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.