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Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition (1979)
Volume II: Bibai to Coleman

This is addictive. Like I knew it was going to be.

Once again, turning to random pages and finding things of interest that caught my eye.

1. Bluebeard:

Most of us know some version of this thing. The young wife, left behind in the new husband’s house by herself – given free access to every room but one and warned not to venture there. But curiosity killed the cat – with predictable consequences. Originally appearing (in a form familiar to contemporary folk) in Charles Perrault’s collection “Tales of the Mother Goose” in 1697, the take is far from unique – similar stories exist in European, African and Asian folklore. Details differ but common items always include a locked and forbidden room, and a woman’s curiosity (and then her 11th hour rescue from a sticky end and her bloodthirsty husband’s defeat or demise).

Now here’s something I did NOT know – the tale may have been based on Comorre the Cursed, a 6th century Breton chief who committed crimes similar to Bluebeard. Who knew? THE FAIRY TALES ARE TRUE. Arguably, in later iterations of the tale, the Christian influence predictably tried to muscle in and in some stories Bluebeard is cast as the Devil and the locked door is the gate of Hell – but these were later additions, and personally I much prefer the wild Breton chieftain and his shenanigans.


2. Brigit (or Brigantia):

(Celtic: High One) – ancient Celtic goddess of the poetic arts, crafts, prophecy and divination. Busy lady. She is said to be the local pantheon’s equivalent of the Greek Athena or the Roman Minerva, in other words the goddess of wisdom. But she gets around, does Brigit. In Ireland, in some versions, she is actually not one but THREE goddesses, all daughters of the chief god, the Dagda; the original one is still the poet’s muse, but her sisters appear to be more concerned with healing and smithing – rather different pursuits – and the ALL seem to be called Brigit. Things must have been confusing in Irish celestial halls.

Needless to say she was gathered up into Christianity as soon as they could grab her, as St Brigit. As the saint, her feast day falls on February 1 – which just also happens to be the pagan festival of Imbolc. Nudge nudge wink wink, say no more. The pagans could still kinda sorta worship THE Brigit, the original one, the Irish goddess, on her own day… but sanctioned by the Church, no less.

The greatest establishment sacred to St Brigit, at Kildare in Ireland, had a sacred fire burning there which was tended by a series of 19 nuns (presumably one on each day of 19 consecutive days) and on the twentieth day *by the saint herself*. This I would have loved to witness, actually.

Oh, and intent on embellishing their own God-story, the Christians also managed to cast St Brigit – at least in the Scottish tradition, as the midwife to Mary when Jesus was born. Travel from Kildare to Bethlehem in those days must have been a bitch.


3. Cape Town, University of:

English-language institution of higher education located in Cape Town, and my Alma Mater. No, really, you couldn’t guess I would grab this one?

Potted history – originally established in1829 as the South African College, the place gained University status in 1918. It boasts Faculties of Arts, Commerce, Education, Engineering, Architecture, Law, Medicine, Music, Social Science and SCIENCE… and in that last, yours truly got not one, not two, but THREE University diplomas – BSc, BSC(Hons.), and MSc – in Molecular Biology and Microbiology.

This is one of the most amazing campuses in the world, perching there with the mountain at its back in white-columned and ivied-red-bricked glory, eternally struggling with issues of parking (there is simply nowhere to expand, and by the time I left there I don’t believe that ANY undergraduate could win the right to park anywhere on the upper campus of the University, for ANY price at all…) and filled with fire-in-the-belly students ready to change the world at the drop of a hat. It was the place where I first smelled tear gas.

It is also a place of whimsy, boasting a festival known as Jellyfish Mating Day (which originated, as best able to be traced back, to a bunch of students who needed an excuse for a day at the beach during, um, official hours – and so they invented that, the study of Jellyfish Mating Habits. Well, it was a good excuse at the time. In the years that followed, on the day designated as Jellyfish Mating Day, jellyfish-themed decorations would blossom around campus – tentacled creations hanging from lamp posts, and from anything else where one could be attached – ah, those were the days, my friend… (and I was NEVER that young…)


4. Carroll, Lewis:

In his other guise and under his real name, Charles Dodgson, he was a logician, mathematician, and photographer – but he is best known under the Lewis Carroll moniker and as the author of the “Alice” books, the high priest of sharp insight masquerading as inspired nonsense and of delightful whimsy. He was ordained as deacon of the Church of England in 1861, at the age of 29. He never married, but he loved children and had an uncanny rapport with them by all accounts. Most of all he loved telling them stories. In 1862 he took a friend and three children out boating – and the outing is described in one of his loveliest poems:

LIFE IS BUT A DREAM
by: Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July--

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear--

Long has paled that sunny sky;
Echoes fade and memories die;
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die;

Ever drifting down the stream--
Lingering in the golden gleam--
Life, what is it but a dream?

(And if you didn't know about it... the first letters in every line spell out Alice Pleasance Liddell, the name of the little girl to whom the poem was dedicated. That's genius.)

Upon their return to terra firma, he wrote down for Alice Liddell (the “Alice” in the poem) the story he had told her that afternoon on the river. The rest, as they say, was history – and “Alice in Wonderland” appeared in print in 1865. “Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice Found There” followed in 1871. The stories have left an indelible mark on the world.

But Lewis was also known for his nonsense poetry, and my favorite one of those is probably this one:

The Walrus and The Carpenter
Lewis Carroll
(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There)

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead--
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"

"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

Shoes and ships and sealing wax, indeed. The man is, and continues to be, a delight to me. I think few other people had quite the same relationship with language, or took the sheer unadulterated JOY in it, as Lewis Carroll did. Bless you, parson, you and your memory – yes, and Alice, too. You left the world more than you know.


5. Churning of the milky ocean:

Sometimes the Encyclopedia delivers a phrase rather than a name or a place or a single concept. In Hindu mythology, the “churning of the milky ocean” was one of the central events in the everlasting struggle between the devas and the asuras (or – in our own parlance – the gods and the demons). The gods, weakened by a curse laid on them by an irascible sorcerer sage, invite the demons to HELP THEM recover an elixir from the depths of the cosmic ocean (the Hindu myth-tellers had a strange concept of the word “struggle” apparently – seeing as how the two “warring” parties basically, um, just, you know, team up here…). The rest of the story is rich in detail, like one of those colorful Indian paintings.

Here it is in a nutshell – after ripping off a part of a mountain to use as a churning stick, the god Vishnu steadied this at the bottom of the ocean, in his aspect as the tortoise Kurma. The serpent Vasuki then turns up on the scene, in a somewhat unenviable position – with the demons holding his head and gods hanging onto his tail, and his fate is to be used as a “churning rope” (although I am less than clear on the role of the mountain-as-churning-rod, then, but hey, this is mythology, and things just… happen...) Despite the gods being at the tail end, somehow, when the serpent’s head hits the rocks below and the serpent, in the manner of serpents everywhere, threatened to vomit forth poison into the ocean and contaminate it – well, somehow the god Siva managed to turn up at the business end and take the poison and hold it in his own throat which then turned blue. (You really have to love the detail. It’s as though someone was there, taking notes.)

In the course of the churning of the ocean, many treasures that became prototypes for their earthly and heavenly counterparts were brought up from the depths. These include the Moon, a beautiful tree that was then planted in Indra’s heaven, the four-tusked elephant which became Indra’s mount, the Cow of Plenty, the Wish Fulfilling Tree, a couple of goddesses (Madira, the goddess of Wine, and Laksmi, who became the wife of Vishnu) and a stray nymph, a “celestial horse” (no further explanation is offered, although why Indra would pick a four-tusked elephant as a mount over a celestial horse escapes me…), Vishnu’s magic mace and bow, something described in a high-handedly vague way (after everything else was described in such detail) as “various gems”… and finally Dhanvantari, the Physician of the Gods, who rose up out of the waters carrying in his hands the elixir they were all originally after. At this point the gods and the demons predictably squabbled over possession of the thing, although the original agreement was to share it The gods (even though they seem to have got the lion’s share of the other loot) eventually prevailed and drank the thing and were thus restored to strength.

The sheer wealth of lore and story and delightful shards of a magical world is almost beyond belief, in the space of just those two short paragraphs. You could spend the rest of your life lost in this thing, an explosion of color and drama and delightful inexplicableness and sheer improbability of it all. But one question begs to be asked.

They spoke – originally – of a conflict. Okay, it was followed by a truce while they dug up all that stuff out of the ocean, but then they “squabbled”, as the account so quaintly puts it, and I suppose it was all on again, the original war.

Er, who won?

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