What is Celtic Mythology? Archives - Page 4 of 4 - celticsource.online

Category Archives for What is Celtic Mythology?

Translation . . .

The vast majority of those with an interest in Celtic myth will only ever read source texts in translation and with no prior exposure to Celtic language or culture. This is important to keep in mind because on occasion the more subtle ideas contained in a text can be mangled beyond recognition by the translating process. Meaning can become fuzzy as sentences are deconstructed, broken down and then rebuilt in the language of a very different culture. No matter how accurately individual words are translated, all of the meanings implied in a sentence won’t necessarily make it through to the other side.

This is why translation is as much art as it is technique; it should never be a simple process of referring to dictionary definitions (even though that’s where it inevitably begins). Doubtless this is why we trust only cherished poets and accomplished scholars to attempt this most difficult of diplomacies. The translation of one nation’s ancient treasures into the language of another is a great responsibility. It’s an attempt to report accurately what is often only half-heard across the crackling wireless of the ages. To fail in that task, to misunderstand another’s words and instead hear nothing but our own assumptions is a constant danger. It is also, regrettably, unavoidable at times.

Through the focussed lens of one individual’s translation, others may attempt to understand the essence of a whole culture. Those of us who find ourselves attempting to build bridges across such divides, not only linguistic but also historical, are intimately aware of the limitations of that process, so much so that to ignore those limitations and not draw attention to them would be in many ways to betray the trust of those reliant upon our work.

That is why the best translations always come with copious notes and commentary, this being the only way to reliably fill in the gaps in meaning. If a translation you’re reading doesn’t give an account of its reasoning, you must take it at face value. You must ask yourself whether you trust the translator or not. Even the best of translators and editors will make sweeping decisions regarding context and meaning, for that is the nature of their work; that is the responsibility they have taken on.

Thankfully, by today we have some very good translations of Welsh texts, but even those will not always reflect the meaning of the original, sometimes because the original meaning can no longer be grasped, never mind translated.

2nd of March: St. Non’s day.

St Non stained glass window in St Non's Chapel, Dyfed.

St Non stained glass window in St Non’s Chapel, Dyfed.

(this blog follows on from the previous post, and will make more sense if you read that one first)

This being March 2nd, St Non’s day, its a good day to commemorate the mother of St. David (see previous post). Non was a daughter of Cynyr Ceinfarfog, a 5th century chieftain of Dyfed who’s lands were in the south-west of the kingdom. Her mother Anna is probably commemorated in St Ann’s Head not far to the west of Milford Haven. Through her mother, Non was a grand-daughter of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, named in the Welsh triads as a talismanic protector of Britain alongside Brân of the Mabinogi. Its not surprising that she is as mythologically profound as her son, the patron saint of Wales.

Her mother, Anna or Ann, was also made a saint, (as were many of her siblings) and both the names of the mother and daughter (Non and Ann could be variants of the same name) have led some to believe they are in fact Christainised versions of Ana, otherwise known as Danu in Ireland and Dôn in Wales. In Irish tradition, Non was also a mother to other female saints who went on to become mothers of saints themselves. There is an association with the divine mother in the Christian context, never mind the more pagan association with Ceridwen I discuss in the previous post. There is another example of a similar transformation with the goddess Brigit becoming, amongst other things, the Welsh Sant Ffraid.

To run with this a little, we have a mother who through her name may be associated with  a divine mother, and a father associated with a folk hero that could well be derived from the old horned god (read previous post for the background to this). Both parents seem to have taken on divine attributes for the conception of this most important of Welsh religious leaders. This is all located in Dyfed, the setting of the first branch of the Mabinogi where Pwyll takes on the form and nature of Arawn, king of Annwfn, also a variant of the old hunting god, king of the otherworld. That first branch can be interpreted as describing the appropriate attitude required of a mortal chieftain when, having taken on the form of the king of the otherworld, is given the opportunity of taking advantage of the sovereign goddess of his kingdom. Pwyll’s appropriate response ensures him the love of Rhiannon, the goddess incarnate come to seek the man that showed her respect and treated her with honour.

Opposed to this we have Sandde, St. David’s father, going on a hunt associated with magical wonders (as did Pwyll), but in Sandde’s case he does the exact opposite of Pwyll and rapes St. Non. When Non comes to give birth to Dewi the very earth is split asunder with the terrible contractions she experiences. The elements appear to be in conflict: at Dewi’s birth a great storm blows about her, she splits rock and causes a spring to burst from the ground. Her nature and condition is reflected in the natural elements of the place, underlining her role as an expression of the land’s sovereignty.

There is also her position as a liminal figure. Non gives birth where land meets sea, as is Taliesin born in a similar position, in a fish weir on Borth beach, an in-between place. Also, in Rhygyfarch’s account of Dewi’s life, when Non is pregnant with Dewi:

The second miracle which David did was when his mother went to church to hear Saint Gildas preaching. When Gildas began to preach he was not able to go on; then he said “Go out all of you from the church” said he and he a second time attempted to preach but could not and then he enquired whether there were any one in the church besides himself. “I am here” said the nun between the door and the partition. “Go thou said the saint out of the church and request all the parish to come in.” And all of them came to the place and then the saint preached clearly and loud.

Then the parish asked him “Why couldst thou not preach to us a little while ago and we were anxious to hear thee.” “Call'” said the saint, “the nun to come in whom just now I sent from the church.” “Here I am,” said Nonn. Then said Gildas “The child that is in the womb of this nun has more property and grace and dignity than I have; for God has himself given to him the privilege and supreme authority over all the saints of Wales for ever both before the day of judgment and afterwards. And therefore” said he, “there is no way for me to remain here any longer on account of the child of that nun to whom the Lord hath given supreme government over all the people of this island . . .

Notice that Non is again in a liminal place, “between the door and the partition.” This could imply her being at once in this world and also in that deeper, more powerful realm of the spirit where she is a goddess of sovereignty. Again there is that idea of two in one, of both places – the mundane and supernatural – containing the same nature, and of both figures – the mortal and the divine – containing the same person.

Cyfarchion yr ŵyl.

Roland Barthes’ definition of myth

If, as many scholars have pointed out, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are derived from an earlier mythology, it’s probably best to begin with the question: what exactly is a myth? In the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the first meaning given to a myth is

. . . a traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or imaginary persons and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena etc. . . .

What Celtic scholars are usually referring to when they talk of the mythological roots of the Four Branches is the earlier pantheon of Celtic gods and goddesses that many of the characters are derived from. But we can expand on this meaning by also adding that a myth is a way of communicating that implies a particular ideology or ethos. In that sense the term myth can be used to describe much more than just traditional tales about gods or human origins. We find myths in modern books like The Lord of the Rings, in films like Star Wars and Batman; we find them in modern art, television advertisements and magazines. In fact anything within a culture – story, film, object or person, can become the vehicle of myth.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

As the famous French philosopher Roland Barthes said myth is, in its most basic form, a special type of speech.* What he meant was that a myth isn’t just a genre of stories, it’s a way of saying something. According to Barthes, the special trick of myth is to present an ethos, ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact its no more than another limited, man-made perspective. A myth doesn’t describe the natural state of the world, but expresses the intentions of its teller, be that a storyteller, priest, artist, journalist, filmmaker, designer or politician.

In this course we’re focussing on the myths we find in traditional narratives, medieval stories that are derived from an earlier body of oral material, what could be considered quite traditional examples of myth. But we shouldn’t forget that like any word in a language, the definition of myth evolves. Whereas we often relegate myth to the same category as children’s stories, Barthes argued that myth, or the mythological way of communicating, permeates much of what we could consider to be culture, mass media, advertising and entertainment. What this modern definition has in common with the old definition is that both place belief at the heart of what myth is. But whereas the old definition of myth generally referred to gods or tales of human origins as the focus of belief, the new definition includes any cultural activity that implies an ethos or ideology as the focus of belief, be that secular or religious. If a myth is to be effective it must be believed in by its audience.

Myth as organism

Myth as organism

This also means that the same myth can be expressed through many different mediums. For example Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a narrative that dominated European culture for a long time. Implied in that narrative is the myth of the saviour and those he saves as well as the idea of good and evil that’s tied up in that relationship. For Christians this myth is believed to be the natural condition of the world, something they take for granted in their everyday lives. Over the millennia, this myth has been expressed through many different mediums: rituals, ceremonies, paintings, poems, drama, oral texts such as prayers and music such as hymns, symphonies and folk songs. The basic myth of the saviour is expressed in all of these many derived practices and works of art. It has become the centre around which all of these unique expressions are positioned.

A related example is how early Christian leaders explored another aspect of the myth of sin and redemption through a different narrative, that of Adam and Eve. For early Cristians such as St Augustine the story of Adam and Eve explained how humanity became sinful and why it needed a redeemer such as Jesus. Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden were seen as the origin of sin, and because Eve was the symbolic mother of all humanity, all of her descendants therefore inherited that first original sin. For many Christians the doctrine of original sin is a natural condition of the world humans are part of, an ethos that’s presented mythologically in many related works of art such as medieval paintings of Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranch the Elder, 1526

Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranch the Elder, 1526

As we can see, a myth can sit at the heart of a culture for very long periods of time, becoming a reference point for morality, philosophy, spirituality and art. Another example of this is the Taliesin myth that almost certainly began as a legend about the historic Taliesin who lived in the 6th century. For over 1500 years now Welsh bards and poets have considered him one of the most famous founders of the Welsh tradition. As part of their public performances and rituals, medieval Welsh bards would adopt the dramatic persona of the perfected bard, an echo of the mythical Taliesin. Perhaps as early as the 12th century his tale was being transmitted and adapted through many lineages of the oral tradition, with variations of it migrating throughout Wales. In the legendary poems from the 14th century Book of Taliesin, in this bold and unashamedly self-aggrandising poetry we see his legendary persona as the celebrated Welsh wiseman, the archetypal bard.

His fame and popularity gradually grew until by the 16th century Taliesin had evolved into a central symbol of Welsh mythology. In that century the earliest surviving copy of his tale was written down revealing Taliesin to be a symbolic figure that embodied not only the formal bardic ideology, but also beliefs about inspiration, the transmigration of the enlightened soul and the mystic knowledge derived from such an experience. Perhaps because of this native pagan mystique, at various times the figure of Taliesin was also appropriated by the orthodox Christian tradition and given a devoutly religious veneer, expressing sentiments very different to those of his earlier incarnations. In this new context Taliesin became a symbol of Christian virtue, with various prayers and religious poems composed in his name where he humbly acknowledged his sins and need for repentance. This Christian ethos was overlaid upon his more heroic ideology and pagan mystique probably in an attempt to obscure it.

Taliesin in modern pop culture

Taliesin in modern pop culture

Different tellers of a myth, be they renowned bards, literate monks, advertising agencies, modern druids or academics, will use popular figures such as Taliesin to further their own particular ideology or ethos. The same myth can be told or evoked in many different ways, but almost always for the same reason, to promote the myth-maker’s own position. A religious recital always affirms a particular priests power; the Taliesin persona enhances the mystique and authority of a particular bard; the academic thesis will frame the object of study so that it validates the author’s own ideology. All these are ways of indirectly implying a set of values that are to be taken for granted and are therefore mythological ways of communicating.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

*Roland Barthes, trans. Howard / Lavers, Mythologies (Hill and Wang 2013), 217

Cernunnos: a Jungian symbol?

To explore Jung’s theory of the unconscious I’m going to look at a very ancient symbol, that of the horned or antlered human. This symbol has been expressed by many cultures across the world – we find it in Africa, Asia and Europe in images dating from the very earliest periods of human history. If any symbol could be deemed mythological in nature, as arising from the depths of the human imagination, it is surely this one. One of the most famous examples of this symbol is found on the Gundestrup Cauldron, made during the La Tene period of Celtic art. This remarkable and ancient relic contains panels that depict many mythological scenes, figures and narratives.

The Gundestrup Cauldron, c. 200BC - 100AD.

The Gundestrup Cauldron, c. 200BC – 100AD.

The particular symbol I’m going to look at is on an inside facing panel, called interior plate A.

Interior plate A of the Gundestrup Cauldron.

Interior plate A of the Gundestrup Cauldron.

The central figure on this panel is of course the male figure with antlers, sitting down holding a snake in one hand and what’s known as a torc in the other. This is a very important symbol for us when we look at the First Branch of the Mabinogi in particular. For the time being I’m going to focus on the figure itself, so forget about the animals surrounding him and what he’s holding in his hands and lets just look at the antlered figure as he is.

Scholars have interpreted this figure as being a representation of an old Celtic god called Cernunnos, which translates as the ‘horned one’. It’s rather obvious why he’s called that, but this also gives us a clue as to what potentially conflicting elements have been harmonised in this symbolic figure. If this mythic symbol is an expression of the unconscious, according to Jung we should be able to perceive within it some conflicting influences that have been brought together in a more or less stable form.

The two potentially conflicting influences I’m referring to are of course the animal and the human. Cernunnos contains both aspects, and is in many ways a blending of the two. It’s not that the Cernunnos figure itself is in anyway conflicted, as this is a balanced image containing a harmonious blend of both elements. Yet it’s not within our normal experience of things to expect such a form: how can a man be both human and animal at the same time? This is the paradox at the heart of this image that disturbs the normal order of things, and does so in a simple yet very eloquent way. But why would these two aspects necessarily be in conflict?

Wild civility.
Perhaps one of the simplest interpretations is that the Cernunnos figure represents a harmonising of the civil and wild aspects of human society. Civility is often expressed in a code of conduct that has evolved across many generations, developing into customs and taboos, influencing all spheres of human interaction including religion, art and politics. Fundamental to the idea of a code of conduct is the concept of self control, that the individual is able to bend his or her will to abide by the socially proscribed forms of behaviour.

Self Control

Self Control

This is in contrast to wild, unbounded forms of behaviour where the individual does not abide by a code of conduct. Instead it is an essential, visceral and ultimately liberated state that has its own power, attractions and downfalls. Its the state of instinctive urges and reactions, such as experienced in love-making, hunting or fighting. It is the non-rational state of the animal, where behaviour is instinctively attuned to experience.

The Cernunnos figure, if we treat it purely as a symbol in the Jungian sense, could be interpreted as harmonising these two potentially conflicting attitudes. If the conflicting aspects of civility and wildness were brought into harmony in this symbol, we could conclude that Celtic culture of the time had evolved to embrace both aspects of human life as one experience. The great popularity of the horned god symbol could suggest that balancing these two aspects of the self was a theme in Celtic art and religion, a synthesis expressing the ideal state of the human animal.

Balancing heart and mind.

Balancing heart and mind.

But this hypothesis depends upon reducing two ultimately complex aspects of life into simple conflicting opposites, and although this is an attractive interpretation, it is dependent upon abstracted simplifications that are inevitably modern in tone. What we understand to be concepts of civility and wildness will inevitably differ to what was the actual lived experience of historical Celts.

Using the idea of paradox as a starting point for the interpretation of the Cernunnos symbol can throw up many perspectives, of which the wild civility paradox is but one. For example, as a Jungian symbol it could also be a harmonising of the conflicting behaviours of killing an animal and yet being in reverence of it. Its easy to see how modern scholars have interpreted the images on the Gundestrup cauldron as having religious connotations; archaeological evidence shows that Cernunnos was worshiped as a deity in Celtic and Romano-Celtic shrines all across Europe.

Cernunnos figure found at an ancient Celtic shrine in Paris.

Cernunnos figure found at an ancient Celtic shrine in Paris.

In view of this religious significance, we can suggest other possible conflicts that have been brought into balance in the Cernunnos symbol.

Hunting would have been an important part of life for the Celtic tribes, and as in many other parts of the world the hunt developed a spiritual significance. We find remnants of the sacred nature of the hunt in surviving European folklore, something covered in detail in the audio course. But in its basic form, this attitude to hunting clearly contains a fundamental paradox.

As we find on inside panel A of the Gundestrup cauldron, the stag, the dominant male deer, was venerated by the Celts. The depiction and positioning of the stag next to Cernunnos gives us many clues as to what was involved in this veneration.

Cernunnos and the stag 'ancestor'

Cernunnos and the stag ‘ancestor’

Traditionally, its thought that you can tell a stag’s age by how many tines it has on its antlers. If we count the tines on one of Cernunnos’ antlers we find that he has 6 tines, but the stag to his left has 7, suggesting that the stag is Cernunnos’ elder. We also see that the stag appears to be speaking into Cernunnos’ ear. The elder stag is communicating something to the younger Cernunnos, perhaps giving him wisdom, special knowledge or power. This would also imply that the stag is Cernunnos’ ancestor. This sets the stag up as a figure of veneration: an ancestor, an elder who passes on his wisdom to his descendants.

In venerating Cernunnos, the Celts venerated their relationship with the sacred stag, and perhaps even saw themselves at least partly as stag people. The Celtic tribes of Europe would have had a close relationship with the deer herds that populated the region, their communities having either absorbed or evolved out of the hunter-gatherer culture of the earlier neolithic. The Cernunnos figure represents a tradition that was ancient in its own day.

Cave Painting 17,000 BC; from the Lascaux cave complex

Cave Painting 17,000 BC; from the Lascaux cave complex

The long relationship between human and deer would have been founded upon the hunting and killing of deer for food and materials, and as with many other such societies, the European predecessors of the Celts would have long come to appreciate their reliance upon such a valuable source of food, clothing and tools. The hunting of deer would have ensured the survival of neolithic families and clans, particularly in hard times, during long winters or when wild crops failed. In many ways the deer could have been considered a symbolic source of life for the tribes: the people lived because the deer gave them life. They were children of the stag in more ways than one.

This sets up a very complex relationship. These early tribes would have been killing that which they also venerated, setting up the initially conflicting influences that we find resolved in the Cernunnos figure. In the Jungian sense at least, Cernunnos stands as a bridge between the human and animal worlds, defining the terms of that relationship and expressing the ultimate paradox that life gives to life through the medium of death.

But once again we must be careful not to assume this theory exhausts all potential meaning. The religious significance of the Cernunnos figure could be said to transcend such a reductive theory, particularly as the Celts very likely considered him a living god as opposed to the unconscious synthesis of powerfully conflicting experiences. Our reasoning doesn’t necessarily reflect historical reality, although it can suggest new avenues of research that could be fruitful.

The Swastika Paradox
Now that we have a working understanding of how a symbol can embody a paradox while maintaining a stable appearance, let’s go back and take a brief look at the swastika once again. We’ve seen how this symbol can be interpreted within different contexts, both marga and deshi, but what of the symbol itself? As a basic symbolic image, can we apply the term paradox in an attempt to interpret this very simple image?

La Tene period Celtic Bronze coin.

La Tene period Celtic Bronze coin.

One of the core elements of the swastika is the suggestion of rotation, of movement. The right-angle arms suggesting trailing strands drawn out from a turning centre. In that very simple form we could interpret two contrasting conditions, the rotating movement of the arms juxtaposed against the still centre, the axis of the form itself. Like all circle and cross devices the swastika contains both movement and stillness at the same time, and in that way at least can be seen to embody a paradox.

Jung on myth and symbol.

All myths and symbols arise initially in peoples imaginations, and if they are artists they will express them in creative terms more or less understandable to those around them. All of human imaginative life is inherently influenced by the unconscious, that aspect of the psyche that’s outside of our awareness, containing such things as instincts and automatic responses. Many psychologists believe the imagination acts as a medium between the conscious and unconscious mind, and as a result the art we create often gives us glimpses of our deeper, instinctive selves. Our creative urges move in response to these unseen currents of our own deeper psychology.

Image by DZO Olivier. See more of this artist at https://www.behance.net/dzo

Image by DZO Olivier. See more of this artist at https://www.behance.net/dzo

As a theory* the unconscious was developed by the psychoanalysts of the 19th and 20th centuries, a group largely identified with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, although in truth there were many other theorists involved. Through their research, Freud, Jung and many others came to perceive that the unconscious could be understood in terms of myth, although by today some researchers argue that the mythological description of the unconscious could be a convenient projection as opposed to a description of its actual form and nature.

One way in which the unconscious appears to expresses itself is through primordial human figures and story-like narratives that gravitate around fundamental human experiences such as love, power, cunning, birth, death and self-knowledge. Jung called these deep, unconscious patterns archetypes, and identified some of them, such as the mother, the trickster and the wise old man. It’s difficult to say how universal these archetypes are, but it’s likely that within a given culture there are basic, inherited structures that condition cultural expression.


Batman. A modern expression of the hero archetype.

For example, the tidal movements of the mass media, the memes and trends, fashions and fads can all be interpreted as following the pull of archetypal figures and their narratives. To this day, just like countless generations before us, we are fascinated by heroes and villains, the trickery and intrigue of politics and power, the magic of science, religion and art, the otherness and familiarity of nature. Jung thought that all of these  narratives could be understood as growing out of deep mythical structures that are embedded in our psychology.

Mythic art.

Artists who have a particular sensitivity to these shared myths will often create art that has a significant resonance within their own cultures. The fashion world exemplifies this process better than most aspects of modern culture, with designers reinterpreting old styles and garments within new contexts, finding what is most relevant to the most people.

Those myths and symbols that manage to retain their influence as they change contexts will surely last longer than those that do not. As reflected in modern consumerism, there is great value in being able to create and express symbols endorsed by popular opinion for successive turns of the cultural wheel. This is exemplified by the modern practice of branding that strives to perpetuate the popularity of a single iconic image for an extended period of time. These modern symbols, although not explicitly set in a mythological context, inevitably draw on the mythic substratum of a culture. Even though they have replaced older mythic symbols, they still exert a similar kind of power and influence.

The god Cernunnos from the Gundestrup Cauldron.

The ‘Cernunnos’ figure from the Gundestrup Cauldron.

What symbols say.

But what exactly is a symbol in this sense? It’s impossible to know what the unconscious actually contains; we can’t open up the brain and peer into it as we would a loft in a house. But we can guess at its nature by paying attention to how it influences the conscious mind. By watching the ripples on the surface we can guess how the currents deep bellow are moving. By studying the symbolic images that rise up into conscious awareness, Jung believed that we could interpret the movements of the unconscious. This led him to theorise that one of the basic qualities of the unconscious is its continual attempt to redress psychological balance. He said:

The unconscious, [is] the neutral region of the psyche where everything that is divided and antagonistic in consciousness flows together into groupings and configurations. These, when raised to the light of consciousness, reveal a nature that exhibits the constituents of one side as much as the other; they nevertheless belong to neither but occupy an independent middle position.

(Carl Jung, Psychological Types, p.113)

Jung saw the unconscious as the place where the psyche attempts to regulate the different influences that flow into it. It brings conflicting elements together into what he called groupings and configurations that in turn are expressed in the conscious mind as symbols: images that contain a blending of the original influences. If this theory is correct, then when such symbols are expressed consciously, we should be able to see in them traces of those initially conflicting influences, but presented in a more or less stable state. I’ll explore this idea in the next post.


*It must also be stressed that the theory of the unconscious is by no means uncontroversial: many current researchers tend to remodel the notion of non-conscious processes according to recent developments in neurological science. But this new context of understanding doesn’t change the fact that regardless of their biological correlations and influences, non-conscious phenomena can still be interpreted by individuals and communities in terms of mythology.

What does Annwfn mean?

In the Beirdd y Tywysogion series, the editors have interpreted a line by Cynddelw in the following way:

In Annwfn, in the world, in the sea – . . .

This doesn’t really make much sense, which leads me to consider alternative readings. It’s probably worth considering how court bards such as Cynddelw thought about Annwfn, the traditional Welsh otherworld. The actual line in the original Welsh reads . . .

Yn Annwfn, yn nwfn, yn nyfnder – . . .

If we begin with the second part of the line, the word dwfn (mutated here to ‘yn nwfn’) means ‘world’, the meaning given in the first quoted line above; but dwfn also meant ‘deep’ in middle Welsh. As we shall see there are many uses of dwfn in this sense, some of which relate directly to the concept of Annwfn and awen. The second element in Annwfn is of course this very same dwfn, and rhyming both words was no accident. A master poet such as Cynddelw would almost certainly have been aware of the many connotations he was putting into play with such ornamentation.

In the third part of the line, dyfnder also means something similar to dwfn, literally ‘depth’, and is often used as a name for the depths of the sea. Again, Cynddelw would have understood the connection between Annwfn, dwfn and dyfnder. As well as creating a special combination of alliteration and rhyme called cynghanedd sain, these three words also chime in meaning, conveying the sense of a deep, profound space. Annwfn in later folklore is understood as being under the earth, perhaps a metaphorical description that retains a hint of this other, more fundamental meaning?

If we reinterpret the line stressing these alternative meanings it gives a whole new reading to this section of Cynddelw’s poem:

Hydr yd gerdd fy ngherdd yng nghyflawnder
I gyflawn foli rhi rhwy dirper,
Yn urddiant foliant fal yd glywer,
Yn awen barawd awdl burwawd bêr;
Yn Annwfn, yn nwfn, yn nyfnder – yd farn,
Nid beirdd a’i dadfarn, bardd a’i dadfer.

Powerfully does my song go forth in completeness
To praise fully the king that deserves it,
In renowned praise full of dignity,
With ready awen in an ode of fair, pure poetry;
In Annwfn, in the deep, in the depth, it judges,
Other bards do not impoverish it, it is this bard that declaims it!

Cynddelw’s song judges the patron, and does so in Annwfn, in ‘the deep’ and ‘the depth’. It is from this deep place that the bard’s judgment arises, perhaps as an aspect of awen. This lawful or ethical characteristic of Annwfn is also seen in the first part of the First Branch of the Mabinogi, and Cynddelw is very likely referring to the same idea here.

Sometimes in Gogynfeirdd poetry the word dwfn is used to describe awen, the sacred breath of bardic inspiration. When dwfn is used as an adjective in this way modern editors usually give it the meaning ‘profound’. But as above, dwfn can also refer to the deep place, Annwfn. For example, in a poem by Cynddelw we find the following line:

Yn ail awen ddofn o ddwfn gofiain, . . .

. . . which modern editors interpret as meaning

[The patron] is a reflection of the profound awen of profound thoughts, . . .

. . . but could quite as easily be interpreted as meaning

[The patron] is a reflection of the deep awen of deep thoughts, . . .

So what’s the real difference between these two interpretations? As with most heroic poetry, the Gogynfeirdd almost always depicted their patrons as the perfect, ideal hero; in fact any personal characteristics were largely ignored. The patron simply became a vehicle for the heroic ideal. This means that the awen of the Gogynfeirdd was that of heroic poetry: a worthy patron inspired them to express the heroic ideals that were so central to their way of life. It was this particular awen that the patron was reflecting in this instance.

But what does ‘deep’ mean in this context? Why is the patron a reflection of deep awen? There is the surface meaning of ‘profound’, but once again here we have a suggestion of this otherworldly dwfn, a hint of Annwfn. One thing that we can assume from the above quote is that Cynddelw believed this deeper dimension of inspiration was the space in which the perfect heroic ideal was found, a concept not a million miles away from the First Branch of the Mabinogi.

In the third part of the quote above there is a clear connection made between this otherworldly dwfn and ‘deep’ thoughts. It’s easy to associate deep inspiration with deep thinking and again ‘profound’ fits nicely as a surface meaning. But carrying through the subtext of this otherworldly dwfn, Cynddelw may also be suggesting this deeper dimension is at least partly synonymous with the mind.

All this can either be taken as purely metaphorical or as a suggestion of the kind of metaphysical framework Cynddelw worked in as a chief bard. In another of his poems, Cynddelw states that his song, his awen, comes from this deep place:

. . . canwyf o ddwfn, o ddofn awen, . . .

. . . I sing from the depth, from the deep awen, . . .

Again, what is being stressed here is the accessibility of this deep space. Annwfn may not be so otherworldly as to be inaccessible. Awen connects this surface realm with the ideal depths of reality, providing the bard not only with a source of inspiration but, in the context of praise poetry, also a source of wisdom and judgment.

Cynddelw’s multilayered use of dwfn, not only as an adjective and a noun but also as a concept, fits in with what we already know about the Welsh bardic concept of divine inspiration. Cynddelw suggests that Annwfn offers a deepening of this world’s perspectives, and that awen arises from this place carrying with it the knowledge of ideal forms.

It has been suggested that Llywarch ap Llywelyn (fl. 1173-1220), or Prydydd y Moch as he is more commonly known, spent at least part of his apprenticeship under the tutelage of Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr. This could be why we find some similarity in their work, such as the same use of dwfn as referring to Annwfn.

The first example from Llywarch’s work is in reference to himself:

Crist fab Mair a’m pair o’m pedwar — defnydd
Dofn awen ddiarchar.

Christ son of Mary caused me from my four materials,
Deep, powerful awen.

As usual, there are different meanings implied here, the most obvious being the double meaning of the second line, which signifies not only that Christ caused Llywarch to have a deep, powerful awen, but also that this act of miraculous creation testifies to Christ’s own deep and powerful awen.

Again, the interpretations presented here are based on alternative readings of the manuscript text. In preparing modern editions of these poems, it is an editor’s prerogative to punctuate the text according to the meaning they interpret. In the Beirdd y Tywysogion series the editors have chosen to punctuate a line by Llywarch in the following way:

Llyw bydoedd lled byd, dwfn a bas, . . .

. . . which then gives the following in translation . . .

Leader of hosts across the world, in deep and shallow seas, . . .

But removing the comma in the second third of the line and instead opting for the more basic meaning of dwfn, that is simply ‘depth’, gives the following in translation . . .

Leader of hosts across the world, deep and shallow . . .

. . . that is treating deep and shallow as adjectives that describe the world. This reading suggests that Llywarch considered the world to have deep and shallow aspects, just like the concept of Annwfn suggested in Cynddelw’s work.

We find the same reference to ‘deep and shallow’ in another of Llywarch’s poems:

Gallas arglwyddwas, aerglais – Lywelyn,
Lewenydd dwfn a bais,
Gwenddydd amrywdud Emrais,
Gwynedd adrysedd, i drais.

The young lord took, Llywelyn who wounds in battle,
Deep and shallow joy,
The blessed land of the numerous people of Emrys,
The wonder of Gwynedd, through might.

If we follow the editor’s punctation it is the joy of Llywelyn’s victorious nature that has deep and shallow aspects.

Regardless of where we add the punctuation, the second line will remain ambiguous unless we provide a better interpretation of what deep and shallow mean. It appears that at least in Llywarch’s work he uses both words together to imply ‘on all levels’, that is on both profound and mundane levels: in the mysterious, mythic depths and in the day-to-day shallows.

According to Marged Haycock, the Book of Taliesin poem ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ could very well have been written by Llywarch ap Llywelyn (for a full explanation see her introduction to her edition of The Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin). The similarities between Llywarch’s more formal court poetry and a number of poems in the Book at least place him closer to the text than any other bard of this period. Although Marged Haycock largely makes the association based on similarities in vocabulary and word combinations, there is also the suggestion of a conceptual similarity, not only with Llywarch, but also with his old master, Cynddelw. This conceptual similarity is of course with regards to the use of dwfn and its counterpart Annwfn as signifying a mythical dimension implied within mundane reality.

As with the majority of the other legendary poems, ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ is a dramatic piece that was likely to have been performed in the voice and persona of the mythical Taliesin; before uttering a word, this in itself would signal that the performer was evoking the mythical depths. The explicit references to ‘the deep’ largely corroborate what’s already been discussed above, such as . . .

Awen a ganaf,
o dwfyn ys dygaf.

I sing awen,
I bring it forth from the depth.
(LPBT 4.179-80)

Another section describes in detail what is only suggested in other poems:

Ef a’e rin rodes
awen anghymes:
seith vgein ogyruen
yssyd yn awen;
wyth vgein o pop vgein
euyd yn vn.
Yn Annwyfn y diwyth,
yn Annwfyn y gorwyth,
yn Annwfyn is eluyd,
yn awyr uch eluyd.

He [God] with his miracle
bestowed immeasurable awen;
seven score ogyrfen
there is in awen,
and eight score of every score
in each one.
In Annwfn he ranged them,
in Annwfn he made them,
in Annwfn below the earth,
in the air above the earth.
(LPBT 4.75-84)

Here the legendary Taliesin describes how God created the immeasurable aspects or divisions (ogyrfen) of awen and set them out in Annwfn. The poet unambiguously names Annwfn as the place where awen is created, set out in all its varieties, and more importantly where it is found, the depth from which it rises. This makes sense if we again define Annwfn as the mythical realm, that is the place from which all symbolic, mythic and idealised forms arise. In the Four Branches, Annwfn is the realm that is somehow within Dyfed, and is the place where Pwyll experiences ideal or perfected forms of behaviour.

This also suggests a possible interpretation for the difficult last line in the above excerpt, ‘in the air above the earth’. There are two possible interpretations: first of all that the poem here refers back to awen, and that awen is also found in the air above the earth as well as being arranged by God in the depths; a possible interpretation considering the etymological link between awen and breath / air.

The second interpretation is that the whole sequence is talking about Annwfn and therefore Annwfn is here described as not only being in the earth bellow but also in the air above. It would be reasonable to assume that this is a metaphorical way of saying ‘in all places, above and bellow’ just as Llywarch uses dwfn a bais in the previous post. This interpretation suggests Annwfn is in all things, latent in the whole of God’s creation, not just bellow the earth. In this regard, the meaning of the name Annwfn shouldn’t be taken literally but symbolically; describing it as being bellow ground is simply a storybook metaphor for the more nuanced concept of ‘the world within the world’.

But these are not the only references to ‘the deep’ that we find in ‘Angar Kyfundawt’. If anything, the whole poem is laced with references to this concept, usually implied in double meaning, or ‘meanings within meanings’ which as a feature itself seems to symbolise ‘the world within the world’.

For example, three instances of the same dwfn are found between lines 16 and 33 which suggests it is a theme the author wished to introduce early on in this 266 line poem, perhaps because the poem is meant to evoke this imaginary depth.

The first example comes at the end of an initial sequence that lists Cian, Afagddu and Gwion as skilful and successful enchanter-bards. The poem then continues with the following couplets:

Gwiawn a leferyd,
adwfyn dyfyd;
gwnaei o varw vyw
ac anghyfoeth yw.

Marged Haycock gives the following translation:*

[It is] Gwiawn who utters,
a profound one shall come;
he would bring the dead to life
and [yet] he is poor.

Haycock cautiously interprets the second line as a foretelling by Gwion of Christ’s birth or second coming, which chimes with a possible tradition of Taliesin doing the same (although only noted in an external English source; see note to line 249 in ‘Kad Godeu’, LPBT 5). But if we stress the alternative meaning of dwfn in the second line (‘adwfyn dyfyd‘), other interpretations become available to us. For example, is this second line referring to a being that is evoked by Gwion? We could as easily render the text in translation as:

Gwiawn utters
[and] a deep one shall come:
he [Gwion] would bring the dead to life,
and he is poor.

Here I’m taking the prefix a- in adwfyn to mean the conjunction ‘and’, a possible reading mentioned by Haycock in her notes on this line. This gives a statement of fact that Gwion’s utterance will cause a ‘deep one’ to arise, effectively giving him life in the surface world through the magical act of bardic utterance. In some ways this is akin to re-enacting in the microcosm the Word of God in the macrocosm, emulating the original act of creation through divine inspiration. The description of Gwion as being poor could also work, he being portrayed as a humble smith’s son in some versions of the later Hanes Taliesin, but it also implies that he is above caring for the riches of the world, asceticism being a mark of his spiritual integrity.

The obvious question that follows is who is this ‘deep one’ brought into being by Gwion? An explanation may be found in the other examples of dwfn in this section of the poem. After a description of Afagddu and Gwion working at their fireless cauldrons, we have the following couplet:

Dydwyth dydyccawt
dyfynwedyd gwawt

Which Haycock translates as:

Passionately will song be brought forth
by the profound speaker.

Again, we could as easily say:

Passionately will song be brought forth
by the deep, profound speaker.

I would say both meanings, deep and profound, are implied here. Here we have another allusion to the enchanted nature of bardic utterance and the depth from which it arises. Regardless, taken with the first quoted example above, what is suggested is that Gwion is either evoking the presence or prophesying the coming of a ‘deep one’. Whichever meaning we wish to stress, this also chimes with the third instance of dwfn found 9 lines later. Although there is a scribal error here, Haycock’s emendation gives:

dybydaf a gwawt
dwfyn dyfu ygnawt

. . . which she translates as:

I’ll come with a song
[of] a profound one who became flesh.

Following Haycock’s interpretation, here we have the Taliesin persona repeating Gwion’s prophecy. If we can identify the Taliesin as the reincarnation of Gwion, we can assume they are different iterations of the same being, so it would make sense if both are making the same prophecy. But the fact of Gwion’s reincarnation as Taliesin, as attested to in the Hanes and suggested elsewhere in The Book of Taliesin, could give another parallel meaning to this couplet, that is Taliesin is the ‘one who became flesh’, just as he was born anew from Ceridwen’s womb or enchanted from flowers by Math and Gwydion (see below).

This interpretation is supported if we exercise an editor’s prerogative by placing a comma at the end of the first line of the couplet, giving:

I’ll come with a song,
[I’m] a deep one who became flesh.

Either way, this second line could very well be referring to Taliesin himself. If so, the main focus of this opening section is his own enchanted provenance, not so dissimilar to his fabricated condition noted elsewhere in The Book of Taliesin. He states clearly in ‘Kat Godeu’ – ‘the wisdom of sages fashioned me’ (LPBT, p. 183), a condition metaphorically implied when he describes how Math and Gwydion fashion him from flowers, as they did Blodeuedd (LPBT, p. 181-2).

Taliesin therefore is the deep one who will becomes flesh; as an imaginary being he is brought to life – made real – by the act of bardic declamation. Is this a reference to the adoption of a dramatic persona by the performing bard? Does the mythical Taliesin exist as a figment in the imaginary depths until he ‘becomes flesh’ through the creative act of performance? This could imply a belief in either the transmission of ancestral wisdom and authority through the embodiment of an inherited, archetypal bardic persona, or even a degree of what the medieval Church may have considered ‘possession’.

On a more general point, the multiplicity of interpretations discussed here may be an intentional feature of the poem, as opposed to being a result of our inability to divine the ‘proper’ meaning. The implied references to Christ as noted by Haycock may well run in parallel to my own interpretation. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place in terms of the miraculous nature of the subject. But more importantly the text is symbolic and imaginative, appearing to subvert attempts to pin it down to any overly fixed literal sense. In effect it invites us to play with its meaning.

Here is a revised translation of this section (lines 15-35) based on Marged Haycock’s but with my alternative interpretation:

Gwiawn utters
[and a] profound one will come;
he [Gwiawn] would bring the dead to life,
and he is poor.
They [Afagddu and Gwiawn] would make their cauldrons
that were boiling without fire;
they would work their materials
for ever and ever.
Passionately will song be brought fourth
by the deep, profound speaker.
Hostile is the confederacy [of opposing bards];
what is its custom?
[Since] such a great amount of the nation’s poetry
was on your tongues
why don’t you declaim a declamation,
a flow above the shining drink?
When everyone’s separated out
I’ll come with a song,
[I’m] a deep one who became flesh:
there has come a conqueror,
one of the three judges in readiness.

* Marged Haycock ed., Legendary Poems from The Book of Taliesin (2007)

Iolo Morganwg and Welsh mythology.

Today, we have far more accurate editions of old Welsh poetry and prose than ever, largely due to the growth of Welsh language university departments, sometimes with whole teams of post-graduate editors and researchers devoted to editing and understanding medieval texts. Even greats such as Dafydd ap Gwilym have found themselves caught up in the flurry of new editions repackaging masterpieces of medieval European literature for new audiences. Only a hundred years ago – a relatively short period in the history of some of our older texts – many of these Welsh classics were only available in confused English translations. In comparison we are living in a time of plenty when it comes to the availability of reliable editions of old Welsh literature.

But we have so much text available to us now, and so much still being edited and re-edited, I believe an aspect of critical interpretation has been somewhat left behind, specifically assessing the Celtic and pre-Celtic roots of medieval Welsh literature. This is for many reasons, the main one perhaps being that there is more money in turning out hard copies of texts than there is in talking about them. The general tendency has been to view interpretation as a byproduct of editing, not the primary focus. University departments today will always make research decisions based on funding. Over time this financial conditioning of research tends to neglect types of scholarship that are in any way experimental, risky or adventurous.

Coupled with that is the reticence about mentioning anything to mystical sounding or druidic. Druidic in this sense is a catchall term that refers to several strands of culture, some historic, some pertaining to the present. Historically, there have been occasions when the Welsh have gotten themselves a bit drunk on their own myth-making; a dangerous habit, but we have been indulging in it for millennia so it comes quite easily to us. On one particular occasion, towards the end of the second half of the 18th century, the debauched mead-feast was lead by the then master of ceremonies, Iolo Morgannwg (who had a habit of mixing his myth-making with opiates). Iolo was in fact a talented scholar and poet, but he found his real calling in re-dreaming the mythic past of the Welsh nation. He fabricated tenuous links between the ancient British druids and the Welsh bards of his present day, the consequence of which was the forming of a bardic guild dressed up as a mystery school. In his wake came many druid enthusiasts primed by antiquarianism, desperate for any justification to get up in their splendid ceremonial outfits.

Iolo provided them with that justification, thereby giving us the modern druid order of Wales, or Gorsedd y Beirdd, and their outfits were so fetching that the English got a bit jealous and appropriated the look for their own version of neo-druidry, the heirs of which we see today in venerable organisations such as OBOD. The main success of such organisations has been in turning the older English antiquarianism into a relatively popular modern-day spiritual movement.

Regardless of his trustworthiness as a scholar, Iolo was a great visionary and a truly inspired nationalist. His ceremonial interpretation of Welsh mythology gave his nation a durable vessel that has sustained our public culture from decade to decade: proof enough of his genius, no matter how peculiarly it was expressed.

But the snake-oil peddling fakery of some of his antics has left latter scholars with a bit of a problem when it comes to actually following through on his main claim: that there is an historical connection between medieval bardic culture and the earlier druidic culture of the Iron Age. In other words, for all the pomp and ceremony that the Gorsedd provides, not many people involved in modern Welsh academia can actually take the idea of druidry seriously, at least in public, never mind speculating about its history or its philosophy, or how druidry may have persisted in the professional bardic orders of medieval Wales.

If we consider that much of the fabricated evidence that Iolo presented was swallowed hook, line and sinker by many renowned scholars for almost a century, its not difficult to understand the over-cautious attitude that modern Welsh academics tend to take. New professors usually get the job when they have proven they can appear relevant while not being too controversial within their fields (the proverbial ‘safe pair of hands’). Putting on the donkey ears of druidry doesn’t make for an appealing professorial candidate. Further to that, no one wants to earn a reputation that could haunt them well beyond the end of their careers. A debunked theory doesn’t make for a great epitaph to ones life work. It’s far easier to just keep your head down and keep pumping out non-controversial research. With Iolo clanking his chains in the background, Welsh academics understand better than most the power of memory and the durable nature of the written word.

This is not to say that there is no discussion at all of the historical connection between druids and later bards, but interpretation of the key texts is usually given by linguists, not by anthropologists or mythologists.  This is of course a key part of the work, and it’s essential that editors try to provide the reader with a little clarity, not only offering explanations for archaic words and common-sense corrections for miss-copied or damaged text, but providing contextual information to help elucidate meaning. But what is needed is a much broader, much more eclectic comparative study the takes the genuinely interesting medieval Welsh material and considers it from the perspective of anthropology and mythology. The material is all there, expertly presented in an abundance of new editions, we need only learn to read beyond the text.

What do myths and symbols mean?

When trying to interpret myths and their symbols we usually find ourselves doing so at some distance from the culture that gave birth to them. Surviving texts have very often been long separated from their original social contexts, orphans of a long dead culture. With such a lack of contextual information, often our only guide is our own intuition.

When we do come across motifs and symbols we don’t understand, they don’t necessarily stay meaningless for very long. Our minds are continually interpreting our experience, ascribing meaning as naturally as breathing. If we stare at it for long enough, a cloud will often turn into a face, just as a symbol will often resolve into a complex of meanings. 

Clearly, a purely personal interpretation of myth or symbol won’t tell us much about the source culture they grew out of, especially if we are greatly removed from that culture. It’s reasonable to look for comparisons in such cases, similar symbols either from within the source culture itself, or if that’s not available to us then symbols from a close cousin. I believe that this, in reality, is one of the few ways in which we can claim some objectivity in this type of work.

But even so, no matter how carefully we may arrange our comparisons, they are still selective readings that are only minimally objective. In using comparison as a guideline for interpretation, there is still a need to identify our subjective responses before reverse-engineering an ‘objective’ rationale for them. Only after doing so will we be able to see our responses clearly enough to distinguish them from the actual material itself.

But after separating them out, we should neither neglect to consider these instinctive insights. There is nothing wrong with creative responses to myth and symbol; some of the world’s greatest art is a result of such engagement. If we are correct in regarding at least some myths as drawing on the imaginal life of a people, approaching them without any regard for our own imaginal lives would seem to be missing the point.

A useful approach in trying to understand a myth is to look at the situation in which it arose. But making assumptions about a myth by re-creating its social context isn’t as straight forward as it sounds, and generally impossible to do so without leaning somewhat on our own learnt ideas about what a myth can and cannot do. It is a mistake to think that any old story can simply be analysed like an antique box, prodded and tinkered with until it finally pops open to reveal its hidden curiosities, all without any creative engagement by the researcher.

An overly reductive, classificatory investigation is doomed to miss the woods for the trees. Either we approach myths and their symbols as the active, engaging and stimulating complexes of meaning that they were to their respective societies, or we simply classify their perceived forms and move on. Unfortunately, such treatments will inevitably tell us more about how we tend to classify things than reveal the imaginal potential of a myth.

Myths are probably more akin to living animals than a dead constructs, yet there is a danger of assuming that they have almost machine-like workings. That is an unfortunate and pervasive influence of some of the natural sciences: depicting the human body as a mechanical thing does not mean that everything it creates, even its ideas, are necessarily mechanical. That is a very difficult position from which to investigate the condensed dreaming of a culture. No myth ever evolved as a result of a storyteller thinking rationally about functions and utilities, so what makes us assume that defining those functions and utilities is the primary way of studying myth?

A myth and its embedded symbols contain multiple dimensions of meaning all at the same time, ranging from the instinctive and personal all the way through to the collective, historical and political; pretending to be able to fully separate any of those dimensions out reduces myth to an explanation that serves no purpose beyond satisfying an arbitrary standard of objectivity. All of the dimensions of myth need to be brought into view if we are ever to succeed in offering honest interpretations.