Saturday, 13 April 2013

Cundrie: Tough Love in the Myth World

Ok, final mutterings from Parzival this week - then i will leave it alone. Five years on a book does this to a man. I am really excited to issue the first illustration for the book - by the brilliant Cara Roxanne. Check out her music too at:
These are some sections cut-and-pasted together, that have loose connections only - and i am aware they don't answer every question raised.

So it's not always coherent, but there are other places to go for that kind of thing.

The writing is on the role of Cundrie - the Great Tusked Woman of the Woods - in the development of the Grail story. In short - she rides into Camelot, interrupts praise from Arthur himself, and tears into Parzival- accusing him of abandoning his grail quest. In short she shames him. But long term, she saves him. She issues some hard swipes to his ego, but preserves his soul.
This piece begins with a wider appreciation of why i find her so compelling to the story, then invokes some of her toothy attributes, and then just descends into a joyous romp through the kind of images she seems to invoke when you have been prepared to stay in the burning ground of her instruction.

Picture the scene – the end of the story. Parzival finally arrives at the Grail castle gates - the very centre of divine power on earth. Is he with King Arthur, resplendent with hawk, hound, and horse? No.

After five years wandering bewildered in the wastelands, his companions are a hag with the snout of a dog, claws of a lion, and tusks of a boar, and a pagan brother mottled black and white like a magpie. This startling image is central to the tale, and yet this trinity of energies seem somehow sidelined. To my eyes, it is the great trickster story of Medieval Europe – without trickster in the form of Cundrie, Parzival would have never made it to the gates.

It matters to me that women occupy such immense roles of both activity and mysticism in this story, to have it pegged as a simple, male hero myth is a hugely missed opportunity for all of us. No one wins. This is my young daughters favorite tale, the vitality of her imagination floods effortlessly into all the characters - she is amok. I love to hear her tell it.

Sibyl Language: Dark Speech

Nothing wakes us up like menace - menace refreshes.
Tony Hoagland

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 neighbor's praise. That could lead to a heart attack. She wants us out amongst the wet trees of longing, following the shaggy trails of a god.

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 sow protecting her muddy nest.

It is also a story that leads from the 'idealized' picture of the feminine, distant and holy, to an eye watering, tongue flailing hag of the woods, up close and holy. We sometimes expect the former and then get the latter. We detect from the early poems of the Countess of Dia and others (one of the Trobaritz - the tiny, dis-connected group of women poets of the era) , an irritation at being used as a seemingly passive image within the troubadour framework. This story is not about deifying women in far off towers. All the women in the story are are opinionated, up close, active, occasionally brilliant, sometimes maddening, always engaging.

We salute Cundrie and her capacity for a certain bracing word-power. Let's widen our appreciation of this. In the old Irish poem, ‘The Dialogue of the Two Sages’, two men battle verbally for the chair of chief Bard – Ollav – of Ulster. Whilst refraining from direct insult, they hurl muscled language across the feasting hall until the poetical battle is complete. The elder describes himself as “inquiry of the curious, weft of deftness, creel of verse am I and abundance of the sea”, before enquiring of the younger what art does he practice? “I make naked the word, I have foregathered the cattle of cognizance, the stream of science, the totality of teaching, the captivation of kings and the legacy of legend.” 4 It’s an old western stand off, pistols drawn, both guns blazing. Much of the tension comes from the fact that it is witnessed; one will have to lose, the stakes and reputation of both are all to play for.

In the Senchus Mor, the presiding king over the showdown is the legendary Conchobar Mac Nessa who claims they speak in a “dark tongue”, and of whom his advisors insist “keep their judgements and their knowledge to themselves”. It is truly initiated language - obtuse, elevated, aggressive. Some claim it is an archaic form of Gaelic that had been held tight under the secretive cloak of the bards whilst becoming widely extinct. There is no addiction to harmony here, but an understanding that sophisticated language, ritual measure and space for the opponent's lunge (which is actually invited) is the way to resolve disputes. Many Taoist scripts, and, of course, the I Ching have a thread of dark speech all the way through them.

One of the many fascinations with hearing Robert Bly speak in the eighties and nineties was the possible flare-ups that could occur, that were even encouraged. He seemed able to both dish out and endure any number of attacks. Cundrie was never dismissed from the table, but found full voice in his commentaries on contemporary America and the state of the arts. There was also room for a volley of attacks from the floor. Those attacks could also cause him to change opinion mid-stream, which was admirable to witness. Yes it was messy, rather unresolved, but most importantly, invigorating. It was Bly that turned many of us onto feminism.

She brings tough stuff

Cundrie is a critic. A hard-eyed, lethally accurate, thousand-year-old critic. You can’t buy her. She is to do with the truth that bursts unbidded - the coffee morning abandoned – the guests outraged, the wild snake that gobbles the na├»ve. It means stepping into opinion – not seeing the hundred different possibilities but the tough centre of the argument. You are out on the lawn, bellowing at the neighbor over a boundary line issue. You are no longer involved in a popularity contest, you fashion small black loaves of language that are as heavy as iron.

The Cundrie in you hates to see you searching for the remote, settling for porn over the erotic, neglecting to show your kids badger's dens, books you love, asking them nutty questions. She drags women from the dishes to catch a thunderstorm then changes the locks. If you fail to read the messages she sends then she shows up in our outer life and really lays it out.

Cundrie is a sybil - “one who offers divine council”. The very first sybil, Sibylla of the seventh century BC, had a harsh tongue in her head; her prophetic utterances would cut deeply into the complacency of the enquirer. She would speak flatly of famine, disease, war and would chastise heavily whoever came forward with a question. Heraclitus observed that the prophecies were delivered from unsmiling lips – it seemed a heavy role to carry. Still, it was claimed she lived for 1,000 years, so maybe she was just conserving energy.

A detail is that the prophecies did not indicate a possession state – she retains her lucidity even while a spirit wind sweeps through her. In Sibylla, we locate two great forces conjoining, the cosmos and the woman. But even in this conjoining, the crucible of soul is wide enough to hold both in a tapestry without annihilating the personal or shutting down the cosmic. In our exploration of how to hold and express wild mythologies, this is a crucial detail. Remember Parzival tranced by the blood on snow? They lack Sibylla’s expansive container that holds the arduous tensions of the two. It is only in later centuries that this mediation seems to be compromised by a later Sibyl’s working in Apollo’s temple; there we find descriptions by the poet Lucan of “a rabid jabber poured from her foaming lips...the groans and loud babblings as she gasps to draw breath; doleful howls and wailing fills the cavern”. This image does not suit the eloquence of Cundrie.

Sibylla herself was part of no organized establishment, she rode independence like a snorting horse, scattering freely her troublesome images. Another detail is that she didn’t speak them – she sang them.

Cundrie is emphatically showing Parzival the route downwards. Like most of us, he encounters grief and trouble with the sense of ‘It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!’ Even as we head down into the muck we can see dawn breaking beyond the next set of hills. Hallelujah. The stone has been rolled away. This is James Hillman’s territory of irritation, even claiming that we are entirely christianized as a society if we operate with that sense of relentless optimism. The textual qualities of the descent – the scents, colors, the terrible insights – get lost if we are always paddling away from the flood. Drown, says Hillman. Drowning pulls us into the barnacled insights of Neptune; we are finally in a murky, half-lit world where we have to move very slowly. Soul is as interested in our retreats as our frantic jerks forwards, but this is a very hard notion to embody.

But where is it leading?....

The Great Remembering
Cundrie and the magpie brother take Parzival, and us, with all our worldly sophistication, back somewhere ancient. To the mysteries of Chauvet Cave, laden with 150 bear skulls and the vulva of a goddess, emblazoned with a black ochre on phallic limestone. The walls are filled with paintings of charging images – the clear jut of the lion, the owl, the rhino, the hyena. Lacerating these very walls are the claw marks of the bears that live there, lusting to drag down this proud gallop of meat.

This was a time of magical as well as fleshy rupture – you could walk right out of your body if the chanting made the air quiver at just the right moment, the scattering of bones wished you on, if your trembling form was striped in ochre like the back of the great auroch itself. These uttering’s spun you right out and into myth time. It was in this way that the spirit-lights came, and we travelled far to see who we already were.

It was in this emerging that we scraped our feathery head on the limy rock as we leapt into the shape of rook, or burst through altogether riding wolf-mind. We negotiated which beasts would step forward and lay their head for their brother the hunter, and when our time came, which of us would wander into the snow, lie down and bend our head for our sister the bear. This went on for hundreds of thousands of years.

Cundrie and the magpie brother hold Parzival, and us, shoulder by shoulder, as we, by flickering light, see the dances being danced that hold our unsteady cosmos together, the secretive little steps that charm the lillies, those bold sweeps of arm that rouse the fresh wind, those flurried curves of charismatic language that call the secret names of all things. Suddenly a woman sweeps by, breasts bare, with the mane of a horse, a fine boned old man lurches, just for a second, into the shape of a dog-fox, children become butterflies and ancients become the great trees we always knew they were. We see this through a haze of heat and distance, but we see it. None of this entirely denies human culture, its innovations, printing press and great blessings, but it certainly deepens it. It re-routes all this magician energy back to a healthier, earthier position. The divide between court and forest grows porous, and a culture of wildness arrives.

The Grail serves this dance. In some far distant place old visionaries and young dreamers keep shuffling back and forward with bear skulls and antelope hides. Standing at the centre of the Grail story is not empire but this primordial dance floor that is truly the breath of god.

and what happens when we join the dance?...

"In the green rivers of the west, pike moved again over the shale, in the east, Merlin chicks bustled to get beak to their mothers food, in the north, young wolves yipped and nipped and felt the sun on their back for the first time, and in the south, the sows udder spurted thick with a golden milk. Old Albion itself started to swell, to rise, to remember itself. The dragon tracks of its dew-glittered glens curled out into the minds of its people - old women remembered stories of their childhood and started to tell, friends long estranged reached for each other with no words at all and started to weep, the sparrow sang love songs to the worm, the long barren fen burst with wild flower, parties erupted in every hamlet, village, travelers inn and lasted for years.

Bellies became fertile, and the White Stag was seen in the forests of Camelot again, glimpsed at dusk. A sword shot forth from a green Welsh lake, held by a woman’s hand. The salt fields of the North sea churned their foamy theatre as the whale spouted their courting joys. The greening harvest of the land dragged honeycombed stars down into its curvy secrets. All was awake! The roaring champions of hawk and roe-deer carried the news to every wet flanked copse, every tangled byre, every darkening stream, all was a kind of singing."

Amen to that. That's what i call hope. Even Jim Hillman would have agreed on that.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013


Barbara Spring said...

This resonates in me. Thank you again.

Pearl said...

Just the tonic I needed for this bleak Friday afternoon - all your delicious lushness - like eating much to much chocolate cake without regret. Wonderful to venture into these forests and take the roads with these characters, with your guidance.

This Cundrie goes by many names and I know her. She fires my belly!

Thanks for this!