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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.

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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.

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*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.

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