Monday, 2 December 2019

The 'man in the oke' and other bugaboos


I do love lists. Especially lists of mysterious creatures, like the well-known one by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), a book in which he takes the robustly sceptical line that even if witches, ghosts and fairies do exist, most actual instances of them are a load of old cobblers: ‘One knave in a white sheete hath cousened and abused many,’ he declares. ‘Miracles are knaveries, most commonly.’

But in Chapter XV comes his famous, breathlessly delivered list of supernatural creatures fit to be believed only by those who ‘through weaknesse of mind and bodie, are shaken with vain dreames and continuall feare’:

In our childhood our mothers’ maids have so terrified us … with bull beggars, spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, Kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphes, changelings, Incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine, the fierdrake, the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles, and such other bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadows: in so much as some never fear the divell but on a darke night; and then a polled sheep is a perilous beast and manie times is taken for oure father’s soul, specialie in a churchyard…

This may or may not be a true indication of the range of creatures the Elizabethan populace actually believed in (satyrs, fauns, nymphs? really?) but it’s a magnificent rant. It’s as though Scot has thrown together every single supernatural entity he can possibly think of: you can see how one suggests another. The classical ‘satyrs, pans, fauns, syl[v]ans’ run together easily, while ‘Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine’ seem more homely night terrors. While many of them are still familiar, others are not. Bull beggars? Spoornes, calcars? What on earth are they? And it's hard to see how anyone could be frightened by the dimunitive Tom Thumb we know from the fairy tales, but perhaps in the 16th century he was more of a plaguey fairy nuisance like Puck. At any rate his name seems to have suggested ‘Tom Tumbler’ of whom we know nothing.

In her Dictionary of Fairies Katharine Briggs says there is or was a ‘Bullbeggar Lane’ in Surrey which ‘once contained a barn haunted by a bull beggar’. Did it have any resemblance to a bull, or was it some more ordinary bogeyman? ‘Kit with the Canstick’ or ‘candlestick’ is probably a variety of will o’ the wisp, leading travellers astray, but I know of no folktales about it and if I were writing one I'd be tempted to turn it into a domestic spirit, and a sinister one at that. What is a ‘calcar’? I’ve no idea, unless it could by some stretch be a corruption of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’ – divine hag or old woman. What ‘the spoorne’ might be, no one knows. (Spawn?) The ‘mare’ is the night-mare. The hell-waine is the Devil’s wagon in which he carries souls to hell. In my children's fantasy 'Dark Angels' there's a hill called Devil's Edge, loosely based on Stiperstones in Shropshire; it has earned its name because:

Up on the very top ... there was a road.  A road leading nowhere, a road no one used. For if anyone was so bold as to walk along it, especially at night, he’d hear the clamour of hounds and the blowing of horns, the cracking of whips and the rumbling of a cart.  And out of the dark would burst the Devil’s own dog pack, dashing beside a black wagon drawn by goats with fiery eyes, crammed full of screaming souls bound for the pits of Hell.

As for the ‘man in the oke’, Katherine Briggs tells of '…scattered reference to oakmen in the North of England, though very few folktales about them…. Most people know the rhyming proverb “Fairy folks live in old oaks”; the Gospel Oak or King’s Oak in every considerable forest had probably a traditional sacredness from unremembered times, and an oak coppice in which the young saplings had sprung from the stumps of unfelled trees was thought to be an uncanny place after sunset…'

Many, many years ago I tried to write a poem about how it might feel to change into a tree:

I lie on oak leaves
And green, fronded moss:
Colder than new sheets
The earth and the frost.

Tree-roots twine under me,
Lulled, hushed I lie
With open face staring
Into the sky –

Bark sheathes my body and
Oh now I am
Not the tree’s prisoner
But the oke-man.

White sap runs in my veins,
Blood in the tree,
Leaves spout from my two arms,
Green as can be…

There was a vast and ancient Chêne Jupitre or ‘Jupiter Oak’ in the Forest of Fontainebleau when I lived near there in the 1990’s, but it became dangerous and was taken down.

I’m sure Scot's list (which of course he knew) inspired the list of evil creatures named by CS Lewis in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe    the ones who gather behind the White Witch at the Stone Table.

Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book – Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horror, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses and Ettins. 

Even more exuberant is a list of supernatural creatures compiled by Michael Aislabie Denham (he died in 1859) a well-read Yorkshire merchant who collected and published various ‘Rhymes, Proverbs, Sayings, Prophecies, Slogans, etc.’ as well as pamphlets and anecdotes. Denham goes even further than Reginald Scot, whose list is incorporated – one might almost say buried – in the midst of his own: many of the creatures he names here appear nowhere else, but one must assume that they were once genuine traditions. Some are ancient. 'Portunes', for example, are to be found only in a single instance in the De Nugis Curialium or Courtly Trifles of 12th century man-of-letters Walter Map, who describes them as tiny fairy creatures like little old men who toast frogs in the hearth-ashes at night.

It's highly unlikely Denham found any live oral tradition about portunes in the mid-19th century, and there's little chance of the name leaking back from the written to the oral tradition, since Map's Latin text was not published until 1850, nor translated into English until MR James's edition of 1914. So Denham is certainly overstating the case when he suggests that 'portunes', at least, were generally believed in ‘seventy or eighty years ago’. At this time, he claims,

... the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, Bloody Bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks, waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins, pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!

Did you notice the 'hobbits', about two-thirds of the way through? All I can say is that here, indeed, is scope for the creative imagination.

Picture credits:

Witch and familiars: by Arthur Rackham
The fairy 'Yallery Brown': by John Batten
Aslan in the power of the White Witch: by Pauline Baynes 
From 'Goblin Market': by Arthur Rackham

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Folklore snippets: The Gwyllion

From ‘British Goblins’ by Wirt Sikes, 1880

The Gwyllion are female fairies of frightful characteristics, who haunt lonely roads in the Welsh mountains and lead night-wanderers astray.  The Welsh word gwyll is variously used to signify gloom, shade, duskiness, a hag, a witch, a fairy and a goblin; but its special application is to these mountain fairies of gloomy and harmful habits, as distinct from the Ellyllon of the forest glades and dingles, which are more often beneficent. The Gwyllion take on a more distinct individuality under another name – as the Ellyllon do in mischievous Puck – and the Old Woman of the Mountain typifies all her kind. She is very carefully described… in the guise in which she haunted Llanhyddel Mountain in Monmouthshire. This was the semblance of a poor old woman, with an oblong four-cornered hat, ash-coloured clothes, her apron thrown across her shoulder, with a pot or wooden can in her hand, such as poor people carry to fetch milk in. always going before the spectator, and sometimes crying ‘Wow up!’ This is an English form of a Welsh cry of distress, ‘Wwb!’ or ‘Ww-bwb!’  Those who saw this apparition would be sure to lose their way…

When people first lost their way and saw her before them, they used to hurry forward and try to catch her, supposing her to be a flesh-and-blood woman who could set them right; but they never could overtake her, and she on her part never looked back; so that no man ever saw her face. She has also been seen on the Black Mountain in Breconshire.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Women Leaders of the Wild Hunt

As we head towards Hallowe'en - are there any female leaders of the Wild Hunt? The answer is yes, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever heard of a Valkyrie. Njal’s Saga tells of a man in Caithness named Dorrud, who on Good Friday sees ‘twelve people riding together to a women’s room’ who disappear inside. Looking in, he sees twelve women working on a loom. They use severed heads for the weights, and intestines for the thread. As they wind the finished cloth on to the loom beam, they chant a poem known as ‘The Song of the Spear’ which includes these lines:
Valkyries decide
who dies or lives...
Let us ride swiftly
on our saddle-less horses
hence from here
with swords in hand.
Njal’s Saga, tr. Robert Cook (Penguin Classics)

The women pull down the cloth and tear it into pieces: each keeping a torn piece in her hand, they climb on their horses and ride away, six to the south and six to the north...
In Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Hilde Ellis Davidson cites an Old English charm known as Wið færstice - Against sudden pain’ (probably cramp or stitch), which visualises the pain as ‘caused by the spears of certain supernatural women’:

Loud were they, lo, loud, riding over the hill.
They were of one mind, riding over the land,
Shield thyself now, to escape from this ill.
Out, little spear, if herein thou be.
Under shield of light linden I took up my stand
When the mighty women made ready their power
And sent out their screaming spears…

Davidson thinks this may once have been a battle-spell, though the charm addresses supernatural causes of pain – elf-shot, witch-shot, gods’-shot – rather than human. (Cramps do seem to come out of nowhere…)  In another Old English charm a swarm of bees is addressed as sigewif, ‘victory-women’. This implies that Anglo-Saxons correctly assumed worker bees to be female - a fact which was neither obvious, nor scientifically proved until the late 18th century. At any rate, the image conjured up is a flying host of warrior women, armed with stings.

Gold plaques embossed with bee goddesses, 7th C Rhodes. British Museum
In England one Wild Hunt still possesses a female leader. In Shropshire, the Lady Godda rides the hills with her partner Wild Edric at the head of their troop. First recorded in the late 12th century account of Walter Map, the tale tells  how the lord of the manor of Ledbury North, Edric Salvage (he's a real person, named in Domesday Book) snatches an unnamed fairy woman he has found dancing with her sisters in a cottage in the woods. She marries him on condition he must never reproach her with her fairy origin: when he breaks this prohibition she vanishes and Edric dies. However, as Katharine Briggs remarks in A Dictionary of Fairies: 'Tradition restored him to his wife, and they rode together over the Welsh borders for many centuries after his death.’  To see them was unlucky. Charlotte Burne in Shropshire Folklore (1883) knew a servant girl who as a child had seen them with her own eyes: by this time, this fairy lady had acquired a name:

It was in 1853 or 1854 or, just before the Crimean War broke out.  She was with her father, a miner, at Minsterley, and she heard the blast of a horn. Her father bade her cover her face, all but her eyes, and on no account speak, lest she should go mad. Then they all came by; Wild Edric himself on a white horse at the head of the band, and the Lady Godda his wife, riding at full speed over the hills.

Hold that thought please! -  and read this account from Jacob Grimm.

There was once a rich lady of rank named frau Gauden; so passionately she loved the chase, that she let fall the sinful word, ‘could she but always hunt, she cared not to win heaven’. Four-and-twenty daughters had dame Gauden, who all nursed the same desire. One day, as mother and daughters in wild delight hunted over woods and fields and once more that wicked word escaped their lips, that ‘hunting was better than heaven,’ lo, suddenly before their mother’s eyes the daughters’ dresses turn into tufts of fur, their arms into legs, and four-and-twenty bitches bark around their mother’s hunting car, four doing duty as horses, the rest encircling the carriage; and away goes the wild train into the the clouds, there betwixt heaven and earth to hunt unceasingly as they had wished, from day to day, from year to year.

They have long wearied of the wild pursuit, and lament their impious wish, but they must bear the fruits of their guilt till the hour of redemption comes. Come it will, but who knows when? During the twölven* (for at other times we sons of men cannot perceive her) frau Gauden directs her hunt towards human habitations; best of all she loves on the night of Christmas eve or New Year’s eve to drive through the village streets, and wherever she finds a street door open, she sends a dog in. Next morning a little dog wags his tail at the inmates, he does them no other harm but that he disturbs their night’s rest by his whining. He is not to be pacified or driven away. Kill him, and he turns into a stone by day, which, if thrown away, comes back to the house by main force and is a dog again at night. So he whimpers and whines the whole year round, brings sickness and death upon man and beast, and danger of fire to the house; not till the twölven comes round again does peace return to the house.

* twölven: the twelve nights of Yule or Christmas

Frau Gauden and the Lady Godda: both of them supernatural wild huntresses, and the names are surely too similar to be coincidence. But who was Frau Gauden? Grimm continues with another story:

Better luck befalls those who do Dame Gauden a service. It happens at times that in the darkness of night she misses her way and comes to a crossroad. Crossroads are to the good lady a stone of stumbling: every time she strays into such, some part of her carriage breaks, which she cannot herself rectify. In this dilemma she came, dressed as a stately dame, to the bedside of a labourer at Böck, awaked him and implored him to help her in her need. The man was prevailed on, followed her to the crossroads, and found one of her carriage wheels was off. He put the matter to rights, and by way of thanks for his trouble she bade him gather up in his pockets sundry deposits left by her canine attendants during their stay at the crossroads, whether as the effect of great dread or of good digestion. The man was indignant at the proposal … incredulous, yet curious, he took some with him. And lo, at daybreak, to his no small amazement, his earnings glittered like gold, and in fact it was gold.  He was sorry now that he had not brought it all away.

Notable here (apart from the enjoyable comic element) is that though like the Valkyries, Godda rides on a horse, Frau Gauden travels in a wagon, which seems a cumbersome thing to go hunting in. 

But...  here is a goddess or priestess riding on a wagon. It’s made of bronze and was found in a cremation grave of the 7th century BC, near Strettweg in Austria. The female figure in the middle who supports an offering bowl towers above a crowd of smaller figurines, male and female, some on horses. Facing outwards at both the front and back is a stag flanked by figures of indeterminate sex who are holding its antlers. There is of course no knowing for sure what all this may have meant, or of connecting it in any direct way to the Wild Hunt or to the wagons of Frau Gauden or Frau Holle. But deities in wagons are certainly known from prehistory. The Norse gods called the Vanir presided over fertility and the domestic arts: the two most powerful were brother and sister Freyr and Freyja – titles which mean simply ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’, and from which the word ‘Frau’ is derived.  

If a sly story told in the 14th century Icelandic Flateyjarbòk (the ‘Flat Island Book’) has any truth in it, an image of Freyr used to be taken about the Swedish countryside in a wagon accompanied by a priestess: the wagon gets stuck in a snowstorm and all the attendants desert it except the priestess and a young man called Gunnar. The two keep each other warm in the time-honoured way: a few months later when the priestess is discovered to be with child, the worshippers are delighted at the fertility of their ‘god’. It’s quite possible that Freyr’s sister Freyja also travelled in a wagon. A beautifully carved ceremonial wagon was placed in the Oseberg ship, itself the burial-place of two high-status women who may have been priestesses. Carefully dismantled wagons have been found in Danish bogs, presumably cult offerings.

The Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56-120) tells of a Danish goddess, Nerthus, who represented ‘Mother Earth’ and  whose occasional dwelling was a sacred wagon in a grove of trees on an island:

One priest, and only one, may touch it. It is he who becomes aware when the goddess is present in her holy seat; he harnesses a yoke of heifers to the car, and follows in attendance with reverent mien. Then are the days of festival, and all places which she honours with her presence keep holiday. Men lay aside their arms and go not to war; all iron is locked away … until the priest restores her to her temple, when she has had enough of her converse with mortals. Then the car and the robes and (if we choose to believe them) the goddess herself are washed in a mystic pool. Slaves are the ministers of this office, and are forthwith drowned in the pool. Dark terror springs from this, and a sacred mystery surrounds those rites which no man is permitted to look upon.

Tacitus, Germania, 40, tr. RB Townshend, 1894

Wagons are associated with yet another supernatural woman, Frau Holda. Grimm suggests she is originally a sky deity associated with the weather – and therefore able to move through the air. She appears in the Grimms' fairytales as the kindly but powerful Mother Holle (KHM 24) whose country the heroine arrives at by jumping down a well.

At last she came to a little house, out of which an old woman peeped; but she had such large teeth that the girl was frightened, and was about to run away. But the old woman called out to her,  ‘What are you afraid of, dear child? Stay with me; if you will do all the work in the house properly, you shall be the better for it. Only you must take care to make my bed well, and to shake it thoroughly till the feathers fly – for then there is snow on the earth. I am Mother Holle.’

'The Old Woman is plucking her geese' was the phrase my mother used when I was small... In a story very similar to the one about Frau Gauden, Mother Holle needs the linchpin of her wagon mended, and rewards the helpful peasant with the woodshavings left from his work: these too turn to solid gold.

But Holda had her dark side. ‘At other times,’Jacob Grimm continues, ‘Holda, like Wotan, can also ride on the winds, clothed in terror, and she, like the god, belongs to the ‘wütende heer’ [furious army]. From this arose the fancy, that witches ride in Holle’s company … in Upper Hesse and the Westerwald, Holle-riding, to ride with Holle, is equivalent to the witches’ ride.’ The souls of unbaptised infants were held to join Holle’s wild company.  

The unnamed author of a 9th century document called the Canon Episcopi denounces the folly of those who believe in witches and their power. ‘Have you shared in a superstition to which some wicked women have given themselves?’ he demands. ‘Fooled by demonic phantasms, they believe themselves in the hours of the night to ride with Diana the pagan goddess, with Herodias and with innumerable other women, mounted on the backs of animals and travelling great distances in the silence of the night.’

Diana or Artemis is an obvious Wild Huntress. Nor is it surprising that a cleric should place Herodias in the witches' wild hunt, though it’s worth noting his main point is that witches don’t exist, not that they do. (It took a long time for the church to pass from this relatively healthy scepticism to the crazed witchhunts of later centuries). Herodias is the name given in the Middle Ages to the girl who danced before Herod and asked him for the head of John the Baptist. Though known today as Salome, that name is not in the Gospels; some Greek versions read ‘Herod’s daughter Herodias’, while in  the Latin she is named only ‘the girl’ or ‘the daughter of Herodias’ - who was her mother. Jacob Grimm suggests that Herodias ‘was dragged into the circle of night-women … because she played and danced, and since her death goes booming through the air as the “wind’s bride”.’  Medieval poets really went to town on Salome/Herodias’ fate; Grimm quotes from a medieval Latin poem which gives this creepy account:

From midnight to first cock-crow she sits on oaks and hazel-trees, the rest of her time she floats through the empty air. She was inflamed by love for John which he did not return: when his head is brought in on a charger she would fain have covered it with tears and kisses, but it draws back and begins to blow at her; she is whirled into empty space and there she hangs forever.

Frau Gauden and Frau Holle both have connections with crossroads. One of the many titles of the Greek goddess Hecate was ‘She of the crossroads’, and she was represented as three bodied, able to face in all directions.  Dogs were sacred to her, and she presided over thresholds and crossing-places, including the threshold between life and death. The dog is of course the guard-dog of the threshold into the underworld. According to Everyman’s Classical Dictionary Hecate was probably ‘a pre-Hellenic chthonian deity’ and Hesiod represents her as able, like the Norse Vanir, to gift mankind with wealth and all the blessings of daily life.  With her troop of ghosts and hell-hounds she visited crossroads where offerings of meat, eggs and fish were left for her. And in the 3rd century BC Argonautica, Medea tells Jason to sacrifice a ewe to Hecate, pour honey over the offering and leave without looking back – even if he hears the sound of footsteps or the baying of hounds. (Argonautica Book III lines 1020-1040)

Finally, what about the Breton legend of the Ankou who drives about the countryside in a cart, picking up souls? ‘At night,’ says the 19th century folklorish the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, ‘a wain is heard coming along the road with a creaking axle. It halts at the door, and that is the summons.’ The Ankou is a male figure, but as Baring Gould points out:

The wagon of the Ankou is like the death-coach that one hears of in Devon and Wales. It is all black, with black horses drawing it, driven by a headless coachman. A black hound runs before it, and within sits a lady – in the neighbourhood of Okehampton and Tavistock she is supposed to be a certain Lady Howard, but she is assuredly a personification of Death, for the coach stops to pick up the spirits of the dying.

This brings us back to the valkyries again – psychopomps, the choosers of the slain.

It’s hardly possible or even desirable to come up with a single explanation for stories of the Wild Hunt, but it does seem to me that its female leaders are even more complex in origin than the males. The leaders of most British Wild Hunts have assumed the names and characters of local heroes such as Edric Salvage, Hereward, King Arthur, Sir Francis Drake, a tendency which makes them somehow easier to grasp, more comprehensible. But the only remaining British Wild Huntress, Lady Godda, has a name similar to the German Frau Gauden, stories of whom include items – wagons, dogs, crossroads – reminiscent of ancient goddesses such as Nerthus and Hecate who held sway over domestic affairs such as fertility and farming, which literally implies over life and death.  And since the Wild Hunt has always been associated with death, its appearance in tales from Germany and Scandinavia also suggest the weaving in of a separate strand of bloody battle-spirits. Hilda Davidson thinks the valkyries may originally have been believed to devour the dead of the battlefield, rather than merely, as later, to escort them to Valhalla.

Herodias, whirling in the windy blast from the lips of John the Baptist’s severed head – Frau Gauden with her carriage and her dogs and their golden poo – Lady Godda riding on her white horse in her green gown like many a later Queen of Elfland – the phantasmal spear-women galloping over the hill while drops of blood shake from their horses’ manes – the lady in the black death-coach – these are wonderfully various stories which deserve to be better known.

Picture credits:

Hilde, one of the valkyries, by Ludwig Pietsch, 1894

Frigga or Frau Gode hunting, by Ludwig Pietsch, 1894

Gold plaques embossed with winged bee goddesses, perhaps the Thriai, found at Camiros Rhodes, dated to 7th century BCE (British Museum)

Strettweg cult wagon, photo by Thilo Parg, Wikimedia Commons  

Nerthus in her wagon, by Emile Doepler (1855-1922)

Goldmarie shaking Mother Holle's bedding, by Herman Vogel (1854-1921)

The Wild Hunt, by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1831-1892

Salome dancing before Herod, by Gustave Moreau, Wikimedia Commons

Valkyries leading the slain to Valhalla, by Ludwig Pietsch, 1894

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Tales of Kismet, Fate and Doom

Originally published as 'Inevitable Tales' in 'Unsettling Wonder' Issue 6, September 2017 

Nothing, they say, is sure but death and taxes. By creating a comic equivalence between two such different but universally unpopular processes, the maxim succinctly acknowledges the trials of life and the inevitability of death. It's a bleak lookout - and so there are many traditional stories in which the impotence of humanity in the face of what seems a hostile or indifferent world is mitigated by endowing the universe with purpose.
Kismet – fate, destiny, quadr, karma, doom, wyrd – across the world these similar yet subtly different concepts have sprung up as responses to the same anxiety. They reassure that whatever good or evil may befall us is somehow meant to be, intended, written in the stars. Kismet is the opposite of luck. Luck is happenstance, the random fall of the dice. Kismet is destiny ordained by a higher power. In ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf tells Frodo it is so unlikely that the Ring would abandon Gollum only to be picked up by Bilbo from the Shire, that some mysterious purpose must be involved:
‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put in no plainer than by saying Bilbo was meant to have the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.’
Possession of the Ring is a calamity. When times are bad, it helps to hold on to the idea that there is meaning behind it all, but how, or whose? Answers vary according to the ways different cultures, philosophies and religions express their world-views.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘kismet’ is derived from the Arabic kisma(t), meaning ‘portion, division, lot’. From the outset then, kismet implies something received, not chosen: your allotted measure, your just deserts.
One of the neatest tales of kismet is to be found in the Babylonian Talmud, c. 500 CE. In sukkah 53a, 7-16, Rabbi Johanen tells a story to illustrate the saying: A man’s  feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.
King Solomon had two Cushite scribes, Elihoreph and Ahyah. One day the King noticed that the Angel of Death was looking downcast. ‘Why are you so downcast?’ he asked. ‘Because the lives of your two scribes have been demanded of me,’ replied the Angel. In order to save the scribes, Solomon spirited them away to the district of Luz, where both men immediately died. On the following day the Angel of Death was in a cheerful mood, and again Solomon asked him why. ‘Because,’ said the Angel, ‘you sent your scribes to the very place where I was meant to slay them.’
The story shows that there is no escaping what God has ordained, for although he is not directly mentioned it cannot doubted that it is God’s demand which the Angel of Death is bound to fulfil.
Other stories of kismet begin at a child’s birth and concern themselves with prophecies of his or her future. Despite or even because of efforts to prevent them, prophecies in stories always come true. In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs’ (KHM 29), a prophecy is made at the birth of a poor boy that he will grow up to marry the king’s daughter. Learning of this, the king persuades the parents to give him the child, promising to adopt him, but instead places him in a box and throws him into a river to drown. 

The baby is rescued, however, and brought up by poor but kindly millers: when he is grown the king discovers him and tries again to have him killed by sending him to the queen with a sealed letter ordering his execution. On the way, robbers shelter the boy, examine the letter and alter it to command the boy’s immediate marriage to the princess. And so the king’s efforts to confound the prophecy actually bring it to pass.
This kind of story is Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 930, ‘Prophecy’. Closely related to it is the tale of Oedipus (AT 931). Laius, King of Thebes, learns from the Delphic Oracle that his son will murder him. According to different versions of the myth, Laius either pierces his baby son’s feet and exposes him on Mount Cithaeron, or seals him in a chest and casts him into the sea. In either case the child is adopted by the queen of Corinth, who pretends to have given birth to him. Growing up ignorant of his parentage, Oedipus kills Laius in an altercation on the road and marries his mother Jocasta. Once again the prophecy is fulfilled through the king’s very efforts to avert it. Much of the fascination of tales of this kind comes from watching the machinery of destiny inexorably at work. 

If prophecies predict the future, can they be said to cause it? The answer to that depends very much on context. The Delphic Oracle spoke for the god Apollo, but there is no sense that Apollo takes a personal interest in Oedipus’ misfortunes. For the God of the Old Testament the case is less clear. The story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis is thick with prophetic dreams: not just those of Joseph himself but of Pharoah too, and his baker and butler. Joseph famously dreams that while binding sheaves in the field, his sheaf of corn stands upright while those of his eleven brothers bow down to him; also that ‘the sun, the moon and the eleven stars’ bow down before him.
And he told it to his father and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him and said unto him […]  Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?’
Genesis 37, 10
To prevent the prophecy from coming true, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave into Egypt, a course of action which initiates his rise to power as Pharoah’s most trusted servant and governor of all the land; when famine strikes, Joseph’s brothers journey to Egypt in search of grain and do indeed bow down before him.

There seems no particular reason why any of the characters in the stories we have looked at so far should be singled out by fate. None are especially good or bad. We are told nothing about the characters of Elihoreph and Ahyah, we only see that their time has come. Oedipus did not want or intend to murder his father or marry his mother. For the young hero of ‘The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs’, it’s not so much that he deserves to succeed as that the wicked king deserves to fail, and the same is true of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s story is in style, and affect, a fairy tale. He reports his dreams, and correctly interprets those of others, but he is not required to act upon them. His father Jacob was touched by holiness: spoke to God, even wrestled with him – but Joseph has no one-on-one relationship with God, and his qualities remain those of a fairy tale hero: ordinary morals and a good work ethic. He does not earn his destiny, it is bestowed upon him, unfolding as a consequence of the actions of others and the mysterious will of God.
A story which does require some action on the part of the dreamer is ‘The Pedlar of Swaffham’, an English tale first recorded in the 17th century. A pedlar of Swaffham in Norfolk dreams that if he travels to London and stands upon London Bridge, he will hear good news. At first he doubts the dream, but after its third repetition he puts it to the test. Arriving in London he stands day after day on the bridge, but nothing happens. Finally a curious shopkeeper asks the pedlar what he is doing, the pedlar explains his dream and the shopkeeper bursts out laughing.
‘I’ll tell thee, country fellow, last night I dreamed I was in Swaffham, where me thought behind a pedlar’s house in a certain orchard and under a great oak tree, if I digged, I should find a vast treasure! Now think you,’ says he, ‘that I am such a fool as to take such a long journey on the instigation of a silly dream? No, no, I’m wiser.’
Naturally the pedlar hurries home, digs a hole in his own orchard and finds the treasure. Significantly, while the pedlar dreams only of unspecified ‘good news’, the shopkeeper’s dream contains every detail needed to find the treasure. The pedlar however, trusts in and acts upon his dream, while the shopkeeper’s scepticism and failure to act deprives him of the treasure and brings the pedlar his reward. The town of Swaffham celebrates the story to this day: 

The story certainly is not asking us to believe that God was concerned in enriching the Pedlar of Swaffham. (Unless, as I sometimes wonder, it began life as a sixteenth-century pulpit parable, with the good news turning out to be the Gospels and the treasure explained as salvation.) At any rate, in the form we have it the tale sends a more general and cautious message: ‘Trust, and all will be for the best’. But trust in what, or in whom? Need providence be a personal Providence? To put it another way, do we live in a moral universe? What about karma?
Karma may be a bit of a sixties buzz-word, but its original Sanskrit meaning refers to a spiritual principle of cause and effect: the events of a person’s life, good or bad, are the consequence of his or her actions and intentions in previous lives and are therefore quite literally earned or deserved. In one of the Buddhist Jatakas a princess, Rujā, explains to her father King Angati why it is that in spite of appearances Alāta, a general, is in a worse moral state than Bījaka, a slave:
I will tell thee a parable, O king. As the ship of merchants, heavy through taking in too large a cargo, sinks overladen into the sea, so a man, accumulating sin little by little, sinks overladen into hell … Formerly Alāta’s deeds were righteous, and it is as their result that he enjoys this prosperity. That merit of his is being spent, for he is all intent upon vice…
As the balance properly hung in the weighing house causes the end to swing up when the weight is put in, so does a man cause his fate at last to rise if he gathers together every piece of merit little by little, like that slave Bījaka intent on merit.
Jataka 544, tr. E.B. Cowell and W.H.D. Rouse, 1907
So… is anyone in charge, or is this just how the universe works? It’s not entirely clear. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (7th century BCE), speaking of the self or soul, explains: ‘As is its desire, so is its resolution; and as is its resolution, so is its deed; and whatever deed it does, that it reaps.’ What goes around comes around: the idea that karma means reaping what you sow has proved attractive to Western audiences accustomed by Christianity to ideas of judgement, reward and retribution. Less easy to grasp is the tranquil assertion that follows these lines: in order to escape the world and be united with the non-personal ultimate reality, Brahman, the self must be free from all desires, good or bad. Brahman is a difficult metaphysical concept. It must be distinguished from the Hindu creator god Brahma, who – scholars suggest – may have emerged from it at a later date, a personification people found easier to engage with, and more comprehensible.
In a story collected by G. R. Subramiah Pantalu in ‘Folk-Lore of the Telegus’ (1905) not only is karma inevitable, but Brahma seems to control it. The god Siva and his wife Parvati see a poverty-stricken Brahmin priest making his way home. Parvati wishes to gift him with gold, but Siva tells her that Brahma has not written that the Brahmin should enjoy wealth in this life. To test this, Parvati throws a thousand gold coins on the path, but as the Brahmin approaches he finds himself suddenly wondering whether he could walk along like a blind man. So, closing his eyes, he passes the coins and never sees them…
 Perhaps it’s always easier for people to believe in a directed, personal fate than an impersonal one. For in this unfair and difficult world of ours, don’t we yearn for good deeds to be rewarded, evil deeds to be discovered and punished? ‘The Cranes of Ibycus’, a story found in the 10th century Byzantine Encyclopaedia, tells of the murder of Ibycus, a Greek poet:

Captured by bandits in a deserted place he declared that the cranes which happened to be flying overhead would be his avengers; he was murdered, but afterwards one of the bandits saw some cranes in the city and exclaimed, ‘Look, the avengers of Ibycus!’ Someone overheard and followed up his words: the crime was confessed and the bandits paid the penalty; whence the proverbial expression ‘the cranes of Ibycus’.
Trans. David Campbell
In this story there is no supernatural intervention: the birds do not speak and their flight over the city might be providence or coincidence, but here – at least in the sense the West understands it – we find karma’s cause and effect at work in the space of a single life-time. The satisfactory neatness of the murderer revealed by his own involuntary exclamation might belong to a modern detective story – a genre which itself relies on and reinforces our yearning for justice and right to prevail.
Precisely because fairy tales are not meant to be realistic, they can satisfy that yearning for justice. In the make-belief world of fairy tales everyone gets what they deserve. Many are the stories in which a simple youngest brother or orphaned maiden shows pity to some animal, injured or trapped, or shares a last crust with some poor old woman. In ‘The White Snake’ (KHM 17) a kind-hearted prince who understands the speech of animals returns three stranded fish to the water, avoids trampling on an ant-hill, and feeds some starving ravens (by killing his horse, which may seem rather to undo the good deed, but in this tale the horse must be regarded as an extension of himself). In gratitude, the animals help him in a number of difficult tasks. Generous acts in fairy tales are almost always rewarded. In the Grimms’ tale ‘Mother Holle’ (KHM 24) the pretty, hardworking girl who jumps down the well into Mother Holle’s otherworldly land behaves with courtesy and kindness even to the inanimate objects which plead for her help. She takes bread out of an oven so that it won’t burn, and shakes down apples from an apple tree so the branches won’t break, and she works so diligently and well for old Mother Holle that her reward is a shower of gold which covers her from head to foot.
Karma brings like for like, however. The lazy, ugly stepsister who ignores the pleas of the oven and the apple tree and refuses to work for Mother Holle is showered with pitch, not gold. In fairy tales truth always comes to light and evil deeds are discovered and punished. ‘The Singing Bone’ (KHM 28) tells how two brothers go out to find and kill a dangerous boar. The younger boy, whose heart is ‘pure and good’, kills the boar, but his jealous elder brother murders him. Burying the body under a bridge, he takes the credit for killing the boar and marries the King’s daughter.
‘But as nothing remains hidden from God, so this black deed also came to light. Years afterwards, a shepherd was driving his flock over the bridge and saw lying in the sand beneath, a snow-white little bone...’
The shepherd makes the bone into a mouthpiece for his horn, and when he blows on it the bone begins to sing and denounce the brother for his murder. The rest of the skeleton is found and the guilty man is put to death, while ‘the bones of the murdered man were laid to rest in a beautiful tomb in the churchyard.’

 In fairy tales, helping a dead man is the most unselfish of acts, for surely the dead can never repay you? Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Travelling Companion’ tells of young Johannes who gives away all his money to prevent evildoers from abusing the corpse of a man who was in debt to them. Shortly afterwards he is joined on the road by the ‘travelling companion’ of the title who befriends and guides him, and helps him to marry a princess whose luckless suitors must answer three riddles or die. Reading the tale as a child I was thrilled when the wicked princess flies out of the castle on black wings to visit her lover, a troll king… During the course of the story the travelling companion teaches Johannes how to answer the riddles, and succeeds in killing the troll and disenchanting the princess. When Johannes thanks him and begs him to stay with them for ever, he replies:
‘No, I must go. I have but paid my debt. Do you remember the dead man whom you protected from wicked men in the church? You gave all you had so he might rest in his grave. I am that dead man.’ And with that he vanished.
A similar tale is ‘Beauty of the World’, told to William Larminie by Patrick Minahan of Mainmore, County Donegal and reproduced in ‘West Irish Folktales’ (1893). A king’s son gives all the money in his purse so that a body can be buried, and soon after is joined by a red-haired man who helps in his quest to find the beautiful woman on whom his heart is set. After many adventures the woman is won and the ‘red man’ declares:
It was I that was in the coffin that day. When I saw you starting on your journey I went to you to save you … Health be with you and blessing. You will set eyes on me no more.
Stories of the Grateful Dead (AT 506) have antecedents going back as far as the apocryphal Book of Tobit. They proclaim that good actions will always be rewarded, sometimes by God, sometimes by the less explicit workings of a mysterious yet morally weighted universe. 
As people have thought about fate or destiny, different metaphors have emerged. Your deeds may be weighed in scales to determine your fate in the next life. Or destiny may be something measured out to you like grain: your portion or lot in life. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, 7:2), Jesus combines measurement and judgement with the words, ‘with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’ He speaks also of ‘the reaper drawing his pay and gathering a crop for eternal life’ (John 4, 36). Like ‘kismet’, it seems the Arabic term al-quadr, ‘divine fore-ordainment’ or ‘predestination’ is also derived from a root which means ‘to measure out’. Implicit in these metaphors is an imagery of field-workers or servants judged worthy or not worthy of their hire. In a patriarchal society the one who decides on and doles out the wages is perceived as the ultimate Master, and so this metaphor mirrors the unequal relationship between the human and the divine.
But there’s another equally ancient metaphor for fate and it comes not from field-work, but from house-work. It compares the course of a human life to a thread which is first spun, and then woven into cloth, and ultimately cut with shears. Weaving was a woman’s work, and the Weavers of destiny were women. 

The Greek Moirae or ‘Apportioners’ were envisaged as three old women, Clotho, ‘the spinner’, Lachesis, ‘the measurer’, and Atropos, ‘she who cannot be turned’. Clotho spun the thread of a person’s life on her distaff, Lachesis measured it with her rod, and Atropos cut it with her shears. In her book on the prehistory of weaving, ‘Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years’ (1994) Elizabeth Wayland Barber points out a stock couplet that appears ‘almost verbatim’ twice in the Iliad and once in the Odyssey and which is probably older than either:
He shall endure all that his destiny and the heavy Spinners
Spun for him with the thread at his birth, when his mother bore him.
Odyssey Book 7, 197-98; Iliad Book 20, 127-28 & Book 24, 210, tr. R. Lattimore
An imagery of spinning and weaving produces a different effect from one of harvest, wages and worth. Judgment and payment are performed at the end of a task, but spinning and weaving are tasks: dynamic, creative, ongoing processes. Yes, the weaver holds the pattern of the cloth in her mind, but she is free at any point to change it and do something different. Moreover, there is no place in the weaving metaphor for blame or judgment. The woven pattern is what it is: it is simply ‘what happens’. It cannot easily be made to represent reward or punishment.

 In Norse mythology the Norns are three maidens who sit under Yggdrasil the World Tree, and ‘shape the lives of men’. Their names are Urðr (‘that which has come to pass’), Verðandi (‘that which is happening’) and Skuld (‘that which is owed’). The Poetic Edda tells of them setting up a huge loom, with threads that stretch across the sky, to weave the destiny of a prince. In her book ‘Roles of the Northern Goddess’ (1998) Hilda Ellis Davidson provides a translation:
            It was night in the dwelling. The Norns came,
            those who shaped the life of the prince.
            They foretold him to be the most famed of warriors,
            who would be reckoned the best of rulers.
They twisted firmly the threads of fate…
Set in place the strands of gold,
held fast in the midst of the hall of the moon.
East and west they hid the ends…
while Neri’s kinswoman knotted a cord
fast to the north, and forbade it to break.
The northern valkyries too, the ‘choosers of the slain’, were known as weavers of destiny. ‘The Saga of Burnt Njal’ tells of a man of Caithness named Dorrud, who on Good Friday saw twelve valkyries working on a warp-weighted loom, using severed heads for the weights and intestines for the thread. As they wound the finished cloth on to the loom beam, the women chanted a battle poem called ‘The Song of the Spear’ including the lines ‘Valkyries decide/who lives or dies.’  They then pulled down their cloth, tore it in pieces and each holding a piece in her hand climbed on their horses and rode off – presumably to war.
When in Old English poetry we meet the concept of ‘wyrd’ – ‘fate’ – there is often an interesting tension between it and the idea of a Christian Providence. Though the Old English poem Beowulf is likely the product of an 8th century Christian court, it harks back to the heroic and pagan past, and much of its material probably existed in earlier oral forms.
Wyrd oft nereð/Unfaégne eorl ƿonne his ellen déah.
Fate often spares a man not fated to die, when his courage is strong.
Beowulf, 572-3
The modern English translation of this line appears to produce a tautology. Two different terms are translated as ‘fate’. ‘Unfaégne’ means ‘not fated to die’. But if a man isn’t fated to die, why is the state of his courage even relevant? ‘Wyrd’ is not the same as ‘unfaégne’ however. Wyrd is the Old English cognate of the Norse Urðr, the first of the Norns: not an abstraction but a personification who might choose to spare a man. (Shakepeare’s Weird Sisters are ‘wyrd’ not because they are strange, but because they can show Macbeth his future.)  I sense that for the Beowulf poet, destiny was not unalterably written in the stars, but something much more like a real-time decision that Wyrd might make. The Norns do not foretell destiny, they weave it, so a display of courage might influence them to change the pattern… In the same poem, Hrothgar complains of the misery that the monster Grendel has inflicted on him and his war-band:
Is min fletwerod/wighéap gewaned; hie wyrd forsweop/on Grendles gryre. God éaƿe maeg/ƿone dolsceaðan daéda/getwaefan.
[My hall-companions fail me, my war-band wanes; fate has swept them into Grendel’s grip. God may easily put an end to the deeds of this deadly foe.]
Here, wyrd – again translated as fate – is used by Hrothgar to describe things that have already happened, not things yet to come. His dead warriors were doomed to die: whatever has happened in the past was clearly ‘meant to be’: yet God if he wishes can easily alter the course of future events. And in contrast to kismet and karma, there isn’t any sense that Hrothgar’s warriors deserve their fate. Wyrd is ‘what happens’; it is not transactional, not linked to personal morals. ‘Cattle die, kinsmen die,’ says Odin in the poem Hávamál in the Poetic Edda:
Every man is mortal,
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.
Tr. Paul Taylor and W.H. Auden
In the Norse world you had better behave well, because good behaviour wins you fame – but in the end nothing can ward off wyrd.  Wyrd/Urðr arises from a world-view that believed even the gods would eventually perish at the hands (or teeth) of monsters on the day of Ragnarok. 

Finally: that word doom. We now think of doom as a terrible fate lying in wait for us, but the word was originally without its modern connotations of disaster. It is derived from Old Norse dómr, a law or sentence. A kingdom is a land subject to the doom or law of a king. God, however, is Lord and King of all Christendom, and as Christianity spread to the Anglo-Saxons, the day of final judgement became known in England as ‘Domesday’ or the Day of Doom. For those whose Last Day was to have been Ragnarok, I can see the attraction of one in which God’s wrath would be softened by mercy towards repentant sinners. In this new context wyrd became archaic and finally obsolete, its meaning swallowed by Biblical concepts of measurement and justice.
It seems to me that concepts of kismet and karma, destiny and fate, have been driven by two things. One is a desire to make narrative sense of our time in the world and reconcile ourselves to inevitable death. If the Fates or Moirae or Norns spin the web of our lives, we know there must be a pattern even if we can’t see it. And stories such as the Rabbi Johanen’s parable, with which I began, make the point that since Death is bound to come, there’s no sense worrying about when: moreover, as the personified servant of God, endowed with human emotions such as sadness and cheerfulness, he loses some of his terror.
The other driver is a very human desire for fairness and justice in a demonstrably unfair world. Fairy tales provide us with make-belief utopias in which the innocent and generous are rewarded and the wicked punished. In an exactly balanced moral universe, karma delivers perfectly measured consequences for all our actions – if not in this life, at least in our next incarnation. Meanwhile, in a harsh northern world, wyrd urges sturdy acceptance of life’s hardships.
I will leave you with a short story by Somerset Maugham which has resonances of Rabbi Johanen’s parable with which I began. ‘The Appointment in Samarra’ comes at the end of Maugham’s 1933 play ‘Sheppey’. It epitomises the blend of humour, grace and resignation with which Tales of Kismet approach our mortality. The eponymous Sheppey is a kind-hearted barber who wins the Irish Lottery and gives all his money away over the course of the three acts. In the final scene a woman enters who looks like Bessie Legros, a prostitute whom he has helped, but really she is Death. She and Sheppey have a long conversation. Towards the end Sheppey asks, ‘You ain’t come here on my account?’. ‘Yes,’ says Death. ‘You’re joking,’ says Sheppey. ‘I thought you’d just come here to ‘ave a little chat … I wish now I’d gone down to the Isle of Sheppey when the doctor advised it. You wouldn’t ‘ave thought of looking for me there.’  And Death replies:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions, and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, ‘Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned I saw it was Death who jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra, and there Death will not find me.’ The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down into the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ I said, ‘it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’

Picture credits:

The Angel of Death by Evelyn de Morgan, 1881, wikipedia  
Moses in his basket [the Child Cast Adrift] by Charles Foste: public domain, via blog Under the Influence
The Murder of Laius by Oedipus by Joseph Blanc wikipedia
Joseph Recognised by his Brothers by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois wikipedia 
Pedlar of Swaffham Town Sign wikipedia 
The Cranes of Ibycus by Heinrich Schwemminger wikimedia commons 
The Princess Flies on Black Wings by Anne Anderson, The Mammoth Book of Wonders, author's possession
A Golden Thread [The Moirae] by John Melhuish Strudwick, wikipedia

The Norns by Arthur Rackham wikipedia 

Odin and Fenriswolf, Freyr and Surt by Emil Doepler, 1905 wikipedia