Welcome, as always, dear readers.
The other day, I was making pesto. Because readers of this blog come from all over the globe, perhaps I should explain.
Pesto is this:
It can be made with a number of different ingredients, but this recipe uses basil leaves, olive oil, and a touch of garlic. You can mix it with any number of different things, but a favorite is with pasta and chicken. It may originally be Italian, as certainly the word is, being a contraction of pestato, “crushed”, indicating how it’s made. And, since we’re talking etymology, here’s a word you may know, from the same Latin root—pins- — “to grind/crush”. Move from that to the crushing tool in Latin, pistillum, then through Old French to English and you get “pestle”—which goes with the object in which you grind things, a “mortar”—
and, because it’s impossible not to make the association, this is also the preferred flying vehicle for the Russian witch, Babayaga.
(If you’d like to know more about this really interesting folktale character—“witch” is only one possibility of what she is—you can read about her in this 1916 English translation of Afanasyev’s Russian Folk Tales:
Just one interesting detail about her: she lives in a house on chicken legs, and it’s always moving so that it’s very difficult for anyone to get inside without her permission.)
But the difficulty with pesto using basil
is that it takes a lot of leaves to make a decent batch
and it’s more than a little time-consuming to pluck enough leaves, after you’ve uprooted the stalks.
So—lest you think that you’ve fallen into a cooking website by one of those strange left turns search engines sometimes make– I was plucking the leaves, but, at the same time, I was thinking about animal helpers in folktales and wishing that I had some of my own. Animals in folktales can act as guides and interpreters and protectors, but what I really needed was someone interested in tiny detail work. The first who came to mind were from a weird but really interesting literary work from the 2nd century AD, Apuleius’
(There’s no actual known portrait—this is an idealized 3rd-century medallion)
novel (sort of) The Metamorphoses.
(This is the 1639 edition of Richard Adlington’s 1566 English translation. Unusually, I haven’t been able to locate an image of any earlier printing.)
I wrote “sort of” novel because it’s almost more a kind of short story collection with the stories embedded in a loose narrative of the adventures of one Lucius, who, in attempting to practice magic to turn himself into a bird, ends up as a donkey,
and spends a good deal of time in that shape before finally being turned back into a man through the aid of the goddess Isis.
Among the short stories embedded, is a long one about a human woman, Psyche, who falls in love with Eros/Cupid, the son of the goddess Venus.
Venus is not pleased with this and assigns Psyche a series of impossible tasks to punish her for daring to love her son. For her first task, Venus dumps in front of her a huge pile of mixed legumes and seeds—as the Latin says: “et hordeo et milio et papavere et cicere et lente et faba commixtisque acervatim confusis in unum grumulum”—“both barley and millet and poppy seed and chick pea and lentil and broad bean and mixed every which way poured together into one little hill”.
Psyche has until the evening to complete the task. It’s impossible, of course, just like spinning straw into gold in the story of “Rumpelstiltskin”.
Or—closer to home—a similar task from the other version of “Cinderella”—not the Perrault one, in the 1697 Histoires or Contes du temps passe,
but from Kinder und Hausmaerchen (1812) of the Grimms, where the girl is known as “Aschenputtel”.
Here, before she can even think of going to the ball with her stepmother and her evil stepsisters,
her stepmother tells her: “Da habe ich dir eine Schüssel Linsen in die Asche geschüttet, wenn du die Linsen in zwei Stunden wieder ausgelesen hast, so sollst du mitgehen.”—“I have spilled a bowl of lentils into the ashes for you. If, in two hours, you have sorted out the lentils again, then you shall go with us.”
The same impossible task—although perhaps a little easier, without all of those mixed beans! Then again, ash can be grey—and so can lentils.
Aschenputtel is fortunate, however, in that she has the aid of, first, two white doves, then turtledoves, then birds of all kinds who flock in to help her.
Luckily, they follow her directions (which, in a little couplet, sound almost like a magic spell):
“Die guten ins Töpfchen,
Die schlechten ins Kröpfchen.”
“The good ones in the little pot,
The poor ones in the little crop.”
(the crop being part of a bird’s throat).
Aschenputtel (with a little feathered assistance) then finishes the job—but, as we all know, is still not allowed to go to the ball. And the same disappointment will happen to Psyche. Her helpers, however, are much smaller—and generally more organized—than birds—
The formiculae—“tiny ants/antlets” come rushing in waves: “summoque studio singulae granatim totum digerunt acervum separatimque distributis dissitisque generibus e conspectu perniciter abeunt.”
“and, with the greatest eagerness, each separated the whole heap grain by grain and, when the kinds were divided and arranged separately, they quickly disappeared from sight.”
Which leaves me to ponder two possibilities:
a. can I attract some eager ants for myself? (usually, not difficult—but how do you convince them to “e conspectu perniciter abire” (“to quickly disappear from sight”) afterwards?)
b. or is there still time before dinner to go to the store and invest in a jar of this–
Thanks, as always, for reading,
And know that, as ever, there’s
If you are regular readers, you will have noticed a slight change in format. The D of CD having gone on to other projects, the C remains, under his own title, Ollamh, to entertain you, he hopes, as CD did for so long.
If you are interested in reading more about Cinderella, back in June/July of 2018, CD did a 5-part series on Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty through many different forms. The series was called “Theme and Variations” and we recommend it (modestly) to you for your enjoyment.