One of the many emotional peaks in the music-libretto of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, is the invocation of "Blanchiflor et Hecuba"! In the penultimate verse, just before the hearty ending cheer on the scaffold of malevolent destiny-- O Fortuna! The Ave Formoisissima invokes beautiful women as the Light, the Rose of the World.
The names of these two Queen Mothers would presumably be familiar to Europeans familiar with homiletic sagas in the Matter of Britain (King Arthur), France (Charlemagne) and Rome (mythology and Homer), and with Virgil's Aeneid.
Still, when rehearsing, I was always curious that these two specific women were invoked in the lament-filled paean to life-drive und das ewig-weibliche. Both women are expressly elevated to adored Venus stature. But who are they?
Hecuba seems pretty clear. The fertile wife of Priam, mother of Hector, and queen of Troy. As I recall, there are a number of different versions of her fate. Not content with killing her husband and number one hero son, the Aeneans burned her city, hauled her off as a slave, and killed most of her other 19 children. The youngest son, was not killed by the Greeks, but was murdered by a Thracian ally who usurped the Trojan treasure he undertook to guard. Hecumba, having been such a wonderful mother, is pushed over the edge with the news of this last and final infamy. Homer says she started barking like a dog, and howled at the moon. Hence the expression, "went to the dogs". Still, I like to imagine her impulse to bark was a perfectly rational response to what she was experiencing and led to her release from enslavement. With Hecubated breath.
Blanziflor is more difficult. The monks reference familiarity with Grail quests and Icelandic Sagas, in addition to the standard Homer. Blanchefleur is the heroine of an eponymous tale, is the beloved of Percevel (Parsifal), and is also the mother of Lohengrin (as Condiwiramurs). Finally, Blanchefleur is the mother of Tristan in Tristan and Iseult. (Tristan is the knight in Arthur's court, whose mission it is to safely deliver Iseult to his friend and her brethothed. On the way, the two fall for each other, hard.) It is possible the monks wanted to remind themselves of these powerful women.
But I do not think so. None of these "Blanches" seem to be connected with Hecuba, or the Hecuban form of lament -- a beautiful woman who has everything but whose destiny is to lose everything, including sanity. THAT sort of invocation seems to make sense in terms of the Carmina collection. So let's revisit Troy.
Looking closely at the entire text of the collected Carmina, one may be drawn to the conclusion that THIS Blanchiflor is one of the other women invoked by Virgil, in addition tol Hecuba. After all, the monks do seem to be tracing the tragedy of Troy -- the possibility of greatness, the reduction to flames and destruction on the whims of malevelent gods.
Obviously the woman whose fate it is to be most tightly connected to Troy, is Helen. Is "Blanchiflor" connected to "Helen" in any way? Is it possible the poets were alluding to Helen?
Ἕλλην (Hellen) has long been the traditional name Greeks have for themselves. A Greek's Abraham is a woman. The capture of Sparta's queen, and King Menelaus' wife, by Paris was the signature casus belli, purportedly as a repatriation effort.
It is Helen of Troy whose history, and even the etymology of her name, is most connected to the Venus the poets appeal to. It is of course, vanity to search for etymology, ever. Or for that matter, a "golden age" of Sparta -- archeological evidence of Mycenaean palaces have never been found.
Still, we can content ourselves with the foreshadowing themes drawn from Helen and extending to the continental medieval Blanchiflor. For example, the Tristam theme is foreshadowed by the fact that Agamemnon undertook to court and win Helen on behalf of his brother Menelaus.
Why not just sing "Helen and Hecuba-aa"! My thinking is that the poets were drinking. They loved Venus, not by her Greek name Aphrodite, and they loved her through Virgil, the Roman. The Castor-Pollux link between Sparta and Rome was a theme for Virgil. Here the poets are mimicking a famous epithalamium of Catullus, whose work was also put to music by Orff in a separate work. It is sexual love, not motherland and Mom and the happy home which are the starting and ending point of the monks' diversions.
So, it really is Helen, the founder of the cult in Laconia, a hangover of the fertility cult of the caves which never stopped and is invoked even today. The Homeric account (Helen walks around the Horse, mimicking the warrior's wives), gives way to the different stories dramatized by Stesichorus (both Greeks and Trojans stone her), Euripedes (in which Helen never went to Troy), and even Herodotus. In previous iterations, she was a vegetation goddess -- Helen of the Trees, in Rhodes with roots going back to the Minoan, where they had very similar terracotta female figurines.
And there on Rhodes we find the most tragic account of her fate. Having conquered all men with her beauty, and having been queen of the greatest cities, she came to Rhodes. Believing she was enjoying the hospitality of the queen of the island with handmaidens attending her bath, the queen in fact was seeking vengence for the loss of her family. She had her handmaidens disguized as Furies and set upon Helen, hanging her on a tree. Full circle. O Fortuna plango.
- Did Socrates say "Know Thyself", or was he misunderstood, as all are. Show Thyself is all we can do. The knowing is unknowable. I am filled with joy. It can't be helped.
Became a Farmer, Builder, Musician, Tank Commander, Librarian, Lawyer and Minister. I have failed at many things. And now retired. Filled, just filled, with Joy.