Lands of Legend: Tir-nan-õg

If myth is an ocean, there is practically an archipelago of paradisal islands out there, and among them is an idyllic Otherworld inhabited by the ancient Irish gods. It has been known by many titles: the‘Land of Promise’ (Tir Tairngiré), the ‘Plain of Happiness’ (Mag Mell), the ‘Land of the Living’ (Tir-nam-beo), but the best known name is the ‘Land of the Young’ (‘Tir-nan-õg).

Charles Squire calls it as ‘a paradise overseas…some unknown, and, except for favoured mortals, unknowable island of the west, the counterpart in Gaelic myth to the British Avalon…a land of perpetual pleasure and feasting’. It has also been paralleled with Elysium and Hy Brasil. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies describes it as ‘breathtakingly beautiful, alive with birds, colour and music, and where love was always fresh and new. Its inhabitants were blessed with eternal youth, oblivious to such concepts as time, rules, or work’. In The Lay of Oisin in the Land of Youth, translated by Brian O’Looney, Tir-nan-õg is said to be ‘the most delightful country to be found/ Of greatest repute under the sun;/Trees drooping with fruit and blossom,/…Abundant, there, are honey and wine,/And everything that eye has beheld, There will not come decline on thee with lapse of time./Death or decay thou wilt not see.’ It was said to always be spring in Tir-nan-õg – the people there did not age or grow sick, they did not die – labour was unnecessary because the land itself provided in easy abundance. Warriors could fight one another to the ground and rise up again in the morning.

Of the gods who left Ireland for Tir-nan-õg, Manannán son of Lêr was the most powerful. His daughter, Niamh of the Golden Hair, took a trip back to the mother country to claim the husband of her choice, a man she had literally only ever heard about in stories and decided, based on that, would be her perfect life partner. Not that his decision-making process was any better than hers. When she rose out of Lough Leane, a lake in Killarney, to seduce him, Oisin was only too happy to follow where she led. Even his father Fionn mac Cumhaill, a legendary warrior and leader of the Fianna, was unable to convince Oisin to stay.

With her mortal lover swung up on the back of her horse, Niamh returned home, riding across the waves of the sea because roads are apparently for losers. As they travelled, white palaces rose above the water and Niamh stopped at one of these for Oisin to prove himself with a spot of heroism. A woman of the Tuatha De Danann had been captured by a Formor and held in this palace; Oisin did indeed prove himself by setting the prisoner free. As the lovers journeyed on together, Oisin saw a fawn running across the waves, pursued by a white hound with red ears. This may have been particularly significant due to Oisin’s own unusual origins – his mother Sadhbh was cursed to become a deer while she was pregnant with him, and he was born a fawn before transforming into a human boy.

Oisin stayed with Niamh for three hundred years. That is a pretty solid marriage by most people’s standards, but eventually a surge of homesickness came over Oisin and he asked Niamh for leave to see Ireland again. She gave him a horse and in return he gave her a promise: he would not touch earthly soil. In due time he reached Ireland, but it had changed almost beyond his recognition, his friends and family now no more than names in history books. People no longer possessed the powers that had been common in Oisin’s youth. He watched three hundred men try and fail to lift a marble slab, then rode up and raised it one-handed.

The effort, slight as it may have been to him, broke his saddle-girth and his foot touched the ground. Instantly, the horse vanished and the years caught up to Oisin with a vengeance. There are ballads in which the blinded and dying Oisin, withered by unnatural age, was taken in by Saint Patrick – yes, that Saint Patrick – who tried to convert him to Christianity. Oisin, having listened to all of the saint’s arguments, refused to believe that any heaven would be closed to his friends if they chose to go there, or that any god would not claim friendship with his father. Oisin declared that he would go to the Fianna, his beloved companions, in whatever afterlife he found them – and died true to his word.

There are other fairy islands in Irish myth and legend. One is Tir Inna mBan, the Isle of Women, which was supported on four bronze pillars and – as you may have guessed based on the name – was inhabited entirely by women, a kind of Celtic Themiscyra. Manannan once summoned the hero Bran and his warriors to this island, where they were entertained for a year. Much as Niamh did, the women of Tir Inna mBan warned their departing guests not to set foot on Irish soil. As their ship neared land, Bran’s men called out to the people on the shore, telling of their adventures…only to learn that they had been gone far longer than they had realised, long enough to fade into the stuff of old stories. One sailor was so alarmed that he leapt off the ship and swam to land, but as soon as he reached it, he was reduced to dust. Bran and his warriors turned their ship around and sailed away, back into the unknowable mists from which they had come, and were not seen again.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/tir-na-nog, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003)

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Lands of Legend: Camelot

On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

And thro’ the field the road runs by

To many-tower’d Camelot

– Lord Alfred Tennyson, ‘The Lady of Shalott’

This is Tennyson’s Camelot, glowing and glorious, seen from afar by a doomed woman who could reach it only in death. If I’m honest, it is this poem – with all its lush tapestry of imagery, the reflection of a vibrant city glimpsed in a mirror – that played the biggest part in shaping my own vision of Camelot, and now I find it impossible to believe in anything else. But there are as many Camelots as there are King Arthurs, so I’m going to try.

Camelot, of course, is now inextricable from the story of Arthur – his city, the seat of his power, where his knights gathered around the famed Round Table – but one of the earliest named locations given for Arthur’s court, in the Welsh Triads, is in fact at Celliwig in Cerniw. Camelot does not get a mention. Many medieval texts place Arthur at Caerleon. In fact, the first time the name of Camelot appears is in Chrétien de Troyes’s poem Lancelot, and the tradition of Camelot being Arthur’s great city began in the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle.

In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, while the young Arthur was battling rival kings for his throne, he called a council: ‘all lords, knights, and gentlemen of arms, should draw unto a castle called Camelot in those days’. Later in the story, Arthur’s wedding to Guinevere also took place in Camelot, at the church of St Stephen’s. He held court in other places, including Caerleon and London, but Camelot was his principal city. As in Tennyson’s evocative poem, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle placed Camelot downstream of the town of Astolat, overlooking the river. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight, describes a scene of revelry in Camelot:

There tourneyed many a time the trusty knights,

and jousted full joyously these gentle lords;

then to the court they came at carols to play.

For there the feast was unfailing full fifteen days,

with all meats and all mirth that men could devise,

such gladness and gaiety as was glorious to hear,

din of voices by day, and dancing by night;

all happiness at the highest in hall and in bowers

had the lords and the ladies, such as they loved most dearly.

The poem’s description of Arthur’s hall includes a high table on a lavish dais, surrounded by beautiful tapestries, and below that the long tables where lesser lords were seated. Not quite in the spirit of the Round Table, where no one was placed higher than anyone else, but very much in keeping with the medieval glamour that infuses Arthurian legend.

But of course, the days of feasting and tournaments did not last forever. Arthur died; the fellowship of the Round Table was broken. In a fragmented romance called the Palamedes, King Mark of Cornwall marched on Camelot after Arthur fell at Camlann and razed the city to the ground. It was as if Camelot was an extension of Arthur himself, and could not outlive him.

So, was there a real Camelot once upon a time? It’s a question that rather relies on what you think of the evidence that Arthur himself was a historical figure. According to Malory, the site of Camelot later became the city of Winchester. Caerleon is another obvious candidate. Cadbury Castle in Somerset has been proposed as the true Camelot since 1542 and archaelogical exploration has confirmed that there was once a large fortress there, heavily refortified in the late fifth or early sixth century.

Perhaps one of these places really was King Arthur’s city – as close to it as history will allow, anyway. Or perhaps Camelot is somewhere else, a little way downriver, under a summer sky. A myth wrapped in the shimmering haze of once and future.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two – Sir Thomas Malory (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485), The King Who Was and Will Be: The World of King Arthur and His Knights – Kevin Crossley-Holland (Orion, 1998), http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/theme/camelot, http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/arthur_legend.shtml, http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/myths_mabinogion_culhwch.shtml, http://kingarthur.wikia.com/wiki/Camelot, Exploring King Arthur’s Britain – Denise Stobie (Collins&Brown Ltd., 1999), Worlds of Arthur: King Arthur in History, Legend and Culture – Fran and Geoff Doel, Terry Lloyd (Tempus, 2005), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo – J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins, 1995)

Lands of Legend: Annwn

Trigger warning: references to incest, cannibalism

Welcome to this month’s Land of Legend: Annwn, the Welsh Underworld, where human souls were said to travel after death and errant nobility got press-ganged into impersonating the reigning monarch. In Annwn, the fountains ran with wine instead of water, old age was unknown and life – or afterlife! – was an endless round of feasting and revelry. The cauldron of inspiration was guarded here, along with the Three Birds of Rhiannon, which could sing the dead to life and the living into a sleep of death. No wonder it’s where the Wild Hunt hung out when they were not rampaging around the mortal realm.

In early legends, Annwn was ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh god of battle and the dead. In his later incarnation, he became leader of the Wild Hunt. Gwyn is credited with two probable brothers, Edern and Owain. He features in the ancient Arthurian story of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, as the suitor and then the abductor of a maiden named Creiddylad – who was all set to marry someone else, and may have been Gwyn’s own sister. Creiddylad’s betrothed, Gwythyr son of Greidwal, went with his warriors to get her back, but failed desperately. Of the prisoners he took from among Gwythyr’s allies, Gwyn killed a man named Nwython, cut out his heart and forced his son Kyledyr to eat it, which unsurprisingly sent the boy mad. Eventually King Arthur stepped in. He compelled Gwyn to free his prisoners, and arranged a conditional peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr. Under its terms, Creiddylad would be returned to her father’s house and stay there, and each year on the first of May the two would-be husbands would fight one another for her hand. This contest would continue until the Day of Judgement, when the final victor would claim his bride.

Which implies a whole lot of immortality and a spectacular amount of patience all around, but it kept the warriors busy and Creiddylad was well shot of the pair, so honestly I think it’s one of the best calls Arthur made as a king. It worked out well for him personally, too, because later in the events of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, he called both Gwyn and Gwythyr to his aid in hunting the fearsome boar Twrch Trwyth and battling the witch Orddu (though they do not appear to have been tremendously useful in either encounter).

In the medieval poem ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’, Gwyn played a less brutal role, offering his protection to a king he met while travelling. As they introduced themselves, Gwyn’s description of his origins was blunt: ‘I come from battle and conflict’. This implies that he was a psychopomp, guiding the souls of the dead to the Underworld. Through the poem, he described appearing on many battlefields, including one outside of a fortress called Caer Vandwy. The same fortress is also mentioned in the Preiddu Annwn, a poem taken from the Llyfr Taliesin, which is a fourteenth century Middle Welsh manuscript. In this poem, King Arthur went to war against Gwyn’s realm. Preiddu Annwn references the prison of a man called Gweir ap Geirioed and a number of other fortresses through which Arthur’s warriors pass on their way, including the Fortress of the Mound, the Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness, The Fortress of Four Peaks, The Fortress of Hardness, The Glass Fortress, the Fortress of Hindrance, the Fortress of God’s Peak and the Fortress of Enclosedness.

Another king of Annwn was Arawn, a Welsh god of the Underworld. His name means ‘Silver-Tongue’ and he, too, was a hunter, accompanied by a pack of white dogs with red ears. His rival for leadership of the divided kingdom was Havgan (whose name means ‘Summer-White’). Arawn kept losing ground to him. When by chance a mortal fell into his debt – Pwyll, Lord of Arberth, prince of Dyfed, and very competitive hunter who couldn’t recognise when a kill belonged to someone else – Arawn seized the opportunity to trick his enemy. Pwyll was obliged to take Arawn’s place on the throne in Annwn for one year, disguised with Arawn’s face. At the end of that time, he had to fight Havgan himself. Arawn warned him to strike the rival king only once – if struck twice, Havgan would recover, which presumably is what kept happening when Arawn fought him. It does seem to be the kind of thing you find out the hard way. While all this was happening, Arawn would slum it in the mortal realm, ensuring that Pwyll’s own lands did not go to rack and ruin in his absence.

The really astonishing thing is that this plan worked. Pwyll defeated Havgan and won Arawn’s friendship not just for conquering Havgan’s kingdom, but also for not sleeping with Arawn’s extremely beautiful, elegant wife when he had every opportunity to do so. Incidentally, do you think anyone let her in on the secret? No. No, they did not. The first she knew of it was when her real husband rocked up and wanted sex for the first time in a year.

Anyway. Pwyll later married an actual goddess called Rhiannon, whom he treated very badly. They had a son, Pryderi, and Arawn’s friendship not only extended to him, it extended to Rhiannon’s second husband Manawyddan too – both he and Pryderi being credited as the co-rulers of the Underworld and guardians of its treasures.

Arawn did not have such a great relationship with other leaders. In the medieval Welsh poem Cad Goddeu (which translates to ‘the Battle of the Trees’), war broke out between Arawn and the enchanter Gwydion after Gwydion’s brother Amatheon stole a dog, a lapwing and a roebuck from the Lord of Annwn. Gwydion roused the forest with his magic to fight on his side and eventually won the battle by guessing the name of Bran, one of Arawn’s men. The same enchanter tricked a herd of pigs out of Pryderi – pigs that had been a gift from Arawn and could never be sold – then, when the sordid business came to a battle, killed Pryderi in single combat. Gwydion was a real charmer.

What is so interesting about Annwn is its sense of place. This is no nebulous, unchanging realm of the dead that can only be reached by gods and their chosen heroes; when war breaks out, there are consequences. Keeping the throne of Annwn is a fierce struggle for all of its kings, however powerful they may be. It’s a land of secrets and splendour, horror and treasure, vulnerable to the greed of its enemies…but watch out if the birds ever start singing.

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), The Celts – Frank Delaney (HarperCollins, 1993), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cad_Goddeu, http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/preiddeu-annwn, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/culhwch.html, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/bbc33.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwyn_ap_Nudd, http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/pwyll.html

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

Lands of Legend: Hy Brasil

In the realms of mythology, there are many disappearing islands and drowned lands. Hy Brasil has the distinction of being both at the same time. It was a round island with a river running through the centre, or at leas that was how it was usually depicted in maps, because oh yes! It featured in maps from the 14th century right up until 1873. The many variations on the island’s name include Hy-Breasal, Ysole Brazil, Bracir, Brazir and Brazil, which may mislead you as to its location – though a scattering of islands with the same name existed in the Atlantic Ocean, Hy Brasil was consistently thought to be located to the west of Ireland.

The name’s origins are up for debate. Brasil could be derived from the Gaelic word breas, meaning ‘noble’, ‘prince’ or ‘fortunate’; it could also have been taken from Breasal, who was apparently the immortal High King of the World in Irish mythology and held his court on Hy Brasil every seven years. Saint Bresal, an early Christian missionary, is another possible etymological parent of the island. More prosaically, a red dye known as brazil was very valuable during the time when the first mentions of Hy Brasil appear in maps. The island may have been considered a potential source of wood or lichen that produced the dye.

For centuries, cartographers continued to add the island into charts of the Atlantic. Sailors claimed to have seen it, even to have landed on it. An account from 1674 details the experiences of the Irish captain John Nisbet and his crew, who stumbled across a mysterious fog-shrouded island on their return home from France. They saw farmland occupied by cattle, sheep and horses, as well as a great many black rabbits, and were met by an elderly man who told them that the island had been made invisible by a necromancer’s spell, but that the magic was now lifted. The story turned out to have been invented by the author Richard Head – disappointingly, for those of us hoping for magical rabbits. While claims of sightings continued into the nineteenth century, Hy Brasil was eventually accepted as a myth.

Mind you, its mythological origins are equally hazy. The Undiscovered Islands claims it doesn’t actually have any, originating instead as a cartographical mistake. The Illustrated Encyclopaedia calls Hy Brasil a fairy island, condemned by the sea god Manannan to only appear above the sea every seven years. If fire and iron were brought onto its shores, the island would be forced to remain in sight. Other, very intriguing names for the island apparently include Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), Magh Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue). According to Christian folklore, it was Tir Tairngiri (Land of Promise) or Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum (the Promised Land of the Saints), a paradise to be found by the worthy. Saint Barrind and Saint Brendan were both said to have thoroughly explored the island, returning with treasures.

The interesting thing about a promised land is, what is it promising? In the case of Hy-Brasil, the promise appears to be that it will seem quite solid until you try and get a good look at it – and then it will melt into water and wishes.

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), The Undiscovered Islands – Malachy Tallack (Polygon, 2016), https://www.historicmysteries.com/hy-brasil-the-other-atlantis/, http://www.historyireland.com/medieval-history-pre-1500/what-is-hy-brasil/, Phantom Islands of the Atlantic – Donald S. Johnson (Souvenir Press, 1999)

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

Queen, Warrior, Goddess

I have been reading fairy tales and legends from a very young age, and that reading has populated my mind with women: some so important to who I am that the imagery is etched into my bedrock, others more elusive, whispers and ghosts like snatches of half-remembered poetry. This project was not so much an in-depth exploration of figures of myth and legend (I referenced Wikipedia more than once, academia this is not) as a remembrance, a rediscovery. Were these women who I remembered them to be? What else were they, that I never knew?

Myth and legend are not an exclusively masculine province and never have been, any more than history was made by men, but you have to pay attention to realise it. The grand stories are named after male heroes – the Odyssey, the tales of King Arthur, of Robin Hood, it goes on – and the old adage that behind every great man there is a great woman doesn’t mean very much when generations of storytellers have kept her firmly in his shadow.

There are a thousand ways to dismiss a female character you don’t like, and not all of these women are easy to like. Some didn’t want to be. They wanted to be feared; they wanted to be worshipped. They wanted to live. These are the girls who were forgotten, or given up on. They are the mothers and lovers and wives, the sisters and daughters, but those words are just starting points, not finishing lines. Their roots go so much deeper.

Camelot was a court of bright and brilliant women. There would have been no Golden Age without them. Lyonet and Lyonesse were dangerous by name and nature, beloved by the men who saw their savagery and didn’t flinch away. Ragnell’s face could be changed by a curse but her silver tongue was always her own; kings and princes and rebels were no match for her mind. Guinevere and Isolde found each other, they saw past beautiful faces and powerful husbands to the pain of two hearts that loved too much. They were friends. How did I never know that before? Guinevere adopted the girls of her court like sisters; she locked herself in a tower to escape a would-be king and made her walls unbreachable. And how is she remembered? For marrying Arthur and sleeping with Lancelot. Oh, Guinevere, your heart was always fiercer than either of those men could handle.

Marian was the Queen of Sherwood, an heiress who turned outlaw. In some versions she was Robin’s equal as a fighter, but here’s the thing, she doesn’t need to be. She was not Robin’s competitor – she was his equal. Fair Janet was the woman who looked the Queen of Faerie in the eye and thought no, you move. Nothing could make her let go of something she wanted to keep. Medb was shameless, proud of everything she had and everything she was. Savitri could talk rings around Death himself. Blodeuwedd called her soul her own and was ready to kill to keep it.

Circe was a capricious lover, a reluctant aunt, a notorious sorceress. Medea was a passionate, vicious thunderstorm of a woman who would rip up the world to get what she wanted. Andromeda’s wedding was a battlefield; she took a leap into the unknown and she did not fall. They are so much bigger, so much more terrible, than the men they slept with. Helen and Psyche were defined by their beauty, cursed by it, loved and hated and hounded and blamed for it. That they might not be treasures for the winning – that they might, in fact, have wills and wishes of their own – was unthinkable. Pandora wanted answers and became a punchline moral to the perils of feminine curiosity; Medusa asked for nothing except to be left the hell alone and somehow she is remembered as the monster.

Mythology is filled with stories of women warriors and brutal queens, heartless witches and implacable goddesses. Maybe it makes sense that they became cautionary tales; the very least you’d need is caution to survive them.

I started this project because names matter. Because the stories behind those names matter. Because the women of myth and legend have been ignored and diminished and dismissed for so long that those stories can be hard to find, and it is worth taking them out of the dusty corners to hold up to the light and realise that they were here all along.

They are not ghosts. They are wicked and golden and wise, and they are here.

Ladies of Legend: The Fates

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moirai, http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/slavic-star-goddess-zorya-guardian-doomsday-hound-and-servant-sun-god-006303, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/z/zorya.html, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Moirai.html#Zeus, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotho, http://www.self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Sudice_(mythology),

Welcome to the last installment of Ladies of Legend! I tried to post yesterday but the website crashed, which seems rather ominous given who I’m talking about. Let’s try again.

Fate, according to the Reader’s Digest Word Power dictionary, is ‘the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined’. It also refers to the cross-cultural mythic tradition that the biggest of the big guns, the manipulators of destiny itself, are a trio of women.

In Greek mythology, they are known as the Moirai, or Moerae, meaning ‘apportioners’. When a baby was born, it was said they would appear within three days to decided the course of the child’s life. The fates of mortals were threads to them, to be spun together and, in due time, cut off. They also ruled over the fates of the gods. They are described (Fragments 1018, from Stobaeus, Anthology, trans. Campbell) as sitting ‘nearest of the gods to the throne of Zeus’, weaving their work on adamantine shuttles, and some sources claim that he alone could control them, but other accounts imply that the Moirai were completely independent and that Zeus, too, was subject to their will. Which is obviously the version I like better.

The three figures of the Moirai were Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. They are usually described as old women, dressed in white robes and sometimes crowns, each either carrying a staff or a symbol of her work. According to some versions, the Moirai were the daughters of Nyx, goddess of night, giving them the siblings Thanatos (god of peaceful death), Nemesis (goddess of vengeance) and the Keres (goddesses of violent death). Other sources say that their mother was Themis, goddess of divine law, and their father was Zeus, with the goddesses Eunomia (of law and order), Dike (of justice) and Eirene (of peace) as their sisters. Yet another account has them as the children of Ananke, goddess of inevitability and necessity.

Clotho’s role was to spin the thread of life. It was she who decided when a person was born and when they died, and one time when the notorious Tantalus murdered his son, the gods piled all the bits of the dismembered boy into a cauldron and Clotho brought him back to life. Being the original multi-tasker, she also helped Hermes invent the alphabet. Lachesis, meanwhile, was the measurer. It was up to her how much life any individual received, measuring it precisely with her rod, and her other duty was Reincarnation Instructor, providing the options – animal and human – for souls to take on as their new life. Atropos, meanwhile, was the eldest of the three sisters, and wielder of the shears that could end any (and every) thread of life. The nature of death was her particular province. During certain battles of the gods, the three of them took a more active role in dealing out judgement, wielding bronze clubs to take down their enemies.

The Moirai had companions in their work – Eileithyia, the Minoan goddess of childbirth, and the Erinyes, or Furies, who punished evil-doers. But the Moirai could also be placated, or even tricked. Athenian brides offered the Moirai locks of hair. Booze would also do the trick. Alcestis, widow of Admetus, once got all three Moirai thoroughly drunk and Clotho admitted that if a replacement could be found to go into the Underworld in Admetus’ stead, he would be freed. Alcestis gave up her own life, but was rescued by Heracles when Death came to get her, so the lovers both cheated destiny and survived.

The Roman parallel to the Moirai were the Parcae, or Fata: Nona, Decima and Morta. They were known as ‘the sparing ones’ and were, of course, anything but. On the day that a child’s name was chosen – this being the ninth day after birth for a boy and the eighth day for a girl – the Parcae would decide upon how long the child’s life would be.

In Slavonic mythology, there are the Sudice, also known – depending on region – as the Sudičky, Suđaje, Rodzanice, Narecznice, Sudiczki, Sojenice or Rojenice. At the birth of every child, it was the Sudice who foretold their destiny. The Slavic Fates appeared as three elderly spinners, the first with an oversize lower lip from licking the thread, the second with a thumb widened from handling the fibres, and the third with a foot swollen from turning the spinning wheel.

Another Slavonic trio of goddesses were the Zoryas, guardians of the universe who kept the Doomsday Hound Simargl chained to the star Polaris. The maiden figure was Zorya Utrenyaya, the Dawn, a warrior spirit and patroness of horses. Her duty was to open the gates so that her father Dazbog’s sun chariot could pass through. She was Zwezda Dnieca in Polish, Dennitsa in Eastern Slavonic and Auseklis in Latvian. The mother figure was Zorya Vechernyaya, the Dusk or Twilight, who closed the gates after the return of the sun chariot. She was Zwezda Wieczórniaia in Polish. The crone figure was Zorya Polunoshnaya, the Midnight, also known as Zwezda Polnica or Polunocnica. She was associated with witchcraft and the Underworld. The three guardians could merge to form the warrior goddess Zorya, who used her veil to shield warriors from death. She lived on Bouyan Island, home of the sun, where the winds of the North, East and West all met. Zorya was married to the god Perun in some versions, while in others her husband was Myesyats, the god of the moon, making her the mother of the stars.

Like the Sudice, the Norns of Norse myth were said to manifest at births to map out the child’s future life. The judgement of Norns nearly always meant a death sentence. There were many such spirits – unlucky people were known to bemoan the malice of their personal Fates – but there were three giantesses said to be the greatest of the Norns. These are Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld, associated respectively with the past, presence and future. One of their duties was to draw water from the Well of Urðr to pour over Yggdrasill, the World Tree, to keep it alive.

Though the mythic traditions vary from region to region, the Fates tend to represent the natural order of things, and woe betide you if you go against it. They are the warriors of the law, the guardians of justice. Fate may not always be kind, but it can be named. It can even, occasionally, be defied. And it might just win your war for you.

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: 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!