I have been spending a little time in the town library recently, reading local history and discovering folk tales from the towns and villages of the Mayenne. Two villages North of us have similar legends of spectral voices. At Neuilly-le-Vendin and Croix-Rouges disembodied voices have been reported by villagers. At Neuilly a ghost was heard disputing a field boundary night after night, calling for the fence to be moved. It fell silent once the offended party forgave any wrongdoing on the part of his neighbour.
At Croix-Rouges the ghostly voice advised travellers, and those emboldened by the story to discover its existence, ‘to go their way without fear,’ which seems an odd thing for a spook to say. I have been through Croix-Rouges and not heard a thing, presumably because I had not heard the story. Next time I shall listen more carefully.
I like the similarity of these stories, both arising within an easy morning’s walk across country, but my attention was caught by another country tale. This one is much more famous and is widespread across the entire European tradition. It is the story of the ‘Man in the Moon.’
The classic tale is of a woodsman, out collecting sticks into a bundle to take home, light his fire and cook his bread. A worthy pursuit you would think, but no. This woodsman is out on a Sunday. While on his way home he meets a stranger who stops and asks him why he is working on the Sabbath.
‘Sunday on Earth, or Monday on the Moon, makes no difference to me,’ replies the woodsman.
And so his fate is sealed. The stranger he has met is God, who is offended at the woodsman’s parlous attitude. The woodsman falls down in a faint, and when he awakes, discovers he is on the moon and is condemned to carry his bundle of sticks across it for eternity. There are a number of versions from Germany which include the woodsmans wife, condemned for churning butter rather than going to church.
There is a Dutch tale that tells us that the Moon’s resident is a cabbage thief. In these tales of people breaking social norms it is possible to make a link to the passage in the Old Testament where Moses finds a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. It doesn’t end well.
Earlier North European folktales tell us that there was already a Man in the Moon who controlled the tides and rainfall. Tired of all the hard work moving the world’s waters back and forth, he climbed down to Earth and stole two children to do the work for him, Hjuki and Bil. Over time their names evolved in the English tradition into Jack and Jill, with their own nursery rhyme. It still deals with the job of transporting water, but its relation to the Moon has been obscured.
Of the twelve men who have since walked on the surface of the moon, not one of them has reported seeing the woodsman, or his wife, or the rabbit from Japanese folk tales, the toad from Inuit culture, or the hare from India. One day, perhaps when humans colonize the moon, these creatures might follow?