Academic journal article Folklore

Anchors in a Three-Decker World

Academic journal article Folklore

Anchors in a Three-Decker World

Article excerpt

When the poet Seamas Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature recently, the poem he chose to read was based ultimately on an account from the Annals of Ulster for 748 A.D. The poem is from a collection exploring shifting perspectives:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise

Were all at prayers inside the oratory

A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep

It hooked itself into the altar rails

And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope

and struggled to release it. But in vain.

"This man can't bear our life and will drown,"

The abbot said, "unless we help him." So

They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back

Out of the marvellous as he had known it (Heaney 1991, 62).

I quoted this poem at the 1993 A.G.M. of the Folklore Society in a paper of which this is a revised version.(1) That paper set out to examine references to anchors in tradition and fell into two parts: those legends and other accounts which treated of anchors from ships in the sky invading our world; and those about anchors that fell from our ships into a submarine world. Heaney's poem recorded events of the first kind.

The concept of a three-decker world is fairly universal. Often the three planes are linked by a cosmic tree, and sometimes the planes have a marine dimension. To take an example at random, the Hebrew tradition of creation relates that the Creator divided the waters which were above the firmament from those which were under it. In spite of the abundance of such imagery it is rare to find legends in which anchors form a link between two of these levels. Those which occur are confined to northwestern Europe--Ireland, Britain and, to a lesser extent, France. Some legends are medieval; others belong to this century.

This revised paper first shows that the medieval legends which link the sky to the earth (the legends that inspired Heaney's poem),(2) were influenced in their evolution by one of the legends which link the surface of the sea to a submarine world. These latter legends contain an explicit theme of a man being lured to a land under the sea. The second part of the paper, focusing on modern legends, begins with accounts of a cloudland and of celestial ships. In passing, a few isolated legends are noted in which anchors feature, usually as intruding on submarine activities. The final section discusses examples which echo the medieval motif of the anchor as a means of luring a man under the waves.

Anchors from the Sky: Irish Medieval Accounts

The Annals of Ulster (Hennessy 1887, 212-3) report for 748 A.D.(3) that "Ships with their crews were seen in the air."(4) Proinsias MacCana tells us this marvel launched a "lyrical flight of fancy ... [which] exemplifies how the monastic literati were experimenting imaginatively with the inversions of reality implicit in the whole concept of the Otherworld" (MacCana 1981, 150). He is alluding to the manner in which this theme was elaborated in accounts such as those of Bishop Patrick's Hiberno-Latin Mirabilia (1074-84 A.D.), which Aubrey Gwynn translates as:

There was once a king of the Scots at a show

With a great throng, thousands in fair array.

Suddenly they see a ship sail past in the air,

And from the ship a man then cast a spear after a fish;

The spear struck the ground, and he, swimming, plucked it out.

Who can hear this wonder and not praise the Lord of

Thunder? (Gwynn 1955, 65).

John Carey notes that this version runs "closely parallel" (Carey 1995, 17) to the Irish version of Nennius (Todd 1848) and a tract De Ingantaib Erenn [Concerning the Wonders of Ireland](5) according to the Book of Glen-da-Locha. These were repeated outside Ireland in works such as Kongs Skuggsjo or Speculum Regale, an Old Norse book written about 1250 A. …

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