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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



The poems and stories that we have just been looking at emphasise the point that Christian themes seem not to have been wholly uppermost in the minds of some writers during the Middle Ages. But they also lead us towards a truly astounding piece of work.

The enchanted meadow and forest that Geoffrey Chaucer encountered in the Book of the Duchesse was presided over by a Roman goddess, Flora, and a god Zephyrus, her consort. In Chaucer's prologue to the Legend of Good Women the god Zephyrus, alias Cupid, the god of love, perhaps alias God, the God of Love and God of gods, and the goddess Flora, appeared in the company of a multitude of young women. The poet encountered them whilst worshipping the daisy one morning, having spent a night asleep upon his mound of turves. Flora, it transpired, was Alcestis, a woman who was turned into a daisy. Of the host of ladies accompanying her, Chaucer was told, 'here are a multitude of ladies, thousands more than you are aware of, who have all been true in love; tell how they were deceived by men.' Chaucer goes on to tell the stories of nine of them before apparently getting tired of this penance. Perhaps he wished to signifying by this the nine Muses of Greek legend.

A fifteenth century poem the Isle of Ladies tells a tale of a multitude of women who are all – they imagine – deceived by a man. It is a long poem, originally attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer and once called Chaucer's Dream. But in the nineteenth century it was relegated to the Chaucer apocrypha and is now known to have been composed by an anonymous poet nearer to the time that Sir Thomas Malory was writing his Le Morte d'Arthur, in the mid- to late-fifteenth century. The author remains unknown, but it surely furnishes the finest proof for the survival of a poetic tradition whose roots extend back to a misty land of druids and Iron Age hill forts.

This poem also casts an intriguing light upon the seed in the mouth of the little boy in Chaucer's Canterbury tale from the Prioress, the seed that prevented him from dying. And it contains a host of other allusions to pagan belief that leads one to wonder whether the anonymous author may not have been later burned at the stake. Perhaps he – or she – was. There are three early texts of the poem, two in manuscript form, the oldest of which is known as Longleat House MS 256. This Longleat text is considered to be the best of the three, although its spelling has been described as being that of a maniac! The story, however, is far from being the work of a maniac. It is replete with those themes that we have encountered already, in Chaucer's work, in the Breton lais of Marie de France and in the Arthurian tales. But rather than giving brief glimpses into this world, or clouded allusions, repeated hints in a changing metaphor, the Isle of Ladies may take the reader through an entire adventure in the afterlife, from the real world into a Paradise that becomes an Elysium from which the dead can return when, as in Chrétien de Troyes' The Knight of the Cart, it becomes incorporated into the geography of the real world. Here is the story:

When Flora, the Queen of beauty, had gained the obedience of the fresh new season everywhere, and with her green mantle had covered that which winter had uncovered, I lay alone, by chance, one dark night, and thought about my lady, and how the Lord who made her had done such a fine job! And in my thoughts, as I lay in a hunting lodge deep in the forest beside a spring, I more than dreamed that I was whisked away to another place, perhaps by a spirit, I wasn't sure, for it seemed as though I was not dreaming. I wish you could experience the pain and joy that I did, for it would make your heart feel good! And I shall record what I saw, and what I felt, in plain English; and please excuse the lack of polish, but hear what I shall conclude.

I found myself within a strange isle, where the walls and pathways were all of glass and enclosed so that no one could enter without permission. Every golden entrance was wondrously adorned with musical vanes and with birds singing, and all the towers were similar, carved like flowers, colourful and enduring. There were no men anywhere, but ladies, all young and beautiful, dancing like no earthly women; except for one who seemed too old for dancing, yet she had a youthful manner. She had been attractive in her day and seemed to be mistress of these delectable creatures; and all agreed that she deserved to be, because of her wisdom, fine judgement, fairness and honesty. I walked around a little and saw that I had wandered into Paradise; for one had only to think of something desirable, anything – riches, health, beauty, comfort – and it would be there, it would come true! I had certainly never visited such an island before, nor ever heard of one like it.

But the peace is soon broken. The poet's lady arrives, the lady he loves, accompanied by a knight who is chasing after the Queen of the Isle of Ladies. These three have been to an Island of Apples, where the poet's lady was found taking fruit that the Queen of the Isle of Ladies was accustomed to collecting for herself. However, they seem to be on friendly terms with one another when they arrive.

Shortly after their arrival, the God of Love, parhaps God, appears offshore with an overwhelming force and puts the island under his authority. He stays for a night and then the following day 'gave his statutes in papers · and ordayned diverse officers · and forthe to shipe the same nyght · he wente, and sone was owt of syght.' However, the poet's lady is in rebellious mood.

In the morning, my lady spoke of voyages she was accustomed to make, small journeys to strange countries, and went to the queen to explain how things stood. And there was much weeping, and the queen offered a great deal to induce her to stay, for she took it as though my lady was about to die! But my lady took her leave nonetheless, and in the morning she boarded her ship; and such a sorrow was made as she left.

Out went the ship, down went the sounding-line, and like an unbound madman I ran fearlessly into the water after her until a wave threw me over and swept me backwards and forwards 'til both mind and breath were all but gone. Sailors with two large hooks grappled me aboard and lay me by the mast, convinced that I would die very shortly; and agreeing, I confessed to the mast, said goodbye to everybody and closed my eyes. My lady, though, thought it a pity that I should die and so she came to me, bade me rise and said: 'Stop this nonsense and come with me! I will always be friendly. Rise up, look!' and she put into my sleeve one of the apples she had collected from the Island of Apples. With that, all my pains left me and I felt like dancing; I jumped up with a joyous heart, alive and well, went over to where she was standing and swore to be her's in all things. My lady smiled and in a few words told me fully how things stood. And what she said was in confidence, so I shall not speak further of it, since I would rather not have been born than break an oath now. I would be despised and, besides, such an indiscretion might rebound on me.

So we sailed for some days towards her country and she told me she was glad I was there, and we chatted about the isle and about the ladies and of many other things. And so we arrived, and my lady went to where she was accustomed to dwell and was received with joy, as a happy new arrival, pleasing to everybody.

At this point I woke and found my chamber full of smoke and my entire body wet with tears. I was so feeble I could scarcely rise, but I managed to find my way softly to a staircase and, not knowing where I was going, sought to explore for somewhere more comfortable. I climbed and found a room painted in an ancient style with old stories depicted on the walls, of huntsmen and of deer. Weak and confused, I lay down on a bed and all the events of my dream came back to me; every detail.

So it happened that happy day – or unhappy day, I know not which – that sleep transported me back again to the isle. I could see the ladies assembled on the green, and all were agreed and content that, as God had decreed, the knight who had accompanied the queen and my lady should be king over them. And it was also agreed that the ladies should be married. The knight would depart that same evening to fetch a host of his own people to the island; this was bindingly agreed, and a date for the weddings between his knights and the ladies was firmly set.

The knight, thus instructed, was taken to a boat where he took his leave beneath the setting sun. This boat was to convey his soul; it was steered by thought and was the same barge that the queen was accustomed to using. It needed neither mast nor rudder – I have not heard of its like before – it needed no crew and could sail any sea.

I went along with him, at his request. When we had passed over the water to his country, the people welcomed their lord joyously.

Forced to spend longer than he had hoped in his own land, the knight returns at last, with the poet and with sixty thousand other men. But when they arrive, they find the ladies all dead or dying. They have taken their own lives through fear of abandonment – through distress at the failure of the knight to return on time. The knight kills himself out of grief at this tragedy. The men he has brought along with him raise a shout of lamentation that startles all the animals of the island and has them running from the forest and valleys up into the mountains. The bodies are all taken up by his men and transported back to the knight's land.

They crossed the sea again and in new hearses took the bodies to a city where it was customary to bury kings. The corpses were laid in a nunnery where nightly vigils were kept to pray for the 'living'. Funeral orations were made, services held, and the bodies were laid out overnight so that prayers to the Holy Trinity might be said for their souls.

Morning came and a red sun rose into a crystal clear sky. A bird with blue and green plumage alighted upon the queen's hearse and sang unhindered for a while, until a sudden movement from a mourner caused it to fly up into a gap in a stained-glass window where it injured itself on some broken glass and fell dead onto a ledge. There it lay for an hour or more, until a small flock of birds alighted beside it and began to sing plaintively. One of them had in its beak a sprig of small leaves and it laid this green herb beside the head of the little corpse, arranging it carefully; then remained standing, mournfully, by the body. In less than half an hour the sprig began to bud, came out into a flower and went immediately to seed. One of the birds pecked at the seeds as though feeding, but instead, put one of the seeds into the lifeless beak. Almost at once, the dead bird came back to life, preened itself and they all flew off, singing happily together.

When they had gone, the abbess gathered all the seeds, the leaves and the stalk, and found them to have a good perfume but an unfamiliar nature, more virtuous than most; whoever might use it in his need, she surmised – flower, leaf or grain – would be certain of healing. She laid a grain upon the hearse, beside the queen, and everybody watched as it sprouted, flowered and then ran to seed. The abbess uncovered the face of the dead queen, and all the people wept afresh in remembrance. But choosing some of the best new seeds, the abbess placed them one by one in the mouth of the dead queen, and these grains soon showed their power for very shortly afterwards, with a smiling countenance, the queen lifted herself into a sitting position and rose to greet her people, as she was accustomed.

Then they turned their attention to the knight. The queen, who was by now fully recovered, asked for some grains to place in his mouth and within a short time he was alive and well. 'Thank you, doctor!' he laughed. The bells were rung, which brought everybody out onto the streets. Then the queen and the abbess made haste, and before very long all the ladies had been revived. Everyone had been brought back to life, to perfect joy, bursting with health, like folk who could not desire a more perfect Paradise.

Like folk who could not desire a more perfect Paradise! So once again, as in Chrétien de Troyes' Knight of the Cart, life after death, for the queen and her ladies, has brought them to a place where birds sing, bells are rung, and prayers are said 'for the living'. A real city in a real kingdom. If this city turned out to be Bath, we may not be wholly surprised.

It is important to look at the credentials of this poem. Are any of them demonstrably pagan or Celtic?

The dreamer in the poem is camped beside a well in a forest: – 'And in my thowghtes, as I laye, in a lodge out of the waye, beside a well in a foreste...' A well in Middle English is often a natural spring, a pool of spring water, welling up from the living rock, or even a lake, as in the 'grene welle' of Tarn Wathelene or Lake Wathelene, in Inglewood Forest in Cumbria, described in the late-fourteenth century Awntyrs off Arthur. From here 'by some curious means of conveyance' – or 'by some strange gateway', and through the agency of 'a good spirit' he is taken to a mysterious island. But does he really sleep? For he insists, 'what I dreamed, I truly imagined I saw and was not asleep.'

Encampment beside a spring or a lake in a forest is often the prelude to an Otherworldly adventure in the Irish Fenian cycle of legends. Fionn mac Cumhaill is camped beside a spring when three strange men who have recently been taken into his service travel into the future and retrieve some of his stolen property.

When Conn Crither was guarding a shoreline for Fionn and was attacked from the sea, three sisters appeared, urging him not to fear the swords of his foes because, as one of them explains: "We possess a spring on the lowest slopes of the Eagle's Mountain whose water will heal any battle wound. Anyone who bathes in this spring will come out of it as fit and as healthy as they were on the day they were born."

The day they were born!

A journey beneath water is a very common means of entry into the Otherworld in the Irish tales; an Otherworld that can also be reached through the side of a hill, or beneath a burial mound. In another story of Fionn, taken from the ancient Gaelic stories of Ireland, collected and retold by Lady Gregory in 1904, a thirsty Diarmuid (pronounced Dermot) encounters a well of spring water at which a warrior appears. Angry at the theft of his water, the warrior fights with Diarmuid until night falls, when he plunges into the pool and disappears beneath its surface. The same thing happens on the second evening and when the warrior leaps again into the pool after fighting for a third day, Diarmuid tries to stop him with a rugby tackle and is dragged down through its depths. At the bottom he finds himself in another land.

At first his adventures in this land bear similarities to some other journeys into the Otherworld we have encountered. Diarmuid is attacked by an army of warriors, but he overcomes them as a hawk would overcome a flock of little birds. And at another battle, his opponents make no better fight of it than a flock of birds. But soon the land takes on the appearance of the world of men, the world he has left behind. The King of Greece appears and Fionn and Diarmuid find themselves serving in opposing armies, after which they return to Ireland together.

In many Irish tales, a lake or a pool is a gateway to an Otherworld, and the Otherworld is the land of the dead. It is Virgil's Fields of Elysium. To plunge oneself down to the bottom of a lake is to enter the land of the dead – which, one has to admit, makes some sense. We will come across this again when we discover something of Sir Lancelot's childhood in the care of the Lady of the Lake in the next chapter.

Sir Gawain is camped beside a lake one night in the Middle English poem the Avowyng of Arthur which dates from the fifteenth century. It is a vigil that is intended to be a test of courage. Another poem from the English Gawain Cycle, the Awntyrs off Arthur (Adventures of Arthur), sees Guinevere ride with Sir Gawain, as we have seen, during a hunt beside the same lake, the Tarn Wathelene in Cumbria: 'All in glittering gold she glides gaily with Sir Gawain – bi the grene welle.' Beside the green lake. All of a sudden darkness descends and the ghost of Guinevere's mother appears before them.

Springs and lakes were often associated with sacred trees and groves, as we shall see when we plunge deeper ourselves into Arthurian literature. A sacred grove beside the mountain lake at Nemi, outside ancient Rome, was the abode of the goddess Diana.

Beneath the glassy surface of a lake, or the shaded stillness of a forest spring, lies the Celtic Otherworld. So the Isle of Ladies passes the first test. From his sleep beside a spring or a lake, the dreamer in this poem is transported to an Otherworld paradise, although it soon becomes a little sinister and he begins to fear for his life. The island paradise itself is made of glass or crystal, a material that we will encounter again when we look at a voyage around an enchanted sea made by Maeldun in an Irish tale found in the early-twelfth century Book of the Dun Cow, and in Geoffrey Chaucer's intriguing House of Fame, which lies in the upper realms of the heavens near the crystal spheres of classical and Medieval astronomy. But the dreamer's spirits are restored by the arrival of the queen and his lady, bearing three magic apples whose harvest every seven years is required to sustain the isle.

The 'vale of Avylyon', where King Arthur was taken to be healed of his wounds in Malory's account, is in Marie de France's Breton lai Lanval, 'Avalon, a beautiful island, as the Bretons tell us.' Collins English Dictionary defines 'Avalon' as 'an island paradise in the western seas' and derives it from the Old Welsh word 'Abellon': Apple. Perhaps the Isle of Ladies has some affinity with Avalon, considering the boatload of ladies who come to bring King Arthur away in their mysterious vessel to a place where he will be healed of his grievous wound.

Scandinavian mythology has it that the wife of Bragi, whose name was Idun, was the guardian of apples that had the property that they kept the gods from aging. They were apples of immortality. Once, according to the early-thirteenth century Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, these fruit were stolen by a giant and had to be quickly retrieved by the rapidly-ageing gods. A similar task of finding magic apples is given to the sons of Tuireann in an ancient Irish myth; apples that can heal any sickness. Even in Ancient Greek mythology, Heracles is sent on an eleventh Labour to fetch fruit from a golden apple tree growing in the garden of the Hesperides, in the far west of the world; apples that are jealously guarded by a creature placed there by the goddess Hera.

So the references in the poem to pagan Celtic motifs are mounting. A vigil beside a spring, pool or lake. A journey through or across water to an island of the hereafter. Apples.

Having witnessed the intrusion of the God of Love onto the Isle of Ladies, his successful coup d'etat, his leaving of scripture and representatives to administer it, and his subsequent abrupt departure, the poet travels back with his lady, 'saylinge thus, two dayes or thre,' over waves that are high and green, and 'large and depe betwene.' The voyage ends and she is received 'withe joyeux chere and hartes light, and as a glad newe aventure, pleasaunte to every creature.' Just like a new-born baby.

The poet, in contrast, appears to wake up on his funeral couch, or so it seems; the air is filled with smoke, perhaps from candles or incense-burners around his bed, and there are tears not only on his cheeks but on his body also: 'my chekes (cheeks) eke (also) unto the eares (ears) and all my body weate (wet) of teares.' Should one assume, tears from eyes other than his own?

Perhaps he has been killed in a hunting accident.

We have already seen how a journey by boat was undoubtedly an image of widespread occurrence in pagan Europe, denoting the journey of the soul after death. The boat that came for King Arthur is just one example. Given that Diana Nemetona, holding an apple bough in the ancient Gaul of the first few centuries AD would have been a Romanised Celtic goddess, an ancient Irish tale called the Voyage of Bran, involving a journey by boat, is particularly interesting: Bran mac Febal becomes enraptured by beautiful music that seems to be coming from a silver bough filled with white apple-blossom, white apple-blossom, that has mysteriously appeared outside his fortress (recalling a similar bough that Aeneas had to hold as his passport to the Otherworld where he saw the Trojan souls waiting to be reborn into the upper world again). Bran takes this wonderful bough past his gatekeepers and into the hall. A little while later, a woman appears without any warning or announcement, as if by magic, and sings to him. It is, she says, a branch from a distant land, from an apple tree on a distant isle, an ancient tree that grows in a land without pain, without illness, without sadness or disability. An island just like the Isle of Ladies. There are many plains and many islands, she says. One hundred and fifty islands across the sea, each larger than Ireland. Do not become lethargic or drown yourself in liquor, but journey across the sea to where you may chance upon the Land of Women.

So Bran embarks upon a voyage to the Land of Women. Soon, he sees a chariot coming towards him across the water. It is the god Manannan, whose land this is. "Bran sees the wide expanse of the sea," this god tells him, "although to me in this chariot it is a broad meadow upon which he moves, a plain of red-headed flowers, a forest with acorns and fruit. Along the topmost branches of this forest floats his coracle."

The journey of the soul is not a real journey by boat, then, but a drifting across oak woods and meadows filled with poppies. 'Let Bran row steadily onwards, for it is not far, now, to the Land of Women.'

Bran loses one of his companions at an Island of Joy but it is not long before he reaches his destination. In the Land of Women, Bran and his companions are led to a large building in which there is a double bed for each of them, and food and drink in plenty. But it seems as though only a year passes before homesickness strikes. The women warn that if Bran and his companions are genuinely intent upon returning to Ireland, they must none of them step onto the land when they arrive. So they sail back to Ireland. On the shore they find some people who ask who they are and Bran calls to them: "Bran mac Febal is my name!"

"You must be mistaken," comes the reply. "We don't know any living person of that name, although the story of his voyage is one of our ancient legends!" On hearing this, a man in the boat jumps ashore and immediately vanishes into a pile of dust, as though his body had been in the ground for centuries.

The story of Bran was translated from Old Irish into modern English by Kuno Meyer in 1890. Its full title is 'The Voyage of Bran, son of Febal, to the Land of the Living'. Perhaps the title 'The Voyage of Bran, son of Febal, to the Land of the Dead' would have missed the point that it is, indeed, as Lancelot may have found in Chrétien de Troyes' the Knight of the Cart, a land of the living.

In a similar tale, Ciabhan leaves Ireland from the 'Strand of the Cairn', or in other words, the Beach of the Burial Mound, leaving a sorrowful multitude behind, and he, too, meets Manannan riding across the waves. Ciabhan was beset by jealous husbands and lovers in Ireland who wanted to do away with him because of his effect on their sweethearts, and he left Ireland for good in a coracle from the Beach of the Burial Mound. Hints are piled upon hints, as in the Knight of the Cart. He has had to leave because he has received no protection. His departure is very sorrowful, for to see him go is like the extinguishing of life from the body.

While on the sea Ciabhan meets with Manannan. and just as in a Medieval legend of Saint Brendan, whose name the fourteenth century South English Legendary spells as 'Brandan', this guide and provider gives sustenance to the weary traveller. Manannan takes Ciabhan to the shore of the Land of Promise and from thence into his city, where he is entertained with meat, drink, and revelry.

A similar journey was made by Connla. He saw one day a woman wearing beautiful clothes coming towards him. A messenger from Manannan. Connla asked who she was, and she replied that, 'we are called the people of the Sidhe.' She asked him to come to Magh Mell with her, a magical plain in the Celtic Otherworld, but Connla's father instructed a druid to combat her charms and she vanished; but not before throwing an apple at Connla.

For a month, Connla took no nourishment except for this apple, and at the end of that month, the woman appeared again. Connla's father called for his druid once more, but this time he was not to hand. The woman wooed Connla. "It is time for you to enter my boat," she whispered. "Death is before Connla. There is another land that will do you no harm to sail towards, and although the sun is now low in the western sky, we will be there before nightfall. There is no one there but women and girls." And Connla leapt into the boat, and they sailed across the sea together. And they have never been seen since.

The boat in which the knight sails with the poet back to his own country in the Isle of Ladies is as mysterious as the boat which Bran sails over the trees and meadows of Ireland. It bears remarkable similarities, too, with the boat that Guigemar boarded in the Breton lai by Marie de France in which he arrives, badly wounded, at a harbour which should not be there, boards a boat made of ebony upon whose deck is a bed and at whose prow is a candelabra of lighted candles, and sails alone, guided by the boat itself, to a place where he is healed of his wound. The knight journeys in this way, of course, from the Isle of Ladies back to his own land; in just the same way that Guigemar boards the same boat that brought him to the lady's castle when her husband discovers him and sends him swiftly back to Ireland. This boat is used to ferry the soul in both directions.

Having exposed the Celtic credentials of this fifteenth century poem the Isle of Ladies, the climax of the tale is fully explicable. The scene in which the dead ladies and the knight are brought back to life by some seeds now makes complete sense. To return to the knight's land, the ladies have to die and be reborn. This explains the somewhat extravagant and unlikely suicide of the queen and all her ladies before the knight returns to the isle, only five days past his allotted time. The knight's men take the bodies back to their own land, and the knight's and the ladies' revival, by way of the seed from the mysterious plant, casts light upon Chaucer's ending in the Canterbury Tale of the Prioress. The little boy could not die until the seed had been taken from his mouth. As long as the seed was there, he could not die and be taken into a Christian heaven. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Chaucer chose, in his story, to have the seed removed by a clergyman.

But there is one final aspect of the Isle of Ladies that needs to be highlighted, and which bears great similarity to Chrétien de Troyes' Knight of the Cart. At the beginning of the poem, as we have seen, the Isle of Ladies is made of glass. Perhaps this is to do with the crystal spheres of the heavens, the classical Greek model of the universe that had found currency again in the late Middle Ages. Heaven lay beyond a region made of crystal, which is where we might expect an afterlife to have been situated. But when the knight returns to the island and kills himself through grief at the ladies' suicide, his men raise a shout that causes the animals to run 'fearing for their lives, from the woods onto the plain, and from the valleys into the high mountains, like beasts that had completely forgotten their true nature – And from the valles the highe mountayne they sowght, and rane as bestes blind, that clene forgetten had ther kynd.' Leaving aside the possibility that this may be the case because the souls of the ladies have been reborn into them, and we have here an alternative ending, the island itself has changed into a real island, with woods and plains and mountains. And the knight's men return to their own land with the suicide victims and bring them to a normal city in order that they might be resurrected. The geography has changed subtly, or perhaps not so subtly, from a dreamscape, or a metaphorical landscape, back into the real world, in the same way that the 'land from which no stranger returns' came, in the Knight of the Cart, to have its capital city at Bath.

On this note, perhaps now is the time to begin to look at evidence that will lead us into perhaps the more astonishing aspects of ancient belief that might be hinted at, and more than hinted at, in the tales that have come down to us from the Celtic past. There are many such tales, and they will lead us, in the next chapter, after a perusal of some purely Irish material, to the story of Lancelot, as told in the original Old French romance Lancelot, before it became caught up in the Cistercian quest for holy truth that became the early-thirteenth century Vulgate Cycle, or Lancelot-Grail Cycle. This pre-Cyclic Lancelot has much more in common with Chrétien de Troyes' work and contains an episode, in particular, that has parallels with an ancient Irish legend of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his two favourite hunting dogs, Bran and Sceolan.


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