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:

  21. BIRDS
  22. HORSES

Friday, September 19, 2014

Princess Tangal Part XI: Building A Shrine

  • Tangal is now taking a magical journey. On the back of a golden goose she is flying between the land of the living and the land where her dead siblings lie. She is taking seven pots full of magical substances with her. What kind of a funeral has she planned for her two warrior-brothers?

  • The goose drops Tangal off where her pet dog is loyally protecting the seven leaf plates containing a sacrificial meat offering prepared, much earlier, out of the wild boar her brothers had victoriously speared through the heart.

  • Tangal burns these offerings with her magical wand.

  • This frees her little pet from his duties as a guard, so he can accompany her to the dying ground where her brothers lie. She requests that he show her the way.

  • First the odd pair find the river where the two warriors washed their swords after their last battle, and where they received a sign from Lord Vishnu that their lives must now be brought to an end.

  • Climbing up the river bank, just as her brothers did before her, Tangal finds their bodies. She sees that her two siblings have been accompanied in death by the family’s magnificently loyal assistant, Shambuga.

  • Tangal sets he pots down and begins to weep. This sight of her brothers’ limp bodies is too much for her to bear.

  • Then Tangal begins to sprinkle some of the magic water she has in one of her pots on the dead bodies that lie before her.  

  • After some time the bodies begin to rise up off the swords they fell on. Tangal is amazed and astonished.

  • She sees the three bodies rise to their feet. With hope and words filled with emotion she calls out to them. She asks how they feel.

  • Ponnar is the first to respond verbally. They are OK. Tangal begs the three to come back with her and begin life where they have left off. She wants to erase their deaths and return to the old family home. But Shankar explains that they cannot do this, that the era of their reign has passed and others must now step in.

  • The three men gesture respectfully to Tangal and then transform themselves back into three lifeless prone bodies.

  • Tangal prays to Lord Vishnu, asking him to produce two biers, one for her brothers to fide on and another for their loyal assistant. Vishnu complies with her request and compassionately supplies what she needs, alone with a number of assistants who will carry the two heavy loads.

  • Tangal wants to transport her brothers out of the remote mountain place where they now lie, and down to a village called Virappur where shrines can be built and people will create an annual festival that will celebrate and remember their heroic deeds.

  • Just before the long journey begins the Lord of death, known as Yeman, appears with another little box. The spirits that returned briefly to the prone bodies in order to speak with Tangal will now be taken heavenward for good. He has brought a box that will carry the three souls.

  • Now the long funeral procession sets out. Tangal, the dead heroes’ devout little sister, is determined to lead the way.

  • Once the bodies reach Virappur Tangal asks that Lord Vishnu transform their carrying biers into something much more grand. The bodies are then given a brief tour of the village so that all can pay their respects.   

  • Next the entire entourage transforms into a small folk shrine. No one in the warrior’s party is forgotten. Even Ponnachi and the horses the two men once rode take the form of statues that are designed to stand loyally on both sides of the two heroes themselves.

  • Tangal is the first to worship at this newly built temple. All the required ritual offerings are provided by Lord Vishnu’s grace. Tangal, taking the role usually assigned to a man, officiates. She is the one to say the appropriate prayers that honor her brothers’ two names.

  • And then something even more surprising happens! A lovely golden chariot descends from the sky. It has been sent by Lord Shiva himself and it is positioned to allow a landing right beside Tangal herself.

  • Tangal now rises in this chariot directly to Shiva’s own Council Chambers in Kailasa. This is the very place where Shiva reincarnated her sixteen years previously, choosing to take the youngest of the seven Kannimar and transform her into a small embryo that he then placed in her mother Tamarai’s womb.

  • Tangal reaches Kailasa in no time and is welcomed back by the great god and his wife Parvati, acting in unison.

  • Tangal thanks the divine couple. She expresses her gratitude for their help in returning her to a life that will now continue to unfold in her pre-birth-on-earth abode.

  • Tangal’s captured parrot shoes soul is now freed as well, completes this mystical cycle by rejoining its forest mate. The two love birds also return to their previous life as birds that dwell in Lord Shiva’s own heavenly paradise.
[<== Back to Part X]

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Princess Tangal Part X: The Forest Journey

  • Tangal now begins her journey through the forest. Her hair hangs loose, symbolizing her emotional state. She is full of sorrow and distress.

  • Tangal is crying. Her head is aching from the emptiness she feels.

  • Thirsty, Tangal soon kneels by a rock that has a small depression in it. She hopes to drink a little to soothe herself.

  • But suddenly Tangal is startled. She hears a voice talking to her.

  • Soon a huge cobra, king of the underworld, appears before her.

  • This creature tells Tangal how his mother once prayed for his birth, after receiving magical water from her own mother Tamarai long ago. His job, destined from birth, would be to help protect Tangal during her long and dangerous journey through the forest.

  • Tangal thanks the King of the cobras and encourages him to take a drink too.

  • Then the two set off together through the deep woods.

  • The cobra’s wide hood helps protect Tangal’s tender body from the sun.

  • It also helps protect her from the rain.

  • Finally the cobra, who has given Tangal directions, pauses to point out that they have reached the meditation pillar belonging to a powerful Sun Maiden named Arukkandi.  

  • The cobra asks the Sun Maiden to climb down for an hour or two in order to let Tangal sit on this very special pillar in her place. Arukkandi is a kind soul and is happy to oblige.

  • Once atop the lippar Tangal begins to pray and Lord Vishnu soon appears before her.

  • Tangal asks for a magic wand and Lord Vishnu sees that this is soon delivered to her.

  • Nest the Sun Maiden tells Tangal that she is ready to give her seven magical substances. But first she must find seven fresh newly made earthen pots to put these in.

  • Tangal walks some more and finally finds a potter who has many of his wares lying out in front of his house to dry in the sun. Tangal asks him to give her seven pots, but the potter refuses in anger. How can he give away his pots without being paid for them?

  • So Tangal has to show him her power.   

  • She causes clouds to gather in the sky and soon there is a huge deluge. All the potter’s work is destroyed! The potter is humbled and begs Tangal to restore his work. He promises to give her the seven pots she has asked for.   

  • Tangal then uses her wand to bring bank the sun and recreate all of his work, before his very eyes!

  • The potter is amazed and quickly hands Tangal the lovely set of tiered pots she has asked for.

  • Tangal returns to the Sun maiden with her pots. Arukkandi welcomes her and instructs Tangal to set the seven vessels in a neat row on the ground.

  • Then the Sun Maiden calls on her own inner powers.

  • Taking great care, Arukandi fills each pot with a different substance. Some are seeds or gains.

  • While some of the other substances flow like liquids. Every drop goes directly into to the pot intended for it. Nothing is wasted.  

  • Then Arukandi calls her special golden goose to her side. She asks it to fly Tangal to the place where her brothers’ bodies lie.

  • Tangal sits on the goose’s back, carefully clutching her seven pots and their special contents. She holds on to these very special gifts ever so tightly!

  • Finally Tangal is off on her amazing voyage. The goose rises into the sky with its special passenger balanced carefully, right behind its neck.