|Where the Forest Murmers
Vol VI, by Fiona Macleod
If the cuckoo, the swallow, and the night-jar be preeminently the
birds of Summer (though, truly, the swift, the flycatcher, and the corncrake have as good
a title) the rearguard of Spring may be said to be the house-martin, the cushat, and the
turtle. Even the delaying wheatear, or the still later butcher-bird may have come, and yet
Sweet-Sweep may not have been heard about the eaves of old houses or under and over
the ruined clay of last year's nests; the cushat's voice may not have become habitual in
the greening woods; and the tireless wings of the turtle may not have been seen clipping
the invisible pathways between us and the horizons of the south. But, when these come, we
know that Spring has traversed the whole country, and is now standing ankle-deep in thrift
and moondaisies in the last rocky places fronting the north sea. No one doubts that summer
is round the corner when the flycatcher hawks the happy hunting-grounds of the
appleblossom, when the swift wheels over the spire of the village church, and when the
wild-dove is come again. The first call of the cuckoo unloosened the secret gates. We are
across the frontier in that first gloaming when we hear
To these familiar and loved harbingers from the south should be added yet another welcome friend who comes to us in the rear-guard of the Spring, though, rather, we should say he becomes visible now, for the Bat has never crossed the seas. The house-martin has not had time to forget the sands of Africa before her wing has dusked the white pansies on the sunside of old redbrick English manors: but the bat has only to stretch his far stronger yet incalculably less enduring pinions and then loop through the dusk from ivied cave or tree-hollow or the sombre silences of old barns, ruined towers, or ancient belfries sheltered from rain and wind.
The Awakening of the Bat . . . yes, that too is a sign that Spring has gone by, singing on her northward way and weaving coronals of primrose and cowslip, or from her unfolded lap throwing clouds of blossom on this hawthorn or on this apple-orchard, or where the wind-a-quiver-pear leans over the pasture from the garden-edge, or where in green hollows the wild-cherry holds the nest of a speckled thrush. She will be gone soon. Before the cuckoo's sweet bells have jangled she will be treading the snows of yesteryear. But no, she never leaves the circling road, Persephone, Earth's loveliest daughter. Onward forever she goes, young, immortal, singing the greening song of her ancient deathless magic far down below the horizons, beyond the lifting line of the ever upwelling world. And already Summer is awake. She hears the nightjar churring from the juniper to his mate on the hawthorn-bough, and in the dew among the green corn or from the seeding pastures the crek-crake! crek-crake! of the ambiguous landrail. This morning, when she woke, the cushats were calling from the forest-avenues, the bumblebee droned in the pale horns of the honeysuckle, and from a thicket newly covered with pink and white blossoms of the wild-rose a proud mavis saw her younglings at last take flight on confident win.-
A good symbol, that of the Awakening of the Bat. Darkness come out of the realm of sleep and dreams : the realm itself filled with the west wind and the dancing sunlight, sleep put away like a nomad's winter-tent and dreams become realities. Often I have wondered how it is that so little is commonly known of the bat-lore of our own and other races. Doubtless there is some book which deals with this lore. There may be some familiar one for aught I know, but I- have never met with or heard of it.
Recently I tried in vain to get some such book dealing with the folklore and mythology of the bat. And yet in the traditional lore of all countries there are many allusions to this "blind bird of the dusk." The Greeks, the Romans, the Celts of Europe, the westering Gaels, had many legends and superstitions connected with it. To-day the Finn, the Magyar, the Basque and the island Gael keep some of the folklore that has ebbed away from other nations, or become confused, or remembered only by old folk in old out-ofthe-way places. Somewhere I have notes of several bat-legends and fragments of bat-lore collected once for a friend, who after all went "to hunt the bat" before he could use them. That was the phrase which started the quest. He had read it, or heard it, I think, and wrote to me asking if I had ever heard the phrase "to hunt the bat" as synonymous with death. I have heard it once or twice in the last few years, and once in a story where the teller, speaking of an outlaw who was a great deerbunter in the wilds of Inverness, was found dead "with the fork of an ash-root through his breast, pinned like a red fox he was, and he by that time hunting the bat in the black silence." It would be inapposite, here, to linger on this theme, but I am tempted to record one or two of these bat-lore fragments which I recall: and perhaps, from the scarcity of such traditional flotsam and jetsam, some readers and bat-lovers may be interested.
The bat, commonly called in Gaelic an ialtag, or diallag, though even in the one shire of Argyll at least six other common names might as likely be heard, is occasionally poetically called the Bądharan-dhu, the dark wandering one. I remember being told that the reason of the name was as follows. In the early days of the world the bat was blue as the kingfisher and with a breast white as that of the swallow, and its eyes were so large and luminous that because of this and its whirling flight its ancient name was a name signifying "flash-fire"---though now become, with the Gaelic poet who told me this, dealan-dhu badhalaiche choille, " the little black wandering flame of the woods." But on the day of the Crucifixion the bat mocked at the agony of the Saviour, and while the red-breast was trying to pull out a thorn, now from Christ's hand, now from His foot, the bat whirled to and fro crying, "See how lovely I am! See how swift I am!" Christ turned His eyes and looked at it, and the blue and the white went out of the bat like the ebbing wave out of a pool, and it became blind and black and whirled away till it met the rising of night and was drowned in that darkness for evermore. And that is why the bat is seen in the dusk and at night, and wheels to and fro in such aimless wandering flight, with his thin almost inaudible voice crying, "See how blind I am! See how ugly I am!"
From the same source I had dealan-dhu bais, the little black flame (or flash) of death, and a still stranger note to the effect that bats are the offspring of lightning and smitten trees: the connection being more obvious to Gaelic ears, because dealan-bąs is one of names of lightning.
The other name I heard as a child, and it puzzled me. Beuban-an-Athar-Uaibhreach: literally, the malformed one of the Haughty Father. Now why should the bat be called beuban, a thing spoiled, wilfully malformed ?
"An t' Athair Uaibhreach " (of which an athar is the genitive) is one of the evasive names used by the Gael for Satan---for that proud and glorious angel, the Father of Evil, who fell from his high---estate through inconquerable pride. Why, then, was the bat the malformed creature of Satan? It was years afterwards before I had the story told me, for my old nurse (from whom I heard the phrase) did not think the tale fitting for a child's ears. When Judas hanged himself on a tree, so the tale ran, and his soul went out lamenting on the wind, the Haughty Father flung that wretched spirit contemptuously back into the world. But first he twisted it and altered it four hundred and forty-four times, till it was neither human nor bird nor beast, but was likest a foul rat with leathern wings. "Stay there till the last day," he said, " in blindness and darkness, and be accursed for ever" . . . and that is why the bat (the triollachan dhorchadas, "the little waverer of the dark,"or triollachait fheasgair, or little waverer of the dusk, as a more merciful legend has it) flies as he does, maimed, blind, accursed and feared, and shrieking in his phantom voice Gu la' bais! Gu la' bais! ("till the day of death" . . . ie., the Last Day).
In some parts of Argyll the bat is said to live for three generations of an eagle, six generations of a stag, and nine generations of a man. With less poetic exactitude I have been told that it lives thirteen years in flight and thirty-three years in all !---though equally authentic information avers that the average life of the bat is twenty-one years. A forester told me once that he did not think any bat lived longer than nine years, but he thought fifteen as likely as nine. On the other hand, he himself spoke, and as though for all he knew it might well be so, of an old tradition that a bat lives to a hundred years. This, I may add, I have heard again and again. The other clay a fisherman from the island of Lismore gave the unexpected answer: "How old will the ialtag be? Well, now, just exactly what the age of Judas was the hour he kissed Christ and betrayed him, and not a day more and not a day less." Nothing explicit as to that, however, could be obtained. A gardener told the once a rhyme about how to get at the age of man, but I have forgotten it except that it was to the effect that a losgunn (a toad) was twice the age of an easgunn (an eel), and that a diallag (bat) was twice the age of a losgunn, and that am fiadh (the stag) was twice the age of a dialtag, "and put ten to that and you'll have the allotted age of man" [i.e., an eel is supposed to live about seven years to seven and a half years: a frog or toad to about fifteen: a bat to about thirty: a deer to about sixty. I should add, however, that my informant was not sure if in the third instance it wasn't a iolair (eagle) instead of a deer.
One of the strangest English names for the bat (among over a score only less strange) is the Athern-bird ---a Somerset term, I believe, whose meaning I do not know.
But now to return to the rear-guard of Spring of whom we spoke first. Yet the folklore of the house-martin is so familiar that it need not be alluded to. We all know that it is time to think of summer when the martin clings once more to her last year's clay-bouse under the eaves.
It is when the wild-doves are heard in the woods that one realises the Spring-Summer borderland is being crossed. When the cusbat calls, all the clans of the bushes are at home, runs a Highland saying: meaning that every mavis and merle and finch is busy with liatching the young brood, or busier still feeding the callow nestlings. But when the voice of the turtle is heard in the land, then Summer has come over the sea on the south wind, and is weaving roses for her coronal and will be with us while we are yet unaware.
What a quantity of old lore one might collect about the dove, and as for the allusions in ancient and modern literature they must be legion-from the familiar Scriptural phrase about the turtle to Chaucer's, "the wedded turtil with her heartė trewe," from Greek myth or Roman poem to Tennyson's -'moan of doves in immemorial elms." Doubtless much of the dove-lore is so well known that it would be superfluous to repeat it hear. As the symbol of peace, of the Spirit, the dove herself is universally familiar. The turtle is also a symbol of mourning, and of old, as among the oak-groves of Dodona or before the fane of Hicrapolis, was held sacred as the bird of prophecy, of the soul, and of the life after death. It is because of the loving faithfulness of the cusliat that this bird was long ago dedicated to Venus; and it was because Venus presided over both birth and death that the dove became associated of old with scenes so opposite as marriage festivals and funeral rites. We are all familiar with the legend that the soul of a dying person may be seen departing like a flying dove, and so it was that even a tame pigeon came to be an unwelcome sight at the window where any one lay in serious illness. In a word, the peasant-invalid might take the bird to be a death-messetiger, the bird of the grave. The most singular of these folk-superstitions, I think, is that in whose exercise a living pigeon used to be placed on the head of a dying man in order to attract the pain to the bird and so case the sufferer. One wonders what became of the unfortunate pigeon.
The strangest of the northern legends is that Swedish one which makes the wild-dove the confidant of Baldur, the Scandinavian god of song and beautiful love, before he died "the white death" when the ancient world receded for ever at the advent of Christ. Still do they murmur in the woods of the immortal passion, the deathless love of the old gods, they who long -ago passed away one knows not whither, with Baldur going before them harping, and singing a strange song. One Gaelic poetic name for the cushat is poetry itself; Caoirean-na-coille, "the murmur of the woods." The subtlest legend is that old-world Finnish identification of Aino the dovemaiden and Vaino, the male-Venus of the North, like Venus sea-born, like Venus the offspring of Zeus and Destiny, and as Aino or Vaino now the singer, now the presiding deity at marriage festival or during the lamentations for the dead.
How little we know of this Vaino of the Kalevala, or of that not less mysterious ancient Teutonic nature-god Wunsch, or of our Gaelic Angus Ņg, son of heaven and earth; each of whom has the wild-dove for his own, his symbol and his mortal image. Each wove grass and plants and greenness of trees out of the earth and the rain, out of the sunshine and the wind; each spun flowers out of dew and moonlight and the rose and saffron of dawns and sunsets. Each, too, created strength in the hearts of men and power in their bodies, and wove beauty on the faces of women and children. Each became, thus, the god of happiness, of youth, of joy. And to each, finally, the doves were dedicated As their sacred birds, their mortal image among the illusions of the world. So here we pass back, pass away from the later tradition of mourning and death, to the old joyousness of Spring, of Spring who creates grass and plant and flower, the strength of men and the beauty of women and the gladness of children. Spring who turns when the appleblossom fades and lets loose the doves of Summer.CONTENTS