I vaguely knew the story “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” which is why I bought it in the first place but the book sounded interesting since I’m interested in folklore. The book tells five versions of the more than eighty versions of Norwegian folktales that center around a young girl and a white bear that she is forced to or compelled to or convinced or lost in gambling to marry.
Sometimes the girl is a princess and sometimes she is dressed in rags. Sometimes she is the only daughter and sometimes she is the youngest of three girls. Sometimes her parents are the king and queen and other times they are poor farmers. But the main line is that this great white bear is not just what he appears to be. He always whisks her away on his back to a faraway castle with all the glamours of gold and silver. And he requires that she never look upon him at night and never ask about who he truly is.
In a fairytale and myth…this is a setup. We know that promises like this can never be kept. The mechanisms differ in stories; sometimes she begs to see her family. Other times messages are secreted to her and she corresponds. But doubt gets in and she wants to know and ultimately a tiny stump of a candle gets into her hand so she can see her bear husband’s true identity in the night as they slumber. Once he awake and sees that he’s been seen he runs off. This ends up having troubling consequences on their relationship and she is sent into all kinds of tasks or jobs to try to restore it somehow while the bear does some reflecting too.
Now if you are a fan of Greek mythology you may be scratching your head because this white bear story sounds a lot like the classic story of Eros and Psyche. Where Psyche, the most beautiful woman in the world ends up in a marriage with Eros, the son of the goddess Aphrodite. Eros has similar conditions for the marriage as the bear does – never look at me or try to find out who I am. Psyche, the youngest of three sisters, is convinced by them to find out who her real husband is and once this is revealed Eros flees and the relationship seems like it is blown up. Psyche has to attend to all kinds of tasks for the relationship to be repaired while Eros does some reflecting too.
This myth is gloriously unpacked for its psychic insight in the foundational book “She” by Robert Johnson. If you ever wondered if myths had any relevance to your life Johnson’s “She”, “He”, “We” and “Ecstasy” are brilliant exponents.
So what is the connection between Greek mythology and Norwegian white bear stories? Which came first? Which influenced the other? Hard to say at this moment. Hughes doesn’t say much about it in the White Bear book beyond mentioning it. Your first inclination might be that Greek myths are so old that they got syncretized by northern tribes and the story made its way north. Maybe. Stories rarely travel in straight lines. But I can imagine a way that the story moved from north to south. In the book “The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales: The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Migrations of Myth” Felice Vinci makes a convincing case for the not fully archeologically supported idea that the stories of the Iliad and Odyssey actually originate in Scandinavia. Using cues from the texts, ancient sources that describe the locations as northern, geography, and philology, Vinci posits a northern origin for Greek culture in general. He admits that parts of his tract are speculative and need more research. But a fascinating book if you are interested.
But back to the matter at hand…These white bear stories. In each of the stories at the dramatic moment when the young girl goes to awaken her slumbering husband she rolls out of bed, lights her tiny candle, sees a huge bear skin on the floor and then sees the most magnificently beautiful man in bed next to her and she falls in love. In each of the stories in this book it says that what woke up the slumbering beauty was ‘three drops of tallow on his chest.” Tallow! I was shocked and thrilled to read this.
According to the 1958 World Survey of Inedible Tallow and Grease published by the US Commerce Department, Norway has a tallow making history going back ‘thousands of years’. It doesn’t say much more than that. I would guess sheep tallow probably but cow tallow for at least 1500 years. Of course tallow was used as candle making material for a very long time. But here is tallow specifically mentioned in a Norse folktale as the device of awakening but also of severance. When you are plumbing the inner meanings of myths and folktales these sorts of details, especially the ones that repeat like this one, are meaningful.
I won’t give you a full and deep exposition of the folktale – read them and see how they land for you. But I’d say this. If the White Bear stories are kin of the Eros and Psyche story then they are insights into the fundaments of love in relationships. Tallow, as you know (because your skincare is made from it and you read these newsletters) is made from the rendered fat of a cow or sheep. From the death of the animal comes a possibility of light but also coming along with it might be a burning awakening of our consequence in the world. That that burning awakening gives rise to flight could be the moment when so many find themselves griefstruck at their impact in the world and wish to flee from it some how. But the White Bear stories insist that the work of repair, properly, must be attended to so that the animal world can be in proper relationship with the human world again. That just might be a sign of loving the world.
Is using Primal Derma some magic spell to do this work for you in this time? No. But it might be a reminder to stay past the burning and do the home-making work of repair so that loving the world might be possible again.
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