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


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


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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Negative Powers and Curses - PART 2

We have just discussed the negative effects that angry women can visit on their adversaries. But in the Ponnivala story, unlike in its Icelandic equivalent, animals can also generate curses and negative consequences at a distance. In the first image of this sequence we see a mother boar kicked by the queen when she finds it sleeping on her path. The boar-sow then curses the queen saying she will bear a huge and frightful son who will one day take revenge on her own sons-to-be. In the second picture of the sequence we see this curse come true as the great male boar matures and becomes a threat to the two heroes Ponnar and Shankar. In the final image of this mini series Komban walks counter clockwise around the temple of the forest goddess Kali, readying himself to attack the twin heroes’ fine crops.

In the Ponnivala story we also see a small female dog who has the power to curse its human heroes. Ponnacci is a tiny character with great magical gifts. Among other things she can curse others through her dreams (albeit backed by the powers of a goddess). In the second image we see Ponnacci’s curse leave her and take the form of a ghostlike power. The curse then travels through the forest and settles on the heroes’ war tent where they are resting prior to hunting down the great boar named King Komban. 

In the final image of this sequence the key hero, Shankar, is sickened by Ponnacci’s curse and can no longer lift his sword. Shankar then has to send an assistant to lead his warriors. That assistant, named Shambuga, and the assistant bumbles badly, leading all these men to their deaths. To sum up, the Vatnsdaela story portrays multiple human male sorcerers, but just a few female ones while no animals are given equivalent powers. In the Ponnivala epic, by contrast, all human acts of negative magic or sorcery stem from women, but now certain animals are also endowed with such power.  

~ Brenda E. F. Beck 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Negative Powers and Curses - PART 1

The negative powers of both heroes and heroines in the two epics being compared (one South Indian and one Icelandic) have already been mentioned in the preceding discussion. But here I discuss this material once more by taking a fresh perspective. In the Vatnsdaela story there are two striking examples of women able to act negatively on others from a distance. One sorceress contorts herself so as to place her head upside down and then she walks backwards. The other woman, seen in this image, walks counterclockwise around her home (the inauspicious way to circle something) while swinging a cloth full of gold. She also swings that cloth in a circle and her posture suggests that motion is counterclockwise as well. However, the majority of negative magic and cursing in the Vatnsdaela story appears to be planned by and carried out by men.

This contrasts with the Ponnivala legend where no human men are outward attributed with such powers (though there are male adversaries, of course, who try to accomplish negative things). By contrast, in the second image we see just one of many examples of a woman whose will to curse or burn. Here Tamarai has taken a fire ball and thrown it at her adversary, severely burning him. In the third image we see another horrific outcome of a married woman’s anger. Here the mother of the heroes has magically cursed and killed all of her brothers’ children. The picture shows their spirits rising upwards, as if their short lives are now headed for the heavens.

In the next generation the virgin young sister of the two teenaged Ponnivala heroes (Tangal) burns her sister-in-laws’ separate home with both these two women still inside! Tangal is angry because they have refused to attend their husbands’ funeral (they are her brothers). The women complain that these two men cruelly locked them away and never expressed any concern for them while they were alive. The two lonely brides die in the resulting fire she sets and Tangal has to carry their skeletal remains to the river nearby.

In the second picture Tangal uses her magic wand to curse a potter who refuses to give her the pots she needs for her brothers’ funeral rituals. No wonder he says no, as she is asking for them for free! In the final image in this sequence the poor potter looses al his beautiful (but as yet unfired pottery) in a deluge of rain Tangal’s wand magically creates.

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Friday, November 14, 2014

Magical Tools

The topic of magical tools been touched on several times in previous segments of this blog series. In each segment I am attempting to compare the Vansdaela Saga from Iceland with the Legend of Ponnivala from Tamilnadu, India. However, it is sometimes helpful to revisit a topic discussed earlier but when discussing it a second time to take a different point of view. In the Icelandic epic the family sword has its own name, Aettartangi. That sword is believed to contain magical power. It is a magical tool. Aettartangi continues to hold its special qualities over time. The sword and those special traits are passed down in Ingimund’s family from generation to generation. Even the hilt of the sword is imbued with special importance.

Swords are also important in the Ponnivala Legend too. But in this case that special power contained in the two heroes’ weapons derives from a virgin’s blessing and it has to be re-applied each time they face a major mission. This second image shows a related item or substance that the sister uses to assess whether to proceed with such a blessing, when and if asked. First she tries to divine the outcome of the upcoming confrontation. For this she employs a handful of mustard seeds and pepper corns. As Tangal throws these in the air her brothers are supposed to split each one open with their swords. When the seeds fall back to earth on the white cloth she has laid out she then scoops them up and examines their condition in a winnowing fan. In a similar action, Tangal separates the split from un-split seeds and then uses the result to predict how many enemies will be killed in the anticipated battle. Un-split seeds represent enemies who are not killed. Her divination method, not surprisingly, is related to the tools and cooking items a woman would normally uses in real life. Winnowing fans are regularly used to separate grain from chaff.

In both these cultural foundation stories, the Icelandic and the South Indian, a hero or the heroine’s vehicle can play a role. The Vatnsdaela Saga features a magical horse, named Freyfaxi owned by a man named Brandur who was a friend of the heroes. This horse pulls a winter sled, an efficient method of transport useful during much of the year in Iceland’s snowy climate. In this first scene the two brothers Thorstein and Thorir enjoy a comfortable ride on the sled where they are covered with warm animal skins, while the horse’s owner and Vatnsdaela’s aggressive younger brother Jokul walk beside it. All four men are expecting to confront two threatening adversaries, Berg and Finnbogi at their destination. 

In the Ponnivala story the two heroic brothers each ride their own magical, blue-black horses. Their twin steeds are said to run with lightning speed while crossing very difficult types of terrain. These animals serve as Ponnar and Shankar’s magically-endowed vehicles. But there is a third sibling, Tangal. Her vehicle is different. She “rides” inside the house on a regular basis, in her lovely swing. That swing is located at the center of the family’s inner courtyard, a place open to the sky above. Its regular movements make the swing resemble a vehicle. We can suspect that it also has magical properties because it is only when Tangal is riding on it that she is privy to important, predictive dreams.

There are other magical tools that Tangal uses in the Ponnivala story. One important one is her little dog, Ponnacci. Ponnacci allows Tangal to operate at a distance. We can think of this little dog as embodying this young girl’s “alter ego.” Ponnacci can leave the familu palace at will. Furthermore, as a very small she-dog she is able to insert herself into a scene unobtrusively. But Ponnacci’s bite can be fearsome and her logical powers are put to good use too. This little pup talks, reasons and acts as a human. She is a kind of vehicle that travels great distances while Tangal herself stays in her home palace. Ponnacci seems to have Tangal’s mind and personality imbedded deep within her tiny body. Ponnacci also has powerful dreams, just like her mistress does. These dreams have the power to inflict pain and suffering. They are something like the negative powers a sorceress has. But Tangal doesn’t only work through animals. She also uses “signs” like those on the tray in this image. These signs absorb the impact of events happening elsewhere. Tangal uses them to learn that her brothers have just died in a distant forest. In sum, Ponnivala’s male heroes have just two sets of tools, their horses and their swords. But their sister Tangal knows how to make use of everyday household objects, pets and cooking substances, lending her many, many action options.

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Story Heroines - PART 2

Animals that talk and work with humans are not present In the Icelandic story but several are singled out as important characters in the Ponnivala Legend. Tangal, the twin heroes’ sister has a pet dog who is very powerful. She is also befriended by a giant cobra who follows her through the forest while she searches for her brothers’ dead bodies. This huge snake is well-intentioned and friendly. It protects Tangal from the sun and from the rain. 

Tangal’s mirror image, a forest princess named Viratangal, also has a pet. He is a huge and very black forest boar named Komban. Viratangal feeds him rice daily and talks to him as if he were her special pet. Eventually Komban attacks the hero-farmers’ fields. Tangal’s little dog on the other hand ends up attacking this boar and helps to stop his rampage. She ends up stabbing him with her very sharp well-poisoned teeth.

Ponnivala’s main magician, Tangal, also has other important powers. We learn more and more about her as the story unfolds. She is able to receive fire in her right hand (from Lord Shiva) and use this to burn both objects and people when she is angry. Her mother Tamarai had this power too. But Tangal’s powers develop far beyond the use of fire. She can hold sand in her palm and make it turn into cooked rice. 

Tangal also acquires a magic wand that she uses to call up a torrential rain, and then bright sun.

Most importantly, Tangal is able to collect together the magical substances she needs to revive her brothers from death in seven little magical pots. She uses these, along with her wand, to resurrect these two warriors (briefly) so that she can talk to them once more. 

Tangal can also fly. She uses a bird vehicle for this, a golden goose. Her means of transport resembles that of her mentor, Lord Vishnu, who frequently flies to earth to involve himself in the Ponnivala story. Vishnu rides on a half-man half-eagle vehicle. 

Eventually Tangal ascends to heaven in a golden chariot sent to fetch her by Lord Shiva himself. Tangal is the only human character in the Ponnivala story to “fly” at all and she is the only one to reach “heaven” without dying first. In all these ways, Tangal is a very magical character with traits that make her a prophetess and a sorceress all rolled into one.

There is one final female in the Ponnivala story that is worth a mention in the context of story heroines and their special powers. This is a mysterious woman called “The Sun Maiden” about whom we learn very little. But we do know that she has very special powers that relate to her constant worship of (connection with?) the sun.

As human yoga practitioners often incorporate an initial prayer directed to the sun, so too this woman directs her efforts towards the same source of power. Her yogic posture on top of a pillar suggests a focused and continuing embodiment of this widely honored sun-worshiping prayer. The Sun maiden of the Ponnivala story, as a result perhaps of this constant worship, has a very special power. She is able to release magical liquids directly from her right hand. In the story these “heavenly,” life-giving substances seem to flow directly down from the heavens, through her body, and then right into Tangal’s ritual pots. The Sun-maiden’s very special powers are clearly linked to her forest habitat and to her “natural” connection with some kind of magical regenerative essence whose source is the sun itself.

~ Brenda E.F. Beck