Thoughts on Avalon

© copyright 1986 by Marion Zimmer Bradley

One of the main problems I had, in writing the Arthurian novel, was the fear that Christians would feel I was attacking the basics of Christianity, rather than the enormous bigotry and anti-feminism that have become grafted on to Christianity. I don't think they have any part in Christianity itself, or in the teachings of Christ.

I have read widely on this subject, and while I am skeptical about the conclusions of some of the fanatically feminist or pro-matriarchal scholars as Bachofen, or Helen Diner, I found Merlin Stone's When God Was a Woman very believable in its account of the historical conflict between Hebrews with their patriarchal culture, and their neighbors with Goddesses, holy prostitution, and validation of female sexuality. The ancient Hebrews, for a variety of political and other reasons, seem to have had a holy horror (no pun intended) of female sexuality, and that somehow got transferred, along with a lot of other cultural rubbish, into Christianity. (The political situation between the super-patriarchal Romans and the Celts, who had a much more easy-going attitude toward women, didn't help either.) The Romans never got over their dismay and disbelief at finding Celtic tribes ruled by women; they insisted on calling the war-leaders of the tribes the "Kings" and never were comfortable with their client queens. This, I think, sheds a lot of light on one of Arthur's titles, dux bellorum.

Well, all this is obvious to you, perhaps. But when Christianity came to the Empire, with the third-century Christian Fathers and their completely neurotic insistence on the evil of woman (Jerome and Augustine went far further than the most repressive of the Old Testament writers about women's wickedness), all the elements were present for fertile cultural conflict. This was what I saw in the Arthurian saga, with the emphasis on those mysterious figures, the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay. Malory, a true product of his day, saw the whole story as a parable of conflict between Christianity/feudal tradition, with God, King, Nobles, and Clergy dividing up the world, and women nowhere -- and the emerging light of Renaissance thought, which began to make it clear that this was over-simplified. For me, the whole of Malory's dilemma lies in the awareness that the best knight -- Lancelot -- was not the best Christian; he was, in fact, a miserable sinner -- while the pious and blameless Arthur was getting bashed all over the place by his "inferiors." Malory's dilemma: was God slipping up somewhere? Was there chaos lying behind the orderliness of the medieval-feudal structure?

When I read Malory I noticed specially that Morgan le Fay, and the Lady of the Lake (with her many "damsels") were frequently portrayed as Arthur's friends and allies -- but equally often as his antagonists. Yet their "evil" was never motivated, except, occasionally, to test the faith of the knights, either in God, or in "true love" -- like the Song of Solomon, a parable in devout Christian eyes for the love of God. ("For God and my Lady...")

Yet, I wondered: if Malory disapproved so much of these women, why did he not simply expunge them from the mythos, as he did with so many other elements of the ancient Celtic folk-tales that he grafted on to the doings of his 5th-century historical hero chieftain. My theory is that he could not, because in the originals, now lost, Morgan and the Lady of the Lake were absolutely integral to the whole story and it was unthinkable to tell tales of Arthur without also telling tales of the women involved. This whole thing took place in a Celtic milieu, after all, where the women were integral to the whole thing. Malory minimized the women; he made them into villains, nitwits, and evil sorceresses (remember Morgan attacking King Uriens with murderous intent, but when she was held back by her stepson Uwaine, she had no excuse except "The devil made me do it"). But Malory could not get rid of them entirely.

And the key to that, of course, is simply -- or so I felt -- that they were at the heart of the whole cultural and religious shift at that time, from Goddess-oriented, female-validating religion to God-oriented, Middle Eastern/Oriental woman-fearing religion.

For me the key to "female personality development" in my revisionist, or better, reconstructionist version, is simply this. Modern women have been reared on myths/legends/hero tales in which the men do the important things and the women stand by and watch and admire but keep their hands off. Restoring Morgan and the Lady of the Lake to real, integral movers in the drama is, I think, of supreme importance in the religious and psychological development of women in our day.

I feel strongly that it has been a genuine religious experience. About the time I began work on the Morgan le Fay story that later became MISTS, a religious search of many years culminated in my accepting ordination in one of the Gnostic Catholic churches as a priest. Since the appearance of the novel, many women have consulted me about this, feeling that the awareness of the Goddess has expanded their own religious consciousness, and ask me if it can be reconciled with Christianity.

I do feel very strongly, not only that it can, but that it must. As Morgan discovers the Goddess, exiled from Christian churches, silently reappearing in Saints and the veneration of Mary, so I think the worship of the female aspect of the deity was kept alive under that name all these centuries, and is now surfacing again.

I think it's overwhelmingly important to remember that it is not an attempt to supplant "God," presumably the "real God" fundamentalists talk about, with "a lot of pagan Goddesses and idols." What we are seeking is the female aspect of Divinity itself; Goddess as an extra dimension of God, rather than "replacing God with Goddess." The Divine is. It's very important to remember one of the tragically few public utterances of the shortest-lived of the Popes, John Paul I; he said (I paraphrase, but I think I am close to quoting exactly):

"It is important to remember that God is our Father; but it is equally or more important to remember that God is our loving Mother." Even when we think of God as The Goddess, it is no different than the difference between seeing God as "Fount of Eternal Love" or "Giver of Justice" or "Provider of Daily Bread" or "King of Kings." We are not, by those names, worshipping four different Gods, but four names for the ultimate Divine. (I don't think the so-called worshippers of "Pagan Gods and Goddesses" were, either; they were seeing the outpourings of the Divine in different lights, which they called Zeus and Apollo and Artemis and Isis and so forth.)

So when women today insist on speaking of Goddess rather than God, they are simply rejecting the old man with the white beard, who commanded the Hebrews to commit genocide on the Philistines and required his worshippers daily to thank God that He had not made them women, in favor of the aspect of the Divine which said, "Love one another as I have loved you" or "The Earth is Mine and the fullness thereof," and focusing on that way of seeing and revering God/dess.

Well, I had no intention of preaching a sermon (though some day I hope to publish the text of my ordination sermon, which had to do with Mary and Martha ... the chronicler of that famous episode in Bethany did not, after all, say that Jesus refused to eat Martha's good dinner).

One of the best things that ever happened to me was when my dear friend Madeleine L'Engle, who is not only a great writer of fantasy but a notable Christian laywoman, reassured me that she understood that I had not been attacking Christianity -- only the bigots and fanatics who presumed to call themselves spokesmen for it. Another reader told me that part of the value of the book, if not the main virtue, was in reminding us that the moral majority types who have spoilt Christianity for decent people in the last decade are not a new thing, but have plagued all religions in all times ... history is full of Jerry Falwells, maybe to test true religion, which "is not puffed up..." and knows it is nothing if it "has not charity."

And, I suppose, a little, the purpose of the book was to express my dismay at the way in which religion lets itself become the slave of politics and the state. (Malory's problem ... that God may not be on the side of the right, but that organized religion always professes itself to be on the side of the bigger guns.)

I would also like to say that I do feel, very strongly, that Glastonbury is a sacred place. On the grounds of the Abbey there's a stone commemorating that this has been a place or worship "since there were Christians in England" or something of that sort. I believe the sacredness of the site is far older than that; I can feel it. As Dion Fortune said in one of her books, places where mankind has been in the habit of reaching out toward the Divine make a kind of track, making it easy to go in that direction.

I think the neo-pagan movement offers a very viable alternative for people, especially for women, who have been turned off by the abuses of Judeo-Christian organized religions. I speak, of course, of patriarchal attitudes, hatred of women, the pervasive and insidious attitude that mankind was made to dominate nature rather than the other way round, which is leading us, via hubris, to destroy our very planetary environment in a mass of pollution and misused technology. People who have become so sickened by the pride, arrogance, anti-woman attitudes, hypocrisy and cruelty of what passes for Christianity that they leap toward atheism or agnosticism, may well reach out for the gentler reign of Goddess-oriented paganism to lead them back to a true perception of the spiritual life of the Earth. Time enough later to make it clear -- or let the Mother make it clear to them -- that Spirit is One and that they are, in worshipping the Goddess, worshipping the Divine by whatever name. And I can't think of a better place than Glastonbury for that realization.

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