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Arthurian Cycle : Morgan le Fey, wife of Urien of Rheged

It is widley spread that Morgan le Fay, aka Morgane, Morgaine, Morgana and other variants, played the role of a sorceress in the Arthurian Cycle. Being daughter of Lady Igraine (Arthur's mother) this half sister was a great antagonist between him and Guinevere, and moreover she was the aunt of the dull Mordred.

I share with you this fine article as previously posted on my partner blog
"Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore" and written by Diane McIlmoyle. Re-posted under her kind permission. All rights reserved by the author.


Morgan le Fey, wife of Urien of Rheged

In 1150CE, Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces us for the first time to Morgan Le Fey, the sorceress sister of the legendary King Arthur, who is married to King Uriens of Gore. Uriens (with an ‘s’) is based on stories about the historical character, King Urien (without the ‘s’). Urien was the ruler of Rheged, an area of northern Britain which included Cumbria, from about 530-580CE, and he was roughly contemporaneous with King Arthur, who traditionally ruled a more southerly kingdom from about 480-537CE. Gerald of Wales and Chretien de Troyes added extra spice to Morgan’s story, and she soon became an essential part of Arthurian legend.
Morgan was the daughter of Arthur’s mother, Ygerna, and her first husband Gorlois, and as such she was Arthur’s older half-sister. She lived in Avalon with nine ‘sisters’, where she shared her knowledge of herbs and mathematics. She could fly, and shape-shift, and had a reputation for being rather less virtuous than her residence in a house of ‘sisters’ might suggest. She married Uriens of Gore and had twin children, Yvain (known elsewhere as Owain) and Morfydd, who went on to have Arthurian adventures of their own.
Initially, Morgan seems to be a good sister to Arthur. He would not believe that Guinevere was unfaithful, so Morgan gave him a potion which allowed him to perceive the truth. Morgan’s relationship with Arthur fell apart when he executed one of her lovers. She stole the magical sword, Excalibur, and gave it to another lover, Accolon; Arthur discovered the theft and killed Accolon in combat. Morgan also invited the Green Knight to challenge the knights of the round table.
At the last, Morgan proved her mettle. When Arthur was badly wounded at the Battle of Camlann, he was taken to Morgan, who had now returned to her home in Avalon. She said that Arthur could be restored to health if she had sufficient time, so Arthur was taken off into the mist and exits both legend and history.
If you’ve a sharp eye for history, you may be wondering why Morgan Le Fey is on this blog when you could argue that Morgan is about as historical as an historian of 2111 suggesting that Prince William’s bride was Tolkien’s Galadriel. It’s certainly true that most historians will discount her as a literary construction. Other historians get very excited indeed, because there are clues that Morgan Le Fey is a medieval echo of a very ancient past.
Welsh literature which pre-dates Geoffrey of Monmouth states that Urien’s wife was Modron verch Avallach. ‘Avallach‘ is derived from the Welsh for ‘apples’ and hence can be linked with ‘Avalon’, which means ‘isle of apples’ – and ‘Modron’ is a Welsh mother goddess.[see footnote added 29.03.11]
Modron fits her location in the fenlands of Avalon. She is derived from a very ancient Gaulish triple goddess, Matrona, who was also a river goddess. Avalon, which was half water, half land, would have been a suitable place to worship her.
The Welsh bards may not have intended that Urien’s wife be seen as the goddess herself, but as her priestess, named in her honour. Ancient writers across Europe reference communities of nine sisters worshipping a goddess, right back into classical times. In reality, it’s unlikely that such a community would still exist in a country that had been christian for more than a century in Urien’s time, but it may have recalled a relatively recent past.
These early Welsh enthusiasts of Arthur and Urien had been educated in a tradition that still owed much to the Celtic church, which, whilst stripping the old Celtic gods of their deity, tended not to demonise them. Here, we could argue, is where Morgan/Modron verch Avallach gained her healing skills; was rather more liberated than has been acceptable until recent times; became the sister who helped Arthur deal with his wife’s unfaithfulness, and who, at the last, took him in.
Later medieval writers, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, followed the custom of their age to demote pre-christian deities to sorcerers. Arcane powers could only be granted by the devil, so by definition they could not be ‘good’. This Morgan le Fey is cursed by her own name –’fey’ means ‘faery’, and faeries were not good things in this period – and she schemed to destroy Arthur and his knights.
These two broad sources account for a woman who could be generous and sisterly in one moment, and a murderous witch in the next.
We’ll never know why writers living in the few hundred years after Urien chose to give him such a startling choice of wife. Historians are confident that some sources contemporary with, or near-contemporary with Urien, have been lost but were used by Welsh bards in the next couple of hundred years. Perhaps these spelt out that Urien’s wife was a relative of Arthur, but as Arthur was about fifty years older than Urien, she probably wasn’t Arthur’s sister (see this article for a longer explanation). Geoffrey of Monmouth’s detailed stories are too late to be given any serious historical credence, but we can’t rule out that there may be some truths hidden in the elaborate tale.
Perhaps all we can conclude is that Urien’s wife, whatever her name, must have been a remarkable woman to have merited any comment at all in an age when wives were generally nameless and invisible.
For more about Morgan Le Fey and Arthurian legend, see
  • Mythology of the British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe ISBN 0-413-77199-7
  • The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth ISBN 978-0-14-044170-3
[Footnote: It is also interesting for Cumbrians to note that 'Avallach' is a plausible etymological root of 'Eveling' (pronounced ever-ling), the fabled King of the Faeries who lived at Ravenglass. Did Urien's wife/Owain's mother come from Ravenglass?]
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