Posts filed under ‘Folktales’

Combs of Wood: The Cosmic Tree

Here I continue what I began in “Combs of Wood: The Anthropomorphic Tree” weaving the image into a larger picture. As we stand in the center of the horizon, so the Tree is a symbol of the Center. Climbing this Tree allows us to enter another reality. The humble comb of wood reminds us of this.


Continue Reading February 13, 2010 at 9:45 am Leave a comment

Combs of Wood: the Anthropomorphic Tree

In the same way as a tree can be a father or a girl, the comb made of wood may be made in the abstract shape of a woman.

Continue Reading February 6, 2010 at 5:23 pm Leave a comment

Gaia’s Hair, part I

Comb France

Bronze comb from France. After J. Briard.

Let us look once more at the symbols.They are difficult concepts because they are never just signs or allegories. Symbols are both images that seem to come out of nowhere, from our unconscious and appear in our dreams and also abstract concepts, such as life and death, femininity and masculinity, love and hate, the soul and God, which we can only describe borrowing words from our physical world. The comb is an example. When blond hair-like fibers appeared from the dead nettles, it must have felt s if a miracle had happened, as if a divinity had appeared: the plant had not died but had been transformed into something else, into hair that could be combed and plaited. It was natural to see the power behind it as that of a goddess who combed her flaxen hair of nettles. Every time they twisted the hair from the dead nettles into thread, into ropes, into nets, into string skirts, then wove the thread into cloth, they were reminded of the transformation.

Even a goddess may wish to comb her hair

A goddess is not almighty and there are always certain things she needs help with.  This story from Greenland that was told to Knud Rasmussen in 1905 and Jean Malaurie in 1954,  is about Nerrivik, the goddess without hands:

A loon, who was a great magician, once took a human wife. One day she became so frightened of him that she asked her brothers to help her run away. The magician became furious when he discovered that his wife was gone and called up a big storm that brought the small kayak with the fugitives close to capsizing. Realizing that their lives were in danger because of their sister, the brothers threw her into the water and when she tried to hold on to the boat they cut off her hands. She drowned, but reaching the bottom of the sea she became Nerrivik, mistress of the all the animals living there. Without hands she could not comb her hair and to solve the problem she kept the seals away from the hunters thus calling for the attention of the shaman who went to see her and combed her hair. She thanked him by allowing the seals to return.

Unexpected Consequences

With the transformation of the nettle into hair begins all the customs, all the traditions, all the tabus, all the deep feelings that surround our hair: For example, not long ago all Christian married women had to cover their heads when they went outside the house and, even more important, entered into a church. Men take off their hats inside a church, but in a synagogue they cover their heads. An orthodox Jewish woman hides her hair under a wig. The veil is part of a nun’s clothing and also of many Muslim women’s. Once upon a time, Catholic monks and priests partly shaved their heads and Buddhist monks and nuns still shave theirs. Hindu ascetics, on the other hand, let their hair grow and Sikh have the religious duty to never cut their hair and wear a comb in it. Samson’s strength resided in his hair (Judg. 16: 17-19)  and for a long time people believed that the same happened in the case of a witch, so during the witch trials the poor accused women got not only their heads shaved, but all the hair on their bodies.

Avicenna, a Persian-Jewish mathematician and philosopher (whose real name was Abn Ali al Hosain ibn Abdallah ibn Sina and who lived in the tenth century of the Christian era) asserts that a buried witch’s hair transforms itself into snakes. Even now when this significance has been forgotten, the symbol sometimes wakes up as when  Gananath Obeyesekere recalls his disgust meeting women in Sri Lanka, who had let their hair grow in honor of the god Shiva so it was many feet long, a matted and stinking mass. He notices that the hair looks snakelike and later discovers that at least one woman compares her hair to the holy and dangerous cobras.

Let me continue with two modern examples of how our hair unconsciously influences our behavior: A good friend of mine related that in her youth she had a terrible car accident. After the long hospitalization she felt compelled to cut her long, mid-rift hair and has never let it grow out again. I had the same feeling after recovering from a difficult fever years ago. I wanted to shave my head, but the thought of my family’s reaction made me ask the hairdresser to cut it really, really short. After much prodding he cut it, but I always felt it wasn’t short enough, although photos from the time show differently. Was cutting our hair a symbolic act of rebirth?  Had something in us died and by cutting our hair we prepared for our new life?

comb from Alto Adige, Italy

Bronze comb from Italy. Iron Age. After P. Laviosa-Zambotti.

The dangerous golden comb and the goddess Diana

I was excited when I discovered that Lorelei (whom we read about in school as a warning against vanity) is older and more important than our moralistic teacher ever knew. ( I follow Rose Brodt, eine Annäherung an dem Mythos Loreley.) Lorelei is the name of a great rock jutting out of the river Rhine at its most dangerous juncture; up to sixty years ago many ships found their early end on this infamous rock. During the Middle Ages the rock had different names which all started with Lur, perhaps another name for the ancient Germanic goddess Holda. (The ending -ley is also interesting and can perhaps be of Celtic descent, lei or ley meaning “holy”.) The Christian missionaries saw a likeness between Holda and the Greek-Roman goddess Diana so they portrayed her as a witch who lured women out in the night to sexual dances with the devil.  It doesn’t interest us how far back in time the story can be traced or if Heinrich Heine made the story up, but the interesting fact is that a link may exist between Lorelei and Diana.  Lorelei combs her hair and Plutarch, a Greek that lived two thousand years ago, writes that he frankly doesn’t understand why all Roman women must wash their hair on August 15, the day dedicated to the goddess Diana.  (This day was so important that Christianity took it over as the Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Ascension to Heaven. It is still one of the most beloved holidays in Italy.)

Why did the women in ancient Rome wash their hair in honor of the goddess Diana?

In order to answer Plutarch’s question we need to go deeper into the symbol with the help of three tales, the first one told by the Youkaghir people of eastern Siberia, near the Amur river.

An orphaned girl makes her living as a shepherdess. One day the sky turns black, and an evil spirit is about to swallow her. The girl runs for her life with the spirit in hot pursuit. First she throws a comb behind her, and the comb transforms itself into a forest, then her red scarf, which catches fire. As this does not help in diverting the evil spirit, she transforms herself into different animals to be able to run even faster.  Exhausted she finally comes to some tents where she faints.  (Told by Marie-Louise von Franz, Reflets de l’âme).

The second is a Russian folktale. (I am summarizing a longer and much more complicated story.)

A jealous stepmother sends a girl and a boy to Baba Yaga, the Russian witch. (In Russian “baba” means grand-mother”; “yaga” skeleton, that is, Baba Yaga is the Goddess of Death.)  Baba Yaga receives them and puts them to work: the girl must spin and the boy fetch water in a sieve. If they accomplish the tasks well enough, they may stay until the next day – if not, she’ll eat them. A bird tells them how to stop up the sieve so that they survive until the next day. Then the cat helps them to run away and gives the girl a kerchief and a comb that will stop Baba Yaga when she comes after them. The kerchief becomes a rushing river and the comb such a deep forest that Baba Yaga cannot traverse it. The children thus return unscathed home.

The last example is found in the Japanese creation myth.

Izanami, the beloved wife of the god Izanagi, has been burnt to death in giving birth to the god of fire and Izanagi goes into the underworld to search for her. He finds her, but she asks him to wait while she consults with the deities of the underworld about returning with him.  Izanagi, however, becomes restless and lights one tooth of his comb and goes in search of her. He finds her in the darkest chamber, where her body has began decomposing because of him having disobeyed her. She is furious and chases him down the corridors calling a host of nightmarish spirits. Izanagi escapes by throwing his comb at them and it becomes a forest of bamboo spouts.

The analogy between the comb and the forest

In order to find the analogy of the comb-forest we must equate the comb with the hair. When Izanagi and the girls throw the comb, it is as if they had taken off their hair and thrown it behind them—an impossible thing to do. The tool is substituted and the analogy hair-forest is not that far away. It is found in the Icelandic Grimnismal, (the Poetic Edda, verse 40), when the god Odin and his brothers Vali and Ve kill the giant Ymir:

From Ymir’s flesh the world was made
And from his sweat, the ocean;
The mountains were made from his bones, the trees from his hair,
And the vault of the sky from his skull.

The forest is the earth’s hair and following the analogy that the dead nettles are transformed into hair, the comb has the power to transform itself into a forest to stop pursuers and possible death. The Code of Emsig, a six hundred year old Christian manuscript, also contains this symbology. Here God creates Adam from the earth: the stones become his skeleton, clay his flesh, water his blood, wind his heart, the clouds his thoughts, the dew his sweat, the grass his hair and the sun his eyes. Just like the grass and trees, the textile plants – nettles, linen, hemp and broom – are the earth’s hair.

January 21, 2010 at 4:16 pm Leave a comment

The Transformation Power of the Nettles


Twenty years ago, a student of mine showed me some samples of different bast fibers, among which were nettles, hemp and flax. They were all whitish in color; hemp was like thick strands, the flax felt like baby hair, and the nettle like the softest, finest baby down. The dead nettle contains not only the useful fibers but blond, soft hair.

We need to remember that thirty thousand years ago everybody was much darker than today and had black hair. I still remember my first year in elementary school in Sweden. We were all more or less blond, everybody except Inga who had olive brown skin and black hair. She was the most beautiful girl we had ever known and we all wanted to touch her hair. The situation in Italy was similar when my blond daughter was small. There everybody admired her blond hair. The Neapolitan porters refused payment just for the honor of carrying her.

The blond baby hair inside the dead nettle may have given birth to the same feeling of wonder. Instead of being slimy and dead, the plant had been transformed into blond soft hair.  The transformation doesn’t answer the question why pain and death exist, but instead it gives us an analogy: in the same way as death transforms the nettle into blond baby hair, that can be combed, twisted, spun and woven, death is a new beginning. New words, myths and rituals grew up around this new symbol.

Stories and folktales often preserve some traces of old symbols.  In this Flemish folktale, which Arthur Lang published 1890 in the The Red Fairy Book, hemp and flax are neutral materials, but to spin a shroud out of nettles means death.

Once upon a time, a cruel count saw a beautiful girl spinning hemp. He offers her a place in the castle as a lady-in-waiting to the countess. The girl, however, has no intention to leave her beloved. The count returns and she still refuses. Then, one day when she is spinning flax for her bridal shift, the count angrily points at the tall nettles and tells her that she will only marry her beloved when she has finished both her bridal shift and his shroud out of the nettles. She only can marry when the count dies.
The girl is doubtful, but an old woman tells her to try. She finishes the bridal shift and begins on the shroud and the count falls ill. Suspecting the girl he sends his soldiers to stop her by throwing her in the river, tying her hands, uprooting the nettles, braking the wheel of the spindle. All to no avail. At last the countess takes pity on her husband and goes to the girl asking her to stop her spinning. Out of love for the countess, the girl obeys. She obeys even when her beloved tires and leaves her. Then the count falls ill. He is in severe pain, longs for death, but knows he cannot. In the end he sends for the girl and asks her to sit by his bed and spin and when she has finished the shroud, he dies and the girl marries.

Let me finish this chapter with a summary of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Wild Swans”, where nettles play a prominent role and will provide a bridge into my next chapter.  Andersen may have listened to the story as a child or perhaps he was inspired by “The Six Swans” collected by the Grimm brothers, or by other versions that circulated in Norway and Ireland. There is a great difference, however, in Andersen’s tale. The other versions read like ethnological reports and without the voice and mimicry of the storyteller they remain words without life. Great poets like Homer and Andersen did not copy the stories they heard, they transformed them into literature. It is impossible to sum up “The Wild Swans” and do justice to the text, I only hope the reader will take the opportunity to read the full, original story.

Once upon a time a royal couple has eleven sons and one daughter. The queen dies and the new stepmother hates the children. She transforms the boys into swans and sends the girl to be a servant in a farmhouse. The girl, Elisa, does not know what has happened to her brothers, but she always thinks of them. When she is fifteen years old, the king sends for her. In the castle, the jealous stepmother rubs Elisa with walnut juice making her dark and ugly. The same night the girl runs away from the castle. She flees through the forest and comes to the sea where she beholds eleven swans. The next evening the birds return and suddenly they transform into her brothers.

The swans must leave for a country far away on the other side of the sea and they decide to take Elisa with them. In this new country Elisa has a dream telling her how she can save her brothers. She must collect nettles, but only those growing around the cave she lives in and those in the graveyards. She must prepare the nettles, spin the fibers into thread and weave the thread into cloth and then sew eleven shirts with long sleeves. When the shirts are all ready, she must throw them over the swans. To add an extra challenge to the task, during all this time she may not utter a word.

Elisa immediately begins to work, but soon the young king finds her in the cave, falls in love with her and brings her to his castle to marry her. Elisa doesn’t say a word. She only spins, weaves and sews–until one day she finishes her supply of nettles. She must go to the graveyard and pick more, but here the archbishop sees her. He is very suspicious of her and seeing her in the graveyard at night only deepens his belief that she is a witch. Slowly he convinces the king. Elisa is sentenced to die by fire.  She has ten shirts ready and during the last day in the dungeon she desperately works on the eleventh. Even on the executioner’s cart she works.  A crowd tries to snatch the shirts away from her, but eleven white swans suddenly descend on the cart. When the executioner seizes her arm, she throws the shirts over the swans and eleven princes appear, the youngest one with a wing instead of one arm.  Elisa is saved.

When we look at a nettle, we must look at two images at the same time: the nettle that burns our fingers when we touch it, and the bast fibers glittering inside the rotten, broken stem.  The fibers that look like a baby’s blond hair just waiting for us to comb them, twist them, spin and weave them into a shining cloth, became a symbolic image of transformation.

January 20, 2010 at 11:35 am Leave a comment


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