Poetry Transmission and Vision of Reality
Poetic visions often passed on from age to age through rote repetition. In our own times, not many learn to recite by rote a verse of even a dozen lines. But all the lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey were once transmitted from generation to generation through their imprints on human memory. Hundreds of humans served the cause of cultural continuity in a many societies. Thousands of lines of the Üligers of Mongolia, lengthy narratives of ancient deeds of glory, used to be recited from memory by native rhapsodists. Here may be found historical personages like Genghis Khan , but also manggus, the polycephalous monster. Then there were the Chansons de Geste of the medieval French tongue which raised Charlemagne to lofty heights and spoke of happy days of yore when in the mornings birds would sing sweetly in Latin, and joy inflamed the universe at large:
Et les oiseaux en leur latin
Doucement chantent au matin,
La joie enflamme l’univers.
But equally, in these and in other epics, the themes of the rise and fall and the re-emergence of things occur. For, often the reality exposed by the poetic vision is not so much the scenes or episodes presented, but an underlying pattern or motif in the scheme of things. The particular may be exciting and interesting as we read or listen to the story, but the general principles relating to the human condition are what make the epics insightful and everlasting.
The Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, presumably born in England, speaks of a hero of another land. Though Grendel, the dragon who kidnapped and devoured warriors from King Hrothgar’s realm, may be sheer imagination for us of this age, medieval times when the work was composed, many common folk believed in their actual existence, with at least as much conviction as some in our own times who swear that the Lochness monster and UFOs do exist.
The dragon represents in some way the halfway world between scientific and poetic reality. For, its origins are in the serpents of the world, creatures that inherited the earth long before humans descended to the ground, but whose horizontal alacrity, subterranean habitat and venomous fangs spelled terror in the hearts of many ancient peoples. Poetic imagination, basing itself on stray instances of deaths from snake-bites, drew the image of a fearsome beast, out to wreak havoc on human life. So the Egyptian Ra fells Apophis who ruled a lightless realm, and Hebrews imagined the snake to be the cause of sin. The Gorgons and Hydra of ancient Greece were fearsome no less. But some, like the Romans, tried to appease the serpents in temples like Aesculapius, as was done in Hesperides and in India also, while Adisesha, the primordial serpent served as seat for the great Vishnu himself. In China, the snake evolved to wingless dragons of mammoth proportions ruling the air and duly worshiped by gentle Taoists. But from Homeric times to much of the Middle Ages, dragons were by and large evil creatures to be overcome by heroes, monsters to be subdued by the righteous and the mighty. Siergmund and Sigurd, Tristram and Lancelot, and a great many more of classic chivalry slew a dragon and won a name.
Today eager children listen the stories with eyes wide open, tasting to the full every moment of the thrill, but there was a time when dragons were no mere beasts of poetic conception. They were as real as the rhinoceros, not mere monsters made by the mind’s eye. As late as in the 16th century, Konrad Gesner’s monumental Historia animalium listed dragons among the variety of species inhabiting the planet.
Then there are the great sagas of Iceland telling of rival Norse knights and magic potions, where Brunhild in the Volsungasaga has her errant husband Sigurd killed, only to give up her own life on his funeral pyre, not unlike some wailing widows in the Hindu world .
Deeds of bravery and revenge, acts of glory and heroism; beings strange and powerful, often superhuman; gods and godlings, the recall of events of a distant past: such are the ingredients of the great epics of humankind. The world they created, the personages they fashioned, the beings they conceived, all with the poetic clay, lived on for ages, and some live to this day, as part of what many thinking and feeling mortals regarded and regard as aspects of reality.