A little on Cundrie - the great Hag of the Woods in Parzival this week. This should prove a goodly bit of prep both for folks coming to this weekend's telling up on Dartmoor (scroll down for details), and the long and deep telling that we will be swimming about in at this years Great Mother Conference, from June 2nd and all week over in Maine, U.S. More on that soon - it's going to be greeeeat.
The scene is a celebration for Parzival surrounded by admirers, when Cundrie emerges from the tree line and truly shames him for his failure to 'ask the question' and relieve the Fisher King. The chivalric notion of shame is complicated, and deserves a review in the light of most modern people's desire to live a life entirely free of it. So, hope to see you either by the fireside this weekend, or in the main hall 'Innisfree' by the lake this June.
The Horror, The Horror
Nothing wakes us up like menace - menace refreshes.
Cundrie's arrival is not pretty for Parzival. Carrying three soul messages from Jeschute, Sigurne, and the image in the snow, he is just starting to relax at Arthur’s table. Then she arrives. The terrible hag. She has a message for the reptile brain, the gnashing crocodile at the back of our head, that ancient fight or flight survival part.
Certain pieces of information can only land with sufficient emphasis publicly. Think of sentencing. The strike of the hammer, the wig and gown, the peering faces from the public gallery – all are ritual devices designed in part to alert the psyche of the accused that something major has just gone down. This ritual devising is certainly all in place here, Parzival is receiving every nightmare-ish shade of dressing down you could possibly imagine. Is this a travesty? An outrage? Or has the boy, as Gurnemanz warned, “lost his sense of shame”?
You have just accepted the Oscar and the husband is found to be having an affair, you pick up the first class degree and the next day your dissertation is found to be a plaguerism. The precariousness of life’s acclaims always seems to carry the threat that some terrible fiend will ride in past the firelight and spill the story on a horrifying secret.
Even at this stage we suspect that Cundrie is in service to some enormous spiritual power. This implies that her scold is part of the arsenal of the prophet – the truth teller. It is worth remembering that scold is an old word for poet – from the Norse, Skald. So is he receiving a kind of grim poetry? She was certainly inventive with her castigation – the ‘feathered hook’ line was a new one in the medieval world. It’s interesting that most of the truly prophetic words in the old testament come as poetry not prose. Her dismembering comes not with the swings of a two-headed axe, but the icy stab of a thin blade, expertly placed on his most delicate regions.
In the old Irish courts, the satire of the bard could make a king sicken, birds fall from the sky, the ocean retrace its steps to avoid an encounter. Words were deadly. But still, is there something thrilling in “negative capability”, as Tony Hoagland puts it (Hoagland 2006 :193). We remember Rumi – “pray for a harsh instructor”.
Hard advice is often heard with dismay, but rarely forgotten. If the individual is robust then they can maybe learn something, but if already conflicted then it can weaken to the point of inertia.
Cundrie is about standards, the upwards gaze, the pilgrim's walk, the tiger’s wrath, slipping through the eye of the needle. She doesn’t want us fat at table scoffing the calorific delights of a neighbour's praise. That could lead to a heart attack. She wants us out amongst the wet trees of longing, following the shaggy trails of god.
There is a link between standard keeping and our earlier associations between the elder and the younger. We love to laugh at the image of the furious old woman or man bemoaning that “things aren’t what they used to be”. But behind the false teeth, filmy eyes and wayward bladder control can be a deadly sharp observer of falling quality in ethics, art, commerce. They too carry bristles, tusks, piggy red eyes, hair sprouting from ears tuned to an older signal. We ignore them and a great passageway of communication gets lost, for behind them – where they will soon be headed – stand the ancestors. Malidoma Some talks about the growing irritations of the elders of the Dagara, as one foot starts to place itself in spirit time. They are seeing through Cundrie's eyes, at the slow turn of the daily procession, and grow tetchy. They let their hygiene go, get grubby like soil and watch life with an eerie and fierce perspective.
The body's truths are writ large as it groans, wheezes, and generally descends to the dark earth. Cosmetic surgery spreads its mis-truths; eyes cranked, forehead uncreased and bloated, trying to encrypt the message of eternal youth over the boney eruptions of age. Cundrie's appearance places herself in the lineage of decay, the ugly and also animals - the lion, the monkey, the bear. The most active, visceral representative of the Grail we have met is a changeling, a woman drenched in hair, but who speaks three languages and wears a hat from London. We have a dazzling mix of style and marginality as the very representative of this highest spiritual value system.
A shape-shift is a form of metaphor – a diverging moment when one word carries multiple associations, wrenches itself from the straight road of enquiry and up into multi-layered expansions of image. Genius has arisen from the margins whilst holding the fiercest soul values. This is an enormous moment in the story. She seems to carry more energy than everyone else at the feast combined.
Let us consider for a minute. This is not the “far distant lady” of the troubadours, no lances are bring splintered for her love, no eyes scouting for the heart. She is the cynocephalic hag of the forest. She is the crossroads apparition, the midnight collision on the lonely road with a white-faced Banshee. She is not a delicate vision peering down from a medieval tower. The image of the feminine as gateway to the divine has just morphed into a murder of ravens, the bent prophecies of the lonely willow, the mad sow protecting her shitty nest. But does she speak in some bark-tongued screech of the woods? No, she is a holder of certain archaic boundaries, she is a mistress of accountability.
My own grandfather, Alec Gibson, was a headmaster of a small private school, strict Baptist, and held what we could call Cundrian values. My own father as a young pupil, less so. A good buddy of his was prone to clambering on top of the teacher's staff room, filling his face with chocolate and then vomiting down the window. Alec must have been thrilled when a wedding ensued between his daughter and the friend of our erstwhile projectile climber. But, as my father has aged, he too carries a bristle or two. Usually a fairly benign, encouraging sort, he has the look of a starved hawk on a worm when it comes to certain, very specific areas. A flaccid sentence of prose, a fluffed drum rudiment, a rash biblical analogy, and suddenly there stands Cundrie behind him, nostrils flared, eyes filled with holy terror. I admire this in him, and have passed through that particular fire on more than one occasion.
But his emphasis is specific not general. Many of us are passive in all sorts of areas until some unsuspecting loafer waddles into our field of expertise and the watchman is roused. We all have a Cundrie trigger somewhere. Cundrie is also about
discrimination, of elevated, hard language, as speech as a form of combat.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2012