Essay on Cundrie in RTM

March 15, 2019

Holy Grail stained glass at Quimper Cathedral. Image: Thesupermat.

The exceedingly ugly and scary woman is ubiquitous in European fairytales. Tales such a Hansel and Gretel and Vasalissa the Beautiful cast her as evil, but this is a later manifestation and a patriarchal reversal. The original archetype, while unattractive, is frightening because she is the voice of conscience. She confronts the hero or heroine with a sense of responsibility to core values. Conscience may be an unpleasant guest, but it is the opposite of evil.

Read the rest at Return to Mago

Musing on Cundrie

March 1, 2019
Vision of the Holy Grail by William Morris 1890

In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, a tale from the Arthurian canon, a sorceress named Cundrie plays a pivotal role in the plot. She first appears to chide Parzival (Percival) for failing in his task to attain the Grail. She is described as a maiden no knight would ride for: hideously ugly. She has the ears of a bear, the fingernails of a lion, the hands of a monkey, incisors like boar tusks, and a nose like a dog. She is apparently a young woman, however, because her hair, coarse like a pig’s bristles, is black.

Wolfram tells us that Cundrie’s beastly qualities were given to her as punishment for Adam’s sins, yet she is not debased in her dress and education. Despite her homely appearance, she is richly dressed in the finest silks. She is a learned woman, fluent in many languages, including Arabic. In the Middle Ages, Arabs had a reputation as exceptional scholars, especially in astronomy and mathematics, subjects we are told Cundrie has mastered. Despite her aristocratic bearing, Cundrie arrives on a mule, not a horse.

Cundrie represents wisdom in her encounter with Parzival, upbraiding him for not asking an important question. She later dispenses a healing potion. Though her animal qualities are characterized as sinful, pre-Christian Celtic-Germanic beliefs held the boar, bear, lion, and hound as particularly sacred. (The monkey doesn’t seem to fit, though.)

Cundrie is a puzzle. She seems like she may be a shape shifting animal goddess demoted to an ugly maiden cursed by God to appeal to Christian sensibilities. She retains her function as guardian of knowledge.

Who is The Lady of Shalott?

November 3, 2017

“The Lady of Shalott,” by John Waterhouse..
The “Lady of Shalott” is replete with references to Camelot, yet retellings of Arthurian legends, in novel or screen form, rarely mention this personage, nor is she named in medieval or Renaissance Arthurian tales. What is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem about the doomed lady based upon?

Tennyson said he found this obscure character in a collection of thirteenth century medieval Italian romances under the name “The Lady of Scalot.” This lady pined for the love of Lancelot, for reasons that are unclear, and as she approached her death from lovesickness she asked her father to lay her in an elaborate barge upon the sea with a letter explaining the cause of her demise and denouncing Lancelot as vile, presumably for refusing her love. The unmanned vessel bore her straight to Camelot and King Arthur’s Court. The lords and ladies of the court, along with the Knights of the Round Table, rushed outside the castle to meet the barge, learning through the letter the cause of the unfortunate lady’s death. Tennyson softened her name to Shalott because he felt it sounded more poetic.

This story is recounted in greater detail in Thomas Malory’s fifteenth century Morte d’Arthur, which more people are familiar with, although Tennyson said he was unfamiliar with this work when he published the early version of “The Lady of Shalott.” In this version, a young virgin named Elaine le Blank or Elaine of Astolat encounters SirLancelot making ready to enter a joust and notices that carries no lady’s insignia on his armor. She asks him to affix her emblem to his helmet, which Lancelot gallantly agrees to do. Lancelot wins the joust, and Elaine becomes hopelessly in love. She demands that Lancelot marry her, and when he refuses, she asks to become his paramour. Lancelot refuses, as his love has already been pledged to Guinevere, and Elaine proceeds as outlined in the Italian novella, though this time her barge is set upon the Thames instead of the ocean. After the dead Lady’s vessel moors at Camelot, Lancelot sponsors a Mass for her soul. This inspired Tennyson to add the line where Lancelot asks, “God in his mercy grant her grace” to a later edition of the poem.

Neither the Lady of Scalot nor Elaine of Astolat live in a tower where they weave, nor is the tower on an island, nor are they cursed, nor are they isolated from the rest of humanity, nor are they fairies, nor do they look at mirrors. On the other hand, none of these things are Tennyson’s inventions, exactly. While few would characterize unrequited love as a curse (except perhaps those enthralled by it), people in late medieval and Renaissance times did believe that lovesickness was a serious illness that often caused the death of the lover. Fairy women abound in Arthurian romances, as they do in Celtic mythology, and one of the ways both fairies and mortal women work their magic is through the textile arts. Towers are also found in the Arthurian legends, and knights and kings, as well as ladies, often find themselves imprisoned in these towers. The Isle of Avalon, toward which Arthur embarks as he lays dying, is central to the Arthurian tales.

Dumbarton Rock. Photo: Andrew McEwan.
According to Patricia Monaghan,

The original Elaine may have been the siren of Scotland’s Clyde River. There she lived on a rock-built castle on the rock of Dumbarton, staring into a magic mirror in which she could see all that went on in the world – a mirror that has been interpreted to mean the waters itself, whose mirroring surface could be “cracked” by storms. She may be related to the Welsh fairy Elen.

Where “The Lady of Shalott” departs furthest from the mythology that gave rise to the Arthurian legends is in the passivity of the character. The Lady is trapped inside her castle, isolated from the world, compelled to weave scenes of romance but not to participate. Her one self-propelled act is to look away from her mirror, and this results in her death. The Lady epitomizes the Victorian ideal of passive womanhood, the ultimate expression of this being a lingering death that strikes while she is young and beautiful. To quote another poet of Gothic romance, Edgar Allan Poe, “The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”

Here is the poem.

The Lady of Shalott
By Alfred Lord Tennyson

Part I
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers ” ‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.”

Part II
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed:
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

Part III
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Part IV
In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower’d Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seër in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance—
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross’d themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

About Last Week…

February 19, 2016

Photo: Alan Vernon.
Photo: Alan Vernon.

First let me reassure my readers that my promise to “eviscerate like an Irish satirist” was meant to be lighthearted. Some people didn’t get the joke, but I thought it was hilarious: it would be such a traditionally sound way to confront ultra-traditionalists. Ditto with my characterization of argumentative disagreement as “war”: that was an allusion to Morrigan.

I hope not too many times in the future to find myself in the position of explaining a joke, and I acknowledge that it’s a poor joke when people don’t get it. However, I can’t very well apologize for my criticisms (not that anyone has asked me to) since I didn’t level any – only telegraphed my intention. I’m glad it worked out this way, because now I know that the reaction had to do with my temerity to criticize rather than anything I would have said. I don’t hold animosity toward Pagan Reconstructionists, and as my readers know I value historical data as a way to inform practice. Having disagreements with Pagan Reconstructionism does not imply contempt or disregard for history, and it is precisely because this issue is framed in such a polarized way that there needs to be more critique. It may get ugly at times, but it needs to happen.

Sadly, my own critique will not be in verse. If you feel a need to comment on this post, I ask that you do that here rather than going to Facebook, so I can respond directly and publicly.

Review: The Morrigan by Morgan Daimler

February 12, 2016

themorrigan

Following up on my post last month about Celtic raven goddesses, I wanted to review this book about the goddess Morrigan, who was mentioned in that post.

The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens by Morgan Daimler is another installment of the Moon Books Pagan Portals series. It is a short book, under a hundred pages, but contains in-depth material nonetheless. It discusses the Irish triple goddess from early Irish literary and historical sources. Other Irish goddesses associated with or mentioned in conjunction with the Morrigan are also explored. If you are looking for a way through the baffling and contradictory literature about these goddesses your hopes are dashed. Daimler mostly confirms that the sources really are that confused and confusing. Needless to say, this is not a book for the casual reader. Still, those who worship Irish goddesses and are drawn to Irish Paganism will find it worthwhile. There are invocations, meditations, and personal recollections that break up the text, as well as short essays on general topics related to the Morrigan such as “dark goddesses.”

The Morrigan is written from a Pagan Reconstructionist perspective, with the limitations and prejudices this implies. It hints at the tensions between fundamentalists and reformationists in modern practice, which I find interesting rather than off-putting. Usually this “discussion” consists of Reconstructionists sniping at non-Reconstructionists and non-Reconstructionists rolling their eyes and ignoring Reconstructionists. I’ve decided that the time has come for some pushback from the other team and will be unleashing some well overdue criticism against Reconstructionism in an article I am writing for an upcoming anthology. I will eviscerate the Reconstructionists with incisive commentary worthy of the old Irish satirists. Morrigan has spoken: the war is on.

The Celtic Raven Goddess

January 8, 2016

Photo: Greg Tally
Photo: Greg Tally

Possibly the most common Craft name among Witches with a Celtic bent (as well as many Witches who do not consider themselves Celtic) is Raven or some variant like Ravenwood or Ravenspring. At a Witch gathering when Raven’s name comes up, the most likely response is, “Which one”? Perhaps this is apropos, since ravens seldom travel alone and they are rather hard to tell apart.

In Celtic lore ravens and crows (who are often conflated) may be associated with heroes (Bran, Owin, Arthur), but are more often linked with frightening warrior goddesses. Badb Cath, whose name means “battle crow,” is a classic example. As her name implies, she waits at the edge of the battlefield to claim that the souls of the slain, like the ravens waiting to devour their flesh. Sometimes Badb appears as the soothsayer called The Washer at the Ford, a wailing pale woman with white-blonde hair who sits on the banks of a stream wringing out a bloody shirt that will not come clean.

Badb is not the only goddess linked with the Washer, nor is she the only goddess of the crows. Morrigan is another warrior who claims the dead. Like other Celtic corvid goddesses, she is not just a passive player who prophesies and accepts the dead: at times she actively challenges the hero, who can only parlay her attacks temporarily. This excerpt from The Ulster Cycle is illustrative:

One night while Cuchulainn was sleeping, during the time when he was still fighting the men of Connacht, during the time when the men of Ulster were still fighting their labor pangs, he was awoken by a piercing cry from the north. He scrambled from his tent to find his chariot driver yoking the horses, and the two drove out on the plain to investigate the sound. There they met a woman in a chariot pulled by a red mare. The woman had red eyebrows and red hair, a red dress and a red cloak. Tied to her back was a gray spear. “I hear you have performed heroic and wonderful deeds,” she told Cuchulainn, “and I have come to offer you my love.” “I have no time for lovemaking,” Cuchulainn replied emphatically, “for I am completely worn out. I have been fighting all day and must prepare for battle tomorrow. Your visit could not come at a more importunate time.” “I will help you in your struggle,” the woman countered. “I have already helped you greatly, Cuchulainn, and you have benefitted from my protection.” “It is not a lady’s help I need in this fight!” Cuchulainn argued hotly, “and I will not trust your protection.” “Very well,” she answered, “prepare to do battle with me as well as the others.” With that the lady in red, her mare and her chariot disappeared, and he and his driver were left completely alone, except for a crow sitting in the high branch of a tree. Cuchulainn felt his own pang of sickness then, because he realized he had been speaking to the warrior goddess Morrigan. [Quoted from Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess]

Other Celtic raven/crow goddesses I am aware of (and this list is probably not exhaustive) are Macha, Nemain, Rhiannon, Branwen, Natosuelta, and Cathubodua. Like actual ravens, these goddesses are difficult to distinguish and debate continues over whether they are in fact different appellations for the same goddess. The inclusion of Macha and Rhiannon, who many know as horse goddesses, may be surprising, but ravens and horses appear together consistently in Celtic art.

Sources

Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge, 1992.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.