Goddess, fairy, healer, enchantress and necromancer are some of the evocative terms associated with Morgan le Fay since her earliest known appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini.
The Welsh cleric depicts her in a positive light, as an otherworldly creature possessing the arts of healing and shape-shifting. She is the fairest, the most intelligent and most skilled of the nine sisters ruling the Island of Apples – a paradisiac island where Arthur is taken to be healed.
Another notable twelfth century description, introduced by one of the greatest French romancers, Chrétien de Troyes, retains Morgan’s healing power and makes her Arthur’s sister, as well as the lover of Guinguemar, who is given Morgan’s original role as a ruler – that of Avalon.
It is the Vulgate Cycle that adds a wicked, negative dimension to Morgan’s character for the first time. Supposedly influenced by the image of Morrígan, the Irish goddess of battle and sovereignty, a symbol of “life and death, sexuality and conflict” , the authors of the five-part cycle attribute Morgan unrequited feelings for Lancelot, jealousy of his love for Guinevere and hatred for Arthur and Guinevere. She captures knights in the Valley of No Return, yet paradoxically helps Arthur in the end.
In the late Middle Ages, Morgan starts degenerating in beauty, motives and power. She either learns magic from Merlin or in a convent school – a reference to the fear of cultivated women. Her magic scope is reduced to drugged potions, petty spells, plotting against Arthur and Guinevere and maintaining the illusion of beauty after her youthful body suffered because of her connection with the dark forces.
There is no definite reason for this process of degradation, but it has often been associated with a misogynistic fear of powerful, leading female characters or with a Christian rejection of paganism. Even the healing power that represents the original defining quality of Morgan, is given negative connotations in a Christian Middle Ages context in which healing herbs and natural cures are the mark of old women condemned and burnt as witches.
The painting displayed is “Morgan Le Fay” by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. This particular visual representation depicts a beautiful, seductive version of Morgan.