Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The tale of King Harald Hardrada

King Harald Hardrada (wielding battleaxe and clad in red)
Taken from 'The life of King Edward the Confessor'.

The year 1066 AD will always be associated with the Battle of Hastings, and the triumph of Duke William of Normandy over King Harold Godwinsson of England. So much so that 1066 is the most famous date in history, heralding the end of the ‘Dark Ages’ and the beginning of the Medieval Kingdom of England. Less well known however, is one of the major reasons for the English defeat at Hastings, that of the other invasion of England in the Fall of 1066. Fewer of us have heard the name Harald ‘Hardrada’, and know him simply as the Norwegian King who died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge less than three weeks before Hastings. Yet King Harald III Sigurdsson (the epithet Hardrada was given later, and is Old Norwegian for ‘hard ruler’) was a legendary figure in the Scandinavian lands, even before his fateful decision to press his claim to the English throne.

Harald was born in 1015 AD, the youngest son of the recently elected King Olaf II of Norway (who would later be canonised). His father’s rule was unstable, since these were changing times for the Scandinavian Lands. Olaf was trying to convert his subjects to Christianity, and meanwhile the Danes, losing ground in England, were looking to lands closer to home for conquest. In 1028 AD the alliance of the King of Denmark, Cnut the Great, with rebellious jarls (nobles) in Norway forced Olaf and his sons into exile. Not until 1030 did he return, making a last effort to reclaim his throne. The effort came to war, and at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Olaf was killed. Harald, only a boy of barely fifteen, fought alongside his father in the battle too and was badly wounded.

The land of Sicily, where Harald distinguished himself
Photograph by the author.
Harald barely escaped with his life, and with the scattered warriors still loyal to him, he fled to the land of the Kievan Rus (what would later come to be called Russia). Harald and his retinue served the Grand Prince in his wars against Poland as hired mercenaries for several years, before their wanderings took them South, to Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire. The Emperor, mistrusting his own Greek bodyguards, who had felled many a ruler before him when they felt their pay was inadequate, formed a new guard composed of exiled northeners from the Viking and Saxon realms. This would later become the feared élite corps of the Roman army, the Varangian Guard. Harald and about five hundred survivors came before the Emperor Michael IV and the Empress Zoe and pledged their service. The Empress accepted immediately the pledge of so noble a man. His charisma, valour and ingenious stratagems soon won the admiration of the Varangians (and Roman chroniclers), and before long, Harald himself had risen in the Roman court to a command of the Guard. Again and again he proved his bravery, in campaigns as far away as Sicily, Italy and Bulgaria in the Emperor’s service. Soon Harald was a wealthy man, and could at last try to reclaim his righful place as King of a faraway land.

In 1042, Harald appealed to the Emperor for release from service. The Empress Zoe was angered, as she had hoped that Harald would have wed her, and tried to prevent his escape. But with the loyalty of the Varangians, Harald was not to be stopped. He stole away from Constantinople, sailed up the Bosphorus and travelled back to Scandinavia through the Eastern Kingdoms. He found Norway under the rule of his illegitimate brother, Magnus the Good. The two shared power, until in 1047, Magnus died and Harald was at last crowned King Harald III of Norway.
The next fifteen years passed with constant war with Denmark, until Harald at last gave up his claim on the Danish throne in 1062. But not long after, suddenly, a new opportunity presented itself. Arriving in Harald’s court, a man by the name of Tostig brought news of the death in England of King Edward the Confessor. Tostig revealed to Harald that he was brother to the new King Harold Godwinsson, and pledged his support and that of the majority of the chieftains of England should Harald seek the English throne. It transpired that Tostig had actually put the same offer to King Svein of Denmark, only days before, but was turned down. Harald, intially uneasy about the venture, soon gave in to Tostig’s persuasion, and agreed to once again open Norway’s claim on the throne of England.
The omens were bad. More than once did Harald have terrifying visions of impending doom, especially after the invasion was launched in the Fall of 1066. One soldier, onboard ship to the British Isles, had a vision of a troll (a fell creature and harbinger of evil news to the Northmen) who chanted:
“Norway’s warrior sea-king
Has been enticed westward
To fill England’s graveyards;
It’s all to my advantage.
Birds of carrion follow
To feast on valiant sea-men;
They know there will be plenty,
And I’ll be there to help them."
                                                - THE OMENS FORTELL HARALD'S DOOM

The portents were bad. Harald stopped in the Shetland and Orkney Islands, receiving reinforcements from both and from the Northern Scottish Isles. The fleet sailed down the East coast, and for now all went well. The Norwegians sacked Scarborough and accepted the surrender of many coastal towns. On the 20th of September 1066, Harald won a heroic victory over a large English army, under Earl Morcar and Earl Edwin, at Fulford. A sizeable portion of the elite English forces lay as food for the crows, and so badly mauled were the Earls’ forces, they were fatefully unable to come to the assistance of King Harold at Hastings three weeks later.

King Harold Godwinsson
Image taken from 'The Life of Edward
the Confessor'.
The King of Norway then marched on York with his forces, and those of Tostig, who had just joined him from Flanders. York offered its surrender, and the next day Harald chose two men of every three in his army to accompany him to formally accept the surrender. It was a hot day on the 25th of September 1066, and many of Harald’s men left their armour behind at the ships, carrying only their helmets, axes, shields and swords. Harald reached the River Derwent and the narrow bridge over it at midday, and was faced with a horrifying sight. King Harold himself had arrived with the English army, all equipped with splendid mail coats and glittering spears. Harald himself likened the sight to one of “a field of broken ice”. Harald however, was a brave man, seasoned by war. He gave the order for his flag, the Landwaster, to be unfurled.

But then, twenty horsemen rode up to the Norwegian lines. One of them spoke out, and demanded to know if Tostig was among them. Tostig shouted his reply that he was. The rider stated that King Harold was prepared to offer Tostig one third of his kingdom if the armies would withdraw. Tostig asked what the King of Norway would receive in return for his efforts. The rider uttered an immortal reply:
“King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant him: seven feet of ground, or as much more as he is taller than other men.”

                                           - KING HAROLD GODWINSSON THREATENS THE KING OF NORWAY
The death of King Harald
Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo.
The rider turned and galloped back to the English lines. Harald turned to Tostig and asked who this well spoken man was. “That was King Harold Godwinsson” replied Tostig, to Harald’s amazement. “What a little man that was; but he stood proudly in his stirrups”, was Harald’s reply. Battle was joined. Many fell on both sides. Indeed, on Stamford Bridge itself, one Norwegian warrior personally slew forty Englishmen. A giant of a man, given over to bloodlust, he single handedly held the bridge against England (echoing the valour of Horatius Cocles, the officer who played an outstanding role in the defence of Rome at the birth of the Republic – whose story can be found here). Not until an Englishman sailed beneath the bridge and thrust a spear through the woodwork and into the berserker’s gut were the Norwegians pushed back. The English feigned withdrawal, and in an ominous foreboding of what would transpire at Hastings three weeks later, pounced upon the pursuing Norwegians who broke the shield wall. Harald was killed by an arrow to the throat, yet still the Norwegians fought on. Norwegian reinforcements arrived from the coast, and hurled themselves to war, preferring to die with their brave King than retreat in disgrace. Yet slowly and surely, the Vikings were hewn down. So terrible were their casualties, that of the three hundred ships which bore them to England, only twenty four were needed to bear the survivors. Just three days later, a desperate messenger arrived and leaped off his horse at King Harold’s feet, frantically shouting that Duke William of Normandy had just landed at Pevensey...
The tale of Harald Hardrada is legendary in Norway, and well recorded in epic poetry and more conventional chronicles. The poem is surprisingly readable and gripping, and is available very easily and cheaply from Amazon:
United Kingdom
Penguin Classics:
King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Classics)
(Quite short and at a very low price, poetic and epic! My recommendation.)

The Echo Library:
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
(More lofty in tone, containing a large history of Saxon England, including the Battle of Stamford Bridge)

United States

Penguin Classics:
King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway: From Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Penguin Classics)
(Quite short and at a very low price, poetic and epic! My recommendation.)

The Echo Library:
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle: A History of England From Roman Times to the Norman Conquest
(More lofty in tone, containing a large history of Saxon England, including the Battle of Stamford Bridge)

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Creation and Deliverance of Man

It is a common belief across many of the Ancient cultures, and indeed in religions today that we are not the first race of humans to walk the Earth. The lore of Greek, Roman, Near Eastern, Mayan, Aztec and even Christian legend refer to the destruction of a primordial race of humans. Regardless of the reasons why, these ancestors shared a common doom. The belief of the Egyptians was no different. In this short myth, humanity was punished for their disloyalty to their gods, and taught humility – by way of unrivalled slaughter.
Legend tells that Ra, the god of the Sun and the supreme deity, was born of a cosmic egg to the darkness that was known as Nun. The new god was imbued with ultimate power; if he spoke a name, that which he had named would take form and come into being. Ra first declared his mastery of the heavens:

“'I am Khepri at the dawn, and Ra at noon and Atum in the evening'. And the sun rose and passed across the sky for the first time.”
                                                                  - RA DECLARES HIS MASTERY OVER THE HEAVENS

The Egyptian Cosmos
Photograph in the public domain
Ra possessed the gift to change his shape at will, and could take on the form of other gods according to his role. These forms were worshipped across the land of Egypt. The master god then turned his attention to Creation. He named Shu, and the first winds blew. He named Tefnut, whose spit was the first rain to fall. He named Geb, and the Earth was born. He named Nut, who arched over Geb and with her hands clasped one horizon and her feet the other to form the Sky. He named Hapy, who lay in the land and formed the Great River Nile, the life force and heart of the land of Egypt, which grew lush from its waters. From the tears of Ra, mankind was born to the land of Egypt. The legends say that Ra came down to the Earth in the shape of a man and ruled Egypt as the first Pharaoh. The people and land of Egypt grew strong and prosperous under his rule, and the regular floods of the Nile gave such bounty that the time of Ra would always be remembered as the Golden Age.

Ra rules over mankind
Painting from the 22nd Dynasty, in the Louvre
Yet, in the form of a man, Ra grew old in body. Men no longer feared their god and his laws. “His bones were of silver, his flesh of gold, and his hair of lapis lazuli (A precious stone revered for its intense blue)”, men would say. Ra burned with anger at man. His rage grew greater still as he saw the foul deeds men did in disobedience of his laws. Ra called to council the gods and asked of them their opinion. This council he held in secret, away from man, who continued to mock the gods and violate their laws. Nun, the primordial chaos, urged Ra to strike down humanity:

“The fear of thee is great when thy Eye is against them who scheme against thee!"
The Lady of Slaughter - the goddess Sekhmet
Relief from the Temple of Kom Ombo
Ra took out his fiery eye, the eye whose tears had given birth to humanity, and cast it down to the Earth. Mankind fled in terror from Ra into the desert, but they fled in vain. For the eye transformed into a new goddess, the lion headed Sekhmet. Sekhmet was possessed of a fearsome anger, and upon humanity she unleashed her wrath. The desert sands ran red with blood as Sekhmet violently slaughtered all who fell under her gaze. Wherever man fled, Sekhmet followed, rejoicing in the massacre and taste of blood. The Nile itself ran crimson, and even the mountains were stained with proud human life force. The screams of terror and pleas for mercy reached the Heavens, and Ra heard them. The cries for deliverance softened his heart and Ra grew guilty. When he saw what Sekhmet had done, he was filled with sorrow. But Sekhmet, given over to the thrill of death, ignored Ra’s command to stop. Desperate to stop the lioness, Ra ordered messengers to go to Elephantine (an island on the Nile, just beyond the First Cataract) and bring red ochre, and his handmaidens to crush barley and make beer. Grinding the red ochre into the Nile, and filling the Nile with beer, the Great River appeared to be running with blood once more. Sekhmet, filled with a ferocious thirst for blood, gulped down the Nile and ‘it was good in her heart’. Completely incapacitated and drunk, Sekhmet’s anger left her, and she transformed into the peaceful cow headed goddess Hathor.
Never again would man dare to spurn their gods, and every year the Egyptian people held festivals to pacify Sekhmet, so that she never again would do terrible slaughter. Whenever the Pharaohs of Egypt went to war, the worship of Sekhmet followed, and her rage time and time again undid their enemies. This is the origin of the annual pacification of Sekhmet, whereby the Egyptians would celebrate and make merry with alcohol.
This story forms part of the culture behind the religious code of the Egyptians, and is easily available, along with many others like it, in their original translation at Amazon:
United Kingdom
Anthology of Ancient Near Eastern Material:
Ancient Near East, Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures: 001 (Princeton Studies on the Near East)
(Highly useful and an extremely nice book to own, filled with stuff from all over the Levant)

United States
Anthology of Ancient Near Eastern Material:
The Ancient Near East, Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures
(Highly useful and an extremely nice book to own, filled with stuff from all over the Levant)

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

November 27th 1095: A day that shook the world

"Then Jesus said to his disciples ‘If any would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever seeks to spare his own life shall lose it; but whoever shall lose his life for my sake will find it”
                                                                      - CHRIST ADDRESSES HIS DISCIPLES (MATTHEW 16:24-25)

At the turn of the eleventh century Anno Domini the Eastern Roman Empire, the last great remnant of the Ancient Roman Empire, was in decline, slowly worn down by relentless attack at the hands of the Turks. Yet even then, it was the great Christian superpower of the world, and Constantinople was by far the largest and richest city on Earth, the great bastion and defender of Christendom in the face of the rising power of Islam in the East. Though the days when the Caesars ruled from Rome were a distant memory, the power, prestige and the dream that was Rome lived on. Until the fateful day of the 26th of August 1071. For on that day began a chain of events culminating in a day which changed the world forever, and whose effects are felt stronger today than ever, on the 27th November 1095.

Gold Solidus of the Emperor Romanus IV
Constantinople Mint.
The Emperor Romanus IV, determined to take vengeance on Alp Arslan - Sultan of the Great Seljuk Empire - for his siege of the city of Manzikert (near the Eastern border of modern Turkey, then under Roman control), set off with a large army to confront his foe. On the road from Constantinople, the Romans were constantly harassed and demoralised by the arrows of the Turkish horse archers, yet the army held together. The Emperor reached Manzikert and took it easily, causing the Sultan to sue for peace. Determined to end the ‘Eastern threat’ once and for all with a decisive victory, Romanus refused and battle was joined. But the Turks were masters of the hit and of the run. Wherever the Roman charged, the Turk fled, showering his pursuer with arrows as he did so (A tactic known as the Parthian Shot, the bane even of the Ancient Roman Legions at their height.) Frustrated and demoralised, the Romans gave way, and the Turks pounced. The Roman soldiers, the great defenders of Christendom, were now men fleeing for their lives. The Turks captured Romanus and hurled him at the feet of Alp Arslan, who could not believe that this dirty and bloody wreck of a man before him was the mighty Emperor of the Romans. It was the worst Roman defeat since Adrianople, over six hundred years earlier, and worse was yet to come. A crippling financial crisis struck the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Imperial throne was sought by avaricious and selfish men. In the West, the Empire’s dominions in Southern Italy were the prey of the Normans. Not until the rule of the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus began in 1081 did the Empire begin to stabilise again.

A Christian Knight departs for the Crusades
Taken from the Westminster-Psalter.
Fourteen years later, Pope Urban II, a charismatic and energetic Pope, held council at Piacenza in northern Italy in 1095. Urban II was keen to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor, Pope Gregory VII, and restore the moral integrity of the Roman Church. He soon got his chance. Attending the council were representatives of the Emperor, who called upon the Bishop of Rome for aid. The Seljuk leadership was in disarray, now was the time to strike back at God’s enemies! The desperate plea struck deeply within the Supreme Pontiff’s mind, who called a Council to be held in Clermont (modern day Clermont-Ferrand) for monk and lord alike to consider the Emperor’s words. Little did the Emperor know that his call would be answered on a scale beyond his wildest dreams...

When the clergy and laymen gathered on the 18th of November 1095, all were expecting further discourse on ecclesiastical affairs and discussion of healing the rifts caused by corruption in the Church. So the Council progressed, until it came to the last item on the agenda. All assembled were struck dumb by Urban II’s closing speech. The Vicar of Christ rose and launched a scathing attack on his flock:

“Listen and learn! You, girt about with the badge of knighthood, are arrogant beyond great pride; you rage against your brothers and cut each other asunder. This, which rends asunder the sheep-fold of the Redeemer... This is not the soldiery of Christ!... You, the oppressors of children, plunderers of widows; you, guilty of homicide, of sacrilege, robbers of another’s rights; you, who await the pay of thieves for the shedding of Christ’s blood!”

Never before had a Pope so masterfully struck at the conscience of his subjects, tearing forth their guilt from the depths of their depravity. His words turned to the plight of Christendom in the East:

Pope Urban II preaches the Crusade
Taken from the Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer.

“From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth... a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God... has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire... it has destroyed the churches of God!”

Here Urban refers to the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, torn down at the orders of the Caliph Al-Hakim in 1009. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see already the beginnings of the violent tensions between East and West right now in 2010. The Bishop of Rome turned his cry to Jerusalem, the land which ‘floweth with milk and honey’, given by God to the children of Israel in the Old Testament. He implores the men of Christendom to liberate the land from the infidel:

“Nay, more, the sorrowful here will be glad there, the poor here will be rich there, and the enemies of the Lord here will be His friends there!”
                                                            - POPE URBAN II SPEAKS OF THE REWARDS OF THE CRUSADE

Doubtless, even the most materialistic of those present’s ears would have pricked up at the mention of untold riches in the East. Europe was a desolate land in the 11th century, a land dominated by the right of primogeniture – a law that decreed that only the firstborn son would inherit. This left a great deal of sons destitute and envious, and ready to cause trouble at a moment’s notice. If what the Pope said was true, even a peasant here could be a lord in the Holy Lands. Then came Urban II’s dramatic finale:

“Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves...Undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven!”
                                                               - POPE URBAN II CALLS CHRISTENDOM TO THE CRUSADE

The Archangel Michael casts Satan down from Heaven
Artist unknown. Taken by author in Pinacoteca Gallery
of the Vatican Museums.
Here, and now, God’s representative on Earth was offering to all who answered his call the forgiveness of Christ and a place in Heaven! One can only wonder at the intensely powerful effect this would have on the deeply pious Christian knights present. Tears flowed from many an eye, and as one, the gathered crowds bellowed what would become the famous war cry of the crusaders; “God Wills It!”

One must always leave modern ethics behind when looking at this. Life was mostly a grim affair in the 11th century. Life expectancy seldom stretched past 30, death, plague, war and famine surrounded all. Is it any wonder that men turned to God? Urban II’s speech is dramatic enough today, let alone nine hundred years ago. Not even Urban II himself was prepared for the scale of the response to his plea. Tens of thousands across the nations of Europe answered the Pope’s call, and flocked to the sign of the cross, calling upon the valour of Saint Michael the Archangel. The First Crusade had begun.

Due to the incredible importance of the First Crusade I shall, in future posts, follow the course of the great ‘armed pilgrimage’, to its cataclysmic finale. The text of Urban II's mighty speech was recorded by many authors, many of whom were actually present at the Council. A collection of all these is easily available at Amazon, which also includes material for the whole of the Crusade:

United Kingdom

The First Crusade: The Chronicle and other Materials
(Highly useful and nicely organised, containing original texts for events across the whole crusade)

United States

The First Crusade: The Chronicle and other Materials
(Highly useful and nicely organised, containing original texts for events across the whole crusade)

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Perseus and Medusa

Even today the monstrous Medusa, whose gaze spelled doom for all who looked upon her dread visage, is an iconic figure in our shared psyche, featured in Greek verse, Roman poetry, Renaissance painting, Baroque sculpture and modern cinema alike. But how many know the story behind the serpents? How many know for example, that Medusa was once a normal, mortal woman, who became a hideous creature cursed by the gods? Where is this stuff written? - The story, one of the earliest stories of heroes and monsters, can be found in many places; the two most prominent places being in a poem called The Metamorphoses and in one of the many stories which make up the Library of Greek Mythology.

Sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini.
The story begins one day when King Acrisius of Argos (a powerful city on the eastern shores of Greece) heard from the Oracle of Delphi that should his daughter, Danaë, give birth to a son, he would die at his hands. So as to prevent the prophecy from ever coming to pass, Acrisius imprisoned Danaë in a high tower, forbidding her any visitors. The machinations of man were mere playthings to gods however, and the barred windows of the lady’s cell were no barrier to the King of the Gods. Zeus took the form of a shower of gold and cascaded through the bars and gave Danaë a son – Perseus. Acrisius was furious and bound Danaë and the demigod in a chest and hurled them into the sea.

Danaë prayed desperately to the gods, and the Thunderer heard her prayers. The chest washed up on the shore of the isle of Seriphos, where it was found by the fisherman Dictys. Dictys raised Perseus in the humble life of the fisherman until he was a man. Dictys’ brother Polydectes was a cruel and scheming man however, and the King of Seriphos. He desired to take Danaë for himself, and destroy the young Perseus. One day Polydectes summoned all his friends to him, and told them he was collecting contributions in order to be wed to the lady Hippodameia. Many gave horses as a gift to the king, but Perseus had no horse to give, and so asked the king to name anything and he would bring it. Polydectes seized his chance and ordered Perseus to bring him the head of the Gorgon.

The Gorgons were three sisters by the names of Stheno, Euryale and Medusa. They were grotesque beings with snakes for hair, tusks like those of a boar, hands of bronze, wings of gold and their glance was death to man. Of the three, only Medusa was mortal and vulnerable, having once been a woman:

Painting by Caravaggio.
“Medusa was once an exceedingly beautiful maiden,

Whose hand in marriage was jealously sought by an army of suitors,

According to someone who told me he’d seen it, her marvellous hair

Was her crowning glory. The story goes that Poseidon the sea god

Defiled this glorious creature inside the shrine of Athena.

The daughter of Zeus screened her virginal eyes with her aegis in horror,

And punished the sin, by transforming the Gorgon’s beautiful hair

Into horrible snakes.”
                        - PERSEUS RECOUNTS THE TALE OF MEDUSA

So Perseus set out to vanquish the blasphemous monster. Athena came to his aid, and told him to seek the nymphs known as the Hesperides, who possessed weapons which could conquer the Gorgon. Perseus sought out the old witches, and asked where he might find these nymphs. The witches were the sisters of the Gorgons, old women from birth who shared but a single eye and a single tooth between them. At first the witches taunted and mocked Perseus, and refused to reveal the nymph’s whereabouts. Through cunning and trickery, Perseus seized the eye and tooth, and offered them back only if they gave him what he needed. Reluctantly, the witches told him all they knew.

Perseus came to the Hesperides, where the nymphs gave Perseus a magnificent set of gifts to aid him against Medusa. The nymphs gave him a magical wallet to contain the Gorgon’s head and then the enchanted helm of Hades, which had been forged by the Cyclopes during the War of the Titans, which rendered the wearer invisible. The gods themselves also gave, and Hermes lent to Perseus his winged sandals so as to grant him the gift of flight, as well as an adamantine blade to pierce Medusa’s reptilian hide. Athena gave a fine shield, whose polished bronze surface rendered the perfect reflection. Armed with his divine tools, Perseus took flight across the vast Ocean, to the ends of the Earth and arrived at the Gorgon’s cave. Over to the sleeping beasts he crept, eyes fixed on their ghastly reflection of in his shield, and with a mighty strike he severed Medusa’s head. From her bleeding neck sprung the winged horse Pegasus. Out too came Chrysaor – the result of her and Poseidon’s violation in Athena’s sanctuary. Medusa’s fellow Gorgons awoke with a start and gave chase, but Perseus quickly slipped the foul head into the wallet and made good his escape, shielded under Hades’ helm.

On his return to Polydectes, Perseus stopped in the land of Ethiopia, kingdom of Cepheus and his queen Cassiepeia. Cassiepeia proudly declared herself to be more beautiful than the Nereids (The sea nymphs) themselves, bringing down upon her kingdom the wrath of Poseidon, who unleashed a terrible Leviathan upon the people. An Oracle told the people that the land could be saved only by sacrificing the Princess Andromeda to the monster, and so King Cepheus mournfully gave the order to chain her to the rocks. Perseus offered to slay the creature if he could take Andromeda as his wife. The King eagerly agreed, and Perseus flew to the princess’ rescue:

Perseus rescues Andromeda
Painting by Paolo Veronese.
“Poised on his swift wings, Perseus eluded his ravening enemys’ jaws

And went for his weak points, hacking away with his hooked sword,

Now at its barnacled back and then at the ribs, then again

At the narrowest point of the tail where it tapered into a fish.

The monster spewed forth seawater mingled with crimson blood...”
                                               - PERSEUS SLAYS THE LEVIATHAN

Perseus was hailed as a hero, and was given Andromeda as his bride. However the brother of Cepheus, Phineus, demanded Andromeda for himself and confronted the hero. Perseus revealed the Gorgon’s head and turned Phineus and his fellow conspirators to stone.

Perseus shows the Gorgon's head to Phineus
Painting by Luca Giordano.
Returning home to Seriphos triumphant, he found his mother and the fisherman Dictys in hiding from cruel Polydectes, who now received his wish – the Gorgon’s head. Indeed he even got to look the evil thing in the eye, and was transfixed in bloodless stone. Perseus gave the throne to the fisherman Dictys and set off to confront the man behind all of this – Acrisius, who had fled Argos when he heard of the hero’s coming. Perseus competed in the pentathlon at the athletic games in the land of the Pelasgians (northern Greece), whereupon he hurled his discus. The gods made the wind blow suddenly strong, carrying the disc into the head of Acrisius, sending him to the Underworld in a single blow. The prophecy at last fulfilled, Perseus buried Acrisius outside the walls of Argos, as he himself became King of Tiryns and founded Mycenae. Andromeda gave birth to many sons and daughters, the first son taking the name of Perses – from whom the Persian race claimed origin. Perseus and Andromeda lived long lives and became the progenitors of the Danaan race, to whom many great dynasties of Greece would claim descent, even to the day they had all been trodden under the iron shod boot of the Roman legions. To be descended from the Thunder god himself was to have powerful blood flowing through your very veins. To trace your lineage through one the god’s most illustrious sons was to add even greater lustre to the sheen.

The story of Perseus is one of the most famous in Greek mythology, and both Perseus and Medusa are famous cultural icons across the West. The stories are as enchanting in the original poetry as they were read aloud. The story can be found easily and at a discounted price at Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(The famous poem of Publius Ovidius Naso, a joy to read and 'the poetic account')

Oxford World's Classics:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A library of mythology, less poetic but contains the whole story of Perseus)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(The famous poem of Publius Ovidius Naso, a joy to read and 'the poetic account')

Oxford World's Classics
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A library of mythology, less poetic but contains the whole story of Perseus)

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Tales of chivalry and knightly ventures were stories that many a boy in a medieval hall dreamed upon. To be strong and pure of heart, to have no fear, to be a servant of God and to be willing to lay down one’s life in defence of those who cannot defend themselves – that is chivalry. It is scarce wonder that chivalry is so highly prized a code today as it ever was in the time of armoured knights thundering down the lists, lances lowered in the joust. There is such a tale which I look at today. An old English poem from the fourteenth century, composed by an unknown soul somewhere in the Midlands, it tells of the perilous quest of Sir Gawain – a Knight of the Round Table in the court of King Arthur – and his trials of faith and honour along the way. The poem has a very strong message of its own, which can be seen only through the story as a whole, which I present to you here in its shortest form.

The Green Knight warns Sir Gawain
From the original manuscript
One Christmas when Arthur ruled the Britons, there was magnificent feasting and joy, and ‘the most famous knights in the annals of Christendom’ jousted and sparred and made merry. Then on New Year’s Day, suddenly a strange visitor entered Camelot. A vast knight clad entirely in Green, the size of several men, astride a mighty green stallion, wielding a great axe, demanded to speak with the noblest among the crowd. So rose Arthur, as the rest of the hall stood transfixed in fear at the sight of the strange knight. The Green Knight then issued his famous challenge: that any man there who dared to call himself brave should come forth and strike off the Knight’s head with his mighty axe. The Green Knight vowed he would kneel and not flinch and receive the blow, on the sole condition that he may give a stroke in return. The hall was struck dumb by the Knight’s challenge, as he drew himself up and taunted Arthur:

“What? Is this Arthur’s Hall?

And these the knights whose renown hath run through many realms?

Where are now your pride and your conquests,

Your wrath, and anger, and mighty words?

Now are the praise and the renown of the Round Table overthrown by one man’s speech,

Since all keep silence for dread ere they have ever seen a blow!”
                                                                - THE GREEN KNIGHT TAUNTS ARTHUR

The Knight’s taunts were intolerable to the chivalric knights, shaken awake by the insults to their majesty. Young Sir Gawain, the cousin of Arthur, begged the King to allow him to accept. Arthur relented and sent forth Gawain. After telling the Knight his name, and swearing to uphold the agreement, Gawain took the great axe and with one swift blow severed the stranger’s head. After a moment of exultation from the court, all looked in horror as the headless knight strode across the hall to claim his head. The head then spoke and warned Gawain to find the Green Chapel and remember his vow, before the Knight rode off into the night.

Almost a year passed and Gawain remembered his vow and, renowned as the most virtuous of all Arthur’s Knights, he prepared to seek the Green Chapel, despite protests from Sir Lancelot and Sir Bedivere. He took up his armour, sword, spear and shield, mounted his horse Gryngolet and rode forth from Camelot. Sir Gawain spent many days wandering the cruel wilderness of Britain, at times fighting Giants and Dragons, in search of the one who would certainly deliver his own death blow. Then one day he reached a castle, whose lord was a man with a large red beard and possessing a kindly spirit, received Sir Gawain as an honoured guest. Gawain’s humility and piety were met by the lord’s kindness as a host, and earned him the deep respect and admiration of all there, - including the lord’s wife. Gawain tells them of his vow and how he must reach the Green Chapel soon, as New Year was almost upon them. The lord laughed and told him to stay a while, for the Chapel was but two miles away.

The land of Britain around the Green Chapel
Photograph by David Green
So Gawain stayed in the comfort of the castle, and the lord made a wager with Gawain – that tomorrow he would go hunting and whatever he won on it he would present to Gawain, whilst Gawain would remain in comfort in the castle and present to the lord what he had won that day. The knight accepted, and the next morning it began. The lord hunts many deer and brings them back to the castle, but Gawain awakes to see the lord’s wife sitting on his bed and the two talk for hours with Gawain resisting with the utmost courtesy her depraved advances (I am reminded of the tale of Sir Galahad from Monty Python and the Holy Grail...). As promised, the lord gives the deer to Gawain, and Gawain kisses the lord on the cheek. Amused, the lord makes the same challenge for tomorrow. The next day, the lord, after a long day of hunting, brings back a mighty boar. The lord’s wife once again tries to tempt the gallant knight, who once again politely refuses to capitulate (The confrontation in the knight's mind is not all so different from that in the mind of Macbeth, when he is torn between his duties to King Duncan and to his wife). The lord gives Gawain the boar, and the knight gives the lord two kisses. The lord offers the challenge one more time before Gawain leaves for his quest, promising him a guide to the Green Chapel on New Year’s Day. This time, the lord’s hunt is arduous, returning only with a fox. The lord’s wife however, makes one last attempt to tarnish the knight, and offers him her ring. Sir Gawain refuses, as he has nothing suitable to offer in return. Instead she offers him her green silk girdle, which will render the wearer protection from even the mightiest foe. Seeing the potential value of such an item in light of what is to come, and feeling a sudden fear of death, the knight accepts her gift. The lord returns and offers Gawain the fox, and in return the knight kisses him three times – but does not give him the girdle.

Tintagel, the legendary site of Camelot
Photograph by Manfred Heyde
The next day, after bidding the kindest of farewells, Sir Gawain and his guide leave for the Green Chapel. As they draw nearer, the guide desperately attempts to dissuade the knight from his doom, offering to keep his retreat secret. Gawain politely refuses, as his code of chivalry and honour would curse him if he were to make this choice. He continues alone, until he reaches a place serenaded by the sound of an axe being sharpened. The Green Knight is there, ready to honour their agreement. Sir Gawain bravely kneels and requests his death blow. The Green Knight brings the axe down once, and Gawain flinches, and the axe stops above his neck. The Green Knight rebukes his cowardice, and Gawain begs that he offer another blow, promising to be brave. The Green Knight swings again and deliberately misses. Gawain angrily asks why he holds back, and asks if it is not him who has fear in his heart. A third time the axe swings down, and this time the blade makes a slight cut into Gawain’s neck. Sir Gawain jumps to his feet, pulls on his helmet and in a rage reminds his foe that the pact was for one stroke, not three. The Green Knight suddenly laughs and throws off his fearsome visage. He applauds Sir Gawain’s chivalry, the greatest in the world, and declares him the most virtuous man alive. He reveals himself to be the lord of the castle where Gawain stayed, and that it was he who tasked the lady with attempting to seduce him. Gawain was honest with him on the first two days, but on the third he did not offer the lord the silk girdle, and was therefore punished by the wound on his neck. Sir Gawain is overcome with shame and humility, and prays to God for his forgiveness. The Knights part company, and Gawain returns to Camelot, where he tells Arthur he will forever bear the green girdle as a sign of his failure to keep his promise with the lord. The Knights of the Round Table declare as one that they will from this day forth all wear a green silk girdle, to honour Sir Gawain, who was truly the perfect Knight. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a moral story, warning us of the price of straying from the good path, and the value of keeping one's word. Yet at the same time it is a surprisingly effective story, presenting moral dilemmas and temptations for the hero along the path.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a masterpiece of English medieval lore, and at only 2530 lines long, readily available at Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which focuses more on ease of understanding than poetry)

Oxford World's Classics:
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight (Oxford World's Classics)
(A good compromise between the poetic and prosaic)

Simon Armitage CBE's Translation:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
(A translation which retains the poetic meter of the original, translated by a poet!)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin Classics)
(A version which focuses more on ease of understanding than poetry)

Oxford World's Classics:
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight (Oxford World's Classics)

Simon Armitage CBE's Translation:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (A New Verse Translation)
(A translation which retains the poetic meter of the original, translated by a poet!)