“Impossible Tasks” in Folklore: Wondrous Tradition Spanning Continents

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.

King Heimer and Aslaug [1856] by Johan August Malmström
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Celtic Mythology

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. 

caer

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 [1838], where a wicked witch turns the main character’s brothers into swans, and in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake [1876], where Prince Siegfried falls for the Swan Princess Odette. Interestingly, tasks to recognise someone and mistaken identities feature in many similar stories.

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Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads: The Innocent Anthropologist, and Magic & Mystery in Tibet

the innocent anthropologist coverI. The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut [1983] by Nigel Barley – ★★★★

In the late 1970s, Nigel Barley went to North Cameroon to study the Dowayos, and choosing those that represent the most “ferocious” mountain tribe existing at that time. This is his debut non-fiction account of his travels and exploration in Africa as he embarks on his fieldwork. In this book, Barley is really an “innocent” anthropologist, an idealistic young man who is a bit ignorant about what to expect in the real world outside the academia. Barley tells us how he encountered the mind-boggling bureaucracy, got lost in “the vast range of loose kingship” in the country, overcame malaria, as well as survived a horror-trip to a local dentist, among his other stories. Barley’s style of writing is appealingly laid-back, and this concise book turns out to be funny and engaging as a result. It may not be the book on the Dowayos, but part of the charm is that the account is surprisingly honest and humorous.  Continue reading “Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads: The Innocent Anthropologist, and Magic & Mystery in Tibet”