The Arthurian Realm: Morgan le Fay – Healer, Witch and the Woman Question.

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on November 29, 2018, titled British Legends: Morgan le Fay – Magical Healer or Renegade Witch? written by zteve t evans

Introducing  Morgan

In Arthurian tradition, the elusive sorceress Morgan le Fay becomes one of King Arthur’s most dangerous foes, breaking traditional family bonds and working to undermine and bring down the strict patriarchal system and chivalric order of the Arthurian world. Morgan is an enigma: despite attempting to kill King Arthur and usurp his kingdom, she takes him into her care after he is severely wounded by Mordred in the battle of Camlann, which brings an end to his kingdom. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, and Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, with influences from other texts, and looks at how Morgan’s character changes from benevolent, to malignant and then back to benevolent. To do this, we look at her early life, how she used Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur against him and stole its scabbard, and the disaster this would cause. This is followed by a discussion on two important topics that had a considerable influence on medieval society: the Querelle des Femmes or The Woman Question, and witchcraft, before concluding with Morgan’s return to Avalon.

As Ruler of Avalon

Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces Morgan into Arthurian literature in Vita Merlini, as ‘Morgen’, presenting her as the leader of nine benevolent sisters that rule the island of Avalon. She is the most beautiful, the most knowledgeable and the most powerful of the sisters. As well as being a skilled healer, she can fly or transport herself at will from place to place, and she has shape-shifting abilities.

It is not clear whether these ‘sisters’ are family, or members of some kind of religious or mystical order. In the work of some later writers, she becomes either the step-sister or full elder sister of King Arthur, but a radical change happens with her character. As Arthur’s elder sister, she breaks the traditional bond of love between brother and sister and the nurturing role so often associated with the elder sister towards their younger brother. Furthermore, instead of the wise and benevolent sorceress, she evolves into a malign, sexual predator, hating her brother and his wife Queen Guinevere, and forsakes her place at the center of the Arthurian establishment, moving to its periphery and becoming a renegade attacking the established order. She targets the Knights of the Round Table, especially Sir Lancelot, weaving dark spells and plots to trap them. Eventually, she becomes nothing less than an enemy of the state and, arguably, its most dangerous adversary, until Mordred emerges to usurp the crown, resulting in the battle of Camlann.

Morgan’s Early Life

In Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Morgan the youngest daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Igraine. When the King of the Britons, Uther Pendragon, first set eyes on Igraine, he became wildly infatuated with her. Unable to contain his lust, he attacked Cornwall to take Igraine for himself. Gorlois sent his wife to his safest stronghold of Tintagel while he confronted Uther’s troops in battle. While the military confrontation took place, Merlin, using his magical arts, transformed Uther into the likeness of Gorlois to allow him to gain access to Igraine at Tintagel. The guards, believing it was Gorlois, let him enter the stronghold. Believing he was her husband, Igraine lay with him, and that night Arthur was conceived.

While this was taking place, Gorlois was killed battling Uther’s army. After satisfying his lust, Uther returned to his troops and, on learning of the death of the duke, took Igraine to be his wife. He married her eldest daughter, Morgause, to King Lot of Lothian and the next eldest, Elaine, to King Nentres of Garlot. Morgan was the youngest and he sent her to a nunnery.

Morgan hated Uther because she knew what had happened the night her father died, and deeply resented Arthur as the product of his lust. At the nunnery, she was introduced to astrology, the dark arts of necromancy and the skills of healing, becoming highly adept in this field. As her skill and knowledge grew, people began to call her Morgan le Fay in acknowledgement of her abilities. Eventually, she joined Arthur’s court and became a lady in waiting to Queen Guinevere.

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Cornish Folktales: The Witch of Treva

The following is a retelling of a Cornish folktale called The Witch of Treva from Popular Romances of the West of England  by Robert Hunt.

There was once a an old woman who was deeply skilled in the arts of necromancy and lived in a tiny hamlet called Treva in Cornwall.  She could make powerful, spells, incantations and charms and people in the neighborhood were terrified of her.

Nevertheless, although the local people held her in fear and awe her husband remained singularly unimpressed by her witchery and refused to believe in such things.  Instead he was more concerned about the housekeeping and the cooking especially when he came home from work when he would demand his dinner the instant he came in.

One day after a hard day’s work he came home looking forward to a good dinner which he expected to be cooked and ready, on the table for him to tuck into as soon as he walked through the door.  Imagine his shock and annoyance when he discovered there was no dinner.  In fact there was no meat, no vegetables or potatoes or any other kind of food in the house at all.

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The Rollright Stones: Magic, Mystery and Murder

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The King’s Men – by The locster – CC BY-SA 3.0

The Rollright Stones are a group of three ancient monuments dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, situated along the borders of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire in England.  The complex is made up of three different sets of standing stones individually known as the King Stone, the King’s Knights and the Whispering Knights.  Their original purpose and meaning have been long lost but such is the enigmatic and inscrutable nature of the stones that many myths, legends and traditions evolved around the site. Stories of witches and kings, petrification spells, death and madness, failed attempts at moving the stones, fairies living under the stones, fortune telling and superstitions and many more such traditions add to the mystery and magic of the Rollright Stone Complex.

The Witch and the King

Probably the most famous legend tells how the complex was created by a witch who turned an invading king and his army into three sets of standing stones.  The legend tells how the king and his army traveling through the district came across a witch who took an apparent dislike to the king and his men and turned them to stone.  She then turned herself into an elder tree to watch over them.  Read More

Petrification Myths: The Rollright Stones Complex

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The King’s Men

On the borders of the English counties of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, not far from the village of Long Compton, lies a mysterious complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age megaliths known as the Rollright Stones. Presented here is a brief description of the stone complex followed by a look at the petrification myth associated with it that fancifully attempts to explain its origin.  The presentation concludes by briefly mentioning other stone circles and monoliths that also have petrification myths associated with them.

The Rollright Stones

The Rollright Stones complex consists of three sets of monuments; the King Stone, the Whispering Knights and the King’s Men.  The King Stone is a single standing stone set some 50 yards outside the stone ring which is  separated from it by a road.  The Whispering Knights was a burial chamber also outside the stone ring.  The final set is a circle of stones called the King’s Men.

The sets are not the same age as each other and all appear to have had different purposes. This leads scholars to think that the site had a strong tradition of ritual over a long period of time and had some kind of special significance during that time.  With the timescale involved and the sheer mystery of their purpose perhaps it’s not surprising that a number of intriguing myths and legends have evolved as people throughout the ages attempted to explain their existence.

The Petrified King and his knights

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The King Stone – Photo by Cameraman

According to a legend recorded by William Camden in 1610, and put into verse, there was a king who wanted to conquer the entire country of  England and he came across a witch who confronted him saying,

“Seven long strides shalt thou take And if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.”

The King took up the challenge saying in reply,

“Stick, stock, stone As King of England I shall be known.”

And strode forward, but on his seventh stride a long mound, which sometimes now is known as the Arch-Druid’s barrow rose up before him preventing the sight of Long Compton.  The laughing witch cried,

“As Long Compton thou canst not see King of England thou shalt not be. Rise up stick and stand still stone For King of England thou shalt be none; Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be And I myself an eldern tree.

The King was turned into a standing stone known as the King Stone and most of his men who were gathered in a circle were turned into the King’s Men ring of stones.  Outside of this circle was a small group of knights who some say were in prayers, while others say they were whispering  and plotting against the king.  Either way they still fell victim and were turned to stone to become Whispering Knights.

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Whispering Knights – by  Midnightblueowl

A legend says that one day the spell will be broken and the King and his knights will resume their conquest of England unless they have the bad luck to come across another witch. It is not told if the king had angered the witch in some way.  Neither is it known why the witch turned herself into an elder tree  unless it was to keep an eye on the hapless king.  The witch’s tree is said to be growing in a hedge separating the King Stone from the Stone Circle and according to legend will bleed if it is cut when in flower.  It is said that on Midsummer’s Eve people would congregate around the King Stone and he would move his head when the elder tree was cut.

Midnight at the stones

Tradition says the King’s Men are released from the petrification spell and return to life at midnight.  They all join hands together and dance in a circle and are also said to go down to the spring in a nearby spinney  to take a drink. This is a dangerous time because it is said that anyone who should witness these extraordinary events will die or go mad.

Petrification myths

Many other stone circles and standing stones have petrification myths attached to them that tell how people were turned to stone by a witch, God, or the Devil for taking part in some forbidden activity in some way.  Some people think these type of legends were encouraged by the Christian church who were keen to discourage pagan practices. Another school of thought was that such legends were promoted by the Puritans as a warning to keep on the straight and narrow path of the Christian faith.

The threat of petrification may have been seen as a lasting and very visible punishment for transgressing the rules, especially those of merrymaking on Sundays which seems to be a popular day for being turned to stone in Britain!  In the case of the Rollright Stones we are not told what the day was only that it was a witch that gave the king the warning and appears to have foretold the king’s destiny, or cast the spell that fulfilled it.

Was it misfortune, or just a bad day?

The petrification of humans into stone is often associated with the creation of stone circles and standing stones.  Many other ancient stone circles and monoliths also have petrification myths attached to them such as Long Meg and her Daughters in Cumbria, Mitchell’s Fold in Shropshire, the Stanton Drew stone circles of Somerset, the Merry Maidens and The Hurlers,  Cornwall and there are plenty of other examples in the British Isles and around the world.  In Britain the petrification is often caused by a witch, or for participating in some forbidden activity such as merrymaking on a Sunday.  In the case of the Rollright Stones the King and his men just seemed to have had the misfortune to happen upon a particularly spiteful witch, or just caught her on a bad day!

© 11/07/2016 zteve t evans

 References and Attributions

Copyright July 7th, 2016 zteve t evans

English Folktales: The White Cow of Mitchell’s Fold

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White Cow by Niko Piromani – Public Domain

Mitchell’s Fold

Today, Mitchell’s Fold is the remains of a stone circle standing on a bleak heath in South West Shropshire.  A local folktale tells of how the stone circle was originated. It tells that there was once a time of great and grievous famine that fell upon the country thereabouts. Many  were faced with starvation and the people had to endure the most terrible struggle to survive. Fortunately for them there was a Good Witch who sent them a most wonderful cow that grazed upon the heath.

This cow was pure white and allowed folk to milk her as long as they took no more than one pail, or container, of milk for each person, each time she was milked.  If that one simple rule was followed she never ran out of milk and could be milked all day and all night any number of times.  She would even fill different kinds of containers, but the rule of one applied also to them and as long as that was followed she never once ran dry.  Local folk were grateful and obeyed the rule fearing that if she should be milked dry she would leave and never return leaving them with no form of nourishment.

Witch Mitchell

Now there was a bad old woman by the name of Witch Mitchell who hated everyone and took delight in causing harm and misfortune to people.  She took it on her to take a sieve up to the moor and milk the cow into that.  Well, as can be expected the sieve never filled up  and eventually the cow ran dry.  The cow was at first content to yield up her milk but with the milking seeming to take an age she looked around and saw a great pool of milk all over the heath.  The white cow,  perhaps feeling that her good nature had been abused, ran off and was not seen on the heath again.

As is so often the way of the world the many suffer from the abuses of the few and the poor people she left behind suffered greatly from starvation and many died all because of the evil Witch Mitchell.

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West side of Mitchell’s Fold – photo by Dave Coker

The Good Witch was angry  with Witch Mitchell and punished her by turning her into a standing stone that stood on the heath.  She caused standing stones to be placed all around her to imprison her there for all time. That place on the moor became known as Mitchell Fold after the bad Witch Mitchell.  Some say the the cow ran all the way to Warwickshire changing her color on the way to become known as the Dun Cow, but that is another tale.

© 22/06/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright June 22nd, 2016 zteve t evans