Don’t Look Back

Dead things…dead things everywhere! It is that time of the year when the veil is thin and it is so much easier to walk back and forth between the worlds. Lately, on our walks through New Orleans, we have been finding many dead things.

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Found dead, Acadian Flycatcher, photo by my S.O.

The weather is finally cooling off here in New Orleans and Fall is upon us. My mother sent me this beautiful picture from her garden in Ohio.

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Fate is weaving her web for the new year and it’s time to get ready for the winter.

This is of course the time of year when the Goddess is making her way to the Underworld and it’s hard not to think about Persephone and Inanna and all the other various Underworld Goddess tales we know. The Hades and Persephone myth is probably one of the most well known tales in any tradition or culture and at least here in the US, one that most of us find fairly early on. I grew up loving this story and it has been interesting for me over the years to see how my understanding of the tale changes over time and through aging.

I stumbled across this favorite tumblr meme recently and it always makes me laugh a little.

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The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is of course an excellent example Hades allowing a soul to leave. Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies and Orpheus, who loves his wife so much, goes to the Underworld to ask Hades to allow her to come back to life.

(You can find a beautiful reading of Virgil’s Orpheus and Eurydice in Latin here).

I’ve always disliked Orpheus. His inability to not follow Hades’ directions to not look back bothers me. How can you go through so much to give up at the last minute?

Orpheus is impatient and this is his downfall.

Looking at the dead or the divine or the sacred is a taboo in many cultures.

Semele looks at Zeus and is completely destroyed.

Those who look at the Gorgon are turned to stone.

Pysche looks upon Eros and is cast out of her home and away from her husband and she must venture to the Underworld to win her right to her divine husband back.

Lot’s wife looks back at Sodom and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Peeping Tom peeps at Lady Godiva as she rides by and is blinded for his lack of respect.

But why this rule in the case of Orpheus and Eurydice?

It is often believed that if Orpheus had looked back at Eurydice while she was still technically dead, he would have seen secrets that he, a mere mortal, literally couldn’t stand to see and would, like Semele, be obliterated by the sight of such immortal things.

In the mortal world, we find it important to look someone “in the eye.” Anyone who can’t do so, is generally considered to be deceitful or up to no good. So it’s interesting that not looking is such an important part of myth and fairy tale.

There are many recipes for salves to put on one’s eyes to allow you to see fairy. Of course, if the fey figure out that you can see them, there are also many stories of those who use the salves being blinded by the fey who know what they are doing.

It is never good to attract the attention of the divine or magical.

I stumbled across a short video series by Gia Coppola and Gucci for Vogue, the series is a retelling of the Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice using fashion and NY to express the familiar tale.

It’s beautifully done and I love this video series, because Coppola manages to make you understand why Orpheus looks back. In this scenario, I might have looked back too!

 

 

 

 

Aristaeus plays a big role here. In some versions of the tale, Aristaeus fell in love with Eurydice, chasing her so that she is caught unawares by the snake that bites her. Here it’s interesting that Aristaeus is a woman in red, which symbolizes things like love and lust and vanity. She cannot quit watching Eurydice, inadvertently killing the very thing she wants, which is later echoed by Orpheus himself: “Orpheus’s bomber is stitched with the words “L’Aveugle Par Amour”– blind for love. In the film’s last scenes, we hope Orpheus will heed the phrase and keep his eyes off Eurydice, even as we—and he—know that he won’t” (Studeman, 2016). Orpheus is so distraught over losing Eurydice a second time, that he disdains women for all time. Later, the Maenads tear him apart for this hubris.

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I think that one of the things these videos proves is that the old myths are never actually old. They are still relevant to us today and still have many things to teach us, even though things have changed so much between their origins and now.

Don’t look back at the things the gods give us. They bring us only heartache and ruin. The gifts of the divine, especially when we transverse the Underworld, should never be taken for granted.

Don’t eat the fruit of the gods or fairy, unless you’re willing to be entrapped and don’t look at the divine unless you want to lose everything.

During this time of year, when the veil is thin, this is an important lesson to remember.

 

References:

Bonaparte, M. (1954). The fault of orpheus in reverse. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 35, 109. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1298189715?accountid=14437

Studeman, K.T. (2016). Gia Coppola’s New Film Takes Downtown Cool to Mythic Levels: A cast of Gucci-clad scenesters animate the director’s Orpheus series. W. Retrieved from http://www.wmagazine.com/culture/2016/06/gucci-orpheus-gia-coppola-lou-doillon/photos/

Blodeuwedd and Personal Agency

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Blodeuwedd by my SO

I work quite a lot with the goddess Blodeuwedd. If you’re not familiar with this Welsh goddess, she appears to us in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh mythology. I’ve written about her here in other contexts, but a student recently asked me: “Why Blodeuwedd?”.  Blodeuwedd’s tale is not exactly happy or inspiring on the surface. My student asked, what was it about Blodeuwedd that drew me in?

The story goes that Blodeuwedd was created by the Gods Math and Gwydion from the flowers of the forest. The god Lleu has been rejected by his mother Arianrhod, who has refused to give him a name, weapons or to allow him to marry a human woman. Gwydion gets around these issues by tricking Arianrhod into naming Lleu and giving Lleu weapons, but to make sure Lleu can marry, Gwydion, with the help of Math, has to go a step further.

So they create a beautiful woman out of flowers (and as I have posited before), possibly from the spirit of a white Underworld goddess (death). Math and Gwydion arrogantly assume that this non-human woman that they’ve created will do as she’s told. And in the beginning, she does. She marries Lleu and for a while they are happy.

But, Lleu eventually goes off on a hunt and Blodeuwedd meets the hunter Gronw. The two conspire to kill Lleu, who can only be killed in very specific, very weird, way.

Blodeuwedd gets Lleu to tell her, and then show her, how he can be killed. To, you know, make sure it never happens, because she’s sooooo worried. As Lleu demonstrates how he might be killed, Gronw kills him, using goat, water, a house, and most pointedly, a spear. Blodeuwedd and Gronw walk happily off into the sunset.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Lleu being a god, isn’t actually dead, but transformed. Gwydion tromps off into the forest and eventually finds Lleu as an Eagle sitting up high in an oak tree. Through a lot of magical singing and poetry, Gwydion gets Lleu down from the tree and transforms him back into a man (or at least an anthromorph).

Lleu returns home, challenges and defeats Gronw, and Blodeuwedd ends up changed into

an owl, flying off into the forest. Some stories say that Lleu turns Blodeuwedd into an owl for her treachery, others say that it’s Gwydion that changes her. Still others say that Blodeuwedd changes herself into the Owl. Either way, Blodeuwedd goes from a flower, fertility goddess of the Spring/Summer, to a goddess of death and omens of the Autumn/Winter. In Welsh, the name Blodeuwedd literally means flower face, which is the word for owl. She is not one or the other, she is both and was always meant to be both. (Again, when you “create” someone out of flowers, using the spirit of death, what do you expect?)

So yes…not exactly a pleasant tale. Blodeuwedd has been represented by some as the ultimate victim. In her novelization of the Mabinogion, Evangeline Walton goes as far as to blame Her for the existence of rape! So, my student saw only what she perceived as treachery and subjugation.

What is so easy to forget, especially when reading this story through the translations of Christian monks, is that Blodeuwedd is not just some woman, she is a Goddess.

Blodeuwedd makes her own choices, with a full understanding of what she is setting in motion. She is the Goddess who moves the wheel of the year and it is through her actions and choices that this cycle continues.

When looked at objectively, this is an allegory for the agricultural cycle. Blodeuwedd spends time journeying back and fourth between the Upperworld and the Underworld. Lleu is the young sun god that blesses the fields. Gronw is the old stag of winter. The young god and the old god must fight it out every year, the young god dying at Litha, the old god winning at Yule. We see this throughout most European mythology.

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The Forming of Blodeuwedd by my SO

It is so easy to try to make Blodeuwedd into nothing more than a victim and to refuse to allow her agency over her own story. She is trapped between all of these men and her choice of Gronw is nothing but a selfish betrayal of her “husband.”

But Blodeuwedd is not a victim. She makes choices for herself. She does not simply stay married to Lleu because she is told to. She meets Gronw and knows that she belongs with him.

She is also not forced into marrying Lleu, though that certainly seems to be the intent of Math and Gwydion. Hey, let’s face it, Lleu is a hot young sun God: who wouldn’t want some of that? But to think that a Goddess couldn’t have refused to play along is sort of ridiculous. We all know that Math and Gwydion’s arrogance is what has gotten them into this mess to begin with, and they have both made decisions already that are, let’s face it, pretty stupid. They have already pissed off other powerful goddesses. Blodeuwedd chooses to marry Lleu, and then she chooses to get rid of him for someone else.

Blodeuwedd is not human. She has her own power and her own magic.

In the end, it all comes down to her actions and her choices to drive the tale and the events. Just like Persephone chose to eat those pomegranate seeds in Hades, Blodeuwedd chooses to take an Underworld lover.

When a Goddess ‘chooses’ you, you can feel it. Blodeuwedd definitely chose me. But while Blodeuwedd definitely chose me to be one of hers, I also heartily accepted Blodeuwedd as a patroness. Her choice, her decision, to do what is right for her, is so powerful. Her choices literally drive the seasons, the crops and the fertility of the world around us. She does not choose to make other people happy, she does not exist within social expectations. She is a goddess and she does what she needs to do for herself. It is her control over her choices that allows the world to flourish. She knows that her power, which is greater than that of either Gwydion, Math, Lleu or Gronw, is what truly matters in order for the world to cycle naturally. And how could I not be drawn by that power? She is the ultimate feminine choice. Her actions are not to make other people happy, but to what is right for herself. And I hope in this world, I can emulate her by living truthfully for myself in the same way. The choices I make are for me, not because someone tells me to make them. Blodeuwedd seeks happiness, and while that doesn’t always quite work out the way we might want it to, that is also life.

I am where I am today because of her. In looking back over the last few years, I know I was

chosen specifically to hold this place right here, right now because she saw as much in me as I see in her. The choices I have made definitely do not please other people. I have been vilified and many have tried to take my own personal agency away from me by making me into nothing more than a victim who obviously can’t choose for herself.

But just like Blodeuwedd, I am not a victim. I am a powerful, independent woman who stands by her own choices and by those she chooses to support. Are there consequences to that? Of course. But my truth is what drives me. You don’t have to agree with me, like me, or support me. You don’t matter in the sphere of the choices I make for myself and my family.

I too chose Gronw over Lleu, and I have never, not once in the midst of everything, regretted that.

And this is what Blodeuwedd teaches us. Our choices drive the world we exist in. Just because other people have influence on our lives or occasionally force us into doing things that we don’t want to do, doesn’t mean that we are beholden to acting the way others try to make us or expect us to act.

Blodeuwedd represents the ultimate female agency and choice.

So is this a story of victim-hood and subjugation? I don’t see it that way. I see Blodeuwedd doing what every person should do. She ignores the mantle of civilized expectations and makes choices that will fulfill her role and life. I proudly serve Her and hope that my own actions mirror hers.

I do not accept the role that others give me, and that is why I will walk away at the end of the day. If you can accept your power to make your own choices, you’ve already won and no one can take that from you.

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Goddess Secrets, by me!

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.

Belief, American Gods and Me

Neil Gaiman starts out his novel American Gods with a “Caveat, and Warning for Travelers” which ends with: “Furthermore, it goes without saying that all the people, living, dead and otherwise, in this story are fictional or used in a fictional context.Only the Gods are real”.

When you read his introduction for the tenth anniversary edition, he talks about how he had just moved to America and wanted to write a novel that captured all the parts of America that he found fascinating, most of which are never seen on film. He traveled while he was writing the novel and explored the back roads and the places he thought his main character Shadow would go.

He follows his “Caveat” with an epigraph:

One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the nisser, Greek-Americans the vrykolakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old Country. When once I asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said “They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,” pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America.

-Richard Dorson, “A Theory for American Folklore,”
American Folklore and the Historian
(University of Chicago Press, 1971)

Whenever we open ritual in my tradition, we start by welcoming “the spirits of this land,” even though I don’t know these spirits and I will be calling on the Gods and element that I work with, its always important to acknowledge the fact that I am doing ritual in a place where I don’t necessarily belong. It would be rude of me as a priestess to forget that the religion I practice does not belong to this particular place. My Gods are mostly British and Celtic, they certainly did not originate in the swamps of southern Louisiana and one always has to assume that they may not interact with the spirits here very well. After all, my Gods don’t belong here. American Gods touches on the very heart of this topic. I’ve always founds American Gods to be more than an exploration of America. Gaiman pulls apart religion and the idea of belief and places it in a modern context that I think we rarely get the pleasure of seeing put down in words. American Gods is not an easy read, just as America is not always an easy place to understand, but it’s a novel where I find something new and wonderful every time I pick it up.

In the last year, I’ve had to examine my own thoughts and ideas about belief in a very different way than ever before. As my community failed me entirely in the midst of one of the most horrendous personal situations you can imagine, I’ve had to really examine both my practice and place in the Craft.

I have been very grateful to find that through everything I’ve been confronted with and continue to be confronted with, my belief has remained one of the few strong pillars of my life. My community, my tradition, my friends, my acquaintances may have failed me, but the Gods never left me.

Whenever someone new approaches me about Wicca and the tradition I practice, I break down the practice and the training process, explain what we do and that the point of functioning within a tradition is all about teaching. I often get asked “but yeah, what are you actually doing in ritual?”. It’s at this point that I tell them that perhaps like or unlike many other traditions or practices, the main role of my ritual is worship. I worship deity while in Circle. I may do magic, I may create spells, but at the end of the day, ritual for me is about worship. When I train students, it is to train them as priests and priestesses who are in service to the Gods. I always tell them that I can teach them everything except belief. If you don’t believe in the Gods then there is nothing I can do to help you learn that and we are not the place for you.

You either believe or you don’t.

Belief is a tricky thing. Recently, a friend of mine who has been exploring Wicca, was confronted by her father about her exploration of Wicca and the insanity of believing in anything Wicca teaches. He used a blog I wrote about the service of invocation to browbeat her about how horrible religion is and how he assumed that drugs were involved. (It’s sort of hysterically funny, whatever else might be said about my household, we are a sober household. We may be monsters, but we’ll eat you while daintily sipping iced tea).

From the outside, invocation might look pretty outlandish. I could also sit here and draw parallels to the practices in many other religions that are similar to invocation or I could talk about it as a rational exploration of a deep meditative state that allows you to examine your innermost subconscious. But at the end of the day, for me, I believe that when I invoke Goddess, she is the one speaking through me.

Religion can be a terrible thing. So can belief. I left a religion that I felt was abusive and controlling. I get where my friend’s father was coming from and why he is worried. As Pagans, most of us who are out have probably had to confront family members about our belief at one point or another. My own father used to ask me about who would I be calling on when I was in the metaphorical foxhole. Jesus or my Gods? Believing that my belief couldn’t possibly hold up in a horrible situation. I can quite honestly say at this point that my faith did not fail me and as I’ve found myself in this metaphorical foxhole this year, my Gods have stayed with me throughout.

I think one of the important parts of my service to the gods as a Wiccan Priestess who is “out of the broom closet” is the ability to talk openly about being Wiccan. I am not some learned Elder who knows a lot, but I do think that being able to speak openly about Paganism is an important service to the Craft. If I can vocalize an issue as a student walking this path that someone else can’t openly ask about, then I think I have helped. I have the ability to speak and I think that therefore it is my duty to do so. I can question, discuss, and examine this somewhat crazy seeming practice that I am a part of. I am not afraid that my family will find out, they already know. My coworkers are aware that I’m a witch. My neighbors have seen me walking about in my robe and have probably heard the chanting coming from our temple room. In this, I think part of my service is to speak.

In the past I have always had something to say. Whether you agree with me or not may be another matter entirely. This past year, I have lost the words. Someone very dear to me has been held up as an example of everything horrible and wrong in the Pagan community, and I have been called a monster for knowing the actual situation and continuing to believe in him.

So, in order to try to get back into writing about the things I find important, I am going to start rereading American Gods and picking apart all the things that stand out to me throughout. I am not going to say that I will do so many chapters a month or set a schedule, I am just going to write about it as it pleases me and hope that it helps me to get going again. Life does have an unfortunate habit of continuing, even when we wish it wouldn’t, and after a certain point, there is only so much you can do. The beautiful thing about a blog is that no one other than the writer ever actually has to read it. And besides, as much as many may want it, I am not done yet.

“Hey,” said Shadow. “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”
The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
“Say ‘Nevermore,'” said Shadow.
“Fuck you,” said the raven.”
~ Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Photo taken by me while visiting the Painted Desert. Copyright Lauren DeVoe

Photo taken by me while visiting the Painted Desert. Copyright Lauren DeVoe

Mabon and the Forgotten Queen

This was a blog post from Witches and Pagans originally posted on September 17th, 2012. Blodeuwedd is a goddess that I work very closely with.

 

Mabon is the Sabbat where the focus of the wheel of the year goes from Life and growth to Death and the harvest. It is when the young God experiences death and begins his journey to the Underworld. It is also when the White Goddess begins her descent to the Underworld to take her rightful place as the Queen of Death. The Welsh figure of Blodeuwedd is an often ignored facet of the Queen of Death.

Blodeuwedd is a Goddess that modern audiences have a hard time viewing outside of the lense of our industrial, patriarchal culture. Blodeuwedd, who comes to us in the Fourth Branch of the Welsh Mabinogion, is a woman created out of the flowers of the forest by the Gods Math and Gwydion who need a wife for Gwydion’s son Lleu; Lleu has been cursed by his mother, Arianrhod, to never take a human wife. Blodeuwedd’s story is often seen as one of rape and revenge, similar to the way the Arthurian legends are often treated. It is a story that most people never try to reconstruct with the meaning it might have had to pre-Medieval Welsh listeners. For modern listeners, Blodeuwedd is not seen as the White Goddess that she is; she is viewed as a woman torn between two lovers, such as the Medieval Iseult, or Shakespeare’s Juliet, and the tale of the two Gods/men (Lleu and Gronw) becomes one of lust and revenge.

Unlike the Greek myths, where we have the original stories “written” out to us by the Greeks themselves, the Mabinogion comes to us through the interpretation of the “modern” and patriarchal society who recorded it. Christian ideology overshadows the retelling of the stories, and these tales are doomed to be seen in the shadow of modern ideologies. Blodeuwedd as a Goddess is a victim not of rape, but of misinterpretation.

In the modern scenario, Blodeuwedd has no agency of her own as an individual and therefore no power as the Goddess that she is; she is the tool of the men around her, rather than a woman with true power. She becomes an excuse to shame women and is not seen as the force of nature she is, the force that assists in turning the wheel of the year. In this way, Blodeuwedd becomes similar to Pandora and Galatea, a plaything of a thunder wielding, sky father God. But let us remember that Blodeuwedd is a creature of the forces of land and nature worshipped by the agrarian Celts.

In the contemporary retelling of Blodeuwedd’s story, we sense that Math and Gwydion’s intentions are simply to create a wife for Lleu; that there are no other reasons that this woman needs to be brought into existence. But consider that Math and Gwydion create Blodeuwedd from the flowers of the forest, which symbolize the life and death aspects of the cycle of the year; they are intentionally drawing the White Goddess of the Underworld, the White Lady of Death, into the physical realm. Blodeuwedd of the Underworld is the balance to Lleu’s role as the Lord of the Sun.

Arianrhod, Lugh’s mother (another misunderstood Welsh Goddess), foreshadows the role that Blodeuwedd is to play. Lleu’s birth is seen as being shameful to her in the Christian context; she is not seen as the High Priestess figure who is helping her son through his initiations to gain the power that he is destined to inherit. Gwydion’s “trickery” to make Arianrhod name Lleu, by getting her to exclaim “the young lion has a steady hand” when he kills a wren (symbol of winter), is the first place where it is understood that Lleu has to kill the Old God in order to take his rightful place as God of the Sun. It is the starting point for the task that Blodeuwedd will assume in order to facilitate this cycle. Blodeuwedd’s lover Gronw is the wren that Lugh originally kills to claim his title. Life and Death work side by side to ensure this cycle continues.

Blodeuwedd is the physical manifestation of the Goddess of the Underworld. Just as Persephone in the Greek myths, Blodeuwedd is aware of what she is doing when she tasks Gronw with killing Lleu. Blodeuwedd’s “choice” between Lleu and Gronw is the neverending cycle of Growth and the Harvest. The Sun God must die so that winter may come: the cycle of death and rebirth again and again. Blodeuwedd is not just a woman who is torn between two lovers through Math and Gwydion’s magic; she is an incarnation of the White Goddess.

Blodeuwedd’s role in this cyclical story is an integral part of what Mabon symbolizes. When we forget the basic meanings behind the stories of our holidays or misinterpret their meanings, we forget the true importance of what we are celebrating. Blodeuwedd is not a light Goddess; she is the Dark that awaits all of us in the end, and her presence at Mabon should be considered in light of her true aspect.

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!