As time is a little short, I have several fine, new and wondrous folk following my blog, and I have posts to post if I want to reach my target of 2,000 posts by New Year’s Eve, I’ve taken the decision to use a shortcut this evening, and repost a little legend I shared back in 2012. Hopefully my long time followers have forgotten this tale: well, a lot of words have flowed forth since then, but apologies if you haven’t – I’ll knock a little off your membership fee the next time it comes up for renewal. I’m generous like that.
In Warrington, in Cheshire, in England, in the year 1367, there lived a seamstress who would darn and stitch and sew every hour of the day. She would sleep only when she really needed to, and she lived to the grand old age of 98. She had a sister, who would nowadays be referred to as a flibbertigibbet, a gossip, a storyteller, and a serving wench in one of the local hostelries.
One day, as the flibbertigibbet was telling a customer somebody else’s tale of woe, a stranger walked into the inn with a strange package. The gentleman, who was well-dressed but strangely dressed at the same time, spoke gibberish. Well, he made strange sounds, incomprehensible to the locals in the inn, although he repeated the words ‘all’ and ‘thing’ very often.
Never one to turn anyone away, the flibbertigibbet gave the stranger a wooden tankard of strong ale and pointed to the man’s package. The man knew that she wanted to see what he was carrying, so he opened the package on the table in front of her. The other customers gathered around the table, in awe, curiosity, and nervousness.
The stranger gestured for those gathered around, including the flibbertigibbet, to stand back, as he unravelled the dirty cloth from around the package. The stench was vile. Some of the customers left the premises immediately, and others sat as far back as they could, still curious as to what he was carrying.
The flibbertigibbet didn’t move, however. Her eyes were transfixed on the webbed paw that was in front of her. The man then produced a sketch of what looked like a horse with a fish’s tail. He pointed to the paw, and then the hoof of the horse on the sketch. He then pointed outside, as if indicating a long way away, and said, once again the word “All-thing”.
Nobody present that day, apart from the stranger, knew what he meant. The flibbertigibbet kept hold of the sketch, which the man gave to her as payment for the ale.
As time went by, the flibbertigibbet married, and moved away from Cheshire… from England in fact. She gave all of her possessions, including the sketch, to her sister, the seamstress.
The flibbertigibbet moved to Iceland with her husband, where, on the very day she arrived, met the stranger from the inn, who was an Icelandic fisherman. He recognised her instantly, and gestured that she and her husband should follow him into a small building by the shore.
Inside, in a case at the back of the room, was the strangest creature. A horse with a fish’s tail, with one leg missing. The stranger pointed to the flibbertigibbet, then to himself, then to the sea outside, and then he mimed himself catching the creature, before pointing to the creature itself.
The creature is known today as the Hippocampus, or sea-horse.
Hippocampus comes from the Greek words hippos, meaning horse, and kampos, meaning sea monster.
Modern day seahorses are tiny, hardly monsters by any stretch of the imagination, although they must have been named as such for a reason.
But, the question is this: Did the flibbertigibbet’s Icelandic seahorse actually exist, or was this just another tale that she had made up back in the day? The answer to both parts of this question is no. The flibbertigibbet, her seamstress sister, the ale house, the Icelandic fisherman, and his webbed paw never existed… they were all made up especially for this post.
The Hippocampus however, did exist, as this map of Iceland from 1590 shows:
With webbed claws rather than paws, this seahorse looks nothing like its modern equivalent.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Legends. Which are better?
A fable / story / legend that has been remembered for centuries, passed on for generations, so much so that it is part of everyday life… or a brand new tale, never before heard, yet has all of the features of a legendary tale?
The thing is, with legends, those that survive seem to have more truth in them than their more modern day equivalents, no matter how much of a modern ‘slant’ can be given to the latter day tales.
In the days of real sea monsters, nobody would have batted an eyelid at the mention of a monstrous seahorse. Flibbertigibbets everywhere would have welcomed such tales and sewn them, either by themselves or with the help of someone else, into the consciousness of future generations.
Some tales, however, went by the by. They became the missing link. The reason why so many legends today seem to have more questions than the information they provide.