TURNED TO STONE

Whale or ship?
I have just come back from a week in Corfu which was meant to be a relaxing holiday but turned out to be a hectic jamboree of visits to bookshops, chewing the fat with bookshop staff about Greek editions of my books and taking photographs and notes for a new project. I find taking pictures gets the creative cells in the brain working nicely and, looking back through photoshop after a hard day’s clicking, ideas for stories  seem to leap at me.
Take this picture of a rock!  I took it in one of the bays in Paleokastritsa, a beautiful village on the north-west coast of the island.  Its shape made me think of a petrified whale but local legend has it that it’s Ulysses’ ship turned to stone.  The Corfiots call it Kolovri and say that Poseidon was so incensed that the locals supplied the Greek hero with a ship to make it home, he turned it to stone on its return voyage.
Turning people, animals or objects to stone is a common theme in fairy tales and myths.  It’s one up on the punishment scale from being turned to dust or fried to a crisp by a thunderbolt. It’s a very public humiliation; your remains stay visible to your friends and foe, a reminder of what could happen to them should they be foolish enough to commit the same errors as you.  Around the world, the countryside is littered with stones said to have once been people.  Perhaps the most popular are The Merry Maidens outside the village of St Buryan in Cornwall.  The legend goes that they were nineteen girls, turned to stone for dancing on a Sunday.

In Greek mythology the gorgon Medusa had the power to turn anyone who looked into her eyes to stone, although her imperious gaze was also considered to ward off evil. Ancient Greek people, and later the Romans were very fond of Medusa charms, carving her image on to coins, bowls and door lintels.  The custom persisted for a long time.  I even saw a gorgon carved into a Victorian wardrobe at the Achilleon, the Corfiot palace which was home to the doomed Empress Elizabeth of Austria in the late 19th century.

The Medusa myth had such a strong hold on popular imagination that ideas and leimotifs of petrification survived the fall of the Greek gods to enter folklore all around the world. In Russian fairy tales, an evil   magician called Kaschei The Deathless has the same powers as a gorgon, turning anyone who dared to trespass on his grounds to stone.  He has been immortalised in Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird.   Kaschei’s Norwegian cousin, a giant, also petrifies anyone foolish or brave enough to venture too close to his castle to stone.

Kaschei in the English National Ballet’s The Firebird

In the popular story  The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body, he is defeated by a young prince and a princess he keeps captive in his castle. In both stories, the evil monsters are vanquished by people in love who, just before the battle, have shown kindness to others.  The ideas play on the belief that love and kindness have the power to conquer the darkest of evils.  Sometimes, a kind act saves the hero of a story from being turned to stone, as in the Indian tale, the Bel-Princess. Here a prince is in search of his lost bride who is being held captive by fairies.  A holy man he’s been kind to, warns him not to look behind him as he escapes with the princess, or he’ll be turned instantly to stone.

Kindness, this time to animals, is also the subject of the Grimms’ The Queen Bee.  Two reckless princes are turned to stone when they fail tasks set for them  by a magician. They are rescued by their youngest, foolish, brother who is aided in his tasks by the ants, ducks and bees he has shown mercy. The magician’s abode is described as surrounded by horses and creatures turned to stone, surely an inspiration for Jadis’ palace in the Narnia stories.

We may not believe in the power of the gorgon anymore but the horror of being punished severely for our crimes survives!

Illustration from The Queen Bee.
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2 Comments

Filed under Fairy Tale posts

2 responses to “TURNED TO STONE

  1. I enjoyed this, Saviour. A little bit off-topic but don't forget about trolls turned to stone if they stay out in the sun.

  2. Glad you like it. Thanks for the info about trolls. Didn't know that. There's a story about goblins being turned to stone because they attempt to kidnap a baby. Going to investigate..

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