns many horses but is never seen riding one himself. The Chola king only rides an elephant). In the Ponnivala story, furthermore, it is only the twin heroes of the third generation that have horses. Their grandparents did not have them at all, and their parents are only described as grazing these animals in their fields. They are never described as actually riding them. In the Vatnsdaela case, by contrast, I believe we can assume that every generation of males mentioned by the tale had access to horses. It is interesting that the hunter-tribals who live in the hills neighboring the heroes’ lovely farmlands are described as owning a horse stable. We can assume that horses stayed in that shelter but we never hear of the hunters actually riding them. I suspect, using evidence collected from other sources, that the Chola king regularly had his horses and elephants grazed in the hills by tribal “keepers.” But these men were not allowed to mount these fine animals themselves, unless of course they were assigned to be a part of the king’s special “horse guard.”


Both epics display sets of horses that run together in associated folk art. Seeing two horses at once further enhances the sense of the power and military force these magnificent animals convey. In the Ponnivala story the maximum we find is a two horse set, while in Vatnsdaela art we can see at least three (and perhaps more) horses running as a group. Also interesting is the fact that the key assistant working for Ponnivala’s twin heroes (Shambuga) never, ever rides a horse though he is the stable boy who looks after them and seems “to know” their ways and their secrets. Instead, Shambuga is portrayed as having the magical powers of a horse and is a man (often shown) as running after his masters’ galloping steeds and keeping up with them. Shambuga also fashions halters made from viper skins for these animals. Those skins possibly “transfer” the power of the feared viper snakes of the area to the heads of the horses these halters rest on.



Horses in both stories are used to pull or carry important things. In the Vatnsdaela Saga we are told of a magical horse (Freyfaxi) pulling a winter sled that certain heroes ride in. In the Ponnivala case, however, the heroes’ two magical steeds never pull anything (like a chariot, which would be culturally appropriate). However, their masters do carry more than swords when riding them. In this image the elder twin, Ponnar, is being handed the beam of a plough which he is about to take to the Chola king as part of a tribute payment. In another example, not shown, Shankar’s horse carries a special bird cage used in trapping a parrot.

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Monday, November 24, 2014

Birds

Ravens are important in both the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Ponnivala epic.  In the former they appear just at the moment that the hero Ingimund kills a wealthy robber.  It would seem that these birds (who are two in number) embody the spirit of the deceased as it is released from the corpse.  In a related Icelandic tradition from the same period the Norse pagan god Odin had two ravens Huginn and Muninn, who sat on his shoulders.  These were his messengers and they have been linked by scholars to various shamanistic practices of the period.  In addition, a raven banner was frequently flown by several Viking chieftains and other Scandinavian rulers during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries.

It is interesting to note that a similar, but as yet unnoticed iconic image, is visible on the famous sculpted rock cliff at Mahabalipuram, in Tamilnadu.  There two birds sit near the left shoulder of the famous hero Arjuna. He is standing upright in a sun-worshiping yoga pose and is extremely emaciated.  Indeed, he can be said to be near death’s door.

The second image illustrates the presence of this birds-of-death theme within the Ponnivala story itself.  Now we see not two but a flock of ravens arriving for the funeral feast of cooked rice.  Tangal, the heroes’ sister, throws this symbolic food to them just after after her two brothers’ deaths.  We know that these birds are feasting on behalf of the two men’s departed spirits.  This striking set of parallels between the old Norse and Dravidian South Indian traditions surrounding ravens and death is interesting and is certainly worth further investigation.

There are several other bird associations in the Ponnivala story that deserve mention.  One is the appearance of an eagle at several points in the story, wither when a hero dies or becomes frozen in stone.  The eagle is an iconic reminder that Lord Vishnu (who flies on a half bird-half human vehicle) is nearby.

In the second picture we see two birds exiting the nostrils of queen Tamarai while she undergoes a twenty-one-year penance near the gates of heaven.  At Lord Vishnu’s bidding these two parrots descend to earth and later become involved in the Ponnivala story.  They live in a lush and large banyan tree as a loving male/female couple.  Those two birds exit from Tamarai’s nose just as she is about to “die.”  Clearly these bird lives have an association with the gods of each story and (perhaps) their role is to perpetuate the lives of the deceased by flying away as the human body dies.  Possibly they embody the spirits of these characters and later (have the ability to) facilitate their rebirth.

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Friday, November 21, 2014

Divine Forces


In the Vatnsdaela story the Bishop, by implication backed by the great power of the Christian-church-on-earth endorses some (if not all) of the actions the story’s human characters take. In the first image we see a group of guests at a feast who are killing two “berserk” men who have just entered entered the longhouse where the party is being held. Interestingly, these were asked to walk through three fires kindled on the floor of this great home, presumably as a “test” of their faith When they suffer burns they are attacked and killed, with the good Bishop approves their actions.

There are similar “tests of faith-by-fire-walking” that can be seen to this day in South India, though none are mentioned in the Ponnivala story. However, a hero’s (or heroine’s) backing by the religious institutions of the time is present in the Ponnivala legend as well. In this later case the great Hindu god Shiva plays a role similar to God-the-Father in Christian tradition. Shiva can create and destroy human life at will, though most of his decisions are mediated by his ally and messenger Lord Vishnu. Indeed, his role is not dissimilar to that of the Bishop in the Vatnsdaela Saga, as described above. Vishnu visits earth and impacts the turn of human events much more frequently, however, than does the Bishop in the parallel Icelandic story.

Two further examples of Lord Shiva’s power in the Ponnivala legend are illustrated here. In the first picture Shiva is creating a child that he decides to hide under a rock pile on earth. This child will become the father of the heroes-to-be of the next generation. He is found under these rocks a day or two later by his adoptive father, the pioneer hero Kolatta. While waiting to “be found” the little child is nursed by a loving cow who dribbles her milk down to the babe through a crack in the stone which is covering its crèche. 

In the second image we see Lord Vishnu, Shiva’s Bishop on earth, visiting the two heroes in disguise. They have lain sick in their war tent for days (see the previous blog). Now Lord Vishnu takes the form of a fortune teller to explain to these two men why they are so ill. He tells them that they have been cursed by a little she-pup! The he recommends the remedy. They will have to apologize for their disrespectful behaviour towards this tiny dog, before this curse can be lifted and their fighting strength regained! The god’s moral message here comes through clearly. The big and the powerful need to show respect for others, especially the weak and the small.

~ Brenda E.F. Beck