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!

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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!

Ladies of Legend: Hippolyta and Penthesileia

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, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/penthesilea/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippolyta A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penthesilea, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otrera

Trigger warnings: references to incest, rape, necrophilia

This post may be slightly influenced by the existence of the Wonder Woman movie, which contains comic book Amazons backflipping off shields and whacking people with axes. It is not faithful to Greek mythology, obviously, nor is it intended to be, but it’s nonetheless a delight to see my ladies of legend on the big screen. Especially when they are setting things on fire.

The Amazons were a race of warrior women, believed to be a real civilisation in ancient times. They originally lived beside the Amazon River, led by their matriarch Lysippe, but Aphrodite took against Lysippe’s son Tanais for favouring war over love. Spitefully, Aphrodite caused him to become obsessed with his own mother. Tanais threw himself in the river, and Lysippe led her family away into the mountains, where they founded the city of Themiscyra.

The set-up of Amazonian society was strictly divided by gender. The Amazons were said to abandon their sons at birth, only keeping the girls. When men were tolerated, they were confined to the domestic sphere and to ensure their obedience, the legs of boys were broken while they were very young. The women fought and ruled. 

The Amazons were supposedly the first to use cavalry in battle. Lysippe and her daughters founded an empire and later Amazonian queens – including Marpesia, Lampado and Hippo – continued that tradition by conquering their way across Asia Minor. At one point they seized the city of Troy, though they were in the end unable to hold it.

They worshipped Ares, the god of war, and the hunting goddess Artemis. They carried bows and half-moon shields, and performed shield dances in Artemis’ honour. It was said that they cut off their right breasts to improve their skill at archery, which I feel only makes sense if your baseline assumption is that archers shouldn’t have breasts at all.

One of the most famous Amazon queens was Hippolyta. She was the daughter of Ares and Otrera, who was daughter of the east wind and a queen of the Amazons herself. It was, in fact, a family of queens – Hippolyta’s sisters Antiope and Melanippe ruled with her over the three principal cities of their land, and her other sister Penthesilea became her successor after Hippolyta’s death.

As a symbol of her authority, Hippolyta wore a golden, jewel-encrusted girdle, a gift from Ares himself. One day the Princess Admete, daughter of King Eurystheus, decided she would quite like to own that magical girdle, and as her father just so happened to have the hero Heracles in his service at the time, the odds of her getting her wish were quite high. Heracles was undertaking labours as a penance for killing his family. The labours usually involved killing other people. Nobody has ever claimed the Pantheon are consistent in their morality. Heracles brought a band of warriors into Amazonian territory to either convince or force Hippolyta to give up her treasure.

At first, it seemed Hippolyta might give up the girdle of her own free will, after she took a fancy to Hercules’ muscle-bound body. So the goddess Hera, who compelled Heracles to start his twelve labours and work for King Eurystheus in the first place, decided to stir up some trouble. She disguised herself as an Amazon and spread a rumour that Heracles and his warriors had really come to kidnap Hippolyta. The queen’s warriors attacked.

In one version, Heracles gave up his pretence at diplomacy, killed Hippolyta and seized the girdle. In another, Melanippe was the sister held captive by Heracles, and the girdle was a ransom Hippolyta paid to get her back. In a third, Hippolyta fought Heracles, and died rather than surrender.

Theseus of Athens (killer of the Minotaur, future king, reliably a cad towards women) was present in Heracles’ company of warriors. Among the plethora of alternate stories is one in which Theseus declared a passionate love for Hippolyta and took her away with him to Athens. They had a son together, Hippolytus. When Theseus decided, inevitably, to put Hippolyta aside and marry Ariadne’s sister Phaedra instead, the outraged Amazons descended upon the wedding party. During the confusion, Penthesileia delivered Hippolyta an accidental killing blow. There is also an account in which Heracles and Theseus are not involved at all; Hippolyta was hunting deer with Penthesileia when the gods sent a capricious wind, and Penthesileia’s spear struck her sister instead.

One thing is certain: Hippolyta died, and Penthesileia inherited her crown.

Penthesileia was a great archer (the trick to it being that she cut off both her breasts). She was also credited with inventing the battle-axe. The fact that Hippolyta’s death was an accident did not stop the Furies from pursuing her killer, so Penthesleia took refuge in the city of Troy. During the war with the Greeks, she fought to defend the city. So formidable a warrior was she that even Achilles fell back when she took to the field.

In the end, he was the one who killed her. Just to make the whole thing unbearably creepy, he fell in love with her the moment he stabbed her, and in one version, had sex with her corpse. A Greek warrior called Thersites then gouged out her eyes, and Achilles responded to the desecration by punching him so hard he died. Thersites’ cousin took revenge on Achilles by throwing Penthesleia’s body in a river.

She was buried eventually – in one account, by Achilles, in another, by the grateful Trojans. Achilles made sacrifices to Apollo, Artemis and Leto in penance for Penthesleia’s death.

As with so many women of myth and legend, Hippolyta and Penthesleia’s stories have sad endings. But myths, you know, have a special immortality: with every different version that is told, they live again. And so the Amazons are reborn, battle-axes and all.

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: Isolde

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, 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/Iseult, http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/tristan.html,

Trigger warning: references to rape

Well, it’s probably still Tuesday somewhere. This is over two weeks late – sorry! – but as I’ve been sick for about a month straight, anything I get done at this point is getting counted as win.

When it comes to famous tales of tragic love, June’s Lady of Legend is up there with the big guns. ‘Tristram and Isolde’ are two names bound together in the same way as ‘Lancelot and Guinevere’, and in fact predate them, being originally separate from the Arthurian cycle. There are two distinct versions of their legend: the early romances and the Prose Tristran. I shall begin with the Prose.

Women in Arthurian legend have a certain tendency to come in threes. The ancient Welsh myths reference three different Guineveres; in Le Morte d’Arthur, Igraine has three daughters; and in the story of Tristram(/Tristran) and Isolde (alternative spellings include Iseult, Iseo, Yseult, Isode, Isoude, Izolda, Esyllt and Isotta) there are three royal women bearing the same name. The heroine is Isolde the Fair, who was named for her mother, Queen Isolde of Ireland. The third Isolde is Isolde’s rival in love, a woman she never met. For their stories to make sense, you need a little background on the man who spectacularly screwed up all of their lives; and for him to make sense, you need some background on his mother.

Tristram (also known as Tristran) was the son of King Meliodas of Liones and Elizabeth of Cornwall, the sister of King Mark. According to Le Morte d’Arthur, Elizabeth was pregnant with Tristram when a sorceress kidnapped her husband and imprisoned him. Elizabeth went to get him back. She never reached Meliodas; she went into labour in the forest and died there. Tristram’s name means ‘sorrowful birth’. He was found by his father’s barons, who would have killed him for the power if not for Elizabeth’s companion, a lady-in-waiting so persuasive she got a majority vote for Tristram’s continued survival. The same lady-in-waiting brought the queen’s body home to her husband, who was released from his prison by Merlin (too late to be of any use; that’s Merlin for you.)

It was not a good start.

When Tristram was seven, his new stepmother tried to win a crown for her own children by poisoning him, and it was only through Tristram’s pleading for her life that she was kept from the pyre. After that, bizarrely, it was Tristram who had to leave home. He went to France for his education, which was very thorough and knightly. And fortuitous, because his uncle Mark was in a spot of financial and political bother. Cornwall traditionally owned truage to Ireland, but had not paid up in seven years. King Anguish of Ireland, upon being told he was never going to get his money, decided to settle the question with a duel of champions and sent his brother-in-law Sir Marhaus to Cornwall. This being Isolde’s uncle. Do you see how this gets very messy very quickly?

Marhaus arrived outside Tintagel Castle and Mark regretted all his life choices, as nobody at his court was willing to fight a celebrated knight from the court of Arthur himself. Tristram, full of youthful fervour, asked his uncle to make him a knight in order to take on the duel. While he was busy getting ready for his big Knightly Moment, he received word from King Faramon of France’s daughter, who fell in love with him during his time abroad. Tristram was not interested, and the poor girl died of sorrow.

And Marhaus didn’t even want to fight Tristram, he thought he was too young and tried to send him home. The battle that eventually ensued was brutal. Marhaus received such terrible head injuries that he ceded the field, returned to Ireland and died there with a piece of Tristram’s sword embedded in his skull. His sister kept that fragment after Marhaus’ death, and ached for revenge. Her daughter did not have an uncle any more, so that Tristram’s could escape his debt.

Tristram did not escape the duel without injury. Marhaus’ spear was poisoned and in consequence, Tristram’s wounds would not heal. A ‘wise lady’ advised that Tristram seek help in the land of the venom’s origin. Having no better ideas, that was what he did. Which is how he ended up outside the castle of King Anguish, Queen Isolde and their very beautiful, reknown surgeon of a daughter. Surgeon being Malory’s word, by the way.

Tristram’s skilful harping caught the attention of the court. He called himself ‘Tramtrist’, because that’s just what he’s like as a person. Pretending he was injured fighting on behalf of a lady, he finangled his way into Anguish’s circle of knights and into the care of Princess Isolde, who cleaned his wound properly. In return he taught her to play the harp. There was flirting of the courtly, deceptive variety. Isolde, however, already had a serious suitor at court: Sir Palamides the Saracen. Like Marhaus, Palamides was a knight of King Arthur’s court, and he was head over heels for Isolde, sending her gifts every day, even planning to convert to Christianity for her sake.

For all that, Isolde was not interested in him. With Tristram more or less recovered from his injuries, she urged him to compete in an upcoming joust. Palamides was an excellent jouster, but Tristram was the Hero of the Story and therefore not only defeated his rival, he forced him to give up the trappings of war for a whole year and give up on his courtship of the princess. Which one would assume was her intention.

She was certainly delighted by his victory. Together, she and the queen prepared a bath for him. Unfortunately, Tristram left his sword in his chambers; the same sword he used to kill Marhaus, with a tell-tale piece missing. Queen Isolde put two and two together, and came up with rage. She picked up that sword and marched off to run Tristram through with it.

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Ladies of Legend: Queen Medb

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Legends of the Celts (HarperCollins, 1994, originally published 1989) by Frank Delaney, http://www.queenmaeve.org/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medb, http://www.bardsongpress.com/Celtic_Culture/The_Intoxicating_Warrior_Queen.htm, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Medb, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire

Trigger warning: references to rape

Welcome to May and this month’s Lady of Legend, the Irish warrior queen Medb (also spelled Medhb, Meadhbh, Maebh or Anglicised into Maeve). Translated, her name means ‘drunken woman’ or ‘she who intoxicates’. If you haven’t heard of her yet, you are missing out.

As is the case with many mythological women, she may have originally been a goddess of sovereignty (it being said that the ruler of Connacht had to be ‘married to Medb’, as if married to the land itself) or a goddess of war. Her sacred tree was the bile Medbh and she was often depicted with a squirrel and a bird sitting on her shoulders. In the stories that depict her as a human queen, the squirrel and the bird became her pets.

Her father was Eochaid Feidlech, the High King of Ireland, and her mother was Crochen (or Cruachú) Crobh-Derg, a handmaiden to Etain. It was partially through her mother that Medb claimed a right to rule over Connacht. Eochaid married Medb to Conchobar Mac Ness, the king of Ulster, as a recompense after Eochaid killed Conchobar’s (alleged) father in battle; not the most promising of starts to what would become a hellish marriage. Medb had a child with Conchobar, a son named Glaisne, but took a strong enough dislike to her husband to leave him, political reconciliation be damned.

Nothing daunted, Eochaid gave Conchobar another of his daughters – depending on the version, either Eithne or Clothru – but when the unfortunate second wife fell pregnant, Medb is said to have murdered her. The baby (a son, Furbaide) had to be taken from her dead body. There is, however, another version of events in which Furbaide’s mother drowns in a river and it is Lugaid mac Conor, Furbaide’s brother, who is responsible. It seems probable that Eochaid, at least, did not believe Medb killed her sister, given that he deposed the king of Connacht to put Medb on the throne. The erstwhile monarch, Tinni Mac Conri, made the best of the situation by winning a spot in the new queen’s bed.

Conchobar showed his true colours after an assembly at the High King’s seat of Tara, when he raped Medb. War broke out between the High King and Ulster, and Tinni challenged Conchobar to single combat. He lost. Eochaid Dála, Tinni’s rival for the crown of Connacht, managed to extract Medb’s army from the battle and became her next husband.

Being Medb’s husband came with conditions. Any man she married had to be without fear, meanness or jealousy – basically, she wanted a good-natured big spender for an open relationship and said so upfront. She was a beautiful, powerful woman known for sleeping with her best warriors and Eochaid Dála was fine with that up until he found out she was sleeping with Ailill mac Máta, chief of her bodyguard. He challenged Ailill to single combat, and lost. Ailill became the new king of Connacht.

Together, Medb and Ailill had two daughters, Findabair and Cainer, and seven sons. Upon being told by a druid that one of her sons would kill Conchobar, and that son would be named Maine, Medb renamed all her sons to increase the odds. Therefore Fedlimid became Maine Athramail (“like his father”), Cairbre became Maine Máthramail (“like his mother”), Eochaid became Maine Andoe (“the swift”) and was also known as Cich-Maine Andoe or Cichmuine, Fergus became Maine Taí (“the silent”), Cet became Maine Mórgor (“of great duty”), Sin became Maine Mílscothach (“honey-speech”), Dáire became Maine Móepirt (“beyond description”). And the strategy paid off! Maine Andoe did indeed kill Conchobar…just not the Conchobar Medb was expecting.

I’m disappointed, I can’t imagine how she felt.

And her luck with men continued to prove terrible. Aware he was only king through his marriage to Medb, Ailill had insecurity issues. One night after sex, he wrecked the afterglow by announcing that she’d been terribly lucky to get him what with all the wealth and prestige he’d brought to her. Medb laughed. Her retort was that her wealth far outstripped his and he was her ‘kept man’. This kicked off the sort of marital argument that begins with comparing all of your possessions to find out who really has the financial upper hand and ends (after Medb found out her own prize bull had refused to stick around in her herds, choosing to plough through the fences into Ailill’s fields because he couldn’t bear being owned by a woman, what the actual hell) with a legendary cattle raid and a whole lot of bloodshed.

You see, there was only one bull in Ireland to match Ailill’s. It belonged to Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal to the unfortunately still surviving Conchobar. To her credit, Medb did try to buy the bull, but her messenger got drunk and told everyone that she’d just take the bull if Dáire wouldn’t sell it to her…so he didn’t sell it to her. And she did come to take it. Look, she had a POINT to prove.

Also, it could not have been a more perfect time to attack. A curse had been laid upon the men of Ulster, leaving them weak and unable to fight (the curse, incidentally, originated from a mistreated pregnant woman and they brought the entire damn thing on themselves). Medb was fast and strong and her very presence on the battlefield made her army feel invincible.

Among Medb’s forces was Fergus mac Róich, the former king of Ulster and one of Medb’s more worthwhile lovers. It was said that it took seven men to satisfy her in bed, or Fergus once. She had two children with him, Ciar and Cormac. He was a reluctant ally, but an ally just the same – and as it turned out, Medb needed him very much, because the one man left standing in Ulster was the unstoppable Cuchulainn, a hero so powerful he could take on an entire army on his own. Even the promise of the very beautiful Findabair’s hand wasn’t enough to attract a champion who could overcome him. He was also an old friend to Fergus. The two of them came to a deal that Cuchulainn would pretend to run away, so that they wouldn’t have to fight, if Fergus would return the favour at a time of Cuchulainn’s choosing.

Medb couldn’t let Cuchulainn go, however, and Cuchulainn himself was not the type to stay away from a battlefield. He slaughtered her armies, her pets, one of her handmaidens and one of her sons before finally dying of his many wounds – but first he gave the word to Fergus to flee, so that Medb’s army would follow and the war would be over.

Nevertheless, Medb got her bull. As soon as it was put in with her husband’s, the two beasts killed each other, so all those people died for no reason whatsoever, but the important thing to take away from it all was that Ailill couldn’t lord it over Medb any more. Out of jealousy, he had Fergus killed. Medb got her own back when Conchobar finally did everyone a favour and died, leaving the Ulster hero Conall Cernach to come spend his retirement in the Connacht court; Medb set the aged hero to watch Ailill, who was sleeping around himself, and with her support, Conall avenged Fergus by killing the king. Aillil lived just long enough to set his own men on Conall.

And Medb lived on. She’s said to have ruled for over sixty years. As an older woman, she made a habit of bathing in a pool on the island of Inchleraun, also known as Inis Cloithreann. Her nephew Furbaide, blaming her for his mother’s death, practiced with the slingshot until he was certain of his skill. The next time she went to bathe, he killed her. With a piece of hard cheese.

Legend has it that Medb was buried in Rathcroghan, under a long slab called ‘Misgaun Medb’. There is, however, a second possible burial site in a stone cairn atop Knocknearea, where her body is supposed to stand upright, still facing her enemies in Ulster. Medb was not the type of woman to let go of a grudge. She was a terrible enemy and not even that great a friend – but she lived loud and fast and fierce, and even her death sounds like a tall tale. Who could ever resist the larger than life warrior queen of Connacht?

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: Helen and Cassandra

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, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandrahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_of_Troy

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

It all began with Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and the original bad fairy at the christening – or in this case, at the wedding, showing up at the nuptials of Thetis and Peleus to make everyone simultaneously regret not inviting her and remember exactly why they didn’t by riling up the three most powerful goddesses in the Pantheon and starting one of the most famous wars in myth and legend. She brought with her a golden apple (never ever trust a golden apple) with an inscription on it reading ‘for the fairest’. Zeus, who might be all kinds of terrible but was smart enough to realise that was a mess he wanted no part of, hastily foisted the role of judge onto Prince Paris of Troy. Thanks to an ominous prophecy made at his birth, Paris was living as an anonymous shepherd at the time, in ignorance of his birthright. All that was about to change.

The three goddesses who felt the strongest right to the apple were Hera, Zeus’s wife and sister and queen of the gods; Athena, goddess of wisdom and war; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Each offered Paris an appropriately extravagant bribe depending on her governance. Hera promised power and riches, Athena assured him of good fortune in battle, but Aphrodite swore that he would have the most beautiful woman in the world as his own and Paris awarded her the apple – thereby making himself two implacable enemies, and an ally as fickle as she was powerful.

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Ladies of Legend: Morgan le Fay and Morgause

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, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos

Trigger warning: references to rape

There is a tendency, in Arthurian legend, for Igraine’s daughters to be highly variable in number and almost entirely interchangeable in identity, their roles within different versions of the myth generally depending on which woman gives birth to which sons. The Vulgate Cycle, for instance, has a whole crowd of half-sisters, while other versions whittle it down to one or two. The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards credits Morgan le Fay with eight sorceress sisters – Cliton, Gliten, Glitonea, Mazoe, Modron, Moronoe, Thitis and Tyronoe – all living together on the island of Avalon and acting as good fairies at Arthur’s birth. Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies speculates that Morgan le Fay may have originally been a Celtic sea goddess or even a goddess of death. She has associations with the Morrigana, an Irish triple goddess represented by the three warrior queen aspects of Badb, Macha and Morrigan, the latter of whom is also strongly associated with fertility.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, there are three sisters: Morgause (alternatively spelled Margawse) being the eldest, Elaine the middle child and Morgan as the youngest. They were the children of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall and Igraine. When Gorlois was defeated in battle by King Uther Pendragon, Igraine had little choice but the marry the victor. She gave birth to a son, Arthur, who was taken away to be raised with a foster family, his very existence a well-kept secret. Uther then used his newly acquired stepdaughters to secure political alliances, marrying Morgause off to King Lot of Orkney and Elaine to King Nentres of Garlot. At this point Elaine promptly vanishes from the narrative.

Morgan was perhaps too young for marriage at the time because she was sent to a convent for an unexpectedly arcane education, learning the arts of necromancy and sorcery. Other stories have her trained at court by Merlin himself. Eventually, however, she was given a royal marriage of her own and became queen to Uriens of Gore.

Morgause had four sons with Lot – Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. The only one to inherit any magical tendencies was Gawain, whose strength increased as the sun approached its zenith. When Arthur emerged from obscurity and Uther’s former allies went to war against him, including Lot, Morgause calmly came as a messenger to the embattled young king (with all of her boys in tow, what’s more) and had a month-long fling with him that resulted in a fifth son, Mordred. The relationship appears to have been consensual and mutually misinformed.

When Merlin finally told Arthur the truth, it came with a side serve of apocalyptic prophecy and the two of them threw a full King Herod routine by having all the baby boys born on May Day sent to sea to be drowned. Mordred survived. What’s more, he appears to have been raised by Morgause, because he shows up later in the story as a knight in Arthur’s court, not quite popular but respected and running around with the other Orkney boys. How he got from one point to the other is one hell of a mystery that Malory never explains.

Nentres and Uriens were also aligned against Arthur, though that did not stop Igraine bringing Morgan along when she met Arthur for the first time. Which means that Morgan was present, listening, when Igraine told the court how Uther appropriated her husband’s face in order to rape her.

The fight for the throne was brutal. During the final battle, thirteen kings were killed; among them, Morgause’s husband Lot, brought down by Arthur’s ally Pellinore. This was the beginning of a labyrinthine tangle of messed-up relationships, as Gawain eventually killed Pellinore and the widowed Morgause later took Pellinore’s son Lamorak as her lover.

Arthur held a great funeral, attended by Morgause and her sons, Morgan and her husband Uriens, and their son Ewaine (also spelled Yvain). Eager to connect with his half-sisters on a non-sexual level that is also not a battlefield – this family is such a disaster in so many ways – Arthur entrusted his sword Excalibur into Morgan’s care. Apparently she had a trustworthy vibe or something. Arthur proved once again that he was a shocking judge of people because not only did Morgan plan to use that sword for a double regicide, she had learned enough about Arthur’s personality to arrange it that he took every step into the trap for himself.

Arthur went hunting with Uriens and a knight called Sir Accolon who, unbeknown to the others, was Morgan’s lover and accomplice. The kings and their companion spied a beautiful ship floating in nearby waters and were invited to stay the night aboard by the twelve beautiful women who were its only occupants. However, when Uriens awoke he was in bed with Morgan – and when Arthur awoke, he was in the dungeon of Sir Damas, a knight in the middle of a property dispute with his little brother and who had a habit of kidnapping promising fighters in the hope that one of them would consent to be his champion. Thus far, nobody had. Arthur grimly offered himself on the condition that the other prisoners would be released. He didn’t realise that the messenger girl he was talking to was a servant of Morgan le Fay, or that the sword he went to fight with was not Excalibur at all. Morgan sent Accolon to Sir Ontzlake, Damas’ brother, to volunteer as his champion in the upcoming fight, and he had the true sword.

It’s neatly done. It would have worked beautifully had the Lady Nimue not been among the spectators, because in Le Morte d’Arthur it is she who received the training from Merlin, not Morgan, and after she got rid of him for good, she took over the role of Arthur’s intermittent protector. She forced Accolon to drop Excalibur, so that Arthur could reclaim it. Accolon confessed to everything. Morgan’s plan was to kill Uriens as well, take Accolon as her consort and rule the land herself. I shouldn’t like that. But I sort of do.

Expecting Accolon to have already succeeded, Morgan had moved in for the next kill. She sent a handmaiden for Uriens’ sword so that she could kill her husband with his own weapon – nasty sense of irony that the lady’s got there – but the handmaiden had qualms and woke Uwaine, who was sadly prepared for exactly this kind of situation. “I may say an earthly devil bore me,” he said, catching the sword before his mother could strike. She might be willing to murder her brother and husband in cold blood, but Morgan loved her son and in exchange for his forgiveness, she swore that Uriens would be safe from her. She kept her word, too; as far as Malory tells it, she never made another attempt on her husband’s life.

Arthur was deeply hurt by Morgan’s betrayal. He settled matters between Damas and Ontzlake, and when Accolon died of his injuries, four days after the fight, Arthur sent the body to Morgan as a warning. She hid her grief, planning her vengeance. She went to see Guinevere before Arthur returned to court, acquiring royal permission to travel into the country. Travelling with a company of her own knights, she found the abbey where Arthur was staying overnight and tried to steal Excalibur from him, only to discover he’d taken to sleeping with it in his hand. She settled for snatching the scabbard, which protected its wearer from physical harm. Arthur soon woke and pursued her. Maliciously, she hurled the scabbard into a lake and enchanted herself to disappear into the landscape as a rock until Arthur gave up looking.

After that, Morgan rejoined her knights and travelled on. She encountered one of Arthur’s knights, blindfolded and pushed into a fountain by the man whose wife he was sleeping with. The imperilled knight was Sir Manassen, cousin to Accolon. Morgan turned the tables: it was the other knight who drowned and Manassen was sent back to court unharmed, as a message to Arthur: she saved one of his knights for love of Accolon and with all her magic, she did not fear Arthur. She then turned her attention to building up the defences and devotion of Gore.

Her next attempt to get at Arthur was presented as a truce. She sent a handmaiden with a beautiful cloak as a reconciliation gift, but Nimue was there once again to foil her; she suggested the handmaiden try the cloak on first and the court watched, horrified, as the girl burned alive. Though Arthur did not blame Uwaine for his mother’s actions, the young knight was no longer welcomed at court and when he left, his loyal cousin Gawain went with him. The children of Morgause and Morgan were fiercely clannish. Of course, Morgause decided to be on good terms with Arthur – as he had no children with Guinevere, Morgause’s children were his obvious successors, a good reason if ever there was one to take his side in this unusually bloody sibling squabble. But Morgause never seemed to be on bad terms with Morgan either.

Which is not to say Morgause didn’t have problems of her own. To begin with, her (favourite) son Gareth took it into his head to arrive at Arthur’s court incognito and prove himself as an unknown knight instead of claiming his royal birthright from the get go, so Morgause had to storm over there and tell off Arthur for not keeping a better eye on his nephews – and then she told off her other sons for not recognising their own goddamn brother when he was right under their noses. Upon hearing that the court bully Sir Kay nicknamed her son Beaumains (meaning ‘fair-hands’, this being a way of calling him a freeloader) she tersely retorted that Gareth was ‘fair-handed’ indeed, flipping the insult into a compliment to Gareth’s sense of justice. The adventure ended happily, with three of her sons all getting married at once.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s one woman war on Arthur continued undaunted. She started running with a girl gang of fellow queens, including the Queen of Northgalis, the queen of Eastland and the queen of the Out Isles. I swear, I am NOT making this up. They captured Sir Lancelot while he was out questing and tried to make him choose a lover from among them, but he held true to Guinevere and was rescued by another independently-minded handmaiden, the daughter of King Bagdemagus, who is not named by Malory but who Howard Pyle calls Elouise. Morgan preferred to work with women (she was later reputed to have a spy network of up to thirty women across the kingdom) but was prone to overestimating her influence on them.

One woman Morgan was completely disinterested in bonding with was Guinevere, who she appeared to view as nothing more than a weak spot in Arthur’s defences. She knew – well, everybody knew – that Guinevere and Lancelot were lovers, and came up with increasingly ingenious ways to try and drum home the message to Arthur. She sent a horn that could not be drunk from by an unfaithful lady, only for it to be waylaid and given to King Mark of Cornwall’s court instead; she depicted a king and queen on a shield with a knight above them both, imagining the symbolism to be obvious, only for Arthur to dismiss it entirely. He was too familiar with his sister’s traitorous habits to take her word for anything.

Morgan also captured Arthur’s knights whenever she could. One of her female spies tried to talk Sir Tristram and Gawain into an ambush. Though Gawain revealed her as one of his aunt’s servants, Tristram wanted the fight anyway, but (recognising a bull-headed hero when she saw  one) Morgan refuses to send out her knights. She later managed to imprison Tristram and made  him carry the suggestive shield in return for his freedom. That was not enough for her lover at the time, Sir Hemison, who chased after Tristram against Morgan’s advice and was killed in the ensuing fight.

Morgause, meanwhile, was thoroughly enjoying her widowhood with Lamorak. He was a contemporary of her sons, so presumably a couple of decades or so younger than herself, and who was the kind of fiery type who picked fights with anybody who implied Guinevere might be more beautiful than his own regal silver vixen of a girlfriend. He also beat a whole gang of Morgan’s knights to work off some steam. The sex was canonically excellent.

Unfortunately, Morgause’s sons were not on board with her having an active love life. Gawain resented Arthur’s fondness for Lamorak, seeing him only as the man whose father murdered his own, and taking Lamorak as a lover ‘shamed’ Morgause in Gawain’s eyes. All his brothers, apart from possibly Gareth, took the same view. Having intercepted a message that named the time and place for a rendevous, Gaheris stormed in on the lovers and cut off his own mother’s head. Covered in the blood of the woman he loved, Lamorak screamed that he would rather have died in her place, but he was unarmed and could not fight back. Gaheris’ twisted sense of honour would not allow him to kill a naked man and so he let Lamorak go, but the enmity between him and the Orkney brothers was bitter after that and Lamorak was eventually killed by Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Mordred acting as a mob. The only one who refused to be involved was Gareth.

It was a terrible end for a remarkable woman.

Both Arthur and Lancelot were horrified at Morgause’s death and Gaheris was banished from court. The narrative being what it is, Morgan’s reaction is not recorded, but her enmity with Arthur seemed to taper off after that. She went into small-scale acts of evil sorcery with the Queen of Northgalis as her partner. For instance, she allowed King Mark to talk her into using her sorceress connections to find an enemy of his…only to turn around and heal the young knight in question, swearing him to her service. She kept him at the castle of La Beale Regard. The castle’s true heiress soon showed up, brought the knight over to her side, then had the castle razed to the ground, once again proving that Morgan needed to stop underestimating other women.

It was possibly with that in mind that Morgan and the Queen of Northgalis cursed Elaine of Corbin, called the fairest lady in the land, leaving her to boil alive without ever dying until the best knight in the world came to rescue her. It’s a brutal act of spite. Of course, this could also have been an indirect attack on Arthur, as Lancelot’s rape by Elaine ends up triggering great turmoil at court, but predicting all of that might be beyond even Morgan’s talent for scheming.

In any case, Arthur’s court crumbled on its own, first losing many knights to the hopeless quest for the Sangreal before being shaken apart at the foundations when Mordred revealed Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair beyond any chance at denial. It was Mordred who took over the kingdom; it was he who led the final battle against Arthur and struck the blow that would kill him, even as he himself lay dying.

Arthur sent Bedivere, the sole knight remaining at his side, to throw Excalibur into the nearby waters. To Bedivere’s amazement, a hand rose to catch the blade. By the time he carried Arthur down to the water, a barge had arrived at the bank. Nimue was aboard it, and three queens: the Queen of the Waste Lands, the Queen of Northgalis and the Queen of Gore. Arthur laid his head in the lap of his sister and Morgan asked, gently, “Ah dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me?” They disappeared together, across the water to Avalon. Neither were ever seen again.

Morgause and Morgan were ruthless women, in their different ways – Morgause being the pragmatic one, willing to overlook the blood on the hands of the men in her life if she got what she wanted out of it, while Morgan pursued power with a single-minded force of will and fierce cunning. What is so glorious about Malory’s women is that they are, above all other things, people. Their motivations may be obscure, but they are their own selves, making decisions in their own interests. They are not shadowy seductresses stalking the edges of Arthur’s court; these women are queens, and the daughters of a queen. Their lives might be tragedies, but they lived them proudly – the political matriarch and the warrior witch. They are not interchangeable at all.

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!