“When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the Kingdom” (Jesus Christ, Gospel of Thomas).
In many folklore traditions, mythologies and fairy-tales around the world, characters have to overcome or endure certain trials as a penance, to prove their worth (to marry a princess, for example), break a curse or claim their ultimate prize. These trials may be extremely hard (The Labours of Hercules) or even impossible to overcome or solve. At one end, there are riddles to be guessed, such as the famous riddle of the Sphinx from the Greek mythology (“What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening, and no legs at night?”) or the puzzles in the stories of Persian poet Nizami, which also found their way to Puccini’s opera Turandot, but another extreme is a truly impossible task set to frighten and confuse characters or heroes. These paradoxical, “undoable” commands often have a wondrous effect.
People have always been obsessed with the question of fate: what does the future hold? Is it possible to reverse the course of one’s destiny? In ancient and medieval times, mortality was particularly high and people felt they had little control over their lives, coupled with the fact that they also usually had little opportunity to move up the societal ladder and were “stuck” in their roles from birth until death. Moreover, those born rich had all the chances to lose everything, and violent death, war, famine, incurable illness and infant death were all just around the corner for all. In this unpredictable environment, appeasing the gods and goddesses of destiny and chance must have been an important task, especially for farmers, soldiers and sailors. After all, these deities were capable of ensuring the survival against all odds and the enduring of the worst and, anyways, a miracle can happen at any moment. It is also partly for that reason that premonitions, dreams and fortune-telling rituals have all been part of various cultures around the world, and Fortuna or Lady Luck in Europe has often been portrayed as ever-changing and fickle, as capable of giving much suddenly as taking it all away in a split second. So, how was Fate presented in art?
Woven tapestries date as far back as the times of ancient Egypt, and the most famous series of medieval tapestries is probably The Lady and the Unicorn [c. 1460]. This mysterious series of tapestries has each piece representing one of the five senses (taste, hearing, sight, smell and touch), as well as the elusive sixth sense or concept titled only as À mon seul désir. These tapestries’ precise meaning remains unclear, and the same theme can also be seen in the series of paintings by Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens‘ titled The Five Senses [1617-18]. While some medieval tapestries focus on scenes from the lives of nobility, including royal hunting and tournaments, others centre on everyday life, religious themes and landscapes. Below are four tapestries from the Middle Ages which are as beautiful as they are enigmatic.
The Unicorn Rests in a Garden/The Unicorn in Captivity (the Unicorn Tapestries) [1495 – 1505]
Woven from a French design in either Belgium or the Netherlands, the so-called “Unicorn Tapestries” are a series of tapestries that are often considered to be the most beautiful and enigmatic of all arts that survived to us from the Middle Ages. The tapestry on the right shows a unicorn in captivity, and is probably a part of this series of six other woven artworks that all show the entrapment of a mythical animal – the magical unicorn.
As part of other “Unicorn” tapestries, The Unicorn in Captivity represents the culmination of an arduous work – the sighting, the taming and the capture of the animal that ancient sources say could only be tamed by a virgin. Thus, the tapestries show the hunting for and the trapping of this magnificent animal by various huntsmen. However, the precise symbolic meaning of the tapestries still eludes historians and critics who point out this or that mysterious detail in the tapestries, discuss the various sequences in which the tapestries could be presented and their mysterious origin, and, generally, debate their multiple interpretations. Interpretations that rely on pagan and Christian symbolism, as well as on alchemy (“unseen forces finally seen and conquered”) were all proposed. Moreover, those who believe that The Unicorn in Captivity is a standalone tapestry say that the artwork may simply symbolise “the desire finally tamed”, one’s beloved finally “captured in the nets of his or her lover’s charm”, an allegory of “love being triumphant” and “a subject of affection conquered”. Those who favour the latter interpretation point out that the unicorn seems to be at peace and even content in its confinement (the fence is not high and the animal may escape since it is not securely chained to the tree). Also, the presence of “ripe pomegranates” on the tree pictured may symbolise both marriage and fertility. The tapestry can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY, US.
Enchanted forests have always had a special place in fairy-tales, folklore and mythology. In fantasy fiction, the forest is often perceived as a place of danger where anything can happen and where dark magicians or other dark forces dwell. In Slavic folklore, for example, the forest is a home to Baba Yaga, a kind of an evil witch who lives in a hut “on chicken legs”, and likes to cook and eat her victims. Similarly, in Hansel and Gretel, a brother and a sister find a gingerbread house deep in the forest, only to realise that its resident is a wicked witch. The Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter is equally a place of danger and morbid fascination, where centaurs, giant spiders and unicorns roam. Moreover, the forest can act as both a place to do evil deeds secretly and a place to hide and find the necessary refuge, as in the case of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, where the forest first acted as a place where the Queen’s huntsman had a task to kill Snow White, but then it became a welcoming abode for the Princess. In England, Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire is probably the most famous forest where the legend of Robin Hood is played out, and many cultures also have the tradition of a sacred grove (a holy place associated with secret rites and spiritual rituals). Below are three other examples of enchanted forests from mythology and folklore.
Since Halloween is the time to celebrate the unknown and mysterious, I thought I would talk about one of the greatest mysteries in South America. The Nazca Lines are a series of geoglyphs or large land designs made by pre-Inca settlers (the Nazca people) in the Peruvian desert. The designs, made between 400 BC and 10th century AD, stretch around 200 square miles, and include straight lines and geometrical figures. The most astounding of the designs are around 70 giant (up to 370 meters in size) designs of animals and plants (as well as some unrecognisable figures). Some of the well-known depictions are that of a hummingbird (hermit), a monkey, a spider, a heron, a dog, a tree and a flower, but there are also designs of human hands and a “giant”.
Celtic mythology is fascinating and includes tales from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, England’s south-west and Brittany. The legends of King Arthur (including of such figures as Lancelot and Merlin) are probably the most famous example, but the romance between Tristan and Iseult is also well-known. Below are three figures from the Celtic mythology whose stories perhaps influenced modern literature.
I. Caer (Ibormeith)
Caer is a pan-Celtic goddess/fairy maiden (worshipped in Ireland, Scotland and Wales), who is associated with dreams, sleeping and prophecy. She takes the form of a swan and lives on a lake called The Dragon’s Mouth. Caer was a love interest of Aonghus, the Irish love god, who first saw her in a dream. Aonghus wanted to marry Caer, but he first had to pass one challenge – to recognise Caer, who took the form of a swam, among other seemingly identical one hundred and fifty swans. Caer and her sisters take the form of swans every second Samhain (a pagan festival celebrated on 31 October), and remain like that for a year. Aonghus successfully completed this challenge, and he and Caer were married. Swans feature in many Continental fairy-tales too, most famously in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale The Wild Swans , where a wicked witch turns the main character’s brothers into swans, and in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake , where Prince Siegfried falls for the Swan Princess Odette. Interestingly, tasks to recognise someone and mistaken identities feature in many similar stories.