of loathsomeness and sovereignty

By Lissa Carter, LPCA

Do you ever find yourself contemplating your own loathsomeness? 

Maybe it's just me. But there are days I find myself preoccupied with the people I have hurt, the important tasks I have bungled, the horrible mistakes I have made. 

This image, by artist Juan Wijngaard, illustrates the tale of  Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady  as retold by Selina Hastings

This image, by artist Juan Wijngaard, illustrates the tale of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady as retold by Selina Hastings

Have you ever spoken to yourself in words as unkind as the ones in the image above? 

 Words like these--  "a freak, a monster, a truly loathly lady"--are not only terribly cruel, but also inexcusably inaccurate, because they do not take the whole story, the whole person, into account. 

Recently I had the great privilege of attending a myth-telling workshop and hearing Dr. Martin Shaw speak about myth and archetype. At one point, he paused in the telling of a story and said:

goosegirl.jpg

"In these moments in myth, when a character goes back and forth on a boat, or sews upon the same garment again and again, it implies a connection with a larger rhythm, the wax and wane of the moon or the turn of the tide. Here we see the witch-women quilting their lives to the life of the Otherworld, attuning themselves and their small rhythms to that ongoing, luminous sacred time."

(Caveat--I'm not sure that's exactly what Martin said, but that's how I have it written in my journal! )

I've been thinking about this a great deal--the way that we can take the life we've lived and cut it apart into single incidents, try to analyze how we have behaved or what we have done as though it can be separated from the whole. 

I have certainly been guilty, both as a therapist and in my personal life, of choosing to take a story to pieces rather than quilt it to the sacred. 

Might there be another way of responding to our own flaws and transgressions?

Let me tell you a story...


Once, long ago, King Arthur went hunting with his men. In giving chase to a hind, he found himself alone in a dark wood, when suddenly a Dark Knight approached him.

"It is good that we have met with the arrow already flown from your fingers," said the Knight, "for I intend to kill you."

"It would be dishonourable to kill me thus, alone and unarmed in the wood," said Arthur. "Will you not reconsider?"

"If you can return here in a year and a day with the answer to my riddle, I will spare your life," said the Dark Knight. "But if you fail to answer it correctly, I will kill you where you stand."

Arthur agreed to this proposal and stood to hear the riddle. The Dark Knight leaned close and whispered it mockingly into his ear:

"What does a woman truly want?"

Arthur rode joyfully back to his men, sure that he could easily gain the answer to this riddle by asking his Queen. But when he told his friends of his adventure, all of them had a different answer to the riddle, and each was sure that his answer was correct. 

Gawain, Arthur's most honorable Knight, proposed that they ride across the kingdom, asking every woman they encountered what it was that she truly wanted. Arthur agreed, and they set out at once. 

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But a year and many weary miles later, the two Knights had discovered that each woman wanted something different from the others, and each was sure that her answer was the true one. 

Exhausted and downhearted, Arthur began his journey toward the assigned meeting spot and  what he knew must be his death. Suddenly his horse reared, and there in the path stood a loathly lady, hunched and wizened and rheumy-eyed, covered in boils and pus. She gentled his horse and told him that she could answer his riddle and spare his life, at a price: she must be given Gawain as her husband. 

The King shuddered at this, but Gawain, riding just behind Arthur, did not hesitate for a moment. He dismounted, and with grave courtesy proposed to the loathly lady. 

She gazed at him for a moment, then took his hand, and in her gravelly, broken voice slowly pronounced the answer to the riddle:

"What a woman truly wants is sovereignty."

Hearing this, Arthur knew it at once for the truth, and when he spoke it to the Dark Knight, he too knew at once he was defeated. Roaring in rage, he disappeared, sparing the King's life. 

Gawain and the loathly lady were married in great pomp, and despite the lady's appalling lack of manners at dinner and undeniable stench, Gawain treated her with the utmost love and courtesy. When they retired to his bedchamber, she asked him to kiss her, and he did so without flinching. 

When next he looked upon her, he saw a woman of undeniable beauty. Astonished, he asked her what she had done to his wife. She answered:

"The Dark Knight cursed me, for I would not give him the lands that were mine by right. Now that you have wed me, you can break this curse, but you must choose: Will you have me loathsome by day, and beautiful by night when I am yours alone? Or will you have me beautiful by day for all to look upon, and loathsome by night when darkness hides me from all but you?"

Gawain looked upon the lady and considered this, and then, with the honor and wisdom for which generations have remembered him, said to her:

"This is your life, and your choice. Tell me what you would prefer, and that is my wish."

This, of course, broke the spell forever,  for he had restored to his wife her sovereignty. 

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With sovereignty, the loathly lady was restored to her wholeness, her natural way of being. The disguise of loathsomeness fell away.

I find myself again and again in this story. I have been the dark knight, lashing out in rage and anger when another would not give me something that I coveted. I have been Arthur, utterly confounded as I try to answer the riddle of what the people in my life want from me. I have been the loathly lady, lost in the curse of over-identification with my flaws.

I would like to learn to be Gawain.

It seems to me that if we are willing to treat our Loathly Ladies--our mistakes, our flaws, our brokennesses--with respect; if we are willing, instead of cutting them out of the tapestry of our lives, to consider quilting them onto the fabric of our larger selves, the fabric of mystery---if we grant them our time and attention, it is possible they carry great gifts for us. 

For what is sovereignty, but the serene power to act and to be accountable for one's actions?

Be gentle to yourself today, and consider what wisdom your flaws and regrets are gently bringing to your awareness.  How might you allow them to be a part of your story, quilted onto the larger story of your life, rather than trying always to bury and excise them?

How might you grant yourself sovereignty to act and be accountable, in all of your imperfect humanness?


If this is territory you've been aching to explore, we have a couple of upcoming opportunities for you!

  • Sweet Relief returns in July; this 4-week group is a beautiful chance to build a relationship with your own joy and pleasure. Allow yourself to discover what YOU really want and then write yourself the permission slip to create it. In all of your imperfect humanness! 

  • If you want to take a deep-dive into all of the ways that you minimize, deny, hide from, or otherwise sabotage your beautiful potential, join us for Bright Shadow. This day-long full-moon journey interweaves artmaking, embodied movement, myth-telling, and ecotherapy in a sacred-time exploration of our "Bright Shadow", the strength and wisdom and potential that we are terrified to claim. We will laugh, create, shake, devour an exquisite lunch, and help each other across the dark river to the other side of our powerful Sovereignty. 

We love to hear from you. Feel free to comment below, or email us your thoughts and questions at innerlightasheville@gmail.com.