Friday 26 January 2024

The 'Little Dark People'

In ‘A Book of Folk-Lore’ (1913) the Devon folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould recounts three instances in which he and members of his family ‘saw’ pixies or dwarfs. I’ll let you read them: 
In the year 1838, when I was a small boy of four years old, we were driving to Montpellier [France] on a hot summer’s day, over the long straight road that traverses a pebble and rubble strewn plain on which grows nothing save a few aromatic herbs.
I was sitting on the box with my father, when to my great surprise I saw legions of dwarfs about two feet high running along beside the horses – some sat laughing on the pole, some were scrambling up the harness to get on the backs of the horses. I remarked to my father what I saw, when he abruptly stopped the carriage and put me inside beside my mother, where, the conveyance being closed, I was out of the sun. The effect was that little by little the host of imps diminished in number till they disappeared altogether. 
When my wife was a girl of fifteen, she was walking down a lane in Yorkshire between green hedges, when she saw seated in one of the privet hedges a little green man, who looked at her with his beady black eyes. He was about a foot or eighteen inches high.  She was so frightened that she ran home. She cannot recall exactly in what month this took place, but knows it was a summer’s day.
One day a son of mine, a lad of about twelve, was sent into the garden to pick pea-pods for the cook to shell for dinner.  Presently he rushed into the house as white as chalk to say that while he was engaged upon the task imposed upon him he saw standing between the rows of peas a little man wearing a red cap, a green jacket, and brown knee-breeches, whose face was old and wan and who had a gray beard and eyes as black and hard as sloes.  He stared so intently at the boy that the latter took to his heels.  I know exactly when this occurred, as I entered it in my diary, and I know when I saw the imps by looking in my father’s diary, and though he did not enter the circumstance, I recall the vision today as distinctly as when I was a child. 
In spite of the vivid and detailed nature of these visions Baring-Gould didn’t believe he or his family had seen anything ‘real’. He continues stoutly:
Now, in all three cases, these apparitions were due to the effect of a hot sun on the head. But such an explanation is not sufficient. Why did all three see small beings of a very similar character?  With ... temporary hallucination the pictures presented to the eye are never originally conceived, they are reproductions of representations either seen previously or conceived from descriptions given by others. In my case and that of my wife, we saw imps, because our nurses had told us of them… In the case of my son, he had read Grimms’ Tales and seen the illustrations to them. 

Rational indeed – though still a little puzzling that sun-stroke or heat-stroke should in each case have brought on visions of dwarfs or pixies. Perhaps it ran in the family. However that may be, Baring-Gould acknowledges that this explanation only pushes the problem further into the past – ‘Where did our nurses, whence did Grimm [sic] obtain their tales of kobolds, gnomes, dwarfs, pixies, brownies etc? … To go to the root of the matter, in what did the prevailing belief in the existence of these small people originate?’  And he answers thus: 
I suspect that there did exist a small people, not so small as these imps are represented, but comparatively small beside the Aryans who lived in all those countries in which the tradition of their existence lingers on. 

The grim events of the 20th century have taught us to beware of the word ‘Aryan’, liberally scattered in the introduction to many a 19th century collection. Sir George Dasent, introducing ‘Popular Tales from the Norse’ (his translation of Asbjornsen and Moe’s 'Norske Folkeeventyr’) includes a section on ‘the Aryan race’ which according to contemporary anthropological wisdom had spread across Europe ‘in days of immemorial antiquity’.  In 1905, citing the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley as his authority, Charles Squire in ‘Celtic Myths and Legends’ writes confidently of ‘certain proof of two distinct human stocks in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest’. He describes them: the early people who built Britain’s long barrows were ‘Iberian’ or ‘Mediterranean’ in origin: ‘a short, swarthy, dark-haired’ aboriginal race; but ‘the second of these two races was the exact opposite of the first. It was the tall, fair, light-haired, blue- or gray-eyed people called, popularly, the “Celts”, who belonged in speech to the “Aryan” family … It was in a higher stage of culture than the “Iberians”.’ In the illustration below from a history of the world published in 1897, we see how the heroic Celts were imagined, along with an account of the 'Aryan migration'. And they were supposed to have displaced a different race of indigenous people, driving them almost literally underground.
'The Celtic Vanguard' from 'Ridpath's History of the World', 1897

This notion of ‘two races, two cultures’ has been discredited. Archaologists and geneticists now agree that Europe has been a melting-pot of racial groups from at least the early Neolithic. European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were neither replaced nor suddenly shunted out; instead, over several thousand years, they assimilated both the culture and the genes of a gradually diffusing population of Neolithic farmers. It wasn’t until the Bronze Age (says Professor Barry Cunliffe in ‘Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD1000’) that sea-faring and trading populations on the on the coasts of Europe, Britain and Ireland, developed the Celtic tongue as ‘an Atlantic façade lingua franca’. Isn't that wonderful? The Celts didn’t ‘come from’ anywhere: they were in place already. The Celtic languages evolved because coastal peoples travelled and traded and intermarried and talked to one another. Britain wasn't isolated, it was always an integral part of Europe. 
So the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was wrong. There never was a distinctly different race of ‘little dark people’ living on the edges of a conquering population of tall, fair, confident ‘Aryans’. Nothing to give rise to a belief in a ‘hidden folk’ of pixies, dwarfs or elves. 
You can see why he liked the idea. It seemed to answer a lot of questions, besides lending to folk-lore a kind of scientific gloss: anthropological ‘truths’ preserved in tales. Many a writer has been honestly misled by it. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s tremendous novel ‘Sword at Sunset’, the Romano-British and nominally Christian hero Artos, fighting off the Saxon invasions in the 3rd century AD, takes as his allies ‘the little Dark People of the Hills’, who live half-underground in turf-covered bothies, use poisoned arrows and worship the Earth Mother. Their clan leader, the Old Woman, calls Artos ‘Sun Lord’ and tells him:
‘We are small and weak, and our numbers grow fewer with the years, but we are scattered very wide, wherever there are hills or lonely places. We can send news and messages racing from one end of a land to the other between moon-rise and moonset; we can creep and hide and spy and bring back word; we are the hunters who can tell you when the game has passed by, by a bent grass-blade or one hair clinging to a bramble-spray. We are the viper that stings in the dark –’
And in the same author's if-anything-even-more-magnificent ‘The Mark of the Horse Lord’, the half-Roman half-British ex-gladiator Phaedrus, masquerading as Midir, Lord of the Dalriata (an actual 4th century AD Scots-Irish Gaelic kingdom), lays down his iron weapons to call upon an Old Man of the Dark People who lives like a badger in ‘a tumble of stones and turf laced together with brambles’ with ‘a dark opening in its side’:
[Phaedrus] had heard before of places such as this, where one left something that needed mending, together with a gift, and came back later to find the gift gone and the broken thing mended; it was one of those things no one talked of very much, the places where the life of the Sun People touched the life of the Old Ones, the People of the Hills. Like the bowls of milk that the women put out sometimes at night, in exchange for some small job to be done – like the knot of rowan hung over a doorway for protection against the ancient Earth Magic – like the stealing of a Sun Child from time to time.’  
This Old Man is ‘slight-boned … with grey hair brushed back from his narrow brow, and eyes that seemed at first glance like jet beads…’  Sutcliff was writing in the mid-1960s when the ‘two races’ hypothesis was still widely credited: she wrote with great imaginative empathy. I grew up with these stories and it was easy to be swept along by the idea: these Little Dark People or Painted People, these remnants of the past clinging to the verge of cultures which had displaced them, were the historical origin of the fairies. I was sorry for them. Despite Sutcliff’s sympathetic treatment, these marginalised archaic people seem nearly powerless. Their magic – feared though it is – doesn’t really work on the more advanced Sun People. They are spies, not warriors: they creep through the heather with poisoned arrows, killing by stealth. They are in fact natives, with all the baggage that implied in colonial and post-colonial Britain. They may help the heroes, but they can’t be the heroes.  Their time is past.

Writing in 1913 Baring-Gould doesn’t even allow them the skills to erect dolmens:
They were not, I take it, the Dolmen builders – these are supposed to have been giants because of the gigantic character of their structures. They were a people who did not build at all. They lived in caves, or if in the open, in huts made by bending branches over and covering them with sods of turf. Consequently in folk-lore they are always represented as either emerging from caverns or from under mounds. 

This is to lend to folklore an authority far beyond its scope. Most of the nineteenth century collectors of the fairy tales and folk-lore which we all love so much were driven by nationalist impulses and racial pride. Each sought, as the Grimms did, the pure voice of their own ‘folk’. As the century progressed what they in fact uncovered was the inextricably interrelated nature of European folk- and fairy- lore. Despite the near-impossibility of claiming a particular version of any story as ‘original’, some went on to claim an ultimate ‘Aryan’ heritage for such tales, going so far as to assert that the Aryan master-race originated in Scandinavia – since, clearly, the Nordic peoples were the tallest, blondest and bluest-eyed of the lot. Most of these gentlemen meant only to generate pride in what they saw as their heritage. They did not recognise it as racism - the term had not yet been coined - but racism it was. As folklorists, as lovers of fairy tales, we need to be responsible for the ways we interpret the stories we tell. 

While I was researching Mi’kmaq and Algonkin folk-lore for my children's fantasy 'Troll Blood' (HarperCollins 2007), I came across a salutary reminder of how untrustworthy some 19th century commentators can be when discussing origins: in a compilation called ‘The Algonquin Legends of New England’ (1884) I found the linguist and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland with a bee in his bonnet about what he claimed had to be a Norse influence on Mi’kmaq stories. Having decided that the Mi’kmaq tales were in effect too ‘noble’ to have been the product of Native American minds, he made the wildly unsupported assertion that the Norsemen must have told stories from the Eddas to the indigenous peoples of what is now Newfoundland and New Brunswick: that the Mi’kmaq culture-hero Kluskap (‘Glooscap’, in his account) ‘is the Norse god intensified … by far the grandest and most Aryan-like character ever evolved from a savage mind’. I almost dropped the book and was forced to regard it ever after as compromised and unreliable. If there was any contact at all between Norsemen and the Native American population in the 10th to 13th centuries (the likely duration of occasional forays from treeless Greenland for much-needed North American timber), the Greenlanders’ Saga suggests that it was violent and short. But that’s not the point. The point is the mindset which says ‘this is too good to have been created by [insert racial group]’. 

The dwarf Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir.

Returning to the origin of pixies, elves and dwarfs – if they’re not a folk-memory of some once co-existing shy and inferior race, what are they? As Baring-Gould says, the notion must have come from somewhere.  Well, Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe are dotted with burial mounds and barrows. The Irish story of the love of Midir for Étain (the Tochmarc Etaine) states plainly that Midir is a king of the ‘elf-mounds’, the underworld, and the tale is full of instances of death and rebirth. As I argue in an essay called ‘The Lost Kings of Fairyland’ in my book of essays, 'Seven Miles of Steel Thistles', fairies have long been associated with the dead. In a fascinating essay ‘The Craftsman in the Mound’ (Folk-Lore 88, 1977) Lotte Motz discusses the figure of the dwarf as a smith and craftsman dwelling in hills, mounds and mountains, who may be heard hammering away in underground smithies. Pointing to the many instances of ‘legends of dead rulers who reside, sometimes in a magic sleep and often with their retinue, within a mountain’, she continues:
A relation to the dead appears to belong also to the dwarfs of the Icelandic documents; so the dwarf Alviss [‘All-Knowing] is asked by Thor if he had been staying with the dead, and a poem in a saga tells of a doughty sword which had been fashioned by ‘dead dwarfs’. I would… assert that the mountain dwelling of the smith holds, rather than temporary wealth, eternal treasures in its aspect as the mountain of the dead. 
As if to emphasise his deathly character, like a ghost fleeing to its grave at cock-crow, the dwarf Alviss (the story is from the Poetic Edda) cannot endure daylight but turns to stone at sunrise. 
‘The day has caught thee, dwarf!’ cries triumphant Thor, who like Gandalf in ‘The Hobbit’ has kept him talking…   

It's always been thought dangerous to see fairies. Like the Furies in Greek mythology, if you talked about them at all, you used flattering circumlocutions – the Good People, the Seely Court, the People of Peace. They came from the hollow hills, the land of death, and it was wise to be frightened of them.  Maybe the visions, the ‘legions of dwarfs’, the little green men or pixies which Baring-Gould and his wife and child separately saw signified something more sinister than folk-memories. 

After all, sunstroke can kill you.


Picture credits: 

Pixie encounter - W. Measom, 1853
Nisse eating barley porridge - Wikimedia Commons
The dwarves Brokkr and Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir - Arthur Rackham - Wikimedia Commons
Alvissmal - Alviss answers Thor - Wikimedia Commons 
The Celtic Vanguard - Wikimedia Commons  
Dolmen, Jersey, 1859 - Wikimedia Commons
Pixies - John D Batten - Wikimedia Commons


Monday 8 January 2024

Perilous Voyages


All voyages are voyages of discovery; all voyages are dangerous. Even in these days when cruise liners are thought of as little more than floating hotels, disaster sometimes strikes. Departing on a voyage is already a little death, a farewell to loved ones who may never be seen again, either because of the dangers of the passage or because the travellers mean never to return. To the oppressed and poor of Europe in the nineteenth century, America seemed a promised land, a western paradise of plenty and equality. But they had to leave behind all that was familiar if they were to make a better life across the sea. As a traditional Irish emigrant ballad The Green Fields of Canada says: 

Oh my father is old and my mother’s quite feeble

To leave their own country it grieves their hearts sore:

The tears in great drops down their cheeks they are rolling

To think they must die upon some foreign shore.


But what matter to me where my bones may be buried

If in peace and contentment I can spend my life?

Oh the green fields of Canada, they daily are blooming:

It’s there I’ll put an end to my miseries and strife. 

Anyone who’s stood at the seashore and watched the sun going down over the waves may have wondered what it would be like to seek lands beyond the sunset. Voyages have been associated with Otherworld journeys since the days of Gilgamesh (second millennium BCE). When his beloved friend Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh becomes afraid of death. He sets off to the end of the world – to the mountains where the sun rises and sets – and makes the dark journey through a tunnel called the Path of the Sun, to emerge in a garden of jewelled trees. Here he begs the goddess Siduri for advice on how to cross the ocean to find Uta-napishti, hero of the Flood, who was granted immortality by the gods. Siduri tells him to find Ur-shanabi the ferryman, who with his crew of Stone Ones can take him over the Waters of Death. The enterprise is about as successful as most Otherworld journeys and Gilgamesh learns the usual lesson, that death is inevitable and had better be accepted. It’s fascinating to find the motif of the ferryman, and of the goddess in the paradisal garden, in this four-thousand year old text. The ferryman Charon, the Garden of the Hesperides, the island of Circe – how long has humanity been imagining them? 

Voyages and suns, and perhaps death, are hinted at in Scandinavian rock engravings dating to any time between 1500 and 400 BCE, which show ships embellished with sun discs and spirals. The figure above is taken from The Chariot of the Sun and other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age by Peter Gelling and Hilda Ellis Davidson. It depicts rock art from Stora Backa, Brastad, Bohuslan, Sweden, and the authors write that the 'horizontal phallic figure' lying on his back low down in the group is 'probably to be thought of as lying on the ship immediately below him. There is a smaller figure which seems, as it were, to rise out of his body': this may be a mourner, or it may be his spirit. The entire group is a cluster of animals, men, ships and sun-wheels, large and small. 

The association of ships and suns is exemplified in the Egyptian sun god Re with his two boats: the sun boat or Mandjet (Boat of Millions of Years) which carries him from east to west across the sky accompanied by various other deities and personifications, and the night boat, the Mesesket, on which the god travels through the perilous underworld from west to east, to rise again in the morning.   

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew… 

So speaks the aged Ulysses to his companions in Tennyson’s poem. Unwilling ‘to rust unburnished’ and die by his own hearth, he sets out for the lands beyond the sunset, home of the heroic dead. Yet in the Odyssey, Odysseus has already sailed to the Otherworld. Leaving the island of Circe he reaches the shores of Hades and the groves of Persephone, fringed with black poplars, where he encounters many spirits of the dead, including his own mother whom he vainly tries to embrace: 

…Three times

I started towards her, and my heart was urgent to hold her,

and three times she fluttered out of my hands like a shadow

or a dream, and the sorrow sharpened at the heart within me.

The Odyssey of Homer, tr. Richmond Lattimore, Harper & Row 1965 


In this beautiful red-figure oil jar, we see Charon the ferryman welcoming the soul of a young man into his ferry. Charon gently extends his hand towards a fluttering soul as delicate as a mayfly. It is an extraordinarily tender gesture. 

On his death, the Norse god Baldr is laid by the other gods on a pyre in his ship Ringhorn, which is set alight and pushed out to sea. The Old English poem Beowulf tells how the hero-king Scyld Shefing was laid with many treasures in ‘a boat with a ringed neck’ and sent to sea, where –  

                             Men under heaven’s

shifting skies, though skilled in counsel,

cannot say surely who unshipped that cargo.

Beowulf, tr. Michael Alexander, Penguin 1973         

Ship burials occur all over the world (for more information visit this link throughout all of  Europe, Asia and South East Asia. In some cases people were buried in boats or in boat-shaped coffins, while others in burials which reference a sea-journey, such as this beautiful burial jar – the ‘Manunggul Jar’ – found in the Philippines’ Tabon Caves, and dated 890-710 BCE:

The boatman […] is steering rather than paddling the “ship”. The mast of the boat was not recovered. Both figures appear to be wearing bands tied over the crowns of their heads and under their jaws; a pattern still found in burial practices among the indigenous peoples in the Southern Philippines. The manner in which the hands of the front figure are folded across the chest is also a widespread practice in the islands when arranging the corpse.

The Tabon Caves, Robert B Fox, Manila: National Museum, 1970 

In Northern Europe, high-status people were sometimes buried in their ships, like the king or warrior laid to rest in the East Anglian Sutton Hoo ship burial, circa 700 CE, and the two women in the famous Norwegian ‘Oseberg ship’, thought to have been buried in or after 834 CE. 

The marvellous Welsh poem Prieddeu Annwfn or ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’ (dated by linguistic evidence to around 900 CE) tells of a raid by Arthur in his ship Prydwen on the Welsh underworld, Annwfn. Most of the eight stanzas end with a variation on the recurrent line: ‘Except seven, none returned’. By ordinary standards the expedition sounds disastrous, but this is no ordinary poem. Fateful, gloomy, mysterious, we gain a vision of a venture by sea to an Otherworld  mound or island where a pearl-rimmed cauldron full of the magical life-giving mead of poetry is guarded in a four-peaked glass fortress with a strong door. 

The hero Bran (keeper of another magical cauldron which restores the dead to life) is the subject of one of the traditional Old Irish voyage tales known as immrama, in which a hero or saint sets out for an Otherworld, stopping at numerous fantastic or miraculous islands along the way. These islands have a more sunlit appeal than that of Annwfn: Bran is invited by a mysterious woman to seek for the beautiful Emain Ablach or ‘Isle of Women’ where there is peace and plenty and no one is ever sick or dies. He puts to sea with twenty-seven companions and three curraghs – nine men in each boat. Eventually reaching the island, Bran’s boat is drawn into port by a ball of magical thread which the queen tosses to him. Each man is paired with a beautiful woman, Bran sharing the bed of the queen, and there they remain, unaware how much time is passing in the real world, until Nechtan son of Collbran becomes homesick and Bran resolves to return home. The queen warns against it, and especially against setting foot on land. When they reach Ireland, so many years have passed that Bran’s name is an ancient legend, and when Nechtan leaps out of the curragh he crumbles to dust. Seeing this, Bran and his companions sail away (presumably back to the Island of Women) and never return.  

The hero Maelduin's is a longer voyage and a happier homecoming: he's advised by a hermit that he will return home only once he has forgiven his father’s murderer. This he finally does, and makes safe landfall. But on the long voyage he and his companions see such wonders as the Isle of Ants ‘every one of them the size of a foal’; an island where demon riders run a giant horse race; an island of a miraculous apple tree whose fruit satisfy the whole crew for ‘forty nights’; an island of fiery pigs, an island of a little cat; an island where giant smiths strike away on anvils and hurl a huge lump of red-hot iron after the boat (surely a volcanic eruption?) so that ‘the whole of the sea boiled up’. Here’s a lovely passage: 

The Silver-Meshed Net

They went on then till they found a great silver pillar; four sides it had, and the width of each of the sides was two strokes of an oar; and there was not one sod of earth about it, but only the endless ocean; and they could not see what way it was below, and they could not see what way the top of it was because of its height. There was a silver net from the top of it that spread out a long way on every side, and the curragh went under sail through a mesh of that net. 

Diuran, one of Maeldune’s companions, strikes the net with his spear to obtain a piece: 

“Do not destroy the net,” said Maeldune, “for we are looking at the work of great men.”  “It is for the praise of God’s name I am doing it,” said Diuran, “The way my story will be better believed; and it is to the altar of Ardmacha I will give this mesh of the net if I get back to Ireland.” Two ounces and a half now was the weight when it was measured after in Ardmacha. They heard then a voice from the top of the pillar very loud and clear, but they did not know in what strange language it was speaking or what word it said.

The Voyage of Maeldune, ‘A Book of Saint and Wonders’, tr. Lady Gregory, Dun Emer Press 1906 

I love the way these stories delight in the marvellous inventions of God (or the poet) and the wondrous things men find when they set out to cross the illimitable sea. 

Stationed on the western edge of Northern Europe, the Irish were well positioned to wonder what might be beyond the watery horizon. Following a dream of ‘a beautiful island with angels serving upon it,’ the 6th century Saint Brendan set off into the Atlantic in search of Paradise. In a hide boat, a curragh, with twelve companions he spent years wandering the ocean from one marvellous island to another, including a landing upon the back of an amiable giant fish which allowed him to celebrate Easter there. All nature is included in Brendan’s Christianity: when he says Mass, even the fishes attend and came around the ship in a heap, so that they could hardly see the water for fishes. But when the mass was ended each one of them turned himself and swam away, and they saw them no more. 

After years of sailing, and coming near the borders of a hell of ice and fire which sounds suspiciously like Iceland, Brendan and his companions reached the Land of Promise, the blessed shore. 

…clear and lightsome, and the trees full of fruit on every bough… and the air neither hot nor cold but always one way, and the delight they found there could never be told. Then they came to a river that they could not cross but they could see beyond it the country that had no bounds to its beauty.

The Voyage of Brendan, ‘A Book of Saint and Wonders’, tr. Lady Gregory, Dun Emer Press, 1906 

The immrama combine delight and discovery as well as spiritual journeys. And in fact it was the practice of many early monks to set up their cells on remote islands such as the Arans. Saint Cuthbert on Inner Farne would pray all night, standing in the sea. Was it only for the solitude, or was the sea crossing itself a holy act which could bring the traveller to the shore of another world? Even before Christianity, were islands – liminally placed between earth and sea, like Lindisfarne, Iona, St Michael’s Mount – already considered holy? And it's worth considering that the rite of baptism is a passing through water to symbolic new life. 

The age-old tradition of crossing water to the otherworld recurs in Thomas Malory's Le Morte D’Arthur when Arthur is taken away in a barge to the Isle of Avalon ‘to heal him of his grievous wound’. And he is not the only character to make such a post-mortem or near-post-mortem voyage: the Fair Maid of Astolat, dead Elaine, drifts down the Thames to Westminster in her black barge.  

During the quest for the Holy Grail, Sir Percival’s sister dies, having given a dish of her blood in order to heal a lady. Perceval lays his sister’s body... 

in a barge, and covered it with black silk; and so the wind arose, and drove the barge from land, and all the knights beheld it till it was out of their sight.

Soon after (in Book XVII Chapter 13), Lancelot is woken from sleep by a visionary voice which commands: 

‘Lancelot, arise up and take thine armour, and enter into the first ship that thou shalt find’. And when he heard these words he start up and saw a great clearness about him. And then he lift up his hand and blessed him, and took his arms and made him ready; and so by adventure he came by a strand and found a ship the which was without sail or oar. 

And as soon as he was within that ship there felt he the most sweetness that he ever felt, and he was fulfilled with all thing that he thought on or desired.  Then he said, ‘Fair sweet Father, Jesu Christ, I wot not in what joy I am, for this joy passeth all earthly joys that ever I was in.’ 

And so in this joy he laid him down… and slept till day. And when he awoke he found there a fair bed, and therein lying a gentlewoman dead, the which was Sir Perceval’s sister. 

This unsteerable ship of the dead conveys Lancelot to a castle where he will encounter that ultimate symbol of unknowable holiness, the Grail. Putting to sea in a boat without sail or oars – or for that matter in an overloaded inflatable run by traffickers in the middle of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – is to cast yourself upon the guidance of God. Such faith must be in the hearts of many of the brave, desperate people we call migrants. 

In ballads too, as in life, to sail the sea is to face danger and possible death. The eponymous Wife of Usher’s Well sends her three sons ‘to sail upon the sea’. Barely three weeks later the news comes that they’ve drowned and the grieving mother tries to bring them back by cursing the elements that caused their death: 

“I wish the winds may never cease

Nor fashes [disturbances] in the flood

Till my three sons come hame to me

In earthly flesh and blood.”

The Wife of Usher’s Well, Oxford Book of Ballads, 1969 

So they do come home, at Martinmas, the liminal time between autumn and winter ‘when nights are long and mirk’. But their hats are made of the birch bark that grows on the trees of Paradise, and they can stay only one night. 

‘I’ll set sail of silver and I’ll steer towards the sun’, a girl threatens in the folk song As Sylvie Was Walking, for then ‘my false love will weep for me after I’m gone.’ As for the foolish lady who betrays her lover and runs away to sea with a plausible suitor who has promised to show her ‘where the white lilies grow/On the banks of Italie’ – he turns out to be The Daemon Lover of the title, who halfway over conjures up a storm to sink the ship, crying, ‘I’ll show you where the white lilies grow/At the bottom of the sea!’ 

Over countless millennia voyage tales have explored the marvels of life and the mystery of death. We humans have always embarked upon hopeful voyages, seeking a new world, a better life, a better self. But the tales acknowledge that we cannot always be in control. After the fall of Troy, Odysseus wanted to go home, but instead he spent ten long years wandering the Mediterranean, exposed to storms, shipwrecks and the whims of the gods. Still, he made it in the end despite the odds. Death is a journey we’re all going to take, but maybe not yet, not this time, although the ferryman is always waiting. One day we will leave our friends behind, set sail of silver, steer for the sun and cross the ocean to the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns. 

One day… one day.

Picture credits

'The Last of England' - by Ford Madox Ford 1852 Wikipedia

Figure from 'The Chariot of the Sun' - by Peter Gelling & Hilde Ellis Davidson, Aldine, 1972

Red-figure oil jar attributed to the 'Tymbos painter', 500-450 BCE Ashmoleon Musuem Oxford Photo by Carole Raddato Wikimedia

The Manunggal Jar - Photo by Philip Maise - Wikipedia 

The Fair Maid of Astolat - by Sophie Anderson, 1870 Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool Wikimedia 

The Wife of Usher's Well - by H.M. Brock 1934

Petroglyph - 'The Chariot of the Sun' - by Peter Gelling & Hilde Ellis Davidson, Aldine, 1972