Advent: December 12th

Today’s mythical creature is the mermaid. The Soundcloud clip is here.

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Mermaids – maids of the sea – are hybrid creatures with the top half being a female human and the bottom half of a fish. They are rooted deep in the myths of many cultures for thousands of years. The first known mermaid story appears to have been in Ancient Syria and based around the fertility goddess Atargatis. In another of her alter-egos she is said to have flung herself into the sea for shame having bourn an illegitimate child by her lover and there she was turned half into a fish. In Roman times, Atagatis was worshipped by eunuch priests who would would ritually emasculate themselves and wear feminine clothing from then on. There seems to be an awful lot of castration in the stories around Atargatis – quite a scary sounding creature to be around really!

In other sea-faring legends, mermaids are sometimes associated with disasters of a more marine kind; shipwrecks and storms. In others, they are associated with more gentle and kindly attributes.

Even before the misandrist Atargatis was created – some 7 millennia before – there was a legend of a kind of merman. Oannes was an amphibious creature in Mesopotamian mythology with the head and feet of a man under his fishy ones. He taught wisdom to mankind; writing, the arts and sciences. Altogether more my kettle of fish..

The gemstone Aquamarine was said to have been formed from mermaid’s tears. On the whole, I prefer the fishy tale that the egg cases of skates and sharks are the purses of mermaids – and even now I still love collecting them along the shoreline when they wash in once the young fish have hatched out and the empty eggcases have broken free from the kelp forest in sea storms…

 

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Advent: December 11th

Today we have a Dropbear. The Soundcloud clip is here.

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The Dropbear is a killer Koala! It’s an Aussie practical joke; they are said to be carnivorous marsupials who hang about in the trees just waiting to drop on unsuspecting tourists. The gullible ones, presumably nervous of the more snappy and poisonous fauna in Australia might sometimes take the tongue-in-cheek “advice” to smear themselves with things to ward off the dropbears, wearing forks in your hair or adopting an Aussie accent.

Hmmm…

I’m reliably informed by an Australian spinning friend and customer that wearing a very sharp pointy hat or a traffic cone on your head is a really good way of deterring them. And that you can sedate them with strong beer. (or maybe just drink one yourself to calm your nerves!!)

I’ve also found that whilst the Dropbear is a joke, there are passing similarities between this made-up creature and a rather scary Ice Age creature – the marsupial lion Thylacoleo carnifex. Here’s a piece about it on National Geographic website.

Advent: December 8th, 9th and 10th!

Sorry! I got behind – badly! I don’t really have much to add to the following creatures but for completeness here they are in order.

December 8th: Valkyrie. The Soundcloud clip is here. The fibre was a deep chocolate purple dyed on a re-design of my British BFL/Rose fibre blend, now with added llama down.

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December 9th: Pegasus. The Soundcloud clip is here.

This was dyed a light sky blue shade on Southdown wool – a beautiful springy British wool that naturally resists felting.

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December 10th: Phoenix. The Soundcloud clip is here.

Another of my British BFL blends – this time with added linen and silk. It’s a deep golden/ mustard shade overdyed on the natural brown shades for subtle shading and depth.

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I hope to be more on the ball with future posts. For now I’m just amazed at the enthusiasm, good humour and fun everyone is having discussing their spinning and the contributions each person brings to the Ravelry thread.

Whether the recordings, the lovely spinning and skein photos, the inspired photo props, the lively banter or interesting added information or links. (I’m still laughing inside over the Bugs Bunny take on the Valkyries from the 8th that Kate brilliantly posted to amuse us!).

The Advent spinners this year are outdoing themselves!

 

 

Advent: December 7th

Today’s creature is the Jabberwock – the hideous winged sauropod beast from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, The Jabberwocky which is part of Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Soundcloud clip is here.

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The first lines must be one of the better known children’s poems in English literature;

Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves;
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Carroll (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson as he was otherwise known) wrote The Jabberwocky whilst staying in Sunderland and may have based the poem on the legend of the Lambton Worm.

Whilst the two Alice stories have been loved by countless children since they were written more than 150 years ago, one of the defining features of the books are the illustrations by John Tenniel, a political cartoonist and illustrator. I’ve chosen a tinted copy of Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock, only because it is in green like the fibre I dyed. The original black and white fine engravings Tenniel produced were a laborious process; first in pencil sketch, then in china white ink, then transferred to a woodblock (endgrain boxwood, incredibly hard and capable of taking minute detail). The final engraving was undertaken by Dalziel Brothers, the “go-to” engraving firm in Victorian London which included not only the four Dalziel brothers themselves but interestingly, also their sister Margaret, which was unusual for the time.

Tenniel was seemingly reluctant to work on the illustrations for Through the Looking Glass – it took him more than two years to agree despite having illustrated the first book. He had great influence over Carroll’s choices and apparently the entire first edition of “Alice in Wonderland” was re-called simply because Tenniel was not happy with how they had been printed. Happily for generations of readers he did finally agree and provide a continuity between both stories and help to bring Carroll’s nonsense to life.

Tenniel was a master of the grotesque, a form of art dating back to Roman times. Exaggerating human or natural features to make them more deformed or ugly intensified their horror. The word grotesque is derived from the Italian grottesco or “of a cave”. It refers to the overgrown rooms of Nero’s unfinished Domus Aurea in Ancient Rome built after the great fire of 64 AD. They were discovered in the 15th C after a lad fell into the “cave” and discovered it decorated with flamboyant figures. The style was widely copied by Renaissance artists at the time and the influence carried on through the centuries.

The original woodblocks for the Alice books are now held in the British Library after being discovered in a bank vault in 1981. (though whether the person who found them went galumphing back chortling on this frabjous day is not known…)

 

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Advent: December 6th

Today’s creature is the Centaur. The Soundcloud clip is here.

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I’m afraid don’t have anything much to add about centaurs to the clip Ellaria kindly recorded!

Centaurs are a horse/human hybrid with the horses body and the torso of a man. Perhaps this myth came about when non-riding cultures first encountered the sight of people on horseback – which must have been a terrifying vision.

It would appear that this mistaking of horse/ human fusion is not confined to the ancient world. Only last week I was walking dog with one of my friends. She was accompanied as usual by her own dog but was leading her horse instead of riding him. A car came up on the road behind us, slowed down and then crawled alongside, respecting the need to pass a horse with respect to avoid startling it or causing accidents. The lady wound down the window to speak to me as I stood holding my dog on the verge and gesturing ahead to where my friend was mostly hidden by her handsome bay pony, cheerfully admitted that from 50-odd metres back that she had thought “wow that man had very long hair”…

I fail to see how a pony’s bottom, even with a beautifully groomed tail swishing in the wind could look anything like a man with long hair. And felt very anxious about the wisdom of her driving on our narrow, twisting country lanes if her eyesight was that bad or her imagination so vivid!!

Advent: December 5th

Today’s fibre is a blend inspired the Moomin characters. The Soundcloud clip is here.

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The Moomins were created as a cartoon strip and series of books by the Finnish artist and writer Tove Jansson. Originally published in Swedish, the characters she created that dwell in the fictional Moominvalley have entranced adult and children alike since their beginnings in the mid-1940s. The Finn Family of Moomintroll encompasses not only their own child, Moomintroll, but a collection of orphans, wanderers, small creatures and loners and their inclusive love sustains those sometimes seen as outsiders by society.

Jansson’s independence of thought shines through in the characters she created. Some of these characters appear to reflect the people that meant the most to her like her own beloved mother, the illustrator Signe Hammarsten and father, the sculptor, Viktor Jansson as well as her life partner, fellow artist Tuulikki Pietilä. The Moomins idyllic life is also sometimes clouded over by darker times and moods and although the tales are written for children, Jansson’s story-telling has an insightful depth that perhaps only an adult can pick up on through the experience of a life well-lived.

Tove Jansson lived in Helsinki but the Swedish-speaking Jansson family spent their summers on an island in the Gulf of Finland near Porvoo. Tove continued to spend her summers in this way until late in her life and I think this connection to the coast and her exquisite writing about it, especially in her adult fiction such as The Summer Book, is what resonated so deeply with me when I came back to her writing as an adult. There is an identity about it that I recognise so strongly and that transcends language translation and culture and anyone who spent childhood summers on a northern coast will probably recognise some of the beauty and simplicity of this childlike freedom.

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Tove Jansson. Photo by Per Olav Jansson

I should have planned to include this fibre for tomorrow – and very nearly did. Tomorrow – December 6th 2017 – marks 100 years since the creation of Finland as an independent country. The Finnish Declaration of Independence on December 6th 1917 marked the end of more than a century of Russian autonomy and the Grand Duchy of Finland. Prior to that, Finland was an integral part of Sweden dating from the late 13th century. Finnish independence was a long process of creating a distinct identity separate from both Russia and Sweden and the modern day republic is 100 years old tomorrow.

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Happy Independence Day Finland!! Have one of my Korvapuusti…

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Advent: December 4th

Today’s creature is the Selkie. The Soundcloud clip is here.

Selkies are found in the mythology of of northern coasts, around the British Isles, Ireland and Iceland. They are said to be shape-shifters, both seal and human. They are not like mermaids which live their lives half and half permanently, they can move between their seal and human forms easily.

However when they shed their seal skin, the female selkie has to beware to hide it carefully. For if someone should steal their seal skin they cannot return to their seal form and are captive on land. Many Selkie tales speak of seal-women captured this way by fishermen. Whilst living as humans they can marry and bear human children and are often happy. But in these tales, inevitably the call of the sea is too strong and if the selkie chances upon her hidden skin she will take her seal form again and return once more to her people and leave her husband and children behind to mourn…

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The Selkie is a kindly, gentle creature unlike some of the more cold or terrifying mythical creatures. It captures the imagination of folk art (such as the Faroese stamp below) and in literature. Selkies features in many tales, most of them along the lines of the description above; a captured selkie, a loving marriage and family and yet a return eventually to the sea and heart ache for those left behind.

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Perhaps selkie legends grew up in these coastal regions to explain the heartache of losing a mother or wife, either to the sea or in childbirth or to sickness. A way of rationalising that which the heart finds so impossible to accept. Easier to think the woman you love is living free with her own kin somewhere in the depths, happy … but out of reach forever.

Interestingly the possible physical background behind the selkie myths are more rational too. Early settlers to Northern isles might have encountered Sami or Finn women who wore sealskin clothing. It’s suggested that these articles of clothing might have been left on rocks to dry when saturated with seawater hence the idea that seals could shed their skin to become beautiful women. (One can only imagine the distress of such a woman having her clothes stolen and co-erced into marriage with a settler and being unable to return to her people – and no wonder she might eventually try to escape back to her own race if possible).

A certain amount of superstition could have been involved to explain away hereditary conditions such as webbed or fused fingers (syndactyly) or cranial deformities such as anencephaly. More chillingly some thought that the selkie was formed from the souls of the drowned.

However the myths around selkies arose, there is something gentle and beautiful about these sea folk that change from seal into humans and dance in the moonlight. I’ll leave you with a trailer for a sweet Irish animated film, The Song of The Sea.

 

Advent: December 3rd

Today’s beast is the very well-known Unicorn. The link to the Soundcloud clip is here.

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Unicorns are also common to many different cultures since earliest times. They are even described in accounts of natural history not just myth and legend – one can only imagine at what their creators were imbibing at the time or how good their eyesight was!

Closely linked to virgins and purity, the Unicorn is said to be incredibly wild and untameable, proud and defiant. In many cultures it is impossible to capture this elusive woodland beast but it was said that a virgin could attract one of these creatures and her purity would cause them to throw aside his haughtiness and he would curl up beside such a gentle maid and go to sleep with his head in her lap.

Leaving aside the dubious sexual connotations here, there is a rock solid link to equine behaviour in this. You can terrify a horse into submission and control them with metal and leather but to truly attract a horse and create an equality between human and equine on their terms, you can only win them round with gentleness and understanding. The horse has suffered much throughout its association with humankind and been subject to much brutality in efforts to dominate a potentially lethal but useful partnership. Part of me wonders if somebody in ancient times witnessed a young girl “whisperer” winning over a terrified horse simply by her calm presence and that is what lead to this mythical link between virgins and the wildest unicorns.

In Renaissance times, shysters would peddle narwhal horns and pass them off as unicorn horns to gullible – but presumably wealthy – customers. Ground up “alicorn” was medicinal and the complete horns were a status symbol for the elite. Narwhals seem to have taken up a lot of the slack when unicorns went inconveniently AWOL or they ran out of virgins to capture the local population; the fabulously ostentatious Throne Chair of Denmark utilised these in its OTT design. Nothing like a bit of fantasy to boost your equally fantastic claim as an Absolute Monarch…

Slightly more honourably, in heraldic terms, the Unicorn represents the people of Scotland. The Scots were too proud to submit sovereignty and would rather fight fiercely and die in battle than lose honour by surrender and the similar stubborn and honourable unicorn flourishes defiantly across the heraldic badge of the Scots.

More amusingly, the Venetian merchant and explorer, Marco Polo was disgusted when finally coming face to face with a real live unicorn. It was nothing like he’d be led to believe; instead of the delicate, elusive wild white horse with the long slender horn he found it to be huge, squat and bristly with a stumpy black horn and a filthy habit of wallowing about in mud and scant interest in striking up friendships with virgins. He should count himself lucky the grumpy rhino didn’t actually run him through for such a disparaging report on its mistaken identity…

Advent: December 2nd

A day late with this but I did say I probably wouldn’t post every day this year!!

The fabulous beast in the calendar this day is the majestic Gryphon. The link to the Soundcloud clip is here.

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Initially I’d thought to dye today’s fibre in a rich gold – partly due to the golden nugget eggs that gryphon’s were said to have laid and partly due to the majestic and divine links with this creature.

In the end I settled for an indigo that shifts in hue between royal blue and royal purple – both majestic colours in antiquity due to the scarcity of dye-stuffs that produced them. I chose Dorset Down wool as the base because of the jokey reference to the Dorset school of the same name (and believe me I did a lot of shuffling around of fibres and colours at the planning stage once I’d picked out my 24 beasts – some of the links between creature and colour are fairly tenuous as you’ll see throughout this month!).

Gryphon/Griffon/Griffin and creatures very similar have appeared in many cultures throughout the ages, both ancient civilisations in Asia and Europe and more relatively recent ones and cross the boundaries of religion too. They are widely depicted in sculpture, art and literature with some stunning examples from the Middle Ages and earlier. Often linked to majesty and divinity they also seem to share some of the characteristics of the better-known dragons in their love of treasure and hoarding of gold.

I also turned up the frankly bizarre (sorry fans) “mediaeval rock” band Gryphon formed in the 1970s in my searches. If, like me, you feel this might also be a myth, take a look…

Advent: December 1st

I usually do advent posts each day using a photograph I’ve taken. The latter part of this year seems to have been a bit fuller than normal and I wasn’t really sure if I could manage it this year.

Instead I’ve decided to tie it in with the Spinner’s Advent Calendar some of my customers are taking part in. The theme for this year is “Fabulous Beasts” which came about because of a jokey conversation last year about spinning unicorn fibre (this is a standard spinner’s joke – unicorn fluff usually being a term to describe the ultimate in fluffy, soft luxury fibre). I thought it would be fun to imagine the fibres of lots of different beasts because spinners were having so much fun suggesting other mythical fibres.

I don’t know a huge amount about mythology or legends so I had to look up quite a few of the creatures we’re looking at over December. Some are completely new to me. I had worried there might not be enough to fill 24 days – it quickly became obvious that trimming them down was more of a problem! There have been a lot of imaginative people over the course of human history…

I include a small label in each packet describing the fibre or the “beast”. In some cases there was a lot of extra info I turned up in my research which I just had to leave out. So I might add some of these snippets into the posts. I’m also a little bit stuck for images; trying to find non-copyright images for creatures that don’t exist is – unsurprisingly – quite tricky!

So we’ll see how we go – I don’t promise to post every day this year but I’ll see what I can manage.

One of my customers and lovely member of my Ravelry group, Ellaria (she of the sparkly dinosaurs in my previous blog post!) has very kindly offered to record the labels each day and put them up on Soundcloud. Not all of my customers have English as a first language and so Ellaria offered to do this to make life a little easier and also for those who have visual impairment. I’m really grateful to her for this kindness – it’s no small undertaking to commit to something which is effectively a mini-podcast. You can listen to them here (look for BBS 2017 and the day) I will try to link them in each post I write though it appears I’m not able to embed them in this format I use, I’m sorry. The direct link to Day 1 is here.

So, today we have Nisse.

The Nisse – or Tomte in Sweden – is a creature from Nordic folklore. They are small farm-based brownie-like folk with long beards. They are associated with winter – the solstice or the Christmas season – and can help with chores. I had planned to put Nisse at the end of the calendar, but then I thought you might need a helpful hand for the whole month!

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Nisser are Norwegian or Danish, the Tomten is Swedish but both have a similar tradition. They are said to be mischievous but helpful about the home or farm. Tomte is derived from the word tomt or homestead, nisse is derived from the name Nils, the Scandinavian variant of the name Nicholas.

I feel something of an identity with Nisse/tomte. They have responsibility for the farm animals and will work hard – but they don’t like interference and don’t like it when they are not appreciated. They like a clean, orderly home and enjoy a bowl of julegrøt on Christmas Eve in return for their hard work – festive porridge with butter.

If you do not respect your resident nisse or tomte – then beware! He might take revenge for your lack of appreciation or simply leave you in a muddle never to return. So be nice to your tomte and always give him butter in his porridge…

Nisser/tomtar are popular in Scandinavian lore and literature, both ancient tales and more modern writings.

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The ancient pre-christian beliefs were that the nisser or tomten was the soul of the farm; the pioneer who cleared the lot and established it and resided in ancient burial mounds. As someone who understands how it feels to be tied to a particular piece of land and more recently spending time looking at ancient pre-historic land bases and cultures here in Wales, this idea does resonate with me. I can understand how a pagan Danish, Swedish or Norwegian farmer who was hefted to his land might feel it had a soul of its own that had to be placated to keep the animals healthy and the elements tamed.

Similar creatures exist in other European cultures such as the hob, brownie and pixie. I think the charming grey and red tomten with its winter association is particularly homely though. I made some small tomte a few years ago out of wooden forms and felt for decorations.   I’ve found this online tutorial for those who might like to have a go at needle-felting some lovely Nisse or Tomte for their Christmas decorations (link here)

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