Étaín

etain

Copyright Lauren DeVoe. Please don’t copy or reuse without permission.

My latest painting…the goddess Étaín.
Étaín has a long complicated mythology. She gets turned into a butterfly by a jealous wife and is trapped for years before falling into a glass of wine and being swallowed so that she can be reborn. Generally seen as a goddess of sovereignty, her story is often seen to represent the saga of Irish history.

Acrylic on canvas, 12×36.

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Lughnasadh and the Goddess Tailtiu

And so we come to Lughnasadh and a full blue moon.

Lughnasadh, the beginning of the harvest season, often recognized as the first harvest; a festival that celebrates the first fruits, the sun god Lugh and games of skill.

In reality, this sabbat was originally about Lugh’s foster mother, Tailtiu, rather than Lugh himself.

Tailtiu was the last queen of the Fir Bolg. She is described in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, a famous history of Ireland:

§59. Tailltiu daughter of Mag Mor king of Spain, queen of the Fir Bolg, came after the slaughter was inflicted upon the Fir Bolg in that first battle of Mag Tuired to Coill Cuan: and the wood was cut down by her, so it was a plain under clover-flower before the end of a year. This is that Tailtiu who was wife of Eochu son of Erc king of Ireland till the Tuatha De Danann slew him, ut praediximus: it is he who took her from her father, from Spain; and it is she who slept with Eochu Garb son of Dui Dall of the Tuatha De Danann; and Cian son of Dian Cecht, whose other name was Scal Balb, gave her his son in fosterage, namely Lugh, whose mother was Eithne daughter of Balar. So Tailltiu died in Tailltiu, and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu north-eastward. Her games were performed every year and her song of lamentation, by Lugh. With gessa and feats of arms were they performed, a fortnight before Lugnasad and a fortnight after: under dicitur Lughnasadh, that is, the celebration (?) or the festival of Lugh. 
Unde Oengus post multum tempus dicebat, “the nasad of Lug, or the nasad of Beoan [son] of Mellan.” 

Tailtiu cleared a great forest in order for the Irish to plant the first fields. This feat exhausted her and when she was finished, she laid down at her castle and died. The Lughnasadh games were actually the funeral games held by Lugh in her honor.

Tailtiu is the great mother goddess. It is through her pains that the fields were cleared and the harvest was able to be born. She is also seen to be a goddess of childbirth and labor. Tailtiu’s death was a necessary part of bringing forth life for the people. So while people celebrated her life through her funeral games, they also mourned her death and Lugh himself is said to have sung her death song every year. Because of this, Tailtiu is said to have prophesied on her death bed that as long as Lughnasadh is celebrated, there will always be music in Ireland.

Tailtiu’s death was a part of the sacred king rites of Ireland. Tailtiu was a Queen at Tara, the seat of the High King’s of Ireland. She was also married to the last Fir Bolg ruler. While Nuada was the first of the Tuatha rulers, Lugh was his successor.The High King’s of Ireland married the goddess who was sovereign over the land itself. Without holding this sovereignty, no one could rule. Lugh could not marry his foster mother, but by celebrating the sacrifice that ensured the prosperity of the land, Lugh was certainly honoring that connection. Tailtiu is often seen as the dynastic link between the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danaan.

Lugh is the dying and reborn god, the sun and the grain in the fields. While Tailtiu cleared the land through her labor, it was Lugh who embodied the grain that grew in that land and was cut down for the harvest. Tailtiu didn’t birth Lugh physically, but she was certainly his mother in this sacred sense. Lugh is the young God that we cut down and sacrifice and who returns to the underworld and who is later reborn after the Goddess and the Old God marry. But he can only do this because of the original sacrifice of the Goddess.

So this Lughnasadh, while you dance and sing and make merry, also remember Tailtiu, the Great Mother whose death allowed the fields to grow so that the people could eat.

The Hunting of the Hare

Betwixt two Ridges of Plowd-land, lay Wat
Pressing his Body close to Earth lay squat.
His Nose upon his two Fore-feet close lies
Glaring obliquely with his great gray Eyes.
His Head he alwaies sets against the Wind;
If turne his Taile, his Haires blow up behind:
Which he too cold will grow, but he is wise,
And keeps his Coat still downe, so warm he lies.
Thus resting all the day, till Sun doth set
Then riseth up, his Reliefe for to get.
Walking about untill the Sun doth rise
Then back returnes, down in his Forme he lyes.
At last, Poore Wat was found, as he there lay
By Hunts-men, with their Dogs which came that way.
Seeing, gets up, and fast begins to run,
Hoping some waies the Cruell Dogs to shun.
But they by Nature have so quick a Sent,
That by their Nose they race, what way he went.
And with their deep, wide Mouths set forth a Cry,
Which answer’d was by Ecchoes in the Skie.
Then Wat was struck with Terrour, and with Feare,
Thinkes every Shadow still the Dogs they were.
And running out some distance from the noise,
To hide himselfe, his Thoughts he new imploies.
Under a Clod of Earth in Sand-pit wide,
Poore Wat sat close, hoping himselfe to hide.
There long he had not sat, but strait his Eares
The Winding Hornes, and crying Dogs he heares:
Starting with Feare, up leapes, then doth he run,
And with such speed, the Ground scarce treades upon.
Into a great thick Wood he strait way gets,
Where underneath a broken Bough he sits.
At every Leafe that with the wind did shake,
Did bring such Terrour, made his Heart to ake.
That Place he left, to Champion Plaines he went,
Winding about, for to deceive their Sent.
And while they snuffling were, to find his Track,
Poore Wat, being weary, his swift pace did slack.
On his two hinder legs for ease did sit,
His Fore-feet rub’d his Face from Dust, and Sweat.
Licking his Feet, he wip’d his Eares so cleane,
That none could tell that Wat had hunted been.
But casting round about his faire great Eyes,
The Hounds in full Careere he neere him ‘pies:
To Wat it was so terrible a Sight,
Feare gave him Wings, and made his Body light.
Though weary was before, by running long,
Yet now his Breath he never felt more strong.
Like those that dying are, think Health returnes,
When tis but a faint Blast, which Life out burnes.
For Spirits seek to guard the Heart about,
Striving with Death, but Death doth quench them out.
Thus they so fast came on, with such loud Cries,
That he no hopes hath left, no help espies.
With that the Winds did pity poore Wats case,
And with their Breath the Sent blew from the Place.
Then every Nose is busily imployed,
And every Nostrill is set open, wide:
And every Head doth seek a severall way,
To find what Grasse, or Track, the Sent on lay.
Thus quick Industry, that is not slack,
Is like to Witchery, brings lost things back.
For though the Wind had tied the Sent up close,
A Busie Dog thrust in his Snuffling Nose:
And drew it out, with it did foremost run,
Then Hornes blew loud, for th’ rest to follow on.
The great slow-Hounds, their throats did set a Base,
The Fleet swift Hounds, as Tenours next in place;
The little Beagles they a Trebble sing,
And through the Aire their Voice a round did ring.
Which made a Consort, as they ran along;
If they but words could speak, might sing a Song,
The Hornes kept time, the Hunters shout for Joy,
And valiant seeme, poore Wat for to destroy:
Spurring their Horses to a full Careere,
Swim Rivers deep, leap Ditches without feare;
Indanger Life, and Limbes, so fast will ride,
Onely to see how patiently Wat died.
For why, the Dogs so neere his Heeles did get,
That they their sharp Teeth in his Breech did set.
Then tumbling downe, did fall with weeping Eyes,
Gives up his Ghost, and thus poore Wat he dies.
Men hooping loud, such Acclamations make,
As if the Devill they did Prisoner take.
When they do but a shiftlesse Creature kill;
To hunt, there need no Valiant Souldiers skill.
But Man doth think that Exercise, and Toile,
To keep their Health, is best, which makes most spoile.
Thinking that Food, and Nourishment so good,
And Appetite, that feeds on Flesh, and blood.
When they do Lions, Wolves, Beares, Tigers see,
To kill poore Sheep, strait say, they cruell be.
But for themselves all Creatures think too few,
For Luxury, with God would make them new.
As if that God made Creatures for Mans meat,
To give them Life, and Sense, for Man to eat;
Or else for Sport, or Recreations sake,
Destroy those Lives that God saw good to make:
Making their Stomacks, Graves, which full they fill
With Murther’d Bodies, that in sport they kill.
Yet Man doth think himselfe so gentle, mild,
When he of Creatures is most cruell wild.
And is so Proud, thinks onely he shall live,
That God a God-like Nature did him give.
And that all Creatures for his sake alone,
Was made for him, to Tyrannize upon.

~ Margaret Cavendish, 1653

Copyright Lauren DeVoe

Photo Copyright Lauren DeVoe

Children’s Henwen Ritual for Samhain

This is a column from the Pagan Household from October 28th, 2013. I think I’ve linked to it before, but never actually posted it and since Samhain is essentially here…

 

Henwen is one of my favorite Celtic Goddesses. The Great White Sow wandered from Annwn, the Underworld, into this world, giving birth to wheat, barley and bees, as well as wolf cubs, ferocious cats and eagles wherever she went.  And this is how she brought life to the world.

Other stories tell that it was prophesied that whatever Henwen birthed would bring harm to Britain and so King Arthur tried to catch her. Her swineherd was Coll Ap Collfrewi, one of the great swine herders of Britain, and he hung onto her bristles wherever she went. She escaped into the sea, but returned to the land and gave birth to her strange litters there. Arthur never did catch her and it is assumed that the Great Sow still wanders Britain, bringing fertility and prosperity wherever she goes. In this version , Henwen will also read your fortune for you with rods and runes.

Pigs often symbolize our relationship with the Underworld. This is the time of the year where the veil thins between the worlds because of the harvest. This is when the final harvest is brought in and the last animals are slaughtered for winter. All of the spirits passing from our world to the Underworld open the boundaries and allow us easier access to those who have gone before. It also makes it easier for those who are making their transition from this world to the next more to slip away, which is often a blessing. It can be a time of great grief and blood, it can also be a time of joyous celebration and gratefulness for another bountiful year.

Henwen is an excellent goddess to honor for this turning of the Wheel! She is also a goddess you can easily share with your children.

If you have a group of kids, you can do a really easy children’s ritual from the story of Henwen.

Sit all the children down and have them braid wheat straw. (You can find a tutorial here). If your children are too small for this, you can do this beforehand; just make sure there is a wheat braid for every child. Take everyone somewhere outside where there is plenty of room to run around.

Have everyone stand in a Circle. If you want to call Quarters at this point and cast a Circle you can, but you might simply want to acknowledge each direction. Tell the children the story of Henwen and explain that she brought a good harvest to the world. Have them hold their wheat braids and go around the Circle having everyone ask for something for the upcoming year. Have them focus their energy for their wish onto the wheat braid. (This would also be a good time to talk about the Harvest and why it’s important to how we live and what we are celebrating. Let them know that they things they should be wishing for should not be material, but things to help their community).

Since Henwen is a goddess of prophecy, put all the children’s names in a bag (this should probably be done beforehand) and randomly choose names to assign parts to. You will need a Henwen, a Coll Ap Collfrewi, an Arthur and several knights.  (If you want to have clothing props like a pig nose and capes, that could be fun as well!)

Give the children picked to be Henwen and Coll Ap Collfrewi the bags with the wheat braids in them. The rest of the children will be chasing them. The other children are It and the goal of the game is that each child must catch Henwen and Coll, who have to stay together the whole time. (This is a giant game of tag in reverse). When Arthur or one of his knights “catches” Henwen and Coll, Henwen or Coll should give them one of the wheat braids and give them their blessing for the year. That child can now return to the starting point. When everyone has caught Henwen and Coll, Henwen and Coll can return together to the rest of the group. When everyone is together again, have Henwen and Coll announce that their wanderings are done for the year and that they are ready to enjoy the bounty of the Harvest. At this point, have everyone celebrate together with a snack, after closing whatever Circle you started with. A good snack would be wheat toast with butter and honey. Each child can take their wheat braid home with them.

If you’re having an adult ritual later, you could also have the children “visit” all together with their wheat braids to offer the luck of the wheat braids for that ritual. Have them present their wheat braids with well wishes for the blessing of the Priest and Priestess.

Blessed Samhain all! Have fun!

Samhain Swine

This was originally posted on Witches and Pagans on October 28th, 2013. I know we’re slightly out of season, but I’ve been working on some research that relates to this topic. Plus, I really like mythological pigs. They make me happy. Enjoy:

 

Samhain: During this time of year, some people celebrate the Lady’s return to the Underworld. Others remember their ancestors and give thanks and blessings to those who have come before us. Still others celebrate the end of the Harvest. Samhain is a time of diverse celebrations and remembrances.

I, however, think about pigs.

Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, a king was hunting in the forest. As he was mustering his own pack of dogs, he heard a strange pack of dogs baying. As he and his dogs came to a clearing in the woods, he finally caught sight of the other pack of dogs. These dogs were white with red ears and they were chasing a white stag. (This should have been his first hint that this was no ordinary pack of dogs).

The strange pack of dogs brought down the stag and the King, whose name was Pwyll, had his dogs drive them off so that he could claim the prize of the stag for his own pack.

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As his dogs fed, another Huntsman appeared in the clearing.

Pwyll, King of Dyfed, greeted the stranger, but the stranger refused to introduce himself because of a great discourtesy Pwyll had done him. When Pwyll asked what discourtesy he had given, the Stranger answered.

‘I’ve never seen a greater discourtesy by a man than driving off a pack which has killed a stag, and [then] feeding your own dogs on it.

Art by Alan Lee for an illustrated version of the Mabinogion

Art by Alan Lee for an illustrated version of the Mabinogion

That’ said he ‘was the discourtesy, and though I won’t be revenging myself on you, between me and God, I will be claiming dishonour from you to the value of a hundred stags.’

‘Chieftain, if I’ve committed an offence, I will redeem your friendship.’

‘In what form will you redeem it?’

‘As appropriate to your rank – I don’t know who you are…’

‘A crowned king am I in the land I am from.’

‘Lord,’ said Pwyll ‘good day to you. Which land is it that you are from?’

‘From Annwvyn. Arawn king of Annwfn am I.’

It’s never wise to upset the God of the Underworld, and Pwyll realizes too late who he has offended. Arawn asks Pwyll for a service to restore his honor. Pwyll happily does the service asked of him, and this begins a great friendship between the Kingdom of Dyfed and the Kingdom of Annwn. Pwyll himself received many gifts from Arawn, the most important of which is Pwyll’ s wife, the goddess Rhiannon, which is another story entirely. (If you want to read the whole story, you can find it here). But the greatest gift the Kings of Dyfed receive from Arawn is a herd of swine.

This story comes to us from the first Branch of the Mabinogion. Throughout the Mabinogion, the ownership of the pigs is an important issue. Whoever owns the pigs has a close and friendly relationship with the Underworld, which brings them both prosperity and happiness.

Also from Welsh folklore, we hear about Henwen, the White Sow (another Underworld creature), who brought abundance to England by birthing litters of bees, wheat and barley. She also birthed eagles, ferocious cats and wolves. Henwen is a goddess of prophecy and would use sticks and runes to spell out someone’s future for them

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We see sacred pigs in many stories throughout European mythology.

The pig was sacred to Demeter, a goddess that is an important part of the Greek Underworld story of Persephone and Hades. This spilled over onto the Roman goddess Ceres as well. Sacred pigs were herded into caves for the goddesses in both lands. While most people agree that Zeus was suckled by a goat, some say he was suckled by a sow.

Circe turned Odysseus’s men into swine on his journey returning from Troy.

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The great goddess Cerridwen was known as “The Old White Sow” and the Irish god of the sea, Manannan had a magical herd of pigs.

The Russian witch/goddess Baba Yaga is also often thought by some to ride a Sow through the forest instead of the flying mortar.

In Norse mythology, the boar is a symbol of Odin, and the Valkyries serve the warriors who feast in Valhalla from the boar Saehrimnir.

Pigs still tie us to the Underworld, which is why I always “sacrifice” a pig on Samhain. This is a reminder to me and to the Gods of the relationship that we have with the Underworld. While most of us can’t actually sacrifice a pig, I make a delicious pork dishes and leave them out as offerings to stand in as a replacement for a living swine.

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My “pig” sacrifice for the year, made with pork roast and bbq sauce

So while you’re enjoying your Samhain festivities this year, whatever they may be, remember the pigs! They may sound like an odd creature to appreciate, but they are an important tie to the Underworld that can bring your home health, wealth and prosperity.

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*I wrote a children’s Henwen ritual for Samhain over at The Pagan Household. If you’re interested, you can find it here!

Dream Vision and “The Book of the Duchess”

If I haven’t mentioned it before now, I’m currently in graduate school working on my M.A. in English Literature. Of course my focus is on the Brits. This semester I’m taking a class on Later Medieval Dream Visions.

I was incredibly excited about this class and so far I have not been disappointed! If you’re unfamiliar with dream visions, they were (and are) a literary style where dreams are recounted for the benefit of the reader. People believed that these dream visions were sent to them from the divine and had important meaning that needed to be shared. Generally speaking they deal with quests for spiritual salvation or with unrequited love.

Usually a dream vision starts with the narrator telling about how they fell asleep. Once asleep, another important aspect of the dream vision is when the dreamer “wakes up” in the dream. The story of the dream itself is usually soaked in allegory. The dreamer will find a guide to walk them through the dream and help explain the message of the dream. The vision ends with the dreamer waking and promising to write the story down, hence the poem that is being read.

Before Christianity conquered Europe, the Celtic bards would sleep near a stream, believing that the spirit of the stream would give them a song or a vision of a song in their sleep. Some of the most famous dream visions are actually Welsh. The tradition of the dream vision is hundreds of years old and a highly favored medieval form of poetry.

Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy is one of the more famous of the dream visions. Boethius wrote it while he was in exile and describes his conversation with Lady Philosophy:

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Even so the clouds of my melancholy were broken up. I saw the clear sky, and regained the power to recognise the face of my physician. Accordingly, when I had lifted my eyes and fixed my gaze upon her, I beheld my nurse, Philosophy, whose halls I had frequented from my youth up.

‘Ah! why,’ I cried, ‘mistress of all excellence, hast thou come down from on high, and entered the solitude of this my exile? Is it that thou, too, even as I, mayst be persecuted with false accusations?’

‘Could I desert thee, child,’ said she, ‘and not lighten the burden which thou hast taken upon thee through the hatred of my name, by sharing this trouble? Even forgetting that it were not lawful for Philosophy to leave companionless the way of the innocent, should I, thinkest thou, fear to incur reproach, or shrink from it, as though some strange new thing had befallen? Thinkest thou that now, for the first time in an evil age, Wisdom hath been assailed by peril? Did I not often in days of old, before my servant Plato lived, wage stern warfare with the rashness of folly? In his lifetime, too, Socrates, his master, won with my aid the victory of an unjust death. And when, one after the other, the Epicurean herd, the Stoic, and the rest, each of them as far as in them lay, went about to seize the heritage he left, and were dragging me off protesting and resisting, as their booty, they tore in pieces the garment which I had woven with my own hands, and, clutching the torn pieces, went off, believing that the whole of me had passed into their possession. And some of them, because some traces of my vesture were seen upon them, were destroyed through the mistake of the lewd multitude, who falsely deemed them to be my disciples.

~From Song III – The Mists Dispelled

(If you would like to read the whole thing, you can find it here.)

Boethius had a huge influence on many medieval writers.

Bede was another famous dream visionary, as was Marie de France, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Dante (The Divine Comedy is one huge dream vision). Of course, one of the most famous was Chaucer.

Chaucer’s dream visions aren’t as well known as the Canterbury Tales, but I greatly prefer them.

“The Book of the Duchess” is one of my favorites. Chaucer wrote “The Book of the Duchess” for John Gaunt to memorialize Gaunt’s wife Blanche, who had died of the plague. While Chaucer wrote during the height of the courtly love tradition, it seems from the poem that John Gaunt might have truly loved his wife. This is one of Chaucer’s earliest works and it has been generally overlooked because of Chaucer’s youth when he wrote it. Chaucer was also a religious skeptic and one of the things that is extremely notable in the poem is that the Dreamer does not console the Knight he meets in his dream, who is mourning the death of Lady White, that she is safe in Heaven with God. The poem actually opens with a myth and an invocation to Juno and Morpheus.

The poem begins with the narrator recounting his insomnia of 8 long years. He decides to pick up a book of myths and reads the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone. Ceyx was a king who went on a journey, only to drown at sea. His wife, Alcyone, not knowing what happened to her husband, sent messengers everywhere searching for him. When no one could find out anything, she begged Juno to send her a dream vision of her husband’s fate. Juno does more than that. Juno sends for Morpheus to retrieve Ceyx’s body from the bottom of the ocean and then speak through him to his wife, letting her know that he was gone. The poet is inspired by the story and calls upon Juno and Morpheus to help him sleep.

I will return you to my original subject, the reason why I have told this story of Alcyone and Ceyx the king, for I dare say this much: I would have been entirely buried and dead, because of lack of sleep, if I had not read and heeded this tale. And I will tell you why: for I could not, for comfort or suffering, sleep before I had read this tale of this drowned Ceyx the king and of the gods of sleeping. When I had read this tale well and looked over every bit of, it seemed amazing to me that it would be so, for I had never heard mention before then of any gods that could make people sleep, nor to wake, for I had known only one god. 

And in my amusement I said then (and yet I had little desire to play) rather than I should so die through lack of sleep, I would give this Morpheus, or his goddess, Lady Juno, or some other creature, I care not who “Make me sleep and have some rest, and I will give him, or her, the best gift anyone ever hoped to receive. And into his possession, immediately, if he will make me sleep a little, I will give him a feather bed of down of pure white doves, arrayed with gold and finely covered in fine black satin from abroad, and many pillows, and every pillowcase of linen from Reynes, to sleep softly he will not need to toss and turn so often. And I will give him everything that belongs to a bedchamber, and all his rooms I will have painted with pure gold and arrayed with many matching tapestries. All this shall he have (if only I knew where his cave is) if he can make me sleep soon, as he did for the goddess, queen Alcyone. And thus this same god, Morpheus, may gain from me more rewards than he ever won; and to Juno, who is his goddess, I shall so do, I believe, whatever will please her.”

I had hardly said that word, exactly as I have told it to you, that suddenly, I know not how, such a desire overtook me to sleep that I fell asleep right on my book, and then I dreamed so inwardly sweet a dream, so wonderful a dream that I believe that no one has ever had the insight to interpret my dream correctly.

(I have to wonder if he followed through with his promises to Juno and Morpheus…?)

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File:Woodcut illustration of the goddess Juno as patron of marriage – Penn Provenance Project.jpg

In the vision, the Narrator, now the Dreamer, “wakes up” to hear birds singing. He hears the sounds of a hunt being called and rides out (on a horse that has apparently magically appeared in the chamber he has awoken in) to join the hunt. While on the hunt, he comes across a Black Knight composing lyrics about the death of a lady. When the Dreamer asks the Knight about the cause of his lament, the Knight replies that he has played a game of chess with Lady Fortuna and lost. The Dreamer begs the Knight not to be upset about the loss of a game of chess. The Knight goes on to explain his life and his service to Love and how he came to meet the fair Lady White. The Dreamer is somewhat obtuse and doesn’t understand that the chess game is a metaphor and that the Lady White is an actual lady. The Dreamer begs the Knight to continue with his tale. The Knight tells of how he fell in love and courted White, until at last, he finally won her and lived happily for many years. The Dreamer still doesn’t understand and asks the Knight where the Lady White is. The Knight finally replies that she is dead. The Knight rides off to a castle on a nearby hill and the poet awakes with his book in hand, promising that he will write the dream down.

“Sir,” I said, “where is she now?” 

“Now?” he said, and stopped at once. With that he grew as dead as stone and said, “Alas, that I was born! That was the loss that I told you before that I had lost. Remember how I said earlier, ‘You know full little what you mean by your words; I have lost more than you think.’ God knows, alas! She was that very person!”

“Alas, sir, how? How may that be?”

“She is dead!”

“No!”

“Yes, by my word!”

“Is that your loss? By God, that is such a pity!”

And with that word they quickly began to sound the hunting signal to head home; all the hart hunting was done for that time.

With that I thought that this king began to ride homeward to an adjacent place which was a short way from us a long castle with white walls, by Saint John, on a rich hill, so I dreamed; but thus it happened. I dreamed just as I tell you: in the castle there was a bell, and as it struck twelve, I awoke and found myself lying in my bed. And the book I had read, of Alcyone and Ceyx the king, and of the gods of sleep, I found wide open in my hand. I thought, “This is so strange a dream that I will, in the course of time, attempt to put this dream into rhyme as best I can, and do so soon.”

This was my dream; now it is done. 

Blanche of Lancaster

Blanche of Lancaster

There are many things that are interesting about the poem: the transitions of the narrator through the various dreams, the metaphor of the chess game, the comparison of black and white imagery, the Pagan mythology, the underlying sense that Chaucer is discussing religion, the Knight’s love of the Lady, the hart hunt, Chaucer’s understanding of mourning and his use of the Dreamer to actually get the Knight to express his grief…

But in the end, I just enjoy the poem. While John of Gaunt mourned for Blanche, he did remarry. Queen Elizabeth the Second is a descendant. But Blanche was forever immortalized by Chaucer in this very fitting tribute.

If you would like to read the full poem, you can find the translation here.

If you’re brave, the poem in its original Middle English can be found here.

Also, did you know that Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog? I certainly didn’t!

The Rusalka

I am a huge opera fan. I grew up going to the opera with my mother. Carmen was my first opera experience and while it’s not one of my favorites, it certainly left a vivid impression on my imagination. Somewhere I have pictures of 8 year old me dressed up as Carmen for Halloween. Looking back on it, I’m not sure Carmen was quite the appropriate persona for an 8 year old to try and embody, but… Carmen opened the door to the wonderful world of opera for me ever after.

Strangely enough, New Orleans does not seem to have a lot of opera, even though it was the first place in America to have one! This year there are only two being shown here. (And sadly enough, the first one is happening while Kenny and I are at Pantheacon next week. Come out and say hi!) So…I’m really glad that the AMC movie theaters are presenting The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. If you’re an opera fan and aren’t familiar with this series, you’re missing out. AMC streams the New York Metropolitan Opera live during one of their performances and then presents an encore two weeks later. You get a front row seat for some of the most beautifully put together operas in the world.

This week, they presented Dvorak’s Rusalka. This is one of my favorite operas, which has one of my favorite arias. Renee Fleming, who considers “Song to the Moon” to be one of her signature arias, performs the lead character, Rusalka. (This is also a fitting topic for the Olympics this week).

Mesiku na nebi hlubokem
Svetlo tve daleko vidi,
Po svete bloudis sirokem,
Divas se v pribytky lidi.
Mesicku, postuj chvili
reckni mi, kde je muj mily
Rekni mu, stribmy mesicku,
me ze jej objima rame,
aby si alespon chvilicku
vzpomenul ve sneni na mne.
Zasvet mu do daleka,
rekni mu, rekni m kdo tu nan ceka!
O mneli duse lidska sni,
at’se tou vzpominkou vzbudi!
Mesicku, nezhasni, nezhasni!

Moon, high and deep in the sky
Your light sees far,
You travel around the wide world,
and see into people’s homes.
Moon, stand still a while
and tell me where is my dear.
Tell him, silvery moon,
that I am embracing him.
For at least momentarily
let him recall of dreaming of me.
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!
If his human soul is in fact dreaming of me,
may the memory awaken him!
Moonlight, don’t disappear, disappear!

Not only is this a beautiful invocation of the Moon, but I love the story and the explanation of the Rusalka in the opera.

In traditional fairy lore, the Rusalka is a Russian fairy who lures young men to their deaths in ponds and streams. She is very similar to Jenny Greenteeth and the Lorelei. The Rusalka lives at the bottom of waterways and comes out at night to dance on the shores. If she saw a handsome man, she would capture him with her beauty and song and lure him to a watery grave.

In Russian myth, the Rusalka is the spirit of a woman who died young, usually from suicide or during a pregnancy. The great grief that caused the death ensured the young woman’s spirit would linger.

Rusalkas don’t just lure young men to an early grave, they also bless the surrounding fields with abundance and fertility. In many ways, the Rusalka are very similar to the mermaids of Western European lore. They like to sit in trees or on docks and sing music, siren like, calling men to their doom.

In June, the Rusalka are supposedly at their most dangerous. They come out of their waters and dance and swing through birch (a tree that banishes evil and builds courage) and willow (a tree of enchantment and music that is often seen as a tree for female rites of passage) trees. Many women go out during Rusal’naia and leave offerings to appease the Rusalka and also set out protective charms to ward them off. No one swims during this week, just in case… People also do a ritual with a birch tree, where a tree is brought in from the forest and is seen to represent the vegetative power of the land. Young women dance and sing around the birch, making it promises for the coming year. At the end of the week, the semik as it is called, is drowned, to ensure that the land will have enough water throughout the rest of the year.

The Rusalkas are a particularly femininely inspired spirit.

In the opera, Rusalka falls in love with a human prince who hunts around her lake. She goes to her father, a water-goblin and begs him to tell her how she can be with the prince. Even though he warns her that it’s a bad idea, he sends her to the witch Ježibaba, who can turn her into a human woman. Ježibaba warns Rusalka that if she becomes human, she will lose the ability to speak (gee, where have we heard this story before?) and if the prince betrays her, both she and the prince will be damned. Rusalka drinks the potion that Ježibaba has given her and the Prince finds her and takes her home with him.

The Prince plans the wedding, but many people in his household suspect witchcraft and treat Rusalka badly. A foreign princess comes to the wedding and slowly lures the prince away. When it looks like the prince will choose Rusalka over her, the foreign princess curses them and the prince finally rejects Rusalka. Rusalka flees back to her father and the foreign princess scorns the prince. Ježibaba tells Rusalka that if she kills the prince, she can save herself, but Rusalka refuses, throwing the dagger that Ježibaba has given her into the lake. Her grief and rage turn her into a spirit of death, and Rusalka begins haunting the lake. The Prince comes to the lake searching for Rusalka. He begs her to kiss him, even though he knows that it means his death. He dies and Rusalka’s father comments “All sacrifices are futile.” Rusalka thanks the dead prince for allowing her to experience human love. She returns to the lake, forever after an evil fairy.

I think the moral of the story is that love changes us and not always for the better. It’s a force that can have long lasting consequences. So love well and be faithful, otherwise you might end up as an evil fairy in a dreary lake forever luring young men off to die and seriously, who wants that?

rusalka