The Folklore of Hearth & Home
Wednesday, January 08, 2020
I've been corresponding with my friend Steve Toase on the subject of "home and homelessness" in life and literature, which made me go back to this article I wrote some years ago (prior to getting married and moving to Bumblehill, our current house, with Howard and our daughter). Since stories of "home and homelessness" are on my mind, I thought I'd share this article with you....
In the autumn of 2007, I packed up and sold the house where I'd lived for many years: a 16th century, thatch–roof cottage in a small English village on Dartmoor. The cottage was hugely significant to me, for I'd lived there much of my adult life, but in the house's own story, spanning four centuries, my two decades were a drop in the bucket. The cottage felt strange on my last evening there, emptied of furniture and books; only the goblin murals on the kitchen walls remained of the life I'd known there. I lit a last fire in the ancient stone hearth…and when the flames had burned down low, I put hot coals into an old tin can, following a Dartmoor folk custom. The coals would be used to light a fire at my next abode, just down the street -- which would bring me luck, according to some legends, and allow any fairies that lived in the hearth to move along with me, according to others. I left the cottage, locked the door, and pushed the house keys through the door's mail slot. They hit the floor, and with that sound, a large part of my life was now over.
I'd been anticipating this move for over a year, and was making the change for positive reasons, so the depth of the loss I felt in that moment was entirely unexpected. It wasn't just the cottage I was leaving behind, but the person I'd been there for so many years...and the future I'd always imagined I'd have growing old under its roof. Living in a magical, ancient house had become part of my self-identity. Who was I now, without that familiar backdrop of grinning goblins and old oak beams, of Morris fabrics and medieval tapestries? What remained of me, with the world that I'd woven around me stripped away? For the better part of two decades, my concept of "home" had been solid, unchangeable, literally built of granite; but life had taken an unexpected turn. I didn't yet know where this was leading. For now, I'd be in temporary digs, my worldly belongings packed in storage, my work/living needs pared down to essentials. Without the weight of that old stone house, my life felt curiously unmoored...but also full of narrative possibility as I waited for its next chapter to begin.
Weaver's Cottage, built in 1596, in a small village at the edge of Darmoor
In this time of upheaval, I began to think about the hold that our homes can have on us, even in a transient culture where multiple moves are not unusual. The places we live and the places we grew up in have an impact, whether acknowledged or not, on our lives, our relationships, our dreams; and the houses we yearn for, whether real or imagined, reveal much about our inner nature. As a folklorist, I'm interested in how the idea of home is expressed in traditional stories; and as a fantasist, in how this translates into modern magical fiction.
Fairy tales, for example often begin with a hero propelled from his or her home by poverty or calamity; and the search for the safe haven of a new home, or the task of restoring prosperity to an old one, is central to such stories. Fairy tales tend to be rites-of-passage narratives, chronicling a transformational journey from one archetypal life stage to another. Most often, such tales follow a young hero's transition from childhood to adulthood, the completion of the journey symbolized by a wedding at the story's end. In the modern, simplified versions of the tales popularized by Disney films and children's books, the emphasis is so often placed on the romantic (and wealth accumulating) aspects of the stories that finding "true love" (with a well heeled spouse) can seem to be what fairy tales are all about. Older, adult versions of the tales, by contrast, are focused on the steps of the hero's passage through a period of upheaval and peril -- a period required to test the hero's mettle and provoke growth and self-transformation. Such tales speak to the challenges we face at any time in life (not just in our youth) when circumstances force us to leave home, either literally or metaphorically, setting us on the road to an unknown future and a new identity.
Snow White, Donkeyskin, The Girl With No Hands, Hans My Hedgehog: these are all rites-of-passage narratives. Each tale begins in a childhood home that has become constricting, even dangerous, and each hero must leave this home behind in order to forge a new life in the adult world. The completion of the hero's task is marked by the traditional rewards of the fairy tale genre: a marriage, a crown, a storehold full of treasure; but the true reward at journey's end is a new-found ability to survive life's trials, transcend its terrors, and determine one's own fate.
The heroes begin in one home and end in another (or else in the old home restored and renewed), but in between these two poles is a crucial period of homelessness. Homelessness is a liminal state rich in opportunities for character change and growth, which has made it a popular plot device among storytellers both old and new. Homelessness detaches protagonists from the roles they have played in the past, strips them of identity, blurs the markers of class or rank, removes usual sources of aid and comfort, and throws them on their own resources. . .a perfect recipe for suspense, adventure, and heroic metamorphosis.
The archetypal Hero's Journey is often a different one for the young men and women in traditional stories, as Midori Snyder discussed in her fine article on the Armless Maiden folk tale: "In hero narratives," she wrote, "a young man leaves the familiar home of his birth and ventures into the unknown world where the fantastic waits to challenge him. Along the journey, his worth as a man and as a hero is tested. But when the trials are done, he returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new-found knowledge, maturity and often a magical bride." A young woman, by contrast, ventures out or is propelled into the world "knowing that she will never return home. Instead, at the end of a perilous and solitary journey, she arrives at a new village or kingdom. There, disguised as a dirty-faced servant, a scullery maid, or a goose girl, she completes her initiation into adulthood and brings the gifts of knowledge, maturity, and fertility to a new home and community."
Such stories rose from societies in which this gender difference was a fact of life; where girls were expected to leave home upon marriage and join the household, village, or tribe of their new husband's family. (We see the echo of this tradition today when women give up their own names upon marriage.) The anxiety felt by women in such cultures, particularly in places where they were allowed no say in the choice of husband, was expressed by tales such as Bluebeard/Fitcher's Bird, or Beauty and the Beast, in which a young woman finds herself far from home, co-habiting with a monster.
Goblins in my Goblin Kitchen, painted by Brian Froud, inspired by Christina Rossetti's classic fairy poem "Goblin Market"
Another staple of folk and fairy tales is the mysterious house that appears to offer shelter but is actually a source of danger or enchantment. The gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel is a welcome sight to the two hungry children made homeless by their feckless parents, but it's really just a trap designed to lure boys and girls into a cooking pot. There are numerous tales in which weary travelers stumble upon a house in the woods with its front door standing invitingly open, a fire lit, a hot meal spread temptingly on the table, and the owner of the house nowhere in sight. Lisel Mueller wrote about just such a house in her magical poem "Voices from the Forest. "No matter how exhausted you are, Mueller says, do not enter the house in the forest:
It is only when you finish eating
and, drowsy and grateful, pull off your shoes,
that the ax falls or the giant returns
or the monster springs or the witch
locks the door from the outside and throws away the key.
But if you must enter, Neil Gaiman has advice in his charming poem "Instructions":
A red metal imp hangs from the green–painted front door, as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.
Those last words are important. Folk tales from all over the world warn that eating the food of a witch, a demon, a djinn, a troll, an ogre, or the fairies can be a dangerous proposition. You might owe your youngest child in return, or be bound to your host for the rest of your life. Likewise, don't kiss the beautiful woman who offers you a meal and a bed in her sumptuous chateau hidden deep in the woods. By morning light she'll be a monster, and her house but a pile of rocks and bones. Some enchanted houses appear for a single night each year and then vanish again. Be sure to be out by dawn or you too will disappear along with it. And sometimes the houses themselves are monstrous, such as the famous hut of the witch Baba Yaga in Russian fairy tales, which balances on chicken legs and can spin and move from place to place.
Goblins by Alan Lee, Dennis Nolan, and Charles Vess
There are also houses in the woods, however, where the safe haven offered is not mere illusion, often put on the hero's path by a kindly fairy or a guardian angel. The hero of The Girl With No Hands finds just such a sanctuary deep in the forest, and the princess in The White Deer lives in one at night, when she's in human form. Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz considered these woodland dwellings to represent the place deep within ourselves where we retreat, in solitude, to ponder life's deeper meanings, heal our wounds, and renew our spirits. In tales like The Girl With No Hands, she said, the hero enters the woods (the psyche) in a maimed or enchanted state, and does not leave again until she is healed, whole, transformed.
In both Jungian psychology and dream analysis, a house is much more that just a dwelling or shelter -- it is a symbol in the ancient, pictorial language of mythic archetypes. Dream analysts say that a house represents the levels of the dreamer's own mind, and some give each different part of the house a specific significance: The front porch is our social or public mask; the living room, our interior consciousness; the kitchen represents our potential — the place where ideas are stirred, cooked up, and brought into conscious form. Cabinets and drawers hold experiences; closets hold hidden aspects and talents; stairs represent growth and moving up to (or down from) higher levels of consciousness. A bedroom dream reveals the things that the subconscious mind is pre–occupied with; a hallway leads to memories and the past, or to possibilities and the future. Rearranging the furniture indicates a sorting of priorities, ideals, or beliefs. A house demolition is a major life change, or the deterioration of physical health, and moving represents a change of consciousness or a psychic upheaval.
Carl Jung himself had recurring dreams in which houses featured prominently. He often dreamed he was building a house, or had stumbled upon a new room in his home -- representing, he said, the building of the self and the discovery of new ideas. In his forties, Jung bought a parcel of land and turned dream into reality by building Bollingen, his spiritual retreat on the banks of Lake Zurich. He started off with a low stone tower, built largely with his own two hands, its round shape representing the maternal archetype (and his own mother's recent death). Slowly, over thirty years, the house sprouted another tower, a courtyard, an annex, and a second floor, each addition marking a life change and the evolution of his theories of the psyche. Bollingen was Jung's attempt to achieve a "representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and the knowledge I had acquired....From the very beginning, I felt the Tower as in some way a place of maturation -- a maternal womb or maternal figure in which I would become what I was, what I am, and will be."
Jung's vision of a house, built in the round, as the embodiment of the "eternal feminine" had its roots in the mythology and building practices of ancient Greece, where the home was sacred to Hestia, goddess of the hearth and perpetual flame. Sometimes called "the forgotten goddess," Hestia rarely appears in the tales of the gods, and seems to have had few temples or acolytes; and yet she was actually the first of the goddesses, sitting higher in the Olympian pantheon than even Hera (wife of Zeus, goddess of love and marriage) or Demeter (goddess of fertility and the harvest). Although avidly courted by both Poseidon and Apollo, Hestia vowed she would never marry, dedicating herself instead to the management of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. For this, she received the first portion of tribute in the temple rites of all the other gods, and was worshipped at the hearth in the center of all houses and buildings. Each morning began with Hestian prayers as the family fire was stoked for cooking and heating; each day ended with prayers to the goddess as the fire was banked for the night.
Unlike the rest of the Greek pantheon, well known for their tempers, jealousies, and quarrels, Hestia was an unusually stable goddess, revered for her gentle, calm, and forgiving nature. But lest we think of her as the Olympian equivalent of a 1950s housewife, limited to home and the service of others, she was also the first builder, the inventor of architecture, and the patron of these arts. Her symbols were the circle and perpetual flame (including the undying flame of the Olympics), and her sphere of influence reached beyond the home to the undying flame at the heart of the Senate.
Her counterpart in Roman myth was Vesta, although the two are not completely interchangeable. Vesta, too, was venerated at the hearth and thus played a central role in family life -- but she also had public temples, including her famous circular temple in Rome where priestesses tended the perpetual flame that was the city's source of spiritual strength. Called Vestal Virgins (having pledged themselves to thirty years of celibacy), Vesta's priestesses enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom and political power in a society that was not known for enlightened attitudes towards women. At the end of thirty years, the Vestal Virgins were free to end their vows and marry, but few cared to trade the privileges of their profession for the restricted life of the average Roman matron.
A shadow forest painted on bedroom walls
In addition to a central shrine to Vesta, most Roman families maintained shrines for a panoply of small domestic gods: the Lares, protectors of the household, and the Penates, gods of pantry and larder. Shrines to the Lares and Penates of the house were located conveniently close to the door so that offerings could be made frequently -- for, like the fairies of English lore, they were troublesome if neglected. The door itself was watched over by Janus, the two-faced god of doors and gates, associated with endings and beginnings, joined in his duties by Cardea, the goddess of door handles and hinges. Ovid tells us that Cardea's power is "to open what is shut, and to shut what is open." As a result, she was also the goddess of midwives, called upon during difficult childbirths. The threshold, and the act of crossing over it, belonged to the trickster god Mercury (Hermes in Greek), whose sign, a phallic-shaped stone or statue, often stood guard at the front of the dwelling. It was customary to stroke the stone for luck when leaving or returning home.
While Greco-Roman myth divided the roles of the goddess of the home and the goddess of marriage (Hestia/Vesta on one hand, Hera/Juno on the other), Norse mythology combined them into a single powerful figure, the goddess Frigg. The wife of Odin and the queen of the Aesir, Frigg's province covered hearth, home, love, marriage, and child-bearing (among many other things), all of which were accorded high status. Only she, among all the gods, was permitted to share Odin's high seat and look out over the universe.
In Celtic myth, Brigidh was the goddess of the hearth and the keeper of the sacred flame, although, like Frigg, her influence extended much beyond the domestic sphere; she was also the goddess of poetic eloquence and of skill in the planning of warfare. Brigidh's legends overlapped with those of Habondia, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of hearth and home. Household shrines to Brigidh or Habondia insured the fertility of the marriage bed, tranquility among family members, and the blessing of domestic chores -- especially the "magical arts" of cooking, bread baking, and brewing.
In Western mythic traditions, the home was the realm of female deities, but when we look at the lesser supernaturals -- the Lares, the Penates, the various tribes of fairies -- we find a range of male figures attached or attracted to human dwellings: hobgoblins, house brownies, hearth fairies,
chimney trolls, and other similar creatures. These could be helpful and protective spirits if treated respectfully and generously (according to the creature's particular code), or they could make a house unlivable: spoiling the bread, curdling the milk, dampening the fire. We must go to other parts of the world to find traditions favoring male household gods, though even these tend to be among the minor deities.
In China, for example, Tsao Wang is a popular hearth god in the countryside, where he watches over each household from his shrine by the hearth or stove. Great care must be taken not to swear, quarrel, or lie within the hearth god's hearing, for each year Tsao Wang makes an annual report to the celestial Jade Emperor, and this determines the family's luck (or lack thereof) in the year ahead. Vietnam has a similar deity called the Stove God, or Mandarin Tao -- a clownish figure who's in such a rush to get to Heaven with his annual report that he often leaves his trousers behind and is commonly pictured without them. Oki-Tsu-Hiko-No-Kami and his consort, Oki-Tsu-Hime-No-Kami, are the kitchen gods of Japanese lore. As the children of harvest deities, their province is food storage and preparation; neglect of their shrine will cause the rice pot to boil over or the vegetables to rot. In Hindu myth, Annamurti, one of many forms of the god Vishnu, is the deity to call upon in the kitchen, where cooks make offerings of sweetened rice and milk to gain his favor. Hinukan, the hearth and kitchen god of the Uchinanchu people of Okinawa, is always paired in the household pantheon with Fuuru nu Kami, the god of the toilet. Without the latter figure, negative spirits attracted to waste matter would cause illness or worse. In Russian folklore, hearth spirits (usually male) followed their particular families from house to house. In customs similar to those here on Dartmoor, the first fire in a new fireplace was lit with coals or embers from the old, with all the doors standing open wide as the spirit was formally invited in.
Two deer women sculptures by Wendy Fround, one in the garden (viewed through a window) and one on a window sill
It has been many, many years, however, since an open fire was the indispensable center of the home, at least in Western culture, and even the kitchen is losing its importance as rushed family members eat on the run. Where, then, is the heart of the modern home? The television, or computer screen? And what gods might be taking residence there, expecting tribute and propitiation? It is not only modern technology and an increasingly secular culture that have changed our relationship with our homes, however. For the first time in our history more of us live in cities than in rural communities; and few of us in the West still live on the land where our ancestors have lived. Home is where we hang our hat, as the old song says, rather than a landscape grazed or farmed for generation after generation. Home means the place we live right now; tomorrow it may mean someplace different. We are now, most of us, like the female heroes in traditional stories who leave their home with no expectation of returning…and we do this not once in our lives, but sometimes again and again and again.
Folk tales remind us, however, that moving home is not a simple act; it's one with mythic reverberations. It's a rite-of-passage, with all the attendant dangers and potential rewards that such passages offer. Houses are more than just real estate; they represent our innermost selves (as the Jungian say) and the stages of our lives (as the fairy tales tell us). In both views, moving from one home to another means passing through a period of upheaval, provoking internal change and self-transformation. And we're advised to carry the coals of our old life with us to kindle the new life ahead.
In fantasy literature, as in fairy tales, many stories begin with the loss of a home, and this is precisely what thrusts the protagonists into the world. Some stories, like L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, rest on the main protagonist's fierce desire to go home again; in others, they must find or create new homes for themselves in far distant lands. In Diana Wynne Jones' Charmed Life, for example, young Janet chooses to remain in the magical world of Chrestomanci; in Pamela Dean's "Secret Country" books, some of the children never return home again; and Austin Tappan Wright's great utopian novel Islandia revolves around a hero pulled between loyalties to his old and new countries. In fiction, as in myth, it's that in-between period of wandering and homelessness that allows for adventure and metamorphosis, propelling characters out of their settled ways of life and into their new roles as heroes.
Bilbo & Frodo Baggin's house, Bag End, drawn by Alan Lee
In children's fantasy, many adventures begin when a child's usual home is disrupted -- when they're sent off to live with relatives, or transplanted to a summer cottage, or sent off to boarding school, etc. It's interesting to note that a number of these tales -- The Owl Service by Alan Garner, for example, or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken -- were penned by writers who grew up in England during the Second World War, a time when children were regularly sent away from home to escape German bombers. Displacement, once again, creates a space that is rich in narrative possibilities, with the added bonus that once the parents are off the scene, the young protagonists are thrown onto their own resources.
What I love best are those fantasy novels where the houses themselves are a source of enchantment, reminiscent of the fairy towers and haunted chateaux to be found in folk tales. The masterwork in this mini-genre is The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, in which an entire epic world is created beneath one rambling, crumbling roof, but there are plenty of other fantastical houses I'd also love to have a good wander in: such as Edgewood from John Crowley's Little, Big, or Tamsin House from Charles de Lint's Moonheart; or Crackpot Hall from Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda; or Moonacre Manor from Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse. In such books, domestic spaces regain their aura of the numinous, connecting us, in our everyday lives, as we sleep and wake and cook and clean, to the realm of the gods, the fairies, the ancestors, and to worlds of magic.
Gormenghast painted by Alan Lee
In real life, too, there are those who turn their houses into enchanted spaces -- particularly among artists, some of whom seem compelled to transform the whole world around them. The Pre-Raphaelite visionary William Morris was famous for his desire to bring beauty into every small facet of daily life, designing his own furniture, fabrics, and wallpaper patterns; making his own dyes, weaving his own rugs, painting his own chimney tiles, and so forth. A revolution in British design was born from the fanciful homes he created for his family and his friends at Red House in south-east London and Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire.
Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire
A drawing of Kelmscott Manor in News from Nowhere by William Morris
The Willow Bedroom at Kelmscott Manor, will wallpaper & textiles designed by William Morris
The Willow Guest-Bedroom at Weaver's Cottage, in honor of Morris
The Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant took their paintbrushes to every surface of Charleston, the farmhouse they shared with other writers and artists in the Sussex countryside. Preserved and open to the public now, Charleston is a timeless, spell-bound world formed of pattern, color, and whimsy.
Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex
The living room at Charleston
Duncan Grant's studio at Charleston
In Moscow, Viktor Vasnetsov's magical home has been turned into a house-museum, featuring the mythic paintings for which this 19th century artist is famed. The house is a fantasy vision, designed in the distinctive "Russian folk tale style" that Vasnetsov created and promoted as part of the Russian Revivalist movement. In Sweden, Carl & Karin Larsson turned their Sundborn farmhouse into a work of art -- made famous by Carl's many paintings of the house, and of their family life within it. On the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Walter Inglis Anderson spent his last decades in a secluded, rustic cottage where (unbeknownst to family and friends) he covered the walls of a padlocked room with luminous murals of astonishing beauty, born of a spiritual vision rooted in his passion for nature. The "Little Room" was discovered after the artist's death, and can now be viewed at the Walter Anderson Museum.
The Viktor Vasnetsov House-Museum in Moscow
Carl & Karin Larsson's farmhouse in Sundborn, Sweden
A corner of the room painted by Walter Inglis Anderson on the coast of Mississippi
By the end of my time at Weaver's Cottage, the walls throughout the place were covered with poems, quotes, drawings and paintings of trees, deer, and fairy tale creatures -- added slowly, year by year, as my life and work in the house evolved. There was a forest in the bedroom, deer women on the stairs, bunny girls peeping from hidden corners -- but the Goblin Kitchen is what people remember best, and for good reason. Inspired by Christina Rossetti's classic fairy poem "Goblin Market," the fruit-juggling rascals on the kitchen walls were painted by several artist friends: Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Charles Vess, Dennis Nolan, and Lauren Mills among them. Now they, too, have slipped into the house's long story, haunting the place like all its other ghosts.
Brian Froud & Alan Lee painting goblins in the kitchen of my cottage, 1991, and Brian's goblins grinning from the wall
As I walked away from Weaver's Cottage, I couldn't help thinking of fairy tales: of endings, and of beginnings, and of how the one loops into the other. I didn't yet know what roads lay ahead, or who I would be on the next stage of the journey. I couldn't imagine the trials I'd face, or the treasures I'd find at journey's end. Would my life become ordinary and dull without that old house, with its ghosts and goblins?
Nah. As the folk tales tell us, it's when you leave home that the magic begins.
The photographs of Weaver's Cottage above were taken by Alan Lee, Stephen Dooley, Helen Mason, and me. (Please do not re-post these images, as this was my home.) The murals, sadly, no longer exist; a subsequent owner of the cottage painted them over. Perhaps, like faery gold, they were meant to be ephemeral....
The other houses pictured here are open to the public. The photographs of them are from the public websites for Kelmscott Manor, Charleston Farmhouse, The Viktor Vasnetsov House-Museum, The Carl & Karin Larsson Farmhouse, and The Walter Anderson Museum; all rights reserved by the owners of these estates. The pen-&-ink drawings are "Oliver Twist" by E.M.Taylor and "Woods Thicker and Thicker" by H.J. Ford. The silhouette drawing is "Hansel & Gretel" by Laura Berrett. The pencil drawing of Bag End and the painting of Gormenghast are by Alan Lee. All rights to the text, photographs, and art in this post reserved by the author, photographers, and artists.