The Sacred Feminine
in the mythos of Arthur and Merlin
A presentation at North Hill by Sue Edwards and Dr Alan Jones
It’s not often that we get a world premiere at the TDs. Part meta-history, part mythiography, part costume drama with attitude, this was an engaging take on one of the elephants in the room of Celtic folklore: just what has happened to all the women in Arthurian legends?
Our current knowledge of these ancient western European stories comes mainly from the Welsh poet, Geoffrey of Monmouth (circa 1095-1155) and the 12thcentury French court writer Chrétien de Troyes. Both had their own audiences to please and, much like today’s tabloid press, played shamelessly to the gallery – a gallery largely populated by men with a certain worldview.
Maybe we should not be too hard on these scribes, as they did at least document and continue a tradition that was already as old as the culture they were part of – and, arguably, as old as culture itself. However, we do have to realise that they were also people of their time, just as we are – and standing back a few paces can be illustrative in picking out the ancient bones from the contemporary flesh.
The female players in the pre-mediaeval stories had, by Geoffrey’s time, become either walk-on parts or deeply flawed characters. Guinevere, Elaine, Morgan and Vivienne are depicted as damaged alter-egos, while Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot and Galahad are the redeemable good guys; John Wayne persona galloping across the blasted heath to rescue the feckless and the female. But it hadn’t always been told that way.
The histories and mythologies of races and tribal groups across the aeons have had a remarkably similar cast of stereotypical roles. It’s almost as if they are telling the same set of stories, repackaged for a different time and different climate.
When the incoming hoards – be it Romans and Saxons to Albion, or Europeans to Australia or the Americas – sought to subdue the troublesome natives, one of the critical supporting elements of any Nation being subjugated, especially in times prior to a widespread written record, was the oral history of the group in question. Disparaging and demonising the heroes and heroines of the old ways was a recurrent theme of the invasion of the mindset.
But it’s difficult to destroy an archetype, and even more complicated to eliminate a whole montage of them. In Britain, the druidic class was substantially eliminated – with what has become known as The Battle of Menai being the last serious stand against the Romans. However, even the powerful and thorough Mediterraneans – both religious and secular – could never totally eradicate the ancient beliefs of the Celtic communities. Legends and half-histories lingered on, albeit with some of the roles becoming modified, and some of the characters acquiring new attributes.
In an age where women had become largely socially supportive artefacts, the concept of the powerful Queen, let alone the all-knowing wise woman, would have appeared to be an unwelcome throwback to iconic folk-memories such as Boadicea or the Green Goddess.
Sometimes, the silent threads of mythology do emerge from the background – and not always in the most obvious of ways. An early retelling of Guinevere has her tempting her male partner, Eve-style, with an apple – the apple of wisdom. This implies that it is actually the divine feminine that has access to this unseen information, so vital to the guiding and governing of the Tribe.
In a similar vein, the deceitful Morgan (Morgana of recent TV series) is retitled Morgan-le-Fey (of the fairies). In an era that sought to remove the whole of the otherworld from everyday awareness, or assign it to the exclusive ambit of the New Religion, to align a cast member with fairy folk would have been a mocking insult to their status as a ‘real’ person. By the time of Geoffrey, the goddess of the underworld had all but disappeared, yet the Lady of the Lake was still the one who brought forth the sword of strength through knowledge to the very physical Arthur.