Morgan le Fay: The Fairy Witch

Morgan

Another of Merlin the Magician’s students was King Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay.  At various times she challenged the Lady of the Lake for the title, The Queen of Avalon, and early writers had trouble deciding whether she was a fairy or a sorceress.  The name “le Fay” suggested she came from fairy heritage, while others associated her name with “Morgen,” meaning “sea-born.”  In all accounts though, she had supernatural powers.

Scholars now believe that Morgan derived from the Celtic Welsh goddess, Modron.  The first tales made her the eldest of nine sisters – or one of nine virgin priestesses – who lived on the Isle of Apples (Avalon).  She was an enchantress and healer, capable of flying and changing shape.  After King Arthur got wounded at the Battle of Camlann, he was taken to Avalon to be healed.

Throughout the ages Morgan has retained her healing powers.  But in patriarchal times she became more sinister and dangerous.  Like the Lady of the Lake, she was turned into a witch figure – lustful, sly, and unpredictable – finally becoming the arch-enemy of Arthur and his queen.

Later versions of Morgan made her more human.  She was born to Arthur’s mother (Igraine) and her first husband (Gorlois), and was therefore the king’s half-sister.  Morgan spent time as Guinevere’s lady-in-waiting, got unhappily married to King Urien, bore a son called Ywain, and had an unrequited passion for Sir Lancelot.  When she learnt of Lancelot’s love for the queen she caused all sorts of mischief to expose their affair, often being thwarted by her counterpart, the Lady of the Lake.  At some point she became Merlin’s apprentice, but instead of using her powers for good she commanded the forces of evil.  Her obsession with Lancelot – and hatred for Arthur and Guinevere – intensified to such a point she was exiled from Camelot.  Morgan lived in the forest and carefully perfected her craft, until the locals started calling her The Goddess.  Then she ended Arthur’s reign.  She gave Excalibur to her lover, and threw its protective scabbard into the lake, leaving King Arthur completely unprotected in battle so that he became mortally wounded.  She was ultimately the bringer of chaos and death.

But having been called a fairy, healer, enchantress, seductress, and witch, modern pagans are now reclaiming Morgan as a symbol of feminine power.  She is seen by some as the third face of the Triple Goddess (the Crone or Warrior Woman), which reunites her with Celtic Modron – the Mother.

Of all the many aspects of her mythology, Morgan le Fay is indeed a shape-shifter!

 

Sources:

Norako, Leila K. “Morgan le Fay.”  http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/theme/morgan

Wikipedia, “Morgan le Fay.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgan_le_Fay

(Picture: Frederick Sandys)

Vivien: The Lady of the Lake

Vivien and Merlin

“For Merlin, overtalked and overworn,

Had yielded, told her all the charm, and slept”

(Alfred Lord Tennyson)

Most Arthurian legends feature Merlin’s love-interest, Vivien.  She usually appears as The Lady of the Lake and ruler of Avalon, but sometimes she is described by other names such as Nimue – Niviane – the daughter of a vavasor named Dionas – a princess of Northumberland – or the Queen of Sicily.  And like the great magician himself, her character has undergone several important changes throughout history.

In the majority of early versions Vivien meets Merlin by a spring in the Forest of Broceliande, Brittany.  They fall in love, share a relationship, and exchange supernatural knowledge.  The Lady of the Lake is associated with water, the essential essence of life, and she quenches the lonely old man’s thirst for companionship.  She also gives King Arthur the magic sword Excalibur, and raises Lancelot in Avalon after the death of his father.  Then she takes Merlin away from Camelot and he is never seen again.

In Thirteenth Century Pre-Vulgate French mythology, Vivien is a fairy.  She appears as Merlin’s adoring student and he falls in love with her youth, intelligence, and beauty.  When Vivien uses one of her mentor’s spells to create a magical tower that locks them both away from the rest of the world, she does so to preserve their happiness together.  She acts out of genuine love without any deception or malice.

But when the Catholic Church adopted King Arthur as a champion of Christianity, Vivien was transformed into an evil sorceress and witch.  She is thereafter portrayed as another Eve-like temptress who seduces a good man and brings about his downfall.  In these tales she uses her feminine wiles to uncover Merlin’s most powerful spell and ultimately uses it against him.  Then she locks him in an enchanted tree – or prison made of air –  or tomb covered with a stone that no one can move – rendering him invisible from the outside world until he falls asleep forever.

In the post-feminist era, however, this fascinating character has evolved yet again and  Vivien emerges as the New Woman.  No longer is she portrayed as a dependent fairy or malicious witch.  Instead she has become a strong force in society – a free thinker –  someone in charge of her own destiny.  She lives with Merlin as a lover and equal.   She could survive perfectly well without him, but chooses not to.

The modern Lady of the Lake tale now suggests that mutual love is the greatest magic of all and the strongest power on earth.

Do you agree?

Sources:

Brunel, Pierre.  Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Collier’s Encyclopedia (15).  Macmillan, 1974.

Wikipedia, “Lady of the Lake”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_of_the_Lake

(Picture: Julia Margaret Cameron)