Compair Lapin at the Laura Plantation

My mother is visiting me and so of course, we went out to tour the plantations. While we roamed about my favorite, the Laura Plantation, our very colorful guide regaled us with several Br’er Rabbit stories.

The Laura Plantation

The Laura Plantation

As a very little girl, my grandmother used to let me go to my grandfather’s book cabinet and bring out  her antique book of children’s stories. We read these stories again and again. Somewhere, that book still lurks in my grandfather’s book cabinet at my parent’s house, even though both of my grandparents are long gone.  One of my favorite memories remains that of my grandmother reading “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby” to me from that book.

My grandmother was one of those teeny tiny old ladies with perfectly coiffed hair who always wore a fifties style house dress. She went to church twice a week, wore her high heels to do the housework and when she died, she was the oldest living Avon Lady in Ohio. I was the only grandbaby that lived nearby and was spoiled rotten accordingly.

Looking back on it, picturing my grandmother acting out Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox is more than a little bit hilarious, but at the time I was simply delighted and would help her act the story out.

Fritz-Eichenberg Uncle Remus Illustration of the Tar Baby from The Wren's Nest

Fritz-Eichenberg Uncle Remus Illustration of the Tar Baby from The Wren’s Nest

If you don’t know the story, Br’er Rabbit is a Trickster and he manages to annoy Br’er Fox to no end.

Br’er Fox comes up with a way to get back at him though. Fox mixes some tar and turpentine and makes a tar baby that he leaves in the road where Br’er Rabbit will find it. He then hides in the bushes to see what will happen.

Sure enough, Br’er Rabbit comes along and greets the Tar Baby. When the Tar Baby doesn’t answer him, Br’er Rabbit threatens bodily harm if the Tar Baby isn’t going to be polite. When the Tar Baby still doesn’t answer, Br’er Rabbit hits the Tar Baby and gets his hand stuck deep in the Tar.

Br’er Rabbit demands that the Tar Baby let go of his hand and when he doesn’t, hits him again with his other hand. This goes on until Br’er Rabbit is entirely stuck in the Tar Baby.

At this point, Br’er Fox pops out of the bushes:

“I’ve got you this time, Brer Rabbit,” said Brer Fox, jumping up and shaking off the dust. “You’ve sassed me for the very last time. Now I wonder what I should do with you?”

Brer Rabbit’s eyes got very large. “Oh please Brer Fox, whatever you do, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

“Maybe I should roast you over a fire and eat you,” mused Brer Fox. “No, that’s too much trouble. Maybe I’ll hang you instead.”

“Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

“If I’m going to hang you, I’ll need some string,” said Brer Fox. “And I don’t have any string handy. But the stream’s not far away, so maybe I’ll drown you instead.”

“Drown me! Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

“The briar patch, eh?” said Brer Fox. “What a wonderful idea! You’ll be torn into little pieces!”

Grabbing up the tar-covered rabbit, Brer Fox swung him around and around and then flung him head over heels into the briar patch. Brer Rabbit let out such a scream as he fell that all of Brer Fox’s fur stood straight up. Brer Rabbit fell into the briar bushes with a crash and a mighty thump. Then there was silence.

Of course old Br’er Rabbit was thinking on his feet and escapes, “Then Brer Fox heard someone calling his name. He turned around and looked up the hill. Brer Rabbit was sitting on a log combing the tar out of his fur with a wood chip and looking smug. ‘I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox,’ he called. ‘Born and bred in the briar patch.’” (To read the full story, go here).

Br’er Rabbit is a character from Joel Chandler Harris’ collection of stories that were gathered from slaves at the Turnwold Plantation near Atlanta right before the Civil War. While Harris himself supported slavery (and in fact interpreted Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be a “wonderful defense of slavery”), the stories themselves are an interesting collection of a mix of Yoruba and Native American folklore and myth. I love the Br’er Rabbit stories because they show how much the many different cultures mixed down here in the South (which of course also resulted in things like Spiritualism, Hoodoo and Voodoo).

Most people are familiar with the Trickster Coyote, but Coyote belongs to the Western side of the United States. In the East, the Trickster is usually regarded as the Hare. The lessons that Br’er Rabbit teaches are about thinking on your feet and using cunning over strength. He doesn’t fight fair and he usually gets away with it.

While Harris himself strongly believed in slavery, Br’er Rabbit is usually seen as a character of defiance against slavery. Br’er Rabbit challenged the social order and stood up to authority. It’s more than slightly ironic that Br’er Rabbit is probably the most remembered character from Harris’s Uncle Remus stories.

Harris’ early folklore is well known; what is less well known is that he was not the first person to translate these stories in the U.S.

That person was Alcée Fortier right here in Southern Louisiana. His Br’er Rabbit character was called Compair Lapin and was written down in the patois of Creole French on the Laura Plantation.

As I’ve said, the Laura plantation is one of my favorites to visit. Not only is it beautiful, but it is an excellent example of the differences between American plantations and Creole plantations. It was also run by several generations of wealthy, successful women.

Fortier

Fortier

Fortier himself was the grandson of Valcour Aime, who was the richest man in the South at that time and grew up near the Laura Plantation. While I’m sure that Br’er Rabbit stories were told all over the South, it’s fascinating to be able to the visit the place where they were first written down and translated.  Sometimes I get so focused on European mythology and folklore, that I forget that I’m sitting the middle of some of the most fascinating bits of our very own American mythology and folklore. Compair Lapin is certainly a character you won’t find anywhere else.

Slavery itself was a terrible institution and the working conditions in the sugar cane fields were inhuman, but Br’er Rabbit is an example of a people that refused to be broken. There is a great deal to be learned from Br’er Rabbit and it is important to remember these stories as a part of our American heritage. Not just for their morals, but for the culture they came from. I’m glad that my grandmother took the time to read those stories to me. When times are hard, it’s good to remember that even the thorniest spots can be places of hope and that there is always a way out. And that it is possible for you to take a bad situation and turn it into one that is advantageous for you.

Br’er Rabbit certainly gets in the last laugh at Br’er Fox, and even though we still suffer from issues of racism and hatred, the plantations are a standing testament to the courage of those that abolished slavery and assured freedom for those of all races.

 

* I realized after writing this yesterday that today (9/17) was my grandmother’s birthday as well as the day that she died. She would have been 102 today.

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Fairy Horses

I’m getting ready to start graduate school. I’ve been putting it off for years, but things have finally clicked into place and away I am about to go.

I received my first syllabus tonight. The first book that I have to have read (by the first class, yay grad school!) is Jane Eyre. That’s easy enough, it’s not like I haven’t already read it several times, so it will just be a matter of rereading it and giving it a more “critical” look.

One of the things I love most about this story is that Jane Eyre thinks she has a brush with a piece of folklore.

As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me. It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash — a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head […], with strange pretercanine eyes […]. The horse followed, — a tall steed […]. Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone […].  ~ Jane Eyre Chapter 12

Jane Eyre has an encounter with a Gytrash…at least she thinks she does. In reality, this is the scene where she meets Mr. Rochester, her mysterious employer and the hero (anti-hero possibly?), for the first time.

A lot of scholars like to use this as an example of Romanticism in Bronte’s writing. But I think that a lot of it simply has to do with the fact that the Gytrash was a piece of British folklore that most people probably still regularly had encounters with and would have talked about. People were probably warned to watch out for the Gytrash as they traveled through unfamiliar countryside

The Gytrash falls into that category of spirits that haunt lonely roads and weary travelers. Usually appearing as a horse, a dog or sometimes a mule, the Gytrash can either be helpful or harmful.

Jane Eyre is not the only famous piece of literature to depict a Gytrash. The legend of a Gytrash also shows up in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles nearly 60 years later.

There are many types of spirits like this that people would have been weary of meeting on a deserted country road. We’ve all heard of the Will-O-the-Wisp, which are present even in American folklore. The Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts is famous for sightings. They even come up in children’s movies these days!

Kelpies and Pukas are also similar to the Gytrash. These water horses can bring good or bad fortune to whoever they encounter. The Puka is known for showing up as a horse, a goat or a rabbit. It is usually associated with Samhain, since it was known for demanding an offering from the last harvested crops. Without the offering, they would cause trouble for the whole community. The Puka can also speak with a human voice and was known for trying to tempt people to come out of their houses at night. (The Puka is also a character in one of my favorite novels, Peter S. Beagle’s Tamsin. If you’re interested in British folklore this is a great book to check out).

Kelpies could appear as beautiful women who would lure men to their watery deaths. The Kelpie usually liked to eat its victims. Sometimes also appearing as a horse, it would tempt someone to get on it’s back and then ride them into a body of water where they could drown and devour their victim. One of the more famous stories of the Kelpie was about one who had convinced nine friends to get on its back. The tenth refused, but put his hand on the Kelpie’s nose. The hand became stuck there and instead of getting on the horses back as the others had done, the tenth child cut off his hand and escaped.

There are also many stories of Kelpies kidnapping women to be their wives in their watery homes which were usually at the bottom of the local loch. (As I write this, my partner is at GenCon without me. This year their guest of honor is another one of my favorite authors…Mercedes Lackey. One of Lackey’s less well-known works is The River’s Gift, a story about a Kelpie. I also recommend this book).

These types of creatures are also related to the Mari Lwyd. The Mari Lwyd or the Grey Mare is a Welsh tradition. Men would carry a horses skull (usually made out of wood or cardboard), decked out in a white sheet (that disguised the man carrying it), ribbons, and a hinged jaw that could snap at people door to door as they wassailed the new year in. Unlike England, where the focus of the wassail ritual was on the birds and the crops, the Welsh focused on the Mari Lwyd, which was a tradition that connects back to the goddess Rhiannon.

We meet Rhiannon in the Mabinogion. Rhiannon is an underworld woman who appears to the hero Pwyll on top of a fairy mound riding a horse. After they are married (which is a long story in and of itself), she is accused of eating her newborn son. In recompense she has to bear men on her back like a horse and tell them what she has done.

The penance that was put on her was as follows: she was to stay at the court of Arbeth for the duration of seven years. There was a mounting-block by the gate. She had to sit beside it every day telling anyone coming by the whole story (of those she supposed did not know it) and offering whichever guest and stranger would allow themselves to carried, to be carried on her back to the court. But only rarely did anyone allow the carrying. In this way she passed the next part of the year.

~ From the third part of the First Branch of the Mabinogion

And while Rhiannon’s son is eventually returned and all is well, it seems as though Rhiannon has to go through her own initiation to lose her underworld nature and does so in this way.

Rhiannon is also usually known for embodying an example of the idea of Celtic sovereignty. Rhiannon represents the land, Pwyll has to marry her to have the right to rule over the land. The book Women of the Celts discusses this idea at length if you’re interested in that.

Rhiannon Alan Lee Illustration, 1984

Rhiannon
Alan Lee
Illustration, 1984

In general, these horse spirits seem to be tied into the land. They either haunt travelers who are in their territory, or they are a part of the rituals of the harvest and the turning of the Wheel. Rhiannon is a goddess that is a big part of my own work. I love that the mythology of the original horse goddess still remains present in a great deal of folklore and literature. I don’t know what I would do if I were to meet a Gytrash or a Puka on the road. They are seductive creatures and even though I know better, even I might be tempted to see where one would lead me…

Other Readings:

The Great Queen and the Sovereignty of Self

Rebellion of the Queen

The Wedding of Sir Gawain & Dame Ragnell

The Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty as Warrior: Boudicca and the Death of a Druid Prince

The Rabbi’s Cat and Sita Sings the Blues

I manage the Acquisitions department of the library and I get to see some really cool things. Today we received The Rabbi’s Cat, by Joann Sfar. This looks like it’s going to be pretty hilarious and the graphics are beautiful.

The cat reminds me of my own Bansidhe...

The cat reminds me of my own Bansidhe…

It’s a French graphic novel series about a cat who swallows the family parrot and is then able to talk. The cat belongs to a rabbi in 1920’s Algiers. Apparently the Atheistic cat wants a Bar Mitzvah.

There is also a movie based on the novels.

But in the process of looking at this, I was reminded of Sita Sings the Blues.

This animated movie is based on the Indian epic, The Ramayana and the blues of Annette Hanshaw.

The movie is beautiful, the music is great and it will keep you entertained. If you are into the Hindu epics and Gods and haven’t checked this movie out you are definitely missing out! My New Orleans self also loves that it is set to the Blues…

After all, what other style of music could better sum up most epics, personal or mythological?