My Ladies and Their Unicorns

A Mon Sevl Desir – According to my will only.

There she stood—a queen, a goddess, emerging from her royal pavilion to return the magnificent jewels once bestowed upon her to a faithful servant for safekeeping. Fantastical bestiary of the forest ensure her passage to and from this place. The lion and the unicorn, watching over the doorway; the dog and the monkey, companions underfoot.

Before me hung the sixth, most enigmatic, panel of the famed La Dame à la licorne tapestries at the Museé de Cluny in Paris, and I found myself deeply overwhelmed for the second time that day.

Exhaustion and jet lag, I told myself as dabbed at my wet cheeks.

Then, my eyes rose up to land upon the words woven in the pavilion rising up in the background of the tapestry. I leaned into my constant state of verklempt and understood that France with all of the moments I chose to open fully to would transpire according to my will only.

“A mon seul desir,” I whispered, and it was if my lady and her unicorn whispered hello in return.

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A Mon Sevl Desir – the sixth panel of La Dame à la licorne

 

I’d waited years to take in the absolute wonder of this allegorical series of tapestries that have been the source of heated debate and endless interpretation since their rediscovery at Château du Boussac in 1841.

Still in the throes of my first twenty-four hours in France, I would only come to understand the significance of the tapestries within the context of my novel research almost two weeks later. The thrill of knowing now that this proved the first piece in a provocative puzzle of revolution, duality, and mysteries of the French Renaissance shoots me right back to that moment.

As I write this, I wish only that I’d spent more time at the Cluny with these magnificent works, listening to them speak as so much else would speak to me through the places and artifacts I discovered in my research.

While no one entirely agrees on what these mysterious panels mean, who created them, or why they were crafted, the general consensus is that the six panels are an allegory of the senses (Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch, and the final sense of Heart or Soul).

Oh, how I want to get into all of the academic knowledge surrounding them. To me, the debate and the analysis make me ravenous for more. However, I’d much rather tell you about my own fictional interpretation that leads to these being included in the novel.

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Panel 1: Sight

I’ve long pursued a more fanciful interpretation (and totally fictional, as I have nothing more than my imagination and anecdotal research to thread together the concepts I’ve chosen to pair up). One in which these panels represent the story of a lost time and the lost society of the Sibylline.

The mythology of the Sibyls is more than 11,000 years old and weaves its way through at least a dozen civilizations of North Africa, Mesopotamia, and Europe. Five appear on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Vestal Virgins are thought tied to them. The Sibylline Books, great records of the oracular visions of the ancient world, are thought lost to the politics and religious fervor of the 5th Century, re-written later to suit the re-telling of history through the lens of Abrahamic religions. For generation after generation, kings and pharaohs sought them out and relied upon their oracular powers to guide everything from warfare to marriage, and then they were wiped from history.

Or were they?

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Panel 2: Hearing

 

From King Arthur to the Dames Blanches, the Medieval era is steeped in mysticism. The line between this world and the next revealed itself as little more than a light veil, through which all manner of creature and being often passed.  I like to entertain the idea that these tapestries reveal the existence of the Sibylline to us.

While many today attribute illuminated manuscripts bursting with spells and rituals, bestiaries from which headless armies of Blemmyes walked and dragons of all manner took to the sky to nothing more than fantasy, I am not so easily convinced that we have not somehow severed ourselves from the passages that once were open between the world.

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Panel 3: Smell

Evidence of the Sibylline mounting a resurgence of their culture and extrasensory abilities is ample within the Middle Ages. These tapestries to me reveal their revered place in Medieval society, particularly in France where Humanism and the exploration of the self attached to that sensibility found itself fostered by common man and royalty alike.

Within their world, a new Sibyl could rise and take her place as the oracle of humanity every thousand years. The last Sibyl had been brutally murdered at the beginning of the 5th Century.

So, the time of da Vinci and Michelangelo, of Francois I and Marguerite, was the time once again for a Sibyl to rise after this female-driven society remained cloistered in abbeys, underground, hidden away while rebuilding for a millennia.

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Panel 4: Taste

Through each sense elaborated upon in the tapestries, the Sibylline reveal their ability to renew the world, to end humanity’s suffering, and to bring us all back to a greater understanding of the power that lives within ourselves.

Away from the Christian interpretation of these panels, there is plenty of pagan and ancient goddess iconography. The baby rabbits are associated with Artemis and cannot be killed in the hunt as they are under her protection. The chalice is an ancient goddess symbol of fertility and rising up from the Mother blood.

The crescent moon within the banners of the tapestries is the epitome of the divine feminine power on Earth.

That one might once again be able to develop spiritually enough to manifest and fortify personal power according to their own will was widespread in the 15th Century. This esoteric link between human and divine is not unlike the new age movements today that are opening people to new levels of mental and spiritual development.

We all can begin to understand why panels such as these and women such as the Sibylline vanished.

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Panel 5: Touch

Returning back to the final panel and the phrase sewn into the pavilion.

Nearly everything in that time period, especially if it might have subverted the doctrine of those who murdered to keep their dogma in a primary place of power, was encoded to be deciphered by those who knew the way.

I played for a long time with the anagram of those words until the code I needed to emerge from it made itself evident:

A Mon Sevl Desir – According to my will only.

Voir des l’ansem: See the Ansem, the descendents of angels.

 

Graveside Introductions

“Je peux vous aider?” the man asked me.

“Je suis désolé, je parle un peu le Francais,” I responded. I’d been on the ground in Paris just a few hours and had not engaged my language skills long enough to do anything other than apologize for my poor French.

“Anglais?”

“Oui. Merci, monsieur.”

“Do you know of her?” he asked in English, much to my relief, rolling a cigarette with one hand and adjusting his plaid, wool scarf with the other. “Most people don’t stray off the path here. Are you searching for something?”

We stood for a moment and admired the subject which sparked him to interrupt an odd Canadian woman’s wander through the lonely graves along the South wall of Cimetière du Père Lachaise.

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“She’s extraordinary,” I whispered. I knew he’d caught me half in tears in the moments before our first words. I’d been searching for more than half an hour for Monument aux victimes des Révolutions and wanted her to be it.

“May I ask why you are looking for it?” he asked upon learning of my quest and odd interest in Communist Paris.

“Marie Guerrant,” I told him.

“Who is she?”

“Muriel Gale’s pseudonym.”

Puzzled, he introduced himself as Olivier, one of the historians of the cemetery.

I returned the courtesy, offering up myself as a novelist, which cleared up any confusion he had earlier about why I’d be tossing around names such as Marie and Muriel.

Paris plays a key role in the Woman On The Wall as the place where our main character, Elijah Gale, returns to eight years after her grandmother Muriel’s murder.

Muriel, a Holocaust survivor, is buried at Père Lachaise under the name Marie Guerrant (Mary at War) in the novel. She was also a Communist – a seemingly unfathomable pairing. However, the woman had always been an enigma whose politics favored the people rather than power.

Olivier’s eyes lit up.

While he had to take up a position at the front gate in under half an hour, the charming middle-aged Parisian who looked every bit the part offered an arm and his knowledge to guide me through my search for answers amongst the dead.

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From that point, he walked me along the boulevards lined with maples and acacia beginning their dramatic shift from summer’s hues to the vibrancy of Samhain. The stories of the interesting and uncommon flowed from him as if they were his own.

The graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Edith Piaf remained far in the distance. Instead, we chatted about the quiet, undecorated graves of people who lived out eternity inside one of the most noted cemeteries in the world. Graves like the one that carries the name Marie Guerrant in Woman On The Wall. Graves that serve as masks for lives we will never know or understand.

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I found myself struck by a knowing as to one of the reasons Muriel never revealed her true identity. Père-Lachaise’s most wrenching memorials haunt the walkways, those to the dead of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the other concentration camps.

Olivier spoke of how soil from those places was mixed with that at the graves. We walked past sculptures of emaciated souls and I understood as if Muriel shared it with me herself. She was a survivor of Dachau who worked to preserve lives, culture.  Being buried amongst those who died in the camps would have defeated her in death. She preferred the power of anonymity in order to make sure that work continued on.

Despite the fact that Muriel is dead long before Woman On The Wall begins, I love her as a character. She drives Elijah in the best and worst ways, and I’m genuinely fascinated by her impact on the entire cast.

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The last bit of the walk proved quiet and had me wondering if Olivier was either irritated or lost in thought. As we made our way to the cemetery entrance near Rue Robineau, he turned to me once again.

“You know they call it The Wall,” he said of the Monument aux victimes des Révolutions. “You’ll find it in the park up that hill. No one really ever goes there.”

As he spoke the words, my entire body seized up with a sense of awe at the serendipity of the one sculpture I’d come to see carrying the moniker of the novel I am writing. My eyes overflowed with tears.

“It was never allowed to be inside the cemetery for reasons no one really knows,” he continued. “You must see her, incredible, holding back the revolutionaries of not just the Commune, but all of the generations.”

“She was their protector, then?” I asked.

“Their Sibyl, you might say.” he replied.

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As the first stop on my first day in France, this proved to be the beginning of a truly remarkable confluence of time and opportunity during which people such as Olivier dropped into my life to reveal extraordinary details I would never have otherwise known.

As I rode the Metro to the Museé de Cluny that afternoon, I marveled at how clear Muriel had become. The pace and path of Elijah’s return to her grandmother’s home in Paris and the role it played in the story firmed up in my mind.

Now, I needed to know, who were these victims of revolutions locked inside the stone of this Wall?

 

Symbolism in Story – Peacock Folklore

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A JEWELRY STORE NAMED INDIA

If you hold this 
Dazzling emerald
Up to the sky,
It will shine a billion 
Beautiful miracles
Painted from the tears
Of the Most High.
Plucked from the lush gardens
Of a yellowish-green paradise,
Look inside this hypnotic gem
And a kaleidoscope of 
Titillating, 
Soul-raising 
Sights and colors
Will tease and seduce
Your eyes and mind.

Tell me, sir.
Have you ever heard
A peacock sing?
Hold your ear
To this mystical stone
And you will hear
Sacred hymns flowing
To the vibrations
Of the perfumed
Wind.” 

― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

This beautiful creation by poet Suzy Kassem pulls me back to it time and time again, as does the stunning brilliance of the peacock.

Peafowl, as they are often referred to, are ancient creatures steeped in the lore of nearly every recorded civilization on Earth. That wee detail proved enough for me to begin to notice the presence of peacocks as iconography as I researched the Renaissance for The Woman On The Wall. The discoveries I made sent me down a rabbit hole that refuses to spit me out the other side.

The peacock, it turns out, is a mysterious, subtle presence in an extraordinary amount of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, Persian, Hindu, and Pagan art throughout the ages. The Renaissance is no exception. If you examine the scenes of nearly any Madonna and child, religious gathering, ascension, angel visitation, even the Sistine Chapel, a peacock is likely to make a subtle, unobtrusive, yet significant62-47.jpg appearance.

I posit that the true significance of this magnificent creature is much overshadowed by its reputation in modern culture as a showoff.

In fact, if we dipped back to the Renaissance or earlier periods in our trusty time machine and tried to make a case for the bombastic nature of this bird, most people would banish us back to the 21st century, horrified at such foolishness.

My suspicion is that, at some point, those who feared the deep symbolism and potential powerful hold such an animal might have over humanity made a story up about it so we’d all be like, “You arrogant peacock. I will strive in this pious life of mine to not be like you.”

It’s possible we ought to rethink such conditioning.

The peacock, since time immemorial, is a symbol of immortality and the all-seeing one. Once I found this out, I started to examine the potential connections between them and the oracular Sibyls of the ancient world.

This was a big moment for me because I’d long looked for an anima (not animal) connection to the collective unconscious as it related to the Sibylline. As oracles, their connection to dimensional realities and access to other realms had to have been the strongest out of all. Their connection to the animals who live between the worlds, or could cross over, made sense to me.

Without getting too Wikipedia, the whole immortality piece is said to have come about because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death.

It’s definitely oversimplified and vastly underexplored to state that early Christian paintings and mosaics use peacock imagery to denote the value of immortality. They even used peacock feathers can be used during lent as church decorations. Of course, the whole immortality gig is linked directly to Christ in that tradition. So, this makes sense.

However, my limited experience with research has proven that folklore and legend is rarely the sole reason for integrating it into art, and most definitely not the reason for including it in church ritual.  Not to mention, the peacock is very much NOT a Christian symbol at its origin. Therefore, associating it as a symbol of Christ without taking the rest of history into consideration is dismissing thousands of years of storytelling and knowledge.

Let’s step way back in time:

The peacock’s origin is, as far as we know, India. Hindu mythology is packed with peacocks, and they were worshiped with exceptional reverence, associated with Sarasvatī.

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In Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology, the peacock feathers were considered much like the evil eye. They were all-seeing. It’s no secret that Egyptians, in particular, had a jonze for immortality.  Again, though, this leads my seeking mind to wonder where the peacock got its reputation as the immortal oracle.

Pythagoras wrote that the soul of Homer moved into a peacock.

Greek mythology declares the peacock created by Hera out of her watchman, Argus.

Christians call it their own as it was the creature that refused to eat the forbidden fruit at Eden and was granted immortality for such a pious act.

Islamic legend claims it was cast out of paradise. However, Ottoman iconography carries the bird on everything from mosaics to dishes.

In China, the bird was a symbol of the Ming Dynasty. The Chinese equated the peacock with divinity, rank, power, and beauty.

This led me to a fascinating fact that the peacock has the ability to eat poisonous snakes without harm. In India, Persia, and North Africa, this allowed for the title of protector as it became the defender of royal (or any for that matter) households.

It also shows up in 16th-century illuminated manuscripts and in front of the Vatican even today.

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The Peacock Stage / Breu

A necklace of Amethyst, peacock feathers and swallow feathers were a talisman to protect its wearer from sorcerers according to Pliny (my personal go-to while exploring the connections between alchemy, science, and the metaphysical). Meanwhile, the peacock’s blood could dispel evil spirits.

Alchemist thought the fan of the peacock (cauda pavonis) is associated with certain texts and images that are useful in turning base metals into gold.

So, as you can see, the peacock may have some cause to be a bit cocky. However, I believe it instead to be the keeper of secrets far deeper than the simple myths that exist surrounding this gorgeous creature.

The peacock plays a primary role in The Woman On The Wall. Stay tuned to learn more, as da Vinci was an enormous fan of the birds who still walk the grounds of Clos Luce today.