Cor Hendriks – The Macaws (27): The Herculean Tasks and the Magic Flight [cf ATU 313B] (2)

The story of the ‘Magic Flight’ has much resemblance with the Jason myth. Jason had to go and get the Golden Fleece, an impossible task, because the ram of the Fleece had flown through the air to get to Colchis, an image of the other World, only reachable by going between the Symplegades, rocks that ‘opened and closed’. The Argo is a magical boat that can fly like the dove that is sent ahead. Aeëtes gave Jason an impossible task: to yoke two fire breathing bulls, plow the Field of Ares, and sow it with serpent’s teeth. Medea, the daughter of Aeëtes, had fallen in love with Jason and promised to help him. She gave him a salve to protect him against the fire breathing bulls. All day he plowed, and at nightfall sowed the teeth, from which armed men immediately sprouted. He provoked them to fight one against another (the same way as Cadmus had done on a similar occasion), by throwing a stone quoit into their midst; then dispatched the wounded survivors. Aeëtes, though, had no intention of parting with the Fleece, and wanted to kill Jason. So Medea took Jason to the place where the Fleece was kept, guarded by an enormous immortal dragon, that she put to sleep, so that Jason could steal the Fleece from the oak tree. Then they hurried to the Argo, but an alarm had already been raised, and they were pursued by Aeëtes’ galleys. When Aeëtes overtook them, near the mouth of the Danube, Medea killed her young half brother Apsyrtus, whom she had brought aboard, and cut him into pieces, which she consigned one by one to the swift current. This cruel stratagem delayed the pursuit, because obliging Aeëtes to retrieve each piece in turn for subsequent burial at Tomi [Graves, II, §152e – i; p. 153a. Quoit: a ring to be thrown at a peg so as to encircle it; the game, as often played on the deck of a ship (Hornby, 1974, p. 700)].

Santillana & Dechend in their enigmatic Hamlet’s Mill compare a Japanese hero with Jason and his beloved with Medea. They call him the Kami (Divine Prince) Great Land Master (O Kuni Nushi), but that is the title he received after his land measuring activities and not his real name, which is O na mochi (the Great Name bearer), and he is the most important descendant (son) of Susa no O. He has 80 elder brothers, who hate their brother, because he was smarter. So the 80 brothers are like the two brothers from ATU 301|550|551, etc. When they go courting the Princess Yakami hime, they command O na mochi to carry their luggage (this way he looks a bit like Strong John). They find on the road A hare, that has lost his fur and begs for help. Cruelly they advise him to take a bath in the sea and to let himself dry up in the sun. The hare does this and is only worse off. O na mochi, lagging behind, comes also across the hare, advises him to take a bath in sweet water and to roll through the pollen of kama grass (sedges), which gives the hare his white fur back, and by way of thanks he tells O na mochi that the princess Yakami would reject his brothers and only take him. Of course this made the brothers very jealous, and they killed their brother, but he was revived by his mother, Kusanada hime, with the aid of the Goddess Kami Musubi [the God Kami Musubi no mikoto (the holy miracle maker), Santillana & Dechend speak of Sky Producer. On the advice of his mother, O na mochi went to the land of Susa no O for aid and advice, pursued by his 80 brothers, who tried to kill him by shooting arrows. But he escaped through the fork of a tree (by magic), which is a cryptic way for the descent in the Lower World, also called the Nether Distant Land, where Susa nom O (Brave Swift Impetuous Male) has his residency. At the Palace of that God he was received by Suseri hime (Princess Forward), daughter of the God, who advised the beautiful young man to hide first, because her father was a formidable opponent. Because of his beauty she married him (although she was his sister). After that she informed her father of the arrival of a beautiful God, but when he saw the young man he said: ‘That is the ugly male god of the Reed Plains.’ He allowed him to enter and showed him his sleeping place in the snake room. Before O na mochi went to sleep, his wife gave a snake cloth, that he must wave when attacked by the snakes. That way he pacified the snakes and could sleep without problems. The next day he was put in the room of the centipedes and wasps and was given a centipede and wasp cloth. The day after that his father in law shot a humming arrow in the middle of a big swamp (immense plain, meadow) and commanded O na mochi to find it. When he was in the middle of the swamp, Susa no O set fire to the land around, so that there was no escape for O na mochi. But he met a rat (mouse), who said to him:On the inside it is hollow hollow; and the access is narrow narrow.’ O na mochi understood what the animal meant, stamped on the ground, sunk into the swamp and stayed underground till the fire was out (there was A room, A cave underground with A narrow opening). Then the rat appeared again with the humming arrow in its mouth, but the feathers had been eaten off by the children of the rat. But they brought the feathers back, so nothing failed on the arrow. Suseri hime, convinced that her husband had died, had put on mourning clothes and was preparing his funeral rite. Also Susa no O thought he was dead, but standing at the swamp he saw him suddenly come to him with the arrow. He took him with him to the Palace to a room with many mats and asked him to catch the vermin on his head. O na mochi saw that his head was teeming with centipedes, but his wife came to his rescue, and gave him red earth and berries of the muku tree (aphananth berries), that he had to chew and mix in his mouth with the red earth. When he spat this out, Susa no o thought he had chewed the vermin, was satisfied and fell asleep. Then O na mochi bound his hair to the rafters, blocked the entrance with a five hundred man lift rock and ran away with Suseri hime on his back, taking with him the Sword of Life (life preserving sword), bow and arrows, and the ‘speaking heavenly lute’ (Sky speaking lute; harp: the Koto). During the flight the lute bumped into a tree and made such a noise (the earth resounded), that Susa no O awoke. He jumped up with so much force that he pulled the whole Palace down. But it took him quite some time to free his hair, so that O na mochi was far away. The God pursued his son in law till the pass of Yomi (the Level Pass of the Land of Night; the border between the underworld and the Land of the Reed Fields; on the slope of Hell), and seeing the futility of his pursuit, called after him: ‘Although you have cheated me, I must admit that you have courage and wisdom. Pursue with the sword and bow your eighty brothers, till they fall from the mountain slopes or drown in the rivers. You yourself will be O kuni nushi (Great Lord of the Land; Great Land Master) and your wife Utsushi kuni tama (Real Spirit of the Land; Spirit of the Living Land). Keep my daughter as your chief wife and build your Palace on the rocky floor at the foot of Mount Uka (Inquiry) (and rear its crossbeams to the Plain of the High Sky). Go live there, you rascal, and thou will be Ruler of Japan.’ Then, bearing the great sword and bow, Great Land Master pursued and scattered the eighty brothers, saying, ‘They shall not be permitted within the circle of the blue fence of the mountains.’ He pursued them till they crouched on every hill slope, he pursued them till they were swept into every river, and then he began to rule the Land. Therefore the place where he overtook them was called Come Overtake [Santillana & Dechent, 1969, p. 170f (P Wheeler, The Sacred Scriptures of the Japanese, New York, 1952, p. 44f); Hamel, 1947, II, p. 88 91; Allan, 2000, 56 59; Larousse, 1974, p. 412; Cotterell, 1989, p. 143: O Kuni Nushi ruled over Izumo, a large province in central Japan].

Remarkable is the lute, that serves no other purpose than making noise to awaken Susa-no-o. It is of course the harp from ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. The flight has much similarity with the flights of ATU 313 we saw before.

Susa no O can be seen as the King of the underWorld, comparable to the King of the Snakes, in the Mongolian story of ‘Ulangalu’. The story takes place a long time ago near the mountain Mongxi, whose slopes are covered with cypresses and pines. Here lives the woodchopper Jierkele, who is quite strong (he can shake any tree) and knows how to play the horse head violin; birds listen to him as well as wild animals and one day his melancholic music is heard by the daughter of a snake spirit from this mountain, called Ulangalu. She takes on the shape of a beautiful girl and approaches Jierkele, who is so rapt in his play that he doesn’t notice her. When he ends his play she complements him and asks if she can stay with him to listen all the time, and he agrees, because she is beautiful. She also helps him with his work. Soon the father of Ulangalu discovers the engagement, forbids it and locks up his daughter. But she becomes ill (because she doesn’t eat), and her father gives his permission for a marriage and tells her to bring Jierkele. So a few days later Jierkele enters the hole in the mountain and the future father in law gives him the east room to live in. Ulangalu startles because she knows that in that room there is a big snake that sucks in the night human blood, and many were already killed by it. So she goes secretly to Jierkele, gives him A Buddhist lamp Zola and a double edged sword, and tells him that her father wants to kill him and what he must do. One instruction he disobeys: keeping his eyes closed, and with the light of the Buddhist lamp he sees the snake coming down and is so startled that he forgets to use the sword. Fortunately the snake is afraid of the light of the lamp, and in the morning when the father in law comes to gloat, the boy is still alive. So he has to find a new trick to get rid of the boy and sends him to chop firewood on the North Mountain. Again Ulangalu comes secretly to him and gives him three iron rings, with on each a red threat. He has to put the rings around three trees, chop three times and run away hundred paces, then turn back and get the trees. This time he sticks to her advice and when he looks back, he sees that the whole wood consists of snakes, who carry the three killed snakes and pursue him, but when they see that he is coming back, they dump the killed snakes and run off. Jierkele drags the three snakes to the father in law who is startled, says that he is an asset to the family and may marry his daughter, and sends him to the West Mountain to invite a family member. But this is a demon to whom Ulangalu’s father has promised his daughter a long time ago. Again Ulangalu gives advice: he must hide on the West Mountain three eggs with a hundred paces between them and then throw the demon the invitation before his feet and run away. He hides the eggs and comes to the red house on the mountain top, from where alternating red and green rays come. A black fellow pulls himself by the ears, swallows the red and green ball and blows it then out again. Jierkele delivers his message and runs away, pursued by the black fellow. Just when he reaches Jierkele, they are at the spot of the first egg. Thereupon A cock crows three times and the demon gives up the pursuit and goes back [probably there are three cocks, because there were three eggs]. On his way back Ulangalu comes to Jierkele, saying that he cannot return and that they have to flee. And she takes a red little box out of her dress, gives it to Jierkele and makes herself small in the box, that he must open when he comes home. But the next day he has doubt if she is really in the box and he opens it [cf. ‘the box without a key’]. She turns out to be in there, but weeps and tells Jierkele that it is all over now; her father will come to take her back, but if he wants to save her he has to come on the third day to the mountain cave where they have lived and bring two things: a courageous heart (to not be frightened by the things he will see) and two little cocks. Under the mountain cave of her father is a deeper cave, wherein she will be locked up. When he goes down two double edged swords will attack him that will fall to the ground only after they have drawn blood. He must hold the cocks above his head. When the swords have fallen he must take them with him, because it will frighten everything. Also he must use them to open the lock of the hole where she is locked up. Just when she has said this dark clouds gather, lightning flashes and after a blinding flash everything becomes clear and Ulangalu is gone. Jierkele comes the third day on the mountain, enters the cave and sees that there is a drinking feast going on; Ulangalu’s father and the demon of the West Mountain are celebrating the coming wedding. He sneaks to the entrance of the deeper hole. After a few paces a heavy sandstorm arises and he is attacked by the two swords, and he offers the cocks. With the swords he goes further, comes upon two snakes, kills them with the swords, and opens the lock, freeing Ulangalu. When they run away her father and the demon of the West Mountain come but when Jierkele opposes them with his swords, they run away to get their swords, but they are already in the hands of Jierkele, who kills them. And they leave the cave and go to live in the happy World of humans [Hanli & Scheer, 1985, p. 67 76, edited by Zhalagahu].

Jewish tradition knows besides the bird Milcham, also of the legendary bird Ziz, called ‘the King of the Birds’: his legs rest on the earth while his head reaches unto the firmament; his spread out wings darken the light of the sun and protect the earth against the South storms. The Ziz is also called Renamien, ‘the heavenly singer’, and Sechwi, the seer, because he is in constant connection with Heaven. In the month Tishri, at the autumn equinox, he flaps his wings loudly and screams so loudly, that the birds of prey shrink back [Staal, 1925, p. 22; 2].

Such a bird we meet in a Byzantine Jewish tale from the late Middle Ages, called ‘The Demon Princess’. Again we see the son of a rich Jewish merchant, who makes a promise to his father on his deathbed: never to make a sea journey. After a year or two the son finds out that his father has enormous possessions across the sea, and he lets himself be persuaded by sailors to make a sea journey. The Almighty is so incensed that He sends a mighty storm that wrecks the ship and its crew. Only the son of the merchant washes up on a deserted island at the End of the World. He discovers a enormous tree and climbs in it to spend the night there. Around midnight he is awakened by the roaring of a lion, that prances around the foot of the tree, and in panic he climbs up and comes eye to eye with a bird as big as the legendary bird Ziz. The bird wants to devour him, but quickly he climbs on its back and holds tightly to its nape feathers while the bird takes off into the air hoping that way to get rid of its burden. The bird flies on and on over the sea and comes at last near the evening (after a day’s flight) above inhabited land and, while the bird is flying low, the man drops himself on the ground and remains there lying wounded till daybreak. Then he walks to the nearby town and finds there a synagogue. Inside there is only the shammash, who tells him that he is in the realm of Asmodeus, the King of the demons, where mortals are not allowed. The man begs the shammahs, a pious demon, for help, and he promises to help him. Soon other demons arrive who say: I smell human flesh. They discover the man, and he is brought to Asmodeus, who, when he discovers that the man is very well informed about the Torah, hires him as teacher for his son. Three years go by, while the son of Asmodeus receives his education. Then Asmodeus has to go to fight and gives the son of the merchant the keys of all the rooms with the instruction not to open a particular room. A few days the man spends sight seeing in the Palace, but then he takes a peep through the key hole into the ‘Forbidden Room’ and sees the daughter of Asmodeus sitting on her golden Throne, and he is immediately in love and opens the door. The Princess says: ‘Oh you, foolish man, why did you ignore the order of my father and saw me thus without veil? In his magic mirror he sees everything and he will soon be here to punish you with death.’ The man throws himself at her feet and begs her for protection. ‘Tell my father that you entered out of love for me and want to marry me, which is something my father wants for quite a while, because thou art so learned.’ Soon a furious Asmodeus comes storming in, and the man says the things the Princess taught him, and the wrath of the Demon King disappears like snow before the sun. At the wedding next to the demons also the birds and field animals are invited, and the man swears never to leave the Princess. After a year they have a child that is circumcised on the eight day and named Solomon. Once while playing with his child the man sighs, and the Princess asks why. The man tells about his other children, and she gives him leave for a year, after which a demon flies with him to his house. There the demon takes on the appearance of a human and stays near by, while the son of the merchant, who was believed dead, is received with much joy by his family. The joy of the man is tempered by the presence of the demon, whom he meets all the time in the town. And at a certain moment he tells him that he doesn’t want to honour the oath he made, because he gave it under duress. The demon returns to the Princess, who first decides to wait till the end of the year. But when the son of the merchant really doesn’t show up, she goes herself with their son Solomon to the town, followed by Asmodeus with his Demon Army. Not even Solomon can persuade his father, whereupon the Princess wants to see if the town will do her justice. She renders herself to the synagogue, where right at that moment the community is gathered for a service, shows her marriage contract and the written vow of her husband to return after a year, and requests them to call together a Bet Din (court of justice of rabbis). Before the court the Princess tells her grievances and the man replies that he has signed under duress and wants to stay with his first wife. The Princess demands a letter of separation and the return of the dowry. The judges agreed to that, but the amount to pay back is more than a King can pay. The Princess is willing to be compensated by a single kiss. The judges compel the man to agree so as to be released of all obligations towards her. He complies and receives the Kiss of Death, a fitting reward for this oath breaker, the Princess opinions and she leaves Solomon behind in the care of the community, who promises to appoint him when he is grown up as their leader [Schwartz, 1986, p. 93 101].

A modern version of this story has been collected in Poland. The beginning is the same. During the storm the son falls in a trance, in which his father appears to him. The son begs for mercy and the father tells him he will wake up clinging to a log that will drift ashore where an eagle will grab him. He must let him carry him. This happens; the bird grabs him with its beak and carries him far away. The bird puts him down and flies away. He looks around and then hears the voices of the children in a kheyder (Jewish school), follows the sounds, and comes to a little house, where a melamed (teacher) is sitting around a table with his pupils. They greet each other politely, and the teacher tells him he is in the land of demons, but he will hide him from them. But one day the rich man’s son goes out for a walk and is seized by a couple of demons and taken to the court of Ashmodai, King of the Demons, who takes him in his service and grows fonder of the mortal each passing day. When he has to go to War, he hands over a great bunch of iron keys, with which he can go anywhere except in the last room, which is forbidden and can be opened with the smallest of the keys. When Ashmodai is gone off to War, the rich man’s son looks in all the rooms, admiring their wealth and luxury, and finally arrives at the last room. He hears soft singing by a woman’s voice and opens the door. She is as dazzlingly beautiful as her song. She flings her arms around him and kisses him. But then there is a dreadful racket and Ashmodai stands in front of them, red and wrathful, his eyes flashing, his sword drawn, ready to kill, but his daughter withholds his arm and begs him not to kill her future husband. Ashmodai calms down, and the very next day the demon’s daughter and the merchant’s son are married, and within a year she gives birth to a son, whom they call Shloyme [= Solomon]. One day, playing with the child, the merchant’s son heaves a deep sigh; it is for the wife and son he left in the country he came from. His wife gives him permission to go there for three months and has an old female demon take him there in a few hours. His wife and son are delighted to see him and he completely forgets his promise to return, but when the time is up, demons appear in his dreams, bearing letters from Ashmodai’s daughter, but he ignores them. Then his son Shloyme appears in a dream, warning him that his mother and a pack of devils are at the town gate and will destroy the town if he doesn’t come home. Frightened awake, the rich man’s son hurries off to the rabbi and tells him the whole story. The rabbi convenes a rabbinical court to deliberate over the matter. The court decreed that it is forbidden for a mortal and a demon to marry; Ashmodai’s daughter must give him a divorce. When she heard this news, she appears before the rabbinical court and says that she will give him a divorce, but only if she may give him one last kiss. The court grants her request, and the rich man’s son, suspecting nothing, steps up to her and offers his face to be kissed. But she puts her hands on his throat, and when he lays dead at her feet, she cries: ‘If I can’t have him, she can’t have him! And with that she disappears [Silverman Weinreich, 1988, p. 135 140, nº45: ‘The Merchant’s Son and the Demons’, told by Noyekh Fishman, Torne (Tarnów), Poland, 1930; source VA 26:8].


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