Category Archives: Celtic

Morgan Le Fay

One of the most overlooked, misunderstood and maligned characters of Arthurian Legend is Morgan Le Fay; variant names include Morgen, Morgana, Morgayne. Often represented in most modern versions of the mythologies as the evil sister/half-sister/step-sister of Arthur who plots his destruction.

An examination of the earlier and original sources describe a character who shows no such animosity toward the king, indeed, she is one of the three women who accompany him on his final journal to Avalon.

Chrétien de Troyes mentions her in Erec. She is said to have made an ointment which heals wounds for Arthur. In Yvain she is called Morgan the Wise, the maker of a soothing unguent.

Even in The Vulgate Cycle which forms the basis for Malory’s story we have this description.

“very gay and playful; she sang agreeably; though dark in the face….with beautiful hands, perfect shoulders. Skin softer than silk, engaging of manner, long and straight in the body; altogether wonderfully seductive and, besides all that, the warmest and most sensual woman in all Britain”.

 
It continues by telling us that she was taught many arts by Merlin before saying;

 
And was more good natured and attractive than anyone else in the world, when she was calm. But when her anger was roused against someone, she was very difficult to appease (Women of the Celts: Jean Markale. Paraphrased from Ladies of the Lake: Caitlín & John Matthews)

 
The interesting thing here is the contrast between dark and fair which are indicative of her Goddess aspect, conjuring up associations with the Moon and its cycle.

There are also possible connections with the name Morgan and mermaids. She is described as a nymph elsewhere in other versions of the legends. One possible etymological explanation of her name is Muir Gena (sea-born).

All this is, to me, highly suggestive of a strong connection with the water element and all its metaphysical meanings. Taking into account the dark/light moon aspect and the very obvious Ladies of the Lake motif this would seem to be of significance.

This is of interest as one can see parallels and connections with other water, or fish, deities, notably those of ancient Babylonia. The title “Shining Ones” was applied to this fish deities and also applied to the Irish Tuath de Danaan, prompting a possible link to Irish mythology and the aspects of those tales that fed into the early Celtic versions of Arthurian mythology.

Tuath de Danaan, the people/tribe of Dana links into another rich seam pf Goddess worship.

In John Matthew’s Celtic Tarot Morgan is linked to the Justice card, and within this particular tarot, to Sovereignty.

Another aspect of her character and role within the mythology is that of Challenger. She sets tasks, challenges the male characters (the male psyche). Tests them. A notable example being The Tale of Gawain and the Green Knight.

So, her true identity is as far from the plotting evil sister as it is possible to be, for Morgan is no less than a representation of the Goddess herself. The Goddess of Sovereignty. The land. Earth. A Goddess of both light and dark aspects; as found in many religions. As the tales were developed and written down in the mediaeval period by Christian writers living within an ever increasing dualistic world view, these polar aspects became more and more distorted or misunderstood. They chose to concentrate on the dark aspect of her nature, reducing her to an evil, cunning, incestuous shrew intent on the destruction of Arthur’s realm.

If one considers the metaphysical import of this unbalanced view, one can see the dangers inherent within it:

  • An increasingly misogynistic attitude towards the female characters in Arthurian legend and to women in general.
  • A reliance on the rational and dismissal of the intuitive and imaginative. This can be seen in reference to the hemispheres of the brain.
  • An imbalance between mind and body, resulting in mental and physical ill-health and the creation of a Wasteland on an inner level.
  • A disrespect and exploitation of the Earth, nature: Great Mother. Which continues to create a Wasteland that is all too real.

The Arthurian Cycle has some very potent and important lessons to teach us but it is necessary to see through or remove altogether the accumulated layers of misleading and ill-conceived illusion that has been placed, and continues to be placed, upon the mythology by successive tellings of the tales.

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Aspects of the Grail

in the original Celtic version the “grail” (though not named this) is a severed head on a platter.

A severed head? Quite a grisly image if taken literally, but what about metaphorically?

The Celts saw the head as the seat of the soul, so from this perspective it could be read as the soul being seperated from the body, (or vice verse).

One could also interpret it as the head representing logical, rational “Head thoughts” being severed from the “heart feeling” of the body.

Either way this psychic seperation causes illness and the wasteland, both in terms of the land and the inner country of the individual’s mind.

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Thoughts on the Grail.

What is the fundamental enigma contained within the Quest for the Holy Grail?

 

A state of Grace, a Golden Age, lost and laid waste through some ungracious act, through a wounding of some kind.

 
A journey beset with trials and obstacles placed in the path of the questing knight who sets out to regain that which was once the natural state of things. To bring about the much needed healing of the Fisher King and his Land. Yet, where does the Grail, the ultimate symbol of healing, regeneration and integration lie? It lies unseen and unheeded by the side of the very king who is in so much need of its gift.

 
The Grail Seeker, at first, neglects to ask questions, to speak up, to speak out, to be heard, to exercise curiousity and it is only after the realisation of his mistake and after much tribulation, lessons and the sobering experiences of life that he, at last, rediscovers the Grail Castle and sees the object of his quest: The Holy Grail sitting where it has always sat. With him. By his side. By the side of the wounded king and by the side of the questing knight. For they are one and the same person in truth. You, me, and everyone who has awoken to the realisation that part or parts of them bleed. That not all is as it should be. Awoken to a sense of deep dissatisfaction. Finally, the simple question WHY? is asked and a Golden Age, a state of Grace, an awareness, a beingness, is finally awakened to manifest within us.

 
What does this state of Grace mean or represent?

 

We must delve into the psychology of Self, Of I, of me. Of ego. Self-conciousness or self-awareness. That aspect of our personality that defines itself as a seperate entity and in so doing detaches itself, alienates itself from everything and everyone else. The part of our psyche that divides, interprets, seperates, and in so doing cleaves us from the collective non-dualistic, holistic being that is our real truth. This seperation occurs sometime after birth, young babies have no concept of self, do not recognise their reflection in a mirror, but gradually, steadily and surely, we begin to learn to discriminate, to seperate and so begins the creation of a dualistic right/wrong, good/evil universe. This our fall from Grace, the drawbridge at the Grail Castle gate is pulled up and we tumble over the moat and land face first in the grassy bank on the other side.

 
Buddhist teaching instructs us to join mind with the universe, intrinsically knowing that mind and universe are one and the same thing; not seperate, not different, but manifestations of the same spirit, the same light, the same energy. Within and without, as above so below, as the Alchemical and Western Esoteric traditions also teach. Buddhism also instructs us to look within to understand that which is without. This same teaching and the same meaning can be seen in the Grail story, the concept of the Grail being ever present, even when it can not be seen.

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The Quest.

The mythology that fascinates me the most is that of the Quest for the Grail. Even as a young child, that word Quest held some enchantment, even before I knew what it meant. It is a body of mythology that I imagine I shall return to in future posts, but for now I will begin with this:

One aspect of the Grail is that it is said to be everywhere. Indeed, it is right next to the seeker but he does not see it…until he is ready to see it or has asked the right question.
The potential existence of some form of energy everywhere is an interesting development within quantum theory. The work of Einstien, and later, the quantum and particle physicists have explored this area of zero-point field, dark matter, the internal workings of the atom, etc.

An exploration into the concept of an underlying force within everything. It has long been accepted that energy and mass are manifestations of the same basic essence. They just resonate at different frequencies. The electro-magnetic force which binds particles, essentially, being stronger in things with more mass, acting as the “glue” which holds that mass together and which we perceive as solid.The author Danah Zohar has some interesting points regarding this in her book The Quantum Self with reference to Bose-Einstein condensates and more recent literature concerning how the brain functions with regard to emotions also points to a field of energy that exists within and without.

The fascinating aspect for me is the similarity of these scientific findings with the teachings of such spiritual traditions as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Chi, Ki, Prana, the Tao.

This underlying source of all things has been a significant part within these teachings, used on a practical/spiritual level with things such as Feng Shui, Acupunture, and Yoga and also including practices such as meditation, divination and harmonious living.

Living in the Tao is living in harmony with the universal energy.

Balancing Chakra energy is living in harmony with the universal energy.

Attaining the Grail is….you guessed it!

I firmly believe that the original grail mythology was the Northern European version of these teachings. There is only one universal truth, we just find different ways to express it. As the author Derek Bryce said in his book The Mystical Way and the Arthurian Quest; We all climb the same mountain to reach the summit, we just see different slopes up to it depending on the direction from which we come. We reach the top with different stories, different experiences, different views, but we have all climbed the same mountain. Once we are at the summit, we should share those views with mutual regard, honour and respect because only when we do share our experiences can we know the whole mountain.

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Carry on Robbin’

The legend of Robin Hood is a rich and varied mix of mythology and may well be one I return to on this blog at some point. Having written about the portrayal of the character on screen many years ago, I realise the intricacies of the story. On one level it is a seasonal cycle mythology: Summer/Winter Kings dying and being reborn. On another level, I wonder if there are not one or two jokes running just below the surface. The British have always enjoyed bawdy humour, the “Carry On” of double meaning and postcard innuendo, and it occurs that names such as Will(y) Scarlet and Little John could be humorous references to the penis. In some ways, so to, could be the main character: Robin Hood. Or this could be a reference to parts of the female sexual anatomy. The name Friar Tuck can also be played around with. The most intriguing is Maid Marion. In some ways she pulls this interpretation together. On a shallow level there is the wordplay in “made Marion”..a similar slang etymology to “had Marion”, ie, a boast of having enjoyed thre sexual favours of a particular woman, but a deeper reading is also possible. Beltaine, the Celtic festival from which the modern May Day derives was, in essence a fertility festival, where men and woman would frolic and “marry”, ie, have sex and, possibly, become partners awaiting births, etc. There are aspects associated with “a year and a day” concerning a man and a woman remaining together after their first union at Beltaine. I wonder if the name of Maid Marion is a corruption of May Marry-on, or May Merry-on, a distant memory coming down from pre-calander days but associated with the time of year that become our month of May and a festival full of bawdiness, sexual innuendo and carefree fun and games.

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Gawain and The Green Knight.

Gawain and the Green Knight is a fascinating tale, full of esoteric lessons. A similar story is found in Irish mythology: This pre-dates the Gawain version and is, probably, the source from which Gawain and the Green Knight derives.
Apart from the Green Knight version, other variants exist ; notably, Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle and Turk and Gawain.

 
It is also interesting to note that the original “Grail” story, from the Mabinogion, has a severed head on the platter as the main object in the procession. The importance of the head in Celtic mythology is to extant to venture into here, but mention of Bran (a Fisher King aspect) and his links to Arthur are worth mentioning.

 
Gawain’s importance among the Knights of the Round Table can not be ignored, he is the most significant despite efforts of later writers to denegrate him. Forget Galahad and Lancelot, for a moment, for these are to some extent late additions in the form that we receive them, and they gloss over the true importance of Gawain who is described by some later writers as a womaniser in some Christian variants of the Arthurian cycle. He is in fact a significant aspect of the feminine principle in spirituality, or more specifically the feminine principle within the male psyche. He also represents nature and I believe he represents the “natural state” of man, which is why he is of such importance.
In some respects I see The characters of Gawain and the Green Knight as aspects of the one psyche. They too, like Gawain and Arthur, can be seen in terms of Summer/Winter Kings and it is, obviously, a mythology concerned with the natural cycle of the yearly round, but what does the beheading aspect wish to relay to us?
I believe any beheading symbolism is teaching us the dangers of living “too much in the head” and neglecting the need to stay in touch with our body. Gawain is a representation of the Green Man (as is the Green Knight). As such, he is very much in touch with his natural state, his bodymind.

 
The challange issued by the Green Knight is – “Who is courageous enough to lose his reliance on his head/logical/rational/intellectual self and take note of his body/instinctual/natural self. It should be of no surprise that it is Gawain, alone, who steps forward.

 
For three days and three nights Gawain undergoes a test. Three days has a lunar significance;  interesting when we think of Gawain as a solar hero. The moon is dark and unseen for three nights and is in its “hag” aspect.
Gawain is tempted and three times resists (well, almost!) – A reminder that we should not get too carried away and rely, solely, on instinct/bodymind either. We need to realise that we should listen to it, pay it our close attention, and integrate our headmind aspect to help it. Ultimately, it is about the balance between these two aspects of our conciousness. Those that succeed get to “keep their heads”

 
This is my interpretation and I guess each generation, each culture, maybe each individual reads and derives their own interpretation from tales such as these, but isn’t that the purpose and eternal gift of a true mythological teaching; that it does answer us when we ask the question? And it was Gawain who first asked that question.

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