Archive for October 2015

Earth Work: Illness, Fasting, and Samhain   3 comments

[Edited 20 June 2018]

Ah, Samhain, you’re here again. This solemn time to honor our dead and acknowledge the things that have passed from our lives. This joyous time to celebrate the harvest and the warmth of friends and loved ones to carry us through the dark half of the year. This reminder of the balance inherent in all transient things. Our work, if we choose, with the earth.

Halloween-time, to carve a pumpkin, set out the candy for the trick-or-treaters, remember to put the car in the garage the previous evening so next morning the windows aren’t all frosted over. Time for mulled cider, fallen leaves, bonfires, the possible gift of a few more mild, bright days before the snow comes. As a friend remarked yesterday, Halloween is the true start of our winter, here in the Northeastern U.S. where I live. The earth doing its thing. Earth-work.

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Ushtogaysky Square, Kazakhstan — immense millennia-old earthworks make headlines …

ushtogaysky-square

NASA photo at the New York Times link above

X marks the spot of a different kind of earth-work. (We’re always at the center.) I jump from this macrocosmic image to the microcosm of my personal work on earth. After you’ve finished groaning, come with me, to see whether whatever I can mine from it has any value for you, for this blog. Here goes …

Over the past several days a virus has been racking my joints and muscles and leaving me achy, feverish, weak. In other words, no gift to take along with me to an early Samhain celebration an OBOD friend was hosting last night. He lives “across the water” in New Hampshire, and the dozen or so folks he expected to join him included out-of-towners bringing kids and planning to sleep over. (The Samhain ritual took place later in the evening, after a typical Halloween party for the younger set).

forty-day-word-fastSo I stayed home instead, built up the fire, hydrated myself with tea and soups, and slept. Sometimes what we leave behind gets pried from us through mild (or great) suffering. Sometimes, of course, we can leave it more willingly. And we can try to make something of it, if there’s anything left of us in the moment, and turn to old spiritual technologies like fasting that may have slipped out of fashion but have never lost their worth.

We already fast when we refuse to accept the memes of fear and despair and business-as-usual of too much modern life. We purge. We deny some negative shard a foothold, most effectively by replacing it with a positive alternative. If you’re interested in anything, why not start where it’s actually already a part of your life? In my life, if I look around, this seems to be true of many more things than I’d ever believed possible. How many access-points and footholds and innate spiritual “flux-capacitors” (courtesy of the Back to the Future wiki) we have for almost anything we can imagine. Transform, transform, whispers the cosmos.

muslim-fastMany people think fasting belongs to Christianity. No meat — fish is fine! — on Fridays. Look Medieval, and maybe skeletal monks and nuns come to mind. Ascetics whipping themselves with a cat of nine tails.

There’s the Yom Kippur fast. Or, if you have a Muslim co-worker or friend, you’ve possibly heard them talk about keeping the fast for the month of Ramadan. Not to pick on Muslims, as the ubiquitous Gene Wilder memes like the one to the left would wrongly imply: anyone can be obnoxious and obvious about such practices, which is one reason they go through cycles and fall out of favor for a while. Mirror, mirror on the wall.

For about a decade I fasted once a week. This was a significant practice of the other spiritual path I follow. Like many disciplines, fasting’s less daunting after you actually do it a few times. You learn how your body reacts, how to ease into it the day before, how to come off a fast, what food and drink work best for your own particular circumstances and body chemistry and goal. Partial fast, water or juice fast, complete fast. (Ooh, you’re hardcore.)

Headaches from dehydration? Sure. Greater susceptibility to cold, since you’re not stoking the furnace several times during the day? Yep. Bad breath? Perfectly possible. Absolute joy at breaking a fast — how delicious almost any decent (or indecent) food tastes, how much the fast may have subtly reset some of your programming, how your dream recall can be improved, how an old habit may loosen its hold, how you have more faith in and less fear of your own body? Check, check, check.

come-at-meA fast can be difficult, sure. But not, I usually found, because of hunger. That comes and goes, and it’s often the least challenging aspect of fasting. No, to many others besides just me, one of the truly interesting parts of a fast is what it may reveal about attitudes, attachments and mindsets that deserve a careful look. And it’s just the scrutiny they don’t usually get in the scramble to ingest the daily three squares, plus the obligatory snacking an overfed Westerner like me makes sure to practice as faithfully as any religious devotee. Food Yoga, anyone? Follow the Calorie Sutra? Junk-food Gita? The venerable Maha-salsa-and-chips? Down with that.

A physical fast also begins to open up unforeseen and potential valuable energies for other things than preparing, consuming and digesting food. Plenty of books and other resources address those advantages.

And for clarity and vision-questing around Samhain, a fast can offer one more valuable tool to those who want to look beyond the usual boundaries and curtains over our awareness.

As I’ve aged, and as accumulated physical issues make a food-fast a cause of more problems than benefits, I’ve turned more to mental fasts. (This could be one alternative to people struggling with food issues like bulimia and anorexia.) In addition to its purpose as a ritual offering, a devotion which deserves its own post, keeping the attention on a chosen object, image, mantra, deity, etc., for a twenty-four hour period drops all kinds of issues front and center stage. Lacking things to work on? Feeling like I fully qualify for Ancient Honorable Thrice-Sanctified Adeptus XI? Nothing quite like a fast to reveal my crap-of-the-day and put me in my place.

So I take inventory every hour and return, return, return the attention to its focus. Technology helps. (Got the latest fast-app?! A simple e-timer can help a lot. Try a “tasteful chime,” as one friend calls it.)

How good is my concentration? Is my chosen focus for the day even worthwhile? What is devotion, anyhow? What distracts me the most? What claims to be more important, or insists it’s a valid priority? How do I respond to others who ask why I may seem a little absent-minded or distracted today? Do I listen carefully enough to perceive who really wants to know, and who — if I tell them — may mock what they don’t understand? How much of this particular fast is just an exercise of ego or will-power, and how much is meaningful devotion?

OK, you get the idea. Illness can provide a natural push toward a mental fast. You can’t jump into your normal routine, you may find yourself in bed, and rather than relying on cable, Netflix, Hulu, net-surfing or some other drug of choice to fill every single minute you’re not moaning for sympathy, soaking in warm water to soothe your unhappy bone-house*, tossing and turning because you can’t sleep, or downing pills, extracts, roots, powders, potions or elixirs, why not use even a fraction of the time to experiment … on yourself? Best laboratory ever! No? Still not convinced?

I’m a sucker for squeezing every experience for what I can gain from it. (At least that’s what I tell myself. Some future fast will without a doubt show me where that’s no longer true, or never was.)

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to a holiday fest this evening with some friends and neighbors. Just the four of us.  A mostly veggie potluck meal, because that’s what’s come from our gardens. A short blessing (probably the one that opens my About page) in lieu of a longer ritual. And the fasting I did yesterday, imperfect, illness-prodded, leaves me grateful to today to be feeling better. No small thing.

Here for your delectation is a short Youtube clip from the 2014 Edinburgh Samhuinn Fire Festival:

Happy Samhain/Halloween to you all!

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Images: 40-day word fast; Gene Wilder fast-meme picCome at me, bro!;

*Old English bán-hús: body, chest; literally, “bone-house.”

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Reclaiming the Wild Self   Leave a comment

estes-quote

You can find out more about Clarissa Pinkola Estés here.

In part, the doors Estés refers to are a matter of human time. Live long enough and you’ll very likely wear such scars. carry such stories, cherish such loves. One way to find common ground with others is to focus on these doors. And one of the best ways to access them is by careful listening to ourselves and to each other.

Often enough, we may fear such a world and such a self as much as we yearn for it. A doorway means change. Even if it just opens onto another room, it’s not the room we were in a moment ago. Fears can outline such a door, too — including fear of a door itself. If you’re anything like me, you know or have been someone who at one time or another has walked into a cage and exulted as it clanged shut behind you, reassured that at least you wouldn’t have to walk through yet another damned door.

How to recapture the sense of the preciousness of these doors, as Estes calls it? For in the end our own longing compels us to find them and walk through. Ritual is one way, though by no means the only. By defining boundaries in ritual we can make a door easier to see and peek through. If the past is difficult country for me, I can approach it with safeguards in place. Ritual can help with its prescribed beginnings and endings, its containers of energy and wisdom we can safely draw on at need for balance and perspective and protection. A holiday like the upcoming Samhain, like Hallowe’en, a holy evening for remembering who and what has passed from our lives, offers a safe space to honor and to say farewell to what is gone. Sometimes all that is needed is for us to agree that we can finally let go.

One of the most moving Samhain celebrations I’ve ever experienced was organized by a high-school student — I’ll call her C. — who during her senior year led the Alternative Spiritualities group I advised while teaching at my former school. C. was an atheist who deeply understood the power of ritual theater. Under her leadership, our meetings often were focused discussions about perception and consciousness. Ritual, however, happened just once.

church-int

Interior of a Protestant church, looking from the altar toward the rear entrance.

Halloween fell on a Saturday that fall, as it does this weekend. Just after sundown a group of perhaps a dozen students and I gathered in our school chapel with its old, austere New England style, opened the windows — it was a mild October evening — and lit incense and candles. You take, and make, doors where you find them.

C. briefly explained what we’d be doing, then gathered us in a circle, led us in a simple chant and circle dance, and at length asked us to recall someone or something we wanted to say goodbye to. Any script C. had was entirely in her head. The ritual flowed smoothly because everyone knew its purpose and no one was worried about making mistakes. After all, you couldn’t go off-script. Both tears and laughter fit any moment of that evening.

We each wrote the name of this person or thing on a slip of paper and folded it tightly. One person collected them, and then ceremonially burnt them in a large bucket of sand in the center of our circle on the chapel floor. We chanted as the smoke rose, and I saw several students crying quietly. We cleaned up and sat on the altar steps for candy and snacks and soda, sugaring ourselves into a lighter mood. Many students said at our next meeting the following week how meaningful the experience was for them.

Reclaiming the wild self is work we’re all doing. Much of what I try to write about here is an attempt to document my journey to do just that, along with my sidesteps, mishaps, meanderings and insights along the way. We may call this spiritual objective by different names, but the deep yearning in us is the same, if we stop and talk with and listen to each other. We can if we wish walk part of the way in each other’s company.

May you find such doorways on your own journey, and may they be blessings.

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Images: Estes quotationChurch interior.

Interlude: The One Hundred Percent   2 comments

friends-in-circleWhen we stand in Circle (and whatever circles we stand in, we all stand in at least one circle together), we don’t all need to face the same direction to face a common center. Ritual gives us a common language.

“Trickle-out economics” is my favorite kind: not up or down, but outward — from one person to others. We let someone in line, we hold a door, we do our best, we make someone else’s path a little easier, not for thanks but because the action itself builds, because what goes around comes around, not in some strict accounting where I’ve gotta be sure I get my share, but because we all drink the water and breathe the air. The Commons may not be a very popular idea right now, but it still exists nevertheless. And it exists every day, in ways I impact with my actions right now. Include the psychic spaces we live in and it’s very large and very accessible to the influence of each of us.

Fear is rarely productive of positive action. Whatever I can do to reduce fear in my life will help me make better decisions right now. It also makes life more fun. Whether it’s cutting back on media like endless news about political disfunction that doesn’t help me live well, or turning to media like good music that does, focusing on areas and ways I can act  will keep me from squandering my energy and attention worrying about what everybody else is doing and thinking. Less fear in me also calms others around me.

baseballAnything above .300 is a commendable batting average. We don’t need to be perfect.  In fact, it’s usually easier to get better when we don’t aim for perfect but for improved. Meatloaf sings that “two out of three ain’t bad” but baseball says “one out of three is already pretty good.” Most things have a rule of thumb. Life mostly consists not of bending the rules in our favor but in finding rules that actually work often enough to be useful guides.

The natural world is a pretty good teacher. Its functions and systems have been in place longer than human civilizations, so they’re honed and refined to a high degree for fulfilling their own purposes and needs. Watching birds, clouds, water, trees, bugs and beasts go about their patterns and habits and lives teaches us valuable things because we’re part of the same system, built on a similar pattern, designed to function in comparable ways. Watching nature is also some of the best therapy you can get for free. There’s a reason for that fishtank in the doctor’s or dentist’s office.

Solwom wesutai syet — “may it be for the good of the whole” in reconstructed Proto-Indo-European* — ain’t a bad mantra at all. I use it in my own practice, and it helps keep me balanced. It doesn’t always fit every particular situation, but when it does, it connects me with a human life-way that’s proved its value over millennia.

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*sohl-wohm weh-soo-tie syeht. solwom — genitive plural of solwos “all, whole, entire”; wesutai — dative singular of wesuta good (abstract noun formed from wesu, su- “good”); syet — optative form of the verb esti “is” — “may it be.” “Of-all for-the-good may-it-be” — may it be for the good of all.

Image: circlebaseball.

Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part Three   2 comments

[Updated 2 Jan 2019]

[Related Post: Arthur]

[Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two| Part Three | Part Four]

An excursus on tradition, culture and purpose follows. If you’re not interested and you just want to pick up the story of Gawain and his deadly appointment where the last post left off, scroll down to the first break below marked by the triple awen /|\.

You’re still here? Part of my intent in this series of posts about Arthur and Gawain is to begin examining a native source of wisdom that’s not wholly Celtic in origin. The story of Taliesin from the Welsh tradition has been fruitfully mined by many modern Druid orders. But we can also seek more widely and find fertile sources of insight, wisdom and technique within other English language traditions, demonstrating how much of our lore, Arthurian and other, truly is a marvelous mix of multi-cultural magic. And this holds true with many cultural and linguistic traditions — what we need are explorers to locate and bring these half-forgotten treasures back to wider awareness. The sense of restlessness, rootlessness and apathy that beleaguers many people today has both real causes and real solutions.

In other words, as vital and growing traditions like Wicca and Druidry already have demonstrated, we don’t need to focus our spiritual journey only on Shamballa, or join an ashram in India, or sit under a Bo tree in meditation in a quest for wisdom and enlightenment beyond the physical and financial means of most people outside those traditions. These are all fine and worthy resources — but closer ones have also always stood lurking shadow-like on the edge of our vision.

Of course, it’s not a case of either-or, but both-and. The cultural garb that wisdom occupies, and the training any one culture gives in moving within that specific garb, properly belong to that culture. Wearing that cultural garb, to continue the metaphor, when I’m not entitled to it by participation in that culture, is indeed a kind of impostership. That’s cultural (mis)appropriation.

tlingit-totem

Tlingit totem and community house

But the wisdom which the cultural garb clothes is the common inheritance of all of humanity. I can’t rightly erect a Tlingit totem in my living room or front yard, to cite a single example, and claim to be a Tlingit shaman empowered to pass on Tlingit cultural forms to cash-flush weekenders looking for a quick psychological pick-me-up in a workshop — or even a serious course of study. But shamanism itself is a worldwide phenomenon with common features across cultures, and it can be learned without raiding anyone’s cultural heritage.

And so stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offer immediate hints of ways that Druidic and Christian themes, images, precepts and practices may be fruitfully explored and adapted to modern life without injury to or theft from either tradition. Even questions like “But can you be both Christian and Druid?” are found to dissolve in actual practice, when each way illuminates the other. It’s typically those on the outside of a practice who ask that question, after all. We’d rather justify our opinions to others than genuinely test their validity for ourselves.

It betrays an unseemly and groundless fear of a universe permeated with the divine, if we shy from investigating any of its corners and crannies. Certainly such fears have no place in modern Paganism, nor should they find any home in Christianity either. For the latter tradition, to put the matter in explicit Christian and Biblical language, such fears betray a painful lack of faith in an all-powerful God who declared his original creation “good,” whose Son incarnates out of love of that creation in order to redeem all things, and whose divine will is sovereign.

toxfaithThe fact that whole traditions like Christianity have become toxic for many people is actually a most helpful guide when we come to look at Celtic Christianity, and particularly at movements like the Gnostic Celtic Church, which gently points out that the practice of sacramental nature spirituality “can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion” (article at GCC link above) and serve all life, not just an in-group.

Beyond such immediate hints, then, deeper study, practice and contemplation of stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reveal a wealth of images, lessons, techniques and perspectives useful not just to “those on a spiritual path” but to anyone alive today.

All right — back to our regularly scheduled program.

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Over the next three days at Bertilak’s Castle, Dec. 29th, 30th and 31st, Gawain faces a perfect triad of temptation, reward and opportunity. It’s just hard for him (and us) to tell which is which. On each of the three days Bertilak returns from the hunt, he has different game to offer his guest, and though his wife plays the same game of flirtation with Gawain while her lord is away, she skilfully ratchets up the sexual tension each time. She speaks:

And right here you lie. And we are left all alone,
with my husband and his huntsman away in the hills
and the servants snoring and my maids asleep
and the door to this bedroom barred with a bolt.

She should know — she’s the one who barred it behind her!

I have in my house an honored guest
so I’ll take my time; I’ll be talking to him for a while.
You’re free to have my all,
do with me what you will.
I’ll come just as you call
and swear to serve your will.

(Armitage translation, pg. 103)

The Middle English of those last four lines is even more explicit: ” Ye ar(e) welcum to my cors (body)”!

The delicate challenge of the situation, as the original audience to this poem knew well, is one founded in the Medieval traditions of Courtly Love: if Gawain is to uphold his reputation and preserve both his own honor and the Lady’s, he must do what she asks, while at the same time not giving in to the temptation she clearly offers him.

Toward the end, before they negotiate things to just a kiss, she even scolds him: you can’t be the famous Gawain, she exclaims, or you would have acted long before now and taken what I offered.

Well, then, he replies, “I schal kysse at your comaundement … so pleade it no more.” Thus he succeeds this first time in walking a very fine line. His good name and the Lady’s still secure, he bounds up from bed, dresses and dashes off to Mass.

Immediately the scene shifts to the hunt, with explicit details over some 40 lines of the gutting, butchering and feeding of the innards to the dogs, with the dressed carcass at length hauled back to the Castle. The first day the hunters bring back deer — a haul of venison the biggest Gawain’s “seen in seven years.” And in exchange he gives Bertilak a kiss — all he’s had from the Lady. They renew their pact.

Day Two moves things along, with the hunt in pursuit of a boar this time, and the same graphic description of flaying the carcass and butchering it. “Back at the Castle” in Gawain’s chamber, the lovely Lady makes it clear to Gawain that he should take from her what he wants and what she’s already offered, and if he’s rebuffed, why then he’s certainly got the youthful strength to take by force.

But that’s not the custom in my land, replies Gawain, nor the practice for “each gift that is geven not with good wylle.” The Lady chides him again: For somebody so famous, lord, can it be you’re truly ignorant of love, or don’t know how to take full advantage of a lady who’s shown she’s interested?

But at last they bargain things down to two kisses this time, and so once again Gawain barely escapes with reputation and honor intact.

That evening, on Bertilak’s return, Gawain delivers the two kisses according to their pact, which they again renew. He resists all teasing inquiries about the how’s and who’s of the kisses.

The Lady, meanwhile, is still so intent on Gawain, “so loving … with stolen glances and secret smiles,/ that it muddled his mind and sent him half mad …” (Armitage, pg. 131). Somehow he keeps his composure — it’s a near thing — and does not turn from her rudely for his own self-preservation, but courteously engages her all evening.

Edmund Leighton's God Speed!

Edmund Leighton’s God Speed!

Bertilak for his part delights in his guest’s honor — so far. Gawain begs to leave early the next morning to be sure of arriving on time, but Bertilak will hear none of it. He declares to his guest: You’ll reach the Chapel well before dawn in the light of the first day of the New Year, so don’t concern yourself with that. “For I have fraysted [tested] you twice, and faythful I fynd thee. Now ‘third time throw best,’ think in the morn./ Make we merry while we may!” and they drink and at length agree to fulfill their original pact through the third day. If you’re thinking at this point that Bertilak has a pretty good idea what goes on at home while he’s out on his winter hunts — well, you’re not wrong!

It’s Day Three, the third hunt takes Bertilak and company off on the trail of a fox, and we know from prior experience with threes and with past stories that this third time will be the true test.

And so it is. The Lady certainly pulls out all the stops. The next morning she arrives at Gawain’s chamber scantily clothed, her shoulders and back both bare, the cut of her shimmering robe scarcely covering her breasts, clusters of tiny gems sparkling in the tresses of her hair. As before, she bars the door from inside, and in Gawain “a passionate heat takes hold in his heart” (Armitage, pg. 137). The Lady lowers herself onto him and kisses him, and when he doesn’t take things further, berates him for not loving her now that things have gone so far between them. “Telle me that now trwely,” she insists: there must be somebody else. Another lady, perhaps?

No! says Gawain. No one!

“That is a worde,” answers the Lady, “that worst is of alle.” You reject me for no other reason than myself. But surely then you have some gift, some token to give me, to ease the ache of memory when I recall you and our meeting?

Alas, Gawain replies, on this journey I brought nothing to such an unknown land that would serve. The best I could do would be one of my gloves.

Well, says the lovely Lady, “though I have naught of yours, yet shall you have of mine.”

First she offers a ring, which he refuses. And then a green silk girdle, which he treats likewise — until she reveals something of its worth:

“And now he sends back my silk,” the lady responded,
“so simple in itself, or so it appears,
so little and unlikely, worth nothing, or less.”

But if he only knew its value: “the body which keeps it

buckled robustly around him,
will be safe against those who seek to strike him
against any trickery in the world.

Gawain finally relents at that, hoping, we understand,  to up his chances at surviving the axe-blow tomorrow. Then tell my lord nothing, the Lady entreats him. Gawain consents to this as well, and

His thanks are heartfelt then.
No sooner can he say
how much it matters, when
three kisses come his way.
(Armitage, pgs. 144-5)

Bertilak returns, receives from Gawain the three kisses (and nothing else), and laments he has only a stinking fox-hide to offer in return. They feast and drink again, the lord celebrates Gawain’s perfect gift of three kisses, agrees to offer him a guide to the Chapel in the morning, and they part to their bed-chambers.

The Medieval poet closes this third of four “fitts” or sections of his poem like this:

If Gawain sleeps soundly or not, I can’t say.
For he had muche in the morn to mind, if he would, in thought.
Let him lie there stille,
he has near what he sought;
If you will a while be stylle,
I schall telle you how they wrought.

The fourth and final part is coming soon.

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Images: Tlingit totem; toxic religionLeighton’s God Speed!

Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part Two   Leave a comment

[Updated 2 Jan 2019]

[Related Post: Arthur]

[Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four]

sggk-ms

First folio of the Sir Gawain manuscript*

In the previous post, in the tradition of cliff-hangers everywhere, we left Gawain in Camelot, no doubt in a daze. He’s just accepted and accomplished the first half of the challenge of the beheading game from the Green Knight.

The unseely green holiday visitor to the fabled court of Arthur has, in turn, taken Gawain’s best blow and withstood it. He both lost his head and retrieved it, apparently none the worse for wear. Clearly he’s magical, or divine (when did those two split, to our great loss?), though the poet makes no mention of this. No need, when the deed speaks for itself.

greenchapel

“Lud’s Church,” Staffordshire, UK — one possible candidate for the “Green Chapel”

And in a year and a day — an interval both long enough and one that will spin by all too quickly — Gawain must present himself at the Green Chapel, somewhere vaguely to the north of Camelot, to fulfill the second half of the challenge game. This time it’s his neck that goes under the axe. “Come, or be called coward forever!” The Green Knight’s words still ring in his memory.

And the devil of it all is that Gawain’s clearly asked for this. Nobody else he can blame. He rose from among the gathered court to seize both challenge and axe from the hands of his uncle the king. Clearly both men thought the challenge would end then and there, with the foolish visitor’s head bouncing across the floor. But you never know for sure when magic will intervene, nor how it will shape what comes next.

So the Medieval poet’s got the “death” part of the title already in play. We all know we’ll die, somehow, someday. As for sex, so far we can find plenty in the lively and erotic holiday atmosphere of the court, lords and ladies celebrating together in a two-week-long revel, food and drink in abundance. A Christian holiday, indeed, but not one that excludes the secular delights of feasting and dancing, flirtation and dalliance. For Gawain, there’s added pleasure in his seat of honor beside the lovely Guinevere, Queen and chivalric ideal.

But wait, as the poet might have said, there’s more and better to come.

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A brief magical interlude here. Alert to what we can learn from the “wisdome of olde bookes,” we can consider a portion of what this story may have to teach us. From one point of view, Arthur has set up magical intentions and chosen the moment. After all, the time is right for them, with all the swirl of energies around the winter solstice and new year.

The king, the male half of the royal spiritual self, will not eat until all are served, opening his heart with generosity and fellow-feeling. All parts of our own kingdoms benefit from this. And he likewise won’t eat till either a marvel manifests or — another kind of marvel — some challenge or “game” presents itself. It’s surprising what we may chance to discover and experience, when we choose to look with such preparation. And the Queen? She is a chess-piece in the larger game, but also the most powerful figure, once the pawns and knights move out of her way.

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A year and a day lasts long enough to permit some really magnificent bouts of denial and procrastination. As a period of magical testing, it can sort the committed from the undisciplined, the patient from the reckless.

At Michaelmas, late September, the poet tells us that the moon itself signals to Gawain that his appointment draws near. Yet a month later, on All Saints, the Christian Samhain, Gawain lingers still at the court, reluctant to depart. Finally, after more feasting, and loads of unsolicited advice from other knights at court, Gawain presents himself to Arthur and asks for permission to go: “Now, liege lord of my lyfe, leave I you ask.”

sggk-shield

Here in a modern conception, the Green Knight is clearly a giant. Note Gawain’s shield adorned with pentacle/pentagram.

And the poet moves on to describe Gawain’s apparel and weaponry in splendid detail, focusing for some 30 lines on a careful exposition of the meaning of the pentangle on Gawain’s shield, though he concedes it “must tarry him in his telling.”

This passage alone, in a poem plainly dating from the 1400s, should at least temper the silly hubbub that arises every year around Halloween from certain quarters about Satanists and their evil pentagrams or pentacles. But of course, it won’t.

Here, centuries before Anton LaVey with his Church of Satan was even a twinkle in his ancestors’ eyes, the pentagram is clearly a Christian symbol. Thus, among other things, the five points of this “pure pentaungel” signify here “the fyve woundes that Cryst caught on the cross, as the Creed telles.” As a holy symbol of power, it’s been around for much longer than Christianity, of course, and will be long after Christianity is a legend and other faiths overtake it. And it will continue to acquire and shed secondary associations that may help or hinder any seeker from recognizing the pentagram as nothing less, and nothing more, than a symbol of spiritual reality beyond human opinion and (mis)perception.

Off Gawain goes on his faithful steed Gringolet, through the land of Logres — a Welsh word for England, and famous over centuries in legend and stories both old and more recent, such as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia and Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone.

After some eight weeks of winter travel north — no modern M5 and M6 motorways for him to gallop along — Gawain arrives, weary and weather-stained, by chance as it seems on Christmas Eve, at a noble castle whose inhabitants welcome him warmly.

Three persons hold his particular regard — the castle’s lord Bertilak, an obvious focus, but also two noble women, one ancient, who notably sits at the table in the seat of highest honor, and the young and lovely lady of the lord — so fair in “her face, her flesh, her complexion, her quality, her bearing, her body, more glorious than Guinevere, or so Gawain thought” (Armitage translation, pg. 85).

After Mass they “feast and dance” for three days, and on the 27th of December, St. John’s Day, other guests depart, and Gawain, explaining his purpose to Bertilak in detail, announces he must also set out on the final leg of his journey to find the mysterious Green Chapel, and fulfill his pledge with the strange knight.

But there’s no need, exclaims the lord, laughing. “Ye schal be in your bed at thyne ease” till “the first of the yere.” As for the “grene chapayle … it is not two miles hence.”

Now let’s attend to the time till then, Bertilak continues. You promised to obey my will here, and you may linger in bed till morning Mass, then pass the day with my lovely wife, while I’m off hunting away from the castle. But let’s agree to a game of exchange. Whatever I win while I’m out, I’ll give you on my return, and just so, you must give me whatever you receive.

Agreed! says Gawain, always — we’re beginning to understand — up for a game or challenge, however much he may come to regret it later.

And so they each raise a glass together to drink on it to seal their pact.

Now at his ease after weary weeks of travel, Gawain has already taken much comfort in the lovely lady, enjoying her conversation, and sitting head to head sharing confidences. It’s innocent up to this point. Courtly love shows here at its best — no “foulness,” the poem emphasizes, attaches itself either to their words or manner. Reputations and honor have held them both to clear boundaries. But they do grow increasingly intimate and relaxed under the influence of youth, proximity, holiday revels, and the easy hand with which Bertilak holds his realm.

From the original manuscript: the Lady and Gawain

From the original manuscript: the Lady and Gawain

Bertilak leaves with the hunt early next morning, and Gawain, still abed, hears “a lyttel din at his door.” So he “heaves up his hed out of the clothes. A corner of the curtain he caught up a lyttel, and waits warily thitherward what it be might. It was the lady, loveliest to beholde, that drew the door after her dernly [secretly] and stille.” Less innocent now … and definitely more interesting!

The story will continue in Part Three.

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Images: the Sir Gawain manuscript, formally named MS Cotton Nero A X, located at the British Museum; Lud’s Church, Gradbach, Staffordshire, UK — one of the possible sites of the poem’s “Green Chapel”; Gawain, shield and Knight; The Lady and Gawain, from MS Cotton Nero A X

*For the curious, the first line of the mauscript in the top image above  reads: “Sithen [since] the s(i)ege and the assau(l)t was sesed [ceased] at Troye …” The anonymous poet opens by giving his poem a Classical backstory.

Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007.

Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part One   2 comments

[Updated 2 January 2019]

cropped-yakushima_forest_1024x7683With this post, A Druid Way marks its 4th anniversary — I started this blog on October 7, 2011.

I’m also committing to at least a weekly post each Wednesday. A hearty thank-you to you, readers of A Druid Way, for your encouragement and support over the past months and years!

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[Related Post: Arthur]

[Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two| Part Three | Part Four]

This post and the next one pick up the theme of Arthurian myth and legend from the previous one. The “Matter of Britain” as it’s often called is an inexhaustible well of inspiration, of course. This time, however, I want to transition from King Arthur to his nephew Gawain and the Green Knight (and the Middle English poem by the same name), to the mysterious Lady that Gawain also encounters in between his meetings with her husband Bertilak, and more largely to the peculiar and delicious Medieval blend of Paganism and Christianity that surfaces in their story.

So what do we do until Arthur returns?

In the Arthurian peace and flowering of Britain which underlies much of the initial formation of the legend, the focus shifts from Arthur to his court, and more particularly to his knights and ladies, who leave Camelot to set off on their own adventures. A pattern to consider: first, achievement; but then, further exploration and spiritual challenge. Or the opposite — after a few iterations, it amounts to the same thing.

Round Table and vision of the Grail, from an illustrated manuscript, ca 1470, by Evrard d'Espinques.

Round Table and vision of the Grail, from an illustrated manuscript, ca 1470, by Evrard d’Espinques.

After all, once Arthur wins through to his throne, marries, and begins to assemble his court, he himself can seem less interesting (at least until time whirls round again to the Battle of Camlann, his final and fatal engagement with his bastard son Mordred). So singers and storytellers started to look for adventure elsewhere, with knights inspired by Arthur’s example and by the fellowship of the Round Table. King and Queen on the throne, or knight on a noble/ hopeless/ mysterious/ romantic quest — it’s easy to see where the greatest dramatic potential lies.

The Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sets forth one version of the story in 600-year-old English. The language is intermittently still quite comprehensible to us moderns, if you make some allowances for spelling (I’ve done very minimal editing):

Astrid Briges Frisbee as an archetypical young Guinevere in King arthur 2014

Astrid Berges Frisbey as an archetypical young Guinevere in the upcoming (2016) film Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.

“This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse” and “was cummen with knyghtes into the halle.” And there Guinevere rules beside him as queen, a Guinevere as yet untouched by the scandal of any affair with Lancelot, “full gay, graythed [arrayed] in the midst” of the noble gathering. And a more lovely lady, “sooth [truly] might no man say.” Here then are the archetypes, before they decline into stereotypes. Here are the originals, magical king and beautiful queen. Part of their appeal is to our own psyches, to the beauty and power we instinctively know both genders possess — or could possess, if only …

The story setting is the three-part holiday of Christmas — New Year’s — Epiphany, the ancient tradition — and ultimate source of the song — of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Midwinter, birth of the Son, rebirth of the sun, the new year at hand. The Court’s right in the middle of its fortnight of feasting. Shortly, it’s New Year’s Day. And as such gatherings and festivals and holidays so often do, this revel has already begun to spin off its own local customs. After all, when does your family open presents on a gift-giving holiday? And what rituals have you perhaps built around it? Or if not you, a relative or friend?

Not surprisingly, in Camelot it’s Arthur himself who starts it, ritualizing the festivities. “The kyng wold not ete til al were served.” It’s a gesture wholly in keeping with the holiday season of generosity and joy. And the king extends the ceremonial atmosphere still further, also refusing to eat before he hears a story: “he wold never ete upon such a dere [dear, special] day ere him devysed were of sum adventurus thyng an uncouthe tale …” Or until someone challenges one of his knights “to joyne with him in joustyng, in jeopardy to lay … life for life …”

And things Medieval and magical being what they are, if you’re Arthur — if you recognize and live from the throne of your spiritual sovereignty — sometimes the “uncouthe tales,” marvelous stories previously unknown — come to you.

greenknight

The Green Knight, William O’Connor, 1996

Right in the midst, then, of all the noble knights and fair ladies, heaping platters and heavily laden tables, sprightly servants and bold banners, talk and revelry, the Green Knight suddenly barges in on horseback. For a moment he just sits his mount, framed by the main door, towering over everyone. The perfect Medieval photo op.

Huge and red-eyed and green is he indeed: “for wonder of his hue men had.” Likewise “his strayt cote” and “his hood bothe” and on his legs “hose of that same grene.” A marvel! The hair on his head, “the barres of his belt and other blythe stones,” even the steed he rides, “a grene hors grete and thikke” — everything’s green! In one hand he holds a branch of holly; in the other, an enormous axe.

Then he spurs into the great hall. “Where’s the governor of this gang?” he demands, haughtily. “To knightes he cast his eye.” For an instant — no surprise — silence greets him. “Each mon had marvel what it might mean” that man and horse both shone “grene as the grass, and grener it seemed.”

Green Man, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany, ca 1300s

Green Man, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany, ca 1300s

Green can be  unseely — Northern dialect for “unlucky, unholy.” Corpses and cheeses rot to green, metals like bronze corrode, swamps give off their ghostly phosphorence, moss and weed, creeping vines and algae, all overtake things each in their green fashion. Even the Devil himself gets rendered in green in more than one Medieval painting.

With modern commerce and ecology, green is almost wholly a good thing — not so in Medieval times. It represented a mixed bag of lust and youth (we can still be green with envy, too; and an untried youth is still sometimes called a “greenhorn”), nature and fertility, and early versions of the Green Man beloved of Pagans. Another post on this blog, about Beltane, also treats of greenness in some detail.

[Most clearly, perhaps, we see and hear and feel this enchanting but deeply ambiguous green in Dylan Thomas‘s wonderfully Bardic poem “Fern Hill” : “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green” and later “I was green and carefree” and later still “And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman” and “it was air/And playing, lovely and watery/And fire green as grass” and then nearly done “And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows/In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs/Before the children green and golden/Follow him out of grace” and last of all “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” A poem that doesn’t merely describe but evokes … Follow the link to the poem and read it aloud.]

To return to the Medieval poem: Arthur answers the arrogant Knight with courtesy — the Medieval cortaysye — bidding him join the feast and tell his errand later. It’s an age-old gesture of hospitality, one that dates back to Homer, the traditional and trusting host’s welcome to a stranger. Eat and drink first, and only then speak your will, or recount your story.

Still haughty, the Green Knight declares his nature means he has no intention of lingering. I come, he declares, because of the fame of Arthur’s realm: castle and court are called “the worthyest of the worldes kynde.” The axe I carry, he announces, is no threat. Look to the holly sprig. Be sure “bi the braunch I bere here that I pas in peace.” If I wished for war, I’ld have come fully armed. “But if thou be bold as all folk tellen, thou wil grant me goodly the game that I ask bi ryght.” A Christmas challenge: “I crave in this court a Crystemas gomen.”

Besides, if he were spoiling for a bout, he’d win easily, he boasts. All he sees on the benches around the hall are “berdless children.” But if anyone’s got the guts, “leap lightly to me and latch this weapon. I schall give him of my gifte this axe, to hondele as he likes. I quit-clayme it for ever — keep it as his own. And I shall stond him a stroke” and promise “the doom to deal him an other … and yet give him a respite, a twelve-month and a day.” And again we’re into magical territory, the “year and a day” of testing and challenge, mystery — and mastery — and cyclic completion.

The Knight taunts the company further, and when no one rises to accept the challenge, Arthur himself reaches for the axe. But his nephew Gawain intercedes and claims the right, pointing out that with warriors in the Court to uphold its honor and reputation, the king needn’t lower himself to accept such a challenge. Gawain reasons further with him: besides, as your nephew, if I die, the loss is less.

To make short work of the next few stanzas, Gawain readies the axe, the knight stands with neck bared to receive the keen edge, and Gawain gives him a fierce blow that lops off that green head.  Through fat and flesh, the blade bites the floor. Blood spatters those nearest, and they kick at the head as it rolls past the benches.

sggk-armThe Knight, however, strides forward undaunted, retrieves his head, and turns back to his horse. “The brydel he cachches, steps into stirrup and strydes aloft, and his hede by the here in his hondes holdes.” And he speaks one last time: “On New Year’s morn, Gawain, come to the Green Chapel, I charge thee, to receive such a dint as thou hast dealt and now deserve …” And then, as British poet Simon Armitage* renders it in his fluent and lively translation, “So come, or be called a coward forever” (pg. 51)!

Knight, horse and now chapel — green and Christian mixed. The whole game’s unseely! The Knight departs, more food, drink and dancing displace everyone’s fears — except Gawain’s.

Thus the original anonymous Middle English poet closes this first of his four sections (here again is Armitage’s translation*): “But mind your mood, Gawain, keep blacker thoughts at bay, or lose this lethal game you’ve promised you will play” (pg. 53).

More to come in Part Two.

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Images:  manuscript illustration of the Round Table by Evrard d’Espinques; Astrid Berges Frisbey as GuinevereGreen Knight by William O’Connor; Green Man at Wikipedia; cover of Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

*Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007. (There are other good translations — notably one by J. R. R. Tolkien. But I like this one, partly because my high school seniors liked it when we read it in our British Lit. class, and also because it provides the Middle English text on the facing page, for linguistic nerds like me who enjoy fine language for its own sake. You can find it used and in paperback. Or get thee hence to thy local library.)

Updated 11 October 2015.

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