Archive for the ‘greenness’ Tag

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.

/|\ /|\ /|\

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.

/|\ /|\ /|\

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

Advertisements

The Fires of May, Green Dragons, and Talking Peas   2 comments

Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism. Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises. The Beltane Fire Society of Edinburgh, Scotland has made its annual celebration a significant cultural event, with hundreds of participants and upwards of 10,000 spectators. Many communities celebrate May Day and its traditions like the Maypole and dancing (Morris Dancing in the U.K.). More generally, cultures worldwide have put the burgeoning of life in May  — November if you live Down Under — into ritual form.

I’m partial to the month for several reasons, not least because my mother, brother and I were all born in May.  It stands far enough away from other months with major holidays observed in North America to keep its own identity.  No Thanksgiving-Christmas slalom to blunt the onset of winter with cheer and feasting and family gatherings.  May greens and blossoms and flourishes happily on its own.  It embraces college graduations and weddings (though it can’t compete with June for the latter).  It’s finally safe here in VT to plant a garden in another week or two, with the last frosts retreating until September.  At the school where I teach, students manage to keep Beltaine events alive even if they pass on other Revival or Pagan holidays.

The day’s associations with fertility appear in Arthurian lore with stories of Queen Guinevere’s riding out on May Day, or going a-Maying.  In Collier’s painting above, the landscape hasn’t yet burst into full green, but the figures nearest Guinevere wear green, particularly the monk-like one at her bridle, who leads her horse.  Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot eroticized everything around her — greened it in every sense of the word.  Tennyson in his Idylls of the King says:

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might …

Of course, there are other far more subtle and insightful readings of the story, ones which have mythic power in illuminating perennial human challenges of relationship and energy. But what is it about green that runs so deep in European culture as an ambivalent color in its representation of force? 

Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness captures in its  blend of Gothic secrecy, sexual obsession, reincarnation and the struggle toward psychic rebalancing the full spectrum of mixed-ness of green in both title and story. As well as the positive color of growth and life, it shows its alternate face in the greenness of envy, the eco-threat of “greenhouse effect,” the supernatural (and original) “green giant” in the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the novel and subsequent 1973 film Soylent Green, and the ghostly, sometimes greenish, light of decay hovering over swamps and graveyards that has occasioned numerous world-wide ghost stories, legends and folk-explanations. 

(Wikipedia blandly scientificizes the phenomenon thus:  “The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires.”)  And most recently, “bad” greenness showed up during this year’s Earth Day last month, which apparently provoked fears in some quarters of the day as evil and Pagan, and a determination to fight the “Green Dragon” of the environmental movement as un-Christian and insidious and horrible and generally wicked. Never mind that stewardship of the earth, the impetus behind Earth Day, is a specifically Biblical imperative (the Sierra Club publishes a good resource illustrating this).  Ah, May.  Ah, silliness and wisdom and human-ness.

We could let a Celt and a poet have (almost) the last word. Dylan Thomas catches the ambivalence in his poem whose title is also the first line:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind

Hauls my shroud sail …

Yes, May is death and life both, as all seasons are.  But something in the irrepressible-ness of May makes it particularly a “hinge month” in our year.  The “green fuse” in us burns because it must in order for us to live at all, but our burning is our dying.  OK, Dylan, we get it.  Circle of life and all that.  What the fearful seem to react to in May and Earth Day and things Pagan-seeming is the recognition that not everything is sweetness and light.  The natural world, in spite of efforts of Disney and Company to the contrary, devours as well as births.  Nature isn’t so much “red in tooth and claw” as it is green. 

Yes, things bleed when we feed (or if you’re vegetarian, they’ll spill chlorophyll.  Did you know peas apparently talk to each other?).  And this lovely, appalling planet we live on is part of the deal.  It’s what we do in the interim between the “green fuse” and the “dead end” that makes all the difference, the only difference there is to make.  So here’s Seamus Heaney, another Celt and poet,  who gives us one thing we can do about it:  struggle to make sense, regardless of whether or not any exists to start with.  In his poem “Digging,” he talks about writing, but it’s “about” our human striving in general that, for him, takes this particular form.  It’s a poem of memory and meaning-making.  We’re all digging as we go.

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Beltane Fire Society image; Maibaum; John Maler Collier’s Queen Guinevere’s Maying; Soylent Green; Green Darkness; peat.

%d bloggers like this: