Home > E. Religion: palimpsest & reconstruction > Black as a Raven, Red as Blood, White as Snow

Black as a Raven, Red as Blood, White as Snow

The Morragan; art: Louis Brocquy; src: WikiCmns

It’s 4 o’clock folks (and not in the p.m.)

and this one might run on a bit, but is worth wading through.

1. Deirdre

Our tales start with Deirdre and the Fate of the Sons of Usnach, the most famous story from ancient Irish literature, and not without reason: it contains the most intense moment in old Irish writing. In brief, when Deirdre was born, the Druid Cathav prophesied that she would be the most beautiful woman in Ireland, and that many men would die on account of her. The cry went up among the warriors to have her slain, but, rather than doing so, the king, Conashoor (all spellings are approximate transliterations of the Irish) hide her away far from human eyes so that she could grow to maturity and become his wife.

Well, everything went according to plan until one year Deirdre went out at midwinter (note the time of year) and saw her foster-father flaying a calf in the snow. A raven was drinking the calf’s blood, and Deirdre said, “I can love only a man with those three colors: cheeks red as blood, hair black as a raven, and body white as snow.”

And immediately, Deirdre’s nurse tells her where such a man could be found. Well (and excuse me, Twilight), the incident is incredibly powerful on its own, and says quite a bit about ancient mythology (or even religion); for instance, we should remember that the raven was the symbol of the ancient Irish goddess of war. And, of course, the calf prefigures the death of Deirdre’s lover, who dies at the hands of the jealous king.

One further point: Noisiu is Deirdre’s principle lover, but he has an unfixed number of brothers…three, or more, depending on the version. Let us assume for the moment that he has six brothers.

2. Snow White

Art: Anne Anderson; Src: WikiCmns

Come on, you’re thinking, what does Snow White have to do with this? This is how the tale starts: at midwinter, a queen was stitching besides a window with a black ebony frame. It was snowing outside, and the falling snow distracted the queen, who looked up from her work and pricked her finger by accident. And she said, “I wish I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony.” And soon after, the queen gives birth to a little girl with these colors, but dies in childbirth.

Hmmm…the plot thickens. Evidently the three colors, black, white, and red, have to do with the birth and death of a chosen woman, the queen of midwinter (or the annual representative of the goddess). She and her lover (the annual king) are doomed to die at the solstice. But there is more.

Enter the seven dwarfs. When they come home, they find that Snow White has slept in each of their beds (and is sleeping in the bed of the seventh). Now let us take a slightly more mature approach to this image and understand that Snow White has slept with each of the seven dwarfs, and is currently the lover of the seventh. (A number repeated over and over in the scene).

So it seems that the midwinter queen has seven consorts.

3. The Six Swans

The Brothers Grimm offer some more help with our puzzle. In this story, there are six brothers and a sister. When the brothers are transformed into swans by the evil stepmother, their sister waits for them an extra night, and they return to the castle, where they are magically transformed back into men. Of course, though the scene features seven beds, the sister does not sleep in any of them. (But the parallels are hard to overlook).

4. The Levirite Marriage

Now the stakes go up, for in the next occurrence of our motif, we are no longer in ancient Europe, but in Jerusalem during Jesus’ final week. Sadducees approach him in the temple & ask him a question about the Resurrection: a woman marries seven brothers according to the Levirite Law–whose wife will she be in the Resurrection?

At first this seems an outrageous question, making fun of both Jesus and the majority of the population, which believed in the resurrection of the dead. Why would the Sadducees court public rejection by asking the question?

Because they are reminding their listeners of the rumor that Jesus did marry such a woman–the woman at the Samaritan well.

5. The Woman and the Well

Scholars are inclined to think that the Gospel of John is not historic–but in the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), I think we have an important episode in Jesus’ early life that has been heavily edited.

Note that the episode starts with one of Jesus’ chief themes: ask and you will receive.

In John, the woman is identified only as Samaritan, but we have to wonder about the coincidence–a woman appearing at the well at the same time as Jesus (and not just any well–Jacob’s well!). “[She] came to draw water [for Jesus].”  This woman is the well’s keeper–and the keeper of ancient Samaritan practice and belief.

This story is occurring at the heart of Samaria–the well beneath Mount Gerizim that Jacob gave to Joseph.

Except that here the Samaritan woman does not give, and with good reason: she can see by Jesus’s clothing and manner that he is a Jew. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans (a well-known conflict, already centuries old when the conversation besides the well occurred ) prevents her from giving Jesus a drink. And look at the time of day–noon!

artist: angelika kauffman; src.: WikiCmns.

In the argument that ensues Jesus makes a claim about the woman that seems to be miraculous: he knows that the woman has had five husbands, and is living with a sixth man whom she is not married to. Miraculous, however, only because the identity of the woman has been withheld: as the keeper of the well, she was *obliged* to take multiple husbands. I think we can also claim that this woman will marry her current partner and then leave him and marry another man, the seventh.

That Jesus knows this impresses the woman: here is someone who is Judean, but who has also taken an interest in Samaritan culture and belief–no ordinary man, but one who is destined to do great good: “I perceive that thou art a prophet.”

Then Jesus makes one of his most epiphanous statements: that the Father will be worshipped neither at Gerizim or Jerusalem. He implies that the Father will be worshipped in the heart of the believer. In other words, Jesus’ message is for everyone. At this point, the well-keeper is swept away by his vision and intensity, and as seems likely, invites Jesus to come and teach her. This would account for the Gospel’s assertion that all Samaria believed–this woman stood for the heart of the Samaritan people.

But if Jesus lived with the woman for a significant period of time, this would appear to be a sort of marriage, and a rumor would have circulated to that effect.

There is another, more demanding, interpretation of the scene’s outcome: Jesus does not join the Samaritan woman to teach her, but to become her student. And she asks him to join her because a moment of prophetic foresight has come on her, and she has seen him lying at the foot of the cross, his cheeks covered with blood, his filthy hair black as a raven, his body (under the grime) white as snow. He becomes her seventh husband, and so is doomed to die.

A prophet indeed, and one who aspired to heal the rift between Samaritan and Jew, to recreate the ancient united monarchy.

6. Conclusions

Wow! What started as a discussion of an old Irish legend has lead us through the forests of Germany to Jerusalem and Gerazim. In each of the stories, a woman with seven consorts holds the fate not only of the men who serve her, but also of her nation. That an ancient guild of poets circulated throughout Europe and into the Middle East seems to have been well-known by such observers as Socrates and the Irish bards. From the well of their imagination many stories have been drawn and remain with us in more-or-less altered forms.

copyright 2010, The Rag Tree

(Note: I have altered the work of Louis Brocquy by adding the stream of blood.)

  1. November 7, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    interesting line of thougtht, thanks for the early morning tour.

    • November 9, 2010 at 1:35 am

      Z: actually, i started this post on 9/27, and saved the draft (tho i got most of the argument completed that night). finding the images & just preparing myself mentally for job of completing a compelling but difficult argument like this took up the intervening time. forgetting for the moment the literary motif that ties the stories together, john 4 clearly records an epiphany of some sort on jesus’ part: how he was able to rid himself of the deep ethnic hostility between jew & samaritan & come to such a broad view of religion is a major question. one that will keep people tinkering with the story for a while longer, i guess. RT

      • aubrey
        November 10, 2010 at 10:32 pm

        These are such rich visions and compelling arguments. So this comes as no surprise that it took so many weeks to complete – and at 4AM, no less!

      • November 11, 2010 at 3:13 am

        AB–thanks for your words…visions of italian hills & unfinished churches are also compelling. why don’t they just finish the darned thing? (then again, maybe it can’t be finished.) RT

  2. November 8, 2010 at 1:44 am

    I love ancient mythologies, biblical & religious texts… the storytelling is incredible. What an interesting post.

    • November 9, 2010 at 1:42 am

      peacock: it’s interesting that in an attempt to get away from all the biblical influences of certain years in my youth via mythology, i have returned to the bible & its layers and layers of story. RT

  3. November 8, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    I feel there’s a lot that could be commented/discussed in this text.

    I’ll just settle with the observation that in the first two tales, beauty (supernatural or supreme beauty) seems to be closely related to death and violence

    • November 9, 2010 at 1:26 am

      yes, maria, i agree that the entire idea behind this post sounds far-fetched, based as it is on the single image of a woman with multiple lovers/husbands. And while i’d say tht most people would admit that the red/black/white formula of the first two stories ties them together strongly (not to mention the proximity of ireland & the german forests), not much in the new testament suggests a cultural connection w/ northern europe.

      still, the appearance of the motif in the debate w/ the saduccees & again with the samaritan woman is striking (especially in the context of jacob’s well), and various historical considerations lead me to think that there was a connection with nothern europe. but the argument gets more complicated at this point, and it’s late, so i’m taking the 5th and going to bed for the moment. such are the privileges of the poet :). RT

      • November 9, 2010 at 10:06 am

        It wasn’t so much that I thought it was far-fetched, but just that there were too many things to elaborate on for me to be able to do it (I was a bit too tired to think) at that moment – so I chose a comment that were more of a side-note… I like the unexpected leap that you made and that you managed to tie things together, offering your interpretation. I love to think that there are connections and parallells like that, and as an artist (or poet!) one is allowed to play a little… I think so anyway. And I love to make little connections of my own, I recently figured out that that probably is the real drive or purpose behind my own blog (for now)

      • November 11, 2010 at 3:07 am

        maria: here is a connection i’m having trouble with–you are Swedish, right? How then is that you write English so well? Is the instruction in Sweden that good? Or did you spend significant time in an English-speaking country? and btw, what is the swedish for “thank you”? RT

  4. November 11, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    “thank you” = “tack!” or “tack så mycket” (thank you very much) or “tackar” (which is more like a verb and perhaps more obliging).

    Thanks for saying nice things about my English! 🙂 I’ve heard people say that Swedes in general have good basic knowledge in English and also speak English well. I’m not sure why this is. Some say it’s because we don’t dub foreign films or tv-shows like a lot of other countries do, but use subtitles for everything. only movies for small children are dubbed.

    In my case, I think it’s due to a lot of reading (…and perhaps I’m a bit of an anglophile as well…). I also love language and words. When it comes to literature one of the things I appreciate the most is the style of the author. A lot of things can get lost in translation and style is really difficult to translate (don’t you agree?), which is why I try to avoid Swedish translations when it comes to books written in English. English as a language also has a lot more nuances and more words than the Swedish language. I wish I knew all languages so I could read all books in their original languages… I read “The Stranger” in Swedish and by chance I discovered that the translation had left out several words in some sentences when I quoted the book to a friend (who had an English translation which turned out to be a lot closer to the original).

    • November 12, 2010 at 8:27 am

      But I have to add that I think that there are great translations as well! And perhaps I just have an affinity for English as a language as well. I mean, I’ve read translations from Spanish and German in English – there must be a reason to why I prefer those to reading Swedish translations… And there is great literature in Swedish too, of course. As well as amazing translations, I am in love with my Swedish copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (even though I’ve no clue how close it might be to the original text, obviously)

    • November 16, 2010 at 5:55 pm

      Maria: Tack! And now I’m wondering if “mycket” is related to old english “micel” (which means much). RT

      • November 16, 2010 at 8:28 pm

        indeed you’re right – i looked it up now!

        “mycket/mycken” from the ancient swedish word/s: “mykil, mykin, mikin”

        both the sw. and eng. word is related to a german word, “mekila-“, related to greek “mega”

        ..this according to the “Swedish Academy Dictionary”

      • November 20, 2010 at 5:21 am

        Maria: I wouldn’t have known about micel except through Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings…a treasure trove of northern european folklore (apparently, finnish was one of his favorite languages; I guess swedish must have fallen under the rubic “germanic,” a passion that got him the chair in anglo-saxon at oxford… RT

  5. January 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I always have to smile, when I read SNOW WHITE, I don’t know why…
    my personal meeting with a snow-white girl 🙂

  1. January 7, 2012 at 7:18 pm

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