Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Heroes versus Villains - PART 1

In both the Icelandic and South Indian epic accounts wealth is redistributed by the (senior) hero. In the Vatnsdaela Saga Ingimund kills a wealthy robber and returns the goods he had stolen to its rightful owners. In the Ponnivala Legend the clansmen have tried to ruin Kunnutaiya’s maize crop by having their cattle trample it.

But with Lord Vishnu’s help those plants spring back and his wife Tamarai then finds that all their cobs contain jewels! She, rather than he, decides that all this surprising and unexpected new wealth should be given out to the thousand beggars who suddenly stand at their homestead door. This parallel story of gift-giving, found in both epics, illustrates the generosity and social responsibility of a key story character. But it is interesting to note that in the Ponnivala case this character is a female. She rather than her husband, is driven by an instinct for generosity. Ingimund, the gift-giver in the Vatnsdaela story was not married at the time he gave his newly acquired wealth back to the people. We don’t know what would have transpired had he had a wife. Nonetheless, the emphasis on female generosity in the Ponnivala epic matches other evidence found in this legend that credits women with key decisions. Speaking in general terms, females are given a heightened and more visible role in the South Indian story than they are in the Icelandic counterpart we are discussing here.

In both legends the sons of a generous senior figure become more violent than their father ever was. These young men, especially the second and younger of the two (Thorstein & Jokul from Vatnsdaela and Ponnar & Shankar from Ponnivala) kill a variety of challengers in each story. Jokul kills a man thought to have magical powers while Shankar kills an (unnamed) Chola king similarly described as having used his powers inappropriately. 

Jokul sometimes kills multiple men at a time, as in the image here that shows him with a bunch of thieves. Shankar also kills multiple men in quick succession, as in this second illustration. Here we see Shankar attacking a bunch of clansmen who earlier tried to take land from him and his father too. 

~ Brenda E.F. Beck

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Story Tellers

Scholars think that the Vatnsdaela Saga was likely written down by monks associated with the ancient church at Pingeyrar sometime between 1270 and 1320.  The story is only persevered in later manuscripts, however.  The earliest fragments that survive have been dated as having been written between 1390 and 1425 AD.  But the Vatnsdaela Saga itself describes more-or-less “real” events estimated to have occurred between 875 and 1000 AD.  (Andrew Wawn, pp. 185-88, the Sagas of the Icelanders, Penguin, 2001). This text represents just one of a much larger collection of oral stories that have survived to the present day and that depict tales from early Icelandic history.  This corpus of saga literature likely reflects a much larger body of popular oral legends circulating in the area at the end of the first millennium.  Monks, having heard them, began to write them down with an eye to their lasting preservation.  These skillful and attentive scribes were men interested in capturing their local history, hoping that future generations would honor these tales.  We do not know if the earliest story-telling traditions in Iceland transmitted legends using songs and extensive conversational segments.  However, it is likely that they did.   The text of the Vatnsdaela Saga, as preserved, however, is cast in narrative form.  There are no songs and just a few lines inserted here and there that depict actual conversational exchanges between characters.

The Legend of Ponnivala is still sung by illiterate local bards (at least in part) and thus is still transmitted orally.  The version I reference and have written about was tape recorded during a 44 hour performance of two live singers to an enthralled village audience in 1965.   This particular telling took 18 nights.  The tape recording was later transcribed.  I also rely on a parallel version dictated by the same lead singer to a scribe just weeks after his public performance.  This second “text” is considerably shorter, contains shorter songs and fewer mythological diversions but is the same story in most of its action-packed details.  This transcribed version has also been translated into English.  That document is very interesting as it stands midway between a truly oral performance and the kind of poetic, literary texts we have available for other Nordic oral epics (the Finnish Kalevala, the Estonian Kavelipoeg, etc).

The Ponnivala legend has been recorded, at least in part, on palm leaves and in one early European-style chapbook.  However, the oral version described above (the one I have used) is far more straightforward, is more easily understood and is exceptionally detail-rich.  Dating the Legend of Ponnivala is impossible but its core events roughly reflect the history of the region in question between about 1000 and 1500 AD.  The story, as told there, aligns with and compares to stone and copper inscriptions available from this same period.  The other more literary versions referred to may reflect the earlier preservation efforts of various scribes, but their texts have long since morphed into literary and poetic re-creations, a process similar to what happened in the effort to preserve several other famous Nordic traditions just now mentioned above.

The singers of the Vatnsdaela Saga were possibly also devotees who worshipped at the Pingerar church.  This image shows a pair of men who might have been usefully engaged as scribes.  They could also have been active tellers of historical stories about the region, stories that were conscientiously preserved and handed down through many generations in this church setting.

The Vatnsdaela story text, as far as I can judge from its English translation, is not a corpus of epic poetry but rather a string of narrated adventure tales grounded in the region where the Pingerar church is located.  There are no obvious poetic or song passages, no repeated stanzas and just a little bit of dialog woven in.  The Ponnivala Legend is different.  In this tale there are a lot of character voices, supplemented with a certain amount of narration that serves to bridges scenes and conversations.  There are also many songs, some (with variations) used multiple times.  The story is driven forward by the main bard, but he sings with an assistant who is also sometimes his apprentice.  This second singer repeats phrases to emphasize them and sometimes adds extra lines, questions or exclamations.  This makes the Ponnivala story stylistically different from its Icelandic counterpart, though content wise there is a lot of overlap, as this long blog has demonstrated.

Stylistically the Ponnivala epic performance somewhat resembles the Finnish Kalevala and also is somewhat similar to the (translated) corpus of Icelandic sagas.  Indeed our Ponnivala text(s) lie somewhere in between these two Nordic paradigms.  (See Elder Brothers Story Vols. I & II, collected, translated and edited by B. Beck with Tamil and in English, on facing pages, Institute of Asian Studies, Madras, Tamilnadu, India). This two volume set contains more poetry and song than an Icelandic Saga does, but does not present the reader with a full-length metred and highly poetic text.  Ponnivala’s extensive song segments highlight character feelings while its long conversational sections lend the story great immediacy and realism.  The third element, Ponnivala’s narrative segments, serve to tie everything together with strong logical threads, giving the story its basic “this-and-then-that-happened” structure.

~ Brenda E.F. Beck

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