Rowan is the tree of quickening and of divination.
Rowan is a small deciduous tree, found high up in the mountains, sometimes called “The Lady of the Mountain”. The Rowan tree, also known as “quicken” and Mountain Ash in the Welsh Marches where I live, is a well-known magical tree. Quickbeam is the its name in the countryside, it’s called the Quicken Tree, the Quickbeam (meaning ‘living wood’) the Witch Tree. Remember Quickbeam, the Ent, in LOTR ?
A member of the Rose family, Rowan is related to Rose, Apple, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, and Cherry, and grows no higher than 30-40 feet. It can live up to two hundred years. The leaves grow in pairs and are long and slender. In May, Rowan blossoms into clusters of little creamy white flowers. The tree berries in autumn with a bright red fruit beloved by birds.
The Rowan berry is bitter, but when mixed with sugar or other sweet fruits, is excellent in pies, jelly or jam. Rowan berries are also made into juice and wine. The berries provide vitamins A and C, carotene, pectin and essential oil, and stimulate the immune system. Medicinally, Rowan berries are a laxative, and can also be used for sore throats, inflamed tonsils, hoarseness, even diarrhoea. A decoction from the bark is used as an astringent.
The berries were commonly used to flavour ale in an old Welsh recipe and were used as a coffee substitute. This fruit can also be fed to wild birds, to flavour liqueurs and cordials and can be made into jam.
It’s possible the word “Rowan” comes from the Norse word rune, meaning charm or secret. The Sanskrit word runa means magician, but it may also be from the Gaelic rudha-an, meaning “the red one”. Rune staves were often cut from the rowan tree which gives a leaning towards the Norse … but most likely all three explanations are valid. Its Celtic name is “Luis”, (pronounced ‘loosh’).
Rowan is a gateway tree.
The Celtic shaman’s Silver Branch, calling Spirit, opening the gates between worlds to enable divination, is often made from rowan.
It is burnt for to invoke spirits for divination, bringing inspiration. Rowan is one of the nine sacred woods burnt in the Beltane fire as it is the tree of dragons, guarded by dragons. Walking sticks made of rowan will guide you through the Wild Wood and the Enchanted Forest.
Rowan is one of the trees associated with the goddess Brighid, Smith/Healer/Poet. She is also the spinner and weaver of the Threads, the Wyrd of the World. Spindles and spinning wheels were traditionally made of Rowan. It’s also called the Wicken Tree and used for divining – one of Brighid’s skills through her Thread-weaving and kenning of the Wyrd.
In Scotland, Rowan trees were sometimes planted near stone circles and said to be especially powerful. The Faer hold their celebrations in stone circles guarded by Rowan trees. Rowan twigs placed above doorways and barns protect against bad luck and the tree is used for protection.
Rowan is a part of the fuel for burning the dead, symbolising death and rebirth. In Celtic lands red food is food of the dead. As a quickening tree rowan works in both directions, opens the gateway between Thisworld and Otherworld for both death and birth … death to Thisworld is birth into Otherworld and vice versa. It also opens the gateway for the shaman to journey between the worlds to bring back the kenning that their folk need.
In traditional Celtic divination ritual its round wattles, spread with bull’s hides, were used to call difficult spirits to answer, hence the Irish saying to “go on the wattles of knowledge” meaning to do your utmost to find the answer, get information. Thickets of rowan are often found in places used for oracular work, e.g. the Baltic Amber Isles.
Working with Rowan
Divination is a charismatic word, full of glamour, seductive … how many of us can truthfully put our hands up and say we’ve never been for a reading? Mostly we want difficult questions answered. Such answers mean we can shift responsibility for the outcomes from ourselves by saying we were following the reading … “only following orders” – now where have I heard that before?
Divination is often associated with clairvoyance. The word comes from the French, meaning clear vision. Many ancient Celtic wells and springs offered clearing the sight, while this can well mean clearing cataracts it likely refers to seeing across worlds, to divination, to clairvoyance. Water was fundamental to the Celtic tradition, the lifeblood of the Mother, the silver threads of life-energy that run throughout the body of the Earth carrying the knowing, kenning, of Life as well as the stuff without which we cannot live.
Rowan will help you.
In order to be clairvoyant, to divine, one must know oneself, be true and honest to and about oneself, this is not easy! Rowan can hold the gateway for you to see yourself as others see you and to know yourself as you truly are. Often these are not the same, nor should they be. All of us wear another skin – as in the bull-dreaming divination – but it is vital for each of us to know when we are wearing the bull’s skin and when our own. It is this confusion combined with the wish to look good in the eyes of others that disables clear-seeing, clairvoyance. While we are inveigled by our needs to look good nothing will appear as it truly is.
Spend time sitting with these words …
Clear Distinct Sharp
Vision Idea Revelation Concept Foresight Prediction Sight Ability to see
Divine Discover Guess Presume Discern Perceive
Thread Fibre Gist Storyline Theme Plot Idea
You’ll find working with these words, ideas, will draw out your own concepts, take your ideas out of the box. Coming out of the box is going through a gate, crossing, walking between worlds … this is the beginning of seeing clearly.
Be assured that this journey will be difficult. We are all accustomed to the sway things are and wish to assume that they will be this way always … of course, they won’t. but take rowan, and take courage, walk into the darkness to find the light.
While there are plenty of ‘regular’ ways of doing the festive period, there’s no reason why we can’t invent new traditions. Here’s a few I especially like.
The Christmas Eve muster. This was a feature of my teenage, and hosted by a friend, who would round up lots of people for a big present exchange. A good evening with friends, a dash of alcohol, plenty of chocolate and much merriment, to be followed by walking home late at night. Being teens, gifts were far more about cunning and insight than about spending lots of money, and I loved that about it.
The Christmas Pie. I grew up vegetarian, back when that wasn’t at all fashionable. “But what do you have on Christmas day?” was a question that came up a lot. My Gran used to make a huge mushroom pie, thick crust, lots of egg, lots of mushrooms… being around while she made it was part of childhood Christmas. This year, having reverted to being vegetarian, I’m making the huge festive eggpie. It’s not the same as hers. I can imagine her at my shoulder saying things like “well, I’d never have put that in it!” I also love the Christmas puddings – made mine back in November. Great Grandmother apparently used to boil hers in the copper boiler used for doing the washing!
The Boxing Day walk. Which should for best effect involve a pub and a pint of beer. With all the snow this year, it promises to be much fun indeed.
There’s no need to conform to any of the ‘normal’ ways of doing this… no need to eat large amounts of dead creature if that doesn’t appeal to you, no need to be drunk, or eat yourself sick. There’s no reason to spend the day flopped in front of the television, or to shop yourself into near insolvency. Christmas is a good excuse to spend time with people you like, doing things you enjoy. It’s also a time that brings tensions to the fore, digs up old grief and can bring out the absolute worst in people. We can choose what we do to each other at this time of year, as at all others.
In the past, Christmas has been a time of stress, anxiety and misery for me. This is the first one in a long time that I’ve actively looked forward to.
In Celtic tradition we begin our celebrations on the Eve of the feast day, in the darkness.
In my post Sun Wise I talked about the way the sun appears to go round in opposite directions depending on whether you live north or south of the equator. In either case it is the two poles, north and south, that are the places of darkness. They are the womb which births the light.
Whether or not the ancient Celts knew about the lands south of the equator, they were certainly bright enough to realise this fact about the sun. And they knew that the poles are the womb of creation in this way, the darkness before dawn.
Christianity has made a devil of the darkness and many people are afraid of the dark, partly as a result of the innate myths perpetrated by this religion. The peopled it with nasty beings, all out to do you down, all the critters in Hieronymus Bosch paintings. This is not how it is at all, as the Celts and other shamans know very well.
The darkness is the darkness of the womb, of potential, of creation. The chrysalis where the caterpillar transforms into the soup of Life and then remakes him or herself into a butterfly.
Knowing this is why the Celts work from the pole, the place the sun never travels through, to the dawn, then the zenith ending at the nadir where the sun sets. As I said in the previous post, this is from the north round to the west in the northern hemisphere, and from the south round to the west in the southern hemisphere.
Midwinter is the shortest day of the year, as far as sunlight goes. At the poles, the sun doesn’t rise at all.
– Remember, midwinter for the north is midsummer for the south! I’m writing from the place where I am, the northern hemisphere and Britain. If you live in the southern hemisphere then the same ideas apply but you transport them 6 months down the line.
Meditations for the season of Sun-Return, the midwinter solstice, often call up these concepts of birth, and of death. TS Eliot’s words in his poem “The Journey of the Magi” are very apt – whatever your spiritual beliefs …
… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Eliot hits the nail on the head with his usual acumen, “were we led all that way for Birth or Death?”. This is how it is for the shaman. He describes the death as “hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death” and so this transit of the year is for the spiritually aware. Change is like that and this change, from the going down into the darkness to the coming out into the light is just such a one. Richard Bach put it very well, “what the caterpillar calls a nervous breakdown, the master calls a butterfly”. However, we all know how hard it is to see that from the caterpillar’s perspective!
Eliot goes on to say, “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods”. I find this very profound. On the surface we cans see the Christian pulling away the skirts from that which might contaminate. But go deeper. We all feel this as we grow and change, as we re-enter the womb, decompose and then recompose again, are birthed into, what is to us, a new world. We are no longer at ease with the way things were/are. We see friends and neighbours even as aliens, clutching at different beliefs to those we now have. Part of us often wants to crawl back into the womb so we don’t have to live in the new world in which we find ourselves … but we can’t. We have to continue, to live, to grow to change.
It can indeed feel like living in one of Bosch’s paintings. But contemplation and meditation, working the shaman’s way, asking one’s Familiars, one’s Totem group, asking all the elders of the world – all of creation, which is far older than us – to guide and guard and keep us through this time of change really works. It really does help. I do it myself every season and I help others to do it too.
Being brave enough to go down into the dark, to die to the past, to go into the womb of the mother and ask to be reborn … these are the good and beautiful things of this season of Sun-Return.
In Celtic tradition we begin our celebrations on the Eve of the feast day, in the darkness.
The shaman works in Middleworld by weaving the colours of Life, the shapes and patterns of Living. It’s what we all do by being alive, by incarnating. We cannot not do this as long as we’re alive, every breath we take affects everything else – ponder on that, get the sense and truth of it into your bones, it will help you know the connectedness of all things.
Weaving the light is seen on all shamanic traditions – not always called that – usually through the medium of the directions: North, East, South, West, for us in the northern hemisphere. Probably South, East, North West in the southern hemisphere.
Why the opposite way round? Think about it. In the north we Celts begin in the place of darkness, which is the north for us. It’s the place the sun never goes to. For us the sun rises in the east, travels to the south for midday then sets in the west. The sunrises in the east and sets in the west wherever you are on the Earth. Because of the way the earth travels around the sun it’s impossible for it to be any other way. But whichever way we watch the passage of the sun the dark place will be at the Pole – north or south pole – the place where the sun never goes.
You may also have noticed that in the north deosil – which is what we call the path the sun travels, the god-path – goes “clockwise”. In the southern hemisphere deosil goes the other way around, “anticlockwise”. We only call it clockwise since we invented watches and clocks, a few hundred years back, not the ancient clocks of land markers, the stars and the stone circles. Clockwise is a modern term and invented in the northern hemisphere and should not be taken as gospel for everything, everywhere.
This makes a mockery of the common prejudice amongst new agers that it’s “good” to go around clockwise and invites the “bad” in if you go around anticlockwise. I was once told by an intense and autocratic “shaman” that if I went round anticlock the sun might fall out of the sky! I was so stunned that an apparently intelligent woman could say such a thing I never got to asking her about all the above … probably a good thing to let her be.
The prejudice for deosil over widdershins is a Christian fable, put up as part of their massive hard-sell of “the new religion” amongst the peoples of the northern Europe, and not one we should encourage to continue now. It makes it very hard for people to understand reality – e.g. that deosil, sunwise, is the other way around for people living in the southern hemisphere. This, despite many of them having black skin and being shamans and magicians (thank the gods!) does not make them devils … which is what many of the Victorian missionaries called them. That (hopefully) is quite shocking to us now.
Weaving the patterns of Life means weaving in both directions.
Think about the act of weaving. You raise one set of threads – the even numbers we’ll say for simplicity – and pass the shuttle through the gap between the upper and lower threads, making a row of weaving. Then you drop the even-number threads down and raise the odd-number threads. Again, you pass the shuttle through the gap, making another row of weaving. The first row, you pass the shuttle from right to left (say), deosil. The second row you pass the shuttle from left to right.
You go both ways in order to achieve a piece of cloth!
Let’s take another example from the physical world – DNA. One of the major points of DNA is the double-helix. Two spirals. Twisting around each other and exchanging the knowledge of the genes in order to create life and maintain it. It too spirals both ways.
Now an example from the past. The doctor’s symbol in the western world is the caduceus staff. This is a rod with two snakes twining up it, making a double spiral (double-helix). It’s been used for several thousand years and is associated with the Greek gods Apollo and Hermes, gods of wisdom, knowing and the transmission of knowing. In fact, Merlin is often associated with Hermes and sometimes even with Apollo, although his energy is far older than either of them. We humans tend to associate things with what we already know and, for many, the Greek gods are better known than our own Celtic ones, although the Greeks knew of us and respected our ways, calling us the land Behind the North Wind.
So the caduceus staff is another example of the fact that Life, in order to exist, travels its energy in both directions.
So going sunwise, deosil, in itself indicates going in two directions at once. It shows us that life, as Bilbo put it, is to go and to return. To go and to return is the journey of the shaman, the oldest form of spiritual path amongst humanity and still going strong now.
In this Eve of the solstice, the time when the sun appears to stand still for three days – giving us three days in which to contemplate the meaning of life – let’s think about this, take it into our skull-cauldrons and allow it to brew there quietly. On the day of Sun-Return (25th December, when the sun appears to begin to move forward again) the three drops of wisdom may leap out of the cauldron onto our thumbs so we can suck them up.
OK, it’s a commentary page rather than a News story. But it’s something that’s been on my mind for a while, and I find it hard to believe that I’m alone.
As pagans, we take the idea of the Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone pretty much for granted – it’s one of those things you learn right from the start, in the first (and fifty-first) Paganism 101 book.
The only time I’ve seen an alternative, in fact, is in a recent issue ofSagewoman magazine, suggesting an addition to the tripartate Lady – the Queen. This is the stage of womanhood after childbearing and rearing, but before menopause, when a woman really starts to live her life for herself. A lovely idea, and one I’d embrace wholeheartedly, if it were applicable.
But how many of us ladies have encountered a lack of place in such a system for us? (I know some gentlemen friends who feel similarly excluded from the God role, whether as homosexual, transgendered or simply for the same reasons I’m going into here, just from a male perspective – but I don’t think I’m equipped to discuss that, so will leave it to one of the chaps. Hopefully they’ll be able to read this post regardless. As last time, I promise it won’t turn into a feminist rant.)
I’m a woman in my thirties, who has yet to feel any broodiness or longing for a child. I won’t discount it as a future possibility, but from childhood myself, I never really saw it as something I’d want to do. As with the women in the article, there are a variety of reasons, and with the efficacy of birth control, I count myself fortune that I can continue with my life without any small attachments as yet.
This doesn’t mean I’m some sort of uncaring harridan, the old-school spinster type. I have a loving partner, pets and busy life with many friends I care for deeply. I am not beholden to my career either, simply to living my life as fully as I can, with my faith as a strong part of that.
However, as the BBC discovered, some women cannot take such a lifestyle choice quietly. I know of like-minded ladies who have been openly confronted with such wisdom as ‘if you don’t have children, you aren’t a proper woman’. Their fitness to BE women is actually questioned because they take the option open to them not to be mothers – and this is before their faith even enters the argument.
Even in the 21st century, women’s roles are still tacitly assumed to be limited to their gendered skills – specifically Jerry Hall’s famous quote. In pagan circles, as we struggle for recognition in the modern world while endeavouring to recognise our ancestry, there is still only the Maiden, Mother and Crone. What place in there for me?
When placed in ritual, I’ve seen the confused faces as roles are assigned and realisation dawns. I’m usually planted somewhere between the Maiden and the Mother (presumably No-longer-a-Maiden-but-Not-a-Mother-Yet).
Men don’t seem to have this problem in society generally – there’s no stigma against a ‘confirmed bachelor’ – but in pagan rites you somehow aren’t so confined. You may be Brother, Son, Warrior, Lover… the comparative workings of your loins are not (necessarily) up for public debate.
But there are options – we’ve all seen them. Acting as Priestess, you’re effectively ‘mother’ to the group as a whole (whether you are in daily life or not). We’ll all be Maidens and Crones, but are also fully able to act as Carers, with all the responsibility that this conveys, without having actually given birth ourselves.
I certainly understand the importance of mothers – both in actuality, as a central point of our being, and in the larger, global sense of Earth and Goddess. But can we not also be Women, strong in heart, mind and body, without a small person to confirm it?
Just arrived here as spent morning sorting out the Ogham post – it goes up here tomorrow. It was good fun getting the info together, if rather like herding kittens . there is just soooooo much that each tree relates to I feel I could write a damn encyclopaedia (sheesh! spelling … need coffffeeee!). I am putting the whole into a book – out next year at this rate.
I love trees. The lore they give you if you choose to journey with them is fantastic, and doing so is like an hour with your best friend, exchanging Q&A. Every time I go to write about them I found something new arrives and wants to be mentioned.
Writing’s like that … you set off with an idea and then the story wakes up and writes itself, you just have to stop it wandering off into indigestible and incomprehensible ramblings … again like herding kittens LOL. I’m having the same round-up scenes with the latest novel too. Having begun with a 14 yr old heroine, I’ve now got a 40 yr old hero, with fiddle, itinerant musician, with red hawk and now (since last Saturday) two ferrets as well … Yikes! And he’s going to fall in love with the heroine – who may grow to 16, sigh! – although nothing happens, which is probably very sad for them both but we’ll see.
Arrrrgghhh !!! back to the grind of writing … but I absolutely love it. except there’s a mountain and a half of work to do in the garden too. And I can’t wait for Paul to bring Fabrice’s french bread back from Fodders … Yummmmmmmmmmm !!!
See before you the Wheel of the Year. In ancient times, as high summer holds sway there ensues a great turning seasons. And sometimes it falls out that a hero takes part in this struggle – so earning the title Champion of the Goddess. Come with us now as we re-enact this timeless magic, in the name of the Goddess Sovereignty, whose presence fills the land, in every hill and dale, in every tree and bush, in every river and stream, season on season, year in, year out, throughout all time. Lady, we ask your blessing.
Who is this who comes upon the scene? He looks a fair young lord but his brow shows lines of worry beyond his seeming years. He calls out to the forest. Listen now, he’s speaking to us.
“I am Arthur, King of Kings,” called the young man, looking up into the high branches. “I am Lord of this Land and this morning I did wake to the call of the hunt, I heard the horn call me from my slumbers and I came out into the forest.” He stopped as he caught sight of the white hart just walking delicately into the glade. “And there she stands, the Antlered One, the Lady of the Ways.”
The hart saw him immediately and turned to flee. Quick as thought, the young man had an arrow to his bow and loosed it. It sped straight to her heart and now she lay dead at his feet. He took his hunting knife and began immediately to skin her.
“I will take her skin to cover me,” he whispered to himself “and her flesh to feed my hounds.”
The leaves on the great oak tree under which he knelt began to quiver and a huge creature emerged. It had the shape of a man but was made entirely of leaves and branches. His antlers shimmered as the last golden rays of the sun caught them.
“Who harries here?” He cried, in a voice like a great bell, “Here in the Lands of Summer?” He towered over the king, shaking his club.
“I do.” Arthur jumped to his feet, standing ready to defend himself. “I, Arthur, who am called the King, who was born on mid-winter’s eve to herald the return of the Sun. And who are you to challenge me to my hunt?”
The Green Man tossed up his club and all the leaves in his beard rustled and shook.
“Ha!” He cried. “I am Gromer Somer Jour, the Lord of the Summer Day. This is the Summer Country, my lands, and it is my hart that you have killed. And I will be avenged!” and straight way he aims a blow at Arthur’s head.
Arthur just managed to get out of the way and tried to bring his knife down on the Green Man’s arm but it was broken against the ancient oak. He took another blow and another and fell back against the bole of a tree.
“The day is mine. Your life is forfeit!” and the Green Man loomed over him ready to smash him to a pulp. Vainly Arthur put up an arm and cried out
“Is there no way out of this?”
“Ahhhh! He would save his life would he!” said Gromer Somer Jour to himself. “Then you shall answer me a question. Tell me, King,” he turned contemptuously to Arthur. “what is it that women most desire? Think carefully before you answer! Your life is forfeit should you get it wrong.”
Arthur was puzzled. he had no idea. “What can I say to this?” He muttered to himself. “What is the answer? No! – Wait! It may be he will give me time.”
And he looked up into the mass of green leaves to find his gaze caught by the bright golden eyes. “Oh Lord of the Summer Day,” he said “I have no answer for you now but will you give me time?”
Gromer Somer Jour pulled back, turning slightly away. He leaned on his club.
“Time?! Aye, I’ll give you time!” And the Lord of the Summer Day sniggered into his beard, he had no opinion of this bumptious young king. Then he turned back to Arthur, a cruel smile on his face.
“One chance only I’ll allow you to save your life. One year hence you must return alone to this same place and I shall know by your face if you have the answer I seek.”
Arthur ducked and hid his face, turning away. “A difficult task!” he said to himself, but he knew there was nothing he could do, his fate had been sealed when he killed the hart, maybe even when he woke to the call of the hunt that morning. He turned back to Gromer Somer Jour.
“I accept!” he said with as much strength as he could muster. “One year from now I will meet you here again and I will bring you your answer.”
The Lord of the Summer Day stepped back, allowing Arthur to rise. He picked up the body of the beautiful hart and carried it off with him over his shoulders. Arthur bowed to his retreating back and then turned to go off in the opposite direction. As he was making his way slowly back to his castle a strange figure came out of the bushes beside him riding a beautiful white steed. The horse was bravely harnessed but the creature aboard it, although clad in silks, was like nothing on earth.
“God’s teeth! What’s this?!” Arthur’s breath hissed and he stood at bay despite the beauty of the palfrey.
“By what right do you wander in the Lands of Summer?” The creature addressed him.
“In the name of the Lady of this Land. I am the son of the Kingfisher, the Winter King.” He answered as bravely as he could. He had never seen the like of this in his life before.
“Ahhhh!” she sighed the word out long and hissing like a snake. “Then you are Arthur! And I know your quest. I am Ragnall, the owl who passes across the face of the moon and causes all who see me to shiver. I am mistress of the beasts. I hold within me all creatures and give them succour. Any man who harms a beast, harms me! Any man who harms a plant, a flower or a tree, harms me!”
Arthur followed her speech, watching the passage of her hand across the sky and shivered. He could help himself, he ducked and held up a hand as she pointed her long green finger nail at him with her final words. He peered up into her face.
“You are awful!” He whispered. “I see in your face the face of every beast in the world. Your eyes are owl’s eyes; your nose, a cat’s nose; your ears, lion’s ears; your teeth are wolf’s teeth; your hands are bear’s claws and your feet are the hooves of goats. Your legs are like tree roots; your body is gnarled like the trunk of Yggdrasil and your arms are knotted branches. Your breasts are great hills and mountains and your belly and hips are big enough to birth the world!”
As he finished she slithered down from her horse and crouched before him, her knees bent as though she was about to drop a calf. She cackled.
“Aye! I am hideous in my diversity.” And she pawed at him with a clawed hand. “Men shun me. Women despise me. I am fearful to all eyes. And yet,” she drooled, “I know the answer you seek.”
Arthur was disgusted, he turned away. But he has heard her words. “She does?” He questioned himself. “She might!” and hope sprang in his heart.
The dreadful creature followed him and tried to rub her face against the silk cloth of his hunting tunic. He dared not move.
“And I know that you will fail” her hands tugged at him “unless I give you the one right answer that the Lord of the Summer Day requires.”
Arthur shuddered at her nearness and the smell of her but he dared not risk alienating her. She could have the answer the needed He leaned against the tree and whispered to it “But would she give it me?” He made up his mind and turned.
“Would you give me this answer or my life is forfeit to the Lord of Summer?”
“But what would you give me for that answer. Every answer has its price!” She was as quick as he.
“And that’s the truth!” he muttered to himself. “What is the price of this answer? And can I afford to pay it? But it is my life and my life is the land …” He made a decision.
“What is the cost of this answer? What will you ask of me in return?”
“Why …!” She turned about, almost as if she would be coy with him. “I am hideous, awful as you say! But I would have me a husband. I wish a consort for all time, to live with me and love me here in the Summer Lands.”
Arthur was aghast! “I cannot marry you!” He cried in terror. “I am husbanding already to my Flower Bride, my Gwenhifar, my White Owl!”
“Aye! I know this!” and she laughed at his horror. “I would’t have him anyway!” she muttered to herself, but loud enough for him to hear. “I would have the youngling, the tannaiste, the stand in for the king!”
“Ye gods!” The exclamation escaped him and he tried to catch it back with a hand over his mouth. “My Hawk of May, who stands in my stead!” And then he turned to Ragnall again. “Gawain? You would have Gawain?”
“Aye!” She chuckled, yellow saliva frothing about her rotting gums. “I would have Gawain. Gawain of the red hair, who has the heat and fire of summer flowing through his veins.”
Arthur was appalled. “My brave knight!” he whispered. “Must he wed this creature? How can I ask this of him? How can I not? It is my life that is at stake and my life is the land.” And he turned back again to Ragnall. “Lady, I cannot speak for him but I will ask him, and I will do all in my power to bring your wish to fruit.”
“That is enough” she said to him “At this time.”
And she mounted again onto the gay palfrey and turned back into the deep forest.
And so Arthur returned to court. He told Gawain all that had befallen him, his killing of the hart, the appearance of the Lord of the Summer Day, the hideous hag and her demands to marry Gawain.
“I did not know what to do” he cried to Gawain. “Gromer Somer Jour will hunt me down and find me, I must return to him in any case as a man of honour. How can we discover what it is that women most desire? This hag may indeed have the answer for there is something very strange about her and the way she knew what the Summer Lord had asked me.”
“Whatever, Lord. I am your tannaiste. I am here to stand as your champion and in your stead. And in any case you know I am a free spirit, I love adventure. There will be some way through this mess if we can but find it. I will marry this Dame Ragnall, to say your life, to save the land. But, let us first see if we cannot discover for ourselves what it is that women most desire.”.
And so the king and the knight spent the coming year journeying. They asked every woman in every land what it was that they most desired and wrote all the answers in two great books. But none of these seemed sure to them so, at the end of that time, Arthur returned to Ragnall.
“Lady,” he said. “Gawain accepts to be your husband. Now! You keep your part of the bargain.”
Ragnall leaned down from her palfrey and took his collar in her hand, drawing him closer so that she could whisper in his ear.
Arthur almost choked at being so close to her, her breath was foul as sulphur, and the answer to seemed very strange to him. He managed to thank her with what courtesy he could muster and continued on his way through the forest to meet with Gromer Somer Jour. He kept repeating the answer over and over to himself, so he would remember it. But he resolved to try first with the books, so strange he found what she had said to him. He would keep Ragnall’s answer up his sleeve as a last resort.
Arriving again at the clearing he found the Lord of the Summer Lands already there, waiting for him.
“Greetings, Gromer Somer Jour, Lord of the Summer Day.” he called out as bravely as he could.
“Greetings, Arthur” and the leaves around his mouth shook as he spoke.
“A year has passed since we met and I am here now keeping my part of the bargain.” Arthur reached up to hand over to the rough, oak bark covered hand. “Here are two books full of what women told us they most desire.”
Gromer Somer Jour took the books and leafed through them, never saying a word. As he came to the end he threw them down contemptuously and raised his club.
“There’s no answer here!” He snarled triumphantly. “Forfeit your life!”
“Wait!” Cried Arthur. “I have one answer more! And he whispered what Ragnall had told him into the leaf covered ear. Gromer Somer Jour leaped back as though he had been burned.
“Hell’s teeth!” He shouted. “Only one person could have told you that! My sister, curse her!
“Sister?!” Arthur was aghast.
“But it is indeed the answer that I seek.” Gromer Somer Jour quietened down although he was obviously still much aggrieved. “The Lord of the Summer Day is a man of honour” he said. “I will keep my bargain. You shall have your life!”
He bowed to Arthur and went back into the deep forest. Arthur began to make his way homeward again. He had not gone far when there was Ragnall by his side again. She cackled softly as she saw him flinch.
“Greetings, Arthur. Remember me?”
“How could I forget!” He muttered. then he pulled himself together. “Greetings, Dame Ragnall, I remember you!”
“But do you remember our bargain? I have kept my part. Now! You keep yours!” And she grabbed him by the sleeve. Arthur put his hand on hers, covering it, despite his feeling of loathing.
“I too am a king,” he said “and a man of honour! I will keep my bargain.” and he took Ragnall’s hand in his and led her off towards the castle.
When they arrived there was much horror and consternation. Gawain was there to meet him and immediately took Ragnall on his own arm. All the young women of the court, and many that were not so young, hung on his other side. In whispers they tried to persuade him not to go through with this dreadful seeming marriage. What harm could it do now, they said. Arthur had given Gromer Somer Jour his answer and been granted his life. What need to marry the witch now?
Gawain looked at them, not knowing what to say. He understood that they meant him well but he could not understand how they could ask him to break his word.
“My friends!” he said. “Why do you weep, all of you? Why do you beg me not to wed this Loathly Lady? Can you not see there must be some enchantment at work here? The events are too strange for us not to see the hands of the gods.”
But it seemed they could not. Even Guinevere, the queen, was speaking to Ragnall, asking her to relent, to give Gawain back to them or, at least, to have a quiet and retired wedding. This made Ragnall very angry.
“What’s this you say Queen Guinevere?” She leaned close to the beautiful young woman. “You wish this wedding to be quiet? Out of sight of the court? Ah, no, Lady! You shall not compound my wounding so! I will be seen! I will be Bride!” she turned to Gawain. “Let our wedding be in full sight of all the court. I wish a grand nuptial and a great feast!”
Gawain at once took her hand and kissed the filthy green claws. “Lady,” he said, smiling at her “your wish is my command!
After the wedding, at the banquet, Ragnall slurped and burped and gobbled her way through plateful after plateful of food as though she had been starved. Gawain was horrified but pitied her too. He let none of his distress show as he thought to himself “Poor soul! What curse is upon her that she must needs eat like this? And yet my heart senses beauty and goodness within her.”
He turned to his new wife and said, very gently “Wife! Come wife! Let us to bed. Let us retire to our wedding chamber.”
Wonderingly, Ragnall took a last bite of meat and gulp of wine and then allowed her husband to take her hand and lead her out of the hall and up the stairs. When they arrived in the room Gawain sent all the serving men and girls out, telling them he could manage very well, thank you, without their help. They scuttled off, grateful no doubt to be as far away from the disgusting creature as they could be. As well, he thought, they would have more time to comment to each other on how he would perform in bed. He was disgusted at the thought of the ribald mirth that would be heard in the kitchen that night.
He turned to Ragnall who was waiting, almost defiantly, beside the bed. she turned her back to him.
“Husband!” she said. “Will you be as courteous to me in bed as you are in open court?” Then she turned back to him again. “I know that if I were beautiful I would have no need to ask this question. But I would ask one favour, just one little favour. Give me a kiss, just one little kiss!
Gawain stepped forward, narrowing the gap between them, until he stood very close to her.
“Lady” and he took her in his arms “I’ll do more than kiss you!” and he made to lay her down upon the bed.
She stopped him, pushing him away, but gently.
“Now that we are one” she said softly, her voice very different from before, “it is only right that you should see me as I can be!”
… and before his eyes she transformed into the fairest woman in all the world.
“The Lord and Lady bless us!” Gawain cried out and stumbled back a pace. “My love has grown! She stands now in full flower!” He passed a hand before his eyes. As he looked at her again he saw she was still this new beautiful creature. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” He said to her. “And thus my heart knew you to be. In god’s name, who are you?”
“Sir,” and she curtsied to him, smiling under her long lashes, “I am your wife.”
“How can this be?” He asked.
“Dear Gawain,” and she rested a delicate white hand on his arm, “know that I was under an enchantment until I could find a man willing to wed with me with no thought for the loathsome form which I have had to wear. And you, my friend, are that man.” Gawain reached towards her again, wishing to hold and kiss her, but she put him off. “Nay! There is yet one more choice for you to make, husband, if the spell is to be truly broken.”
“What choice, dear wife?”
“For the rest of your life, will you have me fair my night and foul by day? Or, will you have me foul by night and fair and fair by day? The choice is yours.”
He sat down on the bed. “What do I say?” he thought. “Either way it is a pickle! Fair by day will spare her the world’s loathing but I must bear the brunt of her foulness by night. If, on the other hand, her fairness by night is for our sole delight, then she must bear the brunt of the world’s loathing by day. What can I say? How can I make this choice for her?” He stood up and went to her, taking her by the shoulders and turning her to face him again.
“Lady,” he said, looking deep into her eyes, “the choice must be yours!”
He felt her quiver under his hands, it almost seemed a golden light shone out of her skin. Her eyes were filled laughter.
“You have done it, husband!” she cried. “Now I see I chose aright. The spell is truly broken and I am able to be fair or foul as I choose, when I choose! I choose to be fair with you. For you have give me what every woman – indeed, husband, every man as well – desires most, the right to choose for myself who and what I am to be. And in this choice lies Sovereignty!”
And she took him in her arms and pulled him to her. ” And so to Bed,” she whispered, “enough’s been said, the Sun and Moon are royally wed!
Elen Sentier … behind every gifted woman there’s usually a rather talented cat … writer artistgardenershaman