The Priestess of the Woods
George William Russell - A.E.

Here is a legend whispered to me, the land or time I cannot tell, it may have been in the old Atlantean days. There were vast woods and a young priestess ruled them; she presided at the festivals and sacrificed at the altar for the people, interceding with the spirits of fire, water air and earth, that the harvest might not be burned up, nor drenched with the floods, nor town by storms and that the blight might not fall upon it, which things the elemental spirits sometimes brought about. This woodland sovereignty was her heritage from her father who was a mighty magician before her. Around her young days floated the faery presences; she knew them as other children know the flowers having neither fear nor wonder for them. She saw deeper things also; as a little child, wrapped up in her bearskin, she watched with awe her father engaged in mystic rites; when around him the airy legions gathered from the populous elements, the spirits he ruled and the spirits he bowed down before: fleeting nebulous things white as foam coming forth from the great deep who fled away at the waving of his hand; and rarer the great sons of fire, bright and transparent as glass, who though near seemed yet far away and were still and swift as the figures that glance in a crystal. So the child grew up full of mystery; her thoughts were not the thoughts of the people about her, nor their affections her affections. It seemed as if the elf-things or beings carved by the thought of the magician, pushed aside by his strong will and falling away from him, entering into the child became part of her, linking her to the elemental beings who live in the star-soul that glows within the earth. Her father told her such things as she asked, but he died while she was yet young and she knew not his aim, what man is, or what is his destiny; but she knew the ways of every order of spirit that goes about clad in a form, how some were to be dreaded and some to be loved; By reason of this knowledge she succeeded as priestess to the shrine, and held the sway of beauty and youth, of wisdom and mystery over the people dwelling in the woods.

It was the evening of the autumn festival, the open grassy space before the altar was crowded with figures, hunters with their feathered heads; shepherds, those who toil in the fields, the old and hoary were gathered around.

The young priestess stood up before them; she was pale from vigil, and the sunlight coming through the misty evening air fell upon her swaying arms and her dress with its curious embroidery of peacock's feathers; the dark hollows of her eyes were alight and as she spoke inspiration came to her; her voice rose and fell, commanding, warning, whispering, beseeching; its strange rich music flooded the woods and pierced through and through with awe the hearts of those who listened. She spoke of the mysteries of that unseen nature; how man is watched and ringed round with hosts who war upon him, who wither up his joys by their breath; she spoke of the gnomes who rise up in the woodland paths with damp arms grasping from their earthy bed.

"Dreadful" she said "are the elementals who live in the hidden waters: they rule the dreaming heart: their curse is forgetfulness; they lull man to fatal rest, with drowsy fingers feeling to put out his fire of life.  But the most of all, dread the powers that move in air; their nature is desire unquenchable; their destiny is - never to be fulfilled - never to be at peace: they roam hither and thither like the winds they guide; they usurp dominion over the passionate and tender soul, but they love not in our way; where they dwell the heart is a madness and the feet are filled with a hurrying fever, and night has no sleep and day holds no joy in its sunlit cup.

Listen not to their whisper; they wither and burn up the body with their fire; the beauty they offer is smitten through and through with unappeasable anguish." She paused for a moment; here terrible breath had hardly ceased to thrill them, when another voice was heard singing; its note was gay and triumphant, it broke the spell of fear upon the people,

I never heed by waste or wood
The cry of fay or faery thing
Who tell of their own solitude;
Above them all my soul is king.

The royal robe as king I wear
Trails all along the fields of light;
Its silent blue and silver bear
For gems the starry dust of night.

The breath of joy unceasingly
Waves to and fro its fold star-lit,
And far beyond earth's misery
I live and breathe the joy of it.

The priestess advanced from the altar, her eyes sought for the singer; when she came to the centre of the opening she paused and waited silently.  Almost immediately a young man carrying a small lyre stepped out of the crowd and stood before her; he did not seem older than the priestess;  he stood unconcerned though her dark eyes blazed at the intrusion; he met her gaze fearlessly; his eyes looked into hers - in this way all proud spirits do battle. Her eyes were black with almost a purple tinge, eyes that had looked into the dark ways of nature; his were bronze, and a golden tinge, a mystic opulence of vitality seemed to dance in their depths; they dazzled the young priestess with the secrecy of joy; her eyes fell for a moment. He turned round and cried out, "Your priestess speaks but half truths, her eyes have seen but her heart does not know.

Life is not terrible but is full of joy. Listen to me. I passed by while she spake, and I saw that a fear lay upon every man, and you shivered thinking of your homeward path, fearful as rabbits of the unseen things, and forgetful how you have laughed at death facing the monsters who crush down the forests. Do you not know that you are greater than all these spirits before who you bow in dread; your life springs from a deeper source. Answer me, priestess, where go the fire-spirits when winter seizes the world?"

"Into the Fire-King they go, they dream in his heart." She half chanted, the passion of her speech not yet fallen away from her. "And where go the fires of men when they despair"? She was silent; then he continued half in scorn, "Your priestess is the priestess of ghouls and fays rather than a priestess of men; her wisdom is not for you; the spirits that haunt the elements are hostile because they see you full of fear; do not dread them and their hatred will vanish. The great heart of the earth is full of laughter; do not put yourselves apart from its joy, for its soul is your soul and its joy is your true being."

He turned and passed through the crowd; the priestess made a motion as if she would have stayed him, then she drew herself up proudly and refrained. They heard his voice again singing as he passed into the darkening woods,

The spirits to the fire-king throng
Each in the winter of his day:
And all who listen to their song
Follow them after in that way.

They seek the heart-hold of the king,
They build within his halls of fire,
Their dreams flash like the peacock's wing,
They glow with sun-hues of desire.

I follow in no faery ways;
I heed no voice of fay or elf;
I in the winter of my days
Rest in the high ancestral self.

The rites interrupted by the stranger did not continue much longer; the priestess concluded her words of warning; she did not try to remove the impression created by the poet's song, she only said, "His wisdom may be truer. It is more beautiful than the knowledge we inherit."

The days passed on; autumn died into winter, spring came again and summer, and the seasons which brought change to the earth brought change to the young priestess. She sought no longer to hold sway over the elemental tribes, and her empire over them departed: the song of the poet rang for ever in her ears; its proud assertion of kingship and joy in the radiance of a deeper life haunted her like truth; but such a life seemed unattainable by her and a deep sadness rested in her heart. The wood-people often saw her sitting in the evening where the sunlight fell along the pool, waving slowly its azure and amethyst, sparkling and flashing in crystal and gold, melting as if a phantom Bird of Paradise were fading away; her dark head was bowed in melancholy and all the great beauty flamed and died away unheeded. After a time she rose up and moved about, she spoke more frequently to the people who had not dared to question her, she grew into a more human softness, they feared her less and loved her more; but she ceased not from her passionate vigils and her step faltered and her cheek paled, and her eager spirit took flight when the diamond glow of winter broke out over the world. The poet came again in the summer; they told him of the change they could not understand, but he fathomed the depths of this wild nature, and half in gladness, half in sorrow, he carved an epitaph over her tomb near the altar,

Where is the priestess of this shrine,
And by what place does she adore?
The woodland haunt below the pine
Now hears her whisper nevermore.

Ah, wrapped in her own beauty now
She dreams a dream that shall not cease;
Priestess, to her own soul to bow
Is hers in everlasting peace.

Irish Theosophist, July 15, 1893

Present article was scanned and proofread and made available for publication by Mr. Jake Jaqua.

Last update: januar 2009
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