Tag Archives: myths & legends

Thursday Myths & Legends: The Bicorn and the Chichevache

A little literary influx for today’s Myths & Legends.  And my apologies, but I do mean a little.

This is a two-part medieval legend.  The Bicorn is a two-horned creature (often portrayed artistically as horse, after tradition of the unicorns) which fed on devoted and doting husbands—it was said to be well-fed and plump.

Meanwhile, the Chichevache (possibly invented by Chaucer and literally meaning “greedy cow”) is a cow with a woman’s face who is said to prey only on faithful women, which left it thin and haggard.  Being as this is from the Clerk’s Tale in Canterbury Tales, the snark is not only there but evident.  Is this sexist and old-fashioned? Answer: yes.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: La Pincoya

La Pincoya is a water sprite, said to guard the seas surrounding the southern island of Chiloé in Chile.  She is a personification of the fertility of the ocean, and is said to perform a ritual dance on the beach—if she performs this dance facing the ocean, the sea (and the fishermen who work it) will have an abundance of fish, but if she dances facing towards land, or away from the ocean, then the fish will be scarce.  She is said to be a very generous creature, though.

She is the daughter of Millalobo, king of the Chilotan sea, and along with her sister, La Sirena Chilota (a mermaid tasked with caring for all the fish) and her brother (and husband) El Pincoy, she helped to carry dead sailors onto La Caleuche, a phantom ship where the deceased were able to carry on as if they were still alive.  This ship is said to be glimpsed at times, with sounds of a party drifting from it, but it always vanishes from sight.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Aether

A quick little post for today.  You’ve probably heard the phrase “into the ether.”  What you might not know is that Ether – or rather, Aether, is actually a Greek God—and one of the very first.

Aether was one of the Protogenoi, or an elemental god, like Chaos and Gaia.  Aether was the embodiment of the upper air or space or heaven.  He is also the pure air that the gods themselves breathed—which is different from the air that mortals breathed.  Aether is supposedly the son of Erebus (Deep Darkness) and Nyx (Night) but may also be the son of Chaos.  The Orphic hymns mention him as the “soul of the earth” from which all life emanates.  He is the father of Uranus (Father Sky) and possibly Aergia (Inactivity).

His realm encompasses the mountains, clouds, stars, sun and moon, and it is said that the stars were forged in the Aether’s fire.  Aether was also meant to be Zeus’ defensive wall, blocking Tartarus from the rest of the Cosmos.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: The Cat and the Cradle

You’ve probably heard “cat’s in the cradle,” if not only from the line in the Harry Chapin song, but you may not realize that this saying originated from a Dutch legend.  The elaboration of the story seems to vary from place to place.

The basic gist of it is that once there was a big flood of torrential waters, and while checking on the drainage after the storm, a man saw something floating on the water and realized it was a cradle.  He decided that sadly nothing inside it could possibly be alive, because the water had been so tempestuous, but as it floated nearer, he saw that a cat was actually rocking the cradle back and forth in the water by jumping from end to end—apparently to keep the water out.  When the cradle drifted close enough to the man, he was amazed to find a baby girl in the cradle, alive and well despite the long stormy night.

Another source I came to says that the little girl had already once been saved from an untimely death—this was extremely long ago, when food and resources were scarce, so often baby girls were left to die in favor of raising up strong boys who could be warriors, but a girl child was allowed to live if they were ever given so much as a taste of food—milk, honey, what have you.  This girl was meant to be left to die on orders of her grandmother (the matriarch in the family has all the say) but she was hidden by a nursemaid and her parents, and cared for secretly.

The cat was a pet and became a playmate of the little girl, and supposedly cared for her more than for her own kittens, so when the flood came, the cat let her kittens fend for themselves, thinking that kittens are more apt to take care of themselves and run around and whatnot than a baby is, so the cat jumped into the cradle with the baby and they floated off together.  This other reference also says that it was not a man but a boy that found the baby, and that eventually the two were married.  It even says that there is still today a statue of the cat over the woman’s tomb, and that every year on Santa Klaas day (December 5th) the children in the village put a new collar on the cat’s statue, and remember the story about the cat that saved a little girl’s life.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Naiads

Naiads are water nymphs, usually connected to a certain spring, well, brook, or stream.  It was believed that if a naiad’s spring or well dried up, that the Naiad would die.

Like most Naiads are playful, but can be deadly to humans.  They enjoy beauty, but are also quite jealous, so if they lure a human underwater, they’re likely to keep it there—and drown it.  The Naiads are either descended from Poseidon, or from Oceanids (the 3000 daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys).  Oceanids are similar creatures, but associated with salt water, as Naiads are associated with fresh.

Naiads were often the focus of cults or rituals in archaic times, with belief that they were tied to fertility or cleansing.  Children coming-of-age would throw locks of their hair into a spring dedicated to a Naiad, and in some cases Oracles or ritualistic animal drownings were tied to a certain spring as well.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: The Gytrash

The Gytrash is a spectral creature of North England myth, appearing to lost or way-laid travelers on lonely roads  as either a large lion-like dog, donkey, or horse.

The creature occasionally manifests itself to lead a lost traveler to the right path, but most encounters are of a more sinister nature, leading the travelers astray, never to be found again.  When the creature appeared as entirely dark, with eyes burning like coals, it’s believed to be at its most malevolent.  It is one of many forms of spectral dogs, in particular, and fairly rare.

The most common reference for a Gytrash is the scene in Jane Eyre, where Jane wonders momentarily if Pilot, Mr. Rochester’s dog who has found her on her way to Thornfield, might possibly be this mythic beast.  She’s reassured when she sees Rochester riding his horse, as “Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone.”

For such a small moment in the book, and such a rarely-heard-of creature, this scene has always stuck with me, as has the image of the Gytrash, appearing on dusky roads and luring wandering travelers astray.  There’s something particularly sinister in the idea of what most people would expect to be a subservient creature  leading tired and lonely travelers astray, in the guise of companionship.  This is one myth that I wouldn’t be surprised to feel the tugs of if I were ever to find myself on an abandoned country road in Europe somewhere.  Maybe even here in America, if the conditions were just right.  If I go for a long walk and don’t end up coming home… well, it may well have been a Gytrash that I’ve let lead me astray.  I think I’d keep away from that one with the burning-coal eyes, though… at least I’d hope I’d have enough sense as that.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Manticore

The Manticore’s name literally comes from “man eater,” in ancient Portugese.  Manticores are creatures of India, and are supposed to have the body of a red lion, the head of a man (with blue eyes for some reason) with three rows of teeth, and the tail of a scorpion—which is covered with arrows that can be shot at its prey from long distances.  Its voice is compared to trumpets or pipes, and like its cousin the sphinx, the manticore will on occasion ask riddles of its prey before eating them.

The image above comes from a seventeenth-century bestiary, as the manticore was believed by some (including Aristotle and Pliny the Elder) as being a real creature, which lived in the depths of the earth.  Because of this, it was tied with the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, who had been thrown into a pit.  The manticore became a symbol of tyranny and an embodiment of evil, and was seen as a bad omen.  It was also seen as an unholy hybrid of the zodiac characters of Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius.

In fiction, a manticore plays a large role in  Piers Anthony’s first Xanth novel, and another plays a role in the third novel of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: The Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree is a pretty iconic part of Christmas tradition nowadays… but just what exactly does a tree have to do with Christmas anyway?

Well… nothing, really.  The Christmas tree comes to us from a purely pagan tradition, that centered around the Winter Solstice, or the shortest day of the year (which was on Dec. 21st this year, just in case you were wondering).  As the days grew shorter, it was worried that the sun might disappear forever—but unlike most plant life, evergreen trees were unaffected by this, and therefore were believed to have magical powers of a sort.  Evergreen boughs were brought into the home, and trees were decorated—but certainly not chopped down.  They were decorated out in the open, with candles and metal and replicas of Bacchus—the god of wine and various other disorderly things.

Also, in ancient Europe, trees were believed to represent everlasting life, and were decorated to honor the god Woden, the key god in the Germanic traditions, and where we get “Wednesday” from.

So how did this become a Christian tradition?  Well, one story is that St. Boniface of the late seventh/early eighth century cut down an oak tree (which of course is deciduous, or loses its leaves) and that an Evergreen sprung up from the center of it—symbolizing the end of Paganism and the beginning of Christianity.  But really…. I think it simply has more to do with the strength of tradition.  People’s beliefs changed and they adapted their already-established traditions to accommodate that by putting a star or angel on top of the tree—and now that Christmas sways more and more towards the commercial, a Christmas tree is a nice, non-religiously-affiliated symbol, if you think about it.  Non-threatening, for sure.

But really, they’re just pretty to look at, aren’t they? 🙂

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Snegurochka the Snow Maiden

"The Snow Maiden, Snegurochka" by Anatolyi Aleksabdrovich Kamorin

Snegurochka is the title character of a Russian fairy tale, a beautiful maiden made of snow.  In many stories she is the daughter of Spring and Frost, but in some stories she’s the daughter of a poor old couple who’ve built her out of snow (there’s a Japanese story that’s similar-but-different, I’ll get to that sometime!).

Every version of the story, however, ends with her demise due to her longing for human companionship.  This comes about in a number of ways.  In one of the stories, she leaves the forest against her parents’ wishes and joins with some girls.  At one point, the girls play a game where they take turns jumping over a small fire—Snegurochka gets halfway across and turns into a cloud of vapor.

Most common, though,  is the story where Snegurochka comes to like a shepherd named Lel, but because she has no heart, she cannot love him.  In despair she tells this to her mother, who pities her and gives her the heart she craves—but her heart is so warm that it melts and kills her.

In another version of the same story, her mother gives her a heart and she falls in love, only to be melted by a sunbeam, and in yet another the music Lel plays for her moves her so much that she cries, and her tears melt her away.

Basically, Snegurochka is doomed no matter which way you look at it.  But it’s still kind of a beautiful story.  I admit, I’m a sucker for any story about a person formed out of inanimate somethings.

If you’re interested in this fairy tale, there is both a ballet and an opera that use it as a storyline, along with a bunch of other adaptations—you just have to keep an eye out for them!

Thursday Myths & Legends: Jack O’ Lanterns


Walking around town, I’m starting to see more and more pumpkins out on porches.  Halloween is certainly coming on fast.  Did you ever wonder why we carve up pumpkins with scary faces and light them up with candles, though?  I have.

There are a few different stories as to how Jack o’ Lanterns were started, but they all follow more or less the same.  There’s a man named Jack who was just of the worst class of people – disorderly, drunk, and usually in debt.  The how and why differ, but in all of the stories, he somehow manages to trick and trap the devil, by means of a cross—in one he’s being chased out of town for his debts and convinces the devil to turn into a coin to trick the townspeople, turning them against each other when the coin would later disappear.  The devil jumps into his pocket as a silver coin, but lands next to a cross and is trapped.  In another story Jack convinces the devil to climb a tree, then carves a cross into the trunk.

What happens after this is that he bargains to let the devil go if he promises to never take Jack’s soul, which he does, and so Jack lives out the rest of his life, but he’s been such a bad person, he can’t get into Heaven but when he goes down to Hell, the devil reminds Jack of their bargain and turns him away out of spite for having been tricked by him.  When Jack asks where he is to go, and how he is to find his way, the devil mockingly tosses him an ember from Hell that will never fade, and Jack hollowed out a turnip (sometimes given to him by a wiseman, or God) and carried it as a lantern as he walked the earth, searching for a place of rest.

So, moral of the story—don’t mess with the devil, kids. 😉

Interestingly enough, though, the phrase “jack o’ lantern” originally referred to night watchmen or will’o the wisps, the strange flickering light over peat bogs.  It still does mean the latter in Labrador and Newfoundland.

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