A KASSITE MYTH: THE KARNARMA TREE MYTH

PREVALENCE - HISTORY/ORIGIN/PURPOSE - IMPORTANCE - STORY 

This popular Nybelmarian myth originated with the Kassite men, though versions of it have spread with the sheep it features, so that many people who live a shepherd’s life know the story of “The Karnarma Tree”, and how sheep came to live happily on the harsh Nybelmarian plainslands. Although it is not particularly religious in content, and lacks the usual powerful human protagonists of popular mythology, this story is much loved for its hopeful message of survival, and the figure of the red ram has become a widely held symbol of endurance.[1]

Prevalence. This myth originated with the Kassite people of the Eastern Nybelmarian plains. Its distribution coincides roughly with that of the karnarma sheep itself, as the story travels freely through those who trade in such sheep. The origins of this imported sheep breed is unknown, but it seems to share certain characteristics with a breed found in the extreme East of Nybelmar, which may have arrived when the Kassites first came to the eastern plains. It is less well known outside of the plains, though it has been recorded by scribes and researchers across much of the more populous areas of Nybelmar. Return to the top

History/Origin/Purpose. The beginnings of the story are not clearly recorded, though it seems fairly likely that it originated at around the time that the Kassite people began to domesticate the karnarma sheep. It seems that prior to this they herded a foreign breed of sheep that was unsuited to the plains’ climate. Thus the domestication of a hardier breed would have made life significantly easier for Kassite nomads.

The myth not only emphasizes the importance of livestock to these people, but serves as a fitting metaphor for the hardiness and kinship with their environment which the Kassite nomads value. The assertion at the end of the story that the tree can still be physically located suggests that there may be some basis in real life for the events described in the myth, but to what extent this could be is impossible to fathom, especially seeing as the tree has never been reliably rediscovered.

There is little obvious moral message in this story, though more general values such as perseverance and respect for animals are apparent. The role of the gods is also unusually ambiguous, as, depending on how far the narrator chooses to involve them in the occurrences surrounding the ram Karnarma, they could be seen either as malignant, cruel, thoughtless, beneficent or merely perverse. Return to the top

Importance. The tale of the "First Sheep of Caelereth" is not particularly important in the tales it relates – it doesn’t speak of epic war, the fates of kingdoms, great heroes or the passions of deities. What it does do is relate the struggle faced by people in their endeavours simply to survive, and to keep the things they cared for going. Though its hero is a sheep, it is a sheep that features in more children’s games and herder’s sayings among the Kassite people than any human warrior or god. It is the reason that red sheep are considered lucky and that sheep with plants growing on their backs offer protection to the tribe. It is the reason that small children gather scraps of wool and plant them in the dust. Return to the top

Story. Long ago, the Kassite men kept very few sheep, for they could hardly find enough to eat in the plains. Only the strongest sheep survived, and those that scratched a living from herding such animals grew much attached to them, gave them names and loved them almost as children. However, it was nonetheless hard for shepherds in this time, and every dry season or dust storm lessened the number of flocks, and caused another shepherd to lose his last sheep.

One shepherd, named F'khar, had suffered in the past few years, and was trying his best to scratch a living with only ten sheep. Of these, he was especially proud of a huge pale ram, who loved to toss dust clouds with his horns until he was as red as the earth. The herder named this ram "Karnarma" (which means “dirty horns”) and swore he would not give up herding if this ram still belonged to him.

However, despite his best efforts the sheep struggled, as the weather grew hotter and they could not find the water they needed, or a single blade of green grass. F'khar did his utmost for the sheep, leading them to secret pools and gathering all the greenery he could to feed them, but all his efforts could only just sustain the tiny flock.

One night as he was sleeping, sheltered in a small cave, it began to rain, and the swelling downpour mixed the dust to blood red slurry that clung to the feet of the sheep. Karnarma the ram bleated and gathered his ewes together, but F'khar was tired from digging wells for his sheep all day, and did not wake.

The rainstorm grew, until the dry dust was drowned by dark waters, and the sheep bleated together as the water drenched them and stained their pale fleeces as red as dawn. The ram Karnarma pushed at his ewes with his great heavy head, and urged them to climb to higher ground, but the thick red mud was grasping their hooves, and the more they struggled, the deeper they sunk. F’khar slept soundly, lulled by the muffled song of the wind.

The ram Karnarma bleated like the earth itself, growling at the storm with its mouth full of sticky mud, but he could not save the ewes. Eventually, as the struggling sheep were claimed one by one and sunk into the cloying earth, he was forced to climb on top of their drowned, mud-tombed bodies to survive the storm.

When F'khar awoke, the storm had passed, and he smiled as he felt bright sunlight on his face through the mouth of the cave. But when he stepped out, he felt his heart drop thudding to the base of his chest. The ground was glistening and muddy as a battlefield, and his flock was nowhere in sight. Desperately he called out, and was answered by a single, hoarse bleat. He stumbled and slid to where Karnarma still stood, as red as the new sun, on the slowly drying earth that hid the smothered bodies of the rest of the flock. Poor F'khar barely recognised his ram, and cried as he saw what had become of the flock. In despair he cursed the gods who had so callously starved, drowned and beleaguered him and his brave sheep. The ram Karnarma merely looked on with calm green eyes, standing silently on the churned, sticky earth.

It was then that F'khar noticed something else different about his noble ram – on his back, a flower was blooming, so pale and delicate that he hadn’t noticed it, against the bold red of Karnarma’s sodden fleece. Under the shepherd’s astonished gaze, the flower slowly grew taller, and put forth more leaves. The stem became thick and woody. The shepherd could not understand what this strange little plant could be doing on the back of the ram, but he decided it could do no harm, and let it grow. Instead he went away and busied himself with appealing to his friends for any ewes they could spare, for he was determined to live up to his promise and not stop herding whilst he still had Karnarma.

The ram Karnarma, unnoticed by his master, was acting very strangely. Instead of playing in the dust or foraging, as he usually did, he stood very still, as if in a trance. All the while, on his back, the little flower grew thicker and stronger, nourished by his brave blood.

The next morning F'khar woke in a black mood. None of his friends or relations had any sheep to spare, as they were doing little better than he was. He decided to console himself by explaining his troubles to Karnarma, but when he stepped outside and saw his ram he started in shock, and told himself he must be dreaming.

On the back of the ram Karnarma, the slender flower had grown into a mighty tree, with a trunk as thick as the great ram himself, and roots that wrapped around and around Karnarma’s belly in great spirals. The tree had set forth flowers, which seemed at first to be white, until F’khar looked closely and saw that they were made of the brightest, downiest wool he’d ever seen. At the centre of ever flower was a round, glistening red fruit. The tree, though it had grown in one night, was so thick, and had such darkly gnarled bark, that it looked like it had been there forever. F'khar thought it must weigh a great deal, and would surely crush Karnarma, but the ram stood as calm and as still as ever, even stepping forwards to greet the shepherd, and nuzzling his hand affectionately. With every movement that the old ram made, the great tree shuddered, its dark leaves softly muttering, and the pale downy flowers shed their woolly petals in the red earth around Karnarma.

F'khar realised that the tree must have been sent by the gods, as a reward for his devotion to his flock, and wanted to share the miracle with those he knew. He ran to find his friends and relations and bring them to see Karnarma’s amazing tree.

As F'kha rushed away, Karnarma began to appear restless. He walked about a little, and stamped his feet, and finally shook himself with such a great movement that all the little woolly flowers tumbled from the tree, and fell in the ground around him. They looked like white birds, or new lambs.

When F'khar returned with his friends, he found that again a great change had come over Karnarma’s magical tree. It was even bigger, with a trunk very wide, and roots very twisted and as thick as human legs. It had also lost all its flowers, and strangest and worst of all, there was no sign of Karnarma. By the coiling shape of the roots, it was clear that the noble ram had been completely enveloped in the tree’s constricting growth. Without the body of the red ram beneath it, the tree was connected at last with the soil, and thrust up from it like a dark, defiant fist.

All around the tree, small plants were sprouting, so fast that the assembled people could watch them growing. Under their unbelieving stares the plants grew to the height of a sheep, and put forth fat flower buds. The buds swelled and swelled. The flowers' stems began to droop, but the buds swelled even further - until they were the size of a man's head. And then, all of a sudden they began to burst, only instead of having flowers inside, tiny lambs were curled up like woolly fruit, and tumbled out as the buds opened, to stare with eyes as wide as those of the amazed people watching the spectacle.

These lambs were entirely different from other sheep, as the Kassite herders soon found. Their horns grew quickly, and sat like crowns on their heads. When the lambs were hungry they ploughed at the earth with their horns, and ate the roots they found under ground, shunning the grass and leaves offered by the shepherds. At first the herders feared their sheep would grow sick, but when the earth they dug up stained their fleeces, they realized these sheep were creatures made from the very soil they stood on, the children of Karnarma, destined to live easily on the plains they were painted with. They bear the name of the noble ram to this day, and if you search, you can still find the tree he is encased in, carved with a ram's head, standing in the red earth and baring its great curled branches at the sky, like a ram’s horns. Return to the top
________________

Footnotes.
[1]
Note: for ease of understanding, the species of sheep known as the karnarma will be referred to in this entry without a capital letter, whereas the individual ram known as Karnarma will have a capital letter. [Back]

 Date of last edit  7th Awakening Earth 1669 a.S.

Information provided by Seth Ghibta View Profile