Ladies of the Lake
Blackbird Hollins 2007
The Lady of the Lake: One of the most enigmatic characters from the Arthurian cycle of tales. Remote and beautiful, she gifts the mystical sword Excalibur to the King and thereafter acts as his guide and protector.
Her appearance in those tales dates back to the early Medieval period, but from where did the inspiration for her character come? Is she a memory of ancient goddesses? Or purely the invention of medieval storytellers? Can we find clues to her origin outside the Arthurian cycle? Firstly we will examine the nature and role of the Lady of the Lake within popular versions of the Arthurian tales, concentrating on Le Morte Darthur. We will then look at other lake maidens within British and Irish mythology and discuss both the significance of their stories and the possibility of their connection with the Arthurian legends. Finally, we will explore the evidence surrounding ancient goddesses such as Sulis Minerva and Coventina in order to see whether or not the Lady of the Lake and other such maidens were suggested by a memory of these.
Perhaps the best known and most influential of the Arthurian tales is Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur'. This was printed in 1485 and was based on earlier French prose versions of the Arthur stories. Malory's stories have become the blueprint for most subsequent versions right into modern times. This is the text that this article will concentrate on, though the vast array of Arthurian literature means that there is no definitive version.
In Malory, the title 'Lady of the Lake' is given to two different characters. The first Lady to be so called is the woman who gifts Arthur the sword Excalibur. There are various versions of the Excalibur tale, but generally the sword drawn from the stone and the sword from the lake are two different weapons.
The first sword was placed in the stone by Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon. As a young man, Arthur alone is able to draw the sword and this act gives him legitimacy as a ruler. However, the sword is broken during combat between Arthur and Sir Pellinore. Merlin has to intervene to stop Pellinore killing the unarmed Arthur. Directly afterwards, Merlin leads Arthur to the home of the Lady of the Lake:
(Note that the arm does not belong to the Lady. In Malory's story, although she is capable of sorcery, she appears in all other respects to be a normal human.) The Lady of the Lake speaks to Arthur: "That sword is mine, and if ye will give me a gift when I ask it of you, ye shall have it." Arthur agrees to the bargain, whereupon he and Merlin take a small boat onto the lake and row out towards the sword. As Arthur grasps it, the hand disappears under the water. Merlin observes Arthur admiring the sword and asks him which he likes the better, sword or scabbard? Arthur replies that he prefers the sword, whereupon Merlin rebukes him: "Ye are more unwise, for the scabbard is worth ten of the sword, for while ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall never lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded." The name of the sword is Excalibur, which Malory explains as 'Cut-Steel'.
In attaining the sword from the stone Arthur proved himself fit to rule, showing himself to be Uther's heir in blood and prowess. It demonstrated the legitimacy of his rule over the lands of the upperworld, symbolised by the stone containing the sword . The gift of the sword from the lake can be seen as a symbol of the support for his continued rule from the underworld. It can be argued that Arthur needs both in order to rule effectively. However, what happens next demonstrates how easy it is for control to be undermined.
An emissary from the Lady of Avalon arrives in Arthur's court bearing another magical sword. She approaches Arthur and says:
Arthur fails to pull the sword free, though not for want of effort. The sword is surprisingly drawn by Balin, until recently imprisoned by Arthur for the crime of killing his cousin. Though the sword supposedly proves his virtue, Balin then refuses to hand it back to the emissary, even though she cries:
However, there is double dealing at work here. For shortly afterwards, the Lady of the Lake appears at court to claim the gift promised her by Arthur. She asks for either the head of Balin or that of the lady who has brought the sword from Avalon. She complains that Balin slew her brother, while the lady was the cause of her father's death. Arthur refuses to grant either request, whereupon in another twist to the tale, Balin recognises the Lady of the Lake as the woman responsible for the death of his mother. Without further ado, Balin takes up the sword and kills the Lady of the Lake, beheading her with one stroke. Arthur is furious that the Lady of the Lake has been murdered while under his protection and banishes Balin from court, despite his protests that
In this web of feuds, none of the protagonists are truly innocent, for shortly afterwards, Merlin appears to reveal that the lady from Avalon had really come to court in order to further her own quest - the test with the sword was actually intended to find a knight capable of carrying out her revenge. So ended the career of the original Lady of the Lake, murdered amidst a tangle of intrigue and scheming.
It is a fair while later in Malory's long story that the next 'Lady of the Lake' appears. Initially, Malory uses her actual name, Nimue , describing her as 'one of the damosels of the lake'. In the later tales, she is usually simply referred to as the Lady of the Lake. Nimue first appears in the famous tale of how she gained the knowledge of Merlin and then used those powers to imprison him. Although on the surface, this is callous behaviour, there is more going on here than meets the eye. Nimue does gain Merlin's secrets, but with his consent and foreknowledge of his fate. Indeed, Merlin even seems to welcome it, even taking Nimue to the place which will become his prison. Merlin even makes time to visit Arthur for some last pieces of counsel, foremost of which is to "keep well his sword and scabbard." Indeed, Malory is sympathetic to Nimue, telling us something of the frustrations of a young girl harassed by a horny old man: "and always Merlin lay about the lady to have her maidenhood, and she was ever passing weary of him." Eventually she has learned enough and had enough. When they visit the place of imprisoning "by her subtle working" she enticed him beneath, "that he came never out for all the craft he could do." In Malory, this is a cave beneath a rock, though in other versions it is a tower to which Nimue sometimes pays visits.
On the surface, the story makes little sense. Why should Merlin give Nimue the place and the means with which to work her will? The imprisonment happens with his consent and appears to be really of his own making. And this may be so - elsewhere in the Merlin/Myrddin legends there are episodes of self imposed exile or sometimes a journey beneath the ground . Perhaps Malory was working his own take on this sojourn into his story.
It might be thought that, due to her wrongdoing towards his chief advisor, Arthur would bear Nimue enmity, but far from it. She steps neatly into Merlin's role at court, appearing periodically to protect Arthur using magic, or to offer counsel in difficult situations.
In one tale, she saved the Queen from a charge of murder. Nimue arrived in court "for ever she did great goodness unto King Arthur and to all his knights through her sorcery and enchantments" where she found that a knight named Sir Patrice had been poisoned and the Queen was suspected. But Nimue reveals the culprit as Sir Pinel. Pinel had attempted to murder Gawaine with poisoned apples, which had been accidentally eaten by Sir Patrice. Due to Nimue's revelations, Sir Pinel fled from court and the Queen was exonerated. How Nimue came by her knowledge is not said, but we assume she got it through mystical means.
Merlin's last advice to King Arthur, that he should keep safe his sword and scabbard, proves apt. Morgan Le Fay, half sister and arch enemy of Arthur, was given Excalibur and the scabbard for safekeeping. In a malicious piece of trickery, she had a copy made. Morgan then gave the real Excalibur to her ally Accolon and sent the copy back to Arthur. She engineered a fight between the two men, disguising their identities. Arthur soon realised that he had been deceived, for he is gravely wounded by Accolon. Fortunately, Nimue arrives "for she knew how Morgan Le Fay had so ordained that King Arthur should have been slain that day, and therefore she came to save his life." Just as Merlin aided Arthur magically against Pellinor, so Nimue helps him now. She caused Excalibur to fall from Accolon's hand, whereupon Arthur snatched it back up and won the fight.
Shortly afterwards, Morgan Le Fay sent a fine mantle to Arthur by way, she said, of apology. Luckily, Nimue is on hand again to give counsel and she urges Arthur not to wear the garment. Arthur heeded her advice and insisted that the mantle be tried on by Morgan's messenger. And fortunate that he did so, for the messenger instantly fell down dead, burned to a crisp.
Malory is never explicit as to the exact nature of Nimue. She is obviously wise and well versed in the arts of enchantment and sorcery. However, her status as 'a damosel of the lake' is never explained, nor is the statement towards the end of the book that she is 'the chief lady of the lake'. It implies some kind of community of women who dwell by the lake - but what their purpose is, or indeed, which lake they inhabit, is never made clear.
For a few more clues, let us look briefly at a significant story that occurs outside of Malory, although it survives there in the name 'Lancelot of the Lake'. Both Chrétien De Troyes' 'Lancelot' and Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's 'Lanzelet', early versions of the Arthurian tales, reveal to us that the Lady of the Lake was Lancelot's foster mother .
The castle of Lancelot's father was laid under attack by his neighbour. Although his family escape, on seeing the destruction of his home, Lancelot's father collapsed and died. As his mother, Elaine, rushed to her fallen husband, a fairy from the Lake of Diana picked up the baby Lancelot and took him away to her Otherworldly home. There, she raised him to be a great warrior, equipped him with magical weaponry and bestowed a name upon him. The Lady of the Lake was also fostering three other boys at the same time - Bors, Lionel and Meliadus, the former two being Lancelot's cousins.
This odd little community is reminiscent of the island of Scathach in the Táin Bó Cuailgne. Here too, young men learn skill at arms under the tutelage of an otherworldly woman. This also touches on another theme, that of it being a womans task to equip a young man with arms. Compare the gifting of Excalibur that we looked at earlier: While the Lady of the Lake does not foster Arthur, she awards him with arms befitting his status. There is another interesting parallel in the tale of Lleu Llaw Gyffes : Gwydion has to use all his cunning in order to extract a name, arms and a wife for the boy. His mother Arianrhod has sworn that he shall not have these things from her - i.e. she seeks to prevent Lleu from attaining full manhood and status. Like the Lady of the Lake and Scathach, Arianrhod lived in a watery abode, on Caer Arianrhod which was a craggy rock surrounded by sea just off the coast of Gwynedd.
So far, we have seen the two ladies of the Lake as possessing powers of enchantment. They reside at the lake, which is the gateway between the upper and underworlds. The first Lady gives Arthur's rule the blessing of the underworld with the gift of Excalibur. In the episode with Accolon, the second Lady enables Arthur to keep the sword, and thus his sovereignty. This demonstrates that only with the support of the underworld is Arthur able to maintain his kingship.
Let us now widen our net and see if any of these themes occur in other lake maiden tales from British and Irish folklore. After the Arthurian Lady of the Lake, the best known is the lady of Llyn y Fan Fach and it is to her we shall turn next.
At the end of the twelfth century, a young man tends a herd of sheep by the side of Llyn y Fan Fach. One day, he sees a beautiful maiden sitting on the margin of the lake. She is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and he is instantly enamoured of her. He offers some of his bread in an attempt to befriend the maiden. However, she turns it down, saying: "Cras dy fara! Nid hawdd fy nala." ("Hard baked is thy bread! It is not easy to catch me") With that, she dives into the lake and disappears. The lad consults his mother, who sends him back to the lake with undercooked bread. He offers this to the maiden, but she smiles and says: "Llaith dy fara! Ti ni fynna." ("Your bread is unbaked! I will not have thee") Undeterred, the lad returns the next day with bread perfectly cooked, neither too crisp nor too doughy. The maiden is pleased and agrees to marry the lad on the condition that she will leave him if he ever strikes her 'three causeless blows'.
The maiden's father appears from the waves, accompanied by the maiden and another girl who appears identical in every way. He is willing to give his daughter away if the lad can correctly identify his intended bride. The lad gazes in vain for some difference between the maidens. Fortunately, his intended stuck out her foot slightly so that he recognised the distinctive fastening of her sandals. So it was that he picked the right girl and they were married. The maiden's father agreed to give her a dowry consisting of as many animals as she could count with one breath. Whereupon the maiden filled her lungs with the largest breath ever taken and counted 'one-two-three-four-five, one-two-three-four-five' over and over with amazing speed until she was gasping. The livestock came from the lake in their hundreds. They lived in prosperity and raised a family of three sons. But inevitably, the three causeless blows were struck. The first occurred when the maiden had not caught one of the horses and the husband tapped her gently on the arm in reprimand. She received the second causeless blow for crying and sobbing at a wedding, and the third for laughing hysterically at a funeral. She then disappeared back into the lake, taking her dowry home with her.
However, she occasionally returned from the lake to assist her sons. She appeared to the eldest boy, Rhiwallon, giving him a physicians bag full of prescriptions and instructions. This gift enabled the boys to become master physicians and they were known as the Meddygan Myddfai - the Physicians of Myddfai.
Rhiwallon and his three sons were historical doctors at the court of Rhys Gryg, Lord of Dynevor and Ystrad Towy. Rhys Gryg lived in the first half of the thirteenth century, the son of Rhys ab Gruffydd, prince of South Wales. However, the fame of the physicians long outlasted the court of Dynevor. Their dynasty lasted until the 18th century when John Jones, the last Physician of Myddfai, died. Several books, some supposedly dating from the time of the original Physicians, survive.
This tale contains many common formulae. These include the motif of three in the offering of the bread, the task set to the lad by the bride's father. However, neither of these events occur in an earlier version of the tale which we are fortunate to have recorded. The original story runs thus :
There is no mention of the threefold bread incident which would have seemed to be an important part of the story. It reflects the liminality of the lake itself very nicely and is reminiscent of the perfect in-between state that needs to be attained in many tales. The addition of the father giving away his daughter may smack of Victorian morality - or on the other hand, may have been suggested to Rees by the father figures in tales such as the wooing of Rhiannon by Pwyll and Olwen by Culhwch. Pughe reports that William Rees, who authored the adapted tale in 1861, did interview local people about the tale and collected some variations, so this may be a genuine local version. On the other hand, it was common during that era for folklorists to 'improve' the tales they collected and the differences may have come solely from Rees' head..
Another lake-lady tale from Wales throws more light upon the theme and may itself have been an influence in the development of the Llyn Fan y Fach story. This tale occurs in several places, notably Corwrion Pool in Gwynedd and Lake Cwellyn near Caernarfon . This is the Cwellyn version.
As in the Llyn Fan y Fach tale, we have a connection with horses and a family who claim descent from the union. The aversion that fairies have towards iron is well known and this would seem to be the key element, rather than that of the horse. However, in the Llyn Fan y Fach tale, the horse has been preserved, while the bridle bit has not. The most important shared element is that of lineage. Harte suggests that the entire Llyn Fan y Fach tale is merely a "prologue to the lineage of the Meddygon Myddfai" and that it was adopted once the status attached to the House of Rhys had diminished. Looking at these tales, and fairy legends in general, to have a fairy wife or helper is to invite luck, abundance and prosperity. A fine thing indeed to be able to claim in ones ancestry.
In the tales discussed above, although the maiden eventually returns to the lake, the overall outcome on the human family is positive. Let us now look at an Irish example which turns this idea on its head. Again, this tale occurs in several places in Ireland. This variation comes from Inchiquin in County Clare and concerns Conchur Ó Coinn (O'Quinn) who was chieftain of that clan from 1461 - 66.
In a parallel with the tale of Llyn y Fan Fach, O' hOgáin suggests that the original story was adapted to make a point about lineage. While the Welsh tale became the basis for the status of a dynasty, the Inchiquin tale appears to have been used for propaganda against the O'Quinns by a rival family, the O'Brien clan. These two had a feud on a national scale, which was paralleled in local enmity in County Clare (although the O'Quinns of Clare were not related to those of the wider conflict). It is interesting that horses again play a part in the breaking of the maiden's conditions. However, in the Irish tale, the theme of the horse race appears to have been inspired by the well known tale of Macha . Though the tale probably dates to the 12th century, it has likely been placed during 15th due to the similarity of name between Conchur and Conchobar, king of Ulster in the time of Macha. Like the Ulstermen, the O' Quinns lost the favour of an otherworldly woman and it seems the O'Briens put this story around to suggest that the O' Quinns had lost the support of the otherworld and were thus cursed in a similar way to the Ulstermen in the Macha tale.
Propaganda aside, the Inchiquin tale leads us onto another important theme surrounding lakes and women - that of their creation. The tale of Ceridwen and Taliesin will be familiar to most readers, but what might be overlooked is that Lake Bala was said to be created when Ceridwen's cauldron overflowed. From Ireland comes the myth of Boand. Her husband, Nechtan, was the only person allowed to visit Connla's well, where grew magical hazel trees. Boand inevitably paid a visit, whereupon the well spewed forth water that chased her - and in some versions drowned her - forming the river Boyne. In Scotland, the Cailleach Bheur is said to have created Loch Awe. There are two versions of the tale. In the first, she simply stubbed her toe on a rock and waters poured forth from underground. The second is more elaborate. The Cailleach was left in charge of a well on Ben Cruachan. Her duties involved covering the well at sunset and opening it again at sunrise. One evening she was overcome with sleep and forgot to cover the well. When she awoke in the morning, the valley below was filled up with water in which floated the bodies of many drowned men. The Cailleach was so overcome with horror and remorse that she turned to stone where she stood.
In their own way, these tales are creation myths and there are many more throughout British and Irish lore, explaining how various parts of the land were brought into being. Though they cannot be dated back beyond the Medieval period in which they were written down, they do seem to preserve older wisdom and a memory of the goddesses who live in those places. Some of them were perhaps invented to explain why beings remembered in name only were attached to those places.
So we have seen that there are many tales concerning lake maidens and most of these tales share common themes. However, none of these tales can be dated before the Medieval period, even though more ancient elements can sometimes be guessed at. But how ancient? Is it possible that these tales contain a memory of pagan goddess worship? We will now look at evidence for worship at lakes and wells to see if there are any similarities to be seen between practices there and our later stories of lake ladies.
Let us first look at general lake symbolism. Miranda Green sums it up well: "Water represented liminal space, locations at the interface of the earthly and supernatural worlds. Such places are perilous, unstable, but because they were 'gateways' between worlds, communication was easier than elsewhere." We can only guess at the exact nature of pre-Christian beliefs regarding water, but judging from the items we find within lakes and wells, it seems that lakes were important places for making offerings to underworld gods and spirits.
One of the most stunning finds was made at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Angelsey. The items within had been deposited within a small time frame and consisted of a vast array of objects including cauldrons, musical instruments and tools. Typically, objects from this era (2BCE - 1CE) are of high quality and often appear to have been deliberately damaged before immersion. This is a speculative point, but it is not hard to imagine lucky folk in the times afterwards stumbling across such hoards and returning with swords and other treasures from a deep lake. The fine quality and beautiful decoration of iron age swords would certainly lend itself to a tale about gifts from the fairies or gods of the underworld.
Thanks to the surviving iconographic and written evidence, the Romano-British period gives us many instances of watery places being venerated. It seems that most lake and spring goddesses (and gods, though these are less common) did share common attributes - or at least, they were petitioned for similar things. We often find these goddesses represented alongside symbols of abundance such as babies, cornucopiae, fruit etc. This certainly ties back in with our folk tales, in which the lake lady either owns a vast number of livestock, or else has the ability to inspire increased abundance from other animals.
The offerings that we find in ancient watery shrines often include small models of human body parts such as internal organs and eyes, so that we can guess the goddess of that place was petitioned for the curing of those things. The idea that healing can be received at springs has survived into modern times, though since the Christian era, this is usually ascribed to the powers of saints rather than gods and fairies.
The most famous example is the hot springs of Bath. The springs were originally connected with the goddess Sulis. The Romans later conflated Sulis with Minerva and built a huge temple structure at the site. Many springs thought to be sacred are only possessed of clean water (but though we take that for granted these days, a pure water source would have been highly prized in the days before our modern purification systems) but those of Bath truly are curative. From inscriptions of the period, we can see that physicians were employed there, along with those offering a more spiritual service, divination and the like.
But this is not the whole picture. Sulis-Minerva was also petitioned in matters of vengeance. Around 130 curse tablets have been found during excavations at Bath. These are small sheets of lead or pewter which have been inscribed with messages which tell of a wrong done and the desired retribution asked for from the goddess. This revenge often centres around physical harm, be it to the eyes, blood or digestion. It makes sense that a goddess with the power to heal the human body should also have the means to disrupt its workings. This idea that such goddesses can kill or cure seems to have been quite widespread and long lasting - such tablets were being dropped into holy wells in Wales as recently as the 19th century.
Another well known spring goddess is Coventina. Her well is found up in Carrawburgh, along the old Hadrian's Wall. There is not actually anything within the offerings found to suggest that she was petitioned for healing; the objects seem quite general. In particular, coins were offered - when the spring was excavated in 1876, over 14,000 were recovered, mostly dating from the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries CE . Apparently there would have been far more, but the local people liberally helped themselves during excavations. Over twenty altars were also recovered. One shows Coventina as a nymph like being, reclining upon waves.
Some people think that in Coventina, we have the perfect candidate for the Arthurian Lady of the Lake. One of the other names given to Nimue is Viviane and this can possibly be linked linguistically to Coventina. David Nash Ford, on his Early British Kingdoms site goes even further, finding cognates with one of the names for Myrddin's wife in early poetry:
However, there is a problem with this in that Vivienne is not the most usual name of the Lady of the Lake. It first appears as Viviane in the Vulgate Merlin, a thirteenth century French text, and seems to be a variant of her name in other related books, Ninniane. It does not seem clear why a medieval French author should suddenly choose to link his Lady of the Lake back to an obscure Romano-British goddess of Northern Britain.
In fact, the inspiration for Nimue is quite clear once you stop looking for ancient British pagan survivals. While Nimue's popularity in the Arthurian Tales is probably due in part to the similarity of her character with traditions of British lake fairies and goddesses, it does not seem that these were the original inspiration. Were this the case, then surely we could expect to find the Lady of the Lake appearing in the earliest Arthur stories, which do hail from Britain. These, which include Culhwch ac Olwen and Preiddeu Annwn, bear little resemblance to the cycle of tales which developed once the theme moved to the continent. It was the early French authors such as Chrétien De Troyes (writing in the late 12th century) who turned a British hero into the Arthur of chivalry and introduced the Lady of the Lake into the cycle.
There are lake goddesses in France (Gaul) who may possibly have provided some inspiration to those early French writers. Belisama is one, and Sequana would be another candidate. However, I believe the clue lies within works such as the Vulgate Lancelot . In this text, the Lady of the Lake lives on an invisible island in the middle of the Lake of Diana in Brittany. In the Vulgate Merlin of roughly the same period, the Lady of the Lake is said to have received the blessing of Diana, which is what makes her so irresistible to Merlin.
Diana was a well known goddess due to the popularity of Classical literature which was much admired and borrowed from by authors in the Medieval period. Its influence has been argued for in many native myths including the Tain. Characters such as Alexander the Great were adopted into Arthurian tales , just as Trojan heroes were written into the Medieval genealogies of British kings. The original inspiration for the Lady and her Lake was probably Lake Nemi, just outside Rome, at which there was a temple of Diana. The Lake was known in ancient times as Speculum Dianae (the Mirror of Diana) and it is a beautiful and mysterious place that has inspired poets such as Byron and Goethe along with artists and composers. Above the lake stands the sacred grove of Diana, from which a stream runs down into the lake. Many offerings have been recovered from the site, including an impressive collection of marble statuary that appears to have been gifted to the goddess by worshippers.
The lake was supposed to have been home to a water-spirit named Egeria and significantly, she was the chief advisor to the Roman king Numa, said to have ruled after Romulus. I do not know how well known that tale would have been to the Medieval author of the Vulgate Lancelot and others. However, the parallel is inviting, particularly considering the preoccupation of Medieval genealogists and historians with the legacy of Rome. As I showed in my article on Elen Luyddog, the days of the Roman empire in Britain were harked back to as a golden age, much as that being created around the figure of Arthur, in whose person we find the last gasp of Rome's glory in Britain. It makes perfect sense that a legend attached to a prestigious ruler of Rome should be transferred to an equally heroic British ruler. There is also the small matter of the name - I'm not an expert in linguistics, but Nemi appears to be very close to the name of Nimue and it is tempting to speculate that the latter is derived from the former.
Although I do not think that the Lady of the Lake is directly related to the other lake maidens of British and Irish lore, nor to ancient British lake and spring goddesses. However, the web of story is a complex thing. It is likely that the popularity of the Arthurian tales encouraged the survival of other lake maiden stories and that each body of story influences the other in subtle and intriguing ways. And as shown by the abundance of literature available, the stories of the Arthur, Merlin and the Lady of the Lake continue to be an inspiration to storytellers and readers the world over.
The Enchanted Land, Heart of Albion press 2006