Friday, October 31, 2014

Feuds and Arguments

There is a subtle difference between the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Ponnivala story when it comes to feuds. The Icelandic tale does not appear to contain any kinship-based feuds per se while the Ponnivala story does. In the former every hero from Thorstein The Elder’s father Ketil all the way down four generations of men to the lifetimes of Thorstein The Younger and his brother Jokul, each man kills some other man either in a raid or in a dispute of some kind. In almost every violent encounter, furthermore, the Saga describes the men in the heroes’ family as being on the side of justice while their adversaries are depicted as thieves, sorcerers or wild men of some kind. Each of these encounters is, by-in-large, a black and white affair. Right and wrong are easily separated and the hero’s actions are on the side of right. And notably, these are not family feuds in the sense of one lineal cousin fighting another or even of one clan struggling against another related to it via a common male descent line. Almost every encounter is between two individuals, or else describes one brave hero taking down several challengers unrelated to him, at one go.

The Ponnivala story does describe a feud in which male members of the same lineage go after one another in a violent manner through several generations. Here an argument about territory is generated by an unequal initial division of land that occurs at the very start of the story. One brother, the eldest named Kolatta, gets the best and largest allotment while his eight younger brothers have to make due with a smaller and less desirable second parcel. The clansmen who are descended from these initial eight brothers nurse a grudge about this matter and try to get some land back. This causes raids and attacks from both sides, ending only when the key hero in the third generation, Shankar (and his assistant Shambuga), kill off the remaining male members of his cousins’ line during a grand fight that takes place inside the ruling (Chola) monarch’s palace. The image here shows one of these attacks on these cousins that takes place inside a school house on their own (undisputed) territory. Not only is this feud nasty, it is also not black and white. Both sides have a reasonable point of view and it would not be easy to argue that either is completely “in the right.”

In the Vatnsdaela case an on-going enmity develops between two men that begins at a wedding between a son in the Borg line and a girl from Ingimund’s family. Just before the ceremony Bergur the Bold of Borg appears to insult Ingimund (both chief and host of the wedding) by shoving him. The anger generated by this insult lasts long beyond the wedding day. Finally a duel between the two sides is proposed but the weather is terrible and the Borg side (supported by a man named Finnbogi) fails to show. Jokul, the heroic son of Ingimund, then goes to Finnbogi’s sheep shed, drags a post taken from there out to a nearby horse field, sets it upright in the ground, kills a mare and then impales its corpse on that post as a vengeful act intended to shame his foe. Perhaps this can be classified as a kind of in-law feud that was focused on one “bad” apple (Bergur the Bold of Borg) who had Finnbogi as an ally. Most of the arguments described by the Saga, however, center on thieves and people skilled in negative magic. These are not, at their core, arguments over equitable land division. Instead they have to do with killing off of bizarre or unwanted members of society or else with pushing them entirely out of the Vatnsdaela region. Either way, these acts clear out unwanted persons and appear to “cleanse” the homestead valley of any further negative impacts that might flow, in the future, from their presence.


The Ponnivala story is much less about individual “undesirable characters” and much more about the struggle for dominance between three core social groupings: farmers, artisans and tribal hunters. These communities are not treated as castes so much as they are described as representing basic socio-economic clusters of people. One artisan is singled out for his treachery (and also one Chola king), but other than that non-kinsmen tend to confront the heroes as undifferentiated social groups. Take the example of the artisans. They were deprived of their land early on in the story and an unfair “contract,” detailing certain formalized payment amounts for labour supplied, was then imposed on them. No wonder they are angry. Neither the farmers not these craftsmen have a monopoly on the “right” or the “good” in this matter. Similarly, forest hunters in the Ponnivala story are more or less an undifferentiated group of adversaries. With the exception of their unmarried sister Viratangal and one named leader (Kaliappan) these men are just one big cluster of fighters. They too have a reasonable grudge: the farmers have destroyed much of their former forest habitat and its varied animal population(s). Again there is no obvious black and white position one can take in this ecological disagreement: Farmers are important in medieval society and so are forests. Taken in this way it is possible to argue that the Ponnivala epic presents a more sophisticated look at society and its many woes than does the ethically simpler Vatnsdaela story.

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Women Versus Men - PART 2


The Vatnsdaela story mentions several female fortune tellers, the most prominent being the Finish woman Finla. She has the power to steal and then bury a gold ring belonging to Ingimund, using it to mark the place in Iceland where she foretells he will build a future homestead. Tangal is also a kind of fortune teller. Tangal also foresees various details relevant to her brothers’ fates. And notably she has the power to bless their swords before they leave on a dangerous adventure. Near the end of the story she does not give them this blessing (put another way, her brothers fail to ask for this before placing their swords in their scabbards). Following this the two heroes die deep in the forest and only “see” their sister once more following the moment when she finds they bodies and (briefly) resurrects them.


Sorcery or negative magic has differing symbolic links in the two epics being discussed. In the Vatnsdaela case the sorceress accesses negative power by inverting her body and then walking backwards. She is trying to weaken the hero Jokul’s power to take revenge on her son after Jokul becomes angry at him because of an insult. In the Ponnivala tale Tangal’s subtle (unspoken) anger is directed at her own brothers because of their lack of concern for her welfare, also a kind of insult. Her fury is expressed by (projected onto?) her tiny, female, earless dog. We could say that this constitutes a kind of inversion too, as a human actor is here transformed into a non-human one. That little dog, Ponnacci, sends a message to her brothers in the form of a dream-curse that s them while they rest inside their war tent. The two are essentially incapacitated until the younger, Shankar, makes amends for them both, expressing his humility via an apology.



Swords and other long vicious weapons have special magical powers in both these epic stories. In the Vatnsdaela case Jokul uses a sword passed down in his family that has a personality and a name (Aettartangi) all its own. In the Ponnivala story the heroes’ swords do not bear special names but they absorb special powers from their sister’s blessing of them just before each use. Meanwhile, the hunter enemies have a powerful piercing weapon all their own, the spear. Their forest-dwelling sister does not overtly bless these before their use but a magical connection between these warriors’ power and her anger seems to be implied. Speaking more abstractly, piercing is a key motif in the Ponnivala Legend. A piercing marks both the beginning of the story (the piercing of several sacred cows) and its ending which involves the piercing of both the great boar Komban and then, a little later, of the heroes themselves. How important the theme of piercing is to the Vatnsdaela story is not known.


~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Women Versus Men - PART 1


The Vatnsdaela Saga and the Legend of Ponnivala both have a prominent woman who becomes mother to a set of male heroes in the next generation. We know very little about Vigdis except that she is a strong and good woman who undergoes (at least one) childbirth alone in a forest under difficult circumstances. Tamarai is a similarly strong and heroic female. In her case there is much more information provided by the story tellers. She undertakes several difficult journeys on her own and she has a keen perception of situations. Her ability to “intuit” what will happen clearly surpasses any parallel ability exhibited by her husband Kunnutaiya. Tamarai’s determination to bear children is exceptional and sends her on a twenty one year quest to speak with Lord Shiva himself. When Tamarai eventually does give birth to triplets (two heroic sons and one daughter) this birthing scene forms a memorable moment that becomes etched on this epic’s broad canvass. As fatherhood is remembered through leadership and social status, so motherhood is honored in both epics through rich scenes describing courage, self-sacrifice and, in particular, the precious moment dedicated to birthing the next generation.


In the Ponnivala story a gender difference can be noted in the birth stories of the key male and female characters of each generation. Kunnutaiya, father of the final set of heroes, is born under a large pile of rocks. Even his name likens him to a large rock pile or “kuundru.” His wife Tamarai, by contrast, is born in the middle of a lotus flower found growing in a pond. Her name is equally significant. It means “lotus flower.” The lotus is a very significant and symbolic plant that grows up from the mud, to reach the surface of the water that nurtures it. The lotus plant has a single flower that sits atop a long stem, as if on a pillar trying to reach into the sky. Tamarai is described as sitting on a pillar for twenty one years, later in her life, trying to reach Lord Shiva’s heavenly Council Chambers.

In the next generation we again see a gender contrast in the birth stories of the twin males Ponnar and Shankar, and their sister Tangal. The two men are born first, exiting the womb in a magical fashion with Lord Vishnu’s knife allowing them to emerge directly from Tamarai’s two sides. At birth these boys can already walk, and jump. They carry small metal weapons, are clothed in shorts. They are also instantly able to speak. By contrast, their sister, born after these two males leave the scene, enters the world in a totally “natural” way. She simply emerges from under her mother’s sari-skirt. Tangal looks like a normal, nude human baby. She does not hold any magical objects nor can she speak. This little sister is quickly swaddled in a simple white cloth and handed to her mother to hold. She is nursed by her mother. The two boys, on the other hand, are whisked off to a secret cave situated under the temple of the family goddess. There they are raised for five years by a “divine” female who feeds them tiger’s milk. In both generations, then, the male heroes births are described through visual metaphors that rely on “hard” images (stones, knives and vicious tigers) while the females become immediately associated with “soft” images like flowers, white clothes and mother’s milk.


There is a long tradition, seen in many cultures, of women acting as intermediaries in both these stories. There is one good example in the Vatnsdaela Saga and many in the Ponnivala Legend. In Vatnsdaela there is enmity between the hero Ingimund and the father of the woman he wishes to marry. This is because Ingimund earlier murdered this man’s son, his hoped-to-be-bride’s brother. But the bride’s mother then intercedes on Ingimund’s behalf and manages to tame her husband’s animosity. The wedding proceeds. 


In the Ponnivala case a direct intercession by a female advocate also occurs. Now this lobbying occurs mainly at the level of the gods. For example we see the goddess Parvati speaking to her husband Shiva at the request of her brother Vishnu and also the local goddess Celatta (a form of Parvati) speaking with Vishnu on behalf of the hero Kunnutaiya. Later in the story Kunnutaiya’s wife Tamarai “advocates” on the behalf of beggars, persuading her husband to soften his resistance to her spending the family fortune. She is determined to give all of them alms. This pattern of providing go-between services is less pronounced in the next generation where both key females (Tangal and also her hunter counterpart Viratangal) operate more as visionary advisors. Each seeks to collaborate with their brothers rather than to be an advocate of the interests of another. As sisters rather than wives their role is limited to handing along useful information to a key male who will (in a sense) act on their behalf. As “seers” both these Ponnivala women have visionary access to situations that have evolved at a distance, outside the palace. Speaking abstractly, we can see both these young women “mediate” between outside and inside points of view.   

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Friday, October 24, 2014

Heroes Versus Villains - PART 2

In one episode Jokul kills the son of a known sorceress, even though he is mounted on a horse and is potentially a very dangerous adversary. The size of this adversary is further emphasized by his being placed in the foreground. 

Shankar has a different kind of challenge, a wild boar named King Komban. This wild animal also has magical powers of a negative kind. The illustration shows Komban with a star sign on his tongue, a ring in his navel and a small garland of flowers on his tail. These attributes suggest a possible mirroring of the sinister powers believed central to the cult of Nath yogis, a sectarian group identity popular right across India in the Middle Ages. Komban is Shankar’s key magical adversary, a huge black beast who believes he is destined to kill both Shankar and his brother Ponnar using his sharp tusks!



A good deal of the Ponnivala story, especially in its concluding four episodes, describes the confrontation between a set of twin heroes, Kunnutaiya’s two sons, and Komban who has attacked their fields and made a huge mess of their crops and irrigation system. Shankar finally has the honor of killing Komban outright, using his great boar spear. 

The story does not end here, however, as Komban’s last act is to cry out to his guardian mistress, a forest princess named Viratangal. Her brothers take revenge on the two kings for the killing of Komban. His demise is used to set the scene for one great final battle, a violent confrontation between hunters and farmers. There is a good reason for the hunter’s anger: these ploughmen have cut down their beloved trees and converted their wild, lovely forest into open farmland.

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

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