Monday, September 21, 2015

Equinox Rocks!

For artsies like me, autumn is a state of mind—a point in time when I suddenly have the urge to take a drive in the country and stop at a roadside stand for apple cider.

Autumn leaves, photo by Takeshi Kuboki

For geeks like my husband, autumn begins precisely when the sun crosses the celestial equator—which this year occurs at 4:21 am on September 23rd. There are pie charts and graphs and equations to warm the heart of any geek. But I prefer to celebrate autumn with pumpkin pie, and plenty of whipped cream, thank you.

In terms of mythology, we are leaving the season of the sun and entering the season of the moon—since in the winter season, the nights are longer and the moon spends more time in the sky.

Ancient Britons built Stonehenge to mark the occurrence of equinoxes and solstices.

Attrib: Wigulf~commonswiki

Ancient Mayans built a pyramid at Chichén Itzá to mark these astronomical events. At the autumn equinox, seven triangles became visible on the pyramid's staircase.

Photo: Manuel de Corselas

Examples of early American "equinox markers" include Mystery Hill in Vermont and Serpent Mound in Ohio.

Serpent Mound

The ancient Greeks said that Persephone was returning to the underworld to be with her husband Hades during the winter months. Curse that stupid pomegranate!

Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyan

The Chinese celebrate with a Mid-Autumn Festival. They eat Moon Cakes,  filled with lotus, sesame seeds, a duck egg or dried fruit. Looks delicious, doesn't it!

Photo by Lybil Ber

In Japan, the equinoxes are a time to visit the graves of your ancestors, and clean and decorate the graves.

Photo: Akitoshi Iio
It's amazing that people all over the earth have attached such great significance to celestial events, including the equinoxes. And it's amazing that after all these gazillions of circles around the sun, the heavens still run like clockwork, sending each season in its turn.

The Creation of the Sun and Moon, Michelangelo

We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all His love.

The Harvesters, Brueghel

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- Continued

King Arthur -- book jacket
Click here to read Part One of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In the first part of the story, King Arthur was holding a New Year's feast, when into the mighty hall galloped a great green steed with a green rider. The Green Knight challenged Arthur to strike him with an axe — on one condition Should he somehow survive, Arthur must come to the Green Chapel in a year and a day and let the Green Guy take his turn with the axe. But a brave young knight — Sir Gawain — stepped up and took Arthur's place.

Gawain swung the axe and kerplunk! The Green Knight's head rolled. But then, to everyone's surprise, the challenger picked up his head, and the head continued to speak: "Don't forget. You must come to me in a year and a day, to finish this contest."

At the time appointed, Gawain mounted his horse and rode to a great castle near the Green Chapel. There he was greeted by the lord and lady, Bertilak de Hautdesert and his wife, Mrs. de Hautdesert. There was another resident at the castle as well  an ill-mannered old hag, who was not introduced. Remember her, for she will come into the tale later, as old hags are wont to do.

Sir Gawain, fresh from the Pearl Poet's typewriter
On three consecutive days, Sir Hautdesert went hunting. Before leaving on the first day, Sir H. made a bargain with Sir G. At the end of each day, Sir. Hautdesert would give Gawain whatever he bagged on his hunt, if Gawain would also give to him whatever he acquired during the day.

A hunt, in medieval times
And this, Dear Reader, is where things get weird — just in case a big green man who comes back to life after a beheading isn’t weird enough already.

Each day, while Sir H. was out hunting, Mrs. Sir H. tried to seduce Gawain, but each day Big G. resisted her wiles. At the end of the first day, Mr. H gave Gawain his catch, and Gawain gave Hautdesert a kiss — for Mrs. H. was only able to give the knight a kiss — which he returned to her husband. (I told you it was weird.) 

On the second day, Sir H. gave Gawain his catch, and Gawain gave him two kisses, compliments of Mrs. H. 

Hautdesert's wife tempts Gawain
On the third day, Mrs. H. continued her attempt to compromise Gawain's virtue, but she also offered him a gold ring — which he refused. Then she begged him to take her girdle. She promised that it was enchanted and it would protect him in combat. This was far more tempting to Gawain, since he would soon face the the Jolly Green Giant in battle. He took the girdle, and that night he presented to Sir. H. three kisses—but he kept the girdle a secret.

Finally, Gawain must leave the safety and hospitality of the castle and ride to the nearby Green Chapel, with the girdle wrapped twice around his waist. There he found his nemesis, the Green Knight, sharpening his axe.  Bravely, Gawain offered his neck to his opponent. Perhaps he remembered the sound of the knight's head rolling across the floor and wondered if his head would make the same sound.

The Green Knight swung his blade once, twice, three times — but he was only able to nick Gawain’s neck, not sever his head. 

Then pooooooof! The Green Knight revealed himself to be Sir Hautdesert, who had used magic to change his appearance. And the old hag at his castle turned out to be Arthur’s jerk-face sister, Morgan le Fey, who had decided to test King Arthur’s knights. Should have known! If anything bad happens in Camelot, she usually has something to do with it.

Morgan le Fey, in her high school year book

Sir Gawain rode home to Camelot, still wearing the green girdle as a symbol of his shame that he had failed in his resolve to accept nothing offered by Lady H. His fellow knights, however, congratulated him on his success, and they all vowed that thereafter they would wear green girdles to celebrate their comrade's bravery. 

Gawain had faced his worst fears and come out alive.

The Pearl Poet, author of this tale,
poses for his book jacket

For all of you lovers of chivalric tales, the Stark Raving Mythopath recommends:

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends, Barnes & Noble books 


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Pearl;  Sir Orfeo--translated by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Random castle to set the mood. . . .

King Arthur

Bright banners streamed from the vaulted ceiling in a riot of color. The Lute and Lizard Jazz Band played a mashup of medieval hits. The air was heavy with the smells of roasted stag, meat pies, and plums stewed in rosewater. It was New Year’s Day in Camelot, and King Arthur’s Court was drinking and merry-making. Arthur and Gwenivere sat at the king’s table, surrounded by knights and courtiers and a starry-eyed poet or two.

Arthur asked if anyone had an adventure to share before the feasting began. At that moment, into the Great Hall galloped a green stallion, ridden by a Green Knight  even his skin was green. In one hand, he held a battle axe; in the other, a holly bough.

Big Green issued a challenge to Arthur: "Strike me one time with this axe. If I somehow survive the blow, then you must agree to meet with me in a year and day at the Green Chapel. At that time, I will strike you."

King Arthur was on the verge of accepting this challenge, when his nephew—Sir Gawain—stepped up and accepted in the king's stead.

With a mighty blow, Sir Gawain swung the axe, decapitating the Green Knight. Surely that was the end of the matter. But the Green Knight picked up his head and the head continued the conversation. After reminding Gawain of the terms of their agreement, the Green Knight rode away on his emerald steed.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Impending doom must have weighed on Gawain during the year that followed, but being a true and courageous Knight of the Round Table, he tried to put on a brave face. Still, green leaves budded and red and yellow leaves fell, as day followed day. Finally, snow fell on bare branches, and it was time for Gawain to keep his promise to the Green Knight, to ride away, not knowing if he would ever see his home and loved ones again.

Will Gawain survive his next encounter with Big Green? And who the heck is this mysterious Green Knight? 

The answer to the first question will have to wait until next week when we finish the story. As for the question of the Green Knight's identity — scholars and readers have been debating that for centuries.

Some say the Green Knight is the Green Man, who appears in sculpture and architecture as a leafy face — or a face hidden among leaves — a figure frequently referenced or spoofed in literature. The Green Man is usually seen as a symbol of rebirth. Others say the Green Knight is a Christ figure. Often in Bible stories, a mysterious stranger is an angel or an incarnation of the Divine. Of course, the Pearl Poet (author of this story) may have had something else in mind than either of these.

A Green Man sculpture
Maybe next week, we'll find the answers to our questions. Or maybe we'll just find more questions. Either way, it's a fascinating story that, though centuries old, continues to inspire readers and writers in the twenty-first century.

The Green Knight, pictured in
The Boy's King Arthur
The plot thickens. Read Part II of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by clicking here.