As a prelude to my post next week on Ancient Priestesses, I’d like to feature the fantastic blog of Jaunting Jen. Not only is she a military veteran (a girl after my own heart), a history teacher but also a world traveler.
I’ve added Jaunting Jen’s post on her exploration of Malta’s Underground Temple. There is some uncertainty on the purpose of the space (it is Neolithic after-all) but there are indications of an early oracle presence. If you are familiar with ancient history, oracles are usually female priestesses and play an important part in ancient cultural awareness.
I urge you to take a look at Jaunting Jen’s blog and enjoy this particular post. I think you will find that Malta’s underground temple leaves a delicious sense of mystery.
Last week, we looked at the infamous “evil queen” of Arthurian literature, Morgan le Fay, and found that she’s too complicated of a character to warrant the stigma of pure evil. These complexities I labeled the “ugly” debate. This week, I want to offer some specific examples from the text, showing times when Morgan does acts that can be considered “bad”…but also times when her acts and motivations are more “good.”
Though, as I pointed out last week, medieval literature tends to be so plot-driven that it’s sometimes difficult to discern character motivations, there are times in Arthurian literature when the audience is aware of Morgan le Fay’s motives. One example of her “bad” side would be her jealousy toward Guinevere because of her own love of Lancelot.
The few times we are explicitly given Morgan’s motives for her actions, we see a queen jealous of Guinevere, and there are several instances where Morgan tries to trap Guinevere or even cause her death via magic. One such instance is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Bertilak tells Gawain why his Aunt Morgan orchestrated the elaborate scheme of the Green Knight. He says that, while part of the ruse was meant to humble Arthur’s table (she thought them too proud), a secondary motive, the “icing on the cake,” as it were, was “to grieve Guinevere and to bring her to die/ aghast at that same ghoul with his ghostly speech/ with his head in his hand before the high table.”3 In other words, she’d hoped by disguising the man as a green giant, she would both prove Arthur’s knights prideful and frighten Guinevere to death. Two birds. One stone.
In another instance from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Morgan le Fay casts a spell upon a shield, which she gives to Sir Tristram in hopes that he will fight Lancelot. The shield, she tells him, represents Arthur, Guinevere, and a “knight who holdeth them both in bondage.”4 Her plan? To have Tristram fight this knight (whom Morgan knows is Lancelot) and expose Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair because “Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength.”5 The plot fails at exposing Lancelot as a false knight, but does succeed in allowing Tristram to dominate at the tournament. However, I can’t really fault Morgan for wanting to expose Lancelot–Lancelot is in many ways a “false knight.” What one can fault Morgan for is her petty, jealous motive.
But at the outset of this post, I mentioned Morgan le Fay could not truly be categorized as “evil.” Rather, like most human beings, she is marbled, and for the most part, the medieval narratives treat her thus. There are two instances in particular which show Morgan le Fay using her magic for more positive ends. In one, she shows a side to herself that is just. A knight leads another knight behind his horse, bound and blindfolded, toward a lake. The two men cross paths with the Queen, and she asks the man on horseback who his prisoner is.
The knight explains he caught the prisoner sleeping with his wife, and now he was going to take the man to the lake and drown him, and then throw his wife in after.6 Morgan questions the prisoner–is this accusation true? The prisoner denies that it is, and says he is a knight of Arthur’s court and cousin to Accolon of Gaul, a man whom Morgan had loved.
“Ye say well,” says Morgan. “For the love of him, ye shall be delivered, and ye shall have
your adversary in the same case ye be in.”7 And with that, the prisoner is loosed and the other man is bound. Though the text does not say overtly, it implies that Morgan’s magic allows for this switch. The former prisoner then promptly throws his captor into the lake, where he drowns.
Morgan has, at this point in the story, fallen out of Arthur’s good favor. Yet, rather than tell them knight, “Hey, be sure you tell my brother what I did for you so that maybe he won’t be angry with me anymore,” she tells him, “Tell [Arthur] that I rescued thee, not for love of him, but for love of Accolon, and tell him I fear him not while I can make me and them that be with me in likeness of stones.”8 Their feud, then, isn’t ended there, though Morgan does send him a peace offering a few days later, which Arthur accepts, saying “but little” except that she is a “loving sister”9 (perhaps a bit sarcastically?). However, it’s worth noting that many of the knights were so angry with her words, they called for her to be burnt at the stake, and though it’s clear Arthur is angry, he is more willing to allow peace rather than continue their passive-aggressive argument. Their relationship, more so than the relationship between Arthur and his other sisters, is not much different from how we perceive sibling relationships today. They fight, but at the end of the day, they are family. Even if one’s a king and one can call upon demonic powers.
Perhaps the best example of this love-hate relationship is at Arthur’s death. He commands Bedivere to throw Excalibur in the lake and then to put him on a barge where there are “three queens,” one of whom says, “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.”10 The implication is that this is Queen Morgan herself, come to her brother’s side. Her words make it clear that she wishes he had come to her sooner; then, perhaps, she could have helped him with her magic. As it is, he is too wounded even for her powers, and she ferries him toward Avalon from where, as the legend goes, he will return when England most needs a king.
Women play no small role in Arthurian legend. And many of the female characters–perhaps, most especially, Morgan le Fay–are complex. Which is why it continues to surprise me when I read articles about how there are so few women in fantasy novels because medieval women did not live very interesting lives…so why would they exist as major characters in medieval-style fantasy novels? Yet, one only has to go to the medieval narratives themselves to discover a world in which women do more than sit at a spinning wheel and gossip. And if one digs a little deeper, going beyond the plot-driven narrative of a medieval story, one can even find women with motivations and desires strikingly similar to the motivations and desires people have today. At her core, Morgan le Fay is the good, the bad, and the ugly side of humanity altogether in a single person. Just like most of us, I’d wager.
Every year in my British Literature classes, I teach an Arthurian unit. Every year, I mention King Arthur’s family tree, and his three sisters: Elaine, Margawse, and Morgana (or Morgan le Fay). The first two sisters rarely ever resonate with my students. However, when I mention the third one, they perk up and at least one student asks, “Wasn’t she evil?”
I suppose I can hardly blame them. I once thought the same thing myself. I mean, she was a magic user who used her “necromancy” to deceive various members of Arthur’s court; she tricked her own nephew (Gawain) into entering a beheading contest, where he was found to be less-than-honorable (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); she captures Lancelot and holds him in a cell (Le Morte D’Arthur); and let’s not forget the many times she tries to trap/kill/frighten Guinevere.
Given all of that information, the case for her does not look very good.
And yet, one of the things I love about studying Arthurian literature is how marbled the characters truly are. We tend to categorize medieval romances by archetypes: the damsel-in-distress, the knight-in-shining-armor, the greedy dragon, etc. However, what makes that easy is the narrative structure of medieval prose.
When modern readers read a novel, they have certain expectations of plot, setting, and characterization. Yet, it would be wrong to superimpose those same expectations on a work of medieval literature. In fact, medieval prose spends very little time setting a scene or “digging” into the minds of a character. Medieval prose is typically concerned with one thing and one thing only: Plot.
Thus it makes sense that we can look at the surface-level of a medieval story and pick out archetypes–a plot is composed entirely of archetypes!
But, while plot is the most driving part of medieval prose, it isn’t the only part. There is characterization infused in a medieval narrative. It just happens to be quite subtle most of the time. In many cases, we can only read characters’ motives by judging their actions. Since this is meant to be a short blog post, and not a step-by-step retelling of the life of Morgan le Fay, I have chosen three examples of Morgan’s actions showing the good, the bad, and the ugly…in reverse order.
After Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon–who, even by the medieval accounts, was kind of a jerk–deceives Igraine into marrying him, one of his first acts as a new stepfather is marry off two of Igraine’s daughters, Elaine and Margawse.1 However, for reasons unknown, but perhaps because she was too young, Uther sends the youngest daughter, Morgan, to school in a convent, and “there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy.”2 This is the first inkling the reader has that Morgan knows magic. And she learns it at a convent, of all places.
From a medieval standpoint, this is not a terribly unusual concept. The world existed in three realms: The Supernatural, the Natural, and the Unnatural. The Supernatural superseded the Natural world, existing before it and imposing its will on it. The Unnatural world is essentially a perversion of the Supernatural–it has powers of its own, but its powers exist in twisting the powers from above. The Supernatural and Unnatural Realms are at constant war with each other, but they cannot fight each other directly–they must attack through the Natural Realm. Thus is the Natural World constantly being assaulted by powers from below and powers from above.
In other words, our world is filled with unseen magic.
Humans can access this magic, but at a great cost. The type of magic they access depends upon which powers they call–the powers from above? In Arthurian narrative, this is where priests, nuns, and certain other mystical creatures draw their power.
Or the powers from below? In Arthurian narrative, this is where the femme fatales, sorcerers, and other mystical creatures draw their power.
The “ugly” side, then, is this: Morgan’s motives in using magic are often unclear. She learned necromancy from a convent, which in and of itself seems contradictory–“necromancy” suggests a communion with the dead, the ability to conjure magic from below (“unnatural”). However, a convent suggests communion with the supernatural, and the ability to conjure magic from above. Whose side, then, is she on?
Even her nickname “le Fay” is confusing. “Le Fay,” of course, means “the faerie,” and faeries in medieval lore are difficult creatures to pin down. They are not happy, cute little humanoids with wings who go about sprinkling “fairy dust” to help people fly (thanks, Disney). Rather, to the medieval mind, faeries were capricious, impish creatures who could hurt as well as help someone for no real motive or reason whatsoever, other than the fairy’s own whims. (A good example of this is Shakespeare’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream–Puck causes mischief for mischief’s sake) Just as one cannot always discern a fairy’s motivation, Morgan le Fay’s own motives are difficult to pin down. Thus, I propose when studying Morgan le Fay (or any medieval narrative, really), that we avoid the temptation to neatly categorize characters into archetypes. Just because Morgan’s motivations are at times hard to pin down does not mean she doesn’t have them. And it also doesn’t mean her motives aren’t good ones. Morgan le Fay is no easy archetype, and she certainly isn’t a sociopath.
To prove this, next week, I’ll explore a few of the instances where the text actually gives us her motives for actions–both the “bad” and the “good.” But at least, for now, we can avoid calling her “evil” or “femme fatale” and just call her “human.” That is, human…with a bit of fairy magic.
Worship Lakshmi and she brings forth a rain of gold coin. Offend her and she retreats, leaving the fields parched. After the festival of Diwali, devoted to Lakshmi, the Hindu often gamble madly to receive her pecuniary blessing. Humans have always been at the mercy of inscrutable fortune: the rains and the lucky throw.
So, it is no surprise that Lakshmi is one of the oldest and most popular goddesses. As a concept, Lakshmi appears in the Atharvaveda, a collection of beliefs and rituals addressing everyday life of the Vedic society. Composed circa 1000 BCE in Sanskrit, these are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Images of her appear on coins dating to the first century BCE. At Pompeii, an ivory statute of Lakshmi survived Vesuvius. And now, the Lotus Goddess resides in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain pantheon, still actively worshiped.
Lakshmi is often called fickle – “Lola” – but one of the most common stories of the Lotus Goddess belies this charge. Indra, the warrior god, protected the world against demons. But when a sage offered Indra a garland of sacred flowers, he tossed them away. This offended Lakshmi who disappeared into the Milky Ocean. The world turned dark, the gods lost their powers, and the humans became greedy. The demons returned.
Indra sought the god Vishnu’s counsel. He, Lakshmi’s husband, advised Indra and the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean. Together, the gods churned the Ocean for one thousand years and at the end, Lakshmi rose from the waters as a beautiful woman atop a lotus flower. With her, Lakshmi carried immortality for the gods. Indra again could drive the demons away.
Lakshmi is all that is good and right in the world. She blesses women in childbirth and brings the rain to green the countryside. She loves and brings love. She is called the universal goddess, the female principal. Without her, the world withers. But prosperity does not come to the arrogant or the greedy. Like Indra, humans must work hard. With respect and humbleness, they must accept the gift of flowers. Only then will Lakshmi visit.
Though we typically go with ancient and medieval women, when one thinks of “compassion,” it’s hard to think of any other figure in history than Florence Nightingale. When I spoke of Esther, I said that compassion requires three things: humility, bravery, and faith.
Florence Nightingale embodied all three of these traits in her exhibition of compassion. She was humble–she preferred people support hospitals to giving her praise; she was brave–she was willing to do a job no one else was willing to do (in a notoriously dangerous war zone), just so she could serve the ill and dying; she was faithful–she served without ceasing and had faith that her work would not be in vain.
To learn more about this woman of modern compassion, I recommend checking out her video and bio on The History Channel.
Portrait By Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873.External link: The University of Texas at Austin > PORTRAIT GALLERY > IMAGEThis painting was made based on the photography Image:Florence Nightingale 1920 reproduction.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21234
Etymology is a hobby of mine. I not only relish the history of people, but I also relish the history of the words they use. So when I thought of this month’s theme–“compassion”–I wondered where such a word even came from.
Of course, compassion implies more than just a strong feeling–what we usually think of when we think of the word “passion.” It usually means a call to action–the feeling must drive the person in some way to do something. To have compassion is to not just feel sympathy, but act upon the sympathy one feels.
Which brought me back to the etymology–where does this word even come from? if “com” means “with,” and “passion” is a “strong feeling,” does compassion mean to do things with a strong feeling?…Yet I am passionate about writing; I am passionate about relationships; I am passionate about leaving a better world. I would say I do most things “with passion.”
But that does not always mean I am compassionate.
“Com” could more nearly be translated as “together” while the root of the word “passion” is Latin passio, “suffering; submission.”
Perhaps even…With submission to suffering.
Compassion is more than a feeling; it is a belief held so strongly that one must submit oneself to suffering in the effort to alleviate, or even share, another’s pain. It is willingly shouldering a burden that isn’t one’s own.
Compassion–I not only suffer for you; I suffer with you. If your pain is in my power to alleviate–even if it causes me physical or emotional torment–I will do whatever I must.
Then why, on a blog dedicated to praising active heroines, would we choose such a subject of abject humility?
I, for one, believe in the old paradox that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be
last,” even though our modern society does not do a very good job of lifting up the humble. However, come to think of it, no society in history has done a great job of recognizing those people among them who daily lay down their lives for others. Sometimes it seems as though the loud, the proud, and the pompous receive all the praise.
But those who are compassionate know that praise is not warranted or required. The compassionate do not show compassion out of a need for praise or desire for reward; in fact, if they did act out of such motives then, by definition, they would not be compassionate. They would be opportunists. Compassion is not, and cannot, be about tit-for-tat. Compassion is about seeing the humanity and brokenness of another, and joining in that humanity and in that brokenness.
Compassion involves, by necessity, an act of humility. The focus of being compassionate is not to reap rewards or call special attention to oneself or one’s own pain–or even the pain of another. True compassion is silent, unassuming. It is caring more for the good of another than for one’s own good. It is kneeling down to bring another up.
Compassion also involves bravery and faith that the act of submission to suffering will lead to an alleviation of the same.
This was the hardest month I’ve had yet in terms of choosing the woman in literature or history about whom I wished to write. However, when I truly thought about the meaning of the word “compassion,” and determined that compassion by definition involves humility, bravery, and faith, one woman kept repeating over and again in my mind: Queen Esther.
During the time of the Persian Empire, Esther was a Jewish exile living in Babylon. In her time, the Persian king was a man named Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes. Esther is perhaps most well-known for winning a beauty contest–when the king wants to choose a wife–because he deposed the last one for refusing to come when he called her (Esther 1:19)–he calls all the virgins in the land to him, and ultimately selects–you guessed it!–Esther (2:9).
She wins the contest and gets a literal crown…that came with some small measure of power.
However, Esther was Jewish, and not Persian. A dangerous heritage. At the behest of her guardian, Mordecai, she doesn’t reveal her ancestry to the king.
So the plot thickens. Haman, the king’s adviser, does not like Mordecai because he will not bow down whenever he (Haman) passes by, so Haman devises a scheme to have all the Jews in the land eradicated (3:6). When Mordecai hears about this, he puts on sackcloth and ashes to weep for the fate of his people. Esther’s response? “She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them” (4:4). Then she tries sending one of her men to Mordecai to ask him what is wrong. When Mordecai explains the edict and pleads for her help, Esther is frightened; if she goes to the king without first being called, her life is forfeit (4:10). Mordecai replies by saying that she is the one with the power and position to help “and who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14). Her argument is that she is powerless; Mordecai’s argument says the opposite.
Faced with this choice, Esther decides there is but one option. She has compassion on her people by telling Mordecai to fast and pray for three days, as she does the same, and at the end of those three days, she would go to the king to plead on her people’s behalf: “And if I perish, I perish” (4:16).
Though the word “compassion” is not used, we know from Esther’s response that she humbles herself–by fasting and praying with her people, she willingly abandons her position as queen in order to suffer with them. For those three days, she says, they will suffer together.
Her response is also brave. She recognizes the danger and the potential torment, even death, that she will receive if the king does not have mercy on her. Yet the suffering of others drives her to action, gives her motivation. And she is willing even to perish for their sake.
Finally, her response is faithful. Her loyalty to her people is firm. She will not leave them to die, and though she could easily claim her position as queen and turn her back on her people, leaving them to suffer without her, she does not do this. Rather, she says they will pray and fast for three days, and then she will go to the king “even though it is against the law” (4:16).
“And if I perish, I perish.”
She could only make such a bold statement if she was humble, brave, and faithful. But she could also only make such a statement if she loved her people. And that, to me, is the most compelling, and mysterious, aspect of compassion. Compassion is born out of love. Not duty, not a desire for fame, or a desire for gain. To be truly compassionate, we must be willing to get into the dirt with someone else; to feel cuts and bruises with someone else; to give up our desires in order to aid another; to give up our own comfort and safety to reassure another.
There is no other rationale for doing such things than unconditional love.
To finish the story of Esther, the king grants her petition and does not order her execution. She pleads her case to the king, and when Haman tries to plead with Esther, the king believes his adviser to be making a move on his wife, and instead orders Haman’s execution. But Esther’s trials are still not over; she makes one more petition to the king: To reverse Haman’s order and not kill her people. The king grants her petition.
And so it seems Mordecai was right–Esther was placed in her position “for such a time as this.” She loved her people and was moved to compassion; she chose to suffer with them, when she could have chosen comfort. Her love was an abiding love.
In our “times such as this,” when suffering abounds, may we find such a love. And may we shine its light in our compassion for others.