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The Dying Hero:

Washed, Bound, Pierced & Bled

A Recurring Mythic Pattern in British Legend

A Structuralist Interpretation by Hester NicEilidh 2002

On the surface, the English ballad The Death of Robin Hood, which probably dates in some form to the early 15th century, does not appear to make sense within the larger Robin Hood tradition. It seems perversely inappropriate that the Greenwood hero should die not battling the Sheriff's men in the forest, but rather by being bled to death in a nunnery by a treacherous relative. Many of the elements of the ballad are obscure. For instance, who is the old woman "banning" Robin by the river? What is her role? What is the basis of the enmity between Robin and the nun's lover, Roger? Why does Robin die weak and bedridden? The answers to these questions cannot be found solely within the Robin Hood legend itself.

While not easily interpreted on its own, the meaning of the ballad of Robin Hood's death does become clearer when we see it as part of a wider cycle of myths that informed the British imagination of the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period. Chief among these stories must be the Christian mythos, which includes Biblical scripture, hagiography, hymns, folksongs, and apocryphal legend. The older pre-Christian mythology of the British isles, as preserved in the Irish myth cycles, can also provide an enlightening point of comparison, as does the Classical mythology that became well known during the Renaissance.

For interpretive purposes, the ballad of Robin Hood's death can be compared to (at least) nine other mythic stories that appear in Britain at various times over the centuries. The most prominent and most influential of these is the Crucifixion of Christ, the central religious tale of the Christian faith. It is compelling that Robin Hood is stabbed in the side by Red Roger, just as Christ was stabbed in the side by the Roman soldier's spear during the crucifixion. In neither case is the wound in the side the direct cause of death. Robin was already bleeding to death due to the prioress's ministrations, while Christ was already dead from crucifixion.

The Irish pagan legend of Cu Chulainn also makes an interesting comparison, as it seems to provide an obvious mythic precursor to the mysterious old woman by the river, namely the traditional death omen of "The Washer at the Ford". This pre-Christian legend also shows parallels to the crucifixion.

The hagiographies of two Christian saints, St. Sebastian and St. Edmund, also seem relevant, as both draw explicitly on crucifixion imagery. Moreover, these saints seem to have an affinity with Robin's Greenwood, as both are bound to a tree for their ordeal. Sebastian is the patron of archers, while Edmund is a Saxon king who literally becomes a wolf's head, as his head is guarded by a wolf in the forest after his beheading.

Arthurian lore gives us the legend of the Fisher King, a tale based largely on apocryphal addenda to the crucifixion story, which brings the sacred "hallows" of the Christian faith onto British soil. The mention of "fishing" brings to mind the late 17th century ballad of Robin Hood's Fishing, in which Robin lashes himself to the ship's mast, an iconic parallel to the cross. Of course, the image of the hero bound to the mast instantly evokes Odysseus in his adventure with the Sirens, a tale that would have been known in England by the time the fishing ballad was written and which may have influenced it.

Finally, two British folksongs also seem to fit into this mythic cycle. The familiar children's rhyme of The Death of Cock Robin is frequently taken as a Robin Hood analogue, while the obscure Christmas carol, Down in Yon Forest, is often just dismissed as baffling. The latter is likely of mediaeval origin given its tune and feudal imagery, although it is only known through later variants, the most conservative of which is probably the 19th century Appalachian version, which likely reflects the form the song took in the 17th century in Britain. This carol has very little to do with the story of the nativity, despite the refrain "Sing all good men for the newborn baby". Instead, the religious imagery evoked in the song is that of the crucifixion. The references to a forest setting and, bizarrely enough, the May Queen, appear to also link the song to the context of the Robin Hood legend.

The following table breaks down these 10 stories into their basic mythic elements (or "mythemes" in Structuralist jargon) establishing a recurring pattern within the cycle.

 

Washer at the Ford: predicting death, or caring for the body afterwards

Hero bound or Incapacitated

Weapon used to pierce

Location of Wound

The Foe

The Mystical Dish

Death of
Robin Hood

An old woman kneeling on a plank over a river weeps and "bans" Robin, saying no good can come to him from the blood-letting.

Bedridden:

Lies in bed, weakened by bloodletting

Red Roger's sword;

(also surgical knives)

In later versions, shoots an arrow while bedridden

His "milk-white side"

Red Roger

& the Prioress

Chaffing dish called for by the prioress as she bleeds Robin

Cup of poison in variants of the tale.

Crucifixion of Christ

A woman (later identified with the Magdalene) washes Christ's feet in costly oil and dries them with her own hair. When Judas criticizes the extravagence, Christ foretells his own death, saying that she is saving the oil to anoint his corpse.

There is a British superstition that washing should never be done on Good Friday, based on a folk legend that a washerwoman mocked Christ on his way to the crucifixion by either throwing dirty water over him or hitting him in the face with wet laundry.

The women who go to Christ's tomb to anoint his body find it gone; Christ appears to Mary Magdalene, who tells the other disciples of his resurrection.

Nailed to the cross

Roman soldier's spear

(also thorns and nails)

His side

Romans

Cup from the Last Supper, later used to catch the blood as Joseph of Arimithea prepared the body for burial, later identified with the Holy Grail.

Death of
Cu Chulainn

Cu sees a fairy woman washing his own bloody clothes in the river on his way into battle

Binds himself to a Tor after receiving fatal wound, to die upright.

Enemy's spear;

(continues to fight foes while dying)

His "innards"

 

The Dagda's cauldron, a magical vessel that gives rebirth to wounded warriors

Passion of Sebastian

Patron Saint of Archers

  The widow of St. Castulus went to claim Sebastian's body after the ordeal. Finding Sebastian still alive, she nursed him back to health.

Bound to a tree

Arrows

All over

Romans  

Martyrdom of Edmund

9th century Saxon king

  "A certain widow named Oswyn lived near the holy tomb, and prayed and fasted there many years. She would cut the hair of the saint each year and trim his nails, chastely, with love, and place those holy relics in the shrine on the altar."

Bound to a tree

Spears

(or arrows in image)

All over

(like a hedgehog)

Danish pirates  

Fisher King Legend

In Malory, Pellam's fate, "the Dolorous Stroke" is predicted by Merlin, who sees events set in motion by the blood feud between the Sword Maiden and the Lady of the Lake, in which Balin intervenes.

Bedridden or unable to stand

The Bleeding Lance; or the Sword of David

Thigh or groin

 

The Holy Grail

(also the Silver Dish used to bleed Percival's sister)

Robin Hood's Fishing

Robin receives a 'blessing' from his landlady and patroness, the Widow, whose house is "nigh to the waters".

She predicts his "death" by bringing into question his ability to live up to his alias.

As his landlady, she would likely do his laundry.

Bound to the mast, which is also called a "tree", in order to steady his aim.

Not wounded, but shoots arrows at foes

He "dies" when he gives up his identity of Symon the fisher and returns to being Robin Hood.

  French pirates  

The Odyssey

The Sirens sit on the rocks of the shoreline (where washing is often done) and sing, luring sailors to their deaths. They claim, and in some versions actually devour, the dead bodies.

Odysseus is warned of the monsters Scylla and Charybdis by the sorceress Circe, who lived on an island. She later mourns his departure.

Odysseus binds himself to the mast to hear the Siren's song.

The teeth of Scylla, who eats six of the crew

A bolt of lightening shatters the mast and destroys the ship; all but Odysseus drown

  The sea itself

Circe's cup

The whirlpool, Charybdis

Who killed
Cock Robin

 

"Who'll make his shroud?
I, said the Beetle,
With my thread and needle"

"Who'll be chief mourner?
I, said the Dove
I mourn for my love"

Cock Robin's corpse bound to the funeral bier

"I, said the sparrow/ with my little bow & arrow"

  Sparrow

"Who caught his blood?/ I said the fish/ with my little dish"

Down in
Yon Forest


Obscure Christmas Carol

Bed clothes are soaked with blood; a river of water & blood runs beneath the hall;

The Virgin is said to "atone" on a "stone" by the bed, which brings to mind the river stones against which laundry was scrubbed.

A squire lies sick and wounded on a pallet bed

Allusion made to the spear used to pierce Christ

"From Christ's own side"

   

 

The Washer at the Ford is the woman who will prepare the hero's corpse for burial by washing it, laying it out and clothing or shrouding it. This death ritual was traditionally performed by women. When glimpsed before the hero's death, often washing the hero's bloody clothes in a river, the Washer is a portent of the hero's death. Powers of clairvoyance, prophesy or divination may therefore be attributed to her. She is usually associated with water in some way, living or working near a river, a lake or the sea. After the hero's death, she becomes chief mourner, and so, as befits a woman in mourning, she is frequently described as a "Widow". While the Washer at the Ford is not necessarily the hero's foe, she is occasionally interpreted as such, or is inexplicably vilified, as in the case of Mary Magdalene. As a female water entity, the Washer is the antithesis of the "hero of the land" and thus represents his death.

The Binding. The binding that occurs within these mythic stories is a classic mystery motif, creating a paradox: the hero dies standing up and fights lying down. The uprights to which the hero is bound -- cross, tree, stone pillar, mast -- are all phallic. When horizontal, the hero is "in bed", which also has strong colloquial connotations of procreation, and he continues to fight on although mortally wounded and/or bound. The binding that occurs then, whether of literal binding to an upright phallic post, or metaphorical binding to the deathbed through infirmity, evokes the double paradox of "death in life" and "life in death". The central theme is clearly one of resurrection and regeneration. This connection of "binding" to resurrection, regeneration, and procreation helps explain an otherwise obscure British folk custom. In mediaeval and early modern times in Britain, the second Monday and Tuesday after Easter (the feast of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection) were known as Hocktide. Jovial revels with obvious sexual undercurrents marked this end to the protracted Easter holidays. Chief among the sports was Hocktide "Binding", in which groups of one gender would capture and hold to ransom a member of the other. Upon paying a fee (or giving a kiss), the captive would be released. Binding and release also played a central role in the initiation ceremonies of ancient mystery cults (which involved a sort of rebirth), and is continued today in secret societies such as the Freemasons, and among Gardnerian Wiccans.

The Foe. In two cases, the Martyrdom of St. Edmund, and Robin Hood's Fishing, the hero's opponents are explicitly described as pirates. In the mediaeval ballad of his death, Robin's foe is the mysterious "Roger". By the 18th century in England, the pirate flag of skull and crossbones was known as the "Jolly Roger", which may simply be coincidence, but is still intriguing, especially since the origin of the flag's nickname is obscure. In any case, there appears to be a binary opposition of land/water deeply embedded in the mythic cycle, as we see that the sea itself prevents Odysseus from reaching his homeland. Where a human foe is present, he generally takes the form of an invader who arrives by sea (as the Romans did in both the Holy Land and Britain) while the hero represents the indigenous, or at least settled and therefore presumably legitimate, population of the land. The marine origin of the foe emphasizes the autochthonous nature of the hero by contrast. Within the Irish mythic tradition that gives us the story of Cu Chulainn, the various races of gods who displace one another are thought to have been based on waves of conquering immigrant populations who arrived in ships in pre-historic Ireland. In the 19th century and later versions of the Robin Hood legend, this theme of invaders from the sea is played out in the enmity between Saxon and Norman. The homeland/seaborne invader tension also occurs on a religious level. Christ himself is symbolically represented by a fish, which emphasizes his foreign origin. The Arthurian myth cycle, the Robin Hood legend, and the hagiography of St. Edmund all thus appear, at least in part, to be deliberate attempts to naturalize the imported religion of Christianity to British soil, providing autochthonous heros whose actions parallel Christ. For example, the Fisher King functions as a proxy of Christ, yet, despite his marine-inspired moniker, this British hero is depicted as being mystically one with the land, as his unhealing wound lays the kingdom waste.

The Piercing Weapon. The weapon which pierces the hero takes many forms: sword, arrow, spear, lance. It is ambiguous, as it both wounds and heals, becoming hallowed through the hero's passion. Thus, Sebastian perversely becomes the patron saint of archers, even though his foes and torturers were archers. The weapon is clearly phallic, representing both male aggression and the power of regeneration. In several stories the hero is either resurrected after the ordeal, fails to die as anticipated, or continues to fight on despite a fatal wound delivered by the weapon. In the case of the Fisher King, the wound is delivered to the generative organs.

The Mystical Dish. Within the mythic cycle, there often appears a dish or cup that is filled with the hero's blood. Symbolically, it is the womb, the crucible of rebirth. In this sense, it is the feminine equivalent of the piercing weapon, and the two objects are explicity paired within the Fisher King myth, where the dish is known by its most iconic name, "The Holy Grail", which is used in ritual with "The Bleeding Lance".

Conclusions

When viewed within the wider context of myths that informed the late mediaeval and early modern British psyche and culture, the ballad The Death of Robin Hood becomes somewhat clearer. It falls within a basic mythic pattern of a hero's death and regeneration. This pattern is not present in its entirety within the ballad itself, for Robin Hood is not resurrected after his death. The ballad ends with Robin's burial, thereby truncating and obscuring the underlying pattern, which can only be inferred from comparisons with a broader range of related stories told in Britain both before and after the ballad was written. In a sense, the entire cycle is the same story being retold, in different ways, over the centuries. In some cases, such as the carol "Down in Yon Forest", so much of the context and pattern have been lost over time that the isolated version of the story is no longer comprehensible, even though crucial elements of the mythic structure are still intact.

As an island people, under constant threat of invasion via water, the mediaeval British were in a strange cultural position. They had inherited Christianity from the Romans, one of the earlier conquerers of their land. This imported religion comprised both a mythic structure that was powerfully moving on a spiritual level, and a ritual structure that was ardently enforced on a socio-political level; however, this religion had clearly arrived from across the sea with a conquering people and was therefore still "foreign" and suspect on a very basic cultural level. Within a secular tradition of storytelling, then, the mediaeval Britons began to adapt the mythic structures and motifs of their adopted religion to their indigenous culture. This process is quite explicit within the tale of the Fisher King, which sees Joseph of Arimithea bring the relics of the crucifixion to British soil. By the time The Death of Robin Hood was composed, the process had become far more subtle, with only certain peripheral yet iconic elements of the crucifixion myth employed.

In The Death of Robin Hood, then, Robin is presented as a thoroughly British Christ figure, a hero of the land, an autochthonous son of God. Such a blasphemous depiction could not be openly presented, of course, or perhaps even consciously admitted within the mind of the storyteller, and so the crucifixion theme is obscured. The entire pattern is evoked only by a process of synecdoche, in which the faded partial remnants of the crucifixion myth recall to the listener's mind the whole familiar structure and its religious significance. At the same time, the particular mythic elements employed also resonate with older pre-Christian myths that were original to the British Isles.

The same motifs and themes are reiterated and reinforced in later popular ballads, rhymes and song. For instance, in his preface to Milton, written in 1804, English poet William Blake makes reference to a folk legend that Jesus, as a teenager, visited Britain with Joseph of Arimithea. This poetic preface combines proto-socialist political ideals of utopia with a highly Anglicized apocryphal Christianity, contrasting the evils of industrialization with England's natural beauty. The piercing weapons of the mythic cycle discussed above -- the bow and arrow, the spear, and the sword -- are invoked as the metaphorical tools to fight injustice. Moreover, the particular reference to the bow and arrow in the fight for justice, within the setting of England's green land, evokes the image of Robin Hood on an iconic level. The poem resonated so strongly with the British worldview, that it was set to music in the early 20th century, and became a national hymn, "Jerusalem", although, ironically, its connection with anti-authoritarianism and radical utopian ideals has mainly been forgotten:

Jerusalem

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariots of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.