The imago of the insect emerges from the carcase of its former self.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Brigid of the Green Mantle



In Scottish tradition, the youthful maiden of Spring was known as Brigid of the Green Mantle (usually pronounced “Bride”). Her cult, which was still strong in the Western Isles of Scotland in the nineteenth century, achieved its definitive form in the sixth, during the days of Arthur of Dalriada. Indeed, it was his family which was largely responsible for introducing her cult to the Abernethy region of Pictavia: an area which remained an important locus for the veneration of the maiden until the seventeenth century (1). The legends of Brigid embrace virtually all those of the Lady of the Lake, and she is likely to have been the model upon which the Arthurian Ninianne was drawn.

All over Scotland, from Galloway to the Orkneys, the many churches, towns, wells and springs named after her, testify to Brigid’s ancient popularity in the country. She loomed higher even than Columba and St. Michael in the legends and traditions of the Gaelic North, and in some areas obscured the Virgin Mary herself in the veneration paid to her (2). Nowhere was she held in higher estimation than among the people of the Outer Hebrides who adopted her as their own “Bride of the Isles”, and among whom her feast day was celebrated with particular ardor.

February 1st, the Day of Bride, marked the first day of the Celtic Spring; and in the Western Isles, within living memory, - it was celebrated with songs and festivities to welcome the return of the maiden from the winter prison of the Cailleach Bheur (3). In many towns, an image of Brigid (4) was carried in procession from door to door by little girls, dressed in white and welcomed at every house with gifts of “Bride-bannocks” (6) and “Bride-cheeses” especially made for the occasion (5). ”Bride, Bride, come in! Your bed is ready” women would call at the doors of their houses. Moreover, in every house, the “bed of Bride” would be waiting, the “leaba Bride”: a tiny cradle to hold an even tinier image of the maiden (7). It was the symbol of Bride’s presence among the family and was displayed proudly for all to see. Communal festivities, singing and dancing, continued throughout the night until the whole village finally gathered outside to sing the hymn,” Beauteous Bride", as the first rays of the sun appeared above the eastern hills (8). Carmichael, in his Carmina Gadelica, recorded many of the hymns, spells and ceremonies connected with the festival and they reveal a complex mixture of Christian and pre-Christian elements.

Brigid can be traced all the way back to the pagan pantheon of the ancient Irish (9). She was the goddess of Poetry, the guardian of Prophesy and dreams, and her two sisters (also both named Brigid)(10) were the patrons of healing and craftsmanship. The Lebor Gabala says that she was the first woman ever to be heard weeping in Ireland (on the occasion of the death of her son Ruadan at the mythological battle of Mag Tuired)(11). This aspect of her deity has survived to the present day in popular Highland folk tales as the “Weeper at the Ford.”

In the fifth and sixth centuries, her legends and cultus came to be attached to the historical Irish saint, Brigid of Kildare - who was regarded by many as a reincarnation of the goddess - and in this way survived the introduction of Christianity. Today it is scarcely possible to disentangle the legends of the historical Brigid from those of the mythical one, so well have the two traditions been merged.

The Historical Brigid

The historical Brigid was born in Faughart, Armagh,(12) in 454 A.D, the illegitimate daughter of a slave girl named Broicsech (13) and a Fotharta nobleman named Dubtach (14) . Her mother was later sold off to a Munster dairy farmer in Limerick, but Brigid was received into Dubtach’s household and given an upbringing befitting a daughter of the nobility. When the time came for her to marry, she refused all suitors - much to her father’s indignation - declaring that she had already sworn herself to God. However, suitors continued to arrive. To escape them, she prayed to God to make her ugly, and as a result, either lost, or deliberately gouged out, one of her own eyes (15). At the age of eighteen, Brigid decided to dedicate her life to Chastity, and gathering three other young girls to her cause, set out to receive the blessing of the bishop. The usual miracles are said to have occurred on the journey: dead animals sprang to life at her touch; a treacherous bog turned into a meadow of sweet flowers etc., etc (16). Finally, after her consecration, she built for herself a rough cell under an oak tree on the plain of Liffey, (afterwards known as Cill Dare or Kildare: (“The Church of the Oak Tree”) and women from all over Ireland flocked to join her order.

We know nothing of the primitive monastic rule which these women followed, apart from the fact that they wore white (the color of chastity); but it is likely to have been ascetic. One old Irish hymn believed to date from the sixth century describes Brigid’s almost Manichean contempt for the world:
Brigid the Victorious, she loved not the world. She sat on it like a sea-gull sits on the ocean, and slept the way a captive mother sleeps who mourns the loss of her child.” (17)

The religious order which she founded (comprising both men and women among its members) was unique in Ireland. At Kildare, both sexes lived their segregated lives within the walls of the same monastery, and even worshipped together in the same church (18). Later, Brigid must have found the duties of ruling over both sectors of her community too onerous, for she persuaded a hermit named Conleth to leave his “desert’ and rule over the male part of the order (19). Thereafter, Kildare possessed an abbot as well as an abbess, although there is little doubt that the women constituted the major proportion of the order’s members.

The nature of Brigid’s authority in Ireland was also unique. Cogitosus, in his seventh century biography of the saint, mentions her “see” in Kildare, and states that she held all the powers of bishop in the province of Leinster, conferring benefices on clergy, presiding at local synods and visiting the many villages in the diocese as spiritual mother (20). Conleth’s successors gradually took over these episcopal powers from the abbesses; but in the earliest years of the community, Brigid herself, and the abbesses which followed her, wielded the supreme religious authority in the province Such peculiar matriarchal power linked these holy women, in the eyes of many, with the pagan priestesses of the past.

It is a fact that Brigid made a deep impression on everyone who met her. Her compassion and gentleness were legendary. In her youth, she often angered her father by giving away all the family’s milk and cheese to the poor. Once she even gave away her father’s best clothes and battle armor; and when she became abbess of Kildare, she bestowed Conleth’s fine mass vestments upon the local lepers. Anyone who came to her door was given food or medicament. Even wandering animals received meat from the community’s own table. It is little wonder, then, that the kindly virgin clothed in white, who fed the hungry and cared for the sick of Leinster, came to be so readily identified with that other Brigid: the young pagan goddess of the Spring who brought new life to the world of winter. Her reputation grew among Christians and non-Christians alike. In many Gaelic areas, pagan and Christian elements mingled together to create hybrid cults dedicated to her memory. Great saints like Brendan came to seek her advice on many matters, and even kings of Pictavia came to Ireland to enlist her help against their enemies (21). A century later, Irish missionaries carried her name all over northern Europe.

When she finally died in 524 at the age of seventy (22), a fire was lit to her memory at Kildare and tended by generations of her nuns. For almost a thousand years, it remained burning at the monastery until the time of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. Giraldus Cambrensis, who visited Kildare in the twelfth century, called it one of the wonders of Ireland.

The Legacy

Her cult remained strongest in the remote Gaelic areas of Ireland and Scotland where the fruitful association of spring goddess with Christian saint created a dynamism which ensured its survival for many centuries. Several pages would be needed to list all the titles by which she was evoked by the Gaels; but only a few will give some idea of the esteem in which her memory was held. She was: Bride of the Isles; Bride of the Golden Hair; Bride of the White Hills; Bride of the immortal Host; Bride the Victorious; Bride of the Green mantles; Bride of the Harp; Bride of the Sorrowful; Bride of Prophecy; Bride of Pure Love; Bride of White; Bride of Joy; Bride of the Kindly Fires; Mary of the Gael...

Brigid was also worshipped under the title of “foster-mother”. She was often known as “muime Chroisd” (the foster-mother of Christ) after an old Highland tale which relates how she came to the stable at Bethlehem to aid the Virgin Mary at her childbed. Acting as mid-wife, she helped to deliver the child Jesus, wrapping him up in her own green mantle and lulling him to sleep in the cow manger. For this reason she acquired that other popular appellation:”Brigid nam Gratta” (Brigid of the mantle).

Carmichael records in his Carmina Gadelica how Hebridean midwives would invoke Brigid to enter the homes of women who were in labor, begging the goddess to do for them what she had done for the mother of Christ. Expectant mothers would sing incantations to her, asking for aid in the pains of their labor. Foster Mother, Virgin of Joy”, they would call out to her begging that their children might be born without defect or blemish, strong and perfect like the Son of God.

Brigid then, was the patron of all midwives and foster- mothers; but her sphere of influence did not exhaust itself there. Since she was perceived as the deity of youth and the nourisher of mankind, milk, the natural food of a mother for her children~ was believed to be sacred to Brigid in all its forms. The dandelion was known as Brigid’s flower (Bearnan Bride) because of its milky white sap; the hazel, her tree because of the “milk” which is found in its green nuts; and the milk cow was her special animal. Even the biographers of the historical abbess of Kildare could not completely dissociate the saint from these associations with milk and cattle. Many of them tell how St. Brigid was born while her mother, Broicsech, was carrying a pail of milk to her master; how she was bathed in milk at her birth; and how in later life, her gifts to the poor and needy were mostly of milk, cows or cheese. In the sixteenth century, as Sir David Lyndsey testifies, the saint was still being portrayed in the pictures and carvings of the time, accompanied by a cow.

The Cult

Brigid’s own trees, the hazels, entered the Gaelic imagination to become the subject of many beautiful legends. Like the apples of Avalon, they were believed to grow in abundance in Paradise where they bestowed longevity, knowledge and inspiration upon those who consumed their fruits. References to the “Hazels of Wisdom” are many in early Irish writings; and mentions of “toll na Nothar”(Hazel of the Wounded) suggests a belief in their healing qualities. In many areas of Europe, the benevolent aspect of the mother goddess was worshipped as the goddess of the hearth; for the hearth was the center of the home; the focus of family life; the domain of the mother. Brigid was no exception. Her title, ’Brigid of the Kindly Fires”, testifies to this aspect of her divinity. Carmichael tells us that her footprint (‘Lorg Bride”) was looked for in the ashes of the family hearth on the morning of St. Brigid’s day in the Outer Hebrides. Her perpetual fire was kept burning at Kildare in a circle of bushes which no man could enter. Nineteen nuns each kept vigil over it in turn (25); but on the twentieth night, the fire was left unguarded. Brigid herself was believed to descent on that night and the nuns would welcome her with the words: ’Bride, take care of your own fire for this night is yours” (42).

The other principal role played by the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian literature is that of instructress in the art of war. Both the heroes Arthur and Lancelot received their arms, when they came of age, from the lake maiden. As a result, were virtually invincible in battle. In the Suite du Merlin, the Lady of the Lake is described at Arthur’s wedding feast dressed in the trappings of the huntress. She rides her high white horse straight into the populous banqueting hail followed by her pack of yelping hounds. Her hair is long and golden, her clothes of deepest green and in her hand she holds a longbow ready to discharge. This is a description of the richly dressed gruagach of Highland tradition; the fairy woman of green, protector of cattle and wild animals. Sometimes young, sometimes haggard, the gruagachs were well-known characters in the folk-tales of the north (43). Many legends were told of them wandering the hills with their animals or calling at lonely cottages at night to dry themselves by the fire. ”Gruagach” is usually translated as ‘maiden” for the word is presumed to derive from “gruag”: the hair of the head (45). J.P.Campbell, however, pointing out that the gruagachs of Highland tradition were often the possessors of extraordinary knowledge and martial skills, suggested that the word came from “Groac‘h”, the name given to the pagan druidesses had a college on an island neat Brittany (47). In his opinion, the gruagach, or long-haired one, was:
a professor or master of arts, or one that taught the feats of arms...the learned gruagach who is so often mentioned was a druid in his glory...

The suggestion is an attractive one, for according to legend, gruagachs were not born gruagachs. They were ordinary young noblewomen who were given their education and deathless nature by the fairies. Until quite recently, milk was still being left for them by the villagers of the western isles in cups of stone (clach-na-Gruagach) hollowed out of the solid rock of the hillsides. In the traditions of Northern Ireland, the gruagachs degenerated into small, naked, hairy creatures; but in Scotland they retained their image as the learned women of the hills.

Communities of warrior women were common in the Celtic world. We know from classical writers that Celtic women often fought alongside men in battle. Posidonius and Pomponius Mela tell us of the existence of colleges of warrior druidesses on the islands of Western France. In the Arthurian legend, Peredur son of Efrawg, mention is made of the witches of Caer Loyw: a sisterhood of nine female warriors who wore armor, rode horses and fought battles. Peredur was taken to their camp -“The Witches Court” - where he was taught to ride, to fight and to handle his weapons. Skye was the site of the most famous military academy in Irish folklore. There, the woman named Scathach (“the Shadowy One”) taught the skills of battle to some of Ireland’s greatest heroes: CuChulainn, Conchobar, Loegaire, Conall Cearnach and many many more (48).

When we examine the legends of Brigid, we find no mention of the maiden engaging in any war-like activities; nor are her maidens ever described as warriors. Instead, the fighting is done for them by a guardian or a champion. Sometimes he is named as Aengus of the milk-white steed, sometimes as the god Manannan; and his function in the legends is to rescue Brigid from the power of the Cailleach Bheur who abducts her every year at the end of Summer. We hear of him wandering the wasteland calling her name, coming upon her at Last on Ben Cruachan, and fighting to free her from the evil minions of the winter hag. On returning her to the world once more, the flowers begin to appear, the cows to give milk and the sun to warm the land. One old Hebridean dance, which was still being performed in the late nineteenth century, told in movement the story of the death of the ugly hag of winter at the hands of Brigid’s champion. It was a dance for couples and was called “The Cailleach of the mill Dust”. During the performance, the man symbolically smote his female partner on the head with a long wooden staff and she fell down “dead” at his feet. Slowly, limb by limb, the maiden of Spring was reborn from the fallen body of the winter hag. First, her hand stirred, brought to life by the touch of the champion’s magic wand. Then her arms moved, her legs twitched, and finally, restored fully to life once more, the maiden sprang to her feet and danced energetically with her happy rescuer.

In the western isles of Scotland, the champion of the pagan goddess, Brigid, survived Christianity under the guise of St. Michael; and it is not surprising therefore that St. Monenna should have dedicated all her religious foundations on the fortified hills of Scotland to him. Michael was the warrior par excellence of Highland folklore, embodying many aspects of the gods Lug and Manannan as well as of Michael the archangel of Heaven. The epithets applied to him were as evocative as those of Brigid. He was Michael the Victorious, Michael of the Bright and Flashing Swords, Michael of the milk-white Stallion, Wanderer of the Heavens, and Shining Servant of the Lord. Like Manannan, he was often portrayed as a sea-god riding his white horse over land and sea with his Trident poised in his hand. His feast day, September 29th (Michaelmas), was celebrated in the Western Isles with horse races run on flat areas of land near the seashore. It was customary on that day to steal a neighbor’s horse to take to the races for Michael had stolen a stallion when escaping from the fortress of the Cailleach. It was also customary for wives to travel to the races with their husbands on the same horse and for brothers to ride with sisters: in this manner, Brigid and her champion were believed to have returned from the land of the Dead to restore the world to life. Other chants and ceremonies common on that day, such as the carrot ritual, betray the more pagan aspects of the champion as a fertility god.

The story of Brigid’s rescue from the land of the Dead finds frequent echoes in the medieval Arthurian literature. Caradoc’s Life of St.Gildas casts Guinevere as the captive Brigid, and Arthur as her devoted champion. The work relates how Melwas, the wicked lord of the Summer Country, raped and carried off Guinevere to his island fortress of Glastonbury. For twelve long months, Arthur searched for his queen, traveling from one end of the country to the other; and when at last he found her, he besieged the island with his armies and effected her release. The legend must already have been an old one in the twelfth century for it was being told in northern Italy at about the same time that Caradoc was writing his Life. A semicircular stone frieze depicting the rescue can still be seen above the northern door of Modena cathedral. It shows a castle surrounded by water within which Guinevere (Winlogee) is seen imprisoned by three warriors: Mardoc, Burtmaltus and Carrado. Arthur of the Britons (Artus de Bretani) and five other mounted knights including Yder, Gawain and Cei, are shown attacking the fortress from either side with long spears. The date of the carving is judged to about 1105 AD and illustrates just how far afield the abduction episode had spread before any of the Arthurian Romances had even been written.

Caradoc’s setting of the story in and around Glastonbury is revealing, for Brigid had strong links with this Somerset village. Twelfth century legend had it that she had once resided there; and the chapel on top of the Tar was later dedicated to St. Michael, her brave champion. In addition, we know from Cormac's Glossary (c, 900) that Glastonbury was, from very early on, the center of a strong Irish community and may have been one of the centers of the cult of Brigid in Southern England.

Chretien de Troyes also related the abduction of Guinevere in his Lancelot (c.1177). This time, the evil Lord’s name was Maleagant, "a tall and powerful knight, son of the king of Goirre’. In no uncertain terms, Chretien describes the dark prison of the queen as a kingdom of the Dead: “a land of no return where all who dare to enter remain forever, bannished and enslaved”. It was surrounded by deep waters: “dangerous and bottomless, so that if anything fell into it, it would be lost eternally just as if it had fallen into the depths of the ocean”. Entry to this island way by one of two paths: a road submerged beneath the black waves, (representing the passage of the dead) or a giant sword bridge suspended over the waters and guarded by two fierce lions. The way of the hero was by the sword bridge and this was the way chosen by Guinevere’s other champion, Lancelot, to enter the land of the Dead. Although he finally managed to defeat Maleagant and to free the imprisoned Guinevere, Lancelot was compelled to do battle with the dark knight all over again the following year at Arthur’s court; for the abduction and subsequent rescue of the White Lady was perceived as an annual drama by the Celts: a yearly struggle between the forces of Summer and Winter, Life and Death, for power over the world.

Two champions, therefore, are named for Guinevere in the Arthurian legends - Arthur and Lancelot - and these are exactly the two warriors who were brought up under the protective wing of the Lady of the lake in their youth. We now begin to perceive something of the reason for that benevolence. In her gifts of arms and mothering patronage, the Lady of the Lake was creating supreme warriors who would one day repay her favors by descending into the Underworld to free her from the demons of Death, or else to retrieve from them the symbols of her power.

As we have already seen, the journey of the champion into the Underworld was visualized as a voyage through water. . Sources of water were the entrances to the Lands of the Dead in Celtic mythology, as they still are today in the imagery of dreams. Hence, although The Spoils of Annwn describes Arthur traveling to Caer Sidi in his ship Pridwen. In an earlier version, he must have dived beneath the surface of the waves to begin his adventures in the Underworld. Even in the Border legends of Thomas the Rhymer, the road to the realm of the Fairy Queen lay across water:
“0 they rode on and further on,
And they waded through rivers abune the knee,
And they saw neither the sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.”

In the pagan legends of Brigid, the entrance to the Underworld was conceived of as a well, or a natural spring, standing in a distant valley by a sacred tree. We know from the innumerable wells all over Scotland dedicated to Brigid and the nine maidens that this vision of “the well at the world’s end” was a very important one in the imagery of the cult. The Cailleach Bheur, we remember, was often to be round guarding the wells of the Scottish Highlands; and gruagachs were said to abound in their vicinity. Sometimes, as in the Irish legend of the well of Segais, the sacred well, was believed to be surrounded by a ring of nine hazels -“the Hazels of Wisdom” - which represented the nine maidens of Brigid.They would drop their nuts into the water below creating bubbles of vapors which, if inhaled, would give the initiate great knowledge, health and inspiration. In the British legends, however, only one tree is usually mentioned. Cynon, a warrior of the Gododdin, describes such a well to Cei in The Lady of the Fountain:
In the middle of a valley, this resembles a great river,
you will see a giant tree...and under it a spring, and by the spring a marble slab to which is attached by chains, a silver bowl.’

Both Chretien in his Yvain and the writer of the Welsh Manawyden son of Llyr give almost identical descriptions of the well and the silver bowl: so it must have been a familiar image in British legends. Cynon’s descent into the depths of the well is symbolized by a passage through a mighty shower of rain, which kills both men and beasts:
“I threw a bowlful of water over the slab and immediately there came a mighty peal of thunder...and a shower of piercing rain. In addition, I felt sure, Cei, that neither my beast nor I would be able to survive that shower, for the hailstones smashed through the skin and flesh to the bone. I turned my horse’s head away, placed my shield over both our heads...and just as I felt my life leaving my body, the rain stopped. I looked about me. The leaves had disappeared from the great tree...the birds began to sing...and I heard a voice calling, out to me.”

Considerable, then, was the courage required by the champion on his descent into the well. However, there were more dangers still to be faced from the creatures that lived in the depths. Mallory relates how, on the eve of the battle of Camlann, Arthur had a strange dream which foretold his death. He dreamed he was seated on his chair upon a high scaffold:

“Below him in the depths, was a deep, dark well, in which there swam monsters, dragons and serpents. All at once, the scaffold tiptoed over, throwing him headlong into the depths of the well where the creatures surrounded and tore him to pieces.”

At the bottom of Brigid’s well there was believed to reside a large white serpent known variously as “The Daughter of lvor”, ”The Queen”, or the “Serpent of the Hazel Grove”. It was supposed to crawl out of the well every year on the feast of St. Brigid and to be responsible for producing fierce winds and storms’. Carmichael informs us images of the serpent were taken out and beaten on St. Brigid’s day in the Hebrides; and several strange chants referring to the serpent were repeated on that day.

Certain unique characteristics distinguished this serpent from the treasure-hoarding dragons of Southern England. Firstly, it was particularly fond of milk (the food of Brigid): the only substance that could satisfy its voracious appetite. Secondly, residing at the bottom of the well, it lived by consuming the nuts which fell into the water Prom the hazels and therefore it was the possessor of great knowledge and wisdom. Finally, it was a very difficult reptile to dispose of. If it were cut into two halves, the pieces would simply re-unite again as soon as they touched water. In addition, if the serpent was not destroyed before it reached full maturity, it would devour Brigid and her maidens and disappear down the well once more. Such a story is told in connection with the “Well of the maidens” in Aberdeenshire and of another of the same name near Auchendoir. St. Michael was, of course, often known as “Michael the Victorious” and “Conqueror of the Dragon” because, as Brigid’s champion, his function in the myth was to overcome the serpent and effect the release of the maiden.

Remnants of the myth still survive in the folk tales of Scotland and the North of England. At Kirkton of Strathmartin (near Dundee), a serpent is said to have devoured all nine of the maidens as they carried water from their father’s well. It was slain by a local hero named Martin; and a broken Pictish symbol stone near the village is supposed to mark the spot where the battle took place. The stone dates from about the eighth century. It shows a serpent with a Z rod, two equestrians, and another unidentified monster.

The district between the Forth and Tees rivers is a particularly fertile one for these echoes of the maiden’s cult. Penshaw, County Durham, preserves the legend of the “Lambton Worm” which crawled out of a local well and could only be appeased with the milk of nine cows. Bishop Auckland has its “Pollard Worm” and Roxburghshire its “Linton Worm”. All of these legends relate the slaying of a serpent by some great warrior, and all are variations on the pagan myth of Brigid. The northern tale that cleaves most faithfully to the original story, however, is that of “The Worm of Spindlteston Heugh”. It concerns the enmity between a young princess named Margaret and her wicked stepmother the queen. Margaret was left in charge of Bamborough Castle by her father when he went overseas. However, the queen of the castle, jealous of the girl’s beauty, decided to take the opportunity to dispose of her stepdaughter for the last time. She turned the maiden into an ugly serpent and banished her to a cave on Spindleston Heugh. The serpent did not remain long in its prison, however. It began to terrorize the countryside, burning the crops and demanding large amounts of milk from local villagers. The land soon became dry and barren, the harvest failed.

Famine struck the region. Margaret’s brother heard news of the monster’s ravaging from overseas, and fearing lest his sister might be in some danger, set out with a large fleet to defeat the serpent. The queen prevented him from landing for a while. She sent her armies and her coven of witches against him. Even the serpent fought to keep the fleet at bay; but the will of the hero prevailed. The young man finally landed on Bamborough Sands and confronted the serpent with drawn sword. To his great surprise, he was informed that force of arms could not overcome the reptile: only three kisses on the lips would defeat the monster. Reluctantly, the hero delivered the kisses on the lips of the hideous dragon. Immediately, the Lady Margaret returned to her usual form and was carried in triumph to the castle. The wicked queen was banished from the kingdom; and the land returned to its former fertility!

This Serpent’s Kiss or “Fier Baiser” is a familiar element in several of the Arthurian legends. When it occurs in Lanzelet and Le Bel Inconnu, its function is to break the spell by which some lovely maiden has been transformed into a serpent. In the cult of Brigid, the serpent is none other than the Cailleach Bheur herself, the destructors of crops and enemy of Life. The serpent’s transformation into the maiden of Spring is symbolic of the yearly change from Winter into Summer; reminding us once again that Brigid and the Cailleach Bheur were perceived as complimentary aspects of the one all-embracing deity: the goddess of the world, creator and destroyer of Life.

We meet the maiden and the Cailleach again in Chretien’s Yvain, under the names Lunette and Laudine respectively. Like the tale of “The Worm of Spindleston Heugh”, part of the story is concerned with the disinheritance and banishment of a young maiden by an elder female relative, and her return to power due to the efforts of a brave champion. Both lunette and Laudine reside in the land beyond the enchanted spring by the tree. Laudine is the elder of the two, the Countess of the kingdom and owner of the marvelous spring. When we meet her for the first time, she is the very image of Death. Her long silken clothes are torn and slashed, her yellow hair disheveled and smeared with blood. From her mouth come shrieks and wails of mourning and her hands are rubbed red with pain. The cause of her unhappiness is the death of her husband, the protector of the enchanted well who had been killed by Owain (son of Urien) during his descent into the Underworld. However, the deity of Death thinks nothing of marrying her husband's murderer as long as he will protect her precious fountain In the Welsh equivalent of Chretien’s tale, The Lady of the Fountain, Owain is clearly informed there is no love in the Countess:
“She does not love you. I swear to God. Not even a little.
She does not love you at all”.

The other woman in the story is the young handmaiden, Lunette, who is in the service of the Countess. Lunette is clearly intended to represent the maiden of spring. She is beautiful, innocent and helpful. A love-hate relationship exists between her and the Countess. During one of their quarrels, Laudine threatens to murder the maiden, and an attempt on her life is carried out in the second half of the tale. Some of the Countess’ men take the young Lunette to prison and threaten her with death at the stake. Owain comes to her rescue, but only before he has slain a poisonous serpent: the mythological action analogous to the saving of the maiden. The story ends with a confused account of a feud between two princesses (evidently Lunette and Laudine) for control of their kingdom. The younger sister was disinherited by the elder, but championed again by Owain. Arthur then arrives to act as judge in the dispute end decrees that the kingdom should thereafter be ruled jointly by the two sisters.

Loomis, in his Arthurian Tradition and Chretien de Troyes, suggested that Laudine, the name of the haughty Countess of the fountain, was derived from an early form of “Lothian”; and that the earliest version of the tale must have originated in that region. This suggestion appears to be a sound one. Remnants of the original myth of Brigid still survive, as we have seen, in the folk-lore of Southern Scotland. In addition, the principal heroes of Yvain and The Lady of the Fountain - Owain, Cynon, Gawain and Arthur - are all northern characters. Owain was the historical ruler of Rheged after the death of his father Urien; Cynon was from Eden and is mentioned in the Gododdin as one of the warriors at Cattraeth; Gawain was popularly believed to have been a prince of Galloway; and Arthur was a Hiberno-Briton of DalRiata. The earliest versions of the Arthurian legends were probably produced in the region between the two walls by the prolific northern bards. From there they were carried to Wales by refugees fleeing from the Angles of Bernicia and were kept alive in the mouths of Welsh storytellers. The original stories from which they were derived can still be clearly distinguished) and they show just how much the Arthurian tales owe to the myth of the pagan Brigid.

As to the specific rituals and ceremonies performed by the adherents to the cult of Brigid, we know virtually nothing. No doubt they took place at the various “maiden Wells” scattered all over Scotland. We can envisage initiates being dipped into the waters in imitation of the champion’s descent into the underworld; being dried by attendant priestesses and - clothed in the milk-white garments of Brigid. One old Islay tale seems to recall the ceremony. It tells how three scaly heads appeared out of the water when a young princess looked into the well at the world’s end. Loudly, they called out to her:

“Wash me, wash me, my bonny maiden,
And dry me in your white linen cloak.”

A similar scene is to be found in The Old Wives’ Tale: a play of the Elizabethan period.

Some of the original cult survived up until the nineteenth century on an island on Loch marine in the Western Highlands. In Ireland, where serpents were unknown, a salmon was substituted for the white dragon in the cult, and the well itself became a cauldron: the cauldron of re-birth, property of the mother goddess. Hence Finn was said to have received his remarkable wisdom by tasting the liquid in a great cauldron in which a salmon was cooking. Gwyon Bach received his poetic genius after tasting three drops from the caudron of the mother goddess Ceridwen. In Scottish tradition, the notorious alchemist and mathematician Michael Scot is reputed to have gained his extraordinary magic powers while watching the cooking of a white snake in a cauldron. The death, submission or transformation of the hostile monster, whether snake or salmon, not only had the effect of freeing the maiden of Spring and rejuvenating the land: it also gave the champion his own reward. He gained something of the power and wisdom of the defeated creature.

The Holy Grail, the sacred object for which the knights of the Round Table searched, was, in the earliest tales, nothing more than a platter for holding a salmon. And in the image of the grail castle standing in a barren waste land, of the fisher king searching the depths of the waters for the elusive fish to feed his people, we see once more a variation on the myth of Brigid. But no longer is the creature of the depths to be feared. The fish is Christ himself; the struggle to gain it: a war against the evil within one’s own soul. In the legends of the Holy Grail, the myth of Brigid found its noblest expression: a human search for spiritual renewal.

Even today, centuries later, the old pagan rituals of the cult of Brigid are still with us. They are performed annually by schoolchildren in homes all over Scotland. At Halloween, the last day of the reign of Brigid, silver coins are placed in large tubs of water. Children lean over, dip their heads in the water and attempt to retrieve the coins using only their lips. Others fill the tubs with floating apples and try spearing the fruits by dropping forks on them from their mouths. It is all a game now; all good fun. They have little idea that in their actions they are unwittingly commemorating the yearly rescue of the Spring goddess from the well of death: a myth which has shaped many of the Arthurian legends and given color and meaning to a host of other native folk-tales.

© Ryszard.Antolak

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1.In the 17th century, the Kirk Session of Glamis forbade pilgrimages to the oak tree at Abernethy (associated with the cult of Brigid from the 6th century) .In the Hebrides and on the western coasts, the veneration of’ Brigid continued for a further two centuries.

2.Brigid, Columba and St.Michael are the three great saints of the Western Isles. They were often evoked together in spells and chants. See Carmichael, Carmina_Gadelica; Stewart, A., Twixt Ben Nevis and Clencoe; mcNeill, The Silver Bough.

3.The Celtic festival of Imbolc,the return of the sun. The day after it in the Christian callander was Candlemas, the feast of the Purification.

4.It was made from a sheaf of corn and was adorned with flowers and sea shells.

5.They were called “the maidens of Bride”.

6.A bannock was a kind of cake baked principally on the four quarter days of the year. It was made of yeast,.oatmeal, sugar, cinnamon and water beaten into a circular shape and toasted on a gridle on the fire. Sometimes a piece was thrown over one’s shoulder to appease evil spirits.

7.As with the larger, public, image of the maiden, this one was made from a sheaf of corn or oats. Beside it was placed a piece of wood, stripped from all its bark: the “wand” of’ Bride. This was her symbol of power.

8.A banquet was often organized by the young girls of a village who would bar all the doors and windows to prevent the boys from entering. Only after, when the young men of the village formally asked permission to enter, and promised to pay homage to Brigid, were they allowed to join in the celebrations. See Carmichael,Carmina Gadelica.

9.‘Di poetess...a goddess worshipped by poets” .Cormac’s Glossary. She is probably the same deity worshipped by the Brigantes (“The People of Brig”) of northern England.

10.Morrigan, we remember, was also one of a trio of sisters. The Triads tell, us that there were three Guineveres , all of them wives of Arthur (Guinevere, daughter of Gwythyr, son of Greidiawl; Guinevere, daughter of Gawrwyd Ceint; and Guinevere, daughter of Ogyrvan Gawr) .Isolde too, the lover of Tristan, was one of a trio of women (Isolde the mother, who healed Tristan; Isolde the daughter, whom Tristan loved; and Isolde of the White hands, whom he married). It is interesting to note that “Brigid of the White hands” was one of the names under which the pagan goddess of poetry was invoked.

11.This was a primeval battle between the gods of Ireland described in the Lebor Gabala Erenn (“The Book of the invasions of Ireland”). It was fought between the Tuatha de Danann - a people of whom Brigid and Morrigan were members, -and the Fomorians, a hideous race of giants. Both races fought for possession of Ireland in the mythological past. Brigid had a son, Ruadan, who fought alongside the Fornorians in the battle. He was killed by Goibniu, the smith. The Fomorians lost the battle and were expelled to the Western Isles of’ Scotland.

12.Faughart is the traditional site of her birth. In reality, she was probably born near Croghan in Offaly. Faughart in Armagh was undoubtedly ccnfused with Fotharta, the people among whom Brigid’s father was a chieftain.

13.One of the seven daughters of’ Dalbronach of the Deisi of’ Bregia (Watson,301).

14.The Fotharta were a people of’ low social standing scattered throughout Ireland. They were mostly concentrated in Carlow, Wexford, Armagh, Offaly and around Lough Swilly in Donegal. Dubtach was a military leader of’ the Fotharta.

15.This element of’ the story is taken from the legends of the pagan goddess Brigid. One side of the goddess’ face was disfigured (Lady Cregory,Gods and Fighting IYlen,p.2.). The Morrigan, the Fomorians, and the Cailleach Bheur also only possessed one eye each. Brigid’s disfigurement was a reminder that she was also the alter-ego of’ the Morrigan.

16.Exactly what one would expect to happen after the goddess of Life and Spring had passed by.

17.Broccan’s Poem, believed by Colgan, (Acta Sanctorum 1647 A.D.) to date from the sixth century.

18.A high wooden partition separated the two communities inside the church.

19.(Conlaed).He died in 519 A.D.

20.Cogitosus states that this came about as a result of’ a mistake While being confessed by the aged bishop Mel of’ Ardagh (a disciple of’ St.Patrick who died in 488), the old man inadvertently read out the words of consecration of a bishop instead of the words of absolution. The story is certainly spurious and was an attempt to rationalize the extraordinary powers which Brigid weilded in Leinster.

21.According to the Pictish Chronicle, Nechtan Morbet, son of Wirp was expelled by his brother Drust to Ireland. There he begged Brigid to help him. And she prayed for him and told him:”If’ you manage to reach the shores of’ your kingdom again, God will have pity of’ you. You shall rule the Kingdom of the Picts in peace”. Nechtan reigned between 457 and 481.

The Aberdeen Breviary tells how Domath, a king of the Picts, was hard pressed in battle against the britons. He asked Brigid to come from from Ireland to help him. She came and founded the church of’ Abernethy. The king and his court were baptized.

22.Ulster Annals:(524)”The repose of Brigid in her 70th year.” (Welsh Annals: 521 A.IX)

23.Known variously as Medana, Darerca and Etain

24.This spring was later reputed to heat those with whooping cough.In the grounds of the ruined St.Medan’s church in the mull of Galloway, three springs are dedicated to her.On the1st of May, sick children were bathed in the first pool. Adults with bodily ailments were bathed in the second spring. The third spring was used by those who had eye trouble.

25.These may also equate with the “nine virgins” who warmed the cauldron of’ re-birth in the Arthurian Pa Gur.

26.She dedicated them all to St. Michael, the consort of’ Brigid and the slayer of the dragon in Gaelic legends.

27.“St. Moduenna, a virgin of’ Lothian and Galloway”, Skene, Celtic Scotland, II,p.38.

28.Some of’ her biographies state that she died in Whithorn (Candida Casa) ;others in Longforgan in Gowrie.

29.Skene (Celtic Scotland 1,277) associates Triduane with one of the two virgin abbesses who came to Pictavia with St. Bonif’ace in the eighth century. But the history of’ Triduana is clearly taken from the legends of Brigid.

30.Orkneyinga Saga

31.Watson, op.cit.,p.334. Triduana’s associate in the legend of’ St.Bonif’ace was called “Crescentia” (“she who gives increase”).

32.Narrated by Boece in his Chronicles of Scotland IX,25 (trans.Bellenden)

33 A certain St. Dovenald.of Abernethy. The maidens are said to have walked “.. with perseverance to their latter da”.(Boece, op.cit.). The reference to their father is probably a pagan misconception of the “Mighty father.”

34.According to the Pictish Chroniclu,Dairlugdach, the abbess of’ Kildare came to Abernethy when Nechtan was king of’ the Picts, and sang Alleluia over the gift of Abernethy to Brigid. During the reign of Nechtan (457-481), Brigid herself’ was still alive, and therefore Dairtugdach could not have been abbess at that time. The whole story is probably spurious.

35.Fincana was a 6th century saint associated with Dunbtane. For the derivation of’ the word “Mayota” see Watson, op.cit.328.

36.According to Boece, when Mayota “maid inhibitation to the wild geese to eit hir faderis corn, they obeyit hir haly monitions; and thaifore, wild geese was never seen after on that groung”. Caesar tells us that the Britons had a taboo on eating geese. Geese are popular images on the Pictish symbol stones of Scotland.

37. It was commonly believed that war wounds could be healed by bathing them in the milk of white horn-less cows. In the the 12th century, new-born children of the Irish aristocracy were still being bathed in milk. In Scotland, the cult of the pagan Brigid attached itself most strongly to the legends of St.Kentigern. Jocelyn, in his Life of Kentigiern, tells us that the saint lived upon milk alone; and when some of his milk spilled into the Clyde, it was not lost but turned miraculously into cheese (xxx~iiii).

38.“Sanct Bryde, weill carvit with ane kow”.(See Watson,275, and Carmichael op.ctt.). In one of the legends of Cu Chulainn, the Morrigan possessed a magic cow which could heal wounds.

39.MacKenzie, D.A.(Ancient man in Britain, p.144,) suggests that the apples of Avallon may originally have been hazels.

40.They bestowed longevity because Brigid was the goddess of Youth and Spring; Knowledge, because her sister was the goddess of craftsmanship ; inspiration, because Brigid was the goddess of poetry.

41.In Rome, Vesta, the goddess of family life, was worshipped in a circular temple in which a fire was always kept burning to signify her presence.The fire was tended by an order of virgin priestesses selected from the noblest families in Rome. Legend tells us that during the days of Arthur of DalRiata, a continual fire was kept burning in the monastery of St.Serf at Culross in Fife. The young St.Kentigern was ordered to tend it; but the fire was allowed to go out through the spite of’ Kentigern's fellow students. The young saint prayed to “The Father of Lights”, plucked a hazel branch from a nearby tree, breathed on it, and immediately the branch burst into flame.(Jocelyn,op.cit. )

42.David Ure, in his History of Rutherglen (1822 A.D.) describes a strange ritual performed at Halloween (the last day of the reign of’ Brigid) in Rutherglen. Towards evening, a circle was marked out on the floor of the house with chalk or a piece of string. No-one was allowed to enter it. After sunset, however, a fire was lit in its centre and eight women entered the circle, taking up positions around the fire at the eight points of the compass. The chief of the women was given the name “Bride”, and the others were known as her “maidens’t, although they were sometimes also given individual names. The woman sitting in the east took some dough which had been prepared earlier, beat it into a flat bannock on her board and threw it onto the board of’ the woman sitting on her left. This woman, in turn, beat the bannock into a thinner shape before throwing it onto the board of the next wornan; and so on.When it finally reached Bride, sitting in the N.East, it was placed on a gridle and toasted in the fire. The whole series of actions was then begun all over again with other pieces of dough until a large quantity of bannocks had been produced. It was the custom for the first bannock to be given away to some known cuckold in the town, so that the others would be preserved from harm. All the bannocks were then given away freely to villagers at the local fair.

43.Gruagachs were believed to look after the cows on local Highland farms. Farmers used to leave milk out for them on the hills as a reward, and if this custom was forgotten for some reason, the cattle often met with an accident. Gruagach’s also loved children, and preserved the aged from harm.

44.J.P.Campbell,Popular Tales of the West Highlands ~1ol I,p. LXXXWII.

45.This is in contrast to the gruagachs (or grogans) of N. Ireland who were very different.Ulster gruagachs were small, naked, hairy men with exceptional strength who did odd jobs around local farms for milk (very like the Uriusks of’ Scotland).In Scottish legend also- though very occasionally -masculine gruagachs are to be found. But as a rule, the Scottish gruagachs were the richly-dressed women of the hills. See Wood-martin, W.., Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, Longmans (1902); Spence,l. ,The Fairy Traditions in Britain, Rider (1948);macKenzie,o.A., Scottish folk-lore and Folk-life, Blackie (1935); and Carmichael,~.,Carmina_Gadelica,Oliver & Boyd, (1928-41).

46.Campbell, J.F.,op.cit. ,p.LXXX~III.

47.Posidonius wrote that in the 1st century 8.C.,a religious community of’ women lived on an island near the mouth of the river Loire. Every year, they put a new roof on their temple; and if any of the women dropped any part of the roofing material, the others would literally tear her to pieces. No man was allowed to set foot on the island, although the women regularly went to the mainland to cohabit with men.

Pomponius Mella (1st century ) wrote of a community of nine virgin pristesses on the island of’ Sein near Brittany. They were reputed to be able to control the weather, heal wounds and turn themselves into animals.

48.Irish legends tell of three military academies on the Isle of Skye, two of them run by women. One of them was Scathach (the Shadowy one) and the other Aife, her rival. The third was run by the male teacher Domnal Mnildemain..Cu Chulainn studied under all of them. One of the characters in the 10th century iochmarcEmite says of Cu Chulainn: ’Let him visit Domnal Mildemail, the war-like, in Alba (Scotland) and he will be able to fight rnarvellously; let him visit Scathach, the shadowy One, and learn the arts of war with her, and he will. be supreme in Europe.” The site of Scathach’s academy is traditionally believed to be at Dun Scaith (the Fort of Scathach) on the Sleat peninsula of Skye.

49.Brigid and the Cailleach were, after all, aspects of the same deity.

50.Skene, Celtic_Scotland, II, p.37.

51.“To steal a horse on Michaels Day. Is not a theft in any way.” See Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica

52.The reference to twelve months confirms the suggestion that the whole story was derived from a pagan yearly fertility myth.

53.Brigid’s sojourn at Glastonbury is mentioned by William of’ malmesbury in his De Antiquitate Glastoniensis (1135 A.D.)

54.Cormac, relating the conquests of the Irish king Criomthann, son of Fidach (the predecessor of Niall) in S.W England, calls Glastonbury:” Glastonbury of the Gaels”.

55.In The Life of’ St.Gildas, Caradoc had described the wicked Melwas as “Lord of the Isle of’ Glass” (Celtic legends often depicted the Underworld as a fortress of glass).Chretien, or a later scribe, miswrote “Goirre” for “Voirre”(the French word for glass), and the word stuck. The Lord of the Underworld was thereafter called the Lord of Goirre, or Gorre”.

56.Compare this with Cu Chulainn’s entry to Scathach’s fort in the Tochmarc Emire. Scathach’s fort stood on an island to which it was possible to gain access only by a dangerous bridge called “The Pupils’ Bridge”. When a stranger walked to the middle of this bridge, it threw him back onto the mainland. Cu Chutainn successfully crossed the bridge and was confronted by Scathach’s champion, Cochar Cruibne. He slew Cochar and later succeeded him as champion.

57.“White Ghost” has often been suggested as the translation of the word “Guinevere.

58.Jung, Archetvpes of the Collective Unconscious, parag.40. B8. In the Spoils of Annwn”, Pridwen is named as Arthur’s ship. Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, calls Pridwen, Arthur’s shield; and the meaning of the word “Pridwen (“Fair Face”) seems to be more suitable for a shield than for a ship.We should , perhaps, envisage Arthur in the Spoils of’ Annwn” descending into the Underworld by the force of his shield i.e.,by warrior skills rather than by ship.

59. Just as Cu Chulainn dives on his raid on the “Land of Scaith” in the Leabhar na hUdhri. Indeed this raid is very similar to that raid on the Underworld by Arthur in the Spoils of’ Annwn. The story tells how Cu Chulainn sailed to the Land of Scaith where he found Dun Scaith (the fort of Scathach) surrounded by seven ramparts and a palisade of iron on every rampart displayed nine decapitated heads. The hero broke through all the defences and siezed an enormous cauldron full of gold and silver, three giant cows and the daughter of the king. On his way back to Ireland, his currach overturned and he was forced to swim across the sea carrying his men and his booty on various parts of his body. See also The murder of Cu Roi.

60.Thomas the Rhymer of Ercledoune near Melrose: an historical personage of the 13th century. He was said to have been given the gifts of prophecy and song by the Queen of Fairyland. “Many of’ his prophecies were published between the 16th and 19th centuries.

61.Compare these nine hazels with the nine white stones commonly placed around Brigid’s well in Sanquar, Dumfriesshire, by local girls on St. Brigid’s Day; and the nine maidens who stirred the cauldron of rebirth in “The Spoils of Annwn”.

62.Manawydan is cognate with the Gaelic Manannan and with St. Michael. In Manawydan son of Llyr, he rescues Rhiannon and her son Pryderi from the magic fountain.When they had touched the siluer bowl they became motionless and dumb. The country became a waste land until Manawydan rescued them.

63.Perhaps such bowls and slabs were also common sights in the British countryside at one time. Something resembling them were known in Brittany up until the last century: they were little fertility altars.

64.“This is Bride’s Day:
The serpent will approach from its mound;
I will not harm the serpent
And the serpent will not harm me"

Carmichael quotes several versions of this chant which was intoned on St.Brigid’s Day in the Hebrides. The serpent was clearly a manifestation of the Cailleach’s power. It was responsible for the storms which occurred between February 1st and May lst: the period in the year when Brigid and the Cailleach struggled against one another for mastery of the seasons.

65.Brigid too, we remember, was often styled “Brigid the Victorious”.Oengus uses it in his Felire (c.800 i~UD.):

“Great is Brigid the Vtictorious; beautiful is her populous cemetery”. It is also used in the 6th century Broccan’s Hymn. It may have been one of Brigid’s earliest titles.

66.The serpent is one of the most common creatures to be found on Pictish symbol stones. Sometimes it is depicted alone, sometimes with a Z-rod: a kind of’ spear, broken in two places. Z-rods are also to be found in connection with two other symbols:a double disc and a strange indented rectangle. The rod may represent the staff of power which is passed between Brigid and the Cailleach every year (the serpent is a symbol of rebirth and change). The double disc may represent the two “suns” of the Celtic year - the winter sun and the summer sun - with the broken rod between them implying the division 01’ t~e year between the two.Other common symbols on the Pictish stones include the fish, the goose, the cauldron, the mirror and the comb: all of them associated with the legends of Brigid 97. The so-called ‘Pictish elephantt1.

67.The legend relates how the young heir to Lambton Castle went to Fish in the River Wear one Sunday instead of going to the church. Instead of a fish, he caught a small, ugly worm with nine holes on each side of its mouth. It was such a hideous creature that the youth threw it away into a nearby well. The worm lived at the bottom of the well for many years until, one day, it crawled out and wrapped itself around a nearby hill. It had grown to gigantic size, and soon began ravaging the countryside for food. The local villagers were compelled to leave a giant trough, filled with the milk of nine cows, at the bottom of the hill every day for the worm to drink; but even this was not enough.meanwhile, the young heir to Lambton Castle, who had been away fighting in the Holy Land, returned home and decided to slay the monster. An old hag advised him how to do this, and in return, he promised to kill the first living thing he found when he returned to the castle. When he had finally disposed of the hungry serpent, the young man’s father appeared to congratulate him. The hero refused to kill his own father and killed his dog instead. Hence, the House of Lambton was cursed from that day onwards.

68.The Linton Worm was slain by Somerville, laird of Lariston in about the year 1170. King William the Lyon is said to have rewarded Somerville for his heroic deed by giving him the barony of Linton in 1174. See Henderson,W., folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders(1866)

69.The main elements of’ this story: The enmity of the hag to the maiden, the disappearance of the maiden, the ravagings of the serpent, the withering of’ the crops, the arrival of the champion from overseas, and the final rescue of’ the maiden by her brother are all clearly borrowed from the pagan myth of Brigid and the Cailleach.

70.Similarly, just as the Cailleach takes the place of Brigid as ruler of the seasons in the latter half of the year, so Mordred is destined to usurp Arthur’s throne. Mordred’s birth is usually given as May 1st, the Summer festival of the Celts. And Mordred is called a serpent by arthur in The Death of King arthur (CLxIU):”~h, Mordred, now I see that you are the serpent that I saw in my dream; which crawled out of my belly, burned all my lands and threw itself’ upon me. But though I am your father, I will murder you with my own hands.’t

71.All of’ them were also contemporaries. Gawain, however, is probably a mythical character.

72.Cynon, son of’ Clyddno Eidyn of’ the Coeling was one of the three warriors who returned from the battle of’ Catraeth. In the Gododdin he is also refered to as “Cynon of Aeron” (Ayrshire). The Triads calls. him one of’ Arthur’s ‘Three Wise Counselling Knights” and tell us that he fell in love with Owain’s sister, Morvydd.

73.William of’ Malmesbury, Acts of’ the Kings.

74.“The Well at the World’s End. Tales of the West Highlands ,III.

75.See Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, p.110.

76.From the 17th to the 19th centuries, local clergymen recorded strange pagan rites on the island. People worshipped there at a sacred well beneath a hallowed tree. Bulls were slaughtered and milk was poured out around the well. The rites were performed in the name of St. Maelrubha, a contemporary of’Columba; but they are clearly of pagan origin. In 1772, a lunatic who had been brought to the well to be cured, was required to drink water from the well and to immerse himself’ three times in the loch.

77.A beautiful description of the well is to be found in the Irish tale of how Cormac mac Airt obtained his magic cup. The story tells how Manannan took Cormac to The Land of Promise. There he saw a shining well around which grew nine ancient, gnarled hazels. As the nut fell into the water below. They were eaten by five salmon who lived in the depths of’ the well. And from the well flowed five gentle streams whose sound was like enchanted music. Manannan later explained that the well was the well of’ Knowlege; the salmon, the salmon of wisdom; the streams, the five senses. Only those who drank from the well received knowledge. (Stokes,W.,Irische_Texte). In The Colloquay of the Ancients, Oisin, son of’ Finn, discovered the well at Uisnech (in the centre of Ireland) althuugh this time it was inhabited by eight salmon. See also O’Crady, Silva Gadelica II,p.78; O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and mythology,p.322.
78. In Irish and British legends,the cauldron of’ the mother goddess had three main functions:

a) It could restore dead men to life. In Branwen daughter of’ Llyr, the god Bran tells Matholwch of’ Ireland: ” If’ any man has been killed today, throw him into it (the cauldron). Tom rrow he will fight as well as he ever did, but he will be completely dumb.

b) It was connected with the arts of war. In Branwen, the original owner of’ the cauldron is said to have been the female giant Cymidei Cymeinf’oll who gave birth to fully- armed warriors. These warriors are ‘tthe best that anyone has ever seen. The cauldron in the Arthurian “Spoils of Annwn” will not boil the food of’ a coward”.

c) It gave knowledge and poetic inspiration. Finn, Gwyon and Michael Scot all received their inspiration after drinking some of’ the liquid from the cauldron.

These three functions of’ the cauldron reflect the three attributes of’ the pagan Brigid:Goddess of rebirth; Goddess of craftsmanship and poetry; and foster-mother of’ warriors. Arthur seized the cauldron from the Underworld in the Culhwch and Olwen and “The Spoils of’ Annwn”.

79.Michael Scot (1172-.1234); mathematician, astrologer, alchemist, physician and scholar. He worked for the emperor Frederick II in Sicily. Dante referred to him in Canto XX of’ the Inferno; and Boccaccio called him “a great master of’ necromancy. Legend says that while he was watching the cooking of a white snake in a cauldron, some liquid from the cauldron fell on his fingers. Putting them into his mouth, he immediately received his magical powers. On Brigid’s Day, he once rode all the way from Scotland to Rome on a flying horse to ascertain the date of Easter. He is said to have possessed a magic serpent which travelled by forming itself into a circle and eating its own tail. Scot’s book of’ magic arts is supposed to have been buried with him in Melrose Abbey. (See Waif’s and Strays of’ Celtic Tradition,Argyllshire Series, Nutt,1889,lIol. I.pp.47-5’3).

80.Chretien de Troyes in Le Conte du Graal. In his prologue, Chretien says that he obtained his information about the grail from Welsh sources. From a certain Blihis (possibly Bleheris (1100-1150)). He describes the grail as a large platter for holding salmon. It is housed in a castle in the middle of’ a waste land and is the property of’ the crippled Fisher King who must be healed in order to bring life to the area again. Robert de Boron and later writers of the grail legends turned the platter into the chalace of’ Christ.

81.The fish itself has become the object to be retrieved from the well. St.Augustine described Christ as the fish drawn from the depths (Confessions XIII,21) •Christ as the f’ish:the Icthys (the Greek anagram of’ “Christ”) is heavily stressed by de Boron in particular. But the Celtic myth from which the grail legend is derived may be found in the "ring and fish” episode of’ Jocelyn’s Life of Kentigern ;and ultimately from the myth of Brigid.

82. The tub, of course, is merely another symbol for the well. In Peredur, son, of Efrawg, women are described taking a dead man from his horse, rubbing him in oils, placing him in a tub and bringing him back to life again. Jocelyn, in his Life of’ of Kentigern - a work which is permeated with episodes from the pagan myth of Brigid, - describes Kentigern’s strange death in a tub of’ water. An angel had permitted Kentigern’s disciples to accompany their master to heaven when the time came. On the appointed day (Jan 13th) Kentigern lay down in a tub of water and immediately died. His disciples quickly fought one another to enter the water after him; and all those who managed to do so before the water cooled down, died. The water in the tub is clearly intended to represent the waters of salvation, rebirth; and Jocelyn supports this suggestion by stating that the saint died on the day, “when the dear man had been accustomed to baptise his congregation”.

© Ryszard.Antolak

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Morrigan


After a battle, when the victors had gone off to feast their triumph with meat and mead, and the bodies of the dead lay strewn upon the battlefield, the ravens would descend upon the scene to rip and pick at the bodies of the slain. The descriptions of these European vultures are many in the early poetry of Britain. In the Anglo-Saxon Finnsburg, they are the “birds of battle’ singing for joy at the start of the battle, and wandering “swart and dark-hued” at its conclusion. The famous elegy attributed to the Coelite chieftain Llywarch Hen describes how the poet takes the head from the body of his beloved cousin Urien and carries it away from the battlefield to deprive the ravens of their feast:
This head I carry, close to my side,
The head of Urien, generous leader of the war bands,
And on his breast, there sits a carrion crow....”

After such warring confrontations, the fields of battle must have grown black with their wings.

In early Celtic poetry, the raven was believed to be a dead soul in the service of the Underworld; and anyone who has ever seen ravens arriving to devour a carcass will understand something of the reason for this belief. They arrive as if by some unseen signal, gliding effortlessly to the place of the kill. Their presence seems almost inevitable: a force of Nature, messengers from Hades arriving to claim a new subject to their dim domain. The mere presence of blood was thought to attract them and it was commonly believed that they knew in advance if any battle was about to take place:
The eagle knows where it can find food, but not when.
The raven knows the place, but not the time.” (1)

The personification of the raven that devoured the bodies of fallen warriors on the fields of battle was Morrigan (pronounced Mo-reg-ghan), the Irish goddess of war and queen of demons (2). In the eighth century Ulster tale Tain Bo Cuailnge, she arrived on the battlefield before the warriors in the form of a giant raven and shrieked with joy at the thought of the inevitable carnage:
The armies are gathering for their certain slaughter.
The ravens know it and cry it out aloud...
The warriors are baring their youth like blossoms
I see the hungry ravens wandering among the dead.
There will be pain and mourning,
Everlasting war screaming over Cuailnge.
Sons will die. Husbands will die.
All will be death. Death’

Together with her two hideous sisters, Badb (scald crow) and Nemain (panic), the Morrigan was said to inhabit a dim cave in Connacht from where she often let loose a flock of pestilential birds to wither the land with their breath, or a herd of boars to trample down the crops. (4)

In addition to her usual form as a bloody raven, the Morrigan could, with equal ease, transform herself into a beautiful maiden or an ugly one-eyed hag. The Tain Bo Cuailnge tells how she once fell in love with the Ulster hero CuChulainn. She appeared to him as a young noblewoman, offering herself to him along with all her cattle and riches. CuChulainn had no time for her, however, and spurned her in a most vulgar manner. Angry and revengeful, the Morrigan plagued him for the rest of his life .It was she and her two sisters, in the form of three old crones, who tricked him into eating dog-meat hence bringing about his death. Dog-meat was “geis” for CuChulainn, a prohibited thing; his own name derived from the word for dog, and therefore consumption of that animal meant for him his certain death.

Morrigan entered the Arthurian legends as Morgan le Fay, the sorceress and arch-enemy of Arthur. After a lifetime of plotting and scheming to bring about his downfall, it is she, as goddess of Death who finally claims his bleeding body on the battlefield of Camlann and carries it to the other world of Avalon (5). In a sense, she is the end that awaits all heroes; the embodiment of dissipation and decline into age. The relationship between her and Arthur has often been compared to that between the Morrigan and CuChulainn. It has even been suggested that there may have existed at some time a story in which Arthur spurned the advances of the sorceress, for her hatred of Arthur is never satisfactorily explained in the existing legends. There is one episode in the Suite du Merlin (1230 A.D.) in which Arthur slew Morgan’s lover and this appears to be one of the few rationalizations of the woman’s hatred of Arthur. The story describes how Morgan managed to steal Excalibur, the peerless sword Arthur had received from the Lady of the Lake, and replaced it with a perfect copy. She then had Arthur sent, under an enchantment, into the dungeons of a castle belonging to a wicked king named Damas. This king offered him his freedom if he would fight a knight called Accolon, and Arthur agreed. Now Accolon was Morgan le Fay’s lover; and it was to him that she had given the real Excalibur. During the contest, Arthur’s sword broke, and Accolon was about to behead the hero when the Lady of the Lake appeared and caused Excalibur to fly out of Accolon’s hand and into Arthur’s. Morgan’s lover did not survive the wounds that the war-leader subsequently dealt him. His lifeless body was delivered to the door of Morgan’s castle as a bitter present from Arthur. Morgan’s anger became more enflamed than ever at this and she declared war upon the entire complement of the Round Table. (6)

Thereafter, her time was spent plotting the downfall of the court of Arthur; tempting its knights to their death or ruin. She created a supernatural trap for the warriors of the Round Table: a valley of enchantment where anyone who entered its precinct would be powerless to leave of his own accord and compelled to dance without rest in a maddening circle for all eternity. It claimed many of Arthur’s men before Lancelot broke the enchantment. At other times, she resorted to brute force, kidnapping Lancelot as he lay asleep beneath an apple tree. But most of all, her influence was subtle and gentle. Once, she invited Arthur to stay with her at her castle and gave him the room in which she had kept Lancelot prisoner. During his months of captivity, Lancelot had painted upon the surface of the walls scenes from his past relationship with Arthur’s wife Guinevere; and Morgan knew that Arthur would be enflamed to anger. It was her most successful scheme. Arthur’s subsequent war with Lancelot finally brought about the dissolution of the fellowship of the Round Table.

There is little need, however, to account for Morgan’s enmity towards Arthur, for she is clearly not a human being at all. She is a personification of all the destructive and sorrowful elements of life: age, sterility, winter, and death. Chaucer (7) knew her as the “blew meager hag”, and even today, in the remoter areas of the Western Isles of Scotland, she is as alive as she was in the days of Arthur. People still talk of the Beantuiream, the Woman of Tears, weeping in the lonely mountain places of the north; of the Woman of the Crossroads; the figure seen standing by pools (8) at night. She is the “8esn-Nighe~’, the Washer at the Ford, singing the death-dirge (Seis-Bhais) as she washes the shrouds of those who are about to die: an image which goes back to the Welsh Arthurian legends. In the Lady of the Fountain, Owain, the son of (9) Urien, discovers the maidens of the Black Oppressor sitting “as sad as death” sewing the silk-white mantles for the shrouds of the dead.

There are many names for this deity of Sorrow, but the most common - at least in Scotland - is Cailleach Bheur (Cal’yach Vare), the old lean woman with the blue-black face who wanders the higher places of the mountains followed by her deer. She is the deity of Winter, the Snow Queen, ruler of the world from All Hallows to Spring, during which time she goes about cursing the earth or crushing its life with her giant hammer. Up until the last century, bowls of milk were left for her by the sides of corpses; and cups of stone on the hillsides were filled with milk to appease her. (10)

Water, the primal element, was particularly associated with her, for the Cailleach was also the guardian of takes, pools and wells. She could often be identified, when she walked abroad among men, by the water dripping from her clothes; and her links with water are evident even in the oldest Gaelic tales (11). The Dagda of Irish legend discovered the Morrigan in Connacht, bathing in the river Unius, and mated with her there (12). In the tale of Da Choca’s hostel, Cormac found her sister Badb in a river, washing the armor of a king who was destined to die. When she lowered her hand into the water, it turned into blood; and when she raised it into the air, the river parted to form a path for the king and his entire army to cross safely. Outwith the Gaelic areas of Scotland and Ireland, the Cailleach retained these associations with water even after many of her other attributes had been forgotten or suppressed (13). Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Morgan le Fay lived with her eight sisters in the middle of a lake. In Wales, the Morgan was a lake creature who used to steal children. In Brittany, Morgens were mermaids who used to lure sailors to their deaths: stretching out their arms as if to embrace them, and dragging them down into the depths of the sea. The Fata Morgana of Sicily was a mirage often seen in the straits of Messina, attributed to the powers of Morgan le Fey.

The reign of the Cailleach was believed to last from (14) All Hallows (Nov. lst.) to Beltane (May lst.), and after that time, her place was taken by the gentler goddess of summer. Several tales account for her fate at the coming of spring. One of the commonest has it that on May Day’s Eve she throws her staff of power under a holly tree and turns herself into a dull, gray rock by the side of a lake or fountain: a tale which has an echo in the Arthurian Romances. Morgan, in the Suite du Merlin, managed to steal the magic scabbard of Excalibur while Arthur slept and she ran off with it as quickly as she could. The king set out in hot pursuit of her when he awoke and soon managed to catch up with the thief. To elude him, Morgan threw the scabbard into a nearby lake and turned herself and her entire entourage into rough, gray statues. Arthur returned home, believing that he had dealt finally with the wicked sorceress; but Morgan quickly revitalized herself and escaped unharmed.

Another of the stories has a similarity to the Greek myth of Persephone. It tells how, during the long winter months, the Cailleach keeps the goddess of Summer a prisoner on one of the high mountain tops :Ben Nevis or Ben Cruachan. However, the old woman’s son Angus, or sometimes the god Manannan, finds her and brings her back to the world with flowers and with song whereupon the earth begins to live again. The most common tale of all, however, has it that the Cailleach herself turns into the beautiful maiden of Spring on the morning of the 1st of may by drinking water from a clear lake fountain: for like the Morrigan, the Cailleach could with equal ease assume the form of virgin or of hag. One of the oral legends (15) recorded by Campbell in the W. Highlands describes how the Cailleach arrived one night, cold and dripping wet, at the door of the fianna and begged to be allowed to warm herself by the fire. Finn refused, but Diarmaid spoke up for the old woman and seated her in a corner of the fire. During the night, she crept into Diarmaid’s bed, and although he was repulsed by her ugliness, he allowed her to remain there, placing only a fold of the blanket between them. To his surprise, the old hag turned into a beautiful woman and she left as a reward the celebrated love spot on his brow for which he became famous.

© Ryszard Antolak


1. Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales (1188), II, ch.9

2. The language of the earliest (12th century) manuscript of the lain dates to the eighth century; but certain verse passages may date from the sixth century.

3. From the Lebor na hUidre ext (c.1100 A.D.)

4. Badb is pronounced “Bive”; Nemain, “Nev-in”; Tain, Toynt; Cuailnge, “Koo-ling-e”.

5. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morgan Le Fay is actually given the title “Goddess” (ln.3/452). The first writer to mention the divinity of Arthur’s enemy was Gerald of Wales.

6. Most other traditions make Guinevere the chief object of Morgan’s hatred. Some sources state that Morgan’s opposition was first instigated by Guinevere, who exposed Morgan’s affair with the knight Guiomar.

7. Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Tale.

8. This was the specific function of the Badb in early Irish tales: washing the clothes or the weapons of those who were about to die. In the tale of Da Choca’s Hostel, Cormac came across the Badb in a river washing the chariot of a king. The river turned to blood when she plunged her hand into it.

9. In several Arthurian tales, Owain is the son of Morgan le Fay and Urien.

10. In Leicestershire she is known as Black Annis: a cannibal who eats children; in Ulster, Cally Berry; in Eire, Cailleach Bera; in Ross and Cromarty, Gentle Annie. The Western Isles of Scotland are the most fertile area in Britain for legends of this deity. The most terrible form of the Cailleach is the Highland muilearteach (moolyarstoch). She had a blue-black face, long boar-like tusks, and a single eye. An apple dangled from her waist. She was particularly associated with the sea.

11. Dagda,the “Good God”, father of Brigid and Aengus. He was the owner of a magical cauldron which could feed whole tribes.

12. In another tale, she turned Odras into a pool of water.

13. Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin.

14. She completely loses her power on the first of May. Between February 1st and May lst, her power is challenged by the young goddess of Spring: a period in which both sunny and wintery weather may be had.

15. Campbell, J. F., Popular tales of the West Highlands Vol.III

© Ryszard Antolak

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Monday, May 01, 2006

News of the World

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not...
(Shakespeare: The Tempest)

The sounds of wild geese woke me from my sleep and I rushed out (tangled bedcovers trailing behind me) to see them from the garden. It was barely dawn. The long lonely calling of the geese filled the air with a poignant, mournful quality. I watched them for some time, long chains waving and flowing, breaking and reforming again high above my head. Then, with the slow momentum of a dream, they passed away into the distance, shedding snatches of song like petals. Long after they were gone I was still listening for them; and the silence ached with the hollowness of their absence.

All things, even the (apparently) inanimate, have voices if we only care to listen. Language is not some exclusive human ability denied to the rest of Nature. It is a vast field of meanings and intentions that we inhabit and reflect. Our human language grows out of the world of which we are a part. We speak because the world speaks. All things around us clamor to be heard.
In order to be able to hear them properly, however, we must first make room for them. A kind of mental ascesis is required, a preparatory emptying of all our expectations and preconceptions. Knowledge of “the other” should not be limited to pre-digested images and concepts; it cannot be made to reflect my mind, or my demands and expectations.

To listen (really listen) to another person, is to allow them to live and breathe for a brief moment in us. Listening is not really “doing”, but “being”. All true listening is a kind of “loving”.

Our distant ancestors were more attentive to the voices of Nature than their descendants are. We are too preoccupied with all the voices inside our heads to have much time for those outside.

Whenever natural scientists have attempted to read nature, they have done so in an abstract language whose purpose has been manipulation and control. They have plastered it with labels and conceptual filters which have prevented us from knowing it directly. Instead of thinking about what we see and hear, we need the innocence to experience it at first hand.

To lie in a dark room beside the body of the one you love, listening to the rhythms of her breathing, can be a great revelation. But the knowledge we gain from the encounter comes to us through channels that elude intelligence: through the pores of the skin, the touch of a thigh or the magic that is tangled in a woman’s hair. Although it cannot be adequately rationalized or verbally expressed, is no less enlightening for that. Medieval Persian philosophers called it “Ilm Hozoum” or “Presential Knowledge”, a process by which the knower’s soul illuminates the object of its attention, empowering it to reveal its true face. So close is the interaction between subject and object, that it should be impossible to distinguish between the two. “One reaches perfection only when cognition is lost in the object of cognition,” wrote the philosopher Suhrawardi.

To truly meet another person, (or another thing) I have to break out of my totality and open out to the unknown. One of the necessities of Love is that it gives the beloved room to be himself/herself (and does not make him/her exist only within the limits of the lover’s personal universe). What is true of persons is also true of objects: I must try to meet them on their own terms.

An aesthetic sensibility is called for if we are to reclaim the world from the corrupting powers of abstraction and universalization. Art can make sense of the world, but only if the object of its attention is experienced as a real presence and not an abstraction or a concept. Aesthesis refers to a perception of the universe we have not made.

The aesthetic experience is concerned with the indistinct, hazy area just before rational understanding occurs, just before verbal revelation takes place. Keats called it “Negative Capability”:
"...that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
(Keats Dec 1817)

As we begin to re-learn the intimate, aesthetic way of listening, we may once again begin to hear news from a Living World, (of which no trace can be found in history because it is not yet dead). We may begin to catch glimpses of a Reality so alive and present to us it has not had time to accumulate a past, and for that reason is still elusive and slippery, unwilling to be named, unpredictable, wild and full of incomparable wonder and bright magic.

© Ryszard Antolak

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Young Man and the Tall Oak Tree

There was once a simple young man who lived on a vast, dusty plain. Beside his cottage grew a mighty oak, the only one for miles around. In winter, it protected his home from the prairie storms. In summer, it gave shade from the fierce glare of the sun. The tree was everything the man had ever wanted. It met all his needs. It was large enough to provide him with firewood from its fallen branches; and it had many strong boughs, which the man occasionally cut to make furniture. It was good and strong, noble and tall. Everyone who passed by the cottage remarked upon the beauty of the old oak, which pleased the young man, for he loved it dearly. The oak tree was his whole life, his constant companion. He liked nothing better than to sit in its shade and read a book. He was very happy with his tree.

One day, the young man decided to make a chair for his library. So he took his saw and went out to the tree. As the metal bit into the thickness of a branch, the wood snapped off as if it were brittle, shooting painful splinters into the man’s face and eyes. He was surprised and hurt. Wiping away the tears, he looked at the wood and saw it was riddled with small holes. The man knew in his heart that the wood would never serve for furniture. But he dismissed these thoughts from his mind and returned to his books.

A few weeks later, he tried again (for life presses on). He went out to his beloved tree and began to cut another branch. Just as before, the wood shattered and sprayed him with its sharp splinters. But this time, (because he was prepared) he turned his head and the splinters (sharp as kitchen knives) showered him on the back of the neck, drawing blood. Again, he looked at the wood, and once more, he saw the same pithy, brittle mass of holes and cavities.

Gradually, the man learned from his books that his precious tree was unwell. It had become diseased - infested by an insect (the prairie oak flea) that was known to cripple oak trees, but not to kill them.

As the months passed and the disease progressed, the man was conscious he was getting less and less of what he needed from his tree. Its leaves became thin and scattered, and could not provide shade from the hot glare of the sun. Storms came. But instead of sheltering the house, the oak let loose its weakened branches to fall onto the cottage roof with a loud and angry thunder. Once, a heavy limb crashed right through into his bedroom in the midst of a storm, and the man had to spend a cold, miserable night waiting for the daylight in order to mend the hole.

But the man continued to love his tree. It was beautiful. “It is my oak, and I love it”, he said to himself. “I know it has a disease, but that’s not the fault of the tree. I chose to build my home in its shelter, and now I am committed to staying with it whatever the winds of Destiny may decide.”

And so it was. The man decided to live with less furniture in his house than before. He read his books sitting on an old fruit crate instead of a chair. In winter, he went about the house wearing many layers of clothes to keep himself warm. He learned to sleep lightly, always listening for any crack in the oak wood that might cause the next bough to break above his head. It was worth the sacrifice.

Until one day, a passing wagon stopped, and an old man with a face as wizened as an ancient oak tree asked him, “Why do you stay with that sick tree? It causes you so much pain, and there are so many things it can never give you?”
“I love my tree,” answered the man. “It’s the disease that I hate. The tree is beautiful and good. And it is my life.”
“But look,” said the old man in the wagon. “Its wood is rotten. Its shade is useless. Instead of sheltering you, it harms you in storms. You have no decent furniture because its wood is so pithy and brittle.”
“I have learned to separate the disease from the tree, replied the simple man. “If I didn’t do that, my heart would surely become embittered.”
“But if the disease is separate”, asked the man in the wagon, “then tell me, where is your tree without the disease? I don’t see a healthy tree standing next to a disease. All I see is a pithy, bug-eaten tree that can barely stand on its own. If your tree is such a good provider, then why do you have so little, and why is your roof patched and leaking? Why do you have no decent furniture in your house? Why are you always frightened that a branch might come crashing through your roof at any moment? Is that any way to live your life?”

The man thought for a while. He looked around at the cold and empty shack his home had become and at the miserable state of his own life. He sat down on a rotten log and began to weep. “You know” he said, “maybe you are right. No matter how much I say I love that tree, it can never give me the things I need from it. I guess you’re right. The tree and the disease are all the same thing. I don’t have a tree and a disease. I have a “diseased tree”. And the longer I stay under it, the longer I’m going to live without the shade, the shelter, and the furniture that I need. One day soon, I’m going to be conked on the head by a falling branch and that will be the end of me. Maybe I need to start looking for another tree to give me what I need...”

With tears in his eyes, the man began to pack a suitcase, and before long, he had set off to look for another place to build a home. In time, he found one, with a healthy maple tree growing nearby.

He hated the idea of building a home all over again from scratch, but he was a courageous man, and was firmly resolved to try. It was very hard. After a few brief months, however, he had built himself a brand new home, shaded in the summer, shielded from winds in winter, and safe from storms. The tree was not a noble oak of course, but it could provide him with all the wood he needed for his furniture. Bees even came to suck nectar from its blossoms. Very often, he would sit contentedly in the evenings under its extensive canopy and write letters to his friends (who also had problems with their trees). He wrote to them about his beloved oak, and about the deep peace he had found in the shade of his simple unassuming maple. The man was content.

As for the oak tree: it continued to grow in its same spot, dropping its branches during every storm, just as it had before. Just as it always would in the future.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Ninianne, The Lady of the Lake

In Arthurian legends, the benevolent counterpart to Morgan le Fay was Ninianne, the Lady of the Lake: goddess of youth and strength; the maiden whom the Cailleach kept prisoner on her hill-top fortress during the winter months.

She protected and came to Arthur’s aid whenever he was in trouble; at least in the early years of his reign. In essence, however, both she and Morgan were originally complimentary aspects of the one deity - the Great mother Goddess, Modron, in her paradoxical roles of kindly maiden and wicked old hag. This is the reason why the evil crone and the chaste young maid so often change into their opposites in the legends. The Great mother Goddess once encompassed every facet of womanhood for the early Britons: daughter, virgin, whore, sister, temptress, wife. All life from the womb to the tomb; every birth and every death was her doing. She was the Dea mundi, goddess of the World who turned the incessant wheel of Destiny in the vulgate Death of King Arthur (c.1230)
On the eve of Camlann, she appeared to Arthur in a dream:
“...the most beautiful woman in the world and lifted him up... high onto a great wheel on which there were many seats, some moving up and some moving down. The king looked and saw that he was sitting on the very summit of the wheel. And the lady asked him: “Arthur, where are you?"
“On a wheel”, he answered...
“And what can you see?”
“I think I can see the whole world and all that it contains.” “That is true”, she said. “You can indeed see it all; and you have been lord of it all until this moment. You have been the greatest king there has ever been. No-one has ever sat higher on the wheel than you; and no-one will fall from it more heavily.”
With that, she turned the wheel violently and Arthur fell all the way to the ground, crushing every bone in his body.

In a sense, the mother Goddess represents all that can be known in life; and the hero is the man who comes to terms with the totality of her being. Firstly, he encounters her in his own mother, who gives him his life, nourishes and protects him. This is the Lady of the Lake’s function in the Arthurian legends. Then he experiences her as his wife, his mistress, his daughter etc. etc., finally meeting her for the last time in the form of the hag of Death, the raven on the battlefield who claims his life. Most men have caught a glimpse of her at some time in their lives during dreams or in childhood. The hero, however, differs from the ordinary man in not allowing himself to be seduced by the single image of herself - be it child or wife - which she projects. He possesses the ability to perceive the goddess in all her forms and to seize the advantage. The rewards for those who take the risk are considerable.

Niall of the Nine Hostages was out hunting one day with his four stepbrothers when he came across the dreaded Cailleach guarding a well in the forest. They were all very thirsty but the goddess stated that she would give water only to the one who kissed her on the lips. Most of the brothers hesitated or flatly refused. Niall, however, declared that he would not only kiss this withered old woman with the deformed body and rotting breath but would hug her as well. And when he had done so, the Cailleach turned into a beautiful woman and bestowed upon him and his descendants, the kingship of Ireland. ”I am Royal Rule”, she told him. “You saw me first as ugly, brutal, loathly...and in the end, beautiful...for he that is king of no matter what, brings out the beauty and the loveliness in it.” Several versions of this story can be found in the Arthurian legends, notably in connection with Gawain.

Similarly, in popular Highland legend, it was death to come upon the Bean-Nighe, the fateful Washer at the Ford. But if one managed to grasp one of her breasts without being seen, one could demand fosterage, and the goddess would be compelled to bestow great favours upon him.

Originally, the Goddess of the World was the deity of both life and death, like the Indian goddess Kali, the loving and terrible mother, whose three main attributes were Goodness, Passion, and Darkness (Sattva, Rajas, Tamas). Later, she was split up into two separate goddesses, one of Goodness and one of Evil; and the Celts (who did everything in threes) created a central, third goddess in whom the attribute of Passion was expressed. In the Arthurian legends, these three deities appear under the names of the Lady of the Lake, Guinevere, and Morgan Ie Fay.

Whereas Morgan attempted to bring about the death of Arthur, Ninianne, the Lady of the Lake, did her utmost to protect him from harm. She was the foster mother of Lancelot, bringing him up from a baby on her island of Avalon; and her relationship to Arthur was also essentially a maternal one. She came to his aid in his battle with Accolon, and rescued him from a sorceress who made him forget Guinevere with the aid of a magic ring. It was also she who provided him with the enchanted sword, Excalibur; and the image of the hand rising out of the lake holding the famous sword is still one of the most powerful in Arthurian Romance:
“At long last, they came to the lake of Avalon, and Arthur said: “How sad that I have broken my magic sword!”
“You shall have another,” replied Merlin.

And as Arthur looked into the centre of the lake, an arm clothed in white samite broke the surface of the water, and in its hand, a sword and scabbard gleamed with coloured jewels. “This is the magic sword Excalibur,” said Merlin,”and it will, be given to you by the Lady of’ the Lake.”

The Lady gave him the sword on condition that the king would grant her, when the time came, anything she desired. The price, of course, was to be his own life.

The sword was the symbol of’ Arthur’s manhood, his strength and vitality; and it was reclaimed by the lady when the king lay dying on the field of Camlann. Ninianne, the giver of the sword, was the youthful deity who was believed to preside over the morning of a great hero’s life; the time of his journey to the top of the Great Wheel; to power and adulthood. As goddess of’ Spring, she also represented health, youth and enthousiasm. After Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, she significantly faded from the legends, her place being taken by Morgan Ie Fay, the spirit of degeneration, who presided over the hero’s inevitable decline into age and death. Once more, the beautiful maiden had turned herself into the hideous hag of’ death.

Since Morgan and Ninianne were conceptually two different aspects of’ the same deity, each held within her the seeds of’ the other. Morgan, the goddess of’ Death, was also a healer and restorer of life who promised to tend the wounds of’ Arthur on he island of’ Avalon (Life of Merlin). The Lady of’ the Lake, on the other hand, was named as Merlin’s murderer in several of the romances. In the Suite du Merlin, for example, the magician fell helplessly in love with the Lady after he saw her at Arthur’s wedding, and assuming the form of’ a virile young man, followed her about wherever she went. Ninianne heartlessly extracted from him all his magic spells, and in the Perilous Forest sealed him up for eternity in the tomb of two slain lovers, using spells which he himself’ had taught her. Another version of his fate - in the Vulgate Merlin - tells how she placed his head upon her lap and lulled him to sleep as they sat together beneath whitethorn tree in the forest of Broceliande (near Carlisle, according to Chrétien). Then, weaving a spell about him, she imprisoned him for all time in a magical tower of’ mist. This latter version seems to derive from the famous apple-tree poem in the Welsh Black Book of Carmarthen - describing the meeting of the historical Merlin, the bard of Gwendolleu, with a beautiful woman in the forest of Celydon (Northern Scotland).:

“Sweet apple-tree that grows so well;
Food I used to eat beneath it to please a fair maid,
When, with my shield on my shoulder and my sword of my thigh
I slept all alone in the wood of Celydon....
Despised I am by her who is the colour of swans...!’

© Ryszard.Antolak