In researching the early stories of the Grail Legend, my original intent was to find the origins of Merlin in his
wild manandnature spiritaspects, and the origins of Vivian as fairy. I discovered some parallels between the figure of Vivian (and her counter-part Kundrie) and the Celtic Irish Goddesses, specifically Danu, Morrigan, Brigit, and Maeve. In this paper I will focus on these parallels, and will explore the deep symbols therein.
Merlin, as an agent of nature, and the fairy Vivian (in her many names and aspects), both cross into the magical forest of the Otherworld in various stories. In early versions of the Grail Legends, Merlin withdraws into the forest by choice and is hidden with Vivian. In the later versions (the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas Malory, etc.) he is held by force and the so-calledwickedsorcery of Vivian. In the early versions of the legends The French Prose Lancelot and Vita Merlini, Merlin is a wild man and shaman, with powers to enchant and shape-shift.
In researching Vivian’s fairy beginnings I came across some correlations with Irish Celtic Mythology. In the Grail Legends she is known by many names: Maeve, the Lady of the Lake, Niniane, and Gwendyll. According to Claire French in The Celtic Goddess: Great Queen or Demon Witch?, the Irish Goddess, Maeve, is theintoxicating onein Celtic Mythology. As French says,Maeve was the powerful protagonist of the Irish epic The Tain or The Cattle Theft of Cooley. The monks who recorded her story were at pains to describe her as a reckless, amoral nymphomaniac, whose intrigues and war ruined two Irish kingdoms. They could not deny however that she united supreme beauty with high intellect, strategic competence and military prowess(French 2001, 37-38). Vivian or Maeve of the Grail Legend is also an enchantress of the heart, which has much to do with Merlin’s decision to willingly give over his own magical powers to her. For example, in early versions of his story, he happily becomes captive within a closed space: the intriguing castle of air, the underground cave, tree, under a stone, or other places deep within the forest. That said, Vivian does not take part in Merlin’s orchestration of the political arena in the Malory version. The same patriarchal views which likely had an influence on portraying Maeve as nymphomaniac, suggesting a fear of the power of the feminine, cut Vivian out of the story of politics and war-making that was originally a part of the mythology of Maeve and also of Morrigu, both Celtic goddesses.
Jean Markale, in Merlin: Priest of Nature, writes that Vivian is the equivalent of Be-Finn or Boinn who represents the divinity of springs, lakes, and rivers. Boinn is also thought to be the other name for the Goddess Brigit. Brigit is the only daughter of Dagda, the great Irish god who is one of the famous and mystical race of gods and goddesses, the Tuatha de’ Danann, and in the story of the Tuatha de’ Danann, is found the origins of the Sidhe orfairy.
Water is essentially divine in Celtic Mythology. Symbols abound in the landscape of Ireland in the rivers and the holy wells. Water acts as a boundary between this world and the Otherworld. Walter and Mary Brenneman in Crossing the Circle at the Holy Wells of Ireland, describe the symbolic quality of water in the sacred wells of Ireland:
The regenerative ability of water, its power to fertilize and bring about new birth, is the pattern of life itself: [. . .] water’s shifting shape, determined by the form of containment found to have numinous power. [. . .] Water itself is (fountain and source), transformer, healer, and regenerative force. (Brenneman and Brenneman 1995, 16)
Gaston Bachelard in On Poetic Imagination and Reverie investigates the function of water as an enchantment:
A lake, a pool, still water—each makes us stop at its edge. It tells the will: you
shall not pass; you have to go back to looking at distant things, things beyond! While you were running, something here was already looking. A lake is a great tranquil eye. A lake absorbs all the light and makes a world of it. The world is already contemplated, already represented by the lake. (Bachelard 1971, 77)
As Bachelard says, it is the numinosity of nature that asks us to stop and notice that nature is watching the world. It is this quality of numinosity which calls to us to look beyond the material world. In this way water draws people and provides a prime dwelling place for the fairy-kingdom.
It is clear when visiting the holy wells of Ireland that the watery places are not just associated with the goddesses they are named for, but the very places embody the goddess herself. The Celtic goddesses (such as Brigit, as well as Vivian of the Grail Legend) are themselves the very spring and holy well flowing from beneath the ground. The metaphors implied are profound. In the myth of Dagda and Morrigu, for instance, there occurs a ritual involving a union symbolizing an initiation of chieftains. As Walter Brenneman and Mary Brenneman write,[…]at the center of the world with the guardian of the spring, the lady(Brenneman and Brenneman 1995, 31).
In the myth the Dagda has a meeting with the Morrigan [various spellings of Morrigu] at the river Unius in Connaught. The meeting takes place on the eve of Samhain…. He finds the Morrigan straddling the river and bathing, her hair braided in nine loose tresses. [. . .] The straddling of the river symbolizes the waters of life flowing from her vagina, thus presenting her as the source, or the spring. (Brenneman and Brenneman 1995, 32)
Several instances in Celtic myth correlate the well or spring with the goddess. As the Brennemans explain,In all these instances, the goddess herself plays the role of the spring from which the creative force of regeneration comes(Brenneman and Brenneman, 32). The Grail, as a continuing image of the Cauldron of Dagda, could be considered a vessel, and therefore a symbol of the womb. The waters of life flowing from Morrigu’s vagina present her as the source of life, and she points to the mother goddess. The mother goddess here is the land herself. In Ireland, the mother goddess Danu, very much like the Greek Demeter, sustains all who encounter her.
The relation of the numinous in springs and bodies of water to the fairy Otherworld can be seen in Merlin's relation to Vivian, as she represents and is synonymous withthe spring. Emma Jung and Marie Louise von Franz bring depth psychology to bear on this assertion, as explained in The Grail Legend,
[…]a spring gushes up beside the raving Merlin, by whose waters he is healed and is later enabled to heal others. His madness therefore should be looked upon as an initiation by means of which he comes into closer contact with the otherworldly powers. As a result of his cure, he pledges himself, as many shamans do, to an isolated forest existence in the service of the divine. (Jung and von Franz 1986, 360)
As von Franz and Jung argue, Shamanism offers a way to reveal the mythical secrets of nature through ritual, led by guides who are almost always numinous animals. When Merlin is initiated into shamanism, his resultingexistence in the service of the divineis closely related to the water-divinity or the goddess, in this legend represented by Vivian. So Vivian is a divine guide in Merlin's initiation, and not merely a tool for deception as she is later depicted. In this parallel of Vivian with the Irish Goddesses, Claire French has some insights into the changing role of the goddess as she appears in the Three Romances found in the Mabinogion, one of which is The Lady of the Fountain:
To understand the basic structure of the Three Romances we must remember that they are not simple love stories. Originally they functioned as tales describing the duties of the chosen hero towards Lady Sovereignty and the consequences if those duties were neglected…In the eleventh and twelfth centuries when the stories were recreated…the chosen hero had forgotten his duty or was never told about it, owing to the change from goddess religion to Christianity. Thus the hero had broken his promise to serve her and/or had neglected his cosmological task (French 2001, 156).
The Grail legends show the intriguing overlap of culture and religion and hint at the cosmological role the goddess once held as initiatrix even into the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In later versions, a hint of these initiatrixes remain, since when the goddesses are absent from the stories, the heroes become confused, no longer able to rely on the feminine guidance.
In the Grail stories there appear fascinating manifestations of what seem to be hints of the warrior Goddess traits of Morrigu and Maeve. These traits are distinct from later descriptions of Vivian as the ever-flowing and beautiful enchantress. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version of the Grail Legend Parzival, is full of delightful embellishment in all aspects of the legend, and there are many Grail Maidens in various guises. One in particular is haunting: a strange and hideous woman on a mule appears, riding up to Arthur’s court, wielding a sword and making fierce pronouncements about Parzival’s failed attempt to find the grail castle. Her name is Kundrie the Sorceress, and she is a wild-woman. Von Eschenbach's description even suggests that she is half animal. She has tusks, the nose of a dog, horns, and her nose hairs are braided with her eyebrows. There is a similar description of Merlin in Robert de Boron's text:
He had a head as large as a calf's, round and prominent eyes, a mouth that went from ear to ear, thick lips always half-open through which his teeth protruded, feet turned inside out…. He was tall, bent, amazingly old and hairy, clothed in a wolf skin. And his ears, large as winnowing baskets, hung down to his knees so that they could be wrapped around him when it rained. Finally, he was so repulsive to look at that no man lived who would not be afraid of him. (de Boron 2001, 134)
Many descriptions of Kundrie suggest an older warrior goddess with magic powers, who as a wild woman has risen from deep in the untamed forest or from inside the earth itself to speak her mind and in no uncertain terms make her presence known. The suggestion that she is from inside earth itself defines her as a fairy. It bears mentioning that in Parzival Kundrie's fierceness is softened a bit by evidence that she sustains a key grail maiden—the mysterious and ever-grieving Sigune—by bringing her food from the Grail itself.
Kundrie, in this depiction of the Goddess, brings to mind the Divine Hag or Crailleach of Ireland and Scotland, as well as the warrior Goddesses and Queens. Anne Ross inThe Divine Hag of the Pagan Celtsspeaks of the war goddesses:
In Ireland carvings on churches and religious structures are often those of a repellent war-goddess. These war goddesses are often associated with the severed head …symbolic both of fertility and the otherworld – and in a war-like society that decapitated its enemies – death. (Ross 1973)
Goddesses, in early Gaelic traditions within the islands of Britain, have always had a significant role. These goddesses are often depicted in a kind of duality: beauty and fertility contrasted with ugliness and destruction. Well-known throughout the Celtic domains…their actual worship can be assumed from the archaeological evidence, and from vested limits in the vernacular texts…(Ross 1973). It follows that in Celtic mythopoetic thought everything had a double meaning. Celtic thought had its basis in a duality expressed in terms of the symbolic and the natural (Ross 1973). In these images, the Banshee herself comes to mind, and certainly the warrior queen Boudicca, as well as Queen Maeve. Again, Anne Ross writes of Maeve:…Known for her golden hair, strong will and fiery temper, she was a destroyer, a figure of war and greed…a powerful warrior, a ruthless insatiable woman….Originally a goddess of sovereignty would have been involved in the ritual sacred marriage ceremony of the ancient Irish kings.(Ross 1973) Besides her aspect as Goddess of the springs, Morrigu, is also considered a proclaimer of battle,
After the battle was won and the corpses cleared away, the Morrigu, […] proceeded to proclaim that battle and the mighty victory which had taken place, to the royal heights of Ireland and to its fairy hosts and its chief waters and its river-mouths.(Cross and Slover 1936, 47)
This warrior aspect of the Goddess is also reminiscent of the Hindu Goddess Kali, who is a man-eater, and is depicted in sculpture with many arms. Most of her arms hold weapons, and one holds the head of a man. As Ross implies, the warrior Queen, the Banshee, and the Divine Hag all point to the original Goddess of Sovereignty. This Goddess takes part in the ritual of the sacred marriage, a union that can be interpreted through depth psychology as the integration of the anima (feminine principle) and animus (masculine principle)—an integration that suggests a rich balance of the two. Such a balance indicates a fearless culture mirrored in Celtic Myth, with regards to the realms of fertility, Otherworld, and death.
Another parallel, concerning the mystical race of the Tuatha de’ Danann, and Vivian of the Grail legend, is the symbolic quality of their mutual descent below ground. It is thought that after an invasion by the Milesians or the Formorians, the Tuatha de’Danann decide they will not be conquered but instead, hide themselves away under hills and become the Sidhe. They chose the most beautiful places in the natural world, and became part of the landscape itself—a colorful and complex dynasty living invisibly alongside the race of people who tried to conquer them. Yet every now and then they appear to mortals. As the poet Yeats has said,[…]the beautiful [fairy] are not far away when we are walking in pleasant and quiet places[…]. (Yeats 1998, 64). Merlin and Vivian’s descent into Otherworld is also often portrayed as a descent underground, through a cave or by way of a tree, but always through a forest. Merlin withdraws permanently, and Vivian is able to come and go, in the same way as the Sidhe do—they who are just out of earshot or seen out of the corner of an eye.
Tuatha de Danann and the Grail Vivian share the motif of a withdrawal into nature. Psychologist C. G. Jung argues that the withdrawal into the forest (i.e. the unconscious) is a retreat to an unintegrated Self. Heinrich Zimmer explains that from the viewpoint of eastern religion, the retreat into the unconscious indicates a withdrawal into the primeval abyss of silence. He equates such a withdrawal to a state of unconsciousness that gives one the freedom to be in a state of inaction. As Zimmer says,What is history, to space and time, to the abyss?....The answer is that he allows the forest, the abyss, to swallow him back, and he becomes again the magic wood and all its trees(Zimmer 1973, 198). The willing withdrawal into nature gives both the Children of Danu and the Grail women a way to veil themselves, by transforming into Otherness. TheOtherfrom a depth psychological perspective indicates that part of ourselves that is strange to us and which we usually try to avoid. However, to capture our attention, the Other, or conversely the Shadow, usually comes to visit us in dreams.
The placement of the Celtic Otherworld inside of hills, or in caves as told in the Grail Legend, suggests an entrance to Underworld. Streams, wells, and rivers are also deemed holy because they are an entrance to Underworld. C. G. Jung says the Self, which is the intersection between the conscious and unconscious mind, resides in the underworld. James Hillman wrote extensively about this landscape in his book The Dream and the Underworld, emphasizing that because psyche is the equivalent ofsoul,the journey to the underworld is an inherent quality of psyche. Dreams and myth, which have similar qualities in imagery and archetype, must then constitute signs of the underworld. He says,Underworld is the mythological style of describing a psychological cosmos. Put more bluntly, underworld is psyche(Hillman 1979, 46). Even as the fairy, or Sidhe, mirror human behavior in activities such as baking and music-making, so they also journey through landscapes that we journey through—only our journeys are in dreams, in our stories, and in the imagination.
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