Happy Beltane! And on this happy day when men and women in days of yore leapt over the sacred fire and met in the fields and meadows to frolic and couple in revelry to ensure fertility across the land, we may ponder what makes a sacred marriage… For this is the time of divine union between the solar masculine and the earthy feminine. A time to embody one of the great truths the alchemists, priestesses, shamans and initiates to the mysteries know: as above, so below, as within, so without.
As you find balance between your own inner masculine and feminine, you attract this partnership in the outer world. As the inner masculine — the active, thinking, doing part — learns to serve the inner feminine — the receptive, feeling, being part, integration and harmony find expression. But you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, they say. And sometimes you have to kiss a hag before you find your queen.
Let me tell you one of my favorite stories, the Arthurian legend of the Wedding of Sir Gawain, that speaks to the task of the knight and the lady, and what trust and serving a higher purpose bring to relationship.
This story begins with the battle-weary King Arthur on a hunt, separated from his men, astride his horse alone in the forest. For a moment he stops, his memory taking him to another time and place where the smell of death and the sound of men dying on the killing fields is very much with him.
And then, through the mists, he becomes aware of a visage that makes his blood run cold. A knight twice his size, bedecked in black from his head to toe, a mantle of black cormorant feathers rippling across his broad shoulders, rides forth on a large, black steed. Before Arthur realizes that his sword, Excalibur, is not at his side and he has but a dagger to defend himself, the knight is upon him, his cold, steely blade pressed against the young king’s neck.
“The crown is mine,” Arthur hears the black knight intone, “unless you can answer a simple question.”
“What is it?” Arthur asks, feeling a trickle of blood from the blade cut ever so slightly into his skin.
“Tell me what it is that a woman wants most,” the black knight growls. “You have three days to solve the riddle, and if you answer correctly the kingdom remains yours; if not, it is mine.”
That evening at court, the knights of the round table and the ladies of the court, indeed, even Queen Guinevere, buzz with excitement and consternation, puzzling over the black knight’s challenge and offering up their own answers.
“A queen wants a good king, a noble husband and partner,” Guinevere says, “like you.”
Others offer up their opinions: A family, a home, wealth, good humor, honesty, a knight in shining armor — the usual. But Arthur knows it isn’t enough. He queries Merlin, who only answers that he must solve the puzzle or pay the price. His men ride furiously to supplicate the wise men and women of the land while Arthur rides out into the forest alone, wondering if his days are numbered, if the battles he has fought have been for nought.
And as he rides deeper and deeper into the forest he comes upon a crossroads and halts, stopped by a horrifying sight and a putrefying stench — what appears to be a heap of filthy rags writhing and moving like a bag of snakes.
There arises from the pile a loathesome creature, the ugliest crone he has ever laid eyes on, her face pockmarked and warty, her eyes bloodshot and rheumy, her nose crooked and running, and her teeth — what few she has — blackened and broken. She farts and belches in greeting as she stands before him, cackling and scratching at her sores, her one good eye looking him up and down.
She thrusts a gnarled finger at him and points, beckoning him closer. Arthur feels compelled to dismount and approach the old woman, although he draws his sword, wary of her intentions. She laughs, a gutteral, hacking grunt that sounds more like death than mirth.
“I have the answer you seek,” she tells him, “and I will give it to you for a price.”
“What is your price?” he asks.
“That I may marry a knight of your court.”
And so accepting the bargain, Arthur rides forth to the castle of the black knight and answers the question the crone whispered to him, and the kingdom remains sovereign under the reign of Arthur and Guinevere.
Yet Arthur has to go back to his round table and tell the knights of the quest and of the hag’s bounty. All is quiet. No one steps forward to exact the price as they each contemplate the fate of marrying such a wretched being, until the youngest knight, Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, stands. Everyone tries to talk him out of it and implore him not to go through with it. Even Arthur is ready to renege on his promise rather than see his nephew make such a choice.
But on the first of May the wedding day arrives, and Sir Gawain meets his bride — the loathesome, stinking hag — at the altar, and they exchange vows.
No one can watch Gawain walk back down the aisle with the hag on his arm. Few words are spoken and there is little joy at the wedding feast that follows. Those in attendance avert their eyes as the couple make their way to the wedding chamber where they will spend their first night together as man and wife.
As she sits on the bed and turns to face him he stands staring at the countenance of the shriveled old woman before him. And he realizes for the first time that she is a human being who has no doubt been through a great deal of pain and suffering. As he looks deeply into her eyes, he feels a wave of compassion flow through him.
She smiles. “You are a true and gallant knight,” she says, standing up to meet him. Though he wants to pull away, he does not move, and her lips press against his. He stumbles backwards seeing the woman before him — a beautiful maiden, her lips parted, her breasts heaving in their queenly robes.
“Who are you?” he stammers in amazement.
“I am your queen. But I cannot remain like this always. You must choose: You may have me as you see me now at night and as the hag by day, who others will see and judge. Or you may have me as you see me now and for others to see by day and as the withered crone by night. What do you choose, My Lord?”
Sir Gawain, cognizant of the impossibility of such a choice tells her, “I cannot choose, My Lady. You must decide.”
And with that she smiles the sweetest of smiles and takes his hand. “Thank you,” she says, “You have broken the spell by giving me what a woman wants most.”
“And what is that?” Sir Gawain asks, aware that it is the very same riddle King Arthur had learned the answer to that had saved the kingdom.
“Her own way,” the Lady tells him, “A woman most desires being sovereign unto herself.”
And so it is that every knight and king gains his full power through marriage to the lady or queen who represents the sovereignty of the land and of her own body and soul. In the service of true equality and sacred right relationship, a woman must remain sovereign to herself and not to any man.