Please meet Assipattle, the hero of a Scottish folk tale, who with courage and wisdom overcomes a terrible sea monster that threatens to consume the small kingdom in which his village resides.
I met him during a winding journey through the endless world of myths and folktales. I went looking for flood stories (more on that later) and found an anti-hero dressed in sackcloth and daydreaming. I liked him right away.
The story in brief: A terrible sea monster terrorizes a small kingdom in present-day Scotland. Its people sacrifice virgins to appease the beast’s destructive wrath, but to no avail. The king spreads an appeal in the kingdom, inviting brave young men to the palace to vanquish the monster. He offers half the kingdom, his legendary sword and lastly, the true gem – his daughter’s hand.
Several dozen enthusiastic young men and sixty battle gods arrive at the palace. Some take one look at the monster and faint. Others have a glimpse and run for their lives. Finally, there is not a single young man left who is willing to take the risk, despite the tempting rewards.
In his distress, the king turns to an old sorcerer who tells him that the only way to appease the monster forever is to sacrifice his only daughter, Gem-de-lovely.
A great and terrible sadness descends on the little kingdom, because Princess Gem-de-lovely was a good-hearted maiden and loved by all.
Assipattle meanwhile is engrossed in his affairs, which means avoiding chores and daydreaming. He really doesn’t look and act like a hero. Thin and garbed in rags, he’s bullied by his older brothers, who are less fond of his tendency to avoid chores and tell stories in which he is the invincible hero.
Assipattle misses his sister, the only one who treats him tenderly and attentively. But she left home to serve as Princess Gem-de-lovely’s maid. And so his heroic daydreams are an escape from the gray reality.
But when he learns that the princess is going to be sacrificed to the sea monster, he decides to take action. At dawn, on the day the king is about to sacrifice his daughter, he arrives at the bay from which she is supposed to depart on her last journey, his only weapon a lump of peat.
He tricks the owner of the boat that is about to carry the princess to her death and takes hold of it. He then rows into the heart of the sea, waits for the monster to open its mouth and drifts into its belly. In the drum of the monster’s belly, Assipattle reaches its heart, inserts the peat and blows on it to start a fire. The monster explodes from the inside.
Assipattle returns to the shore victorious. He is to marry princess Gem-de-lovely, receive the king’s legendary sword, and half the kingdom. When news of Assipattle’s heroic victory reaches his family, they too make their way to the palace. Assipattle, of course, forgives them for years of bullying and neglect.
What a story, right?
It has everything: fear and horror, an unexpected hero, and a happy ending. Chaos is defeated and justice is done. The story provides no explanations for the monster’s sheer evil and bloodlust. It is there to embody all our fears of what is rotten and bad in the world. She is there to represent the disasters that have no explanation.
And in this story, there are motifs from myths of different cultures: the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, Cinderella, David and Goliath. And of course, the story of near sacrifice. Sound familiar? But in this story the one who stops the father from sacrificing his offspring is not an angel of God, but a skinny lad in rags.
The stories of the anti-hero who won the kingdom were spread in many cultures. Sometimes, as a critical statement about class power relations and problematic patterns of social leadership. The poor commoner gains wealth, fame, and royal status when he is willing to sacrifice his life for the ruler’s family.
And wait, there’s more.
The story of Assipattle symbolizes the spirit of a people. It celebrates qualities such as the ability to dream, cunning and creativity, courage and “daring greatly.” Heroism. It appreciates the willingness to take great risks to fight chaos. Every nation produced and continues to generate such stories and pass them down from generation to generation. And these stories are, unsurprisingly, quite similar.
I began by noting that I had set out on a journey in search of flood myths. In fact, I went on a quest of hope. And of course, one of the clear symbols of hope is the rainbow, like this one:
Look closely at this image and you will see that under the colorful rainbow, there are remnants of a flood. The most familiar and well-known flood story is the biblical one, the story of Noah’s Ark. But there are other flood stories in different mythologies, such as the legend of Gilgamesh. Common to all flood myths is the wrath of the gods against humankind and the threat to destroy the world they themselves created. In the story of the biblical flood, the source of the wrath is the corruption of moral values. In the legend of Gilgamesh, some claim that what provoked the wrath of the gods was the desire of humans to become immortal. Another interpretation of flood myths is as a reflection of humanity’s helplessness in the face of the forces of nature: floods, storms, and volcanoes, for example.
The story of Assipattle is also part of a rich corpus of myths and stories of utter destruction on the one hand, and creation on the other. In our story, after the sea monster explodes from the inside, its body parts scatter about and become islands and strands of land that are part of present-day Scotland.
These myths and stories belong to all of us. Each one of us can interpret these stories as they wish and according to their faith. One can read them as a satisfying adventure story. Some lend themselves well to a mystical or romantic reading of the relationship between man and nature. These stories can be read as faith-based, religious, and spiritual texts. And you can take them to the realms of current affairs or to our very personal and intimate lives. I leave the choice to each and every one of you.
I will share with you my choice. I embarked on a quest of hope because I firmly refuse to give up on it, even when it is almost entirely hidden from view. After a tortuous journey between myths of destruction and recreation, I found hope in the story of Assipattle. Hope is perhaps like the lump of peat that Assipattle carries with him to fight the sea monster. At first it doesn’t look like much, but if you insist on breathing the fire of life into it, it can overcome even the most terrifying monsters.
Happy Hannukah and Merry Christmas.