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  • Jo-Anne Blanco

Origins of Morgan le Fay: Morgan and the Erinyes (the Furies)

The Erinyes, known to us as the Furies, were the dreaded dark goddesses of the Ancient Greek Underworld whose mission was to punish those who committed crimes – most notably those who committed homicide, perjury, and the breaking of oaths of honour. Known as “the dogs of Hades”, Aeschylus called them “the children of Eternal Night”, while Sophocles described them as “Daughters of the Earth and the Shadows.”

Originally worshipped in Arcadia as part of the cult of Demeter Erinyes, they were later given their own names of Alecto (the angry one), Tisiphone (the vengeful one) and Megara (the grudging one). Crimes against the family were most important to the Furies – parricide and matricide in particular, given that the Furies themselves were born of a crime committed by a child against his father: the castration of Uranus by his son Kronos. The Furies would pursue the guilty party without mercy, flying with the wings of bats and with serpents twisting in their hair, brandishing torches and whips. There was no escape.

In Arthurian legend, Morgan le Fay often plays the role of Fury to Arthur and his knights. In an early manuscript of the Vita Merlini, she is called “goddess of Annwn”, Annwn being the Welsh equivalent of the Underworld. Like the Furies, Morgan is concerned with those who break oaths of honour, particularly those of marriage and fidelity. She uses her magic to create the Valley of No Return: if an unfaithful knight should enter the valley, he may never leave. She creates a magic cloak that burns anyone who puts it on to ashes. She sends to Arthur’s court a magic horn from which no unfaithful woman can drink without spilling; although it is Guinevere she intends to expose, the horn is re-routed and ends up revealing Isolde’s infidelity instead. She pursues Lancelot with the rage of a Fury, kidnapping him constantly to try to force the revelation of his affair with Guinevere – admitting to Gawain that it is not jealousy that motivates her, but anger at Lancelot’s betrayal of Arthur. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, she is the driving force behind all events, sending Sir Bertilak not just to scare Guinevere to death but to test the honour of Arthur’s knights. Her relentless quest to bring down Arthur and what she sees as his corrupt court makes her what Malory called the “earthly fiend” in many versions.

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