Sunday, August 29, 2010

Goddess of the Week

This week's pick is Morgana, also known as Morgan le Fay, the great sorceress and healer of the Arthurian legends. Though considered human in the late works, Morgana's divine origins are hinted at in her epithet 'le Fay,' meaning 'faery,' 'Fate,' or 'Otherworldly woman.' The strands going back are rather tangled, but she does seem to have a good part of her origins in an old Gaulish river-Goddess.

In the Arthurian legends, Morgan le Fay is one of three daughters of Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, and Ygraine, her elder sisters being Elaine (one of many in Arthuriana) and Morgawse, who would be mother of the infamous Mordred. They are half-sisters to Arthur, who was gotten on their mother by Uther Pendragon through a ruse (which makes it rape).

Morgan was unhappily married off to one Urien of Gore; their son was Ywain. She was very skilled in magic and much associated with Avalon, an Otherworldly island long connected with Glastonbury. She is usually thought of as a fierce enemy to Arthur; yet, when he was wounded at the end of his reign, she was one of the women of Avalon who took him in to be healed.

Those are the basics of the Arthurian legends. Let's look a little deeper now.

Her husband Urien (and their son Ywain) finds his origins in a real sixth-century king; his son Owain ap Urien was famous for battling the Angles. This fame got them both incorporated into legend, starting with the Welsh. Owain features in a tale of his own called The Lady of the Fountain; however in the Welsh Triads (Trioedd Ynys Prydain, Triads of the Isle of Britain), he is called a son of Urien and one Modron.

Modron is usually remembered as the mother of Mabon in the Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen; he was said to have been taken from his mother when only three days old. Though there is not much information about either of them in this tale, there is something powerful and primal underneath it: for 'Mabon' simply means 'son', and 'Modron' simply means 'Mother.' Which means that Mabon ap Modron means 'Son, son of Mother', unusually enough; especially given that the ap part, meaning 'son of' is literally called a patronymic, meaning 'father-name,' it is remarkable that there is no mention at all of a father. And though he only has a bit part in the tales as handed down to us, yet Mabon gives his name to the collection of Welsh literature called the Mabinogion (or Mabinogi, more properly). Now Mabon does have Divine origins—ultimately he has his roots in Maponos, a Celtic God of Roman Britain often linked with Apollo. This is the Mother and Her Son.

Now as for Modron Herself: She in her turn derives from the Goddess Matrona, the eponymous Goddess of the Marne River in eastern France. Her name means 'Divine Mother'. She is probably a singular form of the old Matronae, 'The Mothers', Who are Celtic mother Goddesses going by a Latin name, usually shown in triple form, posed with various emblems of fertility such as bread, cornucopiae, or babies.

There is also a folk-tale that tells how Urien came upon a washerwoman at a ford; though she does not give her name, she tells him she is a daughter of Annwfn, i.e. a fairy-woman or Goddess, as Annwfn is the name of the Welsh Otherworld. She later has two children by Urien, Owain and a daughter Morfudd (mentioned as Morfydd in the Triads). And all that actually does connect Her with the great Irish triple Goddess of sex and battle known as the Mórrígan, which She is usually said not to have much relationship with, despite the similarity of names; for the Mórrígan can take the form of the Washer at the Ford, an Otherworldly woman seen washing bloody clothes in a river, Who presages the death of the person whose garments she washes.

You will notice, that even in the late legends Morgan is associated with triplicity—She is one of three daughters, a triplicity which is all the more pronounced given that Her sister Elaine has almost no story of her own; it's as if she is just filler brought into the stories to round out the number. And in the Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) She is said to be one of nine sisters skilled in magic who live in Avalon.

So, then, what of all that?

It is remarkable to me how some things survive, and how despite layers and layers of camouflage and how various consonant, though unrelated stories can accumulate on an idea, one can still trace back to that source, that wellspring. In this case, literally, as Matrona has a shrine near to the source of the Marne River. I am tempted, then, to say that this week will be one of detective work and a search for origins; may it be as fruitful for you.

However Morgan le Fay, or Morgana, as I've called Her here, is perhaps calling us to remember our roots in a different way. She is never said to be anything other than human in the late tales; yet she still retains that 'le Fay' appellation. Work this week, I think, to discover your own fay-ness, if you will. We are not as separate from Nature as we would have it. We are certainly (and I realize I am rather preaching to the choir here) not un-magical beings, though we are human.

Her tale is of an ambiguous character, too; though Arthur's enemy she is also a great healer. Perhaps her story has merely been framed in a unflattering way by the storytellers who sided of course with Arthur; perhaps, also, it is a comment on the nature of magic being dark, complicated, many-sided, and rich, a characteristic that lovers of duality (who like to reduce everything to good and evil) cannot understand or endorse.

I think, though, that the main lesson this week is that you will have to figure it out for yourself. But this week marks the beginning of the end of summer, and the beginning of the turning of things, or at least that is what it has always felt like in my area. How is your world, your earth, changing now?

What does She say?

I am everywhere like the tide; the tide of the breath of the body, the tide of the seasons; I infuse it all. I am the undercurrent of the magical in all. I am that feeling of aliveness, that subtle body, the feeling of being alive. What is that after all but Magic?

Do not think that it is not all related, that the enlightenment of the Buddhists or the Christ does not also have its place, its name, its recognition in the older messier Ways; it is reality, after all, and it has always been, and has always been seen. Find the other definition for it, the one that is closer to home for you. It is there.

What do you think?


The Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, by James MacKillop

Wikipedia, believe it or not, which proved handy for keeping things sorted out

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