Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Mouth No. 2

A few days ago I got the news that I’ve been shortlisted for that Lifetime Achievement Award. More on that subject – including how to vote – next week.

Last week, to introduce Mouth, I offered some sayings and quotes on the subject. This week’s offering is a story in which a butterfly comes out of an open mouth, then goes on a journey and returns. The butterfly, of course, is frequently seen as a symbol of Soul. Yet in several comparable stories of which I’m aware, it’s not a butterfly that comes out of the mouth but some other strange creature that is almost a little manikin.

The variants:

One of the variants is an African tale. It talks of a very sick man who is lying, fevered and thirsty, on the bed in his room. As he falls asleep desperately craving some water, his mouth falls open and a tiny little creature comes out. The creature hops across to the jug of water that stands beside the sleeper’s bed and there takes its fill of the water before hopping back to the sleeper and re-entering his mouth. At that point, the sleeper wakes up feeling much better and greatly refreshed.

Another variant comes from Wales and here it’s haymakers who are taking a mid-day break from their labours, sitting in the hedge at the side of the field, when one of them falls fast asleep. When one of his companions observes a monkey-like creature coming out of the sleeper’s mouth, he calls his companions’ attention and they watch as the strange little being crosses the field to the river that flows along beside the field and takes its fill of the water before returning to the sleeping hay-maker and disappearing back into his mouth.

Why I especially like the Welsh story:

I find the Welsh story very appealing in the sense that it reminds me of two separate occasions in my childhood when I saw hay being cut by hand with scythes, once in the couple of fields that my grandfather owned, once on the smallholding that belonged to my uncle. On each occasion, I remember the haymakers coming together from neighbouring farms to lend their help and at mid-day being brought their mid-day food. On the second occasion, I vividly recall, I travelled home perched on top of the hay-wain, my nostrils filled with the warm smell of the hay. My great-aunt had given me some odds and ends of beautiful ribbon to play with and I clutched them in my hands, feeling their texture, all the way back to my grandparents’ house. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

Why I tell the butterfly version:

But it’s the butterfly version I tell. And why? Because of it’s strange, mystic atmosphere. Because I love the visualisation. Because it works on a double level and it’s very much a story about dreams. The butterfly version as I give it below originates from Ireland. Here I’ve adapted it slightly from the version given by Kevin Crossley-Holland in his excellent collection, British Folk Tales, where it appears in the section entitled Enchantment, which I think is very apt.

The story:  Soul as Butterfly

Two walkers sat down for a rest on their travels and, before very long, one fell asleep. As he slept, his mouth fell open and, much to his amazement, his companion saw a white butterfly that came flying out.

The butterfly hopped onto the sleeper’s chest, then flew down the length of his body until it came to the rough ground beyond. After hopping onto the ground, it turned the direction of its flight towards a little stream that ran through the valley through which the walkers had been making their way. Watching, the sleeper’s companion clambered to his feet and began to follow as the butterfly reached a narrow path beside the stream and began to fly along it, moving side to side in its flight as butterflies do. After a while, it reached a point where a flagstone had been set across the stream, obviously as a crossing-point.

The companion following, the butterfly flew over the flagstone, then paused nearby at the edge of a clump of sedge-grasses. Afterwards it flew through the sedges, lingering there until it continued its flight, soon pausing again when it came to something white on the ground. The companion saw that this was the whitened skull of a horse. He noticed that the butterfly went into the skull through one of its eyes and, after a while, flew out through the other.

Now the butterfly began to return, back to the sedge-grasses and back to the flagstone, then back along the narrow path that ran beside the little stream until it came again to the sleeping man from whose mouth it had first emerged. Flying up onto the sleeper’s body, it fluttered  up to the sleeper’s mouth and at once went inside.

At that point, the sleeper closed his mouth and, in the same instant, awoke. Sitting straight up, his eyes open wide, he looked up at his friends and smiled as though in amazement.

‘What wonders I’ve seen,’ said the sleeper’s companion.

‘It’s I who’ve seen wonders,’ said the erstwhile sleeper. ‘I dreamt I was walking along a fine wide road, beautifully lined with trees, when I came to a finely-wrought bridge. After I’d crossed over the bridge, I came to a wood with the loveliest trees and after lingering there for a while, I followed a path to the most gorgeous palace. No-one seemed to be here. I went inside and looked around, moving from one beautiful room to another, until a most peculiar feeling came upon me which made me want to leave the palace and travel back along the way that I’d taken. When I finally returned to the place where I’d started, I suddenly felt very hungry and it was as I thought about food that I woke up.

The companion nodded, then said to his friend: ‘Come with me and I’ll show you where your dream took you and all the fine places you visited in your sleep.’

The companion showed him the narrow grassy path that went along the side of the stream, the flagstone that crossed over the stream, the clump of sedges and the whitened horse-skull.

‘That skull,’ he said, ‘is your empty palace where you explored the rooms. The clump of sedge-grass is the wood where you lingered and the flagstone is the bridge you crossed. And that grassy path is the fine road that you travelled.’

‘So we have both seen wonders,’ said the man who had slept.

‘Yes,’ said the man who had stayed awake and as they continued their walk, they both agreed that it seems to be true that the soul travels around while the body is sleeping.

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