In Irish mythology Queen Mebd is a colorful character – an archetypal warrior-queen – ambitious and strong-willed, who knew her own mind and how to get what she wanted.She was described as a lusty fair haired wolf-queen who was so beautiful men were robbed of two thirds of their valor on seeing her (1). Probably her best known role is the instigator of the Cattle Raid of Cooley or Táin Bó Cúailnge which she undertook with her husband Aillil during a more congenial time in their relationship. Presented here is a brief glimpse of the roles Mebd filled as wife, queen and goddess of sovereignty, looking her most famous exploit, The Cattle Raid of Cooley and finally her death.
Husbands and Marriage
During the Ulster Cycle in Irish mythology she was a much married queen of Connacht. Her main consort in the important stories of this period was Ailill mac Máta. She ruled from Cruachan, now known as Rathcroghan, County Roscommon. One of her former husbands was the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa who became her enemy.
There is no doubt that marriage to Mebd was a challenge for any man and needed someone of powerful character to fulfill the role. Mebd had three demands her husband had to agree to in order to marry her. First, he must be completely without fear. Second, he must be without meanness. The third and most important was he must be devoid of all jealousy. The last was essential for Mebd took many lovers and she was not a woman who could be possessed. One of these lovers was Fergus mac Róich.
According to tradition it took seven men to satisfy her sexually but Fergus only once. Ailill, on learning of the affair, forgot Mebd’s third demand and became jealous of Fergus and had him killed. However, such were the intrigues of the Connacht court that when Mebd learnt Ailill was having an affair behind her back she ordered Conall Cernac to kill him. He gladly took on the task in revenge for the killing of Fergus but as he was dying Aillil ordered his warriors to kill Conall.
A traditional patriarchal view of Mebd might see her as an immoral sex-predator who lusts for men, but a closer look may reveal a different idea of who she was and what she represented.
Goddess of Sovereignty
There are several versions and spelling of her name including Maeve, Maev, Mave or Maiv, may have meant the ruler. Another interpretation is “mead-woman” or “she who intoxicates,” which many see as evidence of her being a goddess of sovereignty or representative of one. In ancient and medieval Ireland, mead and its consumption played an important part in the inauguration ceremony of a new king. Her many marriages to kings and her liberated sexual behaviour are also considered as evidence of her status as a sovereignty goddess. She may have been one and the same with Medb Lethderg who was the wife or lover of nine kings at Tara.
According to one version of the myth the sovereignty of the land was bestowed upon the king by a goddess of sovereignty, or her representative, on behalf of the Earth Mother. Her presence by his side as consort signified the approval of the goddess and a powerful public symbol the king was divinely chosen. The king acted as the steward of the land ensuring its fertility and wellbeing which promoted regrowth and renewal of vegetation and crops. Traditionally he was expected to be without blemish and if he was sick, injured, or grew old he was replaced by a younger more virile man.
It is the association with the goddess of sovereignty that causes a rethink of her being labelled as merely promiscuous or immoral. Modern morals should not be used as a yardstick; these were different times with different ways of doing things and different social values.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
Mebd was never the subordinate wife and queen. She believed she had a right to be of equal wealth as her husband. After taking stock of both their total possessions she realized her husband owned a more powerful and virile stud bull named Finnbennach. This gave him a slight edge which greatly annoyed her.
The only bull in Ireland that could rival Finnbennach was named Donn Cúailnge who was owned by Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal of Conchobar’s her former husband.Mebd decided she must have Donn Cúailnge to make her equal to her husband and she was determined to get him by any means.
She sent messengers to Dáire requesting him to loan her the bull. In return she offered wealth, land and sexual favours. Dáire initially agreed to the deal. However, he changed his mind when one of her messengers in a drunken state foolishly revealed that she would have taken it by force anyway. On hearing this Dáire reversed his decision.
Mebd was still determined to have the bull and mustered her army and war bands from all over Ireland rallied to her. With the support of her husband, Ailill, she launched an invasion of Ulster to take Donn Cúailnge.
The defenders of Ulster were stricken by a curse that rendered them unfit for battle at the time of their greatest need. This had been inflicted on them as revenge and punishment by the goddess Macha, whom the king of Ulster had forced into a chariot race with while she was heavily pregnant.
The only one left to oppose Mebd’s invasion was the young warrior Cúchulainn who with the help of his charioteer waged a guerrilla war against the invaders. He used a custom that enabled him to claim single combat against one of Mebd’s champions at each river ford her army needed to cross. Using this tactic he held up the invasion while the Ulster defenders recuperated. However, despite the hold up, Mebd managed to take Donn Cúailnge.
Eventually the incapacitated defenders of Ulster recovered and led by King Conchobar rally to the defence of the realm. After a final battle against Conchobar, Mebd retreated having got what she came for took the bull back to Connacht. To decide who was the most powerful and valuable bull Donn Cúailnge and Finnbennach were matched in a fight against each other. Donn Cúailnge killed Finnbennach but also died of his wounds leaving Mebd and her husband Aillil equal in wealth and status.
Death of Mebd
In later years it Mebd’s custom to bathe in a pool on an island named Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery. However, this was to prove to be her undoing. Mebd had previously murdered her sister. Her son Furbaide seeking revenge for his mother’s death waited for Mebd until she came to bathe. According to tradition, he killed her with a hardened piece of cheese fired from his sling, which was the nearest projectile he could find in a hurry. Her son Maine Athramail succeeded her to the throne of Connacht.
Her final resting place is uncertain. She is said to be buried standing upright to face her enemies. According to one legend she is buried in a 40 foot high stone cairn in the top of Knocknarea in County Sligo. Another possible site for her burial place is her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon at a place now called ‘Misgaun Medb’.
There is no shortage of colorful and extraordinary characters in Irish mythology and Queen Mebd must surely rate somewhere at the top of the list.
In medieval England tales about the adventures of King Arthur and his knights were popular and were often found in the form of a long poem. These were often read socially as entertainment at events such as celebrations or banquets. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is such a poem and appears as a parody of the Arthurian world with a hidden mix of ancient motifs and themes such as The Loathly Lady, Sovereignty, the annual cycle of the sun, and a little humor blended into the story-line. In many ways it turns Arthurian tradition on its head for in this story unusually the heroic King Arthur is found having to beg a vengeful knight for his life. The knight agrees to put off his execution for one year when he must return to him with the correct answer to a question or die. The question is What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? No wonder Arthur is worried!
With the help of his faithful, but gullible nephew Sir Gawain he searched the world for the answer. He finally came across Dame Ragnelle in Inglewood Forest who gives him the correct answer but only on the condition that Sir Gawain marries her. Dame Ragnelle is the opposite of the beautiful and well-mannered females who populate the Arthurian world. She is repulsively ugly, openly lusty, and course of manners, nevertheless, to save his uncle, Gawain agrees to take her for his wife. Although it appears Gawain is too faithful and gullible for his own good things turn out extremely well for him in the end. Presented here is a retelling of the story.
One fine day King Arthur and a hunting party left his court at Carlisle to go hunting in the nearby forest of Inglewood. For speed in the chase, comfort and practicality he had left his armor off and was lightly armed with bow, arrow and hunting knife. While the hounds were seeking out a quarry Arthur noticed a fine stag standing stock still in a thicket. Ordering the others to stay where they were he carefully stalked the stag. Nevertheless the stag got a scent of him as he crept forward and ran off. Arthur gave chase and letting fly with his bow and arrow managing to wound the animal as the hounds took up the chase. He told his huntsmen to remain where they were while he went after it. He chased for about half a mile and managed to wound it again causing it to stumble and fall. As he finished it off with his hunting knife a stranger appeared who was well armed and dressed in armour and looked a most formidable warrior.
Sir Gromer Somer Joure
The stranger knight stood proudly over Arthur as he knelt over the stag and said, “Well, met King Arthur, well met indeed! All these years you have done me wrong and here I have you unarmed, without armor alone in the wilds. I will have my revenge. You took my lands and gave them to your nephew Sir Gawain. Now I will unleash my anger and hatred upon you. What have you to say now I have you alone in the wild unarmed?“
Arthur stood up realizing he was indeed alone, unarmed and vulnerable against this well armed knight dressed for battle who stood threateningly before him and said, “Well, Sir Knight, perhaps you could tell your name before you slay me?”
Replied the knight, “I am Gromer Somer Joure.”
“Then, Sir Gromer Somer Joure, good knight that you are, you will know slaying me unarmed and not attired for battle will bring you nothing but shame. You will be shunned by knights everywhere you go. Perhaps there is something I can do to amend or alleviate the hurt you accuse me of before I leave? Speak now!” replied Arthur.
“You will not escape me now that I have you. If I let you go you will defy me again.” replied the knight.
“Slay me while I am unarmed and with no armor and you will have eternal shame. Spare my life and perhaps there is something I can do to right the wrong you allege or reward you,” replied Arthur.
“There is nothing that will help you. I do not desire land or riches just you death, but if you agree that …”
“I agree,” interrupted Arthur.
“Listen to my demand! You must swear that you will return in a year with the answer to this quest I am about to ask you. If have the right answer you will live. If you do not have the right answer I will take your head. The question is this. What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? If you agree swear your oath and get gone. If you do not I will take you head now. What say you, King Arthur?”
“Although it is disagreeable to me I swear and being a true king will return in a year and a day with or without the answer to your question and face my fate.” answered Arthur.
“Then get you on your way King Arthur, you have no idea of the troubles that await you. You must keep this secret and don’t even think of betrayal for I could kill you in battle,” said Gromer Somer Joure before mounting his horse and riding off.
Arthur blew his horn and the rest of his party came quickly to him. They found him with the deer but were surprised to see how sad he looked. Telling them he had no further desire to hunt the party went back to Carlisle. Although no one said anything they all knew something strange and serious had happened by the look on his face. Back at Carlisle, Arthur sat alone brooding and clearly unhappy.
At last his nephew, Sir Gawain approached him and asked what ailed him. He replied sadly, “While I was unarmed and alone in the forest I encountered an unknown knight armed and clad in armor, ready for battle. He told me certain things that I must not tell unto others and gave my word. Therefore, I must keep my word or betray it.”
Gawain reassured him that whatever he told him he did so in complete confidence and that he would never pass it on. Therefore Arthur said,
“Today while hunting alone I slew a stag. Afterwards, I met a knight named, Sir Gromer Somer Joure who wanted to slay me. I had no sword or armor and I spoke to him politely and courteously reminding him of the shame and dishonor as a knight that would befall him if slayed and unarmed man. Of course I did not want to die and I swore on oath that I would return to him in one year, clad as I was and unarmed with the answer to this question. What is it that women most desire? I am bound to return and give him the right answer. Should the answer be wrong he takes my head. If I give the right answer I am set free from the oath. If I don’t turn up, unless by death alone, then I am eternally shamed. This, then is the cause of my woe.”
On hearing him Gawain said, “Let me help. You search for the answer in one direction and I will search in the opposite. On our way we will ask everyone we meet the question and write down the answers in a book. At the end of a eleven months we will meet back here in Carlisle and I will give you my book and we will peruse the findings together.”
Arthur could think of no better plan and so agreed and they went off on their separate ways. Each asked everyone they came across the question, “What is it that women most desire of men?” and wrote down the answer. Some said it was money. Some said it was fine clothing. Others said they liked to be courted and wooed, while the other said they liked lusty men who swept them off their feet. By the time they arrived back at the court of Carlisle the both books were full with many different answers.
Eleven months later they met back in Carlisle and looked over each other books. Gawain was confident that one of the answers contained in the books would be right but Arthur was not so sure. There were so many answers so he said, “I still have a month left and there is time to find something more definite. I think I will look around Inglewood Forest for a while in the hope of finding the right answer.”
Gawain was confident that they had the right answer in the books already but said, “As you wish, but I have every confidence the right answer is in the books.”
The next day Arthur rode to Inglewood and spent several hours wandering the many paths in the forest. Eventually he came across and old woman seated upon a horse at a crossroads. She was the most hideous, ugliest and the most repulsive person he had ever seen. In contrast to her the horse she sat was most handsome chestnut mare. Its saddle and bridle were decorated with gold, silver and precious gems. The magnificence of the beast was in stark contrast to the vile appearance of her. She was sat on her horse in the middle of a crossroads seemingly in waiting for him. It was she that spoke first seeming to knew who he was and boldly greeting him thus,
“Well, met King Arthur, well met alone in the woods. I have advice for you if you will listen that will save your life!”
Arthur was utterly repulsed by the loathly lady but politely asked what she had to say. She told him she aware of him and his quest and knew the answer he sought,
“I know the right answer to the secret. I know you found many answers but the ones you have gathered to you are wrong. If I do not tell you then you will die. If you grant me a request I will tell you the answer you seek, Your life is in my hands! Therefore, what say you?”
Arthur was unpleasantly surprised that she appeared to know so much. He looked at her in disgust of her appearance and said, “Lady, I dislike your words, Tell me what you want and if I can I will grant it. Why is my life in your hands?”
The loathly lady cackled at him said, “Whatever else I am, I am not evil. The bargain I would make with you is this. To save your life I must marry Sir Gawain. Think, deeply, think wisely. If you do not agree or if he does not agree the marriage you will die!”
Arthur was aghast at the thought. The more he considered it the least able he thought himself of delivering it. Therefore, he said, “In all truth, fairness and honesty, I cannot promise Sir Gawain will agree to be part of this bargain. It is for he alone to choose a wife, but I will ask his thoughts on the matter, though only because it may save my own life. I would not blame him if he refused, but I will ask and see what happens from there.”
This appeared to satisfy the lady who replied, “Go now and speak to Sir Gawain and speak as fair as you can of me. Yes, I am hideous, but I am as lusty as I am hideous! Go and speak to Gawain and you may yet live. You will find me here when you have your decision.”
“What will I tell him your name is?” asked Arthur.
“You may tell him my name is Dame Ragnelle,” she replied
So Arthur rode back to Carlisle to talk to Gawain. He knew his nephew would probably accept simply because of his own sake. Nevertheless, he really regretted having to ask him with the terrible consequences involved but he had no choice.
The first person Arthur met was Gawain who greeted him happily and asked how he got on with his quest in Inglewood. Arthur looked at Gawain sadly and said, “Everything went exceedingly bad. I may as well kill myself now as I appear to be doomed to die!”
Gawain was shocked and wanted to know why he was so sorely depressed and unhappy. Arthur said, “In Inglewood I met the most disgusting and hideous lady I have ever seen. She has promised me that she will save my life if you will marry her. Gawain, I cannot let you do this, therefore I am doomed!”
Gawain replied, “No matter how foul or hideous I will marry her to save you. You are my uncle, my king and my friend. We have fought side by side in many battles and it is my honour that is at stake if I refuse. I will not dishonor myself or become a coward afraid of a lady, hideous or otherwise. I will marry her!”
Arthur told him how they had met at the crossroads and how she had told him her name was Dame Ragnelle. He reiterated that she was the vilest, ugliest woman he had ever seen. He told Gawain that she had told she knew the answer to the question he sought. She had told him there was only one answer and she was the only one knew. She would only reveal it if you married her.
Gawain was not to be put off and replied, “Have no fear, I will marry her regardless of her vile appearance, for my respect for you is even greater.”
Arthur was pleased by Gawain’s answer and told him, “I cannot thank you enough! You are the best of my knights and I shall love you as long as I am king of this land!”
At the end of the last month, Arthur, accompanied by Gawain went to seek Dame Ragnelle at the crossroads as he had promised. When they reached the forest Arthur told Gawain that here they must part. Gawain told him he would prefer to accompany him but as it was his wish they would separate.
When Arthur reached the crossroads he found Dame Ragnelle sitting as if she had not moved since he had left. She greeted him saying,
“Well met, what is the news. Are to be saved or are you doomed?”
Arthur looked upon her with a mixture of gloom and disgust and said, “I have spoken to Gawain. As there is no other way he has agreed to the marriage. Therefore, Dame, tell me the answer to the question for I must go.”
Dame Ragnelle laughed long and hideously and then said,
“I will tell you what it is that women most desire. Some men say it is beauty and youth we desire that we stay attracted to men and are lusted after. It is not that. Some say women wish to be flattered and feted and wooed, but it is not that either. There are many other wrong things men say about women but now I will tell you what women most desire in all the world of men. It is this. We women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of our self and over men, so that all that is theirs is ours. We will use all our wiles and skills to master the most manly, the fiercest and the most brutal of men and gain sovereignty over them. Now King Arthur, go and tell this to the adversary who would cut off you head and you will be saved. Just remember our bargain!
Wasting no time Arthur rode to the place where he had killed the stag and where he had agreed to rendezvous with Sir Gromer Somer Joure. When he arrived Sir Gromer was already waiting. Arthur showed him the books with the answers he and Gawain had collected, Gromer spent a long time diligently studying them and at last said, “No, the correct answer is not here. Therefore, prepare to die!”
Arthur held up his hand and cried, “Wait! I have one more answer, will you hear it?”
“I will,” said Gromer.
“It is this. Women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of herself and over men so that all that is men’s is theirs,” said Arthur.
This infuriated Gromer who replied angrily, “Curse the woman, I hope she burns in Hell. Clearly you have spoken to the old hag, Dame Ragnelle, who is my sister. If not for her I would have your head here and now! Yes, you have given the right answer, but only thanks to her. Go now Arthur, but never let me catch you alone and unarmed in the forest again, for I will not hesitate a second time!“
Much relieved Arthur replied, “You can be sure I will never again be found at such a disadvantage. From now on I will always be armed and armored to defend myself and defend myself I will. Now I go.”
With that Arthur mounted his horse and rode to the crossroads to meet Dame Ragnelle, leaving Sir Gromer Somer Joure angrily cursing his sister. Although Arthur was glad to be free of the threat of death he now looked forward to his meeting with the loathly lady with disgust and dismay. He was desperately sorrow for what had been lain on Gawain and would have done anything to change it. At the crossroads she was waiting patiently still sat upon her horse. She cackled hideously at his approach and said, “Ha, King Arthur! See it is just as I told you. I have kept my part of the bargain and now you must keep yours. Sir Gawain will be my husband!”
Arthur shuddered, deeply sorry for what he had got his faithful nephew into but said, “I have spoke to Gawain and he has agreed, The marriage will go ahead though I wish for all the world it would not! Therefore if you will have your wish follow my advice. We will go secretly …”
Dame Ragnelle cut him short saying, “We will do nothing in secrecy. I will be married openly in public for all to see. You will not leave me until I am the wife of Sir Gawain, or it will bring shame and dishonor upon you. You will escort me royally to your court and all will see how I have saved your life and the gratitude you owe me! ”
Deeply embarrassed Arthur escorted Dame Ragnelle to court. When they reached Carlisle she waved and smiled gruesomely at all she met lapping up the attention she received. Everyone stared in shock and wonder at the hideous woman King Arthur escorted to his court. On arrival Arthur led her into his hall where she said joyfully, “Now bring to me Sir Gawain and summon your knights, noble and ladies. Send out to all nobles and lords to attend that they may witness our marriage which will take place as soon as all is assembled as witnesses. Fulfill your bargain King Arthur!”
Groaning inwardly, Arthur summoned Gawain and his knights, noble and ladies to meet Dame Ragnelle. When Gawain arrived, Dame Ragnelle declared she was so taking by his handsome appearance she wished she was beautiful for him. To his bemusement and embarrassment she reassured him she was as lusty as she was hideous, digging him in the elbow and winking, while Gawain stared blankly before him.
King Arthur held his head in his hands in despair while all of his knights and noble looked on in shock and bewilderment, The ladies of the court wept at the sight of the handsome, heroic Sir Gawain sitting next to his grotesque fiance. Although Arthur and his queen begged her to have a small private ceremony Dame Ragnelle refused. She declared it was her special day and she would share it openly with everyone. With resignation, Arthur summoned the lords and ladies of his realm to Carlisle to witness the marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.
After a few days everyone had arrived and all was in place and a magnificent wedding banquet prepared for after the ceremony. Although she wore a most beautiful wedding gown the contrast between her and her gown made it all the more surreal.The ceremony took place and Arthur and his lords and ladies looked on in shock and horror as the jubilant Dame Ragnelle wedded Sir Gawain. Although the horror could be seen in his eyes his courage was without fault that day. After the ceremony the banquet began and Sir Gawain led his bride to her chair at the banquet table.
The Marriage Banquet
It was a magnificent banquet but no one was prepared for what happened next. Taking her seat next to her husband at the head of the table. After all the appropriate speeches were rendered and proper protocols observed, Dame Ragnelle wasted no time in tucking in to the banquet.
To the sheer amazement of her new husband and the guests she began eating with amazing speed. She stuffed her mouth full of various kinds of food while swallowing great gulps of beer and wine. Everyone one stared in amazement and horror as plates of meat, pies, bread, sweetmeat and delicacies of all kinds disappeared into her voluminous mouth. As she ate she belched and coughed sending saliva flying across the hall and causing the guests to cover their plates. Greedily she ate whole capons, whole ducks, even whole swans, She ate a boar’s head and body to herself. She ate and she ate and ate and she drank and she drank and she drank.
Everyone looked on in embarrassed astonishment. All the time she chatted away gaily with her mouthful to her new bewildered husband and their equally bewildered guests. Every now and then she would elbow Gawain urging him to up to build up his strength, while giggling coyly. Gawain sat blank faced staring in space before him while Arthur sat holding his head in his hands silently begging Gawain for forgiveness.
At last she was satiated of food and drink and with more than a wink and a nod to her guests carried her new husband off to their bedchamber. Gawain stared forlornly out of the window while his wife prepared herself for her husband. At last she said, “Ah now, since we are now married you must not deny me in bed. I cannot deny that if I were beautiful you would feel and act differently, certainly with more enthusiasm. Nevertheless, do me the honor of turning to face me and kissing me. Show that you honor me!”
Gawain stood staring out of the window and sighing said, “Have no fear, I will kiss you and more.”
The Spell is Broken
Turning to face her he stood dumbfounded in astonishment at what he saw. Stood before him was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“What are you?” he asked.
“Husband, I am your wife, Why do act so strange?”
Gawain stood in amazement at the transformation and said, “Forgive me, I am at a loss. I am bemused and well and truly confused. Earlier today at our wedding you were the most hideous and ugliest creature I have ever seen. Now you are transformed into a vision of loveliness. The day began strange and has grown even stranger and I am at a loss to know what to say or do!”
His bride stood before him very much a vision of loveliness and she said, “You must make a choice. My beauty as you see me now will not last. I can only be fair at night or in the day time. That means if you choose me to be fair at night I will be foul during the day. Choose me to be fair in the day then I will be foul at night. Whatever you choose, I will remain, but you must choose one or the other. What will it be?”
Gawain thought for awhile then said, “It is a hard choice to make. To have you beautiful only for myself at night would be a sorrowful thing and I would do you dishonor. To have you beautiful in the daytime would mean I have little reward at night. Truly, I would like to choose the best but I have no idea of what that may be. Therefore, I give you the choice. Please make the choice that you prefer. I promise whatever that may be, my body, all of by possessions, my heart and soul will remain yours to do with as you please, this I promise before God.”
Thus transformed Lady Ragnelle said, “Sir Gawain you have proved to be an honorable and courteous knight and I bless you for the honor you have shown me. Do not be grieved or confused by my sudden transformation. My wicked stepmother cast a spell upon me changing me into the hideous being you first saw. I was to remain in that vile shape until the best and most worthy knight in England married me and gave himself, his body, his soul, all his worldly goods to me to rule and to do as I wished. You have given me sovereignty over myself and also over you. Be sure that I will use that power most wisely and with all love.”
Their wedding night was still young and they made the best of it. When dawn came they laughed and kissed and remained in bed happy in each other’s company. The morning passed and midday arrived and Arthur said to his knights with trepidation, “I think we better go and make sure Gawain has survived the night. I fear the hideous thing may have killed him. Let us go and make sure he is alright.”
He led a party of knights to the newly weds bedchamber and began banging upon the door crying, “Gawain, it is midday. Why are you so long in bed, are you ill?”
Gawain got up and opened the door ajar and said, “My Lord, I would be most grateful if you would leave me be for all is well here and in good health as is my beautiful wife, see …”
And he purposely opened the door fully to reveal Dame Ragnelle standing in a stunning gown with her red hair hanging around her waist looking a vision of beautiful and loveliness.
“Now you can see for yourselves why I am in no rush to rise and meet the day. Meet my wife, Dame Ragnelle who gave you the answer that saved your life.”
He told Arthur of the enchantment she has been under and how now it had been broken. All of Arthur’s knights were greatly relieved at his safety and pleased at the way things had turned out for him. The queen and her ladies were also delighted fearing that the hideous woman had murdered him, but even more pleased that his exemplary behaviour had won a wife of outstanding beauty. There was much relief all around and Arthur told the queen of how he had been forced to swear an oath in the forest of Inglewood to save his life and how Dame Ragnelle had saved him.
Gawain explained how his wife had placed under an enchantment by her stepmother and how his marriage to her and the choice he made to grant her sovereignty over herself and him on his wedding night had broken the spell.
Dame Ragnelle said, “I give my thanks to Gawain for without him I would still be the hideous, vile and misshapen thing. Therefore, although Gawain has recognized my own sovereignty over myself and granted me sovereignty over him I swear I shall never abuse or misuse it. I will be his wife and he my husband as it should be. There will never be discord between us.”
In return Gawain pledged his love and faithfulness, acknowledging the mercy she granted him.
The queen declared to her ladies that Lady Ragnelle was the most beautiful of the all and said, “I give my thanks to you for saving the king for I love him with my life!”
Gawain and Dame Ragnelle settled down and soon she bore him a fine strong son whom they named Gyngolyn, who grew up to be a good knight of the Round Table. It soon became apparent that Gawain loved his wife more than anything in the world. He gave up jousting and competing in tournaments and spent all his time by her side and she was reckoned the fairest lady in England.
Lady Ragnelle, begged Arthur to forgive her brother Sir Gromer Somer Joure for the wrong he had done to him and he reluctantly agreed. If everything appeared happy for a time it was bound to change. Sadly, after five happy years together Lady Ragnelle passed away. Although Gawain remarried he was said to have never loved anyone else like he loved Lady Ragnelle.
The legend of Keong Mas, or the Golden Snail, is a popular folktale from East Java, Indonesia. There are several versions and this retelling draws on more than one source. It tells how many years ago there was a rich and prosperous kingdom called Daha ruled by King Kertamarta who had two beautiful daughters named Candra Kirana and Dewi Galuh. The princesses were very good friends as well as being sisters and were very happy and content with their lives.One day a handsome prince from the Kingdom of Kahuripan named Raden Inu Kertapati visited King Kertamarta. On meeting Candra Kirana for the first time he fell in love with her and she with him and he asked the king for permission to marry his daughter. King Kertamarta was happy to give his permission and the two were engaged to be married.
The Wicked Witch
Although the two sisters had been happy and good friends up until then Dewi Galuh was now deeply jealous of her sister wishing Prince Raden Inu Kertapati had chosen her instead. She thought that perhaps is she could somehow get her sister out of the way the prince might instead turn his affections towards her and marry her. Therefore, she sought the help of a wicked witch who suggested she cast a spell and turn her sister, Candra Kirana, into something repulsive to to kill the passion of Prince Raden Inu Kertapati promising to pay the witch handsomely. The wicked witch agreed but told her she would have to get near enough to cast the spell so she suggested she take her sister for a walk along the river bank where she would disguise herself and lie in wait for them and she transformed herself into a large golden snail.
The Golden Snail
As Dewi Galuh and her sister walked along the river bank they came across the golden snail and Candra Kirana said, “Ugh! What a repulsive creature!” The witch instantly transformed back to herself and cast her spell transforming Princess Candra Kirana into a large golden snail and threw it into the river
One day a very old woman was casting nets into the river hoping to catch some fish. She did this several times but when she pulled the net out each time she was very disappointed because the net was completely empty of fish. She decided to have one last go and once again the net was empty of fish but did contain a large golden snail. The grandmother had never seen a golden snail before and thought it would make a good pet so she took it home and placed in a large jar.
The next morning she went out down to the river with her nets hoping to have better luck than the previous day and catch a few fish. Again she was disappointed and this time there was not even a snail. She trudged home disconsolate but when she got back she had a big surprise. When she entered the door she noticed the pleasant aroma of cooking and on the table were beautifully prepared dishes of the most delicious food.
Of course she wondered who had sent her such wonderful food but she counted her blessings and ate it all. Everyday the old woman would go down to the river and cast her nets into the water and every day she would catch nothing. Each day on her return there would be a sumptuous feast prepared and waiting on the table for her. Of course, the old woman ate and enjoyed all the food and gave thanks for such blessings but she was curious. One morning she took her nets and made as if to go down to the river but instead double-backed and peaked through the window to see what might be happening.
At first she saw nothing but then she noticed her golden snail had slithered up the inside of the jar and then down the outside, To he utter amazement it then began to grow and transform into a beautiful princess who stepped out of the shell. The girl began preparing and cooking ingredients that appeared on the table creating the most wonderfully tasty dishes. The old woman was surprised and shocked and stepped into house and asked the beautiful princess why she was cooking for an old woman like her.
The Spell is Broken
The Princess of the Golden Snail replied, “I am Princess Candra Kiranathe daughter of King Kertamarta. who was chosen by Prince Raden Inu Kertapati to be his wife. My sister Princess Dewi Galuh was jealous and persuaded my wicked witch to transform me into this golden snail. The old woman was disbelieving of the tale but when remembered how she had seen her transform into a princess from the golden snail before her eyes she was astounded but believed. Now although the old woman was not in anyway magical she possessed a certain wisdom and this wisdom told her that if she broke the golden snail’s shell then the princess would not be able to transform back into a snail and return to it so she crushed the shell under her foot. Sure enough the princess had nowhere to return to and the spell was broken.
Prince Raden Inu Kertapati
Meanwhile, Prince Raden Inu Kertapati learnt of the disappearance of his true love and was heartbroken. He loved her with all of his heart and she had become the light of his life, his candle in the dark and he resolved to find her. He left the king’s court and searched the countryside and traveled to many towns and villages in search of his lost love but could find no trace.
His disappearance from court came to the ears of the wicked witch. She quickly realised he was searching for Princess Candra Kirana andtransformed herself into a crow to seek him out and thwart him. One day as he was resting under a tree a crow came and perched in a branch above him and began talking to him. Of course he was surprised by encountering a talking crow but realizing it must be magical listened to what it said. The crow deceived him telling him that Princess Candra Kirana, the light of his life, his candle in the dark, was kept prisoner by a wicked old woman in a place over the mountains and told him that he would lead him to that place.
Therefore, he followed the crow’s which flew before him. After many days traveling he came across an old man who was sat by the road begging for food. The prince had little to give but gave it all anyway even though he knew he would have to go hungry.The old man thanked him and after he had eaten told him that he was a sorcerer and because he had stopped and given him the last of his food he would help him to find his heart’s desire and asked him what that might be.
Prince Raden Inu Kertapati told him about his search for his lost love and how the crow was leading him to where she was being held prisoner. The old man looked searchingly at the crow then hit it with his stick and it disappeared in a puff of smoke. The prince was aghast and shouted, Why did you do that? Now I will never find my lost love who is my heart’s desire!”
The old man smiled and said, “Fear not! I will tell you where your heart’s desire lies and I will tell you that cast upon her is now broken by an old woman and I know where she is waiting for you.”
The old man told him which village she could be found in and gave him directions and told her she lived with a kind old woman and which house they lived in. So the prince made his way to the village and when he arrived he was tired and thirsty so he approached one of the huts to ask for drink of water. He knocked on the door and a kind old woman answered and invited him in to have a drink and a rest. As he entered he was thrilled to see Princess Candra Kirana cooking some food. As soon as she saw him she ran to him and they embraced.
Prince Raden Inu Kertapati took Princess Candra Kirana and the kind old woman back to the Royal Court and Princess Candra Kirana told her father, King Kertamarta about the spell her sister had persuaded the wicked witch to place on her. The king was very angry with Princess Dewi Galuh and fearing what punishment he might inflict upon her she fled into the forest and was never seen again. Prince Raden Inu Kertapati and Princess Candra Kirana were married and lived a long and happy life together and the kind old woman stayed with them.
Humans have always had a long and beneficial association with animals and animal helpers appear in many fairy tales from around the world. Sometimes they are tricksters as in this story and sometimes they are teachers or guides that take the hero through difficult situations and very often they are magical.Presented below is a retelling of a Brazilian fairy tale from Tales of Giants from Brazil, by Elsie Spicer Eells, illustrated by Helen M. Barton, called Domingo’s Cat and has much in common with Charles Perrault’s “The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots, from the 17th century.”
The Story of Domingo’s Cat
The story begins with a man named Domingo who fell upon hard times and had to sell everything he owned just to buy enough food to keep from starving. After all his possessions had finally been sold he had nothing left in the world except his cat which he loved dearly. He vowed that come what may he would never sell his cat and that he would rather starve before he let any harm come to it. As it sat upon his lap he told it, “Have no fear my only friend, I will never let you go or let harm come to you, I will die of starvation first.”
The cat rubbed its head against him and replied, “My good master Domingo, while you have me I will never let you starve. I am going to go out into the wide world and find both our fortunes. You must put your trust in me.”
Treasure for the King
With that Domingo’s cat jumped down from his master’s lap and ran off into the jungle. Presently, he stopped and began digging a hole in the ground with his fore paws. He dug furiously throwing up the earth all around and mixed in with the earth were many silver pieces. He gathered some of these up and took them home and gave them to Domingo to buy food. Then he went back to the jungle collecting the remaining silver pieces and took them to the king.
The next day the cat went out into the jungle and began digging more holes and this time mixed in with the dirt were pieces of gold. He gathered these up and took them to the king who again was very pleaded with it. The following day the cat went out into the jungle and again began digging a hole but this time the earth was mixed with many shiny diamonds which he took along to the king.Again, the king was surprised and very happy with the cat and asked him where he was getting all these riches from.
“It is not me, it is Domingo my master,” replied the cat.
The king was very impressed and thought that Domingo must be very rich. Indeed, he thought he must probably be richest man in all his kingdom and therefore just the man to marry his beautiful daughter whom he had been looking for a suitable husband for. Therefore, he suggested to the cat that his master may like to marry her. The cat took the news back to Domingo who agreed he would like to marry the king’s daughter but pointed out that he did not have any clothes anywhere near fine enough to wear to a wedding let alone as the bridegroom to the king’s daughter.
“Don’t worry about that or anything else,” the cat told him, ” I will take care of everything and make all the necessary arrangements. Just leave it all to me.”
The Wedding Suit
The cat ran back to the king and said, “Your Majesty, I have bad news. A terrible fire broke out in the tailor’s shop where my master, Domingo was having his wedding suit made and the tailor and his assistants were all burnt to death. Now everything in the shop is nothing but ashes including Domingo’s wedding suit. I wonder if perhaps you could find him something suitable for such a grand wedding from your own wardrobe.”
The king readily agreed and himself chose the finest clothes and sent them with a servant to Domingo. After Domingo had put the clothes on he looked very smart and perfectly dressed for such an important wedding but he realized there was a problem.
“I look very fine but I have no splendid palace to take my wife home to after we are married,” he told his cat.
“Leave it to me,” said his cat, “I will see to it at once.” and ran off into the jungle until he came to a huge and magnificent castle where a great giant lived. He banged on the door until the giant came and answered it and then said, “Great giant, will you lend your castle to my master Domingo, please, just for a while?”
The giant snorted and shouted angrily “What me lend my castle to that pauper Domingo? Certainly not! Go away!”
“I will not go away and I will have your castle,” said the cat and in the blinking of an eye changed the giant into a mouse and pounced upon it and ate it.
The Giant’s Castle
The giant’s castle was indeed very wonderful and had a beautiful and stately palace. There were rooms marvelously decorated with wonderful words of art and adorned with gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds and rubies and much, much more. Outside the palace, inside the castle walls, was a beautiful garden filled with wonderful flowers and singing birds and it was indeed a most fitting place for Domingo to bring his new bride home to.
After the wedding a stately carriage took Domingo and his wife to the caste and when they arrived they saw his cat sitting in the window watching for them, but that was the last they ever saw of him because he disappeared into the jungle to look for another kind, penniless master to make rich. Maybe one day he may find you and then – well, who knows?
In Wales there are many folktales and legends that tell how humans and people from the Otherworld sometimes fall in love and marry. Very often it is a man who meets a woman from the other world and they fall in love. The woman or her father, often insists on a marriage contract being agreed by the bride’s groom that must be strictly followed. The groom agrees and the marriage takes place and they live for a time in happiness and then something happens that destroys or breaks the contract and destroys their happy life. There are many variations of this theme and presented here is a retelling of a Welsh tale taken from Welsh Fairy Tales by William Elliot Griffis.
It is said that on the rare occasions when women of the Otherworld consent to marriage with a mortal they will only do so if the prospective husband makes a contract with them that must not be broken and must be strictly adhered to. This story tells how a prince of Powys named Benlli found this out to his own cost. He had a fanciful notion in his head that to woo a woman all he had to do was say, “Come and be my bride,” and they would instantly follow him saying “Thank you for asking, of course I will be your bride.” and the two would stroll off to church for the wedding. At least this in his simplicity was what he thought,
The Maiden from the Green Forest
It so happened that sometime, somehow, in the past he had been successful with this style of wooing. He was married to a woman who had once been fair and beautiful but whose beauty and youth had quickly fled after marriage leaving her grey haired and wrinkled. It was probably the thought of a lifetime with her conceited husband that caused this, but Benlli now wanted a young pretty wife with rosy cheeks and long flowing golden hair and hoped to find one to satisfy his vanity.
One day he went hunting in the Green Forest and while his dogs were flushing out a wild boar he was surprised to see a beautiful woman with long golden flowing hair ride out of a cave on a milk-white horse, She was the loveliest woman he had ever seen and he fell in love with her there and then, but she was gone before he could react. The next day he rode to the same cave in the forest and waited hoping to see her again. Sure enough, the same beautiful woman came galloping out of the cave into the forest and in an instant had passed him by and was gone.
On the third day Prince Benlli again rode to the cave in the forest and once again the beautiful woman came galloping out on a milk-white steed. This time he spurred his horse forwards forcing her to stop and as was his style simply told her her to follow him to his palace and be his wife.
The Marriage Contract
The beautiful woman looked at him and said,
“I will will be your wife if you promise to fulfill these three conditions. First, your present wife must go. Second, you must agree that one night in every seven nights on Fridays I shall be free to leave you and you will not follow me. Thirdly, you will not ask where I am going, or what I do and you will not spy on me. You must swear to me that you will uphold these conditions and if you keep them my beauty will remain unblemished. If you break your word the waters shall rise and the pike and the perch shall play between the the bulrushes and the long waving, water reeds shall grow in your hall. Do you agree?”
Without further delay, Benlli, agreed to these conditions and a solemn contract was made between the two and the Maid of the Green Forest became his wife.
As mentioned earlier, Benlli was already married and yet he had just wed the Maid and promised her that his first wife would go so how was he going to manage this situation? Curiously, when the two arrived at his palace she had gone and never once returned, so that saved him a task.
In the days that followed Benlii was very happy with his new wife who, everyday grew prettier and prettier. They would spend days together chatting in the palace, or they would go horse riding in the Green Forest, or sometimes hunted deer. Indeed, the more her loveliness grew the happier he became. For a wedding present he gave her a ring that was set with a big and beautiful diamond and alone was worth a king’s ransom. He gave her lavish jewelry of gold and silver and and a diadem studded with rubies and sapphires and loved his beautiful wife so much he would have given her anything. In those early days never once did he ever think of breaking his marriage contract.
However, time flies and in time all things change. Three times three equals nine and after nine years with his wife disappearing every Friday night he began to grow curious as to what she was up to and where she went. So much did he begin to dwell on the matter that it began to depress and worry him and became irritable and miserable in the company of others. All of his servants and friends noticed the change in him but none dared to ask what the problem was.
Wyland the Monk
Then one night he had invited a very learned monk named Wyland to dinner and he had ordered the banqueting hall to be brightly decorated and that the best food and drink should be served. He hired the best minstrel to provide the best music and entertainment.
Now, Wyland as well as being a monk, was also a man of magic and he knew and saw things that others could not see. That night at dinner, despite all the finery, glamour and happy entertainment he could see Benlli was deeply unhappy and thoroughly miserable. He did not say anything to begin with but after the banquet was over he went home and decided he would call again in a few days time to see Prince Benlli and find out what was troubling him. The next time he met Benlli, Wyland sat him down and said, “Tell me my friend, why are you so unhappy and miserable with life?”
Then Benlli related all to Wyland of how he had met and married the Maid of the Green Forest and of the three conditions of their wedding contract and said,
“Every Friday night, there am I with the owls hooting and the nightingales singing and my wife is absent from my bed until the sun rises. I lay alone there wondering where she can be and what she is doing. Eventually, I fall asleep to wake in the morning finding her by my side. I am overcome with curiosity and jealousy worrying about who she may be seeing and this is weighing down my soul. Even with all of my wealth, my luxurious palace and all its finery I am unhappier than any beggar in Wales or on the island of Britain!”
As Wyland listened to Benlli’s woes his quick mind realized there was a way he could make money from the prince’s woes and benefit his monastery at the same time. All he had to do was to cure the troubles of Benlli’s soul and so he said,
“My friend, I have an idea that may help to ease your soul. If you are but prepared to give the monks of White Minster one tenth of the flocks of sheep in your domain, one tenth of all the riches that flow into your treasury from the rents of the lands, and give the Maiden of the Green Forest to me, I can guarantee your soul will be free of all your troubles and at peace. What do you say?
Benlli readily agreed and shook hands on the deal.
A Battle of Spells
On the next Friday night Wyland the Monk took his book of spells and went to the cave in the forest which he knew as being an entrance to the Otherworld. There, he waited under the silvery moonlight. He had not been waiting too long when out of the cave on horseback there galloped a lady dressed in the finest clothes wearing a glittering crown upon her head. He knew it was Benlli’s wife, the Maiden of the Green Forest and he stepped in front of her holding his book before him calling upon her to stop. There then followed a battle of spells that saw lightning and fire light up the night as the two hurled spells and counter spells at each other. Finally, summoning up the spirits of the air Weland told them of his plan to enrich the monastery and called upon them to assist and bind the Maiden of the Green Forest to his will saying,
“Spirits of the air, I call upon you to bind this maiden to me that she will always be at my side. Bring her to me at the dawn of day to the crossroads before the town of Whiteminster and there I will marry her and she will be my own for all time!”
Waving his hands in the air and uttering special words he cast a spell that would prevent anyone from interfering with this and could not be broken. Then he made his way to the crossroads to await the arrival of his bride-to-be at dawn. Arriving at the crossroads as the sun rose, to his disgust the first thing he saw was a hideous old hag who cackled and hissed and raised her hand pointing her bony finger at him. Set upon it was the big, beautiful diamond ring that Benlli had given to the lovely Maiden of the Forest when she had become his wife.
The Hag of the Green Forest
“Ha, ha, haaaa! I hear my love approaching, Come sweet lover and clasp me to thine bosom!” she shrieked through a mouthful of rotting teeth,
“Look at me, Wyland my love, look deep into my red and burning eyes and know that I am your betrothed. This foul hag that stands before you was once the beautiful bride of Prince Benlli. When my beauty left me his love left with it but on the seventh night my magic brings back my beauty. He has broken our wedding contract and I warned him, I said, ‘If you break your word the waters shall rise and the pike and the perch shall play between the the bulrushes and the long, waving, water reeds that shall grow in your hall.’ This promise is now fulfilled and both your spell and mine are complete. From you he has received the freeing of his soul and eternal peace, for he is dead. My promise caused the a rivers and springs to gush and rise into his halls which is now covered in water and perch and pike play among the bulrushes and reeds. The clashing of our spells means they cannot be undone and no charm or counter spell will avail. Therefore, Wyland my love, come to me and claim me as your reward for we have both kept our promises. Come take me, I am yours!”
So it was that Prince Benlli broke his marriage contract and paid the price as the waters of the land rose drowning him in in own halls. As for Wyland the Monk – man of God and magic – he reaped what he had sown for himself in the tender loving arms of the Maiden of the Green Forest.