This article was first published January 14, 2021 on FolkloreThursday.com as Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts by zteve t evans
The ancient Celts were believed to practice a form of animism in their religion and belief system that provided a meaningful way for them to experience and make sense of the world they lived in. In this work we will discuss animism and the various aspects of animism that the ancient Celts possibly followed concluding with a short discussion of their belief system.
Rather than a religion, animism is more an expression of the energy connections that are believed to flow through all things connecting each to the other and to the greater consciousness. It is this greater consciousness that is the source of all energy and that endows everything with life and sentience. Many early creeds embraced aspects of animism and it is still found in many modern religions and philosophies.
The Celts were a varied collection of ethnic groups inhabiting a wide swathe of continental Europe from the west coast of Ireland to the Black Sea and other scattered areas. As a group they appear to have been bound together by common aspects of language, culture and religion rather than ethnicity. They worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses which varied from region to region as could the importance and attributes of those divinities. Animism is seen as the one of the threads that connected the beliefs of this vast and diverse group of people together.
In animism there is a belief that all things possessed a spirit and a consciousness that connects everything together. The sky, Earth and underworld were connected along with natural phenomena such as the weather and everything was all part of a greater conscious universe. Furthermore, even certain words objects and images had sentience and were alive and could be used in conjunction with the greater consciousness to benefit humanity. For the Celt, death was the transmigration of the souls while their ancestors were revered and regarded as alive.
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 chose me to be fair at night I will be foul during the day. If chose 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.