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Rübezahl, Lord of the Mountains

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Situated between Bohemia and Silesia, running along the ancient Krkonoše mountain range, lives the legend of The Lord of the Mountains, otherwise known as the precocious Rübezahl.

The origin of Rübezahl’s name, which may be more of a denouncement as a creature who dwells in the outer, more wild, spaces varies depending on the geography that recognizes his presence. The stories of Rübezahl are found throughout Poland, Czechoslovakia, and more rural regions within Germany. His name may have originated from the German word Rübe, and is associated with turnips. In one of the most well-known stories of Rübezahl, he is said to have abducted a princess who, after a time, grew quite lonely being in isolation. To accommodate her request for companionship, Rübezahl transforms a group of turnips into living, sentient, creatures. After awhile, however, the turnips begin to die. The princess asks Rübezahl to go and count the turnips, which he does. She takes the opportunity to escape while he is gone.

In other tales that Rübezahl appears in, he is friendly or even an aid to a traveler. One such story includes a group of traveling musicians who encounter Rübezahl along the road. As they had no money to spare, they ask Rübezahl if he would hear one of their songs in exchange for some food. When they are done playing, he gives them each a piece of horse manure. Three of the musicians throw the manure away, while one wraps his in paper. At the end of the day the musicians count the money they’ve made and find that the piece of manure had transformed into gold! Here, Rübezahl presents himself as a helpful trickster.

He is depicted as a giant, while at other times a gnome, a wanderer, and later a demon. When Józef Sykulski began translating the stories of folklore that featured Rübezahl in 1945, he interpreted his name in Polish as Liczyrzepa which appears to be a closely, earlier, translated name that was attributed in German to Rübezahl.

Unsurprisingly, as a Lord of the Mountains, Rübezahl retains a mythic element as a part of The Wild Hunt that is focused in Germanic mythology. While his magical trickster and wanderer personifications can elude to Odin-like qualities, at times, Rübezahl is viewed as an independent creature not associated with a particular deity. Rather, he is depicted as a woodwose, or nature spirit of the forests and mountains. In several works of art Rübezahl is crafted into the appearance of a traveling man wearing a cloak and carrying a staff. In one story, Rübezahl is said to appear in the form of an elderly woman who asks fellow travelers for assistance. If a person is kind, and offers help, they are given a blessed journey onward. If they are rude or decline, then Rübezahl finds the traveler to be a failure of the test given and their fate may not be as fortunate.

Shapeshifting is a common motif found often in Germanic mythology, as well as within folklore in cultures the world over. Various deities and spirits of place are known to change their appearance at will, dependent upon circumstances, within the stories that they are featured. In the account of the mead of poetry, Odin undertakes a series of shapeshifting creatures, such as a snake and a bird, while attempting to flee from the giant Suttungr. Suttungr, too, also changes shape into the form of a bird while pursuing Odin. Further, the giant Þjazi transforms into a bird in the skaldic poem, Haustlǫng. Tales regarding varieties of assumed and changeable forms are found throughout the Eddas, sagas, and within many accounts contained in European folk stories. Narratives that include shapeshifting are frequently found in shamanistic practices among the Sami culture as well and may involve a magical element to the story. Art, literature, oral traditions, as well as changing geographical boundaries during the time of religious transformations, also may account for how the appearances of creatures, and even deities, evolve and are adapted for continued use by a given social climate. In this way, stories that reflect an earlier worldview can be continued on through generations.

The forest, as well as mountainous regions, feature prominently into European myth and lore. The Riesengebirge (which in Bohemian translates as Krkonose) mountains are also referred to as the “Giant Mountains”. The mountains travel along the Thuringian forest and the Harz mountains. It becomes easy to see how a giant, or even a wandering traveler with supernatural abilities, would be at home in the locations that lend their name to the legends that dwell within them. Oral traditions, and later written literature aimed to utilize the immediate geographic surroundings of the people who inhabited the areas and incorporate a certain relevance towards their environment. Evidence of this carries into mythology. Jotunheim, as described in Norse mythology, is a mountainous and wilded area that is home to the giants, otherwise known as jötunns. Among the tales that are focused in Northern Europe, giants and their shape-shifting attributes or physical abilities are most commonly demonstrated in outdoor environments that are environmentally appropriate to that which is described in the lore. These natural features are suitable to the land formations found in areas throughout those geographical climates and regions. They reflect well in the cosmology and worldview in which the stories were first developed. The characteristics of giants are adapted to their surroundings and can be seen in various accounts that feature into both land-dwelling and divine creatures like that which is seen in the description of Skrymir, Ymir, and Skaði.

The legends of Rübezahl and other creatures like him that possess extraordinary non-human features are introduced to, and engaged by, human beings in mythic stories. This sort of interaction ties closely into earlier forms of animism. Animism bestows non-human entities with their own identity and personhood that may be different than what a human being typically possesses.

The stories of giants and spirits of place continue to flourish in hearths and folklore accounts alike. With their continued presence, early perspectives can be formulated into modern understandings and a cycle of incorporation can continue on for many years to come.

 

 


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