In Riders to The Sea, Maurya's two daughters have received a
bundle of clothing from a body that was fished out of the sea by the island fishermen. The sisters are going to open
the bundle to see if it contains the clothing of their missing brother. Looking at the contents, one sister comments:
"CATHLEEN (counts the stitches). It's that number is in it (crying out).
Ah, Nora, isn't it a bitter thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and no one to keen him but the black
hags that do be flying on the sea?"
to The Sea, the quote "sea hags that do be flying” are literally birds, sea cormorants that fly over the ocean,
but in a figuarative context, they may allude to the female executioner of the girl in the Norse funerary rites as told
by Ibn Fadlan.
hags may literally mean sea cormorants, but in the the legends of the far north, the Valkyrie flew to bring
the dead to Valhalla. Synge
might be implying this reference. The Viking relates that:
"Strangest of all is the figure of the old hag called
the Angel of Death who apparently directs much of the ritual and slays the chief victim with her own hands- for her title
is quite a passable paraphrase of 'Valkyrie, Chooser of the Slain'" (Simpson, 185).
description is about the Norse slave girl who is killed and cremated with her master in order to serve him in the
Origin of the word hag
The Cormorant: The Devil Undisguised?
The Hag in legend and myth.
The Lusty Man
In Riders to The Sea, Maurya is a widow
with white hair. As a mother and wife, she could be an archetype.
The hag theme, found in the pagan Nature religions,
often portrayed women as embodying all cycles of nature from the maiden at life's beginning to the aged at the end
of life. The Feminine or Goddess appears as a beautiful maiden in spring and as an aged woman or hag in winter. She dies
and is reborn as a maiden again in spring.
Rudyard Kipling's "The Sea Wife" from The Seven Seas
research on non-ordinary states of consciousness has confirmed Jung's position on archetypes and has added another important
dimension. In non-ordinary states, the boundary we ordinarily see between myths and the material world tends to dissolve.
While the solid material world disintegrates into dynamic patterns of energy, the world of archetypical realities becomes
increasingly real and palpable" (Grof, 156).
Myths might actually be the way the human mind organizes its perception of life and human thinking.
An archetype is more than just a stock character
in a play. A stock character is stereotypical, but an archetype has more dimension because it portrays a quality or type that
exemplifies themes that run throughout all ages and all people, embedded in the human consciousness of all.
Archetypes of women can include the mother, the
goddess, the queen, and the female warrior. There is a kind of spiritual essence to an archetype not found in a stock character.
In A Vale by Robert Frost
The old pagan religions and their characters became things of evil after the people were
converted to Christianity. The elves, faeries, and the old gods such as Odin became demons and devils.
In Man, Myth & Magic, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mythology and Religion, it
is said that the Devil's consort was called:
"Queen of Elphen. She is said to be very pleasant, and she can seem old or young when
she pleases, and she makes whoever she likes king, and lies with whoever she likes" (Cavendish, 47).
This Elfin queen is an example of the hag archetype, in that she can change her age and appearance
at will and is all ages and all seasons at one time.
The Goddess is a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue
eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl,
she-wolf, tigress, mermaid, or loathsome hag...
the cult of Odin, there were human priestesses who used the same title, Valkyrie, as the supernatural warrior-goddesses
who were his messengers.
A later historical reference to the Angel of Death was made by concentration
camp prisoners in World War II Germany
about Dr. Mengele. He was in charge of making selections from among the prisoners, deciding who would live and who would die.
Mengele, The Angel Of Death
The Bible tells of the Angel of Death passing through Egypt,
killing the firstborn from all the Egyptian families. It is also possible that the camp interns were familiar with old Germanic
and Norse legends from the countries where they resided.
Angel of Death
The word angel had some different meanings in
times past. In The Word Museum, for instance, angel- bread
was "Purgative cakes made of spurge [a 'corrosive herb'], oatmeal and ginger [T. Wright]" (17). It also defines oil of angels as “A gift or
bribe of money, the reference being of course to the coin, the 'angel' [Davies] SEE raddlings" (Kacirk, 134).
These lines calling
attention to Maurya's despairing circumstances by use of the words black night are found in Riders to The Sea:
"MAURYA (crying out
as he is in the door). He's gone now, God spare us, and we'll not see him again. He's gone now, and when the black night is
falling I'll have no son left me in the world."
These words black
night also imply the dark winter days when the celebration of Samhain occurred.
A Modern Take on Samhain
were not the only reference to the color black in the play. There are numerous uses. Black is used in several instances:
black hags, black pig, black feet, black knot, and black cliffs.
are often symbolic and here might allude to the dark nights of Samhain, the unknown fate of the son, the uncertainty of the
future for Maurya, or even the state of the Norse chieftain's embalmed body when dug up from its grave, though not mentioned
in the play.
I could see that he had turned black because of the coldness of the ground.
Stephen Crane wrote "The Black Riders and Other Lines", which lines begin with a description of
invaders from the sea. There are many elements in it that seem to match those in the play. For instance, the color black
is used to describe the riders in part IV.
Black riders came from the sea.
There was clang and clang of spear and shield,
And clash and clash of hoof and heel,
Wild shouts and the wave of hair
In the rush upon the wind:
Thus the ride of sin"
The Wild Colonial Boy
Does the reference
to Green Head in the play have a connection to the green and fair Paradise seen by the sacrificial victim?
Skögul says that they shall now ride forth to the "green homes of the godheads"
generously uses references to the color white: white boards, white rocks, white stick, white hair, and white waistbands.
The splash of
red is seen in the red mare, red sail, and red petticoats. Red is often symbolic of blood spilled, of witches, and of
besides adding drama to the work and interest to the stage costumes, Synge wants these primal colors to serve as cues, having
the mind to access certain of its more primitive "files".
One of the things that Synge commented on was the dress of the Aran Island
women. He wrote:
"The simplicity and unity of the dress increases
in another way the local air of beauty. The women wear red petticoats and jackets of the island wool stained with madder,
to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted around their chests and tied at the back. When it rains they throw another
petticoat over their heads with the waistband around their faces..."
Synge writes these red petticoats into his play. This scene depicts the
women mourners who come to comfort Maurya after her last son is brought home:
"[She pauses again with her hand stretched out towards
the door. It opens softly and old women begin to come in, crossing themselves on the threshold, and kneeling down in front
of the stage with red petticoats over their heads.]"
In the Tarot deck, card XV is the Devil.
About this card, it says:
“What it does signify is the
Dweller on the Threshold without the Mystical Garden when
those are driven forth therefrom who have eaten the forbidden fruit” (Waite, 131).
Some Bible commentators believe knowledge
was the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden. The reader will remember that knowledge of the runes was costly to Odin.
The Irish folk ballad Shool Aroon sang of women and red apparel:
"I'll dye my dress, I'll dye it red
And o'er this wide world make
What happened to the Irish in Shool Aroon?
In keeping with
the theme of darkness and the mystery of the unknown, the characters speak of the black night falling after Bartley goes out
into the night and about Maurya when she talks of journeying into the dark night after Samhain to fetch Holy Water. Old myths
brought to Ireland tell of the Giants, enemies of men and gods. From North Mythology:
Giants, sworn enemies of men and Aesir, were savage and violent...they had dark skin and hair. Many of their women were well-favored,
as for example Gerd. They loved darkness and the deeds of darkness; their women, avoiding the light of day, were in the habit
of riding forth by night, so they were sometimes called Dark-Riders or Night-Riders. If the sun's rays chanced to strike a
Giant, he turned at once to stone" (Munch, 39).
times dark nights are mentioned in the play and might be intended to call forth memories of frightening myths from the Norse
and to the cloaked practices of pre-Christian times, linked to the old festival of Samhain.
concern over food that involves a "cake" or the bread baked on the home hearth. Odin's laments on his tree of suffering that
he is given no sustenance. The women baking bread intend to give some of it to their brother Bartley, but somehow they
forget to do this, and he leaves without it.
(crying out) The son of God forgive us, Norah, we're after forgetting his bit of bread."
this is a very ominous thing to the women, and they attempt to remedy the problem in this way:
(cutting off some bread and rolling it in a cloth; to Maurya) Let you go down to the spring well and give him this and he
passing. You'll see him then and the dark word will be broken and you can say 'God speed you' the way he'll be easy in his
Souling Song for Samhain
Each soul cake eaten represented a soul released from Purgatory.
half of the blessing is given. The response goes unsaid. The balance of things is upset, out of kilter. Donna Gerstenberger
writes in John Millington Synge:
failure to give Bartley blessing and bread occurs by the spring well, the source of life-giving water, as opposed to the life-depriving
waters of the sea, and the drops of holy water, within the context Synge has set for his play become ironic reminders of man's
frail hopes" (Gerstenberger, 48).
story line is in many ways similar to that of Arthurian legend. Percival, later called Sir Percival, in search of the
Holy Grail, leaves his mother in order to become a knight. He was the youngest and only surviving child. She
is heartbroken and dies shortly afterwards.
there is someone who does get the bread later on in the play. When Bartley's body is brought home, a coffin must be made for
him. In the play it says:
a hard thing they'll be saying below if the body is washed up and there's no man in it to make the coffin."
sounds like no man will be in the coffin and also will make the coffin, recalling the phrase "digging their
own grave". Although it seems that they have hired a man to build a coffin, there is a play on words.
his death Bartley says:
hard set we'll be this day with no one in it but one man to work" as if he were prophesying his own death.
written word compounds the possibility of additional elements. Without the apostrophe and also by only the sound, we'll
contains the word well and weal, depending on variations in pronouncing the word. Wells figured prominently
in pre-Christian religion and folk tales, and weal calls wounds to mind.
"Its mother tried to say 'God bless it', but something choked the words in her throat."
hires an "old man" to build Bartley's coffin. In legend, when Odin traveled incognito among mortals, he was often referred
to as an "everyman" and, also, as the opposite "no man". In Maurya's time, these stories had passed into the
communal memory as one of the old legends:
These early precursors of what may be called the scientific sundial are not accurate, since they employed a short, horizontal
gnomon in the form of a wooden peg or perhaps a metal rod which projects perpendicularly from a hole in the wall at the centre
of the dial.
"[To an old man.]
Maybe yourself and Eamon would make a coffin
when the sun rises. We have fine white boards herself bought, God help her, thinking Michael would be found, and I have a
new cake you can eat while you’ll be working.
THE OLD MAN
[Looking at the boards.]
nails with them?"
is still a slang term, but it had different meanings in archaic English:
When miners have got into some old works, of which they had previously no knowledge, they say they have got into an old
man, or t'old man's been ther"[Carr]" (Kacirk, 134).
coffin is ordered, Cathleen addresses her comments to "an old man".
lines follow his designation as OLD MAN in the play, nameless at that time, but later called by the name of Colum. Cathleen
says to him: "and I have a new cake you can eat while you'll be working".
or cake is offered. Notice also that the sound of you'll is the same as Yule. The saying is that "the
hand is quicker than the eye", but the mind is even faster. While the ear hears the word, in this case you'll,
as it is meant on the surface, the mind has calculated all other meanings and connotations so quickly as not to be comprehensible
and has brought forward the best fit for the particular occasion.
thought processes that go on under the surface during the search for meaning are far more complex than the conscious mind
the itinerant wanderer on a journey, Odin, master of disguises, could be expected to turn up unexpectedly at any time. Disguised
with a white beard, he would look like an old man. If Synge wanted to suggest Odin, then he has taken
a step from being quite literal into the shadowy realm of half-beliefs and the collective conscious of
to the ancient god Odin might then correspond to the Christian teaching of the Resurrection after Christ's suffering
on the cross. The two accounts are certainly similar. Maurya's final comment is that:
"No man at all
can be living forever, and we must be satisfied."
This is a very odd
turn of phrase, as it could be understood in more than one way. At any rate, the duality of the old and new beliefs
are intertwined and forged in some Celtic fretwork of design.
It seems the reference to the old man
might allude to hidden things or hidden knowledge.
The Old Man and The Sea as Archetype
In the description of these temples, a smaller type
of structure is described, set on high, and which resembled the choir loft in Christian churches. In this gallery
were kept sacred objects for ceremonial purposes. The play makes us ask ourselves if the bundle they are hiding is similar
to a sacred object.
Both the sacrifice and funeral rites featured feasting
as an integral component of the activities. In Maurya's case, she worries that they will not have enough to eat, not
at the funeral only, but in the future, deprived of breadwinners. This ancient theme is personified in the name of Hel, daughter
of Loki and Angerboda. Norse Mythology tells of this:
"...her dish or porringer is Hunger, her knife
Famine" (Munch, 38).
Despite this anxiety Maurya says: "It's a great
rest I'll have now, and great sleeping in the long nights after Samhain, if it's only a bit of wet flour we do have to eat,
and maybe a fish that would be stinking."
Since the fish was an early and continuing symbol of Christianity, one
wonders if Maurya is telling the play's audience about the pagans' view of the new religion.
The Word Museum tells
us that a blind tam was a bundle of rags made up to look as if it were a child so as to elicit sympathy for
the mother of the "baby" who was begging.
play, the question could arise about this being an allusion to the bundle Maurya's daughters put in the loft. They
knew that with the death of the last breadwinner in the family, they could be facing poverty and starvation.
This bundle is mentioned in the play. The sisters do not open it at first
because they do not want to upset their mother. Later on, they open it:
Is the sea bad by the white rocks, Nora?
NORA Middling bad, God help us. There’s a great
roaring in the west, and it’s worse it’ll be getting when the tide’s turned to the wind.[She goes over
to the table with the bundle.]
Shall I open it now?"
Next comes this dialogue:
Give me the ladder, and I’ll put them up in the turf-loft, the way she won’t know of them at all, and maybe
when the tide turns she’ll be going down to see would he be floating from the east.[They put the ladder against the
gable of the chimney; Cathleen goes up a few steps and hides the bundle in the turf-loft. Maurya comes from the inner room.]MAURYA
up at Cathleen and speaking querulously.]"
Maurya seems to be finding consolation even in her
desperate circumstances. The winter nights after Samhain will be among the longest and darkest of the year. Bartley will now
be sleeping too, in death or gone to the dark underworld. It is not quite certain how many of the pre-Christian ideas
are still in Maurya's belief system.
An interesting adjunct to this sleep/rest theme
is found in The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings:
"The long respite from Viking raids which Ireland enjoyed between 874 and 914 became known as the 'Forty Years' Rest'"
Vikings suffered violence - 960-1020 - Beheaded skeletons found under Oxford
In Nonzero, in the chapter The World Makes Backup Copies, it states:
"By the beginning of the eleventh century, the Viking threat had subsided...In
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Cahill gasps at what might have been lost to the barbarian invasions. 'Had the
destruction been complete - had every library been disassembled and every book burned - we might have lost Homer and Virgil
and all of classical poetry...and all the subsequent commentary" (Wright, 145).
Individuals such as Maurya would have a great rest, but priceless historical
manuscripts guarded by the Irish clergy also survived.
ninth century Ireland, the Vikings used a cruel method to punish those who did not pay their
fines or protection money. They would slit the nose of those persons who could or would not pay. To "pay through the nose"
is an idiom that means to pay too high a cost for something. It also carries the connotation of spite as in "You're going
to pay through the nose for that".
Paying through the nose
The Vikings and Money
Legend has it that St. Akelda was strangled by Viking women.
Feasting was also the order of the day when a soothsayer
or clairvoyant came to a town to visit. We find this description of such an occasion:
"At a lower level, there were individuals who made
a livelihood by the exercise of magic powers...from the finding of lost objects or forecasting the season's crops, to black
magic and storm raising...Very often, the wizard or seer is said to be a 'Finn', i.e. one of the Lappish race that were the
original inhabitants of Northern Scandinavia... (Simpson, 173).
and foretelling the future was practiced by travelers who made their living by prediction.
such persons was one type of female seer known as a 'volva'; the term occurs in both poetry and prose, and the women to whom
it applies are not said to be 'Finns' but Norse. Several sagas tell how they traveled from farm to farm, sometimes in groups,
to answer questions about the future."
Viking World recounts that "Before giving her replies, the volva would go into a trance, sometimes sitting on a high
platform and accompanied by chants by her assistants..." (Simpson, 175).
assistants formed a ring around the platform to assist the volva.
The Witch of Coos by Robert Frost
be interesting to find out if fairy rings and the children's sing-song verse Ring Around the Rosy are
descended from this custom.
Ring Around The Roses
Husher, Husher, Cuckoo!
The Fall of the House of Usher
Dust To Dust, Ashes To Ashes
Ireland, when the Celts would choose
a new king at Tara, they would
make use of divination. A magical stone called the Lia-fail or 'Stone of Fail' was consulted for the inauguration. Tradition
said that the sacred stone would 'scream' when the rightful king was near.
and choice of the High Kings was attended by much ritual, and a great bull feast (tarbfeis) used to be prepared whereby
a seer could envisage in a trance the rightful King of Tara" (Cavendish, 2566).
state is a tradition as old as kings and divination itself.
We find that Maurya seems to be in
a trance or hypnotic state from the time she goes to the spring well and for the duration of the play. In ancient Ireland,
the spring wells were holy places associated with the old religions.
The well in the play serves as a focal
or pivotal point. Much like the threshold in the cottage, the well is a symbolic location of the spiritual threshold in the
play, a place where two separate worlds meet, the crossroads of two disparate states of minds.
The strength and also the catch
of this play relies on having an informed audience, an awareness of the old beliefs about the world above and the world below.
The mind of the audience must move from one world to the other, just as the mourners move across the threshold of the
Norse legend told of Niflheim, the
coldest and darkest hell. Later Celts devised and borrowed the idea that the world below was a mirror-world of the world
above, that there were beings that could travel between these two worlds, a journey of a type that the volva made in
the psychic world. Maurya's words superstitiously allude to this: "It's a hard thing they'll be saying below..." strongly
hinting at the old beliefs that people, though dead to the human world, lived in mounds and underground worlds apart
but at the same time as humans.
The volva relied on being in a trance
to make her predictions. Hypnotic states as well as battle frenzy can be induced by monotonous sound and rhythm over a period
of time, and there are some allusions to this in the play and in historical records.
The Norse funeral rites were accompanied
by the continuous beating of sticks or swords against shields. This may have induced a kind of trance or stupor that numbed
the feelings of the mourners.
Maurya seems to have entered a kind
of trance state. The stage directions describe her as such:
"Maurya sways herself on the stool."
The steady drone of prolonged
keening is also indicative of an altered state of mind, no doubt providing some sort of relief for the mourners.
Synge describes this state of
mind: "MAURYA (half in a dream to Cathleen)" and this stage direction: "MAURYA (raising her head and speaking as if she did
not see the people around her)."
The Viking World presents
a description from literature where a dream state is connected to Odin and feasting for the dead:
"Turning to literature, one finds the
same duality. Most sagas present the dead as 'living' in their burial mounds...and will rise to fight intruders...Odin's favorites
would be welcomed by the Valkyries...they would feast until the end of the world...Erik Bloody-Axe begins with Odin foreseeing
the arrival of a worthy guest:
'What dream was this,' said Odin, 'for
I thought I rose ere day,
To clear space in Valhalla
for an army of the slain?
I aroused my chosen champions, I bode
them all rise up,
To spread rugs on the benches, scour
goblets for the board;
I bad Valkyries proffer wine as if
a prince were come'" (Simpson, 180).
Because the pagans buried their dead
in mounds, Christianity discouraged the practice.
Throughout the play, Maurya seems to
vacillate between these two states of mind: the real world and the world of her vision.
vision of her sons seems real and palpable to her.
most elemental and profound forms, archetypes are cosmic principles that are completely abstract and beyond the capacities
of human perception. However, in non-ordinary states, they may also appear in forms that we perceive through inner sight,
hearing, smell, taste, touch, or the virtually palpable sense of presence”
In Riders to The Sea, Maurya fears the worst for her missing
son. Maurya complains that Bartley won't heed her warning:
"Maurya (turning round to the fire, and putting her shawl over her
head). Isn't it a hard and cruel man won't hear a word from an old woman, and she holding him from the sea?"
Later, after Bartley has ridden off on his pony, Maurya speaks of her
"MAURYA (speaking very slowly). I've seen the fearfulest thing
any person has seen, since the day Bride Dara seen the dead man with the child in his arms."
There is a pun in the first speech. Maurya's vision is a portent that her child Bartley will
soon be found dead.