Creation/Vegetation myths and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Two selected works from reading this past week enshrine a contrast between spiritual belief systems found in European (Celtic) Paganism and Judaeo-Christianity and Indigenous North American Cheyenne Spirituality quite well. The Cheyenne Creation Myth, “The Great Medicine Dance,” and an anonymous story, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” offer a rugged disparity between the cultural values seen in various societies that bore rise to the individual stories such as creation myths. European multiculturalism, acting through Roman Catholicism, slowly enveloped all within its grasp. It overcame European (Celtic) Paganism and then later Indigenous North American Spirituality which came to be reflected in stories from the same Judaeo-Christian religion. The believers of these religions were slowly dominated by the insatiable need for growth often seen in Judaeo-Chrisitanities. This was to sustain itself across generations and assert itself towards the top of the prevailing religions worldwide.

As beliefs became integrated into this religion, so too did the underlying cultures they originated from. Such is the requirement, then, to always reflect in some way the beliefs of those incorporated, as a requisite for this dominion over them. The Green Knight, by way of his Knightly and Christianity armor, and the Medicine Man by his admonishment of a token bull head required to perform a dance well enough to create. The token having come from the creator, as a message of power handed from a creator to the created, to usher his bidding on the world through dance. In much the way God had handed Moses tokens to make the “animals” follow his bidding, comparably the mission is a comparable token which was used to obtain power and dominion over the animals. This essay will cover differences and similarities that can be seen in these two stories that indicate that the cultures under the belief have varying opinions on women in society, romance between the sexes and physical tokens used in religious practices in relation to their perceived interaction with nature.

Starting first with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, there were multiple symbolic items that represented power that Sir Gawain was equipped with, beyond his moral character. These were needed to fend for his life from the Green Knight. His shield, bearing a pentacle, was mentioned only one time in the reading, meanwhile the magnificent splendor of the rest of the garb he was adorned with was described multiple times.

The passage in Part 2 Lines 491-1125 that describes this reads, “Ever faithful in five things, each in five fold manner, Gawain was reputed good and, like gold well refined, He was devoid of all villainy, every virtue displaying In the field. Thus this Entangle new He carried on coat and shield, As man of troth most true And knightly name annealed. It’s not typical for a knight to either display or have been said to display anything other than the correct crest here, which is different from the one he would be expected to bear on his own shield.” This passage even says quite directly that the crest is different than the one that a knight would typically bear. This was written this way in order to pander to the infidels for whom this story was intended to sway toward the Protestant faith. It captured their attention by using a commonly known symbol at the time. Like a dog whistle, the enshrinement of Pagan symbols in this literature will draw Pagans to reading this literature.

Near the end of the story Gawain came to bear the green scarf, which was passed to him from the salacious Morgan Le Fay. This woman was revealed to be his aunt later in the story and she attempted to entice him into betraying the morals expected of a knight. These two items, along with others, served specific purposes in the story that appear to have been vastly under represented by the author in very much the same way the stories of exploring the countryside looking for the Green Chapel appear to have been vastly underrepresented. This deters the reader from associating the story with a pagan mindset, and is used as a literary device deployed to narrow ones scope to the story at hand.

Had Sir Gawain not been equipped with that specific armor he would have had issues with the stories that were seemingly skipped over in this tale. Had the armor not been adorned extravagantly the reader might not have been enticed to read the story and imagine such riches. Had the pentacle not been affixed to his shield, how otherwise would a Pagan identify with the symbolism established in foregoing the normal crest that a knight would bear on their shield? Instead, it was forsaken with a Pagan symbol, this too is a literary tool designed to draw the Pagan attention. Had Sir Gawain not carried the scarf, then how would the Green Knight have come to know what the result was of his temptation by the woman? Items being required beyond ones moral character in order to confront a God, in this case the green man of the forest, are underrepresented in the story. This shifted the focus instead to be more on the Christian morals of Sir Gawain himself being pitted against the Pagan beliefs that he was confronted with.

Two individuals including the lord of the forest, the earth, fertility as well as a mother, that which is representative of creation were revealed to be the mastermind behind the plot to tempt Sir Gawain with the Green Knight as her executor. Sir Gawain’s aunt controls nature by association of coordinating her efforts with the Green Knight in accordance with her real husband. In taking this role, she assumed the likeness of the mother of all God figurehead such as one would find in Indigenous North American creation myths, despite her motherhood or mother-like qualities not being explicitly mentioned in the story. Gawain sets a high bar to which one believer of the Christian faith could be held to, in regard to the moral considerations of taking another man’s wife to bed under Christianity. This story of temptation is just one such story of how one may live to uphold Christian values in the face of an unrelenting, Pagan world that this story would have been released into. It would have been prevalent in many people’s minds as the Christian belief system further encroached on daily life of folks that previously didn’t believe in it.

This encroachment was fueled by absorbing Pagan Deities into Christian stories, so that a code of morals could be established for a nascent Christian who’ve come from a life time of Celtic (or any) Paganism, in this example. This is the root of the tendency for dominion inherent to the Judaeo-Christian religion because dominion is one of its tenets. This, in addition to following the commandments of God. This story was proliferated to convert pagans and to domesticate them at all costs available. In doing so, it must make the point that at its core, a man that follows such values is not a morally reprehensible person from the viewpoint of a Pagan. Inasmuch as one of their gods, the green man, here the Green Knight, was selected as a literary and cultural weapon to “test” a man of Christian faith and in turn find him worthy of living, but only when read from the viewpoint of a Pagan (or other sort of infidel).

How a country such as Rome could conquer these nations or displace the various forms of Paganism rested implicitly in its ability first and foremost to convince the people, behind the warriors whose blood was spilled, that they were good people. This is requisite in most forms of conquering anything, and in instances where this is not possible, then force is used. The next generation is then told the stories their fathers and mothers were not left around to tell. Make no mistake here, that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not so different than a Corps of warriors laying siege to an entire city. Stories such as this conquer just as much, but peacefully so, when peace can be had. It wasn’t just the Roman Catholics or the Church of England imposing its control on various European Pagans and the like. This conquering was followed by then conquering the Indigenous North Americans shortly thereafter.

To summarize this discussion, the items Sir Gawain was equipped with were just as important as his moral character in accompanying him on his journey to find the Green Chapel and its Knight. This is important because much of Celtic Paganism just as Judaism just as Catholicism stress the importance of physical things and it’s more of a Protestant revelation that physical tokens are not as important as the unseen intention. Otherwise, explicitly mythical objects that generally escape human use. Therefore, to me, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story that heavily directs the reader toward the Church of England, undergoing the Protestant reformation at the time. The tokens displayed in the story were downplayed to redirect the emphasis toward that which was worth money, the diamonds, the gold, the jewels, the women, the morals and more.

These tokens were repeatedly mentioned in this story, and undoubtedly would have produced an endorphin rush for any a common infidel who’d imagine or think of the vast wealth these other tokens would come to represent. This rush would then be placed instead on the context of the story and, by extension, the very moral character of Sir Gawain himself after having passed “the test of the old gods”. In this case the Green Knight, acting on behalf of the representation of Mother Nature that one would find in Indigenous North American and various European Pagan myths. A story such as this would tend to supplement those stories and displace them slightly, rather than act directly by denouncing the different faiths that many of them held.

An Indigenous story that contrasts the Pagan vs Christian theme shown in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the creation myth of the Cheyenne people called, “The Great Medicine Dance”, where a token was needed to perform the sun dance correctly. In the Cheyenne story and many other Indigenous stories, items appear to take central roles, right along side animals in relative importance in telling the story to the reader as literary devices. I picked these two stories because of their staggeringly different approaches to the various spiritual concepts relating to the taking (or coveting) of other men’s wives, the usage of tokens among them, and the general representation of women and their approach of dominion over others.

As a sharp contrast to Christianity, in The Great Medicine Dance, one can take the chiefs wife away on an adventure. While this was a noteworthy experience, it being forbidden or an act of wrongdoing was not discussed explicitly or implicitly in the story. This concept being introduced in this central creation story the Cheyenne assumed to be held dearest to their culture shows a very different mindset than the one portrayed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Code of Chivalry is tied to the Christian commandment that a man may not take another man’s wife for it’s forbidden “to covet thy neighbors wife.” This concept was leveraged to entice the Celtic (European) Pagans away from their own belief system which was shard the North American Indigenous belief. Many pagan beliefs were oriented around a marriage that did not hinge on the monogamy as was perpetuated in Judaeo-Christianity to reinforce the belief. The idea follows that these massively influential societies and cultures existed previously without having followed creed such as found in Christian doctrines and were able to facilitate their societies despite this contrast.

A token of a woman being taken on a journey as seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when compared to having taken the woman herself on a journey as seen in The Great Medicine Dance are very different actions as well. In the first story, Morgan Le Fay offered a green scarf as testament to the fact that the man abstained from having coveted the woman herself. It was accepted under the extraordinary situation whereby special circumstances involving it lead directly to having saved his life. Were he not to have bore this, how different the story could have turned out. It was because he stopped at taking the scarf, that he was able to live and continue with his good life. On his return to King Arthur’s court, all knights there tied a green scarves to their arms. Opposing this, in the Cheyenne story, the woman and her effects went with the man on the journey and in doing so they brought the medicine dance to the people along with the mission. In doing this, the distinction is made clear that these two belief systems have wildly different understandings and feelings towards what two people can and should be doing together in this context that comes up regularly between people whom are romantically intertwined with each other.

In the Cheyenne story, the chiefs wife didn’t give the medicine man a green scarf with which to perform his quests, she went right along with him as a counterpart to the story. In doing so they took part in creation, and in sharing the medicine dance itself, something tremendous from an imagined Cheyenne perspective. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the seemingly benign woman was represented as a good person who was able to spare her garments as a token stating that Sir Gawain was welcome to covet the woman otherwise. In another moment in the same story, she became some reprehensible thing in cahoots with his evil uncle and this conveyed the message that when men and women work together that surely some trickery must be at hand. The ending of the story represented a very different different women (Something that I didn’t cover here, there being not two, but three story-driving women in this story because of this deception) from the one in the Cheyenne story.

These are two very different tales that tell wildly different opinions on the values of the cultures they originated from when it comes to how two people should behave sexually and romantically. On one hand, the wife of the castle or burg was a deceiver, an entice, an enchantress whose whims a man must overcome in order to overcome untimely but agreed upon death. In the other story the woman is a companion, a friend, who again questions the man in the same way, but that they work together and not one as a deceiver is a large different to me in these stories. These stories are just a cross section of a small part of the representative culture the stories are told from.

The opening scene of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has the woman on some elevated pedestal, seemingly also to be representative of high Christian morals as the passage reads, “Guenever, the grey-eyed, gaily dressed, sits at the dais, the high table, or table of state, where too sat Gawayne and Ywain together with other worthies of the Round Table (11. 58-84, 107-115)”. The difference in opinion of what roles women are to play is made readily understandable in that the first of two opportunities for them in the Christian story was that of an unapproachable demeanor radiated by Guenever. The other woman, Morgan le Fay, at the end of the story was revealed to be a deceiver. It makes one wonder what the belief system is supposed to represent. Or, what the expectation of their role in society was to be. Why would they be represented in such a light in a Christian story? In the Cheyenne story, the woman was a counterpart and an accomplice, a counterbalance, one who is seemingly more integrated into overall progression of the story. Why this placement, opposed to having powerful, pointed parts and specific uses at specific times for the benefit of some hero?

A similarity that can be identified across these stories is the dance conducted by sir Gawain which was done with his words, in an attempt to dance around the Morgan le Fay’s words, as she attempted to seduce him. She had an agenda which was pitted against the combination of words that came out of Sir Gawain’s mouth, that were then revealed to be on trial by a Deity. The Cheyenne story tells us that a dance was to be learned at a mountain by the man and woman from the creator. It was both of these dances, that were subjected to judgment by Deities. In the Cheyenne story the words are, “and if they perform the ceremonies in the right way …”. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it was more the implication of,”if Sir Gawain performs the rite of not taking another man’s wife in the right way …”. The end to both of these were that, “the hero(es) will be favored for generations to come provided they pass the test of God”.

Largely absent from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were many references to animals beyond his horse and a small acknowledgment of their existence in encounters during Sir Gawain’s travels to find the Green Chapel. This indicates the author was not so concerned with them in this story, possibly by design. Contrasting this is that it’s essentially a requirement in Indigenous North American stories such as The Great Medicine Dance to make the point of the belief system understandable to the person whom is receiving the story.

Just the wording, “thus the man and woman walked sacredly”, in the Cheyenne story is impressive and that it’s written in the Cheyenne creation myth denotes the relative differences in opinion regarding the sexes. Continuing here it says, “The man and the woman did lovingly what was necessary to continue life”. This means they worked together to ensure life continues. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the man (Sir Gawain) and Morgan le Fay worked in opposition in order to continue Sir Gawain’s life in spite of the woman’s desires to humiliate and conquer the Knight. She was doing this in conjunction with her husband. It becomes clear as reading continues that in one story it seems to be the case the man and woman will struggle for the power of dominion over the other, including dominion over their values that constitute how they act. This is a very different picture portrayed in the Cheyenne story in which dominion of one gender over the other doesn’t seem to be a requisite condition driving the theme central to the story presented.

To support this point of how different the societies beneath the religions were, the sacredness of the issiwun is respected in such a way that the rest of the elders of the village don’t then go and get a buffalo head and wear it and cheapen the devices mechanisms. Instead, its sovereignty is maintained as a distinguishable object which was not to be disrespected by sharing with the village. Instead, its effects of existing and being used for its stated and given purpose are shared through dance in order to enrich the village. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all knights make a copy of the token. This is to shore and share the immense burden of supposedly having such a flaw as to succumb to the whim of a purportedly married woman who was purposefully testing the stated morals and values of the Knight. This green scarf token was representative of this burden which was then shared among the court, by copying the token and bearing it. The difference here in the stories is that the issiwun was offered as a way to control the wandering of animals bequeathed by the creator, whereas the scarf was to control the straying of Knights from their oaths and as a sign to the creator deity to know.

In conclusion, these two stories contrast each other in many ways. There are some similarities, but the number of contrasting ideas generally far outnumber those which are similar. The Christian propaganda piece that discusses Sir Gawain reflects an appropriation of Pagan Ideology and wraps it in a neat Knight Suit it calls The Green Knight. In doing so, it presents to the reader various aspects of a Christian doctrine which asserts how the sexes are to interact romantically, the role of women in society and the role of tokens in relation to animals. The Cheyenne Myth The Great Medicine Dance introduces cultural concepts that were valued at the time. The Judaeo-Christian story presents women as devices to be used to cause an effect or serving some pointed purpose, where the Cheyenne story presents a very different picture. One story indicates that it is not wrong to covet another mans wife, the other story maintains it as an important aspect of creation. One story indicates that tokens are meant to control man, another indicates that tokens can be used to control animals. There are many other comparisons and contrasts that can be made between these two stories that were not discussed in this writing, this is just a very high level overview of the differences in cultures of the different religions.

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