Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Goldfinch Bough

Video: Western Goldfinches feeding at 5 below, somewhere in southern Iowa, 12-22-08.

"A West African story from Southern Nigeria relates how a king kept his soul in a little brown bird, which perched on a tall tree outside the gate of the palace. The king's life was so bound up with that of the bird that whoever should kill the bird would simultaneously kill the king and succeed to the kingdom. The secret was betrayed by the queen to her lover, who shot the bird with an arrow and thereby slew the king and ascended the vacant throne."

-- Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890), in The New Golden Bough, revised and edited by Theodor Gaster (1954)

During my Midwestern holiday sejour this week, which involves lots of animal tracking in the snow, ice fishing, and reading from other people's libraries, I somewhat randomly pulled a 1964 paperback printing of the above-quoted text, and turned to the late chapter concerning the myth of Balder.

(You know you are intellectually handicapped when your point of entry to classic texts is your pre-adolescent reading of comic books. When the first visual referent for any Norse God is the one drawn by Jack Kirby, like my space age metallic Balder.)

Balder's only vulnerability was mistletoe, which brought about his death through a trick by Loki, and a great sadness in Asgard that led to a giant Viking funeral of the gods.

And mistletoe, in turns out, was a symbol of the idea of an external soul, a life force that could be separated from the body. Winter comes, and the great oak trees lose their leaves and appear dead, but the the mistletoe keeps growing green in the boughs of the oak, far from the littered ground.

The idea of the externalized soul exists throughout the world's mythology as synthesized by Frazer, including a large number of myths in which a figure of power maintains his power by stashing his soul in the body of a small bird, e.g.:

- The Transylvanian Saxon tale of a witch who kept her life force as a light inside an egg inside a duck on a pond atop a mountain, rendering her invulnerable.

- The tale of Seif-el-Muluk in the Arabian Nights, who encounters the beautiful daughter of a King of India, who is imprisoned by a Djinni who keeps its soul in the crop of a sparrow, hidden in a small box, which box is within seven other small boxes, which boxes are in seven chests, which chests are in a coffer of marble "within the verge of this circumambient ocean."

- The Hindu tale of the magician Punchkin, who secreted his soul in a little green parrot in a small cage inside a circle of palm trees in a faraway jungle, guarded by genii [the variant spellings of Djinn appear in the original Fraser/Gasper text]. The young son of the queen imprisoned by Punchkin nonetheless managed to find the parrot and return to free his mother:

He brought it to the door of the magician's palace, and began playing with it. Punchkin, the magician, saw him, and, coming out, tried to persuade the boy to give him the parrot. "Give me my parrot," cried Punchkin. Then the boy grabbed the parrot and tore off one of his wings; and as he did so the magician's right arm fell off. Punchkin then stretched out his left arm, crying, "Give me my parrot!" The prince pulled off the parrot's second wing, and the magician's left arm tumbled off. "Give me my parrot!" cried he, and fell on his knees. The prince pulled off the parrot's right leg, the magician's right leg fell off; the prince pulled off the parrot's left leg, down fell the magician's left. Nothing remained of him except the trunk and the head; but he still rolled his eyes, and cried, "Give me my parrot!" "Take your parrot, then," cried the boy; and with that he wrung the bird's neck, and threw it at the magician; and as he did so, Punchkin's head twisted round, and, with a fearful groan, he died!

According to Frazer, these myths of the externalized soul and the deaths of the owners of such souls formed the basis of the winter solstice rituals of many of the world's proto-religions.

So when I see the Western Goldfinches gather at the feeder in the five below winter cold, I wonder if Balder is lingering nearby in his animal form, keeping an eye on we servants of Loki as we play games under the mistletoe.

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