Monday, November 10, 2014

Story Heroines - PART 1

In the Vatnsdaela Saga a key theme relating to women is the gift a man makes by giving away his daughter to her husband-to-be. This is an Indo-European tradition with a wide reach and one also prominent in India. However, this particular custom was not previously the norm among non-Brahman groups in certain southern (Dravidian, e.g. non-Indo-European) language areas. In the Ponnivala area, in past centuries, wedding gifts conventionally traveled in the opposite direction, that is from the groom’s family to the bride’s (a custom known as bride price).

The second image (shows the “elder” of the twin grooms (Ponnar) with his sister (Tangal) performing a ritual called “the uniting ceremony.” Tangal has a winnowing basket on her head that contains the wedding sari and wedding necklace the bride(s), plural in this case because the story describes the wedding of twins, will wear for their up-coming nuptial ceremony. If you look closely you will see that there is also a sari held between the brother and sister, under their arms. This cloth, stretched between them, symbolizes that their relationship will not “break” in years to come. It is a gift to the sister from her brother. These key details in the image have been circled for clarity. The “uniting” cloth predicts another marriage, one expected, in the next generation. It will further binding his new family to the one these two cross-sex siblings already hold in common. To be more specific, traditionally one of his daughters-to-be will be expected to marry one of her sons-to-be. (Anthropologists call this a cross-cousin marriage). The items on the sister’s head have been purchased by the groom’s family. The sister of the groom endorses his gift by carrying it on her head as the two of them circle a sacred fire. This logic may seem complex, but the key point I am trying to make is that these two epics endorse opposing (but none-the-less related) wedding gift themes. The difference between them results from the two very different cultural milieus from which these two stories have sprung.

More striking than wedding gift contrast between the Icelandic Saga and its South Indian epic parallel, however, are differences in their respective understanding of divination and prophecy. In the former magicians and sorcerers are largely male, though there are at least two females also mentioned who perform negative magic. And a fair proportion of the Icelandic sorcerers in the story come from Lapland, a faraway place with a significantly different culture from that of mainland Norway. (Scholars think the Lapp language, because of its Finno-Ugric connections, may actually be distantly related to the Dravidian language family). Furthermore, several of the Vatnsdaela Saga characters are described as “berserks,” quite possibly due to a habit of using hallucinogenic mushrooms to aid in their divination efforts. In the first image we see three men who, after consuming mushrooms, fly as Shamans from Norway to Iceland hoping to find the location of a gold ring a previous sorceress had planted there.

In the Ponnivala story, however, it is only the women who exhibit these shamanistic-type powers. Mainly that idea is embodied in a teenage girl, Tangal, the sister of the story’s twin heroes. As her story unfolds her powers grow. At first she exhibits a surprising ability to “see” what is happening at a distance through her dreams. This develops into a power to divine what the future holds and then into other skills such as the ability to force others to do her will and even, eventually, her ability to “fly.” The image here shows Tangal just before her two brothers leave for a key battle. Tangal wants to know if they will ever return alive and so she requests their presence at a divination ritual where she throws mustard seeds and pepper corns high in the air. Her brothers’ swords must cut each seed in two as it falls. Unfortunately, after the test a few seeds remain unsliced. As a result Tangal predicts that these two men, her brothers, will never return home. Tangal keeps this knowledge secret. She is afraid that if she shares it she will undercut her brothers’ will to fight the great battle that is soon to come.

~ Brenda E. F. Beck   

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