A couple of weeks ago I decided to start working on a Deirdre of the Sorrows. Deirdre is one of the most tragic characters of Pre-Christian Irish Myth. Her story comes from the Ulster cycle and has all the makings of a classic fairy tale, except for a very unhappy ending. I originally just wanted to paint a Celtic goddess that was known for her otherworldly beauty and was drawn to Deirdre. Her story is a little bit like Helen of Troy, a beautiful woman that causes the ruin of kings and warriors, but the symbolism of the story is so rich I couldn't resist painting it.
There are many versions of this story, at least 5 plays and 4 books have been written about her, and although the stories vary slightly, the basic theme is the same. So Deirdre is born to a royal storyteller in the court of the king Conchobar. A Druid priest prophesied when she was born that she would be the ruin of the king and the kingdom because of her great beauty. She was almost put to death for this, but the king was so intrigued by her future beauty that he decided to keep her alive and marry her when she grew up. He placed her in foster care hidden away from others.
Here is where the story starts to intrigue me. She lives in a house hidden under the ground (faerie dwelling=sidhe) and is mainly cared for by an old woman named Leabharcham. Leabharcham is the wise crone goddess and/or possibly a high priestess of the old ways. One day Deirdre looks out and sees her foster father slaughtering a young calf during the winter as there is snow on the ground. This in itself is strange because in the old faerie lore you did not slaughter animals after the Blood moon in late October or early November. Any animal or grain harvested after this time belonged to the Fay or the dead ancestors and would harm the living if they partook of it.
So Deirdre looks out at the scene and sees a raven come and start to nibble at the blood on the snow. Most people would see this as some kind of dark omen, but Deirdre sees her future lover and proclaims that she would like to have a lover like that with hair the color of a raven, lips as red as blood, and skin as white as snow. At this point one might be reminded of Snow White, and one should be. The white as snow, red as blood or rubies, and black as the raven is like a code in fairy tales. White, red, and black are the colors of the Dark goddess and of the Faerie realm. I think that Deirdre is claiming her lover to be the goddess, or rather stating her love for the goddess here.
So the symbolism has laid the hints. Deirdre is in the faerie realm. She is between and betwixt the worlds, just like Snow White was when she entered the dark forest and met the gnomes (or dwarfs if you want to call them that). She soon meets this raven haired pale skinned Marilyn Mansion looking lover named Naoise. She runs away with him and lives in some forest in Scotland for awhile and lives blissfully happy there for a moment.
Eventually they have to return to Ireland. In a nutshell, Conchobar succeeds in having Naoise killed, marries Deirdre but she is miserable and kills herself. In one account she knocks her head on a boulder as her carriage is passing it. So what is the meaning of all this tragedy? Like most myth, the meaning is multi-layered, but one meaning seems to come out at me. I think in part, this story is about the old matriarchal Bronze age goddess societies being taken over by the more Patriarchal warrior ones. I think it is trying to warn people that the way of war and Patriarchy is a road only to greed and ruin.
Deirdre is the sovereign goddess in this tale, as at that time a king was still not truly a king unless he was married to the sovereign goddess. She was the living representative of the goddess and the Earth or the land. If we are too greedy with her, if we take advantage of her, she will perish and so will our kingdoms.
Okay, so now on to my painting. It is a lot of pressure to try and paint a face that would cause the downfall of so many men. Hopefully I captured her beauty and otherworldliness here:
You can see the pencil workings of a raven that will be carrying a serpent shaped golden torque. In some accounts of the story Deirdre has a dream right before Naoise is killed of hundreds of ravens flying with bloody torques in their mouths. I think this is a strong symbol for the story as a whole. Gold and white are similar in their symbolic meaning, and I am painting the torque (which was worn around warriors necks) in the oroborus style to again symbolize the goddess.
As always, I hope to have this finished this week....we will see. I am leaving you with a photo of me in the Underworld of Faerie (or better known as Cathedral Caverns in Northern Alabama) surrounded by the energy of gnomes.