Saturday, April 5, 2008

Waste Land

From Barbara Walker's "A Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets." The recurrent threatening theme of medieval romances was the Waste Land motif, especially in the Holy Grail cycle. Like the Grail legends themselves, the Waste Land motif probably came from the Middle East, where European travelers and crusaders had seen a true Waste Land: the great desert which eastern mystics attributed to Islam's renunciation of the fertile Great Mother. Western pagans also maintained that if the Mother should be offended or neglected, she might curse the land with the same desperate barrenness that could be seen in Arabia Deserta and North Africa. (See Grail, Holy). One of the Grail stories said a king of England (Logres) once committed a mortal sin by raping one of the Goddess's priestesses and stealing her golden cup, symbol of her love, which must not be stolen but only given. Afterward, priestesses of the sacred springs no longer welcomed wayfarers with food and drink.(1) The Peace of the Goddess was destroyed, for the women no longer trusted men. "The land went to waste. The trees lost their leaves, grass and flowers withered, and the water receded more and more....[A] wrong against a feminine being and a plundering of nature were perpetrated.... [T]he origin of the trouble was looked upon as an offense committed against the fairy world, i.e., actually against nature.... The growth of masculine consciousness and of the patriarchal logos principle of the Christian outlook are concerned in no small measure with this development."(2) The Goddess appeared in several myths of the Grail cycle as a great lady disinherited, or a queen robbed of her possessions and reduced to penury, like La Reine de la Terre Gaste (Queen of the Waste Land) in the Cistercian romance of the Queste del Sainte Graal.(3) Many tales speak of groups of women deprived of their former property rights and gathered together in "castles of damsels," under three rulers personifying the Goddess: a queen, her daughter, and her granddaughter. Hoping to keep their enemies at bay by magic spells, the women waited for a champion to defend their cause, as the Grail knights were supposed to do. The queen employed a certain learned astronomer whose wizardry kept away from the castle any knight likely to fail through cowardice, envy, greed, or any other weakness of character. The ladies waited for the coming of their savior, the Desired Knight, perfect in his honesty and bravery: one who could destroy all their enemies and restore their lands and possessions, which had been taken from them by various robber barons. "Orphaned maidens," deprived of their inheritance by new patrilineal laws, also took refuge in such castles of women; so did older widows who were no longer permitted to inherit property as under the former laws of mother-right.(4) Legends of the coming of the Desired Knight may have been promulgated by women, or by bards seeking to please women with a favorite theme. But there was more than this to the image of the Waste Land. It haunted a society in which, "Under the autocratic regime of persecuting Christianity during the Middle Ages of Europe, Christian dogma was indeed accepted nominally by great intellects, but it was accepted under duress and reservation... The men of highest intellect were compelled to express the faith that was in them in the most guarded language."(5) Often, the language was symbolism - the most guarded of all, since its true meaning could always be denied. The symbolic Waste Land was "a landscape of spiritual death," where religious concepts were dissociated from the feelings and life experience of ordinary people, and imposed upon a confused, reluctant public only by authoritarian indoctrination.(6) This could well describe Europe in the 12th century [or, indeed, America under the George W. Bush years] when the coming of the Desired Knight was vaguely identified with the second coming of Christ - or Merlin, Arthur, Frederick, etc. Many oppressed people desparingly yearned for a powerful hero to defy the oppressors on their behalf. The Waste Land theme invoked the collective fear of every agricultural society since the Stone Age: the fear that Mother Earth's cyclic miracle of food production might fail. But it meant more than that. It also stood for collective devitalization and depression in a society preceived by its members as lacking spiritual roots. A famous modern application of the Waste Land theme is, of course, T.S. Eliot's poem, based not only on western applications of Grail symbolism but also on the Hindu tale of the hopeless quest for the true Word of Power, as recounted in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The Hindu version ran like this: Gods, men, and demons went to Shiva-Pajapati in the guise of Lord of Thunder, to find out from him the ultimate word - that is, the word signifying the goal and end of all things, as Om signified their beginning. But the Thunder, being thunder, was not able to say any word except one: Da. Men, hearing this word, thought it meant datta, meaning "give" or "fertilize," because begetting was the only divine thing they could do, and charitable giving was the only way they knew to seek blessedness. Demons, hearing this word, thought it meant dayadhvam, meaning "sympathize" or "be compassionate"; in the Oriental context demons were not evil spirits but deities of the old matriarchal religion, who preached karuna, mother-love. Gods, hearing this word, thought it meant damyata, meaning "control," the secret of their success; by self control they became divine, and by divinity they achieved power to control all the others. But the Lord of Thunder couldn't distinguish one word from another. He only repeated mindless the only word he knew: "Da! Da! Da!"(7) ' Notes: (1) Spence, 138. (2) Jung & von Franz, 202, 204. (3) Campbell, C.M., 543. (4) Jung & von Franz, 229. (5) Shirley, 31-32. (6) Campbell, C.M., 5-6, 373, 388. (7) Upanishads, 112. See Eliot's The Waste Land.

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