Monday, April 29, 2013

A Tisket, a Tasket: Basketry

This morning I escorted a visitor outside the building I live in, and it was such a gorgeous April day! I barely needed my sweater! After the crazy winter weather and late spring, everyone seems ready for warmer temperatures. There are two schools nearby, and one was having recess; I could hear that schoolyard hum of their games. Do any elementary kids play “I Sent a Letter” anymore? I can remember Miss Roser teaching us the song when I was in kindergarten at Budd Lake School so long ago:

 A tisket, a tasket,
 A green-and-yellow basket,
 I sent a letter to my love,
 And on the way I dropped it,
 I dropped it!

In case you've ever wondered, a tasket is a dialect word for basket and a tisket is the handle.

For that matter, do kids even know what baskets are, or like me at that age, do they immediately think only of their Easter baskets? That was all I associated the word with until I was 6, and Mother decided to get a job at Welsh Farms Dairy as a Night Owl. That meant that she’d go to work as soon as supper was over, to answer phone calls from the various route managers and dealers (this was back in the olden days, when dairy products were delivered to people’s homes by milkmen). As each one called, she’d note down on long narrow forms called tickets what they’d need; when all of them had called, she’d transfer how many and what sizes of the different items (milk; eggs; cream; ice cream, orange juice, any novelty items) onto bigger forms called sheets, for the route managers. Before she came home, she’d stop at the loading dock to drop off copies of them; the loaders would know what to put one each truck for the managers to drive to other locations for their dealers to pick up and put in their own trucks early in the morning. She’d drive home over Schooley’s Mountain, getting home around 2 or 3 am, sometimes later depending on how late the calls were and the weather. She always made it home, though, no matter how late or icy or snowy it was. Once she mentioned how a few times she’d had to inch up the outside of the hairpin curve up above Long Valley (going against traffic flow) as the only way she could get traction up that steep turn, hardly able to see, praying that the car wouldn’t slip over the bank and roll down the hill.

The first night before leaving, she brought out a big wicker basket, a market basket—not that anyone I knew used them! This was before the ubiquitious plastic bags we see everywhere now; during my childhood, most folks where we lived carried things in paper bags or cardboard boxes. “What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s my basket,” said Mother. “Part of my wages will be in dairy products—including the flavor of the month in ice cream!”

This didn’t appease my brother, who was sulking because a) this was a Big Change, and b) none of his friends’ mothers worked outside the home except for one who was widowed. In his opinion, all mothers who had husbands belonged at home, not going off to jobs!

Unlike him, I loved ice cream, so I was delighted, especially since Granny, who of course knew all about it, said, “It’s yir mother’s creel.”

I knew about creels from the Scottish tales she told me; in fact, she’d recently told me the animal fable I retell as “The Twa Foxes & the Creel of Herring,” about that clever Scottish trickster, Gilmartin Fox. The kind of wicker creels used by sports fishermen may have descended from these, but originally, they were often carried on one’s back, and used to transport many different things, not just fish.

When I get interested in a new subject, I want to know all about it; that week it was baskets. Mother pointed out that she used a big oval one to take laundry to and from the clothesline (later replaced by a wheeled cloth bag hung from a folding metal frame when we moved to a second-floor apartment and she was hanging clothes from the landing window, then rendered obsolete later in the Washington Street half-house when the remodeled kitchen included a dryer next to the new washer). Years later, as a teen, my wooden toy-box was replaced by a wicker hamper that I would take with me for extra storage/flat space to set things on in college dorm rooms—I still have it, battered but serviceable, at the foot of the bed.

It was why, when we went on a vacation camping trip to the West Coast the summer I turned 11, detouring back through Arizona, that in the Grand Canyon's North Rim gift shop, I chose to buy a round Navajo coiled basket, with a black lightning design against a paler background. At first I used it as a sewing- and knitting-basket—until we began acquiring cats! Luckily, none of the recent ones have shown any interest in the miscellany I keep in it on the coffee-table, including the most recent issue of the Folk Harp Journal and a few catalogs.

Baskets, by the way, come in three kinds: woven, coiled, and plaited (braided). I learned this at Scout camp one summer when I earned a Basketry badge by making examples of each, none surviving the years since. It occurs to me each fall that you hardly ever see bushel baskets anymore; Daddy used to buy at least one each of Mackintosh, Red and Golden Delicious from the apple man up on Schooley’s Mountain, and we’d spread them out in big pasteboard cleaner’s boxes up in the attic for the winter. Every so often Mother would send me up to bring some down, or if I was hungry, I’d go take one of the red “sheep’s nose” ones. Apples are healthy, so no one minded.

Ailpin Bird with very long
green tail on lidded basket
These days I corral dry erase markers and pens in a very small woven one on a kitchen shelf; a larger white version holds lotions and medicines in the bathroom; bread baskets are stored in the dining-room sideboard; a wire one is filled with finger puppets I the study, and a lidded, woven, gingham-lined one sits on a windowsill, waiting, with the stuffed Ailpin bird perched inside it ,for my next Scottish persona gig.

Baskets have been made from so many different materials—straw, wooden slats, wicker twigs, pine-needles, even antlers! The pine-needle ones intrigue me; I saw some amazingly beautiful ones on sites such as Peg’s Basketry.

Peddler with basket
on his back

I found baskets in several nations’ folktales, from the Scottish fable I mentioned earlier, to the Italian “King in the Basket,” to the Welsh “Lludd & the Giant’s Basket” to the Chinese “The King in a Basket”—and I’m leaving out many!

Probably the oldest basket story I tell is the Welsh legend, one of the independent tales in the Maboginion. Lludd and his brother Lleuelys are kings of Britain and France, respectively, when three plagues oppress Lludd’s people: an enemy knowing all their plans and thwarting them; a horrible scream every night that is sapping men’s strength, making pregnant women miscarry, terrifying children, and making livestock barren; and all the harvests’ yields, other than what is eaten and drunk in initial feasts, is disappearing.

Because Lleuelys is so wise, Lludd travels across the sea to take counsel with him. He writes down the basic problem—and I explain to my listeners that at that time, writing was done by carving letters called ogham, or runes, into hazel rods, much more time consuming than using paper and pen. Lleulys has a brass horn made for one brother   to speak into at one end while the other listens at the other—but they find that what is being heard is garbled or the opposite of what was actually said. A demon has possessed the horn, and is drowned in the wine poured through it. Lleulys gives his advice undetected, Lludd follows it, and the enemy is destroyed.

Problem # 2 is caused by two dragons fighting; one screams when he is in pain from the other’s attack. Lludd is advised to measure  the length and breadth of his kingdom until he finds the exact center,  which is in Oxford. He digs up that spot; there are the dragons. He carries out the rest of his brother’s instructions and when the dragons eventually transform into two drunken pigs, has them sealed into a stone chest and then buried at Dinas Emrys.

The third oppression is solved by Lludd’s preparing a magnificent feast—and a big vat of cold water. He stands guard during the feast, and late at night, as the guests sleep, as wonderful, soothing music weighs on his eyes, keeps himself awake by jumping into the cold water when he is close to succumbing. Finally, he sees a giant coming in with a basket on his arm—and all the rest of the piles of provender goes into that one basket, which fascinates Lludd. He challenges the giant, they fight so fiercely their weapons strike sparks from the air, and Lludd prevails. The giant pleads for his life, pledging to return all he can of what he stole, and becoming Lludd’s sworn man. So Lludd acquires not only a strong warrior, but a magical basket that can hold more on the inside than it looks as if it couldon the outside.
Because I love proverbs, I looked up some, and besides the one from Carl Sandburg "Put all your eggs in one basket--and watch that basket!"), I liked these:

Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou
ka ora ai te iwi
"With your food basket and my food basket
the people will thrive." – Maori

and this one from Viet Nam: "Go out for a day, get a full basket of knowledge."

May your enjoyment of spring, and your basket of food, knowledge and memories, increase!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Roadmaps & Cobblers' Lasts

So many people rely now on some form of GPS, whether installed in a car, dictated by an iPhone, or downloaded and printed out from a computer, that roadmaps may become as extinct as cobblers in fairytales! I was thinking about that because I enjoy taking part in Granny Sue's storyteller blog hops —and for this third one, she’s requested a blog “written about you--who you are, where you are, your specialities/focus areas, links to your websites and other information, and why you do what you do. As the hop gains readers, it would be good for them to know about the storytellers themselves and how to find storytellers in their regions.” The idea of a hop is that each participant links their blog to hers, so one can “hop” from one link to another, and I appreciate being included!

Barra the Bard logo
by Jen McPhillimy
When I was 15, my deepest wish was to somehow go around the countryside entertaining folks. How, I had no idea. At the time in the middle of
7 ½ years of being so shy that unless someone asked me a direct question, I was essentially mute, the mere idea seemed so preposterous even to me that I didn’t dare mention it to anyone else! Deep down, what I wanted to be was a modern bard,  defined as one who is a performer, tradition-bearer, historian, teacher, writer, and newsbringer.

Twenty-five years later, my 40th birthday present to myself was the decision to pursue this deferred dream. With my husband John McDowell’s support and help, I bought a Celtic harp from Dusty Strings, joined StorySwap, the Pittsburgh storytelling guild, and a harp circle of my teacher Faith Stenning's students, and evolved a 10-15 year development plan.

Celtic Bard with Harp
In college I had realized that far from being as shy as I thought myself, there was actually an extrovert inside dying to get out! I love talking to people, and I love sharing information. Now, planning to be a bard, I knew at the outset that I had a built-in repertoire of Scottish and Welsh folktales, folklore, ballads, poetry, prayers, hymns, incantations and proverbs, the heritage from my maternal grandmother, Abigail Jones Dangler. We had thought that she was the tail end of a long bardic tradtion; it turns out that I am!

My husband, John McDowell, is Scots-Irish, so he requested that I learn a few Irish tales. I did, and realized I was halfway to being a Celtic teller. So I added some Cornish, Manx, and Breton ones too.

Living in Pittsburgh, a city with a proud history of ethnic neighborhoods and societies, I’ve learned many multicultural stories, especially from other local tellers (too many to name; I’d be sure to overlook someone!) who have a rich variety of styles and specialties. There are other sources of tales to tell: because my family loves history, I do some historical tales and legends. As an English major, I know many literary stories, although I tell only a very few of those (another post subject as to why is on my list to do). As a writer, I’ll sometimes craft one of my own creation for telling. Over the last 10 years, I’ve had more requests for family/personal tales. I enjoy tailoring shows for particular gigs, as well as the programs I usually offer.

And all tales are told in the traditional manner: that is, from my memory, heart, and the gut, NOT read aloud; by now, my repertoire of stories, myths, and legends is well over 5,0000, including variants. 

At The Carnegie,charity do
with Saltie the Silkie, harp seal puppy

I learn new ones, not only from reading, but also from other people. I’ve learned so much from members of StorySwap, Storytellers Unlimited, and StoryWorks over the years, and am eternally grateful for Mary Morgan Smith’s vision that brought about the Three Rivers Storytelling Festival, as well as Alan Irvine and Mary's bringing the National Storytelling Network’s 2006 conference here; both allowed me to learn in person from national tellers who generously, memorably, and sometimes hilariously shared their joy along with their talent.

Every storyteller I know has certain genres they love, and I’m no exception. These are tied to my interests: I collect harper tales. I love tales about the faery folk, especially silkies, brownies (pronounced “broonies”), the Tylwth Teg of Wales, and kelpies. If you’ve read any of my earlier posts, you know that I’m fascinated by traditional cloth-making methods, so I know dozens of stories featuring spinsters, weavers, seamstresses, tailors, a few about knitters, and even one about the origin of thimbles! I proudly tell about heroes in Scotland, Wales, and because I was born and grew up in the Muscanetcong Mountains of northwestern NJ, I collect stories of the Lenni-Lenape Native-American tribe whose homeland it once was, as I now also tell stories about Pennsylvania, particularly the Pittsburgh region where I’ve lived since my 20s. A convinced Quaker from the age of 20, I love reading about that history, although, thanks to my background and a request to tell stories at a church in Punxsutawney, PA, for a Scottish Sunday, I probably know more legends about obscure Celtic saints than anyone else in southwestern PA!

Harp Grove Teapot Song at
Faith's Tea
One thing I did early on, as soon as I became computer-literate while working at  Carnegie Mellon University in the early 90s (they wanted us to join interest groups on the Internet) was to join a listserv known as Storytell and another one called the Harplist.  Both are wonderful resources on many aspects of storytelling and harping, respectively, and I’ve made many virtual friends through them over the years. The harp circle I joined in '89 became the Harp Grove of Western Pa in 1997, a chapter of the International Society of Folkharpers & Craftsmen (ISFHC). With Faith and Joyce Emery, I was one of the three founders and its first president. We play out a few times a year, and occasionally I'll tell a tale illustrated by their playing. I also belong to the Scottish Harp Society of America (SHSA), and do a column of Scottish folktales for their journal, Kilt & Harp.

So here I am, almost a quarter-century (or if you add in my earlier dreaming, always the first necessary step in any journey), almost a half-century along, performing as Barra the Bard, a Celtic storyteller and harper, specializing in Scottish and Welsh tales. My initial goal was to combine my harping, singing and telling, and I am doing that more and more, either solo or with my duo partner Linda McNair in ClarSeannachie. Officially I’ve retired from the mundane jobs that helped pay the bills for so many years, but am now available to continue and enpand my telling even more. I’m beginning to work on my first CD, and am immersed in a number of other projects that include writing this blog and (under the pen-name of Barrabard) Tolkien fan fiction on the Henneth Annun Story Archive (HASA) and Tolkien Fan Fiction sites, besides a novel.

My goal in 1989, when I was trying to figure out what I “wanted to do when I grew up” was to find something that excited me so much I could hardly wait to jump out of bed in the morning, something I loved and could do well, that would use and expand my talents. In my ongoing quest to combine my two loves, harping and telling, I am now a harpteller. Along the way, I’ve taught classes and workshops in a variety of places (another post to write!), and done some harp- and storytelling-related writing for several publications here and abroad.

This June will mark my 6th year of telling Asian stories at the Pittsburgh Dragon Festival, a nice change from my usual fare, and in September, I’ll be telling as the official seannachie at the Ligonier Highland Games for the 23rd year. I usually tell there for at least an hour, and I’ve only ever repeated one story one time, by request. Granny taught me a lot of Scottish stories!

I have been telling for almost 25 years, in venues ranging from classrooms to churches, museums to shops, festivals to concerts, holiday programs to charity events, in six states. I’m constantly learning new stories, and I love doing background research on them and related subjects.

A few days ago on the Harplist, Jon Murphy used the old phrase, “A carpenter should stick to his last.” He thought it was from the Bible, but I wasn’t sure. Wikipedia informed me that no, it was thought to stem from a 4th century artist, Apelles of Kos, whom Pliny the Elder noted was in the habit of displaying his pictures in his window and hiding nearby to hear passersby comment. One day a cobbler grumbled that the shoes were wrong, and the next day was surprised to see that Apelles had corrected them overnight. Pleased to find his opinion vindicated, he criticized the painting of that subject’s thigh. The artist called out in Latin, “Let the shoemaker venture no further,” which over the centuries became transmuted into “The cobbler should stick to his last,” referring to the metal or wooden form on which custom-made shoes were formed before stitching in the long-ago days of pre-factorymade goods.

But I further found out that Apelles apparently wrote a lost treatise on painting; Pliny is the source for a few of his aphorisms, including “Not a day passed without a line drawn,” alluding to his diligence in practicing his art every day in his quest to “paint for eternity.”

There—the bones of a possible story to work on, and two proverbial quotations to help motivate me! In stark contrast to “painting for eternity,” harpers and storytellers use air and breath in our attempts to elevate our crafts into art, and what is more ephemeral than those? Yet the materials with which we're working—human emotion and folk wisdom, archtypical truths, cultures,story and music—are eternal.

So, friends, I hope that you too find your “last”— may it lead to many firsts!

Picture by Sue Schneider

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tartan Day & ClarSeannachie

Saturday, April 6th, was Tartan Day in Pittsburgh!

Melanie at Ligonier Games Harp Comp
That morning I drove out to Bethel Presbyterian Church in the South Hills, a historic congregation that was founded in 1776, one of the oldest west of the Alleghenies. Almost as soon as I set foot inside the door, I met Bruce Golightly, who was coordinating the entertainers, and he took me up to the lovely sanctuary to meet Jim, an excellent sound tech. To my delight, I was able to listen to some of the set twelve (and a cellist) of the Ringgold School Harpers were playing, directed by Melanie Sandrock in there at 10:45. Besides being a fellow member of the Harp Grove of Western PA, and our liaison/local organizer of the Ligonier Highland Games’ Harp Competition, she is an excellent music teacher. Her students learn to play Celtic harp in the only public middle school curriculum classes that we know of in this country, and they are competing too!

Jill the Weaver
Back on a lower level of the building (the number of them was somewhat confusing—I think this was the main one), I glimpsed a familiar face and stepped into the room shared by the historical re-enactors and the spinners/weavers to greet and chat with Kathryn o’ the Hills who was at her small wheel next to the big Sheep to Shawl display, her husband Jim and their niece Anna and friend Cody. Later I had a chance too to say hi to Jill the Weaver (Jill Stewart Moncilovich), too.

If you are wondering what “ClarSeannachie” is, it’s a duo I’m half of with Linda McNair. It was a busy day for us! Linda was dancing with her husband Arthur McNair and the Pittsburgh Scottish Country Dancers at 11:45; at 12:45 she and I did our first of two sets in the Sanctuary, performing 2 pieces: “The Blind Harper of Lochmaben” (our signature piece based on a Child ballad, also including snippits of “Southwind,” “Katie Bairdie,” and an ancient Celtic lullaby… ), and “Why the Sea Is Salt” (a Scottish Travelers tale about the devil’s mother, paired with a jig called “Peter’s Peerie Boat.”).

Bruce Golightly, Druidsong
An hour later, after eating a meat pie and a fern cake—and buying four more so John would let me in the door when I came home!—while listening to Bruce as DruidSong on the Main Stage, I was back in the Sanctuary for my solo telling, just time for two tales: a historical one about one of the three great heroes of Scotland: “How William Wallace Became an Outlaw,” which I introduced by explaining why Scots-Americans were celebrating the 693rd anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. This document is regarded as one of the major world heritage documents, stating Scotland’s right to freedom from the English, and was one of the models consulted by Thomas Jefferson’s committee when our Declaration of Independence was being written.

My second tale was a Scottish fable, “Gilmartin Fox, the Dog, & the Fleas,” which is always fun to tell! As a Scottish teller, I am always happy to share the folktales, myths, legends, and historical tales that are such an important part of Scotland’s history and oral culture.

ClarSeannachie’s last set was at 2:45, and we performed a Campbell/MacIntyre clans’ tale, “The Fatted Calf & the Snowball,” paired with a MacIntyre clan tune, “Westering Home,” followed by another favorite of ours, “Whuppity Stourie,” which includes a Hebridean tune from the Isle of Barra, “Cuidheal na Maighdin/Spinning & Weaving.”

Loath to go home when I was still having such a good time, I browsed through the vendors’ and clan tables again, visited with Carol of Miller’s Homestead in South Park and Kevin Anderson, director of the Bridgeport, WV Scottish Festival & Highland Games; surrendered my tickets for the silent auction; and finally left with my fern cakes, a lovely wee porcelain pillbox with –what else?—a Celtic harp on it from Thistle & Pine, plus a knitted thistle pin that Sarajane Williams told me the mother of one of her Highland Dancing students makes that was on sale at the Tartan Day booth. I wish I had the pattern!

That evening, I checked email, including the Harplist digest, and found that Carol Wood has posted a video she recently made at: of her song, “Two to Mambo.” I like it for two reasons: the percussion on the tune, and her asking harperists in a duo to send in a picture for her to include. ClarSeannachie is on it, so don’t blink! I just wish she had shown more of Linda’s Rees Oak Tree harp….We were delighted to be included among such good duos!

Tartan Day is a free event; I hope you’ll come next year, if not here, then to the nearest celebration of it near you!

Gus an àm seo an ath-bhliadhna aig an lá bhreacan! (Until next year at Tartan Day!)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Eggs, Soup, Stoves & Two Paschal Saints

I live in Pittsburgh.

Today is Good Friday; Easter is this Sunday.

When I think about Easter in Pittsburgh, other than the spiritual aspects, I think about two things: my short-lived career as the Easter Bunny (which is another story!), and pysanky, one of several names for the beautifully-decorated eggs from Eastern Europe that so many Pittsburghers still make, exchange, and display.  Since I'm originally from northwestern New Jersey, the first time I saw any were at a Pittsburgh Folk Festival back in the '70s, and I remember on other visits seeing demonstrations of how they are made, using a beeswax batik method fraught with symbolism and vivid color. You can find out more about them at some sites I’ll list below. Of course, with a major holy/holiday coming up, I’ve been thinking about holiday foods....

My storytelling colleague and friend in West Virginia, Granny Sue Holstein, wrote a blog post this past Monday, March 25, 2013, “Creamy Broccoli-Cauliflower Cheese Soup and Other Veggies,” about soup and bread which included a link to an earlier post (“Kitchen Work, Paperwork, and a Short Journey”) with a recipe for her homemade vegetable soup. Because spring is so late and cold this year, I’ve been collecting homemade soup recipes lately. So, naturally, I clicked on that link.

As soon as I began reading, I remembered  it from when she originally posted it two years ago, also mentioning a 1900s clayback or ceramic gas heater she and Larry had bought. This post of mine isn’t really about soup recipes—sorry to disappoint you!—but hers caused me to think about one of the niftiest places I’ve ever been, Haute-Koenigsbourg Chateau, near Colmar in Alsace, France on the Wine route. No, we didn’t have vegetable soup there on our visit, but the connection between soup, Granny Sue’s old stove, and the castle is: warmth.

Because I'm a storyteller, I began thinking about stoves in folktales; because it is almost Easter and I'd been thinking about pysanky, I also thought about Russian pechka (stoves) in peasant huts in past centuries, and referred to in folktales.

The chateau is a castle, its foundations dating back to the 11th Century, dominating the plain below from a peak in the Vosges Mountains. The name is a hybrid reminder that this area has gone back and forth over the centuries  between French and German control, meaning “High King’s Burg.” Inland from the Rhine, it still makes me think of all the robber barons’ castles perched above the countryside. It was renovated to withstand new artillery methods used  in siege warfare in the Thirty Years’ War, but it fell despite its three wells, and over the centuries, was abandoned and fell into picuresque ruins. Alsace and Lorraine were both taken from France after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871; this war was caused by Bismarck in his final bid to unite and create modern Germany. By altering a telegram, the Ems Dispatch, from the Kaiser to Napoleon III, he tricked France into declaring war, and the Catholic southern German states allied with his  (Protestant) North German Federation, and they won. The French not only lost the war and two provinces, but also had to pay a huge amount AND watch while their enemy hammered out their unification agreement at Versailles. It is thought that this contributed to World War I some thirty years’ later.

Looking Up at the Walls
Kaiser Wilhelm decided to renovate the castle as a symbol of Alsace’s integration into Germany in 1900. Over the next eight years, the architect, Bodo Ebhardt, supervised his painstakingly accurate depiction of the castle ca. the Thirty Years’ War, and the result is stunning. Alsace and Lorriane were restored to France after WWI (my Alsatian grandfather,  Jon Pierre Jacob, whose father had been killed by German soldiers in 1871in front of him when he was only three years old in their front yard, had later emigrated to the US. He told my father that France’s refusal to force his home region’s restoration sooner had been a sore point to the French residents… although he admitted that having to grow up speaking German had made it easier for him to court and marry my grandmother, Wilhemina von Leising, who was from the Black Forest.)

My father was eager to see the place that he’d heard so many stories about, and being interested in medieval history and literature, my mother, sister and I looked forward to it too. We weren’t disappointed!

Deer Antlers Outside Kinghts' Hall
I loved the dragon in the solar, the chapel’s private balcony, and the painted decorations in the great hall, and my sister couldn’t stop marveling at the windmill atop one tower while we ate lunch. I connect places with stories, and the castle is no exception! As we paused in the hallway outside the knights’ hall, Dad told us that the wall painting near the many antlers mounted there represented a legend about St. Hubert, patron of hunters.

As a young man, Hubert was so in love with hunting that he neglected other duties, including attending Mass on Good Friday. Despite his very pregnant wife’s pleas not to go, he insisted on pursuing a stag with his hounds. As they all raced across a field near a wood, to his astonishment, the deer suddenly turned and faced him, and he saw it bore a crucifix between its antlers. Christ spoke to him from that cross, saying, “Hubert, unless you turn to the Lord, you shall fall quickly into the abyss of Hell!”

Immediately dismounting, Hubert prostrated himself and asked what to do. He was told to seek out Lambert, the Bishop of Maastricht, for guidance. His wife died in giving birth to his firstborn son, whom he gave to his brother, renouncing all his honors in favor of a life devoted to God. “The deer with the cross on its antlers has been a symbol of the Jargomeister, or Master Hunter, ever since,” Dad said. Hunting in Germany is so steeped in tradition that to become worthy of that designation calls for a four-year apprenticeship and a proven record of good character as well as hunting prowess.

One feature in the castle that surprised us were the big tiled stoves we saw in the solar, the lord’s private closet (office), and the knights’ hall. Such stoves provided a great deal of warmth for a comparatively small amount of fuel (not that there was a shortage of trees in the Vosges; logging is still important). The one in the lord’s closet had two doors, and the docent told us it was so that if he was meeting privately, a servant could add fuel from the stairwell without coming in and interrupting, or hearing something he shouldn’t! I especially liked the green one in the knights’ hall, because of the bench that was next to it, probably reserved for the lord’s most important warriors.

One of my favorite fantasy authors is Mercedes Lackey,  because she's as much in love with folktales and lore as I am. In Fortune’s Fool, drawing on her research into Eastern European tales, she writes about her hero setting forth to find his vanished love. That quest leads him to Baba Yaga’s eerie hut on its chicken legs in a clearing surrounded by a fence made of human bones, each “post” surmounted by a skull whose eyes glare watchfully at night. Posing as a mute fool, he is accepted as a servant by the witch, but she is so cruel and miserly that she breaks the social compact of employer/employee, freeing him to pursue his mission. For example, she doesn’t feed him properly, nor offer him a place on the stove to sleep. Far from giving him such sacred fare as an egg, she tries to feed him on a small portion of cabbage.

In a harsh climate like Russia, to scant someone on such basic hospitality is a sin against nature. Her hut, described as bigger on the inside than it appears outwardly, is filled with heaps of items she has hoarded, and this jackdaw rapacity just underlines her unnaturalness as well as the power that enabled her to obtain so much plunder.

In the midst of these thoughts, I remembered some stories that our friend Judy Weidenhof told me about Mary Magdelene. In the Russo-Carpathian and Eastern Orthodox traditions, she is not considered a woman of ill fame, but equal among the apostles. In one legend, she and the other women took eggs with them to the Tomb on Easter Sunday, and when she came out, she saw that the eggs had been turned red; in another legend, she was given an audience with Emperor Tiberius, greeting him with a Christian salutation, “Christ is risen!” The Emperor replied, “That is as likely as this dish of cooked [boiled] eggs turning red!”—and they immediately did. She is often depicted in icons as carrying a red egg.

In this season of renewal and warmth, may you have the warmth of soup and stoves, the beauty of decorated, tradition-laden eggs, and the joy of saints around you!


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