Friday 28 October 2011

Mystical Voyages (7) Bran and Maeldune

The Irish hero Bran’s Mystical Voyage begins when, after being lulled to sleep by the magical music of a silver branch with white apple-blossoms, he meets a woman who invites him to seek the wonders of the Emain Ablach or ‘Isle of Women’, where there is peace and plenty and no one is ever sick or dies.  Bran sets out after her with twenty-seven companions and three curraghs – nine men in each boat.  After sailing for two days he is encouraged by meeting Mannanan Mac Lir, god of the sea, driving his golden chariot over the sea, who tells Bran he should reach the Isle of Women by sunset.  First however they come across an island on which everyone is laughing, and when Bran sends one of his men to investigate, he begins laughing too, and will not return to the boats. (Is this reminiscent of the Odyssey's Land of the Lotus Eaters?) They are forced to leave him there, and sail away.

Arriving at the Isle of Women, Bran’s boat is drawn into port by a ball of magical thread which the queen tosses to him.  Each of the men is paired with a beautiful woman, Bran sharing the bed of the queen, and they remain there happily, unaware of how much time is passing in the real world, until Nechtan son of Collbran becomes homesick and Bran decides to return home.  The queen warns against it, and especially against setting foot on land, but Bran insists – but when they sight Ireland, so many years have passed that Bran’s name is only an ancient legend, and when Nechtan leaps out of the curragh, he crumbles to dust. (Just the same fate befalls one of Oisin's companions in the legend of Oisin and the fairy woman Niamh.)  At the sight, Bran and his companions sail away, never to be seen in Ireland again. 

The hero Maeldune also discovers these same two islands which Bran found, but his is a longer voyage and a happier homecoming.  Setting out to avenge the killing of his father Ailill, his journey is extended because he fails to follow the advice of a druid to take only seventeen men with him.  His three foster brothers swim after the ship, and Maeldune picks them up – but one by one loses them as they visit or pass thirty or so marvellous islands and a variety of other wonders.  At last Maeldune receives the advice of a hermit that he will only be able to return home safely once he has forgiven his father’s murderer.  Maeldune does so and makes a safe landfall. 

Along the way Maeldune and his companions see such wonders as the Isle of Ants ‘every one of them the size of a foal’; an Island of Birds; an island where demon riders run a giant horse race; an island of a miraculous apple tree whose fruit satisfy the whole crew for ‘forty nights’; an island where a mysterious beast turns itself around and around inside its skin (and hurls stones at the voyagers); an island of fiery pigs, an island of a little cat;  a ‘four-fenced’ island divided into quarters for kings, queens, fighting men and young girls respectively; an island where giant smiths strike away on anvils and hurl a huge lump of red-hot iron after the boat (surely a volcanic eruption?) so that ‘the whole of the sea boiled up’.

The Very Clear Sea
They went on after that till they came to a sea that was like glass, and so clear it was that the gravel and the sand of the sea could be seen through it, and they saw no beasts or monsters at all among the rocks, but only the clean gravel and the grey sand.  And through a great part of the day they were going over that sea, and it is very grand it was and beautiful.

Surely this influenced C.S. Lewis’s ‘Silver Sea’! ('How beautifully clear the water is' said Lucy to herself as she leaned over the port side early in the afternoon...'I must be seeing the bottom of the sea; fathoms and fathoms down.'  Although Lewis soon fills his clear sea with the Sea People and their castle, as shown in this lovely illustration by Pauline Baynes.)   

Maeldune soon comes across another marvel: one of my favourites:

The Silver-Meshed Net
They went on then till they found a great silver pillar; four sides it had, and the width of each of the sides was two strokes of an oar; and there was not one sod of earth about it, but only the endless ocean; and they could not see what way it was below, and they could not see what way the top of it was because of its height. There was a silver net from the top of it that spread out a long way on every side, and the curragh went under sail through a mesh of that net.

Diuran, one of Maeldune’s companions, strikes the net with his spear to obtain a piece:

“Do not destroy the net,” said Maeldune, “for we are looking at the work of great men.”  “It is for the praise of God’s name I am doing it,” said Diuran, “The way my story will be better believed; and it is to the altar of Ardmacha I will give this mesh of the net if I get back to Ireland.” Two ounces and a half now was the weight when it was measured after in Ardmacha.  They heard then a voice from the top of the pillar very loud and clear, but they did not know in what strange language it was speaking or what word it said.

I love the way these voyage tales don’t try to explain anything: they simply delight in the marvellous inventions (of the poet, or of God) and convey a sense of great wonder at the things men find when they set out upon the illimitable sea.

All quotatations are from Lady Gregory's translations of the voyages in her 'Book of Saints and Wonders'

Picture credits:  illustration from 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' by Pauline Baynes
Bran meets Manannan Mac Llyr : 'The Voyage of Bran': Tapestry by Terry the Weaver/Terry Dunn, 1996

Friday 21 October 2011

Mystical Voyages (6) Arthur's Voyage to the Underworld

Perhaps you don't tend to think of Arthur as a voyager?  Bear with me, and I'll explain.

Some of the earliest mentions of Arthur come from ninth or tenth century Welsh literature – just glancing references, as if to someone already well-known. The earliest of all may be a couple of lines from the poem Y Gododdin, in which another warrior is compared with Arthur:

He fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress,
Though he was no Arthur.

This makes sense if the historical Arthur really was a fourth or fifth century British war leader fighting the Saxon invaders: his name perhaps a nickname or pseudonym: ‘the Bear’, suitable for a fighter who may have wished to maintain an air of terrifying mystery. Whoever the historical Arthur may have been, his name soon became associated with all kinds of older legends connected with supernatural figures from Celtic mythology, and such stories continued to be told about him in all parts of Celtic – that is British – Britain, and in Brittany, the region of France to which many British Celts migrated after the fall of Roman Britain.

Even in Sir Thomas Malory’s late 15th century ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’, with its many courtly French additions and sources, plenty of Welsh and Celtic personages and motifs remain: the most obvious is Merlin himself, and the Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur his sword Excalibur, and then there's Arthur’s shadowy relationship with his half-sisters, Morgause the mother of their son Mordred, and Morgan le Fay – Morgan the enchantress, whose name chimes with that of the Morrigan (‘great queen’ or ‘phantom queen’), the Irish Celtic goddess of battle and fertility. At any rate, Morgan is one of the queens who carry the wounded king away to the Isle of Avalon after the battle of Camlann.

And when they were at the water side, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen, and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur.

…‘Comfort thyself,’ said the king, ‘…for in me is no trust for to trust in, for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound, and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.’

But ever the queen and ladies shrieked, that it was pity to hear.

The shrieking and keening women, companions of a powerful sorceress, the ship that carries the heroic king away to the island of the dead, the island of apples – seems familiar, doesn’t it?

At any rate, there is an earlier – and highly cryptic – account of a voyage by Arthur to the Underworld. It’s the marvellous Welsh poem Prieddeu Annwfn, preserved in the single 14th century manuscript of The Book of Taliesin, but dated (cautiously) by internal linguistic evidence to around 900 AD. Here’s a link to the poem, with notes. It's an account of a raid led by Arthur, in his ship Prydwen, on Annwn, the Welsh underworld.

Annwn is described by a number of different epithets. No one has a clue if these are simply varying descriptions/manifestations of the same place, or intended for different locations which Arthur and his men encounter along their way. It may not matter much, but in the context of the Mystical Voyages I’ve been thinking about so far in this series, the latter fits in well with the island-hopping itinerary of heroes in ships gradually approaching their destination through a transformed and numinous sea-scape.

The poem tells how Arthur and his men travel to Caer Sidi, ‘The Mound Fortress’; Caer Pedryuan, ‘the Four-Peaked Fortress’ – also described as Ynis Pybyrdor, ‘isle of the strong door’. They travel to Caer Vedwit, ‘the Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness’, Caer Rigor, ‘Fortress of Hardness’, Caer Wydyr, ‘Glass Fortress’, Caer Golud, ‘Fortress in the Bowels [of the Earth?]’, Caer Vandwy, ‘Fortress of God’s Peak’, and Caer Ochren, ‘Enclosed Fortress’.  Alan Garner used some of these names in his book Elidor, which references the poem in other ways.

The aim of the expedition was to bring back a cauldron from the lord of Annwn.  We're not thinking blackened kitchen pots here: we're thinking inspirational, magical, perhaps sacred items like the 1st century BC Gundestrop cauldron, above.  One of the many scenes on its sides depicts a pony-tailed warrior dipping a man into another such cauldron headfirst, probably to restore him to life:

In my personal favourite among Alan Garner's books, 'Elidor', the children bring four treasures out of the Mound of Vandwy. corresponding to the Four Treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan:  a spear, a sword, a stone and a bowl: 'a cauldron, with pearls above the rim.  And as she walked, light splashed and ran through her fingers like water'. Taken into the workaday world of 1960's Manchester, however, the objects change appearance, and Helen finds she is carrying only 'an old cracked cup, with a beaded pattern moulded on the rim.' Once these treasures have been buried in the garden for safekeeping, however, all kinds of strange disturbances begin to occur, culminating in the eruption of the unicorn Findhorn onto the city streets.

Here’s the second stanza of the Prieddeu Annwfn:

I am honoured in praise. Song was heard
In the Four-Peaked Fortress, four times revolving.
My poetry, from the cauldron it was uttered.
By the breath of nine maidens it was kindled.
The cauldron of the chief of Annwfn: what its fashion?
A dark ridge around its border, and pearls.
It does not boil the food of a coward...

And before the door of hell lamps burned.
And when we went with Arthur in his splendid labour,
Except seven, none rose up from Caer Vedwit.

Most of the eight stanzas end with a variation on the recurrent line: ‘Except seven, none returned’: by ordinary standards the expedition appears to have been disastrous, but this is no ordinary poem. Fateful and gloomy, mysterious as Arthur himself, all we can gather from it is some sense of a venture, by ship, by sea, into the Otherworld, and - perhaps – a description of a mound or island where a youth, Gweir, is imprisoned, lapped with a heavy blue-grey chain. Of a four-peaked fortress with a strong door, guarding a cauldron full of the magical life-giving mead of poetry, warmed by the breath of ‘nine maidens’. And of a fortress of glass with six thousand men lining the walls (‘it was difficult to speak with their sentinel’).

In the medieval story of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion, Arthur sails to Ireland in his ship Prydwen to steal the cauldron of Diwwnach Wyddel: not just any old cauldron either, for it’s also listed in ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ as the cauldron of Dyrnwich the Giant, which will not boil the food of a coward. Clearly the same cauldron as that which Arthur went to find in Annwn, and doubtless the same also as the Irish Cauldron of the Dagda, from which 'no man ever went away unsatisfied'. 

How old is this legend of magical, life-giving cauldrons?  As old as Medea's?  Is hers' the ultimate origin of the witches' cauldron that we find in 'Macbeth'?  Who knows?  Lastly, also in the Mabinogion, the Welsh hero Bran is the keeper of yet another magical cauldron which restores the dead to life. And he too is the subject of a Mystical Voyage. More about him and some other Celtic voyagers next week!

Picture credits:
The Death of Arthur by James Archer, 1823-1902
The Death of Arthur by Katharine Cameron
The Gundestrop Cauldron
Detail from the Gundestrop Cauldron
Illustration by Charles Keeping from 'Elidor' by Alan Garner

Friday 14 October 2011

Mystical Voyages (5) Jason and the Argonauts

Although I said that the Odyssey was the grand-daddy of voyage stories, perhaps I was rash, for the story of Jason and the Argonauts is just as old and maybe even older. We know this because Homer clearly expected his audience would be familiar with it. In Book 12 of the Odyssey, when Circe is advising Odysseus and his men how to avoid the Clashing Rocks, she says:

…against them
crashes the heavy swell of dark-eyed Amphitrite…
That way the only sea-going ship to get through was the Argo,
who is in all men’s minds, on her way home from Aeetes;
and even she would have been driven on the great rocks that time,
but Hera saw her through, out of her great love for Jason.  

But the only full remaining account of Jason’s adventures is the ‘Argonautika’ by Apollonius of Rhodes, written in the mid 3rd century BC and clearly a ‘literary’ achievement, while the Odyssey, like the Iliad, dates from the late 8th century BC - so I tend to think of Jason as coming later. (Add the fact that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey refer to events of the Bronze Age in the early 12th century BC, and I don’t know about you, but I begin to feel giddy with all this gazing into the dark backward and abysm of time.)

I rather like the story that Apollonius wrote the first draft of the Argonautika as a very young man, and it got terrible reviews.   Undeterred, he moved from Alexandria to Rhodes, rewrote the poem, and finally published it to great critical acclaim - a story which demonstrates the importance of resilience (and revision) for writers of all eras! 

Anyway, as everyone knows, the Argo was built to carry Jason and his band of fifty heroes (including Hercules, Hylas, Orpheus, and the twins Castor and Pollux) all the way from Thessaly to Colchis, Georgia, in search of the Golden Fleece.  Argo herself was a prophetic ship with her own voice, for a beam of the sacred oak of the oracle of Zeus at Dodona had been built into her.

Jason wept as he turned his eyes away from the land of his birth.  But the rest struck the rough sea with their oars in time with Orpheus’ lyre, like young men bringing down their quick feet on the earth in unison with one another and the lyre, as they dance for Apollo round his altar at Pytho… On either side the dark salt water broke into foam, seething angrily in answer to the strong men’s strokes.  The armour on the moving ship glittered in the sunshine like fire, and all the time she was followed by a long white wake which stood out like a path across a green plain.

Can’t you just smell the salt? I love this vigorous, stirring passage. It’s so clearly an account by someone who has often seen these very things.

As in all these mystical voyages, the Argo island-hops to her destination – reflecting the real-life practice of ancient ships which rarely spent long out of sight of land.  The heroes head first for Lemnos in the Northern Aegean, where the women of the island have recently murdered all their menfolk and greet the Argonauts as useful breeding partners to repopulate the island. From thence the Argo passes the Hellespont and heads into the Sea of Marmara, making landfall at Cius in Bythynia (northwest Turkey) where Hercules’ companion, the youth Hylas, is drowned by a nymph as he goes to fetch water:

The naiad of the spring was just emerging as Hylas drew near.  And there, with the full moon shining on him from a clear sky, she saw him in all his radiant beauty and alluring grace.  Her heart was flooded by desire… Hylas now leant over to one side to dip his ewer in, and as soon as the water was gurgling loudly round the ringing bronze she threw her left arm round his neck in her eagerness to kiss his gentle lips.  Then with her right hand she drew his elbow down and plunged him in midstream.

Terribly upset, Hercules abandons ship at this point and the Argo sails on without him.  At the Bosphorus, the Argo encounters the Harpies and the Clashing Rocks till, finally arriving at Colchis, Jason wins the Golden Fleece with the aid of the witch princess Medea.  Jason’s protectresses, the goddesses Hera and Athene, bribe little Eros to shoot one of his arrows at Medea, ensuring she falls in love with their protégé. In the charming passage where they beg Eros’ mother Aphrodite to assist them, she responds:

“He is far more likely to obey you than me. There is no reverence in him, but faced by you he might display some spark of decent feeling.  He certainly pays no attention to me… I am so worn out by his naughtiness I have half a mind to break his bow and wicked arrows in his very sight, remembering how he threatened me with them in one of his moods. He said, ‘If you don’t keep your hands off me while I can still control my temper, you can blame yourself for the consequences." Hera and Athene smiled at this and exchanged glances.

Transfixed by Eros’ arrow, Medea has no choice.  She falls in love and shows Jason how to pass (and survive) the three tests set by her father King Aeetes: to harness bulls with bronze hooves, to plough the field of the war god Ares, and to sow the dragons’ teeth which turn into an army of warriors.  Finally, as King Aeetes still refuses to part with the Fleece, Medea uses her herbal skills to put to sleep the dragon which guards the Fleece.

It seems likely the legend of the Fleece itself sprang from the ancient Georgian practice of  using sheep fleeces submerged in running streams to collect particles of gold, and this may be reflected in a sentence from one of Pindar’s odes which describes ‘the fleece, glowing with matted skeins of gold’ (trans: Nigel Nicolson). But in the Argonautika it takes on a much more magical appearance:

Lord Jason held up the great fleece in his arms.  The shimmering wool threw a fiery glow on his fair cheeks and forehead and he rejoiced in it, glad as a girl who catches on her silken gown the lovely light of the full moon as it climbs the sky and looks into her attic room.  …The very ground before him as he walked was bright with gold.

Jason and Medea escape together on the Argo, and eventually return to Thessaly, avoiding the Sirens and helped through the Clashing Rocks by sea nymphs who:

… holding their skirts up over their white knees, began to run along on top of the reefs and breaking waves, following each other on either side of the ship.  Argo, caught in the current, was tossed to right and left… but the Nereids, passing the ship from hand to hand and side to side, kept her scudding through the air on top of the waves.  It was like the game which young girls play beside a sandy beach, when they roll their skirts up to their waists on either side and toss a ball round to each other, throwing it high in the air so that it never touches the ground.

Isn’t that lovely?  Old as the story of Jason may be, this later telling of Apollonius often feels light, sophisticated and playful.  But the voyage across the sea to Colchis, and the journey into the sacred, dragon-or-serpent-guarded grove has a resonance that has lasted down the ages.  And Medea is Circe’s niece, a priestess of Hecate, goddess of childbirth, death, necromancy, doorways and crossroads, magic, torches and dogs.  In keeping with this, Medea is an often ruthless figure of great power, who near the end of the Argonautika calls on the spirits of death, the hounds of Hades, to slay the bronze giant Talos.  In other versions of her legend, she is the owner of a magical cauldron which can restore life to the dead (something which will turn up in Celtic mythology too: see next week's post).  She poisons her rivals and murders her own children.  The voyage of Jason to the land of the Golden Fleece and his meeting with Medea, giver of life and death, seems to suggest that his too is an Otherworld journey.

The quotation from the Odyssey in this post is from the translation by Richmond Lattimore, Harper Torchbooks, 1965
The quotations from the Argonautika are from the Penguin translation by E.V. Rieu

Picture credits:  The Argo and Argonauts - red-figure Greek vase
Building of the Argo - William Russell Flint
Hylas and the Nymphs - John Waterhouse
Jason and the Golden Fleece - Apulian red-figure krater
Naiads Playing - Arnold Böcklin

Monday 10 October 2011

Mystical Voyages (4) The Sirens

The sirens were originally young girls, the friends of Persephone, who were changed into birds with girls' faces after she was abducted by Hades.  Of course, this means they are the companions of the powerful goddess of death, and their irresistable song will take your spirit into the Otherworld (while your body lies lies rotting in their meadow full of bones).

So this quick post is another poem. This is one of mine: and it's the only poem I ever wrote which - rather than being consciously composed - seemed to come to me through the ether, as though I were listening to a very faint voice on a distant radio and trying to make out the words.

It's also from a long time ago, when I was having an internal discussion with myself about whether I should be writing fantasy... (Was fantasy 'serious'?  Wasn't it rather frivolous - derivative - escapist? Was it something that leached energy from reality, rather than enhancing it? I wanted to write fantasy, but I worried about it.)

Then this poem arrived and informed me direct from the muse that it didn't matter whether I worried or not.  I have no choice about it.  I write what I am compelled to write, and there really is no escape... 

If you try to jump ship, you merely drown.


'Come here, young man,' the siren sings
from her unfaithful rock.
The knowledgeable dreamer
closes his crew's ears to the ringing sound,

but, all the summer, hears across the water
the cheated music slide
after his ship: 'Come back...'
There is no escaping from the experience.

Presently he approaches the cave-riddled land
of Giant One-Eye,
whose log-wide gaze
the dreamer is, of course, clever enough to burn out

but cannot help his friends, being No Body.
They were dreams, anyway.
With inevitable luck,
the boulder smashing into the sea misses him -

and so it goes on.  On Circe's smoke-wrapped island
he is protected
by a magic herb,
but is permanently changed, unlike his comrades:

she saved her subtler incantations for him.
And so, on waking -
having reached home safely -
he finds that he is still a prisoner,

and all his clever tricks of touching wood,
crossing his fingers, tongue in
cheek during promises,
never fooled or hindered anyone at all.

At home now in the factual world he finds
his dream unbreakable.
'Come here, young man.  Come here,
sailor, bold sailor,' impossible voices call.

Copyright Katherine Langrish 2011
Picture credits: Odysseus and the Sirens, British Museum vase

Friday 7 October 2011

Mystical Voyages (3) The Old Ships

A couple of quick ones this week. Two poems, in fact. Here's the first, and the second will be up just after the weekend. 

I remember coming across this poem in a school anthology, and it's stayed with me ever since.  You probably know it too, but it's well worth reading again.  It references not only the tale of Odysseus, but a story about Dionysos, god of wine and ecstasy.  Once, sitting on the seashore in the form of a beautiful youth, he was kidnapped by sailors who dragged him on board their ship, intending to sail away and sell him into slavery.  This turned out to be an extremely bad move - never kidnap gods! - for as they raised the sail, Dionysos caused vines to spring up all over the ship, twining up the mast and tangling the oars so that they could not move.  Then he turned himself into a fierce lion and killed everyone on board, except for the helmsman who had pleaded for him, and those terrified sailors who had jumped into the sea, whom he transformed into dolphins. The story is depicted above by the painter Exekias in black-figure on the interior of a kylix, a shallow two-handled bowl for drinking wine.

'The Old Ships' by James Elroy Flecker
I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep
Beyond the village which men still call Tyre,
With leaden age o'ercargoed, dipping deep
For Famagusta and the hidden sun 
That rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire; 
And all those ships were certainly so old -
Who knows how oft with squat and noisy gun,
Questing brown slaves or Syrian oranges,
The pirate Genoese
Hell-raked them till they rolled
Blood, water, fruit and corpses up the hold. 
But now through friendly seas they softly run,
Painted the mid-sea blue or shore-sea green,
Still patterned with the vine and grapes in gold. 

But I have seen,
Pointing her shapely shadows from the dawn
And image tumbled on a rose-swept bay,
A drowsy ship of some yet older day;
And, wonder's breath indrawn,
Thought I -  who knows - who knows - but in that same
(Fished up beyond Aeaea, patched up new - 
Stern painted brighter blue -)
That talkative, bald-headed seaman came
(Twelve patient comrades sweating at the oar)
From Troy's doom-crimson shore,
And with great lies about his wooden horse
Set the crew laughing, and forgot his course. 

It was so old a ship - who knows, who knows?
- And yet so beautiful, I watched in vain
To see the mast burst open with a rose,
And the whole deck put on its leaves again.