Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’- faery lore and art

Goblin Market  by Christina Rosetti is a narrative poem of stunning imagery and abundant sensuality. The drive behind its plot focuses on the actions of the goblin men and how the fruits they sell in the market affect the life of a pair of loving sisters. In this post, the fantastic aspects of the poem regarding the fairies are brought to light and discussed in depth.

British Fairies

ArthurRackham_GoblinMarket_100 Arthur Rackham, Goblin Market

Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market, which was published in 1862, is primarily a work of literary genius.  Its rich, intoxicating language and hypnotic rhythm and refrains carry the reader along irresistibly.  It is a long poem, too long to reproduce in full here, but I provide a link to the whole text and cite here the first few lines:

“Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;
All ripe together
In summer weather,
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and…

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Cantre’r Gwaelod: Masculine vs Feminine (Part II)

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Cantre’r y Gwaelod, illustration by Alan Lee

In my previous post, Cantre’r Gwaelod: The Origins of the Legend of the Sunken Kingdom, I delved into a certain aspect of Celtic culture and mythology that revolves around legendary cities and islands that once prospered on land and later sank underground, within lakes or the sea. I specifically focused on the kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod, purported to have occupied the bountiful territory between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales.

I explored the origins of the myth as well as the symbolism and meaning behind it. As usually, many fables narrate various versions of a main episode. That is also the case with the sunken kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod. Two are the most salient versions that refer to it; the first focuses on the male figure of Seithenyn while the second on the female figure of Mererid.

While both share a few common motifs and elements as well as the same denouement, each version holds its own symbolism and ramifications, reflecting distinct perspectives within the same culture. So, let’s compare and contrast the two variants, shall we?

The most well-known form of the legend presents Cantre’r Gwaelod as a low-lying land fortified against the sea by a dyke called Sarn Badrig (“Saint Patrick’s causeway”), with a series of sluice gates opened only at low tide to drain the land.

The ruler Gwyddno Garanhir (”Long-shank), owner of a magical humper (mwys) which multiplied whatever food one placed in it, was said to have his seat in Caer Wyddno, the capital of Cantre’r Gwaelod. A guardian by the name of Seithenyn was in charge of the dyke. An infamous drunkand and carouser, one day he neglected his duties. Having forgotten all about the dyke, the sea swept through the open floodgates, ruining the entire city.

However, amongst the earliest forms is the one contained in the Black Book of Carmarthen, in which the land bears the name of Maes Gwyddno, translated in English as the Plain of GwyddnoIn this version Mererid, the well-maiden, negligent of her charge, allowed the well to overflow, which resulted in the land being swallowed by floods.

Said version refers to the following poem included in the Black Book of Carmarthen. By reading closely its verses (I’ve presented both the Welsh original and its English translation), it becomes patently clear how the attitudes diverge regarding Seithenyn and Mererid.

Seithenhin sawde allan.
Ac edrychuirde varanres
Mor. maes guitnev rytoes.
Boed emendiceid y morvin
Aehellygaut guydi cvin.
Finaun wenestir mor terruin.
Boed emendiceid y vachteith.
Ae. golligaut guydi gueith.
Finaun wenestir mor diffeith
Diaspad vererid y ar vann caer.
Hid ar duu y dodir.
Gnaud guydi traha trangc hir.
Diaspad mererid. y ar van kaer
Hetiv. hid ar duu y dadoluch.
Gnaud guydi traha attreguch.
Diaspad mererid am gorchiut
Heno. ac nihaut gorllut
G. g. traha tramguit.
Diaspad mererid y ar gwinev
Kadir keadaul duv ae gorev.
Gnaud guydi gormot eissev.
Diaspad mererid. am kymhell
Heno y urth nyistauell.
Gnaud guydi traha trangc pell.
Bet seithenhin synhuir vann
Rug kaer kenedir a glan.
Mor maurhidic a kinran.

***

Seithenhin, stand thou forth,
And behold the billowy rows;
The sea has covered the plain of Gwydneu.

Accursed be the damsel,
Who, after the wailing,
Let loose the Fountain of Venus, the raging deep.

Accursed be the maiden,
Who, after the conflict, let loose
The fountain of Venus, the desolating sea.

A great cry from the roaring sea arises above the summit of the rampart,
To-day even to God does the supplication come!
Common after excess there ensues restraint.

A cry from the roaring sea overpowers me this night,
And it is not easy to relieve me;
Common after excess succeeds adversity.

A cry from the roaring sea comes upon the winds;
The mighty and beneficent God has caused it!
Common after excess is want.

A cry from the roaring sea
Impels me from my resting-place this night;
Common after excess is far-extending destruction.

The grave of Seithenhin the weak-minded
Between Caer Cenedir and the shore
Of the great sea and Cinran.

Upon reading the poem, one is easily led to the assumption that Mererid is the cause behind the flood that swept over the kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod. However, such an assumption is subverted in the last stanza where the blame shifts entirely to Seithenyn who’s critisized as weak-minded.

But if the male figure paints a negative picture as an incompetent, careless boozer, then what exactly is the role assigned to the female figure? Mererid, (whose name means ”pearl”) the poem concludes, isn’t a blameworthy offender but a lady whose office as cup-bearer and keeper of the well has been violated. A recurring motif in many Celtic tales is that pertaining to wells that flood a large patch of land due to an offence committed against the well-keeper.

The guardians of these wells are unfailingly female. In the poem, emphasis is placed on that fact that Mererid is a maiden (morvin) and on another verse she’s referred to as ”machteih”, which means she holds an important position in the royal court.

The notion of maidenhead or virginity and the role of protectress has born a close association in many cultures. Ancient cities and kingdoms often enjoyed the safety of boundaries, both through physical and magical means. Egresses and gateways through walls needed to be physically sealed tight. However, magical entrances required magic in order to open and shut.

The one bearing the title of ”Pontifex Maximus” initially suggested someone skilled at guarding and sealing protective boundaries. The purpose of the institution of the Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome was the city’s protection and welfare, the role of a virgin deity assigned to these priestesses. The same concept can actually be traced in the ancient Greek world. The virgin Athene offered her divine protection to the city of Athens. The city of Troy is seen to be protected in a similar fashion in Homer’s Iliad. As the huge wooden horse enters the city, the seer Cassandra loosens her girdle in a gesture symbolic of the disruption of the city’s magical protection.

It appears that in Celtic tradition similar protective powers were bestowed upon the well maidens. In the Celtic imagined reality, and not only, wells, lakes, rivers and various bodies of water were regarded as portals leading to the Otherwold. If the portals were neglected, the steady flow of the life-giving waters would be disturbed and lead to a deluge. The loss of virginity of the well-maiden, either though the maiden’s own choice or through her violation, would yield the same results.

However, Mererid also holds the office of cup-bearer, just like the goddess Rosmerta and the virgin Veleda who prophesized for her Germanic tribe, the Bucteri.

Three are Rosmerta’s emblems: the cup, the ladle and the bucket. The first functions as a symbol of cornucopia, indicating the richness of the feast. The Gauls had her figure associated with at least one sacred spring. While the religious element might have been relegated to the point of oblivion, there’s another element that slams to the forefront.

The cup-bearing and office-holding maiden is a figure intimately linked to water. Water can turn out to have both positive and negative connotations. It can both signify destruction and fertility. The fertility of the land and the fertility of the woman is a theme frequently found in Celtic tradition as is the case with characters like Guinevere and Rhiannon.

If maidenhead implies protection, the loss of it leads to the absence of protection. On the other hand, sexual awakening carries the possibility of ferility, therefore the well-maiden taking on an active sexual role becomes a woman who brings forth plenty. Something which is further emphasized by the existence of the cup as a symbol of copiousness.

But how do all these apply to Mererid? As a well-maiden, she’s been assigned to guard the flow of the well, but it is also her responsibility to hold the cup of plenty. We cannot know for certain whether Mererid had an active role in her sexual initiation or whether she suffered a physical violation. Whatever the case, though, the loss of her protection brought forth the deluge.

However, there lies the possibility of another, more positive interpretation: the overflow of the blessed waters resulting in the fertility of the land, and all that cloaked under the guise of a disastrous inundation. In the poem, the meaning of the word ”cwyn” has been presented as both ”feast” and ”complaint”. How are we to interpret the word’s polysemy? Are we supposed to believe Mererid expressed her complaints over her violation or are we to believe her proffered cup as a feast carries other implications, associated with free sexual choice and fertility? Was she a victim of rape or did she choose to give away her virginity and willingly release the flood?

Arriving to a certain conclusion seems an impossibility as the poem states nothing in an open manner. One might wonder as to whom belongs the voice that narrates the events leading to the inundation. In the first stanza, the narrator is addressing Seithenyn, calling to him to stand forth and inspect the destruction of the kingdom. Could this be the voice of Mererid, castigating Seithenyn for the disaster his actions have wreaked? While a definite answer cannot be provided, such thought shouldn’t be excluded from the realm of possibility.

The following stanzas, however, present a shift in the narrator who is possibly Seithenyn himself, pondering on his own role in the kingdom’s submersion and accepting his own responsibility for this outcome.

What I, as a reader, find most remarkable in the poem is the way the figures of Seithenyn and Mererid are portrayed: the first as a lousy guard, totally devoid of substance and depth and the second as a larger than life character, an intermediate between human and goddess, full of compexities.

Could the underlying theme of the poem be the dichotomy between death/impotence as espoused by the male and life/sexual agency as espoused by the female? Could Seithenyn’s inebriation function as a metaphor for male weakness and sterility while Mererid’s conscious release of the torrents function as metaphor for female potency and erotic volition?

Whatever the poem’s intended message, I regard Mererid as an empowering model for women. A maiden in possession of great power who awakens to it through the relishing of her own sacred sexuality in order to bring forth life and prosperity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cantre’r Gwaelod: The Origins of the Legend of the Sunken Kingdom (Part I)

800px-Submerged_forest_at_Ynyslas,_Ceredigion

Submerged forest exposed at low tide on Borth sands near Ynyslas, Ceredigion, Wales. It extends along the Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire coast. The stumps are only exposed in a few places at low tide, in places such as Borth and Ynyslas. At Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire, they are only visible at very low tides.

Many are the legends all over the world that recount tales of lost islands and glorious cities, once thriving on the surface of the earth, now submerged underground or within lakes or even the sea. The Celts have not excluded themselves from such a rich mythological tradition, their poetry and literature featuring a host of such fabled lands. The most known Cantre’r Gwaelod in Wales, Lyonesse in Cornwall and Ys in Brittany.

In my own mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, I’ve drawn extensive material from the stories contained in the Mabinogion and the lush Welsh tradition in general. In my attempt to conceive a singular divinity which my mortal characters could worship, I thought fit to avail myself of a world that would harken back to a mythical past in all its dreamy and otherwordly atmopshere, whose tone and symbolism would work in favour of and enhance my initial narrative.

My reserach led me to discover the fascinating myth of Cantre’r Gwaelod and all the exquisite history that surrounds it. So let’s explore the origins of said myth, shall we?

Cantre’r Gwaelod, also bearing the name of Cantref Gwaelod or Cantref y Gwaelod (translated in English as The Lowland Hundred), is a legendary ancient sunken kingdom purported to have occupied a patch of a rich, fertile land between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales.

Low_tide_at_Sarn_Gynfelyn_-_geograph.org.uk_-_845252

Sarn Gynfelyn explosed by low tide

There are several versions that explain how the kingdom ended up sinking beneath the waves. Amongst the earliest is the one thought to pop up in the Black Book of Carmarthen, in which the land bears the name of Maes Gwyddno, which in English is translated as the Plain of Gwyddno. In this version we read that the land was swallowed by floods when Mererid, the well-maiden, neglected her duties and allowed the well to overflow.

The most popular form of the legend that has reached us today is thought to have taken shape around the 17th century. Cantre’r Gwaelod is presented as a low-lying land fortified against the sea by a dyke called Sarn Badrig (“Saint Patrick’s causeway”), with a series of sluice gates opened only at low tide to drain the land.

Caer Wyddno was said to be the capital of Cantre’r Gwaelod, known as the seat of the ruler Gwyddno Garanhir (”Long-shank) who was the owner of a magical humper (mwys) which multiplied whatever food one placed in it. A guardian named Seithenyn held charge over the dyke. In one version Seithenyn is portrayed as a notorious drunkard and carouser. One day, due to his drunkeness, he neglected his duties and as a result the sea swept through the open floodgates, leaving the city in ruins.

Sunken as it is, though, the city’s church bells are said to still ring out, warning the terrestrial denizens of imminent danger.

Parallelisms can be drawn with other tales similar in content and form. British scholar Rachel Bromwich focused on a story bearing much resemblance to the one of Cantre’r Gawelod: that of the submergence of the kingdom of Helig ap Glanawg in the Conwy estuary. As with Cantre’r Gwaelod, there are accounts of visible remains of the sunken kingdom (Llys Helig). Bromwich held the conviction that the two tales influenced each other, and that “The widespread parallels to this inundation theme would suggest that the two stories are in fact one in origin, and were localized separately in Cardiganshire and in the Conway estuary, around two traditional figures of the sixth century”.

She also called attention to the fact that the Halliwell Manuscript gives Helig the title “Lord of Cantre’r Gwaelod”. Antone Minard in the book New Directions In Celtic Studies explained that “The Welsh legends of Cantre’r Gwaelod and Llys Helig (Helig’s Court) contain the same details of audible bells beneath the waves and ruins which are visible at the equinoctial tides, which are the anchors of credulity in the story”.

A host of Celtic myths offer plenty of descriptions of a submerged kingdom near Brittany and Cornwall and even in other areas in Wales as well. What are we, modern readers that we are, to do with such yarns? Are we to enjoy them, at best, or dismiss them, at worst, as the fruit of the colourful Celtic imagined reality that was always ready to conjure up otherwordly dimensions in the twinkling of an eye? Or is there behind the fable a social, political or historical context that could provide a solid, veritable basis for a credible explanation?

The myth, like many others, may cloak a folk memory of gradually rising sea levels at the end of the ice age. The visible physical remains of Sarn Badrig and of the preserved sunken forest at Borth could be an indication of some calamity, of some great tragedy a community had suffered there thousands of years ago, and so the myth may have risen from such a natural disaster.

 

Poetry: what makes my skin so bright

MY VALIANT SOUL

I chop a slice of moon
of an excellent shard from a mirror,
I take a dip in a splintering winter well,
the well of charm & despair,
the evening air does the rest of the job
the apricots stitched onto my lips
my lips forbid to tell your secrets
there,
there is nothing inside the gateway to chivalry,
a half-eaten fruit
a half-read poetry
a half- kissed muse

There it is
I can feel it freely
a gallop of a hysteric wave,
a sunrise, so distant

you need the recipe?

see my knuckles, the hard egg shaled nails,
a fever running through my belly,
they all bow to my cheekbones,
my cheeks ingest your lies too.
How about it?

Will it be a part of the regime too?

and a salt-glazed cup
of electric moon

it didn’t take long,
to be like this.
i wept also.
I wept and…

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Fragments of Annwn – Depths

Fellow blogger, poet, author, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, Lorna Smithers presents through the following fragments her own personal vision of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld housing the dead and the fairies. Haunting, mysterious and melancholic, these fragments of fiction and poetry excel at transporting the reader to a parallel dimension full of strange charm and sublime truths.

From Peneverdant

No-One Knows

the extent of the marshland of Annwn. Some cross it in a day. For others it goes on forever like the mist that obscures the musical birds, the shriekers of the mournful shrieks, the droners of the ancient drone, the players of the carnyxes that gurgle beneath the waters. You never know what is splashing behind on countless feet until it is too late. Sometimes you get lost following the will-o-wisps like lost hopes to where all hope fails. Sometimes you make sacrifices or become the sacrifice see your bog body your ghost flying free like a lonely bird. You become an inspirer or a guide only to bring doom to the unwary. When you think you know the way you slip. When you think you have found the awen you find it escapes words, that the sigh of its name is already escaping your lungs, that breath…

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“Little they slept that night”- fairy love and fairy passion

British Fairies

tamlaine

James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine, 1905

I return to a subject that has an abiding fashion for many visitors to the blog- and apparently me too: fairy sexuality and sensuality.

Fae lovers

From the very earliest times, it seems, the idea of Faery was synonymous with irresistible beauty.  Elf-women were called ‘shining’ by the Anglo-Saxons (aelfsceone) and this idea by no means ended with the arrival of the Normans and of the fairy women of romance.  English writer Layamon in his history of Britain, The Brut, described the queen of Avalon, Argante, as the fairest of all maidens,  “alven swithe sceone” (an elf most fair).  The concept of radiant beauty persisted: the fairy queen who met Thomas the Rhymer at Huntlie bank was “a ladye bright” and, as late as Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the faes’ royal lady is still “radiant” (Act V, scene 5).

Great beauty…

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Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen

Under the influence!

Imaged by Frederic Shields [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] (Cropped) Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published under the title of British Legends: Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen on #FolkloreThursday.com, 28/02/2019 by zteve t evans

The Faerie Queen

The epic unfinished poem, The Faerie Queeneby Edmund Spenser, published 1590-96, created a parallel of the medieval universe that alluded to events and people in Elizabethan society. The narrative draws on Arthurian influences, legend, myth, history, and politics, alluding to reforms and controversial issues that arose in the times of Elizabeth I and Mary I. It is an allegorical work that both praised and criticised Queen Elizabeth I, who is represented in the poem by Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. The six human virtues of holiness, chastity, friendship, temperance, justice, and courtesy are all represented by a knight. Spenser raises many questions about Elizabethan society, especially…

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Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

αρχείο λήψης

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath

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“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”