Category Archives: Fable

“A Little Bird Told Me …”

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"A Little Bird Told Me ..."

“A Little Bird Told Me …”

“A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME …”

“A little bird told me …” is a common saying in the American English language. It denotes that the speaker has learned something that he wants to tell the listener but doesn’t want to divulge how, where or who gave him the information.  In Aesop tales there are lots of stories where birds “sing” out the moral lessons to the uninformed.
Here is a brief list of some of the tales.

The Cock and the Pearl … In this fable the rooster finds a pearl lost in the hay and because it is something shiny he is pleased it is his. The other chickens would rather have barley-corn, something they can eat. The message being …”Precious things are for those that can prize them.”

The Swallow and the other Birds … In this tale the Swallow warns the other birds to pick up every one of the seeds being sown by the man or else they will repent it. The birds pay no heed to the Swallow’s warning and the seeds grew into hemp that is made into cord, and the cord into nets that catch the birds to their demise.  “Destroy the seed of evil, or it will grow up to your ruin.”

The Jay and the Peacock … In this story a Jay finds several Peacock feathers and ties them all to his tail. He struts among the Peacocks who note right away that he is a fraud and drive him away. When he returns to the Jays who have also witnessed his behavior he is shunned. “It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.”

The Peacock and Juno …This tale tells of a Peacock that petitions the Juno to have a voice of a nightingale in addition to all his other attractions. The Juno refuses his request. “Be content with your lot; one cannot be first in everything.”

My favorite is the fable of The Crow and the Pitcher.”  The Crow that is half dead with thirst comes upon a Pitcher which has water in it. The water however is in the bottom third of the pitcher and the neck of the pitcher is to narrow for the Crow to reach the water. The Crow finds a pebble and drops it into the pitcher. He continues to drop pebble after pebble, one at a time into the pitcher until the water rises to a level that the crow is able to quench his thirst. “Little by little does the trick.”

In my collage the little bird is a Chickadee. A song bird that loves the forest. This puts me in mind of W.C. Fields and Mae West in the movie called “My little Chickadee.” Mae West often wrote her own lines for the movies, W.C. Fields did too. There are many funny lines in this old movie from 1940 worth repeating.
Cuthbert J. Twille: W.C.Fields
Flower Belle Lee: Mae West

Cuthbert: “… Whom have I the honor of addressing, M’Lady?”

Flower Belle “Mmm, they call me Flower Belle.”

Cuthbert “Flower Belle, what a euphonious appellation. Easy on the ears,    and a banquet for the eyes.”

And
Cuthbert: “I’ve been worried about you, my little Peach Fuzzy. Have you been loitering somewhere?”

Flower Belle: “I’ve been learning things.”

Cuthbert: “Unnecessary! You are the epitome of erudition … a double superlative. Can you handle it?”

Flower Belle: “Yeah, and I can kick it around, too.”

And

(Last line of the movie – each saying a line associated with the other)

Cuthbert: “If you get up around the Grampian Hills – You must come up and see me sometime.”

Flower Belle: “Ah, yeah, yeah. I’ll do that, my little Chickadee.”

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The Light Bringer

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The Light Bringer Scan_Pic0019The Raven

Magic is in the air when Raven is present. The other day while at the coffee shop I was looking out the widow at the parking lot. High above everything perched on top of the tall light pole sat a bird. His outline fully formed against the light blue sky. It is a rather large size black bird with a prominent beak. He intrigued me so I watched him for a while.

Was he a Crow or a Raven?  A Raven for sure. A Raven is a member of the Crow family but a larger king-size cousin. This fellow was big. Two small birds joined him. They moved to the outer parameters of the light standard giving the Raven a wide berth. Crows and Ravens are the smartest of all birds having outwitted other birds, animals and humans from time to time. There are lots of Myths and stories about them. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a poem called, The Raven.

They are kept at the Tower of London, England. The Tower of London is located on White Hill and one legend tells of the Ravens always living there. Another legend is that after the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Tower was rebuilt and the ravens arrived. The British believe that “It is very unlucky to kill a Raven” and so they keep them as good luck symbols. The Tower Ravens are cared for by a Keep. Each Raven is named, fed and treated like a soldier. The Tower Ravens live to be 40 years old. Besides having one wing’s flight feathers clipped away, they have free rein of the Tower and the grounds. A Raven can be dismissed from the Tower grounds for “Conduct unbecoming of a Tower resident.” Otherwise, the Raven’s live a comfortable life.

In Rome, the Raven is associated with the God Apollo, the god of prophecy. They are considered good luck and a messenger from heaven who speaks to us. One myth tells the story of why Ravens are black.   In the story Ravens were as white as swans. One day a Raven brought bad news to Apollo who in his anger turned the Raven black. Since then all Ravens are black.

In Norse tradition, the God Odin had two Ravens who were his messengers.  Odin could shape-shift into a raven. In Biblical lore, the prophet Elijah was fed by Ravens and Crows while hiding in the wilderness. To the Athapaskan Indians of Alaska,  Raven was the creator of the world.

Ravens are symbols of watchfulness. They often perch high in the trees and can see for miles. Their Croak sound is so jarring that all can hear.  They can be taught to speak and are members of the songbird family . They have quite a range of vocalizations but they do not sing.

In many ways, the Raven is an animal that plays the confusing role of the trickster and the wise one.  Raven is comparable to the Coyote tales told by the Plains Indians.  In the Pacific North West, the Raven has this same aura about him. Raven stole the sunlight and gave it to the people of the Earth. He is playful and an excellent tool user. He cracks open nuts using stones.  In fact, many folks believe that Raven knows  he is  smart. He has chosen to remain a  crows rather then move on to some other area of evolution.  Raven  is associated with creation. The color of night, he brings forth the new day.  He is the light bringer.

Cinderella BCE

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Hawk 4

In this collage I return to the oldest known Cinderella story, Rhodopis.  It comes to us from the Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BCE – c. 24 CE) who heard it in Egypt.  Another account of Rhodopis has survived in Aelian’s (175 – c. 235) writings implying the Cinderella theme remained popular throughout antiquity. Interestingly, the story mentions Aesop of fable fame who lived 500 years earlier, indicating that the story probably originated much earlier than the 1st century CE. Aesop used stories featuring animals to teach lessons in morality; from her very beginning, Cinderella is doubly linked with the animal world.

In this version Rhodopis is a slave girl who is teased unmercifully by the other servant girls for her fair complexion.  After her master gives her a pair of rose-gilded slippers, they dislike her even more.  At the next feast day they give her so many chores she cannot attend the celebration.  As she washes clothes in the Nile, her slippers get wet and she puts them on the bank to dry. The god Horus swoops down in his falcon form, flies off with her sandal, and drops it in the Pharaoh’s lap.  He goes in search of the owner and you know the rest of the story!

I’m struck by how very old this story is and how long it retained the shoes and the bird as part of its bones. In my last post I mentioned the symbolism of ownership and possession inherent in the shoes. Years ago, I moved to Saudi Arabia where I lived for sixteen years.  One of the first things I learned was not to ever point the soles of my shoes at someone.  It is considered an insult.  I always thought it was because shoes touched the dirt and were unclean.  I see now that it might imply ownership.  In a part of the world where slavery existed officially until very recently and still continues unofficially in some households, I understand how this might indeed be a grave offense.  It also explains why shoes are left at the door of the mosques (and in other countries and faiths, the temples).  The holy places belong to God and no human can possess them or claim ownership.

Of all the places in the world where one might need shoes, the desert takes the cake.  Given the heat, the stones, the difficulty of walking in sand, a shoe offers freedom of movement and the ability to travel long distances.  Freedom and travel are hardly synonymous with possession and ownership, in fact they seem opposed.  Like many seeming opposites, they simply occupy different ends of a spectrum.  Or perhaps they are mirror images of each other.  Maybe the point of them, in this story, is to teach that two things can be true at the same time. Or that one thing can simultaneously be true and not true …

In my collage there is only the god Horus, the sandal, the sky and the desert.  I wanted to capture a tiny bit of the majesty and terror and beauty of this stark realm.  The collage represents a moment of suspension, of transition and transformation.  In a moment the shoe will drop into Pharaoh’s lap and everyone’s life will change.

The collage recalls a passage in my novel Magdalene A.D. in which Mary Magdalene, the protagonist, has been stung by scorpions.  Lying in a fever, near death, she dreams three dreams.  In the second dream she falls through the sky like the sandal in my collage.  In the third, she dreams of flying over the desert in the shape of a sacred vulture.  These images also recall my vision quest in the Mojave, during which I spent three days and nights in the desert in the company of a Joshua tree.

I feel deeply satisfied with this image (though the blue of the sky didn’t scan very well because I used a metallic electric-blue paper that was really hard to work with).  It seems a far cry from all the busyness of the story and its complex overlay of worldly socio-economic concerns, yet somehow Cinderella brought me to a place of immense solitude and hushed expectancy.  Cinderella consistently retains its ties to the spirit world – whichever of the many versions one reads there is always some mystical connection made by an animal, plant or ancestor that connects the feminine to the divine.   Perhaps this is the true meaning of the story.   Buried in a midden of lust, ambition, greed and cruelty the heart of the world still beats for us, still offers connection.

The Giving Tree

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The Giving Tree_NEW

Several years ago Rhonda Byrne wrote a book called The Secret, which basically re-packaged the words of Christ, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”  Of course this idea goes back much further than the Bible, back to the first philosophical musings of humankind.  For the mind is truly a mysterious and magical force whose energy has re-sculpted the world’s history again and again and may yet lead to our ultimate destruction as a species.

Cinderella is about wishing – that is to say hoping, desiring, longing for, envisioning, affirming, etc.  It’s about the energy inherent in an all-consuming desire and also about the constant, always present, possibility for change.

In the late nineteenth century a quasi-philosophy called New Thought began to arise out of the great spiritualist movement that swept the newly industrial western world.  It arose as a reaction to TMI and too much technology, too fast.  It continues to this day, transmogrified into a fusion of world religions and historical esotery we call New Age, though even that term is becoming a little shop-worn.

Say what you will about it, enough experiential and anecdotal evidence has occurred over the centuries to make “the law of attraction” as Byrne’s calls it, one of the enduring belief systems we humans hold in common cross-culturally.  Hence the great durability and popularity of the Cinderella story.

And why not?  The world is scary enough and in truth we are almost powerless.  This story tells us not to despair in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds because we can affect outcome with the power of mind.  Even if that isn’t the case, the one truth we can count on is the consistency of change.  Everything changes all the time, both incrementally and in giant leaps. The possibility for alteration is always present.

The vehicle of change differs widely in Cinderella stories from around the world. In France we find a fairy Godmother, in Germany a tree, in Egypt a bird and in the Far East a red fish.  My mixed-media collage carries all these symbols in the branches of its “Giving Tree.”

The Giving Tree refers to a story by Shel Silverstein; a moral fable that explores what happens to a giver who gives too much and to the child who continues to take forever.  How much is enough? Does one really need three new ball gowns? The question highlights the avaricious implications inherent in The Secret’s philosophy.

The Giving Tree took off and sold like wild fire, translated into eleven different languages.  In 2013 Parent and Child Magazine listed it among the top 100 children’s books of all time.  Obviously, it’s appeal, like Cinderella’s, is universal.  Personally, I find the book dreary and disturbing, but I think the two trees are joined at the root.

 

Guest Artist Kathryn Phillips

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Meet Kathryn Phillips who took up our invitation to visit the virtual studio and join the fun.  I hope you enjoy her work as much as we do and that you too will be inspired by one of the stories that inspire us.  Or send us a suggestion for a story and or your own work around it.  We’ll be happy to post it along with your comments.

Following pieces are by Kathryn Phillips.  The comments are hers. Have a question?  We’ll pass it along.

Brementown Musicians 1

This first pair is about the Musicians of Bremerhaven. One shows the idyllic life our elderly “heroes” so justly deserved.

 

Brementown Musicians 2 Fight      Brementown Musicians 3

But wait, they had no more “right” to terrorize and then brutalize the lone robber than the robbers had to the same to  unfortunates who crossed their paths. The musicians INITIATED the the whole action and felt justified in doing so because they had been oppressed by other humans. A slippery slope indeed. This is why the musicians faces are superimposed upon the medieval bandits, and the woman being victimized also shows a two-sided character. One assumes she may be an innocent, but who knows what evil she may have committed?

In the final picture, I found the star wars monster already embedded in the snowy photo, but I added details to make it the monster the robber imagined…

Coyote and Blanket

The first depicts the beauty that is the natural world, with coyote paying homage to Rock and Iktome acting as witness.

Cartoon coyote

The second uses graphic images we see everyday in mass media driven America.

Iktome – Spiderman

Trickster Coyote – Wile E. Coyote

Rock – Rolling Stones

White rancher (gullible buffoon) – Woody Pride

Coincidences based on archetypes or native American symbols co-opted by mainstream culture? Aside from sports team (Braves, Redskins, etc.), what other images do we de-mystify and devalue by making them into caricatures? What subtleties are lost when the inactive message is lost to passive massage (Marshall McLuhan) of prepackaged ideas?

Spider’s Sonnet

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spider web+

I want to shift my shape and stalk

across a jeweled dew-dropped web

spinning a spiral tunnel as I walk

all corners anchored firm to fight the ebb

and push of errant breeze or stormy blow

snug against all tricks Fate might deliver.

When it’s finished I will back on tip-toe

down my chute, stop to sever silken thread

curb my hunger patiently, crouch in a

waiting trance, anticipating nothing.

I rely on heaven-sent sweet manna.

Some hasty flighty creature on the wing

will bumble in my net and stick there fast

to offer me refreshment and repast.

©2000 Christine Irving

Raven Comes Flying

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Raven flies on two wings

riding the winds of change,

beating  zephyr to gust, breeze to tempest

spinning vortices from each pinion,

tumbling tornadoes of transformation

to make and remake this world.

Old men tell Raven tales –

each wing warrants a season

its own time of telling.

The Wing of Making demands respect. Awe

silences young warriors, stifles the giggles of girls.

Creation myths recount beginnings, touch mystery

summon ancestors, First Man, First Woman.

Such stories require gravitas, solemnity, ceremony.

Solstice passes, season shifts

long nights, colder days cry out for laughter;

 fables to fend off boredom, hunger, rage.

Now, old men flap jaws and arms

send shadows soaring ‑ light/dark, dark/light

The Wing of Mischief craves hilarity,

famished for mirth to shake the belly

   leave the strong men sniggering

awash in helpless tears.

.

Raven flies on two wings

riding the winds of change,

beating  zephyr to gust, breeze to tempest

spinning vortices from each pinion,

tumbling tornadoes of transformation

to make and remake this world.

©2013  Christine Irving

Tarred!

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Tarred!

Tarred!

Tar baby is one of my favorite stories of all time.  Decades later, “Please, please don’t throw me in the briar patch,” still makes me laugh.  It’s become a stock phrase around our house.  Thinking about the briar patch, I started wondering about mine.  I suppose it consists of the leaves of books and thorny words and ideas supported by stout pragmatic branches; a place where I’m extremely comfortable, but many people aren’t.   We all have our briar patches though, full of hidey holes and escape routes, places to take refuge in even from ourselves.

This is a story about the Trickster getting tricked!  Tricksters, as the stories never hesitate to point out, are particularly susceptible to getting gulled.  Br’er Rabbit is shadow boxing with the Tar Baby.   Cockiness and self-righteousness have landed him in this pickle and pride gets him more deeply enmeshed by the second.  Sound familiar?  It does to me.  The Jungians say annoyance with the character traits of someone else occurs because suddenly we find ourselves staring in a mirror and disliking what we see.  The stubborn intractability of the Tar Baby is a part of Br’er Rabbit he doesn’t want to acknowledge.  Being a Trickster he wants to be cool, suave and flexible, able to shuck and jive his way out of any situation with insouciant aplomb!  Heaven forbid he should be seen to be stuck in his own shit, like all the other marks.  But that’s exactly what happens.  Nevertheless, our wily rabbit has at least one more trick up his sleeve and escapes into his first last and best defense – his childhood refuge – the place where he was “born and bred.”

This collage grew out of this picture of a tar-covered rabbit sent to me by a friend.  It took me a while to track down the artist’s name.  When I found Darla Jackson’s site, I fell in love/awe with her ability to render animals so faithfully.  It’s obvious to me that she observes them carefully them, with deep respect and eyes of love.  Isn’t it interesting how influenced we are by everything around us?  Working with a picture of a sculpture, I unconsciously created a three-dimensional collage.  I sliced up an old champagne cork and raided the button box to make Tar Baby’s eyes and ears.  Adding a dimension to the collage made me think about layers.  This story is layered in meaning – On the surface we’re shown the value and pitfalls of an elaborate social system of greet and respond that allows people to safely establish who exactly they are talking to and how far they can trust them (kinsfolk being more reliable in theory than strangers).  Then there’s a lesson in the futility of emotion-based argument.  At bottom we hit perennial wisdom “Know Thyself.”

In the same way I figured out what my briar patch consists of, it behooves me to ruminate a bit on the nature of my Tar Baby.

Coyote’s Blanket

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Coyote's blanket

Coyote’s blanket

One of the best things for me about my friendship with Michelle is how differently we view things.   Over the years we have both benefited from an expansion of vision, learning from each other how to see from a different perspective.  We’ve learned to trust each other’s vision and follow along even  when we don’t “get it” right away.

Last week, I was utterly swamped, enmired in a project with a deadline I was having trouble meeting, so when Michelle offered to pick the story and present it, I was delighted.  We’d agreed earlier that we wanted to work with a Native American tale and Trickster Coyote is an old favorite of ours.  We created a workshop around him several years ago, using collage to do shadow work.  Coyote loves to dance with the shadow and he proved a perfect mentor for those workshops.  Still, when Michelle picked this blanket story it left me at a bit of a loss.  It’s a teaching story, so it must be teaching something, but what?  It seemed way too elaborate a set-up to say something so obvious.

It wasn’t until I finished my collage that I realized what a big part landscape plays in this story.  First of all Coyote’s antagonist is a rock!  It’s one thing to see a biological creature as a character in a story but a talking stone that feels cold…?  Then there’s that detailed description of all the places Coyote runs through with the rock chasing him – hills, thick forest, a river, prairie.

As it happens the project I’d been working on was a talk and slide show about pilgrimage.  It’s my contention that our human habit of going on pilgrimage is a direct result of the nomadic lifestyle practiced by all Homo sapiens for at least 40,000 years.  I won’t repeat my reasoning here, suffice it to say my theory has to do with the importance of landmarks.

In part this story seems to talk about the importance of maintaining and honoring an intimate relationship with one’s geography.  The intimacy is underlined by the symbol of the blanket.  In many Native American traditions blankets are strongly associated with the bonds of kinship.  When publically given, a blanket acknowledges those ties to the whole community. In this story we see Coyote giving the rock the blanket in front of Iktome.  He makes a point of the gift, proclaiming the change of ownership in front of a witness.  His failure to respect his relationship with the land (symbolized by the rock – think basics, bedrock, bones of Earth, foundation) has dire consequences from which he barely recovers; just as our failure to maintain a relationship with the land results in floods, landslides, and dust storms that flatten us.

You see how my faith in Michelle’s vision is justified?  This story contains a powerful teaching for me.  Not only as a concept but also more immediately; I spent all last week hunched over my computer.  I did manage to walk every morning, but I walk with a friend and we talk the whole time, so I haven’t really been outside and present for days.  This collage made me long to be out alone under the sky, tiny as distant Coyote in my picture. – I think I’ll take tomorrow off and go wrap the landscape around me like a blanket…

May: “The Trickster”

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This month’s Tale is about the Native American “Trickster.”

For the Month of May we will be working with the Trickster. The Native American character who reminds us to laugh and not take life to seriously. In American Indian tales and legends, the “Trickster” can be several characters.  Often he is Coyote, but Coyote has friends who are sometimes tricksters too. There is Raven, Blue Jay, Beaver, Iktome, (the Spider man), The Great Rabbit, fox and Mink. There are also human tricksters.. Wasichu, a sharp trader, the Old Man of the Blackfoot and Crow.  Even Whisky Jack takes his turn playing the prankster and troublemaker.

We focus this month on different tricksters and their qualities. Sometimes the Trickster is clever, other times he is stupid. He is always chasing after pretty women. He will cheat if it serves his purposes. He lies,  steals and rebels against the rules. He is a prankster and full of paradox. Sometimes he is the hero, sometimes he is the creator and saves the day.

In our first tale, which comes from the White River Sioux, Coyote is the trickster who learns the hard way about the rules of the Giveaway.

“Coyote, Iktome, and the Rock.”

White River Sioux

On a warm day, Coyote and Iktome, (Spider man),  are hiking along and see a big beautiful rock with moss veins. Coyote decides to give his Indian blanket to the Rock. He says, “Why this is a nice-looking rock. I think it has power.”  He places his thick blanket on the rock and says, “Here, Iya, take this as a present. Take this blanket, friend rock, to keep warm so you will not freeze. You must feel cold.”

Coyote turns to his friend Iktome and tells him, “I’m always giving things away. The rock, Iya, looks real nice in my blanket.”
“His blanket, now”, says Iktome.

Later that week when it starts raining, and it is quite cold,  Coyote has second thoughts about his Giveaway. He wants his nice thick blanket back. He and Iktome have gone into a cave to keep dry but Coyote is shivering from the cold.  He tells his friend to go back to Iya and get the blanket.

When Iktome asks the rock for the blanket, the rock says no.  He reminds Iktome, “What is given is given. Iktome goes back and tells Coyote. Coyote is outraged, goes to the Rock, and demands the blanket back.
“No!” says the rock, “What is given is given.”
Coyote jerks the blanket away. “Don’t you care that I am freezing to death? I could catch a cold.” Wrapping the blanket around him self, Coyote says, “There, that’s the end of it.”
The rock says, “By no means is this the end.”

Coyote, wrapped in the blanket, goes back to the Cave and he and Iktome wait out the storm. When the sun comes out Coyote and Iktome, go out side and sun them selves. After a while Iktome says, “What’s that noise?”
“What noise?”
“A crashing, a rumble far off.” says Iktome.
Then they see the great rock rolling, thundering, and crashing down upon them.
“Run,” says Coyote.
They run as the great rock, Iya follows. They swim the river, and Iya follows. They run in the thick forest, and Iya follows. Wherever they go, Iya follows until they run out into the flats.

“Oh no” says Iktome, this is not really my quarrel and he rolls himself into a tiny ball and disappears down a mouse hole. Coyote runs as fast as he can but the big rock is close on his heels. Then Iya, the big rock, rolls right over Coyote, flattening him out altogether.
Iya takes the blanket and rolls back to his own place, saying, “So there!”

A rancher riding along sees Coyote lying there all flattened out. “What a nice rug.” He says rolling Coyote up. He takes the Coyote rug  home and puts it in front of his fireplace. Whenever Coyote is killed, he can make himself come back to life, but this time Coyote takes the whole night to pull himself up into his usual shape. In the morning, the rancher’s wife tells her husband, “I just saw your rug running away.”

Now, Friends, hear this: Always be generous in heart. If you have something to give, give it forever.

I hope you enjoy this tale.