Giraldus Cambrensis

Considering further the theme of prophecy from the last post, one of the many scraps of information relayed by Giraldus Cambrensis in the asides to his twelfth century Itinerary of a Journey Through Wales is the story of Melerius who, we are told, loved a woman. One evening while he was with her, she turned in his arms from a young woman into a rough, hairy and hideous creature which experience deprived him of his senses so that he became mad. He was eventually restored to his senses but had attained the ability to converse with spirits and was able to gain information from them which gave him the ability to prophesy the future.

These spirits, Giraldus tells us, appeared to him equipped as hunters with horns, but their prey was not wild animals but souls. He mixes up his story with much pious matter and references to the evil purposes of demons, but the core of the tale has various elements in common with tales of other prophets and picks up other thematic threads such as the encounter with the 'Loathly Lady' as a test or transition to the Spirit World or an altered state of consciousness. Giraldus observes: " ... it appears to me most wonderful that he saw those spirits so plainly with his carnal eyes, because spirits cannot be discerned by the eyes of mortals, unless they assume a bodily substance; but if they do, how could they remain unperceived by other persons who were present?"

He can only offer the explanation that they were seen as in a vision for which he suggests a biblical parallel. As often in his writings, he introduces such stories without details of a source and - as here - with more of a moralizing purpose than one which is informative and so leaves the reader on a tantalising trail that doesn't seem to go anywhere.

But the story of the beautiful woman turning into an ugly hag is one that does have parallels elsewhere, fairly precisely in the case of the Scottish prophet Thomas of Erceldoune who has just the same experience and is carried off by the 'Loathly Lady' under a hill to an Otherworld location before returning with the gift of prophecy. The appearance of the motif in medieval literature, such as Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, and its identification in other contexts as initiatory or characteristic of a sovereignty myth, does offer other ways of approaching the story, but ultimately, as with the utterances of prophecy, it may be difficult to discern things clearly. There are many accounts of prophets that told the truth, but not quite the whole truth, and so misled those who asked for information about coming events. And others where the truth was told, but a different context was supplied by the hearer. Here Giraldus sets his tale in the context of the dangers of consorting with 'unclean spirits' (often a synonym for fairies) but leaves the nature of the un-named woman unexplained.

But she has been creatively re-imagined HERE.


Lorna Smithers said...

Thanks for sharing this. Coincidentally my friend was talking about this story today. Again, I find it intriguing that Giraldus mentions Melerius consorting with spirits who appear as horned hunters who hunt souls after his initiatory experience...

Which has influenced me to check out his writing in detail. I just found a very cheap copy of 'The Journey Through Wales' and 'The Description of Wales' on line so looking forward to reading them first hand.

Heron said...

Good luck with your reading Lorna. There are some nuggets of gold in there but you have to do a lot of sifting to find them!