Thursday, 9 June 2011

Woman is Hot Moon Gazing on Water

Hey, two entries in one week - whatever next. Lightning Tree is out by the way, and looking fine - please go direct to

Carrying swiftly on from the horse magic commentary i include something on a character called Condwiramurs. There will be bits and pieces below that may be hard to follow without knowing the story but i think the gist is there. On his travels (and letting horse take the reigns) Parzival comes to a castle besieged - inside it is this formidable women, who will be the love of his life. That's not a phrase you seem to hear much anymore, but in this case it's a fact.

I know god will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that he didn’t trust me so much
Mother Teresa

Soul seems given to retreat, wet feathers, far distant storms, is in love with elegant paintings in shadowed rooms, closing doors on busy parties, eats melancholy as a form of beauty, inward – Spirit far more linear, rousing, specific rather than associative, outward. However, on a direct, emotional level of the story Condwiramurs is showing plenty of spirit too, plenty of heat. No one is entirely one without the other. Rigid definitions of the two lead us straight back to the ego anyway. Although forced into a position of seeming retreat, it has occurred through her refusal to marry for anything but love, to remain resolute amongst pressure and expectation. To a contemporary mind this is admirable, to a 12th century mind it is extraordinary, indicative of an enormous change in cultural perception.

Many musicians, artists and writers have crossed that small bridge to the castle. It is the moment when sparks of talent, blown on by the rigours of repetitive practice, open finally to the great oceans of sound and brilliance we find in Shakespeare, Delius and O’Keefe. It is no coincidence that the castle is found next to the vast open sea. In Russian fairy tales it can be a moment when a young man following a thread lain by a Firebird throughout his life, has to call on briny powers of the sea to search its depths to find the wedding dress of a formidable princess. It is a moment late in Yeats life when all the extraordinary lyricism of his early work slows into a simpler cadence, but with words that are a thousand miles deep.

So when we meet the Maiden of the Castle, the ‘Guide to Love’, our story implies that she calls us to activity, to prove ourselves. They said in medieval times that it was appropriate to only be romantically involved with a man that had proved himself in battle three times. They also say it kept the men active and the women chaste! So what in us has to be defeated? We have examined erotic lethargy for one, but what about a life entranced only to wealth, status, or political expediency? Our own imaginations can fill that out tenfold. But there is cost and there is risk involved in getting near the Maiden of the Castle.

Thinking of Maidens of the Castle, woman holding a clear value structure quite independent of external pressure we could mention Simone De Beauvoir, Catherine the Great, Juana Ines de la Cruz, Eleanor of Aquitane, Emily Dickinson, Rosa Parks, Emmeline Parkhurst, Maria Montessori. These women are great columns of energy radiating sideways into culture. Without Joan of Arc following the source of this energy through celestial voices and then leading France to victory, then King Charles VII would never have lain his recumbent arse on the throne. I think of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who, as young women threw herself into the horrific aftermath of world war two by helping not only concentration camp victims but Germans piece together a new for themselves, and go onto write the seminal “On Death and Dying”, or the Empress Theodora, labouring with heart and soul to make Constantinople a city of elegance and women’s rights – closing down forced prostitution and engendering equality for women in the divorce courts. These are real women, sweat and blood, conflicted, brilliant, not caught in the stained glass of a troubadours adoration or the dismissal of the secular.

In the 14th century, Padmini, the princess of Chittor, lead her courtly ladies to suicide rather than surrender to the king of Delhi. Two hundred years later Chittor was besieged again, this time to the Mughal emperor Akbar. Hugely outnumbered, the men surged out of the castle to certain death, whilst again the noble women took their own lives by leaping onto a fire rather than submit. The most renowned of all is the Rani of Jhansi, a 19th century freedom fighter. As a child she studied archery, self-defence and horsemanship. When her husband died and the British announced their intention to dissolve the state and deny her sons right to inherit, she threw herself in with the resistance. She became a terrifying but beautiful figurehead for the movement. She led from the front and women started to join up as warriors. When finally outnumbered by the British, she, in keeping with her sisters in history, refused entirely to surrender and died on the ramparts of a fort near Gwalior. The British were forced to remark on her as “remarkable for her beauty, cleverness and persistence.”

There is nothing passive about Condwiramurs. She has a hand in the soil as well as the stars. She is more than a vehicle for heavenly devotions, she’s right in and amongst it, thrashing out the kind of life that she actually wants to live. She is also smart enough to reach into that part of herself that is ready to go out and take on her enemies in combat, an energy that in this story is called Parzival. We remember in the old Norwegian fairy tale ‘Valemon and the Wild Third Daughter’, the third daughter depends on the masculine strength of the Bear to break from her parents castle, but later in the story his life is saved by the feminine strength she provides to break him from enchantment. All of this is going on inside us all the time.

One of the most magical images from a true ‘Maiden of the Castle’ is from ‘The Handless Maiden’

The young woman’s father, a struggling miller, makes an ill informed deal with a predatory spirit over his daughters soul. When the Dark Man comes to collect, the young woman puts on a white dress and surrounds herself in a circle of white chalk. He can’t get near here. Next time round, the chalk and dress is refused her, and she grows filthy, defiled by the dirt of the world. But as he approaches she begins to weep – the kind of tears you or I weep probably only a few times in our whole lifetime. A grief comes out that seems to connect us to the grief of the oceans, the moon, the tides and the private sadness of the owl. The tears are leaping spirits of protection that clean her body as they course down it, and again the predator is foiled, her grief is such he can’t get near here.

This business of a predatory spirit in the psyche is not to be underestimated, that as we have already seen, is in the task of denying life, growth, the unruly festoons of brilliance that emerge from these castle maidens. Both women seen to have access to a vast reserve of feminine strength that is connected to ritual practices undergone thousands of years before they were born. As mythic beings they see the pinpricks of the eternal everywhere, and with this in mind, they show us how to behave. How can the maiden know of the chalk and the dress and the tears, where can that come from but some deep place unbidded?

To be near the Guide to Love is also to commit to a courtship rather than instant gratification. Remember the three nights together before consummation? There is an ancient idea that within you lives an ecstatic man or woman, and to wake them (and in doing so open those imaginative tracks to the God’s and Goddess’s of romantic and erotic love) requires certain internal energies to rise up and mingle with each other before our physical bodies do. This way the myth-world that stands behind you and the myth-world that stands behind your beloved get a chance to get a good look at each other before jumping into the realm of earthly delights. A particular alignment takes place. It creates a room for imagination, for speculation, for longing and desire. This mirrors the very beginning of our story, with Herzaloyde gazing out from her tower.

We recall in the Siberian story of ‘The Deer Maiden’, the moon himself falls in love with a ‘far distant lady’ who tends her fathers herd of reindeer out on the tundra. An elaborate dance occurs between the two of them until finally the moon gifts the young women twelve different names for its phases, names that inform and edify the tribe that she comes from. Had he just swooped down and whisked her off none of those names would have been revealed – there would have been no gift. Ecstatic and soulful art is created from the burning ground of the courtship.

Longing is placing emphasis on time and waiting. In my work as a wilderness rites-of-passage guide longing carries us both towards the initiatory mountain and sustains us on the return. Its very intangibility is a kind of preservative. A preservative in the sense that it stays, slightly from our view, it quickens our arts, sharpens our eye, but stays just beyond our grasp. The many images of pursuit of a white deer in myth are illustration of this very engagement - the ‘questing beast’ of the forests of Camelot. In the Arthurian stories, Camelot, an image of order, society and chivalry, always has an eye for what lies beyond its grasp - that could be the ‘Lady of the Fountain’, or a hundred different quests. There is an understanding that we need to range out past familial borders. Of course, the deepest understanding is that the ‘Lady of the Fountain’ - the source of bountiful renewal lives inside us - but that complex inner journey is mapped out through the outer tapestry of the stories. The detail of Condwiramurs wearing her hair up even though the marriage is not yet consummated is very lovely. It deflects the eyes of the world whilst the inner-marriage prepares itself. Like Campbell’s suggestion “be a tiger disguised as a goat!”, it has some privacy to it.

Martin Shaw copyright 2011

1 comment:

Barbara Spring said...

Thanks again for these marvelous stories. They are as true today as they ever were.