Ladies of Legend: Savitri

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Savitri, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savitri_and_Satyavan, The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes From Around the World (Kingfisher, 1998) ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherine Headlam, https://www.mahabharataonline.com/stories/mahabharata_story.php?id=11, http://www.indianscriptures.com/vedic-society/women-of-bharat/puranic/savitri,

For the penultimate Lady of Legend, I have chosen Savitri from ‘Savitri and Satyavan’. The first known version of this story comes from the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic. The birth of Savitri was the result of kindly divine intervention after her parents’ many years of hoping and praying for a baby, and she was named after her parents’ benefactor, the sun god Savitr. Her father was King Asvapati and her mother was his queen Malavi.

Savitri’s default state was intimidating perfection. She was polite and devout and very obedient…except when she was right and you were not. No man dared to ask for her to be his bride, so Asvapati told Savitri to find a husband herself, which she duly went and did. She encountered Satyavan, a prince hacking out a living in the forest with his exiled father, the blind king Dyumatsena of the Salwas. Satyavan had absolutely no prospects. What was more, upon Savitri’s return home, the Sage Narada informed her that Satyavan was doomed to die in exactly a year’s time. Asvapati begged his daughter to choose a different husband. Savitri would not budge: she had picked Satyavan and nothing could sway her away from him.

Instead of bringing him to live with her in the palace, Savitri went to live and work with Satyavan in the forest. Three days before her husband’s prophesied death, she took up a devoted vigil and fast, so rigid in its austerity that her father-in-law expressed his concern. On the morning of the dreaded day, however, when she asked permission to follow Satyavan into the forest, Dyumatsena gave Savitri her way, because it was the first favour she had asked of him in the year they had lived together.

Satyavan was cutting wood when he abruptly grew faint and lay down to rest with his head on Savitri’s lap. It was more than a passing weakness; he died there in her arms. Servants of the god of death appeared to take his soul, but Savitri’s personality burned so fiercely that they could not get near her. Eventually Yama himself had to come for Satyavan. He kindly explained that death was an inevitability and that Savitri had to let go.

Savitri did not let go. She followed Yama and would not be turned back, insisting that her love was faithful and eternal. She kept talking, giving speeches praising obedience to the law and friendship to the strict, then praising Yama as a fair ruler, the god of Death being the ultimate judge and therefore King of the Law. The subject of her final speech was ‘noble conduct with no expectation of return’. Yama was so affected by her eloquent wisdom that he offered her whatever favour she chose to ask – anything except her husband’s life. He had a job to do here, after all.

Savitri’s first request was for the kingdom of her father-in-law to be returned to him, along with his sight. Yama granted it – still Savitri followed him. Her next wish was for a hundred siblings, because apparently that’s something her parents wanted? Anyway, Yama agreed. Savitri did not stop following him. Lastly, she wished for a hundred children to be born of her marriage to Satyavan. Yama was put in a bit of quandary. He had, after all, told Savitri she could have anything she wanted except Satyavan’s life – only how could she have a hundred children without him? Channelling the ‘why am I even bothering to argue about this’ kind of exhaustion that gods of death tend to have when faced with epic love stories, he allowed Savitri a free choice of wishes and she asked, of course, for her husband’s life. Yama not only restored Satyavan, he honoured her other wishes in genuine goodwill and gave her his blessing.

For Satyavan, death was like a brief and passing sleep. When he and Savitri returned home, they found Dyumatsena with newly restored eyesight, and a procession of royal ministers arrived shortly afterwards to announce the sudden death of the enemy who exiled him. Savitri was once again a princess – more importantly, she was the woman who outwitted Death.

The festival of Vat Savitri is still celebrated by married women, who fast through the night and pray for their husbands. After all, if there is anyone you’d want on your side to protect your loved ones, it would certainly be her.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Advertisements

Ladies of Legend: Deidre and Grainne

References: http://bardmythologies.com/diarmuid-and-grainne/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pursuit_of_Diarmuid_and_GráinneIrish Folk & Fairy Tales Omnibus (Time Warner Books, 2005) by Michael Scott, http://www.timelessmyths.com/celtic/ossian.html#Pursuit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loathly_lady#Diarmuid, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire, Legends of the Celts (HarperCollins, 1994, originally published 1989) by Frank Delaney

Trigger warning: references to suicide and sexual coercion

Irish mythology is filled with the stories of sad women, and these are two of the saddest. They never met, but there is a thematic resonance between them: theirs are the stories of jealous kings, reckless hearts and unnecessarily tragic love.

During a rowdy feast at the house of the bard Fedlimid, the heavily pregnant mistress of the house patiently waited on the men until they had all drunk themselves under the table, before retreating to her chamber to rest. No sooner had she reached the room, however, than her unborn child began to scream. Everyone woke in uproar. Fedlimid’s wife turned to the druid Cathbad for an explanation of what was happening. He laid a hand on her belly, and prophesied that she would give birth to a beautiful golden-haired girl, beloved by great warriors and kings. A few days later, however, when the baby was born, Cathbad made a second, much darker prophecy: that the baby girl, named Deidre, would bring shame and ruin to her land, that she would bring about the banishment of the sons of Usnach and the desertion of the warrior Fergus.

Fedlimid’s household were so horrified by this prophecy that some demanded the baby be killed. King Conchobar of Ulster, however, commanded that Deidre be brought to his palace, to be raised there and to in due time become his wife. He believed this arrangement would be enough to avert the prophecy. He was, needless to say, a very arrogant man.

Deidre grew up into a very beautiful young woman, golden-haired and blue-eyed, just as the druid had predicted – so beautiful that Conchobar grew possessive of her and housed her in isolation, much as one might lock up a prized piece of jewellery in a box. The only people Deidre was allowed to see were her foster-parents and a very stubborn (female!) satirist called Leborcham. One day the two women were watching Deidre’s foster father butchering a calf outside when a raven alighted on the snow to drink the spilled blood. “I could only love a man with those three colours,” Deidre claimed. “His hair must be as black as that raven, his cheeks must be as ruddy as the calf’s blood, and his skin should be as white as snow.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. Snow White’s mother made a similar set of wishes for her child. It would seem that Naoise, the eldest son of Usnach, came by his unusual colouring naturally. Leborcham told Deidre about his existence, which was not necessarily the best decision she could have made. Naoise was also an extraordinarily gifted singer, a powerful warrior and a skilled hunter. One day Deidre heard Naoise singing and sought him out. Recognising her as the future bride of the king, he was wary, but Deidre was having none of that; she pounced on him, seizing hold of his ears. “These two ears will be your shame and mockery, unless you take me away with you,” she told him, laughing. Naoise sang to call his brothers Ardan and Ainle to him and explained the command Deidre had laid on him. They all apparently saw the command as inescapable, because instead of trying to dissuade her, they decided to take her and escape to another kingdom.

The brothers and their followers journeyed through Ireland with the wrath of Conchobar always biting at their heels. In time they crossed the sea to England, first as cattle raiders, then as warriors in the service of the king. Deidre was once again kept in seclusion, but unfortunately the king’s steward spotted her in Naoise’s bed early one morning and decided that she would make the perfect queen. Her being very obviously taken was no problem at all – the steward only needed permission to have Naoise killed. The king of England, however, ordered that Deidre be wooed in secret first.

Deidre could not have been less interested. She repeated every promise and bribe to Naoise. The king sent the sons of Usnach on increasingly dangerous tasks, in the hope they would be killed, but they came back safely every time. Finally, the king instructed two of his guards to kill Naoise while he lay sleeping. Deidre heard of the plot in time and her whole party escaped.

The brothers had friends in Ulster who chose to blame the whole situation on Deidre and urged Conchobar to forgive and forget. Conchobar offered a safe return home, with his warriors Fergus, Dubhthach and Cormac as guarantors, and gave only one stipulation: the brothers were not to eat until they arrived at Conchobar’s table. Deidre suspected the worst. Prone to visions of darkness of her own, she argued to stay in England, but the homesick brothers agreed to Conchobar’s terms.

He betrayed them, as Deidre had said he would. According to one account, a band of mercenaries lay in wait, rising up when the brothers came in view. Naoise was stabbed with a spear, and when Fergus’s son leapt to shield his fallen friend, he was murdered too. The brothers and their friends fought fiercely, but were overcome by the number of opponents. There is another account in which Cathbad enchanted the brothers, making them believe that waves were rising up around them on dry land; Cathbad believed that Conchobar would spare them, but instead the king had all three beheaded at one stroke with Naoise’s sword Retaliator. When the guarantors heard of the treachery, there was war between them and Conchobar. Fergus did indeed desert Ulster, leaving to serve Queen Medb. Cathbad laid a curse on Conchobar and on his land. And Deidre was left alone for Conchbar to claim.

In one version, she lived as Conchobar’s bride for a year, so deep in grief that no one could so much as make her smile. She hated everyone at the court, most of all Conchobar and Eoghan, leader of the mercenaries, and she was not afraid of saying so. Conchobar’s pride couldn’t take that. He gave her to Eoghan, who placed her in his chariot and tied her up so that she couldn’t run – but that did not stop Deidre, who threw herself over the side and died in the fall. In another version, Conchobar never got his hands on her. She dashed her head open on a rock rather than return to him. Her friends had her buried beside Naoise and from each grave grew a pine tree, the branches entwined, inseparable. Thus ends one of the Three Sorrows of Storytelling.

Deidre was treated as a thing from birth; loving Naoise wasn’t just a rebellion, it was a deliberate act of escape. It’s a classic Helen of Troy situation – men choose to kill each other and say it was a woman’s fault. If there was a prophecy of future wrongs to be made about anyone, it should have been Conchobar.

Grainne was the daughter of Cormac, the High King of Ireland, and Queen Aeta. When Fionn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna – a famous band of warriors – paid court to her, both she and her father consented, but at the celebratory feast Grainne actually saw Fionn, who was much too old for her. She also saw Diarmait O’Duibhn, who was not.

He was one of Finn’s warriors and very handsome, with a beauty mark on his cheek that made any woman who saw him love him. As such, it’s hardly surprising that he had already played one of the lead roles in a tragic romance. Years ago, an ugly old woman who had wandered the world alone for seven years came to the lodge where the Fianna were sleeping, begging each warrior in turn to share the warmth of his bedroll with her. Only Diarmait took pity on her. In the morning, she awoke as a beautiful young woman, and she became Diarmait’s wife. She gave him the house he had always wanted by the sea, and all she asked of him was that he never mention how she had looked when they first met. Basic courtesy, you might think! But when she gave away the pups of his hunting dog to his friends, he rubbed her face in how noble he had been that one time, and in doing so he lost everything. She vanished. Diarmait’s search for her led him into the Otherworld, where he discovered that she was the king’s daughter and deathly ill. He saved her with a cup of healing water, but the price was that his love for her ended with her sickness.

He returned home to the Fianna, and met another beautiful princess. This one, however, was made of harder stuff, and what she wanted, she got.

Grainne sent around a drinking-horn of drugged wine, but did not offer it to Diarmait, so he was left awake. She told him that she loved him, and asked for his love in return. When he refused out of loyalty to his chieftain, Grainne laid a geasa – a bond – on him to run away with her.

When his fellow Fianna woke, Diarmait went around to each of them with his dilemma, and each told him that he could not break the geasa. Even Finn, when told the same story without Grainne’s name attached to it, gave the same advice. So that night Diarmait fled with Grainne. For some time they travelled together in a state of sexually frustrated antagonism, with Diarmait leaving small signs where she had slept to tell Fionn that Grainne was not his lover. As they were crossing a ford, a splash of water wet Grainne’s thigh and she remarked acerbically that it was braver than Diarmait was. She may have forced him into running away with her, but she needled him into bed.

Diarmait wove her a hut to sleep in, surrounded by a fence with seven doors. When the Fianna finally caught them up, the odds looked very bad. Diarmait had an impressive ally on his side, however: his foster-father Angus, the Irish god of love. Angus came to the lovers with a mantle of invisibility, offering to spirit them away. Diarmait’s pride wouldn’t allow him to leave in that eminently advisable way, but he asked Angus to take Grainne to safety. Nor were the Fianna really against him; of the seven doors, five were guarded by good friends who would have let Diarmait pass without bloodshed. It was his choice to go out of the one guarded by Fionn himself, and to do so with such a dramatically high leap that no one could catch him. Pure show-offery. He caught up with Angus and Grainne, unharmed.

Angus advised the lovers to never hide in a tree with one trunk, to never rest in a cave with one entrance, to never land on an island with one channel of approach, not to eat where they cooked and sleep where they ate, and where they slept once, to never sleep again – in short, to never ever stop moving. That was enough for a time, but Fionn was always hunting them. Knowing that he could not trust his own men to capture Diarmait, he sent other warriors to do the deed.

Diarmait and Grainne befriended the giant Muadhan, who travelled with them for a while as a protector. While the  group were sheltering in a cave, three warriors came to camp in the same place and talked of pursuing Diarmait without realising the man himself was before them. Which does rather raise the question of how they were expecting to find him at all? Diarmait solemnly informed them that he had learned tricks from the hero they hunted, and would show them how dangerous their quest was. He then proceeded to slaughter the champions’ followers and left the champions themselves tied up on the beach. He also evaded their venomous (venomous?) hounds.

There was a rowan tree guarded by a one-eyed giant named Sharvan the Surly, who looked so terrifying that no warrior dared cross into his lands, making his general vicinity a good place for determined outlaws to hang out. Diarmait, who after all was very charming, managed to sweet-talk Sharvan into letting the lovers camp indefinitely on his lands. The only rule was that they were never to eat the berries of the tree. So of course, Grainne desperately wanted the berries. She was pregnant and the cravings were unbearable. When she told Diarmait, he took her request to Sharvan, only to be flatly denied. Diarmait then fought the giant and won. Sharvan died; Diarmait fetched Grainne and the two of them climbed the tree to eat the sweetest berries in the higher branches.

Fionn heard of Sharvan’s death and knew instinctively that Diarmait had killed him. He arranged his men underneath the tree and decided to lure Diarmait out with a game of chess, played against his son Oisin. Every time Oisin went to make a move that would lead to his defeat, a berry fell on the place he ought to move. Only one man in Ireland could beat Fionn at chess, and when Oisin managed that for the first time, Fionn knew he had been guided by Diarmait. Another extraordinary leap saved Diarmait from capture, and Angus swept Grainne away in his cloak.

Fionn called on his old nurse, likely to have been the druidess Bodhmall, who was also Fionn’s aunt. She flew through the air on a water lily and when she caught up to Diarmait, she pierced his shield with poisoned darts. Though the pain was agonising, Diarmait managed to retaliate in kind, killing her with a spear. What was more, he survived afterwards.

Diarmait and Grainne had five children together, four sons and a daughter, and if ANYONE can find out what their names were, have mercy and tell me. Not one of my sources names one of them. Life on the run with a large family was hellish, one would imagine. Between the imploding Fianna and the actual god of love pointing out the absurdity of the situation, Fionn finally gave up on the pursuit and allowed the lovers to live in peace. Diarmait had a fort built for his family, named Rath Grainia after Grainne, and he even managed to salvage some of his friendship with Fionn. There are versions in which Fionn eventually married Grainne’s sister, Ailbe Grúadbrecc.

But he never quite lost his desire for vengeance.

Grainne missed her father and Diarmait missed his comrades from the Fianna. Grainne convinced him to invite their nearest, dearest and most deadly to a feast, including Fionn as a gesture of goodwill. That night, as the household slept, Diarmait woke to the sound of hunting hounds. Each time he woke, Grainne – for all her sweet overtures, not trusting Fionn an inch – convinced him not to leave the bed. In the morning, she could not convince him to leave the matter be, or go outside with his armour on and his best weapons to hand.

What happened next depends on the version you read. In one, Fionn’s intentions were not actively destructive. Diarmait’s father had murdered Diarmait’s half-brother Roc, and the dead boy had been transformed into a savage boar for the sole purpose of exacting revenge. Fionn warned Diarmait of the danger, and Diarmait chose to disregard that warning. In this version, Diarmait killed the boar but was gored in the process. In an alternative account, Fionn knew exactly what he was doing. Diarmait survived the boar hunt uninjured, but Fionn asked him to measure out the beast’s skin with his bare feet, and Diarmait’s heel was pierced by a poisoned bristle.

Diarmait lay dying. If Fionn brought him a drink of water between his hands, he would be healed; Fionn had once stuck his thumb in the cauldron of Cerridwen, and ever after there was a magic in it. Fionn went to the river, but let the water trickle away as he remembered Diarmait’s elopement with Grainne. Torn by the old friendship, he returned to fetch more water, only to let it trickle away again. The third time, he pulled himself together and brought the water to Diarmait’s mouth – but too late. By then, Diarmait was dead.

Angus would not let the Fianna bury his foster-son. He took the body away with him, and through his divine arts, sometimes gave it what little life he could, so that he could speak with Diarmait again. Even in her grief, Grainne was relieved Angus had what was left of her husband in his keeping. What else she felt varies widely in different accounts. In one version, Fionn was not married to Ailbe, and paid court to Grainne again. Though at first she scorned him, she finally agreed to be his wife. In another version, she died of a broken heart.

In a third version, she raised her boys on a diet of fury to avenge their father. Not that they really needed to, in the end – Diarmait’s death was the beginning of the end for the Fianna.

Grainne was not a kind woman. When she saw something she wanted, she went after it without giving a damn about the consequences to herself or to anyone else. She essentially kidnapped Diarmait and taunted him into sleeping with her. But damn, what a hurricane of a personality. I like to think she did live, and raged, and Fionn knew better than to set foot near her for the rest of his days.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Ladies of Legend: Pasiphaë and Ariadne

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariadne, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ariadne-Greek-mythology, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasiphaë, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Pasiphae.html , http://greekmythology.wikia.com/wiki/Europa, http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Ariadne.html,

Trigger warning: bestiality, suicide

Pasiphaë’s mother was Perse, eldest of the Oceanids, and her father was the sun god Helios. She had two brothers, Aeetes and Perses, both kings, and her sister Circe was a formidable sorceress. Pasiphaë became queen of Crete through her marriage to its king, Minos, and together they had eight children: Acacallis, Ariadne, Androgeus, Glaucas, Deucalion, Phaedra, Xenodice and Catreus. Her most famous child, however, was a son conceived in an encounter that makes literally everyone involved look bad.

The grip Minos had on the throne was a tenuous one at the start of his reign, with his brothers for competition, so he prayed to Poseidon to send a pure white bull as a sign of divine favour. When Poseidon obliged, Minos was intended to sacrifice the bull in his honour, but instead kept it for his own. This infuriated Poseidon, and the sea god decided to take out his temper on Minos’ wife. Pasiphaë was struck by a desperate urge to have sex with the divine bull, to the point that she forced the Cretan court’s pet inventor Daedalus to build her a wooden cow on wheels that was lifelike enough to convince the bull it was worth mating with. It worked so well that Pasiphaë immediately fell pregnant. Her son was named Asterion, but is much better known as the Minotaur: a boy with the head of a bull. As a small child, he was allowed to wander the palace freely. As he grew older, however, he grew more dangerous. Daedelus was tasked to build a labyrinth beneath the palace, where the child could grow to manhood out of sight and out of mind.

Pasiphaë’s adultery was hardly her fault; even a powerful sorceress can only do so much against the curse of a god, and it was Minos who offended Poseidon in the first place. Minos, on the other hand, was entirely responsible for his own wandering eye and Pasiphaë took measures to ensure his fidelity. She laid an enchantment on him that would turn his semen into serpents, scorpions and centipedes whenever he slept with a woman who wasn’t her. The curse was eventually overcome by an Athenian girl named Procris, who used a herbal remedy produced by Circe. I’m going out on a limb here and assuming the sisterly relationship was not a good one.

The strangest aspect of Pasiphaë’s story – and that’s a high bar to reach! – is that her mother-in-law, Europa, had EXACTLY THE SAME EXPERIENCE with a bull, only hers was really Zeus. She then went on to become the first queen of Crete, so things worked out rather better for her.

Pasiphaë has been equated with the moon goddess Selene, and there is an argument she was also a Minoan solar goddess. In Sparta, senior magistrates would sleep at her shrine in the hope of visions that would guide their governance. Her story is fragmented, circling her husband and children, but from what little there is, I know for sure she’s not a woman I would ever want to cross.

It was in this household of monsters and demi-gods that her daughter Ariadne grew up, with her feral half-brother roaming the labyrinth under her feet. Like her mother, Ariadne’s origins are a contested history. According to some, she is a weaving goddess, while others claim she was a snake goddess, or a Great Goddess of Crete. In the best known version of the myth, however, she was a princess, and the only one apart from Daedelus who really understood the labyrinth.

The city of Athens owed a tribute to Crete after the death of Ariadne’s brother Androgeus. zthe tribute was seven youths and seven maidens to be sent every seven (or, depending on the version, nine) years and sacrificed to the Minotaur. To be selected was a death sentence, until Theseus, son of the Athenian king Aegeus, volunteered to go and kill the monster. The odds of his succeeding in that would have been rather low had Ariadne not fallen in love with him and offered her assistance.

Ariadne had free run of the labyrinth. She armed Theseus with a sword to kill the Minotaur and a ball of thread to find his way through the passages, and all she asked in return was to be brought with him when he left Crete.

In one version, he failed even that, and she hung herself. In the better known account, he did take her with him, and her sister Phaedra too. The ship stopped at the island of Naxos on its journey to Athens, and Theseus abandoned Ariadne there while she slept. There are versions where the gods demanded it of him, with Athena personally leading Theseus back to his ship, but let’s face it: his personal history is basically one thoughtless act after another with the occasional act of dubious heroism thrown in for counterweight.

Fortunately for Ariadne, one of the gods had a great deal of interest in her. Dionysus, who was the god of wine-making, theatre and religious ecstasy, rescued her from Naxos and married her. Her wedding diadem was so spectacular it was set into the sky as a constellation, the Corona Borealis. She had twelve children with Dionysus: Oenopion, Staphylus, Thoas, Peparethus, Phanus, Eurymedon, Enyeus, Ceramus, Maron, Euanthes, Latramys and Tauropolis. The marriage to Dionysus was, it would seem, a happy one, but when Perseus came to Argos with Medusa’s head, Ariadne was among the guests turned to stone.

Dionysus did not accept her death. He went into the Underworld to get her back and not only succeeded, he brought his mother Semele to the surface as well. Both women became goddesses in their own right, joining the Pantheon on Olympus. Ariadne may have started out in the shadow of the Minotaur, but in the end, she was the woman who walked out of the dark and into Olympus itself. In the end, she got what she wanted: she got free.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – Roses and Rot

Roses and Rot – Kat Howard

Saga Press, 2016

As a child, Imogen escaped from the misery of her home through writing, while her sister Marin did the same through dance. Even as adults, they are not free. When they are both accepted into a prestigious artists’ retreat, it seems the perfect opportunity to reconnect while they chase their dreams. But Melete is not quite the paradise it appears. There is a price for the greatness it offers – the question is which sister is going to pay.

This is a loose retelling of Tam Lin, one with a very original premise that is centred around a complicated sister relationship, all of which appealed to me very much. I also enjoyed the many references to fairy tales, and the intensely personal way Imogen interacted with them. I thought some of the secondary characters were not fleshed out as well as they could have been and at times the plot skimmed over moments I’d have liked to read in more detail. Overall, though, Howard drew the different threads of the story together very well, and I was thoroughly engaged throughout. Roses and Rot is Howard’s first novel. Her second, An Unkindness of Magicians, is slated for release in September.

Ladies of Legend: Nimue, Vivian and Ganieda

References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_of_the_Lake, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, http://www.legendofkingarthur.co.uk/legendary-characters/vivien.htm, http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/women.html#Lake, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/h01.html, The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (Dover Publications, Inc., 1991, originally published in 1907) by Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005) by Howard Pyle, 

The Lady of the Lake is a figure so ambiguous in all ways that there is not even a consensus on whether she is one person or two – or, in true mythical fashion, three. ‘The Lady of the Lake’ is really more a position rather than an individual: she is the keeper and possibly maker of Excalibur, and/or the ruler of Avalon. One of the Ladies of the Lake, Viviane from the Vulgate Merlin, was also Queen of Sicily, where she was worshipped as a goddess. Other names attributed to the Lady of the Lake include Nimue, Vivien, Vivian, Elaine, Ninianne, Nivian, Nyneve and Evienne. One variation of her name, ‘Vi-Vianna’, implies a connection to the Celtic water goddess Coventina, while others suggest links to the Irish goddess Niamh or the Welsh goddess Rhiannon.

There is even a connection to the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana (and therefore to her Greek counterpart, Artemis) in one version of the legend. In this story, Nimue was the daughter of Diones and the goddaughter of Diana. Merlin glimpsed her dancing in the forest and fell in love on the spot. Their wedding was officiated by Diana herself – a startling irony, given that Diana is famously, and sometimes savagely, chaste – promptly followed by Merlin’s imprisonment in a bewitched castle. It doesn’t sound like a great foundation for a marriage, but hey, when it comes to spectacularly terrible relationship breakdowns, the Lady of the Lake is Arthurian legend’s true expert. There is also a version in which she was Merlin’s spurned lover, changing into the shape of a beautiful woman in order to seduce him (which does rather beg the question, what was she before?) only to trap him in amber mid-orgasm. She then transformed into an oak tree around him. That is commitment.

Different versions have her entrap him in a hawthorn tree, beneath a stone, inside a cave or a tower. What remains consistent is this: Merlin fell, and she rose.

The first Lady of the Lake who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur goes unnamed. She gifted Arthur with Excalibur and later came to his court, where she accused Arthur’s knight Sir Balin of killing her brother and Balin accused her of killing his mother – whereupon he promptly beheaded her, much to Arthur’s dismay. It was later that the character of Nimue appeared, as a mystery woman who wandered into Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding feast while looking for her dog, only to be kidnapped by a knight called Sir Hontzlake. Nimue’s cousin, Sir Meliot of Logurs, battled Hontzlake to rescue her, but was outmatched. It was Sir Pellinore who brought her safely back to court, and safe is perhaps not the right word, because Merlin immediately fell in lust with her.

Nimue felt no interest in return, but used his attraction to pump him for knowledge. They were travelling companions, leaving England for the lands of King Ban, father of Lancelot. By the time they returned to Cornwall, Merlin was actively pursuing Nimue for sex and she had no further use for him. She walled him up behind an enormous rock with her magic and left him there, buried alive. It was an act of quite astonishing cruelty.

And then, in so many ways, she became him.

When Morgan le Fay’s lover and conspirator, Accolon, got his hands on Excalibur and attacked Arthur with it, Nimue forced Accolon to drop it, ensuring Arthur won the battle and the sword was restored to him. When Morgan le Fay sent a poisoned cloak as a ‘reconciliation’ gift, Nimue suggested Arthur force the messenger to try it on first, and so the unlucky handmaiden died a painful death instead. A sorceress named Annowre abducted Arthur, hoping to win him with her obsessive love, and would have killed him in the wake of his rejection had Nimue not brought his knights for a timely rescue. She claimed Annowre’s severed head like a trophy.

Nor was her loyalty limited to Arthur. Young Sir Pelleas fell in love with a woman who played with his heart, and Nimue’s way of resolving that situation was to enchant the girl to love him while simultaneously enchanting Pelleas to hate her. Nimue then took the knight as her lover and later, her husband. When Guinevere was accused of murder, Lancelot fought for her, but it was Nimue who cleared her name by identifying the true murderer. And Nimue was there at the very end, one of the sorceress queens who came for Arthur to bear his body away after the final battle.

Different translations of Malory’s work imply Nimue may have been two different women, Nimue and Nyneve. This may explain the marriage to Pelleas, who also appears twice-over – Pelleas the young, heartbroken knight, and King Pelleas of Corbenic, father of Elaine, grandfather of Galahad, guardian of the Grail. The Nimue married to Sir Pelleas bore him a son, Guivret. The Lady of the Lake, in her different personas, had another son; after the death of King Ban, she raised Lancelot as her own and taught him the art of chivalry. He was known, because of her, as Lancelot of the Lake.

If Nimue is a figure of wisdom, Vivian is ambition. She appears in some versions of the legend as a separate character, a girl taught – essentially weaponised – by Morgan le Fay. Vivian came to Camelot to study magic with Merlin and who deliberately seduced him into teaching her everything he knew. While her ruthlessness should certainly not be underestimated, there is an astonishing amount of sexism behind the idea that this lord of magic and prophecy was helpless before her; his lust was his blind spot, and she exploited it, in the same way he exploited Igraine’s faith in her husband Gorlois. In some versions, she entombed him. In others, he was her prisoner in a hidden tower.

This Vivian became an enemy of Camelot, cursing Arthur’s knights for her amusement, sending them to their deaths when it suited her. Howard Pyle paints Vivian as a classic temptress, surrounding her with beautiful handmaidens in a hidden castle. She was not an ally to Morgan le Fay; Vivian was entirely her own woman. Neither was she friendly with Nimue, who played a far less morally ambiguous role with Vivian in the narrative.

Of all these sorceresses encircling Merlin and Arthur, there is a third distinct character: Ganieda, Merlin’s twin sister. An alternative spelling of her name is Gwenddydd. In these stories, Ganieda and Merlin’s father was named Morfryn. Ganieda was wife to King Rhydderch, which made her sister-in-law twice-over to Merlin’s wife Gwendoloena. Merlin was a seer and ‘fool’ at Rhydderch’s court. He predicted three deaths for the same boy, which drew scorn from his audience. Merlin went to live in the wilderness, and in time the threefold death came true. The only time he returned to Rhydderch’s court was when his estranged wife remarried; Merlin stabbed her new husband with a pair of antlers.

Ganieda came to live with Merlin after the death of her own husband. She had a house built for them, with seventy doors and seventy windows, through which Merlin could watch the stars and foretell the future. Merlin later sought a cure for his madness in a healing spring, accompanied by Ganieda and the young poet Taliesin. When Ganieda drank the water, she became a powerful seer herself.

Whatever form they take – goddess, enchantress, temptress, mother, sister, queen – the Ladies of the Lake are women who exist outside of boundaries. Theirs is a changeable neutrality; while they each have certain loyalties, in the end they are always their own side. And that is the side that usually wins.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton, 2015

It’s a big universe, but when you don’t want to be found, it can feel very small. Rosemary has given up a lot for her new start aboard the Wayfarer, a ship in the business of building hyperspace tunnels. The eccentric crew, from the chaotic techs to the affectionate AI who keeps everything running, seem only too happy to welcome her aboard. When the Wayfarer is offered an extraordinary opportunity to build a tunnel longer than any they’ve ever built before, to a planet only recently accepted into the Galactic Commons, how could they possibly say no? But a long journey means a long time for secrets to come out, and that’s without really knowing what is waiting for them at the end…

This is Becky Chambers’ first novel and it is a delight. The worldbuilding is fascinating, detailed and original, with an interesting take on the role humans play in a wider galaxy. This is really an ensemble story, alternating between the perspectives of the whole Wayfarer crew, who are a charming motley of personalities and cultures. The plot is a little disjointed, with the chapters feeling more episodic than sequential, and there was one aspect of the ending that I found very frustrating, as the solution felt disrespectful to the characters involved, but this is the first book in a series and therefore I suppose it hasn’t really ended yet. The story continues in A Close and Common Orbit, which I shall definitely be reading.

Review – My True Love Gave to Me

My True Love Gave to Me – ed. Stephanie Perkins

Macmillan, 2014

In this collection of winter romances, the holidays bring people together…and break them apart. Whether it’s putting on the dress for a winter party or donning a mask to disappear into a revel, reconnecting with an old love or reaching out to a stranger, this is a time for wishes, and change.

As an Australian, there is something fundamentally a bit disconcerting about Christmas stories set in winter, however used to reading them I am, and of course when it comes to holiday fiction, the level of schmaltz you’re looking for is a variable thing. Some of these stories were definitely too sentimental for my taste, but others had a lovely grounded warmth and sincerity that really appealed to me. While Christmas was the dominant theme, there were a variety of other holidays celebrated throughout the collection. My favourites included Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Midnights’, Kelly Link’s ‘The Lady and the Fox’, ‘It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown’ by Stephanie Perkins (a sequel to which appears in the collection Summer Days, Summer Nights) and ‘Krampuslauf’ by Holly Black.