Cor Hendriks – The Macaws | Myth and Folktale (5): Hiding in an animal-skin

The trick of hiding in an animal-skin is well known from the medieval romance of Herzog Ernst, written between 1180 and 1200. There are multiple versions which do not all contain the same motives. Common to all the texts is: Herzog Ernst and his man leave the island of the people with the crane-beaks and come to a

kreftigen berc
der was geheizen Magnes

(powerful mountain that was called Magnet), with a forest of ship-masts. The mountain is in the middle of the so-called Liver-sea. The boat of Ernst is drawn to the mountain and strands between the other ships. Ernst visits the other ships and sees great riches there. The whole crew starves and in the end only Ernst, his friend Count Wetzel and six men remain, while a griffin [a fabulous creature with the head and wings of an eagle and a lion’s body] takes the corpses away. Then it is said that there are more griffins, who bring the corpses in the nests to their young. Wetzel comes up with the idea to sew themselves in animal-skins. They execute this plan and the griffins bring Ernst and Wetzel to their nest. The heroes liberate themselves, kill the birds and travel on.

Arimaspians & Griffins Attic red figure vase painting (foto Theoi)

Arimaspians & Griffins Attic red figure vase painting (foto Theoi)]

There are also multiple versions of the visit to the Magnet-mountain by the sorcerer Virgil. As we just saw in ‘Herzog Ernst’, around the Magnet-mountain there are many stranded ships with lots of treasures on board. An impoverished noble family covets these treasures and they ask the sorcerer Virgil to take them to this so-called Augetstein. They sail over the clebermer (‘sticky sea’, as a variation on Liver-sea = lebermer) and after a fortnight they see

manegen hôhen mast
als einen dürren walt

(many high mast, as a dry forest), and the high mountain. All kind of adventures follow and Virgil has the adventure with the spirit in the bottle, while others starve and are carried away by griffins. Virgil hides in an animal-skin and griffins carry him away to a high rock, etc.

In the ‘Historie-Liedeken van den Hertog van Bronswyk’ and other versions of ‘Der Herzog von Braunschweig’, also called the ‘Sage von Heinrich dem Löwen’ are versions of the legend of the Magnet-Mountain to be found, influenced by the ‘Herzog Ernst’. The Duke of Brunswick sails to the Holy Country. During a storm all the ships sink except that of the Duke. The storm takes them to the Liver-sea, where they get stuck because of the magnet-stones. Nearby the grip-bird nests and it flies day and night over the ship, so no one dares to venture outside. One who does is immediately abducted. The duke lets himself be sewn into an ox-skin with his sword and put on the deck. The griffin takes him to its nest. [Lecouteux 1984; see also ID. 1979: Michel Wyssenherre’s poem ‘Ein buoch von dem edelen herrn von Bruneczwigk als er uber mer fuore’ (around 1172).

Griffioen met prooi (foto akg-images)

Griffioen met prooi (foto akg-images)

A summary of the history of the ‘Welfenherzog’ Heinrich with the nickname ‘The Lion’ is given by Schellhorn (1968, 178f). In search of adventure Heinrich boards a ship. Thrown off course by a storm, bereft of all means of getting food and tormented by starvation the crew of the sailboat postpones the inevitable by throwing lots, who will sacrifice himself for the others. This way all die except the duke and a single servant. Instead of killing the duke who has drawn the lot, the servant binds him in a leather bag. Soon the bird griffin sees the prey and carries it away over the waves. In the wild wood to which the bird griffin takes him, a lion and a ‘Lindwurm’ (dragon) fight till the death. Duke Heinrich takes the side of the lion and the grateful animal follows him ever after. During the absence of the lion the duke builds a raft (cf. Odysseus, etc.) and sets out secretly on the sea. The returned animal sees his master far away floating on the waves and jumps into the sea, swims till he reaches the raft. Duke and lion float on the raft over the ocean. Then the devil appears (instead of the Grateful Dead: infra) and first brings the duke and afterwards the lion on a mountain in Braunschweig. Following the deal (pact) the devil loses his pay for his trouble, when Heinrich succeeds to receive awake the devil when he comes back. But Heinrich has hardly touched the home-mountain or he falls asleep. The lion, brought by the devil, thinks the sleeping hero is dead and breaks into a loud earth-shaking roar that wakes up the duke, which is reason for the deceived devil to dash the lion to the ground. In the castle of Braunschweig a wedding is being celebrated, for the wife of the duke, tired of waiting for her husband, is on the brink of remarrying. Heinrich throws his ring in the cup, a well-known motif from the recognition-scene. The lion remains with Heinrich all his life and dies on the grave of his master. Schellhorn, 183 makes mention of the Wartburgkrieg tale-complex with the motif of the air trip that Klingsor and Ofterdingen make, wrapped in a leather cover (lederne Decke), from Hungary to Eisenach (which approaches Faust’s travels wrapped in his flying mantle).]

The episode is also part of the Bohemian scrapbook of ‘Stillfried und Bruncwyg’: Bruncwig goes on board a ship and after three months a storm drives the ship towards the Magnet-Mountain (Aktštein), that pulls the ship into an island below, called Zelator, where they find many a shipwrecked ship. Bruncwig’s companions eat one another until at last only our hero remains with an old faithful knight, Balad. On his advice Bruncwig lets himself be sewn into a horse-skin, smeared with blood, and a griffin comes and carries him to its nest. [Lecouteux 1984]

Griffioen met olifant (BESTIAIRE d'Aberdeen - foto tapisseriebayeux.over-blog)

Griffioen met olifant (BESTIAIRE d’Aberdeen – foto tapisseriebayeux.over-blog)

In the ‘Esclaramonde’, a thirteenth-century continuation of the ‘Huon of Bordeaux’, there is also influence of the ‘Herzog Ernst’. The ship gets stuck at the Magnet-Mountain for more than two months, the provisions are exhausted and one by one they die. Huon prays, hears suddenly a lot of noise: a griffin swoops down upon the dead and takes them away. Huon realizes that the bird can save him and lays himself among the dead. He is taken to a mountain-island, etc. [Lecouteux 1984] In the 16th-c. English version of the ‘Huon’ (based on 15th-c French prose) there is the episode of the crystal rock to which a griffin carries Huon. After combat with the bird he comes upon a great fountain in rich masonry. At the bottom the gravel is of precious stones: it was called the ‘fountayne of youth’ and cured sickness. Near at hand was an apple tree with marvelous fruit that restores youth, and beyond was an orchard.

This gardayne was so fayre
that it semyd rather a paradise
then a thyng terrestryall.

Huon gathers three apples, follows a path by a stream full of precious stones, and comes to a richly garnished ship. The boat takes him down a river and eventually through an underground passage where voices are heard cursing fortune and there is the thunderous sound of falling waters. The ship runs aground and Huon discovers that all the gravel in the water is of precious stones. He manages to push off again, however, and at last arrives at daylight and the Persian Sea. The whole episode is according to Patch clearly oriental in origin, and the flight with the griffin recalls the story of Alexander’s experimental journey in the air and also that of Sindbad’s adventure with the Rukh. The underground voyage at the end as an escape from the Paradise is just the reverse of Alexander’s journey through the Land of Darkness to the country of the Well of Life. Of the same type too and probably of similar origin is the whole account of the Lodestone Rock, which rises as an island in the midst of the sea, and has woods and a white house on it. Huon’s ship is drawn toward it and nearly wrecked at its shore. Sir Arnold climbs the 380 steps up its side, and finds a castle at the top guarded by a serpent. Huon slays it and visits the castle which has furniture of ivory and jewels, while outside is a beautiful garden. [Patch 1970, 162f]

Alexander the Great in his griffin-powered flying chariot, Roman d'Alexandre, 1444-1445 (BL, Royal 15 E VI, f. 20v) (foto Discarding Images)

Alexander the Great in his griffin-powered flying chariot, Roman d’Alexandre, 1444-1445 (BL, Royal 15 E VI, f. 20v) (foto Discarding Images)

In the Old French version of the Alexander-romance Alexander tells about a journey he made to the Orion-isle. ‘No man except me and those two villains (the magicians Genné and Mabrion) has gone there; I was carried by two griffins through the air. My bearing then shows my inexperience. Alone, without those companions, I boarded a rowboat, took only a fat chicken with me. The sea stopped the boat, a thunder-storm broke out above me. I took the sword, hanging on my side, and cut the throat of the chicken, catching the blood in a lion’s skin. When I had smeared the skin with it, it looked like a bag, and I got inside; the whole looked like a ham; two swift-flying mountain-griffins carried me away, like they would have done with a fish, to the Orion-isle.’ [Lecouteux 1979, 222]

Alexander rex exploring the sky by petrus.agricola (foto

Alexander rex exploring the sky by petrus.agricola (foto

For more about Alexander’s flight, see

Flight of Alexander (foto Wikipedia)

Flight of Alexander (foto Wikipedia)

For pictures of griffins see

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