Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wonder Tales from Baltic Wizards

Book Review: Wonder Tales from Baltic Wizards translated from the German and English by Frances Jenkins Olcott in 1928 (Abela Publishing 2010)

This was a fun book with the stories more or less selected with children in mind. Olcott I guess was known for children’s stories. He notes that the more repulsive stories were omitted. While the stories are relished and presumably the magic flows without alteration there are some scathing remarks in the forward such as: “...the Gospel of Christ the Lord, which frees from superstition, ...” and “ of the most repellent of soul-slaveries—Shamanism.” The same book from another publisher has the subtitle: Pagan Mythology, Shamanism, and Magic from Finland, Lapland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Even though there are some nice magical stories here I do not think that would be an accurate subtitle – mainly due to the selective nature of stories – there apparently being vast amounts more - and would have been better selected by authors having a more genuine interest in paganism. The author does, however, seem to enjoy the traditions and the stories and the Baltic cultures. Most of the Finnish stories come from the Finn national poem called the Kalevala which consists of oral lore collected in the 19th century, much of it Christianized. He notes that some of the meter of the Kalevala is retained. Traditionally the Finnish stories were told while one strummed a harp/zither-like instrument called a kantele. The Latvians and Lithuanians are Indo-Europeans and so have different original languages than the Finns and Estonians which are Finno-Ugric peoples. The Lapps are even different perhaps more indigenous to the area and are said to share more features in common with darker skinned, high cheeked Siberian-Asians.

The introductions to the stories are fun in a kid way with the reader coaxed to imagine he is in a Lapp tent in the sunless night of winter when an arctic wind blows and the sound of the magic drum of the approaching wizard Nischergurje clad in white reindeer skins fills the air. He beats his drum with a gold drum hammer. He is welcomed warmly by the Lapps. He says that,

“I have learned the secret of the foxes. I have the strength of Honey-Paw the bear, of Thick-Pelt-Old-Man-of-the –Forest. Fleeter am I than the snarling wolf. I know the place of hidden treasures. I know the secret of the Forest.”

Then he magically summons the Four Ancient Wizards of the South Baltic Lands: Kauko, Red-Haired Wizard of Finland of the Thousand Lakes and Thousand Isles; Sarvik, the white-haired, oak backed Wizard of Estonia with the lolling red tongue; Kurbads, strong as a giant, with yellow eyeballs and green hair from Latvia of the crystal streams; Jakamas, pointed-eyed with bushy golden head and apple-red cheeks from Lithuania of the fragrant amber. Often the wizards are described as grinding their teeth, whistling, and howling.

First there is a story of Nischerguje himself battling another wizard, the Servant of the Wicked Moon Daughter. In Lapland the children say that the Aurora, the flashing Northern Lights are Wizards having Magic Battles.

There are stories here resembling some of our known fairy tales, or the tales of the Grimms. One cannot help but notice the motif of wicked parents or parents who favor and disfavor certain children. Stories reminiscent of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Jack and the Beanstalk occur. There is a Lapp story which speaks of a places where there is a huge ugly fearsome stone. These places are called a Seite and are said to be places of sacrifice where evil wizards lead reindeer bucks to sacrifice and use their bones and remains for malevolent magic. The Lapp Fairy folk are apparently called Ulda and seem to have lots of similarities to the Fairy Folk of the British Isles. The Wicked Moon Daughter – an ugly old woman of the Underworld appears in another Lapp tale where she appears as a black bird and instigates wizards to fight one another. Also when she flaps her wings she can call hoards of mosquitoes and gnats – known to be ubiquitous in the Arctic summers due to the bogs.

There are Finnish tales of the Wizard Vainamoinen and his friend the Wizard-Blacksmith Ilmarinen who forged the magic sampo to try to win the love of the Lapp Rainbow Maiden. Unfortunately this tale is left unfinished and one is referred to the Kalevala for the rest of the story. Ilmarinen’s smithy is said to be in the interior of a great mountain at the center of the earth.

In a story from Estonia about a singing sword and the hero Kalevide there is a magic aided by sprinkling rowan leaves, thyme, and fern. There is a curious tale of the Linda, Maiden of the Milky Way who is courted by the pole star, the moon, the sun, and the northern lights. She turns down the pole star, the moon, and the sun because they have predictable courses. She chooses the aurora with its wild unpredictable flashes. There are also some tales of Elsa, a female child who is adopted into a fairy realm until maidenhood. Incidentally the first tale from Latvia also involves a girl named Ilsa. There is another interesting Latvian tale that occurs on Midsummer’s Night – St. John’s Night – June 24th where witches occur as a flock of magpies and are overheard by a human – presumably due to the thinning of the veils on that night. Shapeshifting occurs in several tales as well. The Mystic leaves of the Linden tree are mentioned in the intro to one tale.

Some of the Lithuanian tales serve as warnings against greed and suggest that greedy magic can backfire. There are a couple tales where three sons try to solve a problem or woo the king’s daughter. In both it is the simpleton that appears to be the most clever after all and the least greedy. Another story is about a Wanderer, a Smith, and a Taylor/Cook traveling together had to overcome a nasty wee man called Mannikin Long Beard.

At the end of the book there is a “Tiny History of the Baltic Sea” and “The Tiny Dictionary of Strange East Baltic Things.” Apparently the Baltic Sea is nearly tide-less, nearly salt-less and in places quite shallow. It is also the legendary source of Amber – petrified gum from submerged pine trees. Apparently the Phoenicians traded for Amber and then traveled to Gaul and then traded it to the Ancient Greeks during the 1st Millenium BCE. There is also some recent (through the 1920’s anyway) history of these peoples.

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